Worth digging

Funk Factory is something of a period piece. It comes from an era where the boundaries between jazz fusion and funk were widely blurred, and it combines complexities appropriate to the former with the kind of pop silliness associated with the latter—along with some stunning grooves, of course. Funk Factory was a band that, as far as I’m aware, never existed outside the studio sessions for this album: Michael Urbaniak should really be listed as the artist, but clearly his ambitions to create a commercial vehicle for his remarkable skills in arrangement and composition didn’t bear fruit. If the record had sold well enough to tour in support of it, who knows what players he’d have hired to do so, but the sessioneers he got to record this are among the giants of modern music.

What Funk Factory is not is a showcase for the bandleader’s instrumental prowess. There are some nice violin licks here to be sure, but Urbaniak by no means dominates the front line, and it is a front line predominantly composed of majestic vocal arrangements rather than the hard blowing that might be expected from this line-up. This is vertically composed music, with great care taken over the impact of the ensemble as a whole, and the interactions between its melodic components and its extraordinary rhythm section. Playfully off-kilter grooves abound, like the oblique canter of ‘Horsing Around’, feels which this rhythm section take in their stride, but which are fiendishly difficult to lock in with if you try to play along.

In fact, for a record whose production was apparently guided by a single pair of hands, this is a very communal sounding affair. The vocals are creamy choral arrangements, and even when one of the players does improvise for a while, it always feels deeply embedded in the beat, like Wlodek Gulgowski’s groovy Moog solo in ‘Next Please’. When this album was released Herbie Hancock (and others) had been making good money out of some pretty musicianly funk records, featuring cuts that aren’t actually that easy to dance to, so I can imagine why Urbaniak was keen to jump in with some creatively ambitious pop of his own. There are some nice dance tracks here, and some smooth funk balladry, but for the most part Funk Factory is too sophisticated to be an easy sell, and the market for funk was always limited.

The record sank without trace on release, although it had a second lease of life as a crate-digger’s favoured source of rare groove. From this cult afterlife it derived its one moment in the sun, when Dust Brothers sampled ‘Rien Ne Va Plus’ for the Beastie Boys’ ‘Car Thief’ from Paul’s Boutique. However, this didn’t really revive the record’s fortunes, in the way, say, Eric B and Rakim’s ‘I Know You Got Soul’ popularised Bobby Byrd’s original. It’s remained a niche interest, one of which I was peripherally aware, but which I didn’t get to know until I found a nicely packaged CD reissue in the Cambridge branch of Fopp, and bought it on a whim.

Spending a few months with the record has been a real pleasure. It’s a humorous and curiously self-deprecating affair, from a creative point of view, despite the extreme intricacy with which it’s constructed, and that lightness of touch provides the incredible playing with a good reason to exist. I discovered I could as easily find myself floating away on the album’s sometimes psychedelic breezes as screwing up my face and nodding to its abundance of juicy riffs, and I can always break into dance at more or less any point in its action-packed forty-one minutes. The history of recorded music is peppered with forgotten treasures like Michael Urbaniak’s Funk Factory: when they’re as brilliant as this, it’s well worth digging.

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