Hendrix in the Spirit of Jazz

Hendrix in the Spirit of Jazz

 

Title: Hendrix in the Spirit of Jazz

Artist: Various

Label: ACT

Formats: CD

Release date: December 8, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by Joel Roberts

 

Johnny Rawls – Waiting For the Train

Johhny Rawls
Title: Waiting For the Train

Artist: Johnny Rawls

Label: Catfood

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 15, 2017

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

 

James Armstrong – Blues Been Good to Me

James Armstrong
Title: Blues Been Good to Me

Artist: James Armstrong

Label: Catfood

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: October 20, 2017

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

December 2017 Releases of Note

Following are additional albums released during December 2017—some will be reviewed in future issues of Black Grooves.

Blues, Folk, Country
Doctor Ross: Memphis Breakdown (ORG Music)
Robert Finley: Goin’ Platinum! (Easy Eye Sound)
Vance Kelly: How Can I Miss You If You Don’t Leave (Wolf)
Various: Memphis Blues Festival 1975 (Klondike)
Various: Chicago Blues All Stars 1970 (Klondike)

Comedy, Spoken Word
Nephew Tommy: Won’t He Do It (TNT)

Funk, Rock, Pop, Electronic
Bartees & The Strange Fruit: Magic Boy (Pineapple)
Danielia Cotton: The Mystery of Me (Cottontown)
Dk Aakmael: Take It Back (Scissor & Thread)
Hypnotic Brass Ensemble: Book of Sound (Honest Jon’s)

Gospel, Christian Rap, CCM
Alma Brown and A One Gospel Singers: Thank You Jesus

Jazz
Ella Fitzgerald: Ella at Zardi’s (Verve)
Incognito: Another Page of Incognito (P-Vine)
Irreversible Entanglements: S/T (International Anthem )
Khan Jamal Creative Arts Ensemble: Drum Dance to the Motherland (reissue) (Forced Exposure)
Melvin Sparks: I’m Funky Now (Westbound UK)
Tony Tixier: Life of Sensitive Creatures (Whirlwind)

R&B, Soul
Bettye Swann:  The Money Masters (Kent)
Bobbi Ruffin: Chapter Five (digital)
Dionne Warwick: Odds & Ends – Scepter Rarities (Real Gone Music)
K. Michelle: Kimberly – People I Used To Know (Atlantic)
Kashif: Essential Kashif – Arista Years  (Legacy)
Lee Moore: A Gram of Boogie: Story of Moore, Score & L&M Records (Past Due)
Minnie Riperton: Perfect Angel (Deluxe Ed.) (Capitol)
Next: Too Close EP (Arista/Legacy)
Otis Redding: Definitive Studio Album Collection (7 LP box) (Atlantic)
Ruby Camille: R C 1   (Moore-Caldwell Plus)
Sugaray Rayford: The World That We Live In (Transistor Sound)
Tamar-kali: Mudbound OST (Milan)
Various: Soul on Fire: Detroit Soul Story 1957-1977 (Cherry Red)
Vedo: From Now On (New WAV)

Rap, Hip Hop
A Cat Called Fritz: Vertical Iris (HHV.De)
Allan Kingdom: Lines (LP) (Omerta Inc.)
Big Sean/Metro Boomin: Double or Nothing (G.O.O.D Music)
Boosie Badazz: BooPac  (Atlantic)
Boulevards: Hurt Town USA (Don’t Funk With Me)
Chief Keef: Dedication (digital) (RBC)
Cobra íl Vero: Ecdysis (NS3T Ent)
Euroz: Two Birds One Stone (digital)
Fes Taylor: Hood Famous (Chambermusik)
Futuristic: Blessings (We’re The Future )
G. Perico: 2 Tha Left (So Way Out)
G-Eazy: When It’s Dark Out (RCA)
Jeezy: Pressure (Def Jam)
Juicy J: Rubba Band Business (Columbia)
Kidz In The Hall: Free Nights & Weekends (digital)
Kipp Stone: Dirty Face Angel (L.I.F.E. Art & Content Co.)
KXNG Crooked: Good vs. Evil II: The Red Empire (Empire)
Marty Baller: Baller Nation (LP) (Omerta Inc.)
Miguel: War & Leisure (RCA)
Mike Lowery: Before It’s Too Late (Music Junkies)
N.E.R.D: No One Ever Really Dies (Columbia)
Nyron: Appreciation Day (digital)
Pell: Girasoul (Payday)
Quaz: In My Mind (Odic)
Red Storm Chicago: Redemption (digital)
Saba: Bucket List Project (LP) (Omerta Inc.)
Snug: 70812 Where It All Started (Money Gang)
Supa Bwe: Finally Dead (Empire)
TheKidGeeQ: TheKidFrOmElmStreet (FlyOverEverything)
Too $hort: The Pimp Tape (Dangerous Music)
Trizz: Ashes N Dust (Below System)
Visioneers: Dirty Old Hip Hop (reissue) (Tru Thoughts)
Whispers: Whismonoxide (That’s Hip Hop)
WizKid: Sounds From the Other Side  (Sony Music Canada)
Z-Ro: Codeine  (1 Deep Ent.)

