Album of the Week: Les McCann’s Layers (1973)

Another winner from Les McCann! In March, I covered Invitation to Openness, a standout fusion record. Where Invitation was a showcase of swirling, dreamy fusion with extended jams, Layers is often more upbeat. Recorded a year after Invitation, Layers is nothing short of a percussive triumph. Buck Clarke, Ralph McDonald, and Donald Dean join once again on percussion, this time with the addition of Jimmy Rowser on electric bass, bass violin and percussion. The beat on opener “Sometimes I Cry” is so legendary as to provide the backing track for Massive Attack’s “Teardrop”.

“Sometimes I Cry” is a good indicator of the unique sound you get on Layers: McCann’s ARP synth takes center stage in what is essentially an extended vamp (with glorious results). Along with his Clavinet and electric piano, McCann carries the melodies with his synth sounds, still a new frontier back in the early 70s. Anyone who’s heard Marvin Gaye’s I Want You and knows “After the Dance (Instrumental)” will recognize that ARP sound, bright as the midday sky and free as a bird (“Let’s Play” is especially portentous of “After the Dance”).

Layers really kicks up the groove on “Dunbar High School Marching Band” (in which McCann imitates a marching band’s horn section with synths!) and “Harlem Buck Dance Strut”. But I don’t think Layers can be categorized as straight jazz-funk. Its uniqueness lies in tracks like “Soaring”, again evocative of flight, the multi-layered synth/clav sounds creating an atmosphere that is both freeing and a bit melancholy. Layers is a versatile record that is relaxing enough for a Sunday morning and deep enough to avoid any sort of dated cheese.

Listen to Layers here.

Album of the Week: The Lyman Woodard Organization’s Saturday Night Special (1975)

Sheeeeeeeit.

I got into a lot of organ jazz over the past year, and next to Moon Rappin’ my greatest single discovery in that time may be The Lyman Woodard Organization’s Saturday Night Special. Woodard was a keyboardist in Detroit who was apparently inspired to play the Hammond B3 after hearing Jimmy Smith on the radio. Perhaps the premiere jazz organist of all-time, Smith’s influence could only be positive. And so it was that Woodard eventually came to create a classic album of his own under the Organization moniker.

The “saturday night special”, as you may know, is a cheap handgun, like the one seen on this album cover. However, there’s nothing cheap or particularly violent about this album. Most of Saturday Night Special is relaxing as hell, guided by L.W.’s swirling B3. “Joy Road” is smooth as silk, an early standout. “Belle Island Daze” transitions into a percussion-filled jam before Woodward brings it back home with a winning organ melody. “Cheeba” features some rippin’ guitar vamping before “the bongo boys” (a name I made up) storm the track in the album’s most chaotic moment.

“Creative Musicians” is arguably the record’s one misfire, a schmaltzy vocal tune that doesn’t quite fit. At under 3 minutes, though, it isn’t really much to complain about. As is often the case, the first side of this record outdoes the second, but “Help Me Get Away” ends things on a high note with Metheny-like licks and more bongos. The streaming version of Saturday Night Special also contains some added bonuses, including a “Lost Alternative Mix” of the title track that squeezes itself in at about half the length of the original cut with a bit more punch in its drums. This album’s highly recommended for all fans of organ music or funky jazz.

Click here to listen to Saturday Night Special.

Album of the Week: Paul Bley’s Open, to Love (1973)

So check this out right… sometimes all you need is a piano. From Debussy to Monk to Ethiopia’s Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, there are lots of artists in different styles who made incredible albums out of solely playing the piano. This one from Paul Bley, his third for German jazz giant ECM, is one of my favorites.

My man Paul got the assist from his ex-wife and brilliant artist in her own right Carla Bley, who wrote tracks 1, 2, and 6 on here. Opener “Closer” (heh) is a bit unsettling in its use of empty space, but it serves to make “Ida Lupino” that much more gratifying. This second track is almost jaunty in comparison, with a memorable melody that Bley rolls into with passion. “Started” also has a certain warmth to it.

What I really love about this album is the way that space is used. The compositions could certainly be played a lot faster, but Bley interprets them with a patience that alternately suggests contemplation, serenity, and occasionally something darker. These qualities are all present on the long title track (credited to Annette Peacock), after which Paul Bley’s “Harlem” enters with a bluesy familiarity, not unlike the aforementioned effect of the second track after the first.

The last two tracks are romantic at turns, with an air of mystery. I think Ms. Peacock wins the outré award here for the eerie, airy “Nothing Ever Was, Anyway”, which is nonetheless a beautiful way to close things out. Dig it.

Open to love? Stream it here.

Album of the Week: Les McCann’s Invitation to Openness (1972)

If Miles Davis opened the floodgates of fusion with In a Silent Way (1969), we can regard the ensuing years of the early 70s as jazz-fusion’s most fruitful era, with many outstanding records from musicians in Miles’ cadre and otherwise.

By 1971, Les McCann had been recording for just over 10 years as a jazz and soul pianist, but his largest achievement came in 1969 with Swiss Movement, a defining soul jazz performance with saxophonist Eddie Harris recorded live at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. On Invitation to Openness, a 3-song album with a range of talent involved, he sets the mood with a dreamy Rhodes-like tone to open the side-long “The Lovers”.

I’ve written before about Yusef Lateef, who mastered many wind and horn instruments, including relatively esoteric Asian instruments. Lateef takes center stage about 5 minutes into Invitation to Openness as a stone groove complete with psychedelic electric guitar allows him to take over. It’s ecstatic, and the overall sound is not dissimilar to Ray Manzarek’s extended solo on “Light My Fire”. “The Lovers” isn’t as interested in restraint or trailblazing ingenuity as the work of Miles with Zawinul, but then again, what is?

Percussion takes on an essential role in fusion, and the lineup here is suitably up to the task. We have Donald Dean, who played the kit with McCann on the aforementioned Swiss Movement (1969), as well as two renaissance men in Alphonse Mouzon (Weather Report) and Bernard Purdie, who played with everyone from Nina Simone to Steely Dan. The second half of “The Lovers” in particular allows these men to shine in all their polyrhythmic glory.

“Beaux J. Poo Poo” (how’s that for a song title?) is similarly groovy and allows McCann to flex his muscle on the keys a bit more. Lateef’s flute sounds wonderful here, but only appears for a fraction of the track.

The closer “Poo Pye McGoochie (and His Friends)” is the standout song and my favorite thing Les McCann has ever done. Its recurring theme is played on a futuristic Moog synth that sounds like being zapped through space, but the tone isn’t overly cartoonish, it’s just super-charged and incredibly fun. You can practically hear the smile radiate from McCann’s face as he plays the melody, like a secret weapon he’d been saving for the album’s finale. The tension of McCann’s resonant keys in the drum-less intro and ambient middle section is delightful. I love driving to this song.

As of this writing, Les McCann is 86 years old and has performed live as recently as in the 2010s.

Listen to Invitation to Openness here.

Album of the Week: Kool & The Gang’s Light of Worlds (1974)

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Is there any song quite like “Summer Madness”? Those rising synth notes (presented in my best written attempt above) are jolting; they raise the hair on your arms. The track is iconic enough that it’s been sampled hundreds of times (I heard it years ago in Digable Planets “Jimmi Diggin Cats”), and remains a highlight on Light of Worlds, the fifth album from Kool & The Gang.

Yes, it’s Kool & The Gang, of “Celebration” and “Ladies Night” fame. Light of Worlds finds them pre-Chart Toppers, but post-“Jungle Boogie”. In other words, they weren’t yet a total sensation but they knew how to make a hit. Light of Worlds, then, bubbles with under-the-radar jazz-funk flavor. As an ensemble, they rival Earth, Wind & Fire in their ability to blend funk and pop.

Fans of J Dilla’s Donuts will instantly recognize “Fruitman” from “The Diff’rence”. It’s a groovy, horn-filled jam and an early highlight. The rhythm section is super tight throughout the album, but the title track especially feels like the Gang in top form. The late Ronald Bell, who fronted the group, whips out his fat ARP synth on the second side, and oh boy does this thing rip. Listen to “Whiting H. & G.” and tell me you don’t feel like you’re cruising down the coast with shades on in a convertible. The seagull sounds at the end don’t hurt either.

I’m kind of surprised “You Don’t Have to Change” wasn’t released as a single: it’s as mellow and accessible as most anything else released in ’74. The melody in the verses to me recalls The Spinners’ “It’s a Shame”, which is another classic. “Higher Plane” was the album’s biggest hit on the R&B charts, and its tight funk guitar reminds me of another “Higher” song by one Stevie Wonder. “Here After” closes things on a stellar note, with a great voice-over and a spiritual-jazz leaning instrumental, complete with kalimba! I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this album to any fan of 70s soul music, whether pop, funk or jazz is your thing. Light of Worlds does it all and does it well.

Listen to Light of Worlds here.

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BONUS ROUND: YouTube comments on this live “Summer Madness”

“this version sounds clean and smooth like the album version, i love to smoke weed to this song” (from user masterbate23)

“i am seriously High and im loving this live version!” (from user DontPanic2008)

“Kool and the Gang are definitely cool.” (from user Shanedango32)

Album of the Week: Presenting Isaac Hayes (1968)

Isaac Hayes was the man before he was the man. At 22, the Tennessee native was playing keys on Otis Redding records and writing songs for Sam & Dave. Fast forward a few years and we arrive at his breakout Hot Buttered Soul (1969), one of those records to end all records, a consummate soul masterpiece. Stand it up next to What’s Goin’ On, Innervisions, what have you. Hot Buttered Soul is a monolith.

But it wasn’t Hayes’ debut. That would be the previous year’s Presenting Isaac Hayes, a surprisingly unknown soul-jazz session that deserves more props. The back-cover details the story of a typical 60s night in Memphis with Big Ike: “A few years back, Isaac strolled into Currie’s Tropicana Club in Memphis and sat in with the group, which included drummer Al Jackson, Jr. He sat down at the piano and began rambling over the keyboard. His offerings were an instant crowd success.” This was the Stax/Volt Records house band, essentially Booker T. & The M.G.s augmented with Isaac Hayes instead of Booker, who was in school at the time.

Presenting finds Hayes on piano and vocals, with the aforementioned Jackson Jr. on drums and Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass guitar. The trio’s Stax sessions for the album were improvised with no additional musicians. I’d love to hear more from these sessions, since the original album with 5 tracks is only half an hour long.

Once you’ve heard the full version of “Precious, Precious”, the album edit doesn’t really work. It’s sort of like if you took a 20-minute Coltrane session and cut it down to 3 minutes. Like its perfect follow-up Hot Buttered Soul, Presenting Isaac Hayes works best outside the confines of radio-friendly time constraints. The longform tracks here are just excellent – “I Just Want to Make Love to You” is raw: the sound is live and intimate, like you’re in the studio with the three players. With alcohol on his breath, Ike has a vocal swagger that pushes the track to the next level. It’s blues, as blue as Willie Dixon’s original, but Hayes’ chops on piano take it to the ever-transcendent realm of soul-jazz.

The “Going to Chicago Blues” track is another rambling wonder, with a fantastic vocal from Hayes at the end of the conjoined “Misty”. The closer “You Don’t Know Like I Know” is one of two Ike originals (though he makes every song his own), and the instrumental piece wouldn’t sound out of place on an Ahmad Jamal Trio record. There’s something in the timbre of the drums here, they’re just so warm and organic. While I wouldn’t mind vocals, it’s a great cut nonetheless.

And then, on streaming and reissue versions, we conclude with the long version of “Precious, Precious”. Wow! Big Ike is feelin’ it here! It’s no wonder he has that top hat and baton on the cover, because this is 20 minutes of magic. Sorry for the corny line, but listen! The man mumbles and wonders, the band carries the driving theme and the music just flows and flows. I love Isaac Hayes wordless vocals, it sounds like he’s making love to the music. Or, as Lil Wayne would say 45 years later, “I just fucked this piano”. Probably another reason they cut it for the first release.

If you like jazzy R&B, soulful jazz, soul-jazz, improvised blues jams or otherwise groovy tunes, don’t hesitate to give this one a spin. It’s an overlooked debut by an underrated master.

Listen to Presenting Isaac Hayes on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Ray Charles & Milt Jackson’s Soul Brothers / Soul Meeting (1958)

I recently rewatched Ray (2004) on HBO, which was fun, since Jaime Foxx is so charismatic and the music is so good. I think I realized this last year watching Fassbinder’s Gods of the Plague (1970), in which the protagonist slow-dances to “Here We Go Again” in one of the best scenes. Indeed, Ray Charles was immensely talented and his discography is full of gems. In 1958 he recorded Soul Brothers with the famed jazz vibraphonist Milt Jackson, AKA Bags.

This collaboration is interesting for a few reasons. For one, there are no vocals, which makes it atypical of Ray’s output and is probably why it’s one of the lesser-known releases in his oeuvre. Additionally, the two musicians decided to play around with different instruments, switching roles occasionally. That’s Ray Charles on saxophone on “Soul Brothers” and “How Long Blues”, where Milt Jackson plays the piano.

Soul Brothers and Soul Meeting were originally released as two different albums, both culled from 1958 sessions with the latter first released in 1961. The reissue combines them and sort of jumbles the track orders: for example “Soul Brothers”, originally the first track on the titular album, is now track 8. No matter – the two albums are quite similar and the relaxed nature of the pieces don’t require much of a formal order.

As I mentioned above, Ray plays the sax here, and he rips it. I especially love “How Long Blues”. Like most of these tracks, it’s in no hurry, but once you do reach Ray’s sax playing about 6 minutes in, it’s well worth the wait. “Blue Funk” has some tight guitar playing (courtesy of Skeeter Best) and groovy vibes from Bags. You can practically smell the smoke wafting out of some southern bar 60 years ago. As a jazzy collab, this is not the most immediate Ray Charles release. But it’s perfect for that laid-back Sunday afternoon vibe.

Listen to Soul Brothers / Soul Meeting on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Gary Burton’s Country Roads & Other Places (1969)

At the cross-section of jazz and blues you’ll find Country Roads & Other Places, an excellent record from veteran vibraphonist Gary Burton, guitarist Jerry Hahn (Primordial Lovers, Paul Simon), bassist Steve Swallow (Basra, The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra), and drummer Roy Haynes (Misterioso, Out There). This album alternates between smoky grooves and relaxing Sunday morning music.

“Country Roads” gets things off to a rollicking start, and I must say this is my favorite track on the album. Hahn’s guitar playing is particularly sublime, with a very tight rhythm accompanied provided by the rest of the band. At the time of the recording all band members were in their 20s, with the notable exception of Roy Haynes, who was in his mid-40s and had easily the most credible CV of the group. Having played drums on legendary sessions with (among others) John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and Bud Powell, all of whom had died by this point, one might say Haynes acts as the kind of old-school foundation that keeps the band together. Still, the brief third track “True or False”, essentially a two-minute Haynes solo, comes out of left-field and probably won’t be a favorite among jazz purists.

There are other surprises to be found here. I like when jazz artists tackle classical, and Burton’s solo take on Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin is a nice end to the first side. Things open back up softly with “And On the Third Day”, before the jumpy “A Singing Song”, on which both Hahn and Haynes shine. “My Foolish Heart” is the album’s only standard. It’s lovely, but you’ve got to admire Burton’s decision to otherwise steer clear of the jazz standard. In 2011, he said of the late 60s jazz scene, “Everyone was playing the same standard songs a lot… My goal was to bring in country, rock, classical, Latin, tango. Anything that I could relate to.” As a young, closeted white guy from Indiana, Burton wasn’t your typical jazz cat. And his music is better for it.

Despite its title, Country Roads isn’t country music, however it is atypical for jazz releases of its time. As I’ve mentioned, its players were relatively young, in a quartet with no horns and led by a vibraphonist, and their sound was neither classic jazz nor textbook fusion (a la Zawinul). All these elements (not to mention its quality) make the album worth seeking out for the curious listener. After Country Roads, Burton recorded several acclaimed albums for the ECM label and continued playing until his retirement in 2017. As of this writing, all four players on Country Roads are still alive. Roy Haynes celebrated his 95th birthday in March, nine days before I celebrated my 25th, and to my knowledge he is still an active drummer.

Listen to Country Roads & Other Places on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Frank Sinatra’s Where Are You? (1957)

Ah, Autumn. The perfect time to wistfully smoke a cigarette while staring into the ground. What’s that Frankie? You’re wondering where she is? Damn man, sorry. Haven’t seen her around. You’ll get over it, bro (probably).

I had a bit of a Sinatra phase this year. Lovely stuff, and it felt appropriate during the lonely summer months of 2020. If you ever felt like you couldn’t see your S.O. because they were in another state and it wasn’t feasible to travel during a global pandemic, or you couldn’t go to your favorite restaurant or see friends for the same reason, don’t worry! Frank understands. He’s been lonely. He’s been through it. He’ll tell you all about it.

Yes, Where Are You? is depressing, but also comforting. Stephen Thomas Erlewine of Allmusic praised its “luxurious sadness”. Want to cry diamond tears on your 24k gold pillow? This is the album for you. As soon as those first string notes open the title track, you’re wrapped up in the sad glory of traditional pop’s greatest singer.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I love music without drums. No drums! And hey, no piano either, so no percussion to be found. Standards become lullabies. But if you’re snoozing by the end of the sublime “Laura”, Sinatra bellowing “New York, NEW YORK!” at the beginning of “Lonely Town” might wake you up. No, this isn’t that New York song. In fact, most of these standards were unfamiliar to me prior to listening. The notable exceptions were also recorded by Miles Davis: “Autumn Leaves”, which Miles performed live frequently in the early 60s, and “There’s No You”, which appeared on the underrated Blue Moods.

Where Gordon Jenkins orchestrated the Where Are You? sessions, the bonus tracks (13-16) were recorded with Nelson Riddle, who conducted two of Frank’s most acclaimed works – In the Wee Small Hours and Sings for Only the Lonely. I’ve read reviews that characterize Jenkins’ arrangements as “dour” and “overwrought” compared to Riddle’s work. Frankly (heh), I can’t tell the difference. Where Are You? sounds lovely to my ears, and it’s perfect for this time of year.

Listen to Where Are You? on Spotify while smoking wistfully.

Album of the Week: Yusef Lateef’s Eastern Sounds (1962)

So I was thinking, I bought this 1200 year-old Chinese clay flute and I’ve been learning to play it. It only has a scale of five notes, and it is like blowing over a Coke bottle, but I’ve written this piece called ‘The Plum Blossom”, and I think I can make it work.

The accomplished Dr. Yusef Lateef passed away 7 years ago in 2013, at the age of 93. He was 40 when he recorded Eastern Sounds in 1961. All this to say, the man was from a different era. “The idea of the album, as he tells it, was to have an oriental feel,” wrote Joe Goldberg in the liner notes. To quote The Big Lebowski, that’s not the preferred nomenclature, at least not today. The term “oriental” is about as dated as “negro”, but I think it’s important when approaching this album to consider the context of the time in which it was recorded and the artist’s intentions. Granted, I am a white person of no Asian descent, but to me Lateef’s exploration of Eastern Sounds are genuinely informed by his practice of Ahmadiyya Islam (a movement based in India) and, as the quote above shows, an interest in experimenting with instruments uncommon in the Western hemisphere.

This context in mind, it’s not hard to see why Eastern Sounds is Lateef’s most popular recording today. We begin with the aforementioned “Plum Blossom”, and indeed the Chinese flute, or xun, sounds a bit like a Coke bottle or jug instrument. It’s a bit funky, but it has legs. In particular it reminds me of Bennie Maupin’s bass clarinet on “Bitches Brew”: deep and ominous, but wonderful all the same.

The next couple tracks were penned by Lateef as well and continue the album’s theme, but after that we get just as many American standards. It breaks up the sound a bit, but these songs are lovely and mellow. This is also, with “Love Theme from Spartacus“, the only jazz album I can think of that incorporates a theme from a Kubrick movie, and to great effect.

A later highlight is “Purple Flower”, which has all the space and beauty of a 60s Miles ballad, albeit with no trumpet. The album rounds out with “The Three Faces of Balal”, on which bassist Ernie Farrow makes great use of the plucked rabab instrument.

This month, Lateef would have turned 100, and UMass Amherst has launched an online celebration of his life featuring music, writing, photos and more focusing on the late jazz legend. One thing I love in particular is this short NPR tribute by John Rogers on his friendship with Lateef. Yusef Lateef has a large discography, but Eastern Sounds is a great place to start. May his life and music be celebrated for centuries to come!

Listen to Eastern Sounds on Spotify.