Tag Archives: Michael Jackson

Quincy

Quincy is a 2-hour film about Quincy Jones, directed by his daughter Rashida Jones and Alan Hicks. It debuted on Netflix in September.

Compared to the BBC’s two-part documentary The Many Lives of Q from around 10 years ago, Quincy is an intimate, almost home-movie-ish affair. Rashida Jones and Hicks divide their film into two parallel strands: one that follows present-day Quincy as he produces a stage show to commemorate the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and one where, in voice-over, Q talks about how he got to be the most famous living record producer, and a man so powerful he can just name his cast for the aforementioned stage show and know they’ll drop everything to be there.

It starts, though, with a serious health scare. We begin with scenes of Quincy enjoying various parties, always with a glass in his hand. It isn’t long before someone asks him if he’s going overboard. He says he’s fine. Cut to Quincy in a hospital bed in a diabetic coma. After this near-run, Jones cut out the alcohol and concentrated on work.

As we find out during the biographical sections, Quincy Jones has always worked. To a fault, really. His need to keep working, keep finding new worlds to conquer, is more or less blamed for both his inability to sustain his marriages and the serious bouts of ill health that have punctuated his adult life, including the brain aneurysm that nearly killed him in 1974. The other shadow over his life, one that The Many Lives of Q didn’t discuss at all, was his mother’s serious mental illness, which led to her institutionalisation when Quincy was a child. She subsequently reappeared in his life at various, usually inopportune, times, and Jones remains clearly deeply ambivalent about her.

The film is at its strongest when it shows present-day Quincy putting the show together, and at its most moving when he walks around the soon-to-open museum, looks at the exhibits about the legendary musicians he knew and worked with, and remarks on how they’re all dead, apart from him. Conversations with his fellow living legends (Herbie Hancock, et al) revolve around how old they all are now.

Elsewhere, there’s a little revisionism going on. The film spends comparatively little time on the records for which he’ll always be remembered (Off the Wall, Thriller, Bad, Donna Summer, George Benson’s Give Me the Night and of course We Are the World), the work he produced as an artist (The Dude, Walking in Space, etc.) and the innumerable movie and TV scores (The Italian Job, In the Heat of the Night and Roots, which hardly was mentioned at all). Sinatra is over-represented; Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan under-represented. The Many Lives of Q, with its more linear structure, gives a clearer view of the man’s astonishing career.

Yet, while flawed, Quincy is a success on the whole. Few films about icons give away much about the private individual, and this one definitely leaves you feeling like you’ve got a sense of the man behind the platinum records and Grammy Awards. That’s a trick perhaps only Rashida Jones would have been able to pull off.  Would Q have let his guard down around Asif Kapadia or Alex Gibney? Unlikely. Quincy is definitely worth your time, but if you can find The Many Lives of Q, watch that too. Watch it first, in fact. The extraordinary body of work will make you care all the more about the extraordinary man behind it.

 

 

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Free – Deniece Williams

Those of you who find your way over here regularly and have read pieces I’ve written on the Delfonics, Boz Scaggs, Marvin Gaye, Hall & Oates, the Bee Gees, Bobby Caldwell, Odyssey, Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, Michael Jackson, and so on, may remember that I like my soul and disco music smooth and opulent: steady-bottomed drums, deep bass, lush orchestration, electric piano, wah-wah guitar. That’s the stuff that really speaks to me.

The opulence of Deniece Williams’s Free was provided by the duo of Earth, Wind & Fire singer Maurice White and writer-arranger-producer Charles Stepney, a man who had already done nearly as much as the more celebrated Thom Bell and Gamble & Huff to move soul into new, rock- and psychedelia-influenced territory – he’d produced Marlena Shaw’s The Spice of Life (California Soul, Woman of the Ghetto), Terry Callier’s What Color is Love, and Minnie Riperton’s work (both solo and with the Rotary Connection). A pair of heavy-duty talents, then.

The full unedited album cut of Free starts out like an out-take from In a Silent Way, all abstract electric piano tinkles and out-of-tempo percussion, while Williams sings in her breathy upper register. After a full minute, the song kicks into life. At first it sounds like nothing so much as an R&B take on Harvest-era Neil Young, with Young’s trademark boom-boom-tssch drum pattern and the simplest of ascending basslines. At the first verse proper, though, Verdine White’s bass starts dancing and the song becomes something else entirely.

It’s a masterpiece of arrangement. White’s intricate bass playing provides all the of the internal movement: Al McKay on guitar plays a simple comp part, the horns are so laid-back they’re practically horizontal, and Jerry Peters’ piano, like the guitar, largely keeps it simple except in his brief solo and during the coda.

Williams’s vocal performance is similarly tasteful and soulful. Capable of nearly the same glass-shattering heights as Minnie Riperton, Williams largely underplays her hand during Free, singing quietly and intimately (appropriately for a song in which she twice sings “Whispering in his ear, my magic potion for love”), and reserving improvistation in her upper ranges for the song’s minute-long coda.

As celebratory of physical intimacy as it is, though, Free is ultimately a song about not wanting to be in love – “I’ll only be here for a while” is the last line of the final verse, while Williams’s plea “I want to be free, free, free” is underlined both by the pushed phrasing of those repeated “free”s (they fall on the quaver before the one) and the increasingly elaborate decoration she applies to the simple upward melody.

Free was a surprisingly big hit on both sides of the Atlantic: number one in the UK two years after it was recorded (and keeping her former employer Stevie Wonder off the top spot) and number two on the US R&B chart. Free, in its way, doesn’t sound like a hit. It’s so intimate, it doesn’t feel like it should be the property of the masses, especially compared to her other big hit, Let’s Hear if for the Boy (from Footloose), which went all the way in the US and hit number two in the UK. Free, as I’ve said, is a masterpiece, one of the very best of its type.

Deniece WIlliams

The Songs from So Deep pantheon

Apologies for my somewhat odd posting schedule of late. I’ve been both pretty sick (chest infection) and hellishly busy (end of quarter), and have defaulted to writing about current preoccupations like British politics. I’m away this weekend, so won’t be back until next week now, but thought I’d leave you with what’s hopefully a fun one.

This blog has been running well over three years and in that time I’ve talked a lot about favourite songs and favourite albums, but without having put down a list in black and white.

So I thought I’d give it a try, and actually, it’s a tough exercise. The hardest thing is deciding how whether to include old favourites that you, if you’re honest, don’t listen to anymore. I’ve mentioned that Nirvana’s Nevermind was the album that inspired me to pick up a guitar and start playing, and in my teens I must have listened to it hundreds of times. But I’ve not sat down and listened to the whole thing as an album in a decade at least. I decided not to include it in favour of things that I still listen to regularly, but if the list were of albums that have meant the most to me, no question it would have to be in there.

Most of the records on my list I bought in my twenties. The one that’s newest, to me, is also the most recent, Hem’s Rabbit Songs, which I love for personal as well as musical reasons. The ones I’ve been listening to longest, Dust and Murmur, I first heard as a teenager in the 1990s, and I still hear new, fresh details in them each time I listen.

Top of the list, my two favourites, are Judee and Joni. I’ve written about both records here before. In fact, I’ve written about songs from most of these albums, if not the full albums themselves. Click on the links below for detailed thoughts.

  1. Judee Sill – Judee Sill
  2. The Hissing of Summer Lawns – Joni Mitchell
  3. Paul Simon – Paul Simon
  4. Good Old Boys – Randy Newman
  5. Murmur – R.E.M.
  6. Dust – Screaming Trees
  7. The Band – The Band
  8. Rabbit Songs – Hem
  9. The Heart of Saturday Night – Tom Waits
  10. Fred Neil – Fred Neil

The songs list is a bit less heavy on singer-songwriters and has more soul, funk and disco. For whatever reason, I’ve never found those musical forms as satisfying at album length, but maybe that’s down the road for me. Unsurprisingly, I’ve written about every single one of these here.

  1. Native New Yorker – Odyssey
  2. Didn’t I Blow Your Mind (This Time) – The Delfonics
  3. She’s Gone – Hall & Oates
  4. Silver Threads & Golden Needles – Fotheringay
  5. Stormy Weather – Nina Nastasia
  6. Tennessee Jed – Grateful Dead
  7. What You Won’t Do For Love – Bobby Caldwell
  8. What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye
  9. Someone to Watch Over Me – Blossom Dearie
  10. Rock With You – Michael Jackson

Holiday Harmonies Part 5: I Want You by Marvin Gaye

I’ve written about this song before, but in a first for this blog, I’m going to write about it again. Because it’s one of my favourite songs ever.

Nobody ever sang harmonies with themselves like Marvin Gaye. Not Prince. Not Joni Mitchell. Not Michael Jackson. Not even Michael McDonald, the self-harmonising hero of many a Steely Dan tune.

So far we’ve looked at harmonies created by two or more people singing with each other, but since Patti Page first sang the Tennessee Waltz, stacked vocals recorded by just one singer have been an extremely common alternative. Today it may even be the more common of the two approaches, as more and more records are the result of one person beavering away in a home studio by themselves.

In some ways it’s less satisfying for the listener. The way different textures and timbres blend with each other is a big part of what we respond to when we listen to singers harmonising. Some voices that are satisfying by themselves become less so when they double tracked or harmonise with themselves. Too much of a good thing. Too much of the same thing.

Other singers, though, and Marvin Gaye is the foremost example of the phenomenon, can create something magical when working this way.

It’s not just that Gaye’s voice naturally had a different grain when he sang in his low, tenor and falsetto ranges – although it did, and that definitely fed into it. It’s that he was skilled at manipulating those naturally different timbres (for example, making a high harmony part deliberately more wispy and thin to make it sit differently on top of another line that was close in pitch) and that he chose which octave to sing a given note in brilliantly.

Play a C triad on the piano consisting of middle C and the E and G just above it. Now add the A just above that G. That’s a voicing of C6. Now put the A underneath middle C. You might hear that as Aminor7, or as C6, but how you perceive it will depend on the context of the chord progression and the other instruments in the arrangement. Now, play that first C voicing again, add a low C and G in the left hand underneath it, and stretch out the right hand so the A is an octave above where it was in our first example. Each time the effect of that A within the chord is different.

The implications of this sort of game for vocal harmony singing are obvious. Notes that are “distant” from the underlying chord will tend to sound sweeter and clearer if they’re pitched up high. Putting them in the middle of the fray, so to speak, will make them sound darker, or more dissonant. Marvin understood all this and used his adaptable voice and very wide range to create gorgeously rich and often very harmonically dense block chords of oohs and aahs.

I Want You is a symphony for vocals. Although the mix does contain prominent horns and electric guitar, it’s the vocals – the overlapping leads, the ghostly oohs mixed left and right that span an almost unfeasible range – that cut deepest. When they suddenly seem to burst forward in the mix after the line “Ain’t it lonely out there”, it’s a truly spine-chilling moment.

marvin1
Marvin Gaye, king of self harmonisers

 

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 2: Don’t Let Go – En Vogue

En Vogue began their career in the new jack swing era, which meant that the rhythm tracks on their records were created with the use of samplers and drum machines(such as the ubiquitous Roland TR-808). The typical new jack swing drum track combined layers of elements so heavily syncopated that the overall track would have been all but unplayable by a single human drummer. The aesthetic of new jack swing – sonically and visually – was brash and loud, and these hyped-up, super-complex 808 tracks were a key element. They were not intended to be an undetectable replacement for a live track; the mechanistic quality was the point.

New jack swing’s moment passed quickly (by the time Michael Jackson released the NJS-influenced Dangerous, it was already becoming old hat), superseded by the more classic-sounding hip-hop soul of Mary J Blige, which relied heavily on samples from classic soul records, giving a less frenetic feel to the backing tracks and making new jack swing seem gauche in its raw energy. Hi-top fades quickly went out of style, as did the primary-colour wardrobe of NJS. Watch an episode of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air to remind yourself of the eye-popping NJS aesthetic. This was a time when grown men and women wore dungarees and romper suits

When En Vogue released their last single with Dawn Robinson on lead vocals, Don’t Let Go (from Set It Off), they were worlds away from their early sound and look: in was a piano line out of a James Bond theme and what sounded for all the world like a live rhythm section; the only holdover from their early sound was a wah-wah guitar, of which the group and their producers had apparently always been fond. The street feel of NJS had gone: the group’s new image looked expensive, and their new song sounded expensive. There’s even an orchestral tympani.

That rhythm track was, indeed, live, played by bassist Preston Crump (with an earth-shakin’ tone) and drummer Lil John Roberts, who has also played for Jill Scott, Monica and Janet Jackson. From the opening snare flam of his first whole-kit fill, Roberts’s performance is a monster, entirely suited to what is effectively an R&B power ballad. The groove is one of the the simplest possible: kick on one, snare on two, kick on three (played on both the fifth and sixth eighth notes in the bar) and snare on four. Roberts gives his high-tuned snare quite a thumping, playing the whole track with rimshots, to choke the snare’s low end and create more volume and cut, but there are lovely little details in the right hand, extra sixteenths and dotted notes, creating a subtle swing feel that subliminally links the song back to the group’s early hits, even as its arrangement is vastly different.

Lil John Roberts
Lil John Roberts, and his iPod-style bass drum resonant

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 1: The Groove Line – Heatwave

It’s back.

It’s time, once again, to discuss underrated drum tracks. For the third consecutive year, I’ll be doing a series of posts, each concentrating on one song with a great, and comparatively unappreciated, drum performances. They may be well known songs, but if they are they’ll be songs that tend to be discussed for elements other that the drums.

OK, here we go then.

Heatwave were a truly international bunch. Two American vocalists (both former GIs who had been stationed in Germany), two Englishman (one of whom went on to become trusted right-hand man of one of popular music’s most legendary producers, but more of him later), a Spaniard and a Czech.

The latter was Ernest Berger, nicknamed “Bilbo”, a portly, baby-faced drummer, gifted with one of the most solid right feet and funkiest left hands you ever did hear.

Disco comes in two basic flavours: 16th notes on the hats or eighths (quavers). Whichever you play, the snare will be on two and four, and the kick will be on every quarter note. The kick being played on every beat (which is often known as a four on the floor beat) is fundamentally what makes it disco. Not every disco song has this kind of drum pattern, but the vast majority do.

A disco track is nothing without a good steady pulse, but a machine can provide that if that’s all that’s required. It’s the ways in which a drummer can impart his or her own feel that really lifts a song. If you want to hear this for yourself, import Billie Jean into a DAW, chop out everything except the drum intro and loop it. Listen to it, feel it and absorb it. Then quantise it and play it back. Quantising is a process whereby a musical performance (usually a part played on a MIDI keyboard or a drum part) is snapped to a predefined grid, so that every event happens on a precise subdivision of a bar). Quantise the opening drums to Billie Jean and you’ll realise pretty quickly that something pretty major, and obviously detrimental, has happened. In the manner of funk drummers since time immemorial, Leon “Ndugu” Chancler, the drummer, played the backbeat on the snare late – not late as in, not in time; late as in, on the very back of the beat. It’s the push and pull between the kick that hits on the middle of one and three and the snare at the very back of two and four that makes it feel so great.

Ernest Berger did the same thing on Heatwave’s hits, notably The Groove Line and the deathless Boogie Nights. The basic groove (a 16th-note pattern) is supplemented by handclaps, which add to the funky feel; they seem to “drag” the backbeat even more. Berger’s performance is full of cool little details and live-sounding fills, but my favourite details is how he modifies the hi-hat pattern for the choruses (under the lines “Rain, shine, won’t mind, we’re riding on the groove line”), switching to a swingier feel for a few bars, playing two strokes strokes on the hat on the hats between the 1 and 2 (kick, left, right, kick/snare, left, right, etc). It’s a fantastic detail to really lift the choruses.

The song itself was written by the band’s keyboard player, Rod Temperton. The blackest white man ever to come out of Lincolnshire. The story, oft told by both, is that Quncy was flabbergasted to hear that the guy who’d been writing some of the baddest R&B, funk and disco hits of the era was a geeky-looking white guy from England. Hugely impressed with Temperton, Jones took him into his inner circle. Temperton’s songs are on Off the Wall (Rock With You, Off the Wall, Burn this Disco Out) and Thriller (Baby Be Mine, Thriller, The Lady in My Life), and he also wrote Give Me the Night for George Benson and hits for Patti Austin, James Ingram, Jeffrey Osborne and Rufus.

