The city of Lexington, KY is not known for its proximity to any regional funk scene, but it is home to two military bases, one of which once stationed a US army lieutenant named Manzel Bush in the early 70s. Bush, also a keyboardist and songwriter, began performing heavy, jazzy funk instrumentals with guitarist John L. Van Dyke and drummer Steve Garner in 1973. The trio never got signed, but they landed an interested producer, Shad O’Shea, who got the group a bit of session time in a brand new Cincinnati recording studio. Two 45s would make up the entirety of Manzel’s initial output: “Space Funk” b/w “Jump Street,” released in 1977, and “Midnight Theme” b/w “Sugar Dreams,” released two years later. By that point, Bush had left music to continue his career in the armed forces, his eponymous band had ceased to exist, and fate seemed to have consigned their lush breakbeats to obscurity.
Today, the band is just as obscure, but the beats for “Space Funk” and “Midnight Theme” are an inseparable part of hip-hop's DNA. Manzel’s tiny output has been sampled by everyone from Cypress Hill to Grandmaster Flash to KRS-One to Biz Markie. One listen to either “Space Funk” or “Midnight Theme” will easily demonstrate why both beats persist. Both songs coast on the unstoppable momentum of their opening grooves, which were perfect for breaking even during the more complicated jazz bits. “Space Funk” begins as a jittery set of alternating bass-snare paradiddles, which is cool enough, but wait until the bass synth part kicks in—it’ll kick you in the teeth. Likewise, “Midnight Theme” begins with a heavy, loose yet metronomic beat, commendable on its own when sampled in songs like “Plug Tunin’” or “How I Could Just Kill a Man,” but when the sweet jazz piano builds and builds, it takes the song to the next level, and then another level beyond that.
Even with the glut of notable samples to his credit, Bush's contributions to hip-hop remained under the radar. In 2004, DJs Kenny Dope and the Undercover Brother, two aficionados of obscure disco jazz funk-type stuff, put together the definitive Manzel release, Midnight Theme. In addition to multiple remixed versions of “Space Funk,” “Midnight Theme” and their respective B-sides, the DJs found and remixed six previously unreleased Manzel recordings. How these utter gems were left in the studio, I have no idea. Cuts like “Evil, Wicked, Mean and Nasty” and “It’s Over Now” are so unfiltered and joyous, they’re like the platonic funk I conjure in dreams. With no vocalist taking prominence, the album is all about taking groove past the point of sober expectation, and boy does it get pretty glorious at points. Though not everyone got the vibe—a critic from The Jazz Times decried Midnight Theme as cheesy, saying it “sound[s] like outtakes from failed blaxploitation flicks of that era.” I pity the jazz critic who sees that as a bad thing.
Since it’s a retrospective collection of a few recordings from the 1970s, many of which were previously unreleased, one might say that Midnight Theme does not count as a proper front-to-back album experience. Perhaps not by definition. But in terms of what I expect from great albums, especially in terms of the pleasure principle that separates truly addictive works of art from the merely excellent, these songs are transportive rhapsodies of the highest order. Manzel was, simply, a purveyor of the deepest funk of its kind.