Back in the early 1970s, Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, Tony Williams and John McLaughlin leveraged Miles Davis' new electric approach to jazz and created different streams of jazz-rock fusion. At the same time, vibraphonist Roy Ayers went off in a separate direction—pioneering electronic jazz-funk, which Herbie Hancock would build on with Headhunters in 1973. This Thursday, Nov. 17, Ayers will make a rare performance appearance in Los Angeles at the Exchange LA club, from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. Go here for more information.
Starting in 1970, with his group Ubiquity, Ayers shrewdly combined the bounce-rock feel of Sly Stone and riff-centric bottom of James Brown—using his cool, ringing vibes, electric piano and synthesizer to bond all of the elements. The result was a new electronic jazz-funk form that was both relaxing and energizing. Unlike many cookie-cutter funk bands of the period, Ayers added a different level of sophistication and soul, a more chilled approach that was possible largely because of his knack for jazz composing and arranging.
But Ayers' music wasn't strictly instrumental or groove-obsessed. In addition to implementing a seductive rubbery-ness to the bass and a pinball bumper-bell quality to his vibes, Ayers compositions shifted around a great deal, and he often added a soul vocal choir, giving the mix an earthy, gospel quality.
Ayers' successful blending of jazz, funk and soul was so potent that many action movies that starred predominantly black actors (known euphemistically as "blaxploitation" films) began to adapt his sound for their soundtracks. Ayers even scored one—Coffy (1973)—which remains one of the most imaginative examples of the genre.
Ayers' biggest hit came in 1976, when he released Everybody Loves the Sunshine, a jazz-disco ballad that relied on a single throbbing riff and electronics to depict the sound of blinding solar heat. A high point for Ayers, the hit proved that an electronic riff could be repeated over and over again without ever sounding dull or even repetitive.
Born in Los Angeles in 1940, Ayers received his first pair of mallets from Lionel Hampton when he was 5 years old. His first leadership date came in 1963—West Coast Vibes, for United Artists. In the '60s, he recorded with Jack Wilson, Gerald Wilson, Herbie Mann and many others.
Throughout the '70 and '80s, Ayers and Ubiquity continued to develop jazz-soul fusion, which in the '90s gave rise to acid jazz, a conglomerate form that combined jazz, funk, hip-hop and looped beats. Ubiquity's fondness for riffs and textured instrumentation made for ideal samples by hip-hop groups. One of Ayers' last jazz-soul leadership dates before he began moving into house music was Naste, in 1995.
My only wish is that I could be in Los Angeles on Thursday to see and hear Ayers live. For too long his impact and legacy have been overlooked and underappreciated. Trust me, once you become familiar with Ayers and his music, it's impossible to let them go.
JazzWax tracks: Roy Ayers' has a sizable discography. My favorites include:
- West Coast Vibes (1963)
- Virgo Vibes (1967)
- Ubiquity (1970)
- Coffy (1973)
- Everybody Loves the Sunshine (1976)
- Lifeline (1977)
- Step Into Our Life (1978)
- Naste (1995)
For a mix of Roy Ayers' music by DJ Anthony Valadez, go here and scroll down.
For more on Roy Ayers, visit his site.
JazzWax clips: Here are four of my favorite tracks. Be warned, it's easy to get hooked on this stuff. Like all fusionistas from the period, Ayers was way ahead of his time...
Treasure from Naste...
Pracilla's Theme from Coffy ("She's the godmother of them all")...