ESTHER PHILLIPS: At Onkel Po’s Carnegie Hall (NDR)

Thursday, 23 November 2017 15:03 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altEsther Phillips was a unique talent but, sadly, her life was a roller coaster of ups and downs. She found fame early – as "Little" Esther Phillips, but the grind of touring the chittlin' circuit in the 50s and early 60s took a toll. Addicted to heroin and linked with many of the music biz's less savoury characters, her burgeoning career nose-dived. Country singer Kenny Rogers, of all people, helped her make a comeback when he persuaded his brother Lelan to sign her to his Lennox Record label. Hits and acclaim followed; then a major deal with Atlantic Records... but again drug ravages hit hard.

In the early 70s Ms Philips enjoyed a second renaissance with Kudu Records; then a stint with Mercury. But her lifestyle came with a price and in 1984 she died aged just 48. Long-term drug abuse had caused major organ failure and despite the fame she'd enjoyed Esther Phillips was buried in a pauper's grave... a sad and wasteful end.

Esther Phillips, though, left a sparkling, soulful – if at times - harrowing music legacy and most of her material is fairly easily accessible to collectors. Now that legacy is enhanced with the release of 2 CD live album that was recorded at Hamburg's famous Onkel Pö's Carnegie Hall club in 1978. In terms of chronology, the singer was in her Mercury period, so the big hits were well established and those songs form the bulk of the concert's material. The show begins with her version of Eddie Floyd's 'I've Never Found A Man (Woman)' and also included are treatments of songs like 'Native New Yorker' (an epic 12 minute plus version dedicated to the band – all New Yorkers), 'One Night Affair', 'Stormy Weather', 'Cherry Red' and 'What A Difference A Day Makes' That tune, her biggest, hit ends the show and is another extended 12 minute workout, allowing the aforementioned band – Henry Cain (piano), Wes Blackman (guitar), Bill Upchurch (bass) and James Levi (drums) - to stretch out.

There was no place in the set for 'Home Is Where The Hatred Is' but there's darkness with an 18 minute, self-penned song simply called 'The Blues'. Sung and spoken, in many ways it can be seen as an epitaph for the talent that was Esther Phillips.

(BB) 3/5

Last Updated on Thursday, 23 November 2017 15:17


DEE DEE BRIDGEWATER: 'Memphis...Yes, I'm Ready' (OKeh/DDB Records)

Saturday, 18 November 2017 09:49 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

                      altThough from the age of three she was raised in Flint, Michigan (where her late mother came from), feted jazz chanteuse Dee Dee Bridgewater was born in Memphis. This new, very personal,  album (her eighteenth) celebrates her 'Bluff City' heritage (her father, Matthew Garrett, was a DJ and teacher there) and finds the singer revisiting a cache of Memphis-associated songs that she listened to in her youth. What results is 67-year-old Dee Dee's most soulful and R&B-oriented musical offering in a long, long time. It's fitting, perhaps, that it was recorded in Willie Mitchell's legendary Royal Studios in Memphis with Mitchell's son, Lawrence (aka 'Boo'), on board as a co-producer alongside another noted Memphian, saxophonist, Kirk Whalum. Hi Records studio veteran, organist Charles Hodges, is also on hand to provide some authentic Memphis seasoning.

In terms of her material, Dee Dee puts her spin on soul tunes with a deep Memphis connection - like the Staple Singers' Why (Am I Treated So Bad), Carla Thomas's 'B.A.B.Y.', Otis Redding's 'Try A Little Tenderness' and Ann Peebles' 'I Can't Stand The Rain' - alongside rock and roll (Elvis's 'Don't Be Cruel,' revived as a jazzy shuffle with a funk undertow), rhythm and blues (a mellow but sassy version of Big Mama Thornton's 'Hound Dog'), and funkafied blues songs (B.B. King's 'The Thrill Is Gone'). All of these are rendered with respect to the originals but add something  unique thanks to inventive arrangements and splendid vocals.

Also thrown into the mix and given a Memphis makeover are Barbara Mason's Philly classic, 'Yes, I'm Ready' (which was recorded at Stax by Carla Thomas a year after Mason's original), Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong's classic Motown tune, 'I Can't Get Next To You,'  which Al Green covered for Hi Records, and Van McCoy's dramatic, blues-steeped power ballad, 'Giving Up.'  The album closes on a sanctified note with a piece of pure gospel - '(Take My Hand) Precious Lord,' complete with rolling churchy piano chords, ethereal organ, and a soulful gospel choir counterpointing Dee Dee' stirring lead vocals. It concludes this splendid revival of classic material on an uplifting note.  

(CW) 3/5

Last Updated on Saturday, 18 November 2017 16:47


JEFF CASCARO: Love & Blues In The City (Herzog Records)

Friday, 17 November 2017 12:54 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altProper soul fans know a thing or two about German singer/trumpeter Jeff Cascaro. They have fond memories of his 'The Other Man' and 'Mother And Brother' albums and now the professor (right! - he leads the jazz faculty at Germany's prestigious Franz Liszt Conservatory at Weimar) offers something a little different with this –his latest ten tracker. Herr Cascaro says: "The time was ripe to record a more jazzy and intimate album. I wanted to put a stronger emphasis on the voice and its delicacies."

Hear if Jeff's succeeded as he works his way through a set of seven covers and three originals. Highlight of the covers is a six minute version of Marvin Gaye's 'Inner City Blues'. It rides a loping, bass line (Christian von Kapehengst), is garnished with crystalline piano (Henrdik Soll) and topped with a horn solo from Jeff himself. It completely captures the melancholy hopelessness that Gaye intended when he wrote the song. Other delights include the gentle twist on 'Since I Fell For You', the imaginative take on 'A Taste Of Honey' and the biting version of Bobby Bland's 'Ain't No Love In The Heart Of The City'.

The original 'Hold On To Now' maintains the melancholy while the other two "new" songs – 'I Love You Baby' and 'It's Alright' are sprightlier. 'I Love You Baby' (a duet with Fola Dada) is particularly jaunty and like the other two self-penned numbers allows Cascaro to flaunt his Michael McDonald flavoured vocals.

Listen and find out more @

(BB) 3/5

Last Updated on Friday, 17 November 2017 13:07


PHYLLIS HYMAN: 'Deliver The Love - The Anthology' (SoulMusic Records)

Friday, 17 November 2017 12:24 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF


For some, the statuesque Phyllis Hyman was a goddess among mortals just in terms of her physical beauty, while for others, she was a captivating presence simply because of her unique voice which was capable of making everything she sang seem real, deeply personal and etched with sorrow. There have been a raft of Hyman retrospectives over the years and most revisit the same old familiar tracks though thankfully, this one is a little different. As well as offering an overview of her Buddah and Arista years, there's a glimpse of her time at Gamble & Huff's P.I.R. label, while the second disc in this set focuses on some of the singer's many and meaningful collaborations with noted jazz musicians, which for Hyman fans makes this a must-have compilation.

Interestingly, disc one opens with 'Baby (I'm Gonna Love You),' her George Kerr-helmed one-off 45 for indie label, Desert Moon, in 1976 before proceeding to mine her Arista canon for immutable classics like 'You Know How To Love Me,' and 'Living Inside Your Love,' (you get the extended versions of both of these), though it also serves up lesser known gems like 'Sleep On It,' and an outtake from her Philly sessions with Gamble & Huff in the shape of 1991's 'Hottest Love Around,' both first released in 2003 on an Expansion CD of rare and previously unissued material.   

But disc two is the one that will pique the interest of Hyman fans who already have most of her Arista repertoire in their collections. Though her collaborations with producer/drummer Norman Connors are well-known (like the fabulous 'Betcha By Golly Wow,' which appears here), her three sensational cameos on jazz pianist McCoy Tyner's 1982 album, 'Looking Out,' are not. They comprise 'I'll Be Around,' 'In Search Of My Heart,' and best of all, 'Love Surrounds Us Everywhere.' Evidently, jazz musicians, liked working with the singer, and even the mighty, mystical god of astral travelling, saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, hooked up with her on his album, 'Love Will Find A Way.' Included here from that set is 'As You Are.' An even better Hyman cameo was on another saxophonist's album - Grover Washington Jr's 1989 platter, 'Time Out Of Mind,' from which the haunting 'Sacred Kind Of Love' is taken.

Though the name Barry Manilow is anathema to many serious music fans, he worked with the singer at Arista (on 1978's 'Somewhere In My Lifetime') and also, featured her on his 1987 album, 'Swing Street,' from which the jazz-tinged atmospheric duet, 'Black & Blue,' is taken. There's also an intriguing soundtrack curio here - the Thom Bell-helmed 'Magic Mona' from the movie 'The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh' - as well as Hyman's 1981 version of Duke Ellington's 'In A Sentimental Mood,' which appeared on the original cast recording of the stage musical, 'Duke Ellington's Sophisticated Ladies - Hooked On Ellington.'

This anthology certainly delivers - but then you wouldn't expect anything else from SoulMusic Records, would you?   

(CW) 4/5

Last Updated on Saturday, 18 November 2017 09:56


MAVIS STAPLES: 'If All I Was Was Black' (Anti-)

Thursday, 16 November 2017 12:39 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF


Mavis Staples is 78-years-old but still making records that matter. 'If All I Was Was Black' is the Chicago-born singer's fifteenth LP of her long career and her third collaboration with noted producer, songwriter, guitarist, and Wilco member, Jeff Tweedy. It's an album whose theme of racial discord and a polarised world reflects a dysfunctional America in the divisive Trump era. But as Mavis Staples can tell you from personal experience, it's an America that hasn't changed much from the days of racial segregation and persecution that she was a witness to when she began her career singing gospel music with her family in the 1950s. Mavis also was a staunch supporter of Martin Luther King Jr in the Civil Rights era but this album demonstrates that the social and political victories of those heady days of the 1960s, which seemed to augur better days ahead for African Americans,  may now be a thing of the past. The present incumbent of the Whitehouse has seen to that, fomenting racial hatred, opening up old wounds, and deepening divisions.

Jeff Tweedy (who wrote/co-wrote all of the songs specifically for Mavis) and his musical confreres provide a backdrop for Mavis that blurs the demarcation lines between soul, country, folk, gospel and rock. The music is also subtly understated, allowing the singer's distinctive voice - which has lost none of its richness over time - to shine. All ten songs create a vivid storytelling tapestry of  protest and social commentary, though without being specific about events and people. That gives it a transcendent universality that anyone who is disenfranchised can relate to.  'No Time For Crying' stands out for the tension of its driving funk beat - a mixture of Motown and Sly Stone's 'Dance To The Music' - its urgency reflecting the song's lyrics about having "work to do" even though "people are dying" and "bullets are flying." 'Build A Bridge,' with its anthemic chorus, is also hopeful, and its groove is almost stately. Indeed, despite the dark sobriety of some of its themes and tone,  'If All I Was Was Black' - whose title song is looking beyond skin colour and recognising our shared humanity - it's an album suffused with light and love. That feeling is epitomised by 'Peaceful Dream,' whose acoustic guitar filigrees and simple percussive handclaps recall the gospel-folk style of a pre-Stax Staple Singers.

Though this is a record initially born of despair, perhaps, ultimately it is brimming with hope and posits the idea of a world redeemed of its wickedness by embracing love. That might be idealistic, perhaps, given humanity's chequered history, but it's a noble vision nonetheless. Of course, Mavis Staples has been around long enough to tell you that she knows it isn't going to be easy, as she acknowledges on 'Try Harder,' but she's sure-as-hell going to give it a good go. If only she was the president of the United States.  A sensational album.

(CW) 4/5

Last Updated on Friday, 17 November 2017 08:21


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