Archive for April, 2013

Ben Harper with Charlie Musselwhite – Get Up!

Title: Get Up!

Artist: Ben Harper with Charlie Musselwhite

Label: Stax/Concord Music Group

Formats: CD, Deluxe edition CD+DVD, LP, MP3

Release date: January 29, 2013

 

 

This album seems like such a good idea.  Ben Harper, experienced bluesman, joins forces with veteran harmonica ace Charlie Musselwhite to make an acoustic-leaning album in a relaxed setting in California. The idea seems to be unrestricted creativity and capturing a tight but live-feeling vibe.

Alas, the parts are greater than the sum, and this album lands on the dull side of things.  Despite Harpers competent songwriting and sometimes interesting lyrics, despite Musselwhite’s still-intense harp work, despite a tight backing band, there’s just not a lot of spark to this effort.

Credit must be given to everyone involved for producing a blues album that is not leaden in tempo, super-compressed in audio quality and all of one style.  But, for the variety of tempo, song topics and guitar sounds, it doesn’t add up to compelling.

The Youtube promo trailer features “I Don’t Believe a Word You Say,” which is by far the most intense and emotional song on the album. Note the title being repeated over and over.  That’s the pattern for the whole album:  interesting snippets here and there, dragged out to the point of boredom.

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Net-net, this album may be proof that the blues can’t be kept “authentic” (an annoyingly over-used term of the moment) if the setting is too laid back. Sunny southern California and relaxed sessions in a studio called The Carriage House probably wasn’t the way to settle in and crank out an album catering to Musselwhite’s Chicago style.  Ben Harper has had this problem in the past—is he a rocker, a bluesman or a folk singer? Is he intense enough in any style? Do a few good hooks and some clever lyrics make a compelling full-length song?

Next time out, Harper and his band should gain some road weariness and grit, play with greater intensity, or give in to the Southern California vibe and make a shiny pop album. Anything better than wasting excellent musicianship on dull music.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

View review April 1st, 2013

Various – Sembeh Ma Fa Fe: Revisits Volume

Title: Sembeh Ma Fa Fe: Revisits Volume

Artists: Various

Label: Stronghold Sound

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: June 5, 2012

 

 

This interesting compilation, brought to us by the San Francisco-based studio Stronghold Sound, is the result of their production team’s trip to Guinea Conakry, where they went to record both the sounds of traditional and contemporary musical expressions. Samba Ma Fe Fe, which is Susu for “strong sound coming,” was conceived as a two volume compilation. While the “Roots Volume” is to be released in the near future with the most traditional atmospheres, the “Revisits Volume” is out and loud, including sixteen tracks of hip hop, dub-step, reggae, dancehall, afrobeat, and R&B sounds with a strong Conakry flavor, in mixed languages like Susu, English, and French.

Alpha Oumar ‘Bongo’ Sibide, one of Stronghold’s producers, is a Conakry-born musician who was raised in the suburb where the album was recorded. Along with his Stronghold partner Ahmed Khouja ‘Dub Snakkr,’ they selected twenty four local artists, whose songs were recorded and produced right there, and then mastered in San Francisco.

The music consists of compositions from local Conakry artists on upfront mainstream urban genres with West African sonic contributions like afrobeat harmonies and Guinean drums. The vocal rhyming is strong and rhythmic in songs like “Origin,” by Important, or more melodic and smooth in tracks like “Taqui,” by Ruphert. The opening song, which gives title to the album, “Sembeh Ma,” is a hip hop collaboration with many of the participants in the album. The video for the title track gives an idea of the kind of collaborative project that “Sembeh Ma Fe Fe” represents:

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In general, this is a good production, with good sound and good music: perfect for a party night. Especially interesting is the idea of teaming up with local talent and bridging the local and the global through collaborative community art. I would have loved to see more information on the place where the music was recorded, who the local artists are, their backgrounds, and the extent of their participation in the production and post-production process (there is no accompanying booklet). But I recommend that you buy it if you find it—perhaps you will be supporting local Conakry artists.

Reviewed by Juan Sebastián Rojas E.

View review April 1st, 2013

Blue-eyed R&B in 2013

If one hasn’t noticed, R&B as we have known it is somewhat of a dying art. Yes, the soul stirrers of the ‘60s and ‘70s met opposition with the rise of new jack swing in the early ‘90s. And a subsequent battle emerged when hip-hop/soul met the pop-influenced sounds of the late ‘90s.  Today, in 2013, R&B faces another turning point as pop/dance influences and stronger hip-hop sounds are becoming the mainstay.

So Indie artists are resorting to other avenues for that familiar feeling, forging a sound of yesteryear, but for today.  Following are albums by two of those artists—one underrated (British-born Jamie Lidell), the other just beginning (L.A. band Inc.)—who are borrowing something old to produce something new.

