Voices of Mississippi: Artists and Musicians Documented by William Ferris is an important addition to the documentation of Southern folklife, culture, and history. The box set includes a CD of blues field recordings, another CD of gospel field recordings, a disc of interviews and oral histories, a DVD with seven short documentary films (1972-1980), and a 120-page hardcover book edited by Ferris that includes transcriptions and annotations for all of the film and album recordings. A recently released companion DVD, The Early Films of William Ferris, 1968-1975, features rare footage of B.B. King and James “Son” Thomas. Both were produced by Dust-to-Digital in collaboration with the University of North Carolina, which holds the William R. Ferris Collection. Continue reading →
Maxwell’s sophomore album, Embrya, was released in 1988 at the peak of the neo-soul movement and changed the course of the singer’s career. The seductive ballads and slow grooves of tracks such as “Matrimony: Maybe You” resonated with his female fan base, who propelled the album to #2 on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop chart and earned Maxwell a Grammy Award nomination for best R&B album.Continue reading →
Released in honor of So So Def’s 25th anniversary, So So Def 25 pays tribute to the pioneering Atlanta-based label with a collection of its hip-hop and R&B hits. Curated by So So Def founder Jermaine Dupri, the compilation has been released on a 12” vinyl collector’s edition by Sony Music’s Certified Classics. Featured artists include Jay-Z, Bow Wow, Ghost Town DJ, Aaliyah, and many more. Scattered amongst the So So Def classics are rarer tracks like Jagged Edge’s “Let’s Get Married (Kanye West Remix)”—one of Kanye’s early verses—as well as an explicit version of “Da B Side” by Da Brat with an alternative verse by The Notorious B.I.G. Additional playlists celebrating the anniversary can be found on So So Def’s website.Continue reading →
Has 2017 given you the “bougie” blues? Add these twenty-four classic blues songs from the ‘20s to your collection to help ease the pain.
The 15th annual calendar and CD release from Blues Images brings another well-selected set of remastered pre-war blues music to new generations through a combination of vintage and modern playback technologies. The songs are paired with the artwork circulated to promote the original commodities, reproduced as a 2018 wall calendar.
This year’s CD includes two recently discovered songs by Jab Jones and The Memphis Jug Band: “My Love Is Cold” and ”Poor Jab Blues.” There are also fresh remastered versions of Tommy Johnson’s recording, “Slidin’ Delta”/”I Wonder To Myself” (Paramount 12975) as well as Johnnie (Geechie) Temple’s “Evil Devil Blues”/”Jacksonville Blues” (Vocalion 02987) taken from newly discovered, cleaner copies of the original 78-rpm discs.
War, wage work, food scarcity—a century ago blues artists were writing and singing about the problems we still face in the world today. Someday perhaps we’ll liberate ourselves from the economic system that connects us to these voices from nearly a century ago. As we keep pushing, we have their words and music to remind us that liberation is fraught with peril, and there’s no better way to communicate this struggle than through the blues.
Born in Barbados where he’s still known as Hal Linton, the producer, singer, and multi-instrumentalist relocated to the U.S. over ten years ago and rebranded himself as Bobby Saint. The young artist is finally starting to rise to the top. In addition to collabs with electronic duo Penthouse Penthouse on the hit song “69 Camaro,” he also scored with a guest appearance on the single “Black Bamboo” by With You and provided music for the Lego movie, among other productions.
Saint explains that his new solo release, Unholy, “is about freedom, growth, spirituality, views of self, city nights and love. It’s about keeping the fires lit, raising consciousness, while bowing down to the greats: Bob Marley, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye. This is me going forward with only love and the funk in my heart.” The five track EP delivers a broad range of music. “Big Shoes” is a sexy, soulful ballad that showcases Saints powerful vocals and extensive range. The sultriness continues on “Sexy,” which is sure to be a summer of ’17 anthem, while the title track is a ‘60s throwback power guitar trio that will send chills down your spine.
With this short but extremely satisfying EP, Saint leaves us wanting more – much more.
Between civil wars, natural disasters, environmental crisis, and refugees fighting for their lives across the globe, it is easy to feel surrounded by despair and violence. Seattle-based, Kenya-born artist Naomi Wachira certainly feels this way. On her sophomore release Song of Lament, she sings out looking for a connection by means of our mutual destruction: “I am the only one who thinks we’re gonna go up in flames?” (“Up In Flames”). Wachira, who grew up singing in gospel choirs, tries to reconcile faith and hope with insurmountable suffering on Song of Lament, which comes out June 2 on Doreli Music.
Wachira says that she was inspired to write Song of Lament when she read about 700 men, women, and children who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea while trying to reach a better life: “I felt so helpless watching people die needlessly, and I wanted to do something that would bring to light these issues.” The Afro-folk singer songwriter weaves empathy and a common thread of humanity through all the despair, whether questioning how people can use god to justify violence (“Where Is God?”) or urging those who feel life crashing in on them to continue fighting (“Run, Run, Run”).
Backed by acoustic guitar and bare bones percussion, for the most part Wachira’s effortless voice is in control here. A few songs have more involved instrumentation, such as “Beautifully Human,” which has an upbeat reggae beat as Wachira calls for seeing all life as sacred, tired of questions about who deserves to live:
“Don’t make me prove why I should be, why I belong, why I deserve to be here.”
“Up in Flames” also employs horns and drumset that add to the urgency and power of Wachira’s voice and desperation to find any spark of hope: “Where is kindness? Where is love?”
Though most of the tracks deal uniquely with global pain and suffering, Wachira still sees reason to seek light in the darkness. The opening and closing tracks, “Our Days Are Numbered” and “Think Twice,” are songs that beg for hope, as Wachira calls for a renewed responsibility to be kind, respect others, and show love before hate. As she says on her website, “while the sun does not discriminate between the good and the bad, fulfillment is found when we spend our days practicing kindness and wisdom.” In the end, Song of Lament is a cautionary message: evil will triumph over good if we let ourselves grow numb to the pain and suffering. Wachira wants the listener to turn into the despair instead of away from it, saying only through shared empathy will people find the energy to take action.
The final Friday of April saw a new and compelling release by the acclaimed New Orleans trombonist, singer, and bandleader Troy Andrews (aka Trombone Shorty). This is the band’s fourth album, and their first on the heralded Blue Note label.
Trombone Shorty and his band blend elements from pop, R&B, funk, and jazz, and the group leans heavily on its roots in the New Orleans versions of these styles on Parking Lot Symphony. Stylistic diversity is the name of the game on this album, among both the songs that gesture more towards pop styles and those incorporating hardcore jazz and funk grooves. “Parking Lot Symphony” and “Dirty Water” both hearken to 90s R&B, and are driven by drum machines and infectious hooks. The band included two quite faithful covers of songs by New Orleans legends in this set: The Meters’ “Ain’t No Use” and the Allen Toussaint-penned “Here Come the Girls.” Many originals follow the sterling legacy of New Orleans music as well—“Tripped Out Slim” is a funk barn-burner, and the album is bookended by a set of brass band dirges, titled “Leveau Dirge No. 1” and “Leveau Dirge Finale.”
As might be expected from an album that ambitiously incorporates pop sensibilities and funk-jazz roots, this record has a few swings and misses like “Familiar,” a club jam about barely recognizing someone (even this song, though, has a killer Rhodes and brass solo section). However, this rare misstep is tempered by the band’s overwhelming sense of earnestness on the rest of the album. For instance, “No Good Time,” has its heart firmly planted on its sleeve. Shorty croons the folksy wisdom that “nobody never learned nothing from no good time” on the melancholy brass-driven ballad. While the set may not be entirely cohesive, it is chock full of great grooves played by a killer band. Parking Lot Symphony is a well-executed effort from a group of steadily grooving musicians.
Flutist Nicole Mitchell leads her Black Earth Ensemble in the Afrofuturist inspired album Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds. Commissioned by Chicago’s Museum of Modern Contemporary Art (MCA) as part of their 2015 celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Association of the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), this concert recording puts on full display the outstanding musicality and artistry of Mitchell and the members of the ensemble.
Based on the black speculative novella of the same name penned by Mitchell, Mandorla Awakening presents in sonic form the story of what happens when two citizens of the futuristic World Union venture beyond its borders and establish contact with the peoples of Mandorla, a society with different social values than their own. The theme of the novella and the album is inspired by anthropologist Riane Eisler’s influential book The Chalice and the Blade, in which she argues that societies arranged by cooperative of hierarchical governing models have been in competition with one another for centuries. Mitchell is not so much concerned with establishing a narrative of which society represents right or wrong, but rather proposes what societies in an oppositional duality can learn from each other if they can move beyond their differences and find commonalities.
The project relies on the originality of Mitchell’s score and the creativity of the musicians to present the work’s narrative. Unique to this project is the inclusion of Kojiro Umezaki on shakuhachi and Tatsu Aoki on bass, shamisen, and taiko. The infusion of Umezaki’s and Aoki’s playing provided moments of intriguing sonic textures both individually and in combination with other members of the Black Earth Ensemble that I found particularly enjoyable with a notable example happening in the opening of “Sub-mission.”
Joining the group for this project is Chicago-based spoken word artist and performer avery r. young, who animates Mitchell’s lyrics through his dynamic vocal inflections on three of the last four tracks. The lyrics in particular bring together the suite’s theme of competing approaches to life learning from one another. The string players, Tomeka Reid and Renée Baker, both standout soloists in their own right, provide colour and ethereal tones that enhance the works’ futuristic narrative and soundscape.
Other standout moments from the Black Earth Ensemble include JoVia Armstrong’s imaginative percussion playing in “Listening Embrace” and Alex Wing’s psychedelic infused guitar sounds on “TimeWrap.” Of course, one must call attention to the rich tone and fluidity of Mitchell’s playing that appears throughout the album. The penultimate track, “Mandorla Awakening” (which rightfully receives a handful of applause from the live audience), puts on full display everyone’s musical skill in a tightly woven ensemble setting.
Overall, this recording presents an accessible sonic entryway into the diverse musical world of the AACM and provides ample material for the listener to think through, both musically and intellectually.
K’Valentine is one of the newest young rappers to come out of Chicago, whose music scene is currently on the map due to the efforts of rappers like Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa, Noname, and BJ The Chicago Kid. Her debut album, Here for a Reason, is the result of putting the work in on her previous mixtape projects, which drew the attention of Talib Kweli. She first met Kweli backstage at a concert in Chicago, and he later produced her 2014 mixtape Million Dollar Baby. Continuing that collaboration, Kweli is one of many artists featured on the album, including BJ The Chicago Kid, Tweet, Kendra Ross, and Scotty ATL. These collaborations offer a lot, but Valentine still holds her own throughout the rest of the album.
