Roy Ayers is in town tonight, no doubt killing LA with his vibraphone madness, and with ample support from Pete Rock and Thundercat amongst others. We’ve got our ticket and can’t wait to taste the magic. Good timing also as Roy Ayers’ phenomenal ‘Running Away’ is one of the choices on our ‘Out Of Sight’ playlist. But we wanted to pull out another gem from his archive to talk about here.
The city of Chicago played a key role in the emergence, development, and international recognition of house music. Quite simply it is the place where it all started, and still a place to visit if you want a sonic reminder of the reasons why this style of music changed the game forever. Early house classics from Farley “Jackmaster” Funk’s ‘Jack the Bass’ to Mr. Fingers’ ‘Can You Feel It’ still sound fresh and innovative today.
But there is another, almost incidental, reason why the Windy City has a direct relationship with house music, but this one is a little more obscure. There is a record that takes its name from the city and which in many ways set the template for the sound that came to be known as house music. Roy Ayers has become characterised as a visionary pre-cursor to Acid Jazz, a titan of jazz-funk, not to mention a treasure trove of sample material for the hip-hop generation. And yet it was Ayers, bandleader and outstanding vibraphonist, who released a proto-house masterpiece as early as 1983, setting the mood, and the sound, of much that was to follow. ‘Chicago’, released as a single on his own Uno Melodic label as he drifted in-between major deals with Polydor and Columbia, is an absolute classic. It is available on a compilation of songs from this period in Ayers’ career entitled ‘Lots of Love’, and is worth seeking out for many reasons, not least of all the house precursor. But it was also during this time that Ayers worked frequently with Fela Kuti, exploring the African funk sound, and pushing boundaries also in post-disco dance music.
It was a fertile period of innovation, experimentation and independent-mindedness for this most talented of musicians, and threw up some of his finest work. And this is saying something in a career that gave us the under-rated ‘Coffy’ soundtrack, as well as the mid-1970s brilliance of ‘Mystic Voyage’, ‘Everybody Loves The Sunshine’, ‘Red, Black and Green’ and ‘Vibrations’ and so much else besides.
But back to the point at hand. It is the singularity of ‘Chicago’ that we set out to analyse, and this track which deserves singular praise. The early 1980s and this period of extended experimentation saw Ayers stretching and manipulating the funk of 1970s soul, jazz and the embers of disco, and forging new and exciting sounds. And often they were just grooves, loose and loosely produced, musical workouts with an element of the free-form and stream of consciousness about them. As such it has an unbridled energy about it, and ‘Chicago’ is the track which seems to most capture the intent, as well as intensity, of this work. There is a tension to the hypnotic groove, a sinister feel to the vocals throughout. Driven initially by spine-chilling piano tinklings and a drop of minor chords, the song soon settles into a throbbing groove of delicious bass and somehow sensual yet ultimately meaningless and meandering vocals.
The background sparkles with interesting rhythms and almost off-kilter sparks of musicianship, strings rising and keeping the tempo at a dance floor friendly pace. It simply mesmerises and foreshadows the sounds which soon coalesced into a musical revolution. I don’t know if Ayers had any involvement in the scene, or even visited the underground clubs and parties that soon merged into a larger movement, but the existence of this cult classic suggests at least a possibility. Whatever the case, it is just huge, and rightly resurrected by German techno maestro Henrik Schwarz in 2003 as a modern floor killer. But the original is still the archetype, a back door opening to a soon to be familiar world, a door that shone some light onto the world of the subterranean, soon to bathe in glorious summer sunshine. And you know, everybody loves the sunshine.