Archive for February, 2010

Louisiana, Little Richard, and the History of Rock

Title:  Louisiana Rocks: The True Genesis of Rock & Roll

Author:  Tom Aswell

Publisher: Pelican

Format:  Hardcover book (500 p.)

ISBN:  978-1-58980-677-1

Publication date:  January 2010
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“Let us not forget the role that Louisiana—literally every corner of the state— played in shaping the new sounds that came roaring out of the swamps, the prairies, the red clay country, and the “colored” night clubs of New Orleans where no white man could legally go.” — Tom Aswell

Tom Aswell’s opus is a thoroughly enjoyable, entertaining ride through the history of rock using the state of Louisiana as the nexis.  Kicking off with a chapter on the “Birth of Rock and Roll,” he uses Cosimo Matassa and the J&M Studio as ground zero, which makes perfect sense for anyone familiar with New Orleans recording history.  Between 1947-1956, J&M Studio literally gave birth to the New Orleans sound. It was here that Matassa recorded many of the legendary figures in rock and R&B—Roy Brown, Professor Longhair, Dave Bartholomew, Fats Domino, Guitar Slim, Shirley & Lee, Lloyd Price, Big Joe Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles —even  Little Richard  was brought in to record “Tutti Frutti.” Obviously, Aswell did not have a particularly difficult time proving his thesis.

Though the book is divided into chapters—The Birth of R&B, The Baton Rouge Connection, Blues Artists, Cajun and Zydeco, Swamp Pop, The Louisiana Hayride—each consists of relatively short vignettes (in alphabetical order) of the individual musicians and groups that contributed to the various styles.  While much of the biographical information could be gleaned elsewhere, Aswell does an admirable job of presenting a regional musical history, weaving the stories in and around the clubs, studios, radio stations, record labels, and record stores of Louisiana. The volume concludes with an alphabetical appendix of the artists and their top songs.  Sadly, the complete discography that Aswell compiled was cut by the publisher, but if we’re lucky it will surface in the future as a separate volume or perhaps a website.

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Title: Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll

Author:  David Kirby

Publisher:  Continuum

Format:  Hardcover book (218 p.)

ISBN: 978 0 82642 965 0

Publication date:  November 2009
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“Tutti Frutti occupies a finite space smack in the middle of our huge-ass Crab Nebula of a culture. It’s like the skinniest part of an hourglass; everything that came before flows into this narrow pass, and the world we live in today flows out the other side.” —David Kirby
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David Kirby, a Distinguished Professor of English at Florida State University as well as a noted poet and music writer, has written a passionate treatise on Little Richard—or more precisely, why “Tutti Frutti” is the single most important song in rock (and pop) history.  As evidenced by the above quote, the book is a highly amusing read, and short enough that you can devour it in an evening. But you’ll definitely want to keep a copy on your bookshelf, if for no other reason than the numerous examples of truly inspired prose and the overabundance of quotable passages.

Kirby’s book makes an excellent companion volume to Aswell’s history, since scarcely a page goes by without some mention of Cosimo Matassa or Louisiana. For example, this quote from Laura Dankner and Grace Lichtenstein, featured in the introduction, demonstrates the common thread between the two books: “Much has been written about the transition of rhythm and blues into rock ‘n’ roll . . . But the transition was summed up best during a session at the J & M studio, when a flamboyant gay black pianist from Georgia sang ten syllables that shook the world.”

Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll will most certainly appeal to a very broad market, including fans of Little Richard, R&B music, and music lovers in general, as well as teachers of popular music and creative writing.

To hear Kirby discuss his book and Little Richard on Bob Edwards Weekend Hour, go to (http://www.wcpn.org/index.php/WCPN/an/25826/)

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review February 4th, 2010

Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II

Title: Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II

Artist: Raekwon

Label: Ice H2O/EMI Records

Catalog No.: 5099996879429

Format:  CD, MP3

Release Date:  September 8, 2009
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Though it’s been roughly twenty years since the commercial inception of hip hop music, the genre is at the crossroads of modernity. A new aesthetic is rapidly becoming dominant, relegating once dominant styles to relics of the past.  Artists who were once, either critically or commercially, at the summit of the music are now outside of the core’s consciousness, struggling to maintain relevancy in an every changing landscape. Wu-Tang Clan member Raekwon is one such artist. Fifteen years ago, he and his clan were the essence of hip hop; a crew who fearlessly battled the early stages of modernity, maintaining the true school’s position in the negotiation of power.  Raekwon, thanks to the legendary Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, was leading the charge. At the end of the decade, however, Rae found himself lost in a hip hop world run by once great artists (Jay-Z, Kanye West) who could be accused of sacrificing substance for style and newcomers (Wale, Drake) who would have likely been of a marginal class in his day. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II (2009) is not just Raekwon’s comeback album, it is a manifesto or call to arms for his generation of hip hop heads.

