Archives for the month of: June, 2013

Feature: ‘Virtual Bands’ 

This video intrigues me. It features some of my favourite musicians recently playing alongside an original Marvin Gaye vocal track.

This post is about that ‘virtual band’ concept and how we might take it in. Is it a loving homage, merely derivative, or just good music?

The earliest instance of this phenomenon I can remember is the video for “Unforgettable…with Love,” (Elektra, 1991) featuring Natalie Cole alongside archival footage of her father, Nat King Cole. At the time, it struck me as a brazen attempt to trade on her father’s name and reboot her struggling pop career. It worked. The album went 7x platinum. As uneasy as the I was with the means, the recording was tasteful and the overall effect of the video, heartwarming.

Fast forward to the 2012 London Olympics closing ceremony where we saw John Lennon duet with a children’s choir on “Imagine” and Freddie Mercury entrance nearly a billion TV viewers in a call-and-response routine filmed more than a quarter century earlier.

Today’s technology makes nearly anything possible. Why remix when you can reanimate? But as with any new technology, once it matures, its application becomes more relevant than its technical wonder.

Why remix when you can reanimate?

This brings me back to the Marvin Gaye All Stars, recorded under the auspices of Italian national radio, RAI. The architect of the session was Alessio Bertallot, a broadcaster, musician, and host of RaiTunes, airing weeknights on RAI Radio2 (incidentally, Bertallot is a fine radio programmer…I recommend his podcasts).

Assembling high calibre musicians like Jean-Paul ‘Bluey’ Maunick of Incognito and Thundercat (a.k.a. Stephen Bruner) is a good start if you value quality over the technical trickery of bringing Marvin Gaye back to life. The accompaniment on the recording is laid back and respectful of the vocal track, but is set in a jazz-funk arrangement that gives the song contemporary lustre. Jason Lindner on the Rhodes is my new keyboard hero.

Another example from the RaiTunes archive is Billy Jean’s All Stars, featuring Maunick on guitar, Marcus Miller on bass,  jazz fusion great, Billy Cobham on drums, and of course, Michael Jackson on vocals.

Again, the treatment is tasteful, blends with Jackson’s vocal track, and gives the song an entirely different vibe from the original version.

Alessio Bertallot on ‘Play’

I asked Bertallot what gave rise to the ‘virtual band’ series. He responded that mixing genres, live performances, and recordings is a means to “open minds and boundaries.” Indeed, RaiTunes’ collection of videos on Bertallot’s youtube channel are an eclectic mix of musicians, spoken word, and even visual artists interplaying with the radio medium.

On the subject of reusing classic vocal tracks, Bertallot cited an exchange he had with Bruner, a critically acclaimed musician and none other than Erykah Badu’s bassist. Bruner recounted “sitting in his bedroom, as a teenager, for hours and hours trying to play along with Marvin Gaye’s voice.” This very humble account of a kid trying to master his instrument has the kernel of what makes these virtual bands more about ‘play’ than anything else.

Bertallot explains, “In Italian we have two different words [for ‘play’]: one is suonare, which means play music. The other one is giocare, which is what children do. I prefer the English and French way of having just one word for both meanings: musicians must keep innocence and spontaneity.”

Re-watching the Marvin Gaye All Stars video, I see what he means. Four ‘kids’ with their instruments, playing along with a legendary voice from the past, just for fun. Ecco la musica gioiosa!

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Album Review: Forward, Brand New Heavies (Shanachie, May 2013) – Japanese version reviewed

UnknownThe Brand New Heavies formed nearly 30 years ago, gaining notoriety in the 1990’s as the Acid Jazz genre earned cachet on the fringes of pop music. At the band’s core are original members Jan Kincaid, Simon Bartholomew, and Andrew Levy. N’Dea Davenport is the vocalist most identifiable with the band but is one of many female singers who have fronted them over the years.

Forward is BNH’s ninth studio release and the first featuring vocals since 2006’s Get Used to It (Delicious Vinyl). N’Dea Davenport returns for performances on select tracks, including “Sunlight,” which is certainly the commercial hit of the collection.

For long-time fans, Forward may sound like a fragmented echo of earlier favourites like the self-titled debut (Delicious Vinyl, 1991) and Brother Sister (Delicious Vinyl, 1994), their best album in my vew. Still, there are tracks that remind us of the songwriting, musicianship, and sense of groove Kincaid, Bartholomew, and Levy have within them. The cover of The Players Association’s “Turn the Music Up” is by far the strongest, featuring a joyful disco-inspired guitar riff, tight horn arrangement, and a killer trumpet solo. The title track is an instrumental in the best tradition of the band’s history, also featuring solid horn arrangements.

Vocal duties are split across no less than five performers, including Davenport, Kincaid, Bartholomew, and new member Dawn Joseph. Kincaid was not a lead vocalist until a few albums into BNH’s catalog. His voice less soulful than his female counterparts but has a uniqueness that came to be identified with the band. His performances on “Heaven” and “One More for the Road” are well suited to the tracks, which are among the better ones on the collection. In the miss column, “On the One” is a dance track with potential but Kincaid’s vocal style is not suited, leaving us with a lacklustre pop song.

Despite the mixed bag of songs, Forward is a remarkable release because it demonstrates The Brand New Heavies are still relevant, still have a lot more great tunes in them, and have not lost their ability to make people move with pop songs wrapped-up in soulful funk and jazz.