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Montara: A Critical Analysis of Covers

Ben Gray
Contributing Writer
bengray417@gmail.com

Vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson’s 1975 album Montara is named for the town in California where Hutcherson lives just south of San Francisco. That helps to explain the sunny, vibe-y feel of the whole album, and in particular of the title track.

Hutcherson’s vibes and marimba are joined on this track by Oscar Brashear and Blue Mitchell on trumpets, Ernie Watts on flute, Eddie Cano on Rhodes piano, Dave Troncoso on bass, and Rudy Calzado on percussion. The tune slowly fades in with the vibes, flute, and trumpet playing the melody over percussion and chords from the Rhodes. At about 0:55, the Rhodes plays for a couple of bars before a marimba solo from Hutcherson begins over the mellow Rhodes chords. Hutcherson plays fantastically while the percussion and Rhodes continue the mellow feel. There’s a little more bounce around 2:30 to the Rhodes, but then they return to the sustained chords. Shortly after that, around 3:00, Cano takes a brief Rhodes solo (just a few bars again, tagged onto the end of Hutcherson’s solo), panning from left to right, and then the tune’s melody returns on the horns, flute, and vibes. The melody continues through to the end of the song, with Hutcherson coloring in behind the melody as the tune fades out slowly. A beautiful tune with a straightforward melody and minimal but very effective bass and percussion to drive it forward.

1996 saw the release of The New Groove: The Blue Note Remix Project, Volume 1, featuring hip-hop oriented remixes of classic Blue Note tunes, heavy on the breakbeats. Included on the album was The Roots’ version of "Montara". This version beefs up the bassline and adds ?uestlove’s drums as well as vocals from the JazzyFatNastees, Fatin, and Black Thought. This version starts with ?uest’s cymbals and the "Montara" melody before a crisp snare around 0:25 and the introduction of "Do what you want, do what you like, do what you feel, do what you need" from the JFNs and then a new vocal melody from Fatin. It’s not entirely clear how much of what we hear is sampled from Hutcherson’s original (if any) and how much is re-played by The Roots - the Rhodes sounds like it is being replayed (and in this version is panned to the left, rather than moving from left to right on Hutcherson’s original). Presumably the vibes solo starting around 1:10 is Hutcherson’s original, sampled here. Around 2:15, Black Thought’s scat vocals join in, panned to the right as Fatin’s melodic vocals and the JFNs vocals continue. They keep this groove going through until the end of the song; some particularly nice bass work around 4:00 or so before they start a fade-out. This is a great update of Hutcherson’s tune, with the beefed up drums and bass adding to the tune’s groove, the new melody from Fatin fitting in perfectly with the vibes and Rhodes, and the new vocals from the JazzyFatNastees adding lots to the tune. The vocals in particular sound completely natural over Hutcherson’s tune, though they’re a completely new part of this version of "Montara."

In 2003, Madlib got his shot at the Blue Note vaults on his Shades of Blue album, containing his take on "Montara". Madlib’s version starts out with an oddball vocal intro before the sampled "Montara" melody comes in over a classic drumbreak (also sampled). The "Montara" sample is then filtered as the dusty drums come to the front, with the bass more up front in the mix. Around 1:25, Madlib brings in the JFN’s vocals from The Roots’ version above that sound so natural over the "Montara" melody and chord progression. Interesting breakdown around 1:50 with some subtle cricket chirps in the background. A big snare crack brings the drums back at around 2:00 or so, then the drumbreak continues until a fadeout around 3:00, bringing in the "Montara" melody on the flute with some scratching and bass to accompany. More of the JFN vocals around 3:45 just before the drumbreak returns. Around 4:30, the drums change up to a different pattern as the flute’s melody continues, then at 5:00, the bass gets a bit of space to run around. This doesn’t last too long before this version fades out. Although this version and the one above from The Roots both rely in part on samples, Madlib’s version feels much more like a hip-hop track than The Roots’ version. Part of it is the scratching, but I think the bigger difference here are the drumbreaks vs. ?uest’s live drumming on The Roots’ version. (I’m not saying this is good or bad, just pointing out the difference here.)

A year after Madlib’s Shades of Blue album, Stefon Harris released Evolution in 2004, including his band’s version of "Montara". This version includes Harris on vibes along with Marc Cary on keys, Casey Benjamin on sax, Darryl Hall on bass, and Terreon Gully on drums. This version fades in with Gully’s drum break underneath the "Montara" melody played by Harris and Benjamin on vibes and sax, in unison, over a funky bassline from Hall and Rhodes chords from Cary. At about 0:45, they move into a brief spotlight for Harris’ vibes, with Benjamin’s sax taking the melody, followed by a spotlight for Cary’s Rhodes, then Benjamin’s sax (with Harris’ vibes playing the "Montara" melody underneath both the Rhodes and then sax). Harris, Cary, and Benjamin continue to trade phrases like this until the end of this brief jam on "Montara" and the fade-out. It would have been great to hear this band continue their version of "Montara" longer to let each member really dig into the tune. The band sounds great here, but I certainly could have listened to a much longer jam on "Montara" from them to see where they’d take it.

Montara from STEFON HARRIS on Myspace.

Myele Manzanza’s trio, with Manzanza on drums, Mark de Clive-Lowe on keys and effects, and Matt Dal Din on bass, recorded a version of "Montara" just a few months ago, in March of 2014. This version starts out very differently from the versions above, with a loose introduction based on the "Montara" chords and melody. Just after 0:20, the trio gets started in earnest. The trio gets into some nice head-nodding territory quickly, but add their own twist to the tune. There’s a particularly nice section around 1:00 as Manzanza’s drums start to take off underneath the keys, effects, and funky bass. A nice breakdown around 1:45, with the keys and bass continuing the "Montara" structure while Manzanza solos underneath. Around 2:45, Mark de Clive Lowe starts to add some of his keyboard playing on top of the "Montara" chords and the whole trio brings up the intensity here. At 3:30, they hit on that perfect head-nodding space as Manzanza returns to a backbeat… ill. Then around 4:30, Manzanza’s drums start a cool stuttering effect. He moves over to the ride cymbal, keeping that same stuttering feel alive as this ridiculously nice groove continues. Some synth flourishes move to the front around 6:00 while Manzanza’s drums move on and then off the beat, then back again. They take it out from there… wow, this version really took "Montara" to some new places. Manzanza’s drumming in particular is impressive, but the whole trio came up with a really amazing jam. A really loose version, with the keys never really stating the melody outright, but tracing it over the "Montara" chords. Everyone’s playing on this is great, and the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Recommended.

Harvey Mason’s recently released album Chameleon featured his group’s take on "Montara." (Interestingly, Mason played drums on Hutcherson’s Montara album, though not on the title track.) On this version of "Montara," Mason is on both the drums and the vibes, and he is joined by Matthew Stevens on guitar who also arranged this version, Ben Williams on bass, Mark de Clive Lowe on keys, Jimmy Halsip on bass, and Bill Summers on percussion. They start with a bouncy bassline, Rhodes chords, and ride cymbals before the "Montara" melody comes in on vibes and guitar at about 0:20. Mason’s drums behind the melody are nice, little snare hits accenting the melody’s notes. At about 1:00, the bassline moves to the front for a couple of bars before they move into a slightly altered version of the "Montara" melody, then at about 1:45, Stevens takes a guitar solo over the Rhodes chords, bouncy bassline, and excellent, grooving drums. At about 3:20, Stevens moves back to the "Montara" melody, and then the group returns to their slightly altered version of the melody, leaving space for Halsip's bouncy bassline again around 4:00. At about 4:15, Mark de Clive-Lowe moves to the synths, adding to the melody and adding a high synth tone underneath all of this. At about 5:10, all but the keys and synths drop out, continuing until the fade out. This is a cool version of "Montara," with a slightly altered melody, a fine guitar solo from Matthew Stevens, and a great vibe overall. It seems that having Mark de Clive Lowe on the keys for "Montara" makes for a winning track.

Montara from Harvey Mason on Myspace.

"Montara" started as an easy groove in Bobby Hutcherson’s 1975 version, with a simple melody and relaxed vibe. That feel carried through to The Roots’ version of the tune in 1996, though that version also brought a serious update to the tune - the drums knocked harder, and the vocals from Fatin and the JazzyFatNastees added a lot to the basic "Montara" melody. Madlib’s version really built from The Roots’ version, keeping that hip-hop feel very much intact. Stefon Harris’ version of "Montara" had some great short solos from his band, but it would have been great to hear them expand on the tune a little more. The two recent versions of the tune in Myele Manzanza’s and Harvey Mason’s bands with Mark de Clive Lowe on the keys seem to have found a way to put a new spin on "Montara," keeping Hutcherson’s laid-back vibe intact while building on the hip-hop feel in The Roots’ version. Harvey Mason’s version of "Montara" in particular is an impressive re-imagining of the tune, adding to and altering the melody and adding the bouncy bassline to really update this tune almost 30 years after its first appearance on Bobby Hutcherson’s album. Where will "Montara" go next? Keep listening.

Ben Gray is a listener with a lot of ideas about this music around in his head.