This month we’re featuring a Holiday Music Wrap Upwith an overview of releases from Etienne Charles, the Count Basie Orchestra, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Kenny Neal, The Soulful Strings, Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra, and Sons of Serendip.
Another December brings another batch of holiday releases from artists across a variety of genres. While there is typically much overlap between the repertoire, with myriad renditions of classics like “Jingle Bells” and the “Little Drummer Boy” being staples of the holiday season, this year’s crop features some compelling new arrangements of classics as well as more conventional approaches to standards. While these new releases are heavily weighted towards jazz, there are also some notable new offerings in soul and blues as well as a re-release of a holiday classic. Here are some of this year’s highlights.
Jazz trumpeter Etienne Charles has released a new disc of Christmas music so engaging that listeners may forget they are listening to a holiday album. Creole Christmas’s musical gumbo is flavored by a variety of sounds, leaning heavily on Caribbean and trad jazz.
Holiday albums tend to have a mixture of traditional perennial favorites mixed with original compositions by artists attempting to make a contribution to the seasonal repertoire. Charles models this approach, but also includes less well-known songs by composers other than himself or members of his band. The traditional Christmas tunes on this album indicate that Charles has no preconceived notions about what a “proper” rendition of a standard should sound like, as he freely mixes and matches songs and styles. A highlight is Charles’s duo version of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” with guitarist Randy Napoleon. Napoleon stylishly comps while Charles plays loosely around the melody with enough style and sincerity to convince any Grinch of the song’s value. The chart for “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” is what every member of every jazz combo taking a holiday gig this year actually wants to play: the song’s funk and bop tinged arrangement gives the excellent soloists in this band time to stretch out while the in-the-pocket rhythm section–featuring Kris Bowers (Piano), Alex Wintz (guitar), David Williams (bass), and Obed Calvaire (drums)–keeps the momentum going. Charles even successfully reimagines Tchaikovsky, including fresh renditions of the Russian Romantic composer’s “Spanish Dance” and “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” which transcend the monotony of the season’s obligatory Nutcracker performances.
There are numerous guest artists on this album as well, with songs featuring vocalists Realtor, David Rudder, and Mykal Kilgore as well as in-demand bassist Ben Williams playing on five cuts. Each of these guest’s contributions are remarkable–Rudder delivers the story song song “Tell Santa Claus” (about a lonely boy who wants an instrument to keep him company for Christmas) with pathos, providing a bittersweet contrast with the song’s upbeat Caribbean groove. Kilgore convincingly sings an understated version of the oft-recorded Donny Hathaway song “This Christmas” in dialogue with the excellent horn chart that sets Charles up for perhaps his most melodic improvisation on the album. On this track, the band gives what is perhaps the most soulful of all Christmas standards its due with exciting and unexpected full-band modulations during the repeated vamp.
The less well-known numbers are also compelling. Featuring Realtor on vocals, the steel pan-infused “Make a Friend for Christmas” presents a fun take on how to spend the holidays even if not flush with cash. There are other tracks that may be unfamiliar to American audiences, such as the Trinidadian “Indian Parang Chick” and a reading of “Juliana,” composed by Lionel Belasco.
Pairing dyed-in-the wool staples of Christmas radio repertoire with compelling readings of less familiar holiday fare, Etienne Charles and company have crafted what is likely the most stylistically diverse album of this holiday season. The band’s compelling arrangements and playing make the ebullient Creole Christmas the perfect way to get into the spirit. It would be wise to pick this one up early in the season, because nothing goes together quite as well as dancing and decorating.
This is the first full-length Christmas release from the Count Basie Orchestra in the band’s 80 year history, despite the fact that Basie-flavored big band jazz is a key part of Christmas music (as this “most wonderful time of the year” also is the only 45-60 days annually in which jazz is heard on commercial radio). Even though this is technically the band’s first holiday release as such, it should be noted that a previous incarnation of the ghost band appeared on a 2008 collaboration with Tony Bennett, A Swingin’ Christmas.
The interpretations featured on this release won’t be a surprise to either jazz fans or those familiar with the standard holiday repertoire, as the album features the usual musical suspects: “Jingle Bells,” “The Christmas Song,” and, of course, a version of “The Little Drummer Boy” that prominently features drummer Clayton Cameron. There are several guest vocalists, including Carmen Bradford, Ledisi, and even Mr. Christmas himself, Johnny Mathis.
As a good ghost band should, this group has perfected the Basie band’s signature sound under the leadership of trumpeter Scotty Barnhart. The band even enlisted go-to Basie arranger Sammy Nestico on what are arguably the two best renditions found on this disc, “Jingle Bells,” and “Winter Wonderland.” The rhythm section nails the classic sound, with guitarist Will Matthews convincingly playing the famous Freddie Green chunks while dual-pianists Llew Matthew’s minimalistic solos and Ellis Marsalis’s “plunk, plunk, plunks” round out the detailed study of Basie’s own playing. Naturally, the featured soloists stand in long shadows—while it is impossible to live up to the inimitable standards Basie’s most famous soloist, Lester Young, tenor man Doug Lawrence valiantly fills the chair, even if his sound is a bit more slickly-polished and bop-inflected than that of Prez.
While this release sets no new standards for performing holiday classics, the arrangements on A Very Swingin’ Basie Christmas feel and sound good enough for multiple listens. This toe-tapping record trades in what holiday albums often do: familiar-sounding arrangements of tunes we all know by heart.
The new holiday release from Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis is the center’s in-house record label Blue Engine’s first release on vinyl (which, by the way would make excellent stuffing for a very large stocking). Big Band Holidays is a great compliment to more traditional big band holiday albums, and features the world famous Lincoln Center gang serving up fresh renditions of standard seasonal favorites alongside some less well-known fare. Culled from recordings from over a decade of live performances from the band’s seasonal concerts, it is no wonder that this compelling set features some arrangements and performances that are gems.
Highlights include a hard-driving reading of “Jingle Bells,” led by Dan Nimmer’s formidable boogie-woogie piano chops, and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” a standard re-imagined with new lyrics sung by Cécile McLorin Salvant and a hard-swinging guitar solo by James Chirillo. Listeners may expect a bit more than what Marsalis and company deliver on the Louis Armstrong classic “Zat You, Santa Claus,” given the bandleader’s penchant for wailing on New Orleans-inspired tunes. However, this (slight) misstep is largely made up for by the band’s inclusion of less well-known fare such as “A Cradle in Bethlehem,” the Sammy Cahn-penned “It’s Easy to Blame the Weather,” and an easy-swinging rendition of the Basie classic “Good Morning Blues” (which, thankfully, Lincoln Center recorded, righting a woeful omission on this year’s holiday release by the Basie ghost band).
Check out the band playing “We Three Kings”:
Jazz musicians often use food metaphors to talk about music-making; on Big Band Holidays, Marsalis and company take the stale leftovers of the traditional holiday repertoire and cook up fresh new dishes seasoned by their reinterpretations. This artfully crafted dish makes the boring weeknight menu of holiday tunes more palatable to picky jazz audiences.
Longtime fans of Daptone records neo-classic soul sound will likely remember the release of Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings’ socially-conscious 2010 single “Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects,” a smart Christmas song that avoids the sweeping utopia-evoking platitudes that often spoil holiday songs with a message. Fans who copped the single have likely been waiting for a fully-fleshed out holiday release from one of the hardest-working soul bands in the business. Jones and company’s It’s a Holiday Soul Party is one of the season’s funkiest and freshest holiday albums, a long-awaited and eagerly anticipated release that does what the band does best—hearkens to the days of classic soul.
“Ain’t No Chimneys” is, of course, included on this release along with several other original holiday tunes—the album’s lead cut, “8 Days of Hanukkah,” is perhaps the funkiest song ever written about the celebration, complete with James Brown style additive hits as the song progresses through eight verses. “Big Bulbs” (previously released on a 7” single with “Just Another Christmas Song” in 2014) is a catchy exercise in winking soul minimalism with jingle bells, energetic rhythm guitar, David Guy’s soulful trumpet and Jones’s lyrics that are somehow simultaneously vivid and oblique, propelling the song’s forward momentum. Of course, no holiday release would be complete without the obligatory sentimental “peace on Earth” style ballad, and “World of Love” is the group’s contribution to this idiom.
As listeners may expect, the group also includes several numbers from the standard seasonal repertoire, with interesting renditions of classic fare—“Funky Little Drummer Boy” is aptly titled, and “Silver Bells” (a personal all-time favorite Christmas tune) merges a gospel intro with an Albert King on Stax feel throughout the rest of the song. “God Rest Ye Merry” showcases the Dap Kings’ humor and chops on the all-instrumental number that incorporates playful quotes from other sources, like “Hall of the Mountain King” and “Jingle Bells,” in a track that turns the carol into a vehicle for some delicious improvisation. It is a shame that this cut isn’t longer as the band could probably keep this groove perpetually interesting.
In a field that is always crowded with established artists seeking to make a few extra bucks, Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings have released one of the best and most original holiday albums in recent years, a carefully-crafted album that doesn’t feel like a cash grab. It’s a Holiday Soul Party is the LP that you should play (on 180 gram audiophile vinyl, of course) to bolster your street cred when your slightly-more fashionable/slightly-younger cousin visits this December. This release makes the holiday record hip again, and is perhaps the coolest holiday soul release since The Jackson 5 Christmas Album.
New Orleans blues guitarist, singer, and harmonica player Kenny Neal’s new holiday release, I’ll be Home for Christmas, is a family affair, appropriate given the album’s title and the season. This release features several members of the Neal clan, including brothers Darnell and Frederick on bass and keys as well as Kenny’s daughter Syreeta singing on several tracks. The band plays New Orleans-inflected blues comfortably, as though they’ve been doing it all their lives (which in all likelihood, they probably have).
The band’s modus operandi is “take a traditional Christmas song, make it bluesy, rinse and repeat.” The title ballad is reworked as a blues song, providing ample opportunity for Kenny’s harp playing to shine through, and the Christmas blues standards are included, including a rendition of Charles Brown’s “Please Come Home for Christmas” and two—count ‘em—two recordings of “Merry Christmas Baby,” one rollicking and upbeat, the other at a slow “Stormy Monday” tempo, both featuring Kenny’s guitar chops. The band even plays “Silent Night” as a shuffle and uses the “All Blues” bassline on “Silver Bells.” The album’s more traditional moments occur on songs that feature Syreeta and pianist Joel Joseph, as “Merry Little Christmas” and “O Come All Ye Faithful” are not nearly as overt products of the blues tradition as much of the rest of this material, other than including a few stylized vocal inflections and reharmonizations.
While this release won’t give listeners a reason to listen to especially carefully, the upbeat renditions of familiar songs balanced with nice ballads would certainly be a great soundtrack for finishing up that last minute shopping. These tunes are certainly played more competently and stylishly by this band than by the flavor-of-the-week pop stars who will inevitably push similarly familiar collections of songs this season.
