Welcome to the January-February 2021 issue of Black Grooves, sponsored by the Indiana University Archives of African American Music and Culture. In honor of Black History Month, we’re featuring projects that explore the Black experience across multiple musical genres.
Baritone Will Liverman presents music from Black composers on Dreams of a New Day, composer Joseph C. Phillips Jr. explores racial injustice in his new opera The Grey Land, and jazz legend Archie Shepp collaborates with Jason Moran on Let My People Go.
Title: The Grey Land Artist: Joseph C. Phillips Jr., Numinous, Rebecca L. Hargrove Label: New Amsterdam Formats: CD, Digital Release date: November 20, 2020
Towards the end of 2020, after a tumultuous
year of reckoning with racial injustice, Joseph C. Phillips Jr. released an
album of his stirring hour-long multimedia “monoopera,” The Grey Land. The opera traces Black sorrow after the countless
deaths of African Americans at the hand of the police through the lens of an
anonymous Black mother considering the future of her young child. Unease,
bleakness, and sorrow saturate this music, but they are balanced by moments of
calm, joy, and the beauty of everyday life, as Philips also reminds us of the
still throbbing hope of a land “where the beautiful promise of happiness,
liberty, and life may yet manifest true to finally include her family too.”
Title: Let My People Go Artist: Archie Shepp & Jason Moran Label: Archieball Formats: Digital Release date: February 5, 2021
A living legend in jazz, saxophonist Archie Shepp’s six decade career is
notable not only for expanding the cannon towards avant-garde and free jazz,
but also for the socially conscious and Afrocentric themes of his albums. Five
years ago, he met pianist-composer Jason
Moran backstage at Belgium’s JazzMiddelheim Festival, and the two have
performed together on many stages since that auspicious occasion. In addition
to Moran’s many albums and soundtracks, the 2010 MacArthur “Genius” Grant
awardee is also known for groundbreaking productions with his wife, Alicia Hall
Moran, including Two
Wings: The Music of Black America in Migration. Shepp and Moran’s new
album, Let My People Go, seems like a natural progression for these two
musicians who both actively promote an appreciation for Black history through
World-renowned soprano Janinah Burnett, known for her performances on Broadway as well as the Metropolitan Opera, is releasing her debut studio album, Love the Color of Your Butterfly. Classical operatic themes combine with a multitude of styles, such as jazz, blues, and spirituals, coming together to showcase both Burnett’s incredible versatility as well as the influences that shaped her into the talented and expressive musician she is today: “When the time came for me to make a body of work that represented my deepest artistic desires, I took an inventory of my musical influences and creations and came up with a concept that blended my past with my present.”
Title: Live Artist: R+R=NOW Label: Blue Note Formats: CD, LP, Digital Release date: February 12, 2021
Musical giant Robert Glasper is one of the music industry’s heavy hitters that just can’t miss. The Houston native, who became most iconic during the development of the neo soul and late hip hop music era, has had the pleasure of touching numerous projects and performing with countless artists over the past three decades including the likes of Bilal, Yassin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def), Jill Scott and many others. Glasper has also been awarded multiple Grammy and Emmy awards for his contribution to both music and film. His latest project, R+R=NOW Live, is yet another addition to his substantial legacy.
Title: The Democracy! Suite Artist: Wynton Marsalis, The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Septet Label: Blue Engine Formats: Digital Release date: January 15, 2021
After the ambitious critique of social and
political divisiveness in last year’s The
Ever Fonky Lowdown, Wynton Marsalis returns to his affable, tuneful self
with The Democracy! Suite, an album with a message that promotes
optimism in the future of democracy while acknowledging the struggles of recent
history. With a few exceptions in his career, Marsalis is a conservative in
jazz, though that doesn’t make his music any less enjoyable to listen to, and The Democracy! Suite is a solid
collection of perfectly swung tunes given life by players at the top of their
game. Using a common argument from Marsalis, jazz itself is taken as a metaphor
for democracy, a way of keeping us all together, working for unity while
recognizing our individuality.
Like most artists, trumpeter and composer Gabriel Alegría and members of his Afro-Peruvian
Sextet have been profoundly affected by the pandemic. But thanks to their
“determined fans and a poem-gone-viral,” the group has been able to persevere
in the face of adversity. The result is their new concept album, Social
Distancing, a “musical memoir (& protest)” based on artistic
collaborations inspired by the 2020 pandemic as well as issues of social
justice that have surfaced over that past year. “Every sound and rhythm,” says Alegría, “is an attempt to
guide you safely away from the confusion” into the band’s safe space:
Afro-Peruvian jazz music.
Jazz ensembles fronted by a vocalist and trumpeter in equal roles are far and few between, and that’s a major part of the charm of Sounds of A&R. Led by April May Webb (vocals) and Randall Haywood (trumpet and flugelhorn), who are musical partners as well as partners in life, the duo calls to mind the classic pairing of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. Rounding out this family affair are two of Webb’s siblings—Jacob Webb on bass and Nathan Webb on drums—plus guitarist Charlie Sigler, pianist James Austin, and harpist Riza Printup. On their impressive third studio album, Questions Left Unanswered, S.O.A.R. offers a mix of new arrangements of romantic classics and bold, fresh originals that speak to contemporary issues.
Academy Award winning actress and director
Regina King recently released the ground-breaking film adaptation of One Night in Miami. Based on a play by Kemp Powers (who also
wrote the screenplay), the plot is a dramatization of what might have
happened during a 1964 meeting between Cassius Clay (later known as Muhammed
Ali), Sam Cooke, Malcolm X and Jim Brown. The basis of this meeting called by
Malcolm X was to discuss the different paths that these men were taking and to
both praise and critique their efforts in the ongoing fight for equality. While
the specifics of the meeting are fictitious, many of the events surrounding the
plot actually happened: Cassius Clay changing his name to Mohammed Ali and joining
the Nation of Islam; Sam Cooke releasing his iconic song “A Change is Gonna
Come;” Jim Brown ending his football career to become an actor; and Malcolm X’s
constant surveillance by the FBI prior to his assassination on February
JUNO Award-winning singer-songwriter Dominique Fils-Aimé
expresses her eclectic interpretation of soul music in her latest album, Three
Little Words. Produced, arranged, and mixed by the acclaimed producer
Jacques Roy, this project combines a multitude of sounds, themes, and cultures,
creating a album that is both powerful and thought-invoking. The 15 tracks
feature heartwarming melodies, inspired lyrics, and beautiful arrangements that
provide a window into Fils-Aimé’s soul while also seeking to enrich the soul of
the listener. Scheduled to release during Black History Month, the album is the
final installment in the artist’s trilogy exploring the roots of African
American musical culture.
Chicago’s venerable Alligator
Records is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and to kick off the
festivities the blues label is shining the spotlight on Selwyn Birchwood, a “new generation
blues artist.” Building upon his widely acclaimed 2017 album, Pick Your
Poison, Birchwood’s new release, Living in a Burning House, is his
third project for the label. Across the 13 original tracks of the album, the
Florida native demonstrates his phenomenal technique on both six-string and lap
steel guitar, as well as his exceptional talent as a singer-songwriter and storyteller.
Bluesman Alabama Slim of Vance, Alabama was poised for
a late-in-life breakout with a scheduled appearance at the 2020 New Orleans
Jazz & Heritage Festival. Although the event was cancelled due to the
COVID-19 pandemic, Slim is moving forward with the release of his new solo project,
The Parlor. On the album, the 82-year-old performer dives deep into the soulful
blues that he grew up listening to in the South.
Title: Right Now Artist: Willie Jones Label: The Penthouse/Empire Format: Digital Release Date: January 22, 2021
A native of Shreveport, Louisiana, a 26-year-old Willie Jones
has crafted a genre-bending sound that captures his Southern roots and
incorporates the other diverse musical influences that he loves. On his debut
album, Right Now, he secures his place as a next generation country
artist, joining the small but growing roster of Black artists who are
revolutionizing the genre by deftly adding contemporary elements of hip hop and
Grammy-nominated Zydeco artist Corey Ledet pays homage to his family and musical heritage on his latest release, Corey Ledet Zydeco. This is Ledet’s 14th album since releasing his full-length debut (3 Years 2 Late) in 2004, and features the multi-talented artist performing on vocals, accordion, drums, and washboard. Ledet’s unique style is influenced by multiple genres including early jazz, be-bop, blues, and traditional Creole music, as well as by musicians of Zydeco past and present.
Title: The Ska from Jamaica Artist: Various Label: Doctor Bird; Dist. Cherry Red Formats: CD, Digital Release date: December 18, 2020
While working in the vast Trojan Records archive in London, Jamaican music specialist Laurence Cane-Honeycutt discovered the production master for an unissued 1966 compilation, The Ska from Jamaica. The 12 tracks, recorded in Jamaica from 1964-1966, were produced by Lindon Pottinger and featured many of era’s leading musicians, including the Maytals. Released in August 2020 by Trojan Records as a Record Store Day special vinyl limited edition, the album is now available as an expanded two-CD set produced by Cane-Honeycutt, with 47 additional tracks. Most of these were culled from 7” singles released on Rita and Benny King’s UK-based Ska Beat label, which was sold to Trojan in 1971, but other tracks were never released in the UK and are quite rare.
This recent gospel compilation from
Swedish producer and collector Per Notini is a three disc, 84 track set focused
exclusively on a capella singing without any instrumental accompaniment.
Featuring many well-known quartets such as the Fairfield Four and Soul Stirrers as well as lesser known
artists, the set traces stylistic changes over a thirty year period, concluding
in 1969 before the ‘contemporary’ gospel era. These groups created some of the
most inventive and progressive African American vocal music of the post-war
period, which had a profound effect on later R&B and soul artists, not to
mention artists across all other genres.
In keeping with the season, we’re starting off with our list of the Best New Holiday Albums, featuring releases from Warren Wolf, Lynda Randle, Amber Weekes, Leslie Odom Jr., Pentatonix, and the Hadestown cast, plus honorable mentions.
One of the most essential parts of the holiday season is the music we listen to with our family and friends. This year, we especially need to come together to celebrate (virtually or in person), so we’re offering our list of the most comforting and inspiring holiday albums that have been released over the past few months. Included are brief reviews of our top six holiday albums of 2020, including releases from Leslie Odom Jr., Warren Wolf, the original cast of Hadestown, Amber Weekes, Lynda Randle, and Pentatonix. Also included is a list of honorable mentions, since there were too many amazing albums released this holiday season to cover in depth. Although this Christmas and holiday season may be a bit different from what most of us are used to, we hope these new music selections will help make this Christmas feel just as special as the last.
The Blues Images team strike a resonant chord again
this year with their annual blues calendar and CD package. The wall calendar,
featuring a historic advertisement for Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Pneumonia Blues”
on the cover, displays additional photographs and graphical artwork that help
bring to life the classic Pre-War blues classics included on this year’s audio
selections. Beautiful photographs of Peg Leg Howell, Bertha Henderson, Ramblin’
Thomas, Victoria Spivey, and Blind Boy Fuller will help pass the months of 2021
as the calendar’s pages are turned, including a stand-out photo of Lead Belly
and Martha Promise on their wedding day in the month of July.
Fans of Bob Marley will have no shortage of Marley-related releases to choose from this holiday season. In December, UMC/Island will release The Complete Island Recordings, a new 11CD box set featuring all nine Bob Marley & The Wailers studio albums recorded for Island Records as well as two live albums (Live! and Babylon By Bus). The set spans a decade, beginning with 1973’s Catch A Fire and concluding with 1983’s Confrontation, a posthumous album released two years after Marley’s death. Additionally, on November 20, Universal is reissuing the same 11 albums and the compilation album Legend on vinyl as half-speed mastered editions. A third set of these albums, which are being pressed at the legendary Tuff Gong International headquarters in Kingston, will also be released on vinyl on December 11. The Tuff Gong set features the original Jamaica-recorded version of Catch A Fire, which is without overdubs, longer fades, and two extra tracks from the sessions.
Rarely a year goes by without a
new release from the Hendrix archives and 2020 is no exception. This year’s
offering, Live In Maui, features both the audio and video documentation of
the “Rainbow Bridge Vibratory Color/Sound Experiment” concerts performed by the
Jimi Hendrix Experience in Hawaii on July 30, 1970, plus a new documentary and
liner notes that chronicle the story behind the making of the film Rainbow Bridge. As is the case with the majority of these posthumous
releases, the results are a mixed bag. For most Hendrix fans, however, there is
likely enough new, high quality content to warrant the purchase of this three
disc set. First and foremost, there’s the music, a remarkable live performance previously
available only on bootlegs, offered here in superb sound, newly restored and
mixed by Eddie Kramer and mastered by Bernie Grundman.
Any Prince fan on your
holiday gift list would likely be thrilled to receive the new
edition of Sign O’ The Times, one of the Prince’s most memorable albums now offered as
a super deluxe box set. Featuring 92 tracks across eight CDs plus a DVD and a 120-page
illustrated hardcover book with essays by Dave Chappelle, Lenny Kravitz, and
various Prince scholars, this set can be considered a bargain. In addition to the
original 1987 double album remastered by Bernie Grundman, the other CDs include
63 previously unreleased tracks ranging from single remixes and B-sides to live
songs plus a complete concert performance recorded in Utrecht, Netherlands, on
June 20, 1987 during the Sign O’ The Times Tour.