With Halloween/Day of the Dead approaching, our featured albums include Bone Reader by the DC-based Chopteeth Afrofunk Big Band, Dark Days + Canapésby the British artist Ghostpoet, Hotel Voodoofrom New Orleans blues guitarist Chris Thomas King, and the new Michael Jackson compilation Scream.
Our featured classical music album is Portraits by the McGill/McHale Trio, and our folk music pick is the self-titled Ranky Tanky from a South Carolina group rooted in Gullah folk music and Afro-diasporic traditions.
September sees a new release by the Chopteeth Afrofunk Big Band, a Washington D.C. based Afrobeat group. This marks the second release (the first being a live LP) from the 10-year veteran band that cut its teeth on the festival and world music circuit. The 12-member ensemble balances its funky polyrhythmic grooves with outstanding solos and compelling political commentary throughout the 10-track Bone Reader, an album that is dense with lyrical and musical concepts while being straightforward enough in its message and music for the casual listener to take something meaningful away after the first listen.
Afrobeat has historically been animated by political and social justice issues, and Bone Reader follows closely in the mold set by Fela Kuti and others who pioneered this element of the genre. The band comes out swinging on the first track, “Questions of Our Day,” which opens with the lyrics “Who’s gonna take the lion’s share / Who’s gonna tip the scales, who’s gonna put them square / Who’s gonna stuff the box, who’s gonna say they can’t / Who’s gonna buy the block, who’s gonna pay the rent.” The song continues in this mold, addressing social issues in the abstract and setting the tone for some of the more specific commentary the band offers throughout the course of the album.
The following track, “Edward Snowden,” features an extended saxophone solo interpolated with audio clips of the NSA surveillance whistleblower warning of the constitutional and personal dangers of federal government snooping. It includes what is perhaps one of the most foreboding endings of any track about a political issue ever: Snowden asserting that “If I end up in chains in Guantanamo, I can live with that.”
The album’s fourth cut brings home an issue that is near and dear to the band based in the nation’s capital—the fact that Washington D.C. is inadequately represented in Congress. With the chorus exhorting “Give D.C. the vote immediately,” they point out population statistics, including the fact that Wyoming has a smaller population than the District but more Congressional representation. “Cop Show” (featuring rapper Flex Mathews) addresses police brutality and racial profiling in a compelling fashion over a funky, ever-changing groove.
If all of this sounds alternatingly wonky and depressing, the grooves that the band plays throughout the course of the album are the spoonful of sugar that this medicine needs to go down smooth. Every cut on the record is danceable, and scorching solos—guitar on “Questions of our Day,” piano on the New Orleans-flavored “Rambeau,” and horns interspersed throughout—color the album with much-appreciated musical diversity.
Chopteeth Afrofunk Big Band can riff as well as it can pontificate, and listeners are treated to a heavy dose of both on Bone Reader.
The Miami born singer Cecile McLorin Salvant has been on a consistent rise in the jazz world, making her Mack Avenue Records debut in 2013 with WomanChild, and garnering a Grammy award nomination. She received her first Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal in 2016 with her sophomore album, For One To Love. Now, with the hauntingly beautiful release, Dreams and Daggers, McLorin Salvant amazes.
The album includes a mix of original material and new arrangements of classic jazz and blues standards. From beginning to end it’s impossible not to lose yourself in the music as McLorin Salvant showcases unbelievable vocal control and all-around ability.
Explaining the title of the project, McLorin Salvant says, “The songs on this album are of dreams and daggers. The daggers have been used at times to attack, at times to defend. . . The dreams are the ones I caught looking out a window, or from the light sleep before the deep.” She splits this album into two discs; the first seems to expand on this idea of the “daggers,” while the second includes her “dreams.”
Disc one begins very subtly with the eerie melodies in the song “And Yet,” where McLorin Salvant’s voice is first heard alone with the Catalyst String Quartet. The beauty of the writing by Salvant and bassist Paul Sikivie is astounding. By interweaving the quartet with the rest of the ensemble they create gorgeous textures and melodic ideas throughout this and many other tunes on the album. What is most impressive is hearing McLorin Salvant as she enters with precise and crisp tones. Throughout the album, the influence, respect, and knowledge of those who have preceded her, such as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, and Carmen McCrae, are easily heard.
In disc two we get to experience the more playful side of Cecil, and since this album was recorded with a live studio audience, it has a very personal feel, making you want to cheer along with them. This is especially evident in her rendition of the blues classic, “You’ve Got to Give Me Some,” where we hear the audience reacting to the suggestive lyrics as well as the spectacular piano solo from featured guest Sullivan Fortner.
Dreams and Daggers, a haunting and gorgeous display of joy and pain, pays homage to the older traditions of jazz and blues while adding new and creative ideas to advance the genre.
“The Gospel According to Bette” is the most apt refrain one can give to Bette Smith’s debut album, Jetlagger. Showcasing a gritty, booming voice well fit for her pulpit of southern soul preachin’, Smith follows in the likeness of icons such as Etta James and Tina Turner, churning out message after emotional message in her razor-edged style.
A native of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Smith began her love of music at an early age, singing in her church choir at the tender age of 5. Her path to secular composition took her through music therapy classes as part of her curriculum within Colombia University School of Social Work, and into the 9-5 grind as she wrestled with her longing for musical performance outside of the clerical sphere. Her older brother Jimmy, who succumbed to kidney complications in 2013, gave his approval, offering final words of encouragement that resonated with Smith long after his passing. She formed her band slowly, but once complete she wouldn’t turn down any gig—“I’d play a senior center one day, a street fair the next.” Her perseverance paid off, and as a token to her brother’s memory, she proudly wears the color yellow on stage and in her music videos.
Smith begins her offering of soul-searching, lyrical melodies with “I Will Feed You,” which starts out with a choir of background voices slowly giving way to Smith’s musings of unrequited love. The next track, “Jetlagger,” not only allows Smith to growl her way into her listener’s hearts but also to prove her standing in the vintage soul-inspired world. “Durty Hustlin’” and “Shackle & Chain” are as diverse as their titles suggest. “Do Your Thing” makes use of strong horns, a driving bass and a winding tempo that allows Smith to do her own thing, in her own unique way. But it is her psalm “Manchild” that preaches to Smith’s audience most fervently, warning from its opening chords she “don’t want nobody tellin’ me what to do,” she “just want a manchild, I can teach my lovin’ to.”
Modern soul is Bette Smith’s gospel truth, proving when it comes to down-home, soul-searching tunes, nothing beats a classic sermon like Jetlagger.
Few African American artists have succeeded in country music. As Charles L. Hughes wrote in his groundbreaking book, Country Soul,* “In the 1960s and 1970s, nothing symbolized the rift between white and black in the United States more than the music genres of country and soul.” Those who did cross musical boundaries to dip a toe into country music typically infused generous drops of blues, gospel and soul. Classic examples of this fusion include Ray Charles’ highly successful Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (1962), Joe Tex’s Soul Country (1968), and Linda Martell’s Color Me Country (1969), to name just a few.
Enter soul singer Brian Owens. This preacher’s son from Ferguson, Missouri, first saw Johnny Cash on TV when he was 11 years old. Later, as an up-and-coming soul singer in his mid-20s, he was fascinated by the Cash biopic Walk the Line (2005), and decided there was just something about the famous country singer’s music and life story that really resonated. Perhaps the idea for a cover album has been germinating since that moment; whatever the case, the project has now come to fruition with Soul of Cash.
With this album, Owens seeks to bridge the divide by demonstrating that “a white man born in the South, who’s now passed on” and “a young African-American guy born in the Midwest, raised on soul music” can find common ground through music. Supporting Owens on this endeavor are a number of special guests as well as members of his regular backing band, The Deacons of Soul: Alvin Quinn (bass), Rob Woodie (drums), and Shaun Robinson (guitar).
While some singers might have sought out lesser known songs, Owens reaches for the gold ring, covering seven of Cash’s most iconic hits. Opening with “Ring of Fire,” he follows in the path of Brother Ray, but where Charles’ sweetened the mix with strings, Owens’ rendition punches in with a Stax-style horn section and the talented Daru Jones on drums, while Nashville session musician Zander Wyatt provides the country twang on acoustic guitar. This is followed by “Folsom Prison,” which Cash sang over a chugging acoustic guitar. Owens, however, raises the rafters with his uptempo rhythm and blues delivery, accented by Tripp Bratton on congas.
On “Walk the Line,” Owens captures the essence of the original version, but substitutes a driving, syncopated rhythm and gospel inflected vocals that heighten the emotional intensity of the lyrics. If there was ever a song that calls out for a soulful crossover version, it’s “Cry, Cry, Cry.” Owens fulfills this mission while still respecting the simplicity of the original, with excellent backing vocals by Anita Jackson and Trunesia Combs. Country music fans may enjoy “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and especially the mournful “Long Black Veil,” which maintain their country roots with pedal steel by Tony Esterly.
The final cover song, “Man in Black,” really struck a chord with Owens, who has seen his share of injustices on the streets of Ferguson. Indeed, any given line is as relevant today as when the song was written, including the second verse: “I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down / Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town / I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime / But is there because he’s a victim of the times.” This is definitely one of the highlights of the album, with Owens’ passionate delivery echoed by The Vaughans on backing vocals.
The album closes with an original, “Soul in My Country,” by Owens and Rissi Palmer, who share vocals with Robert Randolph sitting in on pedal steel. Ending on the refrain, “It’s a feeling I know / it’s the soul in my country / the country down in my soul,” the song expresses the commonalities between the genres. As Owens explains, “You shouldn’t look at me strange if I say I dig Johnny Cash, because I don’t look at you strange when you say you dig Otis Redding or Sam Cooke or Marvin Gaye. All of these guys came out of the church; that’s what binds them and us together.”
One album can’t heal the soul of this country, but with Soul of Cash Brian Owens proves that bridging the divide can bear sweet fruit.
Bassist Christian McBride—known for his association with performers such as Chick Corea, Freddie Hubbard, Joshua Redman, and Brad Mehldau—presents Bringin’ It, the second album of the Christian McBride Big Band. On this project not only do we hear influences by Freddie Hubbard (“Thermo”), Maria Schneider (“I Thought About You”), and McCoy Tyner (“Sahara”), but McBride’s compositional style displays his expertise with jazz, funk, Latin jazz, and gospel music as he effortlessly blends these genres.
Included on this album are two arrangements by other musicians—Norman Simmons’ “Upside Down” and trombonist Steve Davis’s “Optimism” —which complement McBride’s compositions and arrangements. Apart from the outstanding writing, the musicality and professionalism of McBride and the members of his ensemble are also on display.
Each track presents the listener with different periods of jazz and references the composers and musicians of those eras. What’s even more astounding is the way each soloist constructs their solos within the styles of the composition. For example, pianist Xavier Davis imitates McCoy Tyner’s pentatonic and quartal vocabulary on “Sahara,” while guitarist Rodney Jones’s usage of octaves on “Full House” is reminiscent of Wes Montgomery’s style of playing. Vocalist Melissa Walker adds a pleasant and exciting element with her warm tone and melodic embellishments that are light, expressive, and blend perfectly with the ensemble.
“Getting’ To It,” featuring a funky bass line over a bed of calypso rhythm, is certainly a song worth mentioning. Drummer Quincy Phillips adds another layer to this already amazing piece. Alternating between funk and calypso rhythmic patterns, he incorporates hits from the arrangement into his drum groove, complementing the rhythmic patterns in the horn section.
Another highlight is “Used ‘Ta Could,” which takes us to church with tambourine and handclaps in the opening bars. This composition embodies performative elements of both the blues and traditional gospel music that inspire the listener to join in with clapping and foot-stomping. The blues riff played in the piano and bass, before every repetition of the melody, prepares the listener for the call-and-response conversation between the trumpets, trombones, and saxes. Later on, we hear this exchange of commentary between horns and piano, further highlighting the importance of gospel music and blues in the big band tradition.
While Christian McBride has fewer solos on this album, his role is certainly not diminished. McBride’s musicality is displayed in the foundational support he provides for his ensemble. His execution is always on point, and his tone gives the ensemble that “phat” fuller sound that is expected of any jazz bassist. McBride’s playing blends so well that his bass does not distract from the overall sound of the ensemble. That is a true sign of professionalism and maturity.
Bringin’ It keeps the big band tradition alive, providing a historical overview of the tradition from McBride’s perspective, while presenting new avenues for further exploration in the 21st century. The album is definitely a must buy—you will not be disappointed.
