Jeff Lorber Fusion – Prototype

Jeff Lorber Fusion
Title: Prototype

Artist: Jeff Lorber Fusion

Label: Shanachie

Formats: CD, Digital

Release Date: March 24, 2017

 

Jeff Lorber is generally considered jazz fusion, not smooth jazz. I don’t have the time or space to debate that pressing issue, but whatever you want to label it, Lorber has carved out a pretty good niche for himself. Lorber, who grew up in Cheltenham, a suburb outside of Philadelphia, just released his latest project, Prototype, with his group Jeff Lorber Fusion: Lorber on keyboards, with saxophonist Andy Snitzer (also from Cheltenham), bassist Jimmy Haslip (founding member of The Yellowjackets) and drummer Gary Novak. Special guests include bassist Nathan East, guitarists Chuck Loeb, Larry Koonse, Michael Thompson and Paul Jackson, Jr., and saxophonist Dave Mann. It’s vintage Lorber, which means a ‘real jazz ‘ fan may frown due to the infusion of multiple genres: rock, soul, funk, blues, pop, R&B and gospel.

Stand outs, such as the title track featuring Andy Snitzer on alto sax, make this album a worthwhile listen. On “Testdrive,” which begins with a Steely Dan sound, I was anticipating Donald Fagan any second on vocals. No Fagan, but Andy Snitzer on alto sax again comes to the rescue. “What’s the Deal” is a more upbeat Tower of Power inspired track, with the flow really changing and creating a different sound for Lorber, who switches to B3. The closer, “River Song,” starts off like the theme for a sappy ‘80s sitcom, but give Lorber credit. Just when you think you have the answer, he changes the question.

Yes, Prototype is smooth jazz. Jeff Lorber stays in his lane and apparently, he has it all to himself.

Eddie Bowman

Morgan Heritage – Strictly Roots

Morgan Heritage
Title: Strictly Roots

Artist: Morgan Heritage

Label : CTBC

Formats : 2-CD deluxe edition, MP3

Release date: December 9, 2016

 

Family acts in music have always been huge: The Osmonds, Sylvers, Five Stairsteps, Isleys, Carpenters, and of course The Jackson 5/The Jacksons—who recently marked their 50th anniversary. Morgan Heritage is a family act and I’m willing to bet that you’ve never heard of the group. MH is Jamaica’s answer to the J5. Made up a five siblings, their father is reggae singer Denroy Morgan, who had a big hit in 1981 with the single “I’ll Do Anything.”

First released in 2015, Strictly Roots is the band’s 10th studio album and the first on their own label CTBC, which stands for Cool To Be Conscious (they recorded for the label VP during much of their success, but felt it was time to move on). After winning a Grammy Award in the Best Reggae Album category in 2016, the group decided to release a 2-CD deluxe edition, which celebrates the album’s success with previously unreleased tracks and remixes.

The original album (Disc 1) was comprised of twelve tracks in which Morgan Heritage takes the listener through peaks and valleys. In the song “So Amazing,” Morgan Heritage steps away from traditional roots and goes for a more top 40 sound. “So Amazing” could easily be played on a CW series:

In reggae, one always pay homage to Jah and Morgan Heritage sticks with tradition. In “Child of Jah” (feat. Chronixx) they explain the part Jah plays in reggae music and rastas to those who don’t know. On “Light It Up,” featuring Jo Messa Marley, they chant “this is reggae music.” Can’t do reggae without a Marley. After all, Robert Nesta Marley is the godfather of reggae. “Rise and Fall,” which discusses the cycle of life, has the typical drum & bass sound you hear in reggae.

“Celebrate Life” may be Morgan Heritage’s best track on this album. Again, Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Loved” had to play a major part. “Celebrate the life you love / Celebrate the life you live,” Peetah Morgan & Grampson sing on lead vocals. If the group wanted to get crossover appeal, this would be the track to do it.

Disc 2 includes 3 additional versions of “Light It Up,” plus the pop-oriented “Come Fly” featuring the Celtic punk band Flogging Molly and the more traditional “Lion Order,” among others.

Morgan Heritage has won respect from the reggae community worldwide. Now that they are independent on CTBC, I expect them to take some risks and open it up. After all, they’re royalty. One Love.

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

Miami Mass Choir – Live at the Adrienne Arsht Center

Miami Mass Choir
Title: Live at the Adrienne Arsht Center

Artist: Miami Mass Choir

Label: Self-released

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: December 9, 2016

 

Ok, real talk—I like gospel music. After all, gospel music is the ‘mothership’ of all black music: Mahalia Jackson, Sister Clara Ward, Shirley Caesar, and of course Aretha Franklin, who brought the church with her to Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The Staple Singers kept their gospel roots when they crossed over, as did the great Sam Cooke. The Hawkins Singers “Oh Happy Day” was broken on college radio. The New Jersey Mass Choir was brought to our attention when Foreigner had them sing backup on “I Wanna Know What Love Is.” And in the ‘90s, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis struck gold with the Sounds of Blackness when the single “Testify,” from the group’s national debut album The Evolution of Gospel, crossed over into dance and soul.

So, after listening to the Miami Mass Choir, where do they fit in? First off, when one thinks of Miami, gospel music is not the first thing that comes to one’s mind. Rev. Milton Bingham, the head of Savoy Records’ gospel division and founder of the Georgia Mass Choir, helped form the Miami Mass Choir in 1996 with Pastor Marc Cooper, the choir’s director and lead singer. Their 1997 debut album, Its Praying Time, produced the hit song “It Is For Me,” and was followed three years later with Just For You.

On their new album, Live at the Adrienne Arsht Center, the Miami Mass Choir takes you to the mountain. The praise and worship song “Lord of Everything,” featuring Danette Inyang, is uplifting to the almighty high. They praise the King and thank him for all he’s done. That theme continues throughout the album. On “I Will Rejoice,” featuring Mark Cooper and Joy Cooper, the choir lets their hair down. Featuring a very funky bass, Marc Cooper talks via sermon, telling the audience to ‘praise him’ and the brass section pays attention. Other guests include Betty Wright, Beverly Crawford, Zacardi Cortez, JaLisa Faye and Avery Jones.

Perhaps the one eyebrow raising track is “Good News,” featuring Tony Lebron and Paula Coleman. Latin gospel. Yes Latin Gospel! After all, it is Miami. Cuban music has a huge influence, and the choir is multicultural. The opening sounds as if Carlos Santana was in the band, while the choir responds throughout, ‘I Got Good News.’

The Miami Mass Choir isn’t necessarily looking to get into the top 40 with this album, though the radio single “Lord of Everything” is climbing the charts. Live at the Adrienne Arsht Center is traditional enough to keep the old timers, while incorporating new sounds to draw newcomers. Raise your hand and close your eyes!

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

Evelyn “Champagne” King – The Complete RCA Hits and More

evelyn-king
Title: The Complete RCA Hits and More

Artist: Evelyn “Champagne” King

Label: Real Gone Music

Format: 2-CD set

Release date: October 7, 2016

 

 

There is a great story about how Evelyn King was discovered. Up and coming producer T. Life heard King’s voice one night, while she was cleaning the offices of Philadelphia International Records. She was singing Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” which impressed T. Life enough that he offered to coach the teenager. Evelyn King should have been a bigger star after the 1977 hit single “Shame” put her on the map. Now, I might be saying that because I happened to reside in Philadelphia, but nonetheless I’ve felt that way for years.

Real Gone Music’s two disc set, The Complete RCA Hits and More, contains all the hits plus songs that received very little attention. All the tracks on this set are 12” mixes or extended versions, so you feel like you are in a club and the DJ is giving you a new version you never heard before. All these tracks were remastered for this set by Maria Triana at Battery Studios in New York.

There are many highlights these two discs, such as “Dancin’, Dancin’, Dancin’,” written by none other than Teddy Pendergrass. Released before “Shame,” it is very disco-y but shows that King had vocal talent. “Aquarius / Let the Sun Shine In,” a remake of the Fifth Dimension classic, is pretty good, with King showing another side of her talent. “I Don’t Know If It’s Right” was released immediately after “Shame” and was also popular in clubs. In this song, King is singing about whether or not she wants to lose her virginity; the opening saxophone has always been a winner and here you get the extra bonus of an extended version. As the ‘80s were ushered in, King released “I’m In Love.” This time she is not worried about losing her innocence, and perhaps it’s her last hurrah:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SLL0PdFIU0o

I mentioned “Shame,” which is the very first track on this set. When it was released in 1977, King was all over—American Bandstand, Soul Train, you name it. Today, “Shame” can still get people on the dance floor. The long version is included in this set, so enjoy.

Evelyn “Champagne” King was billed a dance artist. After the success of “Shame,” no wonder. I personally would have loved to hear more of her ballads or duets, but this is still a great set. Again, Evelyn King should have been a much bigger star.

The Complete RCA Hits and More also includes extensive liner notes with photos and album art from the RCA Vault. The liner notes are written by soul expert David Nathan and feature exclusive quotes from Evelyn “Champagne” King herself. This album is the first comprehensive domestic collection of King’s work, making this set a must-have for any fan of disco music.

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

Dee Dee Sharp – Songs of Faith

dee-dee-sharp
Title: Songs of Faith

Artist: Dee Dee Sharp

Label: Abkco

Formats: CD,  MP3

Release date : October 21, 2016

 

 

Well thank you. After more than fifty years, fans of Dee Dee Sharp can once again hear her long out-of-print album, Songs of Faith.  Perhaps now fans, and others as well, will finally come to realize that Dee Dee Sharp accomplished more in her career than (1), her 1962 hit “Mashed Potato Time,” and (2), being married to Kenny Gamble. Strange but true, “Mashed Potato Time” was knocked out of place by Little Eva’s “The Loco Motion,” a song Gerry Goffin & Carole King wrote and offered to Sharp, who turned it down. Instead, Dee Dee Sharp went to New York in 1962 to record Songs of Faith, which immediately followed the release of her debut album, It’s Mashed Potato Time.

In Songs of Faith, Sharp—who sang in Philadelphia’s Third Eternal Baptist Church where her grandfather was pastor—shows a vocal range that “Mashed Potato Time” could never give justice to. The opening track, an arrangement of Thomas Dorsey’s “Peace in the Valley,” sounds more like a tune suited for the Lawrence Welk show and the Lennon Sisters with its lush orchestral backing. “No more sadness, no more troubles,” sings Sharp. With the recent affairs after the election and all its chaos, healing words indeed. “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands” may also sound hokey and out of date to a young audience, but remember, this was first released in 1962. On “Its No Secret (What God Can Do),” Sharp sounds like one of her contemporaries during this time—Barbara Lewis of “Baby I’m Yours” fame. “Up Hill” no doubt is the winner, with organ filled hand clapping. When you listen, one can picture a congregation standing in the pews, clapping, while the choir director leads the choir. “Keep a singing” is right.

After listening to all twelve tracks, I have to wonder why this original wasn’t album pushed more by the label. Bad marketing. After releasing “Mashed Potato Time,” Sharp introduced a dance that went with the single, creating a major hit which brought her to mainstream attention. If Cameo/Parkway had released this inspirational album before “Mashed Potato Time,” perhaps it might have been more successful. Or Sharp’s star might have shined brighter if Cameo had released a true gospel album, instead of a collection of pop-oriented inspirational songs recorded in the studio. Because of this, Songs of Faith can’t go toe to toe with the likes of Clara Ward or Mahalia Jackson, even though Sharp was a great gospel singer and is backed here by Philly gospel artists Willa Ward, Vivian Jackson, and Mary Wiley.  Still, it’s great to hear another side of Dee Dee Sharp. Liner notes are provide by George Washington University professor Gayle Wald, author of the Sister Rosetta Tharpe biography, Shout, Sister, Shout.

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

Melissa Etheridge – Memphis Rock and Soul

melissa-ethridge
Title: Memphis Rock and Soul

Artist: Melissa Etheridge

Label: Stax

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: October 7, 2016

 

I love Stax Records. When I see that distinctive logo, you know, the one with the finger snapping, I never hide my love. To quote the great singer Rufus Thomas, “Motown was cute, but Stax was souuul.” So when I heard that Melissa Etheridge was releasing a tribute album on the legendary label, two thoughts ran through my mind: (1) Shock and (2) No way (now if it was Bonnie Raitt, those two thoughts would have never entered my mind). Etheridge did what any true artist should do when you want recreate the magic and aura of Stax—she recorded at Royal Studios in Memphis, where some of the original songs on Memphis Rock and Soul were recorded. Al Green, Ann Peebles, and believe it or not Bruno Mars have all recorded there over the years.

On “Respect Yourself” Etheridge tries not to outdo Mavis Staples, which is smart. The opening guitar on this remake is similar to the Staple Singers’ version. On the Johnny Taylor cover “Who’s Making Love,” Etheridge slows the pace way down and changes the words to “Who’s Making Love To Your Sweet Lady.” If you know the original, it is much faster and has the kicking guitar along with Taylor’s soulful delivery on “Who’s Making Love To Your Ol Lady.”

Of course if you are going to cover Stax, you have to include Sam & Dave. Etheridge plays both Sam & Dave on the vocals to “Hold On, I’m Coming” and yes, I personally wanted to hear the horns just like original, and my wish was granted.

Stax’ biggest act, no question, was Otis Redding, who is covered on two tracks. The first, “I’ve Been Loving You,” is very underrated. Etheridge stays true to the original—no words changing here—and her vocal delivery is perfect. The second, “I’ve Got Dreams,” is again nothing fancy, with Etheridge showing respect for the original.

No doubt, it must have been a dream for Melissa Etheridge to record this album and pay respect to perhaps the greatest American record label ever.

Eddie Bowman

Will Downing – Black Pearls

will-downing
Title: Black Pearls

Artist: Will Downing

Label: Shanachie

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: July 8, 2016

 

Why isn’t Will Downing (aka the “Prince of Sophisticated Soul”) a bigger name in music? Yes, Will has his fans, but he definitely flies under the radar and that’s a shame. If you aren’t hip to Downing, then you are missing out on perhaps one of the best vocalists in the game today.

On his latest album, Black Pearls, Downing pays homage to female vocalists who have inspired him over the years. When I read the press on this CD, I just knew one of those vocalists would be Aretha Franklin. Wrong! No Lady Soul. Like Downing, many of these female vocalists also flew under the radar when they were in their prime. Why? Who knows, but perhaps the labels never knew how to market and promote them.

Downing, who sounds a lot Luther Vandross on all ten tracks, does a “Luther job” on this album. That is, he is able to cover another artist’s song and make it sound like his own.  Like Luther, Downing is able to pull off this feat with ease—even when these ten tracks include classic R&B hits from the ‘70s and ‘80s.

On Angela Winbush’s 1986 hit single, “Your Smile,” Downing’s interpretation is similar to the original. Nothing fancy—just a male on vocals instead of a female, and Will representing a male point of view. The same is true with “Street Life,” famously sung by Randy Crawford with the Crusaders in 1979, at the end of the disco era. Downing’s smoothed out version is accompanied by a full horn section and features solos by saxophonist Najee and Mike Logan on keyboards. Ok, enough suspense. Just who are the other females who inspired Will? The Emotions (“Don’t Ask My Neighbors”), Chaka Khan (“Everlasting Love”), Deniece Williams (“Black Butterfly” – arranged here by Chris “Big Dog” Davis), Cherelle (“Everything I Miss at Home”), Brenda Russell/Oletta Adams (“Get Here”), the Jones Girls (“Nights Over Egypt”), and Phyllis Hyman (“Meet Me On The Moon”).

The album closes with Downing’s cover of Jean Carn’s “Don’t Let It Go To Your Head,” composed by Philly soul masters Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff. Again, Will keeps the same tempo and style, right down to the glossy strings.

Black Pearls is a gem of an album that allows Downing to show just how much these ladies meant to him. Under the radar? Indeed.

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

Various Artists – DJ Spinna Presents The Wonder of Stevie, Vol.3

DJ Spinna presents the wonder of stevie

Title: DJ Spinna Presents The Wonder of Stevie, Vol. 3

Artist: Various Artists

Label: BBE

Formats:  CD, LP, Digital

Release date: July 8, 2016

 

Michael Jackson, Prince, James Brown, and Rick James are all gone, so Stevie Wonder is pretty much all that remains from that bygone era. Enter DJ Spinna  from Brooklyn, who can move butts on the dance floor, whether he’s spinning hop hop, house, funk or soul. That’s probably why promoters book him and he stays in demand. His “Wonderful” parties, devoted entirely to Stevie Wonder, offer fans a bucket list of quintessential songs from the singer/songwriter/keyboardist’s back catalog. DJ Spinna Presents The Wonder of Stevie Vol. 3 is a tribute CD, though it’s not promoted as one, and is offered as an extension of the parties. Disc one flows in a continuous mix, while the tracks on the second disc are unmixed, or separated.

The John Minnis Big Bone Band’s cover of “Love’s In Need of Love Today” was right on time and well needed, with all the turmoil going on in the world right now. He pulls it off by taking an understated approach, realizing the song without trying to do too much. Tony Sherman covers “As,” another track from Songs In the Key of Life and, like Stevie, provides back-up singers that bring that old-school gospel vibe to the song. Stevie Wonder has written so much great material, some of which he gave to other artists to record, like the Quincy Jones track “Betcha Wouldn’t Hurt Me.” Former Temptations lead singer David Ruffin covers “Make My Water Boil (Loving You Has Been So Wonderful),” while BJ Thomas covers “Happier Then The Morning Sun.” Thomas was always a good vocalist and shows what he can do with good material.

If DJ Spinna’s “Wonderful” comes to your town, check it out. You’ll hear material you probably never knew Stevie wrote or recorded. Meanwhile, this 2-CD set brings the party home. Sign, sealed and — yes — delivered.

 

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

The Delfonics – 40 Classic Soul Sides

delfonics_40 classic soul sides

Title: 40 Classic Soul Sides

Artist: The Delfonics

Label: Real Gone Music

Format: 2-CD Set

Release Date : July

 

 

The Delfonics had a good run from the late ‘60s to the early ‘70s, and without a doubt set the bar very high for Philly soul. The group was comprised of William “Poogie” Hart, Wilbert Hart, Randy Cain, and later Major Harris. A legendary Philadelphia disc jockey called them “tall, lean and talented.” This comprehensive 2-CD set, 40 Classic Soul Sides, presents the hit singles that put them over as well as songs you probably never knew they recorded.  Included are most of the tracks from their four Philly Groove albums, in addition to three non-LP sides.

Disc one opens with the Delfonics’ hit “La La Means I Love You,” written by a very young Thom Bell, the producer/songwriter who would be the Delfonics’ guiding light during the group’s run. Also included are “Break Your Promise” and “Ready or Not Here I Come” (any Fugees fans out there?). Disc two includes more hits: “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind,” “Hey Love” and “Walk Right Up to the Sun.”

The Delfonics do a great job covering others’ tunes. They put their signature harmonies on Burt Bacharach’s “Alfie” and “The Look of Love,” making them sound like new compositions. The same is true with “Hurt So Bad” and “Going Out Of My Head,” originally recorded by Little Anthony & the Imperials.  On the cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Let It Be Me,” William Hart takes it home. You have to wonder why these singles were not pushed harder by the label back when they were released. The anthology showcases this other important side of the group’s output.

The Delfonics never became as big as the Motown male vocal  groups or even the Impressions, but they did pave the way for Blue Magic and the Stylistics—two important Philly soul groups.  In fact, it would be easy to argue that for this reason alone the Delfonics belong in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Thanks to a generation of filmmakers and hip hop producers who have sampled their songs, the Delfonics’ music will continue to be discovered, if sometimes in unlikely places. 40 Classic Soul Sides is a great place to start.

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

Rich Medina Presents Jump ‘N’ Funk

rich medina jump funk

Title: Rich Medina Presents Jump “N” Funk

Artist : Various Artists

Label: BBE

Format: CD, LP

Release Date: May 27, 2016

 

 

It would be unfair to fault readers who are unfamiliar with Afrobeat. It’s not commercial music and unless you’re a regular NPR listener, the genre might have escaped your notice. Maybe you were one of the lucky ones who saw the musical Fela! –if you were, then you know this music is heavy on horns and bass. If you weren’t, then this CD provides a condensed Afrobeat education. It’s a genre pioneered in the late ’60s by Fela Kuti. Nicknamed “The Black President,” Kuti was to Nigeria what Bob Marley was to Jamaica. Kuti was not afraid to take the Nigerian government to task for corruption and lying to the people, using his music to get social and political messages across. On this two disc set, DJ Rich Medina presents Jump N Funk, a collage of Afrobeat music, titled after the parties Rich Medina helped create and where he still regularly spins Afrobeat classics. These parties never really took off in Medina’s hometown of Philadelphia, but in New York, London, and Miami there is no parking on the dancefloor.

I found it odd that Fela’s son Femi is nowhere to be found on this CD, but Fela’s youngest son, Seun, was featured on two tracks. Disc two opens with the Antibalas, who are one of the biggest Afrobeat acts going today, not counting members of the Kuti family. They open disc two with a live version of “World War IV” at Jazz Café in London, with the lead singer taking the Clinton administration and other world leaders to task. This disc also includes a remake of 1972’s “Soul Moukusa,” a track that early B-boys would use as the soundtrack for popping and locking, while hip hop DJs Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa would cut it up in New York City parks. This remake stays true to the original. Disc one has another remake, Timmy Thomas’s 1973 cut, “Everbody Wants to Live Together,” covered by River Ocean on this set. This sentiment clearly maintains its value in the turbulent times that 2016 has brought.

Back to Seun Kuti. On “Don’t Give That Shit To Me” he says, “Don’t bullshit Africa”—a confrontational stance that shouldn’t put newbies off too much. Even though it is immanently danceable, this is angry political music at heart. Rich Medina appears on two tracks: on disc one’s “Too Much” with Martin Luther & Madlouna, and with Antibalas on “Ja Joosh.”  If ever commercial radio programmers wanted to expose this music to a wider fan base in the US, this radio-friendly cut would be the track to get behind.

Afrobeat isn’t for everyone, but if you like a message in your music, I highly urge you to give Rich Medina Presents Jump ‘N’ Funk a try.

Reviewed By Eddie Bowman