Welcome to the June 2020 issue of Black Grooves, sponsored by the Indiana University Archives of African American Music and Culture. Please join us in our celebration of African American Music Appreciation Month, originally established by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, as we pay tribute to the monumental achievements of Black artists across all genres.
This month’s features include the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis in a live recording of Duke Ellington’s masterpiece, Black, Brown & Beige; the original cast recording of A Strange Loop, a musical by Michael R. Jackson that was recently honored with a Pulitzer Prize for Drama; and the Ohio-based funk and soul collective Mourning [A] BLKstar’s new double album, The Cycle, addressing the reality of living in a world that is all too frequently hostile to people of color.
Two reissues are also highlighted: Camille Yarbrough’s 1975 release, The Iron Pot Cooker, based on the West African griot tradition; and Celebrated, 1895 -1896, a compilation of very early, very rare recordings by the Unique Quartette, a pioneering African American vocal group.
Title: Black, Brown, and Beige Artist: Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis Label: Blue Engine Formats: Digital Release Date: March 6, 2020
Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra captures and invokes the spirit of Duke Ellington with their release of Ellington’s masterwork, Black, Brown and Beige. The album is a live recording from a performance at the Rose Theater in 2018 with special guests Brianna Thomas (voice) and Eli Bishop (violin). Originally composed for the first of Ellington’s annual concerts in Carnegie Hall and premiered on January 23, 1943, the epic work is considered a seminal musical composition of the 20th century and in Ellington’s words, “is a parallel to the history of the American Negro.” While some parts of the suite were revised and recorded by Ellington after the premiere, the full-length version of the 1943 concert was not released until 1977, three years after his death. Now the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis imbues new life into Ellington’s jazz symphony with a modern interpretation of the complete work that’s full of creative colors and intensities.
Last month, Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop was honored with the tenth Pulitzer Prize for Drama ever awarded to a musical. Described as a meditation on universal human fears and insecurities, A Strange Loop is clearly not your average musical. Based on cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstaedter’s philosophical idea of “the self as merely a collection of meaningless symbols mirroring back on their own essences in repetition until death” (from the liner notes), the musical is a self-referential exploration of Jackson’s experiences in New York striving to become a respected musical theater writer, struggling with his inner contradictions and what it means to be a fat, black, queer writer.
The Cleveland, Ohio-based funk and soul collective Mourning [A] BLKstar is a “multi-generational, gender and genre non-conforming amalgam of Black Culture dedicated to servicing the stories and songs of the apocalyptic diaspora.” Boldly confronting themes of racism, oppression, and injustice, the group’s albums reflect the reality of living in a world that is all too frequently hostile to people of color. Their previous release, The Garner Poems(2018), was a eulogy to Eric Garner and the many other victims of police brutality past and present. M[A]B’s new double album, The Cycle, is yet another epic and thought-provoking addition to the group’s catalog. Set as an 18 movement song cycle featuring vocalists James Longs, Kyle Kidd and LaToya Kent, the group envisions the work as “a humble addition to the long legacy of James Baldwin’s adage of the artist as witness.”
Trumpeter and composer Ambrose Akinmusire is known for extending the margins of jazz, presenting sonically diverse albums that reflect upon the complexity of Black life in America. Such was the case with his 2018 release, Origami Harvest, which deftly wove together genres and socially conscious themes. Akinmusire describes his new release, on the tender spot of every calloused moment, as a quartet album “that studies the blues in a contemporary context.” Though primarily a jazz musician, Akinmusire adeptly taps into the blues of life in America, blowing through his trumpet with “the breath of a black man who’s seen the best and worst of the country.” Accompanying Akinmusire on this project, which features eleven of his highly original compositions, are his long-time bandmates: pianist Sam Harris, bassist Harish Raghavan, and drummer Justin Brown.
One of the most intriguing projects of the year, Ocean Bridges is a collaboration between Washington, DC hip hop artists/producers Damu the Fudgemunk (aka Earl Davis) and MC Raw Poetic (aka Jason Moore), and Moore’s uncle, the illustrious jazz elder Archie Shepp. The album’s title signifies “a re-establishing of the connection between young and old in their general community.” As Moore explains: “I began writing down the parts in my head that could tell a story, a Black American story, that would expand across the ages, a story from my grandfather to my uncle, from my mother to me. We bridged the gaps of time, culture and struggle and made an album I always dreamt of—Ocean Bridges.” Entirely improvised, the eleven tracks also bridge genres, creatively blending live music and spoken word, jazz and hip hop in a manner that maintains the spontaneity of their vision.
Title: Lagos Pepper Soup Artist: Michael Olatuja Label: Whirlwind Recordings Formats: LP, Digital Release date: June 12, 2020
Bassist and composer Michael Olatuja has a unique musical background. Born in London, raised in Lagos, Nigeria, and currently based in New York, he has certainly traversed many continents and engaged with various musical genres across the African diaspora. Olatuja’s third album Lagos Pepper Soup, released eleven years after his Speak (2009) and nine years after The Promise (2011), maintains his unique musical style that blends West African Afrobeats and jazz with the addition of a cinematic touch. According to Olatuja, Lagos Pepper Soup was envisioned as an album that would “fuse this mix of Afrobeat and jazz as if it was a Hollywood film soundtrack.”
Title: I’ve Got You Covered Artist: Wendy Moten Label: Radio Eye Music Format: Digital Release date: February 12, 2020
Memphis native Wendy Moten grew up singing in her father’s church
and listening to her idols Aretha, Stevie, Marvin, and Dionne. After a successful
solo career as an R&B artist in the 1990s, scoring a
major hit with the power ballad “Come On In Out of the Rain,” Moten moved
to Nashville where she became a highly regarded session and backing vocalist
across all genres. Naturally, she was also immersed in country music. Over the
past two decades, she has toured with Faith Hill & Tim McGraw (2005-2018),
Martina McBride (2014-2016), and most recently Vince Gill, while also making her
own debut at the Grand Ole Opry in 2019. After considering a country project
for several years, Moten has finally released I’ve Got You Covered, a
welcome addition to the very limited number of albums by Black female artists
in country music.
Two-time GRAMMY® Award-nominated R&B singer Kehlani has released her long-awaited sophomore album, It Was Good Until It Wasn’t. The former America’s Got Talent star’s debut album, SweetSexySavage, was inspired by TLC’s CrazySexyCool, providing fun, rhythmic, and exuberant sounds Kehlani’s best known for putting out. Kehlani’s new album is much more pared down, expressing slow and sensual narratives, as much indebted to SZA as it is SWV. For this project, Kehlani collaborated with a multitude of guest artists, from the likes of Tory Lanez, Jhené Aiko, Lucky Daye, James Blake, and Masego, all of which do an exceptional job helping to convey her R&B eclecticism—as well as contributions from producers Boi-1da, Andrew “Pop” Wansel, G. Ry, and many more.
Title: Grae Artist: Moses Sumney Label: Jagjaguwar Formats: CD, LP, Digital Release date: May 15, 2020
Singer-songwriter and producer Moses Sumney has dropped his second studio album, Grae, a generous double album released in two parts covering 20 tracks. Back in 2017, Sumney’s previous groundbreaking, genre-less album Aromanticism was well-received, but saw the musician widely labelled as an R&B artist – much to his dismay. He recently said in an interview: “People always look to define you to understand you, but my identity is this kind of patchwork. It’s not something that can be – or that I want to be – defined.” And now with his second project, Sumney places a great emphasis on this message and his artistic vision.
Title: The Iron Pot Cooker Artist: Camille Yarbrough Label: Vanguard/Craft Recordings Formats: LP (first vinyl reissue; 180-gram Record Store Day ed.)* Release date: September 26, 2020
Twenty-nine seconds into track one, “But It Comes Out Mad,” Camille Yarbrough takes a breath. This is not a simple breath, but a deep breath, an exasperated breath. In that one breath, she sets up listeners for the premise of the entire album. The Black community is under pressure, being cooked, and we are tired.
Title: Celebrated, 1895-1896 Artist: Unique Quartette Label: Archeophone Formats: 10-in. Vinyl EP, Digital Release date: May 29, 2020
The Unique Quartette, a pioneering African American vocal group founded and led by Joseph M. Moore, holds the distinction of being the first black quartet to record commercially. According to newspaper accounts, the group was actively performing in the Northeast by the mid-1880s and remained quite popular until disbanding around 1899. The quartet made its first recordings in December 1890 for the New York Phonograph Company, intended for playback on coin-slot phonograph machines. Two of their early wax cylinder recordings were issued in 2005 on Archeophone Records’ GRAMMY-winning two-disc compilation, Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1891–1922,which bears the title of the book by Tim Brooks. In his chapter devoted to the Unique Quartette, Brooks’ concluded: “Were it not for the few, fragile brown wax cylinders that have survived from the early and mid-1890s, we would know little of a style of black quartet singing that was polished, engaging, and highly popular in its day.”1 Archeophone’s new release, Celebrated, 1895-1896, offers the opportunity to hear six exceedingly rare and expertly restored cylinders by the Unique Quartette, all but one revealed for the first time in nearly 125 years.
Detroit native Deitrick Haddon launched his solo gospel career in 2002 with the album Lost and Found, which peaked at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Gospel Charts and received a GRAMMY nomination. Since then he has released a string of critically acclaimed albums as well as singles that have been played extensively on both gospel and mainstream R&B radio stations. Known for his progressive, urban style of gospel music, Haddon is also the founding pastor of Hill City Church in Los Angeles and a former cast member on Oxygen’s reality television show Preachers of L.A. Haddon’s new album, TIME (Truth Is My Energy), has been hailed as his “best work yet.”
Title: La Danse à St. Ann’s Artist: Goldman Thibodeaux and the Lawtell Playboys Label: Nouveau Electric Formats: CD, Digital Release date: May 29, 2020
Living legend Goldman Thibodeaux, a mainstay at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival for over 20 years, is one of the last musicians performing in the traditional French Creole country style known as “La La.” Now 87-years-old, Thibodeaux’s mixed Cajun-Creole roots reach back to early 20th century Louisiana, when as a young boy he saw the great Amédé Ardoin (1898–1942) perform at a local house party. One of the most revered Creole musicians in Louisiana and an early recording artist, Ardoin’s Afro-Creole accordion style paved the way for zydeco music back in 1920s and inspired Thibodeaux to take up the accordion. By 1966, he was playing with the Lawtell Playboys, a group originally founded in 1946 by Bébé and Eraste Carriere (aka Les Frères Carrière) and kept alive by several generations of family members. Now the leader of the group, Goldman Thibodeaux and the Lawtell Playboys present their latest album, La Danse à St. Ann’s.
Title: Vodou Alé Artist: Chouk Bwa & The Ångströmers Label: Bongo Joe Format: Digital, LP Release Date: May 22, 2020
Vodou Alé is the first full length collaborative album between Chouk Bwa & The Ångströmers which showcases Afro-Caribbean voodoo influences from Chouk Bwa’s native Haiti. This debut release offers nine-tracks that merge Haitian mizik rasin (roots music) with the electronic production style of Brussels-based duo The Ångströmers, putting a modern spin on traditional music.
Title: Satirifunk Artist: Junko Beat Label: Drumparade Format: CD, LP, Digital Release Date: June 5, 2020
Trance-inducing, cutting-edge, and improvisational: all are terms that have been used to describe the newest release from the New Orleans progressive funk outfit Junko Beat. On their sophomore album, Satirifunk, the group presents an innovative musical fusion of New Orleans funk and West African tribal jazz with electronic and Latin-Caribbean influences. The result is a powerful, rhythm-heavy sound that truly captivates the listener.
This month we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of the great horn-driven funk band Tower of Power with a review of their 30th album, Step Up.
In the category of string music, we’re featuring African American fiddler Jake Blount’s first solo album, Spider Tales, and the album L.E.S. Douze Volume 2 from Le String Noise, a group featuring fiddler and vocalist Louis Michot of Lost Bayou Ramblers, violinists Pauline Kim and Conrad Harris of String Noise, and cellist and vocalist Leyla McCalla, of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Our Native Daughters.
Jazz releases include drummer Jonathan Barber’s sophomore album, Legacy Holder; tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III & guitarist Matthew Stevens follow-up project, In Common 2; the Spanish Harlem Orchestra’s Latin Jazz Project; the Ruthie Foster Big Band’s Live at the Paramount; and the Brooklyn-based jazz-world music ensemble AJOYO’s sophomore album War Chant.
Blues releases include Reverend Shawn Amos & The Brotherhood’s Blue Sky, and a celebration of Chicago electric blues with Alex Dixon (son of Willie Dixon) on The Real McCoy.
After 50 strong years of music making, Tower of Power is back with their 30th album, Step Up. Known for their wall of sound horn-driven funk, the multi-instrumentalist ensemble has been performing and creating music since the late 1960s under the direction of bandleader and tenor saxophonist Emilio Castillo. A Detroit native, Castillo moved to Oakland, CA where he met baritone sax player Stephen “Doc” Kupka, and they formed a band that would soon become known as Tower of Power. After famous concert promoter Bill Graham heard the group perform at the Fillmore in 1970, he signed them to his label and their debut album, East Bay Grease, was releasedthat same year.
Title: Spider Tales Artist: Jake Blount Label: Free Dirt Formats: CD, LP, Digital Release date: May 29, 2020
Jake Blount has teamed up with a group of talented, young, and mostly queer folk musicians to assemble a thoroughly moving and often harrowing collection of songs by Black and indigenous folk musicians. Blount is a rising star in the folk scene, becoming the first Black person to make the finals at the prestigious Appalachian String Band Music Festival (better known as Clifftop), and the first to win in the traditional band category. Three years later, he placed first in the banjo contest, playing three tunes from Black banjoists including Dink Robert’s “Roustabout,” which appears on Spider Tales, Blount’s first full solo album.
Title: L.E.S. Douze Volume 2 Artist: Le String Noise Label: Nouveau Electric Formats: CD, Digital Release date: April 17, 2020
The Stone is a Lower East Side experimental music venue that has no bar and allows no speaking – the music is the sole focus. It was in this environment that artist-in-residence Louis Michot and the three other members of Le String Noise recorded their latest release, L.E.S. Douze Volume 2. The ensemble is a collaboration between fiddler and vocalist Louis Michot of Lost Bayou Ramblers, violinists Pauline Kim and Conrad Harris of String Noise, and cellist and vocalist Leyla McCalla, alumna of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Our Native Daughters.
Title: Blue Sky Artist: Reverend Shawn Amos & The Brotherhood Label: Put Together Music Formats: CD, LP, MP3 Release date: April 17, 2020
Self-proclaimed blues preacher Shawn Amos returns to his Americana, singer-songwriter roots on his latest album, Blue Sky. Since his 2018 release, The Reverend Shawn Amos Breaks It Down, Amos shifted his home base to Texas and has been touring nonstop with a faithful band of compatriots. Designated The Brotherhood, this group includes drummer Brady Blade (Dave Matthews, Indigo Girls), bassist Christopher “CT” Thomas (Norah Jones, Macy Gray), and Amos’s longtime guitarist Chris “Doctor” Roberts. Collaborating with additional friends and family, Rev and The Brotherhood traverse spiritual and emotional territory littered with heartbreak, displacement and redemption.
Title: Legacy Holder Artist: Jonathan Barber & Vision Ahead Label: Vision Ahead Music Formats: CD, Digital Release date: May 15, 2020
Drummer, composer and bandleader Jonathan Barber has accomplished much in his young life. The 30-year-old Hartford, Connecticut native began performing gospel music at an early age at his family church, learning alongside his father who was also a drummer. He later studied at the University of Hartford’s Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz and went on to tour and record with artists such as Pat Metheny, Jeremy Pelt, Wallace Roney, Jennifer Holiday, and Harold Mabern. Shortly after Modern Drummer named Barber as the #1 Up-and-Coming Drummer of 2018, he released his debut album, Vision Ahead. Now Barber returns with his sophomore release, Legacy Holder, featuring his New York-based jazz quintet Vision Ahead.
Title: Live at the Paramount Artist: Ruthie Foster Big Band Label: Blue Corn Music Formats: CD, Digital Release date: May 15, 2020
Ruthie Foster delivers a high-powered performance in Live at the Paramount, her ninth album with Blue Corn Music. Complete with the combination of extraneous noise and high energy that inevitably accompanies a live album, Ruthie Foster delivers a big band set that shows off her well-known voice in a swing setting. Recorded at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, Texas, on January 26, 2019, John Mills is the music director and conductor of Foster’s big band, and all of the arrangements for this concert are by Mills and John Beasley.
Title: In Common 2 Artist: Walter Smith III and Matthew Stevens Label: Whirlwind Recordings Formats: CD, LP (limited ed.), Digital Release Date: May 15, 2020
In Common 2 is the much-anticipated second release from tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III and guitarist Matthew Stevens. After the noteworthy success of their first collaboration In Common, Smith and Stevens assembled another star-studded cast featuring pianist Micah Thomas, bassist Linda May Han Oh, and drummer Nate Smith to perform their original compositions. Smith and Stevens are both at the nexus of the international jazz scene as performers, bandleaders, and composers, having performed and recorded with a wide range of artists including Ambrose Akinmusire, Christian Scott, Esperanza Spalding, and Roy Haynes. Their collaboration produces a high energy, dynamic album that sounds like a band that has been playing together for years.