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

Isaac Hayes – The Spirit of Memphis 1962-1976

Isaac Hayes

Title: The Spirit of Memphis 1962-1976

Artist: Isaac Hayes

Label: Craft Recordings

Format: 4-CD box set

Release date: September 22, 2017

 

 

The Spirit of Memphis 1962-1976 is a four-CD set documenting the multi-faceted musical career of the legendary Isaac Hayes, who would have turned 75 this year. Even in a city that has spawned many influential musicians, Hayes stands out as one of the most important artists to emerge from Memphis. As one of the most identifiable figures in soul music, his significance spans far beyond the city he called home. Hayes’s talents allowed him to fill a wide range of roles in the music business—session musician, songwriter, producer, and, of course, performer.

This four-disc set, produced by Joe McEwan, provides many splendid examples of the multiple aspects of Hayes’s musicianship. Arranged in “chapters,” each disc highlights a different facet of Hayes’s career. Disc One consists of songs for which he was the writer or producer. Most of these songs were performed by Stax Records legends such as Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas, Johnnie Taylor, William Bell, and Booker T & the MGs. The Sam & Dave tracks alone will open the eyes of many listeners who are completely unaware that Hayes co-wrote the hit songs “I Thank You” “Hold On! I’m a Comin’,” and “Soul Man,” arguably the epitomic example of a Stax song. Disc One opens with “Sassy,” an instrumental blues groove released by Floyd Newman; the song was Hayes’s first co-write credit for Stax, and also features Hayes on organ. This disc is full of great songs and effectively serves as a “best of” Stax. However, two of the most surprising tracks featured here came out on another great Memphis label—Hi Records. The surprise here, though, is not the label; rather it is the fact that they were recorded by Charlie Rich. It is likely that only the most knowledgeable Hayes fans are aware that he wrote songs for the country music singer.

Disc Two features singles released by Isaac Hayes on the Volt and Enterprise labels, tracing his transition from writer/producer to soul singer/performer. These include the Shaft theme song, which for many people is the definitive Isaac Hayes recording. However, this disc also showcases many relatively unknown gems such as his cover of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” One of the standout tracks is an instrumental blues titled “Blue Groove” released by Sir Isaac and the Do-Dads. The extent to which Hayes was a good blues player and arranger is overlooked, and this track serves as an example of these skills. Another standout track, “Rolling Down a Mountainside” recorded live at Wattstax, also demonstrates just how good Hayes was as a producer and arranger. The disc concludes with two radio spots that capture an important moment in the marketing of black albums, as legendary deejay Jack “The Rapper” Gibson plugs tracks from The Isaac Hayes Movement album that exceeded normal airplay length.

Disc Three, Cover Man, features Hayes’ performing songs that were written by other people. These cover songs include an outstanding version of T-Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday.” Hayes’s cover of this blues standard is appropriate because although written by Walker, it was popularized in 1961 by Memphis musician Bobby “Blue” Bland. Another fitting track is a medley of “Just Want to Make Love to You” and “Rock Me Baby,” a blues standard popularized by B. B. King. This medley features Hayes alone on piano and vocals, serving as a vehicle to present Hayes in his purest form to the listener. Rounding out this disc are several previously unreleased tracks recorded live at the 1972 Operation PUSH Black Expo in Chicago.

The final CD, Jam Master, consists of only seven tracks, some backed by the Bar-Kays and/or the Movement. As the title suggests, however, most of these tracks feature extended jams, representing the lushest arrangements and productions on the four-disc set. Two of these tracks, including the previously unreleased “Black Militant’s Place,” were recorded for Shaft so any fans of that soundtrack will love this disc. The previously unreleased instrumental version of “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers is a highlight and arguably one of the most interesting pieces of the entire collection. Wah-wah guitar, strings, and driving repetitive bass lines are just a few of the devices that are characteristic of the grooves for these jams.

Collectively, this compilation of Isaac Hayes’s music will be welcome to any fan of Stax Records. However, the variety of music on this four-CD set makes it pleasing and palatable to just about anyone, and could very well convert uninitiated listeners into an ardent fans of soul music and Isaac Hayes. In addition, students of arranging or music technology and production would be doing themselves a tremendous disservice by not giving this set in-depth study. It should also be noted that the 60-page hardcover booklet features an essay by author Robert Gordon as well as interviews with artists and some great photographs from the Stax Records heyday, making this a must-have addition to the collection of any budding musicologist with an interest in American music. The final added bonus is a 7-inch vinyl replica of Hayes’s first release on the Youngstown label, featuring the singles “C.C. Rider” and “Laura, We’re On Our Last Go-Round.”

