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Classic albums: Jazz Funk

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Jazz Funk was my initiation in to the delights of Jazz. I listened to the likes of Herbie Hancock, Grover Washington Jr, Lonnie Liston Smith and the Crusaders, before that my exposure to Jazz was Acker Bilk and Kenny Ball.

Fusing James Brown and Sly Stone’s Funk with the musicianship of Jazz, Donald Byrd’s ‘Black Byrd’ and Herbie Hancock ‘Headhunters’ blew us away.  Fresh and vibrant, Jazz Funk sounded like no Jazz I had ever heard.

Soon after I bought my first Jazz album; it was Grover Washington Jr’s ‘Mister Magic’.  It remains a personal favourite, having gone through several vinyl copies and a couple of CDs along the way. Grover’s playing is just so soulful especially his rich tenor sax on ‘Black Frost’.

Vibraphonist Roy Ayers and his backing group Ubiquity added another dimension with tracks/albums like ‘Everybody Loves the Sunshine’ and ‘Mystic Voyage’ and a flood of innovative sets such ‘You Send Me’, ‘He’s Coming’, ‘Vibrations’ and ‘Change Up The Groove’.  UK based Jazz Funk fans have always held Roy Ayers in high regard and with particular affection.

Creatively, Jazz Funk was at its peak in the seventies when artists such as Ronnie Laws (‘Pressure Sensitive’ and ‘Fever’) George Benson (‘Breezin’, ‘Bad Benson’ and ‘In Flight’) and Patrice Rushen (‘Shout It Out’) released most of their best work.

Labels like CTI/ Kudu thrived on quality Fusion signing stars like Freddie Hubbard and Stanley Turrentine and developing others like Grover, George Benson, Deodato and Bob James.  Labels such as Blue Note released some great albums like Donald Byrd’s ‘Places And Spaces’ and the aforementioned ‘Black Byrd’, but struggled to be consistent as the traditional ‘Blue Note sound’ was at odds (at the time) with the new funkier and more commercial sound.

Other specialist labels like Groove Merchant/ LRC, Tappan Zee and GRP sprung up to capitalise on this phenomena.  Major labels like Columbia, Polydor, Mercury and Warner Brothers jumped on the band wagon too.

It was at Warners that guitarist George Benson recorded ‘Breezin’.  The album sold millions and appealed to an audience way beyond Jazz.  It was the first Jazz album to go platinum in the USA  ‘Breezin’ stayed at the top of the Jazz charts for months and months and became one of the fore runners for what became known as Smooth Jazz.

Artists more closely associated with straight-ahead Jazz from the sixties and before began to record Jazz Funk tunes with varying degrees of success.  Soul Brother Records issued a great compilation of some of the strongest tracks on ‘Fusion with Attitude’ that combined underground Fusion artists with recordings from ‘straight-head’ performers.

Listening to these classic albums after thirty or more years, the music still sounds vibrant and contemporary.  Check Lonnie Liston Smith’s Expansions with its spacey vocal, deep running acoustic bass and lush percussive backdrop.

Some of those albums that frequent my CD player with regularity are highlighted below and these albums remain as good a starting point as any to explore Jazz Funk or Fusion as it is also known.