This month it seems appropriate to begin with Cheers to the Fall, the major label debut from San Diego’s soulful songstress Andra Day. Also featured are several new releases with a socially conscious agenda including Stereotypes from the duo Black Violin, Pistol Politics from the Bay Area rapper Paris, and Siglo XXI from the Bloomington, Indiana-based jazz group Liberation Music Collective.
San Diego’s soulful songstress Andra Day is riding a wave of publicity this year resulting from several high profile projects. Her remake of “Mississippi Goddam” is featured in the acclaimed documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, her single “Rise Up” is the soundtrack for the inspirational Serena Williams’ Beats By Dre commercial “Rise,” and her performance at the Sundance Festival caught the attention of Spike Lee, who agreed to direct the video for her the first single, “Forever Mine.” So it’s no surprise that by the time her major label debut, Cheers to the Fall, dropped last month, the press was already proclaiming Andra Day as the next (take your pick) Amy Winehouse, Eartha Kitt, Etta James, or Billy Holiday. She certainly possesses a distinctive retro fashion style and voice, but does her album live up to the hype?
English rocker Adrian Gurvitz produced Cheers to the Fall with assistance from R&B singer Raphael Saadiq, creating an intriguing blend of British and American pop and soul. This is immediately apparent on the retro opening track “Forever Mine,” which sets the mood with treble ostinato chords over a steady drumbeat and a bit of reverb, before Day sashays in with her full throaty voice, digging into the groove, bending notes, and then scatting over the chorus:
Following is “Only Love,” an obvious nod to a Goldfinger–era James Bond theme song featuring The Roots’ James Poyser (production) and Questlove on drums, Pino Palladino on bass, and scratching from DJ Jazzy Jeff—with the Dap-Kings injecting a Latin flavor and the Wired Strings a cinematic quality.
Day switches to a more radio-ready style for the midtempo “Gold,” as well as the Adele-inspired tracks “Rearview” and “Red Flags.” Saadiq picks up the guitar and bass on “Mistakes,” with Charles Jones providing the organ riffs and Wired Strings filling out the harmonies. “Honey or Fire,” again backed by Saadiq and Jones, enters hard rock ballad territory on the chorus, where Day has no difficulty swapping her sultry vocals for a more strident sound.
But the meat and potatoes of this album is retro soul, which returns in spades with the seductive ballad “Not Today.” Featuring a string-heavy chorus built on Motown-era girl group harmonies, this stand-out track is a cross between Etta James and Martha Reeves. The album closes with several fan favorites: the ballad “Gin & Juice (Let Go My Hand)” which slithers right up the spine, the hit single “Rise Up,” and finally the title track. Saving one of the best for last, “Cheers to the Fall” is a more contemporary R&B/pop song, once again featuring Saadiq, Jones and the Wired Strings, with Day stretching her vocal range and losing some of her affectations.
Like many singers with a very distinctive voice, Day must be careful to provide enough variety or the novelty will begin to wear thin by the fourth or fifth track. Day pulls this off with aplomb, creating an album of original songs that will appeal to a multi-generational audience while also showcasing her vocal dexterity and roots in jazz, soul and pop.
Label: Universal Music Classics/Deutsche Grammophone
Formats: CD, MP3
Release date: September 18, 2015
Three years have elapsed since Black Violin’s debut album, Classically Trained, garnered worldwide acclaim for its unique blend of classical music flavored with hip hop, jazz and R&B. The duo, featuring Kevin “Kev” Sylvester on violin and Wilner “Wil B” Baptiste on viola, demonstrate significant musical growth on their sophomore album and major label debut, Stereotypes. Whereas previous performances relied heavily on loops of arpeggios (primarily in the key of d minor), there is now a greater depth and breadth to their vision, as well as an attempt to balance instrumental tracks with songs in a variety of styles. Some of these changes can likely be attributed to producer Eli Wolf (The Roots, Norah Jones), who brought in a backing ensemble of top studio musicians—Rob Moose on strings (plus all arrangements and orchestrations), Eric Krasno on guitar, Al Carty on bass, James Poyser and Ray Angry on keyboards, Daru Jones on drums, and programmer DJ Infamous.
Stereotypes is the duo’s tribute to the Black Lives Matter movement, but the opening title track also serves as a commentary on the preconceived notions they regularly encountered as black violinists:
“Being big black dudes we’re ‘supposed to be’ athletes or we’re ‘supposed to be’ something else, but were classically trained violinists. Instead of shying away from or not being proud of it, we stand our ground. This is who we are, this is what we do, you didn’t think this was possible, but here we are.”
The spoken closing lines of “Stereotypes” eloquently express their goals: “completely crushing peoples’ perceptions of not only what a violin can do, or what music could possibly sound like, but also of what a black man is capable of.”
Legendary MC Pharoahe Monch makes a guest appearance on the hard hitting message song “Invisible,” emphatically rapping the chorus: “I’m not Invisible, I’m not Invisible, I’m not Invisible/It’s not my fault you don’t understand/You can pretend not to care/That won’t make me disappear/As I rise it’s clear/Here I stand – Here I am.” For the remainder of the album, the focus turns more towards love and relationships. Wil B takes over the vocals on “Another Chance,” a convincing R&B song with shades of John Legend and a hip hop beat, with the violins alternating between static and melodic patterns leading up to the chorus “I just need a chance to show you, to make you understand/that I can’t change the past, but I control the future.”
Melonie Fiona and Black Thought of the Roots are featured on the heartfelt relationship song “Send Me a Sign,” with Black Thought spitting the line “throw on some Serge Gainsbourg” (if you’re a record collector you’ll catch the significance). This is followed by a jazzy cover of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David song “Walk on By” with Angela Johnson providing the soulful back-up vocals. Wil takes over again on “Magic,” crooning over the rhythm section of Angry, Carty and Jones: “It’s Like magic, though I lost what I desire/It’s Like magic, there’s always hope to fuel the fire/and my world was once divided/now I’m feeling so alive/Yes, it’s magic and so are you.” On “Stay Clear,” rising vocalist and Prince protégé Kandace Springs is featured alongside jazz pianist Robert Glasper, with the violins intricately woven into the mix. “Losing Control” is a great showcase for Wil’s seductive R&B vocals, and there’s a nice violin interlude in the mid-section.
Drawing from Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, “Shaker” is an instrumental based on “Simple Gifts.” After playing the folk tune in its original form, the duo begins inverting the melody, eventually turning it into a fugue with Angry providing the piano glissandi. Other instrumentals include “Day 2,” written in collaboration with Angry and Infamous, and the closing track “Runnin’” which showcases the violin technique of Wil and Kev with minimal backing from strings, keyboards, and programming.
Stereotypes provides the perfect balance between message songs, lively instrumentals, and heartfelt R&B ballads—while shattering preconceived notions and affirming Black Violin at the vanguard of classical fusion.
Pistol Politics, the newest release from Paris, continues the San Francisco Bay rapper’s socially-conscious stance that often borders on provocative. Even though the album’s soundscape pulls strongly from the classic G-Funk era, Paris uses this sprawling 27-song double album to update his treatment of some of the perennial themes in his work—gun violence, police brutality, and systemic issues that lead to the difficulties of black urban life—in order to speak to the political climate of the United States in 2015.
While many black artists have released efforts that express solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement this year, Paris takes his political expression one step further than others who obliquely reference the movement do, choosing instead to provide an insightful examination of some of the root causes and systemic issues that have become a persistent part of political discourse in the United States. “Night of the Long Knives” takes the highly publicized killings of black citizens by police officers as a point of departure for Paris’s continued critique of the system, featuring a video that—in the rapper’s provocative style—contains images of fantasy street shootouts between armed black citizens and police. These sequences appear to propose a militant solution (couched in the rhetoric of self-defense) to a problem that, in Paris’s estimation, is not being solved due to his contention that “The only language America speaks is violence.”
Paris continues these themes on “Buck, Buck, Pass,” a song that charts a gun’s life from the assembly line through its inevitable use as an instrument of death and destruction. In this song, he highlights elements of the failed system–a mix of racism, profiteering, and political posturing–that enables these weapons to be used so freely. He illustrates this point my name-checking NRA chairman Wayne LaPierre from the gun’s perspective, declaring “You better hope we don’t come for ya,” in a delicious bit of poetic irony. He also offers a forceful critique of the Obama administration’s policies on “Change We Can Believe In” from the perspective of a member of the disaffected black community who voted for the current president, noting that “They hate him ‘cause he’s black; we hate him ‘cause he’s wrong.” A “Redux” version of Paris’s 2009 “Martial Law” is included as well, featuring dead prez and Kam. He pulls other themes from the zeitgeist as a means to illustrate his political vision, quoting Jeff Daniel’s now famous monologue from HBO’s The Newsroomon “The Greatest,” and referencing classic soul music with a sample of Marvin Gaye’s socially-conscious “What’s Going On” on “Pop’s Groove.”
Musically, this album predominantly pulls from the G-Funk tradition, with fat bass lines and the sound of sirens pervading the album. However, the production seems beside the point at times, as Paris’s true calling seems to always have been his role as a socially-conscious militant, with his activist speech simply taking the form of rap music. The production is solid, but ultimately is less remarkable than the ideological work that the rapper does with his lyrics. Pistol Politics is a powerful radical left indictment of the American social and political system. This album begs to be carefully heard and slowly digested.
This month’s new release from the Bloomington, IN based jazz group The Liberation Music Collective is an ambitious debut from the self-described “socially-conscious big band.” Borrowing its name, concept, and utilizing cover art similar to Charlie Haden’s similar group from the 1970s—Liberation Music Orchestra—the group attempts to similarly address the sociopolitical concerns of its own day, with each of the album’s tracks being aimed at a particular social or political issue that is present in popular discourse.
Despite the seemingly abstract nature of writing what is mostly instrumental music, the group finds ways to incorporate direct references to the topics which they reference on this album. Rather than writing conceptual compositions that are ostensibly “about” something, The Liberation Music Orchestra utilizes a number of techniques in order to situate their music in terms of the issues they are referencing. This takes many forms, from interviews with band members discussing art’s potential for social change, gay rights, and the difficulties of being a black man in America that are used as framing devices for instrumental pieces, to lyrics that directly address particular issues, as in “Herstory,” a jazz-rap song about feminism. A third and particularly effective way that the group provides direct points of reference for what may otherwise sound like musical abstraction is their use of samples, drawing material Malcolm X, the Adhan—the Muslim call to prayer—as well as from the cell phone recording of police choking Eric Garner to death.
The Liberation Music Collective’s overtly political agenda does not detract from the quality of their compositions, however. The group’s tunes would likely hold their own with or without the group’s political or social advocacy, with compositions showcasing skill in orchestration (the masterfully building minimalism of “Murasaki”), several excellent solos (highlights include guitarist Joel Tucker on “Black & Red” and cornet player, composer, and co-founder Matt Riggen on “War Department”), and co-founder and bassist Hannah Fidler’s excellent melodic writing and singing on “El Viento.”
As with any project with this broad of a scope, Siglo XXI presents some significant risks to the artistic vision of the Liberation Music Orchestra, including the possibility of misinterpretation or oversimplification of complex and significant issues. Fortunately, this group brings forth an earnestness in both their musical and social agendas which may help them overcome potential criticism on these fronts. The Liberation Music Collective manages to avoid most of the potential pitfalls that come with this territory, and Siglo XXI is a fresh, provocative, and evocative artistic statement from a promising group.
The Reverend Shawn Amos, a self-proclaimed blues preacher, is on a mission to spread his “secular gospel” to all, proselytizing “to continue, extend and spread the tradition of the blues with unsurpassed fervor.” His epiphany came after reading Peter Guralnick’s Feel Like Going Home trilogy, and soon after the “born again” film school student was devoted to playing the blues. Amos then spent a couple of decades in the music business as an A&R executive, following in the footsteps of his father, Wally Amos, the first African American talent agent for the William Morris Agency (though he’s better known for his Famous Amos chocolate chip cookie empire). More recently, Shawn founded the digital media company Freshwire, but he’s also found time to release a few of his own albums along the way. His latest project, The Reverend Shawn Amos Loves You, is his second blues album and features ten original songs penned by Amos plus two covers. Following is the album trailer:
In order to inject a bit of Southern flavor, Amos chose to record in Shreveport, Louisiana at the studio of Brady Blade, who’s featured on drums and percussion, along with other locals including Chris “Doctor” Roberts on electric guitar, Chris Thomas on bass, Hassell Teekell on B3, Lewis Smith on trumpet, and the gospel ensemble Forever Jones on backing vocals. Joining this ensemble from the West Coast is Mindi Abair on sax, Anthony Marinelli on keyboards, and of course Amos on vocals and harmonica. If you recognize any of these names you’ll no doubt realize there’s a very high level of musicianship involved, built on a strong foundation of jazz and R&B, which allows for lots of twists and turns throughout.
On the introductory track, “Days of Depression,” Amos pulls out all the stops. Channeling the pre-war blues, the song grinds forward in the manner of a work song, reinforced by The Blind Boys of Alabama who make a guest appearance on backup vocals. Jumping forward a few decades, “Brand New Man” marries a funky R&B horn section with hard rocking guitars. By the third track, “Boogie,” the album settles more firmly into contemporary blues, punctuated by Amos’ wailing harp with vocalist Missy Andersen as the featured guest. The mood switches up again on “Will You Be Mine,” a grooving, reverb soaked song that’s more roots rock than blues, and one of the best tracks on the album. Other highlights include “You’re Gonna Miss Me (When I Get Home)” and the Jimmy Reed cover “Bright Lights, Big City” (or “The Hollywood Blues”) that features a wailing sax solo by Abair. Amos takes us to church on the closing song, “The Last Days I’m Loving You,” with prominence given to the Hammond B3 and Forever Jones, fading out through the refrain “you taught me one thing I need to learn, this is the last day I’m loving you.”
On The Reverend Shawn Amos Loves You, the good Rev proves he’s no jack-leg blues preacher, but the real deal – well-schooled in both traditional and contemporary styles. With engaging songs, soulful back-up singers, and a honking R&B horn section, he delivers a blues sermon about love and life lessons that will lift your spirits and empower your body to get down and groove to the music.
Many jazz artists are defined—in a sense—by a single album; if you were managing a retail record department, as this reviewer once did, and you were working within a limited budget, that would be the album you would stock before all others. So for John Coltrane, it was My Favorite Things; Count Basie, April in Paris; Cannonball Adderley, Mercy, Mercy, Mercy—these were albums you wouldn’t be caught dead without as they were established, dependable sellers and customers were always looking for them. For Erroll Garner—who made, or was collected into, a staggering number of albums—Concert by the Sea was always the one item you’d stock when anything else was too deep for your budget. It remains one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time and has remained in-print since its initial release in 1956. Listening to the original album’s 11-song sequence as issued it is easy to hear why; the selection sustains an overall mood, with Garner in dazzlingly brilliant form, as musically evocative of its seaside setting as the familiar front cover image is visually.
That Concert by the Sea was part of a larger argument was apparently only known to its original producers, Martha Glaser and George Avakian, and not even acknowledged in standard jazz discographies, which stubbornly listed the content only as it appeared on the issued album. Lo and behold, Columbia Legacy’s The Complete Concert by the Sea complements the original 11-song selection with 11 more, effectively doubling the size of the recording and adding a post-concert interview, conducted by Will Thornbury, with the principals: Garner, bassist Eddie Calhoun and drummer Denzil Best. In The Complete Concert by the Sea, the full 22-song concert is contained on discs 1-2, whereas the third is reserved for the album as originally released in 1956, with the interview added at the end.
In issuing this material near the sixtieth anniversary of the original concert, Columbia Legacy is rising to the sense of occasion in adding liner notes by several experts: Dan Morgenstern, director emeritus of the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies; Geri Allen, jazz pianist and director of jazz studies at the University of Pittsburgh; and Robin Kelley, Gary B. Nash Professor of American History at UCLA. Erroll Garner’s approach was based in improvisation and he almost never played the same thing twice; moreover, he was seldom in less than great form. This is despite the Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings’ assertion that Concert by the Sea is “essentially neither more nor less than a characteristic set by the trio”—notwithstanding that this was the one recording made of the group with Denzil Best, who spent close to three years touring with Garner, though in a time when Garner was mostly recording solo. This concert at Carmel-by-the-Sea was an exceptional one even for Garner: his playing is bright and buoyantly rhythmic, imaginative and daringly original; turning sudden corners, breaking breathlessly into pockets of free time only to swing back into the groove, sending chains of big right-hand chords up and down the keys with blazing speed.
Editing this concert to fit onto an LP—which Martha Glaser originally did—must’ve been an extremely difficult job, as the stuff left on the cutting room floor was so good. It’s hard to imagine why one would omit the fantastic reading of “Bernie’s Tune” apart from the fact that its opening chords hew a little too close to the ending of “I Cover the Waterfront,” also unreleased. But then perhaps there would have been no room on the vinyl disc for Garner’s shimmering, darkly impressionistic take on “Autumn Leaves,” which did make it. With The Complete Concert by the Sea, there is no more need to separate the good from the good, as Glaser had to do in 1956, and it is a tempting game to second-guess her choices. The Complete Concert by the Sea opens the door to a long overdue assessment of Garner, too long saddled with the mistaken notion that he was a popularly-oriented virtuoso that spun out standards perched atop telephone books owing to his short stature. Rather, Garner was a giant in the field of jazz piano and Sony Legacy president’s comment that Concert by the Sea is “a marvelous, mystical album that has been allowed to dangle on the periphery of broader recognition for far too long” is a point well taken; that Concert by the Sea initially became Erroll Garner’s pick to click, despite its live and somewhat substandard recording quality, was the decision of the record buying public and not that of critics and pundits. Having access to the full concert, 60 years later, confirms that—in this case—the customer was always right; one wonders, in the wake of this essential release, if the editors of the Penguin Guide would like to have their opinion back.
Bassist, bandleader, and composer Ben Williams has been a mainstay of the New York jazz scene for quite some time, having appeared on recordings with some of modern jazz’s heavyweight artists, including George Benson and Pat Metheny. Coming of Age signals Williams’s maturation as an artist, and features 11 carefully-crafted and compelling cuts.
This album features two sides of Williams, as he functions as both composer and performer. On tracks such as “Strength and Beauty” and “Lost & Found,” Williams showcases his skill at writing melodies and crafting atmospheric arrangements to support them. On the other hand, cuts such as “Half Steppin,’” Williams present a compelling case for himself as one of jazz’s premier bass soloists. Williams’s chops are especially compelling on his cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Despite the fact that the song that has become somewhat of a cliche in the jazz world, Williams offers a fascinating solo double-bass rendition that makes listeners comfortable with yet another jazz-influenced rendition of the song.
Williams’s formidable skills are complemented by his band’s phenomenal musicianship—guitarist Matt Stevens delivers a slow-burning solo on “Black Villian Music” while keyboardists Christian Sands and Masayuki “Big Yuki” Hirano add Rhodes lines that are mixed in such a way that they demand to be heard with a good pair of stereo headphones on both “Black Villian Music” and “Half Steppin.’” The interplay between drummer John Davis and percussionist Etienne Charles gives this album a sense of rhythmic drive that propels each number. Williams also made some very wise selections when choosing guest stars to appear on Coming of Age, featuring luminaries such as soul singer Goapele, trumpeter Christian Scott, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, and, perhaps the highlight of the album, W. Ellington Felton’s socially and politically charged rap on “Toy Soldiers (Reprise).”
Coming of Age serves as an artistic turning point for Williams, an already outstanding bassist, towards a move to focusing on the crafts of composition, arranging and bandleading. This album is a document of Williams’s move into musical maturity, and shows great promise for his future outings.
In the liner notes to No More Good Time in the World for Me, folklorist Nathan Salsburg makes a succinct observation: “African-American work songs are long-gone.” Indeed, as the social and labor conditions that provided context for this music—slavery, chain gangs, and share-cropping—have somewhat or fully disappeared, so have the work songs. Undoubtedly, these changes are welcomed progress. However, African-American work songs are important documents of cultural history, especially considering their influence on blues and other musical forms. This makes the recordings on No More Good Time in the World for Me—some of the last African-American work songs recorded in the United States—a vital historical document.
The album features eighteen songs performed by Johnnie B. Smith—also known as J.B.—while incarcerated at the Ramsey State Farm in Rosharon, Texas in 1965 and 1966. Folklorist Bruce Jackson recorded J.B. Smith at the prison, and would use this material for his 1972 book, Wake Up Dead Man: American Worksongs from Texas Prisons.
Smith was in his mid-40s at the time of these recordings, serving his fourth prison term. He led work songs earlier in his life while serving on a chain gang and even composed work songs for himself while chopping sugarcane or picking cotton. These original compositions provide, arguably, the most interesting content of the collection.
Often stretching twenty minutes in length, Smith’s own work songs are stark meditations on a variety of topics, including: being accused of crimes, the remaining time in his prison sentence, and a longing for freedom. The majority of Smith’s songs employ the same melody and ABBA form, the latter created by inverting the first and second lines for the third and fourth lines of each stanza. The result is a feeling of despondency: Smith uses music as a tool for escape, yet arrives back where he started again and again. “Sure Make a Man Feel Bad” (disc 2, song 1) gives the most accurate performance context of African-American work songs, as it is a group performance by Smith, Jesse “G.I.” Hendricks, Frank Young, and Houston Zachary. Smith sings the rest of the songs in this collection a capella.
In the tradition of Dust-to-Digital’s previous releases, No More Good Time in the World for Me is beautifully packaged and thoughtfully produced. Bruce Jackson’s evocative photos, Nathan Salsburg’s erudite liner notes, and Michael Graves’ excellent mastering provide strong accompaniment and context for Smith’s work songs. No More Good Time in the World for Me is a timely reminder of why traditions are documented and an artistic portrait of J.B. Smith: a man searching for solace and awaiting freedom through song.
Formats: CD digipak (20 tracks), LP+45 single (18 tracks, sold out), MP3/FLAC downloads
Release date: June 29, 2015 (in UK)
Miami-based record executive, producer and distributor Henry Stone (1921-2014) served as the main force in Florida’s soul and disco industry of the 1970s. As the head of T.K. Records, Stone contributed to nurturing the ‘Miami Sound’ in countless ways, encouraging the talents of local singers and musicians from in and around Miami, many of whom had little hope of becoming as big as T.K.’s top act, K.C. and the Sunshine Band. Nevertheless, in the current context there is a growing interest among listeners in second-tier soul, and Stone’s catalog represents a wellspring of it. Henry Stone’s Miami Sound pulls together between 18 and 20 tracks of varying content and quality, none of it familiar, in order to convey an overall impression of Stone’s many-faceted activity. It is a boon to those not willing or able to shell out big bucks to own original vinyl 45s of this material, and indeed it would take a fair amount of involved research just to know what they are, and where to look for them.
Although the slipcase refers to Stone as “the king of disco,” this collection is mostly made up of soul and soul-pop, with a little bit of expected T.K. disco style creeping in at the end. The content and artist pool on Henry Stone’s Miami Sound ranges very widely, yet there are some common threads. Stone’s early contact with King Records, both as an outpost producer and talent scout, included a close personal association with James Brown whose long shadow is operating through a lot of this music, such as in Raphael Munnings’ “Sleep On, Dream On” and Oceanliners’ “Cutting Room (Hot Pants).” Although the lead-off track, Little Beaver’s “Concrete Jungle,” is an exception, very little of this material shares James Brown’s, or latter-day Motown’s, interest in topical or socially conscious ideas; love and romance are the dominant themes here. A big standout is Johnny K’s screamingly funny “I Got Bills to Pay,” which provides a welcome point of departure from the lay-it-on-me-baby, you-knock-me-out prattle that typifies many of the lyrics. Miami’s natural cultural connection to Latin music—and, therefore, its position as an incubator to disco—intersects the collection occasionally, most strongly in Funky Nassau’s “Bahama Soul Stew.”
Some of Henry Stone’s Miami Sound is a little underwhelming in that it reflects its sources too closely; although the extra 45 in the vinyl version is the vaunted “Thousand Years” by Brand New—a fabulously rare single—the song itself is a too-thinly disguised knock-off of Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose’s “Too Late to Turn Back Now.” After a few tracks in, it becomes clear that in general the quality of singing is a bit below the level of arranging and backing musicianship, which may explain partly why some of these things didn’t catch on. Lynn Williams’[i] “It Takes Two” is largely sung off-pitch, even as the vocal conveys some measure of lazy, relaxed charm; in contrast, the backing track jams mightily. But this often yields dividends anyway; Leno Phillips’ just-okay vocal on “Confusion” is countered by an arrangement which is straight up sublime. Henry Stone’s Miami Sound summarizes a singular subgenre within American popular music without resorting to obvious choices, which is a bonus, though one misses Timmy Thomas’ incandescent “Why Can’t We Live Together.” For listeners that survived the seventies, the first pass through Henry Stone’s Miami Sound may not reveal all of its virtues, depending on how much baggage and formula one may still bear from the era, and it well may appeal better to hearers not inundated with exposure to 1970s AM radio. Stone, however, did strive for individuality and his productions are a testament to this tight-knit community of talented people; not making a fortune, but creating a lot of music mainly for the fun of making it. And who knows? Maybe we’ll get a hit out of this.
