Judge Victor Valdivia's instrumental funk-mariachi band is ready to launch its first concert tour. Now if only he could actually get a booking...
"What they developed was a very special musical hybrid. Any one of them started off, and another one joined in. In normal life, someone would spoil this by trying to force the music somewhere else too quickly. This never happened with Stuff."—Chris Rea (from the liner notes)
Stuff represented the cream of the crop of New York City's session musicians in the 1970s. Guitarists Cornell Dupree and Eric Gale, bassist Gordon Edwards, keyboardist Richard Tee, and drummer Steve Gadd were top-notch session players who had played on records by artists like Joe Cocker and George Benson, and had even occasionally appeared with the house band on Saturday Night Live during the '70s (eagle-eyed viewers will recall that during the infamous sketch where John Belushi parodied Cocker to his face, both men wore Stuff T-shirts). After having played together so many times in so many configurations, the musicians decided to start a band of their own. Calling themselves Stuff, they recorded several albums of instrumental funk that, while never chartbusters, commanded a devoted following, especially amongst other musicians.
Live at Montreux 1976 was filmed at the legendary jazz festival around the same time as Stuff's self-titled debut album was released. Here is the song listing:
As the only existing document of Stuff's live prowess, Live at Montreux 1976 is remarkable. The interplay between Edwards and Gadd, in particular, is amazing. The two lay down a solid groove that never lets up and never falters and is capable of shifting gears effortlessly. Over that bottom, Dupree, Gale, and Tee play melodically and precisely, playing both their original compositions and covers with ease. Stuff can find the beauty in songs as sweet and gentle as "That's the Way of the World" and "You Are So Beautiful" while also nailing down the fierce rhythms of "Boogie On Reggae Woman" and "Stuff's Stuff." Though it was frequently tagged with the dreaded "jazz-fusion" label, Stuff's energetic music is a long way from the easy-listening dentist chair glop of the likes of Kenny G.
Actually, Stuff has less in common with jazz-fusion groups like Weather Report and more with funk bands like Rufus. Yes, the band members improvise during songs, there are no vocals (except for some brief singing from blues-folk legend Odetta during "Oh Happy Days"), and each member gets a solo showcase. But the improvisations are tightly controlled to fit within each song; as Rea notes above, no one goes off on some wild direction and forces the others to follow him. The lack of vocals really isn't noticeable after a short while, as the melodies provided by Dupree, Gale, and Tee are so tuneful that vocals would just be superfluous. And the solo showcases are mercifully short, even (thank goodness!) Gadd's drum solo. Indeed, Stuff's music is far more about grooves and songs rather than musical bluster. While most of Stuff's instrumental contemporaries have dated badly, Stuff's music remains just as appealing and lively as it was initially.
As good as Live at Montreux is, unfortunately, it's unlikely that it will reach anyone outside of Stuff's fan base. Instrumental music, after all, generally has a limited audience. People sometimes find it hard to listen to more than a few songs without a human voice to relate to, which is why very few instrumental artists ever reach more than a cult success. Stuff's career didn't last much beyond the '70s, and the group's all but forgotten today, but anyone looking for '70s funk grooves in the style of Parliament-Funkadelic or the Ohio Players should give Stuff a try.
Live at Montreux 1976 is issued in a full-screen transfer. Unfortunately, the original VHS master was apparently not available, so a first-generation copy was used for the DVD instead. Consequently, the video quality isn't as sharp as with other shows from the same time period (such as Marvin Gaye: Greatest Hits: Live in '76, for instance). The picture isn't unwatchable, but is a bit murky and indistinct. The Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS Surround mixes are both impressively clear, with the DTS mix having a slight edge in volume (and, both, of course, winning out over the original PCM Stereo mix). There are no extras, although the insert booklet does have essays by Edwards and singer-songwriter Rea.
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