Buddy Guy – The Blues is Alive and Well

Buddy Guy

 

Title: The Blues is Alive and Well

Artist: Buddy Guy

Label: Silvertone/RCA

Format: CD, LP, Digital

Release Date: June 15, 2018

 

Immediately upon hearing his mesmerizing riffs, this blues novice could tell I was in the presence of a legend. The Blues is Alive and Well, the latest release from multiple Grammy and award winner Buddy Guy, demonstrates that this icon is throwing us what could arguably be his most skilled offering yet. In recognition of his many contributions to the genre, The Americana Music Association is awarding Guy a Lifetime Achievement Award on September 12th in Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, complimenting his 2015 Grammy Lifetime Achievement award and his more than 50 years as a blues innovator, musician and mentor. To say that Buddy Guy has a long history with the blues does not do him justice—according to numerous musicians, Buddy Guy IS the blues, period.

Guy opens the 15-track album with “A Few Good Years,” a haunting, rambling slide number showcasing his trademark growl and lyrically addressing the desire to do what he does best for just a little while longer: “A few good years/is all I need right now.” “Guilty as Charged” testifies exactly as you would expect—an uptempo confessional sermonizing not only the singer’s introspectiveness but also Guy’s legendary steel-driving artistry. “Whiskey for Sale” is a call-and-response between the vocals and Guy’s guitar as they negotiate their trade, and the invigorating work song rhythm on “Ooh Daddy” remains with you long past the last chord drop.

Collaborators weigh in on Guy’s blues mission, as well, including several British musicians profoundly influenced by the genre. Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards contribute to the ‘killing floor’ offering “You Did the Crime” and the warm and fuzzy “Cognac,” respectively, as does another rock guitarist, Jeff Beck. Being that the Rolling Stones began as a band called “The Blues Boys” and they’ve paid homage to Guy in the past, the participation of Jagger and Richards comes as no surprise. “Blue No More” introduces guitarist James Bay, a worthy up-and-coming blues man in his own right.

Taking down the tempo a notch Louisiana blues style, “When My Day Comes” mesmerizes with its plodding tempo and dark undertones about what is yet to materialize. “Bad Day,” a dark but electric musing, warns of how even the best person can reach their wit’s end sometimes. But in the end, Guy’s line, “You can call me old-fashioned/but I still know how to have my fun” on the track “Old Fashioned” sums up this album—and indeed, his entire career.

Guy sounds every bit as vital and youthful on this album as he did on his early collaborations with the late Junior Wells, and it’s inspiring to hear a veteran artist laying down the blues with such continual precision time and again. Both timeless and cutting edge, The Blues is Alive and Well proves that when it comes to Buddy Guy and the blues, 81 is certainly the new 21—no bones about it.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Bettye Lavette – Things Have Changed

Bette Lavette
Title: Things Have Changed

Artist: Bettye Lavette

Label: Verve

Formats: CD, Digital, Vinyl

Release date: March 30, 2018

 

 

The Times, They are a ’Changin’. This phrase, with all its historic relevancy, has once again become the most accurate description of contemporary times all over the globe. Therefore, it stands as no surprise a 60’s soul legend such as Bette Lavette would release a cover album focusing on ironic political artist Bob Dylan. Things Have Changed is a fitting tribute to some of Dylan’s most prolific movement songs in addition to showcasing other soul rock classics, with Lavette weaving in her own gritty stylings and adding a contemporary layer to the timeless classics.

The title track, Things Have Changed, serves as a warning for those who feel overwhelmed and anxious about their world: “Any minute now I’m expecting all hell to break loose/People are crazy and times are strange/I’m locked in tight/I’m out of range/I used to care, but things have changed. “Political World”, with its echoing of past conflicts and shouts of current trajectories, features Keith Richards, who layers his talents behind Lavette.

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Additional tracks pay homage to some of Dylan’s more introspective musings, with selections such as “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “Mama, You’ve been on My Mind.” But it’s on “Emotionally Yours” that Lavette’s ability to tug at the heartstrings becomes most evident. Through a combination of Dylan’s lyrics and her own amazingly soulful abilities, Lavette gives her listeners a thought-provoking look into the mind of a tortured soul yearning for that one last chance: “Come baby, find me, come baby, remind me of where I once begun/Come baby, show me, show me you know me, tell me you’re the one/I could be learning, you could be yearning to see behind closed door/But I will always be emotionally yours.”

Things Have Changed offers us the best of both worlds—Bob Dylan’s ageless classics and Bettye Lavette’s endless soul stylings—proving to us that even though time marches on, some things remain eternal and relevant, no matter what.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

The Stanley Clarke Band – The Message

The Stanley Clarke Band

 

Title: The Message

Artist: The Stanley Clarke Band

Label: Mack Avenue

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: June 29, 2018

 

The release of Stanley Clarke’s latest album, The Message, comprises magnetic compositions that incorporate various elements of funk, jazz-fusion, and breakbeats. The band’s members—Beka Gochiashvili (pianist), Cameron Graves (keyboardist), and Mike Mitchell (drummer)—come together with featured artists such as Doug E. Fresh, Salar Nadar, Skyeler Kole, Trevor Wesley, and voice actor Steve Blum to cut this eclectic offering of hope, love and compassion.

Group frontman Stanley Clarke has always been a prominent artist in the music industry with his funky bass lines, virtuoso technique, and versatility as a musician. He has maintained a successful career spanning over five decades, and in the past has collaborated with artists such as Chick Corea, Lenny White, Herbie Hancock, Béla Fleck, Jean-Luc Ponty, Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten, and Dee Dee Bridgewater, among others. Clarke also produced film scores for major movies such as Boyz n the Hood, Passenger 57, and What’s Love Got to Do with It.

The inspiration of The Message stems from the band’s experience during a 2015 terrorist attack in Tunisia, which halted their tour in that country. During that time, the members of Clarke’s band composed new material, which they later recorded at the ICP studios in Belgium, laying the foundation for this album.

The Message opens with a dialogue between Clarke and Fresh, paying homage to music legends Al Jarreau, Leon “NDUGU” Chancler, George Duke, Tom Petty, Chuck Berry, Larry Coryell, and Darryl Brown as Clarke sings, “And Ya Know We Missing You” along with Fresh providing the underlying vocal percussion. The next track, a stirring rendition of “After the Cosmic Rain/Dance of the Planetary Prince,” is based on a composition written by Clarke in the 1970s, and features a melodious synthesizer solo by Graves. The title track, “The Message,” begins with celestial pads evoking a cosmic atmosphere, followed by an expressive electric bass solo that serves as a counterpart to Clarke’s profound solo performance of Bach’s “Cello Suite, No. 1” on acoustic bass. “Alternative Fact” switches gears to an up-tempo swing groove, displaying both Gochiashvili’s impeccable piano technique and Mitchell’s explosive light touch on the drums. Finally, Clarke takes us out with a funky groove on “To Be Alive,” a song filled with rich horn backgrounds, percussive breaks, and Fresh’s rhythmic flow and tight lyrics.

The Message is certainly a testament to Clarke’s creativity and longevity as a music artist. From beginning to end, the listener is taken on journey filled with sonic qualities that excite the spirit, satisfy the ear, and calm the soul.

Reviewed by Jamaal Baptiste

Shuggie Otis – Inter-Fusion

Shuggie Otis
Title: Inter-Fusion

Artist: Shuggie Otis

Label: Cleopatra

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

Release Date: April 20, 2018

 

 

Known best for his soulful songwriting and tender serenades as heard on hits such as “Strawberry Letter 23” and “Inspiration Information,” Shuggie Otis, “heir to Hendrix,” has long been held as one of the most innovative guitarists to ever pick up the 6-strings. A prodigy from early age, Otis regularly performed on stage and in the studio alongside his legendary father, bluesman Johnny Otis. Shuggie’s latest project, an adventurous new fusion rock project called Inter-fusion, showcases just how mind-blowing he is on the pearly frets of his gorgeous maroon Gibson SG.

The album consists of mostly instrumental tracks that groove and weave, taking unexpected turns in surprising directions, but all anchored by one of the finest rhythm sections imaginable. Drummer Carmine Appice (of Vanilla Fudge/Beck, Bogert & Appice) and bass player Tony Franklin (of The Firm/Roy Harper) both layer their expertise beyond Otis. In addition, keyboardist Kyle Hamood (of L.A. rockers Them Guns) steps in as both a musician and producer, delivering outright superlative performances from each artist involved.

The opening track, “Aphelion,” is a sweetly smooth shot of melancholy that goes down without a hitch. “Woman,” an uptempo beat complete with intricate melodies and layered percussion, begs to be played over and again, and “Clear Power” is a clean, crisp polyrhythmic groove that satisfies the aural need for virtuosity.

Uniting some of the best rock fusion artists on one recording, Inter-fusion reminds us that when it comes to Shuggie Otis, some of the most eclectic, quality art and artists have been right beside us all along.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Serpentwithfeet – Soil

Soil

Title: Soil

Artist: Serpentwithfeet

Label: Tri-Angle/Secretly Canadian

Format: CD, LP, Digital

Release date: June 8, 2018

 

 

At first glance, you might not peg Josiah Wise as a classically trainer singer. Before transforming himself into the performance artist known as serpentwithfeet, the Baltimore-born musician spent his formative years singing gospel music in his mother’s Pentecostal church. While Wise later studied jazz as well as opera, he was also enamored ‘90s R&B—especially Brandy. Synthesizing all of these influences in his first full-length album, Soil, Wise draws connections to the sustenance of life and love, while simultaneously rebelling against today’s “symmetry and sterile soundscapes.”

Collaborating with producer Clams Casino and experimental electronic musician Katie Gately, Wise has created unique sound collages that are operatic in their own way. Casino, known for his ‘cloud rap’ productions and tracks for the likes of ASAP Rocky & Lil B (“Be Somebody”), The Weeknd, and Kelela, brings hip hop beats with a spacey, freeform style. Gately, who sculpted the sound on nearly half of the tracks on Soil, is known for constructing pieces from multiple layers and samples. Together, they offer a work that enhances Wise’s melismatic singing style with avant garde electronics and multi-layered, hyperprocessed vocals. By also eschewing standard melodies and notions of song construction, the result is more akin to freestyle.

Opening with Wise’s seductive vocals over synth clarinet arpeggios, “Whisper” is one of the album’s most compelling tracks, and perhaps the closest in form to an R&B single. Written by Gately, the song shows off Wise’s vocal range and technique, with extensive overdubbing to create a choral effect. This is one of the many songs on the album touching upon the “shame around two black men dating and loving on each other” as Wise—who is openly gay—sings, “If you whisper, only I will hear you.” “Wrong Tree” seems to expand upon this theme. As the gospel organ and hand claps evoke the conservatism of the church, the song turns more menacing with the lyrics, “The fruit I couldn’t wait to eat / suddenly began to bleed / then I heard them shouting / He climbin’ up the wrong tree.” Both Gately and Casino contributed to “Mourning Song,” the orchestral backing adding weight to the poignant lament, “I want to make a pageant of my grief.”

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Another highlight of the album is “Cherubim,” produced by Gately and the Boston-based electronic producer known as mmph. More overtly homeoerotic, the official video underscores the dramatic elements of Wise’s performance art, while the music is a seamless combination of classical, R&B, and gospel influences with rock overtones. Clams Casino’s footprint is all over “Seedless,” with its laborious beat, electronic effects and elastic rhythms, while Wise flows between song and chant. The album comes full circle with the final track, “Bless Ur Heart,” a tender, upbeat love song expressing optimism: “What was once a whisper will become a deep rumbling sound / I’ll keep a tender heart.”

Soil is a mesmerizing project full of lush harmonies and heartfelt lyrics that pushes the envelop through the electronic production, as well as the thematic material.  Undefinable, and undeniably unique, the album’s deep roots extend into many facets of the Black music spectrum.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

AHI – In Our Time

In Our Time

Title: In Our Time

Artist: AHI

Label: Thirty Tigers

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

Release Date: July 13, 2018

 

 

Canadian singer-songwriter AHI (pronounced “eye”) offers a refreshingly earnest commentary on life, love, and the concept of home on his sophomore album, In Our Time. His first album, We Made It Through The Wreckage, was independently released in 2017, and despite a lack of promotion, the album resonated with listeners and began receiving recognition across Canada due to AHI’s gritty, soulful vocals and commitment to honest, simplistic music.

The opening track on his newest album, “Breakin’ Ground,” is an uplifting introduction, telling of AHI’s journey to becoming an artist and musician. Lyrics like “I’ve been told I’m worthless so much that it gave me purpose” are honest and real, and are complemented by AHI’s raspy and raw-sounding vocals over an upbeat melody. “Made It Home,” the following track, presents the second chapter of AHI’s personal story. In the song, the father of three explores the concepts of family and home in a way that simultaneously expresses vulnerability and strength.

The other songs on the album, from the energetic “Five Butterflies” to the more emotional and softer “Just Pray,” highlight AHI’s ability to blend folk, soul, rock influences with his personal experiences and feelings in a way that makes his music poignant and engaging for anyone and everyone.

On In Our Time, AHI manages to use his mesmerizing vocals and catchy melodies to create a personalized yet relatable collection of folk rock tracks based on his own experiences of life, love, and family.

Reviewed by Chloe McCormick

 

Zeal & Ardor – Stranger Fruit

zeal

 

Title: Stranger Fruit

Artist: Zeal & Ardor

Label: MVKA

Formats: CD, LP, Cassette, Digital

Release date: June 8, 2018

 

Swiss-American provacateur Manuel Gagneux, the artist behind the avant garde rock group Zeal & Ardor, unleashed his debut album Devil Is Fine to much acclaim in 2017. Grounded in Norwegian black metal and its inherent paganism, the album imagined an antebellum South where slaveshad chosen defiance and rebellion and the power of Satan” instead of Christianity. With his new album, Stranger Fruit, Gagneux not only hints at Billie Holliday’s haunting classic, but implies he might take us one step beyond the already grotesque imagery of “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze.” The answer comes sooner rather than later.

After a brief intro sets the stage with the sound of a pickaxe striking the ground, the opening song “Gravedigger’s Chant” seems to pick up where “Strange Fruit” left off, as Gagneux sings “bring the dead body down to the graveyard…Lord have mercy.” In a press release, Gagneux describes the official video as subverting roles: “People find themselves in situations untypical for their ilk, tools become weapons, weapons turn into tools, and fingers meant for sensing make themselves felt.”

Unlike the previous Zeal & Ardor album—an interwoven fabric of metal tempered with elements of blues, spirituals, Lomax-esque work-song melodies, soul and gospel—Stranger Fruit hews more closely to black metal roots. “Servants” promotes an uprising of the oppressed, while “Don’t’ You Dare” takes things one step further, hinting at human sacrifices with the chorus, “never come ‘round these parts…don’t you dare look away, boy.” The brief “Fire of Motion” features a wall of thrashing guitars, then segues into the gorgeous vocal harmonies of “The Hermit” with a nod to Gregorian chant.

If you were a fan of Devil Is Fine, then you will appreciate the hand-clapping rhythms behind “Row Row,” the soulful elements of “You Ain’t Coming Back,” and the bluesy “We Can’t Be Found.”  The title track, “Stranger Fruit,” is built over an ominous piano ostinato that gradually builds to the timely finale, “there’s a storm out there / there’s no shelter for us.” The album closes with “Built on Ashes,” another track interjecting soulful vocals that makes for a satisfying finish, despite the gloomy chorus, “”Like a strange fruit out of season / You are bound to die alone.”

Though a couple of electronic tracks seem somewhat out of kilter, Zeal & Ardor’s Stranger Fruit is a solid sophomore effort. The album was produced by Gagneux alongside Austrian producer Zebo Adam and mixed by Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou. Gagneux has assembled a band for live shows and will be touring the U.S. later this year.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Fats Domino – The Ballads

fats

 

Title: The Ballads

Artist: Fats Domino

Label: Bear Family

Format: CD

Release date: April 20, 2018

 

One of the architects of rock and roll, Fats Domino is also remembered as one of New Orleans’ greatest musicians, which is quite an honor in a city that produced so many legends. Now the venerable Bear Family label honors Fats, who died last year, with this compilation featuring 32 ballads culled from his 1955-1962 Imperial Records sides. Most were either produced, co-written/arranged, and/or performed (on trumpet) by the great Dave Bartholomew and recorded at Cosimo Matassa’s studio.

Instead of the red-hot sound of the Crescent City’s rhythm and rocking blues scene, The Ballads of Fats Domino highlights many of his lesser known gems. As noted author/historian Bill Dahl states in the liner notes, “Fats without his trademark rocking rhythms [was] every bit as effective and lovable as when the big beat was scalding behind him.” And that’s the truth!

This “blusier, atmospheric side” of Fats is certainly apparent on classics like “Blueberry Hill,” which opens the set, and a pair string drenched sides, “Walking to New Orleans” and “Three Nights a Week,” both R&B hits despite Domino’s opinion that “people don’t like me with too many violins.” The hardships of life on the road spurred more than a few ‘homesick’ ballads that are great examples of Fats’ signature story songs: “I Miss You So” (1961); a 1962 remake of “Goin’ Home” (the original side was released a decade prior); and the earliest song on the set, “Helping Hand (A Long Way From Home)” from 1955.

This is just a small taste of what’s in store on The Ballads of Fats Domino, produced with the typical high standards we’ve come to expect from Bear Family, including illustrated liner notes and a complete session discography.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Priscilla Renea – Coloured

Renea
Title: Coloured

Artist: Priscilla Renea

Label: Thirty Tigers

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

Release Date: June 22, 2018

 

 

One of the most sought-after songwriters in the business, Priscilla Renea now offers her own solo project, Coloured. Growing up in Vero Beach, Florida, music has always been a mainstay in Renea’s life. As explained in an interview with Rolling Stone, her mother and grandmother loved to sing and her father played the trumpet. After writing her first song at the age of eight, Renea’s mother gave her a note book to write in and eventually she received a guitar from her father and taught herself to play. By the age of 16, Renea became a YouTube sensation, setting her on a path to become one of today’s greatest writers with songs you know and love such as “Timber,” by Kesha and Pit Bull, Charlie Puth’s “River”, and “California King Bed” performed by Rhianna. With Renea’s own album Coloured, we get to truly hear her voice as she tells her own story.

Renea describes her new album as, “a big gumbo of everything that’s happening in my life,” and explains it was created when she spent a few months in Nashville in 2016 with her friend and colleague Brett James. While in Nashville, she attended a performance of the Grand Ole Opry, discovering there were only two photos of black artists on display backstage—Chuck Berry and Darius Rucker. Taking this as a challenge, Renea was inspired to create Coloured, a very unique album with a style all its own she calls “country soul,” seamlessly combining a classic Nashville sound with R&B and hip hop in a manner she describes as “unapologetically black.”

Coloured begins with the song, “Family Tree.” Opening up with a guitar progression that is just so stereotypically country it sounds like you could be listening to a Dolly Parton album, Renea enters and quickly shows her versatility as vocalist. Though she maintains a country “twang” throughout, it doesn’t take long for her to knock you back with her robustly gritty voice, showcasing vocal prowess and control reminiscent of powerhouses like Etta James.

Throughout the remainder of the album you can hear other spectacular tracks like, “Gentle Hands,” a fun upbeat song with a driving trap beat, followed by the gorgeous track, “Heavenly,” where Renea plays more to her R&B sensibility. She actually brings these songs together in one storytelling music video:

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With songs like “You Shaped Box,” “If I Ever Loved You,” and “Different Color,” Renea incorporates a reggae feel, blurring the line between genres as she tells stories of love, not only love of family or a significant other, but love of oneself.

Having made such a name for herself as a songwriter, Priscilla Renea is clearly just gearing up to shock the world with her own vocal talents, and Coloured is only the beginning.

Reviewed by Jared Griffin

Dr. Michael White – Tricentennial Rag

Dr. Michael White

Title: Tricentennial Rag

Artist: Dr. Michael White

Label: Basin Street

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: June 29, 2018

 

 

This year the city of New Orleans is celebrating its 300th anniversary (1718-2018) and acclaimed clarinetist, Dr. Michael White, set out to commemorate the occasion by paying tribute to the city’s most important original musical contribution. Of course we’re talking about jazz. Birthed from the rhythms of Congo Square and gestated in the French Quarter over 100 years ago, the genre is an indelible part of the African American experience in NOLA and beyond.

New Orleans born and bred, White has been immersed in the city’s music scene for decades and holds numerous distinctions, including Heritage Fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts and recipient of the Jazz Hero Award from the Jazz Journalists Association of America. Not only is he a virtuoso on his instrument, but White is also a composer of note as well as a historian and educator who has long been championing NOLA’s jazz heritage.

On Tricentennial Rag, White offers ten original compositions, many inspired by early jazz musicians and traditional styles, but with a contemporary twist. Paying homage to the street where Jelly Roll Morton spent his childhood, “Frenchmen Street Strut” opens the album. There’s a wonderful interplay on this track between White, Shaye Cohn on cornet, and David L. Harris on trombone, while Detroit A. Brooks’s banjo solo is a further connection to the African roots of jazz. White takes over on “Blues on the Bayou,” a showcase for clarinet that he performs with aplomb, stretching out the blue notes. The mid-tempo title track is a modern take on ragtime, full of interesting modulations and solo turns with hints of R&B-styled melismas. Kicking off with a snare solo signaling the start of Carnival, “On Mardi Gras Day” is song celebrating Mardi Gras Indians and the Zulu parade with vocals by Gregory Stafford (who doubles on trumpet).

“I Saw Jesus Standing in the Water” might seem like a departure—the song connects to themes from the black church but musically doesn’t stray far from traditionl jazz. Other highlights include the clarinet moans of “Loneliness” and the bluesy tribute to “Sassy Creole Woman.” The album closes with the only non-original song—a fantastic rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In” that’s performed in a wholly original manner with the band changing tempos and swapping solos—this time with Seva Venet on banjo. I must also give a shoutout to Steve Pistorius, the pianist for all but one track, who is given ample opportunities to showcase his virtuosity.

Who better to celebrate NOLA as the cradle of jazz than Dr. Michael White, one of the leading authorities of the traditional New Orleans style. He proves this again and again on Tricentennial Rag, keeping the music fresh and tasty with delicious licks and righteous rags that take NOLA’s jazz traditions into the 21st century.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Javen – Grace

javen
Title: Grace

Artist: Javen

Label: Tyscot

Formats: CD, Digital

Release Date: June 22, 2018

 

Born and raised in Hollywood, Florida, Javen P. Campbell is the 12th child in a family of 13. His career in the music industry began in 1999 after he was signed with Crowne Records. Since then, Javen has made a name for himself in many facets of the Christian music and entertainment industry—as a vocalist, songwriter, and actor. He is also a well-known television personality, hosting Now Living on the Christian network TBN and The Gospel Music Experience alongside Tye Tribbet. Recently Javen released his 6th album, Grace, with contributions from current gospel icons like Tye Tribbet, Tim Bowman Jr., and Johnny Rez.

Featuring eight songs written by Javen over the years, as well as an arrangement of the classic hymn “Amazing Grace,” Grace is beautifully produced from start to finish. The album combines harmonic, instrumental, and rhythmic aspects of Christian pop and classic gospel as well as new production techniques and rhythms from music of the African diaspora such as dancehall and hip hop.

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Javen opens the album explaining his understanding of the word grace, and how the term speaks to his faith. Stating he has come to understand grace as “God’s love, power, and strength,” he explains one must trust in these things to truly have access to God’s power and favor: “Grace is not something you do/but something you receive.” Immediately following this powerful introduction is the gorgeous title track duet, “Grace”, featuring Margaret Bell. This compelling song showcases a classic modern gospel sound accompanied by magnificent backing vocals as the absolutely awe-inspiring voice of Margaret Bell takes total command of the song. An acoustic version of this song in Spanish by artist Johnny Rez, closes the album, as well, providing an artful compliment to not only Bell but the entire collection of worship tunes.

Javen is a spectacular artist and vocalist with such a warm and smooth tone remnant of artists like Smokie Norful and Sam Cooke, but from time to time he is a slightly outshined, vocally, by the artists he features. This is especially apparent in his duets, such as “Grace” with Margaret Bell, and “You Lift Me Up” with Christina Bell. However, this takes nothing away from the album—if anything it shines a light on the brilliance of Javen as a songwriter. Another stand-out track is the song “Fresh Oil,” originally released on Javen’s 2013 album, Worship In the Now, and re-recorded as a duet with Na’sha Watkins for Grace. “Fresh Oil” is an absolutely stunning song just perfect for the smooth stylings and timbre of both Javen and Watkins as they offer their prayer lyrics: “Fresh Oil from Heaven cleanse my heart/Holy Spirit I call, from you I don’t want to part”. This song is extremely soothing while maintaining the capacity to bring you to tears.

Grace is a wonderful and eclectic album with a perfect marriage of songs and artists. It is an offering that will touch and uplift your soul, leaving you feeling renewed and blessed.

Reviewed by Jared Griffin

Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba – Routes

Routes

 

Title: Routes

Artist: Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba

Label: Twelve Eight

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: June 29, 2018

 

Building a bridge across the Atlantic, Routes is a collaboration between Sengalese kora master Diali Keba Cissokho and his band Kaira Ba that links North Carolina to M’bour, Senegal—where the tracks were recorded in a rattan-paneled hotel room overlooking the ocean. Cissokho, who was born into a family of griots and can trace his musical linage back to 16th century Mali, relocated to North Carolina after marrying an American student of Sengalese music. There, he connected with a quartet of local musicians including drummer Austin McCall, percussionist Will Ridenour (who also plays djembe), Berklee-trained jazz guitarist John Westmoreland, and bassist Jonathan Henderson—an ethnomusicologist well versed in jazz and afro-diasporic styles. Working together to create a musical language that combined elements of these multiple traditions, the group transformed into Kaira Ba.

One of the unique aspects of Routes is the wide range of contributing artists from both nations who lent their talents to this project. As the tracks were laid down in Senegal, Cissokho invited numerous friends and relatives to contribute to the mix, including a group of drummers who set up in the courtyard. Once the band returned home, they overdubbed instrumental and vocal tracks using a variety of well-known local musicians. Their goal, to “tell the story of these two places Diali has called home,” has certainly been realized through this expanded musical palate and community spirit, while the aural soundscapes of each location also enter the mix.

Opening with the familiar Carolina summer sound of cicadas, “Alla L’a Ke” is a traditional kora song dedicated to Cissokho’s late father, which the group transforms through the addition of a string quartet featuring violinist Jennifer Curtis, among others. Up next is “Badima” with a catchy Afro-rock groove laid over Chuckey Robinson’s organ and a fast and furious percussive conclusion.  Salsa, which is extremely popular in West African, is the basis for the track “Salsa Xalel,” blended here with the national dance mbalax using local percussion and balafon. The tie-in to the American South comes by way of the track’s funky horn section and gospel singers Shana Tucker and Tamisha Waden, who join Cissokho on vocals as they ponder what kind of world are we leaving for our children:

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Yet another interesting sound collage can be found in “Saya,” a poignant song about grasping the reality of death. Opening with a kora solo by Cissokho, the focus shifts mid-section to Eric Heywood’s pedal steel guitar, blending perfectly with kora, guitar and bass. John Westmoreland takes the lead on “Story Song,” which he composed in the Mali style known as desert blues, with Cissokho providing the narration in English about the band’s seven-year collaboration: “these people I’m playing music with / we’re not the same culture / we’re not the same religion/ but out heart is the same…you can’t play music like this if your heart is not beautiful.”

The album closes with “Night In M’Bour,” featuring a collage of sounds recorded during an evening in Cissokho’s home town, including a traditional sabar drum ensemble and fula flute solo, then concluding with the night crickets of M’Bour—a bookend to the opening soundscapes of North Carolina.

Routes is the perfect showcase for Kaira Ba’s unique fusion of Senegalese and American musical traditions, as well as a demonstration of cross-cultural collaboration and mutual respect between band members who welcomed an immigrant to their community.

 

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Lamont Dozier – Reimagination

Reimagination Dozier
Title: Reimagination

Artist: Lamont Dozier

Label: Goldenlane Records

Format: CD

Release Date: June 6, 2018

 

 

The name Lamont Dozier, if heard, perhaps would bring little or no reaction to the general public. But, if one plays or hums many major tunes released by 1960s and 70s Motown artists, know that Dozier was part of the composers team behind these successful groups. Now you his name.

Lamont Dozier, along with the Holland Brothers, wrote the great tunes at Motown—Smokey, The Four Tops, The Temptations and yes, even The Supremes—all owe their success to these gentleman. Dozier, besides being one of the greatest songwriters ever, is a smooth singer and accomplished piano player. In the late 60’s, he left Motown and, along with the Holland Brothers, formed the label Hot Wax. After that, Dozier started recording solo material. His  classic tunes in the 70’s included hits such as, “Going Back To My Roots” and “Why Can’t We Be Lovers”. In the 80’s, Dozier teamed up with Phil Collins on the hit, “Two Hearts.”

Now, Dozier is back with a new release titled, Reimagination. This album is a collection of twelve tracks previously written for other artists while at Motown, but Dozier performs them in a way that will make you forget the original. Joining him for this collaboration is Graham Nash, Lee Ann Womack, Todd Rundgren, just to name a few in on the festivities.

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On the second track, “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You), Dozier reworks the former classic with Gregory Porter. First, the song is done in acapella , then the song moves into a gospel offering—hand clapping, feet stomping, take it to the river sounds. Dozier uses the same approach on, “Reach Out I’ll Be There”.  One of the most underrated singers at Motown was Kim Weston. Her classic, “Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me A Little While), gets a fresh, new makeover in the form of accoustic blues featuring Marc Cohen. Now that’s quite a Weston tribute.

Martha & The Vandellas has the honor of having two of their classics included on Reimagination. “Love Is Like A Heatwave” and “In My Lonely Room”.  “In My Lonely Room” happens to be, in my opinion, Dozier’s favorite track. He fools you in the beginning, starting the song by singing, “Love Is Here”, which is the opening of a Supremes track, but goes quickly into “In My Lonely Room”. WOW! The words after all these years really hit you in the feels.

Who but Dozier knows these tunes best? After all, he wrote them, so he can and does perform them the way he sees fit. Reimagination is pure gold, Motown fan or not. Thanks Lamont!

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

The Last Poets – Understand What Black Is

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Title: Understand What Black Is

Artist: The Last Poets

Label: StudioRockers

Formats: CD, Digital

Release Date: May 19, 2018

 

 

Before Sugar Hill Gang released “Rappers Delight” in 1979, marking the first hip hop record in history, there was The Last Poets. The Harlem-based group performed politically charged poetry over a musical backing of bebop, funk, and demonstrative solo percussion. Along with other famous poets such as Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Poets laid the “ground work” of the hip hop genre. They branded their art as “Jazzoerty,” a combination of music and spoken word that worked together simultaneously.

The Last Poets were and are a highly politically engaged group. “The Original Last Poets” were formed May 19, 1968 in Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park. They chose May 19th as a way to commemorate the assassination of Malcolm X, three years prior. Because their personal ideology was more in line with Malcolm X’s approach to civil rights, May 19 would became both their founding date and a political statement that continues to drive their music and spoken word art.

Understand What Black Is marks the 50th anniversary of The Last Poets and is the first project they have released in 20 years. The reggae driven album, courtesy of Brit producers Nostalgia 77 and Prince Fatty and percussionist Baba Donn Babatunde, is fused with messages that pertain to the state of black people in America, both in the past and as it relates to the present. Group members Abiodun Oyewole and Umar Bin Hassan celebrate blackness while also providing political, philosophical, and religious perspectives on issues with being black in America and within the diaspora. “Understand What Black is….the breath you breathe….the sweat from your brow…Black is love…Black is humanity…the source from which all things come.” These are words from the title track, setting the tone for what is to come.

“Rain of Terror” is one of the most politically charged poems on the album, where Abiodun Oyewole accuses America of being a terrorist—“being mean and nasty to those who treated him kind.” He goes on to talk about the violent nature of America and its treatment of black people and the outside world. “Though shall not kill…that’s not a part of the American dream, because to kill is a thrill they love to show on the TV screen.” This line in the poem harkens to the ways in which black people have been abused on live television during the evening news almost as if it were a normal and acceptable mode of television performance. It is not unlike America to use the death of black bodies as entertainment. This was a form of entertainment in communities in the rural South during the early 1900’s, where white Americans would bring their families to picnic like settings to watch the hanging and public shaming of Negro bodies. Oyewole’s critique on America is that at its root, the country is violent. During a time when fingers are often being pointed toward Islamic countries as being politically, economically and socially corrupt, The Last Poets beg the question, “Is America not guilty of being these things for the last 400 years until the present day?”

“How many Bullets” is a poem that speaks to the ways in which black people have endured despite the violence they have encountered in America and within the diaspora. “Took my drum, broke my hands, yanked my roots up right out of the land and rattled my soul with Jesus.” This track represents the resilience of black people in the face of trauma. Despite being stripped of their religion, their home land, their drums, and their ancestral tongue, black people both retained self and created new identity. Oyewole speaks to both the idea of retention and creation through his discussion about death, viewed through an African rooted lense, where life and death are fluid and not separated. “They shot Malcolm and all they did was multiply his power…they show King and black folks got stronger by the hour.” He also questions the use of religion, particularly Christianity, viewing it as a tool to keep black people in line both during and post- slavery.

“Is there anything not sacred anymore…freedom, justice, honesty…All being devoured by Western imitations of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is drowning out the tears of deception.” On “We Must Be Sacred,” Umar Bin Hassan speaks to the ways in which our world is shifting and changing into an evil place where love and tenderness are becoming taboo topics instead of practice. He claims that we love the product but we don’t care about the person who has created the work, nor do we listen and/or interrogate the things they say. He questions if we are too far gone to be able to elicit real change. He does not, however, claim defeat. “The phoenix will come from the flames this time, there will be no ashes to ashes. Love must be there when the Dust clears.” People must try to begin to love one another again and practice tenderness. However time is not a power so tender that “we could wipe this savage onslaught from our minds.”

The Last Poets conclude their album with the “The Music.” Oyewole celebrates the black creators of music with the line, “I am the music, the sound of life all round.” He furthers his Afro-centric ideology with the line, “I gave the world song,” which connects all things in life, including music, to Africa’s historical past. “I come from mother Africa where music is how we speak… the drum is my heart beat.” He then goes on to praise African American musical influences, which permeate around the globe. However, as Hassan asks in “We Must Be Sacred,” are people engaging the music and the culture or just buying into the product at face value, not caring about the creators?

Reviewed by Bobbie E. Davis Jr.

Parliament – Medicaid Fraud Dogg

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Title: Medicaid Fraud Dogg

Artist: Parliament

Label: C Kunspyruhzy

Format: Digital

Release Date: May 22, 2018

 

May saw a semi-surprise release of a new album from George Clinton’s legendary Parliament, the group’s first in 38 years. The expansive, 23-song Medicaid Fraud Dogg clocks in at an hour and forty-six minutes, and every second is imminently listenable.

While the group keeps groove at the center of its music, this ain’t your parents’ Parliament. This iteration of Parliament is not staffed by the regulars that longtime listeners might expect, such as Bootsy Collins and the late Bernie Worrell (though Fred Wesley does make an appearance on trombone on “Type Two”), but by a group of young gun musicians that prominently features Clinton’s grandson, vocalist Tracey “Tra’zae” Lewis-Clinton. This line-up does not hamper the group’s groove, but it does change it.

Medicaid Fraud Dogg contains some classic P-Funk grooves on tracks like on “69” and “Insurance Man,” but much of the album is far more influenced by contemporary hip hop. In fact, it seems like this album reflects Clinton’s listening to artists who previously listened to him. “Backwoods” is a trap-inflected song that listeners would probably be more likely to hear at a club in Atlanta than on an intergalactic voyage. “Loodie Poo Da Pimp” shows Clinton’s influence filtered through Snoop Dogg, then Kendrick Lamar, then back to Clinton. The album’s best moments embrace not having to sound like Parliament but choosing to sound like Parliament. “I’m Gon Make You Sick of Me” is an old-school deep-in-the-groove Parliament track, featuring Scarface (as ‘Dr. Feelgood’) rapping, while “Antisocial Media” is a deconstructive interlude that flirts with free jazz musical textures to express postmodern angst. Both songs feature classic elements of the P-funk playbook filtered through the past 30 years.

Will Medicaid Fraud Dogg satisfy listeners who long to collect every deep cut from Parliament’s 1970s heyday? Probably not—but the album would likely be pretty boring if it were simply a regurgitation of the group’s classics. Rather, it represents a reinvention of George Clinton, an artist who is learning from those he influenced and creating some great new sounds while doing it. This album succeeds precisely because of Parliament’s flexibility and the malleability of the group’s format—Medicaid Fraud Dogg demonstrates that it is possible to teach an old Dogg (in this case, the group of musicians bearing the name Parliament) new tricks.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Darryl Yokley’s Sound Reformation – Pictures at an African Exhibition

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Title: Pictures at an African Exhibition

Artist: Darryl Yokley’s Sound Reformation

Label: Truth Revolution Recording Collective

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: April 20, 2018

 

Jazz saxophonist and composer Darryl Yokley pays homage to Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky on his latest project, Pictures at an African Exhibition. While Mussorgsky’s inspiration for “Pictures at an Exhibition” came from artist Viktor Hartmann, Yokley collaborated with London-born artist David Emmanuel Noel on his similarly titled work. Drawing upon themes of the African Diaspora, Noel created original paintings inspired by each of the album’s 13 tracks.

During an interview for Occhi Magazine, Yokley said he drew “inspiration from African art and music, jazz music, classical music, as well as the artwork of David [Noel]” in the composition of “this jazz symphony.” In the same interview, Noel stated, “As an avid jazz fan, my work is produced in a studio, where the music is the backdrop, influencing every stroke of a brush and fusion of colours on each canvas. The paintings are my visual interpretations and dialogue with each track.” Regarding the thematic material he added, “I think it’s particularly important, when we discuss the African Diaspora and exploit mediums we do control to fully understand the continent’s people, its history, influence and the world’s interdependence on a landmass, with over one billion people. The capturing of a continent’s milestones, from the celebration of life and execution of cultural creativity, to human struggle and emancipation of a diaspora, needs to be told in an amalgam of ways. Music and paintings serve each other well in exploring how we react emotionally to the album’s theme.”

Yokely has been performing music from Pictures at an African Exhibition for the past four years with his band, Sound Reformation, featuring pianist Zaccai Curtis, bassist Luques Curtis, and drummer Wayne Smith Jr. The programmatic suite opens with the brief prelude, “First Sunrise,” marking the “dawn of humankind” in Africa. Following is “Migration,” an exploration of populations moving within and beyond the mother country. Yokely’s opening theme on this track is played in C, which he calls “the key of the earth.” This harmonious and carefree intro, enhanced with classical-style piano riffs, becomes increasingly agitated as the track progresses, with an ebb and flow signaling shifting populations that never return to their point of origin. “Ubuntu” and “Stories of the Village Elder” paint a rich sound collage while exploring African themes and rhythms, accentuated by Curtis’s kalimba-styled piano ostinato.

The music takes a darker turn on “Ominous Nightfall,” as drums signal the approach of those seeking human chattel. Seguing into “Hunting Natives,” the band’s tight harmonies, sharply articulated attacks, and excellent solo turns combine into a masterful performance. “Birth of Swing” is another highlight—a wonderful slow and bluesy dirge drawing heavily upon New Orleans’ jazz traditions, with guest Nasheet Waits on drums. While this track celebrates the contributions of African American musicians, the painful beginnings are also expressed through the clanking of chains added to Smith’s percussion arsenal.

Going forward, Yokely’s thoughts return to the motherland on tracks such as “Echoes of Ancient Sahara” sprinkled with Arabic motifs, the mournful then harrowing “Genocide March” which reenacts the Rwandan and Sierra Leone genocides, and “Cry, the Beloved Country” which moves from voices oppressed to freely articulated melodies resplendent in Yokely’s sax solos.

Closing with “New Sunrise,” the album takes an optimistic turn built around major chords to express Yokely’s “fantasy” of an end to “warfare, racism, classicism, sexism, and all other dividing ideologies and practices.”

Blending music with art while building on the overall theme of unity, Pictures at an African Exhibition realizes Yokely’s overall goal of “creating a work that shows how we as a human family have more in common than our differences would lead us to believe.”

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Orcastratum – Debut Album

EAN Bokmall [Konvert]

 

Title: Orcastratum

Artist: Orcastratum

Label: Compunctio

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: May 18, 2018

 

When you have a band name that combines Orca, “the sophisticated, mysterious, intelligent killer whale,” with Stratum, a way of categorizing or layering members of a group—one would expect a certain level of sonic diversity. This is certainly the case with Orcastratum’s eponymous debut album, recorded live at Dean St. Studios in Soho, London. Blending jazz, blues, classical, African, and “UK left field” musical traditions, the London-based group aims to transcend the predictive qualities of mainstream music. Led by producer and songwriter Glen Scott on keyboards, other members of the group include Ralph Salmins on percussion, Neville Malcolm on acoustic bass, and Eric Appapoulay on electric and acoustic guitars.

The album opens with “Spirit of the Skog.” After a brief intro hinting perhaps at fog shrouded forests, the track switches to an up tempo jazz tune featuring master Senegalese musician Solo Cissokho, who artfully intertwines kora melodies and vocals. “Unexpected Relations” is true to it’s word, contrasting classical idioms on the piano against a driving percussion rhythm and ethereal vocal overdubs. Swedish vocalist BERG is the featured guest on “Hallelujah Ironically,” along with Binker Golding, who adds to the contrasting sections with an extended sax solo. Despite its title, “Wizdoom” is an upbeat, piano-centric contemporary jazz tune with lush flourishes and perhaps only a hint of foreboding.

For many, the highlight of the album will be “No Need,” featuring guitarist Eric Bibb and gospel singer Shaneeka Simon. On the intro, Bibb’s lightly plucked guitar ostinato seems to mimic the kora from the opening track. As the song builds, Bibb joins Simon on vocals and the tone becomes dark and urgent, the accompaniment more ominous. Singing “no need for the fussing and fighting my friend,” the musicians bring the song to a powerful climax.

Though only five tracks, Orcastratum is an impactful debut that only hints at the group’s complexities, but certainly fulfills Scott’s “age old quest to inspire myself and others without borders.”

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Paul Beaubrun – Ayibobo

ayibobo

 

Title: Ayibobo

Artist: Paul Beaubrun

Label: Ropeadope

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: May 11, 2018

 

Haitian singer and multi-instrumentalist Paul Beaubrun—son of Theodore “Lòlò” and Mimerose “Manzè” Beaubrun of the Grammy-nominated Haitian band Boukman Eksperyans—does it again with a sensational and thought provoking album, Ayibobo. Released three years after his acoustic album Vilnerab (2015), and six years after Project Haiti (2012) with Zing Experience, Ayibobo weaves together Haitian roots music with rock and roll and reggae, which Beaubrun refers to as “Roots/Blues” music. While this album demonstrates Beaubrun’s compositional concepts and the socially conscious lyrics that fans have grown accustomed too, Ayibobo feels a bit more personal as Beaubrun recounts his lived experiences while reflecting on the encouraging words his mother instilled in him.

The title track “Ayibobo” narrates the circumstances in 2004 that lead to his fleeing Haiti to New York. Beaubrun reminisces on the comfort and strength he felt while remembering what his mother taught him, ‘ayibobo.’ The Haitian Creole term means ‘hallelujah’ or ‘amen,’ but ‘ayibobo’ also carries cultural connotations that can be interpreted as a form of elation. By using this word, Beaubrun demonstrates how one word can strengthen familial and communal ties within the global Haitian community, while paying tribute to Haitian cultural practices.

On “Rise Up,” Beaubrun leans more towards social activism, calling for people to “rise up and be free” while using reggae—a Jamaican musical genre known for its political commentary—as the musical vehicle for his political activist endeavors. We cannot overlook the Haitian folkloric influences that are heard throughout this album, specifically the Haitian drums (tanbou) on “Naissance” and “Elizi.” Sonically, we hear the Haitian polyrhythmic patterns that provide the underlying foundational groove and pulse. Moreover, these songs echo the mizik rasin (roots music) tradition and Haitian mythological themes that are commonly associated with it.

Ayibobo is a phenomenal illustration of Beaubrun’s artistic brilliance. As listeners, we are treated to the wonderful collage of musical sounds while experiencing the exhilarating spirit and cultural sentiments of the Haitian community. Furthermore, this album serves as an exemplar of music and activism. But above all, Ayibobo is a heartfelt expression of a man’s love for his country and community.

Reviewed by Jamaal Baptiste

Ginkgoa – One Time

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Title: One Time

Artist: Ginkgoa

Label: Self-produced

Formats: CD, Digital

Release Date: June 15, 2018

 

Ginkgoa, the swing-inspired electronic music duo, was created when native New Yorker and vocalist Nicolle Rochelle ran into producer Antoine Chatenet in a Paris club. Chatenet’s experience with French electronic music paired seamlessly with Nicolle’s love for swing dance music, resulting in the creation of a high-energy genre that the duo calls “Future Swing.” Their latest EP, One Time, amps up their signature sound with more emphasis on the electronic and trap influences that their audience can’t get enough of.

One Time is an edgy, party-starting EP composed of five tracks that the duo composed, wrote, and produced themselves. Songs such as the gritty “Don’t Give a Damn” were created in a hotel room during Ginkgoa’s Chinese tour through what can best be described as trial-and-error, then debuted at their next show. According to Nicolle, “we make adjustments based on our concerts and what we feel the audience may want more of, then the creative juices start flowing.”  On “Boy Bounce,” their first official video single for the album, the duo demonstrates their unique blend of jazz, rap, and feminist electro pop music combined with swing and bounce dance moves:

It is no surprise that Ginkgoa’s music is a hit with the crowds. From Chatenet’s infectious beats and perfectly-timed drops to Nicolle’s unique swing-style vocals, Ginkgoa has developed a distinct sound that is driven by their audience. Ginkgoa’s upcoming US Summer tour, if it’s anything like their previous performances, is sure to be a high-energy experience that you won’t want to miss.

Reviewed by Chloe McCormick