Music News

Various artists

Although electronica superstar DJ Shadow is renowned for his collection of 45s, he also has another obsession -- the school-band records collected on this release. Before Reagan gutted public education in the 1980s, thousands of high schools had music ensembles. For the kids involved, these bands offered training, an outlet for their gifts, and exposure to places they couldn't otherwise go. Many bands toured nationally or even internationally, and some of the students went on to careers as professional musicians (e.g., jazz trumpeter John Faddis and R&B singer Patrice Rushen, each of whom was first recorded as part of a high-school jazz group).

While most school bands recorded songs made famous by professional big bands (Stan Kenton was particularly popular) and used hand-me-down arrangements from university programs (like North Texas State's Lab Band, which supplied this album's "Nine Monks" and "The Newborn Hippopotamus"), many struck out on their own, with original tunes or unique arrangements of contemporary material. Most of these releases were recorded and pressed by custom houses like Century Recordings and sold to friends and family members in extremely small quantities. Oddly enough no one has thought to collect these recordings before now (although a few bootleg LPs have included tracks by Houston's legendary Kashmere Stage Band).

On Schoolhouse Funk, Shadow has drawn together some of the finest examples of the genre, with heavy emphasis on covers of funk classics (including the Isley Brothers' "It's Your Thing," Dennis Coffey's "Scorpio," Herbie Hancock's "Chameleon," two from War, three from James Brown, and four from Parliament/Funkadelic). Even Paul McCartney gets the treatment on a breakbeat-laden version of "Uncle Albert/ Admiral Halsey." While a few of the performances are amateurish and some of the arrangements a little brassy, many of these kids have remarkable chops and verve. What's more, the students' recorded monologues are priceless, providing a perfect snapshot of adolescents trying to shed their gawkiness with equal parts slick showmanship and naive exuberance. If the album has one weakness, it's a lack of context. Although the layout and photos are great, the album would benefit from liner notes or, at the very least, a list of the kids who funk us so well.

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Matthew Africa