Growing up in Brooklyn I started early, playing the accordion at 7 and then switching to piano at 11. It didn’t take long before I discovered the organ. Players like Jimmy Smith and Groove Holmes really influenced me. I played the organ in a variety of bands during that period. However, it wasn’t until I heard the sound of the Wurlitzer and Fender Rhodes electric pianos that my path in music started to get defined. Here are some seminal cuts that had a major effect on my musical life.
“Mercy Mercy Mercy!”
Live at “The Club” (Capitol, 1966)
The first time I heard this song I went out and bought the 45. I listened to Joe Zawinul’s funky vibe and how it really spoke. I never would have imagined that 10 years later we’d begin a friendship that would last for over 30 years. This is one of the only times you will hear Zawinul on Wurlitzer electric piano.
Fat Albert Rotunda (Warner Brothers, 1970)
This is from the first album that really got me into the Fender Rhodes Suitcase model. Herbie found the sweet spot, and the sound and textures he was using really brought that instrument to light. Groove and funk mixed with jazz sensibilities, featuring a great sax solo by the late Joe Farrell.
Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970)
This was the song from the album that convinced me I had to dedicate my life to music and set me on the path to my goal of working with Miles Davis. The openness and dominance that the Rhodes had on that song was very hypnotic. The sound was deep and funky and it introduced me to Chick Corea. I had never heard someone play so open and free yet so focused.
“The Black Messiah”
The Black Messiah: Live at the Troubadour (Capitol, 1972)
Cannonball Adderley was always incredibly hip, and his music and the people he worked with were always conscious of the times we lived in. Who can you get after having Joe Zawinul in your band for nine years? Well, the transition to George Duke was as smooth as silk and this song introduced us to George, who brought a whole other style to the quintet and his own original style to the Fender Rhodes. This track hits hard from the first note. George’s percussive style on the Mark 1 Rhodes brought Cannonball’s music to a younger audience, now known as baby-boomers.
Morning Star (CTI, 1972)
This song introduced me to a new player: Bob James. “Morning Star” could be the most elegant and beautiful solo ever played on the Rhodes. Bob’s distinctive single-note style and musicality combined with Rudy Van Gelder’s amazing sound opened up a new world for the Rhodes. I became a huge Bob James CTI fan.
Light as a Feather (Polydor, 1973)
I still have a vivid memory of the first time I heard this in 1972. It was a spiritual moment. Chick was playing great, focused melodies and improvisations throughout this album, but this song was magic from its first note. The mix of the vocal with the Rhodes was something I hadn’t heard before. The whole vibe was perfection and made me realize that a certain musical technique was required to bring your own voice to this instrument. He had the Fender Rhodes singing.
“125th Street Congress”
Sweetnighter (Columbia, 1973)
I had been listening to Weather Report’s first two albums, but this song from Sweetnighter, their third album, was in a whole other place. Joe Zawinul’s use of the wah-wah pedal and phase shifter on the Rhodes turned it into a different instrument, and the grooves on this song highlighted the new possibilities. I spoke to Joe a number of times about this song and we agree that it really could be the first hip-hop groove.
Head Hunters (Columbia, 1973)
What can one say? It’s a song still worth studying today for the musicality and variety of new keyboard instruments that were used, and of course for the nine-plus minutes of pure bliss from an incredible Herbie solo. It still sets the standard.
Computer World (Kling Klang/Warner Brothers, 1981)
Minimalist monophonic synthesizers with tacky drum sounds with a message that resonates even today. When I listen to this track now I really see how ahead of their time Kraftwerk was. This was a huge influence on me with regard to how not to clutter up synthesizer tracks.
The Pointer Sisters
“Jump (For My Love)”
Break Out (Planet, 1983)
This song really stretched what synthesizers could do in 1983. It was right before MIDI and digital synthesizers took over. The incredibly fat sounds provided mostly by the great sound of the Oberheim synthesizer all tied together with their “system” that used drum machine and sequencer. This was the last peak before the sounds started to change, thanks to the introduction of the Yamaha DX 7. It features perfect vocals. I learned a lot listening to this song.
Jason Miles is a New York-based keyboardist, producer, composer, arranger and bandleader whose latest album is Kind of New 2: Blue Is Paris.