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Journey into Jazz

The Funk Transition

By Published: April 6, 2003
To the same class belongs the venerable saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, whose audio cassettes in my possession have had to be guarded like the Kohinoor diamond. They generate a gleam in the eye of the connoisseur, which cannot easily be transcribed in English language. That hungry and devouring look is described as ‘I see snakes dancing in the iris of your eye’ in Hindi, a language spoken widely in North India. Well I think that idiomatic expression aptly covers the avarice or greed one sees in the eyes of someone who can appreciate the hard driving funk that flows out of Turrentine’s compulsively foot-tapping numbers. The foot that does not start tapping to his music, is a foot paralyzed.

One of my precious favorites is George Benson’s 1964 album entitled The Boss Guitar of George Benson , wherein he keeps excellent company. the main funky star jamming with him on this album is Bro. Jack McDuff, whose rock-solid funk never varied for decades. He was a total delight to listen to, though there have been several funky organists in his class like Jimmy Smith, Audell Brown, John Patton, and Richard ‘Goove’ Holmes. Stanley Turrentine and Freddy Hubbard are the a few other powerhouse funk-experts backing him. The whole album is a true delight, for all those who really dig funk.

Talking of saxophonists, another giant in this area was Lou Donaldson, whom I felt happy classifying under the jazz-rock category for years –until very recently when the Blue Note records in one of their rather enlightening liner notes for a wonderful album called Blue Funk [and rightly so] put him under the funk category. One hates to draw a sharp line here, but it has to be said, as far as the compositional genius and the crisp presentation style of Donaldson is concerned that he did breathe a gust of fresh air in the scene with his high voltage entry. That was one of the most unforgettable quartets, which reigned the funk scene for years.

His very popular 1967 album Alligator Bogalloo was strangely enough a top 10 R&B album though his truly funky compositions, improvisation and general style seem steeped in jazz. Perhaps recording companies sometimes are a mite unsure about using a new epithet, when a totally new style is yet to strike roots. So many new styles have died in infancy, of course. In those numbers, just that seductive touch of funk is there, to give the whole amalgamation a sheen all its own. In fact listening to Donaldson improvising on some numbers one can lose track of the fact that one is listening to jazz funk... it sounds so much like honest-to-God straight-ahead jazz. Blue Note has mentioned at several places that Lou Donaldson was their most valuable asset. No wonder, because he could attract jazz giants like Charles Earland, Lonnie Smith, Melvin Sparks and even Idris Muhammad –all of them being leaders of successful jazz bands themselves.

You can certainly give a listen to two numbers by Lou Donaldson, ‘Say It Loud [I Am Black & I’m Proud]’ written by the R&B screamer James Brown and ‘Don’t Worry If There’s A Hell Below’ by the soul mastermind Curtis Mayfield –you can’t miss the slickness of Lou Donaldson’s presentation, nor his dedicated painting with funky colors on what sound like fundamentally solid good jazz improvisations. To my ear, in parts ‘Say It Aloud’ from the Blue Note album Blue Funk sounds almost like a piece from t he soul group Temptations [e.g. Papa Was A Rolling Stone... where the alternating slick riffs by sax and trumpet create a peculiar atmosphere with a solid backbeat –individual solo’s and then going off in different directions, as it were]. As a saxophonist, he remains perched on a high pedestal indeed.

Perhaps equal in popularity but inching ahead now and then in the purely FQ [‘funk quotient’ to coin a new term] sense was the ‘powerhouse’ tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine whom I just mentioned above, and who till then had been keeping truly august company like Freddie Hubbard, George Benson et al. He did drag these jazz giants into his funky routines too, and strangely reconciled the seemingly immiscible shores of jazz and the popular tunes. The late ‘60s were a truly melting pot in terms of musical experimentation, and Dean Rudland writing for Blue Note called them a period of extreme schizophrenia... not an exaggeration indeed.

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