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

Johnny Mathis – The Voice of Romance-Columbia Original Album Collection

Johnny MathisTitle: The Voice of Romance- Columbia Original Album Collection

Artist: Johnny Mathis

Label: Legacy

Format: 68-CD Box Set

Release date:  December 8, 2017

 

Sony Legacy has released a number of Johnny Mathis compilations over the past decade, including The Complete Global Albums Collection in 2014 and The Singles for his 80th birthday the following year. But if you’re interested in a complete career retrospective with plenty of tempting bonus material and you have a large budget, look no further than this year’s mega box set, The Voice of Romance: The Columbia Original Album Collection. Weighing in at 68 CDs and currently listed for $428, this set features 62 of the singer’s albums, including 25 albums that have never been released on CD in the U.S.

Also included are 40 previously unreleased songs and two never-before-heard LPs: the unreleased I Love My Lady recorded in 1981 with Chic’s Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, and The Island, a 1989 collaboration with Sergio Mendes. Mathis, who has been recording for Columbia since his self-titled 1956 debut, assisted with the curation of The Voice of Romance, which concludes with his most recent album, Johnny Mathis Sings the Great New American Songbook.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

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

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

Artist: Various

Label: Craft

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

Release date: September 15, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Micki Free – Tattoo Burn-Redux

Micki Free
Title: Tattoo Burn-Redux

Artist: Micki Free

Label: Mysterium Blues

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: May 12, 2017

 

 

Those of a certain generation will likely remember Micki Free as lead guitarist for Shalamar, the group created by Soul Train’s Dick Griffey and Don Cornelius. Free’s decade long tenure with Shalamar began in the ‘80s during what one might call his Prince phase, and included the hit songs “Dancing in the Sheets” from Footloose and “Don’t Get Stopped In Beverly Hills” from Beverly Hills Cop. After Shalamar, Free joined Jean Beauvoir’s heavy metal band Crown of Thorns, along with Tony Thompson of Chic and bassist Michael Paige. He later formed his own band, Micki Free Electric Blues Experience, and also released a number of solo projects. Though he’s perhaps best known for his collaboration with many African American artists, Free is actually of Native American descent, and in recent years has developed a Native Music Rocks program.

Tattoo Burn-Redux is a remixed and expanded version of his 2012 release, Tattoo Burn. The album is a showcase for the many talents of Micki Free, who composed, arranged, produced and sings lead on the 10 original tracks and one cover, while also performing on lead, slide, and rhythm guitars. He’s accompanied by an A-list rhythm section led by Cindy Blackman-Santana and David “Hawk” Lopez (Crown of Thorns) on drums, with Bill Wyman (Rolling Stones), Jack Dailey (Lenny Kravitz), Kenny Gradney (Little Feat), David Santos (and occasionally Free) sharing bass duties.

The album settles into a funky groove on the new opening track “God Is On the Phone,” with Free sharing lead vocals with another Shalamar alum, Howard Hewett. “Greens & Barbeque” shifts towards blues-rock, allowing plenty of room for guitar solos in a song dedicated to Free’s mother and her glorious cooking. “Six Feet Down in the Blues” and the slow burner “Mojo Black Coffee” are notably anchored by Hammond organ master Mark “Muggy-Doo” Leach (Buddy Miles Express) and Brother Paul Brown on keys.

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One of the highlights of the disc is the rock guitar anthem “There’s a Hole in the Heart of the Blues,” which allows the entire cast to strut their stuff. Other new tracks include the only cover on the album, the Jimi Hendrix tribute “Hey Baby (The New Rising Sun),” and the seasonal ballad “Sometimes in Winter” backed by a female vocal trio. Last but not least, Free offers the hard rocking “Five Minutes Till Christmas” which should definitely be added to your holiday playlist.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

 

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

Wilson Pickett
Title: Complete Atlantic Albums Collection

Artist: Wilson Pickett

Label: Rhino

Format: 10-CD Box Set, MP3

Release date: December 1, 2017

 

 

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

 

Dinah Washington
Title: Divine Miss Dinah Washington

Artist: Dinah Washington

Label: Verve

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

Release date: December 15, 2017

 

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

 

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

Artist: Various

Label: Blue Note

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

Release date: December 15, 2017

 

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

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

 

 

Florida Soul: From Ray Charles to KC and the Sunshine Band

Florida Soul

Title: Florida Soul: From Ray Charles to KC and the Sunshine Band

Author: John Capouya

Publisher: University Press of Florida

Formats: Hardcover (408 pages), Kindle

Release date: September 26, 2017

 

 

Though the state of Florida doesn’t immediately come to mind as a hotbed of soul music, journalist John Capouya attempts to correct this oversight with his new book Florida Soul: From Ray Charles to KC and the Sunshine Band. Using his “antennae for passionate vocals and funky sounds with Florida origins,” he delves into the period from 1945-1980, when Florida produced “some of the most electric, emotive soul music this country has ever heard.” Capouya attributes this flourishing scene in part to the fact that Florida, along with Texas, was the “densest and richest segment of the chitlin’ circuit,” bringing all of the major African American artists through the state.