K’Valentine’s background is in poetry, which definitely shows throughout her verses. Her career as both a poet and a rapper was informed by a chance backstage meeting with the late great Maya Angelou, who encouraged her to continue to write. At times, the album can seem minimalistic, but never simplistic. If anything, the stripped down production, particularly on “King,” help Valentine’s message to shine through.
With this debut album, Valentine joins a long line of hard hitting female MC’s that can also hold their own with the men. Her flow is versatile, her verses personal, and she moves easily between conscious and club rap. There’s something old school about her rhymes, and she shows an ability to be a rapper that can also create R&B jams. Here For a Reason provides a consistent sound, and gives the listener a good glimpse into the kind of MC K’Valentine is going to grow into.
JC Brooks’Neon Jungle seeks to take the listener on a journey through the nightlife. In fact, Brooks had a specific image in mind: “It’s ‘87, you’re going out on a Friday night and you’re ready to lose yourself in the city…” The album really succeeds in building on this scenario with songs like “Drive” and “Stumble in the Dark,” both of which have a very danceable feel that bubbles with the excitement of an evening where opportunity abounds. However, the album also features more contemplative tracks like the opener “Jungle” and the ballad “Playing With Fire,” both evoking the vocal stylings of Donald Fagen of Steely Dan who Brooks cites as an influence.
While “JC Brooks” headlines, his backing band also contributes to the very cohesive feel of the record. They complement each other and Brooks on songs like the very funky “O.N.O.” Brooks takes on a Prince influenced falsetto while his band tightens up, making this one of the liveliest and most enjoyable tracks on the record. On “One For Someone,” Brooks slows things down again for an inspired song that showcases his vocals and songwriting, with the added bonus of a great guitar solo by Alec Lehrman.
The album’s closer, “Watch Me,” blends a great story with great music. Brooks spikes the bridge with the message, “We are all currently losing this game of love / because we are searching out something brand new / when slightly used will most certainly do,” leaving those who are not too caught up in dancing to really think about what message Brooks is trying to send.
All in all, Neon Jungle succeeds in creating the feeling of a night out that’s full of both exciting and intimate moments.
Washington, D.C. has always had a vibrant music scene, especially given its “Chocolate City” status. This scene, however, has typically been dominated by go-go music and at times, hardcore punk. Intent on breaking new ground, the D.C. band Columbia Nights is a “soultronic production group” comprised of John E. Daise, Jason Edwards and Hayling Price. The trio combines their numerous soul, funk, and R&B influences with their love of electronic music, and the result is harmonious to say the least. In All Things is their first full length album, following 2012’s EP Dawn | Dusk. There is definitely a sense of growth between the EP and this album. The production is more lush on In All Things, and takes the listener further inside the sonic worlds that Columbia Nights constructs.
There are a number of interesting collaborators featured on the album—such as Diggs Duke, violinist Vaughan Octavia, and singer B.Jamelle, among others—who seek to highlight some of the group’s musical influences. The band’s collaboration with Aaron Abernathy on “Coming Home” is particularly compelling, and sounds like it could be a track off of D’Angelo’s album Black Messiah (2015). The instrumentation on songs like “Glide” and “Cerulean” are also particularly impressive.
It is not an overstatement to describe In All Things as cosmic, both in scope and in sound. The album moves seamlessly from groove to groove and vibe to vibe, offering a wide variety of sounds but never sounding at odds with itself. In All Things is a journey from start to finish, and a well-constructed one at that. The album is a great first effort from Columbia Nights, who are representing the D.C. soul scene well.
Battle of Santiago blends together Afro-Cuban and Canadian influences rooted in jazz and electronic music to create their atmospheric sound. Recorded in a private Canadian studio, the band titled their album La Migra, translated as “deportation police,” not based on the current political climate, but rather on their own experiences and challenges migrating to Toronto. The sentiment extends to the related struggles in the United States all the same. La Migra is the third full-length album release on their own independent label following Full Colour (2012) and Followed by Thousands (2013) since Battle of Santiago formed in 2011.
La Migra opens with “Aguanileo,” a dedication to the deity of warriors named Oggun in a seven-minute jam that builds and falls with creative technical sound manipulation. “Rumba Libre” follows the introduction with a percussive meditation detailed with saxophone riffs. Each track vamps with consistently complex rhythms and instrumental variety, creating an album teeming with intensity. The energy exhibited throughout the music of La Migra is cumulative, drawing listeners into a deeply focused state of mind.
Particularly with “Barasu-Ayo” parts one and two, Battle of Santiago’s utilization of choral and solo Yoruba chants weave together with sustained electric guitar chords, Afro-Cuban rhythms, and carefully crafted electronic tones to produce a peculiar and entrancing listening experience. Whether witnessing La Migra performed live on stage or listening to it through headphones with eyes closed, it is interesting to imagine the varying experiential states of mind that could be induced by this pulsating music.
José James has always been known for blending jazz together with hip-hop, but on his latest album Love In A Time of Madness, he takes it to a whole new level. Always one to try something new and daring, the album is a modern spin on the classic R&B themes of love, lust, and longing.
Skilled vocal sampling, a slow hip-hop rhythm, and heavy bass lead into James’ smooth voice on the first single for the album, “Always There.” Sensually singing about his devotion to his woman, James’ style is reminiscent of modern R&B stars such as Miguel or Usher, and could easily be heard on the radio:
Originally meant to be an album dealing with both love and “societal madness—a response to the systemic and often physical violence perpetrated on U.S. citizens of color,” James felt that the madness side of the album was spiraling out of control. Overwhelmed by the daily acts of violence, he decided to focus on the love part, creating an album of healing which provides a temporary respite from the madness.
This idea that love can be felt even in a time of despair can be heard on songs such as “Let It Fall,” which features Mali Music. Slow and melancholy, James and Mali Music sing,
“No one really likes when the rain comes because that’s the same time that the pain comes crashing down And that’s the same way that your love comes pouring down.”
This juxtaposition of rain as bringing both the realization of pain and a sign of new growth expertly shifts from soft jazz-infused vocals to a deep hip-hop beat with a drop around the three-minute mark.
Though many songs (“You Know I Know,” “Last Night”) are heavily electronic, the album also features a live band that adds flair to James’ brand of contemporary R&B and showcases his jazz influences. With Takeshi Ohbayashi on keys, Solomon Dorsey on bass and vocals, and Nate Smith on drums, “To Be With You,” a rhythmic jazz ballad, and “I’m Yours,” an intimate, gospel-infused declaration of commitment and love featuring Oleta Adams, particularly benefit from this live instrumentation.
The upbeat “Live Your Fantasy” brings the funk to the album, and certainly fulfills James’ hope to make the listener want to dance through the night. “Ladies Man” continues this vibe, as James tests out his falsetto in a George Clinton-esque psychedelic track. Despite these many styles, the music is all grounded in James’ velvet voice, making In A Time of Madness feel cohesive. It is clear that genre is fluid for José James, and there’s no telling what he will take on next.
The Soul of John Black is a project centered around guitarist John Bigham. Best known for his time as a member of Fishbone, Bigham uses The Soul of John Black as a love letter to the blues. His latest release, Early in the Moanin’, infuses elements of both Delta and Chicago blues with soul and funk sensibilities. The album finds “JB,” as he a known, running through songs filled with an earthy-southern feel.
Bigham puts his sense of humor at the center of many of the tracks, including the album opener “Can’t Be Helped,” where he playfully pleads for help from his partner for his ailment: “Doctor says I can’t be helped / by nobody but thee / now lay some hands on me.”
Early In Moanin’ is reminiscent of soul-blues greats like Little Milton or Z.Z. Hill, but with a 2017 sensibility. It conjures up visions of people dancing away the troubles of the day at the local watering hole. Bigham’s vocals and guitar work are both superb throughout the album. Despite the fact that blues is not his most oft-played genre, he feels completely at home in the setting. His comfort at weaving between genres—blues, soul, funk, R&B—speaks to the interconnectedness of these genres at large. Blues in many ways is the root and Bigham taps into it in spectacular fashion on this album. Early In Moanin’ is highly recommended for lovers of the soul-blues of Bobby “Blue” Bland, Denise LaSalle and Clarence Carter.
Pete Rock to me, represents a great deal of things. So where exactly do I begin? For starters, he just happens to be related to the late Heavy D and they all hail from Mt. Vernon, NY. In the 90’s, Pete Rock made up one half the duo with CL Smooth, and together they collaborated on some of the best hip hop of that era. If you were around, who can forget the classic line, “Pete Rock hit me, nuff respect do.” As a collector & DJ, Rock takes a back seat to no one.
On his latest outing with rapper DZA titled Dont’ Smoke Rock, Pete Rock isn’t rapping, but he supplies the beats for DZA and a host of guest rappers. Now, just in case you aren’t cognizance of current hip hop promotion, to get ears to listen one may need to stack the deck by using collaborations. It can be a both positive and, yes, a negative. For me, the jury is still out on Dont’ Smoke Rock. DZA has a nice a nice flow and is better then what is currently on the airwaves, but when the guest rapper comes in, he takes over.
On the track “Black Superhero Car,” Rick Ross is a guest, alternating verses with DZA. Now DZA, who loves to call out wrestlers or ball players, namechecks former wrestler Larry Zybysko. Zybysko over Hulk Hogan or Ric Flair? Never a good look when rappers have to use the name game. Rick Ross is Rick Ross.
“Milestone,” featuring BJ the Chicago Kid, Jadakiss and Styles P is the track I was waiting for. Opening with piano keys, the Harlem rapper DZA comes through, but again goes to what he enjoys, mentioning sports figures. This time it’s Kentucky coach John Calapari. BJ’s on the catchy hook, “I ‘m Gonna Hold You Down.” Put this track in the 90’s and we are talking classic.
With all the guest rappers on Dont’ Smoke Rock, one might wonder, what if Kendrick Lamar, Lil Wayne, Nas and J Hoova were on this CD? As the kids say now a days, it’d be lit.
Boston educator and vocalist Patrice Williamson’s new release, Comes Love, is one of many projects celebrating the 100th birthday of Ella Fitzgerald on April 25, 2017. The album, which pays tribute to the distinguished duo of Fitzgerald and Joe Pass, draws on 12 timeless standards that allow Williamson to craft “a narrative arc that reflects a woman’s journey from loneliness to love, and from lost love back to resilience and joy.” She’s accompanied by guitarist Jon Wheatley, her colleague at the Berklee College of Music and author of the book, Jazz Swing Guitar (Berklee Press, 2016).
Fitzgerald and Pass made six albums together, and the songs selected by Williamson were all drawn from their recorded repertoire. Opening with Toots Thielemans’ “Bluesette,” Williamson and Wheatley provide a breezy, atmospheric reading, with Williamson overdubbing a flute solo in the chorus. Williamson’s light, supple voice is ideally suited for songs such as Ellington’s “Take Love Easy,” Billy Eckstine’s “I Want to Talk About You,” and Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” where she easily negotiates the chromatics. The album concludes on a positive note, so to speak, with “One Note Samba.” The song offers a delightful change of pace and demonstrates Williamson’s scatting technique, while the interplay between her flute and Wheatley’s guitar adds just the right nuance to this bossa nova standard.
Though her name may not be quite as familiar to contemporary gospel music fans, Edna Gallmon Cooke ranks right up there with Mahalia Jackson, the Caravans, the Roberta Martin Singers, and the Famous Ward Singers in the pantheon of great gospel artists. Her untimely death in 1967 cut short her recording career, and accounts for her underappreciation when compared to her contemporaries. On My Joy, producer and gospel historian Per Notini has gathered together Cooke’s rarest recordings over the two decades of her career, attempting to fill the gaps left by two previous compilations of her works. This is a rare gift indeed, for which all gospel music fans can be grateful!
Cooke, who was born in 1918 in Columbia, South Carolina, was raised in her father’s church. The family relocated to Washington, D.C. where her father founded the Springfield Baptist Church, where Edna served as choir director before attending Temple University in Philadelphia. Her ambitions to sing secular music took a 180 degree turn after witnessing a performance by Willie Mae Ford Smith, and from this point forward she devoted herself to gospel music.
The compilation begins with Cooke’s first five recorded performances from 1948-49, which reveal her sweet and supple soprano characterized by a very fast, shallow vibrato. Included is her first single to get considerable airplay, “Angels, Angels, Angels” (composed by Indianapolis gospel artist Beatrice Brown), accompanied by the Mt. Vernon Men’s Choir of Washington, D.C. Cooke’s popularity was already rising when she was picked up by Essex Records for her next pair of singles. “Have You Got Room?” (circa 1950-51), accompanied by the Young People’s Choir of her father’s church, shows a powerful transformation in her vocal style. The sweet soprano is now capable of raising the rafters!
From this point forward, there are simply too many outstanding tracks to mention. “Walk Through the Valley” (1952) demonstrates Cooke’s trademark chanted sermonettes, while “(Talk About a Child that Do Love Jesus) Here Is One” is a solo tour de force showcasing Cooke’s masterful use of the melisma. The Roberta Martin-Theodore Frye song “Hallelujah (Jesus Love Bubbles Over)” features the Singing Sons, Cooke’s regular backing group who provided accompaniment on many of her Nashboro sides. The set concludes with Thomas Dorsey’s “Remember Me,” recorded in 1966 as Cooke’s health was failing. Notini inserted this track as a tribute to Cooke, “one of gospel’s greatest singers,” who surely must have known that her time was running out as she sang the final notes of the chorus, “Now when I’m gone, please remember me.”
My Joy was released in a limited pressing on the Swedish label Gospel Friends. Don’t wait too long to pick up a copy for your collection.
Building upon 20 years of recording and 15 albums, Otis Taylor presents his latest project, Fantasizing About Being Black, a historical retrospective on the African American experience. In a Conqueroo press release, Taylor says this album summons conversations about “the different levels of racism in the African American experience that are unfortunately still with us today. The history of African Americans is the history of America.”
Describing his music as “trance blues,” Taylor aims to transport the listener to an earlier era by incorporating instruments that were once played by enslaved people. The album opens with “Twelve String Mile,” a contemplative song about the social invisibility of the black man in the 1930s. This leads into “Walk on Water,” a song about the separation of an interracial couple and the pursuit of love. Taylor’s raspy, yet solemn vocals are accompanied by violinist Anne Harris, drummer Larry Thompson, bassist Todd Edmunds, Jerry Douglas on koa wood lap guitar, cornetist Ron Miles, and lead guitar player Brandon Niederauer. While much of this meditative album is acoustically composed, Taylor also includes electrifying spiritual songs such as “Tripping on This” and “Hands On Your Stomach”:
Taylor addresses the Civil Rights Movement, interracial relationships, the desire for freedom, and enslavement experiences in Fantasizing About Being Black. Each song reimagines what life was like for black men and women throughout different stages in America’s history. Taylor also uses this platform to call attention to pervasive racism and the need for empathy for people of color who continue their struggle today. Taylor’s last album, Hey Joe Opus/Red Meat, is currently on display at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture—a clear indication that his message is reaching a wide audience. Fantasizing About Being Black clearly continues Taylor’s commitment to social justice, and is an excellent contribution to this year’s Black History Month.
Cosmic Adventure marks the second album from French jazz violinist Scott Tixier. Born in France, and trained in both classical and jazz violin, Tixier relocated to New York City in 2008 and has been busy in the jazz scene there every since. His performance resume is quite diverse, from Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life Tour to being featured on the soundtrack of the Keanu Reeves film John Wick. On Cosmic Adventure, Tixier shines not only as performer, but as a composer as well; all of the originals on the album are penned by him, except for “Mr. Tix,” a composition by French harmonica player Yvonnick Prene.
One of the major highlights of the album is the interplay between Tixier and Prene, who has a featured role on the album. The combination of violin and harmonica is initially a somewhat unusual pairing but these two make it work, with one of their best outings being “100,000 Hours.” In the final song, though, it is the interplay between Tixier and tenor saxophonist Chris Potter that shines through, as they beam themselves to Mars at the speed of light. Energy is great from the other players as well: Justin Brown (drums), Glenn Zaleski (piano), and Luques Curtis (bass).
Influence comes from many places on this album, in particular a heavy Latin influence. Percussionist Pedro Martinez provides congas for the first two tracks, “Maze Walker” and “Dig It,” and his presence is felt widely. Tixier also utilizes his French influences, most notably through acknowledging the work of Jean-Luc Ponty. As the most eminent jazz violinist not only in France but arguably in the world, Ponty’s presence is felt throughout the album. Even the album’s title, Cosmic Adventure, hearkens back to Ponty’s 1978 release Cosmic Messenger. The other French influence on the album is the famous jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, whose composition “Troublant Bolero” is featured. The only other standard on the album is Erroll Garner’s “Misty,” which features a stunning extended pizzicato section. This is one of Tixier’s strengths: using the wide vocabulary of the violin to fit the needs of his improvisational jazz expressions. His careful use of vibrato, pizzicato, and other extended techniques keeps the listener at the edge of their seat, waiting to hear what he’ll do next.
In Cosmic Adventure, Tixier is able to place the cosmos on a spectrum, shifting from one mood to the next, and from intricate details to grandiose melodies without missing a beat.
Allen Toussaint’s final album is a commemorative collection of reimagined compositions by musical visionaries who have defined American music, particularly in the genres of jazz and blues. Released within a year after his untimely passing, American Tunes tells the story of peaceful weariness from a lifetime of sensation, longing, and unpredictable complication. Toussaint is a beloved New Orleans icon known far and wide as an award-winning composer, performer, producer, and collaborator since the 1950s. This album is a hat’s off to the musicians who inspired Toussaint while also demonstrating his undying commitment to his home and the people of Crescent City.
American Tunes complements Toussaint’s former record, The Bright Mississippi (2009), which was also produced by Joe Henry and released on Nonesuch Records. It matches his interest in intertwining New Orleans elegance into his instrumental performances written by the jazz and New Orleans R&B greats. Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Bill Evans, and more are featured in addition to a few exciting guest musicians. Toussaint especially recognizes Professor Longhair, his longest enduring inspiration, whose song “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” is slowed and sweetened on this album, turned into a more reflective instrumental rendition.
The album opens with “Delores’ Boyfriend,” a steady and playful blues instrumental by Toussaint following into a mischievous, yet almost vaudevillian tune titled “Viper’s Drag” by Fats Waller. Toussaint performs solo for much of the album, though each track stands alone in distinction, such as “Big Chief” and “Hey Little Girl.” However, a small band joins Toussaint on certain tunes such as “Confessin’ (That I love You),” “Lotus Blossom,” “Rosetta” and “Waltz for Debby.” Percussionist Jay Bellerose, tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd, bassist David Piltch, Greg Leisz on Weissenborn and electric guitarist Bill Frisell each carefully and delicately add texture to the compositions, highlighting Toussaint’s unmistakable grace on the piano. On “Danza, Op. 33,” an orchestral section along with pianist Van Dyke Parks supports Toussaint on this classical tune composed by New Orleans native Louis Moreau Gottschalk.
While the majority of the tunes do not feature the original lyrics, a pleasing collaboration takes place on two songs of this album performed by vocalist Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Giddens joins Toussaint, providing her deep soulful vibrato, in celebration of Duke Ellington on “Rocks in my Bed” and “Come Sunday,” which was famously performed by gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. Toussaint’s second original composition, “Southern Nights,” a refreshing piano duet with Van Dyke Parks, brings the album to a near close.
On the last track of the album, Toussaint finally takes his turn at the microphone singing his arrangement of Paul Simon’s “American Tune.” A song with lyrics so touching and appropriate, it is truly difficult to listen with dry eyes. Simon’s lyrics are reassuring while Toussaint’s voice is calming as he sings:
“Oh, it’s all right, it’s all right
It’s all right
You can’t be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day
And I’m trying to get some rest
That’s all I’m trying to get, some rest”
Pleasant and playful, though distantly melancholic, American Tunes is a satisfying collection of New Orleans jazz, R&B, and classical music clearly inspirational to a musician who has in turn inspired other creative minds. In the liner notes, Tom Piazza reflects on Toussaint’s return to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina: “His return was a sign that New Orleans, itself, was back. You would see him, as before, at the supermarket, or at a concert, and every time you saw him you were happy and grateful.” Friends and fans are happy and grateful as well to have received American Tunes as a parting gift in remembrance of the great Allen Toussaint.
South African soprano Pretty Yende’s debut album, A Journey, will be released this month by Sony Classical. Much-anticipated since her triumphant Metropolitan Opera debut in 2013, Ms. Yende’s album celebrates the lyric coloratura repertoire which propelled her to the top of the opera world. She performs with the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI Torino, under conductor Marco Armiliato, with additional assistance from mezzo soprano Kate Aldrich, as seen in the album trailer below:
Ms. Yende was born in 1985 in the small remote town of Piet Retief, about three hundred miles from Johannesburg. At the age of sixteen, her life was transformed by hearing the “Flower Duet” from Delibes’s opera Lakmé on a British Airways television commercial. On learning that this haunting music was opera, she decided at that moment to abandon her plans to become an accountant and train to become an opera singer instead. Soon she gained a scholarship to study at the South African College of Music in Cape Town with Professor Virginia Davids, who was the first black woman to appear on opera stages during the apartheid years in South Africa. With Davids’ help, Ms. Yende’s extraordinary talent blossomed and she was taken from a childhood in a remote village in South Africa to sing on the major opera stages of the world.
Preparing to enter the opera world from such a background cannot have been easy, but in interviews with the New York Times, Ms. Yende has referred to South Africa as “… a singing nation. Music is something that we are born with, it’s like the African rhythm; it’s like a heartbeat. In Sunday school you will have to sing one song, and a little girl will start harmonizing it. Just like that, just by hearing. It’s that kind of world.” Such innate musicality is showcased in Ms. Yende’s album, featuring as it does selections from the bel canto and later French repertoire. Her voice boasts a solid lower middle register not always heard in this voice type, and in her upper range, a ringing squillando which she manages with taste. Her ornamentation is fresh and well-chosen to highlight her strengths: while her runs are not always clean, her pizzicato coloratura is excellent.
Overall, the album provides a refreshing take on some old favorites, while providing some more unusual repertoire for the jaded palate. Among the latter is the scene “Vous que l’on dit” from Rossini’s Le Comte Ory. It was in this opera that Ms. Yende starred opposite Juan Diego Flórez as the Countess Adèle, at her Met debut. With less than a month’s notice (having never sung the role), she replaced an ailing Nino Machaidze to complete the run of the show. She has since performed the role several times, including at the Theater an der Wien where she replaced Cecilia Bartoli. The performance reflects her theatrical experiences, communicating a thorough command of the French text and musical line, bringing Adèle’s character brightly to life. One can only imagine the riches in store for us as this rising star finds her place in the operatic firmament.
Chicago trumpeter Marquis Hill, who studied under Ronald Carter at Northern Illinois University and earned a masters in jazz pedagogy from DePaul University, released several projects of his original music on Skiptone Music. In 2014, Hill won the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Trumpet Competition, which awarded him a recording contract with Concord Records. From this contract comes his debut album for Concord Jazz, The Way We Play, which pays homage to jazz standards reinterpreted by Hill and his ensemble, the Blacktet, featuring Christopher McBride (sax), Justin Thomas (vibes), Makaya McCraven (drums), and Joshua Ramos (bass).
The title track, “The Way We Play/Minority” is playful mashup of a Gigi Gryce tune and features spoken word by Harold Green III. It can be listened to as a manifesto (“the way we play is / the way we love”), or as Hill emphatically states, “this is the sound of my band, which is uniquely Chicago.” Green enters after the intro, claiming the music’s blackness, stating “the way we play signify from which we came/Black always in season.” Light and fast paced, Hill’s rendition never numbs a gut or unseats a listener as free jazz strove to do. This is a fantastic piece, which describes many of the songs on this release. It dances the spirit in a comforting way and is great at romancing the beings that this society has had us become. The drumming is singularly superb and so the trumpet playing.
Other highlights are Horace Silver’s “Moon Rays,” which inspires idealism in its listener, and the Afro-Cuban take on “Fly Little Bird Fly” (by Donald Byrd), which also features spoken word by Harold Green. His prose asks “the descendants of sharecroppers” to “sprinkle black girl magic” and “rise and dance.” Are these songs politically romantic? Marquis Hill seems to intend to transform at least some of the tracks into statements of political activism or even protest. Also included on the album is an Afro-Latin version of “Smile,” the Charlie Chaplin tune, while “My Foolish Heart” is a love ballad with R&B influences featuring Christie Dashiell on vocals.
Marquis Hill’s The Way We Play is a delightful album that combines the best of two worlds: Archie Shepp without the jagged edges, post-bop with overt protest.
Listening to The Long Journey Home feels like a night-long dance party as each song tests the boundaries of southern American roots genres. Vaneese Thomas celebrates her family and musical heritage in this latest album, following her most recent release Blues for My Father (2014). Raised in a talented and renowned musical family, Vaneese is the youngest daughter of Rufus Thomas and sister of Carla Thomas. R&B, soul, funk, and blues styles come naturally to Vaneese, and her ability to wield and experiment with these song varieties is evident in The Long Journey Home.
Vaneese demands complete attention in her performance using powerful vocals with a full band including harmonica, electric guitar, and a brass section. She kicks off the album with “Sweet Talk Me,” a rockin’ rhythm and blues song with a catchy refrain and a chorus of back-up singers beckoning listeners to the dancefloor. The album follows into “Lonely No More,” a song keeping with the Delta blues tradition about reclaiming self-confidence. The catchiest song of the album, “Sat’day Night on the River,” starts up with full energy and a swinging saxophone solo by Cliff Lyons. Perhaps one of the most surprising songs on this album, because of its unique blend of genres, is “Country Funk.” Demonstrating exactly what its title implies, Vaneese sings “I just can’t get enough of that country funk” while the percussion and brass section support elements of funk music, and dobro, banjo, and fiddle intertwine creating an intriguing mix of music traditions. The genres highlighted on this album convey Vaneese’s appreciation for the musically diverse reputation of Memphis.
Vaneese wrote songs on The Long Journey Home about her concerns on past and current social justice issues. Civil rights, imbalances of political power, and the need for love and kindness are common themes in songs such as “Mean World,” “Rockin’ Away the Blues,” and “The More Things Change,” during which she reflects on Sam Cooke’s timeless hit “A Change is Gonna Come”:
“Well, I’m still here waiting.
Hardly a damn thing has been done.
Well ain’t it funny? I said, it’s a shame
That the more things change, the more they stay the same”
Vaneese attempts to offer something for everyone on this album, whether they are songs about love and inspiration as in “Mystified” and “Prince of Fools” or songs with heavier blues and gospel roots like “I Got a Man in TN” or “Revelation.” The album closes with a cover of “The Chain,” originally written by Fleetwood Mac. It is a distinctive concluding track relative to the rest of the album for its minimalist acoustic instrumental section. Nevertheless, Vaneese sings out with her heart’s full power, which she sustains throughout the album.
Michael Franti & Spearhead are known for their brand of upbeat, socially conscious pop and hip hop-infused reggae. In their ninth studio album, Soulrocker, they continue to experiment with genre and beat, introducing electronic music to their repertoire. Though most of their records have been largely self-produced, they worked on Soulrocker with Jamaican producers Stephen “Di Genius” McGregor, known for his dancehall sensibilities, and Swayne “Supa Dups” Chin Quee, who has worked with artists such as Bruno Mars and John Legend. Despite the new producers and beats introduced on Soulrocker, Michael Franti & Spearhead continue to find innovative ways to keep their organic instrumental and reggae sound that fans have come to know and love.
In a single more akin to past hits “Say Hey (I Love You)” and “I’m Alive (Life Sounds Like),” the upbeat anthem “Once A Day” is about unexpected moments in life, whether they are beautiful moments or “unexpectedly challenging.” Featuring Sonna Rele and produced by Supa Dups, this reggae jam is an infectious celebration of life and all its ups and downs. Franti wrote on YouTube that the song originally stemmed from how his family came together in the wake of his son’s diagnosis of a rare kidney disease, and hopes the song and video (below) can help people rise up, sing, and dance:
“My Lord,” “We Are All Earthlings,” and “Get Myself to Saturday” play with heavy EDM beats and synth, inspired by Franti’s love for Kraftwerk since he was seven years old. “Get Myself to Saturday” embodies the main message of the album, that throughout life’s struggles and personal longings for success, true happiness is found in giving back to the community and working for the greater good. The track is full of determination and hope, as Franti sings, “There is a part of me that can’t go on today/and there is a part of me that finds a way.”
Michael Franti & Spearhead have never been afraid of making political statements and being forthright about social issues, true to the messages of peace and nonviolence that come from Rastafari beliefs and from reggae legends like Bob Marley. “Good To Be Alive Today” is an acoustic guitar driven track that tackles everything from climate change and police brutality to drone strikes and ISIS. True to form, Franti infuses this sorrowful song with hope, asking people to remember the little “moments of victory” in life.
A personal favorite on the album is “Crazy for You,” a song about the power of loving someone amidst a seemingly crazy world of violence and political difference. The romantic declaration is accompanied by bright, staccato horns and a full unison chorus, and is made sweeter by Franti’s reference to the song as an ode to his wife.
Though some may be wary of the EDM elements on Soulrocker, Michael Franti & Spearhead have always pushed the boundaries of reggae styles and popular music, and this album is no different. From joyful declarations of love to thought-provoking songs, Soulrocker at once fully feels the weight of a world prone to violence, misunderstanding and hate, while recognizing that joy and hope keep people motivated to create change. Franti’s hope is that everyone can become a “soulrocker,” what he calls someone who “lives from the heart with compassion for all, and who’s got tenacious enthusiasm for music, life, and the planet.”
Live music tourists to Austin, TX will add Afrobeat to their show calendars in greater numbers if Hard Proof continues releasing solid albums like this summer’s Public Hi-Fi Sessions 03. Since 2008, members of Hard Proof have purveyed African funk, world music, and jazz inspired by sub-Saharan Africa, while also paying their dues in other notable Austin acts such as Black Joe Lewis, The Calm Blue Sea, Ocote Soul Sounds, Spanish Gold, Cougar, and The Echocentrics. Hard Proof adds Public Hi-Fi Sessions to nearly a decade of high-energy live performances and recorded output of albums and singles.
Recorded live to tape by Jim Eno between December 2015 and February 2016, each song on Public Hi-Fi Sessions packs its own punch while holistically showcasing the Fela Kuti-inspired group at a new level. Horn arrangements and solos captivate and weave freely in and out of the guitar, bass and drums that push the recordings forward and display the group’s ability to build hypnotizing, danceable rhythms.
Hard Proof has earned a well-deserved reputation as one of Texas’s best Afrobeat, funk, and jazz groups. Inspired by everything from a busted lip to painted flowers to questioning established religious institutions, this tracks on this album should impress those both familiar and new to Hard Proof’s live performances and recordings.