Talib Kweli – Fuck the Money

talib kweli

Title: Fuck the Money

Artist: Talib Kweli

Label: Javotti Media

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

Release date: December 11, 2015 (CD)

 

 

According to the French art theorist Nicolas Bourriad, many of our modernities are defined by moving towards an explosion, or a release of energy. Hip hop, more than most other musical genres, seems to express this quest for explosion, time and again. Despite its recent widespread lyrical decrepitude, millions listen to hip hop because it expresses this explosion. Rapper Talib Kweli, known for his political rap, released the digital version of his latest album, Fuck the Money, for free. He seems to want to explode the capitalism that defines the individual realities that we lead and provide us with a rhythmic, unburdening, existence. It’s a commendable effort that could have been that much better if it was the product of serious thought, and not a fascination with tough slogans and hip hop’s ability to speak to pathos.

The album itself sounds like the electronic production that we are used to associating with expensive beats—it’s charged yet simple, as though there was not quite enough money to purchase even better beats. “Money Good” is the album’s best song, featuring a mix of acoustic and electronic instrumentation that melds perfectly with Kweli’s delivery. “Nice Things” is a great and loud listen, featuring the fast paced, conscious rap that Kweli is well known for. He throws punchlines that are brilliantly woven together into a moral statement, but it’s the song’s agenda that resonates the most. “Echoes” features great rhythm and ambient, dream-like production. The album gets smoother as it progresses, and Kweli is actually much better at being smooth than he is at being loud. “Baby Girl” is an example of this, with Kweli sounding very similar to young J. Cole. On “The Venetian,” featuring Niko Is & Ab-Soul, they rap about their progression from corner stores to luxury hotels.

Though it might be tempting to sit amazed by the A-list of producers featured on the album’s 11 tracks, I would not recommend listening to the album that way. Look at the name of the producer only after listening to the song, and judge the song on its own merits rather than by its credentials. Then, the songs’ limitations and strengths will become apparent.

Has the album led to a Bourriadian explosion? Have I now proclaimed, “fuck the money”? I, personally, have not. Though this album is a commendable effort with the spectacular song “Money Good,” it falls short of fully erupting.

Reviewed by Adolf Alzuphar

Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Segal – Musique De Nuit

sissoko and segal_musique de nuit

Title: Musique De Nuit

Artist: Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Segal

Label: Six Degrees

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 11, 2015

 

 

Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Segal’s brilliant Musique De Nuit is the meeting and melding of two minds and musical instruments into singular musical beauty.

The title Musique De Nuit translates to either “Music For Night” or “Music Of Night.” Since the advent of 20th century pop culture, night is no longer understood by most in the US as the stuff of poetry or time for quiet contemplation. Very few Americans still “howl at the moon,” much less contemplate its magnificence. Night is now the time for Dionysian living or for staying home to rest, perhaps watching television. Maybe night is thought of differently in France and Mali, or perhaps these two musicians both believe that night should be lived differently—this album is much less about lavish living than it is about restraint and contemplation. This is music for an Apollonian night, full of work and ardor a listener would imagine working towards a grand goal. Overall, the tempos of these songs are very slow, especially “Musique de Nuit,” recalling the kind of cello playing that listeners may associate with symphonic music. We also hear the kora in all of its splendor; Sissoko’s masterful Kora playing will certainly remind listeners of the beauty to be found in acoustic music.

This is the duo’s second release, following their first entitled Chamber Music (2011). As was the case on the duo’s debut, Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Segal are musicians of two different races and cultures: Sissoko is a black Malian man and Segal is a white French man. Segal is a conservatory bassist and cellist and Sissoko came to playing the kora as most young griot musicians do, through his well-known griot father Djelimady Sissoko, beginning his profession at a very young age.  As a griot, Ballaké Sissoko plays music that is much closer to European troubadour music than it is to classical, baroque, or any music that one imagines that a conservatory-trained cellist would be most accustomed to. Though Segal might be familiar with troubadour music, he is certainly not a troubadour.

Musique De Nuit’s most impressive track is the awesome composition “Super Etoile,” which is highly rhythmic and features amazing cello lines. “Balazando” has a phenomenal beginning and, like “Super Etoile,” its strength lies in the beauty of the composition, even though the playing of both musicians is also superb. It sometimes sounds like one is listening to more than two musicians, in part because of Sissoko’s Kora playing. How can one man playing one stringed instrument make so many sounds? The album’s opening track “Niandou” will feel the most familiar to fans of traditional Malian music, building from a quiet introduction into intricate polyrhythm. “Prelude”also amazes.

It might be useful to think of this album as representing the founding of a new musical genre, or perhaps as an etude into new music. The first jazz musicians, for example, did the same: creoles and Blacks picked up instruments and played what eventually became categorized as a new genre. There is a wideness and heaviness to the cello’s sound that is so unlike the svelte tones of the Kora; how it is that these two musicians melded the two instruments without something else—for example, a drum—is the real question. What’s worse is that one could easily imagine that these two musicians could have continued their careers without one even having met the other. That they pulled this off is the stuff of musical history: the troubadour music of traditional Malian civic life meets the cello of European art music and produces pure musical beauty. Thus, these are sounds to feel and to object to, reject, or plunge one’s self into. The final option is the best choice, and one can only hope that this duo inspires other cello and Kora players do the same.

 

Reviewed by Adolf Alzuphar

4th Coming – Strange Things, 1970-1974

4th coming_strange things

 

Title: Strange Things, 1970-1974

Artist: 4th Coming

Label: Now-Again

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: October 23, 2015

 

Billed as the “long lost 4th Coming album,” the tracks on Strange Things were compiled from eight obscure (and some extremely rare) 7” singles the group cut between 1970-1974. Led by two progressive Black musicians from Los Angeles—Henry “Hank” Porter and Jechonias “Jack” Williams—the 4th Coming recorded at Al Firth’s Artist Recording Studio in Hollywood, picking up studio musicians (including members of the Watts 103rd St. Rhythm Band) as necessary to realize their arrangements. Production assistance was provided by Yusuf Rahman, who played with both Horace Silver and Charles Wright. Rahman basically took the song ideas generated by Williams, then wrote proper arrangements and assisted with overdubs.

The varied and highly creative songs produced through these efforts offer a cornucopia of Sly Stone era funk, fuzz guitars, synths, and gritty soul. Highlights include “Don’t Let Him Take Away Your Man,” the shape-shifting, cowbell heavy (and still relevant) “Waterloo at Watergate,” the funk heavy title track “Strange Things,” and the jazzy but detour filled “Cruising Central Ave.” There are other surprises along the way, such as the countrified “Oh Love” and “Take Time,” the former a bit folksy and the latter plenty gritty.

In the extensive liner notes, producer Eothen Alapatt chronicles the saga of 4th Coming, along with a detailed history of the Artist Record Studio and Firth’s Alpha label. Regrettably, all of the group’s master tapes were lost, along with all personal photos and mementos, so the booklet is only illustrated with images of the 45s.

The 4th Coming may have been a group on the fringes, and one that never quite gelled—but listening to their music nearly fifty years later, I think that’s to our benefit. Indeed, Strange Things offers the kind of strange trip that can only be found in La La Land.

 

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

 

 

My Cup Runneth Over: The Complete Piano Works of R. Nathaniel Dett

clipper erickson_my cup runneth over

Title: My Cup Runneth Over – The Complete Piano Works of R. Nathaniel Dett

Artist: Clipper Erickson

Label: Navona; dist. by Naxos of America

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: November 13, 2015

 

 

Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) was one of the most important and highly regarded Black composers of the early twentieth century. At that time, only a few had achieved widespread success in the classical music genre, most notably the British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Though born on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, Dett’s father was a U.S. citizen and during his youth the family relocated to the New York side of Niagara, thus he is usually considered to be an American composer. The Oberlin educated Dett was also a noted concert pianist, choral conductor and educator.

My Cup Runneth Over: The Complete Piano Works of R. Nathaniel Dett gathers together, for the first time on CD, Dett’s solo piano compositions, brilliantly performed by Clipper Erickson (an alum of The Juilliard School, Yale University, and Indiana University). Like his mentor and teacher, British pianist John Ogdon (who taught at IU’s Jacobs School of Music in the late 1970s), Erickson has championed 20th and 21st-century music and American composers, in particular.  He was introduced to Dett’s music by Dr. Donald Dumpson, currently on the faculty of Rider University, who like Dett is also a noted keyboardist, choral conductor, composer and arranger. Thankfully, their relationship inspired this recording project, which recently garnered an Editor’s Choice citation from Gramophone UK—now let’s hope it receives wider recognition in the U.S.

My Cup Runneth Over features Dett’s neo-Romantic piano suites which were widely performed by artists such as Percy Grainger and Fanny Bloomfield-Zeisler. The CD opens with the earliest suite, Magnolia, composed in 1912. As one might guess from the title, the five movements call forth images of the Old South with names such as “The Deserted Cabin” and “Mammy,” though the final movement, “The Place Where the Rainbow Ends” was based on a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar. In the Bottoms, composed the following year, is another five movement suite based on “scenes peculiar to Negro life in the river bottoms of the Southern sections of North America” (quoted from Dett’s own notes). Included is one of his most popular works, the folk-song based “Juba Dance,” played by Erickson with great clarity and verve.[i]

The year 1922 was obviously a productive year for Dett, which yielded works of increasing complexity: the four movement suite Enchantment (dedicated to Percy Grainger) and the solo piece Nepenthe and the Muse (dedicated to Arthur Foote)—a Debussy-esque work of shifting moods and tone colors convincingly performed by Erickson. Disc One closes with another programmatic suite, Cinnamon Grove; each movement based on poems and concluding with an Allegretto referencing two spirituals later used by Dett for choral settings.

Disc Two opens with Tropical Winter (1938), a demanding suite in seven movements which presents a leap forward in Dett’s compositional style.  “Parade of the Jasmine Banners” and, in particular, the more contemplative “Legends of the Atoll” are highlights of this suite. Dett’s final suite, Eight Bible Vignettes (1942-43), was composed at the very end of his life—possibly contributing to his use of Biblical texts as inspiration. Divided evenly between the Old and New Testaments, the movements reference many themes, including the African diaspora and slavery, expressed through some of the most heart-rending and insightful music Dett composed. Erickson eloquently breaks down each movement in the liner notes, indicating the intensity of his research which obviously aided his meticulous and multifaceted interpretation.

Not addressed in the liner notes are three of Dett’s earliest solo piano works that close the album: the ragtime based After the Cakewalk (1900), the march and two-step Cave of the Winds (1902), and the much more substantial show piece Inspiration Waltzes (1903), which Erickson performs with aplomb.

My Cup Runneth Over offers a wonderful overview of R. Nathaniel Dett’s captivating solo piano compositions, magnificently performed Clipper Erickson. A hearty bravo is in order—may these works find their way onto more recital programs!

 

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

[i]Dett had performed these works himself, to great acclaim, at the first All-Colored Composer’s Concert at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall on June 3, 1914. Noted music critic and composer Felix Borowski, writing for the Record Herald on June 4 proclaimed, ” . . .it was not Coleridge-Taylor whose music at this concert disclosed the largest measure of individuality and inspiration.  Those qualities shone more brilliantly in two suites for piano composed and performed by R. Nathaniel Dett.  Without having heard of Mr. Dett or his music before, we believe that his abilities are such as to qualify him for leadership of the musical creators among his people . . . This composer’s performance was also a surprise.  Piano playing much less admirable, much less poetic, has often been heard in Orchestra Hall and in concerts much more pretentious than that which has formed the subject of this review.” [June 4, 1914]

Stretch and Bobbito: Radio that Changed Lives

stretch and bobbito doc

Title: Stretch and Bobbito: Radio that Changed Lives

Artist: Various

Label: Fat Beats Distribution

Format: DVD

Release Date: April 22, 2016

 

 

Last year’s documentary Stretch and Bobbito: Radio that Changed Lives is now available on DVD and just premiered on Showtime May 18th.  The film chronicles the contributions of Stretch Armstrong (Adrian Bartos) and Bobbito Garcia, two deejays who begun a hip hop radio program on the night shift of Columbia University’s radio station in 1990.  The Stretch and Bobbito show is widely heralded as one of the greatest (if not the greatest) hip hop radio shows of all time, due to both its staying power and the artists that the deejay duo broke to listeners in New York City.

