Dusty Groove Round-up: Johnny Pate; Brother Jack McDuff; David Axelrod; Ronnie McNeir

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Read a review of any album that makes liberal use of obscure or vintage samples from the realms of jazz, soul or funk and you’ll inevitably run across the term “cratediver,” a word denoting a music wiz who somehow manges to unearth the coolest, most unusual and rare LPs imaginable. The term is meant to suggest that these choice records are found by scavenging boxes at yard sales or musty old record stores, but I’ve become increasingly convinced that the true cratediver’s heaven is the headquarters of Dusty Groove America— or perhaps, that Dusty Groove is itself inhabited by a crew of crack cratedivers. Whatever the case, the label– based in Chacago– saves the rest of us the trouble of sifting through actual crates by rescuing the best sounds in jazz, funk, soul, hip-hop, and South American music. Think of them as sort of the music aficionado’s version of the Criterion Collection, redeeming otherwise forgotten or hard-to-find gems and polishing them off for public consumption.

Needless to say, it’s an absolutely essential label for any lover of music that’s outside of the mainstream. Here are four recent releases from the Dusty Groove crew, all of them long-forgotten and totally worth rediscovering.

Johnny Pate – Outrageous (1970; re-release 2008)
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A deeply groovy soul-jazz suite written for a big band, this fine set from composer Johnny Pate sounds for all the world like a long-lost blacksploitation soundtrack– which makes sense, given that this work opened the door for Pate’s later explorations in film music, including scores for Shaft in Africa and Brother on the Run. Pate was a jazz bandleader in the 1950s, which influences his writing and orchestration here– he’s careful to leave enough space for the musicians to improvise and feed off one another– but he also dips into Latin funk, jazz-rock fusion, smooth soul, and pop, giving these songs an appropriately wide, cinematic palette to draw from. Pate’s gift is the way he conducts a thirteen-piece ensemble in such a way that they seem to play with one, unified voice, to the extent that the guitars and flutes seem to be in dialogue with each other, and the congas provide appropriate punctuation throughout. This wonderful recording is a must for fans of last year’s Barry Adamson album, Back to the Cat, which employs a similarly groove-centered, cinematic approach.

Brother Jack McDuff – Gin and Orange (1969; re-release 2008)
gin-and-orange
Though Hammond B-3 wizard Jack McDuff was a mainstay of the Chicago soul scene of the 1960s and is held in high esteem in some jazz circles, his playing is as much indebted to rock and blues as to jazz and soul. Considered to be one of his most ingenious sets, Gin and Orange is a greasy, white-hot set of off-kilter funk from a true master, a steaming platter of unrelenting grooves arranged by McDuff with the legendary Richard Evans. These songs are all in-the-pocket groovers that swing and strut and burn with a blues intensity– and truly, though there are hints of everything from soundtrack jazz to Stax/Volt soul, it’s really a blues set at heart.

David Axelrod – Seriously Deep (1975; re-release 2008)
seriously-deep
Not to be confused with President Obama’s right-hand main and campaign guru, this David Axelrod struck Grammy gold for his work as a producer of jazz and funk albums by everyone from Cannonball Adderly to the Electric Prunes– which makes it all the more strange that this set actually finds Adderly steppping into the producer’s role, leaving Axelrod to compose and arrange this material and conduct the ensemble of musicians present. Befitting a man who once made an album called Rock Messiah, this music is lively and electric, covering so much ground that it’s hard to pin it down to a specific genre. Axelrod blends fuzzed-out guitars with heavy, fusion-jazz keyboards, horns and hand percussion into a steamy mix that touches on soundtrack music and rock while creating its own trippy version of funk, all the while allowing the musicians opportunities for short but sweet solos.

Ronnie McNeir – Ronnie McNeir (1972; re-release 2009)
ronnie-mcneir
This smooth R&B set– which the Dusty Groove team heralds as a “mellow masterpiece”– proves that, for every real gem unearthed by cratediving, there’s probably plenty of kitsch, too, a category into which this campy classic falls, at least partially. Which isn’t to say that it’s a poor album; on the contrary, singer, pianist and composer McNeir is a smooth-voiced crooner who does a remarkable imitation of Marvin Gaye, or even early Stevie Wonder, on this low-key set of laid-back groovers. And he’s just as ambitious as either artist, too– which sometimes doesn’t serve him so well; meant to be a concept album, this album ties its songs together with silly snatches of soap opera-ish dialogue, and the actual song lyrics tend to focus so much on the narrative that they end up feeling overcooked. Still, as a a historical curiosity, this is a bizarrely memorable and cheerfully silly album that belies no small amount of talent amidst its pretensions, making it another lost treasure that’s worth being remembered.

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