Kicking off this month’s issue is jazz guitarist Anthony Wilson’s Frogtown, a blend of jazz and Americana that serves as a musical tribute to Wilson’s home neighborhood. Other jazz releases include the soundtrack for Don Cheadle’s impressionistic Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead, trumpeter Theo Croker’s spaced-out Escape Velocity, and the smooth jazz of Rick Braun, Kirk Whalum and Norman Brown’s BWB. We’re also featuring old jazz material that is now being released for the first time, including a recently unearthed Sarah Vaughan performance from 1978, Live at Rosy’s,and a set of recordings made by jazz organist Larry Young in 1964 and 1965, In Paris – The ORTF Recordings.
We have The Relatives’ Goodbye World, a new gospel funk release from a group that was not adequately appreciated in its time. This month’s book review is of sumdumhonky, a memoir by R&B pioneer Lloyd Price.
We’re featuring three fusion-oriented world music releases this month: Monistic Theory, an eclectic collaboration between producer Joe Driscoll and kora player Sekou Kouyate; Daby Touré’s diverse Amonafi; and the updated Haitian rara of Ram’s Ram 6: Manmman m se Ginen.
Today, jazz musicians drift into Americana music with ease and frequency. Anthony Wilson is the latest jazz guitarist to take the plunge into Americana with his superb release, Frogtown. The album’s name is taken from the Frogtown neighborhood in Central Los Angeles, also known as the Elysian Valley. Frogtown’s population of 8,000 is predominately middle-class Latinos and Asians, who, recently, have resisted gentrification through community organizing. Wilson does little to connect the album’s thirteen songs back to this neighborhood in an explicit fashion, but the musical quality of Frogtown is what merits attention.
In this jazz/Americana context, Wilson’s guitar expertise and songwriting talents go hand-in-hand. Frogtown’s title track—destined to appear on a public radio program somewhere—is as catchy-as-they-come and features deceptively lush orchestration. “The Geranium” is a moody jazz tune, whose melody recalls Wes Montgomery’s “Bock to Bock.” This reminds us that Anthony Wilson is no stranger to the jazz canon: his father, Gerald Wilson, was a jazz trumpeter, big band leader, and arranger in Los Angeles whose career began in the 1930s.
A surprise on the album is Wilson’s singing. To date, Wilson has crafted his musical identity as a supporting guitarist with jazz/pop musicians like Diana Krall, Al Jarreau, and Paul McCartney. Yet, on Frogtown, Wilson’s voice takes center stage. “I Saw It Through the Skylight” is a spry vocal performance—he sings as if he has just found love all over again. On “Shabby Bird,” Wilson makes the best of his limited range, with a harmonized vocal line that is clean and understated.
Frogtown is largely composed by Wilson, but the accompanying cast of instrumentalists and producers make the final product shine. It is not a surprise to see Jesse Harris on the album, as the musician/producer has worked with many jazz artists who venture into Americana, such as Norah Jones and Julian Lage. The band also features the talented Petra Haden on fiddle, producer extraordinaire Mike Elizondo on bass, Patrick Warren and Josh Nelson on all-things piano, Jim Keltner and Matt Chamberlain on drums, and a special appearance by tenor saxophone legend Charles Lloyd on “Your Footprints.”
In its convincing drift from jazz to Americana, Frogtown is a solid release that shows Anthony Wilson to be as multi-faceted as the neighborhood for which his album is named.
The Relatives are a gospel funk band that formed in the late sixties, pulling together the rock and funk sounds pioneered by Sly and the Family Stone with the traditional gospel which the group’s leader, Reverend Gean West, had by that time built a career singing. The band never achieved the success it aimed for, with performances becoming fewer and farther between during the 1970s before the group eventually stopped gigging in 1980. The liner notes for Goodbye World, the newest release from the reconstituted version of The Relatives, frame the group’s predicament this way: “Unfortunately, Gean’s innovation had too much gospel for the kids and too much wah-wah guitar and fuzzy organ for the older folks, and The Relatives never took off.” While it is certainly a shame that the group didn’t achieve the requisite success upon its formation, the band reunited in 2013, releasing a full-length album that year and playing hometown gigs in Dallas as well as some limited touring. Perhaps listeners have finally caught up with the band—if anything will convince new fans to join the fold, it will be Goodbye World.
Unfortunately this album will be West’s final effort with the group, as he fell into a coma, woke from it to provide a few final contributions, and eventually passed away in the hospital while the album was in production. Goodbye World’s recording and production is an interesting story, one which is recounted in emotional detail in the release’s liner notes— interested listeners should read the CD booklet, because the album’s story is remarkable. Goodbye World is, however, also notable as a musical document of a niche-oriented band that has cultivated a signature style, one that appears to have solidified in 2016.
Goodbye World’s musical underpinnings draw heavily from ’60s and ’70s funk rock, with wah-wah pedals and in-the-pocket grooves underpinning most of the album. The Relatives’ guitarist, Gypsy, is largely responsible for this, alternately channeling Eddie Hazel and Isaac Hayes. The persistent Hammond B3 sounds, supplied by keyboardists Ian Varley and Mike Flanigin, link hard-driving funk to the group’s gospel message, including Gene West’s introspective sermon/personal testimony on the album’s first track, “Rational Culture/Testimony.” “You Gotta Do Right” is a Jimi Hendrix-meets-Sly Stone funk rock romp, “No Man is an Island” sounds like Frankie Valli with wah-wah guitars behind him, and “He Never Sleeps” is straight out of the acapella gospel quartet tradition. Lyrically, the band emphasizes themes of unity and spirituality, while also touching on current events, such as police overreach, in “This World is Moving too Fast.”
While Goodbye World will likely not sound as revolutionary to contemporary listeners as The Relatives may have upon the band’s initial formation, the band has clearly developed a well-honed sound. Goodbye World is funky and spiritual; it deserves repeated listens, at least once for the sounds and at least once for the message.
Lloyd Price is famously nicknamed “Mr. Personality,” but that audacious title seems to underplay his presence after reading his second book, sumdumhonky. The New Orleans performer, best known for hits like ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy” and “Stagger Lee,” has produced a definitively no-holds-barred biography. The chapter titles alone make it clear that this book is not just a rose-colored glasses reminiscence on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees rise to the top of the charts. “I’m a Nigger (I Thought).” “No Friends in the Banks for Blacks.” “He Hates Me For No Reason At All.” These chapters, and others, highlight the oft glossed over racism that even the most successful R&B performers have faced.
Price is a multitalented man, with a long career including stints as a bandleader, songwriter, music producer, record label executive, booking agent, club owner and more. He was discovered as a teen by Dave Bartholomew, who has been referred to as one of the “key architects of the New Orleans sound.” Price recorded for Specialty Records and ABC-Paramount, but his breakthrough hit was the distinctly New Orleans tinged “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” which featured Fats Domino on the piano and Earl Palmer on the drums.
The hit, which spent seven weeks at the top of the R&B charts in 1952 and was later famously covered by the likes of Little Richard and Elvis Presley, rocketed a teenage Lloyd Price to levels of success unheard of for an African American boy from rural Louisiana. Price’s coverage of this life changing event gives a clue to sumdumhonky’s real focus:
“I won’t take you back over my entire career, that would be difficult to do in one chapter. But to shorten it, I became a big teenage star in the early 1950s, perhaps the biggest that had ever been at that time. It was unheard of for a young black kid from the south to make the impact I made in the music world. In a nutshell, I hit the top, and my music revolutionized American teenagers and started the youth movement” (pg. 35).
That brief self-aggrandizing paragraph is the entire description of his discovery, of recording “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” and his subsequent rise to fame. While that might be disappointing to some fans looking for a classic musician’s memoir that focuses on the songwriting process and on namedropping people met along the way, Price’s book still has a lot to offer in its baldfaced rawness.
Written in a conversational style, sumdumhonky is full of cursing, bawdy analogies and stream of consciousness ponderings on race relations. The book is organized into chapters that exist as vaguely chronological essays relating events in Price’s life to his overall view of race relations in the United States. He talks about being stationed in Korea and telling off Bubba, the “king of sumdumhonkey,” a racist white man who only became a proponent of integration when he needed into Price’s foxhole; about having to call Art Rupe, president of Specialty Records, when a Cadillac dealer in Hollywood refused to sell a Black man a car; and about the racist Christians in his hometown whose God certainly did not love Black people. The common thread throughout Price’s memoir is not music, but rather exactly what the title suggests—his ongoing experiences trying to succeed in a society run by, as he puts it, “sum dum honkey.”
sumdumhonkey reads like the stories told by the slickest older gentleman at your barbershop or family reunion. He doesn’t watch his tongue or pull his punches. He allows himself to be angry at racism, to embrace the emotions of his memories, but never to be dour or unentertaining. In spite of the clear focus on racial discord in the book, Price is optimistic about future generations and their harmoniously dissolving prejudices. Even when remembering the racism of the 1960s, Price admits that the youth and their cross-cultural love for music has always led to social change.
“When the white man finally started talking to us, it was because his sons and daughters had a love for our music. It was not Rosa Parks, or Martin Luther King, even though those were great people who did great things. The significant events they started means a lot in black history, but none of it could have happened if it wasn’t already happening with our music.” (pg. 63)
Newark, NJ native Larry Young (also known as Khalid Yasin) is probably best known for his fiery organ-combo recordings for Blue Note, or perhaps for his late 60’s membership in the original Tony Williams Lifetime group, with drummer Williams and guitarist John McLaughlin. In this new 2-CD collection, we hear the 24-year-old Larry Young moving away from the soul-blues organ combos he had led since his first recording in 1960, and toward a more modern, modal jazz heard on his classic Blue Note album Unity.
Young’s performances for the French public broadcaster, ORTF, were recorded in late 1964 and early 1965, broadcast once and then kept in a vault until Resonance Records made a release deal with the French national archives’ media division, the INA. Good news for jazz fans, Resonance hints that there are worthwhile recordings by many other American jazz musicians in the INA vaults, and they intend to release them.
The ORTF recordings place Young in a variety of settings: trios, quartets and larger groups. Most were made in the ORTF studios, but two cuts are from a broadcast of l’Acadamie du jazz’s concert held February 9, 1965 at La Locomotive club in Paris. One of those performances is a 20-minute rendition of Young’s “Zoltan,” which he later recorded as the opening track of Unity. The song is a tribute to Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly, which is the result of an interesting part of Young’s background. He learned piano from Hungarian émigré Olga Von Till, who studied with classical composer Bela Bartok in Budapest, and also taught jazz piano great Bill Evans, and many less famous students in northern New Jersey. Ms. Von Till is profiled in the album’s sizable booklet, an interesting side character in an important jazz career.
According to the album’s liner notes, Young was in France in late 1964 and early 1965 because there were paying gigs, and freedom from the tense political and racial environment then coursing through Newark and New York. He signed on with tenor saxophonist Nathan Davis’s quartet at the Paris club, Le Chat Qui Peche (the Cat who Fishes), which included his Newark jazz buddies, trumpeter Woody Shaw and drummer Billy Brooks. The group recorded about half of the cuts across the 2 CDs, and Davis and Shaw also played in the larger-group recordings made by ORTF.
While some of the playing is rougher than would be expected on Young’s Prestige or Blue Note albums, the musicians often lock into deep grooves, and the crystal clear recordings by ORTF’s engineers showcase each musician’s contribution. The long jams work because the playing is imaginative and the soloists are clearly being driven onward and upward by their band mates. There’s a one-take-or-bust excitement to everything, very capable musicians driven by spontaneous grooves and improvisations. This kind of jazz is hard to pull off, and is rarely heard at such a high level.
It’s worth noting that these recordings fall around and just after the time Young made his first Blue Note album, Into Somethin’ (recorded November 12, 1964) and a few months before he made the seminal Unity (recorded November 10, 1965). It’s clear that Young is moving toward something that was new and different for the jazz organ, more abstract, fleet-fingered and percussive, different from the blues-funk style of many of his contemporaries. He would go on to explore a more free-form style, and end up in the earliest group of fusion-jazz musicians, playing on the first two Tony Williams Lifetime albums and on Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew.
In the ORTF recordings, now out of the vault and available to all, we hear an energized Larry Young moving his art in a new direction, in the company of capable cohorts. Throw in some high-class packaging and a 68-page booklet with details about Young’s life, the ORTF and its jazz shows, the circumstances of these recordings, and remembrances of Young’s band mates and friends, and the result is indeed a very appealing release.
This recording provides a classic illustration of the difference between an artist and a performer. Sarah Vaughanlived many of her songs, harnessing her famous range of four octaves, her marvelous breath control, and her masterful control of time and rhythm to create unique interpretations of each composer’s creations. She was an artist who engaged her audience during her live performances, and never more than in an intimate club setting like the one captured on this recording. The balanced program intermixes up tempo and ballad performances, demonstrating how she left her distinct imprint on songs regardless of any tempo. On this release, Vaughan is accompanied by Carl Schroeder (piano), Walter Booker (bass), Jimmy Cobb (drums).
I have most of her recordings in my personal collection. This is one of the best of her live performances, standing alongside her wonderful performances at Tivoli Gardens (available on two EmArcy CDs) and later ones released as Live in Japan and More Live from Japan (issued on two Mainstream CDs and later by Mobile Fidelity). After Billie Holiday, Sarah and Carmen McRae provide the foundation for jazz vocalists, an opinion shared by many of their fans. This recording can be a wonderful introduction to her work for anyone who is not already familiar with her performances and recordings.
At the time of this recording, Sarah was beginning to record for Norman Granz’s Pablo Records. Granz paired her with notable artists including Count Basie, Benny Carter, Zoot Sims, Frank Wess, Oscar Peterson, Joe Pass, and other notable jazz artists. Those albums from her Pablo years are certainly among her finest, catching her at the height of her powers. That does not diminish memories of earlier albums, including a memorable one with Clifford Brown, but this release is truly special. Granz once said he could tell from the opening if Ella Fitzgerald planned to perform a “jazz set.” Here, Sarah’s performance opens with “I’ll Remember April” and clearly establishes that this will be a jazz session. Even the ballads reflect her creative imprint as she bend notes and improvises around melodies.
In short, this is not just another recording by this great jazz artist. While the roots of her early bop singing are evident, she ranges far beyond her earlier skills in these performances.
I tend to favor the performances on the first CD in this set. In “I’ll Remember April,” her performance flows “across the bars,” reminiscent of Lester Young’s unique sense of time. Her treatment of the verse to “Poor Butterfly” is simply gorgeous and brings applause from the audience as she conveys the sense of longing that the composers intended, often overlooked when others only perform the melodic chorus. Her ability to create beauty is also evident in her approach to “If You Went Away.”
On “East of the Sun,” she is only accompanied only by Walter Booker’s solid support on bass, demonstrating her strength. This is but one of the ways she brings variety to these performances. “Somebody Loves Me” is performed with a delightfully fluid tempo, but it ends abruptly, perhaps due to editing?
Humor even surfaces when someone in the audience mistakes her for Ella Fitzgerald and requests “A Tisket a Tasket.” Sarah laughs and even mimics Ella’s inflections when she compiles. Fun to hear once, but perhaps not something for repeated listening. On “Fascinating Rhythm” she briefly mimics an operatic style of delivery, again delighting he audience. It is clear that Sarah developed a relationship with her audience during this performance.
But humor is not the main event. Throughout this recording, Sarah alternates up tempo and ballad performances that can please all. Her detractors sometimes feel that her delivery can emphasize her mastery of technique at the expense of emotion. That is certainly not true here as she leaves her unique imprint regardless of the tempo.
My one reservation is that, to my ear, the equalization on the recording elevates the sound of Jimmy Cobb’s cymbals , making the sound harsh at times. This is a matter of personal preference, and others may certainly disagree. But this does not detract from the qualities of being a true artist that is evidenced in Sarah’s performance in this recording.
If you aren’t already familiar with Anderson .Paak, prepare to get comfortable seeing and hearing him everywhere. Those words might sound like cliché “next big thing” filler, but with .Paak’s recent association with Dr. Dre, appearing on 6 tracks of Dre’s Compton release and his recent signing to Aftermath Records, it’s clear that this up-and-comer has up-and-came. What’s also clear is that .Paak is entirely deserving of this and future success not because of his tragically difficult background, but because of his resplendently smooth and positive neo-soul sound.
There is something completely and intentionally California about .Paak’s music. His first two full length albums, Venice (2015) and Malibu (2016) put his home state right in their titles, and beautifully reflect the combination of abject poverty and natural beauty that draws people in and can sometimes keep them down. “The City,” the third track on Venice introduces that conflict with a sample of someone making reference to Venice, CA’s derogatory nickname—“The Slum by the Sea.”
That juxtaposition—beauty and poverty, oppression and optimism—is what makes .Paak so compelling. His music doesn’t shy away from straight talk about life’s hustle, but it never allows itself to be pulled down into deep negativity.
A prime example comes from “The Dreamer,” one of Malibu’s most successful tracks to date:
Credited as featuring “The Timan Family Choir” (four of Paak’s nieces who love to sing), “The Dreamer” bursts out with a jubilant chorus:
This one’s for all the little dreamers / And the ones who never gave a fuck
I’m a product of the tube and the free lunch / Living room, watching old reruns
And who cares your daddy couldn’t be here? / Mama always kept the cable on
I’m a product of the tube and the free lunch / Living room, watching old reruns
In other hands these lyrics could be depressing, but .Paak arranges the smooth guitar, delicate piano, children’s voice and soulful beat into a jam that celebrates survival and provides the sort of affirmational truth that encourages listeners to keep dreaming.
If anyone would have the right to write depressing music, it would be .Paak. Born Brandon Anderson Paak to a South Korean mother and a father who abused his mother and would later go to jail for drugs, he spent years living on the streets and way below the poverty level. In spite of, or perhaps because of his struggles, .Paak brings the soul to neo-soul. His music doesn’t just practice retro aesthetics but expertly melded decades of African American music into something that feels entirely comfortable while sounding entirely new. A consummate musician, .Paak sings like he’s in church, raps like he’s on the street corner, and drums like he’s in a jazz band.
