Adam O’Farrill – Stranger Days

adam-ofarrill
Title: Stranger Days

Artist: Adam O’Farrill

Label: Sunnyside

Formats: CD, digital

Release date: April 29, 2016

 

 

Trumpeter Adam O’Farrill and his brother Zack (the drummer in this quartet outing) are third-generation New York jazz royalty. Their grandfather, Chico O’Farrill, was an in-demand arranger and composer and made recordings with Charlie Parker, Clark Terry and many other greats. Their father, Arturo O’Farrill, is a two-time Grammy winner and leader of the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra. So a heavy burden of expectations rests on the young O’Farrill brothers’ shoulders. With Stranger Days, they have chosen a new jazz direction, decidedly not Latin-flavored and decidedly the kind of melodic/swinging music associated with their father and grandfather.

The O’Farrill brothers, along with Chad Lefkowitz-Brown on tenor sax and Walter Stinson on bass, take a turn into free-jazz with episodes of bebop and the occasional aside of a brief swinging melody fragment. It’s abstruse music, and it takes a few listens to this album to understand the music and Adam O’Farrill’s vision.

The liner notes, by Zack O’Farrill, help. Zack notes that his brother is a “true cinephile” and an avid player of videogames. He cites those influences on Adam’s musical approach, a dedication to movie-like musical pictures and game-like interplay between the musicians. Plus, the brothers grew up immersed in music and were exposed to many different styles and genres. The music of this quartet seems particularly influenced by free-jazz and modern classical music, but they arrive at a somewhat more accessible style that is not all atonal/a-rhythmic screeching instruments. Indeed, at times they sound like the great Clifford Brown/Max Roach quintet, which says much for their musical chops.

If you saw the O’Farrill name and expect something Cuban-big band-swinging, you won’t find it here. But Stranger Days is worth a listen because Adam O’Farrill and his bandmates strike out in new directions. They are young, and there is a wide world for them to explore. It will be interesting to hear where they go from here.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

Evelyn “Champagne” King – The Complete RCA Hits and More

evelyn-king
Title: The Complete RCA Hits and More

Artist: Evelyn “Champagne” King

Label: Real Gone Music

Format: 2-CD set

Release date: October 7, 2016

 

 

There is a great story about how Evelyn King was discovered. Up and coming producer T. Life heard King’s voice one night, while she was cleaning the offices of Philadelphia International Records. She was singing Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” which impressed T. Life enough that he offered to coach the teenager. Evelyn King should have been a bigger star after the 1977 hit single “Shame” put her on the map. Now, I might be saying that because I happened to reside in Philadelphia, but nonetheless I’ve felt that way for years.

Real Gone Music’s two disc set, The Complete RCA Hits and More, contains all the hits plus songs that received very little attention. All the tracks on this set are 12” mixes or extended versions, so you feel like you are in a club and the DJ is giving you a new version you never heard before. All these tracks were remastered for this set by Maria Triana at Battery Studios in New York.

There are many highlights these two discs, such as “Dancin’, Dancin’, Dancin’,” written by none other than Teddy Pendergrass. Released before “Shame,” it is very disco-y but shows that King had vocal talent. “Aquarius / Let the Sun Shine In,” a remake of the Fifth Dimension classic, is pretty good, with King showing another side of her talent. “I Don’t Know If It’s Right” was released immediately after “Shame” and was also popular in clubs. In this song, King is singing about whether or not she wants to lose her virginity; the opening saxophone has always been a winner and here you get the extra bonus of an extended version. As the ‘80s were ushered in, King released “I’m In Love.” This time she is not worried about losing her innocence, and perhaps it’s her last hurrah:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SLL0PdFIU0o

I mentioned “Shame,” which is the very first track on this set. When it was released in 1977, King was all over—American Bandstand, Soul Train, you name it. Today, “Shame” can still get people on the dance floor. The long version is included in this set, so enjoy.

Evelyn “Champagne” King was billed a dance artist. After the success of “Shame,” no wonder. I personally would have loved to hear more of her ballads or duets, but this is still a great set. Again, Evelyn King should have been a much bigger star.

The Complete RCA Hits and More also includes extensive liner notes with photos and album art from the RCA Vault. The liner notes are written by soul expert David Nathan and feature exclusive quotes from Evelyn “Champagne” King herself. This album is the first comprehensive domestic collection of King’s work, making this set a must-have for any fan of disco music.

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

Dee Dee Sharp – Songs of Faith

dee-dee-sharp
Title: Songs of Faith

Artist: Dee Dee Sharp

Label: Abkco

Formats: CD,  MP3

Release date : October 21, 2016

 

 

Well thank you. After more than fifty years, fans of Dee Dee Sharp can once again hear her long out-of-print album, Songs of Faith.  Perhaps now fans, and others as well, will finally come to realize that Dee Dee Sharp accomplished more in her career than (1), her 1962 hit “Mashed Potato Time,” and (2), being married to Kenny Gamble. Strange but true, “Mashed Potato Time” was knocked out of place by Little Eva’s “The Loco Motion,” a song Gerry Goffin & Carole King wrote and offered to Sharp, who turned it down. Instead, Dee Dee Sharp went to New York in 1962 to record Songs of Faith, which immediately followed the release of her debut album, It’s Mashed Potato Time.

In Songs of Faith, Sharp—who sang in Philadelphia’s Third Eternal Baptist Church where her grandfather was pastor—shows a vocal range that “Mashed Potato Time” could never give justice to. The opening track, an arrangement of Thomas Dorsey’s “Peace in the Valley,” sounds more like a tune suited for the Lawrence Welk show and the Lennon Sisters with its lush orchestral backing. “No more sadness, no more troubles,” sings Sharp. With the recent affairs after the election and all its chaos, healing words indeed. “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands” may also sound hokey and out of date to a young audience, but remember, this was first released in 1962. On “Its No Secret (What God Can Do),” Sharp sounds like one of her contemporaries during this time—Barbara Lewis of “Baby I’m Yours” fame. “Up Hill” no doubt is the winner, with organ filled hand clapping. When you listen, one can picture a congregation standing in the pews, clapping, while the choir director leads the choir. “Keep a singing” is right.

After listening to all twelve tracks, I have to wonder why this original wasn’t album pushed more by the label. Bad marketing. After releasing “Mashed Potato Time,” Sharp introduced a dance that went with the single, creating a major hit which brought her to mainstream attention. If Cameo/Parkway had released this inspirational album before “Mashed Potato Time,” perhaps it might have been more successful. Or Sharp’s star might have shined brighter if Cameo had released a true gospel album, instead of a collection of pop-oriented inspirational songs recorded in the studio. Because of this, Songs of Faith can’t go toe to toe with the likes of Clara Ward or Mahalia Jackson, even though Sharp was a great gospel singer and is backed here by Philly gospel artists Willa Ward, Vivian Jackson, and Mary Wiley.  Still, it’s great to hear another side of Dee Dee Sharp. Liner notes are provide by George Washington University professor Gayle Wald, author of the Sister Rosetta Tharpe biography, Shout, Sister, Shout.

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

John Lee Hooker – The Modern, Chess & VeeJay Singles Collection, 1949-62

john-lee-hooker
Title: The Modern, Chess & VeeJay Singles Collection, 1949-62

Artist: John Lee Hooker

Label: Acrobat

Format: 4-CD set

Release date: October 7, 2016

 
Though there are countless compilations of the recordings of legendary Delta blues guitarist John Lee Hooker, this 101-track 4-CD collection from Acrobat compiles all of his singles released on the Modern, Chess and VeeJay labels from 1949 to 1962. Sequenced chronologically, disc one begins with “Sally May,” recorded in Detroit with producer Bernard Besman and released in 1949 on Joe Bihari’s Modern label out of Los Angeles. Hooker’s second release produced the indelible classic “”Boogie Chillen,” followed by more hits in his R&B arsenal: “Crawlin’ King Snake,” “Hobo Blues, “Hoogie Boogie,” plus “Rock and Roll” from 1950. The disc concludes with some of his early sides for Chicago’s Chess Records.

