Roots reggae singer Luciano Messenjah returns with a diverse selection of sounds that is nonetheless tightly bound together by a common message in the lyrics of the nefarious consequences of war. He branches out into blues and gospel on the infectious opener, a reworking of the Ramsey Lewis 1965 smash soul-pop hit, ‘Wade in the water’, now adopted by northern soul fans as a definitive instrumental, and this is followed later by the folk-influenced acoustic guitar plus vocals of, ‘Serve Jah’.
Underpinning everything is the omnipresent twin influence of Dennis Brown in the vocals and Bob Marley in the message. The former can be heard especially on songs such as, ‘Hear oh Lord’, and, ‘The prophet rides again’, while Marley is all over the joyful, ‘Jah send your blessings’, an album highlight and arguably the strongest tune on offer, while the message only departs briefly on the distinctly nu-soul inflected instrumentation of, ‘Don’t walk away’, which is something of a surprise. Is Luciano making a pitch to attract a wider audience and demonstrate his ability to deliver outside of the reggae idiom? Even if that is the case, he still sounds authentic as a roots reggae singer and succeeds in simultaneously conveying a serious message on the theme of war while delivering the catchiest of chorus over an infectious keyboard vamp on, ‘Ooh la la la’. The music of Luciano is accessible, but still manages to communicate thought-provoking lyrics.
A potentially interesting fusion of the twin pillars of reggae ‘riddim’ in Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare and Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær that largely does not come off and leaves any fan of reggae distinctly cold. Had a fiery sounding trumpeter or instrumentalist been paired with the mighty two of reggae rhythm sections, then this might have been a different story altogether. As it is, the layered synths and measured trumpet tones are far too preoccupied with creating atmosphere and that, sadly, means bass and drum are muffled and lost in translation.
The music works best when the reggae rhythms predominate as on, ‘How Long’, ‘Strange Bright Crowd’, and even, ‘War in the Blues’. However, it is only at the very end of the album that we even begin to hear what might resemble dub on, ‘Politically KKKorrrekkkttt’, but by then the battle has been lost. The cultural distance between this cerebral and laid back form of jazz and reggae is simply too great for any common ground to be possible.
Reggae and jazz can certainly come together in perfect harmony. One only needs to hear the music of Tommy McCook, Bobby Ellis, the piano genius of Monty Alexander paired with Ernest Ranglin, or even the instrumental delicacy of melodica legend Augustus Pablo to realize that. However, Molvaer makes no attempt whatsoever to accommodate reggae into his own repertoire and plods on with his own style, which is frankly anathema to a hot and spicy musical fusion. There is no doubting the virtuosity of Sly and Robbie, or their willingness to divert from norms, and they can and indeed have operated outside of the reggae vernacular (Grace Jones being a spectacular success in all respects). On this occasion, though, it is one experiment too many and more to the point one that emphatically does not function.
One of the most interesting of jazz musicians, South African trumpeter High Masekela left his native land during the Apartheid era and, after marrying his first wife singer Miriam Makeba, started learning how to play the trumpet thanks to a scholarship in New York, with his wife being the major financial contributor. This excellent box set provides a fine overview of his career over the decade from the early recordings in the United States through to his Afro-Beat recordings with a crack West African band and frequent collaborations with members of the Crusaders, not to mention his long-term musical relationship with producer Stewart Levine.
What emerges is the portrait of a musician and human being who is very open to new influences and not content to reproduce former music even when he hit big on the pop charts, and in this endeavour, he should be commended for his unwavering artistic integrity. An early ode to Brazilian music, and by extension a personal interest in the wider African diaspora, is to be found in the ten minute plus cover of a Jobim/Vinicius de Moraes classic, ‘Felicidade’, here performed in an Afro-Latin vein by a quintet featuring Big Black on congas. The original version of, ‘What is wrong with groovin’?’, is much slower than the later, and definitive reading, by Letta Mbulu, and quite frankly, at this early stage of his career, his vocals were not the strongest, though he stuck at it and eventually became a melodic vocal accompanist. A club classic in, ‘Son of ice bag,’ has received numerous covers over the years and was the start of his most successful period commercially, culminating in, ‘Grazing in the grass’, that catapulted him to fame and went all the way into the top five of the Billboard pop charts at the time.
Interestingly, in his American quintet were to be found a young pianist called William Henderson, later to be an integral part of the Pharaoh Sanders quartet, bassist Henry Franklin (of Black Jazz recordings) and guitarist Arthur Adams. Manu Dibango would repeat the African presence in the mid-1970’s, while Miriam Makeba, had already crossed over at the beginning of the 1960’s with the memorable, ‘Click song’, that so enthralled American audiences and fascinated African-Americans who heard for the first time a bona fide language of their ancestors being sung. Perhaps, some of this early period could have been truncated to allow more coverage of the 1970’s period.
