More than a few kids I knew in the ‘70s proudly wore their “Disco Sucks” T-shirts; while I’ve never been utterly convinced by the mechanical hi-hat groove and swelling string sections of most disco, the 1970s look more and more like a golden age of the groove.
The strain of soul-jazz that was represented by groups like The Crusaders, Stuff and The Brecker Brothers was fun — not pretending to be “real” jazz and reveling in the combination of funk and chops that was available in New York City at that time. When you feel the gospel-funk pull of the opening and closing themes for Saturday Night Live, you’re getting off on the decade of Watergate.
That sound was carefully distilled by the Kudu label, an offshoot of Creed Taylor near-fusion CTI label. Kudu, however, was as likely to sign R & B stars as it was to seduce jazzmen to their smooth demise. And so the run of Kudu albums by soul singer Esther Phillips between 1971 and 1977 was a nice body of work. This version of the Sony Jazz Moods/Hot series collects 11 of her better Kudu tracks.
Esther Phillips had a long and storied career, from a child star in the ‘50s with Johnny Otis’s band to a quirky-voiced soul-jazz songstress in the ‘70s. Her idol was Dinah Washington, and she distills Dinah’s snarl into something even more modern in her best work. It’s hard to say that these tracks were the highlight of her career, but they did plant her in the Top Twenty for a while. In fact, Esther was the musical guest on the fourth-ever episode, from November 1975, of Saturday Night Live, hosted by Candace Bergen. She was there to sing her hit version of “What a Difference a Day Makes”, which you’ll find as the fourth track here.
“What a Difference a Day Makes” is, however, not the best offering on this CD. Dinah had hit with a slow version of the tune 15 years earlier, but this is a disco interpretation, medium to up tempo, with an opening line of the vocal melody doubled by the Fender Rhodes, a tasty little bass line as intro, and a crackling alto solo by the young, raspy-toned Dave Sanborn. Hearing it today would be merely camp fun if it weren’t for the great vocal, with Esther’s vinegary tone swinging the band along despite the confining disco drums. Phillips was more than used to having to rise above the arrangements given to her, and she does it here.
Much better are several other fine tunes presented early in this collection. “‘Til My Back Ain’t Got No Bone” is a fairly straight blues workout that Esther was born to deliver, and the guitar work by Eric Gale nearly smells of Chicago’s South Side. “Home is Where the Hatred Is” is even better: a theatrical Gil Scott-Heron tune written from the point of view of a heroin junkie. The fusiony instrumentation doesn’t get in the way at all here, and Esther brings home a totally believable narration in song. On this track, the song and the singer not only match in tone, but also in quality.
Phillips never fails to deliver spirit: the most daring track is a significantly altered version of the Ellington standard “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good”. You’ve heard this tune a million times, but never like this — aggressively played but at a slow half-tempo so that Esther can drag out and embellish the melody to the point of nearly (but never) losing it. She’s got a horn section, strings, a handful of Ray Charles-style female background singers, and all the attitude a singer could need.
On other tracks, though, her spirit is trying to rescue material that just isn’t there. I loved it as the title track to a Grover Washington, Jr. album, but “Mister Magic” doesn’t work here as a vocal feature. Phillips abstracts the melody with aplomb, but the arrangement rushes things and the guitar never sounds right. And it doesn’t help that the lyrics (Mr. Magic is a great lover, I guess) are dopey.
In the final analysis, you’d have to go fairly deep into the list of “soul classics” to come up with these sides. But they remain sturdy examples of what the ‘70s was good at: combining commercial soul with some hip jazz players to make some real music. On that early episode of SNL, Esther Phillips was playing with many of the cats who appear on this record (though you can’t be sure from the packaging, which fails to list the musicians or give much discographical information at all), and everyone is dripping with cool. If you compare it to the plastic music that often passes on SNL these days — music that was chosen for the show exclusively to match big record label release schedules — it makes you pine for a distant era when people stood on line for gas, voted for a peanut farmer and still felt a connection to the sound of Dinah Washington.
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