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.
Additional jazz albums include composer/trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire’s on the tender spot of every calloused moment; the collaboration of Damu the Fudgemunk, Archie Shepp and Raw Poetic on Ocean Bridges; and composer/bassist Michael Olatuja’s Lagos Pepper Soup.
Other new releases include Wendy Moten’s first country album, I’ve Got You Covered; R&B artist Kehlani’s It Was Good Until it Wasn’t; Moses Sumney’s genre defying double album Grae; contemporary gospel artist Deitrick Haddon’s TIME (Truth Is My Energy); Goldman Thibodeaux & Lawtell Playboys’ La Danse à St. Ann’s that draws from a century of Creole and Cajun musical traditions; the New Orleans group Junko Beat’s sophomore album Satirifunk; and the collaboration between the Afro-Caribbean group Chouk Bwa and Brussels-based duo The Ångströmers on Vodou Alé,
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.
Wrapping up this issue is our compilation of May 2020 Black Music Releases of Note.
Title: Black, Brown, and Beige
Artist: Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis
Label: Blue Engine
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.
Title: A Strange Loop (Original Cast Recording)
Artist: Michael R. Jackson (composer/lyricist)
Label: Yellow Sound
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: September 27, 2019
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.
Title: The Cycle
Artist: Mourning [A] BLKstar
Label: Don Giovanni
Formats: Limited ed. CD, LP, Digital
Release date: May 5, 2020
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.”
Title: on the tender spot of every calloused moment
Artist: Ambrose Akinmusire
Label: Blue Note
Formats: CD, Digital, LP
Release date: June 5, 2020
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.
Title: Ocean Bridges
Artist: Damu the Fudgemunk, Archie Shepp & Raw Poetic
Formats: Digital (via Bandcamp), LP (tba)
Release date: May 22, 2020
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
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.
Title: It Was Good Until It Wasn’t
Release date: May 8, 2020
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.
Artist: Moses Sumney
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.