R&B Gold: WTF Is Going On?

November 16, 2017

My inspiration for this column came once again from listening, but this time, not to music. Hearing reports of an innocent, unarmed woman being murdered in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, there was only one song on my mind, and I knew I was not alone. It has been said that life sometimes imitates art, but really, art is a reflection of life. Consider what was being reflected when Marvin Gaye wrote his universal anthem for peace, “What’s Going On.” The turbulent years of the late ’60s/early ’70s brought violence and mayhem to our streets as the struggle for civil rights and the anti-war movements dovetailed into a period of unrest that ultimately changed this country for the better. But writing this column the week after Heather Heyer was killed for protesting Nazis and white nationalists marching in the streets of an American town, I must ask, WTF is going on? I suggest we all sit down and listen to the words of this song again.

Much has been written about James Jamerson’s performance on the original Marvin Gaye version—the legend of how he played it in one take, at 3 AM after a long night of drinking, lying on his back. Its brilliance has been explored and appreciated numerous times, most notably in the seminal work Standing in the Shadows of Motown by Alan “Dr. Licks” Slutsky. There is a lesser-known version of this song that may not have placed as high on the charts, but it had a major impact on the generations of young jazz players that followed. Donny Hathaway Live is widely regarded as one of the most important (and groovy) live R&B recordings ever produced. It stands tall with the twins Aretha Franklin Live at the Fillmore, and King Curtis Live at the Fillmore, and of course, on the shoulders of James Brown Live at the Apollo. Keeping it all together on bass is the legendary Willie Weeks—and this specific recording contributed heavily to that legend. Throughout the live set, Weeks plays fiery support with no fear of the upper register. His lines are tightly woven into the fabric of the groove, but every now and then he reminds you why Hathaway introduced him as “the baaadest bass player in the country!” His solo on “Everything Is Everything” is the stuff of legends. But his take on “What’s Going On” is not only an interesting study in contrast, it illustrates how the approach to a song can change simply by making it swing. While Gaye’s version certainly does “swing” in the sense that it is filled with life force and a propelling groove, Hathaway interprets the rhythm with a swinging half-time feel that is infectious, laid back, and a perfect springboard for flights of improv that take this track well beyond the realm of pop music. This version has become as much of a standard for the post-1970s generation of jazzers as “I’ve Got Rhythm” was for the swinging cats of the ’40s and ’50s.

Weeks definitely takes his cue from the Jamerson line—the basic melodic idea is intact, but interpreted with the lazy drawl of swing 16th-notes. It’s difficult to draw a head-to-head comparison of the two players, but as Jamerson came first, his influence on Weeks is apparent. Being 11 years younger, Weeks was also influenced by rock & roll, and he employed fluttering blues riffs, trills, string bends, and his own version of Chuck Rainey-inspired double stops—all with tasteful panache. In Ex. 1, Weeks comes slamming right out of the gate with a double 16th-note triplet pickup, quickly settling down for the main riff of the first verse. By the time the second verse rolls around, things are heating up a bit (Ex. 2), and Weeks starts adding cool skip/bounces off the open strings to fill out the rhythm. He stutter-steps his way up the E string and implies a G#7 chord on beat three of the phrase’s second bar, a harmonic element that shows up in the “blowing changes” that follow the vocals. He sticks mostly to the root– 5–8 pattern, but also ventures up to the 6th fret on the G string for the first time, giving you a hint that he’s just getting started. After rocking back and forth between the octave and 5, he drops down to the low C#, only to drop a “bucket-a-fish” triplet pickup into a funky rhythmic kick that the band nails in unison. Oh yeah.

Things also get interesting during the instrumental interlude sections between the verses. The groove under the 16-bar Am7 chord gets approached with the basic pattern shown in Ex. 3. This is followed by four measures of B7sus. During the improv, a jazzy, descending chromatic II–V progression at the end of the B7 section beefs up the soloing form. At the climax of the solo section, Willie unleashes eight bars of bass magic over the Am7 (Ex. 4) with a cascading triad run from the b3 that hits bottom on the low E, and bounces back to the middle A for another trip up the ladder—only to drop a two-octave “bucket-a-fish” in bar 4. But wait, there’s more. Jumping two octaves, Willie starts another cascading arpeggio down the Am7 chord, this time starting on the 5th (E ), but in bars 6, 7, and the first half of 8, he pulls the rug out from under the time/space continuum with a 3-against-4 pattern that finally lands with two beats to set up the change to the B7.

Donny Hathaway Live beautifully blurs the line between jazz and R&B, and it’s a prime example of what can happen when great musicians are inspired by vocal performances of this caliber. It was long before “smooth jazz” meowed its way into the public consciousness, yet it was jazzy and popular. These musicians created art and substance that would never happen as the result of a cold, calculated grab for popularity. This is Soul music—with a capital S. When I think of Soul music, most of the artists that come to mind are African-American. But when you examine who actually created and played this music, it is a distinctly cooperative product of people of all races. When your reality is strictly based on the external, it’s easy to get hung up on appearances. But when listening to great music with your eyes closed, you quickly learn that our souls are all the same color.

INFO

ED FRIEDLAND

Ed Friedland of Tucson, Arizona, is currently touring with Grammy Award winners the Mavericks.

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