Archives for posts with tag: Soul

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: 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: 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: This is my EP, Ady Suleiman (Sony Music, April 2015)

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I’ve been waiting for this since 2013. That’s when I first heard Ady Suleiman, courtesy of Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide show on BBC6. A simple and sublime acoustic track called “Longing for your Love” instantly qualified as one of those few songs we hear in our lifetime that we can honestly say is perfectly crafted and performed.

Suleiman’s sound has evolved since his early acoustic demos. Higher production values and more diverse instrumentation give his music a new fullness. Thankfully, he hasn’t let it eclipse his greatest strength, which is his songwriting.

This is My EP is Suleiman’s recording debut. Its four tracks achieve the tricky task of giving us plenty of original music to enjoy while leaving us wanting more. The EP’s song selections showcase Suleiman’s promise. “State of Mind” is the only overtly reggae-influenced tune in the set, marking a departure of sorts from his earlier work and vocal stylings, which are strongly influenced by reggae.

“Need Somebody to Love” and “Out of Luck” are more lush, charging ably into the realm of R&B/pop ballads. The opening track, “So Lost,” deserves to be a straight up R&B hit. In particular, it’s evidence that Suleiman’s mastery of sublimely simple melody extends to his use of beats (D’Angelo anyone?).

Eighteen months ago, when I first heard “Longing for your Love,” I marvelled at its perfect melody, arrangement, and a vocal performance. I also felt great anticipation for what would come next from this artist. Suleiman’s SoundCloud page easily has an album’s worth of stellar songwriting. One can only hope he mines that material and keeps writing new songs to produce a full length album soon.

In the meantime, This is my EP is here. And it’s perfect.

 

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: The Man, Omar, Shanachie Entertainment, 2013

omar-the-man-lp-lead It’s not everyday a bass clarinet is used to drive a hooky bassline on a monster R&B hit, as is the case with “The Man,” the title track from Omar’s 7th studio album. U.K. R&B/Soul veteren, Omar a.k.a Omar Christopher Lyefook) has mercifully returned after a seven year recording absence.

Basslines, including the obscure-yet-effective woodwind on “The Man,” emerge as Omar’s calling card throughout this fine album. “Simplify” is driven by stacatto flute sounds. “Come on speak to me” is carried by a hard-working double bass.

The Man also features several collaborations including former Jamiroquai bassist Stuart Zender playing on “Ordinary Day,” a bossa-inspired track punctuated by Omar’s vocal ad lib and pulsing with energy thanks to some fantastic horn and string arrangements. Another collaboration is with former The Who and D’Angelo bassist, Pino Palladino doing a renewed version of Omar’s most popular hit, “There’s nothing like this.” This version is jazzier than the original, with more  swing and some nice Rhodes work by Omar himself. The bassline is true to the original classic, not giving Palladino much space to play. Nice as this version is, it struck me as an odd choice, re-working a song whose original still stands up today.

Still, the entire album is pleasing, like a stroll on a fine day. Each track delights with its unique bassline. Omar’s flawlesss vocals are aptly front-and-centre in every mix, and the innovative instrumentation gives the music a freshness that sets it apart from other recent releases in the R&B, Soul, and Jazz-Funk genre’s.

Album Review: To Dust, Alice Russell (Tru Thoughts, 2013)

alice_russel_to_dust

Alice Russell is underserved. We don’t get enough of her, especially in North America where she is lesser known than her countrywomen, Adele and Amy Winehouse. If we must compare her to other soulful British female vocalists, my vote goes to a voice we knew in the eighties — Alison Moyet. Russell is uncannily similar in style and spirit to Moyet, the powerful vocalist behind Yazoo.

The five year pause since Russell’s last album, Pot of Gold (Six Degrees, 2008), has been worth the wait. To Dust gives us Russell’s voice in a surprising variety of tracks across the album. There are more straight-ahead soul tracks, some electronic influenced arrangements, and hooky pop tunes.

I can’t help but compare this with Jose James’ latest release, No Beginning No End (Blue Note, 2013). That album was focussed on showcasing James’ unique voice. I was expecting something similar for Russell’s current outing. Rather, To Dust offers a varied song selection and the production sometimes takes a front seat. This is not to say James’ album is better. To Dust takes a different approach with the artist, still using her range, but drawing from more genres in the process.

The first single, “Heartbreaker” is a driving and soulful march. It gives Russell an opportunity to show off her power, which she does without overdoing it. “Let Go (Breakdown)” is another catchy tune. This is where the vocals could be more front-and-centre. It works, but if you’ve heard Russell in a more raw production setting (like here), you’d want more vocals.

The rawness and Russell’s control is featured nicely in “I Loved You.” An echoed bass drum, not unlike Yazoo’s minimalist classic, “Winter Kills” from Upstairs at Eric’s (Mute, 1982), invokes more Russell vs. Moyet comparisons. Likewise, “Citizens” is a sparser track with vocals up front. The piano rhythm track gives the track a hip-hop feel, which works nicely with Russell’s treatment.

On the electronic side of the spectrum, “For a While” features synth and a very Prince-like breakdown, which Russell pulls off naturalistically. “Different” is the tranciest track and reminds me of “Driven to Tears” from The Police’s Zenyatta Mondatta (A&M, 1980). “Drinking Song Interlude” hints that Russell could play in the electronic dance space easily but is so short it leaves us wanting more.

This is a strong end-to-end listen that takes you on a journey through soul, pop, and electronica. Russell’s vocals are reason enough to pick up this album. The style mix makes it even more compelling.