YouTube Preview Image

The documentary charts the program’s story largely by chronicling the artists featured on it, including interviews with many of the rappers Stretch and Bobbito introduced to radio listeners, including Fat Joe, members of the Wu Tang Clan, Jay-Z, and Nas—the film reads as a veritable Who’s Who of 90s hip hop.  Many of these artists get to listen to tapes of the show, either via airchecks or programs taped by listeners, hearing their own rare written performances and freestyles.  This is one of the great assets of the film—it is likely that most viewers have never heard the verses on these recordings, and it is fascinating to hear artists like Ol’ Dirty Bastard and the Notorious B.I.G. rapping over Stretch Armstrong’s beats prior to achieving their legendary status.

The deejays’ story follows that of many of the artists, moving from red eye college radio to the duo’s debut on New York’s largest radio station, Hot 97, before disbanding the show.  Stretch and Bobbito are back together in the film, discussing their motivations for starting the program, its remarkable heyday, and shifts in the music and broadcasting industries as a result of hip hop’s historical trajectory during the 1990s.

Stretch and Bobbito: Radio that Changed Lives documents an essential slice of the New York hip hop scene, showcasing one of the most important launchpads for artists who would emerge as quintessential figures in hip hop. This film is essential viewing for heads and emphasizes the important role that radio programmers had in the pre-internet age of underground hip hop, giving unknown artists a platform to launch into the mainstream.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

(For those interested in the history of Black radio, check out the AAAMC’s exhibit on Google Cultural Institute: https://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/u/0/collection/archives-of-african-american-music-and-culture?projectId=black-history-and-culture)

Mindi Abair & The Boneshakers – Live in Seattle

mindi abair and the boneshakers_live in Seattle

Title: Live in Seattle

Artist: Mindi Abair & The Boneshakers

Label: Concord

Format: CD, MP3

Release date: September 15, 2015

 

 

 

With few exceptions, the conventional wisdom is that you can usually take or leave live albums. I believe I will choose the “take” option with Mindi Abair’s new release Live in Seattle. If you are thinking to yourself, “I have never heard of Mindi Abair,” odds are you actually have. Or you’ve at least heard her, although you may not know it.

Mindi has played saxophone with some of the biggest names in the music industry, including The Backstreet Boys, Bruce Springsteen, Aerosmith, Paul Shaffer, Dave Koz, Richard Elliot and Gerald Albright. She was also going to be the saxophonist on Michael Jackson’s planned tour before his passing—not too shabby for a girl from St. Petersburg, Florida.

Abair grew up in a musical family. Her father Lance Abair is a saxophonist and keyboardist; her grandmother Virginia Rice was an opera singer and piano and voice teacher. She started playing piano at the age of five, and began saxophone at the age of eight. In high school she was a drum major. Mindi received a full scholarship at the University of North Florida but then transferred to Berklee College of Music in Boston and formed her first band.

After graduating from college, Mindi moved to Los Angeles, where she started to play all over town. She played on the street at 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica and gained the attention of jazz keyboardist Bobby Lyle. And the rest, as they say, is history. Seven solo studio releases later, Mindi has decided to try her hand at a live album. Despite the potential for live albums to be off-putting to some listeners, Live in Seattle contains a wealth of enjoyable material.

This fourteen track album is full of great grooves and “rock n’ soul” tunes, a collection of feel-good songs for your soul. Not too many artists can make you feel happy one moment and tug at your heart strings the next. Live in Seattle contains 11 original songs, 2 covers and 3 brand new compositions. The personnel on this release are top notch—two standout musicians are guitarist Randy Jacobs (The Boneshakers’ band leader) and vocalist Sweet Pea Atkinson. One highlight from this set is “Bloom, ”a sax-driven stadium rocker from Abair’s third album Life Less Ordinary, featuring the saxophonist’s playing at its soulful best. “Cold Sweat,” featuring Sweet Pea Atkinson on vocals, is a compelling rendering of the James Brown song, the funk of the original morphed into an uptempo blues shuffle. If this one doesn’t make you want to get up off a that thing to dance, you might be dead.

Mindi had the privilege to co-write one of the new cuts for this album, “Make it Happen,” with the great Booker T. Jones. Keyboardist Rodney Lee does a fine job providing B3 organ in Jones’s stead. The record also includes a hard-rockin’ version of George Gershwin’s “Summertime,propelled by Abair’s saxophone and Jacobs’s distorted guitar—I’m confident that you have never heard this song performed this way.

Overall the combination of rock, soul, funk, and groove jazz makes Live in Seattle a great effort from Mindi Abair and The Boneshakers. Give it a listen, you won’t be sorry.

Reviewed by Patrick Scott Burkett

Tomeka Reid Quartet – Tomeka Reid Quartet

tomeka reid quartet

Title: Tomeka Reid Quartet

Artist: Tomeka Reid Quartet

Label: Thirsty Ear

Format: CD, MP3

Release date: September 25, 2015

 

 

 

Chicago-based cellist Tomeka Reid has been a fixture in the city’s jazz scene for some 15 years now, but the quartet she leads only released its eponymous debut album in September of 2015.  Having seen this group perform at the 2014 Chicago jazz festival, I can attest to this record’s ability to capture her quartet’s spirit, weaving between pre-composed and improvised music.  While the Tomeka Reid Quartet’s music may perhaps be best situated within the avant garde of Chicago’s AACM tradition, this album has a sense of texture and melody that may heighten the group’s appeal to less-cerebral jazz fans as well as those who are interested in more experimental music.

