Title: Trilogy 2
Artist: Chick Corea Trio
Label: Concord Jazz
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: October 4, 2019
Musician extraordinaire and jazz luminary Chick Corea returns to the stage with jazz giants Christian McBride and Brian Blade on his newest two-disc live recording, Trilogy 2. Released five years after his Trilogy (2014), which won two Grammy Awards for Best Jazz Instrumental Album and Best Improvised Jazz Solo for “Fingerprints,” Trilogy 2 comes as a welcome sequel and features Corea’s originals as well as jazz classics and standards from the American Songbook. Continue reading →
First coming on to the scene as a guest on the title track of DJ Khalad’s 2018 On The Corner release, Black Noise 2084, Tenesha The Wordsmith has delivered a timely yet timeless solo album with Peacocks & Other Savage Beasts. Blending and bending genres, Tenesha holds true to her name, wordsmithing to weave narratives together, painting a new reality in the process. This album withholds nothing, deftly balancing social commentary, and critiques, with narrative. There is also a clear through-line of hope. Though many of the narratives included within this album are considered personal, they are framed such that they transcend the individual to become the collective, as exemplified in the track, ‘The Collection.” The pieces that bookend the album, “Dangerous Women” and “I Dream So Loud,” are poetry as prayer; they are invocation, they are inspiration, they are aspiration. Continue reading →
Title: You’re The Man
Artist: Marvin Gaye
Formats: CD, LP, Digital
Release date: March 31 (LP), April 26, 2019 (CD)
Today, Motown is celebrating the birth and the legacy of singer and instrumentalist Marvin Gaye by issuing his never released You’re The Man album. In 1972, Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”—singles from his universally acclaimed album What’s Going On—had each hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Soul Singles chart. Gaye was quoted as saying, “For most people that would be a blessing. But for me the thought was heavy. They said I’d reached the top, and that scared me because Mother used to say, ‘First ripe, first rotten.’ When you’re at the top there’s nowhere to go but down. No, I needed to keep going up – raising my consciousness – or I’d fall back on my behind. When would the war stop? That’s what I wanted to know – the war inside my soul.” Continue reading →
Title: A Little Love
Artist: Quiana Lynell
Label: Concord Jazz
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: April 5, 2019
Born and raised in Tyler, Texas, Quiana Lynell, like so many great singers before her, first began to sing in the church, then later attended Louisiana State University to study classical voice. She quickly found that the classical world didn’t necessarily suit her, and when a friend allowed Lynell to sit in with a blues band, she “learned that singers can have pretty voices and be entertainers.” Since then, Lynell has gone on to perform with such acclaimed artists as Terrence Blanchard, Herbie Hancock, Bilal, Ledisi, and many more. In 2017 she really made her name in jazz by winning the famed Sarah Vaughn International Vocal Competition. Now, Lynell is presenting her debut album. Continue reading →
Artist: Eme Alfonso
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: March 22, 2019 (U.S.)
Rising Cuban star Eme Alfonso grew up performing keys and vocals in her parent’s Latin GRAMMY nominated fusion band, Sintesis. In 2008, Afonso embarked on a solo career while also serving as artistic director of the Havana World Music Festival. She has since released three albums, acclaimed for their unique blend of Afro-Cuban jazz, funk, and Latin soul. Alfonso’s latest album, Voy, continues to defy genre boundaries while also expanding her presence on the world stage, including a recent showcase at SXSW. Continue reading →
Ghost-Note is a project led by two Snarky Puppy members, Robert “Sput” Searight and Nate Werth, who perform with a rotating cast of top session players. Their newest album, Swagism, is the group’s sprawling and definitive artistic statement, one that is funky, jazzy, and experimental all at once. The record combines grooves that hit hard on the one, progressive jazz gestures, and spoken voicemail interludes that advance the double album’s conceptual and musical narrative.Continue reading →
While technically his third release as a leader, Kamasi Washington’s newest record, Heaven and Earth, is the second in an extra-long play format. The double album, like 2015’s The Epic, stretches well over 2 ½ hours across two CDs (the LP version is 4 discs with an additional hidden inside the centerfold, giving listeners a compelling version to purchase this one on vinyl). While Washington certainly has much to say, this album doesn’t feel long-winded. His excellent band keeps things interesting for the entire 2 hours and 24 minutes of Heaven and Earth’s sonic exploration.
Washington is a marvelous player, but his talents of composition and orchestration are what lie at the heart of this album—the music is orchestral, improvisational, and undeniably hip all at once. It’s no wonder that he and the crew of musicians he regularly works with, including his crack rhythm section of the Bruner brothers (bassist Stephen AKA “Thundercat” and drummer Ronald Jr.), are first-call musicians for sessions and production work.
It is possible to say that Washington has grown as a composer while also acknowledging that his previous full-length was released by a fully-formed artist. While The Epic spanned much musical territory, Heaven and Earth demonstrates skillful use of musical contrast within tracks as well as on a tune-to-tune basis. Washington’s music works on many levels—for instance, the album’s foreshadowing opener, “Fists of Fury,” is about righteous indignation. The track’s vintage orchestral sound would easily be at home in the title sequence of a neo-western or kung fu movie, but also features a blazing doubletime piano solo incorporating very hip jazz harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary.
“The Invincible Youth” begins with a roiling Ornette Coleman-esque introduction and then evolves into a synth-jazz odyssey, while “Testify” is a poetic slow jam that would not be out of place on a ‘70s Stevie Wonder album. “Street Fighter Mas” is a funky tune on which Washington really stretches out on his sax; “Journey,” on the other hand, is a sparsely arranged jazz hymn. “The Space Traveler’s Lullaby” perhaps best captures Washington’s maximalism—it’s a fully fleshed-out orchestral work that stretches to 10 minutes in a swirling collection of textures, colors, and harmonies that might make orchestral and cinematic composers jealous.
Even though Heaven and Earth pushes 3 hours, it’s not dull for a single second. The album’s gargantuan musical scope allows it to earn its title, as Washington takes his listeners through its many twists and turns with an unparalleled sense of taste. Certainly worth the celestial journey, this epic album that features a great deal of greatly complex music. Like a good book, Heaven and Earth can’t be digested in one sitting, but it is good enough to explore again and again.
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?
Other reviewers have covered in great deal various levels of speculation about how much John Coltrane did not want to be touring Europe with Miles Davis in the spring of 1960, so this review will mostly stick to the music at hand.
No matter how much or how little Coltrane wanted to be playing that music with that band in those places, he showed up and PLAYED. And played, and played; blowing wild honking runs, “sheets of sound” as his style of the time was described, for many minutes at a time. In 1960, this was something new, and the audience in Paris on March 21st of that year was not entirely amused. The Paris concert covers the first and most of the second CDs in this 4-CD set, The Final Tour. Whistles and jeers can be heard from the audience during some of Coltrane’s playing, whereas the more traditional piano solos from Wynton Kelly garner warm applause.
Aside from both shows played at the Olympia in Paris, The Final Tour includes a short set from the Tivolis Koncertsal in Copenhagen, Denmark from March 24 and the two March 22 shows at the Konserhuset in Stockholm, Sweden. At the Scandinavian shows, Coltrane is a bit more concise but no less fierce.
The main dynamic on this tour, as described in Ashley Kahn’s liner notes, was a divergence of musical style which inevitably broke up the band Davis had put together to record the classic Kind of Blue album. Alto sax man Cannonball Adderley was already out on his own, about to be become very popular as he moved toward soul-jazz with his group. Coltrane had just recorded Giant Steps, which would go on to become a classic, but at the time was new, different and not fully accepted by jazz fans. According to various accounts, Davis was booked on an all-star tour of Europe arranged by impresario Norman Granz, and convinced Coltrane to come along for one last tour. Coltrane, who may have been suffering from dental problems and wanted to focus on his own music, reluctantly agreed to play one more round of concerts with the man who had plucked him from a B-list career and brought him into the spotlight (including connecting Coltrane with Davis’s lawyer and manager, who were subsequently able to get Coltrane signed to a deal with high-profile Atlantic Records after his contract with tiny Prestige ran out).
But Coltrane wasn’t interested in playing the same old tunes the same old way. He was exploring new ideas and new sounds, and was working out how to produce as notes on his saxophone what he was hearing in his head. He explains this to Swedish radio interviewer Carl-Erik Lindgren in the last cut on Disc 4 (a fine addition by Sony Legacy, which puts Coltrane’s mood and playing on this tour in contemporary first-person perspective).
The end result is a bit of a conundrum for a reviewer. This is four discs of live performances aimed more inward among the players than outward toward an audience. Hardcore Coltrane and Davis fans are going to eat it up, but it may be too much navel-gazing for other jazz fans. The rhythm section of Kelly, Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums more than hold their own and hold it together, even during Coltrane’s most intense note-eruptions. When given some space to solo, the rhythm section members are uniformly fantastic. But the fact remains, there are minutes upon minutes of Coltrane work-shopping various sounds and note combinations, with Davis off-stage and not involved. This may be as tiresome to a modern-day jazz fan as it was to at least some audience members in Paris.
