Archive for October, 2010

Welcome to the October 2010 issue

This month we’ve featuring new releases by two Indiana natives—rapper Freddie Gibbs and neo-soul/reggae artist Toussaint—plus The Sound of Sunshine by Michael Franti & Spearhead, who will be performing in Bloomington later this month.  In honor of Gospel Music Month (which actually just concluded) there are reviews of projects by gospel superstar Israel Houghton and holy hip hop artist Trip Lee.  Also featured are two recent releases from Smithsonian Folkways—the Classic Sounds of New Orleans compilation and John Jackson’s Rappahannock Blues— plus  Have Blues, Will Travel by Smokin’ Joe Kubek & Bnois King on the Alligator label.  Under the category of jazz is the new book John Coltrane and Black America’s Quest for Freedom, plus reviews of two global jazz CDs featuring Mulato Astatke and Lloyd Miller & the Heliocentrics. Wrapping up this issue are the compilations Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations and Salsa Explosion: The NY Salsa Revolution 1960-1979, plus a documentary about legendary soul singer Bill Withers and the first CD reissue of Labelle’s 1973 classic Pressure Cookin’.

View review October 1st, 2010

Black Gold

Title:  Black Gold

Artist: Toussaint

Formats: CD, MP3

Label: I Grade Records

Catalog No.: IGCD021

Release date:  August 2010

While Toussaint’s album Black Gold is his debut on I Grade Records, a label largely dedicated to roots music, he is no stranger to the music industry; he joined Soulive as a writer and vocalist for their 2006 No Place Like Soul album. These two recording projects sum up the neosoul/funk-meets-reggae sound and vibe on Black Gold, released in August.

Despite the occasional hint of a Jamaican accent in his vocals and his liberal use of reggae-inflected musical elements, Toussaint (aka Paul Barrett) was raised in Indiana by a Baptist preacher and a gospel singer. He fell in love with reggae music after relocating to Boston in 2001 and also counts R&B and hip hop among his musical influences. Perhaps because of the numerous musical styles with which he is familiar, Toussaint’s flexible, raspy voice and his vocal style hold this album together.

Toussaint possesses the range and sweetness of a soul singer but with some of the characteristic rasp that belies his commitment to roots music. Whether he’s chanting about overcoming addiction in “Conquering Cocaine,” singing over the roots reggae feel and funk-inflected bass track of “Roots in a Modern Time” or almost crooning the smooth, sultry ballad “Hello My Beautiful,” Toussaint’s vocals are seamless and fit well within whatever style(s) he’s performing. It helps that his vocal instrument is simply gorgeous, stylistic conventions be damned — he could sing the phonebook or instructions for assembling furniture and I’d still be entranced.

The production and arrangements on the album also stand out on first listen. Solid, rootsy horns appear throughout the album and the guitar work is largely excellent — the funky bass line in “Roots in a Modern Time” and the acoustic guitar flourishes on “Unforgettable” are particularly good. While the digital effects on “Roots in a Modern Time” distract the ear, production work on the rest of the album adds to the rootsy, soulful vibe. The album’s overall sound is quite slick, even lush at times, particularly the title track where strings join the horns, drums, and guitars to back Toussaint’s soulful, almost smoky vocals.

Lyrics are the one place where the album falters, if only occasionally. Many of the tracks are conscious music where messages about clean living, spirituality, and issues of race and class are delivered in a fairly straightforward manner, a writing style not uncommon in consciousness-raising music. Unfortunately, message lyrics like these occasionally lapse into didacticism or cliché, no matter how deeply felt the sentiment behind them. Toussaint’s lyrics occasionally fall into this trap, but even when he’s singing lyrics such as “You’ve got to be you/That’s all you can do,” the musical package in which they are delivered is so gorgeous that you don’t notice, or at least don’t care. Hear for yourself in the video for “Be You,” the first single from Black Gold:

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Despite the occasional misstep, Black Gold is a strong debut that already has this reviewer excited to hear Toussaint’s next project.

Reviewed by David Russell Lewis

View review October 1st, 2010

Str8 Killa

Title: Str8 Killa

Artist: Freddie Gibbs

Label: Decon

Formats: CD, MP3

Catalog no.: DCN98

Release Date: August 3, 2010

Str8 Killa is the debut EP from up-and-coming rapper Freddie Gibbs. Hailing from Gary, Indiana, but now based out of Los Angeles, Gibbs has built a buzz for himself through a couple of notable mixtapes, The Miseducation of Freddie Gibbs (2009) and Midwestcadillacboxframemuzik (2010). On these releases, critics praised his elaborate, but accessible lyrics, his dynamic flow, and his incredible song writing skills. Gaining fame primarily through internet message boards and blogs, Gibbs is now ready to take over the mainstream and Str8 Killa is his first step towards that goal.

Living up to its title, the album features eight high quality tracks produced by some of the hottest up-and-coming beatsmiths. The menacing “Str8 Killa No Filla,” featuring Big Kill and produced by Alabama’s Block Beataz crew, is both the perfect title track and album opener. Rising West Coast rhymer Jay Roc lends a solid verse to the uptempo “Rep to the Fullest” while Freddie Gibbs contributes his usual street poetry. “Personal OG” features a spacey, down-tempo Block Beataz beat which meshes perfectly with Gibbs’ double-time dedication to one of his closest companions.

