At the beginning of this decade, black music was so badly split down the middle that it was nearly impossible to find a jazz record you could dance to or a soul record with an interesting solo. Several artists on the jazz side promised to bridge that gap. They were going to take the electric guitars and keyboards of rock 'n' roll, the dance rhythms of soul and the soloing freedom of jazz and create a "fusion" music.
It didn't work out too well. The rhythms don't jump enough for good dancing; the solos are too predictable to hold attention and the melodies barely exist. It was a "fusion" of the worst aspects of each side: the self-indulgence of jazz and the formulas of soul.
From the soul side of the split, though, came a far better alternative: "funk." By adding rock 'n' roll's dramatic exaggeration and assertive guitar and jazz's shifting musical textures to their own dance party music, two soul artists, George Clinton and Maurice White, have created a music your hips can move to and your head can think about.
White's projects and proteges include Al Mckay, the Emotions, Deniece Williams and the Pockets. This summer White produced Earth, Wind & Fire's "Got to Get You Into My Life," (Columbia 23-10786), the only fresh piece of music to come out of the "Sgt. Pepper" film. He also produced the Emotions' "Sunbeam" (Columbia JC 35385) and the Pockets' "Take It On Up" (Columbia JC 35384).
Clington's sprawling tribe of approximately 24 musicians and singers record their more commercial dance music as Parliament for Casablanca Records and their more ambitious rock-oriented funk as Funkadelic on Warner Brothers, though the same people are involved on each.
Both Clinton and White put a catchy dance beat out front where it will pull in the listeners. But behind this simple facade they use counter-rhythms and solos to satisfy more demanding listeners. Both use large ensembles for dense textures of congas working against trap drums, falsetto wails against guttural chants, brass against reeds.
Most importantly, they have restored lead guitar to a prominent role in rhythm and blues. White's Al Mckay, Johnny Graham and Jacob Sheffer slice through the gloss of soul with stinging, aggressive solos. Even more impressive have been Clinton's guitarists - Gary Shider, Mike Hampton, Eddie Hazel and the recently deceased Glen Goins - who have teamed up for agile double lead runs that build to majestic climaxes.
Crucial differences between White and Clinton, however, have divided the growing funk movement into two distinct camps. In combining attractive dance music with more subtle nuances, White aims for the gleaming precision of the big swing bands, while Clinton favors the dramatic tension of raw elements piled on top of each other.
The differences are more apparent in the lyrics. While White's vague lyrics are unrelentingly optimistic about love, life and his smorgasbord spiritualism, Clinton uses his music to push real ideas, and for that reason he is a more interesting figure than White.
The ideas and the music have never meshed as well as on Clinton's "One Nation Under a Grove" (Warner Brothers BSK 3209). The title tune, now a top 10 single, proposes a political movement based on a physical principle rather than an intellectual one. The basic chant glides along on an enchanting, lazy melody. But the background is crammed with a creative chaos of seat singing, harsh exclamations, whistles, changing percussion, guitar solos and synthesizer effects.
On "P.E. Squad," Clinton's chants explore the psychoanalysts" connection between excrement and human culture in the bluntest terms possible. But after the first verse, the chant takes a secondary position to an eloquent Shider-Hamption duet and a wandering vocal that achieves a blues moan at a falsetto pitch - a wonderful balance between the blunt and the lyrical results.
The Pockets, an eight-man band from Baltimore, sound like the Earth, Wind & Fire apprentices they are. The Pockets' second alumb, "Take It On Up," lists White as executive producer with his brother Verdine and Robert Wright as producers.
The Pockets pull off the counterpoint vocal harmonies, the sharp horn charts and dense but ordered percussion. The album's title tune is a snappy brass-accented uplifter like E W & F's "Serpentine Fire," Jacob Sheffer plays fresh lead guitar on the instrumental "Sphinx," and "In Your Eyes" is a nicely understated ballad.
As respectable and enjoyable as "Take It On Up" is, it inevitably suffers by comparison with any Earth, Wind & Fire record. The Pockets' vocalists aren't as exciting as the White Brothers and Phillip Bailey, and the Pockets' three horn players aren't as adventurous as Andrew Woodfolk or Donald Myrick of E, W & F. Furthermore, "Take It On Up," suffers from the shallow, vague lyrics that always limit the achievement of any White project.