World music releases include The Frightnrs’ reggae album Nothing More To Say; Richard Bona & Mandekan Cubano’s tribute to the musical diversity of Cuba on Heritage; the Ethiopian-American pop group Debo Band’s Ere Gobez; and Haitian-born artist Wesli’s blending of vodou and rara with rap and reggae on Ayiti, Étoile Nouvelle.
Robert Glasper is arguably one of the most eclectic musicians in the business, perhaps in spite of (or maybe because of) the fact that he is generally considered to be a jazz musician. The opening track of the Robert Glasper Experiment’s newest release, Artscience, announces that the group intends to venture into the broad realm of musical styles and sounds that may fall into the category of “Black music.” As the soundscape gradually morphs from fast post-bop to a slow-burn hip hop groove, a sample of Glasper’s voice plays, declaring “The reality is, my people have given the world so many styles of music, so many different styles…we want to explore them all.”
The group’s newest release, Artscience, is difficult to call a jazz record at all, drawing from the precedent set on previous Black Radio releases. However, these earlier records largely owed their crossover appeal to high-profile guest stars like Snoop Dogg and Norah Jones, while Glasper’s band served as a supporting ensemble, performing at peak when laying down funky neo-soul grooves for artists like Jill Scott and Anthony Hamilton. On Artscience, the group retains this crossover appeal while keeping the production self-contained. This record is full of electronically-oriented R&B with dance floor and slow jam ambitions.
“Day to Day” is a funky and robotic neo-disco dance cut that could easily have been culled from a Daft Punk record, complete with string swoops and autotuned vocal harmonies. Much of this record recalls the synth heavy, ‘80s-influenced sounds that artists like Blood Orange are rocketing to the top of the charts. While some of Glasper’s signature acoustic piano and Rhodes sounds are present, there are also synthesizers and production effects all over this album. Most of these tracks are structured like pop songs with slight modifications. For instance, “No One Like You” follows the verse-chorus-verse-chorus format, but it features an extended outro with solos by saxophonist by Casey Benjamin, Glasper, and a drum break by Mark Colenburg. It is as though the group takes the extended dance break sections found on Michael Jackson and Prince records and fills them up with killer jazz solos, serving the album’s pop ambitions while reminding the audience that these are monster players. The disc’s most memorable track, “Let’s Fall in Love,” borrows its title from a jazz standard, but is a slow jam full of breakbeats and atmospheric synthesizers.
Listeners looking for guest stars like those featured on the Robert Glasper Experiment’s previous albums or for the kind of solid jazz playing found on the Glasper’s acoustic records will be surprised, but pleasantly so, by the strength of the group’s R&B songs on Artscience. While this is not the seminal entry in Glasper’s catalog, it is certainly a solid one.
During his lifetime, Erroll Garner was a somewhat controversial figure with jazz aficionados. The main knock was that he was a technical master of the piano with plenty of flair and piano-bar panache, but not enough soul and swing to be a jazz heavyweight. Despite the bickering among jazz critics, Garner (who died in 1977) did not have trouble filling performance spaces or selling albums, but his place in the public ear waned after his death. His live Concert by the Sea remains one of the best-selling jazz albums ever, and received a deluxe 3-CD reissue (and was nominated for a Grammy) last year. Now, Sony/Legacy has dipped into the archives of Garner’s late manager, Martha Glaser, and found 14 finished but never released recordings, the content of this new album.
Ready Take One is composed of recordings made in 1967 at Universal Recording Studios in Chicago; in 1969 at Capitol Studios New York; and in 1971 at RCA Studios New York. The album closes with a live version of Garner’s hit, “Misty,” recorded in Paris in May 1969. For the 1967 sessions, Ike Isaacs on bass, Jimmie Smith on drums and Joe Mangual on congas backed Garner. For the 1969 and 1971 studio and live recordings, Earnest McCarty, Jr. replaced Isaacs on bass. The fact that the band and style of playing remains consistent throughout makes the album hold together as a coherent sequence of enjoyable tunes rather than an “archive dig” of disjointed musical examples.
According to Robin Kelly’s liner notes, Garner’s style in the studio was much like his style on stage with his band: he would call out a tune and then go, with the band responsible for keeping up with whatever improvisational twists he chose to explore. Fortunately, the backing musicians were up for the challenge, and the recordings sparkle with the excitement of a quartet doing what good jazz musicians do—exploring and reacting to each other rather than playing heavily-rehearsed and written-down music. And, for the record, although all of the players are technically excellent, the album gushes with swing and soul.
One admittedly minor criticism: although the liner notes emphasize the fact that the reissue producers chose to keep audio of Glaser calling out take numbers and a few seconds of studio banter here and there, this “bonus material” does not add anything to the music. In fact, it slightly interrupts the flow of the album.
Six of the album’s 14 cuts are Garner originals; “High Wire” and “Wild Music” are particularly nice. The Paris recording of “Misty” also stands out because, despite playing the song thousands of times to ever-eager audiences, Garner could still bring excitement and a connection of “I’m playing this song just for you” to what was yet another performance. Also interesting is the band’s take on the Juan Tizol/Duke Ellington standard “Caravan.” Garner’s decision to take the melody apart and reassemble pieces of it on unusual beats doesn’t always work, but the approach shows how the band was not content to run through standards in any sort of traditional way.
The 1971 sessions, especially, show the influence of funk and acid-jazz on more traditional performers. Garner sometimes sounds quite a bit like Ramsey Lewis (“The In Crowd”), and that more-soul/less-swing approach was probably preferred by live audiences of the time. But, Garner never shies away from virtuosity, so there is always crisp execution of complex right-hand runs and rock-solid left-hand rhythm.
Sony/Legacy has an arrangement to mine the archives of Garner and Glaser, and more releases are promised. Hopefully, there is more of this kind of polished music in the vaults. And, hopefully, future reissues producers will assemble and sequence future releases into enjoyable, musically coherent albums like Ready Take One.
While De La Soul’s heyday was arguably in the 1990s, the group remains a strong presence in hip hop, despite the fact that the last time it released new music was in 2004. This is largely because De La’s jazz-influenced sound set the template for Kendrick Lamar and others who borrow samples and approaches from jazz music and in part because their classic records age like fine wine, still sounding fresh some 20 years later. The group’s most recent release prior to this August was 2014’s Smell the D.A.I.S.Y., a digital download full of re-recordings of classic tracks (along with a complimentary download of the entire back catalog for email subscribers!), a gesture that now feels like a primer for this year’s new release. and the Anonymous Nobody… is a kickstarter-funded, genre-bending record that may leave old fans scratching their heads—the album seems to be both a victory lap and a comeback record. Following is the group’s short documentary about the making of the album:
De La Soul probably didn’t need to release a new record in 2016—or any year for that matter—and the foremost question in many readers’ minds may be whether there is anything really new here, or whether and the Anonymous Nobody… is just a rehash of the group’s ‘90s sound that has a few more gray hairs. While there are certainly elements of the group’s signature sound (as on the jazz-influenced “Royalty Capes”), the album seems primarily to revolve around the group’s rotating cast of guest stars, a roster that includes Jill Scott, Snoop Dogg, David Byrne, Usher, 2 Chainz, and Damon Albarn. What the supporting personnel have in common with De La is that many listeners may wax nostalgic about their music—this is the “I remember when…” crowd. While this is not necessarily a liability, it sets the stage for a wash of sounds and approaches that, ultimately, we’ve heard before. For instance, the track featuring David Byrne, “Snoopies,” draws heavily from Byrne’s bag of electro-pop sensibilities. Similarly, “Greyhounds,” a somewhat antiquated girl-corrupted-by-the-big-city story, leans stylistically on Usher’s well-established R&B fusion. At other moments, this record just gets weird—De La Soul was always on the eccentric end of the hip hop spectrum, but when Justin Hawkins of the Darkness leads a Queen-esque overdubbed vocal and guitar orchestra, it may get lost on the listener that this is an album by the legendary rap group. In short, the guest stars often overshadow the core group.
While working with a live band proves an asset, meandering effortlessly from rock to neo-soul, ultimately the intensity of the record, both lyrically and musically, lags at times. And the Anonymous Nobody… plays like many records with a large cast of extras do—providing a great first listen with diminishing returns. This is both a testament to De La Soul’s versatility and an indication that the group of vets is open to trying something new, with experimentation sometimes leading to mixed results.
André Cymone is perhaps best known for his friendship and collaboration with Prince, a relationship that has been brought back into the spotlight since Prince’s death in April 2016. They grew up together in Minneapolis, and Prince even lived with Cymone and his family for a period of time. In high school, they formed the band Grand Central, along with Morris Day. Their collaboration continued well into their careers, with Prince penning one of Cymone’s 1985 hits, “The Dance Electric.” Cymone then took a 27 year hiatus from releasing new music, and in in 2014 dropped his last album, The Stone.
Cymone’s latest project, Black Man in America, is a short EP but it packs a punch nonetheless. The album is overtly political in nature, with the first lyrics we hear being “No Justice, No Peace!” The opening track, after which the EP is named, argues that unless you’re living it, you don’t know what it’s like to be a black man in America. The second describes a “Hot Night in the Neighborhood,” which takes on violence and police brutality.
The third track, “Black Lives Matter,” is where Cymone’s politics get a bit uncertain. Musically, the song is an acoustic, intimate, plea for humanity and black lives. However, towards the end of the song, Cymone includes the phrase “All Lives Matter,” which has been decried by many organizers as a way of derailing the movement, and an unwillingness to stand up for black lives when it really counts. Here, perhaps, it just signals Cymone’s optimism. The final song is a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Far from the slow Jeff Buckley version that is perhaps best known, Cymone’s cover is fast and uplifting—a fitting conclusion to a project calling for radical change and peace.
Black Dylan is an up-and-coming duo from Denmark that blends soul, R&B, hip-hop, and pop into a thoroughly satisfying album perfect for the dance floor. Wafande’s gravely, though sweetened vocals take the front stage beside Nuplex’s skillful DJ instrumentation. Together the duo draws from its French roots and American soul influences to create the Black Dylan aesthetic.
The first song and title track, “Hey Stranger,” pursues the fantasy story we wonder if will ever come true—to fly away and travel the world with a person you just met. An excellent start leading into an invigorating morning anthem, “Get up Child,” with choir voices, grooving guitar wah wah pedal, horns, and piano. Black Dylan keeps the tempo up with “Don’t Wanna Be Alone,” integrating gospel chorus breakdowns. It is as if they dare you not to dance when you listen to this track.
The album brings down the party vibe, but not the hopeful spirits with “You’re Getting Stronger,” a smooth R&B song with a memorable chorus. “The One” utilizes finger snaps and upright bass to give the listener a more intimate atmosphere to hear his promises of love and dedication. A guitar riff is played during instrumental breaks of this song, reminiscent of West African electric guitar styles. “She Said I Was a Failure” is a slow and dramatic tune, which pairs nicely with the heartbreak song, “Who Got My Back.” Reverberating organ chords, a steady beat, and a full bodied chorus of soulful voices sing in praise of love and companionship.
The final tracks of the album turn from lost love towards more edgy and personal themes. “Keep Your Eyes on the Road” uses semi-monotone vocals paired with repetitive horn and piano sections. Performing with LA singer Honey Larochelle, “Papa” deals with the pain of having to live with an addict father:
There’s no excuse, so much abuse, I can’t believe I used to want to be like you.
Papa, overdose after overdose, you’re killing me.
The final track, “Hummin’,” is a cool and quiet tune producing an emotional resolution that serves as an affirmation of his tough outer shell. Hey Stranger all in all is enjoyable – it will be interesting to keep an eye on Black Dylan’s sway of audiences in the United States.
This first, and likely, final full-length album by New York band The Frightnrs bears a moving story. Front man and vocalist, Dan Klein was diagnosed with ALS in November 2015 and had experienced his final moments of life during the recording and production of this album. To say he suffered would be an inaccurate illustration. It reduces every complex emotion he felt considering the inevitability of his fate. The Frightnrs—Rich Terrana (percussion and background vocals), and brothers, Chuck Patel (piano) and Preet Patel (bass and background vocals)—were determined to complete the album in support of Klein before he lost his physical ability to sing. Klein passed in June 2016, only a couple months before the album’s release.
Nothing More to Say is the first reggae album released by Daptone Records, managed by Gabriel Roth and Neal Sugarman of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. Smooth and with hints of vintage appeal, the album is a reminder of the Jamaican rocksteady sounds of Johnny Nash or Toots and the Maytals. Producer Victor “Ticklah” Axelrod upheld a vision of quality and integrity for the album despite the complicated circumstances that pressured its completion. Quoted from a New York Times interview on the album, Axelrod noted that he needed to select the best takes he could get of Klein’s vocals since he was unable to finish recording in the studio. Roth reflected on Klein’s vocals in the album, “In places he’s a little weak… but he’s singing from the heart.”
A snare cracks into a drum roll at the introduction of the first track, “All My Tears.” The song proceeds with a soulful wail supported by a firm backbeat and deep background vocals—in a way, announcing the band’s fraternal bond. Blended with haunting organ chords and muted electric guitar tones, each song feels fresh, though old-fashioned. Themes of love resulting in letdown, heartbreak, and mistake are prevalent in “Nothing More to Say,” “What Have I Done,” and “Looking for My Love.” In “Trouble in Here,” the Frightnrs maintain their smooth reggae back beat while adopting a blatantly blues style outfitted with harmonica solos and a 12-bar chord progression.
“Dispute,” the final track of the album, could stand alone with its distinctively crisp piano riff mixed with Klein’s reverberating vocals. Another similarly outstanding song is “Hey Brother (Do Unto Others)” for its charming syncopated chorus—“Do unto others, do unto others as you’d have them do, right back to you.” The Frightnrs also included two cover songs rich in R&B and soul flavor: “Gotta Find a Way” originally by Bob & Gene (1967), and “Gonna Make Time” by Saun & Starr (2015), who both record on the Daptone label.
What is especially striking in this album is Klein’s sincere falsetto vibrato and vivid lyrics in “Till Then” (quoted below) and “Purple.” He pries into the pain and anxious confusion listeners can only imagine he felt as his physical body progressively betrayed him:
Every day I wake it’s getting harder just to take, I try to fake a smile but nothing hides my sadness. Pretending that I’m fine, I’m only lying all the time, I’ve crossed the line from melancholy into madness. Till then I’ll wait, till you’ve reached my gate, lying every night, till you’ve blessed my sight.
The Frightnrs respect themselves and respect their audiences, a message Klein advocates. They do not mimic Jamaican accents or dress in their music because they know those actions would be unreflective of their own identity. This album is a testament to the creative power and aesthetic derived from Jamaican rocksteady music. As well, it will always serve to cherish the poetry and memory of Dan Klein.
Queen Alone is Lady Wray’s first album on Big Crown Records, but it is far from her first foray into the music industry. Beginning her career as Nicole Wray, she was first a protégé of Missy Elliott in 1998 with a hit single, “Make it Hot.” She was also part of a ‘90s R&B cohort featuring Elliott, Aaliyah, Timbaland, and Ginuwine.
Compared to her earlier music, QueenAlone comes as a reinvention of sorts for Wray. Between her first album and this new release, she participated in a number of different projects, including a group with British soul singer Terri Walker and collaborations with the Black Keys. Throughout the ups and downs of her career, Wray’s voice has both evolved and maintained its power and charm. Her timbre is similar to Fantasia Barrino, but also has a levity reminiscent of early Brandy.
Musically, the album has a retro vibe, a throwback to soul and R&B of the 1960s and ‘70s. Standouts include “Make Me Over,” a ballad that allows Wray to showcases her raspy runs, as well as “Underneath My Feet.” Overall, the transformation of Wray’s sound is a welcome one. She has come a long way from her days as Missy Elliott’s protégé, and seems to have found her place at Big Crown Records.
Detroit native JJ Thames trained in jazz and classical music from the age of 9 and added blues to her repertoire by the time she was 18. Since then, she has been entrenched in a number of genres, including soul, rockabilly, reggae, roots, and ska. Her sophomore album, Raw Sugar, is a collaboration with Mississippi guitarist Eddie Cotton, who co-wrote twelve of the thirteen tracks and is the lead guitarist on the album.
In an attempt to jumpstart her musical career, Thames moved down to Jackson, Mississippi and performed with “Chitlin’ Circuit” superstars such as Marvin Sease. This Southern influence is present on “Hattie Pearl,” as Thames sings about greens, fish and grits, and sipping tea on the back porch. The music is also irresistible—a mix of funk and blues with a twinge of gospel that resounds with horns, a killer keyboard solo, and Thames’ soulful singing complete with growls and shouts.
Thames’ sound harkens back to a different era, embodying the power and vocal quality of legendary ‘60s and ‘70s soul women such as Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight on tracks like “I’m Leavin’” and “Leftovers.” The accompaniment effortlessly evokes this time period as well, from the varied instrumentation to the tight arrangements that leave no room for imperfection.
As the album progresses, Thames explores the other genres that she has perfected over the years. “Woman Scorned” takes a modern rock turn, as Thames sings with a rollicking electric guitar and heavy dose of drums. “Hold Me” is a passionate, lyrical ballad that slows things down and is backed by harmonizing vocals. “Don’t Feel Nothing” is a rockabilly jam full of twanging guitar that’s perfect for dancing. “Raw Sugar” is straight ahead blues, which Thames growls, croons, and moans directly from the soul while Cotton adds an incredible blues guitar solo.
Legendary R&B singer Dorothy Moore has referred to JJ Thames as “the future of the blues.” On Raw Sugar, Thames certainly shows she is an artist who is determined to make her mark. Her voice is strong and confident, whether rebuking a man who has treated her wrong or expressing emotional vulnerability in a ballad. Thames channels many African American musical genres and influences, but remains distinctively herself—a powerful singer from Detroit who is living in Mississippi and securing her own place in the music world.
Tarica June’s latest EP, Stream of Consciousness Volume 1.5, takes on a wide range of topics, from gentrification to life as a millennial. This is the third release from the lawyer and rapper, preceded by Moonlight (2010) and Stream of Consciousness Volume 1 (2014). Born and raised in Washington D.C., June is carving out her place in a hip-hop community that includes a diverse array of artists, such as Wale, Fat Trel, Shy Glizzy, and of course a host of go-go musicians as well.
Over the course of the EP’s five songs, June displays versatility and leans toward introspection, focusing on her craft, her grind, and her potential to make it as an independent artist. Like other popular rappers today, namely Chance the Rapper, she rejects the necessity of a label, instead releasing her music online. Her flow is similar to New York rapper Nitty Scott, MC and Chicago’s Noname. There are also hints of influence from an older generation of rappers, such as Queen Latifah.
The most popular track on the album by far is “But Anyway,” which is an assessment of a rapidly gentrifying DC. As a third generation resident, she reminisces on the days of “Chocolate City,” referencing Marion Barry’s summer youth employment program, DC’s Metro system, as well as heavier topics such as mass incarceration and the displacement that gentrification is causing. The video, which features June strolling around key sites in DC, went viral in March. Currently working on her first full-length album, the city is excited to see what comes next from Tarica June.
Known for his smooth vocals and soulful R&B style, Javier Colon became famous when he won the first season of “The Voice” in 2011. After working with Universal Republic Records and touring Mexico and South America with Maroon 5 (Adam Levine was his coach on “The Voice”), Colon said he was ready to make an album without “walls or boundaries.” This led to his debut album for Concord Records, Gravity, which tackles traditional R&B themes of love, loss, and recovering from heartbreak.
The album starts off with “Close to You,” a love song in Colon’s signature style, combining his acoustic guitar work with upbeat percussion and his harmonious R&B vocals. The track has the feel of a 1990s R&B group or boy band, reminiscent of early Usher. This is followed by “Clear the Air,” a ballad about trying to make up after a fight. Colon’s voice soars throughout the song, as he exclaims “How did we get to this place / how do we get away?”
The title track and first single off the album, “Gravity,” is an emotional song that showcases the expressive quality of Colon’s vocals, as well as their power on high notes, riffs, and runs. The lyrics convey the anguish of dealing with a breakup where he was “the enemy,” and struggling with the feeling of inevitability: “I knew I’d let you down eventually/ it’s gravity.” The video is dramatic, starting with accusations of cheating by a girlfriend, followed by Colon’s efforts to deal with overwhelming emotions:
Though many of the songs are emotive, slow songs about romance and heartbreak, Gravity includes a number of more upbeat tracks. “For A Reason” features guest singer Nikki Leonti, whose vocals playfully intertwine with and interrupt Colon’s. The song claims that “all things happen for a reason,” and its optimism that “someday sun’s gonna shine again” is emphasized by joyful horns throughout.
Javier Colon referred to his first album after “The Voice” as an “arranged marriage” that made him realize how much he values creative control. Gravity is the result of that realization, an album where Colon wrote or co-wrote 12 of the 15 tracks, and plays his acoustic guitar on almost all the songs. Colon said he was “willing to fight for” this album, and that sincere passion is evident in every track as he bears his soul and sings his heart out.
Why isn’t Will Downing (aka the “Prince of Sophisticated Soul”) a bigger name in music? Yes, Will has his fans, but he definitely flies under the radar and that’s a shame. If you aren’t hip to Downing, then you are missing out on perhaps one of the best vocalists in the game today.
On his latest album, Black Pearls, Downing pays homage to female vocalists who have inspired him over the years. When I read the press on this CD, I just knew one of those vocalists would be Aretha Franklin. Wrong! No Lady Soul. Like Downing, many of these female vocalists also flew under the radar when they were in their prime. Why? Who knows, but perhaps the labels never knew how to market and promote them.
Downing, who sounds a lot Luther Vandross on all ten tracks, does a “Luther job” on this album. That is, he is able to cover another artist’s song and make it sound like his own. Like Luther, Downing is able to pull off this feat with ease—even when these ten tracks include classic R&B hits from the ‘70s and ‘80s.
On Angela Winbush’s 1986 hit single, “Your Smile,” Downing’s interpretation is similar to the original. Nothing fancy—just a male on vocals instead of a female, and Will representing a male point of view. The same is true with “Street Life,” famously sung by Randy Crawford with the Crusaders in 1979, at the end of the disco era. Downing’s smoothed out version is accompanied by a full horn section and features solos by saxophonist Najee and Mike Logan on keyboards. Ok, enough suspense. Just who are the other females who inspired Will? The Emotions (“Don’t Ask My Neighbors”), Chaka Khan (“Everlasting Love”), Deniece Williams (“Black Butterfly” – arranged here by Chris “Big Dog” Davis), Cherelle (“Everything I Miss at Home”), Brenda Russell/Oletta Adams (“Get Here”), the Jones Girls (“Nights Over Egypt”), and Phyllis Hyman (“Meet Me On The Moon”).
The album closes with Downing’s cover of Jean Carn’s “Don’t Let It Go To Your Head,” composed by Philly soul masters Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff. Again, Will keeps the same tempo and style, right down to the glossy strings.
Black Pearls is a gem of an album that allows Downing to show just how much these ladies meant to him. Under the radar? Indeed.
Cameroon musician Richard Bona took on quite a challenge with his eighth album, Heritage, tracing the roots of Cuban music back to the Mandekan empire of the 15th century. To accomplish this daunting feat, he worked with the Afro-Cuban band Mandekan Cubano to tell the musical history of the African rhythms and instruments in Cuba before the slave trade and colonization split Sundiata’s unified kingdom into so many parts.
Heritage is “a window into the years of oral stories that have been passed down and placed in the musical prowess of Bona and the Mandekan Cubano,” according to the liner notes. Bona wants to make sure those stories are heard, and that the “beautiful interweaving of multiple backgrounds” present in countries such as Cuba is not ignored, but embraced. The album reclaims and celebrates the music, dance, folklore, and rituals of the West African slave “Cabildos” in Cuba. The result is a musical masterpiece that flows from one track to the next, bound together by its theme and seven extremely talented musicians.
Richard Bona’s many musical talents highlighted on Heritage include electric sitar, bass, vocals, songwriting, and arranging. His voice sounds natural and effortless, whether he’s singing a slow ballad like “Matanga” or an upbeat Latin jazz song such as “Jokoh Jokoh”:
Though Bona’s vocals and arrangements are the star of the album, Heritage is nothing without the six incredibly skilled musicians that make up Mandekan Cubano. From harmonious backing vocals to the immaculate Latin percussion section, their expertise in Afro-Cuban music is evident in every track. Rey Alejandre’s trumpet and Dennis Hernandez’s trombone shine in tracks such as “Santa Clara Con Montuno,” and Osmany Paredes’ talents on the piano are featured on “Kivu.”
Heritage is a wonderful display of musical diversity in Cuba, threaded together by the stories and music brought by the Cabildos of West Africa. Bona aims to make music that showcases the “issues affecting the oppressed or forgotten cultures of the people who so courageously paved the way for the life we presently live.” Throughout the album, this becomes clear, as the listener realizes that “Heritage” is not supposed to suggest old music or traditions that have come and gone, but a dynamic culture and music, one that is constantly changing yet forever shaped by history.
When he was eight years old, Wesli created his first guitar out a used oil can and a nylon shoelace in his hometown of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Ever since then, innovation and creativity have guided his music-making. Drawing from the many cultures present in Haiti, as well as those in his current city of residence, Montreal, Wesli unites Haitian traditions like vodou and rara with a multitude of genres from reggae to Acadian hip hop. On his fourth album, Ayiti Étoile Nouvelle, Wesli uses these various cultural influences to focus on what it means to be Haitian and a member of the African diaspora in the current political and social climate.
Aside from the lyrics themselves, Wesli pays homage to Haiti through his use of instruments such as the tata and boula, as well as the blending of Afro-Caribbean and creole musical traditions. The opening track, “Rara,” celebrates the style of music used in Haitian carnivals and street processions, such as those that take place during Easter. Creole accordion and violin are featured in the ode to the western region of Haiti, “Latibonit.” Wesli also honors his West African roots throughout the album, such as in his use of the kora on “Sonje.”
Wesli hopes that Ayiti Étoile Nouvelle will speak to his fellow Haitians, especially considering the significant obstacles many face in his homeland. He claims the album aims to “say something useful to society, not just entertain people.” Though the songs echo his ongoing frustration and sorrow, his music and his outlook express hope for “a better situation for Haitians and all African diasporic people.”
On their second album, entitled Ere Gobez, the Ethiopian-American pop group Debo Band uses politics and musical styles from the 1970s and 1980s to pay tribute to Ethiopia’s history and musical past. Whether it be the East Asian influences that came back with Ethiopians who served in the Korean War or imagining what Duke Ellington played during his famous African tour, Debo Band brings Ethiopian history into the present with gregarious energy and relentless dedication, which can be seen in the album trailer:
Debo Band spent the past ten years studying Ethiopian history and music cultures, but they are still learning about new styles and subcultures every day. Band leader and saxophonist Danny Mekonnen said, “We’re digging much, much deeper. We’re still unearthing new sounds after a decade.”
When they find a new style or musical culture, Debo Band transforms it, rearranging, adding new sections, and putting Amharic lyrics to songs. Their goal is to keep the original spirit of the song while adding innovative twists. For example, “Yalanchi,” which uses a traditional bass riff from a wedding song, is enlivened by a constantly shifting time signature and rowdy rock solos. Similarly, drawing from the Asian influence brought into Ethiopia after the Korean War, “Hiyamickachi Bushi” is an Okinawan song composed in 1948 for which Debo Band singer Bruck Tesfaye penned new lyrics. Their version of the Duke Ellington song “Blue Awaze” also adds new lyrics, and the music is what they imagined Ellington might have played with the Addis Ababa Police Orchestra while on tour.
Ere Gobez also features many originals, crafted by trumpeter Danilo Henriquez and electric violinist Jonah Rapino. These songs have a number of influences, from 1970s dance music to jazz. Original tracks such as “Goraw,” try to “capture the pride and resiliency of the Ethiopian people” said lyricist Tesfaye. In this track, psychedelic electric guitar works with accordion and driving drumset to both celebrate Ethiopia while acknowledging all that its people have overcome.
Mekonnen said Ere Gobez is an attempt to “reconstruct the past, not simply by discovering good songs that have been forgotten, but through the interpretation process, making songs anew.” The word gobez refers to a rallying cry, and as a son of two refugees, Mekonnen hopes the album emphasizes the need for equality and justice as hatred and xenophobia run rampant in politics worldwide. Ere Gobez is a call to be courageous and have a “passionate response” to the world, whether that means uncovering a hidden musical history or making bold new creations of their own.
Alligator Records started in 1971 as one man’s dream to record the Southside Chicago blues artists who packed a tiny venue called Florence’s. Bruce Iglauer, then working at Delmark Records, began his label with just one record per year and one employee—himself. In 1991 he released a 20th Anniversary Collection to commemorate the growth of his label to Grammy-award status. Robert Mugge’s film, Pride & Joy: The Story of Alligator Records, documented the promotional tour for that compilation, and an album of live performances from the tour was nominated for a Grammy Award.
Compilations followed for the 20th, 25th, 30th and 40th anniversaries, each compiling tracks from the label’s early days and pairing with newer material. Over the years the label added artists, including many from outside of the Chicago tradition, who were either dropped from other labels or were floundering after the demise of the 1960s blues revival. Still a small label, Alligator continues to produce several albums a year and has re-released albums acquired from other labels.
Iglauer’s introduction to the 45th Anniversary Collection sets this collection apart as a retrospective not of the entire backlist, but mainly of the artists who have recorded since the 2011 40th Anniversary album, plus select tracks by those who have died recently. The living and the dead are interspersed, but most of the current Alligator performers are on the first of the two disc set. Their tracks illustrate a vibrant tradition that still speaks to audiences around the world.
Disc One opens with a “house-rockin’” performance of “Hold That Train” by Lil’ Ed and the Imperials (2008). They invite the listener to “get on board … next stop: Chicago.” Since Alligator’s signature sound is “house-rockin’ music,” this track is a perfect choice to represent the label. “Cotton Picking Blues” (1973) by Son Seals (d. 2004) follows with a long, lugubrious electric guitar solo backed by organ, drums and bass that takes up much of the track. Having been cheated out of his share-cropping pay he has to “put it down.” This is the source of Chicago’s blues inheritance: musicians migrating from the Delta cotton fields to Chicago.
“Devil’s Hand” (2015) by Shemekia Copeland represents the present. The daughter of Johnny Copeland, she began recording for Alligator in 1998 at the age of 18. Tracks in the previous anniversary compilations find her sometimes struggling to compete with her horn section, but in “Devil’s Hand” her voice is robust and soulful, and the production gives her room to breathe. She has come into her own. “Can’t Even Do Wrong Right” (2015) by Elvin Bishop is a witty take on classic blues themes with the best line: “What goes on in the dark will surely come to light.” Toronzo Cannon’s “Bad Contract” (2016) is a funkalicious blues concoction with lyrics that echo the Son Seals’ track, but instead of being cheated by a farmer, Cannon gets burned by a pre-nuptial contract! Who wouldn’t sing the blues?
Harmonica maestro Charlie Musselwhite tells a true story of how the courage of Jessica McClure, the girl who fell into “The Well” (2010), inspired him to quit drinking and “to be a better man.” You might have to listen twice for the story though, because the harmonica solos overshadow everything else in the track. He is a true gift to the blues. Marcia Ball (2014) sings “The Tattooed Lady and the Alligator Man,” a boogie woogie song complete with a horn section and retro piano licks, telling the story of a pair of freak show performers.
In case you feared that civil rights music was a thing of the past, fear not. “Common Ground” (2015) by The Painkillers & Tommy Castro urges us to “stand together on common ground… everybody’s looking for someone to blame but we’re not as different as we are the same.” This mid-tempo gospel-tinged anthem tells us “It’s time to build a brand new day.” Preach it, Tommy! Carey Bell (d. 2007) & his son Lurrie Bell, sing “The Road Is So Long” (2004), an acoustic, Piedmont-inspired duo with Carey on harp and Lurrie on guitar. The track shows Alligator’s reach as well as some impressive instrumentals by the Bells.
Koko Taylor (d. 2009), Alligator’s vocal powerhouse for many years, penned a very southern “Voodoo Woman” (1975). She has a crawfish on her “shoulder, looking dead at you.” Rough and bare, backed by guitar and sax, you can believe her claim that she could make the sky begin to cry. “Don’t Call No Ambulance” (2013) is a hard-driving house-rockin’ song with a ripping horn section. Selwyn Birchwood’s gravelly voice would sound right at home on any Delta classic but has the driving force and powerful diction (yes, diction!) to hold his own against his funkelectric band. Birchwood burst onto the scene in 2013 but he is an old soul with much to say and many years ahead of him. “Don’t you call no ambulance—I’ll find my own ride home.” Oh yes, he would, and I bet he could also walk it if he had to!
Rick Estrin & The Nightcats “Callin’ All Fools” (2013) is a retro-mod song backed by organ, drums and guitar. Lorenzo Farrell’s organ solo is not to be missed. “Too Drunk to Drive Drunk” (2012) by Joe Louis Walker is a hard-driving song about not driving. This is one of the most unique tracks in the collection. Imagine if 1950s Jerry Lee Lewis had a baby with Stevie Ray Vaughan. “I know you mighta done it a million times before, but you ain’t driving outta here like this no more.” “Crazy When She Drinks”(2007) by Lee Rocker, former member of the Stray Cats, sounds a bit like his former group’s work, which isn’t a bad thing but isn’t core to the Alligator wheelhouse. The lyrics fit into a blues house, though: “It don’t make her happy – it just makes her mean.” She probably shouldn’t drive home, either.
“Take Me With You (When You Go),” from Aaron Moreland and Dustin Arbuckle’s 2016 debut album for Alligator, is roots house-rock that has them pulling out all the stops. “Your Turn to Cry” (1977), by Jimmy Johnson, is one of the few older songs by a living artist. Johnson, who is still alive and gigging at 87, lets the guitar do most of the crying but his powerful falsetto recalls the classic R&B artists of the 1950s while staying true to the blues. Texan Delbert McClinton’s “Giving It Up for Your Love” is from a live album recorded at Austin City Limits. It is a multi-tinged gumbo of roots rock styles with full horn section and no holds barred.
Hound Dog Taylor (d. 1975) and the Houserockers were the band that inspired Iglauer to start the Alligator label. “Take Five” (1974) is hard-driving house-rock song that’s light on lyrics and heavy on bottleneck guitar. “Gotta go… gotta go…. sure ‘nuff … baby.” It’s easy to imagine this quickie (2:42) as a prelude to a bathroom break or a rockin’ closer after a long night at Florence’s. New Orleans’ Anders Osborne’s “Let It Go” (2013) is a plea to give up drugs, with references to psychedelic sounds of the 1960s in the incessant driving rhythm and soaring guitar solos. There’s no resolution, just sinking deeper into a quagmire of hypnotic sounds. According to the notes, Osborne has overcome his troubles but they clearly left a soulfully felt scar. Mavis Staples sings “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” (2004) to a croaking bass harmonica (that sometimes sounds like a didjeridoo) and slide guitar. Inspired to resume her career after the events of 9/11, this track points to her bright future.
Disc 2 opens with “Cotton Mouth Man” (2013) by James Cotton, featuring Joe Bonamassa, and includes the line “The Blues cannot be killed!” What a great track to open a disc that includes many deceased artists.
This new CD from Omnivore features the first-ever compilation of 16 single sides (plus 5 bonus tracks) cut by Washington, D.C soul duo Gene & Eddie for the Baltimore-based Ru-Jac label. True Enough also includes several rare sides recorded by the talented producer, songwriter, trumpeter and vocalist who recorded as Sir Joe. The careers of these three artists—otherwise known as Eddie Best, Jr., Eugene Alton Dorsett, and Joe Quarterman—intertwined throughout the 1960s through various regional acts.
Eddie & Gene had been performing in D.C.’s Black nightclubs when they were tapped to front the Nightcaps, adding the soul to a band comprised of white and Jewish musicians. This, in turn, opened up new avenues of opportunity for the group as well as time in the recording studio. Meanwhile, Joe Quarterman had formed several vocal groups including the Knights, and fronted two different female groups: the El Corols and the Maidens. By 1965 he was recording his own tracks for Ru-Jac owner Rufus E. Mitchell (1909-2003), including “Nobody Beats My Love” and “A Guy for You”—both included here. Two years later these three artists signed to Ru-Jac, with Quarterman writing songs for Gene & Eddie, including the CD’s rousing opening tracks, “I Would Cry” and “I Tell You.”
The liner notes by Kevin Coombe document the many trials and tribulations of these three artists for the remainder of the decade. As is the case with most struggling musicians, they never quite made the big time. For the most, all three part had left the music industry by the early ‘70s. Sir Joe released a single on Ru-Jac in 1970 featuring two of his own songs—“Baby, I’d Drop Every Thing” and the more hard driving “Every Day (I’ll Be Needing You)” (tracks 11 and 12). The final recordings by Gene & Eddie, “Darling I Love You” and “Why Do You Hurt Me,” were released in 1971 (tracks 15 and 16).
Listening to these tracks five decades later, one can certainly appreciate the raw energy and talent of the artists and songwriters, but perhaps a bit too raw and unpolished for chart success. Most of the songs sound more like demos, cut in a hurry and on a tight budget. Nevertheless, True Enough expands our knowledge of these three artists while shining a light on the local DC soul scene of the 1960s.
The Meters cast a broad shadow. Even if you haven’t heard of them by name (which would be unfortunate), you’ve probably heard them in some capacity and without realizing it. If you’ve ever heard the thick funk laid down in LaBelle’s version of “Lady Marmalade,” you’re at the very least tangentially familiar with their music. While their work on LaBelle’s Nightbirds album and Dr. John’s Right Place Wrong Time is famous, their own recorded work is less so despite its long history of being sampled in rap records. Primarily an instrumental unit, the Meters’ rhythmic contributions put them in a class of their own.
A Message From the Meters: The Complete Josie, Reprise & Warner Bros. Singles 1968-1977, as the title suggests, pulls together all of the singles released during the band’s most prolific era. Several of the versions included on this 2-disc set are slightly different from their album counterparts; for example, some are longer than the album versions. Core band members Art Neville, Leo Nocentelli, George Porter and Zigaboo Modeliste are highlighted on Disc 1, which features signature songs from the Meters catalog such as “Cissy Strut,” “Look-Ka Py Py,” and “Chicken Strut.”
For this reviewer’s money, it is Disc 2 that has better selections since it highlights the addition of Art Neville’s younger brother Cyril’s time with the band. There are excellent instrumentals includes on this disc as well, but the tracks with vocals (which in my opinion never get the respect they deserve in the Meters’ catalog) get time to shine as well. Tracks like the funky as hell “Do The Dirt,” “Hey Pocky A-Way,” and “Chug-Chug-Chug-Chug-A-Lug (Push ‘N’ Shove) Parts I & II” showcase the “heavyweight funk” these fellas were putting down. The band’s cover of Professor (“Fess”) Longhair’s “Hey Now Baby,” mysteriously titled here “Cabbage Alley,” is particularly wonderful. Art and Cyril trade verses (well, more of a repeated refrain) back and forth in harmony over Art’s piano (reminiscent of Fess’s own) and the band’s rhythmic workout.
The collection also includes later Meters sides that show them struggling a bit with the mainstream’s transition from funk to disco. The Meters themselves, however, never lose their stride, which would carry over into the music of the Neville Brothers, formed by Art and Cyril after they left the Meters in 1977.
While A Message From the Meters might tread fairly well-worn territory for the hardcore Meters fan, it serves as an excellent introduction for the uninitiated and anyone else who may not have all the group’s singles in one collection.
Following are additional albums released during September 2016—some will be reviewed in future issues of Black Grooves.
Blues, Folk, Country Big Jay McNeely: Blowin’ Down the House-Big Jay’s Latest & Greatest (Cleopatra)
Bobby Rush: Porcupine Meat (Rounder Records)
Elmore James & His Broomdusters: Slide Order Of The Blues (Jasmine)
Grady Champion: One of a Kind (Malaco Records)
Jimmy ‘Duck’ Holmes & Terry ‘Harmonica’ Bean: Twice As Hard (Broke & Hungry)
Jimmy Liggins: Knocking You Out – A Singles Collection Featuring All The Hits 1947-1959 (Jasmine)
Lil’ Ed and The Blues Imperials: The Big Sound Of Lil’ Ed And The Blues Imperials (Alligator)
Mighty Sam Mcclain: Time And Change – Last Recordings (Kirkelig Kulturverksted)
Natalia M. King:Bluezzin T’il Dawn (Naxos)
New Orleans Suspects: Kaleidoscoped (Louisiana Red Hot)
Robert Finlay: Age Don’t Mean A Thing (Big Legal Mess)
U.P. Wilson: Whirlwind (remastered ed.) (JSP)
Classical Choir of Trinity Wall Street: Trevor Weston Choral Works (ACIS)
Daahoud Salim: Erwin Schulhoff: Forbidden Music (Challenge Classics)
Lawrence Brownlee: Bel Canto Arias (Delos)
S.E.M. Ensemble: Julius Eastman: Femenine (Frozen Reeds)
Funk, Rock, Pop, Electronic Adrian Younge: Electronique Void: Black Noise (Linear Labs)
Beyoncé: The Complete Story (2 DVD Collector’s Box Set) (The Collector’s Forum)
Brian Culbertson: Funk (BCM Entertainment)
Jordan Fisher: S/T EP (Hollywood Records)
Miko Tolliver: Attack of the Kittie Perm (Kittie Perm)
Nephew Tommy aka Thomas Miles: Lost Prank Phone calls Part 1 (CSD)
Prince: Up Close & Personal (DVD) (Nibon Silver Films)
Prince: Purple Reign In New York (Carrier Dome, Syracue, 1985) (SMOKIN’)
Sex Stains: Sex Stains (Don Giovanni )
Skye & Ross: S/T (Cooking Vinyl)
ThunderSoul Orchestra: 528-0728 (Suite 28)
TJ: Time is Wasting
Kamau Bell : Semi-Prominent Negro (Kill Rock Stars)
Zapp: Zapp I / Zapp II / Zapp III (Cherry Red)
Gospel, Gospel Rap Audrey Cher: The Intro (Hitman)
Best of Proverb & Gospel Corner Records, 1959-1969 (Narro Way/City Hall)
Charles Jenkins: Think About These Things (Inspired People/Empire Dist.)
Fred Hammond: Worship Journal (Live) (RCA Inspiration)
Joe Pace: Joe Pace Presents: H. B. Charles Jr. And The Shiloh Church (360MusicWorX)
Luther Barnes & the Restoration worship Center Choir: Favor of God (Shanachie)
Lynntesha Roberts: Give God The Glory (Ophirgospel)
Mahalia Jackson: Moving Up a Little Higher (Shanachie)
Phillip Carter & SOV: Live from Zion (SOV)
Roy & Revelation: Blest By the Best Live (Malaco)
Tamela Mann: One Way (Tilly Mann Music Group)
Jazz Andrew Cyrille & Bill McHenry: Proximity (Sunnyside)
Albert Ayler: Ghosts (reissue) (Skokiaan)
Allan Harris: Nobody’s Gonna Love You Better(Love Productions Records/Membran Entertainment)
Andrew Cyrille Quartet: The Declaration Of Musical Independence (ECM)
Bobby Kapp & Matthew Shipp: Cactus (Northern Spy)
Bobby Timmons: Holiday Soul (reissue) (Prestige)
Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra : Basically Baker Vol. 2 (Patois)
Delfeayo Marsalis & The Uptown Jazz Orchestra : Make America Great Again! (Troubadour Jass)
Dizzy Gillespie: Live in Vegas 1963 Vols. 1 & 2 (Jazz Rewind )
ELEW: And to the Republic (Sunnyside)
Etienne Mbappe & The Prophets: How Near How Far (Abstract Logix)
Herb Alpert & Hugh Masakela : Main Event Live (remastered reissue) (Herb Alpert Presents)
Joshua Redman & Brad Mehldau: Nearness (Nonesuch)
Kim Scott: Southern Heat (Innervision)
Richard Elliot: Summer Madness (Heads Up)
Saltman/Knowles: Almost (Pacific Coast Jazz)
Shabaka & The Ancestors: Wisdom of Elders (Brownswood)
Shirley Horn: Live At The Four Queens (Resonance)
Soul Basement: What We Leave Behind (ITI)
Spirits of Rhythm: Fine Jazzmen Whose Object Was Fun (JSP)
The Cookers: The Call of the Wild and Peaceful Heart (Smoke Sessions)
Az Yet: She’s Magic (X-Ray)
Betty Harris: Lost Queen of New Orleans Soul (Soul Jazz)
Brent Faiyaz: A.M. Paradox EP
Dave Hollister: The Manuscript (Shanachie)
Dionne Warwick: The Warner Bros. Recordings (Real Gone Music)
Frankie & The Spindles: Count to Ten – Complete Singles Collection 1968-77 (Playback )
George Duke: Shine On: Anthology – Epic Years 1977-1984 (SoulMusic)
Gerald Albright: G
I, Ced: What Are We Looking For? (Movenext Media)
Ike & Tina Turner: The Complete Pompeii Recordings 1968-1969 (Goldenlane)
Izzy Bizu: Moment of Madness (Epic)
Jackie Venson: Jackie Venson Live
James Booker: Bayou Maharajah (DVD) (Cadiz Music Ltd)
Kindred the Family Soul: Legacy of Love (Nal)
Nina Simone: What Happened, Miss Simone? (DVD) (Eagle Vision)
Otis Redding: Live At The Whisky A Go Go: The Complete Recordings (Stax)
Pigeon John: Good Sinner (Dine Alone Music/Universal)
Sam Cooke: Complete Solo Singles As & Bs 1957-62 (Acrobat)
serpentwithfeet: Blisters EP (Tri Angle )
Shaun Escoffery: Evergreen
Tee Mac: Night Illusion (reissue) (SoulJazz)
The Excitements: Breaking the Rule (Penniman)
The Isley Brothers: Groove with You…Live (Real Gone Music)
Usher: Hard II Love (RCA)
Various: Instrumentals Soul-Style Volume 2 (History of Soul)
Various: Come Back Strong – Hotlanta Soul 4 (Kent)
Various: Prince’s Jukebox – The Songs That Inspired The Man (Chrome Dreams)
Rap, Hip Hop Philthy Rich & Mozzy : Political Ties (Mozzy)
Apollo Brown & Skyzoo: The Easy Truth (Mellow Music)
Audio Push: 90951
Chinx: Legends Never Die (eOne)
Clipping: Splendor & Misery (Sub Pop)
Danny Brown: Atrocity Exhibition (Warp)
DJ Smoke & Kid Ink: Ink Factory Mixtape
Dreezy: No Hard Feelings (Interscope)
Durrty Goodz: Hungry Belly
Ezale and DJ Fresh: The Tonite Show With Ezale (Fresh in the Flesh)
Kool Keith: Feature Magnetic (Mellow Music)
Kunta: Death Before Betrayl (City Hall)
Lil Bibby: FC3 the Epilogue
Living Colour: Mixtape EP
Maitre Gims: A Contrecour (Jive Epic)
Mykki Blanco: Mykki
Outlawz: Living Legendz (City Hall)
Phonte: No News is Good News
Rasul Allah 7: Heru, the Face of the Goldem Falcon) (Chambermusik Special Products )
Reks: The Greatest X (Brick)
Scallops Hotel (AKA Milo): Plain Speaking (Ruby Yacht)
Show Banga: Showtime 2 (Mo Betta)
Ty Dolla $ign: Campaign
Various: Get Down OST (RCA)
Wyclef Jean: J’Ouvert EP
Reggae, Dancehall Black Uhuru: Live At Rockpalast – Essen 1981 (Made In Germany Musi)
Count Ossie & The Mystic Revelation of Rastafari: Grounation
Dennis Alcapone: Yeah Yeah Yeah – Mash Up the Dance (Kingston Sounds)
Freddie McGregor : True To My Roots (VPAL)
Jah9: 9 (VP)
Lee Scratch Perry: Must Be Free (Megawave)
Pat Kelly: Jamaican Soul (Kingston Sounds)
Resonators: Imaginary People (Wah Wah)
The Frightnrs: Nothing More to Say (Daptone)
Various: Dance Inna: Delamere Avenue (Black Solidarity)
World Alsarah & the Nubatones: Manara (Wonderwheel)
Bitori: Legend of Funana: Forbidden Music of the Capes (Analog Africa)
Élage Diouf: Melokáane
Funkees: Now I’m a Man (reissue) (PMG)
Nana ‘Angel’ Love: Obaatan Pa (BBE)
Omar Sosa & Paolo Fresu : Eros (OTA)
Pat Thomas: Coming Home: Original Ghanaian Highlife & Afrobeat Classics 1967-1981 (Strut)
Various: Nigeria Soul Fever (Soul Jazz)
Various: Urgent Jumping! East African Musiki Wa Dansi Classics (Sterns Africa)
Zion & Lennox: Motivan2 (Warner Music Latina)
Various: Zouk Anthology (box set)
Zomba Prison Project: I Will Not Stop Singing (Six Degrees)