Thursday, January 04, 2007

Tribute to a Godfather: Play It, James!

James Brown:

Shhhhhhhh! (For a Little While)
Blind Man Can See It

Fred Wesley & The J.B.'s: Watermelon Man

James Brown's discography is chock full of instrumentals, starting with early '60s recordings like "Devil's Den" through to the J.B.'s LPs of the late '70s. Although Brown's legacy does not rest on his instrumental work, he played on quite a few of the instrumentals, mainly on keyboards or, as shown in the third of today's selections, the drums. All of today's selections represent my favorite instrumentals in which JB sat in with his band.

I included "Shhhhhhhh! (For a Little While)" in one of my podcasts but I used it as an instrumental bed for some announcements, so I'm posting it here, free of my voice. "Shhhhhhhh!" is a nice uptempo groove that encroaches on Northern Soul territory. There's a great hard piano groove that undergirds the record, and James mixes his quirky organ playing (see my prior post about "Believers Shall Enjoy" in regards to the mixed opinion that exists about JB's organ-led instrumentals ) with little grunts and "all rights." JB appears to be having a lot of fun working it out on this one, and I dare you to sit still through it. James played electric piano on "Blind Man Can See It," which was part of the Black Caesar soundtrack. A popular track for sampling, "Blind Man Can See It" starts off with a typical early-'70s JB groove, but then James and the piano storm to the forefront and the band lays back to allow James to solo for the rest of the tune in an almost conversational way. (The full version of the track, unearthed for the In the Jungle Groove comp, finds James adding some spoken commentary later in the cut which, in my opinion, wrecks the vibe that makes the tune special.)

If JB's keyboard work was unorthodox and unusual, his participation in Fred Wesley & The J.B.'s version of Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man" shows that his drumming was equally unique. I don't know what the circumstances were that inspired JB to take to the drum kit (usually left to the great John "Jabo" Starks and/or Clyde Stubblefield), but he lays down this hot-foot beat, pounding away on the bass drum and scattering snare and cymbal shots around in a manner more akin to a tap dancer's hoofing than jazz drumming (perhaps James was dancing on the stool while he played). Whatever James was doing, the tune does work and it showcases the jazz chops of James' band.

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