Archive for May 2nd, 2017

Welcome to the May 2017 Issue

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

This month we’re featuring Parking Lot Symphony by New Orleans artist Trombone Shorty and the new Taj Mahal & Keb’ Mo’ collaborative project Tajmo. Other jazz and blues releases include flutist Nicole Mitchell’s Afrofuturist inspired album Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds commissioned by Chicago’s Museum of Modern Contemporary Art, the Jeff Lorber Fusion’s latest smooth jazz release Prototype, the Afro-Cuban/Canadian jazz/electronica band Battle of Santiago’s La Migra, a reissue of Abdullah Ibrahim’s (aka Dollar Brand) avant-garde solo piano suite Ancient Africa, and Early in the Moanin’ by The Soul of John Black (aka Fishbone guitarist John Bigham).

Albums influenced by rap, rock and soul include Chicago MC K’Valentine’s debut Here for a Reason, JC Brooks’ cinematic Neon Jungle, Jose James’ Love in A Time of Madness, the “soultronic production group” Columbia Nights’ first full length project In All Things, and the Pete Rock and Smoke Dza collaboration Don’t Smoke Rock.

Wrapping up this issue is our list of April 2017 New Releases of Note.

View review May 2nd, 2017

Trombone Shorty – Parking Lot Symphony

Trombone Shorty
Title: Parking Lot Symphony

Artist: Trombone Shorty

Label: Blue Note

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

Release Date: April 28, 2017

 

The final Friday of April saw a new and compelling release by the acclaimed New Orleans trombonist, singer, and bandleader Troy Andrews (aka Trombone Shorty). This is the band’s fourth album, and their first on the heralded Blue Note label.

Trombone Shorty and his band blend elements from pop, R&B, funk, and jazz, and the group leans heavily on its roots in the New Orleans versions of these styles on Parking Lot Symphony. Stylistic diversity is the name of the game on this album, among both the songs that gesture more towards pop styles and those incorporating hardcore jazz and funk grooves.   “Parking Lot Symphony” and “Dirty Water” both hearken to 90s R&B, and are driven by drum machines and infectious hooks. The band included two quite faithful covers of songs by New Orleans legends in this set: The Meters’ “Ain’t No Use” and the Allen Toussaint-penned “Here Come the Girls.” Many originals follow the sterling legacy of New Orleans music as well—“Tripped Out Slim” is a funk barn-burner, and the album is bookended by a set of brass band dirges, titled “Leveau Dirge No. 1” and “Leveau Dirge Finale.”

As might be expected from an album that ambitiously incorporates pop sensibilities and funk-jazz roots, this record has a few swings and misses like “Familiar,” a club jam about barely recognizing someone (even this song, though, has a killer Rhodes and brass solo section). However, this rare misstep is tempered by the band’s overwhelming sense of earnestness on the rest of the album. For instance, “No Good Time,” has its heart firmly planted on its sleeve. Shorty croons the folksy wisdom that “nobody never learned nothing from no good time” on the melancholy brass-driven ballad. While the set may not be entirely cohesive, it is chock full of great grooves played by a killer band. Parking Lot Symphony is a well-executed effort from a group of steadily grooving musicians.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

View review May 2nd, 2017

Taj Mahal and Keb’Mo’ – TajMo

TajMo
Title: TajMo

Artist: Taj Mahal and Keb’Mo’

Label: Concord

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: May 5, 2017

 

There’s a certain solemn sense of responsibility that comes with reviewing the first duo album by two giants of the blues: Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’. The two of them have logged eighty years of achievement in blues, and promotional literature attendant to TajMo, their new Concord release, highlights their strong sense of mutual respect. How could the album be anything other than absolutely wonderful? For the most part, it is.

TajMo is a true collaboration in the spirit of Brion Gysin’s concept of the “third mind” in which the combined efforts of two artists results in the product of a third. Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ trade verses and guitar leads seamlessly to the extent that it isn’t always readily apparent who’s doing the talking, with Taj Mahal’s wry, gravelly voice leading to Keb’ Mo’s rich baritone and back. The stinging intensity of the leadoff track, “Don’t Leave Me Here,” and their sardonic, front porch acoustic take on the more traditional “Diving Duck Blues” are among the standout items here.

Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ do have interests outside of the blues, and this where some incongruous elements tend to creep into the mix, including Stax/Volt grooves and ‘Big 80’s’ production values. The first part of TajMo is much stronger than the later, where the pair explore a couple of cover songs that really aren’t worthy of their talents. However, this disc is designed to support the joint tour between Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ which begins this month and will run until October 2017; clearly the appeal of this project needed to be broad for that purpose. The sessions for TajMo sound like they were tremendous fun and that sense of camaraderie and good times shine through as evidence of their shared mastery; it’s going to be a great tour.

Reviewed by David N. “Uncle Dave” Lewis

View review May 2nd, 2017

Nicole Mitchell – Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds

Nicole Mitchell
Title: Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds

Artist: Nicole Mitchell

Label: FPE

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: May 5, 2017

 

Flutist Nicole Mitchell leads her Black Earth Ensemble in the Afrofuturist inspired album Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds. Commissioned by Chicago’s Museum of Modern Contemporary Art (MCA) as part of their 2015 celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Association of the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), this concert recording puts on full display the outstanding musicality and artistry of Mitchell and the members of the ensemble.

Based on the black speculative novella of the same name penned by Mitchell, Mandorla Awakening presents in sonic form the story of what happens when two citizens of the futuristic World Union venture beyond its borders and establish contact with the peoples of Mandorla, a society with different social values than their own. The theme of the novella and the album is inspired by anthropologist Riane Eisler’s influential book The Chalice and the Blade, in which she argues that societies arranged by cooperative of hierarchical governing models have been in competition with one another for centuries. Mitchell is not so much concerned with establishing a narrative of which society represents right or wrong, but rather proposes what societies in an oppositional duality can learn from each other if they can move beyond their differences and find commonalities.

The project relies on the originality of Mitchell’s score and the creativity of the musicians to present the work’s narrative. Unique to this project is the inclusion of Kojiro Umezaki on shakuhachi and Tatsu Aoki on bass, shamisen, and taiko. The infusion of Umezaki’s and Aoki’s playing provided moments of intriguing sonic textures both individually and in combination with other members of the Black Earth Ensemble that I found particularly enjoyable with a notable example happening in the opening of “Sub-mission.”

Joining the group for this project is Chicago-based spoken word artist and performer avery r. young, who animates Mitchell’s lyrics through his dynamic vocal inflections on three of the last four tracks. The lyrics in particular bring together the suite’s theme of competing approaches to life learning from one another. The string players, Tomeka Reid and Renée Baker, both standout soloists in their own right, provide colour and ethereal tones that enhance the works’ futuristic narrative and soundscape.

Other standout moments from the Black Earth Ensemble include JoVia Armstrong’s imaginative percussion playing in “Listening Embrace” and Alex Wing’s psychedelic infused guitar sounds on “TimeWrap.” Of course, one must call attention to the rich tone and fluidity of Mitchell’s playing that appears throughout the album. The penultimate track, “Mandorla Awakening” (which rightfully receives a handful of applause from the live audience), puts on full display everyone’s musical skill in a tightly woven ensemble setting.

Overall, this recording presents an accessible sonic entryway into the diverse musical world of the AACM and provides ample material for the listener to think through, both musically and intellectually.

Reviewed by Brian Lefresne

View review May 2nd, 2017

K’Valentine – Here For a Reason

K'Valentine
Title: Here For a Reason

Artist: K’Valentine

Label: Javotti Media

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release Date: April 7, 2017

 

K’Valentine is one of the newest young rappers to come out of Chicago, whose music scene is currently on the map due to the efforts of rappers like Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa, Noname, and BJ The Chicago Kid. Her debut album, Here for a Reason, is the result of putting the work in on her previous mixtape projects, which drew the attention of Talib Kweli. She first met Kweli backstage at a concert in Chicago, and he later produced her 2014 mixtape Million Dollar Baby. Continuing that collaboration, Kweli is one of many artists featured on the album, including BJ The Chicago Kid, Tweet, Kendra Ross, and Scotty ATL. These collaborations offer a lot, but Valentine still holds her own throughout the rest of the album.

K’Valentine’s background is in poetry, which definitely shows throughout her verses. Her career as both a poet and a rapper was informed by a chance backstage meeting with the late great Maya Angelou, who encouraged her to continue to write. At times, the album can seem minimalistic, but never simplistic. If anything, the stripped down production, particularly on “King,” help Valentine’s message to shine through.

With this debut album, Valentine joins a long line of hard hitting female MC’s that can also hold their own with the men. Her flow is versatile, her verses personal, and she moves easily between conscious and club rap.  There’s something old school about her rhymes, and she shows an ability to be a rapper that can also create R&B jams. Here For a Reason provides a consistent sound, and gives the listener a good glimpse into the kind of MC K’Valentine is going to grow into.

Reviewed by Allie Martin

View review May 2nd, 2017

JC Brooks – The Neon Jungle

JC Brooks
Title: The Neon Jungle

Artist: JC Brooks

Label: Rock Ridge Music

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: April 7, 2017

 

JC Brooks’ Neon Jungle seeks to take the listener on a journey through the nightlife. In fact, Brooks had a specific image in mind: “It’s ‘87, you’re going out on a Friday night and you’re ready to lose yourself in the city…” The album really succeeds in building on this scenario with songs like “Drive” and “Stumble in the Dark,” both of which have a very danceable feel that bubbles with the excitement of an evening where opportunity abounds.  However, the album also features more contemplative tracks like the opener “Jungle” and the ballad “Playing With Fire,” both evoking the vocal stylings of Donald Fagen of Steely Dan who Brooks cites as an influence.

While “JC Brooks” headlines, his backing band also contributes to the very cohesive feel of the record. They complement each other and Brooks on songs like the very funky “O.N.O.” Brooks takes on a Prince influenced falsetto while his band tightens up, making this one of the liveliest and most enjoyable tracks on the record.  On “One For Someone,” Brooks slows things down again for an inspired song that showcases his vocals and songwriting, with the added bonus of a great guitar solo by Alec Lehrman.

The album’s closer, “Watch Me,” blends a great story with great music. Brooks spikes the bridge with the message, “We are all currently losing this game of love / because we are searching out something brand new / when slightly used will most certainly do,” leaving those who are not too caught up in dancing to really think about what message Brooks is trying to send.

All in all, Neon Jungle succeeds in creating the feeling of a night out that’s full of both exciting and intimate moments.

Reviewed by Levon Williams

View review May 2nd, 2017

Columbia Nights – In All Things

Columbia Nights
Title: In All Things

Artist: Columbia Nights

Label: Record Breakin Music

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release Date: March 24, 2017 (CD & LP)

 

Washington, D.C. has always had a vibrant music scene, especially given its “Chocolate City” status. This scene, however, has typically been dominated by go-go music and at times, hardcore punk. Intent on breaking new ground, the D.C. band Columbia Nights is a “soultronic production group” comprised of John E. Daise, Jason Edwards and Hayling Price. The trio combines their numerous soul, funk, and R&B influences with their love of electronic music, and the result is harmonious to say the least. In All Things is their first full length album, following 2012’s EP Dawn | Dusk. There is definitely a sense of growth between the EP and this album.  The production is more lush on In All Things, and takes the listener further inside the sonic worlds that Columbia Nights constructs.

There are a number of interesting collaborators featured on the album—such as Diggs Duke, violinist Vaughan Octavia, and singer B.Jamelle, among others—who seek to highlight some of the group’s musical influences. The band’s collaboration with Aaron Abernathy on “Coming Home” is particularly compelling, and sounds like it could be a track off of D’Angelo’s album Black Messiah (2015).  The instrumentation on songs like “Glide” and “Cerulean” are also particularly impressive.

It is not an overstatement to describe In All Things as cosmic, both in scope and in sound.  The album moves seamlessly from groove to groove and vibe to vibe, offering a wide variety of sounds but never sounding at odds with itself. In All Things is a journey from start to finish, and a well-constructed one at that.  The album is a great first effort from Columbia Nights, who are representing the D.C. soul scene well.

Reviewed by Allie Martin

View review May 2nd, 2017

Battle of Santiago – La Migra

La Migra
Title: La Migra

Artist: Battle of Santiago

Label: Made With Pencil Crayons

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: April 28, 2017

 

Battle of Santiago blends together Afro-Cuban and Canadian influences rooted in jazz and electronic music to create their atmospheric sound. Recorded in a private Canadian studio, the band titled their album La Migra, translated as “deportation police,” not based on the current political climate, but rather on their own experiences and challenges migrating to Toronto. The sentiment extends to the related struggles in the United States all the same. La Migra is the third full-length album release on their own independent label following Full Colour (2012) and Followed by Thousands (2013) since Battle of Santiago formed in 2011.

La Migra opens with “Aguanileo,” a dedication to the deity of warriors named Oggun in a seven-minute jam that builds and falls with creative technical sound manipulation. “Rumba Libre” follows the introduction with a percussive meditation detailed with saxophone riffs. Each track vamps with consistently complex rhythms and instrumental variety, creating an album teeming with intensity. The energy exhibited throughout the music of La Migra is cumulative, drawing listeners into a deeply focused state of mind.

Particularly with “Barasu-Ayo” parts one and two, Battle of Santiago’s utilization of choral and solo Yoruba chants weave together with sustained electric guitar chords, Afro-Cuban rhythms, and carefully crafted electronic tones to produce a peculiar and entrancing listening experience. Whether witnessing La Migra performed live on stage or listening to it through headphones with eyes closed, it is interesting to imagine the varying experiential states of mind that could be induced by this pulsating music.

 

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

View review May 2nd, 2017

José James – Love In A Time of Madness

Jose James
Title: Love In A Time of Madness

Artist: José James

Label: Blue Note Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: February 24, 2017

 

José James has always been known for blending jazz together with hip-hop, but on his latest album Love In A Time of Madness, he takes it to a whole new level. Always one to try something new and daring, the album is a modern spin on the classic R&B themes of love, lust, and longing.

Skilled vocal sampling, a slow hip-hop rhythm, and heavy bass lead into James’ smooth voice on the first single for the album, “Always There.” Sensually singing about his devotion to his woman, James’ style is reminiscent of modern R&B stars such as Miguel or Usher, and could easily be heard on the radio:

Originally meant to be an album dealing with both love and “societal madness—a response to the systemic and often physical violence perpetrated on U.S. citizens of color,” James felt that the madness side of the album was spiraling out of control. Overwhelmed by the daily acts of violence, he decided to focus on the love part, creating an album of healing which provides a temporary respite from the madness.

This idea that love can be felt even in a time of despair can be heard on songs such as “Let It Fall,” which features Mali Music. Slow and melancholy, James and Mali Music sing,

“No one really likes when the rain comes because that’s the same time that the pain comes crashing down And that’s the same way that your love comes pouring down.”

This juxtaposition of rain as bringing both the realization of pain and a sign of new growth expertly shifts from soft jazz-infused vocals to a deep hip-hop beat with a drop around the three-minute mark.

Though many songs (“You Know I Know,” “Last Night”) are heavily electronic, the album also features a live band that adds flair to James’ brand of contemporary R&B and showcases his jazz influences. With Takeshi Ohbayashi on keys, Solomon Dorsey on bass and vocals, and Nate Smith on drums, “To Be With You,” a rhythmic jazz ballad, and “I’m Yours,” an intimate, gospel-infused declaration of commitment and love featuring Oleta Adams, particularly benefit from this live instrumentation.

The upbeat “Live Your Fantasy” brings the funk to the album, and certainly fulfills James’ hope to make the listener want to dance through the night. “Ladies Man” continues this vibe, as James tests out his falsetto in a George Clinton-esque psychedelic track. Despite these many styles, the music is all grounded in James’ velvet voice, making In A Time of Madness feel cohesive. It is clear that genre is fluid for José James, and there’s no telling what he will take on next.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review May 2nd, 2017

The Soul of John Black – Early in the Moanin’

soul of John Black
Title: Early in the Moanin’

Artist: The Soul of John Black

Label: Big Slamm Music/dist. CD Baby

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: May 6, 2016

 

The Soul of John Black is a project centered around guitarist John Bigham. Best known for his time as a member of Fishbone, Bigham uses The Soul of John Black as a love letter to the blues.  His latest release, Early in the Moanin’, infuses elements of both Delta and Chicago blues with soul and funk sensibilities. The album finds “JB,” as he a known, running through songs filled with an earthy-southern feel.

Bigham puts his sense of humor at the center of many of the tracks, including the album opener “Can’t Be Helped,” where he playfully pleads for help from his partner for his ailment: “Doctor says I can’t be helped / by nobody but thee / now lay some hands on me.”

Early In Moanin’ is reminiscent of soul-blues greats like Little Milton or Z.Z. Hill, but with a 2017 sensibility. It conjures up visions of people dancing away the troubles of the day at the local watering hole. Bigham’s vocals and guitar work are both superb throughout the album. Despite the fact that blues is not his most oft-played genre, he feels completely at home in the setting.  His comfort at weaving between genres—blues, soul, funk, R&B—speaks to the interconnectedness of these genres at large.  Blues in many ways is the root and Bigham taps into it in spectacular fashion on this album. Early In Moanin’ is highly recommended for lovers of the soul-blues of Bobby “Blue” Bland, Denise LaSalle and Clarence Carter.

Reviewed by Levon Williams

View review May 2nd, 2017

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