SoulMusic.com’s Michael Lewis takes us back to the 1979 classic album, “Masterjam,” a joyful match between super producer Quincy Jones and Rufus and Chaka Khan…
As we celebrate the 89th birthday of Quincy Jones this month, we revisit one of his shining productions, his collaboration with Rufus and Chaka Khan, Masterjam. The album was released in November 1979 closing out the decade for this super soul group with their seventh record, four of which had topped Billboard’s R&B chart.
Rufus had undergone numerous member changes since their 1973 debut. By the time they recorded this album, only Chaka (vocals) and Kevin Murphy (keys) remained from the original group -the days of “Whoever’s Thrilling You (Is Killing Me) and “Tell Me Something Good.” Tony Maiden (guitar, vocals)and Bobby Watson (bass) came from Billy Preston’s band and arrived for the third album Rufusized which included “Once You get Started” and “Stop On By.” David “Hawk” Wolinsky (keys) came around during the recording of Ask Rufus, where he co-wrote the hits “Everlasting Love” and “Hollywood” and officially joined on the Street Player album while drummer John Robinson on board just after the 1978 release of Street Player. This group had developed into a fine-tuned combination of soul and funk with swinging jazzy elements, with their singularly stratospheric lead singer.
At a creative peak in his already-illustrious career, Quincy was riding high on the surge of Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall which was released three months prior, summoning some of the most talented arrangers, musicians, songwriters and studio wizards around to create his next sonic masterpiece. He had just worked with Robinson (who played throughout Off The Wall), and Bobby and Hawk who also played on the Michael Jackson smash, “Rock With You.” The year before Chaka had recorded with Quincy on his memorable “Stuff Like That,” so getting the Rufus team together was a no-brainer and the result is a supreme blend of funk, soul and jazz
Masterjam starts with their #1 soul/R&B single, “Do You Love What You Feel,” kicking off with John Robinson’s instantly recognizable drum fill. On this irresistible party rocker, written by Hawk, it is instantly apparent that there’s a new level of radiance for the group. Chaka and Tony duet beautifully on the verses. The beat is tight and hitting with some nice horn blasts and a few whistle effects thrown in for good measure. Of course, Chaka takes it home wailing over the chorus.
The next track, another Hawk Wolinksi composition, “Any Love,” although not as big a charted hit, has a tighter groove: it’s probably the clearest case study in the way Chaka builds her ‘Wall of Chakas’ by layering her own voice and nobody does it better. Listen how it develops through the song each time she returns to the chorus. The track also features some truly stellar horns arranged by Jerry Hey of Seawind fame, who first worked with Rufus on the Street Player album. He creates the perfect complement to what the band, and Chaka in particular, bring to the table. His brilliant horn and string arrangements are a welcome presence and driving force throughout this recording.
“Heaven Bound” is a nice mid-tempo groove featuring some nice riffs from Tony’s guitar throughout paving the way for Chaka’s playful take on this declaration of love. Once again the string and horn arrangements elevates this to the clouds; the late, great Rod Temperton contributed “Live In Me,” delivering a very grown and sexy lyric that Chaka completely embodies: ‘Been foolin round, got no time to waste, so baby turn out the light. And let’s get down to what it takes to keep me satisfied!’ The last minute of this song is pure magic, with Chaka singing the chorus, riding a wave of velvety “Chakas” with wonderful staccato horn blast behind them.
Next up is “Body Heat,” also the title track of Quincy’s 1984 breakthrough album. The version on Masterjam has a much faster rhythm which gives the group an opportunity to put down a serious groove. The intro with one of the strongest rhythm sections of the time is as good as it gets and once Chaka comes through it really takes off. The chorus is truly a party! Shout out to Richard Heath for some monstrous tambourine work here.
“I’m Dancing For Your Love” is a nice up-tempo track written by Hawk, John, Patti Austin and Quincy’s wife, the late Peggy Lipton. It’s a bright number with a chorus sung in French, ‘Je danse pour ton amour”’ with a lead vocal by Tony once again. Check the not-so-coy lyrics, ‘I saw you looking like you wanted some… and you were looking at me…‘ – for sure, one of the most forward ‘come-ons’ ever recorded!
Chaka had not written many of Rufus’ songs, but when she did, usually with her brother Mark Stevens, they were revelatory and quite moving. Such is the case with “What Am I Missing” (a deep funk groove with a rock edge, featuring one of Tony‘s strongest guitar solos on the record), starting with ominous bass and guitar work, Chaka begins her story with the line, ‘There’s an ill wind blowing. No let up in sight…‘. No doubt, a reflection on the life she had led in this business since she was a teen. However, she remains determined ,still standing strong.
The title track rounds out the collection with a call for a world-wide party. Written by Rod Temperton, “Masterjam” is a culmination and a completion of the album with every member bringing their A-game to the proceeding. It’s everything you’d want in a Rufus record – the groove, the beat and the voice. an all out call for the ultimate jam! Of note, Chaka is credited an an arranger on this track and co-arranger on the album’s biggest hit, “Do You Love What You Feel.”
MCA Records went all out for the group (who became part of the company’s roster when MCA bought ABC Records earlier in 1979). There were two videos done for “Do You Love What You Feel” and “Masterjam,” a few years before MTV, so this type of promotion was fresh and exciting at the time.
As a group, Rufus was always about fire and energy and Masterjam has that throughout. While some voiced the opinion that Quincy’s production overshadowed the the group, it was on the contrary, a brilliant opportunity for the most highly-regarded and celebrated producer in popular music at the time to team with one of the legendary groups of the ’70s. The title of the itself tells the story of what Rufus and Chaka Khan represented achieving success with as a Top 20 Pop and No. 1 R&B gold album.
By Michael Lewis
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