A lot of elements of Curtis Mayfield’s music seem very pertinent in today’s climate, particularly when considering events in the US over the last few years. A very public and visceral backlash to social and political injustices have gone on to inspire swathes of music from artists and musicians all keen to lend their voice to the protest. International Anthem recording artist, Jaimie Branch, addresses the racism attached to the current Republican presidency on her album ‘Fly or Die II’; saxophonist Brent Birckhead used his self-titled debut album to address soaring levels of police brutality; Ethiopian-inspired funk collective, Anbessa Orchestra, released ‘Tch’elema’ intending to inspire hope and change to those impacted by the continued threat of international conflict, divisive and dishonest politicians and the real danger that climate change has on our lives…
And when reviewing music from this wide and diverse pool of talent, the music of Curtis Mayfield is very much something that continues to maintain its relevance even in 2019. Inspired by the events and tragedies he witnessed growing up in Chicago, Mayfield’s music openly addressed issues surrounding civil rights and he would become revered as introducing topics of this delicate nature into a wider social consciousness through his timeless recordings.
The quality of Mayfield’s music is such that it seems to find ways of reintroducing itself to audiences of younger generations as the years pass – the arrival of “Hip-Hop Soul” in the 1990s saw Mayfield’s music heavily sampled by artists including Mary J Blige and Total, as well as covers by neo-soul champion, D’Angelo. Even in recent years, Kanye West’s seminal ‘Touch The Sky’ (2005) boasts the beloved and inimitable horns of ‘Move On Up’; Angie Stone tackled ‘The Makings of You’ for her sophomore album release ‘Mahogany Soul’ (2001); funk band Lettuce partnered with neo-soul vocalist, Dwele, for an interpretation of ‘Move On Up’ (2008). The reach of Curtis Mayfield’s music is boundless.
Which brings us to ‘Move On Up: The Songs of Curtis Mayfield’ presented by Australia’s Playback Records. Rather than a straightforward ‘best of’, this compilation draws from a number of artists covering classic Mayfield recordings within a predominately 1970s period. The compilation boasts several highs – Barbara Mason covering ‘Give Me Your Love’ is excellent and Willie Wright’s ‘Right On For The Darkness’ is another clear standout, but as an added bonus, there are tracks presented here which featured Mayfield’s golden touch as a writer and producer, showcasing his compositions for Aretha Franklin ‘Look Into Your Heart’, The Staple Singers ‘Let’s Do It Again’ and Baby Huey’s cult classic ‘Hard Times’ from Huey’s Mayfield-produced album, ‘The Living Legend’. The inclusion of ‘Here But I’m Gone, Part 2’ (featuring the additional vocals of Lauryn Hill) makes for a nice addition – a song originally housed in ‘The Mod Squad’ soundtrack and released in 1999.
Thinking about it, the dream version of this project would perhaps host a two-disc compilation with the second disc really delving into more contemporary takes on Mayfield’s recordings as performed by the likes of the aforementioned Lettuce and Angie Stone. Within this 20-track selection, it’s only the final few covers by Geoffrey Williams, En Vogue and Joanna Teters & Mad Satta that strive to achieve that. Taking ‘Hard Times’ as an example, Baby Huey’s original is clearly undeniable but it’s a song that has seen some excellent renditions from John Legend & The Roots as well as Alecia Chakour & The Osrah.
Aside from the latter very minor note, ‘Move On Up’ serves as an excellent compilation of Curtis Mayfield’s forward-thinking and indelible style of soul music – as definitive in today’s times as they were fifty years ago.