Warren Wolf – Convergence

convergence

Title: Convergence

Artist: Warren Wolf

Label: Mack Avenue

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: June 10, 2016

 

 

If he is not already, vibraphonist Warren Wolf will soon become a household name for jazz fans.  His third full-length release, Convergence, showcases Wolf’s development thus far and makes a strong case that he belongs on the A-list of jazz performers and composers.  His all-star ensemble helps give Wolf a boost in starpower while also reminding listeners that he can easily hang musically with the long-time big boys of jazz.  This supporting cast has countless records among them: Christian McBride (bass), Brad Mehldau (piano), Jeff “Tain” Watts (drums), and guitarist John Scofield on two tunes.  Not only does Wolf hold his own with these longtime heavies, but he also steps up to the plate as a solid bandleader—the album includes six of Wolf’s own excellent compositions and five covers, ranging from delicate readings of Hoagy Carmichael and Chopin (“Stardust/The Minute Waltz”) to a soulful Stevie Wonder tune (“She Knocks Me off My Feet”).

The disc opens with Wolf’s original “Soul Sister,” a 4:54 burner featuring Scofield bending strings and using his most articulate phrasing, and Wolf comes in swinging, transitioning from bluesy motifs to hard-driving bop lines.  Wolf’s composition doesn’t just lie in the typical soul/bop currency of contemporary jazz—for instance, the track “Cell Phone” is based upon a ringtone that Wolf heard while traveling at the airport, leading to an off-kilter sense of time and melody that animates the quirky tune.  Wolf knows his history, too—his recording of Bobby Hutcherson’s “Montara” is a fitting tribute to the pioneering vibraphonist.

All in all, Convergence may be just that for Wolf’s career—the cast and set of influences he has assembled on this album reflect artistic and musical maturation.  This is a must-hear release for jazz fans.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Fantastic Negrito – The Last Days of Oakland

last days of oakland

Title: The Last Days of Oakland

Artist: Fantastic Negrito

Label: Blackball Universe

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release Date: June 3, 2016

 

 

Perhaps best known as the 2015 winner of NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest for his song “Lost in a Crowd,” Oakland-based Fantastic Negrito releases an album that is steeped in the blues and simultaneously strikingly contemporary.  Xavier Dphrepaulezz, who uses “Fantastic Negrito” as his stage name, has had a career rocked with the ups and downs of the entertainment industry—rising to, and falling from, a disastrous brush with stardom in the 1990s, undergoing a crippling hand injury after a car accident, and settling down for awhile. The stage persona of Fantastic Negrito represents a return to the entertainment business, on his own terms this time around.

And what a return—The Last Days of Oakland is an album with sprawling ambitions that delivers.  One more in a year of highly personal releases that document broader societal problems, Fantastic Negrito’s songs deal with class and poverty (“Working Poor,” “Hump Through the Winter”), race, and redemption (“Nothing Without You”).  The record is also diverse sonically, but it’s useful to compare the combination of blues sound and punk spirit that animates The Last Days of Oakland with the blues punk of groups like the White Stripes. In fact, Negrito takes a number of cues from Jack White, from vintage blues guitar playing to minimalistic 4-on-the-floor arrangements—“Rant Rushmore” could easily have appeared on Icky Thump, although Negrito draws a bit more gospel into the mix than White would have. Comparisons to earlier alt-rockers are not remiss either.  Fantastic Negrito’s version of the traditional song “In the Pines” (recorded by everyone and his brother, but perhaps made most famous by Leadbelly), channels Kurt Cobain’s rendition of the song as “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” on Nirvana’s 1993 MTV Unplugged, keeping Cobain’s raw emotionalism, but fleshing out the orchestration with a full band, electric guitars, and keyboards.

On The Last Days of Oakland, we hear a musician who has clearly paid his dues.  Fantastic Negrito knows his sound and has found his voice as a singer, songwriter and guitarist.  This is a definitive performance from a rocker with a few bones to pick.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Bernie Worrell – Retrospectives

bernie worrell_retrospectives

Title: Retrospectives

Artist: Bernie Worrell

Label: PurpleWOO Productions

Format: CD, LP, MP3

Release Date: January 20, 2016

 

 

Keyboardist Bernie Worrell passed away on June 24, and his final album, Retrospectives, is a reminder of the legendary musician’s claim to fame as an ever-fresh and funky player.  As keyboardist for groups like Parliament-Funkadelic, Bootsy Collins’s Rubber Band, Talking Heads and the countless other projects that Worrell has participated in over the course of his storied career, he developed a unique and ever-innovative style of playing and composing. In addition to acoustic pianos, Hammond B3s, Clavichords, MOOGs and Melodicas, Worrell is reported to have been the second musician to acquire an RMI (Stevie Wonder being the first to get the Rocky Mountain Instruments Electric Piano). It is doubtless true, however, that his alternatingly spacey and funky sounds set the tone for keyboardists who would employ these instruments from the 1970s through the present.

On Retrospectives, Worrell uses a variety of keyboard instruments to create rich musical tapestries—the record features only Worrell and two drummers, Donald Sturge and Anthony McKenzie II, but Worrell’s multitracked use of his veritable arsenal of keys lends the record a  feel that is nearly orchestral at times.  Even at his advanced age, Worrell’s playing was still sharp when recording these tracks—his funky Clavinet rhythms interweave with melodic synthesizers and richly textured organ sounds on “Joyful Process” (even quoting “Jesus Loves Me” on the tune’s introduction).  Ever true to form, Worrell takes listeners “out there” on Retrospectives, too, bringing in the signature phased-out synth lines that were a trademark of his work in P-Funk’s catalog, taking it far out over steady piano-based grooves.  Most of the record continues in this fashion, an ever-evolving collection of musical textures, grooves, and melodies.  This is music to be slowly and gradually absorbed, preferably through a pair of high-quality headphones—my tinnitus acted up a bit on a few songs simply due to the incredible pitch range that Worrell employed on several tracks. This record makes it clear that Worrell didn’t lose his ability to be sonically and musically challenging with age.

While we may have lost a legend this month, Worrell’s musical legacy, as reflected on Retrospectives, is a rich and diverse one. This album is a wonderful way to cap off a truly remarkable career.


Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Project N-Fidelikah

project_nfidelikah

Title: Project N-Fidelikah

Artist: Project N-Fidelikah

Label: Rat Pak Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: May 27, 2016

 

 

Is it possible to create a supergroup full of lesser-known musical personalities?  Not every musician is a Beatle or Bob Dylan, and not all supergroups, therefore, can have the kind of surefire star power that The Traveling Wilburys did.  However, the perennial problem with supergroups is that, inevitably, dominant personalities usually win out and the group’s sound ends up getting compromised in the process.  Project N-Fidelikah, however, doesn’t have the typical “too many cooks” supergroup problem, in part because it doesn’t have a typical supergroup lineup, drawing musicians from the category of “bands you’ve heard of but don’t know their catalog too well.”  Project N-Fidelikah features vocalist, organist and saxophonist Angelo Moore, aka Dr. Madd Vibe (Fishbone), guitarist George Lynch (Dokken, The Lynch Mob), bassist Pancho Tomaselli (War), and studio drummer Chris Moore. The group’s lineup reads like an ESP guitar ad (Lynch and Tomaselli are both endorsers, and the story is that they met through the guitar company), but plays with the scrappiness of a garage band. N-Fidelikah’s sound draws heavily from the eclectic rock of Fishbone and their contemporaries in the late-’80s/early-’90s LA rock scene,while clearly incorporating other members’ musical personalities. The confluence of these influences makes Project N-Fidelikah eclectic, humorous, and generally off-the-wall.

Check out the group’s first single, “Landslide Salvation”:

Perhaps prophesying the 2016 return of fellow LA rockers’ The Red Hot Chili Peppers and the transformation of Rage Against the Machine’s core group into Prophets of Rage, Project N-Fidelikah is about more than indulging the nostalgia market for the funky rock of a particular time and place. Digging deep into funk influences, Chris Moore and Tomaselli set up monster grooves throughout the record.  Perhaps surprisingly for a hair metal superstar, Lynch uses these grooves as a canvas for articulate (even downright economical) guitar work, at times digging deep into the groove with distorted power chords and at other times drawing upon his ’80s chops to provide a burst of energy and color that compliments a given song’s groove rather than overriding it.  Dr. Madd Vibe’s lyrics and sax top off the gradual layering, tackling political issues (“Anchor Babies”), race (“I Wanna Be White (But I Can’t)”), and the abuses that the music industry inflicts upon artists (“Exposure Fi’Pay”).  Even the group’s jammiest (and perhaps most interesting) track, “Deprivation of Independence,” is a meditation upon mass surveillance, while its slow-burn groove is equally useful as a vehicle for lick trading, punctuated by tasty guitar solos from Lynch and sax lines from Angelo Moore.

All-in-all, Project N-Fidelikah is a strong effort by the funkiest supergroup you’ve never heard of.  The album is lyrically and musically challenging, while full of enough tasty grooves and licks to keep listeners coming back for more, even after they’ve absorbed the record’s striking social critique.

 

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Cameron Graves – Planetary Prince

Cameron-Graves-Planetary-Prince

Title: Planetary Prince

Artist: Cameron Graves

Label: Sterling Silver Productions

Format: CD

Release date: June 10, 2016

 

 

Perhaps best known for their participation on Kamasi Washington’s monumental LP The Epic (released in May 2015), the West Coast Get Down collective of jazz musicians returns on pianist Cameron Graves’s latest project, Planetary Prince. Led by Graves and featuring Washington, Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner, trombonist Ryan Porter, drummer Ronald Bruner Jr, and non-West Coast Get Down musicians trumpeter Philip Dizack and bassist Hadrien Feraud, Planetary Prince makes a strong argument for West Coast players being on the cutting edge of progressive jazz.

Recorded in a marathon 11-hour session (with a second volume coming later this year), the compositions on Planetary Prince feel like jazz odysseys in miniature. The record’s shortest cut clocks in at 8 minutes, while the three remaining tracks are each longer than 10—not the length of most of Bitches Brew, but not small potatoes either.  These tracks give the musicians plenty of time to stretch out, exploring the cosmic themes implicit in the album’s title, with tunes derived from The Urantia book, a volume of esoteric religious philosophy.

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Graves and company are obviously well-versed in a number of musical styles, from the modern Coltrane-influenced jazz that permeates this record, to fusion (Graves’s other gig is with the pioneering bassist Stanley Clarke’s band), to classical music (he’s done soundtrack work too), to hip hop (as evidenced by Washington and Thundercat’s work with Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg), to heavy metal (including Graves’s participation in Jada Pinkett Smith’s nu-metal band Wicked Wisdom).  While it is difficult to see how each of these influences come to bear on this record at any individual moment, it is possible to hear the group’s fearless virtuosity as a consequence of being so well-versed—if you’re good at everything, it’s hard to find anything off limits.

The titular first track features a tight drum groove punctuated by Bruner’s in-the-pocket fills underneath Graves’s blistering piano solo, with the band momentarily becoming a tight jazz-rock trio before Washington enters with a solo that evolves from sparse to space-filling, playing with time like other players might play with changes.  “Andromeda” manipulates musical atmospheres—combining minimal accompaniment with soaring melodies, the tune derives much of its interest from its shifting textures and flowing melodies. “Isle of Love,” propelled by a lilting piano ostinato over which the band’s improvised and composed melodies swirl, indicates Graves’s prowess as a composer/arranger, and “Adam & Eve” is downright cinematic, growing from concert piano flourishes to double (sometimes triple) timed bebop lines over a half-time groove worthy of the heaviest metal.

Overall, Planetary Prince is a strong release by a leader and supporting cast of players who are pushing jazz into a thoroughly modern, inescapably hip direction.  This group’s blend of cosmic themes, hip compositions, monster playing, and intricate textures makes for what will assuredly be some of the year’s best jazz.

 

 

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

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Stretch and Bobbito: Radio that Changed Lives

stretch and bobbito doc

Title: Stretch and Bobbito: Radio that Changed Lives

Artist: Various

Label: Fat Beats Distribution

Format: DVD

Release Date: April 22, 2016

 

 

Last year’s documentary Stretch and Bobbito: Radio that Changed Lives is now available on DVD and just premiered on Showtime May 18th.  The film chronicles the contributions of Stretch Armstrong (Adrian Bartos) and Bobbito Garcia, two deejays who begun a hip hop radio program on the night shift of Columbia University’s radio station in 1990.  The Stretch and Bobbito show is widely heralded as one of the greatest (if not the greatest) hip hop radio shows of all time, due to both its staying power and the artists that the deejay duo broke to listeners in New York City.

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The documentary charts the program’s story largely by chronicling the artists featured on it, including interviews with many of the rappers Stretch and Bobbito introduced to radio listeners, including Fat Joe, members of the Wu Tang Clan, Jay-Z, and Nas—the film reads as a veritable Who’s Who of 90s hip hop.  Many of these artists get to listen to tapes of the show, either via airchecks or programs taped by listeners, hearing their own rare written performances and freestyles.  This is one of the great assets of the film—it is likely that most viewers have never heard the verses on these recordings, and it is fascinating to hear artists like Ol’ Dirty Bastard and the Notorious B.I.G. rapping over Stretch Armstrong’s beats prior to achieving their legendary status.

The deejays’ story follows that of many of the artists, moving from red eye college radio to the duo’s debut on New York’s largest radio station, Hot 97, before disbanding the show.  Stretch and Bobbito are back together in the film, discussing their motivations for starting the program, its remarkable heyday, and shifts in the music and broadcasting industries as a result of hip hop’s historical trajectory during the 1990s.

Stretch and Bobbito: Radio that Changed Lives documents an essential slice of the New York hip hop scene, showcasing one of the most important launchpads for artists who would emerge as quintessential figures in hip hop. This film is essential viewing for heads and emphasizes the important role that radio programmers had in the pre-internet age of underground hip hop, giving unknown artists a platform to launch into the mainstream.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

(For those interested in the history of Black radio, check out the AAAMC’s exhibit on Google Cultural Institute: https://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/u/0/collection/archives-of-african-american-music-and-culture?projectId=black-history-and-culture)

The Relatives – Goodbye World

the relatives_goodbye world

Title: Goodbye World

Artist: The Relatives

Label: Luv N’ Haight

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: April 29, 2016

 

 

The Relatives are a gospel funk band that formed in the late sixties, pulling together the rock and funk sounds pioneered by Sly and the Family Stone with the traditional gospel which the group’s leader, Reverend Gean West, had by that time built a career singing.  The band never achieved the success it aimed for, with performances becoming fewer and farther between during the 1970s before the group eventually stopped gigging in 1980. The liner notes for Goodbye World, the newest release from the reconstituted version of The Relatives, frame the group’s predicament this way: “Unfortunately, Gean’s innovation had too much gospel for the kids and too much wah-wah guitar and fuzzy organ for the older folks, and The Relatives never took off.” While it is certainly a shame that the group didn’t achieve the requisite success upon its formation, the band reunited in 2013, releasing a full-length album that year and playing hometown gigs in Dallas as well as some limited touring.  Perhaps listeners have finally caught up with the band—if anything will convince new fans to join the fold, it will be Goodbye World.

Unfortunately this album will be West’s final effort with the group, as he fell into a coma, woke from it to provide a few final contributions, and eventually passed away in the hospital while the album was in production.  Goodbye World’s recording and production is an interesting story, one which is recounted in emotional detail in the release’s liner notes— interested listeners should read the CD booklet, because the album’s story is remarkable.  Goodbye World is, however, also notable as a musical document of a niche-oriented band that has cultivated a signature style, one that appears to have solidified in 2016.

Goodbye World’s musical underpinnings draw heavily from ’60s and ’70s funk rock, with wah-wah pedals and in-the-pocket grooves underpinning most of the album. The Relatives’ guitarist, Gypsy, is largely responsible for this, alternately channeling Eddie Hazel and Isaac Hayes. The persistent Hammond B3 sounds, supplied by keyboardists Ian Varley and Mike Flanigin, link hard-driving funk to the group’s gospel message, including Gene West’s introspective sermon/personal testimony on the album’s first track, “Rational Culture/Testimony.”  “You Gotta Do Right” is a Jimi Hendrix-meets-Sly Stone funk rock romp, “No Man is an Island” sounds like Frankie Valli with wah-wah guitars behind him, and “He Never Sleeps” is straight out of the acapella gospel quartet tradition.  Lyrically, the band emphasizes themes of unity and spirituality, while also touching on current events, such as police overreach, in “This World is Moving too Fast.”

While Goodbye World will likely not sound as revolutionary to contemporary listeners as The Relatives may have upon the band’s initial formation, the band has clearly developed a well-honed sound.  Goodbye World is funky and spiritual; it deserves repeated listens, at least once for the sounds and at least once for the message.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Theo Croker – Escape Velocity

theo croker escape velocity

Title: Escape Velocity

Artist: Theo Croker

Label: Okeh

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: May 6, 2016

 

 

 

Trumpeter Theo Croker has quite the musical pedigree.  He is Doc Cheatham’s grandson, studied at Oberlin Conservatory, has performed all over the world, and has taken on a mentor in the great jazz vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater.  Despite being a man of the world, however, Croker’s musical ambitions are interstellar.  This is immediately clear from a cursory glance at the track listing for Escape Velocity, Croker’s 5th release, which features titles such as “Raise Your Vibrations,” “In Orbit,” and “Love From the Sun.”  Following in a long line of celestial jazz purveyors, including Sun Ra and Melvin Van Peebles, Croker has crafted a set of solid, if not always out-of-this-world, instrumental numbers.

The group’s sound lies somewhere in the space between jazz, funk, and neo-soul throughout most of Escape Velocity,  with soundscapes consisting of both acoustic and electronic sounds. Perhaps the defining mark of Croker’s style is the electronic alteration of acoustic instruments — the album’s opener “Raise Your Vibrations” features trumpet lines laden with delay to match the transcendent poetry that opens the album and “This Could Be” opens with what sounds like an acoustic bass run through a pitch-shifter.  “Love from the Sun,” (featuring Dee Dee Bridgewater) is filled with synthesized sounds and funky (possibly sampled) breakbeats and Croker playing a far-out a wah-wah trumpet solo.  While the group’s foundation consists of acoustic rather than synthesized sounds, Crocker and company play conventional instruments in innovative ways.

The cuts on Escape Velocity predominantly explore metaphysical territory (for instance, “A Call to the Ancestors” and “Meditation”), ultimately attempting to encapsulate the more spiritual aspects of life in music. These pieces’ moods range from darkness (the political “We Can’t Breathe,” a musical commentary on Eric Garner’s death at the hands of police) to light (“It’s Gonna Be Alright”) to paradox (“No Escape from Bliss”).  Much of the conceptual work that Croker does on this record takes place in his arrangements and textures — each song contains a hand-selected collection of instruments and players, made up primarily of Croker’s core group DVRK FUNK featuring Anthony Ware on tenor and flute, Michael King on piano, Eric Wheeler on bass, and drummer Kassa Overall.  This ensemble facilitates the albums’ delicate conceptual work, making musical the abstract ideas that inform the tracks’ titles.

Releases of this kind often try to tell listeners how hip the band is, but, true to both good writing and good composition, Croker shows them. This is modern funk-inspired jazz that doesn’t rely on trite musical cliches to showcase the musicians’ hip sensibilities — rather, it feels fresh because the musicians are exploring their unique musical voices. Escape Velocity is a great contribution to this year’s slate of new releases, perhaps the most simultaneously challenging and genuinely hip jazz release since Kamasi Washington’s 2015 The Epic (although Escape Velocity is of a smaller scale and, therefore, much more digestible on first listen) and will certainly take its listeners on a journey of sounds, moods, and perhaps even space and vibrations.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Rick Braun, Kirk Whalum, Norman Brown – BWB

bwb

Title: BWB

Artist: Rick Braun, Kirk Whalum, Norman Brown

Label: Artistry Music

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: April 22, 2016

 

 

Smooth jazz is a guilty pleasure of mine, one that often gets far more flak than it deserves. Full disclosure: during my senior year of college, I wandered by a floor mate’s open door to ask what was that hip music she was listening to, only to discover that it was The Weather Channel’s weekend forecast for Charlotte, North Carolina. As of today I’m shedding the stigma that fans of “serious jazz” feel often feel about digging the sub genre. “Local on the 8’s” guitarist Norman Brown has partnered with fellow smooth-jazzers Kirk Whalum and Rick Braun to record a groove-based release full of with tight playing and tasteful arrangements.

This group is perhaps best known for their 2013 album of Michael Jackson covers, Human Nature.  That release hasn’t gotten too much play, which may not come as a surprise: it is no accident that Jackson was called “The King of Pop” — he was inimitable, therefore interpreting his repertoire is a thorny proposition at best.  However, BWB gets a good bit funkier on this self-titled album, in large part thanks to the group’s focus on original material.  BWB formulated these tunes while hanging out at Rick Braun’s home studio in Los Angeles and is backed by a rotating rhythm section of strong players, lending voice to compelling new compositions and improvisations.

One interesting part of this release is the band’s chanted choruses, which feel as though they may have been drawn from the annals of 70s funk — these cats are primarily instrumentalists rather than singers, but BWB’s songs have lyrics that may broaden their crossover appeal to adult contemporary audiences.  They also make the band’s primarily groove-based instrumentals more listenable: rather than just improvisations over a couple of chords, these vocals make otherwise minimal compositions feel more like full-fledged songs .  The trio’s playing is expressive throughout, with many songs being characterized by the three soloists playing intertwined melodies (“BWB”).  They also play compelling solos, often trading improvisations that feed off of the members’ stellar interplay with one another (“Bolly Bop”).  Braun makes great use of double time in his fluglehorn solo on “I Want You Girl,” Brown gets the opportunity to really take the band for a walk on “Memphis Steppin’,” and Whalum gets saxy on “Hey Baby.”

