Archive for February, 2015

Welcome to the February 2015 Issue

Welcome to the February 2015 Black History Month edition of Black Grooves, sponsored by the Indiana University Archives of African American Music and Culture.

This month we’re featuring a new expanded edition of the Staple Singers’ 1965 recording Freedom Highway Complete: Recorded Live at Chicago’s New Nazareth Church, Idris Elba’s Nelson Mandela tribute Mi Mandela, and Joe Sample’s final recording Children of the Sun that ties in with UNESCO’s 20th Anniversary of the Slave Route Project. Also featured is Lawrence Brownlee’s Grammy nominated Virtuoso Rossini Arias plus the self-titled debut album from jazz cellist Akua Dixon.

For Valentine’s Day, there’s Raheem DeVaughn’s Love, Sex, Passion and Freda Payne’s Come Back to Me Love, along with the Shirelles Happy and In Love / Shirelles (double album), and the Valentinos Lookin’ For a Love: Complete SAR Recordings. Additional R&B releases include D’Angelo and the Vanguard’s Black Messiah, Mary J. Blige’s The London Sessions,  Lil’ Mo’s The Scarlett Letter, and the Chicago soul compilation Mar-V-Lus Records (the latest installment of the One-der-Ful! label series).

In celebration of Mardi Gras, there’s Smithsonian Folkways New Orleans Brass Bands: Through the Streets of the City and Ouroboros from the NOLA supergroup New Orleans Suspects. Our winter blues series continues with the “Papa” Charlie Jackson tribute album Papa Charlie Done Sung That Song and the Rev. Gary Davis documentary Harlem Street Singer. Also featured is the documentary Nas: Time is Illmatic.

Gospel selections include James Fortune & FIYA’s Live Through It, J Moss’ Grown Folks Gospel, and the Soul Stirrers compilation Joy in My Soul: Complete SAR Recordings. Wrapping up this issue is jazz vocalist Ranee Lee’s What’s Going On, Shuggie Otis’ Live in Williamsburg and January 2015 Releases of Note.

View review February 3rd, 2015

The Staple Singers – Freedom Highway Complete


Title: Freedom Highway Complete

Artist: The Staple Singers

Label: Legacy

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: March 3, 2015


At a time when social, racial, and political upheaval continues to leave many in the U.S. (and in countries around the world) uneasy, the year 2015 also offers an opportunity to reflect on the complex dimensions of our history as well as the possibilities of our future. The year 1965 was pivotal in the decades-long crusade known as the Civil Rights Movement. After being systematically denied access to voting, national leaders of the movement joined forces with local leaders and community members to stage protests in the town of Selma, Alabama—a location known to deny African Americans the right to vote. The group planned a 5 day, 54 mile march to the state capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, to demand unhindered access to the polls. Their first attempt on March 7 was soon to be called “Bloody Sunday,” as 600 marchers were stopped at the Edmund Pettus Bridge by armed local white citizens and police who brutally beat protesters. After their second “symbolic” march ended at the bridge, protesters marched again on March 21, this time escorted on their journey to Montgomery by US Army Troops, the Alabama National Guard, and FBI agents. This large scale protest alongside continued efforts in local and national arenas helped to secure the passage of the Voting Rights Act, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in August 1965.

In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of these events, Legacy Recordings has re-released an album recorded by renowned gospel (and later soul) music performers, the Staple Singers, titled Freedom Highway Complete: Recorded Live at Chicago’s New Nazareth Church. In April 1965, this family group (including Roebuck “Pops,” Mavis, Pervis, Cleotha, and Yvonne), inspired by the marches, participated in a service at their local congregation, New Nazareth Church in Chicago. Freedom Highway features a re-mastered version of the concert including several previously unreleased or extended tracks that help establish the communal and occasionally playful tenor of this worship service.  Mobile recording was still a relatively new concept at the time that this event was captured, making for some occasionally uneven sound levels. However, the energy and movement of the service remain abundantly evident.

Pops Staples begins the service by inviting audience members to participate in worship, as well as acknowledging particular vocalists and instrumentalists including the New Nazareth Baptist Choir and L. C. Cooke, brother of the late soul music pioneer, Sam Cooke. The concert offers an interesting mix of original compositions, Civil Rights “freedom” songs, and popular gospel pieces of the day, all of which point to the urgency of “living right” and putting belief into action. The Civil Rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome,” receives enthusiastic audience participation with singing, hand clapping, and verbal affirmation – as it was a popular galvanizing device in Civil Rights Movement at marches and protests. Inspired by the brilliance and bravery of those who participated in the Selma to Montgomery march, Pops penned the album’s title song “Freedom Highway.” He explains, “From that march, words were revealed, and a song was composed.” His piece does not focus on the dream of freedom heard in “We Shall Overcome.” Rather, it critiques racially motivated injustices and killings and encourages freedom fighters to persevere until social and political equality are achieved. Mavis as the lead singer assertively declares, “Found dead people in the forest/ Tallahatchie River and lakes/ Whole world is wonderin’/what’s wrong with the United States?/ Yes we want peace/ if it can be found/ marching freedom highway/ and I’m not gonna turn around!”

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The gospel selections focus primarily on 1) soliciting divine assistance from God to overcome earthly struggles and/or 2) anticipation of heaven and the afterlife. For instance, Mavis performs gospel pioneer Thomas Dorsey’s famous piece “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” with Pops and the other group members providing background vocalizations in the form of harmonized, swooping “oohs.” In this selection, Mavis pleads for God’s assistance and guidance in her journey to her ultimate destination, “home.” Unlike many performances of this song, the Staples Singers’ version features no piano or organ; rather, it has a slow-rocking country gospel sound primarily accompanied by Pops’ acoustic guitar. The relevant lyrics and Mavis’ passionate delivery resonate with listeners who adamantly encourage her, “Sing the song, Mavis!” The themes of death and heaven are even more prevalent in songs like “When I’m Gone,” “When the Saint Go Marching In,” and “View that Holy City,” “What You Gonna Do?” and “Tell Heaven.” These selections are introspective celebrations of the difficulties and joys of life. They invite listeners to think carefully about their beliefs, actions, and legacy because one’s decisions have repercussions both in the afterlife and in the present-day.

One of the most engaging elements of this album is the inclusion of gospel sermonettes by Pops Staple. For example, “Help Me Jesus” features Pops reminiscing about his experiences of the music of church services in rural Mississippi. His storytelling is expertly undergirded by improvised guitar picking and by Mavis and her siblings as they interject deep colorful moans. The group brings the story to life by zealously yet intensely singing quotations of the songs that he mentions including “Amazing Grace,” “Father, I Stretch My Hands to Thee,” and “There’s a Leak in This Old Building.” Using music to recall the migration journey of many African Americans living in Chicago at this time, Pops initiates a collective remembering of the sights and sounds of worship “down home.”

Freedom Highway Complete is an excellent snapshot of the ways in which faith and freedom fighting often interwove during the Civil Rights Movement. At a time of deep social unrest, many church leaders, artists, and community members took deliberate action to effect positive change. The Staple Singers joined these ranks, often using music to challenge systems of oppression while asserting their spirituality and humanity. Beyond its artistic merit, Freedom Highway is an important historical document of the multifaceted social, political, cultural, and economic struggle to end injustice in the U.S. The Staple Singers’ messages continue to resonate today, encouraging all who are listening (even 50 years later) to keep “marching up freedom highway.”

Reviewed by Raynetta Wiggins

View review February 3rd, 2015

Idris Elba Presents Mi Mandela


Title: Idris Elba Presents Mi Mandela

Artist: Various

Label: 7wallace/Parlophone

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: December 2, 2014


Fans of the HBO series The Wire will forever associate Idris Elba with his Stringer Bell character. It was Elba’s recent work on the film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, however, that served as inspiration for this project, and it’s not his first foray into music. A man of many talents, Elba has performed as a DJ, soul musician and rapper, releasing his own EPs and mixtapes, and also contributing to tracks by Jay-Z and Pharoahe Monch.

Mi Mandela, a tribute to Nelson Mandela, was “curated, written and produced” by Elba. After soaking up the music of South Africa during the filming of Mandela, Elba flew back a year later with a handful of musicians and producers, including Oliver Wright and the English musician known as Mr. Hudson. Once they arrived, South African hip hop and electronic musician/producer Spoek Mathambo hooked them up with other musicians, and the project was literally created in the studio over a four week period, followed by additional sessions in Mali and London.

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The album opens with the uptempo club dance track “Aero Mathata,” sung by the Mahotella Queens with backing added by the female British string quartet Demon Strings. British R&B singer/actor Shaun Escoffery takes over on “So Many People,” a freedom song he performs with the GSI Choir. On the soulful ballad “You Give Me Love,” featuring Maverick Sabre, the Hammond organ and Futury History Brass Section provide a retro vibe. Sabre also offers a wonderful cover of “Home” by Mumford & Sons (the only track not written by Elba), drawing inspiration from three continents. African musicians take over on “Thank You for Freedom,” which features the traditional London African Gospel Choir punctuated by beats from Mash-O (a.k.a. Afro tech musician Lucky Mokobane).

British spoken word artist George the Poet (a.k.a. George Mpanga) is featured on two tracks: “One” with the Future History Brass Section and “Hold On” with backing vocals by Thabo and the Real Deal. In a departure from the rest of the album, American singers Cody Chestnutt and Audra Mae contribute vocals to “Tree,” which juxtaposes African-style guitar in the intro with a lush string section in the chorus.

Stating that he didn’t want this to be considered a vanity project, Idris Elba chose to be included on only one track, “Mi Mandela,” performing with the Djigui Choir and Mr. Hudson. The song, both sung and spoken, is an often humorous account of his work on the film and its reception (“how could Mandela be played by Stringer Bell?”). Another highlight is “Nothembi Jam,” featuring the Future History Brass Section with Nothembi Mkhwebane, the ‘African Queen of Ndebele Music,’ on guitar, isidonodono and impalampala. The album concludes with “Soldiers Don’t Back Down,” performed by Djatta Music, a Mali troupe originally created to promote disability awareness and fight discrimination.

For the majority of the album, this cross-continental collaboration works brilliantly, creating a unique blend of British and African artists, instruments and genres, while mixing the traditional with the contemporary. At present the album has only been released in the UK, but the CD is still available for purchase online and is also available for streaming via Spotify.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review February 3rd, 2015

Joe Sample & NDR Bigband Orchestra – Children of the Sun


Title: Children of the Sun

Artist: Joe Sample & NDR Bigband Orchestra

Label: PRA Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: January 6, 2015


Starting as a founding member of the Crusaders, pianist and composer Joe Sample went on to become a successful musician and record with many esteemed artists, from Miles Davis to the Supremes. Before his death this past September, Sample went to Hamburg, Germany with the NDR Bigband to record his final album, Children of the Sun. It was Sample’s first studio recording since his 2002 Grammy nominated Pecan Tree, and is a suite of original music that some have called his most ambitious project.

The album’s release before Black History Month is timely, as it coincides with UNESCO’s 20th Anniversary of the Slave Route Project: A Commitment to Reconciliation. Sample said his compositions were influenced by a performance at the St. Croix Jazz Festival. St. Croix was a major part of the middle passage for slavery in the 17th century, and the “juxtaposition of the beauty of the island, the brutality of the slavery, and the helplessness the slaves must have felt” intrigued and inspired Sample to write the music for Children of the Sun. It includes Sample’s characteristic blending of different genres with jazz, from blues to “gulf coast funk,” and is an album for jazz fans as well as contemporary classical audiences.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review February 3rd, 2015

Akua Dixon – Akua Dixon

Akua Dixon
Title: Akua Dixon

Artist: Akua Dixon

Label: Akua’s Music

Format: CD

Release date: Jan. 13, 2015


New York cellist, arranger and composer Akua Dixon is a major talent, but certainly not new on the scene.  For the past three decades Dixon has occupied a number of chairs in string sections, from the Symphony of the New World, Quartette Indigo (she composed the music for the group’s 1997 album Afrika! Afrika!), and the acclaimed String Reunion orchestra, to the pit of the Apollo Theater backing everyone from Rev. James Cleveland to James Brown. Expanding beyond her strictly classical training, in part due to limited opportunities for Black musicians in symphony orchestras, she took up jazz, cutting her chops as a member of the Max Roach Double Quartet, and performing with many other jazz luminaries over the years. In fact, Dixon is heralded as a pioneer in the use of string sections in modern jazz.

On her new self-titled album, Dixon explores the American Songbook, as well as Latin standards, through her own unique, compelling arrangements that merge elements of jazz, classical and Afro-Caribbean music. Dixon is joined by members of her “working string quartet” (Quartette Indigo), including violinists Patrisa Tomassini, Gwen Laster and Chala Yancy, with Ina Paris on viola, along with family members and special guest artists.

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On the opening track, Dixon takes the melodic and rhythmic essence of Charles Mingus’ “Haitian Fight Song” and transforms it into a fugue for strings, adding son Orion Turre on drums, Kenny Davis on bass, with the late John Blake, Jr. contributing the violin solo.  Another jazz standard is transformed on the track “Freedom,” where two movements from Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts are combined with a new movement by Dixon, featuring improvisation from the great jazz violinist Regina Carter. On Richard Roger’s “It Never Entered My Mind,” Dixon scats over the string ensemble, while her daughter, jazz vocalist Andromeda Turre, sings Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life.” “Moon River,” a work Dixon has often performed with her Quartette Indigo, features solos by Tomassini and Paris.

Though the jazz standards are delightful, the Latin portion of the album is even better. Regina Carter returns to solo on “A Gozar Con Mi Combo” by Cuban bassist Israel “Cachao” Lopez, rearranged for string septet “descarga,” with each member contributing solos. Quartet arrangements of Astor Piazzolla’s “Libertango” (also featuring Carter) and Consuelo Velazquez’s “Besame Mucho” were originally commissioned for a wedding, and are wonderfully seductive. The album concludes with Nat Simon’s “Poinciana,” based on a Cuban folk song. The version recorded by Ahmad Jamal was a major influence on Dixon, who arranged the work for string quartet, with Dixon picking out the bass line on cello.

According to the liner notes by jazz authority George Kanzler, Dixon’s goal was to showcase music she’s arranged and performed over the years for a classical string quartet whose members she’s trained in jazz phrasing and improvisation. How lucky we are that she’s decided to share these gems. This album is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review February 3rd, 2015

Lawrence Brownlee – Virtuoso Rossini Arias


Title: Virtuoso Rossini Arias

Artists: Lawrence Brownlee, tenor; Constantine Orbelian, conductor; Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra

Label: Delos

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: March 25, 2014


Lawrence Brownlee’s new collection of Rossini arias—his first orchestral recital of opera selections—showcases the American tenor at the height of his powers. Throughout, he displays a remarkable command of secure high notes and spot-on, perfectly executed coloratura paired with innate musical sensibility and Italianate style. It’s no wonder the disc recently received a Grammy® nomination for best classical solo vocal album.

Recorded at the Kaunas Philharmonic in Lithuania in April 2013, eight arias from as many operas are included, with selections from La gazza ladra, Le Comte Ory, L’occasione fa il ladro, Otello, Semiramide, Il Turco in Italia, La donna del lago, and Zelmira.

Recital discs like this run the risk of being too much of a good thing and after a while, sounding somewhat monochromatic. So when asked if all Rossini is the same in the August 2014 issue of Gramophone, Brownlee responded: “There’s a similarity in his writing, but for me it’s about bringing out the colours and trying different things based on the words. Thankfully I speak Italian so I’m able to understand the weight of the worlds and the double entendres. Yes, Rossini has to be technically sound, the high notes have to be spot on, but it’s the words that express the emotions.”

And express he does. Barely two minutes into the first selection—from the first act of La gazza ladra—Brownlee sets the stage for the next hour of music to come, caressing the opening lines of “Vieni fra queste braccia” and tossing off a solid high D. And in “D’ogni più sacro impegno,” from the rarely performed one-act opera L’occasione fa il ladro, he gradually builds the tension and attacks the coloratura in the final section, concluding with a B-flat held for a full fifteen seconds. In all of the selections, Brownlee dives in headfirst, riding each Rossini crescendo to its inevitable climax.

Constantine Orbelian and the Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra provide adequate yet somewhat uninspired accompaniment. All of the notes are there, but there is very little sense of Italianate style or finesse, and Brownlee is far more engaged than the orchestra throughout.

For comparison, one should also listen to Juan Diego Flórez’s Rossini recital on Decca from 2002, accompanied by Riccardo Chailly and Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi. Even though both tenors perform five of the same selections, the approach is quite different. Flórez leans more towards the theatrical and Brownlee is a bit more technically secure, but that’s really splitting hairs. And to this listener, Brownlee’s delivery is the more comprehensively satisfying. You simply will not hear Rossini sung better.

In November and December 2014, Lawrence Brownlee performed the role of Count Almaviva in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia at the Metropolitan Opera. From the opera’s final scene, here he is singing “Ah, il più lieto” from a dress rehearsal of on November 14. Michele Mariotti conducts:

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Reviewed by Frank Villella (twitter: @fvillella)

Editor’s note: Lawrence Brownlee is a graduate of the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University (our home base). In June he will be starring with another JSOM alum, soprano Angela Brown (who plays his mother), in the Philadelphia Opera’s new production Yardbird, about the jazz great Charlie Parker, composed by Daniel Schnyder.

View review February 3rd, 2015

Raheem DeVaughn – Love, Sex & Passion


Title: Love, Sex & Passion

Artist: Raheem DeVaughn

Label: eOne Music

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: February 17, 2015


Raheem DeVaughn’s fifth album, scheduled for release shortly after Valentine’s Day, follows the thematic mantra he established on his first release in 2005: LOVE. With Love, Sex & Passion, he offers the same soulful vocals he has been known for since the start of his R&B career and continues his preference for lengthy releases (the album boasts 17 tracks, a couple of which are over six minutes long).

Over the course of Love, Sex & Passion, DeVaughn explores the physical and emotional aspects of intimacy between a man and woman. The lyrical content includes songs celebrating women, such as the album’s first single, “Queen,” and particularly black women on “Black Ice Cream,” his celebration of ebony skin. Other songs express a plea for physical intimacy, like “I Miss Your Sex,” while all-encompassing relationship centered songs like “Baby Come Back” offer an apology with hope for reconciliation.

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Album highlights include tracks that reference older, well-known songs. For example, “Temperatures Rising” references R. Kelly’s 1993 release, “It Seems Like You’re Ready,” quoting the first two lines of the verse including the melody – while “Pretty Lady” references Jodeci’s 1996 hit, “Get On Up.”  Other highlights include the love songs “When You Love” and “Terms of Endearment.”

Overall, Love, Sex, & Passion is a solid album that many Raheem DeVaughn fans will enjoy.

Reviewed by Christina Harrison

View review February 3rd, 2015

D’Angelo & The Vanguard – Black Messiah


Title: Black Messiah

Artist: D’Angelo & The Vanguard

Label: RCA Records

Formats: CD, LP (recorded at 96k), MP3

Release date: December 15, 2014


The last month of the year can be quite full of surprises for music enthusiasts. Just a year prior, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter dropped her anticipated album Beyoncé in an effort to counterbalance the remission dominant in the music industry when it comes to the “experience” of releasing a fully cultivated project enriched with creative artistry. A year to the day after Beyoncé’s “impromptu” release, comes another unexpected event—the return of soul music’s long-lost king, Michael Eugene Archer, otherwise known as D’Angelo.

Released digitally with little public advertising (except for longtime collaborator Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s occasional griot tales of post-Voodoo studio sessions and leaked material), D’Angelo’s Black Messiah is fourteen years in the making. Once referred to as a rumored myth, James River, Black Messiah was delayed many times due to personal events affecting the Brown Sugar crooner, which left many questioning if the one-time torchbearer of the Neo-Soul movement was becoming not only an afterthought, but a dream deferred. However, what Black Messiah does with its vintage arrangements, tight-knit group of collaborators, and avant-garde instrumentation, is to show that true quality definitely takes time.

Recorded, produced, and mixed entirely in analog format using tape and vintage equipment, Black Messiah takes its influences from D’Angelo’s longtime music interests—the funk styles of Parliament and Sly & the Family Stone, the multi-instrumentalism of Prince and Stevie Wonder, and the radical performance styling of the late Jimi Hendrix and country legend Johnny Cash. D’Angelo’s blend of inspirations results not only in an ode to those that shaped the man behind the music, but the soul of the people in need of a Savior through its medium. The album art comes complete with a message from D’Angelo, detailing his vision behind the title and its content, which in short is a call to liberation as well as protest. Black Messiah offers itself as the spark that starts the fire in individuals who will garner change in today’s society.  At its core, the album is fourteen years of D’Angelo’s soul uninhibitedly put on tape for the listener’s pleasure. It was the events of Ferguson and the unmerciful killings of young Black men that prompted the thunderbolt that led him to release prior to schedule. According to his tour manager, Alan Leeds, D’Angelo said in regards to his imminent project, “The one way I do speak out is through music. I want to speak out.”

Black Messiah starts with the funk-heavy “Ain’t That Easy,” complete with effects of what one might think is a cosmic deity riding the frequencies emitting from one’s earlobes. Like an extraterrestrial, D’Angelo enters from nowhere land, strumming his guitar along with his band, The Vanguard (comprised of bassist Pino Palladino, Jesse Johnson, Isaiah Sharkey, keyboardist Cleo Sample, and drummer John Blackwell). Q-Tip (of A Tribe Called Quest) and Kendra Foster (of Parliament) offer their writing and backing vocals, respectively, as colleague Questlove (of the Roots) rounds out the small list of collaborators. It should also be noted that D’Angelo took vast creative control of the project, playing most if not all of the instruments on the album, in an effort to showcase his talents across the board and create the soul masterpiece he had  envisioned. Sharkey and the legendary drummer James Gadson also join him on the opening track.

Immediately following is the protest song, “1000 Deaths.” Khalil Abdul Muhammad is heard via an audio clip from “The Great Debate: The Origin of Jesus Christ, Myth or Reality,” while audio from “The Murder of Fred Hampton” (a documentary speaking in-depth about the murder of the young Black Panther) follows in secession.  D’Angelo speaks of going to war, both against the society he is a part of, and the war within oneself in order to receive true salvation from the Lord and Black Revolutionary Messiah of Jesus Christ,” who D’Angelo refers to as “Yahweh” (GOD), or Yahushua (“Jesus”, also commonly known as Yeshua in Hebrew), respectively. D’Angelo’s vocals are accompanied solely by Questlove on drums in an arrangement that harkens back to the drum pattern of Prince’s “4” from the rare album, Madhouse. This track plays like the fire of a spirit looking to his conscious for guidance:

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“1000 Deaths” seamlessly transitions into the Prince & The Revolution-sounding “The Charade,” featuring Questlove on drums (who, at D’Angelo’s suggestion, brilliantly plays the “opposite” of the rim shot funk displayed heavily throughout the Voodoo project in pure Prince fashion), Pino Palladino on bass and electric sitar, with additional guitars by Jesse and Sharkey. Speaking directly to issues regarding racial profiling and inequalities, D’Angelo and Kendra Foster sing: “All we wanted was a chance to talk / ‘stead we only got outlined in chalk / Feet have bled, a millions miles we’ve walked / revealing at the end of the day / The Charade.”  The song speaks not only to the deceptive acts taken by America in the indictment of those who killed Black youth, but the yearning of Black Americans who have fought and bled in order to seek equality for the injustices they’ve experienced.

Track four, “Sugah Daddy,” starts with Frank Gadson playing the kick using the hand-bone technique, popular amongst tap dancers and hoofers during the Vaudeville era. D’Angelo, Palladino, and Gadson also contribute to the claps, while Q-Tip and Foster contribute lyrics about an overzealous woman looking to enrapture a preacher for her own personal enjoyment.  “Really Love” concludes “Side A” of Black Messiah. Originally leaked almost a decade ago by Questlove, the finished version includes a lush string arrangement by Brent Fischer and accompanying drums by Questlove. Emitting notes of nostalgia, “Really Love” is sonically reminiscent of Voodoo’s “Send It On,” singing of true love and romance.

“Side B” of Black Messiah begins with “Back to the Future (Part One),” where D’Angelo makes the first references to his disappearance for the past fourteen years, with the late Spanky Alford on guitars. Tracks such as “Till it’s Done (Tutu)” and “Prayer” provide commentary about D’Angelo’s awareness of the world around him.  “Betray My Heart,” the oldest track on the album, alludes to the Voodoo aesthetic that made him a household name amongst true musicians and instrumentalists. D’Angelo and Foster are influenced by Johnny Cash and B.B. King on “The Door,” which is heavy in whistle arrangements with little guitar, creating a classic blues song in every sense.  The reprise of “Back to the Future (Part Two)” gives listener’s the impression that D’Angelo is still trying to find his place in the future, while missing what he loved in the past, before fading into “Another Life,” a sultry ballad that closes out the album.

Black Messiah is the soul food that many have been waiting close to fifteen years for from D’Angelo and it delivers with little room for seconds. The only downfall of the album is quite subjective, which is the quality of D’Angelo’s vocals. His trademark mumble and the obscuring of his voice, which is buried under a decade of layered arrangements, could be seen as purposeful—an attempt to use his voice as an organic instrument amongst instruments, where its quality only adds to the overall musical experience being offered. Closing out the year as one of the best albums of 2014, Black Messiah is just that, the revolutionary voice that fans have been searching for since their leader went incognito.

Review by Floyd Hobson

View review February 3rd, 2015

Freda Payne – Come Back to Me Love


Title: Come Back to Me Love

Artist: Freda Payne

Label: Mack Avenue

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: July 22, 2014


Freda Payne, who will forever be remembered by those of a certain age for her 1970 mega hit “Band of Gold,” returns to her jazz roots on her latest album, Come Back to Me Love. Payne began her career singing jazz with the likes of Quincy Jones and Pearl Bailey, and her first solo album in 1964 was a terrific blend of big band and jazz combo tracks featured contemporary songs by Duke Ellington, Ornette Coleman, and Thelonius Monk. Her second album, though jazz based, was already veering off into pop/soul territory, and after 1970 she primarily recorded pop and soul material with only an occasional jazz selection thrown in for good measure. Here’s a great video from Mack Avenue that reveals the Freda Payne backstory, complete with historical footage of her early television appearances:

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Come Back to Me Love offers an opportunity to rediscover the multi-talented Freda Payne, who proves she can still swing with the best of them. A good portion of the album is devoted to songs composed by Detroit native Gretchen Valade, co-founder of Mack Avenue Records and a major sponsor of the Detroit Jazz Festival. She invited Payne to select six of her songs from a batch of 18, perhaps making Come Back as much about Payne’s return to the city of her birth, as her return to jazz.  The title track and “Lately” are both languid, romantic ballads with lush strings and piano interludes that certainly sound like classics.  “You Don’t Know,” co-written with Valade’s business partner Tom Robinson, is a sassy, up tempo romp, while “I Should Have Told Him” and “I Just Have to Know” have a bossa nova vibe that harkens back to the heyday of the Copacabana.

Jazz standards selected by Payne round out the album, which opens with a tight arrangement of Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To” that showcases Payne’s scatting ability.  On the Sammy Cahn/Jules Styne song “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry,” Payne effortlessly navigates the complex melodic and harmonic changes. The Lionel Hampton/Johnny Mercer number “Midnight Sun” has been covered by many great singers, including Ella Fitzgerald, and though Payne does an admirable job, her vocal timbre is perhaps not distinctive enough to set her apart from the pack. The album concludes with a swinging jazz rendition of the classic “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water.” Payne’s interpretation includes many of the bluesy, soulful elements for which the song is known, but the accompaniment is pure big band, not Stax (the Johnnie Taylor version from 1968 is a personal favorite).

All of the arrangements on Come Back to Me Love were done by noted composer/bandleader Bill Cunliffe, who also conducted the 38 piece orchestra comprised of Hollywood studio musicians. For those who appreciate traditional vocal jazz and tight big band arrangements, this album is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review February 3rd, 2015

Mary J. Blige – The London Sessions


Title: The London Sessions

Artist: Mary J. Blige

Label: Capitol

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: December 2, 2014


With The London Sessions, Mary J. Blige steps away from the Mary we have all come to know since she burst on the scene in 1992 with What’s the 411?. With that album and the nine that followed, she gifted us with R&B songs that we can’t get out of our head— “Real Love,” “Be Happy,” “I’m Goin’ Down,” “Not Gon’ Cry,” “I Can Love You,” “Deep Inside,” “No More Drama,” Be Without You” and “Take Me As I Am”—just to name a few. Though that core R&B sound is missing from The London Sessions, Blige embraces a London sound that still encompasses everything we love about her, just in a different package.

After a successful collaboration with British electronic duo Disclosure on the remix of their “F For You,” Mary J. Blige took a month long trip to London to capture the sound Disclosure introduced her to. The result is an album featuring a mix of ballads, dance, and mid-tempo tracks that centralize Mary’s vocals and all of the passion and intensity behind them.

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Of the twelve songs presented on this album, there are quite a few notable tracks. For starters, the lead singles “Therapy” and “Whole Damn Year” are relatively accurate depictions of what The London Sessions offers, with their straightforward melodies but poignant lyrics. Other highlights include “Not Loving You”; its sparse piano instrumental arrangement creates the perfect bed for Blige’s impassioned vocals. The same goes for “When You’re Gone,” which nicely compliments Blige’s vocals with a driving rhythm and loose guitar strumming. “Doubt” uses a similar arrangement with the piano as the prominent instrumental accompaniment, while the lush string arrangement and highlighted bass line adds more depth. “Right Now,” which features Disclosure, is a relaxed dance track with a cleaner vocal, but the same amount of bounce and energy from Blige. The ballad “Worth My Time” closes the album and, taking notes from the other ballads on this project, strips the arrangement to simply Blige’s vocals and the piano.

The London Sessions is an exciting venture for the Queen of Hip Hop Soul and an album that leaves us wanting more of this new sound from Mary J. Blige.

Reviewed by Christina Harrison

View review February 3rd, 2015

Lil’ Mo – The Scarlet Letter


Title: The Scarlet Letter

Artist: Lil’ Mo

Label: Astra/Penalty Entertainment

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: October 27, 2014



Since the early 2000s and particularly following the success of Superwoman Pt. II, released in 2001, Lil’ Mo has been mesmerizing R&B fans with her powerful, soulful, church reared voice. While the majority of her chart topping success occupied the early 2000s,  the shuffling of record labels halted what would have been her third album, Syndicated: The Lil’ Mo Hour, and delayed her progress. Despite this setback, Lil’ Mo has been reasonably consistent in recording and releasing material, including four albums and two mixtapes. And though her career has shifted—she has been a regular on TVONE’s R&B Divas: Los Angeles for the past two seasons, the current full run of the show—her recording career continues. On her fifth album, The Scarlet Letter, just like in her appearances on R&B Divas, this Godmother of Hip Hop and R&B bares all—the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Scarlet Letter is a statement concluding a rather eventful set of life transformations, some of which played out on reality television. As a result, of some of her personal transformations had an impact on her professional operations. This album boasts a whole new host of musical collaborators that bring out a sultry and slick sound on top of her already very soulful and powerful voice.

There are several highlights on the album. The first is the lead single, “Should’ve Never Let You Go”—a driving track about accepting the fact that there may have been a person that was the one that got away. “Wait For You” is a pulsing proclamation that she will wait for the man of her dreams, while “Chest Pain” is a pleading, emotional track about recovering from heartache.

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Scarlet Letter, with all of its openness, is definitely a gift to Lil’ Mo fans.

Reviewed by Christina Harrison

View review February 3rd, 2015

Through the Streets of the City: New Orleans Brass Bands


Title: Through the Streets of the City: New Orleans Brass Bands

Artists: Liberty Brass Band, Treme Brass Band, Hot 8 Brass Band

Label: Smithsonian Folkways

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: February 10, 2015


This month’s new Smithsonian Folkways compilation, Through the Streets of the City: New Orleans Brass Bands, is an excellent collection of songs by three of the city’s top brass bands: the traditional Liberty Brass Band, the “transitional” Treme Brass Band, and the funk and hip hop-influenced Hot 8 Brass Band.  This collection features several numbers by each group, providing a snapshot of traditional and contemporary approaches to the brass band format and suggesting a vibrant future for New Orleans brass bands.

The album begins with the traditionally-oriented Liberty Brass Band playing “Paul Barbarin’s Second Line,” a bona fide brass band standard.  Liberty’s mission is to preserve the vibrant traditional style of playing, so most of the numbers included by this group are older marches that have withstood the test of time and heavy use by many brass bands: “Liberty Funeral March,” a loosely adapted rendition of Chopin’s “Funeral March,” and a couple of hymns, including a soul-stirring rendition of “The Old Rugged Cross.”  Liberty’s contributions showcase a well-established, self-assured band with a clear sense of itself as an ensemble, playing traditional music that still sounds fresh today.

Treme Brass Band, named after one of the oldest African American neighborhoods in the United States and which is perhaps best known to many listeners from its appearances on the HBO television show of the same name, offers a slight update to the strictly traditional approach that Liberty presents on this CD.  Treme’s repertoire includes popular songs from film and radio (“Sheik of Araby” and “Grazing in the Grass,” respectively), in addition to more standard New Orleans Brass band fare such as the hymns “Amazing Grace” and “We Shall Walk Through the Streets of the City,” the latter of which is arguably a highlight of their included numbers, with its exuberant energy, collective improvisation, and loosely felt vocals from trumpeter Kenneth Terry. A well-established band in its own right, Treme Brass Band offers a transitional approach, pulling from elements of contemporary music while remaining firmly grounded in the established approaches and repertoire of traditional brass bands.

The band that breaks most noticeably from New Orleans Brass Band tradition on this compilation is the Hot 8 Brass Band.  Drawing upon influences as varied as funk, hip hop, and bounce music, Hot 8 seamlessly incorporates these genres into the Brass Band format, with outstanding results.  This band clearly has a mission to keep the brass band format vital by incorporating more contemporary dance styles into its musical gumbo—“Keepin’ it Funky” does just that, with a NOLA funk bass line worthy of The Meters, and call and response vocals that will have the listeners singing along with their iPods.  “New Orleans (After the City)” is perhaps the year’s best hip hop song not by a rap artist, bringing the feel of a bounce number with two live musicians playing bass and snare drums instead of an 808 drum machine keeping time. The song is a tribute to the band’s hometown as they sing, “New Orleans, that’s the place for me.”  Hot 8 also demonstrates that even though they play funky, its members have kept their trad-jazz chops strong, with their “Shake it and Break it,” essentially a recording of Louis Armstrong’s “Weary Blues” complete with the traditional New Orleans sound and feel.

This Smithsonian Folkways release would be an excellent addition to the collection of any trad-jazz enthusiast or neophyte, offering a sampling of a spectrum of brass band styles performed by three of the hottest working groups today.  A final note must be made about the included liner notes. In addition to beautiful full color and black-and-white photographs, there’s an extensive essay by Dr. Michael White, founder of the Liberty Brass Band, detailing the history of brass bands in New Orleans, the histories and approaches of each of these groups, and explaining the context of the songs included in this set.  Through the Streets of the City is an excellent compilation of three world-class bands, released just in time for Mardi Gras.

Reviewed by Matt Alley

View review February 3rd, 2015

New Orleans Suspects – Ouroboros


Title: Ouroboros

Artist: New Orleans Suspects

Label: Louisiana Red Hot Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: October 14, 2014


Formed in the summer of 2011, New Orleans Suspects is a “supergroup” consisting of five highly respected and talented men. Among this mass of talent is “Mean” Willie Green, previous drummer for the Neville Brothers, bass player for The Radiators Reggie Scanlan, and Jeff Watkins, who played lead saxophone for the James Brown Band for twelve years. Originally started as a pick-up band at the Maple Leaf in New Orleans that covered the Allen Toussaint and Dr. John songbooks, the Suspects have gone on to release two albums and tour across the country.

The band’s third release, Ouroboros, features all original songs that showcase their ability to produce New Orleans-style music with a twist, and was recorded by Jeff Watkins and Grammy Award winner Jack Eckert. An ouroboro is an ancient symbol denoting cycles and rebirth, a fitting image for a band made up of many veteran players.

Ouroboros starts with the funky “Get Back What You Given,” a loud-as-life track that features gospel style vocals, a saxophone solo, and rocking guitar outro. It is a strong start to the album with its catchy mix of rock and funk styles and positive lyrics:

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The funk is continued with “Carnivale,” which sounds exactly like its title indicates. Fun lyrics that describe Mardi Gras Day on St. Charles Avenue fit perfectly over a funky beat and driving percussion that includes the sound of a whistle. “Things In Your Mind” has a similar feel with its “old New Orleans piano and Dixieland horns.” It is another track that inspires the listener to dance, and ends with a creative “duel” between a slide guitar and clarinet.

The song “Soothe Me” adds to the funk repertoire of New Orleans Suspects, but features a more intense rock sound and features slide guitar and passionate female backup vocals. Both lyrics and the slide guitar refer to the Delta and its legendary style of blues.

New Orleans Suspects go beyond funk to explore a variety of genres in Ouroboros. “Magdalena” has a country, boogie-woogie feel, and is enhanced with the repeating chorus of horns in response to the vocals. The song ends with a smooth instrumental section that is over 2 minutes long, featuring a melodic piano that solos before horns and electric guitar join back in.

“Hoodoos and Cunyans” is another adventure into the unknown. It has a fairly spooky vibe, both starting and ending with a mix of different noises, such as howling wind, deep laughter, and interspersed children talking. In the midst of these noises comes a slow, haunting, and mesmerizing ballad.

Ouroboros showcases the musical abilities of New Orleans Suspects and their clear talent to bring musicianship and a unique New Orleans style to a number of different genres.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review February 3rd, 2015

Nas: Time Is Illmatic


Title: Nas: Time Is Illmatic

Directors: One9 and Erik Parker

Publisher: Kino Lorber

Formats: DVD, digital

Release date: February 3, 2015 (DVD edition)



Nas: Time Is Illmatic is the 2014 documentary that depicts the creation and impact of Illmatic, the widely heralded 1994 debut album by hip hop artist Nas. Illmatic is commonly considered one of the greatest hip hop albums of all time and radically altered the arts of emceeing and production as well as the way hip hop albums were conceptualized. Time Is Illmatic, written by Erik Parker, directed by One9, and narrated by Nas himself, takes us on a journey that begins with Nas’ life as a young boy growing up in New York’s notorious Queensbridge Projects and ends with him receiving a fellowship from Harvard University’s Hip Hop Archive. During this journey, we get to hear from the many individuals who helped shape both Illmatic and the rapper’s life—including his father, trumpeter Olu Dara, rapper-turned-executive MC Serch, and Jungle, Nas’ brother, who offers compelling accounts of the hectic Queensbridge world that Nas emerged from. Hip hop heads will be particularly interested in the segments on the album’s individual tracks which feature commentary from not only Nas, but Illmatic producers DJ Premier, Q-Tip, and Pete Rock.

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Time Is Illmatic is an engaging, though sometimes dark look into the development of Illmatic, one of hip hop’s most treasured artifacts making it a must-see for hip hop heads, music fans, and those generally interested in the individual and collective creation of meaningful art.

Reviewed by Langston Collin Wilkins

View review February 3rd, 2015

James Fortune & Fiya – Live Through It


Title: Live Through It

Artist: James Fortune & Fiya

Label: Fiya World Entertainment

Formats: 2-CD set, MP3

Release date: February 25, 2014


Live Through It!, the first live album by James Fortune, was recorded in the sacred space of Word of Faith Church in Atlanta and features such well known songsters as Israel Houghton, Alexis Spight, Hezekiah Walker, Isaac Carree, Kirk Franklin, Tasha Cobbs, Zacardi Cortez, and Da’ T.R.U.T.H.  As one might guess,  such collaboration gives this gospel music production a mien of “contingential religious ministry” and serves to boost the message of the  album while showcasing the exceptional musical talents of the invited guest artists.

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Fortune explains the essence of this message in the title track: “In this life, you will have trouble. You can’t avoid it. You can’t get around it. But you can live through it.” He offers this intimately spiritual advice in the Intro of the first disc:  “Within the climate of difficulty, and the culture of fear, there is a light that shines upon us, a fortune of love that reminds us, ‘We can do it.’”

This leads directly into the energetic “Built For This,” in which Fortune vehemently gives the message, “I’m built to conquer”—a reference to the stability that attaches to the Christian faith. The next track, “Best Praise,” is a dance inciting piece fueled by a hot and vivacious drum accompaniment. Similarly, “All for Me” has been described as gospel techno, given its repetitive drum propelled rhythm and its projection of what Derrick May calls “technological spirituality.” The following track, “Forever,” is an intense meditation on the passion of Jesus coupled with the consequent eruption in ecstatic praise and thanksgiving, while the  upbeat “The Way You See Me” focuses on “seeing what you (i.e. God) see in me,” as Fortune puts it.  The rhythmically gentler but energy exuding “We Give You Glory” and its “Reprise” set a worship mood that continues in the closing song “Let Your Power Fall.”

The second disc opens with “Do a Work,” a prayer aggressively put forward to God “to fix my life,” followed by the urgent counsel to “Live Through It”: to embrace and conquer life problems by the grace of God. Of course, one way of conquering is to “Just Smile” (track 3), “even if you’re sinking.” This gentle “smiling” flow leads to the impassioned and musical motion-filled plea to “Empty Me,” a necessary step to total self-dedication to God. Next is the prayerful request to the Divine Spirit of Light, “Light the Way,” which comes in two moments (Tracks 5 and 6). The gentle but trustful song “Never Forsake Me,” with its seemingly enigmatic intro, leads into the swinging track “Miracles.” A highlight of this disc is the fiery “Praise Break,” celebrating God’s miracle with a spicy and hot musical movement. Needless to say, one is left in no doubt that this is the time to “dance to the breaking point.” The theme of miracles continues as the CD concludes with the life testimony of Bishop John Francis, meant to incite listeners to greater and more convinced praise of God.

Live Through It is couched in contemporary gospel production that will certainly appeal to young people. To quote Steve Leggett (, “James Fortune’s strength is in understanding how to put gospel and praise songs over to a young 21st century audience, and with his featured choir, FIYA (which stands for Free in Yahweh’s Abundance), he freely incorporates hip-hop arrangements and urban beats into his recordings.”

Reviewed by Jude Orakwe

View review February 3rd, 2015

J. Moss – Grown Folks Gospel


Title: Grown Folks Gospel

Artist: J. Moss

Label: PMG Gospel

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: November 25, 2014


Grown Folks Gospel, by mega selling gospel artist J. Moss, marks the first release by PAJAM’s newly formed gospel music label founded by Paul Allen, Walter Kearney and J. Moss. Indeed as Paul Allen observes, “[the] initial response to Grown Folks Gospel confirms [the] belief that people really do want true feel good music.”

It is important to state that Grown Folks Gospel is a musical attempt to come to grips “with a world in which there are more questions than answers,” and this becomes clear as one listens to the various numbers with their variety of sounds and matching “ethos.” The first four tracks—“Your Work,” “You Make Me Feel” (featuring Faith Evans), “Pour Into Me,” and “Nothing” (featuring P.J. Morton)—have an obvious R&B feel and are apparently intimate dialogues between the creature and the Creator, although the side of the creature preponderates. In these tracks characterized by laid back rhythms and deep background bass, the artist contemplates being used by God as an instrument to display his glorious work. He feels God’s loving touch and cries out for more: “Pour Into Me,” more so as he realizes his nothingness.

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The album acquires an uncanny esoteric quality in “It Is What It Is,” which fits the air of wonder reflected in the lyrics in which the artist ponders the depth of God’s love and care. This contemplation bursts into the ecstatic joyful and jazzy movement “Hanging On,” featuring Wayman Tisdale. The joy also finds expression in the self-assuring dance beat of “Alright OK,” where “everything is alright, everything is ok” for the believer. However, the pondering air returns in “Beyond My Reach” with Fred Hammond in the lead, ‘crying-ly’ going over all the internal and external difficulties of the spiritual journey and calling out to be sustained by God. This prayer evokes memory of the famous American responsorial ‘Shepherd me O God beyond my wants, beyond my needs, from death into life.’ The earnest and desperate plea for help overflows into the next number that can be described as an adoration track as can be garnered from the title “Fall At Your Feet.” “Everyday,” featuring the contemporary gospel trio 21:03, bubbles with a swaggering confidence and is another meditation on God’s incomprehensible and unmerited love. Such love only calls for strong attitude of belief in God which is the focus of the closing song “Faith,” with Moss declaring he has no need of material things, only faith.

It is instructive to remember that for J. Moss, the album “is the undeniable oil from my refining moments,” a reference to life difficulties the artist passed through in recent times. He therefore wants the trials he went through to become a source of encouragement for others passing through painful moments. The artist’s prayer wish runs thus: “may this album speak to you and be a blessing to you as the undeniable oil is produced in your life through your refining moments.”

Reviewed by Jude Orakwe

View review February 3rd, 2015

Harlem Street Singer: The Reverend Gary Davis Story


Title: Harlem Street Singer: The Reverend Gary Davis Story

Directors: Trevor Laurence & Simeon Hutner

Label: Acoustic Traditions Films

Format: DVD (NTSC, 77 min.)

Release date: December 2014


Racking up a string of awards from film festivals over the last two years, the Reverend Gary Davis documentary, Harlem Street Singer, is now available on DVD. Born in the Piedmont region of South Carolina in 1896, Davis was a tremendously influential blues and gospel singer and guitarist whose finger picking style has been studied by countless musicians over the decades. After becoming an ordained Baptist minister in 1937, the secular Piedmont blues Davis had passed on to his many disciples took a backseat to inspirational gospel music, cultivating disciples of an entirely different sort.

Of course Davis is better known as an icon of the 1960s folk revival, so the documentary appropriately begins with historical footage of festival performances where he captivates audiences with songs such as “Cocaine Blues” and “Candyman,” both of which have been covered extensively over the years by a wide range of artists. Interviews with and performances by many of Davis’s former students and followers make up the bulk of the film, which features Bob Weir (Grateful Dead), Jorma Kaukonen (Jefferson Airplane), Len Chandler, Barry Kornfeld, Mitch Greenhill, David Bromberg, Stefan Grossman, John Cohen, Happy Traum, Woody Mann, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, John Hammond, Roy Book Binder, Peter Yarrow (Peter, Paul and Mary), and Bill Sims, Jr. Along the way they impart many details about Davis’ playing and teaching techniques.

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Interspersed throughout the film are historical images and footage that chronicle the tremendous obstacles Davis encountered as a blind, black musician living in poverty in the rural South who made his first instruments from tin pie plates. The narrator then traces Davis’ path from his early days busking at tobacco warehouses and “spreading a joyous message” at storefront churches, to his discovery and subsequent move to New York where he begins to record and perform before much larger audiences. Though the film moves back and forth between the historical narrative and the present, it’s exceptionally well edited and always maintains a good flow.

Even if you were lucky enough to attend a screening of the documentary, you’ll still be interested in obtaining a copy of the DVD, which includes over 2½ hours of bonus material including rare, previously unreleased footage of concert performances, as well as additional performances and interviews by the above named disciples and others, such as Wavy Gravy and John Cephas. Another bonus feature is the audio recordings of Woody Mann’s guitar lessons with Davis.

Harlem Street Singer is a loving tribute to Rev. Gary Davis from his students and fellow musicians, who come together to commemorate and celebrate “the beauty and spirituality of his music as well as the human qualities that made Reverend Davis a much beloved teacher and minister.”

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review February 3rd, 2015

Papa Charlie Done Sung That Song: Celebrating The Music of “Papa” Charlie Jackson


Title: Papa Charlie Done Sung That Song: Celebrating the Music of “Papa” Charlie Jackson

Artist: Various

Label: Document Records

Record No.: DOCD 7010

Format: 2-CD, MP3

Release date: December 8, 2014

If you have ever wondered about when and where the blues began, this new CD might give you a better idea.  Papa Charlie Done Sung That Song is a great collection of one of the first major stars in the genre of blues.

PapaBefore delving into the CD, please allow a little bit of history on Papa Charlie Jackson.  He was born William Henry Jackson in 1885 in New Orleans.  One fact that people may not know is that the banjo is considered to be an African derived instrument, adapted by African Americans in the South and further “Americanized” in the 1800s by folk musicians who added the fifth string.  Jackson, who originally performed in minstrel and medicine shows, played a number of instruments including banjo, guitar, and the ukulele. He was also one of the first musicians during that time to have a double career in jazz and blues.  In the mid-1920s he moved to Chicago where he began “busking” at the famous Maxwell Street Market.  In 1924, he started his recording career as “Charlie Jackson” on the Paramount label and had released over 70 sides by 1936.  His career did suffer during the onset of the Great Depression, and he died in Chicago in 1938.

This two CD set, accompanied by a 16 page booklet that has a great biography of Papa Charlie by Jas Obrecht, is a wonderful tribute to one of the pioneers of the blues. The project is the brainchild of Cary Moskovitz. Moskovitz is joined by Jen Maurer, Adam Tanner, Dom Flemons, and Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton to perform new interpretations of 15 songs by Papa Charlie–accompanied with various combinations of six-string and tenor banjo, piano, guitar, bass, fiddle, and other instruments.

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The second CD presents Papa Charlie Jackson’s original recordings of the same 15 songs, expertly remastered.  The contrast between the two CDs is nothing but outstanding.  To be able to hear the love and the care that contemporary musicians give to the songs is almost like being back in the 1920s, while the remastered versions of Papa Charlie’s recordings are so clear you might think he is still playing his songs on a streetcorner somewhere.

One unique aspect of this compilation is that it allows you to hear the new versions and then go back and listen to the original recordings of Papa Charlie.  Cary and his fellow musicians really kept the true feeling of the songs, in some cases even playing period instruments.  Yes, it was a better recording then the original.  But, if you let yourself go and try and put yourself in the time of the recording you can actually feel like you are in the 1920s.

Take, for example, the first song that Papa Charlie recorded in 1924, “Papa’s Lawdy, Lawdy Blues.” If you first listen to the new arrangement and then listen to Papa Charlie, you will really get a different perspective on the song.  The new version of course is fresh and you can hear an excitement in the way that the musicians perform the song.  On Papa’s version, the remastering is fantastic and you will hear nuances that you might not have heard in earlier Paramount transfers.  The clarity is outstanding!

If you ever feel nostalgic for some good old blues, take some time and listen to Papa Charlie Done Sung That Song and you’ll likely agree that this is a great collection.

Reviewed by Patrick Byrket

View review February 3rd, 2015

The One-Derful! Collection: Mar-V-Lus Records


Title: The One-Derful! Collection: Mar-V-Lus Records

Artist: Various

Label: Secret Stash

Formats: CD, 2-LP set + bonus 45

Release date: February 3, 2015


In December we revealed the first release in Secret Stash’s new series devoted to the One-Derful! family of labels owned by Chicago brothers George and Ernie Leaner. The second release is devoted to Mar-V-Lus, the teen-oriented imprint spun off in 1963 after the Leaner’s had settled into Record Row on South Michigan Avenue near the better known headquarters of Chess Records. This time around the story is told by Chicago soul music expert Robert Pruter, who penned the extensive liner notes, along with an introduction and sidebars by Jake Austen (editor of Roctober).

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Though Mar-V-Lus may have been marketed to teens, much of the music was about as far from bubble gum pop as one could get in the early 1960s. George Leaner had created a niche for One-Derful! by producing hard-soul “as vibrant and rowdy as the urban ghetto streets of Chicago from which it sprang.” To launch Mar-V-Lus, he chose Johnny Sayles, whose three songs on the compilation—the explosive “Don’t Turn Your Back on Me,” the flip side “You Told a Lie,” and the laid back, gritty, blues number “Whole Lot of Lovin’”( previously unreleased)—“constitute the most uncompromisingly raw soul treatments ever performed on record in the 1960s, the hardest of the hard soul.”

Andre Williams, brought in as the main producer in the early days of the label, wrote and produced Alvin Cash’s hit song “Twine Time” (track 7), picking up on a new dance craze he discovered in Bronzeville. Williams left for Chess soon thereafter, and in later years reinvented himself as an eccentric “genre-defying elder statesman of underground R&B.” Cash went on the record “some of the craziest dance records in R&B history” such as “Philly Freeze” (track 20) and the previously unreleased “Sweatin’” (more of his songs will appear on the Toddlin’ Town installment of this series).

Several female artists are also featured on the compilation. Evanston native Josephine Taylor, who was discovered by One-Derful! producer Jimmy Jones at a local talent show, is one of the shining stars on this disc. You can hear a trio of her steamy, unreleased songs—“For You My Love,” “Your Love Picks Me Up,” and “I Want a Man”—as well as her final 1967 release for the label, “Ordinary Guy,” written and produced by Jones. The Du-Ettes, a classic girl group featuring Georgia-born cousins Barbara Livsey and Mary Hayes, were discovered by Andre Williams at a South Side club. Their compelling 1964 recording of “I’m Gonna Love You,” with the two singers trading leads, is accompanied by three unissued sides: the rocking “Stop, Call the Cop” and “Hello Tommy,” and the soulful “If You Need Me” with a “shouting gospel style” call and response (the Du-Ettes liner notes were contributed by Bill Dahl).

In an appeal to the youth market, a number of local teenagers were groomed by the label’s producers, variously comprising the groups Baby Miracles (featured on the unreleased “I Feel Good All Over”) and the Young Folk (“Joey”). Madeline Strickland, affiliated with both groups, was spun off as the solo artist ‘Miss Madeline’ on one single included here: “Behave Yourself” and “Lonely Girl.”

Two other vocal groups must also receive mention. Modeled after the Temptations right down to their chosen name, the short lived Ulti-Mations have sparked new interest in recent years, with their singles coveted by soul collectors. Their unreleased Four Tops cover, “Sad Souvenirs” and the reissue of “Would I Do It Over” showcase the range of lead singer Vaughn Clemens.  The Blenders, a pioneering doo-wop group with a female backing trio, had achieved some commercial success on other labels before moving to Mar-V-Lus. Their extremely rare sides on this set, “Love Is a Good Thing Goin’” and “Your Love Has Got Me Down,” were cut just as the group was disbanding and feature uptempo soul performed by a male quartet with a sole female vocalist (Gail Mapp).

Rounding out the disc are three tracks distributed by the label but recorded by artists not signed to Mar-V-Lus: Chicago’s Cicero Blake (“You’re Gonna Be Sorry”), and New York soul singers Vicky Clay (“Oh It’s All Right”) and Joseph Moore (“I Still Can’t Get You”).

These twenty-five tracks, including many previously unreleased rarities recently unearthed in the Leaner family vaults, present a wonderful microcosm of Chicago R&B in the mid-1960s. Not as slick as Motown, not as tight as Stax—just raw, unadulterated, homegrown Chi-town soul.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review February 3rd, 2015

The Shirelles – Happy and in Love/The Shirelles

Title: Happy and in Love/The Shirelles

Artist: The Shirelles

Label: Real Gone Music

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: July 29, 2014



Formed in 1957 at Passaic High School in Passaic, New Jersey, the Shirelles released their first album, The Shirelles Sing to Trumpets and Strings, on Scepter Records in 1961. After their 1967 Sceptor release, Spontaneous Combustion, they moved on to RCA Records where they released two albums—Happy and in Love  and The Shirelles—between 1971-1972. Real Gone Music has now reissued both of these albums plus three bonus tracks released as singles by RCA. The music on these albums, while maintaining some of R&B/doo-wop mix the Shirelles were known for earlier in their career, explores more contemporary sounds. In fact, The Shirelles showcases a few covers including a Marvin Gaye medley consisting of three songs from Marvin Gaye’s 1971 release What’s Going On and a cover of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” While these albums do not represent the most successful part of the Shirelles’ career, this collection would be perfect for listeners who are Shirelles fans and would like to add to their collection.

Reviewed by Christina Harrison

View review February 3rd, 2015

Complete SAR Recordings of the Valentinos and Soul Stirrers


Title: Joy In My Soul: The Complete SAR Recordings

Artist: The Soul Stirrers

Label: ABKCO Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: January 27, 2015




Title: Lookin’ For A Love: The Complete SAR Recordings

Artist: The Valentinos

Label: ABKCO Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: January 27, 2015


Following ABKCO’s highly acclaimed release of The Complete SAR Recordings by L.C. Cooke last year, they’re now offering two additional albums compiled from the SAR Records vault: Joy In My Soul: The Complete SAR Recordings by The Soul Stirrers and Lookin’ For A Love: The Complete SAR Recordings by The Valentinos.

The Soul Stirrers were founded in 1926 by Roy Crain and became one of the “preeminent gospel vocal acts in the U.S.” As group members shifted, Sam Cooke joined The Soul Stirrers in 1951 as an unknown artist. He remained a member of the Soul Stirrers until he entered the pop world in 1957 as a solo artist, when he was replaced by Johnnie Taylor. But when The Soul Stirrers were found with no label in 1959, Cooke and Crain created SAR Records and signed them.

Joy In My Soul: The Complete SAR Recordings includes two discs full of everything The Soul Stirrers recorded from September 1959 to July 1964, including a few previously unreleased tracks, such as “Since Jesus Came Into My Heart” and “All Over This World.” The album also includes “Times Bring About a Change,” which is featured in the Oscar-nominated film Selma.

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The Soul Stirrers influenced many gospel groups, including Cleveland’s The Womack Brothers. After they released two gospel singles on SAR, Sam Cooke suggested they include secular music in their repertoire. This transformed the band, who then changed their name to The Valentinos.  Lookin’ For a Love: The Complete SAR Recordings consists of all the recordings made by The Valentinos between June 1961 and September 1964. It has seven previously unreleased tracks, including “Don’t Go Away” and “To Show My Love.”

Both of these albums are an important part of Sam Cooke’s legacy not only as a musician but as a visionary, and show his vast influence on gospel, soul, and pop music.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review February 3rd, 2015

Ranee Lee – What’s Going On

Ranee Lee

Title: What’s Going On

Artist: Ranee Lee

Label: Justin Time

Formats: CD,

Release date: September 9, 2014


Brooklyn-born Ranee Lee, now based in Montreal, has become a celebrated jazz vocalist in her adopted country, receiving a Juno Award for her 2010 album Ranee Lee Lives Upstairs. Her latest release, What’s Going On, takes its title from Marvin Gaye’s masterpiece, which is the opening track on the album, reinterpreted in the jazz idiom.  What makes this project unique, however, is the inclusion of the Birds On A Wire String Quartet, featured on four of the tracks arranged by Andy Ballantyne, including “What’s Going On” and a rendition of Bob Marley’s iconic “One Love.” One of the most interesting tracks is “White Gardenia,” with lyrics by Roger Peace, author of the forthcoming play of the same title about Billie Holiday, which will feature Lee in the starring role. Birds On A Wire cellist Kathleen de Caen is also featured prominently on this bittersweet track, along with guitarist Richard Ring.

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The best use of the quartet is on the closing track, Leon Russell’s “A Song For You.” Opening with a virtuosic violin solo, Lee’s soulful voice then enters over lush strings and piano, before the tempo picks up and Ring takes over with a rousing rock guitar interlude.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review February 3rd, 2015

Shuggie Otis – Live In Williamsburg


Title: Live In Williamsburg

Artist: Shuggie Otis

Label: Cleopatra

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: October 14, 2014


Shuggie Otis, the son of well-known R&B bandleader Johnny Otis, was himself a child prodigy who released his debut album in 1969 at the age of 16.  Otis was (and is) a masterful guitarist and all-around multi-talented arranger, producer, composer, instrumentalist, and vocalist.  He was also something of a musical enigma and artistic auteur, an early adopter of drum machines and samplers, and possessor of a deeply personal musical vision.  Otis often played most of the instruments on his recordings himself, in the manner of other musical polymaths such as Stevie Wonder and, somewhat later, Prince, and his meticulously crafted mid-1970s albums gained him the respect of musicians ranging from Frank Zappa (Otis was the bassist on the original “Peaches En Regalia” from Hot Rats), The Brothers Johnson (who scored a big hit with their highly-funkified 1977 cover of Otis’ “Strawberry Letter 23”), members of the Rolling Stones, Stereolab, to, ultimately, David Byrne.  Byrne’s label Luaka Bop reissued what is generally regarded as Otis’ greatest album, 1974’s Inspiration Information, as part of its World Psychedelic Classics series in 2001, and this re-release cemented Otis’ reputation among crate-diggers, samplers, and other hipster-types looking for accessible music somewhat off the beaten path.  OutKast and Beyoncé, among many others, have incorporated samples from Otis’ work in their recordings, but Otis himself has thus far never released anything even approaching Inspiration’s trippy, soulful heights.

Live In Williamsburg draws seven of its 12 cuts from Otis’ two best recordings, Freedom Flight (1971) and the aforementioned Inspiration.  Otis leads a competent if not particularly exciting band, with brother Nick contributing solid drums and son Eric on rhythm guitar, with a keyboardist and slightly dicey three-piece horn section doing their best to recreate the layers of studio complexity found on the original discs.  Needless to say, these performances don’t supplant the originals, nor, to be fair, should they be expected to.  But Shuggie’s in reasonably good voice, and he tosses off some tasty guitar leads, especially on the more straightforward, bluesy numbers such as “Me And My Woman,” “Wings of Love,” “Shuggie’s Boogie,” and “Sweetest Thang.”  These are all stretched out north of seven minutes in length, giving Otis ample opportunity to display his impressive electric blues guitar style. This may not be the best place to start investigating the Shuggie Otis legacy, but it’s a fine chance to hear his live sound, and gratifying to see his name back on the music scene today.

Reviewed by Terry Simpkins

View review February 3rd, 2015

January Releases of Note

Following are additional albums released during January 2015—some will be reviewed in future issues of Black Grooves.

Blues, Folk, Country
Billy Soul Bonds: Cat Daddy (Waldoxy)
J.B. Hutto: Chicago Slide the Final Shows 1982 (Rockbeat )
Val Vivacious Mcknight & Powerhouse Band: Red Hot Lover (VVM)

Funk, Rock, Pop
Prince: In His Own Words (DVD) (I.V. Media)

Gospel, Gospel Rap, CCM
Armar’Rae Hill & TF: We Are Royalty (Dream Gospel)
Brian Courtney Wilson: Worth Fighting For (Motown Gospel)
Brittney Wright: Fight 4 U (Writerzblok Music Group)
Christina Bell: Up (Me Too Music)
Consolers: The Conslers Collection, 1952-62 (Acobat)
Darrell McFadden: We Are DMD (DMD Music Group)
Jason Nelson: Jesus Revealed (RCA Inspiration)
Lynda Randle: Ageless Hymns – Songs of Peace (Gaither)
Sister Grace: Day By Day – Spiritual & Gospel Songs (Loreley)
Various: Divine Voices: Pastors of Praise  (Rendezvous)

Allan Harris: Black Bar Jukebox (Love Productions)
Clark Terry: Keep on Keepin’ On (DVD) (Anchor Bay)
Clifford Brown: 13 Classic Albums (box set) (Enlightenment)
David Helbock Trio: Aural Colors (Traumton)
Donald Byrd: Live at the Jazz Workshop – Boston Sept. 4, 1973 (Echoes)
Duane Eubanks Quintet: Things of That Particular Nature (Sunnyside)
Horace Silver: 12 Classic Albums, 1953-1962 (Enlightenment)
J. Henry: Phenomenon (Spectra Music Group)
Jeremy Pelt: Tales, Musings and other Reveries (Highnote)
Justin Kauflin: Dedication (Quest)
Leron Thomas: Take It… (On-Point)
Marion Meadows: Soul Traveler ( Shanachie)
Mel Holder: Back To Basics Music Book Vol. 2 (Psalmist Music Group)
Red Garland Trio: Swingin on the Korner (Elemental Music)
Sonny Rollins: The prestige Years (box set) (Enlightenment)
Streetwize: Does the Divas (Shanachie)
Theo Hill: Live at Smalls (SmallsLIVE)

R&B, Soul
Chrisette Michele: Lyricists Opus EP (Rich Hipster)
Al Hudson & the Soul Partners: Atco Years (Atco)
Bettye Lavette: Worthy (Cherry Red)
Billy Ocean: Billy Ocean (Expanded) (Funky Town Grooves)
Carol Riddick: Love Phases (digital) (Criddicknotes)
Charlie Wilson: Forever Charlie (RCA)
Chic: Live at the Budokan (DVD) (Charly)
Coasters: Original LP Collection (Jasmine)
Fifth Harmony: Reflection (Epic)
Jackie Moore: Complete Atlantic Recordings (Real Gone)
Jazmine Sullivan: Reality Show (RCA)
Jesse James: I Lost My Baby on Facebook (Gunsmoke)
Joe Simon: The Chokin’ Kind Soundstage 7 Collection (Airline)
Johnny Mathis: Best Days of My Life (Expanded Ed.) (Funky Town Grooves)
Ledisi: Intimate Truth (Verve)
Lightnin’ Slim: I’m a Rollin’ Stone: Louisiana Swamp Blues (Jasmine)
Little Milton: Chicago Blues and Soul – His Early Years (Jasmine)
Ne-Yo: Non-Fiction (Motown/Compound Ent.)
Phil Perry: Better Man (Shanachie)
Sammy Turner: Always (reissue) (Jasmine)
Supreme Jubilees: It’ll All Be Over (Light in the Attic)
Universal Togetherness Band (Numero)
Various: Where Southern Soul Began, Vol. 2 (History of Soul)
Various: History of Rhythm & Blues 1957-62 (Rhythm & Blues)
Various: Soul Music Hits the Charts (History of Soul)
Various: Witchcraft in the Air: Detroit Soul 1957-1962 (History of Soul)
Wynd Chymes: Pretty Girls Everywhere (Expanded) (Funky Town Grooves)

Rap, Hip Hop
Ampichino: Eulogy (Double F)
Azealia Banks: Broke With Expensive Taste (Prospect Park)
Clay James: Kickin Pimpin (mixtape) (FKI)
Derek Minor: Empire (eOne)
DMX: Redemption of the Beast (3-CD limited ed.)(Ingrooves)
Doomtree: All Hands (Doomtree)
Joe Ness: Ellipsis (Spectra)
Joey Badass: B4.Da.$$ (Cinematic Music/Pro Era)
Kenn Starr: Square One (Mello Music Group)
Kidd Called Quest & King Righteous: Young Black and Restless (New Era Boom Batt)
Lupe Fiasco:  Tetsuo & Youth (1st & 15th/Atlantic)
Rae Sremmurd:  Sremmlife (Interscope)
Ray Res: Heart of the City (digital) (Ineffable)
Sadat X: Never Left (Loyalty Digital Corp.)
Trinidad James: The Wake Up (mixtape)

Reggae, Dancehall, Calypso
Inturns: Consider Yourself (Pressure Sounds)
Marlon Asher: Illusions (Clear Port)
New Kingston: Kingston City (Easy Star)
Stand High Patrol: A Matter of Scale (Stand High)

Spoken Word, Comedy
Michael Colyar: Michael Colyar’s Back (New Wave Dynamics)
Redd Foxx: You Gotta Wash Your Ass (Real Gone)

World, Latin
AfroRockerz:  AfroRockerz (Buda Musique)
Africa Express: Terry Riley’s In C Mali (Transgressive)
Barbarito Diez: Estos Son Los Cantantes (Yoyo Music)
Dobet Gnahoré: Na Dré (Contrejour)
El Travieso: Sin Limite (Tumi Records)
Fela Kuti: Finding Fela: Music is the Weapon (DVD) (Kino Lorber)
Stanislas Tohon: Dans le Tchink Système (Hot Casa)
Various: Jukebox Mambo Vol. 2: Afro-Latin Accents in R&B 1947-61 (Jazzman)
Various: Zomba Prison Project: I Have No Everything Here (Six Degrees)
Various: Brazilian Boogie Connection: From Rio To Sao Paulo (Cultures of Soul)
Xiomara Laugart: Tears and Rumba (Chesky)

View review February 3rd, 2015

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