2016 was a good year for actor/musician/writer Donald Glover. He was cast to fill Billy Dee Williams’s shoes as Lando Calrissian in an upcoming Star Wars film, his hit FX series Atlanta ranks at the top of many critics’ “best of” lists, and his newest musical release as Childish Gambino, Awaken, My Love!, may be a career landmark. At first listen, what is most striking about Gambino’s newest album is its departure from the low-key rap flows and electronic textures that characterized his previous work. Rather, Awaken My Love! is steeped in ‘70s funk, from its close-up face cover image (reminiscent of Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain) to the guitar-heavy sounds that fill the disc. Most notably of all, Gambino generally departs from rapping in favor of singing. The best part about this is that he is quite good—maybe a better singer than rapper, in fact.
The album’s opening track, “Me and Your Mama,” draws heavily from the P-funk playbook, pulling more from Funkadelic than the Parliament side of things, a move that few groups influenced by the seminal act successfully execute as well as Glover. There other clues to the contents of Glover’s record collection throughout this disc as well. For instance, “Boogieman” is reminiscent of early ‘70s Frank Zappa, from subject matter to sound—the song easily could have appeared on the composer/guitarist’s quintessential 1974 release Apostrophe. “Redbone” borrows heavily from Prince’s synth-heavy Minneapolis sound and the clavichord-based “Baby Boy” might have been an outtake from Sly & The Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Going On.
Childish Gambino is not simply borrowing from others’ musical influences, however. Songs like “Riot” draw together classic soul influences with booming bass and breakbeats, and “California” is an ironically sunny slow jam, pulling a bass line from classic AM radio, but adding drums and assorted oddball percussion and wind instruments foreward in the mix. These stylistic moves highlight its characters life-changing attempts to deal with their dysphoria.
This album would be worth listening to for its sound alone—synthesizers, drums, and guitars weave together what is certainly one of the most sonically interesting releases of the past several years—but it is also notable that Glover shifts his lyrical tone. One of the issues with his work as Childish Gambino is that at times his rap has been difficult to believe, alternating between too serious and too silly, with his best moments as a rapper usually coming as a feature on someone else’s track (see “Favorite Song” on Chance the Rapper’s breakthrough 2013 Acid Rap mixtape). However, on Awaken My Love!, Glover maintains his sense of humor while finding a way to make compelling statements on relationships, society, and his characters inner emotional lives.
Glover has finally found the perfect balance: writing solid songs inflected with a lyrical and sonic sense of humor without getting too jokey. It’s a shame that this record will probably be overlooked as one of the best of the year due to the sheer number of blockbuster releases in 2016. In retrospect, however, it is likely that Awaken, My Love! will represent a reinvention from an artist who will no doubt be a defining figure of his generation.
So by now most folks have heard, heard about, or read about the “new” Tribe album. The zeitgeist that was its arrival has come and gone. So, the question becomes, why write about it now? Hell, its 2017. Everyone has already moved on. Well, I wanted to sit with this one for a bit, to really let the album marinate. To see if in a world where music has become even more disposable, an album could really make me feel like I used to when I took shrink wrap off the tapes in my bedroom. I’ll get to the answer to that in a bit. Assuming you have already heard the album by now, this is my own track by track reflection on We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service (interspersed with musings about all things Tribe).
First off, I was late to even hear about Tribe releasing a new record—I was still kinda numb from the passing of Phife months earlier. (Side note: Phife on Midnight Marauders >>>>> Phife on any other Tribe Record.) Initially, I was not wholly excited about the news of a new album. I texted my main man, (former Black Grooves rap reviewer) Langston Wilkins (@StreetFolkLCW), to confirm it was actually true, and we immediately began talking about “what might be” with this new Tribe record. “Is Phife even gonna be on it?” “Would they just try to cash in?” “Will they try to ‘update’ their sound to keep up with the young folks?” “Will anybody other than us even care that Tribe is putting a record out?” Or more importantly, “Is this another one of those things people will pretend to care about then forget about immediately?” (Black Messiah, I’m looking in your direction). So I think it is fair to say I approached this record with a fair amount of trepidation. I braced myself for “what might be.”
“The Space Program.” For me this track is all about the triumphant return of Jarobi White…Yeah, I know folks will be like “he never left,” but c’mon yo. The point is he returns on the first track of the album with a fierceness that I do not recall from the last time we really heard him spit. The other major piece of this song that makes it fantastic is its core concept: “There ain’t no space program for niggas, nah you stuck here nigga.” . . . I mean, how crazy is that metaphor? The idea that everyone else would “move on to the staaaarrrsss” while black and poor will be left behind. Direct yet opaque word play is so very Tribe, but again, this track is still one for the books. Between the production, Jarobi’s verse, the hook, and song’s metaphoric depth, with one fell swoop my concerns about the album were quelled. I literally went from “cautiously optimistic” to “thank you for this wonderful gift, Tribe!”
“We The People.” This track takes the space program/Afro-futurism metaphor and pulls back the drapes completely. Tip speaks bluntly in his verse but is even more straightforward on the hook, “All you black folks, you must go / all you Mexicans, you must go / all you poor folks, you must go / Muslims and gays, boy we hate your ways.” Again, damn. Even the slight tongue in cheek nature of the hook doesn’t soften the blow, especially coming so soon after the election of Donald Trump.
“Whateva Will Be.” So this is kind of a dip for me, but is super notable during the last seconds of the song when Tribe’s “Fifth Beatle”—Consequence—shows up. I can honestly say I’ve never been so excited to hear a Consequence verse. I was so glad he was here.
“Solid Wall of Sound.” Another one of the things Langston I spent a decent amount of time discussing about the album was the apparent guest list for the record. Kendrick Lamar, Elton John, Andre 3000, Jack White and Busta Rhymes were all announced before its release. While I actually absolutely LOVE all of these artists in their own right (no seriously EJ is my dude), I couldn’t help but feel like only one of them actually belonged on what I considered a “Tribe record.” Narrow minded much? About Tribe records…Absolutely.
So “Solid Wall of Sound” is the first track with one of these high profile guests. The sample flips Elton John’s “Bennie & The Jets” and I figured it was one of those “cheat guest spots” like Ray Charles on Kanye’s “Gold Digger.” In between Tip, Phife and Busta trade hyper verses, the latter two in a patois that sounds great together, Tip really kills it too. Then out of blue (sort of?) for the last 30 seconds Elton John shows up to sing with our man Tip. So is it a “cheat guest spot”? I’m not sure, but it somehow works.
“Dis Generation.” Really love this track, which sounds like Beats, Rhymes & Life era Tribe (no, that’s not a diss), and really is cool to see “the unit B” (as an impassioned Q-Tip might put it) all in the same hut trading verses like the good ole days. Tip shouts out Joey Bada$$, Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole as “gatekeepers of flow/extensions of instinctual soul” which is extremely cool to me in a “real recognize real” sort of way. The kicker on this track, though, is Busta Rhymes—who vocally sounds like the LONS Busta Rhymes—which is kinda mind blowing to me. I literally did not realize Busta could still make his voice sound like this (I was actually waiting for Charlie, Dinco or Milo to take the mic next).
“Kids.” Okay, let’s get this out of the way. I’m a huge fan of Andre 3000. Huge (I’m an even bigger fan of Outkast proper, but I’ll save that for another review). However, what I am NOT a fan of is how we have taught ourselves to absolutely lose our minds over every nonsensical, non-linear, throwaway bar Andre throws on so and so’s remix over past 10 years. I’m not saying they are all like that, but seriously folks, we really have a problem when we are all slobbering like Pavlovian dogs at the mere mention of a 3 Stacks bar, let alone a verse. So going into the track on the Tribe album that featured Codename: Benjamin, I was cautious at best. Thankfully this track does not fall prey to any of those issues. It has a pretty solid concept and Dre and Tip trade verses that are worthy of both their overarching legacies. “Kids” would fit well on a Tribe or Outkast record, which is kind of an amazing feat in and of itself. I couldn’t help but wonder how dope the track would have been with a Big Boi verse as well…
“Melatonin.” So I haven’t really spoke on it much thus far, but the production on this record is a real highlight and cannot be understated. Q-Tip shows why, in a lot of ways, he’s a ridiculously underrated producer. I’m sure recognizing that has something to do with why the production credits on this album are credited to “Q-Tip” as opposed to “the Unit B,” like on previous Tribe records. And you know what? I’m extremely pleased about that. Particularly in the wake of the rise of the “Dilla Changed My Life” outlook on what constitutes great rap production in popular culture, I feel like Q-Tip is criminally overlooked in lieu of my man Jay Dee. (Don’t get it twisted, Dilla is one of the best ever—just making a point about how popular culture works sometimes. Rant over.)
“Melatonin” has some of my favorite production, not just in terms of the beat, but also in the way Tip utilizes the voices of guest vocalists Marsha Ambrosius and Abbey Smith to create an almost dreamlike feel during the verses. The song concept also lends itself to the “under the influence” feel, as Tip ruminates on the pluses and minuses of self-medication.
“Enough.” So in the tradition of Tribe joints like “Electric Relaxation,” “Find a Way,” and of course “Bonita Applebum, this track serves as the album’s ladies jam in the way only Tribe can deliver. Jarobi really shines here as the “spirit” or “soul” or “whatever” of A Tribe Called Quest, as he absolutely goes in on his verse to point that someone in the studio (I assume Tip) can’t contain themselves when the verse sets off. Is there another person who stepped off the mic ala Jarobi and came back like 20 years later twice as fierce? Surely there’s someone, but anyway props to “Jedi” on this one. (Side note, Tip’s production wins again, digging up the Rotary Connection sample he flipped on “Bonita” and flipping it on this song as well.)
“Mobius.” Consequence and Busta absolutely murder this track. I guess for cons, there is really some absence makes the heart grow fonder stuff at play here. I mean, I’m not sure if I ever enjoyed my man this much on the Beats, Rhymes and Life record, but he seriously came to play. He sets it off ripping over a pretty basic beat for the 45 secs or so, and then the beat switches and turns into a much more menacing and bass heavy loop that I absolutely love. As if that were not enough, the track is then mule kicked into the stratosphere by none other than ’95-era Busta Rhymes (who is seriously putting some miles on his DeLorean for this album), coming through dungeon dragon style (I know thats mixing Busta-eras, but roll with me here) and spazzes out for like a hot 24—and then just like that *Verbal Kent sound effect* he’s gone. And like a mobius strip (Tip is so clever) we are back where we started. Again, Consequence and Busta absolutely murder this track.
“Black Spasmodic.” Tracks like this really, really make Q-Tip’s point from the Beats, Rhymes and Life documentary—that recording all together in the same “hut” makes for better Tribe music. From the outset this track has the feel of the early Tribe offerings, where the love was really there for everyone. I love hearing Phife go ham on this as only he can. When in full Dynomutt mode (see the aforementioned Midnight Marauders for reference), Phife is entertaining as hell to hear spit. However, Tip’s verse on this track might be my favorite on the entire album. The verse begins with Tip explaining how Phife “be speaking to him,” then Tip moves into full on channelling as he continues. Hear me…Tip spits AS PHIFE, TO HIMSELF in a verse that not only sounds like stuff Phife would (maybe did?) actually say, but also phrased in the way PHIFE would phrase it! The craziness of that cannot be understated in my opinion. On a verse where Tip says that Phife speaks to him from beyond the grave, Tip actually stops sounding like Tip and starts sounding like Phife. As a Tribe fan, that’s seriously just kinda insane.
“The Killing Season.” Kweli comes through for his guest spot, probably to make up for his glaring absence on “Rock Rock Yall” from The Love Movement 18 years back, and sets off another political track for this record. This song serves as Tribe’s take on the violence against Black and Brown folks. Did I mention that Jarobi White did not come to play with yall on this album? Cause he clearly did not. I really love the production here and beat switch makes it even better. As an added bonus, Kanye apparently sings the hook.
“Lost Somebody.” Yo, let me be clear—this is a good song. However, Tip’s verse on “Black Spasmodic” is such a fitting tribute to Phife Dawg that the impact of this track hit me a little less hard. Jarobi and Tip spit heartfelt verses and Tip, in particular, addresses some of the friction that we saw between Phife and himself during the BR&L documentary.
“Moving Backwards.” Love both the production on this as well as guest vocalist Anderson.Paak’s contribution. Paak does his thing here. “How I’m ‘pposed to know how home feels/I ain’t even on my home field.” I mean, damn. I feel that. Also, “Oops I’m bout to get kicked outta here/Tell Mama Imma slide through” never ceases to get a chuckle out of me.
“Conrad Tokyo.” Unfortunately, this one doesn’t hit as hard some of the other tracks on the record. Even Kendrick’s verse doesn’t hit like I wanted it, by no fault of his own, as he clearly does his thing. Maybe this just went over my head a bit, but love the synth.
“Ego.” This track is kind of in the style of “What?” from Low End Theory. The Abstract goes in on the various ways in which our own egos affect every aspect of our lives. He’s also brought along Jack White, who works surprisingly well. Songs like this show why, when he’s in the zone, Tip is a great conceptual rhymer.
“The Donald.” Let me start by saying, based off tracks like “The Space Program,” “We the People,” and the title of this track, I was absolutely “The Donald” was going to be a response to the phenomenon that is Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency. I was more than ready to hear what the Tribe might have to say about our president elect. So I was sorely disappointed, which is weird because who complains about the new Tribe album NOT having a song about Trump? That’s ludicrous.
Turns out it’s actually a dedication to Phife Dawg aka Don Juice (I have to humbly admit that I did not realize this is one of his aliases until now), which is pretty dope in its own right. Phife and Tip spit verses and Busta provides the hook. Again, tracks like this show why Phife’s presence is and will be truly missed. I love the breakdown Tip puts here, where he and Katia Cadet sing “Don Juuuuuiiiicccee” and go back and forth with Busta for the finale.
Couple of parting notes. First, I mentioned how the guest appearances seemed kinda all over the place. They all worked out in the end, but damn if it doesn’t seem like a HUGE missed opportunity to not have some of the Native Tongues appear on this record. I mean, I know I’m fanboying a bit to say it, but where the hell is everybody? De La? JBs? Black Sheep? Latifah? Even extended fam like the Beatnuts? Vinia Mojica? It’s all good because the album is great, but I will spend the rest of my life wondering what could have been.
That said, I am so incredibly thankful for this record y’all. It wasn’t like ripping off the shrink wrap of tapes like I did way back when; it was different, but great. I had literally no idea what A Tribe Called Quest album might sound like in 2016. I am very happy so say, it sounds exactly like what ATCQ should sound like in 2016!
Maybe there is hope for the Outkast reunion album I’ve been desperately wanting. We shall see . . .
Post Malone made waves in the hip-hop world in 2015 with his single “White Iverson,” a smooth, spaced-out, melodic, flexing anthem very much operating within and even expanding upon modes of contemporary trap music. Malone was quickly signed by Republic Records only months following the song’s release, and the December 9th release of Stoney is his debut album. One of Malone’s strengths on “White Iverson” is his elaboration on musical tropes being pioneered by artists like Young Thug, Future, and Rich Homie Quan, whose work could be said to explore a depressive, emotional underside of trap music. This happens mostly melodically, while the lyrical content remains constructed around “the lifestyle” of a trap star. In fact, all three of these artists’ work represents a move away from lyrical content all together, toward sounds that go where words can’t.
With Stoney, Post Malone offers his contribution to the conversation, an album of songs that work as vignettes of moments of reflection on “the lifestyle” of the trap star, frozen in time and beautifully dramatized. What Malone most excels at is rendering in sound these elaborate, decadent blocks of time in which the listener can pause the club or party scene, explore, scrutinize, and romanticize each detail of the fray. The freeze frame, slow motion feeling is created through heavy reverb, silencing percussion at certain moments, stretching word sounds (often to the point of incomprehensibility), intimate, cascading sounds and melodies, and Malone’s slow, syrupy flow, delivered in what feels like gusts. These all contribute to an overall feeling of being out of time and floating, perhaps in line with the album’s title. Stoney is a set of scenes from the party, a hyper close sonic exploration of moments in the ascent and disillusionment in the emotional life of the trap star. The feeling of the music moves back and forth between flex and disillusion; “Big Lie,” “No Option,” “White Iverson,” and “Money Made Me Do It” are good examples of former, while “Broken Whiskey Glass,” “Cold,” and “I Fall Apart” represent the latter. Both these themes often manifest in the metaphor of a woman’s rejection/fakeness or availability, placing Stoney smack in the middle of the current musical trends articulating the sounds of “f**k boy” consciousness.
However, while several of the songs take “White Iverson’s” emotional, melodic, hip-hop daze as precedent and remain mostly within a trap realm in terms of sounds, Malone goes in a different, more folk/pop direction on others. These include “Broken Whiskey Glass,” “Go Flex,” “Leave,” and “Feeling Whitney,” on which the acoustic guitars and strumming make the songs sound more campy and indie folk. What connects these songs to the others is the pause in time, the critical reflection moment, and, perhaps ironically, perhaps not, Malone’s rendering of black vernacular speech and performance practices. Present throughout the songs is an exploration along the lines of cockiness and confidence, a slow, elaborate dive into “f**k boy” insecurities and an attempt to reckon them with the glorified status “the lifestyle” affords. In this struggle, flex becomes mode and praxis, the sound and sound-practice of caring for oneself, and reigns supreme musically manifest in the swagger of the deliveries, the drops, and the changing flows. Part of the flex is a “no f**ks given” attitude, straddling the modes of flex and disillusion in its signification of both privilege and disillusion. Malone uses typical rap signifiers—jewelry, money, haters, women—to go to an emotional and even tender place for the trope within which he’s working. This is one of many signals of a trend of emotional reflection rap-singing in which the trap star’s depressive yet colossal inner life is revealed via a detached moment of reflection.
With features from Justin Bieber, Kehlani, Quavo, and 2 Chainz, Stoney joins the conversation, its unique contribution being Post Malone’s particular flair for romanticizing the twin modes of flex and disillusion and making it all poppy enough to keep us hooked.
Johnny Popcorn? Yes that is the name of this group and I love it. Hailing from Philadelphia, the five member band features vocals from Hezekiah (Davis) and Jani Coral, with Lloyd Alexander on guitar, Freshie on bass, and Clayton Crothers on drums. They’ve opened for a who’s who in the neo soul/progressive soul scene: Kindred, Oddisee, Robert Glasper, Ledisi, RJD2, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Bilal. JP’s ten track sophomore album, Totem Pole, is rock—yes, rock! Now before some of you start frowning your face, it’s not hard rock. It’s not Bad Brains, and there are no Vernon Reid guitar solo riffs. However, Totem Pole offers a welcome fusion of sound and if you free your mind, you may enjoy it.
“Go Go Go” is perhaps the most up tempo of all the tracks. It opens with, believe it or not, acoustic guitar that recalls George Michael’s “Faith.” The catchy chorus has Hezekiah and the group chanting and clapping, “go, go, go – you got to get up and go, go, go” as they encourage folks to chase their dreams.
“Coming Home” is another good track thanks to drummer Chuck Treece, who is a local legend in Philly. Hezekiah is once again featured on vocals, and listening to this track you might think Lenny Kravitz could have recorded it. “What a Day” is a step out of rock and into funk. The opening bass is a sure fire winner and will get heads nodding up and down.
Johnny Popcorn’s Totem Pole is certainly different. Where so many acts want to copycat each other, this band stands out! The only question remains, will they or can they find an audience? Judging by who JP has collaborated with, I’d say yes. Totem Pole is a promising follow-up to their debut album, The Crow, and I’m already waiting to see what direction they will pull the audience on their next release.
Conversations: Live in Chicago is a strong set by bassist Pennal Johnson, recorded in his hometown. The record mixes programmatic themes—as on the tracks “Are We’” Parts I, II, and III, which deal with race, representation, and history—with straight-up funky jazz. Johnson’s more conceptually challenging tracks on this record are sonically reminiscent of Sun Ra at times, and jazz-fusion pioneers at others. However, the standouts on here are his (presumably) crowd-pleasing covers of funk standards such as “Cissy Strut” and “Mothership Connection.” He also digs deep into gospel on the tracks “Lead Me Guide Me” and a gospel rendition of the film Rocky’s theme, “Gonna Fly Now.”
Johnson is accompanied by a rhythm section full of crack players, including Buddy Fambro (guitar), Andre Henry (drums), Mark LeBranche (keys), and Royce Cunningham (percussion), as well as great horns and a strong vocal section that shines on his funky cover of The Beatles “Come Together.” Of course, as leader of the band, Johnson takes the starring role, playing the melodies of most tunes, and establishing the infectious grooves that permeate this release. While the sudden alteration between hardcore socially-oriented jazz and funky grooves can get a bit dizzying, the record at times feeling like two distinct sets blended together, there is no doubt that the musicianship on Conversations: Live in Chicago is of the highest caliber.
This live performance captured in a two-CD/DVD set is an exciting release for Gregory Porter fans. His concert, performed on May 16, 2016, was filmed at the Philharmonie in Berlin and featured favorites from his albums: Water (2010), Be Good (2012), the Grammy Award-winning Liquid Spirit (2013), and his most recent album, Take Me To The Alley (2016).
Though live performances lack the creative production liberties that exist in studio recordings, the DVD and CD combination set allows fans to witness Porter’s talent and his love of performance as he serenades his audience. The staging of the Philharmonie is minimalist and intimate with simple lighting and just enough space for Porter and his band: pianist Chip Crawford, drummer Emanuel Harrold, double bassist Jahmal Nichols, and saxophonist Tivon Pennicott. The audience surrounds the stage at all angles, drawing their focus towards the music.
Blending influences of jazz, gospel, blues, and soul, Porter wields his voice with deep control and gentleness. “Be Good (Lion’s Song),” “Take Me To the Alley,” “Hey Laura,” and his encore song, “Water Under Bridges,” each beautifully demonstrate his creative imagination and themes of love and fond memories.
Porter and his band approach “Holding On,” “Liquid Spirit,” “1960 What?,” and his second encore song, “Free,” with increased energy and instrumental experimentation—calling attention to themes of racial oppression, collective pain, freedom, and hope for a stronger future. Occasionally during the performance, the film returns to a moving train car where Porter reflects on the meaning behind certain songs. Porter explains, “‘1960 What?’ is a documentary in a way, it’s protest, but it’s not what I want to happen, it’s what did happen.” The song encompasses the many places and people affected during this decade of racial unrest in the United States.
This live concert is an excellent collection of music by Gregory Porter. His performance is moving, entertaining, and surely even better in person.
Trumpeter Adam O’Farrill and his brother Zack (the drummer in this quartet outing) are third-generation New York jazz royalty. Their grandfather, Chico O’Farrill, was an in-demand arranger and composer and made recordings with Charlie Parker, Clark Terry and many other greats. Their father, Arturo O’Farrill, is a two-time Grammy winner and leader of the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra. So a heavy burden of expectations rests on the young O’Farrill brothers’ shoulders. With Stranger Days, they have chosen a new jazz direction, decidedly not Latin-flavored and decidedly the kind of melodic/swinging music associated with their father and grandfather.
The O’Farrill brothers, along with Chad Lefkowitz-Brown on tenor sax and Walter Stinson on bass, take a turn into free-jazz with episodes of bebop and the occasional aside of a brief swinging melody fragment. It’s abstruse music, and it takes a few listens to this album to understand the music and Adam O’Farrill’s vision.
The liner notes, by Zack O’Farrill, help. Zack notes that his brother is a “true cinephile” and an avid player of videogames. He cites those influences on Adam’s musical approach, a dedication to movie-like musical pictures and game-like interplay between the musicians. Plus, the brothers grew up immersed in music and were exposed to many different styles and genres. The music of this quartet seems particularly influenced by free-jazz and modern classical music, but they arrive at a somewhat more accessible style that is not all atonal/a-rhythmic screeching instruments. Indeed, at times they sound like the great Clifford Brown/Max Roach quintet, which says much for their musical chops.
If you saw the O’Farrill name and expect something Cuban-big band-swinging, you won’t find it here. But Stranger Days is worth a listen because Adam O’Farrill and his bandmates strike out in new directions. They are young, and there is a wide world for them to explore. It will be interesting to hear where they go from here.
