Friday, June 20, 2014
Beyond: CD Review Column - DownBeat
A Long Way to the Beginning
It doesn't take long to establish the intensity of this album: the fist on the cover, the "Fela Lives" tattoo on the back; the fact that Miles Davis' favorite 12-letter word shows up within the first 30 seconds of the disc. Seun Kuti, son of Fela, spits venom over strafing horns on "Higher Conciousness" and builds a driving, scratchy groove on his alto saxophone for the frenetic "Kalakuta Boy." The instrumental support is dense with upwards of 15 musicians contributing to the funky pig pile of spidery lines and buckshot blasts. Keyboardist and co-producer Robert Glasper contributes to every track on the album, while rapper M-1 from Dead Prez makes a brief but suitably fuming guest appearance on "I.M.F." Kuti carries on the family tradition while adopting a few noble ideas of his won, making for an engaging album on numerous fronts.
Ernest Ranglin & Avila
Guitarist Ernest Ranglin could fill a radio station's entire playlist solely with the records he has contributed to since becoming a key session musician for the Jamaican music scene in the 1950s. Now in his early eighties, Ranglin's rich history as a bridge between the worlds of reggae and jazz is well established. He is a master of laid-back cool, employing a sprightly touch to help roll out his economically prodding phrases. On this recording, he serves as frontman for the six-piece, San Francisco-based band Avila, which is steady but rarely shining. Tracks like "Sivan" channel light touches of Les Paul, while the self-titled track is a bit of a hokey turn around the roller rink. The album is nearly instrumental but for a brief snippet of studio goofiness that leads to "Ska Renzo." Of the 16 tracks on this album, only a handful move at a tempo any faster than a stroll. "Ska Renzo" has a welcome bounce that gives Ranglin a little room to unravel his skittish riffs over gurgling horn harmonies and a reverb-heavy melodica. But in the end, this album brings similar results as an afternoon sipping sweet cocktails by the beach: warm, happy and a little sleepy.
Lee Fields & The Expressions
There is a generation of soul men who witnessed and worshiped James Brown in his prime when they were only in middle school. Those determined disciples are now in their sixties and some of them are still singing their hearts out for the title of The Hardest Working Man in Soul Business. Lee Fields, 63, is one of those lifers, and his plaintive wail is scorched by decades of living. Faithful production values and an airtight band help to elevate Fields' righteous sound. The band does not stick to simple rehashing of vintage soul but offers unique touches like a gentle slide guitar on "Magnolia" that takes the tune to a different dustier locale, while tubular bells on the chorus of "Paralyzed" further broaden the orchestral reach of Fields' band, The Expressions. An unexpected take on Leon Russell's "Out In the Woods" is heightened by a handful of no-nonsense back-up singers and a bristling guitar building in the background. There is an almost spooky sadness to Fields' delivery throughout this album, but he fights of the misery for a performance that is riddled with gritty honesty. It's an engaging listen from beginning to end.
Stone By Stone
This Brooklyn-based, seven-piece band sounds like they could be an Afrobeat unit from the 1970s. Album opener "The Offering" and "The Beast" give it up to the gods of funky togetherness, slathering the horns in vintage Daptone gels and a gnarly baritone saxophone solo. Like its borough neighbor Antibalas, the band delivers a well-informed homage to the sounds of sweat-drenched Afro-pop, but the band's reach quickly expands and dilutes beyond the shores of Western Africa into warbly surf guitars and Ethio-jazz. The 10 tracks dip into a sandy swagger on "Rio Grande" with a humming vibraphone solo, while album closer, "The Dram," could make claymation raisins testify. This is instrumental party music indebted to a shrinking globe and expanding ears, the soundtrack to a fun night out that doesn't result in paying the babysitter any overtime.
Beyond: Global Grooves @ DownBeat