God Bless the Brits, particularly for their adoration of American rhythm and blues. If it weren’t for their rabid music fans we wouldn’t have The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks, The Who, Led Zeppelin and countless other bands built on the backs of black American musical innovators from Robert Johnson to Bo Diddley. Also, we wouldn’t have this essential Roy Ayers album from 1983, being reissued by the London-based label, BBE Records.

Roy Ayers is a living legend of 20th century popular music whose work isn’t easily contained by the genre tags of jazz, soul, funk or dance as it moves fluidly between these styles, sometimes within the same song. Unlike his contemporary, Herbie Hancock, Ayers never had a crossover hit, at least not in the U.S., but his golden era of cosmic, funky jazz from the early seventies through the early eighties ranks as some of best and most consistent in that rather crowded category, especially considering that his instrument is the vibraphone.

Silver Vibrations, released only in the U.K. in 1983 is arguably the last classic album of Ayers’ from his organic, analog, funky run that began in 1970 with his first of 12 albums for Polydor records as a bandleader. Released on Ayers’ own Uno Melodic record label in the brief gap after leaving Polydor and signing with Columbia Records, Silver Vibrations contains some of the same songs that appeared on the U.S. release from the same year, Lots of Love (also released on Uno Melodic), but notably several songs appear (“Chicago,” “Lots of Love” & “D.C. City”) here in extended versions.

Despite recording and releasing an unprecedented amount of music during the first years of the eighties under his own name and for other artists, like Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Sylvia Striplin, Eighties Ladies, and R.A.M.P., in his home country Ayers’ hybrid of jazz, funk, disco and proto-house failed to capture much popular attention outside of the most chocolatiest of cities. The anti-disco backlash was far less brutal in the U.K. where DJs and jazz-dancers scooped up every one of his releases, becoming a major influence in their “Acid Jazz” scene of the late eighties and nineties.

Therefore we have the British fans to thank for the existence and new reissue of Silver Vibrations, which makes it far easier to hear some of Ayers’ best songs from his Uno Melodic phase. In addition to the extended versions of “Chicago” (which takes up the entire side A of the double LP release) and “D.C. City,” the real treat here is the future-disco-funk of “Good Good Music” with its Bohanon-esque proto-house groove that picks up the beat where his anthemic “Running Away” (1978) left off. The title track finds Ayers’ sound moving into the 1980s with it’s insistent beat, angular groove and righteous lyrics anchored by pulsing synths, percolating percussion and topped with some of Ayers’ best soloing on the album. As of Ayer’s gift for melodicism and romantic ballads, they transcend “Lots of Love” and “Smiling With Your Eyes.”

Ayers’ strength resides in his gift for creating an infectious rhythm track that’s simple enough to engage the hips and feet, while serving as an ever shifting and dancing backbeat suitable for melodic, lyrical, and rhythmic exploration.

“One of the things that I do that I’m very good at is that I go into the studio and I can just spontaneously do a groove,” Roy told Wax Poetics’ Zaid. “A lot of people require more time because that’s the way they do it, but I’m fast, I can knock something out in fifteen minutes.”[1] James Mason, a session guitarist and solo performer in his own rite, who joined Ayers first for a couple studio sessions before joining his band in 1977, said this about the bandleader’s knack for a groove: “one of the big takeaways I got from working with Roy, [was] the power of rhythm tracks. Among the musicians who I worked with back then, our favorite take would be the rhythm track. We’d listen to just the rhythm tracks. We’d cherish those tracks because they had a certain openness, there’s an incredibly compelling sense of purpose to the rhythm when it’s in its bare bones. And if you didn’t have that, you wouldn’t finish building the song on top of it because there was nothing there.”[2]

Roy Ayers has always been gifted with the ability to tame a wild rhythm track and he’s one of the few musicians from acoustic Jazz beginnings who was artistically and critically killed it in the “disco years.” Disco and the celebration of the extended dance version of a hit single was the perfect platform for Ayers to showcase his greatest strength, the groove. BBE’s reissue of Silver Vibrations honors this sentiment by pressing the album as a double LP giving “Chicago” the entire Side A for maximum DJ salivation. It’s hard to top the tracklist of this album’s U.S. counterpart, Lots of Love, but seen as a sequel with new songs and extended mixes of some of your favorite tracks from LOL, Silver Vibrations stands as the final release of Roy’s finest and grooviest run.

[1] Zaid, “Roy Ayers: Music Of Many Colors”, Wax Poetics, Issue 7

[2] Author’s 2015 phone interview with James Mason

Roy Ayers, Silver Vibrations (BBE Records)

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Centre national du cinéma et de l'image animée | With the support of the Creative Europe programme of the European Union With the support of the Creative Europe programme of the European Union