Kosi – I Know Who I Am

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Title: I Know Who I Am

Artist: Kosi

Label: (self-released)

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: November 4, 2016

 

Akosua Gyebi goes by many names: she acts as the lead singer of the New York City jazz group Sweet Blue Fire, member of indie rock group The Goddess Lakshmi, and she just released her fourth full length solo album under the name Kosi. On her website, she calls her latest project, I Know Who I Am, a “concept album telling the story of guilt, absolution, love and self-actualization through original jazz and negro spirituals.”

The opening track starts with a 50-second snippet of “Hallelujah,” which she later sings in full. It is raw and especially emotional in light of Leonard Cohen’s recent passing. The album includes traditional spirituals such as “Servant’s Prayer” and “Walk With Me,” as well as many originals such as the dark, twisting jazz song “Guilty.” In the final track, “Morning After Blues,” Kosi’s goal of self-actualization is fulfilled, as she sings about accepting her body, her talents, and where she is in life. A snippet of the song can be heard in the promo below:

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While the recording quality is not always the most impressive, the skills of the backing musicians and Kosi’s passionate vocals still stand out on this sometimes unusual but captivating album chronicling her journey to self-acceptance.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Catherine Russell – Harlem On My Mind

Catherine Russell
Title: Harlem On My Mind

Artist: Catherine Russell

Label: Harmonia Mundi/Jazz Village

Formats: CD, digital

Release date: September 9, 2016

 

Jazz chanteuse Catherine Russell offers a special treat with the release of her sixth album, Harlem On My Mind, a tribute to her mother’s birthplace and the performers who made the Apollo Theater the mecca of Black entertainment. Encompassing a dozen selections from the Great American Songbook, the album brings new life to gems of the Harlem jazz scene of the 1920s-1940s.

Opening with the title track, Russell gives a sophisticated, subtle yet swinging interpretation of this Irving Berlin chestnut. First performed by Ethel Waters in 1933, the song speaks to an expat in Paris longing to get back to the Cotton Club and the “Hi-de-ho” (a reference to bandleader Cab Calloway). Following are three songs made famous by Billie Holliday in the 1930s. “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me” (1926) highlights the terrific backing band in an arrangement by Andy Farber. “Swing! Brother, Swing!” by the great Clarence Williams is a wonderful uptempo romp, with Russell and the band perfectly articulating the style and mood of the period. On the ballad “The Very Thought of You,” Russell’s smooth as butter interpretation digs into the groove on this slower, more atmospheric version of the Lady Day classic.

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Returning to the 1920s, Russell interprets another Clarence Williams song, “You’ve Got the Right Key, but the Wrong Keyhole,” originally performed by vaudeville singer Virginia Liston with Williams in the 1920s. This bluesy arrangement features animated solos by Matt Munisteri on banjo and Mark Lopeman on clarinet.

Russell’s father, the legendary pianist/composer/bandleader Luis Russell, recorded the popular Henry Nemo song, “Don’t Take Your Love,” with his last big band in the 1940s so it obviously holds a special place in his daughter’s heart. Once again, Russell stretches the ballad to its limits in a slow and sultry arrangement reminiscent of the Nancy Wilson version.

Returning to songs made famous by Billie Holiday, Russell covers the 1929 Fats Waller jazz standard “Blue Turning Grey Over You” and the pop classic “You’re My Thrill” from 1933. These are followed by another pair of songs with close ties to Harlem: “I Want a Man” popularized by Annisteen Allen and Lucky Millinder (onetime leader of the house band at the Apollo), and “When Lights are Low” by Harlem born Benny Carter and Spencer Williams.

The album closes with a pair of songs from the 1960s: “Talk To Me, Talk To Me” by actor/composer Joe Seneca (popularized by Little Willie John and Aretha Franklin), and Dinah Washington’s Let Me Be the First to Know (from her Back to the Blues album).

With Harlem On My Mind, Catherine Russell provides yet another instant classic, brimming with impeccable style, faithful interpretations, and top notch arrangements.  Few singers today could pull this off with as much aplomb and sophistication as Russell, who was quite literally weaned on this music as the daughter of two notable jazz musicians. Young vocalists take note – this is how you sing in the pocket!

Editor’s note: Russell will be touring throughout the fall in support of the album, and will appear in December as guest vocalist with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Incognito – In Search of Better Days

Incognito
Title: In Search of Better Days

Artist: Incognito

Label: Shanachie

Formats: CD, Digital

Release Date: June 24, 2016

 

I personally first heard of British group Incognito in the 1990s, when the acid jazz scene made its way to the U.S. Groups such as Fertile Ground and the Brand New Heavies gave Incognito a run for their money on who was going to be the big dog. Well, in 2016, I think it is unanimous. Brand New Heavies had a taste of mainstream success and Fertile Ground was strictly an underground favorite, but Incognito is still regularly putting out new material. Their latest, In Search of Better Days, is Incognito’s 17th album, and if you are even a little familiar with their previous work, then you know what time it is. Incognito is funk, soul jazz and house. Yes, you read it right, house!

The intro for “Better Days” starts off with a very trippy house feel. After a buildup of five minutes, vocalist Vula Malinga takes over and then the track begins to sound more like we expect from Incognito.  Different vocalists are showcased throughout, including Imaani on the opening track, “Love Born in Flames”:

Maysa is featured on four tracks, including “Racing Through the Bends.” Catchy lyrics, combined with Maysa’s vocals equals a winner. Maysa shines on all of her tracks, but hands down this is the ONE.  Vocalist Tomoyasu Hotai gives “Bridges of Fire” a very different feel, but without a doubt it’s still smooth. Incognito is just that, smooth. After seventeen albums, Incognito has proven they have staying power. That’s a good thing.

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

Bob Baldwin – Brazilian-American Soundtrack

BobBaldwin

Title: Brazilian-American Soundtrack

Artist: Bob Baldwin

Label: City Sketches/Red River

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: July 1, 2016

 

Looking for more of that Brazilian music vibe featured during the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro? Check out Brazilian-American Soundtrack from Bob Baldwin. The 26-song double CD blends Latin rhythms with contemporary jazz in two movements, moving from Rio-Ipanema in disc one, to New York on disc two. Recorded over a three year period in Rio, New York, and Atlanta (Baldwin’s home base), the project features an international ensemble including Brazilian percussionists Café Da Silva, Rafael Pereira, and Armando Marcal and guitarist Torcuato Mariano (guitar), with a horn section comprised of Gabriel Mark Hasselbach (trumpet), Marion Meadows and Freddy V (sax), and Ragan Whiteside (flute), plus guitarists Marlon McClain and Phil Hamilton. The multi-talented Baldwin adds keyboards, percussion, bass, strings and vocals, with additional vocals contributed by James “Crab” Robinson, Porter Carroll II, Gigi, and Zoiea Ohizep.

Most of the album’s tracks were penned by Baldwin (alone and in collaboration with other band members), who set out to honor some of the iconic artists who have influenced him over the years. These include the late composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, one of the originators of the bossa nova style whose work “Corcovado/The Redeemer” is featured on disc one, along with several works by Brazilian popular music songwriter Ivan Lins, including “Anjo De Mim,” “The Island” and “Love Dance” are also included.

Moving over to the second, New York half of the project, the overall vibe is on smooth grooves, though Latin percussion still provides a solid foundation. Baldwin works in several tributes to one of his musical idols, the late Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire. The track “Maurice (The Sound of His Voice),” calls to mind the vocal riffs on EWF’s “Brazilian Rhyme,” and the closing track, “The Message,” includes Baldwin’s heartfelt spoken tribute to White, recorded shortly after news of his death was received.

Though summer is on the wane, this delightful project from Bob Baldwin promises to keep the tropical vibe alive well into the future.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Mike Wheeler Band – Turn Up!!

mike wheeler band

Title: Turn Up!!

Artist: Mike Wheeler Band

Label: Delmark

Format: CD, MP3

Release Date: April 15, 2016

 

 

One of the busiest guitarists in Chicago, Mike Wheeler has an impressive resume, having played with such luminaries as Demetria Taylor, Nellie Travis, and Big James and the Chicago Playboys.  Serving as leader on his sophomore Delmark release, Turn Up!!, Wheeler leads his band through a sizzling 13 song set, full of tight arrangements and satisfying grooves.

Most of the material on Turn Up!! is straight-ahead blues. Numbers such as “Sweet Girl” showcase the band’s hard-earned solid groove, doubtless acquired over countless evenings working with similar funky blues numbers. However, this release isn’t an entirely tourist-in-the-city-for-the-weekend affair.  “Brand New Cadillac,” for instance, is built around heavy layered guitar riffs that wouldn’t have been out of place during Black Sabbath’s early days, with a stylish guitar solo to match.

While Wheeler is a solid singer and songwriter, the real stars of this record are the band’s chops and grooves.  The band dips into funky R&B on “Yeah!,” with bassist Larry Williams and Wheeler dropping in with solid and funky solos.  The band also excels at the slow burn, as on “Nothing Lasts Forever.” Their cover of Little Milton’s “That’s What Love Will Make You Do” grooves hard, with solo breaks for Wheeler and Williams, who plays slap-bass bebop that lays deep in the funk groove. “Sad State of the World” provides another opportunity for soloing, as the nearly 8 minute long tune, heavily orchestrated in the style of The Band, gives Wheeler an opportunity to burn, even if—like many gestures at social commentary from musicians who don’t do it all the time—the lyrics are maudlin at best.

Overall, Turn Up!! Is a solid musical statement from a group of Chicago heavyweights.  Blues fans must check this out, and blues guitarists will want to cop some of Wheeler’s tasteful and flawlessly executed licks.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Anthony David – The Powerful Now

anthony david
Title: The Powerful Now

Artist: Anthony David

Label: Shanachie

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: August 26, 2016

 

Georgia native Anthony David has been writing music since he served in the military in Iraq, describing music as a life-affirming act, especially in the face of death. Since leaving the military, he has worked with artists such as Boyz II Men and his longtime collaborator India.Arie, experimenting within many genres and styles, from classical soul ballads to reggae dance floor anthems. His seventh album and first since he signed to Shanachie, The Powerful Now, is no different, as David masterfully takes on a variety of topics from poverty to true love while experimenting with fist-pumping electronic tunes, romantic, vulnerable R&B, and everything in between.

The lead single on the album, “Beautiful Problem,” is a sultry song inspired by EDM and Afrobeat, which David said is his current favorite genre. It combines voice manipulation, hard kick drum beats, and a hip-hop-infused baseline paired with a melodic chorus inspired by an India.Arie song. The video features India.Arie and wild cats as David sings about being happy with the good and bad in life:

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Other standout tracks include the opening song “The Ride,” which is about moving forward in the face of adversity, the reggaeton-inspired club-themed “I Don’t Mind,” and the romantic duet “Charge” featuring Carmen Rogers. Despite the diverse genres and themes, The Powerful Now is held down by David’s smooth vocals, which glide over classical violin with ease and balance edgy, heavy beats just as effortlessly. In his own words on his website, David says that “Humans will always need to feel, and artists are here to identify those feelings and paint pictures of sound with them.” David certainly paints pictures with his emotive voice, transporting the listener with each new lyrical narrative he creates.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Afterschool Special: The 123s of Kid Soul

Afterschool
Title: Afterschool Special: The 123s of Kid Soul

Artist: Various

Label: Numero Group

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release Date: September 16, 2016

 

Afterschool Special: The 123s of Kid Soul, is a compilation album featuring 19 little known soul songs from young groups across the country, spanning from the late 1960s to 1980.  Given this time frame, many of the groups were clearly influenced by the Jackson 5, such as the Scott Three, featuring the Scott brothers from College Park, Georgia.  Their track featured on the album, “Runnin’ Wild (Ain’t Gonna Help You),” is one of only two originals they performed, with the rest of their repertoire being made up exclusively of Jackson 5 and Osmond covers.  Although the Scott Three never went far, eldest brother Randolph’s daughters (LaTocha and Tamika Scott) went on to become half of the popular R&B group Xscape.

Other songs on the album steer clear of the Jackson model and run the gamut. For example, the opener is a call and response chant from the Bethlehem Center Children’s Choir, titled “I’m a Special Kid.”  Recorded by musician Thomas Moore in 1980, the simple tune features the affirmations of some special kids.  The final track is also inspirational: kids singing a biography of James Brown.  Set to a dramatic minor piano accompaniment, this song features Nancy Dupree and her students in upstate New York in 1969.  Key facts of Brown’s life include: “Born in Augusta, Georgia/he was a poor little shoeshine boy/now he’s the king, the king of soul/hey hey hey.”  This song was composed after Dupree’s class had seen Brown in concert in Rochester the weekend prior.  Other highlights include a Brother’s Rap cover of Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” as well as a bilingual anti-drug anthem: “I Am Free, No Dope for Me/Yo Soy Libre, No Droga Para Mí.”

Overall, this is a set of charming and earnest kid soul songs, varying in scope but all gems nonetheless.

Reviewed by Allie Martin

Isley Brothers – Groove With You…Live!

IsleyBrothers
Title: Groove With You…Live!

Artist: Isley Brothers

Label: Real Gone Music

Format: CD

Release date: September 2, 2016

 

First released as a limited edition LP for Record Store Day 2015, the “lost live album” by the Isley Brothers is now available for the first time on CD, thanks to Real Gone Music. But first, let’s set the record straight—this is not an actual live concert album. Recorded in 1980 at Bearsville Sound Studio in Woodstock, New York, the engineers overdubbed crowd noise between (and over) tracks, along with the opening introduction of the group by MC “Gorgeous” George Odell. Passed over by CBS, Groove With You…Live! was shelved for 35 years until it was released last year in its original form on vinyl, and then remastered from the pre-overdubbed session tapes for inclusion in Legacy’s 23-CD box set, The RCA Victor and T-Neck Album Masters, 1959-1983.*

Real Gone’s CD maintains the final, overdubbed “live” version as conceived by the Isley Brothers, and showcases the six man line-up that combined founding members Ronald, Rudolph, and O’Kelly Isley with younger brothers Ernie and Marvin Isley plus Rudolph’s brother-in-law Chris Jasper. Also joining the group for the studio sessions were drummer Everett Collins and Kevin Jones on congas and percussion.

Featured on the album are many of the group’s greatest hits from the 1970s, including the Latin- tinged “That Lady” electrified by Ernie’s lead guitar, the funky “Take Me to the Next Phase” and “Livin’ in the Life,” the message song “Fight the Power,” and the iconic “Summer Breeze.” Some of the tracks, such as “Voyage to Atlantis” and “Don’t Say Goodnight (It’s Time For Love)” are considerably longer than the original album versions, lending to the “live” feel of this project.

Joe Marchese’s extensive liner notes remind us of the 50-year legacy of the Cincinnati-born Isley Brothers, starting with their seminal hit song “Shout” in 1959 and their 1962 cover of “Twist and Shout,” which influenced the version released by the Beatles the following year. Quotes from interviews with Ernie Isley and Chris Jasper punctuate the text, and indicate the Isley’s had all but forgotten about this shelved album until quite recently.

If you don’t already have the 23-CD box set (highly recommended), you should certainly consider this new release if you’re not bothered by questions of authenticity in the mix.

* Groove With You…Live! is listed as The Wild in Woodstock: The Isley Brothers Live at Bearsville Sound Studio on Legacy’s 23-CD set, and is available under that title in a MP3 version.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Blood Orange – Freetown Sound

blood orange freetown sound

Title: Freetown Sound

Artist: Blood Orange

Label: Domino

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release Date: June 28, 2016

 

 

Perhaps as well known for its surprise release as for its actual music, the latest release by Dev Hynes aka Blood Orange (he has formerly recorded as Lightspeed Champion and as a member of the band Test Icicles) represents the work of an artist who is politically conscious and musically eclectic. Filtering social issues through a personal lens on his third album under this name, Blood Orange delivers one of the most compelling, socially-grounded artistic statements of the year.

On first blush, Freetown Sound may appear to simply be a set of solid contemporary R&B that hearkens to the past.  Blood Orange has incorporated the synthesizers, drum machines, and lush textures of ’80s pop, and Hynes channels both Prince (“E.V.P.”) and Michael Jackson (“But You”) on this release—in fact, upon a close examination of the album’s cover, there is a poster of Jackson hanging on the wall.  However, to simply assert that Blood Orange is trading in retro pop would be to largely miss the point of this record.  The sprawling 17 tracks (which still manage to somehow clock in at under an hour) address a variety of timely issues, including a spoken word tribute that doubles as a feminist reading of Missy Elliott by poet Ashlee Haze (“By Ourselves”), to tracks that directly address systemic racism, from “Hands Up”— a song that directly references the protests after Michael Brown’s death at the hands of police—to a sample from Ta-Nehisi Coates describing the burden of growing up a Black boy, having to carefully consider each detail of his daily wardrobe on “Love Ya.”  The inclusion of Coates is apt, as Freetown Sound is a document as simultaneously personal and compelling (while far less explicit about what the problems are or what should be done about them) as Coates’s landmark book, Between the World and Me. The sense of intimacy on this record is not just one that is intimately connected to timely issues, however.  Tracks like “St. Augustine” have a touch of spirituality, hinting at something much more private. While some might criticize much of Freetown Sound for its lack of specificity, it may be useful to think of these songs as somewhat of a Rorschach test for listeners, much like the titular saint’s Confessions.

While several months remain before critics begin to compile their lists of best releases of the year, Freetown Sound is undoubtedly a contender. From the alternately stark and lush textures Hynes employs to his knack for making big social personal, this release deserves a listen and is likely worth the hype.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Warren Wolf – Convergence

convergence

Title: Convergence

Artist: Warren Wolf

Label: Mack Avenue

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: June 10, 2016

 

 

If he is not already, vibraphonist Warren Wolf will soon become a household name for jazz fans.  His third full-length release, Convergence, showcases Wolf’s development thus far and makes a strong case that he belongs on the A-list of jazz performers and composers.  His all-star ensemble helps give Wolf a boost in starpower while also reminding listeners that he can easily hang musically with the long-time big boys of jazz.  This supporting cast has countless records among them: Christian McBride (bass), Brad Mehldau (piano), Jeff “Tain” Watts (drums), and guitarist John Scofield on two tunes.  Not only does Wolf hold his own with these longtime heavies, but he also steps up to the plate as a solid bandleader—the album includes six of Wolf’s own excellent compositions and five covers, ranging from delicate readings of Hoagy Carmichael and Chopin (“Stardust/The Minute Waltz”) to a soulful Stevie Wonder tune (“She Knocks Me off My Feet”).

The disc opens with Wolf’s original “Soul Sister,” a 4:54 burner featuring Scofield bending strings and using his most articulate phrasing, and Wolf comes in swinging, transitioning from bluesy motifs to hard-driving bop lines.  Wolf’s composition doesn’t just lie in the typical soul/bop currency of contemporary jazz—for instance, the track “Cell Phone” is based upon a ringtone that Wolf heard while traveling at the airport, leading to an off-kilter sense of time and melody that animates the quirky tune.  Wolf knows his history, too—his recording of Bobby Hutcherson’s “Montara” is a fitting tribute to the pioneering vibraphonist.

All in all, Convergence may be just that for Wolf’s career—the cast and set of influences he has assembled on this album reflect artistic and musical maturation.  This is a must-hear release for jazz fans.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Fantastic Negrito – The Last Days of Oakland

last days of oakland

Title: The Last Days of Oakland

Artist: Fantastic Negrito

Label: Blackball Universe

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release Date: June 3, 2016

 

 

Perhaps best known as the 2015 winner of NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest for his song “Lost in a Crowd,” Oakland-based Fantastic Negrito releases an album that is steeped in the blues and simultaneously strikingly contemporary.  Xavier Dphrepaulezz, who uses “Fantastic Negrito” as his stage name, has had a career rocked with the ups and downs of the entertainment industry—rising to, and falling from, a disastrous brush with stardom in the 1990s, undergoing a crippling hand injury after a car accident, and settling down for awhile. The stage persona of Fantastic Negrito represents a return to the entertainment business, on his own terms this time around.

And what a return—The Last Days of Oakland is an album with sprawling ambitions that delivers.  One more in a year of highly personal releases that document broader societal problems, Fantastic Negrito’s songs deal with class and poverty (“Working Poor,” “Hump Through the Winter”), race, and redemption (“Nothing Without You”).  The record is also diverse sonically, but it’s useful to compare the combination of blues sound and punk spirit that animates The Last Days of Oakland with the blues punk of groups like the White Stripes. In fact, Negrito takes a number of cues from Jack White, from vintage blues guitar playing to minimalistic 4-on-the-floor arrangements—“Rant Rushmore” could easily have appeared on Icky Thump, although Negrito draws a bit more gospel into the mix than White would have. Comparisons to earlier alt-rockers are not remiss either.  Fantastic Negrito’s version of the traditional song “In the Pines” (recorded by everyone and his brother, but perhaps made most famous by Leadbelly), channels Kurt Cobain’s rendition of the song as “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” on Nirvana’s 1993 MTV Unplugged, keeping Cobain’s raw emotionalism, but fleshing out the orchestration with a full band, electric guitars, and keyboards.

On The Last Days of Oakland, we hear a musician who has clearly paid his dues.  Fantastic Negrito knows his sound and has found his voice as a singer, songwriter and guitarist.  This is a definitive performance from a rocker with a few bones to pick.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Sugar Blue – Voyage

sugar blue voyage

Title: Voyage

Artist: Sugar Blue

Label: MC Records

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: April 29, 2016

 

Contemporary blues musician Sugar Blue (a.k.a. James Whiting) has gifted us with his first studio recording in five years. On Voyage, the Grammy Award-winning harmonica virtuoso and vocalist presents 11 original songs, all of which he wrote or co-wrote, plus a great cover of the Ray Charles’ song “Mary Ann.” Backed by a tight band featuring Rico McFarland on guitar, special guests Johnny B. Gayden and Bill Dickens on bass, plus Damiano Della Torre on keyboards and Brady Williams and Michael Weatherspoon on drums, the album reflects their wide ranging musical tastes.

Sugar Blue, who has frequently performed outside of the blues genre—most notably with Frank Zappa, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones—was also influenced by the jazz of Dexter Gordon and the R&B of Stevie Wonder. These influences are apparent on the opening track, “On My Way (Sarah’s Song),” an optimistic song about making a new start that’s dedicated to his daughter. Sugar’s smooth vocals and close harmonies hearken back to early ‘70s pop and R&B, in direct opposition to the standard, gritty delivery of most blues singers.

Sugar’s harmonica makes a grand entrance on “One,” which begins with an extended solo. Though more of a traditional blues song in structure, there’s a definite shift towards jazz in the chorus. The instrumental “Sugar Blue Boogie” is a definite highlight of the album. This fast and furious shuffle demonstrates Sugar and the band’s virtuosity, and they even throw in some countrified guitar picking for good measure. That countrified style continues on “New York City,” featuring Max de Bernardi on guitar, who co-wrote this autobiographical song chronicling Sugar’s life as a Harlem-raised blues musician. Midway through the track Sugar gives shout-outs to those who influenced him along the way: Victoria Spivey, Muddy Waters, Memphis Slim, Louisiana Red, and Willie Dixon.

Sugar recently married bassist Ilaria Lantieri, who also performs on the album and likely inspired the track “Love is in the Air,” which has a tinge of reggae rhythms under a harmonica solo that speaks of love and satisfaction. Eddie Shaw, the legendary sax player from the Howlin’ Wolf band, assists on “Mercedes Blues”—one of the most traditional tracks on the album, along with the humorous “Cyber Blues,” which any listener will relate to. Another stand out track is the jazzy “Life on the Run,” featuring vocalist Maya Azucena and Sonix The Mad Scientist (the two are collaborating on an album scheduled for release later this year, and Sonix performs with Sugar in the group Next Level).  The album closes with “Time,” giving Sugar a final opportunity to unleash his harmonic on several solo interludes, while singing about the need to seize the moment because “time is moving on.”

Voyage is a delightful and very forward looking album, offering a wide range of styles while inviting us along on one man’s journey through the trials, tribulations, love, and joy of life in this world.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Toronzo Cannon – The Chicago Way

torenzo cannon_the chicago way

Title: The Chicago Way

Artist: Toronzo Cannon

Label: Alligator

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: February 26, 2016

 

 

Fresh off of an appearance at a private party for the Democratic National Committee held at  Philadelphia’s World Cafe Live, Chicago blues guitarist Toronzo Cannon has been busy representing his hometown. Since his last album, John the Conquer Root, he’s jumped over to Chicago’s other famed blues label, Alligator Records, which released his latest project. Fittingly titled The Chicago Way, the album features 11 self-penned songs that reflect Cannon’s life in the Windy City, using “timeless stories of common experiences in uncommon ways.”

The opening track, “The Pain Around Me,” is full of the pathos of growing up in a dystopian urban environment near the Robert Taylor Homes on the South Side of Chicago. Following a blistering guitar intro, Cannon sings: “Six kids on a corner up to no damn good, that’s six broken homes struggling in my neighborhood. You’ve got liquor stores everywhere on my side of town, I don’t want my kids to go outside ‘cause the thugs are hangin’ around.” Apologizing for painting such a grim portrait of inner city life, he sings in the chorus, “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to sing this song about the pain around me, but this is what I see, what I see.”

In the more traditional songs “Bad Contract” and “Walk It Off,” Cannon sings the blues about getting the short end of the stick when relationships go sour, with the latter song featuring some especially fine guitar solos. The following track, “Fine Seasoned Women,” opens with a swinging jazz intro before settling into a steady groove powered by Brother John Kattke on the Hammond B3 and a fine, tight horn section—superbly arranged by Kattke—that features Doug Corcoran on trumpet, Steve Eisen on tenor sax, and Robert Collazo on bari sax. This is definitely one of the best tracks on the album, especially when Cannon punches in the guitar solos, fitting perfectly into the groove.  Also adding to the mix are Larry Williams on bass and Melvin “Pookie Stix” Carlisle on drums.

Another highlight on the album is “Chickens Comin’ Home to Roost,” featuring some of Cannon’s best guitar work and concluding with an extended blues-rock solo that goes out blazing in an inferno of psychedelic guitar riffs.  The heat continues with “Strength to Survive,” with Cannon digging deep into his soul on the vocals, then following up with the melancholy slow burner, “When Will You Tell Him About Me?” On the emotional closing track, “I Am,” about the multiple temptations and the choices one makes, Cannon is joined by singer Melon “Honeydew” Lewis and they bring down the house with a gospel fueled blues-rock masterpiece.

The Chicago Way offers contemporary, complex songs that are above and beyond standard blues fare, convincingly delivered by Toronzo Cannon with soulful vocals and searing blues-rock guitar virtuosity. This might well be the best blues album of 2016, and serves as proof that Cannon is poised to take over the crown as Chicago’s leading blues guitarist.

 

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

 

William Bell – This is Where I Live

william bell_this is where i live

Title: This Is Where I Live

Artist: William Bell

Label: Stax

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

Release date: June 3, 2016

 

 

William Bell has come full circle with his new album, This Is Where I Live, which marks the famous soul singer/songwriter’s return to the Stax label after several decades. The Memphis native started working at Stax as a teenager and began recording for the label in 1961 with the hit song “You Don’t Miss Your Water (Until Your Well Runs Dry);” he scored another hit in 1969 with “Everybody Loves a Winner.” Bell is likely more famous, however, for the indelible hits he penned for other artists, including “Born Under a Bad Sign” (co-written with IU alum Booker T. Jones), famously covered by Albert King, Jimi Hendrix, Etta James, and Homer Simpson.

Though never completely out of the spotlight, Bell’s new album has certainly rejuvenated his singing career, bringing one of the original Southern soul singers to the attention of a new generation. Acclaimed country music producer and arranger John Leventhal worked side by side with Bell to shape the sound of the album, which blends the original soulful sounds of Stax with more contemporary influences. Leventhal co-wrote most of the songs with Bell; plays guitars, bass, keyboards and percussion throughout; and recorded and mixed the tracks.

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This Is Where I Live appears to be semi-autobiographical, drawing upon Bell’s Memphis roots and life experiences. Opening with the ballad “The Three of Me” (discussed in this recent NPR interview), he sings about “the man I was, the man I am, and the man I want to be.” This reflection on life by the 77-year-old singer permeates the album, including the following track, “The House Always Wins,” with the chorus “I wish someone had told me you gonna sink before you swim, you may take a couple of rounds, but the house always wins.”

One of the outstanding features of the album is the blend of soul with country music, perhaps most evident on “Poison in the Well,” featuring Leventhal on guitar with Shawn Pelton sitting in on drums. They steer back to a grittier soul sound on the ballad “I Will Take Care of You.” Weaving in a chorus and B3 accompaniment, it’s the perfect vehicle for Bell and fits right into his vocal comfort zone. Bell is also given an opportunity to cover his earlier song, “Born Under a Bad Sign.” In a departure from Albert King’s signature version, Leventhal’s arrangement successfully melds blues, rock and country influences into a more contemplative, less guitar-oriented rendition of the song which places more focus on the vocals.

Bell demonstrates his devotion to his home town on the title track, hinting at the difficulty of life in Memphis during the Civil Rights Movement, and the inspiration found in Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” with its “promise of a brand new day.” Getting back to Bell’s signature ballad singing, the woeful “All the Things You Can’t Remember” (I’m still trying to forget) tells the tale of a man mistreated and underappreciated by his woman.  The album closes with “People Want to Go Home,” an introspective but still upbeat song touching upon cultural meanings of space and place, expressed here by the strong desire to return to one’s roots at the end of life’s journey.

