Archives for posts with tag: R&B

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

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

 

 

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: 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.

Album Review: Life Between the Notes, Bluey (Shanachie, April 2015)

5430Listening to Jean-Paul ‘Bluey’ Maunick’s sophomore solo album reveals new depths in a seemingly endless well of musical genius. Like his solo debut, Leap of Faith (Shanachie, 2013), Life Between the Notes features Bluey’s greatest strength, his songwriting, but also illuminates new corners of his talent.

The thoroughly enjoyable title track and others like “Been there Before” and “Trippin’ on this Feelin'” are filled with groove and melody we have come to expect from this master songwriter with remarkable pedigree in jazz, funk, soul, and R&B.

What’s even more exciting than a new crop of songs from Bluey is his entree into jazz vocals that reveal the crooner within. “Sunships on the Shores of Mars” and “Columbus Avenue” have a coolness and ease with jazz vocals that we have come to expect from the likes of Gregory Porter. Bluey joins the club. One can’t help but wonder if Bluey took notes from previous collaborator and jazz vocal legend Al Jarreau himself. Jarreau and Maunick worked together on Mario Biondi’s album, Sun (Columbia, 2013) and hints of Jarreau’s style can be heard on these two tracks.

As with Bluey’s Incognito albums and Leap of Faith, Life Between the Notes is consistent and brings something new on each listen. It’s a fitting addition to an already legendary oeuvre.

 

 

Album Review: ManMade, Zo! (The Foreign Exchange Music, 2013)

manmadeWhen I stumble upon an artist like Zo! I’m amazed at how dangerously easy it is to be completely unaware of great music around us. Despite following R&B/Soul trends since the dawn of ‘urban music’ back in the early days of D’Angelo and Erykah Badu, I only just discovered this great talent from Detroit who has been recording and producing music for more than a decade.

Lorenzo “Zo!” Ferguson’s back catalog sounds like “a study in smooth.” His melodies, arrangements, beats, and production are innovative and reveal a deep talent. Going back to his 2006 release, Freelance (Chapter 3hree Verse 5ive Music) a track like “Detroit Districts Pts. I & II” demonstrates an easiness with jazz improvisation, an adeptness with R&B and Soul sensibilities, and a tastefulness that steers the music clear of gimmicky, so called Nu Jazz.

With his latest release, ManMade (The Foreign Exchange Music, 2013), Zo! continues to deliver quality tracks with a fresh take on soulful R&B. His lead track, “The Train” featuring Sy Smith is a breezy melody remeniscent of Corinne Bailey Rae. “Count to Five” featuring Gwen Bunn is another great melody but also distinct in how it plays with two-step rhythms. Tracks like “Making Time” and “Out in the World” use innovative basslines and electronically influenced arrangements.

In this sense, Zo!’s work resembles but does not mimic, his fellow Detroiter, Amp Fiddler, who I most recently posted about. This shouldn’t come as a surprise given a musical pedigree that includes Motown Records, the birth of techno, and J Dilla. Zo! and Amp Fiddler are creating some of the finest urban music of the day, proving that an embattled Detroit still has much to offer.

Album Review: Basementality 2, Amp Fiddler (self-released, 2014)

st5lI’m ashamed to admit that Amp Fiddler’s name had me confusing him with a certain Canadian bad-boy fiddler (yes, we have one of those) for the longest time. Not until I heard a track of his on Jason Palma’s excellent Higher Ground Radio show, did I clue in that Amp Fiddler is a completely (and mercifully) different artist.

Joseph “Amp” Fiddler is a Detroit based singer/songwriter with ivy league R&B/Soul credentials. His new EP, Basementality 2, features a renewed sound for the artist who has ranged from the smoothness of Maxwell to the funk of Parliament, where he was keyboardist for the better part of the 80s.

Basementality, like his prior recordings, features soulful vocals and great songwriting. What’s different with this release is the variety of styles, breaking from the confines of neo-soul and R&B. The second track, “Yeah!” has drum & bass influences with big horn arrangements. “Hold On” moves into dance territory. “More Than” is mellower but has an electronic influence that sets it apart.

Fiddler’s soul chops are still strong and his vocals bring a sincere warmth to each track. “Take It” also features a duet with neo soul poster boy, Raphael Saadiq.

I may have stumbled over Amp Fiddler later than most fans of R&B/Soul but I’m thankful for that. Taking him in with this new release gives me a better view of his breadth as an artist.

Amp Fiddler’s music is available on his bandcamp page.

Album Review: The Internet, Feel Good (Odd Future, 2013)

the_internet_feel_goodIn the ever-changing milieu of genres and sub-genres, a hybrid of electronic, soul, R&B, and Jazz is generating a formidable wave of great music. Music classifers (whomever they may be) are using “Neo Soul” or “R&B/Soul” or just plain “Electronic” to describe this trend. I won’t enter the fray so pick whatever label you want. No matter what you call it, this music is worth exploring and will probably resonate with anyone who likes R&B, soul, and soulful electronic/house music.

My latest discovery in this genre, is Feel Good, the second album from The Internet, a band that formed in 2011 with members of Odd Future. Not unlike other bands I associate with this sound (e.g. Submotion Orchestra, Lulu James, Quadron, and the incredible KING), The Internet delivers a mix of smooth R&B underpinned by lush and layered production.