The Spirit of Memphis should be considered one of the best box sets to be released in years, and it is about time that the contributions of Isaac Hayes are beginning to be recognized through a compilation of this nature.

Reviewed by Joel Roberts

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

Johnny Mathis – The Voice of Romance-Columbia Original Album Collection

Johnny MathisTitle: The Voice of Romance- Columbia Original Album Collection

Artist: Johnny Mathis

Label: Legacy

Format: 68-CD Box Set

Release date:  December 8, 2017

 

Sony Legacy has released a number of Johnny Mathis compilations over the past decade, including The Complete Global Albums Collection in 2014 and The Singles for his 80th birthday the following year. But if you’re interested in a complete career retrospective with plenty of tempting bonus material and you have a large budget, look no further than this year’s mega box set, The Voice of Romance: The Columbia Original Album Collection. Weighing in at 68 CDs and currently listed for $428, this set features 62 of the singer’s albums, including 25 albums that have never been released on CD in the U.S.

Also included are 40 previously unreleased songs and two never-before-heard LPs: the unreleased I Love My Lady recorded in 1981 with Chic’s Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, and The Island, a 1989 collaboration with Sergio Mendes. Mathis, who has been recording for Columbia since his self-titled 1956 debut, assisted with the curation of The Voice of Romance, which concludes with his most recent album, Johnny Mathis Sings the Great New American Songbook.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Various – Jesus Rocked the Jukebox: Small Group Black Gospel (1951-1965)

Jesus Rocked the Jukebox
Title: Jesus Rocked the Jukebox: Small Group Black Gospel (1951-1965)

Artist: Various

Label: Craft

Formats: 2-CD, 3-LP gatefold, MP3

Release date: September 15, 2017

 

Over the decades, black gospel music has had a profound influence on popular music, a fact that remains as relevant today as in the 1950s. But the reverse is also true. Jesus Rocked the Jukebox, a new compilation from Craft (Concord’s reissue label), explores the blurring of boundaries between genres by focusing on the seminal period from 1951-1965. During this era many gospel artists began crossing over into secular music, unleashing their improvisational gospel-inflected vocals in a manner that demanded the creation of a new genre: soul. At the same time, other gospel singers who remained firmly rooted in the church didn’t hesitate to liven up their music with harmonic and rhythmic elements drawn from jazz, blues, R&B, and early rock ‘n’ roll. This reciprocal relationship between black sacred and secular music is illustrated throughout Jesus Rocked the Jukebox, primarily through the recordings of well-known gospel quartets. Gospel historian Robert Marovich explores this synergy in greater detail in the accompanying booklet.

One of the first things a listener will notice is the sequencing of the tracks. Compilers Fred Jasper and Mason Williams dispensed with the more typical chronological order in favor of overall effect. Thus the opening track actually begins at the end of the era. After all, how could you not begin this set with “People Don’t Sing Like They Used To Sing.” Cut in 1965 by The Original Blind Boys, the song might be considered traditional in today’s terms, but the rocking piano and guitar accompaniment clearly signal a departure from earlier gospel quartet styles.

Over the course of the 40-track compilation there are many similar examples, some drawn from the likes of the Staple Singers and Soul Stirrers, while others were plucked from lesser known recordings. For example, the Silver Quintette from Gary, Indiana is featured on the rocking 1956 Vee-Jay track “Father Don’t Leave” featuring Joe Henderson on bass, while a 1963 version of “Heavenly Father” by Brooklyn’s Patterson Singers is styled after a ‘60s girl-group ballad. The Highway QC’s “God Has Promised,” featuring Johnny Taylor on lead, mimics the urban harmony groups of the era. Several tracks are devoted to the famous Swan Silvertones, including “How I Got Over” from 1954 featuring Claude Jeter—one of the great gospel tenors whose falsetto clearly influenced many later soul and pop singers.

As Marovich states in the liner notes, “Every perspiration-drenched performance by a soul singer, every shouting improvisation from a rock-and-roll vocalist, every melismatic run delivered by contestants on a TV singing competition, evokes the exuberance of black preachers, church singers and church musicians in the throes of the spirit.” Jesus Rocked the Jukebox unearths the gospel roots of American popular music, exposing countless gems in all of their splendor to be explored and appreciated by modern audiences.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Various – 24 Classic Blues Songs from the 1920’s, Vol. 15

2018_Blues_Calendar_front_page_largest
Title: 24 Classic Blues Songs from the 1920’s, Vol. 15

Artist: Various

Label: Blues Images

Format: CD + Calendar

Release date: September 25, 2017

 

Has 2017 given you the “bougie” blues? Add these twenty-four classic blues songs from the ‘20s to your collection to help ease the pain.

The 15th annual calendar and CD release from Blues Images brings another well-selected set of remastered pre-war blues music to new generations through a combination of vintage and modern playback technologies. The songs are paired with the artwork circulated to promote the original commodities, reproduced as a 2018 wall calendar.

This year’s CD includes two recently discovered songs by Jab Jones and The Memphis Jug Band: “My Love Is Cold” and ”Poor Jab Blues.” There are also fresh remastered versions of Tommy Johnson’s recording, “Slidin’ Delta”/”I Wonder To Myself” (Paramount 12975) as well as Johnnie (Geechie) Temple’s “Evil Devil Blues”/”Jacksonville Blues” (Vocalion 02987) taken from newly discovered, cleaner copies of the original 78-rpm discs.

War, wage work, food scarcity—a century ago blues artists were writing and singing about the problems we still face in the world today. Someday perhaps we’ll liberate ourselves from the economic system that connects us to these voices from nearly a century ago. As we keep pushing, we have their words and music to remind us that liberation is fraught with peril, and there’s no better way to communicate this struggle than through the blues.

Reviewed by William Vanden Dries

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

 

Micki Free – Tattoo Burn-Redux

Micki Free
Title: Tattoo Burn-Redux

Artist: Micki Free

Label: Mysterium Blues

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: May 12, 2017

 

 

Those of a certain generation will likely remember Micki Free as lead guitarist for Shalamar, the group created by Soul Train’s Dick Griffey and Don Cornelius. Free’s decade long tenure with Shalamar began in the ‘80s during what one might call his Prince phase, and included the hit songs “Dancing in the Sheets” from Footloose and “Don’t Get Stopped In Beverly Hills” from Beverly Hills Cop. After Shalamar, Free joined Jean Beauvoir’s heavy metal band Crown of Thorns, along with Tony Thompson of Chic and bassist Michael Paige. He later formed his own band, Micki Free Electric Blues Experience, and also released a number of solo projects. Though he’s perhaps best known for his collaboration with many African American artists, Free is actually of Native American descent, and in recent years has developed a Native Music Rocks program.

Tattoo Burn-Redux is a remixed and expanded version of his 2012 release, Tattoo Burn. The album is a showcase for the many talents of Micki Free, who composed, arranged, produced and sings lead on the 10 original tracks and one cover, while also performing on lead, slide, and rhythm guitars. He’s accompanied by an A-list rhythm section led by Cindy Blackman-Santana and David “Hawk” Lopez (Crown of Thorns) on drums, with Bill Wyman (Rolling Stones), Jack Dailey (Lenny Kravitz), Kenny Gradney (Little Feat), David Santos (and occasionally Free) sharing bass duties.

The album settles into a funky groove on the new opening track “God Is On the Phone,” with Free sharing lead vocals with another Shalamar alum, Howard Hewett. “Greens & Barbeque” shifts towards blues-rock, allowing plenty of room for guitar solos in a song dedicated to Free’s mother and her glorious cooking. “Six Feet Down in the Blues” and the slow burner “Mojo Black Coffee” are notably anchored by Hammond organ master Mark “Muggy-Doo” Leach (Buddy Miles Express) and Brother Paul Brown on keys.

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One of the highlights of the disc is the rock guitar anthem “There’s a Hole in the Heart of the Blues,” which allows the entire cast to strut their stuff. Other new tracks include the only cover on the album, the Jimi Hendrix tribute “Hey Baby (The New Rising Sun),” and the seasonal ballad “Sometimes in Winter” backed by a female vocal trio. Last but not least, Free offers the hard rocking “Five Minutes Till Christmas” which should definitely be added to your holiday playlist.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

 

More Box Sets – Wilson Pickett, Dinah Washington, Various Artists

Wilson Pickett
Title: Complete Atlantic Albums Collection

Artist: Wilson Pickett

Label: Rhino

Format: 10-CD Box Set, MP3

Release date: December 1, 2017

 

 

This new box set from Rhino UK appears to be a fairly straightforward reissue of Wilson Pickett’s albums for Atlantic, drawing primarily upon versions remastered in 2007. The albums include: In the Midnight Hour (1965), The Exciting Wilson Pickett (1966), The Wicked Pickett (1967), The Sound of Wilson Pickett (1967), I’m In Love (1968), The Midnight Mover (1968), Hey Jude (1969), Right On (1970), Wilson Pickett in Philadelphia (1970), and Don’t Knock My Love (1971).  A nice set if you don’t already own any of Pickett’s albums, but there is no bonus material to entice fans and collectors.

 

Dinah Washington
Title: Divine Miss Dinah Washington

Artist: Dinah Washington

Label: Verve

Formats: 5-CD Box set, 5-LP Box set

Release date: December 15, 2017

 

Verve is releasing a 5-disc set, available on both CD and vinyl, of classic Dinah Washington albums from the 1950s.  Though Washington could sing in many styles, including blues, R&B, gospel and pop, the focus here is primarily on her vocal jazz repertoire recorded for the EmArcy label. This is another straightforward reissue project, most likely attractive to those who wish to own pristine 180 gm. vinyl copies of these albums. Among the five discs are two arranged by Quincy Jones—For Those In Love (1955) and The Swingin’ Miss D—and two featuring American songbook standards—After Hours With Miss D (1954) and Dinah Jams (1954). The final album, What a Diff’rence a Day Makes (1959) released by Mercury, was arranged by Indiana native Belford Hendricks in a pop-oriented rhythm and blues style.

 

peace_love_and_fishing_cover
Title: Blue Note Review Vol. One – Peace, Love & Fishing

Artist: Various

Label: Blue Note

Formats: 5-CD Box set, 5-LP Box set

Release date: December 15, 2017

 

Curated by Blue Note president Don Was, the limited edition Blue Note Review Peace, Love & Fishing is the inaugural offering of a bi-annual “luxury subscription box set” designed to appeal to jazz collectors with deep pockets.  Volume One includes a double LP containing new and unreleased recordings by the likes of the Wayne Shorter Quartet, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Gregory Porter, Kandace Springs, Terence Blanchard, and Derrick Hodge—plus a vinyl reissue of the previously out-of-print 1963 Step Lightly album by trumpeter Blue Mitchell. Also included are items that can be shared with other members of the family: artist lithographs, a silk scarf, turntable mat, and the self-published Notables jazz zine. Only registered subscription members are eligible to receive the set; each volume of Blue Note Review costs $200, including shipping to the US or Canada.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

 

 

Florida Soul: From Ray Charles to KC and the Sunshine Band

Florida Soul

Title: Florida Soul: From Ray Charles to KC and the Sunshine Band

Author: John Capouya

Publisher: University Press of Florida

Formats: Hardcover (408 pages), Kindle

Release date: September 26, 2017

 

 

Though the state of Florida doesn’t immediately come to mind as a hotbed of soul music, journalist John Capouya attempts to correct this oversight with his new book Florida Soul: From Ray Charles to KC and the Sunshine Band. Using his “antennae for passionate vocals and funky sounds with Florida origins,” he delves into the period from 1945-1980, when Florida produced “some of the most electric, emotive soul music this country has ever heard.” Capouya attributes this flourishing scene in part to the fact that Florida, along with Texas, was the “densest and richest segment of the chitlin’ circuit,” bringing all of the major African American artists through the state.

Each of the 20 chapters is dedicated to a particular artist or producer, some famous and others lesser known, but all contributing an interesting story: Ray Charles (“the catalyst of the entire soul explosion came from Greenville, FL”); Sam Moore (“from Miami’s Overtown neighborhood”); sax players Ernie Calhoun and Noble “Thin Man” Watts; Lavell Kamma and the 100 Hour Counts (“one of Florida’s longest-running soul groups”), the singing duo James & Bobby Purify (one chapter each); vocalists Helen Smith, Frankie Gearing, Jackie Moore, and Timmy Thomas (his 1972 anthem “Why Can’t We Live Together” is sampled in Drake’s “Hotline Bling); Latimore (who first recorded for Henry Stone), Wayne Cochran (“the white James Brown”); white soul singer Linda Lyndell; producer Papa Don Schroeder, and of course KC and the Sunshine Band. Other chapters are dedicated to the state’s most famous label owners—Henry Stone and T.K. Productions (which rightly receives two chapters) and Willie Clarke and Deep City Records—plus a chapter explaining how “The Twist Came from Tampa.” Along the way many other artists are mentioned, along with other Florida labels such as Jayville, Tener, Marlin, Leo, Alston, D & B, Glades, and Bound Sound.