Reggae, Dancehall
Ethiopian & His All Stars: Return of Jack Sparrow (Omnivore)
Randy Valentine: New Narrative (Royal Order Music)
Various: Rise of Jamaican Dancehall Culture (SoulJazz)

World, Latin
Fela Kuti: Box Set #4: Curated by Erykah Badu (Knitting Factory)
Hamad Kalkaba: Hamad Kalkaba & Golden Sounds 1974-75 (Analog Africa)
The Secret: The New Africa – TNA (Secret Records Music Group)
Various: Beating Heart – South Africa (Beating Heart Music)

John Lee Hooker – King of the Boogie

John Lee Hooker

Title: King of the Boogie

Artist: John Lee Hooker

Label: Craft Recordings/Concord Bicycle Music

Format: 5-CD Box Set

Release Date: September 29, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

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

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

Artist: Various

Label: Craft

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

Release date: September 15, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

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

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

Artist: Various

Label: Blues Images

Format: CD + Calendar

Release date: September 25, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by William Vanden Dries

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

Wilson Pickett
Title: Complete Atlantic Albums Collection

Artist: Wilson Pickett

Label: Rhino

Format: 10-CD Box Set, MP3

Release date: December 1, 2017

 

 

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

 

Dinah Washington
Title: Divine Miss Dinah Washington

Artist: Dinah Washington

Label: Verve

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

Release date: December 15, 2017

 

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

 

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

Artist: Various

Label: Blue Note

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

Release date: December 15, 2017

 

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

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

 

 

Kermit Ruffins & Irvin Mayfield – A Beautiful World

A Beautiful World
Title: A Beautiful World

Artist: Kermit Ruffins & Irvin Mayfield

Label: Basin Street

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: September 22, 2017

 

 

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

YouTube Preview Image

 

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

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

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

Reviewed by Jamaal Baptiste

Gregory Porter – Nat “King” Cole & Me

Gregory Porter
Title: Nat “King” Cole & Me

Artist: Gregory Porter

Label: Blue Note

Formats: CD, LP, MP3, Deluxe ed.

Date: October 27, 2017

 

 

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

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

YouTube Preview Image

 

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

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

Reviewed by Jared Griffin

Mavis Staples – If All I Was Was Black

Mavis Staples
Title: If All I Was Was Black

Artist: Mavis Staples

Label: Anti-Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release Date: November 17, 2017

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Lloyd Price – This Is Rock and Roll

Lloyd Price
Title: This Is Rock and Roll

Artist: Lloyd Price

Label: Double L Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: September 22, 2017

 

 

Lloyd Price’s career may have launched way back in 1952 with the famous single “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” but his newest release proves that his career is far from over. This Is Rock and Roll, Price’s first album in over a decade, includes a combination of newly penned original tracks, like the bluesy “I’m Getting Over You,” as well as a collection of covers.

The title track exemplifies the album’s balance between originals and covers, combining Jimmy Reed’s “Peepin’ & Hidin’” with Price’s celebratory call-and-response “This is rock and roll.” This song is significant to the album as a whole, as it was recorded in the New York City club where, three years ago, Price decided he still had much to offer fans and conceived this album.

For his slowed-down cover of Carole King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” the legendary Rock and Roll Hall of Famer turns the song into a ballad sung from a man’s point of view. Regardless of whether it’s an original or a cover, each track on This Is Rock and Roll contains the unique Lloyd Price essence that has been captivating listeners for over 60 years.

Reviewed by Chloe McCormick

Cecile McLorin Salvant – Dreams and Daggers

Dreams and Daggers

Title: Dreams and Daggers

Artist: Cecile McLorin Salvant

Label: Mack Avenue

Formats: CD, Vinyl, MP3

Release Date: September 29, 2017

 

 

The Miami born singer Cecile McLorin Salvant has been on a consistent rise in the jazz world, making her Mack Avenue Records debut in 2013 with WomanChild, and garnering a Grammy award nomination. She received her first Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal in 2016 with her sophomore album, For One To Love. Now, with the hauntingly beautiful release, Dreams and Daggers, McLorin Salvant amazes.

The album includes a mix of original material and new arrangements of classic jazz and blues standards. From beginning to end it’s impossible not to lose yourself in the music as McLorin Salvant showcases unbelievable vocal control and all-around ability.

YouTube Preview Image

 

Explaining the title of the project, McLorin Salvant says, “The songs on this album are of dreams and daggers. The daggers have been used at times to attack, at times to defend. . . The dreams are the ones I caught looking out a window, or from the light sleep before the deep.” She splits this album into two discs; the first seems to expand on this idea of the “daggers,” while the second includes her “dreams.”

Disc one begins very subtly with the eerie melodies in the song “And Yet,” where McLorin Salvant’s voice is first heard alone with the Catalyst String Quartet. The beauty of the writing by Salvant and bassist Paul Sikivie is astounding. By interweaving the quartet with the rest of the ensemble they create gorgeous textures and melodic ideas throughout this and many other tunes on the album. What is most impressive is hearing McLorin Salvant as she enters with precise and crisp tones. Throughout the album, the influence, respect, and knowledge of those who have preceded her, such as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, and Carmen McCrae, are easily heard.

In disc two we get to experience the more playful side of Cecil, and since this album was recorded with a live studio audience, it has a very personal feel, making you want to cheer along with them. This is especially evident in her rendition of the blues classic, “You’ve Got to Give Me Some,” where we hear the audience reacting to the suggestive lyrics as well as the spectacular piano solo from featured guest Sullivan Fortner.

Dreams and Daggers, a haunting and gorgeous display of joy and pain, pays homage to the older traditions of jazz and blues while adding new and creative ideas to advance the genre.

Reviewed by Jared Griffin

Ranky Tanky – Ranky Tanky

Ranky Tanky

Title: Ranky Tanky

Artist: Ranky Tanky

Label: Bandcamp

Formats: CD, Digital (MP3, FLAC, etc.)

Release date: September 15, 2017

 

With a name meaning “Get Funky!” or “Work It,” it is no surprise that Charleston, South Carolina’s Ranky Tanky created lively, dynamic arrangements for their self-titled album. Ranky Tanky is composed of five members, four of whom are of Gullah descent—African American communities in the islands and coastal regions of North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Gullah traditions, which retain strong elements of African language, music, and lifeways, are present throughout Ranky Tanky. For their debut album, the group pulled from the ring shouts, praise songs, and nature tales of Gullah music while incorporating their own jazz twist.

YouTube Preview Image

 

The opening track, “That’s Alright,” is a feel-good song that lives up to the band’s funky name. Vocalist Quiana Parler’s soulful voice is complemented by a tambourine accompaniment to create an uplifting spiritual reminiscent of traditional Gullah praise songs. Other songs on the album are less upbeat and more instrumental but still maintain a connection to Gullah and other African cultures—“Knee Bone,” for example, is influenced by the West African belief that rigidity and death are connected and that one must move to feel alive. “Been in the Storm” is especially poignant in the wake of the recent hurricanes and tropical storms that have affected areas heavily-populated by the Gullah, and serves as a testament to their resilience.

By creating tracks that have roots in Gullah folk music and Afro-diasporic traditions, Ranky Tanky is helping to keep alive the vibrancy and expressiveness of Gullah culture.

Reviewed by Chloe McCormick

Walter Trout – We’re All In This Together

Walter Trout
Title: We’re All In This Together

Artist: Walter Trout

Label: Mascot Label Group

Formats: CD, Vinyl, MP3

Release date: September 1, 2017

 

 

Walter Trout’s We’re All In This Together marks the newest addition in what has already been a prolific career as a recording artist. One could view this recording as a celebration of sorts since Trout underwent a liver transplant in 2014. While this isn’t his first release since the transplant, it certainly has a much more upbeat feel overall when compared to his 2015 release, Battle Scars, which dealt with his battle with liver disease.

Helping Trout celebrate on this recording are a number of notable guest artists. With each track featuring a collaboration with a different artist, this album stands out for its stylistic variety. The various formidable guitarists should interest any guitar aficionado, although not every guest artist is a guitarist. Charlie Musselwhite’s harmonica on “The Other Side of the Pillow” stands out as one of the best performances on the album. However, make no mistake about it: this is a guitar album!

YouTube Preview Image

 

Trout’s history playing with major names in the blues world such as John Lee Hooker, Canned Heat, and John Mayall—just to name a few—must have contributed to his ability to lure so many great guest artists to this project. His ability to blend well with each of the guests and play complementary to their style was undoubtedly a factor. With 14 different guests, there is likely an artist to suit almost any taste. Trout is joined by his former bandleader John Mayall on “Blues for Jimmy T.” Other standouts include performances by Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Sonny Landreth, Robben Ford, Eric Gales, Joe Louis Walker, and Joe Bonamassa.

Bonamassa might be the most recognizable name in today’s guitar world, and his performance on the title track is a knockout. Nevertheless, it is the playing of Eric Gales, who recently released his Middle of the Road on the same label, that reminds the listener why Joe Bonamassa himself has described Gales as “one of the best, if not the best guitarists in the world.” “Somebody Goin’ Down,” which features Gales and begins with an intro reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix, ultimately manifests itself as a medium-tempo rock track that becomes a vehicle for some brilliant improvising by both Trout and Gales, who end up trading guitar licks during the outro solo.

Another standout track is “Crash and Burn,” an upbeat blues with a Chicago feel featuring Joe Louis Walker on vocals and guitar. Like many tracks, this one also features guitar playing suitable for in-depth study, but Walker’s vocals are also worth mentioning. His voice would not be out of place on a Stax recording from its heyday, and at times it is akin to Albert King, who recorded at Stax in the late 1960s.

We’re All In This Together is a welcome addition to any blues fan’s collection. It is an even more welcome addition to the collection of someone who loves guitar playing. Walter Trout is at the top of his game on this record, and his selection of guests perhaps inspired him to new heights. Whether the catalyst for this performance was newfound inspiration from great players or a new lease on life, the final product is a solid recording that will hopefully introduce Walter Trout to a new generation of listeners.

Reviewed by Joel Roberts

Mindi Abair and the Boneshakers – The EastWest Sessions

Boneshakers
Title: The EastWest Sessions

Artist: Mindi Abair and the Boneshakers

Label: Pretty Good for a Girl

Formats: CD, Mp3

Release date: September 15, 2017

 

 

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.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

The Sherman Holmes Project – The Richmond Sessions

Sherman Holmes
Title: The Richmond Sessions

Artist: The Sherman Holmes Project

Label: M.C. Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: July 21, 2017

 

 

This remarkable release is the first for Sherman Holmes since the passing in 2015 of both his brother and bandmate, Wendell Holmes and Popsy Dixon of the Holmes Brothers. Despite these somber circumstances, this uplifting project is a dedication to both the Holmes Brothers and the Americana music that brought the band together and sustained their career for over 50 years. Produced by Jon Lohman of the Virginia Folklife Program at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and recorded at Montrose Studios in Richmond, The Richmond Sessions is a collection of bluegrass, gospel, blues, and traditional songs that represent the roots of Holmes’ extensive musical career.

YouTube Preview Image

Originally from Christchurch, Virginia, the Holmes Brothers formed as a trio after years of performing the Chitlin’ Circuit. They are known for their eclectic blend of southern American genres supported by Wendell Holmes’ effortless electric guitar playing, Popsy Dixon’s drum work and falsetto voice, and Sherman Holmes’s deep resounding bass. In 2014, they were honored with a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship after working with the Maryland Traditions Apprenticeship Program, and from 2014-2015, they participated in the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program where they mentored a new generation of musicians, passing on cultural knowledge and musical techniques. The Sherman Holmes Project took shape shortly after Holmes performed “I Want Jesus” at the Virginia Apprenticeship showcase in memory of the Holmes Brothers, a beautiful blues traditional song featured on this album.

YouTube Preview Image

Several accomplished artists are featured on the Richmond Sessions including the Ingramettes singing backup vocals, Dobro player Rob Ickes, banjoist Sammy Shelor, and multi-instrumentalist DJ Harrison. Special guest Joan Osborne sings alongside Holmes on “Dark End of the Street” while “Breaking Up Somebody’s Home” brings the studio band together for a three-minute instrumental jam. Many of the recorded songs are favorites of Holmes, such as Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Green River” and Vince Gill’s “Little Liza Jane.” Other tracks feature songs the Holmes Brothers once performed together, such as “Homeless Child” and “Rock of Ages.”

Produced by the Virginia Foundation of the Humanities, The Richmond Sessions genuinely represents a public appreciation for the music and memory of the Holmes Brothers as Sherman continues to perform and record music. Sherman Holmes will be performing at various festivals this summer and fall; check his website for tour dates/locations.

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

Guy Davis & Fabrizio Poggi – Sonny & Brownie’s Last Train: A Look Back at Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry

Brownie Train
Title: Sonny & Brownie’s Last Train: A Look Back at Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry

Artist: Guy Davis & Fabrizio Poggi

Label: M.C. Records

Formats: CD, MP3, Vinyl

Release date: March 24, 2017

 

Blowing past the mouthpiece and producing train whistle-like chords, Fabrizio Poggi masterfully creates a sonic image on his harmonica of a train blowing steam as Guy Davis boldly strums on his acoustic guitar during the introduction of “Sonny and Brownie’s Last Train.” This original composition by Davis pays homage to the great mid-twentieth century Piedmont blues duo, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Terry and McGhee drew inspiration from early folk-blues figures such as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Josh White, and John Lee Hooker and were also associated with the left-wing folk movement.

This 12-track album of acoustic blues studio sessions was recorded live in Milan, Italy and features songs written by McGee and Terry including “Walk On,” “Evil Hearted Me,” and “Hooray, Hooray These Women are Killing Me.” Davis and Poggi also cover a number of blues greats from Jimmy Oden’s “Going Down Slow” to Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Train,” as well as familiar traditional songs like “Take This Hammer,” “Shortnin’ Bread,” and “Midnight Special.”

YouTube Preview Image

Special attention should be paid to the technical musical nuances during these live recordings. Of particular interest is Poggi’s emulation of Terry’s whooping and hollering between harmonica riffs for an added soulful effect. As well, Davis embraces the storytelling tradition in his performances inspired by the work of Blind Willie McTell and Big Bill Broonzy.

After a music career spanning over two decades, this commemorative album marks Guy Davis’ 14th recording. Reflecting on this latest work, Davis explains, “Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry were two musicians whose work will not be surpassed, let alone improved on. This musical opus was produced by Fabrizio Poggi. It features our combined musical talents, and is not meant to compete with the originals. It’s meant to be a love letter to Brownie and Sonny signed by the both of us. They were two of my favorites.”

Sonny & Brownie’s Last Train is certainly worth giving a listen, not only to hear expertly executed blues techniques on the harmonica and acoustic guitar, but to witness an excellent and historically significant collection of standard blues and traditional music.

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

Alberta Hunter – The Alberta Hunter Collection 1921-40

Hunter
Title: The Alberta Hunter Collection 1921-40

Artist: Alberta Hunter

Label: Acrobat Music

Format: CD, MP3, streaming (US: CD only)

Release Date: February 3, 2017

 

 

The familiar Alberta Hunter that emerged from two decades of retirement in 1977 was a very different artist from the Alberta Hunter that helped keep the race record market afloat in the early 1920s. Audiences in the ‘70s and ‘80s that flocked to Hunter’s latter day performances at the Cookery knew that she was a legend, but they were enthralled with her energy, experience, wit and mastery of phrasing. Such fans didn’t necessarily feel the need to revisit the ancient recordings that made Hunter a name. But there is every reason to investigate them, as Alberta Hunter wasn’t just another Vaudeville blues singer competing for parity with Clara Smith, Lucille Hegamin, Ethel Waters and, ultimately, Bessie Smith. She was a bellwether of a wide range of American popular song—ballads, blues, jazz, pop tunes and even purely sentimental fare.

In the mid-1990s the Document label in Austria issued four single discs comprising the better part of Alberta Hunter’s 78 rpm legacy, adding a fifth more recently, in addition to reissuing single Hunter items on compilations. Acrobat’s The Alberta Hunter Collection 1921-40 skims the Document issues, eliminating alternate takes and adding 11 of the 12 sides Hunter made in the UK with Jack Jackson’s Orchestra in 1934. The Jack Jackson sessions are declared “of no Blues interest” in older editions of the Godrich & Dixon Blues and Gospel Records 1902-1943, but nevertheless contain some Alberta Hunter performances of considerable merit.

Hunter’s early output makes for a fascinating case study in how a voice evolved side by side with developments in recording technology and currents in entertainment. Hunter made her recording debut at Black Swan in May 1921, perhaps the same day as Ethel Waters, and immediately produced a breakout hit, “How Long, Sweet Daddy, How Long?” though it would take her some time to second it. Hunter’s first great record, “Don’t Pan Me,” belongs to her third session and her first genuinely great blues performance, “Chirpin’ the Blues,” to her ninth. Some of the earliest material must’ve been a trial to record; a wayward clarinet in the first verse of “After All These Years” steps on every note Hunter is trying to sing, and in another spot an over-eager cornetist literally drowns her out. But in all of these sessions Hunter braved the storm with special enthusiasm, and that confidence eventually blossoms into mastery. Her early style once formed, to this reviewer, is addictive; Hunter’s rapid, assertive patter mixed with glissandi, gulps (an effect not lost on Libby Holman) and a quick, tasty vibrato which creeps into places where you’d never expect to find it, used in incredible variety.

Hunter also emphasizes clear diction, dropping out words rather than smearing them, and this may be of lesser appeal to listeners attuned to earthier voices like Ma Rainey. But Hunter wrote many of the songs that she recorded, and clearly wanted the words to be understood. With her first true electricals at Victor—the miserable sounding Okeh “TruTone” discs, though partly electric, do not count—Hunter is at some pains to avoid belting it out as she had for acoustics. By her 1927 session with Fats Waller—arguably her best accompanist overall—Hunter had electrical recording figured out, and began to exploit new aspects of her singing; lower registers and intimacy. It’s a shame that at this point her recording activity slows to a trickle, though that is in keeping with the fortunes of Vaudeville blues women on record across the board in the late ‘20s; Hunter had better luck in this respect than some. By the time of the Jack Jacksons, she’d had some singing lessons and was now rolling her “r’s,” watching her breath control and sustaining a longer line. Perhaps the effect is less “bluesy,” but these measures no doubt helped to preserve her voice and to make Hunter’s late career possible.

There are no production credits in the package, but it appears that the ‘naked’ material from Document has been put through some additional noise reduction processing. This helps in some cases, and is largely invisible, but is not so in Hunter’s first electrical session with pianist Mike Jackson. And there are places where really nothing can be done; the opening of “Vamping Brown” is musically unintelligible, with Fletcher Henderson’s piano registering only as noise from the badly worn, original 78 rpm disc. The Document issues were assembled from tapes canvassed from collectors 20 or more years ago, and in some cases it is possible that better specimens have been found in the interim; certainly there has got to be a better copy in this world of Hunter’s glorious 1923 rendering of “Loveless Love,” as it was issued on at least three 78 labels! On the other hand, for rare, unsuccessful records, copies used in this collection may still be the only ones known. Moreover, record collectors are not always apt at transferring discs, which may be why “Wasn’t It Nice?” sounds the way it does here.

Despite these drawbacks, The Alberta Hunter Collection 1921-40 might well be as ideal a survey of Hunter’s first two decades in recording—of a career that lasted six and half—as one could expect to enjoy under current circumstances. It has good notes by Paul Watts, the only person credited in the package, and full disclosure—Watts quotes from some fellow named “Uncle Dave Lewis.” But beyond Watts’ good taste in source material, the notes hit the high points of her career, both as a recording artist and as a live performer, and summarize in a concise way the titanic achievements of Alberta Hunter, whose own life story is as unlikely and astounding as her best singing is intoxicating and timeless.

Reviewed by Uncle Dave Lewis

 

Selwyn Birchwood – Pick Your Poison

Selwyn
Title: Pick Your Poison

Artist: Selwyn Birchwood

Label: Alligator

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: May 19, 2017

 

 

Selwyn Birchwood has revitalized the blues scene in recent years with his lap steel and hard driving six-string guitar. The rising star from Orlando, Florida, where steel guitar is a familiar presence in both sacred and secular music, has drawn many new fans to the blues. Birchwood has also impressed the many legendary musicians with whom he has shared a stage, including Robert Cray and Buddy Guy. After winning the International Blues Challenge in 2013, the Selwyn Birchwood Band has been touring non-stop, impressing audiences worldwide with their high energy performances. Band members include Regi Oliver (baritone, tenor and alto sax and flutes), Huff Wright on bass, and Courtney “Big Love” Girlie on drums and percussion.

Birchwood’s sophomore outing for Alligator Records, Pick Your Poison, offers 13 original songs that draw upon multiple influences. As one might guess from the album’s title, whiskey and women are alternating themes, with a dose of religion thrown in for good measure. The opening track “Trial By Fire” begins with a funky flute solo from Oliver before Birchwood takes over on guitar laced with psychedelic overtones belying his early fascination with Jimi Hendrix. “Even the Saved Need Saving” is a rollicking tune with a gospel style chorus and spiritual message: “Ya got to practice what you preach / Break the habit of hypocrisy / Get back doing faith faithfully / And practice what you preach.” On the introspective “Guilty Pleasures,” the twang of the steel guitar punctuates a laundry list of temptations, while the title track has a light reggae beat but deeper, darker lyrics that dig into the soul and offer no pity as the band builds to a rousing climax. Here’s a live version of the song performed last summer:

YouTube Preview Image

“Heavy Heart” is heavy on the blues rock, with Birchwood tearing up the guitar on an extended solo. The funk returns on “Are Ya Ready?” featuring rhythms and harmonies far more complex than any blues tune you are likely to hear this or any other year. “Reaping Time” is a return to the storytelling blues tradition—a man, a woman, a betrayal and a gun. You can guess the rest, but like all of the songs on this album, the quality of the songwriting and non-traditional approach to the blues really sets it apart.

Birchwood offers two socially conscious songs that comment on contemporary society. The lyrics of “Police State” are mirrored by a harder, angrier guitar picking style that speaks volumes as he sings, “Gotta shake these shackles before it’s too late, or we’ll be trapped in a police state.” The album closes with “Corporate Drone,” with Birchwood espousing non-conformity through his music and the lyrics, “Rather strike it out on my own.” And he does – straight out of the park!

Pick Your Poison is another home run for Selwyn Birchwood. If you don’t think the blues has anything new to offer, this album is guaranteed to change your mind.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Taj Mahal and Keb’Mo’ – TajMo

TajMo
Title: TajMo

Artist: Taj Mahal and Keb’Mo’

Label: Concord

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: May 5, 2017

 

There’s a certain solemn sense of responsibility that comes with reviewing the first duo album by two giants of the blues: Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’. The two of them have logged eighty years of achievement in blues, and promotional literature attendant to TajMo, their new Concord release, highlights their strong sense of mutual respect. How could the album be anything other than absolutely wonderful? For the most part, it is.

TajMo is a true collaboration in the spirit of Brion Gysin’s concept of the “third mind” in which the combined efforts of two artists results in the product of a third. Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ trade verses and guitar leads seamlessly to the extent that it isn’t always readily apparent who’s doing the talking, with Taj Mahal’s wry, gravelly voice leading to Keb’ Mo’s rich baritone and back. The stinging intensity of the leadoff track, “Don’t Leave Me Here,” and their sardonic, front porch acoustic take on the more traditional “Diving Duck Blues” are among the standout items here.

Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ do have interests outside of the blues, and this where some incongruous elements tend to creep into the mix, including Stax/Volt grooves and ‘Big 80’s’ production values. The first part of TajMo is much stronger than the later, where the pair explore a couple of cover songs that really aren’t worthy of their talents. However, this disc is designed to support the joint tour between Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ which begins this month and will run until October 2017; clearly the appeal of this project needed to be broad for that purpose. The sessions for TajMo sound like they were tremendous fun and that sense of camaraderie and good times shine through as evidence of their shared mastery; it’s going to be a great tour.

Reviewed by David N. “Uncle Dave” Lewis

The Soul of John Black – Early in the Moanin’

soul of John Black
Title: Early in the Moanin’

Artist: The Soul of John Black

Label: Big Slamm Music/dist. CD Baby

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: May 6, 2016

 

The Soul of John Black is a project centered around guitarist John Bigham. Best known for his time as a member of Fishbone, Bigham uses The Soul of John Black as a love letter to the blues.  His latest release, Early in the Moanin’, infuses elements of both Delta and Chicago blues with soul and funk sensibilities. The album finds “JB,” as he a known, running through songs filled with an earthy-southern feel.

Bigham puts his sense of humor at the center of many of the tracks, including the album opener “Can’t Be Helped,” where he playfully pleads for help from his partner for his ailment: “Doctor says I can’t be helped / by nobody but thee / now lay some hands on me.”

Early In Moanin’ is reminiscent of soul-blues greats like Little Milton or Z.Z. Hill, but with a 2017 sensibility. It conjures up visions of people dancing away the troubles of the day at the local watering hole. Bigham’s vocals and guitar work are both superb throughout the album. Despite the fact that blues is not his most oft-played genre, he feels completely at home in the setting.  His comfort at weaving between genres—blues, soul, funk, R&B—speaks to the interconnectedness of these genres at large.  Blues in many ways is the root and Bigham taps into it in spectacular fashion on this album. Early In Moanin’ is highly recommended for lovers of the soul-blues of Bobby “Blue” Bland, Denise LaSalle and Clarence Carter.

Reviewed by Levon Williams

Eric Bibb – Migration Blues

Eric Bibb
Title: Migration Blues

Artist: Eric Bibb

Label: Stony Plain

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: March 31, 2017

 

“Blues was born of forced migration”— Michael Jerome Browne

Award-winning blues singer/songwriter Eric Bibb has offered fans a new album almost every year since signing to Stony Plain Records in 2011, ranging from explorations of American roots music to cross-cultural collaborations. With a career now spanning five decades, the 65-year-old artist pulls no punches on his latest release, Migration Blues, an overtly political statement. As Bibb’s explains, “Whether you’re looking at a former sharecropper, hitchhiking from Clarksdale to Chicago in 1923, or an orphan from Aleppo, in a boat full of refugees in 2016—it’s migration blues. With this album, I want to encourage us all to keep our minds and hearts wide open to the ongoing plight of refugees everywhere. As history shows, we all come from people who, at some time or another, had to move.”  He goes on to add, “While pondering the current refugee crisis I found myself thinking about the Great Migration, which saw millions of African Americans leaving the brutal segregation and economic misery of the rural South for the industrial cities of the North. Making this connection is what inspired the new songs included here.”

YouTube Preview Image

Migration Blues was jointly produced by Bibb (vocals, guitars, six-string banjo and contrabass guitar), Michael Jerome Browne (guitars, vocals, banjos, mandolin and triangle), and JJ Milteau (harmonica), who all contributed to the songwriting process and recording. One of those newly composed songs, the opening track “Refugee Moan,” perfectly encapsulates the theme of the album. Drawing upon the roots of blues and gospel music by making use of a train metaphor, Bibb sings to the accompaniment of gourd banjo and harmonica:

If there’s a train that will take me there
Take me where I can live in peace
Oh, Lord, take me onboard, don’t leave me here
Let me ride that train.

From this point forward, the songs traverse time and space. “Delta Getaway” and “With a Dolla’ In My Pocket” are drawn from stories about the perilous journey from Mississippi to Chicago, while “Diego’s Blues” is about Mexican farm workers migrating to the Delta to replace those who fled north during the Great Migration. One of the most haunting tracks is “Prayin’ For Shore,” recounting contemporary journeys of refugees attempting to reach Europe by boat, and the many who drowned before achieving their goal:

In a ol’ leaky boat / Somewhere on the sea
Tryin’ to get away from the war
Welcome or not, we got to land soon
Oh, Lord – prayin’ for shore.

The title track is an instrumental featuring Bibb on a resophonic 12-string guitar, Browne on a 12-string slide guitar, and Milteau on harmonica. This interlude offers listeners a much needed moment to take a deep breath and reflect on the many threads connecting the songs. Other stand out tracks include “We Had to Move,” inspired by the life of James Brown, the instrumental “La Vie C’est Comme Un Oignon” referencing the expulsion of Acadians from Nova Scotia in the 1700s (ft. Browne on fiddle and ti-fer). Also included are several covers: Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” which unfortunately is still very relevant; Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land;” and an arrangement of the traditional spiritual “Mornin’ Train,” closing the album with the message that our final migration is to heaven, and everything else is transitory.

Migration Blues is a masterful album that’s both timely and historical in nature with its exploration of journeys and diasporas, of the impact of migration on musical borrowings and innovations, and perhaps most important—our shared humanity.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Valerie June – The Order of Time

Valerie June

Title: The Order of Time

Artist: Valerie June

Label: Concord Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release Date: March 10, 2017

 

“Long Lovely Road” opens Valerie June’s atmospheric new album, The Order of Time, with a calming melody beckoning the listener to sing along with the chorus. Based out of Brooklyn, June collaborated with producer Matt Marinelli to create this second full album following her 2014 release, Pushin’ Against a Stone. On “Love Once Made,” June’s distinctive voice stands out as it beautifully breaks into her upper register on the chorus. The energy carries straight into “Shake Down,” an exciting call and response electric blues song supported by back-up vocals from June’s father and brothers:

The soothing drone of “If And” and the sustained ambient tones of “The Front Door” inspire a hopeful meditative response to the hard times everyone will inevitably encounter in life. “Man Done Wrong” draws on the lyrical repetition tradition found in blues music with a very minimalistic instrumental section and a prominent beat. “Astral Plane,” perhaps the most iconic song on this album, contemplates a spiritual purpose within the greater cosmic theme:

Dancing on the astral plane
In holy water cleansing rain
Floating through the stratosphere
Blind, but yet you see so clear

June remains front and center throughout this album, though she collaborated with keyboardist Pete Remm and vocalist Norah Jones. The deep electric guitar reverb introducing the orchestra of strings in “Just In Time,” the only song produced by Richard Swift, refocuses attention on the timely unity of humanity. Partnered well with “Two Hearts,” June sweetly blends her voice on “With You” with a fingerpicking guitar pattern, building into a more instrumentally complex arrangement. The album concludes with “Slip Slide on By” and “Got Soul,” two party songs with a brass band, soulful keys, and the potential to continue playing on repeat!

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

Thornetta Davis – Honest Woman

Thornetta Davis
Title: Honest Woman

Artist: Thornetta Davis

Label: Self-released

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 23, 2016

 

Crowned the “Queen of Detroit Blues” in 2015, Thornetta Davis is a blues singer and songwriter with a big voice and a passion for all things blues, rock, and soul. Though she’s worked with labels like Sub Pop in the past, her latest release Honest Woman is a self-released project full of passion.

Honest Woman starts rather untraditionally, with Felicia Davis singing her sister’s praises like a spoken word poem over back porch Delta blues: “When my sister sings the blues, she moves her hips swaying to the beat / Snapping her fingers and stomping her feet.” She compares her sister to Bessie Smith and Sippie Wallace, two of the most famous black blues singers from the 1920s. This celebration of black women in music and the blues reverberates throughout the entire album, as Thornetta Davis draws inspiration from artists such as Denise LaSalle, Etta James, Sarah Vaughn, and Big Mama Thornton.

The theme of honoring women is echoed on the second track, “I Gotta Sang the Blues,” which is a powerful duet with harmonica virtuoso Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbids. The songs talks about singing the blues not to get rich or famous, but rather to persevere when “living the blues gets too rough.” At the end of the song, Davis evokes the names of more famous blues women, singing on the outro,

I ain’t gon’ stop singin’ the blues
Big Mama Thorton sang the blues
Koko Taylor sang the blues
Etta James sang the blues.

On “Sister Friends Indeed,” Davis celebrates the female friendships in her own life. The bluesy Americana track is an ode to sisterhood, discussing how all the women who have supported her throughout life are her sisters, whether they share blood or not:

The rest of Honest Woman doesn’t celebrate blues women as explicitly, but it cements Davis as a part of that history. Her smooth voices oscillates between a number of styles. She sings contemporary upbeat rock blues on songs like “That Don’t Appease Me” and “I Need A Whole Lotta Lovin to Satisfy Me,” followed by effortless soul on the heartbreak ballad “(Am I Just A) Shadow,” and sexy R&B vocals on “Can We Do It Again.”

Davis’ mixture of black music genres stands out particularly on “Set Me Free,” a modern funk and blues spiritual featuring the Larry McCray Band. Though it may be easy to view the raunchy aspects of blues as the opposite of gospel, Davis’ plea for the Lord to come down and set her free pairs perfectly with the blues singer’s themes of struggles and the pain of working.

The final song on the album, “Feels Like Religion,” is another gospel song which celebrates Davis finding happiness and confidence in herself. The song even has a call and response section as Davis sings, “I wanna dance! (dance) Shout! (shout) Show you what it’s all about!” The steady beat of the drum set completely shifts after this call and response as the music transforms into foot-stomping, hand-clapping gospel that completely takes the listener to church. This celebratory, thankful song encapsulates what Honest Woman is all about—an album full of joy and gratitude for the black blues women who influenced Davis’ music, her sisters, her God, and herself, the “Queen of Detroit Blues.”

Reviewed by Anna Polovick