Each of the 20 chapters is dedicated to a particular artist or producer, some famous and others lesser known, but all contributing an interesting story: Ray Charles (“the catalyst of the entire soul explosion came from Greenville, FL”); Sam Moore (“from Miami’s Overtown neighborhood”); sax players Ernie Calhoun and Noble “Thin Man” Watts; Lavell Kamma and the 100 Hour Counts (“one of Florida’s longest-running soul groups”), the singing duo James & Bobby Purify (one chapter each); vocalists Helen Smith, Frankie Gearing, Jackie Moore, and Timmy Thomas (his 1972 anthem “Why Can’t We Live Together” is sampled in Drake’s “Hotline Bling); Latimore (who first recorded for Henry Stone), Wayne Cochran (“the white James Brown”); white soul singer Linda Lyndell; producer Papa Don Schroeder, and of course KC and the Sunshine Band. Other chapters are dedicated to the state’s most famous label owners—Henry Stone and T.K. Productions (which rightly receives two chapters) and Willie Clarke and Deep City Records—plus a chapter explaining how “The Twist Came from Tampa.” Along the way many other artists are mentioned, along with other Florida labels such as Jayville, Tener, Marlin, Leo, Alston, D & B, Glades, and Bound Sound.

Florida Soul is an engaging and informative read, placing an emphasis on the stories behind the singers and the songs gleaned from historical research as well as interviews with surviving musicians, singers, producers, deejays, and other industry personnel. The book is an important resource on a music scene that’s never been fully documented within a single volume, adding greatly to our understanding of American music and, in particular, the soul, R&B, disco and funk grooves emanating from the Sunshine State in waves the spread across the nation.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

 

Various artists – Feel Good! 40 Years of Life Changing Music

Feel good!
Title: Feel Good! 40 Years of Life Changing Music

Artist: Various

Label: Tyscot

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: April 29, 2016

 

We’re a little late to the party, but we can’t pass up an opportunity to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Tyscot Records, the nation’s oldest African American owned and operated gospel music label. Founded in 1976 by Dr. Leonard Scott and L. Craig Tyson in Indianapolis, Indiana, the label has grown into a multi-media company that produces films as well as recordings. Yet Tyscot remains a family run operation, guided by Dr. Scott as CEO, with son Bryant S. Scott continuing the legacy as President/COO. Now entering its fifth decade, the label is an industry powerhouse whose artists garnered 19 Stellar Gospel Awards nominations in 2017.

Tyscot was originally established to record the Christ Church Apostolic Radio Choir, led by Bishop James Tyson (Craig’s father). The choir’s first hit single, “Feel Good!,” is the opening track of this anniversary compilation in a contemporary version re-recorded by Dr. Scott. The remaining 14 tracks feature songs by artists whose careers were launched by Tyscot, starting with “Hold On” (1981) by The Pentecostal Ambassadors, a popular male vocal trio from Indianapolis. Following is the smooth, ballad style “Say You Believe” (1986) performed by Deliverance and co-written by none other than Indianapolis native Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, who at the time was a member of the R&B group The Deele.

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Other early Tyscot releases featured on this set include the classic “Jesus Is Real” by John P. Kee & the New Life Community Choir, “Holy One” featuring Kirk Franklin with the Trinity Temple Full Gospel Mass Choir, and the P.A.W. National Mass Choir’s “How Majestic,” a fantastic arrangement based on Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” Sequenced in chronological order, the set concludes with contemporary gospel artists, including break-out stars Anthony Brown & group therAPy (“Do It Again”) and Casey J (“Better”) who have been topping the charts this year.

Feel Good! 40 Years of Life Changing Music showcases the talents of local and national gospel artists and cements the legacy of Tyscot Records. The company is stronger than ever, and positioned to remain an industry powerhouse in its fifth decade.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Courtney Pine – Black Notes From the Deep

Courtney Pine
Title: Black Notes From the Deep

Artist: Courtney Pine

Label: Freestyle

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: October 27, 2017

 

 

From across the pond comes British jazz musician Courtney Pine’s latest offering, Black Notes From the Deep. Perhaps best known as a founding member of the Jazz Warriors as well as host of the radio show Jazz Crusade on BBC Radio 2, Pine has had a major impact on the U.K. jazz scene over the last thirty years. On his 19th album, the multi-instrumentalist focuses primarily on tenor sax while collaborating with another U.K. legend, neo-soul singer Omar Lye-Fook. Backing musicians include the dream team of Alec Dankworth (son of Cleo Laine) on bass, Robert Mitchell on piano, and Washington, DC native Rod Youngs on percussion.

