Archive for February 2nd, 2018

Welcome to the February 2018 issue of Black Grooves

February 2018_small 4
Welcome to the February 2018 issue of Black Grooves, sponsored by the Indiana University Archives of African American Music and Culture.

February is Black History Month, and our feature projects spotlight both classic and up-and-coming artists, demonstrating regional, temporal and categorical diversity within Black music as a whole.

 

Leading the group are our tried-and-true artists: Ella Fitzgerald with Ella at Zardi’s, Aretha Franklin with The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra collaboration titled A Brand New Me, Bethlehem Record’s release of their Nina Simone singles, Mood Indigo: The Complete Bethlehem Sessions, Wes Montgomery’s In Paris: The Definitive ORTF Recording and an All-Star Tribute to the King of the Slide Guitar Elmore James on Strange Angels: In Flight With Elmore JamesThe Ru-Jac Records Story’s 4 volume set traces the history of Baltimore’s R&B scene through spotlights on various area artists, and renowned percussionist Shiela E. once again demonstrates her multifaceted vocal and visionary talents with Iconic: Message 4 America.

Newer artists showcase their talents as well. No stranger to the field, the Ebony Hillbillies enter the scene once again with their latest release, 5 Miles From Town. Delta Deep’s East Coast Live spins a soulful blues/rock sound and Project Mama Earth’s self-titled debut Project Mama Earth pulls listeners expertly into the realm of world music activism. Jason Marsalis and the 21st Century Trad Band weigh in with their original compositions based on jazz standards and 80s popular music with Melody Reimagined: book 1, while saxophonist David Murray and poet Saul Williams’ collaboration on Blues for Memo offers a contemplative tribute to socially conscious issues and figures throughout modern history.

Valentine’s Day hits its mark in the form of Eric Valentine and the Velvet Groove’s smooth offering Velvet Groove, R&B artist Calvin Richardson is sure to put you in a loving mood with his newest release All Or Nothing, and Jamison Ross’s All For One focuses on family and neighborly affection.

Wrapping up this issue is Chi-town’s rap son Open Mike Eagle with Brick Body Kids Still Daydream and our compilation of January 2018 Releases of Note.

 

View review February 2nd, 2018

Ella Fitzgerald – Ella at Zardi’s

Ella Fitzgerald

Title: Ella at Zardi’s

Artist: Ella Fitzgerald

Label: Verve Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: December 1, 2017

 

 

There are many CDs available by Ella Fitzgerald, so why is this one special? If you are reading this, you already know of her many of the treasured recordings—with Louis Armstrong, with Chick Webb, throughout the definitive Songbooks, and her many other live concert performances. But this recording from February 2, 1956 marks a major turning point in her career, one where impresario Norman Granz arranged the transfer of her recording contract from Decca Records to his personal management and to his label Verve Records. The setting for this particular CD is Zardi’s Jazzland, a club in Los Angeles, where Ella is backed by Don Abney (piano), Vernon Alley (bass), and Frankie Capp (drums).

Granz had included Ella in his Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts beginning in 1949 as each program’s only vocalist. During those years he had time to form his ideas for extending her career vastly beyond the “workmanlike” support she received from Decca. Granz recorded this night during the final days of this engagement. Yet, he never released it, perhaps due to its casual informality, preferring to create a more dramatic launch to her career at Verve. Accordingly, he had booked a trip to the studio just four days later to begin recording The Cole Porter Songbook, the start of her songbook series that celebrated so many wonderful composers and provided a large part of the foundation for the documentation of the Great American Songbook.

But it is this very informality that makes Ella at Zardi’s so engaging. Apparently, attendance at the club during the three weeks was light, and Ella remarks, “Where were all of you during the past 2 ½ weeks?”  That doesn’t stop her from responding to many requests to show her appreciation, acknowledging Van Alexander and Gordon Jenkins among those present. Candidly she says several times, “I don’t know all the lyrics,” but that doesn’t stop her from creating each distinctive performance.

She thanks a member of the audience for reminding her of one line of lyrics as she sings “Tenderly.” Before starting, she asked the audience to help her recall a portion of the lyrics to “Gone with the Wind” but then jokingly sings that they are a bit too late, incorporating this ad lib without interruption in the song. Even “A-Tasket, A-Tasket” reemerges in this program as a celebration of Ella’s roots, anchoring her continuing legacy and greatly appreciated by her fans.

The two sets from Zardi’s (each introduced by Buddy de Franco) languished in Verve’s vaults for over 60 years, perhaps because Granz simply had bigger ideas for her recordings. Is this Ella’s BEST recording?  No, but it is perhaps the one that is the most FUN to hear. It represents the turning point in the career of a great jazz artist, for without Granz we would not have her many remarkable recordings from studios, clubs and concert halls around the world. Together, they extended the body of vocal jazz performances available for our enjoyment today.

Norman Granz frequently said, “You can hear from the first bars of Ella’s performance if this is to be a jazz session.”  This is clearly one of those. That becomes evident from the first song onward as Ella demonstrates her many talents to personalize her performance, employing her unique harmonic and melodic variations intermixed with shifts in tempo to enrich each song. Ella is relaxed, and her creative passion is on full view. You won’t regret purchasing this CD even if you, like me, already own and treasure many of Ella’s recordings.  It will bring you joy and remind you of her absolute passion and commanding artistry.

Reviewed by Thomas P. Hustad
Professor Emeritus of Marketing, IU Kelley School of Business
Author: Born to Play: Ruby Braff’s Discography and Directory of Performances

 

 

 

 

View review February 2nd, 2018

Aretha Franklin with The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – A Brand New Me

Aretha Franklin

Title: A Brand New Me

Artist: Aretha Franklin with The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Label: Atlantic Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: November 10, 2017

 

Decades after the release of some of her most iconic hits, Aretha Franklin’s soulful songs have been re-imagined in Atlantic Records’ A Brand New Me. The newly-released album preserves Aretha’s uniquely emotional vocals and pairs them with the rich backing of The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (conducted by Steve Sidwell and Robin Smith), to create a fresh take on the Queen of Soul’s classic hits.

As shown in the “making of” mini documentary for the album, the producers of A Brand New Me were careful to show respect for the original songs and tastefully enhance them with the orchestral arrangements:

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The album, which includes timeless songs like “Respect” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” retains the soul, groove, and gospel power that Franklin is so well-known for. The new arrangements provide a lush background for the tracks without overpowering Aretha’s vocals or losing the original essence of the songs.

A Brand New Me is a fusion of gritty, church-infused Detroit soul with the sweet symphonic sound of Philadelphia, a combination that does the Queen of Soul justice and highlights her incredible vocal talent.

Reviewed by Chloe McCormick

 

View review February 2nd, 2018

Wes Montgomery – In Paris: The Definitive ORTF Recording

Wes Montgomery
Title: In Paris: The Definitive ORTF Recording

Artist: Wes Montgomery

Label: Resonance

Formats: CD, Vinyl (2 discs with collector postcards), MP3

Release date: January 26, 2018

 

In my experience, official releases of recordings are, years later, sometimes followed by bootleg reissues. In this case, that sequence is reversed.  These recordings, from a Wes Montgomery concert at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris on March 27, 1965, are being officially issued for the first time by Resonance Records, in collaboration with Montgomery’s family and French ORTF Network. On this performance, Wes is backed by Johnny Griffin (tenor sax on four titles), Harold Mabern (piano), Arthur Harper (bass), and Jimmy Lovelace (drums).

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So what do we have?  This is the finest live recording by one of the three most important guitarists in jazz history, in my view, linking Wes with Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt. Yes, there have been others possessing great talents, but these three were all formative artists in different ways.

Superficially, Wes’s recording career can be divided into four stages:

  1. As a sideman with Lionel Hampton (1948-1950);
  2. As an emerging artist (1950-1959) when he mostly performed with his brothers or other Indianapolis-based musicians and recorded for World Pacific and Pacific Jazz Records;
  3. As a featured artist (1959-1963) when he then emerged as a heralded new talent on Riverside Records, releasing a series of albums that are hallmarks in the history of jazz guitar.
  4. As a popular jazz guitarist after he moved to Verve and then A&M Records and became an artist who reached a broader audience with his recordings but without ever losing his focus on performing in the “Riverside era style” in concerts and clubs.

This recording from Paris is perhaps the finest from this final stage of Wes’s career.  His touring group of the day is joined by noted saxophonist Johnny Griffin on several of the tunes.

Resonance Records has become a primary source for remarkable releases of previously unissued recordings by Wes, all produced with the highest audio and production standards that truly honor his legacy. It is fitting that the company has released the present recording, the latest chronologically in this family of recordings that began with performances from Wes’s early years in Indianapolis and, a few years later, performing before members of the Indianapolis Jazz Club, and with pianist Wynton Kelley performing in a club in Seattle (these are linked to reviews in earlier issues of Black Grooves).

In Paris has some wonderful music. Performances range from up tempo versions of “Jingles” and “To Wane” to a beautiful slow ballad, “The Girl Next Door.” But there are really no single highlights. The musicians perform as a team, collectively inspired by the occasion. There is simply no point in singling out individual tunes for this is truly a remarkable performance throughout. It is every bit the equal of Wes’s best albums, ever. We are so fortunate that it was recorded and is now available in superior sound.

When I compare this recording to an earlier bootleg issue on Definitive Records in my collection, I am impressed by the quality of the remixing from the original tapes that increases the richness and power of the performance. The album notes explain that Wes avoided flying and only toured Europe on this single occasion (the 32-page booklet includes essays by Vincent Pelote, Pascal Rozat and Resonance producer Zev Feldman). Fortunately, this resulted in bootlegged recordings from Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany and England, along with a televised program produced by the BBC from London.  But this release of a 1965 performance in Paris is the highlight, and one of the finest in Wes’s career.

Reviewed by Thomas P. Hustad

Professor Emeritus of Marketing, Kelley School of Business

Author: Born to Play: Ruby Braff’s Discography and Directory of Performances

View review February 2nd, 2018

All-Star Tribute – Strange Angels: In Flight With Elmore James

Elmore James
Title: Strange Angels: In Flight With Elmore James

Artist: All-Star Tribute

Label: Sylvan Songs Records

Formats:  CD, MP3, Vinyl

Release date: January 26, 2018

 

In celebration of Elmore James’ 100th birthday, multiple contemporary artists are rockin’ the blues in tribute to the iconic legend on Strange Angels: In Flight With Elmore James. James’ musical influence is undeniable—not only is he credited for inventing the grittiness of blues rock through his dynamically intense performances, he is hailed as ‘King of the Slide Guitar’ due to his expert use of the musical technique. From his career start on a diddley bow at the age of 12 to his subsequent hits in the 1950s such as “Dust My Broom” and “Shake Your Money Maker,” James was destined to change the blues world through his passion for the slide sound and his unbridled energy both on stage and in sessions. Artists such as Tom Jones, Rodney Crowell, and the duet stylings of Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer offer their interpretations of James’ hits as homage to the one who paved the way for so many others in the decades that followed.

The opening track, “Can’t Stop Lovin’ You,” jumps right onto James’ signature guitar wail. Elayna Boynton provides the sultry vocals that blend seamlessly with the Caribbean beat. Soul icon Bettye LaVette joins in on the following track, “Person to Person,” and country sing/songwriter Rodney Crowell puts his own sound to James’ classic hit, “Shake Your Money Maker”.

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Other tracks feature unique acoustical renditions of James’ work. Wayne Haynes, known as a guitarist for the Allman Brothers Band, performs a six minute version of “Mean Mistreatin’ Mama” with Billy Gibbons and Mickey Raphael. A real gem is Keb Mo’s “Look on Yonder Wall,” as its zydeco feel invokes Mardi Gras in its finest form.

Strange Angels gives back for the greater good, as well. All the profits go to MusicCares, The Recording Academy’s charity providing services and resources for music people in times of need, and Edible Schoolyard NYC, who partners with public schools to provide garden and kitchen classes. Produced by drummer Marco Giovino with ample help from house band Elmore’s Latest Broomdusters, Strange Angels offers a celebratory gaze at a star who blazed out way too quickly, but his refrains and public efficacy illuminates the blues cosmos for all eternity.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

 

 

View review February 2nd, 2018

History of Baltimore R&B Explored on The Ru-Jac Records Story

Within the rather crowded field of reissue labels, some are truly dedicated to producing well-curated, expertly remastered, authoritatively annotated and handsomely packaged sets that bring to light long out-of-print recordings. One of these labels is Omnivore Recordings, a relative newcomer whose projects been featured on our pages before. Founded in Los Angeles in 2010 by four industry veterans, the group is led by former Rhino executive and producer Cheryl Pawelski, who has a long track record producing and supervising reissues and box sets. True to the company’s name, Omnivore has been avidly releasing projects across multiple music genres. One of their latest acquisitions is the master catalog of Ru-Jac Records.

Though soul music fans in the Washington, D.C. corridor are likely familiar with Baltimore’s Ru-Jac label, it is not so well known outside the region. Founded in 1963 by local promoter Rufus Mitchell and investor Jack Bennett, Ru-Jac was a singles-only label, releasing music from regional soul/R&B artists until 1980. Omnivore has already spun off a couple of albums featuring the label’s biggest artists—Winfield Parker (Mr. Clean: Winfield Parker at Ru-Jac) and the duo Gene & Eddie on True Enough (previously reviewed in Black Grooves). Now Omnivore is offering The Ru-Jac Records Story: a four volume compilation produced by Pawelski and Baltimore soul historian Kevin Coombe, with additional assistance from Ru-Jac’s Winfield Parker. All selections have been meticulously restored by Michael Graves from original master tapes or, where masters were missing, from the cleanest copies of 45s available. Previously unreleased material discovered on session tapes and lacquer discs is also included. Following are brief reviews of each volume produced by this fantastic team.

 

Ru-Jac vol. 1
Title: Something Got a Hold on Me: The Ru-Jac Records Story Volume 1, 1963-1964

Artist: Various

Label: Omnivore Recordings

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: January 19, 2018

 

As the story of Ru-Jac Records unfolds, Rufus Mitchell owns a tailoring/dry cleaning establishment, but also enjoys a more entertaining pastime hustling gigs as a concert promoter. Spurred by the success of his younger brother, jazz trumpeter Richard “Blue” Mitchell, Rufus sees opportunity in the growing number of area musicians seeking publishers and record labels. After establishing Ace Booking & Promotions, he starts booking Washington, D.C. area talent, and soon he’s also handling regional distribution and arranging radio airplay for artists signed to the local Start label. Shortly thereafter, Mitchell is motivated to build his own record label, and starts churning out the singles.

Volume 1 opens with the smoking hot instrumental “Fatback,” an unissued, undated take by the Lamont Esquires, one of the early bands signed to Ace. Nine additional previously unissued tracks are also featured on Volume 1, including two by unidentified groups (the title track convincingly sung by a male vocalist and the rhythm and blues instrumental “Trash Can”); five by lesser known artists (the best of these are Flattop Bobby & The Soul Twisters’ “Cross Track” and Jeanne Dee’s “Every Day I Have the Blues); plus two from Baltimore’s more established artists—Winfield Parker (“One of These Mornings”) and the Jolly Jax trio (“Joe”). Other highlights on this disc include the slow ballads “I Love You So” by Jessie Crawford and the Kay Keys Band, and “When I’m Alone” by Winfield Parker. The vocal styles of Brenda Jones are nicely revealed through the jazzy “That’s All You Have to Do” and the teen-oriented “Let’s Go Back to School,” an R&B dance song written by Baltimore icon Ethel Ennis. Ru-Jac’s sole gospel single by the Fruitful Harmonizers features the songs “Take Care of Me” and “My Father Watches Over Me.” Last but not least, there’s Marie Allen backed by The Teardrops Band on the gritty rock and roll song “Crying Won’t Help You,” plus Little Sonny Daye and The Shyndells Band (featuring a great guitarist) performing “I’m Through With You.”

 

Ru-Jac vol. 2
Title: Get Right: The Ru-Jac Records Story Volume 2, 1964-1966

Artist: Various

Label: Omnivore Recordings

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: January 19, 2018

 

Volume 2 of the Ru-Jac Records story opens with four more tracks from Brenda Jones, including the single “It Must Be Love” as well as the unissued backing track for that song. Winfield Parker returns with an unissued demo of “I Love You Just the Same,” followed by a more fleshed out, uptempo version of the same accompanied by The Shyndells Band.

A side story explored in this volume is Mitchell’s relationship with talent agent Lillian Claiborne, who operated another important regional label, DC Records. Around 1965, Ru-Jac began pressing singles for some of Claiborne’s artists. Singles by two of her groups are included here. The Mask Man & the Cap-Tans “Love Can Do Wonders” calls to mind several of today’s retro soul groups, while “Chicken Wings” is a hard bopping dance number grounded by the Hammond B3. “Come On Over” by the Neltones is a scorching soul ballad, while the flip side “C’est La Vie” is more light hearted with tight vocal harmonies by the back-up singers.

Organist “Butch” Randolph, Jr. (who later backed Stanley Turrentine) can be heard in Butch Cornell’s Trio. These jazzier sides feature Cornell on the Hammond B3 in “Goose Pimples,” which gained popularity on local radio station WWIN. Two versions are included here, and it’s the unissued alternate take that captures attention with its complex textures and prominent organ.

Shirley Grant of The Soul Sisters & Brother (guitarist Clarence Grant) released just one single for Ru-Jac of gospel-inflected soul: “What More? (Can Anyone Wait)” and “You Don’t Really Care.” The latter showcases Clarence’s guitar perhaps a bit too much, as it sometimes distracts from the vocals.

Arthur Lee Conley, who migrated to Baltimore from rural Georgia as a teenager, was one of the most successful singer-songwriters on the Ru-Jac roster due to his relationship with Otis Redding, who mentored the young singer. To make a long story short, after Redding tried to sign Conley to his own label, there was a falling out with Ru-Jac. Now, decades later, two of Conley’s unissued demos have been unearthed. “Whole Lotta Woman” (not the 1958 rockabilly version) and “Hiding Out in the Blue Shadows” are interesting selections (especially the former) that add to Conley’s story.

Also included are two jazzier tracks by Bobby Sax & His Housekeepers: the uptempo sax workout “Get Right,” and “Soul at Last,” a slow burner with a trumpet solo very reminiscent of Etta James’ signature song “At Last.” The set concludes with two outstanding tracks by Harold Holt, including the scorching soul ballad “I’m a Stranger.”

 

Ru-Jac vol. 3
Title: Finally Together: The Ru-Jac Records Story Volume 3, 1966-1967

Artist: Various

Label: Omnivore Recordings

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: February 2, 2018

 

As Volume 3 opens, Rufus Mitchell’s other commitments begin to interfere with the label, slowing the stream of releases to a trickle. These 1966 sides include the more sophisticated vocal stylings of Baltimore’s Rita Doryse, including an unissued version of “Born To Be Loved” that harkens back to an earlier ‘60s R&B sound, plus the jazzy, uptempo “Goodie Goodie.” As business picks up again in 1967, a promising single is released by Kitty Lane, who started her career as the Ace/Ru-Jac office manager and later sang back-up for Otis Redding. Lane’s “It’s Love I Need” has a delightful finger-snapping hard-grooving intro, while “Sweetheart” showcases her soulful side. She switches styles again on “The Feeling Is Gone,” a bluesy unissued take with a standout guitarist—this track should have seen the light of day.

Leon Gibson, a soul shouter from Georgia, spent nearly a decade in Charm City exploring different ventures.  He cut one single for Ru-Jac with “Do The Roller,” an uptempo dance tune that mimics James Brown’s “The Popcorn” but with a lot more cowbell. The duo Gene & Eddie might not be equivalent to Stax artists Sam & Dave, but their slow ballad, “I Would Cry,” is persuasively sung and complimented by an excellent horn section. Sir Joe, aka songwriter/arranger Joe Quarterman, is featured on “Nobody Beats My Love,” which features terrific trumpet playing throughout (possibly by Joe?).

Winfield Parker returns with three previously unreleased tracks, including two fairly rough demos, and the standout single “Sweet Little Girl” backed by The Shyndells Band. We’re given a further glimpse of The Shyndells’ talents on two unissued instrumentals, including the blazing fast dance track “Lightning (Part 1).” Other unissued tracks with unidentified singers are included, the best of which is “Searching”—a rocking, gospel-infused song by a female soul singer that really blows. The disc concludes with the sole single by The Caressors, a vocal harmony group about which little is known, and the unremarkable sides don’t inspire further research.

 

Ru-Jac vol. 4
Title: Changes: The Ru-Jac Records Story Volume 4, 1967-1980

Artist: Various

Label: Omnivore Recordings

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: February 2, 2018

 

Volume 4 encompasses a decade roiled by social, economic and political change. On the musical side, there is change as well: rhythm and blues gets a whole lot funkier. But this doesn’t happen overnight. As the set opens in the late ‘60s, the Winfield Parker and Gene & Eddie tracks include just a few James Brown-style grunts, while Sir Joe’s “Every Day (I’ll Be Needing You)” features a funkier backing band, and the Fred Martin Revue brings a little more heat and a lot of B3 to “I Know It’s Going To Happen” (1970) and “Contagious.” The latter is an instrumental bearing a Booker T influence with a dash of rock guitar.

The rock influences continue on “Changes Part 1” by the band Saturday, which also drips with Southern soul, and on “Sugar” by Fred Martin Jr. which retains an R&B horn section. More changes are brought by the Dynamic Corvettes, who offer a very funky pair of sides. “Keep Off the Grass” has a B3 groove and Curtis Mayfield vibe while “It’s A Trap” has a definite Blacksploitation influence (“no one can escape from the man”).

The song “Days May Come, Days May Go” is covered by two artists: a smooth R&B rendition by Francine Long and a funkier instrumental track by Utopian Concept. This volume closes with a pair of singles featuring gritty soul singer Willie Mason with the Fred Martin Revue, and the jazzier vocalist Johnny Dotson.


 

Anyone interested in the regional music scene surrounding Baltimore, Maryland, will enjoy The Ru-Jac Records Story four volume set. At times the music may be a bit raw and under-produced; however, these 45 sides a provide a marvelous overview of unheralded as well as better known artists from the Charm City.  Consequently, they should be relished for their local flavor, right alongside those Maryland crab cakes.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

 

 

 

 

 

View review February 2nd, 2018

Shiela E. – Iconic: Message 4 America

Shiela E
Title: Iconic: Message 4 America

Artist: Sheila E.

Label: Stiletto Flats

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: September 1, 2017

 

 

Sheila E.’s Iconic: Message 4 America offers a musical palette of iconic songs, primarily from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Though the album dropped in September, the self-released project didn’t garner as much attention as it deserved, so we’re happy to give it a shout out during Black History Month.

Described as a musical movement for turbulent times, Sheila conceived of the album as “a call for us to rise up and stand for something that is greater than our self-interest.” Instead of creating new music, she chose to reinvent “some of the greatest protest and revolution songs . . . to fit current times.” Assisting her in this endeavor are members of her band plus a bevy of exemplary guests. Of course, Sheila Escovedo herself is a renowned drummer and percussionist perhaps best known for her work with Prince, but she’s also an amazing vocalist as she proves on each and every track.

The album opens with “Funky National Anthem,” a powerful medley drawing upon multiple texts beginning with Sheila’s spoken intro from the Declaration of Independence. After a brief (and yes, very funky) version of the National Anthem, the final three minutes draw upon some of the most famous and inspiring speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Presidents John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama. On this track, Sheila issues a “call for our leaders to rise up and work for the betterment of men and women, no matter the race, color, or creed.”

The first celebrity guest enters on the Beatles’ “Come Together,” with Ringo Starr taking over the drum kit. Once again, a rousing spoken intro kicks off the arrangement (as in the Primal Scream version): “This is a beautiful day / we are unified / we are of one accord / today we are together / when we are together we got power!” Sly & The Family Stone’s “Everyday People” also features original band members: Freddie Stone on lead vocal and guitar, and Lynn Mabry on tambourine.

An album of this nature can’t be complete without representation from Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield. On Gayes’ “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” Sheila deftly incorporates elements of “Trouble Man,” with Eddie M. (former Prince saxophonist) on lead vocals. “Pusherman,” the Mayfield classic from the Superfly soundtrack is sung by Sheila, who adds “You took Prince, Pusherman.”  You know she won’t finish this album without a Prince tribute. Anthony Antoine was selected to sing the combined “America – Free,” yet another amazing and provocative track.

Israel Houghton takes over on Stevie Wonder’s “Jesus Children of America,” with Greg Phillinganes on organ and Dino Saldo on harmonica. Really, it doesn’t get any better than this. Oh wait! Another highlight is the James Brown Medley.  Bootsy Collins joins Sheila for this funk fest that joins together half a dozen of JB’s Black Power era anthems, beginning with “Talking Loud and Saying Nothing” and concluding with “Super Bad.” And there’s more P-funk. George Clinton sits in for “One Nation Under a Groove,” which segues into “Mothership Connection.”

These are just some of the treats in store on Sheila’s masterful Iconic: Message 4 America, featuring some of the top musicians in the business performing amazing arrangements of iconic songs. I believe Sheila E. has also achieved her other goals: “To bring awareness, to spark conversation, to allow healing, to restore hope, to express love, to find peace, and to unite through music.”

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review February 2nd, 2018

The Ebony Hillbillies – 5 Miles from Town

Hillbillies

Title: 5 Miles From Town

Artist: The Ebony Hillbillies

Label: EH Music

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 15, 2017

 

 

After four successful albums and TV appearances on the BBC and ABC’s “Good Morning America,” The Ebony Hillbillies are back with their latest album, 5 Miles From Town. The group, which hails from the streets of New York City, is keeping African American string band traditions alive for new generations. Their fifth album features 12 tracks that seamlessly combine pop, folk, bluegrass, and jazz to create The Ebony Hillbillies’ trademark sound.

In addition to reviving string band music through tracks such as “Hog Eyed Man,” a classic 19th century American fiddle tune from the Upper South, the group also offers new songs with strong social commentary. The gritty “Another Man Done Gone (Hands Up Don’t Shoot)” explores the issue of police brutality, while the similarly-themed “I’m On My Way To Brooklyn” ends with the ominous sound of gunshots.

Other songs, like “Fork in the Road,” are more lighthearted and highlight the beauty of the fiddle and banjo, as performed by group leader Henrique Prince and Norris Bennett, respectively. Additional performers include Gloria Thomas Gassaway, Allanah Salter and Iris T. Olden (vocals, bones, shaker), William “Salty Bill” Salter (acoustic bass), Newman Taylor Baker (washboard percussion), and A.R. (aka Ali Rahman, cowboy percussion).

The album concludes with the title track, “Five Miles From Town,” a very lively rendition of the old-timey classic that’s punctuated with plenty of whoopin’ and hollerin’ before fading out on an extended percussive improv section with hints of jazz.

Almost 15 years after the release of their first album, The Ebony Hillbillies continue their mission to educate and inspire, fusing the sonic textures of the past with contemporary music elements and socially-relevant lyrics.  5 Miles From Town lives up to the legacy created by the Manhattan-based band and offers a fresh take on the sound that listeners love.

Reviewed by Chloe McCormick

 

View review February 2nd, 2018

Delta Deep – East Coast Live

Delta Deep

Title: East Coast Live

Artist: Delta Deep

Label: Frontiers Music SRL

Formats: CD/DVD, Vinyl

Release date: January 26, 2018

 

 

Delta Deep is an intriguing band from the standpoint of personnel. When members include guitarist Phil Collen from Def Leppard and bassist Robert DeLeo from Stone Temple Pilots, one expects to hear a hard rock band. However, the inclusion of Memphis-born, jazz-trained drummer Forrest Robinson, who has played with musicians ranging from Joe Sample to Victor Wooten, and vocalist Debbi Blackwell-Cook, who has sung background vocals with Michael Bublé and Gregory Hines, expands our expectations. In looking at the collective achievements of the group’s personnel, it is evident why the band’s website proclaims them an “All Star Group.”

Though Delta Deep’s members might have disparate backgrounds, they come together in a seamless fashion on their new CD/DVD release East Coast Live. Fittingly, this blues-influenced rock album includes a cover version of Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog,” one of the defining songs from one of the original heavy, blues-influenced rock bands. Hearing the soulful vocals of Debbi Blackwell-Cook, it becomes readily apparent why this band has been previously described as “Aretha Franklin & Chaka Khan performing with Led Zeppelin.” As for most of the remaining tracks, a better comparison might be Aretha Franklin performing with Van Halen, since the majority have the feel of a hard rock album from the 1980s.

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Though most of the tracks on East Coast Live are bluesy in feel, structurally there are few examples of the 12-bar blues form. The bluesiest songs are the B. B. King standard, “Rock Me Baby,” and the first single from the album, “Bless These Blues.” Musically, the latter song sounds like a high-powered version of “Catfish Blues,” which has been recorded by many musicians, but most notably Muddy Waters and Jimi Hendrix.

“Treat Her Like Candy” is perhaps the most refreshing track, as well as the most soulful. “Shuffle Sweet,” a hard-driving rock tune, brings to mind heavier bands such as King’s X.  The best example of a slow blues song on the album is “Whiskey,” though a close study of the chord changes and form reveals it’s just masquerading as blues. Nevertheless, diehard blues fans will likely appreciate this tune more than any other.

Blues-influenced hard rock is hardly a new development, but the addition of a female vocalist with roots outside of the rock tradition contributes to Delta Deep’s unique flavor. East Coast Live is chock-full of soulful singing, flashy blues guitar licks, and phenomenal drumming—and the fact that it captures a live performance definitely adds to its allure. In short, the album is capable of engaging a broad range of listeners; and even the Stone Temple Pilots and Def Leppard fans that are drawn to this album should be pleasantly surprised.

Reviewed by Joel Roberts

 

View review February 2nd, 2018

Project Mama Earth

Project Mama Earth
Title: Project Mama Earth

Artist: Project Mama Earth

Label: Provogue

Formats: CD, Vinyl, streaming

Date: November 10th, 2017

 

 

In June of 2017, five world renowned musicians came together to embark on a bold new project with no songs and no plan, but by the end of ten days they had completed a masterpiece. Both the group and their debut EP bear the name Project Mama Earth. Band members include Nitin Sawhney on guitar, Jonathan Joseph on drums, Étienne M’Bappé on bass, Jonathan Shorten on Keys, and the executive producer and lead singer, Joss Stone.

According to Stone, the idea for the project was brought to her by drummer Jonathan Joseph, who wanted to create a project based around the African bikutsi rhythms from Cameroon. In his words, “…let’s all come together and make some music with this rhythm in it.”

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Joseph and Stone have performed together since 2003 when he was drafted to accompany the young British singer on her debut album, The Soul Sessions. As they began working together to assemble their team, the choices seemed obvious. Joseph enlisted his longtime friend, Cameroonian multi-instrumentalist Étienne M’Bappé, who has played with acts spanning from John McLaughlin to Robert Ford. His heritage, rooted in rhythms, was a style they wished to tap into. That, and M’Bappé’s his shear musicality made him an obvious choice.

Next they contacted Jonathan Shorten., who produced much of Stone’s music, as well as some of the biggest hits for multi-platinum selling artist Gabrielle and other British artists.  Last but not least was guitarist Nitin Sawhney. Described as a one man musical tidal wave, he’s collaborated with musical legends like Paul McCartney and Sting, as well as the London Symphony Orchestra. These musicians all came together at Joss Stone’s home studio in Devon, England where their ten day adventure began.

Project Mama Earth contains six songs and five interludes, all centered around nature and the bikutsi rhythm. The first song on the album, “Mama Earth,” begins smoothly, prominently displaying the driving bikutsi groove as Joss Stone enters with her trade mark R&B sound and a nature inspired lyric. Stone explains that she wanted to keep her creative process separate from the four instrumentalists:  “I didn’t have any input in the music because I didn’t want to affect it— or it’d all come out hip-hop and R&B.” So when the instrumentalists finished, they would bring the song to Stone, and with the help of her mother, they wrote the lyrics and melodies.

Stone seems to stick to the theme of personifying the earth throughout the album. In an interview with Billboard magazine, she explained that her lyrics where inspired by what Mother Nature might say to her to her inhabitants if she could speak. This is especially apparent in the fourth song on the album, “What Would She Say,” as Stone speaks from the stand point of the earth, with the the lyric:

Do you think I would cry if I run out of gold?
I’d blink more than an eye if I get that old.
Well maybe you think I forget how to cleanse my soul.
As if humans could change or slow down
Only the arrogant truly know
I suppose I could just shake them off and let them go.

It’s so amazing that Project Mama Earth was competed within such a short period of time. One can only hope this musical team of Jonathan Joseph, Étienne M’Bappé, Jonathan Shorten, Nitin Sawhney, and Joss Stone will come together again to grace us with their art.

Reviewed by Jared Griffin

 

 

View review February 2nd, 2018

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