Artist: Daahoud Salim, piano; Symphony Orchestra of the Conservatorium van Amsterdam; Andrew Grams, conductor
Label: Challenge Classics
Formats: CD, MP3
Release date: September 9, 2016
Challenge Classics International, a Netherlands based label, recently released this disc featuring the early piano works of Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942). The Czech-born composer of German heritage was himself a gifted pianist who performed internationally. When Schulhoff relocated to Berlin in early 1922, he was introduced to American ragtime, dance and jazz music through the record collection of his friend George Grosz, an artist affiliated with the Berlin Dada group. This decade was extremely prolific for Schulhoff, who wrote many successful works synthesizing jazz and classical music, four of which are featured on Forbidden Music. The album’s title denotes the increasingly tenuous place of jazz in Germany by the late 1930s, which was one of the vilified genres designated by the Nazi party as “Entartete Musik” (degenerate music). Tragically, as a communist of Jewish heritage, Schulhoff was deported to a concentration camp in Bavaria, where he died in 1942. His music, considered unfashionable in the decades immediately following his death, has seen a much deserved revival over the last 20 years with numerous recordings of his works in print.
Pianist Daahoud Salim is certainly up to the challenge of interpreting Schulhoff’s music. Initially trained by his father, American composer and jazz saxophonist Abdu Salim, Daahoud studied both jazz and classical piano at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam. The album begins with a brilliant reading of Schulhoff’s complex Konzert für Klavier und Kleines Orchester, op. 43 (1923), featuring the Symphony Orchestra of the Conservatorium van Amsterdam led by Andrew Grams. The initial “Molto Sostenuto” movement flows into Salim’s rapturous piano cadenza in the “Sostenuto” section, then sweeps into the cinematic “Allegro alla Jazz” with full orchestra. This final movement is loosely scored ABA, with a mid-section interlude for violin and piano reminiscent of café music of the era.
The remaining works, all for solo piano, allow Salim to display his brilliant technique. “Troisième Suite pour piano pour la main gauche” (1926) consists of five short movements that begin in a contemplative manner, gradually increasing in complexity through the third movement “Zingara,” before concluding in an intricate, rhythmically percussive finale. In Suite dansante en jazz (1931), each of the six short movements represent a different dance style: Stomp, Strait, Waltz, Tango, Slow, and Fox-Trot. The final movement sounds particularly “Gershwin-esque,” but overall this work holds up well and doesn’t sound overly dated. Salim performs with aplomb, bringing out the nuances of each dance style. He is joined by Russian pianist Nadezda Filippova for the closing work, Ironien op. 34, a six movement suite for piano four-hands that’s light-hearted and whimsical, with touches of Debussy and ragtime.
Forbidden Music is a fine introduction to the classical side of Daahoud Salim, who is already making waves throughout Europe with his jazz quintet—they just released their debut recording to critical acclaim.
Label: Gaither Music Group (Gaither Gospel Series)
Format: DVD/CD set
Release date: November 18, 2016
“In 1994, some of the greatest gospel artists of all time gathered together to sing songs of hope, healing, and of heaven.” That’s how Bill Gaithers, of Indiana’s Gaither Music Group, introduces the Gospel Pioneer Reunion DVD and CD set. This remarkable footage features legendary artists such as Richard Smallwood, Jennifer Holliday, the late Albertina Walker (the so-called “Late Queen of Gospel Music”), the Barrett Sisters, Billy Preston, and Joe Ligon of the Mighty Clouds of Joy, whose recent passing was mourned worldwide. For unknown reasons, the footage was never released, but frequent requests from gospel fans over the years finally yielded results! Though the music is moving enough on its own, anyone who knows gospel music knows the importance of physicality to the performance, which can be seen in the preview of the DVD below:
Any fan of gospel music will love this DVD and CD set, which includes favorites such as “Oh Happy Day,” “I Shall Wear A Crown,” and “Can’t Nobody Do Me Like Jesus.” All the audio and video post-production was done at Gaither Studios in Alexandria, Indiana–the same site where the Gospel Pioneer Reunion originally occurred. Though the DVD is certainly reflective of the quality of most video equipment used in the 90s, it is still great to see the actual performances of these amazing gospel artists. The audio is high quality, which makes the CD extremely enjoyable even as a standalone piece.
Though recorded almost 25 years ago, Gospel Pioneer Reunion stands the test of time. The 100 minutes of joyful, zealous praise and worship preserves and celebrates some of the most influential and talented gospel music singers of the last couple decades. Highly recommended purchase for all libraries!
For Sharon Lewis, singing the blues is her method of communicating her experiences as a Black woman in America. Her new release, Grown Ass Woman, showcases her music deeply rooted in the Chicago blues tradition. This edgy album, her second on the Delmark label, features harmonica player Sugar Blue and slide guitarist Joanna Connor.
Opening with “Can’t Do It Like We Do,” Lewis boldly defends the unique sound of her Chicago music scene with the full strength of her powerful voice. The energizing party anthem, “Hell Yeah!” features a horn section with Kenny Anderson on trumpet, Hank Ford on tenor sax, and Jerry DiMuzio on baritone sax. Lewis emphasizes the strength of womanhood with “Chicago Woman,” a song that opens with a classic Chicago electric blues guitar rhythm and shredding instrumental breaks.
Guitarist and songwriter Steve Bramer collaborated with Lewis on several songs, such as “Don’t Try to Judge Me,” “Walk With Me,” and “Freedom.” Singing about autonomy, fair treatment, and life experience, Lewis’s lyrics are fiercely straight shooting and unforgiving. For instance, on “Old Man’s Baby” she sings:
An old man will wine and dine you
A young man’s love will bind you
That’s why I’d rather be an old man’s baby than a young man’s fool
Lewis performs two cover songs that fit in this album seamlessly: B.B. King’s “Why I Sing the Blues” and Warren Haynes’ “Soul Shine.” Her title track, “Grown Ass Woman” may be one of the most satisfying songs on the album. She fearlessly accentuates her independence in the final verse, “I want you – I don’t need you. You can’t do half the shit I do, ‘cause I’m a grown ass woman.”
As the title track demonstrates, Grown Ass Woman is a fiery new collection of electric blues and soul music from Sharon Lewis and Texas Fire.
On their 12th release, Cab Driving Man, Mississippi Heat takes us on a journey through blues history, with songs running the gamut from down home Delta blues and NOLA boogie woogie to the contemporary electric blues of their own sweet home, Chicago. Following their highly successful 2014 release, Warning Shot, their new album showcases the depth, breadth, and artistry of a band that’s been together for 25 years. The five current members include founder/harpist Pierre Lacocque, lead singer Inetta Visor, and guitarist Michael Dotson, with the rhythm section headed up by Brian Quinn on bass and Terrance Williams on drums. Also featured on the majority of the tracks are Chris “Hambone” Cameron on keyboards and Giles Corey on guitar, along with other special guests.
