Colombia! The Golden Age Of Discos Fuentes. The Powerhouse Of Colombian Music 1960-76 Various Artists Soundway Records (SNDWCD008)
Every Soundway compilation is a labor of love and this one is no exception. This collection focuses on the Fuentes label of Colombia, which has been active there since the 1930s. Covering a mighty chunk of stylistic territory and a span of over fifteen years is no mean feat and it’s remarkable the collection holds together as well as it does. It has its flaws but they are relatively minor and far outweighed by the fact that Soundway is making this music available to a wider audience that to a large extent have not had much access to it. Continue reading
As a rule I avoid weddings and funerals. They both represent transitional stages for which I’m not ready, and – if I had my way – would put off indefinitely. However I’ve often sat around thinking about what music I would like to have playing at both of them, should I be so unfortunate as to have them occur. In particular, *who* would play, since of course it would need to be live music. Having ruled out Madonna and Roberto Carlos as outside of my budget, I content myself with fantasies of being serenaded from beyond the grave. Disembodied spirits are relatively inexpensive. Sure, obtaining the necessary components for the blood sacrifice to get them to show up on time can be a lot of work, but think of all the money you will save on lodging and air transportation. Having established at least this much, I can move on to selecting which resident of the afterlife will perform at my wedding/funeral. Now is when it gets really tricky, because a lot depends on who I am marrying and/or the manner of my demise. Isaac Hayes, for example, would seem an ideal choice but I’m not sure I could live up to the turned-on expectations he would no doubt incur in my bride. She might even run off with him, across the great divide. And Black Moses singing at my funeral would be just, well, kind of weird. Then there are the artists whose palettes are truly universal. John Coltrane would work perfectly at either of these life ceremonies, for example. The list of these candidates is few in number, but among them is definitely my High Priestess, Nina Simone.
Nina could change from Broadway show tunes, to gospel, to blues, to soul and funk without making a big deal about it, without a lot of stylistic pomp to say “hey, look at me, I am going to sing some blues for you now.” Everything she did was done with conviction. It didn’t surprise me to learn recently that Nina suffered from some variety of bipolar disorder, what used to be called manic-depression. The electrically-charged highs and lows of her emotional range and vocal register were one and the same. Whether or not she is coyly telling you how fun it is to be kissed in the dark, or asking for more sugar in her bowl, you know better than to second-guess her sincerity. Whether she is singing Gershwin, or a twelve-bar blues arrangement, or the scandalously secular gospel-cry of “Real Real,” she is never anything less than completely present, in the moment, at the piano, on the microphone, transforming a studio into a dimly-lit smoke-hazed jazz club or a back-country house party. The empress between the pillars of light and dark, her suffering is also her wisdom, and you should thank the universe for being lucky enough to have HEARD her in your short lifetime.
This album was the first long-player for Nina’s tenure with RCA/Victor after leaving the Philips label. If the studio staff had anything to do with assembling the backing band for this one –and I believe they did, as Rudy Stevenson is the only musician here that had been regularly playing with her, if I’m not mistaken — well, then they deserve some mighty thanks. Bernard Purdie. Bernard Purdie! Bernard PURDIE!! The man. ‘Pretty’ Purdie once again shows his ability to play to the song, hanging back in the mix. And one of my favorite under-rated guitarists, Eric Gale, was also on the sessions. There is also a collaboration with Langston Hughes on the socially-topical “Backlash Blues.”
This record isn’t exactly obscure, but if you are thinking, ‘Meh, I’ve already heard this one,” then think again. This is a Japanese pressing made using the proprietary K2 technology developed by JVC to avoid digital artifacts in the analog conversion and reduce jitter — meticulous care is taken at every step of the mastering and duplication process, held to very exacting standards. If all that doesn’t mean anything to you, just know this: the Japanese are obsessively and famously crazy about good audiophile-quality CD pressings, and have by and large not succumbed to the “loudness wars” that have plagued CD remasters in ‘The Occident’ wherein all dynamics are made ruler-flat so that everything will sound “good” (read: the same) on your Mp3 player or in your car. I’ve heard several CDs of this material and this one is by far the most sonically stunning.
There are few things quite as annoying to me than having the same music endlessly repackaged. This goes for many of the “new” high-definition formats being shoved down consumer’s throats lately (with little knowledge at the consumption end about the realities of any actual differences), but in fact it is part of a game the music business has played for at least a half century: how to milk the most revenue out of the same piece of recorded music. In the 1990s this took the form of CD reissues that threw together a bunch of material by an artist to give you the impression that you were getting something you didn’t already have, perhaps something previously unreleased. Such was the case with a European RCA/Novus collection of Nina Simone called simply “The Blues,” which has all the tracks on “Sings The Blues” with an additional seven songs. If I had been paying closer attention when I bought it impulsively, I might have been more wary of the fact that the first half was even in the same running order as “Sings The Blues,” but I was hell-bent on getting my hands on some kind of rarities, unreleased outtakes or live recordings or some such. In fact, the CD is just a repackaging of this album with some extra material thrown in. (To be fair, perhaps the original “Sings The Blues” was not available on CD at that time, but the packaging is ambiguous to put it mildly, and this title should probably have been deleted after proper reissues saw the light of day..) There is also a recent 2006 remaster that includes two bonus tracks. As a favor (if not quite a guide) to the perplexed, I am going to compile this material into another separate post, but for now let’s just enjoy Nina Simone Sings The Blues as it was meant to be enjoyed. The booklet for the 2006 pressing, which contains both original and new liner notes, is included just for kicks here.
1. “Do I Move You” (Simone) – 2:46 2. “Day and Night” (Stevenson) – 2:35 3. “In the Dark” (Green) – 2:57 4. “Real Real” (Simone) – 2:21 5. “My Man’s Gone Now” (Gershwin, Heyward) – 4:16 6. “Backlash Blues” (Hughes, Simone) – 2:31 7. “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl” (Simone) – 2:32 8. “Buck” (Stroud) – 1:52 9. “Since I Fell for You” (Johnson) – 2:52 10. “The House of the Rising Sun” (Traditional) – 3:53 11. “Blues for Mama” (Lincoln, Simone) – 4:00
* Nina Simone: vocal, piano * Eric Gale: guitar * Rudy Stevenson: guitar * Ernie Hayes: organ * Bob Bushnell: bass * Bernard Purdie: drums, timpani * Buddy Lucas: harmonica, tenor sax
Gary Bartz “Anthology”
2004 Soul Brother Records (CD SBPJ 23)
Made in England
Recordings from 1971 – 1977
1 Celestial Blues 7:35
2 Uhuru Sasa 6:47
3 Drinking Song 5:16
4 Dr. Follow’s Dance 2:39
5 I’ve Known Rivers 8:34
6 I Wanna Be Where You Are 7:14
7 Ju Ju Man 9:11
8 Sea Gypsy l 6:19
9 Gentle Smiles s 4:22
10 Music Is My Sanctuary 6:21
11 Carnaval de l’Espirit 5:55
12 My Funny Valentine 7:11
Single-artist compilations are a difficult thing. It can be hard to represent an artist’s trajectory faithfully and still produce a coherently listenable document, let alone please everyone in the process, especially if the subject in question is a jazz artist. Soul Brother Records deserves massive props for pulling this off with this Gary Bartz anthology, which presents highlights from his most inspired post-bop output of the 1970s. My introduction to Bartz was, like many people, via his work with the Mizell Brothers, but there was so much, much more to the man’s legacy. Soul Brother makes the smart move of presenting this material in roughly chronological order beginning with selections from the incredible two volumes of “Harlem Bush Music.” Spiritual, socially-conscious, adventurous and above all soulful, this stuff soars and the vocals of Andy Bey qualify as one of the best-kept secrets of the universe.
Nobody seems to have passed through the ranks of Miles Davis’ various ensembles and come out unchanged but Bartz seemed to have been doing his own thing when Miles picked him up for a brief stint that yielded the semi-live album “Live Evil” (more complete material from those concerts appearing on 2005’s “Cellar Door” release). But performing with Davis’ post-Bitches Brew lineup (at the time including Airto on percussion, Keith Jarrett on electric piano, and McLaughlin still on guitar) may have inspired Bartz to stretch out even further in his work as a bandleader. But Bartz has plenty of other credits under his belt as a sideman, most prominently with McCoy Tyner but he’s also recorded with Woodie Shaw, Pharoah Sanders, and Charles Mingus.
The playing on the tune “Drinking Song”, the oldest piece on this collection, is simply fierce as the whole band raises your consciousness out of your bohemian apathy. Bartz pays homage to Langston Hughes with the track “I’ve Known Rivers” off the live record of the same name. Four entire tracks from the Mizell collaborations (the records “The Shadow Do” and “Music Is My Sanctuary”) may be a little disproportional considering that stuff already has wider exposure, but you won’t hear me complaining because it does indeed flow very nicely. Wrapping up the set with a sultry, melancholic reading of “My Funny Valentine” with vocalist Syreeta is a very nice finishing touch to this very satisfactory anthology. It’s also good to know that this disc apparently has Gary’s own approval as he wrote short note about the release and about music as a healing force to be included in the booklet.
I am so happy listening to this collection that I am planning on a mini-flood of Gary Bartz in the weeks to come, so prepare yourselves and meanwhile enjoy this teaser to whet your musical appetite.
Jimmy McGriff Soul Sugar / Goove Grease Two albums both released 1971 on Groove Merchant Reissue on Groove Hut Records 2007 (GH66704)
1 Sugar Sugar
2 Ain’t It Funky Now
3 Signed Sealed Delivered I’m Yours
4 Dig on It
5 Bug Out
6 Now Thing
7 You’re the One
8 Fat Cakes
9 New Volume
10 Spirit in the Dark
11 Groove Grease
13 Plain Brown Bag
14 There Will Never Be Another You
15 Canadian Sunset
16 Mr Lucky
18 Red Sails in the Sunset
19 Secret Love
I think the only way these two records could make me happier is if they opened up with a soul version of “Yummy Yummy Yummy I’ve Got Love in My Tummy.” Since it does not I suppose I can accept “Sugar Sugar” in its place. If this disc was any more fun it would be illegal. Before Jimmy Smith thought of covering pop and soul hits with marvelously funky results, Jimmy McGriff was already laying down cuts to make the jazz purists wince while turning up their erudite noses. McGriff didn’t care and doesn’t seem to have been restrained by such labels, often positioning himself as more of a blues player anyway. I have been meaning to do a post here about another fabulous Groove Merchant disk he did with soul-blues singer Junior Parker that is just amazing. All in good time, even though I’ve been thinking about doing that post for over a year now…
Since a great deal of songs on these two albums are all-instrumental covers of hit songs, you can feel free to use it at your next karaoke party. That is if you are not only prepared to tread the same musical ground as James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, and Aretha Franklin, but also spar with the infectious chops of Mr. McGriff. My guess is that he will upstage you. But feel free to give it a go.
A glance at the lineup on these two platters may not cause any names to jump out at some of you. But his musicians here all have a pretty impressive pedigree, having played with the likes of Nina Simone, Eric Dolphy, Ahmad Jamal, Art Tatum, Stan Getz, Pharoah Sanders, B.B.King, Lonnie Liston Smith, Lonnie Smith, Charles Earland, among others and many more. Particularly noteworthy is bassist Richard Davis who just dominates these two albums like the monster he was. He sometimes plays with a phasor enevelope-follower effect on his bass that adds a nice subtle twist to his tone.
Both albums also have fabulously tacky blaxploitation jackets, the better to arouse you with.
Weird side note: according to a friend of mine, the first three tracks of Groove Grease on this reissue are HDCD encoded. Although it’s not uncommon to find HDCD coding on discs that don’t mention it on the packaging, it is somewhat mysterious why they would encode three tracks and stop. I actually have an HDCD player packed away in a storage shed full of audio gear but I am not about to drag it out to verify this. I will take my friend’s word for it, and pass it on to you for what it’s worth.
I think anybody with a pulse will find themselves enjoying this music. And I promise I will have that collaboration with Junior Parker here before the year is out..
Mulatu Astatke “Mulatu Steps Ahead” Released March 25, 2010 Strut Records (056CD)
1. Radcliffe 2. Green Africa 3. Way To Nice, The 4. Assosa 5. I Faram Gami I Faram 6. Mulatu’s Mood 7. Ethio Blues 8. Boogaloo 9. Motherland
I enjoyed last year’s collaboration between Mulatu Astatke and The Heliocentrics (called, unimaginatively, Inspiration Information Volume 3, a title lifted from Shuggie Otis’ magnum opus and used by Strut for an ongoing series that has also featured collaborations between the likes of Sly & Robbie and Amp Fiddler). But although I like it, it still didn’t exactly set me on fire. It sounded too much like the producers trying to “update” Mulatu, and why he needs “updating” is beyond me. This album witnesses Mulatu working in a creative space that feels more natural for the 60-odd year old composer, arranger, and vibraphonist. It’s his first album under (solely) his own name in over 20 years, and it’s worth the wait. The opening track, Radcliffe (written for a performance at the college), is spacious and languid and immediately lets us know he is not going for the hipster-tinged recreation of Ethiopiques-cum-hip-hop that was the Heliocentrics partnership. There is nothing too terribly revolutionary about this record, in spite of its intimations at exploring new territory, but that is fine by me. The influence of Latin American music is keenly felt at times, as it has always been in Mulatu’s work and in African jazz more generally. I am still digesting this album but I would have to say that the only track that feels weak to me is “Boogaloo” which has the same type of forced contrivance that turns me off from chunks of the Heliocentrics record. Damn, it sounds like I really don’t like that album, which isn’t the case — it is a good album, just not a great one, in my opinion. It remains to be seen what I will think of this one after repeated listenings but thus far I am happily pleased. Below is a review by one of those people who gets paid to write about music, reprinted without permission.
Implicit in the title Mulatu Steps Ahead is the notion that vibraphonist and composer Mulatu Astatke is progressing, not resting on his laurels. Now in his 60s, he’s riding a wave of affection for music that he made 35 years ago, which was first revived by a volume of the Ethiopiques series (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethiopiques) and then popularized by appearing in the film Broken Flowers. It would be easy for him to coast, but although he does revisit old material and methods on this record, it doesn’t sound like anything else in his discography.
Born in 1943, Astatke left Ethiopia when he was a teen to study in the UK, where he was first smitten by the modern jazz of Joe Harriott and Tubby Hayes. He subsequently lived in the USA, where he played in Latin bands, and during his sojourn abroad Astatke conceived a synthesis of jazz and Ethiopian music. He moved back to his homeland just in time for the brief flowering of Ethiopian pop music documented by Ethiopiques, and during that time he also perfected his own hybrid style, although it never knocked out audiences the way his productions for singers like the late Tlahoun Gessesse (a.k.a. Tilahun Gessesse) did. With its whomping beats and electric guitars and keyboards, Inspiration Information 3, the record he made in 2008 with the Heliocentrics, offered a muscled-up version of the old Ethio-jazz sound for hip-hop-trained ears.
Mulatu Steps Ahead was made mostly with the Either/Orchestra and it emphasizes the jazz side of Astatke’s music. Instead of the sturdy R&B grooves of vintage Ethio-jazz, Astatke and his mostly American ensemble play acoustically accomplished rhythms with a pronounced sense of swing. “Radcliffe,” named for the college where Astatke enjoyed a residency a while back, steps most deliberately, with the forward motion mostly coming from a muted trumpet wreathed in swirls of piano, Gil Evans-like horn charts, and Astatke’s own vibraphone. The next tune, “Green Africa,” unveils a more pan-African side to Astatke’s music. While it does feature traditional Ethiopian stringed instruments, there’s also a West African balafon and a bass line that feels quite Moroccan.
When Astatke looks back, he looks away from Ethiopia as often as not. “The Way To Nice,” which features a few Heliocentrics including the superb trumpeter Byron Wallen, appropriates a John Barry theme to set a cool James Bond vibe. And “I Faram Gami I Faram,” a tune 44 years ago in New York, sets Amharic words to an unabashedly Nuyorican rhythm. Another reclaimed tune, “Mulatu’s Mood,” furthers the Pan-African vibe with a lilting Malian kora, an instrument that has as much to do Ethiopian culture as the Celtic harp has to do with Bulgarian music. And he uses two traditional Ethiopian melodies as frameworks for repeating horn figures that feel more like American minimalism than Ethio-jazz. The individual elements on Mulatu Steps Ahead often feel well aged, but the way Astatke has put them together takes them out of time. Instead they represent the latest progressive step of a singular talent.
By Bill Meyer
*Note: this is NOT the version with a bunch of annoying voice-overs done over every song, which is a promo version that has been circulating on the interwebs.
FAT ALBERT ROTUNDA
Released 1969 on Warner Brothers (WS 1834)
CD Reissue WEA Germany
1. Wiggle-Waggle (Hancock) – 5:51
2. Fat Mama (Hancock) – 3:49
3. Tell Me a Bedtime Story (Hancock) – 5:01
4. Oh! Oh! Here He Comes (Hancock) – 4:08
5. Jessica (Betts/Hancock) – 4:13
6. Fat Albert Rotunda (Hancock) – 6:29
7. Lil’ Brother (Hancock) – 4:26
* Herbie Hancock – Synthesizer, Piano, Arranger, Conductor, Keyboards, Piano (Electric)
* Johnny Coles – Trumpet, Flugelhorn, Horn
* Joe Henderson – Flute (Alto), Sax (Tenor)
* Garnett Brown – Trombone
* Joe Farrell – Sax (Tenor)
* Eric Gale – Guitar
* Buster Williams – Bass, Percussion, Bass (Electric), Bass (Acoustic)
* Billy Hart – Percussion, Drums
* Albert “Tootie” Heath – Drums
* Rudy Van Gelder – Engineer
*#*#*# He doesn’t receive an album credit, but the ubiquitous Bernard “Pretty” Purdie is on the drum-kit for Wiggle Waggle.
poem from the album liner notes
FAT ALBERT ROTUNDA was Herbie Hancock’s first record cut for Warner Brothers, and a big departure from The Prisoner, his last album for Blue Note and first away from Miles Davis. It’s a phenomenal album, populated with pieces of sweaty soul-jazz and funk that presages the funk fusion approach he would explore further in the early to mid-70 alongside more spacious compositions that would fit anywhere in his catalog as Hancockian. For a long time I had been confused about this album because I knew from experience that its release date was a bit too early to coincide with the famous Fat Albert TV series that brightened my Saturday mornings as a young tyke. Now having done a little research, I know that the music here was composed and recorded at Bill Cosby’s bequest for a television special featuring Fat Albert and most or all of the characters of the future TV cartoon. If anyone knows where I can find a copy of that special, please speak up as I would give up my funkiest polyester to see it. The record is dominated by the inimitable Wurlitzer work of Hancock and the punchy horn riffs of Joe Henderson, Johnny Coles, Joe Farrel, and Garnett Brown. The first two tracks are just monsters, in particular Fat Mama. Buster Williams alternates between electric and upright bass on this album, transitioning smoothly as the songs demand. “Tell Me a Bedtime Story” could have been an outtake from Maiden Voyage and yet it doesn’t particularly clash with the other material. The record also sports Eddie Gale on guitar who would lone his talents to Roberta Flack this same year. This is a singular edition to Herbie Hancock’s discography, atypical and yet still emblematic of him at his best, and one of my personal favorites.