Archive for March, 2016

Welcome to the March 2016 Issue

Welcome to the March 2016 edition of Black Grooves, sponsored by the Indiana University Archives of African American Music and Culture.

It’s Women’s History Month and we’re celebrating with recent releases by women artists.

Our featured jazz releases include Esperanza Spalding’s Emily’s D+Evolution, Chicago-based jazz cellist Tomeka Reid’s Tomeka Reid Quartet, Dee Dee Bridgewater ‘s celebration of New Orleans jazz on Dee Dee’s Feathers, Indra Rios-Moore’s Heartland, plus two releases from jazz harpists—Brandee Younger’s Wax & Wane and Mariea Antoinette’s Straight from the Harp.

On the soulful side there’s Regina Belle’s The Day Life Began and The Three Degrees’ Strategy (Our Tribute to Philadelphia). Mindi Abair & the Boneshakers’ give a hard rocking performance on Live in Seattle, featuring vocalist Sweet Pea Atkinson and guitarist Randy Jacobs, while poet-musician shirlette ammons’ explores rock, folk and hip-hop on Language Barrier. Contemporary Christian recording artist Lynda Randle offers Ageless Hymns: Songs of Joy, while Western Saharan singer/activist Aziza Brahim reflects on her life as a refugee on Abbar el Hamada (Across the Hamada).

Also featured is the CD/DVD edition of Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall that’s bundled with the new Spike Lee documentary Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall; the Blind Willie Johnson tribute album God Don’t Never Change from Alligator Records; and the Latin jazz album Canto América from Indiana University Jacobs School of Music faculty Michael Spiro (percussion) and Wayne Wallace (trombone). Wrapping up this issue is a review of two 1970s Afro-pop compilations—Senegal 70: Sonic Gems & Previously Unreleased Recordings from the 70’s and Soul Sok Sega: Sega Sounds from Mauritius, 1973-1979—plus our list of February 2016 Releases of Note.

View review March 1st, 2016

Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution

esperanza spalding emilys devolution

Title: Emily’s D+Evolution

Artist: Esperanza Spalding

Label: Concord

Format: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: March 4, 2016

 

 

 

Multiple Grammy-winner bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding has demonstrated a David Bowie-esque knack for reinvention over the course of her past 4 albums as a leader.  2010’s excellent Chamber Music Society showcased Spalding’s knack for tight, delicately crafted acoustic arrangements, while 2012’s Radio Music Society demonstrated her aptitude for a more pop-infused sensibility as well. Versatility has characterized her work as a side musician, too. She has appeared on recordings with artists as diverse as Mike Stern and M. Ward.

Spalding has managed yet another feat of re-invention on Emily’s D+Evolution.  Taking her middle name as the album’s moniker, she explores yet another side of her broad musical influences, this time using the power-rock trio as the vehicle an exploration of another genre, necessitating an approach to her instrument that fans haven’t heard yet.  Swapping the her Afro for braids and her upright for a fretless bass guitar and drawing more musically from Jimi Hendrix than Jim Hall, Spalding, guitarist Matthew Stevens, and drummer Karriem Riggins put forward a soulful brand of rock on this release, falling somewhere between Black Messiah and Axis: Bold as Love.

The hardest-rocking cut on Emily’s D+Evolution is the album’s lead single “Good Lava,” which combines the dissonant rock of Nirvana’s In Utero period with monster riffs that would make Jimmy Page proud.  Layered atop these guitars and drums are multitracked vocal harmonies demonstrating Spalding ability not only as a rocker, but as an arranger, too.  This minimalistic trio allows room for Spalding to showcase her wizardry on the bass guitar, too.  The counterpoint between her voice and instrument on “Judas” will make any instrumentalist wonder how she can simultaneously deliver her rhythmic, Joni Mitchell- esque sung rap with her slick and serpentine Jaco Pastorius bass-funk.  The classic period Mitchell comparison also resonates on “Earth to Heaven” and “Ebony and Ivory” (which is not a cover of the Paul McCartney/ Michael Jackson collab of the same name). For Spalding, songwriting rules the day, and the three virtuoso instrumentalists in her band support the subtle and challenging songs that Spalding has crafted, laying back when they need to but also digging in when called for, as Stevens does with a great guitar solo on “One.”

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Ever the poster child of flipping the script, Spalding’s newest release is a haven of cultural intertextuality.  “Farewell Dolly,” is a spaced out rethinking of “Hello Dolly” that barely (if at all) references the original.  As its title would imply, “Farewell Dolly” is bleak, both sonically and lyrically, with Spalding’s impressionistic lyrics accompanied only by her spaced-out, chorus-laden bass guitar.  “Funk the Fear” is a prog-rock odyssey through winding spiritual and social territory, and “I Want it Now” is a bizarro cover of Veruca Salt’s number (the bratty girl who won a Golden Ticket, not the Chicago alt-rock band) from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Spalding and company have truly outdone themselves this time–the only things on this record that smack of the jazz styles that have been the bassist’s calling card is the complex harmonic and melodic languages the band uses.  Other than that, Emily’s D+Evolution rocks, allowing the group to explore uncharted musical and conceptual territory.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

View review March 1st, 2016

Mindi Abair & The Boneshakers – Live in Seattle

mindi abair and the boneshakers_live in Seattle

Title: Live in Seattle

Artist: Mindi Abair & The Boneshakers

Label: Concord

Format: CD, MP3

Release date: September 15, 2015

 

 

 

With few exceptions, the conventional wisdom is that you can usually take or leave live albums. I believe I will choose the “take” option with Mindi Abair’s new release Live in Seattle. If you are thinking to yourself, “I have never heard of Mindi Abair,” odds are you actually have. Or you’ve at least heard her, although you may not know it.

