That special time of year has come around again, filling everyone with holiday cheer. But nothing has the ability to spread Christmas spirit quite like music does. Following are brief reviews of what we believe to be the best holiday albums so far this year, featuring releases from Keb’ Mo’, Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, The McCrary Sisters, Elijah Blake, Jonathan Butler, and Mariah Carey. We hope these selections provide the perfect soundtrack for everyone’s holiday season. Continue reading
Artist: Keb’ Mo’
Formats: CD, LP, Digital
Release date: June 14, 2019
Blues musician Keb’ Mo’ has often incorporated elements of other genres in his music and his new release, Oklahoma, is a stellar example. Featuring artists ranging from Rosanne Cash and Jaci Velasquez to Robert Randolph and Taj Mahal (his collaborator on the 2017 release TajMo), Keb’ renders ten tracks of blues-infused Americana. The artist, who is celebrating twenty-five years in the music business, recently revealed the connections between his current frame of mind and the societal issues that fueled his songwriting: “When you are in a certain part of your life, the concept of an album is woven into the process. All of these songs stemmed from important issues and topics worldwide that really resonated with me during the time we were recording the project.” These topics include depression and waning love—the backbone of the blues—as well as contemporary concerns such as immigration and environmental degradation. Continue reading
Artist: Javier Colon
Formats: CD, MP3
Release date: April 15, 2016
Known for his smooth vocals and soulful R&B style, Javier Colon became famous when he won the first season of “The Voice” in 2011. After working with Universal Republic Records and touring Mexico and South America with Maroon 5 (Adam Levine was his coach on “The Voice”), Colon said he was ready to make an album without “walls or boundaries.” This led to his debut album for Concord Records, Gravity, which tackles traditional R&B themes of love, loss, and recovering from heartbreak.
The album starts off with “Close to You,” a love song in Colon’s signature style, combining his acoustic guitar work with upbeat percussion and his harmonious R&B vocals. The track has the feel of a 1990s R&B group or boy band, reminiscent of early Usher. This is followed by “Clear the Air,” a ballad about trying to make up after a fight. Colon’s voice soars throughout the song, as he exclaims “How did we get to this place / how do we get away?”
The title track and first single off the album, “Gravity,” is an emotional song that showcases the expressive quality of Colon’s vocals, as well as their power on high notes, riffs, and runs. The lyrics convey the anguish of dealing with a breakup where he was “the enemy,” and struggling with the feeling of inevitability: “I knew I’d let you down eventually/ it’s gravity.” The video is dramatic, starting with accusations of cheating by a girlfriend, followed by Colon’s efforts to deal with overwhelming emotions:
Though many of the songs are emotive, slow songs about romance and heartbreak, Gravity includes a number of more upbeat tracks. “For A Reason” features guest singer Nikki Leonti, whose vocals playfully intertwine with and interrupt Colon’s. The song claims that “all things happen for a reason,” and its optimism that “someday sun’s gonna shine again” is emphasized by joyful horns throughout.
Javier Colon referred to his first album after “The Voice” as an “arranged marriage” that made him realize how much he values creative control. Gravity is the result of that realization, an album where Colon wrote or co-wrote 12 of the 15 tracks, and plays his acoustic guitar on almost all the songs. Colon said he was “willing to fight for” this album, and that sincere passion is evident in every track as he bears his soul and sings his heart out.
Reviewed by Anna Polovick
Title: Emily’s D+Evolution
Artist: Esperanza Spalding
Format: CD, LP, MP3
Release date: March 4, 2016
Multiple Grammy-winner bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding has demonstrated a David Bowie-esque knack for reinvention over the course of her past 4 albums as a leader. 2010’s excellent Chamber Music Society showcased Spalding’s knack for tight, delicately crafted acoustic arrangements, while 2012’s Radio Music Society demonstrated her aptitude for a more pop-infused sensibility as well. Versatility has characterized her work as a side musician, too. She has appeared on recordings with artists as diverse as Mike Stern and M. Ward.
Spalding has managed yet another feat of re-invention on Emily’s D+Evolution. Taking her middle name as the album’s moniker, she explores yet another side of her broad musical influences, this time using the power-rock trio as the vehicle an exploration of another genre, necessitating an approach to her instrument that fans haven’t heard yet. Swapping the her Afro for braids and her upright for a fretless bass guitar and drawing more musically from Jimi Hendrix than Jim Hall, Spalding, guitarist Matthew Stevens, and drummer Karriem Riggins put forward a soulful brand of rock on this release, falling somewhere between Black Messiah and Axis: Bold as Love.
The hardest-rocking cut on Emily’s D+Evolution is the album’s lead single “Good Lava,” which combines the dissonant rock of Nirvana’s In Utero period with monster riffs that would make Jimmy Page proud. Layered atop these guitars and drums are multitracked vocal harmonies demonstrating Spalding ability not only as a rocker, but as an arranger, too. This minimalistic trio allows room for Spalding to showcase her wizardry on the bass guitar, too. The counterpoint between her voice and instrument on “Judas” will make any instrumentalist wonder how she can simultaneously deliver her rhythmic, Joni Mitchell- esque sung rap with her slick and serpentine Jaco Pastorius bass-funk. The classic period Mitchell comparison also resonates on “Earth to Heaven” and “Ebony and Ivory” (which is not a cover of the Paul McCartney/ Michael Jackson collab of the same name). For Spalding, songwriting rules the day, and the three virtuoso instrumentalists in her band support the subtle and challenging songs that Spalding has crafted, laying back when they need to but also digging in when called for, as Stevens does with a great guitar solo on “One.”
Ever the poster child of flipping the script, Spalding’s newest release is a haven of cultural intertextuality. “Farewell Dolly,” is a spaced out rethinking of “Hello Dolly” that barely (if at all) references the original. As its title would imply, “Farewell Dolly” is bleak, both sonically and lyrically, with Spalding’s impressionistic lyrics accompanied only by her spaced-out, chorus-laden bass guitar. “Funk the Fear” is a prog-rock odyssey through winding spiritual and social territory, and “I Want it Now” is a bizarro cover of Veruca Salt’s number (the bratty girl who won a Golden Ticket, not the Chicago alt-rock band) from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
Spalding and company have truly outdone themselves this time–the only things on this record that smack of the jazz styles that have been the bassist’s calling card is the complex harmonic and melodic languages the band uses. Other than that, Emily’s D+Evolution rocks, allowing the group to explore uncharted musical and conceptual territory.
Reviewed by Matthew Alley
Title: Live in Seattle
Artist: Mindi Abair & The Boneshakers
Format: CD, MP3
Release date: September 15, 2015
With few exceptions, the conventional wisdom is that you can usually take or leave live albums. I believe I will choose the “take” option with Mindi Abair’s new release Live in Seattle. If you are thinking to yourself, “I have never heard of Mindi Abair,” odds are you actually have. Or you’ve at least heard her, although you may not know it.
Mindi has played saxophone with some of the biggest names in the music industry, including The Backstreet Boys, Bruce Springsteen, Aerosmith, Paul Shaffer, Dave Koz, Richard Elliot and Gerald Albright. She was also going to be the saxophonist on Michael Jackson’s planned tour before his passing—not too shabby for a girl from St. Petersburg, Florida.
Abair grew up in a musical family. Her father Lance Abair is a saxophonist and keyboardist; her grandmother Virginia Rice was an opera singer and piano and voice teacher. She started playing piano at the age of five, and began saxophone at the age of eight. In high school she was a drum major. Mindi received a full scholarship at the University of North Florida but then transferred to Berklee College of Music in Boston and formed her first band.
After graduating from college, Mindi moved to Los Angeles, where she started to play all over town. She played on the street at 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica and gained the attention of jazz keyboardist Bobby Lyle. And the rest, as they say, is history. Seven solo studio releases later, Mindi has decided to try her hand at a live album. Despite the potential for live albums to be off-putting to some listeners, Live in Seattle contains a wealth of enjoyable material.
This fourteen track album is full of great grooves and “rock n’ soul” tunes, a collection of feel-good songs for your soul. Not too many artists can make you feel happy one moment and tug at your heart strings the next. Live in Seattle contains 11 original songs, 2 covers and 3 brand new compositions. The personnel on this release are top notch—two standout musicians are guitarist Randy Jacobs (The Boneshakers’ band leader) and vocalist Sweet Pea Atkinson. One highlight from this set is “Bloom, ”a sax-driven stadium rocker from Abair’s third album Life Less Ordinary, featuring the saxophonist’s playing at its soulful best. “Cold Sweat,” featuring Sweet Pea Atkinson on vocals, is a compelling rendering of the James Brown song, the funk of the original morphed into an uptempo blues shuffle. If this one doesn’t make you want to get up off a that thing to dance, you might be dead.
Mindi had the privilege to co-write one of the new cuts for this album, “Make it Happen,” with the great Booker T. Jones. Keyboardist Rodney Lee does a fine job providing B3 organ in Jones’s stead. The record also includes a hard-rockin’ version of George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” propelled by Abair’s saxophone and Jacobs’s distorted guitar—I’m confident that you have never heard this song performed this way.
Overall the combination of rock, soul, funk, and groove jazz makes Live in Seattle a great effort from Mindi Abair and The Boneshakers. Give it a listen, you won’t be sorry.
Reviewed by Patrick Scott Burkett
Artist: Terri Lyne Carrington
Release Date: August 7, 2015
Format: CD, MP3
Drummer, composer, and sometime vocalist Terri Lyne Carrington has had an illustrious career, touring with countless acts in the jazz and pop worlds and developing a strong solo career of her own. A highlight of Carrington’s solo career was the first entry in her Mosaic Project series in 2011. One of the key elements of the first Mosiac release, which is repeated in its second installment, 2015’s The Mosaic Project: Love and Soul, is that Carrington plays with all-star, all-woman bands. While all-female bands have a history in jazz of being a gimmick for novelty acts, Carrington’s project is no oddity. Her reason for assembling an all-woman band, as is readily apparent from listening to this release, is that that these women can play. There are two deviations from this format: the songs included that aren’t original compositions were written by men and actor Billy Dee Williams appears throughout the disc performing spoken word.
While Carrington is often billed as a jazz drummer, the music on this release tends more toward R&B and neo-soul—she draws quite heavily from the Questlove playbook as drummer, arranger, and producer. The comparison to The Roots drummer and neo-soul leader doesn’t end there—this record captures the true Soulquarian spirit through the album’s collaborative aesthetic. Carrington features a guest vocalist on each cut, from firmly established artists such as Chaka Khan, Valerie Simpson, Nancy Wilson, and the late Natalie Cole to more underground sensations like Jaguar Wright and Lizz Wright. Even though these guest stars would imply a very diverse record, each track has a both neo-soul bent and is characterized by exquisite attention to detail. Carrington and company arranged and performed each song carefully and treat these tunes with the necessary nuance to effectively evoke the titular love and soul, both of which are in abundance on this album. The Mosiaic Project: Love and Soul is a strong effort by a group of musicians who are truly pros–these musicians have monster chops and, more importantly, impeccable taste.
Reviewed by Matthew Alley