Title: Jamie Lidell

Artist: Jamie Lidell

Label: Warp Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: February 19, 2013

 

 

Justin Timberlake literally took the rhythmic/pop/blue-eyed hop world by storm with the announcement of his follow up to FutureSex/LoveSounds. Timberlake’s pushing forward with an essence of the past was refreshing, innovative. People expect a similar nuance with The 20/20 Experience (released by Timberlake on March 19). And I’m telling you: don’t.

If you want to revisit that funkdafied reckoning in present day, look no further than Jamie Lidell’s newest self-titled LP.  Lidell has ridden the undercurrent of soul for a while now. His experimental soul/funk fusions erupt from a place of authenticity. And his current compilation of art makes Timberlake’s opus look like a pop mess that just happened to go right.

Lidell inks ‘80s cool with the Midas touch. From Prince’s feminine masculinity to Cameo’s bodacious crotch cups, it’s the perfect combination of flash and pizzazz. “I’m Selfish” explodes like a synth fireworks display. “Big Love” fills big shoes as it feels every bit like an episode of Soul Train circa 1989. Lidell shows his stretch with “What a Shame,” which pairs a rock ‘n’ roll edge with his signature funk.

He conjures P-Funk sensibilities on “Why Ya Why” and softens things on “Don’t You Love Me,” the closest thing to a ballad on the complete jam session. No quiet storm schmoozing, just fierce flat out funk combustion.

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Title: No World

Artist: Inc.

Label: 4ad Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date:  February 19, 2013

 

 

Indie’s fascination with 1990s R&B, particularly circa 1996-99, has spawned an array of talented upstarts. One of those throwback ensembles is the LA-bred duo Inc. The brotherly outfit made waves with their sleek new-jacked single “Millionaires” and a 3-track EP.  With No World, they pack Darkchild/Timbaland stutter step noise with lush, angelic (if not airy) vocals.

Most of the album follows the same lead: breezy almost jazz-influenced instrumentals insulate the soft lead vocals. It’s a formula that equates something different on each track, demanding high replay time. Paired with the ice cold production are warm, genuine lyrics of love and devotion.

The album opens with the first single, “The Place,” a sexy serenade inked with looped bells and whistles. “Lifetime” is a love song disguised as a tripped-out venture. And standout track “Angel,” quipped with “One In a Million” undertones, grooves with ease.

Inc. and Jamie Lidell are forerunners in a new age of rhythm & blues from truly unexpected sources. I’m enjoying the new trail being blazed by these groups and hope to see more artists take risks.

Reviewed by Lorin Williams

View review April 1st, 2013

Antwon – In Dark Denim

Title: In Dark Denim

Artist: Antwon

Label: Greedhead

Format: Digital Download

Release date: February 14, 2013

 

 

San Jose rapper Antwon’s new release, In Dark Denim, is nasty. His flow, somehow both forceful and completely Bay area chill, is obsessed with sex in the rawest of possible terms. The incredible fun of explicit words bouncing over fuzzy filtered ‘90s beats (care of Cities Aviv, D.J Bad Slorp, ex-label mate Big Baby Gandhi and others), is tempered and balanced by the bleakness of actual life. “Sex is great, and I’m great at it,” is the message at the forefront of his raps, but underneath, the foundational message is closer to “Having a good time in life is great, but it’s pretty hard to accomplish.”

On “Rare 2000s,” after going into some light vulgar exploits, he raps “So when I wake up/I’m smoking weed/meeting with my p.o. on the 17th/make up another reason/why I don’t got the sh*t to pay my fee/n*gga, I wanna rap, that’s why.” The combination of good vibes and acceptance of harsh realities (with good vibes generally winning out) is a trademark of Antwon’s “big-voiced, heavy-hearted” style. Dedicated hypersexuality has, historically, been a Tipper Gore style stereotype and critique of hip-hop. However, when youthful pleasure-seeking is mixed with acknowledgements of human frailty and the dystopic bummer that is life, rap can transcend the pointless baseness and self-aggrandizement of the cliché studio gangsta and the onanistic self-searching of many backpack hip-hop heads.  In Dark Denim sits nicely in the void between those poles, rising above the level of a strict guilty pleasure, but still leaving you plenty to feel guilty about.

Reviewed by Dorothy Berry

View review April 1st, 2013

Gil Scott-Heron – The Revolution Begins: The Flying Dutchman Masters

Title: The Revolution Begins: The Flying Dutchman Masters

Artist: Gil Scott-Heron

Label:  Ace Records

Formats: 3-CD set, MP3

Release Date: December 4, 2012

 

 

The Revolution Begins: The Flying Dutchman Masters is a lovingly crafted and well-thought out anthology created from Gil Scott-Heron’s first three records:  Small Talk at 125th and Lenox (1970), Pieces of a Man (1971), and Free Will (1972). All three of those albums have been reissued in the past, but generally in cheaply done, poorly remastered versions. The Revolution Begins offers Scott-Heron classics, including “Whitey’s on the Moon,” “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” and “Home is Where the Hatred Is,” in versions with crisp sonic clarity. The anthologists at Ace Records have resequenced the tracks from those records to present a strikingly different three disc set. Disc one contains all the musical recordings, disc two all the spoken word, and disc three is a reimagining of Free Will comprised of unissued alternate takes. While this creative reordering definitely decontextualizes the records, especially the first two which are completely absent in their original format, it allows for a new focus and awareness of the intense synergy between Scott-Heron and his musical partner Brian Jackson, the power of Scott-Heron’s spoken word, and the free-form flow that arises in a kismet infused recording session, respectively.

