GWEN McCRAE: 'Lay It On Me - The Columbia Years' (P&C/Reel Music)

Wednesday, 14 June 2017 14:54 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

                       altGospel-reared Florida soul singer Gwen McCrae scored her biggest US hits for Henry Allen's Miami-based Cat label (a subsidiary imprint of TK) between 1973 and '76, the biggest of which was 'Rockin'' Chair' in 1975. McCrae's recording career began in 1970 at major label Columbia where she just failed to crack the American R&B Top 3 with 'Lead Me On,' a simmering slice of sultry southern soul. Four more Columbia 45s followed during the next two years but failed to crack the charts, resulting in the singer and the record company parting ways. A few years ago, soul indie Reel Music combined all of McCrae's Columbia sides (which comprised eleven tracks in all) into an album called 'Lay It On Me,' which after being deleted, has now been reissued.  

'Lay It On Me' contains some of Gwen McCrae's most potent work. She recorded all the tracks in Memphis in the company of the celebrated Memphis Boys session group with Steve Alaimo in charge of production. 'Ain't Nothing You Can Do' is a great opener to this collection but flopped as a single. It's hard to see why. The song's strong, the arrangement is top notch (reminiscent of Elvis's 'Suspicious Minds,' that the Memphis Boys also played on) and Gwen McCrae's performance is magnetic. The Elvis connection is even more tangible on McCrae's soulful version of  his 1972 hit, 'You Were Always On Mind' (co-penned by Mark James, who wrote 'Suspicious Minds').  'Goin' Down The Road' is a delightfully slice of rolling country-soul while 'Leave The Driving To Us' is a pro-feminist anthem with funk undertones that recalls Aretha Franklin's finest Atlantic work. 'Been So Long' with its thumping back beat and declamatory vocal is similarly strident. More mellow is the hypnotic 'I'm Losing The Feeling,' boasting soft horns, bluesy guitar licks and a subtle but steady funk undertow. Ballad-wise, there's some good stuff here too - the piano-led slow jam, 'He's Not You,' is tenderly romantic and augmented with orchestral strings. Much overlooked, Gwen McCrae's short stint at Columbia yielded some great music that deserves wider exposure - with any luck, this superlative reissue will help spread the word. Get it while you can. 

(CW) 4/5

Last Updated on Wednesday, 14 June 2017 20:30


JAMES DAY: Songs, Soul And Spirit (Song King Records)

Friday, 09 June 2017 19:36 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altJames Day is the modern soul connoisseurs' soul man of choice. The super songwriter and uber producer is well known to the savvy soul crowd and despite a serious listening disorder, James has won numerous awards - most notably the Songwriter's Hall of Fame Award for Songwriting Excellence which was presented by Hal David... someone who knew a good tune when he heard it! Day makes no secret of the fact that songwriting craftsmen like Bacharach and David are his particular musical heroes. They have taught him what a proper song should be; equally he reveres the art of Quincy Jones – a producer who knows how to get the very best out of the material in front on him – be it through a particular arrangement, a quirky nuance or, simply, matching the song with the right singers and musicians.

Indeed that special matching of material to artist has been James' forte on his past albums and on this new 10 tracker he shows that he's a master of that particular skill. Helping him deliver on 'Song, Soul And Spirited' are people like Glenn Jones, Tony Terry, Tim Owens, U-Nam, Sandra St Victor, Lin Rountree, Maysa and Lalah Hathaway... all handpicked (or so it seems) to offer something very particular.

The lead single from the long player was the quite lovely 'Speak Love' – a cool and sophisticated groove that dominated the soul airwaves on release. That one featured many of Day's team and his fans recognized the song right away. It originally appeared on his 2009 album 'Natural Things'. Here, though, it's given a makeover and comes on like a whole new tune. And why not recycle excellence? The aforementioned Burt B was big on re-imagining his work and what's good for Burt is sure good enough for Jimmy!

'Speak Love' is one of four songs that have appeared before. The others are the ethereal 'Dreamland' with Lalah Hathaway up front; 'It's All Divine' here in a classic Boogie Back remix that totally respects the Trina Broussard vocal; and the Maysa-vocalised 'We Dance' that is showcased in a typical Cool Million mix.

Elsewhere one of the cleverest songs is the Gordon Chambers' collaboration, 'Forgiveness' while the sweetest ballads are 'Stand On My Shoulders' (lovely sax work from Walter Beasley) and Tony Terry's 'Who Can Tell The Heart'. Then there are the big, big productions like 'Battlegrounds', 'No Son Of Mine' and 'Love Is My Bible' –all totally different to each other and much more complex than the simpler fuel for the feet of, say, 'It's All Divine', but they combine to show the range of James Day's art and his dedication to the craft of making proper grown up music in the tradition of the maestros who've gone before.

(BB) 4/5

Last Updated on Saturday, 10 June 2017 08:08


SIMON LAW; Look To The Sky (Dome)

Wednesday, 07 June 2017 20:12 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altBack in March the soul world was treated to a lovely, frothy spring vibe of a tune called 'Morning Love'. The cut was credited to "Simon Law featuring Caron Wheeler". The savvy soul crowd recognized Caron right away.... one of the signature voices of Soul II Soul. But Simon Law? Well some knew but others quickly discovered that Simon was also a key member of the Jazzie B collective. The ex head chorister at Hereford Cathedral, played keys with Soul II Soul and co-wrote their two Grammy-winning songs 'Back To Life (However Do You Want Me)' and 'African Dance'. He worked on all their albums except one, producing and co-writing many of their UK hit singles and he still performs regularly with the band.

Now Simon thinks the time is right to release his own solo album but to call it a solo effort is not entirely accurate. Mr L has called in old friends and some-time collaborators to help him deliver the music that's been spinning around his head for some time. So on 'Look To The Sky' (the title suggests Simon's belief that the sky is an endless source of creativity) you can enjoy the talents of people like the aforementioned Caron Wheeler, Maxi Priest, Chante Moore, Lain Gray (ex Nu Colours), Simon's partner Jen Schaffer and someone called Jazzie B!

Indeed its Jazzie's resplendent tones that get the long player started. He brings his distinct gravitas to the album's title cut and you'd be forgiven for thinking that you'd stumbled across a long lost Soul II Soul artefact. Given Simon's CV it's not surprising that some of 'Look To The Sky' is redolent of Soul II Soul. Simon readily admits that when he makes music the Soul II Soul vibe is always there but as the 16 tracks of 'Look To The Sky' unwind you'll discover that there's much, much more here than a Soul II Soul pastiche.

For starters there's some proper Caribbean vibes.... hardly surprising when you learn that Simon spent four years of his childhood on Trinidad. So if the sounds of the islands are your thing then sit back and enjoy the cool of 'Sunshine Girl' and 'When You Love Somebody' – both vocalised by Maxi Priest.

The biggest departure from the classic Soul II Soul sound comes right at the end of the album in a sequence of five songs that begins with 'Your Light' – that if we had to pigeon hole, we'd say was smooth jazz with a hard edge. Then there's the semi-acoustic, almost country-fied 'Precious Child' – a beautiful plea for love and mindfulness sung by Lain Gray. That's followed by 'My Heart Is Ready' (vocal from Joanna Law) and 'She Walks At Dawn' – ambient and ethereal, both. Then the lengthy closing track... 'Heart Of God'. Like much of the album it's a reflection of Simon's spiritually (he's a great respecter of the teachings of the Taizé community) and I defy you to categorise it.

Therein lies a problem. Music writers, fans and collectors love to categorizes and first reaction with Simon Law's 'Look To The Sky 'would be to say here's a Soul II Soul spin off: it's not... this is a Simon Laws album with its own special sound and message.

Look out for an in-depth interview with Simon Laws here at SJF very soon.

(BB) 4/5


MTUME: 'Prime Time: The Epic Anthology' (SoulMusic Records)

Wednesday, 07 June 2017 15:48 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF


After jazz icon Miles Davis hung up his trumpet in 1975 and retreated into his New York brownstone for a reclusive, six-year period of silence, his percussionist James Mtume and rhythm guitarist Reggie Lucas teamed up to form a songwriting and production duo. They played in Roberta Flack's backing band and got their first hit when the singer chose to record their tune, 'The Closer I Get To You,' as a duet with Donny Hathaway in 1977. Flushed with success, a year later, the duo put together a band, Mtume, and signed a deal with Epic Records. They stayed with the label until 1987, recording five albums and scoring eleven charting US singles, all of which can be found on this fabulous 2-CD retrospective of the group's Epic tenure.

Success didn't arrive instantly for Mtume. In fact, their early albums - such as '78's 'Kiss This World Goodbye' and '80's  'In Search Of The Rainbow Seekers' - largely fell on deaf, unappreciative, ears. That was due, perhaps, to the group's unique and idiosyncratic meld of jazz-inflected, disco-soul sophistication with a zany P-funk-style sensibility. Their debut 45, 'Just Funnin',' scraped into the US R&B Top100, landing at #93 while a second single, 'Funky Constellation,' failed to chart. But as this compilation reminds us, there was some good stuff on their first album - the group's version of 'The Closer I Get To You' (featuring Tawatha Agee's imperious vocals)  is sublime while 'Love Lock' is a brilliant slice of astral jazz-funk with soaring wordless lead vocals. Even so, it was the single 'Give It On Up (If You Want To),' a slice of thumping orchestral disco-funk taken from the group's sophomore LP, that really got them on the radar of R&B fans, which just grazed the US R&B Top 30 though its follow-up, the stupendous mirrorball groove, 'So You Wanna Be A Star,' couldn't achieve a similar chart trajectory.

After going back to the drawing board, the band  returned after a three-year hiatus with a new minimalist funk sound defined by synths and drum machines. They scored an instant hit with 'Juicy Fruit,' a hypnotic groove ballad that became their signature song and has been much-sampled in the hip-hop age. It ascended to the top of American R&B charts in 1983. Though it's the undoubted pinnacle of their career, the band produced much more besides and you'll find all the essential tunes here (including some rare 12-inch mixes). As a bonus, you'll also find three selections ('No More Tears,' 'Thigh Ride,' and 'Did I Dream You') from lead singer Tawatha Agee's solitary solo album, 'Welcome To My Dream.' Ace liner notes from David Nathan with pertinent quotes from all the key protagonists round off what is a satisfyingly soulful collection.  

(CW) 4/5

Last Updated on Wednesday, 07 June 2017 15:54


JUNIE: 'The Complete Westbound Recordings' (Westbound/Ace)

Monday, 05 June 2017 19:10 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

                   altThe late Walter 'Junie' Morrison, who died aged 62 earlier this year, rose to fame as the keyboard player with Dayton funk troupe, the Ohio Players in the early 1970s. A church-reared pianist, he wrote their million-selling 1973 smash hit, 'Funky Worm,' but quit the band soon after, forging a nascent solo career for Armen Boladian's Detroit-based Westbound label where he recorded three albums between 1973 and 1976. This 2-CD retrospective brings combines all of Junie's Westbound long players ('When We Do,' 'Freeze' and 'Suzie Super Groupie') together with seven bonus tracks.

'When We Do' is a debut LP brimming with invention and ideas - veering from slick Brazilian jazzy grooves ('Johnny Carson Samba') and cinematic funk ('Tight Rope,' 'Walt's Third Trip' and 'The Place') to soulful ballads ('Anna' and 'Married Him'). It's easy to see why Junie felt constricted by the Ohio Players' formulaic musical framework and elected to take a separate path. 1975's 'Freeze' offered more of the same but upped the surreal, cartoon-funk quotient with the comic preamble that precedes its killer cut, 'Granny's Funky Rolls Royce,' a synth-led groove that resurrects the Granny persona from Ohio Players' 'Funky Worm' track.

1976's 'Suzie Super Groupie' has more of a sleek, slightly softer, disco pulse, epitomized by 'Surrender,' 'Suzie,' and the sublime 'Suzie Thundertussy,' featuring female backing vocals and horns and the more frantic 'Super Groupie.' The mid-tempo 'If You Love Him' - with a swinging jazz-infused middle-eight - is also noteworthy, showing that Junie was much more than an off-the-wall funkateer. By contrast, 'What Am I Gonna Do,' with its lazy funk groove has much in common with George Clinton's Parliament aggregation. And ironically enough, that's where Junie's career trajectory took him after Westbound let him go in 1976. He co-wrote and arranged 'One Nation Under A Groove' for Parliament's sister group, Funkadelic, in 1978, which was a huge hit. He also masterminded Parliament's '(Not Just) Knee Deep' not long after, his unique, idiosyncratic style seeming a perfect fit with Clinton's zany crew of spaced-out funk cadets.

In recent years, Junie's music had been much-sampled by hip-hop groove robbers (including Kanye West, who filched a segment of 'Suzie Thundertussy' for 'Life Of Pablo') and was about to re-launch his career when he passed away in January while living in London. This excellent collection serves as a fine epitaph to the variegated yet singular musical talent that was Walter 'Junie' Morrison.

(CW) 4/5

Last Updated on Tuesday, 06 June 2017 18:44


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