Archive for June 2nd, 2017

Welcome to the June African American Music Appreciation Month issue

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

As one might expect, many of this month’s new releases come with a heavy dose of socio-political themes. These include our three featured jazz releases: vocalist Jazzmeia Horn’s debut album A Social Call, Brian McCarthy’s Civil War inspired project The Better Angels of Our Nature which drops a week before Juneteenth, and B3 virtuoso Gregory Lewis’ Organ Monk, The Breathe Suite which pays tribute to Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Aiyana Jones.  Other jazz releases include the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s contemporary project So It Is, Terence Blanchard’s soundtrack album from The Comedian, and the new Wes Montgomery release from Resonance, Smokin’ in Seattle.

Two releases are devoted to African American composers: Zenobia Powell Perry Piano Works performed by Josephine Gandolfi, Deanne Tucker, and LaDoris Hazzard Cordell, and Richard Dowling’s new 3-CD box set The Complete Piano Works of Scott Joplin, released on the 100th anniversary of Joplin’s death. New R&B/soul releases include the CD/DVD Mavis Staples I’ll Take You There: An All-star Concert Celebration recorded in 2014, Mint Condition member Stokley Williams’ solo debut Introducing Stokley, and a preview of forthcoming reissues from Concord in celebration of Stax Records 60th Anniversary

Our politically conscious rap picks are Joey Badass’ All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ and Oddisee’s The Iceberg, while rock and funk-oriented releases include The New Respects’ Here Comes Trouble, Barbados-born singer-instrumentalist Bobby Saint’s Unholy EP, veteran Garland Jeffreys’ 14 Steps to Harlem, blues-rocker Selwyn Birchwood’s Pick Your Poison, and a compilation devoted to P-Funk’s Fuzzy Haskins I Got My Thang Together: The Westbound Years

Wrapping up this issue is Kenyan-born vocalist Naomi Wachira’s sophomore album Song of Lament; the compilation Zaire74: The African Artists featuring previously unreleased performances from the music festival surrounding the infamous “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match; and our May 2017 Releases of Note.

View review June 2nd, 2017

Brian McCarthy – The Better Angels of Our Nature

Better Angels
Title: The Better Angels of Our Nature

Artist: Brian McCarthy Nonet

Label: Truth Revolution Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: June 13, 2017

 

 

This month sees a new release from Vermont-based saxophonist, composer, and music educator Brian McCarthy that’s scheduled to drop a week before JuneteenthThe Better Angels of Our Nature features McCarthy and his nonet reimagining songs from the Civil War and composing original songs inspired by the conflict.  The project, with its title garnered from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, is both an academic and artistic endeavor. McCarthy explores music from a dark period of American history in an effort to chart new thematic and musical territory. This project was funded in part by a Vermont Arts Council Creation Grant and combines McCarthy’s personal interest in history with his masterful interpretation of both familiar and new music.

A project this ambitious demands an ensemble capable of sensitivity and innovation.  McCarthy, a great saxophonist and composer, is joined by pianist Justin Kauflin, tenor saxophonist Stantawn Kendrick, trombonist Cameron MacManus (three former members of trumpeter Clark Terry’s band), trumpeter Bill Mobley, bari player Andrew Gutauskas, saxophonist Daniel Ian Smith, drummer Zac Harmon, and bassist Matt Aronoff.  These masterful musicians allow the musical and historical themes implicit in these songs to unfold, their playing simultaneously beautiful and challenging.

Setting up musical and thematic tension among these Civil War-associated tunes is key to McCarthy’s approach to this material.  He directly juxtaposes the Confederate anthem “The Bonnie Blue Flag” with the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” situates a bluesy attempt to reclaim “Dixie” next to a reading of the spiritual “Oh Freedom.”  Even the original compositions on this album evince a kind of tension—the multi-part title track reads as a character study of Lincoln, contrasting his roles as lawyer, President, and person.

One of the standout features of this album is that there are no standout players. This is a narrative jazz record and each note played by each musician serves McCarthy’s impressionistic reading of the Civil War by exploring its music, an approach that suggests both schism and unity (it is likely no accident, for instance, that some of the Union tunes included on this album were parodied by southerners during the war). It may be too much to try to draw contemporary comparisons to the seemingly intractable divisions in contemporary American social and political life, but McCarthy’s interpretation of seemingly arcane music allows him to deal with some conceptually significant undercurrents in American culture.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

View review June 2nd, 2017

Jazzmeia Horn – A Social Call

jazzmeia
Title: A Social Call

Artist: Jazzmeia Horn

Label: Prestige

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: May 12, 2017

 
 

After winning the Theonious Monk Institute International Jazz Competition in 2015, vocalist Jazzmeia Horn certainly validated the name assigned by her prescient jazz-loving, church musician grandmother. On her stunning debut recording, A Social Call, the Texas-born singer likewise demonstrates a maturity that belies her age, steeped in the spirit of her idols Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter, and Abbey Lincoln.  Horn’s familiarity with jazz vocalists and techniques of the 1950s and ‘60s is showcased throughout the album, but this is not a stroll through memory lane by any means. She is equally comfortable with R&B and gospel music, bringing plenty of contemporary influences to her unique interpretations of the classics.

The album takes its title from the song penned by Gigi Gryce in the 1950s for Betty Carter. Horn excels in this conversational style, creating an extremely fast and nimble arrangement with a teasing tone that keeps the rhythm section on their toes (Victor Gould on piano, Ben Williams on bass, and Jerome Jennings on drums). But the title also reflects Horn’s concerns about current events: “These are not good times. This album is a few things—it’s a call to social responsibility, to know your role in your community. It’s about being inspired by things that happen in your life and being able to touch others.”*

Delving into the very roots of black music, Horn uses spirituals as a source of inspiration, reflecting faith, resistance, protest, and resilience. One of the album’s highlights is a 13 minute medley that melds Oscar Brown Jr.’s “Afro Blue” with Horn’s original poem “Eye See You” and the traditional spiritual “Wade in the Water.”  Opening with over three minutes of primal vocalizations based on West African sounds, the track gradually shifts in space and place, taking listeners on a journey from the motherland to an all-too-familiar present day soundscape. Over the wailing of sirens and chanting of protestors, Horn’s intense poetry speaks of “blood on the pavement, brothers on the corner shackled and chained, stopped and frisked.” As she transitions into an emotionally charged rendition of “Wade in the Water,” one can’t help but recall Billie Holiday or even Nina Simone, who could turn any song into social protest.

Another montage blends an unembellished version of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (aka the African American national anthem) with the classic Bobby Timmons’ song “Moanin” which shows off Horn’s scatting technique, extensive vocal range and command of different styles. The band also gets a workout, with solos by trumpeter Josh Evans and bassist Ben Williams.

The remainder of the album mixes jazz classics such as Johnny Mercer’s “I Remember You” and Betty Carter’s “Tight” with jazz-tinged R&B standards. Particular favorites include Horn’s renditions of “Up Above My Head” (Myron Butler’s arrangement) and the Rose Royce Carwash classic “I’m Going Down” that concludes the album.

One fact is obvious from Jazzmeia Horn’s debut album: this woman can sing! A talent like this doesn’t come along very often, and I can’t wait to hear what the future will bring.

*Quote from Concord press release authored by Ashley Kahn.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review June 2nd, 2017

Gregory Lewis – Organ Monk, The Breathe Suite

gregorylewis
Title: Organ Monk, The Breathe Suite

Artist: Gregory Lewis

Label: Self released

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: May 5, 2017

 

A virtuoso on the Hammond B3, Gregory Lewis (aka Organ Monk) wowed the Chamber Music America conference last year when his group performed Thelonious Monk and a few of Lewis’s own chamber jazz compositions in their signature funky, Monk-inspired contrapuntally intricate style. One of those original works, The Breathe Suite, is featured on this newly released album, performed by Lewis with members of his regular quintet: tenor saxophonist Reggie Woods, trumpeter Riley Mullins, guitarist Ron Jackson, and drummer Jeremy “Bean” Clemons. Supplementing this line-up is drummer Nasheet Waits and guitarist Mark Ribot, who replace Clemons and Jackson on the first and third movements.

Four of the five movements of The Breathe Suite are dedicated to an African American killed during confrontations with police officers or vigilantes. With this project Lewis joins the ever growing rank of composers and musicians who write and perform as a personal form of protest: “I can’t protest, because if I protest I go to jail. And if I go to jail I can’t feed my five kids. So what I can do is what I do – I write music . . . Even if it brings joy for just a minute to these families, that’s what I can do.”

The first movement and by far the largest portion of the suite is “Chronicles of Michael Brown.” Clocking in at nearly 19 minutes, the track begins in an instrumental fog of distortion, over which the organ sounds an elegy. As the work progresses, one can’t help but reflect on the events of August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, where Brown’s body lay on the pavement for hours on end. Likewise, the music seems to portray an alternate reality, where straight ahead solos are sharply punctuated at odd moments by organ or guitar, oftentimes shifting between free jazz and funk rock like a collision of cultures. As the movement builds to a climax, it becomes more atonal, gradually fading out on a cymbal roll like a spirit rising up to heaven.

The second movement, “Trayvon,” is of course dedicated to young Trayvon Martin, who was shot and killed on February 26, 2012 in Sanford, Florida. Scored for organ, guitar and drums, this track is more of a fast paced interlude, with Lewis freely riffing on the B3 and Jackson taking a brief guitar solo near the end. The trio continues in similar style on “Aiyana’s Jones Song,” referencing the seven-year-old girl shot and killed in 2010 during a Detroit Police raid. As the movement concludes, the instruments fall into a repetitive pattern, suggesting a never ending cycle.

“Eric Garner” is eulogized in the fourth movement by the full quintet. On this slow, haunting track, Lewis provides sustained chords on the B3 while the other instruments improvise, with special effects creating a discordant soundscape that has us floating through time and space. The suite concludes with “Ausar and the Race Soldiers” (reprised in the 6th track), a more straight ahead movement that still offers ample room for free improvisation and solos.

Gregory Lewis Quintet’s stated mission is “to expand upon the interpretation of jazz and create a catalogue of 21st century American originals.” In this they have surely succeeded, creating a highly original, socially conscious work inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and the cycle of violence and deadly oppression which led to its creation.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

 

View review June 2nd, 2017

Stax 60th Anniversary Releases

Stax

Just in time for Black Music Month, Concord Music Group announces its Stax Records 60th Anniversary celebration.  The year long celebration will include new hits compiliations as well as remastered vinyl offerings and brand new box sets with rare deep cuts from the Stax catalog.  Great tracks from artists like Isaac Hayes, Johnnie Taylor, The Staple Singer, Sam & Dave, Booker T. & The MGs and of course Otis Redding will be revisited during the year.

For those of us who are well steeped in the most popular output of the record label, Stax 60th also promises some surprises: a re-release of the soundtrack to Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song which features music by Earth, Wind & Fire in their pre-That’s The Way Of the World orientation; a box set spanning Isaac Hayes’ catalog from 1962-1976; and a new fourth volume of their acclaimed Complete Stax Singles box sets. This new box set will include lots of music from Stax’s subsidiary labels like Volt, Enterprise, Hip, Chalice and others.  While much of this music is being kept alive and well in Memphis at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and Stax Music Academy, it’s a great time to make sure the whole world remembers what made the music from Stax Records so special. We’ll be reviewing these new releases in the near future.

Levon Williams

View review June 2nd, 2017

Mavis Staples I’ll Take You There – An All-Star Concert Celebration

Mavis
Title: Mavis Staples I’ll Take You There: An All-Star Concert Celebration

Artist: Various

Label: Blackbird Presents

Formats: CD, MP3, DVD

Release date: June 2, 2017

 

 

This exciting release is a star-studded celebration of Mavis Staples, honoring her 75th birthday and the soul music that shaped her career. Presented on both video and audio formats, this concert performance was recorded live at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago on November 19, 2014. Each song features a line-up of special guest musicians performing with Mavis and her All-Star Band directed by Grammy Award-winner Don Was. Accomplished country, soul, and R&B musicians such as the late Gregg Allman, Bonnie Raitt, Keb’ Mo, Emmylou Harris, and Aaron Neville take the stage alongside up-and-coming generations of rock, folk, and soul musicians like Jeff and Spencer Tweedy, Grace Potter, and Glen Hansard.

YouTube Preview Image

The live concert exhibits high energy in every song and is certainly worth viewing for an all-consuming soulful experience. The show opens as Joan Osborne steps out on stage performing “You’re Driving Me (To The Arms of a Stranger)” followed by Keb’ Mo’ on “Heavy Makes You Happy.” A camera occasionally sets its focus off-stage on Mavis Staples’ joyful smile as she sings and dances along with the music.

From Buddy Miller’s “Woke Up This Morning (With My Mind On Jesus)” to Taj Mahal’s “Wade In The Water,” each performance adopts Christian themes and engages with gospel influences. Many of the songs featured in this concert, such as Michael McDonald’s “Freedom Highway” and Eric Church’s “Eyes On The Prize,” reflect Mavis’s dedication to the Civil Rights Movement when she sang with the Staple Singers. Aaron Neville’s gentle voice sweetly complements while sharply contrasts Mavis’ unrivaled iconic vocals on “Respect Yourself.”

Between songs on the DVD release, the guest artists share their appreciation for Mavis Staples and her creative contributions to soul and R&B music. Her commitment to quality and giving her best with every performance can be seen in her energy on stage and engagement with the audience, especially on her solo song, “I’ll Take You There.” The full ensemble on “The Weight” combines the spirit of the night in one final and satisfying crowd-pleaser. This explosive collection of renowned musicians sharing the stage to honor Mavis Staples feels like the greatest birthday party you would not want to miss. Luckily, you can catch the concert when it will be aired on the cable network AXS TV on June 4th.

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

View review June 2nd, 2017

Preservation Hall Jazz Band – So It Is

PHJB
Title: So It Is

Artist: Preservation Hall Jazz Band

Label: Legacy

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: April 21, 2017

 

 

Now in its 56th year, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band continues to thrive and regularly record albums. This latest effort is a far cry from the original traditional Dixieland outings, and for that reason it’s likely to resonate with modern audiences.

According to the band’s website, a performing trip to Cuba last year was highly influential toward the writing of this album. Band leader and bass/tuba player Ben Jaffe has integrated Afro-Cuban elements into a New Orleans-style blend of funk and up-tempo jazz. There are still references, here and there, to Dixieland and second-line street jazz, but this version of the PHJB would find a home in the record shelf of a Meters fan as well as his trad-jazz loving elders.

Jaffe’s parents, Allan and Sandra, founded Preservation Hall and organized its first namesake bands, in the early 1960s. Back in the early years, via recordings for Atlantic and then Columbia, the band featured aging but still vibrant local stars and other practitioners of the “original” style of jazz. In more recent times, the band embraced New Orleans’ musical evolution and has collaborated with a wide variety of musicians and producers, moving its sound toward a modern beat-driven jazz style.

It’s worth noting that this album is the second in a row for the PHJB with all original compositions. No more traditional tunes and covers of beloved oldies. The newness of the material is probably a prime reason the band has successfully transitioned to the all-important festival circuit, often paired with rock and pop acts. This is not music to hear while sitting still in a formal concert hall, but rather get-up-and-dance music to power a good outdoor festival mud roll. It’s more party music than contemplation music.

Although all 7 cuts on the album are worth a few careful listens, the featured single “Santiago” is contagiously raucous, and “Convergence” stands out for its funkiness. On the jazzier side of the band’s capabilities are the title track and “One Hundred Fires.” It’s also worth mentioning Walter Harris’s outstanding drum work throughout. The album is beat-driven, and Harris is a very capable driver.

The downside to the party atmosphere is that the music seems wider at the expense of deeper, but the excellent playing mitigates some of the shallowness. This is gut-feeling jazz, more akin to pop music than concert-hall jazz. Alas, like even the best pop music, it has a somewhat plastic soul. Recommend for listening along with friends and fun.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

View review June 2nd, 2017

Stokley – Introducing Stokley

Stokley
Title: Introducing Stokley

Artist: Stokley

Label: Concord

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: June 23, 2017

 

 

Introducing Stokley by Stokley Williams is an interesting record, and I mean that in most complimentary way possible.  Williams, well known to R&B fans for the past twenty plus years as the lead singer of the band Mint Condition, steps out on Introducing Stokley to chart his own course. It would have been very easy for Williams to tread the tried and true path of Mint Condition (who are one of the best bands to come out of the 1990s along with Tony! Toni! Toné!), but instead Williams brings forth an offering which is simultaneously approachable and eclectic.

The album’s opener and lead single “Level” finds Williams embracing a modern R&B feel with hip-hop leanings.  The track is rhythmic and bangs with hard 808 drums that compliment Williams’ always excellent singing surprisingly well.

On “Think of U” Stokley’s voice, which sounds somewhat reminiscent of Stevie Wonder, is on full display. Williams has always been a strong vocalist and he doesn’t hold back on his solo debut. “Art In Motion” serves as kind of a bridge between electronic and acoustic music, with an appearance by Robert Glasper on keyboards.  The song’s breakdown is especially interesting as all the elements mix together.

“Victoria” is probably the most “experimental” track on the album, playing into Williams’ flair for drama as a man pleading for a woman’s presence.  The musical backing for the song includes elements of jazz, R&B and African influences, all held together by Stokley’s vocals which he enjoys playing around with throughout the track. “U&I” is a duet with Estelle which works very well as a modern adaptation of the great male/female duos like Donny Hathaway & Roberta Flack or Jerry Butler & Thelma Houston.  “Forecast” sees Williams’ incorporating an ever so slight hard rock element as he laments the difficult outlook on a not-so-good relationship.  The album’s closer, “Wheels Up,” is an uplifting (pun intended) track about not letting others rain on your parade.  Williams, who is also a talented percussionist, lends some steel drum to this track.

With Introducing Stokley, the artist achieves the difficult task of engaging fans of his work with Mint Condition while making this solo effort truly his own.

Reviewed by Levon Williams

 

View review June 2nd, 2017

Joey Badass – All-Amerikkkan Bada$$

Badass

Title: All-Amerikkkan Bada$$

Artist: Joey Badass

Label: Pro Era/Cinematic Music Group

Release Date: April 7, 2017

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

 

 

All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ is the sophomore release from American rapper Joey Badass. The album’s title gives a taste of what Badass offers his fans this time around—political consciousness and controversy—throwbacks to the days of Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, but with a smooth, regulated flow reminiscent of the Golden Era of hip hop. All twelve tracks deal directly with poignant issues of racial discrimination and frustration, yet each does so in its own unique time and style that work to bring together an album that both refuses to remain silent but also courts the silence of social reflection.

The opening track, “Good Morning Amerikkka,” features Badass in a literal morning voice—raspy, edgy and choppy—superimposed over a vocal backgrounding of the refrain “Wake up.” The song functions as an introduction to the rest of the album, challenging its listeners through its hook phrase, “What’s freedom to you? Take a minute, think it through.” The ending showcases the song’s flowing style with a fade-out into the second track, “For My People.” This song is smooth-sounding as well, with a lyrical pleading for superpowers, peace, and modern-day heroes. Like many of the songs on this album, Badass showcases his percussion instruments, putting them front and center and fostering a polished contrast between melodious jazz sounds and jarring political wording. The rap break in the middle of the song may seem hard to interpret, but the complexity adds to its overall design and depth. Following is the official video for the powerful fourth track, “Land of the Free”:

 

“Devastated”—the album’s fifth offering—clearly draws from techo dance roots and combines them with catchy, repetitive lyrics that result in a smooth, rich feeling lasting long after the final tone fades. Cameos are the name of the game on at least five songs, with artists such as J. Cole, Chronixx, Styles P., School Boy Q, Pro Era members Nyck Caution and Kirk Knight, and Meechy Darko (Flatbush ZOMBiES) lending their presence. But by far, the most haunting melody is the track “Temptation,” with its intro and exit dominated by a small child expressing his frustration and desperation regarding racial discrimination and violence.

Badass delivers on his promise to address the tense atmosphere of socio-political issues, and while some might feel his message seems too weighty due to each tune’s complete devotion to current controversies, all can agree on one thing—Joey Badass’s All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ is a hip hop album whose lyrics stay with you long after the last track is spun.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

 

 

View review June 2nd, 2017

Oddisee – The Iceberg

Oddisee

Title: The Iceberg

Artist: Oddisee

Label: Mellow Music Group

Format: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: February 24, 2017

 

 

The iceberg meme, “You May Know Me, but You Don’t Know Who I am,” is a worthy companion to Oddisee’s newest offering, The Iceberg. Following up his 2016 release, The Odd Tape, D.C.’s own conscious rapper now offers an album challenging the public to dig deeper into their own soul and the soul of the nation in a quest to comprehend the current political atmosphere of not only the Beltway, but the entire country as a whole. His first song of the album, “Digging Deep”, does just that—a catchy refrain “Let’s Get Into It” echoes activist voices who are making their presence known. The 12 tracks are a combination of conscious rap selections interspersed with lighter yet-still-just-as-poignant relationship analyses, such as “This Girl I Know” and “You Grew Up.” With each song, Oddisee takes us deeper into the hidden corners of the world as he knows it.

Musically, The Iceberg stays primarily true to Oddisee’s standard sound—offbeat syncopation and dominate percussive elements layered over a backdrop of jazz instrumentals that deepen and strengthen the tone. However, a few songs off the album do break novel ground, at least in Oddisee terms. The intro on “Like Really” throws the listener into a smooth, relaxed mood with soft chordal sounds and feel-good vibes not easily found in any Oddisee collection to date. On the other hand, the last track “Rights & Wrongs” has both the opposite mood effect and audio quality, with its funky, synthesized tone and dance-beat styling. Oliver St. Louis, an R&B artist born in DC and currently based in Berlin, Germany, cameos on this offering, and his style adds a fresh sound.

As the title indicates, The Iceberg both freezes Oddisee’s standardized sound with similar tried-but-true political themes while concurrently breaking new tonal ground and giving his listeners a brief glimpse into the personal life of a rapper continuing to deliver, timelessly.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

View review June 2nd, 2017

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