Al Green – The Hi Records Singles Collection

 

Title: The Hi Records Singles Collection
Artist: Al Green
Label: Fat Possum
Format: 3-CD set
Release date: November 9, 2018

 

In 1969, budding soul singer Al Green met Memphis record producer Willie Mitchell, and the rest, as they say, is history. Mitchell signed Green to his Hi Records label, and over the next decade he released a dozen albums, half of which topped the charts. Continue reading

Book – Soul R&B Funk Photographs, 1972-1982

 

Title: Soul R&B Funk Photographs, 1972-1982
Author: Bruce W. Talamon
Publisher: Taschen
Format: Hardcover, 375 pages
Release date: October 2018

 

The coffee table book of the year for soul and funk music fans is without a doubt this oversize, hardcover volume featuring the early photographs of Bruce W. Talamon. Those who are familiar with SOUL newspaper will recognize some of these images. Started in L.A. in 1968 by Ken Jones and Regina Jones, SOUL was the first black-owned paper dedicated to R&B, soul and funk musicians. Talamon was hired in 1972 by Regina, who gave the young photographer his first steady gig, and before long he was shooting for national publications. From 1972-1982, Talamon captured R&B royalty in stunning detail—working up a sweat in concert, dancing on the stage of Soul Train, striking a pose during formal photo shoots, and enjoying quieter moments backstage and on the road. Continue reading

Book – Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop

 

Title: Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop Author: Vikki Tobak
Publisher: Clarkson Potter/Random House
Format: Book (Hardcover, Kindle)
Release date: October 16, 2018

 

What could be better than a visual history of hip hop, told not only through the lenses of the photographers who shot these images, but through their personal accounts as well. What’s most unusual is the presentation of these images in the form of contact sheets, rather than prints. According to author Vikki Tobak, her goal was to reveal the photographer’s creative process and techniques, rather than assemble the curated “money shots” we typically see in print.  Continue reading

Book – Aretha: The Queen of Soul―A Life in Photographs

 

Title: Aretha: The Queen of Soul―A Life in Photographs
Author: Meredith Ochs
Publisher: Sterling
Format: Book (hardcover (144 pages), Kindle)
Release date: December 11, 2018

 

In one of the first posthumous books on Aretha Franklin, radio personality and author Meredith Ochs “explores the diva’s life, from her formative years growing up in Detroit, to her singing and recording career from the 1950s until her untimely death in 2018, to her numerous honors, awards, and causes, including her advocacy for civil rights and the arts.” Though Aretha fans will likely find nothing new in this biography, Ochs writes with an engaging style and covers all of the high points of Franklin’s career. But the main selling points of this volume are the photos. With over 85 illustrations, more than half of the pages are filled with glorious images of Aretha, making this a fine commemorative volume for libraries and for those seeking a brief introduction to the Queen of Soul. Continue reading

Book – Tina Turner: My Love Story

 

Title: My Love Story
Author: Tina Turner
Publisher: Atria Books
Format: Book (hardcover, paperback, kindle, audiobook)
Release date: October 16, 2018

 

Though Tina Turner published the autobiography I, Tina: My Life Story in 1986, she had a whole lot more living to do! In My Love Story, Turner discusses her “whole second life;” that is, the 42 post-Ike years “filled with adventures, accomplishments, and love beyond my wildest dreams.” But these years have also had a darker side, including the loss of her son, and her own recent life-and-death health challenges. Turner’s positive outlook shines through on each page of her inspirational story, reflecting her Buddhist faith as well as the unfailing support of her second husband, Erwin Bach. “Good came out of bad. Joy came out of pain.” A good read for the holiday season. Continue reading

Makaya McCraven – Universal Beings

 

Title: Universal Beings
Artist: Makaya McCraven
Label: International Anthem
Formats: CD, LP. Digital
Release date: October 25, 2018

 

Jazz drummer Makaya McCraven could not possibly have predicted that the release date of his new album, Universal Beings, would coincide with a week of domestic terrorist acts fueled by racism, anti-semitism, and anti-immigration hysteria. Though his album’s “all-encompassing message of unity, peace & power” would be welcome at any time, it is particularly transformative at this moment as a reminder of our shared humanity and the need to bridge cultural divides. Continue reading

Cedric Burnside – Benton County Relic

 

Title: Benton County Relic
Artist: Cedric Burnside
Label: Single Lock
Formats: CD, LP, Digital
Release date:  September 14, 2018

 

Cedric Burnside is keeping the northern Mississippi hill country blues alive, a tradition he was literally born into and raised up to perform. Young Cedric frequently played alongside his grandfather, the great blues guitarist R.L. Burnside, and his father, drummer Calvin Jackson, as well as other family members, often combining three generations of talent in one band. Cedric’s uncle, bass player Garry Burnside, also contributed to the Cedric Burnside Project, the group featured on his Grammy nominated 2015 release, Descendants of Hill Country. Though he’s only 40-years-old, Cedric no doubt feels like an old soul and culture bearer, hence the title of his latest album, Benton County Relic. His music, however, is anything but archaic.   Continue reading

Thomas Hampson and Kuang-Hao Huang – Songs from Chicago

 

Title: Songs from Chicago
Artist: Thomas Hampson, baritone; Kuang-Hao Huang, piano
Label: Cedille
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: September 14, 2018

 

Songs from Chicago, performed by one of America’s leading baritones, Thomas Hampson, is a collection of art songs from composers associated with mid-twentieth century Chicago. Though five composers are featured in this project (including Ernst Bacon and Louis Campbell-Tipton), of particular interest to our readers are the works by African American composers Florence Price and Margaret Bonds, as well as John Alden Carpenter—all of whom draw upon the poems of Langston Hughes. Continue reading

Alicia Hall Moran – Here Today

 

Title: Here Today
Artist: Alicia Hall Moran
Label: dist. by CD Baby
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: December 21, 2017

 

Multifaceted mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran, who recently starred in the national tour of the Tony Award-winning production of Porgy and Bess, has embarked on a variety of significant projects over the past few years. Her critically acclaimed staged concert work, Black Wall Street, follows a path from Oklahoma and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 to New York’s Wall Street—which not coincidentally traces her own family’s journey.  Continue reading

Roosevelt Collier – Exit 16

 

Title: Exit 16
Artist: Roosevelt Collier
Label: Ground Up
Formats: LP, Digital
Release date: March 9, 2018

 

Roosevelt “The Dr.” Collier, who currently performs as a member of the Snarky Puppy spin-off band Bokanté, released his solo debut album Exit 16 earlier this year. Raised in the House of God Church in Perrine, Florida, Collier represents the younger generation of “sacred steel” guitarists. A master on both pedal and lap steel guitars, he also performs with his uncles and cousins as the Lee Boys, one of the foremost sacred steel ensembles., and in his spare time graces the stage with the likes of the Allman Brothers and Los Lobos.  Continue reading

Tosin Aribisala – Áfríkà Rising

 

Title: Áfríkà Rising
Artist: Tosin Aribisala
Label: Ropeadope
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: June 22, 2018

 

Nigerian composer, vocalist and percussionist Tosin Aribisala has very wide-ranging musical interests that cross multiple genres. As a young boy his initiation to music came via his father’s record collection, where he found inspiration in albums by jazz drummer Art Blakely and the  “master drummer of Afrobeat” Tony Allen. Following his passion in Nigeria had its limitations, however, since neither American jazz nor drum sets were not popular in the country at that time. After relocating to the U.S., Tosin made a name for himself as a versatile percussionist who can add that “special something”—namely the complex polyrhythms of African grooves—via his drum set. Those who have benefited from his talents include musicians ranging from Taj Mahal and Spyro Gyra to Fatoumata Diawara and Femi Kuti, a testament to his ability to bridge the music of two continents.  Continue reading

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – Are YOU One of Jay’s Kids?

 

Title: Are YOU One of Jay’s Kids?
Artist: Screamin’ Jay Hawkins
Label: Manifesto
Format: CD, Digital
Release date: May 18, 2018

 

October is always a good month to remember Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (1929-2000), best known for over-the-top, voodoo-inspired performances of his underground hit, “I Put a Spell on You.” That song and more can be found on the two-disc compilation, Are YOU one of Jay’s Kids? – The Complete Bizarre Sessions, 1990-1994 Continue reading

Europe’s Society Orchestra – The Product of Our Souls

europeTitle: The Product of Our Souls: The Sound and Sway of James Reese Europe’s Society Orchestra

Artist: Europe’s Society Orchestra
Label: Archeophone
Format: CD
Release date: June 1, 2018

 

This extraordinary new set from Archeophone Records, The Product of Our Souls, compiles for the first time in history the eight sides recorded by Europe’s Society Orchestra for the Victor Talking Machine Company. Dating from December 1913 to February 1914, these sides represent the earliest mainstream recordings of an African American dance band. Continue reading

The Right Time- Ural Thomas & The Pain

Ural ThomasTitle: The Right Time

Artist: Ural Thomas & The Pain

Label: Tender Loving Empire

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

Release date: September 28, 2018

 

We’ve covered a number of artists over the past decide whose careers were revived later in life, including the late, great Charles Bradley. A similar artist who recently entered our radar is soul singer Ural Thomas, a Louisiana-born preacher’s son who opened for the likes of James Brown, Otis Redding, and Stevie Wonder back in the day. Continue reading

Rock Masterpieces Vol. 1- Jean Beauvoir

Rock Masterpieces Vol. 1Title: Rock Masterpieces Vol. 1

Artist: Jean Beauvoir

Label: AOR Heaven

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: June 29, 2018

 

Jean Beauvoir is a legend in the world of black rock and Afro-punk artists. Born in Chicago to Haitian-American parents, he started his musical career in a fairly typical manner, learning drums and bass as a kid, and honing his vocals singing doo-wop. But his career took a dramatic left turn when he moved to New York during the punk rock explosion and crossed paths with Rod Swenson and Wendy O. Williams. Continue reading

Prof. Harold Boggs – Lord Give Me Strength

boggsTitle: Lord Give Me Strength: Early Recordings 1952-1964

Artist: Prof. Harold Boggs (and Lula Reed)

Label: Gospel Friend

Format: CD

Release date: September 21, 2018

 

On this new compilation from Per Notini’s Gospel Friend label, gospel historian Opal Nations recounts the story of Prof. Harold Boggs. Born in Port Clinton, Ohio in 1928, Boggs displayed a rare musical talent as a young boy, both as a singer and pianist. Since he also suffered from an irreversible form of glaucoma, his mother insisted that part of his special tutoring include formal music training. Continue reading

Soul Don’t Worry! Black Gospel During the Civil Rights Era 1953-1967

Soul Don't WorryTitle: Soul Don’t Worry! Black Gospel During the Civil Rights Era 1953-1967

Artist: Various

Label: Gospel Friend/NarroWay
Format: CD
Release date: September 21, 2018

 

 

Swedish producer and gospel record collector Per “Slim” Notini’s latest compilation, Soul Don’t Worry!, is a two-CD set devoted to Black gospel music from the Civil Rights Era. Notini’s stated goal is to feature recordings released from 1953-1967 “of which a big portion are rare performances.” Continue reading

Gurrumul – Djarimirri

gurruTitle: Djarimirri: Child of the Rainbow

Artist: Gurrumul

Label: SkinnyFish Music

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

Release date:  July 13, 2018

 

Typically we feature releases from African American musicians as well as those connected to the African diaspora. We’re making an exception, however, for the Australian indigenous musician, Gurrumul Yunupingu. Known professionally as Gurrumul, or Dr. G to colleagues, the late singer and multi-instrumentalist enjoyed international success, performing at venues around the world. Continue reading

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.”

YouTube Preview Image

 

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