Thursday, June 04, 2009

Wade Marcus on Blue Note

While Larry and Fonce Mizell have been relentlessly celebrated for interjecting a hugely funky vibe into the Blue Note groove of the early 1970s - and therefore almost setting the standard for dance-floor revisionism and heavy-duty sampling - they were not the only ones who were there, nor, if I can get sacrilegious here, the best of what was happening at the time.

The Mizell Brothers certainly had something unique and unlike anything else that was happening back then. The quirky rhythms, the ethereal vocals and the strange half-melodies which nearly buried the lead players with production clicked with record buyers, crate diggers, DJs and samplers. So who am I to say? I still don't get the Mizell sound. But many, many others do.

My point is that the Mizells somehow made everyone forget about the other great soulful stylists of the time like Horace Ott, Monk Higgins, Richard Evans (who was not a Blue Note man) and, most importantly, Wade Marcus.

Born in Cleveland - and having since relocated back there after residences in Detroit, New York and Los Angeles - Marcus got his start at Motown, where he was responsible for an untold number of arrangements there (Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Chuck Jackson, Diana Ross & The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Originals, The Marvelettes, Gladys Knight & The Pips, The Supremes & The Four Tops) and most notably on Stevie Wonder's huge hit "For Once In My Life."

Strangely, it was the Atlantic-distributed Cotillion label that issued Wade Marcus' debut solo album, A New Era, the first of only two albums released under his name, in 1971. Although Marcus didn't have much of an association with this particular label, it came right between the end of his association with Motown and the beginning of his association with Blue Note.

A New Era is a terrifically funky take on a number of pop tunes of the era, highlighted by such prominent soloists as guitarists Eric Gale and Vincent (Vinnie) Bell, keyboardists Richard Tee and Paul Griffin and an early show of Marcus' fondness for the harp with nice spots for harpist Gene Bianco. "Feelin' Alright" and "Spinning Wheel" have both become well-deserved DJ favorites from this album.

Following a trend that found the fledgling CTI Records successful with its Don Sebesky arrangements, Marcus, along with Ott, became something of an in-house arranger for Blue Note starting in 1971.

Other than the fact that CTI records were selling when most other jazz records were not, Blue Note didn't seem too convinced of this direction in the music. Certainly, "arranged" music was not the Blue Note métier. Marcus seemed to sense this and kept his participation at a minimum. It's almost like he got the players to just play funky and when that wasn't enough - he overdubbed horns or strings that took them that one step further.

If anyone could do it, Wade Marcus could. You can't knock his funk: a soulful blend of structured sound and rhythmic conciousness.

It's a shame the folks at Blue Note have not stepped out to celebrate the contributions Wade Marcus made to the label during the 1970s with some sort of sampler or compilation disc as they have done for the Mizell Brothers. I'm sure a lot of groove hounds and crate diggers would appreciate a sampler of what this man did at just this one label. There's plenty of good stuff to choose from, as noted below.

Set Us Free - Reuben Wilson (Blue Note, 1971): For organist Reuben Wilson's fourth and final Blue Note album, Wade Marcus assembled a small studio group featuring Jerome Richardson on sax, David Spinozza on guitar, Richard David on bass, Jimmy Johnson on drums, Ray Armando and Specs Powell on percussion and, notably, Gene Bianco on harp. The inspired addition of the harp gives the album a sound unlike any other organ record made and truly makes it one of Wilson's best sounding albums. Wilson always was funky, so teaming him with Marcus was a good idea. Marcus also adds the vocal group Essence to "We're In Love," "Mr. Big Stuff" and "Mercy, Mercy Me," which also works much better than it sounds. The program consists of a few soulful covers ("Mercy, Mercy Me," "Mr. Big Stuff" and Eddie Harris' excellent "Set Us Free") three Wilson pieces and one by Marcus himself. The highlights are plentiful, but I would first choose "Set Us Free" and Marcus' own "Right On With This Mess" followed by Wilson's three originals, "We're In Love," Sho-Nuff Mellow" and "Tom's Thumb." Marcus also contributes arrangement to Reuben Wilson's long treasured Got To Get Your Own (Cadet, 1974), which Dusty Groove recently issued on CD. Set Us Free was issued on CD as part of Blue Note's Rare Groove series in 2008 with new liner notes that inconceivably don't even mention Marcus' participation or contribution.

