This month we’re featuring albums with a local connection: Mind Your Headby the Bloomington-born funk band The Main Squeeze; Life in the City by Indianapolis-based reggae artist Kingly T; The Lonely Roller by Steven A. Clark (released on Bloomington’s Secretly Canadian label); and the self-titled debut album by Son Little (who will be performing in Bloomington on Nov. 6).
We’re featuring three anniversary albums in this month’s jazz releases: Silver, the 25th anniversary of the “groove jazz” band Fourplay;Vicennial: 20 Years of the Hot 8 Brass Band; and 10, celebrating ten years of activity by the Gabriel Alegría Afro-Peruvian Sextet. Also included is Reincarnation by Sonny Simmons, a new release drawn from a 1991 live set recorded in Olympia, Washington.
Son Little comes to his first full-length album on Anti- with an already impressive resume. The Los Angeles native who has worked in New York City and Philadelphia has already produced an EP for Mavis Staples, toured with Mumford and Sons, played Bonnaroo, and collaborated with the likes of The Roots and RJD2. Son Little is as eclectic as the artist’s curriculum vitae would suggest, drawing from the broad repertoire of American popular and folk music in order to create a truly original collection of songs.
The album borrows heavily from what may be broadly (very broadly) considered Americana music, with “The River” calling a gospel shout to mind, while the album’s opener “I’m Gone” sounds like a bluegrass vocal group on top of a minimalist marimba piece, with punctuation by Jimmy Page-style reverse-echo guitar cutting in periodically, which would be the perfect dramatic effect for a self-aware horror flick. “Carbon” has verses that sound like a gritty Jack White blues stomp (complete with Octavia layered guitars) with an acoustically-driven chorus that could have come from a Wilco album. These stylistic mish-mashes should sound bizarre; however, Little incorporates his variety of influences into an amazingly coherent package–even though the album relies on contrasting musical materials, it is the way that Little treats these elements that makes the album sound cohesive rather than simply evoking a cut-and-paste collage.
The album’s lead single, “Lay Down,” takes its model from 50s vocal pop, with reverb-saturated group vocals, minimalist drums, an old old school rotary organ, and magnificently twangy electric guitar. This song is remarkable for taking these classic sounds and presenting them in ways that neither feel dated nor forced. The work that Little does with vintage styles is not nostalgic, but is rather aggressively post-modern–drum machines, synthesized bloops and bleeps and pitch shifting permeate this LP and Little’s most interesting cuts depend upon the cognitive dissonance that listeners may experience when hearing them.
The themes on Son Little are as personal as the means by which the artist conveys them. “Lay Down” is probably most intimate song of the year, is possibly the best love song of 2015, and should be at the top of every wedding DJ’s playlist. “O Mother” is a painful meditation on feeling out of place in a world that demands that people compromise their individuality, and “Loser Blues” takes the traditional AAB blues form and fills it with contemporary anxiety: “There’s so much blues, so little time/and I’m losing mine/This is not a game.” These lyrics are delivered with heartfelt sincerity–it would be tempting to call Son Little a thinking person’s Bruno Mars or a roots-rock Frank Ocean, but neither of these labels would do the originality and fire of Little’s delivery justice.
Local readers will be pleased to know that, as part of the album’s promotional tour, Son Little will be appearing at The Bishop in Bloomington, IN on Friday, November 6–this show will be well worth attending if for no other reason than to see how Little’s eclectic aesthetic transfers to a live setting. Son Little is a tremendous effort from an artist who pushes the limits of each of the many genres he touches on this diverse LP.
Since its formation in Bloomington, IN in 2010, The Main Squeeze has been rapidly ascending in the music business. I remember attending one of their hometown shows upon my arrival in Bloomington during 2012 and being immediately impressed by the band’s musical versatility. They have since relocated to Chicago and maintain an active touring schedule, frequenting their old hometown haunt, The Bluebird nightclub, at least a few times each year. While the Squeeze has maintained their energetic performance style, they have created a slick package with aspirations to the upper echelon of pop market. On their second full-length release Mind Your Head, which credits Randy Jackson as executive producer, the band appears to have arrived.
The first single from the record, “Angelus,” features a guitar groove and singable chorus that could be from Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall, with full-band hits that would make James Brown jealous and fascinating rolls from drummer Ruben Gingrich that go on for a little bit too long–in the good way. The Squeeze can rock, too, with guitarist Max Newman’s monster riffs and the phased vocal processing on Corey Frye’s soulful vocals in “All In” calling early Black Sabbath to mind. The highlight of this album is certainly “Message to the Lonely,” a track expressing solidarity with anyone who has ever felt out of place, on top of a funky gospel groove and a chorus that demands to be shouted by a large, enthusiastic, and somewhat inebriated crowd at a frat party, club gig, or arena show. This mainstream pop-friendly tune has something for the critical ear too, featuring clever chord substitutions by bassist Jeremiah Hunt that will encourage rhythm sections everywhere to review their menu of harmonic choices on any given chord.
It is possible to hear myriad musical allusions on this record, betraying the Squeeze’s origins as a bar band in a college town. Stevie Wonder’s influence is all over “Space Age Celebration,” Hunt’s choices on “Love Yourself Somebody” call Donald “Duck” Dunn’s bass playing in the Stax house band to mind and “Two Steps” sounds like a Sly and the Family Stone song with a guitar solo from Eddie Van Halen. What remains consistent is the band’s feel-good potential, pulling the best elements from the standard repertoire of party band covers in order to craft a compelling original sound. They keep their feel-good approach consistent, with lyrics about universal themes such as relationships, dealing with frustration, and partying, while still nodding to their rock star aspirations (or realizations of these aspirations) on tracks like “#WWC,” a dirty funk number on which Frye quips that in his failed quest to find a fulfilling relationship, “The only thing I have to blame is whiskey, women, and cocaine.”
Despite moving away from some of the more jam-oriented progressive funk on their self-titled 2012 album in favor of a more radio-friendly sound, the band still squeezes out enough musical detail for the critical ear. Bloomington’s all-time scrappiest bar band has crafted an impressive release, one both musically aware enough to have serious heads continually wondering where that trick came from, but which also has enough pop sensibility to make the catchiest choruses from Mind Your Head staples which future party groups might need to include in their cover sets. The real question for the band is this: can the current pop music scene handle music that is as diverse, smart, and musically aware as that which is found on this album? Most of the best modern funk-soul bands, such as Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings and Soulive, thrive on the second tier of the music biz, but it sounds like The Main Squeeze is aiming for the next level.
The Hot 8 Brass Band celebrates its 20 year anniversary with a new album titled Vicennial—20 Years of the Hot 8 Brass Band. This proves to be no ordinary feat for the group in the context of their “Hot 8 curse”; the band has lost four key musicians to violence and illness, trumpet player Terell “Burger” Batiste lost his legs in a tragic car accident, and various members were displaced throughout the country after Hurricane Katrina. While their tragedies may invite sympathy, New Orleans culture celebrates perseverance in the face of hardship. Feel good music is a key ingredient in coping and is precisely what Hot 8 brings to the table on their latest offering.
Vicennial contains 11 tracks, 7 of which are re-workings from previous Hot 8 albums such as Rock With the Hot 8, The Life and Times of…, and Tombstone. The new interpretations bring fresh perspective and a new sense of direction. Hot 8 showcases its skillful funk brass band chops over fifty-four minutes with rambunctious horn lines, fantastic sousaphone rips, and gripping group vocals. The group hits the listener hard with the opener “What’s my Name (Rock with the Hot 8),” a clear homage to slain snare drummer Dinerral Shavers who originally wrote and arranged the piece. Hot 8 maintains its intensity on another highlight, the new rendition of “Take it to the House,” featuring powerful cries and emotionally charged horn lines in homage to trumpeter Jacob Johnson, who was murdered in Hot 8’s first year as an ensemble.
Their rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” gives us a taste of Hot 8’s versatility. This tune has been a signature of the group, pushing it to standard repertoire for the brass band community. The Hot 8 put the vocals front and center like Marvin Gaye’s original, but what makes it unique is the difference in rhythm. Hot 8 brings something fresh and authentic, it grooves and makes you dance. A new addition to the Hot 8 arsenal is the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” As with “Sexual Healing,” the vocals are the focal point; however, where one person can do justice for Gaye, it is much harder for one person to tackle all five parts of the Temptations. The arrangement could have been better had the horns played the vocal parts, only because Hot 8 has the expertise to execute it successfully. But the horns still steal the show with Shamarr Allen’s trumpet solo on the track in which he incorporates funk, soul, blues, and bebop phrases together successfully with good taste. In “Just My Imagination” (the other Temptations tune on the album), the melody is carried effortlessly by trombonist Tyrus Chapman. Chapman is accompanied by lush chords from the rest of the horns and fantastic rhythm section work that gives the tune a new feel, one that hints of the notorious New Orleans bounce style.
Vicennial also shows the listener a gentle and elegant side of the Hot 8 through “Royal Garden Blues,” which displays reverence to the trad-jazz style of New Orleans brass bands. It is done with style and restraint, though it seems somewhat out of place from the rest of the album. “We Shall Walk Through the Streets of the City” is a standout, showcasing an approach lighter than the group’s usual bombast, with great gospel vocals by Betty Ann Williams and complimentary solos by band members, none trying to outshine the other.
The Hot 8 Brass Band proves to us why it has been successful over the course of a 20 year career with a wide range of styles and genres, each firmly tucked up their sleeves. This latest release shows a wonderful level of reverence, respect, and homage to those who helped the group get to where they are today, and make no mistake, The Hot 8 Brass Band is celebrating with ‘feel good’ music.
Jazz aficionados may know Sonny Simmons as a minor personality who briefly recorded with luminaries such as Eric Dolphy and Elvin Jones. They may also be aware of his musical partner and wife, Barbara Donald, who appeared on several of Simmons’s recordings as a leader during the 1960s and 1970s. It is less likely that they are familiar with the duo’s son, Zarak Simmons, who appeared on Sonny’s 1994 disc Ancient Ritual as well as a few other recordings. The new Arhoolie records release, Reincarnation, captures a rare set in which husband, wife, and son performed in the same combo, recorded live during a 1991 set at Barb’s BBQ in Olympia Washington.
Those familiar with the work of the elder Simmons and Donald may be surprised at how inside this set is, compared to the duo’s more avant-garde releases from decades past. The original compositions on Reincarnation have audibly conventional changes, and the album includes two fairly straightforward renditions of songbook ballads, “Body and Soul,” and “Over the Rainbow,” neither of which, it may be argued, set any new standard for interpreting the tunes. However, those looking for the playful experimentation that characterizes much of the duo’s older work will not be disappointed–Sonny plays the same long, angular alto solos that made him famous (“American Jungle Theme”), while simultaneously weaving large intervallic jumps and squeaks in with flurries of bop lines make the changes in swinging fashion (“Body and Soul”). Donald is the far more conservative player of the two, answering Sonny’s squeals and screams with motivic development that could have been pulled from Kind of Blue (“Ancient Ritual”), and playing it straight and lyrical on her feature tune “Over the Rainbow.”
Zarak’s playing is energetic, although usually busier than the moment calls for–he finds the hits on time on “Ancient Ritual,” and supports the chaotic energy of “American Jungle Theme,” but adds additional punctuation where it isn’t required on the more inside numbers, breaking the solid bop of “Reincarnation” a bit too often and dramatically overplaying on the standards. The remainder of the rhythm section is solid, with another minor personality, Travis Shook, providing confident, if a bit too low in the mix during solos, piano, and a fairly obscure bassist, Court Crawford, rounding out the rhythm section as a solid rhythmic-harmonic anchor.
Reincarnation showcases the versatility of the pair credited in the title, providing contrast between Simmons’s energetic avant-garde playing and Donald’s more conservative approach to improvisation. They are accompanied by a competent band, even if the stylistic inflections of particular tunes tend to get lost in the somewhat uncoordinated rhythm section’s accompaniment.
This month’s reissue of the psychedelic rock band Love’s final album marks the first time that Reel-to-Real has appeared on CD. The repackaging of the group’s least well-received album by both fans and critics of its day includes plenty of additional materials which serve to contextualize the album in terms of both the reception that it received upon its original release as well as how it has held up much better to the passing of time. Included in the bonus goodies that High Moon Records has included in this package are a 32-page CD booklet with an extensive essay written by Rolling Stone critic David Fricke and many interesting photos of leader Arthur Lee and his bandmates. This release also features 12 bonus tracks that did not appear on the original album, including outtakes, alternate takes, and rehearsal versions of songs from the album.
The first thing that those who are familiar with Love’s earlier work, particularly the band’s most widely acclaimed release, Forever Changes, will notice about Reel-to-Reel is the band’s movement away from the psychedelia that characterized its signature sound in the mid-1960s. Originally released in 1974, Reel-to-Real pulls more heavily from soul and early funk music than it does from the psychedelic sounds of the San Francisco scene of the 60s. “Time is Like a River” could easily have been taken from a Family Stone Release from a few years earlier, reminiscent of cuts like “Everyday People,” with its mellowed-out vocals serving as a contrast to the funky horn section that permeates the track. “Stop the Music,” by contrast, could easily be an Otis Redding song, with its 6/8 soul groove and John Sterling’s slide guitar, feeling like a marriage between Memphis and Muscle Shoals. Another highlight of the beautifully-remastered original album is “Be Thankful for What You Got,” a track that feels like a slinky Superfly-era Curtis Mayfield cut. This album boldly redefined Love’s sound, placing the group in the company of the funkiest groups of the day, and thereby alienating fans of the band’s acoustic-oriented psychedelia.
Some of the most striking cuts featured on this new release are arguably to be found in the album’s bonus tracks. “Do It Yourself” is gritty soul, with fiery guitar punctuation throughout the laser-precise horn hits that are all over the track. “Graveyard Hop” sounds like a bizarro Elvis record (the song is based on “Jailhouse Rock”), with guitar played by a psycho Scotty Moore–it is truly unmatched in the proto-punk energy and gallows humor and featuring Lee howling like the Wolfman himself. The electric version of “Everybody’s Gotta Live” (a version with group vocals and acoustic guitar is a highlight of the original release) is particularly interesting, as the band finds a more funky and polytextural groove than the chunking guitar chords and homophonic choral singing of the acoustic version from the original release of Reel-to-Real may otherwise suggest. A track that demonstrates how far ahead of its time this band was is the studio rehearsal track “Wonder People,” which would not sound out of place on a Weezer album from the late 1990s–it is truly a shame that this song was never cleaned up and turned into an “official” album cut.
The deluxe edition of this album will have appeal to more listeners than just those who dig less well-known music because of its obscurity. Rather, in many ways this album documents a band in a state of flux, staying ahead of the pop music game–perhaps too far ahead for its own good. It is a shame that Reel-to-Real wasn’t more appreciated by the listening public upon its original release. Hopefully this reissue will serve to rectify that.
As a native of the Pacific Northwest, I was pleased to recently discover acoustic roots musician Ethan Tucker, whose music encompasses folk, rock, reggae and blues. Over the last few years, this young singer-songwriter and guitarist from Olympia, Washington has been making a name for himself as a soloist while also touring with such legendary musicians as Jimmy Cliff, the Wailers, and Buddy Guy. He also frequently performs with Michael Franti, Slightly Stoopid, and G-Love, who all provide support on Tucker’s latest release, Misunderstood. The album was produced and mixed by Mario Caldato Jr. (G Love), includes tracks produced by Michael Franti, and was released on Slightly Stoopid’s label.
Opening on a light note, “Cool Kids” is a reggae-pop song co-written with Michael Franti, who performs percussion and back-up vocals along with Spearhead members Carl Young and J. Bowman on keys, and David Ralicke on horns. Franti also co-wrote and performs on the album’s first single, “Crazy Tonight”—a more introspective, acoustic alt-rock song featuring Tucker and Franti on vocals.
Continuing in the same style and theme, “Crazy” is a perfect fit for Tucker’s raspy vocals, while the introduction of an organ provides added depth and variety.
Though Tucker was born well after the peak of grunge music, his darkly brooding rock song “Never Be” calls forth the era with dueling, distorted guitars and serves as a fitting tribute to his Seattle-area roots. The angst continues on “Tease Me,” another alt-rock relationship song that’s one of the stand out tracks. Tucker switches to a reggae vibe with an underlying bossa rhythm for the title track “Misunderstood.” One of the most personal songs on the album, “Misunderstood” references his experiences with relationships as well as people’s expectations and desire to pigeonhole his music into a specific genre. Tucker then segues into “This Has All Been a Dream,” a heartfelt ballad with an ethereal cello accompaniment. The album closes with a cover of the Jimi Hendrix ballad, “Little Wing,” which is reimagined in a reggae version featuring Norwood Fisher (Fishbone) on bass and Thomas Pridgeon (Mars Volta) on drums.
On Misunderstood, Ethan Tucker showcases the full range of his musical abilities, presenting original and engaging youth-oriented songs that draw from multiple genres, proving that he is a young artist to watch.
Steven A. Clark is quick to narrate the central character of his newest album; that is: The Lonely Roller. On the record’s first song, Clark introduces us to The Lonely Roller through a story: the young character is in a frustrated relationship and takes a weekend trip to Las Vegas to clear his head. When he arrives, The Lonely Roller meets a potential lover who could be a pleasure-filled escape and, hell, even a little fun. The song’s chorus is a conversation as the potential lover sings, “You know I want you,” while the Lonely Roller responds, “But, I can’t be falling in love.”
This tension—between a one-time love affair and the obligations of a committed relationship—is present throughout Steven A. Clark’s release. On “Not You,” Clark sings that he wants love, but just not with his current partner. “Can’t Have,” the album’s single, laments the premature ending of a relationship and wonders what could have been. He sings, “If this was a perfect world, I would not have been distracted by them other girls, it would have been you and me.” The Lonely Roller needs love’s excitement, but lacks the maturity to handle its banal realities.
Tension, too, is present in the musical production of Clark’s release. With competing synthesizers, calculated drum machines, and danceable R&B bass-lines, Clark’s songs reach for masterful heights, yet often fall short of his intentions. “Floral Print” features a continual, ominous vamp, but as the song’s accompanying vocals crescendo in dramatic fashion, the music does little to contribute to Clark’s desired aesthetic.
But there are glimpses of greatness on Clark’s release. The first four songs on the record are nuanced and catchy, yet never saccharine—all ingredients for timeless pop music. The centerpiece of the album is Clark’s voice—a gifted falsetto that offers beautifully-understated harmonies and consistent lyricism. The resulting aesthetics remind us that, despite his penchant for a good time, The Lonely Roller is just a sensitive guy looking for love.
At the 2011 Chicago Blues Festival, Shemekia Copeland was crowned “Queen of the Blues.” A title held by the deceased Koko Taylor, the award solidified Copeland’s place at the top of the blues hierarchy. Yet, anyone who follows the genre will know that Copeland is no newcomer to the music—the vocalist was literally born into the genre.
The daughter of blues guitarist and singer, Johnny Copeland, Shemekia began her professional career at the age of sixteen, dazzling audiences with her commanding voice. At 19, she released the first of her six albums on Alligator Records. Most recently, Copeland was inducted into the New York Blues Hall of Fame. The singer has been, and continues to be, a blues insider.
Copeland’s confident new album, Outskirts of Love, offers what a blues listener might expect from an insider. It speaks of isolated places, one-time encounters with love, and hard-knock tales: all familiar territory in this genre. The album includes a song by the legendary Albert King, a cover of ZZ Top’s “Jesus Just Left Chicago,” and guest appearances by blues mainstays Alvin Youngblood Hart, Robert Randolph, and Billy F. Gibbons. The instrumentation is guitar-heavy, and the 12-bar blues form weaves quietly and explicitly through the albums twelve songs. Yet, Outskirts of Love shines where Copeland begins to push the traditional boundaries of the genre.
“Devil’s Hand” melds African rhythmic sensibilities with the talented guitar work of Will Kimbrough and Oliver Wood, creating a sound reminiscent of Ali Farka Touré and Ry Cooder. Copeland’s powerful voice never lets us forget that this is the blues, just more cosmopolitan in its aesthetics. “Long as I Can See the Light” reminds us that R&B has its roots in Copeland’s genre of choice, while showing her voice to be just as capable when it assumes a slower pace. A third of the album was written by Copeland’s long-term manager and the executive producer of Outskirts of Love, John Hahn. The aforementioned Oliver Wood produced the album, showing that he is as comfortable behind the mixing board as he is with a guitar in his hands.
In sum, Outskirts of Love is a reminder why Shemekia Copeland is the “Queen of the Blues”: her powerful voice, strong musical partners, and creative license with the genre reaffirm her reign.
Mississippi-born musician Zac Harmon is a triple threat whose versatility as a singer-songwriter, guitarist and organist is on full display in his latest release Right Man, Right Now. A blend of traditional and original songs penned primarily by Harmon, the album features eleven supremely funky tracks that draw from blues, R&B and rock. This complexity is accomplished through a large compliment of assisting musicians. In addition to Harmon and his band (Buthel on bass guitar, Cedric Goodman on drums, and Cory Lacy on keyboards), he’s added a dozen top studio musicians including Jimmy Z on harp and sax, BR Millon and Gregg Wright on guitar, and the late James “Hot Dog” Lewis on keyboards. And that’s not all. Lucky Peterson joins Harmon on three outstanding tracks: the opening party song “Raising Hell,” the emotionally charged slow burner “Stand Your Ground” (“You shoot me down with no reason / just to stand your ground”), and “Hump in Your Back,” which also features a kicking horn section and an extensive guitar solo by Bobby Rush. Here’s the first single from the album, “Long Live the Blues”:
In addition to five dueling guitarists and top notch backing musicians who really dig deep into the groove, Right Man, Right Now is also made exceptional by Harmon’s vocals. Not only can he sing the blues, but he can croon with the power and conviction of Marvin Gaye, and get down and dirty in the lower register. This album is highly recommended for fans of contemporary blues.
Not many musicians make their solo debuts at the age of 71, but Jerry Lawson is no ordinary artist. The former lead singer of the legendary vocal harmony group The Persuasions, Lawson has been performing for over 40 years and recorded 22 albums with the group. But singing a cappella all of those years left Lawson with a burning desire to perform and record with lush instrumentations, and to choose his own songs “with lyrics that really matter to me.” His wish has been realized with Just a Mortal Man, the title likely a comment on his near death experience prior to the album’s completion. Working closely with singer-songwriter Eric Brace, who produced the album, they assembled some of Nashville’s finest musicians including Brace on acoustic and baritone guitar, Joe Pisapia on electric guitar and pedal steel, Jen Gunderman on keyboards and accordion, Duane Blevins on drums and percussion, and the McCrary Sisters on backing vocals.
Lawson opens with Paul Simon’s ethereal “Peace Like a River,” closely following the original arrangement until the chorus, which becomes the deeply personal spoken proclamation, “You can beat us with wires, You can beat us with chains / You can run out your rules, But you know you can’t dream the history train.” Two of the tracks were selected as tributes to Lawson’s favorite singers: the Temptations’ David Ruffin and the late blues singer Bobby “Blue” Bland. Lawson retains the ‘70s vibe and orchestration on the title track “I’m Just a Mortal Man” (from Ruffin’s 1973 solo album), while Bland’s “Members Only,” about “a party for the broken hearted,” is a bit smoother around the edges with the McCrary Sisters taking over the chorus.
Other album highlights include the country song “Woman in White” written by Lawson and Robert Hunter (Grateful Dead), Eric Brace’s “In the Dark,” and my favorite track—“Down on My Knees” by the artist Ayọ (2006), which retains the original reggae rhythms but in Lawson’s hands becomes an emotional, deeply soulful song with the pleading chorus, “Down on my knees, I’m begging you / Please, please don’t leave me.”
Featuring a mix of classic and contemporary songs, Just a Mortal Man has broad appeal, effortlessly crossing genres but with a definite Nashville sound. The album is a fine showcase for Lawson’s vocal abilities, which after 40 years are still above and beyond the range of most mortal men.
Brooklyn-born Nicole Willis returns with her Finnish backing band on their third album, Happiness in Every Style. A retro-soul act in the style of Charles Bradley and Sharon Jones, Nicole Willis & The Soul Investigators offer eleven original tracks that harken back to the ‘60s and ‘70s, complete with three guitarists, a large horn section, and Hammond B3.
Opening with “One in a Million,” Willis picks on the album’s theme of love and happiness, this time in a more contemporary style:
In “Let’s Communicate,” the band settles into a funkier groove with a chucking bass line, fuzzy guitars, and punching horn sections. Switching gears, the slow groove on “Angel” is pure ‘60s pop with a psychedelic vibe. Two instrumentals add variety to the mix—the funky “Bad Viberations” and “Vulture’s Prayer”—both featuring extensive flute solos by Jimi Tenor. Other highlights include the more lighthearted “Paint Me in a Corner” and the moody, atmospheric “Thief in the Night.” The album closes with the bonus track “Hot Sauce” (previously released as a 12” single), a double entendre about slow cookin’ with lots of “hot sauce, baby!”
Happiness in Every Style makes a solid contribution to the retro-soul movement, offering tight instrumentals and solid groove underlying Nicole Willis’ smoky vocals.
Distinguished gospel scholar and producer Anthony Heilbut has been responsible for many historical compilations, and this time around he’s managed to unearth 13 previously unreleased tracks recorded by Marion Williams (1927-1994)—one of the greatest gospel singers of all time. Packin’ Up: The Best of Marion Williams combines these unissued gems with 13 additional tracks. The selections were recorded over a 35-year period, beginning with Williams leading the Famous Ward Singers in definitive performances of “Sweet Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Packin’ Up” at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival (previously unreleased versions), and concluding with a haunting 1993 recording of the socially conscious “I’m a Stranger,” about “homeless, hungry people out on the street.”
The album opens with another previously unreleased 1993 track, “Press on Like the Bible Said,” a gospel blues shouter featuring Herbert Pickard on organ, Eddie Brown on piano, and Jonathan Dubose on guitar. Other highlights include the gospel blues rendition of “Nobody Knows, Nobody Cares,” her signature version of “Didn’t It Rain,” and her hair-raising performance of “When Death Shall Determine My Stay Here” (backed by James Perry on organ), where “she was clearly struck to the depth of her sanctified soul” (Heilbut).
Those unfamiliar with Marion Williams will likely be astonished not only by her vocal prowess, four octave range, and powerful delivery—but also by the wide range of her sound, from traditional gospel to songs that incorporate blues, jazz, folk and rock ‘n’ roll. This compilation would be ideal for classroom use, illustrating the links between gospel and secular music genres, as well as Williams’ influence on artists ranging from Little Richard and James Brown to Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, and the Beatles. Packin’ Up is accompanied by a booklet with extensive liner notes by Heilbut and illustrated with archival images from his personal collection.
The album 10 commemorates the ten years of activity by the Gabriel Alegría Afro-Peruvian Sextet, probably the most renowned Afro-Peruvian jazz ensemble of the moment. Alternatively based in Peru and New York, this band features the internationally awarded Peruvian Latin-Jazz musicians Gabriel Alegría, Hugo Alcázar, Yuri Juárez, Laura Andrea Leguía and Freddy “Huevito” Lobatón, as well as international performers John Benitez and Shirazette Tinnin. This album, the fifth in the sextet’s trajectory, also features first-class Afro Peruvian and Latin Jazz invited musicians.
One feature that deserves to be highlighted about the sextet’s work in 10 is the deep “popular” character of its sound. The blend between Afro-Peruvian music and contemporary North American jazz reaches a new level of maturity in this album. In the fantastic previous work of Alegria’s sextet in the albums Nuevo Mundo (2008), Pucusana (2010), Afro-Peruvian Jazz Secrets (2012), and Ciudad de Los Reyes (2013), two musical streams can be clearly perceived: very traditional sounding Afro-Peruvian beats on one hand, and the very characteristic virtuosic—I would even say “academic”—sound of contemporary North American jazz on the other. This blend takes a significant step further in 10, an album on which the two streams are more difficult to take apart, as its sound is very global in terms of the musical elements of mainstream jazz it uses, but at the same time sounds profoundly Afro-Peruvian.
The ten songs included on 10 are Afro-Peruvian jazz versions of a blend of songs that include popular jazz compositions, Peruvian traditional tunes and even two national anthems. In my opinion, the creative job that the sextet did with these pieces is fantastic. In the adaptation of these pieces to their Afro-Peruvian jazz versions, Alegría and his crew re-engineered them in such a manner that, while maintaining the reference to their originals, they constitute significantly different compositions. Particularly interesting is re-conceptualization of Peruvian songs such as “Taita Huaranguito,” “El Condor Pasa” or “Contigo Perú.” The creative work of Alegria’s sextet on these very popular songs, often considered as over-exposed by Peruvian audiences, insufflates them with new life and fully exploits the creative possibilities that these pieces offer.
One of the most interesting surprises of this album is the participation of not only world-renowned musicians from the jazz and Latin jazz scene such as Ron Carter or Arturo O’Farril, but also of Peruvian enshrined Criollo and Afro-Peruvian musicians such as the legendary composer and musician José “Pepe” Villalobos, guitarist Gustavo Urbina, and singers Rosa Guzmán and Félix Valdelomar. While, as a Peruvian music aficionado, I missed a more extended participation of these Peruvian musicians in the album, their contribution in “a,” “b” and “c” through choirs, “guapeos” (vocal interjections), and guitar accompaniment are remarkable and significantly enrich the songs. These perfectly complement the traditional musical baggage that members of the sextet—such as Afro-Peruvian master musicians Yuri Juárez and Freddy Lobatón—already carry.
In sum, 10 is not only remarkable as an album, but also as an example of how to conduct a respectful fusion project that incorporates not only traditional sounds but traditional performers as well. This album represents a significant step in the sextet’s already remarkable trajectory and keeps the expectations high for the band’s future releases.
With aggressive pounding drums and fuzzy guitar lines, the first track on Terakaft’sAlone, “Anabayou (Awkward)” completely blew away my expectation of the band’s “desert rock.” The group’s fifth album Alone presents a new side of Terakaft, bringing more uplifting and danceable music than its previous album Kel Tamasheq, which was released after the political and religious struggle in Mali in 2012.
The incursion of Islamic fundamentalists into their home region, northern Mali in 2012 cast a shadow over the members of Terakaft. “Perhaps there’s a harder edge in the music because of what happened in Mali in 2012, but it’s an unconscious thing. Our goal with this was to make the songs very danceable,” says the guitarist and singer Sanou Ag Ahmed. Now that the Islamists have gone, the message Terakaft presents on this new album is that there is vital and energetic space for music in the desert.
“Calling for unity” is a theme of the album, which is apparent in the lyrics “stop telling stories and lies” from “Karambani (Nastiness).” The album includes not only new songs but also older numbers, such as “Amidinin Senta Aneflas (My confidant),” which certainly have timeless messages for the transnational as well as Tuareg audience. As on the band’s former albums, traditional percussive rhythms and hand clapping underlie most of the nine tracks on Alone. Layered guitar lines and various sound effects add additional flavor to the music and feel as though they circulate around listeners’ bodies.
After several lineup changes in the recent years, Terakaft is currently a 4 piece band. Guitarist and vocalist Liya Ag Ablil (aka Diara) and guitarist Sanou have been joined by Nicolas Grupp (drums) and Andrew Sudhibhasilp (bass), both of whom are French jazz musicians. Here’s a glimpse of the recording process and an interview with producer Justin Adams:
The album ends with a different version of the opening track “Anabayou”; the contrast between the opening danceable version and the latter more modest version without the group’s signature percussion indicates the difference of styles as the group’s members go back and forth in their life between sound in the desert and sound on the global stage.
A former graphic designer turned full-time musician, Kuku is adept at bridging borders and boundaries. Born in the U.S. but raised in Lagos, Nigeria, Kuku returned to the land of his birth for college and a stint in the Army, then relocated to Paris where he has developed a loyal following in Europe. However, it is his African roots and Yoruba heritage that come to the forefront on his sixth release, Ballads & Blasphemy. The title references Kuku’s transition from a “believer” to a man who cites ethics, rather than religion, as his moral compass. Each of the 11 tracks express rationales for his “areligious existence,” and are subtitled with his own gospel truths. Alternating between English, Yoruba, and French, the songs are performed by Kuku on vocals, acoustic guitar and udu. Backing is provided by an ensemble of acoustic and electric guitars, double and electric bass, and percussion (cajon, congas, drums).
Opening with “Wáya,” a traditional Yoruba-styled song about finding a wife and parental pressures on marriage, Kuku is joined by legendary Nigerian drummer Tony Allen. Allen returns on “Owó,” another song in Yoruba cautioning that the gospel of money has become the God of man. On “Evil Doers” (the gospel of divine negligence), Kuku questions those who preach love and peace yet kill in the name of religion. This theme continues in “Open Your Eyes While You Pray,” warning against false prophets who will “Take you for a ride while you sing Hallelujah.”
For the track “La Dernière Fois,” Kuku took his inspiration from the Spiritual “This May Be the Last Time,” arranging a version that encompasses his three homelands as he sings the verses in French, English and Yoruba with an African choir accompanying him on the chorus. On the video, dances enact “the incessant acts of violence that plagues humanity as well as mankind’s resilience despite the odds.”
Other songs in English include “Is It All a Game?” (the gospel of divine machination) which asks “why does evil reign–who’s to blame?” and the closing track “If There is a Heaven,” with Kuku singing “If there is a heaven how come no one wants to die / Man will stop at nothing for a shot at paradise.”
A deeply personal album, Ballads & Blasphemy takes us on a journey that questions religious dogma in the music and languages of three continents. Alternatively, Kuku seeks to establish “music, love, peace and happiness” as his “creed while on this earth.”
Before getting to the substance of this review, it is important to note that most musicians who would fall into the category into which Fourplay’s music may be placed tend to dislike the labels “contemporary jazz” and “smooth jazz.” This has been declared by many musicians, including Jeff Kashiwa, saxophonist for The Rippingtons. In turn, some have attempted to create their own more idiosyncratic labels for the genre, with many settling on the term “groove jazz” as appropriate nomenclature. Taking their lead, I will use the term “groove jazz” throughout this review.
If you are a fan of today’s groove jazz, and you have never heard of Fourplay, you are missing out on one of the subgenre’s best groups. Fourplay was founded in 1990 by Bob James (who is perhaps best known for “Angela,” the theme to the television show Taxi, or as being one of the jazz musicians who is most frequently sampled by hip hop artists). James rekindled his association with drummer Harvey Mason, an in-demand “hired gun” studio musician who had played with some big stars, including Herbie Hancock and Barbra Streisand. James and Mason rounded out the quartet by adding guitarist Lee Ritenour and Nathan East on bass.
After recording three albums, Ritenour left the group in order to pursue other projects, being replaced by Larry Carlton, of Steely Dan fame. Carlton stayed with Fourplay for 12 years, before rekindling his solo career in 2010. When he left,the band hired the virtuoso guitarist Chuck Loeb, whose outstanding resume includes playing with prolific multi-instrumentalist Brian Culbertson and jazz-fusion band Steps Ahead.
As an entity, Fourplay has existed for twenty-five years. To celebrate this milestone, the band released Silver, a nod to their silver anniversary as a group. I have been a fan of Fourplay from the start and I can easily say this album is the best they have yet released. A special treat for longtime followers like myself are Ritenour and Carlton’s guest appearances.
Silver is an emotional ride, with each tune (with the exception of one) featuring a name that references the titular precious metal. The opening cut, “Quicksilver,” sets the tone for the album. With East’s signature bass lines, Loeb’s distinct guitar sound and sinuous playing, and James’s steady piano comping, Silver is off and running. It is difficult not to smile and move to this infectious groove.
The third track, “Sterling,” begins with haunting bass and muted guitar which then warms as keys and drums enter and the tune continues. The combination of James’s piano and Loeb’s guitar on top of the rhythmic foundation that East and Mason lay down will make listeners want to sit in front of a warm fire on a winter night with their special someone. “A Silver Lining” conjures a smoky jazz club, with East alternating between an acoustic bass and his Yamaha electric ,while Loeb and James are fully unplugged. The cut may evoke a simpler time for listeners through its subdued aesthetic. Following is “Silverado,” penned by Loeb and Carlton, which serves as a reminder of Fourplay’s enduring versatility. It picks up the pace after the previous track’s muted tone, and features masterful orchestration among the band-plus-one. “Silverado” also spotlights the skillful interplay between Loeb and Carlton’s guitars, giving the duo a chance to showcase their formidable chops.
The last song on this album is “Windmill.” Composed by Harvey Mason and Lee Ritenour, this is an ideal choice for the album’s finale. It is slow and melodic, but still grooves, encapsulating the signature silky-smooth elements of the group’s sound over the past two and a half decades.
Ritenour and Carlton’s guest appearances suggest that the band will welcome its distinguished alumni any time they wish to sit in, showcasing the enduring personal and musical relationships among this tight-knit group of musicians.
Most people listen to groove jazz simply for unobtrusive background noise. Silver, however, transcends background music, with each song engaging listeners from start to finish. If you are new to the subgenre, it would be wise to start your collection with this ten song album from one of the best groove bands still working today.
Happy 25th Anniversary, Fourplay. Here’s to another quarter century!
Reggae singer and guitarist Kingly T has been active in the genre for decades now, and the veteran’s newest record sees him creating a more obviously transnational project than his previous efforts. Having relocated from his home in Kingston to Indianapolis, IN, Kingly T’s band features himself and Anthony “Screw” Hunter, both Jamaican transplants, as well as bassist Dave Grove and keyboardist and Jennifer Grove, who are both Indiana natives. While the music pulls primarily from Kingly T’s own interpretation of reggae, the two Hoosiers both perform the genre with confidence and competence. A couple of the songs on this record, “Baby I Want You” and “Eastward Bound,” are older numbers that T has retooled for this release, while the rest of the album contains new compositions. T’s songs are often on the subject of interpersonal relationships, but dig into reggae’s socially conscious roots on tracks like “Teach Them,” the Afrocentric “Eastward Bound,” and the album’s title track.
The band lays into solid grooves throughout the course of Life in the City, animated by T’s guitar playing, with a jazz-inflected approach to reggae that falls somewhere between George Benson (most clearly heard on “Baby I Want You”) and Peter Tosh, whose influence permeates the rhythm guitar parts throughout the course of this record. It would be interesting to hear what this band is capable of in a less constrained context than a studio record—the teaser guitar and horn solos (played by Ryan Marsh on saxophone and Drew Darby on trombone) that permeate this disc leave the listener hungry for more extended versions of these songs.
Following are additional albums released during October 2015—some will be reviewed in future issues of Black Grooves.
Blues, Folk, Country Eugene Hideaway Bridges: Hold on a Little Bit Longer (Armadillo Music)
Ironing Board Sam: Super Spirit (Big Legal Mess)
Joe Louis Walker: Everybody Wants A Piece (Provogue)
Sam Butler: Raise Your Hands! (Severn)
Taj Mahal & the Hula Blues Band: Live From Kauai (Kuleana Music)
T-Bone Walker: Texas Guitar From Dallas to L.A. (remastered ed.) (Friday Music)
Classical/Broadway David Chesky: Rap Symphony (Chesky)
Various: Hamilton Original Broadway Cast Recording (Atlantic)
Willard White: Willard White in Concert (Musical Concepts)
Funk, Rock, Pop, Electronic Denai Moore: Elsewhere (Because Music/WMI)
4th Coming: Strange Things, Complete Works 1970-1974 (Now-Again)
Alesha Dixon: Do It For Love (Precious Stone)
Blue Daisy (Kwesi Darko): Darker Than Blue (R&S)
Doug Hream Blunt: My Name Is Doug Hream Blunt (Luaka Bop)
Escort: Animal Nature (Escort)
Jimi Hendrix: Electric Church (DVD) (Legacy)
Judith Hill: Back in Time (NPG)
Lenny Kravitz: Just Let Go Live (DVD) (Eagle Rock)
Seinabo Sey: Pretend (Virgin)
Gospel, Gospel Rap, Sacred Ambassador: When Scared Meets Secular (Next Music LLC)
James Hall Worship & Praise: WAP New Era (eOne)
Janice Gaines: Greatest Life Ever (Motown Gospel)
Jonathan Butler: Free (Rendezvous)
Patrick Riddick & D’vyne Worship: Ready (PMG)
Travis Greene: The Hill (RCA Inspiration)
Tru-Serva: Eyes Open (Psalms Group)
Williams Brothers: Gospel Praise (Orchard)
Williams Brothers, Lee Williams & the Spiritual QCs: My Brother’s Keeper III (Orchard)
Holiday Al Green: Feels Like Christmas (Fat Possum)
Earth, Wind & Fire: Classic Christmas Album (Legacy)
India.Arie & Joe Sample: Christmas With Friends (Motown)
Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis: Big Band Holidays (Blue Engine)
KC & The Sunshine Band: A Sunshine Christmas (BFD)
Kim Waters: My Gift to You (Red River Ent.)
Mint Condition: The Healing Season (Mint Condition Music)
Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings: It’s A Holiday Soul Party (Daptone)
Sons of Serendip: Christmas Beyond The Lights (NIA)
Soulful Strings: The Magic of Christmas (Real Gone)
Jazz Billy Cobham: Live Electric Ballroom in Dallas Texas 1975 (United States Dist.)
Chucho Valdés: Tribute to Irakere (Live in Marciac) (Jazz Village)
Cilantro Boombox: A Live, Sweaty Session (Good Music Club)
Erik Friedlander: OSCALYPSO (Tribute to Oscar Pettiford) (Skipstone)
Sun Ra and His Arkestra: To Those of Earth…And Other Worlds (Strut)
Houston Person: Something Personal (HighNote)
Johnny Hammond: Gears (expanded ed.) (BGP)
Kenny Burrell: The Road to Love (HighNote)
Leon Thomas: Full Circle (remasted ed.) (BGP)
Lionel Loueke: GAÏA (Blue Note)
Matthew Shipp Trio: The Conduct of Jazz (Thirsty Ear)
Nicole Mitchell, Tomeka Reid & Mike Reed: Artifacts (482 Music)
Sopko, Laswell, Pridgen: s/t (self-released)
Sullivan Fortner: Aria (Impulse)
R&B, Soul Damita Jo: Love Laid It’s Hand on Me 1952-1962 (Jasmine)
Edge of Daybreak: Eyes of Love (Numero)
Fats Domino: Thrillin In Philly! Live 1973 (Cleopatra)
Gene-O: Born to Love (Spectra Music Group)
Janel Jackson: Unbreakable (BMG)
Jay Dee: Come On In Love (expanded ed.) (Real Gone Music)
Lalah Hathaway: Live (eOne)
Monica: Code Red (RCA)
Narada Michael Walden: Evolution (Tarpan)
O’Jays: 50th Anniversary Concert (CD+DVD) (Wienerworld)
OMI: Me 4 U (Columbia)
Otis Redding: Soul Manifesto 1964-1970 (Box set) (Rhino)
Raury: All We Need (Columbia)
Tamar Braxton: Calling All Lovers (Epic)
The Jack Moves: s/t (Wax Poetics)
Various: Private Wax Vol. 2, Super Rare Boogie & Disco (BBE)
Willie Clayton: Heart & Soul (Endzone Ent.)
Rap, Hip Hop First Degree the D. E.: Black Bane, Misunderstood Hero (Part 1) (Fahrenheit)
First Division: Overworked & Underpaid (Slice of Spice)
PleaseThankYouKnow (Infinito:2017): Children Have Room To Grow ( Joe Left Hand)
Ray West & Kool Keith: A Couples of Slices (Red Apples 45)
B.B. & The Underground Kingz (B.B. King & UGK): The Trill is Gone (digital) (Soul Mates)
Bryson Tiller: Trap Soul (RCA)
Chedda Da Connect: Chedda World the Album (eOne)
Chuck Inglish: Everybody’s Big Brother (digital) (Sounds Like Fun)
Doc Illingsworth: Worth the Wait (LP) (Fat Beats)
Illa J: Illa J (Bastard Jazz)
J Dilla: Dillatronic (Vintage Vibes)
J. Stalin: Tears of Joy (Empire)
J-Diggs & Jacka: Mobb Nation (Romp’t Out)
Joe Budden: All Love Lost (eOne)
June Onna Beat: No Favors (Black Market)
Kirk Knight: Late Knight Special (Cinematic Music Group)
Knxwledge: Anthology (vinyl) (Leaving)
LE1F: Riot Boi (XL)
Lil C: H-Town Chronic 16 (Oarfin)
Little Simz: A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons (Age 101 Music)
M.I.C.: A.W.A.P. (All Work All Play) (Empire)
Marcellous Lovelace Presents American Poverty: Fray & Tay (Joe Left Hand)
Med, Blu, Madlib: Bad Neighbor (BangYaHead Ent.)
Mozzy: Yellow Tape Activities (Black Market)
Ohana Bam: Tree Up (digital)
Pharoah Davinci: The Art of Life (Black Market)
R.City: What Dreams Are Made Of (RCA)
Roots Manuva: Bleeds (Big Dada)
Semi Hendrix: Breakfast At Banksy’s (Mello Music)
Shakka: The Lost Boys EP (digital) (RME)
Styles P: A Wise Guy and A Wise Guy (Phantom Ent.)
T.I.: The Dime Trap (Columbia)
The Game: Documentary 2.5 (eOne)
The Other Guys: After the 9 to 5 (HipNott)
Various: New Sounds of Hip-Hop (Wagram)
Reggae, Dancehall Gussie Clarke: From the Foundation (2 CD/DVD) (VP)
Lee Perry: Mr. Perry I Presume (Pressure Sounds)
Macka B: Never Played a 45 (VP)
Soul Jazz Records presents 100% Dynamite! (expanded ed.) (Soul Jazz)
The Selecter: Subculture (Redeye)
Various: Trevor Jackson Presents Science Fiction Dancehall Classics (On-U Sound)
Various: Clarks in Jamaica (VP)
Spoken Word, Comedy D’Militant: Too Raw For Mainstream (Uproar)
Jessica Care Moore: Black Tea, The Legend of Jessi James (Javotti Media)
World, Latin Rim Kwaku Obeng: Too Tough/I’m Not Going to Let You Go (BBE)
Bixiga 70: III (Glitterbeat)
Dexter Story: Wondem (Soundway)
Dieuf-Dieul De Thies: Aw Sa Yone 2 (Teranga Beat)
DJ Khalab & Baba Sissoko: Khalab & Baba (Wonderwheel)
Eji Oyewole: Charity Begins at Home (LP reissue) (BBE)
Gangbé Brass Band: Go Slow to Lagos (Buda Musique)
Grupo Fantasma: Problemas (Blue Corn)
Holy Forest: s/t (Mighty Fine Music)
Kandia Kouyaté: Renascence (Sterns Africa)
Kranium: Rumors (Atlantic)
Lura: Herança (Lusafrica)
Rim Obeng Kwaku: Rim Arrives (BBE)
SK Kakraba: Songs of Paapieye (Awesome Tapes From Africa)
Various: The Brasileiro Treasure Box of Funk & Soul (Cultures of Soul)
Youssou N’Dour & Le Super Etoile de Dakar: Fatteliku: Live (Real World)