Javen – Grace

javen
Title: Grace

Artist: Javen

Label: Tyscot

Formats: CD, Digital

Release Date: June 22, 2018

 

Born and raised in Hollywood, Florida, Javen P. Campbell is the 12th child in a family of 13. His career in the music industry began in 1999 after he was signed with Crowne Records. Since then, Javen has made a name for himself in many facets of the Christian music and entertainment industry—as a vocalist, songwriter, and actor. He is also a well-known television personality, hosting Now Living on the Christian network TBN and The Gospel Music Experience alongside Tye Tribbet. Recently Javen released his 6th album, Grace, with contributions from current gospel icons like Tye Tribbet, Tim Bowman Jr., and Johnny Rez.

Featuring eight songs written by Javen over the years, as well as an arrangement of the classic hymn “Amazing Grace,” Grace is beautifully produced from start to finish. The album combines harmonic, instrumental, and rhythmic aspects of Christian pop and classic gospel as well as new production techniques and rhythms from music of the African diaspora such as dancehall and hip hop.

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Javen opens the album explaining his understanding of the word grace, and how the term speaks to his faith. Stating he has come to understand grace as “God’s love, power, and strength,” he explains one must trust in these things to truly have access to God’s power and favor: “Grace is not something you do/but something you receive.” Immediately following this powerful introduction is the gorgeous title track duet, “Grace”, featuring Margaret Bell. This compelling song showcases a classic modern gospel sound accompanied by magnificent backing vocals as the absolutely awe-inspiring voice of Margaret Bell takes total command of the song. An acoustic version of this song in Spanish by artist Johnny Rez, closes the album, as well, providing an artful compliment to not only Bell but the entire collection of worship tunes.

Javen is a spectacular artist and vocalist with such a warm and smooth tone remnant of artists like Smokie Norful and Sam Cooke, but from time to time he is a slightly outshined, vocally, by the artists he features. This is especially apparent in his duets, such as “Grace” with Margaret Bell, and “You Lift Me Up” with Christina Bell. However, this takes nothing away from the album—if anything it shines a light on the brilliance of Javen as a songwriter. Another stand-out track is the song “Fresh Oil,” originally released on Javen’s 2013 album, Worship In the Now, and re-recorded as a duet with Na’sha Watkins for Grace. “Fresh Oil” is an absolutely stunning song just perfect for the smooth stylings and timbre of both Javen and Watkins as they offer their prayer lyrics: “Fresh Oil from Heaven cleanse my heart/Holy Spirit I call, from you I don’t want to part”. This song is extremely soothing while maintaining the capacity to bring you to tears.

Grace is a wonderful and eclectic album with a perfect marriage of songs and artists. It is an offering that will touch and uplift your soul, leaving you feeling renewed and blessed.

Reviewed by Jared Griffin

Lamont Dozier – Reimagination

Reimagination Dozier
Title: Reimagination

Artist: Lamont Dozier

Label: Goldenlane Records

Format: CD

Release Date: June 6, 2018

 

 

The name Lamont Dozier, if heard, perhaps would bring little or no reaction to the general public. But, if one plays or hums many major tunes released by 1960s and 70s Motown artists, know that Dozier was part of the composers team behind these successful groups. Now you his name.

Lamont Dozier, along with the Holland Brothers, wrote the great tunes at Motown—Smokey, The Four Tops, The Temptations and yes, even The Supremes—all owe their success to these gentleman. Dozier, besides being one of the greatest songwriters ever, is a smooth singer and accomplished piano player. In the late 60’s, he left Motown and, along with the Holland Brothers, formed the label Hot Wax. After that, Dozier started recording solo material. His  classic tunes in the 70’s included hits such as, “Going Back To My Roots” and “Why Can’t We Be Lovers”. In the 80’s, Dozier teamed up with Phil Collins on the hit, “Two Hearts.”

Now, Dozier is back with a new release titled, Reimagination. This album is a collection of twelve tracks previously written for other artists while at Motown, but Dozier performs them in a way that will make you forget the original. Joining him for this collaboration is Graham Nash, Lee Ann Womack, Todd Rundgren, just to name a few in on the festivities.

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On the second track, “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You), Dozier reworks the former classic with Gregory Porter. First, the song is done in acapella , then the song moves into a gospel offering—hand clapping, feet stomping, take it to the river sounds. Dozier uses the same approach on, “Reach Out I’ll Be There”.  One of the most underrated singers at Motown was Kim Weston. Her classic, “Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me A Little While), gets a fresh, new makeover in the form of accoustic blues featuring Marc Cohen. Now that’s quite a Weston tribute.

Martha & The Vandellas has the honor of having two of their classics included on Reimagination. “Love Is Like A Heatwave” and “In My Lonely Room”.  “In My Lonely Room” happens to be, in my opinion, Dozier’s favorite track. He fools you in the beginning, starting the song by singing, “Love Is Here”, which is the opening of a Supremes track, but goes quickly into “In My Lonely Room”. WOW! The words after all these years really hit you in the feels.

Who but Dozier knows these tunes best? After all, he wrote them, so he can and does perform them the way he sees fit. Reimagination is pure gold, Motown fan or not. Thanks Lamont!

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

Shirley Davis & the Silverbacks – Wishes & Wants

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Title: Wishes & Wants

Artist: Shirley Davis & the Silverbacks

Label: Tucxone Records

Formats: CD, Vinyl, Digital

Release Date: May 25, 2018

 

Shirley Davis’ path to becoming lead vocalist of Shirley Davis & the Silverbacks has been anything but ordinary—from working at London’s Wembley Arena as a young teen to becoming one of the top soul and funk vocalists in Australia to singing on a cruise ship.  Her musical journey continued after a chance encounter at a Sharon Jones concert in 2014; Davis was invited by Alberto “Tuco” Peces and Genesis Candela from Tucxone Records to come to Madrid and record an album. Davis was introduced to the Silverbacks in the studio and the connection between them was immediate.

Two years after releasing their acclaimed debut album, Black Rose, that put them on the modern soul and funk map, Shirley Davis & the Silverbacks are back with Wishes & Wants. The 9-track album includes everything from emotional ballads like “Treat Me Better” to more upbeat, funky tracks like “Kisses,” but each song has in common the strong soul that Shirley Davis always delivers. And while Davis’ soulful voice is always mesmerizing, the Silverbacks deserve recognition for their ability to match the power and energy conveyed by their lead singer. The band’s musical skill is highlighted in tracks such as “Nightlife,” in which the funky groove laid down by the organ, horns, guitar, and drums beautifully pairs with the vocals. Following is the official video single for the equally funky title track:

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While their first album may have hinted that Shirley Davis and the Silverbacks deserve a spot among the contemporary soul and funk greats, Wishes & Wants proves that they deserve to stay. And according to Shirley Davis, this isn’t the last you’ll see of her: “This is what I believe I will do for the rest of my life. I am meant to be the soul diva of Europe.”

Reviewed by Chloe McCormick

Deva Mahal – Run Deep

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Title: Run Deep

Artist: Deva Mahal

Label: Motéma Music 

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

Release Date: March 23, 2018

 

Robust talent runs generationally, especially when you’re the offspring of blues icon Taj Mahal and dancer/artist Inshirah Mahal, as proven with Deva Mahal’s debut album, Run Deep. Forging her own sound as part blues, part indie-rock and all soul, Mahal gives her listeners one of the edgiest, most emotionally drawn voices in the industry today.

The first track, “Can’t Call it Love,” opens with a riveting guitar riff and empowering lyrics: I’m feeling new like an old-school instrumental / I’m getting in the mood / And feeling sentimental, which can be taken as both commentary on one’s new found infatuation and Mahal’s coming into her own. The entire album features innovative instrumentality and Mahal’s varied vocalization styles. For example, the closing track, “Take a Giant Step,” showcases her sultry pop sound as she reinterprets this standard by Carole King and Gerry Goffin (a song her father has also recorded).

The focal track of the album, both vocally and visually, is the offering “Snakes.” Mahal’s vocals jump right off the album from the first moment she begins singing, but the visualizations of the video are pure genius—black and white coloring, shadow dancing and the animation of a swamp monster, said to have been inspired by her favorite childhood “girl power” book, Liza Lou and the Yeller Belly Swamp by Mercer Mayer.

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Mahal has definitely come out from under her parent’s shadow with this artistic debut. From the first note to the last few strains, this artist’s soulful and funky melodies will have you running deep into the magical world of Deva Mahal, breathlessly awaiting her next move.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Don Braden – Earth Wind and Wonder

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Title: Earth Wind and Wonder

Artist: Don Braden

Label: Creative Perspective Music

Formats: CD

Release date: May 4, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by Jamaal Baptiste

 

 

Reggie Quinerly – Words to Love

Reggie Quinerly

Title: Words To Love

Artist: Reggie Quinerly

Label: Redefinition Music

Formats: CD, Digital

Release Date: April 20, 2018

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by Jared Griffin

 

Bumpus – Way Down Deep

Bumpus
Title: Way Down Deep

Artist: Bumpus

Label: Bumpus

Release Date: March 21, 2018

Formats: Digital

 

 

Veteran Chicago soul band Bumpus returned in a big way this March, with its first release since 2007.  The band was a funk tour de force in the 2000s, but faced some personnel changes in the early 2010s that sidelined new recording projects.  The group still has performed locally over the past few years, and the band’s new lineup and infectious live energy is effectively captured on its Way Down Deep EP.

 

 

Bumpus is perhaps most well-known for its killer, high-energy live show, with one of the region’s funkiest rhythm sections and a horn line to match.  However, Way Down Deep showcases the band’s vocalists, James Johnston, Ava Fain and Tina Howell, whose layered, soulful voices drive the 6-song set. The band’s bread and butter is tightly knit guitar-driven funk tunes like the self-assured “Step Sure or Step Aside,” a challenge to “suckas” that is propelled by an active bass groove and soulful Hammond organ.  The EP’s highlight is the 2-part “Way Down Deep.” Part 1 is a solid lovin’ song infused with horn hits and funky drumming, but the song’s bridge gradually morphs into the spaced-out P-Funk territory that characterizes Part 2, with phased out vocals and instruments as well as an extended What’s Going On – style saxophone solo over gradually fading backing vocals.

It is a great benefit to Chicago’s music scene that Bumpus is back and bumpin’. Hopefully, Way Down Deep will usher in another decade of solid grooves and soulful songwriting.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Sy Smith – Sometimes a Rose Will Grow in Concrete

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Title: Sometimes a Rose Will Grow in Concrete

Artist: Sy Smith

Label: Psyko

Formats: CD (via Bandcamp), Digital

Release date: February 16, 2018

 

 

Long hailed as the hardest working artist in underground soul, Sy Smith’s fifth album, Sometimes a Rose Will Grow in Concrete, proves once again she is a force to be reckoned with in both the underground and outer-ground music scene. This release is the first album completely written and produced by this multitalented musician, featuring her slick synth bass playing and lithe piano keying along with her incomparable soprano voice and signature vocal arrangements.

Smith’s voice shines through on this album, as she employs various techniques that she is known for and some she seems to honor straight out of 1990s R&B. The title song, “Sometimes a Rose will Grow in Concrete,” teases us with a small sample of her amazing whistle register, bringing it out at the end of the song as a parting gift. Lyrically, this song speaks to the current time, as its inclusion of lyrics such as “Sometimes we get no answers but still the questions will remain…sometimes a rose will grow in concrete, sometimes a caged bird will sing” reflects an activist tone regarding American society. Carrying a strong pen, Smith reveals victories won and battles still being fought as she provides a powerful, if haunting, ode to people who come through the harshest of trials and still bloom as beautifully as roses.

Smith’s continuing penchant for go-go is present in this album with the song, “Now and Later.” The funk-inspired beat interspersed with a cool rhythm-and-blues sound reflects back to Smith’s genesis in DC with her former go-go band “In Tyme.”  “Camelot,” one of the smoothest contemporary R&B ballads, reinvigorates that 1990s Janet Jackson-esque sound, complete with multiple background vocals, string instrumentals and long-winded notes held and released over and again in differing registers.

Providing us with never-ending, smooth stylings that both echo yesterday’s R&B and set the standards for contemporary soul, Sy Smith’s Sometimes a Rose Will Grow in Concrete proves that Smith herself is that enduring rose whose presence grows sweeter and stronger with each new release.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Stax Singles Vol. 4: Rarities & The Best of the Rest

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Title: Stax Singles Vol. 4 – Rarities & The Best of the Rest

Artist: Various

Label: Stax/Craft Recordings

Formats: 6-CD set, Digital

Release date: February 9, 2018

 

From the early days of the CD era, there has been a constant stream of reissues from the legendary Stax/Volt catalog. Three volumes (28 CDs total) of The Complete Stax/Volt Singles plus artist-specific box sets, plus a pile of compilation CDs and box sets. Not to mention the many individual album reissues, which often included extra singles and other tracks not on the original LPs. What is left in the vaults to compile into this new 6-CD box, issued in conjunction with Concord Music Group’s celebration of the 60th anniversary of Stax’s founding?

It turns out, not 6 discs worth of compelling music, but there are many interesting obscure gems lurking among a bunch of tunes that were forgotten for a reason. The set is also padded with familiar material such as Booker T. & The M.G.’s cuts already issued on the artists’ own box set, and slightly edited single versions of Big Star hits.

The set has a scattershot focus, which actually works to its benefit by offering interesting music to several audiences. Discs 1-3 are B sides of singles included in the first three massive “Complete Singles” boxes (which, it turns out, contain mostly A sides and not “complete” singles by the definition of both sides of a record). Compiled by Rob Bowman, author of Soulsville, U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records and co-producer of the first three sets, these discs probably contain the fewest of what the casual listener might consider dull duds. For the deep-diver, some of the sides are obscure enough to be sourced from dubs of scratchy old 45’s, meaning the master tapes are missing.

To Concord’s credit, they offer a detailed listing of the set’s contents, so consumers can decide for themselves if there is enough interesting material to justify the purchase price. If the music compels you, the physical product is recommended because the 76-page booklet provides much detail and context, plus some nice artist photos from the old Stax promotional files.

Which brings us to the other half of the box. Discs 4-6 cover Stax’s attempts to diversify its catalog from its southern-soul target market. The material is mined from sub-labels: Enterprise (pop and country), Hip (pop and rock), Ardent (rock), and the gospel imprints Chalice and The Gospel Truth. The booklet offers very detailed information about these labels, which will be of interest to the deep-divers and completists. In general, these efforts were not financially successful for Stax, but some of the music (particularly the Ardent albums released by Big Star) turned out to be widely influential and critically acclaimed.

Stax’s pop and country releases were obviously a mixed bag. If the “best” is collected here, there was a lot of dreck in the catalog. The rock offerings are more interesting, including the more rock-ish and psychedelic pop songs. The Memphis music scene of the 1960s and ‘70s had a unique take on rock, with both soul flavorings and a “garage” feel. It’s exciting and doesn’t sound manufactured. Likewise with the best of Stax’s pop productions—they don’t sound as plastic and disposable as much of the competing material that was churned out of NYC, L.A. and Detroit.

The best of the back three discs is #6, covering the gospel labels. In general, the arrangements and performances hue toward Stax’s soul sound and feel, of great benefit to Sunday’s music. The gospel passion is turned up a notch in the caldron of backbeat soul, creating great impact. It might have been a better idea to peel off this material into a separate Stax gospel compilation.

For the hardcore Stax fans, and for listeners deeply into American soul music of the ‘60s and ‘70s, there will be enough material in this set, plus the booklet text, to justify its place in your collection. For others, the appeal will depend on your curiosity and willingness to wade through a wide variety of artists, styles and genres.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

Bootsy Collins – World Wide Funk

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Title: World Wide Funk

Artist: Bootsy Collins

Label: Mascot Records

Release date: October 27, 2017

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

 

Last October the world was blessed with the latest project by legendary funk bassist, vocalist, and composer Bootsy Collins. World Wide Funk contains all of the elements Collins is most known for as an artist: funky grooves, excellent playing, and a whimsical sense of humor (evidenced by the assertion on the introductory track that Bootsy was born “a long, long time ago…deep below the Ohio river—before anyone ever heard of Ohio”).

It is difficult to overstate the impact that Collins has had on generations of musicians through his work as a bassist with James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic, as well as on his own prolific solo recordings. The sheer variety and skill of his collaborators on World Wide Funk hints at the otherwise inestimable breadth of his influence.  Nearly every track on the record features a guest artist, from the shredding styles of the KFC chicken container-donning guitarist Buckethead (“Worldwide Funk” and “Illusions”) to golden-era hip hoppers Doug E. Fresh and Big Daddy Kane (“Worldwide Funk” and “Hot Saucer,” respectively) to young gun bassist Alissia Benveniste (“Bass-Rigged System” and “Thera-P”). There are also features by musicians who may be considered “usual suspects” on a collaboration-based album by a musician of Collins’s stature, such as bassists Victor Wooten and Stanley Clarke (“Bass-Rigged-System”) and guitarist Eric Gales and drummer Dennis Chambers (“Come Back Bootsy”).

As one would expect from the Star Child, the M.O. of World Wide Funk is “One Nation Under a Groove”—grooves are now, as they have always been, the meat and potatoes of Collins’s style. Whether offering virtuoso musicians opportunities to stretch out as on “Come Back Bootsy” and “Bass-Rigged System,” or providing a steady groove to rap or party over as on “Pusherman” and “Ladies Nite,” rhythm is the name of the game. Even the more sentimental songs like the ‘90s R&B-Tinged “Heaven Yes” and the Jimi Hendrix-inspired, synth-based “Salute to Bernie”—a tribute to Collins’s late bandmate Bernie Worrell (who is featured on the track)—groove hard. While guest artists occasionally veer into social themes (as on “Pusherman” and “Illusions”), they do so over immensely danceable tracks without the navel-gazing and preaching to the choir that is often the currency of social commentary in pop music.  Overall, however, World Wide Funk imagines a reality in which every listener is part of one big party at which some of the sharpest musicians of the day (and in some instances, of all time) are having a jam session.

Generations of bassists have tried to emulate Bootsy Collins’s style, chops, and taste, and this album is essential listening for musicians who want to learn how to really groove. It’s also great party music. It is no accident that Collins’s bass lines are the most sampled in all of hip hop and dance music, and this album certainly provides a new batch of infectious riffs to bump. Bootsy has been the funkiest bassist around since the ‘60s and he still is. Creating lines that range from funky slapping to deep-in-the-pocket grooves, it is doubtless that Bootsy will continue to find new listeners who have an appreciation for rhythm and low end. Bootsy Collins’s classic albums still sound fresh today, and World Wide Funk is destined to join them in the future.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Meshell Ndegeocello – Ventriloquism

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Title: Ventriloquism

Artist: Meshell Ndegeocello

Label: Naive Pop

Formats: CD, LP, digital

Release date: March 16, 2018

 

Meshell Ndegeocello has produced widely divergent albums over the course of her career, each offering captivating sonic explorations. This is also true of her new release, Ventriloquism, a collection of cover songs completely reworked to reflect Ndegeocello’s incomparable eclecticism and fluid movement across genres. She explains:

“Early on in my career, I was told to make the same kind of album again and again, and when I didn’t do that, I lost support. There isn’t much diversity within genres, which are ghettoizing themselves, and I liked the idea of turning hits I loved into something even just a little less familiar or formulaic. It was an opportunity to pay a new kind of tribute.”

Joining her on this exploration are several longtime musical partners and colleagues: guitarist Chris Bruce, drummer Abraham Rounds, and keyboardist Jebin Bruni. The project was engineered by S. Husky Huskolds, and mixed and mastered by Pete Min.

As with her Pour Une Âme Souveraine (2012), dedicated to Nina Simone, Ndegeocello’s new album features songs by musicians who have inspired her over the years, with a particular bent toward 1980s classics. Opening with Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam’s 1985 dance hit, “I Wonder If I Take You Home,” Ndegeocello follows the general style of the original, but softens the vocals, blurs the beats, and augments the electronic effects resulting in a spacey, otherworldy interpretation. Al B. Sure’s “Nite and Day” is slowed down to a dreamy, sensuous ballad that fades out on a distorted guitar riff. On her cover of TLC’s signature song, “Waterfalls,” she uses instrumental fills instead of attempting to replace the rapped verse by Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes. Likewise, in her newly released video for the song, she takes a more metaphorical slant to the subject matter of people tragically affected by drugs and HIV, instead of the more explicit approach in the award-winning TLC video.

Ndegeocello’s gorgeous cover of Prince’s “Sometimes it Snows in April” was the first single off the album. Released via Rolling Stone on January 12, she explained in the accompanying article, “I’ve made so much because of [Prince]. I still can’t believe he’s not on the planet and this was as close to closure as I’d get.” Emotionally laden with throaty vocals, whispered reminiscences and off-kilter harmonies, Ndegeocello’s tribute is arguably the most poignant cover version of the song to date. As she shifts into the final couplet, “all good things they say never last, and love is love until it’s past,” sung over stripped down instrumentals, it’s as though we’re hearing a voice from beyond mourning a life tragically cut short. Farewell, Prince.

On George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog,” Ndegeocello tones down the funk and the theatrics, placing more emphasis on the instrumentals through overlapping, layered guitars. Janet Jackson’s “Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun)” leaves Quiet Storm territory, taking on a darker, more foreboding character with distorted bass, cello and electronic effects. This gloomy soundscape is broken by the Force MDs “Tender Love,” which is given a lighter, folksier treatment with harmonica fills and strummed guitars.

Taking on another iconic female vocalist, Ndegeocello’s rendition of Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer” works extremely well as a slow ballad backed by guitars and piano, and the tempo is a much better fit for the melancholy yet wistful lyrics. The album closes with Sade’s “Smooth Operator.” Stripped of its Latin rhythms and turned on its side, the song takes on a percussive, bottom heavy electronica sound, with virtuosic dueling bass and guitar replacing the sax solo on the original.

On Ventriloquism, Ndegeocello unleashes her extraordinary creativity, reimagining classic songs of the ‘80s and ‘90s in new and unexpected ways. In doing so, she also demonstrates her independence from an industry that too often tries to pigeonhole black artists and black music.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Orgōne – Undercover Mixtape

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Title: Undercover Mixtape

Artist: Orgōne

Label: Colemine

Formats: CD, cassette, limited ed. green vinyl, digital

Release date: February 2, 2018

 

One of Southern California’s premiere funk and soul outfits, Orgōne has been spreading its cosmic energy throughout the universe for nearly two decades. Fronted by vocalist Adryon de León, who plugs the soul into the ensemble, Orgōne is known for its unique mélange of gritty old school ‘60s and ‘70s music infused with contemporary influences drawn from the multicultural milieu of L.A. These influences were perfectly expressed on their last album, Beyond the Sun (2015). While recording new tracks in the studio, the band hit upon the idea of producing a cover album dedicated to a few of the artists “who paved the road for us.” The result is Undercover Mixtape, offering 13 classics paying homage to artists from Stax and Motown, as well as legendary jazz, funk and rock musicians.

The album opens with an outstanding rendition of the jazz-funk instrumental “The Black Five,” originally released by Roy Ayers Ubiquity in 1974. The Orgōne crew swaps the string section and Ayers signature vibes for layered keyboards and guitar, providing an updated sound. Switching over to guitar-driven hard rock on “Cynthy-Ruth,” the band is led by Tarin Ector (The Solutionagenics), whose gritty vocals are well-suited for this track from the 1970 debut album by Detroit’s Black Merda.

Adryon de León is brave enough to tackle “Think,” Aretha Franklin’s iconic 1968 feminist anthem, and absolutely nails it with fantastic backing from the band. She also shines on several other soul-drenched tracks: Betty Wright’s “Let Me Be Your Lovemaker” which also showcases the horn section; the Gladys Knight tearjerker “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye);” and Gwen McCrae’s “All This Love That I’m Givin’.” Guest vocalist Kelly Finnigan is featured on “Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” adhering closely to the Otis Redding version of the song.

If you want funk and nothing but the funk, you won’t be disappointed with the remaining tracks on the album. The band seriously grooves on two back-to-back instrumentals, deftly channeling Booker T’s organ licks on “Melting Pot,” then getting down on an extended version of Cameo’s “It’s Serious.” The Meters, clearly one of the Orgōne’s favorite groups, are covered on “It Ain’t No Use,’ once again featuring the amazing Adryon de León, and “Looka Py Py,” on which the band navigates the complex polyrhythms and deep bass grooves with precision. Last but certainly not least, are two tracks from the funkiest funk band on the planet. Parliament’s 1971 classic, “The Breakdown,” features Mixmaster Wolf, who normally fronts the eight piece L.A. funk band Breakestra. The album closes with another P-funk classic, “Cosmic Slop,” with Tarin Ector once again taking over the helm on this haunting tale about urban poverty that still resonates today.

Undercover Mixtape offers an edifying excursion through soul and funk classics of the ‘60s and ‘70s, performed by a band steeped in the grooves and vocalists capable of covering the era’s most iconic singers. This might be Orgōne’s side project, but they deserve a victory lap for keeping the funk funky and the soul soulful in the 21st century.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Crowd Company – Stone & Sky

Crowd

Title: Stone & Sky

Artist: Crowd Company

Label: Vintage League Music

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

Release Date: October 20, 2017

 

 

Crowd Company, the UK based 8-piece funk and soul band, spent two years touring Europe to support their debut album, Now or Never. Now the band is back with their second release, Stone & Sky. The new album expands on their trademark vintage sound by adding a modern edge that makes listeners want to sing and dance along.

The 13-track Stone & Sky was mainly recorded live in the studio, giving each track a spontaneity and raw energy that makes you feel like you’re at one of Crowd Company’s vibrant and engaging live performances. The lead single, “Saw You Yesterday,” has a catchy chorus with a soul funk vibe straight from the 1960s. Other tracks, like “Soar,” prominently feature the distinct vocals and perfectly blended harmonies of the band’s three singers—Jo Marshall, Esther Dee and Rob Fleming—while also allowing space for some great solos from the horn section. In contrast, the melancholy ballad “Can’t Get Enough” is infused with organ, bringing a more soulful and emotional vibe to the fore.

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Crowd Company has successfully transferred the energy of their live performances into the tracks on Stone & Sky. If just listening to their infectious choruses and beautiful harmonies isn’t enough, the band will be making their North American tour debut in 2018 and will be performing at the New Orleans Jazz Fest this spring.

Reviewed by Chloe McCormick

The Ebony Hillbillies – 5 Miles from Town

Hillbillies

Title: 5 Miles From Town

Artist: The Ebony Hillbillies

Label: EH Music

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 15, 2017

 

 

After four successful albums and TV appearances on the BBC and ABC’s “Good Morning America,” The Ebony Hillbillies are back with their latest album, 5 Miles From Town. The group, which hails from the streets of New York City, is keeping African American string band traditions alive for new generations. Their fifth album features 12 tracks that seamlessly combine pop, folk, bluegrass, and jazz to create The Ebony Hillbillies’ trademark sound.

In addition to reviving string band music through tracks such as “Hog Eyed Man,” a classic 19th century American fiddle tune from the Upper South, the group also offers new songs with strong social commentary. The gritty “Another Man Done Gone (Hands Up Don’t Shoot)” explores the issue of police brutality, while the similarly-themed “I’m On My Way To Brooklyn” ends with the ominous sound of gunshots.

Other songs, like “Fork in the Road,” are more lighthearted and highlight the beauty of the fiddle and banjo, as performed by group leader Henrique Prince and Norris Bennett, respectively. Additional performers include Gloria Thomas Gassaway, Allanah Salter and Iris T. Olden (vocals, bones, shaker), William “Salty Bill” Salter (acoustic bass), Newman Taylor Baker (washboard percussion), and A.R. (aka Ali Rahman, cowboy percussion).

The album concludes with the title track, “Five Miles From Town,” a very lively rendition of the old-timey classic that’s punctuated with plenty of whoopin’ and hollerin’ before fading out on an extended percussive improv section with hints of jazz.

Almost 15 years after the release of their first album, The Ebony Hillbillies continue their mission to educate and inspire, fusing the sonic textures of the past with contemporary music elements and socially-relevant lyrics.  5 Miles From Town lives up to the legacy created by the Manhattan-based band and offers a fresh take on the sound that listeners love.

Reviewed by Chloe McCormick

 

Nina Simone – Mood Indigo: The Complete Bethlehem Singles

Nina Simone
Title: Mood Indigo: The Complete Bethlehem Singles

Artist: Nina Simone

Label: Bethlehem Records

Formats: CD, Mp3, Vinyl

Release Date: February 9, 2018

 

 

Nina Simone was wooing audiences with her sultry vocals and captivating stage presence well before her first mainstream hit flooded the market. Her 1958 debut album, cut in one day at Belton Studios in midtown Manhattan, earned her the eventual moniker, “High Priestess of Soul”, which is all the more amazing considering Simone was a mere 25 years old. By 1959, she was a household name in the jazz world with her cover, “Porgy (I Loves You, Porgy)”, released by Bethlehem Records. As the song climbed the charts, Simone moved on to the larger and financially stronger Colpix Records, but not before cutting some of the smoothest tracks of her long career. After her departure, Bethlehem released those six additional tracks, and to commemorate the 60th anniversary of these recordings, BMG/Bethlehem has compiled these singles together as Mood Indigo: The Complete Bethlehem Singles.

This 14-track CD version follows the chronology of Simone’s Bethlehem recordings, starting with the first A-side “Porgy (I Loves You, Porgy)” and ending with the last A-side, My Baby Just Cares for Me”. The collection also contains an alternative take of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” as well as seven single-only tracks that previously have only been available on the original 45s. The LP version, pressed in standard black and limited edition blue vinyl, holds 12 tracks plus a bonus 7” replica of Simone’s first single backed with “Love Me or Leave Me.”

The Bethlehem Sessions displays a young Nina Simone confidently putting her distinctive stamp on the set of jazz numbers and Broadway tunes. Although this was her first album, Simone had contract stipulations asserting her right of musical direction, and she chose songs she was familiar with from her club years. In the collection, she is either performing solo on piano or backed by bassist Jimmy Bond and drummer Al “Tootie” Heath, both of whom went on to lengthy careers. Bonuses nestled in the liner notes are new interviews with Heath and an Ashley Kahn narrative regarding the recording of “Little Girl Blue”.

2018 not only marks the 60th anniversary of the Bethlehem Sessions, but it will also see Simone’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, slated for April 14. Simone, who would have turned 85 on February 21st, has never left the public’s eye since her passing in 2003. She recorded numerous albums on diverse labels from 1959-1974, and in the 30 years following her recording period she performed live to multiple global audiences.  Just as Simone traveled the world, she also traveled down many musical roads. Mood Indigo captures Nina Simone at an incandescent moment—when her sound held both a complexity of style and a purity of youth that is now preserved for ages to come.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Calvin Richardson – All Or Nothing

Calvin Richardson

Title: All Or Nothing

Artist: Calvin Richardson

Label: Shanachie

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 29, 2017

 

 

Calvin Richardson, aka “The Soul Prince,” grew up in North Carolina, honing his vocals on the local gospel circuit where he first met his longtime friends K-Ci & Jo Jo of Jodeci.  In the early ‘90s, Richardson’s urban contemporary vocal group Undacava was briefly signed to Tommy Boy Records during Monica Lynch’s tenure as president. He paid his dues in the game working with acts like Angie Stone, Raphael Saadiq and Charlie Wilson. In 2009, Richardson was chosen to record a tribute album to Bobby Womack, Facts of Life: The Soul of Bobby Womack, which was nominated for a Grammy. On a personal note, my ears took notice. If one is asked to pay homage to “the street poet” Mr. Womack, then you must be the real deal, right? Stay tuned for my answer.

Richardson’s new album, All or Nothing, is radio friendly. The title track opens things up with a bouncy flow and ‘80’s vibe: “I want you girl, I like your body.” Not exactly R. Kelly, and that’s a good thing. Joseph Pigee on keyboards is an added bonus. On “Treat Her Right,” Richardson digs deep and channels his inner Bobby Womack. He opens with a spoken intro directed to the audience, just as Womack did on so many of his songs: “Fellas, if you have a good woman, treat her right.” You can’t tell me Richardson didn’t have Womack in mind. Make her feel special. Ladies will love this tune.

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Now my answer. Is Richardson the real deal? I’ll play it safe and say he is very talented. It’s unfortunate he’s still flying under the radar.

All or Nothing is quality work from Richardson, who brings back the old school R&B vibe with his passionate vocals and songs that show just how you go about romancing the ladies.

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

 

Rahsaan Barber – The Music in the Night

The Music in the Night
Title: The Music in the Night

Artist: Rahsaan Barber

Label: Jazz Music City

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: November 3, 2017

 

 

Saxophonist Rahsaan Barber, known for his magnificent compositions and virtuosic playing, recently released his newest project, The Music in the Night. This album showcases Barber’s renditions of well-known standards while also displaying his versatility as an arranger. Barber creatively uses rhythmic hits, melodic interludes, and minimal re-harmonization in his arrangements while maintaining the original musical structure of the standards. He described the album’s concept and personnel in his Kickstarter campaign video:

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The album begins with a beautiful interpretation of Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely,” arranged as a jazz swing tune with a slight harmonic variation that adds a pleasant surprise to the ears. The listener is later treated to a reggae-flavored version of “My Funny Valentine,” beginning with a memorable foot-stomping groove that repeats throughout the tune. On Barber’s slow blues rendition of “Georgia on My Mind,” we experience the soulful side of the ensemble through heartfelt solos by Barber, guitarist James DaSilva, and pianist Matt Endahl. The Indiana University Jacobs School of Music alum also included a version of “Skylark” by another IU alum, Hoagy Carmichael, the lyrics of which inspired the album title.

The Music in the Night is comprised of brilliant arrangements and great performances by the members of the band (which also includes drummer Derrek Phillips and 20-year-old bassist Jack Aylor). I recommend this album to anyone interested in listening to beautiful interpretations of well-known standards.

Reviewed by Jamaal Baptiste

Johnny Rawls – Waiting For the Train

Johhny Rawls
Title: Waiting For the Train

Artist: Johnny Rawls

Label: Catfood

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 15, 2017

 

 

Mississippi-born Johnny Rawls has a long history in the industry, from serving as band director for soul singer O.V. Wright, to backing artists such as Z.Z. Hill and Joe Tex. The singer-songwriter and guitarist released his first solo project in 1985, and in 2014 was recognized by Living Blues magazine as “Male Blues Artist of the Year.” Rawls, however, is not a traditional blues musician. His southern roots are often more firmly planted in soul, with branches extending into the blues. Such is the case with his latest project, Waiting For the Train. This is Rawl’s seventh in a string of highly successful albums on the Catfood label. He’s accompanied by his long time band, The Rays, featuring label owner Bob Trenchard on bass. Trenchard also co-wrote the album’s six original songs with Rawls, which are interspersed with four fine covers.

Opening with “Rain Keep Falling (“Til I’m Free),” the tone is set with a tight horn section and rocking guitar solo from Johnny McGhee, while Rawl’s gravelly voice expresses a fearlessness about facing the future. This segues into “Las Vegas,” a song about high rollin’ and risk taking that many who have visited Sin City can surely relate to, but there’s also a more serious message about faith, hope and change. These themes emerge again in “Blackjack Was a Gambler,” a story song about “Jack and Sally” that seems to combine elements of “Mustang Sally,” “Stagger Lee” and “Jack & Diane.”

One of the highlights of the album is the title track, “Waiting for the Train,” a contemplative ballad featuring interesting chord changes and an excellent guitar solo. The train as a transport to heaven is a common theme in gospel music, and this is obviously Rawls’ intent as he sings in the voice of a man contemplating the afterlife, “Get on board and don’t look back . . . I’ve got to be ready, when it comes for me, I’ve got to be ready to be set free.”

Rounding out the album is the funky dance number “California Shake” that’s infused with a ‘70s vibe, and four cover songs including Wilson Pickett’s “I’m in Love,” Syl Johnson’s “We Did It,” Tyrone Davis’s “Turning Point,” and a nice rendition of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.” Rawls closes with another original, “Stay With Me,” a poignant love song to a partner in life’s journey.

Waiting For the Train is a solid effort by soul-blues artist Johnny Rawls, offering songs that are especially relevant to those of a certain age who have faced many obstacles but still find the strength to push forward towards the promised land.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

 

Martha High – Tribute To My Soul Sisters

Martha High
Title: Tribute To My Soul Sisters

Artist: Martha High

Label: Record Kicks

Formats: CD, LP

Release date: November 17, 2017

 

When the holidays come around, one often thinks of James Brown. Why? He died the day after Christmas, and across the world, JB fans celebrate his legacy and discography. JB will live forever and so will his cohorts, who had the honor of touring and playing next to “Soul Brother # 1.” Bobby Byrd , Marva Whitney, Lynn Collins all are in soul heaven, but Bootsy Collins is still going strong. Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley & Pee Wee Ellis still tour. Vicki Anderson is still with us, and Martha High likewise is still with us and touring. Martha who? Yes, even for some who are JB diehards, that name is not clicking like the other names mentioned. Trust me, the real ones know her name and if you don’t, read on.

Martha High was born Martha Harvin and grew up in Washington, DC. For thirty years, she performed backup vocals for JB. Then, in 2000, she left JB and hooked up with Maceo Parker.  Her new album, Tribute To My Soul Sisters, backed by Japan’s premiere funk group, Osaka Monaurail, is just that and more.

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On the opening track “Think (About It),” you hear perhaps two of the most famous lines in hip hop: “Use what ya got, to get what ya want” and “It takes two to make a thing go right.” Cool C’s “The Glamorous Life” and Rob Base’s “It Takes Two” sampled those lines respectively, but it was Lyn Collins who first shouted those lines in 1971. Martha High has chops and on her version of the song she pays homage to Collins.

“This Is My Story” was originally done by The Jewels, the group High joined in the ‘60s just before they were hired to tour with JB. High’s vocals come across as praise and possess a “what a time we had” kind of vibe. “I Cried,” a track originally done by Tammi Terrell, was a eyebrow raiser. Terrell had no connection to JB, but nevertheless, High pulls it off and makes you want to seek out the original. Marva Whitney and Vicki Anderson also get their due from High.

Martha High would have fit right in on the Academy Award documentary 20 Feet From Stardom. Makes you wonder why she never became bigger in the game. The same can be said for all of the female vocalists who performed with JB.

Tribute To My Soul Sisters not only acknowledges former JB vocalists Lyn Collins, Marva, Vicki, and Tammi, but is a fine tribute to Martha High, who is still going strong and sounding great. Better late than never.

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

Bobby Byrd – Help For My Brothers, The Pre-Funk Singles 1963-1968

Bobby Byrd

Title: Help For My Brothers – The Pre Funk Singles 1963-1968

Artist: Bobby Byrd

Label: BGP

Format: CD

Release date: October 6, 2017

 

 

Bobby Byrd, hands down, is the perhaps the greatest sideman in the history of music. Now I may get killed with the “what about Mick/Keith, Bono/Edge, Chuck D/Flavor Flav” comments, all of which are valid points (though Chuck & Flav may be the best comparison in my opinion). But if the name Bobby Byrd isn’t jumping right at you, allow me to take this time to bring you up to speed.

Who else could go on a stage and hold their own with “the hardest working man in show business,” “Soul Brother # 1,” “The Godfather of Soul,” “Mr. Dynamite”? Ok, by now I think you know who I’m referring to. Yes, Bobby Byrd was James Brown’s right hand man for 20 years, one of the original Famous Flames, which explains my earlier comparison. Think “Sex Machine.” James said, “Get Up” and Bobby Byrd had the comeback, “Get on up.” In fact, James calls Bobby Byrd’s name to “take ’em to the bridge.” But before the “Sex Machine” era, and apart from the Famous Flames, Byrd released his own recordings. As all hip hop historians know, Eric B & Rakim sampled Byrd’s “I Know You Got Soul” (1971), and there are many others that used Byrd samples, including Jay-Z. But let’s go back a little further.

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This new CD compilation, Help For My Brothers: The Pre Funk Singles 1963-68, begins with the earliest singles released by Byrd on the Federal, Smash, and King labels. All were produced by James Brown, who also shared co-writing credits on many of the songs. To hear Bobby Byrd sing and be the front man might seem strange, but his voice is actually good. No screaming over lyrics. One of the earliest tracks, “I’m Just a Nobody,” has that 60’s vibe and the tempo is what was the norm during that period, a slow groove. Also included is his first solo hit, “Baby, Baby, Baby” with Anna King from 1964, as well as “We Are in Love” from 1965, an even bigger success.  Byrd takes a gamble with “Write Me A Letter,” perhaps the best track on the CD. His vocal presentation is not what one expects: rockabilly. Yes, rockabilly!

Bobby Byrd didn’t have James Brown’s stage showmanship, but his voice perhaps was a little better. Help For My Brothers, the first-ever compilation of Byrd’s earliest, lesser known singles, shows the evolution of his solo work. Byrd was more than JB’s sideman, and for that we will be forever grateful.

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

Isaac Hayes – The Spirit of Memphis 1962-1976

Isaac Hayes

Title: The Spirit of Memphis 1962-1976

Artist: Isaac Hayes

Label: Craft Recordings

Format: 4-CD box set

Release date: September 22, 2017

 

 

The Spirit of Memphis 1962-1976 is a four-CD set documenting the multi-faceted musical career of the legendary Isaac Hayes, who would have turned 75 this year. Even in a city that has spawned many influential musicians, Hayes stands out as one of the most important artists to emerge from Memphis. As one of the most identifiable figures in soul music, his significance spans far beyond the city he called home. Hayes’s talents allowed him to fill a wide range of roles in the music business—session musician, songwriter, producer, and, of course, performer.

This four-disc set, produced by Joe McEwan, provides many splendid examples of the multiple aspects of Hayes’s musicianship. Arranged in “chapters,” each disc highlights a different facet of Hayes’s career. Disc One consists of songs for which he was the writer or producer. Most of these songs were performed by Stax Records legends such as Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas, Johnnie Taylor, William Bell, and Booker T & the MGs. The Sam & Dave tracks alone will open the eyes of many listeners who are completely unaware that Hayes co-wrote the hit songs “I Thank You” “Hold On! I’m a Comin’,” and “Soul Man,” arguably the epitomic example of a Stax song. Disc One opens with “Sassy,” an instrumental blues groove released by Floyd Newman; the song was Hayes’s first co-write credit for Stax, and also features Hayes on organ. This disc is full of great songs and effectively serves as a “best of” Stax. However, two of the most surprising tracks featured here came out on another great Memphis label—Hi Records. The surprise here, though, is not the label; rather it is the fact that they were recorded by Charlie Rich. It is likely that only the most knowledgeable Hayes fans are aware that he wrote songs for the country music singer.

Disc Two features singles released by Isaac Hayes on the Volt and Enterprise labels, tracing his transition from writer/producer to soul singer/performer. These include the Shaft theme song, which for many people is the definitive Isaac Hayes recording. However, this disc also showcases many relatively unknown gems such as his cover of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” One of the standout tracks is an instrumental blues titled “Blue Groove” released by Sir Isaac and the Do-Dads. The extent to which Hayes was a good blues player and arranger is overlooked, and this track serves as an example of these skills. Another standout track, “Rolling Down a Mountainside” recorded live at Wattstax, also demonstrates just how good Hayes was as a producer and arranger. The disc concludes with two radio spots that capture an important moment in the marketing of black albums, as legendary deejay Jack “The Rapper” Gibson plugs tracks from The Isaac Hayes Movement album that exceeded normal airplay length.

Disc Three, Cover Man, features Hayes’ performing songs that were written by other people. These cover songs include an outstanding version of T-Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday.” Hayes’s cover of this blues standard is appropriate because although written by Walker, it was popularized in 1961 by Memphis musician Bobby “Blue” Bland. Another fitting track is a medley of “Just Want to Make Love to You” and “Rock Me Baby,” a blues standard popularized by B. B. King. This medley features Hayes alone on piano and vocals, serving as a vehicle to present Hayes in his purest form to the listener. Rounding out this disc are several previously unreleased tracks recorded live at the 1972 Operation PUSH Black Expo in Chicago.

The final CD, Jam Master, consists of only seven tracks, some backed by the Bar-Kays and/or the Movement. As the title suggests, however, most of these tracks feature extended jams, representing the lushest arrangements and productions on the four-disc set. Two of these tracks, including the previously unreleased “Black Militant’s Place,” were recorded for Shaft so any fans of that soundtrack will love this disc. The previously unreleased instrumental version of “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers is a highlight and arguably one of the most interesting pieces of the entire collection. Wah-wah guitar, strings, and driving repetitive bass lines are just a few of the devices that are characteristic of the grooves for these jams.

Collectively, this compilation of Isaac Hayes’s music will be welcome to any fan of Stax Records. However, the variety of music on this four-CD set makes it pleasing and palatable to just about anyone, and could very well convert uninitiated listeners into an ardent fans of soul music and Isaac Hayes. In addition, students of arranging or music technology and production would be doing themselves a tremendous disservice by not giving this set in-depth study. It should also be noted that the 60-page hardcover booklet features an essay by author Robert Gordon as well as interviews with artists and some great photographs from the Stax Records heyday, making this a must-have addition to the collection of any budding musicologist with an interest in American music. The final added bonus is a 7-inch vinyl replica of Hayes’s first release on the Youngstown label, featuring the singles “C.C. Rider” and “Laura, We’re On Our Last Go-Round.”

The Spirit of Memphis should be considered one of the best box sets to be released in years, and it is about time that the contributions of Isaac Hayes are beginning to be recognized through a compilation of this nature.

Reviewed by Joel Roberts

John Lee Hooker – King of the Boogie

John Lee Hooker

Title: King of the Boogie

Artist: John Lee Hooker

Label: Craft Recordings/Concord Bicycle Music

Format: 5-CD Box Set

Release Date: September 29, 2017

 

Turning 100 calls for a celebration regardless of who you are, and in the case of musician John Lee Hooker, only a “Go Big or Go Home” mentality will suffice. In honor of this boogie master’s centennial, Craft Recordings has released a career spanning, retrospective 5 CD box set honoring this guitar-driven, legendary artist. King of the Boogie features not only Hooker’s iconic hits, but also rarities, live recordings and several previously unreleased tracks. Housed within a 56-page hardcover book, the collection includes a wide selection of photos, taken throughout the musician’s life, plus new liner notes by writer and John Lee Hooker historian Jas Obrecht, as well as by the artist’s longtime manager and friend, Mike Kappus.

The collection is part of a year-long celebration and commemoration to Hooker and as a complement to his musical recordings, the GRAMMY Museum® in conjunction with the John Lee Hooker estate is exhibiting Hooker’s performance outfits, guitars, photos, and awards in his home state of Cleveland, Mississippi through February 2018. At that point the exhibit travels west to the GRAMMY Museum® at L.A. LIVE.

John Lee Hooker (1917-2001) was born 100 years ago, near Clarksdale, Mississippi to a sharecropping family. Throughout the years, there has been some academic debate about his original birth year. However, The Hooker family maintains 1917 as the de facto date. Says daughter Zakiya Hooker, “As we all know there was no great push for accuracy back then in that portion of the community. But we just stick to what my father told us, which was what he was told by his mother.”

As a young man, Hooker worked his way up north to Detroit to pursue his passion of music. By 1948, the artist had a hit on his hands with one of his earliest recordings, “Boogie Chillun‘.” From there, Hooker would record over 100 albums throughout the course of his six-decade-long career, building a diverse collection of fans along the way—from folk musicians and beatniks, to the stars of the British Invasion. The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Carlos Santana are among those who cite Hooker as a major influence.

Mike Kappus recalls in his liner notes, “Everyone who knew John Lee Hooker loved him and felt privileged to be in his presence. While he influenced generations of musicians with his incomparable style, that impact on musicians stepped up to yet another level once they got to know and, universally, love him.” In his later years, as Hooker found himself in one of the busiest, most productive eras of his career, the bluesman was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Blues Hall of Fame and Memphis Music Hall of Fame; was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and took home four GRAMMY® Awards, plus a coveted Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000.

The album is organized chronologically, showcasing Hooker’s influential recording career from start to finish. Disc one begins with his first release, “Boogie Chillen.” The remainder of the disc provides Hooker’s classics the way he was first known—as sole commandeer of pulsing rhythms on the electric guitar. Disc two and three offer stunning recordings of previously unreleased sessions—“Unfriendly Woman” and “Meat Shakes on her Bones”—as well as the more widely-known “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer” and “Homework.”

Disc four is a completely live tribute section, featuring Hooker’s performances at various Newport Folk Festivals, the American Blues Festival in Hamburg, Germany, Café Au Go-Go in New York and California’s Soledad Prison. The final disc of the collection features Hooker’s collaborations with other musicians such as “Little” Eddie Kirkland, The Groundhogs, Canned Heat, Santana, George Thorogood, Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison, Joe Cocker, Robert Gray, Warren Haynes, Jimmie Vaughn, Los Lobos, Eric Clapton and B.B. King.

Timeless and classic, cutting-edge and influential—all describe John Lee Hooker’s storied life and career as the undisputed boogie ruler. Whether solo and unplugged or accompanied and wired up, Hooker’s guitar and vocals prove that in the world of the Delta and blues, no one else but Hooker can wear the Crown.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Johnny Mathis – The Voice of Romance-Columbia Original Album Collection

Johnny MathisTitle: The Voice of Romance- Columbia Original Album Collection

Artist: Johnny Mathis

Label: Legacy

Format: 68-CD Box Set

Release date:  December 8, 2017

 

Sony Legacy has released a number of Johnny Mathis compilations over the past decade, including The Complete Global Albums Collection in 2014 and The Singles for his 80th birthday the following year. But if you’re interested in a complete career retrospective with plenty of tempting bonus material and you have a large budget, look no further than this year’s mega box set, The Voice of Romance: The Columbia Original Album Collection. Weighing in at 68 CDs and currently listed for $428, this set features 62 of the singer’s albums, including 25 albums that have never been released on CD in the U.S.

Also included are 40 previously unreleased songs and two never-before-heard LPs: the unreleased I Love My Lady recorded in 1981 with Chic’s Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, and The Island, a 1989 collaboration with Sergio Mendes. Mathis, who has been recording for Columbia since his self-titled 1956 debut, assisted with the curation of The Voice of Romance, which concludes with his most recent album, Johnny Mathis Sings the Great New American Songbook.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Cheryl Fortune – Simply Cheryl

Cheryl Fortune
Title: Simply Cheryl

Artist: Cheryl Fortune

Label: Tyscot

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: October 13, 2017

 

 

Well known in the gospel community for her cutting-edge songwriting and heartfelt vocals, Houston native Cheryl Fortune inspires and amazes with her debut album, Simply Cheryl for Tyscot Records. Prior to the launch of her solo career, Cheryl served as a vocal arranger and background vocalist with Grammy nominated artist James Fortune & FIYA in addition to co-penning several of the group’s hit songs, which have graced the top ten on Billboard gospel charts. Along with her work with FIYA, she has served as songwriter and guest vocalist on projects associated with numerous other national gospel artists such as Kirk Franklin, Shirley Caesar, Isaac Carree and Bishop T.D. Jakes. Clearly a veteran in her own right, it was simply a matter of time before she would grace us with this solo offering.

Simply Cheryl is anchored by the hit single “Fighters,” a song inspired by a Mother’s Day card from the singer’s 13 year-old daughter affirming Fortune’s kindness, love, strength and resilience (i.e. fight) during specific challenging moments of the artist’s life. “Fighters” links Fortune, a domestic violence survivor, in affirmation with listeners who have also experienced similar life circumstances:  “We’re fighters never gonna give up… I’ll take your hand and you’ll take mine, we’ll conquer this think they call life…” Couched in a hard-hitting drum line instrumentation created by producer Lucius B. Hoskins, “Fighters” also reflects broader social impact, as an adopted theme song of encouragement for people recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey.  However, in the words of Fortune during a recent interview, this project is not “victim music.”  Rather, the album’s songs are sacred expressions of triumph created and shared by one who has persevered in spite of life-changing obstacles.

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Other notable tracks such as “4 A Night” and “Figure It Out” (both produced by Terence Vaughn), like the entire project, are rooted in ‘80s and ‘90s R&B music traditions. While listeners will surely recognize definitive rhythmic grooves, guitar melodic lines, synth bass lines and horn stabs, harmonic progressions, and talk boxes, among other textures linked with R&B sensations such as Bobby Brown, Keith Sweat and Mint Condition to name a few iconic artists, the gospel message of encouragement, hope and resilience remains at the forefront of the album.

Simply Cheryl is a spectacular album that will leave you eagerly waiting to see what else Cheryl Fortune has in store. For those seeking to experience a powerful inspirational message saturated in timeless grooves, Simply Cheryl is for you!

Reviewed by Jared Griffin and Tyron Cooper