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Céran, Live, and Let Love

17 Sep, 2014 Alex Henderson

Live, and Let LoveIn the neo-soul realm, younger artists often mix influences from the present with influences from the past.  And that is exactly what Kansas City, Missouri resident Carlton Dubois McClain, a.k.a. Céran, does on his third album, Live, and Let Love.  Céran brings a variety of direct or indirect influences to this CD, ranging from John Legend, D’Angelo and Seal to Stevie Wonder and the late Donny Hathaway.  But it would be a mistake to think of Céran as an R&B purist, and the 22-year-old Midwesterner blends modern R&B with pop-rock and adult contemporary on some parts of the album (especially “Break Free,” “Void of Words” and “Feelin’ Lucky”).

All of the songs on this 32-minute CD are Céran originals except for a cover of Aretha Franklin’s 1967 hit “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” which he reworks as “I’ll Make You Feel Like (A Natural Woman).”  The Carole King/Gerry Goffin/Jerry Wexler ballad has been covered by many female singers over the years, ranging from Mary J. Blige to Peggy Lipton (who is best known for her acting but has also done some singing) to Laura Nyro to Bonnie Tyler to Celine Dion.  But it has been covered by some male artists as well, including Rod Stewart and Bobby Womack.  And Céran, like Stewart and Womack back in the 1970s, reworks the song so that it expresses a male point of view.

Céran’s decision to rework “I’ll Make You Feel Like (A Natural Woman)” for this album really underscores his appreciation of classic 1960s and 1970s R&B, which is saying a lot when one considers that the heyday of Stevie Wonder and Motown Records was well before his time. Céran was born in 1992, which means that he isn’t old enough to remember the 1960s and 1970s or even the 1980s (he was born ten years after the release of Michael Jackson’s Thriller and eight years after the release of Prince’s Purple Rain).  But the classic soul of the 1960s and 1970s continues to influence young neo-soul artists, and the fact that Wonder is such a strong influence on a 2014 recording like Live, and Let Love really underscores his longevity.  Wonder reached his commercial peak in the 1970s, yet when Céran is performing “Void of Words,” “Break Free,” “Feelin’ Lucky” or his Aretha Franklin cover, it is evident that Wonder (who is now 64) continues to be influential after all these years.  Wonder has influenced not only Céran’s vocal phrasing, but also, his songwriting.

Many R&B lyrics of the 21st Century have favored a very raw, in-your-face sexuality.  But Céran’s songs, on the other hand, tend to be romantic in an earnest way.  And that holds true whether he is performing at a fast tempo on “Love Is Found,” a comfortable medium tempo on “It’s You” and “Void of Words” or is offering ballads that include “Risk It All,” the title track and “Noble Fool” (a male/female vocal duet with singer Samara).  Céran isn’t just saying, “Baby, I want to sex you up”: his perspective is decidedly romantic.

Easily the most danceable song on the album, “Love Is Found” operates on the soul-minded side of dance music. There are many different types of dance music, and “Love Is Found” will appeal to those who enjoy the deep house of the 1980s and 1990s (such as Jomanda, Adeva, Ten City or Chanelle) or the disco-soul of the late 1970s (as in Moment of Truth, Loleatta Holloway or Sylvester).  “Love Is Found” is the type of dance music that has more in mind than simply providing a beat: it tells a story and emphasizes vocal personality.

The more things change in music, the more they inevitably stay the same.  The fact that artists in their twenties are, in 2014, getting inspiration from Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway bears that out.  And Céran’s willingness to draw on both the past and present makes for likable listening on Live, and Let Love.

Review by Alex Henderson

3 stars (out of 5)

Tim Gemmill, Road Songs

25 Aug, 2014 Alex Henderson

roadsongs_300x300 (3)

 

Fusion is famous for its guitarists.  After all, fusion is a mixture of jazz, rock and funk. And in fusion, guitar heroes like John McLaughlin, Al DiMeola, Larry Coryell, Scott Henderson, John Scofield and Mike Stern have enjoyed the type of respect that Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck have enjoyed in vocal-oriented rock.  But fusion has a rich tradition of keyboardists as well. Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, George Duke and Herbie Hancock were among the many improvisers who started out playing straight-ahead hard bop or post-bop on the acoustic piano before making their way to electric keyboards and incorporating rock and funk elements.  And it is that tradition of fusion keyboardists that inspires the Washington State-based keyboardist/composer Tim Gemmill on his album Road Songs.

Gemmill doesn’t have a lot of assistance on this album.   He wrote most of the material by himself, although he produced the album with his colleague Cozzetti.  And Cozzetti co-wrote the Return to Forever-ish track “Red Valley” (which contains some wordless vocals that recall singer Gayle Moran’s work with Return to Forever and the Mahavishnu Orchestra in the 1970s).  But it is Gemmill’s personality that does the most to shape the album musically.  And while Road Songs sounds more produced and more programmed than a lot of fusion recordings, Gemmill’s appreciation of artists like Corea, Hancock, Duke and Zawinul comes through.

There is a Weather Report-ish mood on the funky “Proteus” and “Empire in Quest” as well as on “No Na Me,” “Fugue” and “Pine Siskin.”     Weather Report, for the uninitiated, was a great fusion band that Zawinul co-founded with tenor/soprano saxophonist Wayne Shorter in 1970.  Zawinul and Shorter both started out in acoustic straight-ahead jazz: Zawinul was part of alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley’s group in the 1960s, and Shorter kept busy in trumpeter Miles Davis’ mid-1960s quartet as well as with the acoustic post-bop albums he recorded for Blue Records as a leader.  But when Zawinul and Shorter co-founded Weather Report, they wanted to go in a more amplified direction.  Weather Report favored a mixture of jazz, rock and funk, but they also incorporated a variety of world music.  And on parts of Road Songs, one hears Gemmill incorporating world music in a way that recalls Zawinul and Shorter’s collaborations.  “Zigzag,” for example, recalls the way Weather Report would sometimes incorporate African music: it reminds the listener of music from Mali, Ethiopia and the Sudan, but not at the expense of jazz, funk and rock appeal.  “No Na Me” also has that type of African influence.

“Fugue,” meanwhile, is a contemplative piece that hints at European church music.  Between the African influence on “Zigzag” and “No Na Me” and the European influence on “Fugue” and a performance of J.S. Bach’s “Invention No. 13 in A Minor,” Road Songs draws inspiration from different parts of the world.  And that may explain why it is called Road Songs: if someone hits the road, does a lot of international traveling and checks out the music scenes in different countries, he/she is likely to be exposed to a variety of musical styles.

“Invention No. 13 in A Minor” is the only song on this album that Gemmill didn’t either write or co-write.  He wrote “Drone,” “Proteus,” “Zigzag,” “Blues for Ralph,” “Pine Siskin,” “Empire in Quest,” “Fugue” and “No Na Me” but co-wrote “Red Valley” with Cozzetti.

“Blues for Ralph” is funky in a way that recalls the late George Duke’s instrumental fusion output of the early to mid-1970s.  Duke wore many different hats during his long career: he was an acoustic post-bop pianist, an electric fusion keyboardist, a funk/soul singer (“Reach for It” from 1977 was a funk classic and a big hit), and an R&B producer.  Pigeonholing Duke was next to impossible, and on “Blues for Ralph,” it isn’t the vocal-oriented funk of “Reach For It” or “Dukey Stick” (a 1978 single) that Gemmill brings to mind, but rather, the fusion-oriented, instrumental Duke of 1972, 1973 and 1974.  There are no vocals on “Blues for Ralph,” and it is Gemmill’s keyboards that make the tune funky.

Actually, there are very few vocals on Road Songs.  And even when one does hear the occasional singing on this album, it is wordless scat singing.  “Red Valley” and “Drone” are both examples of Gemmill incorporating wordless vocals, but the vast majority of the time, he keeps things instrumental.

Road Songs would have been stronger if it didn’t sound quite so overproduced.  Even so, this is a decent example of what Gemmill has to offer as a keyboardist and composer.

Review by Alex Henderson

3 stars out of 5

Wabi Sabi, Alive and Orjazmic Up in the Tin Roof

21 Aug, 2014 Alex Henderson

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2014 marks the 15th anniversary of Wabi Sabi, an Atlanta, Georgia-based band that has been combining rock, funk and soul in that city since 1999.  Originally known as Damian Cartier & His My Newt Orchestra, they changed their name to Wabi Sabi along the way and went from being a trio to being a seven-member outfit.  Wabi Sabi (who are headed by Cartier) don’t perform live as often as they used to; day jobs and family responsibilities have forced them to slow down and devote more time to other things.  But they still perform on occasion, and this two-CD set offers some highlights of an October 11, 2013 appearance at the Tin Roof Cantina in Atlanta.

Wabi Sabi have a likable retro vibe, getting a great deal of inspiration from the classic rock, soul and funk of the 1970s.  And they have plenty of horns in their seven-person lineup, which consists of Damian Cartier (who wrote all the songs on this double-disc) on vocals and electric keyboards, Andy Birdsall on vocals and electric guitar, Kris Dale on vocals and electric bass, Wes Funderburk on trombone, Vinnie D’Agostino on saxophone, Lester Walker on trumpet and Jason La Marca on drums.  Funk underwent a big transformation in the 1980s, when synthesizers, sequencers and drum machines invaded R&B in a major way, hip-hop became more and more influential and funksters got away from the big horn sections of the 1970s.  But Wabi Sabi obviously have a fondness for the days when horns were so plentiful in soul and funk, and those horns are an important part of their sound on 1970s-minded grooves such as “Bait the Hook,” “Fuzzy Plastic Peach,” “You Ain’t Even On My Mind” and the goofy “Spida.”  Clearly, Wabi Sabi knows how important horns were to artists like the Ohio Players, Tower of Power, Rose Royce, Parliament/Funkadelic, the Bar-Kays and Earth, Wind & Fire back in the day.

Although their music is mainly a combination of rock, soul and funk, Wabi Sabi have plenty of other influences as well.  And those influences include jazz on “The Fall,” “Beliefs” and “What’s Going On” (not to be confused with the Marvin Gaye classic of the early 1970s) and Afro-Cuban salsa on “Rolling Along.”  Wabi Sabi don’t do any singing in Spanish (salsa’s dominant language) on “Rolling Along,” which is performed entirely in English like everything else on Alive and Orjazmic Up in the Tin Roof.  But melodically and rhythmically, the salsa influence on “Rolling Along” is impossible to miss.  And that use of salsa doesn’t detract from either the rock factor or the soul/funk factor on “Rolling Along.”

Meanwhile, “Lady Lush” (which describes a woman who drinks too much for her own good) contains a definite reggae influence.  But on “The Skar,” Wabi Sabi draw on another type of music that came out of Jamaica: ska.   And if one listens to “The Skar” right after listening to “Lady Lush,” he/she can hear the difference between ska (which came before reggae and started in the late 1950s) and reggae (which started during the 1960s).  Ska and reggae have two different beats: the ska beat is faster, and on “The Skar,” Wabi Sabi have the sort of hectic ska-rock energy that has been used by everyone from No Doubt to the Mighty, Mighty Boss Tones to the Specials.

In a perfect world, Wabi Sabi would still be performing as often as they used to.  But keeping a band together is a challenge, especially when musicians have family and day gig responsibilities to contend with.  At least they still perform the occasional gig in the Atlanta area.  And Alive and Orjazmic Up in the Tin Roof is a fun document of their October 2013 appearance at the Tin Roof Café.

 

Review by Alex Henderson
4 stars out of 5

 

Ron Jackson, Akustik InventYours

19 Aug, 2014 Alex Henderson

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The electric guitar has a long history in jazz, going back to the late 1930s with Charlie

Christian (who wrote the book on the electric guitar as a jazz instrument and influenced

Barney Kessel, Johnny Smith, Wes Montgomery, Tiny Grimes, Jimmy Raney, George

Benson, Jim Hall, Grant Green and countless others). But it’s important to remember

that the jazz guitarists who preceded Christian played the acoustic guitar, including

Philadelphia native Eddie Lang in the 1920s. The seminal Django Reinhardt, king of

gypsy swing, also played the acoustic guitar. So given the importance of the acoustic

guitar as a jazz instrument, it is highly appropriate when jazzmen who have made their

mark on the electric guitar decide to record an acoustic album. And veteran guitarist Ron

Jackson does exactly that on the engaging Akustik InventYours.

The New York City-based Jackson is unaccompanied on this instrumental album, and

a pensive, introspective tone prevails on many of the selections. That is true of “Too

Late,” “Park Slope” (which was written for an upscale neighborhood in Brooklyn) and

“Your Eyes” as well as “In My Dreams,” “Old Dusty Road,” “Ernestina” and a tender

performance of the traditional ballad “Londonderry Air,” a.k.a. “Danny Boy.” But

Akustik InventYours has its up-tempo moments as well. Jackson’s outlook is lively and

festive on “Going Bush” and the Caribbean-flavored “Calypso Party.”

Akustik InventYours is essentially a post-bop album. But Jackson incorporates a variety

of influences, including calypso on “Calypso Party,” reggae on “Going Bush,” the blues

on “Bucket Blues” (which opens the CD), and Irish/Celtic music on “Londonderry Air.”

There is a lot of history attached to “Londonderry Air,” which is the only song on this

album that Jackson did not compose himself. Published in Northern Ireland in the 1850s,

“Londonderry Air” was heard as strictly an instrumental for many years. But it became

“Danny Boy” in the early 1910s when the lyrics of Frederick Edward Weatherly (who

was British) were added. The lyrics proved to be wildly popular, making “Danny Boy”

a favorite among Celtic vocalists. However, “Londonderry Air” is also played as an

instrumental by some Celtic bands in Ireland and Scotland, and Jackson demonstrates

that the time-honored melody can work really well in an instrumental jazz setting.

Meanwhile, the good-natured “Jamaican Sunset” does not employ a reggae beat, but it

does have a strong Caribbean influence and evokes warm thoughts of that part of the

world. Between “Calypso Party,” “Going Bush” and “Jamaican Sunset,” it is evident that

Jackson thinks highly of the music of the Caribbean.

“Old Dusty Road,” meanwhile, has a country influence and was written in memory of

guitarist Chet Atkins, who was a crucial figure in country music and worked with a long

list of country stars that includes, among others, Porter Wagoner, Dolly Parton, Hank

Snow, Jim Reeves, Don Gibson (of “Sea of Heartbreak” fame) and Waylon Jennings.

Atkins (who died in 2001 at the age of 77) was important to early rock & roll as well,

playing his guitar with the likes of Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers. But while

Atkins is closely identified with country music, early rock & roll and rockabilly, he had

a connection to jazz: one of his influences was Django Reinhardt, who wrote the book on

gypsy swing guitar (Atkins was influenced by Merle Travis and Les Paul as well). And

on “Old Dusty Road,” Jackson makes jazz and country elements sound like a perfectly

natural combination. Jazz improvisation and a country twang work well for Jackson’s

acoustic guitar on “Old Dusty Road.”

The fact that Jackson’s tastes are so far-reaching is a major plus on this 2014 release.

Jackson clearly appreciates many different types of guitar playing, both inside and

outside of jazz. And his sense of adventure and eclectic tastes yield excellent results on

Akustik InventYours. This CD is a keeper.

 

Review by Alex Henderson
4 stars out of 5

Rory McMillan, Sutherland Ave. Hymns

05 Aug, 2014 Alex Henderson

rorymcmillan

 

Instrumentalist Rory McMillan is an American musician who grew up in the Deep South but gets a great deal of musical inspiration from Europe.  The composer/producer is a native of Knoxville, Tennessee, and he recorded Sutherland Ave. Hymns in his home studio on Sutherland Avenue.  But with the influences that he brings to this album, McMillan sounds like he could be from Munich, Vienna or Nice.

McMillan specializes in electronica, getting a lot of direct or indirect inspiration from ambient music and new age as well as from some of the groundbreaking European synthesizer music of the 1970s (including Kraftwerk, Giorgio Moroder and the post-Roxy Music output of Brian Eno).  Many people think of electronica as music that is 100 percent electronic from start to finish and does not use real instruments at all, and plenty of electronica does, in fact, fit that description.  But electronica can also incorporate some real instruments, which is what McMillan does on Sutherland Ave. Hymns.  This 2014 release is heavily electronic, but it isn’t totally electronic.   And McMillan incorporates some acoustic guitar, ukulele and electric bass.  The synthesizers, however, sound dominant on most of the selections.  That is true of “Spinning Blue Marble,” “The Existing State of Affairs,” “Kind Words from a Friend,” “Angels Again” and “Reconciliation,” all of which favor a dreamy, ethereal type of sound.  If McMillan’s goal is to make the listener feel like he/she is floating on a cloud, those instrumentals accomplish that.  And they have melodies that would not be out of place in an artsy European movie.  It isn’t hard to imagine a film director from Germany, France, Spain, Italy or the Netherlands using “The Existing State of Affairs,” “Spinning Blue Marble” or “Kind Words from a Friend” in one of his/her productions.  That’s how European-sounding McMillan’s work tends to be.

The placid “Sunday Afternoon” differs from “Kind Words from a Friend” or “The Existing State of Affairs” in that it isn’t dominated by synthesizers.  McMillan’s ukulele is right up front on “Sunday Afternoon”: his ukulele is so prominent on “Sunday Afternoon” that the track really falls outside of electronica, unlike most of this album.  Melodically, however, “Sunday Afternoon” fits right in with the congenial, good-natured, easygoing vibe that McMillan is going for on Sutherland Ave. Hymns (which is his first full-length album, although he recorded an EP titled Waves of Sound in 2013).

“Coffee’s Brewing” and “Ghost-Riding the Whip,” meanwhile, are somewhat funky and don’t have the dreamy, ethereal sound that many of the other tracks favor.  And the opener “Mexican Soda” hints at 1980s synth-pop even though it is an instrumental.  If one added lyrics and vocals to “Mexican Soda,” it would not be unlike something that Berlin (an American group with a very Europe-influenced sound), the Human League, Soft Cell or Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark (OMD) would have recorded 30 years ago.

So, given all the European influences in McMillan’s music, would he do well to move to Europe?  Should he be looking into the immigration laws in Italy, Germany or Belgium?  No, not necessarily.  Technology has come a long way in the digital age, and the Internet makes it quite easy for a musician based in the United States to interact with people in many different parts of the world.  McMillan doesn’t need a Berlin or Prague address to have contacts in those places.  But certainly, it couldn’t hurt for him to look into musical opportunities overseas.  Those who appreciate melodic European synthesizer music should have no problem getting into tunes like “Kind Words from a Friend,” “Spinning Blue Marble” and “Angels Again,” and filmmakers in Europe would do well to check this album out.

Sutherland Ave. Hymns is a noteworthy example of what this Tennessee native has to offer as a producer, composer and musician.

Check out http://www.thesweetsoundsofrory.com for more information.

Review by Alex Henderson
3.5 stars out of 5