Kermit Ruffins & Irvin Mayfield – A Beautiful World

A Beautiful World
Title: A Beautiful World

Artist: Kermit Ruffins & Irvin Mayfield

Label: Basin Street

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: September 22, 2017

 

 

Celebrating Basin Street Records’ 20th anniversary, musician Kermit Ruffins and producer Irvin Mayfield join together on a collaborative album, A Beautiful World. This album includes different musical configurations and features other Basin Street Records’ artists: Rebirth Brass Band, Dr. Michael White, Jason Marsalis, and Bill Summers. Other artists making guest appearances include Haile Reinhart, Cyril Neville, John Boutté, Glen David Andrews, Shannon Powell, and many other New Orleans musicians. Basin Street claims “A Beautiful World is the ultimate party in record form” and I must agree—it’s a non-stop celebration as well as a demonstration of the musical genius and creativity of Kermit Ruffins and Irvin Mayfield.

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The party begins with “Well, Alright,” a big band piece with tasteful horn solos, handclaps, and a swingin’ rhythm section. Along with the sounds of the big band, we hear vocal support from the artists encouraging soloists during their solos, which is participatory characteristic of African American music. “Drop Me Off In New Orleans” reflects the cheerful and jovial sounds that can be heard while walking through the streets of New Orleans, capturing a true representation of the city’s tradition jazz music legacy. In addition, there are soulful compositions and arrangements such as “Move On Ahead,” “Good Life,” “Be My Lady,” “Allen Toussaint,” “Just A Closer Walk With Thee,” and “When The Saints Go Marching In.” These songs express the spirit of the album, which is to honor the past while celebrating Basin Street Records’ 20th anniversary and the beginning of New Orleans 300th anniversary.

A notable feature of A Beautiful World is the short spoken word interludes interspersed with musical compositions throughout the album. Narratives of Kermit Ruffins and Irvin Mayfield are heard through the words of actor Wendell Pierce, DJ Soul Sister, Irvin Mayfield III, and The Urban Cellist. These interludes not only provide a contrasting element to the project, they also offer the listener a glimpse into the experiences of Ruffins and Mayfield.

When asked about the recording process Ruffins responded, “Good food and good music are my passions. I wanted to make a record people could eat.” Metaphorically speaking, A Beautiful World is certainly food for the soul. From its foot-tapping rhythms, groovy basslines, rich harmonies, and melodious hooks to its historical musical representations, this album is a wonderful treat for the listener and a heartfelt tribute to the city of New Orleans and Basin Street Records.

Reviewed by Jamaal Baptiste

Gregory Porter – Nat “King” Cole & Me

Gregory Porter
Title: Nat “King” Cole & Me

Artist: Gregory Porter

Label: Blue Note

Formats: CD, LP, MP3, Deluxe ed.

Date: October 27, 2017

 

 

Born and raised in Sacramento, California, Gregory Porter is undoubtedly a jazz legend. He captured audiences with his enchanting baritone voice the moment he stepped on the scene, receiving a Grammy nomination for his debut album Water (2010), and wining the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album with Liquid Spirit (2013) and last year’s Take Me To The Alley. Now, as he teams up with 6-time Grammy award winning arranger Vince Mendoza as well as the London Studio Orchestra, Porter will sends chills down your spine and possibly bring a tear to your eye with his new album Nat “King” Cole & Me.

This album is meant to be a tribute to his idol, the legendary Nat King Cole, whose influence on Porter began at a very early age. In a recent interview, Porter recalls writing a song and playing it for his mother. Upon listening to young Gregory she exclaimed, “Boy you sound like Nat King Cole.” This sparked Porter’s lifelong love for Nat and his music. Porter also explained that his father was never in his life and Cole’s music seemed to fill a type of void in him, stating “They were coming out of the speakers like Nat was singing those words just to me. I would listen to his albums and imagine that Nat was my father.”

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The material in the album consists of gorgeous orchestral arrangements of songs made famous by Nat King Cole, one of the first being “Nature Boy.” Porter’s rich tone on this song is hauntingly beautiful as he treats the melody and the text in ways clearly influenced by Cole yet still maintaining his own individuality. As the album continues we are met with even more phenomenal arrangements like “Miss Otis Regrets,” with a bombastic introduction that swiftly drops as Porter enters with the lyric. But one of the best moments happens towards the end of the album as Porter sings the standard tune “For All We Know.” His tender delivery of this song is amazing in how he treats the lyric and occasionally embellishes the melody, showcasing excellent control.

With other classic tunes like “L-O-V-E,” “Sweet Lorraine” (on the 15 track deluxe edition) and “The Christmas Song,” Nat “King” Cole & Me is absolutely astonishing. With a rich and soulful sound, no one could do more justice to the memory and legacy of Nat King Cole than Gregory Porter.

Reviewed by Jared Griffin

Courtney Pine – Black Notes From the Deep

Courtney Pine
Title: Black Notes From the Deep

Artist: Courtney Pine

Label: Freestyle

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: October 27, 2017

 

 

From across the pond comes British jazz musician Courtney Pine’s latest offering, Black Notes From the Deep. Perhaps best known as a founding member of the Jazz Warriors as well as host of the radio show Jazz Crusade on BBC Radio 2, Pine has had a major impact on the U.K. jazz scene over the last thirty years. On his 19th album, the multi-instrumentalist focuses primarily on tenor sax while collaborating with another U.K. legend, neo-soul singer Omar Lye-Fook. Backing musicians include the dream team of Alec Dankworth (son of Cleo Laine) on bass, Robert Mitchell on piano, and Washington, DC native Rod Youngs on percussion.

As the needle drifts over the grooves of the opening track, there’s no doubt that pairing Omar with Pine was a brilliant idea. “Rules,” co-written by the two musicians, is a fitting intro the album and offers a glimpse of things to come (see video below for a live performance of the song). Next up is “You Know Who You Are.” This sultry, atmospheric instrumental brings to mind a smoky jazz club in a film noir while showcasing the piano stylings of Mitchell and some tasty tenor solos from Pine.

Several members of the group, including Pine, have Jamaican roots, which influenced the instrumental “Rivers of Blood.” The title references the 1968 anti-immigration speech by Enoch Powell, a British member of Parliament, directed primarily at the initial wave of Caribbean immigrants to the U.K. from 1948-1968. Pine’s tenor combines with chords on the lower octaves of the piano to speak the bitter truth of this era, but a ray of hope is offered as the instruments move into the upper registers, building to a forceful conclusion that defies all odds.

Ushered in on a bass riff quoting Curtis Mayfield, “Darker Than the Blue” is definitely an album highlight, with Omar imploring, “Please tell me why, why oh why, would you want to leave me this way?” while Pine wails on the tenor sax like a lover scorned. Omar returns for two more tracks, the organ layered “In Another Time” and a new interpretation of Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly,” the latter featuring Charleen Hamilton on background vocals. On the upbeat instrumental “A Change Is Sure to Come,” Pine finesses the bass flute, proving his versatility while offering the other members of the ensemble an opportunity to solo. The album concludes on “A Word to the Wise,” with Pine plumbing the depths of the tenor to signal a warning call.

Black Notes From the Deep indeed plumbs the depth of jazz and soul, adeptly mixing message songs with passionate instrumentals performed with deft expertise by musicians who have spent decades honing their craft.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Mavis Staples – If All I Was Was Black

Mavis Staples
Title: If All I Was Was Black

Artist: Mavis Staples

Label: Anti-Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release Date: November 17, 2017

 

 

Mavis Staples ushers in her eighth decade of singing truth with the call-to-compassion album If All I Was Was Black, her third collaborative project with songwriter, producer, and Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. Their first partnership in 2010, You Are Not Alone, won a Grammy Award for Best Americana album. Their second effort together, One True Vine, was a Grammy nominee. But If All I Was Was Black marks the first time Tweedy has composed an entire album of original songs for Mavis’ legendary voice and a nation she’s uniquely poised to address. As a witness to both past and ongoing American civil rights issues, Staples feels that, in many respects, “nothing has changed…we’re not loving one another the way we should.”

 

The album’s first track, “Little Bit,” firmly establishes this work as a conscious ode to the déjà vu mood gripping the nation of late. A driving guitar hook sets the tone immediately at the open, with Staples’ vocals rasping out an early downbeat of “This life surrounds you, guns are loaded. This kind of tension, hard not to notice.” Throughout the song, Mavis leads listeners through call-and-response vocals in a soundscape that recalls Sly & the Family Stone’s mix of joy and social criticism unfolding over a funk-edged rhythm section. Following is the title track, an upbeat, joyous groove that continues the album’s humanistic theme of understanding and acceptance. Directly addressing those who respond to someone’s race without seeing their shared humanity, Staples expertly croons, “If all I was was Black, don’t you want to know me more than that?”

Current events appear on the record obliquely, reflecting a commitment to a universal approach that shines a comparative light on the past by suggestively addressing today’s events. As Mavis explains, “We didn’t make the songs point to a specific person. If you follow the lyrics, it’s about yesterday and today.” “We Go High” borrows its chorus from Michelle Obama’s speech on the first night of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, and the track “Build a Bridge” parses exactly which lives matter and how we can begin to talk about it.

Staples’ darker tone can be glimpsed in both “Who Told You That?” and “Try Harder.” Alluding to the frustration and realism of today, her telling line “There’s evil in the world, and there’s evil in me” signals harsh undercurrents of danger. Despite these elements, the mood ring on Mavis’ 2017 call-to-action is set to love, running through and over the occasional fury and pragmatism. The songs move like an ocean tide, ebbing and flowing, with Mavis countering the anger with an eye toward the work that is required to bring change. In the end, the answer lies in lifting each other up, Staples style. She’s not embracing the anxious hesitation of respectability politics but rather the possibilities of love.

Try Harder. Two small words, containing the biggest potential imaginable. To Mavis Staples, this phrase is key to substantial change if society will take her lead and lovingly follow through.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Talib Kweli – Radio Silence

Radio Silence
Title: Radio Silence

Artist: Talib Kweli

Label: Javotti Media

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: November 17, 2017

 

 

Is it the current political atmosphere or possibly just time for the genre to once again acknowledge its roots? Whatever the reason, there is a conscious stream of artists dominating mainstream rap right now, and Talib Kweli is leading the way. Kweli is no stranger to the scene—his first collaborative group, Black Star, was formed with Mos Def in 1997—and to date, he has worked with artists Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, Just Blaze, the Beastie Boys and Kendrick Lamar. Kweli is featured on Dave Chappell’s Block Party, both as an actor and a soundtrack artist. In 2011 he founded his own label, Javotti Media, billed as “a platform for independent thinkers and doers.”* With an eye on social issues both past and present, Kweli offers us his take on 2017 with his latest, Radio Silence.

The album unlocks with “The Magic Hour,” a song that introduces the album’s concepts and purpose through magical lyricism. Opening with the ethereal sounds of strings and a choir, the tune carves its own place in the world of rap solely on these feature alone. Kweli’s opening line, “Last one to fall asleep, first one to wake up. No Doubt. It’s the Magic Hour,” layered on top of an upbeat piano riff sets the standard for the remainder of this Brooklyn phenom’s offerings. The song’s final chords fade away under Kweli’s assurance that “hip hop will flourish with nourishment and the proper care,” a parental line from one who has been there, done that, and knows how to make it last.

