Javen – Grace

javen
Title: Grace

Artist: Javen

Label: Tyscot

Formats: CD, Digital

Release Date: June 22, 2018

 

Born and raised in Hollywood, Florida, Javen P. Campbell is the 12th child in a family of 13. His career in the music industry began in 1999 after he was signed with Crowne Records. Since then, Javen has made a name for himself in many facets of the Christian music and entertainment industry—as a vocalist, songwriter, and actor. He is also a well-known television personality, hosting Now Living on the Christian network TBN and The Gospel Music Experience alongside Tye Tribbet. Recently Javen released his 6th album, Grace, with contributions from current gospel icons like Tye Tribbet, Tim Bowman Jr., and Johnny Rez.

Featuring eight songs written by Javen over the years, as well as an arrangement of the classic hymn “Amazing Grace,” Grace is beautifully produced from start to finish. The album combines harmonic, instrumental, and rhythmic aspects of Christian pop and classic gospel as well as new production techniques and rhythms from music of the African diaspora such as dancehall and hip hop.

YouTube Preview Image

 

Javen opens the album explaining his understanding of the word grace, and how the term speaks to his faith. Stating he has come to understand grace as “God’s love, power, and strength,” he explains one must trust in these things to truly have access to God’s power and favor: “Grace is not something you do/but something you receive.” Immediately following this powerful introduction is the gorgeous title track duet, “Grace”, featuring Margaret Bell. This compelling song showcases a classic modern gospel sound accompanied by magnificent backing vocals as the absolutely awe-inspiring voice of Margaret Bell takes total command of the song. An acoustic version of this song in Spanish by artist Johnny Rez, closes the album, as well, providing an artful compliment to not only Bell but the entire collection of worship tunes.

Javen is a spectacular artist and vocalist with such a warm and smooth tone remnant of artists like Smokie Norful and Sam Cooke, but from time to time he is a slightly outshined, vocally, by the artists he features. This is especially apparent in his duets, such as “Grace” with Margaret Bell, and “You Lift Me Up” with Christina Bell. However, this takes nothing away from the album—if anything it shines a light on the brilliance of Javen as a songwriter. Another stand-out track is the song “Fresh Oil,” originally released on Javen’s 2013 album, Worship In the Now, and re-recorded as a duet with Na’sha Watkins for Grace. “Fresh Oil” is an absolutely stunning song just perfect for the smooth stylings and timbre of both Javen and Watkins as they offer their prayer lyrics: “Fresh Oil from Heaven cleanse my heart/Holy Spirit I call, from you I don’t want to part”. This song is extremely soothing while maintaining the capacity to bring you to tears.

Grace is a wonderful and eclectic album with a perfect marriage of songs and artists. It is an offering that will touch and uplift your soul, leaving you feeling renewed and blessed.

Reviewed by Jared Griffin

Keith “Wonderboy” Johnson – Keep Pushin’

wonderboy

 

Title: Keep Pushin’

Artist: Keith “Wonderboy” Johnson

Label: Shanachie

Formats: CD, Digital

Release Date: April 27, 2018

 

Brooklyn native Keith “Wonderboy” Johnson is one of the leading voices in contemporary gospel quartet music today. The 3x Stellar Award winner and Billboard top 20 chart topper began singing at a young age with father, Phil Johnson, who was the founder of the group, The Spiritual Voices.

Johnson earned the nickname “Wonderboy” as a child due to his amazing melismatic approach to singing along with his distinctive vocal timbre. Johnson has also helped to transform the gospel quartet genre through the use of modern gospel music production sounds and techniques, while maintaining the integrity of traditional gospel quartet music, due to his incredible production crew.

On Johnson’s 13th album, Keep Pushin’, the artist goes well beyond his gospel roots to feature various styles of music. The title track and single, “Keep Pushin”, is a highly inspirational piece with an upbeat funk groove that encourages people to have faith in God and keep moving despite the obstacles that life often presents. Reminiscent of the famous Impressions’ message song “Keep On Pushing” that became a part of the fabric of the Civil Rights Movement, Johnson’s song reveals that people are still dealing with political, social, economical and, one might add, spiritual issues. As Johnson encourages in the music video, one can strive to transcend these issues by facing their problems and not giving up on themselves, others or God.

On the gospel ballad, “God’s Gonna Do It,” Johnson reassures listeners that with faith and patience “God will come through” and perform the unbelievable and impossible task set before them. Johnson projects this same message through his homage to R&B artist Morris Day and the Minneapolis sound, using Day’s popular song “The Bird” as the foundation of “God Is Able.” The background vocalists sing “Hallelujah” during the vamp, as featured on the original song during the chorus section (omitting the word “Squawk,” of course). Johnson went back in time to 1984, utilizing the same synthesizer keyboard sounds accompanied by a “4 on the floor” driving groove. This high energy dance song encourages people to give God praise while they are waiting for their miracle.

Each song on the album features a message of hope, faith and belief in the promises of God through the versatile approach of Johnson’s modern gospel quartet sound.  One may hear the traditional gospel and quartet sound, R&B, funk or soul. Each song is governed by the idea that no matter what comes your way, you can make it, with faith, determination, and praise. Johnson end’s his album appropriately with the song “Do You Know How Blessed You Are,” reminding listeners that it is simply a blessing to be alive.

Reviewed by Bobby E. Davis Jr.

Kelontae Gavin – The Higher Experience

kelontae

 

Title: The Higher Experience

Artist: Kelontae Gavin

Label: Tyscot

Formats: CD, Digital

Release Date: April 27, 2018

 

In 2014 a video went viral of a young man singing the modern hymn, “I Won’t Complain,” in his high school cafeteria. That young man was Summerville, South Carolina native Kelontae Gavin. Within two years he was signed to Tyscot Records and his first original single, “Higher,” topped at #30 on the gospel charts. Now the 19-year-old Kelontae Gavin has released his debut album, The Higher Experience.

Recorded live at Fresh Start Church in Atlanta, The Higher Experience opens with the choir singing a gorgeous a capella rendition of the Donnie McClurkin song, “Holy, Holy, Holy,”  just one of many beautiful and complex arrangements on this album written by Tyscot producer Marquis Boone. As the album proceeds we are graced with other gorgeous tracks such as “There’s No One Like You” and the title track, “No Ordinary Worship,” which just rose to #16 on the Billboard Gospel Charts.

YouTube Preview Image

Of particular note about the production of this song, as well as others on the album, is the precision and quality of the backing vocals. For a live recorded gospel album this actually makes them feel slightly over-produced. This is a very small critique but it stands out because of the passion and raw emotion behind Gavin’s delivery. With the background vocals so clean, Gavin’s passion feels somewhat unsupported.

There are many aspects of Gavin’s performance that stand out. Despite his age, he is extremely adept at his vocal style, song delivery and aptitude as well as his ability to minister. These talents are on display throughout the songs, as well as in breaks between songs such as “Ministry Moment,” where Gavin delivers messages about trusting in God with the execution and confidence of a pastor over twice his age.

Gavin has an electrifying old school sound, reminiscent of the smooth tenor of artists like Sam Cooke, but also with the gritty roar of Clarence Fountain that most would not expect from an artist this young. When hearing Gavin’s dynamic vocal ability and just the overall power and emotion behind his voice, no one could ever guess that he’s still a teenager. The Higher Experience is phenomenal and great kick off to what will hopefully turn into a very lucrative career for Kelontae Gavin.

Reviewed by Jared Griffin

Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir – I Am Reminded (Live)

brooklyn

Title: I Am Reminded (Live)

Artist: Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir

Label: Provident Music Group

Formats: CD, Digital

Release Date: April 6, 2018

 

Brooklyn may be the most iconic of all the New York boroughs, but I usually associate it with basketball first and hip hop second, not choirs. These days, however, we as a society and country need uplifting words, and where better than in song? Enter the six-time Grammy® Award winning Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir. Founded in the 1970s and currently directed by Carol Cymbala, the multicultural BTC has 270 members who, for the most part, are vocally untrained. Taking music out of the church, the choir has performed at Carnegie Hall, Radio City Music Hall, Madison Square Garden, and the 2012 Presidential Inauguration festivities in Washington, DC.

 I Am Reminded is the BTC’s 30th release and offers eleven tracks celebrating the power of the Lord. The album was recorded live so you get to enjoy the feedback from the audience as if you were there in church. On the opening track, “Psalm 150,” the lead singer repeats the line “The name of Jesus is worthy to be praised” again and again over great backing vocals. Perhaps the most attention grabbing track is “Jesus It’s You” featuring tenor Sidney Mochede, which could be a crossover hit. The words just suck you up and make you want to bow your head and close your eyes. Songs on the soulful side include the original ballads, “That’s Why God” and the title track, “I Am Reminded” featuring soprano Niciole Binion. Other guests include Shane and Shane, a Texas-based contemporary praise and worship duo who lead the choir in a performance of their anthem, “Psalm 23.”

YouTube Preview Image

 The contemporary gospel tracks on I Am Reminded are perhaps more Joel Osteen than TD Jakes, but the uplifting music may help us deal with current issues such as school shootings, the #MeTooMovement, Black Lives Matter and NFL policy on players kneeling during the anthem. With the way things are currently, we could use the encouragement.

 Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan

bob dylan

 

Title: Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan

Artist: Various

Label: MVD Visual

Formats: DVD

Release Date: January 19, 2018

 

In 2003, an all-star cast of traditional and contemporary gospel singers performed songs written by Bob Dylan on Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan. The Grammy-nominated compilation album included 11 tracks written by Dylan during his “born again” period from 1979 to 1981, in which he produced Christian music. Three years later, the companion documentary DVD of the same name was released by Burning Rose Video, which is currently out-of-print. Thankfully, MVD has stepped into the void and reissued the video.

YouTube Preview Image

The DVD documents the making of the Gotta Serve Somebody album, including interviews with performers such as Regina McCrary, Terry Young, and Mona Lisa Young. Also featured is performance footage of 9 of the 11 tracks that originally appeared on the CD, such as the namesake “Gotta Serve Somebody” by Shirley Caesar, “I Believe In You” by Dottie Peoples, and “Saved” by the Mighty Clouds of Joy, as well as bonus tracks from Arlethia Lindsay, Great Day Chorale, and Bob Dylan himself. The Gotta Serve Somebody DVD premieres 1980 footage of Dylan performing “When He Returns,” the first documented performance released from his “born again” era. The DVD certainly lives up to the fame of its companion album, winning the Gold Medal for Excellence Audience Choice for Best Music Documentary at Park City Film Music Festival.

Reviewed by Chloe McCormick

LaVice & Co. – Two Sisters From Bagdad

Two Sisters
Title: Two Sisters From Bagdad

Artist: LaVice & Co.

Label: Jazzman

Formats: CD, LP, digital

Release date: January 19, 2018

 

 

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

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

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

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Ruth La’Ontra – I Got You

I Got You
Title: I Got You

Artist: Ruth La’Ontra

Label: Tyscot

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 22, 2017

 

 

The unbelievable vocal ability of Ruth La‘Ontra will leave you in awe. As the daughter of Bishop Arvetra Jones, Jr. (president of the North Carolina Gospel Announcers Guild of the Gospel Music Workshop of America.), La’Ontra has been singing gospel music all her life. She embarked on her professional career shortly after graduating from high school, releasing her first album, So Good, on the Tyscot label in 2013. That same year, her spiritual love song “In Love With a Man” was featured in the movie Iniquity. The following year she received a Stellar Gospel Music Award nomination with a song from the album, “Count It All Joy.”

Now La‘Ontra is hitting the gospel world hard with her sophomore project, I Got You. With help from a top notch production and song writing duo, Anthony Brown (of Anthony Brown & group therAPy) and Justin Savage, the album has been rapidly climbing the Billboard gospel charts. When describing this project and La’Ontra’s marvelous talent, Justin Savage stated: “Her vocal ability is so versatile and vast. This project will take listeners on an exciting journey of great music, her voice leading the way; destination, God’s presence.”

The album is anchored by La’Ontra’s uplifting hit song “Kingdom,” grounded by the chorus: “We are Kingdom, we are Kingdom and we have the authority / God has given us the power and we can change anything.” Here La’Ontra offers a powerful message to guide us through the New Year.

YouTube Preview Image

 

I Got You was recorded live to maintain a true feeling of worship. The album features arrangements of both new and old songs, like the organ accompanied hymn “Tis So Sweet” and the powerful worship song “Reign.”  Between the lush harmonies of the accompanying choir and Ruth La’Ontra’s astonishing voice, I Got You has the makings of a true gospel classic.

Reviewed by Jared Griffin

 

 

C West – Hide and Seek

C West
Title: Hide and Seek

Artist: C West

Label: Tyscot

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: October 27, 2017

 

 

C West has potential to take the gospel world by storm with his debut album, Hide and Seek. The 20-year-old singer and guitarist incorporates a very contemporary R&B sound in his faith-based inspirational songs directed towards millennials. According to West, the album’s title references how we tend to hide from ourselves and from God, instead of seeking our true purpose.

While studying at Villa Maria College in his hometown of Buffalo, New York, West competed in a singing contest sponsored by the well-known gospel producer Marquis Boone, who launched the careers of the chart topping Tyscot artists Briana Babineaux and Casey J. West went on to win the competition taking first prize, a recording contract with Tyscot Records. Now, with help from Boone, who is also his new manager, West is looking to push the envelope and merge mainstream styles with a spiritual message.

C West released multiple singles prior to dropping this album, including the ballad “Breaks Your Heart,” which he describes as starting out as a prayer written on a sticky note. Following was his first hit song, “Focus,” which quickly became one of the most frequently played songs on gospel radio. This also happens to be West’s favorite song because it sends a message about the benefits of staying focused: “The end will be worth it.”

Other tracks such as “Who I Am” and “Unusual Love” speak to finding yourself and your way through the world as young man or woman of God. As C West’s debut album, Hide and Seek signals the start of promising career and another win for Tyscot Records.

Reviewed by Jared Griffin

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

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

Artist: Various

Label: Craft

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

Release date: September 15, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Cheryl Fortune – Simply Cheryl

Cheryl Fortune
Title: Simply Cheryl

Artist: Cheryl Fortune

Label: Tyscot

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: October 13, 2017

 

 

Well known in the gospel community for her cutting-edge songwriting and heartfelt vocals, Houston native Cheryl Fortune inspires and amazes with her debut album, Simply Cheryl for Tyscot Records. Prior to the launch of her solo career, Cheryl served as a vocal arranger and background vocalist with Grammy nominated artist James Fortune & FIYA in addition to co-penning several of the group’s hit songs, which have graced the top ten on Billboard gospel charts. Along with her work with FIYA, she has served as songwriter and guest vocalist on projects associated with numerous other national gospel artists such as Kirk Franklin, Shirley Caesar, Isaac Carree and Bishop T.D. Jakes. Clearly a veteran in her own right, it was simply a matter of time before she would grace us with this solo offering.

Simply Cheryl is anchored by the hit single “Fighters,” a song inspired by a Mother’s Day card from the singer’s 13 year-old daughter affirming Fortune’s kindness, love, strength and resilience (i.e. fight) during specific challenging moments of the artist’s life. “Fighters” links Fortune, a domestic violence survivor, in affirmation with listeners who have also experienced similar life circumstances:  “We’re fighters never gonna give up… I’ll take your hand and you’ll take mine, we’ll conquer this think they call life…” Couched in a hard-hitting drum line instrumentation created by producer Lucius B. Hoskins, “Fighters” also reflects broader social impact, as an adopted theme song of encouragement for people recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey.  However, in the words of Fortune during a recent interview, this project is not “victim music.”  Rather, the album’s songs are sacred expressions of triumph created and shared by one who has persevered in spite of life-changing obstacles.

YouTube Preview Image

 

Other notable tracks such as “4 A Night” and “Figure It Out” (both produced by Terence Vaughn), like the entire project, are rooted in ‘80s and ‘90s R&B music traditions. While listeners will surely recognize definitive rhythmic grooves, guitar melodic lines, synth bass lines and horn stabs, harmonic progressions, and talk boxes, among other textures linked with R&B sensations such as Bobby Brown, Keith Sweat and Mint Condition to name a few iconic artists, the gospel message of encouragement, hope and resilience remains at the forefront of the album.

Simply Cheryl is a spectacular album that will leave you eagerly waiting to see what else Cheryl Fortune has in store. For those seeking to experience a powerful inspirational message saturated in timeless grooves, Simply Cheryl is for you!

Reviewed by Jared Griffin and Tyron Cooper

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

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

Artist: The Gospelaires of Dayton, Ohio

Label: Gospel Friend/dist. City Hall Records

Format: CD

Release date: November 17, 2017

 

 

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

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

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

YouTube Preview Image

 

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

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

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

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Christian McBride Big Band – Bringin’ It

Christian McBride Big Band - Bringin' It

Title: Bringin’ It

Artist: Christian McBride Big Band

Label: Mack Avenue

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: September 22, 2017

 

 

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.

Reviewed by Jamaal Baptiste

 

 

The Sherman Holmes Project – The Richmond Sessions

Sherman Holmes
Title: The Richmond Sessions

Artist: The Sherman Holmes Project

Label: M.C. Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: July 21, 2017

 

 

This remarkable release is the first for Sherman Holmes since the passing in 2015 of both his brother and bandmate, Wendell Holmes and Popsy Dixon of the Holmes Brothers. Despite these somber circumstances, this uplifting project is a dedication to both the Holmes Brothers and the Americana music that brought the band together and sustained their career for over 50 years. Produced by Jon Lohman of the Virginia Folklife Program at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and recorded at Montrose Studios in Richmond, The Richmond Sessions is a collection of bluegrass, gospel, blues, and traditional songs that represent the roots of Holmes’ extensive musical career.

YouTube Preview Image

Originally from Christchurch, Virginia, the Holmes Brothers formed as a trio after years of performing the Chitlin’ Circuit. They are known for their eclectic blend of southern American genres supported by Wendell Holmes’ effortless electric guitar playing, Popsy Dixon’s drum work and falsetto voice, and Sherman Holmes’s deep resounding bass. In 2014, they were honored with a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship after working with the Maryland Traditions Apprenticeship Program, and from 2014-2015, they participated in the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program where they mentored a new generation of musicians, passing on cultural knowledge and musical techniques. The Sherman Holmes Project took shape shortly after Holmes performed “I Want Jesus” at the Virginia Apprenticeship showcase in memory of the Holmes Brothers, a beautiful blues traditional song featured on this album.

YouTube Preview Image

Several accomplished artists are featured on the Richmond Sessions including the Ingramettes singing backup vocals, Dobro player Rob Ickes, banjoist Sammy Shelor, and multi-instrumentalist DJ Harrison. Special guest Joan Osborne sings alongside Holmes on “Dark End of the Street” while “Breaking Up Somebody’s Home” brings the studio band together for a three-minute instrumental jam. Many of the recorded songs are favorites of Holmes, such as Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Green River” and Vince Gill’s “Little Liza Jane.” Other tracks feature songs the Holmes Brothers once performed together, such as “Homeless Child” and “Rock of Ages.”

Produced by the Virginia Foundation of the Humanities, The Richmond Sessions genuinely represents a public appreciation for the music and memory of the Holmes Brothers as Sherman continues to perform and record music. Sherman Holmes will be performing at various festivals this summer and fall; check his website for tour dates/locations.

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

Dr. F. James Clark Presents NextGeneration Choir – Sure. Focused. Centered.

Sure Focused Centered
Title: Sure. Focused. Centered.

Artist: Dr. F. James Clark Presents NextGeneration Choir

Label: City Of Peace

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: June 23, 2017

 

Sure. Focused. Centered is the debut album of the St. Louis Shalom Church City of Peace’s young adult ensemble NextGeneration Choir. It is a contemporary answer to the church’s first project, Simply Amazing (2015), which featured powerful, gospel songs performed by their mass choir.

The album opens with the bold and dynamic anthem “Psalm 23” which features unpredictable rhythmic and dynamic shifts with soprano, alto, and tenor (SAT) voices interweaving as they sing the scriptural passage. The debut single “You Are” is a fun and memorable up-tempo song that describes attributes of God. While the chorus is a simple repeated phrase, “You are,” it does not lack energy or momentum due to surprising and powerful vocal interjections by the sopranos (who are quite a force on this album).

Another noteworthy piece is the traditional gospel styled “Blessing Me,” featuring the St. Louis based vocalist Meaghan Williams-McNeal. Alongside the choir and soloist’s robust performance, ragtime tinged piano plus funky horns, a healthy backbeat established by the rhythm section, and an energizing tambourine set the stage for a rocking musical worship session. Similarly, NextGeneration and acclaimed soloist Chrystal Rucker channel Sunday morning worship with the piece “I Have a Testimony,” which features a wonderful call and response interplay between the soloist and choir.

Overall, this album offers a sampling of contemporary (and even traditional) gospel stylings that is sure to encourage listeners to be Sure, Focused, and Centered in their faith.

Reviewed by Raynetta Wiggins

Anita Wilson – Sunday Song

Sunday Song Anita Wilson
Title: Sunday Song

Artist: Anita Wilson

Label: EONE

Format: CD, MP3

Release Date: July 14, 2017

 

 

Anita Wilson has been a rising star in gospel music since her 2013 debut album, Worship Soul.   Wilson has established herself as an artist who is adept at blending traditional gospel with old school R&B and soul sounds to create new and fresh music for contemporary listeners. Her latest project Sunday Song continues in this vein, featuring newly composed selections as well as several covers. Donald Lawrence’s ensemble The Company, Wilson’s former group, provides the background vocals on the album. While many of these tunes will be great for Sunday church worship, Wilson emphasizes that this album is meant to foster spiritual engagement beyond religious walls. She states, “God is everywhere we are, we can always have a Sunday song in our hearts.”*

YouTube Preview Image

One of the opening songs of the album is the single, “I’ve Seen Him Work.” This inspirational selection channels the sounds of R&B dance tunes (e.g. Luther Vandross**) and gospel choir songs of the 1980s. Rhythmic piano and bass establish a groove, which is joined by punctuating horns and drums showcasing a jaunty back beat, making this a fun and danceable track. The lyrics encourage listeners to maintain faith in God because “He’s in control” and He is “working it out.”

Wilson continues to draw on musical influences from yesteryear with the selection “Don’t Have to Travel Far.” This beautiful ballad is a worship-filled love song to God. It opens with strings, drums, and soft, repeated piano chords under girding the tender melody performed on an electric guitar. Purposefully, the accompaniment is reminiscent of 1970s R&B ballads like the Stylistic’s “You Make Me Feel Brand New.” Wilson celebrates her relationship with God with The Company supporting her sweetly: “Don’t have to travel far/ to be right where you are./You are constantly in my heart./ There’s no place I’d rather be/ than in your company,/ you mean more than life to me.”

Sunday Song’s traditional gospel and gospel covers are also especially noteworthy. “The New Church Medley” is string of both old and newly composed up-tempo call and response congregational songs which all ramp up to the popular church tune, “Great Things/I’ll Say Yes to My Lord.” For this heavy hitting number, Wilson is joined by singer Tommie White and vocal powerhouse Yolanda Adams who passionately improvise during the vamp. In a different light, Wilson has also transformed some gospel favorites like Richard Smallwood’s anthem “Total Praise.” She eschews a conventional, stately performance featuring dark, bold vocal production (with heavy vibrato) and string orchestration for a paired down contemporary praise and worship style. Wilson reworks the melody and softens the accompaniment transforming the chorus of “Total Praise” into a contemplative yet earnest meditation on faith.

Sunday Song is a wonderful summer treat for gospel lovers everywhere. It’s a wonderful blend of older secular styles, traditional gospel music, with timeless lyrics that are sure to inspire listeners to sing, dance, and have faith.

*Quote taken from an on-air interview with Detroit, MI radio personality Randi Myles.

**Wilson suggested the music of Luther Vandross influenced the creation of this song in an on-air interview with radio personality Erica Campbell.

Reviewed by Raynetta Wiggins

The Como Mamas – Move Upstairs

The Como Mamas
Title: Move Upstairs

Artist: The Como Mamas

Label: Daptone

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: May 19, 2017

 

 

In a little corner of Mississippi, the Como Mamas have performed traditional gospel since their youth growing up in the Jim Crow South. On their second album, Move Upstairs, they continue to share music from their rich heritage with a sweet power and joy that’s sure to inspire any listener.

While their first project, Get an Understanding, was a cappella, Move Upstairs features gospel favorites accompanied by understated instrumentation that’s stylistically reminiscent of the soul and gospel music popularized in the mid-twentieth century. Stand out selections include the title track “Move Upstairs” led by Della Daniels. Two of the members first recorded an a cappella version of this song on the Daptone compilation Como Now (2008). However, the new rendition features a groove undergirded by a walking bass that shapes this piece into an exciting declaration of faith. With a rich and smoky voice, Daniels sets the tone for the song, conveying intensity and excitement about her pending trip to heaven.

YouTube Preview Image

Fans of the trio will also certainly appreciate their version of the song “Glory, Glory Hallelujah.” With only a bass drum and tambourine for accompaniment, the raw power of the group’s voices alone conveys their prayerful emotion.  Lastly, the track “Count Your Blessings” is a noteworthy remake of Luther Barnes’ up-tempo contemporary gospel choir piece, “What the Lord Has Done,” into a laidback song of encouragement. With a rousing call and response interplay, the Como Mamas intimately convey their message.  Moreover, the accompanying music video (above) imbues the group’s singing with bit of lightheartedness and reminds listeners to smile, dance, and practice gratefulness in every circumstance.

Reviewed by Raynetta Wiggins

The McIntosh County Shouters: Spirituals & Shout Songs from the Georgia Coast

McIntosh Country Shouters
Title: The McIntosh County Shouters: Spirituals & Shout Songs from the Georgia Coast

Artist: The McIntosh County Shouters

Label: Smithsonian Folkways

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: January 20, 2017

 

This album is the second collection of The McIntosh County Shouters recorded and produced by Smithsonian Folkways. The first, The McIntosh County Shouters: Slave Shout Songs from the Coast of Georgia was released in 1983. The Shouters belong to a third generation of people freed from slavery and their featured songs on this album are performed exclusively for the traditional ring shout. In 1993, the group received the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship, which is considered to be the greatest honor for the traditional arts in the United States.

As part of the educational mission of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, each album on the record label includes comprehensive liner notes that are ideal for further research. The liner notes on this album include photographs, detailed biographies of the artists, interviews with current members, and historical and cultural contextualization of the traditional ring shout. Bolden, aka “Briar Patch,” on the coastal mainland of Georgia is the home of The McIntosh County Shouters. The Mount Calvary Baptist Church is the spiritual space of the Gullah/Geechee people, known as “the stopping place of the shout.”

It is satisfying to hold such a project in your hands, with 17 tracks and a 40-page booklet accompanying the physical CD. Each song incorporates the essential elements of the ring shout: the rhythmic hand-clapping, a stick beating the floor, the soul-filled spirituals, and the fusion of call-and–response singing. All that is missing on this album, as described in the liner notes, is the visual element—the ability to watch the shouters shuffling in a counterclockwise circle. To amend this problem, Smithsonian Folkways created an accompanying short documentary film that shows the Shouters singing and dancing together. Brenton Jordan, the youngest Shouter today, looks forward to the future of the tradition and believes the strength of the shout community will continue to thrive.

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

Thornetta Davis – Honest Woman

Thornetta Davis
Title: Honest Woman

Artist: Thornetta Davis

Label: Self-released

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 23, 2016

 

Crowned the “Queen of Detroit Blues” in 2015, Thornetta Davis is a blues singer and songwriter with a big voice and a passion for all things blues, rock, and soul. Though she’s worked with labels like Sub Pop in the past, her latest release Honest Woman is a self-released project full of passion.

Honest Woman starts rather untraditionally, with Felicia Davis singing her sister’s praises like a spoken word poem over back porch Delta blues: “When my sister sings the blues, she moves her hips swaying to the beat / Snapping her fingers and stomping her feet.” She compares her sister to Bessie Smith and Sippie Wallace, two of the most famous black blues singers from the 1920s. This celebration of black women in music and the blues reverberates throughout the entire album, as Thornetta Davis draws inspiration from artists such as Denise LaSalle, Etta James, Sarah Vaughn, and Big Mama Thornton.

The theme of honoring women is echoed on the second track, “I Gotta Sang the Blues,” which is a powerful duet with harmonica virtuoso Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbids. The songs talks about singing the blues not to get rich or famous, but rather to persevere when “living the blues gets too rough.” At the end of the song, Davis evokes the names of more famous blues women, singing on the outro,

I ain’t gon’ stop singin’ the blues
Big Mama Thorton sang the blues
Koko Taylor sang the blues
Etta James sang the blues.

On “Sister Friends Indeed,” Davis celebrates the female friendships in her own life. The bluesy Americana track is an ode to sisterhood, discussing how all the women who have supported her throughout life are her sisters, whether they share blood or not:

The rest of Honest Woman doesn’t celebrate blues women as explicitly, but it cements Davis as a part of that history. Her smooth voices oscillates between a number of styles. She sings contemporary upbeat rock blues on songs like “That Don’t Appease Me” and “I Need A Whole Lotta Lovin to Satisfy Me,” followed by effortless soul on the heartbreak ballad “(Am I Just A) Shadow,” and sexy R&B vocals on “Can We Do It Again.”

Davis’ mixture of black music genres stands out particularly on “Set Me Free,” a modern funk and blues spiritual featuring the Larry McCray Band. Though it may be easy to view the raunchy aspects of blues as the opposite of gospel, Davis’ plea for the Lord to come down and set her free pairs perfectly with the blues singer’s themes of struggles and the pain of working.

The final song on the album, “Feels Like Religion,” is another gospel song which celebrates Davis finding happiness and confidence in herself. The song even has a call and response section as Davis sings, “I wanna dance! (dance) Shout! (shout) Show you what it’s all about!” The steady beat of the drum set completely shifts after this call and response as the music transforms into foot-stomping, hand-clapping gospel that completely takes the listener to church. This celebratory, thankful song encapsulates what Honest Woman is all about—an album full of joy and gratitude for the black blues women who influenced Davis’ music, her sisters, her God, and herself, the “Queen of Detroit Blues.”

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Southern Avenue – Southern Avenue

Southern Avenue
Title: Southern Avenue

Artist: Southern Avenue

Label: Stax

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: February 24, 2017

 

There’s something about Memphis-based band Southern Avenue that feels undeniably raw and authentic. Their intermingling of soul, blues, and gospel music has been talked about in Memphis for years and is now available for everyone to hear on their debut self-titled album. The band’s impassioned vocals, emotional songwriting, and guitars that rollick between easygoing blues and hard rock provide a lively glimpse into the Southern aesthetics and musical traditions of Memphis.

The first seeds of Southern Avenue were sown when guitarist and Israel-native Ori Naftaly competed in the 2013 International Blues Challenge in Memphis. After briefly touring with his own band, he met singer Tierinii Jackson, who grew up in Memphis singing gospel music in church. The two hit it off, and after gathering other members including Jackson’s sister as their drummer, formed the band Southern Avenue. In less than a year, they were signed to Stax. As a Memphis native, Jackson takes this responsibility seriously, determined to honor and build on the history of the legendary label and the renowned music that the name Stax evokes.

The first track and single on Southern Avenue is the hopeful “Don’t Give Up.” Starting off with acoustic guitar, hand claps, and gentle vocals, Jackson leads a call and response, singing “When it hurts real bad” while a chorus responds “Don’t give up.” Soon, drumset and electric guitar come in, building the energy and urgency. Jackson changes her call throughout the song, also singing “When you feel there’s no hope” and “Don’t give up,” building her melisma through a crescendo until the song culminates with a rocking electric guitar solo and then fades out over organ chords:

The rest of the album is a mix of R&B songs—such as the romantic, pleading “Love Me Right” and sexy “Wildflower”—and the upbeat blues rock of “No Time to Lose” and “Rumble.” The group’s gospel influences can also be heard in the harmonies of “It’s Gonna Be Alright,” a much softer, soothing song that emphasizes the soulful qualities of Jackson’s vocals. “80 Miles from Memphis” draws on both blues and country music traditions, as Jackson sings about being away from home and “crying her blues away.” Naftaly’s guitar is a highlight of this song, showing his immense passion and skills for playing the blues.

Southern Avenue’s mix of cultures and genres reflects and honors the diversity of cultures and music in Memphis. Even the group’s name pays homage to the musical history of the city, as Southern Avenue is a Memphis street that runs from the eastern city limits all the way to the original home of Stax Records in Soulsville. Southern Avenue is an impressive debut, which showcases the impeccable songwriting and musical talent of its member and transforms Southern traditions into a modern sound.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

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

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

Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams

washington-phillips
Title: Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams

Artist: Washington Phillips

Label: Dust-to-Digital

Format: Hardcover book bound with CD

Release date: November 11, 2016

 

Reissue label Dust-to-Digital made a big splash with their inaugural release Goodbye, Babylon in 2003. The wonderfully packaged multidisc box set explored many long forgotten and unreleased songs by gospel artists and sermons from preachers recorded in the early 20th century.

One of the standouts from that collection was the work of one Washington Phillips (1880-1954).  On his two tracks included on Goodbye, Babylon, Phillips’ singing is backed by a mysterious instrument of his own creation called a Manzarene. Those two tracks sparked a renewed interest in Phillips, leading to a search for more recordings.  Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams is a newly remastered and expanded edition of Phillips’ worked pulled from original 78-rpm discs recorded between 1927-1929.

As with many high quality box set releases, an excellent complement to the music itself is the pristine 76 page hardcover book/liner notes included with this collection (the CD is slipped inside the front cover).  The book traces the legend of Washington Phillips from birth to death, debunking oft retold misinformation that may have been circulated in prior collections of his work.  Tapping people that knew the man himself, as well as his own meticulous research, writer Michael Corcoran explores the history of Phillips dating back to his grandfather, born into slavery in 1801, and up to Phillips’ death in 1954.  Along the way Corcoran details stories about Phillips’ home life, career, the creation of the aforementioned manzarene and even a cousin with the same name whose life journey ended much differently than Phillips’ own.  The book also includes photos and reproductions that help bring Phillips’ story to life, contextualizing his musical contributions.  His work has since been covered by artists such as Arizona Dranes, Mavis Staples and Phish. This deep dive into Phillips’ gospel blues has unearthed gems that are sure to make more converts of artists and fans alike.

Reviewed by Levon Williams

Blind Boys of Alabama – Two Classic Albums Reissued

go-tell-it-on-the-mountain
Title: Go Tell It On the Mountain (expanded ed.)

Artist: The Blind Boys of Alabama

Label: Omnivore Recordings

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: November 4, 2016

 

The Blind Boys of Alabama’s Go Tell It on the Mountain is a mix of traditional Christmas songs and hymns that earned the group their third Grammy Award in 2003. Just in time for this holiday season, Omnivore Recordings released an expanded edition of the album that includes a new essay by writer Davin Seay (co-author of memoirs by Al Green and Snoop Dogg) and two bonus tracks: live versions of “Go Tell It On the Mountain” and “Amazing Grace,” which can be seen below:

YouTube Preview Image

The album features a multitude of musical stars including Mavis Staples, Michael Franti, and even George Clinton on an arrangement of “Away in A Manger.” Energy-filled tracks such as “Last Month of the Year” are balanced with tranquil tracks such as their a capella version of “Joy to the World” featuring NOLA R&B singer Aaron Neville. With this star-studded cast and a ton of holiday cheer, Go Tell It On the Mountain is sure to brighten your December.

atom-bomb
Title: Atom Bomb (expanded ed.)

Artist: The Blind Boys of Alabama

Label: Omnivore Recordings

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: November 4, 2016

 

Omnivore has also released an expanded edition of The Blind Boys’ 2005 album Atom Bomb, featuring gospel standards such as “Faith and Grace” along with more contemporary songs like their cover of Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky.”  The expanded edition features instrumental versions of seven songs plus a new essay from Seay.

Any Blind Boys of Alabama fan will enjoy the new insights and commentary offered in Seay’s essays and the additional versions of their classic hits.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Mahalia Jackson – Moving On Up a Little Higher

mahalia-jackson
Title: Moving On Up a Little Higher

Artist: Mahalia Jackson

Label: Shanachie/Spirit Feel

Formats: CD

Release date: September 30, 2016

 

Billed as the “ultimate collection,” this new compilation from Shanachie is indeed a must have for all gospel music enthusiasts. Featuring 22 previously unleased songs recorded between 1946-1957, Moving On Up a Little Higher was produced by well-known gospel historian Anthony Heilbut, who was also responsible for last year’s Marion Williams compilation, Packin’ Up.

A tireless researcher, Heilbut scoured archives across the country to locate the gems included on this disc. Nine of the selections were recorded in 1957 during Mahalia’s first appearance at Newport Jazz Festival, where she was accompanied by both Mildred Falls on piano and Dickie Mitchell on organ.[1] Heilbut notes that Mahalia followed her chief rival, Marion Williams (Clara Ward Singers), who also performed at the festival, perhaps inspiring Mahalia to greater heights. Whether or not there’s any truth to this assumption, the inclusion of other gospel singers at the festival likely helped Mahalia channel the Holy Spirit in this very secular setting. Though she had already recorded some of these songs, her renditions at Newport are often much more intense than her studio recordings for Apollo, and later Columbia.

The disc opens with Mahalia explaining to the Newport audience, “You know, I’m really a church singer – I may have this rock ‘n’ roll, but I’ve got to feel this thing – I got to get it to be a part of me, you know? Hallelujah!” Then she tears into “Keep Your Hand on the Plow,” rocking and shouting to the heavens. This is followed by a swinging version of “Jesus Met the Woman at the Well” and the Mahalia standard “Troubles of the World,” a slow burner starting on a low moan that sends chills up the spine. Next is Roberta Martin’s arrangement of “Didn’t It Rain,” which Jackson “builds to a shouting explosion.” This leads into Thomas A. Dorsey’s “I’m Gonna Live the Life I Sing About In My Song,” and the obvious crowd favorite, “In the Upper Room,” which Jackson recorded for Apollo in 1952. Here she only includes the chorus, but still manages to brings down the house.

The Newport set closes with several more crowd favorites: a shouting rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” the Rev. W. Herbert Brewster’s “Move On Up a Little Higher,” and “His Eye Is On the Sparrow” which includes some impromptu testifying.

The next batch of recordings were sourced from The William Russell Jazz Collection housed at The Historic New Orleans Collection. This fabulous treasure trove of rare material includes two tracks recorded in 1951 during a folk music concert at Chicago’s Wendell Phillips High School. Mahalia sang six songs at this concert, but only two are included here: Alex Bradford’s “Savior More Than Life To Me” (never commercially recorded by Jackson), and “I’m Glad Salvation Is Free.” The latter was one of her biggest hits, and on this performance she ad libs verses not included on her 1950 Apollo recording.

Four months later, Jackson was the featured guest at a symposium held in 1951 at the Music Inn in Lennox, MA. Two more tracks come from this performance: “He’s Pleading in Glory For Me” composed by her good friend Robert Anderson, and “Have a Little Talk With Jesus”—a gospel standard by the noted Baptist preacher/composer Cleavant Derricks, Sr.

Now, for the crème de la crème. In 1955, William Russell also recorded rehearsals in Mahalia’s Chicago home, and I understand these have only recently been digitized and made available to scholars. A haunting, a cappella performance of “Dark Was the Night and Cold the Ground”—the same song first recorded by Blind Willie Johnson in 1927—is included on track 2 (the disc is not sequenced chronologically).  Jackson similarly lines out “Before This Time Another Year” and “When The Roll Will Be Called In Heaven,” as well as “Father I Stretch My Hand to Thee,” which is preceded by her memories of Mount Moriah Baptist Church in her hometown of New Orleans. Even more enticing, there’s Mahalia accompanied by the great Thomas A. Dorsey on “Peace! It’s Wonderful” which segues rather abruptly into “Coming Back Home to Live With Jesus.” Though brief, this remarkable track captures a rare pairing of the “Father” and the “Queen” of gospel music.

The last gem from the William Russell Collection dates from a 1956 CBS Sunday morning television broadcast, featuring Mahalia on “There’s Been a Great Change In Me,” described as an old shout song rearranged by Doris Akers with Jackson singing in a higher range than usual.

The final tracks of the disc are also extremely significant, since they document Mahalia performing gospel music in sacred settings. “Beams of Heaven” was restored from a one-of-a-kind lacquer disc aircheck of a 1946 Bronx, New York church radio broadcast. Even better, the compilation closes with Jackson singing Rev. W. Herbert Brewster’s “Getting Happy In Chicago,” sourced from a 1948 aircheck of a live broadcast from Chicago’s Greater Harvest Missionary Baptist Church. In 1945 the church’s founder, Rev. Louis Boddie, began to broadcast Sunday services over radio station WAAF, which aired coast to coast. Thankfully, a number of these broadcasts from 1948 were recorded on wire reels by Melville Herskovits and later deposited and preserved at the Indiana University Archives of Traditional Music.

Heilbut, who also wrote the liner notes, begins his essay with 8 compelling reasons why Moving On Up a Little Higher should be considered the definitive Mahalia compilation. Needless to say, we can find 22 reasons why any gospel enthusiast will want this CD, since each track is a treasure.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

[1] Jackson’s appearance at Newport the following year was released by Columbia as “Mahalia Jackson Live at Newport 1958.”

Staple Singers – Amen!/Why

staple singers_amen_why

Title:  Amen! / Why

Artist: Staple Singers

Label: Real Gone Music

Format: CD

Release date: May 6, 2016

 

On this new two-for-one reissue, Real Gone Music makes available for the first time on CD the first two Staple Singers studio albums on Columbia’s Epic label, released just after the group left Orrin Keepnews’ Riverside label (which subsequently folded in 1964). Amen! was recorded in Chicago in October 1964 and was released in 1965, while Why, released the following year, was recorded primarily in Nashville.  Though these two albums marked an attempt to greatly expand the audience for the Staple Singers by utilizing the significant muscle of Columbia’s marketing department, they did not resort pop-oriented songs but chose to emphasized the sacred over the secular.  Both albums display the group’s church music roots, featuring Pops Staple’s updated arrangements of traditional religious songs and spirituals such as “Mary Don’t You Weep” and “If I Could Hear My Mother Pray.”

Noteable tracks on Amen! include Pops Staples’ “More Than a Hammer and Nail” (originally released in 1962 on Riverside), featuring the soulful voice of Mavis, and his “Do Something for Yourself” which presages their later hit “Respect Yourself.” Also included are two songs, “As an Eagle Stirreth Her Nest” and “My Jesus Is All,” by Rev. W. H. Brewster—the legendary Memphis-based gospel hitmaker. The album concludes with the title track “Amen” by Jester Hairston, popularized the previous year by the Staples’ fellow Chicagoans, The Impressions. Again, the Staples’ take a more traditional approach, retaining the marching beat of the snare drum and frequent key changes, but slowing the tempo significantly and, of course, dispensing with the somewhat over-the-top horn section.

The follow-up album opens with the title track, Why? (Am I Treated So Bad), a commentary on segregation and the Little Rock Nine which became a standard during the Civil Rights Movement (the Staple Singers later reissued the song using a rhythm section).   Other highlights include Pops’ arrangements of the traditional songs “(I’ve Been ‘Buked) I’ve Been Scorned” and “I’m Gonna Tell God (About My Troubles),” the uptempo “King of Kings,” the Pervis composed and sung “Step Aside,” and the closing song “Move Along Train” featuring Mavis in the lead with Cleotha singing back-up.

These two albums showcase the sound of the Staple Singers before they became ambassadors of the gospel soul era and fill in gaps on the recent 4-CD box set, Faith & Grace: A Family Journey 1953-1976.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss