Archives for category: Music Reviews

Concert Review: Kamasi Washington, Toronto, November 16 2017, Danforth Music Hall (Late Show)

Kamasi Washington delivered a solid performance last Thursday night in Toronto. “Solid” is apt in so many ways for this show. Washington and his sidemen are musicians’ musicians. The set was a packed 90 minutes. And the vibe was one of clenched-fist solid(arity).

Washington’s live sound is crisp but loose enough for the musicians to have some fun. All the soloists are virtuosos on their instruments. Vocalist Patrice Quinn was flawless, just as she is on Washington’s album, The Epic (Brainfeeder, 2015). The setlist featured selections from The Epic and the recently released Harmony of Difference (Young Turks, 2017). The great thing about Washington’s live show is that it can draw from a recorded body of work with great depth in each composition.

Perhaps the most distinctive element of the live show was Brandon Coleman’s keyboard sound choices –  quite different from the studio arrangements, adding a dose of funk to the night’s soundscape. In particular, the opening of “Truth” is changed up with a haunting organ sound. The staccato opening of “The Rhythm Changes,” delivered in duet by Washington and long-time collaborator Ryan Porter, was another departure that teased the audience before Quinn revealed the selection with her first verse.

Washington himself is a humble and utterly likeable persona on stage. For someone under 40 who has just recently been vaulted into a global spotlight, Washington presents a maturity both in his rapport with the audience and his mastery of jazz.

In many ways, Washington made Harmony of Difference come to life that night. Introducing “Truth,” he explained, the interplay of 5 melodies within the composition are a metaphor for how humanity’s differences are actually a unifying strength. Through his music, Washington makes his point brilliantly.

Setlist (setlist.fm)

  1. Change of Guard
  2. Leroy and Lanisha
  3. Little Boy Blue (Ryan Porter)
  4. Miss Understanding
  5. Humility
  6. Truth
  7. The Rhythm Changes

The Players: Kamasi Washington, tenor sax; Ryan Porter, trombone; Rickey Washington, soprano sax & flute; Ronald Bruner Jr., drums; Patrice Quinn, vocals; Brandon Coleman keyboards; Joshua Crumbly, bass; unnamed, piano.

 

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Album Review: Crackazat, Rainbow Fantasia (Local Talk Records, 2017)

I came to know of Crackazat (a.k.a. Sweden-based producer and multi-instrumentalist Ben Jacobs) because of “What You’re Feeling,” a single released on Joey Negro’s Z Records label last year. It had a driving old school house vibe, kind of like Inner City and also reminded me of Lone’s excellent 2014 album, Reality Testing (R&S Records).

Jacob’s new album, Rainbow Fantasia, is more synth-centric than the Z Records single and, being a full length record, offers a range of mood and sound. On most cuts, Jacobs serves up synth melodies, vocalizations and driving dance rhythms.

On constant repeat for me since I discovered this album is the opening track, “Welcome Speech.” It has multiple hooks and showcases the most freewheeling keyboard work on the record. The opening vocal sample evokes ‘a timid emcee at a meagrely attended yoga gathering’ and gives the track kitsch, which makes it all the more addictive.

Among the uptempo tracks like “Sundial” and the title track, Jacobs includes some variety in the trance-like vibe of “The Only One” and the vocals on “Holding You Close.”

I have to admit, the magic of electronic music fades a little as I learn more about the tools that make it easier and easier to produce. This tutorial in particular, by Incognito collaborator and celebrated producer, Ski Oakenfull, is very revealing for a non-musician like me. Oakenfull is a highly talented keyboardist in his own right and this video was produced as a demonstration of the technology, rather than a glimpse into his creative process. Still, the technology makes one wonder if some producers will favour it over musicianship.

With this peak behind the curtain, it is tempting to judge Crackazat as machine music without soul. But that is ultimately up to the listener. For me, Jacobs brings the melody, the beats, and perhaps most distinctively, a dose of fun to Rainbow Fantasia.

