Christmas just isn’t Christmas without good music to really get you in the spirit! We’re featuring brief reviews of our favorite new holiday releases from PJ Morton, John Legend, Cece Winans, Aloe Blacc, Motown Gospel, and After 7. Our specially curated Black Grooves Christmas Spotify playlist features our favorite songs from these artists and more, providing the perfect soundtrack as you get together with friends and family to celebrate the holidays. Continue reading
The 16th annual Blues Images calendar and CD reproduces classic, rare, and recently rediscovered artwork and recordings of pre and post-war blues songs from blues masters such as Charley Patton, Memphis Minnie, Leola B. Wilson, William Harris, Papa George Lightfoot, and others. While a copy of Papa George Lightfoot’s debut disc on Sultan Records (“Winding Ball Mama” / “Snake Hipping Daddy”) has been rumored to exist for decades, it recently surfaced and came to the attention of John Tefteller and his Blues Images team. The disc has been remastered and is included on this compilation along with other rare tracks such as William Harris’ “I’m a Roamin’ Gambler” / “I Was Born in the Country—Raised In The Town.” Continue reading
Title: Complete Cuban Jam Sessions
Formats: 5-CD set, 5-LP set
Release date: November 16, 2018
Panart, one of the first and most successful independent record labels in Cuba, embarked upon a project in 1956 to commission and record a series of descarga, or improvised jam sessions incorporating jazz and popular forms of Cuban music. Over the next decade, the label released several volumes of these descarga under the generic title, Cuban Jam Sessions. The series sold over a million copies, becoming the first commercially successful descarga recordings and inspiring many other projects over the ensuing decades. Now, all of the descarga sessions released by Panart from 1956-1965 have been remastered and packaged together for the first time in Craft’s definitive 5-disc box set, The Complete Cuban Jam Sessions. The set was co-produced by Cuban music specialist and Panart label historian Judy Cantor-Navas, who also wrote the liner notes for the well-illustrated accompanying booklet. Continue reading
Label: MVD Visual
Release Date: January 19, 2018
In 2003, an all-star cast of traditional and contemporary gospel singers performed songs written by Bob Dylan on Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan. The Grammy-nominated compilation album included 11 tracks written by Dylan during his “born again” period from 1979 to 1981, in which he produced Christian music. Three years later, the companion documentary DVD of the same name was released by Burning Rose Video, which is currently out-of-print. Thankfully, MVD has stepped into the void and reissued the video.
The DVD documents the making of the Gotta Serve Somebody album, including interviews with performers such as Regina McCrary, Terry Young, and Mona Lisa Young. Also featured is performance footage of 9 of the 11 tracks that originally appeared on the CD, such as the namesake “Gotta Serve Somebody” by Shirley Caesar, “I Believe In You” by Dottie Peoples, and “Saved” by the Mighty Clouds of Joy, as well as bonus tracks from Arlethia Lindsay, Great Day Chorale, and Bob Dylan himself. The Gotta Serve Somebody DVD premieres 1980 footage of Dylan performing “When He Returns,” the first documented performance released from his “born again” era. The DVD certainly lives up to the fame of its companion album, winning the Gold Medal for Excellence Audience Choice for Best Music Documentary at Park City Film Music Festival.
Reviewed by Chloe McCormick
Artist: Various Artists
Formats: CD, LP, Digital
Release date: July 8, 2016
Michael Jackson, Prince, James Brown, and Rick James are all gone, so Stevie Wonder is pretty much all that remains from that bygone era. Enter DJ Spinna from Brooklyn, who can move butts on the dance floor, whether he’s spinning hop hop, house, funk or soul. That’s probably why promoters book him and he stays in demand. His “Wonderful” parties, devoted entirely to Stevie Wonder, offer fans a bucket list of quintessential songs from the singer/songwriter/keyboardist’s back catalog. DJ Spinna Presents The Wonder of Stevie Vol. 3 is a tribute CD, though it’s not promoted as one, and is offered as an extension of the parties. Disc one flows in a continuous mix, while the tracks on the second disc are unmixed, or separated.
The John Minnis Big Bone Band’s cover of “Love’s In Need of Love Today” was right on time and well needed, with all the turmoil going on in the world right now. He pulls it off by taking an understated approach, realizing the song without trying to do too much. Tony Sherman covers “As,” another track from Songs In the Key of Life and, like Stevie, provides back-up singers that bring that old-school gospel vibe to the song. Stevie Wonder has written so much great material, some of which he gave to other artists to record, like the Quincy Jones track “Betcha Wouldn’t Hurt Me.” Former Temptations lead singer David Ruffin covers “Make My Water Boil (Loving You Has Been So Wonderful),” while BJ Thomas covers “Happier Then The Morning Sun.” Thomas was always a good vocalist and shows what he can do with good material.
If DJ Spinna’s “Wonderful” comes to your town, check it out. You’ll hear material you probably never knew Stevie wrote or recorded. Meanwhile, this 2-CD set brings the party home. Sign, sealed and — yes — delivered.
Reviewed by Eddie Bowman
Formats: CD, LP, MP3
Release date: June 17, 2016
From 2002-2014, listeners to Chicago’s WHPK could tune in once a week and hear songs from some of the most obscure and neglected corners of the region’s soul music legacy, courtesy of an eccentric and obsessed fan and record collector, Bob Abrahamian. Not only did Abrahamian spin singles from his collection of about 35,000 platters, he also regularly interviewed the artists who performed a style of vocal-harmony music known as Chicago Sweet Soul. Unfortunately, Abrahamian’s obsessive personality and declining mental health got the best of him, and he committed suicide in 2014.
In this anthology, Numero Records drew on Abrahamian’s record collection to produce a tribute both to the man and the music he so passionately championed. The physical media (LP and CD) releases contain an outstanding booklet, with a detailed biographical essay by Numero’s Rob Sevier and brief biographies of the performers, along with transcript excerpts from Abrahamian’s interviews. Sevier and Abrahamian’s sister, Jenny, picked the 16 tunes in this collection (12 selections on the LP version).
The music and audio quality vary, but overall the playing and singing range from competent to excellent. On one hand, it’s clear why some of these artists ended up confined to minor radio play and short turns in Chicago area jukeboxes, but then again, it’s surprising how many competent to excellent soul singers and musicians were working in a single geographic area in the period from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. The disc-to-digital transfers, by Jeff Lipton and Maria Rice at Peerless Mastering, are generally quite good, and the mastering engineers did not overuse digital restoration tools.
Abrahamian concentrated his collecting on something specific yet large-scale—acquiring all recordings by what he described as Chicagoland vocal-harmony soul groups. Judging by the size of his collection at the time of his death, it turned out to be a larger task than one would expect, or that he likely anticipated.
Stylistically, this music would be in line with 1970s mellow soul, not particularly funky and also not on the fringes of disco. It’s similar to the vocal-group output by more-mainstream artists of the time recording for Motown, Philadelphia International and Atlantic. There is an emphasis on the bass line, and strings are often used to augment the vocal harmonies.
Interestingly, Abrahamian’s radio show and interviews survive online, easily heard by any fan of Chicago Sweet Soul music (sittinginthepark.com). His legacy of loving, respecting and publicizing long-ago songs by obscure Chicagoland artists outlives him.
As is the case with most Numero anthologies, if you’re willing to tolerate a range of musical talent and performing competence, you will likely find some new favorites, and the informative booklet will teach you about the music of a place and time, and in this case the personal musical quest of an obsessive collector.
Reviewed by Tom Fine
Artist : Various Artists
Format: CD, LP
Release Date: May 27, 2016
It would be unfair to fault readers who are unfamiliar with Afrobeat. It’s not commercial music and unless you’re a regular NPR listener, the genre might have escaped your notice. Maybe you were one of the lucky ones who saw the musical Fela! –if you were, then you know this music is heavy on horns and bass. If you weren’t, then this CD provides a condensed Afrobeat education. It’s a genre pioneered in the late ’60s by Fela Kuti. Nicknamed “The Black President,” Kuti was to Nigeria what Bob Marley was to Jamaica. Kuti was not afraid to take the Nigerian government to task for corruption and lying to the people, using his music to get social and political messages across. On this two disc set, DJ Rich Medina presents Jump N Funk, a collage of Afrobeat music, titled after the parties Rich Medina helped create and where he still regularly spins Afrobeat classics. These parties never really took off in Medina’s hometown of Philadelphia, but in New York, London, and Miami there is no parking on the dancefloor.
I found it odd that Fela’s son Femi is nowhere to be found on this CD, but Fela’s youngest son, Seun, was featured on two tracks. Disc two opens with the Antibalas, who are one of the biggest Afrobeat acts going today, not counting members of the Kuti family. They open disc two with a live version of “World War IV” at Jazz Café in London, with the lead singer taking the Clinton administration and other world leaders to task. This disc also includes a remake of 1972’s “Soul Moukusa,” a track that early B-boys would use as the soundtrack for popping and locking, while hip hop DJs Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa would cut it up in New York City parks. This remake stays true to the original. Disc one has another remake, Timmy Thomas’s 1973 cut, “Everbody Wants to Live Together,” covered by River Ocean on this set. This sentiment clearly maintains its value in the turbulent times that 2016 has brought.
Back to Seun Kuti. On “Don’t Give That Shit To Me” he says, “Don’t bullshit Africa”—a confrontational stance that shouldn’t put newbies off too much. Even though it is immanently danceable, this is angry political music at heart. Rich Medina appears on two tracks: on disc one’s “Too Much” with Martin Luther & Madlouna, and with Antibalas on “Ja Joosh.” If ever commercial radio programmers wanted to expose this music to a wider fan base in the US, this radio-friendly cut would be the track to get behind.
Afrobeat isn’t for everyone, but if you like a message in your music, I highly urge you to give Rich Medina Presents Jump ‘N’ Funk a try.
Reviewed By Eddie Bowman
Title: Henry Stone’s Miami Sound
Artist: Various Artists
Label: AOTN (Athens of the North)
Formats: CD digipak (20 tracks), LP+45 single (18 tracks, sold out), MP3/FLAC downloads
Release date: June 29, 2015 (in UK)
Miami-based record executive, producer and distributor Henry Stone (1921-2014) served as the main force in Florida’s soul and disco industry of the 1970s. As the head of T.K. Records, Stone contributed to nurturing the ‘Miami Sound’ in countless ways, encouraging the talents of local singers and musicians from in and around Miami, many of whom had little hope of becoming as big as T.K.’s top act, K.C. and the Sunshine Band. Nevertheless, in the current context there is a growing interest among listeners in second-tier soul, and Stone’s catalog represents a wellspring of it. Henry Stone’s Miami Sound pulls together between 18 and 20 tracks of varying content and quality, none of it familiar, in order to convey an overall impression of Stone’s many-faceted activity. It is a boon to those not willing or able to shell out big bucks to own original vinyl 45s of this material, and indeed it would take a fair amount of involved research just to know what they are, and where to look for them.
Although the slipcase refers to Stone as “the king of disco,” this collection is mostly made up of soul and soul-pop, with a little bit of expected T.K. disco style creeping in at the end. The content and artist pool on Henry Stone’s Miami Sound ranges very widely, yet there are some common threads. Stone’s early contact with King Records, both as an outpost producer and talent scout, included a close personal association with James Brown whose long shadow is operating through a lot of this music, such as in Raphael Munnings’ “Sleep On, Dream On” and Oceanliners’ “Cutting Room (Hot Pants).” Although the lead-off track, Little Beaver’s “Concrete Jungle,” is an exception, very little of this material shares James Brown’s, or latter-day Motown’s, interest in topical or socially conscious ideas; love and romance are the dominant themes here. A big standout is Johnny K’s screamingly funny “I Got Bills to Pay,” which provides a welcome point of departure from the lay-it-on-me-baby, you-knock-me-out prattle that typifies many of the lyrics. Miami’s natural cultural connection to Latin music—and, therefore, its position as an incubator to disco—intersects the collection occasionally, most strongly in Funky Nassau’s “Bahama Soul Stew.”
Some of Henry Stone’s Miami Sound is a little underwhelming in that it reflects its sources too closely; although the extra 45 in the vinyl version is the vaunted “Thousand Years” by Brand New—a fabulously rare single—the song itself is a too-thinly disguised knock-off of Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose’s “Too Late to Turn Back Now.” After a few tracks in, it becomes clear that in general the quality of singing is a bit below the level of arranging and backing musicianship, which may explain partly why some of these things didn’t catch on. Lynn Williams’[i] “It Takes Two” is largely sung off-pitch, even as the vocal conveys some measure of lazy, relaxed charm; in contrast, the backing track jams mightily. But this often yields dividends anyway; Leno Phillips’ just-okay vocal on “Confusion” is countered by an arrangement which is straight up sublime. Henry Stone’s Miami Sound summarizes a singular subgenre within American popular music without resorting to obvious choices, which is a bonus, though one misses Timmy Thomas’ incandescent “Why Can’t We Live Together.” For listeners that survived the seventies, the first pass through Henry Stone’s Miami Sound may not reveal all of its virtues, depending on how much baggage and formula one may still bear from the era, and it well may appeal better to hearers not inundated with exposure to 1970s AM radio. Stone, however, did strive for individuality and his productions are a testament to this tight-knit community of talented people; not making a fortune, but creating a lot of music mainly for the fun of making it. And who knows? Maybe we’ll get a hit out of this.
Listen on Spotify here.
Reviewed by David N. Lewis
[i] Lynn Williams is the daughter of singer Hank Ballard.