If you want to give smooth jazz a shot, BWB is a great place to start.  This album proves that the sub-genre isn’t all cheesy synthesizers and triangles dinging off in the distance, but that really gifted players like to get down on the light-funk side of things.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Snarky Puppy – Family Dinner Volume Two

snarky puppy_family diner volume 2

Title: Family Dinner Volume Two

Artist: Snarky Puppy

Label: Ground Up

Format: CD+DVD, LP+DVD, MP3

Release Date: February 12, 2016

 

 

The newest release from the consummately funky fusion outfit Snarky Puppy is as diverse as anything the group has ever released.  Family Dinner Volume Two carries on two of the group’s signature customs: the live in studio hybrid concert/recording session and building their repertoire around the contributions of guest artists.  Both installments in the Family Dinner series benefit non-profit arts organizations, with proceeds from this volume going to the New Orleans based music education group The Roots of Music Foundation. The vibrant musical life of New Orleans is shot through this record, while rarely taking any of the city’s signature sounds as a point of departure: Snarky Puppy’s rotating cast of regulars is joined by “Nola International,” a gang of Crescent City heavy-hitters, including Terence Blanchard and Jason Marsalis, household names for jazz fans.

What puts the “Family” in Family Dinner is the presence and pairing of guest artists that one may not readily think of jiving with Puppy’s signature jazz-fusion sound. In order to get this motley crew to make the album’s great music, all of the musicians involved in this project hung out together for 6 days at a church-turned-recording studio, collaborating on their ideas for the work, becoming a kind of family throughout the recording process. This album features many seemingly unusual pairings, from “I Asked,” which combines Appalachian singer songwriter Becca Stevens and Swedish folk(ish) group Väsen, on a song that gradually morphs from pretty ballad to trance-inducing vamp.  “Molino Molero,” my favorite number on the disc, combines Afro-Peruvian legend (and world music superstar) Susana Baca with the ever-innovative, immaculately tasteful jazz-fusion guitarist Charlie Hunter.

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Similarly, on “Don’t You Know” keyboardist and vocalist Jacob Collier explores the possibilities of what can be done with a vocoder and acoustic piano while Big Ed Lee of the New Orleans-based Soul Rebels Brass Band lays down a funky fresh bassline. What Snarky Puppy does best on this release is acting as the world’s most precise backing band–the group creates delicate ambiance when necessary and rock-solid grooves when required, constantly digging deep into the songs that the featured artists bring to the table.  This is no more apparent than in the lush orchestration that the collective of instrumentalists provide on David Crosby’s “Somebody Home,” with gorgeous brass, synthesizer, and organ textures animating the understated song about finding depth in relationships.

In the combined video and audio packaging of Family Dinner Volume Two, the included DVD is really the star of the show.  While DVDs packaged with CDs or LP are usually vehicles to convey bonus features, in this case, the audio-only formats are more supplements to the DVD, which features video versions of each of the songs. These videos show Snarky Puppy’s trademark hybrid studio-live recording process, with audience members all wearing headphones and mics and cables galore, capturing every nuance of the band’s playing for posterity. The DVD also narrates the sessions’ creation, with individual artists talking about the recording process and their views on music as well as playing tunes not included in the official recording session. If we take the DVD at its word, Snarky Puppy’s Family Dinner Volume 2 must have been a joy to participate in–the collective’s collaborative sense shines through every cut that is included. With all of this in mind, it is perhaps more useful to think of the CD as the ‘bonus’ in this package, a slimmed-down more portable version of the sessions that you can pop in the car stereo.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

 

Various Artists – Killer B3: A Documentary about the Hammond Organ

killer b3

Title: Killer B3: A Documentary about the Hammond Organ

Artist: Various

Label: Crooked Soul Productions

Format: DVD

Release Date: April 2014

 

We just received a review copy of this fascinating 2013 film that has been making the festival rounds. The Kickstarter-funded Killer B3 explores the history of the instrument responsible for one of the signature sounds of the 20th century, an instrument that has animated church services, jazz clubs, and rock recording sessions since its introduction in 1935, the Hammond Organ.  The film’s punny title is a bit misleading: while the B3 is certainly the most popular model among the jazz musicians who play the bulk of the music featured in the film (which includes stellar performances by and interviews with Dr. Lonnie Smith, Tony Monaco, Joey DeFrancesco, and the legendary Jimmy Smith), the filmmakers take care to note that the B3 is just one model that conveys the signature Hammond Organ sound.

Killer B3 outlines the instrument’s story, from its design by clockmaker Laurens Hammond, who was looking to diversify his product line by selling an electric organ more economical than a pipe organ to cash-strapped churches, to the unique sounds that a variety of players have culled out of Hammond Organs. It focuses on the plethora of artists who adopted the instrument as the most essential tool in their toolbox, despite the organ’s 425 pound weight (and that’s not including the rotating Leslie speaker cabinet that most players deem necessary), which would seemingly be prohibitive to a regularly gigging musician.  While the filmmakers predominantly focus on high-profile jazz players who have brought this instrument to prominence, they also highlight the instrument’s important role in African American churches, and make important connections between the Hammond’s use in the church and the jazz club. (It is important to note that they don’t talk much about the rock musicians who adopted the organ’s signature sound, which may be the subject of a second installment, according to hints being dropped on the documentary’s Facebook page.) The filmmakers note the Hammond Organ’s widespread popularity, tracing the instruments’ history and key players around the country, from Chicago to Florida, New York, and Philadelphia.

Watch the extended trailer here:

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The film’s directors Murv Seymour and Joe Branford interview players, people responsible for maintaining models from the original Hammond line (the company ceased producing the original organs in the 70s, and reconstituted the line with digital models in 2003), as well as other experts and aficionados, about the Hammond’s impact on a variety of players. They craft a compelling narrative, albeit skewed to focus on the organ’s use in jazz. They also highlight the seeming accelerating loss of key Hammond players, highlighting the loss of several major figures passed away during the period in which they filmed this documentary. While certainly not an exhaustive treatment of the subject, Killer B3 is a great introduction to the instrument and some of its key players.

For those considering streaming the film or purchasing on iTunes, think twice! Instead, buy a physical copy of the documentary.  Not only does the DVD version include a featurette on how the directors made the film, but it also includes 36 minutes of additional performance footage, which are worth repeated viewings to see masters and hear of their craft at work. .

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Dr. Lonnie Smith – Evolution

dr lonnie smith_evolution

Title: Evolution

Artist: Dr. Lonnie Smith

Label: Blue Note

Format: CD

Release date: January 29, 2016

 

 

Hammond B3 master Dr. Lonnie Smith returns to Blue Note Records for his first release on the label in 45 years.  Evolution does not really represent a change in Smith’s sound, but it does show the seasoned bandleader’s development into a musician who leads a tight, tasteful ensemble.  Smith’s signature funk-jazz is present in droves, which is well worth a listen in its own right.  What truly makes Evolution stand apart from the herd of jazz releases thus far in 2016 is the organist’s assemblage of master players. Breaking from the traditional organ trio format on all but two tracks, Smith has enlisted several luminary musicians to help him out on this record.  The core group consists of Smith on Organ, Joe Dyson on drums, Jonathan Blake on drums — yes, this group has two drummers (!), Jonathan Kreisberg on guitar, and John Ellis on a variety of woodwinds, including tenor sax, flute, and bass clarinet.  Other jazz superstars also make appearances, with Robert Glasper dropping by for the album’s funky quote-filled opening number “Play it Back” and saxophonist Joe Lovano on two cuts, “Afrodesia,” and “For Heaven’s Sake.”

In addition to Smith’s compelling original cuts, the group explores two standards, “Straight No Chaser” and “My Favorite Things” as a trio, with Kreisberg on guitar and Blake on drums.  These cuts are true to the conventions of this format, and are compelling readings of the tunes that showcase the core group’s interpretative vision, making the oft-played tunes fresh in their gifted hands.  The original numbers slay, too. Kreisberg gets the opportunity to dig into his wah-wah on “Talk About This,” a funk chant a la The Meters and “African Suite” settles into its multi-layered polyrhythmic groove.

Dr. Lonnie Smith is certainly one of the most versatile and dynamic players to ever helm the B3, and Evolution is a compelling reminder of why the organist deserves his honorific title.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Aruán Ortiz Trio, Feat. Eric Revis & Gerald Cleaver – Hidden Voices

aruan ortiz trio_hidden voices

Title: Hidden Voices

Artist: Aruán Ortiz Trio, Feat. Eric Revis & Gerald Cleaver

Label: Intakt

Format: CD, MP3

Release Date: January 29, 2016

 

The Cuban-born citizen of the world Aruán Ortiz has released another in a long line of prolific projects, this time backed by bassist Eric Revis and drummer Gerald Cleaver.  Sporting a style that he calls “Cuban Cubism,”  Ortiz and company demonstrate influences from both the Latin and avant-garde wings of jazz, with a decided emphasis on the latter.  This is evident at a cursory glance at the track listing — Ortiz and company included an Ornette Coleman medley of “Open & Close” and “The Sphinx.”  This modernist impulse also appears on cuts such as “Analytical Symmetry,” and the two part “Arabesques of a Geometrical Rose,” tracks culled from a six concert series titled Music and Architecture (inspired by Iannis Xenakis’s volume of the same name) in which the pianist/composer and his sidemen developed musical themes based upon architectural patterns and non-musical contexts.

Due in part to the group’s abstract approach, many listeners will not hear much that they find familiar on this release, either melodically or conceptually.  While Ortiz and company do perform Thelonious Monk’s “Skippy” and the traditional Cuban song “Uno, dos ye tres, que paso más chévere,” these are primarily vehicles for the group’s improvisations that are more “out there” than their musical templates might suggest.  Like much avant-garde jazz, this release requires considerable effort for listeners to penetrate the cerebral compositions and deep interpretations generated by Ortiz, Revis, and Cleaver.  This is an asset ultimately, but a challenging one that demands listeners pay the close and repeated attention that Hidden Voices ultimately requires.


Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution

esperanza spalding emilys devolution

Title: Emily’s D+Evolution

Artist: Esperanza Spalding

Label: Concord

Format: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: March 4, 2016

 

 

 

Multiple Grammy-winner bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding has demonstrated a David Bowie-esque knack for reinvention over the course of her past 4 albums as a leader.  2010’s excellent Chamber Music Society showcased Spalding’s knack for tight, delicately crafted acoustic arrangements, while 2012’s Radio Music Society demonstrated her aptitude for a more pop-infused sensibility as well. Versatility has characterized her work as a side musician, too. She has appeared on recordings with artists as diverse as Mike Stern and M. Ward.

Spalding has managed yet another feat of re-invention on Emily’s D+Evolution.  Taking her middle name as the album’s moniker, she explores yet another side of her broad musical influences, this time using the power-rock trio as the vehicle an exploration of another genre, necessitating an approach to her instrument that fans haven’t heard yet.  Swapping the her Afro for braids and her upright for a fretless bass guitar and drawing more musically from Jimi Hendrix than Jim Hall, Spalding, guitarist Matthew Stevens, and drummer Karriem Riggins put forward a soulful brand of rock on this release, falling somewhere between Black Messiah and Axis: Bold as Love.

The hardest-rocking cut on Emily’s D+Evolution is the album’s lead single “Good Lava,” which combines the dissonant rock of Nirvana’s In Utero period with monster riffs that would make Jimmy Page proud.  Layered atop these guitars and drums are multitracked vocal harmonies demonstrating Spalding ability not only as a rocker, but as an arranger, too.  This minimalistic trio allows room for Spalding to showcase her wizardry on the bass guitar, too.  The counterpoint between her voice and instrument on “Judas” will make any instrumentalist wonder how she can simultaneously deliver her rhythmic, Joni Mitchell- esque sung rap with her slick and serpentine Jaco Pastorius bass-funk.  The classic period Mitchell comparison also resonates on “Earth to Heaven” and “Ebony and Ivory” (which is not a cover of the Paul McCartney/ Michael Jackson collab of the same name). For Spalding, songwriting rules the day, and the three virtuoso instrumentalists in her band support the subtle and challenging songs that Spalding has crafted, laying back when they need to but also digging in when called for, as Stevens does with a great guitar solo on “One.”

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Ever the poster child of flipping the script, Spalding’s newest release is a haven of cultural intertextuality.  “Farewell Dolly,” is a spaced out rethinking of “Hello Dolly” that barely (if at all) references the original.  As its title would imply, “Farewell Dolly” is bleak, both sonically and lyrically, with Spalding’s impressionistic lyrics accompanied only by her spaced-out, chorus-laden bass guitar.  “Funk the Fear” is a prog-rock odyssey through winding spiritual and social territory, and “I Want it Now” is a bizarro cover of Veruca Salt’s number (the bratty girl who won a Golden Ticket, not the Chicago alt-rock band) from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Spalding and company have truly outdone themselves this time–the only things on this record that smack of the jazz styles that have been the bassist’s calling card is the complex harmonic and melodic languages the band uses.  Other than that, Emily’s D+Evolution rocks, allowing the group to explore uncharted musical and conceptual territory.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Tomeka Reid Quartet – Tomeka Reid Quartet

tomeka reid quartet

Title: Tomeka Reid Quartet

Artist: Tomeka Reid Quartet

Label: Thirsty Ear

Format: CD, MP3

Release date: September 25, 2015

 

 

 

Chicago-based cellist Tomeka Reid has been a fixture in the city’s jazz scene for some 15 years now, but the quartet she leads only released its eponymous debut album in September of 2015.  Having seen this group perform at the 2014 Chicago jazz festival, I can attest to this record’s ability to capture her quartet’s spirit, weaving between pre-composed and improvised music.  While the Tomeka Reid Quartet’s music may perhaps be best situated within the avant garde of Chicago’s AACM tradition, this album has a sense of texture and melody that may heighten the group’s appeal to less-cerebral jazz fans as well as those who are interested in more experimental music.

Tomeka Reid Quartet leads with “17 West,” the only cut on the album that is neither an original composition nor totally improvised, an excellent reading of the Eric Dolphy tune that featured the great bassist Ron Carter on cello.  This cut allows Reid to situate herself firmly within the lineage of mainstream avant-garde jazz (which may not be such a contradiction in terms as it may suggest), despite her seemingly unusual instrument of choice.  To accompany her in this effort, Reid assembled an excellent team of musicians who are able to stretch out to the extent demanded by the group’s music, which lies somewhere between chamber music, jazz, and free improvisation.  She is joined by Brooklyn-based guitarist Mary Halvorson, New York drummer Tomas Fujiwara, and Chicago bassist Jason Roebke.

This quartet explores this album’s musical territories with energy and a sense of adventure.  “Billy Bang’s Bounce”—a tribute to the free jazz violinist—features a texture that gradually builds, taking on a hypnotic quality before opening up into a generous swing section for the group’s solos.  “Etoile” is a more conventional composition, loosely based upon the jazz musicians’ standard “Cry Me a River” lick, but expanding to feature remarkable solos by Reid, Roebke, and Halvorson, whose pitch-shifting guitar solos push the group further into less consonant territory while still remaining melodious.

The album takes more impressionistic turns as well, with Reid and Halverson freely improvising on “Improvisation #1” and the rest of the group joining this exercise on “Improvisation #2.”  While apparently composed, “The Lone Wait” is also abstract and atmospheric, pulling heavily from free-jazz influences.

All in all, Tomeka Reid Quartet is a fascinating statement from a group that is musically diverse and experimental.  The Tomeka Reid Quartet blurs the line between “conventional” and “avant garde” approaches to jazz and is to not be missed by serious jazz fans.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Brandee Younger – Wax & Wane

brandee younger_wax and wane

Title: Wax & Wane

Artist: Brandee Younger

Label: Revive

Format: CD, MP3

Release date: February 19, 2016

 

 

 

Even to seasoned listeners, “jazz harp” might sound like a risky proposition.  The phrase may call to mind Alice Coltrane or Dorothy Ashby, but more likely than not, it may remind us of the countless lesser attempts to copy the sound of the two women who most famously tried to assert the instrument as one capable of playing good jazz music.  While it will be up to the history books to judge the importance of Brandee Younger’s latest release, Wax & Wane, the album certainly sounds like a fresh interpretation of the role that the instrument can play in contemporary jazz.

Younger is accompanied by a fairly standard combo, made up of Dana Hawkins (drums), Dezron Douglas (electric bass), Mark Whitfield (guitar), Chelsea Baratz (tenor sax), and flutist Anne Drummond, each of whom is an accomplished performer in his or her own right. Younger’s strong choice of side musicians is a large part of the sturdy groundwork that she laid for this album’s best moments.  While this record at times gestures to “pretty sounding harp” cliches, Wax & Wane does not rely upon the lush instrumental textures that one may expect from a band led by a harpist.  While the evocations of chamber music are the strongest on “Ruby Echo,” other tracks on this album pull more heavily from funk, grooving steadily along throughout the disc’s 7 tracks.

On “Soul Vibrations,” the album’s introductory cut, the excellent jazz guitarist Mark Whitfield opens the record with wah-wah guitar flavored heavily by the musical legacy of Shaft. Dezron Douglas anchors “Afro Harping” in a subtle but funky bass groove. On both of these cuts, Younger plays in a manner more typical of feedback-oriented electric guitar textures than swirling harp arpeggios. While the album’s title track tilts a bit more slick and polished than this reviewer would prefer, this ultimately comes down to a matter of taste; even though it sounds like smooth jazz, it sounds like good smooth jazz. Overall, the playing on this album is anything but typical. Rrather, like the better efforts of Younger’s musical forebears Ashby and Coltrane, Wax & Wane asserts a number of possibilities for more fully including the harp in the canon of jazz instruments.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

 

Michael Spiro/Wayne Wallace, La Orquesta Sinfonietta – Canto América

michael spiro wayne wallace_canto america

Title: Canto América

Artist: Michael Spiro/Wayne Wallace, La Orquesta Sinfonietta

Label: Patois

Format: CD, MP3

Release Date: February 12, 2016

 

 

Canto América is the newest release from longtime collaborators Michael Spiro (percussion) and Wayne Wallace (trombone), both accomplished musicians and faculty at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music.  As listeners familiar with these musicians’ reputations would rightfully expect, the duo’s La Orquesta Sinfonietta is a well-rehearsed, spot on band that plays with both fire and nuance.

Formidable instrumentalists in their own right, Spiro and Wallace let their own monster chops take a backseat to the excellent arrangements that are this album’s chief currency.  Perhaps the most compelling thing about Canto América is the ensemble’s fluidity between the conventional Latin jazz ensemble (rhythm section, horns, and auxiliary percussion) with the less typical strings that comprise much of La Orquesta Sinfonietta, employed as an integral part of the ensemble rather than a saccharine sweetener. Spiro and Wallace situate this stylistic move in what they call the “genre inclusiveness” of Cuban music, noting in the voluminous 16-page liner notes that classical, jazz, and folkloric music are all equally understood and practiced by the island nation’s working musicians.  This group’s attempts at genre inclusiveness succeed spectacularly, largely due to the strong ensemble arrangements.

Fans of the standard repertoire will be pleased to see the inclusion of a Latin-flavored version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” and the standard “Afro Blue” which, as the explanatory material included with each tune notes, was written by percussionist Mongo Santamaria, rather than by John Coltrane, who made it most famous.  The duo’s original compositions and arrangements of traditional tunes are also excellent—-they draw heavily on Latin jazz’s African musical characteristics, pulling heavily upon Yoruba imagery (“El Caldero De Ogun” and “Ochun’s Road”) and employing complicated polyrhythmic structures in their intricate original material (“Hispaniola” and ”El Medico,” the latter of which features a rhythmic solo by Wallace, “the Doctor” himself).

Overall, Canto América is a compelling exploration of neglected territory in Latin jazz, informed by scholarship about the African diaspora.  This release isn’t all smarts, though–it’s also fun to listen and (perhaps more importantly) dance to.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Saul Williams – MartyrLoserKing

saul williams martyrloserking

Title: MartyrLoserKing

Artist: Saul Williams

Label: Fader

Release Date: January 29, 2015

Format: CD, LP, MP3

 

 

On January 29, poet and performer Saul Williams released what will likely be one of the most challenging records of 2016.  Williams is as much a literary figure as a musical one, and MartyrLoserKing is as novelistic as it is musical, following the inner life of a hacker living in Burundi, who’s screenname “MartyrLoserKing” is the source of the album’s title.

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Unlike many “socially conscious” musicians that end up doing what is essentially the musical equivalent of “slacktivism,” Williams uses this album as a place to paint a complex and ambivalent picture of the current state of the world. He addresses the prevalence of uninformed fear on “Down For Some Ignorance,” the potential for internet-spread misinformation on the song’s musical and thematic sibling “Roach Eggs,” while expanding to more explicitly political issues including police brutality and systemic racism. Williams, an American expat, writes about the world as a terrifying postmodern dystopia, perhaps nowhere more evocatively than on “All Coltrane Solos at Once.”

The musical soundscapes match this lyrical bleakness, with drum machines that sound far away and collages of electronic bleeps and samples that are alternately disorienting and threatening.  All of this leads to the tremendous effect of MartyrLoserKing, which suggests that any remedy to the myriad problems facing humanity must necessarily start with people developing their individual, social and political consciousness.

 

 

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Tomás Doncker – The Mess We Made

Tomas Doncker_The Mess We Made

Album: The Mess We Made

Artist: Tomás Doncker

Label: True Groove

Release Date: November 3, 2015

Format: CD, MP3

 

 

Songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist Tomás Doncker has been active in the New York City music scene since the 1980s, having worked with artists from Bootsy Collins to Yoko Ono to Bonnie Raitt. Doncker is an eclectic musician–his multifaceted, self-dubbed “Global Soul” on releases such as 2012’s The Power of the Trinity reveals itself in his incorporation of a variety of musical styles.

Doncker’s implicit socially-conscious stance becomes explicit on his most recent release, The Mess We Made, an album with a cover that proclaims the controversial content therein. The cover features images of police brutality (including names of African Americans who have been killed in high-profile police incidents), protests in Ferguson, Missouri; an image of Trump tower; pictures of African American leaders such as President Obama, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X; and the Confederate flag at the South Carolina statehouse–all under the ghostly specter of a burning sky and a superimposed image of the Ku Klux Klan. (The album’s interior is loaded with similar images, all of which create a rather overwhelming effect when just unpackaging the CD.)  The chaotic upheaval featured on the album’s cover finds its place in Doncker’s songs, which deal with topics ranging from legitimate social problems (inequality, the 1% and “Gangsta Police” on “Blood & Concrete”), to hackneyed 21st century targets (social media and smartphones on “The Mess We Made”), to (perhaps deliberately) vague critiques of something–it’s hard to tell quite what–on “The Revolution.” On the latter cut, Doncker accuses revolutionaries of “looking for a corporate sponsorship,” complete with a P-Funk styled sung chant “Take your hoodie off and pull your pants up.” There’s just enough ambiguity mixed in with Doncker’s fiery rhetoric so that the lyrical context does not make it clear whether he is an advocate or critic of the chorus’s mantra. At times, this lack of context makes the lyrics sound like a stirred-up alphabet soup of topical references to current events rather than protest music as such.

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While Doncker’s vitriol is powerful, the best moments of social critique on this record find their expression in more nuanced moments than those described above.  “Don’t Let Go” is the moving story of a protagonist who can’t find ways to make ends meet because of systemic problems, in the tradition of great poor man ballads that are some of the most powerful expressions of American protest music.  His cover of U2’s “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” exploits the song’s ambiguity for far more mileage than the lyric’s vague spirituality warrants; Doncker’s choice of this song for a protest album and his addition of a funky shout chorus declaring that “I just can’t find it” places the song into the powerful position of giving voice to the frustration that the song’s protagonist experiences while searching for the elusive (happiness? justice? Both U2 and Doncker leave the audience to wonder about the ineffable). The upbeat soul of the album’s final cut “Time Will Tell” is coupled with lyrics that present a modicum of hope after some of the darkness upon which Doncker concentrates throughout this record, proposing that it is possible to care for one another and to overcome the adverse conditions that have infiltrated most of the stories he tells.

I have perhaps spent an inordinate amount of time in this review discussing the charged lyrical  content on The Mess We Made, but I should write some about the music as well.  The arrangements on this album are tasteful. Rather than taking extended guitar solos, Doncker shows a great deal of restraint on his instrument, allowing the arrangements to serve the songs.  Much of the music on this record features electronic percussion–what may seem to be a dicey proposition in combination with the other various live instruments, which include Doncker’s guitar and vocals; some solid horn arrangements, and David Barnes’s great harmonica playing. However, in conjunction with producer James Dellatacoma, Doncker has created a soundscape simultaneously drawing from roots music while also maintaining a contemporary flair in the album’s quest to address current social issues.  All-in-all, the musicianship on this record is put together far more carefully than the politics; the tasteful arrangements tie together some less-than-successful lyric writing. If we are to believe that The Mess We Made is meant to be deliberately provocative (as it certainly seems to be), then Doncker and company certainly achieve their primary objective, making some pretty good music along the way.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

 

Adegoke Steve Colson – Tones For

adegoke steve colson tones for

Title: Tones For

Artist: Adegoke Steve Colson

Label: Silver Sphinx

Release Date: Nov 20, 2015

Format: CD, MP3

 

 

It is difficult to describe the music of Adegoke Steve Colson in its own terms, in large part due to the pianist’s complex and abstract approach to playing and composing.  Colson’s newest release, Tones For, is his first solo piano record in a long and storied career, and reflects a stance that is simultaneously cerebral and activist.  This is no doubt influenced by Colson’s affiliation with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a Chicago-based organization dedicated to creating “Great Black Music” and which has consistently developed excellent avant-garde jazz throughout its 50 years.  Colson takes this spirit to heart on Tones For, an album that is simultaneously abstract and programmatic.  Writing and performing an all-instrumental album dedicated to–and ostensibly about–three seminal figures in black history–Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglass–seems like a gargantuan task.  Colson has met this challenge with an expansive 2-CD set, a collection of recordings that depend upon music defined by ambiance and dynamics, ranging from subdued and contemplative on “Inner Quiet” to the stormy textures of “Homage,” which is dedicated “to all those who stood up for justice.”

Despite the fact that they are abstractions themselves, it is difficult to make themes of resistance and freedom take shape in terms of musical sound, and it would be hard for me to–as Vijay Iyer does in the album’s liner notes–assert that this music “embodies resistance.”  What Colson’s music does in many instances, however, is challenge our notions of how we may express ideas about our heroes or the concepts of resistance and freedom themselves.  While it may seem that the atmospheres that Colson creates on Tones For have little to do with these themes as such, Colson’s abstraction and persistent thematic assertions may cause us to question how the music of resistance or freedom may sound.  This challenging music may lead us to explore these themes in powerful and compelling ways which transcend the sloganeering that characterizes much “socially-conscious” music.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Various Artists – Take Me to the River

take me to the river

Title: Take Me to the River

Artist: Various Artists

Label: Shout Factory

Release date: February 5, 2016

Format: Blu-Ray, DVD

 

 

This month sees the  DVD release of a film celebrating the enduring legacy of Memphis soul music, Take Me to the River. This music documentary aims to address all things Memphis soul, mostly focusing on the Stax operation. Narrator Terrence Howard tells the story of the city’s musical past and continuing legacy, interspersed with clips of musicians interacting in the studio as well as musical performances (including Howard himself singing and playing guitar on one song). While the film’s narrative gets lost at times, this is largely mitigated by the wonderful performances on this record, combining a number of musical legends (several of who have passed away since this film was shot) with musicians of various successive generations. This often results in interesting fusions, like Bobby “Blue” Bland and Yo Gotti performing a rendition of “Ain’t no Sunshine” together, complete with an original rap verse by the latter.  Other high profile guest artists include William Bell, Snoop Dogg, Mavis Staples, Otis Clay, Charlie Musselwhite, Frayser Boy, and North Mississippi Allstars, who make up the backing band on several cuts.  The film also highlights the legacy of Memphis soul by addressing the role of music education in the city and the work of the Soulsville Foundation, including high school youth being mentored by Stax legends. This movie focuses on an important slice of Memphis’s musical culture and Take Me to the River includes some wonderful performances that celebrate the city’s vibrant history of soul music.

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Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Brooklyn Funk Essentials – Funk Ain’t Ova

brooklyn funk essentials_funk aint over

Title: Funk Ain’t Ova

Artist: Brooklyn Funk Essentials

Label: Dorado

Release Date: November 13, 2015

Format: CD, LP, MP3

 

 

The funk music collective Brooklyn Funk Essentials has become somewhat of a cult phenomenon over the past two decades.  The group’s new album, Funk Ain’t Ova, falls on the 20th anniversary of its first release, Cool & Steady & Easy.  With a roster that has rotated over the course of the band’s five albums and countless tours, BFE’s producer Arthur Baker and musical director Lati Kronland have managed to achieve stylistic continuity while allowing current personnel  to shape BFE’s eclectic style.

In contrast to some of the group’s previous releases which experimented with musical styles from other parts of the world, Funk Ain’t Ova is firmly rooted in the 70s funk sound.  The album’s lead single–“Blast It!”–is a dance cut that would be out of place in a 1970s discotheque, complete with muted  guitars, congas, and a chant-along chorus that sounds straight off of a Chic album: “You got to go through it/if you wanna  get past it/only way to do it/movin’ and blast it”–this singable, danceable track is supplemented by an ultra cool, jazz-inflected, spaced-out keyboard solo.

Another highlight is “I’m Gonna Find Me a Woman,” penned with–and with a down-tempo intro sung by–the late great Isaac Hayes.  The song then turns into a gospel-tinged Hayes-style burner, complete with wah-wah guitar, a straight quarter-note snare and lush horns, that underpin the cut’s redemption story.

There are numerous other dance tracks that propel this album along, such as the bass-driven “Hold it Down” and polyrhythmic hip hop textures of “Set it Off.” Numbers like this make Funk Ain’t Ova a great party album.  Slower fare often gets overlooked on funk albums and BFE has crafted some great down-tempo tunes that should not be missed.  “Prepare” comes right out of the Curtis Mayfield medium-tempo playbook, with lush instrumental textures. Similarly, “Brooklyn Love” combines the best of MAZE and Earth Wind and Fire’s love ballads to create something that’s simultaneously sentimental and–dare I say it–truly groovy.

It has been quite stretch for BFE fans since 2008’s Watcha Playin’, but the carefully-crafted grooves on this album have proven that it was worth the wait.  Funk Ain’t Ova stays true to its name, channeling the genre’s classic period while still providing fresh sounds and songs for those interested in settling deep into the pocket.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Cymande – A Simple Act of Faith

cymande a simple act of faith

Title: A Simple Act of Faith

Artist: Cymande

Label: Cherry Red

Release date: November 27, 2015

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

 

In November 2015, the British funk group Cymande released their first full-length LP since 1981. This new release, on London-based indie label Cherry Red, is slick and polished, more so than cuts from the group’s oft-sampled first self-titled release.  Replacing the raw funk that characterized the band’s early output with slicker, post-quiet storm R&B is not necessarily a bad move for Cymande, given a much awaited comeback after a long hiatus.  The process of developing a new sound for A Simple Act of Faith has resulted in a cohesive album, pulled off by a well-rehearsed band, with material suited to the members’ current professional status in a group getting back together.  There are some glimmers of the Cymande’s signature diasporic bent, with lyrics declaring that “We are the children of the world” on the Afrobeat-tinged “Everybody Turn Rasta,” while the band slips into more conventional power-ballad territory on “No Weeping.”  Some of the material on this record is inconsistent, but there are moments that the storied band’s brilliance shines through, such as on the consummately funky “All or Nothing,” with staccato wind stabs among interweaving funky guitar and bass lines or the slow burning funk of “Do It (This Time with Feeling).”  A Simple Act of Faith is assurance to longtime fans of this cult band that it can still get down as well as a great initial foray for listeners new to Cymande’s work.

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Reviewed by Matthew Alley

 

Terri Lyne Carrington – The Mosaic Project: Love and Soul

Terri Lyne Carrington_the Mosaic Project love and soul

Title: The Mosaic Project: Love and Soul

Artist: Terri Lyne Carrington

Label: Concord

Release Date: August 7, 2015

Format: CD, MP3

 

 

Drummer, composer, and sometime vocalist Terri Lyne Carrington has had an illustrious career, touring with countless acts in the jazz and pop worlds and developing a strong solo career of her own. A highlight of Carrington’s solo career was the first entry in her Mosaic Project series in 2011. One of the key elements of the first Mosiac release, which is repeated in its second installment, 2015’s The Mosaic Project: Love and Soul, is that Carrington plays with all-star, all-woman bands.  While all-female bands have a history in jazz of being a gimmick for novelty acts, Carrington’s project is no oddity.  Her reason for assembling an all-woman band, as is readily apparent from listening to this release, is that that these women can play.  There are two deviations from this format: the songs included that aren’t original compositions were written by men and actor Billy Dee Williams appears throughout the disc performing spoken word.

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While Carrington is often billed as a jazz drummer, the music on this release tends more toward R&B and neo-soul—she draws quite heavily from the Questlove playbook as drummer, arranger, and producer. The comparison to The Roots drummer and neo-soul leader doesn’t end there—this record captures the true Soulquarian spirit through the album’s collaborative aesthetic. Carrington features a guest vocalist on each cut, from firmly established artists such as Chaka Khan, Valerie Simpson, Nancy Wilson, and the late Natalie Cole to more underground sensations like Jaguar Wright and Lizz Wright.  Even though these guest stars would imply a very diverse record, each track has a both neo-soul bent and is characterized by exquisite attention to detail. Carrington and company arranged and performed each song carefully and treat these tunes with the necessary nuance to effectively evoke the titular love and soul, both of which are in abundance on this album.  The Mosiaic Project: Love and Soul is a strong effort by a group of musicians who are truly pros–these musicians have monster chops and, more importantly, impeccable taste.

 

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Matthew Hartnett – Southern Comfort

Matthew Hartnett_Southern Comfort

Title: Southern Comfort

Artist: Matthew Hartnett

Label: D2LAL MMC

Release Date: February 19, 2016

Format: CD, MP3

 

 

Houston-raised, Brooklyn-based trombonist Matthew Hartnett has quite a resume, having appeared on stage with Lauryn Hill and Talib Kweli, among other luminaries.  Raised on church music and Chopped & Screwed, Hartnett is a versatile player and his musical output showcases this versatility.  His newest release, Southern Comfort, explores the vast musical territory that captures Hartnett’s interest, including gospel, New Orleans Brass, funk, and hip hop.

The album opens with a heartfelt rendering of the hymn “I Surrender All” and ends with “Da Crib,” a cut obviously influenced by the screwed music scene that Hartnett listened to in Houston while coming of age.  Hartnett and company bring a hipness to the instrumental record (which should not be confused for your grandparents’ jazz), quoting hip hop and demonstrating hip sensibilities throughout.  On the other hand, cuts like “Thursday Night” (in reference to the universal church rehearsal night in Houston) and “Glory Glory Hallelujah” exemplify the powerful influence that the church has had on Hartnett’s musical development as well. The leader’s versatility is matched by that of his sidemen, Ondrej Pevic (keyboards), Dimitri Gorodetsky (bass), James Lewis (guitar), and Adam Jackson (drums).  This crack rhythm section follows its fearless leader into the various musical territories that he explores on this record. He is also joined on “New Sunlight Lake Charles (NSLC)” BY #TEAMHORNSECTION, the brass combo he often performs with in the New York area, which has recently supported Lauryn Hill on several tour dates.

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Some of this diversity comes at a cost–with the stylistic melange present on this album, it is difficult to hear how Hartnett conceptualizes one particular style, and therefore difficult to judge the sophistication of his melodic and harmonic ideas at times.  A careful listener may ask if he has only one or two things in each of his many bags of tricks; only future albums will sufficiently answer this question.  Hartnett’s marching band influences are clear–he does not approach this music academically, but rather with the keen ear of an entertainer, providing more breadth than depth.  This is not necessarily a criticism, but is something that fans of instrumental music will want to know before purchasing this album.

Overall, Southern Comfort might be thought of as a mixtape on which Hartnett swirls together his musical influences.  It is certainly a worthy effort, but like many mixtapes, its lack of internal cohesiveness may make it a less likely candidate for listeners to pull out for another listen in the distant future.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley