Archive for February 1st, 2017

Welcome to the February 2017 Black History Month Issue

Welcome to the February 2017 edition of Black Grooves, sponsored by the Indiana University Archives of African American Music and Culture.

This month we’re not only celebrating Black History Month, but also our 10th anniversary and 2000th post! Many thanks to our supporters – including our reviewers and readers as well as the artists, publicists, promoters and record labels who make Black Grooves possible.

Our feature projects coalesce around themes related to the Black American experience: Otis Taylor’s Fantasizing About Being Black, Miles Mosley’s debut album Uprising (with the West Coast Get Down), Noah Preminger’s Meditations on Freedom, Atlanta rapper T.I.’s Us or Else: Letter to the System, Randy Weston’s The African Nubian Suite, Nate Smith’s debut album KINFOLK: Postcards from Everywhere, and Afro-punk trio BLXPLTN’s provocative New York Fascist Week.

We’re also featuring new releases from groups fronted by women, including Black Rose by Shirley Davis & the Silverbacks, Southern Avenue’s self-titled debut on Stax, Meditations of a G by the violin-viola duo Chargaux, Long Live the Angels by Scottish singer-songwriter Emile Sande, and Late Nights & Heartbreak by British soul singer Hannah Williams & The Affirmations.

On a Valentine’s Day theme, there’s Nobody’s Gonna Love You Better from jazz vocalist Allan Harris, and for Mardi Gras celebrations there’s Viral by the Jefferson St. Parade Band and Lapeitah from New Orleans funk musician Corey Henry.

Other new releases include Got Soul by Robert Randolph & The Family Band, Hot Coffey in the D celebrating side projects of Funk Brother Dennis Coffey, Devil is Fine by the black metal musician known as Zeal & Ardor, counterbalanced by the Miami Mass Choir Live at the Adrienne Arsht Center.

Wrapping us this issue is the world music compilation Synthesize the Soul: Astro-Atlantic Hypnotica from the Cape Verde Islands 1973-1988, a DVD of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s recent production of Hamlet featuring a black cast and composer, and our compilation of January 2017 Releases of Note.

View review February 1st, 2017

Otis Taylor – Fantasizing About Being Black

Otis Taylor
Title: Fantasizing About Being Black

Artist: Otis Taylor

Label: Trance Blues Festival Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: February 17, 2017

 

Building upon 20 years of recording and 15 albums, Otis Taylor presents his latest project, Fantasizing About Being Black, a historical retrospective on the African American experience. In a Conqueroo press release, Taylor says this album summons conversations about “the different levels of racism in the African American experience that are unfortunately still with us today. The history of African Americans is the history of America.”

Describing his music as “trance blues,” Taylor aims to transport the listener to an earlier era by incorporating instruments that were once played by enslaved people. The album opens with “Twelve String Mile,” a contemplative song about the social invisibility of the black man in the 1930s. This leads into “Walk on Water,” a song about the separation of an interracial couple and the pursuit of love. Taylor’s raspy, yet solemn vocals are accompanied by violinist Anne Harris, drummer Larry Thompson, bassist Todd Edmunds, Jerry Douglas on koa wood lap guitar, cornetist Ron Miles, and lead guitar player Brandon Niederauer. While much of this meditative album is acoustically composed, Taylor also includes electrifying spiritual songs such as “Tripping on This” and “Hands On Your Stomach”:

Taylor addresses the Civil Rights Movement, interracial relationships, the desire for freedom, and enslavement experiences in Fantasizing About Being Black. Each song reimagines what life was like for black men and women throughout different stages in America’s history. Taylor also uses this platform to call attention to pervasive racism and the need for empathy for people of color who continue their struggle today. Taylor’s last album, Hey Joe Opus/Red Meat, is currently on display at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture—a clear indication that his message is reaching a wide audience. Fantasizing About Being Black clearly continues Taylor’s commitment to social justice, and is an excellent contribution to this year’s Black History Month.

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

View review February 1st, 2017

Miles Mosley – Uprising

Miles Mosley
Title: Uprising

Artist: Miles Mosley

Label: World Galaxy / Alpha Pup

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: January 27, 2017

 

When press releases surrounding Miles Mosley’s latest project were circulated last fall, little did we know just how strongly an album built around the theme “uprising” would resonate. By the time the album dropped last week, the country was embroiled in protests that show no sign of abating. Now Mosley’s concept for Uprising seems downright prescient:

The word “uprising” is often used in moments in which a group of people witness their strength in numbers and band together to seize an opportunity. This embodies the time we are currently living in, where people all over the world in art and politics are recognizing their own power in numbers. It is prophetic as it deals with the different tenants of survival within a world of mystery and ambivalence. From brotherly love to the dangers of good intentions, these are all universal occurrences to which we all seek advice.

If the album’s theme is not enough to draw you in, the music is a powerful hook. Mosley composed the music and also contributes lead vocals and his virtuosity on the upright bass. He’s backed by a soul stew otherwise known as the West Coast Get Down: Kamasi Washington and the late Zane Musa on saxophone, Dontae Winslow on trumpet, Ryan Porter on trombone, Brandon Coleman on keyboards, Cameron Greaves on piano, and drummer Tony Austin. Completing the aural tapestry, a full orchestra and choir are added to several of the tracks.

On Uprising, the WCGD collective fulfills another mission: “to defy genre and combine musical influences to make jazz dangerous and exciting again, while paying tribute to the legends before them.” Some of these legends include Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix, whose Southern soul and psychedelic rock are synthesized with jazz on nearly every track, along with message songs reminiscent of Curtis Mayfield.

The album kicks off with “Young Lion,” a fabulously funky song espousing the attributes of a young, woke man with Mosley singing, “set me free, let me run . . .I’m so on fire, look what I’ve become, I’m high, high, higher.” The track also demonstrates Mosley’s incredible bass technique, as the track closes in a fury of distorted riffs that might fool you into thinking he switched up his bass with electric guitar. This is followed by “Abraham,” a song framed with biblical references that begins peacefully with a keyboard backed intro. As Mosley concludes the first verse, “I’m scared, mediocrity is everywhere, but not here!,” the band explodes into action—proving that mediocrity will never fly with this renown ensemble.

In a recent LA Weekly interview, Mosley says he wanted to include “heart-wrenching songs of loss and disappointment,” but also “a soundtrack for this crazy time that people can lean on.” Many of the tracks embody these feelings of disillusionment; however, they never fail to inspire. The reverb soaked anthem “L.A. Won’t Bring You Down” seeks to embolden young artists to hold their own in the City of Angels, cheering them on with a shouting soul chorus, punchy horn section, and liberal applications of the wah wah pedal on the bass. This flows naturally into the emotional ballad “More Than This,” which starts off in a slow groove, then explodes in a powerful flurry of fuzzed up bass as Mosley shouts, “I was promised, maybe the whole world was promised, so much more than this!” Other stand out tracks include “Your Only Cover” and “Reap a Soul”—the latter a bit reminiscent of The Wiz in its “get on down the road” theme. In fact, both songs have lush orchestrations and a ‘70s era Broadway quality. The album concludes with “Fire,” a celebratory tune with Latin rhythms and full string section that will definitely get everyone on their feet, clamoring for an encore.

All of these tracks were recorded in 2012, at the same month-long session that gave birth to Kamasi Washington’s debut album, The Epic, and Cameron Grave’s Planetary Prince (though his tracks were eventually re-recorded). Now it is Mosley’s turn in the spotlight, and that light shines like a solar flare. With Uprising, Miles Mosley takes a huge dose of soul and funk, fuses it with astonishing bass technique enhanced with crazy special effects, and tops it off with empowering lyrics and vocals. This album will no doubt be one of the highlights of 2017!

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review February 1st, 2017

Noah Preminger – Meditations on Freedom

Noah Preminger
Title: Meditations on Freedom

Artist: Noah Preminger

Label: Independent Release

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: January 20, 2017

 

Inauguration day saw a new release from the prolific jazz saxophonist Noah Preminger, aptly entitled Meditations on Freedom. Many Americans have felt confused, afraid, and uncertain in the past few months and Preminger’s newest release channels these sentiments into meditative and provocative music. Composing original tunes and bringing several carefully chosen covers into the studio within weeks of the 2016 U.S. elections, Preminger and company recorded primarily from sketches, eschewing elaborate and polished arrangements for sounds that could touch the still raw nerves of his listeners. The unvarnished sense of the present on this record is heightened by the fact that each of these tracks was recorded live and released with no edits, lending the album the kind of immediacy that a listener may experience at a live set while allowing the musicians to act and react rather than scrubbing the record clean of potentially broken or missed notes. This technique gives this set of tunes a sense of urgency, one that is made even more stark by Preminger’s ensemble choice of a quartet that features no chording instrument, relying solely on melodic counterpoint for harmony. Featuring Preminger on saxophone, Jason Palmer on trumpet, Kim Cass on bass, and Ian Froman on drums, the group’s minimalistic approach ensures that every note counts, as it must with this ensemble and this material.