As the needle drifts over the grooves of the opening track, there’s no doubt that pairing Omar with Pine was a brilliant idea. “Rules,” co-written by the two musicians, is a fitting intro the album and offers a glimpse of things to come (see video below for a live performance of the song). Next up is “You Know Who You Are.” This sultry, atmospheric instrumental brings to mind a smoky jazz club in a film noir while showcasing the piano stylings of Mitchell and some tasty tenor solos from Pine.

Several members of the group, including Pine, have Jamaican roots, which influenced the instrumental “Rivers of Blood.” The title references the 1968 anti-immigration speech by Enoch Powell, a British member of Parliament, directed primarily at the initial wave of Caribbean immigrants to the U.K. from 1948-1968. Pine’s tenor combines with chords on the lower octaves of the piano to speak the bitter truth of this era, but a ray of hope is offered as the instruments move into the upper registers, building to a forceful conclusion that defies all odds.

Ushered in on a bass riff quoting Curtis Mayfield, “Darker Than the Blue” is definitely an album highlight, with Omar imploring, “Please tell me why, why oh why, would you want to leave me this way?” while Pine wails on the tenor sax like a lover scorned. Omar returns for two more tracks, the organ layered “In Another Time” and a new interpretation of Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly,” the latter featuring Charleen Hamilton on background vocals. On the upbeat instrumental “A Change Is Sure to Come,” Pine finesses the bass flute, proving his versatility while offering the other members of the ensemble an opportunity to solo. The album concludes on “A Word to the Wise,” with Pine plumbing the depths of the tenor to signal a warning call.

Black Notes From the Deep indeed plumbs the depth of jazz and soul, adeptly mixing message songs with passionate instrumentals performed with deft expertise by musicians who have spent decades honing their craft.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

The Gospelaires of Dayton, Ohio – Moving Up-The Early Years 1956-1965

Gospelaires
Title: Moving Up – The Early Years 1956-1965

Artist: The Gospelaires of Dayton, Ohio

Label: Gospel Friend/dist. City Hall Records

Format: CD

Release date: November 17, 2017

 

 

Most of us think of Dayton, Ohio as the epicenter of funk, but the city also gave birth to several national gospel recording artists including Dottie Peoples, the Daytonians, and the Gospelaires—a quartet that enjoyed the worldwide spotlight in the decade between 1956-1965 and beyond. Yet despite their considerable success, the Gospelaires have not been well represented on reissue projects. Enter Swedish gospel aficionado Per Notini, who set out to correct this omission by producing the compilation, Moving Up – The Early Years 1956-1965, on his Gospel Friend label. Included are several singles that have never been released on CD.

The opening tracks recorded in 1956, two years after the Gospelaires’ formation, are from their debut single for the Houston, Texas-based Avant label. Despite the message of solidarity in “We Are Marching Together” and catchy doo-wop style of “Some People Never Stop to Pray,” the initial reception was only lukewarm. However, the single did attract the attention of Don Robey at Peacock Records, who signed the six member quartet and continued the affiliation for the next 16 years. The second and third tracks are from the quartet’s first Peacock single, with baritone Robert Washington taking the lead on the soul stirring “Just Faith” and up-tempo “Sit Down Children,” while bass Robert Lattimore provides guitar accompaniment.  These sides portend the future direction of the group, while also displaying the powerful vocals and impassioned delivery of Washington. Though two other members sang lead for the Gospelaires—tenor Melvyn Boyd and baritone Paul Arnold—Washington is featured on the majority of the tracks on this set.

Arranged in chronological order, the remaining 25 songs provide a welcome overview of the Gospelaires. “It’s a Pity” (1958) showcases another lead singer, baritone Paul Arnold, who can also be heard trading the lead with Washington on “I’ll Be So Glad” and “You Can’t Make Me Doubt Him.” It’s unfortunate that Boyd is only featured on two tracks, “When I Rise” and “I Didn’t Know.” Though he doesn’t have the gritty power of Washington, his supple high tenor and emotive shouts are electrifying.  In another change of pace, Washington can be heard sermonizing on “Trouble No More” and “Rest for the Weary,” the latter included in this archival footage:

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Teen sensation Charles “Sky High” McClean is introduced on “C’mon” (1962), a song somewhat reminiscent of “Shout” by the Isley Brothers, who got their start just down the road in Cincinnati.  McClean takes the lead on “Motherless Child” (1963), his soulful high tenor making it clear how he came by his nickname.  The CD closes with an impassioned arrangement of Thomas Dorsey’s “Search Me Lord.”

The Gospelaires continued to record for Peacock for another decade, before switching over to Savoy, where they released many more albums. Their entire story is included in the authoritative liner notes by Bob Marovich, who also drew from articles by Ray Funk and Opal Nations. I’m pleased to say that all three of these dedicated gospel historians have generously donated collections to the Indiana University Archives of African American Music, where they are preserved for future generations.

Moving Up is a wonderful compilation showcasing the early years of the Gospelaires, one of the most successful gospel quartets of that era, and likely a strong influence on the funk groups that would emerge from Dayton, Ohio in the following decade.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Brian Owens – Soul of Cash

Soul of Cash
Title: Soul of Cash

Artist: Brian Owens

Label: Ada Cole/Purpose Music Group

Formats: CD, Vinyl, MP3

Release date: October 6, 2017

 

Few African American artists have succeeded in country music. As Charles L. Hughes wrote in his groundbreaking book, Country Soul,* “In the 1960s and 1970s, nothing symbolized the rift between white and black in the United States more than the music genres of country and soul.”  Those who did cross musical boundaries to dip a toe into country music typically infused generous drops of blues, gospel and soul. Classic examples of this fusion include Ray Charles’ highly successful Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (1962), Joe Tex’s Soul Country (1968), and Linda Martell’s Color Me Country (1969), to name just a few.

Enter soul singer Brian Owens. This preacher’s son from Ferguson, Missouri, first saw Johnny Cash on TV when he was 11 years old. Later, as an up-and-coming soul singer in his mid-20s, he was fascinated by the Cash biopic Walk the Line (2005), and decided there was just something about the famous country singer’s music and life story that really resonated. Perhaps the idea for a cover album has been germinating since that moment; whatever the case, the project has now come to fruition with Soul of Cash.

With this album, Owens seeks to bridge the divide by demonstrating that “a white man born in the South, who’s now passed on” and “a young African-American guy born in the Midwest, raised on soul music” can find common ground through music. Supporting Owens on this endeavor are a number of special guests as well as members of his regular backing band, The Deacons of Soul: Alvin Quinn (bass), Rob Woodie (drums), and Shaun Robinson (guitar).

While some singers might have sought out lesser known songs, Owens reaches for the gold ring, covering seven of Cash’s most iconic hits. Opening with “Ring of Fire,” he follows in the path of Brother Ray, but where Charles’ sweetened the mix with strings, Owens’ rendition punches in with a Stax-style horn section and the talented Daru Jones on drums, while Nashville session musician Zander Wyatt provides the country twang on acoustic guitar. This is followed by “Folsom Prison,” which Cash sang over a chugging acoustic guitar. Owens, however, raises the rafters with his uptempo rhythm and blues delivery, accented by Tripp Bratton on congas.

On “Walk the Line,” Owens captures the essence of the original version, but substitutes a driving, syncopated rhythm and gospel inflected vocals that heighten the emotional intensity of the lyrics. If there was ever a song that calls out for a soulful crossover version, it’s “Cry, Cry, Cry.” Owens fulfills this mission while still respecting the simplicity of the original, with excellent backing vocals by Anita Jackson and Trunesia Combs. Country music fans may enjoy “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and especially the mournful “Long Black Veil,” which maintain their country roots with pedal steel by Tony Esterly.

The final cover song, “Man in Black,” really struck a chord with Owens, who has seen his share of injustices on the streets of Ferguson. Indeed, any given line is as relevant today as when the song was written, including the second verse: “I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down / Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town / I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime / But is there because he’s a victim of the times.”  This is definitely one of the highlights of the album, with Owens’ passionate delivery echoed by The Vaughans on backing vocals.

The album closes with an original, “Soul in My Country,” by Owens and Rissi Palmer, who share vocals with Robert Randolph sitting in on pedal steel. Ending on the refrain, “It’s a feeling I know / it’s the soul in my country / the country down in my soul,” the song expresses the commonalities between the genres. As Owens explains, “You shouldn’t look at me strange if I say I dig Johnny Cash, because I don’t look at you strange when you say you dig Otis Redding or Sam Cooke or Marvin Gaye. All of these guys came out of the church; that’s what binds them and us together.”

One album can’t heal the soul of this country, but with Soul of Cash Brian Owens proves that bridging the divide can bear sweet fruit.

* Hughes, Charles L., Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

McGill/McHale Trio – Portraits: Works for Flute, Clarinet & Piano

McGill McHale trio
Title: Portraits: Works for Flute, Clarinet & Piano

Artist: McGill/McHale Trio

Label: Cedille / dist. Naxos

Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC

Release date: August 11, 2017

 

Chicagoans who followed the classical music scene in the 1990s were likely first introduced to the amazingly talented McGill brothers when they performed with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra. Raised on the South Side of Chicago, they began studying classical music at an early age, and by their high school years were receiving national attention.

Now, as musicians who hold principal positions in major orchestras, the brothers have not only reached the pinnacle of their chosen professions, but are among the few African Americans to do so. Demarre McGill recently returned to the Seattle Symphony as principal flute, and younger brother Anthony McGill is principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic. Together with Irish pianist Michael McHale, they formed the McGill/McHale Trio in 2014. Portraits is the trio’s debut recording, released on the prominent Chicago-based Cedille label.

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For this project, the McGill/McHale Trio selected works by living composers; three of those works are recorded for the first time on Portraits. The album takes its title from the longest work on the disc (26:03), Portraits of Langston by Kentucky native Valerie Coleman, flutist/composer of the Chicago-based quintet Imani Winds. Composed in 2007, her six movement suite is based on selected poems by Langston Hughes, which are recited before their corresponding movements by Oscar-winning actor Mahershala Ali. Hughes’ love of jazz is conveyed in Coleman’s musical palette, along with other styles reflective of the Harlem Renaissance era.

The suite begins with the short, melodic “Prelude: Helen Keller,” then delves into the polyrhythmic “Danse Africaine.” After an extended clarinet solo, the movement becomes increasingly frenetic, offering an opportunity for each instrument to shine. The poem “Le Grand Duc Mambo,” describing an altercation between the dancers and patrons of a Parisian cabaret, is masterfully mimicked by flute and clarinet as they enter into a brief and occasionally strident squabble.  “In Time of Silver Rain” speaks of a period “when spring and life are new.” Here Coleman eschews jazz, writing instead a short, atmospheric piece with hints of Debussy in the piano intro and undulating winds, which also carries over into the flute solo.

Returning once again to Hughes’ brief sojourn in Paris in the 1920s, “Jazz Band in a Parisian Cabaret” is “that tune that laughs and cries at the same time.” As the programmatic movement progresses, jazz inflections intensify, with the climax brilliantly pairing stride piano against clarinet riffs. Though one might expect “Harlem’s Summer Night” to be more boisterous, Coleman instead concludes the suite in a more tranquil manner, with blue notes only occasionally jarring the calm of the evening.

French composer Guillaume Connesson reveals his pop music influences in Techno-Parade (2002). This virtuosic work features “a continuous pulsation from start to finish,” emulating the repetitive nature of the Kraftwerk-influenced electronic dance music that emerged from Detroit’s African American clubs in the 1980s and became hugely popular in Europe.  The ensemble performs brilliantly, maintaining precision throughout the complex counterpoint and rhythms, and increasing the intensity right up to the explosive finish.

Other works featured on the recording include an orchestrated version of Chris Rogerson’s A Fish Will Rise (2014/2016), based on Norman Maclean’s best-selling book A River Runs Through It;  Paul Schoenfield’s Sonatina for Flute, Clarinet and Piano; Philip Hammond’s The Lamentation of Owen O’Neil; and McHale’s arrangements of both Sergei Rachmaninov’s Vocalise and the Irish traditional song The Lark in the Clear Air.

Portraits showcases the formidable talents of Demarre and Anthony McGill, who have found their match in the outstanding pianist Michael McHale. Performing with emotional intensity, extraordinary precision, and superb blending of timbres, the McGill/McHale Trio presents a dazzling debut album that’s equally significant for its three world premiere recordings of contemporary works. Highly recommended!

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Chris Thomas King – Hotel Voodoo

Chris Thomas King
Title: Hotel Voodoo

Artist: Chris Thomas King

Label: 21st Century Blues/dist. Virtual Label

Formats: CD, Vinyl, MP3

Release date: September 14, 2017

 

 

Guitarist Chris Thomas King’s career has taken a long and winding road from Louisiana to Europe and back again. In 1979, when he was just 17, King was hailed by folklorists as “the last major folk blues discovery of the 20th Century.” He later ditched this style along with the whole notion of authenticity in the blues, embracing instead “hip hop modernity and digital aesthetics.” The backlash from (primarily white) blues audiences compelled him to move to Europe in 1993. Ironically, when he returned several years later, King was once again cast as an “authentic” Delta blues guitarist—this time on the silver screen―as “Tommy Johnson” in the Coen Brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), as Blind Willie Johnson in Martin Scorsese’s The Blues (2003), and as Lowell Fulson in the Ray Charles biopic Ray (2004).