Alabama-born Wilson Pickett, one of the most famous Southern soul singers of the 1960s, was a mainstay on Atlantic Records, where Jerry Wexler molded Pickett and Aretha Franklin into the label’s biggest selling artists. In 1973, Pickett decided to leave Atlantic after receiving a better offer from RCA. Over the next three years he released four studio albums for RCA, which have now been restored by Real Gone Music and released on the two-CD compilation Mr. Magic Man.
Pickett’s first RCA album was something of a mixed bag, combining Southern soul tracks recorded at Muscle Shoals with slicker Philly soul songs recorded at Sigma Sound in Philadelphia. Dave Crawford and Brad Shapiro produced four of these Philly session tracks which were backed by the legendary group of Bobby Eli and Norman Harris (guitars), Ronnie Baker (bass), Earl Young (drums), and Larry Washington (percussion). The resulting album was named after Pickett’s first RCA single, “Mr. Magic Man,” a more pop-oriented song with a glossy string accompaniment that achieved cross-over success. The album showcased Pickett’s versatility as both singer and songwriter, with writing credits on eight of the ten tracks. Though the overdubbed strings are too prominent throughout, the Muscle Shoals tracks, such as “Sin Was the Blame,” hold up extremely well and are pure, classic Pickett.
Following shortly thereafter was the album Miz Lena’s Boy, also released in 1973. Named after Pickett’s mother, who he once described by as “the baddest woman in my book,” the album presents a much harder, funkier side of the artist. Recorded in Nashville, musicians included Detroit “Funk Brother” Dennis Coffey on guitar, Tommy Cogbill on bass, and musicians from Memphis’ American Sound Studio. The highlights of this album are the opening track “Take a Closer Look at the Woman You’re With” (a Blaxploitation-era funk workout that name checks Superfly) and the brassy closing song “Take the Pollution Out of Your Throat.” Alternate mono versions are included for “Take a Closer Look” and the country styled “Soft Soul Boogie Woogie.”
Pickett returned to Muscle Shoals and the Memphis Horns in 1974, producing Pickett in the Pocket, an apt title for the searing soul found on tracks such as “Take Your Pleasure Where You Find It,” by Paul Butterfield and Bobby Charles, and the gospel-inflected slow burner “You’re the One.” Regrettably the album failed to chart, but there are many fine tracks that have held up well over the years. Though it was rumored that Bobby Womack would produce Pickett’s fourth and final RCA album, instead he turned to Yusuf Rahman, who had worked with Charles Wright. Recorded in Los Angeles with tracks arranged and primarily written by Pickett and Rahman, Join Me and Let’s Be Free was released in 1975. Again, the album wasn’t a commercial success, but it’s full of great tracks ranging from the funky gospel of “I’ve Got a Good Friend” to the socially conscious “Higher Consciousness.”
Mr. Magic Man: The Complete RCA Studio Recordings is highly recommended for fans of Wilson Pickett and Southern soul, presenting the first restored and remastered reissues of his lesser known RCA albums, accompanied by a substantial booklet with informative liner notes by Joe Marchese. This set makes a great companion to Rhino’s 6-CD box set, Funky Midnight Mover, which presents his complete Atlantic studio recordings.
One of the most beloved soul singers of all time, Ben E. King will always be remembered for his top charting hits: “There Goes My Baby,” “Save the Last Dance for Me,” “Spanish Harlem” and, of course, the unforgettable “Stand by Me.” But there are many other sides to the singer that should be explored. Thanks to Real Gone Music, in collaboration with David Nathan’s SoulMusic Records, we have an opportunity to purchase this 2-CD compilation that includes the A and B-side of every single King released for the Atco and Atlantic labels between 1960-1966 (a second volume is forthcoming and will cover subsequent years). Covering 50 tracks, all in their original mono single versions, the set includes many B-sides not previously released domestically on CD. The recordings were remastered from original tape sources by Mike Milchner at SonicVision, and the package includes a booklet with liner notes by British soul music expert DJ Clive Richardson, and a session discography by Peter Burns. If you only know a handful of songs by Ben E. King, you owe it to yourself to check this out.
Johnny Mathis, who started his recording career at the age of 19, is one of the longest-running artists on the Columbia label, with over 17 million album and single sales in the U.S. alone. Known for his lush vocals, Mathis covered a variety of styles ranging from traditional pop to jazz standards, and was equally at home singing sacred or secular music.
Now, in celebration of the 80th birthday of the legendary pop vocalist, Legacy Recordings has released a definitive four disc anthology, The Singles, featuring every non-LP single Mathis released for the label between 1956-1981, as well as tracks released exclusively on three previous compilations: Johnny’s Greatest Hits (1958), More Johnny’s Greatest Hits (1959), and The First 25 Years (1981). Additionally, 31 of the 87 tracks on this set have never been reissued on CD. Ranging from his top charting hits such as “Wonderful! Wonderful!” to a variety of holiday classics, songs from films, and many lesser known singles, this nicely produced anthology showcases the many sides of Johnny Mathis. The accompanying booklet includes an introduction penned by Mathis, an article by producer Didier C. Deutsch, and complete discographical information for each track.
If you’re expecting to find “Misty” or his duet with Deniece Williams “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late,” both of which appeared on albums, you’ll have to wait until next year when Legacy releases the Johnny Mathis box set “Complete Album Collection.”
Portuguese singer and musician Lura got her start in music at the age of seventeen when she was invited to be a back-up singer for an album of zouk music by the Lisbon-based singer Juka. A few years later Lura recorded her debut album, Nha Vida (1996), but her real break occurred in 2004 with the release of Di Korpu Ku Alma (Of Body and Soul). The first project to reflect her Cape Verdean ancestry, Di Korpu Ku Alma became a bestseller on the world music circuit and soon Lura was touring internationally.
Lura returns to her roots with Herança, which literally translates to Heritage—an apt title for an album focused on Cape-Verdean’s up-tempo funana beat. This is exemplified in the danceable opening track “Sabi di Más,” an original song by Lura that uses the standard 2-beat rhythm and accordion accompaniment as well as percussion and guitar. “Maria di Lida,” the first single from the album, is the story of a Cape Verdean woman who struggles to make ends meet and support his family:
Several of the songs on the album were written by Mário Lúcio Sousa, founder of the Cape Verdean group Simentera that’s known for returning the music to its acoustic roots and embracing African culture as an integral part of Cape Verdean identity. A fine example of this is “X da Questão,” an up-tempo song that also features accordion and acoustic guitar. Brazilian poet and Latin jazz percussionist Naná Vasconcelos is featured on the title track ”Heranca,” a slow, trance inducing song that’s nearly a capella with only gong and percussion offering a sparse accompaniment. This is followed by a much more contemporary, jazz-oriented song ”Barca di Papel,” featuring bassist Richard Bona. Also featured is the rising Cape-Verdean singer/guitarist Elida Almeida on ”Nhu Santiagu.” The album closes with “Cidade Velha,” a very melodic song about a village on the island of Santiago accompanied by acoustic guitar.
Herança showcases Lura’s captivating voice while offering danceable beats, acoustic instrumentation, and a fine introduction to the lilting rhythms of Cape Verde.
Veteran jazz sideman Harold Mabern returns with his second release as leader on Smoke Sessions Records, Afro Blue. This record seems to have a mixed agenda, with some songs dedicated to longtime friends and associates of Mabern, such as “The Chief” (written for John Coltrane), “Afro Blue” (A Coltrane Tune), “The Man From Hyde Park” (written about Herbie Hancock), and “Bobby, Benny, Jymie, Lee, Bu” (which immortalizes one of Art Blakey’s classic lineups), with some including the presence of high-profile guest stars, and others seeming to appear on the record “just because.”
Some of the things that Mabern does on this record are similar to what many elder artists do when performing duets with guest artists, particularly as less-famous instrumentalists recruit superstar artists (in the case of this album, Gregory Porter, Norah Jones, Jane Monheit, and Kurt Elling) in order to provide some variety and potentially boost sales. However, what is different about Afro Blue than many similar efforts is that Mabern emphasizes his role as an accompanist, allowing the album’s guest stars to lead him in divergent directions of their own choosing. With Jones, for instance, this means breaking the small-group format prevalent on the rest of this album in favor of a piano-voice duet on “Don’t Misunderstand.” This also takes shape on the recording of the bop classic “Billie’s Bounce,” featuring Kurt Elling delivering a compelling scat performance on the Bird tune. Clearly, Mabern is interested in experimenting with the small vocal and piano group, rather than conforming to the format’s most well-established clichés. Other interesting musical choices include the inclusion of a gospel-tinged version of Anne Murray’s “You Needed Me” featuring Elling and a rendition of Steely Dan’s “Do it Again” featuring guitarist Peter Bernstein.
While much of this record is reminiscent of the cliches found in the “jazz instrumentalist working with guest stars” playbook, these plays are followed well by Mabern, and often diverge from well-established formulas in creative ways. Further, Afro Blue has some excellent playing and interesting surprises that will delight jazz fans.
This release by “Doctuh” Michael Woods has been out for some time, but has recently come to this reviewer’s attention. Woods is the director of Jazz Studies at Hamilton College in Clinton New York, and is a versatile and highly credentialed composer, holding a B.M. in Composition from Akron University, two master’s degrees from Indiana University, and a doctorate in music composition from the University of Oklahoma. He has written everything from symphonic works to compositions for small jazz ensembles.
Woods describes Uhthuh Planets as “a treatise on ‘Funk,’” despite few explicit references to the popular music genre by that name in the music included on this album, which is more reminiscent of the contemporary jazz suite that the album’s subtitle (“A Jazz Suite”) references. Uhthuh Planets features excellent musicianship, with Woods and his sidemen playing the album’s arrangements sensitively (listen to Tom Witkowski’s interpretation of “Piano I.Q.,” a piece that is supposed to sound like an alien interpretation of Art Tatum) and taking some strong solos, (hear Wood’s electric bass solo on “I Need Options” and guitarist Tom Bronzetti’s lyrical improvisation on “Enoch”).
The record does include some of the programmatic iconography that interstellar groups like Parliament Funkadelic have utilized in liner notes detailing outer space scenes, but the strange sonic textures that would characterize more ‘far out’ musicians like Sun Ra that many may expect as self-conscious sonic references to other interstellar genres are largely absent from this suite.
