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TSJR’s Featured Smooth Jazz Artist

A profile of our selected smooth jazz artist of the month

Because we appreciate the talents and hard work of all of the many artists in our beloved smooth jazz genre, TSJR has made it a standard practice to highlight and honor one artist each month who has established himself or herself as an integral part of the smooth/contemporary jazz “engine.”

This month, we continue a short “Where Are They Now?” series in which we honor artists who have impacted the smooth jazz community over the years but have been absent from the music scene for an extended period of time. This month, we honor:

Fishbelly Black – Remembering the Soul of Acid Jazz

Ok, so what is acid jazz? One dictionary definition describes it as a type of music, popular in the 1980s and 1990s, that combines jazz with genres such as funk, hip-hop, and electronic dance music. Fairly airbrushed but accurate. What’s not mentioned is that intangible spirit, that soul of the music that clings to you like a silk garment.

The UK is the leading vote-getter as the origin of this powerful hybrid. Many have done a fantastic job of bringing it into the consciousness of the contemporary jazz aficionado: Shakatak, the late great guitarist Ronny Jordan, Incognito, and Down to the Bone.

The U.S. has made huge contributions, also, especially on the East coast in places like Baltimore, MD, where the innovative and infectious group Bona Fide was formed, and Washington, DC’s own powerfully funky and creative Fishbelly Black, one of the early pioneers who just may not be on one’s immediate radar when thinking of the music.

The Hammond B3-heavy, driving band powered its way onto the scene in the 1990s and has quite a story.

With constantly solid sax work and great, heavy Hammond B3 action on tracks like ‘Ven A Gozar” from their Crusader album) and “Grover” (from their Movin’ release), the snappy guitar work on the slinky, funky title track from the Movin’ release, and all the action going on in the foot-stompin’ “Brick House” from Crusader (no, not the Commodores’ hit but Fishbelly’s own composition}, this was always a group impossible to ignore for me and all acid jazz lovers who had the pleasure of experiencing this solid stuff. Ok, so, let’s start from the beginning.

Around 1992, multi-instrumentalist George Mitchell was producing house music for his label, Backbeat Records. With the idea to write, produce, and record a single he called “Spontaneous Combustion,” he recruited his brother Brian to play organ and a good friend, saxman Ray Gaskins. With the help of his wife (who remarked one day that he looked “fishbelly white” – a southern term — without his shirt on), he decided to call his new group Fishbelly Black, a twist on that term since he was producing hip hop and house music at the time.

After “Spontaneous Combustion,” the Washington, DC group then recorded “The Muse” in the summer of ’93, but “Spontaneous Combustion” literally lived up to its name as the record exploded in popularity in London, and Mitchell was getting offers to perform there. That success was the first building block.

In 1993, Fishbelly Black finished up their debut self-titled album. That record did extremely well and subsequently, the group received more offers to perform. Gaskins had moved to London by then, so Mitchell recruited Greg Thomas of Funkadelic fame. The two had played together in London at a George Clinton show.

Following the debut, Fishbelly Black then recorded and released Get Up, Get Down in 1994, another rousing acid jazz venture.

The next album, Movin’, was released in 2000 and featured more musicians in the liner notes: Besides Mitchell and his brother Brian, there was Linda Mitchel on lead vocals, Vince Hammond and Greg Thomas on alto sax, keyboardist Daryl Minus, and bassist Walter Cosby, as well as George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic P-Funk Horns.

BMG was just starting a new Acid Jazz label and approached the group about putting out the CD. Mitchell thought this would be the break to put some money behind the group and really get some heightened publicity. Wrong. After they were signed, the head of the label was fired and the new head shelved everything his predecessor had signed. It took Fishbelly Black almost a year to get the music rights back. Talk about a momentum killer!

To add to the group’s woes, following the 2002 release of Crusader, all the smooth jazz stations in the states were shutting down – almost overnight. Then, after Tower Records went bankrupt, it became too much of a challenge to keep the BMG label alive.

Mitchell still produces and plays on records for others, but it was time to give Fishbelly Black a rest.

I know I speak for all appreciating acid jazz fans, especially those who became quite acquainted with Fishbelly Black’s music, when I say we lost a great source of what true creative acid jazz sounds like, and I sincerely hope we have not heard the last of them. – Ronald Jackson

To view Fishbelly Black’s discography, click here.