J.J. Johnson

Willie Dynamite

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Appreciators of '70s blaxploitation cinema consistently rank Willie Dynamite (1973) among the best that the genre had to offer. While the story of super pimp "Willie D" may be typical in terms of over-the-top characterizations, in contrast to many of its contemporaries, the film's plot is dramatically guided by a central moral compass. In an ironic twist of fate, the actor who played the notorious Willie Dynamite would become better-known for his role the following year as Gordon on the children's television program Sesame Street. The original motion picture soundtrack was also different than most others of its ilk, as virtuoso trombonist J.J. Johnson -- whose technique would influence the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker -- composed and conducted the score with director Gilbert Moses III penning the lyrics to the motivated urban funk of the title track "Willie D," the sensual love ballad "King Midas," and the moody and introspective midtempo narrative "Keep on Movin' On." Granted, Moses isn't the quintessential wordsmith, yet he ably progresses the story line in his prose instead of using the tunes as a momentary plot diversion. The vocals -- courtesy of Martha Reeves -- are supported by an ad hoc aggregate billed as "the Sweet Things." The incidental instrumentals are worth noting as they allow Johnson room to lay down some truly inspired grooves. With names such as "Willie's Chase" and "Willie Escapes" -- both built solidly on sturdy funkified themes -- it doesn't take much imagination to guess the type of action-on-screen fare that Johnson has in mind. "Passion's Dilemma" stands as one of the more involved cuts, with "Passion" being a character in the film, rather than a description of the song's ambience. Johnson creates a feeling of palpable uncertainty and an edginess that takes the melody to a whole other strata, drawing upon his considerable chops. The shortest number on the album -- clocking in right around 90 seconds -- is the suitably reverential "Gospel Family" consisting of a keyboard duet between famed West Coast cool jazz ivory tickler Pete Jolly and co-founding Mothers of Invention member Ian Underwood. In 2004, Hip-O Select issued Willie Dynamite on CD for the first time and even augmented the package with a double-sided, four-panel poster that contains the front and back covers of the original LP artwork.

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