In rock, we’re featuring Fantastic Negrito’s (re)inventive album The Last Days of Oakland,and in rap we’re breaking down Talib Kweli’s Fuck the Money, a free digitally-released screed against commercialism. Under the category of world music is the Pan-African reggae of Fidel Nadal’s Tek a Ship.
Perhaps as well known for its surprise release as for its actual music, the latest release by Dev Hynes aka Blood Orange (he has formerly recorded as Lightspeed Champion and as a member of the band Test Icicles) represents the work of an artist who is politically conscious and musically eclectic. Filtering social issues through a personal lens on his third album under this name, Blood Orange delivers one of the most compelling, socially-grounded artistic statements of the year.
On first blush, Freetown Sound may appear to simply be a set of solid contemporary R&B that hearkens to the past. Blood Orange has incorporated the synthesizers, drum machines, and lush textures of ’80s pop, and Hynes channels both Prince (“E.V.P.”) and Michael Jackson (“But You”) on this release—in fact, upon a close examination of the album’s cover, there is a poster of Jackson hanging on the wall. However, to simply assert that Blood Orange is trading in retro pop would be to largely miss the point of this record. The sprawling 17 tracks (which still manage to somehow clock in at under an hour) address a variety of timely issues, including a spoken word tribute that doubles as a feminist reading of Missy Elliott by poet Ashlee Haze (“By Ourselves”), to tracks that directly address systemic racism, from “Hands Up”— a song that directly references the protests after Michael Brown’s death at the hands of police—to a sample from Ta-Nehisi Coates describing the burden of growing up a Black boy, having to carefully consider each detail of his daily wardrobe on “Love Ya.” The inclusion of Coates is apt, as Freetown Sound is a document as simultaneously personal and compelling (while far less explicit about what the problems are or what should be done about them) as Coates’s landmark book, Between the World and Me. The sense of intimacy on this record is not just one that is intimately connected to timely issues, however. Tracks like “St. Augustine” have a touch of spirituality, hinting at something much more private. While some might criticize much of Freetown Sound for its lack of specificity, it may be useful to think of these songs as somewhat of a Rorschach test for listeners, much like the titular saint’s Confessions.
While several months remain before critics begin to compile their lists of best releases of the year, Freetown Sound is undoubtedly a contender. From the alternately stark and lush textures Hynes employs to his knack for making big social personal, this release deserves a listen and is likely worth the hype.
If he is not already, vibraphonist Warren Wolf will soon become a household name for jazz fans. His third full-length release, Convergence, showcases Wolf’s development thus far and makes a strong case that he belongs on the A-list of jazz performers and composers. His all-star ensemble helps give Wolf a boost in starpower while also reminding listeners that he can easily hang musically with the long-time big boys of jazz. This supporting cast has countless records among them: Christian McBride (bass), Brad Mehldau (piano), Jeff “Tain” Watts (drums), and guitarist John Scofield on two tunes. Not only does Wolf hold his own with these longtime heavies, but he also steps up to the plate as a solid bandleader—the album includes six of Wolf’s own excellent compositions and five covers, ranging from delicate readings of Hoagy Carmichael and Chopin (“Stardust/The Minute Waltz”) to a soulful Stevie Wonder tune (“She Knocks Me off My Feet”).
The disc opens with Wolf’s original “Soul Sister,” a 4:54 burner featuring Scofield bending strings and using his most articulate phrasing, and Wolf comes in swinging, transitioning from bluesy motifs to hard-driving bop lines. Wolf’s composition doesn’t just lie in the typical soul/bop currency of contemporary jazz—for instance, the track “Cell Phone” is based upon a ringtone that Wolf heard while traveling at the airport, leading to an off-kilter sense of time and melody that animates the quirky tune. Wolf knows his history, too—his recording of Bobby Hutcherson’s “Montara” is a fitting tribute to the pioneering vibraphonist.
All in all, Convergence may be just that for Wolf’s career—the cast and set of influences he has assembled on this album reflect artistic and musical maturation. This is a must-hear release for jazz fans.
Perhaps best known as the 2015 winner of NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest for his song “Lost in a Crowd,” Oakland-based Fantastic Negrito releases an album that is steeped in the blues and simultaneously strikingly contemporary. Xavier Dphrepaulezz, who uses “Fantastic Negrito” as his stage name, has had a career rocked with the ups and downs of the entertainment industry—rising to, and falling from, a disastrous brush with stardom in the 1990s, undergoing a crippling hand injury after a car accident, and settling down for awhile. The stage persona of Fantastic Negrito represents a return to the entertainment business, on his own terms this time around.
And what a return—The Last Days of Oakland is an album with sprawling ambitions that delivers. One more in a year of highly personal releases that document broader societal problems, Fantastic Negrito’s songs deal with class and poverty (“Working Poor,” “Hump Through the Winter”), race, and redemption (“Nothing Without You”). The record is also diverse sonically, but it’s useful to compare the combination of blues sound and punk spirit that animates The Last Days of Oakland with the blues punk of groups like the White Stripes. In fact, Negrito takes a number of cues from Jack White, from vintage blues guitar playing to minimalistic 4-on-the-floor arrangements—“Rant Rushmore” could easily have appeared on Icky Thump, although Negrito draws a bit more gospel into the mix than White would have. Comparisons to earlier alt-rockers are not remiss either. Fantastic Negrito’s version of the traditional song “In the Pines” (recorded by everyone and his brother, but perhaps made most famous by Leadbelly), channels Kurt Cobain’s rendition of the song as “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” on Nirvana’s 1993 MTV Unplugged, keeping Cobain’s raw emotionalism, but fleshing out the orchestration with a full band, electric guitars, and keyboards.
