Album Review: High Life, Detroit Swindle (Heist Recordings, June 2018)


Detroit Swindle is an electronic music duo comprised of Dutch producers Lars Dales and Maarten Smeets. Their last LP, Boxed Out (Dirt Crew Recordings, 2014) was one of my favourites from that year in any genre, particularly because of the uplifting closing track, “You, Me, Here, Now,” a re-edit of The Floaters’ “Float On” (ABC, 1977).

I always hold a little more anticipation for full-length albums from producers like these who are prolific in releasing singles but not so in long play recordings. The wait is usually worth it and High Life rises to the occasion.

Dales and Smeets have a knack for creating great dance music but also for creating tracks you can listen to more deeply because of how rich they are in melody, rhythm, and arrangement. The title track is a perfect example: 7 minutes of entrancing synth and beats but with a compositional variation not often found in straight-ahead house tracks.

The duo’s collaboration with singer/songwriter Tom Misch, “Yes, No, Maybe” is a standout hit. “Ketama Gold” and “The Girl from Shiraz” are soulful instrumentals, the latter adeptly using the synthesizer to create an immersive mood piece sans a drum track.

High Life is proof that electronic, dance, and house music can be nuanced, dynamic, and interesting to listen to. You might say Dales and Smeets possess a jazz sensibility. I really like the album cover too – it looks like a jazz record. Just saying.

Further Listening:

My favourite track from their last LP, Boxed Out

And the original, by The Floaters

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Album Review: The Return, Kamaal Williams (Black Focus, 2018)

Kamaal Williams (a.k.a. Henry Wu) and half of Yussef Kamaal just dropped a killer jazz album withThe Return.

I’ve been listening to this record repeatedly for 2 weeks Now that it has soaked in, I can honestly say it is one of the most pure jazz albums in recent years. Williams’ keyboard, Joshua McKenzie’s drums, and Pete Martin’s bass produce an immersive soundscape, evoking mood and movement.

The album’s purity is oddly tied to how casual it appears to be. The tracks are easy-going, simply constructed, but at the same time, positively gripping.

There are strong influences of Herbie Hancock and other 70’s synth funk pioneers but Williams also injects a dose of contemporary electronic, ambient, and broken beat.

The Return is a complement to the Yussef Kamaal Black Focus (Brownswood, 2016) project Williams did with drummer Yussef Dayes. Although the two records have a similar style, The Return is more sparse in its arrangements, with nary a guitar or horn. In that sense too, it is pure: a beguiling crucible of keys, drums, and bass.

Related:

Yussef Kamaal’s brilliant performance in the Brownswood Basement, Dec 29, 2016

 

Album Review: Starting Today, Joe Armon-Jones (Brownswood Recordings, May 2018)

Joe Armon-Jones is a keyboardist and songwriter from the London jazz scene. He plays keys for Ezra Collective and has just released his debut solo album, Starting Today.

With just 6 tracks, Armon-Jones offers a wide range of style. The title track has a spiritual jazz vibe, helped by Ras Asheber’s trippy vocals. “Almost Went Too Far” is more groovy with a seventies softness. “London’s Face” switches gears again with a more Latin influence. “Mollison Dub” has a reggae dub backbone that leaves plenty of space overtop for Armon-Jones and his collaborators to improvise.

It’s an eclectic mix of styles but remains unified by Armon-Jones’ keyboard chops. I can’t help but make comparisons to the late George Duke because of how naturalistic Armon-Jones’ playing is and how bold his arrangements and range are, even just on this record.

Starting Today is an apt title for this project. Although Armon-Jones has been around for some time, the strength and promise of his solo debut whets the appetite for what’s to come.

Related:

Superb performance of “Go See” from the We Out Here collection (Brownswood, 2018)

Nice track from saxophonist Nubya Garcia’s EP, When We Are (Nayasha Records, 2018) featuring Joe Armon-Jones on keys. Garcia is also featured on Starting Today.

Album Review: Murmuration, The Expansions (Albert’s Favourites Ltd, March 2018)

The Expansions are James O’Keefe (Guitar), Dave Koor (Keys and Synths), Jonny Drop (Drums), and Matt Summerfield (Bass). Their recent 6-track album, Murmuration, features jazz and synth funk in the tradition of Herbie Hancock, Azymuth, Weather Report, and other 70’s influencers.

The Expansions are not particularly unique in an already crowded field of jazz/funk outfits. Badbadnotgood, Vels Trio, and Yussef Kamaal, to name a few, are putting out progressive jazz in tight ensembles with a contemporary sound. The Expansions are doing the same but what compels me to write about them is the consistency of this album. It is wall-to-wall jazz/funk, original enough to be fresh but authentic too in its homage to the form. I’ve heard other attempts at rekindling a Herbie Hancock Headhunters vibe but they sometimes fall flat, resorting to mimicry rather than offering something new.

I think another appeal of this album is the variety of tempo and arrangements. “Cannonball” evokes a Bob James and Azymuth vibe. “Dragonfly” features a lengthy distorted guitar solo. “Pocket Vibe” is more trancy and synth centric.

In a way, Murmuration is remarkable for how conventionally good it is. That’s one of the great things about jazz music. When it is done well, it stands up without having to stand out.

Related:

Live Rehearsal of “Ivory Mountain,” a nice showcase of the band’s musicianship

The Expansions’ Bandcamp Page

My 2012 post on Azymuth and Badbadnotgood

Concert Review: Charlotte Day Wilson, Toronto, April 6 2018, Danforth Music Hall

Charlotte Day Wilson, Danforth Music Hall, April 6 2018

Charlotte Day Wilson performed most of last night’s sold out show in silhouette. Like the video for her title track from Stone Woman (Charlotte Day Wilson, 2018), the evening’s lighting design obscured the Toronto native in front of a tungsten backlight display. The effect created a mystique that befitted Wilson’s musical presence: soulful, strong, but also um, shy.

James Tillman

As an aside and pleasant surprise, I only learned when he took the stage that James Tillman was the opening act. I first heard him on Jason Palma’s excellent Higher Ground Radio show in 2014. He played some of my favourites, including Shangri La from his EP of the same name (James Tillman, 2014) and “Run of the Mill” from James Tillman on Audiotree Live – EP (Audiotree, 2015).

Wilson took the stage will little fanfare and opened with “Stone Woman,” a short piece, but one that demonstrates her strengths in production, vocal performance, and most of all, pure songwriting talent.

To the audience’s delight, she included her stunning collaboration with Badbadnotgood, “In Your Eyes,” from that group’s IV release (Badbadnotgood, 2016).

Another remarkable selection was “Funeral,” beginning with a solo on her childhood acoustic piano (which Wilson had hauled to the venue from her home), then morphing into a coda featuring Wilson on sax vamping to the groove from D’Angelo’s “Spanish Joint” (Virgin, 2000).

Wilson included two unreleased selections, one of them in her encore, dedicated to her grandparents. Finishing with Erykah Badu’s “Out My Mind, Just in Time” (Universal, 2010) was particularly fitting. Comparisons to Badu would not be misplaced. Like Badu, Wilson has created her own sound, technically and musically, and as a self published artist, has set her own terms for how she will move about the world.

Setlist

  1. Stone Woman
  2. Doubt
  3. In Your Eyes (Badbadnotgood cover)
  4. Falling Apart
  5. Funeral (coda: Spanish Joint, D’Angelo cover)
  6. Let You Down
  7. Nothing New
  8. Find You
  9. (Unreleased)
  10. Mine
  11. Work

Encore:

  1. (Unreleased)
  2. Out My Mind, Just in Time (Erykah Badu cover)

The Players: Charlotte Day Wilson (vocals, guitar, piano, saxophone). Accompanied by unnamed players on bass guitar/guitar and keyboards. Also unnamed but likely on drums was Duncan Hood.

 

Further Listening:

A nice performance of “In Your Eyes” on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series starts in this clip around the 7 minute mark. Badbadnotgood’s Alex Sowinsky delivers a warm intro to Wilson at 6:40, revealing that her vocal talent was not known by her then schoolmates until later in their musical relationship.

Further Reading: NOW Magazine profile of Charlotte Day Wilson

Album Review: Shape the Future, Nightmares on Wax (Warp Records, Jan 2018)

George Evelyn is a U.K. based DJ and producer whose stage name is Nightmares on Wax. Shape the Future is his 8th studio album in a recording career that spans over 25 years.

It is a truly eclectic album, touching on dub, soul, and the electronic and trancey vibes that characterize most of his body of work. “On It Maestro” is a particularly luxurious electronic selection.

“Deep Shadows” featuring Sadie Walker and “Tomorrow” featuring Lsk are distinctly dub and remind me of Thievery Corporation’s recent release, The Temple of I & I (ESL Music, 2017).

What got me hooked however was the outstanding guest spot from Jordan Rakei on “Typical” and the driving beats and almost spiritual chorus on “Citizen Kane” featuring Mozez. The opening track, “Back To Nature” featuring Kuauhtli Vasquez & Wixarika Tribe is the most unique and perhaps the most lasting. It features a Rhodes riff similar to Bob James’ “Angela” (Columbia, 1978) and tribal vocalizations from the Wixarika people of Mexico.

The beauty of albums like these is the way your listening gravitates to different tracks at different times through its life in your collection. Crafty, you might say.

Concert Review: Jordan Rakei, Toronto, February 28 2018, Lee’s Palace

Jordan Rakei is 5-years deep into a recording career that launched with his self-published debut EP, Franklin’s Room (Jordan Rakei, 2013). In that time, the multi-instrumentalist and neo soul vocalist has amassed a loyal following, many of whom were on hand at Lee’s Palace last Wednesday for Rakei’s first Canadian appearance.

Left to right: Sheldon Agwu, Jordan Rakei, Eric Whatley

Rakei delivered an hour+ set characterized by single-minded focus. He’s a performer that gets lost in his own music, drawing his audience deep into his sound. His keyboard work on “A Tribe Called Government” from the Groove Curse EP (Soul Has No Tempo, 2014) was particularly immersive for the performer and his audience.

I’m sure I’m not the first to draw comparisons to D’Angelo given Rakei’s soundscape and rhythm choices. “Add the Basseline” from Groove Curse sounds like an ode to D’Angelo’s “Devil’s Pie.” Rakei’s vocal style is quite original but I am reminded of David Sylvian in his more woeful moments. From a songwriting perspective, Rakei appears to have more reach than other neo soul acts. For example, “Eye to Eye,” which opens his latest album, Wallflower (Ninja Tune, 2017), has a distinctly acoustic vibe.

Rakei’s Bandcamp page reveals “his own struggles with introversion and anxiety” as inspiration for Wallflower. Let’s hope this album and tour give him the therapy he needs. Rakei’s songwriting and musicianship draw the spotlight, despite his affinity for the shadows.

Setlist

  1. Eye to Eye
  2. May
  3. Nerve
  4. Goodbyes
  5. Alright
  6. Chemical Coincidence
  7. A Tribe Called Government
  8. Midnight Mischief
  9. Selfish
  10. Sorceress (encore)

The Players: Jordan Rakei (vocals, keyboards, guitar); Sheldon Agwu (rhythm guitar); Eric Whatley (bass guitar, keyboards); Jim Mcrae (drums)

 

 

 

 

Album Review: About Time, Sabrina Claudio (SC Entertainment, Oct 2017)

Sabrina Claudio uploaded some songs on Soundcloud in 2016. About a year later, she had completed a full-length album and was chosen as Apple Music’s ‘Up Next’ featured artist. About Time has 12 original tracks, all with Claudio having first writing credit.

Beats, lush electronic arrangements, and Claudio’s vocals characterize the album’s sound. There are similarities to more balladic outings from Corinne Bailey Rae and Lianne La Havas but Claudio definitely stakes her own musical ground in the realm of R&B/Soul.

“Frozen,” a classic slo-jam at its heart, is at the same time sultry, thanks to Claudio’s wispy vocals and sparse production. “Wait” is one of my favourites right now. Distinct from most other tracks on the record, it is interspersed with bossa and almost junglist beats. “Used to” resembles Drake’s “Get it together” from his More Life mixtape (Ovo Sound, 2017), mostly because of the same basic drum track but also because of the vocal production overtop.

One might gloss over Claudio as just another ingenue in an already crowded field. In fact, what sets her apart is her songwriting and musical sensibility, well beyond her 21 years.

2017 Year in Review

I’m declaring 2017 the year of the West Coast Get Down. The West Coast Get Down is a collective of jazz musicians who feature prominently in my favourite music of the past year. Kamasi Washington, Terrace Martin, and Trevor Lawrence Jr., to name a few, delivered great jazz albums this year, each distinct in style but all revealing a deep musicality among all the players. To wit, Martin and Lawrence are currently touring as Herbie Hancock’s band, along with bassist James Genus. And my musical highlight of the year was seeing Kamasi Washington live in Toronto.

Honourable mention goes to a strong Canadian presence in some of the best R&B and electronically influenced soul from the past year. Musicians in Drake’s orbit like Majid Jordan and dvsn released some of my favourite songs of the year. Mary J. Blige’s collaboration with Montreal producer Kaytranada and Toronto based Badbadnotgood was another favourite.

 

Top of the album list for me is A Million Things by Rohey. Their debut delivers an amazing range of jazz, soul, and R&B but keeps it together in a well put-together album.

 

Albums

  1. RoheyA Million Things (Rohey)
  2. Kamasi WashingtonHarmony of Difference (Young Turks)
  3. Terrace Martin presents The PollyseedsSounds of Crenshaw, Vol. 1 (Ropeadope)
  4. Omar, Love in Beats (Do Right!)
  5. Thievery Corporation, The Temple of I & I (ESL)
  6. Trevor Lawrence Jr.Relationships (Ropeadope)
  7. Goldie, The Journey Man (Metalheadz)
  8. Moonchild, Voyager (Tru Thoughts)
  9. Farnell NewtonBack to Earth (Posi-Tone)

Song of the year for me goes to “Truth” by Kamasi Washington with a close runner up being it’s namesake on Goldie’s album, performed by Jose James. That track, although first penned by Goldie for David Bowie, is reborn with James on vocal – his best performance in years, in my opinion.

Songs

  1. Truth, Kamasi WashingtonHarmony of Difference (Young Turks)
  2. Truth, Goldie feat. Jose JamesThe Journey Man (Metalheadz)
  3. Heavy, RAC feat. Karl KlingEgo (Counter)
  4. Welcome Speech, CrackazatRainbow Fantasia (Local Talk)
  5. Telling the Truth, Mary J. Blige feat. Kaytranada and BadbadnotgoodStrength of a Woman (Capitol)
  6. My Imagination, Majid Jordan feat. dvsnThe Space Between (Ovo Sound)
  7. Can’t Wait, dvsnMorning After (Ovo Sound)
  8. Minute, No Way Back feat. Sophia Black (Enhanced Music)
  9. Come and be a Winner, Sharon Jones & The Dap-KingsSoul of a Woman (Daptone)
  10. iRise, Chantae Cann feat. Snarky PuppySol Empowered (Ropeadope)
  11. Get it Together, Drake feat. Black Coffee and Jorja Smith, More Life (Young Money)
  12. On My Mind (Acoustic) – single, Jorja Smith feat. Preditah (FAMM Limited)
  13. Way Back, TLC feat. Snoop Dogg, TLC (852 Musiq)
  14. Better Late Than Never, Waajeed, Shango EP (Dirt Tech Reck)
  15. Show You the Way, ThundercatDrunk (Brainfeeder)

New to Me

In my annual quest to discover older music, I found many gems but the most lasting from this year’s search is multi-instrumental reedist, Yusef Lateef. Lateef’s style is distinctly mellow but also inimitably cool. I’ve had his Eastern Sounds (Concord, 1961) and The Blue Yusef Lateef (Atlantic, 1968) albums on high rotation for most of the year.

Yusef Lateef

Most Anticipated in 2018

Three artists teased us with minor releases over the past couple of years and are overdue for full length albums in 2018.

  • Charlotte Day Wilson – An amazingly soulful vocal talent from Toronto released a brilliant debut EP CDW, in 2016. A new single, “Doubt,” was just released and bodes well for what’s to come.
  • Jarrod Lawson – His self-titled debut (2014) was one of the most solid solo male R&B records in a long while, mostly because of how pure it was in songwriting and vocal performance. His sophomore album is eagerly anticipated and I hope the wait will be over in 2018.
  • Ady Suleiman, Memories – Having released multiple singles and EPs over the last couple of years, Suleiman’s debut full-length album is set to drop in March. The first single, “I Remember,” throws the same high wattage of soul and reggae influenced vocals as his body of work to date.

Passings

This year, we lost some of my favourite vocalists and musical stylists in Al Jarreau, Leon Ware, and Frankie Paul. It was also sad to hear of jazz guitarist Chuck Loeb’s passing at the age of 61. Finally, Gord Downie, a national cultural treasure in Canada passed away in October, followed by a flurry of tributes from coast to coast to coast.

Al Jarreau performing live in Los Angeles
1977 © 1978 Bobby Holland

 

Playlist: Lovely Loops

Some songs have a repeating groove, rhythm, or melody that are so good, you could listen to them on endless repeat. I don’t mean a catchy song with a great hook – that eventually gets stale. Nor do I mean a particularly recognizable or highly sampled bassline – that in itself isn’t enough. What I mean is a vibe that takes a hold and lulls us into a pleasant trance. The closest musical term I know is “ostinato,” derived from the Italian for stubborn.

An ostinato pattern

I’ve compiled a playlist of my favourite ostinati. It is by no means comprehensive or definitive but these songs, in particular for me, have a quality that can be indulged with abandon.

  1. Summer Madness” – Kool & The Gang
  2. Blow Your Mind” – Jamiroquai
  3. People Make the World Go Round” – The Stylistics
  4. Sun Goddess” – Earth, Wind & Fire feat. Ramsey Lewis
  5. Oh Honey” – Delegation
  6. Funny How Time Flies” – Terrace Martin
  7. Chameleon” – Herbie Hancock
  8. Sweet Thing Reprise” – Build and Ark
  9. Back in the Day (Puff)” – Erykah Badu
  10. There’s Nothing Like This” – Omar
  11. Send it On” – D’Angelo
  12. Long Hot Summer” – The Style Council
  13. Please Forgive my Heart” – Bobby Womack
  14. Never Be Another You” – Lee Fields & The Expressions
  15. Tonight” – Kleeer
  16. Love Has no Time or Place” – MFSB
  17. Africa” – D’Angelo
  18. Sai” – Kanda Bongo Man