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Black Music Month Day #5

Dear Patrice Rushen:

 We’ve met a couple of times, once at an Indiana University symposium and another at Jazz at Lincoln Center where you were touring with Donald Harrison’s band.  That’s okay. You may not remember me, but we actually go way back.

I first learned about you when I was a fan of seventies fusion.  As a pianist myself, the search for inspiration was ongoing. So when a drummer friend turned me on to the French violinist Jean-Luc Ponty’s recordings Upon the Wings of Music (1975) and Aurora(1976), I was floored to learn that the musician playing all that fly stuff on the keys was a young, twenty-one year old female—with a perfect Angela Davis-esque Afro no less. (Kids, I knew this because back in the day, the cover art of the LP was part of the aesthetic experience of the matter—just saying). It made obsessing so much easier, I think.

The Prodigy

I studied everything you did on those recordings, taken in by the hip solos on the opening cuts of each LP, “Is Once Enough?” and “Upon the Wings of Music.”  The former, a rock-fusion up-tempo joint contains all the gestures that would make you a much sought out studio musician in the late 1970s and 80s: double octave tremelos at just the right moment in a phrase; the shifting inner parallel voicings that added subtle harmonic interest and a magic carpet for soloists; the way you changed the shading of each large architectural unit of a song, lending variation where rote repetition would have sufficed; the subtle descending, chromatic chords to land on structural harmonies; and your propensity to shift around pentatonic, whole tone scales, and diminished scales in your own solos.  Hmmm. All that Herbie Hancock, distilled and packaged up real nice.  How could a brutha resist?

Readers: I’ll interrupt my conversation with Patrice right now and say that you can hear more of these qualities on “Between You and Me” (Aurora)—you might have to download, though, because not all of this music is available on YouTube.  Poor you–who might have to actually pay a musician to hear her work #notsorryforyou.  Okay, if your iTunes account is “challenged” right now, check out her solo at the end of  “Stepping Stones” from her solo 1977 album Shout It Out.  It’s a model for the kind of work she’d do in her eighties stuff and why she attracted lots of sampling producers in hip hop and contemporary gospel,  and inspired the harmonic approach of neo-soul composers.  The solo section is the repeated chorus section built on a four bar harmonic loop of dubious key center for lack of a leading tone: |G13///|C13///|F13///|Bb13/Ab13/].

Now where was I?

Patrice, I dug for more.  Learned that you had already recorded some solo albums as a teenager, works that

Baby Fingers on a mission

featured your own compositions, and pristine arrangements scored for jazz ensemble.  Who knew that the lady killing the funk-rock began life in the Boys Club of America: straight-ahead jazz?  (Wait, is she petite in those platform shoes and Chaka Khan jeans? This was getting interesting—man, I miss cover art).   By the way, a shout out to Contemporary Keyboard magazine for featuring you in that late-1970s full-page endorsement of the suitcase Fender Rhodes with matching double speakers.  Can somebody say, “Mom, I need one. I can’t be good without it. (Google image search—hmmm, no luck).  I’ll keep writing and resist rummaging through that box of nerd treasures containing high school music theory papers and treasured back issues of Guitar Player and CK to find it.

So Patrice, I became this PR follower before there was something called Twitter.  Thus, at the height of my doctrinaire years as a “mainstream jazz head,” your work in the early years of 1980s mellow-pop-funk (MPF) kept me listening outside the jazz box.  I could still claim to be a “heavy” insider.  After all, while the world was just catching on, I knew that this was just another reinvention.  As they were listening to the cutie lyrics and soft, soprano voice, I understood that you were writing, arranging, and playing on “Remind Me,” (Dm///|Am/Amaj7/] and “Haven’t You Heard” [A/ A/C# bass/|F#m///|, just to name a couple of hits. I’ve read your comments that folk were shocked when they passed through your studio sessions and learned that you were not just the cute girl singing: you were tearing it up from the floor up—on every level of the production.  By the way, I think that your Fender Rhodes solo on “Haven’t You Heard” is one of the best from that era when an instrumental interlude was standard issue in R&B.  The parallel rocking sixths, well, rock. And the whipping string arrangement in there, so reminiscent of Quincy Jones’s stellar work on “Tell Me a Bedtime Story,” (you know, his strings that are a transcription of a Herbie Hancock Rhodes solo?), is the truth.  The arrangements are so carefully constructed, very L.A. studio, even down to each tambourine shake and block hit. I really dig that you made those statements even though it rendered your songs longer than the average made-for-radio-format pop. Thank you; I heard you.

Before Alicia Keys, Patrice was laying the foundation and constructing the building

Patrice, I consider you one of the greatest not simply because you were the first woman to be musical director of the Grammys, Emmys, and NAACP Image Awards, or that you also scored for film and TV, or that you were working all that hair (smile).  You’ve inspired because you kept growing despite the obvious challenges you faced and the many haters along the way.

So, Ms. Rushen, this is a stretch. I’ve only met you twice. MPF forever. #forgetmenot.

Signed, A Fan

With Jean-Luc Ponty

Sampled by Junior M.A.F.I.A. (Remind Me)

Sampled by Kirk Franklin (Haven’t You Heard?)