Archive for November, 2006

Child of the Seventies

betty lavette.jpgTitle: Child of the Seventies
Artist: Betty LaVette
Label: Rhino Handmade
Catalog No.: RHM2 7899
Date: 2006 
 Luck can be said to be responsible for a great number of successful recording artists. Since the music industry is a fast and furious business, some artists get lost in the shuffle. Thanks to the efforts of her European fans, however, Betty LaVette’s luck has changed. In this 2006 release which includes a mix of new recordings, remastered originals dating back to 1962, and some unreleased recordings originally believed to have been lost forever, Betty LaVette’s artistry is available once again.From lamenting lost love to proclaiming the hope she has for the future, LaVette covers a range of topics on this album. Each song conveys to the listener Lavette’s connection to the lyrics she sings. Unlike many artists that are successful today, LaVette is emotionally invested in her work in a way that shines through. Contained in her voice is a range of emotions, from joy to heartache, making this indeed a soul album.

Showcasing the elements that define soul music, tracks such as “It Ain’t Easy,” “Soul Tambourine,” and “All the Black and White Children” illuminate the messages of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Encouraging the search for love, hope, and harmony, Child of the Seventies is aptly titled. LaVette also issues her own advice to women on how to keep their man happy and at home. In track nine, “Outside Woman,” she makes it clear that if a woman loves her man like his outside woman he will treat her right.

The band accompaniment on Child of the Seventies is of high quality. “The Stealer” features a complex horn timbre that makes them really stand out, and they’ll inspire any listener to groove along with Ms. LaVette. But at times the instrumental accompaniment is too powerful, overshadowing LaVette’s husky voice instead of backing it up.Finishing out the album is LaVette’s “Shut Your Mouth.” Recorded in 1962 as an ode to teenage angst, the song sounds very much like a pop crossover and surely must have climbed the charts at the time of its original release. What makes Child of the Seventies worth listening to is the fact that LaVette is not a mere carbon copy of other soul singers of her day. Making no attempt to sound like Aretha Franklin or Gladys Knight, LaVette is true to her own sound identity. 

Posted by Brandon Houston  Editor’s note: Some albums by this artist have been issued under the name Betty LaVette, though the standard spelling of her first name is Bettye.   

  

 

View review November 3rd, 2006

The Complete 1957 Riverside Recordings

riverside.jpgTitle: The Complete 1957 Riverside Recordings
Artists: Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane
Label: Riverside
Catalog No.: RCD2-30027-2
Date: 2006

Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane only played together for a relatively brief period of time during the second half of 1957, but their collaboration and its effect on Coltrane’s development as a musician have become legendary. From mid-July to late December, Coltrane played in Monk’s quartet at the Five Spot Café in New York. Two live recordings exist from this period, most recently released as the Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall and The Thelonious Monk Quartet featuring John Coltrane Live at the Five Spot, both on the Blue Note label. Portions of the three studio sessions recorded during the early part of their engagement have been released on three separate Riverside albums, Thelonious Himself, Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane, and Monk’s Music, but The Complete 1957 Riverside Recordings, a two-CD set, is the first time they have been released together.

The collection includes recordings by three different groups. The beautiful ballad “Monk’s Mood” was recorded on April 12, 1957, by Coltrane, Monk, and Wilbur Ware on bass. The majority of the tunes, including five takes of “Crepuscule with Nellie,” come from septet sessions recorded on June 25-26 with Ray Copeland on trumpet, Gigi Gryce on alto saxophone, Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins on tenor saxophones, Monk on piano, Ware on bass, and Art Blakey on drums. Other tunes recorded by this group include “Off Minor,” “Epistrophy,” “Well, You Needn’t,” and “Ruby, My Dear” with Coleman Hawkins—all well-known Monk compositions. Also included is a thirteen-minute blues jam, “Blues for Tomorrow,” that the group recorded after Monk fell asleep at the piano on the first day of recording. The final three selections—“Ruby My Dear” with John Coltrane, “Nutty,” and “Trinkle, Tinkle”—come from a quartet session in July featuring Coltrane, Monk, Ware, and Shadow Wilson on drums. The two renditions of “Ruby My Dear” allow listeners to compare the approaches of the two great tenor saxophonists.

Not only does this collection present all of the studio recordings in one place, it also includes alternate and partial takes that have not previously been released. Granted, the only new song is “Abide with Me”—a hymn by William Henry Monk arranged by Thelonious Monk—that, as producer Orrin Keepnews states in his liner notes, is played in an “absolutely straightfaced 52nd street Salvation Army-styled presentation.” However, its the detailed and highly informative liner notes, in which Keepnews describes how the recording sessions came into being, what happened in the recording studio, and how some of the artistic and business decisions were made, along with a complete listing of all of the different takes, that make this album an important contribution to the recorded history of jazz. Experiencing the music in the context provided by the liner notes allows listeners to catch a glimpse of the creative process that took place almost fifty years ago.

Posted by Alisa White

View review November 3rd, 2006

The World of Nat King Cole

worldofnatkingcole.jpgTitle: The World of Nat King Cole
Artist: Nat King Cole
Label: Capitol/EMI
Catalog No.: 72438-63703-0-3 (DVD/CD)
Date: 2006                                                       

No matter how you describe his voice—“like velvet,” “intimate and commanding,” “smooth and silky,” or just simply “cool”— Nat King Cole has won his way into the hearts of fans the world over. His timeless sound and status as an African-American performer in a time of racism are the basis of inspiration for the CD/DVD collection The World of Nat King Cole. This tribute grants listeners/viewers access to the story of Cole’s life (the cover of the liner notes is actually an image of Nat King Cole’s own passport), with insight from family, friends, and celebrities including Stevie Wonder, Carlos Santana, Whoopi Goldberg, B.B. King, and Andre Young (aka Dr. Dre).

Born in 1919 in Montgomery, Alabama, Cole moved to Chicago at an early age. There he received exposure to jazz from artists such as Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines. A talented pianist, Cole formed the Nat King Cole Trio which enjoyed considerable acclaim, but it was Cole’s voice that truly brought him success, so much so that Capitol Records became known as “The House That Cole Built” (because he made so much money for them, they could afford a new building!). Cole became the first African American to have his own radio and TV show, and frequently traveled to entertain his fans abroad.

The DVD feature documentary (89 min.) includes contextualization of many of these details, as well as a look at the man behind the music. According to the detailed liner notes, “Nat King Cole simply believed that beneath the grime of prejudice and intolerance, human beings actually hunger to understand and love one another.” This idea is perhaps best articulated through the lyrics of the song “Nature Boy”: The greatest thing you’ll ever learn/Is to love and be loved in return. Included with the documentary are a plethora of extras (an additional 42 min.) ranging from interviews to performances to film trailers. All of these items help to put Cole’s life into a grand perspective.

The CD portion of the collection is essentially a representation of Nat King Cole’s best-known works. The 28-tracks include standards such as “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” “(Get Your Kicks) On Route 66,” “It’s Only A Paper Moon,” “When I Fall In Love,” “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás (Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps),” and “Almost Like Being In Love.” Most of these songs have been remastered from the original recordings by Capitol Records. Also included is the more recent version of “Unforgettable,” a duet featuring daughter Natalie Cole and the King himself.

All in all, the “everlasting light” of Nat King Cole shines through in this thoughtful CD/DVD collection. Thanks to the efforts of daughter Carole Cole (the executive producer) and Capitol Records, Nat King Cole is now truly “unforgettable.”

Posted by Stephanie Fida

View review November 3rd, 2006

Swing Along: The Songs of Will Marion Cook

swing along.jpgTitle: Swing Along: The Songs of Will Marion Cook
Artists: William Brown, Ann Sears
Label: Albany
Catalog No.: TROY 839/40 (2 CD set)
Date: 2006

Swing Along: The Songs of Will Marion Cook takes us back to the phonograph era with a collection of 26 songs for voice and piano. The two CD set, which encompasses various styles including coon songs, art songs, parlor songs, Negro spirituals, and musical theater, represents some of Will Marion Cook’s more well-known works from the 1898-1934 period. In the present day much of Cook’s music has been forgotten. Interestingly enough, several of his songs were recorded for the first time on Swing Along. William Brown, tenor, and Ann Sears, piano, together take on the challenge of preserving this important part of musical history.

Born in Washington, D.C., in 1869, Will Marion Cook was a talented composer and musician. Similar in ideals to Scott Joplin, he wanted to elevate black music by taking it out of the minstrel show to the higher art form of the black musical. In his formative years, Cook was no doubt influenced by the sounds of ragtime in addition to the classical music training he received while at Oberlin College. By the turn of the twentieth century, Cook had become highly respected for his compositions for voice as well as his syncopated orchestral works and black musical comedies.

Swing Along features the late William Brown, who draws on his extensive experience in opera, blues, jazz, and gospel for this recording. Brown’s command of the various styles represented in this album is impressive, as is his virtuosity, which allows him to easily run up and down his range. He also incorporates theatrical nuances, such as the use of different voices to delineate various characters in the narrative text. This careful attention to musical detail helps give a turn-of-the-century authenticity to this recording.  Musicality aside, it must also be mentioned that the CD is accompanied by extensive liner notes by Marva Griffin Carter, which include brief biographies of the composer and performers, lyrics in their entirety and, most importantly, a short contextualization of each song. Although Brown and Sears are in top form and the liner notes impressive, there are still some shortcomings worth mentioning.

Unfortunately, this recording lacks somewhat in sonic diversity. Despite the fact that the musical selections come from a range of traditions, it feels as if the same song plays over and over. Also, there appears to be no thought put into the organization of songs—the tracks jump around between different time periods and genres. Consequently, after 26 songs, the voice and piano combination becomes somewhat monotonous. The addition of another instrument every now and then could have added more interest to the work overall. Nonetheless, Brown and Sears are to be commended for taking on this project and reviving Cook’s music. When viewed from the stance of preservation rather than entertainment, this recording only seems to lack the pops and cracks of the phonograph on which this music probably would have been played.

Posted by Stephanie Fida

Editor’s Note: For more music of Will Marion Cook and his contemporaries, check out New World Records CD 80611-2 (2003), Black Manhattan: Theater and Dance Music of James Reese Europe, Will Marion Cook, and Members of the Legendary Clef Club. Also, watch for Dr. Marva G. Carter’s forthcoming biography of Will Marion Cook, to be published by Oxford University Press.

View review November 3rd, 2006

That Ain’t Right

that aint right.jpgTitle: That Ain’t Right
Artists: Magic Slim & Joe Carter
Label: Delmark
Catalog No.: DE-786
Date: 2006

Good things come to those who wait, but it is a crime to have had to wait almost thirty years for the release of these 1977 recordings of Chicago blues powerhouse Magic Slim & the Teardrops on That Ain’t Right. This was supposed to have been Magic Slim & the Teardrops American debut album, having been organized by veteran Chicago producer Ralph Bass and Henry Stone (of Miami’s TK Records) back in 1977. The blues business being what it is, the album never made it to the shelves. Thanks to the fine people at Delmark, we now have this recording back on the shelves and back in its original form. The 1977 recording had been modified in post production to give Slim’s guitar a cleaner, more conservative tone. Unfortunately, this took away his signature gritty sound, which is the very heart of the heavy, electric Chicago blues style. Thanks to some expert remastering, Delmark is able to send this legendary Chicago blues guitarist’s infamous tone and biting vibrato straight to our doors just as it would have been heard from Slim’s amplifier. It is worth every note. 

Another victim of the delayed release of the 1977 Ralph Bass recording sessions was Joe Carter. By contrast to Magic Slim’s howling tone, this CD closes out with Joe Carter and his Elmore James/T-Bone Walker style of vintage Chicago blues. Carter’s slide guitar playing is smooth and impeccable—a true tribute to Elmore James—and he really shines on covers of “Stormy Monday” and “I’m Worried.” This is one of only two sessions Carter ever recorded and it features Lacy Gibson, guitar; Sunnyland Slim, piano; Willie Black, bass; and Fred Below, drums. Unlike Magic Slim, Carter did little after these 1977 sessions since health problems forced him out of the clubs of Chicago. He passed away in 2001 and these recordings will make you take notice and miss the music lost. As for the delay of the release of these recordings, I believe the album title says it all—That Ain’t Right

Posted by Christopher Mulé

View review November 3rd, 2006

Born and Raised in Compton

DJ QUick.jpgTitle: Born and Raised in Compton: The Greatest Hits
Artist: DJ Quik
Label: Arista Records/Legacy
Catalog No.: 82876 82516 2
Date: 2006

Since the release of his 1991 debut, Quik is the Name, DJ Quik has stood as one of the most critically heralded artists in hip hop music. Born and raised in the same neighborhood that produced hip hop superstars Eazy E, Dr. Dre, and the Game, Quik has produced music that is well received by both hardcore gangsters and hip hop purists.  Born and Raised in Compton: The Greatest Hits features the hit singles and other classic songs from DJ Quik’s five Arista recordings: Quik is the Name (1991), Way 2 Fonky (1992), Safe & Sound (1995), Rhythm-al-ism (1998), and Balance & Options (2000).

Born and Raised in Compton allows the listener to witness the journeys of both DJ Quik (his rap name), the artist, and David Blake (his birth name), the man, as Quik’s musical growth parallels his personal growth. The booming drums, sample heavy melodies, and street-oriented lyrics contained in such songs as the title track, “Just Like Compton,” and “Quik is the Name” represent a youthful, gangbanging, and misogynistic DJ Quik. The second half of the disc finds Quik as an older, more experienced man which translates into the light drums, keyboard driven, laid back feel of songs such as “Hand in Hand,” “Pitch in on a Party,” and “You’z a Ganxta.” All songs were produced and performed by DJ Quik and certain selections feature his frequent collaborators AMG, Suga Free, Hi-C, and the late Mausberg.

Born and Raised in Compton: The Greatest Hits is an Arista Records release and therefore does not include selections from his most recent independent releases, Under tha Influence (2002) and Trauma (2005). These two albums received much critical praise and the omission of this material renders this greatest hits package somewhat incomplete.

All in all, Born and Raised in Compton: The Greatest Hits provides a nice overview of DJ Quik’s career on Arista Records. Although formulaic at times, the grand quality of Quik’s material is indisputable. On “Way 2 Fonky,” DJ Quik calls himself “America’s Most Complete Artist,” and this release helps confirm that contention.

Posted by Langston Collin Wilkins

View review November 3rd, 2006

Goin’ to Town

DBOT.jpgTitle: Goin’ to Town
Artist: Deep Blue Organ Trio
Label: Delmark
Catalog No.: DE-569 (CD)/DVD-1569 (DVD)
Date: 2006 

Although the “Blue” in Deep Blue Organ Trio (DBOT) refers to the blues, this ensemble’s recent live recording, Goin’ to Town (available on CD and DVD from Delmark Records), reveals a style more noteworthy for its eclecticism than for a reliance on any one genre. The recording’s liner notes quote guitarist Bobby Broom: “The name of the group came to us without too much thought or searching. The blues as an idiom and language…is obviously a part of our musical foundation individually and as a group.” “Foundation” is the operative word in this explanation. All six selections in DBOT’s set (recorded in 2005 at Chicago’s Green Mill Cocktail Lounge) betray many influences other than blues—particularly swing and bebop.

The members of DBOT are Chris Foreman (Hammond B3), Bobby Broom (hollow-body electric guitar), and Greg Rockingham (percussion). All three are versatile musicians, but the blind Foreman steals the show. Particularly on the DVD release is his prowess evident. Several close-ups of his hands underscore his idiosyncratic flat-fingered technique, his dexterity, and his frequent glissandi.

Glissandi, which involve sliding one’s hand across the keys of a piano or organ, feature prominently in Fields and Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight.” This song, incontestably a “standard,” is given a fresh face in DBOT’s thirteen-minute rendition, in which the melody only gradually emerges from a series of improvisations. For lengthy stretches, DBOT obliterate the song’s chord changes, seeking instead lengthy stretches of harmonic stasis, while Broom and Foreman solo with angular bebop-like melodies. Tension builds continuously until, cathartically, Foreman’s organ intones the well-known tune.

Goin’ to Town features only two numbers that follow a standard 12-bar blues AAB structure: “No Hype Blues,” composed by Broom, and “Lou,” composed by Rockingham. But neither tune remains wedded to standard harmonic protocol. In “No Hype,” Foreman supplies numerous harmonic substitutions over blues’s prototypical I, IV, and V harmonies, yielding a more complex take on the genre. In contrast, “Lou” minimizes chord changes, allowing Broom’s guitar solos to affect sounds of modal jazz.

The visual presentation on the DVD is fair. Each musician is given his proper due, but the program suffers from rather repetitive views of the players, and an occasionally shaky camera. Moreover, the grainy shots of the club’s audience do not enhance the DVD’s viewing experience.

But such is often the case with concert films, which must submit to the exigencies of the venue. Goin’ to Town is a collection of songs worth owning, either on CD or DVD, and it will repay continued listening.

Posted by John Reef

     

View review November 3rd, 2006

Game Theory

gametheory.jpgTitle: Game Theory
Artist: The Roots
Label: Def Jam
Catalog No: 00007222
Date: 2006

Few artists or groups have received as much acclaim both in and outside the hip hop sphere as the Roots. Since they feature live instrumentation as opposed to the more common electronic sound, the Roots have always stood out from their hip hop peers. After winning a Grammy award in 1999, the Roots abandoned their jazz and R&B influences, taking an experimental approach with their next two albums, Phrenology (2002) and The Tipping Point (2004), which were not well received by their core audience. Game Theory is an attempt to recapture their alienated fans while also continuing to advance their music.

The overall sound of Game Theory is semi-dark and very aggressive which fits well with the political nature of much of the lyrics. There are numerous highlights on the album. “Here We Come” is an old school style head banger that can rock the headphones, the jeeps, and the clubs. On “Long Time,” Black Thought and former State Property member “Peedi Peedi” reminisce about Philadelphia over up-tempo drums and a slick guitar lick.  On “A Clock with No Hands,” the Roots take a break from their aggressive sound as the smooth, jazzy beat allows Black Thought to discuss the pitfalls of inner-city life. Other highlights include “Don’t Feel Right,” “In the Music,” and the Jay Dee tribute “Can’t Stop This.”

Although the production on Game Theory is outstanding, the band cannot overcome Black Thought’s pedestrian microphone skills. Black Thought’s monotonous delivery and average lyrics are masked to a degree on the up-tempo tracks, but very evident when things are slowed down. Guest appearances by Dice Raw, Peedi Peedi, and the return of Malik B help some, but the Roots would make much better music if a more stylistically diverse MC was added to the regular lineup. Also, otherwise solid tracks such as “False Media” and “In the Music” are damaged by terrible hooks.

On their previous two albums, the Roots sacrificed quality for experimentation. They failed to find a happy medium between their desire to progress and the sonic desire of their core hip hop audience. The same cannot be said for Game Theory as it is very much a hardcore hip hop album. On each song, virtuosity is shunned, and the instrumental parts are fused together in a way that creates a very cohesive sound. The cut and paste style of the majority of the tracks harkens back to old Bomb Squad or Pete Rock productions. Aside from a few missteps, Game Theory is a very solid release and should reclaim many of their lost fans.

Posted by Langston Collin Wilkins

View review November 3rd, 2006

Both Sides of the Gun

ben harper.jpgTitle: Both Sides of the Gun
Artist: Ben Harper
Label: Virgin/EMI
Catalog No.: 0946 3 57446 2 0 (2 CDs)
Date: 2006

Without a doubt, Ben Harper is an amazingly talented artist, and one with a social conscious as well. His latest CD, Both Sides of the Gun, goes a long way towards proving both points. Harper is a veritable one-man band, laying down the vocal tracks and then over-dubbing guitars, including his signature Weissenborn, as well as bass, drums, and additional percussion. Though other members of his band, the Innocent Criminals, make contributions along the way, its clearly Harper’s show. As if that were not enough, Harper also wrote (or co-write) every song on the album. Frequently referencing current events, the lyrics offer up some hard biting political commentary. Take, for example, the Katrina-inspired “Black Rain”: “You left them swimming for their lives/Down in New Orleans/Can’t afford a gallon of gasoline/With your useless degrees/And you contrary statistics/This government business/Is straight up sadistic.”  Or the war lament “Gather ‘Round the Stone”: “You whip the back of freedom/’Till it bleeds an oil stream/Then you sail down upon it/In your killing machine.” But not all of the album is this dark and cynical.

Both Sides of the Gun is split between two 30 min. discs with completely different characters that are often referenced by the titles of their opening tracks. “Morning Yearning” kicks off the mellower, ballad-oriented disc, which even incorporates a string section on half the tracks. Stand-out songs are “Picture in a Frame” and “Waiting For You.” Things really take off on the second “Better Way” disc. This is more representative of the funky, rock-inspired, guitar-driven Ben Harper who has garnered legions of fans both here and abroad. Drawing on everyone from Marvin Gaye to the Rolling Stones, Harper offers up one kicking track after another, each with a unique style. Both Sides of the Gun is highly recommended and guaranteed to please a very broad range of tastes.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review November 3rd, 2006

On the Jungle Floor

Van hunt.jpgTitle: On the Jungle Floor 
Artist: Van Hunt 
Label: Capitol Records 
Catalog No: B000EMGJM2 
Date: 2006  

Van Hunt’s sophomore release, On the Jungle Floor, is an eclectic rock-music-tinged soul album. His current effort displays his evolution from his 2004 self-titled debut album to the present as a songwriter and instrumentalist. Some might think that Hunt’s music is hard to categorize because it harkens back to a day when there was not such a strong distinction between rock and R&B music. In On the Jungle Floor, Hunt gives the listener an idea of what groups like the Isley Brothers and Sly and the Family Stone might sound like making contemporary music. 

The whole theme of On the Jungle Floor is based on funk drum rhythms, rock guitars, and vocals that are reminiscent of Prince and Rick James. Yet, on rock ballads like “Daredevil, Baby,” Hunt manages to soften those ingredients with his own personal styling to make a song that is uniquely his. “Ride, Ride, Ride” is an aggressive rock track that combines soulful vocal lyrics like “Everyday I breathe the air/It’s easier to imagine leaving here/But, before I lose control and disappear/I get on up and dance.” Although this release is exciting because it draws on diverse musical influences from Bono’s vocals to Curtis Mayfield’s falsetto, the album would have been much tighter without filler songs like “The Night is Young” which are boring background music compared to some of the more standout tracks.  

It is truly regrettable that artists like Van Hunt do not garner the mainstream attention that they deserve. His music extends the continuum of rock-tinged R&B music from the late 1970s into the present and future. However, by the organic sound of his music and lyrics in On the Jungle Floor, it seems as if Hunt has made a personal choice to be true to his abundant talent – wherever that my lead. If listeners are lucky, and if manager Randy Jackson does his job, that will lead to a prolific career for Van Hunt.

Posted by fredara mareva 

View review November 3rd, 2006

A Swig from the Acid Bottle

Three5human2.jpgTitle: A Swig from the Acid Bottle
Artist: Three5Human
Label: Anaphora Music
Catalog No: AML 139140
Date: 2006

Remove Three5Human’s new CD from its case and you’ll uncover the proclamation that “Black sound Black music encompasses far more than crunk and R&B.” And A Swig from the Acid Bottle certainly practices what it preaches—this group’s third album is aggressively, unapologetically ROCK. Frontwoman Trina Meade and guitarist Tomi Martin, the core of Atlanta-based T5H, have both toured and done session work with the likes of Madonna, Eric Clapton, OutKast, TLC, and Mick Jagger, and their musicianship doesn’t disappoint. Powerful vocals from Trina combine with solid guitar work from Tomi to deliver a driving wall of sound, capably supported by bassist Tres Gilbert and drummer Joey Williams. The group’s lyrics have a distinctly social/political edge, which might be expected from a band who takes their name from the 1787 constitutional amendment to count slaves as three-fifths of a person.      

Performing live, T5H have a raw energy that commands attention and doesn’t let up. In support of their new album, T5H is touring this fall with the Indigo Girls, and Amy Ray and Emily Saliers both make guest appearances on Swig (featured in “Genocidal Youth” and “Disco Ragdoll,” respectively). At a recent show in Indianapolis, a homecoming of sorts for Indy native Trina whose family cheered from the audience, T5H ably set the tone for the evening and then returned to join the headliners for several rousing encores. Trina demonstrated a particularly impressive range and mature talent as she moved seamlessly from her stance as a “Black Rock Queen” in the opening set, to an achingly memorable turn in the Michael Stipe role on the Indigo Girls’ “Kid Fears,” to a soulful solo on a joint cover of Gladys Knight & the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia.” You definitely need to see Trina and the band live to fully appreciate what they have to offer—this is one opening act you don’t want to miss!

Posted by Sunni Fass

View review November 3rd, 2006

More Than Posthuman

burntsugar5.jpgTitle: More Than Posthuman: Rise of the Mojosexual Cotillion
Artists: Burnt Sugar: The Arkestra Chamber
Label: Trugroid
Catalog No.: N/A (2 CD set)
Date: [2006]

I once got stuck on a subway train that was crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. It was Manhattan bound. It was post 9/11. It was late on a Saturday night and the train was packed. A typical New York City subway packed with people of different color, different ideas, different beliefs, different backgrounds, different wallet sizes, and different destinations. For a moment we all came together and spoke about the new conductor named Fear that was driving our streets and subways. We all expressed joy when two hours later the train started moving again. This experience is encapsulated in Burnt Sugar:  the Arkestra Chamber, one of the groups that share the shade of the Black Rock Coalition umbrella. This music is generated not only by the improvisational spirit of many voices coming together from all genres, but by the Butch Morris Conduction System for orchestral improvisation. The product of this system is sheer funk, rock, hip-hop, and jazz bliss to say the least. It is what might happen if Duke Ellington, Jimi Hendrix, Sun Ra, George Clinton and the P-Funk All Stars, Ella, Nina Simone, and Bob Marley were all stuck on that Manhattan bound subway train, talking to each other with the language of music. 

Burnt Sugar is a freeform, improvisational ensemble lead by Greg Tate, co-founder (with Vernon Reid) of the Black Rock Coalition, and a noted journalist and musician. The group is composed of a loosely based collective of up to 30 people: horns, strings, guitars, singers, rappers, etc. They consider themselves “the world’s second fully improvisational acid-funk band.” The name Arkestra Chamber references the WuTang Clan (36 chambers of Shaolin) and Sun Ra (Arkestra) and the music is influenced by both groups, along with Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew and Butch Morris. How does this musical collective operate? The Butch Morris system of conduction is a way to conduct improvised music in the way a classical conductor might do it. The music might include completely rehearsed sets and completely improvised sets. The group has the latitude to literally cut and paste the music-having the freedom to compose, arrange, orchestrate, and improvise the music on the spot. The band often doesn’t know what is coming next, which keeps everything fresh for the audience. Burnt Sugar’s More Than Posthuman: Rise of the Mojosexual Cotillion is their latest CD set and they make every note count.

The track “Kungfucious” expresses the diversity this group brings to the listener. It starts out with a Billie Holiday-esque jazz-scat introduction by Lisala and rolls into an extended rap interpretation by Demax. Clearly in the present musically and politically, “The Ballad of Fema, Katrina, and Satchmo” is a musical tribute to New Orleans and the natural disaster that has fallen on that city. It features an inspired and soulful ensemble of tuba, vocals, guitar, saxophone, bass and drums. The rock, reggae, and hip hop inspired song “Gentrification” continues the social, political, and genre blending on the second disc.  This CD is not only a political and musical statement but it makes you question why musical boundaries exist in the first place and inspires you to help break down those boundaries. 

This is a record the way they used to make records, as in a record of an event, and the event of people playing music in a room. In an over-commercialized, over-produced, and over-classified music market, More Than Posthuman represents some fresh air in the world of music. If Jimi, Miles, Coltrane, Sly and the Family Stone, Prince, Nina Simone and Duke were stuck on a Manhattan bound train together,  I believe they would proudly be talking abut this latest offering from Burnt Sugar.  To find out more, check them out here and here. 

Posted by Christopher Mulé                                                               

Editor’s note: Burnt Sugar recently performed a concert at Lincoln Center commemorating the 20th anniversary concert of the Black Rock Coalistion. Check out this interview with Tate which includes a discussion of the performance.

View review November 3rd, 2006

Other True Self

reid.jpgTitle: Other True Self 
Artist: Vernon Reid and Masque 
Label: Favored Nations 
Catalog No.: FAVR 2550 
Date: 2006 

The titles of Vernon Reid’s post-Living Color albums—Mistaken Identity (1996), Known Unknown (2004) and this year’s Other True Self –place the issue of his identity front and center. Not “black enough” for black radio, “too black” for white radio and too intelligent and musically adventurous for either, Reid has to think a lot about who he is and how he is perceived and represented. As a founding member of the Black Rock Coalition, he has been able to help fellow musicians forge their musical identities and discuss issues of race and genre. But how does one discuss and express complex issues such as race and personal identity in the context of an instrumental rock record? In the case of Reid, the answer is, “With ease and aplomb.” In his second album with his band Masque, he pours his stunning technical chops, broad musical knowledge and artistic sensitivity into evocatively named compositions that are worth a thousand words.

The first track, “Game is Rigged,” is a perfect example. Drummer Don McKenzie and bassist Hank Schroy lift a line from the quintessential Mardi Gras Indian party tune “Big Chief,” but lay it down in an ominous minor key while stripping it to the rhythmic bone. Over this alienated New Orleans second line, Reid rains down cascading sheets of descending notes, a hurricane of guitar distortion. Eventually, the track mutates into a jaded-but-exuberant blues, Reid’s wild solo joyous despite itself, before returning to the opening motif. The song’s title, musical allusions and raining notes of outrage leave little doubt that this is a wordlessly articulate response to the injustices of Katrina. That it is followed by an instrumental cover of Radiohead’s “National Anthem” only strengthens the case.

Like Radiohead, Reid has a great love for musical technology, especially as applied to the tone of his guitar, which he variously distorts, detunes, delays, oscillates, filters, stutters and otherwise deconstructs. Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood knew he’d never be the world’s greatest guitarist, but set out to be the most creative, experimenting with timbre and melody and producing novel results. Reid, on the other hand, might actually be the world’s greatest electric guitarist for all I know. In any case, it is always refreshing when a player whose technical ability already makes him stand out decides to be as experimental with tone, melody and song selection as Reid is.

Masque’s reworking of Depeche Mode’s moody synth pop number “Enjoy the Silence” proves that such experimentalism can be emotionally engaging as well as intellectually stimulating. Reid’s arrangement is hard to classify generically—his jazzy interpretation of the melody gives way to an amazing solo that somehow manages to be maniacal and moving at once. Part of what gives this cover its pathos is Leon Gruenbaum’s gospel-tinged B-3 organ work, which reveals an emotional power to the chord changes that was, by comparison, merely latent in the original. Yet Masque doesn’t go for merely “pretty”—throughout the song, Reid’s guitar detunes unexpectedly, sounding like a tape grounding to a halt, then speeding up again, adding tension and complexity.

A postmodern shred version of an old MTV synth pop hit shouldn’t work, let alone stand out movingly on an otherwise strong disc. This is just the kind of surprise that Vernon Reid fans have come to look forward to from an artist impossible to pigeonhole. His recordings repeatedly raise the question, “Who is Vernon Reid?” Their answers are multiple, complex and continually unfolding.

Posted by Mack Hagood

View review November 3rd, 2006

Black Rock Coalition 20th Anniversary

“Rock and roll, like practically every form of popular music across the globe, is Black music and we are its heirs. We, too, claim the right of creative freedom and access to American and International airwaves, audiences, markets, resources and compensations, irrespective of genre.”

–Black Rock Coalition Manifesto

Who says a rock band can’t play funky?

Who says a funk band can’t play rock?

–George Clinton/Funkadelic

It is a sad irony that African Americans, inventors of rock and roll, are so often perceived as having no place in rock. Though their creativity is unbounded, black rockers find themselves boxed in by prejudice and generic boundaries set up by media industries they don’t control. To make matters worse, most African American radio programmers and magazine writers buy into this musical apartheid as much as their white counterparts.

“Strangely enough, things were better in the ’70s,” wrote music journalist Greg Tate in a 1995 issue of Vibe. “So-called rock radio was broad enough to include Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, and Santana… And on the black stations, it wasn’t unusual to hear Funkadelic and the O’Jays back-to-back with Hall and Oates, David Bowie (“Fame,” anyone?), or even Elton John.”

Tate wrote those words in an article noting the tenth anniversary of the group he co-founded with Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid “and a horde of artistic radicals.” The Black Rock Coalition is “a united front” of musician and supporters with a mission of “creating an atmosphere conducive to the maximum development, exposure and acceptance of Black alternative music.” The BRC marked its twentieth anniversary last year and has continued the celebration throughout 2006, recently releasing Rock ‘N’ Roll Reparations: Vol. 1, a CD compilation of 21 songs by 21 different artists. The group continues to move forward as a support group for non-mainstream, African American rock bands and has its own New York radio show, archived online.

BRC members such as Burnt Sugar and Vernon Reid continue to put out innovative material (see this month’s reviews), while newer groups such as TV on the Radio are taking the same independent spirit in new directions. With this in mind, let’s take a look at some examples from the rich diversity of alternative African American rock musicians. I’ve included a crucial track from each group mentioned, so open up the online music store of your choice and start sampling. This list isn’t anywhere close to comprehensive— rather, think of it as random highlights from beyond the mainstream:

Eddie Hazel and Michael Hampton, Funkadelic

We begin with a band that we might call godfathers and godmothers to black alternative rock. The funk-rock syncretism of Funkadelic has been subsequently emulated by countless bands, black and white alike. Funk/alternative/nu metal bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fishbone, Limp Bizkit and Korn have roots in the fearless experimentation of George Clinton and his crew. Clinton has worked with a lot of musicians who rock, but I’ll mention only two, guitarists Eddie Hazel and Michael Hampton.

Crucial track: “Maggot Brain”

If you have not been initiated into the mysteries of “Maggot Brain” you cannot claim to know rock. The title track from Funkadelic’s 1971 album is a one-take, ten-minute psychedelic guitar solo in which Hazel rides the blues deep into the cosmos. Online guitar nerds have named this the fifth-greatest guitar solo of all time—that sounds a little low to me. Michael Hampton’s live 1978 version is every bit as amazing and is included on most CD versions of One Nation Under a Groove.

Bad Brains

Four jazz fusion players who changed styles and took their new name from a Ramones song, the Bad Brains were Washington D.C.-area Rastafarians who helped lead American punk into its “hardcore” era. Considered by some to be the very first hardcore punk band, they were nonetheless more eclectic than that label might suggest. Capable of playing at breakneck speeds, they would also slow things down into a spongy reggae groove. Dr. Know’s angular guitar work inspired Vernon Reid and singer H.R.’s onstage physicality influenced countless punk and alternative bands, but the Bad Brains have never reaped commercial success commensurate with their influence.

Crucial Track: “Sacred Love”

1986’s I Against I is thought by many to be the Bad Brains’ best album. “Sacred Love” is one of their less punk-sounding tunes, but H.R.’s vocals are recorded over a phone line from jail—can it get more punk than that?

Fishbone

L.A.’s Fishbone combined punk energy, funk grooves and Jamaican ska rhythms, putting on unbelievably kinetic live shows and earning them success on the road that far outstripped their record sales.  I haven’t seen them recently, but back in the late 80’s, if there was anything in a venue that could be climbed on and jumped off of, lead singer and saxophonist Angelo Moore would find it. Fishbone has tight horns, a goofy sense of humor and a talent for writing great pop hooks.

Crucial Track: “Party at Ground Zero” 

This is off of Fishbone’s first EP (1985). The ska sound is strong on this one, while the lyrical theme is reminiscent of Prince’s “1999.” A great party track.

Living Colour

In 1987, I went to a benefit show at the Ritz in New York and saw an unsigned band called Living Colour blow the better-know bands off the stage. The next year, their first album Vivid went to number six on the Billboard album charts. Like the Bad Brains, Living Colour channeled jazz-honed skills into heavy guitar music. Vernon Reid could shred at least as well as any metal guy and Corey Glover’s operatic voice put most rock singers to shame. Yet these technical abilities would have been meaningless without the band’s songwriting, which managed to be challenging and catchy at once.

Crucial Track: “Cult of Personality”

This song, which went to number nine on the Billboard rock chart and won a Grammy for “Best Hard Rock Song,” probably did more than anything else to open American minds to the idea of black rock.

TV on the Radio

TV on the Radio is a mostly-African American group that has taken the independent (“indie”) rock scene by storm in recent years. As with all the bands mentioned above, they mix genres and influences at will—post-punk guitar, doo wop vocals, electronic rhythms and avant garde horns all find a place in the music of TVOTR. In 2004, their first full-length album, Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes, won the Shortlist Prize, an indie award given by a panel of musicians, producers and journalists. Their 2006 album, Return to Cookie Mountain, has been a critical success.

Crucial Track: “Staring at the Sun”

This cut from Desperate Youth shows off the soulful, angst-filled voice of Tunde Adebimpe over a wall of guitars and a minimalist electronic beat.

Posted by Mack Hagood

View review November 3rd, 2006

Welcome to the November issue of Black Grooves

Welcome to the November issue of Black Grooves. This month we’re giving a shout-out to the Black Rock Coalition, which recently commemorated its 20th anniversary. We’ve got the skinny on the latest CDs by BRC co-founders Vernon Reid and Greg Tate, and have added some other new releases by artists that fall under the black rock umbrella, including Van Hunt, Ben Harper, and Three5Human (fronted by Indiana’s own Trina Meade). Rounding out the issue is a DJ Quik “best of” compilation, a new offering from the Roots, some jazz from the Deep Blue Organ Trio, and several sets paying homage to great musicians of the past, including Nat King Cole, Will Marion Cook, John Coltrane, and Joe Carter.    

 

View review November 3rd, 2006

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