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Book Review & Playlist: My Life With Earth, Wind, and Fire, Maurice White with Herb Powell (Harper Collins, 2015)

Maurice White was the visionary, founder, and very much the Chief Executive Officer of Earth, Wind, and Fire. I recently read his fascinating memoir, published just a year before his death in 2016. He was 74.

What you would expect from a musical autobiography is all there: Rich detail about EWF’s beginnings and the backstory of their many classic songs and albums. EWF’s fascination with things celestial, astrology, and Egyptology are illuminated. For me, White’s observations on racism in the music industry were among the most interesting. Maurice White’s hard-fought journey was presciently articulated by African-American leader Booker T. Washington. This quote opened his chapter called Black Tax:

I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed. Out of the hard and unusual struggle through which he is compelled to pass, he gets a strength, a confidence, that one misses whose pathway is comparatively smooth by reason of birth and race.  – Booker T. Washington

Wanting to include a playlist in this post, I struggled with how to keep it concise. White’s body of work is so vast and EWF’s hits so numerous that even a sampling would be inadequate. Instead, I’ve focussed not so much on EWF’s greatness but on White’s perspective of just how that greatness came to be. The playlist is in three parts, named: Inspiration, Evolution, and Transition.

Part I – Inspiration

  1. “I Will Move On Up a Little Higher” – Mahalia Jackson (traditional): White begins his story in Memphis TN where he lived with his “Mama,” who loved Mahalia Jackson. “The Queen of Gospel,” as she was known, could be heard frequently in White’s boyhood home.
  2. “It Should Have Been Me” Ray Charles (Atlantic Records, 1954): In Mama’s house, the spiritual was balanced by the boogie-woogie grooves of Ray Charles and others.
  3. “Sakeena’s Vision”Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers (Blue Note Records, 1960): Having moved to Chicago, White was exposed to more music. He described being “mesmerized” by this album from drummer Art Blakey, learning the parts by banging on schoolbooks with his drumsticks.
  4. “You’re No Good”Betty Everett (Vee-Jay Records, 1963): Now a session drummer in Chicago’s hot R&B/Soul recording scene, this was the first hit record featuring Maurice White on drums, reaching number 51 on Billboard’s Hot 100.
  5. “Sittin’ in the Park”Billy Stewart (Chess Records, 1965): White played drums on this lovely tune. Stewart was known to gesture and interact with his musicians during his recording sessions. Writes White, “Billy Stewart taught me how to the pull the best out of a rhythm section by just standing there half directing, half dancing.”
  6. “Hang on Sloopy”Ramsey Lewis Trio (Chess Records, 1965): Having joined the popular jazz pianist’s trio, White enjoyed his first major financial success, with a steady stream of work from hit records like this one.
  7. “Dance to the Music”Sly & the Family Stone (Epic, 1968): White was strongly inspired by Sly & The Family Stone, giving credit to the group for serving as a blueprint for some of the biggest R&B groups of the 70’s, including EWF.

Part II – Evolution

  1. “La La Time”The Salty Peppers (Capitol Records, 1969): Considered ‘proto-EWF,’ White recorded this with Don Whitehead and a band of session musicians from the Chicago scene. Donny Hathaway who would later become an R&B legend in his own right, was on keyboards and did the vocal arrangements.
  2. “I’d Rather Have You”Earth, Wind & Fire, Last Days and Time (Columbia, 1972): Written by Skip Scarborough who was a regular collaborator with White, this song was one of the first with the backing vocal sound that would become a signature of EWF. Jessica Cleaves is on lead vocal.
  3. “Evil”Earth, Wind & Fire, Head to the Sky (Columbia, 1973): I think this song is apt for three reasons. First, it features White on Kalimba, a traditional African instrument he was known for, even in his time with the Ramsey Lewis Trio (watch this touching tribute from Lewis recorded not long after White’s passing, where White’s kalimba performances are referenced). Second, it was the first record featuring a Minimoog, played by none other than Larry Dunn, who would be a core member of EWF for their greatest decade of recording. Finally, this album saw EWF enter a “flower power” phase and turn to a more visual expression, pushing the importance of costume in their live performances.
  4. “Devotion”Earth, Wind & Fire, Open Our Eyes (Columbia, 1974): This is the first album EWF recorded with Charles Stepney, one of White’s most influential collaborators. White notes that Stepney drew out one of Philip Bailey’s best vocal performances to date at the time of this recording, setting the tone for Bailey’s legendary contribution to the EWF sound, even to this day.
  5. “That’s the Way of the World”Earth, Wind & Fire, That’s the Way of the World (Columbia, 1975): Written by Stepney, this has become one of EWF’s most famous recordings. Also notable is that this was the first album recorded with George Massenburg as lead Engineer. Massenburg was key to the mixing of the numerous and complex layers to EWF’s arrangements.
  6. “Getaway”Earth, Wind & Fire, Spirit (Columbia, 1976): Another Stepney collaboration, White described the intro of this song as ‘blazing’ and credited it with putting heat into the EWF sound. Sadly, Stepney died before the album was released.
  7. “The Best of My Love”The Emotions, Rejoice (Columbia, 1977): Written by Al McKay and Maurice White for The Emotions, a vocal group White helped develop, it was the most successful single of White’s career, topping the R&B, Disco, and Pop charts.
  8. “September”Earth, Wind & Fire, The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire Vol. 1 (Columbia, 1978): Also written by McKay and White, this now iconic song was released on the group’s first collection. Writing about this moment in their career, White quotes CBS president Bruce Lundvall as saying EWF was the biggest band in the world.

Part III – Transition

  1. “After the Love Has Gone”Earth, Wind & Fire, I Am (Columbia, 1979): White brought in new songwriters for the I Am album. Among them was David Foster a newcomer who would make his mark not only on EWF but on pop music for decades to come. This was the first album where no other members of the band were used as songwriters. A bit of salt on that open wound was an incident when Foster, hailing from the distinctly white community of Vancouver Island, naively used the term “boys” in the Canadian context (like “buddy”) while directing the famous EWF horn section. One of the musicians immediately drew a gun in protest, prompting White to step in and give Foster a crash course on American race relations.
  2. “Let’s Groove”Earth, Wind & Fire, Raise! (ARC Columbia, 1981): The longest running #1 R&B hit at the time, this song was co-written with Wayne Vaughn. The tour for Raise! was a massive production and demonstrates EWF’s exceptional scale. Pre-production for the tour cost $700k and each date cost $60k to produce. The crew was 60 people strong, with equipment, costumes, and sets filling up 14 tractor trailers. With the explosion of MTV and the importance of the music video in promoting new music, White points out the inherent racism that excluded black acts from the medium. Rick James and EWF had some of the biggest hits of the day but were absent from MTV playlists. White described this as a “black tax” and it was pervasive through their touring, media appearances, and promotional activities.
  3. “Time Machine”Barbra Streisand, Emotion (Columbia, 1984): An odd choice, I admit, but indicative of the stature White held in the business. His songwriting talents were sought out to create a strong single for Streisand’s 23rd studio album, which went on to Platinum. Despite the dated 80s treatment, this is essentially a pretty good tune. This was also the year EWF went on a 3-year hiatus. White would also record a solo album in 1986, including a hit remake of Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me.”
  4. “Sunday Morning”Earth, Wind & Fire, Millennium (Warner Brothers, 1993): Maurice White was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease prior to this album’s release and the tour of Millennium was the first without White. Despite his health struggles and the changing musical tastes since the group reformed in 1987, the band reached #20 on R&B charts with this Grammy nominated hit.
  5. “Hearts of Longing”Urban Knights, Urban Knights (UMG Recordings, 1995): His performing career at an end, White continued to contribute musically to EWF and produced this project with his original jazz mentor, Ramsey Lewis. This smooth jazz album featured Grover Washington Jr. on saxophone, Omar Hakim on drums, and Victor Bailey on bass.

White wrote that he wanted his music to uplift and unify humanity. Listen and you’ll see, he succeeded by any measure.

 

Related:

UK DJ/Producer Patrick Forge podcast tribute to Maurice White

 

 

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2016 Year in Review

This year was tiring. Civil society began unravelling in America and Europe. War and mass forced migration broke our hearts. The relentless tedium of the US election cycle consumed and played back thousands of hours of nauseating clickbait. In the world of music, we lost, among others, Prince, Bowie, and Maurice White…living legends no more. Thankfully, music gave a little back – precious respite in a woeful year.

Favourite Albums

king2

Album of the year for me was We are King, from a trio I have gushed about for the past 5 years. A close runner up is the fantastic instrumental soul debut by The Olympians from Daptone Records.