State of Independence – Donna Summer

Donna Summer was among the original crop of artists to sign to David Geffen’s new Geffen label, along with Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Elton John and John Lennon & Yoko Ono. Geffen was perturbed that, Double Fantasy apart, the first records by his chosen signees all flopped. This was an intolerable state of affairs; the artists had all received large advances that would now not be recouped in one album cycle, but more importantly, they had harmed the reputation of his new label in its very earliest stages. Asylum had been a boutique operation, an artists’ label (“I don’t think that every record we make is a hit or that every artist we record is going to be a star but I think that all the music we put out is very valid”, said Geffen in a TV interview); Geffen Records was about making money, and being seen by the industry to be making money.

When Summer was working on the follow-up to The Wanderer, that flop first Geffen record, David stepped in, cancelling the project and insisting that she work not with her usual collaborators, Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, but with Quincy Jones instead. It may be no exaggeration to say that Summer, Bellotte and Moroder had changed the course of recorded music when they made I Feel Love, but for Geffen this was not enough. Jones’s involvement, Geffen felt, would guarantee a hit (after all, Quincy had made Off the Wall and Give Me the Night) and Summer needed a hit. Geffen needed a hit.

Recorded between late 1981 and early 1982, Donna Summer was the last record Jones worked on before commencing Thriller and tells us quite a bit about where his head was at, particularly in regard to rhythm tracks. For Thriller, Jones made use of the new drum machines that had come on to the market (his engineer Bruce Swedien namechecks the Univox SR55, but it’s safe to assume the ubiquitous Linn LM1 was in there too) as well as his first-call session drummers (John JR Robertson, Jeff Porcaro).

State of Independence got there first. The herky-jerky swing of Summer’s Jon & Vangelis interpretation foregrounds its mechanical qualities and doesn’t pretend to have been played by people. Jones:

We started with a Linn Drum Machine, and created the patterns for different sections. Then we created the blueprint, with all the fills and percussion throughout the whole song.

From the Linn, we went through a Roland MicroComposer, and then through a pair of Roland Jupiter 8 synthesizers that we lock to. The patterns were pads in sequencer-type elements. Then we program the Minimoog to play the bass line.

The programs were all linked together and driven by the Roland MicroComposer using sync codes. The program information is stored in the Linn’s memory, and on the MicroComposer’s cassette.

Interview with Recording Engineer/Producer magazine

The question becomes, how do you add humanity, soul, to this kind of production? Fortunately Summer was adept at this kind of thing. She had done it ever since I Feel Love. Jones was moving into her territory on this tune, not the other way round.

I’d love to know if Summer handpicked State of Independence for her record. Jon & Vangelis’s original is, politely, all over the place. Anderson’s vocal is staccato, playing up the abstract, disjointed nature of his lyric and downplaying the gospel. Only in the “Sounds like a signal from my heart” does he seem to relax in his phrasing. Summer takes this as her starting point. The track’s early-days sequencing be as Brian Eno pointed out in a BBC documentary “crudely mechanical”, but Summer’s vocal is as sinuous as Pharaoh Sanders tenor solo.

But what truly puts the song over the top is the all-star chorus, described by Jones as a dress rehearsal for We Are the World: Michael Jackson, James Ingram, Dionne Warwick, Kenny Loggins, Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder and Michael McDonald. Jones and Swedien created the most glorious-sounding vocal texture in recorded-music history. Nothing else sounds like it. Every time, every time, I hear this song, the chorus give me goosebumps. But Summer earns the right to bring so much heavy-duty vocal power to bear in the preceding section with her own performance; there’s so much spirit and joy in her own interjection of “hey, hey” after the “holy water to my lips” line, and when she insists “his truth will abound the land”, it’s hard not to believe her, whatever you believe when the record finishes.

Not a big US hit, State of Independence did much better in Europe and still gets airplay in the UK. It deserves it. Outside of his Jackson work, it may be Quincy Jones’s finest production; outside of I Feel Love, it may be Donna Summer’s finest record.

donna summer

New recording by the author. The author cannot sing like Donna Summer or produce like Quincy Jones