Saturday 11 April 2020

Bless The Day #7: What's Wrong With Groovin'

Letta Mbulu singing ‘What’s Wrong with Groovin’’ is one of the most glorious, defiant performances in the history of pop. She challenges directly, demanding to know why she can’t be left to be free, to live her life, to sing, to dance, and why the hell should anyone try to put her down, keep her down, follow her around, spy on her, talk about her, and try to stop her having fun and being herself.

It is a Hugh Masakela song, one he recorded in 1966 for his first Uni LP, The Emancipation of Hugh Masakela, and soon his friend and fellow exile Letta got to sing it for the tiny, short-lived Random label, on a single where with her fierce delivery she takes what is already a protest and transforms it into a fiery anti-discrimination, pro-feminist attack on controlling behaviour of every kind. Letta’s singing has the perfect backing too, a joyous mess of jazz, soul and samba elements which is as great as Nancy Wilson’s ‘The End of Our Love’, which can be considered the prime example of a jazz or ballad singer handling material which would appeal to young dancers.

By the time Nancy recorded what would become a Northern Soul evergreen, her arranger H.B. Barnum had also been busy with Letta after she was invited to work with the visionary David Axelrod, making a couple of LPs for Capitol where David was king out there on the West Coast. He took advantage of the label’s resources and made Letta Mbulu Sings and Free Soul, two quite astonishing LPs which came into this boy’s life via a Stateside compilation in 2005, with sleevenotes by the then ubiquitous Dean Rudland, as part of a programme of Axelrod-related salvage operations after he had made his dramatic comeback with Mo’Wax, for which James Lavelle will be forever loved despite everything.

Letta’s Capitol titles are incredible, not least in the way that the team of Axelrod and Barnum took the core South African folk and township jazz sounds and blended them with the new soul power, with maybe some Latin boogaloo and Brasil ’66 elements thrown into the mix, without imposing much in the way of sweeteners like an enforced Beatles or Bacharach cover or two, which was so often the way of things. Indeed, most of Letta’s material was provided by her soulmate Caiphus Semenya and sung in her native tongue. This particular CD is a perfect example of the holy artefacts which one turns to in times of trouble, when the spirit needs revivifying and the feet need to move.

Letta’s recording of ‘What’s Wrong with Groovin’’ was first heard here as the title track of a Jazzman collection early in the new millennium, and God bless the day that CD was found or bought, ah but where? It seems most likely it was in the HMV store at Oxford Circus, and would certainly have been picked up somewhere on that Soho stroll which then might start up at HMV, take in Borders across the street (and did Pram really play there or was that a dream?), moving on to Berwick Street and Selectadisc, Mr CD, Sister Ray, and maybe Sounds of the Universe (which would have still been hidden away in Ingestre Place), then down to that odd discounted bookshop on the corner of  Walker’s Court and Brewer Street. Ah memories!

But HMV seems most likely as there was a time when in a section, down the far end on the ground floor, where some enterprising departmental head got away with prominently putting out displays of those DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist quasi-official Product Placement and Brainfreeze mix-CDs along with other titles which would appeal to fans of these, like the What is Wrong with Groovin’ set which proclaimed it was “a compilation of collectable and hard-to-find jazzman sevens featuring the rarest scorching latin, oddball library gear, canadian deep funk, heavyweight dancefloor jazz, forklift truck adverts and so much more”.  Who could resist that sort of spiel?

That Jazzman CD was a round-up of tracks Gerald Short’s label had released on desirable but pricey bespoke singles, and there would be a further four CDs in the series, up to Pow Wow in 2005, all beautifully presented with linked artwork by Andrew Symington consistently on the theme of record collecting and the accompanying accoutrements. Taken en masse those CDs form a particularly valuable set, and are among the most played products here still. In a way they also perform a sort of ‘Deck of Cards’ function in terms of connections and signposts.

The series of CDs covers an impressive variety of styles, and is truly internationalist. There, however, were three main areas of musical activity which accounted for a good two-thirds of the sixty-odd tracks. Primarily, there were the rare funk recordings which you could say seemed central to the Jazzman operation, and Gerald and co. were very much a part of the international cratedigging underground, that coterie of explorers dedicated to unearthing lost blasts of raw funk, ideally ones nobody else knew about. Where this phenomenon differed from, say, the early Northern Soul scene was that there seemed a willingness to share sounds and information.

What Jazzman were doing fitted neatly alongside those funky archaeologists like Eothen ‘Egon’ Alapatt and Dante Carfagna who were so immersed in this excavation work. So, for example, the fifth issue of the UK hip-hop magazine Big Daddy, early in the new millennium, contained the first instalment of The Funk 45 Files, which had Egon focusing on James Reese and The Progressions’ ‘Let’s Go (It’s Summertime)’ while the next issue looked in-depth at The Highlighters’ ‘The Funky 16 Corners’, both being tracks which appear on the Jazzman compilations and on Stone Throw’s much-loved collection of rare funk tracks The Funky 16 Corners. Jazzman’s Gerald Short and in-house designer Andrew Symington would also contribute to Big Daddy, so it all fitted together very neatly.

Jazzman also put out a series of regional rare funk compilation CDs, collecting up an astonishing array of raw sounds which so often benefitted from being recorded on a shoestring budget. It is incredible how high the quality of the material is across these sets, even if many are variations on a theme, so many junior JBs and a myriad of minor Meters. A particular favourite here is the Midwest Funk set, which was released simultaneously with Egon’s Now-Again imprint (a subsidiary of Stone’s Throw initially) though with different artwork. Highlights of this CD include The Us’ ‘Let’s Do It Today’, The New Establishment in Soul’s ‘Whip It’, Barbara Howard’s ‘I Don’t Want Your Love’, and Harvey & the Phenomenals’ ‘Soul & Sunshine’ which lives up to its incredibly inviting title.

The set comes with impressively thorough annotations by Dante Carfagna which are totally obsessive in terms of detail and all the better for it. There are so many stories that have been unearthed along the way by these guys. Dante himself is a fascinating figure, not least because his own music is very different from what you would expect, if his initial Express Rising CD is anything to go by. It is a curious cut ’n’ paste affair, presumably put together from salvaged vinyl, and sounds like a late-flowering extension of the DJ Shadow ‘What Does Your Soul Look Like’ meets Tortoise or LaBradford aesthetic which existed for a glorious moment in the 1990s pop world: beautiful meditative sounds rather than the meticulously modelled new funk on offer at the time from the likes of the Stark Reality (a Jazzman subsidiary), Soul Fire and Daptone labels.

Another favourite Jazzman title is Florida Funk, which overlaps with Soul Jazz’s superb Miami Sound set, with Harry Stone’s far-reaching TK organisation heavily involved, but one of the selling points of this Jazzman CD is the Latin element, so brilliantly there is a group called Pearly Queen, named after the Traffic song, and they look it too, but they’re kids from a Latin background and their ‘Quit Jive’In’ is sensational juvenile delinquent funk with an incredible breakbeat at the heart of it, then there is Luis Santi y su Conjunto’s ‘Los Feligreses’ which mocks religious hypocrites, and there is the fantastic ‘Na Na’ by Coke which is absurdly addictive squelchy humid funk.

Other highlights include Carrie Riley & the Fascinations’ ferocious ‘Super Cool’ and the odd minimalism of The Mighty Dogcatchers’ ‘It’s Gonna Be A Mess’ and the Delrays’ ‘Pure Funk’, though best of all is the untypical but irresistible ‘90% of Me is You’ by Vanessa Kendrick, with a gorgeous string arrangement and a softer, more vulnerable treatment than the later, more famous, version by Gwen McCrae.

The second major area of Jazzman interest was what could loosely be considered to take in library recordings and film soundtracks, but also tracks made for commercials, so perhaps production music would be an apt phrase, music made for a purpose rather than simply being a commodity or work of art. This was predominantly recordings from the late 1960s and early 1970s which were often of interest for their funk quotient, or general dancefloor tendencies, psychedelic effects, breakbeats, electronic colouration, general easy listening excellence, and consistently an exemplary high standard of composition and playing.

Jazzman had already mined the area with two CDs of Le Jazzbeat! which focused on French library recordings, notably the second volume which concentrated on the work of Eddie Warner whose ‘Devil’s Anvil’ with its skeletal disco sound was also a highlight of Jazzman’s Soul Freedom collection. In a way the Jazzbeat! sets dovetailed with the activity of the idiosyncratic German label Crippled Dick Hot Wax! whose output included the excellent Shake Sauvage CD, a collection of cuts from French film (blurred) soundtracks, and the very popular Vampyros Lesbos: Sexadelic Dance Party which was a collection of Manfred Hübler and Siegfried Schwab compositions from Jesse Franco films with a striking Soledad Miranda cover photo.