Disc two picks up with “High Priced Woman” on Chess and concludes with his 1953 release on the Modern label, “Too Much Boogie.” Most of the Modern releases on this disc were produced by Bihari, who flew to Detroit to work directly with Hooker. Though disc three is still dominated by Hooker’s releases for Bihari, we’re introduced to the VeeJay period, which carries through to the end of disc four. Hooker signed with the Chicago-based VeeJay label in 1955, which produced a number of career highlights including his classic 1962 song “Boom,” with backing provided by session musicians with experience in Motown’s studio. The set concludes with additional songs recorded during that session, coming to an optimistic close with a reworking of his 1952 song “New Leaf.”

Though this set has nothing new to offer, it presents a nice introduction to Hooker’s work, mixing his blues and R&B sides. Liner notes are provided by Paul Watts, and the booklet includes complete discographical and session information.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Common – Black America Again

common
Title: Black America Again

Artist: Common

Label: Def Jam

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: November 4, 2016

 

Rapper/actor/activist Common returns with his 11th full length album, Black America Again, a strong political and social document about race in 21st century America.  He has always had something serious to say, but Common digs even deeper on this record, citing his sources and bringing penetrating social commentary to a musical soundscape as powerful as his political messages.

Social issues have always figured prominently in the Grammy and Oscar-winning musician’s work. Race takes center stage on the title track, a cut that reveals the triumphs and tragedies of African American history but suggests that the issue of interpretation is central to how this history is applied to present struggles.  The track features sermonettes between verses, and a hook that features the great Stevie Wonder singing “We are rewriting the Black American story.”  Common continues these themes on “Letter to the Free,” a song that addresses the long and brutal history of violence and discrimination against Black people in the United States. “Letter to the Free” presents the argument advanced in Michelle Alexander’s seminal text The New Jim Crow that mass incarceration is the latest incarnation of systemic racism in America.

Common isn’t just spitballing, either. He knows the facts about these issues, asserting the academic and cultural fabric that makes up his critical perspective on “The Day That Women Took Over,” featuring BJ the Chicago Kid. The rapper proclaims that “Michelle Alexander wrote the new Constitution / Beyonce made the music for the revolution.” The song is an ode to Black womanhood, released prior to the presidential election. While the cultural points he makes about the game-changing contributions of Black women cannot be ignored, this song now feels more aspirational than it did prior to November 8. One could easily imagine a situation in which this track could serve as the soundtrack for a victory lap by the first female US president. Rather, it now seems more a reminder that the political fight for equality still rages, despite the fact that the cultural one may appear to be over.

In addition to getting political, social, and historical, Common gets very personal on Black America Again, with “Little Chicago Boy,” a song that narrates the life of his late father, the professional basketball player Lonnie Lynn. Gospel singer Tasha Cobbs is featured on this track, singing a stanza of the hymn “Father, I Stretch My Hands to Thee.”

Most of this album is harder-edged than the jazz and soul-inflected rap that Common is known for, with sparser tracks, more contemporary textures and aggressive sampling (especially of spoken word) than fans of the rapper’s earlier work may expect. The standout feature is the presence of the Black church on this record, something that listeners who have heard 2016’s other seminal rap releases—Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo and Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book—will recognize as a crucial part of the hip hop landscape.  What differentiates Common’s treatment from these others is that gospel music is less an integral part of the music—he employs sacred song and sermon to drive home his broader points on specific songs, rather than building his sound around these genres.

There are some gestures to the pop music market on this otherwise brainy artistic and social statement.  Foremost among these is the duet track with longtime collaborator John Legend, a ballad with an ear to the pop market that Legend cornered with his piano-driven style.  This song, “Rain,” will inevitably be a radio hit: it is vague enough to be about a number of things, but melodic enough to catch the ears of listeners who aren’t hardcore rap fans. In fact, it feels more like a John Legend song than a Common one. Accompanied only by Legend’s piano, Common gets just one verse, a formula far more resonant with the singer-feat. rapper model than rapper-feat. singer one. There are other songs that aren’t explicitly political. “Love Song” and “Red Wine” fall more into the club slow-jam category than something one may expect on a political mixtape, but even the latter reads as a celebration of Black American royalty and the rapper’s status within it.

Hopefully, Black America Again will usher in an era of similarly specific and poignant social and political commentary from both Common and other rappers in his vein.  Election years are normally brimming with political releases, and this is by far one of the strongest of the bunch. Common’s politics are clear, certain, and compelling—his musical orchestrations of them uncompromising.  Conscious listeners will need more releases like this in the years to come, and it seems like Common is primed to deliver them.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Solange – A Seat At the Table

solange
Title: A Seat at the Table

Artist: Solange

Label: Saint Records/Columbia

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: November 18, 2016

 

A Seat at the Table is Solange’s third full-length album, and debuted to wide critical acclaim as well as a great deal of commercial success, for good reason. The album is a force of nature, ethereal and almost delicate at times, yet tackles some of the heaviest aspects of black life today.  She sings about the range of the black experience and black womanhood, from depression on “Cranes in the Sky” to the pivotal and still relevant decree, “Don’t Touch My Hair.”  “F.U.B.U.” is a self-determination anthem bearing the name of the ‘90s clothing brand, and “Mad” explores the seemingly perpetual regulation of black anger and frustration.

Several key collaborators help to bring the album’s vision together, including Solange’s parents. Both provide important interludes, with her father discussing school integration in “Dad Was Mad” and Mama Tina outlining the importance of affirming one’s blackness in “Tina Taught Me.”  Most of the other interludes are handled by Master P, who recounts his own stories about self-worth as a young rapper coming up in the music industry.  The album was co-produced by Raphael Saddiq, whose laid back funk grooves provide the perfect setting for Solange’s vocals.

This album is all the hashtags one could hope for: it’s #woke, full of #blackexcellence and #blackgirlmagic. However, A Seat at the Table is more than just part of the Black Twitter news cycle.  It has staying power, it shows how Solange has grown and settled into her artistry, and it sets an example of what political music can (and should) be in these trying times.

Reviewed by Allie Martin

Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra – Basically Baker, Vol. 2

basically-baker-2
Title: Basically Baker, Vol. 2

Artist: Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra

Label: Patois Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 23, 2016

 

On the 2-disc set Basically Baker, Vol. 2, the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra celebrates the big band legacy of the late David N. Baker. The celebrated performer/composer founded the Jazz Studies program in 1968 at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, where he was a beloved mentor to countless students over the decades—some of whom are featured on this project.  The first Basically Baker volume was recorded in 2005, and though trombonist Brent Wallarab said Baker talked to him for quite some time about a second volume, Baker’s death this March at the age of 84 gave the project the momentum it needed. For Wallarab, “the project was a way we could all channel our grief into something productive that honored David’s wishes to care for his music after he was gone.”

Basically Baker, Vol. 2 is remarkable because it features music that was previously performed almost exclusively at Indiana University. Contributing to the challenge of honoring Baker’s legacy are many of Baker’s students and protégés, such as Wallarab, saxophonist Tom Walsh, trumpeters Mark Buselli and Pat Harbison, and pianist Luke Gillespie, who form the main jazz orchestra. Special guests also appear on the album, and according to Wallarab, “many musicians cancelled or rescheduled other commitments already on the books to participate.” Trumpeter and multi-Grammy winner Randy Brecker, an IU alum, and IU jazz faculty guitarist Dave Stryker play on Baker’s composition for his granddaughter, “Kirsten’s First Song,” and IU jazz faculty trombonist and Patois Records label founder Wayne Wallace is featured on “Honesty.” A version of “Honesty” performed at the IU Jacobs School of Music can be seen below:

Basically Baker, Vol. 2 is not just a monument to Baker’s music, but also to his legacy and accomplishments. David Nathaniel Baker was born in Indianapolis in 1931, when the country was racially segregated, and jazz was a new, controversial form of music. Much had changed by the time of his death in 2016, and Baker contributed to these transitions through his jazz and classical compositions, his mastery of the trombone and cello, and his role as a pioneering jazz educator. In fact, many of the compositions featured on this album are from his extremely prolific first decade at IU. Baker loved using blues, popular song, and bebop in his jazz compositions, and even worked with Dizzy Gillespie for his arrangement of “Bebop,” the only non-Baker composition that appears on the album.

Through compositions such as “25th and Martindale” and “Harlem Pipes,” Baker honored his home, his family, and the global jazz community. Now on Basically Baker, Vol. 2, Baker’s own work and life is honored. The album posthumously furthers David Baker’s mission “to create, to swing, and to teach,” and cements his legacy by preserving his music for generations to come.

Editor’s note: One of Baker’s early projects at IU was the edited volume The Black Composer Speaks (1978). Interviews and research materials used for the production of the book are housed at the IU Archives of African American Music and Culture and described on this collection finding aid.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams

washington-phillips
Title: Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams

Artist: Washington Phillips

Label: Dust-to-Digital

Format: Hardcover book bound with CD

Release date: November 11, 2016

 

Reissue label Dust-to-Digital made a big splash with their inaugural release Goodbye, Babylon in 2003. The wonderfully packaged multidisc box set explored many long forgotten and unreleased songs by gospel artists and sermons from preachers recorded in the early 20th century.

One of the standouts from that collection was the work of one Washington Phillips (1880-1954).  On his two tracks included on Goodbye, Babylon, Phillips’ singing is backed by a mysterious instrument of his own creation called a Manzarene. Those two tracks sparked a renewed interest in Phillips, leading to a search for more recordings.  Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams is a newly remastered and expanded edition of Phillips’ worked pulled from original 78-rpm discs recorded between 1927-1929.

As with many high quality box set releases, an excellent complement to the music itself is the pristine 76 page hardcover book/liner notes included with this collection (the CD is slipped inside the front cover).  The book traces the legend of Washington Phillips from birth to death, debunking oft retold misinformation that may have been circulated in prior collections of his work.  Tapping people that knew the man himself, as well as his own meticulous research, writer Michael Corcoran explores the history of Phillips dating back to his grandfather, born into slavery in 1801, and up to Phillips’ death in 1954.  Along the way Corcoran details stories about Phillips’ home life, career, the creation of the aforementioned manzarene and even a cousin with the same name whose life journey ended much differently than Phillips’ own.  The book also includes photos and reproductions that help bring Phillips’ story to life, contextualizing his musical contributions.  His work has since been covered by artists such as Arizona Dranes, Mavis Staples and Phish. This deep dive into Phillips’ gospel blues has unearthed gems that are sure to make more converts of artists and fans alike.

Reviewed by Levon Williams

Best of Proverb & Gospel Corner Records: 1959-1969

proverb-records
Title: Best of Proverb & Gospel Corner Records: 1959-1969

Artist: Various

Label: Gospel Friend/NarroWay

Format: 2-CD set

Release date: November 2016

 

Founded in 1959 in L.A. by Sylvester C. “Duke” Henderson, Proverb Records, and its affiliated Gospel Corner label, were a natural outgrowth of Henderson’s entrepreneurial activities. Over the course of his career he worked as a deejay and concert promoter, songwriter and publisher, owned a record store on South Central Avenue, served as gospel director for Kent Records, and was an ordained minister. He was also a successful R&B singer and recording artist, but around 1955 had a religious conversion. Like Little Richard, Henderson decided to forsake the secular, turning to the gospel music on which he was raised. Henceforth he was known as “Brother” Henderson. Though his life was cut short at the age of 48, he managed to build an impressive record catalog.

Best of Proverb & Gospel Corner Records was compiled by noted Swedish gospel reissue producer and historian Per Notini in an “attempt to pay a long overdue tribute to Brother Henderson’s legacy.” Across the 52 tracks, one finds a mix of famous and lesser known artists. During the decade spanning 1959-1969, L.A. had become “the capital” of Black gospel music, and Henderson recorded visiting gospel luminaries as well as local artists. His eclectic catalog included soloists, gospel quartets, choirs, sermons, lining hymns, and even sacred steel guitar.

The set opens with the Mighty Clouds of Joy performing “Jesus Is Real,” made significant by the fact that Henderson shares the songwriting credit with Joe Ligon, and he was also responsible for releasing the group’s debut album, Let’s Have Church, a few years prior. The Chambers Brothers are also featured here in their only gospel side, “Just a Little More Faith.” Rarities include a live recording of Rev. W.E. Jasper of Little Rock, Arkansas lining out the hymn “Father I Stretch My Hands To Thee,” the Thomas Housley & Family of Oakland’s rocking performance of “God Is a Wonder,” and Madame Nellie Robinson’s soulful anti-war song “Viet Nam.” Other groups represented on the compilation include the Pilgrim Travelers, Singing Corinthians, Vocal-Aires, Los Angeles Angels, Hampton-Aires, Prince Dixon, and many more.

Henderson himself is well represented in this collection. His single, “Eleven-Twenty Two Nineteen Sixty Three,” credited to Brother Henderson Religious D.J. of Los Angeles Co., is based on his own poem written as a reaction to the murder of John F. Kennedy. There are also sides from various groups he founded, including Brother Henderson’s Spiritual Lambs, and the youthful Watts Community Choir led by Dee Jae Rogers (aka ‘70s soul singer D.J. Rogers).

Best of Proverb & Gospel Corner Records is a fantastic compilation that perfectly encapsulates the wide range of gospel music popular in the 1960s, from traditional gospel to rock and soul based songs with psychedelic guitar riffs—while also documenting little known gospel groups. Even better, it serves as a fitting tribute to Brother Henderson, who life’s work is finally available once again for all to enjoy.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup – A Music Man Like Nobody Ever Saw

arthur-crudup
Title: A Music Man Like Nobody Ever Saw

Artist: Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup

Label: Bear Family

Format: 5-CD Box Set

Release date: August 12, 2016

 

Bear Family, the highly regarded reissue label based in Germany, has issued many box sets devoted to R&B and blues musicians. The latest hefty package includes 5 CDs featuring the entire recorded output of Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup, spanning the years 1941-1962. Of course the prominent Delta blues musician is best known for his 1946 song, “That’s All Right”—famously covered by Elvis Presley, who said in a 1971 interview: “Down in Tupelo, Mississippi, I used to hear old Arthur Crudup bang his box the way I do now, and I said if I ever got to the place I could feel all old Arthur felt, I’d be a music man like nobody ever saw.” Crudup inadvertently contributed to Elvis’ huge success when, on the evening of July 5, 1954, Elvis recorded a cover version of “That’s All Right” and the rest, as they say, is history. He went on to cover two more Crudup songs (“My Baby Left Me” and “So Glad You’re Mine”), garnering the moniker “King of Rock and Roll,” while Crudup was at least accorded the title of “The Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” I’m sure this title, conferred on him by a record company publicist, likely did not make up for his exploitation and lack of royalties—but that’s another, all too frequent story.

A Music Man Like Nobody Ever Saw includes the entire story of Arthur Crudup, as told by Chicago music writer Bill Dahl, in a sumptuously illustrated 68-page hardcover LP size book that also includes a complete discography. With 124 tracks and over 6 hours of playing time, listeners can gain a thorough understanding of Arthur Crudup beyond his most popular songs. As with many Bear Family sets, it’s not necessarily something you would want to digest in one sitting, but serves its purpose as a reference volume that preserves a complete slice of music history in wonderfully remastered sound.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Otis Redding – Live at the Whisky A Go-Go, The Complete Recordings

otis-redding
Title: Live at the Whisky A Go-Go, The Complete Recordings

Artist: Otis Redding

Label: Volt/Concord

Formats: CD, digital, LP (excerpts, limited edition)

Release date: October 21, 2016

In this new 6-disc set, Concord Records, the current owner of the Stax label and catalog, puts out for public consumption every inch of tape rolled during Otis Redding’s 3-day/3-night stand at Los Angeles’s Whisky A Go-Go club on April 8-10, 1966. The completist approach is for better or worse, especially since “the best” material from these sets was released in 1968 as In Person at the Whisky A Go Go (Atco), and then more material was released in 1982 (Atlantic LP) and 1993 (Fantasy/Stax CD with bonus tracks) as Good To Me.

In keeping with the year-end holiday spirit, let’s start with the “for better” aspects of this set. The number one good new feature is the improved sound quality. Engineer Seth Presant remixed the original 4-track tapes and the result is a near-clear window into what Otis and his 9-man band sounded like on that stage. The new reissue also features some snazzy packaging; including liner notes on the back of a poster-sized reproduction of the box set cover art. Liner notes include essays by reissue co-producer Bill Bentley and Los Angeles arts and culture writer Lynell George.

The CDs are broken up mostly into individual live sets, the exception being the long second set from Friday, April 8, 1966 being spread over the end of disc 1 and all of disc 2. Disc 3 contains the longer first set from Saturday, April 9, while disc 4 contains the shorter second and third sets from that night. Disc 5 and disc 6 are, respectively, the two sets from Sunday, April 10. Several songs are heard in nearly every set. Indeed, buyer beware—there are many repeat performances of key tunes in the Otis Redding songbook, so variety is not the strong suit in this album.

Which brings us to the “for worse” aspects of this reissue. The big problem with these performances is, the band just didn’t hit its mark most of the time. The horns were often out of tune and rhythm was not tight enough for album-quality takes (which is probably why a few tunes were repeated over and over). The liner notes mention the club’s audience being mainly white kids, and Otis Redding was just beginning to have crossover success at that point in his career, so there was probably a bit of an energy gap between performer and audience. For whatever reason, the overall performances ebb and flow through each set, although it’s clear that Redding was working hard to get his music across and leave L.A. with a viable live album in the can.

After listening to all the Whisky A Go-Go shows, I’m not convinced that Redding would have wanted the complete package released. The performances just weren’t good and consistent enough, which is likely why a lot of editing was employed to get the first two releases. And, even in the edited form, these performances pale in comparison to Redding’s tear-down-the-house triumph at the Monterey Pop Festival a year and two months later. It’s worth noting that Redding played Monterrey backed by the super-tight Stax house band, Booker T. and the MG’s (see the film “Monterey Pop” to witness the incendiary results). Otis Redding died in a plane crash, at age 26, six months after Monterey.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

Isley Brothers – Go For Your Guns

isley-brothers
Title: Go For Your Guns

Artist: Isley Brothers

Label: Iconoclassic

Format: CD (expanded ed.)

Release date: July 29, 2016

 

Look let’s be honest, most Isley Brothers fans know the 1977 album Go For Your Guns for its big hits “Footsteps In The Dark” and “Voyage To Atlantis.”  Also, these two particular songs are usually included on most Isley Brothers Greatest Hits compilations, so why might a reissue of Go For Your Guns be worth a spin?  Well, there are a couple of reasons. The first is to reintroduce the record as whole. The entire album.  This is a powerful piece of work that really illustrates that the Isley Brothers are, in a lot of ways, still underrated considering their contribution to modern popular music.  Beyond the hits, also included are tracks such as “The Pride”—which sets the album in righteous fashion with an exploration of one of life’s major motivations—and “Tell Me When You Need It Again” complete with a fat, funky bassline courtesy of Marvin Isley, plus one of my favorites, “Climbing Up the Ladder.”  The latter is as funky and rock-edged a workout as any early Funkadelic side.  Ernie Isley really leans into guitar, demonstrating his prowess with a biting guitar solo which illustrates how powerful the brothers became as a unit with their 3+3 lineup. This lineup had begun a few albums prior, adding brothers Ernie and Marvin on guitar and bass respectively, as well as brother-in-law Chris Jasper on keyboards, to the vocal trio of Ron, Rudolph, and O’Kelly.  Ernie also flexes on the album’s title track, which is essentially an extension of the funk groove from “Livin’ the Life.” This edition, digitally remastered from the master tapes, also includes three bonus tracks including the disco versions of “The Pride” and “Livin’ in the Life/Go for Your Guns.”

The second reason to pick up this re-release, as most lovers of reissues might tell you, is for the stories included in the liner notes. This reissue does not disappoint.  Written by A. Scott Galloway, who is clearly both a funk and Isley Brothers aficionado, the notes are chock full of great stories. I won’t spoil too much here, but for those who are fans of shows like VH1’s Behind The Music and TV One’s Unsung, there are some gems here.  For example, the Isleys were tapped to contribute one of the songs from Go For Your Guns to the soundtrack that became Saturday Night Fever.  Interested in which song it was and why in God’s name they decided not to do it? That question and more are answered in Galloway’s engaging liner notes.

And yes, I’ve purposely circumvented making this review all about the big hits, but I must say, the bridge on “Voyage To Atlantis” is still as ethereal (and lit) as it ever was.  (On a side note, I did a quick cursory search and “Voyage” has been sampled over 40 times and only one producer has flipped the bridge groove as opposed to the main groove.  How is that possible??) Anyway, great record + great notes = great reissue.

Reviewed by Levon Williams

Blind Boys of Alabama – Two Classic Albums Reissued

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Title: Go Tell It On the Mountain (expanded ed.)

Artist: The Blind Boys of Alabama

Label: Omnivore Recordings

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: November 4, 2016

 

The Blind Boys of Alabama’s Go Tell It on the Mountain is a mix of traditional Christmas songs and hymns that earned the group their third Grammy Award in 2003. Just in time for this holiday season, Omnivore Recordings released an expanded edition of the album that includes a new essay by writer Davin Seay (co-author of memoirs by Al Green and Snoop Dogg) and two bonus tracks: live versions of “Go Tell It On the Mountain” and “Amazing Grace,” which can be seen below:

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The album features a multitude of musical stars including Mavis Staples, Michael Franti, and even George Clinton on an arrangement of “Away in A Manger.” Energy-filled tracks such as “Last Month of the Year” are balanced with tranquil tracks such as their a capella version of “Joy to the World” featuring NOLA R&B singer Aaron Neville. With this star-studded cast and a ton of holiday cheer, Go Tell It On the Mountain is sure to brighten your December.

atom-bomb
Title: Atom Bomb (expanded ed.)

Artist: The Blind Boys of Alabama

Label: Omnivore Recordings

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: November 4, 2016

 

Omnivore has also released an expanded edition of The Blind Boys’ 2005 album Atom Bomb, featuring gospel standards such as “Faith and Grace” along with more contemporary songs like their cover of Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky.”  The expanded edition features instrumental versions of seven songs plus a new essay from Seay.

Any Blind Boys of Alabama fan will enjoy the new insights and commentary offered in Seay’s essays and the additional versions of their classic hits.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Delfeayo Marsalis and the Uptown Jazz Orchestra – Make America Great Again!

delfeayo
Title: Make America Great Again!

