Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Rockaliser 30: Ike Turner & the Kings of Rhythm, A Black Man's Soul (1969)

[Welcome To the Rockaliser 30, a month-long series devoted to classic albums that have been eclipsed, forgotten, misheard, or otherwise not given their propers. This is Day Twenty Five. Archive here.]

A Black Man's Soul
 was the soundtrack to the fake '70s movie running through my head during my final months in New York City. On days when I took the subway to school, as I walked the familiar first few blocks to the L train from my apartment, the abum's opener, "Thinking Black," would amplify the Queens landscape around me, like non-diegetic instruments adding rhythm to an otherwise static film scene. As I rode the train, the playful funk of "Getting Nasty" and "Funky Mule" would announce itself, overriding the conversations and behaviors of fellow travelers, as if they were unknowing actors in my own private montage. When the album came to a close, with the lackadaisical arrangements "Nuttin' Up" and "Freedom Sound," I would finally be in Manhattan. Upon entering the surface of the city, the air and light surrounding the skyscrapers would, in my imagination, take on a  sepia-toned, 35mm muted color scheme. Today, Manhattan looks very different than it did in the 70s, but just for a second, this music would summon that "look" I associate with the freewheeling guerrilla filmmaking of Shaft and other blaxploitation films, as well as studiously amoral New York movies like The French Connection or Taxi Driver and the experimental flicks of John Cassavetes. Of course, by the time I had thought through this fantasy, the album would be nearing its end. The colors of Union Square and its surroundings would return to their normal, drab state. But that's why most mp3 players have a "Repeat whole album" feature these days. Modern society has its benefits, too.

Recorded in 1969 in between tour gigs, A Black Man's Soul is an early glimpse into a gloriously fecund creative era for Ike and Tina Turner, who would record more than twenty albums together in the next five years. Since this album is entirely instrumental, Tina does not appear, although four bonus cuts featuring her voice were later appended to the album, all insanely good (but nowhere to be found on YouTube). Many of the session's songs were written by Turner and saxophonist Oliver Sain, and Turner, though an able multi-instrumentalist, mostly played guitar (sharing piano duties with Fred Sample and Billy Preston) on each of these twelve jams. Those interested in Turner's musical history beyond the usual gossip would probably agree that, for all his instrumental chops, his primary skill was as a bandleader and arranger. His absolute mastery at this craft is important to understanding A Black Man's Soul (as well as, though it's not important here, his dictatorial nature and future character deficiencies)--this is an album where the guitar player takes point, and the band dutifully follows his lead, sometimes shouting in wonder at the funky alchemy they have generated.

The standout track is "Getting Nasty." Those familiar with the beginning of Main Source's album Breaking Atoms may recognize elements of the song, which was sampled by Large Professor. Unlike other compositions on A Black Man's Soul, it lacks the loud, blasting horns and prominent bass fuzz that the Kings of Rhythm patented along the Chitlin' circuit. But it does have Billy Preston (soon to join the Beatles on Let It Be) giving one of his greatest performances, guiding his stately piano melody through permutations and modulations that would leave any other band lagging behind in a stupor. Preston's piano, more than the rest of the rhythm section, brings out the dramatic angle of the funk.

To modern, media-saturated ears, A Black Man's Soul sounds like it must belong on a soundtrack, or associated with some type of image, film or other non-abstract referent. But at the time of its creation, it was simply a demonstration of the expanding capabilities of an artist and his band. Every horn blast and bass line on the album is foremost an act of joy and cameraderie, as well as discovery. This is a "live" album in the most visceral of senses--every moment is alive, every musical idea a question mark that can lead anywhere. Sometimes, when I imagine these sessions, the film I see in my mind is that of the Architect of Rock 'n' Roll sitting at a piano, free of his troubled history at last, relishing in music he and his friends created together. Ike Turner was capable of sweetness and light just as he was responsible for his many sins, and too many of us forget his many legitimate accomplishments.

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