Roy Ayers began as a gifted jazz vibraphonist, but he has ultimately become a pioneer in the acid jazz movement. Deftly combining jazz, funk, and R&B, Ayers created songs that have been covered by neo soul artists such as Mary J. Blige and Erykah Badu, and sampled by too many hip hop artists to mention. DeepSoul has previously focused on Ayers as a heavily sampled artist ("Everybody Loves the Sunshine" was sampled in Blige's "My Life"), but his impressive work as a solo artist and with his group Roy Ayers Ubiquity also is worth a listen. One example of his seamless fusion of jazz and funk is "Running Away."
Born in Los Angeles in 1940, Ayers grew up in a musical family. His father played trombone and his mother taught him piano, but Ayers was exposed to the vibraphone through a true expert: jazz legend Lionel Hampton. Hampton gave the five-year-old Ayers a set of vibe mallets, but the budding player would not actually pick up the instrument for 12 more years. When he reached his twenties, Ayers played and recorded with several jazz artists in the West Coast area, but reached his big break playing with jazz flautist Herbie Mann. After recording with Mann for four years, he left to form his own group, Roy Ayers Ubiquity. While they first focused on straightforward jazz influenced by Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis, they gradually changed to a R&B/funk sound. Their 1971 album He's Coming provides early hints of this direction, including the gritty "We Live in Brooklyn Baby."
Roy Ayers Ubiquity continued releasing albums in the 1970s, further honing their jazz/funk hybrid. Change Up the Groove (1974) is a continuation of these musical experiments, with their cover of Steve Wonder's "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing" and the breakbeat-heavy title track being particular standouts. Clearly acid jazz groups such as Incognito and the James Taylor Quartet used this album as a blueprint for their own work. The 1976 album Vibrations produced the neo soul favorite "Searching," a smooth, laid-back groove later covered by Badu and Blige. While released toward the end of the Roy Ayers Ubiquity's career, the 1977 LP Lifeline contained what would become a classic club and jazz/funk cut: "Running Away."
Cowritten with keyboardist Edwin Birdsong, "Running Away" is simple but effective. A throbbing but danceable beat punctuated by a funky bassline, Male and female backing singers trade lines, the lyrics addressing a deteriorating relationship. "You don't spend the time when I'm in need," the men sing. "We don't love each other like we used to do." But the women respond, crying out "'Cause you're mean to me / And I've been good to you." Although the song seemingly concerns a serious subject, the scatted phrase "dippy do, run, run, run" is chanted throughout, both emphasizing the beat and adding a sense of playfulness. For a typically tasty Ayers vibraphone solo, be sure to listen to the 12-inch version of "Running Away." That one solo demonstrates how Ayers stands as a jazz/funk innovator, incorporating traditional jazz style while maintaining the song's disco-tinged groove.
After disbanding Roy Ayers Ubiquity, Ayers began collaborating with artists such as Fela Kuti and Rick James as well as releasing solo albums. Ayers has also worked with hip hop and house artists, not surprising since both genres cite the vibraphonist as a major influence. His extensive catalog and tracks such as "Running Away" demonstrate his unique ability to span various musical genres and inspire several distinct musical movements.