Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

it's Christmas in Heaven.

In the 1950s the French musician and critic Andre Hodeir (I’ve never heard his music), in his book Jazz: Its Evolution and Essence, proposed the ideas that the essence of jazz was swing, and that rhythmic evolution -- from New Orleans 2-beat style, to classic four-beat swing, to bop’s more frenetic subdivided swing -- marked jazz history more clearly than any other indicator.

In the 1980s Michael Ventura argued for the over-riding rhythmcentric nature of American pop/vernacular music, which brings all of pop into the orbit of Hodeir’s thesis, regardless of whether you want to call the whole thing jazz. As a latter-day Hodeir-ean, Jody Rosen calls James Brown, who died Christmas day, the most influential American musician of the 20th century, arguing that Brown’s 1965 record Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag invented funk, the reach of which has long been global.

I like Jody’s argument -- a lot -- but I have had hesitations on two points. First, I’m not entirely sure that Louis Armstrong’s similarly astonishing invention of swing phrasing wasn’t as influential in its day. In addition to Armstrong’s rhythmic influence, I think it was Gary Giddins who said that his timbre on trumpet influenced players across many genres including classical, and I have to say that his timbre as a vocalist continues to influence people, 80 years after his recorded debut as a singer. All talk of influence is speculative -- I’m not saying I disagree with Jody, only that I hesitate to agree.

I also hesitated to place the birth of the funk at a single record. But Jody may be right. “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” opened the soul beat up and slowed it down, giving it room for highly syncopated riffs, counter-riffs, and inter-riffs, particularly, from the point of view of global influence, on the bass. Earlier Motown has an equally strong beat, and is often equally “on the one” as Brown’s post-“Bag” stuff, but is less spacious and syncopated. Gospel could be as syncopated and rifferiffically dense as Brown’s funk, but the riffs were usually looser and the beat was rarely as strong and often more hopped-up. Perhaps the closest for spaciousiousness and syncopation was the early ‘60s funk-jazz of Herbie Hancock, whose great hits “Watermelon Man” and “Cantelope Island” both preceded “Bag,” and the latter of which served as the source of a hip hop hit in the ‘90s; but still, with both, Brown’s beat is harder.

It’s especially poignant the James Brown died on Christmas, because he recorded lots of classic Christmas material between 1966 and 1970, including the highly funky and sweetly tender “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto,” a nice croony cover of “Christmas in Heaven,” a “Merry Christmas Baby” that starts traditional until James goes over the top at the end with a Christmas bouquet of screams and shrieks, and many other gems, mostly inimitable original songs. I haven’t heard all of his Christmas material, but this Funky Christmas collection is aces.

* * *

In my YouTube search for sources of Brown’s funk, I found a lot of good stuff to hear (and see).

The Supremes’ very much on-the-one (but not so syncopated) great hit of 1964, “Where Did Our Love Go” (sung in German!).

In part I like Jody’s argument because it places gospel in the center of vernacular music history, where it belongs -- Brown’s style owes more to gospel than to any other source, far more than it does to blues. And so I hunted YouTube for the great singer, guitarist, and bandleader Sister Rosetta Tharpe and found this handful of astounding performances:
* Down by the Riverside with hot guitar solos from the Sister and a strong and dignified gospel choir backing her -- watch that and tell me she isn’t one of the great American lead guitarists.

* A very full solo performance of Up Above My Head, where her voice and guitar alone are as rhythmically happening (though not exactly funky) as Brown’s whole band.

* A hot festival performance of Didn’t It Rain from 1964 (the only Tharpe clip to come with a date) fronting a gospel-jazz trio, with more hot lead guitar, and a recurring drone-y section that almost -- if too briefly -- pre-figures the Velvet Underground for dissonant, driving excitement.

The gospel-influenced soul-jazz of Cannonball Adderley, Charles Mingus, and others in the late 1950s seemed a plausible source for the funk, and so I went searching for them on YouTube, and here’s a hot excerpt from a Mingus tune whose title I don’t know.

And here is an all-star jam on Canteloupe Island led by composer Herbie Hancock decades after its original 1964 release.

* * *

Condolences to James Brown’s friends and family. As soon as I learned he died, I realized something I had never articulated for myself before: He changed music. Jody’s obituary confirmed it, but my old hesitation to admit it recurred -- I don’t know why. I used to ponder the question of “most influential musician of the 20th century.” Sometimes I think: that unknown New Orleansian who invented the trap drum set. Sometimes I think: Walter Page, Count Basie’s bassist in the ‘30s who codified the walking bass, making bass indispensible in genres that previously often eschewed it, like country and bluegrass, and prefiguring the bass’s prominence in post-“Bag” popular music. Sometimes I agree with Gary Giddins and say, “Armstrong.” But maybe Jody’s right, and it’s the late Mr. Brown. Idle -- and idol -- speculation, perhaps; mostly, though, what amazing music.
Interesting. Always tempting to the critic to lay sea changes on individuals, especially over-sized ones like JB. Whether or not he was/invented the "one" the influence is undeniable.

As to the "one" my fave examples are Think (original) with its Latin overlay that connects the "one" with the clave beat. And Cold Sweat, where the one is dropped hard only every other measure -- even closer to the clave phrase.

Don't forget the Latin influence on Funk.

I had the privilege of seeing three fantastic JB shows.

The first was through the window at the old Lone Star on 5th and 13th. That huge band crammed up on the little stage. Loud and clear through the double paned glass -- no need to be inside.

Second was at the last show at the Palladium theater before they turned it into a nightclub. Warmup act was Wilson Pickett. Night ended (or tried not to) with a insanely long Gonna Have a Funky Good Time with JB collapsing and being revived many, many times.

The third was in Kalamazoo at the State Theater during what was billed as his 25th Anniversary Tour. Maceo and a bunch of the old timers with him. Highlight was Maceo playing a solo off mic, with the band cooking so soft behind, from the edge of the stage. He then jumped into the center aisle, playing all the while, went out the back and reappeared in the balcony, taking a seat at the edge, feet dangling, blowing hard as the band started to build it back up.


Terrie Gross did a nice little interview remembrance of James Brown on the 26th. I especially enjoyed hearing Bootsy Collins talk about how James taught him how to play "on the 1" and how that changed his approach to music forever. And it's so true!


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