Following are additional albums released in May 2013 that are on our hot list — some will be reviewed in future issues of Black Grooves.
World/Latin/Reggae: Chucho Valdés & The Afro-Cuban Messengers: Border-Free (Harmonia Mundi)
Laura Mvula: Sing to the Moon (Columbia)
Oliver “Tuku” Mitukudzi and the Black Spirits: Sarawoga (Tuku Music)
Sexion d’Assaut: L’Apogée (Jive/ Epic)
Sizzla: Messiah (VP)
Dubtonic Kru: Evolution (VP)
Midnite: Be Strong (VP)
Ethiopians: Freedom Train (Kingston Sounds)
Rough Guide to African Music for Children (World Music Network)
Rap/Hip Hop: Talib Kweli : Prisoner of Conscious (Blacksmith/Universal)
Gene the Southern Child & Parallel Thought: Artillery Splurgin’ (ParallelThought LTD)
The Dream: IV Play (Island/Def Jam)
Havoc: 13 (Ingrooves)
Eve: Lip Lock (From the Rib)
Aceyalone: Leanin’ On Slick (Decon)
Daft Punk: Random Access Memories (Columbia)
G&D : The Lighthouse (Someothaship)
Rapsody: The idea of Beautiful (Empire Distribution)
Tall Black Guy: 8 Miles To Moenart (First Word)
Rp Boo: Legacy (Planet Mu)
Rock Music: dUg Pinnick: Naked (Rockarmy)
Marques Toliver: Land of CanaAan (Bella Union)
Bad Rabbits: American Love (Download)
Blues: James Cotton: Cotton Mouth Man (Alligator)
Guitar Shorty: My Way or the Highway (JSP)
The Walter Davis Project (Electro-Fi)
True Blues (Telarc/Concord)
R&B/Soul: Fitz and the Tantrums: More Than Just A Dream (Elektra)
PJ Morton: New Orleans (Republic)
Soul City Detroit: Motor City Labels and the Dawn of Soul Music (Fantastic Voyage)
Brand New Heavies: Forward (Shanachie)
JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound: Howl (Bloodshot)
Bloodstone: We Go a Long Way Back (E1 Music)
I Put the Bomp: Great R&R Answer Discs (GVC)
The-Dream: IV-Play (Island/Def Jam)
Jazz: Bobby McFerrin: Spirityouall (Sony Masterworks)
Will Calhoun: Life in this World (Motema)
Freddy Cole: This and That (High Note)
Cecile Mclorin Salvant: Womanchild (Mack Avenue)
Black Host: Life in the Sugar Candle Mines (Northern Spy)
Althea Rene: In the Flow (Trippin & Rhythm)
Orrin Evans: It Was Beauty (Criss Cross)
Terence Blanchard: Magnetic (Blue Note)
Gospel: Desmond Pringle: Fidelity (Kingdom)
Javen: Worship in the Now (Tyscott)
Good God! Aprocryphal Hymns (Numero)
Folk/Country: Darius Rucker: True Believers (10 SPOT/Capitol Records Nashville)
Classical/Broadway Audra McDonald: Go Back Home (Nonesuch)
Chicago Sinfonietta &The Harlem Quartet: Delights and Dances (Cedille)
Lawrence Brownlee: This Heart That Flutters (BBC/Opus Arte)
Eric Lamb & Martin Rummel: Bach Reinventions 1 (Paladino)
Growing up in the Los Angeles area, 22-year-old Tyler Okonma, known by his music alias Tyler, The Creator, demonstrated his love for music at an early age by teaching himself how to play piano. Shortly thereafter, he began producing his own beats to rap over. Now Tyler not only works on solo projects, but leads the popular hip-hop group Odd Future, which also has its own comedy television show, Loiter Squad, on MTV.
The recent release of Tyler, The Creator’s new album, Wolf, has generated much chatter which has generally been positive. The album does include an extremely diverse selection of beats, mostly involving Tyler’s random and sporadic flow of angry lines. On the other hand, Wolf has the same sound as just about anything Tyler has done in the past, not really boasting any sort of difference from his previous releases. Despite the similarities, many long-time Odd Future and Tyler, The Creator fans continue to admire the album.
Following is the music video for “Domo23,” Tyler’s most successful single off the album:
Overall, if you enjoy listening to Tyler, The Creator’s past album releases, such as Goblin, you will very likely enjoy this one too!
Will.i.am, who began his career as one of the founding members of The Black Eyed Peas, released his last solo album, Songs About Girls, back in 2007. His fourth studio album, #willpower, which dropped last week, is more of a pop and techno influenced hip-hop project with guest appearances by artists ranging from Britney Spears, Eva Simons and Rihanna to Chris Brown and Justin Bieber. The album’s first two singles, “This Is Love” (featuring Eva Simons) and the upbeat dance, electro-pop song “Scream & Shout” with Britney Spears, came out on video last fall to generally positive reviews.
By featuring artists from different genres, Will.i.am is able to explore different styles on this album and demonstrate his creativity. However, since most of the tracks are oriented towards electronic dance music, no doubt some of his fans will be waiting for the return of his former style of hip-hop.
Overall, #willpower is well balanced and has many fun elements, but some of the songs seem repetitive and sound similar when you are listening through the whole album. What’s most interesting about #willpower, is the way different artists from different genres become harmonized with Will.i.am’s style of music.
