In general we don’t make a big attempt to review jazz titles because there are so many other publications that do such a great job. Featured below are nine titles that were brought to our attention in 2009. About half fall under the (dare we say) smooth jazz category, bringing R&B and soul into the mix. We’ve also included titles that are more experimental in nature, drawing from world music, hip hop, and other genres.
Veteran smooth jazz ensemble Pieces of a Dream has been performing and recording for thirty years. For Soul Intent, they went back to their original approach to album-making, recording the full group together live in the studio in order to capture the group’s interaction and collaborative energy. Keyboardist James Lloyd and drummer Curtis Harmon lay down easy grooves underneath the improvisatory interplay of saxophonists Tony Watson, Jr., Joe Cunningham, and Eddie Baccus, Jr., for an album that flows lightly and organically.
On Free Your Mind, soprano sax player and vocalist Walter Beasley offers something of a rarity in this list: a contemporary jazz album with a message that aims to reach out to the broader community. Songs like “Message to Mark” and “Miss Minnie” honor influential musicians and friends of Beasley’s, while “Barack’s Groove” pays homage to the breaking of racial barriers wrought by Obama’s election. Instrumental tracks like “Steady As She Goes” and the Latin-tinged “DukeZillia” bring a rhythmic flair to the album, and Beasley shows his vocal talents on songs like “Love Calls.”
Following is the official promo video courtesy of Telarc:
A Denver native relocated to Las Vegas, Paul Taylor has been recording smooth jazz-pop albums since the mid-1990s. While his last few albums have ventured further into pop territory, he returns to the smooth jazz aesthetic on Burnin’. A collaboration with veteran producers Barry Eastmond and Rex Rideout, Burnin” features hints of ’70s-style soul and funk grooves supporting Taylor’s smooth alto and tenor sax lines, but the overall feel of the album is decidedly new millenium.
Saxophonist Najee is one of the best-known instrumentalists in smooth jazz, often compared with Kenny G or Grover Washington, Jr. Mind Over Matter offers up ten polished jazz-pop tracks, less improvisational but more commercially appealing than some of the other artists in this roundup. Soul vet Gary Taylor and neo-soul singer Eric Benét add their vocals to “Moon Over Carolina” and “We Gonna Ride,” respectively, adding an urban feel that makes this album more than just easy listening.
Here’s the official promo video, courtesy of Telarc Records:
80 year-old jazzman Red Holloway returned to his hometown of Chicago to record Go Red Go! for Delmark. A musician of his age and stature might choose to go easy on a new album at this point, but Holloway delivers classic soul-jazz style and fervent sax playing throughout, whether on high-energy tracks like the bebop-ish “Go Red Go,” the rough bluesy groove of “I Like It Funky,” or his slow, virtuosic version of “Stardust,” which sounds like it should be echoing out on an empty city street at 2 am in a film noir. Holloway is backed on this album by a great session ensemble including guitarist Henry Johnson, organist Chris Foreman, drummer Greg Rockingham, and veteran guitarist George Freeman.
On Ka’a Davis is a native of Cleveland, though you wouldn’t guess it to hear Seeds of Djuke, a heavily Afropop-influenced jazz album. Guitarist/vocalist Davis cut his teeth in Sun Ra’s Arkestra, so it’s no surprise that his music leans to the Afrocentric space-funk side of experimental jazz, but influences from Afro-beat great Fela Kuti (and, really, all across the sub-Saharan continent) are prominent here as well. Styles range from the highlife-chic of “I Stayed Cool,” to the dense, dissonant noise of “Put It To It,” but it’s all interesting and it all moves.
Here’s the first track on the album, “Djuke No Go Die”:
The music of Melvin Gibb’s Experimental Entity isn’t jazz per se, but with its myriad genre influences and fusion, jazz is just as useful (or not) a category as any to place it in. Combining neo-jazz, hip hop, electronica, ambient, and African worldbeat, Ancients Speak sounds sometimes like Deep Forest or Brazilian sound collage artist Amon Tobin, others like Lupe Fiasco or French rapper Diam’s, and still other times like Soul II Soul’s grittier younger cousin. Culturally, the album ranges all over Africa and the Diaspora, offering up danceable beats, flowing rhymes, earthy field samples, and floating ambience. In fact, the coexistance and interplay of all these divergent forces might be the jazziest thing about it.