Artist: Delfeayo Marsalis and the Uptown Jazz Orchestra

Label: Troubadour Jass Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 16, 2016

September’s new release by trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis is a strong, if jumbled, album full of social commentary, strong arrangements, and all-around great playing from the trombonist’s sturdy and compelling band.

While the album’s title, Make America Great Again!, is lifted straight from the headlines of the 2016 presidential race and suggests that Marsalis is shooting for penetrating political discourse (although a cynic might say this is a clever way to plug the album through serendipitous Google or Amazon hits), much of this release is simply a study in good jazz band writing.  There certainly are gestures at social commentary, including an excellent arrangement of “The Star Spangled Banner” as the record’s opening cut. The title track offers a fairly obvious critique of the even more simplistic Trump campaign slogan, pointing out the conspicuous problems with the “Make America Great Again” rallying cry, given the country’s (to be charitable) checkered past.  This cut features the voice talents of the great actor Wendell Pierce (The Wire, Treme); unfortunately, the spoken word he delivers offers very little insight into the problems really at the heart of the resurgence of far right-wing politics in America. Overall, it seems like Marsalis, an artist who specializes in a particularly historically-conscious approach to jazz, is simply preaching to the choir on this one.

This album’s real high points are those where the band plays its swinging heart out. Marsalis and company dig deep into New Orleans trad-jazz on “Second Line,” comb West African music, rap, and jazz on “Back to Africa,” call back to the height of dance bands on “Symphony in Riffs,” play what sounds like the Basie chart for “All of Me,” and they even include a backbeat arrangement of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” complete with solo breaks. The Uptown Jazz Orchestra is a stylistic juggernaut, the album a veritable history book of American music. This compelling stylistic variety is largely due to the strength of the arrangements (by Kris Berg, Phil Sims, and Marsalis), but the absolute taste and skill of the players is not to be understated, either.

Marsalis and company’s music, rather than their political commentary, have the possibility to make American music great (again?). Without a doubt, this is the most stylistically diverse jazz album we will hear in 2016, a great alternative to the trite narratives we have heard from all sides of the political spectrum this year. I recommend turning off the news and putting on this record.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Samora Pinderhughes – The Transformations Suite

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Title: The Transformations Suite

Artist: Samora Pinderhughes

Label: Gray Area

Format: Digital (MP3, FLAC, etc.)

Release date: October 12, 2016

 

Although originally composed in 2011, The Transformations Suite is one in a long list of artistic projects related to and inspired by the Black Lives Matter Movement.  BLM has pushed many artists to engage with questions of civil rights, police brutality, and black humanity, and Samora Pinderhughes is a leading voice in this conversation.  The 24-year-old Juilliard trained pianist and composer is already a very accomplished musician, with a number of high profile collaborators.  Pinderhughes is the musical director for Ava Duvernay and Ryan Coogler’s Blackout for Human Rights, a Sundance film festival fellow, and recently premiered a song inspired by the death of Sandra Bland at the Kennedy Center with Lalah Hathaway.  His sister, Elena Pinderhughes, is also a successful musician in her own right, currently collaborating with Common as both singer and flutist, and featured in his most recent Tiny Desk concert at the White House as well as on his upcoming album.  In fact, the two perform together in The Transformations Suite, with Elena being featured heavily on “Cycles.”

The Transformations Suite is tone poem with five movements: transformation, history, cycles, momentum (parts 1 and 2), and ascension.  It features a combination of jazz and spoken word (with texts by Saul Williams and Tupac Shakur), and draws on all facets of the African-American musical tradition, from spirituals to hip-hop.  Highlights include “Cycles,” which features a motif that will haunt you even after the movement is over.  Another favorite is “Momentum (Part 2),” which questions the status quo and refuses to be silenced.

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The Transformations Suite is an ambitious, extraordinarily timely composition, coming on the heels of another summer filled with police brutality.  The music becomes a space of both collective mourning and healing, and also imagines a space of possibility in which we get free.

Reviewed by Allie Martin

clipping. – Splendor & Misery

clipping
Title: Splendor & Misery

Artist: clipping.

Label: Sub Pop

Formats: CD, LP, Cassette, MP3

Release date: September 9, 2016

 

Afrofuturism is an engagement with and an intervention into the tropes science fiction, denying the assumption of the whiteness of speculative worlds and claiming a place in space for people of African descent and Black culture. In literature, authors such as Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney have imagined future Earths or space adventures populated with the characters and themes important to the historical and contemporary Black Diaspora and the transnational cultures of the Black Atlantic.

In music, bands and musicians such as Parliament, Sun Ra, Drexciya, Kool Keith and Deltron 3030 have created personas and albums using the tropes of Afrofuturism. Clipping.’s new album, Splendor & Misery, engages with this musical aesthetic, drawing on experimental electronic music, hip hop and gangsta rap to create a thrilling and emotionally affective sonic space opera.

Daveed Diggs, William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes’ debut, CLPPNG (Subpop, 2014), was a rap album performed and recorded in an experimental manner. The group deployed the themes and language of gansta rap through rhymes spit over analogue synthesizers and experimental beats, delivering the poetic and profane narratives over blasts of electronic noise. Even though it was not a concept album or a rap opera, because of its execution, it could be interpreted as a series of interconnected stories.

Splendor & Misery shares the flow and the experimental production of CLPPNG, but it is radically different in tone. This time, Diggs (the star of Hamilton), Hutson (a.k.a. Rale) and Snipes (also of Captain Ahab) set out to create an intentional concept album about a slave named Cargo 2331 who survives a slave revolt on an intergalactic transport where all human inhabitants except him have been terminated with gas. This leaves him alone with the ship’s computer, who we learn falls in love with 2331 on “All Black Everything.” This and other songs are told from the perspective of the ship’s computer, while others such as “Air Em Out” tell of Cargo 2331’s experience on the ship and his background growing up. The rap songs are intercut with spiritual-style acapella songs like “Story 5,” breaking up the flow of the rhymes and beats with both mourning and hope, and grounding the science fiction themes into a musical genre that evokes the Black Atlantic narrative.

The melding of rap and experimental noise music on clipping.’s first album was an aural shock that some rap and hip hop critics disliked, accusing the group of not being “real” hip hop (see Wondering Sound interview). In my opinion the white noise, clanks and saw tooth waves evoked an industrial violence that tangled together nicely with the pulp crime aesthetics of the album’s gangsta rap lyrics. It was jarring, but the discordance of the noise and flow in a song like “Dominoes” worked together, evoking the life of a gangsta who survived the game, in an exciting way.

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The blips and fm noise on Splendor & Misery fit more logically into a story of a protagonist on a ship floating in space; for many listeners these sounds signify science fiction space and because of this, the beats and flows sound more incorporated. On this album, it is the spirituals that are jarring to the listener. Nodding our head to a tuff banger one minute then being immersed in the longing and sadness of a spiritual the next is a different, potentially more difficult kind of dissidence. Rocking out to the catchy rhymes of “Air Em Out,” then switching gears to a song like “Story 5” that tells the story of Grace—a community leader who taught self-defense in a dystopian world but who was randomly struck down—could be off-putting to some listeners. But as an album, clipping. makes it work.

Bouncing around between themes of anger, defensive posturing, inspiration, alienation and spirituality, narrating how the character survives violence and determines his own future, clipping. weaves both musical styles and the various themes together into songs like “True Believer” or the uplifting album closer “A Better Place.” Sometimes music groups who deliver exceptional debut albums struggle with their sophomore album, delivering a pale imitation of the first, or an unfocused muddle that does not become clarified until subsequent albums. clipping. avoided both those scenarios by gathering up everything they worked out on CLPPNG, heeding the call of the Mothership and blasting their game out into space chanting “All Black Everything.”

