Jazz

Deodato “Prelude” (CTI, 1972)

Brazilian keyboardist/composer/arranger Eumir Deodato’s records are bargain-bin staples, but some of them are cheap heat. Case in point: Prelude. First, it boasts the hugely unlikely hit “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001),” a jazz-funk reinvention of Richard Strauss’ momentous classical piece that illuminated Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey four years earlier. Second, it contains the oft-sampled “September 13,” a tune that Deodato wrote with the powerful, dexterous fusion drummer Billy Cobham (Mahavishnu Orchestra, Miles Davis, George Duke, et al.). Third, the cover has that lovely glossy sheen that Creed Taylor used on all of his CTI label releases. Because records should feel good, too.

My first encounter with album-opener “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)” dates back to the mid ’90s. As I was browsing in a massive, CD-dominated Cleveland record store, one of the clerks decided to play Prelude. “Zarathustra” soon swept me to deep Kubrickian space, with Deodato and company renovating the stars to glitter with an ungodly radiance. After an intro of tambourines, burbling organ, and paradiddles, the piece soon shifts into a higher gear with a funky Cobham beat that wonderfully lags behind Deodato’s fanciful electric-piano acrobatics and Stan Clarke’s cat-like bass strut. Then in a move that upstages everybody, John Tropea inscribes baroque calligraphy on the firmament with a mercurial, diamond-hard guitar solo. These nine minutes of virtuosity and inventiveness take that Strauss opus to zones heretofore unknown. Talk about an album blowing its wad right out of the gate…

The rest of side one can’t help seeming slight. The Deodato composition “Spirit Of Summer” offers a stark contrast, as Eumir and the boys downshift into a pensive ballad that swells, swirls, and glimmers like a WWII-era Hollywood soundtrack—or perhaps a Quincy Jones-like approximation of same. A rococo guitar solo by Jay Berliner (Van Morrison’s axe man on Astral Weeks) lends the piece a flamenco air while the flute and orchestrations tilt the coda into airy-confection territory. “Carly & Carole” verges on frou-frou, if competent, dinner jazz, wafting pleasantly on mellow plumes of flute.

On side two, things initially remain a tad lightweight with “Baubles, Bangles And Beads,” which comes off as a sprightly, Herb Alpert-esque jazz-pop trifle. But after a bit, Tropea’s hip, snaky electric-guitar solo signals to the other players to elevate their game accordingly, with bassist Ron Carter, Cobham, and conga masters Airto and Ray Barretto especially standing out. Thankfully, the final two cuts restore our faith in Deodato. “Prelude To The Afternoon Of A Faun” levitates on Hubert Laws’ unspeakably beautiful flute solo, icy piano cascades, funky conga and flute action, and Marvin Stamm’s bold trumpet solo. This song really blossoms and then ebbs into cerebral, Bitches Brew-like introspection. Claude Debussy-penned music likely has never grooved so hard. Prelude closes on Deodato and Cobham’s très funky “September 13.” That much-sampled intro features Cobham so deep in the pocket, he punches through it. Tropea’s laconic chicka-wokka guitar accents and filthy flare-ups split the difference between Carlos Santana and Harvey Mandel while probing bass, fruity electric piano, and triumphant flutes brighten the corners. Eumir sure did bookend this album with burners.

As I type, there are many copies of Prelude classing up used-vinyl bins nationwide, and they’re priced to move. No sophisticated home should be without one. -Buckley Mayfield

Roy Ayers “Coffy” (Polydor, 1973)

Blaxploitation flicks flourished briefly and brightly in the ’70s, but most have been forgotten, except by fanatical film scholars and heady hip-hop producers. But the soundtracks that accompanied them have had a much longer shelf life in the public’s consciousness. Thankfully, the guardians of these gritty and flamboyant urban cinemascapes have kept awareness and availability alive all these decades later, and heads are consequently richer for having easy access to classics of the genre such as Curtis Mayfield’s Super Fly, Isaac Hayes’ Shaft, James Brown’s Black Caesar, Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man, and Earth, Wind & Fire’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song. Along with these monuments to long-sideburned coolness, Roy Ayers’ Coffy belongs snugly in the top 10.

Of course, Ayers had established himself as a jazz-funk catalyst previous to this swanky soundtrack, and consequently his catalog has become one of the most fertile plundering grounds for hip-hop producers. In Ayers’ canon, Coffy is one of the richest source for said samples. I haven’t seen the movie, in which a nurse tries to get justice and revenge against the drug dealers responsible for misleading her 11-year old sister to drug addiction, but no matter. Ayers and his crack team of musicians have forged a treasure trove of action-packed jams that slap, from penthouse to pavement.

“Coffy Is The Color” kicks things off in a manner as peppy and funky as Curtis Mayfield or Stevie Wonder on happy pills, powered by chikka-wakka guitar from Billy Nichols (or is it Bob Rose?), William King’s percolating congas, Ayers’ lithe vibes, and Richard Davis’ tensile yet rubbery bass. Ayers sings, and he ain’t bad for a vibraphonist, though he’s no Curtis or Stevie. “Pricilla’s Theme” starts as a mellow gold instrumental, a breezy, cushiony reverie that’s silk-sheet luxury… until Ayers goes elegantly manic on vibes and the bass/drums/percussion groove gets (gy)rated XXX. Talk about a split personality!

On “King George,” Ayers places his stage-whispered chat about the titular pimp over a lubricious, methodical rhythm that evokes War’s “Slippin’ Into Darkness.” If you’re gonna evoke, evoke the best, right? “Aragon” is as super-fly as Mayfield’s “Super Fly,” but soul-jazzier; Roy and comrades pack so much coolness, tension, and action into 2 minutes 52 seconds. “ King’s Last Ride” is as flashy and funky as a pimp’s wardrobe, but it’s a tease at 65 seconds. On “Brawling Broads” (oh those wacky ’70s), Richard Davis’ strutting bass line and Dennis Davis’ in the pocket slaps undergird Ayers’ delicately spine-tingling vibes motif. “Escape” brings white-knuckled suspense funk with rapid bongos/congas, trombone, and trumpet. Co-written by orchestrator/keyboardist Harry Whitaker, “Exotic Dance” is the classiest strip-club jam you’ll ever hear. Whitaker’s electric piano is a soulful swirl that would fog up Ramsey Lewis’ spectacles. Ayers leaves the two strangest tracks for last, with “Vittroni’s Theme” and “End Of Sugarman,” recalling Roy Budd and Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza, respectively. Respect!

Of course, there are a couple of satiny, seductive soul ballads that sparkle like jizz on a moon-illuminated headboard, but the real reason to gulp this Coffy is for the velvet-sinewed funk. Plus, the vibraphone—especially in Ayers’ deft hands—is such a bountiful source of beguilingly cool timbres that these tracks hit with a freshness beyond what most soundtracks in the genre can generate. -Buckley Mayfield

Lenny White “Venusian Summer” (Nemperor, 1975)

For a musician who played drums on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and lent rhythmic bombast and intricacy to fusion gallants Return To Forever, Lenny White is (un)fairly obscure. But his debut solo album, Venusian Summer, is a stunner, every bit as dazzling as its Larry Kresek-illustrated, sci-fi cover.

It helps that White gathered some of jazz’s most burning instrumentalists to help him realize his ambitious vision. The extroverted funk of “Chicken-Fried Steak” features Ray Gomez spraying bold guitar graffiti over White’s and bassist Doug Rauch’s greasy-as-a-KFC-grill groove. Organist Jimmy Smith’s adds another layer of spiciness. I’d never eat the titular dish, but I’ll gladly lap up this track dozens of times. Funk gets stronger and more tensile yet on “Away Go Troubles Down The Drain,” with more guitar and organ pyrotechnics, this time by Doug Rodrigues and Weldon Irvine, respectively. The song’s like that old carnival ride, Tilt-A-Whirl, but with better rhythm and dynamics. Fans of Herbie Hancock’s Man-Child will tear their bell bottoms doing the splits to this.

Dedicated to the crew of the Starship Enterprise, the 10-minute “The Venusian Summer Suite; Part I. Sirenes” is commandeered by synth master Dr. Patrick Gleeson, with help from Peter Robinson on synth, Tom Harrel on synth and flugelhorn. They all engage in awe-inspiring, stellar tone painting; this is deep, overcast ambient music in the Klaus Schulze and Peter Michael Hamel veins. On “Part II,” Harrel’s flugelhorn kicks in and things oscillate to a higher level, recalling Deodato in “Also Sprach Zarathustra” mode or Isaac Hayes stretching out with one of his orchestral-funk epics. Hubert Laws’ far-roaming flute solo and Robinson’s clavinet co-star in this space-pimpin’ track.

Side two’s dominated by a couple of lengthy showcases for that furious fusion virtuosity your punk-loving buddies warned you about. “Mating Drive” is the most RTF-like song here, a gleaming, cruising, rococo tour de force that would make prime-time Mahavishnu Orchestra bow in respect. The piece revels in excess like the most audacious prog-rockers and fusioneers, and earns their indulgence tenfold. That’s to be expected when you have studs such as Larry Young (organ), Rauch (bass), Gomez (lead guitar), Onaje Allan Gumbs (organ), and Rodrigues (rhythm guitar) at your command. LP-closer “Prince Of The Sea” begins mellowly then gradually accelerates into a fluid jazz-funk groove filigreed by Gumbs’ icily pointillistic acoustic organ. What follows is a battle royale between guitar gods Larry Coryell and Al DiMeola: the former’s insanely intricate and mercurial guitar solo versus the latter’s fleet-fingered, fuzz-toned curlicues of virtuosity. We get articulate wails galore from both of these prolix axe heroes in this duel for the (s)ages.