 

  1. King, We Are King
  2. The Olympians, The Olympians
  3. Kaytranada, 99.9%
  4. Lion Babe, Begin
  5. Terrace Martin, Velvet Portraits
  6. A Tribe Called Quest, We got it from here…Thank you 4 your service
  7. Incognito, In Search of Better Days
  8. Yussef Kamaal, Black Focus

Favourite Tracks

  1. “Dang!” Mac Miller feat. Anderson .Paak
  2. “In your eyes” Badbadnotgood feat. Charlotte Day Wilson
  3. “Little Dreamer” Lion Babe
  4. “I Want it to Be” Omar
  5. “Honey” Katy B & Kaytranada
  6. “The Space Program” A Tribe Called Quest
  7. “Precious Love” Lee Fields & The Expressions
  8. “Rain” Common feat. John Legend
  9. “Lifeguard Tower #22” The Gaslamp Killer feat. Miguel-Atwood Ferguson
  10. “Revolution Radio” Green Day
  11. “Better Days” Incognito feat. Vula Malinga
  12. “24K Magic” Bruno Mars
  13. “Think twice” Takuya Kuroda feat. Antibalas
  14. “Snowman” R. Kelly

New to Me (Rediscovered)

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Ramsey Lewis Quartet, Koerner Hall, Toronto, June 30, 2016

In my annual quest to discover musical greatness that was previously unknown to me, the passing of Maurice White prompted much listening to his body of work, including this wonderfully definitive podcast tribute by veteren U.K. DJ Patrick Forge. Thus, I was introduced to Ramsey Lewis, the talented jazz pianist who hired White as his drummer in 1966.

As luck would have it, Mr. Lewis graced the Toronto Jazz Festival this year and I was able to catch a masterclass performance.

 

Passings

maurice

Maurice White (1941-2016)

We lost some living legends this past year. David Bowie and Prince need no further explanation. For me, losing Maurice White, founding member and master-arranger of Earth, Wind, and Fire was particularly sad. Other notable passings were hit-maker Rod Temperton who penned some of the greatest pop records in our musical consciousness, jazz vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, and Daptone Records soul diva, Sharon Jones.

2015 Year in Review: New and New to Me

For me, the year in music was characterized by breakouts and comebacks. Hard-at-work artists toiling in obscurity finally broke into the main. Legendary artists returned with quality works reminding us of why they are great.

In the breakout category, Kamasi Washington tops the list and gets my vote for album of the year, by far. In addition, three artists who I learned about through Gilles Peterson finally released new material, earning much-deserved notoriety: Lion Babe, Hiatus Kaiyote, and Ady Suleiman.

In the legend category, we had D’Angelo (his album dropped Dec 2014 but lets not split hairs), Jill Scott, Madonna, and Prince.

Favourite Albums

  1. Kamasi Washington, The Epic (Brainfeeder)
  2. Ady Suleiman, This is my EP (Sony)
  3. Lion Babe, Lion Babe EP (Outsiders/Polydor)
  4. D’Angelo and the Vanguard, Black Messiah (RCA/Sony)
  5. The Cookers Quintet, Vol. 2 (Do Right Music)
  6. Prince, HitnRun Phase Two (NPG Records)
  7. Haitus Kayote, Choose Your Weapon (Sony)
  8. The Rebirth, Being Thru the Eyes of a Child (Walk Talkin)
  9. Oddisee, The Good Fight (Mello Music Group)
  10. Jill Scott, Woman (Atlantic/WEA)
  11. Bluey, Life Between the Notes (Shanachie)
  12. Pete Josef, Colours EP (Sonar Kollectiv)
  13. Fourplay, Silver (Concord Music)
  14. Jamie Woon, Making Time (Polydor)
  15. Madonna, Rebel Heart (Live Nation/Interscope)

Favourite Tracks

  1. “Get Down,” Muz’art (Dream Team SA)
  2. “Elevator (Going Up),” Louie Vega feat. Monique Bingham (Vega Records)
  3. “Backyard Party,” R. Kelly, The Buffet (RCA / Sony)
  4. “Cel U Lar Device,” Erykah Badu, But you Caint Use my Phone (Motown / UMG)
  5. “Can’t Forget You,” RAC feat. Chelsea Lankes (Battestation Records)
  6. “Psychic,” XL Middleton, Tap Water (Mo Funk Records/Crown City Ent.)
  7. “Live your Life,” Pete Josef, Colour (Sonar Kollectiv)
  8. “Am I Wrong,” Anderson .Paak feat. ScHoolboy Q (Art Club / Empire)
  9. “Them Changes,” Thundercat, The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam (Brainfeeder)

New to Me (Rediscovered)

Every year, I’m keen to discover an artist or musical sub genre that made a mark on music but was unknown to me. This year, I made three musical finds of note.

