Untitled Compositions

"...compository sketches..." - S. Scott Franklin

Steven Bernstein - MTO Plays Sly (Album Review)

Whether realized or not, everyone is familiar with Sly and the Family Stone. Their place in music history can be analyzed through not only sound, but philosophical approach to the socially relevant issues of the day. Their music has been critically acclaimed and heralded as some of the best of all-time. But, even more important than this is their undeniable influence of the generations of artists that have come after. Recently, one of those artists has chosen to pay respects to that influence. But don’t get it twisted. Our featured performer may be highlighting the work of another, but he is most certainly his own man.

If you’ve ever had the opportunity to experience Steven Bernstein in any of his roles, you know that he’s well versed in the artistry of funk. In the most abstract sense, he, like so many others, studied under the tutelage of Sly and the Family Stone, learning the craft of dynamic musicianship. For MTO Plays SLY, Bernstein brought together his outfit, Millenial Territory Orchestra, for what can be understood as a cover of his influences greatest hits. But that would be an oversimplification, unjustly minimalizing what Bernstein accomplishes with this release.

Juxtaposition is the best vehicle in which to best understand this album. Originally “Stand” was recorded in 1969 as an upbeat tune, with powerful undertones. Used as a call to action, the song erupts into a gospel-structured jam session in the song’s final section. Easily one of the group’s finest compositions, the standard was already set at a nearly unattainable level. Bernstein instead chose to mellow some of the song’s aggression, without sacrificing its overall provocations. After an elongated instrumental prelude, Sandra St. Victor jumps on the track with a soulful vocal display befitting the era from whence it originally came. But the moment you find yourself comfortably situated within this calming atmosphere, her performance along with the accompanying instrumentation take off with a commanding strength. It’s almost as if Bernstein intentionally lulls his audience into a false sense of tranquility in order to enhance the already explosive nature of the song’s shift. It’s a clever way to begin what immediately seems to be a solid project…”

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For The Revivalist

Darondo - Let My People Go (Album Review)

Few moments in life can elicit a more cringe-worthy response than the ever-present “comeback.” When an artist from yesterday announces a long-awaited return to the scene, I immediately brace myself for a barrage of disturbing attempts at reinvention—from clumsily manufactured rap collaborations to forced insertions of modern fashion principles. But, at the end of the day, it always comes back to the music and this is exactly where we see such a moment’s greatest disappointment. These artists of whom I speak are fooled into believing that they need to somehow modernize their sound. We find our past talents trading in the timeless motifs that made them famous for a perfunctory take on contemporary musical idioms. This, as the kids say, is not a good look.

I expected this when I first received Darondo’s first major release since the early 1970s. Fortunately, however, I was quite mistaken.

For those of you not familiar with Darondo, allow me to say that I certainly empathize with your plight. As much as I claim to know about music, the greatest lesson that I have learned is the simple fact that I know very little. And in this case, it’s Darondo. Born William Pulliam, the San Francisco native is a name that we should all know. He is, in every sense, the encapsulation of unadulterated funk. His lavish style bested even the finest of Blaxploitation figures, a feat only rivaled by his vocal prowess. But this markedly distinct lifestyle is perhaps the reason that most of us have never even heard of him. Despite several critically acclaimed singles, the self-proclaimed “fast young man” eventually found himself outside of the music industry—his potential not yet reached…”

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For The Revivalist

The John Coltrane Quartet - Ballads (Album Review)

"On a day in which we formally welcome autumn, we too celebrate the birth of John Coltrane. The symbolism of it all can be heard rather than seen. That is why, today, I listen to Ballads.

Autumn has a distinctive feel. While urban meteorologists Tony! Toni! Toné! once reported that it never rains in Southern California, those of us located in more temperate climates recognize that this is the season that hosts a combination of grey skies and heavy precipitation. Only exacerbating this dismissal forecast is the inevitable darkness that will steadily begin to swallow the waning moments of summer. For this reason, our collective mood will begin to shift accordance with the season. Many would argue that melancholy is best prescribed to adequately define our not-so-sunny dispositions during this time of year. And as such, autumn’s score is composed with a somber tone and delicate rhythm.

As I look outside of my window on a day such as this, I hear Coltrane’s Ballads. It’s difficult for many to properly place it. Amongst the myriad other projects included in the Coltrane catalog, this album does not that dominate feature. It does not present the framework for a new compositional paradigm like Giant Steps, nor does it engage in the experimental recklessness of Om. This understanding, however, should not be taken as a shot at the album, but to instead, present it for what it is. Ballads a significance that deserves more praise than it has received. It’s thematic masterpiece, capturing variations on a sentimental mood. It does so in a manner that is never trite and surprisingly underplayed. It maintains a certain course, one from which it never strays. This is heard immediately on the opening record, “Say It (Over And Over Again).” Beginning with a subtle polyphonic texture, a substantially pronounced Coltrane emits a sound that borders on lethargic. Everything seems to be stressed and drawn out for just a moment longer. Its emotional pull does not lean towards sadness, but instead a mellowed composure. This is the type of music that lends itself well to a rainy afternoon in September…”

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For The Roy Ayers Project

Justin Timberlake – FutureSex/LoveSounds (Album Review)

I think this is why I skipped out on law school.

I’ve argued for a lot of people in my life, but there exist an elite few that are simply indefensible. Justin Timberlake might be one of those people. If your history of decision-making includes blonde cornrows and sequin jean jackets, I can understand a level of doubt. But even Miles rocked the wet curl for a minute, so I think it is safe to say that sometimes the music supersedes the persona.

Timberlake’s quirky entrance into the pop arena builds a cavalcade of arguments against his insertion into the longstanding canon of musical brilliance. From choreographed dance steps to matching boy band ensembles, his career was manufactured with all of the bubbly relics of pop’s yesteryears. But then, of course, this all changed with FutureSex/LoveSounds.This, of course, was, by far, one of the greatest pop albums in the last 25 years.

Yes, I just said that.

For the few of you still reading, as I assume most got lost in the potential hilarity of that last statement, I want to first give credit to the inspiration for this discussion….”

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For The Roy Ayers Project

Donny Hathaway - These Songs For You Live (Album Review)

"There is an unparalleled sincerity in the music of Donny Hathaway. He did not just sing, he emoted. While many have found solace in their craft, Hathaway used music as means of expression for his oft conflicted psyche. But that was Donny Hathaway. He was real life. There were moments of uncontrollable joy and optimism amongst a cavalcade of darkness. This reality was only exacerbated in his live performances. It was on the stage that he was truly free. Away from the confines of a studio, Hathaway carried a unique rawness that others simply did not have.

These Songs For You Live! begins with two of Hathaway’s lighter compositions, “Flying Easy” and “Valdez in the Country.” Even on a mellowed out track like “Flying Easy,” we can still hear Hathaway stretching his vocals, grasping for something not quite there. It’s a beautiful performance that properly presents the depths of his vocal acuity. Intriguingly, “Valdez in the Country” has Hathaway stepping away from the microphone only to engage in his own technical virtuosity, as he effortlessly skates across the keys on this jazzy composition.

While Hathaway, does his due diligence to his own works, I continually find myself going back to the trio of covers he performs in the middle of the album. He begins with the Marvin Gaye’s classic “What’s Going On.” Void of the enhanced instrumentation conducted on the original, Hathaway provides a substantially stripped down performance combined with the emotional pull of his vocalization. From there, he goes on to rework the Beatles acoustic ballad “Yesterday.” Maintaining much of the song’s original minimalism, Hathaway once again delivers on a song written for one of the lowest moments in everyone’s life – heartbreak. This narrative concludes with a cover of the second half of Stevie Wonder’s two part suite “Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You).” Moving away from Stevie’s upbeat rhythmic take on the composition, the song is transformed into a languid ballad, building up over time through the singing of Hathaway, leading to a reemergence of the original buoyant tempo. Hathaway had an obvious mastery of his own material. I, however, was even more impressed by his appreciation and understanding of the works of others…”

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For The Revivalist

James Brown - Cold Sweat (Album Review)

There needn’t be any intricate introduction or prolonged formalities for this one. If you don’t already know, James Brown is one of the funkiest men to ever walk this Earth. His heart beat to a syncopated rhythm as he glided across the stage with all of the regality deserving of his title as the “King of Soul.” When we talk about James Brown, we often connect with his incomparable stage presence. His music reflected the boisterous nature of his personality. It was vivacious and completely outlandish even during its most tempered moments. No other artist in history could make the wearisome act of fatigue look so stylish. Adorned in his signature cape, placed over him by the legendary MC Danny Ray, Brown could walk of stage with an unparalleled cool. This is the James Brown we most often discuss.

