Archives for posts with tag: Stephen Bruner

Album Review: Velvet Portraits, Terrace Martin (Ropeadope, 2016)

tmvpTerrace Martin is in good company. Affiliations with hip-hop royalty like Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar put him squarely at the centre of today’s musical sweet spot. A producer, recording artist, and multi-instrumentalist, Martin pivots into the spotlight again with the release of his sixth studio album, Velvet Portraits.

Martin’s prior albums were a mix of hip-hop and R&B. Portraits is more jazz-centric but features some tracks squarely in the R&B and Soul genres. “Push” and “Patiently Waiting” are classically executed soul tracks, the latter featuring Uncle Chucc on vocals. “With You” and “Oakland” are more R&B but with an innovative edge, not unlike Robert Glasper’s Black Radio 2 album (Blue Note, 2013). “Reverse,” featuring Glasper and vocalist Candy West is a completely immersive ballad. These R&B/Soul tracks stand on their own and serve as more conventional interludes on an album whose deepest appeal is in the jazz at the heart of the remaining cuts.

Collaborators like Thundercat (a.k.a. Stephen Bruner), Kamasi Washington, and Robert Glasper are brought to bear throughout the album both as composers and virtuosos. Convergence is especially high on the track “Curly Martin.” Broken beats and Thundercat’s signature bass sound underlay warm keyboards and a simple melody carried by Washington’s saxophone. Similarly, “A Tribe Called West” and “Bromali” present a jazz fusion sound defined by this cadre of musicians and songwriters.

Martin closes his album with a version of Kendrick Lamar’s “Mortal Man,” an etherial track with nearly 12 minutes of beats, saxophone, lush keyboards, and vocalizations that remind us: great musicians can do great things when given a platform on album like this.

Terrace Martin is not only in good company. He is the perfect host.

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Feature: ‘Virtual Bands’ 

This video intrigues me. It features some of my favourite musicians recently playing alongside an original Marvin Gaye vocal track.

This post is about that ‘virtual band’ concept and how we might take it in. Is it a loving homage, merely derivative, or just good music?

The earliest instance of this phenomenon I can remember is the video for “Unforgettable…with Love,” (Elektra, 1991) featuring Natalie Cole alongside archival footage of her father, Nat King Cole. At the time, it struck me as a brazen attempt to trade on her father’s name and reboot her struggling pop career. It worked. The album went 7x platinum. As uneasy as the I was with the means, the recording was tasteful and the overall effect of the video, heartwarming.

Fast forward to the 2012 London Olympics closing ceremony where we saw John Lennon duet with a children’s choir on “Imagine” and Freddie Mercury entrance nearly a billion TV viewers in a call-and-response routine filmed more than a quarter century earlier.

Today’s technology makes nearly anything possible. Why remix when you can reanimate? But as with any new technology, once it matures, its application becomes more relevant than its technical wonder.

Why remix when you can reanimate?

This brings me back to the Marvin Gaye All Stars, recorded under the auspices of Italian national radio, RAI. The architect of the session was Alessio Bertallot, a broadcaster, musician, and host of RaiTunes, airing weeknights on RAI Radio2 (incidentally, Bertallot is a fine radio programmer…I recommend his podcasts).

Assembling high calibre musicians like Jean-Paul ‘Bluey’ Maunick of Incognito and Thundercat (a.k.a. Stephen Bruner) is a good start if you value quality over the technical trickery of bringing Marvin Gaye back to life. The accompaniment on the recording is laid back and respectful of the vocal track, but is set in a jazz-funk arrangement that gives the song contemporary lustre. Jason Lindner on the Rhodes is my new keyboard hero.

Another example from the RaiTunes archive is Billy Jean’s All Stars, featuring Maunick on guitar, Marcus Miller on bass,  jazz fusion great, Billy Cobham on drums, and of course, Michael Jackson on vocals.

Again, the treatment is tasteful, blends with Jackson’s vocal track, and gives the song an entirely different vibe from the original version.

Alessio Bertallot on ‘Play’

I asked Bertallot what gave rise to the ‘virtual band’ series. He responded that mixing genres, live performances, and recordings is a means to “open minds and boundaries.” Indeed, RaiTunes’ collection of videos on Bertallot’s youtube channel are an eclectic mix of musicians, spoken word, and even visual artists interplaying with the radio medium.

On the subject of reusing classic vocal tracks, Bertallot cited an exchange he had with Bruner, a critically acclaimed musician and none other than Erykah Badu’s bassist. Bruner recounted “sitting in his bedroom, as a teenager, for hours and hours trying to play along with Marvin Gaye’s voice.” This very humble account of a kid trying to master his instrument has the kernel of what makes these virtual bands more about ‘play’ than anything else.

Bertallot explains, “In Italian we have two different words [for ‘play’]: one is suonare, which means play music. The other one is giocare, which is what children do. I prefer the English and French way of having just one word for both meanings: musicians must keep innocence and spontaneity.”

Re-watching the Marvin Gaye All Stars video, I see what he means. Four ‘kids’ with their instruments, playing along with a legendary voice from the past, just for fun. Ecco la musica gioiosa!

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Album Review: The Golden Age of Apocalypse, Thundercat (Brainfeeder, 2011)

goldenYou would expect Erykah Badu’s bassist to know something about melody. Stephen Bruner (a.k.a. Thundercat) demonstrates that here clearly. Songs like “Daylight” and “Is it Love?” are catchy, pleasurable tunes that the listener warms to very quickly.

What’s remarkable about this album is how Thundercat uses dissonance to put us off-balance and yet manages to push his melodies through the noise to keep us grounded. Broken beats, sharps, flats, and sonic subterfuge abound. But the core of each song grabs you and doesn’t let you forget it.

There are echos, strong echos, of Jaco Pastorius. If you download any of this Thundercat album, buy Jaco’s track, “Portrait of Tracy” as a mandatory companion.