Veteran Chicago soul band Bumpus returned in a big way this March, with its first release since 2007. The band was a funk tour de force in the 2000s, but faced some personnel changes in the early 2010s that sidelined new recording projects. The group still has performed locally over the past few years, and the band’s new lineup and infectious live energy is effectively captured on its Way Down Deep EP.
Bumpus is perhaps most well-known for its killer, high-energy live show, with one of the region’s funkiest rhythm sections and a horn line to match. However, Way Down Deep showcases the band’s vocalists, James Johnston, Ava Fain and Tina Howell, whose layered, soulful voices drive the 6-song set. The band’s bread and butter is tightly knit guitar-driven funk tunes like the self-assured “Step Sure or Step Aside,” a challenge to “suckas” that is propelled by an active bass groove and soulful Hammond organ. The EP’s highlight is the 2-part “Way Down Deep.” Part 1 is a solid lovin’ song infused with horn hits and funky drumming, but the song’s bridge gradually morphs into the spaced-out P-Funk territory that characterizes Part 2, with phased out vocals and instruments as well as an extended What’s Going On – style saxophone solo over gradually fading backing vocals.
It is a great benefit to Chicago’s music scene that Bumpus is back and bumpin’. Hopefully, Way Down Deep will usher in another decade of solid grooves and soulful songwriting.
Last October the world was blessed with the latest project by legendary funk bassist, vocalist, and composer Bootsy Collins. World Wide Funk contains all of the elements Collins is most known for as an artist: funky grooves, excellent playing, and a whimsical sense of humor (evidenced by the assertion on the introductory track that Bootsy was born “a long, long time ago…deep below the Ohio river—before anyone ever heard of Ohio”).
It is difficult to overstate the impact that Collins has had on generations of musicians through his work as a bassist with James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic, as well as on his own prolific solo recordings. The sheer variety and skill of his collaborators on World Wide Funk hints at the otherwise inestimable breadth of his influence. Nearly every track on the record features a guest artist, from the shredding styles of the KFC chicken container-donning guitarist Buckethead (“Worldwide Funk” and “Illusions”) to golden-era hip hoppers Doug E. Fresh and Big Daddy Kane (“Worldwide Funk” and “Hot Saucer,” respectively) to young gun bassist Alissia Benveniste (“Bass-Rigged System” and “Thera-P”). There are also features by musicians who may be considered “usual suspects” on a collaboration-based album by a musician of Collins’s stature, such as bassists Victor Wooten and Stanley Clarke (“Bass-Rigged-System”) and guitarist Eric Gales and drummer Dennis Chambers (“Come Back Bootsy”).
As one would expect from the Star Child, the M.O. of World Wide Funk is “One Nation Under a Groove”—grooves are now, as they have always been, the meat and potatoes of Collins’s style. Whether offering virtuoso musicians opportunities to stretch out as on “Come Back Bootsy” and “Bass-Rigged System,” or providing a steady groove to rap or party over as on “Pusherman” and “Ladies Nite,” rhythm is the name of the game. Even the more sentimental songs like the ‘90s R&B-Tinged “Heaven Yes” and the Jimi Hendrix-inspired, synth-based “Salute to Bernie”—a tribute to Collins’s late bandmate Bernie Worrell (who is featured on the track)—groove hard. While guest artists occasionally veer into social themes (as on “Pusherman” and “Illusions”), they do so over immensely danceable tracks without the navel-gazing and preaching to the choir that is often the currency of social commentary in pop music. Overall, however, World Wide Funk imagines a reality in which every listener is part of one big party at which some of the sharpest musicians of the day (and in some instances, of all time) are having a jam session.
Generations of bassists have tried to emulate Bootsy Collins’s style, chops, and taste, and this album is essential listening for musicians who want to learn how to really groove. It’s also great party music. It is no accident that Collins’s bass lines are the most sampled in all of hip hop and dance music, and this album certainly provides a new batch of infectious riffs to bump. Bootsy has been the funkiest bassist around since the ‘60s and he still is. Creating lines that range from funky slapping to deep-in-the-pocket grooves, it is doubtless that Bootsy will continue to find new listeners who have an appreciation for rhythm and low end. Bootsy Collins’s classic albums still sound fresh today, and World Wide Funk is destined to join them in the future.
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.
“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 MaceoBlow 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.
Crowd Company, the UK based 8-piece funk and soul band, spent two years touring Europe to support their debut album, Now or Never. Now the band is back with their second release, Stone & Sky. The new album expands on their trademark vintage sound by adding a modern edge that makes listeners want to sing and dance along.
The 13-track Stone & Sky was mainly recorded live in the studio, giving each track a spontaneity and raw energy that makes you feel like you’re at one of Crowd Company’s vibrant and engaging live performances. The lead single, “Saw You Yesterday,” has a catchy chorus with a soul funk vibe straight from the 1960s. Other tracks, like “Soar,” prominently feature the distinct vocals and perfectly blended harmonies of the band’s three singers—Jo Marshall, Esther Dee and Rob Fleming—while also allowing space for some great solos from the horn section. In contrast, the melancholy ballad “Can’t Get Enough” is infused with organ, bringing a more soulful and emotional vibe to the fore.
Crowd Company has successfully transferred the energy of their live performances into the tracks on Stone & Sky. If just listening to their infectious choruses and beautiful harmonies isn’t enough, the band will be making their North American tour debut in 2018 and will be performing at the New Orleans Jazz Fest this spring.
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.”
Bobby Byrd, hands down, is the perhaps the greatest sideman in the history of music. Now I may get killed with the “what about Mick/Keith, Bono/Edge, Chuck D/Flavor Flav” comments, all of which are valid points (though Chuck & Flav may be the best comparison in my opinion). But if the name Bobby Byrd isn’t jumping right at you, allow me to take this time to bring you up to speed.
Who else could go on a stage and hold their own with “the hardest working man in show business,” “Soul Brother # 1,” “The Godfather of Soul,” “Mr. Dynamite”? Ok, by now I think you know who I’m referring to. Yes, Bobby Byrd was James Brown’s right hand man for 20 years, one of the original Famous Flames, which explains my earlier comparison. Think “Sex Machine.” James said, “Get Up” and Bobby Byrd had the comeback, “Get on up.” In fact, James calls Bobby Byrd’s name to “take ’em to the bridge.” But before the “Sex Machine” era, and apart from the Famous Flames, Byrd released his own recordings. As all hip hop historians know, Eric B & Rakim sampled Byrd’s “I Know You Got Soul” (1971), and there are many others that used Byrd samples, including Jay-Z. But let’s go back a little further.
This new CD compilation, Help For My Brothers: The Pre Funk Singles 1963-68, begins with the earliest singles released by Byrd on the Federal, Smash, and King labels. All were produced by James Brown, who also shared co-writing credits on many of the songs. To hear Bobby Byrd sing and be the front man might seem strange, but his voice is actually good. No screaming over lyrics. One of the earliest tracks, “I’m Just a Nobody,” has that 60’s vibe and the tempo is what was the norm during that period, a slow groove. Also included is his first solo hit, “Baby, Baby, Baby” with Anna King from 1964, as well as “We Are in Love” from 1965, an even bigger success. Byrd takes a gamble with “Write Me A Letter,” perhaps the best track on the CD. His vocal presentation is not what one expects: rockabilly. Yes, rockabilly!
Bobby Byrd didn’t have James Brown’s stage showmanship, but his voice perhaps was a little better. Help For My Brothers, the first-ever compilation of Byrd’s earliest, lesser known singles, shows the evolution of his solo work. Byrd was more than JB’s sideman, and for that we will be forever grateful.
Following are additional albums released during December 2017—some will be reviewed in future issues of Black Grooves.
Blues, Folk, Country Doctor Ross: Memphis Breakdown (ORG Music)
Robert Finley: Goin’ Platinum! (Easy Eye Sound)
Vance Kelly: How Can I Miss You If You Don’t Leave (Wolf)
Various: Memphis Blues Festival 1975 (Klondike)
Various: Chicago Blues All Stars 1970 (Klondike)
Comedy, Spoken Word Nephew Tommy: Won’t He Do It (TNT)
Funk, Rock, Pop, Electronic Bartees & The Strange Fruit: Magic Boy (Pineapple)
Danielia Cotton: The Mystery of Me (Cottontown)
Dk Aakmael: Take It Back (Scissor & Thread)
Hypnotic Brass Ensemble: Book of Sound (Honest Jon’s)
Gospel, Christian Rap, CCM Alma Brown and A One Gospel Singers: Thank You Jesus
Jazz Ella Fitzgerald: Ella at Zardi’s (Verve)
Incognito: Another Page of Incognito (P-Vine)
Irreversible Entanglements: S/T (International Anthem )
Khan Jamal Creative Arts Ensemble: Drum Dance to the Motherland (reissue) (Forced Exposure)
Melvin Sparks: I’m Funky Now (Westbound UK)
Tony Tixier: Life of Sensitive Creatures (Whirlwind)
R&B, Soul Bettye Swann: The Money Masters (Kent)
Bobbi Ruffin: Chapter Five (digital)
Dionne Warwick: Odds & Ends – Scepter Rarities (Real Gone Music)
K. Michelle: Kimberly – People I Used To Know (Atlantic)
Kashif: Essential Kashif – Arista Years (Legacy)
Lee Moore: A Gram of Boogie: Story of Moore, Score & L&M Records (Past Due)
Minnie Riperton: Perfect Angel (Deluxe Ed.) (Capitol)
Next: Too Close EP (Arista/Legacy)
Otis Redding: Definitive Studio Album Collection (7 LP box) (Atlantic)
Ruby Camille: R C 1 (Moore-Caldwell Plus)
Sugaray Rayford: The World That We Live In (Transistor Sound)
Tamar-kali: Mudbound OST (Milan)
Various: Soul on Fire: Detroit Soul Story 1957-1977 (Cherry Red)
Vedo: From Now On (New WAV)
Rap, Hip Hop A Cat Called Fritz: Vertical Iris (HHV.De)
Allan Kingdom: Lines (LP) (Omerta Inc.)
Big Sean/Metro Boomin: Double or Nothing (G.O.O.D Music)
Boosie Badazz: BooPac (Atlantic)
Boulevards: Hurt Town USA (Don’t Funk With Me)
Chief Keef: Dedication (digital) (RBC)
Cobra íl Vero: Ecdysis (NS3T Ent)
Euroz: Two Birds One Stone (digital)
Fes Taylor: Hood Famous (Chambermusik)
Futuristic: Blessings (We’re The Future )
G. Perico: 2 Tha Left (So Way Out)
G-Eazy: When It’s Dark Out (RCA)
Jeezy: Pressure (Def Jam)
Juicy J: Rubba Band Business (Columbia)
Kidz In The Hall: Free Nights & Weekends (digital)
Kipp Stone: Dirty Face Angel (L.I.F.E. Art & Content Co.)
KXNG Crooked: Good vs. Evil II: The Red Empire (Empire)
Marty Baller: Baller Nation (LP) (Omerta Inc.)
Miguel: War & Leisure (RCA)
Mike Lowery: Before It’s Too Late (Music Junkies)
N.E.R.D: No One Ever Really Dies (Columbia)
Nyron: Appreciation Day (digital)
Pell: Girasoul (Payday)
Quaz: In My Mind (Odic)
Red Storm Chicago: Redemption (digital)
Saba: Bucket List Project (LP) (Omerta Inc.)
Snug: 70812 Where It All Started (Money Gang)
Supa Bwe: Finally Dead (Empire)
TheKidGeeQ: TheKidFrOmElmStreet (FlyOverEverything)
Too $hort: The Pimp Tape (Dangerous Music)
Trizz: Ashes N Dust (Below System)
Visioneers: Dirty Old Hip Hop (reissue) (Tru Thoughts)
Whispers: Whismonoxide (That’s Hip Hop)
WizKid: Sounds From the Other Side (Sony Music Canada)
Z-Ro: Codeine (1 Deep Ent.)
Reggae, Dancehall Ethiopian & His All Stars: Return of Jack Sparrow (Omnivore)
Randy Valentine: New Narrative (Royal Order Music)
Various: Rise of Jamaican Dancehall Culture (SoulJazz)
World, Latin Fela Kuti: Box Set #4: Curated by Erykah Badu (Knitting Factory)
Hamad Kalkaba: Hamad Kalkaba & Golden Sounds 1974-75 (Analog Africa)
The Secret: The New Africa – TNA (Secret Records Music Group)
Various: Beating Heart – South Africa (Beating Heart Music)
Dee Dee Bridgewater, a jazz singer in the same vein as Nancy Wilson, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn and Abby Lincoln, has done it all. She has even appeared on Broadway, earning the respect of peers and critics in a career that has spanned decades. It takes confidence and knowledge of self when an artist decides to step out of their comfort zone, which Bridgewater does on her new release, Memphis, Yes I’m Ready. The 13 track album features Bridgewater singing covers of blues, R&B and gospel classics from the ‘60s with backing by the album’s co-producer, Kirk Whalum, and the Stax Academy Choir.
Bridgewater was born in Memphis, so this project was a homecoming, to say the least—or in the words of the great Sam Cooke, “Bring It On Home.” That she does. Now for the highlights. If you listen very close to “I Can’t Get Next To You,” you’ll hear Bridgewater paying homage to the Al Green version of the song, not the Temptations. Green after all brought the Memphis sound into the ‘70s and Bridgewater is a Memphis gal, so why not. The horns and vocal delivery are downright scary in their precision and intensity.
When Bridgewater says “Yeah, this is for the King,” it’s not the “King” some of you may be thinking of, but rather B.B. King. His signature track, “The Thrill Is Gone,” gets the female perspective from Bridgewater as she sings, “You will be sorry someday.” Clap your hands and tap that foot. Now, speaking of another “King,” Bridgewater covers two of Elvis Presley’s classics. First up is “Don’t Be Cruel.” Who needs the Jordanaires on backing vocals when you can strip this song to its core and make it sound completely new? “Hound Dog,” as most everyone knows, was originally recorded by Big Mama Thornton, but Elvis had the bigger hit. Bridgewater again steers away from original and makes it a storytelling tune, one that I can now understand.
You can’t go home without taking one for the church, right? Bridgewater closes the album with Thomas Dorsey’s “(Take My Hand) Precious Lord.” This is a song that can bring tears to the eyes, especially since one usually hears it at home-going ceremonies. Testify, Sister Dee Dee!
Memphis, Yes I’m Ready is Bridgewater’s homecoming 101. You better be ready!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
September sees a new release by the Chopteeth Afrofunk Big Band, a Washington D.C. based Afrobeat group. This marks the second release (the first being a live LP) from the 10-year veteran band that cut its teeth on the festival and world music circuit. The 12-member ensemble balances its funky polyrhythmic grooves with outstanding solos and compelling political commentary throughout the 10-track Bone Reader, an album that is dense with lyrical and musical concepts while being straightforward enough in its message and music for the casual listener to take something meaningful away after the first listen.
Afrobeat has historically been animated by political and social justice issues, and Bone Reader follows closely in the mold set by Fela Kuti and others who pioneered this element of the genre. The band comes out swinging on the first track, “Questions of Our Day,” which opens with the lyrics “Who’s gonna take the lion’s share / Who’s gonna tip the scales, who’s gonna put them square / Who’s gonna stuff the box, who’s gonna say they can’t / Who’s gonna buy the block, who’s gonna pay the rent.” The song continues in this mold, addressing social issues in the abstract and setting the tone for some of the more specific commentary the band offers throughout the course of the album.
The following track, “Edward Snowden,” features an extended saxophone solo interpolated with audio clips of the NSA surveillance whistleblower warning of the constitutional and personal dangers of federal government snooping. It includes what is perhaps one of the most foreboding endings of any track about a political issue ever: Snowden asserting that “If I end up in chains in Guantanamo, I can live with that.”
The album’s fourth cut brings home an issue that is near and dear to the band based in the nation’s capital—the fact that Washington D.C. is inadequately represented in Congress. With the chorus exhorting “Give D.C. the vote immediately,” they point out population statistics, including the fact that Wyoming has a smaller population than the District but more Congressional representation. “Cop Show” (featuring rapper Flex Mathews) addresses police brutality and racial profiling in a compelling fashion over a funky, ever-changing groove.
If all of this sounds alternatingly wonky and depressing, the grooves that the band plays throughout the course of the album are the spoonful of sugar that this medicine needs to go down smooth. Every cut on the record is danceable, and scorching solos—guitar on “Questions of our Day,” piano on the New Orleans-flavored “Rambeau,” and horns interspersed throughout—color the album with much-appreciated musical diversity.
Chopteeth Afrofunk Big Band can riff as well as it can pontificate, and listeners are treated to a heavy dose of both on Bone Reader.
“The Gospel According to Bette” is the most apt refrain one can give to Bette Smith’s debut album, Jetlagger. Showcasing a gritty, booming voice well fit for her pulpit of southern soul preachin’, Smith follows in the likeness of icons such as Etta James and Tina Turner, churning out message after emotional message in her razor-edged style.
A native of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Smith began her love of music at an early age, singing in her church choir at the tender age of 5. Her path to secular composition took her through music therapy classes as part of her curriculum within Colombia University School of Social Work, and into the 9-5 grind as she wrestled with her longing for musical performance outside of the clerical sphere. Her older brother Jimmy, who succumbed to kidney complications in 2013, gave his approval, offering final words of encouragement that resonated with Smith long after his passing. She formed her band slowly, but once complete she wouldn’t turn down any gig—“I’d play a senior center one day, a street fair the next.” Her perseverance paid off, and as a token to her brother’s memory, she proudly wears the color yellow on stage and in her music videos.
Smith begins her offering of soul-searching, lyrical melodies with “I Will Feed You,” which starts out with a choir of background voices slowly giving way to Smith’s musings of unrequited love. The next track, “Jetlagger,” not only allows Smith to growl her way into her listener’s hearts but also to prove her standing in the vintage soul-inspired world. “Durty Hustlin’” and “Shackle & Chain” are as diverse as their titles suggest. “Do Your Thing” makes use of strong horns, a driving bass and a winding tempo that allows Smith to do her own thing, in her own unique way. But it is her psalm “Manchild” that preaches to Smith’s audience most fervently, warning from its opening chords she “don’t want nobody tellin’ me what to do,” she “just want a manchild, I can teach my lovin’ to.”
Modern soul is Bette Smith’s gospel truth, proving when it comes to down-home, soul-searching tunes, nothing beats a classic sermon like Jetlagger.
Bassist Christian McBride—known for his association with performers such as Chick Corea, Freddie Hubbard, Joshua Redman, and Brad Mehldau—presents Bringin’ It, the second album of the Christian McBride Big Band. On this project not only do we hear influences by Freddie Hubbard (“Thermo”), Maria Schneider (“I Thought About You”), and McCoy Tyner (“Sahara”), but McBride’s compositional style displays his expertise with jazz, funk, Latin jazz, and gospel music as he effortlessly blends these genres.
Included on this album are two arrangements by other musicians—Norman Simmons’ “Upside Down” and trombonist Steve Davis’s “Optimism” —which complement McBride’s compositions and arrangements. Apart from the outstanding writing, the musicality and professionalism of McBride and the members of his ensemble are also on display.
Each track presents the listener with different periods of jazz and references the composers and musicians of those eras. What’s even more astounding is the way each soloist constructs their solos within the styles of the composition. For example, pianist Xavier Davis imitates McCoy Tyner’s pentatonic and quartal vocabulary on “Sahara,” while guitarist Rodney Jones’s usage of octaves on “Full House” is reminiscent of Wes Montgomery’s style of playing. Vocalist Melissa Walker adds a pleasant and exciting element with her warm tone and melodic embellishments that are light, expressive, and blend perfectly with the ensemble.
“Getting’ To It,” featuring a funky bass line over a bed of calypso rhythm, is certainly a song worth mentioning. Drummer Quincy Phillips adds another layer to this already amazing piece. Alternating between funk and calypso rhythmic patterns, he incorporates hits from the arrangement into his drum groove, complementing the rhythmic patterns in the horn section.
Another highlight is “Used ‘Ta Could,” which takes us to church with tambourine and handclaps in the opening bars. This composition embodies performative elements of both the blues and traditional gospel music that inspire the listener to join in with clapping and foot-stomping. The blues riff played in the piano and bass, before every repetition of the melody, prepares the listener for the call-and-response conversation between the trumpets, trombones, and saxes. Later on, we hear this exchange of commentary between horns and piano, further highlighting the importance of gospel music and blues in the big band tradition.
While Christian McBride has fewer solos on this album, his role is certainly not diminished. McBride’s musicality is displayed in the foundational support he provides for his ensemble. His execution is always on point, and his tone gives the ensemble that “phat” fuller sound that is expected of any jazz bassist. McBride’s playing blends so well that his bass does not distract from the overall sound of the ensemble. That is a true sign of professionalism and maturity.
Bringin’ It keeps the big band tradition alive, providing a historical overview of the tradition from McBride’s perspective, while presenting new avenues for further exploration in the 21st century. The album is definitely a must buy—you will not be disappointed.
I want to make it clear, I like EPs. I adore listening to the genesis of what may become a success. Soul Understated, a group from New York, may well blossom into something and I hope I can say, “Told you so.” Based on the strength of their new EP, I do believe they have a bright future. Ok, now that I’ve caught your attention, who are Soul Understated?
Mavis “Swan” Poole and Jeremy “Beans” Clemons form the core of the group. Poole has performed background vocals with Prince and Lauryn Hill, among others, while Clemons, a drummer, has played with Gregory Porter, Burning Spear, and Jen Holiday. Other guests include Marc Cary (Betty Carter and Abbey Lincoln’s bands) on piano and keyboards and Mighty Moe Hagans of the Chuck Brown band on percussion.
Is the title of their EP, Songs in the Key of Grease, a homage to Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life? Maybe. After all, Wonder was in full glory when he released that classic album. Songs in the Key of Grease, however, is a contemporary blend of soul and neo soul with jazzy grooves and funk.
Mavis Poole’s vocals sound similar to Erykah Badu, but on the track “1 Monkey,” Poole’s vocals go where Badu’s have never been. That’s not a knock on Badu, but high praise to Poole. Go Girl! “Junkie” tells the compelling story of someone who has a very difficult time getting their life back on track. The line, “We don’t want your kind here,” displays society’s contempt for a person on the path of self-destruction. On “So What,” Clemons’ drumming and the hand claps is straight up jazzy, ‘90s era soul. This is perhaps the best of the six tracks on the EP.
One negative about EPs is that they are just too short. This is certainly the case with Songs in the Key of Grease. I hope we hear more from Soul Understated, and I’m certain once you hear their album, you will agree.
The Mothership has returned to feed “funk-starved” earthlings, bringing as its main course second-generation P-funker Garret Shider, aka Starchild, Jr. Garret, son of former Parliament-Funkadalic’s “Diaper Man” Garry Shider, serves up his own recipe of the much-needed groove, proving with this debut album that he has come into his own as an adult artist. First and second generation Clintons show up to the meal as members of Shider’s team, with George, son Tracey “Trey Lewd” Lewis and grandson Tracey “Tra’zae” Clinton providing a healthy dose of those bass/rock/horn booms indicative of the unique P-funk sound.
The set begins with “Sugar Rush,” a not-so-subtle sultry ode to all the sweetness that special person holds in our life. Shider then gets cooking with the next offering, “Bop Gun 17,” a song holding strong echoes of classic P-funk backdropped against Shider’s funky old-school falsetto. Starchild Jr.’s dose of political consciousness spills out in the form of “Hard Pill,” as Shider intonates, “When the doctor prescribes his pill it’s the side effects that’s gonna keep you ill, so go ahead and get your glass of water.” The courses just keep on coming from the center section of the funk banquet, as “Jamnastics” to “Stuck in the Middle” reinforce the concept that Shider and his bandmates have plenty of simmering soulfulness.
But it’s the final dish in the form of the title track that fully encapsulates the servings of both Shider’s. “Hand Me Down Diapers” acts as Garret’s personal tribute to his father, tracing the Shider legacy from its beginnings to current day. The song ends with a poignant guitar solo by Jr. as background to an interview conducted with the late Garry Shider, in which he explains the point of his diaper and references an upcoming album.
Showcasing P-funk’s multiple generations at their best, Hand Me Down Diapers is both a testament to Garry Shider’s legacy and a presentation of Garrett Shider’s own artistic individuality, all while holding true to the main ingredients of 1970s funk.
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.
Drummer Ronald Bruner, Jr. is a musician who readers may have heard, but haven’t necessarily “heard of.” A member of L.A.’s groundbreaking cohort of jazz fusion musicians, the West Coast Get Down, he is the brother of bassist Thundercat (Stephen Bruner) and former keyboardist for The Internet, Jameel Bruner, both of whom worked with Ronald on his new release. While his brothers may be more well-known, Ronald’s playing is a staple of Thundercat’s groundbreaking recordings, and his debut album, Triumph, indicates that his solo output will be strong in its own right.
As one would expect from the commercial success of members of the West Coast Get Down, the music on Ronald Bruner, Jr.’s new album is simultaneously pop-oriented and musically virtuosic. This is perhaps jazz-fusion in its truest sense, drawing elements from R&B, hip hop and contemporary jazz into a musically interesting setting that is still heavy on radio-friendly grooves.
Recorded during the sessions that spawned fellow West Coast Get Down member Kamasi Washington’s The Epic,Triumph is an album that showcases two kinds of musicianship, often on the same track. One of these kinds of musicianship finds its expression in pop-oriented R&B and the second allows the stellar musicians in Bruner’s band to showcase their chops. Songs like “True Story” and “She’ll Never Change” are straight-ahead neo-soul tracks, and aside from the drum break that opens the former and the more active than usual playing on the latter, they could easily be mistaken for new cuts from mainstream R&B artists. Other numbers, like “Geome Deome” and “Open the Gate,” continue in the jazz fusion idiom outlined by virtuosic jazzers. These cuts (the former features the late, great George Duke on keys) hearken to the Al Di Meola Return to Forever days, with distorted guitar wailing over a bed of electric piano and start-and-stop drum grooves that are half Questlove, half Lenny White (who gets a shoutout on the album’s final song).
A stylistic chameleon, Bruner moves between styles within songs, morphing from locking in on the club jam “To You” to putting the trap set in the trap beat “For You” on the same track. This is followed by the album closer “Chick’s Web,” a virtuosic jazz fusion track with a title that alludes to the great big band leader while blazing new trails for fusion drumming. This cut ends with a collection of shoutouts to everyone from family members to West Coast Get Down musicians (in some cases these are one in the same) to heavy-hitter jazz musicians that Bruner has been influenced by and worked with, including Stanley Clarke and Kenny Garrett.
Drummers need to hear this record because Bruner excels at pretty much any idiom a jazz fusion, funk, or R&B drummer might want to play. Bruner’s strength is in his diversity—Triumph is a jazz album that a pop fan can enjoy and an R&B record that has enough musical interest to keep a jazz head coming back for more. However, Triumph doesn’t fall into the “too diverse to be cohesive” trap that many similarly chameleonic albums do. This is a testament to how much Ronald Bruner, Jr. has to say as a musician and how well-refined his style is. This aptly titled LP is indeed a victory for Bruner and his band.
The Power of Peace blends the signature styles of powerhouse performers Carlos Santana and brothers Ron and Ernie Isley into a beautiful tribute to several influential artists whose musical styles range from funk to soul and jazz. Centered on the themes of peace and love, this project is sure to excite listeners as iconic songs are infused with new flavor.
The album opens with a bang featuring a cover of the Chamber Brothers’ song “Are You Ready.” Layered percussion and drums performed by Santana and his wife Cindy Blackman Santana alongside an intoxicating electric guitar (also by Santana) create a funky and fun soundscape and prepares the listener for a stimulating musical experience. The band maintains this momentum throughout the next two tracks, Swamp Dogg’s “Total Destruction of the Mind” and Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” on which Santana performs riveting electric guitar accompaniment and solos.
The middle of the album changes pace with a group of softer, slower pieces extolling the beauty of romantic love. Cindy Santana sings her sensual new song “I Remember” with playful background support by Ron Isley. Similarly, Isley and his expert use of falsetto is utterly captivating on the ensemble’s cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Gypsy Woman.” The male R&B “quartet” sound that shaped the original version is largely absent as the band employs a classic smooth groove, slower tempo and mixed background voices to transform this song into a mesmerizing, seductive ode to unrequited love. Santana and Isley also shine while performing Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon’s frequently covered hit “I Just Want to Make Love to You.” Santana’s energizing guitar riffs and Isley’s vocal dexterity (including growls, moans, etc.) make this a standout track on the album.
The Power of Peace concludes with songs about social justice and harmony such as Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me (the Ecology)” and Dionne Warwick and Jackie DeShannon’s “What the World Need Now is Love Sweet Love.” Isley sensitively delivers these musical messages while supported by Santana’s earnest and beautifully crafted instrumental accompaniment.
While the musical pairing of The Isley Brothers and Carlos Santana would seem unexpected, this project is the realization of a dream. Santana, who has numerous accolades as an artist, now desires to chart new waters and create music with his longtime favorite musicians including the “incomparable” voice of Ron Isley. Listeners will certainly be glad that some dreams do come true as they are inspired, surprised, and entertained by the fresh music of The Power of Peace.
Over five years have passed since Brownout’s last official release of original music, Oozy (2012). Those familiar with the band likely remember the widespread acclaim during this period for the Brown Sabbath project, featuring Brownout’s own Latin funk twist on Black Sabbath covers. Collaborations with fellow Austin, TX musical comrades such as Black Angels vocalist Alex Maas and Ghostland Observatory vocalist Aaron Behrens resulted in two Brown Sabbath albums and multiple tours over the last four years.
While touring behind the Brown Sabbath project and moonlighting as alter ego Grammy Award-winning Latin funk orchestra Grupo Fantasma, Brownout recorded their new four-song EP Over the Covers everywhere from the Bay Area to central Texas. The songs on Over the Covers—inspired by African funk (“You Don’t Have to Fall”), ‘60s and ‘70s rock, and New Jack Swing (“Things You Say”)—are at once psychedelic and funky, embracing the experience of Brown Sabbath but melding it with the band’s hallmark sounds.
Brownout’s body of work preceding Brown Sabbath contained some of the best funk and rock to come out of Austin over the last decade, so it’s great to see them back in writing mode and focused on their own material. Over the Covers represents a shift in the band’s approach, pairing their instrumental arrangement acumen with a new lyrical direction.
Alex Marrero joins the band as lead singer and lyricist for this release. Says Marrero, “For me it was all about the process of collaboration and starting to fit into Brownout as an actual new member vs. being the front man for Brown Sabbath. Part of that was tackling the songwriting. If there is an underlying theme in all of these songs it would be symptoms of the human condition, which anyone can relate to.”
A virtuoso on the Hammond B3, Gregory Lewis (aka Organ Monk) wowed the Chamber Music America conference last year when his group performed Thelonious Monk and a few of Lewis’s own chamber jazz compositions in their signature funky, Monk-inspired contrapuntally intricate style. One of those original works, The Breathe Suite, is featured on this newly released album, performed by Lewis with members of his regular quintet: tenor saxophonist Reggie Woods, trumpeter Riley Mullins, guitarist Ron Jackson, and drummer Jeremy “Bean” Clemons. Supplementing this line-up is drummer Nasheet Waits and guitarist Mark Ribot, who replace Clemons and Jackson on the first and third movements.
Four of the five movements of The Breathe Suite are dedicated to an African American killed during confrontations with police officers or vigilantes. With this project Lewis joins the ever growing rank of composers and musicians who write and perform as a personal form of protest: “I can’t protest, because if I protest I go to jail. And if I go to jail I can’t feed my five kids. So what I can do is what I do – I write music . . . Even if it brings joy for just a minute to these families, that’s what I can do.”
The first movement and by far the largest portion of the suite is “Chronicles of Michael Brown.” Clocking in at nearly 19 minutes, the track begins in an instrumental fog of distortion, over which the organ sounds an elegy. As the work progresses, one can’t help but reflect on the events of August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, where Brown’s body lay on the pavement for hours on end. Likewise, the music seems to portray an alternate reality, where straight ahead solos are sharply punctuated at odd moments by organ or guitar, oftentimes shifting between free jazz and funk rock like a collision of cultures. As the movement builds to a climax, it becomes more atonal, gradually fading out on a cymbal roll like a spirit rising up to heaven.
The second movement, “Trayvon,” is of course dedicated to young Trayvon Martin, who was shot and killed on February 26, 2012 in Sanford, Florida. Scored for organ, guitar and drums, this track is more of a fast paced interlude, with Lewis freely riffing on the B3 and Jackson taking a brief guitar solo near the end. The trio continues in similar style on “Aiyana’s Jones Song,” referencing the seven-year-old girl shot and killed in 2010 during a Detroit Police raid. As the movement concludes, the instruments fall into a repetitive pattern, suggesting a never ending cycle.
“Eric Garner” is eulogized in the fourth movement by the full quintet. On this slow, haunting track, Lewis provides sustained chords on the B3 while the other instruments improvise, with special effects creating a discordant soundscape that has us floating through time and space. The suite concludes with “Ausar and the Race Soldiers” (reprised in the 6th track), a more straight ahead movement that still offers ample room for free improvisation and solos.
Gregory Lewis Quintet’s stated mission is “to expand upon the interpretation of jazz and create a catalogue of 21st century American originals.” In this they have surely succeeded, creating a highly original, socially conscious work inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and the cycle of violence and deadly oppression which led to its creation.
The Soul of John Black is a project centered around guitarist John Bigham. Best known for his time as a member of Fishbone, Bigham uses The Soul of John Black as a love letter to the blues. His latest release, Early in the Moanin’, infuses elements of both Delta and Chicago blues with soul and funk sensibilities. The album finds “JB,” as he a known, running through songs filled with an earthy-southern feel.
Bigham puts his sense of humor at the center of many of the tracks, including the album opener “Can’t Be Helped,” where he playfully pleads for help from his partner for his ailment: “Doctor says I can’t be helped / by nobody but thee / now lay some hands on me.”
Early In Moanin’ is reminiscent of soul-blues greats like Little Milton or Z.Z. Hill, but with a 2017 sensibility. It conjures up visions of people dancing away the troubles of the day at the local watering hole. Bigham’s vocals and guitar work are both superb throughout the album. Despite the fact that blues is not his most oft-played genre, he feels completely at home in the setting. His comfort at weaving between genres—blues, soul, funk, R&B—speaks to the interconnectedness of these genres at large. Blues in many ways is the root and Bigham taps into it in spectacular fashion on this album. Early In Moanin’ is highly recommended for lovers of the soul-blues of Bobby “Blue” Bland, Denise LaSalle and Clarence Carter.
If you listen to classic Motown soul, you have heard guitarist Dennis Coffey, a bona fide member of the famous Funk Brothers in-house studio band. That fuzzy funky guitar on the Temptations “Cloud Nine,” that’s him. Also the neat little psychedelic hooks on later Diana Ross and the Supremes hits, and you can hear him on songs by Edwin Starr and Freda Payne. But wait, there’s more: he also had a million-selling instrumental hit in the ’70’s, “Scorpio.”
Like most other Detroit musicians of his era, Coffey’s recorded work is only part of his legacy. He was a regular in the city’s then-thriving music club scene. By 1968, Coffey was a member of a jazz/funk trio led by organist Lyman Woodard. The group regularly played at Morey Baker’s Showplace Lounge, known around town as a club where the audience expected excellent music, and respected the musicians by listening rather than partying and dancing.
These recordings were funded by Coffey and his production-company partner, but not released until now. They are not haphazard tapings, or soundboard feeds, but rather professional recordings of a working band in action. Here’s the promo video for Hot Coffey In the D, which is more of a mini-documentary on the making of this album:
For the most part, Coffey, Woodard and drummer Melvin Davis smoke up the joint. Some tunes run a little long (especially their cover of “The Look of Love,” which just doesn’t have enough meat on the bones to justify a nearly 12-minute excursion), but for the most part this is tight and very soulful instrumental jazz. I call it “jazz” because it is improvisational soloing over skeletal song beds.
Davis does a great job of holding the music together with rock solid beats and tasteful un-busy accents. Woodard is a funky B3 player in the Groove Holmes or Jimmy McGriff mode, although the album notes indicate he was emulating Jimmy Smith (I didn’t hear much Jimmy Smith-style jazz swing in his playing, more a solid funk groove and superb management of the bass pedals). But the real star of the show is Coffey, whose guitar playing is at turns funky, psychedelic, jazzy, and lyrical. His style is somewhat akin to Gabor Szabo in that, like the Hungarian-born jazz-pop guitarist, he can switch styles quickly and weave in and out of the song’s beat and melody. Also like Szabo, he tends to return to the song’s melody with clean single-note runs. But Coffey’s style is all his own, more leaning toward soul and rock than any contemporary jazz guitarist. And, judging from his Motown work, he was very much at home in the “Factory,” able to adapt his playing to whatever the hit producers needed.
The agility and ability of this band is demonstrated in the set list: opening tune “Fuzz” is pure acid jazz; mid-set the band lays down a fast-paced by jazzy cover of Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage”; and two songs later the band covers the then-current pop/R&B crossover hit “Casanova (Your Playing Days Are Over).”
Not to be overlooked, the CD booklet is another Resonance Records masterpiece. It includes interviews with Coffey, Davis, Mike Theodore (Coffey’s production partner and producers of these recordings), and legendary singer Bettye LaVette “on the 60’s Detroit club scene.” The ample text may require more than one playing of the CD to read, unless you’re a speed-reader! The booklet and cover art make strong arguments to buy the physical media rather than a download or stream.
Overall, Hot Coffey In the D is a worthy document of a great time and place in music.
The recently formed Shirley Davis & the Silverbacks consists of an Australian born soul singer and the resident house band at Tucxone Records, a soul label based in Madrid, Spain. The combination of these two forces is pretty unstoppable on Black Rose, their first full length project. Recorded in under a month’s time, the album is a mix of funk and soul, hearkening back to the 1960s. In fact, their band leader, Edu Martinez, describes the band as working similarly to the classic soul labels of the ‘60s.
Before joining the Silverbacks, Shirley Davis was featured in prominent Australian groups Deep Street Soul and Grand Wazoo. She also collaborated with Japanese funk band Osaka Monorail and the late Marva Whitney. Her voice draws an obvious comparison to the late great Sharon Jones, but is also reminiscent of Gladys Knight at times, Macy Gray at others. Davis’s voice has a versatility and an individuality all its own, though, which shines throughout the album.
The groove established in the opening title track, “Black Rose,” continues throughout the album, but never becomes repetitive. One of the best arrangements comes in the final track, “Make My Day,” which makes excellent use of organ. “Pay for Your Love” is another highlight, a slowed down song with Davis utilizing more of her range than she does on other parts of the album. There is one instrumental track on the album, “Burial of a Dead Star.” Surprisingly, though, it was not a standout arrangement compared to the other songs.
Overall, Shirley Davis & the Silverbacks are an impressive combination, and Black Rose is a solid first project.