Garnering the titles “Best New Band” and “Best International/World Music Act” in last year’s poll by the Chicago Reader,ESSO Afrojam Funkbeat is capitalizing on their local popularity with their new full-length sophomore release. Juntos, which means “together” in Spanish, is indicative of the multi-cultural ensemble that’s comprised of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Colombian, and African American musicians. Band members include Armando Perez (guitar/vocals), Kevin Miller (saxophone), Dan Lieber (drums/percussion), Ezra Lange (bass), Diana Mosquera (vocals), Puerko Pitzotl (percussion), Jess Anzaldua (percussion), Matt Davis (trombone), and Luis Tubens (vocals).
The album’s title also reflects the socially conscious nature of the project as well as band’s aspirations to unite their city. As stated by Perez, “We believe, especially growing up and witnessing the social divisions and violence in Chicago, that we can only move forward as a people, united with tolerance and understanding. Divisions are a social construct and we believe music is one of those special things that brings people together.”
ESSO performs an infectious fusion of tropical funk and cumbiation—a blending of cumbia with reggaetón. Opening with sensuous rhythms, “Baila” is an excellent example of the band’s synthesis of more traditional Latin music interspersed with raps and electronic effects. Following is the harder, funk-driven Afrobeat song “La Calle,” about the challenges of growing up on the streets of Chicago, particularly among first generation immigrant families. Vocalist Diana Mosquera is featured prominently on her self-penned “Mariposa Negra,” while traditional Yoruban chants over several layers of percussion form the basis of “Homenaje.” Cuban-born DJ AfroQbano, now based in Chicago, programmed the beats on “Piramides,” “Meet Me Out,” and “Stone Eagle”—the latter two the only songs in English. Tracks such as “Somos Hermanos” and “Mi Gente” perhaps best articulate the group’s socio-political message of coming together as brothers and sisters and communities to strive for a better future.
On Juntos, ESSO Afrojam Funkbeats combine tight horns with an array of percussion to create infectious dance beats all while espousing the necessity of solidarity and embracing the multicultural nature of communities. This is world music fusion at its finest!
After almost thirty years in the industry, Living Colour has proven time and again they are a force to be reckoned with in rock music. Since the band’s inception they’ve been an amalgamation of varied influences—funk, blues, hard rock, soul, jazz and metal—in the best possible way. Shade furthers demonstrates their musical prowess. It’s been eight years since the well-received The Chair in the Doorway album and Living Colour wastes no time reestablishing themselves.
“Freedom of Expression” sets the album off lovely with the band flexing their well- honed chemistry and skills. Vernon Reid’s main guitar riff is catchy and menacing. Doug Wimbish and Will Calhoun handle the rhythm duties, with a thumping bassline and funking drumming respectively. Lastly, Corey Glover’s vocals sound as powerful and impassioned as ever.
Issues of social justice have long been a touch point in songs by Living Colour and “Freedom of Expression” is no different. Glover sings, “The news you use has been falsified / til you use my fear against me every side / won’t let you choose for me pick a side / no left, no right, no middle, no divide.” Furthermore, on “Blak Out” the band plays with the concept of double consciousness that is salient to the lives of most Black people in America. When Corey Glover sings “Sometimes they misunderstand / Don’t know who I really am” you might call it signifying as many Black listeners know the struggle not to “blackout” all too well.
On “Preachin Blues” the band’s blues influence is on full display as they rip through Robert Johnson’s classic, adding a decidedly electrified funk flavor to the mix. Reid showcases why his name should come up in any serious discussion about rock guitarists with scorching solos on this track as well as on “Program,” which speaks on the ills of a reality TV centric existence.
Hard to say enough about how well the band channels all of their influences from song to song on the album. On “Come On” you can hear the drum and bass influence on Will Calhoun’s drumming patterns, on “Pattern In Time” the feel is very Funkadelic (George Clinton himself drops by to add background vocals to “Two Sides” later on the album), and they do a full-on rock infused cover of the Notorious B.I.G.’s “I Shot Ya” while never feeling like they are stepping outside of their wheelhouse. On the latter they use the track to shine a spotlight on events like Michael Brown’s death, giving a decidedly more political spin to Biggie Smalls’ lyrics.
Unfortunately (for this reviewer) the album is missing the band’s great cover of The Jacksons’ “This Place Hotel” (aka Heartbreak Hotel) that was included on the Who Shot Ya mixtape released by the band earlier this year. However, we do get a great cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” with spoken word poetry by Umar Bin Hassan sprinkled throughout.
Living Colour has seen a resurgence in mainstream popularity over the past few years as popular WWE wrestler CM Punk has used their signature song “Cult of Personality” as his theme music. On Shade, Living Colour has crafted songs that are just as catchy and powerful as “Cult” without sacrificing any of their artistic integrity by seeking a hit single. Shade is simultaneously accessible and uncompromising, which can be said about the lion’s share of the band’s work.
At times it’s hard to know how much you’ve missed something until you’ve had the chance to feel it again. Shade serves as a frank reminder that Living Colour is still one of the best bands doing it.
The Mothership has returned to feed “funk-starved” earthlings, bringing as its main course second-generation P-funker Garret Shider, aka Starchild, Jr. Garret, son of former Parliament-Funkadalic’s “Diaper Man” Garry Shider, serves up his own recipe of the much-needed groove, proving with this debut album that he has come into his own as an adult artist. First and second generation Clintons show up to the meal as members of Shider’s team, with George, son Tracey “Trey Lewd” Lewis and grandson Tracey “Tra’zae” Clinton providing a healthy dose of those bass/rock/horn booms indicative of the unique P-funk sound.
The set begins with “Sugar Rush,” a not-so-subtle sultry ode to all the sweetness that special person holds in our life. Shider then gets cooking with the next offering, “Bop Gun 17,” a song holding strong echoes of classic P-funk backdropped against Shider’s funky old-school falsetto. Starchild Jr.’s dose of political consciousness spills out in the form of “Hard Pill,” as Shider intonates, “When the doctor prescribes his pill it’s the side effects that’s gonna keep you ill, so go ahead and get your glass of water.” The courses just keep on coming from the center section of the funk banquet, as “Jamnastics” to “Stuck in the Middle” reinforce the concept that Shider and his bandmates have plenty of simmering soulfulness.
But it’s the final dish in the form of the title track that fully encapsulates the servings of both Shider’s. “Hand Me Down Diapers” acts as Garret’s personal tribute to his father, tracing the Shider legacy from its beginnings to current day. The song ends with a poignant guitar solo by Jr. as background to an interview conducted with the late Garry Shider, in which he explains the point of his diaper and references an upcoming album.
Showcasing P-funk’s multiple generations at their best, Hand Me Down Diapers is both a testament to Garry Shider’s legacy and a presentation of Garrett Shider’s own artistic individuality, all while holding true to the main ingredients of 1970s funk.
Detroit raised, Motown trained guitarist Randy Jacobs formed The Boneshakers in 1994 to “project his vision of funk, blues, R&B, rock and soul into the universe.” Current members of his band include gritty soul singer Sweet Pea Atkinson, bassist Derek Frank, keyboardist Rodney Lee, and drummer Third Richardson. Two years ago, The Boneshakers teamed up with saxophonist, singer-songwriter Mindi Abair on the album Live in Seattle, and the collaboration was so successful they have been touring together ever since. Their second joint release, The EastWest Sessions, reflects the name of the Hollywood studio where the project was recorded under the guidance of noted blues-rock producer Kevin Shirley.
