Welcome to the June Black Music Month edition of Black Grooves, sponsored by the Indiana University Archives of African American Music and Culture.

This month we’re traveling back in time to celebrate three of the most important African American composers of the early 20th century. First, Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake perform original songs from their groundbreaking 1921 Broadway musical on Sissle & Blake Sing Shuffle Along. The works of R. Nathaniel Dett are featured on two recent projects: My Cup Runneth Over: The Complete Piano Works of R. Nathaniel Dett performed by Clipper Erickson, and the oratorio The Ordering of Moses in a live performance by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and May Festival Chorus under James Conlon.

Our featured DVD this month, Stretch & Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives, highlights one of the greatest hip hop radio shows of all time. Also under the hip hop category is the genre-bending album Gone With the Trends by the St. Louis-based act illPHONiCS.

Under jazz, we’re featuring Robert Glasper’s Miles Davis tribute Everything’s Beautiful, Marcus Strickland’s Nihil Novi, and Bill Evans’s Some Other Time: the Lost Session from the Black Forest.

Folk and gospel music releases include the Walker Family Singers’ Panola County Spirit, Leyla McCalla’s A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey, and the reissue of two early Staple Singers’ albums Amen! and Why.

Wrapping up this issue is our list of May 2016 Releases of Note.

View review June 1st, 2016

shuffle along

Title: Sissle and Blake Sing Shuffle Along

Artist: Various

Label: Harbinger

Format: CD, MP3

Release date: April 29, 2016

 

 

Many of you have no doubt heard about the current Broadway “revival” of the landmark 1921 musical Shuffle Along, choreographed by Savion Glover and starring Audra McDonald (who will be replaced by Rhiannon Giddens starting July 26), with Joshua Henry and Brandon Victor Dixon portraying the famous songwriting team of Sissle & Blake. Subtitled “Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed,” the show is actually more of a re-imagining than a revival, incorporating many of the original’s famous songs but not following the original book.

This new CD from Harbinger Records, Sissle and Blake Sing Shuffle Along, was released at the end of April to coincide with the opening of the Broadway show, and features “recordings Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle made for Blake’s EBM record label, as well as a newly discovered set of extremely rare acetates of demo recordings by Sissle and Blake for a proposed Shuffle Along of 1950 Broadway show.” Songs are arranged in the original order of the 1921 musical, performed primarily by Sissle (vocals) and accompanied by Blake (piano). But just to be clear, though there are many different cast recordings of Shuffle Along, what’s featured on this CD are the songs as sung by the original composers, recorded decades later.

Indianapolis-born Noble Sissle (1889-1974) and Baltimore native Eubie Blake (1887-1983)—two of the most famous early African-American composers, vaudeville stars and recording artists—began their careers during the ragtime era. Joining Lt. James Reese Europe’s famous 369th U.S. Infantry “Hell Fighters” Band during WWI, they helped to promote an appreciation of Black popular music throughout the U.S. and Europe, especially the new genre known as “jazz.” After the war they experienced a number of successes, but none so great as their landmark musical Shuffle Along. Based on a comedy routine by their vaudeville colleagues Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles, who wrote the book, the musical opened in New York in 1921 with Blake leading the orchestra from the keyboard. Though not the first Black show on Broadway (Bob Cole’s minstrelsy themed A Trip to Coontown and Will Marion Cook’s more progressive Clorindy both debuted in 1898), Shuffle Along became one of the most successful Broadway musicals of the era, drawing audiences with its swinging jazz melodies and “hot rhythms.”

The 24-page booklet accompanying the CD provides an excellent history of Shuffle Along by Richard Carlin and producer Ken Bloom, excerpted from their forthcoming biography of Eubie Blake. But given the level of detail on the composers and the history of the musical, it’s somewhat incomprehensible that only scant information is provided about the actual recordings featured in this compilation.

The earliest tracks are drawn from Shuffle Along of 1950 demos that have never been released. Thanks to the generosity of record collector Peter Shambarger, who discovered these discs twenty years ago, we can now hear the songs in excellent sound (though regrettably the piano is somewhat buried in the background). Most importantly, though, we can hear Sissle’s commentary, updated for the era. For example, on “Bandana Days” he references beboppers, and in “If You’ve Never Been Vamped by a Brownskin” he interjects some comedy in the midst of Blake’s solo. Blake’s masterful rendition of the “Shuffle Along Medley (Entr’actre)” is drawn from an uncredited QFS piano roll (presumably one of those he recorded for QRS in May, 1973). The remaining twelve tracks are culled from LPs issued by Eubie Blake Music, a label founded by the musician in 1971.  The “Shuffle Along Medley” and “Love Will Find a Way” (from this 1971 LP?) are performed by Ivan Harold Browning, who sang first tenor in The Four Harmony Kings (a quartet featured in the 1921 Broadway cast of Shuffle Along), before assuming one of the leads in the show. Original cast member Gertrude Saunders also reprises her most famous song, “Daddy Won’t You Please Come Home” (she recorded this for Okeh in 1921). Ruth Williams joins Sissle on the show’s most enduring hit song, “I’m Just Wild About Harry.” The set concludes with “Fourth of July in Jimtown,” a comedic routine performed by the show’s creators, Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles (presumably from the 1923 Okeh recording).

None of these recordings have been released on CD before, and will certainly provide those interested in early African American musicals, and Sissle and Blake in particular, with additional source material for study. The other great news is that Harbinger (a division of The Musical Theater Project) plans to reissue all of the Eubie Blake Music recordings, as well as the complete demo of Shuffle Along of 1950, in the near future. Let’s hope that liner notes for these planned reissues properly credit the sources.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review June 1st, 2016

clipper erickson_my cup runneth over

Title: My Cup Runneth Over – The Complete Piano Works of R. Nathaniel Dett

Artist: Clipper Erickson

Label: Navona; dist. by Naxos of America

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: November 13, 2015

 

 

Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) was one of the most important and highly regarded Black composers of the early twentieth century. At that time, only a few had achieved widespread success in the classical music genre, most notably the British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Though born on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, Dett’s father was a U.S. citizen and during his youth the family relocated to the New York side of Niagara, thus he is usually considered to be an American composer. The Oberlin educated Dett was also a noted concert pianist, choral conductor and educator.

My Cup Runneth Over: The Complete Piano Works of R. Nathaniel Dett gathers together, for the first time on CD, Dett’s solo piano compositions, brilliantly performed by Clipper Erickson (an alum of The Juilliard School, Yale University, and Indiana University). Like his mentor and teacher, British pianist John Ogdon (who taught at IU’s Jacobs School of Music in the late 1970s), Erickson has championed 20th and 21st-century music and American composers, in particular.  He was introduced to Dett’s music by Dr. Donald Dumpson, currently on the faculty of Rider University, who like Dett is also a noted keyboardist, choral conductor, composer and arranger. Thankfully, their relationship inspired this recording project, which recently garnered an Editor’s Choice citation from Gramophone UK—now let’s hope it receives wider recognition in the U.S.

My Cup Runneth Over features Dett’s neo-Romantic piano suites which were widely performed by artists such as Percy Grainger and Fanny Bloomfield-Zeisler. The CD opens with the earliest suite, Magnolia, composed in 1912. As one might guess from the title, the five movements call forth images of the Old South with names such as “The Deserted Cabin” and “Mammy,” though the final movement, “The Place Where the Rainbow Ends” was based on a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar. In the Bottoms, composed the following year, is another five movement suite based on “scenes peculiar to Negro life in the river bottoms of the Southern sections of North America” (quoted from Dett’s own notes). Included is one of his most popular works, the folk-song based “Juba Dance,” played by Erickson with great clarity and verve.[i]

The year 1922 was obviously a productive year for Dett, which yielded works of increasing complexity: the four movement suite Enchantment (dedicated to Percy Grainger) and the solo piece Nepenthe and the Muse (dedicated to Arthur Foote)—a Debussy-esque work of shifting moods and tone colors convincingly performed by Erickson. Disc One closes with another programmatic suite, Cinnamon Grove; each movement based on poems and concluding with an Allegretto referencing two spirituals later used by Dett for choral settings.

Disc Two opens with Tropical Winter (1938), a demanding suite in seven movements which presents a leap forward in Dett’s compositional style.  “Parade of the Jasmine Banners” and, in particular, the more contemplative “Legends of the Atoll” are highlights of this suite. Dett’s final suite, Eight Bible Vignettes (1942-43), was composed at the very end of his life—possibly contributing to his use of Biblical texts as inspiration. Divided evenly between the Old and New Testaments, the movements reference many themes, including the African diaspora and slavery, expressed through some of the most heart-rending and insightful music Dett composed. Erickson eloquently breaks down each movement in the liner notes, indicating the intensity of his research which obviously aided his meticulous and multifaceted interpretation.

Not addressed in the liner notes are three of Dett’s earliest solo piano works that close the album: the ragtime based After the Cakewalk (1900), the march and two-step Cave of the Winds (1902), and the much more substantial show piece Inspiration Waltzes (1903), which Erickson performs with aplomb.

My Cup Runneth Over offers a wonderful overview of R. Nathaniel Dett’s captivating solo piano compositions, magnificently performed Clipper Erickson. A hearty bravo is in order—may these works find their way onto more recital programs!

 

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

[i]Dett had performed these works himself, to great acclaim, at the first All-Colored Composer’s Concert at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall on June 3, 1914. Noted music critic and composer Felix Borowski, writing for the Record Herald on June 4 proclaimed, ” . . .it was not Coleridge-Taylor whose music at this concert disclosed the largest measure of individuality and inspiration.  Those qualities shone more brilliantly in two suites for piano composed and performed by R. Nathaniel Dett.  Without having heard of Mr. Dett or his music before, we believe that his abilities are such as to qualify him for leadership of the musical creators among his people . . . This composer’s performance was also a surprise.  Piano playing much less admirable, much less poetic, has often been heard in Orchestra Hall and in concerts much more pretentious than that which has formed the subject of this review.” [June 4, 1914]

View review June 1st, 2016

the ordering of moses

Title: The Ordering of Moses – Live From Carnegie Hall

Composer: R. Nathaniel Dett

Artists: Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra & May Festival Chorus; James Conlon, conductor

Label:  Bridge

Formats: CD

Release date: May 10, 2016

 

R. Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) was one of the most important and highly regarded Black composers of the early twentieth century. Educated at Ohio’s Oberlin Conservatory (B. Mus, 1908), he began his career as a composer and pianist, but also regularly served as a choral conductor—first, at his local church, later as director of the choirs at the Hampton Institute in Virginia and Bennett College in Greensboro, NC.

In 1932 Dett composed his first large choral work, The Ordering of Moses (subtitled Biblical Folk Scene for Soli, Chorus and Orchestra), as his master’s thesis for the Eastman School of Music, but it wasn’t published until 1937. That same year it was premiered at the Cincinnati May Festival under Eugene Goossens. Begun in 1873 and initially directed by Theodore Thomas (who later led the New York Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony Orchestra), the May Festival is one of the oldest and most prestigious choral festivals in the U.S., with a long history of championing and premiering new works. The programming of Dett’s oratorio was a major coup for the composer, especially since it was broadcast live nationwide over NBC radio (apparently three-quarters of the concert still exists on lacquer disc airchecks).[i] The work was subsequently performed in other major cities and revived by the May Festival in 1956 with Leontyne Price as a featured soloist, but has seldom been heard since.

Nearly 80 years later, James Conlon and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra decided to premiere The Ordering of Moses in New York at Carnegie Hall as part of their Spring For Music initiative, reflecting concerted efforts to bring the community together through diversified programming. The concert captured in this recording was performed live on May 9, 2014 and features the May Festival Chorus led by Robert Porco (who taught choral conducting for 20 years at the IU Jacobs School of Music). The soloists, who all give exceptional performances, include soprano Latonia Moore as Miriam, tenor Rodrick Dixon as Moses, mezzo-soprano Ronnita Nicole Miller as the voice of Israel, and baritone Donnie Ray Albert as the voice of God/the Word.

The oratorio uses “text based on scripture and folklore” and draws from the books of Exodus and Lamentations, but also weaves in the words of spirituals, with strains of “Go Down Moses” serving as a leitmotif throughout. It’s apparent from the introduction that this is a monumental work of the highest order, shedding new light on Dett’s ability to write for a full orchestra. On the opening choruses, string and harp solos combine with the rattling of chains to depict the lament of “All Israel’s Children” and “O Lord, Behold My Affliction.” The track “Who Hath Made a Man Dumb” concludes with a full chorus arrangement of “Go Down Moses” which segues into an orchestral interlude. Other highlights include the operatic “When Moses Smote the Water” followed by the thrilling and very cinematic interlude “The Egyptians Pursue.” The oratorio concludes on a hopeful note with the chorus “He Is the King of Kings” as the freed Israelites rejoice.

The Ordering of Moses stands the test of time, as relevant today as in 1937, and in no way feels dated or self-conscious. Thanks to the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra we now have an excellent modern recording of Dett’s oratorio, performed to very high standards, that truly honors the genius of R. Nathaniel Dett.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

[i]The world premiere performance from 1937 was released on LP in 1972 by Unique Opera Records (UORC 113); a performance recorded by the Mobile Symphony Orchestra at the Centennial Arts Festival at Talladega College was released on LP in 1968 by Silver Crest (TAL 42868 S.).

View review June 1st, 2016

stretch and bobbito doc

Title: Stretch and Bobbito: Radio that Changed Lives

Artist: Various

Label: Fat Beats Distribution

Format: DVD

Release Date: April 22, 2016

 

 

Last year’s documentary Stretch and Bobbito: Radio that Changed Lives is now available on DVD and just premiered on Showtime May 18th.  The film chronicles the contributions of Stretch Armstrong (Adrian Bartos) and Bobbito Garcia, two deejays who begun a hip hop radio program on the night shift of Columbia University’s radio station in 1990.  The Stretch and Bobbito show is widely heralded as one of the greatest (if not the greatest) hip hop radio shows of all time, due to both its staying power and the artists that the deejay duo broke to listeners in New York City.

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The documentary charts the program’s story largely by chronicling the artists featured on it, including interviews with many of the rappers Stretch and Bobbito introduced to radio listeners, including Fat Joe, members of the Wu Tang Clan, Jay-Z, and Nas—the film reads as a veritable Who’s Who of 90s hip hop.  Many of these artists get to listen to tapes of the show, either via airchecks or programs taped by listeners, hearing their own rare written performances and freestyles.  This is one of the great assets of the film—it is likely that most viewers have never heard the verses on these recordings, and it is fascinating to hear artists like Ol’ Dirty Bastard and the Notorious B.I.G. rapping over Stretch Armstrong’s beats prior to achieving their legendary status.

The deejays’ story follows that of many of the artists, moving from red eye college radio to the duo’s debut on New York’s largest radio station, Hot 97, before disbanding the show.  Stretch and Bobbito are back together in the film, discussing their motivations for starting the program, its remarkable heyday, and shifts in the music and broadcasting industries as a result of hip hop’s historical trajectory during the 1990s.

Stretch and Bobbito: Radio that Changed Lives documents an essential slice of the New York hip hop scene, showcasing one of the most important launchpads for artists who would emerge as quintessential figures in hip hop. This film is essential viewing for heads and emphasizes the important role that radio programmers had in the pre-internet age of underground hip hop, giving unknown artists a platform to launch into the mainstream.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

(For those interested in the history of Black radio, check out the AAAMC’s exhibit on Google Cultural Institute: https://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/u/0/collection/archives-of-african-american-music-and-culture?projectId=black-history-and-culture)

View review June 1st, 2016

illphonics gone with the trends

Title: “Gone with the Trends”

Artist: illPHONiCS

Label: The Record Machine

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: April 1, 2016

 

 

St. Louis-based hip hop act illPHONiCS draws from a variety of musical influences, including rock, funk, and soul in its genre-bending blend of rap music with a live backing band.  In the vein of fellow musical polymaths The Roots, it might be possible to describe the group’s effective musical fusion in the words of Fallout Morris, the group’s MC: “musicality bliss from beginning to finish.” In my opinion, live bands may provide some of the most fertile territory for the ever-diversifying future of rap music, as many top name acts such as Kendrick Lamar are blending a live approach with electronic sounds and sampling. illPHONiCS are certainly on the cutting edge of this movement.

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illPHONiCS’s core group looks (and often sounds) more like a rock band than a rap group.  Morris is joined by Keith Moore a.k.a. William Gray on keyboards, Kevin Koehler on guitar, Simon “Spank” Chervitz on bass, and Chaz “CB” Brew on drums, organ, and vocals.  illPHONiCS is a group full of musical shapeshifters who play the funky “Liquid Spaceships” as convincingly as they play the ’90s alt-rock tinged (think Radiohead’s heavier moments) “Sweet Missouri (’miz(a)rē).”

The band’s music is propelled by Morris’s lyrics. The group’s MC eschews commercial rap cliches in favor of nuanced storytelling that smacks of rap’s poetic underground, as in “96 to 99,” a love letter to the classic rap groups that ruled the airwaves during that era.  ilPHONiCS also jump on current events (a trend that has been popular with artists in 2015 and 2016) on “The Brown Frequency,” a cut about Michael Brown’s death at the hands of police and the protests in Ferguson, Missouri that followed.  Unlike many other artists who treat this subject from a distance, alluding to social unrest indirectly or expressing some kind of vague solidarity, illPHONiCS speak to the subject with a more authoritative voice.  Not only is the group from the St. Louis area, but the lyrics to “The Brown Frequency” demonstrate specificity both of cause and of remedy that are unfortunately lacking from many other so-called “protest” records in 2016. The group takes a more introspective turn on “Gone with the Trends,” an anthem about personal authenticity.  However, illPHONiCS aren’t above including more standard fare such as “Love’s Not Far,” a number about unrequited love, and the smooth-funk party anthem, “Everything (Jammin For You).”

The diversity on Gone with the Trends” is matched only by the band’s tight musicianship and Fallout Morris’s silky-smooth rhymes.  Alternative hip hop fans will definitely want to give this release a few spins.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

View review June 1st, 2016

davisandglasper_everythingsbeautiful

Title: Everything’s Beautiful

Artist: Miles Davis & Robert Glasper

Label: Columbia/Legacy

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release Date: May 27, 2016

 

 

Miles Davis is something of a musical Mona Lisa: iconic, innovative, and—despite being well-documented—open to as many possible interpretations as there are interpreters.  This is likely in equal parts due to Davis’s ever-shifting musical approach as well as his cryptic and often ambiguous utterances.  Everything’s Beautiful must be read as one of many possible ways to interpret Davis’s music, perhaps usefully construed as paying tribute to Miles the innovator.  It is no accident that this tribute is led by an innovator in the contemporary jazz scene, Robert Glasper, who alternates between albums with his electric/electronic and acoustic groups, bringing hip hop and jazz with him along the way.  Each of the album’s 12 cuts, with the exception of the first track, features a guest artist; each of these artists presents a unique take on Miles that is filtered through Glasper’s electronic neo-soul jazz fusion, with heavy sampling from Davis’s large body of recorded work, including both the trumpeter’s music and voice.

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As the album’s cover art, created by Francine Turk based upon Miles’s own artwork suggests (and tinged with the heavy influence of Basquiat), Everything’s Beautiful is largely an impressionistic effort.  While its songs are built around Miles samples, it is often difficult to tell where samples end and new material begins.  Tribute albums often consist predominantly of cover versions of key tracks from the original artist’s repertoire.  However, Everything’s Beautiful features a starkly different approach—the closest thing to a cover on Everything’s Beautiful is Georgia Anne Muldrow’s reading of “Miles Ahead,” an electronic reimagining of the iconic tune that features Glasper’s only piano solo on the disc. Much of the record depends on creative sampling—rather than grabbing a tune’s hook (a la US3’s “Cantaloop”), Glasper and company pick small bits and pieces to construct their new tracks.  “I’m Leaving You,” for instance, is punctuated by a sample of Miles saying “Wait a Minute” atop a Lenny White drum pattern.  John Scofield (a Davis band alum) grooves and solos on the funky track while Ledisi lays down R&B inflected vocals.  This sampling technique also informs the album’s opener, “Talking Shit,” on which Glasper and company lay down instrumental grooves combined with a sample of Davis talking about playing, likely recorded in the studio between takes.

The album is chock full of other superstar guests—Bilal appears on “Ghetto Walkin’”, Illa J (J-Dilla’s younger brother, who Glasper knew from his days hanging out at Dilla’s house with Kareem Wiggins and) lends vocals to “They Can’t Hold Me Down,” Eyrkah Badu sings on “Maiysha (So Long)” and even Stevie Wonder makes an appearance, playing harmonica on the instrumental “Right on Brother.” Each of these cuts reflects the featured artists’ as well as Glasper’s interpretation of Davis’s legacy, lending broad room for experimentation in hip hop, funk, soul, R&B, and jazz, as the individual collaborator sees fit.

What this album lacks in cohesiveness or definition it makes up for in droves with experimentation.  Everything’s Beautiful draws upon Miles Davis the innovator, using the trumpeter’s words and music as a springboard for new sounds and approaches, solidifying jazz and hip hop through Glasper’s tasteful neo-soul production. I must emphasize that there is nothing definitive about this album—it is certainly not the final word on the trumpeter’s musical legacy and represents only one part of Miles.  But the adventurousness that these artists purvey is certainly a fitting tribute to a musician who was on the vanguard of all of the major jazz movements during his lifetime.

 

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

View review June 1st, 2016

marcus strickland_nihil Novi

Title: Nihil Novi

Artist: Marcus Strickland’s Twi-Life

Label: Blue Note

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: April 15,2016

 

 

Jazz is the DNA of Marcus Strickland’s Twi-Life’s album Nihil Novi, produced by well-known avant-garde soul singer and bassist, Meshell Ndegeocello. This release is a collection of experimental expressionist jazz, playing upon the listener’s expectations as a strategy to arouse an emotional response. Expressionism is an undercurrent in many of the most recent contemporary jazz releases, such as Kamasi Washington’s The Epic and Terrace Martin’s Velvet Portraits. Perhaps this wave of expressionistic jazz is brought to us by hip hop culture or African American social and political dissent, channeling the emotional component of critique and protest. Might it be part of a larger wave or even school of jazz that the history books might look back on as characteristic of the 2010s? What we know is that Nihil Novi is an album of incredible compositions that are some of the best produced in contemporary jazz. Its songs give a listener some sort of triumphant feeling of melancholy, or what writer Albert Murray would describe as a feeling that can “stomp the blues.”

Every musician delivers on Nihil Novi. Twi-Life is made up of trumpeter Keyon Harrold, bassist Kyle Miles, drummer Charles Haynes, organist Mitch Henry, and keyboardist Masayuki Hirano. Singer Jean Baylor, bassists Pino Palladino and Meshell Ndegeocello, keyboardist James Francies, drummer Chris Dave, guitarist Chris Bruce, and pianist Robert Glasper also contribute. The end product is an album of poignant nuance, thrilling through its multitude of precise sounds and gorgeous songs. If the pieces on Nihil Novi were paintings, they would all be colored in dark hues. All of its songs were expressly composed for this album and fulfill the ambition that much American music has to take a look at the underbelly of things, even though this desire seems to be less present in contemporary jazz than other genres. The record’s songs are poignant, often sounding as if they were deliberately produced to leave us feeling unhinged.

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“Talking Loud” features an excellent blend of saxophone, organ, singing and drumming. While the track’s subdued vocals (sung by Jean Baylor) take on a kind of emotionally numbing effect, the band’s playing is this cut’s most engaging feature. Baylor is also featured on “Alive,” which sounds like an R&B song accompanied by a jazz combo. On these two tracks, the vocalist takes turns with Marcus Strickland at being the center of attention, but ultimately the band’s leader delivers a more impressive performance.  “Sissoko’s Voyage” might be one of this year’s best jazz songs—its melody and rhythm exuding a spiritual, infectious optimism. “Cherish Family,” “Celestelude,” “Drive,” and “Mantra” are all expertly composed and played, while “Inevitable” smacks of soul jazz and is perhaps the one song in which Baylor’s vocals shine brightest. “Cycle” may be one of the very best compositions of the year. It speaks to eros and ethos: the pursuit of both laughter and seriousness through balanced living. This is jazz that plays to our notions of play and of contemplation, creating emotional balance through musical proportions. Some will also be reminded of Miles Davis’s experiments in jazz fusion in the later part of his career.

Nihil Novi is one of the best jazz releases so far this year, and is also one of the strongest efforts by a group in any genre. Each and every song is surprising, all the while being deeply rooted in the “stomping the blues” tradition that informs most excellent African American music, and informed by its own moment in American cultural history.

 

Reviewed by Adolf Alzuphar

View review June 1st, 2016

bill evans_some other time

Title: Some Other Time: The Lost Session from the Black Forest

Artist: Bill Evans, with Eddie Gomez and Jack DeJohnette

Label: Resonance Records

Format: 2-CD set, MP3

Release date: April 22, 2016

 

Bill Evans’ earliest issued recordings date from 1943, but his fame began to develop with his heralded recordings for Bill Grauer at Riverside Records, beginning with New Jazz Conceptions in 1956. He recorded as a sideman before and after that debut, including recordings led by Tony Scott, George Russell, Gunther Schuller, and Charles Mingus; however his most famous early affiliation, beginning in 1958, was with Miles Davis, interspersed with occasional recordings with other emerging stars, including sessions led by Cannonball Adderley and Chet Baker. One could simply not imagine a richer apprenticeship for a career that continued until a final recording on September 8, 1980, fittingly called His Last Performance. (For those with ties to Indiana University, two of George Russell’s recordings with Bill Evans also included our own beloved David Baker and, with regard to the rich jazz legacy of Indianapolis, a later recording led by J.J. Johnson.)

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Evans can be enjoyed at many levels. His early Riverside recordings were criticized by some as resembling “cocktail piano.” Time clearly does not honor such comments made by some early critics. Throughout his career, Evans remained faithful to improvisational approaches that constantly reflect the underlying melodies. His love for certain tunes was clear; however, the rhythmic and harmonic variations that increasingly entered his vocabulary as a performing artist established his reputation as one of the finest pianists and artists in the history of recorded jazz music. His rich legacy survives in various studio, concert, and club recordings, as well as in a large number of bootleg issues. His popularity has led to multiple releases over the years packaged as deluxe box sets that document all stages of his career.

Some Other Time is simply the latest released recording in his career, featuring a full day of recording captured on June 20, 1968, in the legendary studio of Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer in Germany’s Black Forest. A number of recordings on his MPS/Saba/BASF label featured pianists, and the sound quality of all that I have heard is superb. When the label was acquired by Universal/Verve, the series of albums by Oscar Peterson was featured in two fine CD sets. This recording by Bill Evans would fit nicely into that series. Due to problems obtaining legal rights, this music remained unissued until now, perhaps because of Evans’ ongoing relationship with Verve Records at the time.

The late 1960s was a busy recording time for Herr Brunner-Schwer, and this session is nestled chronologically amidst several releases by one of Europe’s most famous jazz groups, the Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland Big Band, a group he extensively documented on MPS records. Fortunately, despite his busy schedule, there was time for this relaxed, invited studio performance following Evans’ appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival. The Verve album released from that performance won Evans his second Grammy ® award, yet another indication of the level he reached in this trio with DeJohnette (drums) and Gomez (bass). Perhaps the fact that DeJohnette played the piano before shifting his attention to drums played a role in framing their relationship?

Some Other Time is one of the finest recordings in the recent series of releases by Resonance Records. Evans is relaxed. His approach is pure. The surroundings suited him. The sound quality is ideal, capturing subtle nuances in the performance of these fine tunes. Recordings with this particular version of the trio can only be heard in one other place, the box set The Secret Sessions (Milestone 8MCD-4421-1), although the musicians are also included in another released recording with John Lewis. Perhaps recordings will surface some day from the Trio’s subsequent four week booking at Ronnie Scott’s club in London, for that, too, was a special place.

The notes that accompany this new release are well prepared; however, I am personally moved to add that the first CD closes with the finest and most moving performance of Leonard Bernstein’s “Some Other Time” that I have ever heard. It may be just my mood of the moment, but Evans’ performance strikes me as deeply personal and reflective. It rightly serves at the chosen title for this remarkable album. Emotional responses to musical performances are always very personal, and others may obviously disagree with me on this point, as I might even feel at a different time. But this tune was positioned as a climax near the end of Bernstein’s On the Town, and in that role caused us to think about what may lie in our futures. Evans’ future was clouded by the legacy of his drug use, but here he fills us with a sense of awe, wonder, and hope.

Obviously I am a fan of Evans’ artistry, holding many of his audio and video recordings in my personal collection. Some Other Time: The Lost Session from the Black Forest serves two purposes: to provide an introduction for those who have not listened to Evans before, and to deepen the appreciation of his talent for those who, like me, have enjoyed many of his recordings in the past. Long ago, when I had a weekly radio program on a Purdue University student-run station, I used Evans’ recording of “The Washington Twist” as my theme song. That takes me waaaay back. But this music, while recorded in 1968, is truly for all of us today.

Reviewed by Thomas P. Hustad

 

View review June 1st, 2016

walker family singers_panola county spirit

Title: Panola County Spirit

Artist: Walker Family Singers

Label: Daptone Records

Formats: CD, Digital (MP3/320, FLAC, WAV), Vinyl

Release date: March 18, 2016

 

 

Music and place often go hand-in-hand.  Take the Mississippi Delta, for example.  The region’s association with the blues has made the city of Clarksdale a site of pilgrimage: one can visit the Delta Blues Museum, explore the Mississippi Blues Trail, and visit the famous Juke Joint Festival.

Recording engineer Michael Reilly asks us to consider a less-explored musical tradition of Mississippi’s Delta—a capella gospel music.  To make his case, Reilly has recorded three albums of sacred African American music in Como, Mississippi— just thirty miles from Clarksdale—for Daptone Records. His third release, Panola County Spirit, features the gifted Walker Family Singers.  Known throughout Como for their musical talent, the group is spread over two generations: parents Raymond and Joella; daughters Alberta, Patricia, and Delouse; and sons Bobby and Robert—all of whom appear on the album.

Just like their music, faith has been a practice shared among the Walker Family.  They identify themselves as “vessels for God” and understand music as a tool to deepen their relationship with Jesus. The Walker’s commitment to the Lord is strong—Raymond Walker even turned down offers to tour with legendary musicians Fred McDowell and Sam Cooke, as he committed himself to making music for the Lord, rather than commercial gain. Through seventeen tracks of spirituals, hymns, and quartet-style singing, Panola County Spirit features the Walker Family in both individual and group settings.  In harmony, the Walker Family Singers shine on “Jesus Gave Me Water”—a classic gospel quartet performance.  The song’s abridged rendition leaves the listener with feet tapping and a thirst for more.

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The individual performances from the Walker Family hold just as much power as their ensemble offerings.  On “Make Me Real,” daughter Patricia Walker begs with a disciple’s conviction for Jesus to “teach [her] heart what’s right.”  Joella Walker’s lament on “Had My Chance” is a chilling reflection upon missed opportunities to praise the Lord during a life that is coming to an end. While the majority of Panola County Spirit is a capella, “Oh Lord Hear My Voice” and “Leave That Liar Alone” feature clapping and body percussion.  Their heightened energy, as compared to other tracks on the album, leaves one to wonder about the power of these songs when performed in Como’s local churches.

The strong recording quality on the album is worth noting, especially since the songs were recorded in Raymond and Joella’s living room.  On the other hand, Michael Reilly’s liner notes, at times, raise eyebrows.  He calls the process of recording the Walker Family Singers “fishing these old dark songs” (are these “old” songs not being sung today?), and places his own interpretation of the album’s music in front of the Walker Family’s sacred associations.

Production questions aside, Panola County Spirit proves two things: that the Mississippi Delta is rich in music beyond the blues, and that the Walker Family Singers are some of the region’s best voices to praise His holy name.

 

Reviewed by Douglas Dowling Peach

 

 

View review June 1st, 2016

leyla mccalla_a day for the hunter

Title: A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey

Artist: Leyla McCalla

Label: Jazz Village/Harmonia Mundi

Formats: CD, MP3, LP

Release date: May 27, 2016

 

 

The goal of multi-instrumentalist Leyla McCalla’s project is to link the musical heritages of three areas: Haiti, Southern Louisiana, and the larger United States.  On her second album, A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey, McCalla draws from each of these traditions, as well as her own compositions, for an album that navigates between haunting reflections and carefree charm.

A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey is inspired by a book of the same title, written by ethnomusicologist Gage Averill.  The work explores popular music, power, and politics in Haiti. Keeping with this theme, McCalla’s covers “Manman,” by Haitian singer-songwriter and political activist Manno Charlemagne, in a lilting political statement.  On “Manman,” McCalla is joined by Rhiannon Giddens, her former bandmate from the Carolina Chocolate Drops.  Their experience sharing harmonies translates beautifully to this new context.

McCalla’s focus on folklore and politics moves to a darker place with a cover of “Vietnam”—Abner Jay’s haunting reflection on going to war. “Salangadou”—a creole song about a distraught mother seeking her child—finds McCalla and vocalist Sarah Quintana reflecting the song’s helplessness with a sorrowful interpretation: Their voices weave in and out of key, much like a mother’s emotions at the thought of losing their loved one.  The title track is an ominous performance, exhibiting the beautiful insecurity of McCalla’s voice.  This aesthetic adds an urgency throughout the album.

The entirety of McCalla’s album, however, does not focus on life’s heavy tribulations.  The light-hearted “Bluerunner” shows off a rollicking good time between fiddler Louis Michot, ti fer (triangle) player Daniel Tremblay, and McCalla on cello.  McCalla’s cello is a constant presence throughout the disc, moving between solid accompaniment and a subtle lyricism.

Watch the music video for A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey:

While A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey is an ambitious, transnational, and well-performed project, McCalla has yet to construct a focused bridge between the heritages she represents.  As such, the album can feel disconnected amidst its individual tracks.  Despite this shortcoming, A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey is a sound contribution to the musical map of hopes, fears, and history that link the Afro-Atlantic.

Reviewed by Douglas Dowling Peach

 

 

View review June 1st, 2016

staple singers_amen_why

Title:  Amen! / Why

Artist: Staple Singers

Label: Real Gone Music

Format: CD

Release date: May 6, 2016

 

On this new two-for-one reissue, Real Gone Music makes available for the first time on CD the first two Staple Singers studio albums on Columbia’s Epic label, released just after the group left Orrin Keepnews’ Riverside label (which subsequently folded in 1964). Amen! was recorded in Chicago in October 1964 and was released in 1965, while Why, released the following year, was recorded primarily in Nashville.  Though these two albums marked an attempt to greatly expand the audience for the Staple Singers by utilizing the significant muscle of Columbia’s marketing department, they did not resort pop-oriented songs but chose to emphasized the sacred over the secular.  Both albums display the group’s church music roots, featuring Pops Staple’s updated arrangements of traditional religious songs and spirituals such as “Mary Don’t You Weep” and “If I Could Hear My Mother Pray.”

Noteable tracks on Amen! include Pops Staples’ “More Than a Hammer and Nail” (originally released in 1962 on Riverside), featuring the soulful voice of Mavis, and his “Do Something for Yourself” which presages their later hit “Respect Yourself.” Also included are two songs, “As an Eagle Stirreth Her Nest” and “My Jesus Is All,” by Rev. W. H. Brewster—the legendary Memphis-based gospel hitmaker. The album concludes with the title track “Amen” by Jester Hairston, popularized the previous year by the Staples’ fellow Chicagoans, The Impressions. Again, the Staples’ take a more traditional approach, retaining the marching beat of the snare drum and frequent key changes, but slowing the tempo significantly and, of course, dispensing with the somewhat over-the-top horn section.

The follow-up album opens with the title track, Why? (Am I Treated So Bad), a commentary on segregation and the Little Rock Nine which became a standard during the Civil Rights Movement (the Staple Singers later reissued the song using a rhythm section).   Other highlights include Pops’ arrangements of the traditional songs “(I’ve Been ‘Buked) I’ve Been Scorned” and “I’m Gonna Tell God (About My Troubles),” the uptempo “King of Kings,” the Pervis composed and sung “Step Aside,” and the closing song “Move Along Train” featuring Mavis in the lead with Cleotha singing back-up.

These two albums showcase the sound of the Staple Singers before they became ambassadors of the gospel soul era and fill in gaps on the recent 4-CD box set, Faith & Grace: A Family Journey 1953-1976.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review June 1st, 2016

Following are additional albums released during May 2016—some will be reviewed in future issues of Black Grooves.

Blues, Folk, Country
Eric Bibb: Happiest Man In The World (Stony Plain)

Classical
Pumeza Matshikiza: Arias (Decca)

Gospel, Gospel Rap
Mighty Clouds of Joy: Millennium Collection – 20th Century Masters Vol. 2 (MCA)
Tim Bowman Jr.: Listen (Lifestyle Music Group LLC)
Puntin: Gold (Puntanious Ent.)
Reverend C. Coleman: Rock Gospel Time (reissue)
LIVRE: Jericho: Tribe Of Joshua (Bellamy)
Blind Boys of Alabama: Spirit Of The Century (expanded ed.) (Omnivore)
Echoaires: Stronger Than Ever (Ecko)
Micah Stampley: To The King…Vertical Worship (eOne)
Latice Crawford: Diary of a Church Girl (ECHO PARK JDI)

Jazz
Gregory Porter: Take Me To The Alley (Blue Note)
Black Milk and Not Turner: The Rebellion Sessions (Computer Ugly Records)
Miles Davis: Chicago Jazz Festival 1990: The Classic Broadcast (Go Faster)
Chrisette Michele: Milestone 1 – Minimalism (Universal)
Lafayette Harris Jr. : Hangin’ With The Big Boys (Airmen Records)
Phyllis Blanford: Edgewalker
Cannonball Adderley Quintet: The Price You Got to Pay to Be Free (Real Gone)
Cannonball Adderley Quintet: Music, You All (Real Gone)
Noah Preminger: Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground (NoahPreminger.com)
Jack DeJohnette/Ravi Coltrane/Matthew Garrison: In Movement (ECM)
Davell Crawford : Piano in the Vaults, No. 1 (Basin Street)
Maxine Sullivan: Great Songs from the Cotton Club (reissue) (Harbinger)
Allen Toussaint: The Complete Warner Recordings (Rhino/Warner Bros.)
Rene Marie: Sound of Red (Motemo)
Chico Freeman 4-Tet: Spoken Into Existence (Jive)
Defunkt: Live at Channel Zero (ESP-DISK )
Allen Toussaint: The Complete Warner Recordings (re-release) (Rhino/Warner Bros.)
Ivo Perelman & Matthew Shipp: Soul (Leo)
Ivo Perelman & Matthew Shipp: Corpo (Leo)
René Marie: Sound of Red (Motema Music)
Cyrus Chestnut: Natural Essence (Highnote)
JD Allen: Americana – Musings on Jazz and Blues (Savant)
Luis Perdomo : Spirits and Warriors (Criss Cross)
Dayme Arocena: One Takes (Brownswood)

R&B, Soul
Trammps: The Legendary Zing Album (Fever Dreams)
Smiley Lewis: Collection: 1947-61 (Acrobat)
Nancy Wilson: The Early Years, 1956-62 (Acrobat)
Gloria Gaynor: Glorious: Expanded Ed. (BBR)
The Independents: Just As Long – The Complete Wand Recordings 1972-74 (Kent)
Billy Ocean: Here You Are: The Best of (Sony)
Esther Phillips: Capricorn Princess: Expanded Ed. (SoulMusic)
Kool & The Gang: Emergency (deluxe ed.) (BBR)
Beyoncé: Lemonade (Columbia)
George McCrae: Love (Popmi Music)
Corinne Bailey Rae: The Heart Speaks In Whispers (Virgin)
Slim: Re-Fueled (Shanachie)
Trammps: Trammps III (expanded ed.) (BBR)
Fifth Harmony: *7/27* (Syco Music/Epic)
Fly Moon Royalty: Delicious Trouble (Self issued)
Jermaine Jackson: Dynamite (expanded ed.) (Funky Town Grooves)
Tavares: Words & Music (expanded ed.) (Funky Town Grooves)
Audrey Wheeler: Let It Be Me (expanded ed.) (Funky Town Grooves)
T.K. Soul: Legacy (Music Access Inc.)
Maxine Brown: Funny Kind of Feeling: Complete 1960-1962 Recordings (Jasmine Music)
Rich Medina: Presents Jump ‘N’ Funk (BBE)
Bernie Worrell: Retrospectives (Purple Woo)
Real Thing: Live At The Liverpool Philharmonic 2013 (Angel Air)
Ro James: Eldorado (RCA)

Rap, Hip Hop
Kaytranada: 99.9% (XL)
Elzhi: Lead Poison (Slum Village)
Slum Village: Fan-Tas-Tic (Box set)(Get on Down)
M1 (Dead Prez) & Bonnot: Between Me And The World (Krian Music Group)
Yawl: A pile to keep, a pile to burn (Anette)
Bryan Ford & Killah Priest: Future of Hip Hop (Revolutionary Music)
Homeboy Sandman: Kindness for Weakness (Stones Throw)
Jay Dee/J Dilla: Jay Love Japan (Vintage Vibes)
Ohbliv: Bakers Dozen (Fat Beats)
The Legendary Traxster: Black Saints (digital) (Legendary Traxster Inc.)
Chance the Rapper: Coloring Book mixtape (download)
Oddisee: The Odd Tape (Mello Music Group)
David Banner: The God Box (A Banner Vision)
Cymarshall Law & Mr. Joeker: Hip Hop In The Soul III (Freedom Ent.)
Havoc & Alchemist: Silent Partner (Babygrande Records)
Afroman: Happy To Be Alive (X-Ray)
Masta Ace: Falling Season (Showdown / Hhv.De)
J-Zone: Fish-N-Grits (Old Maid Ent.)
Unity Lewis (ft. George Clinton): 7th Dynasty (Unity Lewis Arts and Entertainment)
Zo!: Skybreak (Foreign Exchange)
Zodiac Mprint: Ride the Stars EP (Majik Ninja)
DJ Quik and Problem: Rosecrans  (Diamond Lane Music)
Various: Boombox: Early Independent Hip-Hop, Electro and Disco Rap 1979-82 (Soul Jazz)
Skepta: Konnichiwa (Better Boy Know)
DâM-Funk: DJ Kicks (K7)
Jigmastas: Resurgence (BBE)
Legalizers (Paul Wall & Baby Bash): Legalize or Die (Paul Wall Music)

Reggae, Dancehall
Gregory Isaacs: Warning (Dubstore)
Henry ‘Junjo’ Lawes: Junjo Presents: Heavyweight Dub Champion(Greensleeves)
Henry ‘Junjo’ Lawes: Junjo Presents: Evil Curse of the Vampire (Greensleeves)
Ernest Ranglin: Boss Reggae (Dubstore)
Henry ‘Junjo’ Lawes: Junjo Presents: Big Showdown (Greensleeves)
Alboroise: Freedom & Fyah (VP)
Tippa Lee: Cultural Ambassador (VP)
Ziggy Marley: Ziggy Marley (VP)
Count Ossie & The Mystic Revelation Of Rastafari: Man From Higher Heights (Soul Jazz)
The Sea: Red String Riddim EP (Tru Thoughts)
Raging Fyah: Everlasting (VP)
Wailers: Wailing Wailers (reissue) (Studio One)

World
Family Atlantica: Cosmic Unity (Soundway)
Elza Soares: woman at the end of the world (Mais Um Discos)
Debo Band: Ere Gobez (FPE)

View review June 1st, 2016

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