GEORGE BENSON: Walking To New Orleans (Provogue/Mascot)

Wednesday, 03 April 2019 13:55 BILL B E-mailPrintPDF

altIn a long and garlanded career, George Benson has released something like 45 LPs. I've not heard all of them but I'm guessing that he's never issued anything like this one before. You see for an artist known for changing direction from time to time, 'Walking To New Orleans' is in a direction you'd never imagine Mr B taking. Surprisingly, some might say, the concise 10 tracker is his homage to two of his "musical heroes" – Chuck Berry and Fats Domino and what's more the set was produced by Kevin "the Caveman" Shirley who's better known for his work with Iron Maiden .... George Benson and Iron Maiden in the same breath – now that is a change of direction!

Mr B says, "I'm a great appreciator of the music made by both of those guys. Chuck Berry was a great showman and a great musician, and Fats Domino cut nothing but hit after hit after hit." So here we get George and Kevin's versions of five songs from each of those music legends. The Berry songs are 'Nadine', 'You Can't Catch Me', 'Havana Moon', 'Memphis Tennessee' and 'How You've Changed'; the Domino offerings are 'Ain't That A Shame', 'Rockin' Chair', 'I Hear You Knocking', 'Blue Monday' and 'Walking To New Orleans' for which the album is named.

The Nashville-recorded soundscape (the album was recorded in that city's Ocean Way studio) is rough and rocky but tight – a far cry from the lushness of George's previous long player – his Nat King Cole tribute. Throughout he's supported by a team of top players (drummer George Morrow, guitar man Rob McNeeley, pianist Kevin McKendree, bassist Alison Prestwood and a joyous brass section) and what they create are versions of well-known songs that are sufficiently different to the originals to sustain interest throughout. On most of the tracks (most obvious on 'Nadine') Benson gets to deliver his signature scat/guitar breaks while the guitar riffing on the famous Chuck Berry numbers is in the manner of Benson rather than Berry.

Most importantly George and his team manage to capture the honest enthusiasm and spirit of the originals while on the Berry numbers all the humour and irony is retained ... catch 'You Can't Catch Me' to hear what I mean.

On completing the album Benson was heard to say: ""We did have us a ball!".... Listen in and you won't disagree.

'Walking To New Orleans' is released on April 26th.

(BB) 4/5

Last Updated on Thursday, 04 April 2019 15:58


BILLY PAUL: Me and Mrs Jones – The Anthology (SoulMusic Records)

Monday, 01 April 2019 13:19 Bill Buckley E-mailPrintPDF

altThere are certain, very special records that you remember exactly where and when you first heard them. One such is Billy Paul's epic tale of secret love and clandestine passion, 'Me And Mrs Jones'. I won't bore you with the details save to say that since 1972 the song's never failed to amaze, enthral and bring on the goose bumps and it's impossible to say why. The storyline, the melody, the production, the instrumentation, the vocal? Who knows ... and indeed who cares! 'Me And Mrs Jones' is one of those very rare recordings where everything works perfectly – including the wonderfully sensitive vocal from Billy Paul. Back in '72 we didn't know anything about Billy Paul; soul buffs knew a little about the writers/producers, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and their flagship label, Philadelphia International Records... so a little research was needed. Even without the internet we quickly learned that Billy Paul was a jobbing Philly jazz singer and that he'd worked with Gamble and Huff in the late 60s and when they set up PIR, he was one of the first artists they signed up. We also learned that 'Me And Mrs Jones' was recorded as a filler for Billy's '360 Degrees Of Billy Paul' LP but when it was released as a single it rightly became a worldwide hit, earning Billy a Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. The singer went on to release 8 studio albums and 1 live set for PIR and I'm guessing that most proper soul fans will have many of those albums – or at least selections from them

However, if you need an introduction to the art of Billy Paul, this new 2 CD, 31 track collection from SoulMusic Records will serve as an excellent primer, pulling music from right across his PIR catalogue. All the hits are here, of course... naturally THAT song but also Billy's version of Paul McCartney' 'Let 'Em In' (now featured in a lottery TV ad), 'Am I Black Enough For You' and 10 other charting singles. There's also plenty of classy album tracks that together show that Billy Paul (aside from 'Mrs Jones') was also a powerful purveyor of musical messages - many of which still resonate.

The collection comes with insightful sleeve notes and a personal reflection from SoulMusic's David Nathan.

(BB) 4/5

Last Updated on Monday, 01 April 2019 13:32


JOHN NOVELLO: 'Good To Go' (529 Music)

Sunday, 31 March 2019 10:09 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

                            altJohn Novello is an American pianist, composer  and author who boasts an impressive CV as a sideman. He's worked with an array of diverse artists, from disco acts such as Donna Summer and Taste Of Honey to jazz vocal quartet Manhattan Transfer and albino blues maven, Edgar Winter. He also was a member of the noted '90s fusion trio, Niacin, which recorded for Chick Corea's Stretch imprint, alongside bassist Billy Sheehan and drummer, Dennis Chambers. But it's as a solo artist that Novello has enjoyed much acclaim. His fifth solo album, 2016's 'Ivory Soul' - helmed by noted songwriter/producer Andy Goldmark - was a big seller on Billboard's US smooth jazz charts. It featured saxophonists Tom Scott and Eric Marienthal and yielded three charting singles.

Now, three years on, Novello is back with another Goldmark-produced set, 'Good To Go,' and its leadoff single,  the upbeat and infectious title song, featuring the mellifluous tenor saxophone of the returning Eric Marienthal, has already made its presence felt in the US smooth jazz charts. In fact, at the time of writing it sits at the very summit of said chart, cementing Novello's place as a new master of the smooth jazz genre. In its wake comes the highly-anticipated parent album, a cohesive yet varied ten-track set which show the full range of Novello's talents.

Many of the tunes are propelled by a toe-tapping funk undertow, such as the breezy 'Happy Place'  with its catchy hook line, the more atmospheric 'Thanks (For Being You),'  and the percussive, piano-driven 'Busted,' highlighting German-born/Florida-based rising saxophone star, Jazmin Ghent. Elsewhere, the skanking 'Skin In The Game' is a head-nodding reggae-infused groove with synth horns and mellow Rhodes piano while the jaunty 'Alma Feliz' digs into a Caribbean-tinged Latin jazz vibe.

Demonstrating that he can do ballads as well as uptempo material are the gentle 'Love Affair,' spotlighting the guitar of noted fretboard practitioner, Chris Standring, and the shimmering, mid-tempo 'Give You My World,'  featuring a cameo from saxophonist, Jeff Ryan.

Novello also includes a couple of covers, both of which are tastefully executed. His version of the evergreen, 'Goodbye Pork Pie Hat' - Charles Mingus's homage to jazz tenor saxophone legend Lester Young - is rendered as an intimate piano piece with bass and string synth accompaniment.  Another jazz classic, the Coltrane-associated tune, 'My Favorite Things,' is the album's closing cut and is rendered as a delightful solo piano piece.

With its fluid grooves, infectious melodies and feel-good factor, 'Good To Go' is an archetypal smooth jazz album. That fact alone might serve as ammunition to the genre's detractors but there's no denying that the many thousands of people that love smooth jazz music will readily embrace John Novello's sixth solo album. It's a classy affair that shows that the keyboard maestro originally from Eerie, Pennsylvania, is at the top of his game right now.

(CW) 3/5


Last Updated on Sunday, 31 March 2019 18:38


BOBBY SPARKS II: 'Schizophrenia - The Yang Project' (Leopard)

Saturday, 30 March 2019 09:54 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

                           altThe son of a Baptist church organist (his mother) and a horn-playing bebopper (his father, Bobby senior), Bobby Sparks II was immersed in music from a young age. Originally from Corsicana, Texas, young Bobby received a Hammond organ from his parents as a gift for his sixth birthday and soon mastered it. Fast-forward several decades and Bobby Sparks II, who has played with Roy Hargrove's RH Factor and Snarky Puppy (he can be heard on their forthcoming long player, 'Immigrance') now breaks out with his debut platter for the Leopard label. Evidently not one to do things by halves, Sparks has served up a sprawling 20-track double album that features a huge supporting cast, ranging from bassist extraordinaire Marcus Miller and trumpeter, the late Roy Hargrove, to singer Frank McComb, Snarky Puppy's Michael League and blues guitarist, Lucky Peterson and Eric Gales. 

The influence of George Clinton, Bootsy Collins and the whole P-Funk aesthetic is clearly apparent on the set's opener, 'Birth Of The Sparkchild,'  which features a fantasy-style spoken narrative (using a pitch-altered deep voice) over orchestral strings. At this point, you're wondering where the album's headed and what kind of musical  journey it's going to take the listener on. The next track, 'Schizophrenia,' a thrilling, epic, fusion-esque piece with Mellotron and strings, reveals that it's going to be some kind of mid-altering cosmic trip where anything is possible. Indeed, if you're into jazz, funk, rock, blues, hip-hop, and R&B, then Sparks' kaleidoscopic debut is going to hit all the right spots. For funk fanatics, 'Take It' (featuring Roy Hargrove's horn), 'We Play What We Want,'  'Bobby Sparks Sr.'s Famous Chili'and the George Duke-influenced 'Stono River,' will all appeal.  

There are also slow grinding rhythm and blues  tunes ('So Fine,' featuring vocals from James 'J.Rob' Robinson and axe slinger Eric Gales), D'Angelo-influenced grooves ('Can We Make Love,' featuring Pino Palladino on bass) and sensuous soul ballads. An example of the latter is  'I Miss U,' a mid-tempo slow-jam graced by Frank McComb's pleading Donny Hathaway-esque vocals.

More exploratory in nature are 'Black Man Running From The Police,' and 'The Comanche Are Coming,' the latter an excursion into jazz-rock featuring pyrotechnics  from  drummer Robert "Sput" Searight.  

But just when you think you have pinned Sparks down and figured him out, he executes a sharp and unexpected left-turn that is utterly surprising.  'Islam' comes over like Indian orchestral music meets hip-hop  while 'All Mine' is an infectious slice of rap-led disco-funk with a sweet female-voiced chorus. Another musical surprise comes in the shape  of 'Let's Take A Journey,' a grandiose cinematic mood piece spotlighting French harmonica wiz, Gregoire Maret.

'Schizophrenia' is an album title that suggests a split personality but on this exhilarating debut, Bobby Sparks II has shown that he is able to juggle multiple musical personalities. In the hands of a lesser musician, perhaps, such a diverse array of musical styles might have resulted in a confusing mess but such is Sparks' talent that he is able to weave together many different sonic strands in a masterful and wholly convincing way. A mightily impressive debut.

(CW) 4/5

Last Updated on Sunday, 31 March 2019 18:37


ALICE CLARK: 'Alice Clark' (We Want Sounds)

Friday, 29 March 2019 17:19 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF


No one would doubt that the 1970s was a rich and fertile time for soul music. In fact, there was so much talent on offer in terms of solo singers, both male and female, that it's not surprising, perhaps, that some very gifted vocalists failed to make a name for themselves in such a competitive environment and fell by the wayside. Such was the fate of Alice Clark. Born in Brooklyn in 1947, she was a gospel-reared singer who at the age of 21 cut a single helmed by Billy Vera called 'You Got A Deal' for the small Rainy Day label before moving to Warner Bros/Seven Arts later the same year and cutting the George Kerr-produced Motown-style stomper,  'You Hit Me (Right Where You Hurt Me).' Though the Warner deal didn't last long - the single flopped but was later embraced by the UK's Northern Soul scene -  Clark's talent was appreciated by Bob Shad in 1972, a noted New York record producer who had just started his own label, Mainstream. A savvy operator, Shad put Clark in the Record Plant studio with some of the ace musicians that were then backing Aretha Franklin and Donny Hathaway (guitarist Cornell Dupree, pianist, Paul Griffin, and drummer, Bernard Purdie) along with a horn section under the direction of arranger, Ernie Wilkins. What resulted was the only LP of Clark's career, an eponymous 10-track set that was a stunning showcase for the singer's talent.

Despite its undoubted quality, 'Alice Clark' didn't take off like the singer and her record company had hoped. There are a variety of reasons for this, of course, the main one being the fact that Mainstream was a small indie label without much clout in the marketplace and therefore couldn't compete with the likes of Motown, Atlantic, and P.I.R.   Although after this, Alice Clark continued to perform, she never recorded again and because of this, her life is shrouded in mystery. Now, though, this new deluxe reissue of her Mainstream album (original 1972 pressings can fetch up to £200) sheds light on Alice's life thanks to some wonderfully informative liner notes in the accompanying booklet, which include recollections from  her grandson, Anthony Clark, who reveals how his grandmother sacrificed her music career to raise her children and grandchildren. Reminiscences by the album's original recording engineer, Carmine Rubino, illuminate the background to the recording session while a perspicuous liner note essay by Marcus J. Moore gives the music some valuable context. There's also an introduction by Mia and Judd Apatow, Bob Shad's grandchildren, who are also the current custodians of the Mainstream catalogue.

Listening to this reissue of her self-titled 1972 LP for Bob Shad's Mainstream label, it's immediately apparent that Alice Clark possessed a superb, gospel-reared voice and could probably have give Aretha Franklin or Gladys Knight a run for their money - if she'd had the chance and fate had been kinder. The opening cut is a gentle but soulful repurposing of Jimmy Webb's 'I Keep It Hid,' originally recorded by country singer, Glen Campbell. It was released as the set's only 45 by Mainstream but failed to get noticed. Nevertheless, it's a great way to open the album, illustrating Clark's gift at emotive vocals and bringing a lyric alive.

There's a subtle jazz tinge to the Petula Clark-co-written 'Looking At Life' (recorded by the Surrey-born singer on her LP, 'Petula '71') thanks to Joe Newman's plaintive trumpet line on which both Clark (Alice, that is) and the well-oiled rhythm section shine.

The horn section is also impressive and make their indelible mark on the more strident 'Don't Wonder Why' while the more meditative and poignant 'Maybe This Time' is a wistful reflection on the vicissitudes of love. The uptempo 'Charms Of The Arms Of Love' is the first of three strong tunes penned by soul man, Bobby Hebb (of 'Sunny' fame). The other two are the breezy but declamatory 'Don't You Care' featuring some fine funkafied electric piano by Paul Griffin and slick, syncopated  drumming by Bernard Purdie, and 'Hard Hard Promises.'  

Fans of Donny Hathaway will recognise 'Hey Girl,' an Earl DeRouen tune that appeared on his 1971 album 'Live' (interestingly, the song is listed as 'Hey Girl' on the credits to the 'Alice Clark' album despite the fact that  she actually sings it as 'Hey Boy').

Though ignored on its release in 1972, 'Alice Clark' accrued more fans as time went on. In fact, its popularity grew when it was revived as part of the UK's Acid Jazz scene in the early '90s. Ace Records made the album available in 2010 as part of a CD compilation, 'The Studio Recordings 1968-1972,' but now We Want Sounds are about to give soul fans the ultimate vinyl reissue of 'Alice Clark,' adorned in a replica of its original gatefold sleeve complete with a 20-page booklet filled with lots of rare photos gleaned from the Mainstream archives. A cult classic.

'Alice Clark' is released as a Record Store Day special and is available from April 13th.

(CW) 4/5

Last Updated on Friday, 29 March 2019 17:27


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