Friday, October 19, 2007

10 favorite albums #10: BOBBI HUMPREY -- Blacks and Blues, Blue Note, 1973

A friend of mine calls this "shag carpet and cocaine" jazz. It's definitely not for jazz purists. While flautist Bobbi Humphrey was discovered by renowned jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan, her recording career quickly took a turn away from tradition toward the funky, accessible pop sound that Blue Note records was then capitalizing upon.

Her first two solo albums Flute In, reissued on CD in a bizarro-world budget hack job, and Dig This, sadly not yet reissued on CD, are enjoyable period pieces. Primarily covers of pop, soul and jazz tunes they brought a sense of groove to jazz flute. Dig This sounds like nothing so much as a set of instrumental backgrounds for Stevie Wonder. (Indeed she went on to play with Stevie!) The sound was funky but not too funky, intelligent but not effete. Jazz was melding with R&B in ways that many found a kind of dilution. But I am not one of those people.

Blacks and Blues was Humphrey's third album, and the first of three she was to record with ace rare groove producers Larry and Fonce Mizell. Their trademark combinations of analog-synthesizer/keyboard-driven groove, latin percussion, smooth vocal choruses, and busy busy arrangements melding both acoustic and electric instruments created a singular setting for Humphrey's flute and occasional vocals. Like their work with Donald Byrd, the Mizells' work with Bobbi Humphrey conveys sophistication along with an adult sensuality. The essence of what has come to be called Rare Groove, the Mizell sound is the sound of late night. Melancholic, bluesy, jazzy, but also optimistic. The fast tunes are dance music for a house party not a discotheque; the slow ones for making out on a darkened sofa.

While I love all of Humphrey's Blue Note work, Blacks and Blues is my favorite. I first bought her LPs while I was still in High School from, of all places, Columbia House record club. Yes the same company that laid me off thirty-odd years later. The song Chicago, Damn right away captured my nostalgia for the complexities of my home town, since I was then trapped in gray suburban Connecticut. Humphrey and the Mizells are joined by some of the key players of 1970s jazzified R&B: Freddie Perren, Jerry Peters, David T. Walker, Chuck Rainey, King Errison. Check your favorite 1970s groove classics and these names will be associated with most of them.

This record marked the first time Humphrey added vocals to her repetoire. Her vocals are fragile and tentative, but oddly affecting.

It took a while for her work to make it to CD, but now Blacks and Blues along with follow-ups Satin Doll and Fancy Dancer have made it to the digital century. Hopefully her first two Blue Note efforts, as well as her Epic/Columbia albums that followed the demise of Blue Note, will make it out soon. God bless the Japanese and their good taste for leading the way in the 1970s jazz reissue department. Look up the other Mizell productions, especially their work for Donald Byrd, or their rare CTI production for Johnny Hammond, A Gambler's Life.

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