The majority of the songs were composed by Lacocque, whose masterful storytelling often draws inspiration from significant events in Chicago history. For example, the title track references legendary bandleader Cab Calloway, who attended college in Chicago prior to his glory days at Harlem’s Cotton Club. Sounding a bit like a juked up, jumping jive version of “Land of the Rising Sun,” this track is definitely one of the highlights, with Sax Gordon adding a honking bari-sax and Lacocque and Cameron jumping on board with some tasty instrumental solos. Other highlights include the opener “Cupid Bound,” a tight rhythm and blues number that elicits some of Inetta Visor’s most soulful vocals, and “Rosalie” with its Latin inspired percussion courtesy of Ruben Alvarez, punctuated by Lacocque’s harmonica and Cameron’s riffs on the B3. This Latin influence continues on “Smooth Operator,” one of the two covers on the album, with Visor digging into the groove of this song popularized by Sarah Vaughan. Dotson takes over the vocals on his composition “Can’t Get Me No Traction,” providing a grittier edge to the hard driving blues-rock style of the song.
Cab Driving Man is another home run for Mississippi Heat, an infectious album with a wide range of musical influences that shake things up and keep us jiving through all 12 tracks.
Mississippi’s Grady Champion may have started his career as a rapper, but after learning to play the harmonica he became an advocate for the blues. He now endeavors to keep the Delta traditions alive while racking up numerous awards along the way. Though Champion experimented with the fusion of hip hop and the blues in his early years, his 10th album is more conventional, but in no way stale. On One of a Kind, he delivers 12 original tracks that play to his eclectic fan base: those who love traditional blues, and those like their blues with a dash of Southern soul. Recorded at the historic Malaco Records’ studio in Jackson, Mississippi (now part of the Mississippi Blues Trail), the album features local backing musicians including Eddie Cotton Jr. on guitar, Carroll McLaughlin on keyboards, Sam Scott on drums, Myron Bennett and Ken Smith on bass, and the Jackson Horns (Kimble Funchess, trumpet; Jesse Primer III, tenor sax; Sydney Ford II, bari sax; and Robert Lampkin, trombone).
Opening with the slow and sexy “Bump and Grind,” Champion’s deep, raspy vocals and suggestive harmonica solos mimic the action on the dance floor. The lively “House Party” is a rollicking 12-bar blues featuring a trio of background vocalists accompanied by the lush chords of a Hammond B3 and the punchy Jackson Horns. Continuing with the party theme, “Move Something” and “Heels and Hips” are grooving dance numbers with a more contemporary vibe.
Shifting back to a slow grind, “What a Woman” is another traditional blues track featuring the legendary Elvin Bishop, who punctuates the song with his edgy slide guitar. Representing the R&B side of the spectrum, “One of a Kind” and “When I’m Gone” are notable for their funky instrumentals and soulful backing vocals harkening back to the glory days of Malaco. The album closes with the instrumental “GC Boogie,” a showcase for Champion and Eddie Cotton who trade harmonica and guitar solos, converging at the end for a satisfying finale.
Champion’s One of a Kind is a great follow-up to his 2014 release, Bootleg Whiskey, offering plenty of diversity while showcasing the best of the contemporary Southern blues scene.
Last year we reviewed Omar Coleman’s Delmark debut, Born & Raised, released in June 2015. Due to that album’s success, Delmark decided to follow up immediately with a live recording. The result is Live at Rosa’s Lounge, recorded over three dates at “Chicago’s friendliest blues bar.” Six out of 10 of these live tracks appeared on the previous album, though in the new release you get some nice, extended versions, a couple of which are nearly double in length. Both albums feature the same line-up: Peter Galanis on guitar, Neal O’Hara on keyboards and organ, Dave Forte (tracks 1-5) and Ari Seder (tracks 6-10) on bass, and Marty Binder on drums.
New to the live album are four cover songs including the opener, Junior Wells and Buddy Guy’s “Snatch It Back and Hold It.” Coleman’s rendition inserts a dose of funk with a grooving bass line and organ riffs, and other than a brief harmonica appearance in the intro, he wisely makes no effort to improve on Junior Wells’s harp solo. This is followed by a hard-driving version of Willie Dixon’s “I’m Ready,” with O’Hara taking over the solo on keyboards. From the Stax catalog there’s Rufus Thomas’s “Give Me the Green Light.” Coleman states in the intro, “As you can guess, we like our blues with a dose of funk, soul, and all kinds of other stuff,” before the band lays into a heavy groove, deftly fusing Southern soul with electric Chicago blues. Another Dixon song popularized by Junior Wells, “Two Headed Woman,” closes the album in a fast and furious rendition that pits Coleman’s harp against Galanis’s guitar.
Though it’s impossible to recommend one of these albums over the other, Live at Rosa’s Lounge captures a younger generation of musicians, proving that the blues club scene is alive and well in Chicago.
Akosua Gyebi goes by many names: she acts as the lead singer of the New York City jazz group Sweet Blue Fire, member of indie rock group The Goddess Lakshmi, and she just released her fourth full length solo album under the name Kosi. On her website, she calls her latest project, I Know Who I Am, a “concept album telling the story of guilt, absolution, love and self-actualization through original jazz and negro spirituals.”
The opening track starts with a 50-second snippet of “Hallelujah,” which she later sings in full. It is raw and especially emotional in light of Leonard Cohen’s recent passing. The album includes traditional spirituals such as “Servant’s Prayer” and “Walk With Me,” as well as many originals such as the dark, twisting jazz song “Guilty.” In the final track, “Morning After Blues,” Kosi’s goal of self-actualization is fulfilled, as she sings about accepting her body, her talents, and where she is in life. A snippet of the song can be heard in the promo below:
While the recording quality is not always the most impressive, the skills of the backing musicians and Kosi’s passionate vocals still stand out on this sometimes unusual but captivating album chronicling her journey to self-acceptance.
Senegalese-born, Canada-based artist Élage Diouf released his sophomore album Melokáane in September on Pump on the World. “Melokáane” means “the reflection of a life’s journey” in Wolof (a Senegalese language), and the album explores themes of immigration, spirituality, and political resistance that have been present throughout Diouf’s life and work.
A mix of rock, soul, and folk, Melokáane starts out by paying tribute to one of the most famous resistance leaders in recent history: Nelson Mandela. “Mandela” (heard in the video below) is interspersed with actual clips of Mandela speaking and honors his courage and determination through uplifting, upbeat music and lyrics. Another standout track is “Sankara,” which features Diouf’s impeccable percussion skills and relaxed rhythms that sound like very peaceful reggaeton. The album’s liner notes say the song is a tribute to Thomas Sankara and Patrice Lubumba, two “emblematic figures of the struggle to free Africa from major Western powers,” noting that their mysterious deaths still remain unexplained.
The album was co-produced by Diouf himself and Alain Bergé, and also includes collaborations such as with multiplatinum singer Johnny Reid on “Just One Day” and guitarist Jordan Officer on “Tay.” The album is entirely in Wolof, and is a beautiful musical representation of Diouf and his many inspirations and influences, both political and personal.
The great Bobby “Blue” Bland was one of the most influential and beloved vocalists of the post-WWII era. A product of Memphis’ Beale Street blues scene, Bland was known for his powerful, soulful voice and preaching style of delivery. His distinctive sound melded the blues with R&B and gospel music, which evolved into soul just about the time Stax Records opened for business in his hometown. This two-disc retrospective from Acrobat documents the first decade of Bland’s career, from 1951-62, including all of his “rocking R&B and soulful blues” sides on the Duke label. Also included on Disc 1 are a few of the singles he cut for Chess and Modern the year prior to signing with Duke, including the lesser known song “Letter From a Trench in Korea.” But there are plenty of hits as well, such as his 1957 break-out single “Farther On Up the Road,” his “Little Boy Blue” from 1958 (said to have been influenced by the preaching style of Rev. C.L. Franklin), and the Brook Benton ballad “I’ll Take Care of You.” By Disc 2, Bland’s style firmly enters soul territory, with tortured ballads such as “Cry, Cry, Cry” and “That’s the Way Love Is.”
The tracks on this set are arranged in chronological order, accompanied by a 15 page booklet with liner notes by Paul Watts and discographical information.
There is a great story about how Evelyn King was discovered. Up and coming producer T. Life heard King’s voice one night, while she was cleaning the offices of Philadelphia International Records. She was singing Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” which impressed T. Life enough that he offered to coach the teenager. Evelyn King should have been a bigger star after the 1977 hit single “Shame” put her on the map. Now, I might be saying that because I happened to reside in Philadelphia, but nonetheless I’ve felt that way for years.
Real Gone Music’s two disc set, The Complete RCA Hits and More, contains all the hits plus songs that received very little attention. All the tracks on this set are 12” mixes or extended versions, so you feel like you are in a club and the DJ is giving you a new version you never heard before. All these tracks were remastered for this set by Maria Triana at Battery Studios in New York.
There are many highlights these two discs, such as “Dancin’, Dancin’, Dancin’,” written by none other than Teddy Pendergrass. Released before “Shame,” it is very disco-y but shows that King had vocal talent. “Aquarius / Let the Sun Shine In,” a remake of the Fifth Dimension classic, is pretty good, with King showing another side of her talent. “I Don’t Know If It’s Right” was released immediately after “Shame” and was also popular in clubs. In this song, King is singing about whether or not she wants to lose her virginity; the opening saxophone has always been a winner and here you get the extra bonus of an extended version. As the ‘80s were ushered in, King released “I’m In Love.” This time she is not worried about losing her innocence, and perhaps it’s her last hurrah:
I mentioned “Shame,” which is the very first track on this set. When it was released in 1977, King was all over—American Bandstand, Soul Train, you name it. Today, “Shame” can still get people on the dance floor. The long version is included in this set, so enjoy.
Evelyn “Champagne” King was billed a dance artist. After the success of “Shame,” no wonder. I personally would have loved to hear more of her ballads or duets, but this is still a great set. Again, Evelyn King should have been a much bigger star.
The Complete RCA Hits and More also includes extensive liner notes with photos and album art from the RCA Vault. The liner notes are written by soul expert David Nathan and feature exclusive quotes from Evelyn “Champagne” King herself. This album is the first comprehensive domestic collection of King’s work, making this set a must-have for any fan of disco music.
Well thank you. After more than fifty years, fans of Dee Dee Sharp can once again hear her long out-of-print album, Songs of Faith. Perhaps now fans, and others as well, will finally come to realize that Dee Dee Sharp accomplished more in her career than (1), her 1962 hit “Mashed Potato Time,” and (2), being married to Kenny Gamble. Strange but true, “Mashed Potato Time” was knocked out of place by Little Eva’s “The Loco Motion,” a song Gerry Goffin & Carole King wrote and offered to Sharp, who turned it down. Instead, Dee Dee Sharp went to New York in 1962 to record Songs of Faith, which immediately followed the release of her debut album, It’s Mashed Potato Time.
In Songs of Faith, Sharp—who sang in Philadelphia’s Third Eternal Baptist Church where her grandfather was pastor—shows a vocal range that “Mashed Potato Time” could never give justice to. The opening track, an arrangement of Thomas Dorsey’s “Peace in the Valley,” sounds more like a tune suited for the Lawrence Welk show and the Lennon Sisters with its lush orchestral backing. “No more sadness, no more troubles,” sings Sharp. With the recent affairs after the election and all its chaos, healing words indeed. “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands” may also sound hokey and out of date to a young audience, but remember, this was first released in 1962. On “Its No Secret (What God Can Do),” Sharp sounds like one of her contemporaries during this time—Barbara Lewis of “Baby I’m Yours” fame. “Up Hill” no doubt is the winner, with organ filled hand clapping. When you listen, one can picture a congregation standing in the pews, clapping, while the choir director leads the choir. “Keep a singing” is right.
After listening to all twelve tracks, I have to wonder why this original wasn’t album pushed more by the label. Bad marketing. After releasing “Mashed Potato Time,” Sharp introduced a dance that went with the single, creating a major hit which brought her to mainstream attention. If Cameo/Parkway had released this inspirational album before “Mashed Potato Time,” perhaps it might have been more successful. Or Sharp’s star might have shined brighter if Cameo had released a true gospel album, instead of a collection of pop-oriented inspirational songs recorded in the studio. Because of this, Songs of Faith can’t go toe to toe with the likes of Clara Ward or Mahalia Jackson, even though Sharp was a great gospel singer and is backed here by Philly gospel artists Willa Ward, Vivian Jackson, and Mary Wiley. Still, it’s great to hear another side of Dee Dee Sharp. Liner notes are provide by George Washington University professor Gayle Wald, author of the Sister Rosetta Tharpe biography, Shout, Sister, Shout.
Though there are countless compilations of the recordings of legendary Delta blues guitarist John Lee Hooker, this 101-track 4-CD collection from Acrobat compiles all of his singles released on the Modern, Chess and VeeJay labels from 1949 to 1962. Sequenced chronologically, disc one begins with “Sally May,” recorded in Detroit with producer Bernard Besman and released in 1949 on Joe Bihari’s Modern label out of Los Angeles. Hooker’s second release produced the indelible classic “”Boogie Chillen,” followed by more hits in his R&B arsenal: “Crawlin’ King Snake,” “Hobo Blues, “Hoogie Boogie,” plus “Rock and Roll” from 1950. The disc concludes with some of his early sides for Chicago’s Chess Records.
Disc two picks up with “High Priced Woman” on Chess and concludes with his 1953 release on the Modern label, “Too Much Boogie.” Most of the Modern releases on this disc were produced by Bihari, who flew to Detroit to work directly with Hooker. Though disc three is still dominated by Hooker’s releases for Bihari, we’re introduced to the VeeJay period, which carries through to the end of disc four. Hooker signed with the Chicago-based VeeJay label in 1955, which produced a number of career highlights including his classic 1962 song “Boom,” with backing provided by session musicians with experience in Motown’s studio. The set concludes with additional songs recorded during that session, coming to an optimistic close with a reworking of his 1952 song “New Leaf.”
Though this set has nothing new to offer, it presents a nice introduction to Hooker’s work, mixing his blues and R&B sides. Liner notes are provided by Paul Watts, and the booklet includes complete discographical and session information.
Following are additional albums released during December 2016—some will be reviewed in future issues of Black Grooves.
Blues, Folk, Country Charles Brown: Drifting Blues: His Underrated 1957 LP (Soul Jam)
Broadway, Soundtrack The Hamilton Mixtape (Atlantic)
Hidden Figures: The Album (Columbia)
Funk, Rock, Pop, Electronic Little Richard Band: California I’m Comin’ (Hitman)
Nosizwe: In Fragments (So Real)
Gospel, Gospel Rap Adrian B. King: New, the Next Chapter (JDI)
Miami Mass Choir: Live at the Adrienne Arsht Center (MaJo)
Mills Brothers: Wonderful Words of Life-The Inspirational Recordings (Real Gone)
Shenna Walker: My Life (Green Print Ent.)
Jazz Africa Djembe: Dajaloo (Babsbeatproductions)
Kenny Wellington: Free Spirit (Expansion)
Lisa Hilton: Day & Night (CD Baby)
Nicolas Lossen: Pié Coco’a, the African American Jazz Tale (Bô Kay Studio)
Norman Brown: Let It Go (Shanachie)
PJ (Pennal Johnson): Christmas on Polk Street (Hitman)
Sun Ra: Singles – The Definitive 45s Collection 1952-1991 (Strut)
Victor Bastidas De Paises Project: Canto Choco (De Paises Music)
R&B, Soul Archie Bell & The Drells: Let’s Groove: Archie Bell & The Drells Story (BBR)
Baby Washington: That’s How Heartaches Are Made, 1958-1962 (Yeah Mama)
Coasters: Complete Singles 1954-62 (Acrobat)
Deniece Williams: Black Butterfly – Essential Niecy (BBR)
Fifth Dimension: Complete Soul City/Bell Singles 1966-1975 (3 CDs) (Real Gone)
Frankie & the Spindles: Count to Ten – Complete Singles 1968-77
Jackson 5: 5 Classic Albums (box set) (Universal)
Jacob Latimore: Connection (Empire)
Jarrod Milton: Girl (digital)
John Legend: Darkness and Light (Columbia)
Johnny Bristol: Modern Soul Classics 1974-1981 (Playback)
Linda Jones: Precious – The Anthology (Kent)
Vivian Reed: Yours Until Tomorrow – Epic Years (SoulMusic)
Rap Gza/Genius: Dark Matter (iHipHop)
Mozzy & Trae Tha Truth: Tapped In (ABN)
Ras G: Baker’s Dozen (vinyl) (Fat Beats)
Ab-Soul: Do What Thou Wilt (digital)
Bond St District: A Church On Vulcan (Friends)
General Steele & ES-K: Building Bridges (Bucktown USA)
Gensu Dean: R.a.w. (Mello Music)
G-Mo Skee: My Filthy Spirit Bomb (Majik Ninja)
Hassan Haze: Neteru Muses (Jesluv Music)
Hodgy Fireplace: TheNotTheOtherSide (Odd Future/Sony)
J French: Jaguar Jesus (IV League Ent.)
Julz: The Genesis (Vibes Music)
K-Def: (American) Gangster Instrumentals (vinyl) (Redefinition)
Kid Cudi: Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’ (Republic)
King Basil: Welcome to Wilmington (Rebels No Savage)
Lloyd: Tru EP (Empire)
Pete Rock & Smoke Dza: Don’t Smoke Rock (Ihiphop)
Sean Price: Gorilla (box set) (Duck Down)
Tech N9ne: The Storm (Strange Music)
The Lox: Filthy America…It’s Beautiful (Roc Nation)
Trademark Da Skydiver & Young Roddy: Family Business (Ihiphop)
Various: New Gen (XL)
Waka Flocka: Trap Goes Techno (DVD) (226 Film Production)
Reggae, Dancehall Bob Marley & The Wailers: Legend Live – Santa Barbara County Bowl, 11/25/1979 (CD/DVD) (Trojan)
UB40: Unplugged (Ume)
World Fela Kuti: Complete Works (29 CD+DVD box set) (Knitting Factory)
Tiken Jah Fakoly: Dernier Appel (Wrasse)
Various: Doing It in Lagos: Boogie, Pop & Disco in 1980s Nigeria (Soundway)