.Paak has been compared to Frank Ocean and Kendrick Lamar, but the similarities lie more in ethos than sound. .Paak, Ocean, and Lamar represent a new wave of Black musicians who are willing and able to make emotionally resonant music that speaks to the politics of today’s society, while remaining danceable and ready to be bumped from a car on a summer afternoon.
Kanye West’sThe Life of Pablo is a disconnected, spontaneous, yet ultimately passionate body of work that seems to parallel his current public persona. The album, given only to fans via the Tidal streaming service, was released earlier this year on February 14 and is Kanye’s seventh studio album. The deluxe version of the album contains 18 tracks, and includes a variety of topics such as his turbulent relationship with Taylor Swift, his desire to become a better friend, and a plea to his wife for them to stop attending parties in Los Angeles. There are definitely a few hits on the album, but it does lack a cohesive, story-telling or cinematic experience, a talent he showed off on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Kanye’s spastic personality has ensured that his music is always placed under a microscope, being dissected, scrutinized, and criticized more than most of today’s best artists. The album as a whole relies heavily on gritty, analog drum kits complete with Dilla-like swing, sounding similar to his College Dropout days but with added maturity. It’s also notably less influenced by electronic music than Yeezus was; however, he still seamlessly blends his trademarked (not literally) soulful samples with cutting edge digital instrumentation. A great example of this is on “Father, Stretch My Hands Part I,” where the intro gospel sample from Pastor T.L. Barrett transitions into a hard-hitting trap style drop with 1/64 hi-hats and snappy 808 snare rolls. The gospel theme can also be heard at other points throughout the album, linking together tracks like “Ultralight Beam” and the monologue “Low Lights” through expressive, soulful group-singing and chords.
Another track that deserves special attention is “Real Friends.” Quite possibly the most introspective song from Kanye on the entire album, it begins with a somber, airy piano pad. The grainy, distant melody provides a gloomy tone to be used throughout the whole song. Once the beat drops, rumbling kicks and a subtly filtered yet heavily reverbed snare settle in and drive the rhythm. Ty Dolla $ign provides auto-tuned background vocals, and even at times creates a head-nodding call and response flow. The hook is a simple repetition of the line: “Real friends, how many of us, there’s not many of us, real friends,” with the verses highlighting his displeasure of only being contacted when friends need a favor, as well as his unstable relationships with extended family. “Real Friends,” along with “Ultralight Beam” (featuring Chance the Rapper, The-Dream, Kelly Price, and Kirk Franklin), “Famous,” “Waves,” and “No More Parties in LA” (featuring Kendrick Lamar) are the home runs of the album due to the depth of their lyrics and production quality. These tracks could easily make their way to the mainstream media in the near future.
Although sonically ahead of the game, as most of Kanye’s albums are, The Life of Pablo makes a convincing argument that it was recorded with no real plan or direction in mind. There are roughly 6-8 extremely meaningful, well-crafted songs on the album, while the rest of the tracks and intermissions sound like older material added for quantity, rather than quality.
Newark, New Jersey rapper Beneficence released his sixth album, Basement Chemistry, in January on Ill Adrenaline, the record label he co-founded in 2010. The mission of Beneficence and his label is to “keep that raw and authentic boom-bap rap music alive.” The veteran rapper certainly does that on Basement Chemistry, with 19 tracks of diverse beats, clever flows, and a slew of notable guest rappers.
“Digital Warfare” features Inspectah Deck of Wu-Tang Clan and a brassy sample with a traditional boom-bap beat (thanks to cuts by DJ Rob Swift). Both rappers have unique but tight flows that make the song incredibly catchy and cohesive:
Beneficence first started rapping in the 1990s, and his style stays true to the East coast origins of hip hop through heavy sampling, such as the R&B in “Intro” and soul in “Wranglers & Asics,” use of scratching in “Vibrate the Streets,” and narrative storytelling in “Maui Vacation.”
Coming up only a few years after they started, the music of Beneficence is very aesthetically similar to The Roots, and of rappers still in the game, he sounds most like Black Thought. Similar to The Roots, the music of Basement Chemistry is full of soul – not just in the 1960’s and 70’s samples, but in the passion and dedication behind every bar Beneficence raps.
Trumpeter Theo Croker has quite the musical pedigree. He is Doc Cheatham’s grandson, studied at Oberlin Conservatory, has performed all over the world, and has taken on a mentor in the great jazz vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater. Despite being a man of the world, however, Croker’s musical ambitions are interstellar. This is immediately clear from a cursory glance at the track listing for Escape Velocity, Croker’s 5th release, which features titles such as “Raise Your Vibrations,” “In Orbit,” and “Love From the Sun.” Following in a long line of celestial jazz purveyors, including Sun Ra and Melvin Van Peebles, Croker has crafted a set of solid, if not always out-of-this-world, instrumental numbers.
The group’s sound lies somewhere in the space between jazz, funk, and neo-soul throughout most of Escape Velocity, with soundscapes consisting of both acoustic and electronic sounds. Perhaps the defining mark of Croker’s style is the electronic alteration of acoustic instruments — the album’s opener “Raise Your Vibrations” features trumpet lines laden with delay to match the transcendent poetry that opens the album and “This Could Be” opens with what sounds like an acoustic bass run through a pitch-shifter. “Love from the Sun,” (featuring Dee Dee Bridgewater) is filled with synthesized sounds and funky (possibly sampled) breakbeats and Croker playing a far-out a wah-wah trumpet solo. While the group’s foundation consists of acoustic rather than synthesized sounds, Crocker and company play conventional instruments in innovative ways.
The cuts on Escape Velocity predominantly explore metaphysical territory (for instance, “A Call to the Ancestors” and “Meditation”), ultimately attempting to encapsulate the more spiritual aspects of life in music. These pieces’ moods range from darkness (the political “We Can’t Breathe,” a musical commentary on Eric Garner’s death at the hands of police) to light (“It’s Gonna Be Alright”) to paradox (“No Escape from Bliss”). Much of the conceptual work that Croker does on this record takes place in his arrangements and textures — each song contains a hand-selected collection of instruments and players, made up primarily of Croker’s core group DVRK FUNK featuring Anthony Ware on tenor and flute, Michael King on piano, Eric Wheeler on bass, and drummer Kassa Overall. This ensemble facilitates the albums’ delicate conceptual work, making musical the abstract ideas that inform the tracks’ titles.
Releases of this kind often try to tell listeners how hip the band is, but, true to both good writing and good composition, Croker shows them. This is modern funk-inspired jazz that doesn’t rely on trite musical cliches to showcase the musicians’ hip sensibilities — rather, it feels fresh because the musicians are exploring their unique musical voices. Escape Velocity is a great contribution to this year’s slate of new releases, perhaps the most simultaneously challenging and genuinely hip jazz release since Kamasi Washington’s 2015 The Epic (although Escape Velocity is of a smaller scale and, therefore, much more digestible on first listen) and will certainly take its listeners on a journey of sounds, moods, and perhaps even space and vibrations.
Smooth jazz is a guilty pleasure of mine, one that often gets far more flak than it deserves. Full disclosure: during my senior year of college, I wandered by a floor mate’s open door to ask what was that hip music she was listening to, only to discover that it was The Weather Channel’s weekend forecast for Charlotte, North Carolina. As of today I’m shedding the stigma that fans of “serious jazz” feel often feel about digging the sub genre. “Local on the 8’s” guitarist Norman Brown has partnered with fellow smooth-jazzers Kirk Whalum and Rick Braun to record a groove-based release full of with tight playing and tasteful arrangements.
This group is perhaps best known for their 2013 album of Michael Jackson covers, Human Nature. That release hasn’t gotten too much play, which may not come as a surprise: it is no accident that Jackson was called “The King of Pop” — he was inimitable, therefore interpreting his repertoire is a thorny proposition at best. However, BWB gets a good bit funkier on this self-titled album, in large part thanks to the group’s focus on original material. BWB formulated these tunes while hanging out at Rick Braun’s home studio in Los Angeles and is backed by a rotating rhythm section of strong players, lending voice to compelling new compositions and improvisations.
One interesting part of this release is the band’s chanted choruses, which feel as though they may have been drawn from the annals of 70s funk — these cats are primarily instrumentalists rather than singers, but BWB’s songs have lyrics that may broaden their crossover appeal to adult contemporary audiences. They also make the band’s primarily groove-based instrumentals more listenable: rather than just improvisations over a couple of chords, these vocals make otherwise minimal compositions feel more like full-fledged songs . The trio’s playing is expressive throughout, with many songs being characterized by the three soloists playing intertwined melodies (“BWB”). They also play compelling solos, often trading improvisations that feed off of the members’ stellar interplay with one another (“Bolly Bop”). Braun makes great use of double time in his fluglehorn solo on “I Want You Girl,” Brown gets the opportunity to really take the band for a walk on “Memphis Steppin’,” and Whalum gets saxy on “Hey Baby.”
If you want to give smooth jazz a shot, BWB is a great place to start. This album proves that the sub-genre isn’t all cheesy synthesizers and triangles dinging off in the distance, but that really gifted players like to get down on the light-funk side of things.
Santigold is mostly known as a fashion forward artist with a singular pop sound. Songs like “L.E.S. Artistes” and “Creator” from her two albums Santigold and Master of My Make-Believe have resonated their way into a remarkable place in contemporary American cultural history. Now a 39-year-old woman, her most recent release, 99c, is an album that not only expresses her singular musical control but also her maturity. She has produced her own take on pop that never sounds forced.
99 Cents begins extremely well with “Can’t Get Enough,” a terrific song that sounds like an elegant take on the pop music of the 1950’s:
The song “Banshee” is another notable track, though it sounds like her older releases. This indicates one of the issues with this album—sometimes it feels like her sound has not progressed and that we’re listening to songs from her older albums. Despite feeling unoriginal, “Banshee” is a good time. “Before the Fire” resonates like great American songs do: it is both weighty and light, and is probably the most interesting of the album’s 12 tracks.
“Outside the War” is another great song that combines rock and pop well. In it, we hear an understanding of the amount of space for lyrical experimentation that this blend can afford a musician being put to great use. “Run the Races” stings.
In an interview with Complex magazine, Santigold said “I set out to make a pop record that incorporates all the things Santigold records always incorporate, which is elements of African music, punk rock, hip-hop and everything that I would want to put into a song but still under the umbrella of a pop song where there’s a chorus you can sing along with. I like when pop is still good music, that’s what I like.” The long history of human artistry is a history of artists attempting artistic freedom: the ability to produce art that expresses “true selves.” There are still debates about the painting Mona Lisa and who it really depicts: either the wife of the man who commissioned Leonardo Da Vinci or a courtesan, suggesting that Da Vinci may have pushed against what he was “supposed” to do in favor of following his own muse. Something similar has happened in music, with pop musicians attempting personal “freedom” through artistic expression, despite the potential constraints that come with record labels and sales figures. Santigold’s effort puts her at the avant-garde of those who genuinely love pop and strive to produce their own take on it.
There’s a notable amount of very serious, almost political, playfulness in Santigold’s album that only she does in the pop music realm. Pop culture is a culture of play and most pop musicians take this to an extreme. But Santigold seems to want to take its playfulness in another direction, drawing her lyrical and musical style much closer to rock.
Santigold’s 99 Cents is a notable album. She combines rock and pop better than any of her peers do, pushing the boundaries of pop music beyond the limits set by radio and the musical performance circuit and into the realm of sincerity and actual personality.
“I love God, but I also love mob movies.” With these 9 words, BJ The Chicago Kid (a.k.a. Bryan James Sledge) begins In My Mind, an album that by its conclusion proves to be a record of immense musical intensity about the narrator’s personality, personhood, and opinions. The “I” in the quote that begins this paragraph remains the object of the album’s songs; BJ’s world and opinions are the subjects of our concern until the very end. To treat personality, personal opinion, and personhood musically, he explores familiar terrain with care, producing an album of R&B and soul songs that not only twists lyrics and resonating rhythms into first person dramas, but also into observations of the world that he lives in.
In My Mind is intensely felt throughout. Though it is not one of the best songs on this album, “Turnin’ Me Up” it is a great love song. Love, according to this song, is a simple, convivial, and lush chant. “Jeremiah/World” is what happens when simplicity is done well. What’s fascinating about this song is that it’s one of the least dramatic songs on the album, but also one of the most pleasant to listen to. Pleasantry is not what BJ The Chicago Kid is aiming for, however, as he references the prophet Jeremiah’s calling, asserting that “the feeling that he had then / I have right now.”
“The New Cupid” is a song that reveals that BJ The Chicago Kid is better at singing soul music than sin city R&B. We are introduced to a truly great voice when he sings that “Cupid is gone.” Kendrick Lamar makes a contribution, his rap elevating BJ’s singing.
“Woman’s World” is a very important song on the album. “I know that you heard that this is man’s world” flips the script on James Brown’s classic hit, extolling the virtues of femininity, an update that feels far more apropos in 2016. “Home” and “Crazy” contextualize the album, emphasizing BJ’s personality.
These days, we’ve come to expect the same romantic dramas from R&B. This is especially the case in the music of R&B of male singers. However, In My Mind contains a different kind of drama, one that incorporates the more varied themes that hip hop artists address into an R&B format.
What’s missing from this album is further musical refinement, despite its being an album of some the most nuanced R&B and soul released recently. The entire album is in simple vernacular language; perhaps further lyrical revision could have made the poetry as thrilling as the narratives, ultimately improving the songs. The songs’ arrangements could have also been more precise to emphasize the complex rhythmic vocabulary the artist employs. In My Mind seems humorless at times; BJ The Chicago Kid does not laugh much on this album except for during one skit and listeners seeking entertainment value exclusively may find this tone a bit sharp.
In My Mind is an intense listen and its slower songs are terrific. Though BJ The Chicago Kid is best at singing soul music, the album’s pitfall is that it chooses to not experiment as much as its musicians could, rather choosing to work in the more minimalistic contemporary R&B mold.
Joe Driscoll has become famous over the past decade because of his blend of funk, folk, and hip hop music. In 2010, he met and formed a friendship with Guinean kora player Sekou Kouyate, which led to the release of their debut album, Faya, in 2014. On their second album, Monistic Theory, Driscoll and Kouyate continue to create a unique brand of music that innovatively combines their styles and displays the duos’ songwriting skills and lyricism.
Monistic Theory features a mixture of instrumental tracks with sung and rapped songs. The opening track, “Tamala,” blends gentle guitar and kora with the voice of Oren Lyons, a Native American author and activist. Her words are few but poetic, as she muses, “Water is life, water is the foundation of life.”
Songs such as “Tokira” echo this softer side of the two musicians. Composed by Kouyate, the bass (by John Railton) and percussion (by Jimbo Breen) set a solid beat that allows his impeccable kora skills to shine. Driscoll’s lyrics are introspective and calm, reflecting on what his 10-year-old self would think about where he has ended up in life:
Kouyate’s and Driscoll’s rapping skills are most evident in the title track “Monistic Theory,” an uplifting song urging today’s younger generation to stay positive despite the world’s problems that concludes with the sung chorus: “Hey, you got to believe in you and what you know is true.” Songs such as “Rising Ride” and “Wama” echo these hip hop influences.
Many songs, including “Badiya” and “Barra,” feature Kouyate singing in his native language, which adds another element of world music to the mix. They transition to funk in the final track, a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Master Blaster.” Here the groove has a reggae feel, and the energized performance was drawn from a live concert recorded in Syracuse, New York.
Though there are many genres that play into Joe Driscoll and Sekou Kouyate’s Monistic Theory, all of the songs share a common message of maintaining hope and perseverance despite the many problems people face throughout the world.
Daby Touré delights in his many identities, calling himself an “Afropean”; although he was born in Mauritania and raised in Senegal, he has now lived over half his life in Paris. Despite the wishes of some people for him to be a “traditional African artist,” he always loved listening to pop, and was inspired by Stevie Wonder, The Police, and Michael Jackson. He has made a career out of his genre-bending and –bridging music. His fifth album, Amonafi, which means “once upon a time” in Wolof, aims to show Touré’s unique vision of Africa, through embracing these multiple musical and cultural lenses.
The album traverses many topics and periods of history. The opening track, “Woyoyoye (A Cry)” describes a love story in the village Touré grew up in. “Amonafi (Once Upon a Time)” is about slavery, and how it changed a people who were once at one with nature into a nation “adrift.”
Amonafi also has many songs about the struggles of women, often discussed in Touré’s eloquent storytelling and songwriting. For instance, “Debho (Women)” is a tribute to women who he fears “bear the weight of our whole society.” “Oma (Call Me)” is about migration, but based on a story a Romanian woman told Touré near his Paris home:
These stories and masterful lyricism are coupled with powerful music that seasoned with folk flavors, soul, and Afropop. One song that Touré wrote with his father, “Khone (Enemy)” is actually an excerpt from a Black Power-inspired opera they created, with the album version of this song performed acapella.
Amonafi is another striking work of art from Daby Touré, mirroring his multifaceted world view and representing a fresh perspective on African history, life, and music.
In the Haitian musical style rasin, religious rhythms are blended with secular rhythms drawn from rock or pop. In the 1980’s, several Haitian musicians decided to play Haitian music true to what they believed were the island’s cultural roots—Vodou religion—and found a kind of bohemian success doing it.
Their movement was founded in both music and culture; rasin musicians would not only play Vodou music, but also dress and even walk in a manner closer to Haitian popular culture. In order to understand Vodou rhythms, they visited Haiti’s many Vodou Lakou temples, such as Lakou Badjo in the Artibonite, a region in Haiti known for its rice and legumes. They wore dreads but as cheve simbi, which translates to “simbi hair”—to match that of Kongo Simbi spirits transplanted to Haiti in Vodou mythology. These musicians played at very small venues, including the painter Jean Rene Jerome’s house. They mixed the rhythms that they found through their research with rhythms that they had personal affinities for, drawing from rock and other pop music styles. The very first rasin group was Foula, while the most internationally recognized today is likely Boukman Experyans. They were not the first Haitians to produce commercial music rooted in Vodou rhythms, however. In Haiti it is generally agreed that the true founder of Rasin music was Antalcidas Murat, who was a member of the group Super Jazz Des Jeunes. Like RAM, Jazz des Jeunes blended popular sounds of its day with Vodou rhythms, though the product was then called “folklore.”
With Manman m Se Ginen, RAM has released a wonderful album of 12 songs that illustrate the continued livelihood of rasin. What is perhaps this album’s defining characteristic is its copious rhythmic blending. These rhythmic layers are exactly what rasin music is all about. The album begins on a both strong and intense note with “Papa Loko,” based upon a rara rhythm and a short segment, almost a snippet, of the lyrics of the Vodou song “Papa Loko” as the basis of the song’s lyrics. Papa Loko is a Taino god, the founder of all, who made his way into the Vodou pantheon of gods. This kind of borrowing continues on the song “Jije’m Byen,” a reinterpretation of a song made famous by the great singer Coupe Cloue. In this case, the voice of Cloue, a vagabond male, is replaced by Lunise Morse, a Haitian woman with a soulful voice. Morse is joined by a rough-sounding choir singing along with heavily-processed melodic guitar in counterpoint.
“Tout Pitit” and “Kolibri Anko” are enjoyable listens though, like the other songs on this album, may not engage a listener enough who is well versed in contemporary musical styles. If it were not for the synthesizers in the song’s intro, “Kolibri Met Bwa” would be the album’s standout track. The rhythm engages a listener and the medley of instruments is both rich sounding and precise in communicating beauty and urgency. “Ogou O” is a fascinating listen, about a transplanted Yoruba god of war who is now a deity in Haitian Vodou. Perhaps it is the effect of RAM’s having fought long and hard in Haitian politics since the 1990’s that makes them sing about Ogou in such a melancholy style. “Mon Konpe Gede” is the album’s best song by far. Gede is a cultural event in Haiti and a Vodou celebration of the dead and their spirits, and “Mon Konpe Gede” is particularly well-orchestrated.
Perhaps it is because RAM is now a legendary music group in Haiti, but much of the complexity in these songs is cultural and to be explained, rather than operating under the assumption that music must be felt. It often feels like RAM is interested in producing symphonic music that requires listeners be attuned to subtle nuance as opposed to radio music made to resonate itself into popularity. Ultimately, however, that’s fine as Manman m Se Ginen is an enjoyable listen with great instrumentals and a great female singer.
Don Cheadle’s new movie is what amounts to a fictional bio-pic about Miles Davis, with parts of the portrayed biography being real but the central action of the movie being a creation of Cheadle’s imagination. In short, it takes a real person, Miles Davis, and elements of his real life, as portrayed by Cheadle, and sets in motion a series of incidents that never actually happened.
Given that setup, it’s not surprising that the soundtrack recording features snippets of Don Cheadle portraying Miles Davis between cuts of actual Davis recordings and additional music by jazz-hip hop artist Robert Glasper.
What is surprising, though, is that it works pretty well. There are only three complete cuts from Miles Davis’s albums: “Miles Ahead” from the 1953 Prestige compilation Blue Haze, “So What” from the 1959 Columbia classic Kind of Blue, and “Frelon Brun” from the 1969 Columbia album Filles de Kilimanjaro. The other seven Davis tunes are either edits or cuts, but offer a good flavor of the depth and breadth of Davis’s music. The Glasper cuts are Davis-esque, as are Cheadle’s spoken interludes.
Like the movie, the soundtrack album is an exploration of one man’s (Cheadle’s) ideas about another man (Davis). There are other views of Davis and his life, including his own autobiography, Miles. Keep in mind, Cheadle’s movie is a series of fictional events, and this soundtrack was created in service to that movie.
Although Sony’s press release suggests this album might be a good introduction to the music of Miles Davis, I highly recommend seeking out the original albums. Aside from the three cited above, check out the other sources of edited/excerpted cuts: Sketches of Spain, Seven Steps To Heaven, Nefertiti, Jack Johnson, On the Corner and Agharta.
Omnivore Recordings is releasing expanded versions of two definitive albums by the Blind Boys of Alabama, Spirit of the Century and Higher Ground. Each album includes previously unreleased recordings drawn from live performances.
Spirit of the Century, originally released in 2001, won a Grammy for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album. This is all the more impressive since the Blind Boys of Alabama were already 60 years into their career at that point. More recently, a version of the album’s song “Way Down in the Hole” gained national attention when it was used as the theme song for the first season of HBO’s The Wire. The expanded reissue includes seven previously unissued tracks recorded live at The Bottom Line in New York City in 2001.
Released a year later, Higher Ground featured musical backing from Robert Randolph & the Family Band, as well as multiple guest appearances from Ben Harper. The album rearranged traditional hymns as well as classic songs by Curtis Mayfield, Funkadelic, and Aretha Franklin, and won the group their second consecutive Grammy. The expanded edition includes another seven previously unreleased tracks that were recorded live on KCRW radio’s Morning Becomes Eclectic show in 2002.
Both reissues include new essays by author Davin Seay, which help bring a fresh perspective to these classic albums and bonus tracks.
Following are additional albums released during April 2016—some will be reviewed in future issues of Black Grooves.
Blues, Folk, Country B.B. King: The King’s Blues Box (3 LP set) (Stardust)
Little Junior Parker: Next Time You See Me…Complete Singles 1952-1962 (Jasmine)
Keb’ Mo’: Live – That Hot Pink Blues Album
Sonny Mack: Get on Up! (Ecko)
Bobby Blue Bland: Further on Up the Road: The Duke Recordings (Southern Routes)
Sugar Blue: Voyage (M.C. Records)
Otis Rush and Buddy Guy: Live in Chicago ’88 (Klondike)
Teddy Thompson and Kelly Jones: Little Windows
Professor Longhair: Live at the University of Chicago Folk Festival (Select-O-Hits)
Kwesi Forae : 27 EP
Funk, Rock, Pop, Electronic Various: Sissle & Blake Sing Shuffle Along (Harbinger)
Cha Wa : Funk ‘n’ Feathers
The Relatives: Goodbye World (Luv N Haight Records)
DJ Rashad: Afterlife (Teklife)
The Heavy: Hurt & Merciless (Bad Son Recording Company)
Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals: Call It What It Is (Stax)
Lilith Ai : Riot (EP Deluxe, digital) (Lo)
Snarky Puppy: Culcha Vulcha
Judith Hill (with Prince): Back in Time (NPG)
Prince: HITNRUN Phase Two (NPG)
Juan Atkins & Moritz von Oswald: Present Borderland – Transport (Tresor)
Gospel, Gospel Rap Da’ T.r.u.t.h: It’s Complicated
Various: Hallelujah: The Journey of Larry Clark – O.S.T. (Larry Clark Gospel)
Chicago Mass Choir: We Give You Praise (New Haven )
Various: Feel Good! 40 Years Of Life Changing Music (Tyscot)
Jazz Various: Miles Ahead Original Soundtrack (Legacy)
Robert Glasper: EVERYTHING’S BEAUTIFUL: Recordings of Miles Davis Reimagined (Legacy)
Nick Colionne: The Journey
HenryThreadgill Double-Up Ensembl : Old Locks and Irregular Verbs (Pi Recordings)
Anthony Braxton: 3 Compositions (EEMHM) 2011 (Firehouse 12)
George Coleman : A Master Speaks (Smoke Sessions)
Ralph Peterson: TriAngular III (Onyx Music/Truth Revolution)
Marcus Strickland’s Twi-Life: Nihil Novi (Blue Note)
Anthony Wilson: Frogtown (Goat Hill Recordings)
Various: Jazz Dispensary: Cosmic Stash (Record Store Day special ed.) (Fantasy)
Shola Adisa-Farrar & Florian Pellissier Quintet: Lost Myself (Hot Casa)
James Tatum : Contemporary Jazz Mass (reissue) (Jazzman)
BWB (Norman Brown, Kirk Whalum, Rick Braun ): BWB (Artistry Music )
Yellowjackets: Cohearence (Mack Ave.)
Bill Evans: Some Other Time: the Lost Session from the Black Forest (Resonance)
Mat Walerian/Matthew Shipp/Hamid Drake: Live at Okuden (ESP Disk)
Albert Ayler: European Radio Studio Recordings 1964
Gail Thompson: Jadu (Enja)
Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers: Justice: Live in Amsterdam November 1959 (Dutch Jazz Archive)
R&B, Soul Charles Bradley: Changes (Dunham / Daptone )
James Brown & The Famous Flames: The Roots Of Revolution (Southern Routes)
Various: One Track Mind! More Motown Guys (Kent)
Deep Street Soul: Come Alive! (Freestyle)
Charles Wright: Something to Make You Feel Good
Javier Colon: Gravity (Concord)
Musiq Soulchild: Life on Earth (eOne)
James Brown: LIVE AT THE APOLLO VOLUME IV (Get On Down)
KeKe Wyatt: Rated Love (Aratek Ent.)
Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir: The Earth Wants YOU! (album + book)
Impressions: “The Best Of The Impressions: The Curtom Years” (Varese Sarabande)
Emotions: Blessed: The Emotions Anthology 1969-1985 (Cherry Red)
Bo-Keys: Heartaches by the Number (Omnivore)
Boulevards : Groove! (Captured Tracks)
Rap, Hip Hop Illphonics: Gone With the Trends (Record Machine)
Lil Keke: Slfmade (Hustletown)
Epidemic : 4 Dimensions On A Paper (Mic-Theory)
Krizz Kaliko: Go (Strange Music)
Phesto and Izrell: Guillotine Music (Hieroglyphics Imperium)
Euclid: Save yourself ( Backwoodz Studioz)
J Dilla: The Diary (Mass Appeal)
Mr. Lif: Don’t Look Down (Mello Music)
Royce Da 5’9″:Layers (Bad Half Ent.)
Boosie Badazz & C-Murder: Penitentiary Chances
Grand Puba: Black from the Future (Ihiphop Dist.)
Lord Finesse: The Remixes: A Midas Era Retrospective (Slice-of-Spice)
Chuuwee & Trizz: AmeriKKa’s Most Blunted 2 (Below System)
GAIKA: Security (Mixpak)
A$AP Ferg: Always Strive and Prosper (RCA)
Freeway: Free Will ( Babygrande)
Aesop Rock: The Impossible Kid (Rhymesayers)
Horseshoe Gang: Anti Trap Music
Various: Empire: Original Soundtrack, Season 2 (Columbia)
Ty Dolla Sign: Coast 2 Coast 265 (Yikes)
Horseshoe Gang: Anti-Trap Music (Gracie)
Freeway: Free Will (Ihiphop )
Reggae, Dancehall Richie Stephens and The Ska Nation Band : Internationally (Zojak World Wide)
Still Cool: Still Cool ( Uprising/Deeper Knowledge)
Alpha Blondy & the Solar System: Positive Energy (VP)
Phill Pratt : Star Wars Dub (Burning Sounds)
Linval Thompson: Linval Presents: Space Invaders (Greensleaves)
World Lakou Mizik: Wa Di Yo (Cumbancha)
Various: Every Song Has Its End: Sonic Dispatches From Traditional Mali (K7)
Moken: Chapters of My Life (Bantu)
Fela Ransome Kuti & His Koola Lobitos : Highlife-Jazz and Afro-Soul (Knitting Factory)
Alma Afrobeat Ensemble: It’s Time
Various: Every Song Has Its End (CD + DVD) (Glitterbeat/K7)
Nikhil P. Yerawadekar & Low Mentality: Everything Lasts Forever (3rd Generation Recordings)
Wake Up You! The Rise and Fall of Nigerian Rock Vol. 1 (Now-Again)