Archives for posts with tag: R&B

Album Review: Be the Change, Jarrod Lawson (Dome Records, October 2020)

I’ve been entranced by Jarrod Lawson’s sophomore album since it was released a couple of weeks ago. I’ve listened to it front-to-back and sideways and I can’t get enough. Lawson’s songwriting and intensely soulful delivery transform him into a prism of sorts — taking in love, pain, sorrow, joy, and hope, and refracting it into music that makes sense of it all.

Be the Change is definitely an album for our time. “Embrace What We Are” is, at its essence, a protest song, pleading for humanism in a world beset by tribalism. Proceeds from the single go to colorofchange.org.

Let your fears be vanquished by a simple truth / That you’re my sister, you’re my brother / Let’s embrace what we are and stop killing each other

Embrace What We Are, Jarrod Lawson

Not unlike his self-titled debut, this album features tastefully balanced production that lets Lawson’s voice take a hold of you. On tracks like “Evalee” and “Universal Chord,” his harmonies and backing vocals take you to church, every time.

2020 has been a brutal year for humankind. Be the Change arrives as a salve, displacing noise with music, pain with healing.

Album Review: Untitled (Rise), Sault (Forever Living Originals, Sept 2020)

Sault is a U.K. based collective of artists whose identity is oft described as anonymous. A little digging turns up Dean Wynton Josiah Cover (a.k.a. Inflo) as its prime mover. Collaborators include Cleopatra Nikolic (a.k.a. Cleo Sol) and Melisa Young (a.k.a. Kid Sister).

Untitled (Rise) is their second release this year, only 3 months on the heels of Untitled (Black Is). Both projects land with authenticity and relevance in a period where social justice for people of colour is resonating with larger and broader segments of society.

Untitled (Rise) conveys some heart-wrenching messages wrapped up in beautifully written and produced songs. The closing track, “Little Boy” is a great example:

Little boy, Little boy / When you get older / And you’re searching for the answers / And the Lord’s truth / For those who look like you

Little boy, Little boy / When you get older / You can ask me all the questions / And I’ll tell you the truth / About the boys in blue

Little Boy, Sault

In “Uncomfortable,” the singer asks, “Why do you keep shooting us” over a simple keyboard, drum, and bass groove. The rawness of this track’s production is countered with full-bodied synth and string treatments on “Strong” and “Fearless.” “Street Fighter” sees the album pivot again, this time to an Afrobeat treatment. “Son Shine” is a beautifully written and arranged gospel number. The youthful choir vocals makes is one of the more hopeful tracks on the album.

More than the outstanding songwriting, production, and performances on this album, Sault delivers a spirit of resistance and resolve.

Album Review: Introspection, Angela Munoz (Linear Labs, June 2020)


Angela Munoz is described as an 18-year-old prodigy on her Bandcamp page. This album is undeniable proof. Her vocals, songwriting, and style are mature well beyond her years. This album, produced by Adrian Younge arrives with the weight and substance of seasoned R&B soul veteran.

Younge, known for his work with A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad, is a prolific producer with a rolodex of impressive collaborators including Kendrick Lamar, The Delfonics, and Jay Z.

Introspection has so much going for it. Munoz’ sincerity comes through in every phrase. The songs are all solid. And the production is lush but not heavy handed. In “Don’t Show It” and “I Don’t Care” Younge uses orchestral string arrangements that would make Henri Mancini proud.

“I’m In Love” is a great example of how Younge and Munoz turn a very simple melody into a gorgeous song. It has a vibe similar to Deniece Williams’ “Free” (Columbia, 1976) produced by none other than Maurice White and Charles Stepney.

Younge’s projects span multiple generations. This debut from Munoz is at one end of the spectrum. In the same month, Younge and Shaheed Muhammad released a new record with Roy Ayers and only a few months earlier, a new release from Brazilian jazz legends Azymuth.

It could be said Younge is at the nexus of good music today.

Album Review: It Is What It Is, Thundercat (Brainfeeder, April 2020)

Thundercat (a.k.a. Stephen Bruner) is a widely respected bassist, songwriter, and performer. His debut album, Golden Age of Apocalypse (Brainfeeder) in 2011, launched his solo career. Since then, he has released two studio albums and is featured in numerous collaborations with the likes of Anderson .Paak and Kendrick Lamar, and the late Mac Miller.

It Is What It Is marks a return in a way to his breakthrough debut. The melody, vocals, and songwriting make for perhaps his most accessible album. Unlike Apocalypse (Brainfeeder, 2013) and Drunk (Brainfeeder 2017), this release features several full-length tracks with more conventional structures and production choices. It should be noted, “conventional” in the context of a Thundercat record is still delightfully several degrees askew.

The first single, “Dragonball Durag” showcases what I mean on melody and songwriting. Bruner has cultivated a signature sound with his falsetto vocals and playful production choices grounded in a velvety low end. There’s an AOR vibe about this record. “Black Qualls” disguises complex arrangements and song structure in a thoroughly enjoyable 3-minute song.

Bruner’s frenzied solo prowess and his signature Thundercat bass sound are showcased on “How Sway” and “Unrequited Love.” “King of The Hill” is a particularly original track, alternatively haunting and soothing.

Thundercat can always be counted on to bring something new to the intersection of funk, jazz, and R&B. With It Is What It Is, he delivers in his weirdly groovy way.

Album Reviews:

CASE STUDY 01, Daniel Caesar (Golden Child Recordings, June 2019)

Love’s Last Chance, Taylor McFerrin (FromHereEntertainment, August 2019)

 

 

 

 

These two albums took a hold of me recently. Daniel Caesar’s CASE STUDY 01 is a powerful album, rich with well-crafted songs, minimalist production, and Caesar’s distinctive vocal performance. Taylor McFerrin’s Love’s Last Chance is a marvel of songwriting, sprinkled with electronic production that evokes the work of Flying Lotus a.k.a Steven Ellison. Ellison’s Brainfeeder label put out Mcferrin’s debut album, Early Riser (Brainfeeder, 2014) so the influence is happily expected.

Both are sophomore albums and both are from young male R&B vocalists who have distinguished themselves stylistically with their production choices. A Yin and Yang if you will, of modern urban music: Caesar with an acoustic sensibility, McFerrin an electronic one, both uncompromising in their songwriting.

McFerrin’s “Now that you need me” features multiple synth sounds, beats, and vocal effects that electrify the vibe while the melody and soul of the song keep it grounded. Caesar’s “Too deep to turn back” is simultaneously an acoustic sing-along, a sullen ballad, and just plain beautiful. These two tracks are the most striking examples of what characterizes each album but there is of course, a spectrum within each.

I think that’s why these albums appealed to me as a pair, rather than individually. They swirl around together, not quite dissolving into one another but playing off their differences, elevating each other.

Concert Review: Charlotte Day Wilson, Toronto, April 6 2018, Danforth Music Hall

Charlotte Day Wilson, Danforth Music Hall, April 6 2018

Charlotte Day Wilson performed most of last night’s sold out show in silhouette. Like the video for her title track from Stone Woman (Charlotte Day Wilson, 2018), the evening’s lighting design obscured the Toronto native in front of a tungsten backlight display. The effect created a mystique that befitted Wilson’s musical presence: soulful, strong, but also um, shy.

James Tillman

As an aside and pleasant surprise, I only learned when he took the stage that James Tillman was the opening act. I first heard him on Jason Palma’s excellent Higher Ground Radio show in 2014. He played some of my favourites, including Shangri La from his EP of the same name (James Tillman, 2014) and “Run of the Mill” from James Tillman on Audiotree Live – EP (Audiotree, 2015).

Wilson took the stage will little fanfare and opened with “Stone Woman,” a short piece, but one that demonstrates her strengths in production, vocal performance, and most of all, pure songwriting talent.

To the audience’s delight, she included her stunning collaboration with Badbadnotgood, “In Your Eyes,” from that group’s IV release (Badbadnotgood, 2016).

Another remarkable selection was “Funeral,” beginning with a solo on her childhood acoustic piano (which Wilson had hauled to the venue from her home), then morphing into a coda featuring Wilson on sax vamping to the groove from D’Angelo’s “Spanish Joint” (Virgin, 2000).

Wilson included two unreleased selections, one of them in her encore, dedicated to her grandparents. Finishing with Erykah Badu’s “Out My Mind, Just in Time” (Universal, 2010) was particularly fitting. Comparisons to Badu would not be misplaced. Like Badu, Wilson has created her own sound, technically and musically, and as a self published artist, has set her own terms for how she will move about the world.

Setlist

  1. Stone Woman
  2. Doubt
  3. In Your Eyes (Badbadnotgood cover)
  4. Falling Apart
  5. Funeral (coda: Spanish Joint, D’Angelo cover)
  6. Let You Down
  7. Nothing New
  8. Find You
  9. (Unreleased)
  10. Mine
  11. Work

Encore:

  1. (Unreleased)
  2. Out My Mind, Just in Time (Erykah Badu cover)

The Players: Charlotte Day Wilson (vocals, guitar, piano, saxophone). Accompanied by unnamed players on bass guitar/guitar and keyboards. Also unnamed but likely on drums was Duncan Hood.

 

Further Listening:

A nice performance of “In Your Eyes” on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series starts in this clip around the 7 minute mark. Badbadnotgood’s Alex Sowinsky delivers a warm intro to Wilson at 6:40, revealing that her vocal talent was not known by her then schoolmates until later in their musical relationship.

Further Reading: NOW Magazine profile of Charlotte Day Wilson

Concert Review: Jordan Rakei, Toronto, February 28 2018, Lee’s Palace

Jordan Rakei is 5-years deep into a recording career that launched with his self-published debut EP, Franklin’s Room (Jordan Rakei, 2013). In that time, the multi-instrumentalist and neo soul vocalist has amassed a loyal following, many of whom were on hand at Lee’s Palace last Wednesday for Rakei’s first Canadian appearance.

Left to right: Sheldon Agwu, Jordan Rakei, Eric Whatley

Rakei delivered an hour+ set characterized by single-minded focus. He’s a performer that gets lost in his own music, drawing his audience deep into his sound. His keyboard work on “A Tribe Called Government” from the Groove Curse EP (Soul Has No Tempo, 2014) was particularly immersive for the performer and his audience.

I’m sure I’m not the first to draw comparisons to D’Angelo given Rakei’s soundscape and rhythm choices. “Add the Basseline” from Groove Curse sounds like an ode to D’Angelo’s “Devil’s Pie.” Rakei’s vocal style is quite original but I am reminded of David Sylvian in his more woeful moments. From a songwriting perspective, Rakei appears to have more reach than other neo soul acts. For example, “Eye to Eye,” which opens his latest album, Wallflower (Ninja Tune, 2017), has a distinctly acoustic vibe.

Rakei’s Bandcamp page reveals “his own struggles with introversion and anxiety” as inspiration for Wallflower. Let’s hope this album and tour give him the therapy he needs. Rakei’s songwriting and musicianship draw the spotlight, despite his affinity for the shadows.

Setlist

  1. Eye to Eye
  2. May
  3. Nerve
  4. Goodbyes
  5. Alright
  6. Chemical Coincidence
  7. A Tribe Called Government
  8. Midnight Mischief
  9. Selfish
  10. Sorceress (encore)

The Players: Jordan Rakei (vocals, keyboards, guitar); Sheldon Agwu (rhythm guitar); Eric Whatley (bass guitar, keyboards); Jim Mcrae (drums)

 

 

 

 

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)