The album opens up with “House of Flying Daggers,” a traditional Wu-Tang joint, produced by the late great J. Dilla. Raekwon, Ghostface, Method Man, Inspectah Deck, and GZA tear through the thunderous beat with a collective venom rarely seen from them the last few years. On “Penitentiary,” electronic producer and film scorer BT provides Rae and Ghost with a menacing beat, allowing them to prove that they remain one of hip hop’s greatest duos. Beanie Sigel steals the show on “Have Mercy,” which also features the soulful singing of Wu staple Blue Raspberry.  The all too brief “Pyrex Vision” finds Raekwon in straight Wu-Gambino mode over a Marley Marl heater.

The sound turns more commercial on the Dr. Dre produced “Catalina,” but Raekwon remains absolutely raw, spitting unbridled street tales with assistance from R&B singer Lyfe Jennings. Rae, Ghost, GZA, and Masta Killah flex their storytelling skills on “We Will Rob You” with a little help from Slick Rick. If there is a single best track on the album, it is the aptly titled “Ason Jones,” Raekwon’s touching dedication to the late Ol Dirty Bastard. On the song, a vulnerable Rae waxes poetic over a beautiful Dilla backdrop. A few clips of Dirty himself add to this very touching tribute. Other notables include “Sonny’s Missing,” “Mean Streets,” and the epic closer “Kiss the Ring.”

Following is the official video for “Catalina” featuring Raekwon and Lyfe Jennings (courtesy of IceWaterTV):

Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II is an outstanding record, one of the best of the decade. The production team (RZA, J. Dilla, Pete Rock, Alchemist, Marley Marl, Dr. Dre and more) constructed a powerful sonic landscape that Rae and his Wu-Gambino’s handled masterfully. Unlike Cuban Linx I, Rae rarely got outshined. This is undoubtedly his record and he provides the majority of its memorable moments. At the same time, however, the Wu (and extended family) influence is strong as his fellow Clan members make solid contributions.

On Cuban Linx II, Raekwon was able to bring the late-1990s, East Coast sound into the 21st century.  The magic of classic Wu-releases such as Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, Liquid Swords, and Iron Man was not only resurrected, but reformed into a package that allowed nostalgia and progress to peacefully coexist. This absolutely incredible record shows that no matter what direction the genre is headed, there is always room for great music and artists.

Reviewed by Langston Collin Wilkins

View review February 4th, 2010

Can You Dig It?

Title: Can You Dig It? : The Music and Politics of Black Action Films 1968-75

Artist: Various Artists

Label: Soul Jazz Records

Formats: 2 CD set, 4 LPs (vol. 1-2)

Catalog Number: SJR CD 214
Release Date: September 29, 2009

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The period of the late ’60s and early to mid ’70s was a time of social change in America, when previously marginalized and ignored groups were making their voices heard. Coinciding with this change in the country at large was a drastic economic change within the motion picture industry. With revenues plunging, companies pursued previously unexplored avenues of revenue, one of which came to be known as Blaxploitation films.  Featuring largely black casts and often primarily black crew members, these films brought out black audiences en masse. This was the first time Black Americans were able to see themselves on screen in non-subservient roles outside a few films here and there. Black audiences flocked to theaters to see stories told from their perspective, and heroes with features (and problems) akin to what they saw and experienced daily.

Another extremely notable aspect of Blaxploitation films was the music accompanying them. Artists like Issac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield and Willie Hutch provided music scores that in many cases have held up stronger than the films themselves. Can You Dig It?, a two-disc set released by Soul Jazz Records, brings together a generous offering of music from a wide selection of films produced during the Blaxploitation era. While songs like the themes from Shaft and Superfly are infamous and have been played and heard consistently since the ’70s, this set offers selections from other films with lesser known soundtracks.  Tracks include Joe Simon’s “Theme from Cleopatra Jones,” Dennis Coffey’s “Theme from Black Belt Jones,” Edwin Starr’s “Easin’ In” from Hell Up in Harlem, Willie Hutch’s “Theme of Foxy Brown, and “Sweetback’s Theme” by Brer Soul (a.k.a. Melvin Van Peebles)  and Earth, Wind & Fire.

Following is the official trailer for Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Courtesy of Xenon Pictures):

There are no real misses in this set as all of the songs have stood the test of time. The set also includes offerings from R&B/soul acts not known primarily for soundtrack material such as Martha Reeves, Solomon Burke, and Booker T & the MG’s. Overall, the collection offers a sampling of the era’s best musical works and serves as a good starting point for those interested in Blaxploitation era music.

