Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution

esperanza spalding emilys devolution

Title: Emily’s D+Evolution

Artist: Esperanza Spalding

Label: Concord

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.”

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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

Tomeka Reid Quartet – Tomeka Reid Quartet

tomeka reid quartet

Title: Tomeka Reid Quartet

Artist: Tomeka Reid Quartet

Label: Thirsty Ear

Format: CD, MP3

Release date: September 25, 2015

 

 

 

Chicago-based cellist Tomeka Reid has been a fixture in the city’s jazz scene for some 15 years now, but the quartet she leads only released its eponymous debut album in September of 2015.  Having seen this group perform at the 2014 Chicago jazz festival, I can attest to this record’s ability to capture her quartet’s spirit, weaving between pre-composed and improvised music.  While the Tomeka Reid Quartet’s music may perhaps be best situated within the avant garde of Chicago’s AACM tradition, this album has a sense of texture and melody that may heighten the group’s appeal to less-cerebral jazz fans as well as those who are interested in more experimental music.

Tomeka Reid Quartet leads with “17 West,” the only cut on the album that is neither an original composition nor totally improvised, an excellent reading of the Eric Dolphy tune that featured the great bassist Ron Carter on cello.  This cut allows Reid to situate herself firmly within the lineage of mainstream avant-garde jazz (which may not be such a contradiction in terms as it may suggest), despite her seemingly unusual instrument of choice.  To accompany her in this effort, Reid assembled an excellent team of musicians who are able to stretch out to the extent demanded by the group’s music, which lies somewhere between chamber music, jazz, and free improvisation.  She is joined by Brooklyn-based guitarist Mary Halvorson, New York drummer Tomas Fujiwara, and Chicago bassist Jason Roebke.

This quartet explores this album’s musical territories with energy and a sense of adventure.  “Billy Bang’s Bounce”—a tribute to the free jazz violinist—features a texture that gradually builds, taking on a hypnotic quality before opening up into a generous swing section for the group’s solos.  “Etoile” is a more conventional composition, loosely based upon the jazz musicians’ standard “Cry Me a River” lick, but expanding to feature remarkable solos by Reid, Roebke, and Halvorson, whose pitch-shifting guitar solos push the group further into less consonant territory while still remaining melodious.

The album takes more impressionistic turns as well, with Reid and Halverson freely improvising on “Improvisation #1” and the rest of the group joining this exercise on “Improvisation #2.”  While apparently composed, “The Lone Wait” is also abstract and atmospheric, pulling heavily from free-jazz influences.

All in all, Tomeka Reid Quartet is a fascinating statement from a group that is musically diverse and experimental.  The Tomeka Reid Quartet blurs the line between “conventional” and “avant garde” approaches to jazz and is to not be missed by serious jazz fans.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Brandee Younger – Wax & Wane

brandee younger_wax and wane

Title: Wax & Wane

Artist: Brandee Younger

Label: Revive

Format: CD, MP3

Release date: February 19, 2016

 

 

 

Even to seasoned listeners, “jazz harp” might sound like a risky proposition.  The phrase may call to mind Alice Coltrane or Dorothy Ashby, but more likely than not, it may remind us of the countless lesser attempts to copy the sound of the two women who most famously tried to assert the instrument as one capable of playing good jazz music.  While it will be up to the history books to judge the importance of Brandee Younger’s latest release, Wax & Wane, the album certainly sounds like a fresh interpretation of the role that the instrument can play in contemporary jazz.

Younger is accompanied by a fairly standard combo, made up of Dana Hawkins (drums), Dezron Douglas (electric bass), Mark Whitfield (guitar), Chelsea Baratz (tenor sax), and flutist Anne Drummond, each of whom is an accomplished performer in his or her own right. Younger’s strong choice of side musicians is a large part of the sturdy groundwork that she laid for this album’s best moments.  While this record at times gestures to “pretty sounding harp” cliches, Wax & Wane does not rely upon the lush instrumental textures that one may expect from a band led by a harpist.  While the evocations of chamber music are the strongest on “Ruby Echo,” other tracks on this album pull more heavily from funk, grooving steadily along throughout the disc’s 7 tracks.

On “Soul Vibrations,” the album’s introductory cut, the excellent jazz guitarist Mark Whitfield opens the record with wah-wah guitar flavored heavily by the musical legacy of Shaft. Dezron Douglas anchors “Afro Harping” in a subtle but funky bass groove. On both of these cuts, Younger plays in a manner more typical of feedback-oriented electric guitar textures than swirling harp arpeggios. While the album’s title track tilts a bit more slick and polished than this reviewer would prefer, this ultimately comes down to a matter of taste; even though it sounds like smooth jazz, it sounds like good smooth jazz. Overall, the playing on this album is anything but typical. Rrather, like the better efforts of Younger’s musical forebears Ashby and Coltrane, Wax & Wane asserts a number of possibilities for more fully including the harp in the canon of jazz instruments.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

 

Michael Spiro/Wayne Wallace, La Orquesta Sinfonietta – Canto América

michael spiro wayne wallace_canto america

Title: Canto América

Artist: Michael Spiro/Wayne Wallace, La Orquesta Sinfonietta

Label: Patois

Format: CD, MP3

Release Date: February 12, 2016

 

 

Canto América is the newest release from longtime collaborators Michael Spiro (percussion) and Wayne Wallace (trombone), both accomplished musicians and faculty at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music.  As listeners familiar with these musicians’ reputations would rightfully expect, the duo’s La Orquesta Sinfonietta is a well-rehearsed, spot on band that plays with both fire and nuance.

Formidable instrumentalists in their own right, Spiro and Wallace let their own monster chops take a backseat to the excellent arrangements that are this album’s chief currency.  Perhaps the most compelling thing about Canto América is the ensemble’s fluidity between the conventional Latin jazz ensemble (rhythm section, horns, and auxiliary percussion) with the less typical strings that comprise much of La Orquesta Sinfonietta, employed as an integral part of the ensemble rather than a saccharine sweetener. Spiro and Wallace situate this stylistic move in what they call the “genre inclusiveness” of Cuban music, noting in the voluminous 16-page liner notes that classical, jazz, and folkloric music are all equally understood and practiced by the island nation’s working musicians.  This group’s attempts at genre inclusiveness succeed spectacularly, largely due to the strong ensemble arrangements.

Fans of the standard repertoire will be pleased to see the inclusion of a Latin-flavored version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” and the standard “Afro Blue” which, as the explanatory material included with each tune notes, was written by percussionist Mongo Santamaria, rather than by John Coltrane, who made it most famous.  The duo’s original compositions and arrangements of traditional tunes are also excellent—-they draw heavily on Latin jazz’s African musical characteristics, pulling heavily upon Yoruba imagery (“El Caldero De Ogun” and “Ochun’s Road”) and employing complicated polyrhythmic structures in their intricate original material (“Hispaniola” and ”El Medico,” the latter of which features a rhythmic solo by Wallace, “the Doctor” himself).

Overall, Canto América is a compelling exploration of neglected territory in Latin jazz, informed by scholarship about the African diaspora.  This release isn’t all smarts, though–it’s also fun to listen and (perhaps more importantly) dance to.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Saul Williams – MartyrLoserKing

saul williams martyrloserking

Title: MartyrLoserKing

Artist: Saul Williams

Label: Fader

Release Date: January 29, 2015

Format: CD, LP, MP3

 

 

On January 29, poet and performer Saul Williams released what will likely be one of the most challenging records of 2016.  Williams is as much a literary figure as a musical one, and MartyrLoserKing is as novelistic as it is musical, following the inner life of a hacker living in Burundi, who’s screenname “MartyrLoserKing” is the source of the album’s title.

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Unlike many “socially conscious” musicians that end up doing what is essentially the musical equivalent of “slacktivism,” Williams uses this album as a place to paint a complex and ambivalent picture of the current state of the world. He addresses the prevalence of uninformed fear on “Down For Some Ignorance,” the potential for internet-spread misinformation on the song’s musical and thematic sibling “Roach Eggs,” while expanding to more explicitly political issues including police brutality and systemic racism. Williams, an American expat, writes about the world as a terrifying postmodern dystopia, perhaps nowhere more evocatively than on “All Coltrane Solos at Once.”

The musical soundscapes match this lyrical bleakness, with drum machines that sound far away and collages of electronic bleeps and samples that are alternately disorienting and threatening.  All of this leads to the tremendous effect of MartyrLoserKing, which suggests that any remedy to the myriad problems facing humanity must necessarily start with people developing their individual, social and political consciousness.

 

 

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Tomás Doncker – The Mess We Made

Tomas Doncker_The Mess We Made

Album: The Mess We Made

Artist: Tomás Doncker

Label: True Groove

Release Date: November 3, 2015

Format: CD, MP3

 

 

Songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist Tomás Doncker has been active in the New York City music scene since the 1980s, having worked with artists from Bootsy Collins to Yoko Ono to Bonnie Raitt. Doncker is an eclectic musician–his multifaceted, self-dubbed “Global Soul” on releases such as 2012’s The Power of the Trinity reveals itself in his incorporation of a variety of musical styles.

Doncker’s implicit socially-conscious stance becomes explicit on his most recent release, The Mess We Made, an album with a cover that proclaims the controversial content therein. The cover features images of police brutality (including names of African Americans who have been killed in high-profile police incidents), protests in Ferguson, Missouri; an image of Trump tower; pictures of African American leaders such as President Obama, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X; and the Confederate flag at the South Carolina statehouse–all under the ghostly specter of a burning sky and a superimposed image of the Ku Klux Klan. (The album’s interior is loaded with similar images, all of which create a rather overwhelming effect when just unpackaging the CD.)  The chaotic upheaval featured on the album’s cover finds its place in Doncker’s songs, which deal with topics ranging from legitimate social problems (inequality, the 1% and “Gangsta Police” on “Blood & Concrete”), to hackneyed 21st century targets (social media and smartphones on “The Mess We Made”), to (perhaps deliberately) vague critiques of something–it’s hard to tell quite what–on “The Revolution.” On the latter cut, Doncker accuses revolutionaries of “looking for a corporate sponsorship,” complete with a P-Funk styled sung chant “Take your hoodie off and pull your pants up.” There’s just enough ambiguity mixed in with Doncker’s fiery rhetoric so that the lyrical context does not make it clear whether he is an advocate or critic of the chorus’s mantra. At times, this lack of context makes the lyrics sound like a stirred-up alphabet soup of topical references to current events rather than protest music as such.

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While Doncker’s vitriol is powerful, the best moments of social critique on this record find their expression in more nuanced moments than those described above.  “Don’t Let Go” is the moving story of a protagonist who can’t find ways to make ends meet because of systemic problems, in the tradition of great poor man ballads that are some of the most powerful expressions of American protest music.  His cover of U2’s “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” exploits the song’s ambiguity for far more mileage than the lyric’s vague spirituality warrants; Doncker’s choice of this song for a protest album and his addition of a funky shout chorus declaring that “I just can’t find it” places the song into the powerful position of giving voice to the frustration that the song’s protagonist experiences while searching for the elusive (happiness? justice? Both U2 and Doncker leave the audience to wonder about the ineffable). The upbeat soul of the album’s final cut “Time Will Tell” is coupled with lyrics that present a modicum of hope after some of the darkness upon which Doncker concentrates throughout this record, proposing that it is possible to care for one another and to overcome the adverse conditions that have infiltrated most of the stories he tells.

I have perhaps spent an inordinate amount of time in this review discussing the charged lyrical  content on The Mess We Made, but I should write some about the music as well.  The arrangements on this album are tasteful. Rather than taking extended guitar solos, Doncker shows a great deal of restraint on his instrument, allowing the arrangements to serve the songs.  Much of the music on this record features electronic percussion–what may seem to be a dicey proposition in combination with the other various live instruments, which include Doncker’s guitar and vocals; some solid horn arrangements, and David Barnes’s great harmonica playing. However, in conjunction with producer James Dellatacoma, Doncker has created a soundscape simultaneously drawing from roots music while also maintaining a contemporary flair in the album’s quest to address current social issues.  All-in-all, the musicianship on this record is put together far more carefully than the politics; the tasteful arrangements tie together some less-than-successful lyric writing. If we are to believe that The Mess We Made is meant to be deliberately provocative (as it certainly seems to be), then Doncker and company certainly achieve their primary objective, making some pretty good music along the way.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

 

Adegoke Steve Colson – Tones For

adegoke steve colson tones for

Title: Tones For

Artist: Adegoke Steve Colson

Label: Silver Sphinx

Release Date: Nov 20, 2015

Format: CD, MP3

 

 

It is difficult to describe the music of Adegoke Steve Colson in its own terms, in large part due to the pianist’s complex and abstract approach to playing and composing.  Colson’s newest release, Tones For, is his first solo piano record in a long and storied career, and reflects a stance that is simultaneously cerebral and activist.  This is no doubt influenced by Colson’s affiliation with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a Chicago-based organization dedicated to creating “Great Black Music” and which has consistently developed excellent avant-garde jazz throughout its 50 years.  Colson takes this spirit to heart on Tones For, an album that is simultaneously abstract and programmatic.  Writing and performing an all-instrumental album dedicated to–and ostensibly about–three seminal figures in black history–Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglass–seems like a gargantuan task.  Colson has met this challenge with an expansive 2-CD set, a collection of recordings that depend upon music defined by ambiance and dynamics, ranging from subdued and contemplative on “Inner Quiet” to the stormy textures of “Homage,” which is dedicated “to all those who stood up for justice.”

Despite the fact that they are abstractions themselves, it is difficult to make themes of resistance and freedom take shape in terms of musical sound, and it would be hard for me to–as Vijay Iyer does in the album’s liner notes–assert that this music “embodies resistance.”  What Colson’s music does in many instances, however, is challenge our notions of how we may express ideas about our heroes or the concepts of resistance and freedom themselves.  While it may seem that the atmospheres that Colson creates on Tones For have little to do with these themes as such, Colson’s abstraction and persistent thematic assertions may cause us to question how the music of resistance or freedom may sound.  This challenging music may lead us to explore these themes in powerful and compelling ways which transcend the sloganeering that characterizes much “socially-conscious” music.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Various Artists – Take Me to the River

take me to the river

Title: Take Me to the River

Artist: Various Artists

Label: Shout Factory

Release date: February 5, 2016

Format: Blu-Ray, DVD

 

 

This month sees the  DVD release of a film celebrating the enduring legacy of Memphis soul music, Take Me to the River. This music documentary aims to address all things Memphis soul, mostly focusing on the Stax operation. Narrator Terrence Howard tells the story of the city’s musical past and continuing legacy, interspersed with clips of musicians interacting in the studio as well as musical performances (including Howard himself singing and playing guitar on one song). While the film’s narrative gets lost at times, this is largely mitigated by the wonderful performances on this record, combining a number of musical legends (several of who have passed away since this film was shot) with musicians of various successive generations. This often results in interesting fusions, like Bobby “Blue” Bland and Yo Gotti performing a rendition of “Ain’t no Sunshine” together, complete with an original rap verse by the latter.  Other high profile guest artists include William Bell, Snoop Dogg, Mavis Staples, Otis Clay, Charlie Musselwhite, Frayser Boy, and North Mississippi Allstars, who make up the backing band on several cuts.  The film also highlights the legacy of Memphis soul by addressing the role of music education in the city and the work of the Soulsville Foundation, including high school youth being mentored by Stax legends. This movie focuses on an important slice of Memphis’s musical culture and Take Me to the River includes some wonderful performances that celebrate the city’s vibrant history of soul music.

