Though her name may not be quite as familiar to contemporary gospel music fans, Edna Gallmon Cooke ranks right up there with Mahalia Jackson, the Caravans, the Roberta Martin Singers, and the Famous Ward Singers in the pantheon of great gospel artists. Her untimely death in 1967 cut short her recording career, and accounts for her underappreciation when compared to her contemporaries. On My Joy, producer and gospel historian Per Notini has gathered together Cooke’s rarest recordings over the two decades of her career, attempting to fill the gaps left by two previous compilations of her works. This is a rare gift indeed, for which all gospel music fans can be grateful!
Cooke, who was born in 1918 in Columbia, South Carolina, was raised in her father’s church. The family relocated to Washington, D.C. where her father founded the Springfield Baptist Church, where Edna served as choir director before attending Temple University in Philadelphia. Her ambitions to sing secular music took a 180 degree turn after witnessing a performance by Willie Mae Ford Smith, and from this point forward she devoted herself to gospel music.
The compilation begins with Cooke’s first five recorded performances from 1948-49, which reveal her sweet and supple soprano characterized by a very fast, shallow vibrato. Included is her first single to get considerable airplay, “Angels, Angels, Angels” (composed by Indianapolis gospel artist Beatrice Brown), accompanied by the Mt. Vernon Men’s Choir of Washington, D.C. Cooke’s popularity was already rising when she was picked up by Essex Records for her next pair of singles. “Have You Got Room?” (circa 1950-51), accompanied by the Young People’s Choir of her father’s church, shows a powerful transformation in her vocal style. The sweet soprano is now capable of raising the rafters!
From this point forward, there are simply too many outstanding tracks to mention. “Walk Through the Valley” (1952) demonstrates Cooke’s trademark chanted sermonettes, while “(Talk About a Child that Do Love Jesus) Here Is One” is a solo tour de force showcasing Cooke’s masterful use of the melisma. The Roberta Martin-Theodore Frye song “Hallelujah (Jesus Love Bubbles Over)” features the Singing Sons, Cooke’s regular backing group who provided accompaniment on many of her Nashboro sides. The set concludes with Thomas Dorsey’s “Remember Me,” recorded in 1966 as Cooke’s health was failing. Notini inserted this track as a tribute to Cooke, “one of gospel’s greatest singers,” who surely must have known that her time was running out as she sang the final notes of the chorus, “Now when I’m gone, please remember me.”
My Joy was released in a limited pressing on the Swedish label Gospel Friends. Don’t wait too long to pick up a copy for your collection.
This album is the second collection of The McIntosh County Shouters recorded and produced by Smithsonian Folkways. The first, The McIntosh County Shouters: Slave Shout Songs from the Coast of Georgia was released in 1983. The Shouters belong to a third generation of people freed from slavery and their featured songs on this album are performed exclusively for the traditional ring shout. In 1993, the group received the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship, which is considered to be the greatest honor for the traditional arts in the United States.
As part of the educational mission of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, each album on the record label includes comprehensive liner notes that are ideal for further research. The liner notes on this album include photographs, detailed biographies of the artists, interviews with current members, and historical and cultural contextualization of the traditional ring shout. Bolden, aka “Briar Patch,” on the coastal mainland of Georgia is the home of The McIntosh County Shouters. The Mount Calvary Baptist Church is the spiritual space of the Gullah/Geechee people, known as “the stopping place of the shout.”
It is satisfying to hold such a project in your hands, with 17 tracks and a 40-page booklet accompanying the physical CD. Each song incorporates the essential elements of the ring shout: the rhythmic hand-clapping, a stick beating the floor, the soul-filled spirituals, and the fusion of call-and–response singing. All that is missing on this album, as described in the liner notes, is the visual element—the ability to watch the shouters shuffling in a counterclockwise circle. To amend this problem, Smithsonian Folkways created an accompanying short documentary film that shows the Shouters singing and dancing together. Brenton Jordan, the youngest Shouter today, looks forward to the future of the tradition and believes the strength of the shout community will continue to thrive.
Collectors of 1970s soundtrack albums will be interested in this reissue from Real Gone Music. The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh was a “big screen sports fantasy” based on the typical rags to riches theme of a scrappy backetball team’s road to the finals. Released in 1979, the film was co-produced by Gary Stromberg (Car Wash), whose goal was to score another music centric hit. But despite the inclusion of basketball greats Julius Erving, Meadowlark Lemon, and Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, plus actors the likes of Flip Wilson, Debbie Allen and Dee Dee Bridgewater (the “jeerleaders”), Stockard Channing, Jonathan Winters, Joe Seneca, and M. Emmet Walsh, this Pittsburgh centric sports movie failed at the box office, and the original sound track album likewise never cracked the charts. Following the VHS release in the mid-1980s, however, both the film and soundtrack gained a cult following, attracting the attention of the hip hop generation. In fact, Questlove plays the title track every time a Pittsburgh native appears on Jimmy Falon’s Tonight Show. Appreciation for the film increased following the 2010 DVD release, and is now considered by diehard fans to be the greatest basketball movie of all time.
Interest in the soundtrack can easily be explained—it was composed, arranged, produced, and conducted by the legendary Thom Bell and recorded by Joe Tarsia and his crew at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia. This was Bell’s first opportunity to score a film, and he brought in all of the industry heavyweights: The Sylvers (“Mighty Mighty Pisces”), The Spinners (“(Do It, Do It), No One Does It Better”), The Four Tops (“Chance of a Lifetime”), and even Eubie Blake, who accompanies Bell on “Ragtime.” The primary accompaniment is credited to the Thom Bell Orchestra (mostly PIR session musicians), featuring Bell on keyboards, Bob Babbitt (Funk Brothers) on bass, Anthony Bell and Bobby Eli on guitar, Larry Washington, Edward Shea and Michael Pultro on percussion, and Charles Collins on drums, plus Don Renaldo’s Strings and Horns.
Released at the peak of the disco area, the music is funky and dance oriented, but also draws upon Bell’s trademark Philly soul and is liberally sprinkled with references from earlier Blaxploitation-era soundtracks, most notably Shaft. Other notable songs include “Magic Mona” (Phyllis Hyman), “Moses Theme” (Frankie Bleu), “Follow Every Dream” (William “Poogie” Hart), and the opening track “A Theme for L.A.’s Team” featuring trumpeter Doc Severinsen in his prime.
This is the first CD release of The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh, and Real Gone’s expanded edition includes three bonus tracks culled from limited edition singles, along with liner notes by Joe Marchese in a fully illustrated booklet.
Just in time for Record Store Day on April 21st, Dagger Records has released Curtis Knight featuring Jimi Hendrix – Live At George’s Club 20. This compilation includes tracks that up to this point have mostly been available as bootlegs for the Jimi Hendrix completist. Dagger’s official release features fully remastered audio and a 10 page liner note booklet with rare photos and insight into Hendrix’s career during this period.
Live At George’s Club 20 includes tracks recorded in 1965 and 1966, which find Hendrix in his rhythm and blues era, then known as Jimmy James—a member of Curtis Knight’s pre-Squire’s band the Lovelites. The songs included here are primarily covers including Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor,” Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar” and Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say.”
Many of the tracks feature Jimi on vocals as well guitar, and it easy to hear hints of the artist he would become just a few years later. Still in his early twenties, Hendrix’s chops were as impressive as you might expect for one of America’s greatest guitar heroes. On “Driving South” he flexes his guitar skills in fantastic fashion as Knight shouts out the names of cities. It’s not hard to imagine a smoky club of dancers responding ecstatically to the storm the band (including bassist Ace Hall, drummer Ditto Edwards, and saxophonist Lonnie Youngblood) had brewed up. Hendrix even includes the playing guitar with his teeth routine that would wow the crowd at the Monterey Pop Festival just a few years later. Many of the recordings also showcase Hendrix’s humor and showmanship as well. For example, “I’m a Man” features Hendrix’s playful singing and lyric swapping during a rendition of the Muddy Waters standard.
While Live At George’s Club 20 is a collection for Hendrix completists, it is still a worthwhile listen for anyone who is interested in deconstructing the notion that Jimi Hendrix “came out of nowhere.” It was places like Club 20 where he honed his chops on his way to super stardom and this compilation is a great listen.
