The Mizell Brothers

It’s rare for a production unit to have such a small discography in such a short period of time and yet be so recognizably integral to a musical movement that it’s impossible to imagine their absence. Larry and Alphonso Mizell belong in that rarefied category, right up near the top, for their contributions to a corner of crossover music that took longer than it should have to earn its due respect. Sure, it might have taken a surprise wave of hip-hop producers and acid jazz enthusiasts to catch on and appreciate it in the face of purist naysaying, with at least 15 years’ distance after the Mizells’ brief but indelible moment in the sun. But when it came time to give the ’70s fusion era of jazz greats like Donald Byrd, Bobbie Humphrey, and Johnny Hammond their cross-generational propers, heads knew that Larry and Fonce were names to appreciate.

Both siblings were already steeped in music by the time they graduated Howard University — even if it was Fonce who got his degree in music, while kid brother Larry studied engineering. (Some musicians dream of doing an Apollo gig; in Larry’s case, this initially meant building, testing and troubleshooting electrical systems for NASA’s Lunar Module in the late ’60s.) Music would eventually prove to be the bigger calling for both siblings, as something of a familial destiny — great-uncle Andy Razaf was an early Tin Pan Alley songwriter and frequent collaborator of Fats Waller, while they had cousins who would become genre-defining legends in both girl-group pop (The Ronettes) and hip-hop (Run-D.M.C.’s DJ Jam Master Jay). 

After a bit of trial-and-error, Fonce got his own foot in the music-biz door in the most fortuitous way possible, getting hired by Motown and joining Berry Gordy’s new record production unit The Corporation — just in time to contribute writing and arrangement to the songs that would make the Jackson 5 one of the biggest sensations in pop music. Once the Corporation split in 1972, Fonce convinced Larry to ditch the aerospace business to join him out in Cali to start a new operation, Sky High Productions, that carried through the brothers’ experience of working with R&B musicians into new territory. They’d both caught on to how Motown had swapped out the old blues for something more intangibly modern, a blend of technological innovation, compositional daring, and jazz-chops musicianship, and went out for themselves to see where else this inspiration could take them.

Fatefully, they landed at Blue Note and cut their first sessions for the label in Spring of 1972, right as the movement towards integrating funk, soul, and rock into jazz was leaving the stalwart label in flux. Under the leadership of recently-appointed executive George Butler, Blue Note’s turn towards more commercial records was threatening to alienate an aging base of jazz traditionalists. But the Mizell Brothers’ productions — despite often being laden with string sections, ARP synthesizers, and the brothers’ own relatively flat yet appealingly warm vocal harmonies — still clearly valued chops and improvisation that built off rock-solid rhythmic foundations. And in doing so, they cemented a recurring core of session players, including bassists Chuck Rainey and Wilton Felder, drummer Harvey Mason, guitarists “Wah Wah” Watson and David T. Walker, percussionist King Errisson, and synth player/Corporation alumni Freddie Perren, who ranked among the great undersung architects of ’70s funk, soul, and disco.

The Mizells would notch classics for Blue Note, Milestone, CTI, and a host of other jazz labels before eventually receding from prominence in the ’80s. And when it all clicked, which was most of the time, the vibes were immaculate. Listening to a Mizells-helmed album is to be greeted with the same kind of energy that made R&B of the day so opulent and experimental and thrilling, just in the service of a jazz tradition that was in search of an elusive continued relevance. If that meant putting out records that sounded a little more like Johnnie Taylor than Cecil Taylor, so be it. But that soul-pop accessibility, especially in retrospect, comes across like the culmination of an almost intensely euphoric sense of musical joy, the expression of a certain hard-earned mellowness that felt like the optimist approach to coping with the era’s lingering turmoil.

Blacks and Blues cover

It took until 1971 for Blue Note to sign a woman who specialized in playing an instrument, and not long after that for her to deliver a masterpiece. While there were excellent moments on the flautist’s first two albums for the label — 1971’s Flute In and ’72 follow-up Dig This! — Bobbi Humphrey’s first session with the Mizell Brothers behind the boards was packed with cuts that range among the best soul-jazz sides ever recorded, with her piercing, melodious yet intense soloing gracing some of the most dance-motivating backing of the label’s prime funk-fusion era. The opening one-two of the tense glide “Chicago, Damn” and the top-down breeziness of “Harlem River Drive” alone see to that, with the title cut making for a radio-ready slice of urban-pastoral uplift and the moody explorations of “Baby’s Gone” as the coup de grace.

Black Byrd cover

Donald Byrd was always something of an experimenter among the ranks of the hard bop greats to emerge in the ’50s and reshape the genre throughout the ’60s. But don’t mistake his turn towards fusion in the ’70s as a complacent, aging musician resting on his laurels: after the wild flights of early ’70s Blue Note releases like Electric Byrd and Ethiopian Knights, he was proving to be every bit the forward-motion visionary as his mentee Herbie Hancock. Subsequently, the album that introduced the Mizell Brothers’ Motown-steeped soul sensibility to Blue Note ably proved that Byrd’s trumpet and flugelhorn could not only carry orchestral soul-funk — whether lively and heavy (“Love’s So Far Away”), reflectively wistful (“Where Are We Going?”, originally written for a Marvin Gaye What’s Going On followup), or a sweet spot somewhere in between (“Flight Time”) — but elevate it every bit as much as the voices of Stevie Wonder or Curtis Mayfield did for their own hits. Oh, and it became the biggest-selling record in Blue Note history to that point — a nice bonus.

Hell Up in Harlem [Original Soundtrack] cover

It almost feels like a huge wasted opportunity that the Mizell Brothers weren’t asked to do more soundtracks back in the ’70s, since their work with Blue Note stars like Bobbi Humphrey and Donald Byrd revealed a major knack for dynamic, evocative arrangements that were up there with the best that jazz-rooted contemporaries like Quincy Jones and Herbie Hancock could muster. The sequel to Larry Cohen’s Fred “The Hammer” Williamson actioner Black Caesar swaps out the original’s J.B.’s-powered James Brown numbers for Edwin Starr belting over Fonce Mizell / Freddie Perren-arranged blaxploitation opulence (with Larry Mizell contributing synths). And it’s an even bigger shame that Motown didn’t do more to promote Starr’s swan song for the label, because the cold-sweating title cut, the feline slink of “Easin’ In,” and the colossus-of-swag anthem “Big Papa” are some of his career-best performances on an album orchestrated to show him at full power.

Places and Spaces cover

If Donald Byrd’s peak playing funky instrumental fusion came in the first years of the ’70s — think the deeper-than-deep grooves in the albums that span from 1970’s Electric Byrd to 1973’s Street Lady — his next phase towards more pop-friendly soul jazz was perfected not long after. With the cream of Mizells-produced/arranged personnel backing him up, Byrd’s Places and Spaces has no shortage of sophisticated-soul vibes informing its mellow-but-vibrant jazz-funk, with Byrd’s lively horn making for the perfect instrument to drive pieces like the euphoric vocal number “(Fallin’ Like) Dominoes” and the chime-strewn Love Unlimited Orchestra-outdoing opulence of “Wind Parade."

Street Lady cover

Bared midriffs and huge wigs on the cover, titles like “Sister Love” and “Witch Hunt,” that Mizells sound which brought soul jazz square into Isaac Hayes Movement turf — it’d be all too easy to take in this LP from Donald Byrd’s early ’70s ascendance to the pinnacle of R&B-friendly fusion and come away from it with nothing but misguided impressions of Blaxploitation kitsch. But engage it on its own terms, and the grooves run deeper than expected, even after you take all the sample-flip potential out of the equation. And Byrd’s playing is just one of the highlights of a session-player ensemble rife with an almost alien sense of melodic uplift and rhythmic drive. If you find early analog synths and wah-wah guitars more inspiring than comedic, this album will reward you with some fantastic musical interplay and a lot of absolutely astounding soloing.

Music Is My Sanctuary cover

Even if the Mizells-and-company cohort that drove so much of the ’70s fusion sound would eventually be at least somewhat vindicated by latter-day cratediggers and acid-jazz acolytes, there’s always the lingering complaint that the era’s pop and disco moves might have given lesser players an excuse to just coast. But Gary Bartz was no lesser player, and the sax great’s unexpected transition from incendiary electric Miles sideman in the early ’70s to eventual crossover artist by the end of the decade did nothing to diminish the expressive, nuanced emotion of his sound. Only the most stick-up-the-ass purist would overlook just how well this ostensibly commercial record incorporated everything from MPB (“Carnaval De L’esprit”) to swing (“Swing Thing”) to doo-wop (“Oo Baby Baby”), and how indelibly its R&B flourishes — including the always-welcome presence of Syreeta Wright on vocals — would hold up.

 Gambler's Life  cover

In the ’60s, you could put Johnny “Hammond” Smith in a holy trinity of same-surnamed B-3 masters right alongside Jimmy and Dr. Lonnie, but his decade-straddling years on the Prestige label had his soul-jazz stylings threatening to coast on autopilot. When he jumped to CTI in ’71, though, he ditched the “Smith,” turned up the groove, and eventually started to work his magic on (gasp) synthesizers as well as the traditional organ. By the time the Mizells came in to twist the knobs for Gambler’s Life, he’d adapted perfectly to the fusion milieu of the mid ’70s, with results — the title cut’s punchy is-this-Hell-or-Vegas vertigo; the leather-upholstered spaceship lounge soundtrack “Star Borne”; the manic solos-upon-solos proto-disco-jazz of “Rhodesian Thoroughfare” and “Yesterday Was Cool” — that maintained an unreal momentum. Sure, it’s smooth — at 200 MPH.

Say My Friend cover

The Mizells soul-jazz sound had worked wonders for Donald Byrd, given a boost to L.T.D., and made for one of the more memorable Blaxploitation soundtracks with Hell Up In Harlem — so where else would that touch leave a lasting impression? The answer lay in one of the oldest traditions of Black popular music, and in the hands of one of the decade’s most crossover-savvy of all the gospel groups. Even the most secular-minded listener could catch the spirit off this oft-overlooked album’s interplay of big-budget studio-soul arrangements and the Allen Brothers’ stunning group harmonies, resulting in an LP that would not only stand as a gospel classic but rival the Gamble-and-Huff O’Jays on their own majestic-soul turf.

Gears cover

This successor to the similarly Mizells-produced Gambler’s Life had a tough act to follow. But in the event that you don’t have to actually choose between the two albums, 1975’s Gears makes for a fine companion piece, despite the change in label (CTI to Milestone) and a less-frenetic yet still lively energy level. The two big stunners here are “Los Conquistadores Chocolatés” — a cheerful little march that soon unfolds into a kaleidoscopic Latin-funk vamp where Smith more than earns his B-3-inspired pseudo-surname — and “Shifting Gears,” which bounces like few other jazz-funk songs of the era thanks to Chuck Rainey’s deep-down bassline and a succession of audacious key changes that Hammond’s responsive solos just keep on elevating.

A Taste of Honey cover

No amount of griping that they robbed the Best New Artist Grammy from Elvis Costello can obscure just what a surprising, counter-intuitive debut A Taste of Honey’s first LP was. As a disco group that belied the pernicious myth of the genre being mechanical and soulless, A Taste of Honey was brought into the studio by the Mizell Brothers, who picked up on the musicianship of album-cover stars Janice Marie Johnson (bass, vocals) and Hazel Payne (guitar, vocals) and saw them notch a massive smash with the deceptively-frothy but chops-rich “Boogie Oogie Oogie.” If that ain’t enough, the dreamlike mid-tempo groove of “World Spin” and the trio of love ballads that close the LP (“If We Loved”; “Sky High”; “You’re in Good Hands”) elevate A Taste of Honey well above singles-plus-filler status.

Love to the World cover

For all their associations with ’70s jazz fusion, the Mizell Brothers could work much of their same melodic groove mastery with straight-up R&B artists — it’s just that they didn’t always have as many opportunities to do so. Maybe that’s how this album helped elevate Greensboro, North Carolina funk band L.T.D. into future hitmakers: it feels like a collective something-to-prove effort by the Mizells’ production/songwriting braintrust and a fierce funk-soul band on the verge of both getting dropped by their label and making something great. The pop #20/R&B #1 “Love Ballad” definitely bore out as much in a commercial sense, but it’s a hell of a performance, too — as is the funky-unity harmonic thunderclap of the title cut, the gutbucket disco of “The Word” and the throttle-wide-open joy of “Time for Pleasure."