Reviewed by N. A. Cordova

Marian Anderson – Let Freedom Ring!

marian-anderson
Title: Let Freedom Ring!

Artist: Marian Anderson

Label: JSP

Format: CD

Release date: November 4, 2016

 

Though illustrious contralto Marian Anderson broke many barriers over the course of her career, her 1939 concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. stands as a signal moment in the history of civil rights. Most know this story but it certainly bears repeating for a younger generation.

After concertizing around the world in the 1930s and becoming the toast of Europe, Anderson’s agent, Sol Hurok, brought her back to America in 1935 for a historic homecoming at Town Hall in New York. His hope that her international stardom would shield her from racial discrimination in her homeland was unfortunately not realized. As was the case with all African Americans, concert artists included, Anderson was subjected to many indignities—not the least of which were segregated concert halls and denial of access to hotels and restaurants while touring. Though she initially avoided taking a political stance, this role was thrust upon her in 1939 when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to rent Constitution Hall for Anderson’s proposed Easter Sunday concert. After being turned down by additional venues in the nation’s capital, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt took up the cause (she had brought Anderson to the White House three years earlier), along with many other politicians and celebrities. To make a long story short, the Easter concert went forward on April 9, 1939, but was moved to the Lincoln Memorial on the Mall. Over 75,000 were in attendance, and the concert was broadcast live over NBC.

Let Freedom Ring! is advertised by JSP Records as the first state-of-the-art audio restoration of the NBC broadcast to be reissued on CD. In the accompanying notes by restoration engineer John H. Haley, he describes using noise removal to downplay the “noisy outdoor audience” in order to give justice to Anderson’s sumptuous voice. She was 42-years-old at the time, and the concert captures her in her prime. After the opening announcements, the concert begins with “America (My Country, ‘Tis of Thee)” as documented on this newsreel restored by UCLA:

Also included on this CD is a concert recorded over 20 years later at the Falkoner Centret in Copenhagen. Never before released, the October 27, 1961 performance includes Anderson’s typical mix of Brahms and Schubert lieder with a number of standard spirituals. Of particular interest are two lieder by Finish composer Yrjö Henrik Kilpinen, who died two years prior to this concert, as well as songs by Sibelius and an aria from Saint-Saens’ Samson et Dalila. As Haley notes, Anderson was 64 at the time of this concert and nearing the end of her career. Her performance is still captivating, even though a bit tenuous at times (Haley admits to making some pitch corrections).

If you wish to learn more about Anderson’s historic 1939 performance, the booklet includes the riveting story as excerpted from Harlow Robinson’s The Last Impresario: The Life, Times and Legacy of Sol Hurok (New York: Viking Penguin, 1994). Marion Anderson’s personal papers are housed at the University of Pennsylvania.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Mahalia Jackson – Moving On Up a Little Higher

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Title: Moving On Up a Little Higher

Artist: Mahalia Jackson

Label: Shanachie/Spirit Feel

Formats: CD

Release date: September 30, 2016

 

Billed as the “ultimate collection,” this new compilation from Shanachie is indeed a must have for all gospel music enthusiasts. Featuring 22 previously unleased songs recorded between 1946-1957, Moving On Up a Little Higher was produced by well-known gospel historian Anthony Heilbut, who was also responsible for last year’s Marion Williams compilation, Packin’ Up.

A tireless researcher, Heilbut scoured archives across the country to locate the gems included on this disc. Nine of the selections were recorded in 1957 during Mahalia’s first appearance at Newport Jazz Festival, where she was accompanied by both Mildred Falls on piano and Dickie Mitchell on organ.[1] Heilbut notes that Mahalia followed her chief rival, Marion Williams (Clara Ward Singers), who also performed at the festival, perhaps inspiring Mahalia to greater heights. Whether or not there’s any truth to this assumption, the inclusion of other gospel singers at the festival likely helped Mahalia channel the Holy Spirit in this very secular setting. Though she had already recorded some of these songs, her renditions at Newport are often much more intense than her studio recordings for Apollo, and later Columbia.

The disc opens with Mahalia explaining to the Newport audience, “You know, I’m really a church singer – I may have this rock ‘n’ roll, but I’ve got to feel this thing – I got to get it to be a part of me, you know? Hallelujah!” Then she tears into “Keep Your Hand on the Plow,” rocking and shouting to the heavens. This is followed by a swinging version of “Jesus Met the Woman at the Well” and the Mahalia standard “Troubles of the World,” a slow burner starting on a low moan that sends chills up the spine. Next is Roberta Martin’s arrangement of “Didn’t It Rain,” which Jackson “builds to a shouting explosion.” This leads into Thomas A. Dorsey’s “I’m Gonna Live the Life I Sing About In My Song,” and the obvious crowd favorite, “In the Upper Room,” which Jackson recorded for Apollo in 1952. Here she only includes the chorus, but still manages to brings down the house.

The Newport set closes with several more crowd favorites: a shouting rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” the Rev. W. Herbert Brewster’s “Move On Up a Little Higher,” and “His Eye Is On the Sparrow” which includes some impromptu testifying.

The next batch of recordings were sourced from The William Russell Jazz Collection housed at The Historic New Orleans Collection. This fabulous treasure trove of rare material includes two tracks recorded in 1951 during a folk music concert at Chicago’s Wendell Phillips High School. Mahalia sang six songs at this concert, but only two are included here: Alex Bradford’s “Savior More Than Life To Me” (never commercially recorded by Jackson), and “I’m Glad Salvation Is Free.” The latter was one of her biggest hits, and on this performance she ad libs verses not included on her 1950 Apollo recording.

Four months later, Jackson was the featured guest at a symposium held in 1951 at the Music Inn in Lennox, MA. Two more tracks come from this performance: “He’s Pleading in Glory For Me” composed by her good friend Robert Anderson, and “Have a Little Talk With Jesus”—a gospel standard by the noted Baptist preacher/composer Cleavant Derricks, Sr.

Now, for the crème de la crème. In 1955, William Russell also recorded rehearsals in Mahalia’s Chicago home, and I understand these have only recently been digitized and made available to scholars. A haunting, a cappella performance of “Dark Was the Night and Cold the Ground”—the same song first recorded by Blind Willie Johnson in 1927—is included on track 2 (the disc is not sequenced chronologically).  Jackson similarly lines out “Before This Time Another Year” and “When The Roll Will Be Called In Heaven,” as well as “Father I Stretch My Hand to Thee,” which is preceded by her memories of Mount Moriah Baptist Church in her hometown of New Orleans. Even more enticing, there’s Mahalia accompanied by the great Thomas A. Dorsey on “Peace! It’s Wonderful” which segues rather abruptly into “Coming Back Home to Live With Jesus.” Though brief, this remarkable track captures a rare pairing of the “Father” and the “Queen” of gospel music.

The last gem from the William Russell Collection dates from a 1956 CBS Sunday morning television broadcast, featuring Mahalia on “There’s Been a Great Change In Me,” described as an old shout song rearranged by Doris Akers with Jackson singing in a higher range than usual.

The final tracks of the disc are also extremely significant, since they document Mahalia performing gospel music in sacred settings. “Beams of Heaven” was restored from a one-of-a-kind lacquer disc aircheck of a 1946 Bronx, New York church radio broadcast. Even better, the compilation closes with Jackson singing Rev. W. Herbert Brewster’s “Getting Happy In Chicago,” sourced from a 1948 aircheck of a live broadcast from Chicago’s Greater Harvest Missionary Baptist Church. In 1945 the church’s founder, Rev. Louis Boddie, began to broadcast Sunday services over radio station WAAF, which aired coast to coast. Thankfully, a number of these broadcasts from 1948 were recorded on wire reels by Melville Herskovits and later deposited and preserved at the Indiana University Archives of Traditional Music.

