Title: The Cycle
Artist: Mourning [A] BLKstar
Label: Don Giovanni
Formats: Limited ed. CD, LP, Digital
Release date: May 5, 2020
The Cleveland, Ohio-based funk and soul collective Mourning [A] BLKstar is a “multi-generational, gender and genre non-conforming amalgam of Black Culture dedicated to servicing the stories and songs of the apocalyptic diaspora.” Boldly confronting themes of racism, oppression, and injustice, the group’s albums reflect the reality of living in a world that is all too frequently hostile to people of color. Their previous release, The Garner Poems (2018), was a eulogy to Eric Garner and the many other victims of police brutality past and present. M[A]B’s new double album, The Cycle, is yet another epic and thought-provoking addition to the group’s catalog. Set as an 18 movement song cycle featuring vocalists James Longs, Kyle Kidd and LaToya Kent, the group envisions the work as “a humble addition to the long legacy of James Baldwin’s adage of the artist as witness.”
Title: on the tender spot of every calloused moment
Artist: Ambrose Akinmusire
Label: Blue Note
Formats: CD, Digital, LP
Release date: June 5, 2020
Trumpeter and composer Ambrose Akinmusire is known for extending the margins of jazz, presenting sonically diverse albums that reflect upon the complexity of Black life in America. Such was the case with his 2018 release, Origami Harvest, which deftly wove together genres and socially conscious themes. Akinmusire describes his new release, on the tender spot of every calloused moment, as a quartet album “that studies the blues in a contemporary context.” Though primarily a jazz musician, Akinmusire adeptly taps into the blues of life in America, blowing through his trumpet with “the breath of a black man who’s seen the best and worst of the country.” Accompanying Akinmusire on this project, which features eleven of his highly original compositions, are his long-time bandmates: pianist Sam Harris, bassist Harish Raghavan, and drummer Justin Brown.
Title: Ocean Bridges
Artist: Damu the Fudgemunk, Archie Shepp & Raw Poetic
Formats: Digital (via Bandcamp), LP (tba)
Release date: May 22, 2020
One of the most intriguing projects of the year, Ocean Bridges is a collaboration between Washington, DC hip hop artists/producers Damu the Fudgemunk (aka Earl Davis) and MC Raw Poetic (aka Jason Moore), and Moore’s uncle, the illustrious jazz elder Archie Shepp. The album’s title signifies “a re-establishing of the connection between young and old in their general community.” As Moore explains: “I began writing down the parts in my head that could tell a story, a Black American story, that would expand across the ages, a story from my grandfather to my uncle, from my mother to me. We bridged the gaps of time, culture and struggle and made an album I always dreamt of—Ocean Bridges.” Entirely improvised, the eleven tracks also bridge genres, creatively blending live music and spoken word, jazz and hip hop in a manner that maintains the spontaneity of their vision.
Title: I’ve Got You Covered
Artist: Wendy Moten
Label: Radio Eye Music
Release date: February 12, 2020
Memphis native Wendy Moten grew up singing in her father’s church
and listening to her idols Aretha, Stevie, Marvin, and Dionne. After a successful
solo career as an R&B artist in the 1990s, scoring a
major hit with the power ballad “Come On In Out of the Rain,” Moten moved
to Nashville where she became a highly regarded session and backing vocalist
across all genres. Naturally, she was also immersed in country music. Over the
past two decades, she has toured with Faith Hill & Tim McGraw (2005-2018),
Martina McBride (2014-2016), and most recently Vince Gill, while also making her
own debut at the Grand Ole Opry in 2019. After considering a country project
for several years, Moten has finally released I’ve Got You Covered, a
welcome addition to the very limited number of albums by Black female artists
in country music.
Title: Celebrated, 1895-1896
Artist: Unique Quartette
Formats: 10-in. Vinyl EP, Digital
Release date: May 29, 2020
The Unique Quartette, a pioneering African American vocal group founded and led by Joseph M. Moore, holds the distinction of being the first black quartet to record commercially. According to newspaper accounts, the group was actively performing in the Northeast by the mid-1880s and remained quite popular until disbanding around 1899. The quartet made its first recordings in December 1890 for the New York Phonograph Company, intended for playback on coin-slot phonograph machines. Two of their early wax cylinder recordings were issued in 2005 on Archeophone Records’ GRAMMY-winning two-disc compilation, Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1891–1922, which bears the title of the book by Tim Brooks. In his chapter devoted to the Unique Quartette, Brooks’ concluded: “Were it not for the few, fragile brown wax cylinders that have survived from the early and mid-1890s, we would know little of a style of black quartet singing that was polished, engaging, and highly popular in its day.”1 Archeophone’s new release, Celebrated, 1895-1896, offers the opportunity to hear six exceedingly rare and expertly restored cylinders by the Unique Quartette, all but one revealed for the first time in nearly 125 years.
Title: La Danse à St. Ann’s
Artist: Goldman Thibodeaux and the Lawtell Playboys
Label: Nouveau Electric
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: May 29, 2020
Living legend Goldman Thibodeaux, a mainstay at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival for over 20 years, is one of the last musicians performing in the traditional French Creole country style known as “La La.” Now 87-years-old, Thibodeaux’s mixed Cajun-Creole roots reach back to early 20th century Louisiana, when as a young boy he saw the great Amédé Ardoin (1898–1942) perform at a local house party. One of the most revered Creole musicians in Louisiana and an early recording artist, Ardoin’s Afro-Creole accordion style paved the way for zydeco music back in 1920s and inspired Thibodeaux to take up the accordion. By 1966, he was playing with the Lawtell Playboys, a group originally founded in 1946 by Bébé and Eraste Carriere (aka Les Frères Carrière) and kept alive by several generations of family members. Now the leader of the group, Goldman Thibodeaux and the Lawtell Playboys present their latest album, La Danse à St. Ann’s.
Title: Blue Sky
Artist: Reverend Shawn Amos & The Brotherhood
Label: Put Together Music
Formats: CD, LP, MP3
Release date: April 17, 2020
Self-proclaimed blues preacher Shawn Amos returns to his Americana, singer-songwriter roots on his latest album, Blue Sky. Since his 2018 release, The Reverend Shawn Amos Breaks It Down, Amos shifted his home base to Texas and has been touring nonstop with a faithful band of compatriots. Designated The Brotherhood, this group includes drummer Brady Blade (Dave Matthews, Indigo Girls), bassist Christopher “CT” Thomas (Norah Jones, Macy Gray), and Amos’s longtime guitarist Chris “Doctor” Roberts. Collaborating with additional friends and family, Rev and The Brotherhood traverse spiritual and emotional territory littered with heartbreak, displacement and redemption.
Title: Legacy Holder
Artist: Jonathan Barber & Vision Ahead
Label: Vision Ahead Music
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: May 15, 2020
Drummer, composer and bandleader Jonathan Barber has accomplished much in his young life. The 30-year-old Hartford, Connecticut native began performing gospel music at an early age at his family church, learning alongside his father who was also a drummer. He later studied at the University of Hartford’s Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz and went on to tour and record with artists such as Pat Metheny, Jeremy Pelt, Wallace Roney, Jennifer Holiday, and Harold Mabern. Shortly after Modern Drummer named Barber as the #1 Up-and-Coming Drummer of 2018, he released his debut album, Vision Ahead. Now Barber returns with his sophomore release, Legacy Holder, featuring his New York-based jazz quintet Vision Ahead.
Title: The Real McCoy
Artist: Alex Dixon
Label: Dixon Landing Music
Formats: CD, LP, Digital
Release date: March 24, 2020
If electric Chicago blues is your bag, Alex Dixon’s The Real McCoy offers the real deal. The grandson of Willie Dixon, Alex represents the younger generation of Chicago blues royalty and carries on the family tradition as a talented producer, bassist, and pianist. His family also actively works to preserve the history of the genre in the Windy City through the Blues Heaven Foundation, located in the historic Chess Records building. Sharing his love of this history is precisely what Dixon set out to accomplish with his new project: “We were trying to go for authenticity, and I wanted to showcase some of the things that I learned from my grandfather and make the album I’ve always wanted to do.” Joining Dixon in this endeavor are two blues harpists – Sugar Blue and Steve Bell, son of famed harmonica wizard Cary Bell – and other assisting musicians including Lewis “Big Lew” Powell on vocals, Melvin Taylor and Gino Matteo on guitar, and Alvino Bennett on drums.
Title: At the Minstrel Show: Minstrel Routines from the Studio, 1894-1926
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: March 13, 2020
Those who have read Tim Brooks’ new book, The Blackface Minstrel Show in Mass Media: 20th Century Performances on Radio, Records, Film and Television, will no doubt be interested in this new release from Archeophone Records. The two disc set, At the Minstrel Show, features 51 selections recorded in the studio from 1894-1926 and represents the first compilation to deal authoritatively with the minstrel genre as a whole. While Brooks discussed most of these recordings at length in his book, he also penned an extensive essay and track-by-track liner notes in the 56-page illustrated booklet accompanying At the Minstrel Show. Before delving further into the content, it should be noted that some of the performances on this set contain racially derogatory language. From a scholarly perspective, however, these recordings provide the earliest aural documentation for those studying the genre.
Title: Prospect Hill: The American Songster Omnibus
Artist: Dom Flemons
Format: 2-CD set, Digital
Release date: February 28, 2020
Multi-instrumentalist and music historian Don Flemons, otherwise known as “The American Songster” and co-founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, has become one of the foremost experts and practitioners of African American folk music traditions. Flemons garnered a Grammy nomination and multiple awards for his last solo project, Black Cowboys (2018). Now Flemons is offering his first compilation, Prospect Hill: The American Songster Omnibus, which includes his Prospect Hill solo album from 2014, the EP What Got Over originally released on vinyl as a 2015 Record Store Day premium, and a new collection of twelve previously unissued instrumental tracks he’s pulled together under the title The Drum Major Instinct. If you didn’t score copies of these records when they first dropped, you should definitely pick up this nicely packaged two-disc set with extensive liner notes by Flemons and Vania Kinard and evocative tintype photographs by Timothy Duffy.
Title: Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworlds
Artist: Nduduzo Makhathini
Label: Blue Note
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: April 3, 2020
A rising star on the international jazz scene, South African pianist and composer Nduduzo Makhathini is a member of the band Shabaka and the Ancestors and was recently featured on the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s musical celebration, “The South African Songbook.” Nduduzo makes his Blue Note recording debut this month with Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworlds. The album is deeply rooted in the music and ritual practices of his homeland in KwaZulu Natal, with additional inspiration provided by legends of South African jazz including his mentor, the late Bheki Mseleku, and pianist Abdullah Ibraham. It was through Nduduzo’s exposure to American jazz pianist McCoy Tyner, however, that enabled him to develop a style of playing that “could mirror or evoke the way my people danced, sung, and spoke.” Retaining those nuances and connecting his improvisations to more profound elements of divination and healing, known as uBungoma, Nduduzo’s unique vision is communicated throughout the 11 original tracks.
Title: Not There Yet
Artist: Chicago Yestet
Label: Tiddlywinks Music/Dist. CD Baby
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: March 27, 2020
Formed in 2008 by bandleader and trombonist Joel Adams, the 13-piece horn-heavy Chicago Yestet draws from a wide range of genres ranging from big bands of the ‘60s and ‘70s to the sharp-edged political-leaning soul of Donny Hathaway, James Brown, and Marvin Gaye. With the addition of vocalist Maggie Burrell and spoken word artist Keith Harris, the ensemble also incorporates contemporary hip hop influences and socially conscious messaging. On the group’s third release, Not There Yet, they perform eight highly original tracks composed or arranged by Adams, with lyrics contributed by the vocalists.
Artist: The Session
Label: Bubble Bath
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: August 16, 2019
Straight outta New Orleans, The Session is a jazz quartet of young musicians who were schooled by several of the city’s legendary elders, such as Ellis Marsalis, Germaine Bazzle, and Dr. John. While their focus is on more contemporary aspects of jazz, they respect the genre’s historical traditions, with various members performing regularly at Preservation Hall and with Jason Marsalis’ Vibraphone Quartet. The group’s third album, Collusion, was released just before Donald Trump was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives and, as the title confirms, is the group’s most political statement to date. Throughout the 10 tracks, quartet members Steve Lands (trumpet), Jasen Weaver (bass), Andrew McGowan (piano), and Darrian Douglas (drums) explore their “politically-fueled reflections on our country’s current climate,” while also expanding their own range as they each contribute original tunes for the album.
Title: The Anthology
Format: CD, Digital
Release date: January 31, 2020
London-born neo-soul singer Omar Lye-Fook MBE, known as the “Godfather of UK Soul,” has now been recording for 35 years. A musical prodigy, by the age of five he was learning to play the drums from his studio musician father and went on to study other percussion instruments as well as piano, trumpet and bass guitar, eventually matriculating at the Guildhall School of Music. Omar’s debut single, “Mr. Postman,” was released on his father’s Kongo label in 1985, and his debut album, There’s Nothing Like This, followed in 1990. From that point forward Omar’s career took off, and before long he was recognized not only as a uniquely talented singer and multi-instrumentalist fluent in multiple genres, but also as a composer, arranger, and producer. All of Omar’s talents are showcased on his new two-disc set, The Anthology, which includes hits from the past three decades along with a few lesser known and previously unreleased tracks.
Title: The Complete Keen Years: 1957-1960
Artist: Sam Cooke
Format: 5-CD Box Set, Digital
Release date: February 7, 2020
After six extremely successful years as lead singer of the influential gospel quartet, the Soul Stirrers, Sam Cooke left the group in 1957 to embark on a solo career. Becoming one of the first gospel stars to go pop, Cooke’s gospelized-pop template paved the way for soul music. Just six weeks after recording his final session with the Soul Stirrers, Cooke released his first single under his own name, “You Send Me.” Not only did he manage to crossover on his first attempt, he took the pop music world by storm while also landing at #1 on the R&B charts. Over the next three years, Cooke released a quick succession of albums on the Keen label. All are faithfully remastered and reproduced with original album covers in this 5-CD box set, which includes excellent liner notes by Michael Corcoran, rare photos from the Keen archives, and complete session details.
Title: Say Yes
Artist: La Tanya Hall
Label: Blue Canoe
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: November 8, 2019
Versatile jazz vocalist La
Tanya Hall began her career touring with the great Harry Belafonte and has since
collaborated with other black music icons including Diana Ross, Quincy Jones,
Aretha Franklin, and Patti Labelle. Hall is perhaps best known, however, for
her work with Bobby McFerrin. In addition to guest appearances on McFerrin’s recent
albums, Hall has been a member of his 12-voice ensemble Voicestra since 2002
where she became adept at performing concerts where “everything is totally
improvised.” These skills are clearly displayed on Hall’s latest project, Say Yes, backed by Andy Milne (piano) &
Unison Trio (with bassist John Herbert and drummer Clarence Penn).
Artist: Moonlight Benjamin
Label: Ma Casa
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: February 21, 2020
Haiti’s high priestess of voodoo rock and roll,
Moonlight Benjamin, returns with her latest release, Simido. As with
her previous breakout album, Siltane, the lead vocalist performs primarily
in her native Creole language, with lyrics that always delve deep into the soul
of Haitian culture. Now based in France, Benjamin strives to honor her roots
and harness the spiritual power of her homeland. At the same time, she expresses
concern that as a woman, she must constantly affirm her existence and command
respect. As she states, “It is, unfortunately, an eternal battle for us who are
Title: The Blackface Minstrel Show in Mass Media: 20th Century Performances on Radio, Records, Film and Television
Author: Tim Brooks
Formats: Book (softcover, 290 pages), Kindle Ed.
Release date: November 15, 2019
Tim Brooks, author of the award winning tome Lost
Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919
(2004), draws upon his decades of experience as a media researcher and recorded
sound historian for his latest book, The Blackface Minstrel Show in Mass
Media. Tracing the shift from staged minstrel performances in the 19th
century to the silver screen, airwaves and turntables of the 20th
century, Brooks explores the second fifty-plus years of this “strange American