Black Earth Strings is an acoustic 5-piece ensemble somewhere between jazz band, world music group, and chamber ensemble, led by jazz flutist Nicole Mitchell. Incorporating multiple instruments from the flute and violin families, plus vocals and ethnic percussion, the group spans a wide range of musical influences including jazz, art music, and African percussion, with a little pop sensibility on the side. Pieces such as the “Symbology” series would sound at home in a new music concert hall, while “Mama Found Out” wears its bebop and free jazz influences proudly, and “Crossroads” suggests the type of cross-cultural and cross-genre fusion heard in Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project.
The fourth issue in Strut’s Inspiration Information series brings together a musical odd couple: Jimi Tenor is a Finnish jazz flautist/saxophonist with tendencies towards IDM and retro lounge music, while drummer Tony Allen was the unofficial director of Fela Kuti’s band in the 1970s. On this album they create something that’s less fusion than juxtaposition– the percussion remains unabashedly Afro-beat throughout, while Tenor’s winds and vocals traverse jazz, lounge, and trip-hop. Oddly enough, it works.
Chicago is not the only home to funkified, soulful blues, as is proven by New Orleans native Cyril Neville. The youngest member of the famous Neville family of musicians and a founding member of the Meters, Cyril’s new solo effort is full of original material drawing upon his work as a human-rights advocate and preservationist, and frequently references the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Guest appearances include brother and fellow Meter Art Neville (organ), Ivan Neville (organ), Ian Neville (guitar), Tab Benoit (guitar), Waylon Thibodeaux (washboard) and Jumpin Johnny Sansone (harmonica). This is one of my favorite blues albums on the list, perhaps because I took a couple of trips to New Orleans last year and am still upset that I was a week too early to catch Cyril’s live performance.
Taylor explores new territory with his acoustic styled “trance blues,” not only musically but thematically, taking on love songs but still throwing in the requisite tragic spin. Guests include Irish blues-rock guitarist Gary Moore, jazz pianist Jason Moran, and Ron Miles on cornet, while daughter Cassie Taylor contributes lead vocals on several songs. The tracks alternate between smoky jazz-based blues, folk blues, and more straight ahead acoustic blues. If you’re into electric Chicago-style blues this album is probably not for you, but if you’re willing to indulge Taylor as he stretches the boundaries of contemporary blues, there is much to satisfy.
The king of Chicago blues harpists is celebrated in this five CD box set, featuring all of Little Walter’s solo studio recordings for Chess. Also included are previously unreleased and alternate takes for “Goin’ Down Slow,” “Mean Old Frisco,” and many other classics. Extensive liner notes are by Tony Glover, Scott Dirks and Ward Gaines- the authors of Blues With a Feeling: The Little Walter Story. This is a must for all blues harmonica fans, and since Hip-O’s limited editions never stay in print for long, don’t delay.
Title: What It Takes: The Chess Years (expanded edition)
Artist: Koko Taylor
Label: Hip-O Select
Release date: November 10, 2009
The world lost the Queen of Chicago Blues earlier this year, and Hip-O Select has paid tribute by remastering this great 1977 compilation featuring Koko Taylor’s early Chess sides, produced by Willie Dixon. This is as good and raw as it gets if you’re a fan of female blues belters, which certainly sums up Taylor, whose style harkens back to Memphis Minnie and Big Mama Thornton. If you’ve only got Taylor’s later Alligator recordings, you owe it to yourself to check out this compilation. From her hit song “Wang Dang Doodle” to “Don’t Mess With the Messer,” the 24 tracks are a fine overview of her early career.
Shemekia Copeland, the Harlem-born Chicago-based daughter of Texas blues guitarist Johnny Copeland, is arguably the current leader among the younger generation of female blues singers, and she hits a home run with her first release on the Telarc label. The title reflects her attempt to stay true to her blues roots while seeking innovative ways to contemporize the genre, which often leads to the merging of old style Chicago blues with R&B, soul, and even a few rock licks. The album features some unusual covers, such as Joni Mitchell’s “Black Crow” and Percy Mayfield’s “River’s Invitation,” which are balanced by more traditional fare such as “Sounds Like the Devil” and “Circumstances,” a song composed by her father. Accompanists include Oliver Wood (who also produced the album) and Marc Ribot on guitar, and John Medeski and Kofi Burbridge on keyboards.
Here is a live performance of Shemekia Copeland performing “Never Going Back to Memphis” in Boston on Nov.21, 2008, which is featured on the CD Never Going Back (courtesy of Telarc):
Shirley Johnson, a fixture on the Chicago blues scene, offers up a rollicking good time on her latest album for Delmark. With backing by the Chicago Horns, guitarists Herb Walker and Luke Pytel, and Roosevelt Purifoy on keyboards, Johnson has the ammunition she needs to convincingly deliver hard hitting blues, southern soul standards (“634-5789″ and “Unchain My Heart”), and then funk it up on tracks such as Purifoy’s “My Baby Played Me for a Fool” and Johnson’s own “Blues Attack.” A very enjoyable album that makes you think about reserving a spot at the Grant Park bandshell for the next Chicago Blues Fest.
Chicago’s Eddie C. Campbell, known as “The King of the West Side Funk Blues,” made his Delmark debut this year, his first release in over a decade. One of the originator’s of the West Side sound—along with Jimmy Dawkins, Eddy Clearwater, and Buddy Guy—Campbell is known for his reverb-drenched guitar, powerful vocals, and a unique songwriting style, which is amply demonstrated on original songs such as “Makin’ Popcorn,” “Big World,” and “Voodoo.” He pulls out all the stops on a rendition of Gershwin’s “Summertime,” and pays tribute to Magic Sam on covers of “Easy Baby” and “Love Me With a Feeling.” Listening to this CD is the next best thing to sitting in a Chicago blues club on a Saturday night.
Artists: Billy Boy Arnold, John Primer, Billy Branch, Lurrie Bell
Label: Raisin’ Music
Format: CD, MP3
Release date: April 21, 2009
This two-CD set features four “inheritors of the Chicago Blues tradition” paying tribute to the evolution of the genre from its earliest days through the present. Many of the city’s past blues masters are covered, including Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Rush, Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Bill Broonzy, Big Maceo, Elmore James, B.B. King, Memphis Slim, Little Walter, Jimmy Reed, Junior Wells, Earl Hooker, Magic Sam and John Lee Hooker, among others. The first disc, recorded in analog to create a period feel, covers 1940-1955, while the second disc covers 1955 to the present. A 36 page illustrated booklet rich in historical detail completes the set.
Here is a clip of a performance courtesy of Raisin Music:
This follow-up to 2005′s Diamonds in the Rough features five more contemporary Chicago blues harpists– Reginald Cooper, Russ Green, Harmonica Hinds, Charlie Love and Jeff Taylor, as well as the late Little Arthur Duncan. The back-up band, dubbed the Chicago Bluesmasters, includes Illinois Slim and Rick Kreher on guitar, Mark Brumbach on piano, and E.G. McDaniel and Twist Turner on bass and drums. Selections include classics such as Howlin’ Wolf’s “Ooh Baby, Hold Me” and Johnny Guitar Watson’s “Gangster Of Love,” as well as newer compositions. Severn must be congratulated for their efforts to document and preserve the classic postwar style of blues harp through performances by lesser-known Chicago bearers of the tradition.
Alex Cuba (a.k.a. Alexis Puentes) is a Cuban soul rocker and multi-instrumentalist (guitar, tres, percussion and bass) now based in British Columbia. Agua del Pozo, first released in Canada in 2007, earned him a second Juno Award for Best World Music album. Cuba has slowly been building a U.S. fan base through tours, resulting in the fall 2009 U.S. release of Agua del Pozo, which includes a couple of previously unissued bonus tracks. Singing in Spanish, his Afro-Cuban pop is a bit of Havana blended with rock, jazz and funk overtones. After a recent collaboration with Nelly Furtado, his star is definitely on the rise, and another album is scheduled for release in 2010. Let’s hope he stays true to his roots, because his latest single “If You Give Me Love” (sung in English) sounds indistinguishable from American pop/R&B.
Here’s a recent video clip of Cuba singing “Si Pero No,” accompanied by acoustic guitar, in the NPR studios in Washington (courtesy of NPR):
The Congo-born artist Ricardo Lemvo has established himself as a master at blending Afro-Cuban rhythms with pan-African styles, such as soukous, Angolan semba and kizomba. Retrospectiva, which also features his Los Angeles-based band Makina Loca, includes favorites such as “Yiri Yiri Bon” (now a Colombian cumbia with African guitar licks), “Mambo Yo Yo,” “Tala Masamba,” “Ay Valeria,” “Mama Kiyelele” and “Sao Salvador.”
These 12 rare grooves from the vaults of the Egrem/Areito studios in Havanna were compiled to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. Tracks range from Afro-Cuban funk to Latin jazz and are performed by a wide range of artists including Juan Formell y Los Van Van, the acclaimed Orquesta Riverside, trombonist Juan Pablo Torres, and Irakere (founded by Chucho Valdés), among others.
Following is the track “Quindiambo” by Grupo Irakere:
These 18 super rare tracks compiled by DJ Cliffy take the listener on a journey through Brazilian “samba soul,” which was heavily influenced by American funk, soul, and disco music of the ‘70s. While more than half the tracks lean more heavily to the salsa side, others mimic the instrumentation and production values of their American counterparts, making for an interesting juxtaposition of styles. Artists include Super Som Lord, Renato Lu, Watusi, The Cry Babies (covering Marva Whitney’s “It’s My Thing”), and Sonia Santos.
Here’s the hard driving funk track “Pra Swingar” by Som Nosso:
Guyana-born Brooklyn artist Jahdan Blakkamoore‘s recently released debut album channels rap and R&B through dancehall, cumbia, and dubstep to create a unique, lyrically complex sound. Guest artists abound, which adds even more variety to the mix, making this project completely unpredictable yet extremely enjoyable.
Following is the official promo video (courtesy of Gold Dust Media):
A compilation of funky ‘70s Afro-pop featuring the work of four artists, including Antoine Dougbé, and Gnossas Pedro. Powered by electric guitars and percussion, and demonstrating considerable soul influences, this will appeal to any fan of African popular music. As with all Analog Africa releases, the CD is well documented and is accompanied by a 40 page booklet.
This compilation represents the first career retrospective of vibe/keyboard player Mulatu Astatke, the creator of Ethio jazz. Selections were culled from his landmark albums, beginning with his first recordings in the UK in 1965, his groundbreaking fusions for the small Worthy label in New York and his key ‘70s recordings back in Ethiopia. Liner notes by Miles Cleret, of Soundway Records, are interspersed with rare photos from Mulatu’s personal archive.
Here is a track from the album, complete with sampled elephants:
Malian-born, European-raised singer/songwriter Rokia Traore offers her own unique blend of contemporary African music, jazz and pop on Tchamantche, her fourth album. Singing in her native Bambara, her arrangements are accompanied by traditional African instruments including the balafon, n’goni, and kora, as well as acoustic guitar and electric bass. Hauntingly beautiful, and highly recommended.
Here’s the official video of “Dounia” from the album Tchmantche (courtesy of Emarcy Records):
Release date: October 2009 (reissue with bonus DVD)
Knitting Factory Records is set to reissue the entire Fela catalog, and what better place to start than with Best of the Black President, a compilation of 13 of the most popular Fela compostions, such as “Water No Get Enemy”:
The deluxe edition is highly recommended as it also includes a DVD featuring segments from “Music Is The Weapon,” the Berlin Jazz Festival, “Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonesense,” and interviews with Bill T. Jones and Carlos Moore (official promo video courtesy of Giant Step):
The Ecstatic is Mos Def’s fourth album, and arguably his best since the release of Black on Both Sides in 1999. In addition to an impressive list of producers and guests including Mad Lib, Chad Hugo (N.E.R.D.), Talib Kweli, and Georgia Anne Muldrow, Mos Def references everything from Bollywood to samba, with psychedelic guitars, jazz, Afro-beat, and funk thrown in for good measure. All together, this adds up to one of the most interesting hip hop releases of the year.
Here is the music video by Mos Def performing “Casa Bey” from The Ecstatic ((C) 2009 Downtown Music LLC ) :
This is the third volume in Dead Prez’s critically acclaimed “Turn Off the Radio” series. The Florida-based alternative rap duo feature several hip hop luminaries on the album including Bun B (“Don’t Hate My Grind”), Chuck D (“Refuse to Lose”), Johnny Polygon, K’Naan, and Styles P, with producer credits going to DJ Green Lantern. In additional to their usual hard hitting politically charged lyrics on songs such as “Stimulus Plan,” Dead Prez also provides lighter moments as exemplified by the upbeat “Summertime.” They’ve even gone green, using 30% recycled paper and 100% recycled plastic for the CDs.
Oakland native Del The Funky Homosapien (of Hieroglyphics) and emcee Tame One (formerly of Artifacts) have teamed up with the Parallel Thought crew to produce Parallel Uni-Verses. The ten tracks are built upon the funky beats, wordplay and lyricism that originally elevated hip hop to an art form. In the words of Del, “We didn’t sell out for all the luxury and monetary gains. The original ways, we kept at and built upon those” (from an interview with Allhiphop). You’ll find this attitude is reflected in songs such as “Flashback” and “Before This.” Check out this behind the scenes interview ((C) Gold Dust Media):
Twenty-year-old rapper Fashawn is a rising start on the California hip hop scene, and Boy Meets World is an auspicious debut which allows him to showcase his abilities as a first-rate lyricist. Produced by Exile, the album is full of great hooks, beats, samples and instrumentals. As the title suggests, the album is something of a coming of age story, though there’s still plenty of social commentary. Fashawn definitely offers a fresh new voice, and it will be interesting to see how he develops from here.
This is the third collaboration between indie hip hop artists Slug (of Atmosphere) and Murs (of Living Legends), who combined forces under the name FELT. Following their previous tributes to actresses Christina Ricci and Lisa Bonet in 2005, this time around they’ve decided to show some love for Rosie Perez. With producer Aesop Rock in the driver’s seat on the beats, Slug and Murs deftly spit verses back and forth with an effortless flow. While Aesops’ production puts a darker spin on the project, evident on tracks such as “Protaganists,” the album is still as fun loving as its predecessors, with some dope storytelling and loads of energy.
Following is the music video for “All Chewed Up” from “Felt 3: A Tribute to Rose Perez”((c) Rhymesayers):
This Somalian native burst onto the scene in 2006 with his acclaimed album TheDusty Foot Philospher. His sophomore album delivers more of the same, with songs that offer biting social commentary about his homeland, touching on the subjects of war, pirates, kidnappings, and survival. Recorded at Bob Marley’s Tuff Gong studio in Jamaica, some tracks include Marley samples and a Caribbean vibe, while others are sung in K’Naan’s native language over an Afro-beat. Throw in guests such as Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett (on the hard rocking “If Rap Gets Jealous”) and Mos Def, and you get an ever-changing landscape that is impossible to categorize, veering somewhere between rap and world music, and sure to please fans of both.
Following is the official music video for T.I.A. (“This is Africa”) from the album Troubadour ((C) 2009 A&M/Octone):
Title: Born Like This
Label: Lex Records
Format: CD, MP3, LP
Release date: March 24, 2009
Doom (formerly MF Doom) is the nom de rap of British-born American hip hop artist Daniel Dumile, known for his collaborations with Madlib, DJ Danger Mouse, and Ghostface Killah, among others. His latest album doesn’t disappoint. Who else can weave in references to cartoons and comic books while still producing really thought provoking socially conscious lyrics? Samples from TLC, Earth, Wind & Fire, Ramsey Lewis, and Michael Jackson lend an old school vibe, while guests Prince Paul, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah and producers J Dilla, Madlib, and Jake One take it over the top. One of the highlight of the album is “Cellz,” which contains a sample of Charles Bukowski reading “Dinosauria, We.” Another song is titled “Microwave Mayo.” This is wild and crazy stuff, and we love it.
Willie Isz is actually an alternative rap duo featuring acclaimed producer Jneiro Jarel, a Philly transplant, and Atlanta’s Khujo Goodie (of Goodie Mob fame)- hence the mashed-up title of their debut album Georgiavania. The pair strives to break down boundaries by alternating tracks steeped in southern hip hop and crunk with genre-bending songs and instrumentals referencing Philly soul, rock, and techno. By shaking things up at every turn, they’ve delivered an album that bears many repeated listenings, and might even appeal to those who generally avoid hip hop.
First off, Tanya Morgan is not a female rapper, but an underground male hip hop trio comprised of Brooklyn native MC Von Pea and Cincinnati’s MC Donwil and Illyas. In a modern twist on the band story, the members first met online and shared demos, producing much of their 2006 debut before ever meeting in person. Brooklynatti, their second full album, was produced by Brickbeat (who also hails from Cincy) and has been widely praised for its sharp, witty lyrics and great beats.
Following is the official video for “So Damn Down” from Brooklynatti ((C) iMCULTURE):
Guerrilla Funk is a label with a mission to “address issues through music and activism that are of importance to all of us,” and they chose their artists accordingly. Their latest find is T-K.A.S.H., “a hip hop artist, radio personality and community activist who is a part of movement to merge socially responsible messages with music that engages and stands the test of time.” Brains All Over the Street demonstrates this commitment through tracks such as “Terror Sells,” “American Made,” “Dead Man Walking” and “Peace to My Enemies” that press for social and political change. Check out the T-K.A.S.H interview with Davy D where they discuss the album.
Drawing on his own rural roots, and the notion that good songs have nothing to do with genre limitations, Ray Charles released his Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Vol. 1 and its follow-up Vol. 2 in 1962. For this release, Concord Records has remastered both volumes and released them together on one CD, marking the first time Vol. 2 has ever been released on compact disc. From “Bye Bye Love” to “Your Cheating Heart,” Charles and his backing band make these tunes shake and swing, croon and wail, showcasing his powerful interpretive abilities as well as his musical vitality.
The story of the landmark recording Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music is featured in this edition of the podcast series, “Ray Charles, Genius,” produced by Bret Primack for Concord Records:
God Forbid is a New Jersey-based bi-racial heavy metal group fronted by Byron Davis and featuring drummer Corey Pierce, well known for their ability to traverse and blend myriad subgenres and substyles within metal. EarthsBlood comprises two discs: a new studio album, and a live recording from the Starland Ballroom in New Jersey. The former showcases the band’s tight rhythms, varied textures, and melodic intensity, while the latter makes a good representation of their previous work and blistering live energy.
Here is the official video for “War Of Attrition” from the album Earthsblood (courtesy of Century Media Records):
Southern soul singer Calvin Richardson has a reputation for singing like he’s from the generation of ‘70s soul, not the generation of neo-soul and urban contemporary music. Consequently, Facts of Life, Richardson’s tribute to soul legend Bobby Womack, is a fitting application of his style and talents. From “Across 110th St.” to “Love Has Finally Come At Last,” Richardson delivers with both sophistication and grit, doing justice to Womack’s legacy and repertoire.
Here is the official music video of Calvin Richardson covering Bobby Womack’s “Woman’s Got To Have It” (Courtesy of Down Home Films):
This Los Angeles-based band, fronted by lead singer Shola Akinshemoyin Vaughn and featuring Albert Sadia on drums, mixes alternative rock and electronica with Afro-beats in their first full-length release. The songs on the album are said to reflect on Shola’s journey to Ghana to reconcile with her father, but don’t be fooled by the cover. This is not world music per se, and it’s not overtly Afro-centric, but it’s a definite move in that direction from their initial EP, which was straight ahead indie rock. Definitely a group to watch.
Here is the official music video for “Love is the Cost” from the album Less than Lion (Courtesy of Divisable):
If you like Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, you might wish to check out Lee Fields & the Expressions. Fields, a funk/soul veteran who first emerged in the 1970s, has been compared to James Brown so often that he was nicknamed “Little J.B.” Fields is now back on the scene, riding the popularity of the “new soul revival movement” and crate digger’s affinity for hard funk. Though most of the album is based on the old-school funk model complete with horns, strings, and vibes, there’s just enough of a hip hop edge on the production to lend a more contemporary feel.
Following is a video of Lee Fields & The Expressions performing “Love Comes And Goes” (from My World) live at Southpaw in Brooklyn on June 5th, 2009 (Courtesy of Truth & Soul Records):
Will Downing‘s 14th album, Classique, marks his 20th year as an R&B recording artist. Downing returns to the scene bringing his trademark silky vocal stylings with him. The Brooklyn native’s first album was released in 1988. In 1991 he made a huge impact with his cover of Angela Bofill’s “I Try.” Then in 1992 his duet with Rachel Farelle “Nothing Has Ever Felt Like This” became an anthem for true love. After being diagnosed with polymyositis in 2007, the talented vocalist battled to recover his strength from the muscular inflammatory disease. After Tonight, his 13th album was completed while going through treatment for the chronic illness and is a testament to his inner strength.
With Classique, his second album since his diagnosis, Downing continues to croon to his audience. His vocals range from an earnest tenor to a seductive baritone and the work showcases the smooth style that first brought him fame. Opening with four tunes co-written by Downing, Classique sets an intimate mood, fit for contemplating the ins and outs of romance.
Downing puts his stamp on the work of R&B legends in Barry White’s “I’m Gonna Love You Just A Little More Baby,” and Marvin Gaye’s “Baby I’m For Real.” Slow Jam aficionados will recognize the voice of Phil Perry on the Gaye tune. Perry, who made quite a splash in the early ‘90s with his cover of Aretha Franklin’s “Call Me,” brings his distinctive tenor and high range to this duet with Downing. Showing that they have mastered the tropes of an effective seduction song, Downing and Perry have crafted this piece into one of the high points of the album.
Another standout song is “Just Think About It.” One of the six pieces co-written by Downing, it features very effective guitar licks and a subliminal church organ, creating a very compelling piece which asks the listener to consider giving love one more try. The final cut, “Statue of a Fool” by David Ruffin of Temptation’s fame, continues the tradition of rueful songs like Smokey Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown,” lamenting the devastating effects of love gone wrong.
Here’s the video for Downing’s new single “Something Special” from Classique:
Overall, Downing weaves quite the romantic web with Classique. The mood created on this album is one that R&B enthusiasts who value the tradition of the slow groove, the smooth vocal, and passionate delivery will well and truly enjoy.
Joke’s on us! Despite the looming “W” on the cover of this album, Wu-Tang Chamber Music, is not technically a Wu-Tang album. Masta Killa, Method Man, and the GZA are sadly absent, replaced by fellow ‘90s East Coast rappers like Masta Ace, Cormega, AZ, and Kool G. Rap. But with RZA as executive producer, the album retains a very strong Wu vibe, featuring terrific rap lyricism and original beats that fill the void 8 Diagrams disappointingly did not. Also produced by Fizzy Womack (Lil Fame of M.O.P.), Andrew Kelly, and Bob Perry, it’s difficult to know exactly who’s doing what on any given track, but the philosophical vociferations that sprinkle the album are clearly the work of ‘the universal Buddha,’ as RZA so names himself.
Here is a clip of RZA speaking about Wu Tang Chamber Music Vol. 1:
Though only 8 of its 17 tracks are actual songs, Chamber Music is impressively sincere, maintaining that loveable stubbornness that Wu-Tang fans adore. Ghostface is still rapping about ripping limbs and sexing women, the RZA is still being eerily strange, and Inspectah Deck is still lord of syncopation. Paired with live musical backing by Brooklyn soul-funk band The Revelations, the songs flow easily into one another in spite of the spoken word tracks.
“Ill Figures” is lyrically the best song on the album—the wordplay, slang, and OG style fit perfectly with the repetitive chorus-free beat, giving each rapper’s verse a unique pulse. “Harbor Masters” is also solid, but the weird echo on Ghostface’s verse distracts the listener from how great it is. On “Radiant Jewels,” non-Wu rappers Cormega and Sean Price rock the mic and, regardless of how overstated a line like “lyrical elevation causes mental stimulation” could be, Cormega switches it up by also referring to his lines as a “lyrical aquaduct,” making it OK. On “I Wish You Were Here,” Ghost delivers raw rap sex to every female, and to no female in particular, as Tre Williams provides perfect soulful accompaniment. Meanwhile, on “Sound the Horns,” U-God informs us that he’s “that superhero with the brand new costume.” Lastly, lest we Wu-Tang Clan fans forget, there is also a brief tribute to ODB in which the RZA talks about the importance of freedom.
All in all, the album was short and sweet with a simplicity that propelled the tracks forward and didn’t disappoint. It would have been great if there could have been more songs, but as this is the first thing any Wu-affiliations have put out in so long, allowances must be made. The live music was refreshing and effective, not in the least impairing the Wu-Tang groove. RZA claimed that, “The goal of this album is definitely paying homage to our early sound.” That it did; job well done.
The Godfather of Gospel is an 18-track two disc collection of songs that pays tribute to New York native Rev. Timothy Wright, whose passing on April 24, 2009 resulted from injuries sustained in a car accident which also claimed his wife and grandson. The collection celebrates Rev. Wright’s uniqueness as a songwriter/producer/artist throughout his recording career over multiple decades, as well as his evangelical mission to spread God’s word through song.
Several tracks on this project are notable hits from the past that will have the listener remembering when the Sunday morning worship service was filled with exuberant praise initiated by Rev. Wright’s psalmody. For instance, “Trouble Don’t Last Always” is a medium tempo groove that is funky enough to lift listeners from their seats and profound enough to conjure up praise that comes from knowing that joy may not arrive when one desires it, but it is always on time. “Who’s On The Lord’s Side” is an up-tempo track incorporating a lyrical spinoff of the Biblical Old Testament scripture in Exodus where Moses challenged the Israelites who strayed into a sinful state to choose whom they will serve (Exodus 32:26). Rev. Wright adapts this historical challenge to modern times, requiring the listener to search one’s self deeply and truthfully in order to realize his/her extent of commitment to the gospel—the Lord’s side.
“We’re Going To Make It,” featuring Myrna Summers, can still be heard on Sunday mornings as churchgoers seek hope in the midst of socio-economic, political and spiritual indecisiveness that permeates contemporary society.It is a ballad that frames the affirmations of Christians within the strength and power of Jesus Christ, thus prompting them to assert, “we’re gonna make it.”Although very repetitious, “We’re Going To Make It” maintains a steady momentum via its harmonic progression, which contributed to the broadening of gospel music parameters in the 1990s, while Rev. Wright’s and Summers’ lead vocals are articulate, well placed, round, extensive in range, controlled and highly interpretive.Simply put, they provide a clinic for aspiring listeners who wish to become effective singers in the gospel genre. In addition to the harmonic pallet and lead vocals, the choir background on this track, as with all of the songs on the album, exemplifies the best of traditional gospel ensemble singing encompassing triadic harmony, blended unison lines and enormous amplitude output during climactic sections.
While disc one of this collection includes more well-known songs from Rev. Wright’s illustrious career (the songs mentioned above are all on disc one), disc two also presents timeless jewels that are note-worthy such as “Been There Done That,”“I Know A Man,” and “Certainly Lord.” If you are seeking to experience a tribute compilation that is musically sound, this CD delivers.If you would like to hear a collection that actually includes the hits of an artist, this is a must have.And finally, if you want to realize how gospel music speaks to the social and spiritual needs of people around the world, The Godfather of Gospel is a quintessential example.I give it a thumbs-up for song choices, musicianship, interpretive value and, most importantly, the gospel message.
This month we’re cleaning house and taking a look at some worthy albums from 2009 that we didn’t have a chance to feature in earlier issues. In addition to three full length reviews—Rev. Timothy Wright’s The Godfather of Gospel, Wu-Tang Chamber Music, and Will Downing’s Classique—we’ve picked over 40 jazz, blues, hip hop, soul, rock, funk and world music albums that we think deserve more attention. Featured artists include Ray Charles, Calvin Richardson, K’Naan, Willie Isz, Tanya Morgan, T-K.A.S.H., Mos Def, Dead Prez, Fashawn, Fela, Alex Cuba, Ricardo Lemvo, Rokia Traore, Mulatu Astatke, Jahdan Blakkamore, Little Walter, Koko Taylor, Shemekia Copeland, Cyril Neville, Otis Taylor, Red Halloway, Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Strings, and more.
There are some other great albums released in late 2009 that we still hope to cover in the coming months, so stay tuned.