Labtekwon is not messing around. When first reading the lengthy title of this Baltimore rapper’s latest release, it is easy to assume this is some kind of Wu-Tang rap ninja concept album, but Labtekwon’s explanation of the title to writer Brandon Soderberg shows that he’s casting a far wider creative/intellectual net:
The current release is HARDCORE: Labtekwon and the Righteous Indignation/Rootzilla vs Masta Akbar. The title summarizes the album in less than ten words: Hardcore reflects that this album is for those that are “hardcore” listeners and supporters of hip-hop culture; “Righteous Indignation” is a description of my disdain for the exploitation of not only hip-hop culture, but the exploitation of humanity by the elite that manipulate the minds of the masses with misinformation and lies. The “Rootzilla vs Masta Akbar” aspect of the album represents the dichotomy between the album’s two perspectives: “Rootzilla” represents the battle emcee that wants to destroy all wack rappers and pseudo-emcees through the art of battle rhyme styles. While “Masta Akbar” represents the scholarly, intellectual and higher conscious aspects of the rest of the album, such as the “The Trilogy of Truth”; the three songs about religion (“The Truth About Christianity“), race (“The Truth About Race“), and money (“The Economy of Tricknology“). So, the current album title is an “abstract” of sorts to describe the nature of the album.
The thought and passion that goes into crafting a manifesto within an album title is evident throughout Labtekwon’s challenging and technically precise rap (the accompanying paperback-size booklet includes the lyrics). The combinations of sounds are both familiar and experimental, making this album, as the artist himself said above, “for those that are “hardcore” listeners and supporters of hip-hop culture.” This is certainly not the CD to introduce yourself to the world of hip-hop. It may very well be, however, the CD to introduce yourself to the world of artistic hip-hop, or the world of experimental hip-hop, or any number of whole new worlds that are yet undiscovered. There is nothing easy about listening to HARDCORE: Labtekwon and the Righteous Indignation/Rootzilla vs Masta Akbar, but discovering uncharted sonic landscapes is a challenging journey worth pursuing.
Ugly Heroes is an up and coming hip-hop group made up of producer Apollo Brown and emcees Verbal Kent and Red Pill, who united to tell their personal stories about the hard-working, often underappreciated blue collar worker who selflessly keeps the world turning for their families: the ugly hero. Their debut album as a collective, Ugly Heroes, details the harsh realities surrounding their lives in Chicago and Detroit, struggling while trying to find that illusive silver lining hiding behind it all.
“Desperate” details the toils of a working-class man fighting to survive, with Red Pill and Verbal Kent spitting their hearts out about fighting to overcome the hopelessness that seems to plague them. Red Pill delivers beautiful melancholy verses about issues such as economic inequality and how suicide or a lottery ticket is the best way for the ugly heroes to overcome debt when they aren’t going to find help from anyone but themselves.
The single “Graves” deals with the fate facing many blue-collar workers who wind up becoming slaves to their time-clock at dead-end jobs, even resorting to dealing drugs in the factory parking lot just to make enough to live off of, while management sits back and watches as they unknowingly dig their own graves.
Ugly Heroes is not a depressing story of hopelessness, but one offering a glimmer of hope to those in a comparably bleak situation through uplifting tracks like “Heart and Soul” and “Just Relax.” Apollo Brown’s groovy yet gloomy beats match the energy and emotion put forth by the dual emcees to deliver an overall powerful debut album that seamlessly transitions from track to track. Ugly Heroes opens a unique window into the world of the unsung blue-collar hero and is filled with beautiful production and raw, hard-hitting rhymes, bringing everything they have to the table.
When you come from a family as musical as Oh No (his brother is underground hip hop king Madlib, his father is cult ’70s soul singer Otis Jackson, and his uncle is jazz trumpeter Jon Faddis), there is always the concern that you’ll have to live up to the works of those that came before you. Oh No combats this concern though tight, creative production and through a steady output of new works, each moving in a different direction from the last, but with a unifying aesthetic that marks them all as his own.
On Disrupted ADS (short for audio dispensary system), Oh No moves into the realm of the concept album, but in a way that manages to be more thematic than overwrought. The beats he’s produced for the album are all based around television commercials, giving the listener the experience of flipping through channels and occasionally resting on a great new rap video, or perhaps listening to the radio as your (very skilled and talented) friends cipher. The interruption from advertising voices provides interesting set-breaks and, counter-intuitively, allows the album to flow from instrumental track to rap track with ease. The only major flaw, and really it’s only a flaw if you perceive it that way, is that, much like television commercials, the album doesn’t command attention, serving effectively as pleasurable background sound. The creative spark and technical artistry audible on Disrupted ADS, however, make this the kind of soundtrack you won’t want to flip past.
Video for BKNY the first single off Smart Ass Black Boy
Fat Tony, the chosen moniker of 25-year-old Nigerian-American rapper Anthony Obi, has already garnered a huge following in his hometown of Houston, Texas and an ever-growing following across the country due to his witty, but not overly precious, danceable raps. Working primarily with long-time collaborator, producer Tom Cruz, Tony presents an image that is both aware and laid back. When asked how he manages to juggle politics, pop sensibilities and authenticity so coolly, he responded:
I think I balance all these things because my aim is to be a great artist in the classic sense. If you look at some of the best songwriters like Prince, Neil Young, 2pac, Biggie, etc., they were all able to tackle various topics while still remaining genuine and relatable.
“Genuine and relatable” are two perfect adjectives to describe the songs on Fat Tony’s new release Smart Ass Black Boy. Tony has a skill seems rare in hip-hop: the ability to balance political messages with block-party bangers. When this balance is achieved, as on SABB, hip-hop has the ability to move beyond the single focused backpack rapper criticizing the school system or the radio rapper focused on excessive living, and represent the reality of being a young person of color today.
Marketers have often tried to divide hip-hop into camps based on lyrical content—gangstas from afrocentric ankh wearing brothers from pimps from club bangers—but in real life people are not so black and white. Young rappers like Fat Tony represent the multifaceted truth of urban life by creating truly biographical music, not music that veers into the realm of oversharing self-involvement, but music that reflects both the experience of oppression and the experience of macking on a cute girl, the experience of being a first generation American and the experience of chilling with your friends at a party.
Perhaps the most obvious example of this reflective writing style comes in the first two lines of “Hood Party,” featuring ex Das Racist and Boy Crisis member Kool A.D. and Queens’ own Despot:
I met her at the hood party, even white people know that it’s a good party
Look around your hood, they probably rent a couple properties
Around my block I hear they’re building buildings with a lobby
There are a few layers to this verse. The first is, simply, that it’s a really catchy hook, with Tony’s laid back Houstonian delivery feeling like he’s just casually chatting at you. After that layer, however, interpretation goes in two directions. On a cursory level, if you’re dancing to this song and having a good time, it’s just a party song, shouting out to good times and making a crack at the supposed stodginess of white people. A closer listen, if you’re listening to this song on headphones during your commute, and it’s clear that he’s talking about the rapid gentrification of traditionally maligned urban areas. What makes this verse great, however, isn’t just that it’s multi-leveled, but rather that it’s multileveled in the same way our thought processes often are. It isn’t a polemic against gentrification, it is just remarking on how strange these urban mechanizations can seem.
The rest of the album is filled with songs that reflect that contemporary experience of being aware of the disadvantages of being a person of color in the U.S., but also reveling in the advantages of being a person in general in the U.S. and celebrating the positive above all. One of the most sweetly relatable tracks on SABB is “Father’s Day,” a song lovingly dedicated to the classic first generation immigrant experience of having a parent who wanted to raise their child in America but then grew upset when they realized they were raising an American child. While the inner verses deal with the pain and frustration felt on both sides when a son doesn’t live up to his father’s expectations, the last verse is proud, admitting what we all have to admit about family:
And it feels so incredible to admit
From my skin tone to my 10 toes, I am him
From my earlobes to my elbows to my genome
I can’t deny it, not even if I try it
Fat Tony represents one of the greatest things to come out of this new generation of D.I.Y “internet famous” rappers: real realness. Not the realness that leads to arguments about what hood someone really grew up in or if they were really in that gang, but the realness of honest self expression the deals openly with the good times and the bad.
Described on the band’s website as a retro-funk pop-hop quartet, the Divine Pocket Bouncers blend the New York honed funk-rock sensibilities of keyboardist Bruce Mack and bassist Jared Michael Nickerson (affiliates of the Black Rock Coalition and Greg Tate’s Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber), with the world music and hip hop influences of Parisian-based drummer Benjamin Sanz and vocalist/rapper Bruce “B Devine” Sherfield.
On their self-titled debut EP, the group continues a sonic exploration begun in 2008 when the members started jamming together at an abandoned building in the Menilmontant section of Paris. Over the ensuing years the group coalesced through file sharing across the pond, then finally came together again in January 2012 for several live concerts in Bordeaux. From these performances the group emerged with six songs that were turned over to the U.S. production team of Diriki Mack and John “Quixotic” Gundersen.
Kicking off the project is “Wow!” which can best be described as a rap-based party track that name checks James Brown, then brings in the funk at full throttle. The remaining 8 tracks follow a similar pattern, as Sherfield’s half sung, half spoken syncopated lyrics (like a more playful version of Saul Williams) fuse with smooth synths and funky bass lines. The result is a highly original EP that showcases the group’s genre-bending talents and offers a contemporary yet familiar sonic landscape that should appeal to everyone from seasoned funkateers to youthful hipsters.
The “We” referred to in New York based artist TECLA’s newest studio album, We Are the Lucky Ones, are the generation of young people who, for the first time in U.S. history, can have open, proud ownership of their multi-racial and mixed cultural influences. Music like TECLA’s that samples regional sounds from across cultural boundaries and differing pop sensibilities is often described as “complicated,” but what makes We Are The Lucky Ones great is the understanding that those complications are not created through music studio experimentations, but are rather a reflection on what life sounds like to this Hell’s Kitchen born and raised musical prodigy with an Italian father and a Haitian mother. As urban communities continue to flux and mesh, the “complicated” sounds of neighborhoods with cumbia-blasting bodegas, cars blaring trap music and indie-electronica streaming out of windows have replaced monocultural radio as a new sonic normalcy.
TECLA’s music raises the question that any potentially groundbreaking album should, “Am I complicated, or are you just boring?”
Following is the music video for “Fake Tears,” the first single off the album:
Tricky, born Adrian Thaws in Bristol, England to a Jamaican father and Ghanaian-English mother, first gained attention through his affiliation with the trip hop group Massive Attack. But it was his 1994 solo debut album, Maxinquaye, that brought worldwide critical acclaim for his trademark down-tempo style of half-whispered raps over hypnotic beats paired with assorted soulful vocalists and instrumentals. Now, after nine major label releases including Nearly God (1996), Angels With Dirty Faces (1998), Knowle West Boy (2008) and Mixed Race (2010), he’s shaken off outside influences and founded his own label, False Idols, which is also the title of his new album.
On False Idols, Tricky returns to a softer, more mesmerizing form of trip hop that’s fused with soul and occasional bursts of rock guitar (“Parenthesis”), sensuous strings (“Passion of the Christ”), acoustic pop (“Chinese Interludes”), world beats (“Tribal Drums” and “I’m Ready”), jazz (“Valentine,” built over repetitions of “My Funny Valentine”), and menacing electronica as exemplified by “Does It”:
Joining his spiritual journey are vocalists Nneka, Peter Silberman of The Antlers, Francesca Belmonte, and Fifi Rong (regrettably there are no specific credits for the electronic review copy). Overall, False Idols is a fascinating mood piece with fifteen transcendent tracks that, despite occasional booming bass lines, will likely motivate you to sit lotus-style in the corner and ponder your place in the universe.
Best known in the United States for their collaboration on “Waka Waka” with Shakira in 2010, Freshlyground has continued to make significant contributions to popular music in South Africa. One of the longest withstanding bands in the country, Freshlyground has been touring both nationally and internationally for ten years. They decided to approach Take Me to the Dance differently than their other albums. Normally they record in Cape Town, where the group formed ten years ago, but for this album each individual artist began recording at home and then they traveled to Prince Albert in the Western Cape to record the rest of the album. They decided to go independent from their record label for this album, so they collaborated with one of the largest grocery stores in the country to distribute the CD.
Musically, Freshlyground has made significant changes on Take Me to the Dance by turning to a more electronic sound. Kyla-Rose Smith, who normally performs violin in their live performances, has recently been seen performing with a midi-keyboard. Her outstanding violin performance is not forgotten though, as her instrument remains crucial to pieces such as “Chain Gang.” Some of the pieces are relatable to American popular country music (“Leave a Light On”), some influenced by Cape Town-famous Kwaito beats (“Nomthandazo”), and others by famous DJs from South Africa, such as the title track “Take Me to the Dance:”
The racial, religious, and musical diversity of the individual artists are all compiled to create a politically strong message against racism and the lack of social justice within the government. “Not Too Late for Love” speaks against racism when lead singer Zolani Mahola sings “living in South Africa, never know if you get far. ‘Cause if you’re black then you’re not white, and if you’re white then you’re not black.” In “The Message” Mahola sings “to all the people without a voice to sing . . . all my people living under the bridge: I want you to know, I see you so, this is your world. We’ll never let you go.”
Take Me to the Dance is an extraordinary purchase filled with political insight and musical diversity. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to listen to this cutting-edge collaboration.
Followed By Thousands, the latest release from the Toronto-based band The Battle of Santiago, marks a step forward in the consolidation of this band’s multicultural sound. Grounded in jazz, electronic and Afro-Caribbean musical traditions, as well as in contemporary approaches towards interactive multimedia art and theater, The Battle of Santiago honors the polemic events that occurred during the soccer World Cup of 1962 in Chile, where in a match full of violence and body contact that came to be known by that name, Chile beat Italy two to zero. Founded by bassist Michael Owens, this band also includes three Latin percussionists, a saxophonist/flutist, and a guitarist/sound manipulator in a musical set-up that they define as Afro-Cuban-Post-Rock.
This new album is more charged towards the rave side of music than towards the more electro-Latin-jazz ideas that were included in their first album Full Colour, therefore making it more suitable for a party environment, where dancing would be the more reasonable reaction to this music. Followed By Thousands is a balanced blend of atmospheric sounds, jazz solos and harmonies, Latin percussion beats and improvisations, and electronic backgrounds and sounds, all of which provide a steady backing groove that will make you tap your foot. On the group’s website you can listen to a full version of the album, as well as to their previous releases!
Brazilian jazz has a long history which, like many other Brazilian musics, tends to be overlooked by international audiences. Even though the 1960s brought bossa-nova and bossa-jazz to the international scene, many representatives of these emerging trends stayed local and some of their recordings have come to be considered classics, among the best in Brazilian musical history. That is the case of Dom Salvador (born Salvador da Silva Filho), one of Brazil’s finest jazz pianists, and his Salvador Trio, an album recorded in 1965 and originally released by Mocambo Records.
The sonority of this Brazilian classic is way more charged towards the jazz side of the equation, than to the bossa, and it has been called by some “hard-bossa.” Salvador’s pianistic skills provide a wide range of sounds that go from hard-bop influenced melodies, such as “Miscelania,” or bebop, like “Pro Batera,” to more Brazilian-oriented improvisations, such as in “Chegou O Carnaval”:
Upright bassist Edson Lobo contributes a thick and consistent sound, as well as numerous melody-rich improvisations. The drums are under the charge of Victor Manga, who switches permanently from standard swing rhythms to Brazilian patterns, thus creating a rhythmic texture that enriches the whole sonic experience and gives the rest of the musicians the room they need to “jazzify” Brazilian popular music.
Salvador Trio is a classic that is considered by some as the best jazz album to have come out of Brazil. Definitely, this is a release worth listening to and a key piece to understanding the development of Brazilian jazz, as well as the career of the legendary Dom Salvador.
To celebrate its twentieth anniversary, world music and “world pop” label Putumayo Records has put together an incredible compilation of Brazilian contemporary female singers: Women of Brazil. This eleven-track album is full of the melodic sweetness and rhythmic spice of Brazilian women whose voices make the listener think he is in heaven. The typical Brazilian singing style, with its particular smoothness and clear technique, is the feature of this album, where exclusively Portuguese lyrics and jazz influenced arrangements of Brazilian classic songs by Caetano Veloso or Jorge Ben find a refreshing interpretation in the voices of these eleven angels.
The selection of the songs and artists must have been a tough task, for Brazil is a country overflowing with musical talent and an incredibly active music industry. Nonetheless, the selection concept is very inclusive: the album features established artists from the always innovative Brazilian scene, such as Aline Morales, Luísa Maita, and Flavia Coehlo, as well as young and talented artists that are just making their way to the big stages of the global music scene, such as Miriam Aïda and Maguinha. The sensuality of this album will captivate you and will make you want to go and see these artists live, while enjoying a caipirinha on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro.
Matuto, a New York-based music project that blends Afro-Brazilian popular music and Appalachia-driven Americana, brings us twelve songs that provide a unique sonic experience in the album The Devil and the Diamond. Accordionist Rob Curto and bluegrass/jazz guitarist Clay Ross manage to create a space in which both the traditions of North American grassroots folk music and Recife’s forro and choro meet. This soulful musical stew, which tastes as if it had been cooking for generations, has been served by this group at festivals and concerts in West Africa, Europe, and across the United States.
The sound resulting from Matuto’s lab is a mature blend which seems to expand and update the musical legacy of MPB (Música Popular Brasileria), refreshing the relationship that for so many decades has existed between U.S. American folk musics and Brazil’s own musical heritage. Since the mid-20th century, Brazil’s popular musics, such as samba, choro, forro and bossa-nova, have been strongly influenced by US American popular musics. However, in the late 1960s and 1970s, a new musical movement emerged called MPB, which emphasized these traditional languages but with a stronger influence from North American genres, such as jazz, rock, folk, or pop. With world-class music figures such as Chico Buarque and Jorge Ben, MPB is probably one of the most listened to Brazilian styles around the globe. Even though guitars, fiddles and accordions are as recognizable to Braizilian audiences as they are to US American ones, Matuto seems to have taken this relationship to the next level.
Because of their historic relationship, MPB and American popular styles share common grounds, but also because of this history, they have their own separate identities. Matuto breaks that barrier by bringing together what had been kept separate, so far, by using exclusively English lyrics. Songs such as “Diamond” (track 2), present vocal styles and arrangements that resemble some kind of indie rock/funk atmosphere, which is supported by a samba-rock groove and violin improvisations that sound like a Santana electric guitar solo. “Drag Me Down” (track 8) is an interesting melding of Delta blues accordion with berimbau (a wire-stringed musical bow used to perform capoeira music) and pandeiro (Brazilian tambourine) lines that come from the traditional samba de roda styles, mixing together two very old traditions from the Black people of Northeastern Brazil and Southern United States.
These two songs, though, are just a small sample of the many musical shades that Matuto has ready for you, ranging from pop to straight-up samba beats. The following video is a sample of their most jazzy stuff (performed at the Kennedy Center) and their heavy forro beats (at the RecBeat Festival in Recife, Brazil):
Stellar Award winning and Grammy nominated gospel artist, Vashawn Mitchell, reaches yet another height with his most recent release, Created 4 This. A strong album just two years after the release of his Grammy nominated Triumphant, Created 4 This is a high spirited album containing many praise inducing compositions, featuring the rich, harmonic bed of choral sound he has become known for.
The first single “Turning Around for Me” is reminiscent of his most well known song “Nobody Greater.” Emotionally riveting and memorable, “Turning Around for Me” presses the message that despite the current situation, all should have faith that it will turn around in your favor:
Also included is a cover of “The Potter’s House,” originally featured on Tramaine Hawkins Live as a duet between Tramaine and Walter Hawkins. Mitchell’s version features R&B artist and American Idol winner Fantasia Barrino, as well as her mother, Evangelist Diane Barrino. While it still maintains the traditional flavor of the original composition, Mitchell ornaments his arrangement with his unique brand of melodic and harmonic treatment.
Created 4 This was recorded live at Thornton High School Auditorium in Harvey, Illinois. The album is also available in a deluxe edition that features two additional songs plus a DVD.
These two amazing releases represent the African American sacred steel tradition, which was first developed in Pentecostal churches by Willie Eason in the 1930s. Though steel guitar originated in Hawaii, the pedal steel has been embraced in the worship at churches in states ranging from Florida to Michigan, where its sound often mimics singing voices and moans, stirring the emotions and fitting perfectly into deep worship.
The Lee Boys, a Miami-based funk and gospel band that performs within the sacred steel tradition, recently released their fourth album, Testify. This family group includes three brothers, Alvin Lee (guitar), Derrick Lee and Keith Lee (vocals), and their three nephews, Roosevelt Collier (pedal steel guitar), Alvin Cordy Jr. (bass) and Earl Walker (drums), who all grew up in the House of God church in Perrine, Florida and learned to play various musical instruments. The fact that their father and grandfather, Rev. Robert E. Lee, was the pastor and a steel guitar player at the church must have definitely led them to this tradition.
Even though sacred steel is rooted in gospel music, the steel guitar also figures prominently in other genres such as blues, R&B, jazz, rock, and country music. Indeed, Testify is the perfect example of the variety of musical aspects that can be expressed within this musical tradition. You can’t help but dance when you listen to tracks like the title tune, “Testify,” with its funky bass lines. I personally love songs such as “Smile” and “Feel the Music,” which make me enjoy the positive energies that they bring. The band concludes the album with “We Need to Hear from You.” In the first half of the track, vocalists’ free and sincere voices lead you into quiet worship. Then Collier’s steel guitar kicks in the second half, totally changing the worship style into an up-beat rock tune. It is such a clever way to entertain the listeners while keeping the purpose of prayer.
The Slide Brothers consist of steel guitarists Calvin Cooke, Chuck Campbell and Darick Campbell, with drummer Aubrey Ghent. Cooke, who Nashville country steel guitarists have dubbed the “B.B. King of gospel steel guitar,” grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, in a family that went to the Church of the Living God, Jewell Dominion, which had a strong steel guitar tradition. The group’s album was produced by Robert Randolph, one of the most successful pedal steel guitarists and leader of Robert Randolph and the Family Band, who has made it his mission to share the extraordinary talents of the masters of the sacred steel tradition with audiences throughout the world.
The group demonstrates the bluesy nature of steel guitars throughout their debut project. “Sunday School Blues” starts with moaning steel guitars, leading into a groovy blues tune. “Praise You,” featuring reigning blues queen Shemekia Copeland, lets us hear a great collaboration between human voice and the timbre of steel guitars. Following is a promotional video for the album:
In order to fully appreciate the differences between these two groups, you can listen to their different interpretations of “Wade in the Water” (The Lee Boys “Wade in the Water” and the Slide Brothers “Wade in the Water”). These performances showcase the steel guitar’s powerful mournful sounds which fit perfectly with the strong message of this traditional spiritual.
These new releases are not only a perfect introduction to the sacred steel tradition for those like myself who are not familiar with the genre, but will also be highly prized by those who already appreciate and collect this music. The Lee Boys and the Slide Brothers are certainly destined to become influential steel guitar masters in the music industry now that they’ve expanded their audience beyond the church.
Title: Martha Reeves & the Vandellas: The Singles Collection (1962-1972)
Artist: Martha Reeves & the Vandellas
Format: 3-CD Box Set
Release date: April 2, 2013
The question often gets posed: Motown or Stax? Martha Reeves, the Alabama-born Motown ingénue, muddies the musical waters with a voice that brings a deep-throated Southern soul (often associated with Memphis’s Stax Records) to Berry Gordy’s Hitsville. With her booming alto voice, Martha lends the Vandellas a more emotive, bluesier sound than the typical Motown act and especially the Supremes, whose rising star eventually eclipsed that of Martha and co.
Upon the group’s 50th Anniversary, Motown’s box set release of Martha Reeves & the Vandellas: Singles Collection, 1962-1972, they finally get the anthology treatment their prolific 10-year recording run deserves. With a 57-page booklet written by pop music historians Keith Hughes and Bill Dahl, the box set tells the story of the girl group sound through the kohl-rimmed eyes of Motown’s original girl group. The colorful design and layout of the liner notes and the 3-CD, 82-song tracklist make this set a music collector’s prize pick.
Disc 1 covers the group’s career at the top of the charts from 1962-1967 with such Holland and Dozier hits as “Heatwave,” “Dancing in the Street,” “Quicksand,” and “Nowhere to Run.” During that time, Martha & the Vandellas tracked dozens of pop gems that sat on Motown’s backburner for years, sometimes longer—“Jimmy Mack” was shelved for nearly 2 years and nearly forgotten before it became a top-ten hit in 1967, a result of Motown’s spotty prioritization of the group. The recordings from this period, before the girl group sound became routinized by the era’s songwriting powerhouses, runs the gamut: from the breezy, tropical-sounding “Jealous Lover” to the biker-ballad “Wild One” and the jazz-serenade “Old Love (“Let’s Try it Again”). On these mono-mixes, Martha’s voice foregrounds the Funk Brothers’ deceptively complex instrumentation, drawing out the grittiness of Mike Terry’s bari sax as well as the delicate glassy tones of the piano arrangements. Disc 1’s biggest surprise is a Spanish-language version of the hook-heavy “Jimmy Mack,” a rarity that is the would-be envy of girl group record collectors the world over.
The group’s first 45 release “I’ll Have to Let Him Go” w/ “My Baby Won’t Come Back” has a thumping backbeat that is reminiscent of Redbird recording artists, the Dixie Cups from New Orleans; which is to say, it has a rawer, swinging sound. Martha’s subdued vocals give way to unexpected gospel wails, which, along with a stuttering tremolo guitar riff, give the otherwise poppy “I’ll Have to Let Him Go” a heart-heavy quality.
The liner notes demystify some of the instrumental magic behind the hits “Dancing in the Street” and “Nowhere to Run”; Martha’s brassy voice is complemented by a percussive beat that is the songs’ signatures: R&B composer Ivory Joe Hunter, in the employ of Motown, whipped rattling snow-chains over a plank of wood to create the song’s irresistible danciness:
Disc 2 begins with the single version of “Jimmy Mack,” the last of Martha & the Vandellas chart-topping hits. In the wake of its success, the group experimented with their sound in response to the changing political and aesthetic climate of the late ’60s. Teamed with the Alabama-born songwriter Sylvia Moy, Martha & the Vandellas recorded bubblegum soul as heard in “Love Bug Leave My Heart Alone” and “Honey Chile,” songs that couple Aretha Franklin’s earthiness with the Jackson 5’s party spirit. The group’s late-’60s work also captures some of the era’s psychedelic craze. The fuzz guitar on “Love Bug” and the trippy orchestral sound of “You Can Have Him” see the group venturing into paisley-printed experimental territory, as did their labelmates the Temptations on Psychedelic Shack. Disc 2 also features “I Should Be Proud,” an anti-war protest song, whose charged performance by Reeves (whose brother was a casualty of the Vietnam War), sees the girl group making an uncharacteristic move toward socio-political song material.
Disc 3 includes songs being released from the Motown vaults for the first time and has two standout tracks: the rock’n’roll stomper “Better Think It Over” and a whacky bubblegum version of the dance novelty number “C’mon and Swim.”
With subtle but nevertheless fierce displays of femininity, Martha Reeves & the Vandellas reveal girl group music to be more than a teenybopper soundtrack to the ’60s. This boxset captures Martha & the Vandellas coming of age and feeling all the ups and downs of love, of the music business, and of the changing times. And the Motor City mavens approach all with an unremittingly upbeat attitude and sound, as heard on “Motoring”: “We’re gonna motor all night long and when it starts to raining turn your wipers on.”
The following reissues by Real Gone Music profile the work of two singer-songwriters on the Atlantic label: the 1960s Northern soul of Barbara Lewis, and the 1970s Southern soul of Sam Dees. Long after their recording careers wound down, they both continued to pen songs for other artists. Dees has been especially successful with 364 song titles currently listed in the BMI database, placing him amongst the top soul songwriters alongside Lamont Dozier, Phillip Mitchell, George Jackson and Bunny Sigler.
Barbara Lewis started writing songs at a very early age. Born in 1943 less than thirty miles west of Detroit, it should come as no surprise that by the early 1960s her pop-soul style ran parallel to the songs coming out of the Motor City. When her father handed a tape of her songs to a local deejay, she landed a single on his Karen label which was later picked up by Atlantic. Thus began a long string of singles (17 to be precise, or 34 sides) recorded between 1962-1968 for Atlantic and compiled for the first time on this two-CD set. Nearly one-third of the tracks are Lewis’s own compositions, while the remainder were penned by Brill Building songwriters and range from slightly schmaltzy ballads overflowing with sumptuous strings to uptempo Motownesque pop songs.
There are many standout tracks, including Lewis’s rocking “Gonna Love You Till the End of Time” replete with a female backing group and honking sax solo, her number one R&B hit “Hello Stranger” backed by the Dells, the delightfully sophisticated “Snap Your Fingers,” and the 1968 Hester-Wylie song “I’ll Keep Believin’.” Lewis possessed a rich voice and the ability to sing any style with ease and it’s a shame that her career was so short, but not altogether surprising. By 1968 soul music was topping the charts and the material she was given by Atlantic was sounding decidedly old-school. Still, this is an entertaining listen and the liner notes by Richie Unterberger shed light on this lesser-known artist.
Birmingham, Alabama native Sam Dees released singles on various labels, including Chess, in the early 1970s before he was picked up by Atlantic. Fortunately, instead up packing up for New York, Dees stayed in the South, recording at the Sound of Birmingham and New London studios in Alabama. Working with Clinton Moon of Moonsong Publishing, he released more singles on the Atlantic distributed Clintone label, known for its deep soul roster.
Dees’ 1975 Atlantic debut album, The Show Must Go On, was primarily a collection of the singles he wrote and recorded from 1972-1974 and is reissued here for the first time on CD. His socially conscious songs such as “Child of the Streets,” “Troubled Child” and “What’s It Gonna Be” reflect the style of Curtis Mayfield and the blaxploitation film soundtracks which peaked during those same years. Interspersed with the hard driving soul are romantic ballads, including “Just Out of My Reach” with lush string arrangements by Ronnie Harris, “So Tied Up,” and “Worn Out Broken Heart” which achieved considerable chart success. Also included are 6 bonus single sides, including the message song “Signed Miss Heroin” which was cut from the original album, presumably due to its drug related lyrics. All tracks feature the same rhythm section: guitarist Glen Wood, bassist David Camon, and drummer Sherman “Fats” Carson.
The liner notes by Bill Dahl relate the early years of Dees’ recording career and provide a brief summary of his songwriting career (he went on to pen hits for Larry Graham, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston, to name a few). If you like what you hear, the Kent label has released two additional compilations of his singles, with very little duplication.
This fascinating compilation takes us on a journey from early 20th century vaudeville through the 1950s, while tracing the evolution of just one song. “Open the Door, Richard” originated on the minstrel circuit, most likely penned by Bob Russell, an early mentor of comedian Pigmeat Markham, who popularized the stage routine on which the song is based. This routine gained new life after a 1945 film short by director William Forest Crouch captured a performance by Dusty Fletcher, who is most often credited as the originator.
The following year, popular band leader Jack McVea became the first musician to record the song “Open the Door, Richard,” which incorporates parts of the comedy routine. Released in 1946 on the Black & White label under the direction of producer Ralph Bass, the song became an instant jukebox sensation, setting off a flurry of cover versions by the likes of Louis Jordan, Hot Lips Page, The Three Flames, and Count Basie, who took it to the top of the charts:
Over the years, the song has spawned countless versions traversing multiple languages and genres―calypso, doowop, country, polka, and more recently, ska―as well as “answer” songs and parodies. McVea added “The Key’s in the Mailbox,” “Richard Gets Hitched,” and “Crow’s Being Evicted,” all included here along with the Four Aces’ “Richard Ain’t Gonna Open the Door” and several others. The set also includes a couple of previously unreleased versions, such as live performances by McVeigh and the Charioteers captured on radio airchecks.
Though it would be easy to dismiss the routine for its minstrel-based buffoonery, Paul Watts points out in the liner notes that “Open the Door, Richard!” became an African American catchphrase, often referenced during the Civil Rights Movement in demands to end segregation, create equal opportunities and increase Black representation. Consequently, the songs can be studied from many different angles, though likely only the die-hard fans will listen to all 24 variants in one sitting.
Just in time for summer, Kermit Ruffins’ no holds barred NOLA party record is sure to liven up your barbeque. Joined by Shannon Powell on drums, Steve Pistorius on piano, Richard Moten on bass, Don Vappie on banjo, Lucien Barbarin on trombone, and Tom Fischer on clarinet, Ruffins and the band blaze through 12 tracks of traditional Crescent City jazz ranging from Louis Armstrong’s “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” to “When the Saints Go Marching In,” with a “Treme Second Line” thrown in for good measure. We Partyin’ Traditional Style! is like a love letter to Ruffin’s home town, and demonstrates once again his devotion to the preservation of New Orleans jazz.
Though perhaps lesser known outside of Louisiana than Kermit Ruffins, in his hometown Davell Crawford has earned the title “Piano Prince of New Orleans.” As the grandson of James “Sugarboy” Crawford (who cut the Mardi-Gras standard “Jock-A-Mo” in 1954), Davell has deeps roots in the local R&B and gospel music scene. By the time he was 11, the wunderkind was already the youth choir director, pianist and organist at his church. More recently he’s directed The Davell Crawford Singers (featured on previous releases by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Dr. John). These influences along with a little funk, jazz and blues are woven throughout his music.
On his sixth album, My Gift To You, Crawford shows off his piano chops in addition to his talent for songwriting and arranging. And did I mention singing? Crawford’s godmother is Roberta Flack, and what immediately strikes the listener is how Crawford’s husky alto can sound like Flack in a remarkably uncanny way. The album is a mix of original tunes and covers, the latter including James Booker’s classic “Junco Partner Cud’in Joe” featuring Walter “Wolfman” Washington on guitar, Billy Joel’s “The River of Dreams,” James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain,” and Steve Winwood’s “I Can’t Find My Way Home,” all re-arranged and re-imagined as references to local culture and environs. Crawford opens with his own song “Creole Man,” a tribute to Louisiana’s mix of heritages, followed by “River/White Socks and Drawers” featuring Dr. John, Big Freedia, and jazz saxophonists Donald Harrison and Clarence Johnson. Cajun fiddler/accordionist Steve Riley joins in on “Don’t Ever Be Blue,” a country tune that shows Crawford’s affinity for roots music. The final two deeply personal and emotional tracks, “Stranger in My Own Home” and “Until I See You In a While,” were written post-Katrina and bear a pain that is still fresh, a displacement still felt, in a city that’s been indelibly transformed.
The CD is accompanied by generous liner notes contributed by Geraldine Wyckoff as well as song texts with personal notes from Crawford. Overall, My Gift To You is a delightful project that should garner more fans for the extremely talented and versatile Davell Crawford.
George Benson has spent the last four years developing his tribute to the late, great Nat King Cole and it shows. Though most are more familiar with Benson’s fabled guitar work, this impeccably crafted album features Benson as a smooth crooner. His amazingly supple and youthful sounding voice belies his age (Benson recently turned 70), while his years of experience in the jazz idiom are reflected in his highly nuanced performance. Benson covers 12 of Cole’s songs, including “Unforgettable” in an arrangement featuring Wynton Marsalis, “When I Fall In Love” in a duet with Broadway star Idina Menzel, and the nostalgic “Route 66.” The album begins and ends with “Mona Lisa,” with the opening track featuring 8-year-old Little Georgie Benson from a rare studio recording. Accompaniment is provided by the 42-piece Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra playing the original Nelson Riddle arrangements.
Following is the official album trailer:
There have been many tributes to Nat King Cole, but George Benson’s is definitely one of the best.
Now in its fortieth year, Sweet Honey in the Rock keeps imprinting the present with the past, reweaving historic modes of African American music making into contemporary sonic tapestries. Like the old-time Black gospel quartets who perform for decades under the same group name, Sweet Honey’s core musical identity and artistic impetus holds steady while personnel sometimes fluctuates. Recorded during a Lincoln Center concert in 2011, Sweet Honey: A Tribute adheres to the ethos forged by the group’s now-retired founder, Bernice Johnson Reagon, whose commitment to social activism flows clear and strong through this album. In true Sweet Honey fashion, the double-disc set also testifies to the group’s artistic evolution, as the quintet (which usually sings a cappella) collaborates with a jazz trio.
Also notable is the album’s animating intent, to pay tribute to four departed Black female musical icons: Nina Simone, Odetta, Miriam Makeba, and Abbey Lincoln. The album’s songs were written by, sung by, or conceptually related to the music of these four women and therefore encompass a broad range of themes: romance, death, celebration, suffering, justice. Compared to the group’s past work, the album emphasizes solos more often, with increased improvisation. A special treat are the album’s “polyphonic” liner notes, in which ensemble members describe their emotional connections to these songs and the artists memorialized in them. As is typical for Sweet Honey, the album’s arrangements draw on work songs, blues, spirituals, jazz subgenres, gospel, R&B of various eras, soul, Afro-Caribbean styles, and neo-soul.
The discs trace an arc similar to that of a satisfying meal, with light fare preceding heavier. The first half is overall more thematically and musically upbeat, including three brief a cappella opening numbers; an uptempo soul groove (Odetta’s sly and humorous “Can’t Afford to Lose My Man”); the gospel piano-inflected “Trouble In Mind” (here Louise Robinson’s rollicking growls pay homage to Cab Calloway); Afro-Caribbean party rhythms in Makeba’s trademark “Pata Pata”; and a no-holds-barred, funky New Orleans-style collective improvisation on “Midnight Special.” More restrained musical settings float along on the second disc, engaging the weighty subjects of freedom (a medley of songs from the Black church tradition); racial justice (the “Abbey Lincoln Medley”); and “Another Man Done Gone,” a traditional lament sung here in Ysaye Maria Barnwell’s rich, deep voice. Both discs resonate with the special performer-audience interaction that marks Sweet Honey concerts.
Following is a concert clip featuring Miriam Makeba’s “Sabumoya”:
The music of this group has always presented a poignant reminder of the possibilities of healing and redemption amidst the hurts of this world, and their latest offering is no different. The ensemble’s very name speaks of soft things in hard places and sweet songs on bitter roads, and their art gives voice to our collective and individual joys and laments. We need this music, now more than ever before.
Welcome to the June 2013 issue of Black Grooves, sponsored by the Archives of African American Music and Culture. As part of our Black Music Month celebration, we invite you to watch our new video about the Logan H. Westbrooks Collection, documenting the career of the pioneering music industry executive whose personal papers were recently donated to the AAAMC:
Last but not least, we’ve added a new feature which summarizes releases of note from the previous month that fall within the Black Grooves sphere (this is not intended to be a comprehensive list). Some will be reviewed in future issues.