BRIAN SIMPSON and STEVE OLIVER; Unified (Shanachie)

Friday, 17 January 2020 15:57 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altPianist Brian Simpson and guitarist/vocalist Steve Oliver are respected and prominent members of the US smooth jazz fraternity. Together and solo, they have Cvs to be proud of. Simpson has worked with people like Janet Jackson, Teena Marie, George Duke, Stanley Clarke, Boney James and Dave Koz while Oliver's credits number collaborations with the Neville Brothers, Vinnie Colaiuta, Steve Reid, Larry Carlton, Rick Braun, Acoustic Alchemy and Gato Barbieri, to name  just a few. The pair first came together when Oliver worked with Simpson on his last two solo albums; the chemistry they achieved encouraged the pair to work on a whole album together and the 11 tracker that is 'Unified' is the result.

The album's mission statement is "to allow music to heal and bring people together by allowing minds to wander along the path these songs take and perhaps listeners will have a brighter day, or connect with their deepest emotions." Well that's very much a personal thing and time will tell, but Lord knows we could do with some (plenty!) of coming together and healing right now....Presidential impeachment/Brexit/climate change/et al anyone?

What 'Unified' offers is a relaxing, easy-on-the-ear set of tunes with Simpson's crystalline keys and Oliver's Benson-esque guitar blending empathetically; classic smooth jazz if you would. So plenty of gentle groove-laden workouts (like the title cut) and some very pleasing balladic moments (like 'Last Summer' and 'A Distant Love'). Catchiest cut is 'Café Du Monde' – a melodic appeal for unity while the all too short, acoustic closer, 'And Then You Loved Me' channels the best of Earl Klugh. No bad thing in this reviewer's book!

(BB) 3/5

Last Updated on Friday, 17 January 2020 16:51


OMAR; The Anthology (Freestyle)

Friday, 10 January 2020 16:44 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altOmar (or to be precise, Omar Lyefook MBE) is a unique British soul talent. He's one of those very rare UK artists with an immediately recognizable voice and style. And if you dare to doubt that, may we point you to an upcoming retrospective of the man's best work on Freestyle Records. 'The Anthology' offers a massive 32 track sweep and from the opening, 'Pass It On' (a collaboration with Terri Walker) through to the closing, quirky, waltz that is 'Deja Vu' there's no let up in panache, quality and soulfulness. Little wonder, that a certain Stevie Wonder numbers Mr F amongst his favourite singers and as we know Stevie put his money where his mouth is by collaborating with Omar on 'Feeling You'.

That track is one of many big name collaborations that Omar has worked on and is included here. Here you can also enjoy his collaborations with people like Carleen Anderson, Caron Wheeler, Kele LeRoc, Leon Ware, the Floacist Robert Glasper and of course Erykah Badu. The big Badu/Omar pairing is, of course, their version of 'Be Thankful'. The measure of the cut's class is the fact that though William DeVaughn's original is just that – the original, the Omar/Badu version is acknowledged as equally excellent and stands proud in its own right... not really seen as a cover at all. It's one of this collection's big highlights – a benchmark. The other clear highlight is, of course, the one that started it all off... 'There's Nothing Like This'. It still sounds vital and fresh and, you know, the word "classic" is overused in the music press, but 'There's Nothing Like This' is just that – a classic.

This collection's big sales pitch is that there are two previously unreleased tracks ... the Terri Walker duet 'Pass It On' and 'Long Time Coming'. I'm not entirely sure about the latter but the former, in fact, has been out before... last September, I think. It doesn't really matter, I suppose, still a great tune!

Sadly no space here for the Angie Stone mixes of 'Be Thankful' or the 2013 re-recording of 'There's Nothing Like This' but that's more than made up for by the sheer quality of everything else!

Omar's 'The Anthology' will be out 31 January on Freestyle Records

(BB) 4/5

Last Updated on Friday, 10 January 2020 17:12


JAMES REESE & THE PROGRESSIONS: 'Wait For Me: The Complete Works (1967-1972)' (Now-Again)

Thursday, 02 January 2020 12:49 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

                               altA trombonist, bandleader, arranger and producer from Spartanburg, South Carolina, James Reese is one of soul music's more esoteric figures whose work is only known to those that consider themselves among the genre's cognoscenti. Reese recorded a couple of lowkey indie 45s in tandem with his band, The Progressions, for his self-funded Najma label during the late '60s and early '70s and then quietly slipped into obscurity. That was until Now-Again's founder and this album's curator, Egon (aka Eothen Alaplatt) chanced upon some Reese 45s when he was working as the manager of Stones Throw Records. He tracked down the South Carolinian musician and licensed two cuts for the much-lauded Stones Throw compilation, '16 Funky Corners.' Now, under the aegis of his own label, Egon unveils 14-track LP/CD of James Reese's music sourced from the original multi-track masters. Mixing the group's singles with a cache of previously unissued material, 'Wait For Me' proves to be an astounding compilation that illuminates the prodigious talent of a musician whose endeavours deserved a wider audience.

Reese and his band straddled the divide between soul and jazz. They were able to serve up a combination of funky, jazz-infused instrumentals that channelled The JB's - the wonderfully breezy 'Let's Go (It's Summertime),' and the super-propulsive 'Jody's Freeze' - with more R&B-oriented vocal material. The standouts include 'One Girl,' a gutbucket soul ballad fronted by a raspy-voiced male singer and 'He'll Never Go,' a Marvin Gaye-esque number. Then there's the more strident Motown-style soul anthem, 'A Fool For Love,' with its earworm chorus.  Engaging, too, are 'I'll Find A True Love' and 'It's Not But So Much Love Can Do,' which, with their falsetto male vocals, both come across like a jazzed-up take on Philly's Delfonics. The killer cut on the set is the Kenny Dope-mixed 'Throwing Stones,' a simmering groove ballad featuring Rosalyn Foster whose sweetly soulful vocals are framed by yearning string lines.

There's much to appreciate, then, on this lovingly-curated album, which brings James Reese & The Progressions out of the obscurity of the soul shadows into the light of recognition. A revelation.  (Release date: January 17, 2020)

(CW) 4/5

Last Updated on Friday, 03 January 2020 19:20


BETTY DAVIS: 'Betty Davis - They Say I'm Different' (MVD)

Wednesday, 01 January 2020 10:14 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF


Betty Davis was so far ahead of her time that she was deeply misunderstood and even vilified for her pioneering work as a female funk musician. Indeed, the raunchy, overtly sexual nature of some of her recordings and stage performances brought controversy, public censure, and strong condemnation from the NAACP and conservative religious organisations in her native USA. Radio stations succumbed to pressure from her vociferous critics. They boycotted her records and in 1979, when her then record company decided to shelve her fourth album, the singer, then 34, retreated to Pittsburgh, where she lived in seclusion and never recorded another note. Forty years on, Davis, now 74, is still there, living in the shadows away from the glare of the spotlight. She refuses to do interviews, and though her contribution to this 53-minute DVD documentary is minimal (she appears fleetingly, as a voice on the other end of a telephone), she gave the green light to British director/writer, Phil Cox, to make a film about her life. 

Cox, to his credit, has made a fabulous, deeply engaging, film about a highly influential but largely neglected artist. It is visually stunning, interspersing vintage film of Davis performing with her band with colourful, animated psychedelic collages and impressionistic cinematic images. In between these is talking head-style commentary from Davis' erstwhile producer, Greg Errico, along with writers and Betty Davis experts, Greg Tate, Oliver Wang, and Vernon Gibbs. An elderly Davis is represented by an actress/narrator (though we don't see her face) reflecting on her life. This part might sound cheesy, but it works well, filling in some crucial gaps in the narrative.  A key component of Cox's film, and which helps us gain more insight, is the participation of the singer's family, friends and members of her backing band. Their contributions are vital, helping to flesh out a vivid portrait of a mysterious trendsetter whom her ex-husband Miles Davis once described as "Madonna before Madonna, Prince before Prince."  

What this film achieves is that it makes Davis is less of an enigma though ultimately, her reticence - perhaps strange and at odds with someone so bold and outspoken as a young woman - continues to shroud her in a pall of mystery. But it is much less impenetrable than it was and you leave the film feeling that you know Davis much better than you did. Though Davis retired early, her music - defined by churning, heavy funk grooves and wild, feral, declamatory vocals - has continued to resonate with people and its influence has been far-ranging. It would be true to say that without her, there would be no Janet Jackson and Grace Jones - women who cultivated a strong persona and were uncompromising in their musical vision. Betty Davis was, then, a trailblazer, opening the door for a lot of today's female performers, though sadly, many won't even be aware of her. This film goes some way to righting that wrong and making the world more aware of an important musical pioneer. (Release date: January 20th, 2020)

(CW) 4/5

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Last Updated on Sunday, 05 January 2020 11:52


VARIOUS: Everything Is Gonna Be Alright (Westbound/Ace)

Monday, 23 December 2019 19:25 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altOver the past several years the UK collectors label Ace Records has released plenty of material from one of Detroit's most important labels ... Westbound Records. The label was set up fifty years ago by Armen Boladian and, incredibly, it's still in business and still helmed by Boladian! To celebrate this remarkable achievement, Ace, via their special Westbound link, has just issued this 24 track retrospective of the very best of Westbound's soul and jazz output (the label, by the way is multi genre.)

This collection, named for the popular Bill Moss gospel track, opens with Westbound's first release... 'A Letter From Vietnam' by Emanuel Lasky and ends with the Mike Theodore Orchestra's 1979 disco outing, 'High On Mad Mountain'. In between there are offerings from well known names like Denise LaSalle, the Ohio Players and the Detroit Emeralds; though perhaps the most important artists on the album are Funkadelic. Those who know their Detroit music history will know that originally Funkadelic were the backing band for George Clinton's vocal group, The Parliaments. When the two camps combined, the results were remarkable to say the least. The Funkadelic axis has two tracks here, 'I'll Bet You' and 'Standing On The Verge Of Getting It On'.

Based in Detroit, Westbound would, of course, use plenty of players with Motown links. Amongst those "Motown linked" highlights here is guitar ace Dennis Coffey. A prolific Gordy session player, he enjoyed success in his own right working on CJ and Co's 'Devils Gun'. The Fantastic Four were Motown alumni too and here you can enjoy their gangster-themed disco outing 'Alvin Stone'. The Fantastic Four were one of countless Detroit vocal groups hustling for deals in the city and there are more excellent groups here – amongst them The Magictones and Unique Blend whose subtle and sweet Yes I'm In Love' is an album highlight while Northern collectors will be delighted to have the Houston Outlaws' 'Ain't No Telling' included.

(BB) 4/5

Last Updated on Monday, 23 December 2019 20:23


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