Hailing from South Africa, the seven-piece band BCUC (Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness) has released their newest album Emakhosini, an EP featuring three tracks that capture the sound of ancestral, indigenous musical traditions while also including contemporary and controversial commentary on modern Africa.
Each of the three songs, though all very different, contain the essence of ‘Africangungungu,’ the name BCUC has given to their ‘afropsychedelic’ music. The tracks are best described as vibrant—each is buzzing with the distinct energy that BCUC brings to all of their music and performances. A mix of traditional indigenous South African music with funk, hip-hop, and punk-rock influences, BCUC’s music is nothing short of unique. As vocalist Kgomotso Mokone declared, “We bring fun and emo-indigenous Afro psychedelic fire from the hood.”
The album also tackles the issues of modern Africa head-on, including commentary on the harsh realities of uneducated workers. One song from a previous self-produced EP expressed views about a national idol and was so controversial that it was ultimately removed from the album. Despite this and other criticism regarding the group’s refusal to identify with a single social or political movement, BCUC sticks to their philosophy of creating “music for the people by the people with the people.” This philosophy is expressed in the video for the final track, “Nobody Knows (the Trouble I’ve Seen), filmed in Soweto:
Although Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness faces criticism for their stances, their commitment to representing the voiceless, speaking on important social and political issues, and exposing audiences to indigenous music is admirable. Emakhosini perfectly represents and lives up to the rebellious, lively spirit of the group.
In 2003, an all-star cast of traditional and contemporary gospel singers performed songs written by Bob Dylan on Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan. The Grammy-nominated compilation album included 11 tracks written by Dylan during his “born again” period from 1979 to 1981, in which he produced Christian music. Three years later, the companion documentary DVD of the same name was released by Burning Rose Video, which is currently out-of-print. Thankfully, MVD has stepped into the void and reissued the video.
The DVD documents the making of the Gotta Serve Somebody album, including interviews with performers such as Regina McCrary, Terry Young, and Mona Lisa Young. Also featured is performance footage of 9 of the 11 tracks that originally appeared on the CD, such as the namesake “Gotta Serve Somebody” by Shirley Caesar, “I Believe In You” by Dottie Peoples, and “Saved” by the Mighty Clouds of Joy, as well as bonus tracks from Arlethia Lindsay, Great Day Chorale, and Bob Dylan himself. The Gotta Serve Somebody DVD premieres 1980 footage of Dylan performing “When He Returns,” the first documented performance released from his “born again” era. The DVD certainly lives up to the fame of its companion album, winning the Gold Medal for Excellence Audience Choice for Best Music Documentary at Park City Film Music Festival.
As a scholar specializing in the art songs of Florence Price, it is always a special treat to spend time with her instrumental music! The recent release of Er-Gene Kahng (violinist) and the Janaček Philharmonic’s recording of Florence Price’s Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 is representative of the growing buzz surrounding the works of Florence Price. Since the University of Arkansas Special Collections’ acquisition of formerly unknown manuscripts in Price’s hand, scholars and musicians have flocked to this diverse and expressive repertory.
The liner notes of the recording, provided by renowned scholar of American orchestral music Douglas Shadle, provide a thorough musical analysis. Therefore, I will focus on the particularities of this recording as well as some interesting semiotic aspects.
Er-Gene Kahng’s virtuosity is on full display in her sensitive execution of the alternately cantabile and brilliant style melodies of Violin Concerto No. 2 (track one). I am immediately struck by the timbral variance that the Janaček Philharmonic achieves under the guidance of conductor Ryan Cockerham. The tumultuous and heroic final section avoids a colorless and bombastic fortissimo in favor of a broadness and majesty. This can be attributed to the sensitive shaping of phrases by the string sections, and the stunning ensemble of the woodwinds and brass. While Shadle refers to Price’s first violin concerto as “an episodic rhapsody on a sweeping opening theme first stated by the orchestral strings,” a similar approach is evident in Violin Concerto No. 2. The rhapsodic tone can be attributed to the abandonment of a clear-cut sonata form in favor of introducing additional motivic material. Price displays a preference for introducing multiple motives of differing contour and harmonic complexity and reconciling the material with a loose recapitulation that serves the purpose of concluding the piece in a way that is harmonically closed. However, the return of the A section is usually not a verbatim quotation, and often riffs on or further develops themes introduced in the exposition.
Given the time period of the composer’s milieu (1888-1953), as well as the pressure from the Harlem Renaissance bourgeoisie for “Negro uplift,” it may be expected that Price would include quotations of Negro Spirituals in this piece. After all, Alain Locke lauded Harry Burleigh’s concert spirituals, and favored William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony. As Shadle states, “Under the influence of Dvorak and, later, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, younger musicians like J. Rosamond Johnson and Harry Burleigh continued to theorize about how to best incorporate the spirituals into the living musical practices of African Americans.” I, along with Shadle, note the way in which Price enfolds some of the signifiers of the Spiritual (blue notes, layered polyphony, and pentatonicism for example) in her orchestral pieces like the Symphony in E minor without directly quoting the spirituals. Rather, she creates an organic synthesis of her conservatory training and her roots in Afrological music. In a class essay quoted by Shadle, Price states, “We are even beginning to believe in the possibility of establishing a national musical idiom. We are waking up to the fact pregnant with possibilities that we already have a folk music in the Negro spirituals—music which is potent, poignant, compelling. It is simple heart music, therefore powerful.” This synthesis is not one in which her blackness is sublimated within the context of a European idiom; instead she uses her wide-ranging reference points to create markedly expressive works that speak to her own narrative.
Price’s organ training comes through in her homophonic treatment of the orchestra as the violinist plays in a brilliant style that evokes bird song, and later, flowing water. The musical space this choice creates is evocative of a pastoral topic, but she evokes the Sturm und Drang topoi of Brahms and even Tchaikovsky when the tempo increases and the brass makes an entrance toward the end. All in all, Price’s prowess as a composer of expressive musical narrative is on full display in the second symphony. Kahng’s clear, technical, yet expressive playing serves to further the composer’s intent.
Violin Concerto No. 1 (track 2) was composed in 1939 and takes on a more traditional form. Once again, Kahng shocks and amazes as she expertly performs a strikingly chromatic florid cadenza in the tempo moderato. I reached out to Kahng to discern if she composed any portion of the cadenzas, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that every pitch was notated by the composer! Price includes challenging double stops that almost emulate the rustic color of fiddle or banjo. The cadenzas dovetail seamlessly into the pentatonic opening theme. The call and response topic appears as alternating statements between the string orchestra, solo violin, a flute singing a bird song, and even a brief brass choir. The piece ends with aural fireworks featuring impressively brisk arpeggios in the solo violin as the harmony ventures chromatically to distant keys. The final codetta is a con brio exclamation of the solo violin caller and the orchestral respondent in unison. This moment is reminiscent of a communal outburst during a black church service, but within the harmonic context of a Eurocentric musical construct.
The second movement, Andante, displays more of a spiritual topic, passing the pentatonic central themes from the first movement to the violin in its most vocal register—the middle. The orchestra, as Shadle notes, is more homophonic here, emulating a hymn and sensitively shaping this cantabile movement with gradual arcs of mounting emotional intent. The violin again has moments of cadenza, but considerably shorter than those at the beginning. A second motive in minor pentatonic appears in the violin, accompanied by sighs from the orchestra that emit the affect of the sorrow songs. The greater involvement of woodwinds coupled with the sinuous treatment of melodic contour emulates the stillness of a dusk in Arkansas—the composer’s birthplace. This spiritual lullaby comforts the listener, but the calm is interrupted by a tempestuous final movement.
The third movement is a tour-de-force that demands an impressive level of breadth from the orchestra. The first cadenza wanders so chromatically, that it’s difficult to discern a harmonic direction. However, the piece is held together by the fraught topical material meeting with a gallop-like pentatonic theme. If it were more syncopated, this section would sound like a juba dance or cakewalk. The more sonorous pentatonic theme—carrying with it the signification of the spiritual—exists in an oppositional relationship with a more chromatic counter-topic. The piece ends with a flourish, satisfying the listener with the confluence of the orchestra and the violin in the pentatonic theme.
My brief correspondence with violinist Er-Gene Kahng was overwhelmingly positive. In her response, Kahng displayed a keen awareness of the importance of the project in question, and an overarching respect for Price’s talent:
“It was, as you can imagine, a thrilling experience to perform these concertos! It undeniably stretched me as a violinist and artist; without being able to have an actual conversation about the concerto, I developed a closer relationship to the manuscript. Because of this pioneering aspect with regard to both the work being rediscovered and its fully orchestrated performance being its first to our knowledge, I found myself asking performative questions I never thought I’d ever find myself asking. There was a freshness that created a welcome jolt to my normal methods of interpreting works (and developed my skills as an interpretive artist), and the simple pleasure of discovering something new is always significant, valuable, and emotionally fulfilling for me. I feel more complete now having had the opportunity to interpret, share and perform Florence Price’s violin concertos.”
The significance of this recording cannot be over-emphasized. The rising popularity of Florence Price’s music, as evidenced by Micaela Baranello’s recent New York Times article, bodes well for a future classical music scene that dispenses with the historic myth of white male compositional supremacy (both Er-Gene Kahng and I were interviewed for this article). The Fort Smith Symphony in Arkansas is embarking on a recording project of the Price symphonies, and the late Rae Linda Brown’s biography of Florence Price is awaiting release.
Young scholars such as myself are increasingly engaging with works by composers on the margins. I met a few scholars at last year’s American Musicological Society conference who will be exploring Price’s violin and organ works. My forthcoming dissertation will present readings of Price’s art songs through critical lenses including musical semiotics, black feminist inquiry, and Henry Louis Gates’s theory of signifyin(g). It is my hope that interest in Florence Price will lead to a movement that increases visibility of black classical musicians—particularly composers. It is a tragedy that the prolific black writer and composer Olly Wilson recently passed and I have never encountered his name in my schooling. It is a shame that in 2016 the Metropolitan Opera staged its first opera by a female composer (L’amour de loin by Kaija Saariaho) but has never staged an opera by an African American composer.
Until the margins are no more, we must continue to question the segregated concert music hall. Perhaps by decolonizing the lens through which we view the term “American music,” we can begin to divorce ourselves from the white canonical three “B” composers (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, etc.) and welcome in some new “B’s”—Regina Baiocchi, Margaret Bonds, Brittney Boykin and countless others.
Black cowboys may not be the first thing that comes to mind when the Wild West is mentioned, but they were prevalent and left an undeniable impact on the development of the American West. Following the end of the Civil War in the late 1860s, thousands of newly-freed African Americans moved westward to start new lives. Some chose the grueling and often dangerous path of becoming a cowboy, an occupation in which work ethic mattered more than skin color. These pioneers worked long, hard days alongside Mexican vaqueros, Native Americans, and white cowboys and often turned to song for comfort on the trails.
The newly released Black Cowboys featuring co-founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Dom Flemons (aka “The American Songster”), places these often forgotten pioneers of the Old West in the spotlight. Produced by Flemons and Dan Sheehy for Smithsonian Folkways as part of its African American Legacy series, the album pays tribute to the music, poetry, and complex history of these cowboys. The accompanying 40 page booklet includes essays by Flemons (on the cowboy’s music) and Jim Griffith (on the history of Black cowboys), as well as detailed notes on each track complemented by many archival photographs.
In addition to Flemons, who performs on all tracks (vocals, 6-string guitar, resonator guitar, 4-string banjo, cow “rhythm” bones), backing musicians include Alvin “Youngblood” Hart (12-string guitar), Jimbo Mathus (mandolin, kazoo, harmonica), Stu Cole (upright bass), Brian Farrow (fiddle, upright bass, vocals), Dante Pope (cow “rhythm” bones, vocals, snare drum), and Dan Sheehy (guitarrón). Together, these musicians create a rich instrumental background for the lyrics.
