Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Jazz Connection to Michael Jackson

When the SFJAZZ Collective presents new arrangements of Michael Jackson’s music in October, they join the ranks of major jazz artists who have found inspiration and fertile ground for experimentation within the late King Of Pop’s oeuvre, going back to saxophonist Gary Bartz’ recording of “I Wanna Be Where You Are” on his NTU Troop album Juju Street Songs in 1972, the same year Jackson’s original hit the charts. Miles Davis recorded the Thriller classic “Human Nature” on his 1985 release You’re Under Arrest, and pianist Vijay Iyer deconstructed the tune on both his 2010 recording Solo and 2012’s Accelerando. Organist Joey DeFrancesco recorded an entire album devoted to Jackson’s music entitled Never Can Say Goodbye, and other artists including Lester Bowie, Mal Waldron, Stanley Jordan, Ramsey Lewis and Chico Freeman have recorded versions of Jackson’s memorable songs.

Fonce Mizell
Michael Jackson was a pop superstar from the time he was old enough to sing, joining the Jackson Brothers band at the age of seven and sharing lead vocal duties with his brother Jermaine a year later, when the band name was changed to the Jackson 5. Although Jackson’s music and that of his siblings had little to do with the improvisational basis that marks the jazz tradition, the Jackson 5’s early hit-making career at Motown had established connections to the jazz world, including the utilization of Motown’s stable of jazz-associated sessions musicians such as keyboardist Joe Sample, bassist (and saxophonist) Wilton Felder, guitarist Tommy Tedesco, and drummer Earl Palmer.
A primary member of the production and songwriting team working with the Jackson 5 at that time, known widely as The Corporation, was Alphonso “Fonce” Mizell; a composer, keyboardist, and producer who co-wrote and performed on nearly all of the group’s early hits including “ABC,” “I Want You Back,” “Maybe Tomorrow,” “One More Chance,” “The Love You Save,” and “Mama’s Pearl.” Mizell studied with jazz trumpet great Donald Byrd as a young man, and when Motown relocated to Los Angeles from Detroit, Mizell and his brother Larry began their own production company that worked closely with a number of the era’s greatest jazz artists, releasing a procession of albums that defined the soul-jazz sound of the early 1970s including Byrd’s Black Byrd and Street Lady, Gary Bartz’s Music Is My Sanctuary, and flutist Bobbi Humphrey’s Blacks and Blues.

Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones
On the set of Sidney Lumet’s 1978 musical The Wiz, Jackson met producer and composer Quincy Jones, who was doing arrangements for the film’s score, and enlisted Jones to produce his next solo album – a project that would change the course of Jackson’s career and make music history over their three album partnership.
Jones began his musical life prodigiously, beginning as a trumpeter at 12 and playing with a National Reserve band by 14 – the same year he met a young Ray Charles, who would be a huge inspiration to the budding musician and composer. Jones was fully immersed in the jazz world by his late teens, touring Europe with vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, and later with bebop pioneer and trumpet giant Dizzy Gillespie. By the time the two music giants met, Jones had already gained fame for producing and arranging Frank Sinatra’s albums with the Count Basie Orchestra and composing the soundtracks of In Cold Blood, In the Heat of the Night, and The Italian Job. Jones was responsible for some of the most memorable tunes in popular culture, from “Soul Bossa Nova,” a 1962 tune that became synonymous with Mike Myers’s hugely successful Austin Powers franchise, to 1973’s “The Streetbeater,” theme to the iconic TV comedy Sanford & Son. He is a seven-time Oscar nominee, holds the record for most GRAMMY nominations at 79, was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2008, and was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2013.

Jackson’s creative partnership with Quincy Jones was one of the most fruitful in music history, producing three albums that stand not only as the high watermark of the singer’s career, but of American popular culture. The compositions on all three records bear Jones’ stamp of sophistication, featuring guest sidemen from the jazz world including guitarists Eric Gale and Larry Carlton, keyboardist George Duke, saxophonist Tom Scott, drummer N’dugu Chancler, and jazz organ titan Jimmy Smith, who provided a soulful solo on the title track of Bad. Off The Wall, Thriller and Bad won eleven GRAMMY awards among them and sold in excess of 120 million copies combined, with Thriller remaining the best-selling album of all time in the U.S.

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