Various ‘Street Sounds presents Jazz Funk classics vol. 1’ 3 CD (Street Sounds) 5/5

jazz-funk-classics-vol.1The Street Sounds logo was synonymous in the mid-late 1980s for quality compilations chronicling the roots of the underground dance music scene and this ranged from classic disco/boogie with the West End label and rare groove plus the origins of hip-hop to the superb ‘Jazz Juice’ albums that skilfully pillaged the crème de la crème of instrumental, vocalese and Latin jazz, and they are all required listening for anyone who wishes to acquire a more specialist knowledge of the field. Re-vamping the label for the twenty-first century is henceforth label owner Morgan Khan’s new goal and this new compilation of the golden era of jazz-funk from the 1970s is first up and served as a musical platter that is packed full of tasty saboroso vibes. Jazz-Funk is a much used and at times misunderstood and abused term, yet at its essence it was about gaining a foothold into the world of jazz via accessible groove-driven music that focused on instrumental prowess, but never at the expense of losing the melody. It was largely, but not exclusively inspired by the sounds emanating from the United States (groups such as Atmosfear, Central Line, Freeez, High Tension and Level 42 all being examples of the UK side and are not included here, but might form part of a future anthology of the UK scene). Musicians such as Roy Ayers, Donald Byrd and Lonnie Liston Smith to name but three became the heroes for a new generation of youth who were tired of the sugar-coated offerings of the BBC dictated pop charts.

Revisiting the generously timed tracks on offer here some thirty years after they initially surfaced, one cannot but be impressed by how successful these numbers in their extended version proved in both the pop and soul/R &B charts from the mid-1970s through to the early 1980s. Tom Browne scored a major hit with ‘Funkin’ for Jamaica’ while pianist Rodney Franklin went into the higher echelons of the top ten with a virtually instrumental 45, ‘The Groove’, something that only the likes of Acker Bilk, Dave Brubeck and Ramsey Lewis had achieved previously. It is still the catchiest of grooves and stands the test of time. Less of a major commercial hit, but arguably a greater influence on the movement as a whole was Lonnie Liston Smith’s ‘Expansions’ which is now rightly regarded as an anthem and the various albums and compilations of his music last year re-issued on the ACE label are well worth exploring if you are unfamiliar.

The influence of disco played its part in the late 1970s on jazz-inspired musicians and this is illustrated by the vocoder vocals on Herbie Hancock’s classic ‘I thought it was you’, or on the percussive ‘Black is the colour’ by Wilbert Logmire. A good deal of the dancefloor oriented jazz put off jazz purists, as on the excellent trumpeter Eddie Henderson’s ‘Prance On’, but then jazz for a long period of time from the 1920s through to the mid-1940s was precisely a music that was intended for dancefloor consumption and nobody complained when Duke Ellington and Count Basie adapted their music to these new dance trends. Donald Byrd came in for a whole raft of criticism when he wholeheartedly embraced the new jazz-funk sound and served as educator and leader to the Blackbyrds with their offering ‘Rock Creek Park’ a definitive slice of jazz-funk magic. Byrd’s Blue Note label mate Bobbi Humphrey followed suit and still managed to incorporate flute solos on the exquisite ‘Harlem River Drive’ while Grover Washington Jr. extended the boundaries of the Motown franchise with his soulful take on jazz and ‘Mister Magic’ is a fine illustration. The Crusaders were one of the key groups of the era and are featured here on more than one occasion and in various guises. They contribute the backing instrumental sound to tenorist Wilton Felder’s epic 1981 number ‘Inherit the wind’ which showcased the fabulous vocals of one Bobby Womack who has sadly recently departed. Only the soul boy anthem by Frankie Beverly and Maze, ‘Before I let you go’, sounds slightly out-of-place, but that is minor quibble and it is a fine song in its own right. A nice touch was to include an updated and excellent version of George Benson’s ‘Breezin’ with vocals coming courtesy of soul-jazzer Al Jarreau. He could have had a song included as a leader. Fantastic value for money as always with Street Sounds and one hopes that Street Sound will go on to explore some other more specialised aspects of the music scene.

Tim Stenhouse