As the musical and technical choices set this album’s mood, Preminger’s selection of material provides the bulk of the political and social commentary. It is, of course, hard to convey specific social or political statements through instrumental jazz, an abstract medium generally unsuited to convey semantic meaning except through association or allusion.  Many artists try to solve this problem with sweeping titles that appear to convey something that the sound therein cannot.  Preminger’s solution to this problem is to intersperse his original tunes (complete with provocative titles like “We Have a Dream,” “Women’s March,” and “The 99 Percent”) with renditions of familiar socially-conscious numbers.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the way this group approaches its material is that Preminger and his quartet play the most familiar tunes in the set in a way that makes them seem to unravel as they progress. It would be easy (perhaps even lazy) to note that the quartet’s treatment of these tunes sees them dissipate as it seems that civil society is doing. What actually appears to be happening on these tracks, however, is more sophisticated: what makes these renditions especially salient is not that they actually fall apart, but that they clearly have the potential to. We can hear signature melodies on each of these songs before they morph into nearly unrecognizable improvisation over unfamiliar changes. They usually return to the familiar bits, but in a way that requires the listener to check the liner notes to make sure it’s still the same song.

The first two tracks are covers of songs that address racism in the United States head on: Bob Dylan’s “Only a Pawn in Their Game” (which can be heard below) and Bruce Hornsby’s “Just the Way it Is.” The band performs musical operations on these otherwise familiar tunes—we can recognize the songs in a way but they seem a bit off, almost as though they are being heard underwater. Dylan’s meandering vocal melody appears while the chords under it move in unexpected ways; the signature piano intro on the Hornsby tune is played by the horns before the quartet departs in a different direction than Hornsby could likely have imagined. It appears that Preminger meditates on freedom by pondering the perilous position of hard-won liberties—a house of cards that, like these songs, could easily fall apart with one wrong move. This thesis is supported by the tenuous feeling throughout the record—even the original tunes are not readily hummable, but melodically evanescent. The album feels transient, listening to it an absorbing meditation which is gone as soon as the final seconds tick off of the last track.

With Meditations on Freedom, Preminger and company have released an immediate artistic statement that packs quite a punch in a time that may be optimistically characterized as uncertain. Any flaws that may be found in the album’s one-and-done production style mirror the flaws that Preminger and company appear to highlight in democracy itself, full of promise but ultimately ambiguous in result. There are no shout choruses, no moments of divine Charlie Parker transcendence, but instead a preponderance of more muted soul-searching.

It is critical to note that this record does not end on a bright note—a fairly sunny reading of George Harrison’s “Give Me Love” is followed by an original, “Broken Treaties,” that reads as a lament for all of the hard fought battles that may have now been lost. Preminger’s music will likely not inspire revolution; rather it seems to grieve a failed one. Even the album’s gorgeous version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” is tinged with loss—sure, a change is gonna come, but will it be a good one?  It is difficult to interpret many of these numbers as seeing the glass half-full, and that may be precisely the point.

The most challenging part of Meditations on Freedom is its clearly articulated and profound sense of loss. Preminger and company’s skill at articulating this in a musically cogent way is what ultimately makes this album both so good and such a downer.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

View review February 1st, 2017

T.I. – Us or Else: Letter to the System

T.I.
Title: Us or Else: Letter to the System

Artist: T.I.

Label: Grand Hustle / Roc Nation Records

Format: digital

Release date: December 16, 2016

 

Looking back, 2016 was undoubtedly a great year for black music. And one particularly interesting part was listening to the myriad ways that black musicians interpreted and performed black protest, as well as the protesters’ routine practice of taking up these songs during their protests, especially Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.” Likewise, Atlanta rapper T.I.’s December release, Us or Else: Letter to the System, signals a turn in the amount of explicit political content of his music, as well as a consistent effort from mainstream rappers and other black music icons to speak on issues related to the Black Lives Matter movement, including such heavyweights as Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, Janelle Monáe, Killer Mike, and J. Cole. As far as the rappers go, Kendrick, Jay-Z, and J. Cole are devoted lyricists, though that is not all they do. But Killer Mike and now T.I. represent a new wave of southern trap rappers who use their music to explicitly respond to the issues and actions of the movement for black lives.

You could say T.I. entered this particular arena clearly with the August release of the single from the album, “We Will Not.” The song has a sinister melody and an anthem’s bigness and is an aggressive refusal of the race and class oppression he narrates in what is essentially a list of grievances addressed to a wide variety of unjust systems in the United States. This content is surrounded sonically by an articulation of the strength and badness—in the black usage of baad as positive—of contemporary black political activists, many of whom, I might add, are the same groups of teenagers innovating in trap music and black culture today. The album certainly demonstrates T.I.’s commitment to using his music to protest with and on behalf of the larger black community; even the long list of featured artists get completely on board with the mission, mobilizing countless Civil Rights Movement signifiers and centering their discussion primarily around police violence and mass incarceration.

In line with contemporary trap music, the sounds of the album include a steady stream of ad-libs, beat drops, autotune, excessive use of hi hats, gun sounds, filters, and especially current black “‘hood” vernacular and vocal performance. In terms of the vernacular and vocal performance, the song “Pain” works as a kind of guide to the pain of contemporary black life, the performance showing us how to feel good in its midst. This T.I. accomplishes through a type of showiness and effortlessness created through slurred vocals, the repetition of sound-phrases, and the way his flow rides the beat. The language is a compelling mix of this black vernacular and hot social justice language, and T.I. takes an introspective and encouraging, though still righteously enraged, position on today’s issues. In the song “Black Man,” the chorus sings celebratorily, “black man…drop top… there go the cops,” bringing two ideas together which have traditionally been thought of as mutually exclusive; and this is the cause of the confrontation with police in the song. This is just one example of how T.I.’s claims against white society are often represented by the “law” in the form of a white police officer—a longstanding tradition in black American culture because of the ways in which the legal system has been used by white society post-emancipation to maintain white supremacy and black exploitation and subordination.

In response to today’s attacks from the “law,” T.I. puts forth an album about race pride and action, embodied in the song “40 Acres”—a celebration of black under class values, centering the ‘hood in the conversation without being disparaging or condescending. If it’s a revolution, it’s a people’s revolution with T.I. embracing the role of race man.

In “Picture Me Mobbin,” mobbin’—moving or goin’ in with one’s squad—becomes an expression of unity, not threat. Here trap language and style gets mobilized to encourage activism, to make political action the modus operandi of the “real n*gga.” In the same breadth, T.I. lays claim to a kind of respectability of the “dope boy” in “Writer,” which is a reference to 2Pac’s “Ambitionz Az a Ridah,” but also a play on the southern accent to signify another meaning, that rap is in fact a legitimate form of literary production.

“Here We Go / Don’t Fall For That” is one of several reflection moments in the album, which T.I. uses to create a pep song for the poor, black kid in the ‘hood—acknowledging, unlike corporate media, that our communities are under siege, and trying to work against that. The advice from the trap star is “don’t get trapped,” and, ultimately, choose another way that can build you and your community up. That’s what it means to be black, strong, and baad in the world T.I. renders for us in Us or Else.

In a final moment of reflection and humbling, the album ends with T.I. calling on Jesus to “Take Da Wheel,” reinforcing the overall feeling that this is bigger than any of us individually and the belief that, in Dr. King’s words, the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” even if that may only be in another world.

As a body, Us Or Else: Letter To The System is robust and full of opposition and counter-narratives, encouragement in the fight for racial justice, and an insistence on accountability from white society and systems of governance and policing. T.I. emphasizes the importance of members of the black community being responsible to each other, showing us how to feel good in the midst of the terror of today’s world. His letter to the system still brings us swag and flex in traditional Atlanta fashion. This album is a move towards devotion and commitment in bold pursuit of justice for the black underclass, asserting the “bigness” of the oppressed in terms of rage, resiliency, and joy. A tremendous effort from T.I. in an urgent time, Us Or Else goes down as one of those hugely empowering moments when black music, black radical thought, and black action intersect.

Reviewed by Nandi Marumo

View review February 1st, 2017

BLXPLTN – New York Fascist Week

BLXPLTN-300x300
Title: New York Fascist Week

Artist: BLXPLTN

Label: Wolfshield

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: October 31, 2016

 

 

 New York Fascist Week is the much-anticipated sophomore record from Austin’s BLXPLTN (pronounced Blaxploitation). The band has not shied away from speaking loudly and supporting justice for the oppressed, and they continue to take on state violence in its various forms. “Blood on the Sand” and “Gun Range” take the murder of civilians by police head-on, the latter describing the feeling of living in a neighborhood targeted by policing as “living in a gun range.”  “Auf Wiedersehen” could be seen as another commentary on our current police state, or as a warning of the continuing spread, acceptance, and consequences of ubiquitous surveillance and authoritarianism with the lyrics: “Where you going there, sonny? / Respect my authority / Funerals everywhere I go, Tell your children not to leave their homes.”  Following is the newly released video for the opening track, “Blood on the Sand”:

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Each song on New York Fascist Week offers powerful comments on events past, present, and future, with BLXPLTN’s electro-punk, industrial, and rock arrangements perfectly complementing their lyrics. The album is available with two different covers: the limited edition version with artwork by Hiram Melendez (shown above), or the Donald Trump cover with art by Pathetic Pixels (below):

Trump cover

 

 

 

 

 

Reviewed by William Vanden Dries

View review February 1st, 2017

Randy Weston African Rhythms – The African Nubian Suite

Randy Weston
Title: The African Nubian Suite

Artist: Randy Weston African Rhythms

Label: African Rhythms

Formats: 2-CD set, MP3

Release date: January 20, 2017

 

Released just in time for Black History Month, jazz elder Randy Weston’s epic work, The African Nubian Suite, traces the history of the human race through music, with a narration by inspirational speaker Wayne B. Chandler, and introductions and stories by Weston in his role as griot. This recording captures a live performance at New York University by the Institute of African American Affairs on Easter Sunday, 2012, and indeed possesses a sermonic quality. Stressing the unity of humankind, Weston incorporates music that “stretches across millennia”—from the Nubian region along the Nile Delta, to the holy city of Touba in Senegal, to China’s Shang Dynasty, as well as African folk music and African American blues.

Each movement of the suite involves different musicians, who enter a circle in order to “tell stories.” The opening tracks lay out the story of “Ardi” (Ardipithecus ramidus), referencing the oldest known remains of a human-like female hominid who lived in Nubia over 4.4 million years ago. Disc one features Cecil Bridgewater on trumpet (“The Call”), Howard Lewis Johnson on tuba (“Ardi”), Moroccan musician Lhoussine Bouhamidy on gnawa (“Sidi Bilal”), Gambian musician Salieu Suso on kora with T.K. Blue on flute (“Spirit of Touba”), Min Xiao-Fen on pipa (“The Shang”), and Martin Kwaakye Obeng on the Ghanaian balafon (“Children Song”), all accompanied by Weston on piano.

Disc two traces the development of the blues, “from its origins in the Niger Delta to its transmutation in the Mississippi Delta.” Weston ponders the roots of the blues in his introduction before launching into “Blues for Tricky Sam,” featuring a solo by Robert Trowers on trombone in a tribute to the bluesy nature of Duke Ellington’s horn section. “Cleanhead Blues” is a tribute to Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, performed here by Weston and Billy Harper on tenor sax. Weston then heads further south to Central America, drawing from his own Panamanian roots on “Nanapa Panama Blues” with Alex Blake on bass.

After a poignant monologue by Chandler on “The Woman”—the basis of all creation—Weston launches into a song by the same title featured poet Jayne Cortez, which is definitely one of the highlights of this set. The two-part movement “The African Family” introduces African percussion with drummer Lewis Nash and percussionists Neil Clarke and Ayanda Clarke, followed by the “battle of the saxophones” between T.K. Blue and Billy Harper. The project concludes with “Love, The Mystery Of,” bringing the jazz musicians together in a short instrumental penned by Guy Warren.

In these troubling times when our nation is divided by politics, race and religion, Weston uses The African Nubian Suite as a vehicle to remind us of our common heritage: “We all come from the same place – we all come from Africa.” As eloquently stated by Robin D.G. Kelley in the liner notes: “There are no superior or inferior races, no hierarchies of culture, no barbarians at the gate. Instead, Africa—its music, land, people, spirituality—tie us all together as a planet.”

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review February 1st, 2017

Nate Smith – KINFOLK: Postcards from Everywhere

Nate Smitjh
Title: KINFOLK: Postcards from Everywhere

Artist: Nate Smith

Label: Ropeadope Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: February 3, 2017

 

Nate Smith’s debut album, KINFOLK: Postcards from Everywhere, is an invigorating collection of both instrumental and lyrical music blending jazz, R&B, and hip-hop into an interpretive showcase of his Black American experience. Smith’s career spans from teaching music to performing and recording with accomplished musicians such as Dave Holland, Chris Potter, and Ravi Coltrane, among others. Both bandleader and drummer, Smith celebrates the collaborative art produced on this album with his “kindred spirits,” the featured KINFOLK musicians.

The album slowly eases in with “Intro: Wish You Were Here,” a 30-second whisper-like pause before he kicks off with the rhythmically syncopated tune, “Skip Step.” “Bounce: Parts I & II” follows, highlighting the tight horn section’s unison melody. At periodic interludes, Smith incorporates partial recordings of his mother and father speaking about their family migratory experiences across the United States. “Retold” is a comforting tune with a sweeping melody, both reminiscent and nostalgic, which Smith describes as sounding “like someone telling a love story from start to finish.”

Smith is joined on this album principally by keyboardist Kris Bowers, guitarist Jeremy Most, alto and soprano saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, and electric bassist Fima Ephron. Singer and lyricist Amma Whatt and back-up singer Michael Mayo provide captivating vocals amid the dominating instrumental tunes, rendering the spirit of the Black Lives Matter movement on “Disenchantment: The Weight” and “Morning and Allison.” Several recorded guests are also featured on KINFOLK including saxophonist Chris Potter, bassist Dave Holland, guitarists Lionel Loueke and Adam Rogers, and vocalist Gretchen Parlato singing “Pages.” The final track, “Home Free,” is dedicated to the memory of his paternal grandfather. It opens with a somber yet bright string section as the band gently adds peaceful layers of sound forming a soothing conclusion.

KINFOLK: Postcards from Everywhere is a visual album, in the sense that Smith’s music evokes images of childhood, identity, nostalgia, and family, while each song creatively balances improvisation with steady melodic and rhythmic themes. With this debut, Smith and his collaborators have crafted an excellent work of art.

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

View review February 1st, 2017

Robert Randolph & the Family Band – Got Soul

Robert Randolph
Title: Got Soul

Artist: Robert Randolph & the Family Band

Label: Sony Masterworks

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: February 17, 2017

 

So in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll let it be known that I am a longtime fan of Robert Randolph & the Family Band. I became aware of the band sometime around the early 2000s when they performed at the Grammy Awards as part of an all-star funk jam with members of Parliament-Funkadelic, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Outkast, among others. The band had just released their debut studio album Unclassified, which showed great potential for where the band could go with their recorded material. Of course, albums are just one metric by which to judge a band; the other (and arguably more accurate) metric is their live performances.  Masters of the jam band aesthetic, Robert Randolph & the Family Band have toured steadily for the last 15+ years. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing them multiple times, and love seeing the band live, in their element.

I bring up these two specific metrics because the dynamic between the two can at times be difficult to reconcile. How does the band take the kinetic energy of their live show and “bottle it” in a studio environment without losing some of what makes them so great? Robert Randolph & the Family Band has grappled with this challenge on their four previous studio albums, with various degrees of success. In my opinion, Unclassified best captured their live aesthetic, while We Walk This Road (2010) best captured their “focused studio album” potential. The band’s fifth album, Got Soul, finds them seeking that oft elusive balance once again.

The album opens with the title track which sets the tone for the album, with an upbeat and lively groove and Randolph’s signature pedal steel guitar front and center. This track is all but guaranteed to go over well live. Near the end of the track the band goes into a gospel breakdown that leads into the next song, “She’s Got Soul,” which really, really is a peek at the band at their best. “She’s Got Soul” also features Anthony Hamilton, who adds his signature vocals to the track, while Randolph contributes an excellent pedal steel solo. Darius Rucker appears on “Love Do What It Do,” and he is a great match for the group on this song:

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The album also includes a cover of the Isaac Hayes & David Porter penned “I Thank You,” originally performed by Sam & Dave. I’m a complete sucker for the song in general (the Bar-Kays do a great funky rocked version), and Robert Randolph & the Family Band do not disappoint with their version. The track “Be the Change” unfortunately highlights one of the weaknesses of the band’s material. Randolph himself is credited with writing several of the tracks, and while the music is typically strong, it is somewhat bogged down by the lyrical content. I would love to see Randolph partner with more experienced songwriters like he does on “Lovesick,” which does a better job at matching their great instrumentals with well written lyrics.

One standout track is “I Want It,” which finds the band, including the excellent Lenesha Randolph, sharing vocals ala Sly & The Family Stone; however, at this point I realized I hadn’t yet heard former bassist/vocalist Danyel Morgan. Adding his falsetto to the mix was the only thing that could’ve made the track better for me. Robert Randolph has a killer pedal steel solo at the peak of this track.

Also included are a couple of the band’s signature instrumental tracks—“Heaven’s Calling” and “Travelin Cheeba Man”—the former would have fit perfectly with Randolph’s side project The Word and the latter would feel at home on Unclassified. Both are very enjoyable.

All in all, Got Soul does not completely overcome the challenge of balancing the energy of live performance with the focus of a studio album, but like many of the band’s prior studio releases, there are moments spread throughout where that balance can be heard. I look forward to hearing these new tracks in a live performance if I can catch Robert Randolph & the Family Band on tour this summer.

Reviewed by Levon Williams

View review February 1st, 2017

Dennis Coffey – Hot Coffey In the D

Dennis Coffey
Title: Hot Coffey In the D: Burnin’ at Morey Baker’s Showplace Lounge

Artist: Dennis Coffey

Label: Resonance

Formats: CD, digital

Release date: January 13, 2017

 

If you listen to classic Motown soul, you have heard guitarist Dennis Coffey, a bona fide member of the famous Funk Brothers in-house studio band. That fuzzy funky guitar on the Temptations “Cloud Nine,” that’s him. Also the neat little psychedelic hooks on later Diana Ross and the Supremes hits, and you can hear him on songs by Edwin Starr and Freda Payne. But wait, there’s more: he also had a million-selling instrumental hit in the ’70’s, “Scorpio.”

Like most other Detroit musicians of his era, Coffey’s recorded work is only part of his legacy. He was a regular in the city’s then-thriving music club scene. By 1968, Coffey was a member of a jazz/funk trio led by organist Lyman Woodard. The group regularly played at Morey Baker’s Showplace Lounge, known around town as a club where the audience expected excellent music, and respected the musicians by listening rather than partying and dancing.

These recordings were funded by Coffey and his production-company partner, but not released until now. They are not haphazard tapings, or soundboard feeds, but rather professional recordings of a working band in action. Here’s the promo video for Hot Coffey In the D, which is more of a mini-documentary on the making of this album:

For the most part, Coffey, Woodard and drummer Melvin Davis smoke up the joint. Some tunes run a little long (especially their cover of “The Look of Love,” which just doesn’t have enough meat on the bones to justify a nearly 12-minute excursion), but for the most part this is tight and very soulful instrumental jazz. I call it “jazz” because it is improvisational soloing over skeletal song beds.

Davis does a great job of holding the music together with rock solid beats and tasteful un-busy accents. Woodard is a funky B3 player in the Groove Holmes or Jimmy McGriff mode, although the album notes indicate he was emulating Jimmy Smith (I didn’t hear much Jimmy Smith-style jazz swing in his playing, more a solid funk groove and superb management of the bass pedals). But the real star of the show is Coffey, whose guitar playing is at turns funky, psychedelic, jazzy, and lyrical. His style is somewhat akin to Gabor Szabo in that, like the Hungarian-born jazz-pop guitarist, he can switch styles quickly and weave in and out of the song’s beat and melody. Also like Szabo, he tends to return to the song’s melody with clean single-note runs. But Coffey’s style is all his own, more leaning toward soul and rock than any contemporary jazz guitarist. And, judging from his Motown work, he was very much at home in the “Factory,” able to adapt his playing to whatever the hit producers needed.

The agility and ability of this band is demonstrated in the set list: opening tune “Fuzz” is pure acid jazz; mid-set the band lays down a fast-paced by jazzy cover of Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage”; and two songs later the band covers the then-current pop/R&B crossover hit “Casanova (Your Playing Days Are Over).”

Not to be overlooked, the CD booklet is another Resonance Records masterpiece. It includes interviews with Coffey, Davis, Mike Theodore (Coffey’s production partner and producers of these recordings), and legendary singer Bettye LaVette “on the 60’s Detroit club scene.” The ample text may require more than one playing of the CD to read, unless you’re a speed-reader! The booklet and cover art make strong arguments to buy the physical media rather than a download or stream.

Overall, Hot Coffey In the D is a worthy document of a great time and place in music.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

View review February 1st, 2017

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