MFSB ‘Universal Love’ (BBR) 4/5

mfsbFor some disco was both a faceless vocalist and musician less art form and to a certain extent that critique had a validity to it in terms of the paucity of live performances in relation to rock music. However, the exception to the rule was MFSB who bucked the general trend, and were a collective of Philadelphia-based musicians who practically single-handedly defined the disco beat. Without them, there would not have been the hi-hat cymbals sound that distinguished disco from other music genres and they provided the backing instrumentation to many of the era’s most endearing songs. In their own right, though, they were an outfit to be reckoned with and this album from 1975 proves precisely why. Jazzy orchestrations grounded on an intimate knowledge of the history of big band jazz, horn improvisations that drew on the be-bop tradition and beyond, and sophisticated strings with a pumping percussive back beat were just some of the defining characteristics of the MFSB sound and the eight original album numbers here plus their four bonus single version cuts capture the band in various moods, all captivating to the listener. A terrifically underrated instrumental opens the album in ‘Sexy’ which was released as a single in the United States. By far the best known piece is ‘K-Jee’ and that is in large part due to its inclusion on the hugely successful ‘Saturday Night Fever’ soundtrack. From the outset, the keyboard riffs, swirling strings and non-stop percussion ooze class and this is a memorable slice of authentic disco. That the band could shift tempo at consummate ease is indicated by the varying moods on ‘T.L.C. (Tender Lovin’ Care)’ that starts off in the Duke Ellington swing era in its intro, but then suddenly ups a few gears and transforms itself into a soulful mid-tempo disco number. Leon Huff here featured as moody Hammond organ instrumentalist excels as does the horn section in all its full glory. A slower piece that showcases the jazz credentials of the band comes in the shape of ‘My Mood’ with fine interplay between keyboards and vibes. Only sounding somewhat dated is the repetitive and frankly inane chanting of ‘Let’s go disco’, though the instrumentation is still well above average.

Interestingly, just months after this album saw the light of day, MFSB moved label house and became the Salsoul Orchestra where they refined and indeed expanded the disco concept. It was nonetheless under the direction of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff that MFSB recorded their truly pioneering work and this is one of the finer examples.

Tim Stenhouse