Happy 35th Anniversary to Patrice Rushen’s Straight from the Heart, originally released April 14, 1982.
There’s something intriguing about the artistry that flows through Patrice Rushen’s music.
Her spirited, all-encompassing sound comes from a unique jazz framework that branches out into R&B, funk, dance and pop galaxies. Whether she’s strumming her guitar, breathing into her flute, tinkering away on her piano, or flexing her angelic soprano, Rushen constructs a harmony and melody unlike any other musician known to man. A true improviser at the highest echelon, she weaves together jazzy chord structures underneath her unique blend of grooves. Her sublime taste for timbre and atmosphere is unparalleled. If ever one of her rousing funk workouts or succulent slow jams ever draws you in from the first note, there’s a good chance you are swooped into her wondrous spell. Her touch can’t be pigeonholed by a particular genre or form either. In fact, it’s felt everywhere.
Rushen grew up in an era when various sounds swarmed all around her. A child prodigy, the Los Angeles-born musician began playing the piano by the age of three. Fascinated by her virtuosic skill, her parents enrolled her in a program at the University of Southern California for musically gifted children. It was at this time that she absorbed different forms of music, cutting her teeth as a jazz and classical pianist, while garnering critical acclaim from her peers. She also developed stature as a side pianist for other artists in the jazz realm. As a student of compositional jazz and classical music, she set her ears toward rock, pop, and R&B idioms as well.
In 1974, she signed to Prestige Records, a subsidiary of parent label Fantasy Records, where she recorded three mostly instrumental, straight ahead jazz-fusion albums—1974’s Prelusion, 1975’s Before the Dawn, and 1977’s Shout It Out. Intelligent and undeniably hip in the same whiff, these admirable affairs marked a maturing artist solidifying her jazz credentials with extraordinary range and craft. Stylistically, she intersected the adventurous jazz of Herbie Hancock, Return to Forever, and George Duke with the Black pop worlds of Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind & Fire. She also brought along a roster of jazz-fusion vets, like flutist Hubert Laws and saxophonist Joe Henderson, to embellish her budding vision. While this was an impressive feat for the young musician, the albums didn’t garner any commercial love.
Several jazz purists that initially characterized Rushen as a promising talent with unique ability decried her fascination with contemporary sensibilities in her early work. Contrary to renowned jazz figures that struggled to remain relevant and strived to crossover with their endeavors, Rushen was heavily invested in her artistry to push the possibilities of where her music could go. It wasn’t a case that she sought out to be molded by any entity for commercial appeal.
Instead, she played by her rules and defied all odds. Her move to Elektra Records in 1978 was a rewarding one, as she had the freedom to record what she wanted. By the time she signed there, Elektra had a relatively small interest and presence in black music. She was the second black artist to be signed onto the label, after the soul vocal ensemble The Voices of East Harlem signed there in 1969. The triumphant move prompted Rushen to break from jazz conventions and reestablish herself as a commercial R&B powerhouse during the late-disco period (as greatly hinted on her final Prestige album, Shout It Out.)
The sea changes that occurred in the blurred worlds of jazz and R&B caused several artists to embrace popular styles that dominated radio markets. Rushen’s foray into R&B would profoundly impact the affluent, young black middle class that cherished the artfully urbane and slick nuances that came from the likes of Quincy Jones, George Benson, The Blackbyrds, and Minnie Riperton. From 1978 to 1980, she and associates, Charles Mims, Jr., bassist Freddie Washington and producer Reggie Andrews, helmed three remarkable albums—1978’s Patrice, 1979’s Pizzazz, and 1980’s Posh—that apotheosized chic grooves of the burgeoning post-disco scene, while setting the pace for sleek dance-pop and funk aesthetics to come with the party funk of “Hang It Up,” the swirling disco touches in “Haven’t You Heard,” and the glitzy club soul of “Look Up” and “Never Gonna Give You Up.”
Rushen’s loyal R&B base enthusiastically greeted her work, but opposition remained. The jazz community was increasingly appalled by her stylistic shift and deemed her a sellout. Pop markets didn’t aggressively focus on her efforts as being aligned to their formats. As a result, radio and consumer entities eventually placed her music squarely under the disco umbrella, right at the time the genre and its cultural impact garnered divestment and scorn at large.
Undeterred, Rushen began crafting what would become the biggest-selling album of her career. 1982 marked a springboard year for crossover in black music, as urban-pop styles won large appeal, with its demand growing even larger across-the-board. Disco was long denounced and forgotten, though its currents lingered in several of the year’s biggest hits. Jazz veered toward the light and pleasant MOR wave. Chameleonic figures, such as Rick James and Prince, were on the rise with their respective rock, pop, and funk hybrids. Several soul and funk acts who dominated the 1970s stayed afloat in R&B’s murky waters at the brink of the new era. The paramount event of that year (and possibly the entire decade) came with Michael Jackson’s cross-marketed pop blockbuster, Thriller. Rushen struck the iron hot when her fourth Elektra album and seventh overall release, Straight from the Heart dropped in the spring of 1982.
A well-oiled melding of R&B, dance, and jazz, Heart scored the perfect blend of accessibility and swagger that kept the neon suburban kids and the fly B-boys and B-girls of the projects grooving across the nation. Every song sparkles with meticulous charm and cool urgency that defines the very essence of the post-disco R&B era. As on previous albums, Rushen collaborates with her longtime associates Freddie Washington and Charles Mims, Jr. The nine-song gem ultimately picks up where its predecessor, 1980’s Posh, left off, in which she maximized lush quotients in her progressive R&B brand, while expanding her sonic palette with rock and boogie elements. Only this time, she employs a highly stylized, yet organic approach for Heart that neither lessens nor overpowers its buttery melodies and muscular rhythms.
There’s no better evidence of her refined style than on the album’s seminal lead single, “Forget Me Nots.” Co-written by Rushen, Freddie Washington, and Terri McFaddin, the propulsive dance-funk classic boasts layers of effervescent synthesizers and lively percussion, all anchored by scintillating handclaps, fingersnaps, and Washington’s explosive bass work. After the song’s irresistible drum-cum-bass break, noted jazz saxophonist Gerald Albright provides a steamy solo that ascends the infectious groove to new heights. A light, airy toned Rushen reminisces on a dissolved relationship between two lovers. With every emotion and desire she explores in her poised phrasing, she longs to rekindle their union by sending her lover ‘forget me nots,’—a flower that symbolizes enduring love—in hoping that he won’t forget the love they once shared.
Ironically, when Rushen presented the single to executives at Elektra, they hated it and suggested that she stop writing her material. In disproving the label’s ambivalence to the song, she and Charles Mims, Jr. gathered their resources, released the single, and hired a promoter to push it. By the time Rushen went out on tour, the single quickly rose, peaking at #23 on the US pop chart (her only Top Pop 40 hit), #4 on the R&B chart and #2 on the dance chart. It remains one of the timeless R&B grooves of its era and has famously been sampled in hits from Will Smith (“Men in Black”) and the late George Michael (“Fastlove”).
Heart dazzles in the funk department with its percolating third single, “I Was Tired of Being Alone” (US R&B #79) and her fiery duet with co-writer Roy Galloway, “All We Need.” Rushen dips in the instrumental pool for the buoyant “Number One,” which delectably fuses breezy jazz modes in a crackling dance hook. The defiant rock-jazz of “Breakout!” (US R&B #46) finds her collaborating with noted singer-songwriter Brenda Russell, who co-wrote the song and sang background vocals.
In the tradition of Rushen’s R&B-oriented work, the balladry on Heart takes on several textures and turns, pertaining to the complications and affections of love. The Lynn Davis-penned “Where There Is Love” shimmers with a luxurious, late-night quiet storm nuance, propelled by mysterious ARP Odyssey tones and Freddie Washington’s velvety bass. “If Only” is drenched in pearly 1980s melodrama, but Rushen’s careful sentimentality brings Syreeta Wright’s heartbreaking tale of unrequited love to life. “(She Will) Take You Down to Love” finds Rushen experimenting with sensual Brazilian flavors, which reflects her affinity for South American music. She spruces up the exotic aura in the tranquility of her acoustic guitar playing throughout the ballad.
“Remind Me” flows as a euphoric dream, with Rushen kicking synth sprinkles over a warm bed of Fender Rhodes flourishes and sparse beats. From there, the seductive groove deepens and never drifts away, pulling you closer to its unwavering allure and intoxicating atmosphere. As she waxes sultry yearns for her lover’s embrace and passion, she brings her jazz mastery to the core of the ballad, underscoring the spark of her music—the artistry. It’s because of this dynamic that New Jacks and New Jills resonate with the song and heavily sample its atmospheric grooves in the first place. Elektra didn’t see its commercial potential, and to Rushen’s dismay, passed it over as a single choice. Nevertheless, it endures as an R&B turntable classic and garners heavy radio play to this day. Hip-hop and contemporary R&B circles more than owe immeasurable debts to its sonic and musical nirvana.
Commercially, Heart managed to reach the US pop chart at #14, while peaking on the R&B chart at #4, thanks in part to the towering success of “Forget Me Nots.” Unfortunately, this huge milestone would never be surpassed or equaled on subsequent efforts in her illustrious career. The album also netted two Grammy Award nominations in the ‘Best R&B Female Vocal Performance’ category for “Forget Me Nots” and ‘Best R&B Instrumental Performance’ for “Number One.”
The timeless ingenuity that emanates from Straight from the Heart serves as a remarkable testament to Patrice Rushen’s lasting power as a triple-threat force. While she forged new artistic ground on her last album for Elektra, 1984’s minimalist, Now, there aren’t many albums of its era that blends technology with organic instrumentation so thoughtfully as Heart. Not to mention, its rich artistry speaks closely to us in every song.
In every groove, pulse, and melody lives a strong sense of integrity, warmth, and grace that doesn’t diminish, even 35 years later. For Rushen, boundless exploration stands at the forefront of her artistry. It’s her holistic love for music that outweighs everything else. Heart proves this in more ways than one.
For that, we’ll never forget it.