I bought my copy of Venusian Summer for $3 many years ago, but it still usually sells for under $10 in the US. So there’s really no excuse to not grip your own copy and cheaply ride the lightning out of this solar system. -Buckley Mayfield

Brute Force “Brute Force” (Embryo, 1970)

People of dubious maturity levels like to ridicule Herbie Mann for posing shirtless and exposing his man pelt on the cover of his very good bargain-bin LP Push Push. But listen up: Besides being a savvy musician with a keen ear for prevailing trends, Mr. Mann flaunted sharp A&R acumen for the Atlantic Records subsidiary Embryo in the early ’70s. (Oh, by the way, the flautist also released at least six great albums as a bandleader—which is six more than the mooks who mock him have made.)

Anyway, one case in point for Herbie’s acute scouting skills are Yellow Springs, Ohio’s finest, Brute Force, a sextet whose best-known member was Sonny Sharrock… who guested on some of Mann’s own records. Now that I have your attention, let’s discuss why you need this overlooked album by this obscure group.

Produced by the Herbster himself, Brute Force immediately busts out of the gate like a thoroughbred with its ass on fire. “Do It Right Now” is a rock-and-soul “seize the day” anthem with bandleader Richard Daniel’s vocals swathing heads in warmth in the mellow-vibrant vein of Terry Collier and Lou Bond. Sharrock’s fiery guitar filigree really launches this song skyward. The anti-conformity song “Some Kind Of Approval” bubbles somewhere between early-’70s Curtis Mayfield and Stark Reality. Daniel gets off a sublime keyboard solo and Sharrock adds zonked guitar roughage for this soul-jazz gem that’ll raise your spirits and heart rate.

The Deacon” rambles soulfully like peak Booker T. & The MGs, with its rapid conga slaps and peppy horns making me want to watch NFL highlights from the ’70s. “Right Direction” moves in said place, and you’ll want to shoot its euphoric Latin rock into your veins—percolating congas, sweeping horns, and Daniel’s vocal flights of unstoppable positivity and all. On “Monster,” an incredibly cool bass and conga intro leads into an uptempo horn-rock jam with guitar fibrillations stroked from the instrument’s nut. It sure sounds like Sharrock’s diabolical handiwork, although he’s not credited. Still, I’d bet your stimulus check that it is indeed Sonny shredding. The playing recalls his outré work on his and wife Linda’s Paradise LP. The song builds to an intensity and wildness that bear the Sharrockian stamp, so it can’t help being a highlight.

Speaking of which, “Ye-Le-Wa” is another one. 14.5 minutes of balletic free jazz that waxes and wanes with brassy verve, this track’s not unlike Pharoah Sanders‘ output of that same era, but with more of a grounding in out-rock protocols. Daniel’s soulful vocals may not match Leon Thomas’ high-flying yodelics from “The Creator Has A Master Plan,” but they’re certainly moving, even if they simply repeat the title. The record closes with “Doubt,” a tranquil, flute-enhanced comedown after the previous blowout. Strangely, it recalls the beautifully placid “Love Sketch” by Paul Revere & The Raiders side project Friendsound. Will wonders never cease?

So, whether you’re a Sonny Sharrock completist or someone who simply enjoys soul jazz that rocks with finesse and fiery interplay, you need Brute Force. Herbie Mann would never steer you wrong, shirt or no shirt. -Buckley Mayfield

Ben Sidran “Puttin’ In Time On Planet Earth” (Blue Thumb, 1973)

One wonders how a nerdy-looking, non-famous white keyboardist/singer convinced legends such as Miles Davis drummer Tony Williams, James Brown drummer Clyde Stubblefield, and session bassist Phil Upchurch of Rotary Connection and Chess/Cadet Records fame to back him on his third album, Puttin’ In Time On Planet Earth. Granted, Ben Sidran had co-written Steve Miller Band’s 1969 “Lady Madonna”-biting hit “Space Cowboy,” but still. You wouldn’t think a guy like this would have that kind of clout. Maybe Sidran simply charmed them into the fold, and coaxed Blue Thumb Records to compensate them handsomely? Whatever the case, praise your deity of choice that these cats somehow gathered to lay down this understated gem.

