My interest in funk has been deepened by confronting the difficulties of playing it. On the surface, the challenge of funk lies in the syncopations and complexity of the grooves. But listening more closely reveals the biggest trick of all—rendering the complexity with a performance that somehow attracts attention without calling attention to itself.
It sounds counterintuitive, because funk is well known for its over-the-top presentation, its outright renunciation of modesty—the mugging of the singers; the sunglasses, capes and top hats; the star-shaped guitars; the spaceships. Yet all of that requires a particular humility.
Humility to what?
I'm not saying funk at large is unassuming. I'm saying its bad-assed nature is born of something that somehow never needs to call attention to itself. To play funk, one must keep one’s cool, in the deepest sense of the word, and let the groove do the work.
Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” embodies this principle. The groove elicits relaxation, coolness. Indeed, the juxtaposition of the easygoing performance against the vocal fireworks and action-packed arrangement is what produces the larger-than-life coolness of funk bands in general.
Note that as you listen, your joints loosen. And note how deftly that relaxation is balanced against the song's many points of emphasis. The band implores “Get down! Get down!” but not from a place of effort and tension. The singing, like the playing beneath it, loosens us up.
The Unassuming Principle is also embodied in funk's dance moves. This is video from the Jackson Five’s audition for Motown. They are covering James Brown's "I Got The Feelin'." Michael Jackson must be eight years old here, and the expressive power of his voice is already astonishing. The singing embodies the Unassuming Principle, and so does his dancing. If you are as dazzled by his moves as I am, see if your bedazzlement might be located in his absence of effort. He’s not trying to be funky; he simply is funky. The relaxation of his entire presentation suggests "How could it be otherwise?"
He’s not calling attention to himself, and yet all of our attention is on him. That is the beautiful mystery of the Unassuming Principle.
Thank you for reading.