CD Reviews

Special CD Review: Blue Note’s Blue Breakbeats

By Brian L. Knight

Over the years, jazz and funk consistently blended in and out of each other. The two music forms have maintained a mutually beneficial relationship in which the common denominator was a cool groove. As the American music headed into the 1990s, these two forms slowly blended into modern Hip-Hop. The most obvious indicator of this transformation is the modern music’s tendency to sample older tunes. The cool groove of the jazz and funk eras had an obvious home in the world of hip-hop.

In his aptly titled book, Funk, Rickey Vincent discusses the relationship between funk and jazz: "With the collective improvisation (that is, long jam sessions), the rhythmic interplay and spiritual orientation to creativity, the Funk exists as an organic evolution from jazz, and is perhaps the last black American musical form to be developed in the same fashion as jazz."

Vincent continues on by making the obvious connection between modern Hip-Hop and funk. Vincent explains, " Rap music has become the focal point of the resurgence of The Funk – a continuation of The Funk in the digital age. By replicating original funk tracks, albeit in dehydrated form, Hip Hoppers have found themselves reiterating the stylistic and philosophical aspects of The Funk while repeating the groovy hooks."

Like some kind of grooving mathematician, Vincent suggests the following formula: If jazz = funk and funk = Hip-Hop then jazz =Hip-Hop. This theorem is proved by the fact that all three types of music are classified as being truly American musical forms.

It is this relationship between Hip-Hop, Funk and Jazz that is the focus of Blue Note’s Blue Breakbeats Series. Not only have the great funksters of the 1970s such as James Brown, Sly and The Family Stone and the George Clinton influenced modern Hip-Hop music, but also the great jazz musicians of the 1960s and 1970s. The Blue Breakbeats Series focuses on their artists who have not only influenced today’s musicians and how that influence has been shown through the art of musical sampling.

In the liner notes for the Bobbi Humphrey Blue Breakbeat album, Aton Adair comments on sampling, "In my opinion sampling, in its purest and most creative execution, embodies the essence of hip hop music which in turn forms the hub of our culture. Its origins is directly related to this music’s foundation." Adair then goes on to compare the difference between the "break" and the "sample". The "break" refers to an art form that dominated during the 1980s when DJs isolated funky rhythms on turntables and incorporated them into existing tunes. It was from this period that "break"dancing first made its appearance. As technology developed, the "sample" dominated the DJ’s approach to dance music. Through the use of new advanced technology, the DJs were able to take existing rhythms and enter them into mixing boards. Once the rythym entered the "loop" it could be used repeatedly. This phenomenon is heard all of the time these days as the Police’s "Every Breath You Take", Queen/David Bowie’s "Under Pressure" and other popular tunes have been recreated in hip hop music.

There is a continuing argument over the rights over these "sampled" songs and the court battles are being raged constantly. This is not a debate that is going to be entertained in these pages. What is important are the timeless heroes of the late 1960s and early 1970s who created a rhythm and beat that remained appealing to this era’s music. Many of these musicians recorded for Blue Note Records and can be found in Blue Note’s Blue Breakbeats Series.

Grant Green

During the early stages of his playing career, Grant Green’s guitar work was unheralded due to the wide acclaim of Wes Montgomery and George Benson. In 1966, Green disappeared from the music scene. Upon his arrival to Blue Note in 1969, Green entered the studio with reckless funky abandon. Taken from his albums Green Is Beautiful, Visions, Alive, Carryin’ On and The Final Comedown, this Blue Note compilation contains the best Grant Green’s groovy guitar. The album features versions of James Brown’s Ain’t It Funky Now which features Blue Mitchell on trumpet and Ben Dixon’s Cantaloupe Woman which has been recently been sampled by US3 in the 1990s. The album also features a great rendition of the Meter’s Ease Back. DJ Smash speaks of Green in the album’s liner notes: " His style should have been patented, since it’s certainly been ripped off by enough would be jazz-funkateers and grooverobbers."

Donald Byrd

This compilation covers a wide period for Donald Byrd. From the smooth upbeat jazz of 1967’s Jelly Roll to the neo-disco of 1976’s Dance Band, Donald Byrd keeps his patented high paced trumpet playing. The effects of modern funk and disco are noticeable in Dance Band, Lanasasa’s Priestess, Miss Kane and Love’s So Far Away. These four tunes were recorded between 1972 and 1976 and they all feature Larry Mizell’s singing and songwriting. Mizell was a former student of Byrd’s at Howard University where he was chairman of the Jazz Studies Department. The final tune of the album, Love So Far Away, came from Byrd’s 1972 album, Blackbyrd. The success of this album of smooth dance music served as a catalyst for Byrd to form the Blackbyrds, a collection of Howard University music students. As the band’s non contributing mentor, Donald Byrd produced numerous Blackbyrd’s albums during the mid and late 1970s that focussed on the disco edge of jazz. Unfortunately for Byrd, he crossed too far over the line of jazz and funk and he subsequently lost the support of critics. Although a constant innovator, Byrd was one of the saddest victims of this ongoing conflict.

It is rather ironic that Byrd was scrutinized for his playing style, for Byrd was a dedicated educator. He holds numerous Masters Degrees, a Law Degree and a Ph.D. He is presently a full professor at Brooklyn’s Queens College where he started the jazz department. Gene Lees, author of Jazz Lives, gave the following description of Byrd’s life as a teacher: " Brilliantly intelligent, deeply thoughtful and analytical, Byrd has a wonderful way with students. You can sit there and watch the admiration in their eyes." With this kind of background and accolades, it seems ridiculous that his music during the 1970s was discredited.

Bobbi Humphrey

Out of the many musicians that recorded the groove during the 1970s, flautist Bobbi Humphrey took the biggest step over the line into mainstream pop music. On this compilation, the opening two songs, Harlem River Drive and San Francisco Lights are characterized by soulful vocals a la Isaac Hayes. This style of music was mainly accomplished through the collaboration with Larry Mizell. As aforementioned, Mizell’s singing and songwriting was an essential component to Donald Byrd’s jazz/dance music. The same influence that Mizell had on Byrd can be felt in Humphrey’s music as well. Mizell wrote and played on four out of the five songs on Humphrey’s Blue Breakbeats CD. Humphrey also made a tremendous crossover to the pop world when she played on Steve Wonder’s Songs In The Key of Life in 1977. Although her sound was more appealing to the dance music fans, Humphrey’s flute playing kept the jazz critics on her side. Often compared to the great flautists such as Herbie Mann, Yusef Lateef and Roland Kirk, Humphrey remained in the jazz fold, which culminated with a performance at Switzerland’s Montreaux Jazz Festival.

Lee Morgan

There has been quite a lot of focus on how funk and jazz’s symbiotic relationship developed the groove sound during the 1970s. During the first half of the 1960s, musicians such as trumpeter Lee Morgan were laying down the same type of groove but employing different influences. As the 1970s jazz-funk era directly connected to the success of James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone and George Clinton, Lee Morgan’s 1960s groove found its roots with the Latin sound. Through this combination of Latin, Soul and R&B, Lee Morgan was instrumental in developing the new sound of the 1960s – Boogaloo. The primary difference between the Boogaloo of the mid 1960s and the jazz-funk of the 1970s was the type of instruments used. While Herbie Hancock, Donald Byrd and Miles Davis introduced electronic instruments into their sound, the Boogaloo sounds were created primarily with acoustic instruments (with the exception of the electric guitar and Hammond B-3 Organ). This approach to the music is exemplified by the Morgan’s use of traditional jazz musicians: Jackie McLean, Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner and Reggie Workman. The group US-3 sampled Morgan’s music during the 1990s. This English Hip Hop outfit varied from other Hip Hop groups for they took their samples from the hard bop era of jazz instead of the funky 1970s era. For instance, US-3 sampled from the early 1960s version of Herbie Hancock’s Cantaloupe Island rather than from any of his funky Headhunters material.

Rueben Wilson

Rueben Wilson may be the archetypal Blue Note soul jazz artist. He played the funkiest of instruments, the Hammond B-3 organ and the lineup on his albums usually consisted of the groove elite: Grant Green (guitar), George Coleman (saxophone), Lee Morgan (trumpet), Melvin Sparks (guitar), and Idris Muhammad (drums). The songs from this album are taken from Wilson’s first three albums with Blue Note –On Broadway, Love Bug and Blue Mode. On all of the tunes, Wilson creates a sound that draws from the influences of Richard "Groove" Holmes, Jimmy Smith and Big John Patton. All three of these influences were the leading innovators of the soul jazz, organ sound and Wilson followed right in their footsteps. Strange enough, it is this compilation’s participating musicians who show their virtuosity while Wilson maintains the steady groove throughout the sessions. Rueben Wilson’s music has been heavily sampled in the 1990s as the Brand New Heavies, US3 and A Tribe Called Quest have all borrowed the groove for their recordings. In 1995, Wilson made a direct crossover to the Hip Hop generation when he partook in Guru’s Jazzmatazz tour which was a collection of jazz influenced Hip Hoppers.

Lou Donaldson

Saxophonist Lou Donaldson unofficially became the flag bearer for the soul jazz, funk movement with his 1970 "hit": Everything I Do Goin To Be Funky(From Now On). This popular tune did not even make this compilation as Donaldson has much funkier stuff in his repertoire. With Melvin Sparks and Lonnie Smith backing him up on the CD’s tracks, it isn’t hard to see the direction that Donaldson was taking his music in. Similar to Lee Morgan, Donaldson was playing music long before the popularity of funk-jazz had reached its zenith. During the early and mid 1960s, when the funk had yet to arrive, Donaldson was experimenting with the Boogaloo sounds with traditional jazz lineups. Just like all of Blue Breakbeat musicians, Lou Donaldson influence reached the Hip-Hop of the 1990s. The 1970 instrumental, Pot Belly, was reused by the Tribe Called Quest for their tune " If The Papes Come". DJ Smash speaks of Lou Donaldson in the CD’s liner notes: "Every revolution needs ammunition, and if funk be your arsenal, Lou made sure there will never be a shortage…..Long after the intellectual crowd goes home, Lou Donaldson will always be in the house, in the groove, in the pocket and forever in the mix".

The Blue Note Breakbeats series is an excellent look ate the influential Blue Note artists of the 1960s and 1970s. The series is especially good for many of these musicians were lost in the annals of jazz due to the cross-pollination of their music. As soon as they started getting to close to mainstream music, the jazz world abandoned these funky innovators. Unfortunately, when the funk era came to an abrupt end, many of these musicians were lost in the shuffle and were musically homeless: funk was a disappearing art form and jazz wouldn’t take them back. Successful artists were able to make the cross back to acoustic, traditional jazz after the end of the funk era, while others forged on with a dying breed. Fortunately, the funk has returned as a strong musical element and as listeners, we are able to hear this great music. The most beneficial aspect of this Blue Breakbeats series is simply the accessibility of the music. When this music was originally released, the pressings were limited and the music has since been snatched up by collectors. In addition, many a DJ has scratched a quality funk album beyond belief. Thanks to Blue Note, the new generation of jazz funk lovers can access these masters of funk-jazz.