The Funk Transition

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The foot that does not start tapping to Stanley Turrentine's music, is a foot paralysed
Some time back a student of music, Chris, wrote to me an email, asking a very interesting question: "Why is it that some jazz musicians preferred to adopt funk instead of jazz-rock when the transition took place." There were more sub-queries, but this itself is a calls for a thesis, just as he was writing one.

I am writing this article broadly based on my reply to him, and though he never acknowledged it [perhaps it didn't reach him], it has given me a new insight into that particular period when geniuses of the class of Horace Silver, Stanley Turrentine, Freddie Hubbard, George Benson were poised on the precipice as it were.

To Chris, I wrote back, during that heady period, when musicians had drawn out all they could from bebop and traditional styles, and when rock and roll, soul and blues were influencing the minds of the youngsters quite a lot, the funky style of playing an instrument was a foregone conclusion. For one thing, some jazzmen who thought that switching over from straight-ahead jazz [or other traditional styles]to jazz-rock would be construed as a sacrilege, a stab-in-the-back to jazz or even sedition to the nation of jazz, well they must have felt content with changeover to funk. Perhaps, all this is guesswork I know, but most likely that's what went through the throbbing mind of those jazzmen, I suspect.

Secondly, the commercial angle whether we all like it or not, has been playing an important role in the choice of music a jazzman plays or sings or performs. Even in the eventual stereotyping of his style as years go by. A supreme example would be the crossover that Herbie Hancock affected. He had bordered on the funky style for years, and when jazz-rock came into existence, all at once he changed his style to suit the tastes of the dancing crowds, the youngsters, the record buying public, whatever you choose to call those fickle minds. It is a sad chapter in jazz that Hancock ultimately diluted his presentation style so much that most of his music started sounding startling like elevator music, the unobtrusive, mindlessly ephemeral background music one hears at all good restaurants, or what the jazzman disdainfully calls commercial music. To add insult to injury, he introduced fluffy vocals in his eminently forgettable compositions, and jazz leaked out of his repertoire faster than gasoline can from an open can.

Quincy Jones did that, and to some extent George Benson did it too —some of the powerful Soul and R&B groups who excelled in instrumental brilliance, diluted their style with useless vocals and commercial trappings —now through hindsight we discover it was the record company executives who were pulling the strings that passed through the nostrils of the jazzmen who needed the cash badly. Who doesn't. But some of them had the drug habit, so the liner notes tell us about jazz geniuses of the class of Grant Green for instance, who could have turned jazz over its head by recording strictly jazz tunes —but the marketing executive had other ideas. How far the recording companies affected the choice of material, the maddeningly increasing use of strings and synthesized orchestral or choral sounds, making the music more syrupy than a country ballad intentionally packaged that way, and causing progress of jazz to be stifled is a topic we must tackle later on, as a separate issue altogether.

Well when looking at the mindblowing Funk phenomenon which surely lent a brand new sheen to jazz when there were at least three or four different styles in vogue i.e. cool jazz, straight-ahead jazz, bebop and /or hard bop and the pre-jazz/rock funkiness of Miles Davis school, is to my mind a landmark. Not to forget, there was avant-garde, questioning unabashedly the basics of jazz: melody, harmony, rhythm and then bordering brashly on the amusical toneless near-cacophony. Experts in human behavior have rightly mentioned that the opposites happen. When the fashion scene is saturated with long floor-kissing hems, what should suddenly catch the popular fancy than the good ole miniskirt? Baggies give way to tights —just the opposite happens, and is quickly accepted globally as the 'happening' thing.

Horace Silver to still sounds like one of the funkiest pianists ever, though one gets almost the same impatience-stuffed 'gimme-more' feeling when listening to the likes of Wynton Kelly, Ramsey Lewis, Ahmad Jamal and the good old Oscar Peterson. The list is pretty long.

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.

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.


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