Thursday, July 31, 2014

Review of Bass Phenom Mike Zabrin’s Debut Album Funktastic

There is a dynamic new artist on the scene whose talents can’t be ignored, and his name is Mike Zabrin. The Chicago-based bassist and producer is one of the most gifted young musicians to emerge in the R&B/funk arena in quite some time. In May of this year, Zabrin released his debut album, Funktastic, which has been creating quite a buzz—garnering praise from noted music publications and capturing the imagination of jazz, R&B and funk lovers around the world. The 11-track collection is a rich gumbo of jazz, soul, funk and R&B with a dash of hip hop thrown in the mix; and it showcases the 22-year-old’s prodigious skills as a bassist.

Funktastic features a distinguished lineup of special guests, including P-Funk vocalist/songwriter Kendra Foster; bassist extraordinaire and Fishbone co-founder Norwood Fisher; and Kool & the Gang horn players Clifford Adams (trombone) and Michael Ray (trumpet). Other musicians who appear on the album include members from the bands The Big Ol’ Nasty Getdown, Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band and Sun Ra Arkestra. It’s a testament to Zabrin’s considerable chops as a musician and sterling rep among his fellow musicians that he was able to round up such high-caliber talent for his debut album.

Funktastic is filled with strong tracks, which showcase Zabrin’s flawless bass-playing and impressive production skills. The album has a fluid, cohesive flow, with the tracks nicely complementing one another.

The album kicks off with the mellow neo-soul track "(You Are) Extraordinary,” which features a dope rap from Chicago MC Rico Sisney. And trumpeter, singer-songwriter Sam Trump’s rich, soulful vocals add so much to this track.

“(You Are) Extraordinary” is followed by the breezy R&B cut “Life.” Singer/songwriter Anthony Pavel delivers a stellar vocal performance on this track.

Another great song from the collection is the infectious “Young Can Count on Me.” Vocalist Rachael Wogsland’s irresistibly sassy vocals really bring the track to life.  And the groove is accentuated by the lively horn parts, which are provided by Bryan Fritz (tenor sax), Kyle Miller (trumpet) and Norman Palm (trombone).

And P-Funk songtress Kendra Foster serves up an exquisite vocal performance on the majestic “The Other Side.” This gem of a track features a terrific trombone solo from Kool & the Gang’s Clifford Adams. The other horn players featured on the track are Greg Howell (Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band) on baritone sax and trumpet player Michael Ray (Kool & the Gang and Sun Ra Arkestra).

And of course there is plenty of great funk to be found on this album, such as the terrific funk/jazz fusion cut “Fact Fiction.” Zabrin delivers a masterful bass performance here. His playing is absolute fire—slappin’ and poppin' like nobody’s business on the funk sections and then gettin’ busy with some deft soloing on the Latin jazz sections. Norwood Fisher brings some humor and fun to his lead vocals. Guitarist Justin Canavan keeps things nice and funky with some dirty chicken-scratch licks. And the tight horn lines augment the groove considerably. The brass on this track is provided Bryan Fritz (tenor sax), Ryan Nyther (trumpet) and Ron Jacoby (trombone).

The funk continues with the wicked groove “Funkin’ With You.” The track features some virtuosic bass work from Zabrin, and Paul Goldman deepens the funk with a smooth keyboard solo. And vocalist Kelsey Madsen brings the fire with a gritty vocal performance.

Another excellent track that features Madsen on vocals is the soothing soul ballad “Cat & Mouse.” The singer delivers a superb vocal performance on this track. Her vocals are bursting with passion and sultry soul and are a bit reminiscent of another talented soul singer: Joss Stone. And Zabrin lets loose with a fantastic bass solo near the end of the song.

And Zabrin brings some more heavy-duty funk on the percolating “Make Yah Body Move.” Once again Zabrin’s bass work is impeccable. The monster groove boasts a super-tight horn arrangement and some terrific drumming from Keith "Keke" King.  The track features G-mar Willis and Elli Sutter on vocals.

The album closes out on a funky note with the instrumental “What’s The Deal?” Bryan Fritz contributes a sizzling sax solo on this very funky cut. This bumpin’ groove will definitely have you bobbin’ your head.

Funktastic is an extremely impressive album debut. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable listening experience, and each track is quality—there's not a lemon in the bunch. This collection is a must-have for funk, jazz, soul and R&B aficionados or people who just love great music. Zabrin really delivered with his aptly titled debut album.

Zabrin is currently a member of the Joe Moss Band, a badass blues outfit. Funktastic is available on CD and digital download. Visit his site to purchase the album or for info on upcoming tour dates for the Joe Moss Band.

"Funkin' With You" by Mike Zabrin

Monday, July 21, 2014

"Gimme Some More" by the J.B.'s

This ultra-smooth funk groove is by James Brown’s legendary band, the J.B.’s. The track has Brown’s signature funk sound—infectious horn parts, sassy chicken-scratch guitar licks, a bumpin’ backbeat and a phat bass line.  Oh, and let’s not forget the dope bridge, which was also a staple of some of the Godfather’s best cuts: “Owww, take me to the bridge!” And J.B.’s bandleader and musical director Fred Wesley augments the funk with a bodacious trombone solo.

“Gimme Some More” was written by Brown and Charles Bobbit, who was the funk legend’s longtime manager and close friend.  Brown also produced the track, which was released on his label People Records in 1971.  The single peaked at #11 on the U.S. R&B  charts and #67 on the pop charts. It also appeared on the J.B.’s 1972 album Food for Thought, which contained the hits “Pass the Peas" and “Escape-ism.” The lineup of musicians who played on “Gimme Some More” was the following: trombone, vocals (Fred Wesley); drums, vocals (John “Jabo” Starks); guitar, vocals (Hearlon “Cheese” Martin, Robert Coleman); organ, tambourine [overdubbed], vocals (Bobby Byrd); bass, vocals (Fred Thomas); tenor saxophone, vocals (St. Clair Pinckney); and trumpet, vocals (Ike Oakley, Jerone “Jasaan” Melson, Russell Crimes).

Brown always recruited the baddest and funkiest players for his rotating bands, which he began calling the J.B.’s in 1970. And he led the J.B.’s with the iron fist of a hardened drill sergeant to ensure that they were the tightest funk band on the planet, both in the studio and in concert.  Some of the former members of the J.B.’s went on to become funk icons in their own right, including Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley and Bootsy Collins.

Gimme Some More at Amazon

Friday, July 18, 2014

Best Songs About Hollywood

Hollywood has achieved a near mythical stature in popular culture. The fabled Los Angeles district possesses a romantic and mysterious allure, which has made it a constant source of inspiration for songwriters, filmmakers and novelists. It has been both praised and condemned in song. Some songwriters have painted Hollywood as this quixotic paradise where one’s wildest dreams, fantasies and ambitions can be fully realized. Conversely, other songwriters have lambasted Tinseltown as a deceptive seductress who lures in the naive and blindly ambitious with false promises of fame, wealth, glamour and happiness.

There have been numerous songs written about Hollywood over the years, and I thought I’d put together a list of my 11 favorite tracks about Tinseltown in no particular order—and away we go!

Holly Wants to Go to California – Funkadelic (1979)

This bittersweet ballad about chasing the Hollywood dream of fame and fortune is an underrated gem on Funkadelic’s 1979 Uncle Jam Wants You album. The track is surprisingly touching; it’s definitely not your typical Funkadelic cut. There is minimal instrumentation on the song, just a piano accompanying George Clinton’s vocals and a distant crowd cheering in the background. The spare, stripped-down arrangement works really well here. And Bernie Worrell’s stirring gospel piano playing lends a poignancy and power to the song and nicely showcases George Clinton’s ragged, soulful vocals. The P-Funk mastermind delivers an understated yet powerful vocal performance. The cracks in his voice give the song a more intimate and real feel, which helps bring the message home. The song was co-written by Clinton and Worrell.

Uncle Jam Wants You at Amazon

Hollywood – Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan (1977)

Chaka Khan and Rufus reflect on the shallowness and superficiality that’s often concealed behind Hollywood’s glamorous façade on this gorgeous R&B/pop ballad. It tells the story of a young man who plans to move to Hollywood in hopes of finding fortune, fame, thrills and excitement. The song describes Hollywood as a wreck yard of broken dreams and false promises and is largely inhabited by plastic people. Chaka delivers a tender and moving vocal performance on this track. The song is very well-arranged and has a nice mellow vibe to it.

“Hollywood” was written by Rufus members André Fischer and David “Hawk” Wolinski and was a single from the band’s platinum-selling album Ask Rufus, released in 1977. The song had a strong showing on the U.S. charts, peaking at #3 on the R&B charts and #32 on the pop charts. The full lineup for Rufus at the time of the album’s release was Chaka Khan (lead vocals, background vocals), Kevin Murphy (keyboards, background vocals), Tony Maiden (guitar, background vocals), André Fischer (drums, background vocals) and David “Hawk” Wolinski (keyboards, background vocals).

Hollywood at Amazon

Hollywood City – Carl Perkins (1962)

This hoppin’ single by rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins makes you want to jump on a first train or plane to Hollywood, because he makes it sound like such a blast. The track boasts Perkins’ signature rockabilly guitar licks and a hot harmonica solo. The song was written by influential singer/songwriter Otis Blackwell, who had penned a number of seminal Rock & Roll classics—including Elvis hits “All Shook Up “ and  “Don’t Be Cruel.”

Hollywood City at Amazon

Hollywood Squares – Bootsy’s Rubber Band (1978)

“Hollywood Squares” is one of Bootsy Collins’ most fun and imaginative tracks. It’s bursting with style and creativity and showcases Bootsy’s blissfully spaced-out sense of humor. The track is filled with great hooks and cool, inventive touches, such as regal French horns and a dramatic orchestral intro. And Bootsy’s bass work is extra funky as usual. It’s just a brilliant piece of quirky funk and one of the strongest tracks on the Rubber Band’s third studio album, Bootsy? Player of the Year (released in 1978), which is saying a lot considering there are so many great cuts on this collection. The song was written by Bootsy, George Clinton and Frankie Waddy. The song peaked at #17 on the U.S. R&B charts.  The full lineup for Bootsy’s Rubber Band was as follows:  Bootsy (vocals, bass, drums, guitar), Phelps “Catfish” Collins (guitar), Joel “Razor Sharp” Johnson (keyboards), Robert “P-Nut” Johnson (vocals), Gary “Mudbone” Cooper (vocals, drums, percussion), Frankie “Kash” Waddy (drums) and the Horny Horns (Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley, Richard Griffith, Rick Gardner).

Hollywood Squares at Amazon

Hollywood – The Runaways (1977)

This rockin’ track is about the dream held by many struggling bands of one day of making the big time and becoming rock stars. It’s one of the Runaways’ best-known tracks and is from their sophomore album Queens of Noise, released in 1977. “Hollywood” features some ace playing from the Runaways and a ferocious, balls-out lead vocal performance from Joan Jett.  This track captures the influential all-female rock band in all its badass glory.

The song retains the same lineup from their 1976 self-titled debut album: Cherie Currie (lead vocals), Joan Jett (rhythm guitar, lead vocals), Lita Ford (lead guitar, backing vocals), Jackie Fox (bass, backing vocals) and Sandy West (drums, percussion, backing vocals). The track was written by Jett, Fox and band producer Kim Fowley, and it was featured in the 2010 biopic The Runaways, which starred Kristen Stewart and Dakota fanning.

Hollywood by the Runaways at Amazon

Hollywood Swinging– Kool & the Gang (1974)

This rousing R&B/pop anthem is one of Kool & the Gang’s best-known ‘70s songs. It has a fun, celebratory vibe, like a huge block party going down in the middle of the street on Hollywood Blvd.  There are so many great hooks on this cut, including an irresistible bass line, the “Hey, hey, hey/What ya got to say?” chant and an indelible chorus: "Hollywoooood, Hollywood swinging!” The song was inspired by the band’s experiences in Hollywood during the recording of their Live at P.J.’s album, released in 1971. The lead vocals are sung by band keyboardist Ricky West.

“Hollywood Swinging” was a single from Kool & the Gang’s gold album Wild and Peaceful, which was released in 1973, and was penned collectively by the band. The song performed extremely well on the charts; it was band’s first #1 single on the R&B charts, and it peaked at #6 on the pop charts. The full lineup for  Kool & the Gang at the time of the song’s release was the following: Robert “Kool” Bell (bass, vocals); Ricky West (electric piano, vocals); Claydes Smith (guitar); George “Funky” Brown (drums, vocals, percussion); Dennis “Dee Tee” Thomas (alto saxophone, flute, congas, vocals); Khalis Bayyan (tenor and soprano saxophone, vocals) and Robert "Spike" Mickens (trumpet, vocals).

Hollywood Swinging at Amazon

Lost in Hollywood – System of a Down (2005)

Alternative metal band System of a Down excoriates Hollywood in this scathing track. “Lost in Hollywood” paints Tinseltown as a decadent paradise that sucks the soul and humanity from those who move there. The song condemns those in Hollywood who exploit the naive and ambitious with false promises of fame and fortune. The song was inspired by a female friend of SOAD guitarist/vocalist Daron Malakian, who handles the lead vocals here.  She moved to Hollywood despite Malakian’s warnings of the dishonest and parasitic people who live there. The musician grew up in Hollywood, so he knew firsthand the type of two-faced, shady people she’d be coming in contact with.

This song is from the band’s multi-platinum album Mezmerize (2005) and was co-written by Malakian and SOAD lead singer Serj Tankian. The somber ballad contains beautiful and haunting background harmonies from Malkian and Tankian. It’s just a superb song, both musically and lyrically, and contains a quiet, understated power. In addition to Malakian and Tankian, the other two members of SOAD were John Dolmayan (drums) and Shavarsh "Shavo" Odadjian (bass, backing vocals).

Lost In Hollywood at Amazon

Celluloid Heroes – The Kinks (1972)

Influential British rock band the Kinks included this beautiful ode to screen legends on their double album Everybody's In Show-Biz, released in 1972.  The wistful ballad is a great example of Ray Davies’ exceptional songwriting abilities. The Kink’s chief songwriter and lead singer can take on just about any subject and craft a brilliant song out of it. The track has Davies taking a nostalgic stroll down Hollywood Boulevard as he reminisces about silver-screen icons from the past, including Greta Garbo, Bette Davis, Rudolph Valentino and Marilyn Monroe, and how stars like these never really die because they live on through their films—and are viewed by some as just an image on the big screen rather than real people made out of flesh and blood.

Davies also reflects on the not-so-glamorous side of the film biz and sings about the stars who became lonely and unhappy due to the isolating effects of their massive stardom, as well as those who fell victim to the excesses of celebrity and fortune (drugs, alcohol, etc). And the song even touches on the multitude of nameless struggling actors and actresses who never made it in the film industry.

The lineup for the Kinks at the time they released Everybody's In Show-Biz was as follows: Ray Davies (lead vocals, acoustic guitar, Resonator guitar), Dave Davies (lead guitar, slide guitar, backing vocals, banjo and 12-string guitar on “Celluloid Heroes”), Mick Avory (drums, percussion), John Dalton (bass, backing vocals) and John Gosling (keyboards).

Celluloid Heroes at Amazon

Hollywood Tonight – Michael Jackson (2011)

This dynamic Michael Jackson track reflects on the price of fame. It’s about a woman who gives up everything to achieve her dream of becoming a famous movie star. But once she realizes her dream, she learns that fame is not all that it’s cracked up to be. Now a huge star, she’s has no privacy, constantly hounded by bullying paparazzi and rabid autograph-seeking fans at every turn.  She now lives a fishbowl existence where her every move is heavily scrutinized.

This song illustrates what a talented songwriter MJ was.  In addition to the infectious, hook-filled grooves he’d create, he was a great storyteller lyrically, often drawing from his own personal experiences as a pop/soul superstar in penning some of his best songs (i.e., “This Place Hotel,” “Billie Jean,”  “Stanger in Moscow,” “Dirty Diana,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”).

The song's powerful groove boasts a pulsating beat that’s reminiscent of the one on MJ’s classic smash “Billie Jean.” It also has a driving bass line and funky rhythm guitar licks that are also similar to those on “Billie Jean.” The song was co-written by MJ, Teddy Riley and Brad Buxer. It’s was the second single off his posthumous album Michael, released in 2010. It had been a previously unreleased song that was written during the recording sessions for his 2001 Invincible album. The song has a great dance-filled music video, which stars talented Algerian-born French model, dancer, actress Sofia Boutella. The video contains plenty of MJ nods, from his signature dance moves to his iconic attire.

Hollywood Tonight at Amazon

Hollywood – Connie Francis (1961)

This snappy rocker is by chart-topping pop superstar Connie Francis. It’s about a bumpkin who fancies himself the town Romeo and walks around like he’s a Hollywood star (“Who's the local yokel with the horn rimmed bifocals?”). But in reality he’s never even been out of his small town. The song was penned by singer/songwriter John D. Loudermilk and features a rockin’ saxophone solo by legendary sax man Boots Randolph.

Hollywood by Connie Francis at Amazon

Candle in the Wind – Elton John (1973)

This Elton John ballad is both a loving tribute to legendary film star Marilyn Monroe and a searing indictment of the Hollywood star system that was in place when she worked in the film industry; this system exploited and used actors (treating them like mere commodities), building them up and then discarding them once their popularity began to wane.  Monroe’s tragic story has become a cautionary tale of the downside of Hollywood superstardom.

The song was penned by John and his longtime songwriting partner lyricist Bernie Taupin. It’s from the music legend’s multi-platinum album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973). Surprisingly, the song wasn’t released as a single in the U.S., but it charted at #11 on the pop charts in the UK. In 1997, John rewrote the song’s lyrics as a tribute to Princess Diana following her tragic death in a car crash, and he performed it live at her funeral. This revised version of the song shot to #1 in a number of countries, and Guinness World Records has it listed as the second best-selling single of all time, with more than 33 million copies sold worldwide.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Jermaine Jackson Gets Funky On The Arsenio Hall Show

Jermaine Jackson doesn’t seem to get a lot of love these days. He’s been really underrated and underappreciated of late and is frequently overshadowed by his two superstar younger siblings, Michael and Janet. People sometimes forget what a talented artist Jermaine really is. And that’s a shame because dude can put it down on the bass and is a stellar vocalist and performer. And contrary to popular belief, he’s had quite a successful career as a solo artist in his own right. He’s recorded some great music over the years as a solo artist and had several top ten hits on the R&B charts, and a few on the pop charts as well.

One of my favorite Jermaine tracks is “Let’s Get Serious,” which was the title cut from his 1980 million-selling album Let’s Get Serious.  The funky, high-energy dance track was written by his Motown labelmate Stevie Wonder and singer/songwriter Lee Garrett.  Stevie also produced and arranged the track as well as sang the vocal part on the bridge. And he played several instruments on the song, including synthesizer, piano, drums, electric piano (Fender Rhodes) and Celesta.  The track performed extremely well on the charts and was Jermaine’s first #1 R&B single as a solo artist. It also fared well on the pop and dance charts, peaking at #9 and #2, respectively. And the song had an impressive showing on the UK charts, rising to #8.

Jermaine brought the house down when he performed the song on The Arsenio Hall Show in 1989. The singer/bassist turned in a killer performance, which reminded everyone what a charismatic and consummate live performer he was and why he was the second most popular member of the Jackson 5. He was plucking up a storm on the bass while delivering a smooth, soulful vocal performance, and he made it all look so effortless. And with the help of his background singers, he did a terrific job singing Stevie’s part on the bridge. Jermaine also performed the song on the Jacksons’ Victory Tour in 1984.

What I never understood is why Jermaine didn’t play the bass line himself on the original studio recording of the track.  (Session bassist Nathan Watts played bass on the original recording.)  Jermaine was clearly capable of playing it well himself, as evidenced by his performance on The Arsenio Hall Show and on the Victory Tour stops. Perhaps he just wanted to focus on delivering the best vocal performance he could and left the bass work in the very skilled hands of Watts. Or maybe it was Stevie who wanted Watts to play on the track, because he had been laying down the bottom on many of Stevie’s recordings since the mid-70s, including the classics “I Wish” and “Sir Duke.”

I guess it's not really all that important who played the bass on the studio recording of the "Let's Get Serious." But what is significant is that it's one of Jermaine’s most funky and memorable tracks. It’s just an irresistible groove highlighted by a dynamite vocal performance.

Lets Get Serious at Amazon

Related blog entry: Jermaine Jackson's Tell Me I'm Not Dreaming (Too Good To Be True), Featuring Michael Jackson

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

"Get Up and Get Down" By The Dramatics

In 1971, Detroit quintet the Dramatics dropped this epic track, which quickly blew up on the airwaves and packed dance floors. This track is absolute fire—at once super-funky and velvet-smooth. The powerful groove is superbly arranged and orchestrated, boasting dynamic horn lines, tight guitar riffs and soaring strings. And the vocals are exquisite, with the group members calling one another out in a rousing vocal showdown. It's just a stone-cold cut that you can’t help but move when it comes on.

There is also something very cinematic about this track; you can imagine it being used for the opening scene of a blaxploitation film circa the early 1970s; so it’s not surprising that it was featured in a scene from the Hughes Brothers’ hard-hitting urban crime drama Dead Presidents (1995), which takes place in the late ‘60s and early 70s. The song enjoyed a resurgence in popularity due to its inclusion on the film’s soundtrack.

“Get Up and Get Down” was written and produced by producer/songwriter Tony Hester and arranged by Johnny Allen. It’s a single from the Dramatics’ debut album Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get (released in 1972). The song peaked at #16 on the R&B charts and climbed to #78 on the Billboard Hot 100. However, the album’s biggest hit was the million-selling smash "In the Rain," which ruled the top spot on the R&B charts for four weeks and peaked at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100.  The album's title track also performed extremely well on the charts, climbing to #3 on the R&B charts and #9 on the pop charts. Hester produced the LP. He also wrote six of the album's eight tracks on his own and cowrote the other two.  

The lineup for the group when they released “Get Up and Get Down” was Ron Banks, Elbert Wilkins, Larry “Squirrel” Demps, William “Wee Gee” Howard and Willie Ford.

The Dramatics had a very successful career as one of the foremost R&B vocal groups during the ‘70s. Some of their other hits included “Toast to the Fool,” “Hey You! Get Off My Mountain” and “Shake It Well.”

Get Up And Get Down at Amazon