This month’s top picks include a new recording of Florence Price’s Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 performed by Er-Gene Kahng, and “American Songster” Dom Flemons’ collaboration with Smithsonian Folkways on an exploration of the music of Black Cowboys.
April is Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), with April 30th designated as International Jazz Appreciation Day. Jazz and social justice is the contextual lens for JAM this year, showcasing the progressive ways jazz continues to play a transformative role with respect to the civil rights of individuals from multiple facets of society. The jazz collaborations of both Wynton Marsalis Septet’s United We Sing and Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock & Jack DeJohnette‘s After The Fall demonstrate the excellence that prevails when groups work collectively towards a common goal. Don’t Play with Love released by the John L. Nelson Project showcases the formidable talents of Prince’s father, John L. Nelson, both of whom fostered positive inspiration in others through their artistic legacies. Perseverance plays a central role in Sy Smith’s Sometimes a Rose Will Grow in Concrete and saxophonist Lekecia Benjamin’s Rise Up, as both albums urge continuance despite the cost. Young Street by bassist Reggie Young rounds out this category with a blend of jazz and funk.
As a scholar specializing in the art songs of Florence Price, it is always a special treat to spend time with her instrumental music! The recent release of Er-Gene Kahng (violinist) and the Janaček Philharmonic’s recording of Florence Price’s Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 is representative of the growing buzz surrounding the works of Florence Price. Since the University of Arkansas Special Collections’ acquisition of formerly unknown manuscripts in Price’s hand, scholars and musicians have flocked to this diverse and expressive repertory.
The liner notes of the recording, provided by renowned scholar of American orchestral music Douglas Shadle, provide a thorough musical analysis. Therefore, I will focus on the particularities of this recording as well as some interesting semiotic aspects.
Er-Gene Kahng’s virtuosity is on full display in her sensitive execution of the alternately cantabile and brilliant style melodies of Violin Concerto No. 2 (track one). I am immediately struck by the timbral variance that the Janaček Philharmonic achieves under the guidance of conductor Ryan Cockerham. The tumultuous and heroic final section avoids a colorless and bombastic fortissimo in favor of a broadness and majesty. This can be attributed to the sensitive shaping of phrases by the string sections, and the stunning ensemble of the woodwinds and brass. While Shadle refers to Price’s first violin concerto as “an episodic rhapsody on a sweeping opening theme first stated by the orchestral strings,” a similar approach is evident in Violin Concerto No. 2. The rhapsodic tone can be attributed to the abandonment of a clear-cut sonata form in favor of introducing additional motivic material. Price displays a preference for introducing multiple motives of differing contour and harmonic complexity and reconciling the material with a loose recapitulation that serves the purpose of concluding the piece in a way that is harmonically closed. However, the return of the A section is usually not a verbatim quotation, and often riffs on or further develops themes introduced in the exposition.
Given the time period of the composer’s milieu (1888-1953), as well as the pressure from the Harlem Renaissance bourgeoisie for “Negro uplift,” it may be expected that Price would include quotations of Negro Spirituals in this piece. After all, Alain Locke lauded Harry Burleigh’s concert spirituals, and favored William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony. As Shadle states, “Under the influence of Dvorak and, later, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, younger musicians like J. Rosamond Johnson and Harry Burleigh continued to theorize about how to best incorporate the spirituals into the living musical practices of African Americans.” I, along with Shadle, note the way in which Price enfolds some of the signifiers of the Spiritual (blue notes, layered polyphony, and pentatonicism for example) in her orchestral pieces like the Symphony in E minor without directly quoting the spirituals. Rather, she creates an organic synthesis of her conservatory training and her roots in Afrological music. In a class essay quoted by Shadle, Price states, “We are even beginning to believe in the possibility of establishing a national musical idiom. We are waking up to the fact pregnant with possibilities that we already have a folk music in the Negro spirituals—music which is potent, poignant, compelling. It is simple heart music, therefore powerful.” This synthesis is not one in which her blackness is sublimated within the context of a European idiom; instead she uses her wide-ranging reference points to create markedly expressive works that speak to her own narrative.
Price’s organ training comes through in her homophonic treatment of the orchestra as the violinist plays in a brilliant style that evokes bird song, and later, flowing water. The musical space this choice creates is evocative of a pastoral topic, but she evokes the Sturm und Drang topoi of Brahms and even Tchaikovsky when the tempo increases and the brass makes an entrance toward the end. All in all, Price’s prowess as a composer of expressive musical narrative is on full display in the second symphony. Kahng’s clear, technical, yet expressive playing serves to further the composer’s intent.
Violin Concerto No. 1 (track 2) was composed in 1939 and takes on a more traditional form. Once again, Kahng shocks and amazes as she expertly performs a strikingly chromatic florid cadenza in the tempo moderato. I reached out to Kahng to discern if she composed any portion of the cadenzas, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that every pitch was notated by the composer! Price includes challenging double stops that almost emulate the rustic color of fiddle or banjo. The cadenzas dovetail seamlessly into the pentatonic opening theme. The call and response topic appears as alternating statements between the string orchestra, solo violin, a flute singing a bird song, and even a brief brass choir. The piece ends with aural fireworks featuring impressively brisk arpeggios in the solo violin as the harmony ventures chromatically to distant keys. The final codetta is a con brio exclamation of the solo violin caller and the orchestral respondent in unison. This moment is reminiscent of a communal outburst during a black church service, but within the harmonic context of a Eurocentric musical construct.
The second movement, Andante, displays more of a spiritual topic, passing the pentatonic central themes from the first movement to the violin in its most vocal register—the middle. The orchestra, as Shadle notes, is more homophonic here, emulating a hymn and sensitively shaping this cantabile movement with gradual arcs of mounting emotional intent. The violin again has moments of cadenza, but considerably shorter than those at the beginning. A second motive in minor pentatonic appears in the violin, accompanied by sighs from the orchestra that emit the affect of the sorrow songs. The greater involvement of woodwinds coupled with the sinuous treatment of melodic contour emulates the stillness of a dusk in Arkansas—the composer’s birthplace. This spiritual lullaby comforts the listener, but the calm is interrupted by a tempestuous final movement.
The third movement is a tour-de-force that demands an impressive level of breadth from the orchestra. The first cadenza wanders so chromatically, that it’s difficult to discern a harmonic direction. However, the piece is held together by the fraught topical material meeting with a gallop-like pentatonic theme. If it were more syncopated, this section would sound like a juba dance or cakewalk. The more sonorous pentatonic theme—carrying with it the signification of the spiritual—exists in an oppositional relationship with a more chromatic counter-topic. The piece ends with a flourish, satisfying the listener with the confluence of the orchestra and the violin in the pentatonic theme.
My brief correspondence with violinist Er-Gene Kahng was overwhelmingly positive. In her response, Kahng displayed a keen awareness of the importance of the project in question, and an overarching respect for Price’s talent:
“It was, as you can imagine, a thrilling experience to perform these concertos! It undeniably stretched me as a violinist and artist; without being able to have an actual conversation about the concerto, I developed a closer relationship to the manuscript. Because of this pioneering aspect with regard to both the work being rediscovered and its fully orchestrated performance being its first to our knowledge, I found myself asking performative questions I never thought I’d ever find myself asking. There was a freshness that created a welcome jolt to my normal methods of interpreting works (and developed my skills as an interpretive artist), and the simple pleasure of discovering something new is always significant, valuable, and emotionally fulfilling for me. I feel more complete now having had the opportunity to interpret, share and perform Florence Price’s violin concertos.”
The significance of this recording cannot be over-emphasized. The rising popularity of Florence Price’s music, as evidenced by Micaela Baranello’s recent New York Times article, bodes well for a future classical music scene that dispenses with the historic myth of white male compositional supremacy (both Er-Gene Kahng and I were interviewed for this article). The Fort Smith Symphony in Arkansas is embarking on a recording project of the Price symphonies, and the late Rae Linda Brown’s biography of Florence Price is awaiting release.
Young scholars such as myself are increasingly engaging with works by composers on the margins. I met a few scholars at last year’s American Musicological Society conference who will be exploring Price’s violin and organ works. My forthcoming dissertation will present readings of Price’s art songs through critical lenses including musical semiotics, black feminist inquiry, and Henry Louis Gates’s theory of signifyin(g). It is my hope that interest in Florence Price will lead to a movement that increases visibility of black classical musicians—particularly composers. It is a tragedy that the prolific black writer and composer Olly Wilson recently passed and I have never encountered his name in my schooling. It is a shame that in 2016 the Metropolitan Opera staged its first opera by a female composer (L’amour de loin by Kaija Saariaho) but has never staged an opera by an African American composer.
Until the margins are no more, we must continue to question the segregated concert music hall. Perhaps by decolonizing the lens through which we view the term “American music,” we can begin to divorce ourselves from the white canonical three “B” composers (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, etc.) and welcome in some new “B’s”—Regina Baiocchi, Margaret Bonds, Brittney Boykin and countless others.
Black cowboys may not be the first thing that comes to mind when the Wild West is mentioned, but they were prevalent and left an undeniable impact on the development of the American West. Following the end of the Civil War in the late 1860s, thousands of newly-freed African Americans moved westward to start new lives. Some chose the grueling and often dangerous path of becoming a cowboy, an occupation in which work ethic mattered more than skin color. These pioneers worked long, hard days alongside Mexican vaqueros, Native Americans, and white cowboys and often turned to song for comfort on the trails.
The newly released Black Cowboys featuring co-founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Dom Flemons (aka “The American Songster”), places these often forgotten pioneers of the Old West in the spotlight. Produced by Flemons and Dan Sheehy for Smithsonian Folkways as part of its African American Legacy series, the album pays tribute to the music, poetry, and complex history of these cowboys. The accompanying 40 page booklet includes essays by Flemons (on the cowboy’s music) and Jim Griffith (on the history of Black cowboys), as well as detailed notes on each track complemented by many archival photographs.
In addition to Flemons, who performs on all tracks (vocals, 6-string guitar, resonator guitar, 4-string banjo, cow “rhythm” bones), backing musicians include Alvin “Youngblood” Hart (12-string guitar), Jimbo Mathus (mandolin, kazoo, harmonica), Stu Cole (upright bass), Brian Farrow (fiddle, upright bass, vocals), Dante Pope (cow “rhythm” bones, vocals, snare drum), and Dan Sheehy (guitarrón). Together, these musicians create a rich instrumental background for the lyrics.
Many of the songs on Black Cowboys are traditional tunes arranged and performed by Flemons, such as “John Henry y los vaqueros,” which highlights instruments with roots in African American minstrel shows like the fiddle and cow “rhythm” bones. Another track arranged by Flemons, “Black Woman,” is a field holler collected in the 1930s that has themes of ranching and leaving behind loved ones. Although it isn’t a traditional cowboy song, the song honors the thousands of African American women who helped develop the West.
From Southwestern cowboy poems like Gail Gardner’s 1917 “Tyin’ Knots in the Devil’s Tail” to Jack Thorp’s traditional cowboy tune “Little Joe the Wrangler,” the album also includes songs written by actual cowboys in the early 20th century, offering a rare look into the post-Civil War cowboy’s life.
Other tracks were newly composed by Flemons to pay homage to notable historical figures. For example, “Steel Pony Blues” is about Deadwood Dick, sometimes called “the greatest Black cowboy in the Old West,” who later became a Pullman porter, while “One Dollar Bill” is a tribute to legendary rodeo rider Bill Pickett who invented the sport of bulldogging. “He’s a Lone Ranger” recalls the life of Bass Reeves, the first African American U.S. Marshall.
In the words of professor and author Mike Searles (quoted in the liner notes), “many people see the West as the birthplace of America . . . if they understand that African Americans were cowboys, even Native Americans were cowboys, Mexicans were cowboys, it really opens the door for us to think about America as a multiethnic, multiracial place.” Black Cowboys creates a sonic portrait of a more diverse American West, expanding our knowledge through its varied collection of songs and poems by and about African American cowboys.
Growing up in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood, Lakecia Benjamin moved away from home at the young age of 14 to attend La Guardia High School of Music & Art, where she got her start playing jazz. Since then, Benjamin has become one of the most sought after saxophonists in the music industry, playing with jazz giants like Clark Terry and Reggie Workman as well as arranging and leading the horn sections of superstars like Macy Gray, Alicia Keys, and even Stevie Wonder. Now, as she releases her third album, Rise Up featuring her group Soul Squad, Benjamin reminds us once again of her prowess as a songwriter and band leader.
Benjamin uses this album to send a message about moving through life’s many challenges, opening with the funky title track “March On,” which begins with a quote from Les Brown: “You can either live your dreams or live your fears.” This song features a fun and motivational rap from Benjamin as well as a powerful vocal from jazz singer China Moses. “March On” speaks towards the idea of moving through the obstacles life puts in your way, with the lyric: “We March On to find victory / We March On to find the peace we seek / We March On to reclaim our being / We March On! We March On! We March On!”
“Take Back” is another truly spectacular track. Though entirely instrumental, this jazz fusion tune is meant to convey a story of taking back control over your life and reclaiming your destiny. With its driving rock groove and catchy and rhythmic horn riff you can’t help but move with the music.
Rise Up includes other phenomenal new original songs from Benjamin, including “Cornbread,” “Survivor” and “On The One.” It’s such a fun album that it’s sure to appeal to a wide range of jazz and soul fans alike.
John L. Nelson, best known as the father of Prince, was a formidable jazz musician and prolific composer in his own right. While he frequently collaborated with his famous son, Nelson’s own compositions were usually set aside. When he died in 2001 at the age of 85, Nelson’s eldest daughter Sharon discovered the trove of music and began to formulate plans for a tribute album. Now, in commemoration of her father’s 100th birthday, her project has finally come to fruition with Don’t Play With Love. As Sharon L. Nelson explains:
“Our dad was a loving, caring, hardworking father and a prolific jazz musician most notably known as the father of the musical genius, our brother Prince. Our dad wrote and composed many songs, but they were never recorded until now. He was Prince’s musical inspiration, and this project is very special because it was recorded in Paisley Park and guided by the spirits of my father and brother Prince.”
To perform her father’s works, Sharon turned to notable jazz drummer Louis Hayes, who just happens to be John Nelson’s nephew. Hayes brought together an all-star group for the recording session, a.k.a. The John L. Nelson Project: Richard Germanson (piano), Dezron Douglas (bass), Vincent Herring (sax), Jeremy Pelt (trumpet), and Hayes on drums. The group laid down all seven tracks at Paisley Park studio, the first sessions to take place there since the death of Prince.
Featured on the album are seven compositions written by Nelson primarily in the 1970s, all showcasing his penchant for beautiful melodies. Opening with the uptempo “Lucky Am I,” the band immediately displays a high level of energy and synergy, as though they’ve been playing this chart for years. Herring takes over the melody on the sensuous title track, “Don’t Play With Love,” his sax accompanied by string quartet. A throwback to an earlier era, the song fits perfectly with the music video for the single which uses a scene from Prince’s film Under the Cherry Moon.
Another highlight is “Lonely,” a slow ballad featuring Germanson, who employs subtle shading on the piano, teasing out the upper register melody over a sparse accompaniment by Douglas on bass. The album closes on a funkier note with “Step Back,” featuring an exceptional performance with band members tossing solos back and forth before culminating on a final blast of the trumpet.
Don’t Play With Love is not just a labor of love—it’s actually a terrific album showcasing John Nelson’s talent at composing intricate and compelling works, all of which are brilliantly performed by the ensemble. This project will appeal to jazz aficionados as well as any Prince fan interested in knowing more about the icon’s musical background. If you’ve ever wondered what spilled out of the cabinet full of sheet music in the scene from Purple Rain, this album is for you!
As the title suggests, United We Swing: Best of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Galas is a compilation album of collaborations between Wynton Marsalis and major artists such as Ray Charles, Blind Boys of Alabama, Willie Nelson, John Legend, Lenny Kravitz, Natalie Merchant, Carrie Smith, and many others. Recorded between 2003 and 2007, these performances brought together artists from various genres with the sole purpose of presenting and promoting unity through music (swing). According to Marsalis, “On this record and in these recordings, we came together to affirm common roots, to celebrate diversity of our creativity, and to pass the reality of our best achievements on to our kids.” Renditions of songs such as “The Last Time,” “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town,” “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free,” among others, display not only the diverse musical genres, but also the diverse backgrounds of each performer.
United We Swing: Best of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Galas encapsulates the message of solidarity while presenting a positive image for future generations. I strongly recommend this album to anyone interested in promoting music as a unifying symbol in society.
Artist: Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock, Jack DeJohnette
Formats: 2-CD, Digital
Release date: March 2, 2018
ECM’s new release, After The Fall, features a live performance from a 1998 concert by world renowned jazz pianist, Keith Jarrett—his first time on stage following a two year hiatus. Recorded at a concert hall in Newark, New Jersey, Jarrett is accompanied by fellow members of the Standards Trio: double-bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette. This album captures their musical interactions and overall chemistry of the Standards Trio.
As listeners, we are treated to renditions of well-known bebop standards such as “Scrapple From The Apple” and “Bouncin’ With Bud,” as well as selections from the American Songbook including “The Masquerade Is Over” and “I’ll See You Again,” among others. The trio paces themselves during this performance, but there is still a simmering intensity and synergy that is heard throughout the entire album. From Jarrett’s lush harmonies and virtuosic melodic lines to DeJohnette’s light touch and rhythmic devices, coupled with Peacock’s supportive bass lines and warm tone, the expressive sound of the trio is on full display.
A notable mention is the trio’s performance of John Coltrane’s “Moments Notice.” On this tune, Jarrett stretches out, demonstrating his pianistic capabilities and command of the jazz vocabulary, and is followed by a high-energy and syncopated drum solo by DeJohnette. Another highlight is Jarrett’s lyrical interpretation of the melody to Victor Young and Edward Heyman’s composition, “When I Fall In Love,” while being supported by the sensitive accompaniment of Peacock and DeJohnette.
After The Fall, although referred to as an “experiment” by Jarrett, is in this reviewer’s opinion a demonstration of the effortless mastery, maturity, and professionalism of seasoned musicians who are not only pillars of jazz today, but also bearers of the jazz tradition.
Long hailed as the hardest working artist in underground soul, Sy Smith’s fifth album, Sometimes a Rose Will Grow in Concrete, proves once again she is a force to be reckoned with in both the underground and outer-ground music scene. This release is the first album completely written and produced by this multitalented musician, featuring her slick synth bass playing and lithe piano keying along with her incomparable soprano voice and signature vocal arrangements.
Smith’s voice shines through on this album, as she employs various techniques that she is known for and some she seems to honor straight out of 1990s R&B. The title song, “Sometimes a Rose will Grow in Concrete,” teases us with a small sample of her amazing whistle register, bringing it out at the end of the song as a parting gift. Lyrically, this song speaks to the current time, as its inclusion of lyrics such as “Sometimes we get no answers but still the questions will remain…sometimes a rose will grow in concrete, sometimes a caged bird will sing” reflects an activist tone regarding American society. Carrying a strong pen, Smith reveals victories won and battles still being fought as she provides a powerful, if haunting, ode to people who come through the harshest of trials and still bloom as beautifully as roses.
Smith’s continuing penchant for go-go is present in this album with the song, “Now and Later.” The funk-inspired beat interspersed with a cool rhythm-and-blues sound reflects back to Smith’s genesis in DC with her former go-go band “In Tyme.” “Camelot,” one of the smoothest contemporary R&B ballads, reinvigorates that 1990s Janet Jackson-esque sound, complete with multiple background vocals, string instrumentals and long-winded notes held and released over and again in differing registers.
Providing us with never-ending, smooth stylings that both echo yesterday’s R&B and set the standards for contemporary soul, Sy Smith’s Sometimes a Rose Will Grow in Concrete proves that Smith herself is that enduring rose whose presence grows sweeter and stronger with each new release.
Early March brought a strong debut album by Seattle’s Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio, featuring guitarist Jimmy James, drummer David McGraw, and of course Lamarr on B-3. This group performs standard organ trio fare, and has obviously honed its own approach by careful listening to masters of the format.
There are two sides to the organ trio format, one represented by bebop-heavy shredders like Joey Defrancesco and another more gospel-inflected soulful camp, influenced by players like Jimmy McGriff. Lamarr’s group decidedly falls into the latter, a detail that would be noticeable from a passing glance at Close But No Cigar’s tracklist. Tunes include “Little Booker T” and “Memphis,” both reminiscent of the legendary soul organist Booker T Jones’s work for the Stax label, as well as “Al Greenery,” a number that approximates the gospel sound of the titular Rev. Green. Here’s a studio performance of the title track:
Lamarr and company are very good at imitating the grooves of famous musicians, but the group has more than imitative works up its collective sleeves. Each tune on this record is drenched in hot buttered soul, as culinary-themed groovers like “Between the Mayo and the Mustard” and “Raymond Brings the Greens” would suggest. These tracks are riff-based organ jams that feature not only Lamarr’s skillful mastery of the percussive qualities of his instrument, but also skillful manipulation of two chord vamps by James and McGraw and some downright delicious soloing by James (including what sounds like a quote from David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World” on the latter).
Organ trios are all about timbre, combining three instruments with myriad layers of overtones, and this group features great tones all around. It’s impossible to beat the rich sound of Lamarr’s B3 contrasting James’s biting guitar tone over McGraw’s colorful palate on the drum kit. No player appears to aim for virtuosic soloing. Rather, the group simmers its grooves, entering and exiting smoothly—the solos end but the jams go on.
The record concludes with a retro-soul rendition of Dionne Warwick’s “Walk on By” that sounds like it could have been recorded by the legendary Stax studio band itself. All in all, the Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio doesn’t make any radical changes to the organ trio format, but Close But No Cigar is a worthy entry in this always listenable genre.
London musician L.A. Salami created a buzz through a string of EPs leading up to his acclaimed 2016 debut album Dancing with Bad Grammar. Now he returns with his second full-length project, The City of Bootmakers, which continues his folksy style of social commentary.
Born Lookman Adekunle Salami (yes, L.A. Salami is his real name), the singer-songwriter grew up in a household that never paid any particular attention to music, and he didn’t learn to play guitar until receiving one for his 21st birthday. But he was always attracted to literature and seems to have a special affinity for Welsh poet Dylan Thomas and icons of the ‘50s and ‘60s, including Beat Generation authors Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, and folk musicians Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. A dapper nonconformist, Salami has been likened to a modern day troubadour, channeling his experiences into sharply honed lyrics, sung over lush acoustic-oriented alt-rock. All of these characteristics come to the fore in his most recent video single, “Jean Is Gone,” included on the album as a bonus track:
Though Salami is primarily a vocalist and guitarist, he occasionally switches over to harmonica, Rhodes and, according to the album credits, “ambulance.” His backing band, the Bootmakers, includes Simon Nilsson (guitar, bass, piano, organ), Petter Grevelius (guitar, bass, organ, vibes), and Sean Beam (drums, organ), otherwise known as Francobollo, a UK-based Swedish rock band. The project was recorded in Berlin with Robbie Moore (The Mores), known for his retro sound styled after ’60s- and ’70s guitar pop with rich vocal harmonies—the sound permeating The City of Bootmakers.
Easing into the album with the intro “Sunrise,” Salami evokes a Shakespearean-era street scene with a jangly tune reminiscent of an organ grinder. As the music grows louder, a group of revelers greet the dawn with Salami in the lead, inviting the audience to experience the wonders of “the troubadour”—obviously relishing the moniker he’s been assigned in the press. After the revelers fade into the distance, the band kicks into the first single from the album, “Generation (Lost),” a song about “feeling lost during the journey of finding yourself.” Addressing the anxiety of his generation, Salami croons: “I’m penniless, but I’ve sold my soul / I’m restless, but I’ve nowhere to go / Generation L, lost in lust / Generation L, laborious.”
Not shying away from political themes, on “Terrorism! (The Isis Crisis)” Salami sings, “I heard that an ancient book, inspired him to die / The Jihad source decoded wrong, enforces that old line / But when words contort in certain tones, Is it the preacher, scribe or one guy that does the crime?” Other songs, though seemingly lighthearted in character, veer into topics ranging from gentrification to immigration, deportation, and discrimination. But the cheerful pop in major keys and driving 4/4 rhythms can become a bit tiresome, making one wish Salami would break away and dive into deeper and darker territory befitting his themes. That’s why “I Need Answers” is such a welcome departure with its discordant melodies and angst-ridden lyrics as Salami struggles to navigate a path through life.
The album concludes on a similar note with “What Is This?” Existential thoughts become mired in practicalities as Salami sings, “Preachers remind you that the end is coming, but the rent dates comin’, so the end can wait – what is this? What is this?!”
L.A. Salami’s approach to songwriting reflects his artistic bent and roots performing spoken-word poetry. The City of Bootmakers is a fine showcase for this philosopher poet, with lyrics that dig deep into life’s inequalities and oppression, yet are delivered in a manner that offers hope for the future.
The Reverend Shawn Amos is back at it again, preaching his brand of blues on his latest, The Reverend Shawn Amos Breaks It Down. His sophomore album, The Reverend Shawn Amos Loves You, showed us that the Rev had our best interests at heart, and this trend of his continues on his latest offering. Son of Wally Amos, the first African American talent agent for William Morris in addition to being the creator of Famous Amos Chocolate Chip Cookies, Reverend Shawn Amos has been an ordained minister with the Universal Life Church, an A&R Executive at Rhino Entertainment and vice president of A&R at Shout! Factory. He discovered blues while attending NYU film school, spending his summers tracing down the southern places in Peter Guralnick’s Feel Like Going Home trilogy from which Amos drew his initial blues inspiration.
The nine-song set includes five original songs, two inspired covers, and a three track “Freedom Suite” that rolls out like a Sunday Passion play. Amos was obviously inspired by the tremendous turmoil and social unrest around the world today in his songwriting, yet digging deeper into the lyrics reveals clues of admitted recent hardships in his home life. The result is an album that strikes a delicate balance between capturing personal challenges while capitalizing on the zeitgeist of this critical time in history.
The album opens with the early morning confessional “Moved,” followed by the first of his new freedom songs, “2017.” This classic soul groove in the style of Curtis Mayfield and the Staple Singers was recorded at Royal Studios in Memphis. Amos is joined by Al Green’s backing band, the HI Rhythm Section, along with a string arrangement from Chris Anderson and vocals from the Masqueraders. The cornerstone lyric is a simple mandate: “hate and fear ain’t no vaccine, we’ve got to think about what our children’s eyes have seen in the year 2017.” The next song, “Hold Hands” is an Amos-led congregational plea for peace that features Hammond B3 from Peter Adams.
The Freedom Suite officially begins with track 5, which is an a cappella reading of Uncle Tom’s prayer. This pays homage to the Freedom Singers founder Cordell Hull Reagon, who first recorded the powerful civil rights song in the early 1960s. Amos then offers another side of his pulpit in “Does My Life Matter,” an expansion on Booker T. Washington’s words and intent. The fiery funk of “(We’ve Got To) Come Together” functions as an energetic admonishment, and the closing track, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding,” serves as a final alter call for the album and its audience.
The Reverend Shawn Amos Breaks It Down, as an album of timely songs, not only furthers Amos’ mission statement, but also stands as a landmark artistic achievement for his career as a bluesman of purpose.
AJ Ghent, hailing from Fort Pierce, Florida, has music literally running through his veins. His great uncle, Willie Eason, is the creator of the “sacred steel” tradition—a style of pedal-steel guitar playing that’s unique to certain African American Pentecostal churches—and his grandfather, Henry Nelson, is the founder of the “sacred steel” rhythmic guitar style. With role models like these, it’s no wonder Ghent wore out his father’s sacred steel CDs by the age of twelve. After high school, he and his wife, singer MarLa, packed up and moved to Atlanta, Georgia where soon after Ghent began a mentorship under the legendary Colonel Bruce Hampton, one of the original founders of Atlanta’s Hampton Grease Band. Gaining experience with Hampton’s band set the stage for Ghent’s subsequent career moves, including being “true to himself” as Hampton advised.
Ghent’s newest release, The Neo Blues Project, is a study in just that. The entire album is something different altogether—a musical fusion of blues, steel guitar, and rock that takes art and skill to master. But that’s something that Ghent has spent his whole life perfecting, along with his custom built 8-string lap steel hybrids. The offering weighs in at just six tracks, but don’t let its size fool you. This album packs a solid punch right where it’s necessary to keep the music in your head long after the last chord fades.
On his rock anthem “Power,” Ghent offers a track to fuel a revolution: “I’m gonna wait it out, ‘til my change comes / and I’m gonna pray, it won’t be long / ‘cause I’ve been tempted and I’ve been tried / and I’m a soldier ‘til I die / so you can bring it on, all your pain / you know why? ‘cause it’s a revolution comin’”
Combining his own style with elements of rock guitarists like Jimi Hendrix and Lenny Kravitz, Ghent part-wails and part-steels his way through each song. “Long List Friend,” co-written with his wife, is a blues ballad all of us can relate to in our search for “The One.”
But if you are celebrating the letting go of a former love, check out the final track, “Gonna Rock.” Its meaning and intent are completely celebratory, to say the least. “Wash Ya Hair” is a fun, catchy tune that really brings all of Ghent’s diverse talents of vocalization and guitar-playing to the forefront: “Shake ‘em off, wash your hair, let it shine, Everywhere.”
Ghent’s compact project completes its mission. The Neo Blues Project entertains the senses, introduces us to the full range of Ghent’s talents, and gives us a foot-tapping, air-slamming trip into the world of blues rock in legendary style. If this is Ghent being true to himself, I personally can’t wait for anything this talented artist has to offer us.
I must come clean—next to trumpet, the bass is my second favorite instrument. So I also must admit, I was unfamiliar with Reggie Young. When I think of bass players, I think of Jaco Pastorious, Stanley Clarke, Louis Johnson, Larry Graham, Victor Wooten, Will Lee, Sir Paul McCartney. Reggie Young, where have you been hiding, my man?
Hailing from New York, Young is a Grammy Award winning session bassist who has performed with the likes of Lenny Kravitz, Alicia Keys, Paul Shaffer, Stevie Wonder, Will.I.Am, and Reuben Studdard. His latest project, Young Street, is funk with a touch of jazz, rock, soul and even Bazilian bossa nova.
Young Street opens with the title cut featuring Young on bass, Garnett Walters on the B3, and Bill Hollerman on horns. I’m certain this track made the cut on urban jazz radio. I personally enjoy when an artist can step out of their comfort zone and throw a curve ball at you. The track “Naima” is just that—a composition by John Coltrane that would intimidate some. Not Reggie Young. He goes in on it, not to one up the great Trane, but more to show that he’s not a one trick pony. Speaking of which, you can find Young singing over his bass riffs on the funky “Alright With Me” and the lush strings on “Magic.”
Reggie Young has accomplished great deal even if he’s not a household name. No more hiding Reggie, I know where to find you now.
They Call Me Mud, the newest release from Mud Morganfield, is one of those albums on which a musician seems to truly come into his own. While the legacy of his father, Muddy Waters, shouldn’t—and very possibly can’t—be extracted from Morganfield’s blues MO, this album showcases his own unique style. Morganfield, after all, came of age in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when music had already evolved from his father’s era of jazz and blues into a world where R&B, soul and Motown ruled. Combine his bass experience with Chicago bands of those eras to his already existing blues foundation and you have Morganfield’s own style at work.
The signature song, “They Call Me Mud,” is one of those songs that really allow the musicians to show what they love to do best, and in Morganfield’s case, that is his vocalized growl which commands immediate attention throughout. “Who’s Fooling Who?” features Studebacker John on harp and Mike Wheeler on guitar going toe-to-toe. Morganfield also pays tribute to his father on the slide guitar blues “Howlin’ Wolf” and the shuffle “Can’t Get No Grindin’,” where all artists take a solo turn at the wheel. Morganfield and his daughter Lashunda provide a moving duet on “Who Loves You,” a song where Morganfield’s R&B inspiration grooves right in. The final selection, “Mud’s Groove,” is a jazzy instrumental enhanced by Bill Branch’s talents on harp, and is a perfect finale.
“I think it’s some of the best work I’ve ever done yet” proclaims Morganfield. “I feel that with the variety of material I have on here, people will get a chance to hear the other sides of my music.” The collection completely lives up to Morganfield’s claim. Regardless of whether you are an R&B, jazz, soul or blues fan, They Call Me Mud has something special and unforgettable for everyone.
Title: Stax Singles Vol. 4 – Rarities & The Best of the Rest
Label: Stax/Craft Recordings
Formats: 6-CD set, Digital
Release date: February 9, 2018
From the early days of the CD era, there has been a constant stream of reissues from the legendary Stax/Volt catalog. Three volumes (28 CDs total) of The Complete Stax/Volt Singles plus artist-specific box sets, plus a pile of compilation CDs and box sets. Not to mention the many individual album reissues, which often included extra singles and other tracks not on the original LPs. What is left in the vaults to compile into this new 6-CD box, issued in conjunction with Concord Music Group’s celebration of the 60th anniversary of Stax’s founding?
It turns out, not 6 discs worth of compelling music, but there are many interesting obscure gems lurking among a bunch of tunes that were forgotten for a reason. The set is also padded with familiar material such as Booker T. & The M.G.’s cuts already issued on the artists’ own box set, and slightly edited single versions of Big Star hits.
The set has a scattershot focus, which actually works to its benefit by offering interesting music to several audiences. Discs 1-3 are B sides of singles included in the first three massive “Complete Singles” boxes (which, it turns out, contain mostly A sides and not “complete” singles by the definition of both sides of a record). Compiled by Rob Bowman, author of Soulsville, U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records and co-producer of the first three sets, these discs probably contain the fewest of what the casual listener might consider dull duds. For the deep-diver, some of the sides are obscure enough to be sourced from dubs of scratchy old 45’s, meaning the master tapes are missing.
To Concord’s credit, they offer a detailed listing of the set’s contents, so consumers can decide for themselves if there is enough interesting material to justify the purchase price. If the music compels you, the physical product is recommended because the 76-page booklet provides much detail and context, plus some nice artist photos from the old Stax promotional files.
Which brings us to the other half of the box. Discs 4-6 cover Stax’s attempts to diversify its catalog from its southern-soul target market. The material is mined from sub-labels: Enterprise (pop and country), Hip (pop and rock), Ardent (rock), and the gospel imprints Chalice and The Gospel Truth. The booklet offers very detailed information about these labels, which will be of interest to the deep-divers and completists. In general, these efforts were not financially successful for Stax, but some of the music (particularly the Ardent albums released by Big Star) turned out to be widely influential and critically acclaimed.
Stax’s pop and country releases were obviously a mixed bag. If the “best” is collected here, there was a lot of dreck in the catalog. The rock offerings are more interesting, including the more rock-ish and psychedelic pop songs. The Memphis music scene of the 1960s and ‘70s had a unique take on rock, with both soul flavorings and a “garage” feel. It’s exciting and doesn’t sound manufactured. Likewise with the best of Stax’s pop productions—they don’t sound as plastic and disposable as much of the competing material that was churned out of NYC, L.A. and Detroit.
The best of the back three discs is #6, covering the gospel labels. In general, the arrangements and performances hue toward Stax’s soul sound and feel, of great benefit to Sunday’s music. The gospel passion is turned up a notch in the caldron of backbeat soul, creating great impact. It might have been a better idea to peel off this material into a separate Stax gospel compilation.
For the hardcore Stax fans, and for listeners deeply into American soul music of the ‘60s and ‘70s, there will be enough material in this set, plus the booklet text, to justify its place in your collection. For others, the appeal will depend on your curiosity and willingness to wade through a wide variety of artists, styles and genres.
Those with at least a passing interest in gospel music are likely familiar with electric guitar- wielding evangelist Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who quite unintentionally became known as “the godmother of rock & roll.” In fact, she will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this month in recognition of her wide ranging influence on rock music. Fewer, however, may be acquainted with the career of Marie Knight, aside from her brief partnership with Tharpe in the late 1940s which produced the hit songs “Up Above My Head” and “Didn’t It Rain.” Of course Knight’s career encompassed far more than her work with Tharpe. As a child she sang for COGIC congregations throughout the Northeast, went on to record with The Sunset Four, and enjoyed a successful solo career performing and recording gospel as well as R&B music.
Knight stopped singing professionally in 1980, but was lured back into the studio two decades later by Mark Carpentieri of M.C. Records, who asked her to record “Didn’t It Rain” for the Rosetta Tharpe tribute album,Shout, Sister, Shout(a companion to the book by Gayle Wald). She went on to record an album of Rev. Gary Davis songs for Carpentieri, who became her manager, and began touring once again. Regrettably, Knight’s newfound success was cut short in 2009 after suffering a stroke, and she died shortly thereafter.
The Gospel Truth Live is Carpentieri’s posthumous tribute to Knight. The album features gems culled from her performance at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts’ 2007 Gospel Fest, held at the Church Street Center in North Adams, MA. Knight was 87 at the time, one of the last living artists from the “Golden Age” of gospel.
After a lengthy standing ovation, Knight comes on stage and opens with Rev. Gary Davis’s 1935 classic “I Belong to the Band” with the audience enthusiastically clapping along. As the concert continues, Knight segues between the Rev. Davis classics she had recently recorded—“12 Gates to the City,” a rousing “I’ll Fly Away” that gets the audience fired up, and “I Am Light of This World”—and Rosetta Tharpe repertoire including “Beams of Heaven,” “Didn’t It Rain,” and “Up Above My Head.” Granted the latter, accompanied by pianist Dave Keyes, aren’t as lively as the original renditions recorded over 60 years earlier, but Knight still has a fine, powerful contralto voice, capable of leaping registers.
In between songs Knight offers a bit of storytelling and some powerful testifying, offering words of wisdom based on her lived experiences. It’s these short sermons and her engagement with the audience that makes The Gospel Truth Live so unique—that and the fact that it’s Knight’s last recorded performance. The gospel doesn’t live in songs alone, and the context provided by this live performance is most welcome indeed.
Memphis is a city known for its barbecue, rich musical heritage, and pride in being one-of-a-kind. This unique Memphis spirit is captured by twelve distinctly different tracks on Memphis Rent Party. The collection serves as a soundtrack for Grammy-winner Robert Gordon’s sixth book of the same title, Memphis Rent Party: The Blues, Rock & Soul in Music’s Hometown.
From a punk rock cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “Johnny Too Bad” to a bluesy collaboration between Luther Dickinson and Sharde Thomas, the album includes a wide variety of tracks that embrace the individuality of the Memphis music scene. Half of the tracks are drawn from unreleased material and the rest are a mix of covers and originals. Included are songs from barrelhouse piano player Mose Vinson, rock pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis, and the rockabilly-punk band Tav Falco’s The Panther Burns.
From modern day covers to a 1960s recording by pre-war blues musician Furry Lewis, Memphis Rent Party is a truly varied compilation. Robert Gordon’s book was published by Bloomsbury on March 6, 2018 and is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of Memphis’ entertainment scene—just be sure to listen along to the soundtrack as you read.
Ethnomusicologist Sandra Jean Graham, associate professor of music at Babson College, was introduced to spirituals and minstrelsy early in life, and throughout her career has published and presented extensively on the “multifaceted and extremely complex history of these genres.” Her new book, Spirituals and the Birth of a Black Entertainment Industry, is the culmination of her in-depth research and supplements previous articles and books on the topic, including Tim Brooks’ award winning Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry 1890-1919 (also part of the Music in American Life series).
Graham’s primary focus is on spirituals performed by jubilee troupes in post-Civil War America, “charting the spiritual’s journey from the private lives of slaves to the concert stage.” This includes the transition from folk spirituals (covered in chapter 1) to concert spirituals. Along the way, she unpacks issues of power and cultural authenticity in the white-controlled jubilee industry and within blackface minstrelsy performances, including Uncle Tom and plantation shows.
As Graham states in the conclusion (p. 263):
“To remember student jubilee singers [Fisk Jubilee Singers, etc.] at the expense of black minstrel performers and their parodies of camp meetings and spirituals, to valorize one and denigrate the other, imposes a hierarchy on the historical past that obscures the manifold contributions of black entertainers and reifies black folk culture as authentic to the black experience at the expense of fully engaging the diversity and complexity of that experience. Indeed, the very complexity that led black minstrels to engage with spirituals is at the crux of understanding the climate and conditions in which all performers of the era operated.”
Full disclosure: I received a copy of the book earlier this week and have only skimmed the surface, but very much look forward to delving deeper. Spirituals and the Birth of a Black Entertainment Industry will be crucial to anyone studying American music, especially those focused on the post-Civil War period through 1900, and of course anyone who studies African American music and history.
The freely available companion website contains links to 85 jubilee troupes with biographical information for each, lists of personnel and songs performed by selected groups, and excerpts from early recordings.
Following are additional albums released during March 2018—some will be reviewed in future issues of Black Grooves.
Blues, Folk, Country Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite: No Mercy In This Land (Anti/Epitaph)
Cary Bell: Harpslinger: The 1988 Album Remastered (JSP)
Coffey Anderson: Cowboy Style (digital)
Leadbelly: Masterworks Volumes 1 & 2 (Sunset Blvd.)
Little Freddie King: Fried Rice & Chicken (Orleans)
Muddy Waters: Live At Rockpalast (Made in Germany)
Roosevelt Collie: Exit 16 (GroundUp)
Funk, Rock, Pop, Electronic Detroit Rising: A Cosmic Jazz Funk Adventure (Downjazz)
Elaquent: Celebrate Life!
Lexsoul Dancemachine: Sunny Holiday In Lexico (Funk Embassy)
Matt Palmer: Get Lost (digital)
NoMBe: They Might’ve Even Loved Me (TH3RD BRAIN)
Oceans of Slumber: The Banished Heart (Century Media)
On High: Never Die
Young Fathers: Cocoa Sugar (Ninja Tune)
Zig Zag Power Trio: Woodstock Sessions Volume 9 (Woodstock Sessions)
Gospel, Christian Rap, CCM Brian Courtney Wilson: A Great Work (Motown Gospel)
Jonathan McReynolds: Make Room (eOne)
Snoop Dog: Presents Bible of Love (RCA Inspiration)
Tamesha Pruett-Ray: Beautiful Savior (TPR Music Group)
Jazz Adam Hawley: Double Vision (Kalimba Music)
Blue Lab Beats: Xover (All Points)
David Garfield: Jazz outside the Box (Creatchy)
David Liebman & John Stowell: Petite Fleur: The Music Of Sidney Bechet (Origin)
Greg Spero+Spirit Fingers: Spirit Fingers (Shanachie)
Hank Jones: in Copenhagen – Live at Jazzhaus Slukefter 1983 (Storyville)
Ivo Perelman & Matthew Shipp: Oneness (Leo)
Kurt Elling: The Questions (Okeh)
Lao Tizer Band: Songs from the Swinghouse (Lao Tizer Music)
Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Final Tour: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 6 (Columbia)
Pendletons: Funk Forever (Bastard Jazz)
Salim Washington: Dogon Revisited (Passin’ Thru)
Spirit Fingers: S/T (Shanachie)
Sun Ra: Of Abstract Dreams (Strut)
Terry Pollard: A Detroit Jazz Legend (Fresh Sound)
Victor Gould: Earthlings (Criss Cross)
R&B, Soul Adrian Daniel: Flawd (digital)
Ady Suleiman: Memories (Pemba)
Alexandra Burke: Truth Is (Decca)
August Greene (Common, Robert Glasper, Karriem Riggins): S/T (digital)
Barrence Whitfield & The Savages: Dig Everything! – The Early Rounder Albums (Ace)
Barrence Whitfield & the Savages: Soul Flowers of Titan (Bloodshot)
Best of the Charles Wright & The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band (Varese Sarabande)
Bettye LaVette: Things Have Changed (Verve)
Bobby V: Electrik (Independent Label Services)
Deva Mahal: Run Deep (Motema)
En Vogue: Electric Café (eOne)
Gizelle Smith: Ruthless Day (Jalapeno)
Jayme Shaye: Detoxic
Larry Crockett & The Funky Cherokees: Drum Love (Chaos)
Leon’s Creation: This Is the Beginning (reissue) (Acid Jazz)
Phyllis Dillon: One Life to Live (Real Gone Music)
PJ Morton: Gumbo Unplugged (Live)
R.LUM.R: Alterimage (PRMD)
Robert Lee Coleman: What’s Left (Music Makers)
Ronnie Wright: a.k.a. Bespeak (digital)
Ruben Studdard: Ruben Sings Luther (Seg Music)
Sister Sledge: An Introduction (Atlantic)
The Vogs: A Change Is Coming (Qsounds Recording)
Various: Eccentric Soul: The Saru Label (Numero Group)
Wilson Meadows: The Facts of Life
Xscape: Here For It (RedZone Ent.)
Z. Hill: That’s It! – The Complete Kent Recordings 1964-1968 (Kent)
Rap, Hip Hop Apollo Brown & Ghostface Killah: The Brown Tape (Mello Music)
Awate: Happiness (Quite Defiant)
Ball Greezy: Bae Day 2 (digital)
Bishop Nehru: Elevators: Act I & II (digital)
Black Milk: Fever (Mass Appeal)
Brian Fresco: Love Scars (Empire)
Camp Lo: On The Way Uptown & The Get Down Brothers (Vodka & Milk)
Chuck Strangers: Consumers Park (Nature Sounds)
Creek Boyz: 1-11 Mixtape
Don Trip: Christopher (digital)
First Degree The D. E.: Black Bane II, Underestimated Villain (Fahrenheit)
Flipp Dinero: GuaLa See GuaLa (digital)
Fredro Starr: Firestarr 2 (Mad Money)
Herbaliser: Bring Out the Sound (BBE)
Stalin: Avatar (Livewire)
Larry June: You’re Doing Good (digital) (Warner Bros.)
Lil Yachty: Lil Boat 2 (digital)
Lojii: Lofeye (Youngbloods)
Luniz: No Pressure (X-Ray)
Mozzy: Spiritual Conversations – EP (digital) (Empire)
Murs: A Strange Journey Into The Unimaginable (Strange Music)
Nessly: Wildflower (digital) (Republic)
Nym Lo: The Big Horse (digital)
Phonte: No New Is Good News (digital)
Prhyme (Royce 5 9+DJ Premier): PRhyme2 (digital)
Rich Homie Quan: Rich As In Spirit (digital) (Motown)
Rich the Kid: The World is Yours (digital) (Interscope)
Robb Bank$: Molly World (digital) (Empire)
Saint Jhn: Collection 1
Saweetie: High Maintenance (digital) (Warner Bros.)
Showbiz: A-Room Therapy (Ditc)
Sob X Rbe: Gangin (digital)
Sts & Khari Mateen: Better on a Sunday (Steel Wool /Obe)
Tech N9ne: Planet (Strange Music)
Thundercat: Drank (Brainfeeder)
Tory Lanez: Memories Don’t Die (Interscope)
Tra the Truth: Hometown Hero
Tyga: Kyoto (Last Kings Music)
U-God: Venom (Babygrande)
Various: Death Row Chronicles OST (Death Row)
Wale: It’s Complicated EP (MMG/Every Blue Moon)
Wiley: Godfather II
Wu-Lu: N.A.I.S. (Not As It Seems) (digital)
XXXTentacion: ? (Bad Vibes Forever)
YFN Lucci: Ray Ray from Summerhill (Warner Bros.)
Young Hu$tle: Bag Talk (X-Ray)
Yung Bans: Vol. 4 (digital)
Reggae Army Gideon: Forsake Not (Uhuru Boys)
Etana: Reggae Forever (Tad’s Record Inc.)
I-Octane: Love & Life (Conquer the Globe)
Romain Virgo: Lovesick (VP)
World, Latin Baloji: 137 Avenue Kaniama (Bella Union)
Busy Twist: Sunny Side EP (Busy Life)
Hailu Mergia: Lala Belu (Awesome Tapes From Africa)
Seun Kuti & Egypt 80: Black Times (Strut)
Sidi Toure: Toubalbero (Thrill Jockey)
Tanga: Reencarnacion (TrebleFive)
Various: Gumba Fire: Bubblegum Soul & Synth-Boogie in 1980s South Africa (Soundway)
Various: Death In Haiti: Funeral Brass Bands & Sounds from Port Au Prince (Discrepant)