It seems incredible that I could have lived more than fifty years and not have heard ‘Oboe’ by Jackie Mittoo.
But, as I was compelled to stop doing the dishes and turn up the volume when this beguiling instrumental came on the radio this evening, it would appear to be indeed the case.
Something about it sounded familiar, though. That five-note motif (first heard at 0’25”) nagged me. Where had I heard this before? Who had sampled it?
I scrubbed at a pan and put the kettle on. My son could tell from my manner that I was preoccupied. He asked me what was wrong, but I couldn’t explain. I told him it was nearly bedtime and went through to run his bath, scared that the song would end and I’d miss the announcement that would tell me what it was and the riff would simply evaporate. For you can’t (yet) sing to Shazam.
And then it came to me. Wasn’t it used in ‘A Touch of Jazz’ by DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince?
Actually, no. While he was splashing and singing the Octonauts theme at full belt in the bathroom, I played the 12″ and realized what I was thinking of was the better known ‘Westchester Lady’ by Bob James:
The motif (first heard at 0’09”) is similar but – played straight after the Jackie Mittoo – is much more distinct. And, of course, more samplable. You can see why it caught the attention of Jazzy Jeff (and several others).
Bob’s tune came out in 1973, Jackie’s three years later. I assume the quotation is deliberate. Roaming online just now I came across one comment that suggested that ‘Oboe’ is a cover of ‘Westchester Lady’, which is pushing it, and only true in the sense that John Coltrane’s ‘My Favourite Things’ is a cover of that song from The Sound of Music.
Let’s face it, Bob James is pretty cheesy. This song, with its cringeworthy title, is a lifetime’s supply of Dairylea. That five-note series is the only thing going for it, unless jazz funk arrangements polished to a dazzling shine thrill you per se.
But embedded in the loose ensemble sound you hear on ‘Oboe’, Jackie Mittoo shows that riff has legs. Its meandering, improvisatory quality, together with those never-quite expected splashes and swells of keyboard and cuts in the rhythm, make it far too interesting to listen to in a lift or hotel lobby.
Its nine and a half minutes deserve your full attention.