Maceo Parker – Life on Planet Groove Revisited

Maeco Parker
Title: Life on Planet Groove Revisited

Artist: Maceo Parker

Label: Minor Music

Format: 2-CD + DVD limited edition box set

Release date: February 14, 2018

 

 

“Gather round, space cadets and funkateers.” So begins the liner notes for Maceo Parker’s seminal 1992 live album and funk opus, Life on Planet Groove.  In honor of the 25th anniversary of the album, Minor Music has released Life on Planet Groove Revisited, which also coincides with Parker’s 75th birthday. This limited edition set includes a new analog to digital transfer of the original album, a second bonus disc, and the DVD Maceo Blow Your Horn.

As everyone likely knows, Maceo Parker was a key member of James Brown’s band in the 1960s, blasting out funky sax solos whenever JB shouted, “Maceo! Blow your horn!” Parker famously walked out on Brown in 1970 with other members of the band, who were replaced by a youthful Cincinnati led group by Bootsy and Catfish Collins. Like Bootsy, Maceo would later join up with George Clinton and contribute to various P-funk projects. Though Parker would return to Brown’s band for a few years, he struck out on his own in 1990. Soon thereafter, he wound up at a club called the Stadtgarten in Cologne, Germany, where Life on Planet Groove was recorded. His backing musicians for this performance included Fred Wesley (trombone, vocals), Pee Wee Ellis (tenor saxophone, flute, vocals), Rodney Jones (guitar), Larry Goldings (organ), and Kenwood Dennard (drums). Special guests included Vincent Henry (bass and occasional alto-sax), Prince protégé Candy Dulfer (alto), and Kym Mazelle (vocalist).

The bonus disc was drawn from the same set of dates at the Stadtgarten. The four tracks include extended versions of the Fred Wesley original “For the Elders,” Lionel Hampton’s “Hamp’s Boogie Woogie,” band member Pee Wee Ellis’s “Chicken,” a cover of James Brown’s “Cold Sweat,” and Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On.”

Also included is the DVD Maceo Blow Your Horn, featuring newly released footage filmed by Markus Gruber during recording sessions for Parker’s album Roots Revisited, which topped the jazz charts in 1990.  Most of the footage was meant for promotional purposes only and is black and white, but the sound is decent. The camera follows band members as they jam in rehearsal and lay down tracks at studios in New York (November 1989) and Cologne (1990). These clips are interspersed with interviews where Parker discusses the creative process along with anecdotes about James Brown, Fred Wesley, Pee Wee Ellis, Curtis Mayfield, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, and Ray Charles, among others. Along the way there’s some odd filler footage of airplane wings and cityscapes. Just to be clear, this is not a documentary in the manner of My First Name Is Maceo, but rather bits and pieces of footage strung together with title cards. Regardless, the film is certainly of historical interest and any fan of Maceo Parker and his band will be grateful for its inclusion.

Life on Planet Groove Revisited is a fine tribute to the great Maceo Parker on his 75th birthday.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

The Rolling Stones – On Air

The Rolling Stones

Title: On Air

Artist: The Rolling Stones

Label: Abkco/Polydor/BBC

Formats: CD, LP, digital

Release date: December 1, 2017

 

 

Like most British Invasion bands, The Rolling Stones started out covering American music. In the Stones case, there was an immediate affinity for blues, particularly the electric variety from Chicago’s African American musicians. Indeed, the band took its name from a Muddy Waters song. The band also gravitated to the rock ‘n roll artists from Chicago’s Chess Records, particularly Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.

Unlike most of their peers, the Stones never veered too far from their roots. They completely absorbed the loose style and ironic lyrics of their Chicago influences, and never stopped including cover versions of African American blues, soul and early rock songs on their albums. In fact, their most recent studio album, Blue and Lonesome, is a tribute and return to their blues roots.

Back at the time when the British Invasion bands were forming, the BBC presented hours of live popular music on both radio and TV. Bands like the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Kinks, Zombies and others were able to play in front of a national audience, a hugely expanded stage from the small clubs where they honed their craft. On Air collects the Stones’ BBC performances from 1963-65, with a bonus of restored sound and a nice booklet essay by Richard Havers.

By the time they took to the airwaves, even in 1963, less than a year after forming, the Stones were a tight ensemble. The original band—Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman—had a coherent and shared musical vision and were at ease playing together. They weren’t yet capable of the musical fury needed for some of the songs they were covering, but they tried hard.

The Stones were at their best covering Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, able to use the faster pace of true rock ‘n roll to their advantage. On the slower bluesier material, and also, curiously, on their original tunes, these performances aren’t up to the polish and energy of contemporary studio album tracks. That could be due to the tight schedule and lack of rehearsal time for BBC productions. In any case, the highlights are their covers of Berry’s “Around and Around” and “Carol,” which became staples in the Stones’ live repertoire through the ‘70s and ‘80s; plus Diddley’s “Cops and Robbers,” “Crackin’ Up” and “Mona.” Among the originals, a highlight is the last track on the album, the instrumental “2120 South Michigan Avenue.” The song title pays homage to Chess Records’ studio address. Early highlights in the Stones’ long and storied career were recording sessions at Chess Studio, in 1964 and 65.

Some of this music was previously released as part of a BBC-produced radio documentary, “The Rolling Stones Story.” A red-vinyl promotional LP contained “Cops and Robbers,” “Memphis Tennessee,” “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Fannie Mae.” The sound quality on that LP was not anywhere as good as this new 2-CD set.

The CD credits “demixing” engineer James Clarke, who also worked sonic miracles with the Beatles’ live performance recordings for Ron Howard’s “Eight Days A Week” documentary and the CD reissue of their Hollywood Bowl concerts. The Abbey Road engineers were able to “demix” (isolate each instrument, clean up the noise around it and put it on a separate digital track), then remix some of these original-mono recordings into stereo. The resulting sound is clear, but there is a “skeletal” feeling to it, like the band has been separated too much, losing some of the energy and cohesion. I would have preferred new mono mixes, with each instrument and vocal “scrubbed” of noise and distortion. The power and synergy of a clean mono mix is unbeatable, especially with this material.

On Air is a must for a Stones fan, because it shows the band outside of the studio in its earliest form, young and hungry and building toward bigger things. For a fan of British Invasion music, the Stones offer a master class in how it’s done. The album also documents some of the Stones’ earliest covers of Black music, which underpinned the transformation of their sound during the 1960s.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

Editor’s Note: We’re featuring this album as part of our ongoing exploration of the Black roots of rock ‘n roll, an initiative begun in 2009 with the conference “Reclaiming the Right to Rock: Black Experiences in Rock Music.”  For further reading we recommend Maureen Mahon’s book, Right to Rock: The Black Rock Coalition and the Cultural Politics of Race (Duke University Press, 2004).

Los Rumberos De La Bahia – Mabagwe: A Tribute to “Los Mayores”

Magawe
Title: Mabagwe: A Tribute to “Los Mayores

Artist: Los Rumberos De La Bahia

Label: Eguin Eje Records

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: November 10, 2017

 

Mabagwe is a collaborative album between Cuban native José Luis Gómez (vocalist), Michael Spiro (percussionist and associate professor at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music), and Jesus Díaz (producer, percussionist, vocalist)—performing as Los Rumberos De La Bahia. Featuring high-spirited songs in the rumba tradition, the album displays superb performances by many featured musicians—Rogelio Ernesto Gatell Coto (vocalist), Ivan Camblor (tres guitar), Colin Douglas (percussion), Jesus Gonzalez (quinto), Jason McGuire (acoustic guitar), Beatriz Godinez Muñiz (vocalist), Fito Reinoso (vocalist), Genesie Reinoso (vocals), and Randel Villalongo (quinto)—and highlights the socio-cultural aspect of the Cuban music-making process.

As the title indicates, Mabagwe (“Remembrance” in Yoruba) honors the legacies and memories of legendary Cuban rumberos and culture bearers of Cuban folkloric music—Regino Jimenez Saez (“Omi Saide”), Esteband Vega Bacallao (“Cha-Cha”), Gregorio Hernández, Juan de Dios Ramos, Francisco Hernández Mora, Gregorio Díaz, Jesus Alfonso, Julito Collazo, Francisco Aguabella, and Pedro Aballí.

The album opens with “Siempre Viviran,” an arrangement dedicated to the legacy of the group’s mentors, featuring call-and-response dialogues coupled with toque to the orisha spirit Olokun, guaguancó rhythms, and the bata toque for the Egun (spirits of departed ancestors). Later on, “Potpourri De Boleros” treats the listener to a beautiful medley of popular boleros—“Sabor a Mi,” “Muchas Veces,” and “Y Tu Que Has Hecho”—supported by a light and sophisticated rumba.

Publicist Ron Kadish writes, “Rumba can be played anywhere—at the kitchen table, on some buckets in the patio, on a desktop—whenever and wherever rumberos decide to start playing clave and sing about what’s going on their lives.” Mabagwe is most definitely an encapsulation of this rumba tradition, capturing an image of the San Francisco community of rumberos—Cubans and Americans—as they channel the spirits of  “Los Mayores,” or elder Cuban rumberos.

Reviewed by Jamaal Baptiste

Shiela E. – Iconic: Message 4 America

Shiela E
Title: Iconic: Message 4 America

Artist: Sheila E.

Label: Stiletto Flats

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: September 1, 2017

 

 

Sheila E.’s Iconic: Message 4 America offers a musical palette of iconic songs, primarily from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Though the album dropped in September, the self-released project didn’t garner as much attention as it deserved, so we’re happy to give it a shout out during Black History Month.

Described as a musical movement for turbulent times, Sheila conceived of the album as “a call for us to rise up and stand for something that is greater than our self-interest.” Instead of creating new music, she chose to reinvent “some of the greatest protest and revolution songs . . . to fit current times.” Assisting her in this endeavor are members of her band plus a bevy of exemplary guests. Of course, Sheila Escovedo herself is a renowned drummer and percussionist perhaps best known for her work with Prince, but she’s also an amazing vocalist as she proves on each and every track.

The album opens with “Funky National Anthem,” a powerful medley drawing upon multiple texts beginning with Sheila’s spoken intro from the Declaration of Independence. After a brief (and yes, very funky) version of the National Anthem, the final three minutes draw upon some of the most famous and inspiring speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Presidents John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama. On this track, Sheila issues a “call for our leaders to rise up and work for the betterment of men and women, no matter the race, color, or creed.”

The first celebrity guest enters on the Beatles’ “Come Together,” with Ringo Starr taking over the drum kit. Once again, a rousing spoken intro kicks off the arrangement (as in the Primal Scream version): “This is a beautiful day / we are unified / we are of one accord / today we are together / when we are together we got power!” Sly & The Family Stone’s “Everyday People” also features original band members: Freddie Stone on lead vocal and guitar, and Lynn Mabry on tambourine.

An album of this nature can’t be complete without representation from Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield. On Gayes’ “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” Sheila deftly incorporates elements of “Trouble Man,” with Eddie M. (former Prince saxophonist) on lead vocals. “Pusherman,” the Mayfield classic from the Superfly soundtrack is sung by Sheila, who adds “You took Prince, Pusherman.”  You know she won’t finish this album without a Prince tribute. Anthony Antoine was selected to sing the combined “America – Free,” yet another amazing and provocative track.

Israel Houghton takes over on Stevie Wonder’s “Jesus Children of America,” with Greg Phillinganes on organ and Dino Saldo on harmonica. Really, it doesn’t get any better than this. Oh wait! Another highlight is the James Brown Medley.  Bootsy Collins joins Sheila for this funk fest that joins together half a dozen of JB’s Black Power era anthems, beginning with “Talking Loud and Saying Nothing” and concluding with “Super Bad.” And there’s more P-funk. George Clinton sits in for “One Nation Under a Groove,” which segues into “Mothership Connection.”

These are just some of the treats in store on Sheila’s masterful Iconic: Message 4 America, featuring some of the top musicians in the business performing amazing arrangements of iconic songs. I believe Sheila E. has also achieved her other goals: “To bring awareness, to spark conversation, to allow healing, to restore hope, to express love, to find peace, and to unite through music.”

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Project Mama Earth

Project Mama Earth
Title: Project Mama Earth

Artist: Project Mama Earth

Label: Provogue

Formats: CD, Vinyl, streaming

Date: November 10th, 2017

 

 

In June of 2017, five world renowned musicians came together to embark on a bold new project with no songs and no plan, but by the end of ten days they had completed a masterpiece. Both the group and their debut EP bear the name Project Mama Earth. Band members include Nitin Sawhney on guitar, Jonathan Joseph on drums, Étienne M’Bappé on bass, Jonathan Shorten on Keys, and the executive producer and lead singer, Joss Stone.

According to Stone, the idea for the project was brought to her by drummer Jonathan Joseph, who wanted to create a project based around the African bikutsi rhythms from Cameroon. In his words, “…let’s all come together and make some music with this rhythm in it.”

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Joseph and Stone have performed together since 2003 when he was drafted to accompany the young British singer on her debut album, The Soul Sessions. As they began working together to assemble their team, the choices seemed obvious. Joseph enlisted his longtime friend, Cameroonian multi-instrumentalist Étienne M’Bappé, who has played with acts spanning from John McLaughlin to Robert Ford. His heritage, rooted in rhythms, was a style they wished to tap into. That, and M’Bappé’s his shear musicality made him an obvious choice.

Next they contacted Jonathan Shorten., who produced much of Stone’s music, as well as some of the biggest hits for multi-platinum selling artist Gabrielle and other British artists.  Last but not least was guitarist Nitin Sawhney. Described as a one man musical tidal wave, he’s collaborated with musical legends like Paul McCartney and Sting, as well as the London Symphony Orchestra. These musicians all came together at Joss Stone’s home studio in Devon, England where their ten day adventure began.

Project Mama Earth contains six songs and five interludes, all centered around nature and the bikutsi rhythm. The first song on the album, “Mama Earth,” begins smoothly, prominently displaying the driving bikutsi groove as Joss Stone enters with her trade mark R&B sound and a nature inspired lyric. Stone explains that she wanted to keep her creative process separate from the four instrumentalists:  “I didn’t have any input in the music because I didn’t want to affect it— or it’d all come out hip-hop and R&B.” So when the instrumentalists finished, they would bring the song to Stone, and with the help of her mother, they wrote the lyrics and melodies.

Stone seems to stick to the theme of personifying the earth throughout the album. In an interview with Billboard magazine, she explained that her lyrics where inspired by what Mother Nature might say to her to her inhabitants if she could speak. This is especially apparent in the fourth song on the album, “What Would She Say,” as Stone speaks from the stand point of the earth, with the the lyric:

Do you think I would cry if I run out of gold?
I’d blink more than an eye if I get that old.
Well maybe you think I forget how to cleanse my soul.
As if humans could change or slow down
Only the arrogant truly know
I suppose I could just shake them off and let them go.

It’s so amazing that Project Mama Earth was competed within such a short period of time. One can only hope this musical team of Jonathan Joseph, Étienne M’Bappé, Jonathan Shorten, Nitin Sawhney, and Joss Stone will come together again to grace us with their art.

Reviewed by Jared Griffin

 

 

The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra – Black Manhattan, Volume 3

Black Manhattan
Title:  Black Manhattan, Volume 3

Artist:  The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra

Label:  New World Records

Formats:  CD, MP3

Release date: November 10, 2017

 

 

Rick Benjamin, founder/conductor of the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, recently gifted us with Volume 3 of his series, Black Manhattan (Volume 2 was previously reviewed in Black Grooves). The title derives from James Weldon Johnson’s 1930 book about New York’s black music and theatre communities from the 1890s to 1920s, profiling “an amazing group of achievers . . . whose work profoundly transformed the cultural life of this nation.” Benjamin has made it his mission to bring to light previously unrecorded works by these composers using authentic scores. With the release of the third volume, we can now experience “60 works by 32 outstanding African-American composers, spanning the seminal years of the 1870s to the early 1920s . . . [closing] this gap in America’s cultural memory.”

Volume 3 continues the exploration of prominent Clef Club composers and their works, including founding member Alphonso Johns (“Ianthia March” written in 1902 for an African American bicycle club), Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake (“Love Will Find a Way” and “I’m Just Wild About Harry” from Shuffle Along), Clarence Cameron White (“Chant” from The Bandana Sketches and the spiritual setting of “I’m Goin’ Home” from Cabin Memories), Scott Joplin (“Wall Street Rag” written two years after his move to Manhattan), Frederick M. Bryan (“The Dancing Deacon” premiered by the Clef Club Orchestra in 1915), Will H. Dixon (“Delicioso: Tango Aristocratico”), J. Leubrie Hill (the newly discovered Overture to his celebrated musical My Friend From Kentucky), and J. Turner Layton (“After You’ve Gone” and “Dear Old Southland” orchestrated by Will H. Vodery). The set also sheds light on the works of lesser known African American composers, as well as works by prominent songwriters not featured in earlier volumes.

The disc opens with the “Pork and Beans Rag” (1913) by Philadelphia native Ch. Luckeyth “Luckey” Roberts. Known as one of the founders of Harlem stride piano, Roberts was also a talented theater composer and orchestra conductor who took over as the “leading purveyor of high society music” following the death of James Reese Europe. This aggressive yet charming Eastern-style rag, which he later orchestrated, was among his first published piano compositions, as well as the first piece taught to his piano student – none other than a young George Gershwin. Two additional works by Roberts are also included: “Jewel of the Big Blue Nile” written for the 1919 stage production Baby Blues and sung here by noted soprano Janai Brugger, and a later orchestration of “The Tremolo Trot” (1914), notable for its infusion of classical music elements. Tragically, though Roberts remained a very prominent fixture in Harlem until his death in 1968, little of his vast output survives.

Another Philadelphia-born pianist-songwriter, Q. Roscoe Snowden, is known primarily for a pair of 1923 recordings on the OKeh label. Benjamin has uncovered another instrumental, “The Slow Drag Blues,” published by W.C. Handy in 1919 and later orchestrated by a young William Grant Still. Though the success of this rendition is largely due to Still’s compositional technique, Snowden’s work is still a significant fusion of a 19th century African American social dance with blues, ragtime and jazz.

Baritone Edward Pleasant is featured on James Bland’s enduring 1879 minstrel song “Oh! Dem Golden Slippers,” a parody of the spiritual “Golden Slippers” popularized by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Bland was born in Queens and, like his highly educated parents, attended university before gravitating to African American minstrel troupes. He was one of the first black composers to be published and achieved wide acclaim at home and abroad, yet never moved beyond the minstrel genre.  By comparison, Benjamin refers to Black Manhattanite Sidney Perrin as “a key transitional figure between minstrelsy and vaudeville,” who likely composed hundreds of songs over his forty-year career. Regrettably, the majority of his 50 surviving works were published between 1897-1910 and only document his early years. Benjamin opted for Perrin’s 1904 cakewalk “Well Raise the Roof To-Night (Whoop ‘Er Up Boys),” the title indicating the celebratory nature of the composition performed with aplomb by the PRO.

Cincinnati’s Gussie L. Davis was one of the most successful African American songwriters of his era, but has not previously been featured. After relocating to New York in the 1890s he achieved considerable success composing musical revues, but died suddenly of heart failure in the midst of his first touring production. Chosen for this set is Davis’s most successful ballad, “In the Baggage Coach Ahead,” which sold over a million copies of sheet music. The Victorian-era parlor song is performed convincingly by tenor Chauncey Packer, accompanied by Benjamin on piano. Packer is featured again on the 1905 hit song “Just One Word of Consolation” by Tom Lemonier, another founding member of the Clef Club. This lovely ballad was originally featured in the black musical comedy Rufus Rastus and later become part of the standard repertoire for early 20th century American tenors. As Benjamin points out in the liner notes, many of these singers likely assumed the composer was French, just as many had assumed Gussie Davis was a white woman.

Brooklyn-born, Howard University educated pianist-composer Clarence G. Wilson burst onto the scene as conductor of the Smart Set, one of the last major black touring companies. Yet, after serving in WWI under Will H. Vodery in the 807th Pioneer Infantry Band, he returned to Harlem and all but disappeared. Benjamin uncovered one of Wilson’s early works, “The Zoo-Step,” composed in 1916 as a dance number for his anti-war musical How Newton Prepared. A stellar example of the music of the era, the PRO performance encapsulates what Benjamin describes as “raucous, hilarious, virtuosic, stylistically [representing] the unique territory between the circus, Dixieland jazz, and the Folies Bergère.”

Another historically interesting work is “Royal Garden Blues,” composed in 1919 by Clarence Williams and Spencer Williams. Taking its title from a well-known black café in Chicago, the song was immortalized by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1921. Benjamin discovered the original 1919 orchestration by African American band leader Dave Peyton, which notates every improvised slide and “hot solo.” Again, the PRO gives a fine performance, bringing life to an arrangement clearly intended for those uninitiated in jazz.

Volume 3 concludes with “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” composed by James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson and performed by sopranos Janai Brugger and Andrea Jones, tenor Chauncey Packer and baritone Edward Pleasant, accompanied by the PRO. According to Benjamin, this rendition is the world premier recording of the original 1900 score. The vocal harmonies are similar to the earliest recorded version by the Manhattan Harmony Four (1923), but the PRO’s rendition brings full glory to the Johnson brother’s masterful composition which became the national anthem of the African-American community.

As with previous volumes, the CD is accompanied by a 48-page booklet with meticulously researched biographies of the composers, several previously unknown to me. Once again, Rick Benjamin and The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra offer a carefully curated project celebrating the many composers of Black Manhattan, shedding light on lesser known composers and works, and advancing the study of American music of the late 19th and early 20th century.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Nona Hendryx & Gary Lucas – The World of Captain Beefheart

Captain Beefheart
Artist: Nona Hendryx & Gary Lucas

Title: The World of Captain Beefheart

Label: Knitting Factory

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: November 10, 2017

 

 

If there are artists worthy enough for a Captain Beefheart tribute collaboration, it is the artistic duo of Nona Hendryx and Gary Lucas. The pair first beefed it up in 2013 with The Metropole Orchestra at Amsterdam’s Paradiso during an event produced by Dutch journalist and radio presenter Co de Kloet. Four years and multiple hours of creativity later, The World of Captain Beefheart makes its way towards a triplicate fan base for all three musicians—Don Van Vliet, Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx.

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Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, first grabbed the public’s attention with his cover of Bo Diddley’s “Diddy Wah Diddy,” capitulating his gritty blues style to an interview on American Bandstand in 1966 and an appearance on ABC’s “Where the Action Is”.  Soon after, Captain Beefheart and the “Magic Band”—whose members differed throughout the years but most notably of musicians Gary Lucas, Jeff Cotton, Bruce Fowler and Victor Hayden—released their first album, Safe as Milk, in 1967.

While many envisioned him as the next blues frontman, Van Vliet had other ideas. His strong interest in experimental, avant-garde sounds—fostered alongside his longtime friend Frank Zappa—would lead him to worldwide notoriety as one of the most singular voices and uncompromising composers in popular music, a trail-blazing maverick who single-handedly changed the face of popular music as we know it. His music combined Delta blues, free-jazz, and proto-punk rock with surrealist imagery, ecological obsession, and ironic humor.

During his 30+ year career, Van Vliet explored musical and lyrical territory never before charted in the confines of a traditional electric band line-up. His was a unique and unforgettable sound which proved highly influential on the first wave of punk and new-wave pioneers including John “Rotten” Lydon, Joe Strummer of the Clash , and Talking Heads’ David Byrne, as well as seminal artists such as David Lynch, Laurie Anderson, Ed Ruscha, Julian Schnabel, and Matt Groening. Captain Beefheart/Van Vliet retired from the music scene in 1982 to concentrate on his painting career before passing away from complications of MS in 2010.

Gary Lucas first made his mark as a visionary guitar player on the final last two Beefheart albums, Doc at the Radar Station (1980) and Ice Cream for Crow (1982). A world-renowned instrumentalist and Grammy-nominated songwriter and composer, Lucas has released over 30 acclaimed albums in a variety of genres. Gary also collaborated most significantly with the late Jeff Buckley, co-writing “Grace” and “Mojo Pin”, the first two songs on Jeff’s 2-million selling “Grace” album.

Nona Hendryx is a longtime fierce admirer of Don Van Vliet’s music, and possesses the huge voice and the commanding stage presence necessary to do full justice to repertoire that originally featured Beefheart’s unforgettable multi-octave voice. Although she’s best known as a funk/soul great thanks to her long tenure with international hitmakers Labelle (as well as the group’s antecedent, Patti Labelle and the Bluebelles) in addition to her own excellent R&B solo outings, she is no stranger to experimental rock territory, having been featured as guest vocalist with cutting-edge ensembles including the Talking Heads, Bill Laswell’s Material, and Jerry Harrison’s Casual Gods.

The World of Captain Beefheart is an album that truly speaks for itself. “Sun Zoom Spark” opens the tribute, proving that in the Beefheart world, Hendryx has vocals worthy of the Captain’s raspy legacy. Other classics such as “When It Blows Its Stacks” and a moving rendition of “My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains” cement the pair’s project worthiness. Ably supporting Lucas and Hendryx are expert practitioners of Beefheartian music: bass player Jesse Krakow and drummer Richard Dworkin. Both are veterans of Fast ‘N Bulbous, Lucas’ free-jazz instrumental outfit that specializes in repertoire from the Van Vliet canon. Completing the lineup is keyboardist Jordan Shapiro, who has played with Lucas in his long-running avant-rock crew, Gods and Monsters.

A visionary and lyricist with unrelenting perseverance, artist Don Van Vliet is deserving of every expertly offered chordal riff Lucas and Hendryx have to give us. Through their dedication and respect to his craft, Captain Beefheart will live on in the hearts and souls of his fans forever, both long-standing and contemporary alike.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

 

 

 

 

 

Sly5thAve – The Invisible Man: An Orchestral Tribute to Dr. Dre

Sly5thAve
Title: The Invisible Man: An Orchestral Tribute to Dr. Dre

Artist: Sly5thAve

Label: Tru Thoughts

Release date: Nov 17, 2017

Formats: CD, Digital, LP

 

Sylvester Uzoma Onyejiaka II — the Austin, Texas-born arranger, multi-instrumentalist and producer who goes by the moniker Sly5thAve — returns with an orchestral tribute to the prolific DJ, producer, rapper, and mogul Dr. Dre.  Culled from a live set compiled for a charity event titled “Cali-Love,” Sly5thAve’s arrangements, which were praised by Dr. Dre himself at the concert, pay tribute to Dre’s brilliance in the producer’s chair while presenting new and interesting ideas in a set of well-worn but still funky grooves.

On The Invisible Man, Sly5thAve uses Dre’s compositions as vehicles for his own interpretations and improvisations, treating gangsta rap as jazz arrangers of yesteryear treated Tin Pan Alley songs.  Sly5thAve’s jazz-inflected approach to musical borrowing is heightened by Dr. Dre’s own extensive sampling of 70s P-Funk in his original music, creating layers of intertextuality for hip hop heads and jazz cats alike while retaining (at moments heightening) the cinematic qualities of the source material. Dre’s compositions have always told vivid and imaginative stories. The Invisible Man tells similar stories, with instrumental arrangements in place of most of these songs’ most memorable lyrics, to the effect of making the album feel like the really good remake of a slightly better original movie.

This album is loaded with riffs on Dre’s signature G-Funk style, with Sly5thAve and company developing tracks like “Let Me Ride,” “California Love,” and “Ain’t Nuthin’ But a G Thang” into compelling vehicles for improvisation and orchestration.  Some of the album’s most interesting moments, however, come from the band’s interpretation of tracks less associated with Dre’s signature early 90s funk-based sound and more with the tracks he built for his later proteges, like the stellar readings of Dre-produced early Eminem tracks, including “Forgot about Dre,” “Guilty Conscience,” and “My Name Is.” While their lush string sections and intricate horn arrangements definitely sound different than the original versions of these numbers, these versions are so infectiously true to their musical spirit that listeners will be tempted to dust off their memory of the classic verses that appear on these songs to rap along, starting with “Y’all know me, still the same O.G.…”

Overall, Sly5thAve stays very close to both the spirit and letter of his source material, often giving his crack band opportunities to improvise over his dramatic orchestral readings of this catalog in the same way that Dre gave Snoop Doggy Dogg room to stretch out over the original versions of these songs on The Chronic.  Sure, The Invisible Man is no replacement for the original cuts, but it’s a great way to get away with playing G-Funk at a dinner party.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Rahsaan Barber – The Music in the Night

The Music in the Night
Title: The Music in the Night

Artist: Rahsaan Barber

Label: Jazz Music City

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: November 3, 2017

 

 

Saxophonist Rahsaan Barber, known for his magnificent compositions and virtuosic playing, recently released his newest project, The Music in the Night. This album showcases Barber’s renditions of well-known standards while also displaying his versatility as an arranger. Barber creatively uses rhythmic hits, melodic interludes, and minimal re-harmonization in his arrangements while maintaining the original musical structure of the standards. He described the album’s concept and personnel in his Kickstarter campaign video:

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The album begins with a beautiful interpretation of Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely,” arranged as a jazz swing tune with a slight harmonic variation that adds a pleasant surprise to the ears. The listener is later treated to a reggae-flavored version of “My Funny Valentine,” beginning with a memorable foot-stomping groove that repeats throughout the tune. On Barber’s slow blues rendition of “Georgia on My Mind,” we experience the soulful side of the ensemble through heartfelt solos by Barber, guitarist James DaSilva, and pianist Matt Endahl. The Indiana University Jacobs School of Music alum also included a version of “Skylark” by another IU alum, Hoagy Carmichael, the lyrics of which inspired the album title.

The Music in the Night is comprised of brilliant arrangements and great performances by the members of the band (which also includes drummer Derrek Phillips and 20-year-old bassist Jack Aylor). I recommend this album to anyone interested in listening to beautiful interpretations of well-known standards.

Reviewed by Jamaal Baptiste

Chris Daniels and The Kings with Freddi Gowdy – Blues with Horns, Vol. 1

Blues with Horns
Title: Blues with Horns, Vol. 1

Artist: Chris Daniels and The Kings with Freddi Gowdy

Label: Moon Voyage

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 15, 2017

 

Freddi Gowdy was a founding member (with Henchi Graves) of the ‘60s soul duo Freddi/Henchi and the Soulsetters, memorialized in the 2010 compilation Crown Princes of Funk: The Last Set. In the ‘70s, Freddi/Henchi relocated to Colorado where they became known as “the hottest funk-machine west of the Mississippi,” opening for major touring artists including James Brown and Tina Turner. After Graves passed in 2009, Gowdy hooked up with another well-known Colorado group, Chris Daniels and The Kings. The title of their second collaboration begs the question, “what could be better than blues with horns?

Blues with Horns, Vol. 1 showcases Chris Daniels love of classic horn bands from the 1950s-1970s. The ten horn-driven tracks led by Gowdy’s soulful vocals offer the perfect cure for your winter blues. The album gets off to a rousing start with the ode to “Sweet Memphis” featuring Sonny Landreth on slide-guitar and Subdudes keyboardist John Magnie:

This segues into “Fried Food/Hard Liquor,” a celebration of down home blues, juke joints and “greasy lips barbeque.” The song is punctuated by harmonica and guitar riffs, which along with the horn section, often depart from anticipated harmonic progressions. Gowdy’s “Get Up Off the Funk” is an obvious tribute to James Brown, offering a workout for the horns with tasty riffs from sax player Jim Waddell.

There are also a number of covers on the album. Highlights among these include Bobby Blue Bland’s “Wouldn’t Treat a Dog (The Way You Treated Me),” a fun and funky rendition of Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “Baby’s In Love With the Radio” that tosses out some contemporary references to Spotify and Rhapsody, and a harmonica-infused version of Buddy Miles’ funk-rock classic, “Them Changes.” The project concludes with “Rain Check,” another original by Daniels, who takes over the vocals on this acoustic, ragtime influenced song that reflects on surviving cancer and living life to the fullest (Daniels and Gowdy have both battled cancer in the past).

Blues with Horns, Vol. 1 admirably serves the band’s mission of keeping the New Orleans-Memphis horn-band-blues tradition alive.  As Daniels states in the liner note, “this music came from black culture and countless inspirations . . . we only scratched the surface” in this volume. As an added bonus, the CD comes in a pop-up book style limited-edition packaging by famed artist Greg Carr. As Gowdy sings in “Baby’s In Love With the Radio,” give me more of that funk, rock and blues music! Let’s hope volume two is already in the works.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

 

James Armstrong – Blues Been Good to Me

James Armstrong
Title: Blues Been Good to Me

Artist: James Armstrong

Label: Catfood

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: October 20, 2017

 

 

Blues singer-songwriter and guitarist James Armstrong grew up in southern California during an era when Jimi Hendrix reigned supreme. This spurred his fascination with rock and roll, but he also developed an interest in country music and slide guitar, which he later mastered. But that’s not all. Armstrong’s mother was a blues singer and his father played jazz guitar, providing him with more than a passing familiarity of these genres. Apparently the maternal influence won out, because Armstrong hit the blues circuit at a young age and never looked back. Until now.

Blues Been Good to Me, Armstrong’s third release for the Catfood label, is the output of a musician reflecting upon his life and times. He hooked up with another blues veteran and label mate, Johnny Rawls, to co-produce the project. Band members include rhythm guitarist Johnny McGhee (a founding member of L.T.D.), drummer Andrew Blaze Thomas, and keyboardist Matt Murdick, with Darryl Wright on bass. The album opens with the title track, an autobiographical song that chugs along over a B3 courtesy of Brother John Kattke, a Chicago blues musician perhaps better known as a guitarist.

The opening bars of “Second Time Around” will be instantly recognizable to the Boomer generation as the “Secret Agent Man” theme song. By the time the backup singers chime in on the chorus, we’re certainly convinced that love is indeed better on the rebound. Another sweet spot is the slow grooving “Early Grave,” a song about a man so tormented by a woman that he worries about dying young, joining the likes of Elvis, Robert Johnson, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, and O.V. Wright.

All of Armstrong’s original songs are outstanding. There’s the funky groove of “Old Man in the Morning (Young Man at Night),” the melancholy ballad “Change in the Weather” with its tasty guitar solos, and “Sleeping With a Stranger,” an excellent showcase of Armstong’s songwriting and musicianship. Last but not least, there are the covers: Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You” gets a countrified arrangement, while Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” is anchored by a honkytonk style piano and rousing horn section.

James Armstrong draws upon his multiple musical influences, infusing Blues Been Good to Me with a level of sophistication above and beyond the typical blues project. This is my first introduction to his music, and I will be looking forward to future releases.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Ruth La’Ontra – I Got You

I Got You
Title: I Got You

Artist: Ruth La’Ontra

Label: Tyscot

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 22, 2017

 

 

The unbelievable vocal ability of Ruth La‘Ontra will leave you in awe. As the daughter of Bishop Arvetra Jones, Jr. (president of the North Carolina Gospel Announcers Guild of the Gospel Music Workshop of America.), La’Ontra has been singing gospel music all her life. She embarked on her professional career shortly after graduating from high school, releasing her first album, So Good, on the Tyscot label in 2013. That same year, her spiritual love song “In Love With a Man” was featured in the movie Iniquity. The following year she received a Stellar Gospel Music Award nomination with a song from the album, “Count It All Joy.”

Now La‘Ontra is hitting the gospel world hard with her sophomore project, I Got You. With help from a top notch production and song writing duo, Anthony Brown (of Anthony Brown & group therAPy) and Justin Savage, the album has been rapidly climbing the Billboard gospel charts. When describing this project and La’Ontra’s marvelous talent, Justin Savage stated: “Her vocal ability is so versatile and vast. This project will take listeners on an exciting journey of great music, her voice leading the way; destination, God’s presence.”

The album is anchored by La’Ontra’s uplifting hit song “Kingdom,” grounded by the chorus: “We are Kingdom, we are Kingdom and we have the authority / God has given us the power and we can change anything.” Here La’Ontra offers a powerful message to guide us through the New Year.

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I Got You was recorded live to maintain a true feeling of worship. The album features arrangements of both new and old songs, like the organ accompanied hymn “Tis So Sweet” and the powerful worship song “Reign.”  Between the lush harmonies of the accompanying choir and Ruth La’Ontra’s astonishing voice, I Got You has the makings of a true gospel classic.

Reviewed by Jared Griffin

 

 

Bobby Byrd – Help For My Brothers, The Pre-Funk Singles 1963-1968

Bobby Byrd

Title: Help For My Brothers – The Pre Funk Singles 1963-1968

Artist: Bobby Byrd

Label: BGP

Format: CD

Release date: October 6, 2017

 

 

Bobby Byrd, hands down, is the perhaps the greatest sideman in the history of music. Now I may get killed with the “what about Mick/Keith, Bono/Edge, Chuck D/Flavor Flav” comments, all of which are valid points (though Chuck & Flav may be the best comparison in my opinion). But if the name Bobby Byrd isn’t jumping right at you, allow me to take this time to bring you up to speed.

Who else could go on a stage and hold their own with “the hardest working man in show business,” “Soul Brother # 1,” “The Godfather of Soul,” “Mr. Dynamite”? Ok, by now I think you know who I’m referring to. Yes, Bobby Byrd was James Brown’s right hand man for 20 years, one of the original Famous Flames, which explains my earlier comparison. Think “Sex Machine.” James said, “Get Up” and Bobby Byrd had the comeback, “Get on up.” In fact, James calls Bobby Byrd’s name to “take ’em to the bridge.” But before the “Sex Machine” era, and apart from the Famous Flames, Byrd released his own recordings. As all hip hop historians know, Eric B & Rakim sampled Byrd’s “I Know You Got Soul” (1971), and there are many others that used Byrd samples, including Jay-Z. But let’s go back a little further.

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This new CD compilation, Help For My Brothers: The Pre Funk Singles 1963-68, begins with the earliest singles released by Byrd on the Federal, Smash, and King labels. All were produced by James Brown, who also shared co-writing credits on many of the songs. To hear Bobby Byrd sing and be the front man might seem strange, but his voice is actually good. No screaming over lyrics. One of the earliest tracks, “I’m Just a Nobody,” has that 60’s vibe and the tempo is what was the norm during that period, a slow groove. Also included is his first solo hit, “Baby, Baby, Baby” with Anna King from 1964, as well as “We Are in Love” from 1965, an even bigger success.  Byrd takes a gamble with “Write Me A Letter,” perhaps the best track on the CD. His vocal presentation is not what one expects: rockabilly. Yes, rockabilly!

Bobby Byrd didn’t have James Brown’s stage showmanship, but his voice perhaps was a little better. Help For My Brothers, the first-ever compilation of Byrd’s earliest, lesser known singles, shows the evolution of his solo work. Byrd was more than JB’s sideman, and for that we will be forever grateful.

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

John Lee Hooker – King of the Boogie

John Lee Hooker

Title: King of the Boogie

Artist: John Lee Hooker

Label: Craft Recordings/Concord Bicycle Music

Format: 5-CD Box Set

Release Date: September 29, 2017

 

Turning 100 calls for a celebration regardless of who you are, and in the case of musician John Lee Hooker, only a “Go Big or Go Home” mentality will suffice. In honor of this boogie master’s centennial, Craft Recordings has released a career spanning, retrospective 5 CD box set honoring this guitar-driven, legendary artist. King of the Boogie features not only Hooker’s iconic hits, but also rarities, live recordings and several previously unreleased tracks. Housed within a 56-page hardcover book, the collection includes a wide selection of photos, taken throughout the musician’s life, plus new liner notes by writer and John Lee Hooker historian Jas Obrecht, as well as by the artist’s longtime manager and friend, Mike Kappus.

The collection is part of a year-long celebration and commemoration to Hooker and as a complement to his musical recordings, the GRAMMY Museum® in conjunction with the John Lee Hooker estate is exhibiting Hooker’s performance outfits, guitars, photos, and awards in his home state of Cleveland, Mississippi through February 2018. At that point the exhibit travels west to the GRAMMY Museum® at L.A. LIVE.

John Lee Hooker (1917-2001) was born 100 years ago, near Clarksdale, Mississippi to a sharecropping family. Throughout the years, there has been some academic debate about his original birth year. However, The Hooker family maintains 1917 as the de facto date. Says daughter Zakiya Hooker, “As we all know there was no great push for accuracy back then in that portion of the community. But we just stick to what my father told us, which was what he was told by his mother.”

As a young man, Hooker worked his way up north to Detroit to pursue his passion of music. By 1948, the artist had a hit on his hands with one of his earliest recordings, “Boogie Chillun‘.” From there, Hooker would record over 100 albums throughout the course of his six-decade-long career, building a diverse collection of fans along the way—from folk musicians and beatniks, to the stars of the British Invasion. The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Carlos Santana are among those who cite Hooker as a major influence.

Mike Kappus recalls in his liner notes, “Everyone who knew John Lee Hooker loved him and felt privileged to be in his presence. While he influenced generations of musicians with his incomparable style, that impact on musicians stepped up to yet another level once they got to know and, universally, love him.” In his later years, as Hooker found himself in one of the busiest, most productive eras of his career, the bluesman was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Blues Hall of Fame and Memphis Music Hall of Fame; was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and took home four GRAMMY® Awards, plus a coveted Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000.

The album is organized chronologically, showcasing Hooker’s influential recording career from start to finish. Disc one begins with his first release, “Boogie Chillen.” The remainder of the disc provides Hooker’s classics the way he was first known—as sole commandeer of pulsing rhythms on the electric guitar. Disc two and three offer stunning recordings of previously unreleased sessions—“Unfriendly Woman” and “Meat Shakes on her Bones”—as well as the more widely-known “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer” and “Homework.”

Disc four is a completely live tribute section, featuring Hooker’s performances at various Newport Folk Festivals, the American Blues Festival in Hamburg, Germany, Café Au Go-Go in New York and California’s Soledad Prison. The final disc of the collection features Hooker’s collaborations with other musicians such as “Little” Eddie Kirkland, The Groundhogs, Canned Heat, Santana, George Thorogood, Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison, Joe Cocker, Robert Gray, Warren Haynes, Jimmie Vaughn, Los Lobos, Eric Clapton and B.B. King.

Timeless and classic, cutting-edge and influential—all describe John Lee Hooker’s storied life and career as the undisputed boogie ruler. Whether solo and unplugged or accompanied and wired up, Hooker’s guitar and vocals prove that in the world of the Delta and blues, no one else but Hooker can wear the Crown.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Cheryl Fortune – Simply Cheryl

Cheryl Fortune
Title: Simply Cheryl

Artist: Cheryl Fortune

Label: Tyscot

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: October 13, 2017

 

 

Well known in the gospel community for her cutting-edge songwriting and heartfelt vocals, Houston native Cheryl Fortune inspires and amazes with her debut album, Simply Cheryl for Tyscot Records. Prior to the launch of her solo career, Cheryl served as a vocal arranger and background vocalist with Grammy nominated artist James Fortune & FIYA in addition to co-penning several of the group’s hit songs, which have graced the top ten on Billboard gospel charts. Along with her work with FIYA, she has served as songwriter and guest vocalist on projects associated with numerous other national gospel artists such as Kirk Franklin, Shirley Caesar, Isaac Carree and Bishop T.D. Jakes. Clearly a veteran in her own right, it was simply a matter of time before she would grace us with this solo offering.

Simply Cheryl is anchored by the hit single “Fighters,” a song inspired by a Mother’s Day card from the singer’s 13 year-old daughter affirming Fortune’s kindness, love, strength and resilience (i.e. fight) during specific challenging moments of the artist’s life. “Fighters” links Fortune, a domestic violence survivor, in affirmation with listeners who have also experienced similar life circumstances:  “We’re fighters never gonna give up… I’ll take your hand and you’ll take mine, we’ll conquer this think they call life…” Couched in a hard-hitting drum line instrumentation created by producer Lucius B. Hoskins, “Fighters” also reflects broader social impact, as an adopted theme song of encouragement for people recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey.  However, in the words of Fortune during a recent interview, this project is not “victim music.”  Rather, the album’s songs are sacred expressions of triumph created and shared by one who has persevered in spite of life-changing obstacles.

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Other notable tracks such as “4 A Night” and “Figure It Out” (both produced by Terence Vaughn), like the entire project, are rooted in ‘80s and ‘90s R&B music traditions. While listeners will surely recognize definitive rhythmic grooves, guitar melodic lines, synth bass lines and horn stabs, harmonic progressions, and talk boxes, among other textures linked with R&B sensations such as Bobby Brown, Keith Sweat and Mint Condition to name a few iconic artists, the gospel message of encouragement, hope and resilience remains at the forefront of the album.

Simply Cheryl is a spectacular album that will leave you eagerly waiting to see what else Cheryl Fortune has in store. For those seeking to experience a powerful inspirational message saturated in timeless grooves, Simply Cheryl is for you!

Reviewed by Jared Griffin and Tyron Cooper

Dee Dee Bridgewater – Memphis, Yes I’m Ready

Dee Dee Bridgewater
Title: Memphis, Yes I’m Ready

Artist: Dee Dee Bridgewater

Label: Okeh

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release Date: September 15, 2017

 

 

Dee Dee Bridgewater, a jazz singer in the same vein as Nancy Wilson, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn and Abby Lincoln, has done it all. She has even appeared on Broadway, earning the respect of peers and critics in a career that has spanned decades. It takes confidence and knowledge of self when an artist decides to step out of their comfort zone, which Bridgewater does on her new release, Memphis, Yes I’m Ready. The 13 track album features Bridgewater singing covers of blues, R&B and gospel classics from the ‘60s with backing by the album’s co-producer, Kirk Whalum, and the Stax Academy Choir.

 

 

Bridgewater was born in Memphis, so this project was a homecoming, to say the least—or in the words of the great Sam Cooke, “Bring It On Home.” That she does. Now for the highlights. If you listen very close to “I Can’t Get Next To You,” you’ll hear Bridgewater paying homage to the Al Green version of the song, not the Temptations. Green after all brought the Memphis sound into the ‘70s and Bridgewater is a Memphis gal, so why not. The horns and vocal delivery are downright scary in their precision and intensity.

When Bridgewater says “Yeah, this is for the King,” it’s not the “King” some of you may be thinking of, but rather B.B. King. His signature track, “The Thrill Is Gone,” gets the female perspective from Bridgewater as she sings, “You will be sorry someday.” Clap your hands and tap that foot. Now, speaking of another “King,” Bridgewater covers two of Elvis Presley’s classics. First up is “Don’t Be Cruel.” Who needs the Jordanaires on backing vocals when you can strip this song to its core and make it sound completely new?  “Hound Dog,” as most everyone knows, was originally recorded by Big Mama Thornton, but Elvis had the bigger hit. Bridgewater again steers away from original and makes it a storytelling tune, one that I can now understand.

You can’t go home without taking one for the church, right? Bridgewater closes the album with Thomas Dorsey’s “(Take My Hand) Precious Lord.” This is a song that can bring tears to the eyes, especially since one usually hears it at home-going ceremonies. Testify, Sister Dee Dee!

Memphis, Yes I’m Ready is Bridgewater’s homecoming 101. You better be ready!

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

 

 

Little Richard – Here’s Little Richard

Little Richard

Title: Here’s Little Richard

Artist: Little Richard

Label: Craft Recordings

Formats: 2-CD Deluxe Edition

Release date: November 3, 2017

 

 

In celebration of the 60th anniversary of Little Richard’s debut album, Here’s Little Richard, Craft Recordings has released a newly-expanded version of the iconic album. This 2-disc anniversary edition includes the original 12 tracks released in 1957 on the Specialty label, as well as previously unreleased alternate takes for all but one of the songs.

The high energy track “Tutti Frutti,” which was added to the National Recording Registry in 2010, kicks off the album just like in the 1957 version. The bonus tracks are also presented in the same sequence as the original album, making up a second disc of 22 demos, alternate versions, and unreleased takes. While some of the alternate takes on disc 2 sound similar to their original counterparts, others, like “Rip It Up” include commentary from Little Richard himself and are significantly different from the tracks that ultimately ended up on the 1957 release.

Here’s Little Richard offers an intimate glimpse into the development of the songs that helped Richard Penniman become one of the artists “who put the soul in rock and roll.” Little Richard, who will be celebrating his 85th birthday on December 5, has left an undeniable impact on rock ‘n’ roll and this 60th anniversary edition is a testament to his fame and significant contributions to music.

Reviewed by Chloe McCormick

Whitney Houston – I Wish You Love: More From The Bodyguard

Whitney Houston

Title: I Wish You Love: More From The Bodyguard

Artist: Whitney Houston

Label: Legacy Recordings

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release Date: November 17, 2017

 

In honor of the 25th anniversary of The Bodyguard, the film starring Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner, Legacy Recordings has released I Wish You Love: More From The Bodyguard. The compilation, released in cooperation with The Estate of Whitney E. Houston, brings together a variety of live and studio recordings, many of which are previously unreleased or unavailable.

Included in this collection are live recordings from Houston’s The Bodyguard World Tour (1993-1995), as well as alternate versions of tracks from The Bodyguard film. Highlights include the never-before-heard a capella version of “Jesus Loves Me” and a live recording of the rarely-performed “Run To You” from The Bodyguard World Tour. The iconic Houston hit song “I Will Always Love You,” one of the best-selling singles of all time, is represented in two versions: one from the original film soundtrack, and an extended rendition performed live on tour.

I Wish You Love: More From The Bodyguard not only celebrates the 25th anniversary of the film, but is also a fitting commemoration of Houston, who recorded the soundtrack at the pinnacle of her career. There’s a good reason The Bodyguard is the top-selling soundtrack album of all-time, and it’s apparent every time Ms. Houston stands in front of the mic. That voice! Though sadly she is no longer with us, this compilation album is a testament to the success of The Bodyguard and Whitney Houston’s lasting legacy, both on screen and on stage.

Reviewed by Chloe McCormick

 

Various artists – Feel Good! 40 Years of Life Changing Music

Feel good!
Title: Feel Good! 40 Years of Life Changing Music

Artist: Various

Label: Tyscot

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: April 29, 2016

 

We’re a little late to the party, but we can’t pass up an opportunity to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Tyscot Records, the nation’s oldest African American owned and operated gospel music label. Founded in 1976 by Dr. Leonard Scott and L. Craig Tyson in Indianapolis, Indiana, the label has grown into a multi-media company that produces films as well as recordings. Yet Tyscot remains a family run operation, guided by Dr. Scott as CEO, with son Bryant S. Scott continuing the legacy as President/COO. Now entering its fifth decade, the label is an industry powerhouse whose artists garnered 19 Stellar Gospel Awards nominations in 2017.

Tyscot was originally established to record the Christ Church Apostolic Radio Choir, led by Bishop James Tyson (Craig’s father). The choir’s first hit single, “Feel Good!,” is the opening track of this anniversary compilation in a contemporary version re-recorded by Dr. Scott. The remaining 14 tracks feature songs by artists whose careers were launched by Tyscot, starting with “Hold On” (1981) by The Pentecostal Ambassadors, a popular male vocal trio from Indianapolis. Following is the smooth, ballad style “Say You Believe” (1986) performed by Deliverance and co-written by none other than Indianapolis native Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, who at the time was a member of the R&B group The Deele.

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Other early Tyscot releases featured on this set include the classic “Jesus Is Real” by John P. Kee & the New Life Community Choir, “Holy One” featuring Kirk Franklin with the Trinity Temple Full Gospel Mass Choir, and the P.A.W. National Mass Choir’s “How Majestic,” a fantastic arrangement based on Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” Sequenced in chronological order, the set concludes with contemporary gospel artists, including break-out stars Anthony Brown & group therAPy (“Do It Again”) and Casey J (“Better”) who have been topping the charts this year.

Feel Good! 40 Years of Life Changing Music showcases the talents of local and national gospel artists and cements the legacy of Tyscot Records. The company is stronger than ever, and positioned to remain an industry powerhouse in its fifth decade.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Kermit Ruffins & Irvin Mayfield – A Beautiful World

A Beautiful World
Title: A Beautiful World

Artist: Kermit Ruffins & Irvin Mayfield

Label: Basin Street

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: September 22, 2017

 

 

Celebrating Basin Street Records’ 20th anniversary, musician Kermit Ruffins and producer Irvin Mayfield join together on a collaborative album, A Beautiful World. This album includes different musical configurations and features other Basin Street Records’ artists: Rebirth Brass Band, Dr. Michael White, Jason Marsalis, and Bill Summers. Other artists making guest appearances include Haile Reinhart, Cyril Neville, John Boutté, Glen David Andrews, Shannon Powell, and many other New Orleans musicians. Basin Street claims “A Beautiful World is the ultimate party in record form” and I must agree—it’s a non-stop celebration as well as a demonstration of the musical genius and creativity of Kermit Ruffins and Irvin Mayfield.

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The party begins with “Well, Alright,” a big band piece with tasteful horn solos, handclaps, and a swingin’ rhythm section. Along with the sounds of the big band, we hear vocal support from the artists encouraging soloists during their solos, which is participatory characteristic of African American music. “Drop Me Off In New Orleans” reflects the cheerful and jovial sounds that can be heard while walking through the streets of New Orleans, capturing a true representation of the city’s tradition jazz music legacy. In addition, there are soulful compositions and arrangements such as “Move On Ahead,” “Good Life,” “Be My Lady,” “Allen Toussaint,” “Just A Closer Walk With Thee,” and “When The Saints Go Marching In.” These songs express the spirit of the album, which is to honor the past while celebrating Basin Street Records’ 20th anniversary and the beginning of New Orleans 300th anniversary.

A notable feature of A Beautiful World is the short spoken word interludes interspersed with musical compositions throughout the album. Narratives of Kermit Ruffins and Irvin Mayfield are heard through the words of actor Wendell Pierce, DJ Soul Sister, Irvin Mayfield III, and The Urban Cellist. These interludes not only provide a contrasting element to the project, they also offer the listener a glimpse into the experiences of Ruffins and Mayfield.

When asked about the recording process Ruffins responded, “Good food and good music are my passions. I wanted to make a record people could eat.” Metaphorically speaking, A Beautiful World is certainly food for the soul. From its foot-tapping rhythms, groovy basslines, rich harmonies, and melodious hooks to its historical musical representations, this album is a wonderful treat for the listener and a heartfelt tribute to the city of New Orleans and Basin Street Records.

Reviewed by Jamaal Baptiste

Gregory Porter – Nat “King” Cole & Me

Gregory Porter
Title: Nat “King” Cole & Me

Artist: Gregory Porter

Label: Blue Note

Formats: CD, LP, MP3, Deluxe ed.

Date: October 27, 2017

 

 

Born and raised in Sacramento, California, Gregory Porter is undoubtedly a jazz legend. He captured audiences with his enchanting baritone voice the moment he stepped on the scene, receiving a Grammy nomination for his debut album Water (2010), and wining the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album with Liquid Spirit (2013) and last year’s Take Me To The Alley. Now, as he teams up with 6-time Grammy award winning arranger Vince Mendoza as well as the London Studio Orchestra, Porter will sends chills down your spine and possibly bring a tear to your eye with his new album Nat “King” Cole & Me.

This album is meant to be a tribute to his idol, the legendary Nat King Cole, whose influence on Porter began at a very early age. In a recent interview, Porter recalls writing a song and playing it for his mother. Upon listening to young Gregory she exclaimed, “Boy you sound like Nat King Cole.” This sparked Porter’s lifelong love for Nat and his music. Porter also explained that his father was never in his life and Cole’s music seemed to fill a type of void in him, stating “They were coming out of the speakers like Nat was singing those words just to me. I would listen to his albums and imagine that Nat was my father.”

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The material in the album consists of gorgeous orchestral arrangements of songs made famous by Nat King Cole, one of the first being “Nature Boy.” Porter’s rich tone on this song is hauntingly beautiful as he treats the melody and the text in ways clearly influenced by Cole yet still maintaining his own individuality. As the album continues we are met with even more phenomenal arrangements like “Miss Otis Regrets,” with a bombastic introduction that swiftly drops as Porter enters with the lyric. But one of the best moments happens towards the end of the album as Porter sings the standard tune “For All We Know.” His tender delivery of this song is amazing in how he treats the lyric and occasionally embellishes the melody, showcasing excellent control.

With other classic tunes like “L-O-V-E,” “Sweet Lorraine” (on the 15 track deluxe edition) and “The Christmas Song,” Nat “King” Cole & Me is absolutely astonishing. With a rich and soulful sound, no one could do more justice to the memory and legacy of Nat King Cole than Gregory Porter.

Reviewed by Jared Griffin

Courtney Pine – Black Notes From the Deep

Courtney Pine
Title: Black Notes From the Deep

Artist: Courtney Pine

Label: Freestyle

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: October 27, 2017

 

 

From across the pond comes British jazz musician Courtney Pine’s latest offering, Black Notes From the Deep. Perhaps best known as a founding member of the Jazz Warriors as well as host of the radio show Jazz Crusade on BBC Radio 2, Pine has had a major impact on the U.K. jazz scene over the last thirty years. On his 19th album, the multi-instrumentalist focuses primarily on tenor sax while collaborating with another U.K. legend, neo-soul singer Omar Lye-Fook. Backing musicians include the dream team of Alec Dankworth (son of Cleo Laine) on bass, Robert Mitchell on piano, and Washington, DC native Rod Youngs on percussion.

As the needle drifts over the grooves of the opening track, there’s no doubt that pairing Omar with Pine was a brilliant idea. “Rules,” co-written by the two musicians, is a fitting intro the album and offers a glimpse of things to come (see video below for a live performance of the song). Next up is “You Know Who You Are.” This sultry, atmospheric instrumental brings to mind a smoky jazz club in a film noir while showcasing the piano stylings of Mitchell and some tasty tenor solos from Pine.

Several members of the group, including Pine, have Jamaican roots, which influenced the instrumental “Rivers of Blood.” The title references the 1968 anti-immigration speech by Enoch Powell, a British member of Parliament, directed primarily at the initial wave of Caribbean immigrants to the U.K. from 1948-1968. Pine’s tenor combines with chords on the lower octaves of the piano to speak the bitter truth of this era, but a ray of hope is offered as the instruments move into the upper registers, building to a forceful conclusion that defies all odds.

Ushered in on a bass riff quoting Curtis Mayfield, “Darker Than the Blue” is definitely an album highlight, with Omar imploring, “Please tell me why, why oh why, would you want to leave me this way?” while Pine wails on the tenor sax like a lover scorned. Omar returns for two more tracks, the organ layered “In Another Time” and a new interpretation of Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly,” the latter featuring Charleen Hamilton on background vocals. On the upbeat instrumental “A Change Is Sure to Come,” Pine finesses the bass flute, proving his versatility while offering the other members of the ensemble an opportunity to solo. The album concludes on “A Word to the Wise,” with Pine plumbing the depths of the tenor to signal a warning call.

Black Notes From the Deep indeed plumbs the depth of jazz and soul, adeptly mixing message songs with passionate instrumentals performed with deft expertise by musicians who have spent decades honing their craft.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Mavis Staples – If All I Was Was Black

Mavis Staples
Title: If All I Was Was Black

Artist: Mavis Staples

Label: Anti-Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release Date: November 17, 2017

 

 

Mavis Staples ushers in her eighth decade of singing truth with the call-to-compassion album If All I Was Was Black, her third collaborative project with songwriter, producer, and Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. Their first partnership in 2010, You Are Not Alone, won a Grammy Award for Best Americana album. Their second effort together, One True Vine, was a Grammy nominee. But If All I Was Was Black marks the first time Tweedy has composed an entire album of original songs for Mavis’ legendary voice and a nation she’s uniquely poised to address. As a witness to both past and ongoing American civil rights issues, Staples feels that, in many respects, “nothing has changed…we’re not loving one another the way we should.”

 

The album’s first track, “Little Bit,” firmly establishes this work as a conscious ode to the déjà vu mood gripping the nation of late. A driving guitar hook sets the tone immediately at the open, with Staples’ vocals rasping out an early downbeat of “This life surrounds you, guns are loaded. This kind of tension, hard not to notice.” Throughout the song, Mavis leads listeners through call-and-response vocals in a soundscape that recalls Sly & the Family Stone’s mix of joy and social criticism unfolding over a funk-edged rhythm section. Following is the title track, an upbeat, joyous groove that continues the album’s humanistic theme of understanding and acceptance. Directly addressing those who respond to someone’s race without seeing their shared humanity, Staples expertly croons, “If all I was was Black, don’t you want to know me more than that?”

Current events appear on the record obliquely, reflecting a commitment to a universal approach that shines a comparative light on the past by suggestively addressing today’s events. As Mavis explains, “We didn’t make the songs point to a specific person. If you follow the lyrics, it’s about yesterday and today.” “We Go High” borrows its chorus from Michelle Obama’s speech on the first night of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, and the track “Build a Bridge” parses exactly which lives matter and how we can begin to talk about it.

Staples’ darker tone can be glimpsed in both “Who Told You That?” and “Try Harder.” Alluding to the frustration and realism of today, her telling line “There’s evil in the world, and there’s evil in me” signals harsh undercurrents of danger. Despite these elements, the mood ring on Mavis’ 2017 call-to-action is set to love, running through and over the occasional fury and pragmatism. The songs move like an ocean tide, ebbing and flowing, with Mavis countering the anger with an eye toward the work that is required to bring change. In the end, the answer lies in lifting each other up, Staples style. She’s not embracing the anxious hesitation of respectability politics but rather the possibilities of love.

Try Harder. Two small words, containing the biggest potential imaginable. To Mavis Staples, this phrase is key to substantial change if society will take her lead and lovingly follow through.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Talib Kweli – Radio Silence

Radio Silence
Title: Radio Silence

Artist: Talib Kweli

Label: Javotti Media

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: November 17, 2017

 

 

Is it the current political atmosphere or possibly just time for the genre to once again acknowledge its roots? Whatever the reason, there is a conscious stream of artists dominating mainstream rap right now, and Talib Kweli is leading the way. Kweli is no stranger to the scene—his first collaborative group, Black Star, was formed with Mos Def in 1997—and to date, he has worked with artists Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, Just Blaze, the Beastie Boys and Kendrick Lamar. Kweli is featured on Dave Chappell’s Block Party, both as an actor and a soundtrack artist. In 2011 he founded his own label, Javotti Media, billed as “a platform for independent thinkers and doers.”* With an eye on social issues both past and present, Kweli offers us his take on 2017 with his latest, Radio Silence.

The album unlocks with “The Magic Hour,” a song that introduces the album’s concepts and purpose through magical lyricism. Opening with the ethereal sounds of strings and a choir, the tune carves its own place in the world of rap solely on these feature alone. Kweli’s opening line, “Last one to fall asleep, first one to wake up. No Doubt. It’s the Magic Hour,” layered on top of an upbeat piano riff sets the standard for the remainder of this Brooklyn phenom’s offerings. The song’s final chords fade away under Kweli’s assurance that “hip hop will flourish with nourishment and the proper care,” a parental line from one who has been there, done that, and knows how to make it last.

The philosophy continues to pour out of this rap statesman rhyme after rhyme. The second track, “Traveling Light,” thumps the pulpit of Kweli’s truth through musings about his own genesis towards the rap dimension. Unquestionably possessing a magical talent for deep lyricism, he brings Anderson .Paak’s smooth vocals into the track to compliment his message. “All of Us” unfastens the mood even further with its break-out sampling of a rally for justice. Jay Electronica of Roc Nation and powerhouse Yummy Bingham spin their consciousness right along Kweli, adding a multi-layered resonance reverberating past the very last strain of violin fade-out. The lead single, “Radio Silence,” is a blend of Kweli and Myka 9’s exceptional cypher savvy interspersed with Amber Coffman’s haunting refrains. Never one to ignore the heart strings for long, Kweli and BJ The Chicago Kid’s “The One I Love” reminds us that regardless of what’s going on, that one special person makes it all worthwhile.

Of all the offerings not explicated here—“Chips,” “Knockturnal,” “Let It Roll,” “Write at Home”—by far, the standout is “Heads Up Eyes Open.” Dedicated to late rap promoter Kenneth “Headqcouterz” Walker, this part testimonial/part inspirational melody features not only mind-bending truthfulness on topics such as police brutality and protest rights, but also functions as a call for honesty and faithfulness because “the picture is so much bigger than what we could even imagine.” Indeed. Talib Kweli’s vision is so much larger than what we typically conceptualize. This portfolio of political discourse keeps challenging and teaching long after the voices, piano riffs and handclaps fade away.

Radio Silence, through its proverbial introspections and uplifting retrospection, seamlessly moves its message through the airwaves of our minds. In Talib Kweli’s world, silence truly does speak louder than words.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

 

Paa Kow – Cookpot

Cookpot
Title: Cookpot

Artist: Paa Kow

Label: Paa Kow Music

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release Date: October 13, 2017

 

 

Ghana-born drummer Paa Kow’s new self-released album, Cookpot, presents the listener with a wide range of influences. Paa Kow, who now resides in Colorado, has been performing since he was seven years old, and he initially gained fame in his native Ghana as the “Small-boy Drummer.” His virtuosity as a drummer is always present throughout the 13-track release, along with a unique stylistic amalgam of several genres. First and foremost, there is the stylistic influence of highlife, which is to be expected given his heritage and the music’s origins in Ghana. The listener unfamiliar with highlife could easily assume that Cookpot is a Caribbean release, and that assumption would not be entirely unfounded due to the fact that highlife has been heavily influenced by Afro-Caribbean music such as calypso.

The opening track, “The Way I Feel,” begins as a standard funk tune, but it ultimately separates itself through Paa Kow’s impressive drum fills and a B section that is both heavily syncopated and laden with stop-time accents. Accompanied by some stellar electric piano playing, “The Way I Feel” would be at home on one of Herbie Hancock’s funk albums. It is a track that sounds as if Herbie recorded an album with a Ghanaian drummer.

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The title track is deceptive. Its fusion of styles—world, jazz, and funk—is so seamless that it is easy to forget that it isn’t just a funk song. Like what can happen with a good meal, the end product often masks the flavor of each individual ingredient. “Cookpot,” then, is a fitting title for this track. Also mixing ingredients, “Forced Landing” is the most glaring example of the fusion of styles on this album. What begins as a jazz tune with an intro trumpet solo switches time signatures and transforms into a highlife song before ultimately changing time signatures again and settling into a funk groove. It is essentially three songs merged into one.

One of the standout tracks on the album is “African Lady,” which along with “Lonely” and “Pete Pete,” are the most highlife-influenced tracks on the album. “African Lady” is an upbeat tune with a complex rhythmic pattern laid out cooperatively by the drums, guitar, and keyboard. Drummers will find this to be an inspirational performance along with the track “Details,” featuring a solo where Paa Kow demonstrates his impeccable technique on the drum set.

Collectively, this album’s focus is drum-centric, and it offers up a great deal of rhythmic complexity. Nevertheless, throughout the recording there are some first-rate solos from the keyboard player, guitar player, and horn players. The combination of styles creates a unique product in that this is not the typical jazz-funk album. Paa Kow has thrown a variety of ingredients into his cookpot, and the result is an album that is equal parts jazz, funk, and highlife. Anyone who possesses a stylistically wide palette would be remiss to not listen to Cookpot, and those who enjoy listening to a virtuosic drummer cannot afford to pass this one up.

Reviewed by Joel Roberts