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

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

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

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

Saturn Never Sleeps - Yesterday’s Machine (Album Review)

"As cliché as it may sound, first impressions truly matter. This fact is even more so amplified for those who attempt to navigate their entry into the world of art. And while DJ/producer King Britt and vocalist Rucyl have established themselves on the music scene individually, their collaborative effort is relatively new to most.  In coming together, they have formed another identity, Saturn Never Sleeps. What is heard on their debut release, Yesterday’s Machine, can be abstractly identified as a cosmic journey through sound.

If you have been following the trajectory of musical tropes, you know that currently many of today’s artists are experimenting with an electric sound built around a mixture of synthesizers and bass-heavy rhythms.  In many ways, however, this is a throwback to the experimentations of jazz artists in the late 1970s/early 1980s, ranging from Miles Davis to Herbie Hancock. Despite this dated source material and recent refurbishing, Saturn Never Sleeps manages to maintain a genuine sense of originality. The music is identifiably electronic, but with an injection of soul. It’s a new take on a relatively old concept.

The album takes flight with “Lotus,” a spaced-out blend conjuring whimsical feelings of want, thanks to its abstract lyricism and pulsating rhythms. As the project moves forward, the group introduces “Hearts On Fire” a beautifully haunting tribute to the search for love. Describing your sound with references to Sade may leave a potential fan leery, but, in this case, the comparison is quite valid. With a succinct delivery (clocking in at only 2:43), the song carries the same sort of shadowy elegance conveyed in “No Ordinary Love.” It is certainly a selection for the midnight hours…”

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For The Revivalist

Gerald Clayton - Bond: The Paris Sessions (Album Review)

"There are many sides to the twenty-seven year old pianist Gerald Clayton. It was roughly seven years ago, when we first met under the most inconspicuous of circumstances. The venue was a modestly-sized living space on a college campus in Philadelphia. I, as eager spectator, and he, as accompanying performer, took our respective places for this comfortable listening session. As he contributed to one of R&B’s most overlooked artists, I failed to recognize his complimentary genius. The introduction of myself and Gerald Clayton took place on the opening track of Teedra Moses’ Complex Simplicity. But that introduction would not be are last soiree. Most recently, I had the opportunity to share another moment with the artist whose lineage stretches back beyond his own years. Stepping away from his earlier persona as an R&B melody maker, Clayton took his seat upon the pianist’s bench to lend his talents to one of my favorite releases of the year, Ambrose Akinmusire’sWhen The Heart Reemerges Glistening. Today, I sit again with my old friend as he embarks on another avenue of musical expression.

Bond: The Paris Sessions can be aptly described as a mixture of everything necessary to create the perfect jazz album. In one instance, Clayton is reawakening the collective memory banks of his audience using timeless standards from the canon of jazz with results so rich in vitality that they would seem as if imagined only yesterday. And in the very next moment, he chooses to present his own compositions, whose sophistication far outreaches his own short-lived existence in the world of music. But where Clayton truly excels is in his impeccable virtuosity. In many ways, technical brilliance is an intangible concept. Attempting to concretize something as abstract as art is considerably an exercise in futility. So when truly attempting to understand the giftedness of Clayton and most importantly his music, we can only go on how it makes us feel. And if nothing else, this project is full of emotion.

The album begins with the Frank Loesser classic, “If I Were A Bell.” From Miles Davis to Amel Larrieux, this song has been recorded by countless individuals and yet, Clayton’s interpretation leaves an indelible mark amongst the rest. Fitted in absolute reticence, the song begins as a solitary display of Clayton, whose bell-like posturing is befitting of the song’s namesake. Within this simplicity, a subdued temperament takes shape thematically. As the song moves forward, however, a semblance of the song’s traditionally light tone begins to be explored. But even in doing so, the ensemble maintains that same initial reservation, providing the song with a newfound anxiousness. There is no denying Clayton’s reverence of traditional jazz archetypes. And yet, this cover exemplifies the very real understanding that he refuses to be a slave to them…”

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For The Revivalist

Mulatu Astatke New York – Addis – London: The Story of Ethio Jazz 1965-1975 (Album Review)

"Music is the native tongue of humanity. It is a language that we all speak. As a vernacular of sorts, music is one of the most enticing, yet overlooked vehicles for the art of storytelling. Through methods of form and function, this particular medium can tacitly chronicle a tale with the profundity of a thousand writers. New York-Addis-London does just that. A history lesson set to jazzy melodies and African rhythms, this compilation traces the contours of a musical movement that can never be replaced. Through the lens of Mulatu Astatke, the audience is given an introduction to the distinct sounds which encapsulated a force so monumental that it could only be stopped by political upheaval. Despite having an initial run of ten years, Ethio-jazz left its mark on not only the rich African musical tradition, but that of the entire world. This is the story of how it all began.

The story begins like any other. Through the melodious orchestra of horns and steady pacing, “Yèkèrmo Sèw,” introduces the opening scenes of this narrative with a comfortable still. Naturally, the audience is gradually familiarized with the setting. This, however, is nothing more than a façade. Underneath this graceful composure lies the ominous wailing of a guitar. It is not overwhelming, but most certainly lets its presence be known. This is the calm before the storm.

As the action progresses, we watch American influence of funk sensibilities make its way to Ethiopia on “Mulatu.” Using a mixture of combating horn instruments and a dash of the vibraphone, this song sits comfortably amongst the American musical aesthetics of the 60s and 70s. On this track, Astatke manages to borrow the technical features of funk and reclaim it for an Ethiopian audience. The story moves forward…” 

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For The Revivalist