Many of the songs on Black Cowboys are traditional tunes arranged and performed by Flemons, such as “John Henry y los vaqueros,” which highlights instruments with roots in African American minstrel shows like the fiddle and cow “rhythm” bones. Another track arranged by Flemons, “Black Woman,” is a field holler collected in the 1930s that has themes of ranching and leaving behind loved ones. Although it isn’t a traditional cowboy song, the song honors the thousands of African American women who helped develop the West.
From Southwestern cowboy poems like Gail Gardner’s 1917 “Tyin’ Knots in the Devil’s Tail” to Jack Thorp’s traditional cowboy tune “Little Joe the Wrangler,” the album also includes songs written by actual cowboys in the early 20th century, offering a rare look into the post-Civil War cowboy’s life.
Other tracks were newly composed by Flemons to pay homage to notable historical figures. For example, “Steel Pony Blues” is about Deadwood Dick, sometimes called “the greatest Black cowboy in the Old West,” who later became a Pullman porter, while “One Dollar Bill” is a tribute to legendary rodeo rider Bill Pickett who invented the sport of bulldogging. “He’s a Lone Ranger” recalls the life of Bass Reeves, the first African American U.S. Marshall.
In the words of professor and author Mike Searles (quoted in the liner notes), “many people see the West as the birthplace of America . . . if they understand that African Americans were cowboys, even Native Americans were cowboys, Mexicans were cowboys, it really opens the door for us to think about America as a multiethnic, multiracial place.” Black Cowboys creates a sonic portrait of a more diverse American West, expanding our knowledge through its varied collection of songs and poems by and about African American cowboys.
John L. Nelson, best known as the father of Prince, was a formidable jazz musician and prolific composer in his own right. While he frequently collaborated with his famous son, Nelson’s own compositions were usually set aside. When he died in 2001 at the age of 85, Nelson’s eldest daughter Sharon discovered the trove of music and began to formulate plans for a tribute album. Now, in commemoration of her father’s 100th birthday, her project has finally come to fruition with Don’t Play With Love. As Sharon L. Nelson explains:
“Our dad was a loving, caring, hardworking father and a prolific jazz musician most notably known as the father of the musical genius, our brother Prince. Our dad wrote and composed many songs, but they were never recorded until now. He was Prince’s musical inspiration, and this project is very special because it was recorded in Paisley Park and guided by the spirits of my father and brother Prince.”
To perform her father’s works, Sharon turned to notable jazz drummer Louis Hayes, who just happens to be John Nelson’s nephew. Hayes brought together an all-star group for the recording session, a.k.a. The John L. Nelson Project: Richard Germanson (piano), Dezron Douglas (bass), Vincent Herring (sax), Jeremy Pelt (trumpet), and Hayes on drums. The group laid down all seven tracks at Paisley Park studio, the first sessions to take place there since the death of Prince.
Featured on the album are seven compositions written by Nelson primarily in the 1970s, all showcasing his penchant for beautiful melodies. Opening with the uptempo “Lucky Am I,” the band immediately displays a high level of energy and synergy, as though they’ve been playing this chart for years. Herring takes over the melody on the sensuous title track, “Don’t Play With Love,” his sax accompanied by string quartet. A throwback to an earlier era, the song fits perfectly with the music video for the single which uses a scene from Prince’s film Under the Cherry Moon.
Another highlight is “Lonely,” a slow ballad featuring Germanson, who employs subtle shading on the piano, teasing out the upper register melody over a sparse accompaniment by Douglas on bass. The album closes on a funkier note with “Step Back,” featuring an exceptional performance with band members tossing solos back and forth before culminating on a final blast of the trumpet.
Don’t Play With Love is not just a labor of love—it’s actually a terrific album showcasing John Nelson’s talent at composing intricate and compelling works, all of which are brilliantly performed by the ensemble. This project will appeal to jazz aficionados as well as any Prince fan interested in knowing more about the icon’s musical background. If you’ve ever wondered what spilled out of the cabinet full of sheet music in the scene from Purple Rain, this album is for you!
As the title suggests, United We Swing: Best of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Galas is a compilation album of collaborations between Wynton Marsalis and major artists such as Ray Charles, Blind Boys of Alabama, Willie Nelson, John Legend, Lenny Kravitz, Natalie Merchant, Carrie Smith, and many others. Recorded between 2003 and 2007, these performances brought together artists from various genres with the sole purpose of presenting and promoting unity through music (swing). According to Marsalis, “On this record and in these recordings, we came together to affirm common roots, to celebrate diversity of our creativity, and to pass the reality of our best achievements on to our kids.” Renditions of songs such as “The Last Time,” “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town,” “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free,” among others, display not only the diverse musical genres, but also the diverse backgrounds of each performer.
United We Swing: Best of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Galas encapsulates the message of solidarity while presenting a positive image for future generations. I strongly recommend this album to anyone interested in promoting music as a unifying symbol in society.
Artist: Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock, Jack DeJohnette
Formats: 2-CD, Digital
Release date: March 2, 2018
ECM’s new release, After The Fall, features a live performance from a 1998 concert by world renowned jazz pianist, Keith Jarrett—his first time on stage following a two year hiatus. Recorded at a concert hall in Newark, New Jersey, Jarrett is accompanied by fellow members of the Standards Trio: double-bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette. This album captures their musical interactions and overall chemistry of the Standards Trio.
As listeners, we are treated to renditions of well-known bebop standards such as “Scrapple From The Apple” and “Bouncin’ With Bud,” as well as selections from the American Songbook including “The Masquerade Is Over” and “I’ll See You Again,” among others. The trio paces themselves during this performance, but there is still a simmering intensity and synergy that is heard throughout the entire album. From Jarrett’s lush harmonies and virtuosic melodic lines to DeJohnette’s light touch and rhythmic devices, coupled with Peacock’s supportive bass lines and warm tone, the expressive sound of the trio is on full display.
A notable mention is the trio’s performance of John Coltrane’s “Moments Notice.” On this tune, Jarrett stretches out, demonstrating his pianistic capabilities and command of the jazz vocabulary, and is followed by a high-energy and syncopated drum solo by DeJohnette. Another highlight is Jarrett’s lyrical interpretation of the melody to Victor Young and Edward Heyman’s composition, “When I Fall In Love,” while being supported by the sensitive accompaniment of Peacock and DeJohnette.
After The Fall, although referred to as an “experiment” by Jarrett, is in this reviewer’s opinion a demonstration of the effortless mastery, maturity, and professionalism of seasoned musicians who are not only pillars of jazz today, but also bearers of the jazz tradition.
Long hailed as the hardest working artist in underground soul, Sy Smith’s fifth album, Sometimes a Rose Will Grow in Concrete, proves once again she is a force to be reckoned with in both the underground and outer-ground music scene. This release is the first album completely written and produced by this multitalented musician, featuring her slick synth bass playing and lithe piano keying along with her incomparable soprano voice and signature vocal arrangements.
Smith’s voice shines through on this album, as she employs various techniques that she is known for and some she seems to honor straight out of 1990s R&B. The title song, “Sometimes a Rose will Grow in Concrete,” teases us with a small sample of her amazing whistle register, bringing it out at the end of the song as a parting gift. Lyrically, this song speaks to the current time, as its inclusion of lyrics such as “Sometimes we get no answers but still the questions will remain…sometimes a rose will grow in concrete, sometimes a caged bird will sing” reflects an activist tone regarding American society. Carrying a strong pen, Smith reveals victories won and battles still being fought as she provides a powerful, if haunting, ode to people who come through the harshest of trials and still bloom as beautifully as roses.
Smith’s continuing penchant for go-go is present in this album with the song, “Now and Later.” The funk-inspired beat interspersed with a cool rhythm-and-blues sound reflects back to Smith’s genesis in DC with her former go-go band “In Tyme.” “Camelot,” one of the smoothest contemporary R&B ballads, reinvigorates that 1990s Janet Jackson-esque sound, complete with multiple background vocals, string instrumentals and long-winded notes held and released over and again in differing registers.
Providing us with never-ending, smooth stylings that both echo yesterday’s R&B and set the standards for contemporary soul, Sy Smith’s Sometimes a Rose Will Grow in Concrete proves that Smith herself is that enduring rose whose presence grows sweeter and stronger with each new release.
AJ Ghent, hailing from Fort Pierce, Florida, has music literally running through his veins. His great uncle, Willie Eason, is the creator of the “sacred steel” tradition—a style of pedal-steel guitar playing that’s unique to certain African American Pentecostal churches—and his grandfather, Henry Nelson, is the founder of the “sacred steel” rhythmic guitar style. With role models like these, it’s no wonder Ghent wore out his father’s sacred steel CDs by the age of twelve. After high school, he and his wife, singer MarLa, packed up and moved to Atlanta, Georgia where soon after Ghent began a mentorship under the legendary Colonel Bruce Hampton, one of the original founders of Atlanta’s Hampton Grease Band. Gaining experience with Hampton’s band set the stage for Ghent’s subsequent career moves, including being “true to himself” as Hampton advised.
Ghent’s newest release, The Neo Blues Project, is a study in just that. The entire album is something different altogether—a musical fusion of blues, steel guitar, and rock that takes art and skill to master. But that’s something that Ghent has spent his whole life perfecting, along with his custom built 8-string lap steel hybrids. The offering weighs in at just six tracks, but don’t let its size fool you. This album packs a solid punch right where it’s necessary to keep the music in your head long after the last chord fades.
On his rock anthem “Power,” Ghent offers a track to fuel a revolution: “I’m gonna wait it out, ‘til my change comes / and I’m gonna pray, it won’t be long / ‘cause I’ve been tempted and I’ve been tried / and I’m a soldier ‘til I die / so you can bring it on, all your pain / you know why? ‘cause it’s a revolution comin’”
Combining his own style with elements of rock guitarists like Jimi Hendrix and Lenny Kravitz, Ghent part-wails and part-steels his way through each song. “Long List Friend,” co-written with his wife, is a blues ballad all of us can relate to in our search for “The One.”
But if you are celebrating the letting go of a former love, check out the final track, “Gonna Rock.” Its meaning and intent are completely celebratory, to say the least. “Wash Ya Hair” is a fun, catchy tune that really brings all of Ghent’s diverse talents of vocalization and guitar-playing to the forefront: “Shake ‘em off, wash your hair, let it shine, Everywhere.”
Ghent’s compact project completes its mission. The Neo Blues Project entertains the senses, introduces us to the full range of Ghent’s talents, and gives us a foot-tapping, air-slamming trip into the world of blues rock in legendary style. If this is Ghent being true to himself, I personally can’t wait for anything this talented artist has to offer us.
Title: Stax Singles Vol. 4 – Rarities & The Best of the Rest
Label: Stax/Craft Recordings
Formats: 6-CD set, Digital
Release date: February 9, 2018
From the early days of the CD era, there has been a constant stream of reissues from the legendary Stax/Volt catalog. Three volumes (28 CDs total) of The Complete Stax/Volt Singles plus artist-specific box sets, plus a pile of compilation CDs and box sets. Not to mention the many individual album reissues, which often included extra singles and other tracks not on the original LPs. What is left in the vaults to compile into this new 6-CD box, issued in conjunction with Concord Music Group’s celebration of the 60th anniversary of Stax’s founding?
It turns out, not 6 discs worth of compelling music, but there are many interesting obscure gems lurking among a bunch of tunes that were forgotten for a reason. The set is also padded with familiar material such as Booker T. & The M.G.’s cuts already issued on the artists’ own box set, and slightly edited single versions of Big Star hits.
The set has a scattershot focus, which actually works to its benefit by offering interesting music to several audiences. Discs 1-3 are B sides of singles included in the first three massive “Complete Singles” boxes (which, it turns out, contain mostly A sides and not “complete” singles by the definition of both sides of a record). Compiled by Rob Bowman, author of Soulsville, U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records and co-producer of the first three sets, these discs probably contain the fewest of what the casual listener might consider dull duds. For the deep-diver, some of the sides are obscure enough to be sourced from dubs of scratchy old 45’s, meaning the master tapes are missing.
To Concord’s credit, they offer a detailed listing of the set’s contents, so consumers can decide for themselves if there is enough interesting material to justify the purchase price. If the music compels you, the physical product is recommended because the 76-page booklet provides much detail and context, plus some nice artist photos from the old Stax promotional files.
Which brings us to the other half of the box. Discs 4-6 cover Stax’s attempts to diversify its catalog from its southern-soul target market. The material is mined from sub-labels: Enterprise (pop and country), Hip (pop and rock), Ardent (rock), and the gospel imprints Chalice and The Gospel Truth. The booklet offers very detailed information about these labels, which will be of interest to the deep-divers and completists. In general, these efforts were not financially successful for Stax, but some of the music (particularly the Ardent albums released by Big Star) turned out to be widely influential and critically acclaimed.
Stax’s pop and country releases were obviously a mixed bag. If the “best” is collected here, there was a lot of dreck in the catalog. The rock offerings are more interesting, including the more rock-ish and psychedelic pop songs. The Memphis music scene of the 1960s and ‘70s had a unique take on rock, with both soul flavorings and a “garage” feel. It’s exciting and doesn’t sound manufactured. Likewise with the best of Stax’s pop productions—they don’t sound as plastic and disposable as much of the competing material that was churned out of NYC, L.A. and Detroit.
The best of the back three discs is #6, covering the gospel labels. In general, the arrangements and performances hue toward Stax’s soul sound and feel, of great benefit to Sunday’s music. The gospel passion is turned up a notch in the caldron of backbeat soul, creating great impact. It might have been a better idea to peel off this material into a separate Stax gospel compilation.
For the hardcore Stax fans, and for listeners deeply into American soul music of the ‘60s and ‘70s, there will be enough material in this set, plus the booklet text, to justify its place in your collection. For others, the appeal will depend on your curiosity and willingness to wade through a wide variety of artists, styles and genres.
Memphis is a city known for its barbecue, rich musical heritage, and pride in being one-of-a-kind. This unique Memphis spirit is captured by twelve distinctly different tracks on Memphis Rent Party. The collection serves as a soundtrack for Grammy-winner Robert Gordon’s sixth book of the same title, Memphis Rent Party: The Blues, Rock & Soul in Music’s Hometown.
From a punk rock cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “Johnny Too Bad” to a bluesy collaboration between Luther Dickinson and Sharde Thomas, the album includes a wide variety of tracks that embrace the individuality of the Memphis music scene. Half of the tracks are drawn from unreleased material and the rest are a mix of covers and originals. Included are songs from barrelhouse piano player Mose Vinson, rock pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis, and the rockabilly-punk band Tav Falco’s The Panther Burns.
From modern day covers to a 1960s recording by pre-war blues musician Furry Lewis, Memphis Rent Party is a truly varied compilation. Robert Gordon’s book was published by Bloomsbury on March 6, 2018 and is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of Memphis’ entertainment scene—just be sure to listen along to the soundtrack as you read.
Last October the world was blessed with the latest project by legendary funk bassist, vocalist, and composer Bootsy Collins. World Wide Funk contains all of the elements Collins is most known for as an artist: funky grooves, excellent playing, and a whimsical sense of humor (evidenced by the assertion on the introductory track that Bootsy was born “a long, long time ago…deep below the Ohio river—before anyone ever heard of Ohio”).
It is difficult to overstate the impact that Collins has had on generations of musicians through his work as a bassist with James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic, as well as on his own prolific solo recordings. The sheer variety and skill of his collaborators on World Wide Funk hints at the otherwise inestimable breadth of his influence. Nearly every track on the record features a guest artist, from the shredding styles of the KFC chicken container-donning guitarist Buckethead (“Worldwide Funk” and “Illusions”) to golden-era hip hoppers Doug E. Fresh and Big Daddy Kane (“Worldwide Funk” and “Hot Saucer,” respectively) to young gun bassist Alissia Benveniste (“Bass-Rigged System” and “Thera-P”). There are also features by musicians who may be considered “usual suspects” on a collaboration-based album by a musician of Collins’s stature, such as bassists Victor Wooten and Stanley Clarke (“Bass-Rigged-System”) and guitarist Eric Gales and drummer Dennis Chambers (“Come Back Bootsy”).
As one would expect from the Star Child, the M.O. of World Wide Funk is “One Nation Under a Groove”—grooves are now, as they have always been, the meat and potatoes of Collins’s style. Whether offering virtuoso musicians opportunities to stretch out as on “Come Back Bootsy” and “Bass-Rigged System,” or providing a steady groove to rap or party over as on “Pusherman” and “Ladies Nite,” rhythm is the name of the game. Even the more sentimental songs like the ‘90s R&B-Tinged “Heaven Yes” and the Jimi Hendrix-inspired, synth-based “Salute to Bernie”—a tribute to Collins’s late bandmate Bernie Worrell (who is featured on the track)—groove hard. While guest artists occasionally veer into social themes (as on “Pusherman” and “Illusions”), they do so over immensely danceable tracks without the navel-gazing and preaching to the choir that is often the currency of social commentary in pop music. Overall, however, World Wide Funk imagines a reality in which every listener is part of one big party at which some of the sharpest musicians of the day (and in some instances, of all time) are having a jam session.
Generations of bassists have tried to emulate Bootsy Collins’s style, chops, and taste, and this album is essential listening for musicians who want to learn how to really groove. It’s also great party music. It is no accident that Collins’s bass lines are the most sampled in all of hip hop and dance music, and this album certainly provides a new batch of infectious riffs to bump. Bootsy has been the funkiest bassist around since the ‘60s and he still is. Creating lines that range from funky slapping to deep-in-the-pocket grooves, it is doubtless that Bootsy will continue to find new listeners who have an appreciation for rhythm and low end. Bootsy Collins’s classic albums still sound fresh today, and World Wide Funk is destined to join them in the future.
Meshell Ndegeocello has produced widely divergent albums over the course of her career, each offering captivating sonic explorations. This is also true of her new release, Ventriloquism, a collection of cover songs completely reworked to reflect Ndegeocello’s incomparable eclecticism and fluid movement across genres. She explains:
“Early on in my career, I was told to make the same kind of album again and again, and when I didn’t do that, I lost support. There isn’t much diversity within genres, which are ghettoizing themselves, and I liked the idea of turning hits I loved into something even just a little less familiar or formulaic. It was an opportunity to pay a new kind of tribute.”
Joining her on this exploration are several longtime musical partners and colleagues: guitarist Chris Bruce, drummer Abraham Rounds, and keyboardist Jebin Bruni. The project was engineered by S. Husky Huskolds, and mixed and mastered by Pete Min.
As with her Pour Une Âme Souveraine (2012), dedicated to Nina Simone, Ndegeocello’s new album features songs by musicians who have inspired her over the years, with a particular bent toward 1980s classics. Opening with Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam’s 1985 dance hit, “I Wonder If I Take You Home,” Ndegeocello follows the general style of the original, but softens the vocals, blurs the beats, and augments the electronic effects resulting in a spacey, otherworldy interpretation. Al B. Sure’s “Nite and Day” is slowed down to a dreamy, sensuous ballad that fades out on a distorted guitar riff. On her cover of TLC’s signature song, “Waterfalls,” she uses instrumental fills instead of attempting to replace the rapped verse by Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes. Likewise, in her newly released video for the song, she takes a more metaphorical slant to the subject matter of people tragically affected by drugs and HIV, instead of the more explicit approach in the award-winning TLC video.
Ndegeocello’s gorgeous cover of Prince’s “Sometimes it Snows in April” was the first single off the album. Released via Rolling Stone on January 12, she explained in the accompanying article, “I’ve made so much because of [Prince]. I still can’t believe he’s not on the planet and this was as close to closure as I’d get.” Emotionally laden with throaty vocals, whispered reminiscences and off-kilter harmonies, Ndegeocello’s tribute is arguably the most poignant cover version of the song to date. As she shifts into the final couplet, “all good things they say never last, and love is love until it’s past,” sung over stripped down instrumentals, it’s as though we’re hearing a voice from beyond mourning a life tragically cut short. Farewell, Prince.
On George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog,” Ndegeocello tones down the funk and the theatrics, placing more emphasis on the instrumentals through overlapping, layered guitars. Janet Jackson’s “Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun)” leaves Quiet Storm territory, taking on a darker, more foreboding character with distorted bass, cello and electronic effects. This gloomy soundscape is broken by the Force MDs “Tender Love,” which is given a lighter, folksier treatment with harmonica fills and strummed guitars.
Taking on another iconic female vocalist, Ndegeocello’s rendition of Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer” works extremely well as a slow ballad backed by guitars and piano, and the tempo is a much better fit for the melancholy yet wistful lyrics. The album closes with Sade’s “Smooth Operator.” Stripped of its Latin rhythms and turned on its side, the song takes on a percussive, bottom heavy electronica sound, with virtuosic dueling bass and guitar replacing the sax solo on the original.
On Ventriloquism, Ndegeocello unleashes her extraordinary creativity, reimagining classic songs of the ‘80s and ‘90s in new and unexpected ways. In doing so, she also demonstrates her independence from an industry that too often tries to pigeonhole black artists and black music.
Formats: CD, cassette, limited ed. green vinyl, digital
Release date: February 2, 2018
One of Southern California’s premiere funk and soul outfits, Orgōne has been spreading its cosmic energy throughout the universe for nearly two decades. Fronted by vocalist Adryon de León, who plugs the soul into the ensemble, Orgōne is known for its unique mélange of gritty old school ‘60s and ‘70s music infused with contemporary influences drawn from the multicultural milieu of L.A. These influences were perfectly expressed on their last album, Beyond the Sun (2015). While recording new tracks in the studio, the band hit upon the idea of producing a cover album dedicated to a few of the artists “who paved the road for us.” The result is Undercover Mixtape, offering 13 classics paying homage to artists from Stax and Motown, as well as legendary jazz, funk and rock musicians.
The album opens with an outstanding rendition of the jazz-funk instrumental “The Black Five,” originally released by Roy Ayers Ubiquity in 1974. The Orgōne crew swaps the string section and Ayers signature vibes for layered keyboards and guitar, providing an updated sound. Switching over to guitar-driven hard rock on “Cynthy-Ruth,” the band is led by Tarin Ector (The Solutionagenics), whose gritty vocals are well-suited for this track from the 1970 debut album by Detroit’s Black Merda.
Adryon de León is brave enough to tackle “Think,” Aretha Franklin’s iconic 1968 feminist anthem, and absolutely nails it with fantastic backing from the band. She also shines on several other soul-drenched tracks: Betty Wright’s “Let Me Be Your Lovemaker” which also showcases the horn section; the Gladys Knight tearjerker “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye);” and Gwen McCrae’s “All This Love That I’m Givin’.” Guest vocalist Kelly Finnigan is featured on “Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” adhering closely to the Otis Redding version of the song.
If you want funk and nothing but the funk, you won’t be disappointed with the remaining tracks on the album. The band seriously grooves on two back-to-back instrumentals, deftly channeling Booker T’s organ licks on “Melting Pot,” then getting down on an extended version of Cameo’s “It’s Serious.” The Meters, clearly one of the Orgōne’s favorite groups, are covered on “It Ain’t No Use,’ once again featuring the amazing Adryon de León, and “Looka Py Py,” on which the band navigates the complex polyrhythms and deep bass grooves with precision. Last but certainly not least, are two tracks from the funkiest funk band on the planet. Parliament’s 1971 classic, “The Breakdown,” features Mixmaster Wolf, who normally fronts the eight piece L.A. funk band Breakestra. The album closes with another P-funk classic, “Cosmic Slop,” with Tarin Ector once again taking over the helm on this haunting tale about urban poverty that still resonates today.
Undercover Mixtape offers an edifying excursion through soul and funk classics of the ‘60s and ‘70s, performed by a band steeped in the grooves and vocalists capable of covering the era’s most iconic singers. This might be Orgōne’s side project, but they deserve a victory lap for keeping the funk funky and the soul soulful in the 21st century.
Crowd Company, the UK based 8-piece funk and soul band, spent two years touring Europe to support their debut album, Now or Never. Now the band is back with their second release, Stone & Sky. The new album expands on their trademark vintage sound by adding a modern edge that makes listeners want to sing and dance along.
The 13-track Stone & Sky was mainly recorded live in the studio, giving each track a spontaneity and raw energy that makes you feel like you’re at one of Crowd Company’s vibrant and engaging live performances. The lead single, “Saw You Yesterday,” has a catchy chorus with a soul funk vibe straight from the 1960s. Other tracks, like “Soar,” prominently feature the distinct vocals and perfectly blended harmonies of the band’s three singers—Jo Marshall, Esther Dee and Rob Fleming—while also allowing space for some great solos from the horn section. In contrast, the melancholy ballad “Can’t Get Enough” is infused with organ, bringing a more soulful and emotional vibe to the fore.
Crowd Company has successfully transferred the energy of their live performances into the tracks on Stone & Sky. If just listening to their infectious choruses and beautiful harmonies isn’t enough, the band will be making their North American tour debut in 2018 and will be performing at the New Orleans Jazz Fest this spring.
Both Sides of the Sky, a collection of previously unreleased Jimi Hendrix material, is the third in the series released by Sony Legacy in conjunction with Experience Hendrix; previous collections included Valleys of Neptune (2010) and People, Hell and Angels (2013). Historically, some posthumously released Hendrix recordings have been moderately disappointing, and at times it was readily apparent why some tracks were not released sooner. However, these Legacy collections have consistently done well at breaking away from this pattern. Both Sides of the Sky adds another quality release to this series. Although there are a couple of tracks on the album that some will deem marginal, a few others are worth the price of admission by themselves. Co-producer Eddie Kramer, the engineer for all of Hendrix’s albums, discusses the new project in this promotional video:
Beginning with a cover of the Muddy Waters standard, “Mannish Boy,” the album gets off to an upbeat start. While technically a cover song, Hendrix only borrowed the lyrics from the original. His version has its own groove, and is easily one of the top tracks on the album. The track that really separates itself from the others, however, is “Hear My Train a Comin’.” Other versions of this song have been released previously, but this rendition features Hendrix in top form as a lead guitar player, providing a textbook example of his signature fuzz guitar tone. In addition, the track features all of the original Jimi Hendrix Experience members, and accentuates just how well his primary band played together. Throughout this seven-and-a-half minute jam, Mitch Mitchell and Jimi Hendrix play off one another rhythmically, providing insight into their familiarity with one another as musicians.
For the student of Jimi Hendrix, some of the selections serve as primary sources for further analysis of his writing process. For example, there is an instrumental version of “Sweet Angel” that is every bit as good as the vocal version that appeared on the first posthumous Hendrix release, Cry of Love (1971). Since the rhythm guitar track is so prominent sans vocals, this new track serves as an example of Hendrix’s unparalleled prowess as a rhythm guitar player.
Another gem is “Cherokee Mist,” recorded during the same period as Electric Ladyland (1968). This song contains an interlude very similar to one that appears on the psychedelic masterpiece “1983… (A Merman I Should Turn to Be),” which many consider to have been Hendrix’s magnum opus. Perhaps this newly released version of “Cherokee Mist” can be viewed as a sketchbook, hinting at parts that may have been adapted for that powerful work.
One of the aspects of this collection that makes it so intriguing is that Hendrix can be heard functioning in a variety of roles. He plays with a variety of personnel over the course of this recording: the original Experience members Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding, in addition to members from the Band of Gypsys (1970) album, Buddy Miles and Billy Cox. As a bit of a departure, this album presents Hendrix as the lead guitar player on “Georgia Blues” with Lonnie Youngblood fronting the group on vocals and saxophone. Other tracks of interest include collaborations with Johnny Winter on “Things I Used to Do” and Stephen Stills on both “$20 Fine” and “Woodstock,” which features Hendrix on bass. Interestingly, this version of “Woodstock” was recorded months before Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young recorded their hit rendition of the Joni Mitchell song.
Both Sides of the Sky is an important addition to the Hendrix catalog. It displays Hendrix in a variety of roles—pioneering electric guitarist, skilled songwriter, and psychedelic innovator. As with all Hendrix releases, though, the best tracks leave the listener emotionally conflicted. While his groundbreaking spirit shines throughout this album, we’re left to ponder what might have been had he not died so young. Jimi Hendrix transcended racial barriers and emerged as arguably the most influential electric guitarist of all time. The release of Both Sides of the Sky can only serve to strengthen this argument.
Formats: 2-CD set, LP (1 disc, 14 tracks), digital
Release date: February 23, 2018
In continuation of our focus on one of the industry’s greatest blues/jazz singers, Nina Simone’s The Colpix Singles showcases her pre-civil rights activist era releases. Simone’s professional career began in 1958 at a mere age of 25 with Bethlehem Records, but after the initial success of her hit “Porgy ( I Loves You Porgy), she moved on Columbia Picture’s recording company, Colpix Records. Simone’s forthcoming induction into the 2018 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has now spurred Warner Music into releasing a collection of the 7” singles Simone cut for Colpix. Remastered in mono, seven of the tracks are available in their original edits for the first time since the 1960s.
In this 27 track, two-disc offering, one can easily hear how her previous musical experiences fostered both her voice and performance maturity, as the songs recorded with Colpix reflect smoother, more controlled renditions of a diversified pool of well-known ballads. The first single from Disc 1, “Chilly Winds Don’t Blow,” was written by Hecky Krasnow, who was best known for Columbia’s novelty scores of “Frosty the Snowman” and Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer.”
Live recordings made at The Town Hall in Midtown Manhattan in September, 1959 include “The Other Woman” and “It Might as Well be Spring,” which originally appeared on her Colpix debut album, The Amazing Nina Simone. The Archives of African American Music and Culture provided Warner Music with a rare copy of Simone’s “If Only For Tonight” and “Under The Lowest” (Colpix 156) for inclusion on this disc. Simone also showcases her blues prowess on the release “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” and the B-side “Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair,” which would become one of her signature songs.
Disc 2 includes a hauntingly whimsical rendition of “Cotton Eyed Joe,” complete with Simone’s piano stylings running in the background. Soon after, she croons of lost respectability and newfound reliance on “You Can have Him.” From the opening strains, Simone’s powerful alto flows from the speakers, meandering its way into the ears and hearts of its listeners via its audial and lyrical flows.
Two more offerings, “Work Song” and “I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl,” echo Simone’s early years in Atlantic City bars, pounding the ivories and belting out fast tempo blues. Her original tune, “Blackbird,” closes out the collection, showing her growing artistic maturity while revealing a glimpse of her future in social justice.
Simone would eventually compose and perform two of the most influential anthems of the Civil Rights Era, “Mississippi Goddam” and “Young, Gifted and Black.” That Simone participated in the Civil Rights Movement is an understatement. Nina Simone, from her formative years in Atlanta’s music scene to her eventual position as an outspoken social activist for Black rights, is one of the most influential activists and gifted artists of all time. Many thanks to The Colpix Singles compilers Nigel Reeve and Dean Rudland, and assistant Florence Joelle Halfon, for releasing this wonderfully remastered set. Simone’s listening audience will certainly reap the benefits.
Dionne Warwick was one of the top vocalists of her era. Aretha might have been the “queen of soul,” Diana Ross the original diva, Patti Labelle an icon in the gay community, Gladys Knight the leader with three males, and Chaka Khan to this day can still out sing the majority of vocalists. Yet Dionne also had a great run.
Warwick’s best years were at Scepter Records, an independent label founded by Doris Greenberg in 1959, where she scored at least 40 hits on the pop charts. With the new compilation, Odds & Ends: Scepter Records Rarities, you can hear Warwick’s big hits, some in alternate or extended versions, along with rare tracks you’ve never probably heard or even knew existed.
The set opens with an alternate take of “I Say A Little Prayer,” a song released in 1967 on Warwick’s album The Windows of the World. This is not the time to think of Aretha’s version, which came out the following year. If you listen very carefully, this track sounds like Aretha’s until the conclusion, where Warwick uses a different ending. It has the Burt Bacharach & Hal David sound all over it. Makes you wonder why Doris Greenberg didn’t release this version.
The set’s title track, “Odds & Ends,” is a song that may not be as popular as some of Warwick’s hits, but it has a catchy pop feel and great to story to go with it. Also included are songs in French, Italian and German she recorded for foreign markets. For example, two versions of “A House Is Not A Home” are included, one in Italian and one in French. The set closes with a novelty track featuring several of Warwick’s vintage radio promo spots and public service announcements. Rounding out the package are liner notes by Joe Marchese, including an interview with Warwick, as well as rare photos.
Kudos to Dionne and to Real Gone Music for releasing this compilation of rarities.
The smooth sound of the quartet known as the Robert Glasper Experiment is completely unparalleled. On their new DVD, Robert Glasper Experiment: Live, the group invites fans who may not have had the opportunity to experience one of their performances, to get a taste of a live show.
Members of the group featured in these performances include: Casey Benjamin on saxophone and vocoder, Derrick Hodge on bass, Mark Colenberg on drums, and group leader Robert Glasper on piano. From his start playing keyboards in church back in Houston, Texas, Glasper has become one of the biggest names in the music industry. Over the course of his professional career, Glasper has served as music director for major artists including Erykah Badu, Jay-Z, Kanye West, and many others. He has personally been nominated for Grammy awards six times, winning three, and was also awarded an Emmy in 2017 for his work on the Netflix documentary 13th, directed by Ava DuVernay.
With footage compiled over the past five years from various concerts across the globe, Live features many prominent guests, including singers performing iconic covers as well as original compositions. For example, here’s an excerpt from the video featuring Algebra Blessett performing “Calls” at The Troubadour in West Hollywood:
Live opens with “All Matter,” written by Bilal Oliver, who performs the song during a guest appearance with the Robert Glasper Experiment at the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands, with additional backing by the Metropole Orchestra conducted by Vince Mendoza. The lush R&B and jazz harmonies work together with the full orchestra accompaniment to create something truly magical. We also get to hear amazing solos from Glasper on piano and Benjamin on the soprano sax. The footage from the Netherlands is joined by other performances from prestigious venues and events such as the Shanghai Jazz Festival in China, Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem, NY, and the Troubadour in West Hollywood, CA. Additional guest artists include Lalah Hathaway on “Cherish The Day,” Wayne Brady on “Freestyle Rap / Anytime,” and B-Slade (aka Tonéx) on “Ah Yeah.”
Robert Glasper Experiment: Live brings the concert experience right to your home—the second best thing to actually attending one of their concerts.