Tomeka Reid Quartet leads with “17 West,” the only cut on the album that is neither an original composition nor totally improvised, an excellent reading of the Eric Dolphy tune that featured the great bassist Ron Carter on cello.  This cut allows Reid to situate herself firmly within the lineage of mainstream avant-garde jazz (which may not be such a contradiction in terms as it may suggest), despite her seemingly unusual instrument of choice.  To accompany her in this effort, Reid assembled an excellent team of musicians who are able to stretch out to the extent demanded by the group’s music, which lies somewhere between chamber music, jazz, and free improvisation.  She is joined by Brooklyn-based guitarist Mary Halvorson, New York drummer Tomas Fujiwara, and Chicago bassist Jason Roebke.

This quartet explores this album’s musical territories with energy and a sense of adventure.  “Billy Bang’s Bounce”—a tribute to the free jazz violinist—features a texture that gradually builds, taking on a hypnotic quality before opening up into a generous swing section for the group’s solos.  “Etoile” is a more conventional composition, loosely based upon the jazz musicians’ standard “Cry Me a River” lick, but expanding to feature remarkable solos by Reid, Roebke, and Halvorson, whose pitch-shifting guitar solos push the group further into less consonant territory while still remaining melodious.

The album takes more impressionistic turns as well, with Reid and Halverson freely improvising on “Improvisation #1” and the rest of the group joining this exercise on “Improvisation #2.”  While apparently composed, “The Lone Wait” is also abstract and atmospheric, pulling heavily from free-jazz influences.

All in all, Tomeka Reid Quartet is a fascinating statement from a group that is musically diverse and experimental.  The Tomeka Reid Quartet blurs the line between “conventional” and “avant garde” approaches to jazz and is to not be missed by serious jazz fans.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Mariea Antoinette – Straight from the Harp

mariea antoinette_straight from the harp

 

Title: Straight from the Harp

Artist: Mariea Antoinette

Label: MAH Productions

Format: CD (special edition)

Release date: September 25, 2015

 

Though the “harp” in African American music is more typically a harmonica, Mariea Antoinette proves that the concert harp “is not a quiet, dreamy, boring instrument,” but can be “funky like you’ve never heard it before.” Originally trained in classical music, the San Diego artist expanded her horizons to become an urban-jazz harpist, performing for the likes of Ne-Yo, Mary J. Blige and Jamie Foxx.

Antoinette fuses multiple genres on her sophomore album, Straight from the Harp. Though falling predominantly into the smooth jazz domain, she brings elements of EDM, hip-hop, pop, rock, and R&B into the mix across 13 tracks that interweave virtuosic harp solos and interludes. The bulk of the album features lush arrangements of many classics, including Bobby Brown’s “Rock Wit’Cha,” Curtis Mayfield’s “Give Me Your Love,” a super funky version of the ‘70s classic “Boogie Nights,” Barry White’s hit single “I’m Gonna Love You (Just A Little More Baby),” and a “reggae light” version of Bob Marley’s “Waiting In Vain.”

In addition to these covers, there are a number of original songs, including “Special Treasure” which fuses a ‘70s soul sound with hip-hop beats, and the closing track “Walk the Walk,” featuring electric violinist Karen Briggs in a sweeping cinematic fusion of smooth jazz and soft rock with classical riffs on the harp.

In addition to performing as a soloist, Antoinette has collaborated with the all-female ensemble Jazz In Pink since 2007 (of which Biggs is a member), and still performs with orchestras on occasion. She has certainly succeeded in her goal of making the harp “a funky and sexy instrument,” displaying a degree of versatility that definitely sets her apart.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Dee Dee Bridgewater, Irvin Mayfield & The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra – Dee Dee’s Feathers

DeeDeesFeathers

Title: Dee Dee’s Feathers

Artist: Dee Dee Bridgewater, Irvin Mayfield & The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra

Label: OKeh Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: August 7, 2015

 

Dee Dee’s Feathers celebrates New Orleans in a wide-ranging jazz album that explores the neighborhoods of NOLA and their respective cultures and musical genres. The album was even recorded at Esplanade Studios, located in a reconverted historical church that was damaged severely by Hurricane Katrina. It is overflowing with talent, featuring vocals by Grammy and Tony Award winner (for her 1975 role as Glinda in The Wiz) Dee Dee Bridgewater, Grammy-winning producer and trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, and backup by the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra.

The album takes listeners on a musical journey through New Orleans. “Big Chief,” a traditional Mardi Gras Indian song, celebrates the Second Line with six minutes of lively horns and guest vocals by Dr. John. “C’est Ici Que Je T’aime” transports the listener to the French Quarter, where Irvin Mayfield has created his Jazz Playhouse on historic Bourbon Street.

The title track, “Dee Dee’s Feathers,” is an incredibly fun original composition by Dee Dee, Irvin, and Bill Summers (of Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters fame). There is a clear Afro-Caribbean influence in the percussion, and an acapella section ends the song with great harmonies and vocal polyrhythmic layers.

Other original songs on the album include “Congo Square,” which again features Bill Summers and African drumming, and “From the Lake to the River,” a composition by Irvin about Elysian Fields Avenue, the only street in New Orleans that connects Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River.

The album also features a stunning arrangement of Bloomington, Indiana native songwriter Hoagy Carmichael’s “New Orleans.” Starting with a muted brass solo, the song morphs into an impressive demonstration of Dee Dee’s incredible scatting skills as she imitates and then expands on the original melody.

Dee Dee’s Feathers is bound to be a treat for any listener as it is bursting with musical skill while also recognizing the many cultures of New Orleans and the multitude of jazz styles that have arisen from the Crescent City.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Aziza Brahim – Abbar el Hamada

AzizaBrahim

Title: Abbar el Hamada

Artist: Aziza Brahim

Label: Glitterbeat

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: March 4, 2016

 

As the European refugee crisis sparks renewed conversations about refugees across the globe, it only seems right that Western Saharan singer/activist Aziza Brahim chimes in. Brahim grew up in a Saharawi refugee camp in the Algerian desert, and has been living in exile for over twenty years, first in Cuba, currently in Barcelona. Her latest album, Abbar el Hamada (Across the Hamada), reflects her multiple cultural identities and the political struggles that have impacted her life directly.

