This month we’re featuring an Overview of Holiday Musicwith new releases from Andra Day, Leslie Odom Jr., Bob Baldwin, Kenny Lattimore, R. Kelly and Big Freedia. Our Recent Books on Music Recommended for Holiday Givinginclude biographies of Charles Wright (Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band), New Orleans jazz legend Danny Barker, soul icon Curtis Mayfield, and EW&F’s Maurice White, as well as Ben Westoff’s Original Gangstas: The Untold Story of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur, and the Birth of West Coast Rap and Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader.
Rapper/actor/activist Common returns with his 11th full length album, Black America Again, a strong political and social document about race in 21st century America. He has always had something serious to say, but Common digs even deeper on this record, citing his sources and bringing penetrating social commentary to a musical soundscape as powerful as his political messages.
Social issues have always figured prominently in the Grammy and Oscar-winning musician’s work. Race takes center stage on the title track, a cut that reveals the triumphs and tragedies of African American history but suggests that the issue of interpretation is central to how this history is applied to present struggles. The track features sermonettes between verses, and a hook that features the great Stevie Wonder singing “We are rewriting the Black American story.” Common continues these themes on “Letter to the Free,” a song that addresses the long and brutal history of violence and discrimination against Black people in the United States. “Letter to the Free” presents the argument advanced in Michelle Alexander’s seminal text The New Jim Crow that mass incarceration is the latest incarnation of systemic racism in America.
Common isn’t just spitballing, either. He knows the facts about these issues, asserting the academic and cultural fabric that makes up his critical perspective on “The Day That Women Took Over,” featuring BJ the Chicago Kid. The rapper proclaims that “Michelle Alexander wrote the new Constitution / Beyonce made the music for the revolution.” The song is an ode to Black womanhood, released prior to the presidential election. While the cultural points he makes about the game-changing contributions of Black women cannot be ignored, this song now feels more aspirational than it did prior to November 8. One could easily imagine a situation in which this track could serve as the soundtrack for a victory lap by the first female US president. Rather, it now seems more a reminder that the political fight for equality still rages, despite the fact that the cultural one may appear to be over.
In addition to getting political, social, and historical, Common gets very personal on Black America Again, with “Little Chicago Boy,” a song that narrates the life of his late father, the professional basketball player Lonnie Lynn. Gospel singer Tasha Cobbs is featured on this track, singing a stanza of the hymn “Father, I Stretch My Hands to Thee.”
Most of this album is harder-edged than the jazz and soul-inflected rap that Common is known for, with sparser tracks, more contemporary textures and aggressive sampling (especially of spoken word) than fans of the rapper’s earlier work may expect. The standout feature is the presence of the Black church on this record, something that listeners who have heard 2016’s other seminal rap releases—Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo and Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book—will recognize as a crucial part of the hip hop landscape. What differentiates Common’s treatment from these others is that gospel music is less an integral part of the music—he employs sacred song and sermon to drive home his broader points on specific songs, rather than building his sound around these genres.
There are some gestures to the pop music market on this otherwise brainy artistic and social statement. Foremost among these is the duet track with longtime collaborator John Legend, a ballad with an ear to the pop market that Legend cornered with his piano-driven style. This song, “Rain,” will inevitably be a radio hit: it is vague enough to be about a number of things, but melodic enough to catch the ears of listeners who aren’t hardcore rap fans. In fact, it feels more like a John Legend song than a Common one. Accompanied only by Legend’s piano, Common gets just one verse, a formula far more resonant with the singer-feat. rapper model than rapper-feat. singer one. There are other songs that aren’t explicitly political. “Love Song” and “Red Wine” fall more into the club slow-jam category than something one may expect on a political mixtape, but even the latter reads as a celebration of Black American royalty and the rapper’s status within it.
Hopefully, Black America Again will usher in an era of similarly specific and poignant social and political commentary from both Common and other rappers in his vein. Election years are normally brimming with political releases, and this is by far one of the strongest of the bunch. Common’s politics are clear, certain, and compelling—his musical orchestrations of them uncompromising. Conscious listeners will need more releases like this in the years to come, and it seems like Common is primed to deliver them.
A Seat at the Table is Solange’s third full-length album, and debuted to wide critical acclaim as well as a great deal of commercial success, for good reason. The album is a force of nature, ethereal and almost delicate at times, yet tackles some of the heaviest aspects of black life today. She sings about the range of the black experience and black womanhood, from depression on “Cranes in the Sky” to the pivotal and still relevant decree, “Don’t Touch My Hair.” “F.U.B.U.” is a self-determination anthem bearing the name of the ‘90s clothing brand, and “Mad” explores the seemingly perpetual regulation of black anger and frustration.
Several key collaborators help to bring the album’s vision together, including Solange’s parents. Both provide important interludes, with her father discussing school integration in “Dad Was Mad” and Mama Tina outlining the importance of affirming one’s blackness in “Tina Taught Me.” Most of the other interludes are handled by Master P, who recounts his own stories about self-worth as a young rapper coming up in the music industry. The album was co-produced by Raphael Saddiq, whose laid back funk grooves provide the perfect setting for Solange’s vocals.
This album is all the hashtags one could hope for: it’s #woke, full of #blackexcellence and #blackgirlmagic. However, A Seat at the Table is more than just part of the Black Twitter news cycle. It has staying power, it shows how Solange has grown and settled into her artistry, and it sets an example of what political music can (and should) be in these trying times.
On the 2-disc set Basically Baker, Vol. 2, the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra celebrates the big band legacy of the late David N. Baker. The celebrated performer/composer founded the Jazz Studies program in 1968 at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, where he was a beloved mentor to countless students over the decades—some of whom are featured on this project. The first Basically Baker volume was recorded in 2005, and though trombonist Brent Wallarab said Baker talked to him for quite some time about a second volume, Baker’s death this March at the age of 84 gave the project the momentum it needed. For Wallarab, “the project was a way we could all channel our grief into something productive that honored David’s wishes to care for his music after he was gone.”
Basically Baker, Vol. 2 is remarkable because it features music that was previously performed almost exclusively at Indiana University. Contributing to the challenge of honoring Baker’s legacy are many of Baker’s students and protégés, such as Wallarab, saxophonist Tom Walsh, trumpeters Mark Buselli and Pat Harbison, and pianist Luke Gillespie, who form the main jazz orchestra. Special guests also appear on the album, and according to Wallarab, “many musicians cancelled or rescheduled other commitments already on the books to participate.” Trumpeter and multi-Grammy winner Randy Brecker, an IU alum, and IU jazz faculty guitarist Dave Stryker play on Baker’s composition for his granddaughter, “Kirsten’s First Song,” and IU jazz faculty trombonist and Patois Records label founder Wayne Wallace is featured on “Honesty.” A version of “Honesty” performed at the IU Jacobs School of Music can be seen below:
Basically Baker, Vol. 2 is not just a monument to Baker’s music, but also to his legacy and accomplishments. David Nathaniel Baker was born in Indianapolis in 1931, when the country was racially segregated, and jazz was a new, controversial form of music. Much had changed by the time of his death in 2016, and Baker contributed to these transitions through his jazz and classical compositions, his mastery of the trombone and cello, and his role as a pioneering jazz educator. In fact, many of the compositions featured on this album are from his extremely prolific first decade at IU. Baker loved using blues, popular song, and bebop in his jazz compositions, and even worked with Dizzy Gillespie for his arrangement of “Bebop,” the only non-Baker composition that appears on the album.
Through compositions such as “25th and Martindale” and “Harlem Pipes,” Baker honored his home, his family, and the global jazz community. Now on Basically Baker, Vol. 2, Baker’s own work and life is honored. The album posthumously furthers David Baker’s mission “to create, to swing, and to teach,” and cements his legacy by preserving his music for generations to come.
Editor’s note: One of Baker’s early projects at IU was the edited volume The Black Composer Speaks (1978). Interviews and research materials used for the production of the book are housed at the IU Archives of African American Music and Culture and described on this collection finding aid.
Multi-instrumentalist folk music enthusiasts Martin Simpson, an English singer and songwriter, and Dom Flemons, co-founder of the Grammy Award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, were commission in 2014 by the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) to explore the musical exchange between their respective folk song traditions. The duo combed the Cecil Sharp House archives, where they discovered many of the traditional songs they chose to revive. The result of their collaboration is Ever Popular Favourites, a collection of English and American folk music recorded live during the duo’s 2015 tour.
The album liner notes, written by Flemons and Simpson, provide first-hand impressions as well as their descriptions of the music. On the opening track, “My Money Never Runs Out,” Flemons sings and plays plectrum banjo while Simpson provides rhythm on acoustic guitar. Originally recorded by Gus Cannon, aka Banjo Joe, and ragtime guitarist Blind Blake in 1927, this “coon” song was released on Paramount Records. Flemons explains in the liner notes that raucous “coon” songs brought mainstream attention to Black entertainers in the U.S. at the time.
“John Hardy,” a song made famous by Leadbelly’s recording, has been arranged by Simpson to highlight his mastery of fingerpicking technique on the acoustic guitar. “If I Lose” follows with Flemons singing a falsetto blues melody along to a duet of mellow slide guitar vibratos. “Little Sadie,” a ballad that’s been performed by Hedy West, Doc Watson, the Grateful Dead, and many other folk musicians, picks up the pace with an arrangement featuring a bones rhythm and 5-string banjo.
According to Simpson, “Short Time Come Again No More” (track 6) is an English parody of Stephen Foster’s classic American song “Hard Times Come Again No More,” though its origin remains a mystery in his explanation. Simpson discusses how his early guitar playing was heavily influenced by Mississippi John Hurt’s “Pay Day,” a song arranged on this album for slide guitar featuring a steady fingerpicking style resembling that of Hurt. This stylistic inspiration can be heard again on “Too Long (I’ve Been Gone),” the only original song on the album, written by Flemons about the life of a touring musician.
“Bulldoze Blues” and “Coalman Blues” both incorporate dark lyrical themes into otherwise joyful instrumental tunes, especially since they feature Flemons playing the quills, a traditional African American pan flute. Talented on a variety of instruments, Flemons plays bones on “Buckeye Jim” and “Champagne Charlie,” and further demonstrates his innovative creativity by performing electric kettle instead of using a traditional jug on the recording of “Stealin’.”
Hopefully Simpson and Flemons will share more selections from their expansive repertoire of traditional English and American folk music in the near future as a follow up to this thoroughly entertaining album.
Of the many musical titans to have passed on in 2016, Sharon Jones was one of the best. With a one of a kind voice and an undeniable stage presence, Jones made her career as a soul singer captivating audiences all over the world. Miss Sharon Jones (2015), directed by Barbara Kopple, details both her battle with pancreatic cancer and her triumphant comeback with her backing band The Dap-Kings. In addition to the documentary, Daptone released the original soundtrack album featuring Jones’s music, with several of the tracks coming from her landmark 2007 album with the Dap-Kings, 100 Days 100 Nights. Other tracks include “Longer and Stronger,” from the 2010 soundtrack For Colored Girls, as well as “I’m Still Here,” an exclusive track for the documentary and also the last song released by Jones before her passing. Overall, Miss Sharon Jones and the accompanying soundtrack album serve as a fitting send off to a musical icon.
This collection of powerful and eclectic choral music is the first album dedicated entirely to celebrating Trevor Weston’s compositions. The Grammy nominated Choir of Trinity Wall Street performs under famed conductor Julian Wachner, with the Trinity Youth Chorus and NOVUS NY (Trinity’s resident contemporary music orchestra) providing accompaniment on a few selections. Weston is Associate Professor of Music at Drew University and has received several honors throughout his career, including the George Ladd Prix de Paris from the University of California, Berkeley; a Goddard Lieberson Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; and residencies from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the MacDowell Colony.
Weston embraces both sacred and poetic influences in his musical compositions. In the album liner notes he discusses the inspiration and motivations for each piece. For instance, Weston wrote “My Heart Hath Trusted in God” after searching through collections of short expressive texts from the English Gradual while working as music director at a small Anglo-Catholic church in Berkeley.
Certain compositions reflect expressions of collective African American experiences. “Truth Tones” was written to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the “revelation of hidden truths” using texts from the African Saint Augustine and the African American poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar. In “O Daedalus, Fly Away Home,” the choir engages in a percussive stomp and clap similar to the traditional juba patting performed during slavery. The piece was based on a poem by Robert Hayden that combines Greek mythology with the African American folktale, “Flying Africans,” to evoke the spiritual flight away from adversity.
The still and static sorrow present in “Ashes” is a response to the attacks on 9/11 and the senseless violence and suffering reverberating throughout the world. The voices echoing during the song represent the cries for mercy. As Weston explains, “The drama builds to a symbolic creation of the two towers, a ‘tall’ chord consisting of two notes for each voice part.” This eight-minute composition draws from Psalm 102, acting as a prayer in the face of terror:
Hear my prayer, O lord,
And let my crying come unto thee.
My days are gone like a shadow.
And I am withered like grass
The final tracks on this album consist of five movements called “Ma’at Musings.” Conductor Julian Wachner commissioned Weston to create this piece in 2004, in which he incorporated 5th century BCE Egyptian texts. Describing the movements, Weston states, “The texts are earthly and direct so I composed a musical fantasy responding to striking words from the ancient world.”
This 15-track album eloquently expresses Weston’s interest in exploring the limits of creativity within sacred and secular thematic elements.
Reissue label Dust-to-Digital made a big splash with their inaugural release Goodbye, Babylon in 2003. The wonderfully packaged multidisc box set explored many long forgotten and unreleased songs by gospel artists and sermons from preachers recorded in the early 20th century.
One of the standouts from that collection was the work of one Washington Phillips (1880-1954). On his two tracks included on Goodbye, Babylon, Phillips’ singing is backed by a mysterious instrument of his own creation called a Manzarene. Those two tracks sparked a renewed interest in Phillips, leading to a search for more recordings. Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams is a newly remastered and expanded edition of Phillips’ worked pulled from original 78-rpm discs recorded between 1927-1929.
As with many high quality box set releases, an excellent complement to the music itself is the pristine 76 page hardcover book/liner notes included with this collection (the CD is slipped inside the front cover). The book traces the legend of Washington Phillips from birth to death, debunking oft retold misinformation that may have been circulated in prior collections of his work. Tapping people that knew the man himself, as well as his own meticulous research, writer Michael Corcoran explores the history of Phillips dating back to his grandfather, born into slavery in 1801, and up to Phillips’ death in 1954. Along the way Corcoran details stories about Phillips’ home life, career, the creation of the aforementioned manzarene and even a cousin with the same name whose life journey ended much differently than Phillips’ own. The book also includes photos and reproductions that help bring Phillips’ story to life, contextualizing his musical contributions. His work has since been covered by artists such as Arizona Dranes, Mavis Staples and Phish. This deep dive into Phillips’ gospel blues has unearthed gems that are sure to make more converts of artists and fans alike.
Founded in 1959 in L.A. by Sylvester C. “Duke” Henderson, Proverb Records, and its affiliated Gospel Corner label, were a natural outgrowth of Henderson’s entrepreneurial activities. Over the course of his career he worked as a deejay and concert promoter, songwriter and publisher, owned a record store on South Central Avenue, served as gospel director for Kent Records, and was an ordained minister. He was also a successful R&B singer and recording artist, but around 1955 had a religious conversion. Like Little Richard, Henderson decided to forsake the secular, turning to the gospel music on which he was raised. Henceforth he was known as “Brother” Henderson. Though his life was cut short at the age of 48, he managed to build an impressive record catalog.
Best of Proverb & Gospel Corner Records was compiled by noted Swedish gospel reissue producer and historian Per Notini in an “attempt to pay a long overdue tribute to Brother Henderson’s legacy.” Across the 52 tracks, one finds a mix of famous and lesser known artists. During the decade spanning 1959-1969, L.A. had become “the capital” of Black gospel music, and Henderson recorded visiting gospel luminaries as well as local artists. His eclectic catalog included soloists, gospel quartets, choirs, sermons, lining hymns, and even sacred steel guitar.
The set opens with the Mighty Clouds of Joy performing “Jesus Is Real,” made significant by the fact that Henderson shares the songwriting credit with Joe Ligon, and he was also responsible for releasing the group’s debut album, Let’s Have Church, a few years prior. The Chambers Brothers are also featured here in their only gospel side, “Just a Little More Faith.” Rarities include a live recording of Rev. W.E. Jasper of Little Rock, Arkansas lining out the hymn “Father I Stretch My Hands To Thee,” the Thomas Housley & Family of Oakland’s rocking performance of “God Is a Wonder,” and Madame Nellie Robinson’s soulful anti-war song “Viet Nam.” Other groups represented on the compilation include the Pilgrim Travelers, Singing Corinthians, Vocal-Aires, Los Angeles Angels, Hampton-Aires, Prince Dixon, and many more.
Henderson himself is well represented in this collection. His single, “Eleven-Twenty Two Nineteen Sixty Three,” credited to Brother Henderson Religious D.J. of Los Angeles Co., is based on his own poem written as a reaction to the murder of John F. Kennedy. There are also sides from various groups he founded, including Brother Henderson’s Spiritual Lambs, and the youthful Watts Community Choir led by Dee Jae Rogers (aka ‘70s soul singer D.J. Rogers).
Best of Proverb & Gospel Corner Records is a fantastic compilation that perfectly encapsulates the wide range of gospel music popular in the 1960s, from traditional gospel to rock and soul based songs with psychedelic guitar riffs—while also documenting little known gospel groups. Even better, it serves as a fitting tribute to Brother Henderson, who life’s work is finally available once again for all to enjoy.
Bear Family, the highly regarded reissue label based in Germany, has issued many box sets devoted to R&B and blues musicians. The latest hefty package includes 5 CDs featuring the entire recorded output of Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup, spanning the years 1941-1962. Of course the prominent Delta blues musician is best known for his 1946 song, “That’s All Right”—famously covered by Elvis Presley, who said in a 1971 interview: “Down in Tupelo, Mississippi, I used to hear old Arthur Crudup bang his box the way I do now, and I said if I ever got to the place I could feel all old Arthur felt, I’d be a music man like nobody ever saw.” Crudup inadvertently contributed to Elvis’ huge success when, on the evening of July 5, 1954, Elvis recorded a cover version of “That’s All Right” and the rest, as they say, is history. He went on to cover two more Crudup songs (“My Baby Left Me” and “So Glad You’re Mine”), garnering the moniker “King of Rock and Roll,” while Crudup was at least accorded the title of “The Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” I’m sure this title, conferred on him by a record company publicist, likely did not make up for his exploitation and lack of royalties—but that’s another, all too frequent story.
A Music Man Like Nobody Ever Saw includes the entire story of Arthur Crudup, as told by Chicago music writer Bill Dahl, in a sumptuously illustrated 68-page hardcover LP size book that also includes a complete discography. With 124 tracks and over 6 hours of playing time, listeners can gain a thorough understanding of Arthur Crudup beyond his most popular songs. As with many Bear Family sets, it’s not necessarily something you would want to digest in one sitting, but serves its purpose as a reference volume that preserves a complete slice of music history in wonderfully remastered sound.
In this new 6-disc set, Concord Records, the current owner of the Stax label and catalog, puts out for public consumption every inch of tape rolled during Otis Redding’s 3-day/3-night stand at Los Angeles’s Whisky A Go-Go club on April 8-10, 1966. The completist approach is for better or worse, especially since “the best” material from these sets was released in 1968 as In Person at the Whisky A Go Go (Atco), and then more material was released in 1982 (Atlantic LP) and 1993 (Fantasy/Stax CD with bonus tracks) as Good To Me.
In keeping with the year-end holiday spirit, let’s start with the “for better” aspects of this set. The number one good new feature is the improved sound quality. Engineer Seth Presant remixed the original 4-track tapes and the result is a near-clear window into what Otis and his 9-man band sounded like on that stage. The new reissue also features some snazzy packaging; including liner notes on the back of a poster-sized reproduction of the box set cover art. Liner notes include essays by reissue co-producer Bill Bentley and Los Angeles arts and culture writer Lynell George.
The CDs are broken up mostly into individual live sets, the exception being the long second set from Friday, April 8, 1966 being spread over the end of disc 1 and all of disc 2. Disc 3 contains the longer first set from Saturday, April 9, while disc 4 contains the shorter second and third sets from that night. Disc 5 and disc 6 are, respectively, the two sets from Sunday, April 10. Several songs are heard in nearly every set. Indeed, buyer beware—there are many repeat performances of key tunes in the Otis Redding songbook, so variety is not the strong suit in this album.
Which brings us to the “for worse” aspects of this reissue. The big problem with these performances is, the band just didn’t hit its mark most of the time. The horns were often out of tune and rhythm was not tight enough for album-quality takes (which is probably why a few tunes were repeated over and over). The liner notes mention the club’s audience being mainly white kids, and Otis Redding was just beginning to have crossover success at that point in his career, so there was probably a bit of an energy gap between performer and audience. For whatever reason, the overall performances ebb and flow through each set, although it’s clear that Redding was working hard to get his music across and leave L.A. with a viable live album in the can.
After listening to all the Whisky A Go-Go shows, I’m not convinced that Redding would have wanted the complete package released. The performances just weren’t good and consistent enough, which is likely why a lot of editing was employed to get the first two releases. And, even in the edited form, these performances pale in comparison to Redding’s tear-down-the-house triumph at the Monterey Pop Festival a year and two months later. It’s worth noting that Redding played Monterrey backed by the super-tight Stax house band, Booker T. and the MG’s (see the film “Monterey Pop” to witness the incendiary results). Otis Redding died in a plane crash, at age 26, six months after Monterey.
Look let’s be honest, most Isley Brothers fans know the 1977 album Go For Your Guns for its big hits “Footsteps In The Dark” and “Voyage To Atlantis.” Also, these two particular songs are usually included on most Isley Brothers Greatest Hits compilations, so why might a reissue of Go For Your Guns be worth a spin? Well, there are a couple of reasons. The first is to reintroduce the record as whole. The entire album. This is a powerful piece of work that really illustrates that the Isley Brothers are, in a lot of ways, still underrated considering their contribution to modern popular music. Beyond the hits, also included are tracks such as “The Pride”—which sets the album in righteous fashion with an exploration of one of life’s major motivations—and “Tell Me When You Need It Again” complete with a fat, funky bassline courtesy of Marvin Isley, plus one of my favorites, “Climbing Up the Ladder.” The latter is as funky and rock-edged a workout as any early Funkadelic side. Ernie Isley really leans into guitar, demonstrating his prowess with a biting guitar solo which illustrates how powerful the brothers became as a unit with their 3+3 lineup. This lineup had begun a few albums prior, adding brothers Ernie and Marvin on guitar and bass respectively, as well as brother-in-law Chris Jasper on keyboards, to the vocal trio of Ron, Rudolph, and O’Kelly. Ernie also flexes on the album’s title track, which is essentially an extension of the funk groove from “Livin’ the Life.” This edition, digitally remastered from the master tapes, also includes three bonus tracks including the disco versions of “The Pride” and “Livin’ in the Life/Go for Your Guns.”
The second reason to pick up this re-release, as most lovers of reissues might tell you, is for the stories included in the liner notes. This reissue does not disappoint. Written by A. Scott Galloway, who is clearly both a funk and Isley Brothers aficionado, the notes are chock full of great stories. I won’t spoil too much here, but for those who are fans of shows like VH1’s Behind The Music and TV One’s Unsung, there are some gems here. For example, the Isleys were tapped to contribute one of the songs from Go For Your Guns to the soundtrack that became Saturday Night Fever. Interested in which song it was and why in God’s name they decided not to do it? That question and more are answered in Galloway’s engaging liner notes.
And yes, I’ve purposely circumvented making this review all about the big hits, but I must say, the bridge on “Voyage To Atlantis” is still as ethereal (and lit) as it ever was. (On a side note, I did a quick cursory search and “Voyage” has been sampled over 40 times and only one producer has flipped the bridge groove as opposed to the main groove. How is that possible??) Anyway, great record + great notes = great reissue.
The Blind Boys of Alabama’sGo Tell It on the Mountain is a mix of traditional Christmas songs and hymns that earned the group their third Grammy Award in 2003. Just in time for this holiday season, Omnivore Recordings released an expanded edition of the album that includes a new essay by writer Davin Seay (co-author of memoirs by Al Green and Snoop Dogg) and two bonus tracks: live versions of “Go Tell It On the Mountain” and “Amazing Grace,” which can be seen below:
The album features a multitude of musical stars including Mavis Staples, Michael Franti, and even George Clinton on an arrangement of “Away in A Manger.” Energy-filled tracks such as “Last Month of the Year” are balanced with tranquil tracks such as their a capella version of “Joy to the World” featuring NOLA R&B singer Aaron Neville. With this star-studded cast and a ton of holiday cheer, Go Tell It On the Mountain is sure to brighten your December.
Omnivore has also released an expanded edition of The Blind Boys’ 2005 album Atom Bomb, featuring gospel standards such as “Faith and Grace” along with more contemporary songs like their cover of Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky.” The expanded edition features instrumental versions of seven songs plus a new essay from Seay.
Any Blind Boys of Alabama fan will enjoy the new insights and commentary offered in Seay’s essays and the additional versions of their classic hits.
Another December brings another batch of holiday albums from artists across a variety of genres. Though there are fewer new releases this year, we’ve compiled a short list of the most interesting projects featuring new arrangements of classics as well as original songs composed for the season.
Kenny Lattimore seamlessly merges contemporary R&B with contemporary Christian music on A Kenny Lattimore Christmas. Original songs such as “Real Love This Christmas” and “Everybody Love Somebody” are full of energy and hip hop beats, with lyrics about the importance of community and faith. Lattimore includes many classic Christmas songs on the album, such as “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” and a grand, symphonic arrangement of “O Holy Night.” He also adds worship songs such as “I Cry Holy” and the gospel-chorus backed “We Want to See You.” Overall, it is a marvelous holiday album for any gospel music fan looking for something that combines tradition and innovation.
On the five track EP Merry Christmas from Andra Day, the jazz/R&B chanteuse breathes new life into holiday classics with her highly distinctive, instantly recognizable voice. Opening with the Stevie Wonder duet “Someday at Christmas,” the two singers present an upbeat, optimistic song that immediately captures the season’s spirit with themes of peace and harmony:
Day then segues into a swinging arrangement of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman,” followed by a sumptuous rendition of “Winter Wonderland.” Guitarist Chris Payton contributes to “Carol of the Bells,” providing an acoustic accompaniment to Day’s supremely soulful arrangement that renders this chestnut nearly unrecognizable, in the best possible way. Closing with “The First Noel,” Day takes a more straight forward approach, using a simple arrangement with keyboard, but adding enough modulations and embellishments to keep things interesting.
While Hamilton star Leslie Odom, Jr. has quickly risen to fame this year as the rapping Aaron Burr, his classically trained Broadway voice stays steady and velvety smooth on his first holiday album Simply Christmas. Odom does not stray from the typical Christmas repertoire, except for adding a version of Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson’s “Winter Song.” Otherwise, with tracks ranging from “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to “The First Noel,” this is a traditional Christmas album full of easy listening holiday cheer.
Great for any contemporary jazz enthusiast on your Christmas list, pianist and composer Bob Baldwin’sThe Gift of Christmas adds his spin to holiday classics such as “This Christmas” and “Greensleeves/What Child Is This?” Baldwin combines tradition with modern styles on tracks such as “Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful / Celebrate the Son Remix,” which mixes electronic beats, vocals from gospel artist Corvina Nielsen, and a soulful keyboard solo. Nielsen also guest stars on “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and “We Three Kings / Yonder Star Remix,” with her soaring, soulful vocals adding a unique dimension to the album. Ending on the beautifully calm and melancholy track “December 25th,” Baldwin returns to a more traditional smooth jazz sound. On The Gift of Christmas, Baldwin constantly challenges our expectations of what Christmas songs should sound like through surprising arrangements and delightful collaborations.
If you like non-traditional Christmas songs, R. Kelly’s12 Nights of Christmas is perfect for you. Kelly combines his signature R&B vocals and sensual lyrics with lush orchestral arrangements on holiday themed songs such as “Snowman,” “Flyin’ On My Sleigh,” and “Mrs. Santa Claus.” Though some of these tracks may be borderline “not safe for work,” there are also more innocuous songs such as “My Wish for Christmas” and “Home for Christmas”—his modern day twist on “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”:
If you’re looking for something naughty but nice for your holiday party, look no further than this 5 track EP from the bounce queen of New Orleans. A Very Big Freedia Christmazzz offers some very unique takes on holiday classics such as “Rudy the Big Booty Reindeer” who knows how to twerk, and “Jingle Bell Rock” which will get you on your feet to “shake the night away.” Freedia’s “Twas the Night” is a hip hop version of the classic Christmas story with a NOLA twist:
Twas the night before Friday and all through the club, They were drinking and smoking and tearing it up, It was a cold night but the place was lit, It was packed wall to wall no room to sit . . . Chorus: All I want for Christmas is the beat, beat
All I want for Christmas is the beat, beat
Original tracks include the highly infectious “So Frosty” that’s sure to heat up the dance floor, and “Santa is a Gay Man” sung to the tune of “Mr. Sandman” (definitely not safe for work).
Reviewed by Anna Polovick and Brenda Nelson-Strauss
If your annual holiday gift to the 78-rpm collector on your list is the Blues Images calendar and CD, rest assured this year’s package is as good as ever. Blues Images paired up with the AMERICAN EPIC team for the second consecutive year to digitally restore the 78s included on Volume 14. The end result is not only the CD included with your beautiful new calendar. Songs restored for the CD will also be included in the AMERICAN EPIC documentary on rural American music from the 1920s and 1930s. The first episode of the series premiered at Sundance 2016. The series is scheduled to air on PBS and the BBC Worldwide in 2017.
The care and skill applied by John Tefteller, Peter Henderson, and Nick Bergh during the digital transfer and restoration process is readily apparent when listening to the 23 tracks on the CD. Two recently discovered songs by Big Bill Broonzy – “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and “Western Blues” – are included alongside freshly remastered recordings of Skip James’ “Illinois Blues”/“Yola My Blues Away” (Paramount 13072) and Blind Joe Reynolds’ “Outside Woman Blues”/“Nehi Blues” (Paramount 12927). Tracks “How Long How Long Blues” (Jed Davenport), “Ain’t Gonna Lay My ‘Ligion Down” (Frank Palmes), and “Mr. Devil Blues” (Joe Williams) include acoustic blues harp for the harmonica player on your gift list. Other artists featured on Vol. 14 include Garfield Akers, Memphis Minnie, Charley Patton, Blind Leroy Garnett, Mobile Strugglers, Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Gussie Nesbitt, and Ishman Bracey.
Consistent with years past, the calendar’s artwork features original advertisements that pairs with the recordings. Many of these advertisements, thought to be lost, were found in 2002 in Port Washington, Wisconsin by Blues Image owner and longtime collector John Tefteller. Additional advertising images were added to his archives in 2015, several of which appear in this 2017 calendar.
The 2017 calendar and CD are available at select music and book stores, several internet sites, and can always be purchased directly from the Blues Images website.
Just in time for the holidays, this new illustrated edition of the 1986 biography of New Orleans musician Danny Barker would make a wonderful gift for any jazz fan. Published as volume three in the Louisiana Musicians Biography Series from The Historic New Orleans Collection, this new edition is supplemented with 115 images that illuminate Barker’s story, plus a complete discography and a never-before-published song catalog. As one of the elder statesman of jazz, Danny Barker (1909-1994) appeared on more than a thousand recordings and wrote dozens of original songs including his biggest hit, “Don’t You Make Me Feel High [Don’t You Feel My Leg],” sung by his wife, Blue Lu Barker. He was also the first to record classic Mardi Gras Indian songs and chants, writing his own adaptations of “My Indian Red,” “Corinne Died on the Battlefield,” and “Chocko Mo Feendo Hey.” Barker’s bio is chock full of stories harkening back to the roots of jazz in New Orleans, as he reflects on “the freedom, complexity, and beauty of this thoroughly American, black music tradition.” A truly inspirational story, and a wonderful follow-up to Vol. 2 in the series, Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans.
Perhaps one of the most highly anticipated music books of the year, this new biography of soul music icon Curtis Mayfield is told from the perspective of his second-oldest son, Todd Mayfield, with assistance from noted music writer Travis Atria. They certainly don’t disappoint. Far from the typical tell-all, the authors offer a well-crafted, in-depth and extremely compelling account of the singer-songwriter that reads more like a novel. Chapter titles often reference Mayfield’s songs, providing insight into the source of his lyrics. For example chapter two, “My Mama Borned Me in a Ghetto,” includes lines from his autobiographical song “Kung Fu”: “My mama borned me in a ghetto / There was no mattress for my head / But, no, she couldn`t call me Jesus / I wasn`t white enough, she said.” In this manner, Mayfield’s life is traced from the streets of Chicago to the formation of the Impressions and his label Curtom Records. Later chapters cover his political activism and socially conscious songs that became forever linked to the Civil Rights Movement. But with the good comes the bad, and the authors don’t shy away from addressing the more volatile aspects of Mayfield’s personality, or describing the pain and suffering that followed the tragic accident in 1990 that left him paralyzed. A must read for any fan of soul music.
Maurice White, who founded Earth, Wind & Fire in 1970 with his brother Verdine White and Philip Bailey, sadly passed away on February 3, 2016, just as his autobiography was completed. Peppered with personal stories, Maurice also sheds light on production details while providing an overview of the band’s albums and singles. Known for his spirituality as well as his musicianship, Maurice addresses both the sacred and the secular, providing a full account of his influences. The gifted singer-songwriter, producer, arranger and bandleader left an indelible mark on American music, and thankfully decided to share with us the final chapter in his remarkable life.
Award-winning journalist Ben Westhoff, author of the 2011 book Dirty South on southern hip hop, now turns his attention to the West Coast for a definitive history of California’s hip hop pioneers. Released on the 20th anniversary of Tupac Shakur’s death, Westhoff traces the rise of N.W.A. as the voice of disenfranchised African Americans, the formation of Death Row Records, the rise to superstardom of Snoop and Tupac, and the rivalries between East Coast and West Coast factions. Of equal importance, he delves into changes in the music industry and music consumption in general, which brought gangsta rap into the mainstream. Based on extensive interviews with 112 different sources, Westhoff’s latest effort is essential reading for those interested in the history of the genre.
Village Voice writer Greg Tate is widely recognized as one of the premiere voices on contemporary Black music, arts and culture. Not only is he a writer and “prose stylist” extraordinaire, but Tate actively performs as a guitarist/conductor with the New York based collective known as Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber. Like Tate’s Flyboy in the Buttermilk (1992), this volume is a collection of his writings, divided into 5 sections: “The Black Male Show” which focuses primarily on musicians ranging from Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis to Ice Cube and Lonnie Holley; “She Laughing Mean and Impressive Too” covering Sade and Azealia Banks as well as Black feminists, writers and poets; “Hello Darkness My Old Meme” offering wide ranging essays on hip-hop, jazz, and Black culture; “Screenings” focused on the films of Spike Lee and John Singleton, among others; and “Race, Sex, Politricks, and Belles Lettres” which is something of a catch-all for other works. An enjoyable read that you can digest as a whole or in parts, while marveling at Tate’s ability to turn a phrase while dissecting race, class and gender in America
Mississippi born singer/songwriter Charles Wright has been a fixture in the music business for over fifty years. As leader of the Los Angeles based Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, Wright penned the band’s mega hit song, “Express Yourself,” that is still frequently heard today. His new book is described as part autobiography and part novel, with each of the 59 chapters offering a short vignette drawn from life stories. Beginning with his family’s trials and tribulations as sharecroppers on a cotton plantation where, by the age of eight Wright was forced to pick 100 pounds of cotton a day, the book traces the family’s relocation to California; but unfortunately the “sharecropper mentality” follows. Those who want to learn more about Wright’s music career will be disappointed. But if you want to be inspired by Wright’s struggles to succeed in the face of adversity, he offers a powerful, first person narrative focusing primarily on how “the machinations of capitalism and personal vendettas unified to entrap the working class, and their families, into an endless cycle of debt and destitution.”
Following are additional albums released during November 2016—some will be reviewed in future issues of Black Grooves.
Blues, Folk, Country
Howlin’ Wolf: Shake For Me: The Lost FM Broadcast Tapes 1975 (Laser Media)
Little Walter: Boom Boom (Black Knight)
Muddy Waters: Muddy Waters Story (Maximum Series)
Muddy Waters: Elevate Me Mama (Black Knight)
Sharon Lewis And Texas Fire: Grown Ass Woman (Delmark)
Willie Clayton: Heart & Soul Reloaded (Endzone Ent.)
Marion Anderson: Let Freedom Ring (JSP)
Funk, Rock, Pop, Electronic
Bruno Mars: 24K Magic (Atlantic)
Craig David: Following My Intuition ( Speakerbox/Insanity)
Du-Rites: J-Zone & Pablo Martin Are the Du-Rites (Redefinition)
Harsh Crowd: Better EP
Joan Armatrading: Me Myself I – World Tour Concert (Savoy)
Marvin Whoremonger: Mark III (Now Again)
Nth Power: Live to Be Free (Harmonized Records)
Prince: 4EVER (Warner Bros.)
The Weeknd: Starboy (Republic)
Toro Y Moi: Live from Trona (Carpark)
Various: Keb Darge Presents the Best of Legendary Deep Funk
Gospel, Gospel Rap
Eddie James: Magnify (Dreambridge)
Sho Baraka: The Narrative (Humble Beast Records)
Swanee Quintet: Complete Nashboro Releases 1951-62 (Acrobat)
Tasha Cobbs: One Place Live at Capitol Studios (Motown Gospel)
Various: Gospel Pioneer Reunion (DVD) (Gaither Studios)
VaShawn Mitchell: Secret Place: Live in South Africa (Motown Gospel)
Dizzy Gillespie: Concert of the Century – A Tribute to Charlie Parker (Justin Time)
Gregory Porter:Live in Berlin (Eagle Rock)
Gregory Porter and Melody Gardot: Jazz Loves Disney (Verve Int’l)
Herbie Hancock: Early Years: Selected Recordings 1961-62 (Acrobat)
Jerome Jennings: The Beast (Iola)
Miles Davis Quintet: Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions (Prestige)
Nat King Cole: How High The Moon: The Lost Tapes (Laser Media)
Roberto Fonseca: ABUC (Impulse)
Wallace Roney: A Place in Time (Highnote)
Yussef Kamaal: Black Focus (Brownswood)
94 East Ft. Prince: S/T (Charly)
Aaron Abernathy: Monologue (Aaron Abernathy Music)
Alicia Keys: HERE (RCA)
Bobby Bland: Singles Collection 1951-62 (Acrobat)
Carleen Anderson: Cage Street Memorial – The Pilgrimage (Freestyle
Chuck Willis: From The Bottom Of My Heart: My Life, My Story, My Songs (Jasmine)
denitia and sene.: love and noir. (Input)
Donna Summer: Ultimate Collection
Emeli Sandé: Long Live The Angels [Deluxe Edition] (Capitol)
Hannah Williams & The Affirmations: Late Nights & Heartbreak (Record Kicks)
Harleighblu X Starkiller: Amorine (Tru Thoughts)
Intruders: Save the Children (expanded ed.) (BBR)
J-Wonn: The Legacy Begins (Music Access Inc.)
Lee Fields & The Expressions: Special Night (Big Crown)
Lula Reed: I’m A Woman (But I Don’t Talk Too Much) (Jasmine)
Melba Moore: Standing Right Here: Anthology Buddah & Epic Years (SoulMusic)
Myles Sanko: Just Being Me (Légère)
Rozetta Johnson: A Woman’s Way (Kent)
Slim Gaillard: Searching For You: The Lost Singles of McVouty (Sunset Blvd.)
Sonny Knight and the Lakers: Sooner or Later (Secret Stash)
Various: One-Der-Ful Collection – Midas Records (Secret Stash)
Various: Funk the Disco (Ministry of Sound)
Yonrico Scott: Life of a Dreamer (Blue Canoe)
A Tribe Called Quest: We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service (Epic)
Big Scoob: H.O.G. (Strange Music)
Black Milk & Nat Turner: Sunday Outtakes (Computer Ugly)
Blu & Union Analogtronics: Cheetah in the City (Fat Beats)
Czarface : A Fistful Of Peril (Silver Age)
DJ Luke Nasty: Highway Music: Stuck in Traffic (Othaz)
Dubble-Oo: Next Level (Space Age Ent.)
E-40: The D-Boy Diary: Book 1 & 2 (Heavy on the Grind)
Invisibl Skratch Piklz : 13th Floor (Alpha Pup)
Journalist 103: Battle for the Hearts & Minds (Babygrande)
Lewis Parker: Release the Stress (King Underground)
Mac Dre: Ronald Dregan (Sumo/Thizz Entertainment D50)
Mac Dre: The Genie of the Lamp (Sumo/Thizz Entertainment D50)
Philthy Rich: Hood Rich 4 (Scmmllc / Empire)
Saba: Bucket List Project (digital) (Saba Pivot, LLC)
Sleepdank: Airport Lifestyle (Hands Down Ent.)
Soprano: L’Everest ( Warner Music France)
Swet Shop Boys : Cashmere (Customs)
Tall Black Guy: Let’s Take a Trip (First Word)
The Flying Dutchmen: Foul Weather (Thrice Great)
The Game: 1992 (eOne)
The Kleenrz: Season 2 (NRK)
The Outlawz : Living Legends
Tone Spliff: Pull No Punches (Mind Write Music)
Travis Scott: Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight (Epic)
TreSolid : Applying Pressure (Black Market)
U.G.: Portals (Creative Juices)
Unknown Mizery: Kill the Flowers (Thrice Great)
Various: Latest & Greatest Hip-Hop Anthems (Union Square Music)
Various: BBE20: Attitude, Belief & Determination (BBE)
Vellione: Stranded on the Wire (Livewire)
Wycliff Jean: J’ouver EP
Zeroh: Tinnitus (Hit+Run)
Z-Ro: Legendary (1 Deep Ent.)
Alkaline: New Level Unlocked (Zojak World Wide)
Black Uhuru: Live At Rockpalast (DVD) (Made In Germany Music)
Bunny Wailer: Solomonic Singles 1: Tread Along 1969-1976 (Dubstore)
Bunny Wailer: Solomonic Singles 2: Rise & Shine 1977-1986 (Dubstore)
KutiMangoes: Made in Africa (Tramp)
Max Romeo: Horror Zone (Nu-Roots Records)
No-Maddz: Sly & Robbie Presents No-Maddz (Nomaddz/Epiphany)
Osunlade: Mix The Vibe-King Street Goes Yoruba (King Street Sounds)
Patrice: Life’s Blood (Supow Music)
Various: Merritone Rock Steady 1: Shanty Town Curfew 66-67 (Dubstore)
Various: Kuduro Reggaeton Hits 2017
Yabby You: Beware Dub (Expanded ed.) (Pressure Sounds)
Baloji: 64 Bits & Malachite (Bella Union)
Bobo Yeye: Belle Epoque in Upper Volta (3xCD) (Numero)
Le Tout Puissant Orchestre Poly-Rythmo: Madjafalao (Because Music)
Noura Mint Seymali : Arbina (Glitterbeat Records)
PeruJazz: Verde Machu Picchu (Vampisoul)
Tiken Jah Fakoly: Racines (Wrasse)