Lonnie Liston Smith, a great soul, jazz, and funk keyboardist, has been making music for decades and likely inspired many of the musicians I follow today. His body of work is as broad as it is deep. For a George Duke and Roy Ayers fine such as myself, being oblivious to Lonnie Liston Smith is embarrassing. For the similarly wretched and uninitiated, I would recommend Explorations – The Columbia Years (Sony, 2002) as a nice primer.

For years, I’ve known of Vince Guaraldi Trio and their iconic music for the Charlie Brown TV specials. What I hadn’t heard in full until this Christmas was A Charlie Brown Christmas – Expanded Edition (Concord Music Group, 2012). It is a remarkable album, not only for the Holiday season but for any occasion when you need a dose of downtempo cool jazz. The instrumental version of “Christmas Time is Here” is one of the most sublimely perfect recordings of a piano, drum kit, and double bass.

Last but not least, seeing Incognito live and meeting Jean-Paul ‘Bluey’ Maunick was the musical highlight of my year.

Anticipating in 2016…

For the past five years, I’ve lamented the ever-postponed debut album from KING. Happily, it has a release date early in 2016 and I’ve already pre-ordered a download.

Omar (a.k.a. Omar Lye-Fook) released a single last year, suggesting a full length album is in the works. If it is anywhere near as good as The Man (Shanachie, 2013) – my pick for best album of 2013 – it will be worth the wait.

We may also see a sophomore album from soul/jazz breakthrough artist, Jarrod Lawson, who incidentally has hinted a collaboration with the aforementioned Omar is something he would like to do.

Happy, peaceful, and musical 2016!

Playlist: Toronto Retrograde

As Toronto hosts the 2015 Pan-Am Games, images of the city are appearing on TV regularly. It reminds me of how iconic our city has been over the years, especially in my youth when music videos drove pop culture, much of it bred by local talent.

And so, a playlist tribute to Toronto’s places and landmarks exposed by 80’s and 90’s pop culture .

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1. Having an Average Weekend, Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet (Matador, 1996)

Bay & College: The long-since displaced Addison car dealership flashed on the screen during the iconic opening of a now classic sketch comedy TV series, The Kids in the Hall.

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I’m an Adult Now, The Pursuit of Happiness (Capitol, 1988)

Queen & Soho: The empty lot on Queen street has gone through many incarnations but never gave way to new structures. It is a parking lot to this day, abeit surrounded by a much gentrified retail landscape compared to what’s depicted in this 1988 video.

 

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Lovers in a Dangerous Time, Barenaked Ladies (Reprise Records, 1997)

Markham & Brimorton: This suburban neighbourhood is the likely location for this memorable video. The Real McCoy Hamburger & Pizza joint pictured is still there today (1033 Markham Road).

 

Photo: Rick McGinnis

Photo: Rick McGinnis

Lakeside Park, Rush (Anthem, 1975)

CNE / Ontario Place: Although a fairground near drummer Neil Peart’s hometown of Port Dalhousie was the true inspiration to this song, it could easily have been about summer nights at the Canadian National Exhibition and Ontario Place. Those of us old enough to remember the original Ontario Place Forum fondly recall open air concerts by the lake from some of our favourite bands.

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Romantic Traffic, The Spoons (Ready Records, 1984)

Yonge & Sheppard: Shot in Toronto’s subway system, it was one of the more ‘democratic’ music videos of the era as most everyone who heard this song had been to the same locations many times.

sunnyside3_468

Photo: Enzo DiMatteo

Echo Beach, Martha and the Muffins (Virgin Records, 1980)

Sunnyside Beach: Echo Beach is an imaginary place but the song is said to have been inspired by this popular beach in Toronto’s west end.

 

 

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Spadina Bus, The Shuffle Demons (Stubby Records, 1986)

Spadina & Dundas: Toronto’s native beatniks made Chinatown cool and introduced a form of jazz into 80’s popular music at a time when the synthesizer reigned. It was also a welcome dose of goofiness amidst the pulled-down goth hairdos of the time.

June 01,1964 file photo

June 01,1964 file photo

Fifty-Mission Cap, The Tragically Hip (Universal Music, 1992)

Maple Leaf Gardens: A Toronto playlist would not be complete without mention of our long-suffering hockey team. The hockey card trivia cited in these lyrics bring back memories of hockey card collecting and trading.

 

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Rise Up, The Parachute Club (RCA, 1983)

Roy Thomson Hall: Our distinctive volcano-shaped concert hall was in its inaugural year when the Parachute Club shot this feel-good summer video.

 

Photo: Jorge Zontal

Photo: Jorge Zontal

Never Said I Love You, The Payolas feat. Carol Pope (A&M, 1983)

Queen Street West: Carol Pope is an icon of alternative Canadian music – a scene that flourished in the arts-infused western reaches of Queen Street between University Avenue and Dufferin Street.

 

 

Photo: spiritofradio.ca

Photo: spiritofradio.ca

Spirit of Radio, Rush (Anthem, 1980)

340 Main St. Brampton: The humble suburban address of one of the most influential radio stations in popular music. CFNY was incubated in this space and grew to become THE station for Southern Ontario’s youth through the 80’s. Rush wrote this song as a tribute to the station and a philosophy that put music first, challenging the commercial norms of the day.

 

2014 in Review: New, New to Me, and Those We Lost

A year ago, I was rife with anticipation for the music 2014 would bring. A new Incognito album was due and several new artists were on the verge of debuting new albums. In retrospect, 2014 delivered on its promise but not for all the reasons I thought.

image058-250x250 Citrus-sun-albumIncognito did release Amplified Soul (Shanachie) in May. It was the strong and consistent album I knew it would be. The first (pleasant) surprise of the year came before that in March with the release of People of Tomorrow (Dome Records) by Citrus Sun, an instrumental project led by Incognito leader Jean-Paul Bluey Maunick.

Screen Shot 2014-06-02 at 11.05.25 PM dim_division_3More new music kept coming from sources that were not typically in my musical wheelhouse. Of these, I’d say Mark de Clive Lowe’s Church (Ropeadope, 2014) was the sweetest find. Miguel Migs’ Dim Division (Soul Heaven Records, 2014) comes a close second.

On the downside, two highly anticipated albums were lacklustre in my regard. Zara McFarlane’s If You Knew Her (Brownswood, 2014) and Jose James’ While You Were Sleeping (Blue Note, 2014) had moments of strength but I wasn’t able to connect with the albums on the whole, unlike previous releases from these artists.

Finally, 2014 had its disappointments, mostly because of what it didn’t bring:

  • I’m still eagerly awaiting KING’s full length album. A single release was all they could muster this year but their website indicates the album, We Are KING Music is set to drop (no telling when).
  • Ady Suleiman was a singular talent brought to light by Gilles Peterson in 2012/13. Although he continues to record and share tracks via social media, it’s not clear if an album is in the works. His SoundCloud page is definitely worth a listen.
  • The buzz on Q-Tip’s new project, The Last Zulu, rose and then faded. It’s not clear how real this album is or when it will finally drop.

Favourite Albums:

  1. Mark de Clive Lowe, Church
  2. Lion Babe, Lion Babe EP
  3. Incognito, Amplified Soul
  4. Miguel Migs, Dim Division
  5. Citrus Sun, People of Tomorrow
  6. Sonzeira, Brasil Bam Bam Bam
  7. Lone, Reality Testing
  8. Michael Jackson, XScape
  9. D’Angelo and the Vanguard, Black Messiah
  10. Bobby Hutcherson, Enjoy the View

Tracks

  • Blum “You’ll always be in my heart (Omega Edit)” – Heard on Jason Palma’s excellent radio program, Higher Ground (ciut.fm, Thursdays 8pm ET). Amazing re-work of a Sarah Vaughan track.
  • Lion Babe, “Jump High feat. Childish Gambino”- One of four outstanding tracks on the self-titled EP released in December.
  • KING, “Mr. Chamaeleon” – A single track from this talented trio is better than no new music but fans continue to pine for a full album.

New to Me: Rediscovered

Untitled-3.inddMarvin Gaye & the Mizell Brothers 

Two tracks from recording sessions that until recently were hidden away in Motown’s vaults are perhaps the best recorded music to be released in the last decade. Combining Mizell production with Gaye’s easy-going vocals is nothing short of alchemy. It’s too bad this partnership wasn’t allowed to flourish under the Motown Records leadership of the day. “Woman of the World” and “Where Are We Going” are must-haves for soul and jazz afficianados.

stevie-wonder-songs-in-the-key-of-live-2014-tour-600x400Songs in the Key of Life

This classic Stevie Wonder album had gone unnoticed by me until this year. Smash hits aside, the album is a strong end-to-end opus and was perfectly featured in Wonder’s recent live tour. I was fortunate enough to catch him in Toronto in November. This album is now firmly on my desert island list.

Notable Passings

  • Idris Muhammad – A drummer with remarkable range, from work with Ahmad Jamal, Pharoah Sanders, and even Ernie Ranglin
  • Charlie Haden – Contrabassist with jazz credentials ranging from John Coltrane to Keith Jarrett and Ornette Coleman
  • Bobby Womack – One of the most recognizable voices in soul music. He had been enjoying a resurgence of sorts recently with the release of The Bravest Man in the Universe (XL Recordings, 2012)
  • Ronny Jordan – A particularly poignant loss for me because Jordan was one of the first artists I discovered who bridged jazz, funk, and hip-hop. This musical space has dominated my listening for the better part of two decades and Jordan’s guitar jazz hold’s a special place for this reason.
ronny-jordan

Ronny Jordan (1962-2014)

 

2013 in Review: New, New to Me, and Those We Lost

There were many solid new releases this past year and many had two things in common. First, they were introduced to me via Gilles Peterson’s (@gillespeterson) BBC6 program, Worldwide, a staple in my listening. Second, three of my top 5 were released on Blue Note Records.

New Releases:

Looking back just 12 months, there were so many good albums released that I had enough fodder for a top 10, with Omar’s The Man winning the year.

10. Kon, On My Way
9. Brand New Heavies, Forward
8. Mario Biondi, Sun
7. Alice Russell, To Dust
6. Ed Motta, AOR
5. Jean-Paul ‘Bluey’ Maunick, Leap of Faith
4. Jose James, No Beginning No End
3. Robert Glasper Experiment, Black Radio 2
2. Gregory Porter, Liquid Spirit
1. Omar, The Man

Other notable releases were Quadron’s Avalanche, Da Lata’s Fabiola, Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, RC & the Gritz’ Pay Your Tab, and Wild Belle’s Isles.

New to me: Rediscovered

Chakha Khan & Rufus – Before Chakha Khan’s 80’s resurgence, her career was launched with the 70’s funk and soul band, Rufus. Their album, Street Player (UMG Recordings, 1978) is a particularly good showcase of the bands smoothness and how well suited Khan’s vocal style is to their music. The track, “Destiny,” is essential listening.

Harvey Mason – I posted a Harvey Mason playlist after discovering this drummer who made his mark on numerous jazz and fusion classics.

Skee-Lo – An oddball find from 1995 when hip-hop albums were so prolific that it was hard to cut through the clutter to find those that would last. Skee-Lo’s album, I Wish (Ultra Moda Music, 1995) holds up today with its pleasing blend of melody and rhyme. It’s also a hip-hop album that’s not afraid to have some fun.

Ben l’Oncle Soul – Neo soul has been played out in my books for some time now. But Ben L’Oncle Soul’s self-titled release (Mercury Music Group, 2010) had a fresh take because a) it’s mostly sung in French; and b) the artist makes the music his own, not trying to mimic crooners from the 60’s and 70’s but celebrating his voice and music in his own way.

Notable Passings

  • Donald Byrd – One of my musical heros. An innovator and prolific melodist. Tributes to him abound on the internet as the year closes out. Nice to see him getting such wide recognition.
  • Stompin’ Tom Connors – A Canadian folk music treasure whose lyrics and music are essential Canadiana
  • George Duke – A keyboardist and innovator in the vein of Donald Byrd and Herbie Hancock
  • Lou Reed – Another innovator and catalyst who influenced rock and punk acts through the 70s and 80s

Most Anticipated in 2014

Q-Tip, The Last Zulu – This project has been on the radar for some time now but it’s hard to nail down a release date amongst the hype out there. The album is said to include, in some form, a reunion of original A Tribe Called Quest members.

Zara McFarlane, If You Knew Her – The follow-up from her excellent 2011 debut Until Tomorrow (Brownswood)

Jose James – His second release on the Blue Note label is in production, according to James’ facebook updates.

Prince, Plectrum Electrum – The recently released (and excellent) single, “Breakfast Can Wait,” will be on the album as will tracks featuring the rock-centered 3rd Eye Girl who are touring with Prince.

Happy, peaceful, and musical New Year!

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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Feature: 2012 in Review – New, New to Me, and those we lost

Reflecting on my musical discoveries in 2012, there were many but the theme that emerges is squarely in the 1970’s. That decade pre-dated my musical awareness, which only sprung in the Eighties. But thanks to great DJs and musical curators like Gilles Peterson (@gillespeterson), Jason Palma (@jasonpalma), Kon (@Kon1200), and Huggs (@huggs), I rediscovered an amazing slice of musical magic from the 70’s.

So here are my favourite finds, some new releases, and a reminder of some of the musical greats we lost this year:

New Releases:

New to Me: Re-discovered

  • Leon Ware – An impressive body of work from the 70s that blends soulful vocals, jazz-influenced arrangements, and a dose of disco. The track, “What’s Your Name,” in particular, kills.
  • Ahmad Jamal – Calming, patient jazz that I overlooked in my younger years
  • The Philly Sound – Velvety
  • Donald Byrd – My 70s music hero and a mentor to the Mizzell Brothers, my other 70s heros. Not mention Harvey Mason, a spectacular jazz drummer. Mason’s beats on “Flight time” drive that track more than any other instrument in the arrangement. Not a lot of drummers can do that.
  • D-Train – Groovy synth funk from the early eighties; Credit the keyboard genius of Hubert Eaves III. “Keep on” is simply addictive.

Notable Passings

  • Don Cornelius – Host of Soul Train
  • Donna Summer – Queen of disco
  • Jose Roberto Bertrami – Azymuth keyboardist, one of the world’s best on the Rhodes
  • Sam ‘The Record Man’ Sniderman – Toronto record shop pioneer
  • Dave Brubeck – Legend of jazz
  • Ravi Shankar – Legend of Indian Classical music

Most Anticipated Release in 2013: New album from Alice Russell (expected February 2013)

Happy and Peaceful New Year!

Playlist: The Philadelphia Sound

Philadelphia Soul is not so much a genre as it is a sound. The “Philly Sound” is described pretty well by its Wikipedia entry, Producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff (pictured) are the pioneers behind much of the music with this moniker but it is not restricted to Gamble & Huff or the Philadelphia International Records label.

Since I wanted to learn more about the sound, its history, and the producers and musicians who made it come to life, I thought a playlist was just what I needed to traverse its soundscape.

  1. Mister Magic – Grover Washington Jr., Mister Magic, (UMG Recordings, 1974)
  2. K-Jee MFSB, Universal Love (Philadelphia International Records, 1975)
  3. I Love Music – The O’JaysFamily Reunion (Philadelphia International Records, 1975)
  4. People Make the World Go Round – The StylisticsThe Stylistics (Avco, 1971)
  5. Lady Love – Lou RawlsWhen You Hear Lou, You’ve Heard it All (Philadelphia International Records, 1977)
  6. One on One – Hall & OatesH2O (RCA, 1982)
  7. Me and Mrs. JonesBilly Paul, 360 Degrees of Billy Paul (Philadelphia International Records, 1972)
  8. Work it Out  (single) – Breakwater,(Arista, 1979)
  9. Minute by Minute – The Doobie BrothersMinute by Minute (Warner Bros., 1978)
  10. Nights Over Egypt  (single) – The Jones Girls, (Philadelphia International Records, 1981)
  11. Funkfoot – Grover Washington Jr.Live at the Bijou (Kudu Records, 1977)

I’ve bookended the playlist with Grover Washington Jr. The closing selection is from his brilliant live album, Live at the Bijou. You can read my review of that here. Although his breakthrough was 1980’s Winelight (Elektra Entertainment), Grover Washington Jr.’s rise arguably began 13 years earlier when he landed in Philadelphia as a sideman. I wonder if the warm bass and keyboard textures on Mister Magic were the product of or inspiration to recordings in the Gamble & Huff songbook?

MFSB and the O’Jays are two acts that were firmly in the Philadelphia International Records stable. MFSB (or Mother, Father, Brother, Sister) featured prominent string arrangements and squelchy guitars that would win them a place on the now classic Saturday Night Fever soundtrack (RSO, 1977), released two years after K-Jee was recorded.

The Stylistics showcase a falsetto vocal, prominent in many classic Philly Soul recordings. This tune was used beautifully in the opening montage of Spike Lee’s film, Crooklyn. Vocals are also featured on the next three tracks, beginning with the relaxed smoothness of Lou Rawls. Philadelphia natives Daryl Hall and John Oates, were undoubtedly influenced by their surroundings and carried the torch admirably well into the late Eighties. The next track, Me  & Mrs. Jones, was covered by Hall & Oates but I’ve selected Billy Paul’s original here, written by Gamble & Huff themselves.

The next two tracks by Breakwater and The Doobie Brothers are not officially associated with the Philly scene. But this is proof the “sound” escaped the confines of Gamble & Huff’s realm and influenced so many artists past and present. Minute by Minute was an uncharacteristic album for a “country rock” band like the Doobies but it was their greatest success. I posted a short review of that album here.

The Jones Girls were another staple with Philadelphia International Records. Nights Over Egypt was not their biggest hit but has weathered the years better than most other songs in their catalogue. Nights was written by Dexter Wansel, a close collaborator with Gamble & Huff.

Feature: The Music of The Style Council

The Style Council were Paul Weller (vocals, guitar), Mick Talbot (keyboards), and Steve White (drums). Active from the early 1980’s to their demise as a group in 1989, The Style Council were an enigma of that decade in music. They were unclassifiable within the milleu of genres that came to characterize the decade. They were neither pop, nor new wave, nor progressive rock. And they weren’t jazz or easy listening either. They have no clear musical disciples although their influences were certainly from soul, jazz, and later, rhythm & blues.

In my view, it was this very musical conundrum that made them an important part of the Eighties.

Weller, having just disbanded The Jam after their hit album The Gift (Polydor, 1982), seemed to take a mellow turn in musical style, exploring jazz and string arrangements with Talbot’s soul-infused hammond and piano work. Their first release was a mini LP, entitled Introducing the Style Council (Polydor, 1983). It included the iconic hit, “Long Hot Summer” which put The Style Council on pop music’s radar but only charted modestly outside of the U.K.

Aside from the easy-going hit, the collection was remarkably varied in style. “Headstart for Happiness” was a feel-good pop tune with Weller’s driving vocals and soulful backing vocals by D.C. Lee (who Weller would later marry). That track, along with “Speak Like a Child” have definite Motown influences. “Money-Go-Round,” on the other hand, is proto rap. They would dabble in rap stylings in later releases but this one is the least clumsy of their outings in that genre. It was bold to include the track but not unexpected since its message was consistent with the group’s politically left leanings and their criticism of Thatcherite policies of the day.

A full length album was released a year later with 10 new songs and two from Introducing. My Ever Changing Moods (Polydor, 1984) was more consistent stylistically than their debut, with the exception of “A Gospel” and “Strength of Your Nature.” “A Gospel” was another experiment in early rap and was too brash and contrived to believe. “Strength of Your Nature” is a hard hitting number, more similar to The Jam’s style but not as melodically satisfying.

The title track and “You’re the Best Thing” were particularly successful, the latter making it onto numerous Eighties compilations and becoming one of the more recognizable love songs of the decade. The rest of the album is a mix of soul and jazz with a deliberate nod to the French jazz tradition. “The Paris Match,” featuring Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt who had recently formed Everything But the Girl, is a smokey jazz ballad. “Here’s One that Got Away” features a jazz violin lead-in that smacks of French legend Stephane Grappelli but was played by British violinist Bobby Valentino.

Strings were prominent in The Style Council’s sound in the first half of their active years, culminating in the hit Shout to the Top! released in 1984 as a single EP. The song became an anthem of sorts but once again defied classification. It enjoyed the success of a pop song but John Mealing’s exuberant string arrangement had us guessing once again whether this was jazz, soul, disco or something entirely different.

The follow-up to My Ever Changing Moods was 1985’s Our Favourite Shop (Polydor). Stylistically different yet again from what they had done in the two years prior, this album was less jazz and more pop with richer production. Two notable singles, “Walls Come Tumbling Down” and “Internationalists” continued the Council’s strong social activist messaging. “Walls Come Tumbling Down” was also a commercial hit, charting as high as number 6 in the U.K.

The overall sound of this album is more lush than their previous work, incorporating heavier bass, more electric keyboard sounds, and fuller backing vocals. Weller & Talbot’s compositions are just as strong both lyrically and musically as the Moods album.

Paul Weller is quoted as saying Our Favourite Shop was The Style Council’s culmination. Although the band would record three more LPs, including the commercially successful Confessions of a Pop Group (Polydor, 1988), I can’t help but agree with his characterization.

The Style Council’s first three releases were unique for many reasons. In a decade that gave rise to the new wave genre and mega-acts like U2, Madonna, and Michael Jackson, The Style Council quietly created a body of work that that was unmatched at the time and never really emulated by bands that followed. An anomalous spur of musical evolution, you might say. But a damned good one.