I’ve heard five Ben Sidran albums, and Puttin’ In Time On Planet Earth is the best. Now, the opener, “Full Compass” (which Upchurch wrote), a 39-second burst of flamboyant, Mahavishnu Orchestra-like fusion, is a red herring. But on the next track, “Play The Piano,” Sidran’s true nature emerges. It flaunts Sidran’s hip, Mose Allison-esque vocals that express how doing the thing that the title says is salvation. Sidran tickles out wonderful cascades of chords on the far right side of a grand piano while Upchurch and Stubblefield lift the rhythm from Prime Mates’ “Hot Tamales,” one of the greatest Latin/New Orleans funk songs ever. Your ears will do somersaults of joy. The striding blues jazz of “Have You Heard The News” exudes that irresistible Mose bonhomie and is boosted by the deft Mr. Williams on drums.

Face Your Fears” features old Sidran buddy Steve Miller on acoustic guitar. It’s an inspirational jazz-pop song with Frank Rosolino on trombone and Sidran on Mellotron bringing new tones to the record, and it really soars in the second half thanks to Miller’s wonderfully warped electric-guitar solo and Tim Davis’ blissful backing vocals. “Walking With The Blues” is actually more dulcet smooth jazz than anything that sounds like Howlin’ Wolf. Here, Sidran sings in his most comforting, confidential tones as Bill Perkins exhales sultry, sinuous tenor sax solos. It’s quite precious.

As fine as all of this has been, Planet Earth really peaks on the last two tracks. I’ll be damned if the title track doesn’t share the same rhythm as that B-boy favorite, Can’s “Vitamin C.” Coincidence? I hope not. I love the idea of Clyde Stubblefield paying homage to Jaki Liebezeit. Upchurch lends crucial wah-wah guitar to this very classy approximation of blaxploitation-flick funk, while Sidran peels off keyboard runs that evoke Deodato circa “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)”.

Even better is “Now I Live (And Now My Life Is Done).” An ultra-slinky groove snakes with guile as Sidran vamps with enough verve to make Donald Fagen green with envy while guitarist Curley Cooke is on crystalline form, somewhere between George Benson and Pat Martino. Sidran’s use of bells and boinger percussion toy really add spine-tingles to this surreptitiously funky song. Throughout, Sidran recites an existentialist poem written by doomed 16th-century prisoner Chidiock Tichborne, who was executed for plotting to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I. Crazy backstory, right? This is simply one of the most sublime tracks I’ve ever heard, regardless of genre, and alone worth the price of admission, and then some. -Buckley Mayfield

Eddie Harris “I Need Some Money” (Atlantic, 1975)

The late American saxophonist/vocalist Eddie Harris is king of the jazz bargain bin, now that Billy Cobham’s catalog is rising in stock. Nearly all of Harris’ albums go for under $10; if you see one from the late ’60s or ’70s, grab it.

Over his prolific career, Eddie Harris was an adept balladeer, bluesman, straight-ahead bop melodicist, funky party-starter, turbulent free jazzer, and experimentalist with a keen interest in the mind-bending properties of electronic effects. I Need Some Money arrived toward the end of funk’s reign and near the beginning of disco’s dominance, and you can hear Harris and his skilled group seeking ingenious ways to move bodies.

That approach is obvious from the opening track. More than anything, “I Need Some Money” resembles the soulful, swerving funk of the O’Jays, early Commodores, and Larry Young’s Fuel. Harris’ lyrics lament the high cost of living, a common theme in black music of the ’70s, and one that’s proved to be timeless. Hell, it’s been my anthem in this messed-up year of unemployment and limited opportunities. The refrain of “Everything is so damn high!” will prance through your brain for hours. “Get On Down” starts with unsettling stomach-hunger sounds (probably created with a quica) and Eddie saying “excuse me.” A tentative beat percolates and about 100 seconds in, the song shifts into an unstoppable jazz-funk groove that bubbles and shimmies like Stevie Wonder’s “Superstitious.” Harris drops in some chuckle-worthy scat singing and Leon Thomas-esque yodeling, adding levity to a track that’s almost too much fun. “Get On Down” is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Shifting into a sparser, lower key, “Time To Do Your Thing” is an Afro-Latin percussion fest and a dancin’/romancin’ soundtrack for the carnally advanced. Above all the timbrally interesting beats, Harris’ robust, snaky sax (alluding to Wonder’s “Maybe Your Baby”), Bradley Bobo’s lubricious bass, and Ronald Muldrow’s clanging guitar engage in a vivacious conversation. Harris goes on another tangent with “Carnival,” a weirdly festive exotica excursion. It’s powered by the sort of drum-machine beats that would animate many ’80s synthwave groups, with Harris’ sax FX’d into timbres more associated with synthesizers the instrument Bird and Trane made legendary. African whistle, talking drum, cabasa, and massed, jokey chants add to the track’s otherness.

