This month we’re featuring projects celebrating the anniversaries of two outstanding record labels. First, Indianapolis-based Tyscot Records recently commemorated its 40th anniversary with the compilation Feel Good: 40 Years of Life Changing Music, and second, Basin Street Records’ is celebrating its 20th anniversary as well as New Orleans 300th anniversary with A Beautiful Worldby Kermit Ruffins & Irvin Mayfield. Other jazz projects include Gregory Porter’s Nat “King” Cole & Me and Courtney Pine’s Black Notes From the Deep.
We’re a little late to the party, but we can’t pass up an opportunity to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Tyscot Records, the nation’s oldest African American owned and operated gospel music label. Founded in 1976 by Dr. Leonard Scott and L. Craig Tyson in Indianapolis, Indiana, the label has grown into a multi-media company that produces films as well as recordings. Yet Tyscot remains a family run operation, guided by Dr. Scott as CEO, with son Bryant S. Scott continuing the legacy as President/COO. Now entering its fifth decade, the label is an industry powerhouse whose artists garnered 19 Stellar Gospel Awards nominations in 2017.
Tyscot was originally established to record the Christ Church Apostolic Radio Choir, led by Bishop James Tyson (Craig’s father). The choir’s first hit single, “Feel Good!,” is the opening track of this anniversary compilation in a contemporary version re-recorded by Dr. Scott. The remaining 14 tracks feature songs by artists whose careers were launched by Tyscot, starting with “Hold On” (1981) by The Pentecostal Ambassadors, a popular male vocal trio from Indianapolis. Following is the smooth, ballad style “Say You Believe” (1986) performed by Deliverance and co-written by none other than Indianapolis native Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, who at the time was a member of the R&B group The Deele.
Other early Tyscot releases featured on this set include the classic “Jesus Is Real” by John P. Kee & the New Life Community Choir, “Holy One” featuring Kirk Franklin with the Trinity Temple Full Gospel Mass Choir, and the P.A.W. National Mass Choir’s “How Majestic,” a fantastic arrangement based on Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” Sequenced in chronological order, the set concludes with contemporary gospel artists, including break-out stars Anthony Brown & group therAPy (“Do It Again”) and Casey J (“Better”) who have been topping the charts this year.
Feel Good! 40 Years of Life Changing Music showcases the talents of local and national gospel artists and cements the legacy of Tyscot Records. The company is stronger than ever, and positioned to remain an industry powerhouse in its fifth decade.
Celebrating Basin Street Records’ 20th anniversary, musician Kermit Ruffins and producer Irvin Mayfield join together on a collaborative album, A Beautiful World. This album includes different musical configurations and features other Basin Street Records’ artists: Rebirth Brass Band, Dr. Michael White, Jason Marsalis, and Bill Summers. Other artists making guest appearances include Haile Reinhart, Cyril Neville, John Boutté, Glen David Andrews, Shannon Powell, and many other New Orleans musicians. Basin Street claims “A Beautiful World is the ultimate party in record form” and I must agree—it’s a non-stop celebration as well as a demonstration of the musical genius and creativity of Kermit Ruffins and Irvin Mayfield.
The party begins with “Well, Alright,” a big band piece with tasteful horn solos, handclaps, and a swingin’ rhythm section. Along with the sounds of the big band, we hear vocal support from the artists encouraging soloists during their solos, which is participatory characteristic of African American music. “Drop Me Off In New Orleans” reflects the cheerful and jovial sounds that can be heard while walking through the streets of New Orleans, capturing a true representation of the city’s tradition jazz music legacy. In addition, there are soulful compositions and arrangements such as “Move On Ahead,” “Good Life,” “Be My Lady,” “Allen Toussaint,” “Just A Closer Walk With Thee,” and “When The Saints Go Marching In.” These songs express the spirit of the album, which is to honor the past while celebrating Basin Street Records’ 20th anniversary and the beginning of New Orleans 300th anniversary.
