Charles A. Asbury – 4 Banjo Songs, 1891-1897

Asbury
Title: 4 Banjo Songs

Artist: Charles A. Asbury

Label: Archeophone

Format: 45 rpm disc

Release date: May 4, 2018

 

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.

For further reading on Asbury and 4 Banjo Songs, there’s Geoff Edgers’ article and podcast in The Washington Post, plus related blogs posts on the Archeophone site.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

[i] Archeophone Records releases previously reviewed in Black Grooves include There Breathes a Hope: The Legacy of John Work II and His Fisk Jubilee Quartet, 1909-1916 (2010); Cabaret Echoes: New Orleans Jazzers at Work, 1918-1927 (2010); and “Ain’t Gonna Settle Down”: The Pioneering Blues of Mary Strafford and Edith Wilson (2008).

 

 

Serpentwithfeet – Soil

Soil

Title: Soil

Artist: Serpentwithfeet

Label: Tri-Angle/Secretly Canadian

Format: CD, LP, Digital

Release date: June 8, 2018

 

 

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.”

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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.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Zeal & Ardor – Stranger Fruit

zeal

 

Title: Stranger Fruit

Artist: Zeal & Ardor

Label: MVKA

Formats: CD, LP, Cassette, Digital

Release date: June 8, 2018

 

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 slaveshad 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.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Fats Domino – The Ballads

fats

 

Title: The Ballads

Artist: Fats Domino

Label: Bear Family

Format: CD

Release date: April 20, 2018

 

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.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Darryl Yokley’s Sound Reformation – Pictures at an African Exhibition

yokley

 

Title: Pictures at an African Exhibition

Artist: Darryl Yokley’s Sound Reformation

Label: Truth Revolution Recording Collective

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: April 20, 2018

 

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.”

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Orcastratum – Debut Album

EAN Bokmall [Konvert]

 

Title: Orcastratum

Artist: Orcastratum

Label: Compunctio

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: May 18, 2018

 

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.”

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Gloriae Dei Cantores – God’s Trombones

gloriae

 

Title: God’s Trombones

Artist: Gloriae Dei Cantores

Label: Paraclete

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: February 2, 2018

 

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.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Sheku Kanneh-Mason – Inspiration

sheku

 

Title: Inspiration

Artist: Sheku Kanneh-Mason

Label: Decca/London

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

Release date: January 26, 2018

 

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!

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Birds of Chicago – Love in Wartime

birds

 

Title: Love in Wartime

Artist: Birds of Chicago

Label: Signature Sounds

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

Release date: May 4, 2018

 

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.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Idris Ackamoor & the Pyramids – An Angel Fell

Idris

 

Title: An Angel Fell

Artist: Idris Ackamoor & The Pyramids

Label: Strut

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

Release date: May 11, 2018

 

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.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

 

Army Gideon – Forsake Not

Forsake Not
Title: Forsake Not

Artist: Army Gideon

Label: Uhuru Boys

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: March 23, 2018

 

 

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.”

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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.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

The John L. Nelson Project – Don’t Play With Love

nelson

Title: Don’t Play With Love

Artist: The John L. Nelson Project

Label: Make It Music/Ropeadope

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: March 2, 2018

 

 

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!

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

L.A. Salami – The City of Bootmakers

L.A. Salami
Title: The City of Bootmakers

Artist: L.A. Salami

Label: Sunday Best

Formats: CD, Vinyl (limited ed.), Digital

Release date: April 13, 2018

 

 

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.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

 

Marie Knight – The Gospel Truth Live

Marie Knight
Title: The Gospel Truth Live

Artist: Marie Knight

Label: M.C. Records

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: March 23, 2018

 

 

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.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

New Book – Spirituals and the Birth of a Black Entertainment Industry

Spirituals
Title: Spirituals and the Birth of a Black Entertainment Industry

Author: Sandra Jean Graham

Publisher: University of Illinois Press

Series:  Music in American Life

Format: Book (hardcover, paperback, digital)

Release date: March 19, 2018

 

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.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Meshell Ndegeocello – Ventriloquism

meshell

 

Title: Ventriloquism

Artist: Meshell Ndegeocello

Label: Naive Pop

Formats: CD, LP, digital

Release date: March 16, 2018

 

Meshell Ndegeocello has produced widely divergent albums over the course of her career, each offering captivating sonic explorations. This is also true of her new release, Ventriloquism, a collection of cover songs completely reworked to reflect Ndegeocello’s incomparable eclecticism and fluid movement across genres. She explains:

“Early on in my career, I was told to make the same kind of album again and again, and when I didn’t do that, I lost support. There isn’t much diversity within genres, which are ghettoizing themselves, and I liked the idea of turning hits I loved into something even just a little less familiar or formulaic. It was an opportunity to pay a new kind of tribute.”

Joining her on this exploration are several longtime musical partners and colleagues: guitarist Chris Bruce, drummer Abraham Rounds, and keyboardist Jebin Bruni. The project was engineered by S. Husky Huskolds, and mixed and mastered by Pete Min.

As with her Pour Une Âme Souveraine (2012), dedicated to Nina Simone, Ndegeocello’s new album features songs by musicians who have inspired her over the years, with a particular bent toward 1980s classics. Opening with Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam’s 1985 dance hit, “I Wonder If I Take You Home,” Ndegeocello follows the general style of the original, but softens the vocals, blurs the beats, and augments the electronic effects resulting in a spacey, otherworldy interpretation. Al B. Sure’s “Nite and Day” is slowed down to a dreamy, sensuous ballad that fades out on a distorted guitar riff. On her cover of TLC’s signature song, “Waterfalls,” she uses instrumental fills instead of attempting to replace the rapped verse by Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes. Likewise, in her newly released video for the song, she takes a more metaphorical slant to the subject matter of people tragically affected by drugs and HIV, instead of the more explicit approach in the award-winning TLC video.

Ndegeocello’s gorgeous cover of Prince’s “Sometimes it Snows in April” was the first single off the album. Released via Rolling Stone on January 12, she explained in the accompanying article, “I’ve made so much because of [Prince]. I still can’t believe he’s not on the planet and this was as close to closure as I’d get.” Emotionally laden with throaty vocals, whispered reminiscences and off-kilter harmonies, Ndegeocello’s tribute is arguably the most poignant cover version of the song to date. As she shifts into the final couplet, “all good things they say never last, and love is love until it’s past,” sung over stripped down instrumentals, it’s as though we’re hearing a voice from beyond mourning a life tragically cut short. Farewell, Prince.

On George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog,” Ndegeocello tones down the funk and the theatrics, placing more emphasis on the instrumentals through overlapping, layered guitars. Janet Jackson’s “Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun)” leaves Quiet Storm territory, taking on a darker, more foreboding character with distorted bass, cello and electronic effects. This gloomy soundscape is broken by the Force MDs “Tender Love,” which is given a lighter, folksier treatment with harmonica fills and strummed guitars.

Taking on another iconic female vocalist, Ndegeocello’s rendition of Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer” works extremely well as a slow ballad backed by guitars and piano, and the tempo is a much better fit for the melancholy yet wistful lyrics. The album closes with Sade’s “Smooth Operator.” Stripped of its Latin rhythms and turned on its side, the song takes on a percussive, bottom heavy electronica sound, with virtuosic dueling bass and guitar replacing the sax solo on the original.

On Ventriloquism, Ndegeocello unleashes her extraordinary creativity, reimagining classic songs of the ‘80s and ‘90s in new and unexpected ways. In doing so, she also demonstrates her independence from an industry that too often tries to pigeonhole black artists and black music.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Orgōne – Undercover Mixtape

orgone

 

Title: Undercover Mixtape

Artist: Orgōne

Label: Colemine

Formats: CD, cassette, limited ed. green vinyl, digital

Release date: February 2, 2018

 

One of Southern California’s premiere funk and soul outfits, Orgōne has been spreading its cosmic energy throughout the universe for nearly two decades. Fronted by vocalist Adryon de León, who plugs the soul into the ensemble, Orgōne is known for its unique mélange of gritty old school ‘60s and ‘70s music infused with contemporary influences drawn from the multicultural milieu of L.A. These influences were perfectly expressed on their last album, Beyond the Sun (2015). While recording new tracks in the studio, the band hit upon the idea of producing a cover album dedicated to a few of the artists “who paved the road for us.” The result is Undercover Mixtape, offering 13 classics paying homage to artists from Stax and Motown, as well as legendary jazz, funk and rock musicians.

The album opens with an outstanding rendition of the jazz-funk instrumental “The Black Five,” originally released by Roy Ayers Ubiquity in 1974. The Orgōne crew swaps the string section and Ayers signature vibes for layered keyboards and guitar, providing an updated sound. Switching over to guitar-driven hard rock on “Cynthy-Ruth,” the band is led by Tarin Ector (The Solutionagenics), whose gritty vocals are well-suited for this track from the 1970 debut album by Detroit’s Black Merda.

Adryon de León is brave enough to tackle “Think,” Aretha Franklin’s iconic 1968 feminist anthem, and absolutely nails it with fantastic backing from the band. She also shines on several other soul-drenched tracks: Betty Wright’s “Let Me Be Your Lovemaker” which also showcases the horn section; the Gladys Knight tearjerker “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye);” and Gwen McCrae’s “All This Love That I’m Givin’.” Guest vocalist Kelly Finnigan is featured on “Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” adhering closely to the Otis Redding version of the song.

If you want funk and nothing but the funk, you won’t be disappointed with the remaining tracks on the album. The band seriously grooves on two back-to-back instrumentals, deftly channeling Booker T’s organ licks on “Melting Pot,” then getting down on an extended version of Cameo’s “It’s Serious.” The Meters, clearly one of the Orgōne’s favorite groups, are covered on “It Ain’t No Use,’ once again featuring the amazing Adryon de León, and “Looka Py Py,” on which the band navigates the complex polyrhythms and deep bass grooves with precision. Last but certainly not least, are two tracks from the funkiest funk band on the planet. Parliament’s 1971 classic, “The Breakdown,” features Mixmaster Wolf, who normally fronts the eight piece L.A. funk band Breakestra. The album closes with another P-funk classic, “Cosmic Slop,” with Tarin Ector once again taking over the helm on this haunting tale about urban poverty that still resonates today.

Undercover Mixtape offers an edifying excursion through soul and funk classics of the ‘60s and ‘70s, performed by a band steeped in the grooves and vocalists capable of covering the era’s most iconic singers. This might be Orgōne’s side project, but they deserve a victory lap for keeping the funk funky and the soul soulful in the 21st century.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Maceo Parker – Life on Planet Groove Revisited

Maeco Parker
Title: Life on Planet Groove Revisited

Artist: Maceo Parker

Label: Minor Music

Format: 2-CD + DVD limited edition box set

Release date: February 14, 2018

 

 

“Gather round, space cadets and funkateers.” So begins the liner notes for Maceo Parker’s seminal 1992 live album and funk opus, Life on Planet Groove.  In honor of the 25th anniversary of the album, Minor Music has released Life on Planet Groove Revisited, which also coincides with Parker’s 75th birthday. This limited edition set includes a new analog to digital transfer of the original album, a second bonus disc, and the DVD Maceo Blow Your Horn.

As everyone likely knows, Maceo Parker was a key member of James Brown’s band in the 1960s, blasting out funky sax solos whenever JB shouted, “Maceo! Blow your horn!” Parker famously walked out on Brown in 1970 with other members of the band, who were replaced by a youthful Cincinnati led group by Bootsy and Catfish Collins. Like Bootsy, Maceo would later join up with George Clinton and contribute to various P-funk projects. Though Parker would return to Brown’s band for a few years, he struck out on his own in 1990. Soon thereafter, he wound up at a club called the Stadtgarten in Cologne, Germany, where Life on Planet Groove was recorded. His backing musicians for this performance included Fred Wesley (trombone, vocals), Pee Wee Ellis (tenor saxophone, flute, vocals), Rodney Jones (guitar), Larry Goldings (organ), and Kenwood Dennard (drums). Special guests included Vincent Henry (bass and occasional alto-sax), Prince protégé Candy Dulfer (alto), and Kym Mazelle (vocalist).

The bonus disc was drawn from the same set of dates at the Stadtgarten. The four tracks include extended versions of the Fred Wesley original “For the Elders,” Lionel Hampton’s “Hamp’s Boogie Woogie,” band member Pee Wee Ellis’s “Chicken,” a cover of James Brown’s “Cold Sweat,” and Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On.”

Also included is the DVD Maceo Blow Your Horn, featuring newly released footage filmed by Markus Gruber during recording sessions for Parker’s album Roots Revisited, which topped the jazz charts in 1990.  Most of the footage was meant for promotional purposes only and is black and white, but the sound is decent. The camera follows band members as they jam in rehearsal and lay down tracks at studios in New York (November 1989) and Cologne (1990). These clips are interspersed with interviews where Parker discusses the creative process along with anecdotes about James Brown, Fred Wesley, Pee Wee Ellis, Curtis Mayfield, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, and Ray Charles, among others. Along the way there’s some odd filler footage of airplane wings and cityscapes. Just to be clear, this is not a documentary in the manner of My First Name Is Maceo, but rather bits and pieces of footage strung together with title cards. Regardless, the film is certainly of historical interest and any fan of Maceo Parker and his band will be grateful for its inclusion.

Life on Planet Groove Revisited is a fine tribute to the great Maceo Parker on his 75th birthday.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

LaVice & Co. – Two Sisters From Bagdad

Two Sisters
Title: Two Sisters From Bagdad

Artist: LaVice & Co.

Label: Jazzman

Formats: CD, LP, digital

Release date: January 19, 2018

 

 

Detroit native LaVice Hendricks studied acting after a stint in the US Navy, but soon turned to his primary passion: writing plays and screenplays. In 1969, he began his own theater company based at Detroit’s Bethel A.M.E. Church. Four years later he moved on to larger productions, culminating in his first musical, “Two Sisters from Bagdad.” His younger sister, Rhodia McAdoo, a church singer and pianist, composed the score, while brother-in-law Ernest J. Garrison added the lyrics and arrangements. As one might expect from a play that gestated in a church, the plot revolves around love, sin, heaven and hell. While the play ran for just two weeks in August 1973, Hendricks did press a soundtrack album in extremely limited quantities. Years later, it became known primarily amongst record collectors who coveted one of handful of known copies.

Thanks to Jazzman Records, the long lost album has been reissued for the first time. As a stand alone soundtrack it has its drawbacks, namely a raw performance obviously recorded with minimal takes in a rough mix, but one might say the musicians make up for it with their enthusiasm. Though its difficult to follow the story line, the music combines a raw gospel vocal style with jazz-based instrumental accompaniment. Things pick up with the ethereal “Fantasy,” featuring a male soloists and female backing chorus over a flute ostinato and sax riffs. One of the highlights is the funky “Thoughs Were The Days,” presumably featuring Garrison as the “Agent of Hell” in a swaggering song heavily influenced by the Blaxploitation films of the era. Another is “Satan Baby,” sung by a female vocalist over a driving bass line accented by bongos and sax. Of course the devil can’t win in this story, so the final song, “Yes I Do,” is a sunny gospel-pop number with an angelic chorus. Closing out the album is the title track, another funky instrumental but with a rather repetitive theme.

Two Sisters from Bagdad is a quirky, homegrown production that’s certainly more of a novelty. However, since the soundtrack appears to be the only aural documentation of LaVice Hendricks’s musical, it does offer a glimpse into the output of this little known playwright from Detroit.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

History of Baltimore R&B Explored on The Ru-Jac Records Story

Within the rather crowded field of reissue labels, some are truly dedicated to producing well-curated, expertly remastered, authoritatively annotated and handsomely packaged sets that bring to light long out-of-print recordings. One of these labels is Omnivore Recordings, a relative newcomer whose projects been featured on our pages before. Founded in Los Angeles in 2010 by four industry veterans, the group is led by former Rhino executive and producer Cheryl Pawelski, who has a long track record producing and supervising reissues and box sets. True to the company’s name, Omnivore has been avidly releasing projects across multiple music genres. One of their latest acquisitions is the master catalog of Ru-Jac Records.

Though soul music fans in the Washington, D.C. corridor are likely familiar with Baltimore’s Ru-Jac label, it is not so well known outside the region. Founded in 1963 by local promoter Rufus Mitchell and investor Jack Bennett, Ru-Jac was a singles-only label, releasing music from regional soul/R&B artists until 1980. Omnivore has already spun off a couple of albums featuring the label’s biggest artists—Winfield Parker (Mr. Clean: Winfield Parker at Ru-Jac) and the duo Gene & Eddie on True Enough (previously reviewed in Black Grooves). Now Omnivore is offering The Ru-Jac Records Story: a four volume compilation produced by Pawelski and Baltimore soul historian Kevin Coombe, with additional assistance from Ru-Jac’s Winfield Parker. All selections have been meticulously restored by Michael Graves from original master tapes or, where masters were missing, from the cleanest copies of 45s available. Previously unreleased material discovered on session tapes and lacquer discs is also included. Following are brief reviews of each volume produced by this fantastic team.

 

Ru-Jac vol. 1
Title: Something Got a Hold on Me: The Ru-Jac Records Story Volume 1, 1963-1964

Artist: Various

Label: Omnivore Recordings

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: January 19, 2018

 

As the story of Ru-Jac Records unfolds, Rufus Mitchell owns a tailoring/dry cleaning establishment, but also enjoys a more entertaining pastime hustling gigs as a concert promoter. Spurred by the success of his younger brother, jazz trumpeter Richard “Blue” Mitchell, Rufus sees opportunity in the growing number of area musicians seeking publishers and record labels. After establishing Ace Booking & Promotions, he starts booking Washington, D.C. area talent, and soon he’s also handling regional distribution and arranging radio airplay for artists signed to the local Start label. Shortly thereafter, Mitchell is motivated to build his own record label, and starts churning out the singles.

Volume 1 opens with the smoking hot instrumental “Fatback,” an unissued, undated take by the Lamont Esquires, one of the early bands signed to Ace. Nine additional previously unissued tracks are also featured on Volume 1, including two by unidentified groups (the title track convincingly sung by a male vocalist and the rhythm and blues instrumental “Trash Can”); five by lesser known artists (the best of these are Flattop Bobby & The Soul Twisters’ “Cross Track” and Jeanne Dee’s “Every Day I Have the Blues); plus two from Baltimore’s more established artists—Winfield Parker (“One of These Mornings”) and the Jolly Jax trio (“Joe”). Other highlights on this disc include the slow ballads “I Love You So” by Jessie Crawford and the Kay Keys Band, and “When I’m Alone” by Winfield Parker. The vocal styles of Brenda Jones are nicely revealed through the jazzy “That’s All You Have to Do” and the teen-oriented “Let’s Go Back to School,” an R&B dance song written by Baltimore icon Ethel Ennis. Ru-Jac’s sole gospel single by the Fruitful Harmonizers features the songs “Take Care of Me” and “My Father Watches Over Me.” Last but not least, there’s Marie Allen backed by The Teardrops Band on the gritty rock and roll song “Crying Won’t Help You,” plus Little Sonny Daye and The Shyndells Band (featuring a great guitarist) performing “I’m Through With You.”

