KAMASI WASHINGTON: 'Heaven & Earth' (Young Turks)

Monday, 18 June 2018 20:47 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF


Four years ago, the world was largely unaware of KAMASI WASHINGTON. He was an unsung sideman whose name was an unfamiliar one except to avid readers of album credits, who would have spotted his name on the small print of a slew of albums, including some by Ryan Adams, Robin Thicke, and Snoop Dogg.  But all that changed with the release of 'The Epic' in 2015, a game-changing triple album that transformed a journeyman saxophonist from California  into a world-famous jazz superstar. The fact that the music industry hype machine has gone into overdrive to promote the baby-faced gentle giant as jazz's new saviour would seem to put a ton of pressure on the 37-year-old but on the evidence provided by his stupendous second album, 'Heaven & Earth,' he's riding the tsunami that 'The Epic' engendered with grace and nonchalant ease.

The curse of second album syndrome isn't a factor here on an album that is brimming with ideas and creativity. Never one to do things by halves, Kamasi together with his stellar band, The Next Step, serves up a grandiose double album that is thematically more focused than his sprawling debut but which also offers a wider tonal palette. It also affirms that Washington is an accomplished storyteller, using his music to etch vivid aural narratives that feeds our imagination.

The album's divided into two diametrically-opposed  parts - 'Heaven,' and 'Earth,' each composed of eight tracks.  The former begins with a majestic arrangement of 'Fists Of Fury,' the soundtrack theme to an old Bruce Lee martial arts movie. Rhythmically, it's dynamic and funky, with lead vocals provided by the Patrice Quinn and resonant-voiced Dwight Tribble. 'Can You Hear Him' takes us on a journey into the cosmos with its ethereal choir but it's kept grounded by pulsating Latin-style rhythms, which are even stronger on the propulsive, conga-driven 'Hub-Tones,' with its snaking horn theme. As well as tight but fluid, ensemble work, the music is notable for its stunning solos - not just from Washington's tenor sax, but also from trumpeter Dontae Winslow, and trombonist, Ryan Porter. The uniqueness of Washington's sonic vision is encapsulated by 'Connections,' mostly a simmering, low-key ballad but which is periodically enhanced by a full choir together with orchestra and swirling harps, which give it a larger-than-life, widescreen feel.

The cinematic dimension of Washington's music is even more apparent on the opening cut of the 'Heaven' part of the album. 'The Space Travelers Lullaby' is gorgeous beyond words - an immersive, supremely imaginative, interstellar tone poem that is beautifully arranged (with lush orchestration and celestial choir) and demonstrates that the saxophonist could easily begin  a new career as a composer of movie scores. By contrast 'Vi Lua Vi Sol,' propelled by Miles Mosley's bass, is tinged with contemporary R&B - in a similar way to what Robert Glasper has been doing with his Experiment band - and features Brandon Coleman singing an infectious melody through a vocoder.  Though grittier, 'Street Fighter Mas' exemplifies Washington's penchant for anthem-like melodies while the driving 'Show Us The Way' sounds like a slower, less frenetic, and more considered version of 'Change Of The Guard,' from his first album.  The album closes with 'Will You Sing,' a rousing slice of choral jazz.

Despite the arresting cover photo, he can't really walk on water - but he does perform miracles on 'Heaven & Earth,' a deeply impressive collection of songs that will cement his place in the jazz history books. 'The Epic' was no flash in the pan. Rather, it was a bolt of lightning and the start of something deeper and more momentous.  He's made jazz exciting, relevant and more appealing again to the wider general public. Anyone who doubted Washington's ability to reach the creative peaks of 'The Epic' will have to think again. 'Heaven & Earth' is masterly in its execution and consistently breathtaking in its beauty. It's a hugely significant record, not only for jazz, but popular music in general - a masterpiece, in fact.  Jazz has a new messiah ...and his name is Kamasi Washington.

'Heaven & Earth' is out on Friday June 22nd.

(CW) 5/5

Last Updated on Monday, 18 June 2018 20:54


VARIOUS ARTISTS: 'Soul Vibration' (New Continent)

Saturday, 16 June 2018 11:31 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

                               altWhen Ray Charles released 'I Got A Woman' in late 1954, which was based on a gospel song but had sexualised lyrics, it sent seismic shockwaves through African American church congregations throughout the USA, who decried it as an unholy marriage of the sacred and profane. The controversy surrounding the record only helped to propel it to the #1  position in the US R&B charts. More significantly, the record birthed what came to be known as soul music, where the demarcation line between gospel and rhythm and blues became irrevocably blurred.

The evolution of soul can be traced  on this excellent 3-CD set, which spans the years 1954-1962 and includes, appropriately enough, Charles's seminal 'I Got A Woman,' which provided soul's Big Bang moment. Another of soul's pioneers was James Brown, whose 1956 cut with The Famous Flames, 'Please, Please, Please,' established him as an early R&B star. Sam Cooke renounced gospel music for a secular pop career path but the sound of the church never left his music, as '(What A) Wonderful World' and 'Twistin' The Night Away' reveal. The same can be said of vocal gymnast, Jackie Wilson, whose 1957 hit, 'Reet Petite,' put him on the map. The song was co-written by Berry Gordy, who, two years later would establish Motown Records in Detroit and go on to found a music empire that conquered the world. Early Motown hits can be found on this compilation, including Barrett Strong's 'Money (That's What I Want),' Smokey Robinson & The Miracles' 'Shop Around,' Marvin Gaye's 'Stubborn Kind Of Fellow,'  The Marvelettes 'Please Mr. Postman,' and Stevie Wonder's Fingertips,' the Supremes' 'Time Changes Things,'  Mary Wells' 'The One Who Really Loves You,' and The Temptations' 'Check Yourself.' This was before Motown blew up big with the Holland-Dozier-Holland sound, which would come to define the label's style a few years alter.

Down in America's deep south, in Memphis, Stax Records was also making its presence felt in the early 1960s, with the label's house band, Booker T & The MGs, setting fire to the R&B charts with the organ-led instrumental, 'Green Onions.'  You also get early Stax cuts from Otis Redding ('These Arms Of Mine,) Carla Thomas ('Gee Whiz (Look At His Eyes)' and William Bell ('Don't Miss Your Water).' Also represented on this album are Etta James, Little Willie John, Hank Ballard & the Midnighters, The Isley Brothers, Ben E. King, Aretha Franklin, Arthur Alexander, The Crystals, The Coasters and countless more, including some lesser-known singers. They all contribute to painting a vivid, varied, and colourful picture of soul music during its formative years. For some listeners, these seventy-five songs will bring back memories of their youth, perhaps, but if you're a newcomer to the genre, then 'Soul Vibration' functions as a great introduction that is guaranteed to get you hooked.

(CW) 4/5

Last Updated on Saturday, 16 June 2018 14:23


JOHN REID; The Nightcrawlers Soul Sessions Album (Absolute)

Friday, 15 June 2018 15:36 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altScottish singer John Reid has enjoyed a properly varied career. He started off as a soul DJ, and then in 1992 he formed his own band, the Nightcrawlers who enjoyed plenty of action with 'Push The Feeling' and 'Surrender Your Love'. John then focused on song writing, penning songs for a mixed bag of artists – amongst them Westflife, Rod Stewart, Tina Turner, Kelly Clarkson and Leona Lewis.

At the back end of 2017 'Push The Feeling' enjoyed some reactivated action which, I'm guessing, prompted Mr R to make some new Nightcrawling music and the result was a lovely 3 track EP. All three tunes were produced by Michael J McEvoy and Ernie McKone so you know we're talking soul quality.... reflected in the number of airplays and spins the cuts won for themselves.

Now those three tracks form the centrepiece of John's latest album and the new tunes maintain the high soul standard set by the EP's three. The lead single off the set is 'All Night Long' (no not that one... it's a new song!) and soul radio listeners will already be familiar with it – a classy, tight modern soul groove; the kind of thing that Cool Million do so well. In fact it has a flavour of their recent work with Kenny Thomas.

John clearly has a penchant for penning songs with familiar titles. Apart from 'All Night Long', there's a cut here called 'Stop Look Listen'. No, not the Stylistics' song; rather a new pleasant pop/soul confection. It does actually reference the Marvin Gaye/ Dina Ross version of the soul classic in the lyrics and to show that he has a soul pedigree, on 'If It's Love You Want', he runs through a litany of soul "names" in the clever lyrics. It's one of the many album highlights. 'Push The Feeling On' is another top tune – a classic modern soul groove.

Ballad-wise 'Right Where I Belong' is the big one, while the three original EP tracks still sound fresh and exciting despite their familiarity. All three 'I Need Your Love', the cooler 'Love Comes Round' and 'Watchin' You Watchin Me' are destined to be amongst 2018's top tunes. I'm predicting too that the album will also find its way onto year end "best of" lists.

(BB) 4/5

Last Updated on Friday, 15 June 2018 15:42


SMOOVE and TURRELL: Mount Pleasant (Jalapeno)

Thursday, 14 June 2018 10:10 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altIt was back in 2016 that we last heard from North East duo Smoove and Turrell. They'd just released their fourth studio album,' Crown Posada'. The set was crammed with their distinctive, quirky take on soul and jazz/funk and, we were informed, that the album was the first part of a trilogy. It's been almost two years, but part II – the 11 track 'Mount Pleasant' is almost set to hit the sales racks.

So, to explain the chronology... 'Crown Posada' was a set of songs that set out to offer thoughts and reflections on the generation that preceded S&T. (Crown Posada, by the way, is a famous old Newcastle pub, frequented by the older, tough Geordie shipwrights and miners)) .The album track, 'New Jerusalem' examined the conflict between the old and the new, and so 'Mount Pleasant' moves on to look at that "new" in more detail. But not the new of now; rather the new of the pair growing up in the Gateshead district of Mount Pleasant.

Key cut in terms of nostalgia is 'A Deckham Love Song' – a warm, rose-tinted look back at growing up. Sonically, it's a little different for S&T. Best point of reference is possibly the work of Sheffield crooner Richard Hawley (though there's hint of Morrissey in the vocal too); it is a lovely tune.

Elsewhere the sonic palette is, by and large, more typical of the duo – that's to say, carefully-crafted dance grooves – some more frantic than others. The set's lead single is indeed of one the LP's big grooves – 'You're Gone'. With vocals from Jalapeno tablemate Izo Fitzroy, it's already winning plenty of exposure from taste makers like Craig Charles. Lyrically, it's the simple tale of who to turn to now "you're gone". Some of the other danceable tunes though have a more pointed message – like 'Hate Seeking Missile'. It's a tough groove with a tough message – inspired by (and written shortly after the murder of) MP Jo Cox.

If you prefer things a little down-tempo we recommend 'Billie' and 'Flames To Feed'. The latter (with a melody referencing an old Geordie folk song, I think) is another with a telling tale.... the perils of debt and spiralling interest: "Debt is the start of your slavery. You get that little bit of plastic it's not clear to see that you'll be shackled to these chains until the day you don't breathe. So stop and hold breath"... soul music with a conscience.

Smoove and Turrell's 'Mount Pleasant' is released on June 29th.

Last Updated on Thursday, 14 June 2018 10:24


JEAN CARNE: 'Don't Let It Go To Your Head - The Anthology' (Soul Music Records)

Wednesday, 13 June 2018 12:13 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

                      altThough she was originally from Columbus, Georgia, Jean Carne's name will always be synonymous with the 'City Of Brotherly Love,' Philadelphia. That's because she first made her mark as a solo artist at Gamble & Huff's Philadelphia International label in the 1970s. She cut four albums for  P.I.R. (though the last came out on the label's T.S.O.P. imprint) and tracks from her five-year tenure with the label function as the foundation for this 2-CD/33-track, which also includes a couple of tracks from her solitary 1982 Motown album, 'Trust Me,' as well as a slew of collaborations with other recording artists.

What's mystifying is that despite recording some wonderful music for P.I.R., Jean Carne (or Carn, as her name was spelled back then), didn't score a major hit for Gamble & Huff in the USA. Her debut 45, 'Free Love,' the opener on this fine collection,  was her biggest solo chart entry in the '70s, but it couldn't break into the R&B Top 20 (in fact, Carne wouldn't tick that off as an achievement until 1986, when her song, 'Closer Than Close,' for the Omni label, topped the R&B charts). Even more surprising was the failure of one of her signature tunes, the ever-wonderful 'Don't Let It Go To You Head' from 1978, to stake a claim in the American R&B Top 50. It died at #54.

Another great tune of Carne's, the anthemic, disco-inflected 'Was That All It Was' released a year after - you get the elongated 12-inch version here - didn't even register on the R&B charts. In retrospect, the reason for Carne's inability to connect with the US public wasn't anything to do with bad luck, timing, or even marketing issues, but rather, I think, because her music was just a tad too sophisticated for mainstream audiences. Indeed, Carne had a classical music and jazz background and, as a consequence, projected more of a cosmic vibe and  lacked the earthiness that defined many R&B singers back in the '70s. But that didn't stop her making some great music, much of which has lasted the test of time. From effervescent disco grooves (check out the 12-inch single version of 'What's On Your Mind') to impassioned, storytelling ballads ('Love Don't Love Nobody,' her take on the Spinners' 1974 hit), Jean Carne shows what a supremely versatile singer she is. 

As well as some tremendous material cherry-picked from her P.I.R. days, her Motown single 'If You Don't Know Me By Now' (ironically, a cover of a Philly tune by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes), is included. It's B-side, Carne's amazingly ethereal take on the Minnie Riperton-associated song, 'Completeness,' is also featured. You'll find that track on the second CD along with collaborations with keyboard wizard, Dexter Wansel, Norman Connors (including 'Valentine Love,' a hit duet with Michael Henderson), Roy Ayers, and Grover Washington Jr. One of the set's best duets is the uptempo, 'Back For More,' recorded in tandem with the late Al Johnson.

If you only buy one Jean Carne CD in your life, make it this one. It's got everything you need - sublime vocal performances and first class material together with top-drawer arrangements and exquisite production values. It all adds up to a vivid portrait of one of soul music's unsung heroines.

(CW) 4/5

Last Updated on Thursday, 14 June 2018 10:22


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