I got to see Roy Ayers in concert here in Sydney last week. My review was just published on inthemix:
Roy Ayers @ The Basement, Sydney, 20/2/11
I had issues with the show, as you’ll see from the review, but still it was a treat. Since then, I’ve naturally been revisiting Roy’s old tunes.
Here’s a classic, one of those primal creations that sounds as fresh now as it must have back in the day, thanks to its bulletproof groove and off-kilter, melancholy orchestration:
I love these kinds of Youtube videos, where you just watch the record spinning on the turntable. Having spent a lot of my life staring at records while they play, I’m right there with the fans who upload this stuff.
“We Live in Brooklyn, Baby” is from one of my favorite albums: Roy Ayers Ubiquity’s He’s Coming, released in 1971. I first got it when I was living in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park. I was broke, and trying to make it, baby – and I can’t explain how much its lyrics and atmosphere meant to me. The sound of it takes me right back to the smell of the brownstone I lived in, the sound of the kids playing and the roosters crowing in the back.
I love the non-sequitur quality of these lines:
Days have passed
And all the queen bee’s drones are dying
I don’t think Roy anticipated colony collapse disorder. I’m not sure what it means, it’s just a funky lyric. I was disappointed when he left that line out of the song last week – as if it would have been too weird for the occasion.
Here’s another one from the same album. Righteous lyrics, an arrangement that just keeps building, an incredible bassline. Try to listen to “Ain’t Got Time” without feeling something:
By the way, the “he” in the album’s title refers to that he. You know, the one who makes the whole thing happen. Same goes with “He’s a Superstar”:
I was listening to this the other day, and got to wondering, what happened to this kind of music, this kind of message? I take it for granted that gospel is a part of soul, but now if someone released a song like this, it’d be a big deal. But back then you got direct affirmations of faith in the music of Stevie Wonder, the O’Jays, Curtis Mayfield, all the heavy hitters. That is some of the best music ever recorded, documenting a profoundly urgent epoch in American history, revolutionizing black culture and inspiring people everywhere – and it was powered by faith. So what the hell happened?
Oh, well. It’s a question for another day. By the way, on the same album, Ayers/Ubiquity do an instrumental version of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” from Jesus Christ Superstar, which was still new at that time. Maybe that’s where Ayers got the concept for “He’s a Superstar.” In general I don’t have much to say about the phenomenon of that musical, as I’m not too familiar with it. (I don’t really do showtunes. Sorry.)
Moving on to another era, can’t forget about this one, probably my favorite of all:
There’s no other record like it. How can I wax poetic about that percussion, that bassline, the tension between the sweetness of the track and the weird drama of the layered vocals? Just listen – and try to keep from knocking over stuff in your living room while dancing.
Like much of Roy Ayers’ music, “Running Away” was ahead of its time, or out of time – I’d say 1977 seems unbelievable, but I think it would seem unbelievable no matter what year it came out. Not only does it foreshadow house, but it kind of is house in a way, just as “We Live in Brooklyn, Baby” is part and parcel of hip hop. It’s fitting, because Roy went on to record house in the 90s.
Speaking of that, here’s the original version of “Sweet Tears,” which later became a hit when Roy collaborated with Masters at Work/NuYorican Soul on a reworked house version:
Just to be pedantic, the remake:
It’s pretty cheesy – it threatens to collapse into disco house, which was never my thing, and it can’t even come close to matching the smoking-hot vibe of “Running Away” – but I like it anyway.
And just to end things on a completely different note, here’s Roy in electro/R&B/smooth operator/comedian mode in 1984:
Trust me, I wouldn’t post a tune with the phrase “poo poo” in the title if it wasn’t worth your time.