JAMES AUSTIN Jr; Songs In The Key Of Wonder (JCA Records)

Friday, 03 May 2019 17:40 Bill Buckley E-mailPrintPDF

altStevie Wonder's glorious back catalogue has been plundered countless times by musicians across all genres seeking something of beauty and meaning on which to display their chops. Latest to dip into Stevie's bag is award winning pianist James Austin Jr.

Austin hails from Chicago but now works out of New York. Back n 2006 he won the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz International Piano Competition at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. That day, he met many of his music heroes – Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock and George Duke but a certain Stevie Wonder left him in thrall and so for his debut album as leader James Austin has decided to offer ten of his interpretations of Wonder songs. He explains: "Stevie Wonder has written every type of song you can imagine and it's all beautiful music. I've been playing and arranging Stevie's songs in improvisational idioms for some time. Whenever I threw one into a gig, audiences were keenly receptive...and my objective is to connect with the widest audience possible."

'Songs In The Key Of Wonder', then, begins with a gorgeous version of 'Isn't She Lovely' and you know from the opening bars that this album isn't going to be just a pedestrian take on the Wonder songbook. This 'Isn't She Lovely' is serious stuff: it really swings as Austin allows his side men – notably horn players Jarrard Harris and Ben Rubens to stretch out. Why even drummer Samuel Torres gets a mini solo! Versions of 'Part Time Lover' and 'You Are The Sunshine Of My Life' offer more of the same gently swinging flavours while 'My Cherie Amour' is treated to a classic trio makeover... very Ramsey Lewis!

The other featured tunes are 'Another Star', 'You Got It Bad Girl', 'Golden Lady', 'Overjoyed', 'Tuesday Heartbreak' and 'Lately' which closes the album. An album highlight, this 'Lately' features just Austin's piano and David Williams' upright bass and even without the lyrics it will still manage to wring those emotions.

Since relocating to New York, James Austin has made his name as an in-demand session player and accompanist. He's worked with people like Lalah Hathaway, Brian McKnight, BeBe Winans, Yolanda Adams and Russell Malone. Now, with 'Songs In The Key Of Wonder', he's emphatically announced his arrival as a leader in his own right!

(BB) 4/5

Last Updated on Friday, 03 May 2019 17:47


KELLY FINNEGAN: The Tales People Tell (Colemine Records)

Wednesday, 01 May 2019 19:15 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altIt's been a great few weeks for sparkling new soul albums... we enjoyed new material from people like Eli Reed, the O'Jays and Tony Momrelle – names familiar to most serious soul fans who'd expect artists of that stature to deliver. Adding to that list of "sparkling new soul albums" is a 10 tracker from a name new to me, and, I'm guessing, new to most – Kelly Finnegan. Mr Finnegan is a 37 year old Californian whose father was a session keyboardist who worked with people like Etta James and Joe Cocker. Immersed in music from an early age, Kelly formed his own hip hop collective the Destruments who specialised in instrumental tracks! The group moved from LA to Oakland in 2007 but those familiar "musical disagreements" led to the band disbanding in 2009!

Up to then Kelly had played keys and drums but he had always hankered at being out front; thus in 2010 he became lead singer in Bay Area funk band the Monophonics who soon built up a cult following via arduous touring which by 2015 had started to take its toll, so, the group began to take things a little easier. This "cooling off" gave Kelly Finnegan to opportunity to do something he'd long wanted to do - work on his own material. So 'The Tales People Tell' was born and some three years later it's good to go!

The album release was heralded by the single, 'I Don't Wanna Wait' – a luscious slab of contemporary blue eyed soul with its roots in the classic soul sounds of the 60s and 70s and that particular soundscape is the album's signature feel. The album boasts countless highlights – like the Stax/Hi flavoured 'Smoking And Drinking' and the more subtle, uptown harmony group sound of 'Impressions Of You'. In honesty, though, dip in anywhere and you'll you won't be disappointed by what Kelly has crafted. Helping him deliver are players from the Daptone crew, garlanded drummer James Gadson and – a nice touch – his dad Mike!

Kelly says of his 21st century take on classic soul: "I'm not looking to reinvent the wheel... I just want to remind people why the wheel was such a good invention in the first place" and that's exactly what he's achieved! Long live sweet soul music!

(BB) 4/5

Last Updated on Wednesday, 01 May 2019 20:05


TONY MOMRELLE; Best Is Yet To Come (Vibe 45)

Monday, 29 April 2019 17:18 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altMainstay of the Brit soul scene, Tony Momrelle must, by now, be fed up with two comments bandied about whenever his work is being played out or discussed by savvy soul folk. First how can someone sound so uncannily like a certain Stevie Wonder? And secondly, when oh when is he going to break into the major leagues? Well, I guess Tony's flattered by the Stevie comparison (Mr Wonder knows of Tony and loves his work, we're told) and maybe, fingers, crossed, this new long player will be the one to allow Tony to cross over. Mind you with a title like 'Best Is Yet To Come' it seems that Mr M has more up his sleeve. Well it'll have to be something very special to beat this 'cos it's a corker! Many of this set's 12 cuts are allready being rotated on soul radio (and the BBC!) while lots of experienced soul commentators are already touting the album as a potential "album of the year"!

'Best Is Yet To Come' was heralded last month by the single 'Rising Up' - a funky old beater, stuffed with brass breaks riding over complex rhythms and if that's your thing there's plenty more, like the sparse 'Two Minutes Forty' – a percussive jam that lasts – well, 2 minutes, 40 seconds. Then there's the album's live closer... 'Believe To My Soul' – funky and bluesy, it was recorded "live in London" – my copy doesn't say where exactly. Pick of the up-tempo items is 'My Paradise'. This is a lithe, Latin-flavoured work out that should remind you a lot of Incognito - Tony has worked with the band on many occasions.

