M.A.K.U. Soundsystem – Mezcla

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Title: Mezcla

Artist: M.A.K.U. Soundsystem

Label: Glitterbeat Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: May 27, 2016

 

Immigration has been a theme in music for centuries, as people who relocate try to remain connected to their roots, and attempt to relate past experiences to the present. However, themes of immigration seem to be especially poignant in the political climate of 2016, as boundaries and immigration policies are pushed and pulled throughout the world. Many musicians are speaking out about their personal immigration experiences in this year of contention, in particular addressing humanitarian issues. That’s what M.A.K.U. Soundsystem does on their fourth album, Mezcla. The eight-piece Colombian to New York City band combines traditional Colombian beats, grooves from West Africa, and Moog synthesizers from the ‘90s club scene to bring all of their experiences—both musical and personal—into a comprehensive album.

The opening track, “Agua,” addresses income inequality through the melismatic voice of lead singer Liliana Conde. Two minutes into the almost six minute song, she switches to spoken word poetry: “With so many walls going up around the world trying to separate us, trying to divide us, we want to come together and sing in unison of the things that bring us together and unify us.” A full chorus then joins in, singing about how the oceans cannot be separated and water flows through all of our veins, regardless of race or country. It is a powerful and upbeat song, featuring a fast beat maintained through a variety of percussive instruments and ornamented by the horns.

Another standout track is “Let It Go,” a rhythm-driven song that focuses on instrumentals over vocals. Starting with a heavy West African beat, the song blends Afro-Caribbean roots with improvising horns that edge into a jazz feel. Three minutes into the song, voices enter in unison saying, “Let it go and let the music take you.” These words repeat for the rest of the song, building with the music as it becomes faster and new instruments join in to create a satisfying climax.

A slow waltz, “De Barrio,” takes the listener on a journey of an immigrant from Latin America to the United States. It is sorrowful yet warm, and reflects the complications of the bittersweet trip. According to bassist and singer Juan Ospina, this tone is meant to reflect how immigrants put their lives at risk, and emphasizes that borders are created by men: “Look down from space and you won’t see them.” Harmonious notes held out near the end of the song echo unbridled cries of emotion, though whether they are cries of sorrow or hope is left to each listener’s interpretation.

In “La Inevitabile,” M.A.K.U.’s hope for the future is clear, as they sing in Spanish, “when in mixing and coming together they represent the rhythm of our beating hearts.” This message of mezcla, or “mixing,” is central to the album. Mixing of music old and new, mixing of people from different cities and backgrounds, all come together on Mezcla as this group of Colombian artists create music that combines their past experiences with their present lives in New York.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Josh White – Josh At Midnight (LP reissue)

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Title: Josh At Midnight

Artist: Josh White

Label: Ramseur Records

Formats: LP

Release date: August 19, 2016

Josh White (1914-1969) played a style of folk-blues with a jazz-like swing that stood in contrast to the Delta style of blues that came to dominate the genre. Although White enjoyed fame and popularity in his lifetime (and a period of being blackballed for his activism in favor of civil rights legislation), his music fell out of frequent broadcast or rotation on many blues fans’ turntables.

Josh At Midnight was recorded in 1955, in a small church in New York City, using a single Neumann U-47 mic. Original producer Jac Holzman, founder of Elektra Records, oversaw this vinyl-only reissue. The sound quality is superior to the early-era CD reissue I found in the local library system. It’s a mono recording, but the careful placement of White, bassist Al Hall and second vocalist Sam Gary produces a 3-dimensional sound quality, and creates nice separation between the sounds even as they weave together into a satisfying whole.

Musically, White covers songs in the traditional overlap between folk and blues music, such as “Timber (Jerry the Mule),” “One Meat Ball,” and “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.” He also dives deeper into the blues vein with the saucy “Jelly, Jelly” and “Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dyin’ Bed” (a traditional blues song the lyrics of which were later appropriated by Led Zeppelin for “In My Time of Dying”). There is also the album’s opener, “St. James Infirmary,” a blues-jazz song made famous by Louis Armstrong.

White’s style will appeal to modern “roots music” fans. He was a superb guitar player—Holtzman describes him as “an acrobat with the instrument” in the LP’s new liner notes. His voice was refined and expressive, more a polished performer than a “down and dirty country bluesman.” The key appeal is that he had a ton of soul, and his big personality shines through in his playing and singing.

This vinyl reissue is clearly aimed at audiophiles as well as roots-music fans. If you don’t have a phono rig, seek out one of the previous CD reissues. Even though they don’t have the crystal clear sound and powerful dynamics of this version, the music will shine through.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

 

Robert Glasper Experiment – Artscience

art-science
Title: Artscience

Artist: Robert Glasper Experiment

Label: Blue Note

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: September 16, 2016

 

Robert Glasper is arguably one of the most eclectic musicians in the business, perhaps in spite of (or maybe because of) the fact that he is generally considered to be a jazz musician.  The opening track of the Robert Glasper Experiment’s newest release, Artscience, announces that the group intends to venture into the broad realm of musical styles and sounds that may fall into the category of “Black music.” As the soundscape gradually morphs from fast post-bop to a slow-burn hip hop groove, a sample of Glasper’s voice plays, declaring “The reality is, my people have given the world so many styles of music, so many different styles…we want to explore them all.”

The group’s newest release, Artscience, is difficult to call a jazz record at all, drawing from the precedent set on previous Black Radio releases. However, these earlier records largely owed their crossover appeal to high-profile guest stars like Snoop Dogg and Norah Jones, while Glasper’s band served as a supporting ensemble, performing at peak when laying down funky neo-soul grooves for artists like Jill Scott and Anthony Hamilton. On Artscience, the group retains this crossover appeal while keeping the production self-contained. This record is full of electronically-oriented R&B with dance floor and slow jam ambitions.

“Day to Day” is a funky and robotic neo-disco dance cut that could easily have been culled from a Daft Punk record, complete with string swoops and autotuned vocal harmonies. Much of this record recalls the synth heavy, ‘80s-influenced sounds that artists like Blood Orange are rocketing to the top of the charts. While some of Glasper’s signature acoustic piano and Rhodes sounds are present, there are also synthesizers and production effects all over this album. Most of these tracks are structured like pop songs with slight modifications.  For instance, “No One Like You” follows the verse-chorus-verse-chorus format, but it features an extended outro with solos by saxophonist by Casey Benjamin, Glasper, and a drum break by Mark Colenburg.  It is as though the group takes the extended dance break sections found on Michael Jackson and Prince records and fills them up with killer jazz solos, serving the album’s pop ambitions while reminding the audience that these are monster players.  The disc’s most memorable track, “Let’s Fall in Love,” borrows its title from a jazz standard, but is a slow jam full of breakbeats and atmospheric synthesizers.

Listeners looking for guest stars like those featured on the Robert Glasper Experiment’s previous albums or for the kind of solid jazz playing found on the Glasper’s acoustic records will be surprised, but pleasantly so, by the strength of the group’s R&B songs on Artscience.  While this is not the seminal entry in Glasper’s catalog, it is certainly a solid one.

Reviewed by Matt Alley

Erroll Garner – Ready Take One

erroll-garner
Title: Ready Take One

Artist: Erroll Garner

Label: Sony/Legacy

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

Release date: September 30, 2016

 

During his lifetime, Erroll Garner was a somewhat controversial figure with jazz aficionados. The main knock was that he was a technical master of the piano with plenty of flair and piano-bar panache, but not enough soul and swing to be a jazz heavyweight. Despite the bickering among jazz critics, Garner (who died in 1977) did not have trouble filling performance spaces or selling albums, but his place in the public ear waned after his death. His live Concert by the Sea remains one of the best-selling jazz albums ever, and received a deluxe 3-CD reissue (and was nominated for a Grammy) last year. Now, Sony/Legacy has dipped into the archives of Garner’s late manager, Martha Glaser, and found 14 finished but never released recordings, the content of this new album.

Ready Take One is composed of recordings made in 1967 at Universal Recording Studios in Chicago; in 1969 at Capitol Studios New York; and in 1971 at RCA Studios New York. The album closes with a live version of Garner’s hit, “Misty,” recorded in Paris in May 1969. For the 1967 sessions, Ike Isaacs on bass, Jimmie Smith on drums and Joe Mangual on congas backed Garner. For the 1969 and 1971 studio and live recordings, Earnest McCarty, Jr. replaced Isaacs on bass. The fact that the band and style of playing remains consistent throughout makes the album hold together as a coherent sequence of enjoyable tunes rather than an “archive dig” of disjointed musical examples.

According to Robin Kelly’s liner notes, Garner’s style in the studio was much like his style on stage with his band: he would call out a tune and then go, with the band responsible for keeping up with whatever improvisational twists he chose to explore. Fortunately, the backing musicians were up for the challenge, and the recordings sparkle with the excitement of a quartet doing what good jazz musicians do—exploring and reacting to each other rather than playing heavily-rehearsed and written-down music. And, for the record, although all of the players are technically excellent, the album gushes with swing and soul.

One admittedly minor criticism: although the liner notes emphasize the fact that the reissue producers chose to keep audio of Glaser calling out take numbers and a few seconds of studio banter here and there, this “bonus material” does not add anything to the music. In fact, it slightly interrupts the flow of the album.

Six of the album’s 14 cuts are Garner originals; “High Wire” and “Wild Music” are particularly nice. The Paris recording of “Misty” also stands out because, despite playing the song thousands of times to ever-eager audiences, Garner could still bring excitement and a connection of “I’m playing this song just for you” to what was yet another performance. Also interesting is the band’s take on the Juan Tizol/Duke Ellington standard “Caravan.” Garner’s decision to take the melody apart and reassemble pieces of it on unusual beats doesn’t always work, but the approach shows how the band was not content to run through standards in any sort of traditional way.

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The 1971 sessions, especially, show the influence of funk and acid-jazz on more traditional performers. Garner sometimes sounds quite a bit like Ramsey Lewis (“The In Crowd”), and that more-soul/less-swing approach was probably preferred by live audiences of the time. But, Garner never shies away from virtuosity, so there is always crisp execution of complex right-hand runs and rock-solid left-hand rhythm.

Sony/Legacy has an arrangement to mine the archives of Garner and Glaser, and more releases are promised. Hopefully, there is more of this kind of polished music in the vaults. And, hopefully, future reissues producers will assemble and sequence future releases into enjoyable, musically coherent albums like Ready Take One.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

De La Soul – and the Anonymous Nobody…

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Title: and the Anonymous Nobody…

Artist: De La Soul

Label: AOI Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release Date: August 26, 2016

 

While De La Soul’s heyday was arguably in the 1990s, the group remains a strong presence in hip hop, despite the fact that the last time it released new music was in 2004. This is largely because De La’s jazz-influenced sound set the template for Kendrick Lamar and others who borrow samples and approaches from jazz music and in part because their classic records age like fine wine, still sounding fresh some 20 years later.  The group’s most recent release prior to this August was 2014’s Smell the D.A.I.S.Y., a digital download full of re-recordings of classic tracks (along with a complimentary download of the entire back catalog for email subscribers!), a gesture that now feels like a primer for this year’s new release. and the Anonymous Nobody… is a kickstarter-funded, genre-bending record that may leave old fans scratching their heads—the album seems to be both a victory lap and a comeback record. Following is the group’s short documentary about the making of the album:

De La Soul probably didn’t need to release a new record in 2016—or any year for that matter—and the foremost question in many readers’ minds may be whether there is anything really new here, or whether and the Anonymous Nobody… is just a rehash of the group’s ‘90s sound that has a few more gray hairs.  While there are certainly elements of the group’s signature sound (as on the jazz-influenced “Royalty Capes”), the album seems primarily to revolve around the group’s rotating cast of guest stars, a roster that includes Jill Scott, Snoop Dogg, David Byrne, Usher, 2 Chainz, and Damon Albarn.  What the supporting personnel have in common with De La is that many listeners may wax nostalgic about their music—this is the “I remember when…” crowd.  While this is not necessarily a liability, it sets the stage for a wash of sounds and approaches that, ultimately, we’ve heard before. For instance, the track featuring David Byrne, “Snoopies,” draws heavily from Byrne’s bag of electro-pop sensibilities. Similarly, “Greyhounds,” a somewhat antiquated girl-corrupted-by-the-big-city story, leans stylistically on Usher’s well-established R&B fusion.  At other moments, this record just gets weird—De La Soul was always on the eccentric end of the hip hop spectrum, but when Justin Hawkins of the Darkness leads a Queen-esque overdubbed vocal and guitar orchestra, it may get lost on the listener that this is an album by the legendary rap group.  In short, the guest stars often overshadow the core group.

While working with a live band proves an asset, meandering effortlessly from rock to neo-soul, ultimately the intensity of the record, both lyrically and musically, lags at times. And the Anonymous Nobody… plays like many records with a large cast of extras do—providing a great first listen with diminishing returns.  This is both a testament to De La Soul’s versatility and an indication that the group of vets is open to trying something new, with experimentation sometimes leading to mixed results.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

André Cymone – Black Man in America

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Title: Black Man in America

Artist: André Cymone

Label: Bandcamp

Format: MP3

Release date: September 30, 2016

 

André Cymone is perhaps best known for his friendship and collaboration with Prince, a relationship that has been brought back into the spotlight since Prince’s death in April 2016. They grew up together in Minneapolis, and Prince even lived with Cymone and his family for a period of time.  In high school, they formed the band Grand Central, along with Morris Day.  Their collaboration continued well into their careers, with Prince penning one of Cymone’s 1985 hits, “The Dance Electric.”  Cymone then took a 27 year hiatus from releasing new music, and in in 2014 dropped his last album, The Stone.

Cymone’s latest project, Black Man in America, is a short EP but it packs a punch nonetheless.  The album is overtly political in nature, with the first lyrics we hear being “No Justice, No Peace!” The opening track, after which the EP is named, argues that unless you’re living it, you don’t know what it’s like to be a black man in America. The second describes a “Hot Night in the Neighborhood,” which takes on violence and police brutality.

The third track, “Black Lives Matter,” is where Cymone’s politics get a bit uncertain. Musically, the song is an acoustic, intimate, plea for humanity and black lives.  However, towards the end of the song, Cymone includes the phrase “All Lives Matter,” which has been decried by many organizers as a way of derailing the movement, and an unwillingness to stand up for black lives when it really counts.  Here, perhaps, it just signals Cymone’s optimism.  The final song is a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”  Far from the slow Jeff Buckley version that is perhaps best known, Cymone’s cover is fast and uplifting—a fitting conclusion to a project calling for radical change and peace.

Reviewed by Allie Martin

Black Dylan – Hey Stranger

black-dylan
Title: Hey Stranger

Artist: Black Dylan

Label: Black Dylan Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: August 26, 2016

 

Black Dylan is an up-and-coming duo from Denmark that blends soul, R&B, hip-hop, and pop into a thoroughly satisfying album perfect for the dance floor. Wafande’s gravely, though sweetened vocals take the front stage beside Nuplex’s skillful DJ instrumentation. Together the duo draws from its French roots and American soul influences to create the Black Dylan aesthetic.

The first song and title track, “Hey Stranger,” pursues the fantasy story we wonder if will ever come true—to fly away and travel the world with a person you just met. An excellent start leading into an invigorating morning anthem, “Get up Child,” with choir voices, grooving guitar wah wah pedal, horns, and piano. Black Dylan keeps the tempo up with “Don’t Wanna Be Alone,” integrating gospel chorus breakdowns. It is as if they dare you not to dance when you listen to this track.

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The album brings down the party vibe, but not the hopeful spirits with “You’re Getting Stronger,” a smooth R&B song with a memorable chorus. “The One” utilizes finger snaps and upright bass to give the listener a more intimate atmosphere to hear his promises of love and dedication. A guitar riff is played during instrumental breaks of this song, reminiscent of West African electric guitar styles. “She Said I Was a Failure” is a slow and dramatic tune, which pairs nicely with the heartbreak song, “Who Got My Back.” Reverberating organ chords, a steady beat, and a full bodied chorus of soulful voices sing in praise of love and companionship.

The final tracks of the album turn from lost love towards more edgy and personal themes. “Keep Your Eyes on the Road” uses semi-monotone vocals paired with repetitive horn and piano sections. Performing with LA singer Honey Larochelle, “Papa” deals with the pain of having to live with an addict father:

There’s no excuse, so much abuse, I can’t believe I used to want to be like you.

Papa, overdose after overdose, you’re killing me.

The final track, “Hummin’,” is a cool and quiet tune producing an emotional resolution that serves as an affirmation of his tough outer shell. Hey Stranger all in all is enjoyable – it will be interesting to keep an eye on Black Dylan’s sway of audiences in the United States.

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

The Frightnrs – Nothing More To Say

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Title: Nothing More To Say

Artist: The Frightnrs

Label: Daptone Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: September 2, 2016

 

This first, and likely, final full-length album by New York band The Frightnrs bears a moving story. Front man and vocalist, Dan Klein was diagnosed with ALS in November 2015 and had experienced his final moments of life during the recording and production of this album. To say he suffered would be an inaccurate illustration. It reduces every complex emotion he felt considering the inevitability of his fate. The Frightnrs—Rich Terrana (percussion and background vocals), and brothers, Chuck Patel (piano) and Preet Patel (bass and background vocals)—were determined to complete the album in support of Klein before he lost his physical ability to sing. Klein passed in June 2016, only a couple months before the album’s release.

Nothing More to Say is the first reggae album released by Daptone Records, managed by Gabriel Roth and Neal Sugarman of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. Smooth and with hints of vintage appeal, the album is a reminder of the Jamaican rocksteady sounds of Johnny Nash or Toots and the Maytals. Producer Victor “Ticklah” Axelrod upheld a vision of quality and integrity for the album despite the complicated circumstances that pressured its completion. Quoted from a New York Times interview on the album, Axelrod noted that he needed to select the best takes he could get of Klein’s vocals since he was unable to finish recording in the studio. Roth reflected on Klein’s vocals in the album, “In places he’s a little weak… but he’s singing from the heart.”

A snare cracks into a drum roll at the introduction of the first track, “All My Tears.” The song proceeds with a soulful wail supported by a firm backbeat and deep background vocals—in a way, announcing the band’s fraternal bond. Blended with haunting organ chords and muted electric guitar tones, each song feels fresh, though old-fashioned. Themes of love resulting in letdown, heartbreak, and mistake are prevalent in “Nothing More to Say,” “What Have I Done,” and “Looking for My Love.” In “Trouble in Here,” the Frightnrs maintain their smooth reggae back beat while adopting a blatantly blues style outfitted with harmonica solos and a 12-bar chord progression.

“Dispute,” the final track of the album, could stand alone with its distinctively crisp piano riff mixed with Klein’s reverberating vocals. Another similarly outstanding song is “Hey Brother (Do Unto Others)” for its charming syncopated chorus—“Do unto others, do unto others as you’d have them do, right back to you.” The Frightnrs also included two cover songs rich in R&B and soul flavor: “Gotta Find a Way” originally by Bob & Gene (1967), and “Gonna Make Time” by Saun & Starr (2015), who both record on the Daptone label.

What is especially striking in this album is Klein’s sincere falsetto vibrato and vivid lyrics in “Till Then” (quoted below) and “Purple.” He pries into the pain and anxious confusion listeners can only imagine he felt as his physical body progressively betrayed him:

Every day I wake it’s getting harder just to take, I try to fake a smile but nothing hides my sadness. Pretending that I’m fine, I’m only lying all the time, I’ve crossed the line from melancholy into madness. Till then I’ll wait, till you’ve reached my gate, lying every night, till you’ve blessed my sight.

The Frightnrs respect themselves and respect their audiences, a message Klein advocates. They do not mimic Jamaican accents or dress in their music because they know those actions would be unreflective of their own identity. This album is a testament to the creative power and aesthetic derived from Jamaican rocksteady music. As well, it will always serve to cherish the poetry and memory of Dan Klein.

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

Lady Wray – Queen Alone

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Title: Queen Alone

Artist: Lady Wray

Label: Big Crown Records

Format: CD, LP

Release Date: September 23, 2016

 

Queen Alone is Lady Wray’s first album on Big Crown Records, but it is far from her first foray into the music industry. Beginning her career as Nicole Wray, she was first a protégé of Missy Elliott in 1998 with a hit single, “Make it Hot.”  She was also part of a ‘90s R&B cohort featuring Elliott, Aaliyah, Timbaland, and Ginuwine.

Compared to her earlier music, Queen Alone comes as a reinvention of sorts for Wray.  Between her first album and this new release, she participated in a number of different projects, including a group with British soul singer Terri Walker and collaborations with the Black Keys.  Throughout the ups and downs of her career, Wray’s voice has both evolved and maintained its power and charm. Her timbre is similar to Fantasia Barrino, but also has a levity reminiscent of early Brandy.

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Musically, the album has a retro vibe, a throwback to soul and R&B of the 1960s and ‘70s. Standouts include “Make Me Over,” a ballad that allows Wray to showcases her raspy runs, as well as “Underneath My Feet.”  Overall, the transformation of Wray’s sound is a welcome one.  She has come a long way from her days as Missy Elliott’s protégé, and seems to have found her place at Big Crown Records.

Reviewed by Allie Martin

JJ Thames – Raw Sugar

jj-thames
Title: Raw Sugar

Artist: JJ Thames

Label: DeChamp Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: August 26, 2016

 

Detroit native JJ Thames trained in jazz and classical music from the age of 9 and added blues to her repertoire by the time she was 18. Since then, she has been entrenched in a number of genres, including soul, rockabilly, reggae, roots, and ska. Her sophomore album, Raw Sugar, is a collaboration with Mississippi guitarist Eddie Cotton, who co-wrote twelve of the thirteen tracks and is the lead guitarist on the album.

In an attempt to jumpstart her musical career, Thames moved down to Jackson, Mississippi and performed with “Chitlin’ Circuit” superstars such as Marvin Sease. This Southern influence is present on “Hattie Pearl,” as Thames sings about greens, fish and grits, and sipping tea on the back porch. The music is also irresistible—a mix of funk and blues with a twinge of gospel that resounds with horns, a killer keyboard solo, and Thames’ soulful singing complete with growls and shouts.

Thames’ sound harkens back to a different era, embodying the power and vocal quality of legendary ‘60s and ‘70s soul women such as Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight on tracks like “I’m Leavin’” and “Leftovers.” The accompaniment effortlessly evokes this time period as well, from the varied instrumentation to the tight arrangements that leave no room for imperfection.

As the album progresses, Thames explores the other genres that she has perfected over the years. “Woman Scorned” takes a modern rock turn, as Thames sings with a rollicking electric guitar and heavy dose of drums. “Hold Me” is a passionate, lyrical ballad that slows things down and is backed by harmonizing vocals. “Don’t Feel Nothing” is a rockabilly jam full of twanging guitar that’s perfect for dancing. “Raw Sugar” is straight ahead blues, which Thames growls, croons, and moans directly from the soul while Cotton adds an incredible blues guitar solo.

Legendary R&B singer Dorothy Moore has referred to JJ Thames as “the future of the blues.” On Raw Sugar, Thames certainly shows she is an artist who is determined to make her mark. Her voice is strong and confident, whether rebuking a man who has treated her wrong or expressing emotional vulnerability in a ballad. Thames channels many African American musical genres and influences, but remains distinctively herself—a powerful singer from Detroit who is living in Mississippi and securing her own place in the music world.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Tarica June – Stream of Consciousness Vol. 1.5

tarica-june
Title: Stream of Consciousness Vol. 1.5

Artist: Tarica June

Label: Bandcamp

Format: MP3

Release Date: March 1, 2016

 

Tarica June’s latest EP, Stream of Consciousness Volume 1.5, takes on a wide range of topics, from gentrification to life as a millennial.  This is the third release from the lawyer and rapper, preceded by Moonlight (2010) and Stream of Consciousness Volume 1 (2014).  Born and raised in Washington D.C., June is carving out her place in a hip-hop community that includes a diverse array of artists, such as Wale, Fat Trel, Shy Glizzy, and of course a host of go-go musicians as well.

Over the course of the EP’s five songs, June displays versatility and leans toward introspection, focusing on her craft, her grind, and her potential to make it as an independent artist. Like other popular rappers today, namely Chance the Rapper, she rejects the necessity of a label, instead releasing her music online.  Her flow is similar to New York rapper Nitty Scott, MC and Chicago’s Noname.  There are also hints of influence from an older generation of rappers, such as Queen Latifah.

The most popular track on the album by far is “But Anyway,” which is an assessment of a rapidly gentrifying DC. As a third generation resident, she reminisces on the days of “Chocolate City,” referencing Marion Barry’s summer youth employment program, DC’s Metro system, as well as heavier topics such as mass incarceration and the displacement that gentrification is causing.  The video, which features June strolling around key sites in DC, went viral in March.  Currently working on her first full-length album, the city is excited to see what comes next from Tarica June.

Reviewed by Allie Martin

Javier Colon – Gravity

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Title: Gravity

Artist: Javier Colon

Label: Concord

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: April 15, 2016

 

Known for his smooth vocals and soulful R&B style, Javier Colon became famous when he won the first season of “The Voice” in 2011. After working with Universal Republic Records and touring Mexico and South America with Maroon 5 (Adam Levine was his coach on “The Voice”), Colon said he was ready to make an album without “walls or boundaries.” This led to his debut album for Concord Records, Gravity, which tackles traditional R&B themes of love, loss, and recovering from heartbreak.

The album starts off with “Close to You,” a love song in Colon’s signature style, combining his acoustic guitar work with upbeat percussion and his harmonious R&B vocals. The track has the feel of a 1990s R&B group or boy band, reminiscent of early Usher. This is followed by “Clear the Air,” a ballad about trying to make up after a fight. Colon’s voice soars throughout the song, as he exclaims “How did we get to this place / how do we get away?”

The title track and first single off the album, “Gravity,” is an emotional song that showcases the expressive quality of Colon’s vocals, as well as their power on high notes, riffs, and runs. The lyrics convey the anguish of dealing with a breakup where he was “the enemy,” and struggling with the feeling of inevitability: “I knew I’d let you down eventually/ it’s gravity.” The video is dramatic, starting with accusations of cheating by a girlfriend, followed by Colon’s efforts to deal with overwhelming emotions:

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Though many of the songs are emotive, slow songs about romance and heartbreak, Gravity includes a number of more upbeat tracks. “For A Reason” features guest singer Nikki Leonti, whose vocals playfully intertwine with and interrupt Colon’s. The song claims that “all things happen for a reason,” and its optimism that “someday sun’s gonna shine again” is emphasized by joyful horns throughout.

Javier Colon referred to his first album after “The Voice” as an “arranged marriage” that made him realize how much he values creative control. Gravity is the result of that realization, an album where Colon wrote or co-wrote 12 of the 15 tracks, and plays his acoustic guitar on almost all the songs. Colon said he was “willing to fight for” this album, and that sincere passion is evident in every track as he bears his soul and sings his heart out.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Will Downing – Black Pearls

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Title: Black Pearls

Artist: Will Downing

Label: Shanachie

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: July 8, 2016

 

Why isn’t Will Downing (aka the “Prince of Sophisticated Soul”) a bigger name in music? Yes, Will has his fans, but he definitely flies under the radar and that’s a shame. If you aren’t hip to Downing, then you are missing out on perhaps one of the best vocalists in the game today.

On his latest album, Black Pearls, Downing pays homage to female vocalists who have inspired him over the years. When I read the press on this CD, I just knew one of those vocalists would be Aretha Franklin. Wrong! No Lady Soul. Like Downing, many of these female vocalists also flew under the radar when they were in their prime. Why? Who knows, but perhaps the labels never knew how to market and promote them.

Downing, who sounds a lot Luther Vandross on all ten tracks, does a “Luther job” on this album. That is, he is able to cover another artist’s song and make it sound like his own.  Like Luther, Downing is able to pull off this feat with ease—even when these ten tracks include classic R&B hits from the ‘70s and ‘80s.

On Angela Winbush’s 1986 hit single, “Your Smile,” Downing’s interpretation is similar to the original. Nothing fancy—just a male on vocals instead of a female, and Will representing a male point of view. The same is true with “Street Life,” famously sung by Randy Crawford with the Crusaders in 1979, at the end of the disco era. Downing’s smoothed out version is accompanied by a full horn section and features solos by saxophonist Najee and Mike Logan on keyboards. Ok, enough suspense. Just who are the other females who inspired Will? The Emotions (“Don’t Ask My Neighbors”), Chaka Khan (“Everlasting Love”), Deniece Williams (“Black Butterfly” – arranged here by Chris “Big Dog” Davis), Cherelle (“Everything I Miss at Home”), Brenda Russell/Oletta Adams (“Get Here”), the Jones Girls (“Nights Over Egypt”), and Phyllis Hyman (“Meet Me On The Moon”).

The album closes with Downing’s cover of Jean Carn’s “Don’t Let It Go To Your Head,” composed by Philly soul masters Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff. Again, Will keeps the same tempo and style, right down to the glossy strings.

Black Pearls is a gem of an album that allows Downing to show just how much these ladies meant to him. Under the radar? Indeed.

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

Richard Bona & Mandekan Cubano – Heritage

richard-bona
Title: Heritage

Artist: Richard Bona & Mandekan Cubano

Label: Qwest

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: June 24, 2016

 

Cameroon musician Richard Bona took on quite a challenge with his eighth album, Heritage, tracing the roots of Cuban music back to the Mandekan empire of the 15th century. To accomplish this daunting feat, he worked with the Afro-Cuban band Mandekan Cubano to tell the musical history of the African rhythms and instruments in Cuba before the slave trade and colonization split Sundiata’s unified kingdom into so many parts.

Heritage is “a window into the years of oral stories that have been passed down and placed in the musical prowess of Bona and the Mandekan Cubano,” according to the liner notes. Bona wants to make sure those stories are heard, and that the “beautiful interweaving of multiple backgrounds” present in countries such as Cuba is not ignored, but embraced. The album reclaims and celebrates the music, dance, folklore, and rituals of the West African slave “Cabildos” in Cuba. The result is a musical masterpiece that flows from one track to the next, bound together by its theme and seven extremely talented musicians.

Richard Bona’s many musical talents highlighted on Heritage include electric sitar, bass, vocals, songwriting, and arranging. His voice sounds natural and effortless, whether he’s singing a slow ballad like “Matanga” or an upbeat Latin jazz song such as “Jokoh Jokoh”:

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Though Bona’s vocals and arrangements are the star of the album, Heritage is nothing without the six incredibly skilled musicians that make up Mandekan Cubano. From harmonious backing vocals to the immaculate Latin percussion section, their expertise in Afro-Cuban music is evident in every track. Rey Alejandre’s trumpet and Dennis Hernandez’s trombone shine in tracks such as “Santa Clara Con Montuno,” and Osmany Paredes’ talents on the piano are featured on “Kivu.”

Heritage is a wonderful display of musical diversity in Cuba, threaded together by the stories and music brought by the Cabildos of West Africa. Bona aims to make music that showcases the “issues affecting the oppressed or forgotten cultures of the people who so courageously paved the way for the life we presently live.” Throughout the album, this becomes clear, as the listener realizes that “Heritage” is not supposed to suggest old music or traditions that have come and gone, but a dynamic culture and music, one that is constantly changing yet forever shaped by history.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Wesli – Ayiti Étoile Nouvelle

wesli
Title: Ayiti Étoile Nouvelle

Artist: Wesli

Label: Wes Urban Productions

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: March 11, 2016

 

When he was eight years old, Wesli created his first guitar out a used oil can and a nylon shoelace in his hometown of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Ever since then, innovation and creativity have guided his music-making. Drawing from the many cultures present in Haiti, as well as those in his current city of residence, Montreal, Wesli unites Haitian traditions like vodou and rara with a multitude of genres from reggae to Acadian hip hop. On his fourth album, Ayiti Étoile Nouvelle, Wesli uses these various cultural influences to focus on what it means to be Haitian and a member of the African diaspora in the current political and social climate.

Aside from the lyrics themselves, Wesli pays homage to Haiti through his use of instruments such as the tata and boula, as well as the blending of Afro-Caribbean and creole musical traditions. The opening track, “Rara,” celebrates the style of music used in Haitian carnivals and street processions, such as those that take place during Easter. Creole accordion and violin are featured in the ode to the western region of Haiti, “Latibonit.” Wesli also honors his West African roots throughout the album, such as in his use of the kora on “Sonje.”

Wesli hopes that Ayiti Étoile Nouvelle will speak to his fellow Haitians, especially considering the significant obstacles many face in his homeland. He claims the album aims to “say something useful to society, not just entertain people.” Though the songs echo his ongoing frustration and sorrow, his music and his outlook express hope for “a better situation for Haitians and all African diasporic people.”

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Debo Band – Ere Gobez

debo-band
Title: Ere Gobez

Artist: Debo Band

Label: FPE

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: May 20, 2016

 

On their second album, entitled Ere Gobez, the Ethiopian-American pop group Debo Band uses politics and musical styles from the 1970s and 1980s to pay tribute to Ethiopia’s history and musical past. Whether it be the East Asian influences that came back with Ethiopians who served in the Korean War or imagining what Duke Ellington played during his famous African tour, Debo Band brings Ethiopian history into the present with gregarious energy and relentless dedication, which can be seen in the album trailer:

Ere Gobez Album Trailer from Debo Band on Vimeo.

Debo Band spent the past ten years studying Ethiopian history and music cultures, but they are still learning about new styles and subcultures every day. Band leader and saxophonist Danny Mekonnen said, “We’re digging much, much deeper. We’re still unearthing new sounds after a decade.”

When they find a new style or musical culture, Debo Band transforms it, rearranging, adding new sections, and putting Amharic lyrics to songs. Their goal is to keep the original spirit of the song while adding innovative twists. For example, “Yalanchi,” which uses a traditional bass riff from a wedding song, is enlivened by a constantly shifting time signature and rowdy rock solos. Similarly, drawing from the Asian influence brought into Ethiopia after the Korean War, “Hiyamickachi Bushi” is an Okinawan song composed in 1948 for which Debo Band singer Bruck Tesfaye penned new lyrics. Their version of the Duke Ellington song “Blue Awaze” also adds new lyrics, and the music is what they imagined Ellington might have played with the Addis Ababa Police Orchestra while on tour.

Ere Gobez also features many originals, crafted by trumpeter Danilo Henriquez and electric violinist Jonah Rapino. These songs have a number of influences, from 1970s dance music to jazz. Original tracks such as “Goraw,” try to “capture the pride and resiliency of the Ethiopian people” said lyricist Tesfaye. In this track, psychedelic electric guitar works with accordion and driving drumset to both celebrate Ethiopia while acknowledging all that its people have overcome.

Mekonnen said Ere Gobez is an attempt to “reconstruct the past, not simply by discovering good songs that have been forgotten, but through the interpretation process, making songs anew.” The word gobez refers to a rallying cry, and as a son of two refugees, Mekonnen hopes the album emphasizes the need for equality and justice as hatred and xenophobia run rampant in politics worldwide. Ere Gobez is a call to be courageous and have a “passionate response” to the world, whether that means uncovering a hidden musical history or making bold new creations of their own.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Alligator Records 45th Anniversary Collection

alligator-records
Title: Alligator Records 45th Anniversary Collection

Artist: Various

Label: Alligator

Formats: 2-CD set, MP3

Release date: June 10, 2016

 

Alligator Records started in 1971 as one man’s dream to record the Southside Chicago blues artists who packed a tiny venue called Florence’s. Bruce Iglauer, then working at Delmark Records, began his label with just one record per year and one employee—himself. In 1991 he released a 20th Anniversary Collection to commemorate the growth of his label to Grammy-award status. Robert Mugge’s film, Pride & Joy: The Story of Alligator Records, documented the promotional tour for that compilation, and an album of live performances from the tour was nominated for a Grammy Award.

Compilations followed for the 20th, 25th, 30th and 40th anniversaries, each compiling tracks from the label’s early days and pairing with newer material. Over the years the label added artists, including many from outside of the Chicago tradition, who were either dropped from other labels or were floundering after the demise of the 1960s blues revival. Still a small label, Alligator continues to produce several albums a year and has re-released albums acquired from other labels.

Iglauer’s introduction to the 45th Anniversary Collection sets this collection apart as a retrospective not of the entire backlist, but mainly of the artists who have recorded since the 2011 40th Anniversary album, plus select tracks by those who have died recently. The living and the dead are interspersed, but most of the current Alligator performers are on the first of the two disc set. Their tracks illustrate a vibrant tradition that still speaks to audiences around the world.

Disc One opens with a “house-rockin’” performance of “Hold That Train” by Lil’ Ed and the Imperials (2008). They invite the listener to “get on board … next stop: Chicago.” Since Alligator’s signature sound is “house-rockin’ music,” this track is a perfect choice to represent the label. “Cotton Picking Blues” (1973) by Son Seals (d. 2004) follows with a long, lugubrious electric guitar solo backed by organ, drums and bass that takes up much of the track. Having been cheated out of his share-cropping pay he has to “put it down.” This is the source of Chicago’s blues inheritance: musicians migrating from the Delta cotton fields to Chicago.

“Devil’s Hand” (2015) by Shemekia Copeland represents the present. The daughter of Johnny Copeland, she began recording for Alligator in 1998 at the age of 18. Tracks in the previous anniversary compilations find her sometimes struggling to compete with her horn section, but in “Devil’s Hand” her voice is robust and soulful, and the production gives her room to breathe. She has come into her own. “Can’t Even Do Wrong Right” (2015) by Elvin Bishop  is a witty take on classic blues themes with the best line: “What goes on in the dark will surely come to light.” Toronzo Cannon’s “Bad Contract” (2016) is a funkalicious blues concoction with lyrics that echo the Son Seals’ track, but instead of being cheated by a farmer, Cannon gets burned by a pre-nuptial contract!  Who wouldn’t sing the blues?

Harmonica maestro Charlie Musselwhite tells a true story of how the courage of Jessica McClure, the girl who fell into “The Well” (2010), inspired him to quit drinking and “to be a better man.” You might have to listen twice for the story though, because the harmonica solos overshadow everything else in the track. He is a true gift to the blues. Marcia Ball (2014) sings “The Tattooed Lady and the Alligator Man,” a boogie woogie song complete with a horn section and retro piano licks, telling the story of a pair of freak show performers.

In case you feared that civil rights music was a thing of the past, fear not. “Common Ground” (2015) by The Painkillers & Tommy Castro urges us to “stand together on common ground… everybody’s looking for someone to blame but we’re not as different as we are the same.” This mid-tempo gospel-tinged anthem tells us “It’s time to build a brand new day.” Preach it, Tommy! Carey Bell (d. 2007) & his son Lurrie Bell, sing “The Road Is So Long” (2004), an acoustic, Piedmont-inspired duo with Carey on harp and Lurrie on guitar. The track shows Alligator’s reach as well as some impressive instrumentals by the Bells.

Koko Taylor (d. 2009), Alligator’s vocal powerhouse for many years, penned a very southern “Voodoo Woman” (1975). She has a crawfish on her “shoulder, looking dead at you.” Rough and bare, backed by guitar and sax, you can believe her claim that she could make the sky begin to cry. “Don’t Call No Ambulance” (2013) is a hard-driving house-rockin’ song with a ripping horn section. Selwyn Birchwood’s gravelly voice would sound right at home on any Delta classic but has the driving force and powerful diction (yes, diction!) to hold his own against his funkelectric band. Birchwood burst onto the scene in 2013 but he is an old soul with much to say and many years ahead of him. “Don’t you call no ambulance—I’ll find my own ride home.” Oh yes, he would, and I bet he could also walk it if he had to!

Rick Estrin & The Nightcats “Callin’ All Fools” (2013) is a retro-mod song backed by organ, drums and guitar. Lorenzo Farrell’s organ solo is not to be missed. “Too Drunk to Drive Drunk” (2012) by Joe Louis Walker is a hard-driving song about not driving. This is one of the most unique tracks in the collection. Imagine if 1950s Jerry Lee Lewis had a baby with Stevie Ray Vaughan. “I know you mighta done it a million times before, but you ain’t driving outta here like this no more.” “Crazy When She Drinks”(2007) by Lee Rocker, former member of the Stray Cats, sounds a bit like his former group’s work, which isn’t a bad thing but isn’t core to the Alligator wheelhouse. The lyrics fit into a blues house, though: “It don’t make her happy – it just makes her mean.” She probably shouldn’t drive home, either.

“Take Me With You (When You Go),” from Aaron Moreland and Dustin Arbuckle’s 2016 debut album for Alligator, is roots house-rock that has them pulling out all the stops. “Your Turn to Cry” (1977), by Jimmy Johnson, is one of the few older songs by a living artist. Johnson, who is still alive and gigging at 87, lets the guitar do most of the crying but his powerful falsetto recalls the classic R&B artists of the 1950s while staying true to the blues. Texan Delbert McClinton’s “Giving It Up for Your Love” is from a live album recorded at Austin City Limits. It is a multi-tinged gumbo of roots rock styles with full horn section and no holds barred.

Hound Dog Taylor (d. 1975) and the Houserockers were the band that inspired Iglauer to start the Alligator label. “Take Five” (1974) is hard-driving house-rock song that’s light on lyrics and heavy on bottleneck guitar. “Gotta go… gotta go…. sure ‘nuff … baby.” It’s easy to imagine this quickie (2:42) as a prelude to a bathroom break or a rockin’ closer after a long night at Florence’s. New Orleans’ Anders Osborne’s “Let It Go” (2013) is a plea to give up drugs, with references to psychedelic sounds of the 1960s in the incessant driving rhythm and soaring guitar solos. There’s no resolution, just sinking deeper into a quagmire of hypnotic sounds. According to the notes, Osborne has overcome his troubles but they clearly left a soulfully felt scar. Mavis Staples sings “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” (2004) to a croaking bass harmonica (that sometimes sounds like a didjeridoo) and slide guitar. Inspired to resume her career after the events of 9/11, this track points to her bright future.

Disc 2 opens with “Cotton Mouth Man” (2013) by James Cotton, featuring Joe Bonamassa, and includes the line “The Blues cannot be killed!” What a great track to open a disc that includes many deceased artists.

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Gene & Eddie – True Enough: Gene & Eddie with Sir Joe at Ru-Jac

gene-eddie
Title: True Enough: Gene & Eddie with Sir Joe at Ru-Jac

Artist: Gene & Eddie

Label: Omnivore

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

Release date: September 2, 2016

 

This new CD from Omnivore features the first-ever compilation of 16 single sides (plus 5 bonus tracks) cut by Washington, D.C soul duo Gene & Eddie for the Baltimore-based Ru-Jac label. True Enough also includes several rare sides recorded by the talented producer, songwriter, trumpeter and vocalist who recorded as Sir Joe. The careers of these three artists—otherwise known as Eddie Best, Jr., Eugene Alton Dorsett, and Joe Quarterman—intertwined throughout the 1960s through various regional acts.

Eddie & Gene had been performing in D.C.’s Black nightclubs when they were tapped to front the Nightcaps, adding the soul to a band comprised of white and Jewish musicians. This, in turn, opened up new avenues of opportunity for the group as well as time in the recording studio. Meanwhile, Joe Quarterman had formed several vocal groups including the Knights, and fronted two different female groups: the El Corols and the Maidens. By 1965 he was recording his own tracks for Ru-Jac owner Rufus E. Mitchell (1909-2003), including “Nobody Beats My Love” and “A Guy for You”—both included here. Two years later these three artists signed to Ru-Jac, with Quarterman writing songs for Gene & Eddie, including the CD’s rousing opening tracks, “I Would Cry” and “I Tell You.”

The liner notes by Kevin Coombe document the many trials and tribulations of these three artists for the remainder of the decade. As is the case with most struggling musicians, they never quite made the big time. For the most, all three part had left the music industry by the early ‘70s. Sir Joe released a single on Ru-Jac in 1970 featuring two of his own songs—“Baby, I’d Drop Every Thing” and the more hard driving “Every Day (I’ll Be Needing You)” (tracks 11 and 12). The final recordings by Gene & Eddie, “Darling I Love You” and “Why Do You Hurt Me,” were released in 1971 (tracks 15 and 16).

Listening to these tracks five decades later, one can certainly appreciate the raw energy and talent of the artists and songwriters, but perhaps a bit too raw and unpolished for chart success. Most of the songs sound more like demos, cut in a hurry and on a tight budget. Nevertheless, True Enough expands our knowledge of these three artists while shining a light on the local DC soul scene of the 1960s.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

The Meters – A Message From the Meters

the-meters
Title: A Message From the Meters

Artist: The Meters

Label: Real Gone Music

Format: 2-CD set

Release date: September 2, 2016

 

The Meters cast a broad shadow. Even if you haven’t heard of them by name (which would be unfortunate), you’ve probably heard them in some capacity and without realizing it. If you’ve ever heard the thick funk laid down in LaBelle’s version of “Lady Marmalade,” you’re at the very least tangentially familiar with their music.  While their work on LaBelle’s Nightbirds album and Dr. John’s Right Place Wrong Time is famous, their own recorded work is less so despite its long history of being sampled in rap records. Primarily an instrumental unit, the Meters’ rhythmic contributions put them in a class of their own.

A Message From the Meters: The Complete Josie, Reprise & Warner Bros. Singles 1968-1977, as the title suggests, pulls together all of the singles released during the band’s most prolific era. Several of the versions included on this 2-disc set are slightly different from their album counterparts; for example, some are longer than the album versions. Core band members Art Neville, Leo Nocentelli, George Porter and Zigaboo Modeliste are highlighted on Disc 1, which features signature songs from the Meters catalog such as “Cissy Strut,” “Look-Ka Py Py,” and “Chicken Strut.”

For this reviewer’s money, it is Disc 2 that has better selections since it highlights the addition of Art Neville’s younger brother Cyril’s time with the band. There are excellent instrumentals includes on this disc as well, but the tracks with vocals (which in my opinion never get the respect they deserve in the Meters’ catalog) get time to shine as well. Tracks like the funky as hell “Do The Dirt,” “Hey Pocky A-Way,” and “Chug-Chug-Chug-Chug-A-Lug (Push ‘N’ Shove) Parts I & II” showcase the “heavyweight funk” these fellas were putting down.  The band’s cover of Professor (“Fess”) Longhair’s “Hey Now Baby,” mysteriously titled here “Cabbage Alley,” is particularly wonderful. Art and Cyril trade verses (well, more of a repeated refrain) back and forth in harmony over Art’s piano (reminiscent of Fess’s own) and the band’s rhythmic workout.

The collection also includes later Meters sides that show them struggling a bit with the mainstream’s transition from funk to disco. The Meters themselves, however, never lose their stride, which would carry over into the music of the Neville Brothers, formed by Art and Cyril after they left the Meters in 1977.

While A Message From the Meters might tread fairly well-worn territory for the hardcore Meters fan, it serves as an excellent introduction for the uninitiated and anyone else who may not have all the group’s singles in one collection.

Reviewed by Levon Williams

Scott Tixier – Cosmic Adventure

Scott Tixier
Title: Cosmic Adventure

Artist: Scott Tixier

Label: Sunnyside Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: September 9, 2016

 

Cosmic Adventure marks the second album from French jazz violinist Scott Tixier.  Born in France, and trained in both classical and jazz violin, Tixier relocated to New York City in 2008 and has been busy in the jazz scene there every since.  His performance resume is quite diverse, from Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life Tour to being featured on the soundtrack of the Keanu Reeves film John Wick.  On Cosmic Adventure, Tixier shines not only as performer, but as a composer as well; all of the originals on the album are penned by him, except for “Mr. Tix,” a composition by French harmonica player Yvonnick Prene.

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One of the major highlights of the album is the interplay between Tixier and Prene, who has a featured role on the album. The combination of violin and harmonica is initially a somewhat unusual pairing but these two make it work, with one of their best outings being “100,000 Hours.”  In the final song, though, it is the interplay between Tixier and tenor saxophonist Chris Potter that shines through, as they beam themselves to Mars at the speed of light.  Energy is great from the other players as well: Justin Brown (drums), Glenn Zaleski (piano), and Luques Curtis (bass).

Influence comes from many places on this album, in particular a heavy Latin influence.  Percussionist Pedro Martinez provides congas for the first two tracks, “Maze Walker” and “Dig It,” and his presence is felt widely.  Tixier also utilizes his French influences, most notably through acknowledging the work of Jean-Luc Ponty.  As the most eminent jazz violinist not only in France but arguably in the world, Ponty’s presence is felt throughout the album.  Even the album’s title, Cosmic Adventure, hearkens back to Ponty’s 1978 release Cosmic Messenger. The other French influence on the album is the famous jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, whose composition “Troublant Bolero” is featured.  The only other standard on the album is Erroll Garner’s “Misty,” which features a stunning extended pizzicato section.  This is one of Tixier’s strengths: using the wide vocabulary of the violin to fit the needs of his improvisational jazz expressions.  His careful use of vibrato, pizzicato, and other extended techniques keeps the listener at the edge of their seat, waiting to hear what he’ll do next.

In Cosmic Adventure, Tixier is able to place the cosmos on a spectrum, shifting from one mood to the next, and from intricate details to grandiose melodies without missing a beat.

Reviewed by Allie Martin

Allen Toussaint – American Tunes

Allen Toussaint
Title: American Tunes

Artist: Allen Toussaint

Label: Nonesuch Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3, HD Digital, FLAC

Release Date: June 10, 2016

 

Allen Toussaint’s final album is a commemorative collection of reimagined compositions by musical visionaries who have defined American music, particularly in the genres of jazz and blues. Released within a year after his untimely passing, American Tunes tells the story of peaceful weariness from a lifetime of sensation, longing, and unpredictable complication. Toussaint is a beloved New Orleans icon known far and wide as an award-winning composer, performer, producer, and collaborator since the 1950s. This album is a hat’s off to the musicians who inspired Toussaint while also demonstrating his undying commitment to his home and the people of Crescent City.

American Tunes complements Toussaint’s former record, The Bright Mississippi (2009), which was also produced by Joe Henry and released on Nonesuch Records. It matches his interest in intertwining New Orleans elegance into his instrumental performances written by the jazz and New Orleans R&B greats. Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Bill Evans, and more are featured in addition to a few exciting guest musicians. Toussaint especially recognizes Professor Longhair, his longest enduring inspiration, whose song “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” is slowed and sweetened on this album, turned into a more reflective instrumental rendition.

The album opens with “Delores’ Boyfriend,” a steady and playful blues instrumental by Toussaint following into a mischievous, yet almost vaudevillian tune titled “Viper’s Drag” by Fats Waller. Toussaint performs solo for much of the album, though each track stands alone in distinction, such as “Big Chief” and “Hey Little Girl.” However, a small band joins Toussaint on certain tunes such as “Confessin’ (That I love You),” “Lotus Blossom,” “Rosetta” and “Waltz for Debby.” Percussionist Jay Bellerose, tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd, bassist David Piltch, Greg Leisz on Weissenborn and electric guitarist Bill Frisell each carefully and delicately add texture to the compositions, highlighting Toussaint’s unmistakable grace on the piano. On “Danza, Op. 33,” an orchestral section along with pianist Van Dyke Parks supports Toussaint on this classical tune composed by New Orleans native Louis Moreau Gottschalk.

While the majority of the tunes do not feature the original lyrics, a pleasing collaboration takes place on two songs of this album performed by vocalist Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Giddens joins Toussaint, providing her deep soulful vibrato, in celebration of Duke Ellington on “Rocks in my Bed” and “Come Sunday,” which was famously performed by gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. Toussaint’s second original composition, “Southern Nights,” a refreshing piano duet with Van Dyke Parks, brings the album to a near close.

On the last track of the album, Toussaint finally takes his turn at the microphone singing his arrangement of Paul Simon’s “American Tune.” A song with lyrics so touching and appropriate, it is truly difficult to listen with dry eyes. Simon’s lyrics are reassuring while Toussaint’s voice is calming as he sings:

“Oh, it’s all right, it’s all right

It’s all right

You can’t be forever blessed

Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day

And I’m trying to get some rest

That’s all I’m trying to get, some rest”

Pleasant and playful, though distantly melancholic, American Tunes is a satisfying collection of New Orleans jazz, R&B, and classical music clearly inspirational to a musician who has in turn inspired other creative minds. In the liner notes, Tom Piazza reflects on Toussaint’s return to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina: “His return was a sign that New Orleans, itself, was back. You would see him, as before, at the supermarket, or at a concert, and every time you saw him you were happy and grateful.” Friends and fans are happy and grateful as well to have received American Tunes as a parting gift in remembrance of the great Allen Toussaint.

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

Pretty Yende – A Journey

Pretty Yende
Title: A Journey

Artist: Pretty Yende

Label: Sony Classical

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 16, 2016

 

South African soprano Pretty Yende’s debut album, A Journey, will be released this month by Sony Classical.  Much-anticipated since her triumphant Metropolitan Opera debut in 2013, Ms. Yende’s album celebrates the lyric coloratura repertoire which propelled her to the top of the opera world.  She performs with the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI Torino, under conductor Marco Armiliato, with additional assistance from mezzo soprano Kate Aldrich, as seen in the album trailer below:

Ms. Yende was born in 1985 in the small remote town of Piet Retief, about three hundred miles from Johannesburg. At the age of sixteen, her life was transformed by hearing the “Flower Duet” from Delibes’s opera Lakmé on a British Airways television commercial.  On learning that this haunting music was opera, she decided at that moment to abandon her plans to become an accountant and train to become an opera singer instead.  Soon she gained a scholarship to study at the South African College of Music in Cape Town with Professor Virginia Davids, who was the first black woman to appear on opera stages during the apartheid years in South Africa.  With Davids’ help, Ms. Yende’s extraordinary talent blossomed and she was taken from a childhood in a remote village in South Africa to sing on the major opera stages of the world.

Preparing to enter the opera world from such a background cannot have been easy, but in interviews with the New York Times, Ms. Yende has referred to South Africa as “… a singing nation. Music is something that we are born with, it’s like the African rhythm; it’s like a heartbeat.  In Sunday school you will have to sing one song, and a little girl will start harmonizing it.  Just like that, just by hearing.  It’s that kind of world.”  Such innate musicality is showcased in Ms. Yende’s album, featuring as it does selections from the bel canto and later French repertoire.  Her voice boasts a solid lower middle register not always heard in this voice type, and in her upper range, a ringing squillando which she manages with taste.  Her ornamentation is fresh and well-chosen to highlight her strengths: while her runs are not always clean, her pizzicato coloratura is excellent.

Overall, the album provides a refreshing take on some old favorites, while providing some more unusual repertoire for the jaded palate. Among the latter is the scene “Vous que l’on dit” from Rossini’s Le Comte Ory.  It was in this opera that Ms. Yende starred opposite Juan Diego Flórez as the Countess Adèle, at her Met debut.  With less than a month’s notice (having never sung the role), she replaced an ailing Nino Machaidze to complete the run of the show.  She has since performed the role several times, including at the Theater an der Wien where she replaced Cecilia Bartoli.  The performance reflects her theatrical experiences, communicating a thorough command of the French text and musical line, bringing Adèle’s character brightly to life.  One can only imagine the riches in store for us as this rising star finds her place in the operatic firmament.

Reviewed by Andrea Cawelti

Will Calhoun – Celebrating Elvin Jones

Will Calhoun
Title: Celebrating Elvin Jones

Artist: Will Calhoun

Label: Motema

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: August 19, 2016

 

Drummer Will Calhoun has proven time and again that he’s comfortable performing any style of music, from the hard rock of the groundbreaking band Living Colour, of which he is a founding member, to jazz, fusion, funk, and hip hop. But for his solo albums, the Berklee School of Music graduate most frequently chooses to further his exploration of jazz. On his latest release, Celebrating Elvin Jones, Calhoun pays homage to the legendary drummer. As a member of the John Coltrane Quartet, Elvin Jones became one of the most influential drummers of all time, performing on the seminal album A Love Supreme, as well as many other albums for Coltrane and other artists ranging from Miles Davis to Ornette Coleman, Freddy Hubbard, McCoy Tyner, Quincy Jones, and J.J. Johnson. Jones also released dozens of his own projects between 1961-1999 on the Atlantic, Impulse!, Blue Note, and Vanguard labels.

Jones made a profound impact on Calhoun, who met the drummer at a Village Vanguard concert when he was just 14. The two maintained contact over the years until Jones’ passing in 2004. According to Calhoun, “Elvin connected my worlds. Although I saw him playing jazz, I felt rock and roll, I felt fusion, I felt African music. It sounds electric, it sounds acoustic, it sounds very African, it sounds very Latin, there are all these elements in there.”

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A bevy of seasoned veterans join Calhoun on Celebrating Elvin Jones, including Christian McBride on bass, Antoine Roney on sax, Carlos McKinney on keyboards, and Keyon Harrold on trumpet—all of whom either played with or were influenced by Jones. The album opens with the Jones original, “EJ Blues,” first released on Live in Japan 1978 by the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine. Clocking in at just over seven minutes, Calhoun’s arrangement is less than half the length of Jones’ live version, but certainly doesn’t disappoint in this energetic reading with extended solos by McBride and Harrold. On “Whew,” composed by bassist Wilbur Little who recorded it with Jones on the 1969 album Poly-Currents, McBride deftly weaves in and out of the complex rhythms and improvisations. Next up, the band lays into Coltrane’s “Harmonique,” included on Jones’ 1984 tribute album Brother John. Establishing a solid groove from the get go, Calhoun and McBride fully support Roney’s solo efforts.

From here the album takes a significant detour with “Sarmastah,” penned by Calhoun, who surprises listeners with an introspective 12-string acoustic guitar solo. Backed by Roney on soprano sax and McKinney on electric piano, Calhoun also covers percussion, drawing upon the “cymbal mystique” for which Jones was famous in this rhythmically complex track. Following are two great showcases for Calhoun’s technique: Wayne Shorter’s “Mahjong” and “Shinjitsu,” composed by Keiko Jones (Elvin’s wife), that’s a tour-de-force on which Calhoun unleashes a wide range of percussion during extended solos.

Two prominent guest artists are featured on the final tracks, which are definite highlights. The late Senegalese percussionist Doudou N’Diaye Rose (who died shortly after this recording) and five of his group drummers perform the intro on the arrangement of the traditional Japanese folk song “Doll of the Bride.” Calhoun then takes over, channeling Rose’s ability to create complex ever-changing rhythmic variations which propel his group through several improvisatory sections that showcase each member, before concluding in a flurry of percussive effects.

Keyboardist/composer Jan Hammer joins the group on the final track to revisit “Destiny,” which he performed on Jones’ 1974 album, On the Mountain. In a grand finale that’s nothing short of cataclysmic, Hammer drives the melody forward before handing the reins to Calhoun, who unleashes an explosive array of percussion, then brings the group back to conclude the piece with a satisfyingly progressive fusion.

In his tribute to Elvin Jones, Calhoun proves his own status as a master drummer with an impressive arsenal and intellectual curiosity that’s worthy of respect. Hats off to the other members of the group, who all contribute to this fantastic effort.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Marquis Hill – The Way We Play

Marquis Hill
Title: The Way We Play

Artist: Marquis Hill

Label: Concord Jazz

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: June 24, 2016

 

Chicago trumpeter Marquis Hill, who studied under Ronald Carter at Northern Illinois University and earned a masters in jazz pedagogy from DePaul University, released several projects of his original music on Skiptone Music. In 2014, Hill won the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Trumpet Competition, which awarded him a recording contract with Concord Records. From this contract comes his debut album for Concord Jazz, The Way We Play, which pays homage to jazz standards reinterpreted by Hill and his ensemble, the Blacktet, featuring Christopher McBride (sax), Justin Thomas (vibes), Makaya McCraven (drums), and Joshua Ramos (bass).

The title track, “The Way We Play/Minority” is playful mashup of a Gigi Gryce tune and features spoken word by Harold Green III. It can be listened to as a manifesto (“the way we play is / the way we love”), or as Hill emphatically states, “this is the sound of my band, which is uniquely Chicago.” Green enters after the intro, claiming the music’s blackness, stating “the way we play signify from which we came/Black always in season.” Light and fast paced, Hill’s rendition never numbs a gut or unseats a listener as free jazz strove to do. This is a fantastic piece, which describes many of the songs on this release. It dances the spirit in a comforting way and is great at romancing the beings that this society has had us become.  The drumming is singularly superb and so the trumpet playing.

Other highlights are Horace Silver’s “Moon Rays,” which inspires idealism in its listener, and the Afro-Cuban take on “Fly Little Bird Fly” (by Donald Byrd), which also features spoken word by Harold Green. His prose asks “the descendants of sharecroppers” to “sprinkle black girl magic” and “rise and dance.” Are these songs politically romantic? Marquis Hill seems to intend to transform at least some of the tracks into statements of political activism or even protest. Also included on the album is an Afro-Latin version of “Smile,” the Charlie Chaplin tune, while “My Foolish Heart” is a love ballad with R&B influences featuring Christie Dashiell on vocals.

Marquis Hill’s The Way We Play is a delightful album that combines the best of two worlds: Archie Shepp without the jagged edges, post-bop with overt protest.

Reviewed by Adolf Alzuphar

Vaneese Thomas – The Long Journey Home

Vaneese Thomas
Title: The Long Journey Home

Artist: Vaneese Thomas

Label: Segue Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: September 16, 2016

 

Listening to The Long Journey Home feels like a night-long dance party as each song tests the boundaries of southern American roots genres. Vaneese Thomas celebrates her family and musical heritage in this latest album, following her most recent release Blues for My Father (2014). Raised in a talented and renowned musical family, Vaneese is the youngest daughter of Rufus Thomas and sister of Carla Thomas. R&B, soul, funk, and blues styles come naturally to Vaneese, and her ability to wield and experiment with these song varieties is evident in The Long Journey Home.

Vaneese demands complete attention in her performance using powerful vocals with a full band including harmonica, electric guitar, and a brass section. She kicks off the album with “Sweet Talk Me,” a rockin’ rhythm and blues song with a catchy refrain and a chorus of back-up singers beckoning listeners to the dancefloor. The album follows into “Lonely No More,” a song keeping with the Delta blues tradition about reclaiming self-confidence. The catchiest song of the album, “Sat’day Night on the River,” starts up with full energy and a swinging saxophone solo by Cliff Lyons. Perhaps one of the most surprising songs on this album, because of its unique blend of genres, is “Country Funk.” Demonstrating exactly what its title implies, Vaneese sings “I just can’t get enough of that country funk” while the percussion and brass section support elements of funk music, and dobro, banjo, and fiddle intertwine creating an intriguing mix of music traditions. The genres highlighted on this album convey Vaneese’s appreciation for the musically diverse reputation of Memphis.

Vaneese wrote songs on The Long Journey Home about her concerns on past and current social justice issues. Civil rights, imbalances of political power, and the need for love and kindness are common themes in songs such as “Mean World,” “Rockin’ Away the Blues,” and “The More Things Change,” during which she reflects on Sam Cooke’s timeless hit “A Change is Gonna Come”:

“Well, I’m still here waiting.

Hardly a damn thing has been done.

Well ain’t it funny? I said, it’s a shame

That the more things change, the more they stay the same”

Vaneese attempts to offer something for everyone on this album, whether they are songs about love and inspiration as in “Mystified” and “Prince of Fools” or songs with heavier blues and gospel roots like “I Got a Man in TN” or “Revelation.” The album closes with a cover of “The Chain,” originally written by Fleetwood Mac. It is a distinctive concluding track relative to the rest of the album for its minimalist acoustic instrumental section. Nevertheless, Vaneese sings out with her heart’s full power, which she sustains throughout the album.

Reviewed by Jennie Williams