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
Title: Songs for Groovy Children: The Fillmore East Concerts
Artist: Jimi Hendrix/Band of Gypsys
Label: Sony Legacy
Formats: CD, LP, Digital
Release date: November 22, 2019
In the summer of 1969, Jimi Hendrix broke away from The Jimi Hendrix Experience and formed a new trio with bassist Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles. The album that was spawned from this black power trio was Band of Gypsys, which featured six songs from the concerts at the Fillmore East on January 1, 1970. As an album much revered by Hendrix fans, as well as one of the best live albums in rock and roll history, Band of Gypsys has certainly received its share of accolades. Songs for Groovy Children supplements this classic live album by including over two dozen previously unreleased tracks and all four of the Band of Gypsys’ performances from the Fillmore East on New Year’s Eve 1969 and New Year’s Day 1970. Continue reading
Artist: Miles Davis & John Coltrane
Label: Sony Legacy
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: March 23, 2018
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.
Reviewed by Tom Fine
Title: Both Sides of the Sky
Artist: Jimi Hendrix
Label: Sony Legacy
Formats: CD, LP, digital
Release date: March 9, 2018
Both Sides of the Sky, a collection of previously unreleased Jimi Hendrix material, is the third in the series released by Sony Legacy in conjunction with Experience Hendrix; previous collections included Valleys of Neptune (2010) and People, Hell and Angels (2013). Historically, some posthumously released Hendrix recordings have been moderately disappointing, and at times it was readily apparent why some tracks were not released sooner. However, these Legacy collections have consistently done well at breaking away from this pattern. Both Sides of the Sky adds another quality release to this series. Although there are a couple of tracks on the album that some will deem marginal, a few others are worth the price of admission by themselves. Co-producer Eddie Kramer, the engineer for all of Hendrix’s albums, discusses the new project in this promotional video:
Beginning with a cover of the Muddy Waters standard, “Mannish Boy,” the album gets off to an upbeat start. While technically a cover song, Hendrix only borrowed the lyrics from the original. His version has its own groove, and is easily one of the top tracks on the album. The track that really separates itself from the others, however, is “Hear My Train a Comin’.” Other versions of this song have been released previously, but this rendition features Hendrix in top form as a lead guitar player, providing a textbook example of his signature fuzz guitar tone. In addition, the track features all of the original Jimi Hendrix Experience members, and accentuates just how well his primary band played together. Throughout this seven-and-a-half minute jam, Mitch Mitchell and Jimi Hendrix play off one another rhythmically, providing insight into their familiarity with one another as musicians.
For the student of Jimi Hendrix, some of the selections serve as primary sources for further analysis of his writing process. For example, there is an instrumental version of “Sweet Angel” that is every bit as good as the vocal version that appeared on the first posthumous Hendrix release, Cry of Love (1971). Since the rhythm guitar track is so prominent sans vocals, this new track serves as an example of Hendrix’s unparalleled prowess as a rhythm guitar player.
Another gem is “Cherokee Mist,” recorded during the same period as Electric Ladyland (1968). This song contains an interlude very similar to one that appears on the psychedelic masterpiece “1983… (A Merman I Should Turn to Be),” which many consider to have been Hendrix’s magnum opus. Perhaps this newly released version of “Cherokee Mist” can be viewed as a sketchbook, hinting at parts that may have been adapted for that powerful work.
One of the aspects of this collection that makes it so intriguing is that Hendrix can be heard functioning in a variety of roles. He plays with a variety of personnel over the course of this recording: the original Experience members Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding, in addition to members from the Band of Gypsys (1970) album, Buddy Miles and Billy Cox. As a bit of a departure, this album presents Hendrix as the lead guitar player on “Georgia Blues” with Lonnie Youngblood fronting the group on vocals and saxophone. Other tracks of interest include collaborations with Johnny Winter on “Things I Used to Do” and Stephen Stills on both “$20 Fine” and “Woodstock,” which features Hendrix on bass. Interestingly, this version of “Woodstock” was recorded months before Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young recorded their hit rendition of the Joni Mitchell song.
Both Sides of the Sky is an important addition to the Hendrix catalog. It displays Hendrix in a variety of roles—pioneering electric guitarist, skilled songwriter, and psychedelic innovator. As with all Hendrix releases, though, the best tracks leave the listener emotionally conflicted. While his groundbreaking spirit shines throughout this album, we’re left to ponder what might have been had he not died so young. Jimi Hendrix transcended racial barriers and emerged as arguably the most influential electric guitarist of all time. The release of Both Sides of the Sky can only serve to strengthen this argument.
Reviewed by Joel Roberts
Title: The Power of Peace
Artist: The Isley Brothers and Santana
Label: Sony Legacy
Formats: CD, LP, MP3
Release date: July 28, 2017
The Power of Peace blends the signature styles of powerhouse performers Carlos Santana and brothers Ron and Ernie Isley into a beautiful tribute to several influential artists whose musical styles range from funk to soul and jazz. Centered on the themes of peace and love, this project is sure to excite listeners as iconic songs are infused with new flavor.
The album opens with a bang featuring a cover of the Chamber Brothers’ song “Are You Ready.” Layered percussion and drums performed by Santana and his wife Cindy Blackman Santana alongside an intoxicating electric guitar (also by Santana) create a funky and fun soundscape and prepares the listener for a stimulating musical experience. The band maintains this momentum throughout the next two tracks, Swamp Dogg’s “Total Destruction of the Mind” and Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” on which Santana performs riveting electric guitar accompaniment and solos.
The middle of the album changes pace with a group of softer, slower pieces extolling the beauty of romantic love. Cindy Santana sings her sensual new song “I Remember” with playful background support by Ron Isley. Similarly, Isley and his expert use of falsetto is utterly captivating on the ensemble’s cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Gypsy Woman.” The male R&B “quartet” sound that shaped the original version is largely absent as the band employs a classic smooth groove, slower tempo and mixed background voices to transform this song into a mesmerizing, seductive ode to unrequited love. Santana and Isley also shine while performing Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon’s frequently covered hit “I Just Want to Make Love to You.” Santana’s energizing guitar riffs and Isley’s vocal dexterity (including growls, moans, etc.) make this a standout track on the album.
The Power of Peace concludes with songs about social justice and harmony such as Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me (the Ecology)” and Dionne Warwick and Jackie DeShannon’s “What the World Need Now is Love Sweet Love.” Isley sensitively delivers these musical messages while supported by Santana’s earnest and beautifully crafted instrumental accompaniment.
While the musical pairing of The Isley Brothers and Carlos Santana would seem unexpected, this project is the realization of a dream. Santana, who has numerous accolades as an artist, now desires to chart new waters and create music with his longtime favorite musicians including the “incomparable” voice of Ron Isley. Listeners will certainly be glad that some dreams do come true as they are inspired, surprised, and entertained by the fresh music of The Power of Peace.
Reviewed by Raynetta Wiggins
Artist: Miles Davis, Robert Glasper, Don Cheadle
Label: Sony Legacy
Release Date: 4/1/16
Don Cheadle’s new movie is what amounts to a fictional bio-pic about Miles Davis, with parts of the portrayed biography being real but the central action of the movie being a creation of Cheadle’s imagination. In short, it takes a real person, Miles Davis, and elements of his real life, as portrayed by Cheadle, and sets in motion a series of incidents that never actually happened.
Given that setup, it’s not surprising that the soundtrack recording features snippets of Don Cheadle portraying Miles Davis between cuts of actual Davis recordings and additional music by jazz-hip hop artist Robert Glasper.
What is surprising, though, is that it works pretty well. There are only three complete cuts from Miles Davis’s albums: “Miles Ahead” from the 1953 Prestige compilation Blue Haze, “So What” from the 1959 Columbia classic Kind of Blue, and “Frelon Brun” from the 1969 Columbia album Filles de Kilimanjaro. The other seven Davis tunes are either edits or cuts, but offer a good flavor of the depth and breadth of Davis’s music. The Glasper cuts are Davis-esque, as are Cheadle’s spoken interludes.
Like the movie, the soundtrack album is an exploration of one man’s (Cheadle’s) ideas about another man (Davis). There are other views of Davis and his life, including his own autobiography, Miles. Keep in mind, Cheadle’s movie is a series of fictional events, and this soundtrack was created in service to that movie.
Although Sony’s press release suggests this album might be a good introduction to the music of Miles Davis, I highly recommend seeking out the original albums. Aside from the three cited above, check out the other sources of edited/excerpted cuts: Sketches of Spain, Seven Steps To Heaven, Nefertiti, Jack Johnson, On the Corner and Agharta.
Reviewed by Tom Fine
Artist: Michael Jackson
Director: Spike Lee
Label: Sony Legacy / 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks
Formats: CD /DVD, CD/Blu-ray
Release date: February 26, 2016
Though any Michael Jackson fan will have at least one copy of his seminal 1979 album, Off the Wall, this reissue from the Michael Jackson Estate and Sony Legacy is bundled with the new Spike Lee documentary Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall. If you missed the television debut on Showtime, now is your chance to obtain the DVD or Blu-ray edition.
Lee’s documentary was assembling using archival footage, much of it from Jackson’s personal archive, which follows MJ’s start at Motown, his signing with CBS Records, and perhaps most importantly, his collaboration with Quincy Jones which eventually propelled him to superstardom. There are also many interviews with contemporary musicians who speak about Jackson’s profound influence on their careers, such as The Weeknd, Pharrell Williams, John Legend, and Questlove, plus various Jackson family members (though LaToya is conspicuously absent). Many of the musicians who performed with Jackson are also featured, including Siedah Garret, Greg Phillinganes and the late Louis Johnson, plus African American record company executives Paris Eley, Maurice Warfield, Suzanne de Passe, Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, Barry Gordy, Larkin Arnold, and of course Quincy Jones.
Lee offers an in-depth look at each of the tracks on Off the Wall, and one can follow along on the CD and through the newly penned essay by Steven Ivory that speaks to the profound impact of the album on Black America. Other than the liner notes, however, the CD is a straight reissue with no added features.
On a final note, the set is rather clumsily packaged with a piece of chalk that one can use to write on the “specially treated brick wall” on the inside of the gatefold. If you’re not interested in maintaining the integrity of the originally packaging, you might wish to discard the back insert with the chalk so the CD fits easily on the shelf.
Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss