(For the season, and my Winter Fundraiser, I’m reposting some old favorites.)
What makes a song? We’re used to hearing pop music on the radio or in our ‘phones, hearing the instruments and the beat, and mainly hearing a lyrical structure, some combination of verse and chorus. While ‘song ‘ has come to mean a lot of things, including a movement in a Bach Partita according to a concertgoer I overheard last week, song is about someone actually singing words in some kind of poetic or narrative structure. Pop songs are written by the likes of Harold Arlen, Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello.
Except when they’re not. There’s a particular style of pop music where the songs are primarily instrumental, where the lyrical content, if anything is as minimal as can be. They are clearly songs, and they often have the kind of verse and chorus the ear identifies, but it’s not necessary. This music is meant to have deep popular appeal but can often be free form in terms of structure and have a lot of improvisation. It’s not jazz, though, even though, like jazz originally, it’s meant to get people on the dance floor. And it’s not jazz, even though like that music it’s a true American invention, a synthesis of other fundamental American types of music into something that reaches out to people all across the globe. I am writing about, of course, The Funk. And here’s a classic Funk song:
Okay, are you sitting back down? Kool and The Gang, prior to hits like ‘Cherish,’ were sunk in the deep funk. The single was cut to a little over three minutes for radio play and 45 sales, but the song sounds like the band could just play forever. There are the four (!) words that make up the lyric, “get down” and “jungle boogie,” but they don’t make the song structure. There is the drum-beat, the syncopated rhythm guitar and the incredibly hip bass line, doubled in the horns. The rest is just ornamentation. It’s all about the groove, that’s all the song has and all it needs, and that groove is made up of three funky pieces that build the feeling that you want to go in so many groovy directions, always safe in that rock-solid beat. Toss in a blues flavor, and that’s The Funk.
There’s a close musical relationship between jazz and funk and so it’s no surprise that Kool and the Gang were originally a jazz band, or that you’d have a hard time finding a jazz musician who didn’t both love funk and enjoy playing it. They share common roots in Blues and Boogie-Woogie, and funk became the modern music we know as a result of the development of hard-bop. You’d also find a lot of jazz musicians who made livings in bands playing funk at parties and weddings. There’s nothing better to get a bunch of people having a good time, and the best professional bands like that have kept themselves in business by playing a steady diet of Kool and The Gang and, especially, Tower of Power:
Wow, that’s great music! Good humored, tough, smart, musically sophisticated and physically pleasurable, it comes in a massive variety of flavors, from the minimalist polyphony of James Brown, the intense complexity of the Tower, the countrified blues of Funkadelic and the free-form jazz of Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time. It was adopted by Felà and returned to us in the form of Antibalas and the Budos Band, and is being kept alive and proud in Brooklyn by the amazing and amazingly funky Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings:
More even than jazz, this is the Holy Grail of American popular music, something that brings together the hard head and the sentimental heart with the populism of the groin, cutting across all socio-economic classes. It has the right sort of social and political inclinations and implications. It’s the ne plus ultra of urban American music, the place where the polyglot culture comes together in comity, without the deadening homogenization of the supposed “melting pot.” This is what makes the debut CD from Abraham Inc., “Tweet Tweet,” so fantastic. It’s easy to describe it as a mixture of funk, hip-hop and klezmer, but that makes it sound like a gimmick when it is both deeply serious and utterly fabulous.
The organization’s principals are Fred Wesley, Socalled (Josh Dolgin) and David Krakauer; James Brown’s music director, hip-hop musician and classical/klezmer clarinetist respectively. Beneath the professional labels are the fundamental roots in urban blues. From that, in three different and completely sympathetic flavors, comes Abraham Inc. The CD is both simple and complex to describe. The tracks are mostly funk/hip-hop arrangements of traditional klezmer tunes, but that says nothing about the playing. This is real funk, music that lays down a groove and that is meant for cutting, burning and wailing. And what music wails more than klezmer? Maybe the blues, and that’s where it all comes together.
The fun starts after a short opening that sounds like a gritty 1950s Blue Note LP. It’s funky ‘Tweet-tweet,’ a klezmer tune that itself is a riff as simple as the lyrics for ‘Jungle Boogie.’ There’s the beat, the rhythms, the blowing and the rapping! C. Rayz Walz is featured on the recording (he also collaborated with Socalled on the fine original lyrics), and he’s excellent, as is the rest of the band, which includes Jerome Harris on bass, Michael Sarin at the drums and Allen Watsky on guitar. This is tough, poised, street-smart funk, full of joy but also the sense that something serious is being undertaken. Everything works. ‘Moskowitz Remix’ is the best, hottest improvising I’ve heard in hip-hop. It would seemingly be obligatory to have an arrangement of ‘Hava Nagila,’ and that’s what ‘The H Tune’ is, but the combination of a rolling, zydeco-flavored beat and the incredibly sexy singing is unbelievable. Mickey Katz’ ‘Trombonik Tanz’ becomes ‘Trombonik,’ a fast and furious feature for Wesley’s meaty trombone and Walz’s skittering, funny rap.
This is one of those records where everything is done so well and purposefully that the listener feels assured at every moment. One of the originals, ‘Push,’ seems for a moment that it might be a little too enthralled to a parody of Barry White, but that moment passes so quickly and the sense of being borne along this supple beat and lyricism, with great solo contributions from Brandon Wright’s tenor sax and Freddie Hendrix’s trumpet, is incredibly satisfying. The centerpiece track is ‘Baleboste: A Beautiful Picture,’ a traditional with added, new lyrics, with the most exquisite balance of klezmer melody, hip-hop beat, funky scratching guitar, and a tone that is both heavily bluesy and seriously sophisticated. And that’s the essence of the record. It’s burning music making with something more powerful than any argument or message; making music is the glue that holds civilized people together, on the streets and in their rooms, and these musicians are making civilization. It has a swaggering defiance about it, the sense that people can’t be told how to live and love together, they’ll do it as they see fit. That’s a beautiful thing.
Left-wing academics and Republicans may prefer their culture commodified and identity-politicized, but culture is non-material. It is ideas and values and they belong to anyone who commits to them. The more people hold a value the more that culture spreads, and that’s a good thing. The musicians, speaking from inside culture, convey the idea of what America is and how people are better than anyone paid to tell us how we think and act ever could:
Remember the 2008 election, when Obama had a Jewish problem? That idea could only have existed in the minds of people insulated from civilization, people who never ride the buses or the subways, who feel that Harold Ford is a regular person just like them and an excellent Senate candidate. They are people who not only cannot understand this record, but cannot even comprehend its existence. They have never actually walked the streets of New York City and seen, as I have, a burning funk band on the sidewalks off of Times Square, screaming through ‘Chameleon,’ a young black guy playing the sax, a young Orthodox Jew playing the bass. Be cosmopolitan, be real. Get down.
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