This Is Where I Live is highly recommended, with excellent song writing, musicianship and production from Bell, Leventhal and the supporting musicians. The balladeer’s voice is still silky and supple, hearkening back to a special time and place in the music industry that will be especially relevant to those over 50, but with plenty of potential appeal for younger soul music fans. The CD is accompanied by liner notes written by the noted Memphis rock and soul music historian, Peter Guralnick.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Betty Davis – The Columbia Years, 1968-69

betty davis_best of the columbia years

Title: The Columbia Years, 1968-69

Artist: Betty Davis

Label: Light In the Attic Records

Formats: CD, MP3, LP

Release date: June 30, 2016

 

 

For most of this somewhat disjointed album, soul singer Betty Mabry Davis, profiled here in a Blackgrooves review of her early 1970’s output, is heard taking first cuts at songs for a never-completed album co-produced by her then-husband Miles Davis.

The two 1969 sessions at Columbia Records’ 52nd Street, NYC Studio produced no actual master takes for a commercial release, and indeed don’t amount to enough time for a CD release. So, Light In the Attic, the Seattle reissue label that has brought Davis’s four later albums back into print for a new generation of funk fans, filled out this barrel-bottom compilation with out-takes and a single A side from Mabry’s earlier session at Columbia’s Hollywood studio. That session, produced by her then-boyfriend Hugh Masekela, resulted in one single, which didn’t chart and faded into obscurity.

Davis got another try at the music business when she relocated to NYC, fell in with Jimi Hendrix’s and Sly Stone’s entourages (and in fact wrote music for Stone, and later for The Crusaders), and caught the eye of Miles Davis. Betty and Miles Davis were married for one turbulent year, but she helped effect a major change in the jazz icon’s music, by introducing him to Hendrix’s blues-rock and Stone’s hard-funk, among other “younger” music styles percolating around New York and California in the late ‘60s. Miles’ reaction was to scrap traditional jazz and move into a new electrified, rock-influenced direction that came to be called “fusion jazz.” Miles’ most well-known achievement in this style was the album Bitches Brew, the title of which was suggested by Betty Davis. To be fair, Miles evolved his style throughout the “electric period,” and the fantastic album In A Silent Way pre-dated Bitches Brew, so the Betty Davis “influence-creation” story is probably somewhat overblown. But her influence on Miles was no doubt strong, as he admitted in his autobiography.

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Turning back to this new-old CD, Light In the Attic has re-explored the circumstances of the single musical collaboration between Betty and Miles Davis, during the time of their brief marriage. The booklet well documents the sessions, and includes interviews with Davis, Masekela and bassist Harvey Brooks. Also shown are reproductions of Columbia internal memos showing Miles Davis’s producer, Teo Macero, who co-produced the Betty Davis sessions, urging other executives to renew Betty’s contract. Columbia never did re-sign her, and thus the album was never completed.

Net-net, the New York sessions are rough and incomplete, but the makings of an album were emerging. Betty Davis was backed by Hendrix’s drummer and bassist, Mitch Mitchell and Billy Cox, along with a host of jazz greats who were in the Miles Davis orbit: Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter, Larry Young, and Brooks. The playing on the four songs that survive in complete takes from the New York sessions is at the level of these musicians, in other words excellent, when they can find a groove. Then there’s the issue of Betty Davis’s voice getting in that groove. When it happens, more in some songs than others, it’s clear that this group could have made a very interesting funk-jazz album. The problem is, there wasn’t enough time to get locked in all the time, get enough songs completed, and otherwise polish and finish a commercial album.

As for the Hollywood session, we hear on this album the A side of Mabry’s one Columbia single, “Live, Love, Learn,” a somewhat sappy pop-soul ballad that didn’t click with an audience. The better stuff out of Hollywood is the previously-unreleased material: an alternate take of the single’s B side, “It’s My Life” (with a killer Masekela horn arrangement), and the straight-ahead Motown-esque “My Soul Is Tired.”

This album ties up some loose ends with Light In The Attic’s Betty Davis project, but it’s probably not worth the casual fan’s time or money. The New York material was not released because it was not finished. The Hollywood material is of a failed attempt at a breakthrough, but “It’s My Life” is a neat late-1960s soul-pop scorcher (why wasn’t it the A side of the single?). Betty Davis’s best music came later.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

Brook Benton – Rainy Night In Georgia: The Complete Reprise & Cotillion Singles A’s and B’s

brook benton_rainy night in georgia

Title: Rainy Night In Georgia: The Complete Reprise & Cotillion Singles A’s ad B’s

Artist: Brook Benton

Label: Real Gone Music/Rhino

Format: CD

Release date: July 1, 2016

 

Brook Benton enjoyed much success in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a Mercury Records artist. His soulful crooning, and adaptability to changing styles, led to a string of songs making the pop and R&B charts from 1958 through the end of his Mercury contract in 1965. His subsequent short stint with RCA records netted a few mid-chart placements, but no big hits.

This 2-CD set picks up in late 1967, after Benton signed with Reprise Records. His first single for that label, “Laura” (b/w “You’re the Reason I’m Living”), hit #78 on the Billboard pop chart, but nothing else from his subsequent Reprise output moved the needle. In this era, Benton continued in the soul crooner style he honed at Mercury, and the Reprise singles often featured somewhat syrupy strings and backing vocal choruses.

In 1968, Benton signed to the Cotillion imprint. Under the legendary producer Arif Mardin, Benton’s sound moved toward the funky side of soul. He still sang beautiful ballads, but between Mardin’s tight arrangements and the input of musicians in the Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama, Atlantic’s studio in New York City, and Criteria Studios in Miami (nicknamed “Atlantic South”), the beat and sway of the songs loosened up. Because he was an adaptable singer, Benton was able to stay hip and modern sounding, like the cool adult in the room.

During his years with Cotillion, Benton enjoyed chart success with six out of 13 singles, including #1 R&B hits with “Nothing Can Take the Place of You” in 1969 and “Rainy Night in Georgia” in 1970, which also shot up to #4 on the pop chart.

Benton’s style in the early 1970s was somewhat akin to what Elvis Presley was doing at the time, in fact both men covered some of the same tunes.  However, where Elvis went for the soaring show-stopper approach, Benton stayed cooler and more intimate.

For this set, original mono single master tapes were located for 28 of the 31 tracks. Gene Sculatti’s liner notes detail the chronology of the singles and Benton’s pre-history to the time period covered by the set. Remastering engineer Mike Milchner achieved an overall good sound quality, definitely an upgrade to how these songs sounded coming out of AM radio speakers at the time of their original release.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

Various Artists – DJ Spinna Presents The Wonder of Stevie, Vol.3

DJ Spinna presents the wonder of stevie

Title: DJ Spinna Presents The Wonder of Stevie, Vol. 3

Artist: Various Artists

Label: BBE

Formats:  CD, LP, Digital

Release date: July 8, 2016

 

Michael Jackson, Prince, James Brown, and Rick James are all gone, so Stevie Wonder is pretty much all that remains from that bygone era. Enter DJ Spinna  from Brooklyn, who can move butts on the dance floor, whether he’s spinning hop hop, house, funk or soul. That’s probably why promoters book him and he stays in demand. His “Wonderful” parties, devoted entirely to Stevie Wonder, offer fans a bucket list of quintessential songs from the singer/songwriter/keyboardist’s back catalog. DJ Spinna Presents The Wonder of Stevie Vol. 3 is a tribute CD, though it’s not promoted as one, and is offered as an extension of the parties. Disc one flows in a continuous mix, while the tracks on the second disc are unmixed, or separated.

The John Minnis Big Bone Band’s cover of “Love’s In Need of Love Today” was right on time and well needed, with all the turmoil going on in the world right now. He pulls it off by taking an understated approach, realizing the song without trying to do too much. Tony Sherman covers “As,” another track from Songs In the Key of Life and, like Stevie, provides back-up singers that bring that old-school gospel vibe to the song. Stevie Wonder has written so much great material, some of which he gave to other artists to record, like the Quincy Jones track “Betcha Wouldn’t Hurt Me.” Former Temptations lead singer David Ruffin covers “Make My Water Boil (Loving You Has Been So Wonderful),” while BJ Thomas covers “Happier Then The Morning Sun.” Thomas was always a good vocalist and shows what he can do with good material.

If DJ Spinna’s “Wonderful” comes to your town, check it out. You’ll hear material you probably never knew Stevie wrote or recorded. Meanwhile, this 2-CD set brings the party home. Sign, sealed and — yes — delivered.

 

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

Book – Harry T. Burleigh: From the Spiritual to the Harlem Renaissance

harry t burleigh book

Title: Harry T. Burleigh: From the Spiritual to the Harlem Renaissance

Author: Jean E. Snyder

Publisher: University of Illinois Press

Formats: Book (hardcover and ebook editions)

Release date: March 1, 2016

 

Ethnomusicologist Jean Snyder’s new biography of Harry T. Burleigh, most famous for art-song arrangements of spirituals and for influencing Antonin Dvorak, will stand as the definitive biography of Burleigh for the foreseeable future. Snyder consulted primary sources provided to her by the Burleigh family and several archives, as well as materials provided to her by Anne Key Simpson, author of Hard Trials: The Life and Music of Harry T. Burleigh (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1990). Snyder’s previous work on Burleigh includes her dissertation, “Harry T. Burleigh and the Creative Expression of Bi-Musicality: A Study of an African-American Composer and the American Art Song” (Ph.D., University of Pittsburgh, 1992), and two recordings of his music.

The book is worth reading for anyone interested in the cultural life of African American communities in the “Promised Land” after the Civil War. Burleigh (b. 1866) benefited from a family dedicated to arts and education as well as a family tradition of civil rights activism. Burleigh’s visually-impaired grandfather had purchased his freedom and then moved to Erie, where he assisted with the Underground Railroad. Burleigh’s mother attended an all-black school funded by a white abolitionist, learning Greek and Latin. She went on to teach at an all-black school, but when she applied for work at the local white school, she could work only as a “janitress.” Burleigh learned spirituals from his grandfather and attended the local black church, but he also sang at the local white Episcopal church and later with other white singers in the region. He and his mother received their education from schools set up by sympathetic white philanthropists, but they could only attend prestigious “musicales” (house concerts) by serving as maid and doorman. This conflicting racial atmosphere would both nurture and frustrate Burleigh. By the age of 22, he emerged from his formative years in Erie as an accomplished musician with a deep regard for both European and African American culture and the knowledge of how to navigate the artistic circles of both races.

Part II consists of chapters 4-13, and takes up where most casual biographies begin: Burleigh’s enrollment in the National Conservatory of New York City, where he would meet Antonin Dvorak. By then he had enjoyed something of a career as a vocal soloist, performing often in Cleveland, Erie, and beyond. He was admitted to the top vocal course of study, supported by a tuition scholarship as well as funding from patrons in Erie. He also held professional singing positions at Temple Emmanu-el, the most prestigious synagogue of New York, and St. George’s Episcopal Church. Dvorak arrived at the conservatory in Burleigh’s second year, and Burleigh became the librarian and copyist for the student orchestra that Dvorak conducted. The two became very close, and of course Burleigh famously sang spirituals for him.

Dvorak’s belief in the importance of untutored, or “folk” music dovetailed with the duality of Burleigh’s cultural background, but he was one of many influences on him. Burleigh also became friends with Will Marion Cook and Frederick Douglass, and he worked with them on “Colored-American Day” at the World’s Columbian Exposition (a.k.a. Chicago World’s Fair, 1893) in which they countered the “Dahomey” display of ragtime and the still-current stereotypes of traveling minstrel shows.  The attendees included Paul Laurence Dunbar, who would become a close friend, and journalists from many black newspapers, who spread news of his accomplishments.

Burleigh remained in New York, his career as a classically-trained singer largely limited to church music. He sang at the most prestigious (and elitist) black Episcopal church, yet his circle of friends included theater performers.  He also associated with black society of Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.  The latter connection came via his wife, who grew up in D.C. The Burleigh family became almost as active in D.C. cultural activities as they were in New York.

Throughout the remainder of the book, we see that Dvorak was only one of Burleigh’s many famous associates: he was friend and defender of Booker T. Washington; he sang the first African-American performance of his friend Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast; he served on the board of the Music School Settlement founded by David Mannes; and he worked with Alain Locke (among others) to promote African-American artistic endeavors.

Burleigh sang standard European repertoire, American art songs, and “plantation songs,” as if to say “these are all equally worthy of being heard and respected.” He mentored and collaborated with the greatest African American musicians of his era, promoting spirituals in this way as well as in his own performances. The book also details numerous mentoring relationships with emerging artists, such as the young Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson, who frequently performed his arrangements of spirituals.

Modern readers may be surprised to learn that some African Americans of the era lived rather privileged lives. Burleigh’s accomplishments bought him entreé into this elite class. Readers will learn about trips to the beach and the generosity of the elite in supporting struggling artists and activists. “Lifting up the race” was no mere metaphor for them—they provided mentoring and funding to many who are now famous in their own right.

The final chapters of the book focuses on Burleigh’s wife, Louise Alston. Her personal ambitions and feelings of abandonment due to her husband’s active career epitomize the frustrations of many wives, black and white. After some success writing poetry in dialect, she pivoted to a career portraying Native American heritage.

This book reveals Burleigh to have been much more than an arranger of spirituals and a church musician. He was a force for African-American art and culture, compelling respect in listeners and raising standards among his students. Snyder does an excellent job of portraying both the racial atmosphere of the era and Burleigh’s use of his time and talent to promote the music and the people who had been denigrated for too long. In hindsight, his compositions seem to marginalize him in the wider context of classical music history, but Snyder emphasizes that his historical footprint is much bigger than his compositional output.

There are 50 pages of copious endnotes which may inspire readers to pick up a thread and follow another figure from black music history through the same archives that Snyder consulted. The only drawback is that many chapters are topical, rather than chronological, so there are many digressions. A timeline of Burleigh’s life would have made some chapters easier to navigate. Otherwise, the book is a worthy addition to any library, personal or institutional, that collects information about black music and important figures in African American history.

Reviewed by Amy Edmonds

 

 

Fidel Nadal – Tek A Ship

fidel nadal _ tek a ship

Title: Tek A Ship

Artist: Fidel Nadal

Label: Pelo Music

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: November 20, 2015

 

 

In his native Argentina, Fidel Nadal is one of the most famous Afro-Argentine artists in popular music.  Nadal’s success began with his band, Hasta Los Muertos—a punk outfit that was popular throughout Latin America in the early 1990s.  Since 2001, he has crafted a solo career with a strong focus on reggae music.

In addition to his connection with Argentina, Nadal dialogues with the African Diaspora.  Born to Afro-Argentine activist parents—his father was a filmmaker and mother a professor of anthropology—the musician’s Pan-African consciousness and Argentine identity blend throughout the newest of his seventeen albums, Tek A Ship.

For this effort, Nadal traveled to Kingston, Jamaica—the birthplace of reggae—to work with the legendary mastering engineer and producer, Bobby Digital.  Joined by a host of Jamaica’s best reggae musicians, Tek A Ship is a groove-heavy performance with solid production. Nadal’s duet with reggae star Jah Thunder on “Ackee Tree” best represents the musician’s dual identities.  Backed by a chunky rhythm and sunny melody, Nadal sings:

Soy Argentino/I am Argentine

El (Jah Thunder) es Jamaicano/He (Jah Thunder) is Jamaican

La verdad es que los dos somos Africanos/But the truth is that we are both Africans

But not all on Tek a Ship takes a tone of unified affirmations.  The album’s opening track, “Confusion,” speaks of troubled times with images of violence, racism, and destruction from the United States, Chile, Nepal, and Jamaica.  Despite the theme of things falling apart, Nadal remains musically focused and rhythmically poised throughout the track.

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Much like Paul Gilroy theorized “the ship” in his seminal work The Black Atlantic, Nadal sings of taking a ship back to Ethiopia to see Haille Selassie on the album’s title track.  Themes of Rastafarianism are central to Tek A Ship, and appear in “Vinimos para Ganar” (“We Come to Win”) and “Blessed is the Man.”

Throughout Tek A Ship, Nadal shows that the vibrations, melodies, and rhythms of his reggae are a vehicle to connect his identities and socially-conscious ideology.  Lucky for our moving bodies and satisfied ears, we can be along for the ride.

Reviewed by Douglas Dowling Peach

The Delfonics – 40 Classic Soul Sides

delfonics_40 classic soul sides

Title: 40 Classic Soul Sides

Artist: The Delfonics

Label: Real Gone Music

Format: 2-CD Set

Release Date : July

 

 

The Delfonics had a good run from the late ‘60s to the early ‘70s, and without a doubt set the bar very high for Philly soul. The group was comprised of William “Poogie” Hart, Wilbert Hart, Randy Cain, and later Major Harris. A legendary Philadelphia disc jockey called them “tall, lean and talented.” This comprehensive 2-CD set, 40 Classic Soul Sides, presents the hit singles that put them over as well as songs you probably never knew they recorded.  Included are most of the tracks from their four Philly Groove albums, in addition to three non-LP sides.

Disc one opens with the Delfonics’ hit “La La Means I Love You,” written by a very young Thom Bell, the producer/songwriter who would be the Delfonics’ guiding light during the group’s run. Also included are “Break Your Promise” and “Ready or Not Here I Come” (any Fugees fans out there?). Disc two includes more hits: “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind,” “Hey Love” and “Walk Right Up to the Sun.”

The Delfonics do a great job covering others’ tunes. They put their signature harmonies on Burt Bacharach’s “Alfie” and “The Look of Love,” making them sound like new compositions. The same is true with “Hurt So Bad” and “Going Out Of My Head,” originally recorded by Little Anthony & the Imperials.  On the cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Let It Be Me,” William Hart takes it home. You have to wonder why these singles were not pushed harder by the label back when they were released. The anthology showcases this other important side of the group’s output.

The Delfonics never became as big as the Motown male vocal  groups or even the Impressions, but they did pave the way for Blue Magic and the Stylistics—two important Philly soul groups.  In fact, it would be easy to argue that for this reason alone the Delfonics belong in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Thanks to a generation of filmmakers and hip hop producers who have sampled their songs, the Delfonics’ music will continue to be discovered, if sometimes in unlikely places. 40 Classic Soul Sides is a great place to start.

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

Anthony Hamilton – What I’m Feelin’

anthony hamilton_what im feelin

Title: What I’m Feelin’

Artist: Anthony Hamilton

Label: RCA

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: March 25, 2016

 

 

Listening to Anthony Hamilton’s What I’m Feelin’ is taking a plunge into the well-articulated and emotive present as communicated by a seasoned soul artist with an unforgettable singing style. In a music industry guided by commercial radio singles, Hamilton’s album requires your undivided attention: the texts, choral singing, and rhythm section—though loud and cool—are all part of a well-strategized and intimate musical biography that must be understood in order to fully appreciate the album.

A highlight of this album is “Still,” a accompanied by simple piano that showcases Hamilton’s vocals and his ability to hit high notes without any added effects, proving that he is a phenomenal singer. Except for a straightforward chorus, “still in (has) love,” each of this song’s lines belong to a detailed narrative about still being in love.

“What I’m Feelin’,” the album’s title song, will feel pretty familiar to Hamilton’s fans and features a mesmerizingly cool soul groove. “I Want You” is a loud, resonant song with sparse instrumentation despite an overall lavish sound—the synthesizers on this cut are electronic music at its most cunning, deceiving us into believing that Hamilton is singing along to a massive band, allowing listeners to experience lush textures which add up to a great listen. “Grateful” is to the point with its lyrics and instrumentation, musically evoking the deep feelings of love found in the lyrics.

“Save Me” is a funky love song. It’s sometimes hard to pay attention to the song’s lyrics except for the chorus, which Hamilton sings clearly. As with most funky love songs, it doesn’t really climax—Hamilton leaves listeners waiting on a George Clinton or a James Brown scream that will cue the band to break loose, but it never happens.

Check out “Amen,” another cut from What I’m Feelin’:

Much of the instrumentation, for example the use of synthesizers, on this album works well only because of Hamilton’s superb singing voice. His voice is the star of this album, while the rest of the music is a few steps behind him artistically. At this stage it might be wise for Hamilton to turn the page on cool soul songs and begin to work with more avant-garde instrumentation, bringing further nuance to his music.

Reviewed by Adolf Alzuphar

Bernie Worrell – Retrospectives

bernie worrell_retrospectives

Title: Retrospectives

Artist: Bernie Worrell

Label: PurpleWOO Productions

Format: CD, LP, MP3

Release Date: January 20, 2016

 

 

Keyboardist Bernie Worrell passed away on June 24, and his final album, Retrospectives, is a reminder of the legendary musician’s claim to fame as an ever-fresh and funky player.  As keyboardist for groups like Parliament-Funkadelic, Bootsy Collins’s Rubber Band, Talking Heads and the countless other projects that Worrell has participated in over the course of his storied career, he developed a unique and ever-innovative style of playing and composing. In addition to acoustic pianos, Hammond B3s, Clavichords, MOOGs and Melodicas, Worrell is reported to have been the second musician to acquire an RMI (Stevie Wonder being the first to get the Rocky Mountain Instruments Electric Piano). It is doubtless true, however, that his alternatingly spacey and funky sounds set the tone for keyboardists who would employ these instruments from the 1970s through the present.

On Retrospectives, Worrell uses a variety of keyboard instruments to create rich musical tapestries—the record features only Worrell and two drummers, Donald Sturge and Anthony McKenzie II, but Worrell’s multitracked use of his veritable arsenal of keys lends the record a  feel that is nearly orchestral at times.  Even at his advanced age, Worrell’s playing was still sharp when recording these tracks—his funky Clavinet rhythms interweave with melodic synthesizers and richly textured organ sounds on “Joyful Process” (even quoting “Jesus Loves Me” on the tune’s introduction).  Ever true to form, Worrell takes listeners “out there” on Retrospectives, too, bringing in the signature phased-out synth lines that were a trademark of his work in P-Funk’s catalog, taking it far out over steady piano-based grooves.  Most of the record continues in this fashion, an ever-evolving collection of musical textures, grooves, and melodies.  This is music to be slowly and gradually absorbed, preferably through a pair of high-quality headphones—my tinnitus acted up a bit on a few songs simply due to the incredible pitch range that Worrell employed on several tracks. This record makes it clear that Worrell didn’t lose his ability to be sonically and musically challenging with age.

While we may have lost a legend this month, Worrell’s musical legacy, as reflected on Retrospectives, is a rich and diverse one. This album is a wonderful way to cap off a truly remarkable career.


Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Project N-Fidelikah

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Title: Project N-Fidelikah

Artist: Project N-Fidelikah

Label: Rat Pak Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: May 27, 2016

 

 

Is it possible to create a supergroup full of lesser-known musical personalities?  Not every musician is a Beatle or Bob Dylan, and not all supergroups, therefore, can have the kind of surefire star power that The Traveling Wilburys did.  However, the perennial problem with supergroups is that, inevitably, dominant personalities usually win out and the group’s sound ends up getting compromised in the process.  Project N-Fidelikah, however, doesn’t have the typical “too many cooks” supergroup problem, in part because it doesn’t have a typical supergroup lineup, drawing musicians from the category of “bands you’ve heard of but don’t know their catalog too well.”  Project N-Fidelikah features vocalist, organist and saxophonist Angelo Moore, aka Dr. Madd Vibe (Fishbone), guitarist George Lynch (Dokken, The Lynch Mob), bassist Pancho Tomaselli (War), and studio drummer Chris Moore. The group’s lineup reads like an ESP guitar ad (Lynch and Tomaselli are both endorsers, and the story is that they met through the guitar company), but plays with the scrappiness of a garage band. N-Fidelikah’s sound draws heavily from the eclectic rock of Fishbone and their contemporaries in the late-’80s/early-’90s LA rock scene,while clearly incorporating other members’ musical personalities. The confluence of these influences makes Project N-Fidelikah eclectic, humorous, and generally off-the-wall.

Check out the group’s first single, “Landslide Salvation”:

Perhaps prophesying the 2016 return of fellow LA rockers’ The Red Hot Chili Peppers and the transformation of Rage Against the Machine’s core group into Prophets of Rage, Project N-Fidelikah is about more than indulging the nostalgia market for the funky rock of a particular time and place. Digging deep into funk influences, Chris Moore and Tomaselli set up monster grooves throughout the record.  Perhaps surprisingly for a hair metal superstar, Lynch uses these grooves as a canvas for articulate (even downright economical) guitar work, at times digging deep into the groove with distorted power chords and at other times drawing upon his ’80s chops to provide a burst of energy and color that compliments a given song’s groove rather than overriding it.  Dr. Madd Vibe’s lyrics and sax top off the gradual layering, tackling political issues (“Anchor Babies”), race (“I Wanna Be White (But I Can’t)”), and the abuses that the music industry inflicts upon artists (“Exposure Fi’Pay”).  Even the group’s jammiest (and perhaps most interesting) track, “Deprivation of Independence,” is a meditation upon mass surveillance, while its slow-burn groove is equally useful as a vehicle for lick trading, punctuated by tasty guitar solos from Lynch and sax lines from Angelo Moore.

All-in-all, Project N-Fidelikah is a strong effort by the funkiest supergroup you’ve never heard of.  The album is lyrically and musically challenging, while full of enough tasty grooves and licks to keep listeners coming back for more, even after they’ve absorbed the record’s striking social critique.

 

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Cameron Graves – Planetary Prince

Cameron-Graves-Planetary-Prince

Title: Planetary Prince

Artist: Cameron Graves

Label: Sterling Silver Productions

Format: CD

Release date: June 10, 2016

 

 

Perhaps best known for their participation on Kamasi Washington’s monumental LP The Epic (released in May 2015), the West Coast Get Down collective of jazz musicians returns on pianist Cameron Graves’s latest project, Planetary Prince. Led by Graves and featuring Washington, Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner, trombonist Ryan Porter, drummer Ronald Bruner Jr, and non-West Coast Get Down musicians trumpeter Philip Dizack and bassist Hadrien Feraud, Planetary Prince makes a strong argument for West Coast players being on the cutting edge of progressive jazz.

Recorded in a marathon 11-hour session (with a second volume coming later this year), the compositions on Planetary Prince feel like jazz odysseys in miniature. The record’s shortest cut clocks in at 8 minutes, while the three remaining tracks are each longer than 10—not the length of most of Bitches Brew, but not small potatoes either.  These tracks give the musicians plenty of time to stretch out, exploring the cosmic themes implicit in the album’s title, with tunes derived from The Urantia book, a volume of esoteric religious philosophy.

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Graves and company are obviously well-versed in a number of musical styles, from the modern Coltrane-influenced jazz that permeates this record, to fusion (Graves’s other gig is with the pioneering bassist Stanley Clarke’s band), to classical music (he’s done soundtrack work too), to hip hop (as evidenced by Washington and Thundercat’s work with Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg), to heavy metal (including Graves’s participation in Jada Pinkett Smith’s nu-metal band Wicked Wisdom).  While it is difficult to see how each of these influences come to bear on this record at any individual moment, it is possible to hear the group’s fearless virtuosity as a consequence of being so well-versed—if you’re good at everything, it’s hard to find anything off limits.

The titular first track features a tight drum groove punctuated by Bruner’s in-the-pocket fills underneath Graves’s blistering piano solo, with the band momentarily becoming a tight jazz-rock trio before Washington enters with a solo that evolves from sparse to space-filling, playing with time like other players might play with changes.  “Andromeda” manipulates musical atmospheres—combining minimal accompaniment with soaring melodies, the tune derives much of its interest from its shifting textures and flowing melodies. “Isle of Love,” propelled by a lilting piano ostinato over which the band’s improvised and composed melodies swirl, indicates Graves’s prowess as a composer/arranger, and “Adam & Eve” is downright cinematic, growing from concert piano flourishes to double (sometimes triple) timed bebop lines over a half-time groove worthy of the heaviest metal.

Overall, Planetary Prince is a strong release by a leader and supporting cast of players who are pushing jazz into a thoroughly modern, inescapably hip direction.  This group’s blend of cosmic themes, hip compositions, monster playing, and intricate textures makes for what will assuredly be some of the year’s best jazz.

 

 

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

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Black Milk & Nat Turner – The Rebellion Sessions

Black Milk and Nat Turner_The Rebellion Sessions

Title: The Rebellion Sessions

Artist: Black Milk & Nat Turner

Label: Computer Ugly

Format: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: May 20, 2016

 

 

Perhaps the best word to describe The Rebellion Sessions, the new collaboration from Detroit producer/rapper Black Milk and D.C. area band Nat Turner, is “vibey.”  Like much of J Dilla’s solo output, the 10 brief instrumental tracks on  The Rebellion Sessions create a sonic space for listeners to immerse themselves in.  While there isn’t much to make any one of these tracks especially memorable in the way of melodic, rhythmic, or harmonic development, the grooves on this record provide a solid and nondescript soundtrack.  This music ultimately will become what an individual listener makes of it, and is ripe and ready for sampling.  It’s hard to say what to call the sounds on this release—perhaps jazz, hip hop, or something in between—but it is the stuff that breakbeats are made of.

Ultimately, what will draw most listeners to this music is the quality production, spearheaded by Black Milk.  Featuring strong grooves, detailed textures, and tasteful sampling and electronic effects, The Rebellion Sessions provides chill vibes for days.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley