Half philosopher and half con artist, DJ Spooky is one of those musicians who remain interesting almost in spite of the erratic quality of their output. While I wasn’t particularly enthralled with his album FILE UNDER FUTURISM, the title track, offered up here in the album version plus two remixes from A Guy Called Gerald, was certainly the best thing on it. The (original) “Grooveprotocol Mix” is a relentless and funky beat barrage, like taking a more ordinary drum’n’bass track and puree-ing it in the musical veg-o-matic. A Guy Called Gerald offers up a more conventional drum’n’bass mix, plus an ambient mix of the track, and rounding out the EP is “Osmose” a trip-hoppy non-LP track that features an effective use of strings not unlike the more pastoral work of The Raincoats.
The “fourth member” of Medeski, Martin, and Wood has amassed a staggering amount of downtown NYC talent on his debut CD. But despite the constantly shifting lineup, it sounds as cohesive as the best Bill Laswell fusion projects. From John Medeski’s Hammond B3 workouts, to rap from the Anti-Pop Consortium, to the Eastern vibes of tabla master Karsh Kale, to go-go, trip hop, and Latin beats, the whole shebang is marveously sewn together by the textural skitting and whizzing of turntablist Logic. A truly impressive debut.
DJ Krush drops another musical bomb, this time in the form of a DJ mix CD. But when you’re one of the world’s foremost turntablists, you don’t just crank out any old collection of tunes. No, this is an honest-to-god “composition,” blending elements of jazz, pop, and hip hop into a virtually seamless whole that retains the familiar “blunted beat” sound Krush is known for. A few previous Krush cuts show up here, along with some recognizable vocals from Beats International and Esthero. But mostly the source material is unfamiliar, and sounds as fresh as anything Krush has previously come up with. Dope, dope, dope!
DJ Food could well be considered the “flagship artist” in the Ninja Tune roster, since half of the label’s first ten albums were released under that name. But “DJ Food” began life as more of a pun than an actual group; their JAZZ BRAKES VOLUMES 1-5 were collections of breaks and beats intended primarily for DJ’s rather than casual listeners. The DJ Food lineup was also fluid, with original members Matt Black and Jonathan More (aka Coldcut) fading in and out of the project as time permitted, eventually turning things over entirely to their cohorts Patrick Carpenter and Kevin Foakes. By their sixth release, A RECIPE FOR DISASTER, the DJ Food output had gotten too sophisticated for the background of a DJ set. This latest album is the most ambitious one yet, with beats taking a back seat to atmosphere. The first half of the album is simply stunning, featuring some wonderful collaborations with Bundy K. Brown and Ken Nordine, as well as some inspired collages featuring the cult albums HUSTLER’S CONVENTION and HOW TO SPEAK HIP. After track 7, the album starts to meander, but overall it’s as eclectic and inspired as the Ninja Tune label itself. File under postmodern urban soundtracks.
Master crate digger Egon of Stones Throw (and offshoot label Now-Again) dusts off two more rare-as-hens-teeth funk 45s and gives them a new life on this split 12″ for the more budget-minded funk lover. Combining the original 2-part tracks into one seamless groove on each side, this release showcases the output of Herb Miller’s Indianapolis-based Lamp Records, circa 1969-1972. The Diplomatics’ “Hum-Bug” kicks things off on the A side with a mid-tempo, Hammond-fueled instrumental featuring a chorus of funky horns and an extra long drum break. Then on the flip we get Amnesty’s “Everybody Who Wants to Be Free,” a prime slice of uplifting, Afro-centric soul from this eight-member vocal group. Thanks, Egon!
The evolution of New York jazz continues with this latest release from the infant AUM Fidelity label. Whit Dickey is a first-class drummer best known for his work with Matthew Shipp and David S. Ware. On his first recording as a leader, he is aided and abetted by Rob Brown on alto sax and Chris Lightcap on bass. Inspired by the music of Thelonius Monk and David S. Ware, the trio skitter and squonk through eight tracks of exhilarating free jazz. All three players are equal partners on this recording, creating an intricate conversation of rhythm and mood. While challenging at first, the record opens up upon repeated listening. Favorite tracks: the intensely moody Penumbra, the drums/bass/flute combination of “Tableau,” and the excellent ensemble piece “Kinesis.”
