We Need a Holiday

Kara Walker, currently rocking the Whitney Museum, NYC, thru Jan 2008.


Rebirth Cycle
Third Street : 1977

Yebo: Mtume, piano, wooden flute, vocals; Bayete, elec. piano; Pete Cosey, guitar; Michael Henderson, bass; Al Foster, drums; Tawatha Agee, vocals.
Umoja: Mtume, arr.; Jimmy Heath, Azar Lawrence, John Stubblefield, reeds; Stanley Cowell, piano; Reggie Lucas, guitar; Leroy Jenkins, violin; Buster Williams and Cecil McBee, bass; Diedre Johnson, cello; Billy Hart and Andrei Strobert, drums; Onika, Carol Robinson, Tawatha Agee, Shirley Jenkins, vocals.

James Mtume has had an unusual career arc, one that mirrors a generation’s change in pop taste. The son of Jimmy Heath, nephew of Percy and Tootie, Mtume had jazz bred in the bone. The early seventies found him replacing Airto in the percussion chair for Miles’ legendary bands of the period, ending up with a song named in his honor (on Get Up with It), a significant milestone shared by John McLaughlin, Billy Preston, and Willie Nelson.

In February 1974, while Miles and company were holding forth at Keystone Korner in San Francisco, Mtume cut “Yebo” with the core band, later overdubbing vocals and other elements. Purists may bristle at the additions, but this is what the Davis band would have sounded like had Miles really wanted to make the charts.

To paraphrase George Clinton, who says a free jazz site can’t post funk? Given the avant credentials of the participants, you may be surprised that “Yebo” sounds like some crate-digging funk gem you’d score off Soul Sides. This sprightly, chugging bit of consciouness-raising also offers another welcome chance to hear Pete Cosey, along with enough sonic weirdness to keep things interesting. There would appear to be some uncredited reed work on this track, but the otherwise informative liner notes aren’t much help.

The album as a whole is heavily influenced by African culture, and this influence is heard most clearly on the sweeping “Umoja,” which keeps a post-Coltrane roil brewing under nasalized chanting and ululations. Expansive without really moving very far, it reads as an utterly committed attempt to reach across ocean and time to connect with African forebears and forms.

Following this album, Mtume would lend his name to a funk group that scored a hit later in the decade with “Juicy Fruit,” notably sampled by Notorious B.I.G. Mtume and Reggie Lucas became successful pop songwriters and producers, penning the Grammy-winning “Never Knew Love Like this Before” for Stephanie Mills. Lucas for his part went on to write and produce “Borderline” for a certain pop starlet. Mtume now co-hosts a call-in show on Sundays on New York’s KISS-97.

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FUNK US: We’re curious – what are some of your favorite instances of avant jazz players participating in killer funky tracks? And have there been more strange careers like Mtume where out players crossed into the mainstream commercial market?

Category Mtume

19 Responses to We Need a Holiday

  1. It’s not funk, but Agustí Fernandez (http://www.agustifernandez.com/) played in some of the albums of Argentinian/Catalan rumba superstar Gato Perez (http://vespito.net/gato/). He did play in some killer tunes, although this period of his life is conspicuously absent from the biography on his website.
    You can listen to his playing in this context here: http://davidssb.googlepages.com/elventilador.mp3

  2. Analysis of Mtume’s compositional skills tends to focus on the Madonna connection but he’s also crafted some memorable charts that’ve been honored by his fellow players. “Sais”, REBIRTH CYCLE’s side-long excursion, was covered by both Sonny Rollins and Lonnie Liston Smith. All are fairly distinctive efforts, although Leroy Jenkins’ haunting solo on Mtume’s original elevates this version to the top of my list. I recall that Buddy Terry also recorded a worthy take of Mtume’s “Kamili” on his AWARENESS lp.

    Another “out” player that crossed over into the commercial mainstream is Norman Connors, who played on Pharoah’s early Impulse! dates, then gradually moved away from deep spiritual jazz (DANCE OF MAGIC, DARK OF LIGHT) towards a very smooth, commercially-viable brand of R&B. Not exactly uncommon for the era, I suppose, given the eventual dilution of jazz-funk.

    What about Paul Buckmaster? His Chitinous Ensemble clearly influenced Miles’ ON THE CORNER sessions, yet at the same time Buckmaster was arranging strings for Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.”

    Oh, and some less-quoted examples of killer avant funk could include Green Line’s “Melvin” (w/ Steve Marcus, Miroslav, Sharrock and Humair) or Kalaparusha’s “Jay” from the Wildflowers compilation. Shakin’ the lofts, yup.

  3. Don Cherry’s Brown Rice has some killer funk as well as some great acoustic Ornette-y stuff. The fantabulous Doklands blog recently posted one of the funk tracks.

    “Bad Mouth,” the latest by Kip Hanrahan’s Ishmael Reed project Conjure, some great funk tunes with people like David Murray and Billy Bang (I love the 1st Conjure album, which has a couple attempts at funk, but, sorry, I don’t think Billy Hart is funky. I’ve never heard the 2nd one).

    And I’ve long felt, for what it’s worth, that Bush Baby from Arthur Blythe’s Illusion’s album was obvious fodder for hip-hop sampling, even though I suppose it’s not exactly what you’re looking for, since it has no vocals, but yes tuba and 6/4 groove.

    Anyway… Azar Lawrence (above)!!! He’s been playing a lot at the World Stage lately, and I’ve been meaning to make it, but I did catch him a few weeks ago at the Watts Towers Festival with Michael Sessions and the Pan-African People’s Arkestra (formerly under the baton of one Horace Tapscott), and ohmygodohmygodohmygod it was just about the most joyfully swinging shit I’ve ever heard.

  4. godoggo — that’s great to hear about Azar Lawrence; sounds like a phenomenal gig. And re Hanrahan: it’s funny you mention him, as I’ve been trawling eMusic this week looking for whatever tidbits I could find — just one of those odd, uncontrollable nostalgia kicks — and voila: Conjure.

  5. What about Gato Barbieri?

    The strangest transition, really: from a late coltrane ‘Impulse’ sound, to full on hairy chest medallion CTI smoothness in less than a decade. I kind of hear his Pharoah Sanders tone in a lot of smooth jazz tenor players, even if nothing else owes much to Pharoah.

    Been listening ot Live in New York Chapter 4 by him recently, and it captures the transition point nicely. Opening track has poems in spanish over free form percussion, last track is a smooth bossa with twinkly rhodes


  6. to my mind “warriors dance – little don” by don pullen, chico freeman, fred hopkins and bobby battle is just about as 50-50 free/funk as you can get (although it’s the jazzier end of the funk leg). zbigniew namizlowski put out some free prog funk on muza. also anatoly vapirov’s leningrad jazz ensemble (eponymous) did some sci-fi inflected jazz funk with some girl-in-a-reverb-chamber vocals to add to the madness.

  7. I’m partial to Roscoe Mitchell’s “You Wastin’ My Tyme,” from the Black Saint LP “Roscoe Mitchell and the Sound and Space Ensembles” (1984). Super-funky bass saxophone from Mitchell and contrabass sarrusophone from Gerald Oshita. Not really a crossover tune, though, so maybe not what you seek.

  8. Ummm, there’s a tympani break in the middle the Paul Whiteman tune “There Ain’t No Sweet Man…” that sounds like it is straight out of a De La Soul tune.. oops my time-machine was set in reverse.
    I can’t think of anyone who crossed over like Mtume but a lot of folks crossed the other way (from pop to free…like Lester Bowie).
    Speaking of AACM, plenty of great funk tunes in the recordings of AECO.
    Sun Ra “Perfect Man” from the Singles..woooh..so funky.
    Defunkt, led by Joseph Bowie, was like half-way famous for a minute and really funky
    and James Chance was sort of funky when covering James Brown and sort of famous.
    Derek Bailey with Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Calvin Weston whoah..don’t know why this didn’t soar to the top of the charts.
    Jamaaladeen’s 80’s solo records are funky and weird and more popular than most weird music but that’s not saying much.
    Oh, Material…Bill Laswell’s deal…has some really funky stuff with lots of free players, Threadgill did some really tweaked arranging of some horn parts on “Cosmic Slop”, a pfunk tune on one of their records.

    When I first read the question my first thought was “why not Parliament-Funkadelic or are they not free enough?” I am (not so) secretly addicted to Booty’s Rubber Band

  9. Well, for the avant-to-mersh transition, there’s Vernon Reid.

    I love Bootsy, and whenever anybody mentions him, I always (you can look it up!) note that he did a tune with Carla Bley on the old Night Music show.

  10. Supposedly Lester Bowie is on some of (his wife) Fontella Bass’ soul records… and arranged, I believe, too. Haven’t heard those ‘cept Rescue Me.

    ca. 1981 I saw “James White and the Blacks” which was really James Chance backed by Defunkt, and it was killer. I remember wishing the front man would shut the fuck up and just let Joe and his crew take it.

    Material’s “Memory Serves” is one of my favorite records from the early 1980s. As is “Are You Glad To Be In America?” by James Blood Ulmer. Surprised he’s not mentioned yet in this thread, or did I miss it?

  11. Frank Lowe – “Chu’s Blues” from “Fresh” (1974). Or AEoC’s “Theme De Yoyo” from “Les Stances a Sophie” (1970).

  12. Speaking of Vernon Reid, Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Calvin Weston: the three of them together are on a new cd coming out from Thirsty Ear called free form funky frÄ?qs which is sort of up this alley.
    The label has lots of interesting pair-ups of hip-hop and free jazzers and what not. I still have no idea why it hasn’t reached the top of the pops yet.

  13. Joe McPhee’s “Snakey Jake,” of course.

    And the two Bayete Todd Cochran albums. His playing on those, esp his second album is waaay more squonked than those tinkly keys on “Yebo.” But it’s still a cool surprise to see him on the same track as the 74-75 Miles band.

  14. How about Carlos Ward – one of the original members of BT Express. “Do it, do it, do it til you’re satisfied!”

  15. btw — the “Willie Nelson” Miles named his tune after was a country music singer – songwriter, not the presidential candidate.

  16. Two somewhat obscure records, re-born in the digital age:

    1) The Philadelphia-based group Catalyst, led by tenor Odean Pope released four excellent Jazz-Funk releases in the early 70s on the 32 Jazz label. These have been re-issued on the compilation CD “the Funkiest Band You Never Heard. A couple clunkers in the bunch but fantasic stuff! Available through Amazon

    2) Love Animal, drummer Bob Moses answer to the jazz-rock mashups of 1968-1970

  17. The Strata-East and Black Jazz catalogs seemed to stride that line and blur it often. Right now I’m listening to Big Black’s Elements of Now Lp on Uni and it has some seriously funky bits. Oneness of JuJu’s post Strata-East material is a mix of almost commercial sounding funk with definite out tendencies. Also the Human Arts Ensemble material I’ve heard is awesome heavy swinging avant funk. Particularly the Luther Thomas and HAE reissue on Atavistic, Funky Donkey. I also have an Lp fro ’81 on Muse called P’nk J’zz by Charles “Bobo” Shaw and the HAE that has a similar funk happening.

  18. How about World Saxophone Quartet? Funky in their DNA, I believe, but especially on the Rhythm & Blues album–cf “For the Love of Money” (and even funkier in live performance.

    [oddly enough I was reminded of this by the anti-spam-requirement word, which was “Bluiett”]

    Also will note that I once saw Lester Bowie explain the the Art Ensemble of Chicago grew out of weekly jam sessions that also spawned … Earth Wind & Fire.

    Has anyone discussed Miles in this vein?