Zafra - Z For Zafra (H & L Records, 1977)
On their sole LP release, Zafra explore all manner of exquisite moods and grooves that represents the very best of the pre-disco audial melting pot.
The 70s certainly was an interesting time for the genres of soul, funk and boogie, which started to ease into one another with increasing frequency as the decade went along. The club sound of that time in the US had developed into an vast spectrum of sounds, that touched on all manner of genres and historical facets which ended up with nights that lasted for lifetimes and contained an incredible amount of musical diversity and talent. It would lead to some of the most legendary night clubs coming into a wider view, with the DJs who stood in the booths revered for their selections and admired for their stamina, as sets lasted for hours on end as dancers revelled in the sounds that were being conjured up. This kind of blending and merging between genres was perhaps a reflection of many groups and individuals creating music that truly morphed elements and pieces together within a highly refined sound, with so many records coming out during this time that bought together so much and as a result are highly celebrated still to this day. Possibly starting with the manner in which jazz funk and jazz fusion paired their parent genre with soul, funk and boogie, other bands outside this spectrum looked to craft progressive and highly driven compositions that leaned more towards the soul persuasion, with a real emphasis placed on intricacy and intelligent grooves. Many albums from this time blended the short bursts of energy with the long drawn out cuts, finding a balance between the continually evolving dance floor and those tender moments you share alone or with a lover, soundtracking our moods and emotions by selecting the best aspects of certain genres that made us feel as much as they made us want to dance. The production very much remained polished yet understated, not with the high energy cheesy gleam that would dominate the feel of mainstream disco, but more an honest expression of the heart and soul, all portrayed from musicians who were conveying messages that appealed to the senses and the emotions. We revel in these records as they provide a wonderful sense of presence and purpose, even to this day, as we become enamoured with the flows, the progressions, the sounds and the soul. It was African American music elevated to new levels of artistry and complexity, all of which was delivered through a kaleidoscope of genres that delivered on so many fronts, providing such a broad sense of place and presence via the establishment of groove and feel. It was a wonderful period in music history, where boldness and soul were paired together with skill and flair, a representation of both what came before and what was to come, with all the flavours in the world explored in their absolute totality. It was the first major period of morphing together genres dedicated to the groove, and would give a foundation of influence to so much, with its style and compositional components being felt in genres such as Modern Soul, AOR, Lover's Rock and Neo-Soul, and even being felt in the pumped up boogie and disco of the 1980s. Disco may have had its mainstream spotlight in the late 70s, almost ending as quickly as it ascended to dizzying heights, but it was the music that formed before it, during it and after it that holds so much more depth and longevity, the crossroads kind of music that collated the numerous spirits of jazz, funk and soul and crafted a legacy of beauty and majesty, so much so that people continually return to the incredible plethora of records that were released during this time by so many iconic bands.
Like many during that period, Zafra were totally committed to branching out into their own musical narrative, something that is wholly evident in their short but overly excellent discography. The band was a strictly family affair, consisting of five brothers Frank, Leslie, Gary, Mario and Wes Zafra, and together they formed an extremely tight and cohesive musical unit that much like somewhat contemporaries the Isley Brothers showcased the dexterity and depth of musicality that the family had in their armoury. The group would ultimately release just one LP - the subject of today's review - and a small selection of singles that spanned from their initial period of recording in the late 70s through to some very interesting house numbers during the dawn of the 90s, making them stand out as one of the few funk disco groups to make that transition into the electronic music genre. Their initial late 70s sound was grounded in the progressive funk laden style that dominated the scene during the decade, with gorgeous layered lead groove lines and a high variety of percussive structures on display, with an expansive sound that flittered between soulful ballads and uptempo numbers with ease and passion. The sound drew very much from the traditions of soul and funk but injected a significant amount of disco's eternal energy, not copying its big room feel but keeping it grounded in the realism and heart of the aforementioned genres, establishing a dancy feel but certainly keeping it understated to the max. The sound, like many other records released during this time, was a wonderful bridge between two worlds, one that would ultimately help define the dance music world for the 80s until the present day, and another which remains in a time capsule of sorts, its power and influence very much remaining in an era where its stylings and sensibilities were drawn out and highly practised, with its artistry still resonating so strongly now with millions across the globe. Bands like Zafra found the middle ground, choosing to take in and practise the styles that swirled around so strongly but keeping an ear to what came before, what influenced them as they honed their craft, with the result a beautiful blend between the two representations of sound, something which they would build right up in their own image. The band would release two singles around the title of LP, 'If You Never Wanted My Love / Skateboard Shuffle' and a promo 2 sider edition of 'Skateboard Shuffle', both of which landed in 1978, a year after the LP landed, before a series of sporadic outputs would occur. First, they released a single under the alias The Zafra Brothers, with the single entitled 'Will You See Me Tonight', a glossy 80s beefed up boogie tune that remained their first step into a new decade, which was followed up in 87' with a highly infectious release in the form of the 'Pop Goes My Love' single, which is contains all the bombastic tone and feel of both 80s pop and 80s electro funk, and its pretty glorious. But perhaps most interestingly of all is the band's transition into the realms of the late 80s and early 90s house scene, which saw the band record and release four eps that traversed the house music spectrum. Unfortunately only one is easily listened to online, 'Africa House', that landed in 1990, and showcases the wonderful lyrical work that elevated their funk aligned work but contextualises it in a new era, a new style, a new sound. As a record it works very well indeed, with its stripped back bass loop fitting in very nicely with the soft drumming line, but as mentioned before its the vocals that stand out for their expressiveness and energy. In all, the band released a fairly small amount of records, but so much of what can be found in their discography shines through resolutely, moving between gears rapidly to deliver experiences that range from their initial beginnings right through to the peaks of house music, all done in their distinctive family run style that draws focus to their talents and their harmonies. Its a very interesting meander back through genre morphing and stylistic changes, so why not give it a go for yourself, you never know what you might fall in love with.
And now, we arrive at the subject of today's review, 'Z for Zafra', their sole LP release that came out in 1977. Obviously their most substantial work, it shows the band at the pinnacle of their creative endeavours, as over a number of cuts we experience the near full spectrum of disco laden, funk driven and soul given brilliance, as each song overflows with ideas and imaginative dynamics. The music moves between the long semi experimental cuts, through to the short and sweet swinging funk tracks, right back round through the soul driven ballards, the record seemingly has it all, draped and weaved together by fundamental audial values that range from the mind and soul and back. Its enchanting, its enriching, its delivered like it means not just something but everything, and you leave the experience feeling so fulfilled as a result, taking in all the soul drenched tones you can as life becomes that little bit more colourful around us. So, without further delay, lets take a dip back through into this wonderful record.....
Up first comes 'This Cat's On Fire', and this one kicks things off with all the groove and feel in the world. The playful guitar riff frames the parameters of the pulse, which then looks to fill the space impressively with the swings and tones of the drums, with the full ensemble coming together as the vocal part loops the track name over and over, crafting a loving presence and depth to proceedings. The track moves along with the fast paced precision of a disco jam but contains all the trippings of funk, which becomes evident via the incredible guitar work that gets laid down throughout the cut, which moves through so many structures in its quest for excellence in the groove. Its this excellent transitional focus that laps over the listener in varying waves, carried along by some fine instrumentation and variations in vocal lines that keep the energies flowing right throughout. A very strong start indeed. 'Tell Me Baby' arrives next, and this begins in more laid back yet equally enriching surroundings. The lush vibrations of the guitar lead the way, but its all about the gorgeous vocal lines that abound on top, guiding the instrumentals that persist underneath to move between the lines with purpose and soul, the chord progression moving between the regulated and the irregular, giving over a total experience that is highly vibrant and infectious. The movements into the instrumental bridges allows us to really familiarise ourselves with the groove, how it operates and how it moves with the times, and when the textured vocal lines come back into view we embrace them with all our heart, such is the seductive sultry nature of the track. The track then moves through into the choral lines before descending into the guitar solo lead breakdown, its tone and presence a wonderful level that keeps our heads firmly in the progression, with the track picking itself up one more time for us to see a groove of such elegance in full flow, as the tune meanders off into the horizon line. Both these opening tracks are around the 3 minute mark, but the amount of creative composition they throw into the mix is staggering, and that is testament to the band themselves. Brilliant. Up next comes 'Sweet Juice', and this track immediately enters into a new kind of swing indeed. The cut flourishes within its cosmic tinged sonics, as the drums remain light to the ears and the guitar chops away on the right, with gorgeous choral lines swelling within the mid section as sultry vocal lines whisper across the funk fuelled plateau. All of this caters as a background foundation of sorts for the sublime guitar solo, which is present for so much of the track's opening moments, not really taking a break at all as it follows the notions set down in the instrumental foundations. The track moves within its top solo lead layers with absolute delight, as the rhythmic structures switch to fast paced double time segments that act as circuit breakers to the lead elements, with the twinkling of the piano never far behind the guitar solos with both leads matching each other with grace and presence. The track simply exists and persists onwards, fuelled by its beautiful melodic tone and its effortless presentation, allowing for ever single facet of the composition to be explored and appreciated by the listener. Its broad and expansive feel is contrasted with the tightness of the core groove, one that is expertly played out by the ban as they move through the varying structures so brilliantly. Its a wondrous track, and one that captures our engagement immediately as we groove out into the sun kissed horizon line.
'Skateboard Shuffle' arrives next, and we move right back into the straight up funk of it all. The drumming is suitably loose and spacious, providing plenty of room above for the dynamic guitar lines to do their things to maximum effect, occupying the left and right hand side of the boundaries with their delivery and tone creating an excellent sense of balance and mood. The lyrics then arrive right through the middle, with their high pitched delivery acting as a wonderful contrast to the solid as hell groove underneath, their presence simply encouraging us all to get off our feet and get right into the dance. The groove is impeccable, made all the more amazing by the delicate muted picking of the guitar, an element that adds another highly compelling element into the mix. Gorgeous. Up next comes 'I Can See That', and this one begins once more with some excellent guitar work leading the way. The main chordal line is allowed to go through the notions just a couple of times before the solo weaves its magic across the top half of the track, as all manner of tonal expressions occur underneath, crafting a wonderful plain of expressionism that sees all manner of elements and features ring out. The vocal work is absolutely exquisite, the pitch and tone of the words and delivery melts in our ears as the lines wrap themselves around the comings and goings of the instrumentals, intertwined in duality of experience, bound to each other in their graceful meanderings. The track takes on a final breakdown, as the guitar solo leads the way back through into the full ensemble of sound, with the climax at the end a culmination of sounds and lines, with the vocal line of 'I can see that/you're that kinda girl' imprinted firmly into our minds. Lovely stuff. 'Now That I've Found You' comes next, and this one begins off with the drum roll of dreams. The guitar and bass fumble and flicker around the main pulse, popping up here and there as the progression moves onwards, and before long we arrive at the main rhythmic drivers, with the flute line leading the way in relation to melodies. The vocal work is once more so texturally on point, crafting a beautiful sense of depth to the rhythm and tone of it all, as the varying leading lines take turns in wowing us with their interconnectivity, with switches between the flute, guitar and vocals just such a dream to listen to. Its a rather seductive tune indeed, with each transition into a new sequence interlocking our emotions with the story being presented, one that is told through the impeccable vocal delivery and outstanding individual moments of instrumentation. Once again, Zafra fit so much into a 3 minute song, a self contained experience that demonstrates such depth and certainly makes the track feel much larger than it actually is.
If the previous two cuts were all about exploring the utmost depths of tonal soul fusion, this next cut, 'It's In The Music', is all about hard hitting funk laden disco. The fast paced chops of the guitar run through the heart of the track, as the drums and bass line weave between one another to craft a core pulse that is simply electrifying, as the vocal work is deliberately up tempo to match the rhythmic expressions that dominate the foundations of the sound. 'Its In the Music' rings out across the plateau, one that is filled with excellence across the board in relation to groove and heart, and its an experience we will not soon forget. Up next comes 'If You Never Wanted My Love', and this one slows the pace down significantly. The heart melting guitar and piano work underpin the vocal lines, words that hammer home the notions of the track, one that immediately makes you feel something, become invested in the story being presented. Its feel is one of yearning, love and adoration, the notion of a love that burns with a real intensity, and the sadness that descends upon us when that love is challenged, but in many ways its only a fear, and this song looks to express that the possibility exists yet it remains as it is now. Its a wonderful saunter through our views on love, the fears that exist around relationships ending, but its a reminder of what love is and all it can be. Finally, to finish things up, we have 'Dancin' Around The Clock', and this begins with one final flourish of the guitar. The tune quickly moves into the main melodic and rhythmic drivers, which one more consists of a brilliantly composed series of lines and tones, moving through the gears with feeling, meaning and presence, as the vocal driver takes the lead on top of it all. Its one final reminder of this band's excellent collective spirit, taking the time to really delve into all facets of their sound with timeless precision and feel, with the depth on display absolutely staggering, providing the tune with an excellent level of depth and feel, with all the emotional feels you could ever wish for.
Albums like this one present themselves as a spectrum of tone, emotional representation and groove, and as we traverse through the varying cuts we experience differing concepts of how that overall mood is presented. Zafra do an excellent job of moving between the gears, with the focus moving between upbeat funky numbers, tonally brilliant vocal driven soul burners, and their long drawn out magnus opus in 'Sweet Juice', that at double the length of the other cuts provides us with that extended dip into the musical inclinations of Zafra. No matter the atmosphere presented to us, the music is always beautifully considered and delivered, creating a wonderful universe of sound for which we can revel and embrace within, with a lover, with friends or alone, there's music to dance to, to loose yourself too or to just be along and reflect alongside. All delivered with gusto, intelligence and groove, its an album for the ages, and holds itself very high indeed, and has quickly become one of our favourites from this period. A timeless classic, in every sense of the word.
Check out the album here: