Shakatak — Featured Smooth Jazz Artist Archives (2016)

June 2016

Shakatak – Steppin’ High Through the Decades

Since “Steppin’” broke them onto the club scene in 1980, supergroup Shakatak has maintained a position at the top of the UK jazz/funk scene for the past 30 odd years. Their eclectic mix of laid-back driving funk, bright, twinkling keyboard lines, chunking guitar, and harmonized vocals has helped them create one of the most recognizable sounds on the smooth jazz scene. But how did the phenomenon that is Shakatak come about?

Shakatak is the result of the old expression of paying your dues. The early careers of the musicians who eventually came together to form the group cover a wide and varied ground. Take founding member and drummer Keith Odell, for example. He began playing drums when he was 14. Fast forward a few years later, and he had formed a jazz group and was playing regularly at the Greyhound, a pub come music venue in Harlow Essex, a large town a few miles outside London. The trio that he formed with pianist Alan Gowen and bass player John Hosey played around the local area often supporting some of the top names on the UK jazz scene at the time.

One of the things about the music scene in the UK is that it is very incestuous. By that. I mean that it is a very intimate scene and almost everybody knows everybody else. In part, I guess that is because England is a fairly small place in the grand scheme of things. To explain the evolution of the UK Soul-Funk explosion of the eighties, you really do have to go back to the sixties. This was a time where there were pockets of musical exploration and scenes, where like-minded musicians would explore the new genres that they were being introduced to. One such “scene” was the Canterbury Scene. Heavily influenced by jazz, a group of musicians led by David Allen, an Australian beatnik, began laying the foundations for progressive rock. Among the bands to have grown from that area were some of the top jazz-rock and fusion bands of the late sixties and early seventies, such as Soft Machine, Camel, Isotope, Nucleus, and Gong — all of whom blended jazz and rock to great effect.

Steve Miller, who would later lead the Steve Miller Band and write the ever-popular “The Joker,” was with a blues band called Delivery led by his brother Phil. This band was from the aforementioned Canterbury scene and featured the late free-jazz saxophonist Lol Coxhill, a stalwart of the British free-jazz scene. Odell’s trio began playing and touring with the Miller brothers and other similarly inspired musicians in and around the local area.

This culminated in Odell’s decision to turn professional in the early seventies when he joined the Cambridge-based band CMU (Contemporary Music Unit) with whom he released 2 albums, Open Spaces and Space Cabaret.

Open Spaces is an amazing montage of jazz-infused rock. It’s a great album that still sounds fresh today. The brainchild of guitarist Ed Lee, the CMU was a folksy guitar-led amalgamation which married Hammond organ backdrops with ethereal flutes and searing guitar solos. The music switches from rock to folk to jazz and back (witness the funky chunk opening to “Henry” which then dissolves to a Dionne Warwick-style backing for Larraine (Mrs) Odell to sing over; then. it’s back to the rock, and the lyrics. Poignant. Great stuff.

After two albums, the CMU disbanded, and Odell began a successful period working as a session musician. In the late seventies, he formed a jazz-rock band called Tracks which featured Keith Winter on guitar, Bill Sharpe on keyboards, and Trevor Horn on bass. The group held a regular Sunday lunch-time session at an arts centre a few miles outside London. Trevor Horn left the band to form the Buggles and eventually became a renowned producer. The band went on to record four tracks, now with Steve Underwood on bass. The tracks, written by Sharpe, were produced by Les McCutcheon and Nigel Wright, both of whom Odell had met during his time as a session musician. Among the tracks recorded at that session was “Steppin’” which would become a big club hit and lead to a recording contract with Polydor.

Londoner Jill Saward began her career with a band called the Fusion Orchestra. In the same way that our last featured artist, Helen Rogers, met up with Paul Hardcastle, Saward answered an ad in the music paper, Melody Maker. The ad was looking for a great male vocalist, but this didn’t deter her. She successfully auditioned and joined the Fusion Orchestra in 1970. Saward played a revolutionary role in group. She was young, blonde, powerful, and above all, sexy. The group was banned from many towns because of the explicit stage show. It was press-grabbing material, tame stuff looking at it now, but, at the time, it really was scandalous.

The Fusion Orchestra played over 500 gigs during its five-year existence and released one album — the highly sought-after classic “Skeleton in Armour” on EMI-in 1973.

Following the break-up of the Fusion Orchestra, Saward joined the all-girl group Brandy. The new band, produced by Polydor, was active for about three years in the UK and Europe, releasing one single “Ooh Ya” before disbanding in 1976.

After the demise of Brandy, Saward was invited to join a soul-funk covers band led by Nicky North which had a residency at a famous South London night club, the Cats Whiskers. The experience she gained with the band was invaluable. Every month, she recorded a cover album and also backed some of the finest American soul and cabaret artists of the seventies. Also in the band at the time were Nigel Wright and Roger Odell, and it was through them that Saward got to record some vocals on an experimental track called “Steppin’,” which, of course, went on to be Shakatak’s first white label single. As well as holding down the vocalist position for Shakatak since their inception, Saward has still pursued her own songwriting career and has a new album, Endless Summer, due for release this month.

The year 1982 saw bassist Underwood replaced by George Anderson. Anderson is another musician who came to the group through the pages of Melody Maker. A gifted musician, Anderson grew up in the north of London and began his career playing bass trombone. A switch to bass guitar happened after he discovered jazz, funk, and soul music in the mid-70s. Practicing by night and studying Art at college by day, Anderson eventually joined a band called Atlantis that included a young soon-to-be Brit-soul legend Junior Giscombe (Giscombe is currently part of the British Soul Collective with Omar and David Joseph).

As Anderson tells it “Junior was signed up by London Records, which meant the band split up. It was time to find another band. The Musicians Bible at the time was the Melody Maker. If any band wanted musicians, they would advertise there. I answered such an ad…. And yes, the band was Shakatak.”

The original Shakatak guitarist, Keith Winter is another alumnus from the Tracks band put together by Odell and Sharpe. Winter had spent some time working with bassist Trevor Horn in his group, the Buggles before joining Odell and Sharpe in founding Shakatak.

At the height of Shakatak’s success, tragedy struck Winter when he became seriously ill through an auto-immune disease of the nervous system that robbed him of the ability to play guitar. Amazingly, after a twenty-year fight, Winter has made a remarkable recovery and is back playing guitar.

That a band can have endured for as long as Shakatak has is remarkable in itself. That. at the end of a journey as long as theirs, they are still creating music as vibrant and as compelling as when they first started is awe-inspiring.

Shakatak, now in its 36th year, continues to appear regularly throughout the world with recent festival performances at Jakjazz, the Jakarta International Jazz Festival, Bangkok, Hua Hin, and the Bratislava Jazz Day. They make annual appearances at the Billboard Clubs in Japan, the Pizza Express Jazz Room in London, and numerous other concert and club performances.

Along with Saward’s upcoming release, other individual offerings by Shak’s band members include releases by bassist Anderson who released his second solo album, Expressions, almost 4 years ago through Secret Records. Coming three years after his first album, Positivity, this album again had Anderson writing, arranging, and producing all of the tracks. Also, keyboardist Sharpe worked with American jazz pianist Don Grusin on a joint project called Geography released in 2007. Sharpe’s second collaboration with Grusin, Trans Atlantica, was released in 2012. It was also issued through Secret Records and included Geography as a special 2-CD package.

Personally, I shall be going to the Hideaway in Streatham on October 1st to catch this remarkable group, Watch out for the review here on the Smooth Jazz Ride. – Steve Giarchardi

For Shakatak’s complete discography, click here.