SONIC REDUCER / CARL HANNI

 

Three
by Reuben Wilson 

 

By Carl Hanni

 

Let us
now praise Reuben Wilson

 

Like
many of the things that ended up getting seriously under my skin, I happened
upon Reuben Wilson haphazardly. A few years ago I grabbed his LP The Sweet
Life
out of a monster vinyl sale for ten cents, easily the best use of a
dime in my entire life. I was pretty much gone 30 seconds into the first track,
an instrumental cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues.” Who was this sweet
looking, smiling man on the cover, who looked more like a gospel preacher than
a jazz-funk organ master? And who, on inspection, was produced by the great
Sonny Lester who had done such memorable work with another jazz/blues/funk
cross-over organ giant, Jimmy McGriff?

 

Reuben
Wilson is one of countless jazz cats who flew just under the radar of mass
popularity but managed to produce a substantial body of work, make plenty of
fans and garner the respect of his peers in a career that dated back to the
early 60s, but really picked up speed with his first recording in 1968, On
Broadway.
He cut some records for the standard-bearer Blue Note Records in
the late 60s and early 70s, moved over to the terrific Groove Merchant for some
more platters in the mid 70s and eventually recorded for Dusty Groove,
Jazzateria, Cannonball, Savant and Scufflin’. The last disc I see listed is
2009’s Azure Te from 18th & Vine.

 

My
knowledge really only covers 3 LPs, Love Bug (1969, Blue Note), The
Sweet Life
(1972, Groove Merchant) and The Cisco Kid (1974, Groove
Merchant). This was a great time for jazz funk, soul jazz and blues jazz,
especially the jazz organ players of the time. Brother Jack McDuff, Jimmy
Smith, Lonnie Smith, Richard “Groove” Holmes and Jimmy McGriff all cut many of
their most vital and funky sides during that time, before the double threat of
disco and smooth jazz sucked the grease out of the music and replaced it with
some strictly artificial, non-organic, non-nutritional substitutes. 

 

But
things have a way of coming back around, and it was only a matter of time
before the first generation of crate diggers, DJs and revivalists started
poking into the vast treasure trove of funky, break-beat heavy sides these cats
collectively cut. From acid jazz and punk funk to hip hop and downtempo, a
couple of generations of musicians, DJs, mixologists, re-issue labels and the
sharpies at Wax Poetics magazine have all paid tribute to a scene that laid the
ground for much what came next. Reuben Wilson has certainly been a key playa in
all of this, with his stuff being sampled by (amongst others) Brand New
Heavies, A Tribe Called Quest and NAS. 

 

Wilson’s music extrudes good cheer, a
relaxed approach, a fat tone and is accessible in the very best sense of the
word. Perhaps not a true innovator, he nonetheless took the pulse of the times
and turned it back out as well an anyone. His work on the Hammond B-3 is right
up there with all the other legendary organ slingers of the time. Not as bluesy
as Jimmy McGriff or straight-up jazzy as Jimmy Smith, it might be closer to
Brother Jack McDuff and Wilson’s
one-time mentor Richard “Groove” Holmes, but he always had his own thing all
the way. Fluid, melodic and empathetic, he can ride a groove with the best of
them, with a great sense of when to step out and when to lay back and let his
cohorts do the talking. And, he certainly has a knack for surrounding himself
with world class players. Love Bug features a mouth-watering line-up of
heavy jazz talent, including Lee Morgan, Grant Green, George Coleman and drummer
Idris Muhammad, who lays down some sublimely funky grooves behind Wilson. Roy Haynes and
Sam Rivers also played with Wilson
on some of his other five releases for Blue Note.

 

The
Sweet Life
and The
Cisco Kid
both feature different players, including the great studio ringer
Melvin Sparks on guitar, but have a very similar sound and groove thanks in no
small part to producer Sonny Lester, who clearly knew just what to do to get
the most out of Wilson in the studio. All three of these records feature an even
mix of Wilson originals and covers of signature
songs of the times like “Superfly,” “Last Tango in Paris,” Stanley Turrentine’s “Sugar” and songs
from the Hal David/Burt Bacharach song-book. With a couple of exceptions
(including a terrific take on Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” and the War number “The
Cisco Kid”) Wilson’s
originals cut the covers to shreds, a good sign by any marker. Wilson’s numbers
are funkier, grittier and more groove happy, and numbers like “Hot Rod,”
“Groove Grease,” “The Sweet Life,” “Creampuff,” “Snaps,” “Love Bug” and “Back
Out” must be considered high-water marks in jazz funk in the pre-CTI era, after
which the connection between jazz funk and low-carb ear candy became much more
pronounced, with radically mixed results. 

 

Reuben
Wilson went on to record numerous records after these three, although he took a
twenty year break from recording between 1975s Got To Get Your Own and
1996’s Live at SOB’s. One of these is a collection of Beastie Boys
covers he and some cohorts recorded, called Boogaloo to the Beastie Boys,
which is more than appropriate given how much of their all-instrumental output
can clearly be traced to Wilson and other jazz funk instrumentalists. These
records are all outside of my ears and will stay that way until I happen across
them on vinyl or CD–ain’t no downloads in this house. Wherever Rueben Wilson
is, he is sitting on a life’s work of great vitality and joyous grooves, and
the world would most likely be a better place with a few more like him around.

 

 

***

You can leave comments below or e-mail them to me directly at modmedia@theriver.com .

 

Carl Hanni is a music writer,
music publicist, disc jockey, book hound and vinyl archivist living in Tucson,
AZ. He hosts an occasional concert and film series at The Screening
Room in downtown Tucson,
“The B-Side” program on KXCI (Tuesday nights midnight – 2 a.m.) and
spins records wherever and whenever he can. He currently writes for Blurt, Tucson Weekly, and
(occasionally) Goldmine and Signal To Noise.

 

 

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