Love Unlimited Orchestra – 20th Century Singles (1973-1979)

Love Unlimited Orchestra
Title: 20th Century Singles (1973- 1979)

Artist: Love Unlimited Orchestra

Label: Mercury/20th Century

Formats: CD, LP

Release Date: June 15, 2018

 

 

There’s something about luscious string instruments that bring out the best that music has to offer. Know thy history. When the Drifters shifted from Clyde McPhatter to Ben E. King, they ushered in a new sound with string instruments. The Sound of Philadelphia was also string heavy with the help of the Salsoul Orchestra. When Barry White made his debut, some thought, “Who is this Isaac Hayes sound alike?” Ah, not so fast to judge.  Radio jocks used to refer to White as ‘the maestro.’ What’s a maestro? A master in art. A composer, conductor or music teacher.

Barry White was indeed all that and beyond. After he unveiled his female trio, Love Unlimited, he was the brains behind a forty piece orchestra called, what else, the Love Unlimited Orchestra. Besides backing up White and his trio, other famous artists got their breaks from LUO including Kenny G, Lee Ritenour, Wah Wah Watson, and Ray Parker Jr.

Now, 20th Century Records has just released a two disc “best of” compilation from LUO, spanning the years 1973 to 1979.

Disc one opens up with “Love’s Theme.” Why not! It was their biggest hit and put them on the map. Barry White’s fingers are all over just about every single. “Rhapsody in White” starts off like “Love’s Theme” but then fools you—it’s way more upbeat. “Barry’s Theme,” named after guess who, is LUO paying homage to the maestro. White appears vocally on “Baby Blues,” giving us that often imitated delivery.

Disc two gets into disco. “Brazilian Love Song” makes one want to do the hustle. Speaking of Isaac Hayes, LUO also covers the “Theme from Shaft,” but their version is a little more up tempo, and Barry White has no cameo like Hayes on the original.

Love Unlimited Orchestra’s 20th Century Singles (1973 -1979) is for the lover. It’s close your eyes and relax music. However you choose to listen, it’s great to see LUO’s work get more attention.

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

 

Welcome to the July 2018 Summer Rocks issue

July 2018 image 1
Welcome to the July 2018 Summer Rocks issue of Black Grooves. This month we’re looking at the many permutations of Black rock, from the psychedelic riffs on Dug Pinnick’s Tribute To Jimi (Often Imitated But Never Duplicated); to the socially conscious songs of Fantastic Negrito on Please Don’t Be Dead and Bettye Lavette’s Bob Dylan tribute Things Have Changed; to the British blues rock collaboration on Buddy Guy’s The Blues Is Alive and Well; to the multi-faceted fusions of the Stanley Clarke Band’s The Message, Shuggie Otis’s Inter-Fusion, and Serpentwithfeet’s Soil; to the folk rock of AHI’s In Our Time and the countrified soul of  Priscilla Renea’s Coloured; to the black metal of Zeal and Ardor’s Stranger Fruit; and last but not least, the foundational rock and roll on The Ballads of  Fats Domino.

Seminal jazz releases this month include Kamasi Washington’s two-disc Heaven and Earth and Dr. Michael White’s Tricentennial Rag honoring New Orlean’s 300th birthday. Yet another tribute album is Lurrie Bell & the Bell Dynasty’s Tribute to Carey Bell, featuring the four accomplished sons of the legendary Chicago blues harpist.

Also featured is gospel singer Javen’s latest album, Grace; the collaboration connecting Sengalese kora master Diali Cissokho and North Carolina band Kaira Ba on Routes; Lamont Dozier’s Reimagination of tracks previously written for other artists; and the Little Freddie King compilation Fried Rice & Chicken featuring his best tracks from the Orlean’s label. Wrapping up this issue is our list of June 2018 Releases of Note in all genres.

Kamasi Washington – Heaven and Earth

Kamasi
Title: Heaven and Earth

Artist: Kamasi Washington

Label: Young Turks

Release Date: June 22, 2018

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

 

While technically his third release as a leader, Kamasi Washington’s newest record, Heaven and Earth, is the second in an extra-long play format. The double album, like 2015’s The Epic, stretches well over 2 ½ hours across two CDs (the LP version is 4 discs with an additional hidden inside the centerfold, giving listeners a compelling version to purchase this one on vinyl). While Washington certainly has much to say, this album doesn’t feel long-winded. His excellent band keeps things interesting for the entire 2 hours and 24 minutes of Heaven and Earth’s sonic exploration.

Washington is a marvelous player, but his talents of composition and orchestration are what lie at the heart of this album—the music is orchestral, improvisational, and undeniably hip all at once.  It’s no wonder that he and the crew of musicians he regularly works with, including his crack rhythm section of the Bruner brothers (bassist Stephen AKA “Thundercat” and drummer Ronald Jr.), are first-call musicians for sessions and production work.

It is possible to say that Washington has grown as a composer while also acknowledging that his previous full-length was released by a fully-formed artist. While The Epic spanned much musical territory, Heaven and Earth demonstrates skillful use of musical contrast within tracks as well as on a tune-to-tune basis. Washington’s music works on many levels—for instance, the album’s foreshadowing opener, “Fists of Fury,” is about righteous indignation. The track’s vintage orchestral sound would easily be at home in the title sequence of a neo-western or kung fu movie, but also features a blazing doubletime piano solo incorporating very hip jazz harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary.

 

“The Invincible Youth” begins with a roiling Ornette Coleman-esque introduction and then evolves into a synth-jazz odyssey, while “Testify” is a poetic slow jam that would not be out of place on a ‘70s Stevie Wonder album. “Street Fighter Mas” is a funky tune on which Washington really stretches out on his sax; “Journey,” on the other hand, is a sparsely arranged jazz hymn.  “The Space Traveler’s Lullaby” perhaps best captures Washington’s maximalism—it’s a fully fleshed-out orchestral work that stretches to 10 minutes in a swirling collection of textures, colors, and harmonies that might make orchestral and cinematic composers jealous.

Even though Heaven and Earth pushes 3 hours, it’s not dull for a single second. The album’s gargantuan musical scope allows it to earn its title, as Washington takes his listeners through its many twists and turns with an unparalleled sense of taste. Certainly worth the celestial journey,  this epic album that features a great deal of greatly complex music.  Like a good book, Heaven and Earth can’t be digested in one sitting, but it is good enough to explore again and again.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Dr. Michael White – Tricentennial Rag

Dr. Michael White

Title: Tricentennial Rag

Artist: Dr. Michael White

Label: Basin Street

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: June 29, 2018

 

 

This year the city of New Orleans is celebrating its 300th anniversary (1718-2018) and acclaimed clarinetist, Dr. Michael White, set out to commemorate the occasion by paying tribute to the city’s most important original musical contribution. Of course we’re talking about jazz. Birthed from the rhythms of Congo Square and gestated in the French Quarter over 100 years ago, the genre is an indelible part of the African American experience in NOLA and beyond.

New Orleans born and bred, White has been immersed in the city’s music scene for decades and holds numerous distinctions, including Heritage Fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts and recipient of the Jazz Hero Award from the Jazz Journalists Association of America. Not only is he a virtuoso on his instrument, but White is also a composer of note as well as a historian and educator who has long been championing NOLA’s jazz heritage.

