Archives for posts with tag: Michael Jackson

Playlist: The Autobiography of Quincy Jones, Quincy Jones (Doubleday, 2001)

Having recently read this account of producer Quincy Jones, a.k.a. ‘Q’s life, I’m inspired to assemble a playlist from his far-reaching and remarkable career. Taken from moments that struck me in the book as particularly germane to his becoming a living legend, the playlist covers influences, legacy recordings, and turning points that slingshotted him further and further into the straosphere of jazz and pop music.

The book itself is a quick read, especially for those like me who are jazz history wonks. Jones has worked, it seems, with nearly everyone to make a mark on jazz music and has set the stage for countless pop sensations, notably Michael Jackson. Jones writes about his humble beginnings, his brother Lloyd, his beloved father, and the troubling mental health saga that plagued his relationship with his mother. Various chapters are also contributed by guest writers and offer insights into his life story from those that see him differently than he does himself.

The book is a few years old but I found it timely and a fitting complement to the “Quincy” documentary currently streaming on Netflix (2018). Jones turns 86 on March 14, 2019.

My Quincy Jones Playlist

Listen on Spotify

[Jones’ credits: PD-Producer, CP-Composer, AR-Arranger]

“Fly me to the moon,” Frank Sinatra with the Count Basie Orchestra, 1965 [AR] // Jones had idolised and met Basie at the age of 13; they enjoyed a long professional and personal friendship.

“What I’d Say,” Ray Charles, 1959 // Charles was one of the first musicians that inspired Jones; they were 16 and 14 respectively when they first met.

“Kingfish,” Lionel Hampton, 1951 [CP] // Written by Jones at the age of 18; He joined Hampton’s band around this time, which was one of the hottest big bands of the time.

“Wail Bait,” Clifford Brown, 1954 [CP] // Jones toured Europe with Clifford Brown while they were both part of Lionel Hampton’s band; Brown included this Jones composition on his first album.

“L’il Darlin’,” Count Basie, Composed and Arranged by Neal Hefti, 1957 // Hefti wrote and arranged this number for Count Basie; Jones states that it was a master class of “in-the-pocket tempo,” and served as a lesson that stayed with him all through his life.

“My Old Flame,” Dinah Washington from the album, For Those in Love, 1955 [AR] // The first album Jones did with Dinah Washington, who had advocated for him with her record label before he gained widespread notoriety as an arranger.

“I Can’t Stop Loving You,” Count Basie, 1963 [AR] // This recording earned Jones his first Grammy award.

“Firebird Suite,” Igor Stravinsky, 1910 // Jones has a second-degree connection to Stravinsky, via his tutelage by the great French teacher, Nadia Boulanger; Boulanger was a contemporary and friend of Stravinsky’s and was a teacher to many modern arrangers, including Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, and Michel Legrand; Jones had gone to Paris in part to work on arranging strings, an opportunity not afforded to black musicians in America.

“The Birth of a Band,” Quincy Jones, 1959 [CP] // Jones toured intensely through Europe with his own band and created this album around the same time period; The tour was a financial drain and lead to more commercial priorities for Jones upon his return to the USA.

“It’s My Party,” Leslie Gore, 1963 [PD] // Jones’ first hit as a Producer and of a pop song.

“Theme from ‘The Pawnbroker’,” Quincy Jones, 1965 [CP, AR] // Jones’ first major film score.

“Theme from ‘Ironside’,” Quincy Jones, 1967 [CP, AR] // The synthesizer used in the opening phrase was the first time the instrument was used for a TV score; In this period of his life, Jones was in demand for scoring but was simultaneously leading Frank Sinatra’s band at his residency at The Sands in Las Vegas.

“Walking in Space,” Quincy Jones, 1969 [CP, PD] // Shifting away from scoring and moving back toward Jazz, Jones recorded this early jazz fusion album. This was a year prior to Miles Davis‘ release of Bitches Brew, often said to mark the arrival of electric instrumentation in jazz music.

“Body Heat,” Quincy Jones, 1974 [CP, AR, PD] // Jones assembled a remarkable group of musicians for this steamy R&B/Jazz/Funk recording including Herbie Hancock, Hubert Laws, Bob James, and vocalist Leon Ware; The album was near-platinum, selling over 800,000 copies.

“Stomp!” The Brothers Johnson, 1980 [PD] // Jones produced all four multi-platinum albums by The Brothers Johnson; This song was co-written by Rod Temperton, a collaborator that would work with Jones and pen many of Michael Jackson’s monster hits, including “Rock with You” and “Thriller.”

“The Girl Is Mine,” Michael Jackson feat. Paul McCartney, 1982 [PD] // The first single from Thriller was a “red herring” according to Jones who worked with the team finishing the album while this track rose to Number 2 on Billboard’s Hot 100; Once released, the album and monster hits like “Billy Jean” and “Beat It” ‘inhaled the charts,’ writes Jones.

“We Are the World,” USA for Africa, 1985 [PD] // Jones’ account of this project and the now iconic recording session is a fun read.

“Beautiful Black Girl,” Quincy Jones, 1975 [PD, AR, CP] // This track from Jones’ Mellow Madness album featured spoken verse overtop beats and was a precursor to hip-hop. The rap on this track is courtesy of The Watts Prophets;  Q has often remarked that his generation and their fascination with be-bop is echoed in today’s hip-hop culture. The difference, he writes, is that hip-hop made it to the mainstream.

“Give Me the Night,” George Benson, 1980 [PD] // The only album Jones produced for Benson garnered three Grammy awards. The title track, which topped both R&B and Jazz charts was written by Rod Temperton. 

“Back on the Block,” Quincy Jones, 1989 [PD] // Jones won yet more Grammy’s, including Album of the Year, for this fantastic project that brought together masters of jazz and a newer generation of hip-hop artists. The album included a re-imagined version of Weather Report’s Birdland and featured its composer and Miles Davis protegee, Joseph Zawinul. Other greats like Ray Charles, Chaka Khan, George Benson and Miles himself also appeared on the album. 

“The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince, 1992 [CP] // By this time, Jones had diversified into print media (Vibe Magazine) and numerous projects under his Qwest production banner. This foray into television was tremendously successful and, like many things Jones touched, made an indelible mark on pop culture.

“How Do You Want It,” 2Pac, 1996 // Tupac Shakur happened to date one of Jones’ daughters for a time. This track samples the title track from Jones’ Body Heat album and was released not long before Tupac’s murder.

“Setembro,” Quincy Jones, 1989 [PD] // This was the last recording by Sarah Vaughan; Jones has outlived many of his contemporaries and mentors; He was at Sinatra’s bedside in his final days and with Vaughan, who wanted to sing to the last.

 

Link to this playlist on Spotify

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2014 in Review: New, New to Me, and Those We Lost

A year ago, I was rife with anticipation for the music 2014 would bring. A new Incognito album was due and several new artists were on the verge of debuting new albums. In retrospect, 2014 delivered on its promise but not for all the reasons I thought.

image058-250x250 Citrus-sun-albumIncognito did release Amplified Soul (Shanachie) in May. It was the strong and consistent album I knew it would be. The first (pleasant) surprise of the year came before that in March with the release of People of Tomorrow (Dome Records) by Citrus Sun, an instrumental project led by Incognito leader Jean-Paul Bluey Maunick.

Screen Shot 2014-06-02 at 11.05.25 PM dim_division_3More new music kept coming from sources that were not typically in my musical wheelhouse. Of these, I’d say Mark de Clive Lowe’s Church (Ropeadope, 2014) was the sweetest find. Miguel Migs’ Dim Division (Soul Heaven Records, 2014) comes a close second.

On the downside, two highly anticipated albums were lacklustre in my regard. Zara McFarlane’s If You Knew Her (Brownswood, 2014) and Jose James’ While You Were Sleeping (Blue Note, 2014) had moments of strength but I wasn’t able to connect with the albums on the whole, unlike previous releases from these artists.

Finally, 2014 had its disappointments, mostly because of what it didn’t bring:

  • I’m still eagerly awaiting KING’s full length album. A single release was all they could muster this year but their website indicates the album, We Are KING Music is set to drop (no telling when).
  • Ady Suleiman was a singular talent brought to light by Gilles Peterson in 2012/13. Although he continues to record and share tracks via social media, it’s not clear if an album is in the works. His SoundCloud page is definitely worth a listen.
  • The buzz on Q-Tip’s new project, The Last Zulu, rose and then faded. It’s not clear how real this album is or when it will finally drop.

Favourite Albums:

  1. Mark de Clive Lowe, Church
  2. Lion Babe, Lion Babe EP
  3. Incognito, Amplified Soul
  4. Miguel Migs, Dim Division
  5. Citrus Sun, People of Tomorrow
  6. Sonzeira, Brasil Bam Bam Bam
  7. Lone, Reality Testing
  8. Michael Jackson, XScape
  9. D’Angelo and the Vanguard, Black Messiah
  10. Bobby Hutcherson, Enjoy the View

Tracks

  • Blum “You’ll always be in my heart (Omega Edit)” – Heard on Jason Palma’s excellent radio program, Higher Ground (ciut.fm, Thursdays 8pm ET). Amazing re-work of a Sarah Vaughan track.
  • Lion Babe, “Jump High feat. Childish Gambino”- One of four outstanding tracks on the self-titled EP released in December.
  • KING, “Mr. Chamaeleon” – A single track from this talented trio is better than no new music but fans continue to pine for a full album.

New to Me: Rediscovered

Untitled-3.inddMarvin Gaye & the Mizell Brothers 

Two tracks from recording sessions that until recently were hidden away in Motown’s vaults are perhaps the best recorded music to be released in the last decade. Combining Mizell production with Gaye’s easy-going vocals is nothing short of alchemy. It’s too bad this partnership wasn’t allowed to flourish under the Motown Records leadership of the day. “Woman of the World” and “Where Are We Going” are must-haves for soul and jazz afficianados.

stevie-wonder-songs-in-the-key-of-live-2014-tour-600x400Songs in the Key of Life

This classic Stevie Wonder album had gone unnoticed by me until this year. Smash hits aside, the album is a strong end-to-end opus and was perfectly featured in Wonder’s recent live tour. I was fortunate enough to catch him in Toronto in November. This album is now firmly on my desert island list.

Notable Passings

  • Idris Muhammad – A drummer with remarkable range, from work with Ahmad Jamal, Pharoah Sanders, and even Ernie Ranglin
  • Charlie Haden – Contrabassist with jazz credentials ranging from John Coltrane to Keith Jarrett and Ornette Coleman
  • Bobby Womack – One of the most recognizable voices in soul music. He had been enjoying a resurgence of sorts recently with the release of The Bravest Man in the Universe (XL Recordings, 2012)
  • Ronny Jordan – A particularly poignant loss for me because Jordan was one of the first artists I discovered who bridged jazz, funk, and hip-hop. This musical space has dominated my listening for the better part of two decades and Jordan’s guitar jazz hold’s a special place for this reason.
ronny-jordan

Ronny Jordan (1962-2014)

 

Concert Review: Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life: The Performance (Toronto, Air Canada Centre, November 25 2014)

stevie-wonder-songs-in-the-key-of-live-2014-tour-600x400

Stevie Wonder is one of those musicians who is prone to being taken for granted. He has been around long enough to be a household name across three generations of music lovers and he is still performing.

Wonder’s concert on Tuesday night in Toronto was a stirring reminder that he and his body of work are so much more than a familiar background. It was especially fitting that he chose to perform his 1976 masterpiece, Songs in the Key of Life (Motown) for this 11 city tour. Songs is one of the most celebrated albums in pop music, voted to the top of numerous lists, including Grammy for album of the year in 1977 against now legendary competition like George Benson’s Breezin (Warner Bros., 1976), Bozz Scagg’s Silk Degrees (Columbia, 1976), and the rock classic Frampton Comes Alive! (A&M, 1976).

With this tour, Wonder brings this work to new life in the vibrancy of a live show. This is where Wonder’s currency hits home. He is, above all, a great songwriter and musician. This show proved it all over again.

Wonder performed the entirety of the album, mostly in order, including the four extra tracks on the special edition of the album. The concert’s run time was 3 hours including a short intermission and an encore.

Aside from the songs themselves, the performances of Wonder and his collaborators made this a simply excellent show. Wonder’s energy and power never waned, despite a slight hoarseness in his speaking voice when addressing the audience between songs. Original session musicians from Songs, Greg Phillinganes (keyboards) and Nathan Watts (bass guitar), were among the 30+ musicians sharing the stage, including an 8-piece string section sourced locally in Toronto, a 6 piece horn section, 6 back-up singers, 2 drummers, and 2 percussionists.

Wonder’s special guest for the tour is vocalist India.Arie, who complemented Wonder on several duets. More remarkable, however, was Keith John, one of the back-up singers who engaged in an impressive ad lib call-and-response with Wonder at the end of “Knocks Me Off My Feet.” John, who is 1950’s Motown singer Little Willie John’s son, has a voice like Wonder’s that offered a seamless boost to some of the most acrobatic vocal passages of the night, including the layered climax of “As.”

Other memorable moments of the night:

  • Three of the back-up singers, including Aisha Morris (Wonder’s daughter and muse of “Isn’t She Lovely”) took turns belting out the hard hitting coda of “Ordinary Pain.”
  • “Ngiculela-Es Una Historia-I Am Singing” featured a playful sing-a-long with the audience and a mezmorizing harpejji solo (zither-like instrument Wonder started playing 2-3 years ago) blended with a few phrases of Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel.”
  • Wonder challenged members of the string section to an impromptu jam. He proceeded to play a few phrases and was responded to in kind by the first violinist who echoed them on his instrument.
  • The encore was a medley of hits from other albums. Wonder chose to adopt a tongue-in-cheek hip-hop persona, dubbed DJ Tick Tick Boom, as the emcee of the proceedings. The segment was hammed up enough to distance itself from the solemnity of the Songs performance but done in a way that allowed the audience to hear some other favourites.

Like many others, I’ve always recognized Stevie Wonder as a “living legend.” But at some point during the show, ‘knowing’ this as a matter of common knowledge paled in comparison to bearing witness. Now I really get it.

SET LIST (from setlist.fm):

  1. Love’s in Need of Love Today
  2. Have a Talk With God
  3. Village Ghetto Land
  4. Contusion
  5. Sir Duke
  6. I Wish
  7. Knocks Me Off My Feet w/Fever
  8. Pastime Paradise
  9. Summer Soft
  10. Ordinary Pain
  11. Saturn
  12. Ebony Eyes
  13. Isn’t She Lovely
  14. Joy Inside My Tears
  15. Black Man
  16. All Day Sucker
  17. Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call)
  18. Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing / The Way You Make Me Feel
  19. If It’s Magic
  20. As
  21. Another Star

ENCORE: DJ Tick Tick Boom (AKA Wonder) plays recorded snippets of various hits

  1. Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing
  2. I Just Called To Say I Love You
  3. Master Blaster (Jammin’)
  4. Do I Do
  5. For Once in My Life
  6. Superstition

 

Album Review: XScape (Deluxe), Michael Jackson (MJJ Productions, 2014)

michael-jackson-xscape Michael Jackson is the exception to my musical mantra, “great music lives on the margins.” The King of Pop is dead centre mainstream, as far from the margins as can be. And he’s great.

This second posthumous album of previously unreleased material was compiled by L.A. Reid of Epic Records. It’s hard to question the authenticity of the first posthumous release, Michael (MJJ Productions, 2010). It came only a year after his death and has some fine material like the breezy love song, “(I Like) The Way that you Love Me.” But news of a second release came across, at least to me, as a desperate raiding of unreleased recordings that the artist chose not to share with his audience.

Happily, XScape is worthy of Jackson’s catalogue. Most of the songs date back to the 1990’s, from sessions recorded for his Invincible (1991, MJJ Productions) and Dangerous (2001, MJJ Productions) albums. A couple date back to the eighties, including the Paul Anka penned hit, “Love Never Felt So Good,” originally released by Johnny Mathis in 1984. Jackson’s version will surely be a hit as the summer of 2014 unfolds.

In the category of #TotallyUnnecessary, a duet version of “Love Never Felt So Good” with Justin Timberlake adds very little to the album. As fine a showman as Timberlake is, MJ doesn’t need help.

The Jackson originals are all great selections. The production team, lead by Timbaland, used an even hand in giving the tracks a contemporary edginess while letting Jackson’s style ground the entire project. The Deluxe version is worth the upgrade, if only to hear the originals in their raw form. I prefer the original version of “A Place with No Name” to the amped up album version with treatment from Norwegian production team Stargate.

Michael Jackson is one of those artists whose loss is more enduring than others. XScape ably satisfies a jonesing that pop music lovers have had since his untimely death.

 

 

Feature: ‘Virtual Bands’ 

This video intrigues me. It features some of my favourite musicians recently playing alongside an original Marvin Gaye vocal track.

This post is about that ‘virtual band’ concept and how we might take it in. Is it a loving homage, merely derivative, or just good music?

The earliest instance of this phenomenon I can remember is the video for “Unforgettable…with Love,” (Elektra, 1991) featuring Natalie Cole alongside archival footage of her father, Nat King Cole. At the time, it struck me as a brazen attempt to trade on her father’s name and reboot her struggling pop career. It worked. The album went 7x platinum. As uneasy as the I was with the means, the recording was tasteful and the overall effect of the video, heartwarming.

Fast forward to the 2012 London Olympics closing ceremony where we saw John Lennon duet with a children’s choir on “Imagine” and Freddie Mercury entrance nearly a billion TV viewers in a call-and-response routine filmed more than a quarter century earlier.

Today’s technology makes nearly anything possible. Why remix when you can reanimate? But as with any new technology, once it matures, its application becomes more relevant than its technical wonder.

Why remix when you can reanimate?

This brings me back to the Marvin Gaye All Stars, recorded under the auspices of Italian national radio, RAI. The architect of the session was Alessio Bertallot, a broadcaster, musician, and host of RaiTunes, airing weeknights on RAI Radio2 (incidentally, Bertallot is a fine radio programmer…I recommend his podcasts).

Assembling high calibre musicians like Jean-Paul ‘Bluey’ Maunick of Incognito and Thundercat (a.k.a. Stephen Bruner) is a good start if you value quality over the technical trickery of bringing Marvin Gaye back to life. The accompaniment on the recording is laid back and respectful of the vocal track, but is set in a jazz-funk arrangement that gives the song contemporary lustre. Jason Lindner on the Rhodes is my new keyboard hero.

Another example from the RaiTunes archive is Billy Jean’s All Stars, featuring Maunick on guitar, Marcus Miller on bass,  jazz fusion great, Billy Cobham on drums, and of course, Michael Jackson on vocals.

Again, the treatment is tasteful, blends with Jackson’s vocal track, and gives the song an entirely different vibe from the original version.

Alessio Bertallot on ‘Play’

I asked Bertallot what gave rise to the ‘virtual band’ series. He responded that mixing genres, live performances, and recordings is a means to “open minds and boundaries.” Indeed, RaiTunes’ collection of videos on Bertallot’s youtube channel are an eclectic mix of musicians, spoken word, and even visual artists interplaying with the radio medium.

On the subject of reusing classic vocal tracks, Bertallot cited an exchange he had with Bruner, a critically acclaimed musician and none other than Erykah Badu’s bassist. Bruner recounted “sitting in his bedroom, as a teenager, for hours and hours trying to play along with Marvin Gaye’s voice.” This very humble account of a kid trying to master his instrument has the kernel of what makes these virtual bands more about ‘play’ than anything else.

Bertallot explains, “In Italian we have two different words [for ‘play’]: one is suonare, which means play music. The other one is giocare, which is what children do. I prefer the English and French way of having just one word for both meanings: musicians must keep innocence and spontaneity.”

Re-watching the Marvin Gaye All Stars video, I see what he means. Four ‘kids’ with their instruments, playing along with a legendary voice from the past, just for fun. Ecco la musica gioiosa!

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Feature: Disco – the rumours of its death are greatly exaggerated

Those of us old enough to remember the late 1970s witnessed a mass and abrupt rejection of disco as that decade closed out. The public’s about-face was so swift that the music was erased from our conciousness. Unlike the more resilient psychadelic rock and heavy metal from the 60s and early 70s, disco truly was dead, just as the t-shirt announced.

Thirty years later, I can appreciate disco’s lasting impact. The hi-hat dominated rhythm tracks, the squelchy guitar lines, the strong female vocals, and the orchestral strings are once again markers of coolness in today’s carefully curated underground DJ mixes.

Where did disco come from?

Several credit the partnership of Italian producer Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer as the beginning of disco. Summer’s Love to Love You and I Feel Love are trancy an innovative departures from the folk-based love tunes of that era and introduced electric instruments in a much bigger way than pop music had seen.

Although Summer reached #1 with Love to Love You in 1975, there were several examples of earlier tunes with the disco sound, including 1972’s One Night Affair by Jerry Butler and Rock the Boat by the Hue’s Corporation a year later.

Arguably, the context of where the sound was heard was as important as the musicians that created it. The alternative nightclub scenes in Philadelphia and New York gave this music a space. These were not mainstream but would later evolve into the discotheques that would explode in popularity in the mid- to late 70s.

Disco was good, then some of it was bad, then it just became pop

To me, disco was at its best when it was grounded in funk and soul. And much of that era’s music is just that. KC and the Sunshine Band, Chic, MFSB and, The Jackson 5 all featured substantial songwriting with a musician’s pedigree. These qualities underpinned the disco treatment in songs like KC’s Boogie Shoes, MFSB’s The Sound of Philadelphia, and Chic’s Good Times.

Later in the 70s, with the advancement of electronic instruments and sequencers, disco got lazy. Acts like the Village People created anthems with the disco sound that was more a product of engineering and marketing than musicianship and songwriting. Some of the sparse internet reading I found on this was at www.scaruffi.com.

With disco’s death knell, the muscians and producers that lived and breathed it in the 70s moved on to pop music in the 80s. Nile Rodgers of Chic, Michael Jackson, and others transformed themselves into the kings of pop and would even outlast the next niche genre on the horizon: new wave.

Without disco, we would not have house

As disco transitioned to the mainstream in the late 70s, the underground movement that spawned it was already infatuated with something new: Garage music. Developed to a large extent in the Chicago and New York underground club scenes, Garage or Warehouse music borrowed from the melodies and vocal stylings of disco but backed it up with heavy, driving beats. DJs like Frankie Knuckles, Larry Levan, and Joey Negro were behind some of the hits and popular acts of that era and can be viewed as the forefathers of the modern club DJ.

As garage and warehouse eventually morphed into the more popular “house” music, the underground came above ground. One of the milestones of this mainstreaming of house music was the massive hit, West End Girls, by the Pet Shop Boys. A testament to disco’s influence, one of the Boys himself, Neil Tennant, is quoted as saying he used “Barry White chords” in the composition.

Where is disco today?

Simply put, the disco sound is peppered through pop music and continues to inspire dance, electronic, and house music. In particular, anthem pop acts like Lady GaGa, Rihanna, and Justin Bieber employ bold electronic arrangements that were innovated more than 30 years ago by disco producers like Moroder.

Outside of the mainstream (where great music lives), the selections of today’s hot DJs in the rare groove and jazz/funk genres are starting to feature hits from our disco days. Underground producer KON, recently released fresh and stunning re-works of the Bee Gees Staying Alive and Cerrone’s Hooked on You.

But for me, the find of the year and one of the main reasons I was inspired to write this post was an original by Pete Dunaway from 1974, courtesy of the Sport of Selection website (home of the Friday Night Session radio program). The track, Supermarket has generous string and flute arrangements that place it squarely in the 70s. But the rhythm track, raw and naturalistic vocals, and structure of the song allow it to stand up against the hippest releases from today’s underground scene.