Then there was Crippled Dick Hot Wax!’s Beretta 70 collection of themes from Italian crime films, and their essential Beat at Cinecittà series which illuminated the world of Italian soundtrack work, beyond Mondo Morricone, with selections from the likes of Riz Ortolani, Piero Piccioni, Bruno Nicolai and Nora Orlandi, but no Piero Umiliani. A particular highlight was the inclusion of Doris Troy incongruously singing the savage ‘Kill Them All!’ from the wonderfully strange Roman Gary film Kill! starring Jean Seberg with the best haircut ever. Crippled Dick Hot Wax! also released an essential if slightly illogical Maximum Joy compilation, and a great Lydia Lunch set where she is backed by the Anubian Lights which was a sort of return to the world of Queen of Siam.

From the UK’s library music world, the Jazzman 7s CD compilations featured Keith Mansfield’s ‘Morning Broadway’ on the opening What is Wrong with Groovin’ set, a perfect example of the artform, gently funky, with Harold McNair on the flute almost sounding like he’s carrying off the perfect scat singing session. It is a track that fits perfectly into the aesthetics evoked by the incredibly important mid-1990s collection The Sound Gallery which drew heavily on the KPM archives.

That CD was important in the sense that it brought together and defined a sound world which had been subliminally absorbed and enjoyed growing up, with ads on TV and at the cinema (the Pearl & Dean music!) and themes from television shows, and so on. In a way Young Marble Giants tapped into this early on with their testcard music, evoking a wonderful realm of incredible invention that hitherto was not featured in the official music histories.

And it was all very odd because that Sound Gallery set featured music that was spectacularly out of time, like John Cameron’s ‘Half Forgotten Daydreams’ which sounds exquisitely like a track from an imaginary Walter Wanderley LP on CTI in the A&M era with strings by Deodato and featuring Flora Purim and co. doing that perfect wordless vocal thing. And yet it was recorded in 1973 for KPM. John Cameron also features in the Jazzman 7s series, with the fantastic ‘Troublemaker’, a soul-jazz flow which was paired, brilliantly, with Mike Westbrook’s ‘Original Peter’ starring Norma Winstone doing the perfect vocalese thing.

A highlight of the Pow Wow CD, ‘Troublemaker’ is slightly different in that it is not library music, but an actual jazz recording from the end of the 1960s when Deram was happy to blur the lines between what was happening in the pop and jazz worlds. So, the John Cameron Quartet’s Off-Centre LP was produced by Wayne Bickerton who worked with The Fascinations around the same time to devastating effect.

John was joined on this set by an incredible line-up of Danny Thompson on bass, Tony Coe playing drums, and Harold McNair on flute and sax. It is a fantastic record, with a few ballads where Harold’s flute playing is exquisite and will appeal to anyone who has been enchanted by what John and Harold did for the Kes soundtrack around the same time. Dare one say these ballads are far better?

Also featured in the Jazzman series is Barbara Moore’s exquisite ‘Hot Heels’ from her Vocal Shades and Tones LP for the De Wolfe library with the perfect iteration of the Sergio Mendes, 5th Dimension, Swingle Singers, Burt Bacharach, Michel Legrand artform, which was Barbara’s forte as a composer, arranger and vocalist. The Vocal Patterns and Moonshade sets she recorded with Roger Webb are revered, though the only commercially available compilation or overview of her work strangely seems to be a Japanese CD, Sweetly Sing Barbara, which features ‘Busy’ from the Voices in Latin LP and is the perfect English Brasil ’66-response.

Ironically, or appropriately, another Brazilian maestro Rogério Duprat recorded a set for KPM in 1970, The Brazilian Suite, and it features sounds that might be said to be pop Esperanto, and could arguably be English, Italian, German, French, or Brazilian in origin. Another highlight of those Jazzman CDs is IRP-3’s ‘Tema de Soninha’, an excerpt from a Brazilian soundtrack, which has it all: the busy percussion, the dramatic bass, and some swirling organ which is pure Deodato.

Barbara Moore’s sultry ‘Steam Heat’, another selection from Vocal Shades and Tones, which she says was written with the Amazon in mind, with John McLaughlin on guitar, is on Shut It!, a collection of music featured in the various series of The Sweeney, which came out in 2001 amid a surge in interest in library sounds and assorted soundtracks. Was this all so much hopeless ‘retromania’? Not really, rather this was part of a new age of enlightenment, one which challenged rock orthodoxy while illuminating hidden corners, and revealing lost stories and sounds.

Gerald Jazzman points out these salvaged sounds inspired cutting-edge examples of new music, and you can hear it in recordings by, say, AIR, Stereolab, and Broadcast. Indeed Broadcast playlists from the early years of the new millennium would feature Jazzman favourites like Nino Nardini, and Cecil Leuter’s ‘Pop Electronique No. 2’, as part of their mood mosaic alongside Morricone, Basil Kirchin, David Axelrod, Radiophonic Workshop, Alice Coltrane, Comus, Vashti Bunyan, Zouzou, American Spring, Krzysztof Komeda, Rotary Connection, United States of America, Goblin, Wendy & Bonnie and so on. Names which are familiar to many of us now, perhaps, but not back then, oh no. This was a new jigsaw to put together, and very much in the spirit of the first ever Clash interview where Joe Strummer is talking to Steve Walsh (later of Manicured Noise) about how “we deal in junk”, making use of what other people have thrown out. Amen to that Joe.

The third main area of Jazzman activity on those compilation CDs was vocal jazz, often with a twist in terms of rhythm or beat. And if, over time, one became overpowered by funk, sated with library sounds, then this was an area where, here at least, interest has grown steadily over the years. Appropriately the first CD in the series starts with Kathleen Emery’s breakbeat carnival ‘Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child’, a song that will now forever be associated with the magnificent Olive Kitteridge.

The same volume also features Lorez Alexandria’s take on ‘Send in the Clowns’, which is one of those songs indelibly associated with Radio 2 being on at home growing up, but it never sounded this good back then. A Jazzman favourite, Lorez returns later in the series with her King recording of ‘Baltimore Oriole’, a composition that is so perfect for the reflective jazz singer. Lorez is honoured as the only person to appear twice on these CDs other than Nino Nardini.

Another highlight is Fred Johnson’s ‘A Child Runs Free’, an anomaly as it is a 1980s recording with a frantic Brazilian backing, and indeed it features on another treasured early-2000s CD collection in the (possibly not entirely legitimate) Italian series Mondo Bossa, along with France Gall’s irresistible ‘Zozoi’, another Jazzman 7s favourite. Then there is Freddy Cole with ‘Brother Where Are You’ and Byrdie Green’s fierce ‘Return of the Prodigal Son’, and a particular favourite is Carmen McRae’s vocal version of ‘Take Five’ with the Dave Brubeck Quartet. The immortal Mark Murphy also turns up in the series with the exceptional Latin mod jazz of ‘Why Don’t You Do Right’.

In a slightly different area of vocal jazz is MaseQua Myers’ ‘Black Land of the Nile’ with Jami Ayinde, a glorious example of what we now tend to call spiritual jazz. This appears on the Hunk of Heaven CD, and Gerald Short mentions that it’s a favourite of Gilles Peterson’s and originally comes from a hopelessly rare LP from a stage show of black fairy tales. It sort of seems familiar from what Gilles used to play, back in the day, and he did a lot to generate interest in this musical activity, not least via close compadres Galliano where they joined the dots to Doug and Jean Carn’s ‘Power and Glory’ and Pharoah Sanders’ ‘Prince of Peace’, releases on Black Jazz and Strata-East respectively, which in turn links to Soul Jazz and Universal Sound and their programme of enlightenment.

Soul Jazz’s most important release in this area was the Universal Sounds of America compilation, which introduced so many of us to the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s ‘Theme De Yo Yo’, for which God bless Stuart Baker and comrades, and to Pharoah Sanders’ ‘Astral Travelling’ (linking nicely to the contemporaneous music of Photek) which in turn leads to those gorgeous Impulse! digipak reissues and especially Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchidananda and Pharoah’s Karma.

While ordinarily baulking at attempts to codify and classify music, spiritual jazz is an unusually helpful term, even if there is no precise definition. Perhaps it is music that is likely to be immersed in radical politics, with a strong sense of black consciousness, African heritage, probably strong religious beliefs, a glow of warm humanity, a highly melodic and winningly rhythmic mix, with a backbone of self-sufficiency, underpinned by the lifeforce of the naturally flowing bass, the drum as heart-centre, percussive adornments, shaking, rattling everything, possibly some sweet refreshing vibes playing, maybe a flute dancing along, saxes speaking in tongues, horns joyously blasting, a pianist sharing poetic expression, and hopefully some uplifting congregational singing and chants. Or something like that.

