Reviews

CHAKA KHAN: ‘Chaka’ (bbr)

Saturday, 12 April 2014 10:56 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

ChakaAfter experiencing a heap of commercial and artistic success fronting the funk-soul band, Rufus, during the early-to-late '70s, Chicago-born Khan (real name Yvette Marie Stevens) broke loose and signed a lucrative deal with Warner Bros in 1978. This was her much-anticipated debut album for the then Burbank-based 'Looney Tune' label and it's just been revived by UK reissue label bbr. It undoubtedly remains one of the best long players in Chaka's extensive canon and perhaps the reason for that is the vision and skill of producer, Arif Mardin, who corralled the talents of New York's finest session players (though the core rhythm section is comprised of Average White Band members) and also found some superlative material for the singer. His arrangements, too - which include charts for strings, brass and woodwind - are well-executed and bring the best out of Chaka's magisterial vocals.

The album's lead-off cut, the Ashford and Simpson-penned 'I'm Every Woman' was the album's big hit back in '78 and quickly became adopted by Chaka as her signature song (even though Whitney Houston tried to appropriate it when she made the 'Bodyguard' movie in 1992). With its pulsating strings, driving disco-inflected beat and Chaka's hi-octane vocals, it still sounds superb today. But the album wasn't a one-track wonder. In fact, it boasts a lot of stylistic variety - ranging from the plaintive gospel-hued ballad, 'Roll Me Through The Rushes,' and the dramatic 'Love Has Fallen On Me' - driven by Richard Tee's rolling piano figures - to the brassy, let-your-hair-down, bell-bottomed funk of 'Life Is A Dance,' and the catchy pop-soul of 'A Woman In A Man's World.' Best of all is the sleek, widescreen disco-groove of 'Some Love,' co-penned by the singer with her brother (and bass player on the cut), Mark Stevens, and featuring a Michael Brecker sax solo. Often overlooked, 'Some Love' is actually one of Chaka's best ever tracks with a vocal performance that can only be described as spine-chilling with its stratospheric febrile athleticism. George Benson provides a vocal cameo on the infectious 'We Got The Love' while 'Sleep On It' is another great cut. In fact, the album doesn't have any perceptible weak links and concludes with a fiery version of Stevie Wonder's 'I Was Made To Love Him,' which Chaka, of course, makes her own.

There have been a couple of CD versions before of this album (the first was Japanese, the second was American) but this new remaster is by far the best in terms of audio fidelity and sonic detail. It also comes with comprehensive notes packed with quotes from most of the central players on the album. Let's hope bbr reissue 1980's 'Naughty' soon, another great Arif Mardin-helmed album from Chaka on Warner Bros which features the same cast of great studio musicians.

(CW) 4/5

Last Updated on Saturday, 12 April 2014 11:07

 

PHIL UPCHURCH AND OTHERS: The Big Hits Dances (Cherry Red)

Wednesday, 09 April 2014 19:13 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

danceThough legendary Chicago guitarist Phil Upchurch's name is upfront on this album, the set is actually a various artists compilation – it's focus being to assemble some 24 tracks that cover the early 60s US obsession with dance crazes. Upchurch gets the main credit 'cos the set features nine of his tunes. They're chiefly taken from his 1961 long player 'The Big Dance Hits' and include his soulful and jazzy instrumental invitations to do 'The Hog', 'The Cha Cha Blues', 'The Fly', 'The Majestic' and 'The Swim'. His biggest hit, 'You Can't Sit Down', kinda sums up the whole impact of dance mania and here it kicks thing off big style. It's still a clarion call to get on you feet –no wonder the savvy producers of the groundbreaking 'Ready Steady Go' programme choose it as their theme tune.

Other well-known items on the set include Chris Kenner's raw, original version of 'Land Of 1,000 Dances' (interestingly Wilson Picket's version of the song became another RSG theme), Jimmy McCracklin's wonderful 'The Walk' and Hank Ballard's daddy of all dance tunes, 'The Twist'.

As is often the way with compilations like this it's the lesser known items that bring the real delight. Here enjoy (maybe for the first time) lost gems like Russell Byrd's 'Hitchhike' (not the Marvin Gaye tune), The Rollers' 'Continental Walk', The Diamonds' 'The Stroll' and King Curtis backed by the Noble Knights with 'Soul Twist'. The set ends with the song that probably ended most 60s record hops and prom nights – 'Save The Last Dance For Me'. Here we get it in a cover version from The Olympics.

This collection's a great trip (or should that be twist?) down Memory Lane. It's a pity that the sleeve notes aren't more exhaustive and accurate and some archive pictures would have helped.... but that's the nature of budget reissues, I guess, and at least we have the music.

(BB) 4/5

Last Updated on Wednesday, 09 April 2014 19:20

 

JACKIEM JOYNER; Evolve (Artistry)

Tuesday, 08 April 2014 21:40 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

jj'Evolve' is saxophonist Jackiem Joyner's fifth solo album and the first on which he wrote, produced and arranged all the tracks – 11 of 'em. So, maybe that explains the title. He's moving on; evolving and becoming totally his own man. Sonically, however, the music on 'Evolve' isn't a million miles away from the tunes peddled on his previous sets. What we get here is classic sax-led smooth jazz of the kind that Joyner's early role models, Rick Braun and Richard Elliot, peddle so effortlessly. Listen up to 'Later Tonight' to hear what I mean. It's a wonderful, sensuous quite storm moment but it doesn't really represent a moving on for the genre.

Equally, tunes like 'Generation Next', 'Europa' and 'Double Bass' are all great soul-based, sax -led grooves but in fairness they don't move the format forward. Maybe Joyner's evolution is represented by the fact that he can now enlist some major names to work with him. In the smooth jazz field there's none bigger than veteran Gerald Albright. He adds his mellifluous tones to another of the set's big soul grooves – 'Big Step' - a foot-tapping, head nodding sax duet. It has the meaty feel of prime time David Sanborn and that's no bad reference point is it?

More interesting and "evolutionary" are 'Breathe' (which features programmed strings) and the relaxing closer 'A Gentle Walk On Water'... yes, it's as gentle as the title implies. It's like one of those great collaborations that Bob James did back in the day. Not revolutionary but maybe evolutionary in Jackiem's context.

(BB) 3/5

Last Updated on Wednesday, 09 April 2014 18:15

 

VARIOUS: LET THE MUSIC PLAY (Ace)

Sunday, 06 April 2014 18:41 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

bbAce's latest album in their "Black America Sings" series is an absolute corker. Why? Well, the songs the singers are singing are all by Burt Bacharach and Hal David and if that's not enough then the performers number artists like Irma Thomas, Isaac Hayes, Bobby Womack, Gladys Knight, James Carr, The Drifters, Jerry Butler, Cissy Houston and Aretha Franklin!

The Queen Of Soul's offering is her definitive reading of 'I Say A Little Prayer'. Aretha released the tune in 1968 and it did much to introduce her to an audience wider than the soul cognoscenti who'd latched on to her years earlier. Aretha, as we know, takes the tune right down to Soulsville and it remains a spine-tingling classic some 45 years later. It's always been a poignant song, the more so when you realize that Hal David wrote the lyric from the perspective of a woman whose man was away fighting in Vietnam. Dionne Warwick's lighter, poppier version doesn't have the same gravitas but as she was Bacharach and David's main muse it goes without saying that she's represented on this 24 tracker. Her contribution is the original, demo version of 'Make It Easy On Yourself'. The song, of course, was then "given" to Jerry Butler who had the Stateside whit with it while in the UK it was a smash for the Walker Brothers.

Bacharach and David's male muse, Lou Johnson, gets an outing here too. The LP offers his rendering of 'The Last One To Be Loved' while the tune usually most associated with Lou, 'Always Something There To Remind Me', comes in a 1967 version from Patti Labelle and the Bluebelles. And the fact that the compliers haven't always gone for the obvious versions of the songs is one of this album's added attractions. Amongst these lesser known recordings we get Willie Tee's version of 'Reach Out For Me', Brenda and the Tabulations version of 'Don't Make Me Over', Nina Simone's version of 'The Look Of Love' and 'One Less Bell To Answer' from Gladys Knight and the Pips. It's a soul tour de force, only bettered in that department by the album's final cut – a mesmeric reading of 'A House Is Not a Home' from Mavis Staples. Yes, Dionne Warwick's original is stupendous, Luther's reconstruction is fabulous, but Mavis' reading is without doubt the most honestly soulful. It's a perfect conclusion to a great compilation....great songs, great artists, fabulous performances... what more do you want?

(BB) 5/5

Last Updated on Sunday, 06 April 2014 18:51

 

LEDISI: The Truth (Virgin)

Saturday, 05 April 2014 13:25 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

ledisi'The Truth' is Ledisi Young's seventh studio album and if we're to believe the PR blurb that comes with the release, then the 13 tracker is the musical manifestation of the pain and recriminations that followed the end of her last major romantic liaison.

The end of the affair is chronicled in the cleverly named, dramatic '88 Boxes'. It's a wonderful, proper soul song. In it Ms Young sobs that she's still "in love with what used to be" but now all she has are 88 boxes – they contain what's left of her life. It's a graphic picture of the practical reality of a break up. I doubt you'll hear a more searing soul song this year; it's as desperate as Gregory Porter's 'Water Under Bridges'. The equally excellent 'Like This' illustrates a relationship on the verge of collapse and the desperation of one of the couple (Leidsi) who's trying to salvage something. The album's title track graphically reveals the pain of discovering things aren't what they should be: "Like a hurricane and without warning, it hit me Sunday morning. I had to face the truth." Painful stuff and a perfect illustration of the dichotomy at the heart of real soul music... how something ostensibly so painful can at the same time be so beautiful.

The album's not all doom and gloom though. The opening salvo (the relationship at its peak) is joyous and upbeat. The set's first cut, 'Blame You', is a great, clipped-beat dancer (perfect for the modern room). It's a great snapshot of the transforming power of human love. 'Rock With You' (no, not the Jacko song) is another great dancer while 'That Good Good' is a contemporary R&B rump shaker that would give Beyonce a run for her fish nets. They're followed by the sensual lurve ballad, 'Lose Control'... perfect for radio stations brave enough to push the Quiet Storm format. Ledisi could invite me to lose control at any time... but I've never been that lucky.

Elsewhere Ledisi explores how to get over the pain, the possibility of quick fixes and when and how the doubts started. Like everything else, it's all delivered with that remarkable, toe-curling, true soul voice that's made Ledisi a favourite with Michelle Obama – a woman of consummate taste. Sadly the First Lady doesn't represent the mainstream but maybe with some luck and the help of adventurous radio programmers, 'The Truth' might just be Ledisi's breakout album.

(BB) 4/5

 

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