Feel Good has more than a few tracks that blend R&B, breezy vocals, and rich arrangements. That in itself would make this a solid album. But it goes further because of The Internet’s use of dissonance in several tracks, not unlike Thundercat’s 2011 brilliant release, The Golden Age of Apocalypse (Brainfeeder). Slightly off beats, jarring but not misplaced sounds, and disruptive chords accent several tracks. Touches like these give the music greater staying power. “The Patience,” for example, features a plodding fretless bass trying to keep up with synth melodies. The timing is dangerously close to being off the beat but holds close enough to keep in time. “Wanders of the Mind,” featuring Mac Miller is another track that plays with timing, this time with Miller’s unusual but effective vocal phrasing,

More varied than their contemporaries in the many genres they touch, The Internet has produced an album that will also remain fresh for longer.

Album Review: RC & The Gritz, Pay Your Tab (Rexamillion Productions, November 2013)

payyourtabalbum-300px1RC & The Gritz is a Dallas TX based collective of R&B and Hip Hop musicians that is most famous for backing Erykah Badu from time to time. The band’s leader, RC Williams, is said to be Badu’s current musical director.

What drew me to this album was the cut featuring Badu on vocals, “Leave Me Alone,” which will surely and quickly climb numerous urban radio charts. It’s an instant classic in Badu’s repertoire and a track I had on repeat for a good dozen listens.

However, a marquee guest vocalist isn’t what makes this group’s recording debut, Pay Your Tab (Rexamillion, 2013) a record worth picking up. On the contrary, what gives this album staying power are the other tracks that showcase the substantial songwriting and musical talent of RC & The Gritz.

Pay Your Tab’s 11 tracks are solid, each in their own way. There are finger-snapping R&B cuts like “Summer Boo,” “Hush,” and “Melodies.” There is the darkly edgy hip-hop opener “C7#9,” a reggae track, “Love Love Love,” and even a cross-over pop-ready tune featuring Snoop Dogg and Raheem DeVaughn, “That Kinda Girl.”

It’s especially encouraging to me to see groups like this break out because the market for new music seems to be skewed to pop and a particularly shallow form of hip-hop. RC & The Gritz occupies a much smarter and musically advanced niche between R&B, Jazz, and Hip-Hop that is woefully underrepresented in today’s music. Kudos to Badu and the other backers of this project for giving this music a chance to spread and flourish.

The Players: RC “Rceeezy” Williams, keyboards/Vocals; Cleon Edwards, Drums; TaRon Lockett, percussion; Braylon “Brother B” Lacy, bass; Claudia Melton, vocals; and Jah Born, MPC (drum machine)

Album Review: Black Radio 2, Robert Glasper Experiment (Blue Note, 2013)

Robert-Glasper-Experiment-Black-Radio-2When Black Radio was released in early 2012, it made an immediate impact, upping the already respectable cool factor at Blue Note and delivering a surprisingly cohesive album for a hip-hop/R&B/jazz fusion project.

I was surprised to see a follow-up album, Black Radio 2, so soon after the first. To be this prolific in such a short time, one wonders what Glasper and his collaborators left on the table. Were they rushed because of the pressures of a multi-album deal? Did the success of Black Radio force his hand to replicate his formula without the same attention to detail?

None of these fears are founded. Black Radio 2, like its predecessor, delivers an impressive variety of jazz, hip-hop, and R&B. His collaborators are amazingly as diverse, notable, and suitable as with Black Radio.

The sound ranges from the Quiet Storm opener, “Baby Tonight” to the devotional closer, “Jesus Children” to the rousing rally cry of “I Stand Alone” featuring Common and Patrick Stump. Overall, R&B emerges as the dominant genre while Glasper’s distinctive piano feathers nearly every track.

A notable pattern on the album is that many tracks contain refrains or interludes that Glasper uses to varying effect — the best of which is Wayne Brady’s hysterical cameo phone message at the end of “Let it Ride,” sung by Norah Jones. And if you ever wondered what happened to Theo Huxtable, Malcolm Jamal Warner contributes to the spoken word outro on “Jesus Children.” On a more intense note, a reading from Georgetown University’s Michael Eric Dyson closes out “I Stand Alone.”

Thank God we’ve still got musicians and thinkers whose obsession with excellence and whose hunger for greatness reminds us that we should all be unsatisfied with mimicking the popular rather than mining the fertile veins of creativity that God placed deep inside each of us. – Michael Eric Dyson Interlude on “I Stand Alone”

Including this somewhat preachy missive reveals what may be Glasper’s inspiration for this album and its predecessor. Here is an accomplished jazz pianist who has stepped well outside the jazz genre. Black Radio 2 doesn’t really blur Jazz’ boundaries (like Herbie Hancock did) but may contribute to the expansion of what people perceive as jazz (like Guru did with his Jazzmatazz projects).

Musically, this album delivers so much good R&B that a debate over genre is quickly rendered inconsequential. These collaborators surely emptied out the pantheon of contemporary female vocal greats: Jill Scott, Faith Evans, Brandy, Norah Jones, Marcia Ambrosius, and Lalah Hathaway. Male vocalists Anthony Hamilton and Dwele also make solid contributions. On the Hip Hop front, Common, Snoop Dogg, and Lupe Fiasco appear (Fiasco wins extra points for incorporating F1 driver, “Kimi Raikkonen” into a rap verse).

The last time one man got this much talent to guest on his record, it was Quincy Jones.

Perhaps Glasper has risen to Dyson’s challenge, not by innovating and expanding on jazz, but by using his current standing at the apex of “jazz’ coolness” to attract A-list collaborators and make great music on his terms.

Related Posts: Black Radio, Album Review