Gil Scott-Heron: Winter in America

Today, proto-rapper Gil Scott-Heron is acknowledged as a major influence on several developments in Black Music and soul jazz, and it is easy to imagine that such artists as Cassandra Wilson considered the poet-vocalist's music before finding her own path. One of Scott-Heron's finest statements is "Winter in America," an image-driven portrait of the icy stasis gripping the nation in the early seventies-after the assassinations, riots, Watergate, and Vietnam.

First, there was an album of that name but no song, as Scott-Heron considered the three words simply an evocative image and not a subject for music. Then, he composed an actual "Winter in America" for his Arista debut, The First Minute of a New Day. Live performances and recordings subsequently crystallized the recording's powerful message.

Featured as a bonus track on the New Day CD reissue, this version of the song is distinctive because Scott-Heron performs alone on it. His keyboard work is more staccato and basic and the melody is slightly flattened out. Despite the changes, the cold, hard facts remain: "...Democracy is rag-time on the corner, hopin' for some rain...all of our healers have been killed or betrayed...ain't nobody fighting because nobody knows what to save."

The scenario is bleak but Scott-Heron's compelling music and verbal tropes continue to resound thirty years farther (or maybe no farther) on.

May 14, 2009 · 1 comment


Stanley Turrentine: Impressions

If you had compiled a list of tunes you might expect Stanley Turrentine to record, John Coltrane's "Impressions" would be far from the top. Yet here was Mr. T, pioneer purveyor of soul jazz and funk, interpreting Trane's classic modal composition for the entire 15:30 of side 2 of his chart-making Sugar LP. Whoever's brainstorm it was, the idea worked brilliantly, and "Impressions" reminded everyone of Turrentine's serious ability as a straight ahead player.

None of Coltrane's multiphonics or squalling are to be found during Turrentine's less-than-turbulent "Impressions," but Mr. T is forcefully expressive with his biting, broad tone and forthright emotional drive. His solo is funkier and more spacious--it certainly breathes more than Coltrane's, thanks in part to the stimulating rhythmic foundation provided by Carter, Kaye, and Landrum. Turrentine does play some surprisingly contorted arpeggios, but relies mostly on bluesy phrases, riffs, and shouts, as well as a cleverly placed quote from "It Ain't Necessarily So." Both Cornell's comping and flowing improvisation on organ are first-rate. Hubbard's solo, tentative at first, hits high gear quickly thanks to some trademark "sheets of sound" tremolos. Benson's commanding solo is the most restlessly searching, especially after the horns' transfixing vamp (a recurring feature of this arrangement) propels the guitarist to develop even more abstract ideas. Turrentine's vivacious out-chorus is just gathering steam when victimized by an abrupt fade-out.

March 31, 2009 · 0 comments


Aaron J. Johnson: Shamba

This slow-simmered, down-home blues starts with a bellowing bass line and is chock full of flavor and soul. It’s good to hear a front line of saxophone and trombone tonally combining so nicely to state a unified theme. Trombonist Johnson and tenor saxophonist Washington set out the melody line in a sparse, mournful statement that drips with laid back hurt.

Pianist Onaje Allan Gumbs plays behind a perfectly laid out rhythmic backdrop set up by the tasteful drums of Victor Lewis and the steady bass of Robert Sabin. Gumbs tickles the blues from his keyboard with a gentle attack that wanders delightfully through the progression delivering a marvelous sense of feel and time especially at the closing of his solo.

Johnson’s turn is understated and purrs along with the hum of a powerful Peterbilt, unassuming yet muscular. He posses a throaty enjoyable tone that is soulful but disappointingly he never lets loose on this solo. Conversely, Salim Washington comes out with a strong tenor sound. His phrasing brings to mind Grover Washington at his best. Gumbs, Lewis and Sabin continue to hold it all together with tasty flourishes to the faded ending. All in all this piece saunters through your head and has you keeping the beat in time to its laid back infectious groove.

March 23, 2009 · 0 comments


Gene Harris: Uptown Sop

To soul-food connoisseurs such as your humble reviewer, sop refers not to bribe, fool or Standard Operating Procedure, but rather to what Essence magazine's Khephra Burns describes as that "all-too-fleeting moment of ultimate contentment when the last sop of gravy is wiped up with a biscuit." Similarly mouthwatering is the "Uptown Sop" tandem of Harris & Turrentine, here reunited a quarter century after their memorable Blue Note Blue Hour soul-feast. Warmed by the enthusiastic crowd attending this live recording, and further heated by a simmering rhythm section, Harris & Turrentine wipe every plate in the place cleaner than an automatic dishwasher. Ultimate contentment.

November 23, 2007 · 0 comments


Dr. Lonnie Smith: Scream

This live date is one of the more exciting soul-jazz records in the Blue Note catalog. Underappreciated organist Lonnie Smith leads the charge through this extended 18-bar jam, during which all soloists dive headfirst into the blues. Not only will listeners find an array of catchy blues licks, but some fine melodically inspired playing as well. Cuber’s slick and soulful choruses are the highlight, as he displays deft control of his big baritone. Dukes and Jones keep the energy high, layering polyrhythms that allow the groove to remain loose and elastic. Beware—this funk is contagious, but catching it will be worth it.

November 16, 2007 · 0 comments


Cannonball Adderley: This Here (Dis Here)

At the beginning of this live performance at San Francisco’s Jazz Workshop, Cannonball Adderley introduces pianist Bobby Timmons’ funky jazz waltz “This Here” as “Dis Here” for “reasons of soul and description.” This early example of so-called soul jazz became quite popular, boosting sales of the album and helping popularize the group itself. Cannonball is at the top of his game here.

October 30, 2007 · 0 comments


Jimmy Smith: Walkin'

Jimmy Smith was the most important organist in jazz, the guy who turned the Hammond B-3 into a bona fide jazz instrument, and Groovin’ at Smalls’ Paradise is his greatest recording. A two-disc set drawn from a night at the famed Harlem jazz club, it burns and grooves like mad. “Walkin’” is taken at a nice middle tempo, Smith’s feet literally walking the familiar bassline on the pedals while his hands massage the keyboards. Guitarist Eddie McFadden’s solo is particularly bright and effusive, punctuated by Smith’s swirls and stabs. Smith’s own solo, which begins at the 4½-minute mark and runs for 5 whole minutes, tears up the keys with machine-gun rapidity. It ranks among his most invigorating moments on record. A perfect blues from a great trio.

October 28, 2007 · 0 comments


Jimmy Smith: The Sermon

“The Sermon” is a straight-ahead, 12-bar blues in which everyone solos. It also was the tune that proved, once and for all, that the organ is not a gimmick as a jazz instrument. If it were, it would be hard to sustain the listener’s interest for 20 minutes, which is precisely what the title track of The Sermon did, taking up all of side one of the original LP. Regardless of whether he’s soloing or comping behind his sidemen, Smith puts a lot of thought into his work. He begins right off with a playful solo that resorts to no cheap tricks – yes, he uses finger and thumb to fire away at a single F-sharp in rapid succession, but it makes sense and he doesn’t overdo it. Done with his own solo, he gets out of the way and lets everyone else at it. Twenty minutes later, the sermon is over and our spirit is fulfilled.

October 26, 2007 · 4 comments


Art Blakey: Moanin'

Although pianist Bobby Timmons composed several well-known and often-played tunes in the funky/soul jazz mode, none became as popular as “Moanin’.” Its infectious backbeat accompanying a simple bluesy melody exerted an instant appeal. This Jazz Messengers version features a brilliant solo by the 20-year old trumpet prodigy Lee Morgan, as well as well-crafted and engaging improvisations by tenorist Benny Golson and Timmons himself. A classic performance.

October 24, 2007 · 0 comments


Herbie Hancock: Watermelon Man

Appearing on Herbie Hancock’s first album as a leader, the catchy “Watermelon Man,” with its strong backbeat and earthy quality, quickly became extremely popular. A Latin pop-jazz version issued a short time later by the Afro-Cuban percussionist-bandleader Mongo Santamaria became a major hit and led to numerous other recordings of the song over the years. Hancock himself released a new, electronically enhanced funk version on his 1973 album Head Hunters. Tenorist Dexter Gordon’s solo on the original track is as down-and-dirty as any he ever recorded.

October 23, 2007 · 0 comments


Jimmy Smith: Back at the Chicken Shack

Jimmy Smith was not the first to exploit the potential of the Hammond organ’s down-home, earthy sound. But Smith became the instrument’s most popular and influential exponent during the heyday of soul-jazz at Blue Note in the late fifties and early sixties. His classic 1960 shuffle blues “Back at the Chicken Shack” is still performed widely in the 21st century. This original version features not only Smith’s own simple, blues-infused organ phrasing, but also Kenny Burrell’s funky guitar and Stanley Turrentine’s gritty, quintessentially soulful tenor saxophone.

October 23, 2007 · 0 comments


Lee Morgan: The Sidewinder

Having been a member of both Art Blakey’s and Dizzy Gillespie’s bands at age 18, the prodigious trumpeter Lee Morgan, at first a disciple of Clifford Brown, was well into the development of a personal style at his untimely death at age 33. The Sidewinder is one of numerous recordings he made under his own name in the mid-1960s. Its hip-shaking title selection, with its funky bassline, strong backbeat, and Latinesque accents underpinning an earthy blues line, became a major hit and helped usher in the soul jazz/ boogaloo style.

October 23, 2007 · 0 comments


Horace Parlan: Wadin'

“Wadin’” resembles many of the instrumental blues performances on the Blue Note recordings of its day. Taken at a medium tempo, it features a simple riff-based melody that serves as a springboard for a series of earthy hard-bop solos by Parlan and the Turrentine brothers. Bassist George Tucker’s booming tone is especially effective and Stanley Turrentine’s gripping improvisation is, as usual, intensely soulful.

October 22, 2007 · 0 comments


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