The latest release from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, Handful of Keys, features pianists Joey Alexander, Dick Hyman, Myra Melford, Dan Nimmer, Helen Sung, and Isaiah J. Thompson. According to the liner notes by Myra Melford, “this concert was an ‘encapsulated history’ exploring the many rich traditions and styles that define jazz piano today.” By showcasing a multi-generational group (ranging from ages 13 to 89), this album does an outstanding job at presenting 100 years of jazz piano.
The words phenomenal and exhilarating come to mind when describing this project, with each featured pianist offering a different layer of excitement. Beginning with Dick Hyman’s arrangement of “Jingles” by James P. Johnson, the listener is shown a glimpse into the past while given a taste of Hyman’s personality. His flawless execution of intricate passages during this performance demonstrates his dexterity on the piano, and his brilliance in jazz. “Four By Five” captures the spirit of McCoy Tyner, while demonstrating Helen Sung’s creativity as a pianist and arranger. Fragments of Tyner’s vocabulary (pentatonic and quartal harmony) are heard in Sung’s solo, but what’s even more interesting is the way Tyner’s vocabulary is incorporated in the melodic phrases of the horn section.
Joey Alexander’s heartfelt performance on Bill Evans’ “Very Early” provides excitement through his use of melodic and rhythmic motivic development (in the style of Evans), while Myra Melford’s use of Afro-Cuban montuno patterns and rhythm blended with free improvisational concepts on “The Strawberry” inspires us to dance. Isaiah J. Thompson’s magnificent tribute to pianist Oscar Peterson, “Hymn To Freedom,” takes us on a musical journey displaying virtuosic melodic lines and block chords reminiscent of Peterson. Lastly, but certainly not least, pianist Dan Nimmer of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra performs a fabulous rendition of Wynton Kelly’s “Temperance,” displaying his technical abilities and finesse for jazz piano while capturing the light and expressive style of Kelly.
While this album features jazz pianists, we cannot neglect the role of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. The ensemble does not miss a beat moving from one style to another. The precision of notes, the time-feel, and the overall sound of the collective ensemble displays a high level of musicianship and professionalism, while providing support for the featured pianists.
Handful of Keys is an album that honors the jazz tradition and legacy of past pianists, while contributing new interpretations and arrangements to ensure the continuing longevity of the genre.
Chicagoans who followed the classical music scene in the 1990s were likely first introduced to the amazingly talented McGill brothers when they performed with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra. Raised on the South Side of Chicago, they began studying classical music at an early age, and by their high school years were receiving national attention.
Now, as musicians who hold principal positions in major orchestras, the brothers have not only reached the pinnacle of their chosen professions, but are among the few African Americans to do so. Demarre McGill recently returned to the Seattle Symphony as principal flute, and younger brother Anthony McGill is principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic. Together with Irish pianist Michael McHale, they formed the McGill/McHale Trio in 2014. Portraits is the trio’s debut recording, released on the prominent Chicago-based Cedille label.
For this project, the McGill/McHale Trio selected works by living composers; three of those works are recorded for the first time on Portraits. The album takes its title from the longest work on the disc (26:03), Portraits of Langston by Kentucky native Valerie Coleman, flutist/composer of the Chicago-based quintet Imani Winds. Composed in 2007, her six movement suite is based on selected poems by Langston Hughes, which are recited before their corresponding movements by Oscar-winning actor Mahershala Ali. Hughes’ love of jazz is conveyed in Coleman’s musical palette, along with other styles reflective of the Harlem Renaissance era.
The suite begins with the short, melodic “Prelude: Helen Keller,” then delves into the polyrhythmic “Danse Africaine.” After an extended clarinet solo, the movement becomes increasingly frenetic, offering an opportunity for each instrument to shine. The poem “Le Grand Duc Mambo,” describing an altercation between the dancers and patrons of a Parisian cabaret, is masterfully mimicked by flute and clarinet as they enter into a brief and occasionally strident squabble. “In Time of Silver Rain” speaks of a period “when spring and life are new.” Here Coleman eschews jazz, writing instead a short, atmospheric piece with hints of Debussy in the piano intro and undulating winds, which also carries over into the flute solo.
Returning once again to Hughes’ brief sojourn in Paris in the 1920s, “Jazz Band in a Parisian Cabaret” is “that tune that laughs and cries at the same time.” As the programmatic movement progresses, jazz inflections intensify, with the climax brilliantly pairing stride piano against clarinet riffs. Though one might expect “Harlem’s Summer Night” to be more boisterous, Coleman instead concludes the suite in a more tranquil manner, with blue notes only occasionally jarring the calm of the evening.
French composer Guillaume Connesson reveals his pop music influences in Techno-Parade (2002). This virtuosic work features “a continuous pulsation from start to finish,” emulating the repetitive nature of the Kraftwerk-influenced electronic dance music that emerged from Detroit’s African American clubs in the 1980s and became hugely popular in Europe. The ensemble performs brilliantly, maintaining precision throughout the complex counterpoint and rhythms, and increasing the intensity right up to the explosive finish.
Other works featured on the recording include an orchestrated version of Chris Rogerson’s A Fish Will Rise (2014/2016), based on Norman Maclean’s best-selling book A River Runs Through It; Paul Schoenfield’s Sonatina for Flute, Clarinet and Piano; Philip Hammond’s The Lamentation of Owen O’Neil; and McHale’s arrangements of both Sergei Rachmaninov’s Vocalise and the Irish traditional song The Lark in the Clear Air.
Portraits showcases the formidable talents of Demarre and Anthony McGill, who have found their match in the outstanding pianist Michael McHale. Performing with emotional intensity, extraordinary precision, and superb blending of timbres, the McGill/McHale Trio presents a dazzling debut album that’s equally significant for its three world premiere recordings of contemporary works. Highly recommended!
With a name meaning “Get Funky!” or “Work It,” it is no surprise that Charleston, South Carolina’s Ranky Tanky created lively, dynamic arrangements for their self-titled album. Ranky Tanky is composed of five members, four of whom are of Gullah descent—African American communities in the islands and coastal regions of North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Gullah traditions, which retain strong elements of African language, music, and lifeways, are present throughout Ranky Tanky. For their debut album, the group pulled from the ring shouts, praise songs, and nature tales of Gullah music while incorporating their own jazz twist.
The opening track, “That’s Alright,” is a feel-good song that lives up to the band’s funky name. Vocalist Quiana Parler’s soulful voice is complemented by a tambourine accompaniment to create an uplifting spiritual reminiscent of traditional Gullah praise songs. Other songs on the album are less upbeat and more instrumental but still maintain a connection to Gullah and other African cultures—“Knee Bone,” for example, is influenced by the West African belief that rigidity and death are connected and that one must move to feel alive. “Been in the Storm” is especially poignant in the wake of the recent hurricanes and tropical storms that have affected areas heavily-populated by the Gullah, and serves as a testament to their resilience.
By creating tracks that have roots in Gullah folk music and Afro-diasporic traditions, Ranky Tanky is helping to keep alive the vibrancy and expressiveness of Gullah culture.
Wyclef Jean released his Carnival III: The Fall and Rise of a Refugee, highlighting the 20th anniversary of his album The Carnival, and the 10th anniversary of Carnival II: Memoirs of an Immigrant. Like the other albums in the Carnival series, the third installment incorporates music from different parts of the world, offering an outstanding conglomerate of music for the listener. According to Jean, this multi-cultural “genre-bending album is outside the box . . . It’s a celebration of what I love about music: discovery, diversity and artistry for art’s sake.
The first thing that stands out is Jean’s inspirational words, reminding us that “we shall overcome our struggles someday.” His motivational lyrics and usage of biblical references (e.g. Zion, Golden Gates, and Psalm 23) resonate with the listener as symbols of hope, while inspiring them to pursue their goals. Another aspect of this album is Jean’s blending of polyrhythms (“Fela Kuti”), reggae (“Turn Me Good”), Afro-Cuban (“Trapicabana”), hip hop and popular music, creating a multi-cultural experience. Finally, the skillfulness and musicality displayed by each guest artist (including Jazzy Amra, T-Baby, STIX, and Emeli Sandé) adds another layer to the brilliance of this album.
Carnival III: The Fall and Rise of a Refugee sustains the legacy of Wyclef Jean’s first Carnival album, spreading the message of community, hope, and love while showing the diversity of the world stage through the art within a music compilation.