Was disco the last musical genre that absolutely everyone had to get in on? It wasn't just the likes of Rod Stewart and the Rolling Stones and Wings-era Paul McCartney and the Grateful Dead and Kiss… a surprising number of major jazz artists also made disco-inflected records. There's Ron Carter's 1976 Pastels, which opens with the glossy string-sweetened "Woolaphant." Also in '76, Dizzy Gillespie put out a record called Dizzy's Party — here's the title track. Sonny Rollins even put out a tune called, of all things, "Disco Monk" — it's from 1979's aptly titled Dont Ask. (Rembmer, Thelonious was still around at this point and consequently had no grave to spin in.) Almost all of the big bands had their disco moments, too — Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, Thad & Mel — but nobody embraced disco with as much gusto as Maynard Ferguson. I still vividly remember the time when my teenage self first heard his disco version of the theme to Battlestar Galactica — I think my jaw still hurts from where it hit the floor.
The above tracks (and more) were all referenced in a recent Twitter discussion of jazz-disco crossovers — I'm grateful to Jacob Garchik, Dave Sumner, Mark Stryker, and everyone else who chimed in with their suggestions.
The discussion was instigated somewhat by the fact that Secret Society is going to be appearing this Saturday, August 25 at the Ecstatic Summer Festival, where we'll be joined onstage by the 17-piece neo-disco band, Escort. In addition to separate sets, we'll be bringing both bands together for a few tunes, including an original of mine called "Penumbra" (think late 70's Quincy Jones meets Guillermo Klein's rhythmic filter) and my arrangements of two influential disco-era tracks recorded by Donald Byrd, "Stepping Into Tomorrow" and "Change (Makes You Want To Hustle)" — both of which will feature special guest soloist Tim Hagans.
This isn't a vein of music that we in Secret Society get to tap explicity very much, but that doesn't mean we don't love it or aren't deeply influenced by it. So let's take a minute to get a few things straight:
• DISCO IS AWESOME. Notwithstanding the ill-advised crossover attempts listed above, the decades-long knee-jerk "Disco Sucks" backlash is lazy and tired and needs to stop. Yes, there is bad disco. There is bad everything. But disco was the natural outgrowth of 70's funk and Philly soul, and there's no shortage of deeply grooving disco tracks that easily stand up today. For the skeptical, I recommend and endorse this Sound Opinions podcast on disco's early years. For the advanced class, y'all need to get Nile Rogers' amazing autobiography, which came out last year. GQ has an extended excerpt, and the story of Chic's first single, "Everybody Dance," is one of the best things you'll ever read.
• ESCORT ARE AWESOME. Disco was always more of a product of the recording studio than the live stage, partly due to the nature of late 70's nightclub culture but also due to the huge number of musicians required to make that music happen. Escort does it up right, wtih a full 17-piece band including multiple strings, horns, percussionists, guitarists, and backup singers. They groove hard, and their lead singer, Adeline Michele, is a force of nature: Exhibit A.
• TIM HAGANS IS AWESOME. I don't think this is a particularly controversial point, I just want to remind everyone that Tim Hagans is a bad motherfucker and we're incredibly excited to feature him with us on this show.
• DONALD BYRD'S 70's RECORDS ARE AWESOME. Seriously, these records are nothing like those embarassing jazz-disco cuts by other artists referenced above. Unlike most of his peers, Donald Byrd made the transition to electric groove-based jazz successfully, and a big part of that success was his longtime association with the Mizell Brothers.
Larry and Fonce Mizell met Donald Byrd while they were students at Howard, where Byrd was on faculty. Larry earned a degree in electrical engineering and worked on the Apollo Lunar Module. Fonce went out to LA where he was a founding member of The Corporation, the Motown songwriting and production crew responsible for most of the Jackson 5's hits, including "I Want You Back." Larry eventually went out west to join his brother and together they founded Sky High Productions. The Mizells contributed to Byrd's 1972 Ethiopian Nights, but their big breaktrhough was Black Byrd, which became the best-selling Blue Note record of all time.
Larry and Fonce Mizell continued to produce all of DB's 70's output for Blue Note, including Street Lady (1973), Stepping into Tomorrow and Places and Spaces (both 1975) and Caricatures (1976). When the Mizells and Byrd parted ways, things start to go a bit astray — 1978's Thank You… For F.U.M.L. (Funking Up My Life) has an unbeatable title and is still a fun listen ("Your Love Is My Ecstasy" almost made the cut for the August 25 show) but without the Mizells' guiding hand, the cheese factor ramps up precipitously.
The Mizell-era Donald Byrd records were reviled by jazz critics and by many of Byrd's peers, who branded him an apostate and a sellout for abandoning the acoustic hard bop style he helped define. But they are seriously beloved by DJs and soul and disco afficionados, and have been widely sampled by hiphop artists — if anything, Donald Byrd is probably held in higher esteem by them than he is by jazz fans. (When I first sat down to talk repetoire with Escort's co-founders, Dan Balis and Eugene Cho, they already knew all about these records.)
It's easy to hear why — the playing, writing, arranging, production, and recorded sound on these records is just brilliant, particularly on Stepping Into Tomorrow and Places and Spaces. The music is concise, soulful, and unpretentious, qualities a lot of other 1970's recordings by jazz artists could maybe have used a little more of. The rhythm section is anchored by the unstoppable team of bassist Chuck Rainey (one of the most-recorded bassits of all time, probably best-known for his playing on Aretha Franklin's Young, Gifted, and Black, plus all of Steely Dan's best records) and drummer Harvey Mason (Headhunters, Brecker Brothers).
The tunes are full of inventive details, like the incredibly hip descending minor 9th bassline in "Stepping Into Tomorrow," or how the chord progression in"Change (Makes You Want To Hustle)" passes through the bII MA7 in the turnaround. And Donald Byrd himself is in fine form on all these records — and he doesn't just play, he also contributes lead vocals! So okay, no one's going mistake him for Donny Hathaway, but seriously, he acquits himself just fine.
The Red Bull Music Academy released this excellent video interview with the Mizells:
If you jump to about 1:19:10 you can check out a fascinating breakdown of the groove on "Think Twice," a song from Stepping Into Tomorrow. It starts with just Harvey's bass drum mic solo'd, and gradually brings in the hihat mic, snare mic, and overheads, and then finally bass, congas, rhythm guitars, and piano. More than a master class in rhythmic authority, this breakdown also lets you hear the players interact in real time. They're constantly embellishing around the basic rhythmic structure, trading fills, etc, all without stepping on each other or getting in the way of the groove. This is the best kind of rhythm section playing: it's selfless, unshowy, and relentlessly badass.
Want more? Here's a rare recording (never issued on CD, so far as I know*) of Donald Byrd & co. live at the Roxy, absolutely destroying on "(Fallin' Like) Dominoes":
Donald Byrd's 1970's records with the Mizells succeed because of the authentic and profound craft that went into their creation. They weren't carelessly tossed-off in a crass attempt to try to cash in on current trends, they were meticulously shaped by master muiscians at the very top of their game. They were made by artists who were engaged in a real conversation with contemporary muiscal culture, and even helped define it: "Change (Makes You Want To Hustle)" was a legitimate hit on the dancefloor. And the legacy and spirit of these groundbreaking recordings is alive and well — just look at the albums Robert Glasper and Esperanza Spalding released this year.
Some of you may still be thinking "Yes, but is it jazz?" To those people, I say, "Seriously? That is literally the least interesting qustion you could ask about this music."
* UPDATE: In comments, Neil points out that the live version of "(Falling Like) Dominoes" is available on this compilation.
UPDATE 2: Relevant reading in the LA Times.