James Armstrong – Blues Been Good to Me

James Armstrong
Title: Blues Been Good to Me

Artist: James Armstrong

Label: Catfood

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: October 20, 2017

 

 

Blues singer-songwriter and guitarist James Armstrong grew up in southern California during an era when Jimi Hendrix reigned supreme. This spurred his fascination with rock and roll, but he also developed an interest in country music and slide guitar, which he later mastered. But that’s not all. Armstrong’s mother was a blues singer and his father played jazz guitar, providing him with more than a passing familiarity of these genres. Apparently the maternal influence won out, because Armstrong hit the blues circuit at a young age and never looked back. Until now.

Blues Been Good to Me, Armstrong’s third release for the Catfood label, is the output of a musician reflecting upon his life and times. He hooked up with another blues veteran and label mate, Johnny Rawls, to co-produce the project. Band members include rhythm guitarist Johnny McGhee (a founding member of L.T.D.), drummer Andrew Blaze Thomas, and keyboardist Matt Murdick, with Darryl Wright on bass. The album opens with the title track, an autobiographical song that chugs along over a B3 courtesy of Brother John Kattke, a Chicago blues musician perhaps better known as a guitarist.

The opening bars of “Second Time Around” will be instantly recognizable to the Boomer generation as the “Secret Agent Man” theme song. By the time the backup singers chime in on the chorus, we’re certainly convinced that love is indeed better on the rebound. Another sweet spot is the slow grooving “Early Grave,” a song about a man so tormented by a woman that he worries about dying young, joining the likes of Elvis, Robert Johnson, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, and O.V. Wright.

All of Armstrong’s original songs are outstanding. There’s the funky groove of “Old Man in the Morning (Young Man at Night),” the melancholy ballad “Change in the Weather” with its tasty guitar solos, and “Sleeping With a Stranger,” an excellent showcase of Armstong’s songwriting and musicianship. Last but not least, there are the covers: Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You” gets a countrified arrangement, while Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” is anchored by a honkytonk style piano and rousing horn section.

James Armstrong draws upon his multiple musical influences, infusing Blues Been Good to Me with a level of sophistication above and beyond the typical blues project. This is my first introduction to his music, and I will be looking forward to future releases.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

The Isley Brothers and Santana – The Power of Peace

Isley Brothers Sanatana The Power of Peace
Title: The Power of Peace

Artist: The Isley Brothers and Santana

Label: Sony Legacy

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: July 28, 2017

 

The Power of Peace blends the signature styles of powerhouse performers Carlos Santana and brothers Ron and Ernie Isley into a beautiful tribute to several influential artists whose musical styles range from funk to soul and jazz. Centered on the themes of peace and love, this project is sure to excite listeners as iconic songs are infused with new flavor.

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The album opens with a bang featuring a cover of the Chamber Brothers’ song “Are You Ready.” Layered percussion and drums performed by Santana and his wife Cindy Blackman Santana alongside an intoxicating electric guitar (also by Santana) create a funky and fun soundscape and prepares the listener for a stimulating musical experience. The band maintains this momentum throughout the next two tracks, Swamp Dogg’s “Total Destruction of the Mind” and Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” on which Santana performs riveting electric guitar accompaniment and solos.

The middle of the album changes pace with a group of softer, slower pieces extolling the beauty of romantic love. Cindy Santana sings her sensual new song “I Remember” with playful background support by Ron Isley. Similarly, Isley and his expert use of falsetto is utterly captivating on the ensemble’s cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Gypsy Woman.” The male R&B “quartet” sound that shaped the original version is largely absent as the band employs a classic smooth groove, slower tempo and mixed background voices to transform this song into a mesmerizing, seductive ode to unrequited love. Santana and Isley also shine while performing Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon’s frequently covered hit “I Just Want to Make Love to You.” Santana’s energizing guitar riffs and Isley’s vocal dexterity (including growls, moans, etc.) make this a standout track on the album.

The Power of Peace concludes with songs about social justice and harmony such as Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me (the Ecology)” and Dionne Warwick and Jackie DeShannon’s “What the World Need Now is Love Sweet Love.” Isley sensitively delivers these musical messages while supported by Santana’s earnest and beautifully crafted instrumental accompaniment.

While the musical pairing of The Isley Brothers and Carlos Santana would seem unexpected, this project is the realization of a dream. Santana, who has numerous accolades as an artist, now desires to chart new waters and create music with his longtime favorite musicians including the “incomparable” voice of Ron Isley. Listeners will certainly be glad that some dreams do come true as they are inspired, surprised, and entertained by the fresh music of The Power of Peace.

Reviewed by Raynetta Wiggins

 

Various – Sly and Robbie Present Taxi Gang in Disco Mix Style 1978-1987

Sly and Robbie
Title: Sly & Robbie Present Taxi Gang In Disco Mix Style 1978-1987

Artist: Various

Label: Cree/Bear Family

Formats: CD, LP

Release date: March 10, 2017

 

Sly & Robbie Present Taxi Gang In Disco Mix Style 1978-1987 is a relatively short compilation chronicling the late ‘70s and ‘80s work of the most famous “riddim” section in reggae music.  Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare’s work as producers was very influential in helping to create the sounds that Jamaican music would be known for during this period.  Both Sly & Robbie got their start as sessions musicians (as a drummer and bass player, respectively) before moving over to the production side of things.

The rhythm Sly and Robbie became known for featured electronic drums and vocal effects and would become commonplace in reggae under their influence.  This also went on to influence the practice of “toasting” (chanting and shouting out folks over a beat), which in turn would be one of the building blocks on which rap music is based.

With this disappointingly brief eight track compilation (but still a full 58:16), Cree Records highlights cover versions of American soul and disco hits covered by Jamaican artists, produced by Sly & Robbie. Included are covers of songs made famous by Marvin Gaye, The Spinners, The Impressions and others. Both the CD and LP offer great liner notes by reggae expert Noel Hawks that set the scene for Sly & Robbie coming together and creating their unique production style.

The compilation begins with Tinga Stewart’s cover of Tony Joe White’s “Rainy Night In Georgia” (more famously covered by Brook Benton). With Sly & Robbie’s help, Stewart’s version takes what in Benton’s hands was a melancholy song of lament and turns it into a fun, danceable romp. Despite the bit of cognitive dissonance in the song, it is quite enjoyable nonetheless.

The lone female vocalist (really wish there were more) on the compilation is Marcia Griffiths of the I-Threes (backing vocalists for Bob Marley along with Rita Marley and Judy Mowatt), who covers Little Willie John’s “Fever.” Sly and Robbie’s sonic accompaniment is as sparse as the original, highlighting Griffiths’ vocals (if you enjoy this, definitely check out Griffith’s Play Me Sweet and Nice).

Two Marvin Gaye covers appear here with great results. Let’s be real for a second—nobody’s going to touch Gaye’s vocals on the original version. However, accepting this fact allows you to enjoy these covers for what they are, and both truly highlight Sly and Robbie’s production work.  “Sexual Healing” adds additional rhythm to the original’s yearning groove, creating a vibe that is uniquely Jamaican. “Inner City Blues” crackles with the same urgency as Gaye’s original and sports a great reggae-fying of the bassline.

Overall, the sound quality on the compilation is fantastic as it sounds like all of the selections have been digitally remastered.  Each one is presented in its full length form, including extended jams perfect for dancing and/or “toasting,” creating the vibe of a warm night in a dancehall.  If you are a Sly & Robbie aficionado or you want an introduction to the influential production duo, this compilation communicates why Sly & Robbie have been so influential around the world.

Reviewed by Levon Williams