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~for Valerie Bridgeman, preacher, scholar, hugger

I know I’m a little late with this, but June is Black Music Month, 2012.  I’ll be posting briefly and irregularly about various topics that I’m working out.  I’m going to try to keep it on the analytical side; sometimes it will be just questions I’m thinking through.  Everything will be short.  Since I’m already late getting this going and promising spontaneity—musings right off the top, I’ve decided to call the series C.P. Time. (If you don’t know what this means, ask somebody.  Somebody you know well).  

This past semester at the University of Pennsylvania, I taught a course (Jazz Is A Woman) with my inspiring colleague, Salamishah Tillet, a professor of English.   We spent a lot of time working through the history of a genre that has been written as a long and impressive line of great male instrumentalists.  In order to uncover the hidden contributions of women in jazz we had to, not too surprisingly, look to where they were performing.  We learned a lot.

The whole experience has led me to begin a project that considers the work of four women in the music business: gospel great, Twinkie Clark; hip-hop artist, Missy Elliot; the gen-re/gen-der/gen-ius busting MeShell Ndegeocello; and last but not least, the supremely gifted Patrice Rushen (aka Baby Fingers).  Yes, four Women on “the One.”

Let me riff a little on Patrice.

One of the heartbreaking things about the passing of Whitney Houston last year is that her many fans believed she was on the verge of that illusive “comeback.”  Even if she couldn’t hit all of the notes in the very same way as she could in the strength of her youth, her fans would have loved to see her grace the stage, command it, “mature” her way through a strong set of music, help us recall our collective and individual pasts in the contexts of songs she made famous and ubiquitous.

That’s what I think about when I view the following video of Patrice Rushen, now in her fifties, firing up some funk-pop from back in the day.  Recorded before a live audience, Ms. Rushen ain’t even trying to act like she’s hitting all those very high notes she did in her twenties.  On this song, “Haven’t You Heard?,” one of her pop hits that still gets airplay (and “sample play”), Rushen is having fun with the audience, allowing them to sing along and “help her out.”  A master pianist, producer, songwriter, film scorer, music director, teacher and singer, Rushen can certainly afford to ride on the crest of her accomplishments.

But while she’s taking the singing aspect of this performance as light-hearted fun, when she sits down to take a solo on the piece—a piece that for me remains one of most tasteful solos ever recorded on a pop/R&B song—we get to hear what sets her apart.  Grapping snatches of the original solo as structural signposts, Rushen stakes out her territory as a jazz woman, by firing through lightening fast scales, funky riffs, pendular thirds and sixths, tremolos, off-beat phrasing, scats and blues tinged statements (the solo is 2:42-4:07).  And the audience loves it.  In other words, when a career is built on a solid skill set, you can achieve longevity in a business that insists that women stay a size two in order to be relevant.

Be clear: this is not a comeback.  The lady never went away, and she can still funk up on the down-stroke with the best of them.

And just for the record: ain’t nothing wrong with being in your twenties, either! Remember Soul Train Saturdays?