Nina Simone – Mood Indigo: The Complete Bethlehem Singles

Nina Simone
Title: Mood Indigo: The Complete Bethlehem Singles

Artist: Nina Simone

Label: Bethlehem Records

Formats: CD, Mp3, Vinyl

Release Date: February 9, 2018

 

 

Nina Simone was wooing audiences with her sultry vocals and captivating stage presence well before her first mainstream hit flooded the market. Her 1958 debut album, cut in one day at Belton Studios in midtown Manhattan, earned her the eventual moniker, “High Priestess of Soul”, which is all the more amazing considering Simone was a mere 25 years old. By 1959, she was a household name in the jazz world with her cover, “Porgy (I Loves You, Porgy)”, released by Bethlehem Records. As the song climbed the charts, Simone moved on to the larger and financially stronger Colpix Records, but not before cutting some of the smoothest tracks of her long career. After her departure, Bethlehem released those six additional tracks, and to commemorate the 60th anniversary of these recordings, BMG/Bethlehem has compiled these singles together as Mood Indigo: The Complete Bethlehem Singles.

This 14-track CD version follows the chronology of Simone’s Bethlehem recordings, starting with the first A-side “Porgy (I Loves You, Porgy)” and ending with the last A-side, My Baby Just Cares for Me”. The collection also contains an alternative take of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” as well as seven single-only tracks that previously have only been available on the original 45s. The LP version, pressed in standard black and limited edition blue vinyl, holds 12 tracks plus a bonus 7” replica of Simone’s first single backed with “Love Me or Leave Me.”

The Bethlehem Sessions displays a young Nina Simone confidently putting her distinctive stamp on the set of jazz numbers and Broadway tunes. Although this was her first album, Simone had contract stipulations asserting her right of musical direction, and she chose songs she was familiar with from her club years. In the collection, she is either performing solo on piano or backed by bassist Jimmy Bond and drummer Al “Tootie” Heath, both of whom went on to lengthy careers. Bonuses nestled in the liner notes are new interviews with Heath and an Ashley Kahn narrative regarding the recording of “Little Girl Blue”.

2018 not only marks the 60th anniversary of the Bethlehem Sessions, but it will also see Simone’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, slated for April 14. Simone, who would have turned 85 on February 21st, has never left the public’s eye since her passing in 2003. She recorded numerous albums on diverse labels from 1959-1974, and in the 30 years following her recording period she performed live to multiple global audiences.  Just as Simone traveled the world, she also traveled down many musical roads. Mood Indigo captures Nina Simone at an incandescent moment—when her sound held both a complexity of style and a purity of youth that is now preserved for ages to come.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Hendrix in the Spirit of Jazz

Hendrix in the Spirit of Jazz

 

Title: Hendrix in the Spirit of Jazz

Artist: Various

Label: ACT

Formats: CD

Release date: December 8, 2017

Hendrix in the Spirit of Jazz is a collection of Jimi Hendrix songs performed by various artists from Germany’s ACT label. Hendrix, who would have turned 75 in November shortly before this album was released, remains one of the most influential musicians of all time. His influence on electric guitarists is universally recognized, and the rare guitarist who is unaware of Hendrix has undoubtedly studied the playing of others who were influenced by him. Appropriately, this album features an obligatory guitar presence; however, it also demonstrates that Hendrix’s influence spans beyond his chosen instrument.

The opening track is a solo piano performance of “Angel” by Norwegian pianist Bugge Wesseltoft, which demonstrates Hendrix’s talent as a composer. Although music history focuses on Hendrix’s influence upon the electric guitar, his songs are able to transcend genre and instrumentation. This track, along with the album as a whole, proves that Hendrix tunes are perfect vehicles for jazz improvisation and experimentation.

Highlighting the strength of Hendrix’s songs—and their ability to remain stylistically ambiguous—are two versions of “Little Wing.” A jazz trio, featuring what is arguably the best playing on the recording by Finnish pianist Iiro Rantala, performs the first version. Rantala plays over the original chord changes during his solo, but he weaves intricate jazz lines over them to create a harmonic palette that should interest any jazz fan. The other version of “Little Wing” is closer to the original in terms of instrumentation. French guitarist Nguyên Lê delivers a remarkable performance in which he channels Hendrix’s technique, while simultaneously sounding a bit like fusion guitar icon Allan Holdsworth.

Lê is featured again on “1983… (A Merman I Should Turn To Be),” along with American musician Terri Lyne Carrington on drums and vocals. As the first female artist to win a Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental Album, Carrington’s presence on this compilation is fitting in that she parallels the innovative, groundbreaking spirit of Hendrix. This cover of “1983,” which is one of the most sonically experimental tunes ever recorded by Hendrix, is one of the standout tracks on this album. The musicians capture the essence of the original, yet they do it uniquely in a jazz fusion setting.

Though all of the tracks have something different to offer, there are aspects of a few songs that warrant mention. First, no other tracks are as captivating as the versions of “Voodoo Chile” and “Are You Experienced.” The former’s rendition by a jazz big band is refreshing, and the horn arrangements serve as another example of the versatility of Hendrix’s music. Similarly, “Are You Experienced” stands out for its cinematic arrangement performed by a symphony orchestra. Additionally, Marc Ribot’s reverb-laden guitar on “Drifting” is simply mesmerizing, and this song is accentuated by the presence of South Korean jazz vocalist Youn Sun Nah, who sings beautifully.

Despite the album’s title, Hendrix in the Spirit of Jazz is neither a straight-ahead jazz record nor does it contain typical cover versions of Hendrix songs. However, the potential listener should be assured that these tunes bridge the gap between the two styles well. Nguyên Lê provides quality guitar playing on four of the album’s tracks. He has enough stylistic similarity to Hendrix that he should appeal to those not yet indoctrinated into jazz. On the other hand, the presence of some monster jazz players should appeal to jazz aficionados. In particular, there are some phenomenal drummers on this album—Danny Gottlieb (Pat Metheny Group, Mahavishnu Orchestra), Peter Erskine (Weather Report, Yellowjackets), and the aforementioned Terri Lyne Carrington, who has played with everyone from Dizzy Gillespie to Herbie Hancock.

Hendrix in the Spirit of Jazz has certainly been produced in the spirit of Jimi Hendrix, who is quoted in the liner notes: “When I die, I want people to play my music, go wild and freak out and do anything they want to do.” His wishes have indeed come to fruition with this compilation of his music.

Reviewed by Joel Roberts

 

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

Mista Savona – Havana Meets Kingston

Havana Meets Kingston
Title: Havana Meets Kingston

Artist: Mista Savona

Label: VP

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: November 3, 2017

 

 

As title states, Havana Meets Kingston is an album that highlights the intersection and cultural exchange of musical practices between the islands of Cuba and Jamaica. The artists present new renditions of classic Jamaican and Cuban songs such as “Chan Chan,” “El Cuarto De Tule,” “Candela,” “Vibracion Positive” (Positive Vibration), “Row Fisherman Row,” and “100 Pounds of Collie” while fusing reggae and dancehall together with the son Cubano.

Producer Mista Savona brings together an extraordinary cast of Cuban and Jamaican musicians consisting of members from the Buena Vista Social Club (Barbarito Torres and Rolando Luna), the Afro-Cuban All Stars (Félix Baloy), Los Van Van (Changuito), Septeto Nacional Ignacio Piñeiros (Eugenio “El Raspa” Rodríquez), the Heptones (Leroy Sibbles), and major artists such as Prince Alla, Earl “Chinna” Smith, Sizzla, and many others.

Opening with “Chan Chan,” the listener is treated to an astounding interpretation which begins similarly to the original recording, before morphing into a reggae groove layered over the son rhythm. On “El Cuarto De Tula” we experience the meeting of Havana and Kingston through the blending of this Cuban song with Jamaican dancehall, and the contemporary vocal styles of Maikel Ante, El Medico, and Turbulence.

This album marks the beginning of this collaboration between Jamaican and Cuban artists, who have done a magnificent job in fusing musical traditions with contemporary culture. Another album is planned, as well as a feature length documentary.

Havana Meets Kingston is a must buy for anyone interested in Caribbean music, and more specifically the musical exchange between these two islands.

Reviewed by Jamaal Baptiste

 

Johnny Rawls – Waiting For the Train

Johhny Rawls
Title: Waiting For the Train

Artist: Johnny Rawls

Label: Catfood

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 15, 2017

 

 

Mississippi-born Johnny Rawls has a long history in the industry, from serving as band director for soul singer O.V. Wright, to backing artists such as Z.Z. Hill and Joe Tex. The singer-songwriter and guitarist released his first solo project in 1985, and in 2014 was recognized by Living Blues magazine as “Male Blues Artist of the Year.” Rawls, however, is not a traditional blues musician. His southern roots are often more firmly planted in soul, with branches extending into the blues. Such is the case with his latest project, Waiting For the Train. This is Rawl’s seventh in a string of highly successful albums on the Catfood label. He’s accompanied by his long time band, The Rays, featuring label owner Bob Trenchard on bass. Trenchard also co-wrote the album’s six original songs with Rawls, which are interspersed with four fine covers.

Opening with “Rain Keep Falling (“Til I’m Free),” the tone is set with a tight horn section and rocking guitar solo from Johnny McGhee, while Rawl’s gravelly voice expresses a fearlessness about facing the future. This segues into “Las Vegas,” a song about high rollin’ and risk taking that many who have visited Sin City can surely relate to, but there’s also a more serious message about faith, hope and change. These themes emerge again in “Blackjack Was a Gambler,” a story song about “Jack and Sally” that seems to combine elements of “Mustang Sally,” “Stagger Lee” and “Jack & Diane.”

One of the highlights of the album is the title track, “Waiting for the Train,” a contemplative ballad featuring interesting chord changes and an excellent guitar solo. The train as a transport to heaven is a common theme in gospel music, and this is obviously Rawls’ intent as he sings in the voice of a man contemplating the afterlife, “Get on board and don’t look back . . . I’ve got to be ready, when it comes for me, I’ve got to be ready to be set free.”

Rounding out the album is the funky dance number “California Shake” that’s infused with a ‘70s vibe, and four cover songs including Wilson Pickett’s “I’m in Love,” Syl Johnson’s “We Did It,” Tyrone Davis’s “Turning Point,” and a nice rendition of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.” Rawls closes with another original, “Stay With Me,” a poignant love song to a partner in life’s journey.

Waiting For the Train is a solid effort by soul-blues artist Johnny Rawls, offering songs that are especially relevant to those of a certain age who have faced many obstacles but still find the strength to push forward towards the promised land.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

 

Martha High – Tribute To My Soul Sisters

Martha High
Title: Tribute To My Soul Sisters

Artist: Martha High

Label: Record Kicks

Formats: CD, LP

Release date: November 17, 2017

 

When the holidays come around, one often thinks of James Brown. Why? He died the day after Christmas, and across the world, JB fans celebrate his legacy and discography. JB will live forever and so will his cohorts, who had the honor of touring and playing next to “Soul Brother # 1.” Bobby Byrd , Marva Whitney, Lynn Collins all are in soul heaven, but Bootsy Collins is still going strong. Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley & Pee Wee Ellis still tour. Vicki Anderson is still with us, and Martha High likewise is still with us and touring. Martha who? Yes, even for some who are JB diehards, that name is not clicking like the other names mentioned. Trust me, the real ones know her name and if you don’t, read on.

Martha High was born Martha Harvin and grew up in Washington, DC. For thirty years, she performed backup vocals for JB. Then, in 2000, she left JB and hooked up with Maceo Parker.  Her new album, Tribute To My Soul Sisters, backed by Japan’s premiere funk group, Osaka Monaurail, is just that and more.

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On the opening track “Think (About It),” you hear perhaps two of the most famous lines in hip hop: “Use what ya got, to get what ya want” and “It takes two to make a thing go right.” Cool C’s “The Glamorous Life” and Rob Base’s “It Takes Two” sampled those lines respectively, but it was Lyn Collins who first shouted those lines in 1971. Martha High has chops and on her version of the song she pays homage to Collins.

“This Is My Story” was originally done by The Jewels, the group High joined in the ‘60s just before they were hired to tour with JB. High’s vocals come across as praise and possess a “what a time we had” kind of vibe. “I Cried,” a track originally done by Tammi Terrell, was a eyebrow raiser. Terrell had no connection to JB, but nevertheless, High pulls it off and makes you want to seek out the original. Marva Whitney and Vicki Anderson also get their due from High.

Martha High would have fit right in on the Academy Award documentary 20 Feet From Stardom. Makes you wonder why she never became bigger in the game. The same can be said for all of the female vocalists who performed with JB.

Tribute To My Soul Sisters not only acknowledges former JB vocalists Lyn Collins, Marva, Vicki, and Tammi, but is a fine tribute to Martha High, who is still going strong and sounding great. Better late than never.

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

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

 

 

C West – Hide and Seek

C West
Title: Hide and Seek

Artist: C West

Label: Tyscot

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: October 27, 2017

 

 

C West has potential to take the gospel world by storm with his debut album, Hide and Seek. The 20-year-old singer and guitarist incorporates a very contemporary R&B sound in his faith-based inspirational songs directed towards millennials. According to West, the album’s title references how we tend to hide from ourselves and from God, instead of seeking our true purpose.

While studying at Villa Maria College in his hometown of Buffalo, New York, West competed in a singing contest sponsored by the well-known gospel producer Marquis Boone, who launched the careers of the chart topping Tyscot artists Briana Babineaux and Casey J. West went on to win the competition taking first prize, a recording contract with Tyscot Records. Now, with help from Boone, who is also his new manager, West is looking to push the envelope and merge mainstream styles with a spiritual message.

C West released multiple singles prior to dropping this album, including the ballad “Breaks Your Heart,” which he describes as starting out as a prayer written on a sticky note. Following was his first hit song, “Focus,” which quickly became one of the most frequently played songs on gospel radio. This also happens to be West’s favorite song because it sends a message about the benefits of staying focused: “The end will be worth it.”

Other tracks such as “Who I Am” and “Unusual Love” speak to finding yourself and your way through the world as young man or woman of God. As C West’s debut album, Hide and Seek signals the start of promising career and another win for Tyscot Records.

Reviewed by Jared Griffin