Archive for June, 2007

Welcome to the June 1st Anniversary Issue

Its June which means we’re celebrating Black Music Month as well as the first anniversary of Black Grooves, and we’ve got a stellar line up of new releases and reissues for you to check out. First, we’re honoring the legendary Paul Robeson with reviews of a new Smithsonian Folkways compilation as well as the 4 DVD box set of his films recently issued by the Criterion Collection. Next up is an overview of Lost Sounds: Black and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1918, the companion CD to the book of the same title (be sure to follow the link to a recent interview with author/producer Tim Brooks). Other reissues include King Sunny Ade Gems from the Classic Years and a new Nina Simone CD compilation and TLC video compilation from Sony Legacy. On the classical side, we have an overview of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s 24 Negro Melodies from Albany featuring David Shaffer-Gottschalk at the piano. Rounding out our anniversary issue are the latest releases from Chicago’s favorite female blues singer Koko Taylor, Dayton Ohio native Little Axe, soul-turned-country singer Solomon Burke, and gospel artist Euclid Gray.

View review June 19th, 2007

On My Journey

Robeson CD.JPGTitle: On My Journey: Paul Robeson’s Independent Recordings
Artist: Paul Robeson
Label: Smithsonian Folkways
Catalog No.: SFW CD 40178
Date: 2007

The definition of a renaissance man can be summed up in two words and in one man—Paul Robeson. Born in Princeton, New Jersey in 1892 to a former slave and preacher, Robeson attended Rutgers University where he excelled not only in athletics (12 letter athlete and two time All-American football player), but academics as well. Robeson graduated valedictorian in 1919. In 1923, he earned a law degree from Columbia University. While working as a law clerk, Robeson resurrected his childhood love of drama and singing. When he began singing spirituals in different productions on stage and film, many directors found his uniquely powerful voice desirable. Robeson then went on to perform as Joe in Kern and Hammerstein’s Showboat, his most celebrated role. Robeson’s fame from his theatrical work transferred onto the concert stage. His concerts began as a showcase of the Negro spirituals, and then expanded to folk music, which included English, Russian, Czech, Welsh, French, German and Jewish songs. Later in his career he also be came a human rights activist and used the songs to tie a common bond throughout the world.

On My Journey: Paul Robeson’s Independent Recordings, which inaugerates the Smithsonian Folkways African American Legacy series, consists of thirty-two tracks from Robeson’s own Othello label, founded after he was blacklisted and denied access to record companies and studios (he recorded more than 100 tracks for Othello between 1954-1958). The CD offers a unique glimpse into the catalogue of Paul Robeson and will provide pure listening enjoyment for his many fans, while the folk songs will be of particular interest to ethnomusicologists.

From the opening selection “On My Journey Now (Mt. Zion)” to “No More Auction Block,” the listener is taken on a world tour and brought back to the United States with the Negro spiritual. Robeson’s voice gives every song the respect and artistry that provides each selection with excitement, power, and beauty. His uncompromising adherence to the standards of detail, diction and tradition when singing in Russian, French, German and Hebrew is phenomenal. Overall, this rendering is wonderful for the novice or the experienced ear. Robeson’s bass voice will live on forever, and anthologies such as this one will continue to honor the life of one of the twentieth century’s great men.

Posted by Jonathan Green

Editor’s note: Anyone interested in the career of Paul Robeson will want to purchase this CD as much for the liner notes as for the musical content. The 34 page booklet includes an introduction by Paul Robeson Jr., the producer of these recordings, as well as the complete story of Robeson’s independent recordings and his Othello label by music critic/historian Robert H. Cataliotti.

View review June 19th, 2007

Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist (DVD)

Robeson DVD.jpgTitle: Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist
Artist: Paul Robeson
Label: Criterion Collection
Catalog No.: CC1676D
Date: 2007

The new 4 DVD box set from Criterion, Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist, features seven of Robeson’s feature films (he made 11), all digitally transferred from the best surviving elements and accompanied by an extensive booklet as well as numerous bonus features.

Robeson began his acting career around 1922 while attending Columbia Law School in New York. Some of his most notable early stage appearances included the title roles in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones and Shakespeare’s Othello, the role of Crown in DuBose Heyward’s Porgy (the basis for the Gershwin’s musical Porgy and Bess), and the role of Joe in Show Boat, which was specifically written for Robeson and features what would become his signature song, “Ol’ Man River.” Robeson was also cast in the 1936 film version of Show Boat, which was probably his most successful screen role; previously released on VHS (though not currently available on DVD), it is unfortunately not included in this set. Also missing from the set (but available elsewhere on DVD) are four films he made in quick succession immediately following Show BoatSong of Freedom (1936), Big Fella (1937), King Solomon’s Mines (1937), and Tales of Manhattan (1942, his final film).

Of the seven films included in Portraits of the Artist, the first two are silent. Body and Soul (1925) by the famous African American film maker Oscar Micheaux, casts Robeson as “a minister that is malevolent and sinister behind his righteous facade.” Borderline (1930) is a rarely seen experimental film by the director Kenneth McPherson in which Robeson’s real life wife, Eslanda Robeson, co-stars as a Negro woman who has an affair with a white man (she also had cameo roles in Big Fella and Jericho). Although Robeson’s magnificent voice is absent from both, viewers can still appreciate his considerable acting abilities while also enjoying the new jazz scores by Wycliffe Gordon (Body and Soul) and Courtney Pine (Borderline).

Robeson’s next film, The Emperor Jones (1933), was his first sound-era appearance and represents his most significant Hollywood work. Here he portrays an escaped convict who makes his way to a Caribbean island, subsequently declares himself the emperor, and proceeds to oppress the natives. Adapted from the Eugene O’Neill play, the film version added nearly 30 minutes of additional material including several songs. Criterion utilized a newly restored print from the Library of Congress, which is the most complete edition of the film available.

Following the success of The Emperor Jones, Robeson moved to England in an attempt to exert more control over his projects and escape racial stereotyping. The next three films in the set come from this period. Though he is barely able to maintain his dignity as the Nigerian tribal chief “Bosambo” in Sanders of the Valley (1935), both Jericho (1937) and The Proud Valley (1940) allowed him greater leeway to explore the issues of equality and social justice that were becoming increasingly important in his personal life. The set closes with Native Land (1942), a left-wing semi-documentary with a score by Marc Blitzstein, which cast Robeson in the role of narrator of a series of vignettes and dramatic re-enactments promoting labor unions, documenting civil liberty violations, and including subplots involving the KKK and capitalists run amok. Given the date and thematic material, it should come as no surprise that Robeson and others associated with the film were subsequently blacklisted.

In addition to the films mentioned above, each of the four discs contain special bonus features. Disc one includes a discussion of The Emperor Jones (both the play and the film) by historian Jeffrey C. Stewart, Saul J. Turell’s Academy Award-winning documentary short Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (1979) narrated by Sidney Poitier, and Our Paul: Remembering Paul Robeson, featuring interviews with African American filmmakers and actors including Ruby Dee, James Earl Jones, and Paul Robeson Jr. Disc two includes a dissection of Body and Soul by Micheaux historian Pearl Bowser. Disc three features the mini-documentary True Pioneer: The British Films of Paul Robeson, with a scholarly analysis of Robeson’s life and work in England. Disc four features The Story of Native Land, an interview with cinematographer Tom Hurwitz, and concludes with a 1958 Pacifica Radio interview with Robeson.

By 1950 Robeson’s recordings and films (including Show Boat) were withdrawn from circulation as a result of the U.S. government’s campaign of harassment and persecution against this social and political activist, who remained until his dying day both relentless and unrepentant in his quest for justice and civil rights. Only in recent years has an attempt been made to rectify this travesty, thus we owe a debt of gratitude to Criterion for producing this magnificent set. Now these films can once again be enjoyed by scholars and musicians as well as the many other fans of the late, great Paul Robeson.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review June 19th, 2007

Lost Sounds

lost.jpgTitle: Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1891-1922
Artists: Various
Label: Archeophone Records
Catalog No.: ARCH 1005
Date: 2005

I hope that all of you are familiar with the fabulous book by Tim Brooks, Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1891-1922, published in 2004 by the University of Illinois Press as part of their Music in American Life series (now available in a paperback edition). The 634 page tome, the result of more than thirty years of scholarship, not only details the role of black artists and their commercial recording activities, but offers fascinating biographies that are meticulously researched with abundant footnotes.