 

Ru-Jac vol. 2
Title: Get Right: The Ru-Jac Records Story Volume 2, 1964-1966

Artist: Various

Label: Omnivore Recordings

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: January 19, 2018

 

Volume 2 of the Ru-Jac Records story opens with four more tracks from Brenda Jones, including the single “It Must Be Love” as well as the unissued backing track for that song. Winfield Parker returns with an unissued demo of “I Love You Just the Same,” followed by a more fleshed out, uptempo version of the same accompanied by The Shyndells Band.

A side story explored in this volume is Mitchell’s relationship with talent agent Lillian Claiborne, who operated another important regional label, DC Records. Around 1965, Ru-Jac began pressing singles for some of Claiborne’s artists. Singles by two of her groups are included here. The Mask Man & the Cap-Tans “Love Can Do Wonders” calls to mind several of today’s retro soul groups, while “Chicken Wings” is a hard bopping dance number grounded by the Hammond B3. “Come On Over” by the Neltones is a scorching soul ballad, while the flip side “C’est La Vie” is more light hearted with tight vocal harmonies by the back-up singers.

Organist “Butch” Randolph, Jr. (who later backed Stanley Turrentine) can be heard in Butch Cornell’s Trio. These jazzier sides feature Cornell on the Hammond B3 in “Goose Pimples,” which gained popularity on local radio station WWIN. Two versions are included here, and it’s the unissued alternate take that captures attention with its complex textures and prominent organ.

Shirley Grant of The Soul Sisters & Brother (guitarist Clarence Grant) released just one single for Ru-Jac of gospel-inflected soul: “What More? (Can Anyone Wait)” and “You Don’t Really Care.” The latter showcases Clarence’s guitar perhaps a bit too much, as it sometimes distracts from the vocals.

Arthur Lee Conley, who migrated to Baltimore from rural Georgia as a teenager, was one of the most successful singer-songwriters on the Ru-Jac roster due to his relationship with Otis Redding, who mentored the young singer. To make a long story short, after Redding tried to sign Conley to his own label, there was a falling out with Ru-Jac. Now, decades later, two of Conley’s unissued demos have been unearthed. “Whole Lotta Woman” (not the 1958 rockabilly version) and “Hiding Out in the Blue Shadows” are interesting selections (especially the former) that add to Conley’s story.

Also included are two jazzier tracks by Bobby Sax & His Housekeepers: the uptempo sax workout “Get Right,” and “Soul at Last,” a slow burner with a trumpet solo very reminiscent of Etta James’ signature song “At Last.” The set concludes with two outstanding tracks by Harold Holt, including the scorching soul ballad “I’m a Stranger.”

 

Ru-Jac vol. 3
Title: Finally Together: The Ru-Jac Records Story Volume 3, 1966-1967

Artist: Various

Label: Omnivore Recordings

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: February 2, 2018

 

As Volume 3 opens, Rufus Mitchell’s other commitments begin to interfere with the label, slowing the stream of releases to a trickle. These 1966 sides include the more sophisticated vocal stylings of Baltimore’s Rita Doryse, including an unissued version of “Born To Be Loved” that harkens back to an earlier ‘60s R&B sound, plus the jazzy, uptempo “Goodie Goodie.” As business picks up again in 1967, a promising single is released by Kitty Lane, who started her career as the Ace/Ru-Jac office manager and later sang back-up for Otis Redding. Lane’s “It’s Love I Need” has a delightful finger-snapping hard-grooving intro, while “Sweetheart” showcases her soulful side. She switches styles again on “The Feeling Is Gone,” a bluesy unissued take with a standout guitarist—this track should have seen the light of day.

Leon Gibson, a soul shouter from Georgia, spent nearly a decade in Charm City exploring different ventures.  He cut one single for Ru-Jac with “Do The Roller,” an uptempo dance tune that mimics James Brown’s “The Popcorn” but with a lot more cowbell. The duo Gene & Eddie might not be equivalent to Stax artists Sam & Dave, but their slow ballad, “I Would Cry,” is persuasively sung and complimented by an excellent horn section. Sir Joe, aka songwriter/arranger Joe Quarterman, is featured on “Nobody Beats My Love,” which features terrific trumpet playing throughout (possibly by Joe?).

Winfield Parker returns with three previously unreleased tracks, including two fairly rough demos, and the standout single “Sweet Little Girl” backed by The Shyndells Band. We’re given a further glimpse of The Shyndells’ talents on two unissued instrumentals, including the blazing fast dance track “Lightning (Part 1).” Other unissued tracks with unidentified singers are included, the best of which is “Searching”—a rocking, gospel-infused song by a female soul singer that really blows. The disc concludes with the sole single by The Caressors, a vocal harmony group about which little is known, and the unremarkable sides don’t inspire further research.

 

Ru-Jac vol. 4
Title: Changes: The Ru-Jac Records Story Volume 4, 1967-1980

Artist: Various

Label: Omnivore Recordings

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: February 2, 2018

 

Volume 4 encompasses a decade roiled by social, economic and political change. On the musical side, there is change as well: rhythm and blues gets a whole lot funkier. But this doesn’t happen overnight. As the set opens in the late ‘60s, the Winfield Parker and Gene & Eddie tracks include just a few James Brown-style grunts, while Sir Joe’s “Every Day (I’ll Be Needing You)” features a funkier backing band, and the Fred Martin Revue brings a little more heat and a lot of B3 to “I Know It’s Going To Happen” (1970) and “Contagious.” The latter is an instrumental bearing a Booker T influence with a dash of rock guitar.

The rock influences continue on “Changes Part 1” by the band Saturday, which also drips with Southern soul, and on “Sugar” by Fred Martin Jr. which retains an R&B horn section. More changes are brought by the Dynamic Corvettes, who offer a very funky pair of sides. “Keep Off the Grass” has a B3 groove and Curtis Mayfield vibe while “It’s A Trap” has a definite Blacksploitation influence (“no one can escape from the man”).

The song “Days May Come, Days May Go” is covered by two artists: a smooth R&B rendition by Francine Long and a funkier instrumental track by Utopian Concept. This volume closes with a pair of singles featuring gritty soul singer Willie Mason with the Fred Martin Revue, and the jazzier vocalist Johnny Dotson.


 

Anyone interested in the regional music scene surrounding Baltimore, Maryland, will enjoy The Ru-Jac Records Story four volume set. At times the music may be a bit raw and under-produced; however, these 45 sides a provide a marvelous overview of unheralded as well as better known artists from the Charm City.  Consequently, they should be relished for their local flavor, right alongside those Maryland crab cakes.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

 

 

 

 

 

Shiela E. – Iconic: Message 4 America

Shiela E
Title: Iconic: Message 4 America

Artist: Sheila E.

Label: Stiletto Flats

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: September 1, 2017

 

 

Sheila E.’s Iconic: Message 4 America offers a musical palette of iconic songs, primarily from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Though the album dropped in September, the self-released project didn’t garner as much attention as it deserved, so we’re happy to give it a shout out during Black History Month.

Described as a musical movement for turbulent times, Sheila conceived of the album as “a call for us to rise up and stand for something that is greater than our self-interest.” Instead of creating new music, she chose to reinvent “some of the greatest protest and revolution songs . . . to fit current times.” Assisting her in this endeavor are members of her band plus a bevy of exemplary guests. Of course, Sheila Escovedo herself is a renowned drummer and percussionist perhaps best known for her work with Prince, but she’s also an amazing vocalist as she proves on each and every track.

The album opens with “Funky National Anthem,” a powerful medley drawing upon multiple texts beginning with Sheila’s spoken intro from the Declaration of Independence. After a brief (and yes, very funky) version of the National Anthem, the final three minutes draw upon some of the most famous and inspiring speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Presidents John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama. On this track, Sheila issues a “call for our leaders to rise up and work for the betterment of men and women, no matter the race, color, or creed.”

The first celebrity guest enters on the Beatles’ “Come Together,” with Ringo Starr taking over the drum kit. Once again, a rousing spoken intro kicks off the arrangement (as in the Primal Scream version): “This is a beautiful day / we are unified / we are of one accord / today we are together / when we are together we got power!” Sly & The Family Stone’s “Everyday People” also features original band members: Freddie Stone on lead vocal and guitar, and Lynn Mabry on tambourine.

An album of this nature can’t be complete without representation from Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield. On Gayes’ “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” Sheila deftly incorporates elements of “Trouble Man,” with Eddie M. (former Prince saxophonist) on lead vocals. “Pusherman,” the Mayfield classic from the Superfly soundtrack is sung by Sheila, who adds “You took Prince, Pusherman.”  You know she won’t finish this album without a Prince tribute. Anthony Antoine was selected to sing the combined “America – Free,” yet another amazing and provocative track.

Israel Houghton takes over on Stevie Wonder’s “Jesus Children of America,” with Greg Phillinganes on organ and Dino Saldo on harmonica. Really, it doesn’t get any better than this. Oh wait! Another highlight is the James Brown Medley.  Bootsy Collins joins Sheila for this funk fest that joins together half a dozen of JB’s Black Power era anthems, beginning with “Talking Loud and Saying Nothing” and concluding with “Super Bad.” And there’s more P-funk. George Clinton sits in for “One Nation Under a Groove,” which segues into “Mothership Connection.”

These are just some of the treats in store on Sheila’s masterful Iconic: Message 4 America, featuring some of the top musicians in the business performing amazing arrangements of iconic songs. I believe Sheila E. has also achieved her other goals: “To bring awareness, to spark conversation, to allow healing, to restore hope, to express love, to find peace, and to unite through music.”

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra – Black Manhattan, Volume 3

Black Manhattan
Title:  Black Manhattan, Volume 3

Artist:  The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra

Label:  New World Records

Formats:  CD, MP3

Release date: November 10, 2017

 

 

Rick Benjamin, founder/conductor of the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, recently gifted us with Volume 3 of his series, Black Manhattan (Volume 2 was previously reviewed in Black Grooves). The title derives from James Weldon Johnson’s 1930 book about New York’s black music and theatre communities from the 1890s to 1920s, profiling “an amazing group of achievers . . . whose work profoundly transformed the cultural life of this nation.” Benjamin has made it his mission to bring to light previously unrecorded works by these composers using authentic scores. With the release of the third volume, we can now experience “60 works by 32 outstanding African-American composers, spanning the seminal years of the 1870s to the early 1920s . . . [closing] this gap in America’s cultural memory.”

Volume 3 continues the exploration of prominent Clef Club composers and their works, including founding member Alphonso Johns (“Ianthia March” written in 1902 for an African American bicycle club), Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake (“Love Will Find a Way” and “I’m Just Wild About Harry” from Shuffle Along), Clarence Cameron White (“Chant” from The Bandana Sketches and the spiritual setting of “I’m Goin’ Home” from Cabin Memories), Scott Joplin (“Wall Street Rag” written two years after his move to Manhattan), Frederick M. Bryan (“The Dancing Deacon” premiered by the Clef Club Orchestra in 1915), Will H. Dixon (“Delicioso: Tango Aristocratico”), J. Leubrie Hill (the newly discovered Overture to his celebrated musical My Friend From Kentucky), and J. Turner Layton (“After You’ve Gone” and “Dear Old Southland” orchestrated by Will H. Vodery). The set also sheds light on the works of lesser known African American composers, as well as works by prominent songwriters not featured in earlier volumes.

The disc opens with the “Pork and Beans Rag” (1913) by Philadelphia native Ch. Luckeyth “Luckey” Roberts. Known as one of the founders of Harlem stride piano, Roberts was also a talented theater composer and orchestra conductor who took over as the “leading purveyor of high society music” following the death of James Reese Europe. This aggressive yet charming Eastern-style rag, which he later orchestrated, was among his first published piano compositions, as well as the first piece taught to his piano student – none other than a young George Gershwin. Two additional works by Roberts are also included: “Jewel of the Big Blue Nile” written for the 1919 stage production Baby Blues and sung here by noted soprano Janai Brugger, and a later orchestration of “The Tremolo Trot” (1914), notable for its infusion of classical music elements. Tragically, though Roberts remained a very prominent fixture in Harlem until his death in 1968, little of his vast output survives.

Another Philadelphia-born pianist-songwriter, Q. Roscoe Snowden, is known primarily for a pair of 1923 recordings on the OKeh label. Benjamin has uncovered another instrumental, “The Slow Drag Blues,” published by W.C. Handy in 1919 and later orchestrated by a young William Grant Still. Though the success of this rendition is largely due to Still’s compositional technique, Snowden’s work is still a significant fusion of a 19th century African American social dance with blues, ragtime and jazz.

Baritone Edward Pleasant is featured on James Bland’s enduring 1879 minstrel song “Oh! Dem Golden Slippers,” a parody of the spiritual “Golden Slippers” popularized by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Bland was born in Queens and, like his highly educated parents, attended university before gravitating to African American minstrel troupes. He was one of the first black composers to be published and achieved wide acclaim at home and abroad, yet never moved beyond the minstrel genre.  By comparison, Benjamin refers to Black Manhattanite Sidney Perrin as “a key transitional figure between minstrelsy and vaudeville,” who likely composed hundreds of songs over his forty-year career. Regrettably, the majority of his 50 surviving works were published between 1897-1910 and only document his early years. Benjamin opted for Perrin’s 1904 cakewalk “Well Raise the Roof To-Night (Whoop ‘Er Up Boys),” the title indicating the celebratory nature of the composition performed with aplomb by the PRO.

Cincinnati’s Gussie L. Davis was one of the most successful African American songwriters of his era, but has not previously been featured. After relocating to New York in the 1890s he achieved considerable success composing musical revues, but died suddenly of heart failure in the midst of his first touring production. Chosen for this set is Davis’s most successful ballad, “In the Baggage Coach Ahead,” which sold over a million copies of sheet music. The Victorian-era parlor song is performed convincingly by tenor Chauncey Packer, accompanied by Benjamin on piano. Packer is featured again on the 1905 hit song “Just One Word of Consolation” by Tom Lemonier, another founding member of the Clef Club. This lovely ballad was originally featured in the black musical comedy Rufus Rastus and later become part of the standard repertoire for early 20th century American tenors. As Benjamin points out in the liner notes, many of these singers likely assumed the composer was French, just as many had assumed Gussie Davis was a white woman.

Brooklyn-born, Howard University educated pianist-composer Clarence G. Wilson burst onto the scene as conductor of the Smart Set, one of the last major black touring companies. Yet, after serving in WWI under Will H. Vodery in the 807th Pioneer Infantry Band, he returned to Harlem and all but disappeared. Benjamin uncovered one of Wilson’s early works, “The Zoo-Step,” composed in 1916 as a dance number for his anti-war musical How Newton Prepared. A stellar example of the music of the era, the PRO performance encapsulates what Benjamin describes as “raucous, hilarious, virtuosic, stylistically [representing] the unique territory between the circus, Dixieland jazz, and the Folies Bergère.”

Another historically interesting work is “Royal Garden Blues,” composed in 1919 by Clarence Williams and Spencer Williams. Taking its title from a well-known black café in Chicago, the song was immortalized by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1921. Benjamin discovered the original 1919 orchestration by African American band leader Dave Peyton, which notates every improvised slide and “hot solo.” Again, the PRO gives a fine performance, bringing life to an arrangement clearly intended for those uninitiated in jazz.

Volume 3 concludes with “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” composed by James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson and performed by sopranos Janai Brugger and Andrea Jones, tenor Chauncey Packer and baritone Edward Pleasant, accompanied by the PRO. According to Benjamin, this rendition is the world premier recording of the original 1900 score. The vocal harmonies are similar to the earliest recorded version by the Manhattan Harmony Four (1923), but the PRO’s rendition brings full glory to the Johnson brother’s masterful composition which became the national anthem of the African-American community.

As with previous volumes, the CD is accompanied by a 48-page booklet with meticulously researched biographies of the composers, several previously unknown to me. Once again, Rick Benjamin and The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra offer a carefully curated project celebrating the many composers of Black Manhattan, shedding light on lesser known composers and works, and advancing the study of American music of the late 19th and early 20th century.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Chris Daniels and The Kings with Freddi Gowdy – Blues with Horns, Vol. 1

Blues with Horns
Title: Blues with Horns, Vol. 1

Artist: Chris Daniels and The Kings with Freddi Gowdy

Label: Moon Voyage

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 15, 2017

 

Freddi Gowdy was a founding member (with Henchi Graves) of the ‘60s soul duo Freddi/Henchi and the Soulsetters, memorialized in the 2010 compilation Crown Princes of Funk: The Last Set. In the ‘70s, Freddi/Henchi relocated to Colorado where they became known as “the hottest funk-machine west of the Mississippi,” opening for major touring artists including James Brown and Tina Turner. After Graves passed in 2009, Gowdy hooked up with another well-known Colorado group, Chris Daniels and The Kings. The title of their second collaboration begs the question, “what could be better than blues with horns?

Blues with Horns, Vol. 1 showcases Chris Daniels love of classic horn bands from the 1950s-1970s. The ten horn-driven tracks led by Gowdy’s soulful vocals offer the perfect cure for your winter blues. The album gets off to a rousing start with the ode to “Sweet Memphis” featuring Sonny Landreth on slide-guitar and Subdudes keyboardist John Magnie:

This segues into “Fried Food/Hard Liquor,” a celebration of down home blues, juke joints and “greasy lips barbeque.” The song is punctuated by harmonica and guitar riffs, which along with the horn section, often depart from anticipated harmonic progressions. Gowdy’s “Get Up Off the Funk” is an obvious tribute to James Brown, offering a workout for the horns with tasty riffs from sax player Jim Waddell.

There are also a number of covers on the album. Highlights among these include Bobby Blue Bland’s “Wouldn’t Treat a Dog (The Way You Treated Me),” a fun and funky rendition of Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “Baby’s In Love With the Radio” that tosses out some contemporary references to Spotify and Rhapsody, and a harmonica-infused version of Buddy Miles’ funk-rock classic, “Them Changes.” The project concludes with “Rain Check,” another original by Daniels, who takes over the vocals on this acoustic, ragtime influenced song that reflects on surviving cancer and living life to the fullest (Daniels and Gowdy have both battled cancer in the past).

Blues with Horns, Vol. 1 admirably serves the band’s mission of keeping the New Orleans-Memphis horn-band-blues tradition alive.  As Daniels states in the liner note, “this music came from black culture and countless inspirations . . . we only scratched the surface” in this volume. As an added bonus, the CD comes in a pop-up book style limited-edition packaging by famed artist Greg Carr. As Gowdy sings in “Baby’s In Love With the Radio,” give me more of that funk, rock and blues music! Let’s hope volume two is already in the works.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

 

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