Seven decades. Seven songs.
A little free jazz never hurt anybody.
1920's-50's: "Billy Boy" by Miles Davis (1958)
"Billy Boy" is an interesting type of Miles Davis record for a few reasons. The first is that Davis doesn't play on the track for even a second. Instead the rhythm section of his first great quintet (Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones on piano, bass and drums respectively) take over to cover this traditional song. The second thing that's different about the song is that there's a bowed bass solo by Mr. Chambers. Bowed solos weren't unheard of, but they definitely weren't the norm for a bassist in the 50's.
Philly Joe Jones' brush work on the drums is inspirational to say the least, and Garland shows incredible chops all over the track. When those two get to trading 4's later in the track, it's the stuff that jazz dreams are made of.
1960's: "Satisfaction (I Can't Get No)" by Otis Redding (1965)
The Rolling Stones made a classic with "Satisfaction" and Otis Redding seemed to notice early, covering the song in customary Stax Records fashion. With ecstatic horn stabs and a lively drum track, the cover gets a bit of extra flavor from the Memphis based soul label. When it comes to vocals, if Jagger was frustrated on the original then Redding is irate.
Redding seems just about ready to burst by the time he reaches the drum break, but what really propels his performance are the ad libs that quietly do so much for the music. Every groan and growl push the track along rhythmically and help build tension. The sharp intake of breath at the end of each phrase becomes part of the fabric of the music, and Redding really does sound at his wit's end. If the original "Satisfaction" seems a little too indifferent to you, Otis' option may fit better.
1970's: "Tranquility" by Sam Rivers (1974)
This track may start like a conventional funk track from the 70's but it quickly turns into something a bit looser. Sam Rivers was a tenor saxophonist who played with folks like Quincy Jones and Miles Davis, but ventured into the world of free jazz. With the bass line staying (more or less) constant throughout the entire track, the rest of the band starts to really stretch out with some experimental harmonies and solos.
The combination of funk rhythms in the bass and drums mixed with free jazz parts by the horns are an interesting combination that might not have been explored enough. Here it sounds like Rivers was finding a happy medium between the two styles, one that brings out the best in both.
1980's: "A Change Is Gonna Come" by Jennifer Lara (1981)
Studio One has been described as "the Motown of Jamaica", and looking at artists involved with the label it's not hard to see why. Bob Marley and The Wailers, Lee "Scratch" Perry and Burning Spear were all connected with the label at various points in their careers, and the label was crucial to the rise of reggae, rocksteady, ska, dub and dancehall.
Jennifer Lara was a rocksteady vocalist who cut a couple albums for the label, and "A Change Is Gonna Come" is one of her best songs from her short run on the label. As a calmer alternative to dancehall and ska, her laid back vocals serve to comfort the listeners. Whether it's reassurance for anyone going through a dark period or a call for unity, Lara assuages any worry that might exist.
1990's: "Soon" by My Bloody Valentine (1991)
The drum pattern on this songs sounds like it might be more at home on a pop or dance track, but Kevin Shields, MBV's primary producer, makes it work. The effects-laden guitars drone on throughout most of the song, almost meditative in nature. The obscured vocals seem to be more for building emotion than being understood, and they actually become wordless on the back half of the song.
Shoegaze has always delivered walls of sound for listeners to get comfortable in, and "Soon" is no different. The dense groove of the song is easy to get lost in, and the nearly seven minute running time can fly by. When I listen to this song, for some reason I almost always have to repeat it a few times. I guess when you get comfortable in a groove, it can be hard to leave it.
2000's: "Tell Me" by Slum Village (2000)
D'Angelo and Dilla is a match made in heaven, and this track is a prime example why the two work so well together. Both artists use the "drunken" style of drumming to great effect, so while D'Angelo snags main production credit on the track, the continuity on an album executive produced by Dilla remains. It sounds like Dilla chops up his background vocals, looping those throughout the hook, an incredibly inventive move that helps the song stand out.
T3 and Baatin are as smooth as ever on the track, teasing in their delivery and their subject matter. It's clear why Slum Villiage were seen as successors to groups like A Tribe Call Quest, the had great cohesion. For this track and Fantastic, Vol 2 as a whole, they captured lightning in a bottle.
2010's: "The Birth of Petey Wheatstraw" by Georgia Anne Muldrow (2012)
With an amazing Shuggie Otis flip by Madlib, Georgia Anne Muldrow goes to work on this track. Muldrow's incredible range is displayed all throughout the song, and she seems to be singing from a divine matriarchal point of view.
The beauty of birth is the topic at hand told with incredibly refined vocals. Over such a gritty earthy sample, it almost seems out of place to sing about childbirth, but when you listen to the lyrics it makes more sense.
Muldrow opens up the song singing "No epidural for show, he was born on the bedroom floor". Muldrow strays from more sanitized versions of childbirth and finds beauty in it no matter how it occurs.