For years, obsessed fans and collectors clamored for a domestic re-issue of French-duo Air‘s five-track EP, Premiers Symptomes. In 1999 they got more than they had bargained for. While the original European release pulled together five early Air singles of dreamy consistency, the US release mindlessly tacked on two funky "bonus" tracks that many believe clashed with the original vibe. To settle the controversy, I recommend programming your disc player for only the first five tracks. That way you may better experience Nicolas Godin’s and Jean-Benoit Dunckel’s lullingly tranquil soundscapes without the jarring wake up call of newcomer closing tracks "Californie" and "Brakes On."
Like America itself, Antibalas (Spanish for “Bulletproof” or “Anti-bullets”) is a vast and multi-ethnic superpower. This fourteen-plus musical collective is a tight union of Latinos, whites, Asian-Americans, African-Americans and Africans who all call New York their home. Their music moves like a burning spear launched from the heart of Mother Africa to skewer the Big Apple with its funk. Every Friday night Antibalas brutalizes grateful New York audiences with AFRICALIA, a ferocious concert series touted as “America’s only live Afro-beat party.” In every way, the group pays homage to their source of inspiration, the Black President, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Their sound and message closely follow that of Fela, whose radical politics and electrifying Afro-beat shook world music and Nigerian politics until his death in 1997.
No two musicians defined the first half of the Jazz Century more than Duke Ellington & Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong. Duke was the dashingly elegant mad-genius of composition, a black Mozart who imbued jazz with an emotional sophistication and wit that will never be surpassed. Louis almost single-handedly popularized the art of the solo, liberating jazz from the rigid rules of ensemble playing and giving individual musicians a chance to express themselves. Unmistakable in sound, Satchmo’s presence strongly defined every session he recorded on.
Alice Coltrane was not the only harpist on the jazz scene. Though less well known, Dorothy Ashby was the instrument’s other gargantuan talent. An accomplished player, Ashby combined soulful feeling and technical sophistication to push the harp to the fore and give it a new voice.
Of the ten albums she recorded between 1956-1970, Afro-Harping is easily her most funky. Long sought after by collectors, this rare groove classic has been rescued from dustbin obscurity and reissued by Verve for a limited time only (through 2006). Complete with flutes, vibes, B-3 organs, prominent basses, bursts of percussion, and a sampler’s heaven of drum beats, this late ’60s offering is packed with a variety of gems.
Musically trained in London and schooled in the club scene of mid-’60s New York, Mulatu Astatke stands as the exceptional musical innovator of the Ethiopian groove. Starting in 1969, he created the first bands independent of the military, which had previously dominated the country’s music scene. Having immersed himself in Caribbean music, funk, jazz and Latin grooves during his lengthy stint abroad, Mulatu returned to his native land to give rise to a brand new sound.
An album of instrumentals, Ethiopiques Volume 4 is a case study in the inventive blending of influences that comprised the Ethiopian groove. Strains of funk and reggae timings permeate the thick and chunky bass lines, which are pushed prominently forward in the mix. Multiple saxophones swirl with the hypnotic, snake-charming sounds of the East, while at the same time resonating with jazzy tones reminiscent of John Coltrane and Lester Young.
If the name sounds familiar, it may be because Astatke was heavily featured on the Ethiopiques album series (Volume IV is always on heavy rotation during the summer months here at musthear.com HQ). The third record in Strut’s “Inspiration Information” studio collaboration series features a pairing between one of Africa’s great bandleaders, Mulatu Astatke, with the British-based Heliocentrics collective.
Fortunately, this is one “old meets new” project that truly captures the sound of mutual respect. One of Ethiopia’s foremost musical ambassadors, Astatke (he was the first African student at Berklee College of Music) helped create a particular Ethio-jazz sound that flourished during the “Swinging Addis” era of the late ‘60s. No slouches themselves, The Heliocentrics have become one of the UK’s most prominent collectives of musicians, inspired by everyone from Sun Ra and James Brown to David Axelrod.
It’s the rare group of musicians who can put together an album this good in a mere ten days.
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“And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love;
And these black bodies and this sunburnt face
Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove.
For when our souls have learn’d the heat to bear,
The cloud will vanish; we shall hear his voice.”
William Blake, SONGS OF INNOCENCE
Award-winning composer, arranger and producer, David Axlerod was responsible for a number of great jazz, rock, funk, and soul albums made by Cannonball Adderley, the Electric Prunes, Lou Rawls and others for Capitol Records during the ’60 and ‘70s. For his own self-produced recordings, Axlerod developed an original sound that innovatively combined large-scale orchestration with loudly microphoned and heavily effected drum grooves. After almost three decades of neglect, his early solo records were rediscovered and sampled by such electronica figures as DJ Shadow, DJ Cam and DJ Honda, putting Axlerod and his music back on the map.
By the time 1968 rolled around, Ray Barretto was a celebrated studio session player whose hard-driving conga rhythms could be heard all over the records of Dizzy Gillespie, Cal Tjader, Cannonball Adderley, and countless others. Once he dropped Acid onto the music world, Barretto firmly established a reputation for himself as an innovator in his own right.
Like the drug itself, Acid had a mind-expanding influence on everyone, allowing for a far more adventurous and eclectic edge to slip into New York’s Latin music scene. A lot less psychedelic than its title and cover might lead you to believe, Acid remains one of the most far-out fusions of Latin and soul music ever conceived.
After two stunning albums and a string of strong EPs, word of mouth ravings had elevated Belle & Sebastian to the deserved status of cult icons. Despite high expectations, fans and critics have every right to be shocked by the higher brilliance achieved by the Scottish septet on their third album, The Boy With The Arab Strap. From the ecstatic “Dirty Dream No. 2″ to the Smith’s-like elegance of “It Could Have Been A Brilliant Career,” leader Stuart Murdoch’s potent mixture of kitch, yearning, innocence, and wit has never been more fully realized. These are fascinatingly catchy songs of the gentlest texture, resonating with delicate vocals and lush melodies of incomparable depth and power. Fellow members Isobel Campbell and guitarist Stuart Jackson are thankfully given room to make their own memorable contributions on three of the albums tracks.
I first heard The Other Side Of Abbey Road at a cozy coffee shop in Hollywood, California, early in my jazz discovery days. At the time, I was just recovering from a heavy overdose on the Beatles, having listened to all their post-LSD records almost exclusively for several months. I was ready for something new, and an album of Beatles covers was not exactly what I had in mind. Nevertheless, my curiosity was aroused once George Benson’s velvety voice rang out across the cafe singing “Golden Slumbers” against Don Sebesky’s schmaltzy backdrop of strings. “Hmmm…” I thought somewhat dismissively, as the song transitioned into a borderline musak version of “You Never Give Me Your Money.” The lush baroque string arrangement on “Because” had me reaching for my magazine when Idris Muhammad and Ron Carter intervened, knocking me out of my chair with their swampy, indestructible groove on “Come Together.”