Funk from a Jazz Label: Prestige Records in the 1970s

This isn’t a guide to Prestige Records because a guide to Prestige could well be novel-length. The New York jazz label has released thousands of albums and singles since it was founded in 1949 and in terms of both quantity and indeed quality is rivalled only by Blue Note. No, this is a guide to the work of a few jazz artists on Prestige, from a particular time, whose work combined emerging musical ideas from the soul and funk world with jazz playing to produce a variant of funk so potent that 15 years later it was the foundation for an entire club movement and sub genre: acid jazz. 

Over the course of its history, Prestige had released music from artists including Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Jackie McLean, Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Rollins, and was central in the continuing development of blues-based jazz, bop, hard-bop and cool jazz as well as a sub-genre called soul-jazz. Defined by its ‘blackness’ — its roots in the Black church and the influence of soul and R’n’B — and descended from the progressive innovations of bop and hard-bop, soul-jazz was, at its heart, music to dance to. By the start of the 1970s Prestige had been releasing soul-jazz for at least a decade as artists like Jimmy Smith, Brother Jack McDuff, Johnny “Hammond” Smith and Charles Earland all took their own particular approach to consolidating some of the harmonic innovations of Charlie Parker et al with a more ‘down home’, danceable feel straight from R’n’B that proved to be hugely popular. 

Soul-jazz isn’t a particularly cohesive genre as many jazz artists would continue to record hard bop alongside their soul-jazz recordings and some would dip in and out of the genre but broadly, soul-jazz initially peaked in the mid/late sixties, was often based around small organ-based combos, usually had basslines that maintained a strict 4/4 rhythm and was generally characterised by a commitment to creating jazz you could dance to, and which fully engaged with the black music tradition. 

Meanwhile, outside the jazz world, the late sixties and early seventies were a very creative and fertile period for black popular music, with various innovations in the soul and funk world proving hugely influential and driving many developments in white rock and pop. The musical vocabulary of soul and R’n’B were broadening as artists like Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield introduced Latin rhythmic elements like congas, bongos and timbales into their recordings. Soul music’s harmonic language changed as the likes of Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway began to use more complex and often jazz-derived chords. The very size of black popular music was expanding as artists like Isaac Hayes, Wonder, Mayfield, James Brown and Funkadelic stretched out on their albums, producing longer, more introspective and experimental works, pushing at the boundaries of what black music could be. Technological innovations like multi-tracking, the synthesiser and the introduction of wah wah guitar pedals also changed the very sound of soul and funk too. It was into this creative milieu that many of the soul jazz artists on Prestige began producing jazz records that embraced and incorporated the new sounds and styles of contemporary soul and funk music. 

Crucially, these records embraced the late 60s rhythmic innovations of James Brown, who had moved the rhythmic emphasis in his records to the first beat of the bar rather than, as was traditional in R’n’B, the offbeat. Equally, many Prestige jazz outfits utilised the highly syncopated New Orleans-style drum beat — the ‘Funky Drummer’ — that Brown had introduced to his records in the late 60s. Utilising these funk foundations, artists including guitarists Melvin Sparks, Ivan ‘Boogaloo Joe’ Jones, drummers Bernard Purdie and Idris Muhammed and saxophonists Rusty Bryant and Houston Person, many of whom were session players on each other’s records, produced records that proved to be so danceable that they were resurrected years after release via several UK revivalist club scenes. 

All through the 80s and 90s, underground UK club scenes like rare groove, jazz dance and in particular acid jazz, adopted, resurrected and in some cases covered or recreated many of these classic recordings. Some of these albums were rare and became highly sought after, containing tunes that were underground dance floor classics years after release, sometimes rejuvenating artists’ careers as DJs and promoters got them over to the UK to play. 

So this guide isn’t the best of Prestige Records. It’s not even the best of early 70s Prestige because the label was still releasing plenty of quality straight-up jazz during this period. This guide gathers together just a few of the funkiest jazz that the label put out during this period, records that had such dance floor voodoo that years later and thousands of miles away from their original context, they set dance floors all over the UK aflame. This is the sound of Prestige getting funky.

No Way! cover

No Way is straight up high energy soul-jazz from the off, with the high-paced opening title track providing an opportunity for the various soloists to let rip while IVJJ absolutely kills it on what is essentially a variation of 12-bar blues. There’s an effortlessness to the playing here which kind of washes over you, it’s all just so expertly phrased, each lick, chord and note so accurately placed in relation to every other part that the sheer skill involved is almost hidden. It’s the kind of playing that is so top-level you don’t notice how good it is, how the band are just perfectly locked in, even seven minutes after the track started. Funk, soul, blues, gospel, pop and jazz are all present here on one of Jones’ strongest album outings. 

 Chicken Lickin'  cover

The excellent second album from Funk Inc. is partway between the JBs and Kool and The Gang but with way more jazz licks. Jams like The Better Half or the title track churn and move, their interlocking parts interacting with other elements, meshing together in a functioning, oily machine. They put on a great Funkadelic impression on the low tempo, simmering hippie blues funk of They Trying To Get Me and the soul track Let’s Make Peace and Stop The War is a smooth palette cleanser before. the final soul-jazz skills-showcase of Jung Bungo. Perhaps their best outing, fully realised funk jazz of the highest quality.

Purdie Good! cover

The second album from outstanding session drummer Bernard Purdie firmly embraces the funk idiom, kicking off with a blistering take on James Brown’s Cold Sweat with over a minute and a half dedicated to an extended percussion break featuring Norman Pride’s congas and Purdie’s clattering kit perfectly locked in together. It’s a drummer’s record with inexplicably few drum breaks, but Purdie’s kit is high up in the mix so his full-on, rolling style is always present. There are a couple of tunes that lean towards a more easy listening aesthetic but they’re rescued by Purdie’s uncompromising rhythms and even his cover of lightweight pop tune Everybody’s Talking has a gutbucket swagger to it. The extended guitar soloing on Wasteland places this in the hippie era and adds a hint of psychedelia to proceedings while the joyous album finisher You Turn Me On ends things on a light and optimistic tone. 

Black Drops cover

From 1970, Black Drops sees Prestige organ don Charles Earland engaging with funk rhythms, covering Sly Stone’s Sing A Simple Song with serious aplomb and setting up a funk rhythm section under soul-jazz jams Don’t Say Goodbye and Letha, giving the drummer a superbly funky break on the latter. Elsewhere it’s smooth and slick melodic R’n’B influenced jazz and a fantastically swinging take on Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head, the lightness of which is then precisely balanced out by the intense soul-jazz ruminations of final track Buck Green.

Fire-Eater cover

From 1971, Fire Eater is four l-o-n-g, soul-jazz, blues and funk jams from saxophonist Rusty Bryant’s organ, guitar, drums and horn combo. This is soloing music, songs reconstructed into solid vamps for the players to stretch out on, the musicians providing a rising and falling backdrop while they each take turns to let out whatever was in them that day. It’s all live, a band synced together, riffing off each other and you can feel it in the ebb and flow of their playing. Fire Eater’s crisp funky drums, mammoth Hammond solo and clarion-call brass riff make it the album highlight, Free At Last and The Hooker are both blues, one yearning, the other jaunty, and the album finishes on the semi-funk soul-jazz of Mister S. Intense, spiritual, low-down raw soul-jazz.

Funk, Inc. cover

Never have a band been so appropriately named as Funk Inc. The self-titled 1971 debut album from the 5- piece contains a couple of monstrous acid jazz funk tracks, their supa-tight eight-minute cover of Kool & The Gang’s Kool Is Back and the churning organ jam Sister Janie

The Rudy Van Gelder production is clear and punchy, with perfectly isolated instrument parts and super snappy drums across the five tracks, none of which are under five minutes. They turn in a classy take on BB King’s The Thrill Is Gone with plenty of edgy, stoned guitar work, and finisher The Whipper has a church-flavoured boogie feel to it that looks back to swinging early sixties soul-jazz. The first of a series of excellent jazzy funk records from Funk Inc. 

Houston Express cover

Tenor sax stalwart Houston Person recorded at least seventy-five albums in his career, this from 1971 was his ninth. Split into funk and down-tempo soul-jazz, it kicks off with a languidly funky take on Young Gifted and Black before album centre-piece Houston Express, a heavy, juggernaut of funk jazz with a spiralling lead brass riff, sanctified organ and spindly angular guitar lines. A jazzified take on the Chi-Lites Give More Power To The People completes the dancefloor section of Houston Express, and the rest of the album is dedicated to moody, bluesy versions of Chains of Love and The Temptations’ Just My Imagination, before finishing on a stirring version of ‘the Black National Anthem’ Lift Every Voice and Sing that builds, falls and rises again like a finely wrought sax solo.

Jungle Fire! cover

Absolutely sterling 1970 Latin funk set from timbales player Henry ‘Pucho’ Brown and his band, augmented by session drummer king Bernard Purdie providing an additional layer of rhythmic fire. The album is worth your time for their covers of Motown producer Norman Whitfield’s soul tunes Friendship Train and Got Myself A Good Man alone, which they reinterpret with congas, bongos, timbales and a huge, brassy swagger. In fact, three of the five tracks here are Norman Whitfield covers, with Pucho also including an urgent, percussion-heavy version of The Temptation’s Cloud 9. With only five tracks, it’s short and sweet, finishing way before it overstays its welcome; Jungle Fire is at times jubilant and full of life, at times slinky and sultry and a quality listen from start to finish.

Black Vibrations cover

A strong mix of ballads, blues and ballers on this 1972 Prestige soul-jazz album from alto sax soldier Sonny Stitt who had been releasing albums since 1951. Prestige regulars Idris Muhammed, Melvin Sparks and Leon Spencer provide drums, guitar and organ respectively while Stitt tackles the material with his customary warm, creamy tone and classy approach. This album has been somewhat eclipsed by his following release, acknowledged classic Tune Up! but is well worth digging out for the understated funk of Goin’ To DC, the all-encompassing romantic swing of Aries, the restrained drive of the title track — it’s all good. Very much a soul-jazz album with the merest hint of funk/R’n’B, the penultimate ballad Where Is Love sounds emotively nostalgic, especially next to the fast-paced ‘chase scene’ vibe of album finisher Them Funky Changes.

Friday Night Funk For Saturday Night Brothers cover

Saxophonist Rusty Bryant’s superbly propulsive classic title track Friday Night Funk For Saturday Night Brothers is quintessential Prestige funky jazz and a great opener to a nicely paced set from Bryant. It’s small, organ combo soul-jazz from the early 70s, so you can expect lengthy tracks, funky James Brown-ish rhythms and extended jazz soloing. Bryant brings his solid, gutsy tone to bear on the swinging Down By The Cutahoga before engaging with a more sensitive approach with a lyrical take on the Chi-Lites Have You Seen Her, drops an uptempo, fluidly funky version of Cannonball Adderley’s Mercy, Mercy, Mercy before ending on the seductive, steamy, organ-led blues of Blues for a Brother. A great example of the dawn-of-the-70s Prestige funky jazz sound. 

Right On Brother cover

Jazz guitarist Ivan ‘Boogaloo Joe’ Jones recorded a series of righteously funky soul-jazz albums for the Prestige label in the early 70s as well as appearing as sideman on albums from fellow Prestige players like Rusty Bryant, Richard ‘Groove’ Holmes, Willis Jackson and Houston Person. 1970’s Right On features many Prestige players too including Bryant on sax, Charles Earland on organ and Bernard Purdie on drums. It’s an album that is right at the intersection of 60’s derived soul-jazz and a more funk-driven sound, a transitional musical moment and illustrative of the crossover between soul, funk and jazz at the time. The title track sets up a clattering New Orleans drum beat with a choppy bassline and then simply allows Jones, Bryant and Earland to either solo or comp for each other, a successful pattern repeated across the rest of the album. It’s overflowing with exuberant energy, Jones is a formidable guitarist, his sidemen are confident and this is a superbly played album that showcases a transitional moment in soul-jazz. 

Superfunk cover

The third Funk Inc. album was something of a change for them, as it featured noticeably more vocal tracks and was their first album not produced by Rudy Van Gelder. The addition of vocals inevitably makes this album a different listen to their mostly instrumental previous work, and their branching out into more soul-based material is pretty successful. Their take on the Meters’ Message From The Meters is hearty and splendidly soaked in fuzz guitar, Just Don’t Mean A Thing could be the best record the Four Tops never recorded but should have, and the Stax horn lines and prominent Fender Rhodes give Goodbye, So Long a raw, southern soul feel. Superfunk ends on an epic near-ten minute funk mediation on Barry White’s I’m Going To Love

Sparks! cover

Texan guitarist Melvin Sparks made three albums for Prestige Records in the early 70s. Sparks was the first and maybe the funkiest, with drum warrior Idris Muhammad providing a solid but agile rhythmic backbone to four funk jazz tracks and one deftly swinging soul-jazz track, I Didn’t Know What Time It Was. The choice of material — pop songs Spill The Wine and Charlie Brown along with Rodgers and Harts’ I Didn’t Know What Time It Was — are all given a thorough drenching in church-flavoured Hammond organ and the jazziest of funky drumming over which Sparks and his band happily exchange solos.

Black Rhythm Revolution! cover

Drummer and bandleader Muhammad 1971, who played on many Prestige albums for artists including Melvin Sparks, Houston Person, Charles Earland and Rusty Bryant, put out two albums on Prestige in 1971. Black Rhythm Revolution is a strong five-tracker. Side one features two high-end funk tracks given the Prestige jazz treatment, Charles Wright’s Express Yourself and James Brown’s Superbad, the latter getting a particularly propulsive reworking. The funk tracks are separated by Soulful Drums, a funereal-paced blues full of all sorts of drum trickery and impressive showboating from Muhammad. Side two is taken up with a pair of gorgeous soul-jazz pieces that allow space for him to showcase his full powers. 

Shaft cover

Purdie’s second Prestige album from ’72 is mostly peerlessly played and arranged ensemble street funk, with a full brass section and Purdie’s raw, thundering snares and toms dominating the sound field. His take on Isaac Hayes’ Shaft builds the tension superbly and the moment when the tune kicks off properly and Purdie launches into his distinctive rolling, no-fill-left-unplayed style is funk heaven. With drummer-led albums obviously the drums need to be central in the mix, so these tracks are highly rhythmically robust for the time. This makes them brilliant dance floor records, a secret DJs soon discovered. The funky drums, choppy basslines and stacked, jazzy brass of tunes like Attica were not only resurrected by the UK rare groove and acid jazz scenes but were also clearly inspirational for many 90s acid jazz artists too. 

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