Gibbs is at his best on “National Anthem” where he uses his rapid-fire flow to wax poetic on the trials of inner-city life. Also notable is the posse cut “Oil Money,” which features hot verses from the likes of Chuck English (Cool Kids), Cleveland’s Chip the Ripper, Bun-B, and Gibbs, with assistance from Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys.  Following is the official video:

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Aside from “Rock Bottom” (featuring Bun B) not being as good as it should have been, Str8 Killa has no real flaws. Just like the title states, the album is nothing but raw tracks with no skits or commercial filler to get in the way. Although only eight songs long, it is an excellent formal introduction to Freddie Gibbs, the leader of the next generation of gangsta rappers.

By Langston Collin Wilkins

View review October 1st, 2010

The Sound of Sunshine

Title: The Sound of Sunshine

Artist:  Michael Franti & Spearhead

Formats: CD, MP3

Label:  Capitol Records

Catalog no.:  46352

Release date:  September 21, 2010

Michael Franti & Spearhead’s new release begins with a blast of acoustic pop coupled with that beautiful island feel that Franti is so well known for.  This album is so uplifting you cannot help but smile while listening to it. My day totally switched around when I received a copy.

The Sound of Sunshine was mostly written while Franti was recovering in the hospital for nearly two weeks from a ruptured appendix that occurred during a tour. As he was being wheeled into the ER, he learned that Franti & Spearhead’s hit single “Say Hey (I Love You),” from their 2008 release All Rebel Rockers, was climbing the charts.  “I got the text and I thought ‘Wow, I finally got a hit record, and I’m not even going to live to enjoy it.’  That put everything in perspective,” Franti reports.  During this time, he claims to have learned to really prioritize the things important to him in life, which is reflected in the album.

Franti was born to an Irish-German-French mother and an African American and American Indian father in Oakland, and was adopted by a Finnish-American couple who raised Young Franti as their own along with their biological children and one adopted African American boy. Franti attended the University of San Francisco and formed two groups―a punk band, The Beatnigs, and a more hip hop influenced consort, The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy.  Since then, he has crossed many musical boundaries.

The Sound of Sunshine was recorded in a fast-paced manner. Beginning at a studio in Jamaica with famous reggae producer-musicians Sly & Robbie (who were also featured on All Rebel Rockers), Franti then headed off to Bali where he wrote more songs. When the group went on tour, they brought a portable studio along and recorded bits backstage―drums in the locker room of the Toronto Raptors, or in the showers of some NHL team―and then “road tested” the songs before a live audience to judge the reaction of the crowd. In a similar manner, “Hey Hey Hey” received its name due to popular vote. Fans would come up and ask how they could download that “hey hey hey” song (the original title was “No Matter How Life Is Today”), so the group decided to ask for online votes. As a result, they named the song by its hook.

There are a number of great tracks to groove to. “Sound of Sunshine,” the leading and title track, begins with a blast you can’t help loving. Following is the official promo video:

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“Shake It,” with its reggae and hip hop influences, speaks for itself―“its not about the way you look, but about the way you shook.” Track 6, “The Only Thing Missing Was You,” is a beautiful representation of Franti & Spearhead’s sensitivity and romanticism. The most poignant song on the album is “Headphones.” “Plug your headphones straight into my heart” was a lyric that came to Franti while he was on an I.V. drip during his stint in the hospital. “I wanted to write a song to be played at my funeral . . . luckily it won’t need to be played for at least 50 years!”

Michael Franti & Spearhead are currently on tour promoting the new album and will appear in Bloomington on October 20th at the Bluebird.  Their complete tour schedule is available on the band’s website.

Reviewed by Ian Martin

View review October 1st, 2010

Love God. Love People.

Title:  Love God. Love People: The London Sessions

Artist:  Israel Houghton

Format: CD

Label: Integrity

Release date: August 31, 2010

With the release of his sophomore solo album Love God. Love People, Israel Houghton presents a musically multifaceted message of love and hope in a manner which can reach audiences young and old, traditionalists and progressives alike. Drawing on influences ranging from funk to the electronic sound manipulation of pop music and the soaring vocals of gospel, each song is a unique aural experience with lyrics which are thought provoking and poignant.

Israel Houghton and Aaron Lindsey, the writing/producing team responsible for previous award-winning projects such as Live from Another Level and Power of One, were joined by producer Tommy Sims for recording sessions at the historic Abbey Road Studios in London. Houghton also collaborated with major gospel recording artists like Kirk Franklin, Fred Hammond, and Take 6 on several songs.  These important contributions, coupled with the sheer talent of Houghton, have created an album whose message and musicality is nothing short of brilliant.

Following is the official promo video:

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Building on Christian commandments to Love God. Love People (Matthew 22:37-40), Houghton provides social commentary on what he considers to be the disparate state of the world. However, he does not simply highlight sad realities, but he takes personal responsibility while encouraging others to do so as well. In the song “Love Rev,” Houghton presents two main messages: the importance of recognizing one’s blessings and the healing power of love. By stating that “God is with us when we are with them…” he is encouraging all people to “… join the love revolution” through serving and giving to individuals who are hurting and/or have a physical need. He sings a similar message in the more contemplative song “Others,” in which he expresses the desire to love other individuals with the passion and caring with which God has loved him.

Amazingly, these powerful and important messages do not overshadow the album’s musical innovations. The gospel single “You Hold My World” is one of the most moving and subtly complex pieces on this album. With the warm timbres of the acoustic guitar and intricate vocal harmonies, this song is reminiscent of a passionate prayer and declaration of faith. Similarly, “Hosanna (Be Lifted High)” layers and blends different styles of music to create a truly unique sonic experience. Houghton employs the use of a chamber orchestra and a boys’ choir alongside the talents of the gospel and praise and worship groups New Breed and Take 6. While this extensive list of contributors may initially seem excessive, each group is given its moment to shine within the piece before a confluence of all of these musical elements creates a beautiful combination of complex harmonies and rhythmic variation leading to an emotional climax.

Israel Houghton has created an album based on a simple message: Love God. Love People. Without a doubt, this project will uplift and enrich the listener through a refreshing combination of thoughtful lyrics and musical artistry.

Reviewed by Raynetta Wiggins

View review October 1st, 2010

Between Two Worlds

Title: Between Two Worlds

Artist: Trip Lee

Formats: CD, MP3

Label: Reach Records

Release date: June 22, 2010

Holy hip hop has made great strides in the last decade with the quality and quantity of productions steadily increasing and record labels devoted solely to the genre being established.  However, I occasionally find it necessary to “wade” through the newly released material to find insightful recordings with descent musicianship. Artist Trip Lee’s third album, Between Two Worlds, is well worth the effort. It is a far cry from mediocre and presents personal and provocative commentary on the hardships and injustice around the world while suggesting that there is hope that can be found through love and Christ.

As one of the youngest members of the Reach Records label, 22-year-old William Lee Barefield III, better known as Trip Lee, has a clear objective: to present the world with a “Real Life Music” alternative to less conscious listening materials. Fortunately, this mission is accomplished through artfully written lyrics and catchy, danceable beats. Lee collaborates with label mates Lecrae, Tedashii, and Sho Baraka as well as others artists.

Trip Lee relays his thoughts with a certain Southern hip hop flair, delivering each song in his heavy Southern accent courtesy of his Dallas, Texas upbringing. Between Two Worlds is highly personal as Lee indicates in the track entitled “Snitch,” in which he declares his willingness to be transparent in order to help listeners live a better life. His discussions range from his love of music to the limitedness of humanity as compared to the infinite power of God.  He consistently advocates the importance of integrity, celibacy, and perseverance. “The Invasion (Hero)” featuring Jai is one of the most memorable and sonically dynamic pieces on this album. It fuses electronic synthesizers and string orchestration with a powerful hook. Here, he paints a vivid picture of the hopeless position of humanity which can only be rectified by the ultimate “hero.”  Following is the official video:

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Between Two Worlds is an insightful work that is sure to inspire self-reflection in any listener. In time, Trip Lee will truly be a musical force as he continues to hone and utilize his craft to convey messages of hope.

Reviewed by Raynetta Wiggins

View review October 1st, 2010

Rappahannock Blues

Title: Rappahannock Blues

Artist: John Jackson

Label: Smithsonian Folkways

Catalog no.: SFW CD 40181

Release date: June 15, 2010

The latest release in Smithsonian Folkways African American Legacy Recordings Series (co-produced by the National Museum of African American History and Culture) is a comprehensive collection of the late Appalachian songster John Jackson.  For Jackson, the Great Folk Revival wasn’t so much a second career as it was a chance to make a first from a lifetime of playing for himself. A prolific musician as a child, Jackson was not known to a wide audience until folklorist Chuck Perdue brought him into Washington D.C.’s folk scene in 1964. With the aid of Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records, Jackson recorded extensively in the 1960s, putting down ninety tracks on their first session. From that point, Jackson’s career flourished with numerous recordings and tours both domestic and abroad.  In 1984 he joined American country musicians Ricky Skaggs, Buck White, and Jerry Douglas for an Asian tour for the U.S. State Department and in 1986 he was awarded the NEA National Heritage Fellowship. Jackson continued to perform around the Virginia/D.C. area for the rest of his life, giving his last concert twenty days before his death in 2002.

Jackson was a consummate performer and entertainer with a wide repertoire of blues, rags, spirituals, and old-time country songs. While his guitar style fell under the umbrella of Piedmont finger-picking, like that of Blind Boy Fuller, his range was closer to “songsters” like Mance Lipscomb, Mississippi John Hurt, and Pink Anderson. This repertoire was due in part to the influence of migrating blues musicians from the Delta to Appalachia where they mixed with local country and old-time musicians, and the influence of race and country records from Jackson’s youth. “I’d put on a record on the record player and listen to it and then try to learn to play it. So that’s the influences that I had when I grew up. You didn’t know what they were, white people singing them or black people [or] who they were, there were no pictures on most of them.” This quotation was taken from the well-researched and intimate liner notes provided by Barry Lee Pearson, who has been writing about Jackson and other black Appalachian musicians for decades. While Pearson admits the collection is blues heavy, due to Jackson’s desire to be remembered as a “bluesman,” the disc capably captures his immense talent in other styles as well.

Hints at his songster repertoire include up-tempo numbers like “West Coast Rag” and “John Jackson’s Breakdown,” old-time favorite “Cindy,” which Jackson performs on the banjo, and the spiritual “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.”  While Jackson is a competent banjo player and a fine singer, it is without a doubt that his greatest strengths lay in his ability to entertain and his guitar playing. Jackson’s guitar style combined thumb-lead bass runs with melodic finger-picking reminiscent of Doc Watson. Particular standouts include “John Jackson’s Breakdown,” “Rocks and Gravel,” and his delicate slide work on the ever popular “John Henry.”

Rappahannock Blues is a first-rate collection of a master performer. Given the quality of the rags, spirituals, and old-time numbers, one yearns for more of each, but one cannot deny the tremendous respect and appreciation that went into the collection, and to Jackson’s desire to be thought of alongside blues greats like Blind Blake or Blind Boy Fuller, among whom he fully deserves to be counted.

