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)

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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

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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

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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.

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)

 

 

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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.

Music Review: Begin, Lion Babe (Feb 2016, Outsiders Recorded Music/Polydor)

BeginIn 2012, Lion Babe (a.k.a. Jillian Hervey and Lucas Goodman) released “Treat Me Like Fire,” an instant underground hit, introducing a fresh sound that fused the best of electronic production, raw rhythms, and soulful vocals. The strength of that one track led to a record deal and a subsequent EP in 2014 (Lion Babe, Outsiders/Polydor).

Two years later, their much-anticipated full-length album has arrived. It delivers what fans expected and then some. Tracks like “Satisfy My Love” and “Got Body” are similar to their prior releases and round out the album.

What’s entirely new here are two very different tracks that reveal a depth in this duo, foretelling their longevity. “Little Dreamer” is an etherial lullaby with sparse accompaniment by a haunting steel string guitar. Meanwhile, “Where Do We Go” is a juggernaut of a pop song, with strong disco influence and a driving dance beat.

At first, I thought “Where Do We Go” was a wrong turn, making mainstream music from a source that was so refreshingly original. But listening to Begin from end-to-end, I had a change of heart.

It’s promising, in fact, when an act like Lion Babe builds from a single hit, proves they can deliver consistently on their breakthrough sound, and goes on to innovate new styles.

It will be interesting to see what direction they take next. Lion Babe has proven – they have the chops to do it all.

Music Review: We are King, KING (King Creative LLC, Feb 2016)

king2

I’ve been waiting for this album for five years. KING released an EP in 2011 called The Story (KING, 2011) and the three songs therein were so instantly great that more had to come. The universe would demand it.

Finally released, We Are King, delivers more of the same brilliance as their debut. Paris Strother, Amber Strother, and Anita Bias are extraordinary songwriters and vocalists. Collectively, they have a discerning ear for great production. If Anita Baker were to co-write an album with Jill Scott and then had it produced by Quincy Jones and Babyface Edmonds, it might come close to We are King.

The album features seven previously unreleased tracks as well as their prior EP and single releases, including reworks of the three songs from The Story. KING’s songwriting doesn’t wane at all across the album. Each track is imprinted with KING’s signature sound: lush electronic arrangements, layered vocals, and chord changes so pleasing, they seem handed down by musical divinity.

The fact that KING has self-published their music to date might explain the length of time it took to produce their full-length debut. On the other hand, the unrelenting quality in their body of work may also suggest a commitment to musical consistency that forced them to take the time they needed to produce something to their standard.

Whatever the reason, the wait has been worthwhile. The depth of We Are King is such that fans will have plenty to indulge in while they wait for KING’s next reign.

 

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!

Album Review: HitnRun Phase Two, Prince (NPG Records, 2015)

prince-hitnrun-phase-twoI can’t say I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Prince fan but I do enjoy a lot of his music and admire his career. There’s no question Prince (a.k.a. Prince Rogers Nelson) is a living legend of pop music. With roots in funk, soul, and R&B, he is prolific, averaging more than 1 album per year since 1978.

What has always eluded me is why I don’t like more of his music. Engaging less and less with his new music over the years, I felt he had lost his touch. With his latest release, I’ve come to realize: Prince just bores easily. With so much chart success early in his career, Prince’s musical centre of gravity shifted to anti-pop experimentation. The hits continued through the 90’s but his albums on the whole bore the mark of an artist striving not to be boxed-in by conventional pop.

Prince bores easily

HitnRun Phase Two is his most consistently accessible album in a very long time. As if to show off his hit-making prowess, Prince serves up pop hits in multiple sub-genres of the form. “Rocknroll Loveaffair” and “Big City” are vintage 80s/90s Prince. “Look at me, Look at U” draws more from his R&B/ballad chops. “Black Muse” is different yet again, verging on smooth jazz. What’s remarkable is that they are all chart worthy songs [drop mic here].

This album is only a couple of months on the heals of HitnRun Phase One (NPG Records, 2015) which is more like his recent body of work: innovative dabbling in unconventional genres like dancehall (“Like a Mack”) and synth pop (“Fallinlove2nite”) mingled with select hits like “1000 X’s and O’s” and “This Could be Us.”

Phase Two reminds us that Prince can dispense music at will in almost any form that strikes his creative fancy. If this album happens to be a crowd-pleaser, some may unfurl the “comeback” banner but Prince quietly knows, he never left. He’s just allowing us to catch up again.

Album Review: Silver, Fourplay (Concord Music Group, November 2015)

Fourplay_SilverFourplay has been writing and recording contemporary jazz for twenty-five years. The aptly named new album, Silver, celebrates this anniversary with ten new tracks penned by various members of the band, including leader Bob James.

Fourplay has often been classified as smooth jazz. Their music is easy-going, melodic, and simply arranged. A quartet of masters on their instruments, Fourplay needs no other accoutrements. Silver features the solo guitar work of Chuck Loeb on most tracks. “Quicksilver,” in particular, is a pacey number with a great hook and lush vocalizations reminiscent of Pat Metheny.

The album has a range of up and downtempo numbers. “Mine” is an example of the latter, offering a simple melody carried by James’ piano. “Horace” is a more straight-ahead jazz arrangement, an ode to jazz pianist Horace Silver.

It’s ironic that a milestone anniversary like the 25th has traditionally been marked by silver, one of our most tarnishable metals. Fourplay’s Silver glistens all the same.

The Players: Bob James (Keyboards), Harvey Mason (Drums), Chuck Loeb (Guitar), Nathan East (Bass Guitar)

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