Archive for May, 2008

Welcome to the May issue

This month we’re featuring Holy hip hop, also known as Christian rap or gospel rap, which blends the musical style and aesthetics of rap/hip hop with overtly Christian lyrics. To learn more about this subgenre of hip hop, be sure to check out the post “Holy Hip Hop 101,” as well as reviews of new CDs by Holy hip hop artists Sha Baraka, FLAME, Phanatak, and shai linne. The Sound of Philadelphia is explored in reviews of two new Legacy releases: Conquer the World: The Lost Soul of Philadelphia International Records, and a compilation of Gamble & Huff’s Greatest Hits. A big “thumbs up” is given to Palmystery, the new solo CD by bass player Victor Wooten, perhaps best known for his work with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. Though we gave Miles Davis’s The Complete on the Corner Sessions a brief mention in our “Best of 2007” line-up, we’re running a complete review in this issue. Also featured is The Great Debaters Soundtrack, with contributions by the Carolina Chocolate Drops; The Manchester Free Trade Hall 1964 performance by Rev. Gary Davis; and John Work, III: Recording Black Culture, which sheds new light on the field recordings made by the Fisk University professor.

View review May 9th, 2008

Holy Hip Hop 101

Holy hip hop (also known as Christian rap or Gospel rap) is a type of music resulting from artists using the musical style and aesthetics of rap/hip hop but including overt lyrics professing their Christian faith. The genre developed mainly within the larger framework of Gospel music in the 1980s as artists such as Stephen Wiley, dc Talk, and S.F.C. (Soldiers for Christ) began writing rap music with Christian lyrics. These early Christian rap albums were released by Gospel music labels such as ForeFront Records (now a part of EMI Christian Music Group).

In the 1990s, the genre spread as artists such as The Cross Movement and the Gospel Gangstaz expanded the audience. The Cross Movement, based out of Philadelphia, understands their Christian rap music to be yet another subgenre of the larger hip hop culture. The Gospel Gangstaz, comprised of ex-gang members, represent a number of holy hip hop artists who retain their cultural style, preference, and aesthetics for music making after a marked point of conversion in their spiritual lives. For example, artists such as Bushwick Bill (Geto Boys) and Christopher “Play” Martin (Kid ‘N Play) have transitioned from other subgenres of hip hop to Christian rap in recent years.

Currently, almost all of the major record labels for Christian music release albums that could be considered holy hip hop, but only a few specialize in this genre exclusively. The largest of these is the result of The Cross Movement establishing their own Christian rap label: Cross Movement Records. A number of African American and white American male artists make up the performers of this genre while there are very few female artists in this market. As with most subgenres of Christian popular music, there are many mixed reactions to this style of music from both the church and larger society. Finally, an important aspect of this genre is that a number of internet forums such as,, and (the holy hip hop data-base), and individual artists’ MySpace pages serve as networks for fans.

The four Holy Hip Hop releases reviewed in this issue represent the products of three independent record labels specializing in HHH from two geographical regions: two from Philadelphia (Cross Movement Records and Lamp Mode Recordings) and one from Dallas (Reach Records). These four albums offer only a small sampling of HHH but shed light on some salient issues and stylistic features of the genre. While the production techniques of HHH appear to have caught up with mainstream abilities, albums in this genre vary in style between albums and from track to track in many individual albums. The lyrical content is expressly Biblically-centered, offering countless vernacular metaphors, specific citations, and general thematic material related to the Christian faith. Within this overt Christian apology, artists’ personal faith tradition and perspectives come to the fore. These HHH artists interact with both the church and their “secular” counterparts by offering general (and sometimes harsh) critiques of actions viewed as ungodly with their favorite target being materialism. Overall, these four albums are well-produced and lyrically interesting examples of a continually emerging musical genre that interacts with both the secular and ecclesial world.

Posted by Mike Lee

View review May 9th, 2008

Crimes & Consequences

crimes_consequences.jpgTitle: Crimes & Consequences
Artist: Phanatik
Label: Cross Movement Records
Catalog No.: CRIME-23912
Date: 2007

A founding member of The Cross Movement, Phanatik has been involved with Holy Hip Hop/Christian Rap since the inception of the genre. Cross Movement Records released Crimes & Consequences, Phanatik’s second solo album, in November of 2007. While not technically a concept album, Crimes & Consequences, addresses the negative effects of “sinful” behaviors in a pattern that loosely follows the structure of the Ten Commandments from the Hebrew Bible (a fact made most explicit in the track “Top 10”).

The opening and predominately spoken word track, “World’s Largest Prison,” is ominous, dark, and frames the CD in the extended metaphor that life on earth is like living in a prison. The metaphor builds on Phanatik’s evangelical perspective: “certain inmates” are dedicating their time to speaking to other inmates about “justification” because of “one uniquely qualified inmate who came from the outside” who is willing to switch places with the inmates who are “currently serving death sentences.” This metaphor extends throughout the CD as Phanatik addresses specific issues-obviously directed at mainstream hip hop culture-such as snitching, violence, materialism, and sexual promiscuity. At times this is broadly presented but on specific occasions, Phanatik’s wordplay offers a harsh corrective to mainstream rap artists. In his track “Ready to Go,” Phanatik raps, “makes me wonder / why is it that young bucks / are so quick to untuck / the gun at someone?”