The second CD focuses on the consolidation of the Chisa label as fully autonomous from Motown and collaborative work with both the Crusaders and other American musicians such as bassist Monk Montgomery, brother of guitarist Wes, and pianist Larry Willis (later of the Fort Apaché Band with Jerry Gonzalez, as well as Cuban musicians such as Francesco Aguabella (percussionist with Santana among others). Fellow South African Caiphus Semenya is a regular musician during this period. The strongest of the albums in the early 1970’s is the double vinyl, ‘Home is where the music is’, readily available on CD (re-issued on Universal), and just one example is illustrated here, ‘Minawa’. Definitely an album to be heard in its entirety. In contrast, when Masekela started delving into West African music, he enlisted the support of a young group of musicians from neighbouring countries in the region, and ‘Masekela introducing Hedzoleh sounds’, was thus born. This was in part inspired by frequenting Fela Kuti and his pioneering Afro-Beat sound and the album in its entirety is re-issued here. In the US Blue Thumb records, the label for whom Masekela was now recording, were very supportive of this new sound and an American tour in 1974 took in both the capital of Washington D.C. and the famed singer-songwriter venue, the Troubadour, in Los Angeles. A second album with this band plus two Crusaders, ‘I am not afraid’, was released and contains an all-time classic Masekela composition in, ‘Stimela’, that recounts life back in South Africa, and was an important contribution to the anti-Apartheid struggle that was gathering momentum in Europe and North America. In the UK at the time, virtually every student union had its very own Steve Biko room, in homage to the black South African civil rights activist who lost his life during riots. Levine and Masekela were instrumental in the parallel creation of a musical festival to accompany the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ fight in Kinshasa, Zaire, between Mohammed Ali and George Foreman in 1974. Some of America’s greatest musicians of the time (B.B. King, Santana, Ike and Tina Turner, Sister Sledge, Bill Withers and the considerable talents of the Fania All Stars) combined with local talent such as the big bands of Franco and Tabu Ley Rochereau, and the daddy of them all, a certain James Brown who was massively popular with the Zairean population as a whole. Afro-Beat was the flavour of the day on, ‘Boys doin’ it’ for Casablanca records, and the terrific, Ashiko’, is a fine example of Masekela adapting his new band sound to the king of Afro-Beat, and a kindred spirit in terms of confronting authority and the establishment in Nigeria. More explicit in intent, ‘Colonial man’, repeats the musical beat, but adds some serious socio-political content, which Casablanca (the home of Parliament, but also Kiss, and soon to be the label of predilection for disco diva, Donna Summer). Masekela once again sees the panoramic vision with Brazilian accordionist/vocalist Sivuca accompanying on, ‘A song for Brazil’, while both the title track and, ‘Whitch doctor’ [correct spelling editor] were too much for the label to stomach and seemingly commercial suicide committed by such blatant references to the effects of slavery.
A few caveats. First of all, given Masekela’s regular change of label throughout his career, it would be impossible for any anthology to be truly comprehensive. This one misses out on the later success of the mid-1980’s onwards when his participation with Paul Simon on the seminal, ‘Graceland’, attracted a whole new audience and at a time when the ‘world music’ genre had come into vogue. Thus, ‘Bush doctor’ and other songs from the era are not included here. Secondly, there are a few surprising omissions from the recordings that are covered here. In particular, from 1971, why leave out the terrific ‘Johannesburg Hi-Lite Jive’, as well as half of the excellent, ‘Boys doin’ it’ album. Some of these are available on a single CD, ‘Hugh Masekela. The Collection’ (Spectrum, 2003). Thirdly, ‘Afro Beat Blues-Ojah’, from the Chisa years is missing and there are no examples of his productions with other artists (covered for example on the Hugh Masekela ‘Presents the Chisa years 1965-1975 (rare and unreleased)’ on BBE (2005), which is a pity. Arguably, all of the aforementioned could have been rectified by not including so much of the earlier material, but then that does include some fine covers and recordings that in the UK at least are now hard to find so a difficult balancing act for any compiler, and three CD’s worth of material does provide a more extensive picture of Masekela. Otherwise, this is a praiseworthy offering and one that attempts to take the story from his career in the United States and the major pop success of, ‘Grazing in the grass’, through to the non-commercial projects with his African band while exploring new African and Latin sounds. Full marks for the outstanding presentation with a hardback gatefold sleeve and comprehensive inner sleeve notes courtesy of producer Stewart Levine.
* This anthology makes a good deal more sense when accompanied by the autobiography, ‘Still grazing. The musical journey of Hugh Masekela’, co-written by Masekela and MIchael Cheers (Three Rivers Press, New York, 2004)
It is fitting that in the same year that EST’s “Live in London” is released, commemorating ten years since the untimely passing of Esbjörn Svensson, an album comes to the fore from an up-and-coming artist that conjures up fond memories of the late pianist.
Kekko Fornarelli is an Italian pianist and composer. He began learning classical piano the age of three, first through private tuition and later at the Conservatorio Piccinni in Bari. With a love for jazz burning brightly since he turned 18, it’s easy to hear clear influences from both these worlds in his melodic and stylistic approach to making music. Fornarelli already has 4 albums under his belt, his luscious fusion of Romantic classical music, modern jazz and 21st century rhythms all combining to create a quite gorgeous swirl of emotive sound.
“Abaton” is a trio recording, featuring Federico Pecoraro on bass and Dario Congedo on drums. The threesome work their way with effortless grace through the 8 tunes on this album. In the main it’s Fornarelli’s beautiful acoustic piano playing at the fore, though he does employ synth sounds and a few subtle electronics along the way. The trio work very well together, with some skilful interplay and close-knit interaction. In addition to the trio, there are also strings featured on 2 of the tracks, featuring conductor Leo Gadaleta. And I have to say these 2 tracks feature very highly in my estimation, the combination of Fornarelli’s lyrical piano playing alongside the strings is a magical experience, way beyond the normal ‘trio with strings’ combinations one might expect.
There are some stunning pieces of music on this album. The 2 aforementioned strings tracks “Apnea” and the title track “Abaton” are both highly emotive pieces of music, wonderfully written and performed, leaving me longing to hear more. I feel a rush of emotion each time I listen to these wonderful tunes. “The Drop and The Rock”, the opening tune, is very ‘EST’ and can’t but help remind the listener of what once came before. There is also an incredible version of Beck’s “Lonesome Tears”, with Fornarelli managing to match the original’s strength and power with a magnificent lyrical quality that rises and falls between delicate and vibrant, bringing every fibre in my body into a kinetic and animated appreciation.
Occasionally one might argue that the pianist allows his trio to slip a little into the ‘slightly too familiar’ piano trio expected territory, but overall this is one of the finest trio albums to my mind this year.
The spirit of Esbjörn Svensson lives on, in his music and in the undoubted influence he made on the jazz world, blazing a trail that others now follow and reinvent.
If you ever wondered what else there was in soulful country singers such as Patsy Cline, who thankfully avoid the Nashville stereotype of whirling strings and mundane background vocals, then Kitty Wells should be your next port of call. Soul Jazz records in their excellent two-part ‘Country Sisters’ of a few years back included examples of Kitty Wells’ work and this two CD set, while not the definitive statement from her (no version of her anthem ‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels’, for example), is nonetheless a fine microcosm of her career, covering a period of roughly eight years in the 1950s. Jasmine have already issued a previous double CD of Wells, ‘The Queen Of Honky Tonk Angels’ (where the aforementioned single is available), and for those starting off that might be the first port of call. This new release takes the story a step further and is still an excellent entry point. Kitty scored no less than thirty-two top twenty hits on the various titled country music charts (‘country and western’, ‘hillbilly’ among them) and this release focuses attention on two Decca albums from the mid-late 1950s, ‘The Winner Of Your Heart’ (1956) and ‘Lonely Street’ (1958) plus some earlier EP and LP material on the second CD. Concept albums had not yet seen the light of day and country albums tended to be a string of disparate 45s strung together with filler sides. In this case, however, Kitty Wells could always be counted on to provide quality as well as quantity and the melancholic nature of the material coupled with the superlative and distinctive delivery make for great music. For the two Decca albums, a trio of winners includes, ‘Lonely Side Of Town’, ‘Lonely Street’ and ‘You Can’t Conceal A Broken Heart’.
If anything, it is the second side that impresses most of all with ‘One By One’, an outstanding single from 1954 that went all the way to number one in the country charts. A real bonus on this second CD is almost a half hour’s worth of duets with the likes of Red Foley, Webb Pierce and of course not forgetting the great Ray Acuff. In fact, the only duets missing are with Johnny and Jack with whom she recorded elsewhere. Country music has historically prided itself on its male-female duets and this is certainly no exception. Elected to the Country music hall of fame in 1975, Kitty Wells fully deserves her place as one of the all-time great country singers. While we are on the subject, how about some enterprising label putting a two CD anthology of Lefty Frizell’s work on Columbia. One of this writer’s favourite country albums is Lefty’s ‘The Sad Songs Of Love’, and that deserves to be re-issued along with other work from his fine period on Columbia.
Jazz, soul and even disco have featured in Marlena Shaw’s lengthy career, and she enjoyed at least two career highs, one at Chess with the original take on ‘Woman Of The Ghetto’, and a second, in the late 1970’s with the anthemic late night laid back rapped monologue sound of ‘Yuma/Go Away Little Boy’. The latter, and the album from which it stems, forms the backdrop to this compilation that narrowly focuses on three albums that Shaw recorded for Columbia which covers less than five years of her career, and cannot even be considered a fair representation of her 1970’s output. All of the ‘Sweet Beginnings’ album (reviewed previously) is contained here, is a lovely album that any music lover should have in their possession, and if you do not already own that album (which BBR has already re-issued separately), then that might possibly justify purchasing this release. However, SoulMusic sadly seem to have missed a golden opportunity here to pair up the best of the Columbia with the best of Shaw’s albums for Blue Note, and some of these are already available on Soul Music, so presumably gaining rights to the material was not an issue. As such, the listener coming to Marlena Shaw’s work from a fresh perspective will not be in a position, if they only listen to her Columbia albums, to grasp what a wide-ranging musical vocabulary she had. The two CD format should be ideal for dividing up her jazzier cuts from the soulful and dance oriented side, and it is a great pity that an anthology that cuts across the two labels is not currently available. An early 1980’s modern soul album Marlena Shaw enjoyed success with in the UK would have added to a more representative overview of her career.
That said, for fans of the soul and dance material only, the compilation offers up a couple of bonus tracks in a 12″ re-mix of ‘Touch Me In The Morning’, and a special disco version of ‘Love Dancin’. Neither were major disco hits and, in truth, her classy vocals were better served on the more restrained songs of ‘Sweet Beginnings’, which is a fine album in its own right. For soul fans, there is interest in the version of, ‘I’m Back For More’. though it is a clear second to the Al Johnson and Jean Carn classic. Devotees of her jazz repertoire are best advised to stick with the one CD, ‘Sweet Beginnings’ and search out the individual Blue Notes, of which ‘Live at Montreux’ is outstanding. Even the Blue Note soul oriented albums make for better listening experiences, and they surely would have significantly enhanced the anthology as a whole. Detailed liner notes by David Nathan, with the usual attention to detail in respect of label and cover illustration. One cannot help but think that another compilation that is over-arching in label coverage is needed in order to present a more balanced picture of the wonderful and versatile singer that Marlena Shaw still was in the 1970’s.
Disco at its rootsiest best is one way to describe the musical institution that started off the somewhat non-descript Nue Day Express appellation, but upon signing to De-Lite and changing their name to the Crown Heights Affair, fame was just around the corner and with it a place in the disco hall of fame. Matters in hand commence with an early example of disco in ‘Dreaming A Dream’ (1975), that contained the best and worst of the genre. On the plus side, the hi-hat cymbals, brass and synths hint at what was to come and here we have instrumental tracks of distinction. On the minus side, finding the right balance of soulful input, in this case, the need for a strong male vocalist. Two vastly different versions of the title track, the first and an instrumental, by far the superior, and a prototype of the classic CHA sound. The latter, a mid-tempo soulful groove that the group would need further albums to perfect. Another promising disco instrumental comes in ‘Foxy’ complete with monologue and clavinet.
A year later, the group tried again with ‘Do It Your Way’, and in truth, the Crown Heights Affair were still very much at an embryonic stage in their development. That the band were still searching for their own sound is illustrated by the ‘son of Shaft’ soundalike, ‘Dancin’, with an all too familiar guitar riff, updated for a younger disco audience. A soul-stepper of a tune in, ‘Love Me’, is one bright spot in an otherwise average bunch of songs, with the corny, ‘French Way’, way too predictable and jumping on the disco bandwagon rather than making its own waves. Thankfully, creative help was on hand, and a potential rare groove contender to resurrect in the early jazz-funk outing, ‘Far Out’, which could easily be a lost Incognito track from the early 1980’s and with strong hint of Brass Construction. In urgent need of a revival, this writer thinks.
However, out of this period of musical exploration and hit and miss affairs, came the first of their classic recordings, ‘Dream World’ (1978). Suddenly, the vocal department got soulful, the band was tight and the songs became immortal. One major caveat is that the extended 12″ of ‘Say A Prayer For Two’, with the stunning repeated refrain is bizarrely not included here as a bonus. Why leave that out? No attempt either at including re-edits of the all-time great disco monster. A major omission. That said, the shorter album version is still a wonderful example of the clubland classic, with stunning bass line and synths plus that killer drum pattern. Opening proceedings ‘Galaxy Of Love’, was a similar dancefloor winner. Sleeve notes come courtesy of Christian John Wikane with band photos and label graphics. If this was volume one of the CHA story, the next part would yield major commercial success. Volume two to follow shortly.