Mindi has played saxophone with some of the biggest names in the music industry, including The Backstreet Boys, Bruce Springsteen, Aerosmith, Paul Shaffer, Dave Koz, Richard Elliot and Gerald Albright. She was also going to be the saxophonist on Michael Jackson’s planned tour before his passing—not too shabby for a girl from St. Petersburg, Florida.

Abair grew up in a musical family. Her father Lance Abair is a saxophonist and keyboardist; her grandmother Virginia Rice was an opera singer and piano and voice teacher. She started playing piano at the age of five, and began saxophone at the age of eight. In high school she was a drum major. Mindi received a full scholarship at the University of North Florida but then transferred to Berklee College of Music in Boston and formed her first band.

After graduating from college, Mindi moved to Los Angeles, where she started to play all over town. She played on the street at 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica and gained the attention of jazz keyboardist Bobby Lyle. And the rest, as they say, is history. Seven solo studio releases later, Mindi has decided to try her hand at a live album. Despite the potential for live albums to be off-putting to some listeners, Live in Seattle contains a wealth of enjoyable material.

This fourteen track album is full of great grooves and “rock n’ soul” tunes, a collection of feel-good songs for your soul. Not too many artists can make you feel happy one moment and tug at your heart strings the next. Live in Seattle contains 11 original songs, 2 covers and 3 brand new compositions. The personnel on this release are top notch—two standout musicians are guitarist Randy Jacobs (The Boneshakers’ band leader) and vocalist Sweet Pea Atkinson. One highlight from this set is “Bloom, ”a sax-driven stadium rocker from Abair’s third album Life Less Ordinary, featuring the saxophonist’s playing at its soulful best. “Cold Sweat,” featuring Sweet Pea Atkinson on vocals, is a compelling rendering of the James Brown song, the funk of the original morphed into an uptempo blues shuffle. If this one doesn’t make you want to get up off a that thing to dance, you might be dead.

Mindi had the privilege to co-write one of the new cuts for this album, “Make it Happen,” with the great Booker T. Jones. Keyboardist Rodney Lee does a fine job providing B3 organ in Jones’s stead. The record also includes a hard-rockin’ version of George Gershwin’s “Summertime,propelled by Abair’s saxophone and Jacobs’s distorted guitar—I’m confident that you have never heard this song performed this way.

Overall the combination of rock, soul, funk, and groove jazz makes Live in Seattle a great effort from Mindi Abair and The Boneshakers. Give it a listen, you won’t be sorry.

Reviewed by Patrick Scott Burkett

View review March 1st, 2016

Tomeka Reid Quartet – Tomeka Reid Quartet

tomeka reid quartet

Title: Tomeka Reid Quartet

Artist: Tomeka Reid Quartet

Label: Thirsty Ear

Format: CD, MP3

Release date: September 25, 2015

 

 

 

Chicago-based cellist Tomeka Reid has been a fixture in the city’s jazz scene for some 15 years now, but the quartet she leads only released its eponymous debut album in September of 2015.  Having seen this group perform at the 2014 Chicago jazz festival, I can attest to this record’s ability to capture her quartet’s spirit, weaving between pre-composed and improvised music.  While the Tomeka Reid Quartet’s music may perhaps be best situated within the avant garde of Chicago’s AACM tradition, this album has a sense of texture and melody that may heighten the group’s appeal to less-cerebral jazz fans as well as those who are interested in more experimental music.

Tomeka Reid Quartet leads with “17 West,” the only cut on the album that is neither an original composition nor totally improvised, an excellent reading of the Eric Dolphy tune that featured the great bassist Ron Carter on cello.  This cut allows Reid to situate herself firmly within the lineage of mainstream avant-garde jazz (which may not be such a contradiction in terms as it may suggest), despite her seemingly unusual instrument of choice.  To accompany her in this effort, Reid assembled an excellent team of musicians who are able to stretch out to the extent demanded by the group’s music, which lies somewhere between chamber music, jazz, and free improvisation.  She is joined by Brooklyn-based guitarist Mary Halvorson, New York drummer Tomas Fujiwara, and Chicago bassist Jason Roebke.

This quartet explores this album’s musical territories with energy and a sense of adventure.  “Billy Bang’s Bounce”—a tribute to the free jazz violinist—features a texture that gradually builds, taking on a hypnotic quality before opening up into a generous swing section for the group’s solos.  “Etoile” is a more conventional composition, loosely based upon the jazz musicians’ standard “Cry Me a River” lick, but expanding to feature remarkable solos by Reid, Roebke, and Halvorson, whose pitch-shifting guitar solos push the group further into less consonant territory while still remaining melodious.

The album takes more impressionistic turns as well, with Reid and Halverson freely improvising on “Improvisation #1” and the rest of the group joining this exercise on “Improvisation #2.”  While apparently composed, “The Lone Wait” is also abstract and atmospheric, pulling heavily from free-jazz influences.

All in all, Tomeka Reid Quartet is a fascinating statement from a group that is musically diverse and experimental.  The Tomeka Reid Quartet blurs the line between “conventional” and “avant garde” approaches to jazz and is to not be missed by serious jazz fans.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

View review March 1st, 2016

Brandee Younger – Wax & Wane

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Title: Wax & Wane

Artist: Brandee Younger

Label: Revive

Format: CD, MP3

Release date: February 19, 2016

 

 

 

Even to seasoned listeners, “jazz harp” might sound like a risky proposition.  The phrase may call to mind Alice Coltrane or Dorothy Ashby, but more likely than not, it may remind us of the countless lesser attempts to copy the sound of the two women who most famously tried to assert the instrument as one capable of playing good jazz music.  While it will be up to the history books to judge the importance of Brandee Younger’s latest release, Wax & Wane, the album certainly sounds like a fresh interpretation of the role that the instrument can play in contemporary jazz.

Younger is accompanied by a fairly standard combo, made up of Dana Hawkins (drums), Dezron Douglas (electric bass), Mark Whitfield (guitar), Chelsea Baratz (tenor sax), and flutist Anne Drummond, each of whom is an accomplished performer in his or her own right. Younger’s strong choice of side musicians is a large part of the sturdy groundwork that she laid for this album’s best moments.  While this record at times gestures to “pretty sounding harp” cliches, Wax & Wane does not rely upon the lush instrumental textures that one may expect from a band led by a harpist.  While the evocations of chamber music are the strongest on “Ruby Echo,” other tracks on this album pull more heavily from funk, grooving steadily along throughout the disc’s 7 tracks.

On “Soul Vibrations,” the album’s introductory cut, the excellent jazz guitarist Mark Whitfield opens the record with wah-wah guitar flavored heavily by the musical legacy of Shaft. Dezron Douglas anchors “Afro Harping” in a subtle but funky bass groove. On both of these cuts, Younger plays in a manner more typical of feedback-oriented electric guitar textures than swirling harp arpeggios. While the album’s title track tilts a bit more slick and polished than this reviewer would prefer, this ultimately comes down to a matter of taste; even though it sounds like smooth jazz, it sounds like good smooth jazz. Overall, the playing on this album is anything but typical. Rrather, like the better efforts of Younger’s musical forebears Ashby and Coltrane, Wax & Wane asserts a number of possibilities for more fully including the harp in the canon of jazz instruments.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

 

View review March 1st, 2016

Mariea Antoinette – Straight from the Harp

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Title: Straight from the Harp

Artist: Mariea Antoinette

Label: MAH Productions

Format: CD (special edition)

Release date: September 25, 2015

 

Though the “harp” in African American music is more typically a harmonica, Mariea Antoinette proves that the concert harp “is not a quiet, dreamy, boring instrument,” but can be “funky like you’ve never heard it before.” Originally trained in classical music, the San Diego artist expanded her horizons to become an urban-jazz harpist, performing for the likes of Ne-Yo, Mary J. Blige and Jamie Foxx.

Antoinette fuses multiple genres on her sophomore album, Straight from the Harp. Though falling predominantly into the smooth jazz domain, she brings elements of EDM, hip-hop, pop, rock, and R&B into the mix across 13 tracks that interweave virtuosic harp solos and interludes. The bulk of the album features lush arrangements of many classics, including Bobby Brown’s “Rock Wit’Cha,” Curtis Mayfield’s “Give Me Your Love,” a super funky version of the ‘70s classic “Boogie Nights,” Barry White’s hit single “I’m Gonna Love You (Just A Little More Baby),” and a “reggae light” version of Bob Marley’s “Waiting In Vain.”

In addition to these covers, there are a number of original songs, including “Special Treasure” which fuses a ‘70s soul sound with hip-hop beats, and the closing track “Walk the Walk,” featuring electric violinist Karen Briggs in a sweeping cinematic fusion of smooth jazz and soft rock with classical riffs on the harp.

In addition to performing as a soloist, Antoinette has collaborated with the all-female ensemble Jazz In Pink since 2007 (of which Biggs is a member), and still performs with orchestras on occasion. She has certainly succeeded in her goal of making the harp “a funky and sexy instrument,” displaying a degree of versatility that definitely sets her apart.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review March 1st, 2016

shirlette ammons – Language Barrier

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Title: Language Barrier

Artist: shirlette ammons

Label: Churchkey/SugarQube

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: February 5, 2016

 

 

shirlette ammons wears many hats (she prefers her name in lowercase): she is a poet, musician, author, and activist. On Language Barrier, ammons’ second album, she also shows her mastery at disrupting musical boundaries.

Language Barrier crosses freely, and frequently, through rock, pop, hip-hop, and folk music, disregarding generic distinctions in favor of an embracing eclecticism. For ammons, this approach to genres is a metaphor for the way humans behave in our everyday lives. She explains, “As a part of the whole Language Barrier concept, I wanted to write an album that explores the ways we love across imposed and implied barriers. In this sense, Language Barrier is an album about love as an act of resistance. I also wanted to approach genre as a ‘barrier’ then break it down.”

 

 

Language Barrier feels like a mixtape of ammons’ favorite artists. Following the album’s first track, “Earth (Intro Segue),” she passes the microphone to guest artists—including The Indigo Girls, MeShell Ndegeocello, Sookee, Heather McEntire, and Phil Cook—leaving them to tell the album’s story. ammons even handed over the duty of writing the album’s music to multi-instrumentalist and composer, Daniel Hart.

All of this delegation does not take away from ammons’ goal: by including a large cast of instrumentalists, singers, and producers from a wide-range of genres, she has created a sonic exhibition that makes heads bob, feet shuffle, and, most importantly, reminds us that love has no boundaries.

 

Reviewed by Douglas Dowling Peach

 

View review March 1st, 2016

Regina Belle – The Day Life Began

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Title: The Day Life Began

Artist: Regina Belle

Label: Shanachie/Peak Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: January 22, 2016

 

Regina Belle is a versatile singer and songwriter who has moved between the worlds of jazz, R&B, and gospel. She is also an actress who famously sang “A Whole New World” with Peabo Bryson in Disney’s Aladdin. Her first album in fifteen years, The Day Life Began, is full of classic, inspirational R&B songs produced by Jamie Jones and Jack Kugell of The Heavyweights.

The Day Life Began features many R&B love songs, such as Regina’s own original ballad “You Saw the Good In Me,” the orchestral “A Night of Love,” and the upbeat, funk-infused cover of Reggie Lucas and James Mtume’s “You Know How to Love Me:”

Though the album focuses on R&B, Regina’s multiple influences are apparent, such as the gospel choruses in “He’s Alright” and “The Day Life Began,” which celebrates multiples milestones in Regina’s life, such as the birth of her children and the first time she won a Grammy.

The album ends with a version of Steve Diamond and Allen Shambin’s “Be Careful Out There,” which Regina said she chose because it reflects her emotions as her children all move away from home. This kind of personal connection to her songs is seen throughout The Day Life Began, as Regina reflects on her past while reminding listeners that her voice and her passion for music are as strong as ever.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review March 1st, 2016

Dee Dee Bridgewater, Irvin Mayfield & The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra – Dee Dee’s Feathers

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Title: Dee Dee’s Feathers

Artist: Dee Dee Bridgewater, Irvin Mayfield & The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra

Label: OKeh Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: August 7, 2015

 

Dee Dee’s Feathers celebrates New Orleans in a wide-ranging jazz album that explores the neighborhoods of NOLA and their respective cultures and musical genres. The album was even recorded at Esplanade Studios, located in a reconverted historical church that was damaged severely by Hurricane Katrina. It is overflowing with talent, featuring vocals by Grammy and Tony Award winner (for her 1975 role as Glinda in The Wiz) Dee Dee Bridgewater, Grammy-winning producer and trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, and backup by the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra.

The album takes listeners on a musical journey through New Orleans. “Big Chief,” a traditional Mardi Gras Indian song, celebrates the Second Line with six minutes of lively horns and guest vocals by Dr. John. “C’est Ici Que Je T’aime” transports the listener to the French Quarter, where Irvin Mayfield has created his Jazz Playhouse on historic Bourbon Street.

The title track, “Dee Dee’s Feathers,” is an incredibly fun original composition by Dee Dee, Irvin, and Bill Summers (of Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters fame). There is a clear Afro-Caribbean influence in the percussion, and an acapella section ends the song with great harmonies and vocal polyrhythmic layers.

Other original songs on the album include “Congo Square,” which again features Bill Summers and African drumming, and “From the Lake to the River,” a composition by Irvin about Elysian Fields Avenue, the only street in New Orleans that connects Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River.

The album also features a stunning arrangement of Bloomington, Indiana native songwriter Hoagy Carmichael’s “New Orleans.” Starting with a muted brass solo, the song morphs into an impressive demonstration of Dee Dee’s incredible scatting skills as she imitates and then expands on the original melody.

Dee Dee’s Feathers is bound to be a treat for any listener as it is bursting with musical skill while also recognizing the many cultures of New Orleans and the multitude of jazz styles that have arisen from the Crescent City.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review March 1st, 2016

Lynda Randle – Ageless Hymns: Songs of Joy

Lynda Randle

Title: Ageless Hymns: Songs of Joy

Artist: Lynda Randle

Label: Lynda Randle Ministries/Gaither Music Group

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: January 15, 2016

 

Growing up in Washington, D.C as the middle child of seven kids, Lynda Randle learned many traditional hymns from her family. During a difficult period when she was caring for her sick mother, Randle decided to record many of these hymns in honor of her parents. Ageless Hymns: Songs of Joy is the final installment in this series of three albums “dedicated to timeless, classic songs of faith.” The series is distributed through Gaither Music, a Christian music group powerhouse created and run by native Hoosiers Bill and Gloria Gaither in Alexandria, Indiana. Randle is one of the only African American artists to appear regularly at Gaither Homecomings, and has released many contemporary Christian albums and DVDs as part of the Gaither Gospel Series.

All the songs on Ageless Hymns: Songs of Joy are meant to “uplift, renew, and encourage the soul.” They include traditional hymns such as “Real, Real,” “The Windows of Heaven,” and “This Joy I Have.” The album also features originals, such as “He Touched Me” written by Bill Gaither, and “In You I Find My Joy,” written by Randle, who has composed and arranged hundreds of songs over the course of her career.

Randle’s dedication to her faith is present throughout the whole album, and her passionate, soulful voice amplifies and gives life to these traditional hymns.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review March 1st, 2016

Indra Rios-Moore – Heartland

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Title: Heartland

Artist: Indra Rios-Moore

Label: Impulse!

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: August 7, 2015

 

Indra Rios-Moore grew up in Manhattan, singing along to the radio every morning, learning American folk songs, and eventually getting classical vocal training. After marrying Danish saxophonist Benjamin Traerup, she moved to Denmark and joined his jazz trio along with his friend and bassist Thomas Sejthen. Their first two albums won the 2010 and 2012 Best Jazz Vocal Album awards in Denmark.

Rios-Moore’s third album, Heartland, marries her soft and soulful vocals with smooth jazz and harmonious instrumentation. Produced by Larry Klein, who’s worked with artists such as Joni Mitchell and Herbie Hancock, the album is easygoing and effortless, with wide dynamic variation and well thought-out arrangements.

The first song, “Little Black Train,” is a folk tune once sung by Woodie Guthrie. It’s full of soul and energy, percussively driven and propelled by a saxophone solo:

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The cover of Duke Ellington’s “Azure” is quiet and sultry, showing the power of subtlety as the dynamics leisurely build and fall. Indra takes her time on the vocals, and it pays off in this beautiful song. There is also a cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” in the form of a ballad that often sounds mournful, particularly now in the context of Bowie’s death in January. Other outstanding tracks include “Money,” which shows off the raw power and diversity in Indra’s voice, and the heartbreaking yet moving “Your Long Journey.”

Rios-Moore said all the songs chosen for the album are very personal because they brought her comfort when her mother passed away shortly before she gave birth to her son. In her words, they “traverse the territories of the heart.” While the album focuses on journeys, sometimes explicitly in songs about trains and lost loves, Indra also takes time to mourn, such as in to the somber final track “Solitude,” which begs, “Dear Lord above, send back my love.” Any listener of Heartland is fortunate to hear such a beautiful, authentic expression of what is means to simultaneously lose someone and celebrate new life.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review March 1st, 2016

Aziza Brahim – Abbar el Hamada

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Title: Abbar el Hamada

Artist: Aziza Brahim

Label: Glitterbeat

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: March 4, 2016

 

As the European refugee crisis sparks renewed conversations about refugees across the globe, it only seems right that Western Saharan singer/activist Aziza Brahim chimes in. Brahim grew up in a Saharawi refugee camp in the Algerian desert, and has been living in exile for over twenty years, first in Cuba, currently in Barcelona. Her latest album, Abbar el Hamada (Across the Hamada), reflects her multiple cultural identities and the political struggles that have impacted her life directly.

Hamada is the word used by the Saharawi people to describe the rocky desert landscape along the Algerian/Western Saharan frontier where many Saharawi refugee camps are located. Abbar el Hamada is Brahim’s reflection on her personal journey from the refugee camp and her country’s journey as a nation over the past 40 years of political turmoil.

The album has many different musical influences from the various places Brahim has lived and the people she has met along the way. “La Cordillera Negra” is an Afro-Cuban inspired track that evokes ‘70s recordings by the Super Rail Band, while “El Canto De La Arena” is a raw ballad that includes a soft flute. “Calles De Dajla” is described as “pulsing desert rock” and incorporates melodic blues rock guitar with West African-influenced percussion and Brahim’s emotive vocals:

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Other standout tracks on the album include “Mani,” which features the Malian blues guitarist Samba Toure, and the warm, easy going yet poignant title track “Abbar el Hamada.” One of the more directly political songs on the album is “Intifada,” which is about the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip that started in 1987.

Though some songs reference specific areas of the world, the final track “Los Muros” (“The Walls”) speaks of the many physical and metaphorical walls that divide countries and people, from the Berlin Wall to the sand fortifications Morocco has erected along the Western Saharan border of Brahim’s homeland.

Despite these walls and despite the tragedy in the album, Brahim remains hopeful in her music. She sings that despite all the walls rising, “Another fleeting star was seen crossing the wall tonight / undetected by the radar, unnoticed by the guard.” Abbar el Hamada encourages people to engage in conversation with each other across political, cultural, religious, and generational barriers in order to find solutions and transcend the walls that divide us.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review March 1st, 2016

The Three Degrees – Strategy (Our Tribute to Philadelphia)

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Title: Strategy (Our Tribute to Philadelphia)

Artist: The Three Degrees

Label: Soul Music/Cherry Red

Format: CD

Release date: March 4, 2016

 

 

Formed in 1963, The Three Degrees claim to be the longest-running female vocal group in history (though admittedly the membership has changed over the years). A mainstay of the soul and disco era, they scored many hits on Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International Records label.

Now celebrating their 50th anniversary, The Three Degrees have released their first studio album in 25 years on British soul music impresario David Nathan’s label. Recorded in Atlanta with a full band and orchestra, Strategy (Our Tribute to Philadelphia) features “almost” original member Helen Scott, along with Valerie Holiday (who joined in 1967) and relative newcomer Freddie Pool, who has been with the trio since 2011. As with their last album, Out of the Past Into the Future (1993), the group revisits their roots by covering many timeless Philly soul classics, including the O’Jays’ “Love Train,” Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones,” and the stand out track “Don’t Leave Me This Way” which demonstrates their super tight vocal harmonies. The album closes with a new version of The Three Degrees’ iconic hit song T.S.O.P. (The Sound of Philadelphia), better known as the Soul Train theme song.

These ladies may not be breaking any new ground, but they certainly embody the female vocal trio stylings of the ‘60s and ‘70s and serve as wonderful ambassadors, bringing the soulful sounds of Philadelphia to a new generation.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review March 1st, 2016

Michael Jackson – Off the Wall/Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall

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Title: Off the Wall / Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall

Artist: Michael Jackson

Director: Spike Lee

Label: Sony Legacy / 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks

Formats: CD /DVD, CD/Blu-ray

Release date: February 26, 2016

 

Though any Michael Jackson fan will have at least one copy of his seminal 1979 album, Off the Wall, this reissue from the Michael Jackson Estate and Sony Legacy is bundled with the new Spike Lee documentary Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall. If you missed the television debut on Showtime, now is your chance to obtain the DVD or Blu-ray edition.

Lee’s documentary was assembling using archival footage, much of it from Jackson’s personal archive, which follows MJ’s start at Motown, his signing with CBS Records, and perhaps most importantly, his collaboration with Quincy Jones which eventually propelled him to superstardom. There are also many interviews with contemporary musicians who speak about Jackson’s profound influence on their careers, such as The Weeknd, Pharrell Williams, John Legend, and Questlove, plus various Jackson family members (though LaToya is conspicuously absent). Many of the musicians who performed with Jackson are also featured, including Siedah Garret, Greg Phillinganes and the late Louis Johnson, plus African American record company executives Paris Eley, Maurice Warfield, Suzanne de Passe, Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, Barry Gordy, Larkin Arnold, and of course Quincy Jones.

Lee offers an in-depth look at each of the tracks on Off the Wall, and one can follow along on the CD and through the newly penned essay by Steven Ivory that speaks to the profound impact of the album on Black America. Other than the liner notes, however, the CD is a straight reissue with no added features.

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On a final note, the set is rather clumsily packaged with a piece of chalk that one can use to write on the “specially treated brick wall” on the inside of the gatefold. If you’re not interested in maintaining the integrity of the originally packaging, you might wish to discard the back insert with the chalk so the CD fits easily on the shelf.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review March 1st, 2016

Michael Spiro/Wayne Wallace, La Orquesta Sinfonietta – Canto América

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Title: Canto América

Artist: Michael Spiro/Wayne Wallace, La Orquesta Sinfonietta

Label: Patois

Format: CD, MP3

Release Date: February 12, 2016

 

 

Canto América is the newest release from longtime collaborators Michael Spiro (percussion) and Wayne Wallace (trombone), both accomplished musicians and faculty at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music.  As listeners familiar with these musicians’ reputations would rightfully expect, the duo’s La Orquesta Sinfonietta is a well-rehearsed, spot on band that plays with both fire and nuance.

Formidable instrumentalists in their own right, Spiro and Wallace let their own monster chops take a backseat to the excellent arrangements that are this album’s chief currency.  Perhaps the most compelling thing about Canto América is the ensemble’s fluidity between the conventional Latin jazz ensemble (rhythm section, horns, and auxiliary percussion) with the less typical strings that comprise much of La Orquesta Sinfonietta, employed as an integral part of the ensemble rather than a saccharine sweetener. Spiro and Wallace situate this stylistic move in what they call the “genre inclusiveness” of Cuban music, noting in the voluminous 16-page liner notes that classical, jazz, and folkloric music are all equally understood and practiced by the island nation’s working musicians.  This group’s attempts at genre inclusiveness succeed spectacularly, largely due to the strong ensemble arrangements.

Fans of the standard repertoire will be pleased to see the inclusion of a Latin-flavored version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” and the standard “Afro Blue” which, as the explanatory material included with each tune notes, was written by percussionist Mongo Santamaria, rather than by John Coltrane, who made it most famous.  The duo’s original compositions and arrangements of traditional tunes are also excellent—-they draw heavily on Latin jazz’s African musical characteristics, pulling heavily upon Yoruba imagery (“El Caldero De Ogun” and “Ochun’s Road”) and employing complicated polyrhythmic structures in their intricate original material (“Hispaniola” and ”El Medico,” the latter of which features a rhythmic solo by Wallace, “the Doctor” himself).

Overall, Canto América is a compelling exploration of neglected territory in Latin jazz, informed by scholarship about the African diaspora.  This release isn’t all smarts, though–it’s also fun to listen and (perhaps more importantly) dance to.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

View review March 1st, 2016

Various Artists – God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson

god dont never change songs of blind willie johnson

Title: God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson

Artist: Various Artists

Label: Alligator Records

Format: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: February 26, 2016

 

 

If you are aware of the history of Chicago Blues than you have likely heard of Alligator Records.  If you are not a connoisseur of the history of Chicago’s blues labels, it is useful to know how this label came to be.

One of the most important early Chicago blues labels was Chess Records, which was  started by two Polish immigrant brothers, Leonard and Phil Chess, in 1950.  The Chess roster featured some of the most important blues acts of the day, including Ike Turner, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and Koko Taylor.  In 1969 the brothers sold the label to General Recorded Tape.

In 1971, a 23-year old blues fanatic named Bruce Iglauer started the independent label  Alligator Records, which quickly became a magnet for former members of the Chess stable.  The first artist that Iglauer signed and released on his new label was Hound Dog Taylor & The HouseRockers.  In 2011 Alligator Records celebrated its 40th anniversary, releasing The Alligator Records 40th Anniversary Collection.

Today the label still attracts some of the most innovative contemporary blues artists as well as maintaining a focus on select early blues pioneers, such as Blind Willie Johnson, who was born in 1902.  He was not born blind–one oft-cited story maintains that he lost his sight when his angry stepmother threw lye in his face. In spite of going completely blind, by age 7 Johnson started to teach himself how to play the guitar.   Willie had a strong passion for both blues and gospel music.  After spending some years singing on the streets of Martin, Texas; he moved to Dallas where he met his wife Angeline.  He began his recording career around 1927 and only recorded until 1935.  Johnson died in abject poverty.

On this release, Alligator Records has assembled a well-known host of musicians to interpret some Blind Willie Johnson’s songs.  Some of the outstanding artists featured on this record include Tom Waits, Lucinda Williams, Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi, Cowboy Junkies, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Sinead O’Connor, and Rickie Lee Jones.  In addition to its great roster of musicians, God Don’t Never Change features 18 pages of extensive liner notes, including beautiful photographs and a detailed essay on Johnson’s life by singer-songwriter Michael Corcoran.

Tom Waits’s rendering of the album’s first track “The Soul of a Man” will not disappoint fans of the gravelly-voiced musician, songwriter, and actor. Waits brings in his own deep understanding of blues and gospel music in his minimalist soulful rendition.  Lucinda Williams’s performance on the album’s second track, “It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine” hearkens back to older blues styles, complete with compelling bottleneck slide guitar darting in and around the song’s vocal melody.  One of my personal favorite tracks is “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning,” performed by husband and wife Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi.  This cut features a down-home feel propelled by Truck’s masterful slide playing and fantastic call-and-response between Tedeschi and a group of backing vocalists. The duo’s impassioned performance keeps the very old song fresh. Cowboy Junkies’ performance of “Jesus is Coming Soon” gives the song’s apocalyptic lyrics an appropriately haunting treatment.  This group’s alt-country sensibility plays very well on this song.  “Trouble Will Soon Be Over” offers a moment of transcendence, transporting this reviewer to another place. Sinead O’Connor’s sweet and sensitive vocal treatment of this song gives the its aspirational lyrics an inspiring emotional thrust.

This 11 song album is definitely worth a listen.  While–due in large part to the diversity of the artists interpreting Johnson’s repertoire–there may be a few songs that might not at first blush be your cup of tea, if you listen with an open mind you’ll probably discover some real gems.

Reviewed by Patrick Scott Byrket

View review March 1st, 2016

Two Compilations of 1970’s African Pop Music

soul sok sega

Title: Soul Sok Sega: Sega Sounds from Mauritius, 1973-1979

Artists: Various

Label: Strut

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release Date: January 16, 2016

 

senegal 70

Title: Senegal 70: Sonic Gems and Previously Released Recordings from the 70s

Artists: Various

Label: Analog Africa

Formats: CD, LP, Download (MP3, FLAC, etc.)

Release Date: November 27, 2015

 

 

Two new compilations dive deep into the 1970s music cultures of two African regions—Mauritius Island and the nation of Senegal. Geographically, these places are about as far apart as you can get in Africa; Senegal is the westernmost nation on the continent, and Mauritius is an island hundreds of miles east of Madagascar, in the Indian Ocean.

Sega is the traditional music of Mauritius Island. Its roots are in the slave trade, as Mauritius was a way station for humans captured in Africa and Madagascar, and subsequently trafficked to the Americas. It’s related to American blues, which also evolved from African slaves’ music.

In the 1960s, the traditional Sega musicians began to add in Western jazz, soul and funk elements, and a danceable, electric music resulted. This is the music featured on the Strut album, which was compiled by DJ duo La Basse Tropicale (Natty Hô and Konsöle), based on the neighboring island of La Reunion. Liner notes are by Mauritian cultural expert Percy Yip Tong, and include new artist interviews.

Although the music is sung in Creole, the underlying message is universal—get out of your seat and shake it. Each of the 20 tunes in the compilation are fast driving, foot-tapping gems. Also, kudos to Strut Records’ production team for making good transfers from 45rpm singles and other sonically challenged sources, and getting nice, clear end results. Soul Sok Sega is a winner.

Senegal 70 is more tightly focused. Five of the 12 tracks are newly-released recordings from the Sangomar club in the Senegalese city of Thies. These recordings have a less-produced quality about them than the other cuts, which are mostly transfers from 70’s-era commercial singles and albums. The commercially-released tunes have a tighter feel, whereas the club recordings sometimes suffer from off-tuning and out-of-sync playing. However, the club recordings have the admirable qualities of spontaneous happenings, full of enthusiasm if somewhat raw.

The music of Senegal in this era was electrified and funky, with strong Reggae influences. Typical of African popular music in the ‘70s, complex beats and multiple layers of guitars, vocals and horns are heard throughout. Like the Sega music on the other side of the continent, Senegalese popular music of the 1970s was dance music. The dances in Senegal were likely slower and more swaying, and some tunes in the compilation show how West African music influenced Latin jazz. As with the Strut collection, the Analog Africa albums’ songs are sung in non-English languages, but this does not detract from listening enjoyment.

As has been the case with previous Analog Africa releases, Senegal 70 includes a detailed, well-crafted booklet that profiles the music scene, the artists featured in the set, and provides historical context for the scene and the music.

These two fine compilations show again how vital and varied African pop music was during the 1970’s heyday. Both are highly recommended.

 

 

Reviewed by Tom Fine

View review March 1st, 2016

February 2016 Releases of Note

Following are additional albums released during February 2016—some will be reviewed in future issues of Black Grooves.

Blues, Folk, Country
Albert Collins: Live At Rockpalast CD/DVD (Made in Germany Music)
Birds of Chicago: Real Midnight  (Five Head Ent.)
Buddy Guy: I’ll Play the Blues for You – Live (1992) (Klondike)
Jimmy Rogers: Chicago Bound: Complete Solo Chess Records As & Bs (Jasmine)
Johnny Rawls: Tiger In A Cage (Catfood Records)
Junior Crudup: Sure Love (CD Baby)
Robert Cray Band ft. Stevie Ray Vaughan: Old Jam, New Blood: Redux Club, Dallas 1987 (All Access)
Toronzo Cannon: The Chicago Way (Alligator)

Classical
Various: Piano Works by Zenobia Powell Perry (Cambria)

Funk, Rock, Pop, Electronic
Shirlette Ammons: Language Barrier (Churchkey/SugarQube )
Moodymann: DJ-Kicks (K7)
Rasputin Stash: Devil Made Me Do It (vinyl reissue) ( BBE)
Santigold: 99 Cent (Atlantic)
Soul Inscribed: Soul Inscribed
Space Captain: In Memory EP (Tru Thoughts )

Gospel, Gospel Rap, CCM
Bishop Larry D. Trotter and Sweet Holy Spirit Choir : How Far Back Can You Go?-Church Unplugged Vol 2 (Utopia Music Group )
Lecrae: Church Clothes 3 (Reach)
Newsboys: God’s Not Dead – The Greatest Hits of the Newsboys (Inpop)
Pastor Tim Rogers: Churchin’ (Sag Music Group)
T.J. Hooker Taylor: Going Back to Church (Music Access Inc.)
Talley Boyz: Home (Ecko)
The Showers: The Showers (MRI)
Thi’sl: Against All Odds
Virtue: Fearless (Mixed Bag Music Grp.)

Jazz
Donald Edwards: Prelude To Real Life (Criss Cross)
Ed Cherry: Soul Tree (Posi-Tone)
EMPIRICAL: Connection (Cuneiform)
Freddie Hendrix: Jersey Cat (Sunnyside Communication)
Heliocentrics: Quatermass Sessions: From The Deep (Now-Again)
Herbie Hancock: Live in Chicago 1977 (Hi Hat)
Herlin Riley: New Direction (Mack Ave.)
Laurence Hobgood Trio: Honor Thy Father (Circumstantial)
Logan Richardson: Shift (Blue Note)
Omar Sosa and Joo Kraus: Jog
Raphael Imbert & Co.: Music Is My Home (Jazz Village)
Red Garland: Albums Collection Part One: 1956-1959 (Enlightenment)
Red Garland: Albums Collection Part Three: 1961-1962 (Enlightenment)
Red Garland: Albums Collection Part Two: 1959-1961 (Enlightenment)
Snarky Puppy: Family Dinner Vol. 2 (CD/DVD) (Ground Up)
Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra: All My Yesterdays: The Debut 1966 Village Vanguard Recordings (Resonance)
The Stryker / Slagle Band: Routes (Strikezone)
Thelonious Monk: The Complete 1947-1956 Trios (Essential Jazz Classics)
United Vibrations: Myth of the Golden Ratio (Ubiquity)
United Vibrations: The Myth Of the Golden Ratio (Ubiquity)
Various: Jazz Vocalists Sing Cole Porter (3 CD) (W52st Records)
Various: Jazz Vocalists Sing George Gershwin (W52st Records)
Wynton Kelly: Nine Complete Albums: 1951-1961 (Enlightenment)

R&B, Soul
Al Green: The Essential Album Collection (box set) (Fat Possum / Hi Records)
Amos Milburn: Best Of The Aladdin Years 1946-57 (Acrobat)
Ashford & Simpson: I Wanna Be Selfish: Expanded Ed. (BBR)
BJ The Chicago Kid: In My Mind (Motown)
Blowfly: 77 Rusty Trombones (Saustex Media)
Brian McKnight: Better (Kobalt)
Chaka Khan: What Cha Gonna Do for Me: Expanded Ed. (BBR)
Charles Bradley & Menahan Street Band: Live From The House Of Soul (DVD) (Daptone)
Charles Wilson: Southern Soul Juke Joint (Music Access)
Clarence Carter: This Is Clarence Carter / The Dynamic Clarence Carter (Kent)
Clarence Carter : This Is Clarence Carter/The Dynamic Clarence Carter (Kent)
Fred Wesley and The JB’s: Damn Right I Am Somebody (limited Ed. vinyl) (Get on Down)
Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes: To Be True: Expanded Ed (BBR)
Jerome Brooks: Better
Larry Williams: The Very Best of Larry Williams (One Day)
Mavis Staples: Livin’ on a High Note (Anti/Epitaph)
Michael Jackson: Off the Wall/Spike Lee Documentary (Legacy)
Nigel Hall: Ladies & Gentleman (Feel Records)
Patti Austin: Street of Dreams (compilation) (Water Music)
Rhianna: Anti (Roc Nation)
Sister Sledge: Circle of Love: Special 40th Anniversary Ed. (BBR)
SWV: Still (Mass Appeal Ent./eOne)
Teddy Pendergrass: Joy (expanded ed.) (BBR)
The Suffers: The Suffers (Rhyme And Reason)
Tweet:  Charlene (eOne)
Various: Aloha Got Soul (Strut)
Various: The Other Side Of The Trax – Stax-Volt 45rpm Rarities 1964-1968 (Kent)
Killer B3: A Documentary About the Hammond Organ (DVD) (Crooked Soul Productions)

Rap, Hip Hop
Dizzy Wright: Wisdom & Good Vibes EP (Funk Volume)
Amiri: The New Negative ( HiPNOTT Records)
Beneficence: Basement Chemistry ( Ill Adrenaline)
Billionaire Buck: The Black Jew (B&B Ent.)
C-bo: Blocc Movement / Tales From the Crypt (2 CD set) (RBC)
David Banner: The God Box (A Banner Vision)
French Montana: Wave Gods (self-released)
G-Scott: Another Weekend in Los Vegas (3B Entertainment LLC)
J Alvarez: Desde Puerto Rico Live (Sony U.S. Latin)
Kahlil: The Tale of Wod Higgins (Pocket Fixed Mob LLC)
Kanye West: The Life of Pablo (Def Jam/G.O.O.D. Music)
Last Poets: This is Madness (expanded ed.) (Snapper)
Lefa: Monsieur Fall ( Jive Epic)
Lil C: H-Town Chronicle 18 (Oarfin)
Lushlife: Ritualize (Western Vinyl)
Mr. Green: The Project ( Live From The Streets )
Nature: Target Practice  (Vodka & Milk)
Philly Fate: #Onelife (Real Life Music)
Rick Rubin: Star Wars Headspace
Statik Selectah & KXNG Crooked: Static KXNG (Penalty Ent.)
The Bad Boy Young Me$$ (aka Messy Marv): The Money in the Bitch Purse, DLK Collabs Vol. 4 (Dlk Enterprise)
T-Nutty: Blue Venom (Nutt Factor)
Trae tha Truth:  Tha Thruth Part 2 (Empire)
Truth: From Ashes to Kingdom Come (Ill Adrenaline)
Vic Spencer & Chris Crack: Who the Fuck Is Chris Spencer?? (Perpetual Rebel)
Yo Gotti: Art of Hustle (Epic)
Young Thug: I’m Up (Atlantic / 300 Ent)

Reggae, Dancehall
Glen Brown: Boat to Progess (VP)
Horace Andy: In the Light (VP)
Jago: Microphones And Sofas (Tru Thoughts )
John Holt: 1000 Volts of Holt (expanded ed.) (Trojan)
Skin, Flesh & Bones: Dub in Blood (reissue) (Pressure Sounds)

World
Rokia Traoré: Ne So (Nonesuch)
Adama Yalomba: Waati Sera
Count Ossie & The Mystic Revelation Of Rastafari: Tales Of Mozambique (Soul Jazz)
DJ Katapila: Trotro (Awesome Tapes From Africa)
RAM: RAM 6: Manman m se Ginen
Stanley and the Ten Sleepless Knights: Quelbe! Music of the U.S. Virgin Islands (Smithsonian Folkways)

View review March 1st, 2016

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