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Journey into Jazz

The Funk Transition

By Published: April 6, 2003
Stanley Turrentine’s funky style of playing defies description, it has to be heard not only with a pair of keen ears but with the entire body that no owner can keep still. His music is highly infectious and easy on the ears even for the most avowed jazz haters –and a tribe of these weird creatures had sprung up what with the seemingly amusical ramblings of the avant-garde and the exponents of free jazz having a field day prior to this seepage of ‘soul’ into jazz. His playing is devastatingly effective on a compilation like The Best of Stanley Turrentine issued by Capitol Records in 1989 –but actually compiled from number that were recorded between 1962 to 1967 with only one powerful tune ‘Plum’ having been recorded in 1984. Turrentine shows his genius also on his own compositions like Little Sheri, Since I fellFor You, River’s Invitation, etc.

Another big name coming to my mind is that of Horace Silver –actually the first name I mentioned above -the pianist who could have successfully patented the funky tone itself. That period was straddled mercilessly by sax players and small bands led by trumpeters and guitarists, and of course a whole bunch of electric organists [we’ll come to that later on] and Silver was the only pianist who made it big with his true jazz funk style. Listening to him improvise with an edge of impatience, whist swinging to the solid beat –usually a set of drums and bass at the most, the whole experience appears very different from the much more complex machinations of small bands that have four to perhaps nine instrumentalists blowing or strumming away to glory.

Herbie Hancock began in the true funk style, but over the years he turned to commercial music, as we saw. Chick Corea belongs to the same class, but he took a different jazz-rock route via Latin sounds, employing the wonderful voice of Flora Purim in some compositions. Joe Zawinul was a funky player from the Miles school, who embraced jazz-rock readily and thus beyond the scope of this discussion.

Herbie Mann and Hubert Laws, two of the most disparate stylists, and yet sharing easily the label of funky flutists, were the other talented instrumentalists who brought this slightly edgy, impatient touch to their playing, much like the great Jimmy Smith did to his electric organ –and his worthy contemporary Brother Jack McDuff did too. You must give a listen to The Sermon by Jimmy Smith, both the tune and the album of the same name –for I hold that as a watershed in development of funky style in jazz. The album has some truly spirited accompanists with him, Lee Morgan on trumpet, Curtis Fuller on trombone [somewhat rare in jazz funk], another powerhouse tenor saxophonist named Tina Brooks, Eddie McFadden and the great Kenny Burrell on guitar, with two drummers too –Donald Bailey and Art Blakey- about whom a volume could be written. And Lou Donaldson on alto sax, at the peak of his powers, indeed.

Organ and Soul is another brilliant double-disc album featuring "The Sermon" by Jimmy Smith. The first thing one notices on listening to Smith, after his restlessness and raw energy have flooded one’s senses in toto, is the fact that he’s rather a magnanimous band leader, allowing ample scope to every musician that plays in his band to perform without he himself butting in to hold center-stage. Very few giants in music do that, but he does that consistently. Freddie Hubbard and Art Blakey used to do that, I recall, whenever they were leading their band, sort of ‘from behind’ and not upfront. Organ and Soul is a masterpiece from Blue Note again [ see, you can underscore these points and thus save me the labor of writing separately exactly what was the contribution of Blue Note to development of jazz funk...] There are some very useful liner notes with this double-disc album containing nuggets of information.

For instance, Jimmy Smith was heavily influenced by Ray Charles and Horace Silver [and it shows! If there were some method to determine and pinpoint the FQ, both Smith and Silver would score very closely I am sure...]. One would have thought that Jimmy Smith was the first one to use the Hammond Electric Organ in his trademark style, and bring it out of anonymity. However the notes tell us that Wild Bill Davis and Milt Buckner were the only two other practitioners of this esoteric trade. However as far as lending the funky garbs to jazz is concerned, J. Smith stands alone as an original stylist.

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