Friday, December 12, 2014

Richard Tee "The Bottom Line" (1985)

Light listening and pop grooves with a slice of J-fusion from Tee across the sea, and that's The Bottom Line.

Richard Tee was certainly more respected and noteworthy among the New York jazz and session scene than he was by any popular fanbase. His solo success never took off here in the U.S yet was admired and respected deeply. In fact, until Inside You, the Brooklyn-raised keyboardist hadn't much support for his solo efforts nor a release stateside of his discs, even though they were handled by Bob James' Tappan Zee label in the early 90's.

The Bottom Line is a relative obscurity in Tee's solo catalog and another New York recording only released in Japan under King Records' subsidiary fusion label Electric Bird Records airs on the side of easier listening, pop-centric of Tee's releases to date. With a down-sized band of what would become his regulars John Tropea (electric guitar), Steve Gadd (drums), Marcus Miller (bass) and Ralph McDonald (percussions) with divided support by Will Lee (bass) and Dave Weckl (drums) with vocalists Bill Eaton and Zack Sanders

Unlike his previous Strokin' (1975) and Natural Ingredients (1980), no strings or horns this time around, and no Tee-related puns reflecting the sleeve arts. Scaled back musician support and soloing a la jazz leanings, Tee focused on a mostly pop-direction with some vocal-led pieces that mostly stray from his usual bluesy-gospel and southern influences of past. A different direction that may have been tailored to appeal to Japanese audiences and radio-friendly at that, further reflected by trimmed track lengths, tightly kept around 3 to 4 minutes. 

In a way, The Bottom Line is Richard Tee's first solo album for the target audience (and on CD at this time for that matter).

Though Tee was most proficient for his elegant bluesy soul on piano with signature accompaniment by his unmistakable pioneered phaser Fender Rhodes, there's a satisfying plenty on here along with vocal pieces that ramped up on his solo efforts outside of Stuff, which are still lyrically awkward at times and simplistic, yet upbeat and feel-good even when Bill Eaton takes over on Miss-Understanding

As per tradition, there's a steady mixture of instrumental and vocal numbers on here with Tee's soulful and gospel cadence. Nippon Lights is the disc's real star instrumental, flavored for ethnic Japan, providing rich nightlife imagery with regard to cultural clashes of East and West, with some spikey electric soloing by Tropea. What Can I Say is a companionate instrumental to the former with like distorted guitar fills and obligatory Linn drum claps on each. Though the Linn drum was mostly retired if not defined and confined by the heart of 80's sound, it's accepted use on various tracks works despite its cheese, even on the disc's soulful opener If You Want It which may just have you clapping along.

Faulted by lyrical blunder and staccato flow, which is just something you come to accept when admiring Tee's playing, some tracks fizzle out, seemingly hitting a wall while looped verses rove on on a few tracks including the title The Bottom Line. Soloing lacks in turn for vocals here by Tee himself, handled mostly by Tropea's well-placed guitaring, whose jazz-rock touches still only appetize jazz ears.

The Bottom Line will mostly appeal to Tee fans only, there's no denying that there were some fine ideas here paired with a wealth of variation: prime fusion-styled hooks and melodies that were some his best yet that sadly wound up half-baked. Whether it's Weckl's cymbal taps and lead in on Moving On or the doorbell-like Rhodes melody on the bouncy Spring Is You, nothing has been repeated on any other releases. Album outliars No Real Way is a down-tempo tribute to doo-wop balladry, while a solo piano duel with Gadd's rhythmic support on a speedy take of Gershwin's Rhapsody In Blue. McDonald's percussions are just the right touches on each.

The Bottom Line? A pleasing and catchy effort for enthusiasts that manages to invite repeat listens with its care-free appeal that shines on all Tee's works despite its desparate play to commercial radio.


NOTABLE TRACKS: Nippon Lights, Moving On, Spring Is You
GREAT variation and approaches with regard to fusion, somethings are different while keeping the Tee sound richly intact
INTRODUCING: guitarist John Tropea, whose balance of jazz-rock textures would become a regular Tee member throughout the 80's and beyond
LYRICS are simplistic and often awkward sounding at times as if they were penned by/for Japanese audiences

>>> About The Release
Richard Tee's albums demand price tags of around $30 and up with the exception of Inside You which was his only official U.S. release. It can really only be explained by way of Japan's marketplace where releases don't lose their value as much as CDs anywhere else in the world. On that note...

The Bottom Line was originally released by Electric Bird Records in 1985 on CD and LP. In 2002, re-issue label Roving Spirits was licensed to reprint the album (RKCJ-9001/RKCJ-6011) under its Electric Bird Super Fusion Master Series. The original is a little more difficult to find these days. The re-issue also demands a pretty hefty tag as well from around $35-50 used and higher for a sealed one, as it remains one of the most elusive of Tee's solo albums due to its Japan-only release. We managed to grab a copy of the re-issue direct from an Amazon Japan seller, which was remarkably cheaper than Amazon U.S.

Roving Spirits advertises this as a remaster, whose bassier mixing qualifies in the loudness-war variety

The booklet's rear mimicks the original LP artwork. While missing some of the original musician portraits, inside the book  contains a multi-page reflection of jazz-fusion, the album's production and Tee's biography sadly unintelligable without knowledge of Japanese. 

The booklet credits are mostly bi-lingual, mirrored completely in English on the back of the orange-clad inlay, which is certainly more budget-oriented and different from the original print.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Super Funky Sax "Wazzup?" (1996)

Only for the sax hungry. That's Wazzup.

The third and final in David Matthews' obscure Super Funky Sax series, Wazzup? brings back more funked-up rhythms for this time around in a mostly fairweather set arranged by David Matthews for the pop side of saxophones.

Where 1994's Mo' Better Funk came up short, 1996's Wazzup? sought to improve with only marginal results of more of the same generic, yet catchy Matthews' originals and covers with some impressive players that show off virtuosity on not only the sax but also guitars. Not without improvement, Wazzup? is really for completists of this unknown saga of saxophoning -- or just for people who love saxophones matched with guitars. When you pair the two together, waz not to love?!

Wazzup?, like Mo' Better Funk on the Japan-only Swecca label, is a New York production only released to Japanese audiences (oddly enough), similarly plagued by a somewhat lusterless outcome yet still results in groovy, funkable albeit painfully mediocre arrangements by veteran jazz-funk-orchestra arranger David Matthews whose far greater capabilities aren't on display here.  In fact, he likely poured more soul into other lesser known Japan-only productions like Yamato 2520.

Unlike the original 1980 Super Funky Sax (which is getting a long-overdue reprint this December), Wazzup? carries on with a goofy hip title, tightened but still prone to drawn-out runways for each soloist to display their signatures. Still sounding flat, the rhythm section is too polished and on-track as if each instrument were layered on-top of each other rather than organically played or masterfully mixed.

So what's up err -- Wazzup

The sax players: Kenny Garrett on alto, is back though not in the spotlight as before, Gerald Albright also on alto makes his presence well heard, Tom Scott as smooth as ever, also on alto, and lastly the high registering Chris Hunter also alto, and in Sanborn's wake sounds more spastically tricky and haphazardly scaly than the previous, enough to break away from the inspiring altoist. Though so many altos, each player shows off their own profile well enough not to melt the horns together.

Newcomer Andy Snitzer plays both alto and tenor in a rich style reminiscent of Steve Tavaglione while George Young on tenor, returns for only one solo op, disappointingly, fading to the background on most of these. Roger Rosenberg returns for lonely love for the baritone, to which he speaks well to. 

There's also nicely implemented rock-tinged guitar solos for the sake of balance on more than half the set list by Ira Siegel and Ross Traut -- two members of Matthews' sessions who never really get to flesh out their skills get to here. Rhythm is handled by bassist Mark Egan and drums by Michael White, who mostly go faceless.

Line Drive is an energetic album opener of T.o.P.-style boldness with Scott's alto at the helm, Chris Hunter playing electrifyingly, played out by Traut's rock guitar that begs for more upon fade out. 

Others bode well like a bouncy Groove Alley with Michael White's steady drum, Mark Egan's bass showing through to another crunchy guitar. El Cumbanchero is a take on Marin Rafael Hernandez's original, a speedy latin cover with a trick and slick alto solo by Albright. After Sunset takes the tempo down low with Andy Snitzer in the spotlight, whose balladry on sax turns a little boresome contrast to Wazzup's other fueled efforts. 

The Cat is a Lalo Schifrin cover which attempts to glitz with a drawn-out MIDI organ solo by Jon Werking, ending with Rosenberg's limited solo baritone. Title track Wazzup? is one that has its moments with Snitzer leading the pack for a refreshing plush yet bold tenor sound against a tragically stiff melody.

Music is serviceably dull, yet simplistically upbeat and engaging amounts of energy, still slightly redundant and at times drawn out which was a bigger problem on Mo' Better Funk. Even covers like EW&F's Sing A Song have a recognizable yet flimsy musak quality to it and will never distract from the soloists. 

An enjoyable obscurity that Matthews' third Super Funky Sax is, is really only for Matthews' followers and/or those who just really enjoy saxophones. Can't quite put my fingering on this disc on why it's likably upbeat when not a little robotic, and just why it sounds so stiff -- which is really unusual for David Matthews' productions which typically dazzle in top-notch production values.


NOTABLE TRACKS: El Cumbanchero, Groove Alley, Line Drive
LISTEN FOR Andy Snitzer's robust sound on tenor, Gerald Albright turns out his funky roots here (and away from smooth jazz), Chris Hunter cooks
WINNING SOLOIST goes to Gerald Albright on "El Cumbanchero"
SURPRISINGLY satisfying thick guitar licks and solo time by both Siegel and Traut
STILL not that Super but mostly funky, if a little medicated, sax 

Wazzup? was also re-released and remastered (PCCY-50052) in 2008 on HQCD (Hi-Quality CD), but demands a higher price. We reviewed the 1996 original (PCCY-01072). Both releases can still only be found in Japan.