Heilbut, who also wrote the liner notes, begins his essay with 8 compelling reasons why Moving On Up a Little Higher should be considered the definitive Mahalia compilation. Needless to say, we can find 22 reasons why any gospel enthusiast will want this CD, since each track is a treasure.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

[1] Jackson’s appearance at Newport the following year was released by Columbia as “Mahalia Jackson Live at Newport 1958.”

After 7 – Timeless

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Title: Timeless

Artist: After 7

Label: Entertainment One

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: October 14, 2016

 

Vocal group After 7 returns after an eleven year hiatus with their album Timeless.  On this new outing the core members of the group, Kevon & Melvin Edmonds and Keith Mitchell, are joined by Melvin’s son Jason Edmonds.  As with their previous offerings, the group’s smooth vocal harmonies are front and center and Jason fits right in without missing a beat.

Timeless begins with arguably its strongest track, “Running Out,” which would be right at home with the best “Quiet Storm” grooves of the 1980s.  Despite the fact that they use various sound effects, the strength of the vocalists shine through and the music is fantastic.  The track definitely has a few Atlantic Starr vibes. “Running Out” is one of the many songs on the album written by Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds.  It is clear from this jam that Babyface has in no way lost his touch and might very well be the producer heir apparent to Quincy Jones, should he ever decide to go that route.

Another highlight on the album is “I Want You,” which has been making the rounds as a single. On this Babyface penned track the fellas creatively share lead, switching between vocalists on each line.  After 7 sounds exceptionally energized here and the track is all the better for it. Following is another single from the album, “Let Me Know”:

The themes throughout the album are, as you’d expect, love, relationships, and desire.  This is stanchly “grown folks music,” with perspectives on these themes that are more in tune with the “Grown and Sexy” than their younger counterparts.  The production volleys between the aforementioned Quiet Storm and soft rock elements.  A couple of the tracks definitely put me in a “Human Nature”/”Africa” (Toto references) space and that is not at all a bad thing.

The album concludes with two covers. After 7 definitely does a good job with The Stylistics’ “Bet You By Golly Wow,” although it does not reach the heights of their “Baby I’m For Real/Natural High” cover from years back. “Home” is a strong closer and ends the album with a bit of a meditative tone.

Black Grooves has a special connection to the group After 7.  Members Kevon and Keith both attended Indiana University in the late ‘70s and were members of the IU Soul Revue, a live performance ensemble that tours around the country performing songs from the Black American Songbook, past and present.  Both Keith and Kevon cite their time with the IU Soul Revue as a major influence on their respective careers in music. Furthermore, both the IU Soul Revue and Archives of African American Music and Culture were founded by Dr. Portia K. Maultsby, who mentored countless students over the years.

Overall it is great to have After 7 back doing their thing.  The smooth sounds of Timeless also reinforce the fact that Babyface has not lost a step in his production work.

Reviewed by Levon Williams

Timothy Bloom – The Beginning

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Title: The Beginning

Artist: Timothy Bloom

Label: Beyond the Sky Music

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 23, 2016

 

Timothy Bloom’s latest project, The Beginning, is the first in a trilogy of albums called “The Life.”   Bloom is perhaps best known for his 2011 hit with V. Bozeman, “Til the End of Time,” a stunning ballad that introduced him as a force in R&B.  More than just a gifted singer, though, Bloom is also an accomplished songwriter and producer as well, having written for artists such as Ne-Yo, Chris Brown, and Smokey Robinson.

Musically, the EP doesn’t fit into just one category, with Bloom’s capable voice traversing across genres and decades. The opener, “Work It Out,” sounds like a ’70s R&B hit.  Immediately following is “Adam and Eve,” which hearkens back to the pace and style of Prince.  After that, “Me and Myself” swings into jazz.  Even within this assortment of musical styles, Bloom stays true to his gospel roots, particularly on “Howl at the Moon.” He grew up listening to and singing gospel music in the South, and it shows.  Although the EP clocks in at 23 minutes, Bloom features a lot of collaborators.  Perhaps the best comes not from a vocalist but the French harmonica player, Frederic Yonnet.  They pair up on “Sweet Angel,” with Yonnet featured throughout.

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Overall, The Beginning is a solid EP, and listeners can look forward to not only this project but the two EPs to follow.

Reviewed by Allie Martin

Muddy Magnolias – Broken People

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Title: Broken People

Artist: Muddy Magnolias

Label: Third Generation

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: October 14, 2016

 

Jessy Wilson and Kallie North are the soulful vocal duo behind the Muddy Magnolias. Wilson, the powerful lead vocalist, was raised in Brooklyn singing gospel and R&B music at clubs throughout her young adult years and backing stars such as Alicia Keys and John Legend. Meanwhile, North grew up in Texas singing in church choirs and listening to country and blues music. The couple met while in Nashville when Wilson discovered North’s photography and fell in love with her work. The collection of songs on their debut album, Broken People, showcases their song writing capability as well as their collaborative ability to wield Americana musical genres.

A soft wah wah pedal can be heard kicking into a rock-blues groove on the opening title track, “Broken People,” with a likeness to the music of Jack White. “Brother, What Happened?” follows, a cool and catchy anthem beckoning a socially activist generation to come forward.

Muddy Magnolias capture the attention of their listeners with power vocals and songs that stay in your head long after the album ends. This is best proven in the high energy pop songs, “Devil’s Teeth,” “Shine On!,” and “Got It Goin’ On.” Their music shifts in “I Need a Man,” from a darker blues sound into a Jason Mraz style pop chorus.

Wilson’s voice is often the dominant one on this album as North provides supportive harmonies with a country rasp like that of Susan Tedeschi. Several songs are instrumentally minimal in order to feature the duo’s powerful belting voices including “Train,” “Why Don’t You Stay,” and “Take Me Home.” The concluding track, “Lead Me to the Sky,” is strikingly similar to John Legend’s “All of Me,” which makes sense since Legend is provides piano accompaniment and backing vocals.

Broken People by Muddy Magnolias is an exciting pop album that highlights the duo’s ability to creatively blend musical genres.

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

Ashleigh Smith – Sunkissed

asleigh-smith
Title: Sunkissed

Artist: Ashleigh Smith

Label: Concord Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: August 19, 2016

 

Ashleigh Smith’s debut album on Concord is collection of upbeat and bright songs of love and encouragement warmly reflective of the album title, Sunkissed. The track-list contains cover renditions of recognizable tunes and original music by Ashleigh and her band members, Nigel Rivers and Joel Cross, whom she met while studying jazz at the University of North Texas. The recordings include jazz arrangements with a full band, brass section, and string ensemble to support Ashleigh’s harmonious vocals.

The bossa nova beat of “Best Friends” introduces the album with a bittersweet plea to heal from the pain of a lost friendship. With Joel Cross’s acoustic guitar taking the lead followed by piano, brass, and a chorus building up into a key change, the song is hardly gloomy as the lyrical theme may imply:

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“The World is Calling,” written by Smith and Rivers, showcases her confidence and creativity as a jazz vocalist, while “Sunkissed,” co-written by Smith, Rivers, Keitie Young, and Nadia Washington, expresses encouragement to embrace one’s inner and outer beauty:

Don’t you let it go,
Mocha skin so brown,
Don’t you drop your crown,
Hold your light keep shining now,
Baby can’t you see?
You’re my little brown skin queen
.

Smith and her sister, Lauren Smith, together wrote the lyrics of “Into the Blue,” a love song that grapples with the complexity of emotions following the loss of a relationship. “Brokenhearted Girl” follows, a song about lost romance and emotional maturity with a melody similar to the children’s song “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Each original piece reflects artists who have influenced Smith’s music—from Stevie Wonder, Prince, and Bill Withers to Sting. “Beautiful and True” is the only song that was written for Smith to perform by her former teacher, Rosanna Eckert. Her interpretation is as intense as it is gentle, with a dynamic orchestration encapsulating the climactic near-conclusion of the album.

The various cover songs emphasize the album’s themes of wonder and imagination. From the Beatles classic “Blackbird” to “Pure Imagination,” made famous by the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Smith experiments with the original musicality of these songs. Utilizing jazz instrumentation and dreamy vocal harmonies, she creates a truly haunting sound. “Love is You,” originally by Chrisette Michele, and “Sara Smile” by Hall and Oates similarly inspire a sense of familiarity, both complementing and completing Smith’s showcase of talent.

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

Melissa Etheridge – Memphis Rock and Soul

melissa-ethridge
Title: Memphis Rock and Soul

Artist: Melissa Etheridge

Label: Stax

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: October 7, 2016

 

I love Stax Records. When I see that distinctive logo, you know, the one with the finger snapping, I never hide my love. To quote the great singer Rufus Thomas, “Motown was cute, but Stax was souuul.” So when I heard that Melissa Etheridge was releasing a tribute album on the legendary label, two thoughts ran through my mind: (1) Shock and (2) No way (now if it was Bonnie Raitt, those two thoughts would have never entered my mind). Etheridge did what any true artist should do when you want recreate the magic and aura of Stax—she recorded at Royal Studios in Memphis, where some of the original songs on Memphis Rock and Soul were recorded. Al Green, Ann Peebles, and believe it or not Bruno Mars have all recorded there over the years.

On “Respect Yourself” Etheridge tries not to outdo Mavis Staples, which is smart. The opening guitar on this remake is similar to the Staple Singers’ version. On the Johnny Taylor cover “Who’s Making Love,” Etheridge slows the pace way down and changes the words to “Who’s Making Love To Your Sweet Lady.” If you know the original, it is much faster and has the kicking guitar along with Taylor’s soulful delivery on “Who’s Making Love To Your Ol Lady.”

Of course if you are going to cover Stax, you have to include Sam & Dave. Etheridge plays both Sam & Dave on the vocals to “Hold On, I’m Coming” and yes, I personally wanted to hear the horns just like original, and my wish was granted.

Stax’ biggest act, no question, was Otis Redding, who is covered on two tracks. The first, “I’ve Been Loving You,” is very underrated. Etheridge stays true to the original—no words changing here—and her vocal delivery is perfect. The second, “I’ve Got Dreams,” is again nothing fancy, with Etheridge showing respect for the original.

No doubt, it must have been a dream for Melissa Etheridge to record this album and pay respect to perhaps the greatest American record label ever.

Eddie Bowman

Unlocking the Truth – Chaos

unlocking-the-truth
Title: Chaos

Artist: Unlocking the Truth

Label: self-release

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: June 17, 2016

 

Over the past few years the punk band Unlocking the Truth has gone from YouTube sensations to performing at major festivals and landing a nearly unprecedented recording contract with Sony (later rejected), all while just entering their teens.  While a knee jerk reaction might be to dismiss them as a “kiddie act,” their first official release, Chaos, aims to dispel all those doubts and for the most part succeeds.

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Jarad Dawkins (drums) and Malcolm Brickhouse (guitar/vocals) have been friends since early childhood and have been playing together since middle school.  Alec Atkins (bass) joined the band during the period in which they made quite a bit of noise on YouTube, once the word got out about their impromptu shows in Times Square.  Chaos is the first foray into what the fellas have been cooking up since they made the jump to the Vans Warped Tour and Coachella.

The album is very well-produced with a sound that feels tailor made for radio airplay.  Each track feels crafted as a potential single, which though understandable—given how music is consumed in 2016—takes away from a cohesive whole.  However, if you can look past this issue and take Chaos as a first step on a career that will hopefully include a respectable artistic growth arc, what they’ve produced is a very respectable start.  Unlocking the Truth’s sound is decidedly steeped in the Nu-Metal tradition of bands like Slipknot and System Of A Down.  And while these might be big shoes to fill, Chaos hints that the teenage power trio may be mentioned in the same breath as these bands down the line.

Of particular note is the level of the playing the band has mastered.  Tracks like “Monster”, “A Tide” and “Other Side” really do a great job in showcasing how well the group plays together and gives glimpses of what may come as they continues to mature.  Thematically the album leans heavily on imagery about outsiders (perhaps due to being three young African-American males participating in a genre that is dominated by bands that do not look them); relationships (usually difficult or outright bad ones, which begs the question how much of these songs sprang from personal experience?); and general human connections (which serves as a bookend to the outsiders theme, as the band embraces a new community built around freedom to be one’s self).

The album’s lead single, “Take Control,” utilizes these themes in its music video and in the lyrics which speak to taking control of your own destiny.  It will very interesting to hear Brickhouse’s voice as it matures—he is clearly coming into his own vocally, which is best heard on “Escape.”  This track also features some great drum work by Dawkins and bass work by Atkins.

All in all, Chaos feels like a preview of great things to come.  It is my hope that Unlocking the Truth beats the odds of becoming pigeonholed as a novelty act and continues honing their craft both live and in the studio.

Reviewed by Levon Williams

Quincy Jones – Live In Ludwigshafen 1961


Title: Live In Ludwigshafen 1961

Artist: Quincy Jones

Label: SWR-Jazz Haus

Formats: CD, digital

Release date: March 25, 2016

 

In 1959, Quincy Jones put together a big band orchestra for the European musical Free and Easy. The show lasted only a couple of months, playing for small audiences in Utrecht, Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris. Marooned in Europe with a payroll to meet, Jones and company set off touring the continent, booking venues and collecting money to pay their way forward. Eventually, the band ran out of money and came home to the U.S., with Jones $145,000 (in 1960 dollars) in debt. Mercury Records president Irving Green offered Jones a vice president position, and Jones went on to arrange and/or produce hits by Dinah Washington, Leslie Gore, Billy Eckstine and others. He eventually made his biggest mark on music as a producer (Michael Jackson, Patti Austin, George Benson, Aretha Franklin, etc.), but continued to make jazz and jazz-pop albums throughout his tenure with Mercury.

Jones continued touring with a big band early in his Mercury executive career, and live recordings made in Zurich, Switzerland on March 10, 1961 and the 1961 Newport Jazz Festival in July of that year, have been released by Mercury/Polygram. Jones recorded his last strictly-jazz big band album, The Quintessence, for Impulse! Records in December, 1961, essentially ending his career as leader of a touring jazz big band.

On this CD is the band’s complete concert of March 15, 1961 at the Pfalzbau auditorium in Ludwigshafen, Germany. The well-made mono recording highlights the combination of ensemble and solo playing that was the trademark of Jones’ skilled and modern-sounding band. Featured are excellent live renditions of tunes on Jones’ Mercury studio albums, including “G’Won Train,” “Birth of a Band,” “Stolen Moments,” “Moanin’” and “I Remember Clifford.” Also included is a superb version of the Count Basie classic “Lester Leaps In” featuring great solos by guitarist Les Spann and pianist Patty Bown.

It’s worth listening carefully to Jones’ introduction of the band (track 13, which is followed by a somewhat loose and joyous version of “Birth of a Band,” the title cut to Jones’ first Mercury album). This lineup included many future headliners and leaders on 1960s jazz albums. That Jones could assemble such a band testifies to his influence in the music business even at a relatively young age. Although his greatest career highlights were years forward, this concert demonstrates why Quincy Jones always had the respect of musicians, and always knew how to please an audience.

Reviewed by Tom Fine