Archives for the month of: February, 2012

Music Review: Recent discoveries with the Rhodes sound

Butterfly, Azymuth (Far Out Recordings, 2008)

BBNG, Badbadnotgood (independent, 2011)

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I’ve always been drawn to the sound of a Rhodes electric piano in the right hands. Herbie Hancock and George Duke are the masters. Jamiroquai and D’Angelo are notable disciples.

The warm and easy sounds have sprung up again for me in two recent discoveries. One is relatively fresh, only a few months since they came on the scene. And the other is a trio of living legends that has been making great music with the Rhodes sound for over 30 years.

Azymuth is the latter. This trio from Brazil has had an admirable consistency of style over the decades. It’s not to say they’ve been stagnant. Indeed, their recordings from the 70s, 80s, and 90s have a distinct flavour that is both apt for the era but also timeless. The best part about Azymuth is the musicianship. They are talented improvisors, songwriters, players, and producers. Their music is pure, simple, and utterly listenable.

Butterfly, their 2008 release, is a perfect showcase of their talent. From the downtempo “Morning” to the upbeat sound of “Os Cara La” and “Triagem,” this album is all good. Azymuth are described as ‘Brazilian’ by genre but  I would call them jazz-funk. Although bossa and samba rhythms are common and they record most vocals in Portuguese, the overall sound is decidedly jazz with funk instrumentation.

After discovering their music just recently and immersing myself in their many recordings, I’m easily convinced that Azymuth keyboardist, Jose Roberto Bertrami, is one of the world’s greatest virtuosos on the Rhodes.

In contrast to the prolific history of Azymuth, Badbadnotgood have only recently appeared on the scene. They are a Toronto-based trio, formed, it seems, in the image of Azymuth. With a keyboardist, bassist, and drummer, BBNG is about tight rhythmic lines with warm and easy keyboards overtop. They also have a streak of hip-hop, which sets them apart from both traditional jazz-funk outfits and pure hip-hop artists. Listen to “Hard in the Paint” from their live album, BBNG Live 1. It’s hard-edge opening sets up a dark and driving groove for the rest of the track. They wisely left the Rhodes idle for this track, which is better served by pounding the low octaves on an acoustic piano.

Their self-titled debut was released in September 2011. “The World is Yours” features some impressive keyboard improvisation by Matthew Tavares as well as the tight hip-hop beats marshalled by Alex Sowinski. “Fall in Love” starts sparsely with the unaccompanied keyboard tones and crescendos into a rich improvised interplay of all three players.

BBNG’s first record comes almost 36 years after Azymuth’s debut. In fact, I’d wager the members of BBNG weren’t even born until Azymuth was about a dozen albums deep into their career. Still, the resemblence is remarkable. I don’t know whether to be more impressed by the young talent on BBNG for successfully taking up the torch from masters like Bertrami or by Azymuth themselves for remaining fresh after all these years.

Regardless, both finds have enriched my jazz/funk collection and given me hours of material to enjoy with the Rhodes sound. Azymuth released another album in 2011, entitled Aurora. It is also a strong album but not as consistent as Butterfly. “E mulher” is a particularly nice track from Aurora.

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Album Review: Black Radio, Robert Glasper Experiment, 2012

Robert Glasper is a jazz pianist who, with this outing, experiments with the fusion of jazz, hip-hop, and R&B. The experimentation in itself is not groundbreaking but the outcome is brilliant. Artists like Guru and Q-Tip have played in this space for some time but the freshness that Glasper brings is grounded in his piano accompaniments and tastefully chosen collaborations.

If rain were able to play the piano, it would sound like Robert Glasper. His style is unique, his fingers falling in succession on the keys, playing melodies in arpeggio. Listen to “Downtime” from his previous release, Double Booked, for a nice showcase of his style.

It’s that style that subtly forms a latticework of piano sounds around the vastly different and joyful tracks on Black Radio. Even before hearing the album, I was giddy to see this list of collaborators: Erykah Badu, Chrisette Michelle, Bilal, Mos Def, KING, and Ledisi all in one place!

The tracks themselves offer a range of style and even genre that keeps the record fresh on every listen. “Afro Blue” is classic Badu. “Move Love,” with KING, is a sublime groove rightfully featuring the beautiful vocals of that US-based trio. Perhaps the surprise of the lot is “Cherish the Day” a cover of a Sade song performed by Glasper and Lalah Hathaway. As a discerning Sade fan, I was skeptical. But this version retains the sparseness of Sade’s original while enhancing it tastefully with Hathaway’s take on the vocals and Glasper’s arrangement.

The one disappointment is the title track, which has moments of niceness but struggles to find a comfortable pairing of Mos Def’s rapping style with Glasper’s accompaniment. The final track, a lengthy cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is also hit and miss. Nirvana’s charms never resonated with me personally so this final criticism may more be my own bias then a comment on the track. It is admittedly an original take where Glasper pulls off an extended use of a vocoder. For this, he gets points for channelling Herbie Hancock.

Overall, this is a precious collection of well thought-through collaborations, original musicianship, and great melodies. It is substantial, which for a fusion project, is saying something.

(at press, this album is pending release on Feb 28, 2012)

Album Review: The Other Side of Tomorrow, The Slakadeliqs (independent, 2011)

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In the convoluted world of hip-hop and so-called ‘electronic’ music, it is increasingly common to find fragments of releases, EPs, singles, and remixes without an album to anchor the musical flotilla.  I’ve come to accept this as a new model for musical production that aligns with how we consume music, in 0.99 cent segments of our choosing.

But here is an honest-to-God Album. A thoughtful, thematically consistent, largely acoustic, and musically rich album. The Slakadeliqs are described as the alter ego of Slakah the Beatchild, who collaborates on and produces electronic music, fusing a jazz, funk, and hip-hop sound.

However, this album is a departure from that world. It is more Simon and Garfunkel than beats and samples. The dominance of the acoustic guitar on this album is almost a statement…a rebellion against the programmed beats that form the usual sinew of Slakah’s body of work. Almost every track is a triumph of purebred songwriting. It isn’t exaggeration that I invoke Simon and Garfunkel. This is the real thing.

This is not to say that the influence of electronic music is absent. To the contrary, one of the things that makes this album special is how it blends acoustic with electronic, without sounding contrived or gimmicky. But the heart of it belongs to a songwriter, not a producer.

“Call Me Your Friend” and “Dear Lucy” have an almost psychedelic influence, borrowing some sound elements from seventies folk rock. Indeed, the closest comparison I can draw is with some of Lenny Kravitz’  work from the 90’s. But that’s not quite right because this is better than anything Lenny Kravitz ever did, by far.

Like the albums of old, this too has a balance of up and down tempo tunes. “Defective” is the latter, arranged simply with a flute and guitar, alternating with some soft drum machine and subtle  synth. He even sneaks in a sitar but doesn’t overdo it. On the other side of the spectrum, “Nine 2  Five” is a wicked pop song. It could have been an MJ or Stevie Wonder chart-topper.

I could go on. There are no weak tracks here. But I’ll spare you the time reading so you can get on to listening. Get this album, the whole thing.

(Credit to Jason Palma of CIUT 89.5fm’s Higher Ground Radio for introducing me to this album)