Upon first glance of the album cover, one will be inclined to believe that they’re in for a spiritually jazzy mind trip filled with abstract arrangements and non-descript solos. “House of the Rising Sun” may not be the thinking man’s album that the cover picture will lead you to believe, but it’s an ideal soundtrack for one with a clear mind as opposed to an active one who’s working hard to outdo himself in a quest for spiritual fulfillment. Idris Muhammad was a prominent session drum player who’s widely recognized as perfecting the break beat drum style that made his music ripe for sampling in hip hop’s golden era. He played on countless sessions with various jazz musicians and recorded some material on his own, so by the time he released this album, he was already a musician of legendary stature for his distinctive drum style. This album was released on CTI records and it bares all of the hallmark production touches that characterized their output during this time period; Radical reinterpretations of existing songs or compositions from other artists, concise rhythm arrangements consisting of melodic instrumental charts and smoothly executed solos all wrapped up with a sleek mixing style that cuts with the flawless precision of a freshly sharpened machete. “House of the Rising Sun” is the soul jazz album that would’ve appealed to a mainstream audience at the time for its smooth sheen. A main reason for its broad appeal has to do with a well-balanced mix of funk, jazz and dance music. It has enough inner city cool to make it attractive to funk listeners, a clean non-syncopated stylishness that makes it ideal for dancefloors on certain tracks and enough cerebral sensibilities with its solos to give it an edge with jazz fans.
The opening title track, a traditional song made into a brooding rock classic from the Animals, is a no non-sense statement of intent with the groove’s Blaxploitation feel- given the nature of the lyrics about a life gone wrong. The music rolls with a head-nodding quality where you can feel like movie credits are rolling as the song progresses, but it’s strong in terms of showcasing the crisp compositional skills of the band. “Baia” , another cover - this time of a Brazilian jazz classic, is meticulously made over into a soul jazz tune that’s probably the most incidentally common sounding track with its corner lounge like feel of; loud talking patrons, cigarette smoke, guys shooting pool and busy bartenders serving shots to a crowded bar of people laughing at casual chitter chatter of……whatever. It’s a cool track that captures the essence of that environment, but some might be put off with the piano playing in “Baia” as they may deem it too old-fashioned. Two of the standout tracks come right in the middle of the disc; “Hard to Face the Music” and “Theme to New York City”. The former appears to have been an Ashford & Simpson song that was never recorded by any well-known soul artists or the duo themselves - enabling Idris Muhammad and his band of cohorts to put their own stamp on it - much like Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell did with “You All I Need To Get By”- also written by Ashford and Simpson. And the song itself is transformed to a funk-jazz masterpiece with a surprising guest appearance from Fred Wesley- the bandleader of James Brown’s JB’s and horn section leader of Parliament- who gives a solo that sounds more manicured than anything he recorded under the leadership of either James Brown or George Clinton -where his solos still sounded great, but were rough around the edges at times. “Theme to New York City” is a classical music standard, written by Frederic Chopin, re-imagined as a dance funk track with the band providing the main groove while the saxophonist plays the main melody of the original composition note for note. What makes this piece a treat is the pacing of Idris Muhammad’s drum playing that drives the main melody- making it one of the coolest dance tracks that many probably never heard. On this track, you get a glimpse of his distinctive drum style as it has a rolling break-beat feel that doesn’t sound as busy as the syncopation you’ll usually hear in a funk record. Many people have a preconceived notion of classical compositions being primitive pieces of music that wouldn’t be the most appealing choice if one was looking to re-record a song. But the freshness brought to “Theme to New York City” attests to the timelessness of these pieces when it’s in the right hands of talented musicians. The sole original on here “Sudan” is the purest jazz workout you will get on this album. Here Idris really shows off his chops as the tempo is pretty steady on a piece that’s strongly Brazilian and conceptual by chance - as a part of the composition sounds like something that can be heard in a bullfight-especially in the middle. “Hey Pocky-A-Way” is a cover song loosely based on a funk groove recorded by the Meters. While the song is nicely played, it’s also the least compelling track on this album as the band doesn’t offer any distinctive touches to the arrangements. While the song is nicely played and does have a more refined feel than the one recorded by the Meters, the track in general feels more like filler than anything else since it’s essentially the same groove that’s played slightly different.
“House of the Rising Sun” has rightfully earned a reputation over the years as a cult classic among soul-jazz enthusiasts. It’s a great intersectional album that captures a time and place where funk, jazz, and dance started coming together musically and provided a creative avenue for jazz artists to win a new audience. The polished sound and streamlined complexity makes it a good starting place for novices who want to explore this style without digging into the heavier vibes of Herbie Hancock, Billy Cobham and Return to Forever. This album has just been reissued on CD by King Records Limited in Japan as part of their current line of CTI Supreme Collection remasters. My advice is to take full advantage of the reissue of this classic title and pick it up while it’s available. It’s better to spend $13.99 now than to wait for this to go out of print and have to spend $60-100 from private sellers.
This is a guest review by Patrick Frierson. Patrick is an avid music lover and collector. He’s spent the past five years or so collecting nothing but the finest in vintage recordings that range from well-known classics to underground gems. Hopefully, you’ll find his reviews to be inspiring enough to make you want to groove out to some of the coolest albums ever recorded. As a rule, he doesn’t write negative reviews, so if he takes the time and effort to review a recording, he genuinely loves it. His passion ensures that he will place a great deal of care and detail into analyzing albums and sharing the info with the readers of The Penman Post. He hopes you all enjoy it as much as he enjoyed sharing his musical experience with you.