These days King assumes total artistic control over his projects which are released on his 21st Century Blues label.  Hotel Voodoo, his first new studio album in five years, features his touring band members Jeff Mills (drums) and Danny Infante (bass guitar), along with a few additional New Orleans musicians. The bulk of the album, however, is a showcase for the multitalented King, who performs all vocals along with the majority of instruments including electric and acoustic guitars, accordion, harmonica, mandolin, banjo, bass, and piano.

With the popularity of vinyl on the rise, King conceived this album as two suites, covering side A and B of a LP, rather than the strictly linear CD sequence. Side A is the “Baron Samedi Suite,” referencing the Loa spirit (aka lord of the crossroads) in Voodoo religion, while Side B is the “Jelly Roll Suite,” linking New Orleans’ jazz and blues traditions. The styles of the nine original songs and one cover are as varied as the titles of the suites suggest.

As his alter ego Baron Samedi (wearing black top hat and tuxedo), King is the consummate blues-rocker. Opening with “American Man (In the Key of Free),” he sings about the American dream in this upbeat, retro-styled song with overdubbed background vocals adding just a touch of contemporary club vibe. Digging deeper into the Samedi theme on “Voodoo Child (On Hell’s Highway),” he whips out his Fender Stratocaster and adds enough reverb and electrifying solos to appease the spirits.  “Friday Night Bleu” and “Have You Seen My Princess?” are straight ahead blues tracks, showcasing King’s prowess as an electric blues guitarist and his ability to single handedly cover all instruments and drum programming.

As side “A” side comes to a close with “Rock and Roll Conjurer,” King’s transformation into the dark lord of the underworld is complete. This sinister track is one of the highlights of the album (think Prince’s “Darling Nikki” but with a voodoo theme and dash of harmonica). Referencing the mythical “house of the rising sun,” CTK then sings, “Baby you don’t delay / the voodoo party it won’t wait / Yeah, you know me, Chris Thomas King / I rule the streets of New Orleans / Yeah, you’ll spend the night with me / I’ll conjure your rock and roll fantasy.”

Flipping over to the piano suite “B” side, CTK conjures an entirely different atmosphere, recreating the feel of an acoustic set in a traditional NOLA jazz club. The first two tracks pay homage to the clarinet, an “essential solo instrument in New Orleans blues” 100 years ago. Owen Callahan is the featured clarinetist on the opening track, “Les Bleus Was Born in Louisiana,” while Gregory Agid takes over on “White Folks Call It Jazz,” with Nathan Lambertson on upright bass (yes, there is a not-so-subliminal message here about the true roots of the blues). The heartfelt “Tabby’s on the Bayou” is about nights at Tabby’s Blues Box, his dad’s “ramshackle juke joint, before it was razed by the city of Baton Rouge in 1999.” CTK swaps his guitar for an upright piano, with shuffling second-line rhythms adding to the ambiance.

After enjoying all of these original songs, the acoustic cover of Adele’s “Someone Like You” is somewhat incongruous (CTK previously recorded “Rolling in the Deep” in a more compelling blues rock arrangement).  Likewise, the closing track “Rainbow Lullaby” is a nice folksy tune with harmonica, mandolin, and banjo, but doesn’t reinforce the “Jelly Roll Suite” concept.

Hotel Voodoo allows Chris Thomas King to display his formidable talents and wide-ranging musical interests. The album’s overarching theme is King’s love of Louisiana, and the blues and jazz conjured from the juke joints of the bayous and streets of New Orleans.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Prophets of Rage – Prophets of Rage

Prophets of Rage
Title: Prophets of Rage

Artist: Prophets of Rage

Label: Fantasy

Formats: CD, Vinyl, MP3

Release date: September 15, 2017

 

 

Rap-rock supergroup Prophets of Rage—featuring Chuck D (vocals) and DJ Lord (turntables) of Public Enemy, Tom Morello (guitar), Tim “Timmy C” Commerford (bass) and Brad Wilk (beats) of Rage Against The Machine, and B-Real (vocals) of Cypress Hill—coalesced in 2016 around the title of the famous Public Enemy song that opens with the line, “I got a right to be hostile, man, my people are being persecuted!” During their initial “Make America Rage Again Tour,” the group staged protest performances leading up to the U.S. Presidential election. Post-election, they’ve ramped up their tours as they take their “message to the mosh pit,” countering neo-fascist rhetoric that seems to escalate on a daily basis with their own brand of anti-establishment “rage politik” music.

The 12 tracks on the group’s full-length self-titled album represent a true collaboration, written and recorded during an intensive two week studio session. All are equally powerful, exuding caustic, socially conscious lyrics on topics ranging from economic inequality and homelessness (“Living on the 110”) to the legalization of marijuana (“Legalize Me”) to the perils of government drone surveillance (“Take Me Higher”). Other songs are intended to incite protest against ongoing political, religious, and racial injustices. As Morello proclaimed, this is “the soundtrack for the resistance in 2017.”

The most recently released single, “Hail to the Chief,” is a strong indictment of President Donald Trump, but focuses more specifically on Vice President Mike Pence as the greater evil, whose Indiana politics are linked with those of Jeff Session’s Alabama. In the video Pence is cast as Trump’s puppet master as well as his heir apparent, while Chuck D spits, “All hail to the chief who came in the name of a thief to cease peace.”

Another compelling track is “Unf*ck the World” (the video is directed by Michael Moore). In a recent interview with Uproxx, Chuck D spoke about the song’s message: “Tom [Morello] coined a statement, ‘The world won’t fix itself.’ Things don’t fix itself, you gotta make it happen. If you want to see this change, you got to get up and orchestrate that happening. . .”  This message is communicated clearly in the song’s chorus:  “No hatred / F*ck racists / Blank faces / Time’s changin’/ One nation / Unification / The vibration / Unf*ck the World!”

Melding two genres—rap and heavy metal—that collide in a swirling vortex of rebellion and resistance, Prophets of Rage bring their protest music to the masses. At a time when even peaceful protests face unrelenting attacks from the Oval Office’s Twitter feed, Prophets of Rage may yet convince everyone to “Give a damn, evil can’t stand yeah, when the people take a stand” (—Unf*ck the World).

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

¡ESSO! Afrojam Funkbeat – Juntos

Esso
Title: Juntos

Artist: ¡ESSO! Afrojam Funkbeat

Label: Sonic Octopus/Dist. via Bandcamp

Formats: Digital (MP3, FLAC, etc.)

Release date: September 8, 2017

 

Garnering the titles “Best New Band” and “Best International/World Music Act” in last year’s poll by the Chicago Reader, ESSO Afrojam Funkbeat is capitalizing on their local popularity with their new full-length sophomore release. Juntos, which means “together” in Spanish, is indicative of the multi-cultural ensemble that’s comprised of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Colombian, and African American musicians. Band members include Armando Perez (guitar/vocals), Kevin Miller (saxophone), Dan Lieber (drums/percussion), Ezra Lange (bass), Diana Mosquera (vocals), Puerko Pitzotl (percussion), Jess Anzaldua (percussion), Matt Davis (trombone), and Luis Tubens (vocals).

The album’s title also reflects the socially conscious nature of the project as well as band’s aspirations to unite their city. As stated by Perez, “We believe, especially growing up and witnessing the social divisions and violence in Chicago, that we can only move forward as a people, united with tolerance and understanding. Divisions are a social construct and we believe music is one of those special things that brings people together.”

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ESSO performs an infectious fusion of tropical funk and cumbiation—a blending of cumbia with reggaetón. Opening with sensuous rhythms, “Baila” is an excellent example of the band’s synthesis of more traditional Latin music interspersed with raps and electronic effects. Following is the harder, funk-driven Afrobeat song “La Calle,” about the challenges of growing up on the streets of Chicago, particularly among first generation immigrant families. Vocalist Diana Mosquera is featured prominently on her self-penned “Mariposa Negra,” while traditional Yoruban chants over several layers of percussion form the basis of “Homenaje.” Cuban-born DJ AfroQbano, now based in Chicago, programmed the beats on “Piramides,” “Meet Me Out,” and “Stone Eagle”—the latter two the only songs in English. Tracks such as “Somos Hermanos” and “Mi Gente” perhaps best articulate the group’s socio-political message of coming together as brothers and sisters and communities to strive for a better future.

On Juntos, ESSO Afrojam Funkbeats combine tight horns with an array of percussion to create infectious dance beats all while espousing the necessity of solidarity and embracing the multicultural nature of communities. This is world music fusion at its finest!

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Mindi Abair and the Boneshakers – The EastWest Sessions

Boneshakers
Title: The EastWest Sessions

Artist: Mindi Abair and the Boneshakers

Label: Pretty Good for a Girl

Formats: CD, Mp3

Release date: September 15, 2017

 

 

Detroit raised, Motown trained guitarist Randy Jacobs formed The Boneshakers in 1994 to “project his vision of funk, blues, R&B, rock and soul into the universe.” Current members of his band include gritty soul singer Sweet Pea Atkinson, bassist Derek Frank, keyboardist Rodney Lee, and drummer Third Richardson. Two years ago, The Boneshakers teamed up with saxophonist, singer-songwriter Mindi Abair on the album Live in Seattle, and the collaboration was so successful they have been touring together ever since. Their second joint release, The EastWest Sessions, reflects the name of the Hollywood studio where the project was recorded under the guidance of noted blues-rock producer Kevin Shirley.

