Untitled Compositions

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

Stevie Wonder: Artistic Autonomy

As I attempt to encapsulate the breadth of all things Stevie Wonder, I recognize that I am fighting a losing battle. My mother introduced me to “Fingertips.” My father sang “Too High.” And somewhere in between all of this, I fell in love with the Jungle Fever soundtrack. Each of these could be attributed to another artist, and yet they serve to justify the complexity of one of music’s greatest gifts. An exhaustive exploration of Stevie is nearly impossible. So while the beginning may seem like the logical point of entry for this narrative, I am more inclined to take a look somewhere in the middle. It is here that we see the music serving as a greater function for the man, himself.

At 18, Stevie Wonder was still deeply invested in the hit machine known as Motown. It was, however, just that—a machine. There was an understanding that the process of music making was a mechanical endeavor—ostensibly manufactured. Under this theory of production, artists vanquished much, if not all of their creative freedoms for the sake of well-tested, radio friendly records. For Stevie, this changed in 1970 when he, at the markedly young age of 20, leveraged his own potential, gaining the first Motown contract proving complete artistic autonomy. The result of this, the world first saw in 1972 with the release of Music of My Mind. For longtime fans, the album was an obvious departure from the precocious revelries of “Little” Stevie Wonder. Thematically, Stevie had created something with a genuine flow. This was not a collection of singles, but instead a purposefully crafted collage of sound. Despite the radical shift in conception, this album’s greatest achievement is musical. It was here that Stevie began his affair with the synthesizer. This relationship provided a sound that was nothing short of revolutionary. Showcasing this progression perfectly is “Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You).” A personal favorite, this two-part composition finds Stevie taking a carefree, upbeat approach and transitioning it into the ethereal, synth-driven pleas of a broken man. This wasn’t the Motown sound, but it was arguably Stevie’s best work in years. This was the rebirth of an already stellar career…”

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For The Revivalist

Michael Jackson - King of Jazz

There is an alternate universe in which Michael Jackson is the King of Jazz. This is something of which I am quite sure. In this world, Marvin Gaye went on to produce several groundbreaking jazz albums after his critically acclaimed 1965 release A Tribute to the Great Nat King Cole. In this world, Jill Scott is widely known as our generation’s Etta James heralded for her interpretation of “All I Could Do Was Cry.” And in this world, Robert Glasper has already won his 3rd Grammy for Album of the Year. And, as I said before, in this world, Michael is king.

While I jest, the greater joke is that this commentary is rooted in a substantial reality; because Michael Jackson could have been the King of Jazz. It’s a funny afterthought to a career that was largely defined by sequin-covered military jackets and mind-blowing theatrics. His legacy would seem to be that of a man completely contradicting any moniker relating to jazz, but this, like so many other things, is only perception. Finding the reality of it all requires one to step beyond the manufactured smoke and blinding glare of stage lights. The truth is much more interesting.

What many forget is that Michael and the world of jazz did meet, if for only one night. They were introduced by Stevie Wonder and their brief encounter was recorded in song…”

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For The Roy Ayers Project

(Re)defining Amy Winehouse

"Perception often supersedes reality. It has been almost two weeks since the passing of Amy Winehouse and history is already well-prepared to view her through the lens of a paparazzi’s intrusive flash photography. We will never be able to fully understand the struggles of the twenty-seven year old singer/songwriter, but to say that they defined who she was is a fallacy of monumental proportions. The reality of it all is that, despite her issues, Winehouse was one of the most talented artists of our generation. As we attempt to discuss the legacy of Amy Winehouse, it is imperative that we, first and foremost, focus on the music, because in that regard, she simply has no equal.

Defining her style may be an exercise in futility. Winehouse was able to comfortably move along various genres to create this amalgamation of sound, not yet fully understood. She was a throwback to a different era whilst maintaining something dynamically fresh. Winehouse created a style so unique that it often stood outside of itself, sans characterization. While she may have seen her career blow up off the charming, yet problematic hit record, “Rehab,” Winehouse had proven her genius much earlier with debut album, Frank in 2003. It was on Frank that Winehouse presented a proclivity for daringly dramatic and witty lyricism, which was only enhanced by her intriguing vocal capabilities. Despite the controversial public image of Winehouse, Frank, presented, perhaps, the greatest window into her soul…” 

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For The Roy Ayers Project

Abdullah Ibrahim: South Africa’s Native Son

"In modern society, cultural diffusion is at the crux of personal development. As the world grows smaller, its people and their concepts become that much more intertwined. The growth of artist Abdullah Ibrahim speaks volumes to this anthropological phenomenon. What I believe to be considerably different about Ibrahim, however, is that he, unlike many, has managed to maintain a certain sense of self, whilst being introduced to an onslaught of external forces. His sound, influenced by many of the American greats, has always preserved a semblance of his roots – Cape Town, South Africa.

In the beginning, he was Adolph “Dollar” Band, the young jazz enthusiast who earned his nickname by procuring records from visiting American sailors. Even in his formative years, he had a connection to the distance land of North America. Helming the piano on the influential South African ensemble, the Jazz Epistles, the bebop motif explored by the group evoked an undeniable Western influenced sound. Drawing from the stylistic tendencies of a Thelonious Monk, Brand crafted a melodic delivery tied together with technical brilliance. Upon leaving South Africa, with his wife, famed vocalist Sathima Bea Benjamin, Brand was introduced to the great Duke Ellington. Admiring his abilities, Ellington offered Brand the opportunity to record with him resulting in a 1963 release on the American music label, Reprise Records. While his sound during this era reflected the American jazz artistry of the time, Brand never shied away from his origins. With titles such as Anatomy of a South African Village and African Piano, it was very much understood that Brand was indeed proud of his heritage.

A change was on the horizon, however, that would drastically redirect the trajectory of his entire life. In the mid-1970s, Brand like many other artists of the time converted to Islam. From thereon, Brand was officially known as Abdullah Ibrahim, actualizing a momentous juncture in his evolution. Following this path, his sound and its subsequent politics began to develop, as well. Where I’ve found Ibrahim to be most effective, are in those moments during which he sits alone, a concept defining much of this era in his career. Both pensive and demonstrative, his work seems to find its greatest clarity, when it is just him and his piano. As Abdullah Ibrahim, he has an extensive repertoire of sounds that seem to be American in style, and yet through the subject matter laid out, presents a subtle homage to his native land. With a languorous drawl, he manages to carefully reflect on the temperamental nature of South African politics. Often void of lyrical content, Ibrahim was able to encapsulate the contrasting aesthetic grandeur of Cape Town to the sordid reality of apartheid…”

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For The Revivalist

Thoughts on Billy Strayhorn

"Duke Ellington is the soundtrack to Harlem. He is the percussion section—the timbre of a thousand feet walking across 125th street. He is the blaring horn section—reverberating in late afternoon traffic. He is the metronome—the pulse of a neighborhood. Duke Ellington is Harlem’s sound.

His is a legacy that defines an entire community. It is loud, boisterous and full of flair. But what many may not know is that the “A Train” actually began some time ago in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

When people think of the rich artistic tradition of Pittsburgh many individuals may come to mind. Often, it is pianist Ahmad Jamal, whose simplistic, yet effective piano strokes found a home in hip-hop sampling. Perhaps they think of the iconic playwright August Wilson, whose works transcended racial barriers to receive worldwide acclaim. Presently, many, if not most recognize the city through the thematic chanting of “Black and Yellow” brought to us by the city’s up-and-coming rap presence, Wiz Khalifa. But when I reminisce over a city I call my own, I remember Billy Strayhorn…”

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Courtesy of The Revivalist.