Archive for March, 2008
Title: Kevin Michael
Artist: Kevin Michael
Catalog Number: 243580-2
In the interest of fairness to Kevin Michael, I feel I must acknowledge the fact that I am not in his selected age demographic. I’m probably about ten years too old to really be into this style of R&B music. It a tad pop-ish, in the sense that it was meant to appeal to a mainstream taste palette, and that’s fine because Michael is a talented singer who deserves a chance to be heard by a wide audience. The compromises this album makes to generate mass appeal is both the strength and weakness of his self-titled debut album Kevin Michael.
Michael is a twentysomething Pennsylvania native who taught himself to sing and has been in and out of the record industry since age 11. After catching the ear of a former Virgin Music executive, he finally got his shot at making a full album with Atlantic Records in 2007. His voice is reminiscent of a Rahsaan Patterson or a Tonéx in that he has a distinctive and well-developed upper range and falsetto which is the strength of his vocal ability.
The songs on Kevin Michael generally sound like a collection of singles that don’t necessarily belong on the same album. That said, there are some very good songs on the CD. The first track, “We All Want the Same Thing,” featuring Lupe Fiasco, is an upbeat and slightly humorous unifying ditty that is pretty self-explanatory. “Hood Buzzin” is reminiscent of Dr. Dre’s hit “Still D.R.E.,” and “It Don’t Make Any Difference to Me” featuring Wyclef Jean is an ode to celebrating love despite the odds and differences. Perhaps the two best tracks on the album are “Too Blessed to Be Stressed” featuring Q-Tip, and an acoustic version of “We All Want the Same Thing” featuring Akil Dasan. Not only are Michael’s vocals and Q-Tip’s production extremely solid, but Akil’s arrangements serve to highlight Michael’s vocal strengths.
Overall, Kevin Michael impresses both as singer and songwriter (he co-wrote many of the songs). The album is definitely worth a listen, but it isn’t quite distinctive enough to really stand out among all of the other young male vocalists on the market. Hopefully, in the future, Michael will find a way for his talent to truly shine.
Posted by fredara mareva
March 7th, 2008
Title: Tsimba itsoka
Artist: Oliver Mtukudzi
Label: Heads Up International
Catalog No.: CD 2855
Date: August 28, 2007
As we walk through life, each of us leaves a unique mark on the world. “No foot, no footprint,” (Tsimba itsoka) the proverbial phrase that titles this release, expresses this idea and serves to conceptually link the various tracks on Oliver Mtukudzi’s latest offering. This singer/guitarist/composer uses poetry, proverbs, and philosophy to create the lyrical melodic lines that are heard atop powerful Afro-pop grooves.
Through his unique blend of jazz, reggae, blues, and indigenous elements, Mtukudzi is not afraid to explore the darker side of the human experience with songs that tackle subjects such as rape, gambling, jealousy, and crime. With each song Mtukudzi re-articulates the question “What kind of footprint will you leave?” Like many other musicians in communities throughout Africa, Mtukudzi offers moral lessons for his listeners through his socially conscious lyrics. Overall, Mtukudzi cautions his listeners to step carefully through life to avoid the traps and pitfalls that others have had the misfortune to fall into. Although the songs are sung mostly in the artist’s native language of Shona (found primarily in Zimbabwe), listeners will be able to connect with each track’s lyrics, because the liner notes provide an English translation of the meaning of each composition. Moreover, the universal themes of the songs, coupled with the laid back grooves driven by Mtukudzi’s hypnotic guitar style, will resonate with a wide variety of listeners.
Oliver Mtukudzi, better known to his fans simply as “Tuku,” has had a remarkable impact on Zimbabwean popular music over the past four decades with his more than 45 recordings. After gaining some notoriety within Zimbabwe for his song “Stop Before Go” in 1975, Mtukudzi joined the Wagon Wheels, where he had the opportunity to perform with this country’s most popular music star – Thomas Mapfumo. Although Tuku’s first single with the band (“Dzandimomotera”) went gold, he left shortly thereafter to pursue a solo career. He formed the band the Black Spirits, which earned a gold record for their first release in 1979. The following year, as Zimbabwe was celebrating its newly won independence, the group released the recording Africa, which became one of the most important albums of its time. Its two hit singles “Zimbabwe” and “Mazongonyedze” captured the jubilant mood of the nation, and launched the Black Spirits into the spotlight. Subsequently, the Black Spirits produced two albums a year until 1998, when Mtukudzi started to release albums under his own name. His record Tuku Music launched the musician into the global music scene, receiving acclaim not only in South Africa and Zimbabwe, but reaching audiences as far as the UK, the US, and Asia.
Following this success, Tuku embarked on a worldwide tour with African music stars Baaba Maal, Toumani Diabate, and Taj Mahal. Riding this wave of popularity, his next album, Paipevo (1999), quickly climbed the Zimbabwean music charts. In 2005, Mtukudzi joined the Heads Up label and produced Nhava. Similar to his latest release, this album features Tuku’s graceful guitar work along with poetic, proverbial, and philosophical lyrics that pose moral questions to his audiences.
Posted by Paul Schauert
March 7th, 2008
Title: Ice Cube: In the Movies
Artist: Ice Cube
Label: Priority Records
Catalog No: 09463 97253 28
Ice Cube is one of the most legendary figures in hip hop music and culture. With N.W.A., Cube laid the foundation for gangsta rap. As a solo artist, he took rap music to new heights with his booming voice and chilling social commentary. Another avenue in which Cube has made a significant impact is film-as an actor, screen writer, director, and musician. Over the last fifteen years, he has made many notable contributions to the soundtracks of his own films as well as others. Ice Cube: In the Movies is a Priority release that compiles Cube’s best soundtrack work into a single disc.
The CD opens with Ice Cube’s three most commercially successful soundtrack singles, “You Can Do It” from Next Friday (2000), “We Be Clubbin” from The Player’s Club (1998), and “Natural Born Killaz” with Dr. Dre from Murder Was the Case (1994). After the lackluster “Anybody Seen the Popo’s” from XXX State of The Union (2005), his gangsta rap classics “Friday” from Friday (1995) and “How to Survive in South Central” from Boyz N The Hood (1991) are included back to back. The well-written and grossly overlooked “Ghetto Vet,” from I Got the Hookup (1998), kicks off the second half of the album. “Higher” from Higher Learning (1995) and the classic “Trespass” with Ice-T from Trespass (1992) rounds out the disc.
Aside from minor sequencing issues, there is nothing wrong with this compilation. Priority Records did a solid job of amassing Ice Cube’s best soundtrack work. In a genre where artists typically give their most mediocre songs to soundtracks, Ice Cube’s material stands out. Over the last few years, rappers Eminem and Three Six Mafia have won Oscars for their contributions to film soundtracks.1 Ice Cube: In the Movies proves that Ice Cube set the standard for hip hop soundtracks and deserves a lifetime achievement award if one is ever created for this category.
Posted by Langston Collin Wilkins
 On March 5, 2006, Three 6 Mafia made history as they became the first Black music group to win an Academy Award for Best Song and also became the first hip hop artists to ever perform at the ceremony. The group was nominated for the song “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” from the Hustle & Flow soundtrack. This marked only the second time a rap act has won an Academy Award, following Eminem in 2002. -cf. Wikipedia.
March 7th, 2008
Title: Marsalis Music Honors Alvin Batiste
Artist: Alvin Batiste
Label: Marsalis Music/Rounder
Catalog No.: 74946-0007-2
Looking back on my days as an undergraduate music student at Southern University, I can remember listening in awe to Alvin Batiste, affectionately known as “Mr. Bat,” as he rehearsed the university jazz band. Even stumbling upon the sound of Mr. Bat practicing on solo clarinet was an unforgettable experience. I remember walking through the music annex with a friend during freshman year. We both played clarinet and were on our way to practice when we heard someone in the middle of some serious “shedding” (the term used at Southern for practicing) on clarinet. Once we arrived at the source of the shedding, we just stood there for a few minutes watching Mr. Bat in awe. Needless to say, we quickly hid our clarinets and began to slowly back away from his studio door.
Avant garde clarinet extraordinaire Alvin Batiste was born November 7, 1932 in New Orleans, Louisiana. He was first introduced to the clarinet by his father. As the story goes, the summer before entering Booker T. Washington High School Batiste’s father handed him a clarinet. Not taking the instrument seriously, he put it down after only tooting a couple of notes. Later, however, while visiting a cousin, Batiste heard a recording of Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time.” From that point on he was inspired, and eventually pursued both a Bachelor’s degree in Music Education from Southern University and a Master’s degree in clarinet performance and composition from Louisiana State University. During his college tenure, Batiste became the first African American soloist to be featured with the New Orleans Philharmonic. Throughout his career, Batiste performed with some of the most recognized jazz musicians of the twentieth century, including such giants as Cannonball Adderley, Ornette Coleman, Joe Robichaux, and Ray Charles (just to name a few). In addition to his talents as a player, Batiste was also interested in jazz education. He founded the jazz program at Southern University in 1969 and assisted in the creation of the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, where he also headed up the jazz program whose alumni include the Marsalis brothers. Tragically, Alvin Batiste suffered a heart attack on May 6, 2007 at the age of 74 and died hours before a scheduled performance at the New Orleans Jazz Festival.