While the music on Uhthuh Planets pulls more from standard contemporary jazz composing and arranging than some of the weirdness that the album’s artwork and programmatic notes may suggest, this album is a well-composed and played jazz suite, and is definitely worth a few listens for those eager to hear extended compositions and compelling improvisations.
Darius Rucker’s newest album, Southern Style, follows a formulated approach in contemporary country music. The record uses slick Nashville production and songs that speak to a white middle-class audience, while romanticizing the Southern United States and the experience shared by some—certainly not all—who call it home. Where Rucker differs from other contemporary country musicians is in his focus on South Carolina as the object of his romanticism. Born in the city of Charleston, South Carolina, Rucker is well-positioned to have the state as his topical focus. However, the lyrics and iconography on Southern Style speak to a particular South Carolina experience Rucker wants to romanticize.
The lyrics of “Lowcountry” praise the natural beauty of the state’s coastal area and “You Can Have Charleston” laments his separation from the city due to a romantic breakup. The album’s photos place Rucker in a rocking chair on a front porch, presumably at the beach, wearing a conspicuous belt buckle of the South Carolina state flag. The protagonists of his songs are men attracted to the innocent aspects of women, rebels without a cause or much conviction, and those attracted to the “freedom” of a rural get-away. The result of Rucker’s album is the reinforcement of a South Carolina, masculine nationalism: one whose anti-intellectualism reinforces faith, family, and the way things are.
What appears to be missing from Southern Style is any critical stance on the racial and cultural politics of the region; but at second glance this is not absent from the album. Rucker’s nationalism is naturalized, just like the oak trees and sandy beaches, to form a banal nationalism, which reinforces Southern white identity and a blindness (or ignorance) to the problems faced in the state. As Rucker is African American, it begs the question: is Darius Rucker the Tim Scott of country music? To be fair, Rucker’s intent rests far away from tackling these issues. However, the romanticizing of the South always comes at a cost—one that contemporary country music repeatedly overlooks in favor of commercial success.
Musically, the performances on Southern Style are impressive. Rucker has hired some of the top Nashville session “cats”—such as Brent Mason, Michael Rhodes, and Shannon Forrest—for this recording. These musicians sound if as they have played together for years—and perhaps they have: their arrangements are confident and tasteful, creating a sound comfortable in honky-tonk, indie, and rock, while never losing its familiarity as country music. Rucker’s voice remains strong, yet unvaried, with this accompaniment behind him. The melodies on Southern Style are catchy and it is notable that Rucker is listed as a songwriter on each of the albums’ thirteen songs.
If you are eager for Southern stereotypes, Rucker’s album deserves a listen. If more accurate representations are your fancy, Southern Style will help you understand why race remains such a contested issue in the region: comforts, and not critical dialog, carry the day.
If you have never heard of Omar Coleman before, you are probably not alone. The blueman began playing harmonica at the age of 25 and in a short time was making a name for himself in the blues clubs of Chicago. He officially began his career in the music business in 2010 at the age of 37and has released three albums in that time. However, even before beginning to play his instrument, Coleman had exposure to the best of the blues: he was born and raised in Chicago and grew up listening to the likes of Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, and the great Sam Cooke. These influences have had a profound effect on Coleman and he is an excellent harmonica player and singer. In addition to his solo work, Coleman’s chops have allowed him to share the stage with luminaries such as Robert Cray, Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor, Ruth Brown, and Robert Randolph.
This album is an example of why blues is one of the most passionate styles of music being played today. These songs deal with lost love, lost opportunities, and things we wish we could do. Born & Raised highlights universal themes of life, love, and desire and would be an excellent starting point for listeners interested in exploring Chicago blues at its best, with the songs covering a variety of tempos and dynamic ranges as various as the song’s subjects.
From the first song to the last this album will take you on a roller coaster ride that you will not want to end. “Tryin’ To Do Right” is a great example of good old Chicago blues. Coleman’s harmonica playing is the first thing listeners will note, followed by his vocals soaring over the arrangement as the song takes the form of a standard blues shuffle. Guitarist Pete Galanis complements Coleman’s playing and singing effectively, with tasteful licks interspersed in the natural spaces a standard blues tune creates. On “Man Like Me” listeners really get to hear the potential of well-played blues harp, and the song’s energy makes it the perfect soundtrack for cruising with the windows rolled down.
“I Was A Fool” provides contrast from the first three fast-moving tracks, with the song’s slow tempo allowing a moment of reflection before Coleman and company hit the gas pedal again for another six numbers of movin’ and groovin’. The album’s eleventh track, “One Request” is another slow blues jam, with a great feel. Galanis’s guitar playing on this cut is reminiscent of some of the great blues masters’, at times calling Eric Clapton’s style to mind. Throughout this album Coleman plays with some of the best less well-known musicians—Coleman and Galanis are joined by Neal O’Hara on piano and organ, Ari Seder on bass, and Marty Binder on drums and percussion.
The album hints at nostalgia for older styles of Chicago blues, and may convince listeners that Chess Records is still alive and well. Don’t let this album pass you by—it would make for an excellent last blast of the summer.