The music of the entire album is hard, with booming, dark beats accompanied by minor key synthesized orchestral vamps. Phanatik’s rapping style is direct with simple, yet direct, hooks. The production quality is solid, equating to that of mainstream rap. In fact, aside from the lyrical content of the album, one would be hard-pressed to differentiate it from most mainstream hip hop.

Where Phanatik appears most insightful is in his broader social commentary. In the track “Mason Dixon,” Phanatik cleverly weaves his hook “just cause the whips done stopped / don’t mean you’re free to go / boy pick them crop…what up homie, ain’t your culture for sale?” He alludes to Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois and urges people in multiple geographic regions to do something he views as worthwhile rather than simply “being profitable.” Similarly, in “Pyramid Scheme,” Phanatik addresses the trappings of the “American Dream” which he equates to excessively buying material items.

While not every track relates to crime, Phanatik is most direct when addressing the prevalence of violence in the urban environment. He refers to his hometown as “Killadelphia” (in “Ready to Go”) and urges listeners to hear his positive gospel message instead of resorting to violence. Governed by the extended metaphor of the world as a prison, Phanatik articulates his evangelical perspective and critically engages the larger hip hop culture while employing hip hop’s own musical medium.

Posted by Mike Lee

View review May 9th, 2008

Our World Redeemed

our_world_redeemed.jpgTitle: Our World Redeemed
Artist: FLAME
Label: Cross Movement Records
Catalog No.: 30030
Date: 2008

Released on March 4, 2008, Our World Redeemed is the sequel to Christian rapper FLAME’s third album, Our World Fallen. Born Marcus T.W. Gray, St. Louis native FLAME was influenced by hip hop music at an early age and then by Christian rap upon hearing The Cross Movement. FLAME is now a successful recording artist for Cross Movement Records as evidenced by Our World Redeemed; it debuted at number five on the Billboard Top Gospel Chart and number one on the Christian Music Trade Association’s R&B/Hip-Hop Chart. Our World Redeemed contains sixteen stylistically diverse hip hop tracks and includes collaborations with popular Christian rap artists such as Trip Lee and Lecrae.

Similar to recent Cross Movement Records releases, Our World Redeemed is produced at a high quality. As a concept album, the tracks move between narrative musical tracks and spoken word interludes to form a story of a young man who decides to turn his life around with FLAME encouraging him all along the way.

The general theme of the lyrical content of the album presents, from FLAME’s perspective, the daily struggles of a Christian believer and the redemptive solution of the Christian faith. FLAME’s lyrics do not conceal his theological perspective, as the album contains a plethora of Biblical quotes: many passages are quoted directly and verbally referenced as to the specific book, chapter, and verse. These biblical selections exhibit an overtly Calvinist perspective. In the track “Who Can Pluck Us,” FLAME specifically addresses the theological notions of predestination and election and raps, “but they’re in the Bible we gotta talk talk about it.” He continues to label traditional Calvinist tenets of faith and suggests that these comprise “a test for your salvation.” Similarly, in “It’s All Gon’ Pass,” FLAME attacks worldly materialism by rapping, “you can have it all / the cars and the cash / it ain’t gonna mean nothing when the lord comes back.”

FLAME’s influence from the larger realm of hip hop is evident in both the album’s production and style of his rapping. For example, the track “Go Buck” uses a hard sounding, minor vamp of synth horns that could have been pulled off of any DMX album. In this track, FLAME’s fast paced rapping style sounds quite similar to that of Busta Rhymes. The more soulful and R&B inspired “It’s You” is much more upbeat and echoes production techniques reminiscent of The Neptunes and a syncopated rap style more similar to that of Tupac Shakur. The track “See More Him” cleverly spins the following phrase to allude to the Biblical story of Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree: “I wanna see more him / cause I’m sick of more me / I’m gonna be like Zy-ki / in the sycamore tree.” The vocal production on this track employs the technique achieved through the manipulation of Antares Auto-Tune that has recently been popularized by artists such as T-Pain. Therefore, this album, while presenting a straightforward Calvinist apology for the Christian faith, employs the techniques of and echoes much of contemporary hip hop production and aesthetics.

Posted by Mike Lee

View review May 9th, 2008

Turn Up My Life

Title: Turn Up My Life
Artist: Sho Baraka
Label: Reach Records
Catalog No.: 8 29569 80442 9
Date: 2007

Turn My Life Up is the first Reach Records release by Sho Baraka. Canadian-born and California-raised, Sho Baraka grew up during the peak of the gangsta rap era and began rapping, himself. After witnessing the troublesome effects gang life had on his close friends, Sho Baraka turned his life in a new direction and attended Tuskegee University where he became a Christian. There, he continued rapping but changed his lyrical content to mesh with his newfound spirituality.

In terms of lyrical content, the four albums reviewed in this issue (by Sho Baraka, FLAME, Phanatik and shai linne) are all laced with countless Biblical, theological, and ecclesial references. The rappers, in fact, cite many of these Biblical allusions verbally by noting the Biblical book, chapter, and verse. Along with using Biblical language in these citations, each artist conveys general Biblical themes in colloquial and vernacular language. Sho Baraka, while referencing many Biblical verses, has a particular aptitude for incorporating secular references to convey images of Christianity and seems to be the most invested in making his theological perspectives understandable to a general audience. Through a plethora of secular references (to movies, music, and current events), Baraka expresses ways for people to overcome personal trials and “exalt God to his proper place” (from “Slow it Down”) and ultimately, to revel in the goodness of God. In alluding to the death of Jesus, Baraka says that he “died harder than Bruce Willis” (from “100”).

One of the more soulful, R&B inspired tracks on the album is “Turn My Life Up” which features production techniques reminiscent of The Neptunes, and melodic singing by guest artists during the choruses. “Rebuild the City” employs a vocal production technique achieved through the manipulation vocal effects that has recently been popularized by artists such as T-Pain.

In “Overrated,” Sho Baraka raps, “The youngest quote 50 Cent but can’t count to fifty cents” and screams the chorus: “The money / the power / the fame / the lies and the game / it’s all / it’s all / it’s all / overrated.” This track can be compared to FLAME’s “It’s All Gon’ Pass,” where he attacks worldly materialism by rapping, “you can have it all / the cars and the cash / it ain’t gonna mean nothing when the Lord comes back.” This firm critique against materialism and references to hip-hop culture, in general, are consistent threads between each artist’s lyrics.

Posted by Mike Lee

View review May 9th, 2008

The Atonement

Title: The Atonement
Artist: shai linne
Label: Lamp Mode Recordings
Format: available for download
Date: 2008

Born and raised in Philadelphia, shai linne has a background in theater and the arts. Influenced by Run-DMC and Grand Master Flash, he was fully immersed in hip-hop culture from a young age. The Atonement is shai linne’s first solo album release and is produced by Lamp Mode Recordings, a small, independent Philadelphia record label which represents HHH artists linne, timothy brindle, Stephen the Levite, Evangel, deejay essence, and Hazakim.

The production of shai linne’s album is not as varied or “clean” as the other Holy Hip Hop albums reviewed in this issue. The Atonement is based more on the use of samples and incorporates the noise from record grooves. These facts, in combination with shai linne’s poetic (almost spoken word) rapping style, suggests an aesthetic choice to create more of an “underground” and less of a “pop” or “dance” vibe to the CD. Therefore, this does not appear to signal any regional differences since Cross Movement Records (CMR) is also based in Philadelphia, yet its releases are similar in style to those of Dallas based Reach Records (RR). Rather, these traits-the use of cleaner production, varied musical styles between tracks, and a general mirroring of mainstream hip-hop albums-suggest that the CMR and RR are well-established and financially sound record labels that are reaching large audiences.

In terms of musical style, shai linne’s vocals are more understated, laid back, and consistent when compared to FLAME and Sho Baraka, whose voices are more chameleon-like, varying from track to track and moving in and out of various styles. Each of these artists is deeply personal in his lyrical observations and reflections on personal stories, struggles, and identities while critiquing the problems of the world, non-Christian behaviors, and the church, itself. shai linne boasts about Christianity while simultaneously suggesting the meaninglessness of secular rap lyrics. In “Jesus is Alive” he raps, “Looking for the body of Jesus you won’t find it / we never lack spirit / letting you cats hear it / ‘cause his tomb is empty like most secular rap lyrics.” As with FLAME, shai linne’s perspective is similarly inspired by Calvinist theology as he references the concepts of total depravity (from “In Adam All Die”) and election (from “Jesus is Alive”).

Finally, it is worth noting the common practice of collaboration on tracks from the four Holy Hip Hop albums reviewed in this issue. In fact, shai linne appears as a guest artist on FLAME’s album while the popular Christian rap artists Trip Lee and Lecrae, among others, both appear on FLAME and Sho Baraka’s albums. Similarly, each album includes audio samples of male preachers delivering sermons. This integration further showcases each artist’s personal relationship to the ecclesial world.

Posted by Mike Lee

View review May 9th, 2008

The Complete on the Corner Sessions

Title: The Complete On The Corner Sessions
Artist: Miles Davis
Label: Sony/Legacy
Catalog No.: 88697062392 (6 CD box set)
Date: 2007

Even after his death, critics and musicians alike are still debating the merits of On the Corner, Miles Davis’s recorded declaration of a complete sonic makeover. After In a Silent Way (1969) and Bitches Brew (1970), two albums that clearly showed a new direction, the questions raised over On the Corner seem like a delayed reaction to the already apparent electricity and rock elements that prevail in even the late recordings of the second great quintet (Davis, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams). Perhaps it actually took the critics a few years to come up with a response to the stylistic change of Davis, or perhaps On the Corner was just released at the wrong time. Either way, the immense amounts of press–positive and negative alike–secured a famed position in history for On the Corner.

The general consensus on these recordings was that Davis was trying to emulate the sounds played by Jimi Hendrix and Sly & the Family Stone. By including the electric guitar as a prominent instrument and relying on vamps set by bassist Michael Henderson, he may well have justified this comparison. However, this is only what one hears on the surface of the recordings.

Compositionally, Miles Davis was miles away from Hendrix. As Paul Buckmaster clarifies in the liner notes, Davis had become interested in the music of Stockhausen-a composer who was continually experimenting with tape splicing and juxtaposing different sounds from varied prerecorded sources. Before these sessions, Buckmaster (a composer similar to Stockhausen) met with Davis, and the two of them collaborated on general ideas that would be played by the rhythm section and the horns. Buckmaster even contributed an amplified cello part to one cut. After these recordings were made, Davis and producer Teo Macero set out to create On the Corner. They spliced tapes from different sections of compositions, and even different sessions that sometimes had different players. This was the true magic of the original On the Corner album. Jazz was brought into the realm of the classical avant-garde via the use of tape splicing.

The Complete On The Corner Sessions features six discs comprising the complete takes recorded for the album. Tracks range from three minutes to thirty-two minutes. Most of these pieces were never even used for the producing session that spawned the original album. With these recordings it appears that Davis was truly interested in the “Black Rock” sound. Nearly every track is propelled by a half time groove akin to Hendrix’s “If 6 was 9” or a straight ahead four beat that resembles the Sly Stone hit “Dance to the Music.” Little activity comes from the soloists even while they solo. Melodic figures seem to be of little importance while rhythmic motifs and ethereal “noodling” take a prominent role.

The personel for these six discs is immense but the liner notes make the task of finding out who played on which track fairly simple. Davis draws upon former sidemen from Bithces Brew including Herbie Hancock on electric piano, John McLaughlin on guitar, and Jack Dejohnette on drums. There are also many new faces. Among a myriad of guitarists Pete Cosey and Reggie Lucas stand out. Session master Cornell Dupree makes an appearance on one track but this is a tease because his playing is so tasteful that he may have been the best man for the entire album. Some tracks feature Badal Roy on tabla and Kalhil Balikrishna on electric sitar. Another exotic instrument is the conga. This african element is supplied by Mtume or Don Alias and is heard on almost every cut. Al Foster drums for the majority of the session and provides solid, funky grooves while maintaining the jazz tradition of interacting with other members of the band. The organ chair is quite interesting. Cedric Lawson plays on many cuts but the more memorable keyboard playing is from Davis himself. The one person that is consistent throughout the entire boxed set is Michael Henderson on bass. The notes tell us that his basslines were improvised and that he was one of the few musicians given no direction. However, these basslines appear to be the glue that held these recorded jams together.

Most tracks have a similar vibe, and this is rather dissapointing. When one listens to the original album, the splicing mixes up the grooves and occasionally even the time signatures. There are little to no surprises here. The “Black Rock” elements are prevasive and never let the listener down but the tosses and turns created in the editing may leave anyone that knows the original album feeling crestfallen. Perhaps listening to this album is similar to taking the pieces out of a collage, reconstructing them in their original form, and then seeing what the difference is. The answer is that without the compositional element of tape splicing, this album is reduced to a large number of dance grooves. These unedited versions may be easier to listen to because the groove is always apparent but the artisitc concept of the original album is lost. Disc six contains the edited takes that comprised the original On the Corner album and one can listen to the rest of the set to find these splices in their entirity.

While the album is a mostly homogeneous barrage of heterogeneous sounds that explode or erupt from the instruments, each disc has a track that stands out. outstanding From disc one, “Jabali” draws attention simply for being a low key vamp. Rather than frenetic noises and clusters of sound, this composition relies on the groove established by bassist, Henderson. All the other instruments have a somewhat free and highly improvisational character. Even when many instruments are layered on top of one another the piece does not become cluttered because of the simplistic bass groove.

The standout track from disc two is “Rated X.” This piece is the opposite of “Jabali,” with a texture that is almost constantly dense. Davis supplies an ominous organ introduction and keeps the same vibe througouth the piece. Al Foster answers the dominant organ sound with a drum groove that is just as thick. The contrast comes from the stop times. Davis will hold dissonant chords while the entire band stops and restarts precisely in time. This is possibly the most intense part of the entire box set.

“Peace” from disc three is another low key vamp centered around the bass of Michael Henderson. This composition may or may not have chord changes. The guitar work of Reggie Lucas and Pete Cosey mixed with Dave Liebman’s flute playing give the effect of changing harmonies over an otherwise static vamp. This is welcome change from the monotonous one chord vamping throughout the majority of the six discs.

There are only two tracks on disc four; both are over thirty minutes long. However, “He Loved Him Madly” is by far the superior track. This piece starts out with a slow ethereal aura. The instruments are all simultaneously providing many different colors but they never interfere with each other. Nearly halfway through the tune, Al Foster sets up a groove emphasizing the upbeats. The others still play mostly sounds and colors rather than riffs or melodies. The slow evolution that takes place through the course of thirty-two minutes and fourteen seconds is beautiful. On this track Miles Davis employs many of his older era sound effects and tone colors that made his trumpet playing originally stand out.

“Minnie” from disc five is the possibly the most different track from the sessions. This song features actual chord changes and a guitar riff, as well as a shout chorus and an ending vamp. The rhythm section, however, could just as easily be playing Earth, Wind & Fire as a Miles Davis composition.

“Red China Blues,” a previously unissued single on disc six, reigns supreme over the other tracks. This composition features arrangements from Billy Jackson (rhythm) and Wade Marcus (brass) which, in combination with drummers Bernard Purtie and Al Foster, help make the band extremely tight. There are two definite heroes on this track. Session guitarist Cornell Dupree is masterful in his playing as he lays down a firm R&B groove that fits amazingly with the double drums and Henderson’s bass line. The other hero is Wally Chambers. His harmonica playing truly puts the blues elements in this piece. While Davis’s solo is excellent he doesn’t evoke the same “down home” elements that saturate the playing of Wally Chambers.

While The Complete On the Corner Sessions may reveal the secrets to all the magic tricks from the original album, they are certainly not lackluster. The performces are genuine and extremely funky, and the musicians all know their roles and support each other. Anyone interested in the funk genre will find these sessions not just enjoyable but informative. Any Miles Davis fan will appreciate the extensive liner notes that reveal so much about the compositional processes that Davis was using at the time. Perhaps the most interesting part is to be able to listen to the unedited tracks or “loops” to find the source of each splice on the original album. Any time that previously unreleased material is released, the question is asked why it was not put out in the first place. Possibly the artists, producers, or record companies felt that certain elements were not good enough. In this case, though, the unreleased material is more like the table scraps that were not eaten at the meal. People will eat what they want and leave what is undesirable. When making the original album Davis took what he wanted and left the rest. Just over three decades later this box set allows fans and critics to hear the rest.

Posted by Ben Rice

View review May 9th, 2008

Manchester Free Trade Hall 1964

Title: Manchester Free Trade Hall 1964

Artist: Reverend Gary Davis

Label: Document

Catalog No.: DOCD 32-20-14

Date: 2007

In Reverend Gary Davis we had one of the best examples of a musician who carefully navigated the terrain between sacred and secular musics, causing intersections not often heard. In the newly released Manchester Free Trade Hall 1964 from Document Records, we hear Davis performing as part of the “Gospel and Blues Caravan” touring throughout Europe, on a night that captures an excellent showman in top form.

Though the image of a blind guitar player adheres more to blues mythology than gospel, Davis performs four gospel songs on his trademark Gibson Jumbo-200 with natural ease, as if they were intended for the acoustic guitar. One of his trademark songs, “If I Had My Way,” finds Davis shouting his praise while his tremendous finger picking runs up and down the fretboard, oscillating between stellar bass runs and high register licks responding to his vocal lines. “The Sun is Going Down” brings Davis’s long time friend Sonny Terry along on harmonica, and the two sound majestic together, every bit as tight as Terry’s work with Brownie McGhee. Equally impressive is Davis’s “Coon Hunt,” a harmonica instrumental based on Terry’s “Fox Chase,” which gives further evidence of Davis’s wide and varied musical ability.

To cap things off, Davis ends with Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” showcasing his ragtime finger picking chops. Davis complicates the standard repertoire of a bluesman, moving not only between sacred and secular songs, but also with a double dose of ragtime in “Maple Leaf Rag,” and the impressive instrumental “Cincinnati Flow Rag.” According to the liner notes penned by Bob Grooms, Davis also excelled at the piano and banjo, and based on the virtuosic display heard here, one longs to hear what he might have had to offer on those instruments.

The few drawbacks of the album have nothing to do with Davis, but with the remastering of the tracks, which are inexplicably inconsistent. Some sound intimate and clear while others sound like bootlegs made from the audience. The loud applause in between takes is disruptive in its length and volume. This is surprising from Document, which generally excels at remastering historical material. The liner notes are adequate but mostly a song-by-song explication as to where each fits within Davis’s larger performing repertoire, as well as some general history as to Davis’s activities in Europe in the 1960s. The photos are minimal and offer only two shots of Davis backstage, so one never gets a visual sense of Manchester Free Trade Hall. Nonetheless, none of this undermines the astounding performance given that May night in 1964, where it became quite obvious that American blues and gospel had become transnational musics.

Posted by Thomas Grant Richardson

View review May 9th, 2008

Great Debaters

Title: Great Debaters: Music From & Recorded for the Motion Picture

Artists: Various

Label: Atlantic Records

Catalog No.: 396860

Date: 2007

Alvin Youngblood Hart, one of the key players on Otis Taylor’s recently released CD Recapturing the Banjo (reviewed in the March issue), is also central to the soundtrack of the Denzel Washington film, The Great Debaters, which tells an untold story of Black Americans in the 1930s. The film centers around a Texas Negro College’s debating team, coached by charismatic poet and communist agitator Melvin Tolson, played by Washington, and their historic victory over Harvard University. Scott Barretta’s notes indicate that “Washington [who directed the film] was looking for authentic material – whether blues, jazz, gospel, or country – that best suited the film.”

Indeed the soundtrack does offer a variety of musical styles, leading off with the strong and stirring “My Soul Is A Witness,” a contemporary take on a “ring shout” rendered on acoustic guitar and djembe (West African drum) and cajon (Afro-Peruvian box drum). Built around the repetition of the title phrase, and given call and response antiphony by Hart and soul singer Sharon Jones (of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings fame), “My Soul Is A Witness,” comes as close as anything to recreating the musical frenzy of Austin Coleman’s original. This opening track demonstrates with passion that while the music may be informed by historic “authenticity,” it is anything but a dusty museum piece.

Throughout The Great Debaters Hart, leading on acoustic guitar and vocals, shares the spotlight with Jones as well as Memphis guitarist Teenie Hodges, The Angelic Voices of Faith gospel chorus, and North Carolina string-band revivalists The Carolina Chocolate Drops. Together they create a vibrate patchwork of music, both sacred and secular, somber and exuberant, that powers along like a freight train. “Step It Up and Go” sets the tone with a finger popping country-blues, and “It’s Tight Like That” showcases Jones’s smoky vocals on a soulful reinterpretation of a early “hokum” standard by Tampa Red and Georgia Tom (aka Thomas Dorsey). Another standout is “I’ve Got Blood In My Eyes For You,” a song made popular in the 1930s as a guitar/fiddle duo by the Mississippi Sheiks (who had a bestseller with “Sittin’ On Top of the World”). Here it is given full string band treatment by The Carolina Chocolate Drops and Hart, who capture the spirit of the music without loosing the historical value and without compromising the rather arcane lyrics.

While filled with images from the film, the liner notes take the reader step-by-step through the history of each song and the basis for its inclusion in an effort to flush out the soundscape of the period. It should also be mentioned that two historical recordings are included, Marion Anderson singing Handel’s “Begrussung,” and Art Tatum’s “The Shout.” While differing musically from most of the acoustic blues, country, and jazz tunes, they are no less a part of that diverse soundscape.

It’s a shame that The Great Debaters project came together as a soundtrack that will inevitably limit its shelf life once the public has forgotten the largely forgettable film. In a just world The Great Debaters soundtrack would be experiencing the same unprecedented success as the O Brother, Where Art Thou album/phenomenon. Yet at the same time it’s heartening to see such revivalism taking place, where tradition isn’t left behind, but also isn’t doggedly adhered to by limiting the abilities and tastes of creative artists, or by assumptions regarding the limited tastes of listeners.

Posted by Thomas Grant Richardson

View review May 9th, 2008

John Work III: Recording Black Culture

Title: John Work, III: Recording Black Culture

Artists: Various

Label: Spring Fed Records

Catalog No.: SFR 104

Date: 2007

In 1993 Alan Lomax published his book The Land Where the Blues Began, to great popular and critical acclaim. The book told the story of his collecting adventures in the Mississippi Delta fifty years earlier, “discovering” and recording artists such as Son House, Muddy Waters, and David “Honeyboy” Edwards. In their co-edited book Lost Delta Found: Rediscovering the Fisk University-Library of Congress Coahoma County Study, 1941-1942, Robert Gordon and Bruce Nemerov detail the larger picture of the same collecting trips made by Lomax in the early 1940s by including the equally large contributions of Fisk University scholars (a collaboration which was almost completely obfuscated in The Land Where the Blues Began) and paying particular attention to the work of John Wesley Work, III. With the release of the CD John Work, III: Recording Black Culture, we now have the music to match the text of Lost Delta Found (through it’s not a companion piece), along with greater evidence of the variety of black musical culture in the early part of the twentieth century.

Recording Black Culture separates its14 tracks into six categories: Social Songs (fiddle and banjo tunes), The Quartets, Work Song, Congregational Singing, Blues, and Colored Sacred Harp (shape note congregational singing). On display here are both secular and sacred musics, though the liner notes indicate Work was mostly interested in secular “folk” musics. The wide range of music that is offered was almost entirely recorded before Work and his Fisk colleagues joined forces with Lomax and the Library of Congress for the trip to the delta. Work’s recordings were done in and around Nashville Tennessee, South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi. Many of the recordings have poor fidelity (even for historical recordings) and lend some insight as to why Fisk may have contacted the Library of Congress about a joint venture into the Delta: they wanted the more sophisticated equipment used by Lomax. In this regard Work was right, the tracks that surfaced later in Lomax’s collections are much higher in fidelity (e.g., The Land Where the Blues Began Rounder CD) and Work’s recordings are surely more interesting to a scholar than to most casual listeners.

Of the highest fidelity and given five tracks on the compilation are songs of The Quartets, including, with an egalitarian sprite, the Holloway High School Quartet, The Fairfield Four, The Heavenly Gate Quartet (a group of Work’s friends who sang together), and two unnamed groups. Here we have vocal harmony groups singing religious music in jubilee style with tight vocal parts and pulsating rhythms. The intimate sound of the quartets, specifically on the two tracks of the Heavenly Gate Quartet, provide great examples of vernacular presentations of popular stylings of the day, including “If I Had My Way.” Other tracks on the album, such as the congregational version of “Amazing Grace,” are harder to hear and are best left for academic scrutiny rather than pleasure listening. Many of these recordings are of particular interest because of their rarity; for example, the only known recording of blues street musician Joe Holmes singing “Ain’t Gonna Drink No Mo’,” as well as the ulta-rare recordings of fiddle and banjo players Ned Frazier and Frank Patterson that lead off the compilation.

The CD is packaged with comprehensive liner notes written by Bruce Nemerov and aided by archival photos of the people, places, equipment, and songbooks used during this era. Though the recording quality lacks the fidelity of other field collections of the time, and the repertoire is perhaps too wide ranging for some tastes, the packaging and release of this material (a joint effort between local, state, and federal arts agencies) offers further proof of what many musicians have known for years, that rural black music is not, and was never solely the blues.

Posted by Thomas Grant Richardson

View review May 9th, 2008


Title: Palmystery
Artist: Victor Wooten
Label: Heads Up International
Catalog No.: HUCD3135
Date: 4/1/2008

“Creating music is a lot like the eternal question about whether a tree falling in a forest really makes a sound if there’s no one there to hear it. A song is just an idea until someone brings it into the world. That’s the great mystery of music or any creative endeavor. The power is in the palm of your hand. You just have to release it to the world”

-Victor Wooten

Victor Wooten has a well-established record as one of the greatest electric bass players recording today. His technical proficiency in a bewildering array of performance styles and genres emerges through an unerring sense of the instrument as melodic, harmonic, groovin’ and overall integral part of a larger compositional fabric. This package shows up album after album, including on recordings as a longstanding member of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones (a fusion project that also defies simple classification, led by virtuoso banjo player Béla Fleck), numerous guest-artist contributions, and five solo recordings. Palmystery, his debut recording for Heads Up International, displays all of the qualities of Wooten’s previous work while still managing to sound fresh and original, and he is joined by a number of guest artists (the band varies from one tune to another), including Mike Stern on guitar, jazz bassist Richard Bona, and bluesman Keb’ Mo’ on slide guitar. To do this recording justice, I need to take you on a guided tour, tune-by-tune, and highlight the work of the diverse array of talent accompanying Wooten:

“2 Timers” Opens like a Flecktones tune, but soon blossoms out into a more frenetic soup of lickety-split melodies, extensive Q and A between instruments, catchy melodies and great grooves, and avant-garde atonal group improv – I love the half-time-feel break in the middle, a characteristically abrupt dynamic shift.

“Cambo” centers on a slapped and popped bass groove against effects-soaked chorus chanting and Joseph Wooten’s mellow 1970s R&B-style keyboard chords (but check out his brilliant runs later in the tune – they sound like rain; captivating and yet unobtrusive at the same time).

“I Saw God” is modeled on West African popular styles (Palm Wine in particular) with densely layered guitar melodies, bouncy, get-up-and-dance rhythms, and falsetto unison chorus vocals (featuring Richard Bona) that alternate with Wooten’s mostly spoken-word tale of an encounter with God.

“The Lesson” is almost entirely bass-driven, featuring a low-key melody backed with bass arpeggios and chords (the liner notes make sure to mention that Wooten did this with “no overdubs”) and backed with spare percussion (relative to the rest of the album). Wooten throws in some interesting tremolo and flamenco-like rasgueado articulations to punch things up.

“Left, Right, & Center,” with its funk-jazz fusion feel, features three astonishing drummers – JD Blair, Dennis Chambers (a former member of Parliament/Funkadelic and longtime drummer for John Scofield), and Will Kennedy! Wooten liked Mike Stern’s guitar solo on this tune so much, he decided to learn and double it, and Neal Evans backs up on Hammond B-3 organ.

“Sifu” opens with lush keyboard chords and sampled voice (Sifu Brian Edwards, with whom Wooten studied Wing Chun Kung Fu) – the whole tune has a swirly, sort of new-agey feel at the beginning which evolves into a groove, with Regi Wooten handling the rhythm bass work beneath Wooten’s blistering solos.

“Miss U” featuring The Lee Boys (a funk/gospel band out of Miami, FL) is a finely mixed musical gumbo: here a rock-guitar driven R&B feel backs up The Lee Boys’ gospel-inflected harmonies. Roosevelt “The Doctor” Collier’s pedal steel guitar, Alvin Lee’s electric, Wooten’s slide bass and Alvin “Lil’ Al” Cordy’s standard bass underpinning all add spice, depth, and nuance.

“Flex” opens with an infectious Wooten popping rhythm (played here on tenor bass). Joseph Wooten’s brilliant keyboards really shine on this tune – laid back rhythms and cascading sheet-runs (what Coltrane might have sounded like if he played keys). Check out Regi Wooten’s achingly atonal, funky, chord-driven guitar solo. Anthony “Flex” Wellington offers the thumb solo on bass.

In “The Gospel,” the whole Wooten family comes together around Wooten’s mother’s rendition of an old Southern Baptist hymn (recorded over the telephone) forming the base of the piece. In addition to Joseph Wooten on keyboards, Victor Wooten’s aunts and uncles sing along and some of the younger kids on the family sing on the second section.

“Song for My Father” opens with a characteristically squirmy and bombastic unison riff into a steady jazz-funk groove, complemented nicely by Regi Wooten’s treble-voiced rhythm guitar playing and features a great collection of solos: a wonderfully bluesy tenor sax solo by Karl Denson, fiery soulful work by Dane Bryant on keyboards, and Steve Bailey’s snakey fretless solo.

“Happy Song,” is, as you might guess, an upbeat R&B flavored instrumental with catchy riffs and grooves highlighting harmonized bass and guitar melodies.

“Us 2,” which closes Palmystery, is my personal favorite. Wooten’s slide bass and Keb’ Mo’s slide guitar perfectly complement one another as together they deliver a slow, contemplative tune. Here we are listening to an intense musical conversation between Wooten and Keb’ Mo,’ with moments of gentle, sympathetic back and forth and others of effortless synchronicity.

Palmystery is a musical journey into sheer talent, collaboration, and artistry. Make sure to follow up with some of the players that appear on the album, too, because Wooten allies himself with the best.

For further information:

The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music
A new work of fiction written by Wooten that explores his musical philosophy. The Music Lesson and Palmystery were both released simultaneously, and are designed to complement one another.

Victor Wooten’s Bass/Nature Camp
An annual event founded by Wooten. It features Wooten himself as well as a number of other incredibly talented bass instructors, and is designed to explore the link between nature and music-making.

Posted by Anthony Guest-Scott

View review May 9th, 2008

The Sound of Philadelphia

Title: Conquer the World: The Lost Soul of Philadelphia International Records
Artists: Various
Label: Philadelphia International/Legacy
Catalog No.: 88697 27338 2
Date: 2008 (originally issued in 2007 as a limited ed. LP with only 12 tracks)

Title: The Sound of Philadelphia: Gamble & Huff’s Greatest Hits
Artists: Various
Label: Philadelphia International/Legacy
Catalog No.: 88697 21087 2
Date: 2008

Philadelphia International Records (PIR) was formed in 1971 by legendary songwriting and production duo Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. The two had become acquainted while working in Philadelphia’s Schubert Building and borrowed $700 to start their first label, Excel Records, in 1965. Gamble and Huff’s PIR songs and productions placed special emphasis on the musical arrangements, giving birth to “The Sound of Philadelphia,” or TSOP. PIR was probably the last major independent record label to develop a distinct regional sound, following Motown and Stax by more than a decade.

John A. Jackson, author of A House on Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul,1 has described Philly Soul as “a multilayered, bottom-heavy brand of sophisticated and glossy urban rhythm and blues.” Two main factors are accredited with this trademark Philadelphia sound. The first was the funk-infused rhythm section, searing horns, and velvet strings of the house band known as MFSB (Mother, Father, Sister, Brother). As noted by Jackson, the letters “MFSB” served as a double-entendre used within the studio to relay a compliment, “He plays like a mother-fuckin’ son-of-a-bitch.” The second contributing factor was Joe Tarsia, a sound engineer and founder of Sigma Sound Studios, who’s motto was “less is sometimes more” in regards to recording. Tarsia favored an unimpeded surround sound, and this effect was accomplished through the use of his Sigma equipment. In contrast , The Sound of Philadelphia (TSOP) was “the last major independent record label to develop a regional sound (Jackson, p. 470).”

Through a special license between PIR and Sony BMG/Legacy, two new 16-song collections were released in March, just in time to celebrate the induction of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. The Sound of Philadelphia: Gamble & Huff’s Greatest Hits and Conquer the World: The Lost Soul of Philadelphia International Records sum up the Gamble & Huff approach to musical success. They also provide a “Music Appreciation 101” of Philly Soul for those who did not receive their tickets in time for TSOP (the theme from Soul Train).

Conquer the World entertains with a number of quirky performances such as “Grasshopper” by the Soul Devalents, which tells of a grasshopper in the bayou that falls into a vat filled with gin. Producers Joe McEwen and Leo Sacks drew from rare and mostly forgotten 45 rpm singles that were recorded between 1971-1975 and released on the TSOP, PIR, Gamble and North Bay labels. One of the better known artists featured on the compilation is Bunny Sigler, who contributes “Theme for Five Fingers of Death,” “Everybody Needs Good Lovin’,” and “Conquer the World Together” (with Dee Dee Sharp). The other tracks feature local performers, most of whom (according to the press release) “never went far beyond the neighborhoods and bars of Philadelphia,” including: Pat & the Blenders, Love Committee, Yellow Sunshine, Ruby & the Party Gang, and the Mellow Moods. Though the artists never hit the big time, this is still classic Philly Soul featuring the signature sound of MFSB, and now thanks to McEwen and Sacks these songs are no longer lost.

On the opposite end of the PIR spectrum, The Sound of Philadelphia: Gamble & Huff’s Greatest Hits leads you through of tour-de-force of chart busting Philly Soul delivered by PIR’s substantial roster of superstars. The compilation begins with the back to back hits “Love Train” and “Back Stabbers” performed by the “incomparable, mighty-mighty” O’Jays, followed by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes performing “If You Don’t Know My By Now,” “The Love I Lost,” and “Wake Up Everybody.” Also featured is Billy Paul’s smash hit “Me and Mrs. Jones,” “When Will I See You Again” by The Three Degrees, and “You’ll Never Love Another” by Lou Rawls, along with contributions (in chronological order) by People’s Choice, The Intruders, McFadden & Whitehead, The Jones Girls, Teddy Pendergrass, and Patti Labelle.

In summation, Conquer The World: The Lost Soul of Philadelphia International Records and The Sound of Philadelphia: Gamble & Huff’s Greatest Hits provides an aural history of the development Philly Soul as well as a fitting tribute to the creative genius of Gamble and Huff. Maybe if we’re lucky, Sony would reissue the 1997 box set Philly Sound: Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and the Story of Brotherly Love (1966-1976) which provides a much more complete overview but has unfortunately been unavailable for several years.

1 The John A. Jackson Papers at the Archives of African American Music and Culture include interviews, research materials, and book drafts pertaining to A House on Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul.

Posted by Terence La Nier II and Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review May 9th, 2008

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