One point of information about the Ken Burn’s documentary Jazz turned my thought process around. And that was that after the second world war the big band swing era,which was based in popular instrumentalists,came to a rather abrupt end as popular singers (such as Frank Sinatra) began to attract more of the public’s attention. I suppose it’s a bit like the transition from silent films to talkies. After WW2, the music world went from being a largely poetic medium to being a realistic one. Society as a whole seemed to go in that direction as well,culminating in the 1990’s cultural ethic of hyper realism or imagination. This is reflected in pop culture also in a line from The Cosby Show I’ll never forget,where a character in one episode comments “I like Miles Davis’s newer work. I just wish he would sing”.
Now that I am writing my twentieth article for this website it really began to make perfect sense why for so many years,whenever I played a new jazz or funk album my father had never heard before he’d often ask “are there any instrumentals”? Interestingly enough,when I’d play an album by a more popular act he’d never heard of before he’d often ask “What is the hit on this album?”. It’s interestingly to me the identifiers people place on music unfamiliar to them. I’ll add myself to that in a big way. Here I’ll be discussing many of the instrumental songs,celebrating the non vocal side of expressing melodies. I’ve heard many instrumentals over the years. These are just the dozen I’ve collected that made the most telling impact. Enjoy!
I first heard this song in the early 90’s as part of the soundtrack to the Rob Stone documentary The Satellite Sky. Watching an interview with the director many year later he revealed the song to be called “Sleep Walk” by the duo Santa & Johnny. Considering the 1950’s environment it was recorded in,something about the relaxed,sweet yet somewhat lonely melody of this song,particularly the parts played on the steel guitar, brings to mind that essence of that particular decade of American history so much I’d personally vote it my favorite instrumental of the early rock n roll era.
After hearing this song for so many years on the radio,with it’s melody stuck to my head,it never occurred to me that this would be an enormous influence on the way in which I perceive instruments. In particular when I learned much later that drummer Red Holt and bassist Eldee Young were one part of the Ramsey Lewis Trio,who helped pioneer the transition between soul jazz and jazz funk. All the same,I didn’t even know who recorded this song until I was in my late teens.
Often times when I’d listen to oldies radio,they would play the better known vocal version of this song recorded by Friends Of Distinction along with the original, recorded by South African jazz musician Hugh Masekela. Both are very similar save for a couple differences-both of which make this song special to me. The tempo on this version is significantly slower. Not only that but I always loved the nice (and fitting) touch of the cowbell.
It was this song that introduced by to the sound of Memphis’s Bar Kays. This has to be one of the hardest edge example of late 60’s Southern funk/soul around with it’s horn fanfares and thick,rocking yet tight basses and guitars. It was just plain funk to listen to,and to marvel at the ability of this band. Though it was a little bit of a downer to learn that all but one member of this particular lineup of the Bar Kays perished in the same plane crash that killed Otis Redding in 1967.
Took a little while to figure out who did this song,but it’s my favorite rock n roll instrumental. And that’s just what it’s called: rock n roll. The second part is most famous. Even the vocal cries of the artist Gary Glitter are used in an instrumental fashion. I’ve heard it used on everything from commercials for sporting events to an episode of the TV show Northern Exposure. Interestingly enough some people might put songs like this up to unneeded scrutiny,especially (in cases like this) when the songs performer’s reputation is later tarnished.
Never ceases to amaze me that the best known pop hit for the Scottish group Average White Band is the heavy funk instrumental “Pick Up The Pieces”. Heard mostly on rock oldies stations often alongside very much unlike songs by Black Sabbath or Bob Seger (for example),this is a shinning example of a type of music very often (and cruely) shunned later in the decade and being miss-classified as disco/dance music. Still it’s very much a marvel to me.
For such a wonderful and memorable song,it may be a little bit unsettling to some to hear my first exposures to it were hearing it in department stores or on Canadian TV commercials for pork products. Interestingly enough I personally find that a high form of flattery. Not only is this one of guitarist George Benson’s finest recorded moments but the composition came from the pen of another guitar player Bobby Womack, himself not know for writing instrumentals.
Still recording excellent music today Spyro Gyra first entered my consciousness perhaps before my memory kicked in as this song wound up entering my consciousness in much the same manner as Breezin’ had. One of the things I love about it is the extensive use it makes of steel and kettle drums-something not heard a lot in this type of instrumental jazz.
Even before I was treated to the comical video of masturbating mannequins to this song “Rockit” was my first introduction to the non vocal side of the early break dancing /scratch culture with DJ Grand Mixer DST providing turntables for this songs favorite loop. Still my personal favorite of this genre.
As the 1980’s progressed,instrumentals were commonly relegated to the B-sides of 45 RPM singles of popular songs. While I loved the Human League hit on the first side of this,it was the B-side instrumental “Total Panic”,with it’s heartbeat-like rhythm,that really made a tremendous impact on me during adolescence.
Perhaps it has more to do with the “antieightitis” (as I call it) syndrome than not,but I never realized until recently that some people get this song and Rockit confused. Harold Faltermeyer is a far lesser known figure than Herbie Hanock. And though the songs come of out a similar era,this one is a lot faster and more dance oriented than Herbie Hancock’s more abstract take on the era’s instrumental ethic.
During the late 90’s I kept hearing this funky electronic instrumental on the radio and never seemed to find an announcer to mention who it was by. It was only quite by accident that I ran across it again on Daft Punk’s debut CD Homework many years later. Another example about how a serendipitous event let to a later musical discovery.