Reviewed by Thomas Grant Richardson

View review October 1st, 2010

Classic Sounds of New Orleans

Title: Classic Sounds of New Orleans from Smithsonian Folkways

Artist: Various

Label: Smithsonian Folkways

Catalog No.: SFW CD 40183

Format: CD

Release Date: July 27, 2010

This wide-ranging, full-length CD presents an audio tableau of New Orleans, its music and its street sounds.  When combined with the in-depth booklet essay by producer Robert H. Cataliotti, it is both an entertainment and educational document.  The words educate, the music entertains.

Most of the recordings collected here were made in the 1950s and early 1960s by Frederic Ramsey Jr. and/or Samuel Charters, and originally released on Moe Asch‘s Folkways label.  The Smithsonian Institution now owns Folkways’ master tapes and copyrights, and has been reissuing various compilations.  A few selections on this disc were recorded more recently.

The music styles range from Dixieland jazz to blues to street music from a shoeshine boy.  The recording quality varies, but overall the disc is easy to hear and well-restored by Pete Reiniger.  The musicianship is overall good, but some performances are more “folksy” than others. Don’t expect music-school attention to intonation or rhythm in all cases.

The selections that are most unique to New Orleans include:  a cappella singing by a Mardi Gras Indians group, the 2nd Ward Hunters; jazz from the Eureka Brass Band; a side-by-side comparison of a funeral dirge versus a street march; and drumming by Baby Dodds, considered by some to be the original jazz drummer.  The blues cuts, by Snooks Eaglin, Lonnie Johnson, Champion Jack Dupree and Roosevelt Sykes, present New Orleans’ flavor of the wider blues idiom. The same can be said of the gospel selections; gospel singing was widespread through the U.S., but the New Orleans flavor integrates some jazz elements (a loose, swinging beat, for instance) and some French-English word phrases.

The 30-page booklet puts everything into context and offers details of the various recording “field trips” by Ramsey and Charters. There is also a nice list of sources consulted, providing a good start for further reading and listening.

As interesting and educational as this CD is, it mostly presents a snapshot of a bygone era in New Orleans.  Many of the people recorded in the 1950s are now dead.  One wonders what a “recording expedition” to the Crescent City would find today.  Music never stands still, it’s a living art that evolves as new performers and writers come along, so one has to be careful to remember that this is mostly the sounds of a long time ago, frozen by recording media.

All in all, this is a fascinating sonic “museum exhibit” but not necessarily a representation of what one’s ears will encounter in today’s NOLA.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

View review October 1st, 2010

Have Blues Will Travel

Title: Have Blues Will Travel

Artists: Smokin’ Joe Kubek and Bnois King

Label: Alligator

Catalog No.: ALCD 4937

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date:  May 25, 2010

When two guitar-slingers/vocalists team up, how do they avoid stepping all over each other? In the case of Smokin’ Joe Kubek and Bnois King, they divide areas of responsibility. On this CD, King handles all the vocals and his guitar is in the right channel.  Kubek handles the majority of guitar chores, taking up the left and center channels.  The result is a fun, punchy modern romp of Texas roadhouse blues.

Kubek and King made a previous, equally good Alligator album, “Blood Brothers” (ALCD 4920). King took the majority of vocals on that one, too.  On this latest effort, they really stretch out and enjoy themselves, as if they’re even more comfortable together.  John Morris on bass and Adrian Marchi on drums provide a solid core without a leaden beat.  The emphasis is on fun and flare.

Kubek and King are obviously very serious about playing their guitars well and singing with soul, but they have all kinds of fun with these songs.  The lyrics are infused with puns and what could be called construction-site humor.  Thoroughly modern laments are heard in “RU4 Real?” and “My Space Or Yours,” while “Payday In America” is a weekend party anthem for the working class.  “Sleeping With One Eye” turns the old blues idiom of beating a wayward woman on its head, the song is a warning to the would-be beater to beware of the wrath of a wronged woman.

Following is an interview with Kubek and King about their musical partnership:

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The style of blues that Kubek and King play is more humorous and ironic than self-pitying.  Many songs feature a lively shuffle beat and heaps of overdriven guitar, closer to blues-rock than old-school Delta blues. It’s not as heavy as blues-influenced rock, but it’s nowhere near acoustic country blues.  Both men are very comfortable in this groove and maintain the high energy and guitar-hero playing throughout, but never get weighed down being overly serious.

The production, by Kubek and Alligator president/founder Bruce Iglauer, is perfect for this kind of music. The beat punches through the haze of guitars and King’s vocals pop out of the mix so the clever lyrics are clearly heard.

This album’s 50+ minutes go by quickly. It bears repeated listening, and hopefully there will be more from these virtuoso bluesmen.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

View review October 1st, 2010

John Coltrane and Black America’s Quest for Freedom

Title: John Coltrane and Black America’s Quest for Freedom: Spirituality and the Music

Author: Various; edited by Leonard L. Brown

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Format: Book (hardcover and paperback editions)

Release date: September 9, 2010

Trane, the abbreviated moniker given to jazz musician John Coltrane, is an American cultural icon. And yet, despite the Trane legend, John Coltrane was and remains an elusive figure, in part because of his virtuosic pedigree and experimental abstruseness, but for other reasons as well. John Coltrane and Black America’s Quest for Freedom examines this and other aspects of Coltrane’s complex legacy. This new collection of essays poses that his multiple roles—as a figurehead and an enigma, as an African American spokesmen and a transcendental artist—are due to the fact that paradox was written into the very fabric of his enterprise. He sought freedom through his artistic persona, while at the same time seeking freedom from his artistic persona.

Coltrane’s notion of freedom as a political, creative, and spiritual ideal, was informed by his African American identity and his musical upbringing in the black community. Accordingly, this book takes an “insider’s approach” to Coltrane’s music, analyzing it as a form of cultural expression rooted in the Black American experience. Editor Leonard L. Brown, committed to “the study of music in culture, identified and defined in its own terms and viewed in relation to its own society,” explains the purpose of the book—to offer a unique and foundational perspective on John Coltrane’s legacy through voices of the black community.

A central theme taken up by the contributors is the influence of African American spirituality on John Coltrane’s artistic vision and innovative style. In the essay entitled “In His Own Words,” Leonard L. Brown discusses the role of music as a cultural medium, and more specifically the role of jazz as a creative and transgressive social force akin to the African American spirituals from which it originated. John Coltrane not only used music to confront unjust conditions, but as a way of transforming reality—including musical aesthetics and the very notion of black identity—by challenging the social norms of his day.

In “Coltrane and the Practice of Freedom,” Herman Gray takes a broader albeit similar view, arguing that Coltrane navigated between and undermined the different roles imposed on him by jazz critics, community leaders, and by listeners alike, through his innovative doggedness. For Gray, who claims that Coltrane “pursued freedom not for the hell of it, but for the heaven of it—and he did so by creating settings of musical purgatory that forced him to confront his own limitations,” Coltrane’s spiritual quest was an aesthetic principle of self-overcoming. To Coltrane, for whom celebrity was as constrictive as defamation, and perhaps even more so, music was a constant source of redefinition, social experiment, and cultural renewal.

In “John Coltrane as the Personification of Spirituality in Black Music,” Anthony Brown interprets Coltrane’s increasing textural and rhythmic complexity as a spiritual journey, one on which he revisits his African religio-musical roots to uncover the ontological structures of music and reach for spiritual transcendence through sound.

John Coltrane said himself, “My music is the spiritual expression of what I am—my faith, my knowledge, my being,” as another essayist, Emmett G. Price III, reminds us in “The Spiritual Ethos in Black Music and its Quintessential Exemplar.” And Coltrane was successful, inasmuch as his music reflects the brilliance, the fierce independence, and the determination of his character. Moreover, the improvisational free-style and spiritual content of his music issue from, and can only be understood in terms of, his “being” historically and culturally situated within the black community.

John Coltrane and Black America’s Quest for Freedom is a thorough investigation of John Coltrane’s music via the artist, and the artist via his culture, not in an effort to solidify notions of black identity or enshrine a cultural legacy, but rather to show that the Black American experience itself is complex, improvised, defiant, and irreducible. Freedom from definition is indeed a beautiful thing, as Coltrane’s unique and challenging spiritual jazz so powerfully reveals.

Reviewed by Betsy Shepherd

View review October 1st, 2010

Mulatu Steps Ahead

Title: Mulatu Steps Ahead

Artist: Mulatu Astatke

Label: Strut Records

Catalog No.: STRUT056CD

Date: March 30, 2010

Re-invigorated by the recent success of last year’s award-winning collaboration with UK psychedelic electro-funk band The Heliocentrics, Mulatu Astatke – the father of Ethio jazz – blazes forward with his new album Mulatu Steps Ahead. The album explores new directions in the fusion of Western jazz and Ethiopian musical traditions, a particular sound which Astatke developed throughout the 1960s and ’70s.

After his childhood growing up in the town of Jimma, Ethiopia, Astatke studied music in London, New York, and Boston, where he was the first African student to study at the prestigious Berklee College of Music. Upon returning to East Africa, he began a prolific career as a composer, vibraphonist, and percussionist, highlighted in part by a performance with Duke Ellington and his orchestra in 1971. Astatke’s unique set of artistic influences began to take shape on the 1972 recording Mulatu of Ethiopia and later on the classic Ethiojazz. Documenting his transglobal musical journey, fans can now find a compilation of his seminal works on New York-Addis-London: The Story of Ethio Jazz 1965-1975, an incredible 2-disc compilation released by Strut last year.

In 2004 at a music festival in Addis Ababa, Astatke met a talented big band from Massachusetts, the Either/Orchestra, on their tour featuring original arrangements of Ethiopian music. That meeting led to a long-standing partnership, which can be heard on Astatke’s latest release. The following year, Astatke’s music gained a wider audience when it was featured in the Jim Jarmusch film Broken Flowers. Spurred by this newfound notoriety, while serving as artist-in-residence at MIT, Astatke accepted a fellowship at Harvard University, where he worked on modernizing Ethiopian instruments and premiered a portion of his recent extended work “The Yared Opera.” As he enters the sixth decade of his musical career, Astatke shows no signs of slowing down, collaborating with a number of noted American jazz artists (e.g., Bennie Maupin) and world music virtuosos.

Overall, Mulatu Steps Ahead – Astatke’s first studio album under his own name in nearly thirty years – revives his signature brand of darkly beautiful Afro-jazz characterized by poly-rhythmically pulsating grooves, his distinctive vibraphone work, powerful horns, ethereal East African melodic lines, gritty guitar, and varied percussive textures. Apparent is the stripped-down production methods used throughout the multi-sited recording process, giving the album an appealing raw visceral edge. While featuring innovative musical content, Mulatu Steps Ahead is ironically also a throwback to the sensual earthiness of his 1960s recordings.

The mysterious and pensive opener, “Radcliffe,” written while at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard, begins with a intimate duet between a traditional Ethiopian flute and string instrument; a muted Milesy trumpet subsequently floats over a subtle soundscape of ambient Afro-tinged percussion before Astatke’s vibes sneak in with warm metallic waves wrapped in lush horn swells. “Green Africa” showcases Astatke’s Caribbean influences as the band switches from an Afro-Cuban groove to a hard-driving swing. Inspired by his travels through Southern France, “The Way to Nice” is a trans-Atlantic sultry stroll down the French Riviera by way of the Horn of Africa with its blend of Western and African lyrical lines, loungey bossa nova beat, and Ethio-scorched melodic modes. Fusing a deep Latin salsa groove of timbales, piano, bass, and horn stabs with melismatic Ethiopian vocal runs, “I Faram Gami I Faram” is a reworking of this classic composition with a full band. Later, over a James Brown type syncopated funk, a West African kora (string instrument) provides a darkly delicate punctuation for swirling horn lines and a tasteful vibraphone solo on “Mulatu’s Mood.” Lastly, based upon the traditional musical instruments and haunting diminished scales of a group of people in Southern Ethiopia, the bonus track “Derashe” (named after this Ethiopian ethnic group) is a dark cinematic array of transient textures, flowering flutes, and swirling strings.

While sure to please long-time Astatke fans and conjure comparisons to Afro-jazz greats such as Fela Kuti, Manu Dibango, Hugh Masekela, etc., Mulatu Steps Ahead offers something new and distinctive as listeners hear the further development of a true African jazz genius.

Reviewed by Paul Schauert

View review October 1st, 2010

Lloyd Miller & The Heliocentrics

Title: Lloyd Miller & The Heliocentrics

Artist: Lloyd Miller & The Heliocentrics

Label: Strut Records

Formats: CD, mp3

Date: August 3, 2010

On the heels of Strut’s successful award-winning pairing of the UK psychedelic electro funk/jazz ensemble The Heliocentrics with East African Ethio jazz pioneer Mulatu Astatke last year, the label decided to pair this British band with another enigmatic cosmopolitan jazz legend – Lloyd Miller. Casting off their electronic edge, for this project The Heliocentrics provide a deep, organic, and hypnotic Afro-Arab acoustic funk that flows and swings with agility behind the exotic tones and textures of Miller’s multi-instrumental explorations of Persian modalities and colors.

Miller is not just another jazzer attempting to jump on the world music bandwagon, but rather he is deeply committed to the foreign, namely Persian and Asian, musical traditions that give his brand of global jazz fusion a profound depth and authenticity. In fact, Miller has been mixing Middle Eastern music with jazz since the late 1950s, when he moved to Iran with his family. Building on his background as a Dixieland clarinetist and pianist, Miller studied with Middle Eastern music masters such as Dr. Daryush Safvat and Mahmoud Karimi, developing talents on multiple Persian instruments. He first showcased his unique Eastern-infused jazz on his seminal recording Oriental Jazz from the 1960s, which has since become a cult classic for global jazz connoisseurs and can now be heard on A Lifetime in Oriental Jazz, a recent compilation CD put out by the UK label Jazzman.

During the 1960s, while completing his BA and MA degrees in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, he toured extensively in Europe, working with noted jazz artists Eddie Harris, Don Ellis, and Jef Gilson. After receiving a Fulbright-Hays grant to conduct research for his PhD, Miller spent seven years in Tehran, where he hosted a successful weekly TV variety show under the name Kurosh Ali Khan. Simultaneously, Miller was also an art writer/critic for many publications in Iran, Beirut, and London. Throughout his career, he has also worked tirelessly to promote and preserve traditional Persian music.

In the last several decades, Miller has continued to build his reputation as an award-winning scholar, composer/arranger, and performer, working closely with the Utah Symphony Orchestra as well as giving lectures around the world.

On this latest release, many of the more extensive tracks posit the ancient Arabic tonalities of a traditional Persian flute, dulcimer-type zither, and string instruments with solidly swinging Mingus-style bass ostinatos and Afro-Cuban Elvin-esque drum grooves. On several tracks, as if battered by the desert sands of Arabia, the slightly off-tune piano lends to the exotic flavor of the Middle Eastern modes. Melismatic runs up and down these Persian scales echo throughout the recording, creating an intoxicated swirl of sonic bliss. Interspersed as several short interludes, metallic Asian gongs and bells provide a haunting, resonant, yet tranquil Eastern oasis.

Recalling the profoundly spiritual work of John or Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders (to name a few), this album offers listeners a journey across sonic, cultural, and religious landscapes as well as modes of consciousness. The fresh funk fusion sensibilities of The Heliocentrics re-invent and re-invigorate a jazz master who deserves to be heard by old and new generations alike.

Reviewed by Paul Schauert

View review October 1st, 2010

Black Sabbath

Title: Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations

Artists:  Various

Format: CD

Label: Idelsohn Society

Release date: September 14, 2010

If someone besides a Black ever sings the real gut bucket blues, it’ll be a Jew. We both know what it’s like to be someone else’s footstool. — Ray Charles, Beverly Hills Lodge of B’nai Brith, 1976 (from the liner notes)

The caption from a 1920s Yiddish cartoon depicting a Jewish cantor singing “Aida” alongside a black performer singing “Eli, Eli,” reads: an upside down world. Since neither was an especially rare occurrence in the days of vaudeville theaters and minstrel shows, the use of the spatial metaphor “upside down” to describe the integrated stage is a wry acknowledgement of the cultural fluidity at the center of Black-Jewish relations. Black Sabbath, a new collection of African American popular music renditions of traditional Jewish songs, explores the secret musical history shared by Black and Jewish communities.

The interplay between Black and Jewish music is a many-storied phenomenon, and hence no big secret. From the shared themes of suffering and the retellings of Old Testament stories in their repertoire, to the prominence of Jews and African Americans in the popular music industry, the two musical traditions contain obvious parallels and historical overlaps. But these points are not ignored by Black Sabbath; they are given comprehensive treatment in its forty-page booklet of liner notes and are used to bolster the compilation’s raison d’être. The “secret” component of the collection is not the fact of these cultural affinities and collaboration, but their extent. Josh Kun, a music scholar and critic who helped compile music for the project, writes in the liner notes about the dynamic process of musical exchange and reproduction. He relates how the Yiddish theater tune “Bei Mir” was adopted by the black vaudeville duo Johnny and George, who sung it at the Apollo Theater, where it was heard by the Jewish songwriter Sammy Cahn, who rewrote the song into a pop hit for The Andrew Sisters. It is a convoluted and winding history of dependent clauses.

While African American performers often recorded songs penned by Jews—Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, et al.—what makes Black Sabbath so unique is its selection of Jewish-themed songs recorded by famous black torch singers, soulsters, and jazz cats, many of whom, while stylistically reinterpreting the material, sing in the original Yiddish, Aramaic, and Hebrew.

The bill is shared by such inimitable talents as Cab Calloway, Eartha Kitt, Cannonball Adderley, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, The Temptations, Lena Horne, Nina Simone, Johnny Mathis, and many more. The opening track “My Yiddishe Momme,” to which Billie Holiday brings her signature reedy melancholia, is followed by Holiday’s studio banter. She dismissively asks, “How you gonna do anything with this [track]?”, a question that, despite the irony of its present context, hints at the reasons for the obscurity of this and other songs on the compilation. Cab Calloway seamlessly transitions from incanting Yiddish syllables to his characteristic jive-beat scat-singing, which lends some credence to the myth that Louis Armstrong modeled his vocal technique on davening, the recitation of Jewish prayers. Soul singer Marlene Shaw interprets “Where Can I Go?”, a Yiddish lament written by a Holocaust survivor, through the lens of the late-sixties civil rights struggles, belting her mournfully defiant pipes over a psychedelic-funk groove. Despite the absurd antics of Slim Gaillard on “Dunkin Bagel,” a gentle parody of the food songs found as much in Gaillard’s repertoire of jazz and blues numbers as Jewish repertoires, he swings with the same humorous charm and energy as Dizzy Gillespie on “Salt Peanuts.” Similarly, the remaining tracks are fresh to our ears but accessible and strangely resonant, even upon the first listen.

Following is a video of Nina Simone singing the Israeli folk song “Eretz Zavat R’á’lav U’dvash” which is featured in the compilation:

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While these recordings, some rare indeed, might at first glance seem to represent a specialty niche, a mere footnote in the history of the recording industry, the amazing variety of moods and styles in combination with the consistent owning of the material, in the artistic rather than the propertied sense, make this an impressive feat of production and a highly entertaining listen. It is completely unlike (and exactly like!) anything you’ve ever heard, and that’s what makes this collection so interesting. Upon listening, we discover our hitherto unknown familiarity with the material and the history surrounding it. The creative collaboration between Black and Jewish communities lies at the heart of American music history, and we know when we hear it. That’s the secret that Black Sabbath let’s us in on.

Editor’s note:  If you plan to be in San Francisco in the near future, you might wish to check out the related exhibit “Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum through March 22, 2011.

Reviewed by Betsy Shepherd

View review October 1st, 2010

Salsa Explosion!: The New York Salsa Revolution, 1969-1979

Title: Salsa Explosion!: The New York Salsa Revolution, 1969-1979

Artists: Various

Label: Strut Records

Catalog No.: STRUT068CD

Format: CD

Release date: September 28, 2010

One cannot talk about “salsa” without referring to the indispensable role some local New York record labels have played in its initial musical conception, production, and commercialization since the 1950s. Labels such as Alegre and Tico gathered the most important artists of the ever-growing urban Latin American music scene, including Johnny Pacheco, Ray Barreto, and Tito Puente. However, it was only in the mid-1960s, when Fania Records entered the game as a unifier of all these isolated attempts, that the very term “salsa” was properly coined and its commercial viability established.

Fania (known as “the Latin Motown”) joined together the best-known musicians, composers, and arrangers in New York’s Latin music scene and set a new standard of sound that would prevail for generations. This melting pot included not only Latino musicians (especially Puerto Rican and Cuban), but also American-born musicians who did not necessarily share a Latin American heritage. Therefore, Fania’s musical orientation during this time involved modern developments of traditional and popular Afro-Caribbean genres (like guaguancó, rumba, guaracha, guajira, son montuno, descarga), in addition to newly brewed musical styles (like boogaloo and Latin soul) that emerged from this environment. This enormous range of hot music was generically referred to as “salsa” in the New York scene.

Salsa Explosion! is a vivid compilation that introduces listeners to many of the different musical expressions born in the 1970s which characterize the Fania sound. The tracks include classic tunes exemplifying the various subgenres, such as “Che Che Colé” by Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe, “Cúcala” by Celia Cruz and Johnny Pacheco, the famous Latin jazz standard “Mama Güela” by the Fania All Stars, and the groovy Latin soul piece “Do You Feel It? (¿Tu lo sientes?)” by the Joe Cuba Sextet. Among the many other Latin music legends featured on this 15-track compilation are Ray Barreto, Tito Puente, Papo Lucca, & La Sonora Ponceña, Eddie Palmieri, and Mongo Santamaria, to name just a few.

This CD marks the first release in Strut’s Fania Essential Recordings series and is packaged with completely new artwork featuring previously unpublished photos from the Fania archive and liner notes by Ernesto Lechner (unfortunately not included with the review copy).

Reviewed by Juan Sebastián Rojas

View review October 1st, 2010

Pressure Cookin’

Title: Pressure Cookin’

Artist: LaBelle

Format: CD

Label: Reel Music

Release date: May 2010

LaBelle’s 1973 album Pressure Cookin’ captured the group in a process of metamorphosis. After spending years working the Chitlin’ Circuit as Patti LaBelle & the Bluebells and becoming Apollo Theater favorites, the group’s recorded output had still not yielded favorable returns. Dropped from their label at the end of the ’60s, they were hastily picked up by London imprint Track Records thanks to Vicki Wickham, producer of the London music television program Ready, Steady, Go!, who championed the group. With Wickham’s encouragement, the group began heading in a new, uncharted direction.

Rechristened LaBelle, the three-woman trio no longer clung tightly to the formulaic restraints of a ’60s girl group.  Instead of essentially using one lead vocalist with the other two providing background vocals, all three vocalists—Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash—shared lead duties.  To complement this new style, the group employed a funky backing band known as Maxayn.  The transition from Patti LaBelle & the Bluebells to LaBelle also saw the emergence of Nona Hendryx as a songwriter—she penned seven of Pressure Cookin’s nine tracks.

Songs like “Something in the Air / The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” exemplify LaBelle’s new direction.  At Patti LaBelle’s suggestion, the two separate songs were merged into one funky medley—beginning with the smooth tones of “Something In The Air” and transitioning seamlessly into their interpolation of Gil-Scott Heron’s classic piece on the tumultuous times of the late 1960s and ’70s.

Another standout is the Hendryx penned “Sunshine Woke Me Up This Morning,” where the three members blend their voices for an ultra-hip reflection on the trials of everyday life. “Going On a Holiday,” also penned by Hendryx, is an escapist dream for those who are stuck in the day-to-day trappings of a mundane life. “Open Up Your Heart,” written by Stevie Wonder, is wonderfully performed as well. Although emphasis was placed on LaBelle as an ensemble, it is impossible to ignore the voice of Patti LaBelle, who was well on her ascent to “divadom” on this album. Her excellently soulful voice shines through on each of the tracks.

Although LaBelle’s biggest hit, “Lady Marmalade,” would not come for another year, Pressure Cookin’ was the prototype for the progressive and experimental musical approach the group would use for the rest of their time as a trio. Thanks to Reel Music, this classic album has finally been reissued on CD and includes extensive liner notes by A. Scott Galloway, who conducted new interviews with Nona Hendryx, Sarah Dash, and Vicki Wickham, among others.  Let’s hope Reel Music reissues some of Nona Hendryx’s long out-of-print albums as well!

Reviewed by Levon Williams

View review October 1st, 2010

Still Bill

Title: Still Bill

Artist: Bill Withers

Formats: DVD, downloads (various packages available)

Publisher: Late Night and Weekends

Release date: 2010

One thing that Still Bill asserts is the down-to-earth humanity of its subject, Bill Withers, known for his impressive string of hits during the 1970s including “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lean On Me,” “Use Me,” and “Grandma’s Hands.” Directed and produced by Damani Baker and Alex Vlack (co-founder of Late Night and Weekends), this documentary offers a candid, intimate look at Withers’ music, career, family, and life since his abrupt departure from recording and performing in the mid-1980s.

Still Bill follows Withers as he returns to his hometown of Slab Fork, West Virginia, and meets up with old friends who still reside in the area. The film then segues to his life in the Navy during his 20s and goes on to chronicle his music career. Viewers are also treated to an intimate look into Withers’ family through interviews with his wife and two children, who reflect on their life with Withers as a husband and father. Interspersed with Withers’ own narrative of his life, both preceding and during his musical career, are interviews with artists who have been influenced by his music.

Following is the official trailer (courtesy of Late Night & Weekends):

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Bill Withers is often overlooked when discussions of great soul singers arise. This is largely due to the fact that even during the peak of his career, his musical approach was different from most of his contemporaries. That is, he chose to work and create on his own terms.  Withers, however, seems very content with his life away from the spotlight and largely ignores his lack of “popular” recognition.

The frank and honest nature of Bill Withers shines throughout the documentary, which presents a man who is proud of his legacy in music but above all is content with his life as a whole. One can only hope that this film might spark the release of new material from Withers. Scenes with other musicians in his home studio certainly allude to the idea, but only time will tell if it actually happens.

Filled with guests such as Cornel West, Tavis Smiley, Corey Glover (of Living Colour), and Angelique Kidjo, among others, this well-done documentary is worthwhile viewing for those who already know and love Withers’ work as well as those looking for an introduction to one of the most underappreciated singer/songwriters of the last fifty years.

Reviewed by Levon Williams

View review October 1st, 2010

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