Florida Soul is an engaging and informative read, placing an emphasis on the stories behind the singers and the songs gleaned from historical research as well as interviews with surviving musicians, singers, producers, deejays, and other industry personnel. The book is an important resource on a music scene that’s never been fully documented within a single volume, adding greatly to our understanding of American music and, in particular, the soul, R&B, disco and funk grooves emanating from the Sunshine State in waves the spread across the nation.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

 

New Books About Black Recording Artists

Following are brief descriptions of recently published books that are certain to please fans of funk, soul, jazz, hip hop and reggae music.
Al Green

Title: Soul Survivor: A Biography of Al Green

Author: Jimmy McDonough

Publisher: Da Capo Press

Formats: Hardcover (432 pages), Kindle, Audiobook

Release date: August 29, 2017

 

Though Al Green collaborated with Davin Seay on an “autobiography” in 2000, most fans were unsatisfied with the result, which was famously short on details due to Green’s reluctance to actually sit for interviews and tell his own story. Now Jimmy McDonough has attempted a more definitive biography, likewise working from previously published interviews with Green and secondary sources, in addition to new in-depth interviews with many colleagues and associates. The result is Soul Survivor, which chronicles the many sides of Al Green, from his days as a soul singer to his transition to Reverend Al Green and the many facets of his character that fall in between and outside of these boundaries. Not all of it is pretty, but Soul Survivor is likely as close as we’ll ever get to understanding the man behind the music and the pulpit.

Otis Redding
Title: Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life

Author: Jonathan Gould

Publisher: Crown Archetype (May 16, 2017)

Formats: Hardcover (544 pages), Paperback, Kindle, Audiobook

Release date: May 16, 2017

 

Seven short years – that was the entire length of the career of one of the giants of soul music, Otis Redding, from the first single he cut as a teenager in 1960 to his untimely death at the age of 26 in December 1967. Now, on the 50th anniversary of Redding’s death, Jonathan Gould finally offers a biography that’s a fitting tribute to the architect of Southern soul music. Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life, however, is so much more than one man’s story, as Gould digs into the social fabric of the era, exposing the racial tensions and realities of faced by black musicians of his generation. Impeccably researched, respectfully written, and highly recommended!     

Prince & the Purple Rain Studios
Title: Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions, 1983-1984

Author: Duane Tudahl

Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield

Formats: Hardcover, Kindle, Audiobook

Release date: November 15, 2017

 

Described as “the definitive chronicle of Prince’s creative brilliance during 1983 and 1984,” author Duane Tudahl’s 552 page volume is a must have for any serious Prince fan. Delving into the brief but intense period that produced Purple Rain, Tudahl expounds on Prince’s professional as well as his personal life. But this is not a tell-all, biopic-type treatment. Rather, the focus is on Prince’s studio sessions and includes copious details on recording studios, which songs were tracked at each, session personnel, producers, engineers, and the stories behind the sessions. Also included are details regarding Prince’s work with The Time, Vanity 6, and the Revolution, including his frenetic schedule of rehearsals, tours, and filming. Tudahl has been covering Prince for over 20 years, and is able to draw upon interviews he conducted with a wide range of Prince’s associates, adding to the authoritative nature of his reporting. This is the first book in the series; Tudahl is already planning the second volume, which will cover 1985-1986.

Prince
Title: Prince: A Private View

Author: Afshin Shahidi

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Formats: Hardcover (256 pages), Kindle

Release date: October 24, 2017

 

We can’t include just one Prince-related book when there are so many to choose from. If you’re more interested in a visual representation of the artist than a chronology of his early recording sessions, then check out Prince: A Private View. Featuring many never-before-seen photos by Afshin Shahidi, Prince’s primary photographer, this collection captures both the glamour and mystique of the artist. Though the text takes a backseat to the vivid portraits, Shahidi does provide some context to the photos in the form of short stories. It should be noted, however, that this isn’t a “coffee table” book, but a standard-size volume.

The Jacksons Legacy
Title:  The Jacksons: Legacy

Author: The Jacksons with Fred Bronson

Publisher: Black Dog & Leventhal

Formats: Hardcover (320 pages), Kindle

Release date: October 24, 2017

 

Even if we’re weren’t based in Indiana, we’d still have to jump on The Jacksons: Legacy documenting the state’s most famous musical family. Plugged as “the first official book on the Royal Family of Pop,” the Jacksons collaborated with well-known music industry writer Fred Bronson, who was allowed access to the family archives and conducted interviews over a two week period. Though it’s highly unlikely that any new information was uncovered in that extremely brief period of time, we’re at least promised some previously unpublished photographs, including documentation of official merchandise and other ephemera. The book coincides with The Jackson’s 50th anniversary, which may be reason enough for fans to pick up a copy.

Gucci Mane
Title: The Autobiography of Gucci Mane

Author: Gucci Mane & Neil Martinez-Belkin

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Formats: Hardcover (286 pages), Kindle

Release Date: September 19, 2017

 

 

There’s nothing like a comeback story to warm our hearts, especially at Christmastime. Through honest, unflinching reflectiveness, Gucci Mane has given us just that—a down-and-out but not done-and-out narrative of his journey so far. Mane tells his story in his own words, covering his early years as Radric Delantic Davis to his star-studded fame as Gucci Mane, trap pioneer and mentor to a subsequent generation of artists and producers: Migos, Young Thug, Nicki Minaj, and Zaytoven, to name a few. Detailing how choices to be part of the drug dealing world continuously dealt him one-step-forward, two-steps-back in the music world, Mane also confronts his dark past and explains how his time in lockup became his most positive life-altering experience. It is one of the greatest comeback stories in the history of music, and it is one you won’t want to miss.

Chuck D Hip Hop History
Title: Chuck D Presents This Day in Rap and Hip-Hop History

Author: Chuck D, Shepard Faiey (Foreword)

Publisher: Black Dog & Leventhal

Format: Hardcover (673 pages), Kindle

Release Date: October 10, 2017

 

Chuck D.’s dedication to hip hop’s fan base has been solid since the start of his Public Enemy days, and with this release he continues to gift us in the form of vital information about rap and hip hop’s history. Based on his long-running show on Rapstation.com, D’s comprehensive collection of pivotal moments and influential songs in the genre’s recorded history is a first in the hip hop scholarship world. Included in this chronological collection are songs such as Kurtis Blow’s “Christmas Rappin’” to Kendrik Lamar’s ground-breaking verse on “Control”, and all hits in-between. Incorporated into the tome are key events in hip hop history, from Grandmaster Flash’s first scratch through Tupac’s holographic appearance at Coachella, interwoven with 100+ portraits of various hip hop artists. This work is a worthy addition to any hip hop lover’s collection, and for those that study or work in the genre, it is a necessity worth owning.

Queen of Bebop
Title: Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan

Author: Elaine M. Hayes

Publisher: Ecco

Formats: Hardcover (432 pages), Paperback, Kindle, Audiobook

Release date: July 2017

 

One of the greatest jazz vocalists of all time, Sarah Vaughan has been the subject of previous books, but the only full length biography of note was Leslie Gourse’s Sassy: The Life of Sarah Vaughan, published nearly 25 fives ago. Now jazz historian Elaine M. Hayes offers a more definitive treatment in Queen of Bebop, which digs deeper into her life not only as a performer, but as a black woman facing the challenges of race and gender within the music industry and beyond. A must read for anyone interested in jazz and popular in the latter half of the 20th century, African American music and musicians, or music in general.

Bob Marley
Title: So Much Things to Say: The Oral History of Bob Marley

Author: Roger Steffens

Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company

Formats: Hardcover, Kindle

Release date: July, 2017

 

So Much Things to Say is a must have for any serious Bob Marley fan. Drawing on testimonies by friends, relatives and musical associates, author and archivist Roger Steffens—the leading authority on Bob Marley—tells the story of the reggae legend, from his younger days in Kingston to his professional years. As the title implies, this book includes a great deal of information regarding the life of Marley, including the violent confrontation with Lee “Scratch” Perry, his performance for freedom fighters in Zimbabwe, details on Marley’s final months, controversies surrounding Marley’s death, and many more first-hand accounts of his life. So Much Things to Say will serve as a valuable resource for anyone who is interested in the history of reggae music and Marley’s incredible influence upon the genre and global culture.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss, Amy Aiyegbusi and Jamaal Baptiste

 

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

 

Chicago Afrobeat Project – What Goes Up

Afrobeat Project
Title: What Goes Up

Artist: Chicago Afrobeat Project

Label: Self-released

Format: MP3

Release date: September 29, 2017

 

 

The newest release from the Chicago Afrobeat Project, What Goes Up, builds upon the group’s  strong foundation of recordings.  The already large ensemble heavily features guest artists on its latest album, including Nigerian afrobeat drummer Tony Allen (who has worked with the legendary Fela Kuti, a pioneer of the genre) as a featured artist on each of the album’s tracks.

The Chicago Afrobeat Project has always drawn heavily from funk-influenced afrobeat styles, and, as the group’s name implies, continues this basic approach on its latest album.  The 14-member ensemble features great arrangements for its full horn section on cuts like “Race Hustle,” but moves somewhat outside of traditional afrobeat expectations on other cuts, as on the extended synth intro to “Cut the Infection.” The group incorporates some jazz fusion influences on the polyrhythmic cut “Must Come Down,” interpolating wah wah guitars with African rhythms more typical of the group’s style.

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Unlike the work of afrobeat pioneers like Kuti, the lyrics on What Goes Up tend to be more pop-philosophical than explicitly political, with tracks like “No Bad News” vaguely addressing the importance of ancestors and the evils of corporate pollution, but without finding specific figures to either praise or criticize.  “Marker 48” continues in the same vein, arguing that humans cannot continue to exploit the Earth’s resources, but without addressing who is using most of these resources, who benefits most from extraction, or what could be done to change this pattern. This group is at its best on songs like “Afro Party,” when taking more of a celebratory than a critical lyrical tone. It is difficult to level poignant political critique in any kind of music, let alone music this sharply focused on creating textures and grooves. This group puts forth great effort, but ultimately lacks the specificity necessary to compellingly address social issues in most cases.

With that said, the Chicago Afrobeat Project can groove—each track feels great, and there’s exciting rhythms and melodies to go around.  This is in large part due to the strength of its members’ musicianship and their strong connections to both afrobeat music and the other genres they incorporate into their approach.  For the Chicago Afrobeat Project, the audience is What Goes Up—up out of its seat and onto the dance floor.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

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

Jesse Royal – Lily Of Da Valley

Lilly Of Da Valley
Title: Lily Of Da Valley

Artist: Jesse Royal

Label: Easy Star Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: October 6, 2017

 

 

Artist Jesse Royal, known for his creative ideas and performances, presents his debut album on Easy Star Records, Lily Of Da Valley. This release not only showcases Royal’s vocal abilities and musicianship, but also his knowledge of Jamaican reggae music. His compositions take the listener back to the roots of Jamaican music while highlighting current developments in reggae.

The 14 tracks include previously released hit songs such as “Modern Day Judas,” “Generation,” and “Finally,” as well as new compositions—“Real Love,” “Full Moon,” “Waan Go Home,” and others—covering topics from religion and oppression, to peace and love.

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On “400 Years,” Royal tackles the issue of systemic oppression, calling for peace and equality, reparation for the black nation, and the elimination of a system that has kept people of African descent in “shackles.” In addition, the electrifying performance by the rhythm, coupled with a memorable melodic hook and harmonious backing vocals, resonate with the listener.

Royal’s song “Jah Will See Us Through” offers an uplifting messaging of hope that Jah will help us overcome life’s struggles and obstacles. Royal’s usage of biblical references in his lyrics provides encouragement and comfort. Along with his lyrics of hope, the listener is treated to a brilliant musical arrangement filled with warm and lush harmonies, groovy basslines, and a superb soulful guitar solo.

Lily Of Da Valley is certainly an inspiring collection of artistic and musical expression, and contributes to the ongoing legacy of Jamaican reggae music.

Reviewed by Jamaal Baptiste

 

Antibalas – Where The Gods Are In Peace

Antibalas
Artist: Antibalas

Label: Daptone

Title: Where The Gods Are In Peace

Release Date: September 15, 2017

Format: CD, Vinyl, Mp3

 

 

Raise your hand up high if you know & are into the Brooklyn band, Antibalas. Not bad, not bad—I see a few hands and a fist or two. Now, for those who aren’t hip, let me explain exactly who Antibalas is. The group formed in 1998 with Martin Perna at the front. The word antibalas is Spanish for “bulletproof”, which lends credence to their long-lasting career in the afrobeat world—19 years and still going strong. Antibalas plays afrobeat music, paying homage to the king of afrobeat himself, Fela Kuti. Listen very carefully—you may hear Eddie Palmeri piano stylings and personally, I think I hear another echoes of another band hailing from Brooklyn, Mandrill.

Where The Gods Are In Peace could be considered a head scratcher because it’s so short. It showcases only five tracks, but in reality, it feels like ten, perhaps fifteen. To only have five tracks and still packing a serious blow is true testament to what this band is all about. Take the track “Goldrush”. It opens up with early 1970’s rock FM and fast as you can FELA, BAM! The mood shifts into afrobeat, advanced version. Brilliant! They have you thinking one thing, but accomplish another.

Antibalas is very well-schooled in pulling off feats such as this.  “Tombstone”, believe it or not, is the third, fourth and fifth track–a 3-part finale that will blow your mind. Zap Mama, the beauty from Belgium, lends her vocals on all three tracks. What can one say? Makes you wish more acts took risks like Antibalas, but they would be asking too much. Antibalas is one of a kind, folks.

Where The Gods Are In Peace. Enjoy it for what it is—an amazingly powerful punch in just a five step gig. Next time, I expect to see more hands raised when asked, “Who knows about Antibalas?” Don’t disappoint me.

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

The Gospelaires of Dayton, Ohio – Moving Up-The Early Years 1956-1965

Gospelaires
Title: Moving Up – The Early Years 1956-1965

Artist: The Gospelaires of Dayton, Ohio

Label: Gospel Friend/dist. City Hall Records

Format: CD

Release date: November 17, 2017

 

 

Most of us think of Dayton, Ohio as the epicenter of funk, but the city also gave birth to several national gospel recording artists including Dottie Peoples, the Daytonians, and the Gospelaires—a quartet that enjoyed the worldwide spotlight in the decade between 1956-1965 and beyond. Yet despite their considerable success, the Gospelaires have not been well represented on reissue projects. Enter Swedish gospel aficionado Per Notini, who set out to correct this omission by producing the compilation, Moving Up – The Early Years 1956-1965, on his Gospel Friend label. Included are several singles that have never been released on CD.

The opening tracks recorded in 1956, two years after the Gospelaires’ formation, are from their debut single for the Houston, Texas-based Avant label. Despite the message of solidarity in “We Are Marching Together” and catchy doo-wop style of “Some People Never Stop to Pray,” the initial reception was only lukewarm. However, the single did attract the attention of Don Robey at Peacock Records, who signed the six member quartet and continued the affiliation for the next 16 years. The second and third tracks are from the quartet’s first Peacock single, with baritone Robert Washington taking the lead on the soul stirring “Just Faith” and up-tempo “Sit Down Children,” while bass Robert Lattimore provides guitar accompaniment.  These sides portend the future direction of the group, while also displaying the powerful vocals and impassioned delivery of Washington. Though two other members sang lead for the Gospelaires—tenor Melvyn Boyd and baritone Paul Arnold—Washington is featured on the majority of the tracks on this set.

Arranged in chronological order, the remaining 25 songs provide a welcome overview of the Gospelaires. “It’s a Pity” (1958) showcases another lead singer, baritone Paul Arnold, who can also be heard trading the lead with Washington on “I’ll Be So Glad” and “You Can’t Make Me Doubt Him.” It’s unfortunate that Boyd is only featured on two tracks, “When I Rise” and “I Didn’t Know.” Though he doesn’t have the gritty power of Washington, his supple high tenor and emotive shouts are electrifying.  In another change of pace, Washington can be heard sermonizing on “Trouble No More” and “Rest for the Weary,” the latter included in this archival footage:

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Teen sensation Charles “Sky High” McClean is introduced on “C’mon” (1962), a song somewhat reminiscent of “Shout” by the Isley Brothers, who got their start just down the road in Cincinnati.  McClean takes the lead on “Motherless Child” (1963), his soulful high tenor making it clear how he came by his nickname.  The CD closes with an impassioned arrangement of Thomas Dorsey’s “Search Me Lord.”

The Gospelaires continued to record for Peacock for another decade, before switching over to Savoy, where they released many more albums. Their entire story is included in the authoritative liner notes by Bob Marovich, who also drew from articles by Ray Funk and Opal Nations. I’m pleased to say that all three of these dedicated gospel historians have generously donated collections to the Indiana University Archives of African American Music, where they are preserved for future generations.

Moving Up is a wonderful compilation showcasing the early years of the Gospelaires, one of the most successful gospel quartets of that era, and likely a strong influence on the funk groups that would emerge from Dayton, Ohio in the following decade.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss