A Tribute to the Mizell Brothers – SunStorm Week

28 07 2010

Zo!’s SunStorm is gathering plaudits far and wide, with many fans singling out the jazz-funk collaboration with Phonte, Flight of the Blackbyrd, for the highest praise. The tune has been billed as a tribute to the Mizell Brothers and George Duke. Given all the interest in the track, and SunStorm in general, SoulCuts took a moment to look back at the work of the Mizell Brothers that has undoubtedly influenced that majestic Zo! cut, Flight of the Blackbyrd.

The Mizell brothers, Fonce and Larry, became synonymous with epic jazz-funk productions in the mid-1970s, perhaps best known for their work with Donald Byrd. Under the tutelage of Byrd himself, at Howard University in the Sixties, the Mizell Brothers released their first production on a short-lived self-owned label, Hog; the now incredibly rare northern soul track Baby I Want You by The Moments.

Following graduation, Fonce Mizell joined Motown and became part of the ‘Corporation’, the writing and production team that consisted of Fonce, Motown producer Deke Richards, Freddie Perren and label boss, Berry Gordy. Their most famous work was undoubtedly with the Jackson 5, via unstoppable soul classics I Want You Back (originally called I Wanna Be Free and written for Gladys Knight) and ABC.

After leaving Motown in the early 70s, Larry and Fonce reacquainted with Donald Byrd and started a period of writing and producing what would become seminal jazz-funk albums such as Donald Byrd’s Street Lady, Places and Spaces and Caricatures, Bobbi Humphrey’s Blacks and Blues and Johnny Hammond’s 1975 Milestone album, Gears, containing my personal favorite Mizell Brothers track, Los conquistadores chocolates.

I came to Donald Byrd and the wider work of the Mizell brothers through hip-hop records that sampled their funk-fueled, soulful and jazzy, layered arrangements. It’s a trajectory many will recognize. Sing it with me, ‘You are not alone, I am…’ OK, scrap that. Think I just lost some soul points. Damn! Hey, maybe some Tribe will restore the balance? Here goes:

Thanks Q-Tip.

So, I used to listen to ATCQ’s Footprints, from the People’s Instinctive Travels album, and Main Source’s Looking at the Front Door on repeat in the early 90s, up in my room on the mighty Philips Roller.

But as much as I enjoyed the beats and Tip’s and Large Professor’s flows, it was the sample, this otherworldly groove, that had me transfixed. I was nothing but a straight-up hip-hop lover to that point (and still rocking much Troop, which didn’t look all that fly in a parochial English village) but I needed to hunt that groove down.

Everything changed musically for me in ‘92 when I purchased the cassette (!), The Best of Donald Byrd and discovered Think Twice, a cut that contained that break used on the Main Source track and ATCQ’s Footprints, and a whole host of other amazing tunes seamlessly blending jazz, soul and funk.

From that point I became obsessed with the Mizell Brothers, collecting all their key mid-70s work and playing them to death. My obsession led to discovering other jazz-funk artists of the same era, Lonnie Liston Smith, Roy Ayers, Ronnie Laws, Crusaders, Gil Scott Heron, all informed by the outstanding Mastercuts Jazz-Funk series of the early 90s.

If you’re a fan of Zo! but never checked out the Mizell Brothers, take a listen to the above tunes and go grab a copy of The Best of Donald Byrd as an introduction. Believe me, it’s life-changing.

Even Marvin had love for the Mizells!

For more schooling, head over to the Red Bull Music Academy for a 2 hour lecture! Larry Mizell even fills us in on the failings and unreliability of PowerPoint. Gotta love the Mizell Brothers. I’m calling Larry and Fonce the next time my printer goes on the blink, or my proxy settings go awry!

For more details on the inspirations behind the tracks on SunStorm, check Zo!’s own insightful blog: Musical Architecture.
Oh! And check out the SoulCuts review of SunStorm right HERE.