Prince – Piano & A Microphone 1983

 

Title: Piano & A Microphone 1983
Artist: Prince
Label: NPG/Rhino/Warner Bros.
Release Date: September 21, 2018
Formats: CD, LP, Digital

 

In what is among the first of presumably many collections of previously unreleased material discovered in Prince’s vault after his death, Piano & a Microphone 1983 contains 34 minutes of demos and rehearsals he recorded in the early 1980s. Following on the heels of April’s release of Prince’s stirring original recording of “Nothing Compares 2 U” and the digital-only Anthology: 1995-2010 of previously released material released in August, Piano & a Microphone 1983 is a set of what sounds like single-take live demos, complete with mixing chatter, improvisations, and vocalized arrangement details. While it is certainly not a set of polished recordings, this compilation is a snapshot of one of the 20th century’s greatest artists in the midst of the creative process.  Continue reading

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

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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

Shiela E. – Iconic: Message 4 America

Shiela E
Title: Iconic: Message 4 America

Artist: Sheila E.

Label: Stiletto Flats

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: September 1, 2017

 

 

Sheila E.’s Iconic: Message 4 America offers a musical palette of iconic songs, primarily from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Though the album dropped in September, the self-released project didn’t garner as much attention as it deserved, so we’re happy to give it a shout out during Black History Month.

Described as a musical movement for turbulent times, Sheila conceived of the album as “a call for us to rise up and stand for something that is greater than our self-interest.” Instead of creating new music, she chose to reinvent “some of the greatest protest and revolution songs . . . to fit current times.” Assisting her in this endeavor are members of her band plus a bevy of exemplary guests. Of course, Sheila Escovedo herself is a renowned drummer and percussionist perhaps best known for her work with Prince, but she’s also an amazing vocalist as she proves on each and every track.

The album opens with “Funky National Anthem,” a powerful medley drawing upon multiple texts beginning with Sheila’s spoken intro from the Declaration of Independence. After a brief (and yes, very funky) version of the National Anthem, the final three minutes draw upon some of the most famous and inspiring speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Presidents John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama. On this track, Sheila issues a “call for our leaders to rise up and work for the betterment of men and women, no matter the race, color, or creed.”

The first celebrity guest enters on the Beatles’ “Come Together,” with Ringo Starr taking over the drum kit. Once again, a rousing spoken intro kicks off the arrangement (as in the Primal Scream version): “This is a beautiful day / we are unified / we are of one accord / today we are together / when we are together we got power!” Sly & The Family Stone’s “Everyday People” also features original band members: Freddie Stone on lead vocal and guitar, and Lynn Mabry on tambourine.

An album of this nature can’t be complete without representation from Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield. On Gayes’ “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” Sheila deftly incorporates elements of “Trouble Man,” with Eddie M. (former Prince saxophonist) on lead vocals. “Pusherman,” the Mayfield classic from the Superfly soundtrack is sung by Sheila, who adds “You took Prince, Pusherman.”  You know she won’t finish this album without a Prince tribute. Anthony Antoine was selected to sing the combined “America – Free,” yet another amazing and provocative track.

Israel Houghton takes over on Stevie Wonder’s “Jesus Children of America,” with Greg Phillinganes on organ and Dino Saldo on harmonica. Really, it doesn’t get any better than this. Oh wait! Another highlight is the James Brown Medley.  Bootsy Collins joins Sheila for this funk fest that joins together half a dozen of JB’s Black Power era anthems, beginning with “Talking Loud and Saying Nothing” and concluding with “Super Bad.” And there’s more P-funk. George Clinton sits in for “One Nation Under a Groove,” which segues into “Mothership Connection.”

These are just some of the treats in store on Sheila’s masterful Iconic: Message 4 America, featuring some of the top musicians in the business performing amazing arrangements of iconic songs. I believe Sheila E. has also achieved her other goals: “To bring awareness, to spark conversation, to allow healing, to restore hope, to express love, to find peace, and to unite through music.”

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

André Cymone – Black Man in America

andre-cymone
Title: Black Man in America

Artist: André Cymone

Label: Bandcamp

Format: MP3

Release date: September 30, 2016

 

André Cymone is perhaps best known for his friendship and collaboration with Prince, a relationship that has been brought back into the spotlight since Prince’s death in April 2016. They grew up together in Minneapolis, and Prince even lived with Cymone and his family for a period of time.  In high school, they formed the band Grand Central, along with Morris Day.  Their collaboration continued well into their careers, with Prince penning one of Cymone’s 1985 hits, “The Dance Electric.”  Cymone then took a 27 year hiatus from releasing new music, and in in 2014 dropped his last album, The Stone.

Cymone’s latest project, Black Man in America, is a short EP but it packs a punch nonetheless.  The album is overtly political in nature, with the first lyrics we hear being “No Justice, No Peace!” The opening track, after which the EP is named, argues that unless you’re living it, you don’t know what it’s like to be a black man in America. The second describes a “Hot Night in the Neighborhood,” which takes on violence and police brutality.

The third track, “Black Lives Matter,” is where Cymone’s politics get a bit uncertain. Musically, the song is an acoustic, intimate, plea for humanity and black lives.  However, towards the end of the song, Cymone includes the phrase “All Lives Matter,” which has been decried by many organizers as a way of derailing the movement, and an unwillingness to stand up for black lives when it really counts.  Here, perhaps, it just signals Cymone’s optimism.  The final song is a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”  Far from the slow Jeff Buckley version that is perhaps best known, Cymone’s cover is fast and uplifting—a fitting conclusion to a project calling for radical change and peace.

Reviewed by Allie Martin