Album in History: Shakatak – Night Birds

'Night Birds' - Sounds ahead of their time (from space?)

In the long, diverse and sometimes even seemingly pedantic world of Jazz history there have been certain artists that have gone on to be so instrumental in expanding and diversifying the genre that they have created sub-genres solely revolving around their sounds. And while obvious names like Herbie Hancock, George Duke, Frank Zappa and Bob James immediately spring to mind, other relatively low-key performers like Shakatak have been just as influential. It is that very notion which makes defining Shakatak’s sound such a difficult task, not that I believe in “defining” and “labelling” sounds anyways!

After the racially fuelled disco-demotion nights, which exposed deep social problems that characterized much of the late 70s / early 80s period in mainstream America, a sound which fused the four on the floor electronic time signatures with elements of jazz, funk and disco was born, we now refer to it as post-Disco! At the time it was just a natural reaction to a movement characterized by its rejection to the notion that cultural America was changing, and that racism and homophobia were on the decline! Counterculture was taking over the American youth, culminating in anti-globalization collectives which had already established itself in the 60s largely as a youth movement sprawling from the disenfranchised social fabric destroyed initially by Nixon and later the Raegen years, or as brother Gil Scott-Heron called him, Rae-gun!

Musically, this was perfect fertile grounds to develop Disco, which hate-riddled demolition nights aside, wasn’t really developing all that much as it was. That’s not to say that several offshoot genres hadn’t already taken a life of their own by then. Giorgio Moroder had already developed his own brand of Hi-NRG Disco (exemplified in his collaborations with Donna Summers), and kids in Detroit and Chicago were listening to Kraftwerk and already discovered that 808s and 303s are more than just pretty Japanese machines that make robot sounds. What the disco demolition nights did however, was exponentially speed up that process, and in a matter of years dance music witnessed arguably its greatest evolution to date.

In England, that change was profoundly felt, and while in the later years of the 80s it was manifested in the meteoric rise of Synthpop, especially in northern parts, Jazz-Funk was the genre of the moment in the early to mid-years of the decade. ‘Night Birds’ in many ways exemplified that era, yet somehow came at a time when Jazz-Funk was both quite unknown to the wider public and largely rejected from Jazz’s inner-circle. Smooth Jazz pioneer Bob James faced similar objections from the Jazz community when One, Two, Three and BJ4 were released, even though he never claimed them to be Jazz in the first place!

‘Night Birds’ as an album achieved limited commercial success initially despite it’s quite obvious pop connection (and one hell of an awesome cover art work!). But this was never about sales, what makes this album so special is the ineffably rich compositions and instrumental innovativeness spearheaded by the band’s pianist Bill Sharpe. George Anderson on the other hand provided that killer brass so evident in Streetwalkin’. A spectacularly well harmonized eclectic album with just the right amount vocal hooks covers everything from early day Bossa jazz to swanky jazz-funk, which it largely put on the map!


Shakatak – Streetwalkin’ – Kay’s ‘One Very Cold Yet Funky Morning’ Edit

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