Who is this scruffy dark haired man always popping up in the P’s section of the record store? That would be French-born, LA-dwelling, and crucially funky jazz violinist and songwriting savant Jean-Luc Ponty. Most people know him for his work with Frank Zappa and The Mothers Of Invention, before he stepped out on his own. Aurora follows a variety of more straight-ahead jazz and collaboration records, and is effectively Ponty’s second solo jazz fusion LP.
In addition to Ponty the line-up features a young Patrice Rushen on keyboards, Darryl Stuermer on guitars, Tom Fowler on electric bass, and Norman Fearrington on drums and percussion. Save for Rushen, this fairly unknown ensemble delivers a wide array of world-class cuts, ranging from blistering and virtuosic to emotive and pensive.
The uptempo “Is Once Enough?” kicks off the record, complete with solos from Ponty, Stuermer, and Rushen on Rhodes piano. “Renaissance” follows, a track featuring Ponty on auto-harp as well as violin. This is a highlight of the record for me, and apparently for others who draw inspiration from it. Stuermer and Ponty’s almost bouzouki sounding acoustic guitar and violin harmonization is so on point that its skill and technique can accidentally be overlooked. Sit back and enjoy this one.
The title tracks begin with a semi-atonal 5/4 based groove, complete with bass fills from Fowler. Part 1 does a wonderful job of setting up the funk to come in Part 2. Stuermer and Ponty duke it out again before the rest of the band joins in for the fun, resulting in quite possibly the stankiest 7/4 groove cut to wax. Play this one for the floor and watch people get weird.
The B-side follows a similar pattern to side A, but it certainly stands on its own. It leads with the blistering jazz rock of “Passenger Of The Dark” and is followed by the goosebump inducing “Lost Forest”. Of course Ponty and Stuermer’s counterpoint stand out, but Fowler’s borderline psychedelic phased out electric bass, complete with some power chords, really add a thick element to this cut. You might need to put this one on repeat.
“Between You and Me” sounds like if Yacht Rock musicians could rip, and I mean that in the best way possible. Proper sunshine grooves. It serves as a phenomenal penultimate track, before “Waking Dream” takes us into space with a variety of synthesizers, guitars, and effected violins.
Ponty’s Aurora is over 40 years old this year, yet it continues to stand the test of time. You can snag a copy on Discogs but can also probably find it in your local record store from $2-$15. Don’t sleep on it.
Wax Runoff is a weekly feature that will showcase new finds and crate favorites. Peter Croce is a Detroit-born and now Chicago-dwelling deejay, producer, and label boss. He owns and operates Rocksteady Disco, Mr. PC Versions, and MotorCity Wine Recordings.
When Peter Croce developed Rocksteady Disco in 2014 he created something more than just a record label. He established a platform where cultural influences of disco and Detroit converge to inspire progression and awareness.
Croce was raised in a musical household in an inner ring suburb of Detroit. His father was a professional drummer who encouraged Croce by age 10 to try his hand at electric bass and his mother “has funk flowing through her veins.” Moving into the city of Detroit he says “shaped my musical tastes; funk and high tech soul music is in our social fabric here.” Raised on artists such as The Gap Band, The Time, Jean-Luc Ponty and Michael Franks, the deeply rooted musical influence of the Motor City has played a formidable role on Croce.
Stylistically his DJing embodies the characteristics of Detroit mixing: gracefully precise track selection that varies on the musical spectrum.
“So many DJs and producers in Detroit are known as techno demigods overseas, and while they are prolific in that realm of music, I admire their ability to blend funk/techno/house/soul/rare groove/whatever in their sets here in Detroit,” he says. “In some ways, the bar is pretty high in this city in terms of technical proficiency and booking talent. Yes it’s true that pretty much any night of the week you can hear some DJ playing somewhere, but I think to be respected by those at the top you really need to come correct with your mixing, track selection, and cultural awareness.”
Rocksteady Disco — “mindful music for the body and soul” — came to fruition initially as a weekly happy hour at MotorCity Wine in May 2014. Due to playing out frequently, others were sending him dubplates and exclusives for his sets; in November that year he realized he had enough tracks for release and Rocksteady Disco was then formed. The label’s hardworking crew is comprised by Croce, Grand Rapid’s Matt Dandois, Pontchartrain, Topher Horn, and Lafleur. With a number of residencies allowing notable artists like Rick Wilhite and Cordell Johnson to the table, the group has since minimized their events to “focus more on quality over quantity.”
Currently Croce is producing in his spare time, but is often occupied by performing, executive production, A&R and other label business. “I’m definitely more of a social being, which makes DJing much more natural for me than producing. I have some productions under my belt, many of which are DJ-inclined re-edits. I also have been playing guitar and bass on peoples’ productions, most notably a release on Fat Finger Cosmic dropping July 2016 entitled ‘Big Kahuna.'”
Under the efforts of Lafleur, Dandois, Pontchartrain, and Topher Horn, Rocksteady Disco now has five records out, with a sixth dropping in August. Croce says he hopes the label will be known for original output, like the most recent release Rocksteady Disco All-Stars Vol. 1. “Our focus is music that is soulful and equally danceable as it is listenable, with the occasional socially conscious edit release.”
Additionally, he has recently developed and launched another label: Mr. PC Versions. White label and vinyl only, Croce will be doing limited runs of freshly edited tracks. “With so many bootleg labels I’m trying to be really conscious of how flooded the market is, and how I’m a white man re-editing (usually) black folks’ music. But some of these tracks just need to be rescued from their LP format and brought into the beautiful world of 12″ singles.”
It is clear through Rocksteady Disco’s ethos that there is an inherent drive to do more than produce music and throw a party. Croce’s personal background has developed a mission to provide a sanctuary, a place of comfort for humans to let go.
“As a selector, a DJ, a lover, a person with a Master’s of Social Work, and a Christian, I have to use my platform to make things right in any way I can. DJing, for better or worse, gives me a fair amount of power to set the tone and mood of an evening. Most every DJ has this power to use this pulpit for good or bad, and in our nation where wealth has stagnated for decades, where women are still assaulted and abused simply because of their gender, where blacks get beat down and murdered by the police rather than uplifted and supported, where my gay and trans* brothers and sisters get gunned down, where my Muslim brothers and sisters get spit at on their walk into the grocery store — how could I make what I do just about me? I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I didn’t use this platform to make people feel better for at least the night, or to raise consciousness and build a movement.” — PETER CROCE
When Rocksteady Disco throws an event, inspiration is drawn from David Mancuso. In 1970 this legendary DJ took the party out of the club setting to establish The Loft in New York City. The space played a pivotal role in creating underground parties that maintain legality. Clubs are monopolizing by nature and are not inherently designed to foster social progress. “If anything, I find they more often than not reinforce capitalist patriarchy,” Croce says. “Fortunately though, I only throw parties at places that are notoriously progressive,” hosting events at Detroit’s Temple Bar and MotorCity Wine.
“When you have a place that is not dominated by capitalist patriarchal thinking, it allows people regardless of race, gender, and sexual orientation to transcend their social boxes and scripts we’re forced to live out on a day-to-day basis. When people enter these liberatory spaces something really special happens; they let their guards down, they allow their bodies to move, they allow themselves to become sexual beings without being objectifying beings, and people move to the same rhythm of people older than them or of a different race from them. This last point cannot be overstated: how many intergenerational parties can you think of? In Detroit all the good dance parties are intergenerational. Furthermore, many of the young white folks on the dance floor here were raised in the suburbs. By policy and by definition this means we were not raised around very many people of color or people in lower economic classes. So for many of us white suburban-raised folks, the deepest and earliest relationships we’ve built with people of color was on the dance floor. The fact that music can be the catalyst for this, and that I can be the person bringing the music, is a tremendous gift,” Croce says.
This sense of liberation is exactly the essence of the music that reverberates from Rocksteady Disco. Historically sound, disco as a genre has had an incredible and undeniable impact on both a musical and social level. Hey says, “Disco is liberatory music. It is inherently tied to the civil rights and gay liberation movement, which is why Disco Demolition Day happened. And the way disco DJing was done in the ’70s was completely ruleless — DJs jumped BPMs, styles, geographies (‘Soul Makossa’ being the most notable), and the major focus, aside from sex and drugs, was sound quality and elevating people through music. I just wish I could’ve been in New York the first time Walter Gibbons was beat juggling drum breaks, or when David Mancuso first dropped ‘Drums of Passion.'”
But gentrification seems to be settling into certain areas of Detroit, bringing a sense of worry to some locals. Croce started his monthly event †Sermon† at Temple Bar just a couple months before officially launching Rocksteady Disco, but he has noticed things have changed in the city in a short amount of time.
“Like most heavy issues I feel really complicated about gentrification. Part of the reason I love Detroit so much is because I believe it can be the model for how to redevelop a city in ways that doesn’t displace people, and that uplifts the voices of those who have stayed in Detroit through the gnarly times. There are literally people who have been collecting their own water and living without electricity for months in this city, keeping things moving in their own ways. Somehow, though, they can’t get bailed out but Mike Illitch’s Olympia Entertainment can get a bunch of land for $1 with no community benefits agreement. That’s not justice, that’s not democracy. That’s deplorable.”
He goes on to agree that Detroit in fact needs some cash flow for a steadier economy, requiring new restaurants and businesses, but does it need to be done so through big corporate establishment with no focus on benefits and needs for the community? Croce notes that he defines gentrification not based solely on race, but as a raising of property values which ends up displacing the poor communities. This in turn is effecting the music scene.
“Regardless of the definition, the black population continues to decline in Detroit while the white population grows. This has a variety of implications, but I’ll speak for the dance music scene. A lot of these folks moving into or partying in the city have a really disgusting entitlement problem. The way they treat incredibly talented DJs/bartenders/venue owners is unfathomable to me. So what you’re going to see is these folks taking over downtown and Midtown and some other neighborhoods as well. There’s a number of venues that the heady dance music community just won’t go to anymore because of how suburbanized they have become. I don’t want to DJ some of them either,” he says. “On the same token, a large number of white folks moving to Detroit are moving here to find their souls. So people like myself need to be careful of just writing all new people off. Shoot, I’ve only been in Detroit for 3 years after all. Many of us immediately went traversing in the underground looking for the culturally important stuff. As DJs we can be cultural ambassadors for these folks. So we should trust but verify rather than categorize new people as guilty until proven innocent.”
However, from disparity can grow beauty. The label’s namesake nods to “rocksteady music,” which derives from Jamaican reggae. That time period between first wave ska and modern reggae. Croce says, “I wasn’t in Kingston in 1966, but that summer seemed like a glorious time to be alive. Ska was slowing down and the lyrical content was becoming more soulful. The music was sexy, smooth yet raw, and yearning for some sort of connection. And that sound for yearning for love, community, and connection is precisely what we try to do with our releases and parties.”
Croce says, “My fiancée puts it best: there’s ‘vertical’ music and ‘horizontal’ music. Vertical music would best be defined as a lot of the techno coming out right now. It’s brain music, it’s upright, and it’s stiff. These characteristics aren’t bad, they just are what they are. Horizontal music would be disco, soulful house, and rocksteady reggae. People move their hips side-to-side when they dance, and it’s less individual. Both of these styles have their place, and you’ll hear me touch on all of these sounds in my sets.”
Regardless which way the groove moves, Rocksteady Disco will be there to lift you up and keep it going.
Stay tuned this week for a very exclusive Sequencer Soundcast from Peter Croce.