A notable feature of A Beautiful World is the short spoken word interludes interspersed with musical compositions throughout the album. Narratives of Kermit Ruffins and Irvin Mayfield are heard through the words of actor Wendell Pierce, DJ Soul Sister, Irvin Mayfield III, and The Urban Cellist. These interludes not only provide a contrasting element to the project, they also offer the listener a glimpse into the experiences of Ruffins and Mayfield.
When asked about the recording process Ruffins responded, “Good food and good music are my passions. I wanted to make a record people could eat.” Metaphorically speaking, A Beautiful World is certainly food for the soul. From its foot-tapping rhythms, groovy basslines, rich harmonies, and melodious hooks to its historical musical representations, this album is a wonderful treat for the listener and a heartfelt tribute to the city of New Orleans and Basin Street Records.
Born and raised in Sacramento, California, Gregory Porter is undoubtedly a jazz legend. He captured audiences with his enchanting baritone voice the moment he stepped on the scene, receiving a Grammy nomination for his debut album Water (2010), and wining the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album with Liquid Spirit (2013) and last year’s Take Me To The Alley. Now, as he teams up with 6-time Grammy award winning arranger Vince Mendoza as well as the London Studio Orchestra, Porter will sends chills down your spine and possibly bring a tear to your eye with his new album Nat “King” Cole & Me.
This album is meant to be a tribute to his idol, the legendary Nat King Cole, whose influence on Porter began at a very early age. In a recent interview, Porter recalls writing a song and playing it for his mother. Upon listening to young Gregory she exclaimed, “Boy you sound like Nat King Cole.” This sparked Porter’s lifelong love for Nat and his music. Porter also explained that his father was never in his life and Cole’s music seemed to fill a type of void in him, stating “They were coming out of the speakers like Nat was singing those words just to me. I would listen to his albums and imagine that Nat was my father.”
The material in the album consists of gorgeous orchestral arrangements of songs made famous by Nat King Cole, one of the first being “Nature Boy.” Porter’s rich tone on this song is hauntingly beautiful as he treats the melody and the text in ways clearly influenced by Cole yet still maintaining his own individuality. As the album continues we are met with even more phenomenal arrangements like “Miss Otis Regrets,” with a bombastic introduction that swiftly drops as Porter enters with the lyric. But one of the best moments happens towards the end of the album as Porter sings the standard tune “For All We Know.” His tender delivery of this song is amazing in how he treats the lyric and occasionally embellishes the melody, showcasing excellent control.
With other classic tunes like “L-O-V-E,” “Sweet Lorraine” (on the 15 track deluxe edition) and “The Christmas Song,” Nat “King” Cole & Me is absolutely astonishing. With a rich and soulful sound, no one could do more justice to the memory and legacy of Nat King Cole than Gregory Porter.
From across the pond comes British jazz musician Courtney Pine’s latest offering, Black Notes From the Deep. Perhaps best known as a founding member of the Jazz Warriors as well as host of the radio show Jazz Crusade on BBC Radio 2, Pine has had a major impact on the U.K. jazz scene over the last thirty years. On his 19th album, the multi-instrumentalist focuses primarily on tenor sax while collaborating with another U.K. legend, neo-soul singer Omar Lye-Fook. Backing musicians include the dream team of Alec Dankworth (son of Cleo Laine) on bass, Robert Mitchell on piano, and Washington, DC native Rod Youngs on percussion.
As the needle drifts over the grooves of the opening track, there’s no doubt that pairing Omar with Pine was a brilliant idea. “Rules,” co-written by the two musicians, is a fitting intro the album and offers a glimpse of things to come (see video below for a live performance of the song). Next up is “You Know Who You Are.” This sultry, atmospheric instrumental brings to mind a smoky jazz club in a film noir while showcasing the piano stylings of Mitchell and some tasty tenor solos from Pine.
Several members of the group, including Pine, have Jamaican roots, which influenced the instrumental “Rivers of Blood.” The title references the 1968 anti-immigration speech by Enoch Powell, a British member of Parliament, directed primarily at the initial wave of Caribbean immigrants to the U.K. from 1948-1968. Pine’s tenor combines with chords on the lower octaves of the piano to speak the bitter truth of this era, but a ray of hope is offered as the instruments move into the upper registers, building to a forceful conclusion that defies all odds.
Ushered in on a bass riff quoting Curtis Mayfield, “Darker Than the Blue” is definitely an album highlight, with Omar imploring, “Please tell me why, why oh why, would you want to leave me this way?” while Pine wails on the tenor sax like a lover scorned. Omar returns for two more tracks, the organ layered “In Another Time” and a new interpretation of Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly,” the latter featuring Charleen Hamilton on background vocals. On the upbeat instrumental “A Change Is Sure to Come,” Pine finesses the bass flute, proving his versatility while offering the other members of the ensemble an opportunity to solo. The album concludes on “A Word to the Wise,” with Pine plumbing the depths of the tenor to signal a warning call.
Black Notes From the Deep indeed plumbs the depth of jazz and soul, adeptly mixing message songs with passionate instrumentals performed with deft expertise by musicians who have spent decades honing their craft.
Mavis Staples ushers in her eighth decade of singing truth with the call-to-compassion album If All I Was Was Black, her third collaborative project with songwriter, producer, and Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. Their first partnership in 2010, You Are Not Alone, won a Grammy Award for Best Americana album. Their second effort together, One True Vine, was a Grammy nominee. But If All I Was Was Black marks the first time Tweedy has composed an entire album of original songs for Mavis’ legendary voice and a nation she’s uniquely poised to address. As a witness to both past and ongoing American civil rights issues, Staples feels that, in many respects, “nothing has changed…we’re not loving one another the way we should.”
The album’s first track, “Little Bit,” firmly establishes this work as a conscious ode to the déjà vu mood gripping the nation of late. A driving guitar hook sets the tone immediately at the open, with Staples’ vocals rasping out an early downbeat of “This life surrounds you, guns are loaded. This kind of tension, hard not to notice.” Throughout the song, Mavis leads listeners through call-and-response vocals in a soundscape that recalls Sly & the Family Stone’s mix of joy and social criticism unfolding over a funk-edged rhythm section. Following is the title track, an upbeat, joyous groove that continues the album’s humanistic theme of understanding and acceptance. Directly addressing those who respond to someone’s race without seeing their shared humanity, Staples expertly croons, “If all I was was Black, don’t you want to know me more than that?”
Current events appear on the record obliquely, reflecting a commitment to a universal approach that shines a comparative light on the past by suggestively addressing today’s events. As Mavis explains, “We didn’t make the songs point to a specific person. If you follow the lyrics, it’s about yesterday and today.” “We Go High” borrows its chorus from Michelle Obama’s speech on the first night of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, and the track “Build a Bridge” parses exactly which lives matter and how we can begin to talk about it.
Staples’ darker tone can be glimpsed in both “Who Told You That?” and “Try Harder.” Alluding to the frustration and realism of today, her telling line “There’s evil in the world, and there’s evil in me” signals harsh undercurrents of danger. Despite these elements, the mood ring on Mavis’ 2017 call-to-action is set to love, running through and over the occasional fury and pragmatism. The songs move like an ocean tide, ebbing and flowing, with Mavis countering the anger with an eye toward the work that is required to bring change. In the end, the answer lies in lifting each other up, Staples style. She’s not embracing the anxious hesitation of respectability politics but rather the possibilities of love.
Try Harder. Two small words, containing the biggest potential imaginable. To Mavis Staples, this phrase is key to substantial change if society will take her lead and lovingly follow through.
Is it the current political atmosphere or possibly just time for the genre to once again acknowledge its roots? Whatever the reason, there is a conscious stream of artists dominating mainstream rap right now, and Talib Kweli is leading the way. Kweli is no stranger to the scene—his first collaborative group, Black Star, was formed with Mos Def in 1997—and to date, he has worked with artists Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, Just Blaze, the Beastie Boys and Kendrick Lamar. Kweli is featured on Dave Chappell’s Block Party, both as an actor and a soundtrack artist. In 2011 he founded his own label, Javotti Media, billed as “a platform for independent thinkers and doers.”* With an eye on social issues both past and present, Kweli offers us his take on 2017 with his latest, Radio Silence.
The album unlocks with “The Magic Hour,” a song that introduces the album’s concepts and purpose through magical lyricism. Opening with the ethereal sounds of strings and a choir, the tune carves its own place in the world of rap solely on these feature alone. Kweli’s opening line, “Last one to fall asleep, first one to wake up. No Doubt. It’s the Magic Hour,” layered on top of an upbeat piano riff sets the standard for the remainder of this Brooklyn phenom’s offerings. The song’s final chords fade away under Kweli’s assurance that “hip hop will flourish with nourishment and the proper care,” a parental line from one who has been there, done that, and knows how to make it last.
The philosophy continues to pour out of this rap statesman rhyme after rhyme. The second track, “Traveling Light,” thumps the pulpit of Kweli’s truth through musings about his own genesis towards the rap dimension. Unquestionably possessing a magical talent for deep lyricism, he brings Anderson .Paak’s smooth vocals into the track to compliment his message. “All of Us” unfastens the mood even further with its break-out sampling of a rally for justice. Jay Electronica of Roc Nation and powerhouse Yummy Bingham spin their consciousness right along Kweli, adding a multi-layered resonance reverberating past the very last strain of violin fade-out. The lead single, “Radio Silence,” is a blend of Kweli and Myka 9’s exceptional cypher savvy interspersed with Amber Coffman’s haunting refrains. Never one to ignore the heart strings for long, Kweli and BJ The Chicago Kid’s “The One I Love” reminds us that regardless of what’s going on, that one special person makes it all worthwhile.
Of all the offerings not explicated here—“Chips,” “Knockturnal,” “Let It Roll,” “Write at Home”—by far, the standout is “Heads Up Eyes Open.” Dedicated to late rap promoter Kenneth “Headqcouterz” Walker, this part testimonial/part inspirational melody features not only mind-bending truthfulness on topics such as police brutality and protest rights, but also functions as a call for honesty and faithfulness because “the picture is so much bigger than what we could even imagine.” Indeed. Talib Kweli’s vision is so much larger than what we typically conceptualize. This portfolio of political discourse keeps challenging and teaching long after the voices, piano riffs and handclaps fade away.
Radio Silence, through its proverbial introspections and uplifting retrospection, seamlessly moves its message through the airwaves of our minds. In Talib Kweli’s world, silence truly does speak louder than words.
Tampa native Kevin Burgess, known in the rap world as KB, takes his God-driven talents to new levels with his latest release, Today We Rebel. Providing ammunition to help us confront the anxiety of the times, KB defines what rebellion truly means in today’s world:
“To me, resistance carries with it a certain posture. The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”
Leading up to the album announcement, KB unveiled a series of visuals across his platforms, sparking social conversations and giving fans a look inside the mind of a man changed for the better into a rebellious role model for the greater good.
Sonically, Today We Rebel is a mixture of emotion and aggression. Throughout the 14-track album, you can feel the urgency in KB’s tone, serving as a reminder that we are at our best when we are truly free: “I understand now more than ever that my allegiance is to the kingdom, first and foremost. Everything falls second to that.” His offerings include the artists Aha Gazelle (“Monsters”), Ty Brasel (“Primetime”), Andy Mineo (“Not Today Satan”) and Lecrae (“Get Through It”). Lecrae and KB’s collaboration, “Sideways” from his previous album Tomorrow We Live (2015), tallies up at over 4+million hits on YouTube, and “Get Through It” is already on its own path to Greatness.
All said and done, Today We Rebel is KB drawing a line in the sand. Life, and what comes after, stops for no one. And in the case of Eternity, KB warns, the only thing that matters in the end is who you have in your corner.
The newest release from the Chicago Afrobeat Project, What Goes Up, builds upon the group’s strong foundation of recordings. The already large ensemble heavily features guest artists on its latest album, including Nigerian afrobeat drummer Tony Allen (who has worked with the legendary Fela Kuti, a pioneer of the genre) as a featured artist on each of the album’s tracks.
The Chicago Afrobeat Project has always drawn heavily from funk-influenced afrobeat styles, and, as the group’s name implies, continues this basic approach on its latest album. The 14-member ensemble features great arrangements for its full horn section on cuts like “Race Hustle,” but moves somewhat outside of traditional afrobeat expectations on other cuts, as on the extended synth intro to “Cut the Infection.” The group incorporates some jazz fusion influences on the polyrhythmic cut “Must Come Down,” interpolating wah wah guitars with African rhythms more typical of the group’s style.
Unlike the work of afrobeat pioneers like Kuti, the lyrics on What Goes Up tend to be more pop-philosophical than explicitly political, with tracks like “No Bad News” vaguely addressing the importance of ancestors and the evils of corporate pollution, but without finding specific figures to either praise or criticize. “Marker 48” continues in the same vein, arguing that humans cannot continue to exploit the Earth’s resources, but without addressing who is using most of these resources, who benefits most from extraction, or what could be done to change this pattern. This group is at its best on songs like “Afro Party,” when taking more of a celebratory than a critical lyrical tone. It is difficult to level poignant political critique in any kind of music, let alone music this sharply focused on creating textures and grooves. This group puts forth great effort, but ultimately lacks the specificity necessary to compellingly address social issues in most cases.
With that said, the Chicago Afrobeat Project can groove—each track feels great, and there’s exciting rhythms and melodies to go around. This is in large part due to the strength of its members’ musicianship and their strong connections to both afrobeat music and the other genres they incorporate into their approach. For the Chicago Afrobeat Project, the audience is What Goes Up—up out of its seat and onto the dance floor.
Ghana-born drummer Paa Kow’s new self-released album, Cookpot, presents the listener with a wide range of influences. Paa Kow, who now resides in Colorado, has been performing since he was seven years old, and he initially gained fame in his native Ghana as the “Small-boy Drummer.” His virtuosity as a drummer is always present throughout the 13-track release, along with a unique stylistic amalgam of several genres. First and foremost, there is the stylistic influence of highlife, which is to be expected given his heritage and the music’s origins in Ghana. The listener unfamiliar with highlife could easily assume that Cookpot is a Caribbean release, and that assumption would not be entirely unfounded due to the fact that highlife has been heavily influenced by Afro-Caribbean music such as calypso.
The opening track, “The Way I Feel,” begins as a standard funk tune, but it ultimately separates itself through Paa Kow’s impressive drum fills and a B section that is both heavily syncopated and laden with stop-time accents. Accompanied by some stellar electric piano playing, “The Way I Feel” would be at home on one of Herbie Hancock’s funk albums. It is a track that sounds as if Herbie recorded an album with a Ghanaian drummer.
The title track is deceptive. Its fusion of styles—world, jazz, and funk—is so seamless that it is easy to forget that it isn’t just a funk song. Like what can happen with a good meal, the end product often masks the flavor of each individual ingredient. “Cookpot,” then, is a fitting title for this track. Also mixing ingredients, “Forced Landing” is the most glaring example of the fusion of styles on this album. What begins as a jazz tune with an intro trumpet solo switches time signatures and transforms into a highlife song before ultimately changing time signatures again and settling into a funk groove. It is essentially three songs merged into one.
One of the standout tracks on the album is “African Lady,” which along with “Lonely” and “Pete Pete,” are the most highlife-influenced tracks on the album. “African Lady” is an upbeat tune with a complex rhythmic pattern laid out cooperatively by the drums, guitar, and keyboard. Drummers will find this to be an inspirational performance along with the track “Details,” featuring a solo where Paa Kow demonstrates his impeccable technique on the drum set.
Collectively, this album’s focus is drum-centric, and it offers up a great deal of rhythmic complexity. Nevertheless, throughout the recording there are some first-rate solos from the keyboard player, guitar player, and horn players. The combination of styles creates a unique product in that this is not the typical jazz-funk album. Paa Kow has thrown a variety of ingredients into his cookpot, and the result is an album that is equal parts jazz, funk, and highlife. Anyone who possesses a stylistically wide palette would be remiss to not listen to Cookpot, and those who enjoy listening to a virtuosic drummer cannot afford to pass this one up.