 

Related Listening:

I Can See the Future” – Incognito, No Time Like the Future (Mercury Records, 1999): One of my many favourite Incognito tracks, featuring Ski Oakenfull on drum programming and keyboards

 

 

 

 

Album Review: Harmony of Difference, Kamasi Washington (Young Turks, 2017)

Kamasi Washington’s last album, The Epic (Brainfeeder, 2015), was my standout pick for album of the year. It was, well, epic. Washington’s follow-up reaffirms, he is one of the most important innovators, songwriters, and arrangers in jazz today.

The precursor to this album’s full release was a single called “Truth,” released in April. “Truth” is a 13:30 minute epic in and of itself. It contains strong echoes of its predecessor, most notably the choir arrangements of Miguel Atwood-Ferguson.

As a fan of Washington’s, I was eager for the release of “Truth” and kept it on high rotation while awaiting the full album. Now that Harmony of Difference is out, the project’s intent comes into focus. It is a study of sorts. The core melody of “Truth” is played upon in various forms in the other tracks on the album. “Desire,” “Knowledge,” and “Integrity” play with the melody using varied time signatures and arrangements, achieving distinct moods.

If you haven’t yet listened to “Truth,” wait. Listen to the whole album, starting with “Desire” and finishing with “Truth.” You’ll be awestruck as the thoughful and playful variations come together in a grand opus-like climax.

Harmony of Difference is a wonderful follow-up to an astounding debut. It’s exciting to think what Washington will do on his next outing. It will be awesome, but in a manner as yet unimagined to we mere mortals.

Related

Short film made to accompany the release of “Truth” (Young Turks, April 2017)

Terrace Martin Presents the Pollyseeds: Sounds of Crenshaw Vol. 1 (Ropeadope, 2017)

Terrace Martin’s last album, Velvet Portraits (Ropeadope, 2016) remains one of my favourite albums from the last few years. I wasn’t expecting a follow-up this soon but it has arrived with the Sounds of Crenshaw Vol. 1. I already can’t wait for Vol. 2. 

Like Portraits, this project offers a wide range of collaborations that are distinct enough to stand up to repeated listening but similar enough to underpin a stylistic theme to the album. In Sounds of Crenshaw Vol. 1, Martin delivers a classy homage to slow jams and quiet storm while keeping jazz at its core.

“Wake Up,” in particular is a bluesy jazz ballad, apparently performed by Kamasi Washington (channelling Wayne Shorter I might add). According to Rolling Stone (link below), Martin’s sax is only credited on the cover of Janet Jackson’s “Funny How Time Flies.” Other tracks with a heavier jazz pedigree are “Believe” and “Mamma D/Liemert Park.” “Believe” sounds like an instrumental reprise of “Think of You” from Portraits. It’s a simple example of how great musicians can innovate variations on basic structures and create something entirely fresh.

Stronger R&B treatment can be found on slow jams like “Don’t Trip” and “You and Me,” the latter featuring the return of Rose Gold, who had delivered a memorable performance in “Think of You.”

Martin also serves up more electronically influenced downtempo numbers. “Your Space” features Wyann Vaughn, daughter of Wanda and Wayne Vaughn, who by association with Maurice White, is R&B royalty. In “Up Up and Away,” we hear a helium voice effect, perhaps an ode to the late Prince who used it, as only he could at the time, on Breakfast Can Wait (NPG Records, 2014).

Martin and his collaborators reveal a rich depth in the space between jazz and R&B. They are not the first to traverse these genres but they are among the best in the world right now.

The Pollyseeds Collective

Terrace Martin (saxophone), Robert Glasper (keyboards), Kamasi Washington (saxophone), Wyann Vaughan (vocals), Rose Gold (vocals), Trevor Lawrence Jr. (drums), Marlon Williams (guitar), Brandon Eugene Owens (bass), Taber Gable (piano), Jonathan Barber (drums), Curlee Martin (drums), Robert Searlight (percussion), Chachi (vocals), Preston Harris (vocals)

There may be other members of the Pollyseeds collective. The above is the most comprehensive list I could compile based on various online sources. There does not appear to be an official listing from the label.

Further Reading

Must Listen

  • This studio performance of the track, “Think of You” from the Velvet Portraits album is a master class in sublime

Album Review: A Million Things, Rohey (Rohey, 2017)

Rohey is a soul and jazz group from Norway and A Million Things is their debut album. It is an incredible record, already a contender for album of the year.

Rohey reminds us how dynamics and broken beats can grab a hold of the listener. The eleven tracks on this album are each minted with a unique alchemy. Hard hitting tracks like “Is This All There Is?” and the opening “I Found Me” reveal a fist-pumping rebel spirit. “My Recipe,” in particular, is as deliciously badass as the sassiest incarnations of Jill Scott or Lauryn Hill.

Down tempo and softer tunes like “Now That You Are Free,” “My Dear,” and “Tell me” reveal yet another dimension of Rohey’s music: delicate and deeply soulful. “Tell me” bears strong resemblance to Robert Glasper’s work on his excellent Double Booked LP (Blue Note, 2009).

Vocalist and band namesake Rohey Taalah is a remarkably versatile talent. She has Nina Simone’s timing, Nancy Wilson’s vocal timbre, and Chaka Khan’s power.

Musically, these Norwegians stand tall among the best of today’s innovative jazz acts like Glasper, Kamasi Washington, and Badbadnotgood. I’ve also heard comparisons to Melbourne’s Hiatus Kaiyote and there is certainly a similarity in musical choices. Rohey stands apart though, with a stronger grounding in jazz and soul versus Kaiyote’s more electronic inclination.

In the calming waters of soul and jazz music, A Million Things makes a splash and suddenly, negative ions abound. Do yourself a favour and breath them in.

 

The Players: Rohey Taalah (Vocals), Kristian B. Jacobsen (bass), Ivan Blomqvist (Keys), Henrik Lodoen (drums)

 

Album Review: The Temple of I & I, Thievery Corporation (ESL Music, Feb 2017)

tciiIf you’re a fan of reggae and dub, you’ll wonder why anyone would describe this fine album as trip-hop or chill.

Thievery Corporation (a.k.a. Rob Garza and Eric Hilton) have created music in the electronic realm since their beginnings in 1997 with their trippy lounge music debut, Sounds from the Thievery Hi-Fi (4AD).

But the duo has proven their chops in many musical traditions, including bossa, the muse of their last outing, Saudade (ESL, 2014). Reggae has also been featured as long ago as 2003 with the release of Richest Man in Babylon (ESL Music).

The Temple of I & I is stylistically the most reggae influenced album since Babylon. It features several guests and the usual collaborators who bring so much of Garza’s and Hilton’s music to life. Reggae vocalists Notch, Puma, and Racquel Jones are most featured throughout the 15 tracks on the record.

Notch does particular justice to “Weapons of Distraction” and “Strike the Root.” The riddims are solid. Sly and Robbie would approve.

A couple of tracks echo their electronica catalogue, namely “Time & Space” sung partly in French by returning vocalist Lou Lou Ghelikhani and the mournful “Love Has No Heart” sung by Shana Halligan.

Other than that, it is all reggae and dub with a Thievery Corporation lustre. Respect.

 

 

 

 

Album Review: The Odd Tape, Oddisee  (Mello Music Group, May 2016)

oddtapeThe term beatmaker has been used to describe Amir Mohamed el Khalifa (a.k.a. Oddisee). Rapper and producer equally suit this prolific Washington D.C. artist. Whatever his classification, Oddisee has distinguished himself and his brainy brand of hip-hop through a mastery of beats, melody, and verse.

The Odd Tape is an instrumental release from last year and will soon be followed by his new album, The Iceberg (Mello Music Group, 2017).

The Odd Tape has 12 tracks showcasing the strong musicality that underpins Oddisee’s rap records. It’s not surprising el Khalifa cites Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul as influences, both pioneers in the use of melody within hop-hop. In fact, Oddisee seems very much modelled on the late J Dilla, perhaps the beatmaker for all time.

The Odd Tape features not only impeccable beats but also a mix of electronic and jazz instrumentation. On high rotation for me are the tracks “Brea” and “On the Table.” Some tracks are not unlike Terrace Martin’s excellent album, Velvet Portraits (Ropeadope, 2016). “Right Side of the Bed,” the only track with saxophone, is one of them.

The Iceberg drops on February 24, 2017. The first single, “Things,” is already making heads nod.

 

Related Listening:

A List of Withouts – My favourite track from Oddisee’s last album The Good Fight (Mello Music Group, 2015)

367 – from last month’s posthumous J Dilla release, Jay Dee’s Ma Dukes Collection (Yancey Media Group, 2016)

Album Review: The Olympians, The Olympians (Daptone Records, Oct 2016)

olympians coverWhen we appreciate acts like Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and Al Green, their presence, performance, and most of all their vocals are what stand out. But pick one of your favourite tracks from that era and listen again, this time zooming in on the backing band.

Soul music demands tight performances, steady rhythms, and discerning instrumental breakouts that ebb and flow with the shape of each song. Among the musicians who created soundscapes for these legends were acts like The JBs and Booker T. & the MGs.

Happily, there are musicians today who carry a torch for impeccably executed instrumental soul. Many of them can be found in the stables of Daptone Records, ably extending and innovating a great musical tradition.

The Olympians is a project conceived by Toby Pazner, a musician in the Daptone family that had a vision for a themed instrumental album and the wherewithal to assemble the right players to bring it to life. Among them, Thomas Brenneck, whose recordings with the Dap-Kings have been churning out great instrumental music for years, including the much celebrated backing on Amy Winehouse’s blockbuster, Back to Black album (Island Records, 2006).

In The Olympians, Pazner, Brenneck, and their band have created a simply mesmerizing album. Stripped away to a core sound of soul with hints of reggae, the soundscape is the star.

“Apollo’s Mood” has an addictive rock steady groove reminiscent of William DeVaughn’s “Be Thankful for What you Got” but also features horns and organs that elevate and round out the track. “Sirens of Jupiter” is also remarkable for its use of Harp and Afrobeat-influenced horn sound against a bassline inspired by Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues.” The album’s remaining nine tracks are just as engaging and widely varied.

I’ve always found that the musicianship on an album is key to its longevity. The Olympians are aptly named in this regard. Champions, all of them.

The Players (and their affiliations):

Thomas Brenneck (Menahan Street Band, Budos Band, Charles Bradley); Dave Guy (Tonight Show Band, The Dap-Kings); Leon Michels (The Arcs, Lee Fields, El Michels Affair); Nicholas Movshon (The Arcs, Lee Fields, El Michels Affair);  Homer Steinweiss (The Dap-Kings, The Arcs); Michael Leonhart (Musical Director for Steely Dan, David Byrne); Neal Sugarman  (The Dap-Kings, Sugarman 3); Aaron Johnson (Antibalas, El Michels Affair); Evan Pazner (Lee Fields); and Toby Pazner (Menahan Street Band, Lee Fields).

Related Listening

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The Budos Band, “Budos Rising,” from The Budos Band II

(Daptone Records, 2007)

 

 

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Menahan Street Band, “Everyday a Dream” from The Crossing

(Dunham Records, 2012)

 

 

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Lee Fields & The Expressions, “Ladies,” from My World

(Truth & Soul Records, 2009)

 

 

amy_winehouse_-_back_to_black_album

Amy Winehouse, “Valerie,” featuring the Dap-Kings

(Island Records, 2006)

 

 

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Young-Holt Unlimited, “Soulful Strut

(Brunswick, 1968)

 

Related Reading

Lee Fields & The Expressions, Faithful Man

Soul Reviver – Daptone Records in New York Times Magazine (2008)

Album Review: 99.9%, Kaytranada (HW&W Recordings, May 2016)

kaytraKaytranada (a.k.a. Louis Kevin Celestin) has made a splash that continues to ripple through some of today’s most sought after music. The Montreal-based producer, DJ, and musician released his debut full-length album earlier this year and has already won praise from peers and the industry alike.

99.9% is a fifteen track gift, laden with beats, melodies, and vocal collaborations that set it apart from purely instrumental and ambient electronic music. In fact, the ‘electronic’ label hardly suits this work. It is too artfully crafted and curated to be associated with programmed machine music.

Featuring a ‘just-right’ mix of R&B, electronic, and hip-hop tracks, the album has staying power. A slow jam like “Got it Good” featuring vocalist Craig David is complemented by the deep house of “Leave me Alone” featuring Shay Lia. More innovative and offbeat tracks like “Lite Spots” and “Bullets” featuring Little Dragon place Kaytranada on the vanguard and explain why he’s been so successful attracting acclaimed collaborators like Anderson .Paak.

One of the marks of a great album is its ability to attract your ear to different tracks at different times. When I first bought this record, “One too Many” featuring Phonte was on endless repeat. Now, after some distance and listening with fresh ears, “Weight Off” featuring BADBADNOTGOOD is irresistable. The two tracks are vastly different but maintain a coolness that Kaytranada seems to breathe into his music.

Related Listening

  • This Kaytranada remix of Janet Jackson’s ‘If’ is outstanding and never tires
  • British pop singer Katy B collaborated with Kaytranada on the beautiful title track of her Honey album. It also appears to be loosely re-imagined on 99.9% as the track, “Vivid Dreams” featuring River Tiber
  • The last ‘electronic’ album review I raved about was Miguel Migs’ Dim Division (Soul Heaven Records, 2014). A tip of the hat to an electronic music elder seemed apt since since Migs is 20-years senior to Mr. Celestin.

Album Review: Velvet Portraits, Terrace Martin (Ropeadope, 2016)

tmvpTerrace Martin is in good company. Affiliations with hip-hop royalty like Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar put him squarely at the centre of today’s musical sweet spot. A producer, recording artist, and multi-instrumentalist, Martin pivots into the spotlight again with the release of his sixth studio album, Velvet Portraits.

Martin’s prior albums were a mix of hip-hop and R&B. Portraits is more jazz-centric but features some tracks squarely in the R&B and Soul genres. “Push” and “Patiently Waiting” are classically executed soul tracks, the latter featuring Uncle Chucc on vocals. “With You” and “Oakland” are more R&B but with an innovative edge, not unlike Robert Glasper’s Black Radio 2 album (Blue Note, 2013). “Reverse,” featuring Glasper and vocalist Candy West is a completely immersive ballad. These R&B/Soul tracks stand on their own and serve as more conventional interludes on an album whose deepest appeal is in the jazz at the heart of the remaining cuts.

Collaborators like Thundercat (a.k.a. Stephen Bruner), Kamasi Washington, and Robert Glasper are brought to bear throughout the album both as composers and virtuosos. Convergence is especially high on the track “Curly Martin.” Broken beats and Thundercat’s signature bass sound underlay warm keyboards and a simple melody carried by Washington’s saxophone. Similarly, “A Tribe Called West” and “Bromali” present a jazz fusion sound defined by this cadre of musicians and songwriters.

Martin closes his album with a version of Kendrick Lamar’s “Mortal Man,” an etherial track with nearly 12 minutes of beats, saxophone, lush keyboards, and vocalizations that remind us: great musicians can do great things when given a platform on album like this.

Terrace Martin is not only in good company. He is the perfect host.