Repeating the success of his brilliant album of Jimi Hendrix covers (THIRD STONE FROM THE SUN), renowned flautist Robert Dick again teams with the Soldier String Quartet to re- interpret the work of others. This time the goal was to cover songs that had, up until now, remained relatively uncovered, including compositions by Coltrane and Coleman, Wayne Shorter, Eric Dolphy, and Hendrix (again). The arrangements by David Soldier are stellar and the performances, particularly by flautist Dick and violinist Regina Carter, are awe-inspiring. Of special note: the blues jam of Hendrix s Machine Gun, the complex eastern funk of Coleman’s “Three Wishes,” and the cinematic exotica of Coltrane’s “India.” An album that refuses to be ignored.
One-time Communist and Black Panther (and lifelong activist) Angela Davis delivered this compelling lecture at Colorado College in 1997. Her subject is the escalating prison population and the increasing trend toward a punishment-based prison system rather than rehabilitation-based systems. Having been on both sides of the bars, Davis is eminently qualified for the subject. Over the course of this 54-minute lecture, she touches on many other topics, such as the War on Drugs, working conditions in third world shoe factories, and more. A thoughtful, reasoned argument from one of our leading liberal thinkers.
Cymande (pronounced Sah-mahn-day) was formed in 1970’s London by a group of Caribbean emigres. They refer to their style as “nyah-rock,” or rock music combined with nyabinghi rhythms. I don’t hear the rock influence as much as I hear the influences of soul, jazz, and reggae music from the same time period. But the African nyabinghi drum style is quite evident, making this one of the most unique musical fusions I’ve heard in a while. The album, Cymande’s first of three, features both instrumental and vocal tracks, including their biggest hit, “The Message” (no relation to Grandmaster Flash’s). There’s also some pretty cool Rastaman vibrations on the first and last tracks. A superb album.
This six-piece funk band from Michigan started life as The Fabulous Counts before shortening their name and recording this amazing album in the early 70’s. Even with a running time of less than 30 minutes, WHAT’S UP FRONT is chock-full of breakbeats and samples that would make any modern hip hop DJ drool. Gloriously lo-fi and funky, The Counts offer up vocal and instrumental tracks featuring some slinky Hammond B-3 grooves and wild Funkadelic guitars. The Counts broke up in the mid-70’s, and two of their members went on to back disco star Hamilton Bohannon.
It seems that Console’s Martin Gretschmann has always had a sweet tooth for electronic pop. While his first album resided in a landscape that recalled the modern electro-pop sounds of Mouse on Mars, this second album reaches back towards 80’s pioneers such as Orchestral Maneouvers, Kraftwerk, and the Human League. It’s catchy, fun, and full of surprises, retro but modern at the same time.
The Bay Area’s own version of Fat Cat returns with this fine EP from San Franciscan Kit Clayton. Seven tracks, ranging from minimal dub (a la Pole, Chain Reaction, etc.) to Detroit-style tech-house (think Jeff Mills, Rob Hood) to totally experimental soundscapes. Previous Drop Beat releases have all pushed beyond the restrictions of genre and this one is no exception.
For their third album release, Jason Swinscoe’s Cinematic Orchestra have progressed from creating their own imaginary movie soundtracks to creating the soundtrack for a real film. The film in question is Dziga Vertov’s silent Soviet masterpiece, MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA. It’s hard to believe that a film from 1929 incorporates the kinds of techniques and tricks we normally associate with modern-day music videos, like rapid-fire editing, repetition, animation, double exposures, split-screens, freeze-frames, slow motion sequences, and more. Yet it’s all there, and that makes the Vertov film a particularly inviting one to re-score. Swinscoe’s six-piece orchestra (plus string section) have done a fantastic job, with an all-instrumental soundtrack that deftly combines jazz and classical elements with trip hop beats, electronic noodlings, and more. Be sure to check out the 9-minute downtempo epic, “The Awakening of a Woman” as well as the playful and upbeat instrumental cover of the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s “Theme de Yoyo”.
