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How You Like Me Now?

Posted: Fri May 01, 2015 7:47 pm
by Mike McCarthy
What is funk? Well, for one thing it surely isn't dead.

Here's a funk piece from 2009 that was actually used in a TV commercial ...
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sVzvRsl4rEM
The group is named "The Heavy". This is a reference to the James Brown compilation album "Dead On The Heavy Funk", which contains the gem "Too Funky In Here" ...
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9AKF8Iupox4

Funk is like pornography. You can't define it but you know it when you hear it. Here's a James Brown piece that actually combines mildly risque lyrics and funk. Behold "The Spank, Part 2", recorded in 1978 ...
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hAGwSkOjRVs
We are taken to the bridge at 1:39. Now pay attention, 007, because Mister Brown is conducting the band with hand signals and spoken commands. He will hold them in the bridge groove just as long as he damn well pleases, till he has had his fill, which happens at 2:12 when he says "Get out".

Now we're back in the verse music, and here too he holds the band in it. At 2:44 it might be natural to warp off into the bridge structure again but he doesn't do that. Instead he says to the band "I like the way you say that, y'all. Say it again." Regrettably, the bass player has not been minding his store. At 2:56 he starts his part of the outro, but everybody else is still in the mainline. Brown holds the band in the groove till 3:05 when he says "Take me up", which puts us into the outro, satisfying the bass player's instincts. And now Brown holds the outro groove all the way through the fade. We don't know how long they actually played but it might have been several minutes.

What's the longest James Brown groove of all time? I haven't studied the matter but I suspect it's in the 1980 piece "Rapp Payback" ...
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nVnssxDH2NQ
in which the groove continues for just under five minutes, at which point Mister Brown tires of the groove and switches to the bridge at 4:49 which, in effect, is a whole 'nother song entirely. However, he switches back to the original groove at 6:49 during the fade. Only god and the recording engineer know how long they continued to play.

I find this piece difficult to listen to because I'm a rhythm guitarist and I have the utmost sympathy for poor Catfish Collins (I'm confident it's him even though he left the James Brown organization years earlier) whose non-stop complex scratch guitar work you hear on the right side of the stereo field. I don't hear a single mistake in that part. Furthermore, at the end of the song his playing is just as fresh and flawless as it is at the beginning. This takes not only skill but enormous strength in both hands.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is another example of why I never tried to turn professional. How could I ever hope to compete with the likes of Catfish Collins? Or scratch guitar originator Jimmy Nolen? ...
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9kIswurDJt4

[An aside ... In a private email our producer in residence Tom Werman reminded me that when we were teenagers in the late 50s I showed him how to play scratch guitar, it all being done with the right wrist, which has to be loose and which must never stop even during rests generated with the left hand, which is rhythmically pressing and releasing chords. I do remember that. I also remember showing him how to finger the guitar intro to, and the solo in, Buddy Holly's "That'll Be The Day". But I digress ...]

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Now ... Has it begun to dawn on you that maybe, just possibly, I like the music of James Brown? Let me tell you a story ...

My wife used to work for MCI in Colorado Springs. In fact, she was one of the early employees at that plant. From our house in Sedalia west of Castle Rock she drove fifty miles to work each way. Others came down from Denver, the trip for them being seventy miles each way depending on where they lived in the Denver Metro area.

There were four black women who ate together every day in the MCI cafeteria, all of them from Denver. My wife, as white as they come, decided one day to break the color barrier and join them. Well, they were just delighted, and she ate with them every day after that. Months later the subject of James Brown came up for whatever reason. She reported to her tablemates that I was a huge James Brown fan with an extensive collection of his album tapes.

One of the women then spoke up. "Tell your husband this" she said. "Tell him I'm Fred's aunt. He'll know exactly who I'm talking about. Tell him that Fred, Maceo and [my wife couldn't remember the third name] are still playing together. They call themselves [my wife couldn't remember the name of the group]. They live all over but fly in to concerts and recording sessions."

When she reported this conversation to me I said "the third name is Pee Wee, and the name of the group is the JB Horns". Here they are, ladies and gentlemen. From your left to your right I give you Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker and Pee Wee Ellis, playing at a 1993 jazz festival in Europe ..
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=afKUsnPlyc4
performing "Cold Sweat", they having been the players on the original recording twenty five years earlier, still together after all these years. The only difference is that now Pee Wee is playing baritone sax, the part played originally by Saint Claire Pinckney, who was musical director of the James Brown band back then, later succeeded in that role by Pee Wee. (Pinckney once summed up his job as the band's arranger as "From the bizarre to the guitar.")

If you watch the expression on Maceo's face as he solos you realize that he has no idea where on the planet he is. He's been transported by the music to another dimension just like any good jazz player. However, he knows exactly where he is in the piece, as you can see at 1:34 as his rising ladder of horn notes leads the JB Horns out of Improvisationland and back into the real world of the main "Cold Sweat" riff.

At 2:15 begins a series of good shots of someone playing a Hammond B3. In the old days it would have been Mister Brown himself at the Hammond. Hardly anyone realized it but Brown was ultimately a jazz player, one with very strange and beautiful ideas about harmony. A very slight hint of this can be gleaned from what is arguably his first funk recording, 1960's "The Dishrag", his band performing for contractual conflict reasons as "Nat Kendrick And The Swans". Here too is James Brown on the B3 ...
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_visCs08s-c
It's a blues riff but -- shades of things to come -- he holds it all the way through. Why spoil a good groove?

The piece closes with James Brown stopping the band by shouting "Hold it." That's the title of a James Brown number that a Columbia University frat band managed by our very own Tom Werman used as their theme song. Herewith, "Hold It" ...
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SgdhMo2lF2k
At Tom's request I sometimes filled in with that band variously on rhythm guitar and bass. I would not play again till 25 years later when I started Golden MIDI, and then only because I had to, not because I wanted to..

[An aside ... Here's an aspect of James Brown that you might never have known existed. It's funk in a way, but it's rooted directly in churchy gospel music. For your listening pleasure, "Oh Baby Don't You Weep", both parts ...
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jwJ7BcsHS5Q
That's Mister Brown on piano. The tonic note chord gives a hint of where his harmonic head is at, but the real James Brown harmony theorist comes out of its cocoon at 4:37 when Maceo begins to play. (I assume it's Maceo. The phrasing is certainly just like him, but the harmonic ideas are pure JB.)

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Believe it or not I'm headed someplace with all this. Maybe I'd better give you a guide map ...

Blues, gospel, jazz, funk, hip-hop, soul -- they're all different sides of the same musical die. Note, however, that I've deliberately left out rap. Why? Because it's degenerate filth. Do not (do not) confuse it with hip-hop, which is funky jazz.

If you were paying attention during my Jazz monologue you will remember Herbie Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island". Here's a funk/hip-hop rendition of that piece, US3's
"Cantaloop", aka "Flip Fantasia" ...
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JwBjhBL9G6U

Blacks aren't the only people who can do funk hip-hop lyrics. Here's MC 900 Foot Jesus with the amusing and sophisticated 1989 piece "Truth Is Out Of Style" ...
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8vgDpI8kU98
Classical music student Mark Griffin did three entire CD albums of stuff like this from his dorm room at UT Austin. Many years later he became a flight instructor and the arcs of our lives intersected on a flight simulation website. He sent actress Shirley Maclaine a rough mix of the audio and video for "Truth Is Out Of Style", asking her to agree to appear in it. She was so amused that she did it for free. My reading of her lips at 3:50 has her saying "I'm so right."