Under classical music, we’re featuring South African coloratura Pretty Yende’s debut album Journey. New blues and R&B releases include the Mike Wheeler Band’sTurn Up!!, Macy Gray’s Stripped, Vaneese Thomas’ genre blending album Long Journey Home, and Atlanta singer-songwriter Anthony David’s The Powerful Now. Michael Franti & Spearhead’s summer release, SoulRocker, showcases their socially conscious pop and hip hop-infused reggae. New DVD/Blu-ray releases include three Robert Mugge Films celebrating Louisiana music, with an emphasis on Zydeco.
Cosmic Adventure marks the second album from French jazz violinist Scott Tixier. Born in France, and trained in both classical and jazz violin, Tixier relocated to New York City in 2008 and has been busy in the jazz scene there every since. His performance resume is quite diverse, from Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life Tour to being featured on the soundtrack of the Keanu Reeves film John Wick. On Cosmic Adventure, Tixier shines not only as performer, but as a composer as well; all of the originals on the album are penned by him, except for “Mr. Tix,” a composition by French harmonica player Yvonnick Prene.
One of the major highlights of the album is the interplay between Tixier and Prene, who has a featured role on the album. The combination of violin and harmonica is initially a somewhat unusual pairing but these two make it work, with one of their best outings being “100,000 Hours.” In the final song, though, it is the interplay between Tixier and tenor saxophonist Chris Potter that shines through, as they beam themselves to Mars at the speed of light. Energy is great from the other players as well: Justin Brown (drums), Glenn Zaleski (piano), and Luques Curtis (bass).
Influence comes from many places on this album, in particular a heavy Latin influence. Percussionist Pedro Martinez provides congas for the first two tracks, “Maze Walker” and “Dig It,” and his presence is felt widely. Tixier also utilizes his French influences, most notably through acknowledging the work of Jean-Luc Ponty. As the most eminent jazz violinist not only in France but arguably in the world, Ponty’s presence is felt throughout the album. Even the album’s title, Cosmic Adventure, hearkens back to Ponty’s 1978 release Cosmic Messenger. The other French influence on the album is the famous jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, whose composition “Troublant Bolero” is featured. The only other standard on the album is Erroll Garner’s “Misty,” which features a stunning extended pizzicato section. This is one of Tixier’s strengths: using the wide vocabulary of the violin to fit the needs of his improvisational jazz expressions. His careful use of vibrato, pizzicato, and other extended techniques keeps the listener at the edge of their seat, waiting to hear what he’ll do next.
In Cosmic Adventure, Tixier is able to place the cosmos on a spectrum, shifting from one mood to the next, and from intricate details to grandiose melodies without missing a beat.
Allen Toussaint’s final album is a commemorative collection of reimagined compositions by musical visionaries who have defined American music, particularly in the genres of jazz and blues. Released within a year after his untimely passing, American Tunes tells the story of peaceful weariness from a lifetime of sensation, longing, and unpredictable complication. Toussaint is a beloved New Orleans icon known far and wide as an award-winning composer, performer, producer, and collaborator since the 1950s. This album is a hat’s off to the musicians who inspired Toussaint while also demonstrating his undying commitment to his home and the people of Crescent City.
American Tunes complements Toussaint’s former record, The Bright Mississippi (2009), which was also produced by Joe Henry and released on Nonesuch Records. It matches his interest in intertwining New Orleans elegance into his instrumental performances written by the jazz and New Orleans R&B greats. Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Bill Evans, and more are featured in addition to a few exciting guest musicians. Toussaint especially recognizes Professor Longhair, his longest enduring inspiration, whose song “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” is slowed and sweetened on this album, turned into a more reflective instrumental rendition.
The album opens with “Delores’ Boyfriend,” a steady and playful blues instrumental by Toussaint following into a mischievous, yet almost vaudevillian tune titled “Viper’s Drag” by Fats Waller. Toussaint performs solo for much of the album, though each track stands alone in distinction, such as “Big Chief” and “Hey Little Girl.” However, a small band joins Toussaint on certain tunes such as “Confessin’ (That I love You),” “Lotus Blossom,” “Rosetta” and “Waltz for Debby.” Percussionist Jay Bellerose, tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd, bassist David Piltch, Greg Leisz on Weissenborn and electric guitarist Bill Frisell each carefully and delicately add texture to the compositions, highlighting Toussaint’s unmistakable grace on the piano. On “Danza, Op. 33,” an orchestral section along with pianist Van Dyke Parks supports Toussaint on this classical tune composed by New Orleans native Louis Moreau Gottschalk.
While the majority of the tunes do not feature the original lyrics, a pleasing collaboration takes place on two songs of this album performed by vocalist Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Giddens joins Toussaint, providing her deep soulful vibrato, in celebration of Duke Ellington on “Rocks in my Bed” and “Come Sunday,” which was famously performed by gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. Toussaint’s second original composition, “Southern Nights,” a refreshing piano duet with Van Dyke Parks, brings the album to a near close.
On the last track of the album, Toussaint finally takes his turn at the microphone singing his arrangement of Paul Simon’s “American Tune.” A song with lyrics so touching and appropriate, it is truly difficult to listen with dry eyes. Simon’s lyrics are reassuring while Toussaint’s voice is calming as he sings:
“Oh, it’s all right, it’s all right
It’s all right
You can’t be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day
And I’m trying to get some rest
That’s all I’m trying to get, some rest”
Pleasant and playful, though distantly melancholic, American Tunes is a satisfying collection of New Orleans jazz, R&B, and classical music clearly inspirational to a musician who has in turn inspired other creative minds. In the liner notes, Tom Piazza reflects on Toussaint’s return to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina: “His return was a sign that New Orleans, itself, was back. You would see him, as before, at the supermarket, or at a concert, and every time you saw him you were happy and grateful.” Friends and fans are happy and grateful as well to have received American Tunes as a parting gift in remembrance of the great Allen Toussaint.
South African soprano Pretty Yende’s debut album, A Journey, will be released this month by Sony Classical. Much-anticipated since her triumphant Metropolitan Opera debut in 2013, Ms. Yende’s album celebrates the lyric coloratura repertoire which propelled her to the top of the opera world. She performs with the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI Torino, under conductor Marco Armiliato, with additional assistance from mezzo soprano Kate Aldrich, as seen in the album trailer below:
Ms. Yende was born in 1985 in the small remote town of Piet Retief, about three hundred miles from Johannesburg. At the age of sixteen, her life was transformed by hearing the “Flower Duet” from Delibes’s opera Lakmé on a British Airways television commercial. On learning that this haunting music was opera, she decided at that moment to abandon her plans to become an accountant and train to become an opera singer instead. Soon she gained a scholarship to study at the South African College of Music in Cape Town with Professor Virginia Davids, who was the first black woman to appear on opera stages during the apartheid years in South Africa. With Davids’ help, Ms. Yende’s extraordinary talent blossomed and she was taken from a childhood in a remote village in South Africa to sing on the major opera stages of the world.
Preparing to enter the opera world from such a background cannot have been easy, but in interviews with the New York Times, Ms. Yende has referred to South Africa as “… a singing nation. Music is something that we are born with, it’s like the African rhythm; it’s like a heartbeat. In Sunday school you will have to sing one song, and a little girl will start harmonizing it. Just like that, just by hearing. It’s that kind of world.” Such innate musicality is showcased in Ms. Yende’s album, featuring as it does selections from the bel canto and later French repertoire. Her voice boasts a solid lower middle register not always heard in this voice type, and in her upper range, a ringing squillando which she manages with taste. Her ornamentation is fresh and well-chosen to highlight her strengths: while her runs are not always clean, her pizzicato coloratura is excellent.
Overall, the album provides a refreshing take on some old favorites, while providing some more unusual repertoire for the jaded palate. Among the latter is the scene “Vous que l’on dit” from Rossini’s Le Comte Ory. It was in this opera that Ms. Yende starred opposite Juan Diego Flórez as the Countess Adèle, at her Met debut. With less than a month’s notice (having never sung the role), she replaced an ailing Nino Machaidze to complete the run of the show. She has since performed the role several times, including at the Theater an der Wien where she replaced Cecilia Bartoli. The performance reflects her theatrical experiences, communicating a thorough command of the French text and musical line, bringing Adèle’s character brightly to life. One can only imagine the riches in store for us as this rising star finds her place in the operatic firmament.
Jazz chanteuse Catherine Russell offers a special treat with the release of her sixth album, Harlem On My Mind, a tribute to her mother’s birthplace and the performers who made the Apollo Theater the mecca of Black entertainment. Encompassing a dozen selections from the Great American Songbook, the album brings new life to gems of the Harlem jazz scene of the 1920s-1940s.
Opening with the title track, Russell gives a sophisticated, subtle yet swinging interpretation of this Irving Berlin chestnut. First performed by Ethel Waters in 1933, the song speaks to an expat in Paris longing to get back to the Cotton Club and the “Hi-de-ho” (a reference to bandleader Cab Calloway). Following are three songs made famous by Billie Holliday in the 1930s. “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me” (1926) highlights the terrific backing band in an arrangement by Andy Farber. “Swing! Brother, Swing!” by the great Clarence Williams is a wonderful uptempo romp, with Russell and the band perfectly articulating the style and mood of the period. On the ballad “The Very Thought of You,” Russell’s smooth as butter interpretation digs into the groove on this slower, more atmospheric version of the Lady Day classic.
Returning to the 1920s, Russell interprets another Clarence Williams song, “You’ve Got the Right Key, but the Wrong Keyhole,” originally performed by vaudeville singer Virginia Liston with Williams in the 1920s. This bluesy arrangement features animated solos by Matt Munisteri on banjo and Mark Lopeman on clarinet.
Russell’s father, the legendary pianist/composer/bandleader Luis Russell, recorded the popular Henry Nemo song, “Don’t Take Your Love,” with his last big band in the 1940s so it obviously holds a special place in his daughter’s heart. Once again, Russell stretches the ballad to its limits in a slow and sultry arrangement reminiscent of the Nancy Wilson version.
Returning to songs made famous by Billie Holiday, Russell covers the 1929 Fats Waller jazz standard “Blue Turning Grey Over You” and the pop classic “You’re My Thrill” from 1933. These are followed by another pair of songs with close ties to Harlem: “I Want a Man” popularized by Annisteen Allen and Lucky Millinder (onetime leader of the house band at the Apollo), and “When Lights are Low” by Harlem born Benny Carter and Spencer Williams.
The album closes with a pair of songs from the 1960s: “Talk To Me, Talk To Me” by actor/composer Joe Seneca (popularized by Little Willie John and Aretha Franklin), and Dinah Washington’s “Let Me Be the First to Know“ (from her Back to the Blues album).
With Harlem On My Mind, Catherine Russell provides yet another instant classic, brimming with impeccable style, faithful interpretations, and top notch arrangements. Few singers today could pull this off with as much aplomb and sophistication as Russell, who was quite literally weaned on this music as the daughter of two notable jazz musicians. Young vocalists take note – this is how you sing in the pocket!
Editor’s note: Russell will be touring throughout the fall in support of the album, and will appear in December as guest vocalist with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis.
Drummer Will Calhoun has proven time and again that he’s comfortable performing any style of music, from the hard rock of the groundbreaking band Living Colour, of which he is a founding member, to jazz, fusion, funk, and hip hop. But for his solo albums, the Berklee School of Music graduate most frequently chooses to further his exploration of jazz. On his latest release, Celebrating Elvin Jones, Calhoun pays homage to the legendary drummer. As a member of the John Coltrane Quartet, Elvin Jones became one of the most influential drummers of all time, performing on the seminal album A Love Supreme, as well as many other albums for Coltrane and other artists ranging from Miles Davis to Ornette Coleman, Freddy Hubbard, McCoy Tyner, Quincy Jones, and J.J. Johnson. Jones also released dozens of his own projects between 1961-1999 on the Atlantic, Impulse!, Blue Note, and Vanguard labels.
Jones made a profound impact on Calhoun, who met the drummer at a Village Vanguard concert when he was just 14. The two maintained contact over the years until Jones’ passing in 2004. According to Calhoun, “Elvin connected my worlds. Although I saw him playing jazz, I felt rock and roll, I felt fusion, I felt African music. It sounds electric, it sounds acoustic, it sounds very African, it sounds very Latin, there are all these elements in there.”
A bevy of seasoned veterans join Calhoun on Celebrating Elvin Jones, including Christian McBride on bass, Antoine Roney on sax, Carlos McKinney on keyboards, and Keyon Harrold on trumpet—all of whom either played with or were influenced by Jones. The album opens with the Jones original, “EJ Blues,” first released on Live in Japan 1978 by the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine. Clocking in at just over seven minutes, Calhoun’s arrangement is less than half the length of Jones’ live version, but certainly doesn’t disappoint in this energetic reading with extended solos by McBride and Harrold. On “Whew,” composed by bassist Wilbur Little who recorded it with Jones on the 1969 album Poly-Currents, McBride deftly weaves in and out of the complex rhythms and improvisations. Next up, the band lays into Coltrane’s “Harmonique,” included on Jones’ 1984 tribute album Brother John. Establishing a solid groove from the get go, Calhoun and McBride fully support Roney’s solo efforts.
From here the album takes a significant detour with “Sarmastah,” penned by Calhoun, who surprises listeners with an introspective 12-string acoustic guitar solo. Backed by Roney on soprano sax and McKinney on electric piano, Calhoun also covers percussion, drawing upon the “cymbal mystique” for which Jones was famous in this rhythmically complex track. Following are two great showcases for Calhoun’s technique: Wayne Shorter’s “Mahjong” and “Shinjitsu,” composed by Keiko Jones (Elvin’s wife), that’s a tour-de-force on which Calhoun unleashes a wide range of percussion during extended solos.
Two prominent guest artists are featured on the final tracks, which are definite highlights. The late Senegalese percussionist Doudou N’Diaye Rose (who died shortly after this recording) and five of his group drummers perform the intro on the arrangement of the traditional Japanese folk song “Doll of the Bride.” Calhoun then takes over, channeling Rose’s ability to create complex ever-changing rhythmic variations which propel his group through several improvisatory sections that showcase each member, before concluding in a flurry of percussive effects.
Keyboardist/composer Jan Hammer joins the group on the final track to revisit “Destiny,” which he performed on Jones’ 1974 album, On the Mountain. In a grand finale that’s nothing short of cataclysmic, Hammer drives the melody forward before handing the reins to Calhoun, who unleashes an explosive array of percussion, then brings the group back to conclude the piece with a satisfyingly progressive fusion.
In his tribute to Elvin Jones, Calhoun proves his own status as a master drummer with an impressive arsenal and intellectual curiosity that’s worthy of respect. Hats off to the other members of the group, who all contribute to this fantastic effort.
Chicago trumpeter Marquis Hill, who studied under Ronald Carter at Northern Illinois University and earned a masters in jazz pedagogy from DePaul University, released several projects of his original music on Skiptone Music. In 2014, Hill won the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Trumpet Competition, which awarded him a recording contract with Concord Records. From this contract comes his debut album for Concord Jazz, The Way We Play, which pays homage to jazz standards reinterpreted by Hill and his ensemble, the Blacktet, featuring Christopher McBride (sax), Justin Thomas (vibes), Makaya McCraven (drums), and Joshua Ramos (bass).
The title track, “The Way We Play/Minority” is playful mashup of a Gigi Gryce tune and features spoken word by Harold Green III. It can be listened to as a manifesto (“the way we play is / the way we love”), or as Hill emphatically states, “this is the sound of my band, which is uniquely Chicago.” Green enters after the intro, claiming the music’s blackness, stating “the way we play signify from which we came/Black always in season.” Light and fast paced, Hill’s rendition never numbs a gut or unseats a listener as free jazz strove to do. This is a fantastic piece, which describes many of the songs on this release. It dances the spirit in a comforting way and is great at romancing the beings that this society has had us become. The drumming is singularly superb and so the trumpet playing.
Other highlights are Horace Silver’s “Moon Rays,” which inspires idealism in its listener, and the Afro-Cuban take on “Fly Little Bird Fly” (by Donald Byrd), which also features spoken word by Harold Green. His prose asks “the descendants of sharecroppers” to “sprinkle black girl magic” and “rise and dance.” Are these songs politically romantic? Marquis Hill seems to intend to transform at least some of the tracks into statements of political activism or even protest. Also included on the album is an Afro-Latin version of “Smile,” the Charlie Chaplin tune, while “My Foolish Heart” is a love ballad with R&B influences featuring Christie Dashiell on vocals.
Marquis Hill’s The Way We Play is a delightful album that combines the best of two worlds: Archie Shepp without the jagged edges, post-bop with overt protest.
I personally first heard of British group Incognito in the 1990s, when the acid jazz scene made its way to the U.S. Groups such as Fertile Ground and the Brand New Heavies gave Incognito a run for their money on who was going to be the big dog. Well, in 2016, I think it is unanimous. Brand New Heavies had a taste of mainstream success and Fertile Ground was strictly an underground favorite, but Incognito is still regularly putting out new material. Their latest, In Search of Better Days, is Incognito’s 17th album, and if you are even a little familiar with their previous work, then you know what time it is. Incognito is funk, soul jazz and house. Yes, you read it right, house!
The intro for “Better Days” starts off with a very trippy house feel. After a buildup of five minutes, vocalist Vula Malinga takes over and then the track begins to sound more like we expect from Incognito. Different vocalists are showcased throughout, including Imaani on the opening track, “Love Born in Flames”:
Maysa is featured on four tracks, including “Racing Through the Bends.” Catchy lyrics, combined with Maysa’s vocals equals a winner. Maysa shines on all of her tracks, but hands down this is the ONE. Vocalist Tomoyasu Hotai gives “Bridges of Fire” a very different feel, but without a doubt it’s still smooth. Incognito is just that, smooth. After seventeen albums, Incognito has proven they have staying power. That’s a good thing.
Looking for more of that Brazilian music vibe featured during the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro? Check out Brazilian-American Soundtrack from Bob Baldwin. The 26-song double CD blends Latin rhythms with contemporary jazz in two movements, moving from Rio-Ipanema in disc one, to New York on disc two. Recorded over a three year period in Rio, New York, and Atlanta (Baldwin’s home base), the project features an international ensemble including Brazilian percussionists Café Da Silva, Rafael Pereira, and Armando Marcal and guitarist Torcuato Mariano (guitar), with a horn section comprised of Gabriel Mark Hasselbach (trumpet), Marion Meadows and Freddy V (sax), and Ragan Whiteside (flute), plus guitarists Marlon McClain and Phil Hamilton. The multi-talented Baldwin adds keyboards, percussion, bass, strings and vocals, with additional vocals contributed by James “Crab” Robinson, Porter Carroll II, Gigi, and Zoiea Ohizep.
Most of the album’s tracks were penned by Baldwin (alone and in collaboration with other band members), who set out to honor some of the iconic artists who have influenced him over the years. These include the late composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, one of the originators of the bossa nova style whose work “Corcovado/The Redeemer” is featured on disc one, along with several works by Brazilian popular music songwriter Ivan Lins, including “Anjo De Mim,” “The Island” and “Love Dance” are also included.
Moving over to the second, New York half of the project, the overall vibe is on smooth grooves, though Latin percussion still provides a solid foundation. Baldwin works in several tributes to one of his musical idols, the late Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire. The track “Maurice (The Sound of His Voice),” calls to mind the vocal riffs on EWF’s “Brazilian Rhyme,” and the closing track, “The Message,” includes Baldwin’s heartfelt spoken tribute to White, recorded shortly after news of his death was received.
Though summer is on the wane, this delightful project from Bob Baldwin promises to keep the tropical vibe alive well into the future.
Listening to The Long Journey Home feels like a night-long dance party as each song tests the boundaries of southern American roots genres. Vaneese Thomas celebrates her family and musical heritage in this latest album, following her most recent release Blues for My Father (2014). Raised in a talented and renowned musical family, Vaneese is the youngest daughter of Rufus Thomas and sister of Carla Thomas. R&B, soul, funk, and blues styles come naturally to Vaneese, and her ability to wield and experiment with these song varieties is evident in The Long Journey Home.
Vaneese demands complete attention in her performance using powerful vocals with a full band including harmonica, electric guitar, and a brass section. She kicks off the album with “Sweet Talk Me,” a rockin’ rhythm and blues song with a catchy refrain and a chorus of back-up singers beckoning listeners to the dancefloor. The album follows into “Lonely No More,” a song keeping with the Delta blues tradition about reclaiming self-confidence. The catchiest song of the album, “Sat’day Night on the River,” starts up with full energy and a swinging saxophone solo by Cliff Lyons. Perhaps one of the most surprising songs on this album, because of its unique blend of genres, is “Country Funk.” Demonstrating exactly what its title implies, Vaneese sings “I just can’t get enough of that country funk” while the percussion and brass section support elements of funk music, and dobro, banjo, and fiddle intertwine creating an intriguing mix of music traditions. The genres highlighted on this album convey Vaneese’s appreciation for the musically diverse reputation of Memphis.
Vaneese wrote songs on The Long Journey Home about her concerns on past and current social justice issues. Civil rights, imbalances of political power, and the need for love and kindness are common themes in songs such as “Mean World,” “Rockin’ Away the Blues,” and “The More Things Change,” during which she reflects on Sam Cooke’s timeless hit “A Change is Gonna Come”:
“Well, I’m still here waiting.
Hardly a damn thing has been done.
Well ain’t it funny? I said, it’s a shame
That the more things change, the more they stay the same”
Vaneese attempts to offer something for everyone on this album, whether they are songs about love and inspiration as in “Mystified” and “Prince of Fools” or songs with heavier blues and gospel roots like “I Got a Man in TN” or “Revelation.” The album closes with a cover of “The Chain,” originally written by Fleetwood Mac. It is a distinctive concluding track relative to the rest of the album for its minimalist acoustic instrumental section. Nevertheless, Vaneese sings out with her heart’s full power, which she sustains throughout the album.
One of the busiest guitarists in Chicago, Mike Wheeler has an impressive resume, having played with such luminaries as Demetria Taylor, Nellie Travis, and Big James and the Chicago Playboys. Serving as leader on his sophomore Delmark release, Turn Up!!, Wheeler leads his band through a sizzling 13 song set, full of tight arrangements and satisfying grooves.
Most of the material on Turn Up!! is straight-ahead blues. Numbers such as “Sweet Girl” showcase the band’s hard-earned solid groove, doubtless acquired over countless evenings working with similar funky blues numbers. However, this release isn’t an entirely tourist-in-the-city-for-the-weekend affair. “Brand New Cadillac,” for instance, is built around heavy layered guitar riffs that wouldn’t have been out of place during Black Sabbath’s early days, with a stylish guitar solo to match.
While Wheeler is a solid singer and songwriter, the real stars of this record are the band’s chops and grooves. The band dips into funky R&B on “Yeah!,” with bassist Larry Williams and Wheeler dropping in with solid and funky solos. The band also excels at the slow burn, as on “Nothing Lasts Forever.” Their cover of Little Milton’s “That’s What Love Will Make You Do” grooves hard, with solo breaks for Wheeler and Williams, who plays slap-bass bebop that lays deep in the funk groove. “Sad State of the World” provides another opportunity for soloing, as the nearly 8 minute long tune, heavily orchestrated in the style of The Band, gives Wheeler an opportunity to burn, even if—like many gestures at social commentary from musicians who don’t do it all the time—the lyrics are maudlin at best.
Overall, Turn Up!! Is a solid musical statement from a group of Chicago heavyweights. Blues fans must check this out, and blues guitarists will want to cop some of Wheeler’s tasteful and flawlessly executed licks.
Macy Gray’s latest studio album, Stripped, displays the comfort of a veteran and the willingness to explore new territory at the same time. Recorded in just two days in a Brooklyn church, the album’s 10 tracks are a combination of covers, originals, and new arrangements of Macy Gray songs.
One such arrangement is “I Try,” Gray’s hit from her 1999 debut album On How Life Is. This new arrangement allows for some flexibility that’s missing from the original, especially rhythmically. The musicians featured on the record—Ari Hoenig (drums), Daryl Johns (bass), Russell Malone (guitar), and Wallace Roney (trumpet), provide Gray a freedom that allows her voice to function like the jazz instrument it has remained all these years.
Gray’s rasp allows the album’s covers to shine as though they were her own. She turns Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” into a convincing jazz tune, with the help of star solos from Roney and Malone. Her cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” is relatively straightforward, yet haunting.
Besides Gray’s vocals, the other standout aspect of this project is the production quality. Produced by Chesky Records for their binaural recording series, this album comes to life in a pair of headphones. This method of recording attempts to put the listener in the room with the musicians, which is ideal for the intimacy of the small jazz ensemble on this album.
Stripped is well paced, with grooves that complement each other, and a performance from Macy Gray that highlights her songwriting, vulnerability, and command of a voice that sets her apart from her contemporaries.
Georgia native Anthony David has been writing music since he served in the military in Iraq, describing music as a life-affirming act, especially in the face of death. Since leaving the military, he has worked with artists such as Boyz II Men and his longtime collaborator India.Arie, experimenting within many genres and styles, from classical soul ballads to reggae dance floor anthems. His seventh album and first since he signed to Shanachie, The Powerful Now, is no different, as David masterfully takes on a variety of topics from poverty to true love while experimenting with fist-pumping electronic tunes, romantic, vulnerable R&B, and everything in between.
The lead single on the album, “Beautiful Problem,” is a sultry song inspired by EDM and Afrobeat, which David said is his current favorite genre. It combines voice manipulation, hard kick drum beats, and a hip-hop-infused baseline paired with a melodic chorus inspired by an India.Arie song. The video features India.Arie and wild cats as David sings about being happy with the good and bad in life:
Other standout tracks include the opening song “The Ride,” which is about moving forward in the face of adversity, the reggaeton-inspired club-themed “I Don’t Mind,” and the romantic duet “Charge” featuring Carmen Rogers. Despite the diverse genres and themes, The Powerful Now is held down by David’s smooth vocals, which glide over classical violin with ease and balance edgy, heavy beats just as effortlessly. In his own words on his website, David says that “Humans will always need to feel, and artists are here to identify those feelings and paint pictures of sound with them.” David certainly paints pictures with his emotive voice, transporting the listener with each new lyrical narrative he creates.
Michael Franti & Spearhead are known for their brand of upbeat, socially conscious pop and hip hop-infused reggae. In their ninth studio album, Soulrocker, they continue to experiment with genre and beat, introducing electronic music to their repertoire. Though most of their records have been largely self-produced, they worked on Soulrocker with Jamaican producers Stephen “Di Genius” McGregor, known for his dancehall sensibilities, and Swayne “Supa Dups” Chin Quee, who has worked with artists such as Bruno Mars and John Legend. Despite the new producers and beats introduced on Soulrocker, Michael Franti & Spearhead continue to find innovative ways to keep their organic instrumental and reggae sound that fans have come to know and love.
In a single more akin to past hits “Say Hey (I Love You)” and “I’m Alive (Life Sounds Like),” the upbeat anthem “Once A Day” is about unexpected moments in life, whether they are beautiful moments or “unexpectedly challenging.” Featuring Sonna Rele and produced by Supa Dups, this reggae jam is an infectious celebration of life and all its ups and downs. Franti wrote on YouTube that the song originally stemmed from how his family came together in the wake of his son’s diagnosis of a rare kidney disease, and hopes the song and video (below) can help people rise up, sing, and dance:
“My Lord,” “We Are All Earthlings,” and “Get Myself to Saturday” play with heavy EDM beats and synth, inspired by Franti’s love for Kraftwerk since he was seven years old. “Get Myself to Saturday” embodies the main message of the album, that throughout life’s struggles and personal longings for success, true happiness is found in giving back to the community and working for the greater good. The track is full of determination and hope, as Franti sings, “There is a part of me that can’t go on today/and there is a part of me that finds a way.”
Michael Franti & Spearhead have never been afraid of making political statements and being forthright about social issues, true to the messages of peace and nonviolence that come from Rastafari beliefs and from reggae legends like Bob Marley. “Good To Be Alive Today” is an acoustic guitar driven track that tackles everything from climate change and police brutality to drone strikes and ISIS. True to form, Franti infuses this sorrowful song with hope, asking people to remember the little “moments of victory” in life.
A personal favorite on the album is “Crazy for You,” a song about the power of loving someone amidst a seemingly crazy world of violence and political difference. The romantic declaration is accompanied by bright, staccato horns and a full unison chorus, and is made sweeter by Franti’s reference to the song as an ode to his wife.
Though some may be wary of the EDM elements on Soulrocker, Michael Franti & Spearhead have always pushed the boundaries of reggae styles and popular music, and this album is no different. From joyful declarations of love to thought-provoking songs, Soulrocker at once fully feels the weight of a world prone to violence, misunderstanding and hate, while recognizing that joy and hope keep people motivated to create change. Franti’s hope is that everyone can become a “soulrocker,” what he calls someone who “lives from the heart with compassion for all, and who’s got tenacious enthusiasm for music, life, and the planet.”
Live music tourists to Austin, TX will add Afrobeat to their show calendars in greater numbers if Hard Proof continues releasing solid albums like this summer’s Public Hi-Fi Sessions 03. Since 2008, members of Hard Proof have purveyed African funk, world music, and jazz inspired by sub-Saharan Africa, while also paying their dues in other notable Austin acts such as Black Joe Lewis, The Calm Blue Sea, Ocote Soul Sounds, Spanish Gold, Cougar, and The Echocentrics. Hard Proof adds Public Hi-Fi Sessions to nearly a decade of high-energy live performances and recorded output of albums and singles.
Recorded live to tape by Jim Eno between December 2015 and February 2016, each song on Public Hi-Fi Sessions packs its own punch while holistically showcasing the Fela Kuti-inspired group at a new level. Horn arrangements and solos captivate and weave freely in and out of the guitar, bass and drums that push the recordings forward and display the group’s ability to build hypnotizing, danceable rhythms.
Hard Proof has earned a well-deserved reputation as one of Texas’s best Afrobeat, funk, and jazz groups. Inspired by everything from a busted lip to painted flowers to questioning established religious institutions, this tracks on this album should impress those both familiar and new to Hard Proof’s live performances and recordings.
For Jimi Hendrix, 1969 was a critical year of transition. With his British-American band, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, he rode a 2-year explosion of popularity that culminated in the fall 1968 release of the 2LP set Electric Ladyland. After that, a combination of road weariness, musical restlessness and personnel squabbles led to the breakup of the Experience. By the time of the Woodstock festival, August 1969, Hendrix was playing with Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Billy Cox, an old friend from the Army and co-traveler on the early 1960’s Chitlin Circuit. The Woodstock band also included extra percussion and Larry Lee on rhythm guitar. Although the Woodstock performance was memorable—think of the electrified psychedelic performance of the National Anthem in the Woodstock movie)—the band was assembled just for that event.
By late fall 1969, Hendrix was rehearsing with Cox on bass and soul/blues multi-instrumentalist Buddy Miles on drums. The group, which Hendrix called Band of Gypsys, debuted in public at the Fillmore East on New Year’s Eve 1969. This new album is the first official release of the unedited first set, an audio record of Jimi Hendrix bringing forth something very new, at some risk to his career and popularity.
The concert is long known and yet not well-known. There were four sets that night. All previous releases have been edited together out of pieces of the four, with only some bits from the first set. The original LP, released in 1970, was mostly comprised of the later overnight sets. The multi-CD deluxe reissue pieced together a running order similar to the middle sets, with tunes picked from all four. The running order and vibe of these previous issues isn’t quite what the audience heard, although as stand-alone albums, the original LP—which reached #5 and stayed 61 weeks on the Billboard Top 200 chart—is especially powerful.
Band of Gypsys has been somewhat controversial with critics and hardcore Hendrix fans. Miles’ drumming is heavy and somewhat leaden compared to Mitchell, and the Gypsys was firmly set in blues and hard-funk music, whereas the Experience was more freeform and trippy-psychedelic. Also, Buddy Miles was a showman, and some critics and listeners at the time just couldn’t cotton to his sometimes heavy-handed vocal riffing; the feeling was that he was upstaging the star, Hendrix. In retrospect, Miles’ style fits the music that Hendrix and band wanted to put out, and the point was that it wasn’t a “new Experience,” it was a different direction for Hendrix and his music.
The first New Year’s Eve set was almost all new material, no nuggets from the Experience hit parade except a decent but not stellar rendition of “Hear My Train a Comin’,” a song Hendrix played live numerous times with the Experience. More Experience songs were sprinkled into the later sets, and showed up on the multi-CD reissue compilation. In this unedited release of the first set, we hear the band having some timing and rhythm issues, probably opening night jitters. Several long blues jams keep things in order.
Indeed, blues are the order of the evening. Hendrix used this band as a vehicle to dive fully into the blues music always at the core of his rock hits. His band mates are up to the task, all seasoned by years of playing in R&B revues. Miles definitely prefers a heavier and busier drum style than a classic blues stickman like Chess’s Fred Below. He worked closer to Stax’s Al Jackson Jr.’s backing of Albert King, which was contemporary to these recordings. With mostly rock-steady bass backing by Cox, Hendrix stretches out and explores the ranges of both his guitar and his voice. Particularly on “Bleeding Heart,” near the end of the set, slow blues is rendered with full tension and power, the heavier style of Cox and Miles deployed to perfection.
The album’s title track, “Machine Gun,” presented here in an unedited form (previous releases were edited together from all four sets’ versions) is a smoldering anti-war anthem as powerful in today’s world as the turbulent late 1960s. “Izabella,” based around a fictional soldier’s letters to his girlfriend from Vietnam, is also of the time, although the rendition in this set is somewhat sloppy and tentative.
The set closes with an up-tempo rock colossus, “Burning Desire.” Here, at the end of the set, we hear Hendrix let loose in a rocking manner more familiar to the Experience fan. Miles even displays some Mitch Mitchell-like fleetness at times, which is probably unfair to note since Band of Gypsys was resolutely not aiming to be Experience-like.
Sony says no other complete sets from the New Year’s Eve at the Fillmore East concerts will be released, likely because so much from the later sets is already out there. It’s also worth noting that this will be the first Sony release of Hendrix material in SACD and high-resolution digital downloads. This is surprising, since Sony has in recent years released a large trove of remastered Hendrix recordings, likely transferred and remastered in higher than CD resolution. For whatever reason, these studio and live recordings have been issued only on CD, lossy downloads and in some cases vinyl. This new release was mixed from the original 8-track tapes by long-time Hendrix engineer Eddie Kramer, and mastered by Bernie Grundman.
After the New Year’s Eve sets, the Band of Gypsys played one more live set, a song-and-a-half misadventure at the January 28, 1970 Winter Festival for Peace. Hendrix walked off the stage, his manager fired Miles on the spot, and that was it for Band of Gypsys. Hendrix died from drug-related asphyxia on September 18, 1970; he was 27 years old.
Hendrix’s short-lived Band of Gypsys phase has always received mixed reviews. An informative listening session would compare this new release of the first New Year’s Eve set with Hendrix’s “American unveiling” at the 1967 Monterrey Pop Festival, and the August 1969 Woodstock performance. One might also listen to one of Hendrix’s 1968 Winterland shows to trace the arc of his brief career as a rock and blues superstar. His playing, singing and songwriting evolved greatly in that short time, and the Band of Gypsys’ New Year’s Eve performance was an important part of the journey.
