Art by Ben Alman
Jordan Ryan Pedersen has started a drive to collect “DISCO SUCKS” t-shirts. Bonfire will be at the Monongahela National Forest just east of Kepler.
Disco is a pilloried genre. Detractors say it’s kitschy, it’s vapid. For years, it was too black and too gay. But perhaps the most unfair charge levied at disco – tall order, there are a lot of them – is that the music is stupid. “I Was Made for Lovin You” or “Afternoon Delight,” sure, stupid. But Nile Rodgers smuggled jazz chords into the top 40, man. Without getting too music nerdy about it: in order to simplify the sound, Rodgers would just play two or three notes out of the full chord. So you get the, how you say, “mouthfeel” of a jazz chord without the full course.
Patrice Rushen started her career as a straight-ahead jazz pianist. Songs like “Shortie’s Portion” and “7/73” – from her first album Prelusion – wouldn’t sound out of place on a Freddie Hubbard record. But a few years into her career, Rushen took an abrupt left and joined the reliably innovative Elektra/Asylum roster as a pop R&B/disco act. The label had started a pop/jazz division in the late 70s in order to capture some of that sweet sweet smooth jazz cash. She went on to have her biggest hit with 1982’s “Forget Me Nots,” which you probably know as the sample source for “Men in Black.”
But Rushen didn’t shave any of the compositional heft off of her work to pander to a pop audience. Instead she suffused her R&B and disco with all the complexity of her jazz work. The blessed archaeologists at Strut have collected the best of her work with Elektra/Asylum on a triple LP set called Remind Me.
Rushen’s band builds grooves the way you build a soup: piece by piece, giving each element enough time to simmer and reach its full potential. Many of the cuts selected for Remind Me are 12” or long versions, which give the band more space to stretch out and find the center of the song organically. Anchored by rock-solid hooks though they are, the songs here aren’t afraid to linger on a single motif or follow a pathway not initially suggested. “Haven’t You Heard” begins as a straightforward disco stomper, until the 3:30 mark, when Rushen herself intercedes on the keyboard. She teases out a lascivious piano groove, the band following her each and every melodic tittle. She started her career as a piano player, so it makes sense that the keys are often the strongest element of the songs. Charles Mims Jr.’s piano line sneaks in and out of “Let’s Sing a Song of Love,” alternately riding and leading the groove.
Throughout, the level of compositional complexity is astounding, especially given how *not* thinky the songs are. Patrice Rushen never wants you to have to stop and think on the dancefloor, but it’s hard not to want to take a water break to admire how much she’s packed into these songs.
Today, Rushen chairs the USC Thornton Popular Music Program. Here’s hoping she manages to encourage the next generation of pop music makers not to be afraid of heady sounds.