The album opens with Abair taking over the vocals on the hard rocking ‘Vinyl.’ True to the lyrics, the song is “in your groove like a needle on vinyl.” Following is “Not That Kind of Girl,” which allows Abair to strut her stuff on sax, bringing down the house with this raucous party song. “Play to Win” is another hard rocking anthem, a feminist mantra espousing a no-holds-barred philosophy that continues into the bluesy “Pretty Good for a Girl.*” This extended track about the difficulties of being a woman in a man’s world finds Abair trading solos with her old friend, guitarist Joe Bonamassa.

The Boneshakers take over on “Let Me Hear It From You.” Sweet Pea Atkinson covers this Sly Stone ballad with a voice steeped in soul, then takes us to church with a gospel style chorus as the song comes to a close. Another notable track is “Freedom,” an instrumental with Abair and Jacobs both letting loose in a battle for dominance, then coming together in harmony over the sweet chords of the B3. Without a doubt, the most interesting track on the album—the one that makes you jump up and shout “what is that?”—has got to be “She Don’t Cry No More.” Written by and featuring Fantastic Negrito, this slow dirge of a blues song conjures up the soul of Robert Johnson and throws it into a chain gang where Abair’s sax wails like a banshee over the relentless rhythm. Seriously, this song will haunt you for days. The album concludes on a lighter note, passing the mic back to Abair who sings “I Love to Play the Saxophone” over finger-picking guitars.

The EastWest Sessions is by far the best collaboration to date between Mindi Abair and The Boneshakers, with its rotating blend of jazz, blues, rock, soul and smooth groove.

*Pretty Good for a Girl is also the name of a website hosted by Abair with a mission to motivate, inspire and empower women.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

The Liberation Music Collective – Rebel Portraiture

Liberation Music Collective

Title: Rebel Portraiture

Artist: The Liberation Music Collective

Label: AD Astrum

Formats: CD

Release date: August 17, 2017

 

You can kill the revolutionary, but you can’t kill the revolution . . .”

The Liberation Music Collective, a contemporary jazz orchestra founded by recent graduates of Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, is charting a course as a conscious-raising group advocating for social justice and equality through poetry and music. On LMC’s bold 2015 debut, Siglo XXI, each of the album’s tracks focused on current social or political issues. For their sophomore release, LMC takes a different approach. As the title suggests, Rebel Portraiture “honors the individuals whose courage and commitment call attention to oppression and injustice the world over.” These individuals, both contemporary and historic, have another common thread—each lost their life while valiantly fighting for a cause. Liner notes by Latin Grammy Award winner Kabir Sehgal further illuminate the lives of these individuals and the compositions on the album.

Hannah Fidler and Matt Riggen, co-founders of LMC, composed or arranged the majority of the works on the album, drawing upon a multitude of genres, influences and instruments. For example, the opening track “Passing Away” is based on a sacred harp hymn and recalls the life of Giles Conery, who was killed during the Salem Witch trials “during a beautiful display of resistance” echoed in the trumpet solos by Riggen.

Many of the tracks are paired, offering more than one tribute to fallen heroes. “An Afterlife for Jeffrey Miller” and “Kent State” honor the four students killed by the National Guard in 1970 while protesting against the Vietnam War. The former, drawing upon a protest poem composed by Miller shortly before his death, is one of the more arresting tracks on the album. The spoken poetry is woven into music that begins in a more traditional Copland-esque style before shifting into Gil Scott-Heron territory. Another pair of tracks memorializing Syrian and Iraqi journalists killed by ISIS also effectively employ spoken word: “An Afterlife for Ruqia Hassan” recites (in English) an abstraction of the oldest verse from the Qur’an, while “Iqra” features both spoken and sung text performed by Fidler.

The remaining tracks also reference more recent deaths. “The Afterlife of Berta Cáceres” honors the Honduran indigenous environmental activist using an arrangement of a traditional Ghanian funeral song performed primarily on gyil, percussion and bass. “Ditchside Monument” and “An Afterlife for Noxolo Nogwaza” are dedicated to the South African LGBTQ+ activist killed in 2011. The latter “Afterlife” track features an extended bass solo by Fidler before concluding in a chorus based on the Bantu words handziyah (ascent) and kurhula (peace).

Rebel Portraiture closes with “All I Need,” bringing in the entire ensemble to perform LMC’s “anthem for the rebels of today and the heroes of tomorrow” in a glorious demonstration of solidarity.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss