LIVE: Booker T Jones @ Cheltenham Jazz Festival 29/04/2017

Sunday, 30 April 2017 09:37 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF


As soul music historians will know, Memphis organ maestro, Booker Taliaferro Jones, played a pivotal role in the rise of Stax Records as a major force in rhythm and blues music during the 1960s. As the leader of the groundbreaking bi-racial quartet, Booker T & The MGs, he was responsible for some of the decades biggest and most memorable R&B smashes. He brought some of those hits as well as a profound sense of soul music history, along with him to the Cheltenham Jazz Festival  where he led a funky quartet that included his son, Ted Jones, on guitar,. plus a potent rhythm section comprising drummer Darian E. Gray and bassist Melvin Brannon. Looking dapper in a dark suit, complete with flat cap, Jones began the show sitting at his trusty Hammond B-3 organ, where he led his band through a 90-minute set that blended original material and classic Stax sides with some unusual covers.

The set began in cinematic style with an organ-led version of the Spaghetti Western theme, 'Hang Em High,' and then followed with one of his more recent offerings, the riff-laden, blues-rock-esque, 'Potato Hole.'  Jones stepped up the mike to sing the portentous groove ballad, 'Born Under A Bad Sign,' a song that he co-wrote for blues legend, Albert King, in 1967. In fact, he returned to the microphone several more times during the performance, and also came out from behind the organ every now and then ("my Doctor says I mustn't sit down too much," he offered by way of explanation) to don an electric guitar and show another side to his talent, where he sang a series of heartfelt homages to Bob Dylan ('Knockin' On Heaven's Door' - Jones told us he played bass on the original record), Muddy Waters ('Mannish Boy'), Jimi Hendrix ('Hey Joe'), and even Prince ('Purple Rain').

But as enjoyable as the performances of these seemingly incongruous songs were, which also demonstrated Jones' versatility, what the audience really wanted to see and hear was the Memphis soul man  ensconced on a stool at his Hammond B-3 going through his considerable back catalogue. And to be fair, he didn't disappoint on that score, punctuating the set at regular intervals with terrific renditions of  iconic Booker T & The MG's material, ranging from stone classics - 'Green Onions,'  'Soul Limbo,' 'Hip Hug-Her,' and 'Melting Pot') to lesser known gems from their canon ('Soul Dressing,' and the band's tremendous take on George Gershwin's immortal 'Summertime'). Climaxing with a roof-raising version of the MG's classic 'Time Is Tight,' Booker T Jones showed that while at 72-years-old he might be eligible for retirement, thankfully, he's definitely not ready to embrace it just yet. A stunning show from a bona fide legend.


Last Updated on Tuesday, 02 May 2017 16:05


AMY BLACK: Memphis (Reuben Records)

Friday, 28 April 2017 11:31 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altAmy Black hails from Nashville and the musical lure of the city took her away from a successful marketing career into music. Her first albums were pigeon-holed "Americana" –hardly surprising given her roots but in 2015 she decamped to Muscle Shoals and, working with Spooner Oldham, she recorded 'The Muscle Shoals Sessions'.

Soul had found Amy and she subsequently investigated the genre and knew she just hand to record in Memphis... hence the title of this new 10 tracker. 'Memphis' was recorded at the Electraphonic Recordings Studios and amongst the players are Hi and Stax alumni – people like Howard Grimes, Charles Hodges and Bobby Manuel while ex Bobby Bland collaborator, Marc Franklin took care of the horn and string arrangements.

Produced by studio boss, Scott Bonmar, 'Memphis' is a collection of seven original songs and three covers. The covers are versions of OV Wright's 'If I Could Reach Out (And Help Somebody), the blues standard 'I Need Your Love So Bad' and Bobby Bland's 'Further On Up The Road'. Given Ms Black's comparative youth, she acquits herself well on these old war horses. 'If I Could Reach Out' is particularly gratifying... a proper celebration of the old Hi sound.

Elsewhere, the stark opener, 'It's Hard To Love An Angry Man' channels the sound of Bobby Bland (he's a personal hero of Amy's) while 'Let The Light In' references the Staple Singers ... mournful, repetitive and hypnotic. On those (indeed throughout the long player) Amy Black's vocals are powerful when required but she's also learned what many young singers fail to grasp; if you tone things down at just the right moment you can still achieve maximum impact. That's what the Memphis musicians know and they and Amy combine to make a great team.

(BB) 3/5

Last Updated on Friday, 28 April 2017 11:37


MORGAN JAMES: Reckless Abandon (Hedonist Records)

Thursday, 27 April 2017 18:45 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altMorgan James is a blue-eyed soulstress who bases herself in Harlem. She came to NYC to study at the Juilliard School. After graduating, Morgan worked in musical theatre and she's enjoyed star roles and rave reviews in 'Motown The Musical' and 'Godspell'. Soul is her genre of choice though and after recommendation from Berry Gordy she signed a two album deal with Epic. That culminated in her Billboard top 20 hit, 'Call My Name' – a cover of the Prince song which was endorsed by the man himself.

Now, striking out on her own, Ms James has just released a self-penned 12 song set on her own label and it's a varied piece of work on which she explores all kinds of soul styles and much more. Soul connoisseurs though might well suggest that Morgan's take on soul veers toward the poppier, rockier side of the genre. The opener, 'Up In Smoke', for instance, is busy and brash with plenty of soul instrumental clichés but it's more from the Janis Joplin School of Rock that say, the Etta James Academy of Soul. The most soulful, offering is 'Ransom' – a mournful Southern flavoured ballad – hints of Stax and Hi here.

Best of the rest are 'Making Up For Lost Love' and 'Jenny' where soul meets country; some might dub 'em, "Americana". Elsewhere 'Need Somebody' is the long player's big ballad – full of building drama – totally contemporary, yes, but there's not quite enough there to lift it above the plethora of other songs of this ilk.

Morgan James is clearly a gifted singer. You don't win a place at the Juilliard if you're not and Berry Gordy, of course, knows how to recognize a great set of pipes. However, great singers don't always make great song writers and what we need here are some really special songs to allow Morgan to show us what she can really do.

(BB) 3/5

Last Updated on Thursday, 27 April 2017 18:50


JULIA FORDHAM: The Language Of Love (Red River)

Wednesday, 26 April 2017 21:05 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altHere's a tough pub pop music quiz question: Who had a debut UK top 30 hit in 1988 with 'Happy Ever After'? I'm sure most people would struggle to name Julia Fordham. The Portsmouth-born singer went on to enjoy a few other middling hits – the best known maybe being 'Love Moves' – and then that seems to be that! But not quite! You see shortly after 'Love Moves' was featured in the 1992 Demi Moore movie, 'The Butcher's Wife', Julia relocated to Los Angeles and resurrected her recording career, winning critical acclaim with a series of jazz-nuanced vocal long players.

Her latest album has just been released and, fittingly, as we commemorate the centenary of Ella Fitzgerald's birth, Ms Fordham tries with 'The Language Of Love' to channel the Queen Of Jazz's spirit. Julia says that Ella Fitzgerald has already covered every traditional jazz song to perfection so for her album she's chosen a set of contemporary songs to cover in the way that Lady Ella covered the Great American Songbook.

So here you can enjoy songs from artists like Blondie, Janis Ian, Sting, Stevie Wonder and the Beatles (the chosen Fabs' song, by the way, is "Eleanor Rigby'). Right now we count the highlights as new twists on 10CC's 'I'm Not In Love' and Gilbert O'Sullivan's 'Alone Again Naturally'. Ms Fordham and her producer Grant Mitchell reinvent the emotionally familiar and though she may not achieve the kind of soulful nuances that Esther Phillips achieved on her version of 'Alone Again' she does allow the bitter sweetness of the message to surface.

Never a believer in hiding her light under a bushel, Julia also includes a trio of her own songs. They are a fresh reading of her debut hit 'Happy Ever After' and two new songs penned with producer Mitchell and both 'Like You Used To Do' and 'The Morning After (The Night With You)' fit perfectly with the album's overall ambience. Indeed 'The Morning After (The Night With You)' is a wondrous piece of work. I love sad songs (I guess most of us do!) and this one just keeps on tugging at my heart strings and it lifts what was a perfectly OK covers album into something really special.

(BB) 4/5

Last Updated on Wednesday, 26 April 2017 21:12


DARA TUCKER: Oklahoma Rain (Watchman Music)

Tuesday, 25 April 2017 21:17 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altNashville-based Dara Tucker won plenty of friends on the soul underground with her 2014 album 'The Sun Season' and now her new long player, 'Oklahoma Rain' (Dara's 4th studio album) is set to outperform it, as once again the savvy soul media and the more discerning soul and jazz radio stations get behind Ms Tucker in an attempt to bring her sweet, melodic, heart and soul warming music to the mainstream.

The tune in the vanguard of the attack is the ab fab 'Radio'. This is feel good music of the highest order and reminds you why soul and jazz are your music genres of choice! It's one of those very rare cuts when EVERYTHING - melody, voice, lyric, ambience, production and Factor X – come together beautifully. The nostalgia quotient is high too and that always helps as first generation soul folk enter the autumn of their years!

Nostalgia is the theme to another of the album's big tunes- 'Oklahoma Rain'. With a hint of Nashville, about it, the song investigates the concept that though we would like to, the "golden" past and cherished memories of it can never be re-visited or indeed be re-created and Dara presents her thesis beautifully.

The good news is that 'Radio' and 'Oklahoma Rain' aren't the only standouts – each and every track has something special to offer. Space precludes us highlighting everything but if you enjoy the drama and emotion of Barbra Streisand then take a listen to Dara's 'The Road'. It proves that that diva doesn't have a monopoly on such things. Then there's the quite lovely, 'Heartache'. Complete with a sweet country-flavoured harmonica, it will pull at your emotions. Maybe you like soul balladry? Then try 'I Fall' – a duet with Kevin Whalum. Wonderful!

By highlighting those cuts, though, we're not doing justice to tracks like 'Anytime Your Heart Breaks' and 'Moving On' or 'All I See Is Love' or indeed any that we still haven't mentioned.

2017 is only four months old yet already we've had some great, proper, truly modern/contemporary soul albums... long players that are true to the roots of this wonderful art form yet still discover new ways to present it. I'm thinking of Brian Owens' set. Now we can add to that Dara Tucker's 'Oklahoma Rain'. Highly recommended

(BB) 5/5

Last Updated on Tuesday, 25 April 2017 21:26


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