Various Artists – One Night In Miami… (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)


Title: One Night In Miami… (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Artist: Various
Label: ABKCO
Formats: CD, LP, Digital
Release date: January 15, 2021


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 21,1965.

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Michael R. Jackson – A Strange Loop (Original Cast Recording)


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.  

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Various Artists – At the Minstrel Show: Minstrel Routines from the Studio, 1894-1926


Title: At the Minstrel Show: Minstrel Routines from the Studio, 1894-1926 
Artist: Various 
Label: Archeophone 
Formats: CD, Digital 
Release date: March 13, 2020 


Those who have read Tim Brooks’ new book, The Blackface Minstrel Show in Mass Media: 20th Century Performances on Radio, Records, Film and Television, will no doubt be interested in this new release from Archeophone Records. The two disc set, At the Minstrel Showfeatures 51 selections recorded in the studio from 1894-1926 and represents the first compilation to deal authoritatively with the minstrel genre as a whole. While Brooks discussed most of these recordings at length in his book, he also penned an extensive essay and track-by-track liner notes in the 56-page illustrated booklet accompanying At the Minstrel ShowBefore delving further into the content, it should be noted that some of the performances on this set contain racially derogatory language. From a scholarly perspective, however, these recordings provide the earliest aural documentation for those studying the genre. 

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Music From and Inspired by “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool”

Title: Music From and Inspired by “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool”
Artist: Miles Davis
Label: Columbia/Legacy
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: February 21, 2020


Documentarian Stanley Nelson re-introduces us to the late and great jazz trumpeter extraordinaire Miles Davis on the album Music From and Inspired by “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool,” a Film by Stanley Nelson. Davis’ extensive music career spanned over forty years, culminating in eight Grammy Awards, over thirty Grammy nominations, over fifty albums, plus collaborations with major jazz luminaries such as Billy Eckstine, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, John Coltrane, and Wayne Shorter, among many others. Using spoken and musical selections from the Grammy-nominated soundtrack from his documentary, Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, Nelson provides a concise musical account of Davis’ evolution. Listeners have an opportunity to reflect on his seminal recordings, beginning in the late 1940s all the way to his mid-1980s comeback with Tutu (1986), while soundbites interspersed between tracks by music icons such as Herbie Hancock, Jimmy Heath, Gil Evans, Carlos Santana, and Marcus Miller further illuminate Davis’ career.

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Various Artists – 16 Bars (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)


Title: 16 Bars (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Artist: Various
Label: Lightyear Ent.
Formats: CD, LP, Digital
Release date: November 8, 2019


Two time Grammy award winner and hip hop artist Speech Thomas and his band Arrested Development have spent the past few decades touring the world, seeking out opportunities to address social and racial justice issues. Since the release of their triple platinum debut album, 3 Years, 5 Month & 2 Days in the Life of (1993), they have created many different projects and facilitated opportunities for various communities. The documentary 16 Bars, currently screening on the film festival circuit, is the fruition of one of the most ground breaking projects they have released yet. The film follows the journey of Thomas and his band members as they work with inmates at the Richmond City Jail to produce written and recorded narratives about the complex issues of the criminal justice system, including the social and economic effects it has on the families these men were taken away from. In the words of Speech Thomas, “these men are behind bars… but their voices have to be heard.” Continue reading

Tenesha The Wordsmith – Peacocks & Other Savage Beasts


Title: Peacocks & Other Savage Beasts
Artist: Tenesha The Wordsmith
Label: On the Corner
Formats: CD, LP, and Digital
Release date: August 30, 2019



First coming on to the scene as a guest on the title track of DJ Khalad’s 2018 On The Corner release, Black Noise 2084, Tenesha The Wordsmith has delivered a timely yet timeless solo album with Peacocks & Other Savage Beasts. Blending and bending genres, Tenesha holds true to her name, wordsmithing to weave narratives together, painting a new reality in the process. This album withholds nothing, deftly balancing social commentary, and critiques, with narrative. There is also a clear through-line of hope. Though many of the narratives included within this album are considered personal, they are framed such that they transcend the individual to become the collective, as exemplified in the track, ‘The Collection.” The pieces that bookend the album, “Dangerous Women” and “I Dream So Loud,” are poetry as prayer; they are invocation, they are inspiration, they are aspiration.  Continue reading

Wynton Marsalis – Bolden: Music from the Original Soundtrack


Title: Bolden: Music from the Original Soundtrack
Artist: Wynton Marsalis
Label: Blue Engine
Formats: CD, MP3
Release date: April 19, 2019


The name Charles “Buddy” Bolden should be a familiar one for many jazz fans and aficionados. Bolden, a New Orleans cornet player, is “ranked among the most influential yet obscure figures in the pantheon of American music,” according to jazz clarinetist and historian Dr. Michael White. Known for developing a style of music that blended Black sacred and secular musical aesthetics (melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic ideas), European dance music, marching-band, and Caribbean folk styles, Bolden laid the foundation and was a progenitor for what we refer to today as jazz music. Although none of his recordings or compositions are extant, we have an understanding of what the cultural and musical environment was like during that period. Continue reading

Various Artists – Sissle & Blake’s Shuffle Along of 1950


Title: Sissle & Blake’s Shuffle Along of 1950
Artist: Various
Label: Harbinger
Format: CD, MP3
Release date: October 19, 2018


Two of the most famous early African American composers, vaudeville stars and recording artists—Indianapolis-born Noble Sissle (1889-1974) and Baltimore native Eubie Blake (1887-1983)—began their careers during the ragtime era. Joining Lt. James Reese Europe’s famous 369th U.S. Infantry “Hell Fighters” Band during WWI, they helped to promote an appreciation of Black popular music throughout the U.S. and Europe, especially the new genre known as “jazz.” After the war they experienced a number of successes, but none so great as their landmark musical Shuffle Along. Based on a comedy routine by their vaudeville colleagues Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles, who wrote the book, the musical opened in New York in 1921 with Blake leading the orchestra from the keyboard. Though not the first Black show on Broadway (Bob Cole’s minstrelsy themed A Trip to Coontown and Will Marion Cook’s more progressive Clorindy both debuted in 1898), Shuffle Along became one of the most successful Broadway musicals of the era, drawing audiences with its swinging jazz melodies and “hot rhythms.” Continue reading

Dust-to-Digital Releases Voices of Mississippi & Early Films of William Ferris

Title: Voices of Mississippi: Artists and Musicians Documented by William Ferris
Format: Box set (book, 3 CDs, DVD)
Release date: June 1, 2018

Title: The Early Films of William Ferris, 1968-1975
Format: DVD
Release date: November 2, 2018


Voices of Mississippi: Artists and Musicians Documented by William Ferris is an important addition to the documentation of Southern folklife, culture, and history. The box set includes a CD of blues field recordings, another CD of gospel field recordings, a disc of interviews and oral histories, a DVD with seven short documentary films (1972-1980), and a 120-page hardcover book edited by Ferris that includes transcriptions and annotations for all of the film and album recordings.  A recently released companion DVD, The Early Films of William Ferris, 1968-1975, features rare footage of B.B. King and James “Son” Thomas. Both were produced by Dust-to-Digital in collaboration with the University of North Carolina, which holds the William R. Ferris Collection. Continue reading

Imamu Amiri Baraka – It’s Nation Time – African Visionary Music


Title: It’s Nation Time – African Visionary Music
Artist: Imamu Amiri Baraka
Label: Motown/UMe
Formats: LP, Digital
Release date: November 16, 2018


At the beginning of the Black Power Era, Motown Records joined other labels in producing politically oriented albums that addressed issues of critical concern to Black America (e.g., see our previous review of the book, Listen Whitey). Motown established a subsidiary label for this project in 1970, and released a total of eight albums and one single on their new Black Forum label. The rarest of these Black Forum albums—virtually unavailable for the past 46 years—is Amiri Baraka’s It’s Nation Time – African Visionary Music, released in 1972. In a surprise move with little fanfare, the album has now been reissued on vinyl. Continue reading

Brussels Philharmonic – Terence Blanchard: Music For Film



Title: Terence Blanchard: Music For Film

Artist: Brussels Philharmonic

Label: Silva Screen Records

Formats: CD, Digital

Release Date: November 17, 2017

Spike Lee’s new film, BlacKkKlansman, is set to open on August 10th. Winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s Grand Prix, the work has already received positive reviews. Composer and jazz musician Terence Blanchard’s soundtrack for the film has yet to be released, but his previous film compositions can give an idea of what the score might sound like.

Released in late 2017, Terence Blanchard: Music for Film spans his film work from the 1992 Malcolm X to 2015’s Chi-Raq, performed here by the Brussels Philharmonic under the direction of Dirk Brossé as part of the Film Fest Gent’s series of film composer spotlights. Like the upcoming BlacKkKlansman, many of Blanchard’s works presented on this album, including music from Malcolm X, 25th Hour, and When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, have been in collaboration with director Spike Lee. The collaboration has proven fruitful for Blanchard, who has said that Lee always encourages him to write music that could be successful on its own.

Though each film presented has its own unique sound, the tracks are connected by a strong presence of trumpet, calling back to Blanchard’s own career as a jazz trumpeter. Many also make use of jazz idioms, most notably the two tracks from When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006). Although he calls New Orleans home and this film is a documentary describing the destruction and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Blanchard intentionally stays away from traditional New Orleans jazz. Instead, he explains that he wanted to create a more universal sound to appeal to a wider audience and the musical themes he created do just that, blending jazz with incredibly emotive melodies depicting the tragedy and despair of the city’s residents. The “Levees” track is particularly successful, combining a soulful trumpet line with descending, dissonant string patterns.

Another film directed by Spike Lee, 25th Hour, received much critical acclaim; Blanchard’s score was nominated for several awards, including the 2003 World Soundtrack Award and Golden Globes. Telling the story of a drug dealer’s last 24 hours of freedom before he is sent to jail, the music is haunting and memorable. Heavier on strings, particularly solo cello, than many of his other films, it features twisting musical themes above persistent ostinato patterns. Still, it is not without Blanchard’s signature jazz inflections, as the third track on the album, “Playground,” embraces a traditional lounge-style piano along with the lusher string sound and solos present in the other selections.

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Some selections, such as the suite from Inside Man (2006) and the opening title music of Miracle at St. Anna (2008), lean less on Blanchard’s jazz background and instead seem to be reminiscent of earlier film music styles like the compositions of James Horner. Tracks on this album from both films make use of a more militaristic style, emphasizing repetitive snare drum lines underneath epic brass and string melodies.

Two comedies, Bamboozled (2000) and She Hate Me (2004), showcase other sides of Blanchard’s work. The former’s biting satire and pointed social commentary are offset by a more somber, restrained musical theme. In contrast, the selections from She Hate Me are a bit less serious, incorporating several jazz styles including references to bebop, fusion, and cool jazz.

Blanchard’s skill in composing for a wide range of genres shines through the tracks presented in this album. His masterful usages of thematic material, blending of styles, and jazz inflections make this an incredibly rewarding listen. Blanchard’s score for BlacKkKlansman is sure to deliver the same exciting interplay of styles.

Reviewed by Emily Baumgart

David Murray feat. Saul Williams – Blues for Memo

David Murray
Title: Blues for Memo

Artist: David Murray feat. Saul Williams

Label: Motema Music

Format: CD, Digital

Release Date: February 2, 2018



Released just in time for Black History Month, Blues for Memo is a new album by saxophonist David Murray and poet Saul Williams.  Williams and Murray met in 2014 at the funeral of the revolutionary poet Amiri Baraka, at which Williams performed a poem and Murray (who worked with Baraka in the past) was in attendance. The chance encounter led to a collaboration between the two artists, with Williams sending Murray a collection of poems to set to music.

Like Baraka, Williams is a challenging poet. He is socially and politically engaged and consistently employs images that are a gut punch to listeners. The tracks on Blues for Memo feature Williams doing what he does best, stringing together images that address topics ranging from politics to the nature of consciousness. On “Cycles and Seasons,” Williams thrives on juxtaposition of large concepts, such as dietary tradition and health to capitalism and forced labor.  “Deep in Me” takes on cosmic themes, with lyrics that consider volcanic, geologic and cosmic time in relationship to individuals’ perception of the universe.


On the track “Obe,” Murray and his outstanding band match dissonant bebop with lyrics that take on what Williams critiques as a cultural self-obsession, asking whether a variety of pursuits are “self-actualization or self-image actualization.” “Red Summer” is a gospel-inflected ballad about racially-influenced killings of African Americans, from the Mother Emanuel Baptist Church massacre to the wave of police killings of unarmed Black men and boys that sparked a national conversation about continuing systemic racism in American society.

Murray’s task is a difficult one—to compose an appropriate soundtrack to the complex, emotionally-charged themes that Williams adeptly addresses throughout the course of this album. Murray achieves this goal handily — even the instrumental numbers on this album are delivered with the perfect tone. For instance, the heartfelt “Blues for Memo,” a tribute to Istanbul’s jazz legend Mehmet “Memo” Ulug, is solemn and joyous simultaneously, incorporating sounds that “Memo” likely would have appreciated, including elements from blues as well as Turkish music. The latter is provided by Aytac Dogan on kanun, a middle-eastern zither.

Williams and Murray are joined by an overall outstanding cast of musicians, including Dogan, Orrin Evans (piano), Nasheet Waits (drums), Jaribu Shahid (bass), Craig Harris (trombone), Pervis Evans (Vocals), Jason Moran (Fender Rhodes), and Mingus Murray (guitar). Overall, Blues for Memo is both musically beautiful and conceptually challenging, an album best explored gradually and one which holds enough details for listeners to continually return for something as yet unheard.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song


Title: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (An Opera)

Artist: Melvin Van Peebles; Earth, Wind & Fire

Label: Concord/Stax

Formats: Vinyl, High-resolution digital

Release date: May 26, 2017


In the February issue we gave a brief preview of Concord Music Group’s year-long celebration of Stax Records 60th Anniversary, including the new compilation CDs paying tribute to the many iconic artists in the Stax roster. Now Concord has released the first of their Stax 60th anniversary remastered vinyl offerings—a 108 gram pressing of the original cast soundtrack album for Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.

As most already know, this landmark independent film was written, produced, scored, and directed by Melvin Van Peebles, who also portrayed Sweetback: “a black protagonist who not only overpowers the oppressive white cops, but he manages to get away with it.” Released in 1971, the film contributed to the creation of the Blaxploitation era and was promoted by the Black Panthers, who filled theaters with members for whom it was required viewing.

The soundtrack album, distributed prior to the release of the film to raise cash and garner publicity through airplay, was also notable for introducing an unknown group by the name of Earth, Wind & Fire. Van Peebles also performs as his alter ego, Brer Soul. Without the Sweetback soundtrack and contributions of EWF, who transformed Van Peebles hummed musical ideas into a funky soul-jazz score, the film may never have made it into theaters. And without Sweetback to pave the way, there may never have been a string of soulful ‘70s soundtracks scored by the likes of Isaac Hayes, Marvin Gaye, Bobby Womack, Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway, Gene Page, Johnny Pate, James Brown, Roy Ayers, and Willie Hutch. As EWF’s Verdine White noted, “at the time there weren’t a lot of movies that had black music” (Quincy Jones was the only black composer with a string of film scores to his credit).

Concord’s 180-gram vinyl gatefold edition features audio remastered from the original analog tapes and cut on the original Stax lathe at Ardent studios in Memphis. Newly penned notes are provided by Jeff Weiss, who credits Van Peebles with the birth of “badass cinema” via a film “that captured the spirit of rebellion, frustration and the refusal to accept injustice.” Mario Van Peebles, whose 2003 film Baadasssss! chronicled the making of his father’s famous film, also reflects on the film’s profound influence in the liner notes.

Long out of print with the exception of foreign pressings, this remastered vinyl release of Sweetback belongs in everyone’s collection!

Editor’s note: Melvin Van Peebles has recently performed with other bands featured in Black Grooves, including the Heliocentrics.  

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Eric Mingus – Langston Hughes – The Dream Keeper

The Dream Keepr
Title: Langston Hughes – The Dream Keeper

Artist: Eric Mingus, narrator; Larry Simon, director

Label: Mode/Avant; dist. Naxos

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: January 27, 2017


There have been many recordings featuring the works of the great Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes (1902-67), including Hughes’ own spoken word recordings, some with musical accompaniment. Perhaps the most well-known is the 1958 MGM release Weary Blues, featuring Hughes reciting his poetry over a jazz soundtrack composed and arranged by Leonard Feather and Charles Mingus. A more recent offering was Laura Karpman’s GRAMMY Award winning Ask Your Mama, featuring her original musical setting of Hughes’ epic poem Ask Your Mama: 12 Pieces for Jazz.

Langston Hughes: The Dream Keeper is more closely related to the aforementioned 1958 recording in more ways than one. Not only does it combine poetry with jazz, but the narrator is none other than Eric Mingus, the son of Charles Mingus. The younger Mingus, a prominent jazz bassist and vocalist, utilizes these talents to full effect while performing Hughes’ poetry. The music was arranged and directed by jazz guitarist Larry Simon, who founded the popular Beat Night series in New York as well as the JazzMouth festival in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to promote music and spoken word collaborations. Also contributing to the project is noted composer/conductor David Amram, who played with Charles Mingus, pioneered the first-ever public Jazz/Poetry reading in NYC with Jack Kerouac, and collaborated with Langston Hughes on the cantata, Let Us Remember, where he learned about Hughes’ own forays into jazz-poetry. When these three musicians (Simon, Amram and Eric Mingus) came together at one of the Jazzmouth festivals, they were easily sold on Simon’s idea “of making a CD honoring the poetry and the life of Langston Hughes,” and worked diligently to “honor every word that we heard and every musician with whom we [had] played.”

Rounding out the talented group of musicians is Simon’s band, Groove Bacteria, and various special guests: Don Davis, alto saxes, clarinets; Catherine Sikora, soprano sax; Cynthia Chatis, flutes; Scip Gallant, Hammond organ; Chris Stambaugh, bass; Mike Barron, drums; with Shawn Russell and Frank Laurino on percussion.

The Dream Keeper opens with a new rendition of “Weary Blues,” accompanied by Amram on piano, with Mingus alternating between recitation and singing as suggested by the lyrics:

In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—
“Ain’t got nobody in all this world / Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’/ And put ma troubles on the shelf.”

The full ensemble enters on “The Dream Keeper,” which maintains a bluesy, otherworldly feel accentuated by a Native American flute in this primarily instrumental track. Mingus is accompanied on half the tracks by a solo instrument—usually Amram on piano, while “Border Line” features Simon on guitar and “Railroad Avenue” features Gallant on Hammond organ. This serves to keep the focus on the texts, without overshadowing the power of the spoken word. The larger ensemble performs on the haunting “Daybreak in Alabama,” the grooving “In Time of Silver Rain,” and the timely “Democracy,” performed in the style of Gil Scott-Heron, using strong exclamations over a highly distorted, freestyle background. The album concludes on an optimistic note with “Life is Fine,” alternately sung and spoken by Mingus.

The Dream Keeper was recorded in 2012 towards the end of Barack Obama’s first term as POTUS, and released just prior to Donald Trump’s inauguration. If released just a few weeks later, I wonder if Simon would have changed the order of the tracks to end with “Democracy,” the opening lines of which read: “Democracy will not come / Today, this year / Nor ever / Through compromise and fear.” In any case, this is a first rate project. I might even suggest that Mingus’s heartfelt delivery, with its soulful timbre and nuanced rhythms, is even more impactful than the recordings made by Langston Hughes. To use a phrase from Amram, Eric Mingus knows how to realize and pay homage to “the music that is already in the spoken word.” Highly recommended!

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh

Fish that Saved Pittsburgh
Title: The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh

Artist: Various

Label: Real Gone Music

Format: CD

Release date: February 3, 2017


Collectors of 1970s soundtrack albums will be interested in this reissue from Real Gone Music. The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh was a “big screen sports fantasy” based on the typical rags to riches theme of a scrappy backetball team’s road to the finals. Released in 1979, the film was co-produced by Gary Stromberg (Car Wash), whose goal was to score another music centric hit. But despite the inclusion of basketball greats Julius Erving, Meadowlark Lemon, and Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, plus actors the likes of Flip Wilson, Debbie Allen and Dee Dee Bridgewater (the “jeerleaders”), Stockard Channing, Jonathan Winters, Joe Seneca, and M. Emmet Walsh, this Pittsburgh centric sports movie failed at the box office, and the original sound track album likewise never cracked the charts. Following the VHS release in the mid-1980s, however, both the film and soundtrack gained a cult following, attracting the attention of the hip hop generation. In fact, Questlove plays the title track every time a Pittsburgh native appears on Jimmy Falon’s Tonight Show. Appreciation for the film increased following the 2010 DVD release, and is now considered by diehard fans to be the greatest basketball movie of all time.

Interest in the soundtrack can easily be explained—it was composed, arranged, produced, and conducted by the legendary Thom Bell and recorded by Joe Tarsia and his crew at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia. This was Bell’s first opportunity to score a film, and he brought in all of the industry heavyweights: The Sylvers (“Mighty Mighty Pisces”), The Spinners (“(Do It, Do It), No One Does It Better”), The Four Tops (“Chance of a Lifetime”), and even Eubie Blake, who accompanies Bell on “Ragtime.” The primary accompaniment is credited to the Thom Bell Orchestra (mostly PIR session musicians), featuring Bell on keyboards, Bob Babbitt (Funk Brothers) on bass, Anthony Bell and Bobby Eli on guitar, Larry Washington, Edward Shea and Michael Pultro on percussion, and Charles Collins on drums, plus Don Renaldo’s Strings and Horns.

Released at the peak of the disco area, the music is funky and dance oriented, but also draws upon Bell’s trademark Philly soul and is liberally sprinkled with references from earlier Blaxploitation-era soundtracks, most notably Shaft. Other notable songs include “Magic Mona” (Phyllis Hyman), “Moses Theme” (Frankie Bleu), “Follow Every Dream” (William “Poogie” Hart), and the opening track “A Theme for L.A.’s Team” featuring trumpeter Doc Severinsen in his prime.

This is the first CD release of The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh, and Real Gone’s expanded edition includes three bonus tracks culled from limited edition singles, along with liner notes by Joe Marchese in a fully illustrated booklet.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Royal Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet

Title:  Hamlet

Artist: Royal Shakespeare Company

Label: Opus Arte/Naxos

Format: DVD (widescreen, NTSC, all regions; 180 minutes + 5 minutes of extras)

Release date: November 18, 2016



What could be better for Black History Month than a new production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet featuring a Black cast? The answer is a production supported by Black musicians. This recently released DVD from the Royal Shakespeare Company captures the first performance of this new production, live from Stratford-Upon-Avon on March 12, 2016.  Directed by Simon Godwin, the cast features British-Ghanaian actor Paapa Essiedu in the starring role—the first black actor to ever play Hamlet in the history of the RSC.

Chief composer for this production is none other than Sola Akingbola, longtime percussionist for the British funk and acid jazz band Jamiroquai, who leads the musical ensemble on vocals and percussion. He is joined by Bruce O’Neil, the RSC’s Head of Music, who performs on keyboards, as well as Joe Archer on guitar and on keyboards; Dirk Campbell on woodwinds, nyatiti, and percussion; and Sidiki Dembélè and James Jones also contributing to the percussion ensemble. With the shift to a Black cast, Godwin also shifted the geographic focus of the play from Denmark to Africa, and Akingbola’s score perfectly encapsulates the action.

If you missed the live stream of the performance last summer, the DVD version is highly recommended. Teachers will find a wealth of information and classroom tools on the RSC website for the production.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Miles Davis, Robert Glasper, Don Cheadle – Miles Ahead: Original Soundtrack Recording

miles ahead

Title: Miles Ahead – Original Soundtrack Recording

Artist: Miles Davis, Robert Glasper, Don Cheadle

Label: Sony Legacy

Format: CD

Release Date: 4/1/16


Don Cheadle’s new movie is what amounts to a fictional bio-pic about Miles Davis, with parts of the portrayed biography being real but the central action of the movie being a creation of Cheadle’s imagination. In short, it takes a real person, Miles Davis, and elements of his real life, as portrayed by Cheadle, and sets in motion a series of incidents that never actually happened.

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Given that setup, it’s not surprising that the soundtrack recording features snippets of Don Cheadle portraying Miles Davis between cuts of actual Davis recordings and additional music by jazz-hip hop artist Robert Glasper.

What is surprising, though, is that it works pretty well. There are only three complete cuts from Miles Davis’s albums: “Miles Ahead” from the 1953 Prestige compilation Blue Haze, “So What” from the 1959 Columbia classic Kind of Blue, and “Frelon Brun” from the 1969 Columbia album Filles de Kilimanjaro. The other seven Davis tunes are either edits or cuts, but offer a good flavor of the depth and breadth of Davis’s music. The Glasper cuts are Davis-esque, as are Cheadle’s spoken interludes.

Like the movie, the soundtrack album is an exploration of one man’s (Cheadle’s) ideas about another man (Davis). There are other views of Davis and his life, including his own autobiography, Miles. Keep in mind, Cheadle’s movie is a series of fictional events, and this soundtrack was created in service to that movie.

Although Sony’s press release suggests this album might be a good introduction to the music of Miles Davis, I highly recommend seeking out the original albums. Aside from the three cited above, check out the other sources of edited/excerpted cuts: Sketches of Spain, Seven Steps To Heaven, Nefertiti, Jack Johnson, On the Corner and Agharta.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

Saul Williams – MartyrLoserKing

saul williams martyrloserking

Title: MartyrLoserKing

Artist: Saul Williams

Label: Fader

Release Date: January 29, 2015

Format: CD, LP, MP3



On January 29, poet and performer Saul Williams released what will likely be one of the most challenging records of 2016.  Williams is as much a literary figure as a musical one, and MartyrLoserKing is as novelistic as it is musical, following the inner life of a hacker living in Burundi, who’s screenname “MartyrLoserKing” is the source of the album’s title.

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Unlike many “socially conscious” musicians that end up doing what is essentially the musical equivalent of “slacktivism,” Williams uses this album as a place to paint a complex and ambivalent picture of the current state of the world. He addresses the prevalence of uninformed fear on “Down For Some Ignorance,” the potential for internet-spread misinformation on the song’s musical and thematic sibling “Roach Eggs,” while expanding to more explicitly political issues including police brutality and systemic racism. Williams, an American expat, writes about the world as a terrifying postmodern dystopia, perhaps nowhere more evocatively than on “All Coltrane Solos at Once.”

The musical soundscapes match this lyrical bleakness, with drum machines that sound far away and collages of electronic bleeps and samples that are alternately disorienting and threatening.  All of this leads to the tremendous effect of MartyrLoserKing, which suggests that any remedy to the myriad problems facing humanity must necessarily start with people developing their individual, social and political consciousness.



Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Jessica Care Moore – Black Tea: The Legend of Jessi James

Black Tea
Title: Black Tea – The Legend of Jessi James

Artist: Jessica Care Moore

Label: Javotti Media/dist. Fat Beats

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: October 2, 2015



Detroit’s Jessica Care Moore—a reknown poet, playwright, performance artist and producer—has achieved success through a wide variety of ventures: as a five time winner of “It’s Showtime at the Apollo” competition; as the author of poetry collections including The Alphabet Verses The GhettoGod is Not an American, and Sunlight Through Bullet Holes; as a performance artist in The Missing Project: Pieces of the D and Black Statue of Liberty; as a returning star of Russell Simmons’ HBO series “Def Poetry Jam;” as CEO of Moore Black Press; and as host, writer and co-executive producer of the poetry-driven television show “Spoken” on The Black Family Channel. But throughout her career, Moore has also indulged her passion for music. Her poetry was featured on Nas’s Nastradamus album and Talib Kweli’s Attack the Block mixtape, and she’s led the Black WOMEN Rock! concert series since 2004. So it should be no surprise to learn that Moore has long been yearning to record her own album.

Black Tea: The Legend of Jessi James, Moore’s official solo debut on wax, features notable jazz, soul, techno and hip hop musicians and producers who bring Moore’s vision to life. That vision is more reminiscent of the lilting “jazz poetry” of Langston Hughes than the Black Power era recordings of The Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, and Imamu Amiri Baraka, or the half-sung, half-rapped sprechstimme of her contemporary, Saul Williams. Moore emphasizes the purity and strength of the spoken word with poems that recognize the central role of music to the Black experience, but she relies solely on the band and backup singers to weave in the musical accompaniment. A number of featured guests contribute to this effort, including Imani Uzuri, Roy Ayers (vibes), Talib Kweli, Jose James, One Belo, Ideeyah, Ursula Rucker, Alicia Renee, and Paris Toon. The band is led by pianist Jon Dixon (Underground Resistance), with Nate Winn on drums, Ben Luttermoser on bass, De’Sean Jones on sax, and Nadir Onowale (Distorted Soul) on the mixing boards.

Black Tea opens with a spoken introduction—the legend of Moore’s alter-ego, Jessi James: “she is his reflection, a city-country girl, a gold horse kissing his black . . . she was waiting for him to call her name – Jessi James of Detroit, of Brooklyn, of Southern blues, of Harlem, of Colorado mountains . . . Detroit jazz, poet outlaw – sometimes the tea is spiked.”

Following are several jazz-based tracks, including “Walking Up 150th Street” featuring Chris Johnson on trumpet, “Pieces” featuring Detroit rock-soul singer Ideeyah, “Deep Breath” featuring alt-rapper One Belo, and “You Want Poems” with Roy Ayers and Jose James. On “It Ain’t Like We Didn’t,” the music shifts from jazz to an acoustic Delta blues style, with Moore riffing on the importance of the genre: “We die for the blues ‘cause we’re born with it . . stone rolling blues runs deep in these veins . . . know your place brown girl . . .”

An acoustic Spanish guitar opens “I Catch the Rain,” with ethereal background vocals provided by Imani Uzuri and Ursula Rucker, while Moore speaks of “this earth keeps pulling back to this place where I buried my wounded heart, countless times, this land of broken promises, this nation of liars, I will not give birth surrounded by all this fear . . .”

Ideeyah returns on “Wild Irish Rose,” singing the chorus “stay away from women with stems extending far beyond their flowers” between verses of Moore’s poem: “If I leave a seed on every corner maybe my people won’t forget me / I know God sent me, or the wind might have dreamt me / So many spirits sitting on top of Motor City, but I got to do something with the power my ancestors leant me . . . Another garden gone, won’t be long before Black girl doesn’t get to sing her song, ‘cause Daddy and the greenhouse disappeared at dawn.

Another highlight is “Catch Me if You Can,” a tour de force alternating between Moore’s reverb soaked verse and Talib Kweli’s rapid fire delivery, backed by acoustic guitar and trumpet.

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Black Tea: The Legend of Jessi James is Moore’s lush and provocative HERstory, a shape shifting fable rooted in the cultural experiences and music of the 21st century Motor City. This album is especially recommended for those who enjoy contemporary poetry, and for libraries collecting sound recordings of poetry set to music.

Listen on Spotify here

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

DJ Spooky and the Kronos Quartet – Rebirth of a Nation

DJ Spooky Rebirth of a Nation

Title: Rebirth of a Nation

Artist: DJ Spooky and the Kronos Quartet

Label: Cantaloupe Music

Formats: CD/DVD; wav and MP3 (audio only)

Release date: August 28, 2015



Rebirth of a Nation was DJ Spooky’s (i.e. Paul D. Miller’s) first large scale multimedia piece, made in collaboration with the Kronos Quartet and premiered in 2004 at the Lincoln Center Festival, Spoleto Festival USA, Weiner Festwochen, and the Festival d’Automne á Paris. It has since been given some fifty times as a live performance, and the studio recording of the soundtrack heard here was made in 2007, but this combined CD/DVD release from Cantaloupe Music marks the first time the full musical score has been available as a separate entity. The film Rebirth of a Nation is a re-imagining, or “remix,” of D.W. Griffith’s notorious 1915 feature The Birth of a Nation, which—with apologies to Al Gore—truly may be the most ‘inconvenient truth’ in the history of cinema. The radical cinematic style, three-hour running time, sense of grandeur and the relentless publicity machine that fueled The Birth of a Nation’s prosperity spelled doom to the lowly Nickelodeon and paved the way for ambitious film epics of all kinds, and American film history cannot dispense with it. But its corrigenda of the Ku Klux Klan as the salvation of the American South in the post-Civil war period, and its vilification of African Americans, helped to revive a sleeping Klan into a new round of vigilantism that flourished into the early 1920s. Although Griffith’s centennial was widely observed and celebrated in 1975, in the years to follow screenings of The Birth of a Nation were picketed and often cancelled, and Griffith’s name was removed from the Director’s Guild of America’s Award in 1999.

Shutting down screenings of The Birth of a Nation doesn’t make the film go away, and suppressing it only prevents younger generations from seeing how prevalent and mainstream white supremacy was a century ago. DJ Spooky feels that some of the complex, painful and malevolent themes in The Birth of Nation still connect with America as it is in the twenty-first century, and utilizes digital editing, graphics, inserts, narration and a hip hop music track to render the hundred-year-old film into a commentary on itself. Collaborating with the Kronos Quartet, DJ Spooky’s work has a strongly post-classical feel and largely avoids nostalgic gestures that would normally play to the subject matter, save samples of wailing harmonica and occasional banjo-like pizzicati from Kronos. The character sketches, such as “Stoneman” and “Cameron,” seem the most successful from a purely musical standpoint, as if the persons connected to these names in the film elicited the most involved responses from the composer. Nevertheless it is difficult to appreciate the music without its visuals; some of the pieces are very restrained, and are understated even for film music, which is normally a little under the action. Rebirth of a Nation, the film (2008), runs about half the length of Griffith’s original and even that is a lot of screen time to cover; given that there is narration, but there’s also no direct dialog from the actors—the soundtrack has to be wall-to-wall. Without the visuals, the score comes across as partly inspired and partly padded.

Rebirth of a Nation is nonetheless an interesting investigation into William S. Burroughs’ idea that by cutting something up, you may be able to reveal the truth in it, neutralize it or at least recast it into another context, and there’s every reason to experience this project in the form that Cantaloupe Music has packaged it in; DVD and music, whereas before there was only a downmarket DVD and the music was only available as excepts.

Listen on Spotify here.

Reviewed by David N. Lewis

Langston Hughes, Laura Karpman – Ask Your Mama

Langston Hughes_Ask Your Mama._AA160_

Title: Ask Your Mama

Artists: Langston Hughes (text), Laura Karpman (music)

Label: Avie

Formats: 2-CD set, MP3

Release date: July 10, 2015


Premiered in 2009 at Carnegie Hall as part of Jessye Norman’s Honor! Festival celebrating the legacy of African American musicians, Laura Karpman’s masterful Ask Your Mama is finally available on CD.

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Karpman’s composition is an original musical setting of Langston Hughes’ epic poem Ask Your Mama: 12 Pieces for Jazz, written in 1960 while he was attending the Newport Jazz Festival and published as a book of poems in 1961. One of the notable features of the book is Hughes’ marginalia describing the musical soundtrack running through his head, which he describes in the “Dedication” (track 1):

“This poem was written in segments beginning at Newport, at the Newport Jazz Festival in fact, two summers ago. And I suppose that is why, as I wrote most of it, I could hear jazz music behind it. And so when I gave the first reading of some segments of this poem, they were read to jazz. However, the poem may be read with or without music, of course. But for the benefit of those who might like to hear the music that I heard in my mind as I wrote ‘Ask Your Mama,’ along the margin of the book there are little musical notations. And the leitmotif of the poem, the Hesitation Blues, the old-traditional blues, and the little break that is used between some of the verses, ‘Shave And A Haircut, Fifteen Cents,’ those are reproduced musically at the front of the book. And then in the back of the book, as if it were a record, I have a series of liner notes for the unhep, that is, for those who may not quite understand what the poem is about.”

Crossing many genres, Hughes’ musical references range from cool jazz and post bop to German lieder, patriotic songs, spirituals, blues and African drumming. Karpman, a notable Hollywood composer, weaves all of these strands together into a compelling new work. Also woven into the mix are many samples drawn from earlier recordings—most notably segments of Hughes’ reading of the poem (presumably from the 1970 Buddah release)—as well as fragments of Louis Armstrong, Leontyne Price, Pigmeat Markham, Cab Calloway and perhaps others (regrettably the liner notes don’t cite specific recordings). This sampling lends a distinctive hip hop influence, juxtaposed with a classical foundation provided by the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, conducted by George Manahan. Other performers include classical singers Janai Brugger, Angela Brown, and Tesia Kwarteng; jazz vocalists Nnenna Freelon, Monét Owens, Erin McGlover, and Taura Stinson; in addition to Black Thought, The Roots, Medusa, and other instrumentalists.

The tracks follow the original order of the 12 sections of the poem: 1. Dedication; 2. Cultural Exchange; 3. Ride, Red, Ride; 4. Shades of Pigmeat; 5. Ode to Dinah; 6. Blues in Stereo; 7. Horn of Plenty; 8. Gospel Cha-Cha; 9. Is It True?; 10. Ask Your Mama; 11. Bird in Orbit; 12. Jazztet Muted – Show fare, please.

Karpman’s musical setting breathes new life into Langston Hughes’ text, together referencing the entirety of the African American experience through a diverse range of musical genres and vernacular traditions such as children’s rhymes and signifying.

Note: Those interested in a different interpretation of the work might be interested in Dr. Ron McCurdy’s The Langston Hughes Project, which claims to follow Hughes’ own plans for a multimedia project, and the related CD.

Listen on Spotify here.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Cannonball Adderley – Big Man: The Legend of John Henry


Title: Big Man: The Legend of John Henry

Artist: Cannonball Adderley

Label: Real Gone Music

Format: CD

Release date: April 7, 2015


Even if they don’t realize it, most people have probably encountered the legend of John Henry, the “steel driving man,” at some point in their lives, whether it is in the form of a folktale, a Johnny Cash song, or the Disney animated version featuring James Earl Jones. One of the lesser known versions is the score for a musical about John Henry composed by the great jazz saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley during the last years of his life (he died on August 8, 1975).

Cannonball Adderley is most well-known for his 1966 single “Mercy Mercy Mercy,” as well as his work with Miles Davis. Big Man: The Legend of John Henry shows that Adderley’s talent ranged far beyond jazz, encompassing many other genres: soul, funk, blues, folk, gospel, and Afro-Caribbean music. Originally released as a two-LP set in 1975, Big Man featured music from many other artists, including his brother Nat Adderley, George Duke, Roy McCurdy, Airto Moreira, and Carol Kaye. Real Gone Music’s reissue marks the first time the album has appeared on CD, and features extensive liner notes by Bill Kopp.

The album includes both musical numbers and separate dialogue, with characters voiced by Joe Williams (John Henry), Randy Crawford, and Robert Guillaume. On “Gonna Give Lovin’ a Try”—one of the six full musical pieces that are presented as standalone tracks—Randy Crawford sings her heart out, her smooth voice backed by a large string section. Big Man was her professional recording debut, recorded when she was only twenty-one. “Next Year in Jerusalem” has more of a funky sound and is sung by Joe Williams. His scratchy voice drives this upbeat song and adds some deep soul.

In a message from Nat Adderley included in the liner notes, he says that “Cannon considered Big Man one of the most important projects of his whole career.” Composing the score for a full-scale musical certainly was a challenge to take on, but Cannonball had every reason to be proud. Forty years later it still is a masterful “folk musical” featuring beautiful songs and a powerful storyline about the interplay of class and power.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Black & Blue: The Laff Records Collection


Title: Black & Blue: The Laff Records Collection

Artists: Various

Label: Rockbeat Records

Formats: 4 CD box set, MP3

Release date: November 4, 2014


Most known for their raunchy comedy discs, Laff Records was an independent West Coast record label that started in the late 1960s and produced comedians such as Skillet & Leroy, LaWanda Page, and Wildman Steve. When the first successful label for black comedians, Dooto Records, began declining in the mid-1960s, it allowed Laff Records to pick up many of their party records and popular acts, such as Redd Foxx.  Though Laff Records closed in the mid-1980s, with their last hit being Kip Addotta’s “Wet Dream,” their legacy lived on through their records and the success of their artists, both in comedy and on television.

Black & Blue: The Laff Records Collection is a compilation of work from the label’s most famous and successful comedians, from LaWanda Page to Jimmy Lynch. The set was produced by comedian and actor Darryl Littleton, also known as D’Militant, who offers extensive liner notes that provide the history of Laff Records. Speaking of his own experiences growing up, Littleton says that “modern comedy owes its due to Laff Records…Had it not been for the pioneering efforts of Laff Records, it’s doubtful there’d have been a Def Comedy Jam or BET Comic View.”

The first disc starts with the 1972 release Back Door Daddy by Skillet, Leroy and LaWanda, an uncensored set that mainstream critics at the time called a “30 minute ultra-raunch session.” The original LP was hugely successful, and it marks an upswing in LaWanda Page’s career—she starred as Aunt Esther on the hit television show Sanford and Son the same year. She soon became known as the “Queen of Comedy” among party record circles, and disc one goes on to feature her 1973 Pipe Layin’ Dan—a classic, especially for lovers of blue comedy.

Next featured is Jimmy Thompson, a nightclub comic most well-known for King Monkey. The compilation features his slightly later album Jo-Jo Gun, which is full of rhymes and clever riddles. The first disc closes with Slappy White, former partner of Redd Foxx. Elect Slappy White VP is a politically-charged record released after White performed with Steve Rossi for President Richard Nixon at the White House in 1969.

The second disc features Dap Sugar Willie, Jimmy Lynch, and Wildman Steve. Dap Sugar Willie was best known for his role as Lenny in the sitcom Good Times, but the 1973 LP Ghost of Davy Crockett showcases his true talent on the standup stage. Jimmy Lynch’s bum persona “Funky Tramp” made him a party record star, and his work featured in this compilation includes his usual sketches that unabashedly talk about race. The second disc wraps up with Wildman Steve’s “Eatin’ Ain’t Cheatin.”

Mantan Moreland, better known as Birmingham Brown in the 1940 Charlie Chan detective films, opens disc three with his “Tribute to the Man ‘Tan,’” followed by Reynaldo Rey, who started his comedy career touring with the O’Jays. Part three ends with a diverse selection from Leroy Daniels, one half of Skillet & Leroy, featuring sketches that range in topic from sexual encounters to a preacher with a bad habit of stealing.

The final disc features one of Laff Record’s most famous comedians, Redd Foxx, and his nightclub act from 1978, “I Ain’t Lied Yet.” His sketches typically have either sexual or racial themes, though he also provides some clever definitions, such as “frustration: finding out for the first time that you can’t do it the second time.”

The last comedian featured is Marsha Warfield, a Chicago native who’s 1981 LP was recorded by Laff Records as a single track set that features a variety of topics, from church gossipers to the weaknesses of men. Warfield went on to become well-known for her role as Roz, a bailiff on NBC’s Night Court, and even had her own talk show for ten months.

Though these tracks have been featured on individual albums, Black & Blue: The Laff Records Collection is the first compilation of this sort. It’s a great collection of party records which have historical significance and represent an important era of blue comedy by black comedians.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick


Title: OKA! (film)

Executive Producer: Lavinia Currier

Publisher: Dada Films / Roland Films

Duration:  1 hour, 46 min.

Language: In Sango, Akka, French and English, with English subtitles.

Release date: October 28, 2011


Title: OKA! (Soundtrack)

Artists: Chris Berry & The Bayaka of Yandoumbe

Label:  Oka Productions

Format:  CD

Release date:  October 25, 2011

OKA! is a film based on Louis Sarno’s memoir Last Thoughts Before Vanishing From the Face of the Earth and combines dramatizations of his experiences among the Bayaka over the course of two decades with fictional content. Although the film soundtrack compilation (now available on CD) does include a few Afro pop recordings, for the most part it was created and performed by the Bayaka or co-composed with Chris Berry and accompanied by Western musicians. The Bayaka characters are played by members of the Yandoumbe community.

In OKA!, independent ethnomusicologist Larry Whitman is diagnosed with liver failure. Rather than waiting around for his transplant, he heads off for one last trip to Africa in search of the molimo, the final instrument needed for his collection of Bayaka music. Upon returning to Yandoumbe in the Central African Republic, he discovers that the Bayaka have been driven from the forest by a new sawmill and by the efforts of the Bantu mayor to introduce Western bureaucracy. The mayor even hatches a plot to pin elephant poaching on the Bayaka so that they’ll lose further control of their ancestral land and future to the government. Against the mayor’s orders, Larry enters the forest seeking to unite with Sataka, the Bayaka’s shaman. Fearing what fate may await their inexperienced American friend, the Bayaka follow him and, in doing so, return to their traditional way of life.

Following is the official trailer:

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In the words of director, co-writer, and producer Lavinia Currier, the primary purpose of the film is to celebrate “a people who are perfectly adapted to their natural environment, and who, despite the extreme remoteness and dangers of their forest home in Central Africa, always find opportunities to express their humor, joyfulness, and musical genius.” As a result, the story isn’t fleshed out in great detail, but rather serves as a framework for exploring the Bayaka’s daily lives and soundscapes. The first, shorter portion of the film explores the community’s marginalization and is dominated by the sounds of the sawmill and various genres of Afro pop. Once Larry and the Bayaka are reunited with the shaman, however, the film switches to a series of musical performances interspersed and interwoven with the sounds of local birds, animals, and insects. Among the featured genres are social dance songs, women’s songs (including water drumming), children’s games, mask dance songs, and the sounds of a healing ritual. These are also included on the CD soundtrack along with the co-composed pieces, tracks from previously released field recordings of Bayaka music, and ecological soundscape recordings.

For anyone studying the representations of indigenous music and culture by the media or the use of media for the empowerment of endangered culture groups, Oka! is a must see film and will undoubtedly be the source of much conversation among ethnomusicologists and anthropologists in the months to come. It’s also a beautiful film and thoroughly enjoyable for anyone interested in Bayaka culture or traditional African musics.

Oka! is currently showing in selected cities; no DVD is available at this time.

Reviewed by Ronda L. Sewald


Title: Beyond

Artist:  Tina Turner

Label: New Earth Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 14, 2010

This holiday season Tina Turner has presented us with a spiritual offering.  Raised in the Baptist faith, Turner was first introduced to Buddhism in the early 1970s. Three years later she converted and has since become one of the most high-profile practitioners of Nichiren Buddhism, a Japanese branch of the religion which focuses on building a better and more peaceful world.  Her new album, Beyond, “explores the oneness of religions through music with Buddhist and Christian prayers.”

Collaborating with Turner on the album are Dechen Shak-Dagsay (a native of Tibet and daughter of the spiritual leader Dagsay Rinpoche), who composed the music for the Buddhist prayers, and Regula Curti, who contributed original compositions for Christian prayers. Readings and chants are provided by Turner, who leaves the singing to her two collaborators.

In the official press release, Turner provides a fuller description of the project.  “I’m very happy to be a part of the BEYOND Project that was initiated by Regula Curti and Dechen Shak-Dagsay, both amazing singers, individuals and philanthropists from two different cultures—Christian and Tibetan. This project has taken on a life of its own and has expanded and attracted other artists of various faiths who will be involved with us in subsequent albums as this continues to grow. As a collaborator I’d like to make very clear that the Project is not about me or Tina Turner the rock star. It’s about being part of and supporting a movement for the awareness and acceptance of different religions and spiritual paths to awaken the truth of ultimate oneness within us all. This is a movement that goes beyond the three of us and has already been embraced by many people, including the Dalai Lama, the Abbott Martin Werlen Osb, and Deepak Chopra. The BEYOND Project is an invitation to open up a space where it is possible to include each individual to contribute to this vision. We are all the same, looking to find our way back to the source.”

In addition to the timely spiritual messages, the beautiful, meditative songs and music provide a welcome respite from the stress of everyday life and will surely help listeners achieve inner peace. Furthermore,  all artist proceeds from the recording will go towards supporting their own non-profit organizations that focus on the welfare of children: The Dewa Che Foundation, The Seeschau Foundation and The Tina Foundation.

Following is the official promo video (courtesy of New Earth Records):

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Can You Dig It?

Title: Can You Dig It? : The Music and Politics of Black Action Films 1968-75

Artist: Various Artists

Label: Soul Jazz Records

Formats: 2 CD set, 4 LPs (vol. 1-2)

Catalog Number: SJR CD 214
Release Date: September 29, 2009

The period of the late ’60s and early to mid ’70s was a time of social change in America, when previously marginalized and ignored groups were making their voices heard. Coinciding with this change in the country at large was a drastic economic change within the motion picture industry. With revenues plunging, companies pursued previously unexplored avenues of revenue, one of which came to be known as Blaxploitation films.  Featuring largely black casts and often primarily black crew members, these films brought out black audiences en masse. This was the first time Black Americans were able to see themselves on screen in non-subservient roles outside a few films here and there. Black audiences flocked to theaters to see stories told from their perspective, and heroes with features (and problems) akin to what they saw and experienced daily.

Another extremely notable aspect of Blaxploitation films was the music accompanying them. Artists like Issac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield and Willie Hutch provided music scores that in many cases have held up stronger than the films themselves. Can You Dig It?, a two-disc set released by Soul Jazz Records, brings together a generous offering of music from a wide selection of films produced during the Blaxploitation era. While songs like the themes from Shaft and Superfly are infamous and have been played and heard consistently since the ’70s, this set offers selections from other films with lesser known soundtracks.  Tracks include Joe Simon’s “Theme from Cleopatra Jones,” Dennis Coffey’s “Theme from Black Belt Jones,” Edwin Starr’s “Easin’ In” from Hell Up in Harlem, Willie Hutch’s “Theme of Foxy Brown, and “Sweetback’s Theme” by Brer Soul (a.k.a. Melvin Van Peebles)  and Earth, Wind & Fire.

Following is the official trailer for Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Courtesy of Xenon Pictures):

There are no real misses in this set as all of the songs have stood the test of time. The set also includes offerings from R&B/soul acts not known primarily for soundtrack material such as Martha Reeves, Solomon Burke, and Booker T & the MG’s. Overall, the collection offers a sampling of the era’s best musical works and serves as a good starting point for those interested in Blaxploitation era music.

Ironically, the real star of this set is not the music. As with many Soul Jazz releases the true gem is the liner notes by Stuart Baker that accompany the discs. Can You Dig It? comes with a 96 page booklet that speaks to the socio-political climate in Hollywood that produced these films and soundtracks, giving a much needed perspective that helps us understand why the works themselves are so significant. The booklet also provides profiles on the actors/actresses, crew members, producers and musicians who were instrumental in creating the soundscapes that accompany a very unique (and regrettably) all too brief period of cinematic history.

Reviewed by Levon Williams

Voice Ringing O’er the Gale!

Title: A Voice Ringing O’er the Gale! The Oratory of Frederick Douglass

Artist: Ossie Davis

Label: Smithsonian Folkways

Format: CD (also available as MP3)

Catalog No.: SFW47006

Release date: July 2009

A Voice Ringing O’er the Gale!: The Oratory of Frederick Douglass is a 5-track CD comprising speeches, written between 1852-1888, of the former slave turned abolitionist, Frederick Douglass.  Although present-day admirers usually come to know Douglass through his three autobiographies and other writings, during his life the orator’s fame centered on his passionate delivery rendered towards describing his experiences as a former slave.

Douglass’ voice was never recorded and the vocal enactment of his speeches in A Voice Ringing O’er the Gale! is delivered by actor/Civil Rights activist, Ossie Davis. With his deep resonant voice, honed acting abilities, depth of understanding, and profound appreciation for the iconic figure of Douglass, Davis attempts to faithfully replicate the actual 19th century experience for the listener.

Addressing his speeches to segregated white, black, and women audiences, Douglass challenged his (white) listeners to acknowledge the plight of the slave and to question the veracity of freedom in a constitution upheld for some and withheld from others (“What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,” parts 1 & 2). In “If There is no Struggle, There is no Progress,” he confronted acquiescent African Americans to ponder the necessity of defying slavery and racism, regardless of the cost, and to consider the courage of those who assumed such a position. Douglass proclaimed freedom of speech as a vital necessity for all Americans in “A Plea for Freedom of Speech,” and expressed his forward-thinking support for the rights of women in “Why I Became a Women’s Rights Man.”

The CD is accompanied by a 31-page liner note insert that provides images and useful background information on both Douglass and Ossie Davis.  The recordings were originally released on two LPs in 1975 and 1977, and the present production by Smithsonian Folkways aims to make Douglass’ legacy accessible to the public through current media.  A Voice Ringing O’er the Gale! is a valuable tool, reminding us that democracy in American has never been a given, and that vibrant dialogue and public debate are as critical for its perpetuation in the present and the future as in the past.

Reviewed by Karen Faye Taborn

The Gospel at Colonus

Title: The Gospel at Colonus
Composer: Bob Telson
Director: Lee Breuer
Publisher: New Video
Format: DVD, NTSC  (90 mins.)
Date: 2008, 1985

The 1985 Philadelphia performance of The Gospel at Colonus, which originally aired on the PBS series Great Performances, is now available for the first time on DVD and it is both entertaining and enlightening. The stage play is directed by Lee Breuer and based on an adaptation of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus in the version by Robert Fitzgerald. It also incorporates passages from both Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Antigone in the versions by Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald, which are published as the Oedipus Cycle of Sophocles.  Morgan Freeman, Clarence Fountain, Jevetta Steele and Isabell Monk are among the talented cast that frames the Oedipus saga within the African American religious and performance traditions.

A quote by a Village Voice reviewer on the DVD cover describes the performance as “…Europe meets Africa; Classic meets Contemporary; Pagan meets Christian.” The first two attributes are evident within the work’s title. The final characteristic, “pagan meets Christian,” is manifested in various ways.  For instance, presenting the story of Oedipus by using a religious art form, gospel music, extrinsically merges the sacred and secular.  However, Bob Telson, Colonus’ music composer and arranger, uses traditional and contemporary (as of 1985) gospel music styles, thus creating an internal profane and religious fluidity that mixes gospel, blues, R&B, and soul.  This lack of demarcation has always characterized Black artistic expression. The call and response, demonstrative behavior, innuendos, vamps, switch leads, hand clapping, foot stomping, hollers and shouts of the soloists and choir are not only exemplary of elements within such expression, but they also reflect an aesthetic continuum between Africa and African American culture.

While the actors-Morgan Freeman, Carl Lumbly and Isabell Monk, among others- present a persuasive tragedy, the music of this performance is the real star.  Clarence Fountain’s raspy voice takes the audience on a journey that explores a range of textures and moods. J.J. Farley and the Original Soul Stirrers create a logical contrast to the Five Blind Boys, as the former group expands the parameters of the quartet tradition by incorporating a wider range of vocal qualities and styles. In addition, the J.D. Steele Singers demonstrate a blended sound that is reminiscent of timeless R&B/soul ballads of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. The choir, which represents the people of Colonus, is dressed in colorful and flashy attire while the quartet groups are clothed in matching suits denoting respective ensembles.

The DVD’s picture quality is very clear.  In addition, the video frames create a broad and varied view of the stage, focusing on the soloists, individual groups, choir and the instrumentalists.  Capturing the stage in this manner allows the audience (in this case the DVD viewer) to experience a sense of “being there” at the time and space of the performance.  Such framing was obviously assisted by Breuer’s stage setting, which is an integrated structure that positions actors, instrumentalists and singers on the stage simultaneously. As a result, all involved become a vital part of the drama.

For those interested in the exploration of an alternative staging of a classical tragedy, or those who seek to experience an artistic manifestation of the core Black aesthetic in the arts-or if you simply like great stage plays, this performance is a must see.  The Gospel At Colonus will make a significant contribution to your Christmas stocking!

Posted by Tyron Cooper

Passing Strange

Title: Passing Strange: Original Broadway Cast Recording
Artist: Book and lyrics by Stew; Music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald; Original Broadway Cast
Label: Ghostlight Records
Catalog No.: 84429
Release date: July 15, 2008

Passing Strange became a Broadway sensation this spring, garnering a Tony nomination and Drama Desk and New York Drama Critics’ Circle awards for Best Musical, and attracting among its diehard fans Spike Lee, who filmed the final performances in order to preserve the stage version of the show. The origins of Passing Strange go back further, however. Author and co-composer Stew (founder of the band The Negro Problem) began developing the show at the Sundance Institute Theater Lab in 2004 and 2005, followed by a premiere at the Berkeley Repertory Theater in 2006 and a short off-Broadway run at New York’s Public Theater in May 2007. Passing Strange is at once a Black rock musical, a picaresque coming-of-age story, and a semi-autobiographical one-man show with a cast of seven plus an onstage band.

The musical’s plottold episodically rather than in linear narrativefollows the journey of a young Black musician, simply called Youth, as he leaves his middle class Baptist upbringing in 1970s Los Angeles and escapes to Europe in search of “the real.” In Amsterdam, he dives into the experience of readily available drugs and sex, embracing an unstructured bohemian lifestyle. Rather than bringing Youth closer to “the real,” however, the full-body sensuality of Amsterdam ultimately deadens his creative muse. He moves to Berlin, falling in with a group of intellectual, politically-driven performance artists, who believe him to be the classic gifted Black musician from an impoverished background. Youth struggles with his sense of ethics and identity as he seeks to resolve the acclaim he earns in the Berlin nightclubs with his deliberate self-misrepresentation. He ultimately returns home to the United States upon his mother’s death, shaped by experience and aware that “the only truth of youth is the grownup consequences… I need something more than real.”

Youth is the semi-fictionalized portrayal of Passing Strange’s creator Stew as a young man, and is represented simultaneously by Daniel Breaker and by Stew himself as the Narrator who draws the audience along the story, often regarding his younger self with fondness or frustration. Stew also serves as the leader of the onstage band, bridging the musicians and the cast. The rest of the casting is efficiently done, with most other members portraying multiple characters from the three main places in Youth’s life.

As much as Passing Strange is a tale of a musician’s journey to maturity, it is equally a tale of rock itself, incorporating many other genres crucial to the formation of modern rock, and highlighting the importance of Black music in rock. The opening number, “Prologue (We Might Play All Night)” sets up a bluesy rock jam that might easily be heard in a nightclub rather than a Broadway theater. “Church Blues Revelation” invokes both the gospel and blues traditions, which are quickly defied by the teenaged Youth’s punk anthem “Sole Brother.” Soul ballad styles weave their way throughout the musical, particularly in “Mom Song” and “Keys (Marianna).” “The Black One” evokes Weimar-era cabaret jazz, while “Identity” crafts a deliberately alienating combination of punk and performance art. While Youth discovers his love of music as a spiritual revelation in church early in the musical, these diverse musical styles all shape his identity and experiences across the length of his journey of self-discovery.

Since this is the cast soundtrack, much of the spoken narrative has been omitted, and the songs are presented as freestanding works. This can make it tricky to follow the plot from listening alone, but it highlights the pulse of the music and the sharp wit of the lyrics. The throbbing guitars and Stew’s gravelly baritone are at the heart of the rock vibe of Passing Strange, and they pull the listener on a compelling musical journey.

Posted by Ann Shaffer

Great Debaters

Title: Great Debaters: Music From & Recorded for the Motion Picture

Artists: Various

Label: Atlantic Records

Catalog No.: 396860

Date: 2007

Alvin Youngblood Hart, one of the key players on Otis Taylor’s recently released CD Recapturing the Banjo (reviewed in the March issue), is also central to the soundtrack of the Denzel Washington film, The Great Debaters, which tells an untold story of Black Americans in the 1930s. The film centers around a Texas Negro College’s debating team, coached by charismatic poet and communist agitator Melvin Tolson, played by Washington, and their historic victory over Harvard University. Scott Barretta’s notes indicate that “Washington [who directed the film] was looking for authentic material – whether blues, jazz, gospel, or country – that best suited the film.”

Indeed the soundtrack does offer a variety of musical styles, leading off with the strong and stirring “My Soul Is A Witness,” a contemporary take on a “ring shout” rendered on acoustic guitar and djembe (West African drum) and cajon (Afro-Peruvian box drum). Built around the repetition of the title phrase, and given call and response antiphony by Hart and soul singer Sharon Jones (of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings fame), “My Soul Is A Witness,” comes as close as anything to recreating the musical frenzy of Austin Coleman’s original. This opening track demonstrates with passion that while the music may be informed by historic “authenticity,” it is anything but a dusty museum piece.

Throughout The Great Debaters Hart, leading on acoustic guitar and vocals, shares the spotlight with Jones as well as Memphis guitarist Teenie Hodges, The Angelic Voices of Faith gospel chorus, and North Carolina string-band revivalists The Carolina Chocolate Drops. Together they create a vibrate patchwork of music, both sacred and secular, somber and exuberant, that powers along like a freight train. “Step It Up and Go” sets the tone with a finger popping country-blues, and “It’s Tight Like That” showcases Jones’s smoky vocals on a soulful reinterpretation of a early “hokum” standard by Tampa Red and Georgia Tom (aka Thomas Dorsey). Another standout is “I’ve Got Blood In My Eyes For You,” a song made popular in the 1930s as a guitar/fiddle duo by the Mississippi Sheiks (who had a bestseller with “Sittin’ On Top of the World”). Here it is given full string band treatment by The Carolina Chocolate Drops and Hart, who capture the spirit of the music without loosing the historical value and without compromising the rather arcane lyrics.

While filled with images from the film, the liner notes take the reader step-by-step through the history of each song and the basis for its inclusion in an effort to flush out the soundscape of the period. It should also be mentioned that two historical recordings are included, Marion Anderson singing Handel’s “Begrussung,” and Art Tatum’s “The Shout.” While differing musically from most of the acoustic blues, country, and jazz tunes, they are no less a part of that diverse soundscape.

It’s a shame that The Great Debaters project came together as a soundtrack that will inevitably limit its shelf life once the public has forgotten the largely forgettable film. In a just world The Great Debaters soundtrack would be experiencing the same unprecedented success as the O Brother, Where Art Thou album/phenomenon. Yet at the same time it’s heartening to see such revivalism taking place, where tradition isn’t left behind, but also isn’t doggedly adhered to by limiting the abilities and tastes of creative artists, or by assumptions regarding the limited tastes of listeners.

Posted by Thomas Grant Richardson Continue reading