With its smooth-buttered soul arrangements, cracking backbeats and hazy wisps of psychedelia, Roy Ayers' Vibrations was an album destined to be rejected by jazz purists. And yet the vibraphonist didn't necessarily intend the album as an overture to his soul/funk/acid jazz fanbase, either. Like fellow crossover fusion artists Herbie Hancock, Donald Byrd, and Brother Jack McDuff, Ayers saw an appealing midway point between vocal funk and jazz, especially as the former came to prominence in the early 1970s. Songs like "Domelo (Give It To Me)" and "Come Out And Play" were first and foremost ripping funk rhythms with dips into jazz tonality and instrumentation. Other songs, such as "Better Days" and "The Memory," set a smooth template for what would become quiet storm funk. Vibrations nominally belongs in the category of "jazz fusion," but even as fusion goes it has a lot more in common with Isaac Hayes than, say, the Weather Report.
On those rare occasions when someone asks me for a decent introduction to acid jazz or jazz fusion, I tell them to put on the first side of Vibrations, forget the convenient genre descriptors, resist the temptation to mock, and just let the sound envelop you. Ayers is no vocalist--I was once at a party where I tried to play "The Memory," and it provoked very little reaction, apart from comments that the vocals "weren't that great" (granted, we had just been listening to Otis Blue, but that's an outrageous standard when comparing vocal prowess). Even his vibraphone performances are confined to small moments, like the tinkling in the background of "Searching" (later sampled by Pete Rock & CL Smooth) and the title track. But where the jazz lacks, the layers of pop arrangements seem brighter. Vibrations' final number, "Baby You Give Me a Feeling" is a monstrously effective pop song, romantic and dizzying, repetitive and yet never wearying. And the beat is imperishable. When Ayers and his band start chanting "feels so good, feels so good" like a stuck emotional record, it is hard not to jump out of one's seat and jam along.
Will I live to see a Roy Ayers resurgence? Will his albums on Polydor ever be released and remastered, with lovingly detailed liner notes and bonus tracks? Hip-hop used to be the one scene that paid fusion artists any mind at all, and yet nowadays that part of the genre's institutional memory seems to have been lost. Recently, I was listening to Frank Ocean's new album, which is being hailed as a sea change for R&B. But that album does have its moments of spare electronic formlessness, and sometimes I felt myself thinking--this part seems empty, could use a vibraphone solo. That's not a rational critical response, but if the purists were more forgiving about Vibrations back in 1976, maybe my line of thinking wouldn't seem so odd today.
Although it probably would.