But in doing so, we overlook parts of a man whose influence and abilities far outreached our own understanding of him as an artist. As we take a look back, we should never forget James Brown, the risk taker. This was highlighted most on his rare 1967 release Cold Sweat, an album greatly overlooked amongst his many great works, despite its rich connection to various other sounds.

As a whole, the project wanders across genres. This musical rollercoaster ride begins with the funk-infused two part jam “Cold Sweat.” It is great music, without a doubt, but it’s musical impact was much greater as, in many ways, it was the bridge connecting the past to the future of American music. On the song’s composition, Brown’s bandleader, Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis said, “After one of the shows, one night somewhere, James called me into the dressing room and grunted a bass line of a rhythmic thing (demonstrates), which turned out to be “Cold Sweat.” I was very much influenced by Miles Davis and had been listening to “So What” six or seven years earlier and that crept into the making of “Cold Sweat.” You could call it subliminal, but the horn line is based on Miles Davis’ ‘So What.’”..”

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For The Revivalist

Warren Wolf - Warren Wolf (Album Review)

Warren Wolf is considered to be highly proficient in several of music’s instruments. His degree from Berklee would, without a doubt, substantiate this claim. What I find most fascinating about Wolf, however, will most likely never reach the pages of his ever-growing résumé, at least not explicitly. This is something a bit more abstract. What most draws me to Wolf’s already infectious sound is that he is playing bebop in a modern setting. Naturally, this has peaked my curiosity. But, what sold me on his dynamic repertoire boils down to how he does it.

With minor exceptions, much of Wolf’s most recent album would fall into the category of bebop. Overall, it sustains much of the rhythmic velocity and technical acuity found in one of jazz most popular subgenres. But, it’s not the 1940s. This makes some believe that bebop is an antiquated transport for jazz, giving way to the onslaught of unforgivably tacky smooth jazz albums and hit-or-miss displays of hip-hop and jazz fusion. And I’m not saying that Wolf is outdated. In reality, his music is more refreshing than ever, an interest thought considering what he’s attempting to do. So, I have to tip my hat to Wolf on this one. At times, his approach is more Roy Ayers than Lionel Hampton, but I think that is why it works so well.

Wolf’s most significant work takes place along the aluminum bars of his vibraphone. Stylistically, he parlays his talents into a flexibility that fits each song. At times, he plays with a terseness used to enhance and not overwhelm the melody, as seen on “427 Mass Ave” and “Sweet Bread.” When given the opportunity to cut loose, however, Wolf does so tenfold. On “Eva,” we can hear the artist taking his solo journey with ease as he cuts through the bebop sensibilities of the record with flawless execution. Through it all, there is a certain vivacity with which Wolf plays. This point being what led to my reference of Ayers. There is an obvious understanding, amongst both artist and audience, that this is essentially jazz music but, there is a disconnect, in that the artist is decisively building a distinctive musical identity outside of the traditional realm. Wolf disregards the stoicism of older idioms to recreate something post-bebop, and yet, rooted in that very same tradition….”

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For The Revivalist

Thundercat – The Golden Age of Apocalypse (Album Review)

In Los Angeles, you can fit three weeks into a New York minute.

This isn’t based on any sort of factual data. In reality, I just made that up while sitting in a borrowed Los Angeles apartment on a cool summer night. Vacationing on the Left Coast has taught me several things, most of which I already knew. More than anything, I realized that California rocks to the rhythm of its own G-Funk era drum. That is why I have always appreciated it’s art.

Naturally, I’ve been as cliché as possible in my musical endeavors while resting under the California sunshine. Engaging in the sounds of artists too often ignored in my own Midwestern enclave (Blu, Terrace Martin, Dom Kennedy, L.A.U.S.D., etc.), there is nothing that I’ve enjoyed more than simply driving down Fairfax releasing obnoxiously high levels of Nate Dogg into the already congested atmosphere. As trite as it may sound, this is the effect of a few days out West. The soul of California has its own signature flair. The vibe is often, like its people, laid-back with an eccentric touch. It’s outgoing and adventurous, with just enough cool to justify its inclusion in the summertime staple of drop top convertible rides through the neighborhood. In the words of Californian urban poet Natassia “Kreayshawn” Zolot, “I’m in the coupe cruisin’…”

Swag.

Joking aside, whether it’s trunk-rattling bass from Oakland’s newest rapper or the the mellow sensations of beachfront jazz, California has an undeniable charm. This appeal comes from a long lineage of gifted artists ranging from Roy Ayers to the Pharcyde. Few, however capture this essence quite like musician Thundercat. Known for his bass work with Erykah Badu, Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner recently released a stream of his entire solo album (via Brainfeeder) compelling me send up praises to the Bay Area’s resident deity Lil’ B, The Based God.

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For The Roy Ayers Project

Gilad Hekselman - Hearts Wide Open (Album Review)

I’ve always had a certain weakness for jazz guitar. It began with an early introduction to the influential sounds of George Benson and Joe Pass. I loved the way every single note was articulated with such flawless diction. It gave credence to the idea that music is a language within itself. Each stroke was distinguishable from the next. To me, it was technical precision at its finest. But what made me appreciate it above all, were the feelings it could induce from its audience. There is certain warmth that can pour out of a guitar when playing jazz. Not to layer this in saccharine overtones, but a well-played chord progression has the ability to invoke something gleefully enchanting. This description may be a tad hyperbolic, but only slightly. Needless to say, in this instance, the elicitation of sentiment was my barometer of assessment when listening to the art of Gilad Hekselman.

Hekselman has been honing his craft, right below the surface, for quite some time, making his mark on the scene through various avenues. While his name may not elicit the same sort of jaw-dropping reaction of some of his colleagues, I, could not help but hold him to the same standard of critique upon finding his work being compared to that of the talented Pat Metheny and Kurt Rosenwinkel. With lofty expectations, I began to listen to his most recent effort, Hearts Wide Open. Instantly, there is a recognizable vibe that is both calming and lighthearted as the album is built around a collection of catchy melodies and incredible moments of improvisation.

After an upbeat, acoustic opening titled “Prologue,” the album jumps into the spirited, “Hazelnut Eyes.” Structurally, the song is molded in a succinct manner allowing for Hekselman to carry much of the heavy lifting. Because of this, we are allowed to engage directly with the master of ceremonies. He does not disappoint. His playing is incredibly sharp considering the energy he displays throughout. Immediately, the standard is set…”

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For The Revivalist

Ayah & DJ Jazzy Jeff – Back For More (Mixtape Review)

"My introduction to Ayah was fueled by a raucous orchestra of horns and heavy installation of both the boom and the bap. It was identifiably hip-hop, but with a soulful vibe. I was only two seconds into the track and it had already signified the addition of yet another gem into the stellar discography of producer DJ Jazzy Jeff. This, of course, I had expected. What I had not anticipated, however, was the level of braggadocio that was about to grace the microphone.

Braggadocio.

It’s the difference between simply being talented and knowing that you’re talented. It needn’t be a mark of arrogance, but instead a representation of self-awareness. Braggadocio is the reason that I was utterly perplexed the moment Ayah jumped onto the track. Of what I knew, she was ostensibly an R&B artist. This, of course, led me to assume that I would be privy to something mildly subdued, perhaps even passive. Instead, I heard a confidence so aggressively real that I thought, if only for a moment, that she was going to drop 16 bars of the rawest, unadulterated rhymes since the mid-90s.

And that’s the brilliance of Back For More, a recently released collaborative effort by Ayah and DJ Jazzy Jeff. Naturally, Jeff brings the legendary genius that he’s been cultivating for over 25 years. Alluded to earlier, “Notorious” is a commanding symphony of devastating instrumentation. The project, however, is no where near stagnant as it explores myriad musical angles. From the gorgeous melodies of “Hold On” to the laid-back cool jazz vibe of “Telephone,” this mixtape is a prime example of an all-encompassing project. From a production standpoint, there is little left undone. But on this particular project, Ayah is the outspoken life of the party. Sure, she can sing. But so can a million and one other vocalists. There’s something different here, however. With the self-assured comportment of a veteran spitkicker, Ayah vocally attacks the track with a rebellious demeanor befitting the heavy-hitting orchestration laid out in front of her. She has the very unique ability to manifest both the gritty appeal of hip-hop sensibilities with the sensual cool of R&B. It’s a juxtaposition that directly parallels the sonic trajectory of Jeff’s sound, making this the perfect marriage…”

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For The Roy Ayers Project