The philosophy continues to pour out of this rap statesman rhyme after rhyme. The second track, “Traveling Light,” thumps the pulpit of Kweli’s truth through musings about his own genesis towards the rap dimension. Unquestionably possessing a magical talent for deep lyricism, he brings Anderson .Paak’s smooth vocals into the track to compliment his message. “All of Us” unfastens the mood even further with its break-out sampling of a rally for justice. Jay Electronica of Roc Nation and powerhouse Yummy Bingham spin their consciousness right along Kweli, adding a multi-layered resonance reverberating past the very last strain of violin fade-out. The lead single, “Radio Silence,” is a blend of Kweli and Myka 9’s exceptional cypher savvy interspersed with Amber Coffman’s haunting refrains. Never one to ignore the heart strings for long, Kweli and BJ The Chicago Kid’s “The One I Love” reminds us that regardless of what’s going on, that one special person makes it all worthwhile.

Of all the offerings not explicated here—“Chips,” “Knockturnal,” “Let It Roll,” “Write at Home”—by far, the standout is “Heads Up Eyes Open.” Dedicated to late rap promoter Kenneth “Headqcouterz” Walker, this part testimonial/part inspirational melody features not only mind-bending truthfulness on topics such as police brutality and protest rights, but also functions as a call for honesty and faithfulness because “the picture is so much bigger than what we could even imagine.” Indeed. Talib Kweli’s vision is so much larger than what we typically conceptualize. This portfolio of political discourse keeps challenging and teaching long after the voices, piano riffs and handclaps fade away.

Radio Silence, through its proverbial introspections and uplifting retrospection, seamlessly moves its message through the airwaves of our minds. In Talib Kweli’s world, silence truly does speak louder than words.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

 

Paa Kow – Cookpot

Cookpot
Title: Cookpot

Artist: Paa Kow

Label: Paa Kow Music

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release Date: October 13, 2017

 

 

Ghana-born drummer Paa Kow’s new self-released album, Cookpot, presents the listener with a wide range of influences. Paa Kow, who now resides in Colorado, has been performing since he was seven years old, and he initially gained fame in his native Ghana as the “Small-boy Drummer.” His virtuosity as a drummer is always present throughout the 13-track release, along with a unique stylistic amalgam of several genres. First and foremost, there is the stylistic influence of highlife, which is to be expected given his heritage and the music’s origins in Ghana. The listener unfamiliar with highlife could easily assume that Cookpot is a Caribbean release, and that assumption would not be entirely unfounded due to the fact that highlife has been heavily influenced by Afro-Caribbean music such as calypso.

The opening track, “The Way I Feel,” begins as a standard funk tune, but it ultimately separates itself through Paa Kow’s impressive drum fills and a B section that is both heavily syncopated and laden with stop-time accents. Accompanied by some stellar electric piano playing, “The Way I Feel” would be at home on one of Herbie Hancock’s funk albums. It is a track that sounds as if Herbie recorded an album with a Ghanaian drummer.

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The title track is deceptive. Its fusion of styles—world, jazz, and funk—is so seamless that it is easy to forget that it isn’t just a funk song. Like what can happen with a good meal, the end product often masks the flavor of each individual ingredient. “Cookpot,” then, is a fitting title for this track. Also mixing ingredients, “Forced Landing” is the most glaring example of the fusion of styles on this album. What begins as a jazz tune with an intro trumpet solo switches time signatures and transforms into a highlife song before ultimately changing time signatures again and settling into a funk groove. It is essentially three songs merged into one.

One of the standout tracks on the album is “African Lady,” which along with “Lonely” and “Pete Pete,” are the most highlife-influenced tracks on the album. “African Lady” is an upbeat tune with a complex rhythmic pattern laid out cooperatively by the drums, guitar, and keyboard. Drummers will find this to be an inspirational performance along with the track “Details,” featuring a solo where Paa Kow demonstrates his impeccable technique on the drum set.

Collectively, this album’s focus is drum-centric, and it offers up a great deal of rhythmic complexity. Nevertheless, throughout the recording there are some first-rate solos from the keyboard player, guitar player, and horn players. The combination of styles creates a unique product in that this is not the typical jazz-funk album. Paa Kow has thrown a variety of ingredients into his cookpot, and the result is an album that is equal parts jazz, funk, and highlife. Anyone who possesses a stylistically wide palette would be remiss to not listen to Cookpot, and those who enjoy listening to a virtuosic drummer cannot afford to pass this one up.

Reviewed by Joel Roberts

Antibalas – Where The Gods Are In Peace

Antibalas
Artist: Antibalas

Label: Daptone

Title: Where The Gods Are In Peace

Release Date: September 15, 2017

Format: CD, Vinyl, Mp3

 

 

Raise your hand up high if you know & are into the Brooklyn band, Antibalas. Not bad, not bad—I see a few hands and a fist or two. Now, for those who aren’t hip, let me explain exactly who Antibalas is. The group formed in 1998 with Martin Perna at the front. The word antibalas is Spanish for “bulletproof”, which lends credence to their long-lasting career in the afrobeat world—19 years and still going strong. Antibalas plays afrobeat music, paying homage to the king of afrobeat himself, Fela Kuti. Listen very carefully—you may hear Eddie Palmeri piano stylings and personally, I think I hear another echoes of another band hailing from Brooklyn, Mandrill.

Where The Gods Are In Peace could be considered a head scratcher because it’s so short. It showcases only five tracks, but in reality, it feels like ten, perhaps fifteen. To only have five tracks and still packing a serious blow is true testament to what this band is all about. Take the track “Goldrush”. It opens up with early 1970’s rock FM and fast as you can FELA, BAM! The mood shifts into afrobeat, advanced version. Brilliant! They have you thinking one thing, but accomplish another.

Antibalas is very well-schooled in pulling off feats such as this.  “Tombstone”, believe it or not, is the third, fourth and fifth track–a 3-part finale that will blow your mind. Zap Mama, the beauty from Belgium, lends her vocals on all three tracks. What can one say? Makes you wish more acts took risks like Antibalas, but they would be asking too much. Antibalas is one of a kind, folks.

Where The Gods Are In Peace. Enjoy it for what it is—an amazingly powerful punch in just a five step gig. Next time, I expect to see more hands raised when asked, “Who knows about Antibalas?” Don’t disappoint me.

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

The Gospelaires of Dayton, Ohio – Moving Up-The Early Years 1956-1965

Gospelaires
Title: Moving Up – The Early Years 1956-1965

Artist: The Gospelaires of Dayton, Ohio

Label: Gospel Friend/dist. City Hall Records

Format: CD

Release date: November 17, 2017

 

 

Most of us think of Dayton, Ohio as the epicenter of funk, but the city also gave birth to several national gospel recording artists including Dottie Peoples, the Daytonians, and the Gospelaires—a quartet that enjoyed the worldwide spotlight in the decade between 1956-1965 and beyond. Yet despite their considerable success, the Gospelaires have not been well represented on reissue projects. Enter Swedish gospel aficionado Per Notini, who set out to correct this omission by producing the compilation, Moving Up – The Early Years 1956-1965, on his Gospel Friend label. Included are several singles that have never been released on CD.

The opening tracks recorded in 1956, two years after the Gospelaires’ formation, are from their debut single for the Houston, Texas-based Avant label. Despite the message of solidarity in “We Are Marching Together” and catchy doo-wop style of “Some People Never Stop to Pray,” the initial reception was only lukewarm. However, the single did attract the attention of Don Robey at Peacock Records, who signed the six member quartet and continued the affiliation for the next 16 years. The second and third tracks are from the quartet’s first Peacock single, with baritone Robert Washington taking the lead on the soul stirring “Just Faith” and up-tempo “Sit Down Children,” while bass Robert Lattimore provides guitar accompaniment.  These sides portend the future direction of the group, while also displaying the powerful vocals and impassioned delivery of Washington. Though two other members sang lead for the Gospelaires—tenor Melvyn Boyd and baritone Paul Arnold—Washington is featured on the majority of the tracks on this set.

Arranged in chronological order, the remaining 25 songs provide a welcome overview of the Gospelaires. “It’s a Pity” (1958) showcases another lead singer, baritone Paul Arnold, who can also be heard trading the lead with Washington on “I’ll Be So Glad” and “You Can’t Make Me Doubt Him.” It’s unfortunate that Boyd is only featured on two tracks, “When I Rise” and “I Didn’t Know.” Though he doesn’t have the gritty power of Washington, his supple high tenor and emotive shouts are electrifying.  In another change of pace, Washington can be heard sermonizing on “Trouble No More” and “Rest for the Weary,” the latter included in this archival footage:

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Teen sensation Charles “Sky High” McClean is introduced on “C’mon” (1962), a song somewhat reminiscent of “Shout” by the Isley Brothers, who got their start just down the road in Cincinnati.  McClean takes the lead on “Motherless Child” (1963), his soulful high tenor making it clear how he came by his nickname.  The CD closes with an impassioned arrangement of Thomas Dorsey’s “Search Me Lord.”

The Gospelaires continued to record for Peacock for another decade, before switching over to Savoy, where they released many more albums. Their entire story is included in the authoritative liner notes by Bob Marovich, who also drew from articles by Ray Funk and Opal Nations. I’m pleased to say that all three of these dedicated gospel historians have generously donated collections to the Indiana University Archives of African American Music, where they are preserved for future generations.

Moving Up is a wonderful compilation showcasing the early years of the Gospelaires, one of the most successful gospel quartets of that era, and likely a strong influence on the funk groups that would emerge from Dayton, Ohio in the following decade.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Trouble in The Streets – Electro Tribe

trouble in the streets
Title: Electro Tribe

Artist: Trouble in The Streets

Label: Orb Recording

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: October 6, 2017

 

 

Austin, Texas based Trouble in The Streets’ debut album is like nothing you’ve heard before; in fact, they feel that their music is so unique that they’ve given it its own name—Electro Tribe. This signature sound is a mixture of electronic music, hip-hop, rock, and R&B with an international twist. The band pulls inspiration for their unique sound from acts like Rage Against the Machine, Beats Antique, and Hiatus Kaiyote as well as their own diverse musical backgrounds.

Though it may sound complicated, Trouble in The Streets is able to blend all of these sounds and styles into four cohesive and high-energy tracks on their EP, Electro Tribe. The first track, “Pyramid Scheme,” featuring Grammy Award winning guitarist Beto Martinez, includes retro-synth chord progressions, hard-hitting bass and drum arrangements, and Nnedi Agbaroji’s mesmerizing vocals.

From the passionate “Never Doubt the Worm” to the hopeful and emotional “Sop Me Up Like a Biscuit,” each track on the album is distinct yet still retains the band’s signature electro sound that will leave you wanting more from this up-and-coming trio.

Reviewed by Chloe McCormick

 

Lloyd Price – This Is Rock and Roll

Lloyd Price
Title: This Is Rock and Roll

Artist: Lloyd Price

Label: Double L Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: September 22, 2017

 

 

Lloyd Price’s career may have launched way back in 1952 with the famous single “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” but his newest release proves that his career is far from over. This Is Rock and Roll, Price’s first album in over a decade, includes a combination of newly penned original tracks, like the bluesy “I’m Getting Over You,” as well as a collection of covers.

The title track exemplifies the album’s balance between originals and covers, combining Jimmy Reed’s “Peepin’ & Hidin’” with Price’s celebratory call-and-response “This is rock and roll.” This song is significant to the album as a whole, as it was recorded in the New York City club where, three years ago, Price decided he still had much to offer fans and conceived this album.

For his slowed-down cover of Carole King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” the legendary Rock and Roll Hall of Famer turns the song into a ballad sung from a man’s point of view. Regardless of whether it’s an original or a cover, each track on This Is Rock and Roll contains the unique Lloyd Price essence that has been captivating listeners for over 60 years.

Reviewed by Chloe McCormick

Chopteeth Afrofunk Big Band – Bone Reader

Chopteeth
Title: Bone Reader

Artist: Chopteeth Afrofunk Big Band

Label: Grigri Discs

Formats: CD, Digital (MP3, MP3-320, FLAC)

Release date: September 15, 2017

 

 

September sees a new release by the Chopteeth Afrofunk Big Band, a Washington D.C. based Afrobeat group.  This marks the second release (the first being a live LP) from the 10-year veteran band that cut its teeth on the festival and world music circuit.  The 12-member ensemble balances its funky polyrhythmic grooves with outstanding solos and compelling political commentary throughout the 10-track Bone Reader, an album that is dense with lyrical and musical concepts while being straightforward enough in its message and music for the casual listener to take something meaningful away after the first listen.

Afrobeat has historically been animated by political and social justice issues, and Bone Reader follows closely in the mold set by Fela Kuti and others who pioneered this element of the genre.  The band comes out swinging on the first track, “Questions of Our Day,” which opens with the lyrics “Who’s gonna take the lion’s share / Who’s gonna tip the scales, who’s gonna put them square / Who’s gonna stuff the box, who’s gonna say they can’t / Who’s gonna buy the block, who’s gonna pay the rent.” The song continues in this mold, addressing social issues in the abstract and setting the tone for some of the more specific commentary the band offers throughout the course of the album.

The following track, “Edward Snowden,” features an extended saxophone solo interpolated with audio clips of the NSA surveillance whistleblower warning of the constitutional and personal dangers of federal government snooping. It includes what is perhaps one of the most foreboding endings of any track about a political issue ever: Snowden asserting that “If I end up in chains in Guantanamo, I can live with that.”

The album’s fourth cut brings home an issue that is near and dear to the band based in the nation’s capital—the fact that Washington D.C. is inadequately represented in Congress. With the chorus exhorting “Give D.C. the vote immediately,” they point out population statistics, including the fact that Wyoming has a smaller population than the District but more Congressional representation. “Cop Show” (featuring rapper Flex Mathews) addresses police brutality and racial profiling in a compelling fashion over a funky, ever-changing groove.

If all of this sounds alternatingly wonky and depressing, the grooves that the band plays throughout the course of the album are the spoonful of sugar that this medicine needs to go down smooth.  Every cut on the record is danceable, and scorching solos—guitar on “Questions of our Day,” piano on the New Orleans-flavored “Rambeau,” and horns interspersed throughout—color the album with much-appreciated musical diversity.

Chopteeth Afrofunk Big Band can riff as well as it can pontificate, and listeners are treated to a heavy dose of both on Bone Reader.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

 

Cecile McLorin Salvant – Dreams and Daggers

Dreams and Daggers

Title: Dreams and Daggers

Artist: Cecile McLorin Salvant

Label: Mack Avenue

Formats: CD, Vinyl, MP3

Release Date: September 29, 2017

 

 

The Miami born singer Cecile McLorin Salvant has been on a consistent rise in the jazz world, making her Mack Avenue Records debut in 2013 with WomanChild, and garnering a Grammy award nomination. She received her first Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal in 2016 with her sophomore album, For One To Love. Now, with the hauntingly beautiful release, Dreams and Daggers, McLorin Salvant amazes.

The album includes a mix of original material and new arrangements of classic jazz and blues standards. From beginning to end it’s impossible not to lose yourself in the music as McLorin Salvant showcases unbelievable vocal control and all-around ability.

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Explaining the title of the project, McLorin Salvant says, “The songs on this album are of dreams and daggers. The daggers have been used at times to attack, at times to defend. . . The dreams are the ones I caught looking out a window, or from the light sleep before the deep.” She splits this album into two discs; the first seems to expand on this idea of the “daggers,” while the second includes her “dreams.”

Disc one begins very subtly with the eerie melodies in the song “And Yet,” where McLorin Salvant’s voice is first heard alone with the Catalyst String Quartet. The beauty of the writing by Salvant and bassist Paul Sikivie is astounding. By interweaving the quartet with the rest of the ensemble they create gorgeous textures and melodic ideas throughout this and many other tunes on the album. What is most impressive is hearing McLorin Salvant as she enters with precise and crisp tones. Throughout the album, the influence, respect, and knowledge of those who have preceded her, such as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, and Carmen McCrae, are easily heard.

In disc two we get to experience the more playful side of Cecil, and since this album was recorded with a live studio audience, it has a very personal feel, making you want to cheer along with them. This is especially evident in her rendition of the blues classic, “You’ve Got to Give Me Some,” where we hear the audience reacting to the suggestive lyrics as well as the spectacular piano solo from featured guest Sullivan Fortner.

Dreams and Daggers, a haunting and gorgeous display of joy and pain, pays homage to the older traditions of jazz and blues while adding new and creative ideas to advance the genre.

Reviewed by Jared Griffin

Bette Smith – Jetlagger

jetlagger

Title: Jetlagger

Artist: Bette Smith

Label: Big Legal Mess

Format: CD, MP3

Release date: September 29, 2017

 

 

“The Gospel According to Bette” is the most apt refrain one can give to Bette Smith’s debut album, Jetlagger. Showcasing a gritty, booming voice well fit for her pulpit of southern soul preachin’, Smith follows in the likeness of icons such as Etta James and Tina Turner, churning out message after emotional message in her razor-edged style.

A native of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Smith began her love of music at an early age, singing in her church choir at the tender age of 5. Her path to secular composition took her through music therapy classes as part of her curriculum within Colombia University School of Social Work, and into the 9-5 grind as she wrestled with her longing for musical performance outside of the clerical sphere. Her older brother Jimmy, who succumbed to kidney complications in 2013, gave his approval, offering final words of encouragement that resonated with Smith long after his passing. She formed her band slowly, but once complete she wouldn’t turn down any gig—“I’d play a senior center one day, a street fair the next.” Her perseverance paid off, and as a token to her brother’s memory, she proudly wears the color yellow on stage and in her music videos.

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Smith begins her offering of soul-searching, lyrical melodies with “I Will Feed You,” which starts out with a choir of background voices slowly giving way to Smith’s musings of unrequited love. The next track, “Jetlagger,” not only allows Smith to growl her way into her listener’s hearts but also to prove her standing in the vintage soul-inspired world. “Durty Hustlin’” and “Shackle & Chain” are as diverse as their titles suggest. “Do Your Thing” makes use of strong horns, a driving bass and a winding tempo that allows Smith to do her own thing, in her own unique way. But it is her psalm “Manchild” that preaches to Smith’s audience most fervently, warning from its opening chords she “don’t want nobody tellin’ me what to do,” she “just want a manchild, I can teach my lovin’ to.”

Modern soul is Bette Smith’s gospel truth, proving when it comes to down-home, soul-searching tunes, nothing beats a classic sermon like Jetlagger.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

 

Christian McBride Big Band – Bringin’ It

Christian McBride Big Band - Bringin' It

Title: Bringin’ It

Artist: Christian McBride Big Band

Label: Mack Avenue

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: September 22, 2017

 

 

Bassist Christian McBride—known for his association with performers such as Chick Corea, Freddie Hubbard, Joshua Redman, and Brad Mehldau—presents Bringin’ It, the second album of the Christian McBride Big Band. On this project not only do we hear influences by Freddie Hubbard (“Thermo”), Maria Schneider (“I Thought About You”), and McCoy Tyner (“Sahara”), but McBride’s compositional style displays his expertise with jazz, funk, Latin jazz, and gospel music as he effortlessly blends these genres.

Included on this album are two arrangements by other musicians—Norman Simmons’ “Upside Down” and trombonist Steve Davis’s “Optimism” —which complement McBride’s compositions and arrangements. Apart from the outstanding writing, the musicality and professionalism of McBride and the members of his ensemble are also on display.

Each track presents the listener with different periods of jazz and references the composers and musicians of those eras. What’s even more astounding is the way each soloist constructs their solos within the styles of the composition. For example, pianist Xavier Davis imitates McCoy Tyner’s pentatonic and quartal vocabulary on “Sahara,” while guitarist Rodney Jones’s usage of octaves on “Full House” is reminiscent of Wes Montgomery’s style of playing. Vocalist Melissa Walker adds a pleasant and exciting element with her warm tone and melodic embellishments that are light, expressive, and blend perfectly with the ensemble.

“Getting’ To It,” featuring a funky bass line over a bed of calypso rhythm, is certainly a song worth mentioning. Drummer Quincy Phillips adds another layer to this already amazing piece. Alternating between funk and calypso rhythmic patterns, he incorporates hits from the arrangement into his drum groove, complementing the rhythmic patterns in the horn section.

Another highlight is “Used ‘Ta Could,” which takes us to church with tambourine and handclaps in the opening bars. This composition embodies performative elements of both the blues and traditional gospel music that inspire the listener to join in with clapping and foot-stomping. The blues riff played in the piano and bass, before every repetition of the melody, prepares the listener for the call-and-response conversation between the trumpets, trombones, and saxes. Later on, we hear this exchange of commentary between horns and piano, further highlighting the importance of gospel music and blues in the big band tradition.

While Christian McBride has fewer solos on this album, his role is certainly not diminished. McBride’s musicality is displayed in the foundational support he provides for his ensemble. His execution is always on point, and his tone gives the ensemble that “phat” fuller sound that is expected of any jazz bassist. McBride’s playing blends so well that his bass does not distract from the overall sound of the ensemble. That is a true sign of professionalism and maturity.

Bringin’ It keeps the big band tradition alive, providing a historical overview of the tradition from McBride’s perspective, while presenting new avenues for further exploration in the 21st century. The album is definitely a must buy—you will not be disappointed.

Reviewed by Jamaal Baptiste

 

 

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis – Handful of Keys

Handful of Keys
Title: Handful of Keys

Artist: Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis

Label: Blue Engine

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 15, 2017

 

The latest release from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, Handful of Keys, features pianists Joey Alexander, Dick Hyman, Myra Melford, Dan Nimmer, Helen Sung, and Isaiah J. Thompson. According to the liner notes by Myra Melford, “this concert was an ‘encapsulated history’ exploring the many rich traditions and styles that define jazz piano today.” By showcasing a multi-generational group (ranging from ages 13 to 89), this album does an outstanding job at presenting 100 years of jazz piano.

The words phenomenal and exhilarating come to mind when describing this project, with each featured pianist offering a different layer of excitement. Beginning with Dick Hyman’s arrangement of “Jingles” by James P. Johnson, the listener is shown a glimpse into the past while given a taste of Hyman’s personality. His flawless execution of intricate passages during this performance demonstrates his dexterity on the piano, and his brilliance in jazz. “Four By Five” captures the spirit of McCoy Tyner, while demonstrating Helen Sung’s creativity as a pianist and arranger. Fragments of Tyner’s vocabulary (pentatonic and quartal harmony) are heard in Sung’s solo, but what’s even more interesting is the way Tyner’s vocabulary is incorporated in the melodic phrases of the horn section.

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Joey Alexander’s heartfelt performance on Bill Evans’ “Very Early” provides excitement through his use of melodic and rhythmic motivic development (in the style of Evans), while Myra Melford’s use of Afro-Cuban montuno patterns and rhythm blended with free improvisational concepts on “The Strawberry” inspires us to dance. Isaiah J. Thompson’s magnificent tribute to pianist Oscar Peterson, “Hymn To Freedom,” takes us on a musical journey displaying virtuosic melodic lines and block chords reminiscent of Peterson. Lastly, but certainly not least, pianist Dan Nimmer of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra performs a fabulous rendition of Wynton Kelly’s “Temperance,” displaying his technical abilities and finesse for jazz piano while capturing the light and expressive style of Kelly.

While this album features jazz pianists, we cannot neglect the role of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. The ensemble does not miss a beat moving from one style to another. The precision of notes, the time-feel, and the overall sound of the collective ensemble displays a high level of musicianship and professionalism, while providing support for the featured pianists.

Handful of Keys is an album that honors the jazz tradition and legacy of past pianists, while contributing new interpretations and arrangements to ensure the continuing longevity of the genre.

Reviewed by Jamaal Baptiste

McGill/McHale Trio – Portraits: Works for Flute, Clarinet & Piano

McGill McHale trio
Title: Portraits: Works for Flute, Clarinet & Piano

Artist: McGill/McHale Trio

Label: Cedille / dist. Naxos

Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC

Release date: August 11, 2017

 

Chicagoans who followed the classical music scene in the 1990s were likely first introduced to the amazingly talented McGill brothers when they performed with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra. Raised on the South Side of Chicago, they began studying classical music at an early age, and by their high school years were receiving national attention.

Now, as musicians who hold principal positions in major orchestras, the brothers have not only reached the pinnacle of their chosen professions, but are among the few African Americans to do so. Demarre McGill recently returned to the Seattle Symphony as principal flute, and younger brother Anthony McGill is principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic. Together with Irish pianist Michael McHale, they formed the McGill/McHale Trio in 2014. Portraits is the trio’s debut recording, released on the prominent Chicago-based Cedille label.

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For this project, the McGill/McHale Trio selected works by living composers; three of those works are recorded for the first time on Portraits. The album takes its title from the longest work on the disc (26:03), Portraits of Langston by Kentucky native Valerie Coleman, flutist/composer of the Chicago-based quintet Imani Winds. Composed in 2007, her six movement suite is based on selected poems by Langston Hughes, which are recited before their corresponding movements by Oscar-winning actor Mahershala Ali. Hughes’ love of jazz is conveyed in Coleman’s musical palette, along with other styles reflective of the Harlem Renaissance era.

The suite begins with the short, melodic “Prelude: Helen Keller,” then delves into the polyrhythmic “Danse Africaine.” After an extended clarinet solo, the movement becomes increasingly frenetic, offering an opportunity for each instrument to shine. The poem “Le Grand Duc Mambo,” describing an altercation between the dancers and patrons of a Parisian cabaret, is masterfully mimicked by flute and clarinet as they enter into a brief and occasionally strident squabble.  “In Time of Silver Rain” speaks of a period “when spring and life are new.” Here Coleman eschews jazz, writing instead a short, atmospheric piece with hints of Debussy in the piano intro and undulating winds, which also carries over into the flute solo.

Returning once again to Hughes’ brief sojourn in Paris in the 1920s, “Jazz Band in a Parisian Cabaret” is “that tune that laughs and cries at the same time.” As the programmatic movement progresses, jazz inflections intensify, with the climax brilliantly pairing stride piano against clarinet riffs. Though one might expect “Harlem’s Summer Night” to be more boisterous, Coleman instead concludes the suite in a more tranquil manner, with blue notes only occasionally jarring the calm of the evening.

French composer Guillaume Connesson reveals his pop music influences in Techno-Parade (2002). This virtuosic work features “a continuous pulsation from start to finish,” emulating the repetitive nature of the Kraftwerk-influenced electronic dance music that emerged from Detroit’s African American clubs in the 1980s and became hugely popular in Europe.  The ensemble performs brilliantly, maintaining precision throughout the complex counterpoint and rhythms, and increasing the intensity right up to the explosive finish.

Other works featured on the recording include an orchestrated version of Chris Rogerson’s A Fish Will Rise (2014/2016), based on Norman Maclean’s best-selling book A River Runs Through It;  Paul Schoenfield’s Sonatina for Flute, Clarinet and Piano; Philip Hammond’s The Lamentation of Owen O’Neil; and McHale’s arrangements of both Sergei Rachmaninov’s Vocalise and the Irish traditional song The Lark in the Clear Air.

Portraits showcases the formidable talents of Demarre and Anthony McGill, who have found their match in the outstanding pianist Michael McHale. Performing with emotional intensity, extraordinary precision, and superb blending of timbres, the McGill/McHale Trio presents a dazzling debut album that’s equally significant for its three world premiere recordings of contemporary works. Highly recommended!

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Ranky Tanky – Ranky Tanky

Ranky Tanky

Title: Ranky Tanky

Artist: Ranky Tanky

Label: Bandcamp

Formats: CD, Digital (MP3, FLAC, etc.)

Release date: September 15, 2017

 

With a name meaning “Get Funky!” or “Work It,” it is no surprise that Charleston, South Carolina’s Ranky Tanky created lively, dynamic arrangements for their self-titled album. Ranky Tanky is composed of five members, four of whom are of Gullah descent—African American communities in the islands and coastal regions of North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Gullah traditions, which retain strong elements of African language, music, and lifeways, are present throughout Ranky Tanky. For their debut album, the group pulled from the ring shouts, praise songs, and nature tales of Gullah music while incorporating their own jazz twist.

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The opening track, “That’s Alright,” is a feel-good song that lives up to the band’s funky name. Vocalist Quiana Parler’s soulful voice is complemented by a tambourine accompaniment to create an uplifting spiritual reminiscent of traditional Gullah praise songs. Other songs on the album are less upbeat and more instrumental but still maintain a connection to Gullah and other African cultures—“Knee Bone,” for example, is influenced by the West African belief that rigidity and death are connected and that one must move to feel alive. “Been in the Storm” is especially poignant in the wake of the recent hurricanes and tropical storms that have affected areas heavily-populated by the Gullah, and serves as a testament to their resilience.

By creating tracks that have roots in Gullah folk music and Afro-diasporic traditions, Ranky Tanky is helping to keep alive the vibrancy and expressiveness of Gullah culture.

Reviewed by Chloe McCormick

Wyclef Jean – Carnival III: The Fall and Rise of a Refugee

The Rise and Fall of Carnival III
Title: Carnival III: The Fall and Rise of a Refugee

Artist: Wyclef Jean

Label: Legacy

Formats: CD, Vinyl, MP3

Release date: September 15, 2017

 

Wyclef Jean released his Carnival III: The Fall and Rise of a Refugee, highlighting the 20th anniversary of his album The Carnival, and the 10th anniversary of Carnival II: Memoirs of an Immigrant. Like the other albums in the Carnival series, the third installment incorporates music from different parts of the world, offering an outstanding conglomerate of music for the listener. According to Jean, this multi-cultural “genre-bending album is outside the box . . . It’s a celebration of what I love about music: discovery, diversity and artistry for art’s sake.

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The first thing that stands out is Jean’s inspirational words, reminding us that “we shall overcome our struggles someday.” His motivational lyrics and usage of biblical references (e.g. Zion, Golden Gates, and Psalm 23) resonate with the listener as symbols of hope, while inspiring them to pursue their goals. Another aspect of this album is Jean’s blending of polyrhythms (“Fela Kuti”), reggae (“Turn Me Good”), Afro-Cuban (“Trapicabana”), hip hop and popular music, creating a multi-cultural experience. Finally, the skillfulness and musicality displayed by each guest artist (including Jazzy Amra, T-Baby, STIX, and Emeli Sandé) adds another layer to the brilliance of this album.

Carnival III: The Fall and Rise of a Refugee sustains the legacy of Wyclef Jean’s first Carnival album, spreading the message of community, hope, and love while showing the diversity of the world stage through the art within a music compilation.

Reviewed by Jamaal Baptiste

Semantics of Mr. Porter – Denzil Porter

Semantics of Mr. Porter

Title: Semantics of Mr. Porter

Artist: Denzil Porter

Label: That’s Hip Hop

Format: CD, MP3

Release date: September 22, 2017

 

 

A lyricist is the ultimate giver in rap, handing out his words in the form of sweets to be collected and savored one at a time for the treats they are. Semantics of Mr. Porter proves that poetics are still in play well after the golden era thanks to the stylings of Denzil Porter. Porter, a native of North Bronx, offers his personal take on his method, which he describes as occurring “when I get a feeling, or in a mood, or something that happened at that moment… a song is something that stamps that moment for me, and also stamps the moment for the listener who relates.”

Semantics of Mr. Porter definitely owns up to its thought-provoking name. The first track, “Et Tu Brute,” is a direct reference to Caesar’s last words, “And you, Bruce?” In listening to the song, one can’t help but make the connection between the two worlds—ancient and modern—in which the way of life might have altered but the way life is hasn’t changed much at all. Porter wraps his meaning into a plethora of rhymes purposely structured around the determination one feels while chasing a dream tied to the frustration one faces in obtaining that reality. “Time Soon Come” operates semantically in much the same way, but opens the bag up further by providing a stringed instrumental background that sugars the message. As the album moves forward, Porter’s drops offer more diversity of sound in tracks such as “Right Now,” which utilizes a funk bass line as its foundation under the layered poetics of Chris Rivers, and “”What It Takes,” in which a less heavy ear-catching piano riff compliments Oswin Benjamin’s “Do you know what it takes?” call-and-response lines.

But the most riveting instances on the album happen in the form of narrative vignettes Porter mixes into his bowl of conscious thoughts. These six cut-ins provide a first-person story of a robbery, from the planning stage to the end result, and demonstrate Porter’s commitment to describing real-life choices that mark a person in ways one can’t fully comprehend until it’s too late. From his tongue-twisting rhymes and his mind-twisting thoughts, Denzil Porter is definitely a force to be reckoned with.  He may not be your typical rapper, but in his own style Porter aims to inspire his listeners; to uplift them and others around them.

When you open the door to Semantics of Mr. Porter, you might get more than you bargained for, but your bag of conscious candy will provide you with unexpected surprises long after the last echoes of Porter’s voice fades into the darkness.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi