Title: Here Today
Artist: Alicia Hall Moran
Label: dist. by CD Baby
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: December 21, 2017
Multifaceted mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran, who recently starred in the national tour of the Tony Award-winning production of Porgy and Bess, has embarked on a variety of significant projects over the past few years. Her critically acclaimed staged concert work, Black Wall Street, follows a path from Oklahoma and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 to New York’s Wall Street—which not coincidentally traces her own family’s journey. Continue reading →
Title: Exit 16
Artist: Roosevelt Collier
Label: Ground Up
Formats: LP, Digital
Release date: March 9, 2018
Roosevelt “The Dr.” Collier, who currently performs as a member of the Snarky Puppy spin-off band Bokanté, released his solo debut album Exit 16 earlier this year. Raised in the House of God Church in Perrine, Florida, Collier represents the younger generation of “sacred steel” guitarists. A master on both pedal and lap steel guitars, he also performs with his uncles and cousins as the Lee Boys, one of the foremost sacred steel ensembles., and in his spare time graces the stage with the likes of the Allman Brothers and Los Lobos. Continue reading →
Title: Áfríkà Rising
Artist: Tosin Aribisala
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: June 22, 2018
Nigerian composer, vocalist and percussionist Tosin Aribisala has very wide-ranging musical interests that cross multiple genres. As a young boy his initiation to music came via his father’s record collection, where he found inspiration in albums by jazz drummer Art Blakely and the “master drummer of Afrobeat” Tony Allen. Following his passion in Nigeria had its limitations, however, since neither American jazz nor drum sets were not popular in the country at that time. After relocating to the U.S., Tosin made a name for himself as a versatile percussionist who can add that “special something”—namely the complex polyrhythms of African grooves—via his drum set. Those who have benefited from his talents include musicians ranging from Taj Mahal and Spyro Gyra to Fatoumata Diawara and Femi Kuti, a testament to his ability to bridge the music of two continents. Continue reading →
October is always a good month to remember Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (1929-2000), best known for over-the-top, voodoo-inspired performances of his underground hit, “I Put a Spell on You.” That song and more can be found on the two-disc compilation, Are YOU one of Jay’s Kids? – The Complete Bizarre Sessions, 1990-1994. Continue reading →
Artist: Europe’s Society Orchestra
Release date: June 1, 2018
This extraordinary new set from Archeophone Records, The Product of Our Souls, compiles for the first time in history the eight sides recorded by Europe’s Society Orchestra for the Victor Talking Machine Company. Dating from December 1913 to February 1914, these sides represent the earliest mainstream recordings of an African American dance band.Continue reading →
We’ve covered a number of artists over the past decide whose careers were revived later in life, including the late, great Charles Bradley. A similar artist who recently entered our radar is soul singer Ural Thomas, a Louisiana-born preacher’s son who opened for the likes of James Brown, Otis Redding, and Stevie Wonder back in the day. Continue reading →
Jean Beauvoir is a legend in the world of black rock and Afro-punk artists. Born in Chicago to Haitian-American parents, he started his musical career in a fairly typical manner, learning drums and bass as a kid, and honing his vocals singing doo-wop. But his career took a dramatic left turn when he moved to New York during the punk rock explosion and crossed paths with Rod Swenson and Wendy O. Williams.Continue reading →
On this new compilation from Per Notini’s Gospel Friend label, gospel historian Opal Nations recounts the story of Prof. Harold Boggs. Born in Port Clinton, Ohio in 1928, Boggs displayed a rare musical talent as a young boy, both as a singer and pianist. Since he also suffered from an irreversible form of glaucoma, his mother insisted that part of his special tutoring include formal music training.Continue reading →
Label: Gospel Friend/NarroWay
Release date: September 21, 2018
Swedish producer and gospel record collector Per “Slim” Notini’s latest compilation, Soul Don’t Worry!, is a two-CD set devoted to Black gospel music from the Civil Rights Era. Notini’s stated goal is to feature recordings released from 1953-1967 “of which a big portion are rare performances.”Continue reading →
Typically we feature releases from African American musicians as well as those connected to the African diaspora. We’re making an exception, however, for the Australian indigenous musician, Gurrumul Yunupingu. Known professionally as Gurrumul, or Dr. G to colleagues, the late singer and multi-instrumentalist enjoyed international success, performing at venues around the world.Continue reading →
Illinois-based Archeophone Records, a company specializing in acoustic-era reissues, has a long history of uncovering and releasing fascinating recordings from bygone eras.[i] In 2007 they received a Grammy Award for Best Historical Album for the 2-CD set, Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1891-1922, a companion to the groundbreaking book of the same title by noted discographer and recording industry historian Tim Brooks. One of the musicians listed in the book was Charles A. Asbury (born ca. 1956, d.1903). Though referred to variously in the 1890s as “the popular colored banjoist” and performer of songs in the “negro style,” at least one reviewer mentioned Asbury as the only white member of an African American troupe. This conflicting evidence led Brooks to assume Asbury had been “misidentified as Black.” New research, however, reveals a more complex and fascinating story—while the discovery of extant copies of Ashbury’s earliest recordings likewise expands our knowledge of early banjo traditions.
In a diligent search through archival records that would impress any genealogist, Archeophone’s Richard Martin slowly unraveled the story of Charles A. Asbury with assistance from Asbury’s heirs. Born in Florida and raised in Augusta, Georgia during the Reconstruction era by his adoptive “mulatto” parents, Asbury joined a prominent traveling theater troupe, performing the role of Sambo in one of the many minstrel adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (apparently the George L. Aiken version). From there he can be traced to an all-black ensemble featuring his first wife, Annie Asbury, plugged as “the great shout singer.” In the liner notes, authors Richard Martin and Ted Olsen surmise that Asbury may have learned the banjo, or at least studied the technique of Horace Weston, “the internationally famous African American banjo virtuoso,” who was one of the biggest stars in Annie’s troupe. Whatever the case may be, Asbury toured with various Black jubilee ensembles throughout the South, further honing both his banjo and singing skills, and growing his reputation as an artist.
Now, for the recorded evidence. From 1891-1897, Asbury’s songs with banjo accompaniment were captured on wax by the New Jersey Phonograph Company in Newark—likely the oldest extant recordings of this genre by an African American artist. These wax cylinders are extremely rare, and thus far the only Asbury recordings known to survive are those featured on 4 Banjo Songs (he recorded many more). “Haul the Woodpile Down” was first made available via University of California Santa Barbara’s Cylinder Audio Archive website. The other three cylinder tracks are publicly available for the very first time on this set. Most of these songs—the popular “Haul the Woodpile Down,” “Never Done Anything Since” and “A New Coon in Town”—bear the hallmarks of the minstrel banjo tradition and early “coon songs,” while the fourth and earliest, “Keep in de Middle ob de Road” (1891), is a seldom recorded semi-religious jubilee hymn. What sets these apart from other minstrel tunes is Asbury’s “remarkably fluid, rhythmically complex” five-string banjo technique. With the assistance of experts in online banjo discussion groups, Martin was able to learn more about Asbury’s unique “stroke style” of playing, which is detailed at length in the liner notes. Because the stroke style was seldom used or recorded after 1900, these four Asbury cylinders are historically significant, documenting a 19th century performance practice that sheds further light on the African American banjo tradition.
The cylinder transfers were carried out by John Levin, developer of the CPS1 Cylinder Playback Machine. Now used by a number of institutions, the machine yields astonishing results, rendering Asbury’s performances in the best possible sonic resolution, with additional restoration from Martin. The accompanying 16 page illustrated booklet provides further insight on Asbury’s life and music, with notes on each track plus endnotes and technical notes. Lyrics are printed on the sleeve of the 7-inch 45-rpm disc. 4 Banjo Songs is a first-rate package, well-worth the $16.99 list price for this significant piece of musical history. Please note: the limited run of 1000 copies will likely disappear quickly.
At first glance, you might not peg Josiah Wise as a classically trainer singer. Before transforming himself into the performance artist known as serpentwithfeet, the Baltimore-born musician spent his formative years singing gospel music in his mother’s Pentecostal church. While Wise later studied jazz as well as opera, he was also enamored ‘90s R&B—especially Brandy. Synthesizing all of these influences in his first full-length album, Soil, Wise draws connections to the sustenance of life and love, while simultaneously rebelling against today’s “symmetry and sterile soundscapes.”
Collaborating with producer Clams Casino and experimental electronic musician Katie Gately, Wise has created unique sound collages that are operatic in their own way. Casino, known for his ‘cloud rap’ productions and tracks for the likes of ASAP Rocky & Lil B (“Be Somebody”), The Weeknd, and Kelela, brings hip hop beats with a spacey, freeform style. Gately, who sculpted the sound on nearly half of the tracks on Soil, is known for constructing pieces from multiple layers and samples. Together, they offer a work that enhances Wise’s melismatic singing style with avant garde electronics and multi-layered, hyperprocessed vocals. By also eschewing standard melodies and notions of song construction, the result is more akin to freestyle.
Opening with Wise’s seductive vocals over synth clarinet arpeggios, “Whisper” is one of the album’s most compelling tracks, and perhaps the closest in form to an R&B single. Written by Gately, the song shows off Wise’s vocal range and technique, with extensive overdubbing to create a choral effect. This is one of the many songs on the album touching upon the “shame around two black men dating and loving on each other” as Wise—who is openly gay—sings, “If you whisper, only I will hear you.” “Wrong Tree” seems to expand upon this theme. As the gospel organ and hand claps evoke the conservatism of the church, the song turns more menacing with the lyrics, “The fruit I couldn’t wait to eat / suddenly began to bleed / then I heard them shouting / He climbin’ up the wrong tree.” Both Gately and Casino contributed to “Mourning Song,” the orchestral backing adding weight to the poignant lament, “I want to make a pageant of my grief.”