Ironically, the real star of this set is not the music. As with many Soul Jazz releases the true gem is the liner notes by Stuart Baker that accompany the discs. Can You Dig It? comes with a 96 page booklet that speaks to the socio-political climate in Hollywood that produced these films and soundtracks, giving a much needed perspective that helps us understand why the works themselves are so significant. The booklet also provides profiles on the actors/actresses, crew members, producers and musicians who were instrumental in creating the soundscapes that accompany a very unique (and regrettably) all too brief period of cinematic history.

Reviewed by Levon Williams

View review February 4th, 2010

Soul Power


Title: Soul Power

Artists:  James Brown, B. B. King, Bill Withers, the Spinners, Miriam Makeba, and more

Format: DVD (region 1, Dolby, Widescreen, NTSC), Blu-ray

Label:  Sony

Release date: January 26, 2010

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Less a concert film than a time capsule of Black music in the 1970s

In 1974 Muhammad Ali was scheduled to fight George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire to regain the World Heavyweight title. The promoter of the fight was the always-colorful Don King. In conjunction with the fight (a.k.a. “The Rumble in the Jungle”) a large concert was planned featuring American and African and Latin pop stars. A few weeks before, Foreman cut himself and the fight had to be postponed. But there was money to be made on the concert so – with private financing from some Liberians – the show went on. Soul Power is a documentary on the staging of the concert, and is now making its debut on DVD.

If you are looking for a “Woodstock” experience or even “Wattstax,” you might be disappointed. Less than forty percent of the screen time is devoted to musical performances. In fact, except for an opening number by James Brown, there is no music footage for the first 33 minutes of this 93-minute film. What you do get to see is a lot of the planning – especially when the “money man” has some issues – and setting up the stage. And there is Ali talking about the race issue in the U.S. (in his trademark rhymes).

When we get to the concert, things kick in with some incredible – and sometimes unusual – performances. Bill Withers plays a solo acoustic guitar in a strong vocal performance. Miriam Makeba explains her “Click Song.” The Fania All Stars (with Celia Cruz) and the Crusaders do their thing and B.B. King does his “Thrill is Gone” for the umpteenth time. Surprisingly the performers are never identified until the closing credits! Some of the performers are not known in the U.S. and, even those that are (Withers, for example) will be new to younger viewers. No performer gets more than one song – except Brown, who gets two.

Following is the official trailer (Courtesy of Sony Pictures):

Bonus features include a commentary track by the Director and Festival Producer and 42 minutes of Deleted Scenes. These scenes include five minutes of rehearsals (mostly Cruz) and one performance by Sister Sledge (who is not featured in the released film). And then there is the best three minutes on the whole disc: James Brown, in a hot and SWEATY performance of “Try Me.” Why this was deleted is a mystery to me but it’s a classic moment and captured in amazing close-ups.

So, as a documentary Soul Power serves its purpose of capturing this specific period in time and place. But there is less music than some might hope for, so know that you probably won’t be watching it through multiple times (like “Woodstock” or “Wattstax”). Nevertheless, its great that the film is finally available.

Reviewed by Steve Ramm (“Anything Phonographic”)

View review February 4th, 2010

James Brown: The Singles, v. 8

Title: The Singles, Vol. 8, 1972-1973

Artist:  James Brown

Label:  Hip-O Select

Catalog No.:

Format:  2 CD set; MP3

Release date: December 21, 2009

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Reissues such as James Brown’s The Singles, Vol. 8, 1972-1973 are not for the casual listener.  Sequenced chronologically, with many tracks broken up into separate parts (replicating the two sides of a 45 rpm single) and others presented in their original mono mixes, such reissues assume an almost scholarly interest in the artist.  That said, if any figure in American popular music is worthy of this obsessive treatment, it’s James Brown.

This volume, covering Brown’s post-King, early Polydor years, continues the pattern established in the previous volumes in the series: extensive, well-researched liner notes with copious photographs; complete discographical information including personnel, recording, release, and chart data; fresh remasterings of the single mixes; knowledgeable notes (here by Alan Leeds), and enough rarities (including canceled singles and alternate, UK-only tracks) to make the set especially attractive to collectors, JB fanatics, and libraries.  That this documents the beginning of the end of Brown as a top-selling artist does not necessarily diminish its importance.  Though only one single in this set reached the top 20 on the pop charts and some of the song choices — particularly Hal David and Burt Bacharach’s “This Guy–This Girl’s In Love” and the Beatles “Something” — seem at first blush to be ill-suited to the James Brown style (the David/Bacharach cover is particularly wretched), there are enough fascinating nuggets here to warrant closer examination.  The aforementioned “Something,” for example, never appeared on any James Brown LP, and its transformation into a moody, mid-tempo soul groover works far better than one might reasonably expect.

By this point in his career, Brown had settled into some predictable patterns.  There are ballads with strings (“Nothing Beats A Try But A Fail,” “Woman”), hard-funk numbers that had long dominated Brown’s output (“Pass The Peas,” “Giving Up Food For Funk,” “I Got Ants In My Pants”), a variety of remakes, and swingers hearkening back to his earlier R&B days (“Honky Tonk,” “If You Don’t Get It The First Time”).  But there are also atmospheric, jazzier pieces, enabled in part by Brown’s move to the New York City-based offices of the Polydor label, his collaborations with newcomer Dave Matthews and old standby Fred Wesley, and his growing interest in both social causes (“King Heroin”) and soundtrack music (singles taken from the soundtracks to Black Caesar and Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off).  A number of these efforts utilize top-flight session players — Richard Tee takes a cooking organ solo on “I Know It’s True” and Buster Williams’ acoustic bass line on “Sportin’ Life” transforms a simple funk riff into a sophisticated jazzman’s theme and variations—to supplement the efforts of the post-Collins-brothers-but-still-crisp J.B.’s.  James Brown the instrumentalist also takes a couple of star turns: there are typically off-kilter organ solos scattered throughout, a weird but fun scat vocal/piano solo on “Like It Is, Like It Was,” and a surprisingly effective, thumping turn on the drummer’s throne propels his cover of Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man.”

In all, the period covered by this set finds Brown looking for ways to, if not surpass his earlier heights, at least to remain relevant to an audience becoming more political (and, subsequently, supremely ticked off at Brown’s endorsement of Richard Nixon in 1972) and increasingly attracted to funk-rock hybrids like Funkadelic.  That the quality of the music here is, on the whole, as strong as it is proves that the Godfather of Soul wasn’t finished yet, and Hip-O Select deserves great credit for exploring James Brown’s singles releases in such detail.  I, for one, am anxiously awaiting further entries in this valuable series.

Review by Terry Simpkins

View review February 4th, 2010

Attention Deficit

Title: Attention Deficit

Artist: Wale

Label: Interscope/Allido Records

Formats: CD, CD (clean ed.), LP, MP3

Catalog No.: B001322902

Release date: September 8, 2009

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For years the D.C., Maryland and Virginia region, popularly known as the DMV, struggled to secure a strong presence in the hip-hop game. Music from this region had historically been rooted in the go-go sound, a funky mix of drums and horns made known by bands such as UCB and E.U. The DMV’s only relatively strong voice in hip-hop belonged to the ‘90′s femcee Nonchalant, and her conscious hit “5 O’clock.”  Fortunately a young Nigerian-American has become the new face of the DMV’s rising, and the region is poised to reclaim a spot in the hip hop industry.

After five mixtapes, two videos and tons of buzz—including BET’s “Rising Icons”—Wale Folarin dropped his debut album, Attention Deficit, on September 8, 2009. Fans hurried to cop the full LP, singing its praises via Twitter, eventually hailing the album an official trending topic. From the jump, Wale’s signature go-go sound welcomes listeners to familiar ground with the intro track “Triumph,” one of the few feature-less tracks on the album. Some could say the presence of features is a little much, especially Gucci’s appearance on the still infectious “Pretty Girls,” but they tend to work everywhere else. Whether Wale is trading bars with Bun B on “Mirrors,” or bringing to light the errors of a relationship in the personal “Diary” alongside neo-soul great Marsha Ambrosius, he holds his own in lyrical wordplay.

In this interview conducted during a London tour, Wale talks about his album, Nigerian heritage, skin shades, and other topics addressed in his songs (courtesy SoulCulture Media):

There’s a little bit of everything for everybody on Wale’s strong debut. Pharrell aids on the Neptune-produced club joint “Inhibitions (Let It Loose),” while “Shades” is a “The Kramer”-esque retrospective of love and race in today’s society. The perfectly sampled “Contemplate” (which uses Rihanna’s “Question Existing”) creeps with an edge of hesitation toward fame with mentions of Heath Ledger and Frankie Lymon. True hip-hop heads will go bonkers for the K’naan featured “TV in the Radio.” And even the first single “Chillin’” featuring a lazy Lady Gaga, has a little reworking and fits well with the presented collection. All in all, the album is a solid effort to plant both feet in the door. Hopefully Wale “Mr.-Never-Wear-the-Same-Thing” Folarin is but one of many DMV lyricists to come. Be sure to check both iTunes and/or Zune for exclusive bonus tracks.

Reviewed by Lorin Williams

View review February 4th, 2010

Quincy Porter Complete Viola Works

Title:  Quincy Porter: Complete Viola Works

Artist:  Eliesha Nelson

Label:  Dorian sono luminus

Catalog No.:  DSL-90911

Format:  CD; MP3

Release Date:  Sept. 29, 2009

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The music of American composer Quincy Porter, a younger contemporary of Charles Ives, is perhaps less familiar to classical audiences than it deserves to be.  Like Ives, Porter grew up in Connecticut and studied composition with Horatio Parker at Yale; but unlike his more famous colleague, Porter took on a full-time musical career as a composer, performer (on violin and viola), and educator.   After graduating from Yale in 1921, he studied composition at the Schola Cantorum in Paris, then in New York with Ernst Bloch and Vincent d’Indy, finally returning to Paris in 1928 on a three-year Guggenheim Fellowship to compose in earnest.  Throughout his career, he taught music theory and composition at several prestigious American schools, including the Cleveland Institute of Music, Vassar College, the New England Conservatory (of which he was dean and later director), and finally Yale.

Porter continued to compose actively during his years of professorship, winning the 1954 Pulitzer for his Concerto Concertante for two pianos and orchestra; his greatest works were perhaps his nine string quartets, which Howard Boatwright has described as “one of the most substantial, and very likely permanent, additions to the repertoire contributed by any composer of Porter’s generation.”1 Porter’s musical style was at once modern and accessible, often featuring long scalar melodic passages over occasionally dissonant accompaniments, and always written with an ear for the idioms of the particular instruments called for in any given piece.

Porter’s works for viola, then, are perhaps his most lovingly written, in the idiom of his own instrument.  Cleveland Orchestra violist Eliesha Nelson chose wisely when programming this recording; not only are Porter’s chamber works long overdue for fresh recordings, but this collection allows the viola to shine as a solo instrument and duet partner.  The crowning piece on this album is the Concerto for Viola and Orchestra from 1948, a neoclassical gem that alternates virtuosic passagework with elegant lyricism.  The smaller chamber works offer plenty of engaging moments, however, particularly the Suite for Viola Alone (1930), Blues Lointains for Viola and Piano (1928), and the intimately entwined Duo for Violin and Viola (1954).

Following is a “film noir” performance of Blues Lointains (courtesy of Dorian Recordings):

Nelson’s playing is warm and graceful, accommodating the technically virtuosic sections and the more lyrical ones with equal ease.  Douglas Roth provides sensitive counterpoint as Nelson’s duet partner in the Duo for Viola and Harp (1957); but the unsung hero of this recording is John McLaughlin Williams, who conducts the Northwest Sinfonia in the Concerto, then doubles as accompanist and duet partner on piano, harpsichord, and violin in nearly all of the other works.  Overall, this album is a fine exploration of little-known twentieth-century viola repertoire, a deserving revival of the chamber music of a respected American composer, and an introduction to some very skilled performers.

Following is a Q & A with Eliesha Nelson and John McLaughlin Williams (courtesy of Dorian Recordings):


NOTES:
1 Howard Boatwright, “Quincy Porter (1897-1966)”, Perspectives in New Music 5 (Spring-Summer 1967), 163.

Reviewed by Ann Shaffer

View review February 4th, 2010

Booker’s Guitar

Title: Booker’s Guitar

Artist: Eric Bibb

Label: Telarc International

Catalog No.: TEL-31756-02

Format: CD; MP3

Release Date: 1/26/10

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Folk-blues guitarist Eric Bibb has delivered a winner here.  In a laid-back style that belies the obviously intense craftsmanship required to write and play these tunes, Bibb transports the listener back and forth between the Mississippi Delta of the early days of recorded blues and the modern world.  The style is a crossroads of sorts—the country blues meets an educated and urbane troubadour drawing inspiration from a gumbo of books, New Age philosophy, and good old-fashioned blues legends and motifs.  If this all sounds too “of the academy,” the result is not, it’s good solid musical fun played superbly.  Nothing stiff or posed about it; Bibb plays with passion and release and his ensemble work on 8 of the 14 tunes with harmonica ace Grant Dermody demonstrates confident mastery of the material.  Tasty licks, meaningful but not overwrought lyrics and excellent production makes for an ear treat.

The title track was inspired by an event that took place in London. Bibb was on tour and, after a show, a friend gave him a National steel guitar that had been owned by Delta bluesman Booker White.  Bibb was inspired to write a half-spoken/half-sung tribute to White and the guitar, which he recorded right there in England.  The rest of the album was recorded by Michael Bishop in a restored antique general store in Burton, Ohio, in November 2008. Following is the official promotional video (courtesy of Telarc):

Bibb covers the traditional “Wayfaring Stranger” and Blind Willie Johnson’s “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” in both cases bringing something new and original to the music.  Dermody’s harmonica work on both adds power and reinforces Bibb’s guitar work, and Bibb uses a baritone guitar to great effect on “Wayfaring Stranger.”

The rest of the tunes are Bibb originals.  He wrote extensive notes, explaining his inspirations and intentions.  One might enjoy the album more by listening to it once without the booklet, then refer to Bibb’s notes the second time through.  Suffice to say, Bibb is a man who draws inspiration from a variety of sources and schools of thought.

Although every tune on the album was at least good (no clunkers), there were several stand-outs.  “Flood Water,” loosely about the Mississippi flood of 1926-27, sounds timeless.  It could have been recorded in the early 1930′s or it could be about the recent Katrina disaster.  “One Soul to Save” is probably the most intense song on the album, but it’s not overdone or too heavy.  “One Good Woman” is a sweet tribute to all the good women out there, and Bibb’s use of a 12-string guitar adds interesting textures and harmonies.  And the two covers are not to be missed.  The title track is clever where it could be lame, but it’s not among the best on the disc.  The same can be said about “Tell Riley,” which is a little corny in concept and lyrics but this is mitigated to a large extent by Bibb’s excellent baritone guitar work and Dermody’s harmonica.

Finally, kudos to engineer and co-producer (with Bibb) Bishop.  The dynamic, natural, uncluttered sound on this album is the antithesis of too many modern blues albums. There will be no listener fatigue from this album, only a desire to hear more.  Listening on a good system, with the lights dim and a blues vibe in the room, you’ll swear Bibb and Dermody are right there.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

View review February 4th, 2010

Dear Mrs. Parks

Title:  Dear Mrs. Parks

Composer:  Hannibal Lokumbe

Artists:  Detroit Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Thomas Wilkins

Label:  Naxos
Catalog No.: 8.559668

Format: CD

Release date:  December 15, 2009

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Hannibal Lokumbe is a classical composer and jazz trumpeter also known by his first name only. In his classical compositions, Hannibal isn’t looking to enlarge the sound of jazz among the Western orchestra in order to create a concert entertainment but to compose music that celebrates the African American experience on its own terms, and in a wholly serious manner. His previous effort, African Portraits (Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim, 1995) was released by Nonesuch with much fanfare but was ultimately criticized for eclecticism and over ambitiousness.

Dear Mrs. Parks was a 2005 commission from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and, if anything, the eclecticism is held in check.  Although the instrumental forces are still very large– with four soloists, two choruses and an expanded orchestra with an added battery of percussion– this work has a very singular purpose in mind.  The oratorio in ten movements  is based on Hannibal’s own text in the form of letters addressed to Mrs. Rosa Parks from four different characters, portrayed by soloists Janice Chandler-Eteme, Jevetta Steele, Kevin Deas and child soprano Taylor Gardner. The chorus fulfills numerous functions– interacting with the soloists, hovering as angels in the background or assuming the foreground role of the vox populi. The music is often very still and focuses on supporting the texts, though it comes alive with rich and riotous percussion in movements such as “For We Have Walked the Streets of Babylon” and “Like Luminous Rain.”

Overall, the character of the music is not particularly jazzy but has a strong African flavor, based in modes, utilizing drones and employing an underlying rhythmic funkiness. This Naxos recording is edited together from the premiere performances at Orchestra Hall in Detroit in March 2009, and the audience is certainly present and quite involved; vigorous applause is heard at the end of livelier movements. In Dear Mrs. Parks, Hannibal has achieved the serious statement that he has sought to make in a standard concert work -music that enjoys a kind of contextual integrity yet still contains enough splash to captivate a predominantly African American audience and to bring them into the concert hall. Certainly this is readily apparent from the recording, where the approval from the crowd is most enthusiastic.

Read more about the work at the Naxos blog.

Reviewed by David “Uncle Dave” Lewis

View review February 4th, 2010

Whitney Houston


Title:  Whitney Houston: The Deluxe  Anniversary Edition

Format:  CD + DVD

Label: Arista/Legacy

Catalog No.: 88697 58903 2

Release date:  January 26, 2010

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It’s hard to believe that 25 years have elapsed since Whitney Houston burst on the scene, rapidly becoming the biggest R&B crossover artist since Michael Jackson. Following on the heels of her comeback CD released last year, Arista is working to keep Houston in the spotlight, and this deluxe anniversary edition of her debut recording is certainly welcome.

Originally released on Valentine’s Day in 1985, Whitney Houston is filled with romantic ballads that soared to the top of the charts, including “Greatest Love of All,” “You Give Good Love,” “Saving All My Love For You” and “Hold Me” (her duet with Teddy Pendergrass).  The newly remastered 25th anniversary edition features several bonus tracks, including the usual throwaway remixes, but more notably a live version of “Greatest Love” from a 1990 Radio City Music Hall performance plus “How Will I Know” sung a cappella.

The most compelling reason to buy this new edition, however, is the accompanying DVD. During an opening interview segment, Clive Davis recalls how he first encountered Houston at a nightclub.  Her rendition of “Greatest Love of All,” the power ballad which became one of her biggest hits, convinced him to sign her to Arista—a prudent decision, considering that her debut album went on to become a multi-platinum phenomenon.  One of the highlights of the DVD is the rare footage of Houston’s live performance of “I Am Changing” from the Broadway production of Dreamgirls, which was filmed in 1985 at the 10th anniversary party for Arista Records in New York. Another is the clip of Houston’s 1983 premiere on The Merv Griffin Show, where the nineteen-year-old looks very young and natural—before an industry makeover turned her into one of the most glamorous women on the planet.

Following is the promo video for the project (courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment, c2009):

With the exception of a 1987 performance of “You Give Good Love” from Soul Train, the remaining performances on the DVD are all official promo music videos.  Perhaps most notable is “How Will I Know,” the album’s up-tempo dance number, which got heavy rotation on MTV and made Houston the first black female artist to be represented after MJ broke down the color barrier.  These are all fun to watch, with Houston in her ‘80s glam attire and big hair, but they can’t match the freshness of her first TV appearances. What is most evident is Houston’s huge talent.  Even at 19 her voice is incredibly powerful, versatile, and full of soulful, gospel-induced emotion.  But then what would one expect from a girl who was tutored by mother Cissy Houston, cousin Dionne Warwick, and godmother Aretha Franklin.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review February 4th, 2010

Alan Lomax in Haiti


Title: Alan Lomax in Haiti

Artists:  Various

Label: Harte Recordings

Catalog No.: HR 103

Format:  10 CD box set

Release date: November 24, 2009

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The Alan Lomax Estate and Harte Recordings are dedicated to supporting earthquake relief efforts in Haiti. To that end, The Alan Lomax in Haiti box set has been reduced for a limited time to $115, with $15 going directly to local disaster relief organizations in Haiti (for orders placed here).

Alan Lomax’s field recordings from Haiti, collected for the Library of Congress over a span of four months in 1936-1937, are available to the public for the first time in more than seventy years.  Comprising 10 discs of audio and video material, and a nearly 170-page book that redefines the idea of mere liner notes, the collection offers a comprehensive sampling from Lomax’s trip to Haiti, undertaken when he was just 21-years old and representing one of his earliest independently motivated projects after establishing his interests in folk music alongside his father.  More importantly, after a lengthy preservation and restoration process, copies of all of Lomax’s recorded materials (over 1,500 audio recordings, and several reels of black-and-white and color film footage) can now be returned to the Haitian Ministry of Culture and other national agencies as part of the mission of the Association for Cultural Equity and the Alan Lomax Archive.

Lomax had a particular interest in exploring and documenting the ways in which African cultural retentions were manifested in Haiti, after he had already been convinced of such a dynamic through his collection of music in the American South among African Americans.  Not alone in his interest, Lomax was one of numerous American scholars and authors who had turned attention to Haiti during this time, including Melville Herskovits and Zora Neale Hurston, both of whom were helpful to the young Lomax in his research.  He discovered, and effectively captured through his recordings, a culture that exemplified not only a core of strong retentions and adaptations of African traditions, but also distinct influences from France, Cuba, Trinidad, and the United States.

The book accompanying the “Haiti Recordings” reveals a tremendous wealth of information in its combination of original notes from Alan Lomax and the subsequent commentary from Professor Gage Averill, an ethnomusicologist who specializes in Haitian and North American music and who provides the liner notes.  Furthermore, these “notes” are the result of collaboration between archivists, curators, audio engineers, historians, and linguists over a period of nearly ten years, in an effort to successfully preserve, translate, and publicly present this abundance of material.  Still, it is Alan Lomax, himself, who maintains a vivid and constant presence throughout the text, as one reads long, candid excerpts from his field journals and finds reproductions of photographs, sketches, receipts, and correspondence from his trip to Haiti.

These recordings have been divided into ten distinct volumes, documenting sub-categories such as urban popular music, childrens’ songs, work songs, and ceremonial music.  For each volume, there are two sections of text to accompany the recordings.  The first is a somewhat broad introduction to each given genre or special recording environment, and normally includes liberal amounts of Lomax’s own insight as well as more academic contextualization from Averill.  The second section in each volume is a more detailed, track-by-track analysis of every song, with lyrics provided in the native Haitian Kreyol as well as English translations.  Lomax’s diligent documentation at the time of the original recordings allows inclusion of details ranging from names of performers and instrumentation to the patterns of wallpaper and arrangement of food on tables in the room.  Taken as a whole, the liner notes offer a fascinating recreation of Alan Lomax’s own immersion into Haitian music and culture, and also stand alone as a valuable research document (with a relevant bibliography) for those who study Haiti today.

As one would expect from an expansive sampling of folk music performances, Lomax captures music devoted to the full spectrum of lived experience – love, death, gender roles, political endorsements, cautionary tales, popular fashions, social etiquette, scandalous gossip, lullabies, medical prescriptions, religious beliefs, etc.  Using the most advanced portable recording technologies of his era, Lomax cut aluminum discs featuring everything from multiple large ensembles in the midst of Carnaval demonstrations to intimate solo singers.  Due to the limitations of his equipment and the unpredictability of his surroundings, Lomax was admittedly disappointed with some of his results and, indeed, certain lyrics have proven difficult to understand or translate.  Still, for those with realistic expectations of early, historic field recording efforts, the audio quality is remarkable and is a testament to the seriousness of both Lomax and his 21st century counterparts who have likewise taken advantage of the latest technologies in order to digitally restore these recordings.

The intelligent, comprehensive packaging of Alan Lomax’s recordings of Haitian music for the Library of Congress makes this collection an incredible resource for many fields of study and an exemplary model for coping with field collections of this scale.  Certainly, students of Haitian music and culture benefit from the raw source materials, including a number of first-known recordings from Vodou ceremonial atmospheres and archetypal examples of musical forms that have since been transformed or re-imagined.  The multi-cultural synthesis of West African, French, and other worldly influences make for a fertile example of how music proves to be a flexible and accommodating vehicle for human expression.  Ethnomusicologists further benefit from such extensive inclusion of Lomax’s personal notes, discussing not only the details of his informants and collections, but also rich observations of his surroundings and evidence of his struggles and frustrations in the field.  Archivists and curators are presented with the successful preservation and presentation of a massive quantity of material, fraught with technical concerns and much room for only speculative interpretation and translation given the great length of time that has passed since its original collection.

Alan Lomax recognized the richness of Haitian culture in the late 1930′s, a time of peculiarly complex transition.  The population was already infused with a mixture of distinctly West African and French characteristics, and just following a lengthy U.S. occupation and striving to embrace a renewed national identity, they provided Lomax with an astounding and varied document of celebration, protest, faith, and humor as performed through music.  As Averill notes, “the power and vitality of this ongoing cultural revolution is on full display in this collection.”  Today, in the moment of another peculiarly complex and historically significant reaction, when Haiti has come to the attention of the world for its needs and vulnerabilities, this collection is a timely and encouraging reminder of Haiti’s valuable cultural resources and strengths.

Editor’s note:  for additional information, follow the Haiti Box Blog

Reviewed by Richard Walter

View review February 4th, 2010

Welcome to the February 2010 Issue

Welcome to the February 2010 issue of Black Grooves.  This month’s special feature is the new box set Alan Lomax in Haiti, which is an amazing compilation of the music Lomax collected for the Library of Congress over a span of four months in 1936-1937. For Valentine’s Day check out the 25th anniversary edition of Whitney Houston’s debut album, originally released on Valentine’s Day in 1985 and chock full of chart-topping romantic ballads (including her duet with the late, great Teddy Pendergrass).  For the rest of our Black History Month blow-out, we’ve got new classical releases from composer Hannibal Lokumbe (Dear Mrs. Parks) and Cleveland Orchestra violist Eliesha Nelson, blues from Eric Bibb, and hip hop by Wale and Raekwon.  Taking a look back to the ‘70s, we’re also featuring Blaxploitation soundtracks, singles from James Brown, and the new Soul Power DVD documenting the Kinshasa music concert organized alongside the “Rumble in the Jungle.”  Finally, we’re featuring two new books that document Little Richard and Louisiana rock, along with extensive coverage of early recording sessions at Cosimo Matassa’s famous New Orleans studio.

View review February 4th, 2010

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