Monday, October 6, 2014

Super Funky Sax "Mo' Better Funk" (1994)

Would you settle for just Funky Sax?

1994's Mo' Better Funk is the 14-years later follow-up to producer David Matthews' Super Funky Sax project, accentuating the musicianship of saxophones, and, well, funk. There's no doubt this project launched in 1980, at the helm of a zenith crescendo in funk, fusion and disco-laced jazz. But 14-years have past, and it's interesting to see how Matthews' planned to inject this bygone era into the 90's, which isn't always an easy feat.

It's no surprise nobody's heard of the cheesy title and like magenta, clip artsy hues of Super Funky Sax...

Like most of his other works, Matthews' works are recorded in New York and produced in Japan though almost all of his participants are regularly New York musicians -- and some of the best he's kept close all these years. Most comparatively mirroring Bob James' in his arrangement style of delivering lofty production values, bombastic orchestras, horns and star-studded instrument solos, Matthews' has also been around long enough to know how to fuse commercially successful jazz, funk, even rock and strings. For unknown reasons, the American-born, incognito David Matthews' has had much notoriety and success in Japan, more so than his homeland. Most of his releases and projects have gone Japan-only, including the bizarrely titled and the out-of-print/non-reprinted Mo' Better Funk.

Unlike many other Matthews' productions, Super Funky Sax gives up most of the auxiliary bells and whistles of previous works, focusing on a jazz-rock set with four saxophonists at the spotlight by way of Kenny Garrett, Chris Hunter, a Sanborn doppleganging pitch on altos and band regulars George Young on tricky scaled tenor and Roger Rosenberg on (never boring) baritone.

Ironically, Super Funky Sax's second release has everyone in their place, strictly roled and seemingly statuesque at times, almost instructed not to play anything out of turn.

But nothing's off on the saxophone quartet, sometimes trio, all the solos are expertly manned and balanced though the crown has been given to guest Kenny Garrett, whose sometimes bright alto is uncompromised in signature to heartiness and passionate notes.

Mixing it up, Matthews' has appointed a specifically designated rhythm section comprised of veteran drummer Steve Gadd, Anthony Jackson on bass (you can really feel), rhythm and cutting guitars from Ira Seagal and Ross Traut with David Spinozza at the frontline, adding the jazz-rock flavors inbetween saxophones. Keyboardist Gil Goldstein sifts into the background mostly, whose organ presents itself on Mayfield's cover and that's about it. If only Matthews' appointed solos for other non-winds players than guitarist Spinozza, the band wouldn't have sounded mechanical, programmed and imprisoned to just play for the saxes. Such talent seems wasted, stamped to the background, especially for a round-up of legendary session players here.

Mo' Better Funk's programme is seven polite, even-tempered and tempo but sanitized and heavily controlled on-rails, post-era jazz-funk; mostly robotic and seemingly medicated, yet accomplished in groove and bounciness. What each tune fails to deliver by way bordering on uninspired background music, earns points for being yet another quality sound design production Matthews' is no stranger to, making this disc highly listenable and toe-tapping, if not fresh.

Of the seven cuts, all were composed and arranged by Matthews with the exception of Curtis Mayfield's People Get Ready and one of the liveliest numbers on the disc that feels most oiled, constantly trading solos on sax and guitar.

Air, which mimicks MJ's Billie Jean bassline keeps a bounce between solos mostly by Garrett until Spinozza breaks it up with some cool guitar, ending on an exciting baritone by Rosenberg. Smooth! adds on a smokey aire of detective jazz that begs for a mute but gives with mid-tempo and a surprise opening solo given to Spinozza's guitar, ends on Young's eclectic tenor soloing.

Super Groove II reprises from the original Super Funky Sax with homage to the original, having the understudy-in-sound Chris Hunter scream the echoes of Sanborn's tight alto. An almost nine-minute track desires to be the disc's jam session, impaired by an on-rails loop of melodic chorus, which ends up a plaguing arrest to most cuts on Mo' Better Funk here on out.

Sweet As Honey wants to be much more as demonstrated by a strong opening and a strong saxophone backbone but droops down to yet another syrupy paced circuit. Snake In The Grass turns up some attitude, most specifically with one of the most impressive, electrifying and spastic solos played out by George Young, who continually wows with an unpredictable tenor and Matthews' under utilized secret weapon on this release.

Mo' Better Funk could have been a Mo' Better disc if only David Matthews' could've been mo' himself: unchaining himself and the band a little bit, making those meandering moments on too many tracks filled with more soloing. Seems unnecessary for some of these tracks to trail on as long as they do with some saxists sitting backgrounded to mostly forgettable funk that seems to have been absent Mo' Soul.

Matthews' would go on to do a third (and final) Super Funky Sax Wazzup? in 1996. Let's hope they get it mo' right and tight next time.


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