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)

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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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Music Review: Colour EP, Pete Josef (Sonar Kollectiv, 2015)

pjcoverThe most information I could find online about this artist was a write-up from his Berlin-based record label that read like it was translated from German to English by a clumsy Google Translate algorithm. So all I know is that Pete Josef is a vocalist who has worked on other Sonar Kollectiv projects and Colour is his solo debut.

Obscurity aside, this is a fantastic EP in the realm of soulful songwriting, raw production, and balladic performances.

This 4-track EP features two version of the title track, which showcases Josef’s delicate vocals in the original mix and a more electronically garnished mix by Glow in the Dark. The original version features some wonderful guitar work reminiscent of reggae jazz legend Ernest Ranglin. Two other tracks are simple melodies with interesting beats and arrangements around Josef’s vocals. “Make it Good” is remarkable for its ‘go go’ quality and stands out from the neo-soul vibe of the rest of the EP.

This variety presents Pete Josef in the best possible light as a debut recording artist: vocal versatility, strong songwriting, and more than a few production gears behind him.

The full length Colour album drops on Oct 23 2015 on North American iTunes.

 

 

Album Review: Woman, Jill Scott (Blues Babe Records, July 2015)

jsJill Scott broke into mainstream urban music in 2000 with her debut, Who is Jill Scott? – Words and Sounds Vol. 1 (Hidden Beach). It was an instant classic. In some ways, it was the third act to a play that started with Erykah Badu’s Baduizm (Universal, 1997), lead into Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Ruffhouse Records, 1998), and culminated with the arrival of Jill Scott.

Scott released a handful of original albums since then as well as a variety of collaborations, reworks, and singles. Woman (Blues Babe Records, 2015) is her first original album since 2011 and, like her debut, has a bravado that makes a splash on today’s R&B/Soul scene.

Woman has tracks that range from classic soul like “You Don’t Know” and “Coming to You” to the electronically infused “Lighthouse” and “Beautiful Love.” What’s more is the return of her free spirit vibe in songs like “Prepared” and the enchanting “Jahraymecofasola.”

Fifteen years on from Who is Jill Scott, we are reminded of just that. Jill Scott is an event.

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.

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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.

 

Album Review: Vol. 2, The Cookers Quintet (Do Right Music, 2015)

tcq2 The Cookers Quintet are making original jazz music today that not only evokes masters like Hank Mobley and Art Blakey but also makes a real and contemporary contribution to the hard bop sub genre of jazz.

I’ve welcomed in several prior posts the evolution of jazz that is going on at Blue Note records with acts like Jose James, Robert Glasper, and Kandace Springs. What they all have in common is how they push at Jazz’ boundaries and blend with other genres like R&B and hip-hop. The Cookers, on the other hand, don’t seek to evolve jazz but rather refresh some corners of it.

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The Cookers Quintet, TD Toronto Jazz Festival

I took in a free set at the Toronto Downtown Jazz Festival a couple of weeks ago and the band made hay out of an afternoon gig in a suburban shopping plaza. Despite the uninspiring surroundings, the faux piazza came alive and children, yes, children, were bopping and bouncing to original compositions like “The Crumpler,” “The New Deal,” and even a cover of the standard, “Moanin’.”

There are many straight-ahead jazz musicians doing what the Cookers Quintet are doing: playing standards and original compositions using jazz stylings of the 50s and 60s. What sets The Cookers apart is the high proportion of original compositions in their repertoire and the musicianship that allows them to pull it off without sounding derivative.

Saxophonist Ryan Oliver’s composition, “The Crumpler,” has phrasing and an arrangement reminiscent of Herbie Hancock’s Watermelon Man but, like many jazz compositions even in the golden era of jazz, the similarity is incidental, short-lived, and leaves no question that this is original work. That’s just one example of a deep well of original music starting with their Vol. 1 album (For Right Music, 2014) and continuing into this release. Bassist Alex Coleman also composed some wonderful tunes in “The Sheriff” off this album and “Obligatory Blues” from Vol. 1.

Kudos to record label Do Right Music for fostering this act and others in its stable like The Soul Jazz Orchestra and Dawn Pemberton. Good music doesn’t need to be “on trend” or tailored to a demographic. Done right, it just cooks.

 

The Players: Ryan Oliver (tenor sax), Tim Hamel (trumpet), Richard Whiteman (piano), Alex Coleman (bass), Joel Haynes (drums).

 

Album Review: The Epic, Kamasi Washington (Brainfeeder, May 2015)

kwKamasi Washington is a jazz saxophonist that joins the vanguard of musicians bridging jazz with contemporary music from the many genres in its orbit. Listening to his album, The Epic, I wonder if Washington is this generation’s Herbie Hancock – someone who pushes the boundaries of jazz but does so from a place of legitimacy.

You might say the same of Robert Glasper and jazz innovators before him like Guru and Ronny Jordan. But there is something different about Washington’s brand of innovation. Perhaps it is his pedigree, having played with legends like Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Harvey MasonKenny Burrell, and George Duke.

The Epic is an incredibly immersive listening experience. I would liken it to a concept album by a band like Pink Floyd or an opus like Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. It’s not the ethereality or electronic treatment that inspires this comparison. Rather, it is the ambition, the grandioseness of this album. It is truly the epic jazz album of the year, if not this decade.

The Epic’s ambience is established through a combination of Washington’s improvisation, a steady and pervasive baseline from Miles Mosley’s acoustic bass, and 20-person choir that evokes a blend of 60’s spiritual jazz and sci-fi cinematic scores. This sound emerges as Washington’s signature while being subdued enough to support, not displace, the profound range and depth of performances and compositions on the album.

With nearly 3 hours of music, the musicians are well showcased. I can’t recall the last time I heard so many generous and wonderful trombone solos, as played by Ryan Porter on tracks like “Leroy and Lanisha” and “Re-Run Home.” Igmar Thomas’ trumpet is another capable foil to Washington’s tenor sax. Stephen Bruner (a.k.a. Thundercat) brings his unique electric bass sound to “Askim,” interplaying fantastically with the majestic choir conducted by Miguel Atwood-Ferguson. Atwood-Ferguson, incidentally, worked on another recent spiritual jazz revival of sorts, my personal pick for 2014 album of the year, Church, by Mark de Clive Lowe.

Washington himself is a remarkable talent on the saxophone. His range is broad, from hard blowing dissonance reminiscent of Pharoah Sanders to the easy swing of a popular saxophonist like Grover Washington Jr. Kamasi Washington is comfortable and capable at both extremes and this album sees him traverse the expanse.

The Epic’s more conventional arrangements include “Cherokee,” a lovely tune sung by Patrice Quinn in the best tradition of lounge jazz and a version of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” arranged in 3/4 time while maintaining the composition’s lilting beauty.

To me, this album’s appeal is peculiar because I find it simultaneously exhilarating and comforting. I’m excited by its newness – but also comforted that we have a new and credible steward to lead jazz forward. With The Epic, Kamasi Washington sets forth.

 

The Players: Kamasi Washington – Tenor Saxophone; Thundercat – Electric Bass; Miles Mosley – Acoustic Bass; Ronald Bruner Jr. – Drums; Tony Austin – Drums; Leon Mobley – Percussion; Cameron Graves – Piano; Brandon Coleman – Keyboards; Ryan Porter – Trombone; Igmar Thomas – Trumpet; Patrice Quinn – Lead Vocal; Dwight Tribble – Lead Vocal