Saturday, April 5, 2014

Dig a Little Deeper -- "War"

Your author has had two careers in music. From 1957 to 1972 I played rock, soul, r&b and modal jazz. Then from 1996 to 2011; blues, a "horn band" and some jazz gigs. When immersed in music as a career one often discovers wonderful recordings that offer a fresh perspective on a given artist's body of work. Not as well known as their hits, these second and third tier offerings are nevertheless wonderful, sometimes more engaging and suitable for repeat listening than their better known tunes. As a musician one enjoys playing new material, else the evening becomes a series of treks down familiar paths. Confidently playing your own taste mixed with titles familiar to the audience enlivens your presentation.

When I'm in the audience I hope to hear things I've never heard before. When vinyl 33s were the media of choice, we'd go to the record store and wait for a sound booth. With 2 or 3 LPs ready for audition, we looked for the thrill of discovering great unknown tracks. And at $2.98 for mono and $3.98 for stereo (circa 1960), one wanted to make sure there were all good cuts on an album. Sometimes you'd buy one, your friend buys the other one, and you go to each other's house to hear the sides. A few years later, when an album was $6.98 I had a bandleader who would fine us $7 for being late to rehearsal -- he had a pretty good record collection! That was 1969, a good year for funk, soul and R&B.

The last band I played in before my 1972 retirement was a funky 4-piece called Tyme. Lead singer Jean Glade had a great high voice, so Just My Imagination and Oh Girl by the Chilites were good for him. The rest of us sang, too. Strangely enough I did Sly's Family Affair, and a slow blues called Stranded, but I really dug singing background, especially on tunes by War. We did Get Down -- everybody got a verse -- and Gene shined on Slipping Into Darkness. Of course we did The World Is A Ghetto and I think we even did Four Cornered Room, but it was too slow and fell out of the repertoire. Later I was fortunate to sing lead on All Day Music with Edell and the Thunderbirds on a brief road trip in the Summer of 1974 -- another band with 4 singers, "Yeah-yeah, yeah-yeah, yeah-yeah, yeah-yeah..." Later War became famous for Low Rider, Me And Baby Brother, the Cisco Kid -- but here's some of their back shelf -- and definitely funky stuff:

Life Is So Strange
City Country City edited to 3:30
Don't Let No One Get You Down
Why Can't We Be Friends
Ballero (flute)
Nappy Head
Fidel's Fantasy (flute in the middle)
live ==>  Southern Part of Texas

Now there's a whole other perspective on War when one digs into their history, and the early association with Eric Burdon. I've never had the opportunity to dig into that back story, but I've been searching for some music I heard over the FM around 1970, the DJ introduced it as Eric Burdon and War, and there was a fantastic instrumental passage in the middle where they really went outside, somewhere between Fillmore psychedelic and John Cage abstraction. It was a long break, and it offered a shift in perspective just as mind-blowing as my first stoned listen to the orchestral freak-out at the end of the Beatles Day In The Life. Been looking for the lost Eric Burdon & War cut for over 40 years -- maybe I can find it on YouTube! And again, no apology for seeming to do little more than offer a list of YouTube links -- just being your guide -- does take some time to cull out the bad takes, the low level recordings. Please enjoy the play list...

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Band

I've been reading "Hole in our Soul, The Loss of Beauty & Meaning in American Popular Music" by Martha Bayles, 390 pages of scholarly research and contemporary insight that's still relevant even though it was published in 1994. Shocked but pleased to find my love for 1960s funk vindicated as the author shares the point of view that something was lost circa 1968 forward as the music industry became more voracious and sophisticated, promoting "perverse modernism," shocking the public, pandering to the prurient. On the positive side, she celebrates 60s soul music as a culmination of the finest aspects our culture as expressed through the continuation of Afro-American traditions of community, ritual celebration and musical evolution.

