Archive for December, 2014

Welcome to the December 2014 issue

Welcome to the December 2014 holiday issue of Black Grooves, sponsored by the Archives of African American Music and Culture.

This month we’re featuring a Holiday Music Wrap Up with an overview of releases from Earth, Wind & Fire, Irwin Mayfield, The Sackville All Stars, Maysa, Anthony Hamilton, Marie-Josee Lord, and the Blind Boys of Alabama with Taj Mahal. In addition, Box Sets for Holiday Gift Giving provides an overview of 11 recently released sets including: The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records Vol. 2; the complete recordings of William Onyeabor; Soul & Swagger: The Complete “5” Royales; Bear Family’s new R&B compilation A Shot in the Dark: Nashville Jumps plus their complete Chuck Berry compilation Rock & Roll Music; Bluenote’s 75th anniversary compilation Uncompromising Expressions; Johnny Mathis’ Complete Global Albums; the Billy Strayhorn compilation Out of the Shadows; the Prestige Rudy Van Gelder Remasters; Herbie Hancock’s The Warner Bros. Years, 1969-1972; and Dust-to-Digital’s new book/CD package Parchman Farm: Photographs and Field Recordings, 1947-1959 by Alan Lomax.

Also reviewed is the box set Black & Blue: The Laff Records Collection; the first compilation in the series The One-derful! Collection documenting the Black-owned Chicago label; John Tefteller’s 2015 calendar/CD set 24 Classic Blues Songs from 1920s Vol. 12; Alan Lomax’s recordings of Bessie Jones & the Georgia Sea Island Singers Get In Union; the benefit album An Aids Quilt Project; the “lost” album These Are the J.B.s featuring Bootsy and Catfish Collins; and Maya Angelou’s final project Caged Bird Songs.

Wrapping up this issue is the CD/DVD set Whitney Houston Live: Her Greatest Performances; gospel rap artist Trip Lee’s Rise; the Mack Avenue Superband’s Live from the Detroit Jazz Festival 2013; Freeway & The Jacka’s Highway Robbery;  Zion I’s EP Libations; and our summary of November Releases of Note.

View review December 1st, 2014

Holiday Music Wrap Up

Each year, the holidays inspire warm thoughts, cheer, some well-meaning overspending, and a bevy of new releases from artists across a range of genres from gospel to Western classical music. As to be expected, there is a great deal of overlap in song covers between these projects with “The Little Drummer Boy,” “Christmas Time is Here,” and “Silent Night” being some of the most popular selections. For this reason, here’s an overview of the most distinctive features of a few of this season’s projects highlighting some songs that’ll really get you in the Christmas spirit.


Title: The Sackville All Star Christmas Record

Artist: Sackville All Stars

Label: Sackville

Formats: CD, MP3, Cassette

Release date: September 16, 2014


The only re-issue included in our wrap up, this album was originally recorded in 1986 and features a classic jazz combo sound from seasoned performers—Jim Galloway (soprano sax), Ralph Sutton (piano), Milt Hinton (bass), and Gus Johnson (drums). Sackville includes covers of some of the most beloved Christmas tunes, rhythmically reworked with striking improvisational solos. For instance, “We Three Kings” opens with Hinton establishing an unassuming yet gently swinging groove in the bass to which Galloway chimes in with an upbeat embellished presentation of the melody. Sutton and Galloway exchange improvisational solos in which they grow gradually more experimental as the track progresses, until the song climaxes with gospel-inspired rhythmic accents and chord changes. Conversely, “Santa Clause is Coming to Town” is a whimsical piece with sleigh bells and sprightly piano creating a playful musical experience. Likewise, “Winter Wonderland” is an upbeat piece featuring some praise-worthy walking bass work while the light-hearted “Let it Snow” includes the use of hand drums creating an unexpected Latin jazz inspired groove. Sackville is rounded out by a few up-tempo sacred music pieces like “Go Tell it on the Mountain” and “Old Time Religion,” accented by enthusiastic stride piano and New Orleans jazz styled saxophone work.



Title: Talkin’ Christmas

Artist: Blind Boys of Alabama and Taj Mahal

Label: Sony Masterworks

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: October 21, 2014


One of the most unique projects this holiday season is the musical collaboration between renowned blues performer Taj Mahal and the iconic gospel quartet the Blind Boys of Alabama. Together these performers blend sounds from downhome, country blues to funk, soul, and gospel to create a musical celebration sure to delight fans of any tradition (see The Making of Talking Christmas video).

The newly composed title track “Talkin’ Christmas” exemplifies their ingenuity. Reminiscent of the funk/soul sounds of 1970’s Stax, it features Mahal’s energetic rhythmic guitar picking alongside a percussive electric organ (performed by Money Mark) that works in conversation with lead singer Jimmy Carter’s vocals. Indeed, this piece indicates the theme of the project, encouraging listeners to concentrate on the “power of love” during this season rather than material gain. Majal’s distinctive blues guitar style is foregrounded in pieces like the 1950’s rock inspired “Do You Hear What I Hear?” He also lends his voice to original pieces like the sentimental “There’s a Reason We Call It Christmas” and “What Can I Do?” in which he inquires about ways to help his friend who’s fallen on hard times–a true Christmas message. With pared down instrumentation and an understated guitar in the foreground, the cover of “No Room in the Inn” harkens back to the traditional gospel quartet sound of the mid-20th century. The lead effectively moves between a sturdy chest voice and emphatic falsetto while the background gently pulses repetition of the words, “room in the inn.” Perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of this project is the inclusion of a range of musics from mid-tempo country-gospel inflected “Christ was Born on Christmas Morn” to the serene and thoughtful reverence of “The Sun is Rising” that are performed with a sensitivity and nuance that speaks to the excellence of these musicians.



Title: Earth Wind & Fire Holiday

Artist: Earth Wind & Fire

Label: Legacy Recordings

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: October 21, 2014


In this project, the legendary band has recorded a number of songs that are funky and danceable alongside selections that are more reverent and sensitive to the spiritual aspects of Christmas. The album opens with a funk and gospel inspired version of “Joy to the World,” complete with a playful call and response between the backing ensemble and the heavy hitting horn section. One of the most impressive selections is the energetic and soulful “Away in a Manger.” Rather than the subdued treatment that this song usually receives, here it is interjected with some colorful vocables and unexpected rhythmic changes on top of an ardent slow-tempo groove that has become definitive with the EWF sound. Similarly, fans of EWF’s earlier works will be excited to hear Christmas inspired covers of the group’s hits “September” and “Happy Feelin’.” The new songs, “December” and “Happy Seasons” are quite similar to their original incarnations with slight changes in lyrics that are specific to the Holiday season. Lastly, perhaps the most unusual song in this collection is “Snow” based on a “traditional Japanese winter song.” It contains an easily recognizable pentatonic melody on electric guitar with female vocalists introducing the song in upbeat Japanese. This is followed by a light hearted call and response in English in which the lead singer expresses joy about the winter season.



Title: A Very Maysa Christmas

Artist: Maysa

Label: Shanachie

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: October 27, 2014

Jazz, R&B, and soul vocalist Maysa has been making waves in the music industry for some time, garnering a Grammy nomination for her song “Quiet Fire” from her Blue Velvet album. A Very Maysa Christmas is characterized by cool collaborations,  jazz inspired reworking of melodies, and catchy, repetitive hooks. For instance, in a smooth jazz styled cover of “Silver Bells,” the sweet melody is infused with carefully placed blue notes alongside the punctuating alto saxophone of Gerald Albright. The selection seems to end much too soon as a great musical conversation between a scatting Maysa and Albright’s sax is just warming up. “The Night Before Christmas/Santa Claus is Coming to Town” is one of the most eclectic songs on this album, as it pairs the popular Christmas poem and song with a relaxed hip hop inspired groove. The selection begins with a rapper (Jigz) reciting the opening sequence of the poem and then transitions to a playful version of the song wherein Maysa’s soulful timing, runs, and gentle rhythmic swing turns this childhood classic into grown-up “jam.” Original composition “It’s the Holidays,” penned by Maysa and producer Chris “Big Dog” Davis, is a feel-good Bossa Nova jazz piece that captures the warm magic of the holiday season. Instrumentation creates atmosphere in this song with the acoustic guitar, hand drums, flute and keyboard layering to craft a distinctly Latin-inspired sound. A Very Maysa Christmas closes with a meditative performance of “Pray for Peace,” the voices carrying this song with minimal accompaniment from a keyboard, strings, and drum kit. Alongside Maysa’s easy phrasing, the backing choir exerts a gentle, yet powerful presence that highlights the emotional character of this song.