On Tricentennial Rag, White offers ten original compositions, many inspired by early jazz musicians and traditional styles, but with a contemporary twist. Paying homage to the street where Jelly Roll Morton spent his childhood, “Frenchmen Street Strut” opens the album. There’s a wonderful interplay on this track between White, Shaye Cohn on cornet, and David L. Harris on trombone, while Detroit A. Brooks’s banjo solo is a further connection to the African roots of jazz. White takes over on “Blues on the Bayou,” a showcase for clarinet that he performs with aplomb, stretching out the blue notes. The mid-tempo title track is a modern take on ragtime, full of interesting modulations and solo turns with hints of R&B-styled melismas. Kicking off with a snare solo signaling the start of Carnival, “On Mardi Gras Day” is song celebrating Mardi Gras Indians and the Zulu parade with vocals by Gregory Stafford (who doubles on trumpet).

“I Saw Jesus Standing in the Water” might seem like a departure—the song connects to themes from the black church but musically doesn’t stray far from traditionl jazz. Other highlights include the clarinet moans of “Loneliness” and the bluesy tribute to “Sassy Creole Woman.” The album closes with the only non-original song—a fantastic rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In” that’s performed in a wholly original manner with the band changing tempos and swapping solos—this time with Seva Venet on banjo. I must also give a shoutout to Steve Pistorius, the pianist for all but one track, who is given ample opportunities to showcase his virtuosity.

Who better to celebrate NOLA as the cradle of jazz than Dr. Michael White, one of the leading authorities of the traditional New Orleans style. He proves this again and again on Tricentennial Rag, keeping the music fresh and tasty with delicious licks and righteous rags that take NOLA’s jazz traditions into the 21st century.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Little Freddie King – Fried Rice & Chicken

Little Freddy King
Title: Fried Rice & Chicken

Artist: Little Freddie King

Label: Orleans

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

Release date: April 6, 2018

 

 

Delta blues guitarist Little Freddie King has been a fixture on the New Orleans scene for decades, performing regularly at the NOLA Jazz and Heritage Festival as well as clubs in “the lowest bowels of the mighty Ninth Ward.” Though not as well-known as the other guitar slinging Freddie King from Texas, “Little Freddie” is still the real deal—a Mississippi-born bluesman who learned to play guitar on his daddy’s knee, claims Lightnin’ Hopkins as a cousin, and once toured Europe with Bo Diddley and John Lee Hooker.

In 1971, Harmonica Williams and Little Freddie King released Rock N Roll Blues on the obscure Ahura Mazda label. As one might guess, this limited pressing didn’t provide King with much exposure beyond his adopted hometown, and it’s difficult to find a copy these days. Over two decades later, the local Orleans Records label released two of King’s first solo projects, Swamp Boogie in 1997 and Sing Sang Sung in 2000.

Fried Rice & Chicken is a compilation featuring the best tracks from King’s two contrasting albums for Orleans. The first half, recorded in the studio from 1994-1995, features backing by Earl “Pass the Hatchet” Stanley and Robert Wilson on electric bass, Jason Sipher on upright bass, Kerry Brown and Bradley Wisham on drums, with Crazy Rick Allen on Wurlitzer electric piano and organ. While not exactly polished, the tracks are at least a half step up from King’s raw club performances. Notable tracks include the opening song “Cleos Back,” which some might recognize from the Tom Hanks movie Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, and “Mean Little Woman” featured in the HBO series Treme. Yes, Little Freddie has been getting some good exposure since these songs were initially released.

The second half of the album was recorded live at the Dream Palace, a club on Frenchman Street in the Faubourg Marigny section of New Orleans. You might say this is the real Little Freddie King, offering up the raw gut bucket blues of Southern juke joints. On these tracks King is accompanied by his regular band at the time: Wacko Wade Wright on drums, Anthony Anderson on electric bass, and Bobby Lewis DiTullio on harmonica. Highlights include the title track “Sing Sang Sung,” a great instrumental showcasing King and DiTullio, and “Bad Chicken” featuring “squawking” guitar licks.

Though there are a number of different Freddie King compilations, Fried Rice & Chicken encapsulates the best of his Orleans Records output.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Darryl Yokley’s Sound Reformation – Pictures at an African Exhibition

yokley

 

Title: Pictures at an African Exhibition

Artist: Darryl Yokley’s Sound Reformation

Label: Truth Revolution Recording Collective

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: April 20, 2018

 

Jazz saxophonist and composer Darryl Yokley pays homage to Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky on his latest project, Pictures at an African Exhibition. While Mussorgsky’s inspiration for “Pictures at an Exhibition” came from artist Viktor Hartmann, Yokley collaborated with London-born artist David Emmanuel Noel on his similarly titled work. Drawing upon themes of the African Diaspora, Noel created original paintings inspired by each of the album’s 13 tracks.

During an interview for Occhi Magazine, Yokley said he drew “inspiration from African art and music, jazz music, classical music, as well as the artwork of David [Noel]” in the composition of “this jazz symphony.” In the same interview, Noel stated, “As an avid jazz fan, my work is produced in a studio, where the music is the backdrop, influencing every stroke of a brush and fusion of colours on each canvas. The paintings are my visual interpretations and dialogue with each track.” Regarding the thematic material he added, “I think it’s particularly important, when we discuss the African Diaspora and exploit mediums we do control to fully understand the continent’s people, its history, influence and the world’s interdependence on a landmass, with over one billion people. The capturing of a continent’s milestones, from the celebration of life and execution of cultural creativity, to human struggle and emancipation of a diaspora, needs to be told in an amalgam of ways. Music and paintings serve each other well in exploring how we react emotionally to the album’s theme.”

Yokely has been performing music from Pictures at an African Exhibition for the past four years with his band, Sound Reformation, featuring pianist Zaccai Curtis, bassist Luques Curtis, and drummer Wayne Smith Jr. The programmatic suite opens with the brief prelude, “First Sunrise,” marking the “dawn of humankind” in Africa. Following is “Migration,” an exploration of populations moving within and beyond the mother country. Yokely’s opening theme on this track is played in C, which he calls “the key of the earth.” This harmonious and carefree intro, enhanced with classical-style piano riffs, becomes increasingly agitated as the track progresses, with an ebb and flow signaling shifting populations that never return to their point of origin. “Ubuntu” and “Stories of the Village Elder” paint a rich sound collage while exploring African themes and rhythms, accentuated by Curtis’s kalimba-styled piano ostinato.

The music takes a darker turn on “Ominous Nightfall,” as drums signal the approach of those seeking human chattel. Seguing into “Hunting Natives,” the band’s tight harmonies, sharply articulated attacks, and excellent solo turns combine into a masterful performance. “Birth of Swing” is another highlight—a wonderful slow and bluesy dirge drawing heavily upon New Orleans’ jazz traditions, with guest Nasheet Waits on drums. While this track celebrates the contributions of African American musicians, the painful beginnings are also expressed through the clanking of chains added to Smith’s percussion arsenal.

Going forward, Yokely’s thoughts return to the motherland on tracks such as “Echoes of Ancient Sahara” sprinkled with Arabic motifs, the mournful then harrowing “Genocide March” which reenacts the Rwandan and Sierra Leone genocides, and “Cry, the Beloved Country” which moves from voices oppressed to freely articulated melodies resplendent in Yokely’s sax solos.

Closing with “New Sunrise,” the album takes an optimistic turn built around major chords to express Yokely’s “fantasy” of an end to “warfare, racism, classicism, sexism, and all other dividing ideologies and practices.”

Blending music with art while building on the overall theme of unity, Pictures at an African Exhibition realizes Yokely’s overall goal of “creating a work that shows how we as a human family have more in common than our differences would lead us to believe.”

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Orcastratum – Debut Album

EAN Bokmall [Konvert]

 

Title: Orcastratum

Artist: Orcastratum

Label: Compunctio

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: May 18, 2018

 

When you have a band name that combines Orca, “the sophisticated, mysterious, intelligent killer whale,” with Stratum, a way of categorizing or layering members of a group—one would expect a certain level of sonic diversity. This is certainly the case with Orcastratum’s eponymous debut album, recorded live at Dean St. Studios in Soho, London. Blending jazz, blues, classical, African, and “UK left field” musical traditions, the London-based group aims to transcend the predictive qualities of mainstream music. Led by producer and songwriter Glen Scott on keyboards, other members of the group include Ralph Salmins on percussion, Neville Malcolm on acoustic bass, and Eric Appapoulay on electric and acoustic guitars.

The album opens with “Spirit of the Skog.” After a brief intro hinting perhaps at fog shrouded forests, the track switches to an up tempo jazz tune featuring master Senegalese musician Solo Cissokho, who artfully intertwines kora melodies and vocals. “Unexpected Relations” is true to it’s word, contrasting classical idioms on the piano against a driving percussion rhythm and ethereal vocal overdubs. Swedish vocalist BERG is the featured guest on “Hallelujah Ironically,” along with Binker Golding, who adds to the contrasting sections with an extended sax solo. Despite its title, “Wizdoom” is an upbeat, piano-centric contemporary jazz tune with lush flourishes and perhaps only a hint of foreboding.

For many, the highlight of the album will be “No Need,” featuring guitarist Eric Bibb and gospel singer Shaneeka Simon. On the intro, Bibb’s lightly plucked guitar ostinato seems to mimic the kora from the opening track. As the song builds, Bibb joins Simon on vocals and the tone becomes dark and urgent, the accompaniment more ominous. Singing “no need for the fussing and fighting my friend,” the musicians bring the song to a powerful climax.

Though only five tracks, Orcastratum is an impactful debut that only hints at the group’s complexities, but certainly fulfills Scott’s “age old quest to inspire myself and others without borders.”

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Miles Davis & John Coltrane – The Final Tour (Bootleg Series, Vol. 6)

Davis & Coltrane
Title: The Final Tour (Bootleg Series, Vol. 6)

Artist: Miles Davis & John Coltrane

Label: Sony Legacy

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: March 23, 2018

 

Other reviewers have covered in great deal various levels of speculation about how much John Coltrane did not want to be touring Europe with Miles Davis in the spring of 1960, so this review will mostly stick to the music at hand.

No matter how much or how little Coltrane wanted to be playing that music with that band in those places, he showed up and PLAYED. And played, and played; blowing wild honking runs, “sheets of sound” as his style of the time was described, for many minutes at a time. In 1960, this was something new, and the audience in Paris on March 21st of that year was not entirely amused. The Paris concert covers the first and most of the second CDs in this 4-CD set, The Final Tour. Whistles and jeers can be heard from the audience during some of Coltrane’s playing, whereas the more traditional piano solos from Wynton Kelly garner warm applause.

Aside from both shows played at the Olympia in Paris, The Final Tour includes a short set from the Tivolis Koncertsal in Copenhagen, Denmark from March 24 and the two March 22 shows at the Konserhuset in Stockholm, Sweden. At the Scandinavian shows, Coltrane is a bit more concise but no less fierce.

The main dynamic on this tour, as described in Ashley Kahn’s liner notes, was a divergence of musical style which inevitably broke up the band Davis had put together to record the classic Kind of Blue album. Alto sax man Cannonball Adderley was already out on his own, about to be become very popular as he moved toward soul-jazz with his group. Coltrane had just recorded Giant Steps, which would go on to become a classic, but at the time was new, different and not fully accepted by jazz fans. According to various accounts, Davis was booked on an all-star tour of Europe arranged by impresario Norman Granz, and convinced Coltrane to come along for one last tour. Coltrane, who may have been suffering from dental problems and wanted to focus on his own music, reluctantly agreed to play one more round of concerts with the man who had plucked him from a B-list career and brought him into the spotlight (including connecting Coltrane with Davis’s lawyer and manager, who were subsequently able to get Coltrane signed to a deal with high-profile Atlantic Records after his contract with tiny Prestige ran out).

But Coltrane wasn’t interested in playing the same old tunes the same old way. He was exploring new ideas and new sounds, and was working out how to produce as notes on his saxophone what he was hearing in his head. He explains this to Swedish radio interviewer Carl-Erik Lindgren in the last cut on Disc 4 (a fine addition by Sony Legacy, which puts Coltrane’s mood and playing on this tour in contemporary first-person perspective).

The end result is a bit of a conundrum for a reviewer. This is four discs of live performances aimed more inward among the players than outward toward an audience. Hardcore Coltrane and Davis fans are going to eat it up, but it may be too much navel-gazing for other jazz fans. The rhythm section of Kelly, Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums more than hold their own and hold it together, even during Coltrane’s most intense note-eruptions. When given some space to solo, the rhythm section members are uniformly fantastic. But the fact remains, there are minutes upon minutes of Coltrane work-shopping various sounds and note combinations, with Davis off-stage and not involved. This may be as tiresome to a modern-day jazz fan as it was to at least some audience members in Paris.

As for Davis’s playing, at times (especially in Stockholm) he is several degrees too laid back and cool. He’s seemingly unwilling sometimes to blow hard enough to produce viable and in-tune trumpet notes.

If you’re a fan of Kind of Blue, try on for size the following version of “So What.” If this way of playing the song suits you, then you’ll like the rest of the album. If it’s too fast, too drawn out and not cleanly enough played, it’s typical of these concerts and this particular group of performances won’t be to your liking.

YouTube Preview Image

 

Criticism circa 2018, or 1960, be damned. It didn’t matter in the long run. The tour made Davis an international star and he toured Europe as a headliner after that. As for Coltrane, he went on to much bigger things too. The kind of “un-pretty” note-heavy percussive solos he was sending out into the European nights on that tour became the foundation of a new style—free-jazz—and Coltrane continued to innovate and follow his unique muse where it led him until his premature death.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

 

Idris Ackamoor & the Pyramids – An Angel Fell

Idris

 

Title: An Angel Fell

Artist: Idris Ackamoor & The Pyramids

Label: Strut

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

Release date: May 11, 2018

 

Idris Ackamoor and his jazz ensemble The Pyramids began performing together in the 1970s when they were students at Antioch College under the mentorship of renowned pianist Cecil Taylor. After releasing several widely acclaimed “space-age” or “spiritual” jazz albums, the group disbanded in 1977.  When a new generation of music lovers discovered The Pyramids recordings and began clamoring for more, Ackamoor decided to reconstitute the group in 2012. An Angel Fell is the third release from this new ensemble, led by Ackamoor on alto, tenor sax and keytar, with Sandra Poindexter on violin and sharing lead vocals with Ackamoor. Other group members (at least on this album) include David Molina on guitar, Skyler Stover on double bass, Bradie Speller on congas, and Johann Polzer on drums.

Explaining the choice of album title and overall theme, Ackamoor said “I wanted to use folklore, fantasy and drama as a warning bell. The songs explore global themes that are important to me and to us all: the rise of catastrophic climate change and our lack of concern for our planet, loss of innocence and separation… but positive themes too, the healing power of music, collective action and the simple beauty of nature.”

The album opens with “Tinoge,” which seems to be a reinterpretation of The Pyramids’ previously released single, “Tinoge Ya Ta’a Ba,” the latter recorded in Ghana with Kologo artist Guy One. “Tinoge” is a compelling track that features the same driving rhythm and percussion, with guitars replacing kologo and an extended free jazz sax solo replacing the vocals. Next up, the title track “An Angel Fell” capitalizes on the “cosmic jazz” theme, with distorted vocals punctuated by spacey, electronic riffs. The Sun Ra tribute, “The Land of Ra,” follows in a similar vein, as distorted call and response vocals segue into a steady Afrobeat groove over which Ackamoor seductively blows his horn. Suddenly, their celestial universe is disrupted by what might be described as a magnetic storm (i.e., all hell breaks loose), but as the piece progresses and harmonies resolve, equilibrium returns.

Two message songs are included on the album. The first and most emotional is “Soliloquy For Michael Brown.” Ackamoor’s sax literally screams in anguish over an underlying conga rhythm. As anguish turn to grief, the bass riffs on a melody reminiscent of the spiritual “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jerico,” then intertwines with violin and guitar as the track draws to a close—but there’s no closure.  “Message to My People” is a warning about climate change and global warming, with Ackamoor sounding the alarm on the alto sax and the group responding as if their life is imperiled. “All I wanted was a chance, to live my life like anyone” chants the chorus, but the raucous conclusion leaves little doubt the world has come to an end.

Concluding with the uplifting song “Sunset,” the Pyramids provide a glimmer of hope and “a prayer to save our world.” The struggle is still very much present, with Ackamoor’s sax sounding another warning as the chorus sings, “The sunset is on the way.” End of the world or just the close of another evening, you decide.

An Angel Fell is a brilliant and intense album, with wild bursts of sound. The socially conscious project takes the concept of spiritual jazz to the next level, but in a manner that is still very approachable.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

 

Don Braden – Earth Wind and Wonder

Braden 6PAN1T-C

Title: Earth Wind and Wonder

Artist: Don Braden

Label: Creative Perspective Music

Formats: CD

Release date: May 4, 2018

 

Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky in the 1970s, world-renowned straight ahead jazz saxophonist Don Braden fell in love with the music of Earth, Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder. According to Braden, “This is the music that first imprinted my teenage brain…and captured my heart.” Now, although this album pays tribute to these great artists and their musical legacy, Earth Wind and Wonder also demonstrates Braden’s versatility and his creativity as a performer and arranger, while re-introducing his audience to the positive messages of strength, love and joy within the music of EWF and Stevie.

This collection of songs includes notable hits such as “Fantasy,” “Higher Ground,” “Can’t Hide Love,” “Getaway” and “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing,” among others. Also featured are two original compositions by Braden—“The Elements” and “The Wonder of You”—that complement the overarching EWF and Wonder theme of the album. Braden recorded the album over a period of four years (summer 2014, fall 2017, and early spring 2018) with instrumentalists such as Brandon McCune (piano), Joris Teepe (bass), Cecil Brooks III (drums), Art Hirahara (piano), Kenny Davis (bass), Jeremy Warren (drums), and Kahlil Kwame Bell (percussion).

Opening with a medium-up swing rendition of “Fantasy,” Braden uses EWF’s original harmony in his introduction, but soon transitions into his own interpretation filled with re-harmonization and rhythmic figures. We are later treated to “The Wonder of You,” where Braden channels the compositional spirit of Stevie Wonder’s music into a smooth and light bossa-funk groove coupled with jazz harmony and a memorable melody.

Performing new arrangements of Earth, Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder’s notable hits is certainly not an easy task. However, Braden accomplishes this mission with his superb renditions, while staying true to the essence of their artistry. Earth Wind and Wonder is truly an artistic expression that will capture the hearts and minds of its listeners.

Reviewed by Jamaal Baptiste

 

 

Reggie Quinerly – Words to Love

Reggie Quinerly

Title: Words To Love

Artist: Reggie Quinerly

Label: Redefinition Music

Formats: CD, Digital

Release Date: April 20, 2018

 

 

Raised in Houston, Texas, drummer Reggie Quinerly attended Houston’s High School of the Performing and Visual Art. He’s just one of the many successful musicians who graduated from this school, including renowned jazz artists like Eric Harland, Chris Dave, and Robert Glasper. Quinerly continues to grow and evolve as an artist, as demonstrated by his 2012 debut album, Music Inspired by Freedmantown, and his second release, Invictus, in 2015. On both albums, Quinerly featured vocalists on at least one or two tracks, which is somewhat common for jazz instrumentalists.

For his third album, Words To Love, Quinerly composed music and lyrics for each track, creating an album entirely of songs. Enlisting up and coming male and female jazz vocalists to help him get his message across, Quinerly showcases the talents of Chicago-born Milton Suggs and Brooklyn’s own Melanie Charles. The two vocalists trade off song for song, telling a story of the many facets of love. They are backed by a renowned rhythm section including Orrin Evans on piano, Ben Wolfe on bass, and of course, Quinerly on drums. Also, four tracks on the album feature the well-known alto saxophone player, Jaleel Shaw.

It’s clear when you listen to Quinerly that he’s a straight ahead jazzer. The album includes a very nice mixture of modern jazz song forms and melodies with an obvious nod to older styles like hard bop, which can be found in Quinerly’s harmonic choices as well as the rhythmic feels he chooses to employ. Also, Quinerly’s education and influence from great jazz drummers, like Max Roach and Tony Williams, can be clearly heard. This is especially apparent in certain songs on the album like “Love’s Ferris Wheel,” sung by Charles, which is meant to be a nod to songwriters like Cole Porter or Rogers & Hart, even including a rubato verse prior to the 32-bar chorus. Quinerly lays down a great drum solo on this tune, but for an album lead by a drummer it would’ve been nice to include more opportunities for him to show off. Also, at times Words to Love can feel a little stagnant, since almost every tune is either slow to mid-tempo. A couple of faster tunes or just another high energy drum solo could’ve helped to give the album some shape.

Quinerly was inspired to create Words to Love because of his increased interest in jazz singers, specifically Lou Rawls. After hearing Rawls’ 1966 recording of “A Shadow of Your Smile,” he became enamored with jazz vocals, adding singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Betty Carter to his playlist.

Quinerly also wanted to explore love and all of its varieties and chose to open the album with his tune “Until I Met You,” pertaining to the search for love and falling in love. Shortly after is “Still Frames,” which speaks about the love of memories and times past. Then, of course, there is the gorgeous title track, “Words to Love,” which is easily the most moving song on the album. Charles’ light yet present vocals float over the combo, leading into a wonderful alto saxophone solo by Jaleel Shaw, before they come together, intertwine and share the space of the song as they enter into the final verse.

Words to Love has a very classic hard bop feel created by Quinerly’s straight ahead approach to composition. Though perhaps not as adventurous as his previous albums, Words To Love is an amazing album that keeps the traditions of jazz alive.

Reviewed by Jared Griffin

 

Lakecia Benjamin – Rise Up

Lakecia Benjamin
Title: Rise Up

Artist: Lakecia Benjamin

Label: Ropeadope
Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: March 23, 2018

 

 

Growing up in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood, Lakecia Benjamin moved away from home at the young age of 14 to attend La Guardia High School of Music & Art, where she got her start playing jazz. Since then, Benjamin has become one of the most sought after saxophonists in the music industry, playing with jazz giants like Clark Terry and Reggie Workman as well as arranging and leading the horn sections of superstars like Macy Gray, Alicia Keys, and even Stevie Wonder. Now, as she releases her third album, Rise Up featuring  her group Soul Squad, Benjamin reminds us once again of her prowess as a songwriter and band leader.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tSiDutcUlhs&feature=youtu.be

Benjamin uses this album to send a message about moving through life’s many challenges, opening with the funky title track “March On,” which begins with a quote from Les Brown: “You can either live your dreams or live your fears.” This song features a fun and motivational rap from Benjamin as well as a powerful vocal from jazz singer China Moses. “March On” speaks towards the idea of moving through the obstacles life puts in your way, with the lyric: “We March On to find victory / We March On to find the peace we seek / We March On to reclaim our being / We March On! We March On! We March On!”

“Take Back” is another truly spectacular track. Though entirely instrumental, this jazz fusion tune is meant to convey a story of taking back control over your life and reclaiming your destiny. With its driving rock groove and catchy and rhythmic horn riff you can’t help but move with the music.

Rise Up includes other phenomenal new original songs from Benjamin, including “Cornbread,” “Survivor” and “On The One.” It’s such a fun album that it’s sure to appeal to a wide range of jazz and soul fans alike.

Reviewed by Jared Griffin

The John L. Nelson Project – Don’t Play With Love

nelson

Title: Don’t Play With Love

Artist: The John L. Nelson Project

Label: Make It Music/Ropeadope

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: March 2, 2018

 

 

John L. Nelson, best known as the father of Prince, was a formidable jazz musician and prolific composer in his own right.  While he frequently collaborated with his famous son, Nelson’s own compositions were usually set aside. When he died in 2001 at the age of 85, Nelson’s eldest daughter Sharon discovered the trove of music and began to formulate plans for a tribute album. Now, in commemoration of her father’s 100th birthday, her project has finally come to fruition with Don’t Play With Love. As Sharon L. Nelson explains:

“Our dad was a loving, caring, hardworking father and a prolific jazz musician most notably known as the father of the musical genius, our brother Prince. Our dad wrote and composed many songs, but they were never recorded until now. He was Prince’s musical inspiration, and this project is very special because it was recorded in Paisley Park and guided by the spirits of my father and brother Prince.”

To perform her father’s works, Sharon turned to notable jazz drummer Louis Hayes, who just happens to be John Nelson’s nephew.  Hayes brought together an all-star group for the recording session, a.k.a. The John L. Nelson Project: Richard Germanson (piano), Dezron Douglas (bass), Vincent Herring (sax), Jeremy Pelt (trumpet), and Hayes on drums. The group laid down all seven tracks at Paisley Park studio, the first sessions to take place there since the death of Prince.

Featured on the album are seven compositions written by Nelson primarily in the 1970s, all showcasing his penchant for beautiful melodies. Opening with the uptempo “Lucky Am I,” the band immediately displays a high level of energy and synergy, as though they’ve been playing this chart for years. Herring takes over the melody on the sensuous title track, “Don’t Play With Love,” his sax accompanied by string quartet.  A throwback to an earlier era, the song fits perfectly with the music video for the single which uses a scene from Prince’s film Under the Cherry Moon.

Another highlight is “Lonely,” a slow ballad featuring Germanson, who employs subtle shading on the piano, teasing out the upper register melody over a sparse accompaniment by Douglas on bass.  The album closes on a funkier note with “Step Back,” featuring an exceptional performance with band members tossing solos back and forth before culminating on a final blast of the trumpet.

Don’t Play With Love is not just a labor of love—it’s actually a terrific album showcasing John Nelson’s talent at composing intricate and compelling works, all of which are brilliantly performed by the ensemble. This project will appeal to jazz aficionados as well as any Prince fan interested in knowing more about the icon’s musical background. If you’ve ever wondered what spilled out of the cabinet full of sheet music in the scene from Purple Rain, this album is for you!

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Wynton Marsalis Septet – United We Swing: Best of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Galas

swing

Title: United We Swing: Best of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Galas

Artist: Wynton Marsalis Septet

Label: Blue Engine Records

Formats: CD, Vinyl, Digital

Release date: March 23, 2018

 

 

As the title suggests, United We Swing: Best of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Galas is a compilation album of collaborations between Wynton Marsalis and major artists such as Ray Charles, Blind Boys of Alabama, Willie Nelson, John Legend, Lenny Kravitz, Natalie Merchant, Carrie Smith, and many others. Recorded between 2003 and 2007, these performances brought together artists from various genres with the sole purpose of presenting and promoting unity through music (swing). According to Marsalis, “On this record and in these recordings, we came together to affirm common roots, to celebrate diversity of our creativity, and to pass the reality of our best achievements on to our kids.” Renditions of songs such as “The Last Time,” “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town,” “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free,” among others, display not only the diverse musical genres, but also the diverse backgrounds of each performer.

United We Swing: Best of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Galas encapsulates the message of solidarity while presenting a positive image for future generations. I strongly recommend this album to anyone interested in promoting music as a unifying symbol in society.

Reviewed by Jamaal Baptiste

Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock & Jack DeJohnette – After The Fall

fall

Title: After The Fall

Artist: Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock, Jack DeJohnette

Label: ECM

Formats: 2-CD, Digital

Release date: March 2, 2018

 

 

ECM’s new release, After The Fall, features a live performance from a 1998 concert by world renowned jazz pianist, Keith Jarrett—his first time on stage following a two year hiatus. Recorded at a concert hall in Newark, New Jersey, Jarrett is accompanied by fellow members of the Standards Trio: double-bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette. This album captures their musical interactions and overall chemistry of the Standards Trio.

As listeners, we are treated to renditions of well-known bebop standards such as “Scrapple From The Apple” and “Bouncin’ With Bud,” as well as selections from the American Songbook including “The Masquerade Is Over” and “I’ll See You Again,” among others. The trio paces themselves during this performance, but there is still a simmering intensity and synergy that is heard throughout the entire album. From Jarrett’s lush harmonies and virtuosic melodic lines to DeJohnette’s light touch and rhythmic devices, coupled with Peacock’s supportive bass lines and warm tone, the expressive sound of the trio is on full display.

A notable mention is the trio’s performance of John Coltrane’s “Moments Notice.” On this tune, Jarrett stretches out, demonstrating his pianistic capabilities and command of the jazz vocabulary, and is followed by a high-energy and syncopated drum solo by DeJohnette. Another highlight is Jarrett’s lyrical interpretation of the melody to Victor Young and Edward Heyman’s composition, “When I Fall In Love,” while being supported by the sensitive accompaniment of Peacock and DeJohnette.

After The Fall, although referred to as an “experiment” by Jarrett, is in this reviewer’s opinion a demonstration of the effortless mastery, maturity, and professionalism of seasoned musicians who are not only pillars of jazz today, but also bearers of the jazz tradition.

Reviewed by Jamaal Baptiste

The Reverend Shawn Amos Breaks It Down

Rev Shawn Amos
Title: The Reverend Shawn Amos Breaks It Down

Artist: The Reverend Shawn Amos

Label: Put Together

Format: CD, Digital

Release date: February 16, 2018

 

 

The Reverend Shawn Amos is back at it again, preaching his brand of blues on his latest, The Reverend Shawn Amos Breaks It Down. His sophomore album, The Reverend Shawn Amos Loves You, showed us that the Rev had our best interests at heart, and this trend of his continues on his latest offering. Son of Wally Amos, the first African American talent agent for William Morris in addition to being the creator of Famous Amos Chocolate Chip Cookies, Reverend Shawn Amos has been an ordained minister with the Universal Life Church, an A&R Executive at Rhino Entertainment and vice president of A&R at Shout! Factory.  He discovered blues while attending NYU film school, spending his summers tracing down the southern places in Peter Guralnick’s Feel Like Going Home trilogy from which Amos drew his initial blues inspiration.

The nine-song set includes five original songs, two inspired covers, and a three track “Freedom Suite” that rolls out like a Sunday Passion play. Amos was obviously inspired by the tremendous turmoil and social unrest around the world today in his songwriting, yet digging deeper into the lyrics reveals clues of admitted recent hardships in his home life. The result is an album that strikes a delicate balance between capturing personal challenges while capitalizing on the zeitgeist of this critical time in history.

 

The album opens with the early morning confessional “Moved,” followed by the first of his new freedom songs, “2017.”  This classic soul groove in the style of Curtis Mayfield and the Staple Singers was recorded at Royal Studios in Memphis. Amos is joined by Al Green’s backing band, the HI Rhythm Section, along with a string arrangement from Chris Anderson and vocals from the Masqueraders. The cornerstone lyric is a simple mandate: “hate and fear ain’t no vaccine, we’ve got to think about what our children’s eyes have seen in the year 2017.” The next song, “Hold Hands” is an Amos-led congregational plea for peace that features Hammond B3 from Peter Adams.

The Freedom Suite officially begins with track 5, which is an a cappella reading of Uncle Tom’s prayer. This pays homage to the Freedom Singers founder Cordell Hull Reagon, who first recorded the powerful civil rights song in the early 1960s. Amos then offers another side of his pulpit in “Does My Life Matter,” an expansion on Booker T. Washington’s words and intent. The fiery funk of “(We’ve Got To) Come Together” functions as an energetic admonishment, and the closing track, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding,” serves as a final alter call for the album and its audience.

The Reverend Shawn Amos Breaks It Down, as an album of timely songs, not only furthers Amos’ mission statement, but also stands as a landmark artistic achievement for his career as a bluesman of purpose.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

 

Reggie Young – Young Street

Young
Title: Young Street

Artist: Reggie Young

Label: RGY

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: July 11, 2017

 

 

I must come clean—next to trumpet, the bass is my second favorite instrument. So I also must admit, I was unfamiliar with Reggie Young. When I think of bass players, I think of Jaco Pastorious, Stanley Clarke, Louis Johnson, Larry Graham, Victor Wooten, Will Lee, Sir Paul McCartney. Reggie Young, where have you been hiding, my man?

Hailing from New York, Young is a Grammy Award winning session bassist who has performed with the likes of Lenny Kravitz, Alicia Keys, Paul Shaffer, Stevie Wonder, Will.I.Am, and Reuben Studdard. His latest project, Young Street, is funk with a touch of jazz, rock, soul and even Bazilian bossa nova.

Young Street opens with the title cut featuring Young on bass, Garnett Walters on the B3, and Bill Hollerman on horns. I’m certain this track made the cut on urban jazz radio. I personally enjoy when an artist can step out of their comfort zone and throw a curve ball at you. The track “Naima” is just that—a composition by John Coltrane that would intimidate some. Not Reggie Young. He goes in on it, not to one up the great Trane, but more to show that he’s not a one trick pony. Speaking of which, you can find Young singing over his bass riffs on the funky “Alright With Me” and the lush strings on “Magic.”

Reggie Young has accomplished great deal even if he’s not a household name. No more hiding Reggie, I know where to find you now.

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

Mud Morganfield – They Call Me Mud

Mud Morgenfield
Title: They Call Me Mud

Artist: Mud Morganfield

Label: Severn Records

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: March 9, 2018

 

 

They Call Me Mud, the newest release from Mud Morganfield, is one of those albums on which a musician seems to truly come into his own. While the legacy of his father, Muddy Waters, shouldn’t—and very possibly can’t—be extracted from Morganfield’s blues MO, this album showcases his own unique style. Morganfield, after all, came of age in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when music had already evolved from his father’s era of jazz and blues into a world where R&B, soul and Motown ruled. Combine his bass experience with Chicago bands of those eras to his already existing blues foundation and you have Morganfield’s own style at work.

A well-established case of Chicago area musicians add some downhome blues touches to Morganfield’s recording, including Billy Flynn on guitar, Studebaker John on harmonica and backing vocals, Sumito Ariyo Ariyoshi on piano, E.G. McDaniel on bass and Melvin “Pookie Stix” Carlisle on drums. Special guests include Billy Branch on harmonica, Mike Wheeler on guitar and Mud’s daughter Lashunda Williams as a vocalist. There’s a horn section featured on several tunes, and Mud himself plays bass on three tracks.

 

The signature song, “They Call Me Mud,” is one of those songs that really allow the musicians to show what they love to do best, and in Morganfield’s case, that is his vocalized growl which commands immediate attention throughout. “Who’s Fooling Who?” features Studebacker John on harp and Mike Wheeler on guitar going toe-to-toe. Morganfield also pays tribute to his father on the slide guitar blues “Howlin’ Wolf” and the shuffle “Can’t Get No Grindin’,” where all artists take a solo turn at the wheel. Morganfield and his daughter Lashunda provide a moving duet on “Who Loves You,” a song where Morganfield’s R&B inspiration grooves right in. The final selection, “Mud’s Groove,” is a jazzy instrumental enhanced by Bill Branch’s talents on harp, and is a perfect finale.

“I think it’s some of the best work I’ve ever done yet” proclaims Morganfield. “I feel that with the variety of material I have on here, people will get a chance to hear the other sides of my music.” The collection completely lives up to Morganfield’s claim. Regardless of whether you are an R&B, jazz, soul or blues fan, They Call Me Mud has something special and unforgettable for everyone.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Nina Simone – The Colpix Singles

nina

 

Title: The Colpix Singles

Artist: Nina Simone

Label: Rhino (U.S.)/Stateside (UK)

Formats: 2-CD set, LP (1 disc, 14 tracks), digital

Release date: February 23, 2018

 

In continuation of our focus on one of the industry’s greatest blues/jazz singers, Nina Simone’s The Colpix Singles showcases her pre-civil rights activist era releases. Simone’s professional career began in 1958 at a mere age of 25 with Bethlehem Records, but after the initial success of her hit “Porgy ( I Loves You Porgy), she moved on Columbia Picture’s recording company, Colpix Records. Simone’s forthcoming induction into the 2018 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has now spurred Warner Music into releasing a collection of the 7” singles Simone cut for Colpix. Remastered in mono, seven of the tracks are available in their original edits for the first time since the 1960s.

In this 27 track, two-disc offering, one can easily hear how her previous musical experiences fostered both her voice and performance maturity, as the songs recorded with Colpix reflect smoother, more controlled renditions of a diversified pool of well-known ballads. The first single from Disc 1, “Chilly Winds Don’t Blow,” was written by Hecky Krasnow, who was best known for Columbia’s novelty scores of “Frosty the Snowman” and Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer.”

Live recordings made at The Town Hall in Midtown Manhattan in September, 1959 include “The Other Woman” and “It Might as Well be Spring,” which originally appeared on her Colpix debut album, The Amazing Nina Simone.  The Archives of African American Music and Culture provided Warner Music with a rare copy of Simone’s “If Only For Tonight” and “Under The Lowest” (Colpix 156) for inclusion on this disc. Simone also showcases her blues prowess on the release “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” and the B-side “Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair,” which would become one of her signature songs.

Disc 2 includes a hauntingly whimsical rendition of “Cotton Eyed Joe,” complete with Simone’s piano stylings running in the background. Soon after, she croons of lost respectability and newfound reliance on “You Can have Him.” From the opening strains, Simone’s powerful alto flows from the speakers, meandering its way into the ears and hearts of its listeners via its audial and lyrical flows.

Two more offerings, “Work Song” and “I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl,” echo Simone’s early years in Atlantic City bars, pounding the ivories and belting out fast tempo blues. Her original tune, “Blackbird,” closes out the collection, showing her growing artistic maturity while revealing a glimpse of her future in social justice.

Simone would eventually compose and perform two of the most influential anthems of the Civil Rights Era, “Mississippi Goddam” and “Young, Gifted and Black.” That Simone participated in the Civil Rights Movement is an understatement. Nina Simone, from her formative years in Atlanta’s music scene to her eventual position as an outspoken social activist for Black rights, is one of the most influential activists and gifted artists of all time. Many thanks to The Colpix Singles compilers Nigel Reeve and Dean Rudland, and assistant Florence Joelle Halfon, for releasing this wonderfully remastered set. Simone’s listening audience will certainly reap the benefits.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Lilli Lewis – The Henderson Sessions

Lilli

Title: The Henderson Sessions

Artist: Lilli Lewis

Label: Elysium House Music/Louisiana Red Hot

Formats: CD, Digital

Release Date: February 16, 2018

 

 

Award-winning jazz rock singer Lilli Lewis has released her debut solo album, The Henderson Sessions. Currently residing in New Orleans, Lewis is a singer-songwriter who has been playing the piano since the age of three, and is currently the lead vocalist for Kirk Joseph’s Backyard Groove (Joseph is a founding member of the renown Dirty Dozen Brass Band). Lewis’s new project includes nine acoustic songs featuring her soulful vocals against the backdrop of a stripped piano accompaniment, allowing her natural talent to shine.

In addition to highlighting Lewis’s powerful voice, the tracks on The Henderson Sessions also make statements on social justice issues and human rights. The album’s single, “Our Short Walk Through This Life,” reminds listeners to be kind and gracious to one another. On “Turn It Around,” Lewis speaks to personal responsibility, self-exploration, and seeking internal peace in the midst of today’s chaotic world. Other songs relevant to today’s political and social climate include the earnest “Why We Build the Wall” and “Save the Country.”

After a successful career performing as a soloist in New Orleans and with her acoustic soul orchestra, The Lilli Lewis Project, Lewis’s solo debut is filled with emotionally-charged tracks. The Henderson Sessions is a wonderful introduction to her raw vocal talent while simultaneously making hard-hitting social and political statements.

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

Ella Fitzgerald – Ella at Zardi’s

Ella Fitzgerald

Title: Ella at Zardi’s

Artist: Ella Fitzgerald

Label: Verve Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: December 1, 2017

 

 

There are many CDs available by Ella Fitzgerald, so why is this one special? If you are reading this, you already know of her many of the treasured recordings—with Louis Armstrong, with Chick Webb, throughout the definitive Songbooks, and her many other live concert performances. But this recording from February 2, 1956 marks a major turning point in her career, one where impresario Norman Granz arranged the transfer of her recording contract from Decca Records to his personal management and to his label Verve Records. The setting for this particular CD is Zardi’s Jazzland, a club in Los Angeles, where Ella is backed by Don Abney (piano), Vernon Alley (bass), and Frankie Capp (drums).

Granz had included Ella in his Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts beginning in 1949 as each program’s only vocalist. During those years he had time to form his ideas for extending her career vastly beyond the “workmanlike” support she received from Decca. Granz recorded this night during the final days of this engagement. Yet, he never released it, perhaps due to its casual informality, preferring to create a more dramatic launch to her career at Verve. Accordingly, he had booked a trip to the studio just four days later to begin recording The Cole Porter Songbook, the start of her songbook series that celebrated so many wonderful composers and provided a large part of the foundation for the documentation of the Great American Songbook.

But it is this very informality that makes Ella at Zardi’s so engaging. Apparently, attendance at the club during the three weeks was light, and Ella remarks, “Where were all of you during the past 2 ½ weeks?”  That doesn’t stop her from responding to many requests to show her appreciation, acknowledging Van Alexander and Gordon Jenkins among those present. Candidly she says several times, “I don’t know all the lyrics,” but that doesn’t stop her from creating each distinctive performance.

She thanks a member of the audience for reminding her of one line of lyrics as she sings “Tenderly.” Before starting, she asked the audience to help her recall a portion of the lyrics to “Gone with the Wind” but then jokingly sings that they are a bit too late, incorporating this ad lib without interruption in the song. Even “A-Tasket, A-Tasket” reemerges in this program as a celebration of Ella’s roots, anchoring her continuing legacy and greatly appreciated by her fans.

The two sets from Zardi’s (each introduced by Buddy de Franco) languished in Verve’s vaults for over 60 years, perhaps because Granz simply had bigger ideas for her recordings. Is this Ella’s BEST recording?  No, but it is perhaps the one that is the most FUN to hear. It represents the turning point in the career of a great jazz artist, for without Granz we would not have her many remarkable recordings from studios, clubs and concert halls around the world. Together, they extended the body of vocal jazz performances available for our enjoyment today.

Norman Granz frequently said, “You can hear from the first bars of Ella’s performance if this is to be a jazz session.”  This is clearly one of those. That becomes evident from the first song onward as Ella demonstrates her many talents to personalize her performance, employing her unique harmonic and melodic variations intermixed with shifts in tempo to enrich each song. Ella is relaxed, and her creative passion is on full view. You won’t regret purchasing this CD even if you, like me, already own and treasure many of Ella’s recordings.  It will bring you joy and remind you of her absolute passion and commanding artistry.

Reviewed by Thomas P. Hustad
Professor Emeritus of Marketing, IU Kelley School of Business
Author: Born to Play: Ruby Braff’s Discography and Directory of Performances

 

 

 

 

Wes Montgomery – In Paris: The Definitive ORTF Recording

Wes Montgomery
Title: In Paris: The Definitive ORTF Recording

Artist: Wes Montgomery

Label: Resonance

Formats: CD, Vinyl (2 discs with collector postcards), MP3

Release date: January 26, 2018

 

In my experience, official releases of recordings are, years later, sometimes followed by bootleg reissues. In this case, that sequence is reversed.  These recordings, from a Wes Montgomery concert at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris on March 27, 1965, are being officially issued for the first time by Resonance Records, in collaboration with Montgomery’s family and French ORTF Network. On this performance, Wes is backed by Johnny Griffin (tenor sax on four titles), Harold Mabern (piano), Arthur Harper (bass), and Jimmy Lovelace (drums).

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So what do we have?  This is the finest live recording by one of the three most important guitarists in jazz history, in my view, linking Wes with Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt. Yes, there have been others possessing great talents, but these three were all formative artists in different ways.

Superficially, Wes’s recording career can be divided into four stages:

  1. As a sideman with Lionel Hampton (1948-1950);
  2. As an emerging artist (1950-1959) when he mostly performed with his brothers or other Indianapolis-based musicians and recorded for World Pacific and Pacific Jazz Records;
  3. As a featured artist (1959-1963) when he then emerged as a heralded new talent on Riverside Records, releasing a series of albums that are hallmarks in the history of jazz guitar.
  4. As a popular jazz guitarist after he moved to Verve and then A&M Records and became an artist who reached a broader audience with his recordings but without ever losing his focus on performing in the “Riverside era style” in concerts and clubs.

This recording from Paris is perhaps the finest from this final stage of Wes’s career.  His touring group of the day is joined by noted saxophonist Johnny Griffin on several of the tunes.

Resonance Records has become a primary source for remarkable releases of previously unissued recordings by Wes, all produced with the highest audio and production standards that truly honor his legacy. It is fitting that the company has released the present recording, the latest chronologically in this family of recordings that began with performances from Wes’s early years in Indianapolis and, a few years later, performing before members of the Indianapolis Jazz Club, and with pianist Wynton Kelley performing in a club in Seattle (these are linked to reviews in earlier issues of Black Grooves).

In Paris has some wonderful music. Performances range from up tempo versions of “Jingles” and “To Wane” to a beautiful slow ballad, “The Girl Next Door.” But there are really no single highlights. The musicians perform as a team, collectively inspired by the occasion. There is simply no point in singling out individual tunes for this is truly a remarkable performance throughout. It is every bit the equal of Wes’s best albums, ever. We are so fortunate that it was recorded and is now available in superior sound.

When I compare this recording to an earlier bootleg issue on Definitive Records in my collection, I am impressed by the quality of the remixing from the original tapes that increases the richness and power of the performance. The album notes explain that Wes avoided flying and only toured Europe on this single occasion (the 32-page booklet includes essays by Vincent Pelote, Pascal Rozat and Resonance producer Zev Feldman). Fortunately, this resulted in bootlegged recordings from Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany and England, along with a televised program produced by the BBC from London.  But this release of a 1965 performance in Paris is the highlight, and one of the finest in Wes’s career.

Reviewed by Thomas P. Hustad

Professor Emeritus of Marketing, Kelley School of Business

Author: Born to Play: Ruby Braff’s Discography and Directory of Performances

Jason Marsalis and The 21st Century Trad Band – Melody Reimagined: book 1

Jason Marsalis
Title: Melody Reimagined: book 1

Artist: Jason Marsalis and The 21st Century Trad Band

Label: Basin Street Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: January 19, 2018

 

Jason Marsalis, the New Orleans-born drummer, vibraphonist, composer and arranger, released another brilliant album along with his 21st Century Trad Band—Austin Johnson on piano, Will Goble on bass, and Dave Potter on drums. Melody Reimagined: book 1 is an album comprised of original compositions based on harmonic structures of jazz standards and 1980’s popular music. According to Marsalis, the concept for this album is a result of “spontaneous arrangements that would evolve to spice up the standards” during live performances. This compositional device, also known as writing a contrafact, is a tradition that has been practiced throughout the history of jazz. On this album we hear Marsalis’ outstanding compositions and his versatility as a performer.

Melody Reimagined begins with “Ratio Man Strikes Again,” a tune based on John Coltrane’s “Traneing In.” The track begins with a melodic motif over a series of rhythmic hits along with harmonic sonorities that give the piece that ratio-theme feeling. Transitioning into a straight-ahead groove, we hear the brilliant piano technique of Austin Johnson, the virtuosic and expressive vocabulary of Marsalis’ performance, followed by a dynamic drum solo by Dave Potter.

Mid-album the listener is treated to “A Peaceful Silence,” a breathtaking composition that combines harmonic elements from Horace Silver’s “Peace” with Charlie Haden’s “Silence.” Marsalis’ utilizes melodic content from Silver’s and Haden’s compositions, however, the contour of his melodies and harmonies offers surprising turns that keep the listener fully engaged. Included in this wonderful performance is a warm and complementary bass solo by Will Goble that does not distract from the performance.

The rest of the album draws from other standards such as Paul Barbarin’s “Bourbon Street Parade.” Finally, there’s a heartwarming performance of “80” based on Ray Noble’s “The Very Thought of You” featuring Marsalis’ father Ellis Marsalis on piano, and his brother Delfeayo Marsalis on trombone.

Melody Reimagined is a demonstration of Jason Marsalis’ brilliance and artistry, including his use of standard harmonic structures as a canvas for creative musical explorations. In doing so, Marsalis pays tribute to these composers while contributing to the legacy of jazz.

Reviewed by Jamaal Baptiste

 

David Murray feat. Saul Williams – Blues for Memo

David Murray
Title: Blues for Memo

Artist: David Murray feat. Saul Williams

Label: Motema Music

Format: CD, Digital

Release Date: February 2, 2018

 

 

Released just in time for Black History Month, Blues for Memo is a new album by saxophonist David Murray and poet Saul Williams.  Williams and Murray met in 2014 at the funeral of the revolutionary poet Amiri Baraka, at which Williams performed a poem and Murray (who worked with Baraka in the past) was in attendance. The chance encounter led to a collaboration between the two artists, with Williams sending Murray a collection of poems to set to music.

Like Baraka, Williams is a challenging poet. He is socially and politically engaged and consistently employs images that are a gut punch to listeners. The tracks on Blues for Memo feature Williams doing what he does best, stringing together images that address topics ranging from politics to the nature of consciousness. On “Cycles and Seasons,” Williams thrives on juxtaposition of large concepts, such as dietary tradition and health to capitalism and forced labor.  “Deep in Me” takes on cosmic themes, with lyrics that consider volcanic, geologic and cosmic time in relationship to individuals’ perception of the universe.

 

On the track “Obe,” Murray and his outstanding band match dissonant bebop with lyrics that take on what Williams critiques as a cultural self-obsession, asking whether a variety of pursuits are “self-actualization or self-image actualization.” “Red Summer” is a gospel-inflected ballad about racially-influenced killings of African Americans, from the Mother Emanuel Baptist Church massacre to the wave of police killings of unarmed Black men and boys that sparked a national conversation about continuing systemic racism in American society.

Murray’s task is a difficult one—to compose an appropriate soundtrack to the complex, emotionally-charged themes that Williams adeptly addresses throughout the course of this album. Murray achieves this goal handily — even the instrumental numbers on this album are delivered with the perfect tone. For instance, the heartfelt “Blues for Memo,” a tribute to Istanbul’s jazz legend Mehmet “Memo” Ulug, is solemn and joyous simultaneously, incorporating sounds that “Memo” likely would have appreciated, including elements from blues as well as Turkish music. The latter is provided by Aytac Dogan on kanun, a middle-eastern zither.

Williams and Murray are joined by an overall outstanding cast of musicians, including Dogan, Orrin Evans (piano), Nasheet Waits (drums), Jaribu Shahid (bass), Craig Harris (trombone), Pervis Evans (Vocals), Jason Moran (Fender Rhodes), and Mingus Murray (guitar). Overall, Blues for Memo is both musically beautiful and conceptually challenging, an album best explored gradually and one which holds enough details for listeners to continually return for something as yet unheard.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley