War Stories

Title: War Stories
Artist: Lonnie Jordan
Label: Fantasy; Concord
Catalog No.: FCD-30266; 1027
Release date: July 24, 2007

After a long hiatus, Lonnie Jordan has released War Stories, an album serving as his musical autobiography. The songs on the album loosely follow the course of Jordan’s life, from his boyhood in Compton, through his work with War, to his current relationship with his wife, Teresa. One of the most lyrically poignant pieces is “Baby Brother,” in which Jordan grieves over the loss of his younger brother to a police shooting in 1971. Throughout the song, Jordan reminisces about the closeness of their relationship and how “tripping on his mind was like drinking funky wine by the river.” Also mournful, is “Rock and Roll Days” in which Jordan tells of being the last person to play with Jimi Hendrix on the night of his death and remembers spending time with both Hendrix and Bob Marley.

Jordan also chronicles his time with War, reviving older songs such as “The World is a Ghetto,” “Get Down,” and “Deliver the World.” “The World is a Ghetto” seems to be particularly controversial with War fans, many whom tend to feel nothing can compare with the original release. Although certainly different from the original, Jordan’s latest version still offers a powerful listening experience and his use of acoustic piano lends the song a more wistful and brooding quality.

Overall, JB Eckl and Pancho Tomaselli have produced a fantastic sounding album. Not content with the current trend of digitally recording artists isolated in their separate studio boxes, Eckl and Tomaselli went all out to recreate a vintage production setup. Not only was the album recorded in a historic LA studio, but the tracks were laid down on analog tape. Jordan aptly summarizes the recording process for the album:

It’s all live, no sequencing, no tricks, nothing but real musicians playing real music. I did a few keyboard overdubs, but that was done live to tape too; they turned on the machine and let me play, just like the olden days. (http://www.myspace.com/lonniejordan)

What you hear on this CD is the sound of performers actually playing together and putting forth their best work… something that’s becoming increasingly rarer in the age of digital editing.

The producers also placed a number of vintage keyboards at Jordan’s fingertips, including a Rhodes, a Wurlitzer, a Hammond B-3 organ, and a melodicanot to mention a minimoog and mellotron skillfully played by Sebastian Arocha Morton. And the keyboards are just one course of a sonorous feast. Jordan’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black” resets the piece to a Latin beat, complete with timbales, congas, and Cuban-style piano. The cover of Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun” features the vintage keyboards, minus the melodic and the Wurlitzer, and mixes in the sounds of the berimbaua single-string percussion instrument from Brazil. “Interlude-San Juanito Dub” overlays a polyrhythmic groove of congas and clapping with a quirky combination of Rhodes, guitar, and bass clarinet. Despite this dramatic and somewhat eclectic range of instrumentation, everything fits well into the overall mix of sound.

In dramatic contrast to the more eccentric timbres of the above tracks, the instrumentation for “Teresa” consists solely of acoustic piano. This closing track exposes the more expressive and tender side of Jordan’s keyboard playing for the listener’s perusal. Most of the pieces on the album, however, stay closer to traditional instrumentation and flavors of funk, jazz, and soul.

Although the album cover credits Jordan as the primary artist, the whole band is comprised of stellar artists, not the least of which are Eckl (Santana) and Tomaselli themselves on electric and bass guitar. Just a few of the other featured musicians are Mitch Kashmar on harmonica, Pablo Calogero on winds, and Oliver Charles (Ben Harper) and Pete McNeal (Cake, Panderer) on percussion.

The only downside of War Stories is that it leaves the listener wondering how long he or she might have to wait for Jordan to release his next creative endeavor. Albums that bring together this level of talent, craftsmanship, and creativity are few and far between and it would be a shame to have to wait another decade for the encore.

Video clip of Jordan playing a live and solo version of “Don’t Let No One Get You Down,” one of the songs featured on War Stories, compliments of Jordan and the WARtet:

Posted by Ronda L. Sewald

Lay It Down

Title: Lay It Down
Artist: Al Green
Label: Blue Note
Catalog No.: 13719
Release date: May 27, 2008

Al Green’s status in the pantheon of African American music is beyond question. The albums Green released in the 1970s-Let’s Stay Together, Call Me, Al Green Explores Your Mind, Al Green is Love-stand beside the classics of Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind & Fire, and Aretha Franklin as the sounds that defined a musical era. With the release of The Belle Album in 1977, Green turned away from secular stardom and devoted the next two decades to his spiritual calling, pastoring the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Memphis. Green continued to make good music, earning eight Grammy awards for his gospel performances, but only hard core gospel fans would dispute the notion that Green’s most important work is 30 years in the past. His two “comeback” albums, I Can’t Stop (2003) and Everything’s OK (2005) had the feel of more-than-competent exercises in nostalgia rather than music that had to be heard.

In an interview with Wax Poetics (no. 28, 2008), hip-hop drum legend Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson states that, when he entered the studio to begin work on Green’s new album, Lay It Down, his intention was to make ” the thirty-year follow-up to the Belle record.” Sharing production duties with Green and virtuoso R&B keyboardist/producer James Poyser, Thompson at least came close to realizing his goal. Where most cross-generational collaborations between hip hop and soul artists have suffered from their obvious, and doomed, desire to make the elders sound hip, Lay It Down contents itself with the classic soul virtues of emotional and musical depth. “The thing that I find missing from music today,” Questlove observed, “is the feeling. That, to me, is the most important ingredient missing from the soul-food platter today.”

To capture that feeling, Questlove and Poyser (best known for his work with Erykah Badu, Common, Jill Scott, Anthony Hamilton, and Mariah Carey) convinced Green to explore a more improvisatory process than the one he developed with long-time producer Willie Mitchell in the 1960s and 1970s. Working with a first-rate band including guitarist Chalmers “Spanky” Alford and bassist Adam Blackstone, Questlove and Poyser organized free-form sessions, letting the tape run no matter what was going on. Where in the past Green had worked mostly from composed charts, the songs on Lay It Down emerged from the give-and-take between the musicians. “Al Green could give most freestyle rappers a run for their money,” Questlove observed. “The energy and excitement that you hear in his voice, him ad-libbing to himself, talking to us, laughing, that’s just genuine excitement of what he never knew was still around, which was the feeling of the music.”

Here is a a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Lay It Down:

You can hear the excitement from the first bars of the title cut, which opens the album. The sound is classic soul: simple guitar line, bass and drums hitting the rhythms with unforced precision, the Dap-King horn section smoothing the way for Green’s vocal entry. Anthony Hamilton, one of three young R&B artists who makes a guest appearance on the album, provides perfect harmonic and emotional counterpoint. The best thing you can say about “Lay It Down” is that you could put it on The Belle Album and no one would notice the change. That’s not to say it’s derivative. Nothing on Green’s classic albums felt like it was copying anything else. The highlights include both ballads-the title song and “Take Your Time” (featuring Corrine Bailey Rae)-and funky up-tempo cuts “I’m Wild About You” and “Standing in the Rain,” both powered by Questlove’s virtuoso drumming.

Lay It Down won’t replace Al Green Explores Your Mind on anyone’s heavy-listening rotation, but, unlike the vast majority of new releases by the singers of Green’s generation, it won’t gather dust on the shelf.

Posted by Craig Werner
(Werner is the author of A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race, And The Soul Of America, and Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul)

Movin’ On Up

Title: Movin’ On Up: The Music and Message of Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions
Artist: Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions
Label: Hip-O Records
Catalog No.: B0010887-09
Producer: Reelin’ in the Years Productions
Release date: May 6, 2008

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Impressions’ debut single, “For Your Precious Love.” A new DVD from Reelin’ in the Years Productions celebrates both the music of the Impressions and the theme of black self-determinism that carried Mayfield into his solo career. Featuring over twenty complete performances and interviews with Altheida Mayfield, Carlos Santana, Chuck D, and former Martin Luther King, Jr. aide Andrew Young, this documentary tells the story of Mayfield’s part in the struggle for civil rights and social equanimity during the 1960s and ‘70s. Directors David Peck, Phillip Galloway, and Tom Gulotta highlight Mayfield’s artistic and personal strength, including his inspiring perseverance after a 1990 lighting accident left him paralyzed from the neck down.

Curtis Mayfield’s performances alone are worth the price of the DVD. Consistent with its other projects, the production team for Movin’ On Up carefully places each complete song in chronological order. It uses archival interviews with Curtis himself and new interviews with those who knew him best, contextualizing these performances within their appropriate milieu of social protest. This text- and context-centric approach to complete tunes constitutes the greatest strength of the documentary. For those who lived through this era, a music-only menu feature allows viewers to see only the performances sans commentary.

The music-only option may in fact be the saving grace of the film. Notwithstanding some tender moments with Mayfield’s widow Altheida and some inspiring footage from his late immobile years, the editing on this project is atrocious. Clunky transitions and poor sound editing leave too much negative space in the soundtrack and inconsistent sound from one interview to the next. The painfully sharp bass player on “Check Out Your Mind” betrays the quality of the other performances and, as a comparatively inconsequential tune, it should have been left out. This kind of editing might be permissible were it not for the wonderful sound on the vast majority of the performance footage. The pacing of the interviews becomes lethargic toward the end (which came at least thirty minutes too late), and the commentary after “The Makings of You” really should have landed on the cutting room floor.

For teachers of popular music, these critiques should not prevent placing a prompt acquisition request at the library. This DVD provides beautiful footage from the three major Mayfield eras: his prowess as a young songwriter both with and without the Impressions, his social critiques during the Civil Rights Movement, and his funkier solo and Blaxploitation film scoring work. The interviews with Mayfield offer an insider’s view of this controversial film genre, which could open up some challenging discussions about race in the classroom. Moreover, the performances could easily be combined with other artists’ music to re-contextualize Mayfield’s work within the broader social themes of his time.

As filmmakers, Reck and company may not be emerging Herzogs or Pennebakers. However, this documentary provides appropriate context for contemporary consumers of Mayfield’s music. Bad editing aside, the performances on this collection have been lovingly and entirely included between relevant (even if not illuminating) commentaries. For now, this is the best available resource on the Curtis Mayfield because it captures the essence of his art: a peaceful insistence that we are all brothers and sisters regardless of race.

Posted by Peter J. Hoesing