While her book has many excellent analyses of various artists, their styles and relationship to surrounding society, the focus is on macro forces and philosophies, leaving closer examination of stylistic nuance to other authors. In keeping with the Funk Now charter, this week I'm going to hip you to some of the funkiest cuts ever produced, the works of Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Band. A few weeks ago I tried to qualify for Google AdSense hoping I could make some bread off of blogging, but they turned me down as not prolific and simply posting pointers to YouTube videos. Nevertheless, my role here is virtual guide to the golden age of funk, and my value added is to save the reader time by preselecting the best songs and the best representative recordings, adding (hopefully) insightful comments.

I'm surprised that my initial searching for information on the Watts 103rd Street Band has offered little more than what Wikipedia and the LastFM site usually offer about any artist. Notably two fine guitarists appeared in Mr. Wright's bands, Al McKay (later with Earth, Wind and Fire) and Mel Brown who I met and gigged with briefly in Honolulu in the mid 60s. Obviously Benorce Blackmon is also an excellent guitarist, having played on everything after Al McKay left in 1969, and Charles is a lefty guitarist himself. If I had but one CD by this band it would be Express Yourself: The Best of Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, an excellent collection featuring most of the YouTube links I have gathered from my memories and recent explorations.

My Amherst Studio Update blog will take a look at some of the architectural elements of a good funk recording next week, and I'll reference some of these songs for study. For now, just take a listen and enjoy!

Do Your Thing   first notable release
Express Yourself parts 2&1
Your Love (Means Everything To Me)
Loveland  a great doo-wop/funk fusion
What Can You Bring Me  bass on upbeat eighths!
Ninety Day Cycle People (funk sci-fi!)
I Got Love
Till You Get Enough
Gimme That Sammich
Nonsense (long - a lesson in spontaneity)

Martha Bayles has a new book, Through A Screen Darkly. Find out more at While America's image has been tarnished by cultural exports, she hopes to chart a positive path for the future. I hope to join that future and will offer some ideas when I finish my overdue essay on The Shape of Funk To Come.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Segue to Little Junior Parker

Two of my favorite artists recorded on the famous Duke Records label out of Houston, Texas. That would be Bobby "Blue" Bland and Little Junior Parker! Last week I focused the way-back machine on Mose Allison, and when I got to "That's All Right" I was reminded of Jr. Parker's version. Then my YouTube journey took me to Mr. Parker's lovely song, Someone Somewhere. For 50 years (!) I listened to that number in my head, couldn't find it in the old vinyl shops like Big Al's Record Barn or the Record Man in Redwood City, CA. A couple of years ago I checked YouTube again but the song was removed for copyright violations.

Apparently some of this rare old music is bird-dogged by their copyright holders, but most are too laid back to bother, or find value in keeping their titles publicized. I listen to songs on YouTube because it's too much work to search through my vinyl collection for 45s or search for album tracks. I'm slowly converting my vinyl collection to MP3s, but at the moment I'm stalled because I need a new high-quality stylus. When I found the previously unavailable Someone Somewhere as an MP3 download on, they got my 99 cents without hesitation. So, dear reader, dear listener, audition these sides, but when you hear something you really dig, don't "steal their bits." Jump on to a retail site and buy stuff for your "gold" collection and your own personal listening device.

Here's a list of my other favorites from Herman Parker Junior:
How Long Can This Go On  (flip side of Annie Get Your YoYo)
In The Dark
Driving Wheel (loud but no annoying echo like the re-release)
Look On Yonders Wall (good bari sax on this one)
I Need Your Love So Bad 
Don't Throw Your Love On Me So Strong
Five Long Years (very slow - great voice)
Mother In Law Blues
Sweet Home Chicago
Next Time You See Me

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Mose Allison -- He's Funky

Mose Allison is funky, He really is. His comping and audible grunting, sense of laconic irony in both his voice and his piano phrasing, Mose is funky. I got to catch him live on two occasions. He was an uncredited genius with an insensitive audience both times I saw him. He's serious about his music and he became frustrated with the half-filled house of inattentive and self-absorbed patrons and his response was to play his piano solos in seconds. Jarring -- and he had a right to his attitude -- but I preferred the Mose I heard on his recordings.

And what great records he made! Back in the day when 45s were the media of choice, some of us had record players in our cars -- like my friend Bill -- 54 Buick, two door hardtop with a rake, and a great collection of jazz and blues 45s. The records stacked upside down and dropped down after they played. There was a cookie can from Woolworth's that just fit the 45s. I was DJ, suggesting the song list, or taking direction and prepping the record stacks:
Parchman Farm, Eyesight To The Blind, Do Nothin' Til You Hear From Me, Don't Get Around Much Anymore, Seventh SonLost Mind "I lost my mind in a wild romance," Your Molecular Structure, That's All Right, Your Mind Is On Vacation "You're over-laughin' when things ain't funny..." Foolkiller's comin'!

Some said a white man playing piano couldn't be playing blues. Well Mose is from Mississippi, where you from? Again, he's got a right. Music transcends race and ultimately music transcends description. Yes, we can describe Mose as a jazz pianist, a "casual" vocal stylist, but don't forget expressive, hip, capable, subtle, deep -- and funky!
"It is only because the world looks on his talent with such a frightening indifference that the artist is compelled to make his talent important."  -- James Baldwin

Saturday, March 1, 2014

San Francisco -- South Bay Update

Sat in on the blues jam at Little Lou's on Winchester in Campbell Thursday the 27th of February, with bari sax man Ray DiFazio. It was an excellent night with 4 saxes up there for a few numbers. Host Aki Kumar graciously manages a steady procession of Bay Area blues luminaries, producing a stellar show. We had to wait to hear Aki, but it was well worth it -- he sings and plays blues harp just as good as he wants! Later stopped by the Quarter Note in Sunnyvale to help celebrate Diva Stativa's birthday. A wild funk-disco jam with 5 horns at one point, including old friends Tony Bolivar and Mike Luzzi, new friend Fred on trumpet. I'll be reviewing some of these local haps on the Funk Now blog in the future...
Sneaky Pete led off the jam in Campbell. Ray and I arrived a little bit later -- but I'll be jamming with Pete in a couple of weeks at JJ's San Jose. No cover on Thursday -- New York Pizza is next door and JJ's is "pizza friendly!"

Thursday, February 27, 2014

What About The Blues?

"The blues is quicksilver
  It is not a quotation
  If it becomes a quotation
  It becomes irrelevant"
-- James Baldwin  

Can the blues be funky? Just to ask the question could be an insult to Mother Blues. The black experience has given birth to so many uniquely American art forms -- field hollers, gospel music, black realism in painting, art, literature and film -- and the blues! "I love the blues, she heard my cry..." The blues is like the Mississippi, a great tributary nourishing jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and roll -- and funk too sprang from her delta. In the broader sense of a 21st Century funk that subsumes the earlier criteria of both soul and funk, a true blues performance will be funky soulful, funky down-to-earth, alternately joyous and heart-wrenchingly sad. And since the blues itself gave rise to the original funk music, how could the blues be anything but funky? The answer is: only when the blues is not the blues!

There is much that is ersatz in our modern life. The pressure to constantly produce products that are new, the push to get us opening our wallets, these forces create much that sizzles but fails to nourish. Somewhere around 1968 a modification to the Marshall amplifier increased the volume of the rock band to a thunderous din that still continues. There are many practitioners of amplified blues that mistake loudness for excitement, divorced from the history and tradition of this great Americana. Trust me, I'm not going to launch into a criticism of middle-aged, middle-class, white guitar slingers. In spite of mass media fanning the flames of ignorance, the great majority of contemporary society is beyond ageism, thinks in terms of culture instead of race, and there is no more middle class, we all have a right to sing the blues.

Instead this is a cautionary note. Don't assume because you are paying obeisance to the form that your art automatically acquires validity. Balance and interplay between the musicians, an ability to evoke emotion from a single note, a feeling that transcends intonation and above all an inner quest for truth that will not allow a single meaningless note, these qualities will put the funk in your blues. An electronic tuner should be as foreign to the bandstand as a music stand. Don't use a pedal on your guitar rig when you can put a microphone on your beat-up overdriven amp and a good sound man will balance your performance for the listeners in the larger venues. Please don't sing a song that you haven't lived.

Don't sing "She caught the Katie and left me a mule to ride" unless your baby flew off in a jet plane and left you with a beat up Honda Civic, and you at least provide your audience a brief explanation to frame up your anachronism. By analogy, this line of thinking goes on and on. I don't think you can "pitch a wang dang doodle" if you never visited a get-down club where you had to be polite and watch your back while reveling just the same. It's OK if you never knew anyone named Abysinnian Ned, but at least know what the lyrics are talking about. Don't invoke the bravado of Muddy Waters "I'm A Man" or Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love" unless you've got a rap sheet, or you're portraying the persona of a good friend who does.

And finally, be very careful about trying a note for note copy -- even the original artist wouldn't copy their own recording. Your love and respect for a given artist should include an understanding that we are all continually changing and the honesty of the present trumps a slavish replication of some golden moment from the past. Study your predecessors and become accomplished, but find your own voice. Develop your own style, try an open tuning on some songs, use appropriate alternate chords, don't play the same turn-around on every song. If the original was a rhumba, try a reggae beat. Will that medium tempo work as a ballad? Can you rework that country blues into a big city sound with your horn section? How about letting the horns or the rest of the band hit the bar while you do a couple of unexpected a capella numbers?

Bluesman, be true to your own soul. Then and only then will your blues be funky.

"Junior may be younger and stronger, but Grandpa knows how to go 'round a whole lot longer."
 -- Magnificent Montague

“All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.“ -- from “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

African Science -- CD Review

A delightful, well thought out CD! African Science takes the listener on a journey, from the insight of The Lesson, and the joyous syncopation of the title tune, on through a rainbow of moods: backbeat modernity, inspired poetry, African ebullience, a salute to First People, the time machine of a soulful Ragtime, a funky Mambo, and an achingly accurate chanted portrayal of the hold of a ship in the Diaspora. Carlos Joe Costa and the other gifted talents gathered around him create a series of audio vignettes, pleasing and thought-provoking. Get it online at CD Baby, iTunes and more. I play tenor sax on Colours and Deep Fried Mambo...

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Why you wanna play that?

I enjoyed hearing jazz organist Jack McDuff making his performance philosophy clear on a recent KCSM broadcast interview. Re musicians who would sit in and ask to play an old standard, like All The Things You Are: "Man, why you wanna play that? Nobody wants to listen to it!"

Because I started playing sax in 1955 my personal taste meshed with the rock 'n' roll boom. At the same time I came to dig this new music's R&B roots thanks to KWBR (later known as KDIA) and early KSAN on the AM dial. And Blue Note jazz could be heard on KROW AM late at night -- great days for San Francisco, Oakland and the Bay Area when all that was coming at us new!

So I learned to treat anything with a swing or shuffle beat as hopelessly ancient. Louis Jordan an old fogey -- Ray Charles version of Let The Good Times Roll the definitive one for my generation. Big band swing -- boring...

Within a few years sixteenth note funk was the hottest thing going: Get Out Of My Life Woman by Lee Dorsey, anything with a Jamey Jamerson bass (we didn't know who was who in those days - just called it Motown) -- dance styles defined the mid 60s...

Then the Fillmore and Avalon blossomed starting in 1966 and everything came together. Blues roots, psychedelic newbies (most of 'em really didn't play that well -- my favorites in that era were Moby Grape and Quicksilver) -- and horn bands -- Linda Tillery & Loading Zone, Sons of Champlin, Cold Blood, Electric Flag. Then Charles Lloyd's Forest Flower recorded live at the Fillmore (one whole side of the LP was a one chord exploration) and Miles Davis had a new sound with Filles de Kilimanjaro, and of course Bitches Brew.

Country Joe & the Fish were better than they get credit for, and the only "hippie" group to live by the new ethic. They took their album proceeds and opened up the "Free Store" in Berkeley and only closed it when too many abused the privilege -- that was an instructional exercise! Santana "Blues Band" and Sly & the Family Stone were like rooting for the home team. And The Doors, The Seeds, anyone from LA were the enemy. Blood Sweat & Tears, Chicago Transit Authority -- scholarly carpetbaggers coming in to rip off our scene -- grudgingly had to admit they were really good, maybe even great. Earth Wind & Fire were rehearsing in Carmel Valley in their early days, and even though they smelled like LA money there was enough soul and musicianship there that they could come on in, and even Kool & the Gang were almost counter culture R&B when they started out.

So that's why I can't hang with the blues revival, and I don't fit with the be-boppers and Real Book crowd. And I don't fit with younger soul burners because I was dismayed when even soul music got almost too slick -- don't know the book for Ohio Players, Parliament/Funkadelic -- even my James Brown knowledge stops shortly after Sex Machine and Cold Sweat. About the time I quit playing for a living Put It Where You Want It was a new song. Anyway, there was such a proliferation of new music in every genre starting in the 70s that I quite comfortably dropped out of "the scene" in early 1972, went to school for a career in the new "digital electronics." If I hadn't got that AA (or pretty damn close, just lacking one political science and one ethnic studies course) I wouldn't have the retirement pay I have today -- at least I can make my "nut" -- unlike some of my musician friends who played straight through and have to keep playing.

Luckily I have time now to write and study. I recently spent about 3 days analyzing and charting out Herbie Hancock's "Dolphin Dance." This is the type of song we would incorporate into our show circa 1970-71. We would cover Sly, the Isleys, Aretha, Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers "Does Your Momma Know About Me," Detroit Emeralds, Temptations, ChiLites, James Brown, James Brown, James Brown -- and for instrumentals we'd do Grazin' In The Grass, Listen Here, Live Right Now (Eddie Harris), My Money's Funny (Frank Samuels & the Kinfolk) and we'd come up with originals that sounded like Miles at the Fillmore. We could take the last chord of any tune and turn it into a 2-3 minute jam. If we could have done it as good as Charles Earland, we would've played Dolphin Dance -- certainly not "All The Things You Are." And the beautiful thing about gigging for mixed audiences circa 1968-1972 was that you would get over with a soul and R&B format -- even including "far-out" jazz -- of course, not too much of it, and wait for the right moment.  
Listen to:  Dolphin Dance -- Charles Earland -- YouTube 
Chord chart at Don Baraka's Studio Update

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Funk hero Pete Fallico

Yes, a heroic figure! Pete Fallico, supporting great artists who choose the Hammond B3.
                                      Great article by Richard Scheinen,
Photo by Patrick Tehan, Bay Area News Group.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

San Francisco Mime Troupe

In the broader sense, the San Francisco Mime Troupe is funky -- creative, immediate, unpretentious, of and for the people. Funky is not the first word one would call on to describe their art. "Guerilla theatre" perhaps, but they are nonetheless funky using the 21st century definition...

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Gil Scott-Heron remembered

While America celebrates February as African American History Month, and Public Broadcasting offers a wealth of fascinating, interesting and provocative programming, just the same I'm reminded of some wry commentary offered by the great poet, songwriter and performer Gil Scott-Heron.

It was the early 80s, and he appeared mid-week at Santa Clara University on the San Francisco Peninsula.
Expecting to see at least a quartet with bass, drums, flute and Gil Scott-Heron singing and playing electric piano, to my surprise he was doing it solo! Sitting at a Fender Rhodes piano, his first set was an informal hour, mostly conversation.

It's been said that a clue to a person with a good intellect is a sense of humor, and Gil certainly evidenced that. His presentation was closer to stand-up comedy than the fiery revolutionary poetry and soulful music I had hoped for, but the audience was engaged, his witty humor an unexpected facet of his personality.

As Mississippi bluesman John Blues Boyd says, "The truth will make you laugh." 30 years later I smile as I recall Gil Scott-Heron describing his search for some good soul music or jazz when he would get to a new city. In the earlier days of his career not every radio received FM, and there was a lot of music on AM, so he described his search for music on the AM dial.

Basically, you might start at the left side where the lower frequencies had more power and often belonged to network stations, but no dice. In order to find Black music you had to go farther to the right, where the stations were crowded together in the less desirable frequencies with low signal strength and some overlapping -- but that's where you could find the funk, the soul, the jazz -- and with careful tuning you were in business.

This then reminded Gil of Black History Month -- after all, out of 12 months of the year -- Black people get the shortest month, February! The laughter of recognition filled the auditorium. Gil Scott-Heron: poet, musician and humorist!

-- Don Baraka

Friday, January 24, 2014

Funk for the 21st Century

When funk first hit the scene, for many it was purely a musical definition. Variously described as down to earth, gritty, soulful, often associated with organ jazz combos, unsophisticated to some ears, funk came to us on the Blue Note label and Southern R&B releases, many out of the fertile crescent of New Orleans.

Considering the history and culture that gave birth to the original funk, another descriptor we heard was "churchy." There were many references to "soul food" and in the R&B world, creative use of the 16th note characterized funk music. Overall tempos slowed, but the pulse became faster. Soon fusion jazz appeared, relying heavily on elements of funk. But "flurries of educated gnat notes" (quote from Frank Zappa) were not funky.

This often happens when an art form is removed from the cultural milieu that spawned it. Threads of community history, bonds between family and friends, lessons handed down by predecessors all contribute to the richness of a culture and its art forms. By the time an admirer of an indigenous style analyzes and isolates the tenets that define it, the style itself has moved on, and the student of that culture is left grappling with the need to now blend their knowledge into a functioning synthesis. And even when sincerely motivated, one who is far from the internalized tenets that influence the artists one studies is hard-pressed to deliver authenticity.

This leads to a broader definition of funk: art characterized by a rich respect for the realities of one's community. In this light, any ethnic cooking, dance and rhyme from the street scene, yarn-bombing, graffiti, unselfconscious graphic art and painting, fully improvised music true to an unseen ethos, all these things may be termed funky. To amplify the previous rather dogmatic sentence, one can find an inspired fusion chef, a professional dancer who also lives within an indigenous form, sketchy but inspired oil-paintings, all funky, and funky because of their ability to communicate innate qualities that inspire feelings of wonder, beauty, understanding and empathy in the souls of their constituency.

So 21st Century funk may be said to contain elements of soul, and in a broader sense than the soul music of the mid 20th Century. As always, you've got to have soul to be funky, but in the 21st Century you're not required to be Black, or any given ethnicity: just be true to your roots. Also we see that the farther away one gets from the cradle of any given art form, the less likely one is to produce something funky. The over-processed commercial art that springs from the factories of the moneyed culture thieves laden with expensive production tools is seldom anything we would be inspired to call funky. We know "slick" when we see it, hear it, taste it, feel it.

Too smooth a product is not funky in an artistically positive sense, whether it's fast food, a mass-produced automobile, institutional art, or a lip-synced "live" show. That brings us to another use of the word funky, to describe something that is bad, without value or just not good. Human beings are complex, and we are able to hold multiple definitions of a word in our mind and determine from tone and context which of several meanings to choose. Funk and funkiness are ultimately in the mind of the beholder, and we can tell from someones tone whether something is funky good or funky bad. And at times "funky" is just a helper adjective as in "funky soulful," "funky earthy colors," a "funky hip hop derivative" dance form, or "that restaurant is funky -- no -- I mean their food is not good." Sometimes one has to clarify, because a negative becomes a positive when said with a smile and a wink.

In the context of the funk-now blog, we'll be discussing the ramifications of a widened positive definition of funk, asking some pointed questions, and recommending examples of the new funk. Hence the URL Pro, in favor of -- and funk, but redefined for the 21st Century. Hang on and enjoy the ride because, as avant-garde drummer Carmen Baraka says, "there is no destination, per se."