I Need Some Money‘s peak might be the nearly 12-minute “I Don’t Want Nobody.” Sounding like Spirit Of Eden-era Talk Talk over a decade before the fact, the musicians conjure a gospel-tinged blues of somber majesty. Harris sings through an electric sax at the beginning to feminize his voice while Muldrow’s guitorgan whirs into the church-y mode of Spiritualized’s “Shine A Light.” Rufus Reid’s six-string bass and the guitorgan entwine in a lofty dialogue, as the broken-hearted singer licks his wounds. (“You’ve always said that you love me/That I’d be the only one/You thought of me every night/Why did you say we have a future”). Absolutely crushing. (Trivia: Oh Sees’ John Dwyer is a huge fan.) The album ends with “That’s It,” an alternate-world version of Quincy Jones’ Sanford And Son theme—slower, but just as inspirational and grimy.

From what I’ve read, the title of I Need Some Money was the truth. Alas, Harris didn’t score a hit with it, but in his pursuit of lucre, he inadvertently cut his best album of the decade. If it’s a “sell-out” move, it’s akin to Miles Davis’ similar stab at commercial success that resulted in an uncompromising classic: On The Corner. Bonus: Money still commonly dwells in the cheapie bins. -Buckley Mayfield

Björn J:son Lindh “Sissel” (Metronome/CTI, 1973)

One of my goals in life is to bring Björn J:son Lindh’s outstanding music to more people’s attention. It’s hard work, but somebody has to do it. I’m by no means an expert on this Swedish fusion flautist/keyboardist, but I do think he has at least four albums that deserve precious shelf space in your home. These records—Ramadan, Cous Cous, Second Carneval, and Sissel—flaunt Lindh’s idiosyncratic way with melody and dynamic, funky rhythmic finesse. I’d like to explore in more depth Sissel, as that’s the LP I find myself playing out most in DJ sets.

When you hear lead cut “Bull Dog,” you’ll understand why I and other fusion-friendly disc jockeys rely on Sissel for rocking parties. The opening break stands out from your run-of-the-mill funk with its nimble metallic and woody percussion accenting a deep, methodical bass/drum groove, all slashed by Lindh’s staccato flute striations. Midway in, Jan Schaffer’s fluid, pointillistic guitar solo launches “Bull Dog” into John Abecrombie/Gábor Szabó heights. Shout out to Stefan Brolund’s staunch bass line, as well. “Storpolska” represents one of the great red herrings in music. It starts like an ancient folk song in an odd time signature, until Schaffer’s blaxploitation-funk, wah-wah’d guitar riff and Mike Watson’s churning bass materialize and shift things to Shaft-land. A wonderful cognitive dissonance arises when Lindh starts to blow pastoral-prog flute airs over the urban-turmoil soundtrack, which boils to Miles Davis/On The Corner levels, as Schaffer’s pyrotechnics soar into Sonny Sharrock/Pete Cosey dimensions of sculpted chaos.

Similar to “Bull Dog” in its sparseness and percussive vocabulary, “Your Own House” is even funkier and more laid-back. No wonder it’s been sampled in nine songs, including those by Aceyalone, Black Milk, Meat Beat Manifesto, and Attica Blues. The chorus recalls Herbie Mann at his most beautifully melancholy. Written by Jan Schaffer, it’s a perfect track with which to end a DJ set; it feels as if the music’s poignantly waving goodbye. The title track’s hard-hitting, action-packed fusion à la Deodato’s Prelude; Lennart Aberg’s soprano sax solo baroquely rips. Sissel closes with a cover of Joe South’s 1968 anti-hypocrisy country-rock classic, “Games People Play,” on which Schaffer’s guitar sounds a bit like a sitar. South’s melody is so well-suited for Lindh’s delicate euphony, and it’s amazing how the song sounds at once cheerful and downhearted, especially in this version.

Lindh’s ’70s albums are neither very common nor ultra-rare, but when they do turn up, they’re usually reasonably priced. Grab one next time you see it, and validate my thesis, if you’d be so kind. -Buckley Mayfield

Larry Coryell “Barefoot Boy” (Flying Dutchman, 1971)

From 1969 to 1975, guitar virtuoso Larry Coryell had a phenomenal run of solo albums for prestigious labels such as Vanguard, Flying Dutchman, and Arista. (His date with German avant-jazz keyboardist Wolfgang Dauner on Et Cetera’s Knirsch LP is essential, too.) During this time, Coryell was challenging hotshots such as John McLaughlin, Sonny Sharrock, Pete Cosey, Ray Russell, and John Abercrombie for jazz-rock-guitar supremacy.

Of all the great recordings Coryell cut in that golden period, Barefoot Boy may be the strongest. At points, it predates the fury and finesse of Miles Davis’ On The Corner by about a year. In 1969, Village Voice critic Robert Christgau called Coryell “the greatest thing to happen to the guitar since stretched gut,” and for a change, I agree with him.

Recorded at New York’s Electric Lady Studios and produced by Flying Dutchman label owner Bob Thiele, Barefoot Boy charges out of the gate as if ablaze. Coryell and company radically intensify Gábor Szabó’s “Gypsy Queen” to nearly 12 minutes, forging thrumming, seething jazz rock over which saxophonist Steve Marcus breathes rococo fire while Coryell unleashes a Hendrixian vernacular on guitar: scultped feedback, fleet wah-wah riffs, divebombs. The rhythm’s monomaniacally repetitive and robust, thanks to Roy Haynes’ drumming and Lawrence Killian’s conga. Surely, Mr. Szabó was impressed.

It may take a while to catch your breath after that, but hurry, because “The Great Escape” is gonna make you move some more. It’s a brazen funk cut redolent of the torqued tension of Axis: Bold As Love and On The Corner, with Haynes’ clanging cymbal work accentuating the roiling rhythm. Coryell goes into hyperdrive with thick, corrugated riffs and mercurial, pointillistic runs while Mervin Bronson’s bass line churns lubriciously. Icing this groovy cake, Marcus gets off a Wayne Shorter-esque solo of concise brilliance. Was Miles taking notes?

The 20-minute “Call To The Higher Consciousness” begins with an uplifting fanfare not unlike the one in Pharoah Sanders’ “The Creator Has A Master Plan,” with Mike Mandel’s piano emulating the rolling bliss of Lonnie Liston Smith’s. Marcus takes the lead in the early stages, blowing golden arabesques over a lovely, loping rhythm. Eventually, Coryell emits a flurry of crystalline notes that ripple with mind-boggling fluency. There’s room for everyone to take a solo in this sidelong journey, including Mandel’s gorgeous shower of high-pitched chords and Haynes’ nimble and rugged drum workout. When the group barge back in, they spew a geyser of spiritual-jazz euphoria akin to that heard on Alice Coltrane and Carlos Santana’s Illuminations. After several bursts of febrile joy, the song downshifts into subdued mode in the last few minutes.

Although rarely touted as such, Barefoot Boy belongs in the fusion pantheon, with your Spectrums, your Emergency!s, your Birds Of Fires, etc. -Buckley Mayfield

Harvey Mandel “The Snake” (Janus, 1972)

The fact that you often see Harvey Mandel’s albums in the used bins is yet more proof that the world’s full of fools. The Detroit-born blues-rock musician is a guitarist’s guitarist who played with some of the best blues-rock musicians of the ’60s (Canned Heat, John Mayall, Charlie Musselwhite) and was thisclose to joining the Rolling Stones. You can hear Mandel auditioning for the slot given to Ron Wood on 1976’s Black And Blue, on which Harv knocked it out of the park on “Hot Stuff” and “Memory Motel.” I can’t be the only one who thought Mick and Keef blundered with their pick (pun intended).

Anyway, Mandel’s string of albums from the late ’60s to the mid ’70s is strong, with The Snake being its peak. Right from go, “The Divining Rod” alerts you to Mandel’s six-string mastery, with its dynamic, swerving rock powered by righteous cowbell. He wrings serpentine, silvery lines of dazzling intricacy and elasticity, and you can tell Meat Puppets’ Curt Kirkwood was listening intently. The zig-zagging, Gábor Szabó-esque jazzadelia of “Pegasus” assumes a Romani tinge thanks to Don “Sugarcane” Harris’ spirited violin coloration. As for “Peruvian Flake,” I learned from the Urban Dictionary that the title’s a slang term for cocaine, so it’s apropos that this song’s quicksilver rock of mind-boggling technical proficiency. It’s kind of shocking that Steely Dan didn’t hire Mandel after this came out.

Some other highlights include “Ode To The Owl,” a moving blues-rock solo guitar tribute to Canned Heat’s Alan Wilson, who died in 1970 at the tragically young age of 27 and “Levitation,” whose sly jazz rock is elevated by Charles Lloyd’s flute, Freddie Roulette’s sublime, pointillistic steel guitar solo, and Kevin Burton’s flamboyant soul-jazz organ solo. My fave cut is “The Snake” (a slightly less sublime and psychedelic version appeared on Mandel’s 1968 debut LP, Christo Redentor). This might be the coolest, most funkadelic track in Mandel’s canon, and as I’ve discovered as a DJ, it segues very well into Herbie Hancock’s “Hang Up Your Hang Ups.” Mandel saved the fieriest for the last with “Bite The Electric Eel.” This is a fried blues-rock jam that can hold its own with Peter Green’s The End Of The Game. The song’s full of staggering showboating, but there’s nothing at all annoying about it.

I paid $1 for my used copy of The Snake, but as it’s the zenith of one of America’s most virtuosic and tone-smart blues-rock guitarists, the album’s worth at least 30 times that. Hot stuff, indeed. -Buckley Mayfield

Gong “You” (Virgin, 1973)

Led by guitarist/vocalist Daevid Allen and singer Gilli Smyth, Gong perfectly threaded the needle between prog rock and psychedelia during their early-/mid-’70s peak. The group’s ability to blend the whimsical, the absurd, and the cosmic culminated in their Radio Gnome Invisible Trilogy: Flying Teapot (1973), Angel’s Egg (1973), and You (1974). Composed of British and French musicians, Gong combined some of the most interesting traits of both countries’ progressive scenes, creating fetching melodies, funky and jazzy grooves, and deep space excursions. One can hear these elements and more coalesce into a stunning zenith on You.

The album flows like a brilliant DJ set on purest LSD. After two short, inconsequential pieces of goofy space-out and zany prog shenanigans, You really kicks into gear with “Magick Mother Invocation.” With its gong hit, calming “om”s, Smyth’s beatific sighs, and Tim Blake’s arcing, lysergic synth ripples, the song creates the sensation of flipping end over end in space. And how often does that happen?

This heavenly drift sets the scene for “Master Builder”; everything’s been, uh, building to this masterpiece. It’s a tom-tom-heavy astral-jazz-funk mega jam of monumental dimensions, with Allen’s Leslie-speakered vocals adding tasty frosting. Drummer Pierre Moerlen, bassist Mike Howlett, guitarist Steve Hillage, synthesist Blake, and saxophonist Didier Malherbe are all on peak form. A flaming wig-out for the ages, “Master Builder” makes you feel as if you’re on all of the drugs at once. The beneficent comedown after that mindfuck is “A Sprinkling Of Clouds,” a methodical, burbling-synth explosion. This one merely makes you feel as if you’re on most of the drugs and foreshadows chillout-room ambient music by about 16 years, before the beats and bass lines start punching out the stars and the music starts to emulate early Pink Floyd in their most aggressively extraterrestrial zones. An abrupt mood shift occurs on “Perfect Mystery,” which twirls into jaunty, Zappa-esque prog territory, as Allen and Smyth natter on about “cops at the door” and “octave doctors” and “middle eyes.” The xylophone work here is bonkers.

Side 2 goes deep, y’all. One of Gong’s most adventurous tracks, the 10-plus-minute “The Isle Of Everywhere” is totally devoid of the wackiness that occasionally mars their music. Smyth’s opiated chants and murmurs intertwine with Blake’s synths while Howlett’s and Moerlen’s suavely funky groove never stops ascending. Malherbe’s sax solo is one of the most flavorful and sophisticated in rock annals; Hillage’s guitar solo is a serpentine wonder that would make Larry Coryell and Peter Green jealous. I’m high as fuck just listening to this on my headphones on a Tuesday night in the middle of a pandemic.

You Never Blow Your Trip Forever” is a jolly continuation of “Isle”’s interstellar trek. Allen jibber-jabbers as if he’s auditioning for Monty Python’s Flying Circus before settling into more conventional space-rock vocal mode. The band locks into a centrifugal groove that morphs into a zonked waltz, then downshifts into a “Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun” creep, filigreed with poignant, trilling flute. Contrary to the title, I think I did blow my trip forever.

In the end, Gong are You, and you are Gong. -Buckley Mayfield

Pharoah Sanders “Karma” (Impulse!, 1969)

Karma is the Sgt. Pepper’s of spiritual jazz, in that it appeals to both the public and critics on a large scale. Dominated by the nearly 33-minute “The Creator Has A Master Plan,” the album has become a totem of transcendental music, at once approachable and challenging in a rare way. Consider it the ambitious offspring of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme—maybe even the student who ends up surpassing his mentor.

“The Creator Has A Master Plan” starts with a glorious two-minute fanfare, putting the listener on tenterhooks. Then Reggie Workman fingers the immortal bass line that emulates Jimmy Garrison’s in Coltrane’s “Acknowledgement”; it’s like a trampoline for your soul. Add in Nathaniel Bettis’ shakers and belltrees, James Spaulding’s flute, and Sanders’ saxophone calligraphy (ranging from gently poignant to catastrophically raspy) and you have the beginnings of a momentous trip. When Leon Thomas brings in his sly “yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah”s, you sense things are going to rise to another level. They do.

With his heartfelt lyrics, Thomas outlines the Creator’s basic yet essential blueprint for peace and happiness through all the land, and then embellishes those salubrious words with a series of acrobatic scats and yodels that articulate the song’s theme even more powerfully. Leon truly has too much soul for one body.

The track attains a chaotic peak a bit before the halfway point and then again near 20 minutes; both passages sound like the painful birth of planets that are superior to Earth—and the cries of a panicking elephant herd. They truly are some of the wildest and most transcendent moments in jazz. The last few minutes return to the opening section’s see-sawing bass line, trilling flute, and shiver-inducing belltree/shaker action. Thomas lets off some of his most sublime ululations and hums. He repeats the chorus to the fadeout. You sit there stunned, your life changed forever for the better. Lord—if you’re there—have mercy.

The cumulative effect of “The Creator” is to convince even the most hardcore atheist that just maybe there’s a shred of a chance that the universe is overseen by some god-like authority who has humanity’s best interests at heart. It’s a potent sonic fantasy, for sure. Sanders, Thomas, and company possess the power to make you believe, against your rational mind.

“Colors” has a hard act to follow, but it’s a beauty, too. Undoubtedly, its air of languorous resolution surely influenced Don Cherry’s “Isla (The Sapphic Sleep)” in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain. “Colors” features Thomas’ tender paean to Mother Nature, embroidered by Lonnie Liston Smith’s cascading piano, Leon Thomas’ shower of metallic percussion, and Sanders’ swooning sax motifs. After the momentous ebbs and flows of “The Creator,” “Colors” provides a soothing comedown.

A cornucopia of tantalizing textures and heart-searing melodies, Karma is as essential as the oxygen you breathe and that Pharoah’s blowing through his instrument. -Buckley Mayfield

The Headhunters “Survival Of The Fittest” (Arista, 1975)

It’s baffling how certain albums of unimpeachable greatness don’t enter the canon—and even more puzzling, how they remain available for reasonable prices in used bins. One such record is Survival Of The Fittest by Herbie Hancock’s early-’70s group. Free of their leader (who co-produces the LP), the Headhunters let their funk freak flag fly ridiculously high, and the results are stunning.

You know you’re in for a scorching ride as soon opener “God Make Me Funky” starts. It boasts one of the most famous, stripped-down funky breaks ever; no wonder it’s been sampled about 300 times. When DeWayne “Blackbyrd” McKnight’s sly, warped guitar and Paul Jackson’s unstinting bass creep their way in, your libido skyrockets. After this, vocalist Bill Summers’ line, “God can give you anything want and you can do anything you want. God make me funky!” seems totally plausible. Later, Bennie Maupin’s bass clarinet solo is a wonder of economical ecstasy. Then near the end, things get hectic and chaotic, with the Pointers Sisters’ chorus of “anything you want!” culminating in a soul-jazz bacchanal. Jesus, how do you follow up such a burner?

It ain’t easy, but the Headhunters do keep the greatness flowing, if not at quite as lofty a level. With “Mugic,” they embark on an Afrocentric spiritual-jazz trip with looped flute, deeply earthy hand drums, and sonorous chants. It builds in intensity, with a monomaniacal, minimalist bass line and slamming congas igniting serious rhythmic heat. “Here And Now” offers a meditative reverie, featuring Joyce Jackson’s blissful flute sighs, but the track gradually shifts into a fleet jazz-funk charge akin to Julian Priester’s Love, Love, but in double time. Our man Maupin gets off an absolutely strafing sax solo.

We’re back to the libidinous funk on “Daffy’s Dance,” with McKnight’s lean, chikka-wah guitar, Jackson’s pimp-struttin’ bass, and Clark’s shuffling, hip-swiveling beats contrasting wonderfully with Maupin’s soaring sax and belafon tinkles. A bizarrely tuned wind instrument’s melody periodically arises from the funky turbulence like an alien mating call before the song inevitably cascades into a controlled frenzy, which is this album’s trademark. “Rima” is the most intriguing work here—a low-key fever dream of Joyce Jackson’s alto flute wisps, Paul Jackson’s suspenseful bass plunges, McKnight’s Pete Cosey-esque guitar squalls, and Maupin’s woozy bass clarinet.

Album-closer “If You’ve Got It, You’ll Get It” is a relentless avalanche of complex funk. The intro with berimbau and other exotic percussion toys builds anticipation and then WHOMP. In come the wonky bass clarinet and flanged guitar chatter, as Jackson and Clark find a pocket that’s both tight and expansive. McKnight gets off a searing, snaking guitar solo worthy of early-’70s Funkadelic (he would join Parliament-Funkadelic in 1978). “If You’ve Got It” is easily the equal of anything on Herbie Hancock’s Thrust, Man-Child, or Head Hunters. It’s a monumental conclusion to a canonical funk document. Most people just don’t realize it yet. -Buckley Mayfield