JAZZ HAS HAD a funk movement since the late '50s, when Horace Silver, Jack McDuff, Art Blakey and others stepped away from cerebral cool and into a style that was hard, lean and soulful. Jazz has changed a lot since then, and so has funk: Thus, it's no surprise to find that contemporary jazz/ funk bears little resemblance to the music Silver and his cohorts purveyed.
For Tom Browne, the emphasis is on the funk, not the jazz. In fact, on Browne's new album, "Tommy Gun," the trumpet player at times sounds more like a sideman than a band leader. "Station Break," for instance, uses the brass (Browne plus trombonist Felton Pilate and saxophonist Maceo Harrett) as sweetening only. Most of the album isn't that extreme, of course. "Secret Fantasy" allows Browne some blowing room between verses sung by Siedah Garrett, while "Breakout" even allows the trumpeter to carry the main theme. No egotist, he.
Such modesty, though, is in large part made possible by Browne's realization that it's the rhythm, not the trumpet-playing, that sells his records. That's why funkmeister Maurice Starr is allowed full rein on the tracks he produced -- almost to the point of excluding Browne. And it's also why even Browne's own tunes, particularly "Wee Out," seem to have been written more for the drum machine than his trumpet. As such, the jazz content is kept quite low, with Browne sticking close to Herb Alpert-style melodicism. Which is fine, unless you expect the album to offer anything other than a sturdily insistent dance beat.
There are other ways of making the jazz/ funk connection profitable, of course. If you take the mantric simplicity of Pharoah Sanders' trance pieces and apply it to soul balladry, you will likely end up with something like the music Lonnie Liston Smith was peddling in the mid-'70s. Curiously enough, he's still at it today, and as "Silhouettes" shows, his approach has worn surprisingly well.
Granted, there's little depth to this music. Smith is the sort of pianist who doesn't so much solo as noodle around for 32 bars or so, and the major benefit of his work with other jazzmen seems to have been learning how to make pentatonic scales sound prettily pastoral. But the material on this album is strongly melodic, especially "Enlightenment" and "If You Take Care of Me." And producer Bob Theile keeps each cut lean and efficient. So whatever shortcomings Smith has as a performer are downplayed by the aptness of the package.
Not all jazz/funk artists take care to maintain a specific approach, though. For some, making records is simply a matter of throwing everything they have into the marketplace, and then waiting to see what sticks. For Roy Ayers, this approach has led down many paths, from mellow mood music to dance floor fodder such as "Freaky Deaky." His latest album, "In the Dark," continues the trend by trying almost every style imaginable, without succeeding in any one.
Thus, "Pooh Pooh La La" takes Ayers' surprising ability as a story teller and squanders it on an imbecilic love lyric; "Blast the Box" takes on hip-hop and loses; and "Sexy Sexy Sexy" ends up dull, dull, dull. Even the stabs at jazz, "Compadre" and "Love Is in the Feel," fail to get anywhere. Ayers may have learned a few new tricks since his last album, but they still end up working like the old ones.
TOM BROWNE -- "Tommy Gun" (Arista AL8- 8249).
LONNIE LISTON SMITH -- "Silhouettes" (Doctor Jazz FW39420).
ROY AYERS -- "In the Dark" (Columbia 39422); Browne, Ayers, Smith and Noel Pointer appear with Jean Carne at the Warner Theater on Friday; and without Carne on Saturday.