We’re celebrating Jazz Appreciation Month with two projects paying homage to Ella Fitzgerald’s 100th Anniversary on April 25, 2017: Regina Carter’s Ella: Accentuate the Positive and Patrice Williamson’s Comes Love.
Jazz violinist Regina Carter’s newest album, Ella: Accentuate the Positive, is an ode to the music of Ella Fitzgerald in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the singer’s birth. Featuring nine arrangements of Fitzgerald’s songs, this album puts Carter’s imagination on full display. This is not her first foray into Fitzgerald’s catalog, having recorded both “Oh, Lady Be Good” and “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” on previous albums. For this project, though, Carter goes deeper into Fitzgerald’s music, recording not only her well known tunes but also some lesser known songs, such as “Judy” and “I’ll Never Be Free.”
Carter’s technique is flawless throughout the album, but highlights include her wide vibrato on “All My Life,” as well as her blues slides on “I’ll Chase the Blues Away.” One of the best takes on Ella’s work is on “I’ll Never Be Free.” Carter’s version becomes a gospel blues song, but the tone of her instrument still holds onto and exemplifies the clarity of Fitzgerald’s voice. In this way, Carter’s arrangements evoke a variety of genres, including jazz, blues, gospel, and R&B, to name a few. Two of the tracks on the album feature vocalists Miche Braden and Carla Cook, and Carter’s interaction with them, particularly on “Undecided,” is impressive. Other collaborators on the album include bassist Chris Lightcap, drummer Alvester Garnett, pianist Xavier Davis and guitarist Marvin Sewell.
Carter has a long history of drawing on influences in her personal life for her music. I’ll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey (2006) features her mother’s favorite jazz standards, whereas in Southern Comfort (2014) she traces and interprets her own heritage through music. In Ella, Carter reimagines Fitzgerald’s catalog, retaining her spirit but giving her listeners a fresh take on old classics. The result is a stunning combination of range, with Carter expanding on the depth and creativity already so present in Fitzgerald’s work.
Boston educator and vocalist Patrice Williamson’s new release, Comes Love, is one of many projects celebrating the 100th birthday of Ella Fitzgerald on April 25, 2017. The album, which pays tribute to the distinguished duo of Fitzgerald and Joe Pass, draws on 12 timeless standards that allow Williamson to craft “a narrative arc that reflects a woman’s journey from loneliness to love, and from lost love back to resilience and joy.” She’s accompanied by guitarist Jon Wheatley, her colleague at the Berklee College of Music and author of the book, Jazz Swing Guitar (Berklee Press, 2016).
Fitzgerald and Pass made six albums together, and the songs selected by Williamson were all drawn from their recorded repertoire. Opening with Toots Thielemans’ “Bluesette,” Williamson and Wheatley provide a breezy, atmospheric reading, with Williamson overdubbing a flute solo in the chorus. Williamson’s light, supple voice is ideally suited for songs such as Ellington’s “Take Love Easy,” Billy Eckstine’s “I Want to Talk About You,” and Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” where she easily negotiates the chromatics. The album concludes on a positive note, so to speak, with “One Note Samba.” The song offers a delightful change of pace and demonstrates Williamson’s scatting technique, while the interplay between her flute and Wheatley’s guitar adds just the right nuance to this bossa nova standard.
Jazz cellist, arranger, and composer Akua Dixon’s latest project, Akua’s Dance, is an album that does an excellent job of displaying her range as a musician. Dixon has enjoyed a varied career, from playing in the Apollo Theater pit band to arranging strings for Lauryn Hill to serving as the director of new music for jazz violinist Noel Pointer’s ensemble String Reunion. She is also well known for her collaborations with her sister, the late violinist Gayle Dixon—the two were in Quartette Indigo with fellow musicians Maxine Roach and John Blake, Jr. As far as the musicians featured on Akua’s Dance, this project is a departure from the string quartet and other string centered ensembles that Dixon has worked with in the past. Instead, this album features guitarists Freddie Bryant and Russell Malone, bassists Kenny Davis and Ron Lewis, and drummer Victor Lewis.
Highlights from the album include “Afrika! Afrika!” and “Orion’s Gait,” with these being the two songs where Dixon shines most brightly. She varies her technique depending on the mood she wants to evoke, going from a lilting, singing, tone in one moment to a crisp technique the next. Also particularly impressive is Dixon’s use of range throughout the album, continually bringing the cello to new heights. She even steps forward as a vocalist in “Throw it Away,” adding her voice to the rich ensemble. In addition to offering her own voice as an instrument, Dixon also switches between the cello and the bass violin on this album. The bass (or baritone) violin offers a more full bodied sound than the cello, particularly on “I Dream a Dream.”
On this album, Dixon utilizes tools and techniques from various traditions, from jazz to spirituals. As Dixon’s third solo album, it is quite the departure from her earlier work (including her 2015 self-titled release), but still shows the same dedication to the craft as a musician, composer, arranger, and all around artist.
Artist: Eric Mingus, narrator; Larry Simon, director
Label: Mode/Avant; dist. Naxos
Formats: CD, MP3
Release date: January 27, 2017
There have been many recordings featuring the works of the great Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes (1902-67), including Hughes’ own spoken word recordings, some with musical accompaniment. Perhaps the most well-known is the 1958 MGM release Weary Blues, featuring Hughes reciting his poetry over a jazz soundtrack composed and arranged by Leonard Feather and Charles Mingus. A more recent offering was Laura Karpman’s GRAMMY Award winning Ask Your Mama, featuring her original musical setting of Hughes’ epic poem Ask Your Mama: 12 Pieces for Jazz.