Bobby Byrd earned himself a place in history as one of the original Famous Flames, alongside James Brown. I NEED HELP is his debut solo album, recorded in the early 70’s and produced by the Godfather himself. It’s a strange one, billed as a live album but with a radio fade on every song, topped off by canned applause that sounds as fake as a 60’s sitcom laugh track! Factor this in with the album title (I NEED HELP), plus the fact that Bobby’s face is intentionally obscured on both sides of the album jacket, and you’ve got to wonder: was James trying to make sure this album didn’t succeed? Musically, the album falls more on the soul side (a la “Please Please Please”), though there are a few of the James Brown- patented funk workouts. If you could strip out the audience noise on this record, you might have a damn fine debut album.
A 1996 release from the ever-intriguing Sabotage label out of Austria. This six-track electro EP is more beat-heavy than bleep-heavy. “Device A” opens the circuit at a propulsive, trancey tempo, while “Device B” delays the signal to a more percolating groove. The standout component, though, is “Device F,” which combines knob-twiddly synths with sitar and some crunchy, John Bonham-inspired beats.
Build an Ark is a spiritual jazz mega-group led by one Carlos Ni’o, DJ at Los Angeles’ Pacifica radio station KPFK and member of the bands Ammon Contact and Hu Vibrational. Joining him on his quest for universal unity are seasoned jazz vets like percussionist Adam Rudolph, Tribe Records founder Phil Ranelin, and Derf Reklaw of The Pharoahs. Fans of that other Pharaoh (Sanders) will feel right at home from the album’s opening track, a swingin’, squonkin’ cover of “You’ve Gotta Have Freedom”. From that upbeat beginning, though, the album turns more quiet and reflective, with different combinations of the group’s 28 members featured across a total of 18 tracks. Instrumentation is varied, as you might expect from an ensemble this large, but percussion is featured most prominently. Much respect for “Love is Our Nationality,” a timely spoken word track based around Funk, Inc.’s “Let’s Make Peace and Stop the War.” And the album closes brilliantly with a jam session on Ronnie Laws’ “Always There,” as band members chant, clap, and shout out the names of their favorite jazz heroes. In channeling their inspiration from the past, Build An Ark has created a future classic.
James Brown and Fred Wesley scored this blaxploitation gangster flick from 1973 that was written, produced, and directed by Larry “It’s Alive” Cohen. The album is fairly evenly balanced between instrumentals featuring the J.B.’s and vocal numbers from the Godfather of Soul. Singer Lyn Collins also features on one track, “Mama Feelgood.” The tracks that will make you feel REAL good are the openers and closers on each side. The rest is mostly filler.
There just aren’t enough records like this one: spiritual, uplifting jazz with Jamaican and African roots. Sax player Brooks was a crucial component of Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One sound, as well as Count Ossie’s Mystic Revelation of Rastafari. It’s the latter that provides the most influence here, as Brooks gathers an extraordinary group of singers and players, including Earnest Ranglin and Dean Fraser, to record a profoundly beautiful set of vocal hymns and instrumentals. Recorded in the late 70’s, it’s just one more reminder of the incredible musical magic that blossomed in Jamaica during the decade.
It’s impossible for me to review this CD without first saying how incredible the sound quality is on this recording. This is the kind of CD you’d want to take to your nearest high-end audio shop and play on their $20,000 sound system. Just close your eyes and YOU ARE THERE! The clarity, the separation, the depth…wow! Fortunately, the performances here are indeed equal to this marvel of recording technology. Anouar Brahem is a Tunisian oud virtuoso who has spent years learning Arab classical music, but who also seeks to explore new contexts for his instrument. On this album he is joined by two near- legends in jazz: John Surman (on bass clarinet and soprano sax) and Dave Holland (on double-bass). The result is an incredibly beautiful and intimate trio recording, blending jazz and Arab classical musics into something wholly original. Five stars!
Ken Boothe is not just one of the greatest reggae singers, but one of the greatest soul singers ever recorded. His career spans almost the entire history of reggae music, from the latter days of ska to a 1996 dancehall hit with deejay Shaggy. This collection is not a career retrospective, though, but rather a reissue of some of his best work for Studio One in the 1960’s. Primarily comprised of ska and rocksteady hits, this collection highlights, in no uncertain terms, the huge debt that Jamaican music owes to American R&B. ESSENTIAL!!!