Reviews

FANTASTIC NEGRITO: 'Please Don't Be Dead' (Blackball Universe/Cooking Vinyl)

Wednesday, 14 November 2018 17:19 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

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From gun-toting street hustler to Grammy-winning punk-blues avatar, Fantastic Negrito has led a fascinating and eventful life. He was born Xavier Dphrepaulezz into a devoutly religious family with Somalian ancestry in Massachusetts and then from the age of 12, lived in Oakland, California, where he later became a drug-dealing gang banger on the city's mean streets. Music, though, drew him away from a life of crime and inspired by Prince, he started to sing and write songs. He signed a deal with Interscope in 1993 and released the album 'The X Factor' under the name Xavier three years later. But a devastating car accident in 1999 - in which he almost died and was left in a 3-week coma - put paid to his music career. Or so it seemed. Down but not out, in 2013, Xavier returned in the guise of a flamboyant persona called Fantastic Negrito and released his self-titled debut album a year later. He described his unique sound and style as "black roots music for everyone" but it wasn't until after the release of his second album, 'Last Days Of Oakland,' that Negrito began to find a captive audience for his powerful blues-steeped music. The album won a Grammy and since then the 50-year-old performer - renowned for his incendiary live shows - has been considered "hot" property.

Now, we have Fantastic Negrito's latest album called 'Please Don't Be Dead,'  and interestingly, its title - and artwork - refers to the car accident that almost claimed his life 19 years ago. It's not, though, a vain and empty exercise in narcissism but rather about rebirth, redemption, and not going "gentle into that good night." The album's theme is crystallised in the short piano-led ballad, 'Never Give Up,' an uplifting anthem which embodies the singer/songwriter's never-say-die spirit. Elsewhere, though, the album is feisty and even confrontational. "Knock me down, I will keep fighting," declares a combative Negrito on 'Bullshit Anthem,'  which blends sinewy Prince-like funk (circa 1981) with sanctified gospel cadences.

Negrito's years as a street hustler bring a no-nonsense, straight-talking realism to his music and lyrics. A case in point is 'Plastic Hamburgers,' the explosive, riff-driven blues rocker (with shades of early Led Zeppelin in its DNA)  that opens the album. "American pill will wreck 'n' kill," sings Negrito in a searing indictment of his gun-infested motherland (or should that be "muthaland"?) He also delves into the psychology of evil ('Bad Guy Necessity') and examines discrimination ('Transgender Biscuits') via music that's often strident and steeped in the language of the blues. There are some fine reflective pieces, too, like the introspective 'Dark Windows,' a solemn but gleaming ballad, which shows that Negrito possesses sensitivity as well as plenty of badass attitude.

Xavier Dphrepaulezz's miraculous transformation into Fantastic Negrito offers proof that a near-death experience can sometimes lead to a spiritual rebirth as well as a change of outlook and career direction. On a metaphorical level, 'Please Don't Be Dead' is a plea, perhaps, to other people to embrace life and awaken to a new, more-meaningful reality rather than drift aimlessly along in a zombie-like state where mind-numbing TV and shopping malls rule. Vibrant, life-affirming music. Heed its message.

(CW) 4/5  

Last Updated on Wednesday, 14 November 2018 17:30

 

VARIOUS; Stax ’68 A Memphis Story (Craft/Stax/UMC

Tuesday, 13 November 2018 18:45 Bill Buckley E-mailPrintPDF

altMemphis' Stax Records holds a very special place in soul history. Motown aside, it's probably the best known and certainly the most influential label of the genre. Founded in 1957 (originally as Satellite) by a part time country fiddler – Jim Stewart and his astute sister Estelle Axton, Stax created a very special sound that defined what has became known as Southern soul. Using one studio and essentially the same musicians behind a cohort of stellar performers, Stax scored hit after hit and grew way beyond the expectations of the original sibling founders.

Stax histories will tell you that 1968 was a pivotal year. The label's biggest star, Otis Redding had perished in a plane crash in '67 and business-wise the label's deal with Atlantic that had helped Stax to flourish was coming to an end and there was certainly an air of uncertainty in and around Soulsville. To add to that uncertainty and doubt, the Southern states were in social ferment and turmoil – heightened by the cruel assassination in '68 of Martin Luther King in a Memphis motel.

Through all this Stax continued to make music in their famed sloping floor studios in the old cinema at 926 East McLemore Ave, Memphis and to allow soul fans and musicologists to focus on this seminal period, Craft Records via UMC have just issued this superb five-disc box set containing all the A- and B-sides of every single released under the Stax banner in 1968. There are a massive 120 tracks here and, of course, they feature all the label's big names -Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, William Bell, The Staple Singers, Sam and Dave et al. Indeed the spirit of Redding hangs over the whole collection. His still magnificent 'Dock Of The Bay' opens proceedings while there are four more Redding cuts alongside the poignant 'Tribute To A King' from William Bell. Anoraks will know too that the collapse of the Atlantic partnership meant that Stax lost Sam and Dave – but not before they cut 'I Thank You' and 'Wrap It Up' – both included.

The collection also offers a plethora of great music from lesser names – people like Linda Lindell, Billy Lee Riley and Shirley Walton and though, maybe second stringers, their contribution to the label's legacy is still important. One of the many unknown gems comes from Philly group The Epsilons. Their 'The Echo' is a thing of harmonic beauty and very different to the classic Stax sound.

The box also has plenty from the various Stax subsidiary labels. All soul fans know about imprints like Volt... but what about Enterprise, Arch and Hip? Hip was the real oddity – specialising in rock, pop and country. Of interest amidst the Hip output is music from Southwest FOB – a psychedelic rock group from Dallas that included England Dan and John Ford Coley in their number. And if you want a real oddity from Hip, try a country version of 'Who's Making Love' from Daaron Lee ... almost unrecognizable from the Johnnie Taylor original (which is also included).

The album packaging matches the beauty and quality of the music. The 5 CDs come packed in mock-up 7" vinyl picture sleeves while there's also a 56-page book with liner notes by Memphis historian Andria Lisle, Stax Records historian Robert Gordon, and renowned producer Steve Greenberg, plus rare and never-before-seen photographs from the Stax archives. 'Stax '68 A Memphis Story' is pretty much unmissable... essential fare for any and every soul fan. Add it to your Christmas wish list right away.

(BB) 5/5

Last Updated on Tuesday, 13 November 2018 19:04

 

VARIOUS: Jack Ashford, Just Productions; Volume 2 (Kent)

Tuesday, 06 November 2018 19:09 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altThough born in Philadelphia, vibraphonist/percussionist, Jack Ashford will forever be associated with Detroit... and the Motown label in particular. Originally a jazz man, Ashford came to Motown via a friendship with Marvin Gaye, who got him a spot on the Motortown Revue way back in '62. Jack was then welcomed into the Funk Brothers and went on to play on countless Motown classics. But Jack Ashford was ambitious and in the mid 60s he started producing his own records with Mike Terry. In 1965 he set up Pied Piper productions which licensed music to various labels and after PP folded he started another production company – Just Productions. As he'd done at Pied Piper, Ashford licensed many of his Just Productions productions to other labels but he also created labels of his own... like Sepia, Triple B, Ashford and Awake.

Over the past few years, UK reissue specialists Ace Records have, via their Kent imprint, made available much of Ashford's Pied Piper and Just Productions output and with this new 24 track album, we're told, that's about it ... no more from Ace/Kent on Jack Ashford. But don't be down... be thankful for what they have released on the man and this set in particular offers plenty of mighty fine soul from names that will be familiar with Detroit collectors ... artists like Sandra Richardson, Eddie Parker, Billy Sha-Rae and Lorraine Chandler whose 'Don't Leave Me Baby' is an album highlight.

But it's curmudgeonly to talk of highlights on a compilation of this quality. There's not a dud here and each cut offers something special. Here's a few to whet appetites. We keep coming back to the instrumental version of 'There Can Be A Better Way'. With 'Shades of 'Hold Back The Night', the original vocal take from the Smith Brothers was massive in the golden age of Wigan; here, credited to The New Sound Of Detroit, you can fully appreciate the craft of the Detroit session players and maybe wonder how many Funk Brothers are playing on the track. 'Crying Clown' is another familiar song. It's already won favour via versions by Billy Sha-Rae and Eddie Parker and here we can enjoy a second Parker take on the ballad ... much more intense (vocally and instrumentally) than the previous two versions. And while we're on about familiar songs, what about another version of the Temptations' 'Since I Lost My Baby'? Producer Ashford breathes new life into the song by getting the Perfections to add an introductory monologue to their harmonic interpretation.

Jack Ashford is also present on this collection via couple of vocal tracks... the soft and sweet 'Let Me Take Care Of Your Heart' and the very lively L. A recorded 'This Ain't Just Another Dance Song' which, despite the title, actually is. It's not the kind of music that Ashford had grown up with and after Just Productions ended he went to work with Norman Whitfield on his Whitfield label then he moved to Memphis where he worked in a number of jobs outside music, before re-entering the limelight when the Funk Brothers were "rediscovered" in the 90s.

(BB) 4/5

Last Updated on Tuesday, 06 November 2018 19:19

 

THE BRAXTON BROTHERS; Higher (Braxton Productions)

Friday, 02 November 2018 18:55 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altThe Braxton Brothers (bassist Nelson and sax man Wayne) have been crafting great smooth jazz together for longer than I'm sure they'd care to remember. A regular and consistent flow of albums has kept the siblings' name out there and this new 12 track set won't harm that trajectory. It'll be sure to please their followers who have come to love the unique bass/sax dialogue they have perfected.

Hear that very special, sound on the album opener, 'The Only Woman In The World'. This is a classic smooth jazz groove.... tight and soulful. Little wonder that the boys have chosen this as the set's lead single. There's more of the same on 'You Care About Me' while on the set's title track they crank up the pace....nothing smooth about this 'Higher'.

Opposing that one the album offers a trio, of pleasing quiet storm moments... of which 'Something In My Heart' is the easiest on the ear. 'Beauty' offers something quite different. This light romp is caressed in Caribbean flavours and there is a minimal vocal from Joelibeck Neisler-Lebron. He also features on the gentle 'What Would I Do' – another classic smooth groove. It's hardly a full-on vocal; the album, would, I think benefit from a more focused vocal cut and that there isn't one is odd given that the Braxtons say that when they write their tunes they start with lyrics to create the mood and image; then they jettison the words for the tune they've crafted to accompany them. C'mon boys, give us a proper vocal! Likewise maybe they could throw a little caution to the wind and attempt an imaginative cover. As it is 'Higher' is a fine, undemanding smooth jazz set, but it just doesn't quite ignite. Maybe it wasn't supposed to. As we opined up top, this new set will keep the faithful happy but it probably won't make many new converts.

(BB) 3/5

Last Updated on Friday, 02 November 2018 18:59

 

VARIOUS; Mod Jazz Rides Again (Kent)

Wednesday, 31 October 2018 20:16 Bill Buckley E-mailPrintPDF

altOver the past several years, Ace/Kent have curated a wonderful series with the titling "mod jazz". The idea was to present a selection of late 50s/early 60s jazz, soul-jazz and blues that first generation mods could have grooved to in their smoky 60s cellar clubs and chic Italian style coffee bars. We use the term "could have" rather than "did", because most of the tunes that the Kent compilers selected for these albums never ever saw release in the UK and with imports few and far between (and very expensive), it was unlikely that any 60s mods ever shimmied/walked the dog/ boogalooed to the music on the albums. That's not the point though. The music on the albums was exactly what the mods would have enjoyed had they the opportunity to get hold of it. Whatever, as you can see from this review's title, Kent has resurrected "mod jazz" and here they offer another fine selection of foot-tapping, head-nodding, sophisticated 50s/60s modernist club sounds.

As with previous mod jazz albums, the big names rub shoulders with lesser know performers. So, for instance, Nina Simone sits cheek by jowl with people like Billy Graham and the Escalators. Little is known about Billy except that his soul-jazz groove,  'East 24th Avenue' was released on US Atlantic in 1966. The Nina Simone cut by the way is 'Come On Back Jack' – her answer to Ray Charles' 'Hit The Road Jack'. Like that one, there are plenty of other well-known tunes here - all given interesting new treatments like Johnny "Hammond" Smith's version of another Charles' tune – 'Sticks And Stones'. Here the highlight is Freddie McCoy's vibes rather than Smith's mighty organ!

Another album highlight is a swinging version of Tony Hatch's 'I Know A Place' from Sammy Davies Jr (backed by the Buddy Rich band, by the way!) while Harold Better's 'Hot Tamale Man' is just the kind of tune that Georgie Fame would have covered at the Flamingo (if he'd known about it back then!)

'Mod Jazz Rides Again' also offers plenty of classy blues from people like Otis Span and T Bone Walker while the blues classic 'Spoonful' is here too in a Booker T style makeover from the Playboy Five.

'Mod Jazz Rides Again' is out now

(BB) 4/5

Last Updated on Wednesday, 31 October 2018 20:41

 

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