The album opens with Abair taking over the vocals on the hard rocking ‘Vinyl.’ True to the lyrics, the song is “in your groove like a needle on vinyl.” Following is “Not That Kind of Girl,” which allows Abair to strut her stuff on sax, bringing down the house with this raucous party song. “Play to Win” is another hard rocking anthem, a feminist mantra espousing a no-holds-barred philosophy that continues into the bluesy “Pretty Good for a Girl.*” This extended track about the difficulties of being a woman in a man’s world finds Abair trading solos with her old friend, guitarist Joe Bonamassa.
The Boneshakers take over on “Let Me Hear It From You.” Sweet Pea Atkinson covers this Sly Stone ballad with a voice steeped in soul, then takes us to church with a gospel style chorus as the song comes to a close. Another notable track is “Freedom,” an instrumental with Abair and Jacobs both letting loose in a battle for dominance, then coming together in harmony over the sweet chords of the B3. Without a doubt, the most interesting track on the album—the one that makes you jump up and shout “what is that?”—has got to be “She Don’t Cry No More.” Written by and featuring Fantastic Negrito, this slow dirge of a blues song conjures up the soul of Robert Johnson and throws it into a chain gang where Abair’s sax wails like a banshee over the relentless rhythm. Seriously, this song will haunt you for days. The album concludes on a lighter note, passing the mic back to Abair who sings “I Love to Play the Saxophone” over finger-picking guitars.
The EastWest Sessions is by far the best collaboration to date between Mindi Abair and The Boneshakers, with its rotating blend of jazz, blues, rock, soul and smooth groove.
*Pretty Good for a Girl is also the name of a website hosted by Abair with a mission to motivate, inspire and empower women.
“You can kill the revolutionary, but you can’t kill the revolution . . .”
The Liberation Music Collective, a contemporary jazz orchestra founded by recent graduates of Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, is charting a course as a conscious-raising group advocating for social justice and equality through poetry and music. On LMC’s bold 2015 debut, Siglo XXI, each of the album’s tracks focused on current social or political issues. For their sophomore release, LMC takes a different approach. As the title suggests, Rebel Portraiture “honors the individuals whose courage and commitment call attention to oppression and injustice the world over.” These individuals, both contemporary and historic, have another common thread—each lost their life while valiantly fighting for a cause. Liner notes by Latin Grammy Award winner Kabir Sehgal further illuminate the lives of these individuals and the compositions on the album.
Hannah Fidler and Matt Riggen, co-founders of LMC, composed or arranged the majority of the works on the album, drawing upon a multitude of genres, influences and instruments. For example, the opening track “Passing Away” is based on a sacred harp hymn and recalls the life of Giles Conery, who was killed during the Salem Witch trials “during a beautiful display of resistance” echoed in the trumpet solos by Riggen.
Many of the tracks are paired, offering more than one tribute to fallen heroes. “An Afterlife for Jeffrey Miller” and “Kent State” honor the four students killed by the National Guard in 1970 while protesting against the Vietnam War. The former, drawing upon a protest poem composed by Miller shortly before his death, is one of the more arresting tracks on the album. The spoken poetry is woven into music that begins in a more traditional Copland-esque style before shifting into Gil Scott-Heron territory. Another pair of tracks memorializing Syrian and Iraqi journalists killed by ISIS also effectively employ spoken word: “An Afterlife for Ruqia Hassan” recites (in English) an abstraction of the oldest verse from the Qur’an, while “Iqra” features both spoken and sung text performed by Fidler.
The remaining tracks also reference more recent deaths. “The Afterlife of Berta Cáceres” honors the Honduran indigenous environmental activist using an arrangement of a traditional Ghanian funeral song performed primarily on gyil, percussion and bass. “Ditchside Monument” and “An Afterlife for Noxolo Nogwaza” are dedicated to the South African LGBTQ+ activist killed in 2011. The latter “Afterlife” track features an extended bass solo by Fidler before concluding in a chorus based on the Bantu words handziyah (ascent) and kurhula (peace).
Rebel Portraiture closes with “All I Need,” bringing in the entire ensemble to perform LMC’s “anthem for the rebels of today and the heroes of tomorrow” in a glorious demonstration of solidarity.
Ahmad Jamal does it again with the release of his newest album, Marseille. According to Jazz Village [PIAS], “Marseille is Jamal’s love letter to the iconic city in Southern France.” Throughout the album, we hear Jamal’s signature minimalist approaches, extended vamps, lush chordal harmonies, space and textures. This album presents a picture of the city through his expressive compositions and arrangements.
Jazz has always been an evolving genre, drawing from popular and folkloric musics as inspirational tools for compositions. As for Ahmad Jamal, at age 87, he continues to demonstrate his ability to perform and compose in the jazz tradition with the highest level of artistry. Each track on this album (re)constructs musical forms and genres, offering new possibilities for jazz in the 21st century. Genres ranging from marches, New Orleans rhythms coupled with Southern Baptist influences (“Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”), and Afro-Cuban 6/8 rhythm (“Pots En Verre”) are all heard as Jamal expresses his emotions towards the city of Marseille.
The title track is worth mentioning, as it is performed three times on this album, creating a sense of Jamal’s personal narrative. The album begins with the first iteration of “Marseille” featuring a steady march rhythm under lush chordal harmonies, supported by riffs in the piano and bass. The second iteration, placed halfway through the album, changes to a groove similar to Jamal’s arrangement of “Poinciana,” but includes a spoken word section (with lyrics by Jamal) performed by Abd Al Malik in French.
The final iteration of “Marseille,” and final track of the album, features Mina Agossi singing Jamal’s lyrics in both English and French. Similar to a story structure, each variation of “Marseille” further explores Jamal’s relationship with the city. Malik’s use of rhythm mixed with brief pauses and repetitions, and Agossi’s warm tone and melodic embellishment evoke the emotional sensation described in the lyrics. If you appreciate the compositional style of Ahmad Jamal and his use of space and textures, then this album will most certainly not disappoint.
Resonance Records’ George Klabin and Zev Feldman continue mining the world’s vaults and closets and unearthing excellent-quality jazz recordings previously unissued as commercial albums. Among their releases this year are albums by Gene Harris’s piano trio The Three Sounds recorded in Seattle in the 1960’s, and a gala 1982 big-band fusion concert led by the late great bassist Jaco Pastorius and recorded by National Public Radio at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall. The albums offer entertaining and excellent-sounding windows into two very distinct styles of jazz.
The piano trio (piano, bass and drums) was a stable of urban jazz bars in the post-WWII era, popularity peaking in the late 1950’s through the 1960’s. Famous piano trios were led by Erroll Garner, Ramsey Lewis, Oscar Peterson, among others. And there was also The Three Sounds, fronted by keyboard ace Gene Harris. Resonance’s producers located and secured rights to a series of Three Sounds performances at The Penthouse club in Seattle, which were originally tape-recorded and broadcast over local radio. The performances feature Harris and bassist Andy Simpkins with different drummers present for each of the three different recording dates (1964, 1966 and 1968).
Musically, The Three Sounds hew more toward the jazz side of soul-jazz, as compared to Ramsey Lewis for instance, with the emphasis on a swinging groove. Harris was a skilled pianist, but he emphasized musicality over technical chops. He and his band mates were in sync and projected a logical and well-thought concept of how to play their way around their set lists. Album highlights include the Harris originals “Blue Genes,” “Rat Down Front” and “The Boogaloo,” plus covers of Neil Hefti’s “Girl Talk” and Johnny Mandel’s “The Shadow of Your Smile” that avoid stereotypical schmaltz traps and groove along nicely.
Jaco Pastorius was a self-taught and revolutionary bassist (for more on that, check out the documentary film “Jaco”). He gained fame as part of fusion-jazz mega-stars Weather Report, but left the band in 1981 and formed an ensemble he called the Word of Mouth Band. An expanded version of that group performed at Manhattan’s Avery Fisher Hall on June 27, 1982 as part of the Kool Jazz Festival, and the performance was recorded by National Public Radio’s “Jazz Alive!” program. The Resonance 2-CD release includes 40 minutes of music not included in the original broadcast.
For this performance, the Word of Mouth Band included members of the A-list of New York studio musicians, some of whom were familiar names as part of that era’s “Saturday Night Live” band. Fans of the “Blues Brothers” movies will recognize names like “Blue” Lou Marini on tenor sax and Alan Rubin on trumpet. Plus, legendary harmonica player Toots Thielemans joined the band for seven numbers.
The big band that Pastorius brought on stage was very much of fusion jazz and of the early 1980s. It included Pastorius’s electric bass (with heavy amplification and effects), steel drums played by Othello Molineaux, tuba player David Bargeron, percussionist Don Alias, plus six sax-men, six trumpets, three trombones and two French horns. In the drum seat was Pastorius’s former Weather Report bandmate, Peter Erskine.
One of the reasons Pastorius left Weather Report was an on-going disagreement with band founder Joe Zawinul about how far the band should move toward electronic effects and synthesizers. Although much younger than Zawinul, Pastorius favored an approach closer to jazz’s acoustic traditions. His vision, as presented with the Word of Mouth Band, is modern and somewhat electrified, but firmly rooted in traditional large-ensemble jazz. It’s no accident, for instance, that the band presents a very recognizable cover of Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady.” As far as fusion-jazz style, this band favors Latin and funky flavors as opposed to the slicker and somewhat disco-esque music of later-era Weather Report.
Even though the ensemble is large and some of the arrangements are dense, the playing is flawless. Engineer Paul Blakemore, who made the original recording for NPR, returned to his multi-track tapes and remixed the concert, the result being superb, punchy and detailed sound.
Both of these albums are the latest examples of Resonance’s emphasis on quality music above all else, followed closely by quality recordings. As is always the case with Resonance releases, both albums feature hefty booklets full of details about the musicians, performances’ times and places and producer Feldman’s always entertaining tales of scouring the vaults and closets to find the hidden jazz gems.
It’s interesting listening to these albums back-to-back, noting the different times and places, and the very different styles of music included in the big tent of jazz. In a modern context, the Pastorius concert is an afternoon on the deck with friends, beer, chips and salsa – fun, bright and energetic. The Three Sounds club dates go well with an adult beverage, low light and a comfortable chair – engaging and relaxed but never dull.
Angela Bofill should have been bigger than she was. The New York born singer of Cuban and Puerto Rican heritage had the voice. She could go from R & B to quiet storm to smooth jazz. Bofill was pre-Sade. She was pre-Anita Baker. In the late ’70s, she was well on her way. But in recent years, Angela Bofill has been absent from the music scene due to two strokes—one in 2006 and another in 2007—which impaired her abilities as a vocalist. I Try: The Anthology 1978-1993, is a two disc set containing 34 tracks from Bofill’s career culled from her GRP, Arista and Jive releases. Compiled by British soul music historian David Nathan, this iconic singer’s collection comes with liner notes by A. Scott Galloway that are based on interviews with many of Bofill’s contemporaries. Some of these tracks were hits and if you were around, you can easily recall them; others, perhaps, you had no clue.
Disc one opens with the extended version of “Too Tough.” Produced by Narada Michael Walden, Bofill went for the dance crowd on this track, but some of her biggest fans felt that she got out of her lane, and before long—Poof. Bofill’s career started to fade away. I can understand trying new material, but on the other hand, if it ain’t broke, don’t tinker with it. “What I Wouldn’t Do (For The Love Of You)” was one of Bofill’s earliest hits, when eyes and ears were noticing her. Her “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” duet with Boz Scaggs is a remake of the Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell classic. That’s the good thing about anthologies—you hear songs you never knew the artist recorded. “Angel of the Night” finds Bofill showcasing her Latino roots. When she starts singing in Spanish at the end, just flow with the vibe. Often, she was singing about herself and the smooth flow of the language highlights her fantastic tonal qualities.
Disc two contains more duets, including one with Johnny Mathis, “You’re A Special Part Of Me,” and with Carl Anderson on “A Woman In Love.” Other collaborators include Stanley Clarke, Carl Anderson, Narada Michael Walden, and Marion Meadows—all unique to this specific compilation. You cannot end an Angela Bofill collection without her signature song, “I Try.” If you ever happened to see Bofill live, then you know what this song means to her. Turn it up and sing along.
It’s a shame that Bofill never reached the heights that some of her contemporaries eventually achieved. It’s even sadder that her health has affected her career the way it has. However, thanks to this anthology we can appreciate what Bofill was able to offer and enjoy her music forever.
When Seattle power rock trio Ayron Jones and The Way burst onto the scene in 2013 with their Sir Mix-a-Lot produced debut album The Dream, the band was suddenly propelled from playing Northwest dive bars to opening for B.B. King, Robert Cray, Run-DMC and Living Colour. Now, four years later, Jones has new personnel in his band as well as a new producer— ethnomusicologist and drummer Barrett Martin (Screaming Trees, Mad Season, Walking Papers). His sophomore album, Audio Paint Job, is more of a solo project, with Jones credited as singer/songwriter across the 14 tracks mixed by Jack Endino (Nirvana, Soundgarden). As for The Way, current band members Ehssan Karimi (drums) and Bob Lovelace (bass) are featured prominently but not exclusively, while former members—bassist DeAndre Enrico and metal drummer Kai Van De Pitte—also make an appearance. Barrett Martin adds percussion to the majority of the tracks, with occasional forays on the Wurlitzer, vibraphone, piano and backing vocals.
On Jones’s latest project, the Hendrix-inspired guitarist draws upon other iconic elements of the Seattle music scene past and present, including grunge and punk, seasoned with a heavy dose of soul and a pinch of hip hop. As for the album title, Jones explains: “Audio Paint Job . . . has multiple meanings for me. It’s a story about my mental and spiritual transformation through music.” Overcoming obstacles is a constant theme throughout, as Jones’s songs chronicle his personal struggles: life in the spotlight, a divorce, and the loss of a family member from drug and alcohol addiction.
The album kicks off with the powerful rock ballad “Take Me Away,” which successfully incorporates a surprisingly diverse sonic palette. Opening with the percussive sound of a typewriter “performed” by Barrett Martin like a modern day Ernie Pyle, the song progresses through a guitar duel between Jones and Lovelace, scratching by DJ Indica Jones, and a lush string arrangement courtesy of Andrew Joslyn. On the edgy ballad “It’s Over When It’s Over,” Jones switches to a 12-string acoustic guitar accompanied by vibes and strings, reinforcing the melancholy mood.
An obvious favorite, the band’s theme song “Boys From the Pudget Sound” features original members Van De Pitte and Enrico. This ode to Jones’s hometown perfectly encapsulates the Seattle vibe, as he disses transplants to the city: “you say you love stormy weather, but child you can’t stand the rain.” The hard rocking track showcases Jones’s guitar chops, while soaring “opera vocals” by Johnathan Wright and percussion by Barrett Martin add to the texture.
B Anthony Nelson (People Zoo Art Works) offered to produce the video for the album’s first single, “Love is the Answer,” which Jones wrote as a message song for turbulent times: “A reminder that while we all experience and perceive different things in our daily lives, we are made of the earth, that’s made of the sun, that’s made of our galaxy, that’s made of the universe. We are the universes. If we want to see a change in our lives, or in the lives of others we must become and project what we wish to see in our world. Love is The Answer” (Paste, 2017).
Additional highlights include the powerful protest song “Stand Up (Take Your Power Back)” and “Lay Your Body Down,” the latter featuring extended guitar solos with psychedelic effects. The album concludes with the slow burner “Yesterday,” which harkens back to ‘60s soul with Joe Doria taking us to church on the B3.
