Who’s got the funk? Well, this month’s answer to that age-old question is Blue Note. Not jazz-funk, mind you, or any new-fangled variant, but proper old-school funk with a few jazz licks thrown in. This disc could have been cut 30 years ago. As the contributors include Dr. Lonnie Smith, Maceo Parker, Arthur Blythe and Idris Muhammad, the actual band could have probably made this record back then. Choice of material such as “Soul Makossa” and “Ain’t No Sunshine” only adds to the time-warp effect. It is very strange. Don’t get me wrong, Soul Manifesto is a solid and pleasurable set but it is hardly the most forward-looking release of the year.
If such resolute back-turning on the contemporary doesn’t bother you and if the JBs meet Jimmy McGriff or Grant Green sounds like fun then Rodney Jones and friends will have you happily toe-tapping for hours. It must initially be admitted that Jones, though a supreme rhythm-maker, is a fairly characterless soloist. No real worries, as the above mentioned stalwarts more than compensate in the solo stakes. Furthermore, as with all the best funk outfits, the groove is the thing, not any individual flashiness. And groove there is—by the bucketload. This is a no-frills operation—tightly organised, rock-steady and built to last.
Just a glimpse at the song titles tells you what to expect. The album opens and closes with the horn led “Groove Bone”—a more relaxed JBs-early Kool and the Gang, riff-led excursion. “Soul Manifesto”, “One Turnip Green” and “Soup Bone” are titles that could be found on any number of late-‘60s, long-deleted albums. File under Rare Groove (Revisited). Like those forebears, Manifesto could have been a bit wearing in one take and there is reason to be thankful for the downtempo numbers, which save the listener from too one-dimensional an experience.
As it is, there is just enough going on to keep matters fresh. The standard of playing helps, of course. Jones has gathered together some of the best and they are all in good form, to the point where he is, if anything, overshadowed by his fellow funksters. Pride of place, for me, goes to the good Dr. Smith—who is cropping up all over the place just lately. His left-of-centre Hammond style is just what this project needed and on the, otherwise pointless, cover of Manu Dibango’s Afro-Funk, Loft anthem, “Soul Makossa” he outdoes himself. Little flicks and melodic stabs are his specialty and he has saved some of his juiciest for this session. His solo on “Mobius 3” is just about B-3 heaven.
What can be said of Maceo? He is surely the king of this genre. He does nothing new here but neither does he do anything wrong. Never the sort of player that you particularly remember for this or that solo, he simply and effortlessly delivers a sound you know so well and love like an old friend. He has worked with Jones before (and vice-versa). They seem to have formed a close musical bond—and it shows in the seamlessness of their exchanges. Arthur Blythe comes from a different soul background (more Philly) and is also closer to the mainstream jazz tradition. Though never in trouble, he is at his most entertaining when he can fly the coop a little, as he does on the old Coltrane ballad “Soul Eyes”. Blythe has been out of the spotlight in recent years. It hasn’t hurt his tone—which still has that sweet, swaying quality which made him so popular back in the ‘80s.
Drummer Muhammad and bassist Lonnie Plaxico do what is required and do it well. Often Muhammad adopts an almost Memphis, fatback style that really works and Plaxico, too, keeps it very rhythm and bluesy, to considerable effect. “Soup Bone”—which has a Booker T ring about the very title—harks back to the days of Sonny Thompson or Maxwell Davies. It conjures up a world of small clubs on the black touring circuit with the band warming the crowd up for the big singing star. Similarly, on the long, outro version of “Groove Bone” the James Brown band of Famous Flames vintage is evoked rather than the post-Bootsy era. There are some deep roots behind each and every song.
Jones himself presides over and adds to this rich mixture. If he does not quite have Smith’s individuality or Parker’s authority, he nonetheless knows how to work a riff for all it is worth. I think he is essentially a sideman but his own compositions stand up well to the covers, so he is no slouch in that area. I prefer him chording to using single string runs, although occasionally he does surprise and get fast and fluid (“Groove Bone” again for the best example).
A quick word about “Ain’t No Sunshine”. Now, the last thing the world needs is yet another version of this chestnut. In fact, the reading of it here is delightful and gives Maceo a chance to show that he can be as sensitive and full of feeling as the next man. Slipped in between the more driving numbers, it comes across far less creakily than it has any right to. Which, indeed, is a case for the album as a whole. It should have been a stale exercise, a mere re-hashing of former glories—but it isn’t. At times it does drift towards the mundane. Mostly (with particular reference to the organ) it is crisply played and very alive.
Safe and certainly not innovative, Soul Manifesto is still worth catching up with. Its very lack of pretension is surely part of its charm. Like all the funkiest albums, from the flares and Afro, brass led affairs to the Hammond groups of the sixties, it never tries to over-complicate or do anything that gets in the way of the groove. When Blue Note updates its excellent Blue Funk series in a few years time, tracks from this album will find a ready home.