Rhiannon Giddens maintains a heightened level of excellence as a musician and activist songwriter throughout Freedom Highway, her second full album since Tomorrow Is My Turn (2015). Co-produced by Dirk Powell, Giddens presents nine original songs and three reimagined arrangements of civil-rights era and traditional music featuring guest performances by Bhi Bhiman, Lalenja Harrington and Leyla McCalla.
Giddens opens the album with “At the Purchaser’s Option,” sung in the first person about a woman facing the physical, mental, and spiritual magnitude of enslavement:
The album creatively and poetically addresses historical and contemporary forms of racial oppression in the United States. In “Julie,” Giddens sings a fearful ballad about the imminent separation between a maid and her white mistress by Union soldiers. The story reveals complex emotions as the maid reminds the mistress of how she sold away the maid’s children in order to produce the money the mistress re-gifts to her. The slow and sweet duet “Baby Boy” is a both somber lullaby and loving tribute to mothers who raise and protect the future “saviors” and leaders of mankind:
Baby Boy, young man, beloved
Don’t you weep, I will watch over you, I will stand by you
You will be, You will be, a savior
But until then
Go to sleep
From the darker themes of the electrically blue “Come Love Come,” to the funky precision of “The Love We Almost Had,” Giddens exhibits her eclectic and perfectionist talent down to the fine detail as a vocalist, banjo player, and bandleader. In “Better Get It Right the First Time,” she sings a soulful chorus of multi-harmonies as her band mate, Justin Harrington, performs a rap verse enhancing the traditional American roots music style. “Hey Bébé” differs significantly midway during the album, drawing on Cajun rhythmic and instrumental patterns.
“Birmingham Sunday” may perhaps be the most emotionally compelling song on the album. Originally written by Richard Fariña and performed by Joan Baez on a fingerpicked acoustic guitar, Giddens suitably infuses the ballad of the Birmingham bombing of 1963 with a gospel style. She concludes with an instrumental banjo and bones duet on “Following the North Star” that leads into “Freedom Highway,” a soulful celebration of the fight for civil rights reminiscent of Aretha Franklin’s 1968 “Think.”
Rhiannon Giddens’ expertly produced Freedom Highway traverses the historical roots of racial unrest in the United States. Her work possesses an unwavering determination as she strives for accuracy connecting musical traditions with related contemporary genres to illustrate the deeply embedded patterns of racial oppression and resilience.
Canadian opera singer Measha Brueggergosman is known for the versatility of both her voice and her career. As a classically trained soprano, she performs both operatic roles as well as those of a concert artist. Her latest project, Songs of Freedom, is a collection of spirituals that corresponds with Brueggergosman’s discovery of her family’s history in Canada. The album is much more than just a collection of spirituals, however—it is also part of a larger documentary project including a film, a 4-part TV series, mobile app and interactive website with narratives from both Brueggergosman and the owner of Chalet Studio, in which some of the spirituals were recorded. The documentary explores how she came to know these spirituals, and to learn about herself and her family history in the process.
The website for the Songs of Freedom project provides a number of complementary elements to the album. In addition to performance videos showing Brueggergosman and her collaborators, there are also essays written by Brueggergosman, the musicians with whom she worked, and scholars of African American music. These essays help to frame the project and provide a foundation on the importance of spirituals to the black musical tradition. Also featured on this website is a 360 degree performance video of Brueggergosman recording “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” one of the spirituals featured on the album. The 360 scope of the video provides an intimate portrait of how she explored these spirituals and eventually made them her own.
Musically, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is definitely one of the highlights of the album, along with other slow tempo spirituals such as “I Surrender All.” These two especially allow Brueggergosman’s voice time to fill in spaces, rather than to be rushed. In this exploration of spirituals, she joins the company of other black operatic singers such as Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle. Within the documentary series and the accompanying album, Measha Brueggergosman is doing important work to uncover her family’s history and also elevate the status of spirituals as repertoire.
“Long Lovely Road” opens Valerie June’s atmospheric new album, The Order of Time, with a calming melody beckoning the listener to sing along with the chorus. Based out of Brooklyn, June collaborated with producer Matt Marinelli to create this second full album following her 2014 release, Pushin’ Against a Stone. On “Love Once Made,” June’s distinctive voice stands out as it beautifully breaks into her upper register on the chorus. The energy carries straight into “Shake Down,” an exciting call and response electric blues song supported by back-up vocals from June’s father and brothers:
The soothing drone of “If And” and the sustained ambient tones of “The Front Door” inspire a hopeful meditative response to the hard times everyone will inevitably encounter in life. “Man Done Wrong” draws on the lyrical repetition tradition found in blues music with a very minimalistic instrumental section and a prominent beat. “Astral Plane,” perhaps the most iconic song on this album, contemplates a spiritual purpose within the greater cosmic theme:
Dancing on the astral plane
In holy water cleansing rain
Floating through the stratosphere
Blind, but yet you see so clear
June remains front and center throughout this album, though she collaborated with keyboardist Pete Remm and vocalist Norah Jones. The deep electric guitar reverb introducing the orchestra of strings in “Just In Time,” the only song produced by Richard Swift, refocuses attention on the timely unity of humanity. Partnered well with “Two Hearts,” June sweetly blends her voice on “With You” with a fingerpicking guitar pattern, building into a more instrumentally complex arrangement. The album concludes with “Slip Slide on By” and “Got Soul,” two party songs with a brass band, soulful keys, and the potential to continue playing on repeat!
Crowned the “Queen of Detroit Blues” in 2015, Thornetta Davis is a blues singer and songwriter with a big voice and a passion for all things blues, rock, and soul. Though she’s worked with labels like Sub Pop in the past, her latest release Honest Woman is a self-released project full of passion.
Honest Woman starts rather untraditionally, with Felicia Davis singing her sister’s praises like a spoken word poem over back porch Delta blues: “When my sister sings the blues, she moves her hips swaying to the beat / Snapping her fingers and stomping her feet.” She compares her sister to Bessie Smith and Sippie Wallace, two of the most famous black blues singers from the 1920s. This celebration of black women in music and the blues reverberates throughout the entire album, as Thornetta Davis draws inspiration from artists such as Denise LaSalle, Etta James, Sarah Vaughn, and Big Mama Thornton.
The theme of honoring women is echoed on the second track, “I Gotta Sang the Blues,” which is a powerful duet with harmonica virtuoso Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbids. The songs talks about singing the blues not to get rich or famous, but rather to persevere when “living the blues gets too rough.” At the end of the song, Davis evokes the names of more famous blues women, singing on the outro,
I ain’t gon’ stop singin’ the blues Big Mama Thorton sang the blues Koko Taylor sang the blues Etta James sang the blues.
On “Sister Friends Indeed,” Davis celebrates the female friendships in her own life. The bluesy Americana track is an ode to sisterhood, discussing how all the women who have supported her throughout life are her sisters, whether they share blood or not:
The rest of Honest Woman doesn’t celebrate blues women as explicitly, but it cements Davis as a part of that history. Her smooth voices oscillates between a number of styles. She sings contemporary upbeat rock blues on songs like “That Don’t Appease Me” and “I Need A Whole Lotta Lovin to Satisfy Me,” followed by effortless soul on the heartbreak ballad “(Am I Just A) Shadow,” and sexy R&B vocals on “Can We Do It Again.”
Davis’ mixture of black music genres stands out particularly on “Set Me Free,” a modern funk and blues spiritual featuring the Larry McCray Band. Though it may be easy to view the raunchy aspects of blues as the opposite of gospel, Davis’ plea for the Lord to come down and set her free pairs perfectly with the blues singer’s themes of struggles and the pain of working.
The final song on the album, “Feels Like Religion,” is another gospel song which celebrates Davis finding happiness and confidence in herself. The song even has a call and response section as Davis sings, “I wanna dance! (dance) Shout! (shout) Show you what it’s all about!” The steady beat of the drum set completely shifts after this call and response as the music transforms into foot-stomping, hand-clapping gospel that completely takes the listener to church. This celebratory, thankful song encapsulates what Honest Woman is all about—an album full of joy and gratitude for the black blues women who influenced Davis’ music, her sisters, her God, and herself, the “Queen of Detroit Blues.”
This month sees a new release from the eclectic bass virtuoso Stephen Bruner, known by his stage name, Thundercat. Bruner has performed with artists across a variety of genres, and is perhaps best known for his collaboration with rapper Kendrick Lamar on the latter’s 2015 masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly. Thundercat has an ear for a variety of musical styles, and his wide-ranging musical approach is readily apparent on Drunk.
This 23-track album feels like a series of musical vignettes—only one of these cracks the 4-minute mark and the vast majority of them are shorter than 3 minutes long. However, this brevity allows each composition to be a highly detailed miniature, with carefully layered sounds and carefully composed tunes being the album’s highlight. Each track leaves the listener craving more without feeling complete, almost as though each song were a brief study in compositional technique. If Thundercat’s resume is full of versatility, so is his dossier of compositions. This album is heavy on guest appearances, with Thundercat working with everyone from yacht-rockers Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins (“Show You the Way”), to socially-conscious rapper Kendrick Lamar (“Walk on By,” which can be heard below), to massive pop star and musical chameleon Pharrell Williams (“The Turn Down”). On these “feat” tracks, Thundercat and company craft arrangements that bring out the best of his collaborators’ musical ideas while simultaneously pushing these otherwise well-established artists towards Thundercat’s own neo-soul jazz fusion.
The material on this album ranges from virtuosic (“Uh Uh”) to just plain weird, incorporating sung meows (“A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II)”) and lyrics about playing Mortal Kombat when relegated to friend status by a potential romantic partner (“Friend Zone”) into his musically and technically sophisticated music. This approach begs comparison to the bizarre combination of humor and virtuosity that was the hallmark of artists like Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. While it is easy to imagine that listeners who are here for the marquee collaborations may be put off by the more technically involved or thematically strange music, these equal parts of Thundercat’s approach to composing and playing fit comfortably side-by-side. This is the kind of record that will challenge listeners by pushing them out of their musical comfort zones by an artist who is comfortable across a wide variety of musical idioms.
Drunk is nothing if not ambitious, but ambitious records are usually a bit uneven. It is hard to find a single unifying thread that runs throughout the album, but that ultimately doesn’t prove detrimental to the project as a whole. Drunk isn’t a novel, but a visit to a musical theme park, where listeners are encouraged to take a spin on each of the rides.
With a career spanning over 60 years, Harry Belafonte is perhaps most famous for bringing Caribbean music into American pop culture. His 1956 breakout LP Calypso became the first album ever to sell more than a million copies, solidifying his spot in pop culture and music history.
Now, Legacy Recordings is celebrating his 90th birthday with the newly released compilation When Colors Come Together…The Legacy of Harry Belafonte. Belafonte himself chose the track list for the album, which includes one new recording alongside many classic and well-known Harry Belafonte songs. His son, David Belafonte, produced the album and wrote the liner notes. He appears with Harry discussing the album below:
A year after Calypso was released, Belafonte appeared in the film Island in the Sun, which explored racial tensions and interracial romance. A re-interpretation of a song from the film, “When Colors Come Together (Our Island In the Sun),” is the first track on the album and is sung by a children’s choir. The song is full of joy and optimism as the chorus of kids sing “Dark skin, light skin, brown eyes, blue / It’s what inside that should matter to you” while upbeat bongos resound behind their voices. In his liner notes, David Belafonte states that they reinterpreted the song “[using] the voices and performances of children to make the case that there is no human gene for racism; that what has been learned must be unlearned if the world is to ever truly know peace.”
Belafonte’s famous recording of the Jamaican folk song “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” also makes an appearance, as well as the buoyant dance song “Jump the Line.” Other classic Belafonte songs on the compilation include “Jamaica Farewell” and “Try to Remember.”
At a time when racial tensions continue to reign and protests rise up around the country, another folk song recorded by Belafonte, “All My Trials,” rings especially poignant. Used during social movements and protests in the 1950s and 1960s, the song is a testament to Belafonte’s activism during the Civil Rights Movement, as well as his friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Belafonte has continued this passionate call for social justice throughout his career, advocating for causes such as the anti-apartheid movement and USA for Africa. He also served as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and is currently the American Civil Liberties Union celebrity ambassador for juvenile justice issues. His social justice organization Sankofa.org has been involved with a number of important causes, most recently participating in a “Justice for Flint” benefit concert and working with Usher on his “Chains” music video and racial justice campaign.
When Colors Come Together…The Legacy of Harry Belafonte is a celebration of everything that Belafonte has accomplished in his wide-ranging career and life. Though prominently featuring the Calypso music that he became so well known for, the album also honors his career and legacy of social justice work through song choice and the re-recording of “When Colors Come Together (Our Island In the Sun).” It is clear that both Harry and David Belafonte are still passionate about addressing issues of racial prejudice and violence, and this compilation shows they are determined to continue embedding Harry Belafonte’s legacy in a whole new generation.
Janka Nabay rose to stardom in his native Sierra Leone during the 1990s for remixing and modernizing Bubu music (traditional music of the Temne people in Sierra Leone). Caught amid the decades-long war there, Nabay immigrated to the United States in 2003. After years of working side jobs and trying to make a life as an artist, in 2010 he crossed paths with filmmaker and scholar Wills Glasspiegel, who had recorded bubu horns. Together, they put together a touring band that eventually recorded and released their debut album En Yah Sah in 2012.
Three years later, Janka Nabay and the Bubu Gang are returning with their sophomore album Build Music. This project reflects the many cultures and contradictions in Nabay’s life. He sings in Sierra Leone’s lingua franca, Krio, as well as his native tribal language Temne, English, and even bits of Arabic. Using traditional recordings and his band’s instrumentals as well as overdubs, loops, and electronic drumbeats, the result is a diversified sound that overturns the notion of static traditions while trying to remain true to the flavor and integrity of bubu music.
Bubu music is most identifiable by West African bamboo horns that the Temne people use in traditional bubu processions in rural areas of Sierra Leone during Ramadan. In the past, Nabay has mimicked the sounds of these horns on Casios. While he does use these keyboard imitations on Build Music, he also directly samples recordings of the horns that Glasspiegel recorded on a 2014 trip to Sierra Leone and includes them on the songs “Angbolieh” and “Santa Monica.”
Build Music’s title reflects the process behind the album, which was slow and intentional. Included are reimagined versions of songs Nabay recorded in Sierra Leone in the 1990s, like “Sabanoh” and “Angbolieh,” as well as tracks such as “Bubu Dub” featuring new vocals sung over original Sierra Leonean rhythms recorded by Nabay’s collaborators.
The diversity present in music styles and languages on the album is also reflected in choice of song topics and themes, which draw upon Nabay’s experiences in Sierra Leone and current incidents related to life as an immigrant in the United States. For example, “Santa Monica” is based on a tense encounter Nabay had with a police officer. These varied themes are a part of his philosophy–namely, that multiple, contradicting realities always coexist. Build Music is an example of this dichotomy, drawing from Nabay’s diverse life experiences yet keeping bubu music at the heart of it all.
Family acts in music have always been huge: The Osmonds, Sylvers, Five Stairsteps, Isleys, Carpenters, and of course The Jackson 5/The Jacksons—who recently marked their 50th anniversary. Morgan Heritage is a family act and I’m willing to bet that you’ve never heard of the group. MH is Jamaica’s answer to the J5. Made up a five siblings, their father is reggae singer Denroy Morgan, who had a big hit in 1981 with the single “I’ll Do Anything.”
First released in 2015, Strictly Roots is the band’s 10th studio album and the first on their own label CTBC, which stands for Cool To Be Conscious (they recorded for the label VP during much of their success, but felt it was time to move on). After winning a Grammy Award in the Best Reggae Album category in 2016, the group decided to release a 2-CD deluxe edition, which celebrates the album’s success with previously unreleased tracks and remixes.