And speaking of Incognito, another of the LP's highlights, 'We Have Searched For Heaven', features another Incognito alumnus, Maysa, and the blend of the voices is quite magical. More magic comes via the balladic 'We Can Have It All' and the reflective 'I Wanna Be Loved'. The lyric owes a little to 'If I Were a Carpenter' – but it goes deeper than that old Tom Hardin classic. And the album's title track? Well, that's another lovely ballad that will draw comparison with Stevie Wonder... even Donny Hathaway. If there's better to come from Tony Momrelle, bring it on!

(BB) 4/5

Last Updated on Monday, 29 April 2019 17:44


SHAYNA STEELE: Watch Me Fly (Membran)

Friday, 26 April 2019 13:24 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altThe daughter of a military family, Shayna Steele has led something of an itinerant existence. Born in California, she's lived in (amongst other places) Germany, Oklahoma, Missouri and Mississippi but now resides in New York where she's a valuable and valued member of that city's vibrant music coterie. Her credits include work with Snarky Puppy, Moby and Bette Midler and those experiences along with her varied addresses go a long way to explaining why the music on her 2015 album 'Rise' was so eclectic!

Well, it's taken a while but Ms S now returns with a new album and the 10 cuts that make up 'Watch Me Fly' offer a menu as varied as 'Rise'. I mean there aren't too many modern soul long players where, alongside the originals, you can hear songs first recorded by people like Little Milton, Michael Jackson, Big Mama Thornton and dear Doris Day! The Doris Day cover is the 'Calamity Jane' classic 'Secret Love' and this new light jazzy arrangement quite transforms it. 'That's What Love Will Make You Do' is the Milton Campbell song and here its' given a rocky makeover while on Thornton's 'Life Goes On', Shayna stays down in Bluesville. MJ's 'Baby Be Mine' is maybe more interesting ... a hybrid of military marching and bumpy R&B grooves!

Amongst the originals, 'Be' is a fierce, proud opening cut... "so many things I wanna be... I'm gonna make my mark". While the closing 'Home' shows that Ms S can do introspective too. In between plenty of rock-tinged serous soul ... intriguing, interesting and, yes, eclectic!

(BB) 3/5

Last Updated on Friday, 26 April 2019 14:32


VARIOUS; On The Detroit Beat (Ace)

Friday, 19 April 2019 07:07 Bill Buckley E-mailPrintPDF

altHard to believe, but yes... it took the mighty Motown empire a while to secure a foothold here in the UK. Berry Gordy began his odyssey in 1959 but it wasn't till 1964 that he enjoyed his first UK success – Mary Well's 'My Guy'. That's not so say that Motown hadn't tried. Between '59 and '64 Motown released some 40 singles in Britain on labels like London, Oriole, Fontana and Stateside (it goes without saying that those original releases are now hugely collectable!) but to little or no avail. However that doesn't mean that Motown music was totally neglected. It became the music of choice for the mods; it was played in the best cellar clubs while savvy record company A&R men and music managers had many of their artists record (mostly unknown) Motown material in order to win some UK chart action. Lots of the more switched on early 60s artists loved Motown anyway. Both the Beatles and the Stones included Motown material in their early sets and you may remember that the Beatles' second LP featured no less than three Motown covers! Yes, so though Motown wasn't a chart presence, there was an awareness of the Motown sound... and this lovely, new, memory-jerking 24 track Ace compilation amply proves that point.

Here the ace Ace team have put together a varied selection of UK covers of Motown songs – all recorded between 1963 and 1967. The album offers some big 60s names – the Hollies, the Small Faces and dear Dusty Springfield amongst them. There's also a surprising inclusion from Cilla Black – a raucous version of Jr. Walker's 'Shotgun' – proving that at onetime at least there was more to Cilla than sweet balladeering and silly TV presenting! Amongst the 24 cuts there's also plenty of 60s wannabees like Guy Darrell, Louise Cordet and Truly Smith whose inclusion is a sweet version of Carolyn Crawford's 'My Smile Is Just A Smile Turned Upside Down'.

There's lots of anorak type intrigue too. For instance Everton FC supremo, radio DJ, ex Corrie actor and mega theatre impresario , Billy Kenwright's in here... fronting the Runaways, he warbles manfully through Chris Clark's 'I Wanna Go Back There Again.' Ex Searchers lead singer, Tony Jackson, gets a track too... a take on Martha and the Vandellas' 'Never Leave Your Baby's Side'.

It's all stirring stuff and,wonderfully, I think, the collection boasts what I (humbly) consider to be the best three UK Motown covers – Georgie Fame's take on the Spinners' 'Sweet Thing', the Action's cover of Martha and the Vandellas' 'In My Lonely Room' and the Spencer Davis Group's emotion-stirring take on Brenda Holloway's 'Every Little Bit Hurts'. That one's every bit (pun intended!)as good as the original and impossible to believe that Stevie Winwood was only 16 when he cut that so soulful vocal!

Interestingly too, 7 of the 24 artists here are from Liverpool, while another 5 are from the city's immediate hinterland - proving that while Detroit was vital to the emergence of soul, Liverpool was absolutley key and pre-eminent in the evolution of UK pop... we knew that anyway!

(BB) 4/5

Last Updated on Friday, 19 April 2019 07:20


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