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.
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.
James Brown invented Funk with a capital F, and remains the unchallenged Godfather, the Funky President, Soul Brother #1. The world moves to the beat of a different drummer since he has busted his infamous moves across the planet’s surface. The JB cannon represents a vast catalogue of recordings—the mother lode of beats— a righteously funky legacy of grooves for us to soak in, sample, and quote.
James Brown’s Funky People compiles some of the best side-project recordings he made with his band, the JBs, during their early ’70s reign. It was a time when the funk was still young, before disco beats and over zealous producers conspired to gum up the Sex Machine with too much cheese and not enough soul. All tracks were originally recorded on James Brown‘s own People Records label in the early ’70s. Technically speaking, this is not an actual James Brown album, in so far as he is not the featured vocalist on any of the tracks.
Without Bobby Byrd, the world might never have known James Brown. It was Byrd and Byrd alone who persuaded his family to sponsor Brown’s parole from the Georgia penal system in 1952, rescuing the troubled but talented singer from a life of bad breaks by launching his music career. Sensing a huge talent, Byrd brought Brown into his well-established vocal group, the Flames. Under Byrd’s brotherly guidance, Brown got his act together and turned it loose, taking over the Flames (which he would later rename James Brown And The Famous Flames) and eventually conquering the world.
“There is joy laced with confidence in this music, and sadness, or pathos, that is as much connected to the Blues as it is to the huge yearning of that sound in Eastern music… Throughout the record, one can hear the melding of Third World music and mysticism with Western instruments.”
– From Stanley Crouch’s original liner notes to Brown Rice
For Don Cherry, life and music were one and the same, and he consistently approached both with a daring sense of adventure. In his world-view, the art of living life and expressing life through music depended upon people “listening and traveling.” A global explorer, Cherry learned to play and compose for wood flutes, tamboura, gamelan, and other non-Western instruments.
Most people think that when the Jazz Crusaders dropped the “Jazz” from their name, they also dropped the jazz from their playing. When the band first decided to call themselves the Crusaders, it was only to expand their musical horizons beyond what was narrowly defined as “jazz” at the time.
True, the band quickly came to symbolize the commercial dumbing-down of once vibrant and creative jazz musicians in the lean years of the 1970s. And true, the band eventually turned their backs on quality, ignoring their jazz legacy in favor of a slick pop repertoire that quickly degenerated into over-produced elevator music with a beat. But what most people fail to realize is that the Crusaders did not just suddenly decide to purge themselves of all their musical talents and integrity in exchange for fat pay checks. In reality, the Crusaders had a short-lived period of transition in the early ‘70s that was damn good. Crusaders I is not only their most successful post-Jazz Crusaders album, it stands as one of the highpoints of their entire productive career (that is, before they started cranking out worthless fluff).