Reviews

ARETHA FRANKLIN: 'One Step Ahead' (Label: Edsel)

Saturday, 22 March 2008 07:06 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

ARETHA FRANKLIN: 'One Step Ahead'

Rumour has it that the Queen of Soul is currently ensconced in the studio putting the finishing touches to 'Aretha: A Woman Falling Out Of Love,' which is slated as the chanteuse's debut album for her new label, Aretha's Records. There was a time, of course, when the prospect of a new Aretha album would send a nerve-jangling frisson of excitement down the necks of soul fans - not any more. The truth is that most soul fans aren't particularly interested in Aretha's future plans - rather, perhaps like me, they find more excitement listening to her old records. Talking of her old records, here's a commendable twofer that presents a couple of her early '60s LPs for Columbia ('Unforgettable' and 'Runnin' Out Of Fools'). The general consensus amongst soul buffs is that Aretha's pre-Atlantic sides are not up to much and that Columbia didn't know how to utilise the singer's talents - the latter is patently true, I think, though the former contention is somewhat dubious, especially after you've given this CD a spin. Sure, there's nothing here to match the incendiary soul majesty of 'Respect' or 'Chain Of Fools' but only a fool would dismiss this music out of hand. 'Unforgettable' is a homage to blues matriarch, Dinah Washington, cut in 1964, with Washington's erstwhile producer, Clyde Otis, at the helm. Aretha was only 22 at the time but you'd never know it from the mature quality of her vocal performances. 'Unforgettable' proves an attractive mixture of jazz, soul, gospel and blues. Interestingly, there's a strident, upbeat, slightly funky, soul tune called 'Lee Cross,' which hints at the direction that 'Re' would take three years later under the aegis of Jerry Wexler at Atlantic (Incidentally, 'Lee Cross' was issued as a 45 after Aretha enjoyed two R&B chart toppers at Atlantic and made the US Top 40 in 1967). 'Runnin' Out Of Fools' was also helmed by Otis, and dates from 1965. It opens with a cover of Inez & Charlie Foxx's 'Mockingbird' and features Aretha doing remakes of '60s soul hits 'Walk On By,' 'Every Little Bit Hurts,' 'My Guy' and 'The Shoop Shoop Song (It's In His Kiss).' I think the album's principal weakness is the rhythm section arrangements - they sound like stock session charts and lack the fire, grit, and funkiness of Aretha's later work. Perhaps, then - as this CD seems to reveal - the key to Aretha's Atlantic success was not solely down to her choice of material, but was also due to the nature of the backing arrangements and quality of the supporting musicians. This commendable CD also includes three non-album bonus cuts: 'Can't You Just See Me,' 'Little Miss Raggedy Ann' and 'One Step Ahead.' Overall, this is an excellent musical snapshot of Aretha Franklin before she hit the big time and I'll bet it's more interesting than her forthcoming album.
(CW) 4/5

 

ROY AYERS UBIQUITY : 'Red, Black & Green' (Label: Hip-O Select)

Tuesday, 18 March 2008 10:54 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

ROY AYERS UBIQUITY : 'Red, Black & Green'

This collectable 1973 Roy Ayers album is reissued as part of Hip-O Select's 'Select Direct' series - although there's a notable absence of bonus material and liner notes, the album is remastered and presented in a replica of the original LP sleeve. It's now available to buy in UK shops thanks to Universal's Import Music Services. To my mind, 'Red Black & Green' is one of the vibraphone maestro's most impressive offerings for Polydor from the early '70s. The musical keystone is the classic title track, though there are inventive jazz-funk re-workings of Bill Withers' 'Ain't No Sunshine,' Aretha's 'Day Dreaming' and The Temptations' 'Papa Was A Rollin' Stone,' all of which feature liquid vibraphone licks over sinewy, funk-fuelled backbeats. Also noteworthy is the infectious instrumental, 'Cocoa Butter,' which boasts an undulating Latin groove and exciting interplay between members of Ayers' band (which includes pianist Harry Whitaker). A must-have for jazz-funk connoisseurs.
(CW) 4/5

 

VARIOUS: Droppin' Science (Label: Blue Note, EMI)

Sunday, 16 March 2008 12:07 Bill Buckley E-mailPrintPDF

VARIOUS: Droppin' Science

It's my contention that since the onset of sampling, no single label has had its back catalogue plundered more than Blue Note. The reason is simple. The jazz giant has a mighty vault of serious sounds on which the beats, rhythms, hooks, nuances and inflexions matched perfectly the flavours and atmospheres which new generations of musicians - in all kinds of genres - were trying to create. Over the years there's been any number of compilations of classic Blue Note tunes which have been re-worked by the hip-hop generation and 'Droppin' Science' is the latest. It boasts a very concise 10 tracks - most of which could be categorized as "soul-jazz" - that delicious, almost indefinable genre which dominated US jazz lounges in the second half of the '60s. Alto sax man Lou Donaldson was one of the form's leading lights and he tops and tails the set with covers of the Isleys' 'It's Your Thing' and Johnnie Taylor's 'Who's Makin' Love'. Both are characteristically and paradoxically tight yet lazy. There are more of the same flavours on Grant Green's 'Down Here On The Ground' and Brother Jack McDuff's almost genre-defining 'Oblighetto'. The Mizells-produced 'Think Twice' from Donald Byrd and the light flute of Jeremy Steig's 'Howling For Baby' offer a counterpoint to the soul-jazz while Joe Williams proves his blues shouter credentials with a take on 'Get Out Of My Life Woman'. The oddity here is David McCallum's 'The Edge' from his '66 LP 'Music - A Bit More Of Me'. Interestingly (thankfully, some might say) this track doesn't actually feature the Man From UNCLE - it's a full-on David Axelrod instrumental - which we're told has been sampled by Dr. Dre. The sleeve notes give a full run down of who's snaffled what - and for some, that's the point of the album. I'd prefer to see this as a rather superior Blue Note sampler.
(BB) 4/5

 

VARIOUS: New Breed R&B - With Added Popcorn (Label: Kent)

Saturday, 15 March 2008 11:01 Bill Buckley E-mailPrintPDF

VARIOUS: New Breed R&B - With Added Popcorn

Today R&B can mean all kinds of different things to all kinds of different people. However, back in the good ole days it was all very different. In the fifties and early sixties R&B was an easily-identified rough, racy and raucous music that had evolved from all kinds of sources - notably jazz and jump blues. In time of course, R&B itself would evolve and morph into classic soul but fifty years on there's still a devoted fan base for authentic R&B and those fans hold regular club nights spinning and dancing to what they call 'New Breed R&B'. Kent Records have already devoted two albums to the scene and now with this third they add another dimension - 'Popcorn'. The Popcorn scene kicked off in Belgium in the early 70s when soul club DJs scoured listings for unusual early 60s records that would get their clubbers away from the predictable. One of the early leading lights of the movement was Freddie Couseart. Couseart, of course, became the confidant of Marvin Gaye, but operating out of Ostend's Groove Club he played all kinds of rare soul and R&B and three of his big sounds are included here - Boyce Cunningham's 'Too Young', Harold Atkins' 'Big Ben' and Tom Tumbleweed's 'Tumbling Down'. All three are big, brash slabs of early sixties dance music and there are loads more of the same. The 24 tracker will satisfy not just "popcorners", but anyone who appreciates that music doesn't need clever technology or complicated arrangements to inspire. Amongst the inspirational goodies here are Luther Ingram's pre-Ko Ko 'Oh Baby Don't You Weep', Joe Simon's 'Just Like Yesterday' and Billy Bland's sparse 'The Mule' which just about sums up the sound and feeling of the collection.
(BB) 3/5

 

BAR-KAYS: 'Injoy' (Label: Hip-O Select)

Thursday, 13 March 2008 13:46 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

BAR-KAYS: 'Injoy'

Beginning life as The River Arrows, this Memphis R&B group was reborn after a fateful plane crash claimed four of its members along with soul singer Otis Redding in 1967. Survivors, James Alexander (bass) and Ben Cauley (trumpet), brought in new personnel and the group established itself at Stax/Volt in the late-'60s and early'70s as a funky instrumental combo with hits like 'Son Of Shaft.' By 1979 when this Mercury album was released, The Bar-Kays had gained a lead vocalist in Larry Dodson and morphed into a ten-member funk-disco outfit. The album (on CD for the first time) spawned a big US hit in the shape of 'Move Your Boogie Body,' which boasts a dirty synth bass line and sounds like a sonic synthesis of early Gap Band and Parliament. Its follow-up, 'Today Is The Day' - a grandiose Commodores-style pop/soul ballad - wasn't as successful chart-wise, but illustrates the group's versatility. What the group did best, though, was churn out chunks of seismic, horn-saturated funk and there are plenty of tunes here that fall into that category. Mighty funky and finally available in the UK via Universal's Import Music Services.
(CW) 3/5

 

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