Flute-In - Bobbi Humphrey (Blue Note, 1971): Flautist Bobbi Humphrey's debut solo album is a mixed bag of pop covers, retro-boogaloo and thinking-man's (woman's?) jazz funk that succeeds mostly because the small-group settings provided by Wade Marcus complement the flautist's soulful improvisational style. Humphrey was a protégé of Lee Morgan and the trumpeter appears on three of the album's jazzier tracks: the odd reprise of Morgan's hit "The Sidewinder," "Journey to Morrocco" and "Set Us Free" (the Eddie Harris tune Marcus previously scored for Reuben Wilson). Tenor saxophonist Billy Harper, who was in Morgan's band at the time, appears on several cuts too and Gene Bertoncini offers up a good foot-tapping groove on wakka-wakka guitar. Marcus contributes two originals to the program, "Don't Knock My Funk," which he would reprise as "Countdown" on Johnny Hammond's Forever Taurus (Milestone, 1976), and "Journey to Morocco," which he would revisit on his own album, Metamorphosis (ABC Impulse, 1976). The highlight here is "Don't Knock My Funk." But the pop covers of "Ain't No Sunshine," "It's Too Late" and "Spanish Harlem" all sound pretty groovy too.

Shades of Green - Grant Green (Blue Note, 1971): Guitarist Grant Green recorded this excellent bit of soulful funk as part of a small group in Los Angeles during November 1971 that included his band's Billy Wooten on vibes and Emmanuel Riggins on keyboards with sessioneers (Crusader) Wilton Felder on electric bass, (Crusader) Stix Hooper on drums, King Errisson on conga and Harold Caldwell on percussion. The following month, Wade Marcus overdubbed horn parts in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, and the result was something sensational; surely the best of the guitarist's late period (1969-1979) output. Marcus' charts are a study in expert, soulful horn scoring. What he does on the James Brown medley, Green's "California Green" (titled, no doubt, to commemorate one of Green's only West Coast recordings), "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" and "In The Middle" are terrific displays in a signature groove that could be no one else's but Wade Marcus. Anyone familiar with Marcus' work on Mile Davis' "Red China Blues" will certainly recognize what he accomplishes on "In the Middle." (Check out Bo Diddley's Big Bad Bo for further evidence of Marcus' signature soul style on horns.) This program consists mostly of R&B/soul cover tunes (James Brown's "In the Middle" and "I Don't Want Nobody…/Cold Sweat," Michael Jackson's "Got To Be There" and Stevie Wonder's "If You Really Love Me") as well as those from the pop world (The Associations' "Never My Love"), show tunes ("Sunrise, Sunset") and jazz (Vince Guaraldi's "Cast Your Fate To The Wind"). The album's highlights are all the up-tempo groovers, "I Don't Want Nobody…/Cold Sweat," "California Green" and "In the Middle," where Green's group lays down a firm foundation that elicits tasty playing from the guitarist and spicy adds from Wade Marcus. Issued on Japanese CD in May 2009.

The Final Comedown - Grant Green (Blue Note, 1971): Always billed as a Grant Green album, The Final Comedown is much more properly attributed to Wade Marcus, who composed, conducted and arranged the score to this little-known 1971 film (also known as Blast) featuring Billy Dee Williams in an early role. While the score only occasionally showcases the guitarist ("The Final Comedown," "Soul Food," "Slight Fear and Terror," "Luanna's Theme" and (probably) noodling behind the beat of "Afro Party"), there is no denying these tunes are the album's best-known bits and give it its slightly misleading reputation as a break-beat classic. For the record, I think some of the front-line guitar work heard here is actually Cornell Dupree and not Grant Green. Marcus crafts a fairly typical blaxploitation score here but peoples it with some of New York's finest jazz musicians, notably Marvin Stamm ("Fountain Scene"), Phil Bodner ("African Shop"), Harold Vick ("Afro Party"), Richard Tee ("The Final Comedown," "Father's Lament") and Grady Tate, George Devens and Ralph MacDonald ("One Second After Death"). Highlights: The definitely funky and oft-sampled "The Final Comedown," "Afro Party" and the brief but strangely affecting "Slight Fear and Terror."

Note: My copy of The Final Comedown is the 2003 European CD, which presents the album's 11 tunes in a different and presumably incorrect order than the line-up listed on the CD's jacket (which matches the tune line-up from the original LP). The CD's actual playing order is as follows: 1 = Past, Present and Future" (correct), 2 = "Fountain Scene," 3 = "Soul Food - African Shop," 4 = "Slight Fear And Terror," 5 = "Luanna's Theme," 6 = "The Final Comedown," 7 = "Afro Party" (correct), 8 = "One Second After Death," 9 = "Traveling To Get To Doc," 10 = "Father's Lament" and 11 = "Battle Scene."

Two Headed Freap - Ronnie Foster (Blue Note, 1972): Ronnie Foster's debut album finds the keyboardist and vocalist sticking strictly to the organ here - probably at the insistence of the Blue Note brass in a futile search for an heir to Jimmy Smith's artistic and money-making legacy. The thing is, though, Foster is an excellent organist who displays a unique and attractive technique. It's all the better for being surrounded in arranger Wade Marcus' urban funk groove - something he began showing a particular flair for at this point. Assembled to support Foster here is Gene Bertoncini on guitar, George Duvivier on bass, Gordon Edwards on electric bass, Jimmy Johnson on drums, Arthur Jenkins on congas, Geoerge Devens on vibes and percussion and Gene Bianco on harp. Aside from the two bassists, who take turns applying tasty accents here and there, Devens' vibes make an exceptionally nice complement to Foster's sound here. The program features five Foster originals plus Joe Simon's "Downing In The Sea Of Love," Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" and Wilson Pickett's "Don't Knock My Love." The highlight here is unquestionably Foster's intoxicating Latinate "Summer Song." But there is much here to appreciate and enjoy, from "Chunky" and "Drowning in a Sea of Love" to "The Two-Headed Freap" and "Kentucky Fried Chicken" - particularly in Foster's soloing. Issued on CD as part of Blue Note's Rare Groove series in 1995, but, sadly, now out of print.

Natural Illusions - Bobby Hutcherson (Blue Note, 1972): Bobby Hutcherson's first-ever orchestrated record is a mostly low-key production that finds the vibraphonist with Hank Jones on piano, Gene Bertoncini on guitar, Ron Carter or George Duvivier on bass, Jack DeJohnette on drums and Gene Bianco on harp aided by Wade Marcus's arrangements for four flutes, one oboe, one bassoon, two violins, two violas and one cello. Hutcherson sounds in fine, if somewhat restrictive, mettle on this set of mostly ballads, covering standards ("Lush Life," "Sophisticated Lady," "The Folks Who Live on the Hill"), B.B. King's "The Thrill Is Gone," Horace Silver's "Shirl" and Hutcherson's own very pretty "When You're Near." Marcus shows a restraint that is most remarkable, never using all the instruments at his command and only "sweetening" when it helps propel the leader along to his destination. The one wild-card here is Loonis McGlohon's somewhat out-of-place and otherwise unknown "Rain Every Thursday," a moody bit of soulful funk that gets a startling string arrangement from Marcus. The strings are so far in front here, that the success of this track is due as much, if not more, to Marcus as to Hutcherson. An undiscovered funk gem and true classic of the form, "Rain Every Thursday" is the album's single most exciting moment and makes it worth the price of admission alone. Issued on Japanese CD in May 2009.

Gene Harris Of The Three Sounds - Gene Harris (Blue Note, 1972): Like many of the many Three Sounds albums before it, pianist Gene Harris' debut under his own name promises more funk than it delivers. Producer and arranger Wade Marcus keeps it simple, only enhancing Harris' familiar trio sound with the occasional rhythm guitar (Cornell Dupree or Sam Brown) and percussion (Johnny Rodriguez, Omar Clay). Drummer Freddie Waits and bassist Ron Carter contribute significantly to the groove that gets going here, providing Harris with a different, more contemporary vibe than the Three Sounds had previously established - which, no doubt, was the point. The album's zenith is the slithery groove of Eddie Harris' always interesting "Listen Here" but the Bill Withers classic "Lean on Me" sounds pretty solid too.

Dig It! - Bobbi Humphrey (Blue Note, 1972): Wade Marcus only figures on three songs from flautist Bobbi Humphrey's second album, "Is This All," "Smiling Faces Sometimes" and "Love Theme From Fuzz." But the cover of Norman Whitfield's brilliant "Smiling Faces Sometimes," made famous by both The Temptations and The Undisputed Truth, is the hands-down funk classic here. Humphrey accords herself nicely here, with just the right touch of something suggesting deeper emotions, overtop Marcus' scintillating, smoldering groove.

Marlena - Marlena Shaw (Blue Note, 1972): Singer Marlena Shaw's Blue Note debut finds her beautifully enveloped by Wade Marcus' sensuously swinging strings. The program consists mostly of show ballads and slow soul numbers. The bluesy "Wipe Away the Evil," launched by Marcus' appropriation of "All Blues," is as funky as it gets here - but listen to the string work Marcus contributes to the track's breaks. Shaw is a tremendous singer who deserves to better known outside of her burgeoning cult and Marcus knows how to effectively frame her voice without ever overtaking it.

Sophisticated Lou - Lou Donaldson (Blue Note, 1972): Unfortunately, I don't know this album. But here's an interesting comment from Lou Donaldson I found listed on the be.jazz blog: "My name was on albums like Sophisticated Lou, Sassy Soul Strut, Pretty Things—and they earned me a lot of money. What would happen there: they’d record it, and I just overdubbed it. A lot of times, I never saw the musicians; I don’t even know who was on the dates, unless you tell me. Because it was a drag to me, anyway. They’d say: “Why don’t you come and rehearse with the group?” and I’d say: “Not really—because if I do, I’d most likely have the arranger change all the music. So just put it on tape and I’ll come and play it. I’m not going to play it but once, anyway.” I never played ‘em more than once; I listened to it one time, and then I’d cut it—that was it. Because it was nothing to play—everything else was already there. But see, with that commercially packaged kind of stuff, you can’t do that; there’s nothing spontaneous about those records. It’s just one of those things, man. But fortunately, it didn’t hurt me at all; financially, it worked out fine."

From The Depths of My Soul - Marlena Shaw (Blue Note, 1973): Vocalist Marlena Shaw's second collaboration with Wade Marcus is a bit more engaging than the first, with a little more groove thrown in for good measure. But Marcus' marvelous strings still swirl throughout in grand fashion. Alan O'Day's "Easy Evil" (also covered by Dusty Springfield, Lulu, Tony Orlando, Captain & Tennille, John Travolta and many others) the album's funky laid-back single, is easily the highlight here, driven by (probably) Wilbur Bascomb's electric bass and Marcus' brilliant lower-brass accents (similar to what he'd do again in Yvonne Elliman's "If I Can't Have You").

When Joanna Loved Me - Dom Minasi (Blue Note, 1974): Little-known guitarist Dom Minasi, whose only previous recording was an Audio Fidelity album with Sal Salvador, issued two albums on the Blue Note label in the mid 1970s. When Joanna Loved Me is the first of these and even though Minasi seems to have chosen the program (well-known tunes that would appeal to everybody), he wasn't happy with the result. Wade Marcus not only produced the session but was responsible for arranging and conducting the extremely brief string parts on several pieces ("When Joanna Loved Me," "On Green Dolphin Street" and "Ill Only Miss Her (When I Think of Her)"). Even though the songs presented here are mostly well known, they don't sound exceedingly familiar. That's a good thing - but it may be a little disconcerting to some. It's a strange record, to be sure, and Marcus' more-than-unusual - yet minimal - string writing compliments Minasi's unique and strangely appealing approach. Not the funkiest thing on the planet. But a nice listen nonetheless.

Silver 'N Brass - Horace Silver (Blue Note, 1975): The Horace Silver quintet with a brass section arranged by Wade Marcus overdubbed. Unfortunately, I don't know this album.

