Swiss-American provacateur Manuel Gagneux, the artist behind the avant garde rock group Zeal & Ardor, unleashed his debut album Devil Is Fine to much acclaim in 2017. Grounded in Norwegian black metal and its inherent paganism, the album imagined an antebellum South where slaves “had chosen defiance and rebellion and the power of Satan” instead of Christianity. With his new album, Stranger Fruit, Gagneux not only hints at Billie Holliday’s haunting classic, but implies he might take us one step beyond the already grotesque imagery of “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze.” The answer comes sooner rather than later.
After a brief intro sets the stage with the sound of a pickaxe striking the ground, the opening song “Gravedigger’s Chant” seems to pick up where “Strange Fruit” left off, as Gagneux sings “bring the dead body down to the graveyard…Lord have mercy.” In a press release, Gagneux describes the official video as subverting roles: “People find themselves in situations untypical for their ilk, tools become weapons, weapons turn into tools, and fingers meant for sensing make themselves felt.”
Unlike the previous Zeal & Ardor album—an interwoven fabric of metal tempered with elements of blues, spirituals, Lomax-esque work-song melodies, soul and gospel—Stranger Fruit hews more closely to black metal roots. “Servants” promotes an uprising of the oppressed, while “Don’t’ You Dare” takes things one step further, hinting at human sacrifices with the chorus, “never come ‘round these parts…don’t you dare look away, boy.” The brief “Fire of Motion” features a wall of thrashing guitars, then segues into the gorgeous vocal harmonies of “The Hermit” with a nod to Gregorian chant.
If you were a fan of Devil Is Fine, then you will appreciate the hand-clapping rhythms behind “Row Row,” the soulful elements of “You Ain’t Coming Back,” and the bluesy “We Can’t Be Found.” The title track, “Stranger Fruit,” is built over an ominous piano ostinato that gradually builds to the timely finale, “there’s a storm out there / there’s no shelter for us.” The album closes with “Built on Ashes,” another track interjecting soulful vocals that makes for a satisfying finish, despite the gloomy chorus, “”Like a strange fruit out of season / You are bound to die alone.”
Though a couple of electronic tracks seem somewhat out of kilter, Zeal & Ardor’s Stranger Fruit is a solid sophomore effort. The album was produced by Gagneux alongside Austrian producer Zebo Adam and mixed by Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou. Gagneux has assembled a band for live shows and will be touring the U.S. later this year.
One of the architects of rock and roll, Fats Domino is also remembered as one of New Orleans’ greatest musicians, which is quite an honor in a city that produced so many legends. Now the venerable Bear Family label honors Fats, who died last year, with this compilation featuring 32 ballads culled from his 1955-1962 Imperial Records sides. Most were either produced, co-written/arranged, and/or performed (on trumpet) by the great Dave Bartholomew and recorded at Cosimo Matassa’s studio.
Instead of the red-hot sound of the Crescent City’s rhythm and rocking blues scene, The Ballads of Fats Domino highlights many of his lesser known gems. As noted author/historian Bill Dahl states in the liner notes, “Fats without his trademark rocking rhythms [was] every bit as effective and lovable as when the big beat was scalding behind him.” And that’s the truth!
This “blusier, atmospheric side” of Fats is certainly apparent on classics like “Blueberry Hill,” which opens the set, and a pair string drenched sides, “Walking to New Orleans” and “Three Nights a Week,” both R&B hits despite Domino’s opinion that “people don’t like me with too many violins.” The hardships of life on the road spurred more than a few ‘homesick’ ballads that are great examples of Fats’ signature story songs: “I Miss You So” (1961); a 1962 remake of “Goin’ Home” (the original side was released a decade prior); and the earliest song on the set, “Helping Hand (A Long Way From Home)” from 1955.
This is just a small taste of what’s in store on The Ballads of Fats Domino, produced with the typical high standards we’ve come to expect from Bear Family, including illustrated liner notes and a complete session discography.
One of the most sought-after songwriters in the business, Priscilla Renea now offers her own solo project, Coloured. Growing up in Vero Beach, Florida, music has always been a mainstay in Renea’s life. As explained in an interview with Rolling Stone, her mother and grandmother loved to sing and her father played the trumpet. After writing her first song at the age of eight, Renea’s mother gave her a note book to write in and eventually she received a guitar from her father and taught herself to play. By the age of 16, Renea became a YouTube sensation, setting her on a path to become one of today’s greatest writers with songs you know and love such as “Timber,” by Kesha and Pit Bull, Charlie Puth’s “River”, and “California King Bed” performed by Rhianna. With Renea’s own album Coloured, we get to truly hear her voice as she tells her own story.
Renea describes her new album as, “a big gumbo of everything that’s happening in my life,” and explains it was created when she spent a few months in Nashville in 2016 with her friend and colleague Brett James. While in Nashville, she attended a performance of the Grand Ole Opry, discovering there were only two photos of black artists on display backstage—Chuck Berry and Darius Rucker. Taking this as a challenge, Renea was inspired to create Coloured, a very unique album with a style all its own she calls “country soul,” seamlessly combining a classic Nashville sound with R&B and hip hop in a manner she describes as “unapologetically black.”
Coloured begins with the song, “Family Tree.” Opening up with a guitar progression that is just so stereotypically country it sounds like you could be listening to a Dolly Parton album, Renea enters and quickly shows her versatility as vocalist. Though she maintains a country “twang” throughout, it doesn’t take long for her to knock you back with her robustly gritty voice, showcasing vocal prowess and control reminiscent of powerhouses like Etta James.
Throughout the remainder of the album you can hear other spectacular tracks like, “Gentle Hands,” a fun upbeat song with a driving trap beat, followed by the gorgeous track, “Heavenly,” where Renea plays more to her R&B sensibility. She actually brings these songs together in one storytelling music video:
With songs like “You Shaped Box,” “If I Ever Loved You,” and “Different Color,” Renea incorporates a reggae feel, blurring the line between genres as she tells stories of love, not only love of family or a significant other, but love of oneself.
Having made such a name for herself as a songwriter, Priscilla Renea is clearly just gearing up to shock the world with her own vocal talents, and Coloured is only the beginning.
This year the city of New Orleans is celebrating its 300th anniversary (1718-2018) and acclaimed clarinetist, Dr. Michael White, set out to commemorate the occasion by paying tribute to the city’s most important original musical contribution. Of course we’re talking about jazz. Birthed from the rhythms of Congo Square and gestated in the French Quarter over 100 years ago, the genre is an indelible part of the African American experience in NOLA and beyond.
New Orleans born and bred, White has been immersed in the city’s music scene for decades and holds numerous distinctions, including Heritage Fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts and recipient of the Jazz Hero Award from the Jazz Journalists Association of America. Not only is he a virtuoso on his instrument, but White is also a composer of note as well as a historian and educator who has long been championing NOLA’s jazz heritage.
On Tricentennial Rag, White offers ten original compositions, many inspired by early jazz musicians and traditional styles, but with a contemporary twist. Paying homage to the street where Jelly Roll Morton spent his childhood, “Frenchmen Street Strut” opens the album. There’s a wonderful interplay on this track between White, Shaye Cohn on cornet, and David L. Harris on trombone, while Detroit A. Brooks’s banjo solo is a further connection to the African roots of jazz. White takes over on “Blues on the Bayou,” a showcase for clarinet that he performs with aplomb, stretching out the blue notes. The mid-tempo title track is a modern take on ragtime, full of interesting modulations and solo turns with hints of R&B-styled melismas. Kicking off with a snare solo signaling the start of Carnival, “On Mardi Gras Day” is song celebrating Mardi Gras Indians and the Zulu parade with vocals by Gregory Stafford (who doubles on trumpet).
“I Saw Jesus Standing in the Water” might seem like a departure—the song connects to themes from the black church but musically doesn’t stray far from traditionl jazz. Other highlights include the clarinet moans of “Loneliness” and the bluesy tribute to “Sassy Creole Woman.” The album closes with the only non-original song—a fantastic rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In” that’s performed in a wholly original manner with the band changing tempos and swapping solos—this time with Seva Venet on banjo. I must also give a shoutout to Steve Pistorius, the pianist for all but one track, who is given ample opportunities to showcase his virtuosity.
Who better to celebrate NOLA as the cradle of jazz than Dr. Michael White, one of the leading authorities of the traditional New Orleans style. He proves this again and again on Tricentennial Rag, keeping the music fresh and tasty with delicious licks and righteous rags that take NOLA’s jazz traditions into the 21st century.
Born and raised in Hollywood, Florida, Javen P. Campbell is the 12th child in a family of 13. His career in the music industry began in 1999 after he was signed with Crowne Records. Since then, Javen has made a name for himself in many facets of the Christian music and entertainment industry—as a vocalist, songwriter, and actor. He is also a well-known television personality, hosting Now Living on the Christian network TBN and The Gospel MusicExperience alongside Tye Tribbet. Recently Javen released his 6th album, Grace, with contributions from current gospel icons like Tye Tribbet, Tim Bowman Jr., and Johnny Rez.
Featuring eight songs written by Javen over the years, as well as an arrangement of the classic hymn “Amazing Grace,” Grace is beautifully produced from start to finish. The album combines harmonic, instrumental, and rhythmic aspects of Christian pop and classic gospel as well as new production techniques and rhythms from music of the African diaspora such as dancehall and hip hop.
Javen opens the album explaining his understanding of the word grace, and how the term speaks to his faith. Stating he has come to understand grace as “God’s love, power, and strength,” he explains one must trust in these things to truly have access to God’s power and favor: “Grace is not something you do/but something you receive.” Immediately following this powerful introduction is the gorgeous title track duet, “Grace”, featuring Margaret Bell. This compelling song showcases a classic modern gospel sound accompanied by magnificent backing vocals as the absolutely awe-inspiring voice of Margaret Bell takes total command of the song. An acoustic version of this song in Spanish by artist Johnny Rez, closes the album, as well, providing an artful compliment to not only Bell but the entire collection of worship tunes.
Javen is a spectacular artist and vocalist with such a warm and smooth tone remnant of artists like Smokie Norful and Sam Cooke, but from time to time he is a slightly outshined, vocally, by the artists he features. This is especially apparent in his duets, such as “Grace” with Margaret Bell, and “You Lift Me Up” with Christina Bell. However, this takes nothing away from the album—if anything it shines a light on the brilliance of Javen as a songwriter. Another stand-out track is the song “Fresh Oil,” originally released on Javen’s 2013 album, Worship In the Now, and re-recorded as a duet with Na’sha Watkins for Grace. “Fresh Oil” is an absolutely stunning song just perfect for the smooth stylings and timbre of both Javen and Watkins as they offer their prayer lyrics: “Fresh Oil from Heaven cleanse my heart/Holy Spirit I call, from you I don’t want to part”. This song is extremely soothing while maintaining the capacity to bring you to tears.
Grace is a wonderful and eclectic album with a perfect marriage of songs and artists. It is an offering that will touch and uplift your soul, leaving you feeling renewed and blessed.
Building a bridge across the Atlantic, Routes is a collaboration between Sengalese kora master Diali Keba Cissokho and his band Kaira Ba that links North Carolina to M’bour, Senegal—where the tracks were recorded in a rattan-paneled hotel room overlooking the ocean. Cissokho, who was born into a family of griots and can trace his musical linage back to 16th century Mali, relocated to North Carolina after marrying an American student of Sengalese music. There, he connected with a quartet of local musicians including drummer Austin McCall, percussionist Will Ridenour (who also plays djembe), Berklee-trained jazz guitarist John Westmoreland, and bassist Jonathan Henderson—an ethnomusicologist well versed in jazz and afro-diasporic styles. Working together to create a musical language that combined elements of these multiple traditions, the group transformed into Kaira Ba.
One of the unique aspects of Routes is the wide range of contributing artists from both nations who lent their talents to this project. As the tracks were laid down in Senegal, Cissokho invited numerous friends and relatives to contribute to the mix, including a group of drummers who set up in the courtyard. Once the band returned home, they overdubbed instrumental and vocal tracks using a variety of well-known local musicians. Their goal, to “tell the story of these two places Diali has called home,” has certainly been realized through this expanded musical palate and community spirit, while the aural soundscapes of each location also enter the mix.
Opening with the familiar Carolina summer sound of cicadas, “Alla L’a Ke” is a traditional kora song dedicated to Cissokho’s late father, which the group transforms through the addition of a string quartet featuring violinist Jennifer Curtis, among others. Up next is “Badima” with a catchy Afro-rock groove laid over Chuckey Robinson’s organ and a fast and furious percussive conclusion. Salsa, which is extremely popular in West African, is the basis for the track “Salsa Xalel,” blended here with the national dance mbalax using local percussion and balafon. The tie-in to the American South comes by way of the track’s funky horn section and gospel singers Shana Tucker and Tamisha Waden, who join Cissokho on vocals as they ponder what kind of world are we leaving for our children:
Yet another interesting sound collage can be found in “Saya,” a poignant song about grasping the reality of death. Opening with a kora solo by Cissokho, the focus shifts mid-section to Eric Heywood’s pedal steel guitar, blending perfectly with kora, guitar and bass. John Westmoreland takes the lead on “Story Song,” which he composed in the Mali style known as desert blues, with Cissokho providing the narration in English about the band’s seven-year collaboration: “these people I’m playing music with / we’re not the same culture / we’re not the same religion/ but out heart is the same…you can’t play music like this if your heart is not beautiful.”
The album closes with “Night In M’Bour,” featuring a collage of sounds recorded during an evening in Cissokho’s home town, including a traditional sabar drum ensemble and fula flute solo, then concluding with the night crickets of M’Bour—a bookend to the opening soundscapes of North Carolina.
Routes is the perfect showcase for Kaira Ba’s unique fusion of Senegalese and American musical traditions, as well as a demonstration of cross-cultural collaboration and mutual respect between band members who welcomed an immigrant to their community.
The name Lamont Dozier, if heard, perhaps would bring little or no reaction to the general public. But, if one plays or hums many major tunes released by 1960s and 70s Motown artists, know that Dozier was part of the composers team behind these successful groups. Now you his name.
Lamont Dozier, along with the Holland Brothers, wrote the great tunes at Motown—Smokey, The Four Tops, The Temptations and yes, even The Supremes—all owe their success to these gentleman. Dozier, besides being one of the greatest songwriters ever, is a smooth singer and accomplished piano player. In the late 60’s, he left Motown and, along with the Holland Brothers, formed the label Hot Wax. After that, Dozier started recording solo material. His classic tunes in the 70’s included hits such as, “Going Back To My Roots” and “Why Can’t We Be Lovers”. In the 80’s, Dozier teamed up with Phil Collins on the hit, “Two Hearts.”
Now, Dozier is back with a new release titled, Reimagination. This album is a collection of twelve tracks previously written for other artists while at Motown, but Dozier performs them in a way that will make you forget the original. Joining him for this collaboration is Graham Nash, Lee Ann Womack, Todd Rundgren, just to name a few in on the festivities.
On the second track, “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You), Dozier reworks the former classic with Gregory Porter. First, the song is done in acapella , then the song moves into a gospel offering—hand clapping, feet stomping, take it to the river sounds. Dozier uses the same approach on, “Reach Out I’ll Be There”. One of the most underrated singers at Motown was Kim Weston. Her classic, “Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me A Little While), gets a fresh, new makeover in the form of accoustic blues featuring Marc Cohen. Now that’s quite a Weston tribute.
Martha & The Vandellas has the honor of having two of their classics included on Reimagination. “Love Is Like A Heatwave” and “In My Lonely Room”. “In My Lonely Room” happens to be, in my opinion, Dozier’s favorite track. He fools you in the beginning, starting the song by singing, “Love Is Here”, which is the opening of a Supremes track, but goes quickly into “In My Lonely Room”. WOW! The words after all these years really hit you in the feels.
Who but Dozier knows these tunes best? After all, he wrote them, so he can and does perform them the way he sees fit. Reimagination is pure gold, Motown fan or not. Thanks Lamont!
Before Sugar Hill Gang released “Rappers Delight” in 1979, marking the first hip hop record in history, there was The Last Poets. The Harlem-based group performed politically charged poetry over a musical backing of bebop, funk, and demonstrative solo percussion. Along with other famous poets such as Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Poets laid the “ground work” of the hip hop genre. They branded their art as “Jazzoerty,” a combination of music and spoken word that worked together simultaneously.
The Last Poets were and are a highly politically engaged group. “The Original Last Poets” were formed May 19, 1968 in Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park. They chose May 19th as a way to commemorate the assassination of Malcolm X, three years prior. Because their personal ideology was more in line with Malcolm X’s approach to civil rights, May 19 would became both their founding date and a political statement that continues to drive their music and spoken word art.
Understand What Black Is marks the 50th anniversary of The Last Poets and is the first project they have released in 20 years. The reggae driven album, courtesy of Brit producers Nostalgia 77 and Prince Fatty and percussionist Baba Donn Babatunde, is fused with messages that pertain to the state of black people in America, both in the past and as it relates to the present. Group members Abiodun Oyewole and Umar Bin Hassan celebrate blackness while also providing political, philosophical, and religious perspectives on issues with being black in America and within the diaspora. “Understand What Black is….the breath you breathe….the sweat from your brow…Black is love…Black is humanity…the source from which all things come.” These are words from the title track, setting the tone for what is to come.
“Rain of Terror” is one of the most politically charged poems on the album, where Abiodun Oyewole accuses America of being a terrorist—“being mean and nasty to those who treated him kind.” He goes on to talk about the violent nature of America and its treatment of black people and the outside world. “Though shall not kill…that’s not a part of the American dream, because to kill is a thrill they love to show on the TV screen.” This line in the poem harkens to the ways in which black people have been abused on live television during the evening news almost as if it were a normal and acceptable mode of television performance. It is not unlike America to use the death of black bodies as entertainment. This was a form of entertainment in communities in the rural South during the early 1900’s, where white Americans would bring their families to picnic like settings to watch the hanging and public shaming of Negro bodies. Oyewole’s critique on America is that at its root, the country is violent. During a time when fingers are often being pointed toward Islamic countries as being politically, economically and socially corrupt, The Last Poets beg the question, “Is America not guilty of being these things for the last 400 years until the present day?”
“How many Bullets” is a poem that speaks to the ways in which black people have endured despite the violence they have encountered in America and within the diaspora. “Took my drum, broke my hands, yanked my roots up right out of the land and rattled my soul with Jesus.” This track represents the resilience of black people in the face of trauma. Despite being stripped of their religion, their home land, their drums, and their ancestral tongue, black people both retained self and created new identity. Oyewole speaks to both the idea of retention and creation through his discussion about death, viewed through an African rooted lense, where life and death are fluid and not separated. “They shot Malcolm and all they did was multiply his power…they show King and black folks got stronger by the hour.” He also questions the use of religion, particularly Christianity, viewing it as a tool to keep black people in line both during and post- slavery.
“Is there anything not sacred anymore…freedom, justice, honesty…All being devoured by Western imitations of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is drowning out the tears of deception.” On “We Must Be Sacred,” Umar Bin Hassan speaks to the ways in which our world is shifting and changing into an evil place where love and tenderness are becoming taboo topics instead of practice. He claims that we love the product but we don’t care about the person who has created the work, nor do we listen and/or interrogate the things they say. He questions if we are too far gone to be able to elicit real change. He does not, however, claim defeat. “The phoenix will come from the flames this time, there will be no ashes to ashes. Love must be there when the Dust clears.” People must try to begin to love one another again and practice tenderness. However time is not a power so tender that “we could wipe this savage onslaught from our minds.”
The Last Poets conclude their album with the “The Music.” Oyewole celebrates the black creators of music with the line, “I am the music, the sound of life all round.” He furthers his Afro-centric ideology with the line, “I gave the world song,” which connects all things in life, including music, to Africa’s historical past. “I come from mother Africa where music is how we speak… the drum is my heart beat.” He then goes on to praise African American musical influences, which permeate around the globe. However, as Hassan asks in “We Must Be Sacred,” are people engaging the music and the culture or just buying into the product at face value, not caring about the creators?
May saw a semi-surprise release of a new album from George Clinton’s legendary Parliament, the group’s first in 38 years. The expansive, 23-song Medicaid Fraud Dogg clocks in at an hour and forty-six minutes, and every second is imminently listenable.
While the group keeps groove at the center of its music, this ain’t your parents’ Parliament. This iteration of Parliament is not staffed by the regulars that longtime listeners might expect, such as Bootsy Collins and the late Bernie Worrell (though Fred Wesley does make an appearance on trombone on “Type Two”), but by a group of young gun musicians that prominently features Clinton’s grandson, vocalist Tracey “Tra’zae” Lewis-Clinton. This line-up does not hamper the group’s groove, but it does change it.
Medicaid Fraud Dogg contains some classic P-Funk grooves on tracks like on “69” and “Insurance Man,” but much of the album is far more influenced by contemporary hip hop. In fact, it seems like this album reflects Clinton’s listening to artists who previously listened to him. “Backwoods” is a trap-inflected song that listeners would probably be more likely to hear at a club in Atlanta than on an intergalactic voyage. “Loodie Poo Da Pimp” shows Clinton’s influence filtered through Snoop Dogg, then Kendrick Lamar, then back to Clinton. The album’s best moments embrace not having to sound like Parliament but choosing to sound like Parliament. “I’m Gon Make You Sick of Me” is an old-school deep-in-the-groove Parliament track, featuring Scarface (as ‘Dr. Feelgood’) rapping, while “Antisocial Media” is a deconstructive interlude that flirts with free jazz musical textures to express postmodern angst. Both songs feature classic elements of the P-funk playbook filtered through the past 30 years.
Will Medicaid Fraud Dogg satisfy listeners who long to collect every deep cut from Parliament’s 1970s heyday? Probably not—but the album would likely be pretty boring if it were simply a regurgitation of the group’s classics. Rather, it represents a reinvention of George Clinton, an artist who is learning from those he influenced and creating some great new sounds while doing it. This album succeeds precisely because of Parliament’s flexibility and the malleability of the group’s format—Medicaid Fraud Dogg demonstrates that it is possible to teach an old Dogg (in this case, the group of musicians bearing the name Parliament) new tricks.
Jazz saxophonist and composer Darryl Yokley pays homage to Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky on his latest project, Pictures at an African Exhibition. While Mussorgsky’s inspiration for “Pictures at an Exhibition” came from artist Viktor Hartmann, Yokley collaborated with London-born artist David Emmanuel Noel on his similarly titled work. Drawing upon themes of the African Diaspora, Noel created original paintings inspired by each of the album’s 13 tracks.
During an interview for Occhi Magazine, Yokley said he drew “inspiration from African art and music, jazz music, classical music, as well as the artwork of David [Noel]” in the composition of “this jazz symphony.” In the same interview, Noel stated, “As an avid jazz fan, my work is produced in a studio, where the music is the backdrop, influencing every stroke of a brush and fusion of colours on each canvas. The paintings are my visual interpretations and dialogue with each track.” Regarding the thematic material he added, “I think it’s particularly important, when we discuss the African Diaspora and exploit mediums we do control to fully understand the continent’s people, its history, influence and the world’s interdependence on a landmass, with over one billion people. The capturing of a continent’s milestones, from the celebration of life and execution of cultural creativity, to human struggle and emancipation of a diaspora, needs to be told in an amalgam of ways. Music and paintings serve each other well in exploring how we react emotionally to the album’s theme.”
Yokely has been performing music from Pictures at an African Exhibition for the past four years with his band, Sound Reformation, featuring pianist Zaccai Curtis, bassist Luques Curtis, and drummer Wayne Smith Jr. The programmatic suite opens with the brief prelude, “First Sunrise,” marking the “dawn of humankind” in Africa. Following is “Migration,” an exploration of populations moving within and beyond the mother country. Yokely’s opening theme on this track is played in C, which he calls “the key of the earth.” This harmonious and carefree intro, enhanced with classical-style piano riffs, becomes increasingly agitated as the track progresses, with an ebb and flow signaling shifting populations that never return to their point of origin. “Ubuntu” and “Stories of the Village Elder” paint a rich sound collage while exploring African themes and rhythms, accentuated by Curtis’s kalimba-styled piano ostinato.
The music takes a darker turn on “Ominous Nightfall,” as drums signal the approach of those seeking human chattel. Seguing into “Hunting Natives,” the band’s tight harmonies, sharply articulated attacks, and excellent solo turns combine into a masterful performance. “Birth of Swing” is another highlight—a wonderful slow and bluesy dirge drawing heavily upon New Orleans’ jazz traditions, with guest Nasheet Waits on drums. While this track celebrates the contributions of African American musicians, the painful beginnings are also expressed through the clanking of chains added to Smith’s percussion arsenal.
Going forward, Yokely’s thoughts return to the motherland on tracks such as “Echoes of Ancient Sahara” sprinkled with Arabic motifs, the mournful then harrowing “Genocide March” which reenacts the Rwandan and Sierra Leone genocides, and “Cry, the Beloved Country” which moves from voices oppressed to freely articulated melodies resplendent in Yokely’s sax solos.
Closing with “New Sunrise,” the album takes an optimistic turn built around major chords to express Yokely’s “fantasy” of an end to “warfare, racism, classicism, sexism, and all other dividing ideologies and practices.”
Blending music with art while building on the overall theme of unity, Pictures at an African Exhibition realizes Yokely’s overall goal of “creating a work that shows how we as a human family have more in common than our differences would lead us to believe.”
When you have a band name that combines Orca, “the sophisticated, mysterious, intelligent killer whale,” with Stratum, a way of categorizing or layering members of a group—one would expect a certain level of sonic diversity. This is certainly the case with Orcastratum’s eponymous debut album, recorded live at Dean St. Studios in Soho, London. Blending jazz, blues, classical, African, and “UK left field” musical traditions, the London-based group aims to transcend the predictive qualities of mainstream music. Led by producer and songwriter Glen Scott on keyboards, other members of the group include Ralph Salmins on percussion, Neville Malcolm on acoustic bass, and Eric Appapoulay on electric and acoustic guitars.
The album opens with “Spirit of the Skog.” After a brief intro hinting perhaps at fog shrouded forests, the track switches to an up tempo jazz tune featuring master Senegalese musician Solo Cissokho, who artfully intertwines kora melodies and vocals. “Unexpected Relations” is true to it’s word, contrasting classical idioms on the piano against a driving percussion rhythm and ethereal vocal overdubs. Swedish vocalist BERG is the featured guest on “Hallelujah Ironically,” along with Binker Golding, who adds to the contrasting sections with an extended sax solo. Despite its title, “Wizdoom” is an upbeat, piano-centric contemporary jazz tune with lush flourishes and perhaps only a hint of foreboding.
For many, the highlight of the album will be “No Need,” featuring guitarist Eric Bibb and gospel singer Shaneeka Simon. On the intro, Bibb’s lightly plucked guitar ostinato seems to mimic the kora from the opening track. As the song builds, Bibb joins Simon on vocals and the tone becomes dark and urgent, the accompaniment more ominous. Singing “no need for the fussing and fighting my friend,” the musicians bring the song to a powerful climax.
Though only five tracks, Orcastratum is an impactful debut that only hints at the group’s complexities, but certainly fulfills Scott’s “age old quest to inspire myself and others without borders.”
Haitian singer and multi-instrumentalist Paul Beaubrun—son of Theodore “Lòlò” and Mimerose “Manzè” Beaubrun of the Grammy-nominated Haitian band Boukman Eksperyans—does it again with a sensational and thought provoking album, Ayibobo. Released three years after his acoustic album Vilnerab (2015), and six years after Project Haiti (2012) with Zing Experience, Ayibobo weaves together Haitian roots music with rock and roll and reggae, which Beaubrun refers to as “Roots/Blues” music. While this album demonstrates Beaubrun’s compositional concepts and the socially conscious lyrics that fans have grown accustomed too, Ayibobo feels a bit more personal as Beaubrun recounts his lived experiences while reflecting on the encouraging words his mother instilled in him.
The title track “Ayibobo” narrates the circumstances in 2004 that lead to his fleeing Haiti to New York. Beaubrun reminisces on the comfort and strength he felt while remembering what his mother taught him, ‘ayibobo.’ The Haitian Creole term means ‘hallelujah’ or ‘amen,’ but ‘ayibobo’ also carries cultural connotations that can be interpreted as a form of elation. By using this word, Beaubrun demonstrates how one word can strengthen familial and communal ties within the global Haitian community, while paying tribute to Haitian cultural practices.
On “Rise Up,” Beaubrun leans more towards social activism, calling for people to “rise up and be free” while using reggae—a Jamaican musical genre known for its political commentary—as the musical vehicle for his political activist endeavors. We cannot overlook the Haitian folkloric influences that are heard throughout this album, specifically the Haitian drums (tanbou) on “Naissance” and “Elizi.” Sonically, we hear the Haitian polyrhythmic patterns that provide the underlying foundational groove and pulse. Moreover, these songs echo the mizik rasin (roots music) tradition and Haitian mythological themes that are commonly associated with it.
Ayibobo is a phenomenal illustration of Beaubrun’s artistic brilliance. As listeners, we are treated to the wonderful collage of musical sounds while experiencing the exhilarating spirit and cultural sentiments of the Haitian community. Furthermore, this album serves as an exemplar of music and activism. But above all, Ayibobo is a heartfelt expression of a man’s love for his country and community.
Ginkgoa, the swing-inspired electronic music duo, was created when native New Yorker and vocalist Nicolle Rochelle ran into producer Antoine Chatenet in a Paris club. Chatenet’s experience with French electronic music paired seamlessly with Nicolle’s love for swing dance music, resulting in the creation of a high-energy genre that the duo calls “Future Swing.” Their latest EP, One Time, amps up their signature sound with more emphasis on the electronic and trap influences that their audience can’t get enough of.
One Time is an edgy, party-starting EP composed of five tracks that the duo composed, wrote, and produced themselves. Songs such as the gritty “Don’t Give a Damn” were created in a hotel room during Ginkgoa’s Chinese tour through what can best be described as trial-and-error, then debuted at their next show. According to Nicolle, “we make adjustments based on our concerts and what we feel the audience may want more of, then the creative juices start flowing.” On “Boy Bounce,” their first official video single for the album, the duo demonstrates their unique blend of jazz, rap, and feminist electro pop music combined with swing and bounce dance moves:
It is no surprise that Ginkgoa’s music is a hit with the crowds. From Chatenet’s infectious beats and perfectly-timed drops to Nicolle’s unique swing-style vocals, Ginkgoa has developed a distinct sound that is driven by their audience. Ginkgoa’s upcoming US Summer tour, if it’s anything like their previous performances, is sure to be a high-energy experience that you won’t want to miss.
Brooklyn native Keith “Wonderboy” Johnson is one of the leading voices in contemporary gospel quartet music today. The 3x Stellar Award winner and Billboard top 20 chart topper began singing at a young age with father, Phil Johnson, who was the founder of the group, The Spiritual Voices.
Johnson earned the nickname “Wonderboy” as a child due to his amazing melismatic approach to singing along with his distinctive vocal timbre. Johnson has also helped to transform the gospel quartet genre through the use of modern gospel music production sounds and techniques, while maintaining the integrity of traditional gospel quartet music, due to his incredible production crew.
On Johnson’s 13th album, Keep Pushin’, the artist goes well beyond his gospel roots to feature various styles of music. The title track and single, “Keep Pushin”, is a highly inspirational piece with an upbeat funk groove that encourages people to have faith in God and keep moving despite the obstacles that life often presents. Reminiscent of the famous Impressions’ message song “Keep On Pushing” that became a part of the fabric of the Civil Rights Movement, Johnson’s song reveals that people are still dealing with political, social, economical and, one might add, spiritual issues. As Johnson encourages in the music video, one can strive to transcend these issues by facing their problems and not giving up on themselves, others or God.
On the gospel ballad, “God’s Gonna Do It,” Johnson reassures listeners that with faith and patience “God will come through” and perform the unbelievable and impossible task set before them. Johnson projects this same message through his homage to R&B artist Morris Day and the Minneapolis sound, using Day’s popular song “The Bird” as the foundation of “God Is Able.” The background vocalists sing “Hallelujah” during the vamp, as featured on the original song during the chorus section (omitting the word “Squawk,” of course). Johnson went back in time to 1984, utilizing the same synthesizer keyboard sounds accompanied by a “4 on the floor” driving groove. This high energy dance song encourages people to give God praise while they are waiting for their miracle.
Each song on the album features a message of hope, faith and belief in the promises of God through the versatile approach of Johnson’s modern gospel quartet sound. One may hear the traditional gospel and quartet sound, R&B, funk or soul. Each song is governed by the idea that no matter what comes your way, you can make it, with faith, determination, and praise. Johnson end’s his album appropriately with the song “Do You Know How Blessed You Are,” reminding listeners that it is simply a blessing to be alive.
In 2014 a video went viral of a young man singing the modern hymn, “I Won’t Complain,” in his high school cafeteria. That young man was Summerville, South Carolina native Kelontae Gavin. Within two years he was signed to Tyscot Records and his first original single, “Higher,” topped at #30 on the gospel charts. Now the 19-year-old Kelontae Gavin has released his debut album, The Higher Experience.
Recorded live at Fresh Start Church in Atlanta, The Higher Experience opens with the choir singing a gorgeous a capella rendition of the Donnie McClurkin song, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” just one of many beautiful and complex arrangements on this album written by Tyscot producer Marquis Boone. As the album proceeds we are graced with other gorgeous tracks such as “There’s No One Like You” and the title track, “No Ordinary Worship,” which just rose to #16 on the Billboard Gospel Charts.
Of particular note about the production of this song, as well as others on the album, is the precision and quality of the backing vocals. For a live recorded gospel album this actually makes them feel slightly over-produced. This is a very small critique but it stands out because of the passion and raw emotion behind Gavin’s delivery. With the background vocals so clean, Gavin’s passion feels somewhat unsupported.
There are many aspects of Gavin’s performance that stand out. Despite his age, he is extremely adept at his vocal style, song delivery and aptitude as well as his ability to minister. These talents are on display throughout the songs, as well as in breaks between songs such as “Ministry Moment,” where Gavin delivers messages about trusting in God with the execution and confidence of a pastor over twice his age.
Gavin has an electrifying old school sound, reminiscent of the smooth tenor of artists like Sam Cooke, but also with the gritty roar of Clarence Fountain that most would not expect from an artist this young. When hearing Gavin’s dynamic vocal ability and just the overall power and emotion behind his voice, no one could ever guess that he’s still a teenager. The Higher Experience is phenomenal and great kick off to what will hopefully turn into a very lucrative career for Kelontae Gavin.
Brooklyn may be the most iconic of all the New York boroughs, but I usually associate it with basketball first and hip hop second, not choirs. These days, however, we as a society and country need uplifting words, and where better than in song? Enter the six-time Grammy® Award winning Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir. Founded in the 1970s and currently directed by Carol Cymbala, the multicultural BTC has 270 members who, for the most part, are vocally untrained. Taking music out of the church, the choir has performed at Carnegie Hall, Radio City Music Hall, Madison Square Garden, and the 2012 Presidential Inauguration festivities in Washington, DC.
I Am Reminded is the BTC’s 30th release and offers eleven tracks celebrating the power of the Lord. The album was recorded live so you get to enjoy the feedback from the audience as if you were there in church. On the opening track, “Psalm 150,” the lead singer repeats the line “The name of Jesus is worthy to be praised” again and again over great backing vocals. Perhaps the most attention grabbing track is “Jesus It’s You” featuring tenor Sidney Mochede, which could be a crossover hit. The words just suck you up and make you want to bow your head and close your eyes. Songs on the soulful side include the original ballads, “That’s Why God” and the title track, “I Am Reminded” featuring soprano Niciole Binion. Other guests include Shane and Shane, a Texas-based contemporary praise and worship duo who lead the choir in a performance of their anthem, “Psalm 23.”
The contemporary gospel tracks on I Am Reminded are perhaps more Joel Osteen than TD Jakes, but the uplifting music may help us deal with current issues such as school shootings, the #MeTooMovement, Black Lives Matter and NFL policy on players kneeling during the anthem. With the way things are currently, we could use the encouragement.
Born in 1871, James Weldon Johnson is perhaps best known in musical circles as the brother of composer John Rosamond Johnson, who set his poem “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” to music in 1900. But James was also a towering literary figure, among other accomplishments, and one of his best known works is God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, first published in 1927. Based on an old folk sermon that began with the creation of the world and ended with the Judgement Day,” the book of poems is now considered a classic of American literature.
American composer and baritone Gordon Myers (1919-2006) set God’s Trombones to music in 1966. The oratorio was Myer’s doctoral thesis composition and he articulated his goals as follows: “Approaching the task, I kept the sound of a church choir, the lilt of a folk song, and the vitality of the Negro Spiritual in my ear, and set out to blend them into one consistent idiom.”
In 1995, the premiere recording of the work was released by Paraclete Press, performed by Gloriae Dei Cantores conducted by Elizabeth C. Petterson, with Myers as the featured baritone. Based in Orleans, Mass., Gloriae Dei Cantores has a mission to “preserve in recordings worthy American sacred music that would otherwise be neglected,” and consequently decided to reissue their 1995 recording of God’s Trombones, with original liner notes and song texts included. Those who do not own a copy of the original release should certainly consider this new version. It must be noted, however, that the movement “Let My People Go” was sacrificed due to time constraints on the original pressing. Regrettably, the new release is also incomplete—it’s a pity is wasn’t expanded to a two-CD set, but presumably the missing movement was simply not recorded during the 1995 session.
Sometimes it takes a royal wedding to bring musical talents to light. Such is the case with cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason. Though the London-born musician was already a celebrity in the UK, the rest of the world took notice during his televised performance at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on May 19. Now his debut album is topping the charts and fans can’t seem to get enough.
The 19-year-old cellist plays like Yo-Yo Ma and cites the late Jacqueline du Pré as an early influence. After winning the BBC Young Musician Award in 2016, Kanneh-Mason was signed to the prestigious Decca Classics label. Inspiration, released earlier this year, proves his mastery through a mix of the classics and arrangements of popular songs.
Kanneh-Mason opens the album with an arrangement of the Hebrew song “Evening of Roses” (aka “Erev Shel Shoshanim”), then segues into the frequently performed chestnut “The Swan,” from Carnival of the Animals.” Next is “Song of the Birds” arranged by another cello great, Pablo Casals. All three are accompanied by the CBSO cello section.
The full City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Lithuanian conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, comes on board for Shostakovich. First, a beautiful rendition of his “Nocturne” from The Gadfly Suite, followed by Cello Concerto No. 1, which Kanneh-Mason performs brilliantly. One would expect no less since it was his performance of this work at the BBC competition that clinched his award.
The album concludes with four additional arrangements that demonstrate Kanneh-Mason’s beautiful tone and musical maturity: “Les larmes de Jacqueline” from Offenbach’s cello suite Harmonies des Bois, Op. 76; Casal’s arrangement of Sardana; and two popular favorites—Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” The latter, arranged for strings, includes assistance from three other young musicians—violinist Didier Osindero, violist Alinka Rowe and cellist Yong Jun Lee.
None of the above were performed during the royal wedding, which included Après un Rêve by Gabriel Fauré, Sicilienne by Maria Theresia von Paradis and Schubert’s Ave Maria, but for those who want more of Kanneh-Mason, the wedding performance is available on video. He will also be touring throughout Europe this summer and fall, with three performances scheduled in Seattle in October. No doubt he will be filling those seats!
Royce da 5’9”, while best known for his collaborations with artists such as Eminem in addition to his extensive recording career, is still an enigmatic figure to many of his fans. While other artists have freely woven their personal issues into their rhymes, until this point Royce has relied on his lyricism skills to build his reputation and fan base. With Book of Ryan, however, he switches up his game plan and allows us a glimpse into his personal world. Functioning as a part-retrospective/part-progressive look at the Royce-That-Was and the Royce-That-Has-Yet-To-Be, Book of Ryan unflinchingly spins a narrative of past drug use, current insecurities and future self-expectations.
The 21-set album begins with an introduction in which Royce lays out his intentions for his music in narrative-style, and quickly gets right down to business in his second cut, “Woke.” The minimalistic, polyrhythmic percussion is appealing in its own right, but the lyrics calling out those in self-denial of their behavior and environment is spot-on conscious mode. “My Parallel,” the first of three self-explanatory ‘skits,’ further explores Royce’s purpose for the remainder of the album, disclosing that his dark childhood and subsequent drug use drove many of his self-destructive decisions.
While Royce doesn’t dwell in his past for the entire time, the main focus of his album is to let us into his inner world and former experiences. His choice of featured artists lets his fan base know who is important in his life—Eminem, T-Pain, and Pusha T, to name a few. “Amazing,” featuring Melanie Rutherford, is a multi-functional finger-point towards the grocer in Royce’s childhood who took away his coveted basketball, while also introducing fans to his past self through a self-affirmational journey through his old neighborhood.
Royce continues his backward glance with “Boblo Boat,” an offering best experienced through video (above) due to its nostalgic youthful feeling and amusement park scenes. But it’s his skit, “Who are You,” that offers the best proof of why Ryan has released this deeply introspective album. This narrative features Royce describing a dream in which he is able to ask his late father hard-hitting questions he never got the chance to ask, followed by Royce’s son asking if he can interview him for a school project he has decided to do about his father called “The Book of Ryan.”
The Book of Ryan is a well-crafted piece of audible prose. Looking inward and outward at both society and himself, Royce da 5’9” gives us a page-turning look at all the forces that molded and shaped him into the artist he is now and the individual he aspires to be.
Americana duo Birds of Chicago is a marriage, literally, of singer-songwriters JT Nero and Allison Russell. Formed in 2012, the group has developed a loyal following through their relentless touring schedule. Since their last full-length project, Real Midnight (2016), the Birds have flown from Chicago to Nashville, where they now reside. Their new album, Love in Wartime, co-produced by Luther Dickenson, reflects the sounds of both hometowns as the duo artfully intertwines elements of country, folk, blues and rock.
While Russell’s voice has been prominent on previous albums, Love in Wartime is perhaps more evenly divided between the duo, contrasting Russell’s silky, soulful soprano against Nero’s grittier baritone. Opening with the intro “Now/Sunlight,” Russell hums a whimsical, folksy tune over plucked banjo chords, then segues into the uptempo roots rock song, “Never Go Back,” with Nero on lead vocals. On the title track, twangy guitars come to the fore as Nero recounts the realities of longterm relationships and parenthood, “we sat there and tried to remember our dreams, no such luck, no such luck.” Life on the road is the subject of the poignant “Travelers,” as Russell sings “there’s no home in this world, got no home in this world.” One of the most effective duets on the album is “Try,” with Russell and Nero trading verses before coming together on the chorus, “Try a little harder, give a little more.”
Other highlights include the uplifting bluesy song “Roll Away” which encourages folks to “roll away the heavy stones, roll away the heavy hours, roll on in the summer moon,” and the banjo accompanied ballad “Superlover.”
Love in Wartime is jam-packed with carefully crafted songs and inspirational lyrics that celebrate life and love despite troubled times and the daily grind.
Shirley Davis’ path to becoming lead vocalist of Shirley Davis & the Silverbacks has been anything but ordinary—from working at London’s Wembley Arena as a young teen to becoming one of the top soul and funk vocalists in Australia to singing on a cruise ship. Her musical journey continued after a chance encounter at a Sharon Jones concert in 2014; Davis was invited by Alberto “Tuco” Peces and Genesis Candela from Tucxone Records to come to Madrid and record an album. Davis was introduced to the Silverbacks in the studio and the connection between them was immediate.
Two years after releasing their acclaimed debut album, Black Rose, that put them on the modern soul and funk map, Shirley Davis & the Silverbacks are back with Wishes & Wants. The 9-track album includes everything from emotional ballads like “Treat Me Better” to more upbeat, funky tracks like “Kisses,” but each song has in common the strong soul that Shirley Davis always delivers. And while Davis’ soulful voice is always mesmerizing, the Silverbacks deserve recognition for their ability to match the power and energy conveyed by their lead singer. The band’s musical skill is highlighted in tracks such as “Nightlife,” in which the funky groove laid down by the organ, horns, guitar, and drums beautifully pairs with the vocals. Following is the official video single for the equally funky title track:
While their first album may have hinted that Shirley Davis and the Silverbacks deserve a spot among the contemporary soul and funk greats, Wishes & Wants proves that they deserve to stay. And according to Shirley Davis, this isn’t the last you’ll see of her: “This is what I believe I will do for the rest of my life. I am meant to be the soul diva of Europe.”
Blues powerhouses Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite return with a new musical collaboration, No Mercy In This Land. Their first album, 2012’s Get Up!, spurred, at least in my mind at the time, comparisons to other blues and jazz artists such as John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. I now realize that while some comparisons are productive, sometimes artists come together to produce the most amazingly creative offerings. Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite are the perfect example of just that.
“When I Go,” the opening track, sets the mood for what to expect on this new album. The song begins with humming! You know what I mean—1930s/1940s, take-me-to-the-river-and-baptize me-in-blues humming. Then, the mesmerizing strumming of a guitar takes over. “I’ll take you when I go,” replies Harper. Talk about musical blues call and response.
After that moving scene, picture a jukebox in some honky-tonk bar, with patrons who perhaps had one too many, lip synching to the next track, “The Bottle Wins Again.” On “Trust You to Dig My Grave” I can practically hear Muddy Waters weighing in on the action from the Beyond—Harper and Musselwhite really do justice on this one. “Bad Habits” is an up tempo, clap-along jam. Musselwhite and Harper are never quite specific what kind of bad habits they are referring to. You listen. You be the judge of that one.
No Mercy In This Land is excellent work from Harper, and once again, he has found a great compadre in Musselwhite. For this album, and this iconic blues duo, there literally is no comparison.
Zig Zag Power Trio’s Woodstock Sessions Volume 9 is a difficult album to classify stylistically. It is also rather startling if the personnel are merely taken at face value. Vernon Reid and Will Calhoun from Living Colour join bassist Melvin Gibbs, who might be most frequently associated with the Rollins Band. Thus, a listener who is only casually familiar with these musicians might expect the trio to be a hard rock band, if not a metal band. Granted, there is evidence of these stylistic expressions, and there are power trio rock influences from artists such as Jimi Hendrix. However, Zig Zag Power Trio also possess more eclectic influences. This is a jazz fusion record as much as it is anything else, a fact that is not surprising given that Gibbs and Reid played together in free-jazz drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society decades ago.
There will be guitarists who discover this recording due to Reid’s presence, and they will hear references to many of his influences—Jimi Hendrix; Bill Frisell, who collaborated with Reid on Smash & Scatteration in 1984; and David Torn, just to name a few. More than on any other recording, Reid’s ability to draw from a palette of influence consisting of hints of many players is supremely evident. Frankly, there are stellar individual performances by all three band members, but much of the virtuosity on this album lies in how the members interact with one another. Interaction is, of course, one of the attractive qualities in listening to any group of excellent musicians, but this recording serves as an impeccable example of interplay.
The cover of Junior Kimbrough’s “I Love Ya Baby” is the sole straight-ahead rock song on the album, and it is reminiscent of blues-rock jams à la Johnny Winter or Jimi Hendrix. However, Zig Zag Power Trio definitely puts their own stamp on the genre. “Professor Bebey,” which was previously released by Reid on his 2006 recording, Other True Self, is a departure from every other tune on the album with its African highlife feel. These two tracks are two of the most fun songs on the album. The remainder of the tunes are largely avant-garde in nature, so these two tracks are also the most accessible. However, this should not be interpreted as a negative review of the rest of the recording.
The cover of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” is amazing. Not only is it a testament to the haunting quality of the original, but Reid and company put on a clinic in how to communicate musically with other band members. At times, Calhoun’s drumming is reminiscent of legend Billy Cobham, and Melvin Gibbs manages to tear the bass apart subtly, if not sneakily. “Lonely Woman” is an almost nine-and-a-half minute masterclass for any musician, and something new will be heard with each listen. ZZPT’s interpretation of Ronald Shannon Jackson’s “Eastern Voices Western Dreams” is another standout. The ambience is simply beautiful, and Reid and Gibbs play extremely well together—evidence of the fact that they were both playing this tune in Jackson’s band circa 1980. “Woodstock” and “David Bowie” are also songs of interest due to the atmospheric textures produced by heavily processed guitar sounds.
Woodstock Sessions Volume 9 is full of abundant surprises, with each of the members turning in career performances throughout. Combined with excellent musicianship, the sheer number of stylistic influences offers a little something for everyone. Having said that, fans of music that lies somewhere between progressive rock and jazz fusion (e.g. David Torn or Robert Fripp) will be very pleased. Considering the presence of tunes by Ornette Coleman, Pharoah Sanders, and Ronald Shannon Jackson, it is also fair to say that fans of avant-garde jazz in general should consider giving this group a thorough listen. So far, the Zig Zag Power Trio and their debut album are flying under the radar, but that should soon change. Let’s hope there’s another project in the works.
Idris Ackamoor and his jazz ensemble The Pyramids began performing together in the 1970s when they were students at Antioch College under the mentorship of renowned pianist Cecil Taylor. After releasing several widely acclaimed “space-age” or “spiritual” jazz albums, the group disbanded in 1977. When a new generation of music lovers discovered The Pyramids recordings and began clamoring for more, Ackamoor decided to reconstitute the group in 2012. An Angel Fell is the third release from this new ensemble, led by Ackamoor on alto, tenor sax and keytar, with Sandra Poindexter on violin and sharing lead vocals with Ackamoor. Other group members (at least on this album) include David Molina on guitar, Skyler Stover on double bass, Bradie Speller on congas, and Johann Polzer on drums.
Explaining the choice of album title and overall theme, Ackamoor said “I wanted to use folklore, fantasy and drama as a warning bell. The songs explore global themes that are important to me and to us all: the rise of catastrophic climate change and our lack of concern for our planet, loss of innocence and separation… but positive themes too, the healing power of music, collective action and the simple beauty of nature.”
The album opens with “Tinoge,” which seems to be a reinterpretation of The Pyramids’ previously released single, “Tinoge Ya Ta’a Ba,” the latter recorded in Ghana with Kologo artist Guy One. “Tinoge” is a compelling track that features the same driving rhythm and percussion, with guitars replacing kologo and an extended free jazz sax solo replacing the vocals. Next up, the title track “An Angel Fell” capitalizes on the “cosmic jazz” theme, with distorted vocals punctuated by spacey, electronic riffs. The Sun Ra tribute, “The Land of Ra,” follows in a similar vein, as distorted call and response vocals segue into a steady Afrobeat groove over which Ackamoor seductively blows his horn. Suddenly, their celestial universe is disrupted by what might be described as a magnetic storm (i.e., all hell breaks loose), but as the piece progresses and harmonies resolve, equilibrium returns.
Two message songs are included on the album. The first and most emotional is “Soliloquy For Michael Brown.” Ackamoor’s sax literally screams in anguish over an underlying conga rhythm. As anguish turn to grief, the bass riffs on a melody reminiscent of the spiritual “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jerico,” then intertwines with violin and guitar as the track draws to a close—but there’s no closure. “Message to My People” is a warning about climate change and global warming, with Ackamoor sounding the alarm on the alto sax and the group responding as if their life is imperiled. “All I wanted was a chance, to live my life like anyone” chants the chorus, but the raucous conclusion leaves little doubt the world has come to an end.
Concluding with the uplifting song “Sunset,” the Pyramids provide a glimmer of hope and “a prayer to save our world.” The struggle is still very much present, with Ackamoor’s sax sounding another warning as the chorus sings, “The sunset is on the way.” End of the world or just the close of another evening, you decide.
An Angel Fell is a brilliant and intense album, with wild bursts of sound. The socially conscious project takes the concept of spiritual jazz to the next level, but in a manner that is still very approachable.
Robust talent runs generationally, especially when you’re the offspring of blues icon Taj Mahal and dancer/artist Inshirah Mahal, as proven with Deva Mahal’s debut album, Run Deep. Forging her own sound as part blues, part indie-rock and all soul, Mahal gives her listeners one of the edgiest, most emotionally drawn voices in the industry today.
The first track, “Can’t Call it Love,” opens with a riveting guitar riff and empowering lyrics: I’m feeling new like an old-school instrumental / I’m getting in the mood / And feeling sentimental, which can be taken as both commentary on one’s new found infatuation and Mahal’s coming into her own. The entire album features innovative instrumentality and Mahal’s varied vocalization styles. For example, the closing track, “Take a Giant Step,” showcases her sultry pop sound as she reinterprets this standard by Carole King and Gerry Goffin (a song her father has also recorded).
The focal track of the album, both vocally and visually, is the offering “Snakes.” Mahal’s vocals jump right off the album from the first moment she begins singing, but the visualizations of the video are pure genius—black and white coloring, shadow dancing and the animation of a swamp monster, said to have been inspired by her favorite childhood “girl power” book, Liza Lou and the Yeller Belly Swamp by Mercer Mayer.
Mahal has definitely come out from under her parent’s shadow with this artistic debut. From the first note to the last few strains, this artist’s soulful and funky melodies will have you running deep into the magical world of Deva Mahal, breathlessly awaiting her next move.