Title: A New Orleans Creole Christmas

Artist: Irvin Mayfield & The New Orleans Jazz Playhouse Revue

Label: Basin Street Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: November 10, 2014


Formed by jazz trumpeter Irvin Mayfield in 2002, Grammy award winning The New Orleans Jazz Playhouse Revue presents its first holiday offering with a few arrangements of Christmas standards.  As another primarily instrumental jazz project, Creole Christmas is distinguished by its dense layering of sonorities and a decidedly laidback approach to tempo and rhythm even on upbeat selections. In the midst of their technical complexity, the slow-tempo selections “Christmas Time is Here” and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” exude a calm thoughtfulness as the instrumentalists are less concerned with speed, and give ample space to imaginative elaborations of melodic and harmonic progressions of these well-known tunes. The opening track “O Tannenbaum (O Christmas Tree)” captures what some would consider a quintessential New Orleans swing with the trumpet, trombone, and saxophone effortlessly weaving, sliding together to fashion syncopated melody and accompaniment. Gospel music lovers will appreciate this ensemble’s treatment of “Silent Night” in which pianist Ronald Markham establishes the character of the piece with a four note walkup in the bass—a hallmark of traditional gospel music. Trombonist Vincent Gardner and saxophonist Jason Marshall showcase dexterity and a firm grasp of gospel vocal performance as their instruments capture the nuance, variability, timbral shifts and power of the most talented gospel artists. Lastly, one of the most vibrant pieces in this project is the avant-garde, gospel-tinged piano and trumpet duet “Winter Wonderland.” Markham is the star here as he manipulates dissonance and consonance in his highly percussive boogie-woogie inspired accompaniment. Indeed, his playing with and around the trumpet’s syncopated melody is so engaging, it requires an immediate second listen!



Title: Home for the Holidays

Artist: Anthony Hamilton

Label: RCA

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: October 21, 2014


R&B and neo-soul crooner Anthony Hamilton has released his first holiday album which includes a few standards, six original songs, and a smattering of special guest collaborations. This is undoubtedly one of the grooviest projects on this list as displayed in Hamilton’s cover of the James Brown classic “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto,” which maintains the rhythmic accentuation of the drums and bass in tandem with a syncopated call and response between the organ, lead guitar, and horns. In this manner, Home for the Holidays can easily be described as new “old school” as it maintains yet inventively contemporizes the classic sounds of funk, R&B and soul. Hamilton offers one of the most exciting covers of “Little Drummer Boy.”* A slower, pared down gospel/soul version of the song serves as an interlude. The selection then shifts to an unlikely fusion inspired by mid-20th century styled rock, transforming this often somber piece into a declaration of celebration. Hamilton also covers a number of R&B and soul Christmas standards like “What Do the Lonely Do at Christmas” by the Emotions and “Please Come Home for Christmas” by blues pianist Charles Brown. He maintains the character and emotional urgency of both of these pieces while using his smoky vocals and style of delivery to make them his own. Lastly, the original material showcases the greatest variation of style and departure from the funk/soul grounding of this album. The title track, “Home for the Holidays” with Gavin DeGraw is a simple contemporary R&B song wherein passion is evoked through the restrained delivery of the lyrics rather than volume or a quick tempo.

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The album concludes with “Spirit of Love”—an original contemporary R&B song with lyrics that relay a Christian perspective on Christmas by encouraging listeners to engage with the Holy Spirit.  This selection makes ample use of electronic instrumentation and sounds to produce a celestial musical experience celebrating the “real” reason for the season.


Also worth a listen:


Title: Amazing Grace

Artist: Marie-Josee Lord

Label: ATMA Classique

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: October 28, 2014


Western classical music lovers will appreciate the diverse offerings of Canadian soprano Marie-Josee Lord’s album Amazing Grace. Alongside classic Christmas repertoire like Charles Gounod’s “Ave Marie,” she performs spirituals as well as a few Christmas standards.  With the help of the L’Ensemble Vocal Épiphanie, Lord offers rousing versions of concert spirituals like  “I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray,”  “Ain’t Got Time to Die,” and the captivating “Mary Had a Baby.”  Together, they also perform a moving rendition of “Amazing Grace” with simple organ accompaniment. The album is rounded out by some Christmas standards, “Noel Blanc (White Christmas)” and “Minuit, Chrétiens!” (O Holy Night) which is easily one of the best pieces on the project.

*Both Maysa and Earth, Wind & Fire feature recordings of this song that are distinct and impressive. Maysa’s version takes a more acoustic jazz approach while EWF relies more heavily on West African styled percussive instrumentation and resonant “hums” to create a specifically trans-diasporic sound.

Reviewed by Raynetta Wiggins

View review December 1st, 2014

Box Sets for Holiday Gift Giving

If you’re looking for gifts for music lovers, here are some of the most notable box sets produced with the holiday shopping season in mind. There’s something to satisfy any fan of jazz, blues, pop, Afro-funk, rock, and rhythm and blues. Not to mention any budget, from $25 to $500.


Title: The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records, Vol. 2

Artist: Various

Label: Third Man Records

Format: 6 LP box set

Release date: Nov. 18, 2014


The ultimate splurge this holiday for blues fans is without a doubt The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records Vol. 2, covering the label’s final five years from 1928-1932. Produced by Jack White’s Third Man Records, in partnership with John Fahey’s Revenant Records, the set is “a stunning second act in which Paramount birthed the entire genre of Mississippi Delta blues and issued some of the most coveted recordings in the history of the medium.”  Though Vol. 1 was housed in a handcrafted oak case, for Vol. 2 they’ve produced an Art Deco styled polished aluminum box modeled after a 1930s portable phonograph. Included are six LPs, a USB drive with 800 newly remastered tracks, a 250 page hardcover book about label’s history, and a 400 page guide with artist bios.



Title: Rock & Roll Music: Any Old Way You Choose It

Artist: Chuck Berry

Label: Bear Family

Format: 16 CD box set

Release date: November 4, 2014


Who could resist 16 discs devoted to Chuck Berry, one of the founders of rock ‘n’ roll, especially when it’s released in a “Cadillac” version by the noted reissue company Bear Family Records? This deluxe set includes not just one, but two handsomely illustrated hardcover books (356 total pages) with rare photos from the Chuck Berry family archives, essays from noted authors, and a complete discography in the standard Bear Family LP-sized slipcase. The discs include every single and LP track, all the legendary Chess singles and album cuts from 1955 to 1966 and from 1969 to 1974, plus all of Chuck Berry’s Mercury recordings, the Atco album, every surviving alternate take, and all of the live recordings from 1956 to 1972. There will never be a reason to own any other edition or compilation!



Title: A Shot in the Dark: Nashville Jumps─Blues & Rhythm on Nashville’s Independent Labels, 1945-1955

Artist: Various

Label: Bear Family

Format: 8 CD box set

Release date: September 9, 2014


Similar in content but more extensive than the Grammy award winning set Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues 1945-1970 produced by the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2004, Bear Family delves deeper into the early years of Nashville’s independent labels on this 8 disc set A Shot in the Dark. Featuring Black recording artists on the Bullet, Nashboro, Dot, Excello, Hickory, Republic, and Tennessee labels, they uncover Nashville’s vibrant black music scene where blues, gospel, jump jazz and rhythm and blues co-existed in the capitol of country music. Of special interest are the first two ultra-rare singles by blues legend B.B. King recorded in 1949, as well as two records later covered by Elvis Presley─Bernard Hardison’s Too Much and Arthur Gunter’s Baby Let’s Play House. The set is accompanied by a lavishly illustrated 284-page hardcover book with an essay on the Nashville music business by Martin Hawkins, and song-by-song notes and artist bios by Hawkins and Colin Escott.



Title: William Onyeabor

Artist: William Onyeabor

Label: Luaka Bop

Formats: 9 CD box, 9 LP box (2 vols.)

Release date: November 18, 2014


Following the surprise success of last year’s compilation Who Is William Onyeabor?, Luaka Bop was inspired to reissue all of the groundbreaking Nigerian  musician’s rare original albums. Known for his electronic Afro-funk, Onyeabor released 8 albums between 1978-1985, plus an alternate version of the album Crashes in Love. The 9 CD box set includes all of these, plus a handsome 48 page booklet with liner notes by Michael Rubin and Chris Abani.  If you opt instead for the LP set (limited to 3000 copies), with each volume you’ll receive two booklets, a poster and download card, plus a limited edition 45-rpm disc.



Title: The Complete Global Albums

Artist: Johnny Mathis

Label: Legacy

Format: 13 CD box set

Release date: Nov. 17, 2014


Though Johnny Mathis’ career spans nearly six decades, this new box set from Legacy focuses on the 10 albums he recorded from 1963-1967 using his own production company, Global Records. Though “global” may be too broad a term to encompass the selection of pop and Broadway standards on these albums, there are two especially noteworthy titles from 1965 that stretch the boundaries of pop: the Spanish-language Olé and the diverse The Sweetheart Tree (released in the UK as Away From Home), which features a traditional version of “Try a Little Tenderness,” released the year before Otis Redding transformed the song into a searing soul classic.  And of seasonal interest, the set includes his 1963 album, The Sounds of Christmas.



Title: Out of the Shadows

Artist: Billy Strayhorn

Label: Storyville

Format: 7CD + DVD box set

Release date: October 14, 2014


Europe’s Storyville Records has released an excellent box set celebrating the musical genius of Billy Strayhorn, just in time for the centennial celebration of his 1915 birth in Dayton, Ohio.  Out of the Shadows features 62 of Strayhorn’s compositions, recorded by various artists between 1939 (a performance by the Duke Ellington Orchestra shortly after Strayhorn joined the group) and 2007 (London sessions featuring clarinetist Ken Peplowski). The accompanying DVD is an added bonus, showcasing Strayhorn with the Ellington Orchestra on six tracks from the 1960s, in addition to later performances by Clark Terry and the Delta Rhythm Boys, among others. This is a must for any jazz fan wanting to explore Strayhorn’s vast repertoire beyond his classic “Take the A Train.”



Title: The Warner Bros. Years, 1969-1972

Artist: Herbie Hancock

Label: Rhino

Format: 3 CD set

Release date: August 5, 2014


If you don’t already own Herbie Hancock’s original albums from this period, then Rhino’s new set is definitely worth consideration. Included are the three albums Hancock recorded during his brief period with Warner Bros.:  Fat Albert Rotunda (1969), centered around soundtracks he wrote for Bill Cosby’s Fat Albert show and representing Hancock’s initial foray into jazz-funk; the somewhat more avant-garde Mwandishi (1970) featuring just three extended tracks; and the spacey, Afro-futuristic Crossings (1972), featuring Dr. Patrick Gleeson on Moog synthesizer and Hancock on Mellotron. All of the CDs include various bonus tracks and are packaged as mini LP gatefolds with original album art, along with a 28 page illustrated booklet with liner notes by Bob Gluck and complete session details.



Title: Prestige Rudy Van Gelder Remasters

Artist: Various

Label: Concord

Format: 20 CD box set

Release date: November 24, 2014


Once again, any jazz aficionado on your holiday shopping list is likely to have many of the original albums included in this deluxe box from Concord. However, audiophiles will no doubt revel in this set commemorating the legendary jazz recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder, who carefully remastered these 20 titles originally issued on the Prestige label using his original analog master tapes, but retaining “his rich, natural signature tone.” Artists include John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis, Jack McDuff, Etta Jones, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Mose Allison, Yusef Lateef, Oliver Nelson, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Gene Ammons, Eric Dolphy, Kenny Dorham, Red Garland, Coleman Hawkins, and Kenny Burrell.


Title: Uncompromising Expressions: Singles Collection

Artist: Various

Label: Blue Note

Format: 5 CD box set

Release date: November 4, 2014


An interesting compilation celebrating the 75th anniversary of the legendary jazz label Blue Note Records, the 5 CD box set Uncompromising Expression is a companion to the book by the same title, written by Richard Havers, who also selected the tracks (75 in total, one for each year). Beginning with the label’s first release by boogie-woogie pianist Meade Lux Lewis, the set covers singles released on 78s, 45s and more recently MP3s, by a representative sample of jazz artists across the decades. No doubt most of these songs are available on albums, but perhaps not in the same version. The set comes with a 48-page booklet featuring a complete discography and historical information about sessions and the label.



Title: Soul & Swagger: The complete “5” Royales

Artist: The “5” Royales

Label: Rockbeat

Format: 5 CD set

Release date: April 1, 2014


The influential North Carolina vocal harmony group known as The “5” Royales bridged the transition from gospel to doo-wop, R&B and soul during the 1950s to 1960s, with guitarist Lowman “Pete” Pauling often cited as a major influence on later rock guitarists such as Eric Clapton and Steve Cropper. Though the Royales (or more specifically, Pauling) penned several hit songs, unfortunately for the group it was the later cover versions that topped the charts: “Dedicated to the One I Love” by the Shirelles, “Tell the Truth” by Ray Charles, and “Think” by James Brown and later, Aretha Franklin. Through Rockbeat Records’ complete compilation, we now have an opportunity to follow the group’s career, from their first sides as the gospel group Royal Sons Quintet to their final sessions for Home of the Blues Records in 1964.



Title: Parchman Farm: Photographs and Field Recordings, 1947-1959

Artist: Various

Label: Dust-to-Digital

Format: Hardcover book + 2 CDs

Release date: November 11, 2014


Last but not least on our list is a new thought-provoking, beautifully packaged compilation Parchman Farm, produced by the Grammy award winning Atlanta-based independent reissue label Dust-to-Digital, in collaboration with the Alan Lomax Archive. Including two CDs housed in a hardcover book, this project documents recordings and 77 black and white photographs made by Lomax between 1947-1959 at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, a Southern agricultural prison where “a few strands of wire were all that separated the prison from adjoining plantations” and black inmates labored under harsh conditions at the same tasks, “chopping timber, clearing ground, and picking cotton for the state.” The 44 tracks include work-songs specific to prison life, and what annotator Bruce Jackson refers to as songs from the free world─Delta blues, slave-era field hollers, spirituals, and other secular songs learned outside the prison walls.

As Lomax stated in 1958, “These songs are a vivid reminder of a system of social control and forced labor that has endured in the South for centuries, and I do not believe that the pattern of Southern life can be fundamentally reshaped until what lies behind these roaring, ironic choruses is understood.” A vivid reminder indeed, when half a century later the acquittal of a white policeman charged with the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager exemplifies the same racial divisions within the justice system─“a system not established to recognize [African Americans], a system used for generations to deny and subjugate them, a system still rife with imbalances toward them” (Charles Blow, New York Times). This compilation may not be full of holiday cheer, but by humanizing rather than demonizing the prisoners at Parchman Farm, it makes a significant contribution to the ongoing conversation about the unconscionable racial imbalance in the criminal justice system.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review December 1st, 2014

Black & Blue: The Laff Records Collection


Title: Black & Blue: The Laff Records Collection

Artists: Various

Label: Rockbeat Records

Formats: 4 CD box set, MP3

Release date: November 4, 2014


Most known for their raunchy comedy discs, Laff Records was an independent West Coast record label that started in the late 1960s and produced comedians such as Skillet & Leroy, LaWanda Page, and Wildman Steve. When the first successful label for black comedians, Dooto Records, began declining in the mid-1960s, it allowed Laff Records to pick up many of their party records and popular acts, such as Redd Foxx.  Though Laff Records closed in the mid-1980s, with their last hit being Kip Addotta’s “Wet Dream,” their legacy lived on through their records and the success of their artists, both in comedy and on television.