Though already well-known on the West Coast, Ayron Jones will no doubt increase his fan base with his latest album. Audio Paint Job explores a wide range of styles, delivering a sound that’s steeped in the past yet acutely attuned to the present, both musically and thematically. Black rock returns to Seattle!
Drummer Ronald Bruner, Jr. is a musician who readers may have heard, but haven’t necessarily “heard of.” A member of L.A.’s groundbreaking cohort of jazz fusion musicians, the West Coast Get Down, he is the brother of bassist Thundercat (Stephen Bruner) and former keyboardist for The Internet, Jameel Bruner, both of whom worked with Ronald on his new release. While his brothers may be more well-known, Ronald’s playing is a staple of Thundercat’s groundbreaking recordings, and his debut album, Triumph, indicates that his solo output will be strong in its own right.
As one would expect from the commercial success of members of the West Coast Get Down, the music on Ronald Bruner, Jr.’s new album is simultaneously pop-oriented and musically virtuosic. This is perhaps jazz-fusion in its truest sense, drawing elements from R&B, hip hop and contemporary jazz into a musically interesting setting that is still heavy on radio-friendly grooves.
Recorded during the sessions that spawned fellow West Coast Get Down member Kamasi Washington’s The Epic,Triumph is an album that showcases two kinds of musicianship, often on the same track. One of these kinds of musicianship finds its expression in pop-oriented R&B and the second allows the stellar musicians in Bruner’s band to showcase their chops. Songs like “True Story” and “She’ll Never Change” are straight-ahead neo-soul tracks, and aside from the drum break that opens the former and the more active than usual playing on the latter, they could easily be mistaken for new cuts from mainstream R&B artists. Other numbers, like “Geome Deome” and “Open the Gate,” continue in the jazz fusion idiom outlined by virtuosic jazzers. These cuts (the former features the late, great George Duke on keys) hearken to the Al Di Meola Return to Forever days, with distorted guitar wailing over a bed of electric piano and start-and-stop drum grooves that are half Questlove, half Lenny White (who gets a shoutout on the album’s final song).
A stylistic chameleon, Bruner moves between styles within songs, morphing from locking in on the club jam “To You” to putting the trap set in the trap beat “For You” on the same track. This is followed by the album closer “Chick’s Web,” a virtuosic jazz fusion track with a title that alludes to the great big band leader while blazing new trails for fusion drumming. This cut ends with a collection of shoutouts to everyone from family members to West Coast Get Down musicians (in some cases these are one in the same) to heavy-hitter jazz musicians that Bruner has been influenced by and worked with, including Stanley Clarke and Kenny Garrett.
Drummers need to hear this record because Bruner excels at pretty much any idiom a jazz fusion, funk, or R&B drummer might want to play. Bruner’s strength is in his diversity—Triumph is a jazz album that a pop fan can enjoy and an R&B record that has enough musical interest to keep a jazz head coming back for more. However, Triumph doesn’t fall into the “too diverse to be cohesive” trap that many similarly chameleonic albums do. This is a testament to how much Ronald Bruner, Jr. has to say as a musician and how well-refined his style is. This aptly titled LP is indeed a victory for Bruner and his band.
Anytime Ice-T is involved with an album, you can bet it’s going to make musical headlines. Bloodlust, the newest offering from the metal band Body Count, definitely does that and then some. The first single, “No Lives Matter,” generated attention for the title alone after its pre-album release on February 17th, but combined with front man Ice-T’s reputation for political music, the song literally explodes in all directions at once. Will Putney, the producer for the band’s 2014 release Manslaughter, returns to assist with this project. Commenting on the album title, Ice T explains, “Bloodlust is part of the human makeup…but we know there are consequences.” Never ones to shy away from presenting what they feel are facts, Ice-T and Body Count have been offering their commentary on modern society via the platform of heavy metal since the early 1990s.
Much like their previous works, Body Count provides its fan base with a solid dose of the rock sound, complete with driving beats comprised of thick bass, percussion cadences and vigorous vocals. Each track offers unique juxtaposing surprises—from the abrupt silences within “Black Hoodie” to Ice-T’s explanation for the album at the front of “Raining In Blood/Postmortem 2017.” If you recognize sounds reminiscent of the ‘80s band Slayer, then you know your metal. The single “All Love is Lost” features Max Cavalera, a Brazilian singer and songwriter who has worked with Tom Araya of Slasher on past Soulfly collections. Dave Mustaine, thrash metalist currently leading Megadeath in addition to claiming status as original lead guitarist for Metallica, lends his seriously sick talents to the first song, “Civil War.” Rounding out the featured spots is Lamb of God’s D. Randall Blythe, adding a hardcore punk backdrop to Bloodlust’s “Walk With Me.”
Is Bloodlust an album that should be part of everyone’s collection? It depends on one’s musical taste, but it should be on everyone’s radar due to its social commentary. Pushing past the hype, the dark sounds and the seemingly endless abyss of emotion reveals a gritty, unflinching stare into the world we all know exists; one few of us are brave enough to address in such a public manner. Offering no real solutions but a few explanations of why it is what it is, Ice T and his band accomplish what they do best—forcing us to confront the monster from under the bed, in the hope we can all better understand exactly how to defeat it.
For fans of a certain 80s/90s movie series, the mere mention of a DeLorean speeds up the pulse. But for all its album cover throw-back and the artist’s well-known connection to Big Pun, Delorean proves that Chris River’s music is anything but a backward glance. Well-known in hip hop’s inner circle, Rivers has toured the country with world-renowned Def Jam artist Jadakiss, headlined a European tour, and opened up for Cypress Hill, Immortal Technique, Kool G Rap, and Big Daddy Kane. From the beginning of his career in 2012, Rivers made it obvious he was out to slay all mikes with a take-no-prisoners mentality that earned him the title of Cypher King. His career accolades and successes include performing in the 2015 NBA All Star Sprite Cypher, winning the Best Freestyle of 2016 by Team Backpack, and participating in the 2016 BET Hip Hop Awards Cypher, which was later featured as a Jam of the Week on BET JAMS.
The album features a 21-track set of River’s lyrical spinnings that challenge the listener through detailed alliteration, assonance and allegory. The title track, “Delorean,” features Bronx artist Whispers, up-and-coming in the hip hop world himself. This song sets the tone for the album, as listeners are in for a ride as they experience life through the lens of deep musings and futuristic measuring. Infused between Rivers’ offerings are three unique “Time Zones”—quick bursts of thought from Rivers, Whispers and Oswin Benjamin that smell of impromptu slams and smoky stages. “Fear of my Crown” speaks to the past and hopes for the future in ways relatable to everyone, and the last track, “Brightness”, serves as a conscious reminder to value the self, not the trappings of Self. A lyrical dragon who breathes fire with his vocal artillery and technically efficient vernacular, Chris Rivers demonstrates that in the world of hip hop, he is truly on track to be King.
In case you’re still searching for the perfect summer soundtrack, look no further than this new project from Atlanta based singer/songwriter Lonnee Stevens (aka Alonzo Stevenson) and Philadelphia-based composer/producer Antman Wonder, collectively performing as the Summer of ’96. Their group name references the watershed year for hip hop that produced landmark albums by Nas, The Fugees, OutKast, The Roots, 2Pac, and A Tribe Called Quest, among others.
Hearkening back to the golden era of hip hop, the duo use live instrumentation to weave a seductive blend of jazz, soul and rap to create a contemporary soundscape. Stressing that no samples were used in the making of this album, Antman created the original compositions which were then revised and expanded upon by Stevens. Standout tracks include the provocative “Not a Rich Man” featuring Royce 5’9, the harmonically complex “Mahogony Blue” featuring vocals by Lonnee and Teedra Moses, the multi-layered “All That Jazz,” and the cinematic “Wondersong” that’s awash with flute and strings.
Bowing out with the title track featuring Bill Kahler on sax, Antman and Stevens provide a satisfying conclusion to Splendid Things Gone Awry by showcasing their multitude of musical influences.
Sly & Robbie Present Taxi Gang In Disco Mix Style 1978-1987 is a relatively short compilation chronicling the late ‘70s and ‘80s work of the most famous “riddim” section in reggae music. Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare’s work as producers was very influential in helping to create the sounds that Jamaican music would be known for during this period. Both Sly & Robbie got their start as sessions musicians (as a drummer and bass player, respectively) before moving over to the production side of things.
The rhythm Sly and Robbie became known for featured electronic drums and vocal effects and would become commonplace in reggae under their influence. This also went on to influence the practice of “toasting” (chanting and shouting out folks over a beat), which in turn would be one of the building blocks on which rap music is based.
With this disappointingly brief eight track compilation (but still a full 58:16), Cree Records highlights cover versions of American soul and disco hits covered by Jamaican artists, produced by Sly & Robbie. Included are covers of songs made famous by Marvin Gaye, The Spinners, The Impressions and others. Both the CD and LP offer great liner notes by reggae expert Noel Hawks that set the scene for Sly & Robbie coming together and creating their unique production style.
The compilation begins with Tinga Stewart’s cover of Tony Joe White’s “Rainy Night In Georgia” (more famously covered by Brook Benton). With Sly & Robbie’s help, Stewart’s version takes what in Benton’s hands was a melancholy song of lament and turns it into a fun, danceable romp. Despite the bit of cognitive dissonance in the song, it is quite enjoyable nonetheless.
The lone female vocalist (really wish there were more) on the compilation is Marcia Griffiths of the I-Threes (backing vocalists for Bob Marley along with Rita Marley and Judy Mowatt), who covers Little Willie John’s “Fever.” Sly and Robbie’s sonic accompaniment is as sparse as the original, highlighting Griffiths’ vocals (if you enjoy this, definitely check out Griffith’s Play Me Sweet and Nice).
Two Marvin Gaye covers appear here with great results. Let’s be real for a second—nobody’s going to touch Gaye’s vocals on the original version. However, accepting this fact allows you to enjoy these covers for what they are, and both truly highlight Sly and Robbie’s production work. “Sexual Healing” adds additional rhythm to the original’s yearning groove, creating a vibe that is uniquely Jamaican. “Inner City Blues” crackles with the same urgency as Gaye’s original and sports a great reggae-fying of the bassline.
Overall, the sound quality on the compilation is fantastic as it sounds like all of the selections have been digitally remastered. Each one is presented in its full length form, including extended jams perfect for dancing and/or “toasting,” creating the vibe of a warm night in a dancehall. If you are a Sly & Robbie aficionado or you want an introduction to the influential production duo, this compilation communicates why Sly & Robbie have been so influential around the world.
Artist: Dr. F. James Clark Presents NextGeneration Choir
Label: City Of Peace
Formats: CD, MP3
Release date: June 23, 2017
Sure. Focused. Centered is the debut album of the St. Louis Shalom Church City of Peace’s young adult ensemble NextGeneration Choir. It is a contemporary answer to the church’s first project, Simply Amazing (2015), which featured powerful, gospel songs performed by their mass choir.
The album opens with the bold and dynamic anthem “Psalm 23” which features unpredictable rhythmic and dynamic shifts with soprano, alto, and tenor (SAT) voices interweaving as they sing the scriptural passage. The debut single “You Are” is a fun and memorable up-tempo song that describes attributes of God. While the chorus is a simple repeated phrase, “You are,” it does not lack energy or momentum due to surprising and powerful vocal interjections by the sopranos (who are quite a force on this album).
Another noteworthy piece is the traditional gospel styled “Blessing Me,” featuring the St. Louis based vocalist Meaghan Williams-McNeal. Alongside the choir and soloist’s robust performance, ragtime tinged piano plus funky horns, a healthy backbeat established by the rhythm section, and an energizing tambourine set the stage for a rocking musical worship session. Similarly, NextGeneration and acclaimed soloist Chrystal Rucker channel Sunday morning worship with the piece “I Have a Testimony,” which features a wonderful call and response interplay between the soloist and choir.
Overall, this album offers a sampling of contemporary (and even traditional) gospel stylings that is sure to encourage listeners to be Sure, Focused, and Centered in their faith.
Riding on the success of the 2016 European 2-disc compilation, Here You Are: The Best of Billy Ocean, Legacy Recordings has just issued a stateside version of Billy Ocean’s self-reflective collection, Here You Are: The Music of My Life. Featuring 10 new performances and 5 long-standing favorites, Ocean provides an audio window through which listeners can view his musical inspirations during his 45+ years as a Grammy award winning R&B artist. Ocean’s current 15-track release coincides with his first set of US tour dates in over 20 years—as one of the featured headliners on the 2017 Replay America Festival.
The title track of the album, “Here You Are,” written by Billy Ocean and Barry Eastmond, is a testament to the various musical influences that have stirred Ocean’s creativity over the decades. The song is captivating—a steady, rhythmical rocking ballad back-dropped against the classic sound of Ocean’s signature croon—and is sure to become a strong staple for his fans. True to the album’s subtitle, Ocean provides covers of the music that has most affected his development as an artist followed by five of his biggest chart-toppers. The iconic “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke and Mike Pinder’s “A Simple Game” resonate with, as Ocean states, “everyone waiting for a change…every generation transcending the barriers of colour,” such as himself, who have “lost the concept of life as a spiritual thing, like who we are, what we are, and what we were meant to be.” Bob Marley’s influence is noted as well, through covers of his single “Judge Not” and the well-known “No Woman, No Cry” recorded by Bob Marley and the Wailers.
Ocean’s rendition of “It Was a Very Good Year,” written by Ervin Drake, is easily the most resonant song on the album. As he lulls, “But now the days are short, I’m in the autumn of my years, and I think of my life like vintage wine,” one can’t help but toast Ocean’s own impact upon the music industry through his mega-hits that conclude the disc: “Caribbean Queen 9 (No More Love on the Run),” “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car,” “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going,” “ Suddenly,” and “There Will be Sad Songs (to Make You Cry).”
It was—and is—a very good career for Billy Ocean. Here You Are: The Music of my Life bestows proof of just that.
Phil Perry is back with his latest album Breathless, a ten-track CD of R&B and smooth jazz. Joined on the album by his producer and pianist Chris Davis, Perry has this to say about the musical partnership: “Chris and I respect the music the same way we respect each other. It’s a unique and rare thing and it’s easy because we speak the same language.” It’s obvious that Davis and Perry trust one another and have something special going, and the album reflects their successful combination. Phil Perry, you see, is a voice one must listen to—a dynamic singer with the uncanny ability to make you a believer with a single note. I would put Perry in the Will Downing category, flying under the radar to where the solid R&B fans are, but Perry’s true music listeners know the real deal when they hear it.
Perry includes his own covers of three songs previously performed by other artists, which are “Love In Need Of Love” by Stevie Wonder, “Is It You” by Lee Rittenour and “One Less Bell To Answer” by the Fifth Dimension. He takes a different approach on the Stevie Wonder classic by slowing the pace down—way down. On “Is It You,” Perry stays with Rittenhour’s original sound, and on the Fifth Dimension classic he adds a fresh perspective by singing it from a male point of view. “Do Whatcha Gotta Do,” written by Chris Davis, is a cute piece. It showcases the combined talents of both artists, giving fans a true dose of the magic that is Perry’s rich smooth tenor.
Providing the soundtracks for over four generations of fans, Phil Perry has done it once again. In a class by itself, Breathless is smooth, and Phil Perry’s vocals will leave you feeling just that.
