Review: Mykeljon & Groovexpress, Ukrainian Doll
Mykeljon & Groovexpress, Ukrainian Doll
During World War II, jazz was very much a part of pop culture in the United States and elsewhere. Swing-oriented bandleaders like Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Harry James, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller took the pop charts by storm. But a lot of things changed during the 1950s and 1960s. Jazz came to be widely regarded as music for intellectuals, and rock and R&B took over popular culture. Nonetheless, the soul-jazz artists of the 1960s and 1970s tried to restore jazz’ pop-culture appeal, and Ukrainian Doll recalls the funky, groove-oriented instrumental soul-jazz of that era. Combining jazz, soul, funk and pop in a melodic, accessible fashion, grooves like “Mi Bella Paula,” “High Heels,” “Pretty Little Thang” and “Foxy Brown” are easy to absorb and are a throwback to a time in which soul-jazz improvisers were making a concerted effort to reach young R&B fans. The very fact that there is a song on this album titled “Foxy Brown” speaks volumes: the 1974 film Foxy Brown (starring Pam Grier) was one of the top blaxploitation movies of its time, and having a song with that title on Ukrainian Doll underscores the group’s fascination with African-American Baby Boomer culture. And unlike many of the so-called “smooth jazz” recordings of recent years, “Tell Me Why,” “Pretty Little Thang” and other selections are quite faithful to jazz’ improvisatory spirit.
The members of Groovexpress (who come from Australia, New Zealand and Los Angeles) include group leader Mykeljon Winckel on electric guitar, Ernest Semu on Hammond B-3 organ, acoustic piano and electric keyboards, Robert Kyle on sax, Haggis Maguiness on harmonica, Isaac Sanchez on drums and percussion and Bruce Kerr on electric bass, electric guitar and acoustic guitar. Direct or indirect influences on Ukrainian Doll range from saxophonists Grover Washington, Jr. and Stanley Turrentine to the Crusaders to organist Charles Earland, whose 1969 recording of the Spiral Staircase’s “More Today Than Yesterday” was a big crossover hit. But the use of harmonica is one way in which Ukrainian Doll differs from most of the soul-jazz and jazz-funk of the 1960s and 1970s. When Maguiness is playing his harmonica on “No Way Home,” the gritty “E-Type Blues” or the gospel-ish “I Say Praise,” he really jumps out at the listener because the harmonica was by no means a prominent instrument in the soul-jazz and jazz-funk combos of 40 or 45 years ago. Groovexpress’ use of sax, organ and guitar is standard for organ combos, but Maguiness’ melodic yet funky harmonica is not the type of sound one usually associates with this type of material. And Maguiness has an attractive sound that is somewhere between Toots Thielemans (the most famous jazz harmonica player of all time) and R&B veteran Stevie Wonder (a singer who is known for his harmonica solos).
Although Ukrainian Doll is mostly instrumental, the exception to that rule is the Latin-flavored “You Are My Fantasy” (which finds Winckel singing lead). “You Are My Fantasy” is the only thing on this album that falls outside of jazz, and the tune recalls the type of Latin soul sound that artists like El Chicano (of “Tell Her She’s Lovely,” “Viva Tirado” and “Don’t You Want Me” fame), Malo, Tierra and the late Coke Escovedo (brother of Pete Escovedo and uncle of Sheila Escovedo, a.k.a. Sheila E) were known for during the 1970s. The lyrics are in English, which makes sense because El Chicano and Tierra’s biggest hits were performed in English. But rhythmically, “You Are My Fantasy” clearly has a salsa edge. It is a perfect example of how an Afro-Cuban rhythm can be incorporated on a song that is essentially soul-pop. Had Ukrainian Doll been a 1976 or 1977 release instead of a 2014 release, “You Are My Fantasy” would have been a strong candidate for the pop/Top 40 stations of the time. And younger listeners who aren’t old enough to remember the 1970s will appreciate the retro vibe of that song as well as the instrumentals that dominate this album.
The instrumental soul-jazz and jazz-funk of the 1960s and 1970s continues to attract new listeners, and Ukrainian Doll is an enjoyable, if derivative, celebration of that era.
Review by Alex Henderson
3.5 stars out of 5