In a year with other notable big band holiday releases, it is important to mention the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra’s Joyful Jazz. While this band doesn’t carry the same cultural cachet as the Count Basie or Lincoln Center bands, the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra has released a solid offering to complement other Christmas jazz offerings. The repertoire is drawn primarily from standard Christmas fare, with a few less familiar offerings peppered in for variety. A highlight is “Merry Christmas John Coltrane,” a wonderful take on “Deck the Halls” set to Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” chord changes, featuring some monster solos by the band on the difficult form. “Carol of the Bells” includes both some compelling ensemble playing as well as improvisation on the classic carol, and guest vocalist Freddy Cole swings on “Jingles, the Christmas Cat.” The album is rounded out with a funky interpretation of “Joy to the World.” The band contains excellent musicians and has some interesting arrangements that spice up the otherwise familiar material. While the fare on this record is nothing revolutionary, Joyful Jazz features some compelling solos and great ensemble playing, and will certainly get listeners into the holiday spirit.
Sons of Serendip is perhaps best known for the how the group got its big break, placing fourth on season nine of America’s Got Talent. Featuring instrumentation that resembles a chamber group—cello, piano, harp, and vocals—this ensemble is difficult to categorize into a particular genre. Their blend of classical, R&B, and easy listening influences may best be described as pretty. Naturally, riding their wave of fame and the gorgeous light classical arrangements they became known for on TV, a Christmas album seems a logical choice to capitalize on their sonorous style a la Josh Groban. This holiday release allows the group to put their signature stamp on a variety of familiar material—“O Holy Night,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “The Christmas Song,” and others in the same vein.
Sentimental holiday songs allow the group to use its dramatic flourishes in a medium which doesn’t run the risk of being labeled “cheesy”—after all, these songs are all about nostalgia and warm emotions to begin with, so tinkling piano and impassioned cello don’t run the risk of making them sound unduly saccharine. That being said, there aren’t many upbeat numbers on this record save the group’s Latin-tinged reading of “This Christmas.” Listeners looking for energetic fare to spice up their holiday parties may wish to look elsewhere, but those looking for a soundtrack to the season’s more tender moments should check out Christmas: Beyond the Lights.
Long a staple of Grandma’s Christmas Eve dinner as important as the turkey and apple pie, string-driven versions of holiday tunes are perhaps the most valuable currency in which Muzak and easy listening satellite radio channels trade. While the general consensus among listeners who use music as anything other than unobtrusive background accompaniment is that this genre is schmaltzy at best, this reissue of The Soulful Strings’ The Magic of Christmas muddies the waters a bit.
Essentially the Cadet records house band (Cadet was Chess’s jazz subsidiary in the mid-1960s), The Soulful Strings was a group of accomplished studio cats who realized that it would be easy enough to produce and sell instrumental versions of pop recordings, and they released a total of 7 LPs following this model. What set The Soulful Strings apart from other string-pop easy listening groups of their day was that the tracks they laid down were a bit funkier than those of their “sweet” counterparts. This is largely due to the tight grooves provided by their rhythm section, featuring Phil Upchurch (guitar), Charles Stepney (organ and vibes), Cleveland Eaton (bass and cello), and Morris Jennings (drums).
“The Little Drummer Boy” grooves polyrhythmically, reminding us that it once wasn’t a cliche to make the song a drum feature. The band digs into the groove on “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” with a funky bassline and hits that give the children’s song new life, mostly because of Cleveland Eaton’s supremely funky pizzicato cello solo (with his voice picked up scatting on the mic). The musicians’ hip playing continues throughout the release—Phil Upchurch’s guitar solo on “Jingle Bells” is a study in tension and release, somehow making the winter standard worthy of more serious consideration than it should warrant by any means.
Naturally, a reissue of this kind necessitates a certain amount of nostalgia on the part of listeners for them to truly dig what is happening—after all, the studio orchestra has a very particular time stamp on it for most contemporary listeners. This is not necessarily a bad thing; the holidays are the ideal time to walk down memory lane, as adults recall being children and Bing Crosby once again dominates the airwaves. The Magic of Christmas offers a compliment to the nostalgia for Christmas past while some of the fab arrangements on this album may convince listeners to swap their tacky sweater and eggnog for a skinny tie and dirty martini.
This is proving to be a great year for fans of the Staple Singers. In March, Legacy re-issued their 1965 album, Freedom Highway Complete: Recorded Live at Chicago’s New Nazareth Church (reviewed here), to commemorate the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” and the subsequent Selma to Montgomery march—a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement. Now, just in time for the holidays, we’re blessed with Concord’s limited edition 4-CD box set, Faith & Grace: A Family Journey 1953-1976, the first comprehensive overview of the group’s career. Drawing from over two decades of material in the vaults, the set includes both live and studio recordings. Also included are some tempting never-before-released rarities, of which the pièce de résistance is the bonus 7-inch vinyl disc featuring the earliest known recordings of the group (“Faith and Grace” ; “These Are They”) from a 1953 limited edition self-released 78-rpm disc on the Royal label.
Family patriarch Roebuck “Pops” Staples, a guitarist and singer noted for his high tenor voice and falsetto, formed the Staples Singers in 1949 with his son, Pervis (tenor), and two of his young daughters, Cleotha (alto) and Mavis (contralto and bass)—who usually sang lead with her father. Another daughter, Yvonne, would later join the quartet, alternating with Pervis and Cleotha. Originally from Mississippi, Pops was exposed to both secular music, primarily the Delta blues, as well as sacred, performing in church choirs and with the vocal group Golden Trumpets. When the family moved to Chicago in the 1930s, bringing their country styles with them, they were initially ridiculed in the big city (as were most rural southerners during the Great Migration). However, it would be this unique fusion of country blues, folk spirituals and gospel quartet influences that propelled the family to stardom—especially in the late 1950s and 1960s with the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement and subsequent flowering of soul music.
Disc one, sequenced chronologically, covers the early years from 1953-1960. Opening with two songs recorded on September 7, 1953, the group lays into Pops Staple’s original “It Rained Children” (United 165) and a traditional song “I Just Can’t Keep It to Myself” (Gospel/Savoy LP 3001), both accompanied on piano by Evelyn Gay of the popular Gay Sisters, who only sat in at the insistence of the studio head. All of the remaining songs were accompanied by Pops on guitar and were recorded at Chicago’s Universal Studios for release on the African American owned Vee-Jay label, where Ewart Abner was responsible for signing the group. Also included is the previously unreleased song—“I’ve Got a New Home” from 1955. This disc brings out the raw gospel “straight from the church” side of the Staple Singers and, with the exception of their first major hit “Uncloudy Day,” many of these songs are likely not well-known to the average listener. The disc also highlights the remarkable talents of the precocious Mavis, who was only 14 when the initial tracks were recorded.
Disc two continues with Vee-Jay recordings from 1960-1961, beginning with “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and including traditional songs such as “Swing Low” and “Stand By Me.” A previously unreleased full version of the medley “Too Close/I’m On My Way Home/I’m Coming Home/He’s Alright” from a live performance recorded in Clarksdale, Mississippi in 1960 is a highlight of this disc. When the group moved over to the New York based Riverside label in 1962, they released the album Hammer and Nails (Riverside 3501). Under the direction of Orrin Keepnews, the seven songs included here from Hammer and Nails showcase a much more pop-oriented sound, purposefully targeted to a broader audience well beyond the Black church. The remaining tracks are drawn from several Riverside albums: “There Was a Star” and “Use What You Got” (with Maceo Woods on organ) from the Christmas album The 25th Day of December(Riverside 3513); “Let That Liar Alone” and the popular folk songs “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “This Land Is Your Land” from the album This Land, with Phil Upchurch and Johnny Pate on bass (Riverside 3524); “I Know I’ve Been Changed” from the album Great Day (Milestone M 470280, though this citation does not appear in the notes) ; and “I Can’t Help From Cryin’ Sometime” from the album This Little Light (Riverside 3527).
Disc 3 represents the greatest transitional period, including material from 1964-1969 recorded for several labels: three tracks from Riverside (all from This Little Light), then moving on to “Wish I Had Answered” from the Live at Newport album on Vanguard; two tracks recorded for the D-Town label’s devotional series including “Tell Him What You Want” and I’ll Fly Away”; 11 tracks from the Epic label which includes their socially conscious song “Freedom Highway;” and three of their first songs on the Stax label including “Long Walk to D.C.,” “Slow Train” and “Got to Be Some Changes.”
Disc 4 is comprised almost entirely of the Staple Singers’ Stax output, where they were molded into soul music superstars. Included is their great message song about reparations, “When Will We Be Paid,” and “The Ghetto” from the albums Soul Folk in Action and We’ll Get Over, plus their biggest hit of all time, “Respect Yourself,” and four other songs from the album Be Altitude: Respect Yourself. Also included are two songs from the album Be What You Are, “Back Road Into Town” from City in the Sky, and “Let’s Do It Again,” released on Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom label. The set closes with a version of the song “The Weight,” recorded in 1976 with The Band (featuring Levon Helm) for the famous Martin Scorsese documentary The Last Waltz, plus a bonus demo track of “Respect Yourself.”
The handsome packaging includes a forward by Mavis Staples along with informative liner notes by James Miller, gospel historian Opal Louis Nations, and compilation producer Joe McEwen, accompanied by many full color photographs. It should be noted that a few typos and omissions have crept into the text, and the CD sleeves are too tight and must be loosened to allow safe removal of the discs. But overall this is a fabulous tribute to the Staple Singers, covering the full range of their output from the “country gospel sounds of the Mississippi Delta” to the peak of their career as soul royalty, “God’s greatest hitmakers,” and icons of the Civil Rights Movement. Don’t wait too long to purchase a copy—this set may be sold out by the end of the year.
Last December we wrote about on the new Secret Stash series devoted to Chicago’s One-derful! label group, which includes Mar-V-Lus (reviewed in February), M-Pac!, Halo, Midas, and Toddlin’ Town. This series marks the first in-depth study of one of Chicago’s most prominent African-American run labels, operated by George and Ernie Leaner from 1962- 1971.
Finally, after a long delay, the highly anticipated fourth installment of the One-derful! Collection has been released, which focuses on the gospel imprint Halo. Featuring The Gospel Ambassadors, Salem Travelers, the Gospel Souls, Lucy Rodgers, The Flying Clouds of Joy, and the Redemption Harmonizers, among others, this set includes nine never-before-released tracks. This is some of the finest, rarest gospel soul ever shouted from the South Side of Chicago!
Veteran Chicago blues and soul singer Syl Johnson (father of R&B singer Syleena Johnson) began recording for Twinight Records of Chicago in the mid-1960s. Thanks to his scorching 1969 rendition of the still relevant “Is It Because I’m Black” (written in response to the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) and his frequently sampled song “Different Strokes” (by Kanye West and Jay-Z, among others), Johnson managed to escape the category of “forgotten soul singer” and is now receiving his long overdue recognition. Though most if not all of his songs have been reissued numerous times, this beautifully produced double LP set from Numero includes 29 tracks with all of Johnson’s Twinight singles. In addition to the previously mentioned songs, highlights include the socially conscious “Concrete Reservation” and the ‘60s anthems “Come On Sock It to Me” and “Ode to Soul Man.” The double gatefold album includes track-by-track liner notes by Bill Dahl and Ken Shipley. Vinyl enthusiasts won’t get tired of spinning these discs!
Many of you will have the majority of Aretha’s Atlantic albums already, but if not, you might consider this new box set featuring 19 discs, including both studio and live recordings, enclosed in vinyl replica card sleeves and packaged in a clamshell box. Regrettably, even at 19 albums, it’s not quite a complete collection of her Atlantic output since five of her post-1974 albums are not included due to rights issues: With Everything I Feel In Me (1974), You (1975), Sweet Passion (1977), Almighty Fire (1978) and La Diva (1979). The set does, however, include more recent compilations including Amazing Grace: The Complete Recordings (1999), Rare & Unreleased Recordings from the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul (2007), and Oh Me Oh My: Aretha Live in Philly 1972 (2007). There’s no added bonus material or booklet, but at approximately $5 per disc this set is a great buy.
As with the Aretha Franklin box set, Otis Redding:Soul Manifesto is a repackaging of Redding’s six studio albums plus Live in Europe, all released prior to his death in a plane crash on December 10, 1967. The remaining five CDs in this compilation include the first posthumous release, The Dock Of The Bay from February 1968—assembled at Stax primarily from previously released singles and a few unissued recordings; The Immortal Otis Redding from June 1968 which features songs recorded by Redding during his final sessions; the live album In Person At the Whisky A Go Go recorded in April 1966 and released in 1968; and the 1969 and 1970 releases Love Man and Tell The Truth featuring more unreleased tracks recorded at Stax and backed by Booker T & the MGs. The discs are issued in vinyl replica card sleeves with no added bonus material.
As an added note, Redding’s third studio album, Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul, considered to be one of the greatest albums of all time, marked its 50th anniversary on September 15, 2015. In celebration, Rhino is also reissuing its two-CD Collector’s Edition which includes stereo and mono versions of the original album, plus previously unreleased alternate mixes, as well as selections from Redding’s live albums.
Vinyl collectors can look forward to this new limited edition, individually numbered box set from Universal that compiles 28 rare recordings from early Motown labels: London American, Stateside and Tamla Motown. These discs replicate seven of the original four-track EPs, including five Motown artist mini-compilations plus one EP each devoted to Stevie Wonder and The Miracles. A download card is included with your purchase.
It’s always great to discover a box set that doesn’t simply repackage previously released material. This new 4-CD set released by Legacy sheds new light on the legendary jazz fusion group Weather Report with a batch of never-released performances recorded live in concert, straight from the mixing board, during a four year period from 1978-1981. The set is divided evenly between the 1978 quartet featuring Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, Jaco Pastorius, and Peter Erskine (producer of this set), and the 1980-81 quintet which added percussionist Bobby Thomas, Jr. to the line-up. The one down side is the sound quality, which is decent (especially in the low-fi MP3 version), but not quite audiophile quality since the concerts were originally recorded on cassettes. However, the compilation is redeemed by the blazing performances, thoughtful curation, and 16 page booklet.
This fantastic box set is devoted to the legendary jazz fusion drummer and composer/arranger Billy Cobham, whose highly innovative music and technical chops broke new ground in the 1970s. Rhino has gone about this properly, offering Cobham’s complete Atlantic solo recordings from 1973-1978 across eight fully remastered CDs, with a few assorted bonus track of singles and alternate takes to fill out the discs. The albums include Spectrum, Crosswinds, Total Eclipse, Shabazz (recorded at the 1974 Montreux Jazz Festival), A Funky Thide of Sings, Life and Times, Live on Tour in Europe (with George Duke), and Inner Conflicts. There’s is a good cross section of music ranging from jazz fusion to jazz-funk to funk-rock to futuristic funk, with a little disco and Latin music creeping in at the end. And, of course, a dream team of collaborators including Jan Hammer, Tommy Bolin, John Abercrombie, John Williams, Randy Brecker, Michael Brecker, Cornell Dupree, John Scofield and Alphonso Johnson. The CDs are packaged in mini LP replica sleeves, and the set is augmented by a 60 page fully illustrated book with liner notes by Pete Riley.
Another highly anticipated box set, especially for hard bop fans, has just been released by Mosaic Records in a limited edition run of 5000. The Complete Bee Hive Sessions, spanning the Chicago-area homegrown label’s entire output from 1977 to 1984, includes a plethora of artists across 16 albums, issued here on CD for the first time, with some previously unreleased material and bonus tracks thrown in for good measure. The set includes full albums by Nick Brignola, Sal Nistico, Curtis Fuller, Dizzy Reece, Clifford Jordan, Von Freeman, Johnny Hartman, Sal Salvador, Ronnie Matthews, Roland Hanna, Junior Mance, Dick Katz, and Arnett Cobb, with assisting musicians such as Frank Faster, Ted Curson, Frank Wess, Pepper Adams, Jimmy Knepper, and Red Rodney. Mosaic went back to the original analog master tapes, shipping the materials to New York where they were digitized and remastered by Malcom Addey. The accompanying booklet features an historical essay and track-by-track analysis by Downbeat’s Aaron Cohen, who serendipitously grew up two doors down from Bee Hive’s office in Evanston, Illinois.
Legendary blues musician Bobby Rush recently celebrated his 82nd birthday, and his longevity in the industry is now celebrated in this compilation from Omnivore, covering 50 years of his recording career. Though born in Mississippi, Rush is closely associated the Chicago blues scene, where he relocated in the 1950s and performed with the likes of Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, and Howlin’ Wolf. This nicely packaged box set, titled after Rush’s most famous song, begins in 1964 with his early solo recordings and concludes nearly 100 tracks later with songs from his 2004 album FolkFunk, featuring guitarist Alvin Youngblood Hart.
Rush reinvented himself over the years, remaining relevant to younger generations through collabs with rock, soul, funk and rap artists. In the last decade he’s continued to release albums on a nearly annual basis, while earning a slew of awards and Grammy nominations. Chicken Heads serves as a fine tribute to the versatility of the “Dean of the Blues,” with remastering and audio restoration by Michael Graves, and a 32-page, full-color booklet with liner notes by Bill Dahl.
Over the past year we’ve covered some significant reissues from Arthur Lee & Love, the groundbreaking integrated rock band formed in Los Angeles in 1965 (see our reviews of Black Beauty and the band’s final album, Reel-to-Real). Now Rockbeat Records has assembled a 4-CD box set featuring 61 tracks recorded live over three decades, featuring Love as well as Arthur Lee performing with various backing bands, including several tracks recorded just prior to his death in 2006. We don’t have our hands on a copy of this nicely packaged compilation yet, but it will certainly be added to our collection. However, if you’re not a hardcore fan, we suggest you explore the studio albums first, beginning with Love’s groundbreaking third album from 1967, Forever Changes.
Formats: 11-LP Box set (standard or collector’s edition)
Release date: September 25th, 2015
One of the most handsomely packaged box sets this season is Bob Marley & The Wailers’ The Complete Island Recordings, released in celebration of Marley’s 70th birthday. Included are the nine studio albums recorded for Island plus two live releases (Live and Babylon By Bus). The numbered “collector’s edition,” which will set you back $650, features eleven 180g vinyl discs packaged in a velvet lined silver metal “zippo lighter” case, with bonus slipmat, photographs, and download code voucher. Since there’s no accompanying book, it’s difficult to justify the high price of the collector’s edition, so if your pockets aren’t quite so deep you might wish to consider the more moderately priced ($235) standard edition. Or wait until the albums are reissued individually (apparently in September 2016).
This month sees the reissue of what is perhaps one of the greatest rap albums of all time, the first release to earn a perfect 5 mic rating from The Source. A Tribe Called Quest’sPeople’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm is a landmark work in terms of style and aesthetics, and is the album on which the group pioneered their signature alternative sound. The jazz samples, cerebral lyricism, and sense of humor that would become the group’s trademarks are all in full force on this record and remind Tribe fans that the members of the group knew who they were and what they wanted to do from the start. Even though this reviewer was two years old when the album came out in 1990, I have to imagine that this album sounded as fresh then as this special edition does now. (Full disclosure, the first rap album I purchased was the group’s jazz-rap masterpiece The Low End Theory.)
This remastered version is crisp, clean, and makes a compelling case for listeners to use actual speakers or high end headphones rather than playing the album through a computer or earbuds (and to download in FLAC format if not purchasing a CD copy). The album’s key tracks have never sounded better—the famous Stevie Wonder, Lou Reed, and Chambers Brothers samples sound glorious; and Tip, Phife, and Jarobi’s voices are mixed to a perfect crispness that ensures their smart storytelling is right where it needs to be, slightly to the front of the mix. While heads may miss the sound of scratchy vinyl, this remastered version of the album allows the group’s playful rhymes and crate-digging production to be heard in all of their offbeat glory.
The bonus goodies included in this package are as brilliantly minimalistic as the album itself, including a metallic cover and booklet with a contextual essay by hip hop activist and media assassin Harry Allen. Also featured are three bonus tracks, remixes of cuts from the album by alternative hip hop artists who followed in Tribe’s artistic footprints (pun intended) and were able to find mainstream success. CeeLo Green’s remix of “Footprints” thickens the original track’s soundscape in the neo-soul lounge idiom that Green has perfected. As one may expect, Pharrell Williams’s remix of “Bonita Applebaum” departs fairly radically from the original, replacing Tribe’s laid back soul groove with the low-key percussion-based approach that Williams has successfully exploited on tracks such as Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” J. Cole’s remix of “Can I Kick It?” is perhaps the most unusual approach to the remix, with Cole dropping the track’s iconic “Walk on the Wild Side” sample for something a bit more Quiet Storm and shaving over a minute off of the original song’s length. Each of these reinterpretations shows that A Tribe Called Quest’s genius flows and tracks are transferrable to new stylistic idioms, further illustrating the timelessness of the group’s bohemian approach.
Unlike many albums from its day (here’s lookin’ at you, Mama Said Knock You Out), People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm may truly be timeless—it still sounds as funky and fresh as ever. Reconsidering this album on its 25th anniversary serves as a reminder of the group’s incredible influence on the alt rap-turned mainstream sounds of artists like Green, Williams, and Cole that have become a staple of modern hip hop. A Tribe Called Quest’s style and influence on mainstream rap have perhaps never been more apparent and deserve to be celebrated.
For some, the Lord is experienced through songs that make them shout; for others, quiet introspection leads them to Grace. Musician, vocalist, and songwriter Anthony Brown understands this about his audience. On his sophomore release, Everyday Jesus, Brown—along with the angelic voices of his choir, group therAPy, and his outstanding band—provides a pallet of musical offerings with a single intention: to bring listeners closer to the Lord.
The first-half of Everyday Jesus is full of high-energy praise. “I Am (Miracle)”—a gospel classic in the making—features a danceable chorus reminiscent of EDM and a strong message to non-believers: if you want to know the miracle of Jesus, just look at me. “What He’s Done (I’m the One)” is an up-tempo nod to down-home church. The second half of Everyday Jesus features a more-subtle musical approach. “Without You” opens with the hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” beautifully interpreted by singer Shirley Dailey, and “The Same” features a memorable pentatonic melody accompanied by nuanced rhythmic accompaniment. Taken together, Everyday Jesus is a highly-inclusive release.
One of the results of this inclusivity is commercial success. The album has already reached #1 on Billboard’s gospel music charts and the album’s single, “Worth,” holds steady at #2 on Billboard’s Gospel airplay and Gospel digital songs charts at the time of this writing. Brown’s success also has to do with the way that he understands his relationship with the Lord. For Brown, a relationship with Jesus is not one of separation, but is a quotidian relationship—hence, the album’s title is Everyday Jesus. For his listeners, the album serves as a therapeutic musical testimony of how near God can be as we move through our everyday lives.
Everyday Jesus is a strong performance and full of anointing. This release is destined to bring Anthony Brown’s talent as a singer, songwriter, and bandleader to the heights—and perhaps even the canon—of contemporary gospel music.
On Light in the Dark, Danetra Moore gets right to the point. The first song, “If God Be for You,” begins with the lyric:
Stepping out the background,
finally get a chance to tell my story
Indeed, after years of working as a back-up singer for Kirk Franklin, Vicki Winans, and Angie Stone, and a third place finish on Season Five of BET’s Sunday Best, Moore earned a record deal with the Tyscot label in 2013. Light in the Dark—her first album as a solo gospel artist—shows that Moore’s prior experience has served her well.
Moore is impressive in her vocal performance and arranging on this release. On “Love of My Life,” Moore’s voice melismatically delivers in ranges high and low, while the reverb-drenched background vocals provide a solid accompaniment to her lead. “He Changed Me” is a funky duet between Moore and label-mate Rance Allen, showing that Moore is comfortable in gospel that is both contemporary and traditional. It should not surprise that Moore grew up in a family of musicians who call the church home.
Perhaps the only thing stronger than Moore’s voice on Light in the Dark is her faith. The album’s single, “Only God Can,” sings of the power of the Lord, in matters both spiritual and worldly. “All I Can Do is Pray”—released as a single following Moore’s success on Sunday Best and included on Light in the Dark—suggests that praying and patience are the only remedies to the problems of the world. These songs suggest a central message in Moore’s debut: Jesus Christ is, and has been, the source of her accomplishments.
Yet, an expression of her faith is not the sole intention of Light in the Dark. The album’s glossy production shows that Moore is centered on a successful commercial career. The majority of the tracks were produced by Pierre “The Maven” Medor—a Grammy-nominated artist working in Atlanta whose résumé includes work with Jagged Edge, Usher, and Mary J. Blige. The album reflects Medor’s experience in contemporary R&B, yet is subtle enough that we never forget: Moore is the leader on Light in the Dark.
The singer’s first album is not about breaking musical rules. Rather, Danetra Moore’s Light in the Dark is a solid statement by an up-and-coming gospel artist who puts the Lord first, but never loses sight of her personal ambitions.
Doug Hream Blunt first picked up a guitar at age thirty-five, after attending a class in the 1980s called “How to Form a Band.” By music industry standards, he was quite late to the game. Yet, since his first album My Name is Doug Hream Blunt has just been being released almost thirty years after its songs were recorded, we can see that Blunt’s music is characteristically late-to-be-found.
My Name is Doug Hream Blunt is one of a number of “re-discovered” recordings released on Luaka Bop—a record label dedicated to relatively little-known music from all parts of the globe. Blunt has a cult-like influence on artists such as Ariel Pink—a lo-fi LA pop musician—and the London duo Hype Williams, but has remained largely out of the public eye; save for the occasional appearance on San Francisco’s public television station or performing in retirement homes in the Bay Area.
The album is, at once, highly-genuine and unsettlingly-ambiguous, leaving the listener in between a creeped-out confusion and a light-hearted listening experience. Blunt, too, is difficult to locate. While the guitarist, singer, and songwriter can be considered an “outsider” for his idiosyncrasy, his enthusiastic lyrics and bouncy vocals make one want to bring him in for a good, clean game of cards. Each of the album’s ten tracks have a jammy-feel to them, often oscillating between two minor chords and stiff grooves of drums, bass, flute, and xylophone. The band on My Name is Doug Hream Blunt was made up of the students and teachers in the class on “How to Form a Band.” Blunt’s guitar-playing sounds like what you might hear from a beginning student at Guitar Center, but is quite at home in this sonic context and with these musicians.
My Name is Doug Hream Blunt is like a gag gift one might receive over the holidays. Its novelty will initially fascinate, yet it will inevitably be tossed away. I have yet to be persuaded, gently or otherwise, by Blunt’s release, but know that some will find the album deliciously obscure.
For the calendar-loving, pre-war blues addict in your life, can there be any better holiday gift than John Tefteller’s annual Blues Images calendar? The 2016 calendar/CD combo offers an excellent track line up, paired with (as usual) a year’s worth of beautiful historic images. All-time blues classics are mixed with rare and long thought-to-be-lost recordings. Hattie Hyde (aka Hattie Hart) and members of the Memphis Jug Band ask “all you women” a question about love in “Special Question Blues” and go to town on a long-lost version of the classic “T & N O Blues.” Also reissued for the first time are Jaydee Short’s renditions of “Tar Road Blues” and “Flaggin’ It To Georgia,” with Short’s fabulous guitar and voice cutting through what must have been a challenging digitization and remastering process.
Here’s an example of a month from the calendar:
Speaking of transfers and remastering, the tracks on this year’s Blues Images release were digitally restored by a team working on the upcoming AMERICAN EPIC documentary – a four part documentary on rural American music from the 1920s and 1930s that will air on PBS and the BBC in early 2016. As stated by Blues Images, the AMERICAN EPIC team used “original, vintage 1920’s studio playback equipment, combined with highly specialized ultra-modern technology” to digitally restore these Blues 78s.
It’s not too late to order your copy of the 2016 Blues Images calendar and CD from BluesImages.com. If you hurry, it could make it in time for the holidays, giving that blues loving gift recipient of yours time to sit back and listen to “Atlanta Moan,” “Georgia Cake Walk,” “My Monday Blues,” “The High Cost of Sin,” “Vampire Women,” “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” and more through the New Year Holiday and well into 2016!
Following are additional albums released during November 2015—some will be reviewed in future issues of Black Grooves.
Blues, Folk, Country Eric Bibb & JJ Milteau: Lead Belly’s Gold (Stony Plain)
Gentry Jones: Roll It Roll It (Music Access Inc.)
Harmonica Shah: If You Live To Get Old, You Will Understand (Electro-Fi)
Johnny Jones: Doin’ The Best I Can (JSP)
Laja Ferlance: Mo’ Betta Blues (Music Access Inc.)
Lightnin’ Hopkins: Shootin’ Fire (Cicadelic)
Lightnin’ Hopkins & Billy Bizor: Wake Up The Dead (Cicadelic)
Magic Sam: Black Magic (Remastered ed.) (Delmark)
O.B. Buchana: Mississippi Folks (Ecko)
Victoria Spivey: Collection 1926-27 (Acrobat)
Funk, Rock, Pop, Electronic Brooklyn Funk Essentials: Funk Ain’t Ova (Dorado)
Cymande: Do It (Cherry Red)
Hieroglyphic Being: The Acid Documents (Soul Jazz)
Tracy Chapman: Greatest Hits (Elektra/Rhino)
Gospel, Gospel Rap, CCM Al Green: Higher Plane (Fat Possum)
Al Green: I’ll Rise Again (Fat Possum)
Al Green: Lord Will Make a Way (Fat Possum)
Al Green: Precious Lord (Fat Possum)
Al Green: Trust in God (Fat Possum)
Deitrick Haddon: Masterpiece (eOne)
James Bolton: Count It All Joy (New Day)
Kirk Franklin: Losing My Religion (RCA)
Holiday Coasters: Christmas with the Coasters (Goldmine)
Committed: Home for Christmas (Mixed Bag Music Grp.)
Johnny Mathis: Complete Christmas Collection 1958-2010 (Real Gone)
Kenny Neal: I’ll Be Home For Christmas (Cleopatra)
Various: Santa’s Funk & Soul Christmas Party Vol.3 (Tramp)
Jazz Adegoke Steve Colson: Tones For (Silver Sphinx)
Ash Walker: Augmented 7th (Deep Heads)
Billy Cobham: Live From Dallas Electric Ballroom 1975 (United States Dist)
Darren Barrett: Trumpet Vibes (dB Studios)
John Coltrane: A Love Supreme- The Complete Masters (impulse!/Verve)
Myke Masters: Mustn’t Grumble (digital)
Oscar Peterson: Exclusively for My Friends (8 CD Box set) (Naxos)
Pieces of a Dream: All In (Shanachie)
Robin Eubanks’ Mass Line Big Band: More Than Meets the Ear
R&B, Soul Angie Stone: Dream (Shanachie)
Bobby Caldwell: Cool Uncle (+180)
CeeLo Green: Heart Blanche (Atlantic)
Chaka Khan: One Classic Night (Wienerworld)
Derobert: Got the Goods (City Bump)
Dominique Toney: A Love Like Ours (K-Tone Ent. )
Gloria Ann Taylor: Love Is A Hurtin’ Thing (Luv N Haight
James Brown: Live At Chastain Park (Wienerworld)
L. Young: 4EVER Young (eOne)
Lala Hathaway: Live (eOne)
Lara Price: I Mean Business (Vizz Tone)
The New Stylistics: Very Best of Stylistics Live…And More! (Forevermore)
Seal: 7 (Warner Bros. )
Terisa Griffin: Revival of Soul (digital)
Terry Tobin: Truth Is (Topnotch Music)
Various: Love & Affection – More Motown Girls (Ace)
Various: Lost Without You – The Best of Kent Ballads 2 (Kent)
Rap, Hip Hop J-Live: How Much is Water? (Mortier Music)
Big K.R.I.T.: All My Life (RBC)
Busdriver: Thumbs (digital)
Chief Keef: Finally Rollin 2 (RBC)
E-40: Poverty & Prosperity (digital) (Heavy on the Grind)
Fabolous: Summertime Shootout (Collector’s Ed.) (Def Jam)
Fetty Wap: The Life (DVD) (Meldose Films)
Freddie Gibbs: Shadow of a Doubt (ESGN)
Goth Money: Trillionaires (Break World)
Jadakiss: Top 5 Dead or Alive (Def Jam)
Jeezy: Church in These Streets (Def Jam)
Krayzie Bone: Chasing the Devil (RBC)
Lil Wayne: No Ceilings 2 (Collector’s Ed.) (Young Money)
Lil-C: H-Town Chronic 16 (Oarfin)
Master P: Empire from the Hood to Hollywood (digital) (Globy House)
Michael Christmas: What a Weird Day (self-release)
Raplords: #Raplords (Uni-Fi)
Rapper Big Pooh & Nottz: Home Sweet Home (Mello Music)
Redman: Mudface (digital) (Gilla House)
Richon Aubrey: Dreams (Twenty Two)
Silas Blak: Editorials (War Tunes) (Cabin Games)
Talib Kweli & 9th Wonder Present: Indie 500 (It’s a Wonderful World)
Tech N9ne: Strangeulation II (Strange Music)
Ty Dolla $ign: Free TC (Atlantic)
Waka Flocka Flame: Flockaveli 1.5 (Collector’s Ed.) (BSM)
Reggae, Dancehall Congo Natty: Jungle Revolution In Dub (Big Dada)
Gentleman’s Dub Club: Big Smoke (Easy Star)
Various: First Recordings of Sir Coxsone The Downbeat 1960-63 (Soul Jazz)
World Elikeh: Kondona (Ropeadope)
Falz: Stories That Touch (digital) (BahdGuys Ent.)
Sauti Sol: Live and Die in Africa (digital) (Sauti Sol Ent.)
Tinariwen: Live In Paris (Anti/Epitaph)
Various: Senegal 70 – Sonic Gems & Previously Unreleased Recordings from the 70’s (Analog Africa)
Zenglen: Rezilta Pi Red (digital)