Hamada is the word used by the Saharawi people to describe the rocky desert landscape along the Algerian/Western Saharan frontier where many Saharawi refugee camps are located. Abbar el Hamada is Brahim’s reflection on her personal journey from the refugee camp and her country’s journey as a nation over the past 40 years of political turmoil.

The album has many different musical influences from the various places Brahim has lived and the people she has met along the way. “La Cordillera Negra” is an Afro-Cuban inspired track that evokes ‘70s recordings by the Super Rail Band, while “El Canto De La Arena” is a raw ballad that includes a soft flute. “Calles De Dajla” is described as “pulsing desert rock” and incorporates melodic blues rock guitar with West African-influenced percussion and Brahim’s emotive vocals:

YouTube Preview Image

Other standout tracks on the album include “Mani,” which features the Malian blues guitarist Samba Toure, and the warm, easy going yet poignant title track “Abbar el Hamada.” One of the more directly political songs on the album is “Intifada,” which is about the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip that started in 1987.

Though some songs reference specific areas of the world, the final track “Los Muros” (“The Walls”) speaks of the many physical and metaphorical walls that divide countries and people, from the Berlin Wall to the sand fortifications Morocco has erected along the Western Saharan border of Brahim’s homeland.

Despite these walls and despite the tragedy in the album, Brahim remains hopeful in her music. She sings that despite all the walls rising, “Another fleeting star was seen crossing the wall tonight / undetected by the radar, unnoticed by the guard.” Abbar el Hamada encourages people to engage in conversation with each other across political, cultural, religious, and generational barriers in order to find solutions and transcend the walls that divide us.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Tomás Doncker – The Mess We Made

Tomas Doncker_The Mess We Made

Album: The Mess We Made

Artist: Tomás Doncker

Label: True Groove

Release Date: November 3, 2015

Format: CD, MP3

 

 

Songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist Tomás Doncker has been active in the New York City music scene since the 1980s, having worked with artists from Bootsy Collins to Yoko Ono to Bonnie Raitt. Doncker is an eclectic musician–his multifaceted, self-dubbed “Global Soul” on releases such as 2012’s The Power of the Trinity reveals itself in his incorporation of a variety of musical styles.

Doncker’s implicit socially-conscious stance becomes explicit on his most recent release, The Mess We Made, an album with a cover that proclaims the controversial content therein. The cover features images of police brutality (including names of African Americans who have been killed in high-profile police incidents), protests in Ferguson, Missouri; an image of Trump tower; pictures of African American leaders such as President Obama, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X; and the Confederate flag at the South Carolina statehouse–all under the ghostly specter of a burning sky and a superimposed image of the Ku Klux Klan. (The album’s interior is loaded with similar images, all of which create a rather overwhelming effect when just unpackaging the CD.)  The chaotic upheaval featured on the album’s cover finds its place in Doncker’s songs, which deal with topics ranging from legitimate social problems (inequality, the 1% and “Gangsta Police” on “Blood & Concrete”), to hackneyed 21st century targets (social media and smartphones on “The Mess We Made”), to (perhaps deliberately) vague critiques of something–it’s hard to tell quite what–on “The Revolution.” On the latter cut, Doncker accuses revolutionaries of “looking for a corporate sponsorship,” complete with a P-Funk styled sung chant “Take your hoodie off and pull your pants up.” There’s just enough ambiguity mixed in with Doncker’s fiery rhetoric so that the lyrical context does not make it clear whether he is an advocate or critic of the chorus’s mantra. At times, this lack of context makes the lyrics sound like a stirred-up alphabet soup of topical references to current events rather than protest music as such.

YouTube Preview Image

While Doncker’s vitriol is powerful, the best moments of social critique on this record find their expression in more nuanced moments than those described above.  “Don’t Let Go” is the moving story of a protagonist who can’t find ways to make ends meet because of systemic problems, in the tradition of great poor man ballads that are some of the most powerful expressions of American protest music.  His cover of U2’s “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” exploits the song’s ambiguity for far more mileage than the lyric’s vague spirituality warrants; Doncker’s choice of this song for a protest album and his addition of a funky shout chorus declaring that “I just can’t find it” places the song into the powerful position of giving voice to the frustration that the song’s protagonist experiences while searching for the elusive (happiness? justice? Both U2 and Doncker leave the audience to wonder about the ineffable). The upbeat soul of the album’s final cut “Time Will Tell” is coupled with lyrics that present a modicum of hope after some of the darkness upon which Doncker concentrates throughout this record, proposing that it is possible to care for one another and to overcome the adverse conditions that have infiltrated most of the stories he tells.

I have perhaps spent an inordinate amount of time in this review discussing the charged lyrical  content on The Mess We Made, but I should write some about the music as well.  The arrangements on this album are tasteful. Rather than taking extended guitar solos, Doncker shows a great deal of restraint on his instrument, allowing the arrangements to serve the songs.  Much of the music on this record features electronic percussion–what may seem to be a dicey proposition in combination with the other various live instruments, which include Doncker’s guitar and vocals; some solid horn arrangements, and David Barnes’s great harmonica playing. However, in conjunction with producer James Dellatacoma, Doncker has created a soundscape simultaneously drawing from roots music while also maintaining a contemporary flair in the album’s quest to address current social issues.  All-in-all, the musicianship on this record is put together far more carefully than the politics; the tasteful arrangements tie together some less-than-successful lyric writing. If we are to believe that The Mess We Made is meant to be deliberately provocative (as it certainly seems to be), then Doncker and company certainly achieve their primary objective, making some pretty good music along the way.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

 

Adegoke Steve Colson – Tones For

adegoke steve colson tones for

Title: Tones For

Artist: Adegoke Steve Colson

Label: Silver Sphinx

Release Date: Nov 20, 2015

Format: CD, MP3

 

 

It is difficult to describe the music of Adegoke Steve Colson in its own terms, in large part due to the pianist’s complex and abstract approach to playing and composing.  Colson’s newest release, Tones For, is his first solo piano record in a long and storied career, and reflects a stance that is simultaneously cerebral and activist.  This is no doubt influenced by Colson’s affiliation with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a Chicago-based organization dedicated to creating “Great Black Music” and which has consistently developed excellent avant-garde jazz throughout its 50 years.  Colson takes this spirit to heart on Tones For, an album that is simultaneously abstract and programmatic.  Writing and performing an all-instrumental album dedicated to–and ostensibly about–three seminal figures in black history–Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglass–seems like a gargantuan task.  Colson has met this challenge with an expansive 2-CD set, a collection of recordings that depend upon music defined by ambiance and dynamics, ranging from subdued and contemplative on “Inner Quiet” to the stormy textures of “Homage,” which is dedicated “to all those who stood up for justice.”

Despite the fact that they are abstractions themselves, it is difficult to make themes of resistance and freedom take shape in terms of musical sound, and it would be hard for me to–as Vijay Iyer does in the album’s liner notes–assert that this music “embodies resistance.”  What Colson’s music does in many instances, however, is challenge our notions of how we may express ideas about our heroes or the concepts of resistance and freedom themselves.  While it may seem that the atmospheres that Colson creates on Tones For have little to do with these themes as such, Colson’s abstraction and persistent thematic assertions may cause us to question how the music of resistance or freedom may sound.  This challenging music may lead us to explore these themes in powerful and compelling ways which transcend the sloganeering that characterizes much “socially-conscious” music.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Cymande – A Simple Act of Faith

cymande a simple act of faith

Title: A Simple Act of Faith

Artist: Cymande

Label: Cherry Red

Release date: November 27, 2015

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

 

In November 2015, the British funk group Cymande released their first full-length LP since 1981. This new release, on London-based indie label Cherry Red, is slick and polished, more so than cuts from the group’s oft-sampled first self-titled release.  Replacing the raw funk that characterized the band’s early output with slicker, post-quiet storm R&B is not necessarily a bad move for Cymande, given a much awaited comeback after a long hiatus.  The process of developing a new sound for A Simple Act of Faith has resulted in a cohesive album, pulled off by a well-rehearsed band, with material suited to the members’ current professional status in a group getting back together.  There are some glimmers of the Cymande’s signature diasporic bent, with lyrics declaring that “We are the children of the world” on the Afrobeat-tinged “Everybody Turn Rasta,” while the band slips into more conventional power-ballad territory on “No Weeping.”  Some of the material on this record is inconsistent, but there are moments that the storied band’s brilliance shines through, such as on the consummately funky “All or Nothing,” with staccato wind stabs among interweaving funky guitar and bass lines or the slow burning funk of “Do It (This Time with Feeling).”  A Simple Act of Faith is assurance to longtime fans of this cult band that it can still get down as well as a great initial foray for listeners new to Cymande’s work.

YouTube Preview Image

 

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

 

Sam Butler – Raise Your Hands!

sam butler_raise your hands

Title: Raise Your Hands!

Artist: Sam Butler

Label: Severn Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: October 16, 2015

 

White rock musicians drawing inspiration from black gospel music is a common story. Less common are black gospel musicians recording sacred songs written by white rock musicians.

Producer Brian Brinkerhoff thought of the latter when he contacted guitarist and singer Sam Butler about doing an album together. Butler—known for his work with the Blind Boys of Alabama and Clarence Fountain—liked the proposal. The two hired a talented trio of musicians—pedal steel guitarist Roosevelt Collier, drummer Marco Giovino, and bassist Viktor Krauss—and selected songs by U2, Eric Clapton, and Van Morrison, to name a few, to record. Over three days—which Brinkerhoff called a “musical worship service”—Raise Your Hands! was born.

Musically, the album moves between blues-rock grooves and songs of reflective contemplation. Tom Waits’ “Gospel Train” is a swampy invocation to join the Lord’s ride and evade the Devil’s foolishness. “Heaven’s Wall” has a similar heaviness, laid over an extended vamp. On the other hand, “Sanctuary” is a reverb-soaked ballad, with an earthy, Americana sound. Between these two poles, Butler’s dynamic voice, passionate interpretation, and praise for the Lord are the album’s common threads.

While Butler is the centerpiece of Raise Your Hands!, pedal steel guitarist Roosevelt Collier is the star. Collier was raised in the House of God Congregation—known for producing many talented pedal steel musicians. Collier’s solos on “Magnificent” and “Lead Me Father” are bold, soaring statements, while his sensitive accompaniment on the album’s slower songs is ever-tasteful. Drummer Marco Giovino, too, shines on Curtis Mayfield’s “Wherever You Leadth” and Victor Krauss is consistent throughout the release.

Raise Your Hands! is an album that blurs musical lines. Sacred and secular, rock and gospel, bandleader and band member are productively eschewed, in service of the Lord and His gift of good music.

 

Reviewed by Douglas Dowling Peach

Terri Lyne Carrington – The Mosaic Project: Love and Soul

Terri Lyne Carrington_the Mosaic Project love and soul

Title: The Mosaic Project: Love and Soul

Artist: Terri Lyne Carrington

Label: Concord

Release Date: August 7, 2015

Format: CD, MP3

 

 

Drummer, composer, and sometime vocalist Terri Lyne Carrington has had an illustrious career, touring with countless acts in the jazz and pop worlds and developing a strong solo career of her own. A highlight of Carrington’s solo career was the first entry in her Mosaic Project series in 2011. One of the key elements of the first Mosiac release, which is repeated in its second installment, 2015’s The Mosaic Project: Love and Soul, is that Carrington plays with all-star, all-woman bands.  While all-female bands have a history in jazz of being a gimmick for novelty acts, Carrington’s project is no oddity.  Her reason for assembling an all-woman band, as is readily apparent from listening to this release, is that that these women can play.  There are two deviations from this format: the songs included that aren’t original compositions were written by men and actor Billy Dee Williams appears throughout the disc performing spoken word.

YouTube Preview Image

While Carrington is often billed as a jazz drummer, the music on this release tends more toward R&B and neo-soul—she draws quite heavily from the Questlove playbook as drummer, arranger, and producer. The comparison to The Roots drummer and neo-soul leader doesn’t end there—this record captures the true Soulquarian spirit through the album’s collaborative aesthetic. Carrington features a guest vocalist on each cut, from firmly established artists such as Chaka Khan, Valerie Simpson, Nancy Wilson, and the late Natalie Cole to more underground sensations like Jaguar Wright and Lizz Wright.  Even though these guest stars would imply a very diverse record, each track has a both neo-soul bent and is characterized by exquisite attention to detail. Carrington and company arranged and performed each song carefully and treat these tunes with the necessary nuance to effectively evoke the titular love and soul, both of which are in abundance on this album.  The Mosiaic Project: Love and Soul is a strong effort by a group of musicians who are truly pros–these musicians have monster chops and, more importantly, impeccable taste.

 

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

O’Jays – The O’Jays 50th Anniversary Concert

ojays_50th anniversary concert

Title: The O’Jays 50th Anniversary Concert

Artist: O’Jays

Label: Wienerworld

Formats: CD + DVD

Release date: October 16, 2015

 

Legends of R&B, the O’Jays got their start in 1958 in Canton, Ohio, and based their name on the famous Cleveland deejay Eddie O’Jay. This timeless group is still full of soul, as is evident in the combined CD and DVD edition of their 50th Anniversary Concert, recorded in 2009 at New Jersey’s Bergen Performing Arts Center. The concert features all their legendary hits, including “Love Train,” “Back Stabbers,” and “For the Love of Money,” with band member’s divulging stories between songs. The DVD includes a bonus interview, full of insights from Eddie Levert, Walter Williams, Eric Nolan Grant, and O’Jays band members. This two-disc set is a great way to experience a live performance from one of Philly Soul’s most popular and classic groups.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

 

 

DIEUF-DIEUL de Thiès – Aw Sa Yone Vol. 2

dieuf dieul de thies_Aw Sa Yone 2

Title: Aw Sa Yone Vol. 2

Artist: DIEUF-DIEUL de Thiès

Label: Teranga Beat / Forced Exposure

Formats: CD, MP3, 2LP Collector’s Ltd Edition (300 copies), 2LP Deluxe Edition

Release date: October 30, 2015

 

Senegalese band DIEUF-DIEUL de Thiès has a long history, from their origins in 1979 to their breakup in 1983. Now the band is back together again and planning their first international tour, while also issuing previously unreleased recordings from the early 1980s.

Aw Sa Yone Vol. 2 presents the remainder of the tracks from the recording session featured on Aw Sa Yone Vol. 1, as well as three tracks from a lost 1981 recording. The combination of Mbalax (the national popular dance music of Senegal and the Gambia), Afro-Cuban, and Afro-jazz ballads creates a memorable and full-spirited album.

YouTube Preview Image

The horns, fuzz guitars, and tight percussion fuse traditional Senegalese melodies and instruments with electric psychedelic music. Five of the seven tracks are sung by Bassirou Sarr, whose emotional and soulful voice pairs with any genre. Also featured is a cover of the Latin ballad “Rumba Para Parejas” sung by Assane Camara. Other standout songs include “Ariyo” and “Nianky,” which are full of energy and rhythm.

Aw Sa Yone Vol. 2 includes a 16-page booklet, full of history about the band and their recordings. The album is also available in a limited Collector’s Edition double LP, housed in a silk screened sleeve with a large poster, perfect for anyone wanting to discover more about music coming out of Senegal in the 1980s.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Magic Sam Blues Band – Black Magic, Deluxe Edition

magic sam_black Magic deluxe edition

Title: Black Magic, Deluxe Edition

Artist: Magic Sam Blues Band

Label: Delmark

Formats: CD

Release date: December 29, 2015
 

 

The Magic Sam Blues Band performed quintessential Chicago blues, from the classic rhythm section led by Odie Payne, Jr. to the tenor saxophone played by Eddie Shaw. Now their 1969 album, Black Magic, has been remastered from the original analog tapes and reissued by Delmark as a deluxe edition, including two previously unissued tracks and 16 pages of liner notes, beautifully illustrated with never-before-seen photos from the 1968 recording sessions.

Black Magic
includes irresistible blues jams such as “I Just Want A Little Bit” and “Keep On Loving Me, Baby,” as well as more funk-inspired ballads like “You Better Stop.” No matter the style, every song is full of the soul and top notch musicianship of the 1960s Chicago west side blues scene. This was the last studio album recorded by Magic Sam, released just days after his premature death at the age of 32, Black Magic’s endurance stands as a testament to his legacy in the world of blues music.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Jessica Care Moore – Black Tea: The Legend of Jessi James

Black Tea
Title: Black Tea – The Legend of Jessi James

Artist: Jessica Care Moore

Label: Javotti Media/dist. Fat Beats

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: October 2, 2015

 

 

Detroit’s Jessica Care Moore—a reknown poet, playwright, performance artist and producer—has achieved success through a wide variety of ventures: as a five time winner of “It’s Showtime at the Apollo” competition; as the author of poetry collections including The Alphabet Verses The GhettoGod is Not an American, and Sunlight Through Bullet Holes; as a performance artist in The Missing Project: Pieces of the D and Black Statue of Liberty; as a returning star of Russell Simmons’ HBO series “Def Poetry Jam;” as CEO of Moore Black Press; and as host, writer and co-executive producer of the poetry-driven television show “Spoken” on The Black Family Channel. But throughout her career, Moore has also indulged her passion for music. Her poetry was featured on Nas’s Nastradamus album and Talib Kweli’s Attack the Block mixtape, and she’s led the Black WOMEN Rock! concert series since 2004. So it should be no surprise to learn that Moore has long been yearning to record her own album.

Black Tea: The Legend of Jessi James, Moore’s official solo debut on wax, features notable jazz, soul, techno and hip hop musicians and producers who bring Moore’s vision to life. That vision is more reminiscent of the lilting “jazz poetry” of Langston Hughes than the Black Power era recordings of The Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, and Imamu Amiri Baraka, or the half-sung, half-rapped sprechstimme of her contemporary, Saul Williams. Moore emphasizes the purity and strength of the spoken word with poems that recognize the central role of music to the Black experience, but she relies solely on the band and backup singers to weave in the musical accompaniment. A number of featured guests contribute to this effort, including Imani Uzuri, Roy Ayers (vibes), Talib Kweli, Jose James, One Belo, Ideeyah, Ursula Rucker, Alicia Renee, and Paris Toon. The band is led by pianist Jon Dixon (Underground Resistance), with Nate Winn on drums, Ben Luttermoser on bass, De’Sean Jones on sax, and Nadir Onowale (Distorted Soul) on the mixing boards.

Black Tea opens with a spoken introduction—the legend of Moore’s alter-ego, Jessi James: “she is his reflection, a city-country girl, a gold horse kissing his black . . . she was waiting for him to call her name – Jessi James of Detroit, of Brooklyn, of Southern blues, of Harlem, of Colorado mountains . . . Detroit jazz, poet outlaw – sometimes the tea is spiked.”

Following are several jazz-based tracks, including “Walking Up 150th Street” featuring Chris Johnson on trumpet, “Pieces” featuring Detroit rock-soul singer Ideeyah, “Deep Breath” featuring alt-rapper One Belo, and “You Want Poems” with Roy Ayers and Jose James. On “It Ain’t Like We Didn’t,” the music shifts from jazz to an acoustic Delta blues style, with Moore riffing on the importance of the genre: “We die for the blues ‘cause we’re born with it . . stone rolling blues runs deep in these veins . . . know your place brown girl . . .”

An acoustic Spanish guitar opens “I Catch the Rain,” with ethereal background vocals provided by Imani Uzuri and Ursula Rucker, while Moore speaks of “this earth keeps pulling back to this place where I buried my wounded heart, countless times, this land of broken promises, this nation of liars, I will not give birth surrounded by all this fear . . .”

Ideeyah returns on “Wild Irish Rose,” singing the chorus “stay away from women with stems extending far beyond their flowers” between verses of Moore’s poem: “If I leave a seed on every corner maybe my people won’t forget me / I know God sent me, or the wind might have dreamt me / So many spirits sitting on top of Motor City, but I got to do something with the power my ancestors leant me . . . Another garden gone, won’t be long before Black girl doesn’t get to sing her song, ‘cause Daddy and the greenhouse disappeared at dawn.

Another highlight is “Catch Me if You Can,” a tour de force alternating between Moore’s reverb soaked verse and Talib Kweli’s rapid fire delivery, backed by acoustic guitar and trumpet.

YouTube Preview Image

Black Tea: The Legend of Jessi James is Moore’s lush and provocative HERstory, a shape shifting fable rooted in the cultural experiences and music of the 21st century Motor City. This album is especially recommended for those who enjoy contemporary poetry, and for libraries collecting sound recordings of poetry set to music.

Listen on Spotify here

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Abbey Lincoln – Sophisticated Abbey

Abbey Lincoln
Title: Sophisticated Abbey

Artist: Abbey Lincoln

Label: HighNote

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: August 21, 2015

 
 

Sophisticated Abbey provides a new window to a previously under-documented period in jazz vocalist Abbey Lincoln’s career. This set, recorded live in 1980 at the Keystone Korner in San Francisco, showcases Lincoln’s sensibility during the ‘70s and ‘80s, moving away from her signature songs about social issues and sonic experimentation towards a revival of classic vocal swing.

Lincoln, a singer who just sings the songs, rather than embellishing them as an instrumentalist or a flashier vocalist might, interprets the tunes on this record with a restrained sensibility, backed by only a rhythm section of Phil Wright (piano), James Leary (Bass), and Douglas Sides (drums). The set includes some of Lincoln’s original compositions, such as “Painted Lady” and “People in Me,” but mostly consists of songs composed or popularized by other artists, including numbers composed by Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child,” and even Stevie Wonder’s “Golden Lady.”

Lincoln and company treat all of the songs gently, simply playing through the form rather than turning them into vehicles for extended improvisation, staying true to the vocalist-fronted small band idiom. This set is an interesting record of Lincoln’s mid-career activities, but ultimately falls short of her more adventurous classic album releases.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Ghosts Appearing through the Sound: Kosi Sings Abbey

Kosi
Title: Ghosts Appearing through the Sound: Kosi Sings Abbey

Artist: Kosi

Label: Self-produced

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: August 6, 2015

 
 

Based in New York City, jazz and R&B singer Kosi (a.k.a. Akosua Gyebi) tackles the music of Abbey Lincoln on her third full-length release, Ghosts Appearing Through the Sound. An artist who makes her way across the country predominantly performing at house shows, Kosi has assembled a competent rhythm section to record the complex and difficult music of Lincoln.

YouTube Preview Image

There are some very nice interpretations on this album, but Kosi has a tendency to over-sing and her band makes strange choices at times, such as the seemingly missing hi-hat during the conventional medium-tempo swing on Lincoln and John Coltrane’s composition “Africa.” One of the challenges with interpreting Lincoln’s songbook is the attention to detail that comprised an essential part of Lincoln’s interpretations of her own songs. Some of this detail is missing in Kosi’s approach, which seems more designed to showcase her chops than serve the songs themselves. The difficulty of effectively performing this repertoire is likely one reason there aren’t many tribute albums dedicated to Lincoln’s music. The songs are carefully constructed and interpreting them requires the proverbial scalpel rather than the hatchet. It is impossible to duplicate Lincoln’s delivery and quite difficult to set up a compelling original interpretation of much of this material.

Overall, Ghosts Appearing Through the Sound is somewhat underwhelming, and this project was likely a bit beyond this band’s interpretive reach. This release certainly reflects effort on the part of its creators, but unfortunately falls short of being especially compelling, musically or emotionally.

Listen on Spotify here

Reviewed by Matthew Alley