On The Last Days of Oakland, we hear a musician who has clearly paid his dues. Fantastic Negrito knows his sound and has found his voice as a singer, songwriter and guitarist. This is a definitive performance from a rocker with a few bones to pick.
Contemporary blues musician Sugar Blue (a.k.a. James Whiting) has gifted us with his first studio recording in five years. On Voyage, the Grammy Award-winning harmonica virtuoso and vocalist presents 11 original songs, all of which he wrote or co-wrote, plus a great cover of the Ray Charles’ song “Mary Ann.” Backed by a tight band featuring Rico McFarland on guitar, special guests Johnny B. Gayden and Bill Dickens on bass, plus Damiano Della Torre on keyboards and Brady Williams and Michael Weatherspoon on drums, the album reflects their wide ranging musical tastes.
Sugar Blue, who has frequently performed outside of the blues genre—most notably with Frank Zappa, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones—was also influenced by the jazz of Dexter Gordon and the R&B of Stevie Wonder. These influences are apparent on the opening track, “On My Way (Sarah’s Song),” an optimistic song about making a new start that’s dedicated to his daughter. Sugar’s smooth vocals and close harmonies hearken back to early ‘70s pop and R&B, in direct opposition to the standard, gritty delivery of most blues singers.
Sugar’s harmonica makes a grand entrance on “One,” which begins with an extended solo. Though more of a traditional blues song in structure, there’s a definite shift towards jazz in the chorus. The instrumental “Sugar Blue Boogie” is a definite highlight of the album. This fast and furious shuffle demonstrates Sugar and the band’s virtuosity, and they even throw in some countrified guitar picking for good measure. That countrified style continues on “New York City,” featuring Max de Bernardi on guitar, who co-wrote this autobiographical song chronicling Sugar’s life as a Harlem-raised blues musician. Midway through the track Sugar gives shout-outs to those who influenced him along the way: Victoria Spivey, Muddy Waters, Memphis Slim, Louisiana Red, and Willie Dixon.
Sugar recently married bassist Ilaria Lantieri, who also performs on the album and likely inspired the track “Love is in the Air,” which has a tinge of reggae rhythms under a harmonica solo that speaks of love and satisfaction. Eddie Shaw, the legendary sax player from the Howlin’ Wolf band, assists on “Mercedes Blues”—one of the most traditional tracks on the album, along with the humorous “Cyber Blues,” which any listener will relate to. Another stand out track is the jazzy “Life on the Run,” featuring vocalist Maya Azucena and Sonix The Mad Scientist (the two are collaborating on an album scheduled for release later this year, and Sonix performs with Sugar in the group Next Level). The album closes with “Time,” giving Sugar a final opportunity to unleash his harmonic on several solo interludes, while singing about the need to seize the moment because “time is moving on.”
Voyage is a delightful and very forward looking album, offering a wide range of styles while inviting us along on one man’s journey through the trials, tribulations, love, and joy of life in this world.
Fresh off of an appearance at a private party for the Democratic National Committee held at Philadelphia’s World Cafe Live, Chicago blues guitarist Toronzo Cannon has been busy representing his hometown. Since his last album, John the Conquer Root, he’s jumped over to Chicago’s other famed blues label, Alligator Records, which released his latest project. Fittingly titled The Chicago Way, the album features 11 self-penned songs that reflect Cannon’s life in the Windy City, using “timeless stories of common experiences in uncommon ways.”
The opening track, “The Pain Around Me,” is full of the pathos of growing up in a dystopian urban environment near the Robert Taylor Homes on the South Side of Chicago. Following a blistering guitar intro, Cannon sings: “Six kids on a corner up to no damn good, that’s six broken homes struggling in my neighborhood. You’ve got liquor stores everywhere on my side of town, I don’t want my kids to go outside ‘cause the thugs are hangin’ around.” Apologizing for painting such a grim portrait of inner city life, he sings in the chorus, “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to sing this song about the pain around me, but this is what I see, what I see.”
In the more traditional songs “Bad Contract” and “Walk It Off,” Cannon sings the blues about getting the short end of the stick when relationships go sour, with the latter song featuring some especially fine guitar solos. The following track, “Fine Seasoned Women,” opens with a swinging jazz intro before settling into a steady groove powered by Brother John Kattke on the Hammond B3 and a fine, tight horn section—superbly arranged by Kattke—that features Doug Corcoran on trumpet, Steve Eisen on tenor sax, and Robert Collazo on bari sax. This is definitely one of the best tracks on the album, especially when Cannon punches in the guitar solos, fitting perfectly into the groove. Also adding to the mix are Larry Williams on bass and Melvin “Pookie Stix” Carlisle on drums.
Another highlight on the album is “Chickens Comin’ Home to Roost,” featuring some of Cannon’s best guitar work and concluding with an extended blues-rock solo that goes out blazing in an inferno of psychedelic guitar riffs. The heat continues with “Strength to Survive,” with Cannon digging deep into his soul on the vocals, then following up with the melancholy slow burner, “When Will You Tell Him About Me?” On the emotional closing track, “I Am,” about the multiple temptations and the choices one makes, Cannon is joined by singer Melon “Honeydew” Lewis and they bring down the house with a gospel fueled blues-rock masterpiece.
The Chicago Way offers contemporary, complex songs that are above and beyond standard blues fare, convincingly delivered by Toronzo Cannon with soulful vocals and searing blues-rock guitar virtuosity. This might well be the best blues album of 2016, and serves as proof that Cannon is poised to take over the crown as Chicago’s leading blues guitarist.
Though never completely out of the spotlight, Bell’s new album has certainly rejuvenated his singing career, bringing one of the original Southern soul singers to the attention of a new generation. Acclaimed country music producer and arranger John Leventhal worked side by side with Bell to shape the sound of the album, which blends the original soulful sounds of Stax with more contemporary influences. Leventhal co-wrote most of the songs with Bell; plays guitars, bass, keyboards and percussion throughout; and recorded and mixed the tracks.
This Is Where I Live appears to be semi-autobiographical, drawing upon Bell’s Memphis roots and life experiences. Opening with the ballad “The Three of Me” (discussed in this recent NPR interview), he sings about “the man I was, the man I am, and the man I want to be.” This reflection on life by the 77-year-old singer permeates the album, including the following track, “The House Always Wins,” with the chorus “I wish someone had told me you gonna sink before you swim, you may take a couple of rounds, but the house always wins.”
One of the outstanding features of the album is the blend of soul with country music, perhaps most evident on “Poison in the Well,” featuring Leventhal on guitar with Shawn Pelton sitting in on drums. They steer back to a grittier soul sound on the ballad “I Will Take Care of You.” Weaving in a chorus and B3 accompaniment, it’s the perfect vehicle for Bell and fits right into his vocal comfort zone. Bell is also given an opportunity to cover his earlier song, “Born Under a Bad Sign.” In a departure from Albert King’s signature version, Leventhal’s arrangement successfully melds blues, rock and country influences into a more contemplative, less guitar-oriented rendition of the song which places more focus on the vocals.
Bell demonstrates his devotion to his home town on the title track, hinting at the difficulty of life in Memphis during the Civil Rights Movement, and the inspiration found in Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” with its “promise of a brand new day.” Getting back to Bell’s signature ballad singing, the woeful “All the Things You Can’t Remember” (I’m still trying to forget) tells the tale of a man mistreated and underappreciated by his woman. The album closes with “People Want to Go Home,” an introspective but still upbeat song touching upon cultural meanings of space and place, expressed here by the strong desire to return to one’s roots at the end of life’s journey.
This Is Where I Live is highly recommended, with excellent song writing, musicianship and production from Bell, Leventhal and the supporting musicians. The balladeer’s voice is still silky and supple, hearkening back to a special time and place in the music industry that will be especially relevant to those over 50, but with plenty of potential appeal for younger soul music fans. The CD is accompanied by liner notes written by the noted Memphis rock and soul music historian, Peter Guralnick.
The two 1969 sessions at Columbia Records’ 52nd Street, NYC Studio produced no actual master takes for a commercial release, and indeed don’t amount to enough time for a CD release. So, Light In the Attic, the Seattle reissue label that has brought Davis’s four later albums back into print for a new generation of funk fans, filled out this barrel-bottom compilation with out-takes and a single A side from Mabry’s earlier session at Columbia’s Hollywood studio. That session, produced by her then-boyfriend Hugh Masekela, resulted in one single, which didn’t chart and faded into obscurity.
Davis got another try at the music business when she relocated to NYC, fell in with Jimi Hendrix’s and Sly Stone’s entourages (and in fact wrote music for Stone, and later for The Crusaders), and caught the eye of Miles Davis. Betty and Miles Davis were married for one turbulent year, but she helped effect a major change in the jazz icon’s music, by introducing him to Hendrix’s blues-rock and Stone’s hard-funk, among other “younger” music styles percolating around New York and California in the late ‘60s. Miles’ reaction was to scrap traditional jazz and move into a new electrified, rock-influenced direction that came to be called “fusion jazz.” Miles’ most well-known achievement in this style was the album Bitches Brew, the title of which was suggested by Betty Davis. To be fair, Miles evolved his style throughout the “electric period,” and the fantastic album In A Silent Way pre-dated Bitches Brew, so the Betty Davis “influence-creation” story is probably somewhat overblown. But her influence on Miles was no doubt strong, as he admitted in his autobiography.
Turning back to this new-old CD, Light In the Attic has re-explored the circumstances of the single musical collaboration between Betty and Miles Davis, during the time of their brief marriage. The booklet well documents the sessions, and includes interviews with Davis, Masekela and bassist Harvey Brooks. Also shown are reproductions of Columbia internal memos showing Miles Davis’s producer, Teo Macero, who co-produced the Betty Davis sessions, urging other executives to renew Betty’s contract. Columbia never did re-sign her, and thus the album was never completed.
Net-net, the New York sessions are rough and incomplete, but the makings of an album were emerging. Betty Davis was backed by Hendrix’s drummer and bassist, Mitch Mitchell and Billy Cox, along with a host of jazz greats who were in the Miles Davis orbit: Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter, Larry Young, and Brooks. The playing on the four songs that survive in complete takes from the New York sessions is at the level of these musicians, in other words excellent, when they can find a groove. Then there’s the issue of Betty Davis’s voice getting in that groove. When it happens, more in some songs than others, it’s clear that this group could have made a very interesting funk-jazz album. The problem is, there wasn’t enough time to get locked in all the time, get enough songs completed, and otherwise polish and finish a commercial album.
As for the Hollywood session, we hear on this album the A side of Mabry’s one Columbia single, “Live, Love, Learn,” a somewhat sappy pop-soul ballad that didn’t click with an audience. The better stuff out of Hollywood is the previously-unreleased material: an alternate take of the single’s B side, “It’s My Life” (with a killer Masekela horn arrangement), and the straight-ahead Motown-esque “My Soul Is Tired.”
This album ties up some loose ends with Light In The Attic’s Betty Davis project, but it’s probably not worth the casual fan’s time or money. The New York material was not released because it was not finished. The Hollywood material is of a failed attempt at a breakthrough, but “It’s My Life” is a neat late-1960s soul-pop scorcher (why wasn’t it the A side of the single?). Betty Davis’s best music came later.
Brook Benton enjoyed much success in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a Mercury Records artist. His soulful crooning, and adaptability to changing styles, led to a string of songs making the pop and R&B charts from 1958 through the end of his Mercury contract in 1965. His subsequent short stint with RCA records netted a few mid-chart placements, but no big hits.
This 2-CD set picks up in late 1967, after Benton signed with Reprise Records. His first single for that label, “Laura” (b/w “You’re the Reason I’m Living”), hit #78 on the Billboard pop chart, but nothing else from his subsequent Reprise output moved the needle. In this era, Benton continued in the soul crooner style he honed at Mercury, and the Reprise singles often featured somewhat syrupy strings and backing vocal choruses.
In 1968, Benton signed to the Cotillion imprint. Under the legendary producer Arif Mardin, Benton’s sound moved toward the funky side of soul. He still sang beautiful ballads, but between Mardin’s tight arrangements and the input of musicians in the Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama, Atlantic’s studio in New York City, and Criteria Studios in Miami (nicknamed “Atlantic South”), the beat and sway of the songs loosened up. Because he was an adaptable singer, Benton was able to stay hip and modern sounding, like the cool adult in the room.
During his years with Cotillion, Benton enjoyed chart success with six out of 13 singles, including #1 R&B hits with “Nothing Can Take the Place of You” in 1969 and “Rainy Night in Georgia” in 1970, which also shot up to #4 on the pop chart.
Benton’s style in the early 1970s was somewhat akin to what Elvis Presley was doing at the time, in fact both men covered some of the same tunes. However, where Elvis went for the soaring show-stopper approach, Benton stayed cooler and more intimate.
For this set, original mono single master tapes were located for 28 of the 31 tracks. Gene Sculatti’s liner notes detail the chronology of the singles and Benton’s pre-history to the time period covered by the set. Remastering engineer Mike Milchner achieved an overall good sound quality, definitely an upgrade to how these songs sounded coming out of AM radio speakers at the time of their original release.
Michael Jackson, Prince, James Brown, and Rick James are all gone, so Stevie Wonder is pretty much all that remains from that bygone era. Enter DJ Spinna from Brooklyn, who can move butts on the dance floor, whether he’s spinning hop hop, house, funk or soul. That’s probably why promoters book him and he stays in demand. His “Wonderful” parties, devoted entirely to Stevie Wonder, offer fans a bucket list of quintessential songs from the singer/songwriter/keyboardist’s back catalog. DJ Spinna Presents The Wonder of Stevie Vol. 3 is a tribute CD, though it’s not promoted as one, and is offered as an extension of the parties. Disc one flows in a continuous mix, while the tracks on the second disc are unmixed, or separated.
The John Minnis Big Bone Band’s cover of “Love’s In Need of Love Today” was right on time and well needed, with all the turmoil going on in the world right now. He pulls it off by taking an understated approach, realizing the song without trying to do too much. Tony Sherman covers “As,” another track from Songs In the Key of Life and, like Stevie, provides back-up singers that bring that old-school gospel vibe to the song. Stevie Wonder has written so much great material, some of which he gave to other artists to record, like the Quincy Jones track “Betcha Wouldn’t Hurt Me.” Former Temptations lead singer David Ruffin covers “Make My Water Boil (Loving You Has Been So Wonderful),” while BJ Thomas covers “Happier Then The Morning Sun.” Thomas was always a good vocalist and shows what he can do with good material.
If DJ Spinna’s “Wonderful” comes to your town, check it out. You’ll hear material you probably never knew Stevie wrote or recorded. Meanwhile, this 2-CD set brings the party home. Sign, sealed and — yes — delivered.
Ethnomusicologist Jean Snyder’s new biography of Harry T. Burleigh, most famous for art-song arrangements of spirituals and for influencing Antonin Dvorak, will stand as the definitive biography of Burleigh for the foreseeable future. Snyder consulted primary sources provided to her by the Burleigh family and several archives, as well as materials provided to her by Anne Key Simpson, author of Hard Trials: The Life and Music of Harry T. Burleigh (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1990). Snyder’s previous work on Burleigh includes her dissertation, “Harry T. Burleigh and the Creative Expression of Bi-Musicality: A Study of an African-American Composer and the American Art Song” (Ph.D., University of Pittsburgh, 1992), and two recordings of his music.
The book is worth reading for anyone interested in the cultural life of African American communities in the “Promised Land” after the Civil War. Burleigh (b. 1866) benefited from a family dedicated to arts and education as well as a family tradition of civil rights activism. Burleigh’s visually-impaired grandfather had purchased his freedom and then moved to Erie, where he assisted with the Underground Railroad. Burleigh’s mother attended an all-black school funded by a white abolitionist, learning Greek and Latin. She went on to teach at an all-black school, but when she applied for work at the local white school, she could work only as a “janitress.” Burleigh learned spirituals from his grandfather and attended the local black church, but he also sang at the local white Episcopal church and later with other white singers in the region. He and his mother received their education from schools set up by sympathetic white philanthropists, but they could only attend prestigious “musicales” (house concerts) by serving as maid and doorman. This conflicting racial atmosphere would both nurture and frustrate Burleigh. By the age of 22, he emerged from his formative years in Erie as an accomplished musician with a deep regard for both European and African American culture and the knowledge of how to navigate the artistic circles of both races.
Part II consists of chapters 4-13, and takes up where most casual biographies begin: Burleigh’s enrollment in the National Conservatory of New York City, where he would meet Antonin Dvorak. By then he had enjoyed something of a career as a vocal soloist, performing often in Cleveland, Erie, and beyond. He was admitted to the top vocal course of study, supported by a tuition scholarship as well as funding from patrons in Erie. He also held professional singing positions at Temple Emmanu-el, the most prestigious synagogue of New York, and St. George’s Episcopal Church. Dvorak arrived at the conservatory in Burleigh’s second year, and Burleigh became the librarian and copyist for the student orchestra that Dvorak conducted. The two became very close, and of course Burleigh famously sang spirituals for him.
Dvorak’s belief in the importance of untutored, or “folk” music dovetailed with the duality of Burleigh’s cultural background, but he was one of many influences on him. Burleigh also became friends with Will Marion Cook and Frederick Douglass, and he worked with them on “Colored-American Day” at the World’s Columbian Exposition (a.k.a. Chicago World’s Fair, 1893) in which they countered the “Dahomey” display of ragtime and the still-current stereotypes of traveling minstrel shows. The attendees included Paul Laurence Dunbar, who would become a close friend, and journalists from many black newspapers, who spread news of his accomplishments.
Burleigh remained in New York, his career as a classically-trained singer largely limited to church music. He sang at the most prestigious (and elitist) black Episcopal church, yet his circle of friends included theater performers. He also associated with black society of Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. The latter connection came via his wife, who grew up in D.C. The Burleigh family became almost as active in D.C. cultural activities as they were in New York.
Throughout the remainder of the book, we see that Dvorak was only one of Burleigh’s many famous associates: he was friend and defender of Booker T. Washington; he sang the first African-American performance of his friend Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast; he served on the board of the Music School Settlement founded by David Mannes; and he worked with Alain Locke (among others) to promote African-American artistic endeavors.
Burleigh sang standard European repertoire, American art songs, and “plantation songs,” as if to say “these are all equally worthy of being heard and respected.” He mentored and collaborated with the greatest African American musicians of his era, promoting spirituals in this way as well as in his own performances. The book also details numerous mentoring relationships with emerging artists, such as the young Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson, who frequently performed his arrangements of spirituals.
Modern readers may be surprised to learn that some African Americans of the era lived rather privileged lives. Burleigh’s accomplishments bought him entreé into this elite class. Readers will learn about trips to the beach and the generosity of the elite in supporting struggling artists and activists. “Lifting up the race” was no mere metaphor for them—they provided mentoring and funding to many who are now famous in their own right.
The final chapters of the book focuses on Burleigh’s wife, Louise Alston. Her personal ambitions and feelings of abandonment due to her husband’s active career epitomize the frustrations of many wives, black and white. After some success writing poetry in dialect, she pivoted to a career portraying Native American heritage.
This book reveals Burleigh to have been much more than an arranger of spirituals and a church musician. He was a force for African-American art and culture, compelling respect in listeners and raising standards among his students. Snyder does an excellent job of portraying both the racial atmosphere of the era and Burleigh’s use of his time and talent to promote the music and the people who had been denigrated for too long. In hindsight, his compositions seem to marginalize him in the wider context of classical music history, but Snyder emphasizes that his historical footprint is much bigger than his compositional output.
There are 50 pages of copious endnotes which may inspire readers to pick up a thread and follow another figure from black music history through the same archives that Snyder consulted. The only drawback is that many chapters are topical, rather than chronological, so there are many digressions. A timeline of Burleigh’s life would have made some chapters easier to navigate. Otherwise, the book is a worthy addition to any library, personal or institutional, that collects information about black music and important figures in African American history.
In his native Argentina, Fidel Nadal is one of the most famous Afro-Argentine artists in popular music. Nadal’s success began with his band, Hasta Los Muertos—a punk outfit that was popular throughout Latin America in the early 1990s. Since 2001, he has crafted a solo career with a strong focus on reggae music.
In addition to his connection with Argentina, Nadal dialogues with the African Diaspora. Born to Afro-Argentine activist parents—his father was a filmmaker and mother a professor of anthropology—the musician’s Pan-African consciousness and Argentine identity blend throughout the newest of his seventeen albums, Tek A Ship.
For this effort, Nadal traveled to Kingston, Jamaica—the birthplace of reggae—to work with the legendary mastering engineer and producer, Bobby Digital. Joined by a host of Jamaica’s best reggae musicians, Tek A Ship is a groove-heavy performance with solid production. Nadal’s duet with reggae star Jah Thunder on “Ackee Tree” best represents the musician’s dual identities. Backed by a chunky rhythm and sunny melody, Nadal sings:
Soy Argentino/I am Argentine
El (Jah Thunder) es Jamaicano/He (Jah Thunder) is Jamaican
La verdad es que los dos somos Africanos/But the truth is that we are both Africans
But not all on Tek a Ship takes a tone of unified affirmations. The album’s opening track, “Confusion,” speaks of troubled times with images of violence, racism, and destruction from the United States, Chile, Nepal, and Jamaica. Despite the theme of things falling apart, Nadal remains musically focused and rhythmically poised throughout the track.
Much like Paul Gilroy theorized “the ship” in his seminal work The Black Atlantic, Nadal sings of taking a ship back to Ethiopia to see Haille Selassie on the album’s title track. Themes of Rastafarianism are central to Tek A Ship, and appear in “Vinimos para Ganar” (“We Come to Win”) and “Blessed is the Man.”
Throughout Tek A Ship, Nadal shows that the vibrations, melodies, and rhythms of his reggae are a vehicle to connect his identities and socially-conscious ideology. Lucky for our moving bodies and satisfied ears, we can be along for the ride.
While these two new CDs from Resonance—Moments in Time and Getz/Gilberto ‘76—are sold separately, they are taken from the same engagement that featured Stan Getz’s quartet performing at Keystone Korner, a famous club located in San Francisco, the week of May 11-16, 1976. João Gilberto was regularly featured during the final portion of each set during this engagement. Overall, as a jazz enthusiast, I prefer the first CD to the second where Getz solos in a supporting role on only half of the included performances. But more about that later. All recordings are previously unreleased and selected from the archive held by the owner of the club.
Getz gained early fame as a member of the Four Brothers in Woody Herman’s Orchestra. His solo on “Early Autumn” remains a delight to hear. But perhaps his reputation grew the most following the release of his album Desafinado, with Charlie Byrd, that introduced bossa nova rhythms to U.S. listeners. This album also marked the beginning of his relationship with João Gilberto as a composer and later, as a performer when they toured along with Gilberto’s then wife Astrud and released subsequent albums on Verve and Columbia. Getz continued to perform at (mostly) a high level throughout his lifetime, and some readers may be familiar with his final statements captured in his final recording fifteen years later in 1991 with Kenny Barron, released as People Time.
The first CD, Moments in Time, includes three tunes Getz had not previously recorded, namely “Infant Eyes,” “Cry of the Wild Goose,” and “Peace.” Two ballads in particular reflect how Getz’s style continued to evolve from earlier stages in his career. His more traditional roots are clear in his luscious performance of Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss” while his more assertive attack is evident in Wayne Shorter’s composition “Infant Eyes.” The latter performance demonstrates the high level of cohesion obtained by this quartet. To me, the only drawback in the CD is that “Con Alma” is simply too long due to portions of repetitive playing that diminish its overall impact. Listening to this album is a delight even though it does not appreciably extend the depth of Getz’ overall discography. For that reason, some may pass it by despite the quality of the performances.
The second CD, Getz/Gilberto ’76, features João Gilberto. Getz only participates as an occasional soloist, limited to solos on alternate tracks beginning with the second. To me, Gilberto’s smooth voice is not sufficient to sustain my interest throughout the album. He sings in a delicate, whispering style, but does create interest by taking liberties with the rhythmic pulse of each tune. His approach is most effective on “Aguas de Marco.” Also, the sound quality on this CD is somewhat harsh to my ear, accentuating Gilberto’s sibilants and Hart’s cymbals and sharpening Getz’ sound. This deprives the recording of some of the warmth and richness it deserves. For these reasons, I clearly prefer Moments in Time. Despite the historical interest of Getz/Gilberto ’76, it will appeal more to completists.
Other recordings by each principal artist, whether together or apart, are superior to these new releases. This is much less of a problem with Moments in Time although, to my ear, two tunes on that CD have a somewhat thin sound and also fail to capture the richness of Getz’s lush tone. Perhaps they may have been recorded on a different evening?
The album liner notes suggest that there may be additional releases from the Keystone Korner archive in the future, featuring other artists. This would be most welcome if they match the quality of Resonance Records’ two previous releases containing selections from this valuable archive featuring Freddie Hubbard and Jaki Byard with Tommy Flanagan.
The Delfonics had a good run from the late ‘60s to the early ‘70s, and without a doubt set the bar very high for Philly soul. The group was comprised of William “Poogie” Hart, Wilbert Hart, Randy Cain, and later Major Harris. A legendary Philadelphia disc jockey called them “tall, lean and talented.” This comprehensive 2-CD set, 40 Classic Soul Sides, presents the hit singles that put them over as well as songs you probably never knew they recorded. Included are most of the tracks from their four Philly Groove albums, in addition to three non-LP sides.
Disc one opens with the Delfonics’ hit “La La Means I Love You,” written by a very young Thom Bell, the producer/songwriter who would be the Delfonics’ guiding light during the group’s run. Also included are “Break Your Promise” and “Ready or Not Here I Come” (any Fugees fans out there?). Disc two includes more hits: “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind,” “Hey Love” and “Walk Right Up to the Sun.”
The Delfonics do a great job covering others’ tunes. They put their signature harmonies on Burt Bacharach’s “Alfie” and “The Look of Love,” making them sound like new compositions. The same is true with “Hurt So Bad” and “Going Out Of My Head,” originally recorded by Little Anthony & the Imperials. On the cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Let It Be Me,” William Hart takes it home. You have to wonder why these singles were not pushed harder by the label back when they were released. The anthology showcases this other important side of the group’s output.
The Delfonics never became as big as the Motown male vocal groups or even the Impressions, but they did pave the way for Blue Magic and the Stylistics—two important Philly soul groups. In fact, it would be easy to argue that for this reason alone the Delfonics belong in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Thanks to a generation of filmmakers and hip hop producers who have sampled their songs, the Delfonics’ music will continue to be discovered, if sometimes in unlikely places. 40 Classic Soul Sides is a great place to start.
According to the French art theorist Nicolas Bourriad, many of our modernities are defined by moving towards an explosion, or a release of energy. Hip hop, more than most other musical genres, seems to express this quest for explosion, time and again. Despite its recent widespread lyrical decrepitude, millions listen to hip hop because it expresses this explosion. Rapper Talib Kweli, known for his political rap, released the digital version of his latest album, Fuck the Money, for free. He seems to want to explode the capitalism that defines the individual realities that we lead and provide us with a rhythmic, unburdening, existence. It’s a commendable effort that could have been that much better if it was the product of serious thought, and not a fascination with tough slogans and hip hop’s ability to speak to pathos.
The album itself sounds like the electronic production that we are used to associating with expensive beats—it’s charged yet simple, as though there was not quite enough money to purchase even better beats. “Money Good” is the album’s best song, featuring a mix of acoustic and electronic instrumentation that melds perfectly with Kweli’s delivery. “Nice Things” is a great and loud listen, featuring the fast paced, conscious rap that Kweli is well known for. He throws punchlines that are brilliantly woven together into a moral statement, but it’s the song’s agenda that resonates the most. “Echoes” features great rhythm and ambient, dream-like production. The album gets smoother as it progresses, and Kweli is actually much better at being smooth than he is at being loud. “Baby Girl” is an example of this, with Kweli sounding very similar to young J. Cole. On “The Venetian,” featuring Niko Is & Ab-Soul, they rap about their progression from corner stores to luxury hotels.
Though it might be tempting to sit amazed by the A-list of producers featured on the album’s 11 tracks, I would not recommend listening to the album that way. Look at the name of the producer only after listening to the song, and judge the song on its own merits rather than by its credentials. Then, the songs’ limitations and strengths will become apparent.
Has the album led to a Bourriadian explosion? Have I now proclaimed, “fuck the money”? I, personally, have not. Though this album is a commendable effort with the spectacular song “Money Good,” it falls short of fully erupting.
Listening to Anthony Hamilton’s What I’m Feelin’ is taking a plunge into the well-articulated and emotive present as communicated by a seasoned soul artist with an unforgettable singing style. In a music industry guided by commercial radio singles, Hamilton’s album requires your undivided attention: the texts, choral singing, and rhythm section—though loud and cool—are all part of a well-strategized and intimate musical biography that must be understood in order to fully appreciate the album.
A highlight of this album is “Still,” a accompanied by simple piano that showcases Hamilton’s vocals and his ability to hit high notes without any added effects, proving that he is a phenomenal singer. Except for a straightforward chorus, “still in (has) love,” each of this song’s lines belong to a detailed narrative about still being in love.
“What I’m Feelin’,” the album’s title song, will feel pretty familiar to Hamilton’s fans and features a mesmerizingly cool soul groove. “I Want You” is a loud, resonant song with sparse instrumentation despite an overall lavish sound—the synthesizers on this cut are electronic music at its most cunning, deceiving us into believing that Hamilton is singing along to a massive band, allowing listeners to experience lush textures which add up to a great listen. “Grateful” is to the point with its lyrics and instrumentation, musically evoking the deep feelings of love found in the lyrics.
“Save Me” is a funky love song. It’s sometimes hard to pay attention to the song’s lyrics except for the chorus, which Hamilton sings clearly. As with most funky love songs, it doesn’t really climax—Hamilton leaves listeners waiting on a George Clinton or a James Brown scream that will cue the band to break loose, but it never happens.
Check out “Amen,” another cut from What I’m Feelin’:
Much of the instrumentation, for example the use of synthesizers, on this album works well only because of Hamilton’s superb singing voice. His voice is the star of this album, while the rest of the music is a few steps behind him artistically. At this stage it might be wise for Hamilton to turn the page on cool soul songs and begin to work with more avant-garde instrumentation, bringing further nuance to his music.
Following are additional albums released during July 2016—some will be reviewed in future issues of Black Grooves.
Blues, Folk, Country
Big Maybelle: Complete King, Okeh And Savoy Releases 1947-59 (Acrobat)
Charles Wilson: Troubled Child (Severn)
Chicago Beau: Black Names Ringing (Katalyst Ent.)
Junior Wells: Blues Hit Big Town (reissue) (Delmark)
Kenny Neal: Bloodline (Cleopatra Blues)
Lou Pride: Keep On Believing (Severn)
Nora Jean Bruso: Going Back to Mississippi (Severn)
Omar Coleman: Live (Delmark)
Otis Clay: Live In Switzerland 2006 (Rockbeat)
Roy Gaines: New Frontier Lover (Severn)
Son House: Special Rider Blues: The 1930-1942 Mississippi and Wisconsin Recordings (Soul Jam)
Ursula Ricks: My Street (Severn)
Various: Putumayo Presents Blues Party (Putumayo)
Funk, Rock, Pop, Electronic Billy Cobham: Live at Montreux Switzerland 1978 (U.S. Dist.)
Chassol: Ultrascores II (digital) (Tricatel)
Death Grips: Bottomless Pit (Harvest)
Eric Gales: A Night on Sunset Strip (CD + DVD) (Cleopatra Blues)
GAWVI: Lost in Hue EP (Reach)
Nao: For All We Know (RCA)
Ravyn Lenae: Moon Shoes (Digital)
Steven Julien: Fallen (Apron)
Unlocking The Truth: Chaos (Tunecore)
Gospel, Gospel Rap Candi Staton: It’s Time to Be Free (MRI)
Dayna Caddell: Push (eOne)
Half Mile Home: Don’t Judge Me (Wideawake Ent. Group)
Hezekiah Walker: Better – Azusa The Next Generation 2 (eOne)
Nate Bean & 4Given: Hymns and Devotionals Unplugged (Dream Gospel)
Roy Tyler: Three Way Calling (Severn)
Sue “Momma Sue” Roseberry: Magnificent God (New Day dist.)
Various: Holy South: Revolt (Holy South)
William Murphy: Demonstrate (CD/DVD) (RCA Inspiration)
Jazz Black Art Jazz Collective: S/T (Sunnyside)
Bob Baldwin: The Brazilian-American Soundtrack (Red River Entertainment)
Brother Ah & The Musical Sound Awareness Ensemble: Sound Awareness (reissue) (Manufactured)
Brother Ah & The Musical Sound Awareness Ensemble: Move Ever Onward (reissue) (Manufactured)
Brother Ah & The Musical Sound Awareness Ensemble: Key to Nowhere (reissue) (Manufactured)
Charlie Parker: Unheard Bird: The Unissued Takes (Verve)
Clark Terry: Complete Albums Collection: 1961-1963 (Chrome Dreams)
Clark Terry: Complete Albums Collection: 1954-1960 (Chrome Dreams)
Davell Crawford: Piano in the Vaults, No. 1 (Basin Street)
Denny Zeitlin: Early Wayne: Explorations of Classic Wayne Shorter Compositions (Sunnyside)
Doug Ward: Touch My Beloved’s Thought (Greenleaf)
Elan Trotman’s Tropicality: Double Take (Island Muzik)
Greg Ward and 10 Tongues: Touch My Beloved’s Thought (Greenleaf Music)
Kenny Garrett: Do Your Dance (Mack Avenue)
Milton Marsh: Monism (1st time on CD) (Manufactured)
Nina Simone: The Philips Years [7 LP Box Set] (Verve)
Richard Bona & Mandekan Cubano: Heritage (Qwest)
Sam “The Man” Taylor: Plays the Bad & The Beautiful (1st CD release) (Phono)
WPG Trio: Small, Medium, Large (Severn)
R&B, Soul Clarence Spady: Just Between Us (Severn)
Aaron Neville: Apache (Tell It Records)
Coffee: Slippin’ & Dippin’ (expanded ed.) (BBR)
Eruption: Eruption Featuring Precious Wilson (expanded ed.) (BBR)
Fantasia: Definition Of (RCA)
Frankie & The Spindles: Count to Ten – Complete Singles Collection 1968-77 (Playback)
Hank Ballard & The Midniters: Unwind Yourself – The King Recordings Of 1964-1967 (Kent)
Isley Brothers: Go For Your Guns (expanded ed.) (Iconoclassic)
James Carr: Losing Game: Goldwax Rarities (Kent)
Jason Derulo: Platinum Hits (Warner Bros.)
Johnny Bristol: Modern Soul Classics 1974-1981 (Playback)
Keith Sweat: Dress To Impress (RAL)
Marc Ribot’s The Young Philadelphians: Live in Tokyo (Yellowbird)
Michael Kiwanuka: Love & Hate (Interscope)
Prince: Reign Of The Prince Of Ages (DVD) (Azure)
Roy Woods: Waking at Dawn (digital) (Warner Bros.)
The Delfonics: 40 Classic Soul Sides (2-CD Set) (Real Gone Music)
Various: Greg Belson’s Devine Disco: American Gospel Disco 1974-1984 (Cultures of Soul)
Various: DJ Spinna Presents The Wonder of Stevie Vol. 3 (BBE)
Will Downing: Black Pearls (Shanachie)
Wilson Pickett: The Complete Atlantic Singles Vol. One (Real Gone)
Rap, Hip Hop
Awall Aka 2piece: Rock It Like This (Fahrenheit)
Big Hoodoo: Asylum (Psychopathic)
Blaq Poet: The Most Dangerous (digital) (Marvel)
Blu & Nottz: Titans in the Flesh EP (Coalmine Music)
Dillon & Paten Locke: Food Chain (Full Plate)
DJ Drama: Quality Street Music 2 (eOne)
Don Trip: Head That Wears the Crown (Soh)
Dr. Ama: Split Personali-D (reissue) (ChamberMusik)
Durrty Goodz: Not Been Televised EP (Tru Thoughts)
Enforcers (El Da Sensei & K-Def): Jersey Connection (Slice of Spice)
First Division: Overworked & Underpaid (Soulspazm)
Flowdan: Disaster Piece (Tru Thoughts)
Gensu Dean & Denmark Vessey: Whole Food (Mello Music Group)
Gucci Mane: Everybody Looking (Atlantic)
HusMozzy: Hustle God (Mozzy Records)
J Dilla: The Diary Instrumentals (Mass Appeal)
J Stalin: I Shoulda Stayed In School (Black Market)
Kemba: Negus (digital)
Kool Keith: Tashan Dorrsett – The Preacher (Junkadelic)
Lil Durk: 2X (Def Jam)
Lua Proc: Fish Tailing (High End Society)
N.W.A & Eazy E: The Kings of Compton (DVD) (eOne)
Reef The Lost Cauze & Bear-One: Furious Styles (Soulspazm)
Sadat X: Aqua (Tommy Boy Ent.)
ScHoolboy Q: Blank Face (Interscope)
Snoop Dogg: Coolaid (eOne)
The Other Guys: Life in Analog (HiPNOTT)
The Team: Hell of a Night 2 (Moe Dee Ent.)
Wale: Summer on Sunset mixtape (digital) (Rap)
Z-Ro: Drankin’ & Drivin’ (1 Deep Ent)
Linval Thompson: Linval Presents: Encounters Pac Man (Greensleeves)
Mykal Rose: Rasta State (VP)
Quantic Presenta Flowering Inferno: 1000 Watts (Tru Thoughts)
Stephen Marley: Revelation Part II,The Fruit of Life (Ghetto Youths Int.)
Various: Coxone’s Music 2: The Sound of Young Jamaica (Souljazz)
Alma Afrobeat Ensemble: It’s Time (Slow Walk Music)
People Rock Outfit (P.R.O.): Blacky Joe (Soundway)
Various: Nigeria Freedom Sounds! Calypso, Highlife, Juju & Apala: Popular Music and the Birth of Independent Nigeria 1960-63 (Soul Jazz)