Langston Hughes: The Dream Keeper is more closely related to the aforementioned 1958 recording in more ways than one. Not only does it combine poetry with jazz, but the narrator is none other than Eric Mingus, the son of Charles Mingus. The younger Mingus, a prominent jazz bassist and vocalist, utilizes these talents to full effect while performing Hughes’ poetry. The music was arranged and directed by jazz guitarist Larry Simon, who founded the popular Beat Night series in New York as well as the JazzMouth festival in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to promote music and spoken word collaborations. Also contributing to the project is noted composer/conductor David Amram, who played with Charles Mingus, pioneered the first-ever public Jazz/Poetry reading in NYC with Jack Kerouac, and collaborated with Langston Hughes on the cantata, Let Us Remember, where he learned about Hughes’ own forays into jazz-poetry. When these three musicians (Simon, Amram and Eric Mingus) came together at one of the Jazzmouth festivals, they were easily sold on Simon’s idea “of making a CD honoring the poetry and the life of Langston Hughes,” and worked diligently to “honor every word that we heard and every musician with whom we [had] played.”
Rounding out the talented group of musicians is Simon’s band, Groove Bacteria, and various special guests: Don Davis, alto saxes, clarinets; Catherine Sikora, soprano sax; Cynthia Chatis, flutes; Scip Gallant, Hammond organ; Chris Stambaugh, bass; Mike Barron, drums; with Shawn Russell and Frank Laurino on percussion.
The Dream Keeper opens with a new rendition of “Weary Blues,” accompanied by Amram on piano, with Mingus alternating between recitation and singing as suggested by the lyrics:
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan— “Ain’t got nobody in all this world / Ain’t got nobody but ma self. I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’/ And put ma troubles on the shelf.”
The full ensemble enters on “The Dream Keeper,” which maintains a bluesy, otherworldly feel accentuated by a Native American flute in this primarily instrumental track. Mingus is accompanied on half the tracks by a solo instrument—usually Amram on piano, while “Border Line” features Simon on guitar and “Railroad Avenue” features Gallant on Hammond organ. This serves to keep the focus on the texts, without overshadowing the power of the spoken word. The larger ensemble performs on the haunting “Daybreak in Alabama,” the grooving “In Time of Silver Rain,” and the timely “Democracy,” performed in the style of Gil Scott-Heron, using strong exclamations over a highly distorted, freestyle background. The album concludes on an optimistic note with “Life is Fine,” alternately sung and spoken by Mingus.
The Dream Keeper was recorded in 2012 towards the end of Barack Obama’s first term as POTUS, and released just prior to Donald Trump’s inauguration. If released just a few weeks later, I wonder if Simon would have changed the order of the tracks to end with “Democracy,” the opening lines of which read: “Democracy will not come / Today, this year / Nor ever / Through compromise and fear.” In any case, this is a first rate project. I might even suggest that Mingus’s heartfelt delivery, with its soulful timbre and nuanced rhythms, is even more impactful than the recordings made by Langston Hughes. To use a phrase from Amram, Eric Mingus knows how to realize and pay homage to “the music that is already in the spoken word.” Highly recommended!
East West Time Line is the latest release from the extraordinary jazz guitarist Kevin Eubanks. While Eubanks is perhaps most famous as Jay Leno’s bandleader, he has maintained a celebrated career performing with a host of premier jazz musicians, both touring and making a spate of excellent studio recordings. On East West Time Line, the Philadelphia native enlists a band from each coast, featuring East Coasters Jeff “Tain” Watts (drums), Dave Holland (bass), Orrin Evans (keyboard), and Nicholas Payton (trumpet). The record’s West Coast counterparts consist of Marvin “Smitty” Smith (drums), Rene Camacho (bass), Mino Cinelu (percussion), and Bill Pierce (saxophone).
While employing two different groups on this release, ultimately Eubanks has crafted an album that may be most notable for its sonic unity. Without knowing the instrumentation for each tune, it is difficult to distinguish which of the tracks might feature the “East Coast” group versus those the “West Coast” band plays on. The typical stylistic distinctions that one might think of as representing the jazz of each coast (East Coast musicians playing hard-driving straight ahead bop and West Coast musicians taking a cooler, more academic approach) collapse, leaving what one would expect from a musician of Eubanks’s caliber and notoriety—moments of musical virtuosity tempered with tasteful, relaxed balladry.
The band moves fluidly from style to style on this 10-track album, digging deep into a funky Latin groove on their reading of Duke Ellington’s “Take the Coltrane,” playing amorphous time and harmony on “Water Colors,” and bringing out a version of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” that falls somewhere between early Miles and late night Muzak. As a guitar player, Eubanks’s strength lies in his unique approach to fingerstyle guitar playing, showcased on several tracks but perhaps best exemplified by his dizzying chord-octave-chord solo on “Time Line,” a number sure to send jazz guitarists straight to the woodshed:
Another highlight of the record is the West Coast band’s reading of “My One and Only Love”— Eubanks’s sophisticated chord-melody intro, masterfully-phrased solo and Pierce’s delicate treatment of the song’s melody may place this track into the running for a definitive reading of the tune.
Overall, Eubanks and his two ensembles have compiled a tight set of well-arranged and expertly played tunes. It would be great to have a full set with each ensemble in the future. Jazz fans should certainly hope Eubanks will expand on this project in years to come.
October 2016 saw a strong release by the eclectic hip hop duo Soul Science Lab, a rap group that proclaims itself as “Innovative.Afro.Futuristic.Griots” on the mbira-driven first track of Plan for Paradise. This appears to be an accurate description of the music that artist and musician Chen Lo and multi-instrumentalist, composer, and producer Asante’ Amin create. The duo’s songs are compelling and innovative, indicative of the group’s sprawling vision and overall high artistic standards.
At first listen, the offbeat and hip sensibility of Plan for Paradise will likely remind listeners of work by De La Soul or A Tribe Called Quest. Like these earlier pioneers, Soul Science Lab’s soundscapes are heavily influenced by jazz and other musics of the African Diaspora. However, SSL’s music is not simply a throwback to the heyday of the Native Tongues collective. Stylistically, the music broadens out to a variety of other genres, such as the gospel shout on “Gimme That,” hard rock on “Built My City,” Spanish guitar on “Kingmaker,” and electro funk on “Spend Some Time.”
Lyrically, SSL addresses everything from their Afrofuturistic artistic vision to spiritual themes (“Supernatural”) to contemporary social issues (“I Can’t Breathe”), the latter with a rare poignancy in an age full of attempts at political music. The lyrics on Plan for Paradise, while appearing aspirational on many tracks, demonstrate a deeper understanding of the underlying themes. That is to say, the political songs aren’t political because it is fashionable to address current events—rather, they suggest the artists’ abiding concerns and nuanced understanding of the issues at hand.
Overall, Plan for Paradise is a great listen from a group whose members boast an impressive resume, both due to their collaborations with other artists and in their work with arts education (detailed on the group’s website). Listeners can hope that this is the first in a long line of innovative.Afrofuturistic albums.
Note: The album cover uses the Augmented Reality technology of Blippar to create an interactive experience, as demonstrated in this video.
The Hot 8 Brass Band uses their new release, On the Spot, to keep on doing what they do best. The album is filled with the kind of up-tempo lively party music that one might expect from a top tier New Orleans brass band. The Hot 8 is just that and they do not disappoint.
The album begins in spectacular fashion with “8 Kickin It Live” which is jam packed with energy via those great New Orleans syncopated rhythms which definitely had me dancing in my seat as I listened. Following are more original pieces, including “Working Together,” “Get It How You Live,” and “Bottom of the Bucket,” which is funky as all get out and features an infectious horn line with great feeling.
According to the Hot 8 Brass Band, “On the Spot” refers to the “glorious, rare moment in a New Orleans parade when the band stops to take a break but keeps playing for the crowd. Vibing and keeping the energy up, when they sync up and the magic happens—a new tune is created.” You can almost hear this happening as the band lays into the title track.
The album features a few notable covers including “St. James Infirmary,” which sees the band dipping into classic New Orleans jazz and incorporating woodwind instruments into the track. Also covered is Sade’s “Sweetest Taboo,” reworked into a slightly more up-tempo jam, and Stevie Wonder’s “That Girl” which the Hot 8 mold in a rhythmic party anthem. The album closes out on a few more originals, most notably “Can’t Nobody Get Down” featuring a horn line reminiscent of Isaac Hayes’ “Do Your Thing.”
With On The Spot, the Hot 8 Brass Band truly does a great job at packaging as much of the live energy they bring to their performance as possible. I can only imagine what heights are reached when experiencing the band in real time.
Editor’s Note: the Hot 8 Brass Band’s U.S. tour in support of the album begins May 27, 2017 in Denver.
“Blues was born of forced migration”— Michael Jerome Browne
Award-winning blues singer/songwriter Eric Bibb has offered fans a new album almost every year since signing to Stony Plain Records in 2011, ranging from explorations of American roots music to cross-cultural collaborations. With a career now spanning five decades, the 65-year-old artist pulls no punches on his latest release, Migration Blues, an overtly political statement. As Bibb’s explains, “Whether you’re looking at a former sharecropper, hitchhiking from Clarksdale to Chicago in 1923, or an orphan from Aleppo, in a boat full of refugees in 2016—it’s migration blues. With this album, I want to encourage us all to keep our minds and hearts wide open to the ongoing plight of refugees everywhere. As history shows, we all come from people who, at some time or another, had to move.” He goes on to add, “While pondering the current refugee crisis I found myself thinking about the Great Migration, which saw millions of African Americans leaving the brutal segregation and economic misery of the rural South for the industrial cities of the North. Making this connection is what inspired the new songs included here.”
Migration Blues was jointly produced by Bibb (vocals, guitars, six-string banjo and contrabass guitar), Michael Jerome Browne (guitars, vocals, banjos, mandolin and triangle), and JJ Milteau (harmonica), who all contributed to the songwriting process and recording. One of those newly composed songs, the opening track “Refugee Moan,” perfectly encapsulates the theme of the album. Drawing upon the roots of blues and gospel music by making use of a train metaphor, Bibb sings to the accompaniment of gourd banjo and harmonica:
If there’s a train that will take me there
Take me where I can live in peace
Oh, Lord, take me onboard, don’t leave me here
Let me ride that train.
From this point forward, the songs traverse time and space. “Delta Getaway” and “With a Dolla’ In My Pocket” are drawn from stories about the perilous journey from Mississippi to Chicago, while “Diego’s Blues” is about Mexican farm workers migrating to the Delta to replace those who fled north during the Great Migration. One of the most haunting tracks is “Prayin’ For Shore,” recounting contemporary journeys of refugees attempting to reach Europe by boat, and the many who drowned before achieving their goal:
In a ol’ leaky boat / Somewhere on the sea
Tryin’ to get away from the war
Welcome or not, we got to land soon
Oh, Lord – prayin’ for shore.
The title track is an instrumental featuring Bibb on a resophonic 12-string guitar, Browne on a 12-string slide guitar, and Milteau on harmonica. This interlude offers listeners a much needed moment to take a deep breath and reflect on the many threads connecting the songs. Other stand out tracks include “We Had to Move,” inspired by the life of James Brown, the instrumental “La Vie C’est Comme Un Oignon” referencing the expulsion of Acadians from Nova Scotia in the 1700s (ft. Browne on fiddle and ti-fer). Also included are several covers: Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” which unfortunately is still very relevant; Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land;” and an arrangement of the traditional spiritual “Mornin’ Train,” closing the album with the message that our final migration is to heaven, and everything else is transitory.
Migration Blues is a masterful album that’s both timely and historical in nature with its exploration of journeys and diasporas, of the impact of migration on musical borrowings and innovations, and perhaps most important—our shared humanity.
After eight albums recorded on Blue Corn Music, Ruthie Foster has released Joy Comes Back, a truly heartwarming collection of gospel, soulful rock, and blues songs. Joining Foster on this album are talented instrumentalists Derek Trucks of Tedeschi Trucks Band, Willie Weeks, Joe Vitale, and Warren Hood. The inspiration for this album draws from Foster’s deep emotional struggle of claiming custody of her five-year old daughter and transforming her family life for the better.
Foster worked with Austin producer Daniel Barrett to record ten tracks of mostly reimagined cover songs. The album opens with two songs presenting Foster as a sensitive, yet strong and relatable woman—the smooth and easy “What Are You Listening To?” followed by the much harder rock song “Working Woman.” On the gospel title track, “Joy Comes Back,” Trucks complements Foster’s richly spirited vocals with masterful electric slide guitar.
The core of Foster’s music, particularly on her only original song “Open Sky,” reflect the strength, insight, and even uncertainty about love that arises when prolonged emotional battery comes to an end. The chorus of “Good Sailor” is especially expressive of her experience:
I’ve been tossed around the deepest blue / I almost drowned a time or two Easy living never did me no favors / smooth seas never made a good sailor
Other eclectic, yet surprisingly fitting songs covered on this album include “War Pigs” by Black Sabbath, “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever” written by Stevie Wonder and Ivy Jo Hunter, and “Richland Woman Blues” by Mississippi John Hurt. Joy Comes Back concludes with two emotionally powerful songs, “Abraham” and “Forgiven.” For Foster, music is therapeutic and gives her the strength to overcome challenges in her life, to embrace her family, and to celebrate happiness in both its hidden and exposed forms.
Future is arguably the king of today’s trap music. Part of what has cemented such a status is the prolific nature of his releases. And, lucky for us, 2017 is apparently no different, as he released the self-titled Future on February 17 and Hndrxx, its counterpart, only seven days later. In addition to the sheer amount of music he produces, Future’s reign lies in his mastery of combining what I’ve discussed in previous reviews (of T.I. and Post Malone) as the twin modes of trap music: flex and disillusion, in which a song either narrates the trap star’s thrilling excesses or memorializes their emptiness. In each case, the value of the trap star is directly correlated to his possession of or rejection by women, putting this music squarely within the discourse I refer to as “f*ck boy consciousness.” Interestingly, Future’s most recent releases present somewhat of a bifurcation of these modes, where Future represents the flex, the excess, and Hndrxx its emotional underside. This separation makes the albums quite different from each other; Future is chock-full of quick flows and expressions of street dominance, while Future rap-sings catchy hooks and melodies on Hndrxx. However, without his signature singing juxtapozed against the hard, quick flows, the songs on Future seem to all melt together in a relatively uncompelling and somewhat boring collection. In contrast, there are more than enough rhythmic and melodic changes in the sounds of Hndrxx to keep our attention and give us a spaced-out soundtrack to show out to.
Hndrxx showcases all of what Future does best in his traditional form as a trap star “f*ck boy.” It includes the typical trap drum sequences in almost every song and sing-song autotune flows that anticipate the beat drops in his hype-up collaboration with The Weeknd on “Comin’ Out Strong” and the ‘90s-reminiscent “Damage.” Future presents a disillusioned tone to his usually slurred vocals in both the strip club-esque “Fresh Air” and the condescending “Hallucinating,” on which he asserts that his perception, even while on drugs, is the ultimate, only perception. Throughout the album, Future juxtaposes wealth and ‘hood signifiers, especially on “Lookin’ Exotic,” where women get lumped into the category of things. He buys the woman in question numerous wealth signifiers in exchange for her in turn becoming a signifier of his own masculine dominance and virility. Very much in line with contemporary trap styles, some of which he pioneered, Future excels at the stretching of word sounds which creates both a melodic structure and an effortless feeling on “Fresh Air” and “New Illuminati,” while on the latter, it brings an emotionality to his “catch no feelings” disposition in similar ways as Young Thug’s Jeffrey. In conjunction with the stretching of words sounds is Future’s signature style of muffled singing and quiet, yell-like utterances on songs like the catchy “Testify” and “Turn On Me.” In addition, on this album more than others, there is not the usual clear division between verse and chorus, and they blend together seamlessly into what feels like a single stream of f*ck boy consciousness, explicating his own feelings while always returning to a general theme mapped out by a refrain. Following is the official video for “Use Me” ((C) 2017 Epic Records):
Content-wise this album revolves centrally around issues and dynamics between the trap star and “his” women. This supposed ownership is made explicit from the outset of the album in which the first song details “[His] Collection” of women, saying, “even if I hit you once, you’re part of my collection.” On “Testify” Future renders iconic Bonnie and Clyde imagery and details the seductiveness of his lifestyle for a woman. However, he makes it clear that the labor of the relationship will be hers alone. He won’t change for her; she must assimilate to his norm, some of which, like wealth, is exciting for her, but other parts which are less so, particularly his understanding that it is he only who defines the limits of the relationship. In “Fresh Air” he feels confined in his relationship, yet when he “loses” her in “Neva Missa Lost,” the repetition of “I’m losing you and you know it… and you know it” makes it seem like it’s her who’s in denial that she’s losing him. This is an interesting turn because she’s the one leaving. In typical “f*ck boy” fashion, he thinks she’s losing out rather than he, exposing him as terribly self-centered, conceited and unaccountable. In the lackluster “I Thank U,” Future laments about a woman’s doubt of him, which he, by the moment of the song, has overcome and is on top reflecting on the unbelieving. This song positions the woman as the quintessential hater of the trap star who he must silence/put in her place. It’s not really an apology or a thanking of her; it’s a tongue-in-cheek flexing on her lack of faith.
Future takes it one step further in “Turn On Me,” in which he complains that his female counterpart will inevitably “turn” on him, without presenting any of her reasoning as to why. Because her perspective is lacking entirely, he is presented as completely unaccountable for what happens in his relationships, which allows us to relate to him without questioning his role in making her leave. In fact, part of “turning” on him is taking up relationships with others. He says: “After I give you this game, you should never let a lame hit it.” This brings to the fore the insecurity built into the persona of the trap star, as his possession of women or lack of women again is the key factor in defining himself and establishing and maintaining his status in the wider community. “Selfish” and “Sorry” might be attempts to redeem the trap star in his dealings with women, the former sounding much like a f*ckboy prayer for togetherness, even though literally every other song could be seen as an explanation for why he winds up in this position, alone. He seems not to understand this, which makes the narrator in this song come across as somewhat innocent and naive. In “Sorry” Future purports that he’s “sorry it had to be this way…sorry it looks this way,” as if he’s got no choice in his actions and they can all be chalked up to fame, saying “you see what I’ve been put up against, baby.” Considering all the previous songs, his apology feels like a weak afterthought that ultimately fails to redeem him.
All in all, the trope of the “f*ck boy” is currently all the rage in rap music style today. Whatever his faults, he seems to be endlessly compelling for this generation of rappers, as well as for their young listeners. Whether one disagrees on the basis of messed up gender politics or suspends one’s disbelief altogether, with Hndrxx, Future continues to elaborate on his formulation of the trope in incredibly seductive melodies and beautiful, though sometimes unintelligible, utterances. If the Future album falls flat, Hndrxx recuperates Future’s signature style, and its style is a testament to the humongous impact Future has had and continues to have on trap music.
Les Amazones d’Afrique describe themselves as the “first all-female supergroup of West Africa,” a group of women with unique backgrounds and voices making music and fighting for gender equality. Their debut album, République Amazone, is out at the end of the month on Real World Records. Produced by Liam Farrell, who has worked with such artists as Tony Allen and Mbongwana Star, the album is edgy with industrial, electronic sounds and vocal effects interwoven with traditional instrumentation and a variety of languages (English, French, Bambara, and Fon).
Of the seven members, all hail from Mali where the Les Amazones d’Afrique project began, with the exception of Benin native and multiple Grammy-award winner Angelique Kidjo and the young soul singer Nneka from Nigeria. The name of the group is inspired by the Dahomey Amazons—“a legendary sub-Saharan band of female warriors highly-trained and armed to defend the Kingdom of Dahomey, in what is now modern-day Benin,” according to the extensive liner notes by Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, a writer and the opinions editor at gal-dem, a feminist magazine produced exclusively by women of color.
Though Les Amazones d’Afrique are most certainly warriors for women, they use the album’s first single, “I Play the Kora” to directly ask men to join them in the fight for equality:
You men must support us For we women need you We are tired to fight alone
The title of the track is symbolic, since women were traditionally not allowed to play the kora (a harp-like instrument native to West Africa). True to their stated mission, all the proceeds from the single will benefit The Panzi Foundation, a foundation and hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo that has served more than 40,000 women, over half of whom are survivors of sexual assault. The moving song, featuring members Rokia Koné, Mamani Keita, Nneka, and Mariam Doumbia can be heard below and viewed with English subtitles:
Issues of ongoing violence against women, sexual abuse, unequal access to land and education, and practices of female genital mutilation are present not just in Africa, but throughout the world. Les Amazones d’Afrique fight the idea of Africa as a monolithic culture, but aim to unite many countries and cultures in West Africa in the fight for gender equality.
The powerful female group is bold not only in their politically charged lyrics, but in the mix and use of many different technologies, musical instruments, and languages. Songs such as “Dombolo” (featuring the group’s most famous member, Angelique Kidjo) and “Le Dame et Ses Valises” (in which an internal conversation asks, “Woman, don’t you know you are a queen?”) have an industrial, contemporary sound, overlapping many soulful voices, high and low vocal timbres, and pulsating, electronic sounds. The hazy vocals in “Wedding” sound like they are coming out of a fuzzily recorded cassette, while the accompanying Malian blues guitar gives the song a relaxed, easy listening feel.
Most the songs on République Amazone reside in this space between the old and the new, the electronic and the acoustic, using varying technologies to push the boundaries of genre and rejecting the false impression that West African music is uniform. As the liner notes state: “We are swirling about in several decades simultaneously – filthy backwards or wah wah guitars, distorted thumb piano, dreamy, jazzy chords and soulful singing over a pneumatic beat.”
The format of the music matches the group’s intent, challenging stereotypes and conventional norms of what it means to be a musical collective from West Africa, and more importantly, what it means to be a woman living in West Africa and in the increasingly globalized world. République Amazone is an impressive debut from Les Amazones d’Afrique, a group that is undeniably talented and relentlessly passionate about women’s rights and global equality.
Kidal is a city in Northern Mali, on the southwestern edge of the Sahara. In this city in the desert, the Tuareg people live. Though nomads, the Tuareg briefly had a home after rising up and declaring the intendent state of Azawad in 2012, but less than a year later al-Qaeda swept in, then the French military. In this city torn by fights between governments and corporations, the rock band Tamikrest began in 2009. Now on their fifth album, Kidal, named after that city where it all began, the group still sings about the suffering and resistance of the Tuareg people with music powered by an insistent groove, snaking bass lines, and melodies blending influences of Sahel Africa, the Maghreb, and the West.
Tamikrest wrote the majority of Kidal while in the desert, making sure they depicted and remembered the struggles of their people accurately. As in all of life, they witnessed both joy and pain, and the songs draw from these various emotions. Some tracks, such as “Wainan Adobat,” “War Toyed,” and “War Tila Eridaran” are more energetic and rock oriented, with driving percussion by the drumset and interweaving electric guitars that favor restraint and control over face-shredding solos.
Many of the other songs are contemplative ballads. “Atwitas” is slow and intentional, with lead singer Ousmane Ag Mossa’s vocals about as deep and low as they get. With a faster tempo but entirely made up of acoustic guitars, vocals, and a soft, eerie background noise, “Tanakra” is the rawest song on the album, full of sorrow and foreboding. The final track, “Adad Osan Itibat,” has a much happier feel, with background percussion made up of soft clicks and snaps. Ag Mossa’s vocals are in a much higher register, and the accompanying acoustic guitar is plucked in a melodious, hopeful pattern with only occasional chords thrown in.
Tamikrest often talks about struggle, war, and the threats by companies and governments to the desert and the Taureg people, yet it is on this optimistic note that they end Kidal, hoping to bring change through defiance, resistance, and rock ‘n’ roll.
Though her name may not be quite as familiar to contemporary gospel music fans, Edna Gallmon Cooke ranks right up there with Mahalia Jackson, the Caravans, the Roberta Martin Singers, and the Famous Ward Singers in the pantheon of great gospel artists. Her untimely death in 1967 cut short her recording career, and accounts for her underappreciation when compared to her contemporaries. On My Joy, producer and gospel historian Per Notini has gathered together Cooke’s rarest recordings over the two decades of her career, attempting to fill the gaps left by two previous compilations of her works. This is a rare gift indeed, for which all gospel music fans can be grateful!
Cooke, who was born in 1918 in Columbia, South Carolina, was raised in her father’s church. The family relocated to Washington, D.C. where her father founded the Springfield Baptist Church, where Edna served as choir director before attending Temple University in Philadelphia. Her ambitions to sing secular music took a 180 degree turn after witnessing a performance by Willie Mae Ford Smith, and from this point forward she devoted herself to gospel music.
The compilation begins with Cooke’s first five recorded performances from 1948-49, which reveal her sweet and supple soprano characterized by a very fast, shallow vibrato. Included is her first single to get considerable airplay, “Angels, Angels, Angels” (composed by Indianapolis gospel artist Beatrice Brown), accompanied by the Mt. Vernon Men’s Choir of Washington, D.C. Cooke’s popularity was already rising when she was picked up by Essex Records for her next pair of singles. “Have You Got Room?” (circa 1950-51), accompanied by the Young People’s Choir of her father’s church, shows a powerful transformation in her vocal style. The sweet soprano is now capable of raising the rafters!
From this point forward, there are simply too many outstanding tracks to mention. “Walk Through the Valley” (1952) demonstrates Cooke’s trademark chanted sermonettes, while “(Talk About a Child that Do Love Jesus) Here Is One” is a solo tour de force showcasing Cooke’s masterful use of the melisma. The Roberta Martin-Theodore Frye song “Hallelujah (Jesus Love Bubbles Over)” features the Singing Sons, Cooke’s regular backing group who provided accompaniment on many of her Nashboro sides. The set concludes with Thomas Dorsey’s “Remember Me,” recorded in 1966 as Cooke’s health was failing. Notini inserted this track as a tribute to Cooke, “one of gospel’s greatest singers,” who surely must have known that her time was running out as she sang the final notes of the chorus, “Now when I’m gone, please remember me.”
My Joy was released in a limited pressing on the Swedish label Gospel Friends. Don’t wait too long to pick up a copy for your collection.
This album is the second collection of The McIntosh County Shouters recorded and produced by Smithsonian Folkways. The first, The McIntosh County Shouters: Slave Shout Songs from the Coast of Georgia was released in 1983. The Shouters belong to a third generation of people freed from slavery and their featured songs on this album are performed exclusively for the traditional ring shout. In 1993, the group received the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship, which is considered to be the greatest honor for the traditional arts in the United States.
As part of the educational mission of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, each album on the record label includes comprehensive liner notes that are ideal for further research. The liner notes on this album include photographs, detailed biographies of the artists, interviews with current members, and historical and cultural contextualization of the traditional ring shout. Bolden, aka “Briar Patch,” on the coastal mainland of Georgia is the home of The McIntosh County Shouters. The Mount Calvary Baptist Church is the spiritual space of the Gullah/Geechee people, known as “the stopping place of the shout.”
It is satisfying to hold such a project in your hands, with 17 tracks and a 40-page booklet accompanying the physical CD. Each song incorporates the essential elements of the ring shout: the rhythmic hand-clapping, a stick beating the floor, the soul-filled spirituals, and the fusion of call-and–response singing. All that is missing on this album, as described in the liner notes, is the visual element—the ability to watch the shouters shuffling in a counterclockwise circle. To amend this problem, Smithsonian Folkways created an accompanying short documentary film that shows the Shouters singing and dancing together. Brenton Jordan, the youngest Shouter today, looks forward to the future of the tradition and believes the strength of the shout community will continue to thrive.
Collectors of 1970s soundtrack albums will be interested in this reissue from Real Gone Music. The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh was a “big screen sports fantasy” based on the typical rags to riches theme of a scrappy backetball team’s road to the finals. Released in 1979, the film was co-produced by Gary Stromberg (Car Wash), whose goal was to score another music centric hit. But despite the inclusion of basketball greats Julius Erving, Meadowlark Lemon, and Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, plus actors the likes of Flip Wilson, Debbie Allen and Dee Dee Bridgewater (the “jeerleaders”), Stockard Channing, Jonathan Winters, Joe Seneca, and M. Emmet Walsh, this Pittsburgh centric sports movie failed at the box office, and the original sound track album likewise never cracked the charts. Following the VHS release in the mid-1980s, however, both the film and soundtrack gained a cult following, attracting the attention of the hip hop generation. In fact, Questlove plays the title track every time a Pittsburgh native appears on Jimmy Falon’s Tonight Show. Appreciation for the film increased following the 2010 DVD release, and is now considered by diehard fans to be the greatest basketball movie of all time.
Interest in the soundtrack can easily be explained—it was composed, arranged, produced, and conducted by the legendary Thom Bell and recorded by Joe Tarsia and his crew at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia. This was Bell’s first opportunity to score a film, and he brought in all of the industry heavyweights: The Sylvers (“Mighty Mighty Pisces”), The Spinners (“(Do It, Do It), No One Does It Better”), The Four Tops (“Chance of a Lifetime”), and even Eubie Blake, who accompanies Bell on “Ragtime.” The primary accompaniment is credited to the Thom Bell Orchestra (mostly PIR session musicians), featuring Bell on keyboards, Bob Babbitt (Funk Brothers) on bass, Anthony Bell and Bobby Eli on guitar, Larry Washington, Edward Shea and Michael Pultro on percussion, and Charles Collins on drums, plus Don Renaldo’s Strings and Horns.
Released at the peak of the disco area, the music is funky and dance oriented, but also draws upon Bell’s trademark Philly soul and is liberally sprinkled with references from earlier Blaxploitation-era soundtracks, most notably Shaft. Other notable songs include “Magic Mona” (Phyllis Hyman), “Moses Theme” (Frankie Bleu), “Follow Every Dream” (William “Poogie” Hart), and the opening track “A Theme for L.A.’s Team” featuring trumpeter Doc Severinsen in his prime.
This is the first CD release of The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh, and Real Gone’s expanded edition includes three bonus tracks culled from limited edition singles, along with liner notes by Joe Marchese in a fully illustrated booklet.
Just in time for Record Store Day on April 21st, Dagger Records has released Curtis Knight featuring Jimi Hendrix – Live At George’s Club 20. This compilation includes tracks that up to this point have mostly been available as bootlegs for the Jimi Hendrix completist. Dagger’s official release features fully remastered audio and a 10 page liner note booklet with rare photos and insight into Hendrix’s career during this period.
Live At George’s Club 20 includes tracks recorded in 1965 and 1966, which find Hendrix in his rhythm and blues era, then known as Jimmy James—a member of Curtis Knight’s pre-Squire’s band the Lovelites. The songs included here are primarily covers including Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor,” Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar” and Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say.”
Many of the tracks feature Jimi on vocals as well guitar, and it easy to hear hints of the artist he would become just a few years later. Still in his early twenties, Hendrix’s chops were as impressive as you might expect for one of America’s greatest guitar heroes. On “Driving South” he flexes his guitar skills in fantastic fashion as Knight shouts out the names of cities. It’s not hard to imagine a smoky club of dancers responding ecstatically to the storm the band (including bassist Ace Hall, drummer Ditto Edwards, and saxophonist Lonnie Youngblood) had brewed up. Hendrix even includes the playing guitar with his teeth routine that would wow the crowd at the Monterey Pop Festival just a few years later. Many of the recordings also showcase Hendrix’s humor and showmanship as well. For example, “I’m a Man” features Hendrix’s playful singing and lyric swapping during a rendition of the Muddy Waters standard.
While Live At George’s Club 20 is a collection for Hendrix completists, it is still a worthwhile listen for anyone who is interested in deconstructing the notion that Jimi Hendrix “came out of nowhere.” It was places like Club 20 where he honed his chops on his way to super stardom and this compilation is a great listen.
Following are additional albums released during March 2017—some will be reviewed in future issues of Black Grooves.
Blues, Folk Country Big Daddy Wilson: Neckbone Stew (Ruf)
Bukka White: High Fever Blues: Complete 1930-1940 Recordings (Soul Jam)
Eric Gales: Middle of the Road (Provogue/Mascot)
Gary Clark Jr.: Live North America 2016 (Warner Bros.)
Gene Mighty Flea Conners: Sanctified (Remastered) (JSP)
Guy Davis & Fabrizio Poggi: Sonny & Brownie’s Last Train (M.C. Records)
John Lee Hooker: Whiskey & Wimmen: John Lee Hooker’s Finest (Vee-Jay )
Leo Bud Welch: Live at the Iridium (Cleopatra)
Lettuce: More Crushmore (Lettuce Records)
Lightnin’ Hopkins: Live In Denver  (Klondike)
Teddy Williams: Worry Off My Mind (Big legal Mess)
Classical, Spoken Word, Soundtrack Roscoe Mitchell: Four Compositions (reissue) (Lovely Music)
Roscoe Mitchell: Pilgrimage (reissue) (Lovely Music)
Funk, Rock, Pop, Electronic Cilantro Boombox: Shine (digital)
Columbia Nights: In All Things (Record Breakin’ Music)
Danko Jones: Wild Cat (AFM/Soul Food Music Dist.)
Delta Moon: Cabbagetown (Jumping Jack)
E-Life 7: Miked Up (Three 2 Go Music)
Flyjack: New Day (Bean Pie Records)
KXM (with Dug Pinnick): Scatterbrain (Rat Pak)
Mother’s Finest: Love Changes: Anthology 1972-1983 (SoulMusic)
Osunlade: Pyrography (vinyl) (BBE)
Sampha: Process (Young Turks)
Star Stuff: Chaz Bundick Meets The Mattson 2 (Company)
Theo Parrish: First Floor, Part 1 & 2 (vinyl) (Peacefrog)
Wayne Snow: Freedom TV (Tartelet)
Gospel, Christian Rap Carolyn Traylor: The Best of My Story (Traylor Made Music Group)
Da’dra: All of Me ( Greathouse Music Group / DREAM)
JJ Hairston & Youthful Praise: You Deserve It (eOne)
Jor’Dan Armstrong: Vibes EP (SeaQ/Good Guys)
Montel Dorsey & Muniversity: Love Over Hate (eOne)
Rev. Sam Dixon: My Soul Says Yes (Asherah)
The Williams Singers: In Real Time (CD + DVD) (Blackberry)
Various: Lord Have Mercy: The Soulful Gospel of Checker Records (Playback)
William McDowell: Sounds of Revival II: Deeper (eOne)
Jazz Abdullah Ibrahim: Ancient Africa (reissue) (Sackville)
Bill Evans Trio: On A Monday Evening (previously unreleased) (Fantasy)
Billy Childs: Rebirth (Mack Ave.)
China Moses: Nightintales (MPS)
Christian Scott Tunde Adjuah: Ruler Rebel (Ropeadope)
Collocutor: The Search (On the Corner)
David L. Harris: Blues I Felt (digital)
Ernest Dawkins New Horizons Ensemble feat. Vijay Iyer: Transient Takes (Denmark)
Heads of State: Four in One (Smoke Sessions)
Howard Johnson And Gravity: Testamony (Tuscarora)
Idrees Sulieman Quartet: The 4 American Jazz Men in Tangier (Sunnyside)
Jamiroquai: Automaton (Virgin EMI)
Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis and Jon Batiste: The Music of John Lewis (Blue Engine)
Jazz Passengers: Still Life With Trouble (Thirsty Ear)
Joey DeFrancesco & The People: Freedom project (Mack Ave.)
Johnny Griffin: Riverside Collection 1958-1962 (Enlightenment)
Marcus Anderson: Limited Edition (Anderson Music, LLC)
Matthew Shipp & Ivo Perelman: The Art of Perelman-Shipp (Leo)
Ronald Bruner, Jr.: Triumph (World Galaxy / Alpha Pup)
Roscoe Mitchell With Yuganaut: Four Ways (Nessa)
Sol: Upfront (Pacific Coast Jazz)
Steve Nelson: Brothers Under the Sun (Highnote)
Trio 3: Visiting Texture (Naxos)
William Parker & Stefano Scodanibbio: Bass Duo (Aum Fidelity)
Latin Daymé Arocena: Cubafonía (Brownswood)
Ondatrópica: Baile Bucanero (Soundway)
R&B, Soul 6lack: Free 6lack (Interscope )
Chet Ivey: A Dose Of Soul – The Sylvia Funk Recordings 1971-75 (BGP)
Frankie & The Spindles: Count To Ten: The Complete Singles Collection 1968-77 (Playback)
Johnny Guitar Watson: At Onkel Po’s Carnegie Hall Hamburg 1976 (NDRInfo)
Kevin Ross: The Awakening (Motown)
Khalid: American Teen (RCA)
La’Porsha Renae: Already All Ready (Motown)
Lee Fields & the Expressions: Special Night Instrumentals (Big Crown)
Leela James: Did It For Love (BMG)
Nicole Willis, Jimi Tenor & Jonathan Maron: Big Fantasy (For Me) / Tear It Down (Persephone)
Norman Connors: Valentine Love: The Buddah/Arista Anthology (SoulMusic)
Otis Junior & Dr.Dundiff: Hemispheres (Jakarta)
Roscoe Shelton: Best of Roscoe Shelton (Sunset Blvd )
Selina Albright: Conversations (Golden Rays Music )
Stevie Wonder: Live at the Regal Theater Chicago June 1962 (Jambalaya)
Syd: Fin (Columbia)
Syl Johnson: My Funky Funky Band (Numero)
Syl Johnson: We Do It Together (Numero)
Trey Songz: Tremaine (Warner)
Vanessa Collier: Meeting My Shadow (In Tune Music Group)
Various: Soul of the 60s (Time Life)
Various: This Love Is For Real – The Sweet Soul Of Chicago: 1968-1981 (Interstate)
Various: This Time Will Be Different The Sweet Soul Of Philadelphia: 1968-1982 (Interstate)
Rap 50 Cent: Best Of (Aftermath)
Alchemist: Rapper’s Best Friend 4 (ALC)
Amir Obè: NØTÇW (digital) (Def Jam)
Body Count: Bloodlust (CD + DVD) (Century Media)
Boondox: The Murder (Majic Ninja)
Clutchy Hopkins & Fat Albert Einstein: High Desert Low Tide ( Aural Tradition)
Daye Jack: No Data (digital) (Warner Bros.)
Deaf Switch & Toon Kurtis: Backup (Dirty Version)
Devin the Dude: Acoustic Levitation (Coughee Brothaz Ent.)
Dorrough: Ride Wit Me (Real Talk Ent)
Dr. Dooom: First Come, First Served (Threshold)
Drake: More Life: A Playlist by October Firm (Young Money Ent./Cash Money)
Freddie Gibbs: You Only Live 2wice (digital) (ESGN/Empire)
Goldlink: At What Cost (digital) (Squaaash Club/RCA)
Gorilla Zoe: Don’t Feed Da Animals 2 (Real Talk Ent.)
GrandeMarshall: Risk/Reward (Fool’s Gold)
Homeboy Sandman: Veins (Stones Throw)
IAM: Revolution (Universal France
Stalin: I Don’t Sell Dope No Moe (Livewire)
J.I.D: The Never Story (digital) (Dreamville/Interscope)
K’Valentine: Here for a Reason (Javotti Media)
Kodak Black: Painting Pictures (digital)
Kool Keith & KutMasta Kurt: Your Mom Is My Wife EP (Threshold)
Little Simz: Stillness in Wonderland (Age 101)
Locksmith: Olive Branch (digital) (Landmark Ent.)
Mike WiLL Made-It: Ransom 2 (digital) (Eardruma/Interscope)
Mozzy: Fake Famous (Mozzy Records)
Murs: Captain California (Strange Music)
Nnamdi Ogbonnaya: Drool (Sooper/Father-Daughter)
O.C.: Same Moon Same Sun: 1st Phase (Ditc )
Oddisee: The Iceberg (Mello Music Group)
P.O.S: Chill, Dummy (Doontree)
Porter Ray: Watercolor (Sub Pop)
Raekwon: The Wild (H20)
Realz: Blue Lion Chamber (Chambermusik/Thrice Great)
Rick Ross: Rather You Than Me (Epic)
Shawty Lo: R.I.C.O. (digital) (300 Ent.)
Slum Village: Fantastic Collection (Ne’Astra Music Group)
Too $hort: The Pimp Tape (Dangerous Music)
Tuamie: Holy Ghost Spirituals (Fat Beats)
Your Old Droog: Packs (Fat Beats)
Iam: Revolution (Universal)
Reggae, Dancehall Dillinger: Answer Me Question (reissue) (Radiation Roots)
Inna de Yard: The Soul of Jamaica (Chapter Two/Wagram)
Jackie Edwards: Mr. Peaceful (Kingston Sounds)
Jackie Mittoo: The Keyboard King (reissue) (Radiation Roots)
Keith & Tex: Same Old Story (Liquidator Music)
Prince Far I: Psalms for I (Deeper Knowledge)
Queen Ifrica: Climb (VP)
Skatalites: Foundation Ska (Studio One)
Talisman: Don’t Play with Fyah (Sugar Shack)
Various: Hustle! Reggae Disco – Kingston, London, New York (Soul Jazz)
World Abdou El Omari: Nuits D’été
Elida Almeida: Djunta Kudjer EP (Lusafrica)
Ibibio Sound Machine: Uyai (Merge)
Livy Ekemezie: Friday Night (Odion Livingstone)
Mokoomba: Luyando (OutHere)
Ondatrópica: Baile Bucanero (Soundway )
Orchestra Baobab: Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng (World Circuit)
Red Baraat: Bhangra Pirates (Rhyme & Reason)
Seydou Boro: Hôrôn (Indigo)
Somi: Petite Afrique (OKeh)