As for Davis’s playing, at times (especially in Stockholm) he is several degrees too laid back and cool. He’s seemingly unwilling sometimes to blow hard enough to produce viable and in-tune trumpet notes.
If you’re a fan of Kind of Blue, try on for size the following version of “So What.” If this way of playing the song suits you, then you’ll like the rest of the album. If it’s too fast, too drawn out and not cleanly enough played, it’s typical of these concerts and this particular group of performances won’t be to your liking.
Criticism circa 2018, or 1960, be damned. It didn’t matter in the long run. The tour made Davis an international star and he toured Europe as a headliner after that. As for Coltrane, he went on to much bigger things too. The kind of “un-pretty” note-heavy percussive solos he was sending out into the European nights on that tour became the foundation of a new style—free-jazz—and Coltrane continued to innovate and follow his unique muse where it led him until his premature death.
London musician L.A. Salami created a buzz through a string of EPs leading up to his acclaimed 2016 debut album Dancing with Bad Grammar. Now he returns with his second full-length project, The City of Bootmakers, which continues his folksy style of social commentary.
Born Lookman Adekunle Salami (yes, L.A. Salami is his real name), the singer-songwriter grew up in a household that never paid any particular attention to music, and he didn’t learn to play guitar until receiving one for his 21st birthday. But he was always attracted to literature and seems to have a special affinity for Welsh poet Dylan Thomas and icons of the ‘50s and ‘60s, including Beat Generation authors Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, and folk musicians Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. A dapper nonconformist, Salami has been likened to a modern day troubadour, channeling his experiences into sharply honed lyrics, sung over lush acoustic-oriented alt-rock. All of these characteristics come to the fore in his most recent video single, “Jean Is Gone,” included on the album as a bonus track:
Though Salami is primarily a vocalist and guitarist, he occasionally switches over to harmonica, Rhodes and, according to the album credits, “ambulance.” His backing band, the Bootmakers, includes Simon Nilsson (guitar, bass, piano, organ), Petter Grevelius (guitar, bass, organ, vibes), and Sean Beam (drums, organ), otherwise known as Francobollo, a UK-based Swedish rock band. The project was recorded in Berlin with Robbie Moore (The Mores), known for his retro sound styled after ’60s- and ’70s guitar pop with rich vocal harmonies—the sound permeating The City of Bootmakers.
Easing into the album with the intro “Sunrise,” Salami evokes a Shakespearean-era street scene with a jangly tune reminiscent of an organ grinder. As the music grows louder, a group of revelers greet the dawn with Salami in the lead, inviting the audience to experience the wonders of “the troubadour”—obviously relishing the moniker he’s been assigned in the press. After the revelers fade into the distance, the band kicks into the first single from the album, “Generation (Lost),” a song about “feeling lost during the journey of finding yourself.” Addressing the anxiety of his generation, Salami croons: “I’m penniless, but I’ve sold my soul / I’m restless, but I’ve nowhere to go / Generation L, lost in lust / Generation L, laborious.”
Not shying away from political themes, on “Terrorism! (The Isis Crisis)” Salami sings, “I heard that an ancient book, inspired him to die / The Jihad source decoded wrong, enforces that old line / But when words contort in certain tones, Is it the preacher, scribe or one guy that does the crime?” Other songs, though seemingly lighthearted in character, veer into topics ranging from gentrification to immigration, deportation, and discrimination. But the cheerful pop in major keys and driving 4/4 rhythms can become a bit tiresome, making one wish Salami would break away and dive into deeper and darker territory befitting his themes. That’s why “I Need Answers” is such a welcome departure with its discordant melodies and angst-ridden lyrics as Salami struggles to navigate a path through life.
The album concludes on a similar note with “What Is This?” Existential thoughts become mired in practicalities as Salami sings, “Preachers remind you that the end is coming, but the rent dates comin’, so the end can wait – what is this? What is this?!”
L.A. Salami’s approach to songwriting reflects his artistic bent and roots performing spoken-word poetry. The City of Bootmakers is a fine showcase for this philosopher poet, with lyrics that dig deep into life’s inequalities and oppression, yet are delivered in a manner that offers hope for the future.
I must come clean—next to trumpet, the bass is my second favorite instrument. So I also must admit, I was unfamiliar with Reggie Young. When I think of bass players, I think of Jaco Pastorious, Stanley Clarke, Louis Johnson, Larry Graham, Victor Wooten, Will Lee, Sir Paul McCartney. Reggie Young, where have you been hiding, my man?
Hailing from New York, Young is a Grammy Award winning session bassist who has performed with the likes of Lenny Kravitz, Alicia Keys, Paul Shaffer, Stevie Wonder, Will.I.Am, and Reuben Studdard. His latest project, Young Street, is funk with a touch of jazz, rock, soul and even Bazilian bossa nova.
Young Street opens with the title cut featuring Young on bass, Garnett Walters on the B3, and Bill Hollerman on horns. I’m certain this track made the cut on urban jazz radio. I personally enjoy when an artist can step out of their comfort zone and throw a curve ball at you. The track “Naima” is just that—a composition by John Coltrane that would intimidate some. Not Reggie Young. He goes in on it, not to one up the great Trane, but more to show that he’s not a one trick pony. Speaking of which, you can find Young singing over his bass riffs on the funky “Alright With Me” and the lush strings on “Magic.”
Reggie Young has accomplished great deal even if he’s not a household name. No more hiding Reggie, I know where to find you now.
The Spirit of Memphis 1962-1976 is a four-CD set documenting the multi-faceted musical career of the legendary Isaac Hayes, who would have turned 75 this year. Even in a city that has spawned many influential musicians, Hayes stands out as one of the most important artists to emerge from Memphis. As one of the most identifiable figures in soul music, his significance spans far beyond the city he called home. Hayes’s talents allowed him to fill a wide range of roles in the music business—session musician, songwriter, producer, and, of course, performer.
This four-disc set, produced by Joe McEwan, provides many splendid examples of the multiple aspects of Hayes’s musicianship. Arranged in “chapters,” each disc highlights a different facet of Hayes’s career. Disc One consists of songs for which he was the writer or producer. Most of these songs were performed by Stax Records legends such as Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas, Johnnie Taylor, William Bell, and Booker T & the MGs. The Sam & Dave tracks alone will open the eyes of many listeners who are completely unaware that Hayes co-wrote the hit songs “I Thank You” “Hold On! I’m a Comin’,” and “Soul Man,” arguably the epitomic example of a Stax song. Disc One opens with “Sassy,” an instrumental blues groove released by Floyd Newman; the song was Hayes’s first co-write credit for Stax, and also features Hayes on organ. This disc is full of great songs and effectively serves as a “best of” Stax. However, two of the most surprising tracks featured here came out on another great Memphis label—Hi Records. The surprise here, though, is not the label; rather it is the fact that they were recorded by Charlie Rich. It is likely that only the most knowledgeable Hayes fans are aware that he wrote songs for the country music singer.
Disc Two features singles released by Isaac Hayes on the Volt and Enterprise labels, tracing his transition from writer/producer to soul singer/performer. These include the Shaft theme song, which for many people is the definitive Isaac Hayes recording. However, this disc also showcases many relatively unknown gems such as his cover of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” One of the standout tracks is an instrumental blues titled “Blue Groove” released by Sir Isaac and the Do-Dads. The extent to which Hayes was a good blues player and arranger is overlooked, and this track serves as an example of these skills. Another standout track, “Rolling Down a Mountainside” recorded live at Wattstax, also demonstrates just how good Hayes was as a producer and arranger. The disc concludes with two radio spots that capture an important moment in the marketing of black albums, as legendary deejay Jack “The Rapper” Gibson plugs tracks from The Isaac Hayes Movement album that exceeded normal airplay length.
Disc Three, Cover Man, features Hayes’ performing songs that were written by other people. These cover songs include an outstanding version of T-Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday.” Hayes’s cover of this blues standard is appropriate because although written by Walker, it was popularized in 1961 by Memphis musician Bobby “Blue” Bland. Another fitting track is a medley of “Just Want to Make Love to You” and “Rock Me Baby,” a blues standard popularized by B. B. King. This medley features Hayes alone on piano and vocals, serving as a vehicle to present Hayes in his purest form to the listener. Rounding out this disc are several previously unreleased tracks recorded live at the 1972 Operation PUSH Black Expo in Chicago.
The final CD, Jam Master, consists of only seven tracks, some backed by the Bar-Kays and/or the Movement. As the title suggests, however, most of these tracks feature extended jams, representing the lushest arrangements and productions on the four-disc set. Two of these tracks, including the previously unreleased “Black Militant’s Place,” were recorded for Shaft so any fans of that soundtrack will love this disc. The previously unreleased instrumental version of “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers is a highlight and arguably one of the most interesting pieces of the entire collection. Wah-wah guitar, strings, and driving repetitive bass lines are just a few of the devices that are characteristic of the grooves for these jams.
Collectively, this compilation of Isaac Hayes’s music will be welcome to any fan of Stax Records. However, the variety of music on this four-CD set makes it pleasing and palatable to just about anyone, and could very well convert uninitiated listeners into an ardent fans of soul music and Isaac Hayes. In addition, students of arranging or music technology and production would be doing themselves a tremendous disservice by not giving this set in-depth study. It should also be noted that the 60-page hardcover booklet features an essay by author Robert Gordon as well as interviews with artists and some great photographs from the Stax Records heyday, making this a must-have addition to the collection of any budding musicologist with an interest in American music. The final added bonus is a 7-inch vinyl replica of Hayes’s first release on the Youngstown label, featuring the singles “C.C. Rider” and “Laura, We’re On Our Last Go-Round.”
The Spirit of Memphis should be considered one of the best box sets to be released in years, and it is about time that the contributions of Isaac Hayes are beginning to be recognized through a compilation of this nature.
Over the decades, black gospel music has had a profound influence on popular music, a fact that remains as relevant today as in the 1950s. But the reverse is also true. Jesus Rocked the Jukebox, a new compilation from Craft (Concord’s reissue label), explores the blurring of boundaries between genres by focusing on the seminal period from 1951-1965. During this era many gospel artists began crossing over into secular music, unleashing their improvisational gospel-inflected vocals in a manner that demanded the creation of a new genre: soul. At the same time, other gospel singers who remained firmly rooted in the church didn’t hesitate to liven up their music with harmonic and rhythmic elements drawn from jazz, blues, R&B, and early rock ‘n’ roll. This reciprocal relationship between black sacred and secular music is illustrated throughout Jesus Rocked the Jukebox, primarily through the recordings of well-known gospel quartets. Gospel historian Robert Marovich explores this synergy in greater detail in the accompanying booklet.
One of the first things a listener will notice is the sequencing of the tracks. Compilers Fred Jasper and Mason Williams dispensed with the more typical chronological order in favor of overall effect. Thus the opening track actually begins at the end of the era. After all, how could you not begin this set with “People Don’t Sing Like They Used To Sing.” Cut in 1965 by The Original Blind Boys, the song might be considered traditional in today’s terms, but the rocking piano and guitar accompaniment clearly signal a departure from earlier gospel quartet styles.
Over the course of the 40-track compilation there are many similar examples, some drawn from the likes of the Staple Singers and Soul Stirrers, while others were plucked from lesser known recordings. For example, the Silver Quintette from Gary, Indiana is featured on the rocking 1956 Vee-Jay track “Father Don’t Leave” featuring Joe Henderson on bass, while a 1963 version of “Heavenly Father” by Brooklyn’s Patterson Singers is styled after a ‘60s girl-group ballad. The Highway QC’s “God Has Promised,” featuring Johnny Taylor on lead, mimics the urban harmony groups of the era. Several tracks are devoted to the famous Swan Silvertones, including “How I Got Over” from 1954 featuring Claude Jeter—one of the great gospel tenors whose falsetto clearly influenced many later soul and pop singers.
As Marovich states in the liner notes, “Every perspiration-drenched performance by a soul singer, every shouting improvisation from a rock-and-roll vocalist, every melismatic run delivered by contestants on a TV singing competition, evokes the exuberance of black preachers, church singers and church musicians in the throes of the spirit.” Jesus Rocked the Jukebox unearths the gospel roots of American popular music, exposing countless gems in all of their splendor to be explored and appreciated by modern audiences.
Dee Dee Bridgewater, a jazz singer in the same vein as Nancy Wilson, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn and Abby Lincoln, has done it all. She has even appeared on Broadway, earning the respect of peers and critics in a career that has spanned decades. It takes confidence and knowledge of self when an artist decides to step out of their comfort zone, which Bridgewater does on her new release, Memphis, Yes I’m Ready. The 13 track album features Bridgewater singing covers of blues, R&B and gospel classics from the ‘60s with backing by the album’s co-producer, Kirk Whalum, and the Stax Academy Choir.
Bridgewater was born in Memphis, so this project was a homecoming, to say the least—or in the words of the great Sam Cooke, “Bring It On Home.” That she does. Now for the highlights. If you listen very close to “I Can’t Get Next To You,” you’ll hear Bridgewater paying homage to the Al Green version of the song, not the Temptations. Green after all brought the Memphis sound into the ‘70s and Bridgewater is a Memphis gal, so why not. The horns and vocal delivery are downright scary in their precision and intensity.
When Bridgewater says “Yeah, this is for the King,” it’s not the “King” some of you may be thinking of, but rather B.B. King. His signature track, “The Thrill Is Gone,” gets the female perspective from Bridgewater as she sings, “You will be sorry someday.” Clap your hands and tap that foot. Now, speaking of another “King,” Bridgewater covers two of Elvis Presley’s classics. First up is “Don’t Be Cruel.” Who needs the Jordanaires on backing vocals when you can strip this song to its core and make it sound completely new? “Hound Dog,” as most everyone knows, was originally recorded by Big Mama Thornton, but Elvis had the bigger hit. Bridgewater again steers away from original and makes it a storytelling tune, one that I can now understand.
You can’t go home without taking one for the church, right? Bridgewater closes the album with Thomas Dorsey’s “(Take My Hand) Precious Lord.” This is a song that can bring tears to the eyes, especially since one usually hears it at home-going ceremonies. Testify, Sister Dee Dee!
Memphis, Yes I’m Ready is Bridgewater’s homecoming 101. You better be ready!
Born and raised in Sacramento, California, Gregory Porter is undoubtedly a jazz legend. He captured audiences with his enchanting baritone voice the moment he stepped on the scene, receiving a Grammy nomination for his debut album Water (2010), and wining the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album with Liquid Spirit (2013) and last year’s Take Me To The Alley. Now, as he teams up with 6-time Grammy award winning arranger Vince Mendoza as well as the London Studio Orchestra, Porter will sends chills down your spine and possibly bring a tear to your eye with his new album Nat “King” Cole & Me.
This album is meant to be a tribute to his idol, the legendary Nat King Cole, whose influence on Porter began at a very early age. In a recent interview, Porter recalls writing a song and playing it for his mother. Upon listening to young Gregory she exclaimed, “Boy you sound like Nat King Cole.” This sparked Porter’s lifelong love for Nat and his music. Porter also explained that his father was never in his life and Cole’s music seemed to fill a type of void in him, stating “They were coming out of the speakers like Nat was singing those words just to me. I would listen to his albums and imagine that Nat was my father.”
The material in the album consists of gorgeous orchestral arrangements of songs made famous by Nat King Cole, one of the first being “Nature Boy.” Porter’s rich tone on this song is hauntingly beautiful as he treats the melody and the text in ways clearly influenced by Cole yet still maintaining his own individuality. As the album continues we are met with even more phenomenal arrangements like “Miss Otis Regrets,” with a bombastic introduction that swiftly drops as Porter enters with the lyric. But one of the best moments happens towards the end of the album as Porter sings the standard tune “For All We Know.” His tender delivery of this song is amazing in how he treats the lyric and occasionally embellishes the melody, showcasing excellent control.
With other classic tunes like “L-O-V-E,” “Sweet Lorraine” (on the 15 track deluxe edition) and “The Christmas Song,” Nat “King” Cole & Me is absolutely astonishing. With a rich and soulful sound, no one could do more justice to the memory and legacy of Nat King Cole than Gregory Porter.
From across the pond comes British jazz musician Courtney Pine’s latest offering, Black Notes From the Deep. Perhaps best known as a founding member of the Jazz Warriors as well as host of the radio show Jazz Crusade on BBC Radio 2, Pine has had a major impact on the U.K. jazz scene over the last thirty years. On his 19th album, the multi-instrumentalist focuses primarily on tenor sax while collaborating with another U.K. legend, neo-soul singer Omar Lye-Fook. Backing musicians include the dream team of Alec Dankworth (son of Cleo Laine) on bass, Robert Mitchell on piano, and Washington, DC native Rod Youngs on percussion.
As the needle drifts over the grooves of the opening track, there’s no doubt that pairing Omar with Pine was a brilliant idea. “Rules,” co-written by the two musicians, is a fitting intro the album and offers a glimpse of things to come (see video below for a live performance of the song). Next up is “You Know Who You Are.” This sultry, atmospheric instrumental brings to mind a smoky jazz club in a film noir while showcasing the piano stylings of Mitchell and some tasty tenor solos from Pine.
Several members of the group, including Pine, have Jamaican roots, which influenced the instrumental “Rivers of Blood.” The title references the 1968 anti-immigration speech by Enoch Powell, a British member of Parliament, directed primarily at the initial wave of Caribbean immigrants to the U.K. from 1948-1968. Pine’s tenor combines with chords on the lower octaves of the piano to speak the bitter truth of this era, but a ray of hope is offered as the instruments move into the upper registers, building to a forceful conclusion that defies all odds.
Ushered in on a bass riff quoting Curtis Mayfield, “Darker Than the Blue” is definitely an album highlight, with Omar imploring, “Please tell me why, why oh why, would you want to leave me this way?” while Pine wails on the tenor sax like a lover scorned. Omar returns for two more tracks, the organ layered “In Another Time” and a new interpretation of Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly,” the latter featuring Charleen Hamilton on background vocals. On the upbeat instrumental “A Change Is Sure to Come,” Pine finesses the bass flute, proving his versatility while offering the other members of the ensemble an opportunity to solo. The album concludes on “A Word to the Wise,” with Pine plumbing the depths of the tenor to signal a warning call.
Black Notes From the Deep indeed plumbs the depth of jazz and soul, adeptly mixing message songs with passionate instrumentals performed with deft expertise by musicians who have spent decades honing their craft.
Is it the current political atmosphere or possibly just time for the genre to once again acknowledge its roots? Whatever the reason, there is a conscious stream of artists dominating mainstream rap right now, and Talib Kweli is leading the way. Kweli is no stranger to the scene—his first collaborative group, Black Star, was formed with Mos Def in 1997—and to date, he has worked with artists Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, Just Blaze, the Beastie Boys and Kendrick Lamar. Kweli is featured on Dave Chappell’s Block Party, both as an actor and a soundtrack artist. In 2011 he founded his own label, Javotti Media, billed as “a platform for independent thinkers and doers.”* With an eye on social issues both past and present, Kweli offers us his take on 2017 with his latest, Radio Silence.
The album unlocks with “The Magic Hour,” a song that introduces the album’s concepts and purpose through magical lyricism. Opening with the ethereal sounds of strings and a choir, the tune carves its own place in the world of rap solely on these feature alone. Kweli’s opening line, “Last one to fall asleep, first one to wake up. No Doubt. It’s the Magic Hour,” layered on top of an upbeat piano riff sets the standard for the remainder of this Brooklyn phenom’s offerings. The song’s final chords fade away under Kweli’s assurance that “hip hop will flourish with nourishment and the proper care,” a parental line from one who has been there, done that, and knows how to make it last.
The philosophy continues to pour out of this rap statesman rhyme after rhyme. The second track, “Traveling Light,” thumps the pulpit of Kweli’s truth through musings about his own genesis towards the rap dimension. Unquestionably possessing a magical talent for deep lyricism, he brings Anderson .Paak’s smooth vocals into the track to compliment his message. “All of Us” unfastens the mood even further with its break-out sampling of a rally for justice. Jay Electronica of Roc Nation and powerhouse Yummy Bingham spin their consciousness right along Kweli, adding a multi-layered resonance reverberating past the very last strain of violin fade-out. The lead single, “Radio Silence,” is a blend of Kweli and Myka 9’s exceptional cypher savvy interspersed with Amber Coffman’s haunting refrains. Never one to ignore the heart strings for long, Kweli and BJ The Chicago Kid’s “The One I Love” reminds us that regardless of what’s going on, that one special person makes it all worthwhile.
Of all the offerings not explicated here—“Chips,” “Knockturnal,” “Let It Roll,” “Write at Home”—by far, the standout is “Heads Up Eyes Open.” Dedicated to late rap promoter Kenneth “Headqcouterz” Walker, this part testimonial/part inspirational melody features not only mind-bending truthfulness on topics such as police brutality and protest rights, but also functions as a call for honesty and faithfulness because “the picture is so much bigger than what we could even imagine.” Indeed. Talib Kweli’s vision is so much larger than what we typically conceptualize. This portfolio of political discourse keeps challenging and teaching long after the voices, piano riffs and handclaps fade away.
Radio Silence, through its proverbial introspections and uplifting retrospection, seamlessly moves its message through the airwaves of our minds. In Talib Kweli’s world, silence truly does speak louder than words.
Raise your hand up high if you know & are into the Brooklyn band, Antibalas. Not bad, not bad—I see a few hands and a fist or two. Now, for those who aren’t hip, let me explain exactly who Antibalas is. The group formed in 1998 with Martin Perna at the front. The word antibalas is Spanish for “bulletproof”, which lends credence to their long-lasting career in the afrobeat world—19 years and still going strong. Antibalas plays afrobeat music, paying homage to the king of afrobeat himself, Fela Kuti. Listen very carefully—you may hear Eddie Palmeri piano stylings and personally, I think I hear another echoes of another band hailing from Brooklyn, Mandrill.
Where The Gods Are In Peace could be considered a head scratcher because it’s so short. It showcases only five tracks, but in reality, it feels like ten, perhaps fifteen. To only have five tracks and still packing a serious blow is true testament to what this band is all about. Take the track “Goldrush”. It opens up with early 1970’s rock FM and fast as you can FELA, BAM! The mood shifts into afrobeat, advanced version. Brilliant! They have you thinking one thing, but accomplish another.
Antibalas is very well-schooled in pulling off feats such as this. “Tombstone”, believe it or not, is the third, fourth and fifth track–a 3-part finale that will blow your mind. Zap Mama, the beauty from Belgium, lends her vocals on all three tracks. What can one say? Makes you wish more acts took risks like Antibalas, but they would be asking too much. Antibalas is one of a kind, folks.
Where The Gods Are In Peace. Enjoy it for what it is—an amazingly powerful punch in just a five step gig. Next time, I expect to see more hands raised when asked, “Who knows about Antibalas?” Don’t disappoint me.
Most of us think of Dayton, Ohio as the epicenter of funk, but the city also gave birth to several national gospel recording artists including Dottie Peoples, the Daytonians, and the Gospelaires—a quartet that enjoyed the worldwide spotlight in the decade between 1956-1965 and beyond. Yet despite their considerable success, the Gospelaires have not been well represented on reissue projects. Enter Swedish gospel aficionado Per Notini, who set out to correct this omission by producing the compilation, Moving Up – The Early Years 1956-1965, on his Gospel Friend label. Included are several singles that have never been released on CD.
The opening tracks recorded in 1956, two years after the Gospelaires’ formation, are from their debut single for the Houston, Texas-based Avant label. Despite the message of solidarity in “We Are Marching Together” and catchy doo-wop style of “Some People Never Stop to Pray,” the initial reception was only lukewarm. However, the single did attract the attention of Don Robey at Peacock Records, who signed the six member quartet and continued the affiliation for the next 16 years. The second and third tracks are from the quartet’s first Peacock single, with baritone Robert Washington taking the lead on the soul stirring “Just Faith” and up-tempo “Sit Down Children,” while bass Robert Lattimore provides guitar accompaniment. These sides portend the future direction of the group, while also displaying the powerful vocals and impassioned delivery of Washington. Though two other members sang lead for the Gospelaires—tenor Melvyn Boyd and baritone Paul Arnold—Washington is featured on the majority of the tracks on this set.
Arranged in chronological order, the remaining 25 songs provide a welcome overview of the Gospelaires. “It’s a Pity” (1958) showcases another lead singer, baritone Paul Arnold, who can also be heard trading the lead with Washington on “I’ll Be So Glad” and “You Can’t Make Me Doubt Him.” It’s unfortunate that Boyd is only featured on two tracks, “When I Rise” and “I Didn’t Know.” Though he doesn’t have the gritty power of Washington, his supple high tenor and emotive shouts are electrifying. In another change of pace, Washington can be heard sermonizing on “Trouble No More” and “Rest for the Weary,” the latter included in this archival footage:
Teen sensation Charles “Sky High” McClean is introduced on “C’mon” (1962), a song somewhat reminiscent of “Shout” by the Isley Brothers, who got their start just down the road in Cincinnati. McClean takes the lead on “Motherless Child” (1963), his soulful high tenor making it clear how he came by his nickname. The CD closes with an impassioned arrangement of Thomas Dorsey’s “Search Me Lord.”
The Gospelaires continued to record for Peacock for another decade, before switching over to Savoy, where they released many more albums. Their entire story is included in the authoritative liner notes by Bob Marovich, who also drew from articles by Ray Funk and Opal Nations. I’m pleased to say that all three of these dedicated gospel historians have generously donated collections to the Indiana University Archives of African American Music, where they are preserved for future generations.
Moving Up is a wonderful compilation showcasing the early years of the Gospelaires, one of the most successful gospel quartets of that era, and likely a strong influence on the funk groups that would emerge from Dayton, Ohio in the following decade.