Archive for October, 2007

Pavarotti Crosses Over

Luciana Pavarotti, the great Italian tenor, passed away last month. Though best known for his operatic performances, in the last decade he also made numerous attempts to cross over into popular music. Following the overwhelming success of the “Three Tenors” collaboration in the 1980s which resulted in the best-selling classical album of all time (and prompted the spin-off “The Three Soul Tenors”), he decided to stretch the envelope even further in an attempt to bring opera to the masses. This was accomplished primarily through his annual “Pavarotti and Friends” charity concerts, which featured numerous musical celebrities. So here’s our tribute to Pavarotti—a brief run-down of his duets with African American musicians that are currently available on DVD and/or YouTube.

1998 Pavarotti & Friends for the Children of Liberia
Stevie Wonder and Pavarotti perform “Peace Wanted Just to Be Free.” The same concert also features Natalie Cole and Pavarotti singing the “Tonight” duet from West Side Story. The entire concert is available on DVD.

1999 Pavarotti & Friends For Guatemala And Kosovo
B.B. King partnered with the tenor on “The Thrill is Gone,” though Pavarotti wisely decided to simply hum along (sorry, no YouTube excerpt). Lionel Richie appears on the same concert. Available on DVD.

2000 Pavarotti & Friends for Cambodia and Tibet
Tracy Chapman and Pavarotti sing “Baby Can I Hold You.”
Also available on DVD.

2001 Pavarotti & Friends for Afghanistan
Soul legend Barry White teams up with Pavarotti on “My First, My Last, My Everything.”

2002 Pavarotti & Friends for Angola
Without a doubt, the most audacious collaboration paired the “King of the High C” with the “King of Soul.” Here James Brown launches into “It’s a Man’s World” before thousands of cheering fans, and after a couple of refrains Pavarotti takes over, singing in Italian. The coupling is completely incongruous, but somehow it still works, if the thousands of cheering fans are any indication. This footage is also included as a bonus feature on: American Masters” James Brown: Soul Survivor (2004). What a fitting tribute to two musical legends lost within the past eight months.

View review October 12th, 2007

Supermoon

supermoon.jpgTitle: Supermoon
Artist: Zap Mama
Label: Heads Up
Catalog No.: HUCD3132
Date: 2007

What is Zap Mama? The simple answer is that Zap Mama is a world music group created in 1990 by Marie Daulne. The more complete answer is that Marie Daulne was born in the Congo Kinshasa to a Congolese mother and Belgian father and created Zap Mama to fuse together the African and European soundscapes. Fusion has been the recurring theme throughout all of Zap Mama’s albums and reincarnations.

The music of Zap Mama is an audible odyssey into what happens when Morrocan meets jazz meets pygmies meets Australian influences. Yet, in the midst of the eclecticism, Zap Mama’s fun and light-hearted nature keeps the music accessible. Despite the openness of their music, they are able to retain an element of surprise primarily because “Zap Mama” can represent anything from an all-female a capella group, to Daulne’s unaccompanied solo work, to Daulne with her band. No matter which Zap Mama shows up on an album or concert, the listener is guaranteed to experience a mélange of sounds, languages, and subjects. Her latest project, Supermoon, is no exception.

For Supermoon, her sixth album, Daulne is trying to reveal a more intimate side of herself and her intent shines through on songs like “Hey Brotha” and “Princess Kesia.” “Hey Brother” recounts childhood sibling memories, while “Princesss Kesia” deals with the mixed emotions of having a daughter who is no longer a baby but a “beautiful girl.” But lest the album become too sentimental, Zap Mama also includes the up tempo party anthem “Kwenda” which is based on an African children’s game. Musically, Supermoon is as diverse as any previous Zap Mama album. The percussion on “1000 Ways” takes you back to the sounds of a Congolese forest while the modal piano chords on “Where are You?” puts you in a late-night Manhattan jazz club.

Now admittedly, sometimes a Zap Mama album can be a sensory overload because there can be so many things going on. One song she’s singing in French, the next three are in English, and the next one may be in an African indigenous language. That’s the beauty of the Zap Mama experience, but it can also wear on your ear if it is your first listening encounter. However, if you’re interested in expanding your musical palette by hearing what a mash-up of jazz, Africa, reggae, children’s games, and folk music sounds like, Supermoon is a great place to start your exploration!