Marsalis Music Honors Alvin Batiste takes the listener through 10 audibly delectable tracks steeped in the flavors of New Orleans. The feast begins with the beautifully garnished appetizer of “Clean Air.” Before tasting the morsel, you notice its vibrant coloration, which lures you in. You begin to nibble and find yourself throwing your head back with your eyes closed as you savor the crisp vocals of Edward Perkins and the pristine playing of Batiste. “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone” is the Merlot; you begin to blush as the clarinet cleanses your pallet with its mellow mood and smooth vibrato. The meal arrives with the sweet aroma of “Edith” and tangy zest of “The Latest.” After the main course, “Skylark” lulls you into a trance and convinces you to eat some more. At this point the doors of the kitchen swing open and in comes the dessert. “What about my diet?” you ask, trying to fight the urge for more. But its no use. “Bat Trad” and “Salty Dogs” are placed in front of you for dessert, and you’re quickly whisked away to the French Quarter where your diet no longer exists.
In the accompanying CD liner notes, Bob Blumenthal states that “the feeling of family permeated the recording sessions.” Batiste is joined by friend Edward Perkins (vocals), student Branford Marsalis (saxophones), student Herlin Riley (drums), Russell Malone (guitar), Lawrence Fields (piano), and Ricardo Rodriguez (bass). Further evidence of the family presence is exemplified through “My Life is a Tree,” the lyrics of which were written by Edith Batiste (Alvin’s wife). The words for “Everloving Star” were supplied by their son Maynard, and Batiste’s grandson’s nick name supplied inspiration for “Bumps.”
Marsalis Music Honors Alvin Batiste is a great CD for the masses, providing the uninitiated listener with a captivating and yet all too brief encounter with a musical legend. The last stanza of the Southern University Alma Mater reads “O Southern, Dear Southern, Thy name will ever be, as mighty as the river that flows on to the sea.” Just as mighty and enduring as that river is the name of Alvin Batiste and his great musical legacy, and it will flow on through recordings like this one.
Posted by Terence La Nier II
March 7th, 2008
Title: Live at Newport ‘58
Artist: Horace Silver
Label: Blue Note Records
Catalog No: 0946 3 98070 2 4
Horace Silver is a living legend. He was there during bebop; he even composed many of the more memorable tunes. In 1955 he and Art Blakey established the Jazz Messengers, a group that would remain influential and important in the jazz canon even after Silver’s departure in 1956 and Blakey’s death in 1990. Silver was also the pianist on the influential Miles Davis album, Walkin’. His comping combined the compositional elements of a player such as John Lewis while being structured around the sounds of the blues. Silver is no doubt a great pianist, but he has always sought to reach people with his playing rather than dazzle them with flashy runs over the keys. This led him to be a pioneer in hard bop, a style of music that allowed jazz musicians to delve deep into their roots and reconnect with the blues.
Silver’s compositions are noteworthy because of the structure that permeates them. Introductions, interludes, and endings cause his pieces to be more substantial than those of the typical bebop musician where a head chart with a short piano introduction was sufficient. As a composer and bandleader he put out many albums that feature his own pieces and nothing more. Jazz musicians have preserved his compositions on the bandstand and in the studio and now they have a new collection to draw inspiration from.
Live at Newport ’58 is the result of a delightful discovery by producer Michael Cuscuna, who found this previously overlooked recording at the Library of Congress. While the CD boasts no previously unknown pieces, it does include performances of some of Silver’s lesser known compositions. What makes this 1958 recording especially important, however, is the fact that it is a live concert performance. Silver, a noted perfectionist, preferred not to record live. Until now, his only other officially released live album was Doin’ the Thing ( At the Village Gate), recorded three years later in 1961 and featuring a different line-up. The players at the 1958 concert include: Junior Cook, tenor saxophone; Louis Smith, trumpet; Horace Silver, piano; Eugene Taylor, bass; and Louis Hayes on drums. As jazz musicians and listeners focus on the different improvisations by their favorite players, they will enjoy these live versions of tunes they already know, while getting to know some of Silver’s other works.
The album starts off with an introduction of the band and then goes into the rhythm changes contrafact “Tippin’.” This piece, originally recorded as the B-side to “Senor Blues,” is little known in the Horace Silver canon but is no less brilliant than those that are more poplular. The head is sound and the solos are well built. Junior Cook is not loquacious but makes firm statements. Louis Smith also plays well but the solo that really shines is the composer’s. Horace Silver quotes liberally and even quotes the contrafact, “I Got Rhythm,” in his solo.
The album continues with “The Outlaw.” This tune has an unconventional AABC form with a tag (the A section is 13 bars, the B section is 10, the C section is 16, followed by a 2 bar tag) for a total of 56 bars. With a form like this it is common to use rhythm changes or blues as a form for blowing, but here the musicians play the form in their solos. There are great contributions from Cook and Smith, but once again it is the composer that can truly play his own tune. Silver’s solo communicates brilliantly and never fails to evoke a down home feeling.
Probably the most well known tune on the album is “Senor Blues,” a latinesque, hard grooving, minor blues played in a 12/8 shuffle meter. The tune grooves hard even though Louis Hayes shows his definite tendency to get excited and rush the beat. The trumpet solo by Louis Smith is superb (Cuscana states in his liner notes that “The trumpeter sounds eerily like his successor Blue Mitchell on the first few bars of his solo”). The piano solo is also fantastic and contains a sequencing of a blues lick that was forged out of a childhood taunt (Na-Na-Na-Na-Boo-Boo). As always, it is interesting to listen to Silver’s improvisations-they are the epitomization of composition on the spot.
Live at Newport ’58 closes with a rendition of the quintet’s theme song, “Cool Eyes.” All five men solo on this piece and, though all of the solos are great, once again it is Silver that seems to rise above. At approximately six and one half minutes in he launches into a polyrhythmic ostinato that is captivating. Even during the bass solo by Taylor it is the sparse comping of Horace Silver that make the solo complete.
The quintet featured in this 1958 concert played very well together but the group was apparently not meant to be. Smith left to return to teaching and was replaced with Blue Mitchell on trumpet. Louis Hayes left to join Cannonball and Nat Adderly and was replaced by Roy Brooks. Though the latter group went on to become what many people consider to be Silver’s classic quintet (the same group featured on Doin’ the Thing – At the Village Gate), it is wonderful do be able to hear live material from the earliest incarnation of the quintet. With a steady groove and top notch compositions it is easy to see why Horace Silver and his quintet have been mainstays in the jazz canon for over fifty years.
Posted by Ben Rice
March 7th, 2008
Artist: Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals
Catalog No.: 09463 93385 28
Ben Harper has proven to be a talented musician over and over again. He has appeared in concert with such legends as Willie Nelson and Eric Clapton, recorded stellar albums (especially noteworthy is Live From Mars from 2001), and he has brought the lap steel guitar and Dobro into the modern rock scene without losing track of the heritage that comes with them. His band, The Innocent Criminals, specializes in establishing groove. Whether it is a country blues train beat or a hard rocking Led Zeppelin cover, this band remains tight, inventive, and always rises to the occasion. On this new album another talent of Harper’s brings the band and the man together-songwriting-which is the key element on Lifeline and it is strong. Harper’s influences are easily seen in this album, all the way from Berry Gordy to Tom Petty. Through predominantly acoustic arrangements and honest vocals, these songs speak loud and clear.
The album starts off with the mid tempo, straight ahead rock tune “Fight Outta You,” featuring a hook so well-constructed that it is reminiscent of a 1970s Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers single. Perhaps the hook, mixed with an actual message in the lyrics, makes the nostalgia ring true. Track two, “In the Colors,” echoes Bill Withers’ gospel infused soul sound while a two and four guitar chunk shows Harper’s Motown influence.
The next two tracks are filled with piano and gospel influences. They differ in that “Fool for a Lonesome Train” has folk elements while “Needed You Tonight” vacillates between the overdrive and harmonic surprises of a hard rock band and a 12/8 soulful groove. The heavy acoustic strumming and piano fills on the fifth track recall another ’70s icon, Cat Stevens, while the wispy vocals, airy harmonies, and textural guitar solo on “Having Wings” definitely create some imagery.
The album continues with more Bill Withers-laced soul on “Say You Will.” Particularly nice on this track is the use of Conga drums. “Younger than Today” sounds as though Harper may have been listening to street musicians from the UK or even U2 or Coldplay. The truth in the singing keeps it within the general feel of the album. “Put it on Me” is the one mostly electric song on the album and features a funky ’70s groove – not as deep as Sly Stone or Rufus, but something more like the Doobie Brothers. On this track the listener also gets to hear Harper play his lap steel like the late Duane Allman, with blues inflections and a heavy, vibrant tone (in concert this is a specialty of his). “Heart of Matters” is a mostly straight-ahead rocker with a shuffle feel.
The truest beauty of the album comes on the last two tracks. “Paris Sunrise #7″ is an acoustic instrumental that features a free time modal foray, similar to the opening of an Indian raga. This piece is performed with a slide on Harper’s Dobro and sounds much like another slide player, Derek Trucks. When the piece concludes it bleeds into the title track, “Lifeline.” This closing track is a simple, upbeat waltz that features Harper’s emotionally raw vocals expressing his heartfelt lyrics. For this listener these last two tracks were the highlight of the album.
Lifeline is available in three versions. When purchasing the standard CD the eleven tracks mentioned above are what you get. The two disc deluxe enhanced edition includes a DVD with live versions of all of the songs on the album. At iTunes the album comes with four bonus tracks: live versions of “Lifeline,” “Fool for a Lonesome Train,” and “Needed You Tonight.” The other bonus track is an extended medley of “Paris Sunrise #7″ and “Lifeline.” Anyone that enjoys honest and pure songwriting with tight grooves from real instruments will enjoy Lifeline.
Posted by Ben Rice
March 7th, 2008
Title: It Is Time for a Love Revolution
Artist: Lenny Kravitz
Label: Virgin Records
Catalog No.: 724386378620
Lenny is back! Well, perhaps he never entirely went away, but this is his first album in almost four years. His latest effort (his eighth album of new material) offers up his usual dose of poetic lyrics, distinctive vocal delivery, and incredible guitar solos. Overall, he has now sold over thirty million albums worldwide and by anyone’s standards is a superstar. The world needs more artists like Kravitz, who appears to be comfortable with his sound and his place in the music realm.
It Is Time for a Love Revolution is a collection of vintage-sounding Lenny Kravitz songs (view the promo video here). There are singles like “I’ll be Waiting” and “A Long and Sad Goodbye” that fit the mold of the forlorn and hyper-emotional rock ballads that Kravitz has become known for. In general, however, the tone of the album is definitely more downtempo and lacks the harder edge songs like “Are You Gonna Go My Way” (1993) found on his earlier releases. But the album is not all high and dry. Also featured are more upbeat and rhythmic tracks like “Dancin’ with Me.” So depending on which Lenny you prefer, you will either be completely satisfied or slightly bored with the sound of the album.
True to form, Kravitz did most of the work on this album. In addition to serving as executive producer, he wrote and arranged all of the songs. As if that were not enough, he also played electric guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards on most of the tracks. On the positive side that may be a good thing because Love Revolution captures all of the various sides of Lenny’s musicianship. However, his insistence on recording as a one man band also leads to a somewhat formulaic sound that can make you wonder if you’ve been listening to the same song over and over again.
For a Lenny Kravitz fan, It’s Time for a Love Revolution will do nothing to turn you away. If you’re someone who has heard of Kravitz but you’ve never really given him a listen, then this CD is a solid introduction his unique style. While the album may not sound revolutionary, It’s Time for a Love Revolution is a testament to Kravitz’s twenty year track record of creating good music, time and time again.
Editor’s note: It’s Time for a Love Revolution is also available in a deluxe edition that includes a DVD with a documentary about Kravitz and the making of the album.
Posted by fredara mareva
March 7th, 2008
Title: Follow Your Heart: Moving with the Giants of Jazz, Swing, and Rhythm and Blues
Author: Joe Evans, with Christopher Brooks
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
They call me raggedy, call me raggedy, ‘cause my clothes are in pawn,
Call me raggedy, call me raggedy, ‘cause my clothes are in pawn,
But when you see me tomorrow,
I’ll have my best clothes on.
This tune, sung by a man selling fish on the outskirts of Pensacola, Florida one day in 1921, was Joe Evans’ first encounter with the twelve-bar blues. “Young as I was, I felt something click deep inside me. For the first time, I had a feeling that was almost as haunting and soulful as the fishman’s voice. That feeling became a touchstone for the rest of my life.” Thus begins the autobiography of Joe Evans, the third installment in the University of Illinois Press’s new African American Music in Global Perspective series, co-edited by Portia K. Maultsby and Mellonee V. Burnim in affiliation with the Archives of African American Music and Culture at Indiana University.
Joe Evans is now in his nineties, and his broad=deep perspective spans many historical events, musical periods, and roles (in addition to performing, he has also worked as a music executive and entrepreneur). With saxophone in hand, Evans joined musical icons on stage that most people living today have only read about, heard on recordings, or seen in archival video footage; included among this legendary and diverse lineup are Billie Holiday, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Johnny Hodges, Nat “King” Cole, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Charlie Parker, and Lionel Hampton. Evans actually met “Ma” Rainey! Evans’ stories remind us that these symbols of jazz and R&B history were actually living people, but he also tells us about other talented lesser-known musicians that would otherwise be lost to the annals of time.
After two Forwards (one by Tavis Smiley and the other by Bill McFarlin) and one Preface (by Christopher Brooks, whose interviews with Evans constitute the core of the book), Follow Your Heart is divided into three parts. In Part One, Evans chronicles his journey from the time the music bug hit him as a child in Pensacola, Florida to his first professional stint in Ray Shep’s band. Part Two begins with Evan’s trek to the proving ground of New York City, tracing his tenure in various big bands both in the states and on the international circuit. Part three begins with Evans returning to New York City right around the time the Savoy closed in 1958, follows his debut on the R&B scene with performances for Motown and the establishment of his own label, Carnival Records, and ends with his pursuit of a college education around the age of 60. A bonus section at the end of the book provides an abridged discography of songs arranged and produced by Evans for Carnival Records (catalog numbers included).
Joe Evans’ life story is riveting, and particularly so because it speaks to all the things that matter when you talk about music. Behind the notes, the rhythms, and the tunes, there are real people, real industries and institutions, and real social conditions that shape our lives. Throughout Follow Your Heart, Evans describes a deeply personal account of how each these ingredients came together in the life of one man, returning always, however, in the end, to the people that mattered to him. In the Epilogue he writes,
There is a song that summarizes how I sometimes feel at this point in my life: “I’ll Be Seeing You,” written by Irving Kahal and Sammy Fain. As far as I am concerned, nobody delivered it quite like Billie Holiday. No mater how many times she sang that song when I am was performing with her, I never failed to be moved. That line “In all the familiar places” is like a person trying hard not to say good-bye or let go of someone very dear to them. So even when the absent person is not physically present (as in death), the performer will be reminded of the impact they had on them and their life. Well, there are many people who had that impact on me. I believe I will see them again.
For further information:
“Carnival Records: Solid Soul Sounds from New Jersey”
Dave Moore’s detailed investigation into the history of Carnival Records, the label that Evans founded
I Never Walked Alone: The Autobiography of an American Singer
Autobiography of opera singer Shirley Verrett, co-authored with Christopher Brooks
Posted by Anthony Guest-Scott
March 7th, 2008
Title: Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia
Label: Smithsonian Folkways
Catalog No.: 40079
Editor’s note: Smithsonian Folkways has received many requests from radio stations for re-servicing Black Banjo Songsters so they can pair it up with Otis Taylor’s CD on their respective radio shows. We thought we’d do the same, just in case you missed this CD when it was originally released back in 1998.
Otis Taylor’s recent release, Recapturing the Banjo, is not only an album, but a statement of musical lineage. And if the banjo is to be “recaptured,” it must be asked who is doing the recapturing: blues players or black players? The banjo has a clear history traceable to Africa via slaves in the American South back through the Middle Passage. Long before anyone heard the lighting-fast, three-finger picking of Earl Scruggs, black musicians had already developed styles of banjo playing quite different from Scruggs speedy arpeggios. There are more recordings of these early banjo styles than most casual listeners might suspect.
One of the seminal collections is the venerable Smithsonian Folkways 1998 release Black Banjo Songsters, which collects thirty-two recordings of banjo songs from North Carolina and Virginia. Most of these songs were recorded in the 1970s or later, and mostly by musicians in the waning years of life. This led to the common conclusion that banjo music in black communities was a dying art form. Whether or not the tradition was dying is irrelevant at this point, because it’s clearly not dead. If we were to allow the commercial recording industry to proclaim what is alive and what is dead, we’d be privy only to a thin slice of the various music that continues to thrive outside the umbrella of commercial acceptance. In many ways this is the principle that has led Smithsonian Folkways to its unparalled success.
The songs on Black Banjo Songsters are anything but commercial and would most likely be of little interest to those who are unaccustomed to the rough hewn sound of field recordings, where pitch correction and over-dubbing are foreign concepts. Black Banjo Songsters is something of an educational project, shedding light on the various aspects of black banjo stylings including percussive claw hammer style as well as the two-fingers, up-picking “complementing” style. The extensive liner notes by banjo scholar Cece Conway and Scott Odell detail the specifics of these different styles.
The collection gives credibility to the diversity of approaches by black players. Just as white players such as Roscoe Holcomb, Earl Scruggs and Bela Fleck found individual sounds with the instrument, familiar songs such as “Coo Coo,” “John Henry,” and “Old Corn Liquor” get individual treatment by lesser known players such as Dink Roberts, Odell Thompson, and John Snipes.
But the education aside, the music is rich and welcoming, showcasing first class talent, many of whom were never offered recording gigs because they didn’t play the one of two genres that fit neatly on “race records.” Most importantly, it reminds us of what is lost when the missing piece of the puzzle goes unnoticed for too long.
Reviewed by Thomas Grant Richardson
March 7th, 2008
Title: Recapturing the Banjo
Artist: Otis Taylor
Catalog No.: 83667
Colorado isn’t the first state you probably think of as a center for the blues. Perhaps that outsider status is what allows Otis Taylor to construct his own framework of the genre. Taylor, who currently resides in Boulder, has worked out of Colorado for years. Though he took a hiatus from music making in 1977 to deal in antiques, he began playing again in 1995 and released the acclaimed album Blue-Eyed Monster in 1997. Taylor’s style has never been orthodox, nor has it adhered to a site-specific sound such as Delta blues, Memphis blues, or Chicago blues, yet he’s incorporated elements of each in the past. His latest release, Recapturing the Banjo, maps similar outsider space, although this time it’s more historical than spatial.
Recapturing the Banjo is undoubtedly Taylor’s project, but more accurately he leads a dream team of contemporary blues musicians, each with strong affiliations to traditional forms. Guy Davis, Corey Harris, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Keb’ Mo’, and Don Vappie all contribute substantially through combinations of picking, singing, and songwriting. The roster of musicians and their diverse contributions render the idea of a uniform “black” way to play the banjo dead on arrival.
The banjo has an uncomfortable but nonetheless essential role in African-American music, yet undoubtedly it has become more synonymous with white vernacular forms such as old-time and bluegrass music. The prototype came from West Africa on slave ships and evolved from such instruments as the xalam and akonting, reflecting such “melting-pot” concepts in its variations. Recapturing the Banjo showcases not only those variations of instrumentation but of playing styles, from Guy Davis’ percussive, thumb-heavy clawhammer on “Little Liza Jane,” to Don Vappie’s jazzy rhythms played on the tenor banjo in “Les Ognons.”
The song writing and selection reflect a frank and concerned role of African-American experiences. While Taylor’s own writing tends towards the dark side, including songs about a Klan lynching, “shot ‘em down” ballads, and white indifference to black suffering, the disc also includes up-tempo songs such as Gus Cannon’s seminal “Walk Right In” (made famous by the all white, folk-pop, sans-banjo trio The Rooftop Singers), the Creole children’s song “Les Ognons,” and the brooding affirmation of Keb’ Mo’s “The Way It Goes.”
Though there is much to learn here (the liner notes are complete with a bibliography and discography providing a more detailed history of black banjo music), the sound and feel of the music is anything but academic. Taylor refuses to substitute pedagogy for groove, and the album cranks along with a blend of old-time rollicking tunes and swampy electric guitar blues accented by the ever-present banjo. Taylor’s iconoclastic style is on full display here and it’s a shame he isn’t better known outside of blues circles, since his taste is so wide-ranging, never solidly fitting into genre categories, but always negotiating between them.
Posted by Thomas Grant Richardson
March 7th, 2008
Title: Thriller 25
Artist: Michael Jackson
Catalog No.: 88697 22096 2
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Thriller, “the world’s biggest selling album of all time” (the official subtitle), Legacy has released a deluxe casebook limited edition CD and DVD tucked into either end of a hardcover booklet featuring 48 pages of color stills from the music videos along with historic photos and song texts. One of the hottest 2008 releases thus far, the compilation has been hitting the top of the charts worldwide, no doubt introducing a whole new generation to the iconic album.
In addition to the digitally remastered original tracks, Thriller 25 includes six previously unreleased tracks, primarily remixes by contemporary artists in collaboration with Jackson. The best of these are will.i.am’s versions of “The Girl is Mine” and “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing),” plus Akon‘s remix of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something.” These three songs were the most pop oriented tracks on the original album and benefit greatly from the contemporary edge brought to the project by a couple of today’s hottest artist/producers. I was less enthusiastic about the remixes of “Beat It” and “Billie Jean” by Fergie and Kanye West, respectively. It’s a tall order to be sure, and though Fergie and West approach these classics with great respect and the remixes have a couple of inspired moments, overall they just seem unnecessary (though I expect the younger generation may disagree). The CD closes with “For All Time,” which was recorded by Jackson during the original Thriller sessions but didn’t make the final cut, for reasons that are readily apparent.
What makes this deluxe edition especially worthwhile is the inclusion of a DVD featuring the digitally remastered music videos (or short films, to be more accurate) for “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and “Thriller.” Also included is Jackson’s “Billie Jean” performance from the now legendary television special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, and Forever, where he introduced the moonwalk and created an immediate sensation. Back in the day, these Thriller videos literally “blew up” MTV and were significant on several different levels: by elevating music videos to an art form, by introducing intricate group dance numbers, by revitalizing R&B, and most importantly, by breaking the color barrier.
For those not old enough to remember, MTV originated on cable TV in the early ’80s as a venue for rock videos and initially featured only white musicians. Jackson and his record company lobbied hard to get on MTV (CBS Records president Walter Yetnikoff allegedly threatened to pull all of their product off the air and tell the public that MTV refused to play music by a black artist if they didn’t relent). Jackson not only got the “Billie Jean” and “Thriller” videos on the air, but they were such huge hits that MTV’s ratings shot into the stratosphere. As a result, Jackson was instrumental in paving the way for other black artists, such as Run DMC and Prince, who were also regularly featured on MTV in the ’80s. This has all been well-documented elsewhere, but it is worth mentioning again for those who weren’t around 25 years ago, especially since it goes a long way towards explaining how the pressures to crossover may have affected Jackson’s self-image and led to some of his eccentricities.
The Legacy staff has gone into overdrive to promote the album, including lots of “new media” features on the official website. The most noteworthy is the launch of Thrillercast, an all-star podcast series that features “legends of music, film and culture taking you behind the scenes to their own experiences with Michael and hearing the album for the first time.” The first four episodes have now been mounted and include discussions by Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, will.i.am, Nick Cannon, and Shane Sparks. Each podcast runs about 10 minutes and offers up lots of fascinating details regarding the impact of the album and videos.
In closing, I think it is worth noting the various editions of Thriller 25 that are currently available. In addition to the deluxe casebook edition reviewed here, Legacy is also offering a standard two-disc package. If you choose to download the album from iTunes or Amazon MP3, you apparently have the option of getting the “Super Deluxe Edition,” featuring bonus material from Thriller Special Edition (the 2001 reissue that included interviews with Quincy Jones and Rod Temperton) plus a “Billie Jean” underground mix, an instrumental “Thriller” mix, an extended “Billie Jean” and a digital booklet. Albums sold through the big box stores (Target, Best Buy, and Circuit City) all have slightly different track configurations and bonus mixes.
Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss
March 7th, 2008
This month we’re celebrating the 25th anniversary of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the world’s biggest selling album of all time, by featuring Legacy’s CD/DVD compilation Thriller 25. We’re also taking a look at the history of the banjo through the new Otis Taylor release Recapturing the Banjo and Smithsonian Folkways’ Black Banjo Songsters. Our ongoing focus on Black rock continues with reviews of the latest albums from Ben Harper and Lenny Kravitz. Jazz releases include the Marsalis Music tribute to New Orleans’ great clarinetist and educator Alvin Batiste, as well as Horace Silver’s Live at Newport ’58, produced from a recently discovered recording at the Library of Congress. We’re examining the role of hip hop in films with Ice Cube: In the Movies, and also taking a look at the debut album from young Philly native Kevin Michael and the new solo release from Zimbabwean superstar Oliver Mtukudzi. Wrapping up this issue is a review of Follow Your Heart: Moving with the Giants of Jazz, Swing, and Rhythm and Blues, the autobiography of Joe Evans (saxophonist, music executive, and founder of Carnival Records).
March 7th, 2008
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