Here is a trailer for the film: YouTube Preview Image

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Brooklyn Funk Essentials – Funk Ain’t Ova

brooklyn funk essentials_funk aint over

Title: Funk Ain’t Ova

Artist: Brooklyn Funk Essentials

Label: Dorado

Release Date: November 13, 2015

Format: CD, LP, MP3

 

 

The funk music collective Brooklyn Funk Essentials has become somewhat of a cult phenomenon over the past two decades.  The group’s new album, Funk Ain’t Ova, falls on the 20th anniversary of its first release, Cool & Steady & Easy.  With a roster that has rotated over the course of the band’s five albums and countless tours, BFE’s producer Arthur Baker and musical director Lati Kronland have managed to achieve stylistic continuity while allowing current personnel  to shape BFE’s eclectic style.

In contrast to some of the group’s previous releases which experimented with musical styles from other parts of the world, Funk Ain’t Ova is firmly rooted in the 70s funk sound.  The album’s lead single–“Blast It!”–is a dance cut that would be out of place in a 1970s discotheque, complete with muted  guitars, congas, and a chant-along chorus that sounds straight off of a Chic album: “You got to go through it/if you wanna  get past it/only way to do it/movin’ and blast it”–this singable, danceable track is supplemented by an ultra cool, jazz-inflected, spaced-out keyboard solo.

Another highlight is “I’m Gonna Find Me a Woman,” penned with–and with a down-tempo intro sung by–the late great Isaac Hayes.  The song then turns into a gospel-tinged Hayes-style burner, complete with wah-wah guitar, a straight quarter-note snare and lush horns, that underpin the cut’s redemption story.

There are numerous other dance tracks that propel this album along, such as the bass-driven “Hold it Down” and polyrhythmic hip hop textures of “Set it Off.” Numbers like this make Funk Ain’t Ova a great party album.  Slower fare often gets overlooked on funk albums and BFE has crafted some great down-tempo tunes that should not be missed.  “Prepare” comes right out of the Curtis Mayfield medium-tempo playbook, with lush instrumental textures. Similarly, “Brooklyn Love” combines the best of MAZE and Earth Wind and Fire’s love ballads to create something that’s simultaneously sentimental and–dare I say it–truly groovy.

It has been quite stretch for BFE fans since 2008’s Watcha Playin’, but the carefully-crafted grooves on this album have proven that it was worth the wait.  Funk Ain’t Ova stays true to its name, channeling the genre’s classic period while still providing fresh sounds and songs for those interested in settling deep into the pocket.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Cymande – A Simple Act of Faith

cymande a simple act of faith

Title: A Simple Act of Faith

Artist: Cymande

Label: Cherry Red

Release date: November 27, 2015

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

 

In November 2015, the British funk group Cymande released their first full-length LP since 1981. This new release, on London-based indie label Cherry Red, is slick and polished, more so than cuts from the group’s oft-sampled first self-titled release.  Replacing the raw funk that characterized the band’s early output with slicker, post-quiet storm R&B is not necessarily a bad move for Cymande, given a much awaited comeback after a long hiatus.  The process of developing a new sound for A Simple Act of Faith has resulted in a cohesive album, pulled off by a well-rehearsed band, with material suited to the members’ current professional status in a group getting back together.  There are some glimmers of the Cymande’s signature diasporic bent, with lyrics declaring that “We are the children of the world” on the Afrobeat-tinged “Everybody Turn Rasta,” while the band slips into more conventional power-ballad territory on “No Weeping.”  Some of the material on this record is inconsistent, but there are moments that the storied band’s brilliance shines through, such as on the consummately funky “All or Nothing,” with staccato wind stabs among interweaving funky guitar and bass lines or the slow burning funk of “Do It (This Time with Feeling).”  A Simple Act of Faith is assurance to longtime fans of this cult band that it can still get down as well as a great initial foray for listeners new to Cymande’s work.

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Reviewed by Matthew Alley

 

Terri Lyne Carrington – The Mosaic Project: Love and Soul

Terri Lyne Carrington_the Mosaic Project love and soul

Title: The Mosaic Project: Love and Soul

Artist: Terri Lyne Carrington

Label: Concord

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.

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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

Matthew Hartnett – Southern Comfort

Matthew Hartnett_Southern Comfort

Title: Southern Comfort

Artist: Matthew Hartnett

Label: D2LAL MMC

Release Date: February 19, 2016

Format: CD, MP3

 

 

Houston-raised, Brooklyn-based trombonist Matthew Hartnett has quite a resume, having appeared on stage with Lauryn Hill and Talib Kweli, among other luminaries.  Raised on church music and Chopped & Screwed, Hartnett is a versatile player and his musical output showcases this versatility.  His newest release, Southern Comfort, explores the vast musical territory that captures Hartnett’s interest, including gospel, New Orleans Brass, funk, and hip hop.

The album opens with a heartfelt rendering of the hymn “I Surrender All” and ends with “Da Crib,” a cut obviously influenced by the screwed music scene that Hartnett listened to in Houston while coming of age.  Hartnett and company bring a hipness to the instrumental record (which should not be confused for your grandparents’ jazz), quoting hip hop and demonstrating hip sensibilities throughout.  On the other hand, cuts like “Thursday Night” (in reference to the universal church rehearsal night in Houston) and “Glory Glory Hallelujah” exemplify the powerful influence that the church has had on Hartnett’s musical development as well. The leader’s versatility is matched by that of his sidemen, Ondrej Pevic (keyboards), Dimitri Gorodetsky (bass), James Lewis (guitar), and Adam Jackson (drums).  This crack rhythm section follows its fearless leader into the various musical territories that he explores on this record. He is also joined on “New Sunlight Lake Charles (NSLC)” BY #TEAMHORNSECTION, the brass combo he often performs with in the New York area, which has recently supported Lauryn Hill on several tour dates.

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Some of this diversity comes at a cost–with the stylistic melange present on this album, it is difficult to hear how Hartnett conceptualizes one particular style, and therefore difficult to judge the sophistication of his melodic and harmonic ideas at times.  A careful listener may ask if he has only one or two things in each of his many bags of tricks; only future albums will sufficiently answer this question.  Hartnett’s marching band influences are clear–he does not approach this music academically, but rather with the keen ear of an entertainer, providing more breadth than depth.  This is not necessarily a criticism, but is something that fans of instrumental music will want to know before purchasing this album.

Overall, Southern Comfort might be thought of as a mixtape on which Hartnett swirls together his musical influences.  It is certainly a worthy effort, but like many mixtapes, its lack of internal cohesiveness may make it a less likely candidate for listeners to pull out for another listen in the distant future.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

 

Ghosts Appearing through the Sound: Kosi Sings Abbey

Kosi
Title: Ghosts Appearing through the Sound: Kosi Sings Abbey

Artist: Kosi

Label: Self-produced

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: August 6, 2015

 
 

Based in New York City, jazz and R&B singer Kosi (a.k.a. Akosua Gyebi) tackles the music of Abbey Lincoln on her third full-length release, Ghosts Appearing Through the Sound. An artist who makes her way across the country predominantly performing at house shows, Kosi has assembled a competent rhythm section to record the complex and difficult music of Lincoln.

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There are some very nice interpretations on this album, but Kosi has a tendency to over-sing and her band makes strange choices at times, such as the seemingly missing hi-hat during the conventional medium-tempo swing on Lincoln and John Coltrane’s composition “Africa.” One of the challenges with interpreting Lincoln’s songbook is the attention to detail that comprised an essential part of Lincoln’s interpretations of her own songs. Some of this detail is missing in Kosi’s approach, which seems more designed to showcase her chops than serve the songs themselves. The difficulty of effectively performing this repertoire is likely one reason there aren’t many tribute albums dedicated to Lincoln’s music. The songs are carefully constructed and interpreting them requires the proverbial scalpel rather than the hatchet. It is impossible to duplicate Lincoln’s delivery and quite difficult to set up a compelling original interpretation of much of this material.

Overall, Ghosts Appearing Through the Sound is somewhat underwhelming, and this project was likely a bit beyond this band’s interpretive reach. This release certainly reflects effort on the part of its creators, but unfortunately falls short of being especially compelling, musically or emotionally.

Listen on Spotify here

Reviewed by Matthew Alley