Posted by fredara mareva

View review October 12th, 2007

Good Girl Blues

john black.jpgTitle: Good Girl Blues
Artist: The Soul of John Black
Label: Yellow Dog
Catalog No.: YDR 1576
Date: 2007

John “JB” Bigham, otherwise known as “The Soul of John Black,” recently released his sophomore album Good Girl Blues on Yellow Dog, a blues label based in Memphis. Known primarily for his work with the pioneering black rock band Fishbone (he joined the group in 1991), Bigham is a supremely talented guitarist, songwriter, vocalist, drummer and keyboard player who has also toured and recorded with artists as diverse as Miles Davis, Eminem, Joi, Dr. Dré, and Bruce Hornsby. Bringing all of these influences to the table, Good Girl Blues is a unique fusion of funk, rock, soul and hip hop, with more than an occasional nod to traditional blues. Providing the back-up is Chris “C.T.” Thomas on bass (on two tracks) and members of Nikka Costa’s touring band: Adam McDougal on keyboards, Shawn Davis on bass, and Davey Chegwidden on percussion. Additional vocals are provided by Laura Jane Jones, Kandace Linsey, and Jonell Kennedy.

Kicking off (and concluding) the CD is “The Hole,” which gives a nod toward the roots of African American music by incorporating a traditional field holler into the mix. For “I Got to Work” and “Deez Blues” Bigham switches to slide guitar, performed on an old Stella (the preferred model of many a Chicago blues musician) that he purchased in a Hollywood pawn shop. Also featured on the album are several tracks in a more traditional vein such as “Blue Moon Blues,” “Good Girl,” and “Feelings;” the funky, grooving “Swamp Thang;” the gospel-country tinged “One Hit” about a drug addict; and “Slipin and Slidin,” and instrumental featuring DJ Phizz Ed on turntables layered over Bigham’s guitar.

Good Girl Blues goes far towards revitalizing the genre for the 21st century, but the production could have been a bit tighter. Bigham composed and sang all of the songs, provided the guitar accompaniment and added the drum tracks, in addition to producing and recording the sessions. At times this leads to a certain level of self-indulgence and the pace occasionally bogs down—something that might have been avoided if an outside producer was brought in to take on some of the load. But overall this album is a real pleasure. The seemless melding of genres and instrumental virtuosity combined with Bigham’s vocals—sometimes gritty, often bluesy, and frequently provocative—take this album to a higher lever. There is plenty here to satisfy the blues aficionados as well as the hip hop generation.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review October 12th, 2007

Ethiogroove

ethiogroove.jpgTitle: Ethiogroove
Artist: Mahmoud Ahmed and Either/Orchestra, with Tsèdènia Gèbrè- Marqos
Director: Anaïs Prosaïc
Executive Producer: Stéphane Jourdain
Video Format: DVD, NTSC, multiple region codes
Duration: 67’
Label: Buda Musique
Catalog No.: 860154
Date: 2007

Ethiogroove, a DVD released as an installment in Buda Musique’s new “éthioSonic” series, centers on the collaborative performance of veteran Ethiopian singer Mahmoud Ahmed with the U.S.-based Either/Orchestra jazz ensemble. This video release complements the Paris-based label’s extensive “éthiopiques” CD series, dedicated to disseminating recordings of Ethiopian and Eritrean musicians.

Two live performances in France from April of 2006 form the center of Prosaïc’s film, one recorded at the MC93 festival in Bobigny and the other at the Banlieuse Bleues Festival. This recording is not simply a visual experience of those performances, however; Prosaïc juxtaposes these live performances with rehearsals, snippets of Ethiopian political and musical history, and the reflections and commentary of both Ahmed (with subtitles) and Either/Orchestra leader Russ Gershon. The result is a genre of film that is more than a performance pic, but something less than a documentary.

At times, this works well, but not always. The cuts from documentary-style moving stills of album covers and historical narration to live performance to rehearsals is frequently jarring – no video fades or any sort of other transition (either in form or content) to set up the transition from one kind of segment to another. Once in awhile this is an interesting and effective approach, as when, toward the end of the film, there is an abrupt shift from the ensemble performing “Tzeda” live to rehearsing it, and it takes a moment for that change to sink in.

Furthermore, the thoughts and stories of Ahmed and Gershon are typically layered over solo segments of the live performances (and sometimes rehearsals), frequently using a split-screen technique so the viewer sees and hears both at the same time (with the music obviously lower in the mix). This, in particular, is a technique that is best used sparingly, because the result is that you miss important parts of the music while also being distracted from all of the interesting things that Ahmed and Gershon have to say. Unfortunately, it pervades the film. It would have been easy enough in the editing room to separate these features out a bit more, either in course of the film itself, or through special features sections on the disk. The option to view the film with/without the commentary is another standard approach to the problem of integrating a variety of useful information. Throwing it all into the mix makes the whole film a bit cacophonous, but perhaps that was Prosaïc’s intent. With regard to disk form, I must also add that it is disappointing not to be able to jump to specific chapters, or at least have a printed outline of what we are seeing and when. The only offering of this kind is printed list of seven tunes in the inside back cover of the DVD case.

Nevertheless, the music, when it is clearly audible, will surprise the newcomer as fresh and interesting, as are Ahmed’s and Gershon’s reflections about nature of their collaboration and the many historical/musical connections between the Africa, South America, and the United States. These connections are clearly audible in the tight grooves of the Either/Orchestra’s Latin rhythm section, which includes Leo Blanco (piano); Rick McLaughlin (electric bass); Pablo Bencid (drums); and Vicente Lebron (congas, various percussion). The modal Ethiopian melodies duck and turn around quick corners, executed by band’s horns, which frequently play in unison or ornament similar lines. In addition to Gershon (tenor and soprano sax), the horn section includes Kurtis Rivers (baritone sax and flute); Jeremy Udden (alto sax); Joel Yennior (trombone);Tom Halter (trumpet); and Colin Fisher (trumpet). The combination of a Latin jazz section and Ethiopian melodies on the horns forms a densely musically/culturally textured underpinning for Ahmed’s experienced voice. Not to be forgotten, however, is one of the highlights of the film – singer Tsèdènia Gèbrè-Marqos’ performance of the traditional “Bati.” Gèbrè-Marqos’ voice begins intensely, with a haunting solo vocal supported by minimal punctuations of drone from the bass. Gradually other instruments fade in and the performance bursts forth with energy.

Ethiogroove is worth purchasing despite some of the more confusing aspects of its presentation. The music is rich and beautiful. For scholars, there is an important attempt to contextualize the performances and rehearsals within Ethiopian political and social history, and yet not at the expense of the individual experiences of the chief protagonists in this collaborative tale: Ahmed and Gershon (though, in the interest of context, I must add that I find it strange there are only two shots of the audience on the entire disk). The newcomer will also find this contextualization helpful, however. It is also particularly useful that one can view the DVD in both French and English but not (disappointingly, but not unusually) in any of the indigenous languages of Ethiopia.

For further information:

Kebede, Ashenafi. 1979. “Musical Innovation and Acculturation in Ethiopian Culture.” African Urban Studies 6: 77-87.

___. 1995. Roots of Black Music: The Vocal, Instrumental, and Dance Heritage of Africa and Black America. Africa World Press.

(The above titles offer important perspectives of Ethiopian ethnomusicologist Ashenafi Kebede on some of the scholarly issues raised on this disk).

Addis Music
A video streaming site dedicated to a range of Ethiopia’s diverse music

Posted by Anthony Guest-Scott

View review October 12th, 2007

Keep Reachin’ Up

nicole.jpgTitle: Keep Reachin’ Up
Artist: Nicole Willis and The Soul Investigators
Label: Light in the Attic
Catalog No.: LITA 028
Date: 2007

If you like the retro groove of acts like The Brand New Heavies and Soulive, you’ll be into the ‘60s and ‘70s feel of Nicole Willis and The Soul Investigators. The analog sound of the horn section will remind you of your old and forgotten Stax studio recordings. But it isn’t Memphis and it isn’t the ‘70s. It’s the new millennium and this “throwback” sound is a part of the latest trend in European music. The Soul Investigators are aiming to be a large part of that movement. Although Nicole Willis was born and raised in Brooklyn, the entire band was born and raised in Finland.

Nicole Willis has been around the soul music scene since the mid-1980s and has worked with notable acts like Curtis Mayfield and the Brand New Heavies. Then in 2005, she began collaborating with The Soul Investigators and their debut album Keep Reachin’ Up is the result. Everything about the album, except for the fact that it’s a CD, gives it that retro feel—especially Willis’s ‘70s era hairstyle on the album cover and the simple and elegant packaging. The Soul Investigators have definitely done their soul music homework as they draw on influences ranging from Issac Hayes and James Brown, to the Funk Brothers and Booker T and the MGs.

For most of the album the retro instrumental feel actually works. There are stand out tracks such as “Feeling Free,” which was a 2006 worldwide winner on Gilles Petersen’s influential show on BBC Radio. It also works well on “If This Ain’t Love (Don’t Know What Is).” But while the band is generally stellar throughout, Nicole’s vocals are rather limited and become monotonous after a while. She’s pitchy and borderline flat on “Holdin’ On” and it comes off sounding like she recorded the song without listening to the band. On songs like “No One’s Gonna Love You” her vocal performance just isn’t that convincing or entertaining.

Having said all that, Keep Reachin’ Up is a solid album, and the instrumental performances alone would make it a worthwhile listen. On top of that, the album is very well conceived. But if you’re going for music that is reminiscent of yesteryear, there are other bands that do this type of performance better and have stronger vocalists like Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings and the Brand New Heavies. Or if you wonder what retro instrumentals would sound like if they were made today, there’s Soulive. Keep Reachin’ Up comes up just a little short when compared to these groups, but is still worth checking out.

Posted by fredara mareva

Editor’s note: Nicole Willis and the Soul Investigators were recently featured on NPR; click here to listen to the program.

View review October 12th, 2007

Another Dance

marley.jpgTitle: Another Dance
Artist: Bob Marley and the Wailers
Label: Rounder
Catalog No: CDHBEA335
Date: 2007

In 1963, Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, sound system giant and producer, opened Studio One at 13 Brentford Road in Kingston, Jamaica. Studio One was one of Jamaica’s premier recording studios with a stable of talented artist including The Skatalites, Toots and the Maytals, Lee “Scratch” Perry and Bob Marley and the Wailers. Another Dance is a shining example of Bob Marley’s formative years with Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer at Studio One. The sixties were an exciting time in the evolution of Jamaican music. In 1962, Jamaica celebrated independence ushering in a climate of optimism that resounded through the music of this era. During this period, Ska was king and it’s bouncy off beat rhythms could be heard all over the island. Ska is a genre of Jamaican music that was stylistically a reaction to American Jump Blues. It is identifiable by its off beat rhythms, walking bass line, Jazz like horn riffs, and accented guitar or piano rhythms on the second and fourth beat. Another Dance demonstrates the shift in musical style from Ska to Rocksteady. Rocksteady, circa 1966, retained the Ska back beat but slowed down the tempo. The bass line became more prominent and guitar and piano replaced the horns. Galvanized by the success of their hit “Simmer Down” (1964), Marley and the Wailers released a slew of Ska and Rocksteady singles at Studio One.

Another Dance contains 17 rare Wailer titles, alternate takes and original singles mixes. The title track, “Another Dance,” sets the stage for this collection of love songs and lovers laments, recorded between 1964 and 1966. Other tracks include a smoking Ska version of the classic hit “One Love” and the falsetto harmony, saxophone driven “Cry to Me.” “I’m Still Waiting” and “Where Will I Find” are excellent examples of the American doo-wop style often emulated by Jamaican artist.

Another Dance is fresh from the press from Heartbeat, the premier Reggae reissue label boasting over 240 titles, including Ska, Rocksteady, Roots Reggae, Dub and Dancehall. Launched in 1981, Heartbeat has become synonymous with quality, as recordings are usually taken from original masters when available. None of the tracks on Another Dance have been previously released. Heartbeat is a subsidiary of Rounder Records, an independent label started in 1970 that specializes in roots music and has a catalog of over 3000 titles ranging from American Folk, Soca, Jazz, Juju, Cajun, Soul and Celtic.

Posted by Heather O’Sullivan

View review October 12th, 2007

The Paris Concert

gil scott-heron.jpgTitle: The Paris Concert
Artist: Gil Scott-Heron & Amnesia Express
Format: Color, DVD-Video, Live, NTSC
Label: Inakustik (Dist. by MVD Visual)
Catalog No.: INAK6465
Date: 2007

To begin, this is Gil Scott-Heron we’re talking about. Author, poet, musician. If you don’t know anything about Gil Scott Heron, watching the DVD is not going to mean much to you, so reading this review will mean even less. Reaching for anything of Gil Scott-Heron’s is not the best choice if you’re looking for something idle. I liken him to John Coltrane, in that I would never put Trane’s “Interstellar Space” on while driving in my car to satisfy a need for background music, or Penderecki’s “Dies Irae” for that matter. As in Coltrane or Penderecki, the words of Gil Scott-Heron are rich in…..well, richness.

Encouraged by Langston Hughes, Chicago born Scott-Heron is one of the models of Afro-centrism, which would explain why I subconsciously associated him with saxophonist Joe Henderson long before I knew what Afro-centrism was. The sometimes centerpiece of controversy, Scott-Heron speaks about many themes in his works including the surface appearance of television and mass consumerism, social issues birthed during the Civil Rights Era, the hypocrisy of Black revolutionaries, and homophobia. Sometimes done through spoken-word, sometimes through singing, his message always comes across and points directly to the heart of whatever issue he is attacking at that particular moment.

In terms of style, Scott-Heron’s music can be described as pure, unadulterated grooooove. His band, Amnesia Express, covers the gamut of styles from jazz, blues, latin, vamping drones, and fusions of all the aforementioned. Every track will get your foot tapping involuntarily. The deception in these seemingly laid-back genres is in the lyrical content of his songs. Thirteen tracks comprise this offering by Scott-Heron, and the track titles themselves show the diversity in themes that he is known for: “Work for Peace,” “Angel Dust,” There’s a War Going On,” and “The Bottle.” Again, the experience of watching a Gil Scott-Heron concert is best maximized by first familiarizing yourself with some of his earlier works. His poetry collection, So Far, So Good, and his ‘best of’ studio recording Evolution (and Flashback) are good starting places (in that order, by the way).

This live set, recorded in Paris at the New Morning on July 23, 2001, finds Scott-Heron in his older years, but proving he’s still got the integrity that made him popular in Afro-centric circles. Joining Scott-Heron on this performance are members of his band Amnesia Express. The down-side, and critical point of this DVD, is that the credits are terrible. For example, we get the full names of all four guys who stood behind a camera and filmed the gig, but nothing in terms of who was on stage performing the music. Scott-Heron announces the members a few times throughout the set, but their names are unclear and so the mystery of giving credit where credit is due remains.

Overall, The Paris Concert is recommended to people who are familiar with Gil Scott-Heron’s earlier work. Newcomers using this DVD as a starting place will get a false representation of what this artist has accomplished up to this point. I dare to say they might write it off as merely “some old man playing folk tunes for a couple of hours.” In terms of face value, the groove he lays down in The Paris Concert is good enough to satisfy those who are merely searching for something to tap their foot to. The tragedy though, is that underneath the groove, is the REAL treasure of Gil Scott-Heron, and he is a man worth exploring.

Posted by Francisco Raul Dean

View review October 12th, 2007

Singing for Life

AIDs.jpgTitle: Singing for Life: Songs of Hope, Healing, and HIV/AIDS in Uganda
Artists: Various
Label: Smithsonian Folkways
Catalog No.: SFW CD 40537
Date: 2007

Singing for Life is a tremendous work, documenting a variety of musical responses to the AIDS epidemic in Uganda. It is accompanied by 36-page booklet, with a readable yet highly informative narrative by ethnomusicologist Gregory Barz, who worked in the area for several years, collecting the myriad of sounds represented on this album. In addition to several pages which place this music in social, cultural, and historical context, the story behind each track is included, often with lyrical translation (the songs are primarily sung in local languages). Also included is a painting by local artist Francis Wasswa; AIDS in a Ugandan Village is an intricate work which depicts the daily life of people working against the spread of the disease. In this maze of daily life are scenes of Christian ministry, health educators, and women’s theater groups, all addressing the epidemic in their own ways. All together, these images represent one glimpse of life in a part of the world where AIDS has had a tremendous impact on people’s lives, where the disease rate has risen to as high as 35% of the population.

The music itself tells another story, one which suggests that there is a solution, that there are alternatives to the devastation which the disease has caused. While all of the songs in this collection address the AIDS epidemic, they are nonetheless energetic, hopeful and catchy. Musically, they draw on the wide range of musical traditions found in Uganda. “Silimu okutumala! (AIDS has finished us)” is a lively tune sung by Bukona Women’s Group, accompanied by clapping and percussion. Several tracks, such as 7 and 9, illustrate the rich harmonic traditions often associated with church hymns. While many tracks feature a cappella singing, others highlight the breadth of local instruments that are common in this part of the world. Track 10 features the unique embaire xylophone that is commonly played in the Busiki region. This xylophone consists of a dug trench with large banana trees on either side. Large wooden slats are rested on these trees, separated by bicycle spokes. The xylophone accompanies a men’s group singing in call-and-response fashion, narrating the death of an important man in the region.

Another example of the interesting musical sounds that are a part of the local soundscape is found on Track 11. The musicians, Centurio Balikoowa and Kiirya Moses, play the ntongooli bowl lyre, which accompanies a song highlighting the importance of behavioral change and education to effectively treat the disease, a common theme of the songs composed by grassroots groups on this collection. This track is endearing because of the extra sounds heard in the recording – such as a small child singing along spontaneously. As a field collection, Gregory Barz has struck a balanced middle ground; the tracks on this album have a ‘live’ feeling, evident in both the extraneous sounds as well as the high energy of performances, yet the quality of the recording is relatively high.

The lyrical translations are helpful in understanding the songs, although some are also partially in English. Here we see the particular usefulness of certain lyrics, and their function in educating people in on-the-ground ways. There are further examples of songs that are transforming for the performers, as many of the community and women’s groups are composed of people with HIV/AIDS. One piece of information that was likely sacrificed for this lyrical focus, is details about the instruments and the non-lyrical musical aesthetics. It would be helpful, for example, to know more about the rhythmic basis of the singing, the origins of the harmony employed, or the origin of that unique buzzing timbre on the first track.

Perhaps what is most shining in this collection is the whole picture which it creates of the situation in Uganda. The statistical truth of the AIDS epidemic in Uganda is a sad and desperate situation, one which has affected every Ugandan in dramatic ways. Yet, the AIDS rates have declined in Uganda in recent years, a fact which Gregory Barz argues is largely due to the grassroots efforts, particularly through musical performances such as those represented here. Singing for Life is therefore not just a musical collection; it is a testimonial to the power of music to transform, heal and empower in even the most devastating situations.

Posted by Angela Scharfenberger

View review October 12th, 2007

Scene of the Crime

bettye.jpgTitle: Scene of the Crime
Artist: Bettye LaVette
Label: Anti
Catalog No.: 86873-2
Date: 2007

This is one soul-drenched rockin’ CD! Detroit soul veteran Bettye Lavette has been enjoying a renaissance lately, following the releases of I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise (2005) and Child of the Seventies (2006), the latter a compilation of previously unreleased material recorded between 1962-1973. Now LaVette’s back with a new release on the Anti label, which pairs her with the Southern roots rock band The Drive-By Truckers, led by Patterson Hood (who is also the co-producer). The title, Scene of the Crime, refers rather pointedly to Alabama’s Muscle Shoals Studio, the scene of her 1972 sessions that were inexplicably shelved by Atlantic Records (these are included in Child of the Seventies). Thirty-five years later she returned to Muscle Shoals to record her new CD, and the results are mind-blowing.

In addition to the Drive-By Truckers, the producers decided to bring in several veterans of the Muscle Shoals Studio scene including bassist David Hood (Patterson Hood’s father and the Studio’s co-founder), who sits in on three songs, and Spooner Oldham, who performs on Wurlizter and piano. The two of them actually laid some of the tracks on LaVette’s aborted 1972 album, so it was something of a homecoming. Also added into the mix is Kelvin Holly, one of the South’s premier guitarists, who has played and recorded with Little Richard and Bobby Blue Bland. It’s a somewhat novel concept, this juxtaposition of R&B old-timers (LaVette and Muscle Shoals musicians) with a younger alt-rock band, but it really seems to work, no doubt due to the bands’ great respect for their elders. As Patterson Hood mentions in the liner notes, “Having grown up worshipping the great soul albums and always wanting to get to work with one of the legends, I jumped at the chance to work with [LaVette].” It was obviously a thrill for the band members to participate in the project, and they contribute to the mix without interjecting their own agenda.

Notable tracks on the album include the opening song “I Still Want to Be Your Baby (Take Me Like I Am),” composed by the late Eddie Hinton, a great “blue eyed soul” musician who played lead guitar in the Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section from 1967 to 1971. Not only did he back up many of the great soul singers including Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and Otis Redding, but this arrangement proves he was also a gifted songwriter. “Somebody Pick up the Pieces” by Willie Nelson is transformed by LaVette into a scorching soul ballad with pedal steel accompaniment by John Neff (who knew country music could sound so good!). Equally astounding is her reinterpretation of Elton John’s “Talking Old Soldiers.” Lavette keeps the low-key piano accompaniment, but packs an incredible amount of raw emotion into the song, bringing to life the pain and sorrow in Bernie Taupin’s lyrics. I don’t know whose idea it was to cover an Elton John song, but this has got to be the definitive performance (step aside, Sir Elton . . .).

For me, the highlight of the CD is the newly composed song by Patterson Hood, “Before the Money Came (Battle of Bettye Lavette),” rewritten by LaVette as a personal history of her life in the music business:

I was singing R&B back in ’62, before you were born and your mamma too
I knew David Ruffin when he was sober, sleeping on my floor before he crossed over
All my friends on the Grammy show, I was stuck in Detroit trying to open doors
Record deals kept falling apart, one with Atlantic nearly broke my heart

Obviously, the pain is still very fresh. We may never know why Atlantic relegated the 1972 Muscle Shoals sessions to the vault, but I’m glad that LaVette is finally getting some recognition after all these years. Maybe she’ll even end up “on the Grammy show” one of these days. I’d say this woman has been vindicated!

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review October 12th, 2007

Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations

cornell west.jpgTitle: Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations
Artist: Cornel West & BMWMB
Label: Hidden Beach
Catalog No: HBF00001
Date: 2007

In 1982, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released “The Message,” a landmark song that addressed the day to day struggles of inner city life. “The Message” gave audiences a glimpse of the potential discursive quality intrinsic to hip-hop. In Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations, Dr. Cornel West reminds the audience of the inherent properties of hip-hop as a medium for sociopolitical discourse. Dr. West is Professor of Religious Studies at Princeton University as well as the former Director of African American Studies. He is a pragmatic orator, progressive scholar, prolific philosopher, and author of several books including Race Matters (1993) and Democracy Matters (2004). Together with his co-producers, brother Clifton West and good friend Mike Daily (the Black Men Who Mean Business, or BMWMB), Dr. West explores themes of revelation, journey and conclusions contextualized in post 9/11 America. Supporting Dr. West on Never Forget are some of today’s top hip-hop/R&B/soul artists, including Talib Kwali, KRS-1, Jill Scott, Andre 3000, Prince, and M1 (Dead Prez).

Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations contains 14 tracks along with two bonus tracks. Unlike Dr. West’s first CD, Sketches of My Culture (2001), which was primarily spoken word, Never Forget adds the flavor and expertise of the celebrity all-star cast. The content of the CD addresses a myriad of current issues including race, gender, police brutality, government corruption and poverty. Several notable tracks are “Bushonomics” with Talib Kwali, “Mr. President” with KRS-1 and M1, and “America (400 Years)” with Iriz, Lucky Witherspoon, Black Thought, and Rah Digga. True to himself, Dr. West drops knowledge on several spoken word tracks including “911″ and “The N Word.” On “911″ Dr. West suggests that 9/11 gave white America a glimpse of what it is like to be black in America. He asks all Americans to follow the example of African Americans in dealing with the changes since 9/11, citing the strength and dignity of Emmett Till’s mother during the funeral of her murdered son. “The N Word” is a twelve minute engaging conversation between PBS commentator Tavis Smiley, Dr. West and Georgetown University professor Dr. Michael Eric Dyson as they debate use of the “N” word. Dr. West calls for a moratorium against the word as it has been appropriated and commodified internationally. Dyson, on the other hand, believes that the word is contextual and that African Americans must elevate the word to represent its meaning of struggle and oppression.

Never Forget is distributed by Hidden Beach, an independent record label that specializes in Neo-Soul, R&B, and Nu-Jazz. Additional information about Hidden Beach, including interviews with Dr. West, can be found on their website. Cover art for Never Forget is a photo taken from the British National Archives of captive African children, taken illegally after the abolishment of slavery, on the Dutch HMS Daphie in 1868. This picture is a striking image that reminds us that injustice still exists. The insert includes images of black America and a photo of Dr. West “conducting” class with his hands high in the air, depicting him as a conductor of knowledge. Dr. West’s message is clear, that in a time when hip-hop has been commercialized and conscripted by corporate commodification, it is indeed time to bring the message back to hip-hop.

Posted by Heather O’Sullivan

View review October 12th, 2007

Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story

stax.jpgTitle: Respect Yourself: The Stax Record Story
Directors: Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville
Executive Producer: David Horn
Video Format: DVD, NTSC, Region 0, Anamorphic Widescreen
Duration: 113’
Label: Concord Music Group, Inc.
Catalog No.: DVD-7032
Date: 2007

“It is an epic story. That which gave it life nearly killed it more than once. Innocence…naked innocence…good and evil…light and dark…black and white. In Memphis, in the 60s, people who couldn’t dine together joined together to make music – soul music, at a place called Stax.”

Respect Yourself is the story of Stax Records in Memphis, TN, which became the pre-eminent Soul music label in the United States during the Civil Rights era. The label released a massive catalog of chart-topping singles between 1959 and 1975, including “Respect Yourself,” “Green Onions” “Midnight Hour,” “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” “Soul Man,” “Knock on Wood,” and the Shaft theme, among many others. Concord Music Group, Inc (which acquired and resurrected Stax in December of 2006). has now released this documentary on DVD, broadcast originally on PBS as part of its “Great Performances” series on August 1, 2007.

The documentary, beautifully narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, was directed by Grammy®-nominated filmmakers Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, and presents the first comprehensive look at Stax, chronicling the story through first-hand accounts of celebrated musicians and label artists like Isaac Hayes, Steve Cropper, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Booker T. & the MG’s, Rufus and Carla Thomas, and the Staple Singers, as well as label president Al Bell, the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Richard Pryor. These personal narratives, together with rare performances, photographs, previously unreleased home movies, and new recordings, chronicle the roller-coaster history of this label during turbulent times, from its rise to prominence as one of the largest and most successful black-owned companies in the country to its bankruptcy in 1975.

Respect Yourself calls out the message that music breathes with the life of its creative time, and the soul of an era can be heard in these vintage recordings and in the thoughts and reflections of its creators. The disk is worth owning for such a prime seat at a window into the past, but there are limited special features (only one – the Stax All-Star Reunion Rehearsal, which includes Booker T. & the MG’s, William Bell, Eddie Floyd, and Isaac Hayes). It is incredibly easy to navigate, however, with clear, concise, and yet detailed, chapter markings (accessible on both the disk itself and listed on the insert), and the insert includes a nice photo collage bonus. I especially like one thoughtful feature in particular of the disk’s behavior – when you push the “menu” button during playback, you are taken to the “Chapters” menu with the current one highlighted.

For further information:

Maultsby, Portia K. 2006. “Soul.” In African American Music: An Introduction, edited by Mellonee V. Burnim and Portia K. Maultsby, 271-291. New York and London: Routledge. (A scholarly overview of the development of Soul into a distinct African American musical style)

Gordon, Robert. 2001. It Came From Memphis. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc. (A search for Memphis’ neglected social history, from resident and Respect Yourself Co-director Robert Gordon).

SoulMusicStore.com (Top rated website for purchasing rare and hard-to-find R&B, Motown, and soul music recordings)

Posted by Anthony Guest-Scott

View review October 12th, 2007

Welcome to the October Issue

This month we’re featuring an eclectic group of world music offerings including: Singing for Life: Songs of Hope, Healing, and HIV/AIDS in Uganda from Smithsonian Folkways; the latest release from Zap Mama; a compilation of previously unreleased Bob Marley & the Wailers tracks from Rounder; and Ethiogroove, a DVD featuring a live performance by an American jazz ensemble paired with an Ethiopian singer. Other new DVD releases include Respect Yourself: The Stax Record Story documentary and Gil Scott-Heron: The Paris Concert. On the soul side, we’ve got new releases by ‘60s soul singer Bettye LaVette and the neo-soul of Nicole Willis and the Soul Investigators. Also covered is a blues offering from The Soul of John Black (aka former Fishbone guitarist John Bigham), and Dr. Cornel West’s new CD, Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations. Wrapping up this issue is a tribute to Luciano Pavarotti, featuring video clips of his duets with black artists—don’t miss the grand finale with James Brown!

View review October 12th, 2007

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