First broadcast as a 3-part, 3.5-hour documentary on PBS, “American Epic” explores the beginning of regional commercial recording in the U.S. The program’s premise and logo is these early recording field trips resulted in “the first time American heard itself,” a somewhat grandiose claim. Along with the TV mini-series, Sony released a 100 song, 5-CD box set of newly-transferred/newly-restored vintage recordings, organized by recording locations, plus a single-CD soundtrack album, covering only recordings used in the TV programs. And, taking advantage of a fully-restored vintage recording system, the films’ producers teamed up with producer T. Bone Burnett and musician/producer/entrepreneur Jack White to stage a series of recording sessions in a Los Angeles studio with performances by a wide assortment of contemporary musicians. Those recordings, transferred from the lacquer discs on which they were inscribed, are collected in “The American Epic Sessions” 2CD set. A two-hour documentary, covering some of these recording sessions and detailing the vintage recording equipment, was also broadcast on PBS.
In 1926, Western Electric developed an electrical recording system, which quickly replaced the acoustic (“screaming into a horn”) systems that had used sound-pressure energy to cut grooves into cylinders and discs up to that point. With Western Electric’s system, sound waves hitting a microphone created an electrical current, which was then amplified by a 6-foot rack of tube electronics, and used to drive an electro-magnetic cutting stylus, which cut grooves onto wax blanks. The system used in “The American Epic Sessions,” lovingly restored and expertly operated by engineer Nicholas Bergh, cuts onto lacquer discs.
The key take-aways relevant to this project: the Western Electric recording system was portable, and at the time it was developed, radio was killing the commercial record business. During the acoustic era, record companies had concentrated on urban-centric popular “dance band” music and formal classical recordings. But the U.S. was a regional and tribal country at the time, and local music genres and styles remained local. Desperate for new record-buying customers, the record companies sent electrical recording systems and crews out into the land, searching for new musicians and musical styles in hopes of “the next big thing” that radio didn’t offer.
A typical recording trip would include a blitz of advertising in local newspapers and word-of-mouth announcements at general stores and post offices, offering local musicians a chance to make a record. The musicians would flock to a central location, such as a disused hat factory in Memphis or a hotel in San Antonio, for recording sessions. Through this process, the genres of country/hillbilly, Delta blues, Tejano, and Hawaiian music gained national distribution and influence. Some big stars emerged, like country music legends The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers and Tejano pioneer Lydia Mendoza. Many other recordings, by artists such as Dock Boggs, Willie Brown and especially Robert Johnson, didn’t sell well in their day but were incredibly influential on later musicians and musical genres. Other artists such as Charley Patton, the Memphis Jug Band, and even Hopi Indian Chanters, enjoyed regional success and years of fruitful recording sessions.
The “American Epic” documentary and the 5-CD set concentrate the regional styles and genres. The documentary is divided into 3 parts, with each focusing on a handful of artists and songs. Herculean efforts were made to track down descendants or first-person associates of the original artists, and their stories bring life to the people behind the old records. The filmmakers concentrated on the music, and avoided the dull academic tone that slows down too many PBS programs. There is a nerdy hip-ness to the whole project, and the technical details of the early recording process are explained enough for a casual music-oriented viewer to understand by not descending too far in the weeds. Above all, these stories tie together music, people and places.
Recording location rather than music type or artist divides the 5-CD set. This makes for more interesting listening, because each of the CDs is its own “mix tape” of genres and artists, alike only in that they were recorded in a particular region of the U.S., and even then not in a single location or studio. That said, the sequencing choice makes more difficult comparisons of artists within a single genre.
Engineer Nicholas Bergh, using a system he developed based on his understanding of the original recording process, transferred all of the recordings used in the CD box. A quick comparison of previous reissues of a handful of tunes indicates that Bergh was able to squeeze more fidelity and musical content from the discs, varying from a shade better to much better. It’s worth noting that there is a good bit of overlap between the “American Epic” box set and the classic “Anthology of American Folk Music,” so one can compare the transfer technology and aesthetic evolution over the past 50+ years. There is also some overlap with various Yazoo collections, not surprising since Yazoo owner Richard Nevins contributed rare records from his collections and is thanked in the liner notes.
For a person interested in the true roots of what today is called “roots” music, as well as the original Delta style of blues, and the history of what became country music, this set is invaluable. In some cases, this is the first opportunity to clearly hear the musical subtleties and even decipher the lyrics, since the day the discs were cut. The amply illustrated booklet includes printed lyrics and as close to a first-person description of each artist as the producers were able to find.
“The American Epic Sessions” is a bit more of a creative-license undertaking. The documentary producers were clearly enamored with Bergh’s restored recording system, so the logical thing to do, with music-industry bigwigs like Burnett and White involved and a documentary crew in tow, was bring some modern musicians in and cut some 78s. The results are mixed, musically, and the listener must accept the somewhat low-fidelity sound quality captured in the lacquers, but the exercise was net-net successful. I recommend the video documentary over the 2CD music-only set, because it’s interesting to watch modern musicians, accustomed as they are to endless re-takes and overdubs, adjust to the antique one-mic/one-take recording process. Suffice to say, some adapt better than others, but all were able to wax a successful side or two.
Overall, the “American Epic” project was an important undertaking, introducing some seminal music to a new audience in a sound quality not heard before, and bringing life to the musical and recording pioneers who first spread the American musical vernaculars out of their local wellsprings. The “Sessions” video and audio aptly demonstrates the conditions and limitations of the early electrical recordings.
Editor’s note: There is also a separate hardcover book, American Epic: When Music Gave America Her Voice, written by series producer Allison McGourty and director Bernard MacMahon, with Elijah Wald (Touchstone, 288 pages). According to colleague Steve Ramm, there is little crossover in terms of illustrations and content between this book and the one accompanying the Sony box set. Please note that the book’s title is listed variously on other sites as American Epic: The First Time America Heard Itself and American Epic: Companion to the TV Series. Also, there have been hints from some quarters that a director’s cut of the PBS series will be issued on Blu-ray later this year, so you may wish to hold off on your purchase of the version covered here. For various compilations associated with the series (but NOT remastered) see our June 2017 Releases of Note.
Artist: Hear in Now (Mazz Swift, Tomeka Reid & Silvia Bolognesi)
Label: International Anthem; dist. Redeye
Formats: CD, MP3
Release date: June 2, 2017
Formed in 2009 through a commission from WomaJazz, the string trio Hear in Now features New York violinist Mazz Swift, Chicago cellist Tomeka Reid, and Italian double bass player Silvia Bolognesi. Individually the three women have performed and recorded with artists ranging from jazz musicians Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, and Butch Morris to rappers Common, Jay-Z and Kanye West.
On their second studio album, Not Living in Fear, the trio displays their affinity for free jazz and the avant-garde across 13 tracks of original music composed variously by members of the group. The project is a natural fit for the International Anthem label, dedicated to promoting boundary-defying recordings and occurrences of creative music in Chicago and beyond. Through the label’s sponsorship, we’re now able to appreciate these works, recorded by HiN in 2012 and 2014.
Rather than easing into the album with a more accessible work, the trio fearlessly opens with “Impro 3.” The track builds slowly over long, sustained harmonies punctuated by a flurry of glissandos that provide a sense of foreboding as they lead to a freely improvised and frenzied climax. This is followed by “Leaving Livorno,” a more melodic work with a yearning quality that features a jazzy interplay between cello and violin. “Requiem for Charlie Haden,” composed by Bolognesi, is dedicated the late jazz bass player who died two months prior to this recording session. Bolognesi adds a touch of free jazz to the bass line and takes an extended solo, but otherwise incorporates Haden’s penchant for blending simple melodies with classical harmonies.
Chicago jazz vocalist Dee Alexander is featured on the title track. Reid frequently performs with Alexander, so it’s fitting that they collaborated on this composition. To say this song is a highlight feels like a bit of a cop out, given its broader appeal, but I make no apologies. Clearly it was sequenced at the album’s midpoint to provide a bit of breathing room, and displays the trio’s extensive background in jazz (all have various jazz side projects).
Throughout the album, the three musicians employ extended playing techniques. For example, col legno and other percussive effects are used in “Transiti” to emulate the chugging rhythm of a train, and the opening of “Terrortoma” is punctuated by an ominous thumping reminiscent of the sound of advancing soldiers. But these techniques are never overused; each composition offers multiple sections and thematic complexity.
Not Living in Fear is a courageous album, brilliantly performed by three very accomplished women. They may frequently present concerts in museums, but the museum analogy often applied to classical music is certainly not relevant. Instead, HiN challenges us to hear the music of the present, defined in their own terms.
Anita Wilson has been a rising star in gospel music since her 2013 debut album, Worship Soul. Wilson has established herself as an artist who is adept at blending traditional gospel with old school R&B and soul sounds to create new and fresh music for contemporary listeners. Her latest project Sunday Song continues in this vein, featuring newly composed selections as well as several covers. Donald Lawrence’s ensemble The Company, Wilson’s former group, provides the background vocals on the album. While many of these tunes will be great for Sunday church worship, Wilson emphasizes that this album is meant to foster spiritual engagement beyond religious walls. She states, “God is everywhere we are, we can always have a Sunday song in our hearts.”*
One of the opening songs of the album is the single, “I’ve Seen Him Work.” This inspirational selection channels the sounds of R&B dance tunes (e.g. Luther Vandross**) and gospel choir songs of the 1980s. Rhythmic piano and bass establish a groove, which is joined by punctuating horns and drums showcasing a jaunty back beat, making this a fun and danceable track. The lyrics encourage listeners to maintain faith in God because “He’s in control” and He is “working it out.”
Wilson continues to draw on musical influences from yesteryear with the selection “Don’t Have to Travel Far.” This beautiful ballad is a worship-filled love song to God. It opens with strings, drums, and soft, repeated piano chords under girding the tender melody performed on an electric guitar. Purposefully, the accompaniment is reminiscent of 1970s R&B ballads like the Stylistic’s “You Make Me Feel Brand New.” Wilson celebrates her relationship with God with The Company supporting her sweetly: “Don’t have to travel far/ to be right where you are./You are constantly in my heart./ There’s no place I’d rather be/ than in your company,/ you mean more than life to me.”
Sunday Song’s traditional gospel and gospel covers are also especially noteworthy. “The New Church Medley” is string of both old and newly composed up-tempo call and response congregational songs which all ramp up to the popular church tune, “Great Things/I’ll Say Yes to My Lord.” For this heavy hitting number, Wilson is joined by singer Tommie White and vocal powerhouse Yolanda Adams who passionately improvise during the vamp. In a different light, Wilson has also transformed some gospel favorites like Richard Smallwood’s anthem “Total Praise.” She eschews a conventional, stately performance featuring dark, bold vocal production (with heavy vibrato) and string orchestration for a paired down contemporary praise and worship style. Wilson reworks the melody and softens the accompaniment transforming the chorus of “Total Praise” into a contemplative yet earnest meditation on faith.
Sunday Song is a wonderful summer treat for gospel lovers everywhere. It’s a wonderful blend of older secular styles, traditional gospel music, with timeless lyrics that are sure to inspire listeners to sing, dance, and have faith.
*Quote taken from an on-air interview with Detroit, MI radio personality Randi Myles.
**Wilson suggested the music of Luther Vandross influenced the creation of this song in an on-air interview with radio personality Erica Campbell.
In the February issue we gave a brief preview of Concord Music Group’s year-long celebration of Stax Records 60th Anniversary, including the new compilation CDs paying tribute to the many iconic artists in the Stax roster. Now Concord has released the first of their Stax 60th anniversary remastered vinyl offerings—a 108 gram pressing of the original cast soundtrack album for Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.
As most already know, this landmark independent film was written, produced, scored, and directed by Melvin Van Peebles, who also portrayed Sweetback: “a black protagonist who not only overpowers the oppressive white cops, but he manages to get away with it.” Released in 1971, the film contributed to the creation of the Blaxploitation era and was promoted by the Black Panthers, who filled theaters with members for whom it was required viewing.
The soundtrack album, distributed prior to the release of the film to raise cash and garner publicity through airplay, was also notable for introducing an unknown group by the name of Earth, Wind & Fire. Van Peebles also performs as his alter ego, Brer Soul. Without the Sweetback soundtrack and contributions of EWF, who transformed Van Peebles hummed musical ideas into a funky soul-jazz score, the film may never have made it into theaters. And without Sweetback to pave the way, there may never have been a string of soulful ‘70s soundtracks scored by the likes of Isaac Hayes, Marvin Gaye, Bobby Womack, Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway, Gene Page, Johnny Pate, James Brown, Roy Ayers, and Willie Hutch. As EWF’s Verdine White noted, “at the time there weren’t a lot of movies that had black music” (Quincy Jones was the only black composer with a string of film scores to his credit).
Concord’s 180-gram vinyl gatefold edition features audio remastered from the original analog tapes and cut on the original Stax lathe at Ardent studios in Memphis. Newly penned notes are provided by Jeff Weiss, who credits Van Peebles with the birth of “badass cinema” via a film “that captured the spirit of rebellion, frustration and the refusal to accept injustice.” Mario Van Peebles, whose 2003 film Baadasssss! chronicled the making of his father’s famous film, also reflects on the film’s profound influence in the liner notes.
Long out of print with the exception of foreign pressings, this remastered vinyl release of Sweetback belongs in everyone’s collection!
Editor’s note: Melvin Van Peebles has recently performed with other bands featured in Black Grooves, including the Heliocentrics.
This month sees a new release from Vermont-based saxophonist, composer, and music educator Brian McCarthy that’s scheduled to drop a week before Juneteenth. The Better Angels of Our Nature features McCarthy and his nonet reimagining songs from the Civil War and composing original songs inspired by the conflict. The project, with its title garnered from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, is both an academic and artistic endeavor. McCarthy explores music from a dark period of American history in an effort to chart new thematic and musical territory. This project was funded in part by a Vermont Arts Council Creation Grant and combines McCarthy’s personal interest in history with his masterful interpretation of both familiar and new music.
A project this ambitious demands an ensemble capable of sensitivity and innovation. McCarthy, a great saxophonist and composer, is joined by pianist Justin Kauflin, tenor saxophonist Stantawn Kendrick, trombonist Cameron MacManus (three former members of trumpeter Clark Terry’s band), trumpeter Bill Mobley, bari player Andrew Gutauskas, saxophonist Daniel Ian Smith, drummer Zac Harmon, and bassist Matt Aronoff. These masterful musicians allow the musical and historical themes implicit in these songs to unfold, their playing simultaneously beautiful and challenging.
Setting up musical and thematic tension among these Civil War-associated tunes is key to McCarthy’s approach to this material. He directly juxtaposes the Confederate anthem “The Bonnie Blue Flag” with the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” situates a bluesy attempt to reclaim “Dixie” next to a reading of the spiritual “Oh Freedom.” Even the original compositions on this album evince a kind of tension—the multi-part title track reads as a character study of Lincoln, contrasting his roles as lawyer, President, and person.
One of the standout features of this album is that there are no standout players. This is a narrative jazz record and each note played by each musician serves McCarthy’s impressionistic reading of the Civil War by exploring its music, an approach that suggests both schism and unity (it is likely no accident, for instance, that some of the Union tunes included on this album were parodied by southerners during the war). It may be too much to try to draw contemporary comparisons to the seemingly intractable divisions in contemporary American social and political life, but McCarthy’s interpretation of seemingly arcane music allows him to deal with some conceptually significant undercurrents in American culture.
After winning the Theonious Monk Institute International Jazz Competition in 2015, vocalist Jazzmeia Horn certainly validated the name assigned by her prescient jazz-loving, church musician grandmother. On her stunning debut recording, A Social Call, the Texas-born singer likewise demonstrates a maturity that belies her age, steeped in the spirit of her idols Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter, and Abbey Lincoln. Horn’s familiarity with jazz vocalists and techniques of the 1950s and ‘60s is showcased throughout the album, but this is not a stroll through memory lane by any means. She is equally comfortable with R&B and gospel music, bringing plenty of contemporary influences to her unique interpretations of the classics.
The album takes its title from the song penned by Gigi Gryce in the 1950s for Betty Carter. Horn excels in this conversational style, creating an extremely fast and nimble arrangement with a teasing tone that keeps the rhythm section on their toes (Victor Gould on piano, Ben Williams on bass, and Jerome Jennings on drums). But the title also reflects Horn’s concerns about current events: “These are not good times. This album is a few things—it’s a call to social responsibility, to know your role in your community. It’s about being inspired by things that happen in your life and being able to touch others.”*
Delving into the very roots of black music, Horn uses spirituals as a source of inspiration, reflecting faith, resistance, protest, and resilience. One of the album’s highlights is a 13 minute medley that melds Oscar Brown Jr.’s “Afro Blue” with Horn’s original poem “Eye See You” and the traditional spiritual “Wade in the Water.” Opening with over three minutes of primal vocalizations based on West African sounds, the track gradually shifts in space and place, taking listeners on a journey from the motherland to an all-too-familiar present day soundscape. Over the wailing of sirens and chanting of protestors, Horn’s intense poetry speaks of “blood on the pavement, brothers on the corner shackled and chained, stopped and frisked.” As she transitions into an emotionally charged rendition of “Wade in the Water,” one can’t help but recall Billie Holiday or even Nina Simone, who could turn any song into social protest.
Another montage blends an unembellished version of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (aka the African American national anthem) with the classic Bobby Timmons’ song “Moanin” which shows off Horn’s scatting technique, extensive vocal range and command of different styles. The band also gets a workout, with solos by trumpeter Josh Evans and bassist Ben Williams.
The remainder of the album mixes jazz classics such as Johnny Mercer’s “I Remember You” and Betty Carter’s “Tight” with jazz-tinged R&B standards. Particular favorites include Horn’s renditions of “Up Above My Head” (Myron Butler’s arrangement) and the Rose Royce Carwash classic “I’m Going Down” that concludes the album.
One fact is obvious from Jazzmeia Horn’s debut album: this woman can sing! A talent like this doesn’t come along very often, and I can’t wait to hear what the future will bring.
*Quote from Concord press release authored by Ashley Kahn.
A virtuoso on the Hammond B3, Gregory Lewis (aka Organ Monk) wowed the Chamber Music America conference last year when his group performed Thelonious Monk and a few of Lewis’s own chamber jazz compositions in their signature funky, Monk-inspired contrapuntally intricate style. One of those original works, The Breathe Suite, is featured on this newly released album, performed by Lewis with members of his regular quintet: tenor saxophonist Reggie Woods, trumpeter Riley Mullins, guitarist Ron Jackson, and drummer Jeremy “Bean” Clemons. Supplementing this line-up is drummer Nasheet Waits and guitarist Mark Ribot, who replace Clemons and Jackson on the first and third movements.
Four of the five movements of The Breathe Suite are dedicated to an African American killed during confrontations with police officers or vigilantes. With this project Lewis joins the ever growing rank of composers and musicians who write and perform as a personal form of protest: “I can’t protest, because if I protest I go to jail. And if I go to jail I can’t feed my five kids. So what I can do is what I do – I write music . . . Even if it brings joy for just a minute to these families, that’s what I can do.”
The first movement and by far the largest portion of the suite is “Chronicles of Michael Brown.” Clocking in at nearly 19 minutes, the track begins in an instrumental fog of distortion, over which the organ sounds an elegy. As the work progresses, one can’t help but reflect on the events of August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, where Brown’s body lay on the pavement for hours on end. Likewise, the music seems to portray an alternate reality, where straight ahead solos are sharply punctuated at odd moments by organ or guitar, oftentimes shifting between free jazz and funk rock like a collision of cultures. As the movement builds to a climax, it becomes more atonal, gradually fading out on a cymbal roll like a spirit rising up to heaven.
The second movement, “Trayvon,” is of course dedicated to young Trayvon Martin, who was shot and killed on February 26, 2012 in Sanford, Florida. Scored for organ, guitar and drums, this track is more of a fast paced interlude, with Lewis freely riffing on the B3 and Jackson taking a brief guitar solo near the end. The trio continues in similar style on “Aiyana’s Jones Song,” referencing the seven-year-old girl shot and killed in 2010 during a Detroit Police raid. As the movement concludes, the instruments fall into a repetitive pattern, suggesting a never ending cycle.
“Eric Garner” is eulogized in the fourth movement by the full quintet. On this slow, haunting track, Lewis provides sustained chords on the B3 while the other instruments improvise, with special effects creating a discordant soundscape that has us floating through time and space. The suite concludes with “Ausar and the Race Soldiers” (reprised in the 6th track), a more straight ahead movement that still offers ample room for free improvisation and solos.
Gregory Lewis Quintet’s stated mission is “to expand upon the interpretation of jazz and create a catalogue of 21st century American originals.” In this they have surely succeeded, creating a highly original, socially conscious work inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and the cycle of violence and deadly oppression which led to its creation.
Now in its 56th year, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band continues to thrive and regularly record albums. This latest effort is a far cry from the original traditional Dixieland outings, and for that reason it’s likely to resonate with modern audiences.
According to the band’s website, a performing trip to Cuba last year was highly influential toward the writing of this album. Band leader and bass/tuba player Ben Jaffe has integrated Afro-Cuban elements into a New Orleans-style blend of funk and up-tempo jazz. There are still references, here and there, to Dixieland and second-line street jazz, but this version of the PHJB would find a home in the record shelf of a Meters fan as well as his trad-jazz loving elders.
Jaffe’s parents, Allan and Sandra, founded Preservation Hall and organized its first namesake bands, in the early 1960s. Back in the early years, via recordings for Atlantic and then Columbia, the band featured aging but still vibrant local stars and other practitioners of the “original” style of jazz. In more recent times, the band embraced New Orleans’ musical evolution and has collaborated with a wide variety of musicians and producers, moving its sound toward a modern beat-driven jazz style.
It’s worth noting that this album is the second in a row for the PHJB with all original compositions. No more traditional tunes and covers of beloved oldies. The newness of the material is probably a prime reason the band has successfully transitioned to the all-important festival circuit, often paired with rock and pop acts. This is not music to hear while sitting still in a formal concert hall, but rather get-up-and-dance music to power a good outdoor festival mud roll. It’s more party music than contemplation music.
Although all 7 cuts on the album are worth a few careful listens, the featured single “Santiago” is contagiously raucous, and “Convergence” stands out for its funkiness. On the jazzier side of the band’s capabilities are the title track and “One Hundred Fires.” It’s also worth mentioning Walter Harris’s outstanding drum work throughout. The album is beat-driven, and Harris is a very capable driver.
The downside to the party atmosphere is that the music seems wider at the expense of deeper, but the excellent playing mitigates some of the shallowness. This is gut-feeling jazz, more akin to pop music than concert-hall jazz. Alas, like even the best pop music, it has a somewhat plastic soul. Recommend for listening along with friends and fun.