Black & Blue: The Laff Records Collection is a compilation of work from the label’s most famous and successful comedians, from LaWanda Page to Jimmy Lynch. The set was produced by comedian and actor Darryl Littleton, also known as D’Militant, who offers extensive liner notes that provide the history of Laff Records. Speaking of his own experiences growing up, Littleton says that “modern comedy owes its due to Laff Records…Had it not been for the pioneering efforts of Laff Records, it’s doubtful there’d have been a Def Comedy Jam or BET Comic View.”

The first disc starts with the 1972 release Back Door Daddy by Skillet, Leroy and LaWanda, an uncensored set that mainstream critics at the time called a “30 minute ultra-raunch session.” The original LP was hugely successful, and it marks an upswing in LaWanda Page’s career—she starred as Aunt Esther on the hit television show Sanford and Son the same year. She soon became known as the “Queen of Comedy” among party record circles, and disc one goes on to feature her 1973 Pipe Layin’ Dan—a classic, especially for lovers of blue comedy.

Next featured is Jimmy Thompson, a nightclub comic most well-known for King Monkey. The compilation features his slightly later album Jo-Jo Gun, which is full of rhymes and clever riddles. The first disc closes with Slappy White, former partner of Redd Foxx. Elect Slappy White VP is a politically-charged record released after White performed with Steve Rossi for President Richard Nixon at the White House in 1969.

The second disc features Dap Sugar Willie, Jimmy Lynch, and Wildman Steve. Dap Sugar Willie was best known for his role as Lenny in the sitcom Good Times, but the 1973 LP Ghost of Davy Crockett showcases his true talent on the standup stage. Jimmy Lynch’s bum persona “Funky Tramp” made him a party record star, and his work featured in this compilation includes his usual sketches that unabashedly talk about race. The second disc wraps up with Wildman Steve’s “Eatin’ Ain’t Cheatin.”

Mantan Moreland, better known as Birmingham Brown in the 1940 Charlie Chan detective films, opens disc three with his “Tribute to the Man ‘Tan,’” followed by Reynaldo Rey, who started his comedy career touring with the O’Jays. Part three ends with a diverse selection from Leroy Daniels, one half of Skillet & Leroy, featuring sketches that range in topic from sexual encounters to a preacher with a bad habit of stealing.

The final disc features one of Laff Record’s most famous comedians, Redd Foxx, and his nightclub act from 1978, “I Ain’t Lied Yet.” His sketches typically have either sexual or racial themes, though he also provides some clever definitions, such as “frustration: finding out for the first time that you can’t do it the second time.”

The last comedian featured is Marsha Warfield, a Chicago native who’s 1981 LP was recorded by Laff Records as a single track set that features a variety of topics, from church gossipers to the weaknesses of men. Warfield went on to become well-known for her role as Roz, a bailiff on NBC’s Night Court, and even had her own talk show for ten months.

Though these tracks have been featured on individual albums, Black & Blue: The Laff Records Collection is the first compilation of this sort. It’s a great collection of party records which have historical significance and represent an important era of blue comedy by black comedians.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review December 1st, 2014

The One-derful! Collection: The One-Derful! Label


Title: The One-derful! Collection: The One-Derful! Label

Artist: Various

Label: Secret Stash

Formats: CD, LP

Release date: November 28, 2014


Last year we were excited to learn that the folks at Secret Stash Records had struck a deal to license recordings from Chicago’s One-derful! label group, which includes Mar-V-Lus, M-Pac!, Halo, Midas, and Toddlin’ Town. As was the case with Chess Records, One-derful! was operated by a pair of brothers─George and Ernie Leaner─who created one of Chicago’s most prominent African-American run independent labels (alongside Vee-Jay). The Leaners had a studio on Chicago’s Record Row, located on the second floor of their United Records distributorship, launched in the early ‘50s to distribute “Black records to Black Chicagoans,” including product from Motown. After gaining a thorough understanding of the business, the Leaner’s launched their first label in 1962. Another secret weapon was their relationship to famed deejay Al Benson (aka Arthur B. Leaner), an uncle known as the Godfather of Chicago Black Radio. These connections allowed them a leg up on both breaking and distributing their records, and thus began their foray into the music side of the business.

Over the course of six installments, Secret Stash will reveal the history of the One-derful! label group. They’re taking the unusual step of selling this series by subscription, so if you act fast you can be assured of obtaining all six volumes on CD or LP, featuring carefully curated compilations that will include “nearly 150 tracks of rare 60s Chicago soul and funk, over 50 of which were never issued.”  According to the press release, “the first 500 subscribers will receive exclusive bonus songs (including the first known recording of the Jackson 5), with every shipment. In total, that’s twelve LPs and seven 45s (7-inch singles), or 7 CDs for your favorite music junkie.” Sounds like the perfect gift!

We’ve had a sneak peak at the first installment, which focuses on the original label. Founded in 1962, One-derful! “introduced the world to the raucous R&B dance numbers from The Five Du-Tones, the deep soul and Memphis influenced sounds of Otis Clay and Joe & Mack, and the group harmony sides of the Sharpees, and the Admirations.” The compilation includes 25 tracks, many previously unreleased, with extensive liner notes by noted Chicago soul historian Bill Dahl illustrated with many archival photos. Some of the highlights include the label’s inaugural release by local singer McKinley Mitchell “The Town I Live In” featuring trumpeter King Kolax, The Five Du-Tones’ funky dance number “Shake a Tail Feather,” Betty Everett’s “Please Love Me,” the Sharpees’ “Do the 45,” and the Rockmasters’ “A Wonderful Thing.” Other featured artists include Otis Clay, Joe & Mack, Lucky Laws, McKinley Mitchell, Mary Silvers, Beverly Shaffer, Liz Lands, The Admirations, and Jay Jordan.

Future releases in the series will include:

01/27/2015        The One-derful! Collection: The Mar-V-Lus Label
03/31/2015        The One-derful! Collection: The M-Pac! Label
05/27/2015        The One-derful! Collection: The Halo Label
07/28/2015        The One-derful! Collection: The Midas Label
09/29/2015        The One-derful! Collection: The Toddlin’ Town Label

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review December 1st, 2014

Classic Blues Artwork from the 1920’s, vol.12


Title: Classic Blues Artwork from the 1920’s, vol.12

Format: Calendar + CD

Publisher: Blues Images

Release date: September 2014



John Tefteller’s annual Classic Blues calendar for 2015 features more amazing artwork from the 1920s, some of which rivals R. Crumb in originality. Each month of the calendar is also illustrated with rare photographs of blues musicians, birth and death dates, brief biographies, and sample song lyrics.

The accompanying CD includes the songs that are featured in the January to December artwork, plus 12 bonus tracks. This year’s CD is particularly special, as it includes the newly discovered Tommy Johnson Paramount 78, which Tefteller purchased on eBay for over $37,000. Johnson’s “Alcohol and Jake Blues” and “Ridin’ Horse” are the gems of this CD.

Other personal favorites include Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Match Box Blues” and Charley Patton’s “A Spoonful Blues.” All of the selections on the CD were transferred from the original 78 rpm records and remastered by Richard Nevins. Between the calendar and the CD, you have two products that will satisfy any blues fan on your holiday shopping list.

Classic Blues Artwork from the 1920’s, vol. 12 is available at select music and book stores, from Blues Images, or Amazon.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review December 1st, 2014

An Aids Quilt Songbook: Sing for Hope


Title: An Aids Quilt Songbook: Sing for Hope

Artist: Various

Label: GPR Records

Format: CD

Release date: November 18, 2014


It’s always nice to feature at least one benefit CD during the holiday season, and this year’s selection is a joint project from the “non-profit artists’ peace corps” known as Sing for Hope and amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research. First performed on World AIDS Day in 2012, the Aids Quilt Songbook was “a celebratory concert marking the twentieth anniversary of the classical music world’s first organized response to the AIDS crisis” and was “conceived in 1991 by HIV-positive baritone William Parker.” An Aids Quilt Songbook album presents just one iteration of the original concert, with 23 tracks from different artists representing “a range of perspectives, illuminating our interconnectedness and our strength as well as our protests, the ravages of disease, and the toll of loss.”

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Performers include several young African American singers: up and coming tenor Noah Stewart on “Autumn,” soprano Nicole Cabell (winner of the 2005 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition) on “Run Away,” baritone Lester Lynch on “Morning Lullaby,” and soprano Adrienne Danrich on “Let It Go.” Anthony McGill, the new principal clarinetist for the New York Philharmonic, is also featured on the track “If I. . .”, while Cuban composer Tania León contributes the song “Zero Plus Anything” and John Musto draws upon Langston Hughes for the text to his song “Litany.” All profits from the recording will be donated to amfAR to support AIDS research.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review December 1st, 2014

J.B.’s – These Are The J.B.’s


Title: These Are The J.B.’s

Artist: J.B.’s

Label: Now-Again Records

Format: Limited ed. LP

Release date: November 28, 2014

What’s there to say about this previously unreleased album by James Brown’s backing band, except that it’s very surprising. Surprising on many levels! Now-Again Records has struck gold by unearthing These Are The J.B.’s, the predecessor to the J.B.’s first album, Food for Thought (People Records, PE 5601, 1972). Actually, to be precise, the album was recorded in 1971 for King Records just before the band’s catalogue got bought out by Polydor. Only a few test pressing were produced, and they were presumed to have been lost.

Supervised by Eothen “Egon” Alapatt and Harry Weinger, this first commercial issue of the album includes a booklet with liner notes by James Brown historian Alan Leeds and unpublished photos of the band members. The new front cover design is very similar to Food for Thought, with large black and white capital letters on a red background.

All of the songs on this album were recorded between 1970 and 1971, just after the “Great Split” marking the end of the James Brown Orchestra and the departure of most of his musicians. James Brown met the Pacemakers─a small group from Cincinnati, Ohio, who were playing as a backing band in the King Records’ studios─in the late ‘60s via A&R men Charles Spurling and Henry Glover, who produced artists such as Bill Doggett, Hank Ballard, Arthur Prysock and Little Willie John. The Pacemakers were formed in 1968 by William “Bootsy” Collins, and also featured Phelps “Catfish” Collins (guitar), Frankie “Kash” Waddy (drums), and Philippe Wynne (later of The Spinners fame). After leaving nearly his entire band behind, the Godfather felt a new energy in the Collins brothers, something fresh that soon transformed his whole sound from the raw funk of Cold Sweat to the explosive vivacity found on These are the J.B.’s. After naming his new instrumental and backing band the New Breed Band, Brown decided to turn it into something more personal and said to the Collins brothers: “We’re gonna rehearse, we’re gonna get the show down, you’re gonna be the band and you’re gonna be called The J.B.’s.” This album represents that transitional moment, the cornerstone of the J.B.’s sound at the turn of the ‘70s, a dynamic and fluid sound that was emphasized and perpetuated when trombonist Fred Wesley came back to lead the band in 1971.

Musically, this album shows how connected the J.B.’s are with the era and the emergence of a new rock and psychedelic-flavored funk. In the title track “These Are the J.B.’s,” the hypnotic bass of Bootsy Collins, the funk strum played on guitar, the force of the horn section, and the funky drums reinforced by percussion marks the beginning of a more fluent, less syncopated, but still extremely tight sound. The second track, “I’ll Ze,” is an instrumental take that reuses the same groove as that of Marva Whitney’s “It’s My Thing.” By reconsidering previous grooves, the J.B.’s exploited new possibilities and at the same time opened up new perspectives on funk music. And that’s exactly what the J.B.’s are doing when they play “The Grunt,” a skillful reinterpretation of the Isley Brothers’ “Keep on Doin’” that, in a reference to their peers, also breaks definitively from the previous beat to explore a louder instrumentation.

Finally, the extended “When You Feel It, Grunt If You Can” is the most surprising track of the album, featuring various covers blended together and played sometimes very loud, sometimes very fast. Kool and the Gang’s “Let the Music Take Your Mind,” Jimi Hendrix’s “Who Knows,” and the Meters’ “Chicken Strut” are among the most directly recognizable excerpts. It’s a kind of work-in-progress sound that the J.B.’s have offered us, since it’s very rare to hear covers on their albums. For listeners this becomes a powerful tool, allowing us to experience the J.B.’s very specific groove and envision the way they were connected to their time, yet already pushing the groove toward another dimension: the heavy rhythmic and dynamic construction of “the One.” So, as James Brown would say, “get on up!” These Are The J.B.’s is a must have for funk aficionados, if you can still score one of the limited edition copies released on Black Friday.

Reviewed by Guillaume Dupetit

View review December 1st, 2014

Whitney Houston Live: Her Greatest Performances


Title: Whitney Houston Live: Her Greatest Performances

Artist: Whitney Houston

Label: Legacy

Formats: CD + DVD, MP3

Release date: November 10, 2014


Whitney Houston’s most memorable live performances have been released for the first time on CD and DVD by Legacy Recordings. Produced by five-time Grammy winner Clive Davis, all of the content has undergone state-of-the-art restoration and remastering. The performances span across the length of Houston’s career, from her appearance on The Merv Griffin Show in 1983 as a teenager, where she sang “Home” from The Wiz, to her performance of “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2009.

Houston performed over 600 concerts between 1986 and 2010, and had over 50 television appearances. The best of these performances are featured on Whitney Houston Live: Her Greatest Performances, including classic tracks such as “I Will Always Love You,” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” “I Believe in You and Me,” and her famous performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl XXV in 1991. The DVD also includes two bonus videos: the music video for “My Love Is Your Love” and her 2004 duet with Mariah Carey at the 1999 Academy Awards, “When You Believe.”

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This compilation truly showcases Whitney Houston’s talent and her rise to popularity, from when her song “One Moment in Time” was chosen as the theme for the 1988 Summer Olympics, to her performance at the American Music Awards on the night she won eight AMAs─the most awarded to a female artist in a single night, and tied with Michael Jackson for most awarded to any performer at one ceremony. It is a must-have for every Whitney Houston fan or any music-lover who wants to experience the performances and immense talent of a legend and pop-culture icon.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review December 1st, 2014

Bessie Jones with the Georgia Sea Island Singers – Get In Union


Title: Get in Union

Artist: Bessie Jones with the Georgia Sea Island Singers

Label: Tompkins Square

Formats: 2 CD set, MP3

Release date: October 27, 2014


When Alan Lomax first visited the Georgia Sea Island of St. Simons with folklorists Zora Neale Hurston and Mary Elizabeth Barnicle in 1935, he met the Spiritual Singers Society of Coastal Georgia, a group dedicated to preserving the folk culture of the island, which had deep roots in West Africa and the Antebellum South. When he returned twenty-four years later, he found that the island had greatly changed, but the Spiritual Singers Society remained and had grown, now led by a talented new singer named Bessie Jones.

Bessie Jones grew up in Southern Georgia with a rich musical heritage, and learned traditional folk songs from her large family. One of her biggest influences was her step-grandfather, Jet Sampson, who was born in Africa in 1836 and sold into slavery as a young child. Sampson told Bessie stories about his life as a slave and taught her many traditional songs. When Bessie joined the Spiritual Singers Society, she brought with her these songs, which eventually became part of the group’s repertoire. Following is the track “Sink ‘Em Low,” work song Jones first heard sung by a road-crew chain gang in Georgia:

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Alan Lomax recorded over sixty musical selections and interviews with the Spiritual Singers Society in the fall of 1959 and spring of 1960. He then brought the singers to Williamsburg, Virginia, where they sang for a film that recreated the early colonial era. Many of these recordings were featured on LPs in Atlantic Records’ Southern Folk Heritage Series and Prestige International’s Southern Journey, after the group was rechristened the Georgia Sea Island Singers.

Get In Union features twenty-six never before released tracks, as well as some of Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singer’s most famous work recorded by Alan Lomax between 1959 and 1966. The remastered audio from 24-bit digital transfers of Lomax’s original tapes was produced by the Grammy-nominated curator of the Alan Lomax Archive, Nathan Salsburg. Additionally, the detailed liner notes are by Salsburg and Anna Lomax Wood, who accompanied her father on his 1960 trip to record Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers.

The unreleased tracks give a very special insight to Bessie Jones’ music and life, as they were never made with the intention of being released. The songs are interspersed with her retellings of childhood memories, ghost stories, and herbal healing tips amongst the urban ambiance of car horns and background discussion.

Another unique track on Get In Union is an excerpt from a meeting between Lomax, Bessie Jones, and McKinley Peebles (otherwise known as Sweet Papa Stovepipe) recorded in New York in 1961. This track, “You Got to Reap What You Sow/Just A Little Talk with Jesus,” demonstrates both their personalities and improvisational techniques.

Other unreleased tracks include excerpts from the 1965 Newport Folk Festival preview concert in Central Park featuring Ed Young and the Southern Fife and Drum Corps, Reverend Gary Davis, and the Georgia Sea Island Singers. Additionally, there are unreleased recordings made during the 1966 Newport Folk Festival featuring Jones, Mable Hillery and Emma Lee Ramsey, as well as singer and storyteller Janie Hunter.

Get In Union is an important compilation of Bessie Jones’ music. The previously unreleased tracks emphasize her work to preserve and keep alive West African and Antebellum Southern traditions all the way until her death in 1984 through her stories, songs, and contributions to the historical Georgia Sea Island Singers.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review December 1st, 2014

Maya Angelou – Caged Bird Songs


Title: Caged Bird Songs

Artist: Maya Angelou

Label: Smooch Music

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: November 4, 2014


The late Dr. Maya Angelou, renowned writer, poet, actress, singer, and dancer, is an icon in African American culture. Caged Bird Songs, one of the last projects Angelou worked on before her death this past May, combines her poetic spoken words with modern hip-hop production. The album was produced by RoccStarr (who has worked with Jennifer Lopez, Jennifer Hudson, and CeeLo Green) and Shawn Rivera (the lead singer of Az Yet, the R&B vocal pop group formerly on La Face/Arista Records).

In an interview, Angelou said, “This project is important. It’s woven into the tapestry of our lives, and we’re being serious and giving and kind about it.” Though at times Angelou’s spoken words and the music are a bit disconnected, they are strong on their own terms, and each track wisely features modern themes that comment on black culture, identity, and family.

Still I Rise” is the standout track on the album, fulfilling the potential of Caged Bird Songs and showcasing Angelou’s beautiful, uplifting poetry. Most of the vocals on this track are sung by Az Yet, with bits of Angelou’s own voice intertwining, leading up to a call and response between the two on the chorus. Full of soul and hope, the gospel style of the song fits the lyrical content, as Az Yet sings, “I rise up from a past that’s rooted in pain.”

One of the opening tracks, “Human Family,” has a very catchy beat, with hip-hop and rock influences. It remains constant as Angelou speaks over the music with a powerful message about the commonality of all people. The ways her vocals are cut off and compiled over the constant beat, however, makes the song feel choppy and a little disconnected instead of blended.  “Sepia Fashion Show” also has this problem, but the music excels due to it’s dynamic and changing mature, instead of a straight electronic rhythm with Angelou’s vocals overlaid. This track features a distinctly hip-hop vibe, as well as a distinct chorus and verse format.

“Harlem Hopscotch” combines surf rock with electronic music to create another musically inspiring track, featuring shouts in a different language and congas. All these different elements come together with Angelou’s words to paint a vivid picture in the listener’s mind.

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With its use of auto-tune, “Ain’t That Bad” sounds both lyrically and musically like a pop song. Far surpassing the previous track with auto-tune effects, it shows how applicable Angelou’s poetry is today, as well as the undeniable connection between hip-hop and poetry.

While Maya Angelou is by far a better written talent than a rapper, this album is creative and showcases her legendary work in a whole new way. The lyrics fit the hip-hop style and the music is innovative and often catchy. Caged Bird Songs has the potential to bring Angelou’s words to a new generation.

Review by Anna Polovick

View review December 1st, 2014

Trip Lee – Rise


Title: Rise

Artist: Trip Lee

Label: Reach Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: October 27, 2014

The latest venture from Reach Records, Trip Lee’s Rise proves that the ever-growing Christian hip-hop label is bringing gospel rap to a whole new level. Twenty-six year old Trip Lee announced that he was taking a break away from his music in 2012 to focus on his family and health, so when he announced in August that he was releasing a new album in two months, many were surprised. Well worth the suspense, Rise reached number one on the gospel music charts and contains Trip Lee’s best work yet, with complex beats and intricate lyrics.

In one of the most successful singles from the album, “Shweet,” Trip raps about wishing people would brag about their purpose and faith instead of clothes and material items. Trip also raps about who he is, mentioning his birthplace of Texas, his favorite band as a kid, Switch, and working in Atlanta. The music video below features the producer of Rise, Gawvi, who also helped produce Lecrae’s recent record-breaking album Anomaly:

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“All Rise Up” also includes many autobiographical elements, as Trip raps about rising from the bottom to where he is now. The intro to the track describes his 2004 introduction to Reach Records and the Unashamed Tour he did with Lecrae and Tedsashii. Trip makes sure that the listener does not only hear about his success, mentioning his struggles, such as his chronic fatigue syndrome. The song gradually builds layers over melodious piano music, which makes it a catchy cross between pop and hip-hop.

The two tracks that feature successful Reach Records artists Lecrae and Andy Mineo have unique sampling, complex beats and memorable hooks. “Manolo,” which can be a Spanish translation of “Emmanuel,” features Lecrae and uses a metaphor of weapons to describe the Bible without using religious language once. The aggression of the weapon metaphor is reflected in the music, which is heavy and hits beats like bullets. “Insomniac,” featuring Andy Mineo, has a great saxophone part that weaves in and out of the track, changing in dynamic and making the song standout musically on the album.

Other impressive tracks include “Lazarus,” in which Trip tells the classic biblical story through hip-hop, and a follow-up to his 2012 track “Beautiful Mind.” “Beautiful Mind 2 (Mine)” is a love letter to Trip’s daughter, in which he tells her she is beautiful and extols the joys of having her in his life.

On Rise, Trip Lee masterfully raps about faith without feeling preach-y (though he is a real life preacher in Washington, D.C.), and even creates a track or two that could crossover to a secular audience. With the help of Gawvi, Rise is yet another album from Reach Records that shows the level of complexity and mainstream success possible from holy hip-hop.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review December 1st, 2014

Mack Avenue SuperBand – Live From the Detroit Jazz Festival 2013


Title: Live From the Detroit Jazz Festival 2013

Artist: Mack Avenue SuperBand

Label: Mack Avenue

Format: CD, MP3

Release date: September 2, 2014


Mack Avenue Records is a label focusing on expertly-performed, swinging contemporary jazz, and the Mack Avenue SuperBand is the label’s resident all-star ensemble, matching veterans Rodney Whitaker, Carl Allen, and Kirk Whalum with younger stars Aaron Diehl, Sean Jones, and Warren Wolf.  The band first performed together at the 2012 Detroit Jazz Festival, releasing a recording of that performance, and they are back here with their second disc, Live From the Detroit Jazz Festival 2013.  Besides bassist and musical director Whitaker, the band includes his frequent rhythm section partner Allen on drums, pianist Diehl, trumpeter Jones, guitarist Evan Perri from the Hot Club of Detroit, tenor saxophonist and flutist Whalum, and the spectacular Wolf on vibes and marimba.  The formidable veteran vibes player Gary Burton also joins the band for two tunes composed by Chick Corea.

In the liner notes, Whitaker relates that the 2012 band was more a showcase for individual members who rotated on and off stage, while the 2013 version of the group strove for a more cohesive sound.  This is apparent from the first track, a groover in a Horace Silver bag with crisp ensembles and solos from everyone except Whitaker and Allen.  Sean Jones’ medium tempo “Of Mars and Venus” follows, and the composer displays his flugelhorn virtuosity while Whalum adds a lovely, pure-toned flute solo.  Gospel music was a formative experience for several members of the group, and Donnie McClurkin’s beautiful melody “Speak to My Heart” begins with a sensitive solo from Jones before Allen lays down a harder beat behind Wolf and Whalum.  Aaron Diehl contributes “Blue Nude“─a moody minor blues from the pianist’s Mack Avenue debut The Bespoke Man’s Narrative─to the band’s book as a feature for vibes, piano, bass and drums only.

Two tunes by Chick Corea follow next.  “Chick’s Tune” first appeared on Blue Mitchell’s 1964 minor hard bop masterpiece The Thing To Do (with Corea as sideman), and this 2013 performance welcomes Sean Jones back to the trumpet chair, as well as the first appearance of Gary Burton to the stage.  This is followed by the modern classic earworm “Señor Mouse,” here performed as an ethereal duet for Burton’s strongly distinctive vibes and Warren Wolf’s stunning marimba, one of the highlights of the disc.  Carl Allen’s “Relativity” brings things back to earth with a solid soul-jazz feel, with Jones, Whalum, Wolf (on marimba), and Perri contributing hot solos.  “Troublant Bolero” is next, and this Django Reinhardt composition is given a muscular reading with spots from Perri, Diehl, and Whitaker, while the band plays Whalum’s “I Want Jesus To Walk With Me” with a somewhat lighter touch than the version on the saxophonist’s own CD (Hymns in the Garden), and this straightforward gospel number benefits from the added subtlety.  The performance closes with Dizzy Gillespie’s classic “Two Bass Hit,” a bebop barn burner with brief solos from everyone concerned, including Burton’s vibes and Wolf’s stellar marimba.

Overall, Live From The Detroit Jazz Festival 2013 is an eminently satisfying listening experience, featuring state-of-the-art players in a variety of mainstream styles.  And it is especially valuable for highlighting Wolf, Diehl and Jones, three young players carrying jazz ahead confidently into the 21st century.

Reviewed by Terry Simpkins

View review December 1st, 2014

Freeway & The Jacka – Highway Robbery


Title: Highway Robbery

Artist: Freeway & The Jacka

Label: Team Early/The Artist

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 16, 2014


The cleverly titled Highway Robbery is a bicoastal collaboration between Philadelphia native Freeway, best known for his prior association with Roc-A-Fella, and Bay Area veteran The Jacka.  Although this is their first official release, Freeway and The Jacka have been making music together for the last six years; 2013’s Write My Wrongs mixtape documented that work while serving as a prequel to their proper debut.

It’s been seven years since Freeway released Free at Last, his final album for Roc-A-Fella.  He has toned down his signature fiery yelp, providing a more subtle contrast to The Jacka’s melodic old-head wisdom.  Freeway has discussed the contrasts between working with a major label and independently; when he spits “Got with Jacka ’cause he pray like I pray” on “Dunya,” his voice makes it clear that this collaboration was a necessary part of fully establishing himself as an independent artist.

Freeway and The Jacka are both Muslims, and references to their faith are present throughout the album.  Taken at face value, proclamations of faith seem at odds with secular narratives of drug selling and consumption, gun violence, and other indulgences of the flesh (“Shuckin’ and Jivin’,” “Get Your Shine”).  But Islam drives their collective conscience and will to survive.  “On My Toes” illustrates this dynamic, whether it’s the consequences of losing a drug connect or staying safe when you might get robbed for rent money at the first of the month.

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Production-wise, Highway Robbery is an updated representation of what’s worked for them over the years, driven by The Jacka’s ear for a diverse range of beats. Familiar Bay Area names like Jeffro, Young L, and Traxmillion lay bluesy, lush arrangements incorporating everything from soft synth pads to Middle Eastern percussion to Daft Punk (“One More Time”).

Reflecting the longevity of each rapper’s career, the album’s guest list draws largely on established acts from a variety of regions.  New York legend Cormega helps set the tone on album opener “Write My Wrongs.”  Paul Wall and Trae tha Truth add some Houston flavor on “One” and “Just Remain,” respectively.  Gary, Indiana native Freddie Gibbs reflects on success in 12 bars on “Cherry Pie.”  Atlanta favorite Killer Mike shares the lighter side of being a Muslim on “Sunnah Boys,” while Bay Area compatriot Husalah closes out the album with a can’t-top-this verse on “Shuckin’ & Jivin’.”

Highway Robbery is a showing of force from two rappers who may not have much new to say, but offer needed perspectives only those who have lived through it can give.  What makes Highway Robbery enjoyable is the chemistry between two dedicated craftsmen.

Reviewed by Will Chase

View review December 1st, 2014

Zion I – Libations EP


Title: Libations EP

Artist: Zion I

Label: Self-released

Format: MP3

Release date: April 22, 2014


Libation: perhaps your first thought upon hearing the word is a tasty, relaxing beverage.  Libation is a ceremonial practice of offering that dates back to the ancient Egyptians, and has been represented in modernity by the pouring of malt liquor “for the homies.”  Emcee Zumbi stated that Zion I’s Libations, the second installment in a trilogy of EPs, came from a place of reflection after the passing of a close friend.  When Gavin Grant sings “the rebirth, the light you seek is there to reach before you” over Featherload’s arpeggiated synths on “Past the Mind,” it is clear that this EP wants to be a libation in its own right.  “Lateef’s Song” is a fitting centerpiece and tribute to that friend.

The EP is not only about contemplation on death and the afterlife.  “Futurism” is an airy ode to love over jazzy synths with slick guitar accents.  Mr. Lif, Kev Choice, Deuce Eclipse, Opio, and Sadat X all drop 16 bars over a conga-laden Headnodic beat on the posse cut “Get Urs”:

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Not counting a reprise of “Past the Mind” with an alternate hook, Libations closes with another contemplative chorus from Gavin Grant on the bittersweet “Break the Fall.”  As with any good serial, this EP leaves the listener ready to hear what’s next from Zumbi and AmpLive.  “Unity“, their most recent single, addresses the Michael Brown shooting and police brutality against black men in America.  Perhaps they will conclude this trilogy by addressing issues of the present while looking to the future. (Read my review of the first installment, Masters of Ceremony, here).

Reviewed by Will Chase

View review December 1st, 2014

November 2014 Releases of Note

Following are additional albums released during November 2014—some will be reviewed in future issues of Black Grooves.

Blues, Folk, Country

Albert Collins: Funky Blues Live 1973 (Rockbeat)
Alvin Youngblood Hart: Helluva Way (Big Legal Mess)
Eric Bibb: Blues People (Stony Plain)
Junior Wells: Southside Blues Jam (Delmark)
Magic Slim & the Teardrops: Pure Magic (Wolf)
Sheba Potts Wright: I Came to Get Down (Ecko Records)
Taj Mahal: Main Point, Bryn Mawr, PA, 14th March 1972 (Echoes/Forced Exposure)
Taj Mahal: Ultrasonic Studios, Long Island, October 15th 1974 (Keyhole/Forced Exposure)
Various: Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes (Electromagnetic/Harvest Records)


David Guetta: Listen (Parliaphone)
Groove Armada: Late Night Tales Presents Automatic Soul (Night Time Stories)
Hyperdub & Teklife Present: Next Life (Hyperdub)
Les Sins: Michael (Carpark/Company)

Funk, Rock  

Death Grips: Government Plates (12-in. vinyl)
Fishbone: Truth and Soul (12-in. colored vinyl)
Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Music (2-LP set) (Legacy/Dagger)
P.O.D. (Payable On Death): SoCal Sessions (T-Boy/Universal)
Theophilus London: Vibes (Warner Bros.)
TV on the Radio: Seeds (Harvest)

Gospel, Gospel Rap, CCM

Dr. Larry D. Reid and The Breakthrough Singers: Go Tell It
Dtroit Reed: Turnaround Day (Holy Hip Hop)
foreverJONES: Prayer Tools Vol. 1 (digital)
Fred Hammond: I Will Trust (RCA Inspiration)
Freddie Washington & Cornerstone: The Order of Worship
Highway QC’s Featuring Spencer Taylor: The Godfather (OPHIRGOSPEL)
J Moss  Grown: Folks Gospel (PaJam)
Jessica Reedy: Transparent (Infinity Music)
Maurette Brown Clark: Can’t Wait For Christmas (SRT Ent.)
Mighty Clouds of Joy: Down Memory Lane Chapter 2 (MCG)
Mr. Del: Hope Dealer 2 (Holy South)
Rance Allen Group: Celebrate (Tyscot)
VaShawn Mitchell: Unstoppable EP (Capitol Christian Music Group)


Danish Radio Big Band: Spirituals (Storyville)
Chico Hamilton: The Complete Remastered Recordings (Black Saint/Soul Note)
Christian Scott: Christian Scott Collection (Concord)
Dee Brown: Brown Sugar, Honey-Coated Love (Innervision)
Ed Blackwell: The Complete Remastered Recordings (Black Saint/Soul Note)
Elvin Jones Jazz Machine: Remembrance (MPS / Naxos of America)
Eric Darius: Retro Forward (Shanachie)
Ethel Waters: Live on the Air (Mr. Music)
Frank Lowe Quartet: Out Loud (Triple Point Records)
Jimmy Greene: Beautiful Life (Mack Avenue)
Jimmy Lyons: The Complete Remastered Recordings (Black Saint/Soul Note)
Louis Hayes & The Cannonball Adderley Legacy Band: Live at Cory Weeds’ Cellar Jazz Club (Cellar Live)
Miles Davis: ‘Blue Xmas’ (7-inch vinyl)
Miles Davis: The Prestige 10 Inch LPs Collection Vol. 1 (vinyl box set)
Miles Davis: Engima (10-inch vinyl)
Netherlands Blazers Ensemble: White Man Sleeps
Nicole Mitchell’s Sonic Projections: Secret Escapades of Velvet Anderson (RogueArt)
Sun Ra: The Complete Remastered Recordings (Black Saint/Soul Note)
Sun Ra Arkestra: 3rd September 1988 Chicago (Klondike)
Sun Ra Arkestra: Live In Ulm 1992 (Leo Records UK)
Sun Ra Arkestra: Live in Nickelsdorf 1984 (Trost)
Thelonious Monk: Round Midnight: Complete Blue Note Singles 1947-52 (Blue Note)
Various: Rudy Van Gelder Remasters (box set) (Prestige)
Various: Black Fire! New Spirits!: Radical and Revolutionary Jazz in the USA 1957-82 (Soul Jazz)
Various: Uncompromising Expression: Singles Collection (box set) (Blue Note)
Will Downing: Collection (Concord)
Various: The Complete Dial Modern Jazz Sessions  (Mosaic)

R&B, Soul  

Beyoncé: Beyoncé (Platinum Edition box set) (Columbia)
Billy Butler & Infinity: Hung Up on You (Fever Dream)
Brand New Heavies: Sweet Freaks (Eagle Rock)
C. Nichole: Coup D’Etat (Kensington Music Group)
Dawn Pemberton: Say Somethin’ (Do Right! Music)
Denitia & Sene: side fx. EP (Red Bull Sound Select)
Donn T: Gramophonica EP (D-Tone Victorious)
Eddie Giles: Southern Soul Brother: The Murco Recordings 1967-1969 (Kent)
Estelle: True Romance (Established 1980 Inc/BMG)
Falcons: TheDefinitive Falcons Collection (box set) (History of Soul)
Imaani: Standing Tall (Dome)
J.B.s: These are the J.B.’s (Now Again)
Jesse Boykins III: Love Apparatus (Empire)
MoZaic: Unexpected Turns (SKY5/DOXSIDE MUSIC )
Nicki Minaj: The Pinkprint
Paul Jackson Trio: Groove or Die (Whirlwind)
Portia Monique: Portia Monique (Reel People Music/Papa)
Sir Jonathan Burton: Southern Soul Christmas
Sonny Til & the Orioles: Live in Chicago 1951 (Uptown Jazz)
Swamp Dogg: The White Man Made Me Do It (Alive Naturalsound)
Various: East La Soul: Rampart Records 1963-71 (OuttaSight)
Various: Earth Angel The Dootone/Dooto Records Story 1954-1961 (One Day Music)
Various: Get A Job – The Ember Records Story 1956-1962 (One Day Music)
Various: The Funky Side of Goldband/ANLA Records (Tramp)
Various: Yes!: Now This Is What I Call Southern Soul Xmas (Music Access Inc.)
Willie West: Lost Soul (Timmion)

Rap, Hip Hop

Apollo Brown & Ras Kass: Blasphemy (Mello Music Group)
Axel F. (J.Rocc x M.E.D.): Theme Music (Bang Ya Head)
Big K.R.I.T.: Cadillactica (Def Jam)
Black Milk: If There’s A Hell Below (Computer Ugly)
Bobby Shmurda: Shmurda She Wrote EP (Epic/GS9)
DELS: Petals Have Fallen (Big Dada)
Devine: Ghetto Rhymin’ (Supreme)
Eminem & Friends: Shady XV (Interscope)
Epic: #OPRAH – Ordinary People Recording American History (Bandcamp)
Fes Taylor: Buzz Killer EP (Chambermusik)
G-Unit: The Beauty of Independence EP (G-Unit)
Hail Mary Mallon (Aesop Rock & Rob Sonic): Bestiary (Rhymesayers)
Hassaan Mackey: That Grit (Ill Adrenaline)
Havoc: XIII Thirteen Reloaded (Hclass)
Jneiro Jarel: Flora EP (Label Who)
Joe Budden: Some Love Lost EP                (eOne)
Lee Bannon: Main/Flex EP (Babygrande)
Maino: K.O.B. 2 (Stage One Music)
Pitbull: Globalization (Mr. 305)
Prodigy X Boogz Boogetz: Young Rollin Stonerz (Infamous)
Raekwon: FILA (Fly International Luxurious Art) (Ice H20/Universal)
Rick Ross: Hood Billionaire (Island/Def Jam)
Sam Scarfo X Ski Beatz: 5 Million Stories (Infamous)
Teyana Taylor: VII (G.O.O.D. Music)
The 1978ers (yU+Slimkat): People of Today (Mello Music Group)
Various: Funkinjazz 4 (Cold Busted)
Vince Staples: Hell Can Wait EP (Def Jam)
Von Pea and the Other Guys: To You (HiPNOTT)

Reggae, Dancehall, Calypso   

Bob Marley: Uprising Live! (DVD) (Eagle Rock)
John Gibbs And the Unlimited Sound of Steel Orchestra: Steel Funk (EM)
Various: Soundsystem Dub Plate Specials 1975-1979 (Jamaican Recordings)


Angel Blue: Joy Alone (Opus Arte)
Various: An AIDS Quilt Songbook: Sing for Hope(GPR Records)

World, Latin   

Aby Ngana Diop: Liital (Awesome Tapes from Africa)
Fantasma: Eye of the Sun EP (Soundway)
Hailu Mergia and the Wallas: Tche Belew (Awesome Tapes from Africa)
Idris Elba: mi Mandela (Parlophone)
Petite Noir: The King of Anxiety (Domino Records/Double6)
Various: 90⁰ of Shade: Hot Jump up Island Sounds from the Caribbean (Soul Jazz)
Various: Cuba Caliente! (box set) (Fania)
Various: The Afrosound of Colombia Vol. 2 (Vampisoul)
William Onyeabor:  Box set (Luaka Bop)

View review December 1st, 2014

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