The original album (Disc 1) was comprised of twelve tracks in which Morgan Heritage takes the listener through peaks and valleys. In the song “So Amazing,” Morgan Heritage steps away from traditional roots and goes for a more top 40 sound. “So Amazing” could easily be played on a CW series:
In reggae, one always pay homage to Jah and Morgan Heritage sticks with tradition. In “Child of Jah” (feat. Chronixx) they explain the part Jah plays in reggae music and rastas to those who don’t know. On “Light It Up,” featuring Jo Messa Marley, they chant “this is reggae music.” Can’t do reggae without a Marley. After all, Robert Nesta Marley is the godfather of reggae. “Rise and Fall,” which discusses the cycle of life, has the typical drum & bass sound you hear in reggae.
“Celebrate Life” may be Morgan Heritage’s best track on this album. Again, Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Loved” had to play a major part. “Celebrate the life you love / Celebrate the life you live,” Peetah Morgan & Grampson sing on lead vocals. If the group wanted to get crossover appeal, this would be the track to do it.
Disc 2 includes 3 additional versions of “Light It Up,” plus the pop-oriented “Come Fly” featuring the Celtic punk band Flogging Molly and the more traditional “Lion Order,” among others.
Morgan Heritage has won respect from the reggae community worldwide. Now that they are independent on CTBC, I expect them to take some risks and open it up. After all, they’re royalty. One Love.
Following are additional albums released during February 2017—some will be reviewed in future issues of Black Grooves.
Blues, Folk Country Eddie Bo, Chris Barber: The 1991 Sea-Saint Sessions (Last Music Co.)
Hayes McMullan: Everyday Seem Like Murder Here (LITA)
Classical, Spoken Word, Soundtrack Grace Bumbry: The Art Of Grace Bumbry (Deutsche Grammophon )
Jordi Savall: the Routes of Slavery (Alia Vox)
Leontyne Price: Puccini: Tosca (Decca)
Steve Brown: Live at the Atlanta Comedy Theater (ATL Comedy Theater)
Various: The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh OST (Real Gone Music)
Funk, Rock, Pop, Electronic Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears: Backlash (Ingrooves)
Chameleon: Chameleon (expanded ed.) (BBR)
Dawn Richard: Redemption (expanded ed.) (Local Action / Our Dawn Ent.)
Della Reese: Special Delivery (Sepia)
Just Robyn: Mustard Seed (Joziewood)
Pazant Brothers: Skunk Juice: Dirty Funk From the Big Apple (BGP)
Sinkane: Life & Livin’ It (City Slang)
Thievery Corporation: The Temple of I & I (ESL Music)
Gospel, Christian Rap AnG White: I Am AnG White (C Bazz Ent.)
Anthony Evans: Back to Life (Sherman James Productions)
Antonia Wilson: The Sower and the Seed (Tight Tunes Inc)
Ayiesha Woods: The Runway Project (Original Peace Music Group)
Meachum L. Clarke & True Purpose: The Victory Experience
Minister Antonio Coney & The Voices of Fire: I Been Born Again (Deltone)
Mos Stef: Christian Hip Hop 101 (Victorious Life)
Speez: Let Me Introduce Myself (I’M DOIN’ JESUS)
Tramaine: Clear (Divine Light Media)
Jazz Albert Ayler Quartet: The Hilversum Sessions (Modern Silence)
Cameron Graves: Planetary Prince (Mack Avenue)
Carmen Lundy: Code Noir (Afrasia Productions)
Chris McClenney: Portrait in Two EP
Craig Taborn: Daylight Ghosts (ECM)
Curtis Brothers Quartet: Syzygy (Truth Revolution Records)
David Weiss & Point of Departure: Wake Up Call (Raopeadope)
Elijah Rock: Gershwin For My Soul
Harriet Tubman: Araminta (Sunnyside Communications )
Heads of State: Four in One (Smoke Sessions)
Kayla Waters: Apogee (Trippin N Rhythm)
Mike Longo Trio: Only Time Will Tell (Consolidated Artists Prod)
Nicholas Payton: Afro-Caribbean Mixtape (Paytone-Ropeadope)
Ransom Moreland Jr: Restoration
The Baylor Project: The Journey (Be A Light)
Tiger Trio (with Nicole Miller): Unleased (Rogueart)
Xixel Langa: Inside Me (Modigi)
R&B, Soul Andy Suzuki & The Method: The Glass Hour (digital)
Aretha Franklin: Aretha (2 CD deluxe ed.) (Funky Town Grooves)
Brenton Wood: The Very Best Of (Concord)
Charlie Wilson: In It To Win It (RCA)
Chocolate Milk: Chocolate Milk (expanded ed.) (Funky Town Grooves)
Chocolate Milk: We’re All in This Together/Milky Way (Funky Town Grooves)
D.J. Rogers: Love, Music & Life (Funky Town Grooves)
Delegation: Promise of Love: Limited (Clinck )
Divine Brown: Crazy Love Amplified EP
Eddie Kendricks: Something More (Funky Town Grooves)
Emanny: Black Heart (digital)
Gladys Knight & the Pips: 2nd Anniversary (Funky Town Grooves)
Gladys Knight & the Pips: I Feel a Song (Funky Town Grooves)
Gladys Knight & the Pips: The One and Only (Funky Town Grooves)
Jermaine Jackson: Don’t Take It Personal (Funky Town Grooves)
Jermaine Jackson: Precious Moments (Funky Town Grooves)
Jesse Boykins III x Two Fresh: TOKiMONSTA’s Young Art Sound
Jessica Manning: What If I Run
José James: Love in a Time of Madness (Blue Note)
Moonglows: Complete Singles As & Bs 1953-62 (Acrobat)
Oleta Adams: Third Set
Phil Perry: Breathless (Shanachie)
Roy Roberts: Roy Roberts Experience (Perfect Toy)
Sampha: Process (Young Turks)
Sergio Sylvestre: S/T (Sony )
Sir: Her Too EP (digital) (TDE)
Starpoint: Restless/Sensational (reissue) (Cherry Red)
SYD: Fin (Columbia)
Tef Poe: Black Julian (Footklan Music Group)
Tymes: Turning Point (expanded ed.) (Funky Town Grooves)
Rap A$AP Mob: Cozy Tapes Vol. 1: Friends
Big Sean: I Decided (G.O.O.D. Music)
Black Moon: Enta Da Stage: The Complete Edition (box set) (Fat Beats)
Ces Cru: Catastrophic Event Specialists (Strange Music)
Christopher Martin: Big Deal (VP)
Dej Loaf and Jacquees: F*ck A Friend Zone (digital)
Denmark Vessey: Martin Lucid Dream ( Street Corner Music)
Fat Joe & Remy Ma: Plata O Plomo (RNG)
Funky DL: Marauding At Midnight: A Tribute To The Sounds of A Tribe Called Quest (Washington Classics)
Ill Bill: Septagram (Uncle Howie)
Joe Young: Invincible Armour ( YoungLife Music Group)
Karriem Riggins: Headnob Suite (Stone’s Throw)
K-DEF: In the Moment (vinyl) (Redefinition)
Kent Jones: The Luh Tape (digital)
Kirk Knight: Black Noise (digital)
LiKWUiD & 2 Hungry Bros.: Fay Grim ( HiPNOTT)
Lil Reese: Better Days (digital) (RBC)
Lupe Fiasco: DROGAS Light ( 1st & 15th Productions)
Neek The Exotic: The Neek The Exotic Experience ( Still On The Hustle Music)
Nines: One Foot Out (digital) (XL)
Nobigdyl: Canopy (digital) (indie tribe)
Olivier St. Louis: Ever Since the Fall ( Jakarta)
Par-City: The Young, Dope & Gifted II (Par-City)
Paul Nice: Ultimate Block Party Breaks Volumes 3 (Super Break)
Quelle Chris: Being You Is Great, I Wish I Could Be You More Often (Mello Music Group)
Reek Daddy: Fiery Hot Rocks
Shield Enforcers: Crash Course ( ChamberMusik)
“Starlito and Don Trip:” karate in the Garage (digital)
Steven Malcolm: S/T (digital) (4 AGAINST 5)
Urban Legend Blakboy: Koais Atrd (Mathutie)
Various: New Gen (XL)
Westside Gunn: Riots On Fashion Avenue (Effiscienz)
Young Dolph: Gelato (Paper Route Empire )
Reggae, Dancehall Lyricson: Revolution Time Again (Undisputed)
Nafrythm: Ocean (RCM)
Neville Staple: Return of Judge Roughneck (Cleopatra)
Samu: My Soul (Maxizamus)
Skatalits: Foundation Ska ( Studio One)
World Aurelio: Darandi (Real World)
Black Market Brass: Cheat & Start a Fight (Secret Stash)
Flavia Coelho: Sonho Real (PIASL)
Joe King Kologbo: Sugar Daddy (vinyl) (Strut)
Omar Sosa & Seckou Keita: Transparent Water (Ota)
Saddysa: African Modern Spirituals
Tinariwen: Elwan (Anti/Epitaph)
Building upon 20 years of recording and 15 albums, Otis Taylor presents his latest project, Fantasizing About Being Black, a historical retrospective on the African American experience. In a Conqueroo press release, Taylor says this album summons conversations about “the different levels of racism in the African American experience that are unfortunately still with us today. The history of African Americans is the history of America.”
Describing his music as “trance blues,” Taylor aims to transport the listener to an earlier era by incorporating instruments that were once played by enslaved people. The album opens with “Twelve String Mile,” a contemplative song about the social invisibility of the black man in the 1930s. This leads into “Walk on Water,” a song about the separation of an interracial couple and the pursuit of love. Taylor’s raspy, yet solemn vocals are accompanied by violinist Anne Harris, drummer Larry Thompson, bassist Todd Edmunds, Jerry Douglas on koa wood lap guitar, cornetist Ron Miles, and lead guitar player Brandon Niederauer. While much of this meditative album is acoustically composed, Taylor also includes electrifying spiritual songs such as “Tripping on This” and “Hands On Your Stomach”:
Taylor addresses the Civil Rights Movement, interracial relationships, the desire for freedom, and enslavement experiences in Fantasizing About Being Black. Each song reimagines what life was like for black men and women throughout different stages in America’s history. Taylor also uses this platform to call attention to pervasive racism and the need for empathy for people of color who continue their struggle today. Taylor’s last album, Hey Joe Opus/Red Meat, is currently on display at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture—a clear indication that his message is reaching a wide audience. Fantasizing About Being Black clearly continues Taylor’s commitment to social justice, and is an excellent contribution to this year’s Black History Month.
When press releases surrounding Miles Mosley’s latest project were circulated last fall, little did we know just how strongly an album built around the theme “uprising” would resonate. By the time the album dropped last week, the country was embroiled in protests that show no sign of abating. Now Mosley’s concept for Uprising seems downright prescient:
The word “uprising” is often used in moments in which a group of people witness their strength in numbers and band together to seize an opportunity. This embodies the time we are currently living in, where people all over the world in art and politics are recognizing their own power in numbers. It is prophetic as it deals with the different tenants of survival within a world of mystery and ambivalence. From brotherly love to the dangers of good intentions, these are all universal occurrences to which we all seek advice.
If the album’s theme is not enough to draw you in, the music is a powerful hook. Mosley composed the music and also contributes lead vocals and his virtuosity on the upright bass. He’s backed by a soul stew otherwise known as the West Coast Get Down: Kamasi Washington and the late Zane Musa on saxophone, Dontae Winslow on trumpet, Ryan Porter on trombone, Brandon Coleman on keyboards, Cameron Greaves on piano, and drummer Tony Austin. Completing the aural tapestry, a full orchestra and choir are added to several of the tracks.
On Uprising, the WCGD collective fulfills another mission: “to defy genre and combine musical influences to make jazz dangerous and exciting again, while paying tribute to the legends before them.” Some of these legends include Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix, whose Southern soul and psychedelic rock are synthesized with jazz on nearly every track, along with message songs reminiscent of Curtis Mayfield.
The album kicks off with “Young Lion,” a fabulously funky song espousing the attributes of a young, woke man with Mosley singing, “set me free, let me run . . .I’m so on fire, look what I’ve become, I’m high, high, higher.” The track also demonstrates Mosley’s incredible bass technique, as the track closes in a fury of distorted riffs that might fool you into thinking he switched up his bass with electric guitar. This is followed by “Abraham,” a song framed with biblical references that begins peacefully with a keyboard backed intro. As Mosley concludes the first verse, “I’m scared, mediocrity is everywhere, but not here!,” the band explodes into action—proving that mediocrity will never fly with this renown ensemble.
In a recent LA Weekly interview, Mosley says he wanted to include “heart-wrenching songs of loss and disappointment,” but also “a soundtrack for this crazy time that people can lean on.” Many of the tracks embody these feelings of disillusionment; however, they never fail to inspire. The reverb soaked anthem “L.A. Won’t Bring You Down” seeks to embolden young artists to hold their own in the City of Angels, cheering them on with a shouting soul chorus, punchy horn section, and liberal applications of the wah wah pedal on the bass. This flows naturally into the emotional ballad “More Than This,” which starts off in a slow groove, then explodes in a powerful flurry of fuzzed up bass as Mosley shouts, “I was promised, maybe the whole world was promised, so much more than this!” Other stand out tracks include “Your Only Cover” and “Reap a Soul”—the latter a bit reminiscent of The Wiz in its “get on down the road” theme. In fact, both songs have lush orchestrations and a ‘70s era Broadway quality. The album concludes with “Fire,” a celebratory tune with Latin rhythms and full string section that will definitely get everyone on their feet, clamoring for an encore.
All of these tracks were recorded in 2012, at the same month-long session that gave birth to Kamasi Washington’s debut album, The Epic, and Cameron Grave’s Planetary Prince (though his tracks were eventually re-recorded). Now it is Mosley’s turn in the spotlight, and that light shines like a solar flare. With Uprising, Miles Mosley takes a huge dose of soul and funk, fuses it with astonishing bass technique enhanced with crazy special effects, and tops it off with empowering lyrics and vocals. This album will no doubt be one of the highlights of 2017!
Inauguration day saw a new release from the prolific jazz saxophonist Noah Preminger, aptly entitled Meditations on Freedom. Many Americans have felt confused, afraid, and uncertain in the past few months and Preminger’s newest release channels these sentiments into meditative and provocative music. Composing original tunes and bringing several carefully chosen covers into the studio within weeks of the 2016 U.S. elections, Preminger and company recorded primarily from sketches, eschewing elaborate and polished arrangements for sounds that could touch the still raw nerves of his listeners. The unvarnished sense of the present on this record is heightened by the fact that each of these tracks was recorded live and released with no edits, lending the album the kind of immediacy that a listener may experience at a live set while allowing the musicians to act and react rather than scrubbing the record clean of potentially broken or missed notes. This technique gives this set of tunes a sense of urgency, one that is made even more stark by Preminger’s ensemble choice of a quartet that features no chording instrument, relying solely on melodic counterpoint for harmony. Featuring Preminger on saxophone, Jason Palmer on trumpet, Kim Cass on bass, and Ian Froman on drums, the group’s minimalistic approach ensures that every note counts, as it must with this ensemble and this material.
As the musical and technical choices set this album’s mood, Preminger’s selection of material provides the bulk of the political and social commentary. It is, of course, hard to convey specific social or political statements through instrumental jazz, an abstract medium generally unsuited to convey semantic meaning except through association or allusion. Many artists try to solve this problem with sweeping titles that appear to convey something that the sound therein cannot. Preminger’s solution to this problem is to intersperse his original tunes (complete with provocative titles like “We Have a Dream,” “Women’s March,” and “The 99 Percent”) with renditions of familiar socially-conscious numbers.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the way this group approaches its material is that Preminger and his quartet play the most familiar tunes in the set in a way that makes them seem to unravel as they progress. It would be easy (perhaps even lazy) to note that the quartet’s treatment of these tunes sees them dissipate as it seems that civil society is doing. What actually appears to be happening on these tracks, however, is more sophisticated: what makes these renditions especially salient is not that they actually fall apart, but that they clearly have the potential to. We can hear signature melodies on each of these songs before they morph into nearly unrecognizable improvisation over unfamiliar changes. They usually return to the familiar bits, but in a way that requires the listener to check the liner notes to make sure it’s still the same song.
The first two tracks are covers of songs that address racism in the United States head on: Bob Dylan’s “Only a Pawn in Their Game” (which can be heard below) and Bruce Hornsby’s “Just the Way it Is.” The band performs musical operations on these otherwise familiar tunes—we can recognize the songs in a way but they seem a bit off, almost as though they are being heard underwater. Dylan’s meandering vocal melody appears while the chords under it move in unexpected ways; the signature piano intro on the Hornsby tune is played by the horns before the quartet departs in a different direction than Hornsby could likely have imagined. It appears that Preminger meditates on freedom by pondering the perilous position of hard-won liberties—a house of cards that, like these songs, could easily fall apart with one wrong move. This thesis is supported by the tenuous feeling throughout the record—even the original tunes are not readily hummable, but melodically evanescent. The album feels transient, listening to it an absorbing meditation which is gone as soon as the final seconds tick off of the last track.
With Meditations on Freedom, Preminger and company have released an immediate artistic statement that packs quite a punch in a time that may be optimistically characterized as uncertain. Any flaws that may be found in the album’s one-and-done production style mirror the flaws that Preminger and company appear to highlight in democracy itself, full of promise but ultimately ambiguous in result. There are no shout choruses, no moments of divine Charlie Parker transcendence, but instead a preponderance of more muted soul-searching.
It is critical to note that this record does not end on a bright note—a fairly sunny reading of George Harrison’s “Give Me Love” is followed by an original, “Broken Treaties,” that reads as a lament for all of the hard fought battles that may have now been lost. Preminger’s music will likely not inspire revolution; rather it seems to grieve a failed one. Even the album’s gorgeous version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” is tinged with loss—sure, a change is gonna come, but will it be a good one? It is difficult to interpret many of these numbers as seeing the glass half-full, and that may be precisely the point.
The most challenging part of Meditations on Freedom is its clearly articulated and profound sense of loss. Preminger and company’s skill at articulating this in a musically cogent way is what ultimately makes this album both so good and such a downer.
Looking back, 2016 was undoubtedly a great year for black music. And one particularly interesting part was listening to the myriad ways that black musicians interpreted and performed black protest, as well as the protesters’ routine practice of taking up these songs during their protests, especially Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.” Likewise, Atlanta rapper T.I.’s December release, Us or Else: Letter to the System, signals a turn in the amount of explicit political content of his music, as well as a consistent effort from mainstream rappers and other black music icons to speak on issues related to the Black Lives Matter movement, including such heavyweights as Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, Janelle Monáe, Killer Mike, and J. Cole. As far as the rappers go, Kendrick, Jay-Z, and J. Cole are devoted lyricists, though that is not all they do. But Killer Mike and now T.I. represent a new wave of southern trap rappers who use their music to explicitly respond to the issues and actions of the movement for black lives.
You could say T.I. entered this particular arena clearly with the August release of the single from the album, “We Will Not.” The song has a sinister melody and an anthem’s bigness and is an aggressive refusal of the race and class oppression he narrates in what is essentially a list of grievances addressed to a wide variety of unjust systems in the United States. This content is surrounded sonically by an articulation of the strength and badness—in the black usage of baad as positive—of contemporary black political activists, many of whom, I might add, are the same groups of teenagers innovating in trap music and black culture today. The album certainly demonstrates T.I.’s commitment to using his music to protest with and on behalf of the larger black community; even the long list of featured artists get completely on board with the mission, mobilizing countless Civil Rights Movement signifiers and centering their discussion primarily around police violence and mass incarceration.
In line with contemporary trap music, the sounds of the album include a steady stream of ad-libs, beat drops, autotune, excessive use of hi hats, gun sounds, filters, and especially current black “‘hood” vernacular and vocal performance. In terms of the vernacular and vocal performance, the song “Pain” works as a kind of guide to the pain of contemporary black life, the performance showing us how to feel good in its midst. This T.I. accomplishes through a type of showiness and effortlessness created through slurred vocals, the repetition of sound-phrases, and the way his flow rides the beat. The language is a compelling mix of this black vernacular and hot social justice language, and T.I. takes an introspective and encouraging, though still righteously enraged, position on today’s issues. In the song “Black Man,” the chorus sings celebratorily, “black man…drop top… there go the cops,” bringing two ideas together which have traditionally been thought of as mutually exclusive; and this is the cause of the confrontation with police in the song. This is just one example of how T.I.’s claims against white society are often represented by the “law” in the form of a white police officer—a longstanding tradition in black American culture because of the ways in which the legal system has been used by white society post-emancipation to maintain white supremacy and black exploitation and subordination.
In response to today’s attacks from the “law,” T.I. puts forth an album about race pride and action, embodied in the song “40 Acres”—a celebration of black under class values, centering the ‘hood in the conversation without being disparaging or condescending. If it’s a revolution, it’s a people’s revolution with T.I. embracing the role of race man.
In “Picture Me Mobbin,” mobbin’—moving or goin’ in with one’s squad—becomes an expression of unity, not threat. Here trap language and style gets mobilized to encourage activism, to make political action the modus operandi of the “real n*gga.” In the same breadth, T.I. lays claim to a kind of respectability of the “dope boy” in “Writer,” which is a reference to 2Pac’s “Ambitionz Az a Ridah,” but also a play on the southern accent to signify another meaning, that rap is in fact a legitimate form of literary production.
“Here We Go / Don’t Fall For That” is one of several reflection moments in the album, which T.I. uses to create a pep song for the poor, black kid in the ‘hood—acknowledging, unlike corporate media, that our communities are under siege, and trying to work against that. The advice from the trap star is “don’t get trapped,” and, ultimately, choose another way that can build you and your community up. That’s what it means to be black, strong, and baad in the world T.I. renders for us in Us or Else.
In a final moment of reflection and humbling, the album ends with T.I. calling on Jesus to “Take Da Wheel,” reinforcing the overall feeling that this is bigger than any of us individually and the belief that, in Dr. King’s words, the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” even if that may only be in another world.
As a body, Us Or Else: Letter To The System is robust and full of opposition and counter-narratives, encouragement in the fight for racial justice, and an insistence on accountability from white society and systems of governance and policing. T.I. emphasizes the importance of members of the black community being responsible to each other, showing us how to feel good in the midst of the terror of today’s world. His letter to the system still brings us swag and flex in traditional Atlanta fashion. This album is a move towards devotion and commitment in bold pursuit of justice for the black underclass, asserting the “bigness” of the oppressed in terms of rage, resiliency, and joy. A tremendous effort from T.I. in an urgent time, Us Or Else goes down as one of those hugely empowering moments when black music, black radical thought, and black action intersect.
Released just in time for Black History Month, jazz elder Randy Weston’s epic work, The African Nubian Suite, traces the history of the human race through music, with a narration by inspirational speaker Wayne B. Chandler, and introductions and stories by Weston in his role as griot. This recording captures a live performance at New York University by the Institute of African American Affairs on Easter Sunday, 2012, and indeed possesses a sermonic quality. Stressing the unity of humankind, Weston incorporates music that “stretches across millennia”—from the Nubian region along the Nile Delta, to the holy city of Touba in Senegal, to China’s Shang Dynasty, as well as African folk music and African American blues.
Each movement of the suite involves different musicians, who enter a circle in order to “tell stories.” The opening tracks lay out the story of “Ardi” (Ardipithecus ramidus), referencing the oldest known remains of a human-like female hominid who lived in Nubia over 4.4 million years ago. Disc one features Cecil Bridgewater on trumpet (“The Call”), Howard Lewis Johnson on tuba (“Ardi”), Moroccan musician Lhoussine Bouhamidy on gnawa (“Sidi Bilal”), Gambian musician Salieu Suso on kora with T.K. Blue on flute (“Spirit of Touba”), Min Xiao-Fen on pipa (“The Shang”), and Martin Kwaakye Obeng on the Ghanaian balafon (“Children Song”), all accompanied by Weston on piano.
Disc two traces the development of the blues, “from its origins in the Niger Delta to its transmutation in the Mississippi Delta.” Weston ponders the roots of the blues in his introduction before launching into “Blues for Tricky Sam,” featuring a solo by Robert Trowers on trombone in a tribute to the bluesy nature of Duke Ellington’s horn section. “Cleanhead Blues” is a tribute to Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, performed here by Weston and Billy Harper on tenor sax. Weston then heads further south to Central America, drawing from his own Panamanian roots on “Nanapa Panama Blues” with Alex Blake on bass.
After a poignant monologue by Chandler on “The Woman”—the basis of all creation—Weston launches into a song by the same title featured poet Jayne Cortez, which is definitely one of the highlights of this set. The two-part movement “The African Family” introduces African percussion with drummer Lewis Nash and percussionists Neil Clarke and Ayanda Clarke, followed by the “battle of the saxophones” between T.K. Blue and Billy Harper. The project concludes with “Love, The Mystery Of,” bringing the jazz musicians together in a short instrumental penned by Guy Warren.
In these troubling times when our nation is divided by politics, race and religion, Weston uses The African Nubian Suite as a vehicle to remind us of our common heritage: “We all come from the same place – we all come from Africa.” As eloquently stated by Robin D.G. Kelley in the liner notes: “There are no superior or inferior races, no hierarchies of culture, no barbarians at the gate. Instead, Africa—its music, land, people, spirituality—tie us all together as a planet.”
Nate Smith’s debut album, KINFOLK: Postcards from Everywhere, is an invigorating collection of both instrumental and lyrical music blending jazz, R&B, and hip-hop into an interpretive showcase of his Black American experience. Smith’s career spans from teaching music to performing and recording with accomplished musicians such as Dave Holland, Chris Potter, and Ravi Coltrane, among others. Both bandleader and drummer, Smith celebrates the collaborative art produced on this album with his “kindred spirits,” the featured KINFOLK musicians.
The album slowly eases in with “Intro: Wish You Were Here,” a 30-second whisper-like pause before he kicks off with the rhythmically syncopated tune, “Skip Step.” “Bounce: Parts I & II” follows, highlighting the tight horn section’s unison melody. At periodic interludes, Smith incorporates partial recordings of his mother and father speaking about their family migratory experiences across the United States. “Retold” is a comforting tune with a sweeping melody, both reminiscent and nostalgic, which Smith describes as sounding “like someone telling a love story from start to finish.”
Smith is joined on this album principally by keyboardist Kris Bowers, guitarist Jeremy Most, alto and soprano saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, and electric bassist Fima Ephron. Singer and lyricist Amma Whatt and back-up singer Michael Mayo provide captivating vocals amid the dominating instrumental tunes, rendering the spirit of the Black Lives Matter movement on “Disenchantment: The Weight” and “Morning and Allison.” Several recorded guests are also featured on KINFOLK including saxophonist Chris Potter, bassist Dave Holland, guitarists Lionel Loueke and Adam Rogers, and vocalist Gretchen Parlato singing “Pages.” The final track, “Home Free,” is dedicated to the memory of his paternal grandfather. It opens with a somber yet bright string section as the band gently adds peaceful layers of sound forming a soothing conclusion.
KINFOLK: Postcards from Everywhere is a visual album, in the sense that Smith’s music evokes images of childhood, identity, nostalgia, and family, while each song creatively balances improvisation with steady melodic and rhythmic themes. With this debut, Smith and his collaborators have crafted an excellent work of art.
So in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll let it be known that I am a longtime fan of Robert Randolph & the Family Band. I became aware of the band sometime around the early 2000s when they performed at the Grammy Awards as part of an all-star funk jam with members of Parliament-Funkadelic, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Outkast, among others. The band had just released their debut studio album Unclassified, which showed great potential for where the band could go with their recorded material. Of course, albums are just one metric by which to judge a band; the other (and arguably more accurate) metric is their live performances. Masters of the jam band aesthetic, Robert Randolph & the Family Band have toured steadily for the last 15+ years. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing them multiple times, and love seeing the band live, in their element.
I bring up these two specific metrics because the dynamic between the two can at times be difficult to reconcile. How does the band take the kinetic energy of their live show and “bottle it” in a studio environment without losing some of what makes them so great? Robert Randolph & the Family Band has grappled with this challenge on their four previous studio albums, with various degrees of success. In my opinion, Unclassified best captured their live aesthetic, while We Walk This Road (2010) best captured their “focused studio album” potential. The band’s fifth album, Got Soul, finds them seeking that oft elusive balance once again.
The album opens with the title track which sets the tone for the album, with an upbeat and lively groove and Randolph’s signature pedal steel guitar front and center. This track is all but guaranteed to go over well live. Near the end of the track the band goes into a gospel breakdown that leads into the next song, “She’s Got Soul,” which really, really is a peek at the band at their best. “She’s Got Soul” also features Anthony Hamilton, who adds his signature vocals to the track, while Randolph contributes an excellent pedal steel solo. Darius Rucker appears on “Love Do What It Do,” and he is a great match for the group on this song:
The album also includes a cover of the Isaac Hayes & David Porter penned “I Thank You,” originally performed by Sam & Dave. I’m a complete sucker for the song in general (the Bar-Kays do a great funky rocked version), and Robert Randolph & the Family Band do not disappoint with their version. The track “Be the Change” unfortunately highlights one of the weaknesses of the band’s material. Randolph himself is credited with writing several of the tracks, and while the music is typically strong, it is somewhat bogged down by the lyrical content. I would love to see Randolph partner with more experienced songwriters like he does on “Lovesick,” which does a better job at matching their great instrumentals with well written lyrics.
One standout track is “I Want It,” which finds the band, including the excellent Lenesha Randolph, sharing vocals ala Sly & The Family Stone; however, at this point I realized I hadn’t yet heard former bassist/vocalist Danyel Morgan. Adding his falsetto to the mix was the only thing that could’ve made the track better for me. Robert Randolph has a killer pedal steel solo at the peak of this track.
Also included are a couple of the band’s signature instrumental tracks—“Heaven’s Calling” and “Travelin Cheeba Man”—the former would have fit perfectly with Randolph’s side project The Word and the latter would feel at home on Unclassified. Both are very enjoyable.
All in all, Got Soul does not completely overcome the challenge of balancing the energy of live performance with the focus of a studio album, but like many of the band’s prior studio releases, there are moments spread throughout where that balance can be heard. I look forward to hearing these new tracks in a live performance if I can catch Robert Randolph & the Family Band on tour this summer.
If you listen to classic Motown soul, you have heard guitarist Dennis Coffey, a bona fide member of the famous Funk Brothers in-house studio band. That fuzzy funky guitar on the Temptations “Cloud Nine,” that’s him. Also the neat little psychedelic hooks on later Diana Ross and the Supremes hits, and you can hear him on songs by Edwin Starr and Freda Payne. But wait, there’s more: he also had a million-selling instrumental hit in the ’70’s, “Scorpio.”
Like most other Detroit musicians of his era, Coffey’s recorded work is only part of his legacy. He was a regular in the city’s then-thriving music club scene. By 1968, Coffey was a member of a jazz/funk trio led by organist Lyman Woodard. The group regularly played at Morey Baker’s Showplace Lounge, known around town as a club where the audience expected excellent music, and respected the musicians by listening rather than partying and dancing.
These recordings were funded by Coffey and his production-company partner, but not released until now. They are not haphazard tapings, or soundboard feeds, but rather professional recordings of a working band in action. Here’s the promo video for Hot Coffey In the D, which is more of a mini-documentary on the making of this album:
For the most part, Coffey, Woodard and drummer Melvin Davis smoke up the joint. Some tunes run a little long (especially their cover of “The Look of Love,” which just doesn’t have enough meat on the bones to justify a nearly 12-minute excursion), but for the most part this is tight and very soulful instrumental jazz. I call it “jazz” because it is improvisational soloing over skeletal song beds.
Davis does a great job of holding the music together with rock solid beats and tasteful un-busy accents. Woodard is a funky B3 player in the Groove Holmes or Jimmy McGriff mode, although the album notes indicate he was emulating Jimmy Smith (I didn’t hear much Jimmy Smith-style jazz swing in his playing, more a solid funk groove and superb management of the bass pedals). But the real star of the show is Coffey, whose guitar playing is at turns funky, psychedelic, jazzy, and lyrical. His style is somewhat akin to Gabor Szabo in that, like the Hungarian-born jazz-pop guitarist, he can switch styles quickly and weave in and out of the song’s beat and melody. Also like Szabo, he tends to return to the song’s melody with clean single-note runs. But Coffey’s style is all his own, more leaning toward soul and rock than any contemporary jazz guitarist. And, judging from his Motown work, he was very much at home in the “Factory,” able to adapt his playing to whatever the hit producers needed.
The agility and ability of this band is demonstrated in the set list: opening tune “Fuzz” is pure acid jazz; mid-set the band lays down a fast-paced by jazzy cover of Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage”; and two songs later the band covers the then-current pop/R&B crossover hit “Casanova (Your Playing Days Are Over).”
Not to be overlooked, the CD booklet is another Resonance Records masterpiece. It includes interviews with Coffey, Davis, Mike Theodore (Coffey’s production partner and producers of these recordings), and legendary singer Bettye LaVette “on the 60’s Detroit club scene.” The ample text may require more than one playing of the CD to read, unless you’re a speed-reader! The booklet and cover art make strong arguments to buy the physical media rather than a download or stream.
Overall, Hot Coffey In the D is a worthy document of a great time and place in music.
Emeli Sandé’s second full length album, Long Live the Angels, comes four years after her 2012 debut, Our Version of Events. The Scottish singer-songwriter goes further on this album than she did on her first, with a heavier gospel music influence, more penetrating songwriting, and a voice that is equal parts desperation and determination, the voice of someone who has been through something.
“Breathing Underwater” is quite possibly the best song on the album. From the intimacy of the songwriting (“I believe in miracles ‘cause it’s a miracle I’m here”) to the swelling of the choir in the final chorus, the song is an anthem about making it through the impossible. Other such anthems on the album include “Sweet Architect” and “Every Piece of Me.” For as many anthems as there are, though, this is a very intimate album with production that allows Sandé’s voice to shine through rather than be overpowered.
There are few features on the album, but they carry a lot of weight: the elusive Jay Electronica offers a verse detailing his journey through love (“Love is like a garden, love is like a death sentence Love is like a pardon, I’m free again and ready”). On “Tenderly,” Sandé is joined by her father, Joel Sandé, and The Serenje Choir.
The album is over an hour long, but doesn’t overstay its welcome. Sandé is a poet, detailing her heartbreak over the last four years, but ultimately emerging triumphant.
There’s something about Memphis-based band Southern Avenue that feels undeniably raw and authentic. Their intermingling of soul, blues, and gospel music has been talked about in Memphis for years and is now available for everyone to hear on their debut self-titled album. The band’s impassioned vocals, emotional songwriting, and guitars that rollick between easygoing blues and hard rock provide a lively glimpse into the Southern aesthetics and musical traditions of Memphis.
The first seeds of Southern Avenue were sown when guitarist and Israel-native Ori Naftaly competed in the 2013 International Blues Challenge in Memphis. After briefly touring with his own band, he met singer Tierinii Jackson, who grew up in Memphis singing gospel music in church. The two hit it off, and after gathering other members including Jackson’s sister as their drummer, formed the band Southern Avenue. In less than a year, they were signed to Stax. As a Memphis native, Jackson takes this responsibility seriously, determined to honor and build on the history of the legendary label and the renowned music that the name Stax evokes.
The first track and single on Southern Avenue is the hopeful “Don’t Give Up.” Starting off with acoustic guitar, hand claps, and gentle vocals, Jackson leads a call and response, singing “When it hurts real bad” while a chorus responds “Don’t give up.” Soon, drumset and electric guitar come in, building the energy and urgency. Jackson changes her call throughout the song, also singing “When you feel there’s no hope” and “Don’t give up,” building her melisma through a crescendo until the song culminates with a rocking electric guitar solo and then fades out over organ chords:
The rest of the album is a mix of R&B songs—such as the romantic, pleading “Love Me Right” and sexy “Wildflower”—and the upbeat blues rock of “No Time to Lose” and “Rumble.” The group’s gospel influences can also be heard in the harmonies of “It’s Gonna Be Alright,” a much softer, soothing song that emphasizes the soulful qualities of Jackson’s vocals. “80 Miles from Memphis” draws on both blues and country music traditions, as Jackson sings about being away from home and “crying her blues away.” Naftaly’s guitar is a highlight of this song, showing his immense passion and skills for playing the blues.
Southern Avenue’s mix of cultures and genres reflects and honors the diversity of cultures and music in Memphis. Even the group’s name pays homage to the musical history of the city, as Southern Avenue is a Memphis street that runs from the eastern city limits all the way to the original home of Stax Records in Soulsville. Southern Avenue is an impressive debut, which showcases the impeccable songwriting and musical talent of its member and transforms Southern traditions into a modern sound.
Chargaux consists of violinist Jasmin “Charly” Charles and violist Margaux Whitney, who met by chance when Margaux saw Charly playing violin on a Boston street corner. The next day, they were playing together on the street corner and have been collaborators ever since. The two have worked with a variety of high profile artists, providing the solo at the end of Kendrick Lamar’s “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” as well as the strings on J.Cole’s past two albums, 2014 Forest Hills Drive (2014) and 4 Your Eyez Only (2016). More than just string players, though, the two also sing, paint, compose, and are all around performance artists, as seen from their installation performances in New York City.
Meditations of a G is eclectic and more experimental than 2014’s Gallerina Suites and Broke and Baroque. The duo plays homage to their classically trained roots, opening the EP with the sounds of a tuning orchestra on “First Chair.” From there, the project spreads into a minimalist direction, and could sit comfortably between projects like Solange’s A Seat at the Table (2016) or FKA Twigs LP1 (2014). Although much of the album has an effortless groove about it, one can still hear the intricacy and complexity of the production, particularly in the more elaborate string arrangements, found on songs like “Sosha Media” and “Tie Your Fukn Shoes.” There is a welcome amount of humor throughout the EP, especially in “Trap Yoga,” an interlude consisting of the two narrating a yoga class, complete with reimagined trap poses over a pizzicato groove.
Chargaux has many strengths, one of which being their ability to transform the textures of their instruments, creating a different soundscape within each song. Overall, this is a beautiful project, showcasing the growth of Charly and Margaux as instrumentalists, producers, singers, and overall artists.
Corey Henry was raised in the birthplace of jazz—New Orleans’s Treme neighborhood. Inspired by his environment and musical family, Henry started learning trombone at the age of 10, and by age 16 he was hired to play with the Treme Brass Band. Since then, he’s become a vital part of the New Orleans jazz scene, performing with his Little Rascals Brass Band and the nationally touring jam band Galactic. Last September, Henry released his solo debut, Lapeitah, out on Louisiana Red Hot Records. Produced and co-written by Brian J., Lapeitah includes nine originals and one cover that showcase modern New Orleans funk at its finest.
There are a number of guest stars on Lapeitah, including alto saxophonist Greg Thomas (George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic). Thomas plays on the exuberant “Muddy Waters” (below) and the soulful “We Got the Funk,” both of which share vocal choruses straight out of 1970s funk scene. Thomas is also featured on the instrumental “Get Funky,” which displays the connections between jazz and funk in a playful call and response between varying soloists and the rest of the musicians.
The album also features a number of guest vocalists, such as Corey Glover (Living Colour) on an impressive hard rock cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9.” Glover’s gritty vocals, which at times dissolve into rock star shrieks, are echoed by the timbre of Henry’s raw, relentless trombone solo. Nowhere is Henry’s New Orleans origin more evident than on the original “Baby C’mon,” featuring vocals by Cole “Ms. Cake” Williams. This funky, upbeat second-line pride song is perfect for Mardi Gras celebrations in Henry’s hometown.
The fusion of jazz and funk makes Lapeitah a joyful, celebratory outpouring of two of New Orleans’ most famous musical cultures. While the songs may sound carefree, the carefully curated songwriting and talent that Corey Henry and Brian J bring to the album prove that Henry is a force to be reckoned with in the New Orleans jazz and funk world.