Following is a live performance by Gil Scott-Heron, introducing and reading his poem “Whitey’s on the Moon”:

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Reviewed by Dorothy Berry

View review April 1st, 2013

Fela Kuti – The Best of the Black President 2

Title: The Best of the Black President 2

Artist: Fela Kuti

Label: Knitting Factory Records

Formats: 2-CD digipak, Deluxe ed. 2-CD + DVD, MP3, Lossless (AIFF or M4A)

Release date: February 5, 2013

 

 

The relevance of afrobeat in the popular and world music markets and festival circuits around the globe these days is undeniable. A myriad of groups from all over the world have embraced this music, which emerged in Nigeria during the 1970s and had as one of its pioneers the talented, controversial, and politically combatant Fela Anikulapo Kuti.  After his death in 1997, Fela’s musical heritage has not stopped influencing musicians in Africa, Europe and the Americas. The two-CD compilation Fela: The Best of the Black President 2 is the second installment of a series put together by Knitting Factory Records, and includes some of the most representative works of this pioneering Nigerian artist. The unidentified curator of this compilation deserves a special applause because choosing the best songs from Fela’s discography of 50-plus records must have been an extenuating enterprise.

Afrobeat’s origins are usually attributed to Fela and his group Africa 70, although the process of development of this music stems from previous stages, when Nigerian and other West African popular musicians and audiences were already heavily interacting with and consuming African American musics, like R&B and funk. Musically speaking, afrobeat is a mix of highlife (and other styles of West African popular music), traditional West African drums and chants music, and North American funk and jazz. The classic set-up for an afrobeat band is: drumkit, electric bass, electric guitar, congas, keyboard, a numerous brass section, lead vocals, and a big backing vocals crew. In particular, the rhythmic section, the extended horn or keyboard solos, as well as African English lyrics are all hallmarks of afrobeat.

This genre emerged in Nigeria as the expression of a strong and incendiary pro-Human Rights political agenda, led partially by Fela, in the context of the military regime of General Yakubu Gowon in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. Strong activism, after all, was part of Fela’s family—his mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, was one of the most prominent female activists and revolutionaries of 20th century Nigeria. This political drive is very present in Fela’s lyrics; he accuses corrupt governments of killings, oppression, slavery, and neglect.

A priceless jewel is the opening track, “Everything Scatter,” which talks about a political discussion between two Nigerians, one of which is accusing Fela’s crew of being troublemakers, while another passer-by defends them by claiming that it’s better to be a troublemaker than a sellout. Another representative classic is the closing song (track 6, CD 2), “Colonial Mentality,” which discusses how, despite the mid-20th century independence movements in Africa, the new African leaders had not been able to overcome the colonial mentality of repression, segregation, and exploitation of native populations.

This compilation is presented nicely, with beautiful photographs from Fela and his family. It also features artwork by Ghariokwu Lemi, the renowned Nigerian artist who designed most of Fela’s album covers. The accompanying 16-page booklet includes a foreword by R&B/hip-hop artist Akon and annotations to all the songs by afrobeat historian Chris May. A special deluxe edition is also available with a bonus DVD of Fela’s legendary 1983 Glastonbury concert plus a digital download of the compilation. If you are not familiar with Fela, his music, and his social impact, this is a perfect introduction for you. If you are close to his music, though, you probably already own most of these songs.

Reviewed by Juan Sebastián Rojas E.

View review April 1st, 2013

Tondrae Kemp – Sun Money

Title: Sun Money

Artist: Tondrae Kemp

Label:  Kwality Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 19, 2012

 

 

The newest release by Louisiana soul singer Tondrae Kemp is as mixed and varied musically as his hometown of New Orleans. Blending together soul with blues, reggae, electronic and hip-hop, Kemp’s music has been described as “Zappa influenced by Public Enemy and Stevie Wonder.” The comparison is clear on Sun Money.  Strong tracks include “Can We Pretend,” “No Time For Reminiscing” and last but not least, the first single “Happiness”:

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An enjoyable addition to previous Kemp releases, the soul singer is able to effortlessly combine several different musical forms into a fine-flowing album.

Reviewed by Ian Hallagan

View review April 1st, 2013

Jashwha Moses – No War on Earth

Title: No War On Earth

Artist: Jashwha Moses

Label: Sugar Shack

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: April 8, 2013

 

 

Sugar Shack’s mission to resurrect and promote the once-forgotten thriving Bristol reggae scene in England continues to be a monumental task that has culminated in a series of releases, bringing the English city into the general mindset as an area thriving with deep roots reggae. The dedication is partly seen from their rediscovery of Jashwha Moses, a musician from the late 1970s who was practically lost to the general consciousness. Painstakingly compiling rare material, their work eventually paid off in last year’s release of Joshua to Jashwha –30 Years in the Wilderness. This year, Jashwha Moses finally returns with No War on Earth, an album full of all-new material. The end effect is an album maintaining the old roots reggae feel whilst mixing with new and creative musical ideas.

As you get deeper into No War on Earth, you begin to wonder just how Jashwha had been forgotten in the first place. “Good Over Evil,” with anti-racism lyrics given further strength through a thick, dark sound that is only exemplified by the dub version that follows. The attention to detail in classic roots reggae is just as present in “No Weep” and “No War,” but Jashwha has a talent for expanding beyond tradition. I can only describe the track “Power Crazy People” as robotic dub; Jashwha manipulates his voice over multi-layered instrumentation and effects that sound practically haunting in the best way possible. The following track “Steel (Version)” only makes it better, as the same modifications to Jashwha’s voice are complimented by a strong driving beat and staccato moans that sound as though the song is a mash-up of roots reggae with Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” off Head Hunters.

While Jashwha Moses effortlessly preserves the traditional roots reggae sound, his ability to expand to incorporate new and interesting sounds in the music sets him apart from others. With No War on Earth, the revival of Jashwha Moses, and in a greater sense the Bristol reggae scene, has begun.

Reviewed by Ian Hallagan

View review April 1st, 2013

Two Black Roots Releases

Title: On the Ground

Artist: Black Roots

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Label: Sugar Shack

Release date: September 25, 2012

 

 

As one of the many roots reggae bands to make their way out of Bristol, England, Black Roots emerged in the ‘80s as one of the most important and influential groups on the British reggae scene. With albums such as their self-titled 1983 debut and 1984 release The Front Line, named after a British sitcom for which the band composed the theme song, the deeply political and raw music of Black Roots was something truly unique.  So it was an unfortunate turn of events in 1990 when the group disbanded, ending a significant period in British reggae. The band remained quiet for over a decade, not releasing any material or appearing to be on the verge of a reunion. But in 2012, there was news that several of the original members were coming back together, and this ultimately culminated in On the Ground, the first album of original material since 1990’s Natural Reaction.  On the Ground is a return-to-force of ‘80s-era Black Roots music, and the accompanying dub mix only exemplifies the group’s instrumental talents.

The first thing one notices about On the Ground is how tight Black Roots remains, regardless of their nearly  20 years hiatus, as well as the unfortunate loss of bassist Derrick King in April 2011. But the band has made a speedy recovery, playing with the same deep and dark roots from the days of The Frontline and Black Roots.  From the opening tracks “I Believe” and “Long Long Ago” they make it seem as though On the Ground is an immediate follow-up to albums produced when the group was at their peak in the 1980s. But while the deep, heavy sound is still present, there has been a change lyrically to something more positive and optimistic. This is by no means a negative change, and in fact the songs are expertly written, addressing issues ranging from helping and actively changing society to making it through a broken system.

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Title: On The Ground In Dub

Artist: Black Roots

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Label: Sugar Shack

Release date: February 13, 2013

 

 

The aforementioned hard-hitting tracks of On the Ground are given even more emphasis on the album’s accompanying dub release.  Louis Becket, known for his work with groups such as Misty in Roots and Culture, is on the mix with Black Roots, reworking fifteen of the original album’s seventeen songs. Pushing away the extensive use of various effects, Becket mainly preserves the traditional elements: drum, bass, echo and reverb. However, there is another addition to the formula, one which is executed fantastically: the horn section. “Militancy Dub,” for example, exemplifies their talents exceptionally well, sounding tight and focused with plenty of drive to give the tracks, and others like it, that unique dub sound. Other strong tracks include dub mixes of “Slavery,” “Struggle,” and “Call Me Out.”

Although as is often the case for an original strong reggae release, On the Ground in Dub goes to show that the accompanying dub releases can be nothing short of fantastic. And in the hands of an experienced engineer like Becket, the album lives up to its greatest possible potential.

Reviewed by Ian Hallagan

View review April 1st, 2013

Cesária Évora – Mãe Carinhosa

Title: Mãe Carinhosa

Artist: Cesária Évora

Label: Lusafrica

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: March 4, 2013

 

 

Cesária Évora, who passed away in December 2011, possessed a voice whose silken sorrow draped listeners in a slow moving fog of wistful emotions. Évora was widely known as the “Queen of Morna,” a Cape Verdean musical genre that has tints of Portuguese fado, Brazilian modhinas, and British sea shanties, but is entirely unique in its own ways thanks to the underlying West African percussion. The morna ensemble is usually comprised of percussion, clarinet, violin, guitar, piano, cavaquinho (a Portuguese four string guitar), and of course, a singer. The singer subtly commands the listener’s focus and attention with romantic lyrics of love, homesickness, migrant issues and, perhaps most engagingly saudade.

Saudade is a Portuguese word that is not directly translatable into music, but that described a longing for something that was loved but is gone, most likely never to return. Cesária Évora’s life was full of the kinds of experiences that would lead to strong feelings of saudade, a nostalgic yearning that coated every word she sang.

The following video features Cesária Évora performing her break-out hit “Sodade” (not featured on this CD), which is Cape Verdean Creole for “saudade”:

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Born in Mindelo, São Vicente, Cape Verde, in 1941, Évora suffered the loss of her father at age seven, and then only three years later was sent by her mother to an orphanage. Évora had a lovely voice that caught the attention of a friend who convinced her at age 16 to begin singing in local taverns, which she parlayed into singing on Portuguese cruise ships by the 1960s.

In 1985, Évora was invited to perform in Lisbon, where she enraptured  music producer José da Silva. He invited her to record in Paris, eventually releasing her highly successful first album, and becoming her production partner for the rest of her career. Mãe Carinhosa is the first posthumous album of unreleased Évora tracks curated and produced by da Silva.

That there was a clear bond of affection between da Silva and Évora is evident in this collection, from the perfectly organized and selected tracklisting to the title of the album itself, which means “mother tenderness,” a title selected by da Silva “in tribute to her mother because she used to talk a lot about her.”

Mother tenderness could also apply to the way Évora approached the music on each of the thirteen songs. There is a quiet strength of expressivity in her voice that never sounds forced or forceful but rather subtly accepting of whatever life may bring. In spite of the expert performances from the musicians, Évora is always in the front of your mind. The way she would add a lilt to the end of a word, the world weary manner she would slow down at the end of phrases, the way she manages to dance above the accompaniment (such as on “Emigue Ingrote”) while keeping her voice smooth and grounded; all the elements of Évora’s performance show her as the master of song interpretation she was. Listening to her sing morna completely resets your mind to a space of deep feeling, regardless of whether or not you can understand the words she is saying.

Mãe Carinhosa is a perfect tribute to Cesária Évora and makes listeners feel their own sense of saudade for an artist who is gone, never to return. Luckily, we will always have these mementos, recordings of her beautiful spirit and voice.

Reviewed by Dorothy Berry

View review April 1st, 2013

Tasha Cobbs – Grace

Title: Grace

Artist: Tasha Cobbs

Label: EMI Gospel

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: February 5, 2013

 

 

Tasha Cobbs recently reached #2 on the Billboard Top Gospel Albums’ chart with her debut album, Grace, produced by the award-winning gospel artist VaShawn Mitchell. The album captures the talented songwriter and long-time worship leader in a unique live performance.

As a pastor’s child, Cobbs grew up in the church and has been performing gospel music since her teenage years. In addition to being a musician, Cobbs has become a nationally recognized minister, who now serves at the Young Adult Division of the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship and at the Dream Center Church of Atlanta.

Her signature voice, strong yet soothing, leads the congregation into the spirit of worship. The simple words and melodies of her songs, including “Get Up” and “Love You Forever,” rouse the listener into a feeling of fellowship. Cobbs radiates positive energy with songs like “Happy” because, as she explains, “there are things in life that would make me sad or that I don’t like, but at the core of who I am I have the joy of the Lord. That means I can command my circumstances. The attitude of the Believer is that we have the victory in everything.” Throughout Grace, Cobbs radiates her personal warmth and inspires through her worship leadership.

The following video is a performance of Cobbs’s latest single, “Break Every Chain,” which  debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Top Digital Gospel Song chart:

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Cobbs’s career as a nation-wide minister of music has just begun. Although she appreciates the national recognition she has gotten for her musical talent, her purpose, as she states, remains the same: “to, without fail, lead God’s people into His presence.” Grace illustrates Cobbs’s commitment to this goal, and her extraordinary ability to achieve it.

Reviewed by Yukari Shinagawa

View review April 1st, 2013

Shuggie Otis – Inspiration Information/Wings of Love

Title: Inspiration Information/Wings of Love

Artist: Shuggie Otis

Label: Epic/Legacy

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: April 16, 2013

 

 

Shuggie Otis released his third studio release and masterpiece, Inspiration Information, in 1974 when he was only 21 years old. The musical prodigy honed his chops as a kid playing guitar on tour with his dad, R&B legend Johnny Otis, and in his early teens, began work as a professional session player, songwriter, and producer. Releasing 3 solo albums and several award-winning singles including “Strawberry Letter 23” between the years 1969-1974, Shuggie seemed an unstoppable cyclone of musical creativity. But shortly after the release of Inspiration Information, Shuggie disappeared from the public eye with an inexplicable suddenness equal to that which previously characterized his prodigious musical output. Shuggie’s relationship with his label soured and the album, though hailed by critics as a masterpiece, went out of print.

Wings of Love is a new collection of previously unreleased tracks that date back to Shuggie’s sudden disappearance.  Packaged with a reissue of the cult-classic Inspiration Information, Wings of Love marks Shuggie’s return to the public stage, and stands as a musical time-capsule that is seemingly the only account Shuggie gives of his decades-long seclusion.

Inspiration Information, often grouped with psychedelic soul albums like Sly & the Family Stone’s There’s A Riot Going On, Earth Wind & Fire’s That’s the Way of the World, and Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions, is an infectiously poppy and soulful cabinet of curiosities. Each song on the album is a case study in musical texture: carefully spaced clusters of sound with which Shuggie paints scenes both familiar and unknown. The title track, with its combo of mellow harmonies and spare funk grooves, gives sonic soul exploration the feel of a breezy beach stroll. On “Island Letter,” Shuggie’s voice is foregrounded, creamed honey spread thick over gong-like keyboards and shimmery bells, guitar arpeggios, and xylophones. “Aht Uh Mi Head” is a gothic pop orchestra turned disco jam; its minor-key organ melody plays to an analog drum machine, a silky string section, flutes, harps, and what have you, all working together to create voodoo calibrated dynamics.

The album remained out of print for many years until big-time admirer David Byrne of the Talking Heads reissued it in 2001. The latest re-issue from Epic includes 4 previously unreleased tracks including the gritty funk number “Miss Pretty,” a song recorded in 1971 that anticipates Prince’s slinky electro-funk.

Here is a video preview for the release that includes an interview with Shuggie Otis:

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Inspiration Information is a hard act to follow, especially after a forty-plus-year hiatus. But Wings of Love perfectly complements the album, and is an emphatic response to the question mark standing in the wake of Inspiration. Unearthing tracks from as far back as 1975, Wings of Love tells a scatter-shot story of Shuggie’s visionary progression as an artist. The frenetically paced disco song “Special” (1980) is laced with a strobe-light guitar riff that, had the song been released, would have magnetized the dancefloor. “Wings of Love” (1990) with its campy production (seagull sound effects) and dramatic keyboard swells, sounds like Hall and Oates’s take on a Shangri Las’s beach soap-opera. “If You’d Be Mine” (1987), a pop-funk ballad dripping with synthesized sensuality, drives the Prince comparison home. As a coda to the song, an acoustic guitar and bells repeat the melody before silence wins over. Shuggie makes every detail count, and the end is quiet but unforgettable.

For those wishing to delve further into Otis family history, the Indiana University Archives of African American Music and Archives of Traditional Music together house the Johnny Otis Collection, which includes video masters of the Johnny Otis Show featuring rare video footage of several artists including Shuggie Otis from 1974-1975—an inspired period in the artist’s career—as well as radio airchecks of Shuggie’s appearances on Johnny’s radio show from 1970-1988. One such appearance from 1970 includes a live acoustic duet between Shuggie and Frank Zappa, who was on the show guest-deejaying his favorite doowop and R&B songs.

Reviewed by Betsy Shepherd

View review April 1st, 2013

The Many Sides of Contemporary Jazz

In honor of jazz appreciation month, here is a brief overview of eight recent and forthcoming releases that explore the many sides of contemporary jazz, from jazz-rock fusion to soul-jazz to amalgams of hip hop, funk, gospel, Latin, and electronic music.

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Title: Transcendence

Artist: Jaimeo Brown

Label: Motéma Music

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date:  April 9, 2013

 

 

It’s not easy to be branded as a renegade in today’s music scene, but Jaimeo Brown lives up to the hype on his Motéma debut Transcendence. The drummer, composer and conceptualist fuses acoustic modern jazz with spirituals, blues, rock, hip-hop and even hints of East Indiana Carnatic music to create what may well be the best fusion album of 2013.  His cohorts, tenor saxophonist JD Allen and guitarist/soundscape producer Chris Sholar, work together “exploring different ways in which superimposed music [can] be experimented with in an improvisational jazz context.” What makes the album truly unique is the use of samples from recordings of the Gee’s Bend Quilters. Brown discovered the rural Alabama spiritual singers while writing his thesis at Rutgers University on “How the Black Church Affected Jazz,” and he uses the samples in very intriguing ways to build a similar sense of community and worship. This synthesis is exemplified in the album’s closing track, “This World Ain’t My Home”:

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Title: Leap of Faith

Artist: Bluey

Label: Shanachie

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: March 26, 2013

 

 

Jean-Paul “Bluey” Maunick, the creative force behind the UK funk/jazz/soul band Incognito, has made the leap to solo artist on his new album Leap of Faith. Featuring original compositions penned with co-writer/producer Richard Bull, Bluey indulges his passion for the soulful vocals of Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and the Isley Brothers, while forging a more contemporary sound inspired by the likes of UK’s The Beauty Room and jazz musician Bugge Wesseltoft.  The result is an album often heavier on funk, R&B and house influences than jazz. Bluey provides the vocals and lead guitar, while Bull contributes guitar and instrumental tracks, and Dominic “Ski” Oakenfull adding synthesizers to several tracks—including the first single “Got To Let My Feelings Show”:

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Overall the album effectively taps into a retro sound that will appeal more to fans of late ‘80s to early ‘90s R&B music, with songs that maintain a fairly steady tempo and groove throughout. I prefer the latter half of the album which is less synth-heavy. Stand out tracks include “Live Like a Millionaire” which brings in a nice four-part vocal harmony, “Keep Myself Together,” the jazzier “Sky,” and the title track which closes the album, a spoken tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. over jazz keyboard riffs.

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Title:  Cover Art

Artist: NEXT Collective

Label: Concord Jazz

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: February 26, 2013

 

 

Chris Dunn, the senior director of A&R for Concord Music Group, was the impetus behind this project to form a new urban jazz supergroup that combines three newly signed artists—saxophonists Logan Richardson, Walter Smith III and guitarist Matthew Stevens—with other rising stars including keyboardists Gerald Clayton and Kris Bowers, bassist Ben Williams, drummer Jamire Williams, plus special guest Christian Scott on trumpet.  All born in the 1980s, each member of this “next gen” group was then invited to select a cover from any contemporary style they really like to arrange for the album. The 10 “reimagined” songs draw from a broad swath of contemporary music: “Twice” (Little Dragon), “No Church in the Wild” (Kanye West and Jay-Z), “Africa” (D’Angelo), “Fly or Die” (N.E.R.D.), “Oceans” (Pearl Jam), “Refractions in the Plastic Pulse” (Stereolab), “Marvins Room” (Drake), “Come Smoke My Herb” (Meshell Ndegeocello), “Perth” (Bon Iver) and “Thank You” (“Dido).

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The end result is a jazz album that weaves in the melodies of the original songs without going off the deep end. In other words, there’s no overt attempt to cater to a broad popular music base; Cover Art maintains the art of jazz at all times.

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Title: The Freedom of Expression

Artist: Eddie Moore and the Outer Circle

Label: Dist. via Bandcamp

Formats: Digital (MP3, FLAC, ALAC, AAC, etc.)

Release date:  February 1, 2013

 

Pianist Eddie Moore, a graduate of the UMKC Jazz Studies program, studied under Bobby Watson and Horace A. Young, but has also played keyboards for the Houston-based alternative soul group Neon Collars, sharing the stage with contemporary neo-soul artists including Ledisi, Erykah Badu, and Bilal. It should come as no surprise that he formed The Outer Circle to investigate modern influences within the jazz tradition, including the hip-hop, punk, and neo-soul music of his generation. Band members include Matt Leifer on drums, Dominique Sanders on bass, Matt Hopper on guitar, and Erik Blume and Andy McGhie on tenor sax. The quartet, led by Moore on piano, shines on original compositions like “Houston Visions,” “Anger Management” and “Passing By” that channel a contemporary groove. The Freedom of Expression marks an auspicious debut for the group. The album was produced by Kerwin Young (Public Enemy), who’s currently pursuing a doctorate in music composition at UMKC.

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Title: The Messenger

Artist:  Kevin Eubanks

Label: Mack Avenue

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: February 19, 2013

 

 

On his second album for Mack Avenue, Kevin Eubanks demonstrates his guitar virtuosity as well as his

compositional skills. But even more important, he showcases his versatility, inviting listeners to experience the many musical styles and influences that have shaped his artistry.  Though the underpinnings of the album are clearly jazz, Eubanks draws upon multiple genres that are woven into the fabric of contemporary music, showing a particular fondness for funk.  His funkier side is particularly well expressed on the James Brown tribute “JB,” an arrangement of Jeff Beck’s “Led Boots,” and “Resolution,” his interpretation of the John Coltrane song from the Love Supreme album featuring Alvin Chea (Take 6) on vocals.  Eubanks also pays tribute to Buddy Guy on “Ghost Dog Blues,” a song that grew out of jam sessions at Guy’s Chicago blues club. The remainder of the album includes many reflective tracks, such as “The Gloaming” featuring Billy Pierce on sax, and the sensual film noir styled “Sister Veil” with brother Duane Eubanks on trumpet:

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Other band members include Rene Camacho on bass, Marvin “Smitty” Smith on drums, Joey De Leon, Jr. on percussion, with trombonist Robin Eubank’s (Kevin’s older brother) joining the quartet on two tracks. The Messenger is a very successful follow-up to Zen Food (2010), and even more enjoyable if you’re a fan of funky, contemporary jazz.

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Title: Spectrum Road

Artist: Spectrum Road

Label: Palmetto

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date:  June 5, 2012

 

 

 

Spectrum Road is a tour de force of an album that pays tribute to the revolutionary jazz drummer Tony Williams (1945-1997), a member of the Miles Davis Quintet who went on to shatter the boundaries between jazz and rock. The all-star Spectrum Road ensemble, named for one of the tracks on Williams’ 1964 debut album Life Time, includes British bassist Jack Bruce (Cream), drummer Cindy Blackman Santana (Lenny Kravitz), guitarist Vernon Reid (Living Colour), and John Medeski (Medeski, Martin & Wood), who performs on organ and his vintage melletron keyboard.  Bruce, who once played with Williams, serves as the conduit for the Spectrum Road ensemble’s reinterpretation of 8 avant-garde compositions drawn from the four albums recorded by the Tony Williams Lifetime ensemble from 1969-1975. The earth-scorching opening track “Vuelta Abajo” blazes forth with incendiary guitars and is tailor made for the Reid and Bruce:

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But if you’re not a fan of high-octane jazz-rock, not to worry. The remaining tracks cover quite a lot of ground, from the cosmic “Where” which allows Blackman to shine on percussion and vocals, to the more political “There Comes a Time” sung by Bruce. Also included are two original Spectrum Road arrangements—a meditative take on the traditional tune “An T-eilan Muileach,” and “Blues for Tillmon” where traditional blues elements are allowed to intermingle. With any luck, this album will introduce a new generation to the genius of Tony Williams.

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Title: The Beat

Artist: Boney James

Label: Concord

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: April 9, 2013

 

 

If your tastes run more towards contemporary smooth jazz, the new Boney James release will definitely satisfy.  On The Beat, James fuses his R&B roots with Latin music, taking the album’s title from Sergio Mendes “Batucada (The Beat),” which he transforms into a funk fest featuring a rhythm section led by Rob Bacon on guitar, Alex Al on bass, Tim Carmon on keyboards, Omari Williams on drums, and Lenny Castro on percussion, with the sax of Boney James and the trumpet of Rick Braun soaring over the accompaniment.  The other Latin track, “Acalento (Lullaby),” is an original composition that serves as a solo vehicle for James.  The Beat is most notable, however, for its R&B oriented tracks, including a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing,” “Missing You” sung by Abi Mancha, the “The Midas (This Is Why)” featuring Natalie “The Foacist” Stewart, and the album’s stand out track, “Maker of Love” featuring Raheem Devaughn on vocals.

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Title: Conviction

Artist: Kendrick Scott Oracle

Label: Concord Jazz

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: March 26, 2013

 

 

Drummer and composer Kendrick Scott’s sophomore release, Conviction, seeks deeper truths, “looking past the mundane” to “examine the motivating forces that propel us through life, even in those times when the greater truths are obscured by the tedium of the everyday.” Featuring a new line-up that includes John Ellis on sax and clarinet, Mike Moreno on guitar, Taylor Eigsti on piano, and Joe Sanders on bass, the band works to create “an atmospheric soundscape rather than a series of individual tracks.”  The concept plays out in 11 segments  indicated in the liner notes as Balance, Love, Peace, Equality, Freedom, Courage, I Am, Truth, Faith, Surrender and Passion. These segments (which all have individual song titles) freely morph between improvisation  jazz and more contemporary influences, such as “Too Much” featuring guest vocalist/guitarist Alan Hampton, who injects an R&B element into the vocal tracks. More politically oriented tracks include a cover of Herbie Hancock’s “I Have a Dream” followed by the Kendrick Scott-Joe Sanders penned “We Shall By Any Means.”  The penultimate track, “Be Water,” begins with an opening monologue by martial arts legend Bruce Lee advocating a fluid approach to the creative process, which as one might expect is followed by a free form improv.  Contemporary, thought-provoking, without any hint of new age-yness, Conviction makes a major statement that is worth many listens.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review April 1st, 2013

Welcome to the April 2013 Issue

Welcome to the April 2013 issue of Black Grooves, sponsored by the Archives of African American Music and Culture.  In honor of jazz appreciation month, our feature on The Many Sides of Contemporary Jazz explores eight recent and forthcoming contemporary jazz albums by Bluey, Jaimeo Brown, Kevin Eubanks, Boney James, Kendrick Scott Oracle, Eddie Moore and the Outer Circle, Next Collective, and Spectrum Road.

Compilations include Wings of Love/Inspiration Information by Shuggie Otis, Fela: Best of the Black President, Gil Scott-Heron’s The Revolution Begins: The Flying Dutchman Masters, roots music from Guinea Conakry packaged as Stronghold Sound presents Sembeh Ma Fa Fe: Revisits Volume, and Cesaria Evora’s Mae Carinhosa featuring posthumously released recordings of the Cape Verdean singer.

New releases include Grace by gospel singer Tasha Cobbs, the mixtape In Dark Denim by Antwon, Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite’s acoustic-leaning blues album Get Up!, the blue-eyed R&B of Jamie Lidell and the Los Angeles-based band Inc., and Sun Money featuring the reggae tinged soul of Tondrae Kemp.  Wrapping up this issue are two new albums straight from the Bristol (UK) roots reggae scene:  On the Ground (both original and dub version) by the Black Roots, and No War on Earth by Jashwha Moses.

View review April 1st, 2013

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