MAVIS STAPLES: 'If All I Was Was Black' (Anti-)

Thursday, 16 November 2017 12:39 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF


Mavis Staples is 78-years-old but still making records that matter. 'If All I Was Was Black' is the Chicago-born singer's fifteenth LP of her long career and her third collaboration with noted producer, songwriter, guitarist, and Wilco member, Jeff Tweedy. It's an album whose theme of racial discord and a polarised world reflects a dysfunctional America in the divisive Trump era. But as Mavis Staples can tell you from personal experience, it's an America that hasn't changed much from the days of racial segregation and persecution that she was a witness to when she began her career singing gospel music with her family in the 1950s. Mavis also was a staunch supporter of Martin Luther King Jr in the Civil Rights era but this album demonstrates that the social and political victories of those heady days of the 1960s, which seemed to augur better days ahead for African Americans,  may now be a thing of the past. The present incumbent of the Whitehouse has seen to that, fomenting racial hatred, opening up old wounds, and deepening divisions.

Jeff Tweedy (who wrote/co-wrote all of the songs specifically for Mavis) and his musical confreres provide a backdrop for Mavis that blurs the demarcation lines between soul, country, folk, gospel and rock. The music is also subtly understated, allowing the singer's distinctive voice - which has lost none of its richness over time - to shine. All ten songs create a vivid storytelling tapestry of  protest and social commentary, though without being specific about events and people. That gives it a transcendent universality that anyone who is disenfranchised can relate to.  'No Time For Crying' stands out for the tension of its driving funk beat - a mixture of Motown and Sly Stone's 'Dance To The Music' - its urgency reflecting the song's lyrics about having "work to do" even though "people are dying" and "bullets are flying." 'Build A Bridge,' with its anthemic chorus, is also hopeful, and its groove is almost stately. Indeed, despite the dark sobriety of some of its themes and tone,  'If All I Was Was Black' - whose title song is looking beyond skin colour and recognising our shared humanity - it's an album suffused with light and love. That feeling is epitomised by 'Peaceful Dream,' whose acoustic guitar filigrees and simple percussive handclaps recall the gospel-folk style of a pre-Stax Staple Singers.

Though this is a record initially born of despair, perhaps, ultimately it is brimming with hope and posits the idea of a world redeemed of its wickedness by embracing love. That might be idealistic, perhaps, given humanity's chequered history, but it's a noble vision nonetheless. Of course, Mavis Staples has been around long enough to tell you that she knows it isn't going to be easy, as she acknowledges on 'Try Harder,' but she's sure-as-hell going to give it a good go. If only she was the president of the United States.  A sensational album.

(CW) 4/5

Last Updated on Friday, 17 November 2017 08:21


JUSTIN YOUNG; Blue Soul (JustinTime Records)

Wednesday, 15 November 2017 20:36 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altJustin Young is a Detroit smooth jazz sax man and he's just released this – 'Blue Soul' – his fourth long player. The album's title track highlights the set's overall sound. The cut is a polite but solid soul-based groove. It boasts a catchy, memorable melody and is delivered with the slickness that the best smooth jazz is noted for. Given Young's Motor city roots, it's hardly surprising that the 12 tracker offers plenty more of the same – notably the current single 'High Definition', the almost funky 'Nothin' But Love' and the intricate 'Razzmajazz'.

The other major Smooth Jazz box that 'Blue Soul' ticks is "the Quiet Storm moment". Best to these ears is the soulful meander that is 'Jazz Along The 101'. Elsewhere tunes like 'Paradise Found' and 'New Life's stray into bland Kenny G territory. I guess it's down to the twee soprano sax sound.

Surprisingly for what is a classic smooth jazz set there are no big Latin moments, no familiar covers and no vocals... one (or several) of any of those might have created a tad more interest... though as we've said this is classic smooth jazz – no gimmickry, no trickery, no demands; and for those who like to know these things, helping Justin deliver are sideman of the calibre of Jackiem Joyner, Sheldon Reynolds (ex EWF) and the late Ricky Lawson.

Justin Young's 'Blue Soul' is released November 17th

(BB) 3/5

Last Updated on Thursday, 16 November 2017 17:20


LARRY CORYELL: 'Larry Coryell At The Village Gate' (Real Gone)

Sunday, 12 November 2017 10:09 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

                         altThe late Larry Coryell was a leading light in the birth and evolution of jazz-rock guitar in the late 1960s and early '70s and was a hugely influential figure (among those that fell under his spell included Return To Forever guitarist, Al Di Meola). He had risen to fame replacing Gabor Szabo in drummer Chico Hamilton's band in the mid-'60s and then in the latter part of the same decade appeared on several groundbreaking albums by vibraphonist, Gary Burton, where, favouring distortion over a clear sound, he pioneered a meld of jazz and rock that would become known as fusion.

'At The Village Gate' takes us back to the dawn of Coryell's solo career. It was the Galveston axe meister's fourth LP, recorded live at famous New York's jazz venue, and originally released in 1971 on the Vanguard label. It's been long out-of-print and is now revived by US reissues specialists, Real Gone. It proves to be an enthralling listen, especially for the guitar heads out there. Coryell leads a power trio, comprising Mervin Bronson on bass and Harry Wilkinson on drums (who hadn't been playing with the guitarist for very long) and as a result the music is spare and stripped-back, allowing Coryell's guitar to shine.

The first number, 'The Opening,' with its use of muscular riffs and a heavy wah-wah sounds very Hendrix-esque and shows how many rising guitar players in both the jazz and rock arenas had fallen under the spell of the flamboyant guitar avatar (Hendrix had died the previous year, in 1970). 'After Later' is less visceral than 'The Opening.' Though faster, it's more subtle and is built on a more complex set of riffs and from a perspective of dynamics and texture, offers lots of contrasts of light and shade. But when Coryell solos, the song takes off into another dimension, though the intuitive rhythm section keeps the track firmly anchored.

A driving version of Chick Corea's 'Entardecendo en Saudade,' which is propelled by an ostinato bass part, shows another facet of Coryell's playing, with its meld of jazz, rock, funk, and shades of psychedelia.  

A cover of ex-Cream bassist Jack Bruce's 'Can You Follow (Dance On the Green Hill)' - Coryell played with Bruce in the late-'60s - begins with Harry Wilkinson's crisp drum patterns before Coryell enunciates a dark, reflective melody. It's the longest cut on the album and shows the guitarist working in a more exploratory, jazz-tinged vein. Closing the album is a song written by Coryell with his then wife June, who also sings on it as a duet with her husband. It  begins as a ballad with plaintive folk overtones but then after three minutes morphs into a thundering heavy guitar workout riding on a propulsive one-chord vamp where Coryell exhibits his fretboard prowess with dazzling improv.  

Sadly, Larry Coryell passed away earlier this year at the age of 73. Though not one of the best known works in his canon of 70 albums, it's worth investigating as it shows what a magnetic live presence he was early on in his career.  

(CW) 3/5

Last Updated on Sunday, 12 November 2017 18:08


RUBY TURNER: 'Livin' A Life Of Love - The Jive Anthology 1986-1991' (SoulMusic Records)

Saturday, 11 November 2017 11:25 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

                         altBorn in Jamaica's Montego Bay and raised in Handsworth, Birmingham, MBE-decorated Francella Ruby Turner is regarded as a national treasure here in the UK, where she's had hit records, sung background vocals with pop and rock royalty (everyone from Mick Jagger and Jools Holland to Brian Ferry and Steve Winwood), and acted on stage and screen. This excellent new anthology takes us back to the dawn of Ruby's solo career when her stint as a backing singer with Culture Club led her to sign a solo deal with Jive Records, then a rising R&B label. She was with the label for five years and her stay there yielded five albums, the highlights of which can be found on this 32-track retrospective which includes all her charting UK and US hits as well as key LP cuts and some essential extended mixes.

For those that are only familiar with Ruby via her more recent association with Jools Holland's Rhythm & Blues Orchestra, 'Livin' A Life Of Love' might come as a surprise in terms of the singer's versatility and range of material. The fact that she scored a US R&B chart-topper in 1990 with 'It's Gonna Be Alright' shows that thirty years ago she was comfortable with being at the cutting-edge of pop-slanted soul despite the fact that she began her recording career doing covers of soul classics  - namely, her duet with Jonathan Butler on The Staple Singers' 'If You're Read (Come Go With Me) and Etta James' 'I'd Rather Go Blind.' Ruby also did an LP devoted to Motown songs ('The Motown Songbook') and included from that set here are faithful revamps of The Temptations' 'Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me),' The Four Tops' 'Baby I Need Your Lovin'' and Jimmy Ruffin's 'What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted' (all three songs feature cameos by the original Motown recordings artists, namely the Tempts, Tops and Ruffin).  

As good as these Motor Town reboots are, Ruby shines even brighter on contemporary material. The best of these is 'In My Life (It's Better To Be In Love),' a deceptively simple but hauntingly beautiful and poignant  beat ballad written and produced by ex-Time keyboardist Monty Moir, who helmed Alexander O'Neal's 'If You Were Here Tonight.' Thankfully, this compilation contains the superior 12-inch extended version, which arguably is Ruby's best ever recording. Other highlights on the anthology come in the shape of 'It's A Cryin' Shame,' the Brixton Bass Mix of 'It's Gonna Be Alright,'  the dance floor-oriented 'The Vibe Is Right,' and the Soul II Soul-influenced Club Mix of 'Rumours.'  They all conspire to etch a vivid portrait of Ruby Turner's fertile and hugely satisfying tenure at Jive Records in the late '80s and early '90s.  

(CW) 4/5

Last Updated on Sunday, 12 November 2017 18:08


SYLEENA JOHNSON: The Rebirth Of Soul (Shanachie)

Friday, 10 November 2017 15:15 Bill Buckley E-mailPrintPDF

altThe lovely Syleena Johnson is a proper soul singer with a real pedigree. Her father is soul/blues man Syl Johnson –most famous for his oft-sampled anthem 'Is It Because I'm Black' and the original waxing of 'Take Me To The River'. In her career, Ms J has produced some blistering soul music – some of it helmed by her father. Now she treats us to a whole long player which was conceived and produced by Syl. It's a simple concept – a set of covers of soul tunes, some better known than others; but what makes this so special is that clearly the two key participants – dad and daughter- know, respect and love the genre. What's more, to keep it real, live instrumentation is used throughout and Syl has used his clout to persuade legendary session players like Tom Washington and Willie Henderson to get on board. The end result is a beautiful tribute to classic soul music – not a pastiche, not a karaoke exercise; rather an injection of freshness and energy into the familiar... a "rebirth" indeed.

The album was heralded by the single 'We Did it' and anoraks will know that the song was originally recorded by Syl himself (they'll also tell you that that original was arranged by Donny Hathaway) and on this new version you can hear the joy of two people working on a project inspired by love. Syl gets Syleena to tackle another of his songs – the aforementioned 'Is It Because I'm Black. Like the original, this is dark and brooding... sinister even. Other sombre moments include versions of 'These Arms Of Mine 'and 'I'd Rather Go Blind'. Yep, great soul music can be a downer!

But great soul also has the ability to lift you up and make you smile and there are plenty of examples here. Chief amongst 'em is a belting version of Major Lance's 'The Monkey Time'. The two Johnsons play it like it should be played... chinking guitar, parping brass and wonderful second line harmonies. Dear old Curtis would be proud of it! The other big "up" moment is the cover of 'Make Me Yours' while for you old romantics, there's 'The Makings Of You'.

I've noticed that several US soul sites have made 'Rebirth Of Soul' their Album Of The Month".... you can't argue with that. Syl and Syleena have produced a proper soul Renaissance!

(BB) 5/5

Last Updated on Friday, 10 November 2017 15:39


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