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Friday, 1 June 2018

James Mason "Rhythm Of Life" 1977 US Soul Jazz Funk Fusion


James Mason  "Rhythm Of Life" 1977 US ultra rare  Soul Jazz Funk Fusion masterpiece..!
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One of our favorite albums ever – and every track is a masterpiece! The album was originally cut for the tiny Chiaroscuro label in 1977 – and it’s got a sound that’s unlike anything else we can think of – soaring, soulful, jazzy, and righteous – wrapped up in a blend that’s never been done this perfectly again! James Mason’s a player who’s know for a bit of keyboard work with other artists – but here, he’s really working as a collective power – bringing together a brilliant ensemble that work as one to hit some sublime sounds – much in the way that Roy Ayers could work some key magic with his groups at the same time, but with a vibe that’s very different too. Players include Ayers associates Justo Almario on saxes and Philip Woo on piano – and a young Narada Michael Walden adds some excellent drums to the record – a lot more powerful and funky than on most of his own albums! Lead vocals are by Clarice Taylor – who’s got this unique voice that really makes the record – proud, but sensitive at the same time too – and Mason plays lots of Fender Rhodes, polymoog, Arp, and a bit of guitar. Titles include the breakbeat classic “Funny Girl”, the monster groover “Sweet Power Your Embrace”, the funky “Slick City”, and the massive “Free” – but every cut’s a winner, and others include “Mbewe”, “Rhythm Of Life”, and “Dreams”. This is the kind of album that makes us proud to be in business! …Dusty Groove….~

Guitarist/keyboardist James Mason is generally best remembered as a key member of Roy Ayers’ late-70s jazz-funk group, during which he made prominent appearances on the Ayers’ LP Lifeline, particularly the club hit “Running Away.” His only solo record , titled Rhythm Of Life, was recorded with session legends such as Narada Michael Walden, Gene Torres, and Clarice Taylor, and released in 1977. The album was not a success, and suffered from poor timing as tastes had shifted away from jazz music. The record seemed destined for obscurity, as its meager printing quickly ran out. 
Over time however, Rhythm Of Life has taken on a new life of its own, as an unheralded jazz classic. The album’s rich, textured sound, robust, funky arrangements, and Mason’s solid guitar and keys work was integral to the development of the acid jazz movement of the 1990s. Tracks like “Slick City” and “Sweet Power Your Embrace” 
would go on to become rare-groove standards in their own rite, while “Free” has become a sampling favorite of hip-hop innovator Madlib…..~


Original copies of Rhythm Of Life tend to go for astronomical prices and with good reason. First released in 1977, the album is a masterpiece of soulful jazz funk that gave birth to a few early disco classics. Mason was a keyboard player and song writer that worked with Roy Ayers, amongst other musicians. A few Ayers associates are featured on Rhythm Of Life, Justo Almario on saxophone and Philip Woo on piano, along with a young Narada Michael Walden who adds some excellent drums to the record. The most known tracks are the breakbeat classic “Funny Girl,” and the funky grooves of “Sweet Power Your Embrace.” Don’t stop there though, as nearly every cut is a winner. Check the uptempo soul of “Free,” a Ron Hardy favorite, and the jazzy “Slick City.” Quality material from end to end. Mason would go on to write and produce Wuf Ticket’s ….~

This 1977 true masterpiece is everything you want from a holy grail, ultra rare and seminal! 
Far ahead groove-wise, in tune with the contemporary sounds and in super touch with the past! 
DONALD BYRD and his former employer ROY AYERS, are two of the most compatible influence this trailblazing man laid down as a foundation for his “never again forgotten masterpiece”! While the influence is familiar, the groove and the overall “feel” is nothing else than JAMES MASON himself. 
This is one album, if any, you just put down the needle or “press play” to know that this is something else and it must be run as one whole album! …~


A funky jazz (or jazzy funk) masterpiece. 
These tunes hit hard with contemporary groove and the compositions themselves are really good. 
James Mason leads the ensemble, but the stars of the show here are female vocalist Clarice Taylor, bassist Gene Torres, and drummer Narada Michael Walden. 
The rhythm section hits really heavy here, staying busy…and Clarice’s vocals are so incredibly soulful sweet. 
An underrated, rarely spoken of classic of musicianship, vocals, and funk…..by…breakwind ….~


This is one of those obscure gems that I never would have discovered if not for Amazon’s “Recommended” feature. I can’t remember what I bought that triggered this CD to show up on my Recommended List, but turn up it did, and I paid attention to the other glowing reviews of this album and ordered the CD. Wow and WOW! Very impressed with this one! 
I have a few albums by Roy Ayers, but I have to admit that I never paid attention to the fact that James Mason played in his band. No doubt, having played with Ayers influenced Mason’s own sound a bit, but listening to this album I hear many layers of sounds and influences. One minute I’m reminded of Lonnie Liston Smith or Dexter Wansel, the next it might trigger a George Duke moment, or when the impress guest vocalist, Clarice Taylor, is singing, there might be a Rufus and Chaka Khan flashback. All good reference points. 
But from the man himself, this is what James Mason says in the album’s liner notes: “For making the music that has inspired and shaped my musical values over the years, special thanks to The Crusaders, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Joseph Zawinul, Stevie Wonder, the Pointer Sisters, and Stanley Clarke. And for the learning experience working as a member of his band afforded me, Thank You to Roy Ayers.” 
Mason was a guitarist in Ayers’ band, but on this album he also plays organ, piano, and synthesizers, giving the songs a very rhythmic and propulsive feel. Grooves galore indeed! Clarice Taylor’s vocals are very soulful, plus some sax and congas give the arrangements on some tunes an extra funky vibe as well. 
Whenever I play this CD in my bookshop someone will ask me what is playing, usually remarking about how good the music sounds. And I agree. This album has a very distinctive vibe to it. One comment that seems to be consistent among the other reviews on this page is how “under-produced” and “minimalist” or “homemade” this album sounds. Huh? I don’t hear that “technical shortcoming” whatsoever. Granted, this was recorded in 1977, but to my ears it all sounds very “full” and “complete”, nothing homemade or demo-like in the least. 
Don’t be scared by words like “disco” or “minimalist” … the album is a true gem. If you are looking for some rare 1970s grooves of high quality, don’t miss this one. The liner notes call this album “a timeless classic” and I would definitely agree with that…..by… Donald E. Gilliland….~


When I first heard this recording in 1977, I was mining the obscure Jazz labels for hidden treasures, and this jazzy funk/ groove item appeared , released by the Chiaroscuro label. 
At the time, even as I kept the LP all these years, I thought it had the same “unfinished” quality I believe the 2 Shuggie Otis lps had, as if the record company didnt want to spend too much money on the musical “vision” of Mr Mason . 
FUNNY FUNNY how things work, almost 25 yrs later, the minimalist approach to jazz and funk/soul as defined by the “acid jazz / new grooves” designation suddenly propels James Mason into the “visionary’ category- he was doing these things back in the late 70’s, as were Roy Ayers, Norman Connors, Lonnie Liston Smith, etc etc…… ( "these things” being Vamps and so -called “killer grooves” that take presidence over fully realized compositions. Sampling seems to me a major issue, it seems with many new fans for the evolution of this style …) 
NO SAMPLES HERE, just some like minded musicians puttin down a heavy vibe and playing “off of” one another, “interacting” instead of “interactive”, if ya catch mah drift……… 
JM proved a tough groover, adept at electric keyboards, funky guitar comping, and a “lead guitar” style very much in the 70’s jazz/fusion mode. 
A crack band, featuring the impeccable drums of Michael Walden, and the etherial vocals of Clarice Taylor, (with some guest spots by Philip Woo *piano* and Justo Almario’s saxwork)–the session percolates with some firey grooves which meet with some nice modal progressions/ chord voicings that sound far more soulful than much of the sampled fare, you “FEEL” the musics pour from the musicians , pure magic! 
“Sweet Power…” I believe is a dancehall hit now, and “Good Thing” , “Slick City”, the lovely contemplative lyrics of “Dreams”, I cant mention now each selection, but the cd runs track to track with pulsations& gesticulations , although the grooves can get a bit frantic on a few cuts.(the 70’s were a hectic decade, hehehehe!) 
Some of the tunes just “die out” at the end as if not the final take,“unfinished” as i said before is the impression i have. —- but HEY, cant have everything, can you? 
What has become of James Mason, I think I will take a look , meanwhile , take a “look/listen” to this cd….by peppino….~


In the late 70s, James Mason decided to move on from being Roy Ayers’ ace guitar player and make a solo record on the jazz label Chiaroscuro recruiting the talents of Narada Michael Walden on drums and Gene Torres on bass. 1977’s Rhythm of Life is a sophisticated soul jazz gem. The album makes great use of new technology of the time, manufacturing memorable synth grooves over the vocal talents of Clarice Taylor. At the time, the album was too funky for jazz stations and too jazzy for soul stations, hence it faded into obscurity until it was revitalized in the 80s acid jazz scene in the UK. The most well known cut is the only single “Sweet Power Your Embrace” which reminds me of a tighter / more uptempo version of a Lonnie Liston Smith tune… airy and funky. The track “Free” unveils Mason’s Roy Ayers’ jazz funk influence and “Slick City” is a happy jazz funker anchored by a smooth Rhodes groove. Mason never went on to release another official album. As the interest in him grew into the 00s, unreleased material surfaced including the proto-house tune “Nightgruv” and the Recollection ∈ Echo LP…..~


Before being showcased by Rush Hour, a large Dutch distribution network dedicated primarily to DJs House, the music and history of James Mason were the object, from the 90s and the wave Acid Jazz, a keen interest from the diggers of Rare Grooves and beatmakers, like Madlib, who repudiates his only albumous three of his nicks. 

Since then, Rhythm Of Life sells rubies on the nail and is often the subject of a halo of mystery, especially about the label behind this release, Chiaroscuro. In fact, Rhythm Of Life , as well as other lust-like objects like the Tarika Blue album, appear at a very special period of the label, which at the time enjoyed a solid reputation in the world Jazz. 

Everything starts when Hank O'Neal , photographer, meets the famous “Squirell”. Squirell, in the 60’s, is already an old man. He has known the greats of the 30s, including the essential cornettist Bix Beiderbecke, and Mezz Mezzrow, who mentions this atypical character in The Rage of Living . At the time, head of Hank O'Neal at the CIA, Squirell passed on his passion for Jazz and his story to his “junior”. O'Neal embarks on the production adventure and gives birth to Chiaroscuro, mainly to honor figures admired by his mentor. The launch of the label in big pushes in 70 with a solo album of the pianist Earl Hines is greeted the following year by a Grammy.
The catalog is growing quickly, with legends like Zoot Sims, Gene Krupa, Bill Evans and Mary Lou Williams. This is the foundation of the recording studio associated with the label, DowntownSound, which will attract a new generation of musicians to 75. We are in full swing Jazz Funk, and the merger is in full swing with young artists like James Mason who Crusaders, Miles Davis, Joe Zawinul, Stevie Wonder, Stanley Clarke and other “young Lions”, not forgetting Roy Ayers. 

Far from the darkness in which we currently place Chiaroscuro, this label has indeed shined on the Big Apple. But the orientation Jazz Funk given by O'Neal does not stick to the fairly rigid programming grids of radios: in 77, sometimes too Jazz, sometimes too much R'n'B, Rhythm of Life does not sell. 

In 79, after several failures of the same kind, Hank O'Neal releases the Chiaroscuro affair to associate with the unavoidable New York producer Johnny Hamond and make big money. Since then, the label has passed through many hands and is still active today. But in the official story, if you claim to have distributed an impressive list of jazz stars, no mention is made of flops, like the record of James Mason, despite an undeniable late recognition. To believe that the label is a little complicit of the speculation of which this album is the object and the mysterious tone which one uses to evoke it; the map of the super underground, it’s so much more sexy … 

Nevertheless, Rhythm of Life is a rare piece. Official repress on the fingers of the hand, the English of Soul Brother Records and the obscure and improbable SureShotRecords, as well as more recently a superb reissue among Japanese Shout! Productions. As for the most recent copy, which I bought lately, I’m waiting for more information: the cover is close to the Sure Shot copy, with a whiter background than the original, while retaining only the references of the original - with the exception of the last mystery, here evaded, the mention “LUCIFER” presents in particular at the front of the version of 77.
I still had the chance to compare my copy with the first pressing, and if it’s a bootleg, it sounds pretty good, even if the first distributes more twinkling highs. 
About James Mason, to the rhythm of the current reissues, we should know a little more: he has recently played an interview for Rush Hour that I hope soon available in full. What we have now is credit references and his entourage that allow me to sketch a quick portrait. 
He is noted as a guitarist on the Roy Ayers Ubiquity Lifeline cult album , released by Polydor earlier than Rhythm of Life that same year. It seems that this activity is anecdotal, because his thing is rather the keyboards and the synthesizers, from where this almost obvious cap of arranger that it will carry from now on. 
Apart from the composition of the 83 “The Key” dancefloor killer, by Wuf Ticket (Prelude, mixed by François K), the rest of the credits attributed to James Mason seem limited to a “post Rhythm of Life” period where he squats the Downtown Sound studios as an engineer, sometimes a composer; why not just to get noticed in the hope of bringing out a record - which will not happen.
The touching notes on the back of the single “I Want Your Love” released in the 90s on the label MightyFineRecords, then on RushHour, suggest a certain frustration experienced by the composer, for not being able to be recognized and disseminated at its fair value thirty years earlier. 
There were all the ingredients of a success, starting with a great freedom given to the process of creation despite the small budget, and a staff at the hair: Rhythm requires, we start with two drummers: Dwayne Perdue, for two tracks, but above all the future mastodon of the charts Michael “Narada” Walden, who had already stood out at the time by replacing Billy Cobham in the Mahavishnu Orchestra, which dragged Weather Report, and that Mason met when he was in tour with RoyAyers. 
Among the musicians of the star vibraphonist, James Mason finds as accomplices Justo Almario, saxophonist to the bushy career found in the composition on the albums of artists Uno Melodic, with Roy Ayers. Philip Woo, who is heard at the piano on two tracks of the album, was also part of the staff of the album Lifeline , where he held the same position with a few switches. 
On bass, a buddy met on an informal gig, Gene Torres, still active today in New York as a member of the NuqLeus group. Clarice Taylor lives here a moment of privileged exposure in her career by being “lead vocalist”. She will be a singer with Defunkt, Acom (which plays Marcus Miller in particular), and Jon Hassel, in the 1980s. 
As for Mbewe Ninoska Escobar, second singer, I suspect she is Mason’s darling. Not that she has a very beautiful voice, but I have doubts about the cap of author. Noted co-author of the entire record (even the song dedicated to it), I did not find any other composition from him. It smells of love, and I hope that forgetting for fifteen years this album preserved a pretty story of the dangers of success and of that penchant for the frime that already transpires in color around the body of James Mason when posing proudly, smiling, arms folded in defiance, on the cover of the album. 
And let’s not forget Mustafa Ahmed, who is personally much more familiar to me than the rest of the staff for being Arthur Russell’s great friend and companion since 1977, and until the death of the composer in 1992. Percussionniste then, in contact with Russel, box-to-rhytmiste, Mustafa Ahmed is still turning at this moment. To him to launch “Free”, one of the big dancing pearls of this record, unstoppable at any time….by….Martin Roquette…..~


Credits 

Backing Vocals – Mbewe Ninoska Escobar 
Bass Guitar – Gene Torres 
Congas – Mustafa Khaliq Ahmed* 
Drums – Dwayne Perdue (tracks: B2, B4), Narada Michael Walden (tracks: A1 to B1, B3, B5) 
Guitar, Piano, Keyboards [Fender Rhodes, Arp Odyssey, Poly-moog, Arp String Ensemble], Engineer [Remix], Producer, Arranged By – James Mason 
Lead Vocals – Clarice Taylor 
Piano – Philip Woo (tracks: A4, B3) 
Saxophone – Justo Almario 
Vocals – James Mason (tracks: B3)

Tracklist 
A1 Sweet Power Your Embrace 5:25 
A2 Good Thing 3:13 
A3 Free 3:42 
A4 Mbewe 2:29 
A5 Funny Girl 4:20 
B1 Slick City 3:02 
B2 Rhythm Of Life 6:12 
B3 Hey Hey Hey 1:57 
B4 I’ve Got My Eyes On You 3:35 
B5 Dreams 3:26 

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