City Life / Unfinished Business
en: City Life (album) [info]
City Life, The Blackbyrds' third album, is a textbook example of what we now know as jazz funk. By 1975 the group, who had all met as founder Donald Byrd's students at Howard University, had got their sound down pat and City Life married the group's bravura jazz playing with gritty boogaloo and their trademark in-unison vocals.
Many will recall City Life for its two big hits: Happy Music and Rock Creek Park. The former - which reached the US top 20 - is a brooding, urban beauty that nods towards Isaac Hayes' Theme from Shaft, but then breaks off with its infectious vocal refrain.
It is impossible to hear Rock Creek Park without visualising formation dances in white-sock soul clubs throughout the UK. The song, about the public space in their hometown of Washington DC, is a splendid, Latin-influenced stomper that never outstays its welcome.
Bassist Joe Hall and drummer Keith Kilgo keep the groove irresistibly watertight throughout, giving saxophonist Stephen Johnson plenty of room to improvise, which is most evident on Thankful 'Bout Yourself. Its writer, guitarist Orville Saunders, showcases his impeccable rhythm and lead playing.
However, unlike certain groups of a similar ilk, you never feel that anyone here is trying to steal another's limelight. The woozy, floating vibe throughout thrives on a precise mixture of taut rhythm and soulful jamming.
There is plenty of light and shade: the quiet storm of Love So Fine is a perfect smoocher, while Hash and Eggs is a hard-hitting jam. The Blackbyrds are one of several groups, alongside The Fatback Band and Kool and the Gang, who truly make a claim for being the sound of the sidewalk: keyboard player Kevin Toney's City Life is a swaggering soundtrack to a stroll downtown.
City Life's only questionable moment is Flying High: a little too smooth and polished, it's akin to incidental music from a 70s quiz show. That said, you cannot deny its catchiness, so typical of the whole album.
If you ever wonder what The Blackbyrds are all about, City Life is the place to start. It's a joyously funky record.