Afterschool Special: The 123s of Kid Soul, is a compilation album featuring 19 little known soul songs from young groups across the country, spanning from the late 1960s to 1980. Given this time frame, many of the groups were clearly influenced by the Jackson 5, such as the Scott Three, featuring the Scott brothers from College Park, Georgia. Their track featured on the album, “Runnin’ Wild (Ain’t Gonna Help You),” is one of only two originals they performed, with the rest of their repertoire being made up exclusively of Jackson 5 and Osmond covers. Although the Scott Three never went far, eldest brother Randolph’s daughters (LaTocha and Tamika Scott) went on to become half of the popular R&B group Xscape.
Other songs on the album steer clear of the Jackson model and run the gamut. For example, the opener is a call and response chant from the Bethlehem Center Children’s Choir, titled “I’m a Special Kid.” Recorded by musician Thomas Moore in 1980, the simple tune features the affirmations of some special kids. The final track is also inspirational: kids singing a biography of James Brown. Set to a dramatic minor piano accompaniment, this song features Nancy Dupree and her students in upstate New York in 1969. Key facts of Brown’s life include: “Born in Augusta, Georgia/he was a poor little shoeshine boy/now he’s the king, the king of soul/hey hey hey.” This song was composed after Dupree’s class had seen Brown in concert in Rochester the weekend prior. Other highlights include a Brother’s Rap cover of Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” as well as a bilingual anti-drug anthem: “I Am Free, No Dope for Me/Yo Soy Libre, No Droga Para Mí.”
Overall, this is a set of charming and earnest kid soul songs, varying in scope but all gems nonetheless.
Music has been used throughout the centuries to mourn, celebrate, protest, and communicate. Music also brings communities together, and can raise awareness of those in need. Due to the recent flooding in Louisiana, which once again has left thousands homeless, we’re drawing attention to the state through three Robert Mugge documentaries that highlight and celebrate the diverse communities, unique musical traditions, and vibrant culture present in Louisiana. All were released on DVD or Blu-ray earlier this year.
Zydeco Crossroads: A Tale of Two Cities is a new documentary about Philadelphia radio station WXPN’s sixteen-month project, supported by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, which explored, preserved, promoted and celebrated the Creole culture of Southwest Louisiana. The film features Zydeco music and musicians both past and present, connecting them to the blues and the social, political, and cultural history of Southwestern Louisiana. In 2016 it received the Best Blues & Roots Film Award at the Clarksdale Film Festival.
Rhythm ‘N’ Bayous: A Road Map to Louisiana Music (2000) is a three part film that the New York Times’Stephen Holden called “part musical travelogue, part anthology, part archival document.” The film chronicles Mugge’s journey throughout Louisiana as he compiles a singing dictionary of the state’s roots music styles and assorted hybrids, from the blues and gospel to swamp pop to the fusion of Cajun, Creole and rock ‘n’ roll known as zydeco.
Mugge’s third film released this year, The Kingdom of Zydeco (1994), delves into the Black Creole music scene of Southwest Louisana and attempts name a new “King of Zydeco” in the 1990s. Throughout the film, Mugge discusses musicians such as Clifton Chenier, Boozoo Chavis, Rockin’ Dopsie, and Beau Jocque. Also featured are concerts, including a joint appearance by Boozoo Chavis and Beau Jocque, as well as stories from nightclub owners and zydeco deejays. This is a fantastic record of the many musicians and characters who made up the time period many call zydeco’s “Golden Era.”
Whether a beginner or a life-long scholar of music in Louisiana, these films are sure to help anyone gain new insights about the state’s unique music and cultural traditions.
First released as a limited edition LP for Record Store Day 2015, the “lost live album” by the Isley Brothers is now available for the first time on CD, thanks to Real Gone Music. But first, let’s set the record straight—this is not an actual live concert album. Recorded in 1980 at Bearsville Sound Studio in Woodstock, New York, the engineers overdubbed crowd noise between (and over) tracks, along with the opening introduction of the group by MC “Gorgeous” George Odell. Passed over by CBS, Groove With You…Live! was shelved for 35 years until it was released last year in its original form on vinyl, and then remastered from the pre-overdubbed session tapes for inclusion in Legacy’s 23-CD box set, The RCA Victor and T-Neck Album Masters, 1959-1983.*
Real Gone’s CD maintains the final, overdubbed “live” version as conceived by the Isley Brothers, and showcases the six man line-up that combined founding members Ronald, Rudolph, and O’Kelly Isley with younger brothers Ernie and Marvin Isley plus Rudolph’s brother-in-law Chris Jasper. Also joining the group for the studio sessions were drummer Everett Collins and Kevin Jones on congas and percussion.
Featured on the album are many of the group’s greatest hits from the 1970s, including the Latin- tinged “That Lady” electrified by Ernie’s lead guitar, the funky “Take Me to the Next Phase” and “Livin’ in the Life,” the message song “Fight the Power,” and the iconic “Summer Breeze.” Some of the tracks, such as “Voyage to Atlantis” and “Don’t Say Goodnight (It’s Time For Love)” are considerably longer than the original album versions, lending to the “live” feel of this project.
Joe Marchese’s extensive liner notes remind us of the 50-year legacy of the Cincinnati-born Isley Brothers, starting with their seminal hit song “Shout” in 1959 and their 1962 cover of “Twist and Shout,” which influenced the version released by the Beatles the following year. Quotes from interviews with Ernie Isley and Chris Jasper punctuate the text, and indicate the Isley’s had all but forgotten about this shelved album until quite recently.
If you don’t already have the 23-CD box set (highly recommended), you should certainly consider this new release if you’re not bothered by questions of authenticity in the mix.
* Groove With You…Live! is listed as The Wild in Woodstock: The Isley Brothers Live at Bearsville Sound Studio on Legacy’s 23-CD set, and is available under that title in a MP3 version.
Following are additional albums released during August 2016—some will be reviewed in future issues of Black Grooves.
Blues, Folk, Country
Albert Collins: Ice Pickin’ (reissue) (Alligator)
Annika Chambers: Wild & Free (Oarfin)
Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup: Music Man Like Nobody Ever Saw (Box set) (Bear Family)
JJ Thames: Raw Sugar (Dechamp )
Little Walter: Complete Checker Singles A’s & B’s 1952-60 (Acrobat)
Lurri Bell: Can’t Shake This Feeling (Delmark)
Funk, Rock, Pop, Electronic
Amos Lee: Spirit (Republic)
California King: Grown Folks Talking EP (Bandcamp.com)
Dazz Band: Hot Spot (expanded ed.) (Funky Town Grooves)
GAWVI: Lost in Hue EP (Reach)
Kon: Kon & The Gang
L.A. Salami: Dancing with Bad Grammar (Sunday Best/ PIAS America)
Nao: For All We Know (RCA)
Prince: Naked In The Summertime: 1990 Broadcast (2 CD) (Hobo)
Prince: Rock in Rio 2, July 1991 (Hobo)
Prophets of Rage: Party’s Over (Prophets of Rage)
Xl Middleton & Eddy Funkster: S/T (Mofunk)
Gospel, Gospel Rap
Chicago Gospel Keyboard Masters: Lift Me Up (Sirens)
Church Choir: If God Be For Us (Kee Music Group)
Donnie McClurkin: The Journey (RCA Inspiration)
Jekalyn Carr: The Life Project (eOne)
Various: Greenleaf – The Gospel Companion Soundtrack Vol. 1 (Malaco)
XP: Chasing Grace
Abbey Lincoln: Love Having You Around – Live at Keystone Korner Vol. 2 (HighNote)
Ashleigh Smith: Sunkissed (Concord)
Barbara Dane and Tammy Hall: Throw it Away… (Dreadnaught)
Barry Harris: Live in Tokyo (expanded ed.) (Elemental Music)
Charles Mcpherson: Live in Tokyo (expanded ed.) (Elemental Music)
Clarence Penn, Mark Helias & Uri Caine: Calibrated Thickness (816Music)
Darren Barrett: Trumpet Vibes – The Music of Amy Winehouse (dB Music )
Derrick Hodge: The Second (Blue Note)
Jimmy Raney: Live in Tokyo (expanded ed.) (Elemental Music)
John Beasley: Presents MONK’estra, Vol. 1 (Mack Ave.)
Nasambu + Kibrom : Peace, Love and Mercy EP (Bandcamp)
Rahsaan Roland Kirk: The Case of the Three Sided Dream (DVD)
World’s Experience Orchestra: The Beginning Of A New Birth/As Time Flows (Now-Again)
Blair Bryant: Gold (Innervision)
Harlem Hamfats: Masters of Jazz & Blues 1936-1944 (JSP)
Robin Barnes: Songbird Sessions EP (Rhythm Elevation )
Steve Lehman: “Sélébéyone” (PI )
Abra: Princess (Awful)
Angie Stone: Covered in Soul (Goldenlane)
Anthony David: The PowerFUL Now (Shanachie)
Dave Hollister: The Manuscript (Shanachie)
Dexter Wansel: Stargazer: Philadelphia International Records (BBR)
Eddie Levert : Did I Make You Go Ooh (Blakbyrd Ent.)
Gallant: Ology (Warner Bros.)
Jimetta Rose : The Light Bearer
Johnnie Frierson: Have You Been Good To Yourself (Light in the Attic)
Lee Moses: Time And Place (Light in the Attic)
Leon Timbo : What Love’s All About (eOne)
Michael Jackson: Japan Broadcast 1987 (Goldfish)
Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings: Miss Sharon Jones! OST (Daptone)
Shirley Davis & the Silverbacks: Black Rose ( Tucxone)
Tamara Tramell: The Best Night of My Life (JSP)
Tory Lanez: I Told You (Interscope)
Wilson Pickett: Complete Atlantic Singles Vol. 1 (Real Gone)
Rap, Hip Hop
Banks & Steelz (aka RZA): Anything But Words (Warner Bros.)
Big Capp & Bun B: Streets-R-Minez (II TRILL ENT WEST)
Damu the Fudgemunk: Untitled Vol. 2 EP (Redefinition)
De La Soul: And the Anonymous Nobody ( AOI)
DJ Khaled: Major Key (Epic)
Hieroglyphic Being: The Disco’s Of Imhotep (Ninja Tunes)
Hollow Tip And C-Dubb: Mercenary Mobmuzik 2 (Mercenary Ent.)
J Dilla: King of Beats (Yancy Media Group)
Jarren Benton: Slow Motion Vol. 2 (Benton Ent.)
J-Diggs: California Livin Pt. 3: Chasin My Dreams (Thizz Ent.)
Lando Chill: For Mark, Your Son (Mello Music Group)
MarQ Spekt & Blockhead: Keep Playin’ (HiPNOTT)
MarQ Spekt & MOBONIX: Bionic Jazz (HiPNOTT)
Rae Sremmurd: SremmLife 2 (Interscope)
Ras Beats: Control Your Own ( Worldwyde)
Roots Manuva: Bleeds (Big Dada)
Sam The Sleezbag & DJ Mekalek: #SleezbagMekalekTape
Sheefy Mcfly: Edward Elecktro (Limited Ed. LP) (Mahogani Music)
Slim Thug: American King (Hogglife Ent.)
Various: Bad Boy 20th Anniversary Box set (5CD) (Bad Boy)
Various: Kon & The Gang (BBE)
Derrick Harriott : Reggae, Funk & Soul 1969-1975 (Dubstore)
Easy Star All-Stars: Radiodread (expanded ed.) (Easy Star)
Frankie Paul: Forever (World Records)
Various: Money Maker (reissue) (Studio One)
Various: King Jammy Presents New Sounds of Freedom (VP)
Lakuta: Brothers and Sister (Tru Thoughts)
Mateo Kingman: Respira (AYA )