Johnny Popcorn – Totem Pole

popcorn
Title: Totem Pole

Artist: Johnny Popcorn

Label: Mad Dragon Music Group/dist. Bandcamp

Formats: CD, Digital (MP3, FLAC)

Release date: September 30, 2016

 

Johnny Popcorn? Yes that is the name of this group and I love it. Hailing from Philadelphia, the five member band features vocals from Hezekiah (Davis) and Jani Coral, with Lloyd Alexander on guitar, Freshie on bass, and Clayton Crothers on drums. They’ve opened for a who’s who in the neo soul/progressive soul scene: Kindred, Oddisee, Robert Glasper, Ledisi, RJD2, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Bilal. JP’s ten track sophomore album, Totem Pole, is rock—yes, rock! Now before some of you start frowning your face, it’s not hard rock. It’s not Bad Brains, and there are no Vernon Reid guitar solo riffs. However, Totem Pole offers a welcome fusion of sound and if you free your mind, you may enjoy it.

“Go Go Go” is perhaps the most up tempo of all the tracks. It opens with, believe it or not, acoustic guitar that recalls George Michael’s “Faith.” The catchy chorus has Hezekiah and the group chanting and clapping, “go, go, go – you got to get up and go, go, go” as they encourage folks to chase their dreams.

Coming Home” is another good track thanks to drummer Chuck Treece, who is a local legend in Philly. Hezekiah is once again featured on vocals, and listening to this track you might think Lenny Kravitz could have recorded it. “What a Day” is a step out of rock and into funk. The opening bass is a sure fire winner and will get heads nodding up and down.

Johnny Popcorn’s Totem Pole is certainly different. Where so many acts want to copycat each other, this band stands out! The only question remains, will they or can they find an audience? Judging by who JP has collaborated with, I’d say yes. Totem Pole is a promising follow-up to their debut album, The Crow, and I’m already waiting to see what direction they will pull the audience on their next release.

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

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

Martin Simpson and Dom Flemons – Ever Popular Favourites

simpson-flemons
Title: Ever Popular Favourites

Artist: Martin Simpson and Dom Flemons

Label: Fledg’ling Records

Formats: CD, MP3, LP

Release date: October 7, 2016

 

Multi-instrumentalist folk music enthusiasts Martin Simpson, an English singer and songwriter, and Dom Flemons, co-founder of the Grammy Award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, were commission in 2014 by the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) to explore the musical exchange between their respective folk song traditions. The duo combed the Cecil Sharp House archives, where they discovered many of the traditional songs they chose to revive. The result of their collaboration is Ever Popular Favourites, a collection of English and American folk music recorded live during the duo’s 2015 tour.

The album liner notes, written by Flemons and Simpson, provide first-hand impressions as well as their descriptions of the music. On the opening track, “My Money Never Runs Out,” Flemons sings and plays plectrum banjo while Simpson provides rhythm on acoustic guitar. Originally recorded by Gus Cannon, aka Banjo Joe, and ragtime guitarist Blind Blake in 1927, this “coon” song was released on Paramount Records. Flemons explains in the liner notes that raucous “coon” songs brought mainstream attention to Black entertainers in the U.S. at the time.

“John Hardy,” a song made famous by Leadbelly’s recording, has been arranged by Simpson to highlight his mastery of fingerpicking technique on the acoustic guitar. “If I Lose” follows with Flemons singing a falsetto blues melody along to a duet of mellow slide guitar vibratos. “Little Sadie,” a ballad that’s been performed by Hedy West, Doc Watson, the Grateful Dead, and many other folk musicians, picks up the pace with an arrangement featuring a bones rhythm and 5-string banjo.

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According to Simpson, “Short Time Come Again No More” (track 6) is an English parody of Stephen Foster’s classic American song “Hard Times Come Again No More,” though its origin remains a mystery in his explanation. Simpson discusses how his early guitar playing was heavily influenced by Mississippi John Hurt’s “Pay Day,” a song arranged on this album for slide guitar featuring a steady fingerpicking style resembling that of Hurt. This stylistic inspiration can be heard again on “Too Long (I’ve Been Gone),” the only original song on the album, written by Flemons about the life of a touring musician.

“Bulldoze Blues” and “Coalman Blues” both incorporate dark lyrical themes into otherwise joyful instrumental tunes, especially since they feature Flemons playing the quills, a traditional African American pan flute. Talented on a variety of instruments, Flemons plays bones on “Buckeye Jim” and “Champagne Charlie,” and further demonstrates his innovative creativity by performing electric kettle instead of using a traditional jug on the recording of “Stealin’.”

Hopefully Simpson and Flemons will share more selections from their expansive repertoire of traditional English and American folk music in the near future as a follow up to this thoroughly entertaining album.

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

The Choir of Trinity Wall Street – Trevor Weston Choral Works

trevor-weston
Title: Trevor Weston Choral Works

Artist: The Choir of Trinity Wall Street; Julian Wachner, cond.

Label: Acis

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 6, 2016

This collection of powerful and eclectic choral music is the first album dedicated entirely to celebrating Trevor Weston’s compositions. The Grammy nominated Choir of Trinity Wall Street performs under famed conductor Julian Wachner, with the Trinity Youth Chorus and NOVUS NY (Trinity’s resident contemporary music orchestra) providing accompaniment on a few selections. Weston is Associate Professor of Music at Drew University and has received several honors throughout his career, including the George Ladd Prix de Paris from the University of California, Berkeley; a Goddard Lieberson Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; and residencies from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the MacDowell Colony.

Weston embraces both sacred and poetic influences in his musical compositions. In the album liner notes he discusses the inspiration and motivations for each piece. For instance, Weston wrote “My Heart Hath Trusted in God” after searching through collections of short expressive texts from the English Gradual while working as music director at a small Anglo-Catholic church in Berkeley.

Certain compositions reflect expressions of collective African American experiences. “Truth Tones” was written to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the “revelation of hidden truths” using texts from the African Saint Augustine and the African American poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar. In “O Daedalus, Fly Away Home,” the choir engages in a percussive stomp and clap similar to the traditional juba patting performed during slavery. The piece was based on a poem by Robert Hayden that combines Greek mythology with the African American folktale, “Flying Africans,” to evoke the spiritual flight away from adversity.

The still and static sorrow present in “Ashes” is a response to the attacks on 9/11 and the senseless violence and suffering reverberating throughout the world. The voices echoing during the song represent the cries for mercy. As Weston explains, “The drama builds to a symbolic creation of the two towers, a ‘tall’ chord consisting of two notes for each voice part.” This eight-minute composition draws from Psalm 102, acting as a prayer in the face of terror:

Hear my prayer, O lord,
And let my crying come unto thee.
My days are gone like a shadow.
And I am withered like grass

The final tracks on this album consist of five movements called “Ma’at Musings.” Conductor Julian Wachner commissioned Weston to create this piece in 2004, in which he incorporated 5th century BCE Egyptian texts. Describing the movements, Weston states, “The texts are earthly and direct so I composed a musical fantasy responding to striking words from the ancient world.”

This 15-track album eloquently expresses Weston’s interest in exploring the limits of creativity within sacred and secular thematic elements.

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

2016 Holiday Music Overview

Another December brings another batch of holiday albums from artists across a variety of genres.  Though there are fewer new releases this year, we’ve compiled a short list of the most interesting projects featuring new arrangements of classics as well as original songs composed for the season.

kenny-lattimore
Title: A Kenny Lattimore Christmas

Artist: Kenny Lattimore

Label: Motown Gospel

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: October 21, 2016

 

Kenny Lattimore seamlessly merges contemporary R&B with contemporary Christian music on A Kenny Lattimore Christmas. Original songs such as “Real Love This Christmas” and “Everybody Love Somebody” are full of energy and hip hop beats, with lyrics about the importance of community and faith. Lattimore includes many classic Christmas songs on the album, such as “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” and a grand, symphonic arrangement of “O Holy Night.” He also adds worship songs such as “I Cry Holy” and the gospel-chorus backed “We Want to See You.” Overall, it is a marvelous holiday album for any gospel music fan looking for something that combines tradition and innovation.

 

andra-day
Title: Merry Christmas from Andra Day

Artist: Andra Day

Label: Warner Bros.

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: November 18, 2016

 

On the five track EP Merry Christmas from Andra Day, the jazz/R&B chanteuse breathes new life into holiday classics with her highly distinctive, instantly recognizable voice. Opening with the Stevie Wonder duet “Someday at Christmas,” the two singers present an upbeat, optimistic song that immediately captures the season’s spirit with themes of peace and harmony:

Day then segues into a swinging arrangement of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman,” followed by a sumptuous rendition of “Winter Wonderland.” Guitarist Chris Payton contributes to “Carol of the Bells,” providing an acoustic accompaniment to Day’s supremely soulful arrangement that renders this chestnut nearly unrecognizable, in the best possible way. Closing with “The First Noel,” Day takes a more straight forward approach, using a simple arrangement with keyboard, but adding enough modulations and embellishments to keep things interesting.

 

leslie-odom-jr
Title: Simply Christmas

Artist: Leslie Odom, Jr.

Label: S-Curve Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: November 11, 2016

 

While Hamilton star Leslie Odom, Jr. has quickly risen to fame this year as the rapping Aaron Burr, his classically trained Broadway voice stays steady and velvety smooth on his first holiday album Simply Christmas. Odom does not stray from the typical Christmas repertoire, except for adding a version of Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson’s “Winter Song.” Otherwise, with tracks ranging from “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to “The First Noel,” this is a traditional Christmas album full of easy listening holiday cheer.

 

bob-baldwin
Title: The Gift of Christmas

Artist: Bob Baldwin

Label: Red River Entertainment

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: October 28, 2016

 

Great for any contemporary jazz enthusiast on your Christmas list, pianist and composer Bob Baldwin’s The Gift of Christmas adds his spin to holiday classics such as “This Christmas” and “Greensleeves/What Child Is This?” Baldwin combines tradition with modern styles on tracks such as “Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful / Celebrate the Son Remix,” which mixes electronic beats, vocals from gospel artist Corvina Nielsen, and a soulful keyboard solo. Nielsen also guest stars on “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and “We Three Kings / Yonder Star Remix,” with her soaring, soulful vocals adding a unique dimension to the album. Ending on the beautifully calm and melancholy track “December 25th,” Baldwin returns to a more traditional smooth jazz sound. On The Gift of Christmas, Baldwin constantly challenges our expectations of what Christmas songs should sound like through surprising arrangements and delightful collaborations.

 

r-kelly
Title: 12 Nights of Christmas

Artist: R. Kelly

Label: RCA

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: October 21, 2016

 

If you like non-traditional Christmas songs, R. Kelly’s 12 Nights of Christmas is perfect for you. Kelly combines his signature R&B vocals and sensual lyrics with lush orchestral arrangements on holiday themed songs such as “Snowman,” “Flyin’ On My Sleigh,” and “Mrs. Santa Claus.” Though some of these tracks may be borderline “not safe for work,” there are also more innocuous songs such as “My Wish for Christmas” and “Home for Christmas”—his modern day twist on “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”:

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big-freedia
Title: A Very Big Freedia Christmazzz

Artist: Big Freedia

Label: Queen Diva Music

Formats: MP3

Release date: December 9, 2016

 

If you’re looking for something naughty but nice for your holiday party, look no further than this 5 track EP from the bounce queen of New Orleans. A Very Big Freedia Christmazzz offers some very unique takes on holiday classics such as “Rudy the Big Booty Reindeer” who knows how to twerk, and “Jingle Bell Rock” which will get you on your feet to “shake the night away.” Freedia’s “Twas the Night” is a hip hop version of the classic Christmas story with a NOLA twist:

Twas the night before Friday and all through the club,
They were drinking and smoking and tearing it up,
It was a cold night but the place was lit,
It was packed wall to wall no room to sit . . .
Chorus: All I want for Christmas is the beat, beat
All I want for Christmas is the beat, beat

Original tracks include the highly infectious “So Frosty” that’s sure to heat up the dance floor, and “Santa is a Gay Man” sung to the tune of “Mr. Sandman” (definitely not safe for work).

Reviewed by Anna Polovick and Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Recent Books on Music Recommended for Holiday Giving

Following are recently published books in the genres of jazz, soul, R&B, and rap music that made our short list.

life-in-jazz
Title: A Life in Jazz

Author: Danny Barker; Alyn Shipton, editor; new introduction by Gwen Thompkins

Publisher: The Historic New Orleans Collection

Format: Hardcover (254 pages, 8 x 10)

Release date: December 1, 2016

Just in time for the holidays, this new illustrated edition of the 1986 biography of New Orleans musician Danny Barker would make a wonderful gift for any jazz fan. Published as volume three in the Louisiana Musicians Biography Series from The Historic New Orleans Collection, this new edition is supplemented with 115 images that illuminate Barker’s story, plus a complete discography and a never-before-published song catalog. As one of the elder statesman of jazz, Danny Barker (1909-1994) appeared on more than a thousand recordings and wrote dozens of original songs including his biggest hit, “Don’t You Make Me Feel High [Don’t You Feel My Leg],” sung by his wife, Blue Lu Barker. He was also the first to record classic Mardi Gras Indian songs and chants, writing his own adaptations of “My Indian Red,” “Corinne Died on the Battlefield,” and “Chocko Mo Feendo Hey.” Barker’s bio is chock full of stories harkening back to the roots of jazz in New Orleans, as he reflects on “the freedom, complexity, and beauty of this thoroughly American, black music tradition.” A truly inspirational story, and a wonderful follow-up to Vol. 2 in the series, Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans.

 

travelling-soul
Title: Traveling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield

Authors: Todd Mayfield and Travis Atria

Formats: Hardcover (368 pages), eBook (Kindle ed.)

Publisher: Chicago Review Press

Release date: October 1, 2016

 

Perhaps one of the most highly anticipated music books of the year, this new biography of soul music icon Curtis Mayfield is told from the perspective of his second-oldest son, Todd Mayfield, with assistance from noted music writer Travis Atria. They certainly don’t disappoint. Far from the typical tell-all, the authors offer a well-crafted, in-depth and extremely compelling account of the singer-songwriter that reads more like a novel. Chapter titles often reference Mayfield’s songs, providing insight into the source of his lyrics. For example chapter two, “My Mama Borned Me in a Ghetto,” includes lines from his autobiographical song “Kung Fu”: “My mama borned me in a ghetto / There was no mattress for my head / But, no, she couldn`t call me Jesus / I wasn`t white enough, she said.” In this manner, Mayfield’s life is traced from the streets of Chicago to the formation of the Impressions and his label Curtom Records. Later chapters cover his political activism and socially conscious songs that became forever linked to the Civil Rights Movement. But with the good comes the bad, and the authors don’t shy away from addressing the more volatile aspects of Mayfield’s personality, or describing the pain and suffering that followed the tragic accident in 1990 that left him paralyzed. A must read for any fan of soul music.

 

maurice-white
Title: My Life with Earth, Wind & Fire

Author: Maurice White with Herb Powell

Publisher: Amistad

Formats: Hardcover (400 pages), Paperback, eBook

Release date: September 13, 2016

 

Maurice White, who founded Earth, Wind & Fire in 1970 with his brother Verdine White and Philip Bailey, sadly passed away on February 3, 2016, just as his autobiography was completed. Peppered with personal stories, Maurice also sheds light on production details while providing an overview of the band’s albums and singles. Known for his spirituality as well as his musicianship, Maurice addresses both the sacred and the secular, providing a full account of his influences. The gifted singer-songwriter, producer, arranger and bandleader left an indelible mark on American music, and thankfully decided to share with us the final chapter in his remarkable life.

 

original-gangsters
Title: Original Gangstas: The Untold Story of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur, and the Birth of West Coast Rap

Author: Ben Westhoff

Publisher: Hachette Books

Format: Hardcover (432 pages)

Release date: September 13, 2016

Award-winning journalist Ben Westhoff, author of the 2011 book Dirty South on southern hip hop, now turns his attention to the West Coast for a definitive history of California’s hip hop pioneers. Released on the 20th anniversary of Tupac Shakur’s death, Westhoff traces the rise of N.W.A. as the voice of disenfranchised African Americans, the formation of Death Row Records, the rise to superstardom of Snoop and Tupac, and the rivalries between East Coast and West Coast factions. Of equal importance, he delves into changes in the music industry and music consumption in general, which brought gangsta rap into the mainstream. Based on extensive interviews with 112 different sources, Westhoff’s latest effort is essential reading for those interested in the history of the genre.

 

flyboy-2
Title: Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader

Author: Greg Tate

Publisher: Duke University Press

Formats: Hardcover, Paperback, eBook

Release date: August 5, 2016

 

Village Voice writer Greg Tate is widely recognized as one of the premiere voices on contemporary Black music, arts and culture. Not only is he a writer and “prose stylist” extraordinaire, but Tate actively performs as a guitarist/conductor with the New York based collective known as Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber.  Like Tate’s Flyboy in the Buttermilk (1992), this volume is a collection of his writings, divided into 5 sections: “The Black Male Show” which focuses primarily on musicians ranging from Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis to Ice Cube and Lonnie Holley; “She Laughing Mean and Impressive Too” covering Sade and Azealia Banks as well as Black feminists, writers and poets; “Hello Darkness My Old Meme” offering wide ranging essays on hip-hop, jazz, and Black culture; “Screenings” focused on the films of Spike Lee and John Singleton, among others; and “Race, Sex, Politricks, and Belles Lettres” which is something of a catch-all for other works. An enjoyable read that you can digest as a whole or in parts, while marveling at Tate’s ability to turn a phrase while dissecting race, class and gender in America

 

up-from-where-weve-come
Title: UP From Where We’ve Come

Author: Charles Wright

Publisher: www.expressyourself.net

Formats: Paperback (246 pages), eBook

Release date: February 2016

 

Mississippi born singer/songwriter Charles Wright has been a fixture in the music business for over fifty years. As leader of the Los Angeles based Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, Wright penned the band’s mega hit song, “Express Yourself,” that is still frequently heard today. His new book is described as part autobiography and part novel, with each of the 59 chapters offering a short vignette drawn from life stories. Beginning with his family’s trials and tribulations as sharecroppers on a cotton plantation where, by the age of eight Wright was forced to pick 100 pounds of cotton a day, the book traces the family’s relocation to California; but unfortunately the “sharecropper mentality” follows. Those who want to learn more about Wright’s music career will be disappointed. But if you want to be inspired by Wright’s struggles to succeed in the face of adversity, he offers a powerful, first person narrative focusing primarily on how “the machinations of capitalism and personal vendettas unified to entrap the working class, and their families, into an endless cycle of debt and destitution.”

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Samora Pinderhughes – The Transformations Suite

samora
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

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

Timothy Bloom – The Beginning

timothy-bloom
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

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

Pigeon John – Good Sinner

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Title: Good Sinner

Artist: Pigeon John

Label: Dine Alone Music

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 23, 2016

 

Pigeon John honed his musical skills by performing during open mic nights at the Good Life Café in his home state of California. Even though he’s experienced much success, he’s kept this DIY approach and indie aesthetic central to his music. In fact, this new CD was crowdfunded through the website Pledge. Good Sinner is Pigeon John’s seventh album and features many genres, from his characteristic indie rock songs to covers of the Beastie Boys.

The first single, “That’s What I Like,” is a catchy song about chasing a hard-to-get lover. It features hand claps, hearty brass, and an undeniably pop chorus singing “Na na na, hey.” “Stick Up” is a similarly upbeat, pop song that sounds akin to Pigeon John’s most popular hits such as “The Bomb.”

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Pigeon John emphasizes his indie rock side on songs such as “Rebel Rebel,” which is driven by heavy yet simple beats on the drum set and features a catchy whistling section that is sure to be stuck in your head for days. This edgy vibe continues on “Gravity,” a foot-tapping song with an electric, urgent chorus featuring synthesizer.

Though he stays true to his own style, Pigeon John also explores the intersection of indie rock with other genres. He raps on “Shake It Down,” an extremely funky track featuring shouts and jingling bells in the background. His love for this mix of rock and hip hop can also be heard in his mellow cover of the Beastie Boys “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party).”

Taking the exploration of genres even further, Pigeon John’s vocals in “Take Off” lay somewhere between melodic country twang and a slow rap that discusses fights, visiting penthouses, and taking off in a beautiful car. The way the vocals are manipulated in “Knock Out” is Beach Boys-esque, with fuzzy harmonies throughout the track. Growing up in California, it seems very likely that Pigeon John was inspired by Beach Boy era love songs, as he sings, “My pretty knockout, you drive me batty like Hollywood.”

Good Sinner explores love and rebellion through a number of genres, though Pigeon John still finds himself most comfortable situated between indie rock and pop. The album is upbeat, and more often than not seems focused on making fun, catchy music. With the varying styles and appealing nature of pop choruses and beats, anyone who listens to Good Sinner will inevitably find themselves humming a chorus hours later.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

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)

josh-white
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

The Frightnrs – Nothing More To Say

frightnrs
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

lady-wray
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

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

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

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

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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