The Second Disc

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Review: A Quartet From BBR – The Pointer Sisters, Buddy Miles, Pharoah Sanders, Greg Phillinganes

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Among the most recent reissues from Big Break Records is a 1974 album from Electric Flag founder and Jimi Hendrix drummer Buddy Miles entitled All the Faces of Buddy Miles.  But one could easily title any given batch of music from the Cherry Red-affiliated label as All the Faces of BBR, so reliably diverse is each group of the label’s releases.  Today’s capsule reviews look at four of the latest from the Big Break team!

Buddy Miles, All the Faces of Buddy Miles (Columbia KC-33089, 1974 – reissued Big Break CDBBR 0123, 2012)

Producer Johnny Bristol was one of the brightest names at Motown in the late 1960s, responsible for such hits as Diana Ross and the Supremes’ “Someday We’ll Be Together,” David Ruffin’s “My Whole World Ended (The Moment You Left Me)” and Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”  Following his departure from Motown, Bristol continued producing other artists but embarked on a successful solo career, first at MGM Records and later for labels including Atlantic.  The same year he charted on MGM with the Top 10 “Hang on in There Baby,” Bristol took the controls for All the Faces of Buddy Miles.  He brought along Funk Brothers cohorts including bassist James Jamerson and guitarist Melvin “Wah Wah Watson” Ragin, and lent the titular drummer a smooth sound at the crossroads of pop, funk and soul.  Miles ceded the drum chair and concentrated on vocals for the settings provided by Bristol and veteran arranger H.B. Barnum, who had worked with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Aretha Franklin.  Although Miles wasn’t a vocal powerhouse, he brought a great deal of passion to a largely original set that touched on most of the faces of seventies soul music.

Bristol supplied most of the material, with future Warren Zevon collaborator Jorge Calderon contributing a couple of new songs.  Calderon’s “All the Faces” supplied the album with its title, as Miles queried, “How can all the faces be a part of who I am?”  There’s not much of the forceful funk-rock Miles of Electric Flag and Band of Gypsys.  There’s more of the Miles who played with Ruby and the Romantics and The Delfonics.  But Miles and the band cut loose on Calderon’s raucous “Kiss and Run,” Bristol’s tougher “Wants and Needs (The Earth Song)” and the album’s lone instrumental, “Baby Don’t Stop (Sit on the Rock).”  The softer influence of Philly soul is felt on Bristol’s “I’m Just a Kiss Away.”  A revival of Tommy Edwards’ “It’s Only the Good Times” is cabaret gone to church, and Bristol’s “Pain” smolders and simmers with the title emotion until the singer and the song reach boiling point.   A jazzy saxophone lends “Pain” a late-night vibe.  Miles even ventures into Barry White territory with the sensual R&B of “Got to Find Ms. Right.”

Keyboardist Clarence McDonald contributes to the liner notes in this fine package, which also includes the single version of “Pull Yourself Together” as a bonus track.  All the Faces of Buddy Miles is one album that lives up to its title, and will likely be mandatory listening for fans of under-the-radar seventies soul.

Pharoah Sanders, Love Will Find a Way (Arista 4161, 1978 – reissued Big Break CDBBR 0117, 2012)

How to commercialize the sound of one of the leading pioneers of the free jazz movement?  That was the question that producer Norman Connors positioned himself to answer when he signed with Clive Davis’ Arista Records label.  Saxophonist Pharoah Sanders was lauded by Ornette Coleman as “probably the best tenor player in the world,” and had been closely associated with the avant garde jazz of Sun Ra and John Coltrane.  Sanders first joined Coltrane on record for 1965’s Ascension, and Meditations (1966) spectacularly featured the two men on “dueling” tenor saxophones with extensive “free” passages.  After Coltrane’s 1967 death, Sanders played with his wife Alice, and also served as a leader, continuing to push the boundaries of jazz.  But Norman Connors, a songwriter, arranger, and drummer who had scored a hit with 1976’s You Are My Starship, had designs on updating Sanders’ sound without compromising it.  The result was Love Will Find a Way, which walks the line between R&B, fusion and even smooth jazz.

Though Connors smartly didn’t try to disguise the fact that Sanders was, first and foremost, a jazz musician, the surroundings (courtesy Motown stalwarts McKinley Jackson and Paul Riser) were markedly different than the lengthy, frequently dissonant jazz his fans had come to expect.  The title track found Sanders melodically playing over a lush bed of strings, tinkling piano and sweet background singers.  “Pharomba,” arranged by Jackson, allowed Sanders more room to wail over funky support from Connors and Kenny Nash on percussion, Lenny White on drums and Alex Blake on bass.  As producer, though, Connors kept the track melodic and tight.  He also enlisted a not-so-secret weapon in the form of the budding vocal star Phyllis Hyman.  Hyman had made her first big splash when Connors produced her on You Are My Starship’s revival of Thom Bell and Linda Creed’s “Betcha By Golly Wow.”  She lent her remarkable and appropriately jazz-inflected voice to three tracks: “Love is Here,” “As You Are” and “Everything I Have is Good.”   For “Everything I Have,” Connors himself sang a duet with Hyman.  With vocalists out front, Sanders’ playing is much more restrained but no less dexterous.  Sanders takes the soprano sax for a languid instrumental version of the 1953 standard “Answer Me, My Love” and gets the party started with a cover of Marvin Gaye’s then-recent Motown hit “Got to Give It Up.”  But Pharoah’s version isn’t as funky as Gaye’s cool original, and it’s one of the less distinguished tracks here.  (Nor was it a favorite of Connors’, according to the extensive liner notes by Shelley Nicole.)

It’s impossible not to note the irony that a groundbreaker in the free jazz arena came very close to the realm of smooth jazz with Love Will Find a Way.  This transformation of Pharoah Sanders might be anathema to those moved by the extended explorations of his past, and indeed, Sanders soon returned to the style of music that was more personal to him.  But thanks to Norman Connors’ contributions, Love is a singular hybrid of R&B and soul with jazz as well as a true time capsule.  Big Break’s expanded edition adds the single versions of “As You Are” and “Got to Give It Up.”

We’ll meet you after the jump with looks at the latest reissues from The Pointer Sisters and Greg Phillinganes!

The Pointer Sisters, Serious Slammin’ (RCA 6562-1-R, 1988 – reissued Big Break CDBBR 0125, 2012)

With 1988’s Serious Slammin’, Big Break continues (concludes?) its overhaul of the Pointer Sisters’ Planet Records/RCA tenure during which Richard Perry (Harry Nilsson, Barbra Streisand) guided June, Anita and Ruth to their biggest successes.  By the time of this 1988 swansong on RCA, the ebullient hits “He’s So Shy,” “Jump (For My Love)” and “I’m So Excited” were all in the rearview mirror, and Perry set out to update the Pointers’ sound yet again.  Though the producer had successfully adapted his own pop-rock style through disco, R&B and electronic dance-pop, the funkier urban hip-hop grooves coming to prevalence in the late eighties presented a new challenge.  Serious Slammin’ proves that Perry and the Pointer Sisters didn’t fully meet that challenge, though it wasn’t for lack of trying.

Layers of synthesizers and thick drums dominated; even the album’s horns were largely synthesized!  The metallic instrumentation overwhelms the Sisters’ actual singing on many of these tracks including the repetitive title song.  “Shut Up and Dance” was written by Glen Ballard and Siedah Garrett (Michael Jackson’s “The Man in the Mirror”) and like “Serious Slammin’” found the Sisters in a homogenized unison vocal style against a hard-edged, electronic background.  The relentless, monotonous beats and lack of big, danceable pop melodies threaten to derail Serious Slammin’, but there’s at least a bit more character on Diane Warren’s “Moonlight Dancing,” sensually sung by June.  (The song was later recorded by Bette Midler in a very different arrangement.)  Ditto for another June spotlight, the catchy “Flirtatious,” and “I’m in Love,” on which the huskier-voiced Ruth takes the lead for Perry and Jeff Lorber’s sleek and romantic production. Matthew (“Break My Stride”) Wilder co-wrote, played and associate-produced “Pride,” with the three sisters trading off vocals.  “I Will Be There” (a different composition than “Be There”) wraps up the album on a high note, with a heartfelt sentiment vivaciously expressed.

It might have reflected a lack of new material that Perry revived “My Life” from Hot Together in a remixed version.  One song, “He Turned Me Out,” got an extra push on the soundtrack of the Carl Weathers starrer, Action Jackson.  And that isn’t the only film song heard here.  Considerably more successful was “Be There” from Beverly Hills Cop II which teamed the Pointers with eighties super-producer Narada Michael Walden.  Though the song wasn’t on Serious Slammin’, Big Break has added its 12-inch extended remix to the album; unfortunately the original single version hasn’t also been appended.  The copious bonus material does include two extended mixes of “He Turned Me Out,” the single version of “I’m in Love” and “Translation,” the B-side of “He Turned Me Out,” with its wailing sax part.   The latter is noted as a remix, but the discographical information in the otherwise-excellent booklet, alas, doesn’t indicate its origin.  As these songs were written and produced with the dancefloor in mind, the extended remixes often enhance the original tracks.  The slightly shorter single edit of “I’m in Love,” too, reveals that the song deserved a better fate on the charts.

With this reissue, Big Break has accorded Serious Slammin’ the respect it hasn’t always gotten in the Pointer Sisters’ impressive catalogue.  Although the material isn’t uniformly inspired, the presence of rare bonus material and the top-notch presentation make for one seriously slammin’ package for fans of Anita, June and Ruth.

Greg Phillinganes, Pulse (Planet BXL1-4698, 1985 – reissued Big Break CDBBR 0127, 2012)

Richard Perry knew talent when he saw it, and he wasted no time in signing keyboard whiz Greg Phillinganes to his Planet Records label.  After a self-produced debut on Planet (1981’s Significant Gains), Phillinganes returned to session duty.  He played for The Pointer Sisters, Donald Fagen, Lionel Richie, Paul Simon, Michael Jackson and many others while collecting material for a very personal second solo album for which Perry himself would take production reins.  The result was Pulse, released in March 1985, which failed to score on the charts but now makes a terrific entry in Big Break’s catalogue.

Pulse epitomizes the sound of synth-pop circa 1985, with Phillinganes playing all keyboards and also supplying almost all vocals on the album, both lead and background.  That said, the session veteran called on a number of his famous friends.  Michael Jackson had rewritten a 1979 Yellow Magic Orchestra song originally penned by Ryuichi Sakamoto with English lyrics by Chris Mosdell, but when Jackson and producer Quincy Jones opted not to use the song on Thriller, the King of Pop gave his blessing for Phillinganes to recut it based on his demo.  The cosmic, futuristic “Behind the Mask” became the opening song on Pulse.  (Eric Clapton also later recorded the song with Phillinganes again on keys, and Jackson’s version was finally released in 2010 in heavily remixed form.)  Planet labelmates The Pointer Sisters are out front on Robbie Nevil and Mark Mueller’s “Won’t Be Long Now,” and Michael’s brother Jackie Jackson arranged his composition “Playin’ with Fire,” with guest vocals from James Ingram and Howard Hewett.  The men of Mr. Mister co-wrote and performed on the R&B-tinged “Signals.”  Perhaps most notably, Steely Dan co-founder Donald Fagen wrote the smooth and jazzy “Lazy Nina” for Phillinganes and also arranged it with the singer/keyboardist.   The song’s syncopations recall Fagen’s signature style.  Even the B-side of the album’s first single “Behind the Mask” was a collaborative effort; “Only You” was co-written by Phillinganes and Bill Withers.

The result is a largely up-tempo, feel-good album.  The most heartfelt track is Phillinganes’ understated vocal performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “I Have Dreamed” from The King and I; the artist subtly updates the track for the eighties while staying true to Rodgers’ melody and embellishing it with an appropriate, lightly Eastern arrangement.  As a singer, Phillinganes is stronger on the up-tempo songs than the ballads, but he imbues this classic song with emotion if not technical prowess.  Another unusual detour is “Countdown to Love,” co-written by Kenny Vance of the Planotones.  Even beginning with an a cappella chorus, “Countdown” adds electronics to an otherwise classic doo-wop style.  The result is a fun homage to the genre.  “Shake It,” despite its technical wizardry and virtuosic use of the Synclavier, is one of the less successful tracks on Pulse, a cacophonic paean to the beat.  (Michael Jackson’s openly acknowledged influence on his friend Phillinganes is clear via the vocal interjections on “Shake It” and other songs here!)

Big Break’s reissue adds six bonus tracks: the aforementioned “Only You,” 12-inch mixes of “Behind the Mask” and “Playin’ with Fire,” instrumentals of the same two songs, and the single edit of “Mask.”  While there’s regrettably not discographical attribution for all of these tracks, the detailed and well-designed booklet features a strong new essay from Christian John Wikane.  Until Phillinganes (currently the Musical Director of the Cirque Du Soleil Michael Jackson: Immortal tour) decides to release another solo effort, fans can be contented with this deluxe Pulse.

Written by Joe Marchese

May 18, 2012 at 12:07

One Response

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  1. I always thought Pharoah Sanders had a great “listener friendly” tone (i.e., he could easily grab the average listener’s attention, without going into his new-wave avant-garde playing). But this record really missed the mark. The Theresa record label put out a whole bunch of Pharoah that was much more successful…just let Pharoah play the tunes he selects in his own style and almost everyone would like them.
    Theresa got it right.


    May 19, 2012 at 15:19

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