Another highlight of the album is “Cherubim,” produced by Gately and the Boston-based electronic producer known as mmph. More overtly homeoerotic, the official video underscores the dramatic elements of Wise’s performance art, while the music is a seamless combination of classical, R&B, and gospel influences with rock overtones. Clams Casino’s footprint is all over “Seedless,” with its laborious beat, electronic effects and elastic rhythms, while Wise flows between song and chant. The album comes full circle with the final track, “Bless Ur Heart,” a tender, upbeat love song expressing optimism: “What was once a whisper will become a deep rumbling sound / I’ll keep a tender heart.”
Soil is a mesmerizing project full of lush harmonies and heartfelt lyrics that pushes the envelop through the electronic production, as well as the thematic material. Undefinable, and undeniably unique, the album’s deep roots extend into many facets of the Black music spectrum.
Swiss-American provacateur Manuel Gagneux, the artist behind the avant garde rock group Zeal & Ardor, unleashed his debut album Devil Is Fine to much acclaim in 2017. Grounded in Norwegian black metal and its inherent paganism, the album imagined an antebellum South where slaves “had chosen defiance and rebellion and the power of Satan” instead of Christianity. With his new album, Stranger Fruit, Gagneux not only hints at Billie Holliday’s haunting classic, but implies he might take us one step beyond the already grotesque imagery of “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze.” The answer comes sooner rather than later.
After a brief intro sets the stage with the sound of a pickaxe striking the ground, the opening song “Gravedigger’s Chant” seems to pick up where “Strange Fruit” left off, as Gagneux sings “bring the dead body down to the graveyard…Lord have mercy.” In a press release, Gagneux describes the official video as subverting roles: “People find themselves in situations untypical for their ilk, tools become weapons, weapons turn into tools, and fingers meant for sensing make themselves felt.”
Unlike the previous Zeal & Ardor album—an interwoven fabric of metal tempered with elements of blues, spirituals, Lomax-esque work-song melodies, soul and gospel—Stranger Fruit hews more closely to black metal roots. “Servants” promotes an uprising of the oppressed, while “Don’t’ You Dare” takes things one step further, hinting at human sacrifices with the chorus, “never come ‘round these parts…don’t you dare look away, boy.” The brief “Fire of Motion” features a wall of thrashing guitars, then segues into the gorgeous vocal harmonies of “The Hermit” with a nod to Gregorian chant.
If you were a fan of Devil Is Fine, then you will appreciate the hand-clapping rhythms behind “Row Row,” the soulful elements of “You Ain’t Coming Back,” and the bluesy “We Can’t Be Found.” The title track, “Stranger Fruit,” is built over an ominous piano ostinato that gradually builds to the timely finale, “there’s a storm out there / there’s no shelter for us.” The album closes with “Built on Ashes,” another track interjecting soulful vocals that makes for a satisfying finish, despite the gloomy chorus, “”Like a strange fruit out of season / You are bound to die alone.”
Though a couple of electronic tracks seem somewhat out of kilter, Zeal & Ardor’s Stranger Fruit is a solid sophomore effort. The album was produced by Gagneux alongside Austrian producer Zebo Adam and mixed by Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou. Gagneux has assembled a band for live shows and will be touring the U.S. later this year.
One of the architects of rock and roll, Fats Domino is also remembered as one of New Orleans’ greatest musicians, which is quite an honor in a city that produced so many legends. Now the venerable Bear Family label honors Fats, who died last year, with this compilation featuring 32 ballads culled from his 1955-1962 Imperial Records sides. Most were either produced, co-written/arranged, and/or performed (on trumpet) by the great Dave Bartholomew and recorded at Cosimo Matassa’s studio.
Instead of the red-hot sound of the Crescent City’s rhythm and rocking blues scene, The Ballads of Fats Domino highlights many of his lesser known gems. As noted author/historian Bill Dahl states in the liner notes, “Fats without his trademark rocking rhythms [was] every bit as effective and lovable as when the big beat was scalding behind him.” And that’s the truth!
This “blusier, atmospheric side” of Fats is certainly apparent on classics like “Blueberry Hill,” which opens the set, and a pair string drenched sides, “Walking to New Orleans” and “Three Nights a Week,” both R&B hits despite Domino’s opinion that “people don’t like me with too many violins.” The hardships of life on the road spurred more than a few ‘homesick’ ballads that are great examples of Fats’ signature story songs: “I Miss You So” (1961); a 1962 remake of “Goin’ Home” (the original side was released a decade prior); and the earliest song on the set, “Helping Hand (A Long Way From Home)” from 1955.
This is just a small taste of what’s in store on The Ballads of Fats Domino, produced with the typical high standards we’ve come to expect from Bear Family, including illustrated liner notes and a complete session discography.
Jazz saxophonist and composer Darryl Yokley pays homage to Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky on his latest project, Pictures at an African Exhibition. While Mussorgsky’s inspiration for “Pictures at an Exhibition” came from artist Viktor Hartmann, Yokley collaborated with London-born artist David Emmanuel Noel on his similarly titled work. Drawing upon themes of the African Diaspora, Noel created original paintings inspired by each of the album’s 13 tracks.
During an interview for Occhi Magazine, Yokley said he drew “inspiration from African art and music, jazz music, classical music, as well as the artwork of David [Noel]” in the composition of “this jazz symphony.” In the same interview, Noel stated, “As an avid jazz fan, my work is produced in a studio, where the music is the backdrop, influencing every stroke of a brush and fusion of colours on each canvas. The paintings are my visual interpretations and dialogue with each track.” Regarding the thematic material he added, “I think it’s particularly important, when we discuss the African Diaspora and exploit mediums we do control to fully understand the continent’s people, its history, influence and the world’s interdependence on a landmass, with over one billion people. The capturing of a continent’s milestones, from the celebration of life and execution of cultural creativity, to human struggle and emancipation of a diaspora, needs to be told in an amalgam of ways. Music and paintings serve each other well in exploring how we react emotionally to the album’s theme.”
Yokely has been performing music from Pictures at an African Exhibition for the past four years with his band, Sound Reformation, featuring pianist Zaccai Curtis, bassist Luques Curtis, and drummer Wayne Smith Jr. The programmatic suite opens with the brief prelude, “First Sunrise,” marking the “dawn of humankind” in Africa. Following is “Migration,” an exploration of populations moving within and beyond the mother country. Yokely’s opening theme on this track is played in C, which he calls “the key of the earth.” This harmonious and carefree intro, enhanced with classical-style piano riffs, becomes increasingly agitated as the track progresses, with an ebb and flow signaling shifting populations that never return to their point of origin. “Ubuntu” and “Stories of the Village Elder” paint a rich sound collage while exploring African themes and rhythms, accentuated by Curtis’s kalimba-styled piano ostinato.
The music takes a darker turn on “Ominous Nightfall,” as drums signal the approach of those seeking human chattel. Seguing into “Hunting Natives,” the band’s tight harmonies, sharply articulated attacks, and excellent solo turns combine into a masterful performance. “Birth of Swing” is another highlight—a wonderful slow and bluesy dirge drawing heavily upon New Orleans’ jazz traditions, with guest Nasheet Waits on drums. While this track celebrates the contributions of African American musicians, the painful beginnings are also expressed through the clanking of chains added to Smith’s percussion arsenal.
Going forward, Yokely’s thoughts return to the motherland on tracks such as “Echoes of Ancient Sahara” sprinkled with Arabic motifs, the mournful then harrowing “Genocide March” which reenacts the Rwandan and Sierra Leone genocides, and “Cry, the Beloved Country” which moves from voices oppressed to freely articulated melodies resplendent in Yokely’s sax solos.
Closing with “New Sunrise,” the album takes an optimistic turn built around major chords to express Yokely’s “fantasy” of an end to “warfare, racism, classicism, sexism, and all other dividing ideologies and practices.”
Blending music with art while building on the overall theme of unity, Pictures at an African Exhibition realizes Yokely’s overall goal of “creating a work that shows how we as a human family have more in common than our differences would lead us to believe.”
When you have a band name that combines Orca, “the sophisticated, mysterious, intelligent killer whale,” with Stratum, a way of categorizing or layering members of a group—one would expect a certain level of sonic diversity. This is certainly the case with Orcastratum’s eponymous debut album, recorded live at Dean St. Studios in Soho, London. Blending jazz, blues, classical, African, and “UK left field” musical traditions, the London-based group aims to transcend the predictive qualities of mainstream music. Led by producer and songwriter Glen Scott on keyboards, other members of the group include Ralph Salmins on percussion, Neville Malcolm on acoustic bass, and Eric Appapoulay on electric and acoustic guitars.
The album opens with “Spirit of the Skog.” After a brief intro hinting perhaps at fog shrouded forests, the track switches to an up tempo jazz tune featuring master Senegalese musician Solo Cissokho, who artfully intertwines kora melodies and vocals. “Unexpected Relations” is true to it’s word, contrasting classical idioms on the piano against a driving percussion rhythm and ethereal vocal overdubs. Swedish vocalist BERG is the featured guest on “Hallelujah Ironically,” along with Binker Golding, who adds to the contrasting sections with an extended sax solo. Despite its title, “Wizdoom” is an upbeat, piano-centric contemporary jazz tune with lush flourishes and perhaps only a hint of foreboding.
For many, the highlight of the album will be “No Need,” featuring guitarist Eric Bibb and gospel singer Shaneeka Simon. On the intro, Bibb’s lightly plucked guitar ostinato seems to mimic the kora from the opening track. As the song builds, Bibb joins Simon on vocals and the tone becomes dark and urgent, the accompaniment more ominous. Singing “no need for the fussing and fighting my friend,” the musicians bring the song to a powerful climax.
Though only five tracks, Orcastratum is an impactful debut that only hints at the group’s complexities, but certainly fulfills Scott’s “age old quest to inspire myself and others without borders.”
Born in 1871, James Weldon Johnson is perhaps best known in musical circles as the brother of composer John Rosamond Johnson, who set his poem “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” to music in 1900. But James was also a towering literary figure, among other accomplishments, and one of his best known works is God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, first published in 1927. Based on an old folk sermon that began with the creation of the world and ended with the Judgement Day,” the book of poems is now considered a classic of American literature.
American composer and baritone Gordon Myers (1919-2006) set God’s Trombones to music in 1966. The oratorio was Myer’s doctoral thesis composition and he articulated his goals as follows: “Approaching the task, I kept the sound of a church choir, the lilt of a folk song, and the vitality of the Negro Spiritual in my ear, and set out to blend them into one consistent idiom.”
In 1995, the premiere recording of the work was released by Paraclete Press, performed by Gloriae Dei Cantores conducted by Elizabeth C. Petterson, with Myers as the featured baritone. Based in Orleans, Mass., Gloriae Dei Cantores has a mission to “preserve in recordings worthy American sacred music that would otherwise be neglected,” and consequently decided to reissue their 1995 recording of God’s Trombones, with original liner notes and song texts included. Those who do not own a copy of the original release should certainly consider this new version. It must be noted, however, that the movement “Let My People Go” was sacrificed due to time constraints on the original pressing. Regrettably, the new release is also incomplete—it’s a pity is wasn’t expanded to a two-CD set, but presumably the missing movement was simply not recorded during the 1995 session.
Sometimes it takes a royal wedding to bring musical talents to light. Such is the case with cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason. Though the London-born musician was already a celebrity in the UK, the rest of the world took notice during his televised performance at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on May 19. Now his debut album is topping the charts and fans can’t seem to get enough.
The 19-year-old cellist plays like Yo-Yo Ma and cites the late Jacqueline du Pré as an early influence. After winning the BBC Young Musician Award in 2016, Kanneh-Mason was signed to the prestigious Decca Classics label. Inspiration, released earlier this year, proves his mastery through a mix of the classics and arrangements of popular songs.
Kanneh-Mason opens the album with an arrangement of the Hebrew song “Evening of Roses” (aka “Erev Shel Shoshanim”), then segues into the frequently performed chestnut “The Swan,” from Carnival of the Animals.” Next is “Song of the Birds” arranged by another cello great, Pablo Casals. All three are accompanied by the CBSO cello section.
The full City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Lithuanian conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, comes on board for Shostakovich. First, a beautiful rendition of his “Nocturne” from The Gadfly Suite, followed by Cello Concerto No. 1, which Kanneh-Mason performs brilliantly. One would expect no less since it was his performance of this work at the BBC competition that clinched his award.
The album concludes with four additional arrangements that demonstrate Kanneh-Mason’s beautiful tone and musical maturity: “Les larmes de Jacqueline” from Offenbach’s cello suite Harmonies des Bois, Op. 76; Casal’s arrangement of Sardana; and two popular favorites—Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” The latter, arranged for strings, includes assistance from three other young musicians—violinist Didier Osindero, violist Alinka Rowe and cellist Yong Jun Lee.
None of the above were performed during the royal wedding, which included Après un Rêve by Gabriel Fauré, Sicilienne by Maria Theresia von Paradis and Schubert’s Ave Maria, but for those who want more of Kanneh-Mason, the wedding performance is available on video. He will also be touring throughout Europe this summer and fall, with three performances scheduled in Seattle in October. No doubt he will be filling those seats!
Americana duo Birds of Chicago is a marriage, literally, of singer-songwriters JT Nero and Allison Russell. Formed in 2012, the group has developed a loyal following through their relentless touring schedule. Since their last full-length project, Real Midnight (2016), the Birds have flown from Chicago to Nashville, where they now reside. Their new album, Love in Wartime, co-produced by Luther Dickenson, reflects the sounds of both hometowns as the duo artfully intertwines elements of country, folk, blues and rock.
While Russell’s voice has been prominent on previous albums, Love in Wartime is perhaps more evenly divided between the duo, contrasting Russell’s silky, soulful soprano against Nero’s grittier baritone. Opening with the intro “Now/Sunlight,” Russell hums a whimsical, folksy tune over plucked banjo chords, then segues into the uptempo roots rock song, “Never Go Back,” with Nero on lead vocals. On the title track, twangy guitars come to the fore as Nero recounts the realities of longterm relationships and parenthood, “we sat there and tried to remember our dreams, no such luck, no such luck.” Life on the road is the subject of the poignant “Travelers,” as Russell sings “there’s no home in this world, got no home in this world.” One of the most effective duets on the album is “Try,” with Russell and Nero trading verses before coming together on the chorus, “Try a little harder, give a little more.”
Other highlights include the uplifting bluesy song “Roll Away” which encourages folks to “roll away the heavy stones, roll away the heavy hours, roll on in the summer moon,” and the banjo accompanied ballad “Superlover.”
Love in Wartime is jam-packed with carefully crafted songs and inspirational lyrics that celebrate life and love despite troubled times and the daily grind.
Idris Ackamoor and his jazz ensemble The Pyramids began performing together in the 1970s when they were students at Antioch College under the mentorship of renowned pianist Cecil Taylor. After releasing several widely acclaimed “space-age” or “spiritual” jazz albums, the group disbanded in 1977. When a new generation of music lovers discovered The Pyramids recordings and began clamoring for more, Ackamoor decided to reconstitute the group in 2012. An Angel Fell is the third release from this new ensemble, led by Ackamoor on alto, tenor sax and keytar, with Sandra Poindexter on violin and sharing lead vocals with Ackamoor. Other group members (at least on this album) include David Molina on guitar, Skyler Stover on double bass, Bradie Speller on congas, and Johann Polzer on drums.
Explaining the choice of album title and overall theme, Ackamoor said “I wanted to use folklore, fantasy and drama as a warning bell. The songs explore global themes that are important to me and to us all: the rise of catastrophic climate change and our lack of concern for our planet, loss of innocence and separation… but positive themes too, the healing power of music, collective action and the simple beauty of nature.”
The album opens with “Tinoge,” which seems to be a reinterpretation of The Pyramids’ previously released single, “Tinoge Ya Ta’a Ba,” the latter recorded in Ghana with Kologo artist Guy One. “Tinoge” is a compelling track that features the same driving rhythm and percussion, with guitars replacing kologo and an extended free jazz sax solo replacing the vocals. Next up, the title track “An Angel Fell” capitalizes on the “cosmic jazz” theme, with distorted vocals punctuated by spacey, electronic riffs. The Sun Ra tribute, “The Land of Ra,” follows in a similar vein, as distorted call and response vocals segue into a steady Afrobeat groove over which Ackamoor seductively blows his horn. Suddenly, their celestial universe is disrupted by what might be described as a magnetic storm (i.e., all hell breaks loose), but as the piece progresses and harmonies resolve, equilibrium returns.
Two message songs are included on the album. The first and most emotional is “Soliloquy For Michael Brown.” Ackamoor’s sax literally screams in anguish over an underlying conga rhythm. As anguish turn to grief, the bass riffs on a melody reminiscent of the spiritual “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jerico,” then intertwines with violin and guitar as the track draws to a close—but there’s no closure. “Message to My People” is a warning about climate change and global warming, with Ackamoor sounding the alarm on the alto sax and the group responding as if their life is imperiled. “All I wanted was a chance, to live my life like anyone” chants the chorus, but the raucous conclusion leaves little doubt the world has come to an end.
Concluding with the uplifting song “Sunset,” the Pyramids provide a glimmer of hope and “a prayer to save our world.” The struggle is still very much present, with Ackamoor’s sax sounding another warning as the chorus sings, “The sunset is on the way.” End of the world or just the close of another evening, you decide.
An Angel Fell is a brilliant and intense album, with wild bursts of sound. The socially conscious project takes the concept of spiritual jazz to the next level, but in a manner that is still very approachable.
Based out of Fort Lauderdale and Jamaica, the reggae fusion group Army Gideon champions equal rights, justice, universal love and Rastafari awareness on their debut album Forsake Not. Calling themselves “musical soldiers,” the band’s militant persona reflects their focus on liberation and commitment.
The album opens with “Mezmur,” a tribute to Haile Sellasie, while “Empress” expresses devotion to a woman with the attributes of Empress Menen Asfaw, wife of Emperor Sellasie. Other more traditional tracks include “Sabbath Peace,” aka “Shabbat Shalom.” Loosely based on Psalm 92, the song features well-known reggae trumpeter Junior “Chico” Chin and has long been one of the band’s signature works. On the liberation song “Chains Dem,” lead vocalist Ras Anbesa Tafari sings on the bridge, “We are out here in our Babylon / look around and there’s nowhere to go / equal rights that’s for everyone.”
The wailing rock guitar of Jassiah “Lion” Boswell on the intro to “Mightly People” signals a turn toward the Reggae rock fusion for which Army Gideon is known, as lead vocalist Ras Anbesa Tafari sings “the gift of Rastafari sets you free.” Boswell also takes over the midsection of the title track, “Forsake Not,” with Tafari contributing vocals as well as violin and guitar. The band is anchored by the “heavy and steady” rhythm section: Steve “Skins” Kornicks, percussion, Dane “Spice” Hutton, and Sheldon “Don Don” Satchell, bass
Forsake Not will delight fans of Army Gideon, who have been waiting a long time for the group to release an album. Most if not all of these tracks have been in the band’s repertoire for several years, and it certainly shows in the tight performances.
John L. Nelson, best known as the father of Prince, was a formidable jazz musician and prolific composer in his own right. While he frequently collaborated with his famous son, Nelson’s own compositions were usually set aside. When he died in 2001 at the age of 85, Nelson’s eldest daughter Sharon discovered the trove of music and began to formulate plans for a tribute album. Now, in commemoration of her father’s 100th birthday, her project has finally come to fruition with Don’t Play With Love. As Sharon L. Nelson explains:
“Our dad was a loving, caring, hardworking father and a prolific jazz musician most notably known as the father of the musical genius, our brother Prince. Our dad wrote and composed many songs, but they were never recorded until now. He was Prince’s musical inspiration, and this project is very special because it was recorded in Paisley Park and guided by the spirits of my father and brother Prince.”
To perform her father’s works, Sharon turned to notable jazz drummer Louis Hayes, who just happens to be John Nelson’s nephew. Hayes brought together an all-star group for the recording session, a.k.a. The John L. Nelson Project: Richard Germanson (piano), Dezron Douglas (bass), Vincent Herring (sax), Jeremy Pelt (trumpet), and Hayes on drums. The group laid down all seven tracks at Paisley Park studio, the first sessions to take place there since the death of Prince.
Featured on the album are seven compositions written by Nelson primarily in the 1970s, all showcasing his penchant for beautiful melodies. Opening with the uptempo “Lucky Am I,” the band immediately displays a high level of energy and synergy, as though they’ve been playing this chart for years. Herring takes over the melody on the sensuous title track, “Don’t Play With Love,” his sax accompanied by string quartet. A throwback to an earlier era, the song fits perfectly with the music video for the single which uses a scene from Prince’s film Under the Cherry Moon.
Another highlight is “Lonely,” a slow ballad featuring Germanson, who employs subtle shading on the piano, teasing out the upper register melody over a sparse accompaniment by Douglas on bass. The album closes on a funkier note with “Step Back,” featuring an exceptional performance with band members tossing solos back and forth before culminating on a final blast of the trumpet.
Don’t Play With Love is not just a labor of love—it’s actually a terrific album showcasing John Nelson’s talent at composing intricate and compelling works, all of which are brilliantly performed by the ensemble. This project will appeal to jazz aficionados as well as any Prince fan interested in knowing more about the icon’s musical background. If you’ve ever wondered what spilled out of the cabinet full of sheet music in the scene from Purple Rain, this album is for you!
London musician L.A. Salami created a buzz through a string of EPs leading up to his acclaimed 2016 debut album Dancing with Bad Grammar. Now he returns with his second full-length project, The City of Bootmakers, which continues his folksy style of social commentary.
Born Lookman Adekunle Salami (yes, L.A. Salami is his real name), the singer-songwriter grew up in a household that never paid any particular attention to music, and he didn’t learn to play guitar until receiving one for his 21st birthday. But he was always attracted to literature and seems to have a special affinity for Welsh poet Dylan Thomas and icons of the ‘50s and ‘60s, including Beat Generation authors Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, and folk musicians Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. A dapper nonconformist, Salami has been likened to a modern day troubadour, channeling his experiences into sharply honed lyrics, sung over lush acoustic-oriented alt-rock. All of these characteristics come to the fore in his most recent video single, “Jean Is Gone,” included on the album as a bonus track:
Though Salami is primarily a vocalist and guitarist, he occasionally switches over to harmonica, Rhodes and, according to the album credits, “ambulance.” His backing band, the Bootmakers, includes Simon Nilsson (guitar, bass, piano, organ), Petter Grevelius (guitar, bass, organ, vibes), and Sean Beam (drums, organ), otherwise known as Francobollo, a UK-based Swedish rock band. The project was recorded in Berlin with Robbie Moore (The Mores), known for his retro sound styled after ’60s- and ’70s guitar pop with rich vocal harmonies—the sound permeating The City of Bootmakers.
Easing into the album with the intro “Sunrise,” Salami evokes a Shakespearean-era street scene with a jangly tune reminiscent of an organ grinder. As the music grows louder, a group of revelers greet the dawn with Salami in the lead, inviting the audience to experience the wonders of “the troubadour”—obviously relishing the moniker he’s been assigned in the press. After the revelers fade into the distance, the band kicks into the first single from the album, “Generation (Lost),” a song about “feeling lost during the journey of finding yourself.” Addressing the anxiety of his generation, Salami croons: “I’m penniless, but I’ve sold my soul / I’m restless, but I’ve nowhere to go / Generation L, lost in lust / Generation L, laborious.”
Not shying away from political themes, on “Terrorism! (The Isis Crisis)” Salami sings, “I heard that an ancient book, inspired him to die / The Jihad source decoded wrong, enforces that old line / But when words contort in certain tones, Is it the preacher, scribe or one guy that does the crime?” Other songs, though seemingly lighthearted in character, veer into topics ranging from gentrification to immigration, deportation, and discrimination. But the cheerful pop in major keys and driving 4/4 rhythms can become a bit tiresome, making one wish Salami would break away and dive into deeper and darker territory befitting his themes. That’s why “I Need Answers” is such a welcome departure with its discordant melodies and angst-ridden lyrics as Salami struggles to navigate a path through life.
The album concludes on a similar note with “What Is This?” Existential thoughts become mired in practicalities as Salami sings, “Preachers remind you that the end is coming, but the rent dates comin’, so the end can wait – what is this? What is this?!”
L.A. Salami’s approach to songwriting reflects his artistic bent and roots performing spoken-word poetry. The City of Bootmakers is a fine showcase for this philosopher poet, with lyrics that dig deep into life’s inequalities and oppression, yet are delivered in a manner that offers hope for the future.
Those with at least a passing interest in gospel music are likely familiar with electric guitar- wielding evangelist Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who quite unintentionally became known as “the godmother of rock & roll.” In fact, she will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this month in recognition of her wide ranging influence on rock music. Fewer, however, may be acquainted with the career of Marie Knight, aside from her brief partnership with Tharpe in the late 1940s which produced the hit songs “Up Above My Head” and “Didn’t It Rain.” Of course Knight’s career encompassed far more than her work with Tharpe. As a child she sang for COGIC congregations throughout the Northeast, went on to record with The Sunset Four, and enjoyed a successful solo career performing and recording gospel as well as R&B music.
Knight stopped singing professionally in 1980, but was lured back into the studio two decades later by Mark Carpentieri of M.C. Records, who asked her to record “Didn’t It Rain” for the Rosetta Tharpe tribute album,Shout, Sister, Shout(a companion to the book by Gayle Wald). She went on to record an album of Rev. Gary Davis songs for Carpentieri, who became her manager, and began touring once again. Regrettably, Knight’s newfound success was cut short in 2009 after suffering a stroke, and she died shortly thereafter.
The Gospel Truth Live is Carpentieri’s posthumous tribute to Knight. The album features gems culled from her performance at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts’ 2007 Gospel Fest, held at the Church Street Center in North Adams, MA. Knight was 87 at the time, one of the last living artists from the “Golden Age” of gospel.
After a lengthy standing ovation, Knight comes on stage and opens with Rev. Gary Davis’s 1935 classic “I Belong to the Band” with the audience enthusiastically clapping along. As the concert continues, Knight segues between the Rev. Davis classics she had recently recorded—“12 Gates to the City,” a rousing “I’ll Fly Away” that gets the audience fired up, and “I Am Light of This World”—and Rosetta Tharpe repertoire including “Beams of Heaven,” “Didn’t It Rain,” and “Up Above My Head.” Granted the latter, accompanied by pianist Dave Keyes, aren’t as lively as the original renditions recorded over 60 years earlier, but Knight still has a fine, powerful contralto voice, capable of leaping registers.
In between songs Knight offers a bit of storytelling and some powerful testifying, offering words of wisdom based on her lived experiences. It’s these short sermons and her engagement with the audience that makes The Gospel Truth Live so unique—that and the fact that it’s Knight’s last recorded performance. The gospel doesn’t live in songs alone, and the context provided by this live performance is most welcome indeed.
Ethnomusicologist Sandra Jean Graham, associate professor of music at Babson College, was introduced to spirituals and minstrelsy early in life, and throughout her career has published and presented extensively on the “multifaceted and extremely complex history of these genres.” Her new book, Spirituals and the Birth of a Black Entertainment Industry, is the culmination of her in-depth research and supplements previous articles and books on the topic, including Tim Brooks’ award winning Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry 1890-1919 (also part of the Music in American Life series).
Graham’s primary focus is on spirituals performed by jubilee troupes in post-Civil War America, “charting the spiritual’s journey from the private lives of slaves to the concert stage.” This includes the transition from folk spirituals (covered in chapter 1) to concert spirituals. Along the way, she unpacks issues of power and cultural authenticity in the white-controlled jubilee industry and within blackface minstrelsy performances, including Uncle Tom and plantation shows.
As Graham states in the conclusion (p. 263):
“To remember student jubilee singers [Fisk Jubilee Singers, etc.] at the expense of black minstrel performers and their parodies of camp meetings and spirituals, to valorize one and denigrate the other, imposes a hierarchy on the historical past that obscures the manifold contributions of black entertainers and reifies black folk culture as authentic to the black experience at the expense of fully engaging the diversity and complexity of that experience. Indeed, the very complexity that led black minstrels to engage with spirituals is at the crux of understanding the climate and conditions in which all performers of the era operated.”
Full disclosure: I received a copy of the book earlier this week and have only skimmed the surface, but very much look forward to delving deeper. Spirituals and the Birth of a Black Entertainment Industry will be crucial to anyone studying American music, especially those focused on the post-Civil War period through 1900, and of course anyone who studies African American music and history.
The freely available companion website contains links to 85 jubilee troupes with biographical information for each, lists of personnel and songs performed by selected groups, and excerpts from early recordings.