Places and Spaces - Donald Byrd (Blue Note, 1975): A classic by any measure, the fourth of five albums trumpeter Donald Byrd made with the Mizell brothers is also a ripping good record; a snapshot in time, perhaps, but what a picture. Wade Marcus was brought in to add strings overtop the Mizells' monster mellow funk throughout and the results are often stunning. This is the place to hear how remarkable Wade Marcus can be at string writing (another example is "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" and "A Crazy Mixed Up World" from Sonny Stitt's otherwise disappointing Satan, Cadet, 1974). The whole album is a winner, but listen to "Change," "Wind Parade," the entrancing "Places And Spaces" and "Just My Imagination" (which almost suggests what Marcus would go on to do on The Tavares' "More Than A Woman") to hear Wade Marcus lay down some strings that really help a groove soar. Issued on CD as part of Blue Note's Rare Groove series in 1997.

Silver 'N Wood - Horace Silver (Blue Note, 1976): The Horace Silver quintet with woodwinds arranged by Wade Marcus overdubbed. Unfortunately, I don't know this album.

Caricatures - Donald Byrd (Blue Note, 1976): A Mizell Brothers production that adds Wade Marcus' strings rather perfunctorily to only two tracks ("Wild Life," "Dancing in the Street"). Undoubtedly, Caricatures is a funky good album, but it's not because of Wade Marcus.

Silver 'N Strings Play The Music of Spheres - Horace Silver (Blue Note, 1979): The last official Blue Note release before the label's 1985 resurrection was pianist Horace Silver's double LP about health, kindness, spiritual peacefulness and quasi-religious themes. The album is unfortunately dominated too frequently by vocalists, with Dale Oehler's strings overdubbed on sides 1 and 2 and Wade Marcus' strings on sides 3 and 4. Silver's definitive piano is much in evidence, supported by Tom Harrell on flugelhorn, Larry Schneider on sax, Ron Carter on bass and Al Foster on drums. But most of it is buried under lyrics that are sung and rather too preachy to enjoy. The fourth side, though, is instrumental and Marcus' strings briefly highlight the proceedings, but not to great advantage by any measure. Not the best way to hear any of these folks and considering this is the guy who wrote a tune called "Opus de Funk," there is really no funk whatsoever to be heard here.

Wade Marcus' funky work can also be heard on many other albums during this period, especially those R&B albums (Carolyn Franklin, The Dramatics, Mighty Clouds of Joy, The Sylvers, The Tavares, Peaches & Herb, Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis, Jr., Prana People, Pure Energy - and that only scratches the surface!) that are a little outside of my listening experience.

But he's also touched a great deal of work I have heard, and brings his funky talents to a wide variety of recordings including "Red China Blues" from Miles Davis' Get Up With It (Columbia, 1974), "Bite You" and "Hit or Miss" from Bo Diddley's Big Bad Bo (Chess, 1974), Marcus' own "Everybody Come On Out" from Stanley Turrentine's Everybody Come On Out (Fantasy, 1976), the Marcus originals "Countdown," "Ghetto Samba" and "Winds of Change" from Johnny Hammond's Forever Taurus (Milestone, 1976), "If I Can't Have You" and "More Than A Woman" from Saturday Night Fever (RSO, 1977), "Christo Redentor" from Donald Byrd's Thank You…For F.U.M.L. (Funking Up My Life) (Elektra, 1978), "Inflation" from Stanley Turrentine's Inflation (Elektra, 1980) and "Uptown Conversation" from Ron Carter's Super Strings (Milestone, 1981).

Plus, you can check out my West Coast Fusion post to find out even more of Wade Marcus' funky handiwork with Brass Fever, Sonny Stitt and the second of Marcus' two solo albums, the wonderful Metamorphosis (ABC Impulse, 1976).

3 comments:

Carlo said...

thanks for the great article.. !

looking foraward to some new article on Horace Ott !

Kirkatron said...

Ditto Carlo's comment.
I can also recommend the other two Horace Silver LP's mentioned.

Jay said...

Both Silver and Brass and Silver and Wood are HUGE records, with wonderful contributions by Wade. Hard to find, but sublime.