Jazzman gradually got drawn into this area, and released the glorious Spiritual Jazz CD compilation in 2007, a set of “esoteric, modal and deep jazz from the underground 1968–77”, a copy of which oddly, fortuitously, turned up in a local charity shop shortly after release. Who the hell would give that away? It is such a revivifying mix of odd, lost communal projects and collective expression, with highlights from the James Tatum Trio Plus, Mor Thiam, Ndikho Xaba & the Natives, The Frank Derrick Total Experience, Ronnie Boykins, and the Hastings Street Jazz Experience (with Kim Weston singing in there somewhere, brilliantly, being an old school friend of group leader Ed Nelson). Predominantly this was music issued by small and local independents with a do-it-yourself ethos, rather like Jazzman’s rare funk series, often well-served by small recording budgets which mean more rawness which can mean more elevation of the spirit.

Jazzman as a label became steadily more immersed in the spiritual jazz side of things, but somehow that didn’t register here until relatively recently when noticing that the ninth volume in the series was a double-CD set dedicated to “modal, esoteric and deep jazz from the vaults of Blue Note Records 1962–1976”.  On realising that the collection opens with two particular favourites (a 1966 recording, Bobby Hutcherson’s ‘Verse’ from Stick Up! with McCoy Tyner on piano, then Pete La Roca’s ‘Basra’) it seemed sensible to assume that the more unfamiliar tracks might match the standard of that opening two, so it had to be bought, which was an excellent decision. 

It was a real joy to discover Andrew Hill’s ‘Poinsettia’ and Hank Mobley’s ‘The Morning After’, for instance, and very definitely Freddie Hubbard’s ‘Blue Spirits’. The accompanying CD booklet opens with an inspirational Freddie Hubbard quote about his Blue Spirits: “It’s a spiritual album. I don’t mean in a religious sense, but in the sense that I consider music to be a spiritual experience, because you can get at your deepest feelings in music”. Some very definite shades of Dave Godin there? That makes sense: spiritual jazz and deep soul being two sides of the same coin.

Duke Pearson is a strong presence on the set, notably with ‘The Phantom’, one of the greatest ten-minutes of music ever. His ‘Empathy’ was a delight to discover, as was his own version of ‘Cristo Redentor’, though the original, from Donald Byrd’s A New Perspective LP, is sacred here. And maybe that one song, more than any other, is thee soul saver. The Blue Note set closes with Solomon Ilori’s ‘Igbesi Aiye (Song of Praise to God)’ which is the track closest to the initial spiritual jazz collection, for generally the Blue Note variants are more tightly wound and more studious, something to do with tension and density and space. Somehow just the idea of a spiritual jazz Blue Note compilation makes the heart sing, and credit to Gerald and co. for not shying away from featuring familiar names.

In fact, that is part of the appeal of the Jazzman 7s CD sets: ‘California Soul’ by Marlena Shaw, Esther Williams’ ‘Last Night Changed It All’, Jonathan Richman’s ‘Egyptian Reggae’, for example, are there alongside the oddities and obscurities. And while it is always great to hear old favourites, Jazzman is loved here for introducing this boy to some strange delights which may have been played to death but about which still little is known, like the Deirdre Wilson Tabac’s  extraordinary ‘I Can’t Keep From Crying Sometimes’, Kent Schneider’s uplifting ‘The Church Is Within Us Oh Lord’, and the Gettysbyrg Address’ gorgeous ‘Baby True’.

Each of these three somehow elude categorisation, and in many ways capture the blurring of boundaries that was going on as the 1960s drew to a close. The Gettysbyrg Address track is a particular favourite here as it has a languid ‘Spooky’ or ‘Light Flight’ feel, with a Latin lilt and a warming jazzy piano part plus a simmering José Feliciano-style break. Rather perfectly in the original Jazzman 7s series it was paired with Triste Janero’s ‘In The Garden’ which was a particularly inspired move.

If one were today putting together a compilation, a playlist, or a mix, as a care package for a loved one in troubled times, then those tracks would have to be on there: Deirdre Wilson Tabac, Kent Schneider, Gettysbyrg Address, and Triste Janero, but what else? How about another version of ‘What’s Wrong with Groovin’’, the one by Phil Moore III and the Afro Latin Soultet with Leni Groves on vocals, from the 1967 Afro Brazil Oba! LP with Joe Pass on guitar. It ain’t Letta, it might be lighter, but it works, wonderfully well.

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