Archive for January, 2007

Eccentric Soul: The Big Mack Label

eccentric.jpegTitle: Eccentric Soul: The Big Mack Label
Artists: Various
Label: Numero
Catalog No: 009
Date: 2006

Most record labels that issue obscure music from earlier periods tend to present material that represents creative and under-recognized artists and producers. Rarely do they highlight music that is obviously inferior in comparison to its contemporaries. The Numero group has done just that. Founded in 2003 by Ken Shipley, Rob Sevier and Tom Lunt, the Numero Group “digs deep into the recesses of their record collections with the goal of finding the dustiest gems” (according to their website). They recently released Eccentric Soul: The Big Mack Label, which is a compilation featuring various artists from this label spanning the decade of the ‘60s. While the music does not necessarily represent “dusty gems,” the CD is significant because it highlights the story and sound of a struggling Detroit-based label, giving some exposure to one of the many independent labels, outside of Motown and Stax, that fell through the cracks.

Ed McCoy (Big Mack) founded the Big Mack label during the ‘60s (the exact date is unknown). While McCoy was a musician in his own right, he was also a businessman, and ran other ventures, such as a travel agency and a linen distributor, out of his recording studio. Somehow he also found time to produce recordings.

Upon listening to this CD, I noticed that the level of musicianship and recording production was not what I expected to hear (especially from a Detroit label in the ‘60s). The sound quality was not consistent nor did the label possess an identifiable style. However, there are some notable tracks among the nineteen presented on the disc, such as “Your Replacement Is Here” and “Crooked Woman,” performed by Ed Henry (tracks 2 and 11, respectively) and “Get It Right,” performed by Soul President, along with a few others. Most striking is “If You Feel It,” performed by Ms. Tyree “Sugar” Jones (track 9). This is a very seductive tune and Ms. Jones has a uniquely soothing voice that might have been forwarded by a more substantial record label. This track also has a better sense of groove and continuity to the sound than most of the others.

Numero delivers this project in a great package. The liner notes present an overview of the few successes and many failures of the Big Mack label. Most significantly, the notes highlight the creativity and perseverance of Ed McCoy, as he struggled to keep the label’s doors open. There are eight photographs spread throughout the twelve-page insert, which illustrate the less than glamorous look of the label’s artists. With more attention to production values and artist development, they might have had the potential to look (and sound) like superstars! Eccentric Soul: The Big Mack Label gives a better perspective and appreciation for those labels that were actually successful during the ‘60s.

Posted by Tyron Cooper

View review January 7th, 2007

Is It Because I’m Black, ’69-’71

syl johnson.jpegTitle: Is It Because I’m Black, ’69-’71
Artist: Syl Johnson
Label: Twinight
Catalog No.: 3710110048
Date: 2006

For Chicago-born, soul powerhouse Syl Johnson, things haven’t changed much since 1970. Love is still a heavy burden, heartbreak tearing at the edges of his notes. He still manages to dance under this weight, lifting the sadness of this album with a few funk grooves. Truth is still his prerogative plea. Hence, Johnson’s 2006 release, Is It Because I’m Black?, is a little hard to place in a category. While it includes many of the same songs from the original version released in 1970 by Charly Records, Johnson has also added some previously unreleased tracks from the ’70s (“Wiggles,” “That is why”) as well as “Ms. Fine Brown Frame,” the title track from his 1985 album. Finally, Johnson has also included two new tracks, “Is It Because I’m Black 2006,” and “Tell the Truth,” the latter a musical indictment of the American government for its treatment of the 2005 Hurricane Katrina survivors.

Johnson emerged on the R&B scene in 1968 with his first Twinight release, Dresses Too Short. A dominant artist on the Twinight label, he began to produce songs for other artists as well. After the release of Is It Because I’m Black in 1970, Johnson moved to Hi Records (best known for Al Green), where he recorded 3 LPs and a number of singles. Following his stint with Hi Records, Johnson released three more albums, including his 1995 comeback album, Back In the Game.

Many of the songs on Is It Because I’m Black are informed by the political sentiment of the late ’60s. “Right On Sister” sounds like a soundtrack to the Black Arts Movement. With Johnson’s incendiary wails, “Right On” becomes the secular “Amen.” As Johnson sings, the studio-recorded screams and whistles of the congregate confirm that with Johnson’s voice, everything is as true as gospel.

Johnson wrote the title track in response to the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. With tear-laced, raw vocals, Johnson plaintively delivers, “The dark brown shades of my skin only add color to my tears / Something is holding me back / Is it because I’m Black?” More lamentation than call to action, the seven minute declaration is as resolute as the “I Am a Man” signs of the previous decade. Donny Hathaway’s genius keyboarding only strengthens this track.

Another bonus is Johnson’s rendition of “Get Ready,” written by Smokey Robinson and made famous by the Temptations in 1966. The tempo is slowed to a groove, and the sound is more soul than Motown pop. Johnson’s version emphasizes the bass line and features a female chorus who punctuate his lines in a sermon-esque call-response. Other love songs from the original album include “One Way Ticket,” “Thank U Baby,” and “Kiss by Kiss.”

Johnson’s liner notes make clear the political agenda of this re-release. He makes a correlation between the land theft of African Americans in the Jim Crow south, and his own fight for the rights to his music. This release is testament to his contribution to Chicago soul, and his rightful ownership of any reward that brings.

Posted by Asha French

View review January 8th, 2007

Atlantic Unearthed: Soul Sisters

soul sisters.jpegTitle: Atlantic Unearthed: Soul Sisters
Artist: Various
Label: Rhino
Catalog No.: R 77626
Date: 2006

Atlantic Unearthed: Soul Sisters is a new compilation of recordings made for Atlantic by female soul and R&B artists between 1966 and 1973. The featured artists range from stars like Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle (here with her quartet, The Blue Belles), to less familiar artists such as Margie Joseph (nicknamed “the next Aretha”) and Doris Troy. The collection of singers illustrates the interconnectedness of the soul and R&B industry in the sixties and beyond: Dee Dee Warwick, sister of Dionne Warwick, appears here, as do The Sweet Inspirations, a quintet that included Myrna Smith (Dionne Warwick’s cousin), Sylvia Shemwell (sister of Judy Clay, also represented on this album), and Cissy Houston (Whitney Houston’s mother).

Many of the songs on this compilation are unfamiliar, even if the singers are not. Some of them are covers of well-known hits, such as Aretha’s bluesy “My Way,” which rivals both Sinatra’s and the Sex Pistols’ versions, as well as Dee Dee Warwick’s earthy rendition of “Rescue Me.” Many of the tracks had only been released as singles, and consequently are rare treasures some thirty years later. Most valuable is the inclusion of several previously unreleased tracks: Margie Joseph’s “It’s Growing,” Patti LaBelle & The Blue Belles’ “(1-2-3-4-5-6-7) Count the Days,” Dee Dee Warwick’s “Rescue Me,” The Sweet Inspirations’ “Ain’t Nothing Gonna Change Me,” and Bettye Swann’s “I Ain’t That Easy to Lose,” in addition to Franklin’s “My Way,” which had been released on a compilation in Italy in the early ‘70s but was never made available in the United States.

Also included with the CD are detailed liner notes by soul music historian David Nathan (who compiled the set), providing brief biographical overviews of each artist, as well as contextual information about each singer’s contribution to the compilation. Nathan’s notes offer keen insight into the problems faced by these musicians in moving from smaller labels, such as Motown, to a big company like Atlantic, which had different methods and motives for recording and promoting its artists. In some cases this may explain why some of these singers never achieved as much success as their more famous peers. Equally informative are the track listings, which indicate not only performer, writer, and producer credits, but also original recording dates and release information. With such attention to detail, Atlantic Unearthed: Soul Sisters provides a rich overview of the prodigious talent of these women, with enough historical context to better understand how they fit into the musical style and industry of their time.

Posted by Ann Shaffer

Editor’s note: Be sure to also check out Atlantic Unearthed: Soul Brothers, issued in conjunction with the above.

View review January 8th, 2007

The Messenger: Live at the Original Velvet Lounge

messenger.jpegTitle: The Messenger: Live at the Original Velvet Lounge
Artist: Ernest Dawkins’ New Horizons Ensemble
Label: Delmark
Catalog No.: DVD 1570; CD DEL 570
Date: 2006

Upon first glance of The Messenger (DVD), by the Ernest Dawkins’ New Horizons Ensemble, one immediately notices that this isn’t the ordinary dinner club background music setting nor does it appear to be the posh upscale jazz club. In fact, as the video swings forward, one might see little food as the primary course is the message provided by the young instrumentalists mostly clad in Afro-centric garb. Rather, brick walls, electric chandeliers and ceiling fans provide the backdrop for the music that emerges from the pianoless quintet, recorded live at the Original Velvet Lounge in Chicago.

Ernest Dawkins has been a staple of Chicago’s music scene for decades. Between the people’s Southside New Apartment Lounge, Von Freeman’s bebop longevity, the Greenmill’s Northside interpretations, and the Ensemble of Chicago’s innovative post hard bop Chicago-style ‘jazz,’ a sound emerges from the Ernest Dixon group that, well, ‘swings !’

This swing is not a modern reinterpretation of the 1930s Swing Era. It is not silky smooth vocal laden blues with exaggerated, easily measured call and response. It is not pure bebop with blistering notes moving faster than the tongue of a foreign language. It is not the media exalted, unproven expression of young lions who’ve never starved while hunting for success. These are lions and this is Chicago’s old, new and innovative jazz spirit.

Fifteen years ago while living in Chicago and making a meager living playing music, I met a host of young musicians who had been raised in the watchful shadow of Chicago’s masters of jazz. Varied were they in approach. Many had a post-Hubbard non-bebop sound. Others were non-Western in harmony, stretching my ears to the point of dislike and questioning what could be called music or should be labeled jazz. Some were so inside—inside gospel, blues and the feel good drunkenness inspired by grinding beats. Dawkins was and still is all of these.

I do not imply lack of growth in the decade since I heard Dawkins for the first time. I imply depth of approach and a showman’s maturity. Yes, I took issue with his sound, his approach to the chord changes back then. Immediately on hearing his first solo here, I balked again. There is not the smooth lyricism of Bird or Cannonball in his playing, nor is there the intense fragmentation of the most outside Eric Dolphy or Ornette Coleman solos. Dawkins’ playing is somewhere in the middle. Where is the growth? Dawkins’ penmanship and the development of his alto saxophone tone which is pointed but not altoisitically shrill. Although his expression is, at times, an offspring of Coltrane—prone more to screeches and angular harmony—there is something familiar about his sound, something appreciable. Watch Maurice Brown study Dawkins’ inventiveness. This band has a band sound, resting firmly on the solidity of Isaiah Spencer’s sticking and Dawkins’ arrangements with fire power provided by Maurice Brown’s passionate trumpeting.

On the opening track, Mean Ameenah, bebop lines and avant-garde phrases combine to form an Art Blakey-styled horn vocality that is essentially Dawkins. The trombonist takes a solo that fits both hard bop blues and Miles modal approach over the repetitive bass line. His performance is at once simplistic, at twice genius, and then earthy but not long enough for you to say ‘Amen !’ Those feelings are reserved for Maurice Brown’s flow, whose rhythmic placement is tighter than the previous soloists. His blues is bluesier, his fragmentation is more diverse, and his tone is juicy—making his solos more dramatic and perhaps more fun to hear. Dreadlocks swinging, face shriveled, body bouncing up and down, he unapologetically delivers mean! “Just swinging just swing, that’s all I want,” Dawkins says as the drummer is lured into rhythm games with Brown.

Those seeking down home blues may well be entertained by the title track, “The Messenger.” The melody gives homage to Cannonball Adderley’s ’60s sound. Out of the box, Maurice Brown makes the authentic clarion horn statement (think samples of Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan and Woody Shaw), followed by Dawkins’ inexact assertions and Steve Berry’s sliding moaning trombone. Our only chance to hear Darius Savage’s bass soloing comes just before the tom-tom focused solo of Isaiah Spencer, the drummer, whose first notes of the night were immediately Elvin Jones influenced in all the sweetest ways. As the musicians tag the blues, Brown and Spencer again provide the icing on the otherwise well-baked cake.

Dawkins’ Messenger performance reaches its peak as he sings his blues about how he always wanted to go downtown, Goin’ Downtown Blues. Having grown up on the Southside of Chicago, the African-American side, he talks about wanting to go downtown, to the other side, and how the dues have now been paid for the folks to gain acceptance there. Dawkins sees himself as enjoined to edutain, teaching that the music has the legend and DNA of all the people before and the people that come after. He explains that facing the east before the show was the bands’ way of cleansing the room to respect the music’s primarily spiritual nature. And there, for the author, lies the greatness of Chicago and its often ‘experimental’ sonic fingerprint. We hear deeper into the heart of bluesman Dawkins when he leaves the half sung, half spoken edutainment with a song-ending scat which takes on a much greater accuracy than his saxophone playing and acknowledges his understanding of jazz’s inside.

Dawkins switches to tenor to perform “Toucouleur,” an uptempo with an Afro-Cuban B section. Dawkins’ beautiful tenor tone smooths out for the uptempo and his playing slows down. He reminds us of Thelonloius Monk and Charlie Rouse. Though Dawkins’ brandishes the big horn, Brown reaches for the pocket trumpet, shortening his touch but extending and continuing his dominance of the music. Berry continues to add the depth that eldership provides, winding his way around his command of jazz dialects, this time spurring Brown and Dawkins’ to acknowledge; “Whooooo !” the audience agrees. Savage and Spencer then twist the uptempo into a hip hop, drum ‘n bass conversation peppered with timing lags one might experience if the record player was warped—or if the CD player’s motor was about to perish.

For the conclusion, we are taken to a New Orleans dirge and circular-breathed finale kiss.
Brown reverses his trumpet, playing through the bell of the instrument and placing the mouthpiece against the microphone. For a brief moment, I realize how long this musician must have spent to develop his amazing assortment of specialties from the top to the bottom of the horn and on both sides. The Brood becomes a showcase for Brown, despite the various percussion instruments that Berry and Dawkins play.

Before the 2nd line, “Looking for Ninny,” Dawkins gives a comic, anecdotal, edutaining story about traveling through France. The musicians walk the room playing loud and brash as if reaching down to New Orleans to raise the dead to dance. Gone is the sophistication of measured composition and the appropriateness of being indoors. Outside the club they play and rouse the neighborhood before returning to the bandstand and soulfully acknowledge the audience with some trading of tags and avant-garde group improvisation.

Although I may take issue with Dawkins’ saxophone’s rhythmic accuracy, I do accept his status as Messenger, bringing us all the social sacrament that salves the problems created by jazz critics who treat the music and ignore the musician’s self concept. “Each one has to teach one,” says Dawkins. I agree; thank you Ernest Dawkins.

Posted by Nathanael Fareed Mahluli

View review January 8th, 2007

Bold and Beautiful

vikter.jpegTitle: Bold and Beautiful
Artist: Vikter Duplaix
Label: BBE Records
Catalog No.: CD 730003107023.
Date: 2006

Few would debate the role of electronic technology in the birth and growth of hip hop music. From hip hop’s South Bronx beginnings, the music was inextricably connected to the innovation of existing sound technology. Hip hop DJ pioneers—including Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grand Master Flash—made an art of redefining record playing techniques such as mixing and scratching to accentuate their DJ performances. Arguably there was also an influence from the disco era in terms of elevating the role of the DJ to that of an artist.

Vikter Dupliax’s Bold and Beautiful represents the maturation of the hip hop DJ as an artist and visionary, not just in terms of traditional hip hop live DJ performances, but as studio producers as well. A Philadelphia native, Dupliax draws on various musical influences, including the “Philly Sound” developed by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, hip hop, and electronica dance music.

Bold and Beautiful is the mellowest of his three electronica albums. Known for his airy vocal delivery, Duplaix is consistent throughout the project. Though he has a narrow vocal range, diversity is provided through his production abilities and the avid musicianship of Raphael Saadiq of Tony Toni Toné on bass, famed house music producer Ron Trent on bass, gospel singer Tye Tribbet, Canadian trip-hop queen Esthero, and Grammy-award winning producer James Poyser on keyboards. This supporting cast of musicians from various musical genres adequately supports Duplaix’s vision for the album.

Bold and Beautiful is Duplaix’s second full album release. His 2001 debut, International Affairs, was more heavily influenced by the broken beat sounds of Europe. This is not surprising considering the amount of work Duplaix has done with electronica production collectives such as Jazzanova from Germany. With Duplaix’s current release he creates a more downtempo atmosphere using ambient synthesizers and subdued drum and bass lines. Songs such as “Make a Baby” and “Another Great Love Gone By” exemplify this type of production. Consequently, this album is more consistent with European electronica in that the vocals are distantly tantamount to the instrumental elements of the song. A notable exception to this rule is “I See the Sun,” featuring gospel singer Tye Tribbet and his choir G.A., which is the most vocally ambitious track on Bold and Beautiful. The presence of vocals also keeps the music accessible to the casual listener.

Duplaix chose to use no emcees and provides almost all of his own vocals. His album represents electronica in its various incarnations including contemplative hip hop, frenetic dance music, and downtempo lounge music. There is tremendous breadth of African-American interpretation within the genre. But what Bold and Beautiful most accurately displays is how a generation of African-American DJs, who have always been electronically inclined, use machines to make their sound even more expansive and expressive rather than more minimalist. Consequently, this type of technological innovation in music places them squarely in the continuum that began with newly-enslaved Africans who used hambones and spoons to articulate a sound they heard within.

Posted by fredara mareva

View review January 8th, 2007

For Lovers, Dreamers, & Me

alicesmith.jpegTitle: For Lovers, Dreamers, & Me
Artist: Alice Smith
Label: BBE Records
Catalog No: BBE067
Date: 2006

For Lovers, Dreamers, & Me is the debut album from New York based singer Alice Smith. Labeling Smith’s style is virtually impossible as she has a bevy of artistic and cultural influences. Growing up in both Washington, D.C. and Augusta, Georgia, Smith listened to numerous genres of music, including go-go, classic rock, blues, and gospel. After finishing college, Smith sang with journalist-rocker Greg Tate’s band, Moomtez, and was a part of the Black Rock Coalition. Smith’s various experiences and influences are not only evident in her first release, but help create a gender-bending sound that provides a very engaging listening experience.

For Lovers, Dreamers, & Me is a masterful combination of Smith’s powerful voice and her band’s brilliant musical accompaniment. Over the course of ten tracks, Smith and her band present music that both engages the mind and pleases the ears. While each song is good in its own right, some stand out more than others. The production on “Gary’s Song” smoothly switches from funk to pop to pop-rock, allowing Smith to express her vocal flexibility as she easily adjusts to the various styles. On “Know that I…” Smith speaks to an unknown lover over slow, beautiful backing highlighted by the guitar performance of Alex Dickson. “Fake Is the New Real” is a funky critique of contemporary popular culture. Other notable tracks include the ode to utopia “Woodstock” and “New Religion.”

The only noteworthy drawback of this album is its length. At ten songs and roughly 35 minutes, the listener is left wanting much more. Although quality is always preferable over quantity, two or three additional songs would have given the album a feeling of completeness.

For Lovers, Dreamers, & Me is an excellent debut by Alice Smith. Smith is the type of artist who can effectively move between genres as she proves on this album. Her amazing voice and her backup band’s accompaniment blend various styles to create a signature sound that creates a sense of cohesiveness but also dynamism for the listener. Based on For Lovers, Dreams, & Me, Alice Smith’s career will be nothing less than bright.

Posted by Langston Collin Wilkins

View review January 8th, 2007

Food & Liquor

lupe.jpegTitle: Food & Liquor
Artist: Lupe Fiasco
Label: Atlantic
Catalog No: 83959
Date: 2006

Food & Liquor is the highly anticipated debut album from Kanye West protégé, Lupe Fiasco. A native of Chicago, Lupe generated a major buzz both locally and nationally through collaborations with West and a number of self released mixtapes. Lupe is an “ultimate mc” whose style is influenced by the likes of Jay-Z, Common, Nas, and Talib Kweli. With such a variety of influences, Lupe Fiasco’s music is a balance between mainstream and underground hip hop styles.

Lupe is a great lyricist and has a very entertaining delivery and when paired with comparable production, excellence is the outcome. “I Gotcha” is a verbal boast affair set to an up-tempo, piano-centered Neptunes’ track. On “Sunshine,” Lupe expresses his love for the opposite sex over an other-worldly beat courtesy of Soundtrakk. Kanye West provides a mesmerizing beat on “The Cool” which Lupe uses to express various tales of inner-city life. “Kick Push” is the fist single off the album and arguably its best song. Soundtrackk’s beat includes drums reminiscent of Dr. Dre’s best work and a horn part that would make Pete Rock proud. In three captivating verses, Lupe presents a story centered on skater kids that is both love story and one of finding pleasure in seemingly desolate conditions. “Kick Push” exhibits Lupe’s versatility and bravado as an artist. Other highlights include, “Daydreamin,” “Just Might Be OK,” and “Kick Push II.”

The biggest disappointment of this album is the Jay-Z collaboration, “Pressure.” It is not a bad song by any means, but definitely far from what it should be. A number of tracks suffer from creative, but bland production and terrible hooks. Lupe’s performance is consistent, but not always good enough to make up for lapses in production.

Food & Liquor is a solid debut from Lupe Fiasco. It appeals to both the casual mainstream hip hop listener and the underground hip hop head. Only certain artists can effectively maintain this balance and Lupe is definitely one of them. Although not a perfect album, it is only the beginning of what should be a very promising career.

Posted by Langston Collin Wilkins

View review January 8th, 2007

Por Por: Honk Horn Music of Ghana

Title: Por Por: Honk Horn Music of Ghana
Artist: The La Drivers Union Por Por Group
Label: Smithsonian Folkways
Catalog No.: SFW CD 40541
Date: 2007 (to be released in February)

Honking car horns is an all too familiar sound to most urban dwellers throughout the world. It is often viewed as contributing to the chaotic noise of the city, and as an undesirable, stress-inducing sonic byproduct of “modern” transportation. However, as Steven Feld (a renowned ethnomusicologist) illustrates through his recording and liner notes, when organized and combined with local and global musical practices, this “annoyance” can be transformed into a salient form of cultural expression. This recording is the second offered by Feld, which focuses on his fascination with the Por Por music of Ghana (West Africa), and is a more extensive follow-up to the three tracks previously released on The Time of Bells: Musical Bells of Accra (2005 VoxLox). This CD offers highlights of material recorded by Feld in Ghana’s capital city of Accra over a three-month period in 2006 and features 11 tracks totaling over 70 minutes.

Por Por (pronounced paaw paaw) is the name given to the sound of honking squeeze-bulb car horns used by the La drivers union of Accra. Originally introduced in the city’s markets in the 1930s by merchants from India, drivers first used these horns to frighten dangerous animals as they worked on roadside repairs at night. Over time, these warning signals were combined with local frame drums, tire pumps, tools struck against metal wheel rims, and other sounds that were readily available to drivers. Quickly recognizing the similarities to the indigenous Akan mmenson, a processional music that uses blown animal horns, drivers initially extended this centuries-old tradition to the por por, consequently reshaping it to suit a contemporary urban setting. Later, this music was fused with multiple ethnically diverse local musical genres such as kpanlogo, adowa, asafo, ogeh, and agbadza as well as contemporary urban popular music such as brass band, high-life and even American big band to form a cosmopolitan sound reflective of Accra’s people. Accompanied by this eclectic musical form, drivers sing songs regarding everyday experiences of life on the road, historical events, politics, and social relationships. Primarily, the songs function as a form of praise poetry and commemoration for deceased union drivers; and, although Por Por music has been performed on many occasions, it is still most often heard in its historically prominent context – funerals held for members of the La drivers union.

To facilitate a general accessibility and appreciation of the idiomatic cultural references imbedded within this recording, Feld offers a track-by-track description of the song texts (in English). Although the texts are not always translated word for word, Feld provides a brief and poignant synopsis of each song’s general meaning and cultural significance. These notes, along with 42 photographs, further explore the music’s connection with local and global music genres, national politics, urbanization, commemoration, colonialism, commerce, and a variety of other cultural practices. Thus, this production provides a valuable resource for those interested in such issues, and will hopefully encourage further exploration of the burgeoning study of transportation networks and street life within Ghana, West Africa, and the continent as a whole. In all, this CD package is able to give a sense of drivers’ lives as they navigate the complex social and physical landscape of urban Accra. Moreover, this collection successfully shows how individuals, in turn, interpret these experiences through musical expressions, which continue to drive Ghanaian cultural processes.

Posted by Paul Schauert

View review January 8th, 2007

Testimony: Vol. 1, Life & Relationship

india.jpegTitle: Testimony: Vol. 1, Life & Relationship
Artist: India.Arie
Label: Motown/UMG
Catalog No.: B0006141-02
Date: 2006

India.Arie’s third album, Testimony: Vol. 1, Life & Relationship, finds the Denver-born songwriter leading her audience through a deeply personal journey of heartbreak, change, and growth. As with countless songwriters in countless musical genres before her, the catalyst for these songs was the breakup of a major romantic relationship; but this is not one of those albums you put on when you’ve just been dumped and want to wallow for a while, nor is it a series of strident anthems for getting over and forgetting the loser who left you. Rather, Arie’s offering is an almost painfully intimate portrait of her own process of healing and finding the lessons to be learned in the wake of such a split. In a letter to her listeners at the start of the liner notes, she writes, “I pretty much wrote these records upstairs and recorded them downstairs and the only songs I shared [with other people] were the ones that wouldn’t make me cry. This is a very intimate experience because as you are hearing it for the first time… I am sharing it for the first time.”

The confessional nature of this approach, as well as the acoustic guitar and piano that pervade the album, might put one in mind of other female singer-songwriters such as Joni Mitchell or Tori Amos as much as of Arie’s classic soul roots. The latter are most evident in Arie’s liquid vocals and periodic spoken delivery, as well as the spiritual-holistic nature of her journey. (The “testimony” of the album title, after all, suggests the kind of witnessing done in church, and Arie repeatedly draws the idea of faith—whether in oneself or in something divine—into her tracks.) Strains of hip hop are woven throughout the album as well, mostly in mellower beat tracks underlying the faster songs.

The concept of a healing process unifies Testimony both thematically and structurally: Arie creates three distinct sections, prefaced by “Intro: Loving,” “Interlude: Living,” and “Outro: Learning,” respectively. These three moments share the same thoughtful piano accompaniment and vocal melody, while ushering in the new phase of the album’s journey. In the middle section come two of the crowning moments of the album—“India’Song” and the self-reclaiming “I Am Not My Hair,” featuring Akon (“I am not my hair / I am not this skin / I am a soul that lives within…. Good hair means curls and waves / Bad hair means you look like a slave / At the turn of the century / It’s time for us to redefine who we be”). In spite of the highly personal nature of the album’s songs, Arie doesn’t hesitate to bring in other big musical names, such as Victor Wooten and Rascal Flats on “Summer.” Arie also includes a cover of Don Henley’s “The Heart of the Matter”—perhaps a surprising choice, but it proves topically fitting, and Arie owns it as though it came from her own pen.

Testimony presents India.Arie at the start of a newfound maturity. While her songwriting talent is as strong as ever, and her blending of neo-soul and hip-hop styling continue here, this third album isn’t afraid to take a slower, more introspective approach, baring the soul of the artist with unhesitating serenity.

Posted by Ann Shaffer

View review January 8th, 2007

Specialty Profiles: Mayfield and Williams

SPCD-30056-2.jpgTitle: Specialty Profiles: Percy Mayfield
Artist: Percy Mayfield
Label: Specialty
Catalog No.: SPCD 30056-2
Date: 2006

SPCD-30054-2.jpgTitle: Specialty Profiles: Larry Williams
Artist: Larry Williams
Label: Specialty
Catalog No.: SPCD 30054-2
Date: 2006

Specialty records, a Hollywood-based label that specialized in African-American blues and gospel records, signed Percy Mayfield and Larry Williams respectively in 1950 and 1954. Thanks to the Concord Music Group (current owner of Specialty) and the detailed research of music historian/producer Colin Escott, the Specialty Profile series commemorates these and several other lesser-known artists.

In the liner notes Escott comments: “While [Mayfield] might be known for just a handful of songs, his entire oeuvre repays attention. Don’t believe what the statistic book tells you; Percy Mayfield was a giant.” Endowed with a mellow, crooning baritone, Mayfield achieved his greatest success with the blues single “Please Send Me Someone To Love.” More fame came to him in the latter part of his career, when the “Poet Laureate of the Blues” penned one of his most recognizable tunes, “Hit the Road Jack,” for Ray Charles. Although Mayfield’s music is primarily identified as blues, there are tracks on the CD that exhibit some departure from the blues style. The up-tempo beat and jazz instrumentation of the duet “Sugar Mama-Peachy Papa” is more reminiscent of the big band sound of the 1940s. However, it is clear that his voice is more comfortable in the slow, mournful blues-based tracks, such as “Memory Pain.” Mayfield said himself, “I ventured into the world of sadness to find the subject matter for my songs. I fell in love with sadness because there’s more truth in it.”

Larry Williams, who signed with Specialty in the mid-1950s, had a successful albeit short career in the music industry. As a valet driver for Specialty label artist Lloyd Price, Williams gained access to producer Art Rupe. Williams’ hits “Short Fat Fanny,” “High School Dance,” “Bony Maronie” and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” are essentially blues-influenced rock and roll numbers. In these tracks the shuffle beat is very apparent in piano and guitar lines, but there is more independence in the drum set. Unlike Mayfield, Williams did not use backup singers. He also relied less on call and response, and more on creative lyrics. According to Escott, “Along with the untutored vocals that went to the heart of rock and roll, his records had the beguiling innocence of the music’s infancy.” Aside from the four singles mentioned previously, the remainder of Williams’ work in rather unremarkable; it truly seems that his career ended almost as soon as it had begun.

Posted by Stephanie Fida

Editor’s note: Four additional CDs have recently been released on the Specialty Profile series: Lloyd Price, Roy MiltonJohn Lee Hooker, and Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers. Though each release includes two CDs, the second is a bonus disc of miscellaneous tracks from various Specialty CDs.

View review January 8th, 2007

James Brown: the Federal Years, 1956-1960

JamesBrown_CVR.jpgTitle: James Brown: the Federal Years, 1956-1960
Artist: James Brown
Label: Hip-O Select/Universal
Catalog No.: B0007029-02
Date: 2006

The legendary artist James Brown hardly needs an introduction. Although he is widely remembered as the Godfather of Soul, Brown came into the musical world through gospel, then ventured into rhythm and blues. Born in rural South Carolina in 1933, he was known to sing R&B songs on his friend’s stoop. Later, inspired by Roy Brown, Wynonie Harris, the Dominoes and the Clovers, Brown gathered together Bobby Byrd, Sylvester Keels, Nash Knox, and Johnny Terry to form the singing group known as the Flames. In time, Brown emerged as their lead singer and brought the group its initial successes.

 James Brown: The Federal Years 1956-1960 examines the very beginning of Brown’s multi-decade career. This limited edition two-CD set by Hip-O Select is a compilation of 38 of his singles released on the Federal label (a subsidiary of Cincinnati’s King Records) over a four-year period. Musically, Brown’s rhythm and blues style on CD 1 borders on formulaic for the majority of the tracks. He begins with a brief, melismatic solo line (for example, “I walked alone”), which is followed shortly thereafter by a similar textual response from the backup singers (singing the word “alone”), using a call-response structure. The musical accompaniment is typically a piano line with the popular ‘50s shuffle beat, along with saxes, horns, guitar and a walking bass line.

Producer Pat Lawrence has added to the historical value of the set by including alternate takes of various songs. For example, CD 1 features the original self-financed 78 rpm demo version of “Try Me” (recorded in the summer of 1958), the song that launched Brown’s career as a hit singer-songwriter. This track is unaltered, with a fair amount of surface noise resulting from the low quality of the recording and groove wear. The version as originally released in October of 1958 (with Kenny Burrell on guitar) appears in CD 2, which also contains “I’ve Got To Change” and “It Hurts to Tell You,” in both mono and stereo versions. Most of Brown’s early sessions were recorded in mono, but the advent of stereo technology in 1959 prompted King Records owner Syd Nathan to utilize the new technology as a way to sell more records. Though there is not a very marked difference between the two versions (sax, drums, and piano were overdubbed to create the second track for the stereo release), it is interesting to hear these distinctions.

Overall, the compilation is very informative, especially the extensively researched liner notes by musicologist Alan Leeds, who was also Brown’s tour director for four years. Brown’s aesthetic ideal is quite different from the music of his later years, and this compilation provides listeners with a chance to hear his early rhythm and blues style, before he became the ‘Godfather of Soul.’

Posted by Stephanie Fida

Editor’s note: For a really fascinating history of James Brown and his career at King, check out Uncle Dave Lewis’s article, I’ll Open the Door and Get It Myself: James Brown, King Records, and the Funk Revolution, on www.allmusic.com.

View review January 8th, 2007

Remembering James Brown

The year was 1963 in Orlando, Florida. The event was the James Brown Show.  A dimly lit stage spotlighted MC and a member of the Famous Flames Bobby Byrd, who introduced the star of the show in a highly dramatic style:  “Ladies and Gentlemen. It’s star time.  Are you ready for star time? I say are you ready for star time?” Byrd then announced the titles of Brown’s hit songs, each punctuated with a one note hit by the horn section. The list began with “I’ll Go Crazy” and ended with his latest hit, “Prisoner of Love.” Bryd concluded his introduction saying: “Let’s bring out the hardest working man in show business, James Brown. Let’s hear it for James Brown,” stretching out every syllable each time he pronounced his name.  Brown entered the stage spinning, strutting, shuffling, dropping into splits, grabbing and performing kinetic moves with the microphone to the high energy, syncopated and percussive musical style—fast tempo, choppy guitar style, brassy rhythmic horn riffs, funky polyrhythmic grooves—of the immaculately dressed (black tuxedos, white shirts and black shoes) band.

I remember every detail of this show because I was there.  The venue was a skating rink located in the all Black neighborhood located on the west side of Orlando, Florida. The audience consisted of teenagers of the community who had that rare opportunity to see “Mr. Dynamite” as he was known at that time. James Brown performed regularly in Orlando and the surrounding area but for adults at the Quarterback Club, TK9 and Club Eaton (the later located in Eatonville, the home of the folklorist and novelist Zora Neal Hurston).

My friends and I were drawn to the funkiness and earthiness of James Brown. We loved his music and most of us had bought every single he recorded. As a musician (I studied classical music, played piano and organ for various churches, French horn in the middle/high school band, and lead a popular music group), I was especially inspired by his show—both the visual and musical components—the MCs, the choreographic moves of Brown, his back-up singers and the band; and the featured instrumentals. Most of all, I liked Brown’s strident vocal quality and the way he used his voice as an instrument, weaving it into and around the funky musical arrangements.  Finally, I liked the way Brown programmed and interpreted the songs, juxtaposing fast and slow songs while building and contrasting intensity through the manipulation of timbre, texture, and rhythm and through his musical exchanges with the band and audience.

The bands I formed in college, graduate school, and at Indiana University (IU Soul Revue) all were modeled after the James Brown musical and live production concepts.  Even my original soul and funk-based compositions and arrangements bare aspects of his musical signature—the repetitive bass lines, funky horn riffs, brassy horns, and polyrhythmic structures. Brown’s music also inspired my scholarly interest in African American popular music. I viewed him as a pioneer in African American popular music because of his musical innovations and providing (with Ray Charles and Sam Cooke) the transition from rhythm and blues to soul and (along with Sly Stone) the transition from soul to funk.

Brown (along with Curtis Mayfield) was especially influential during the era of Black Power, promoting the nationalist message of Black empowerment. Songs such as “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud” (1968), “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give me Nothing (Open up the  Door, I’ll Get it Myself)” (1969), and “Get Up, Get into It, Get Involved” (1970) promoted the concept of Black pride, Black solidarity, and Black empowerment. Some radio deejays believed that these songs were too overtly militant and musically intense for air play. Nevertheless, through these and the songs of other soul singers, Black American began to identify with and embrace the concepts of Black Power. Brown’s musical legacy will continue to live through radio broadcasts, hip-hop samples, sound tracks for advertisers, television shows, and film throughout much of the 21st century.

Posted by Dr. Portia Maultsby, Director, AAAMC

View review January 9th, 2007

Welcome to the January Issue

This month we’re starting off with a tribute to the late, great Godfather of Soul James Brown, and examining his early output on the Federal label out of Cincinnati. We’re also taking at look at several compilations featuring early soul and r&b artists, as well as the latest release by neo-soul singer India.Arie. On the contemporary side, there are debut albums from Chicago’s Lupe Fiasco and New York rocker Alice Smith, and the latest CD from Philly DJ Viktor Dupliax. Speaking of Chicago, Delmark Records continues to issue great jazz, and this time around we’re reviewing a live performance of the Ernest Dawkin’s New Horizons Ensemble (on DVD and CD). Finally, for something completely different and incredibly fascinating, don’t miss Por Por: Honk Music of Ghana, a new release by Smithsonian Folkways due out in February.

View review January 9th, 2007

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