It seems like an age but in reality it’s only a couple of years I think since Shirley’s “Black Rose” album was being played daily here and now today this excellent ten tracker is fracturing the silence with a grittier sound. The album was written by Davis in tandem with The Silverbacks’ musical director and lead guitarist Eduardo Martínez, plus song-writer Marc Ibarz. She’s packed a lot into her life, but eventually found her salvation in music, she had her successes and today, when you listen to this album, it’s clear her life has influenced what we are listening to.
She cites Stevie Wonder as her main musical influence. It’s a beautiful sunny hot day here and this brand of funk and soul just sounds so right, the advertising pack makes mention of sweet soul but there ain’t nothing sweet about any of this, it’s tough modern-day funk with a liberal smattering of soul. If you’re not familiar with this lot then you’re in for a great ride, think Charles Bradley, Lee Fields, Sharon Jones, Nicole Willis, Grace Love etc. and you have the overall sound, so that’s okay then, loads of horns, heavy bass, percussion to die for and we have our Shirl’s voice, what’s not to like.
There is truly some fine moments on here, but as usual some rise to the top, and so to “All About The Music” which has that old sounding new music sound set at the perfect ‘Crossover’ dance pace and then we move to the big cheese sound of “Smile”, what a tune, funky soul at its finest, there can be no doubt she has a superb voice, fragile with grits, a contradiction I know but at times her voice has a nervous tremble and then she’s telling you how it’s gonna be, love it, this is displayed in the down low “Troubles and Trials” an epic performance vocally, the band are seriously tight. A superb album and then some.
Gospel seldom receives its due and gospel 45’s and LP’s from the golden era are now near impossible to find on the side of the pond at least and increasingly difficult even in the United States. Which is where indie label Vee-Tone records out of Clackmannanshire, Scotland, are on hand to save the day for the rest of us and we, the community of vinyl junkies, should be eternally grateful for all their efforts. They have been pioneering in their ongoing set of compilations due to the devotional sounds of gospel (this time on vinyl and previously on CD), but this is gospel from an era when, instrumentally, there was in practice precious little difference between the then emerging R & B and gospel other than that of a major distinction in the meaning of lyrics, and on this mini anthology the emphasis is firmly on uplifting songs that you do not have to be of the faith to appreciate. House rocking dance material is what the listener can fully expect and this set delivers on that front.
Expertly compiled with sleeve notes to boot from music aficionado and connoisseur of myriad genres (reggae and classic R & B being just two of his musical interests), Mark Lamarr, who has selected the eighteen tracks on offer, this compilation historically covers what has now been termed the ‘golden age of gospel’ and some brief explanation is in order here. Chronologically, we are referring to the immediate post-WWII period between 1945 and 1965 when there was a rapid increase in the number of gospel groups performing and recording, with dozens of new independent record companies that specialised in black music, whether that be blues, jazz, R & B or gospel, or any combination of those genres. Of those labels, this anthology focuses attention on the Gospel label with no less than six offerings, Peacock (strong on soul-blues too) with four, Savoy (a label that equally branched out into jazz) with another four and the rest including Checker, an offshoot of Chess, and Sue. Three key areas of the United States witnessed this explosion in numbers and activity and they were across the southern state, the Mid-West, and a major source of talent was to be found on the East coast. The dividing line between religious and secular was a thin one dependent on the content of the words sung, and some singers were tempted to cross over into the secular world and make a major success, such as The Staple Singers, Aretha Franklin, and of course Al Green, to name but three.
However, others stayed true to their religious principles and of those, there are some wonderful examples on this compilation. They include The Gate City Singers with a 1958 offering, ‘John The Revelator’, that is this writer’s personal favourite and, in general, traditional songs served as a fertile terrain in which to expand their repertoire. Some of the major names on hand on this album are The Blind Boys of Alabama, The Caravans, the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. Full marks to the Vee-Tone team for convincingly recreating the era with their cover graphics that are in a smart red, white and black lettering, and the inner sleeve discographical notes are exemplary and shed useful light on the individual songs, some of which are 45 only, while other are choice album cuts.
It was 1963 when Detroit born, Philip Levine, first had a collection of poems published with ‘On The Edge’, with over 20 others throughout his lifetime, some as early as 1973 receiving awards for poetry, with an early spell studying beside John Berryman proving to be a huge influence. His standing within the community somewhat strengthened in 1995 for ‘The Simple Truth’ by securing the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Levine left an enduring mark on the world of poetry prior to his passing in 2015 at the age of 87.
On this, ‘The Poetry of Jazz’, we first hear Levine on the opening theatrical piece, ‘Gin’, with leader Benjamin Boone on saxophone, Karen Marguth adding supportive vocals, whilst Craig von Berg; piano, Spee Kosloff; bass, and Brian Hamada; drums supporting the piece in an avant-guard fashion with more emphasis on the spoken word drawing the listener into the album. The said collection of musicians are also responsible for the ballad, ‘The Music Of Time’, further into the album, which is a much more structured composition, both numbers showing diversity between each other with the same formation. The American saxophonist/composer/professor, Benjamin Boone, is also responsible for gathering together some high-profile artists in Branford Marsalis, Chris Potter, Tom Harrell, and Greg Osby with respective homages to John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Clifford Brown and Charlie Parker – all perfectly placed as we listen to Levine’s iconic poems.
“My mother tells me she dreamed
of John Coltrane, a young Trane
playing his music with such joy
and contained energy and rage
she could not hold back her tears.” – Philip Levine
Of the 16 musicians involved, all delivering exceptional pieces of music, it is still the overwhelming sound of Levine’s narration that dominates. His phrasing and timing on what was to be his only work of this type, and a posthumous one at that, leaves no doubt of his presence in the huge world of poetry. And where one would immediately draw comparisons with the Beat Generation poets, it wasn’t the path he took. Whilst the likes of Lucien Carr, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac were making ground in Greenwich Village, it was Detroit/Iowa/Fresno that Philip grew up, with a fascination of the Spanish Civil War, with unemployment and with violence, with topics of inadequacy, of loss and regret and an all too infrequent mention of jazz and the love for it. So it is to the latter passion that we would have never known had it not have been for this release. We would not have heard how perfectly balanced the two would sound, and for that alone we must applaud Benjamin Boone, for he has not only produced an exceptional musical album, but given to the ears of the world a groundbreaking document of Philip Levine perhaps enjoying what he had not previously had the opportunity to do.
Each of the compositions bring to the listener a different sense of satisfaction, the poems tightening concentration to each passage with wonderful music painting the scene for each story told, none more so than on ‘Yakov’, where David Aus’s piano intro draws in the story of wilderness, of a man surrounded by nature and beauty, enjoying each day to the fullest, sunrise, sunset, without human companionship – alone but content. Benjamin’s saxophone shining through the trees amidst his group as Yakov casts aside his apron of normality to venture out into nature’s bosom.
It is the longest piece on the album, ‘A Dozen Dawn Songs, Plus One’, that perfects the balance between instrument and voice. Taking the most risks and proving to be most rewarding. Its energy of playing, the shrill of the story, each musician perfectly tuned to the quickened pace and dramatic interchange – this is poetry of unquestionable authority. Dynamic and thought-provoking, serious music – the music holding its own at every step of the performance. An incredible band playing with supreme expertise. There should be no ear that passes by. Essential.
So where should we rank this album in history, in the not too overly populated jazz-poetry cosmos? Well, for this writer it is felt highly. It is not only a superb ‘jazz’ album but an incredible album of poetry, by a talent that has left us with much written work but far too little aural. It works perfectly. Benjamin Boone, recording between 2012 and 2014, has encapsulated the ‘sound’ to provide an album of unmistakable importance – one could say of historic importance.
By the mid-1970’s. guitarist Grant Green had moved on slightly from his earlier Blue Note recordings and was firmly focused on covering current soul and funk songs of the day. His group was now made up of Emmanuel Riggins (electric piano), Ronnie Ware (bass), Greg ‘Vibration’ Williams, and on percussion, Gerald Izzard. Lengthier numbers were the order of the day for his live performances and this one from 1975 is probably the last of its kind we have of Green. Of interest are the medleys that make up the second vinyl disc and Green’s open-minded approach is illustrated by his expertly weaving in, ‘Boogie On Reggae Woman’ by Stevie Wonder into ‘For The Love Of Money’ by The O’Jays. That said, an old evergreen favourite remains in his repertoire and that is Jobim’s ‘How Insensitive’, all twenty-six minutes here of a truly epic rendition, and one which reveals that the melodic side of Grant Green’s craft had remained undiminished, while the abiding influence of saxophonists on his work and that of Charlie Parker more especially is paid homage to on Bird’s composition, ‘Now Is The Time’. It should be remembered that by 1975 jazz was in a state of flux, with commercial venues in decline. traditional styles of the genre now seemingly under attack from jazz-fusion and jazz-funk sub-genres, but this was more reflective of a younger generation of musicians simply moving with the times, and in this respect, Green was ahead of his contemporaries.
The music is placed in context by the excellent black and white photos of the original band performing at the venue and by the national (including Downbeat) and local press reviews that are presented to us in their original typed journalistic format on the back cover of the inner sleeve booklet, and in a more reader friendly larger print over a couple of pages. These most definitely help to situate the reader in the moment and discover that Grant Green still had a grass-roots constituent audience that had listened to the Blue Note era material and stayed loyal to him. Another outstanding inner sleeve booklet contains a two-way conversation between guitarist and educator, Jacques Lesure and fellow guitarist and aficionado, Perry Hughes. Between them, they dissect the career of Green, and explain how influential his style became for other guitarists, making parallels between live recordings from the beginning of the 1960’s and another a decade later.