Seven decades. Seven songs.
The color palette on the James Blood Ulmer album cover is fire tho.
1920’s-50’s: “I Remember Clifford” by Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers (1958)
Made in tribute to Clifford Brown, a gifted young trumpeter killed in a car crash, "I Remember Clifford" is rightfully slow-simmering, emotional, and led by the trumpet. Lee Morgan plays the epitaph with pride, sentimental yet strong. The song is is a soft affair all the way throughout the piano solo, with Blakey staying using brushes on the drums. However, when Morgan re-emerges to solo, the band comes in at full strength, presumably another tribute to Brown.
Throughout his career Art Blakey served as a coach of sorts, making the Jazz Messengers a rotating group of fresh young talents. Artists like Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, and Wallace Roney have all been members of the ranks. "I Remember Clifford" is also remembered as one of Lee Morgan's moments that led him to prominence.
1960’s: “Life Goes On” by Big Mama Thornton (1966)
Far from refined, Big Mama Thornton's voice carries all the weight of her words and then some. Singing of lost love and opportunity, "Life Goes On" is dripping with remorse. The quiet resilience that runs through blues music remains, as Thornton sounds tired but never defeated.
Whatever optimism exists in the song is buried deep under the slow, sauntering groove the band settles in. A simple three-piece with piano, bass, and drums, the song is simple in its arrangement and execution. Of course, simplicity can be a gift and there's a beauty in the truth of the lyrics. As long as life goes on, the blues will be around.
1970’s: “Negril” by Boris Gardiner (1973)
Although the title track is more notable from Boris Gardiner's soundtrack album, the last track on the album is worthy of recognition as well. An active organ gives the 6/8 Afro-Latin groove real life, with the bass and drums serving as the rhythmic undercurrent. Reverberated lead guitar sparsely floats around, giving the straightforward track a sense of space.
"Negril" sounds like what it is, background music. However, there's musicality and finesse evident in what might otherwise be seen as a mundane track. From the organ to the rock-solid rhythm section, there's much to appreciate in this slice of the 70's.
1980’s: “Pleasure Control” by James Blood Ulmer (1981)
James Blood Ulmer's music is often a little rough around the edges, like Ulmer himself. Well versed in free jazz, his guitar riffs are often sharp dissonant shards that slice through the groove. On "Pleasure Control" propulsive drums pulse under a slapped bassline, indicating Ulmer's other love, funk.
To be clear this isn't Sly Stone's funk ready-made for the pop charts, nor is it P-Funk's Rock-influenced strain either. Ulmer sounds incensed, giving a frustrated take on the sensuality that so often makes up the subject matter of funk. If Thelonious Monk played funk guitar solos, they might've sounded like the one Ulmer lays on this track.
1990’s: “Use Your Heart” by SWV (1996)
Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams aka The Neptunes got in the game pretty young. Signing with new jack swing legend Terry Riley straight out of high school they spent a few years holed up in studios, honing their skills. "Use Your Heart" is among their first production credits, and there's no doubt SWV only gave them a look because of the Riley connection (it's really all about who you know). Sonically it's far from the "Neptunes sound", leaning towards more conventional 90's R&B production.
The song itself is still a pearl, a plea to open up to love instead of practicality. The line "Baby, just relax and ride" sounds like a trademark Williams melody, as his pen was surely sharpening around this time. Hearing an early work from two virtuosos is a great way to understand their work better. "Use Your Heart" makes it clear that all those years under Teddy Riley taught them more than enough to become the icons that they did.
2000’s: “Be Here” by Raphael Saadiq (2002)
The perennially underrated Raphael Saadiq has always crafted quality music, whether it be in Hip-Hop or R&B. The one movement he didn't seem entirely hip to was Neo-Soul, so enlisting D'Angelo on "Be Here" is a meeting of both sides of the R&B world. The song still sounds as polished as Saadiq's other work, with lush strings acting as accent marks to the verses, and smoothing transitions.
Thematically, the contrast between the two singers is clear. Saadiq plays the earnest lover, insisting "I'm a good man, and I work hard on my night job." D'Angelo, in his customary style, plays the mysterious crooner with lines like "You should see the tricks I got for you mama". The difference couldn't be clearer in the chorus, which the men both take turns on. Saadiq coyly says "I got more than just a big stick and some money", D'Angelo bluntly explains "I got more than just some good dick and some money".
Although the men have different approaches they work well together, and this song snagged a Grammy nomination.
2010’s: “Your Teeth In My Neck” by Kali Uchis (2018)
Isolation was a knockout punch of a debut album, with Kali Uchis seamlessly adapting to the various soundscapes she picked for the project. There were plenty of notable producers and musicians across the project, from Damon Albarn to DJ Dahi, with Thundercat and Kevin Parker to boot. However, one of my favorite tracks was produced by The Wlderness, who's only other production credits are for Houston rapper/trapper Maxo Kream. Wlderness' Twitter is very low profile, a stark contrast from the star musicians Uchis enlisted for the other tracks.
"Your Teeth In My Neck" starts with a reverb-laden shuffle which quickly hops into double time. Initially just bass and drums, the simple loop builds throughout the verse, adding in some keys. By time Uchis reaches the chorus, guitar and a childlike synth join the mix. The heavily layered vocals fill the sparse beat well, smoothing everything out. In fact, smooth is the perfect way to describe this track, making for 3 minutes of bliss.