In his Introduction, Brooks discussed how many of these historic recordings have been inaccessible to students and scholars because of stringent U.S. copyright laws. As Brooks explains, “Not only can present-day record companies decline to reissue this material themselves, but they can—and do—prevent others from doing so by legal action or by demanding exorbitant fees.” We can be grateful, then, that Brooks decided to take matters into his own hands. Working with Illinois-based Archeophone Records, a company specializing in acoustic-era reissues, a 2 CD set was released late in 2005 as a companion to the book and recently received a 2007 Grammy Award for Best Historical Album.

With 54 tracks by 43 artists (and over 2 ½ hours of music), Lost Sounds provides numerous early recorded examples of spirituals, minstrel & vaudeville songs, art music, rags, jazz, and blues performances by Black composers and musicians. Many of these recordings were meticulously transferred from wax cylinders, some of which are extremely rare and quite fragile, preserved largely through the efforts of private collectors. Included are a number of vocal quartet performances by groups such as the Dinwiddie Colored Quartet, Polk Miller’s Old South Quartette, the Fisk University Jubilee Quartet, and the Tuskegee Institute Singers, as well as lesser known ensembles. George W. Johnson, the first Black recording artist (who merits four chapters in the book), performs his most famous work, “The Whistling Coon.” Other notable tracks include Booker T. Washington giving a portion of his Atlanta Exposition speech, the Afro-American Folk Song Singers and the Right Quintette performing works by Will Marion Cook, art songs performed by Roland Hayes and Florence Cole-Talbert, and R. Nathaniel Dett and Clarence Cameron White playing their own compositions. The set concludes on the brink of the Jazz Age with the “Darktown Strutters’ Ball” as played by Jim Europe’s [i.e., James Reese Europe] 369th U.S. Infantry “Hell Fighters” Band, “Camp Meeting Blues” with Ford Dabney’s Band, and the “St. Louis Blues” by W.C. Handy’s Memphis Blues Band.

The CD is accompanied by extensive program notes (60 p.) by Tim Brooks and David Giovannoni, which provide detailed information about the performers and original sources. If you want to hear more about Brooks’ research, including some fascinating stories about these early recording artists, an interview from the public radio program “The Story with Dick Gordon” is now available online.

Archeophone has issued other CDs that compliment Lost Sounds, including Monarchs of Minstrelsy (2006), three volumes devoted to early African American recording star Bert Williams (2001-2004), and their most recent effort, King Oliver: Off the Record- The Complete 1923 Jazz Band Recordings (2006). A complete catalog is available through their website. These CDs are “must haves” for every research library.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review June 19th, 2007

King Sunny Ade

Ade.jpgTitle: Gems from the Classic Years (1967-1974)
Artist: King Sunny Ade
Label: Shanachie
Catalog No.: SH 66041
Date: 2007

Gems from the Classic Years is the second recent King Sunny Ade (known as KSA to fan insiders) collection to be released on the Shanachie label. It follows Shanachie’s Best of the Classic Years (2003), and like that recording, is dedicated to gifting the early, innovative, and influential recordings of this seminal juju artist to the world outside of Nigeria (where they have rarely been heard up to this point). The African style of juju developed from Yoruba folkloric elements and a variety of international strains, most notably driven by amplified and electric instruments as well as heavy traditional Yoruba percussion. Ade entered the scene in 1967 following work as a samba player, and focused much of his early juju work on melodic exploration. During this period, Ade introduced a number of creative innovations to the music, including the prominence of dance and a much larger, more varied performing ensemble. He quickly ascended to an eminent position in the Nigerian pop scene, and followed this success with international notoriety in the 1980s. Today, Ade stands as a symbol for Afro-pop, and African music more generally, on the international stage.

Ade leads the ensemble featured on Gems on lead guitar and vocals, complemented by a large ensemble of backing vocals, interlocking guitarists, and a massive group of percussionists. Guitarists include the innovative Bob Ohiri and Segun Ilori, with the fluid Jelili Lawal on electric bass; the four vocalists are Tunde Temiola, Matthew Olojede, Niyi Falaye, and Jacob Ajakaye. The percussion ensemble features Moses Akanbi (drum set), Shina Abiodun (congas), Adeyemi Adisa (bongos), Gani Aiashe (shekere), Michael Babalola (maracas), Alhaji Timmy Olaitan (lead talking drum), and Rasaki Aladokun (2nd talking drum).

Gems consists primarily of four multiple-song medleys that clock in at 16-17 minutes each, and concludes with two extremely short individual tunes (“Dele Davis” and “John Ali”). The collection is a masterful drawing together of individual musicality into a rich, ever shifting palette of colors, water-like in a persistent ebb and flow within solid banks of percussive grounding. It was digitally mastered by Robert Vosigien at Capitol, and a spacious use of panning allows each timbral color to burst forth from a live-feeling sense of aural space. The collective improvisation, volleys of musical energy exploding back, forth, and together, put a fine point on the overall live feeling of these medleys; if sun, celebration, and together-being can be packaged in sound, they are presented here in their most essential form. The collection opens with a four-song medley called “Ori Mmi Maje N’te,” in which Ade’s sharp vocals are liquidly answered by reverb-soaked guitars and spinning melodic gestures from the guitars and electric bass underpinning. This is followed by another four-song medley, “Nibi Lekeleke Gbe Nfosho,” peppered with rich vocal harmonies and a heavy bass groove punctuated by the talking drums. Interestingly, the curtains of melodic experimentation are drawn back here to offer a pointed contrast between Western-style blues guitar riffs against tight and shimmering juju guitar voicings. The two-song medley “I Sele Yi Leju” explores the outskirts of rhythmic and melodic density along with question and answer vocals between Ade and the rest of the ensemble. “Sunny Special,” another four-song collective, concludes the medleys and incorporates together much of the distinctive elements offered by the previous three medleys. The collection concludes with the two catchiest songs on the album, brief and impossible to forget. Unfortunately, “Dele Davis” is the most lacking in terms of sound quality, with a persistent buzz and scratchy sound with noticeable distortion.

This latest Shanachie collection, compiled and produced by Randall Grass, is an excellent aural introduction to the genre of juju, and, indeed, Afro-pop in general through a window on the seminal creative genius of one of its most celebrated practitioners. In that regard, it is an important acquisition for newcomers to Afro-pop as well as seasoned collectors. Both groups, however, in addition to potential researchers, will likely be disappointed with the lack of liner notes accompanying the collection. With the exception of a short paragraph visible through the translucent plastic behind the CD, there is little to contextualize this music, Ade’s specific contributions, and social contexts in which people might typically experience and enjoy this music. Researchers especially are urged to consult one or both of the following recommended sources for information that will provide more context. This kind of information is not simply supplementary, but critical for understanding the music and fostering a true interpretation and appreciation of it. Another critical omission, much in the same regard, is a translation of Ade’s lyrics. To not provide this information is tantamount to saying that understanding them is unimportant, though this undoubtedly is not the message Grass and Shanachie intend to communicate. Finally, it would be useful for students of the music and other listeners to provide track divisions for each of the individual tunes within the medleys. Searching through the 17 minutes of music for particular songs can be time-consuming and difficult.

Despite these omissions, however, the value of these recordings cannot be underestimated and Grass and Shanachie should be commended for their help in exposing the wider world to them – their labeling as “gems” is not an exaggeration of their importance.

For further information:

Alaja-Browne, Afolabi. 1989. “A Diachronic Study of Change in Juju Music.” Popular Music 8(3):231-242.

Waterman, Christopher A. 1990. Jùjú: A Social History and Ethnography of an African Popular Music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Posted by Anthony Guest-Scott

View review June 19th, 2007

Just Like a Woman

nina.jpgTitle: Just Like a Woman: Nina Simone Sings Classic Songs of the ’60s
Artist: Nina Simone
Label: Sony Legacy
Catalog Number: 82876 85174 2
Date: 2007

Nina Simone is a legend, not only because of her talent at the piano, but because of her unique vocal styling on songs like “Strange Fruit,” “Sinnerman,” and “I Love you Porgy.” Though she wrote none of these songs, her versions became iconic in their own right. Simone’s body of work is huge and so is her legacy; she had a major impact on jazz, blues, soul, and popular music in America.

Just Like a Woman is a collection of fourteen rock and folk music songs recorded and reinterpreted by Simone during her late ’60s and early ’70s tenure at RCA. The anthology includes works by rock and pop music songwriting greats like Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Barry Gibb and Pete Seeger. In listening to these tracks one gets the sense that Simone felt, or made, a connection with each song.

Many of the songs will be familiar to most listeners, including “Here Comes the Sun,” “Mr. Bojangles” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” In these cases it is always interesting to compare the more well-known version with Nina’s interpretation. Throughout the album her version differs from the originals in both obvious and subtle ways. Some of the arrangements were formerly for rock bands, but now it’s just Simone and her piano. A more subtle change can be found on “Just Like a Woman,” where she sings most of the song as originally written in the third person, and then shifts the lyrics to talk about herself in the closing lines.

An album such as Just Like a Woman can be different things to different listeners. It can remind you of the timelessness of great songwriting; it can also remind you of Nina Simone’s tremendous diversity as an artist. Unfortunately, Just Like a Woman does not necessarily achieve either of these objectives—as a whole it is a little underwhelming on both fronts. This is a project geared more towards Nina Simone enthusiasts who are interested in owning her complete collection.

Posted by fredara mareva

View review June 19th, 2007

Now & Forever

tlc.jpgTitle: Now & Forever: The Video Hits
Artist: TLC
Label: Legacy
Catalog Number: 82876-53026-9 (DVD)
Date: 2007

TLC is arguably one of the most successful girl groups in American music history and this collection of their music videos, Now & Forever: The Video Hits, chronicles their career as well as their impact on pop music. I must admit that watching their videos, which span the decade from 1992-2002, was also a personal retrospective for me. I can remember being in junior high school, watching the “Ain’t to Proud to Beg” video and thinking, “What are these girls doing with these condoms everywhere?” When TLC made its entry onto the scene, the music community was forced to take notice of the group that featured a female rapper and two vocalists with very different sounding voices.

Now & Forever features videos from all four of TLC’s album releases. Fans will appreciate watching favorites like “Creep,” “Waterfalls,” and “No Scrubs.” If you were fortunate to be old enough to see TLC’s career unfold you also will enjoy reminiscing while watching some of their earlier videos like “Baby-Baby-Baby,” “What About Your Friends,” and “Creep.” The DVD also features bonus interview footage with Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas, Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, and Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes. Most of these interviews are drawn from press and documentary footage of the women that was filmed during the groups’ heyday. It would have been interesting, however, to hear more reflective thoughts from Chilli and T-Boz collected after the group’s last release in 2002.

In the shadow of the tumult that constantly surrounded TLC, from their bankruptcy to Left Eye’s tragic death in 2002, it is sometimes easy to forget how important TLC’s musical legacy is to the story of American pop music. Now & Forever reminds us of the talent, creativity, and charisma that kept most of the world so into TLC, and so eager to see what they would come up with next.

Posted by fredara mareva

View review June 19th, 2007

24 Negro Melodies

sc-t.jpgTitle: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: 24 Negro Melodies
Artist: David Shaffer-Gottschalk, piano
Label: Albany Records
Catalog No.: TROY930-31
Date: 2007

“What Brahms has done for the Hungarian folk-music, Dvorak for the Bohemian, and Grieg for the Norwegian, I have tried to do for these Negro Melodies.”

The British composer, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, succeeded in preserving, uplifting and celebrating the music of Africans and African-Americans, just as his contemporaries did for their respective heritages. Coleridge-Taylor lived from 1875 to 1912, during the tail end of a “nationalist” movement in music. Composers across Europe and Russia sought to revitalize and glorify the folk songs, musical ideas and motifs associated with their nations’ people and history. A few other composers along this vein were Dvořák and Janáček in Czechoslovakia, Grieg in Norway, Sibelius in Finland, Albéniz in Spain, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov in Russia, and Coleridge-Taylor’s own teacher, Charles Villiers Stanford in Great Britain. Through this mighty conglomerate of artists we can understand the beauty and struggle of peoples far away from us in time and distance.

The culture of Africans and African-Americans is particularly rich in music. The toils and victories of these peoples have been carefully traced, through an oral tradition of song–a tradition with which Coleridge-Taylor was intimately familiar. This music encouraged farmers to labor all day in scorching heat, it helped a community to mourn its dead, it taught children to rise above their circumstances, it expressed deep praise and devotion to one’s Maker. Music united slaves and gave strength to their weary and abused bodies, keeping the eyes and heart on freedom’s promise. Music helped men sweating away in adjacent fields to know they weren’t alone in the battle. Music held hidden meanings that helped many outsmart their masters and escape. No words could express the pain, hope and joy of these peoples, but song united them in understanding.

Coleridge-Taylor chose 24 of these melodies to explore and celebrate as had not been done before. Covering a large range of geography–Southeast Africa, South Africa, West Africa, the West Indies, and America–the 24 melodies also cover a range of emotion and purpose. Coleridge-Taylor’s theme and variation setting of each helps us to meditate on the idea each song was created to express. His command of form, harmony, texture, and timbre is evident in pieces that stand on their own, needing no prior explanation of the original melody. A harmonic language reminiscent of Brahms, and the pianism of Liszt reflect rigorous training at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where Coleridge-Taylor enrolled as a 15-year-old. Alongside peers such as Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughn Williams, so much did Coleridge-Taylor excel that his music was performed publicly, as a student.

For these melodies, Coleridge-Taylor has chosen a clear setting of each; every track begins with an unambiguous statement of the melody, followed by variations that develop in complexity, and wind down to a simple restatement. Many octave doublings of the melody, simple but rapid arpeggiations, and a clear tonal center to each piece give the album a traditional, classical and sometimes hymn like feel. Liberal use of chromaticism and modal mixture, however, maintain interest and showcase Coleridge-Taylor’s creativity. Tracks such as “Warrior’s Song” use modal mixture similarly to Brahms, adding a fresh, yet dark element to the song. In pieces such as “Many Thousand Gone,” the thick texture, rolled chords and use of the lower register bring Liszt to mind, in his dense and overtly dramatic style. Coleridge-Taylor adds a lighter touch with pieces such as “Going Up,” arranged almost as a parlor song. Others, such as “Deep River,” are hymn like in their sincerity and reverence.

While each piece displays remarkable ingenuity on the composer’s part, the album in its entirety can feel a bit repetitive in sound and style. Perhaps the pieces were intended to be heard and contemplated one or two at a time, rather than 24 at once; the heightened sense of drama prevalent throughout each piece loses its effect when there are few sections that aren’t grandiose. The overall effect is slightly theatrical, perhaps because the instrument chosen for the recording is not one that produces delicate sounds well. The pianist, David Shaffer-Gottschalk, clearly has an excellent command of the instrument and an impressively clear tone. The effect of the album, however, could be stronger if he reserved the sweeping drama for a few key moments.

Other pieces of Coleridge-Taylor’s to look for are the 1898 “Ballade in A Minor” and “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast,” both of which received excellent critical acclaim, and placed the composer in a position of prominence and influence. An overview of his works and select discography can be found at as well as in the biography The Hiawatha Man: The Life & Work of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, by Geoffrey Self (Scolar Press, 1995).

Posted by Kristen Hoffman

View review June 19th, 2007

Old School

koko.jpgTitle: Old School
Artist: Koko Taylor
Label: Alligator Records
Catalog Number: ALCD 4915
Date: 2007

Old School is not just the title of Koko Taylor’s latest project—it captures the essence of every aspect of the album. “Old school” seems like an accurate description for the album cover, which features a seasoned Koko Taylor wearing a smug look with a smile that seems to suggest she knows something about life that the listener has yet to learn. Old school also seems to be the general theme of the narrative in the liner notes, where Koko recounts her hard life in the Deep South and her 1951 migration to Chicago with 35 cents to her name. Then she begins talking about the early Chicago blues clubs that she knew and loved, “We didn’t do to no clubs playing that fancy music…Nothing fancy, nothing beautiful. It was just a hole in the wall where a bunch of us was in there listening to the blues, dancing, drinking, talking loud, doing everything else.” Now that is definitely old school.

With Koko setting the scene, Old School is the soundtrack for that type of “hole in the wall” and those who enjoy the blues. In her latest project, she does her blues much like she’s been doing it since the 1960s. A Grammy Award winner and W.C. Handy Blues Award winner, she seems to take pride in the fact that her music remains largely unchanged from how she originally crafted it. Old School is a testament to the time-proven formula of what passionate, gutsy vocals, colorful, risqué lyrics, a driving, steady bassline, and singing, squealing guitar can accomplish.

Old School features twelve tracks of Koko’s trademark raspy, half-preaching and half-singing vocal delivery telling us about men, money, and hard-time living. The opening track, “Piece of Man,” is an upbeat blues number where Koko asserts that “a piece of man is better than no man at all.” Then “Money is the Name of the Game” takes the tempo way down as she explains the woes of being down on your financial luck. Throughout the album Koko rotates between three different bands and all three provide just the right level of bravado and funk to complement her vocals.

The one thing that would make this album better is if it were a live recording. Blues this earthy and gritty doesn’t belong in a fancy studio, it belongs in places where people are dancing, drinking, talking loud, and doing everything else.

Posted by fredara mareva

View review June 19th, 2007

Stone Cold Ohio

little axe1.jpgTitle: Stone Cold Ohio
Artist: Little Axe
Label: Realworld
Catalog No.: CDRW 140
Date: 2006

I must confess that I stumbled upon this recording purely by accident, having been attracted by the title. Since we try to feature regional (i.e., Midwest) artists on Black Grooves, I was curious to see just how Ohio figured into the mix. What a pleasant surprise to discover that Little Axe is actually Skip McDonald, a native of that “hotbed of funk” otherwise known as Dayton, Ohio.

McDonald is an extremely versatile musician who learned blues guitar quite literally on his father’s knee in the ‘50s and then honed his vocals in various doo-wop and gospel quartets while in high school. Moving to New York around 1971, he hooked up with bassist Doug Wimbush (who later joined the band Living Colour) and drummer Keith LeBlanc to form the house band for the Sylvia Robinson’s newly minted Sugarhill Records. After three years at Sugarhill, which included appearances on some of rap’s earliest hits—Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message,” and Melle Mel’s “White Lines”—the trio moved over to the Tommy Boy label, where they formed a relationship with innovative British producer/mixologist Adrian Sherwood. Sherwood moved the group to London, home of his On-U Sound label, where they were christened Tackhead (New Jersey slang for “homeboy”) and provided back-up for Sherwood’s various dub reggae, funk and rock projects. Though Tackhead basically disbanded in the early ‘90s, its members have been hugely influential, having played, produced and remixed for a wide range artists ranging from James Brown, Tina Turner, B.B. King, and George Clinton to Mick Jagger, R.E.M., Depeche Mode, and Bomb The Bass.

For Skip MacDonald, the break-up of Tackhead provided an opportunity to return to his blues roots. Since 1992 he has performed under the name “Little Axe”—a combination of Bob Marley’s “Small Axe” and gospel singer Willmer “Little Ax” Broadnax—which perfectly fits with MacDonald’s blending of Delta blues, gospel, rock, and dub reggae into a “21st century experimental blues band.” His masterful debut album, The House That Wolf Built (1995), was said to have had a significant influence on Moby’s Play. The second Little Axe album, Slow Fuse, was released on the Wired label in 1996 but was not as widely acclaimed. After a hiatus spent working on other projects, MacDonald re-assembled his Tackhead bandmates and broke new ground with Hard Grind (2002), Champagne & Grits (2004), and his latest effort, Stone Cold Ohio (released in August 2006- see some great clips and interviews on the Realworld site).

Stone Cold Ohio, with its broad mix of influences and collage of samples, is one of those album’s that is impossible to categorize. Opening with the anti-war song “If I Had My Way,” which incorporates the chorus section from the gospel classic “Samson and Delilah,” the album continues to blend wholly original works (penned by B. Alexander aka Skip MacDonald) with bits of classic blues and gospel. Several covers are included as well, such as Allen Toussaint’s “Same People” and a fabulous reworking of Skip James’ “Hard Times.” Overall, this is a fascinating album, one which deserves far greater attention. Co-produced by Adrian Sherwood and MacDonald and recorded at the On-U Sound Studios, the album features MacDonald on guitar and vocals, with back-up provided by Keith LeBlanc and Nick Coplowe (aka Mutant Hi Fi), drum programming; Will Calhoun, live drums and percussion; Paget King, keyboards; Doug Winbush, bass guitar; and Ghetto Priest, Madeleine Edgehill, Valerie Skeete, Carlton Ogilvie, and Denise Sherwood, vocals (there’s also a great harmonica player who is not credited in the liner notes).

As summed up by MacDonald, “Little Axe is the blues, the deep blues channelled through time, dubbed, tweaked, sampled, processed, explored, refreshed—surfing the present, from the past, into the future.” What other musician can weave in and out of so many genres while providing a direct link to Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaata, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, James Brown, Robert Plant, Mark Stewart & The Mafia, Sinead O’Connor, and Megadeth. I, for one, definitely plan to seek out all of Little Axe’s previous releases.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review June 19th, 2007


nashville.jpgTitle: Nashville
Artist: Solomon Burke
Label: Shout! Factory
Catalogue No.: 826663
Date: 2006

Beginning his career as a preacher in the 1960s, Solomon Burke’s voice was first introduced to the airwaves as the host of a gospel radio show in Philadelphia. Burke’s career moved in the direction of secular music, however, when he signed with Atlantic Records in 1964. One of his most notable works from that era, “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” (1964), is unfortunately often credited to the bands that covered it (the Rolling Stones, for example). An artist versatile enough to master genres from gospel to country and rock ‘n’ roll, Burke was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. With thirty-three albums in his discography, a slew of song writing credits and a recording career spanning more than five decades, Burke has certainly been one of the most prolific R&B artists.

Burke’s songs have been featured in multiple movies and television shows over the years including “Cry to Me” from Dirty Dancing (1987), and “Don’t Give up on Me,” which was featured in the hit HBO drama The Wire. Additionally, his 2005 release, Make Do With What You Got, was nominated for a Grammy. Burke’s bountiful discography, however, never gave him the crossover mainstream status received by his contemporaries like Sam Cooke. Still, Burke proclaims himself the “King of Rock ‘n Soul.”

Recorded in eight days at maverick producer Buddy Miller’s home, Nashville is classified as a country album. Any listener, however, will quickly recognize Burke’s virtuosity and versatility, as well as the relationship between the blues, gospel, and country music. What makes this a country album is the nod Burke gives to old time country, casting off the mold of today’s pop centered country music. Some may argue that the heart and soul of country music is its slower pace that connects to life in the rural south. Burke’s Nashville is no exception and would be appropriate for a solitary drive or peaceful reflection.

Nashville also features duets with some of country’s biggest female stars including Emmy Lou Harris, Dolly Parton, and Patty Loveless. Unfortunately, the duet between Dolly Parton and Burke may not be the shining star of this album since Burke’s raspy voice clashes with Parton’s lighter, more airy vocals. The most enjoyable song on the album is “Ain’t Got You,” which follows the blues tradition of boasting and is a showcase for Burke, who lists off the many things that make his life wonderful, with the exception of his beloved.

Overall an enjoyable recording, Nashville is an exceptional example of Burke’s mastery of various musical genres. It is doubtful, however, that many who don’t already enjoy his work or country music will be converted.

Posted by Brandon Houston

View review June 19th, 2007

Father Guide Me

euclid.jpgTitle: Father Guide Me
Artist: Euclid Gray
Label: Malaco
Catalogue No.: MCD 4543
Date: 2007

Many artists that make a transition between R&B and gospel music typically begin in the gospel tradition and move into the secular arena where they are able to make more money and experience more pervasive success. Euclid Gray is an exception in that his career began in R&B and moved to gospel following his break up with the group Public Announcement. Started by R. Kelly in 1989, Public Announcement was a Chicago group that experienced mainstream success with such hits as “She’s Got That Vibe,” “Honey Love,” “Slow Dance” and “Dedicated” (1992). Just a year after their debut release, however, R. Kelly left to pursue his solo career which basically dealt the group a death blow. Although Public Announcement has continued to record, it has never equalled the success of its first album. It is unclear when Gray himself parted with the group.

Not only a singer but also an actor, Gray toured with Tyler Perry’s “Meet the Browns” as Reverend Henry Oliver. Determined to break into the gospel domain, Gray’s biography states that he faced many rejections by various record labels. Thankfully for his fans, he did not let disappointment deter him and finally found a home with Malaco.

Unlike his former group member, R. Kelly, whose albums are undeniably secular yet randomly feature heavily influenced gospel tracks, Gray’s solo debut, Father Guide Me, is indubitably a gospel album heavily influenced by his R&B past. Similar in style to gospel artists such as Tonex, Yolanda Adams, and Dietrick Haddon, Gray’s collection of love songs to the Lord is a testimony of his personal relationship with God. The only track on the album that could be considered “preaching” is “Are You A Letter,” which asks its listeners how evident is God’s presence in their life. Further blurring the sacred/secular line while making sure to represent his Chicago roots, “Getcha Step On” is a gospel tune that the Chicago style of dance can be performed to. “Remind Myself” is also a notable song that can be appreciated by many and has enhancements that cause the track to sound as if it is being played on a record.

Although some of the tracks on the album seem to have originally been written as R&B tracks that were then transformed into gospel songs, the formula works for Gray. Primarily produced by Gray himself, Father Guide Me is a soulful and heartfelt registry.

Posted by Brandon Houston

View review June 19th, 2007

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