By Frank Alkyer
Black Acid Soul is the sensational new recording by Marley Munroe, a.k.a. Lady Blackbird. This is heady, haunting, sexy, soulful, heartbreaking stuff. With a voice that harkens a cross between Mahalia Jackson and Nina Simone, Lady Blackbird tears your heart apart and puts it back together again on this 11-song set. The ease, growl, coo and convincing nature of her voice come naturally as she has been singing in front of audiences since childhood, and was signed to a Christian music label as a teenager. She has long since left that side of her career behind, but the soul of that music is always close by. When she pleads, “Come back, come back, come back/ I’ve had enough,” on Allen Toussaint’s “Ruler Of My Heart,” there’s a piercing search for love that can only be delivered by a very few. The great Irma Thomas made the song a classic back in 1963. Lady Blackbird matches the authenticity and originality in this remake. Her voice is an old friend confessing her secrets, drawing you into her world. Take, for example, the new but timeless nature of “Nobody’s Sweetheart,” written by artist-producer-songwriter Chris Seefried, who worked with Andra Day on her debut recording. It’s a beautifully touching ballad that could fit easily into the catalog of an icon like Burt Bacharach, packed with forlorn lyricism, punctuated by a sweet trumpet solo from Trombone Shorty. Lady Blackbird is best when dishing out torch songs like “It’s Not That Easy,” “Five Feet Tall” and “It Will Never Happen Again,” or instant jazz noir classics like the album’s opener, “Blackbird.” This is an album of smart wordplay, amazing song choices and elegantly understated musicality. Floating above it all is the voice and artistry of this new and incredibly exciting artist. We’ll be talking about this debut for many years to come.
By Daniel Margolis
Chicago-based Numero Group has long excelled at unearthing music that never should have disappeared from public consciousness, and the label has outdone itself with I Shall Wear A Crown, an archival box set summarizing the 50-year career of Pastor T.L. Barrett.
Based on the South Side of Chicago, Barrett is backed primarily by his 45-piece Youth For Christ Choir, and still leads his same congregation at the Life Center COGIC (Church of God in Christ), known colloquially as Chicago’s Prayer Palace.
So, one might assume this is standard gospel music. Wrong. The music resurrected here feels more like listening to classic, empowered ’70s soul than what you’d expect to hear in church. This stems from Barrett’s obvious innovation, first of all, but also his ability to attract the participation of Donny Hathaway and Earth, Wind & Fire’s Maurice White and many of Chicago’s top session musicians.
Perhaps that’s why Barrett is, strangely, everywhere these days. He’s been sampled by Kanye West, T.I., DJ Khaled and more. People as far afield from each other as Radiohead’s Colin Greenwood and Golden State Warriors point guard Steph Curry sing his praises.
For the uninitiated, I Shall Wear A Crown does it all. It gathers up four of Barrett’s ’70s LPs — Like A Ship…(Without A Sail), Do Not Pass Me By Volume 1 and Volume 2, and I Found The Answer — records that it’d take a lot of crate-digging and Discogs-surfing to find. The box then stretches even further, offering a bonus album of singles and sermons. Across 49 tracks, Barrett blends social and racial commentary with biblical parables, using synthesizers, citing then-current r&b and interpolating songs by Aretha Franklin, The Beatles, Carole King and more.
Speaking to DownBeat, Barrett explained his unique perspective. “Both my theology and my musicology are different,” he said. “I was considered a renegade in the pulpit because I just didn’t teach the quote-unquote old-time religion gospel. My God is not up in the sky. My God is in my eye. Wherever you see life, particularly expressed in another human being, which is the highest form, that’s where God is and that’s where you should honor God.”
By Ed Enright
Without You, No Me is a Philly-centric big band feast of the ears celebrating the life and legacy of local jazz hero Jimmy Heath, who passed last year at age 93. It’s also trumpeter and Temple University Jazz Band director Terell Stafford’s personal expression of gratitude and debt toward the beloved tenor saxophonist, bandleader and composer, one of three iconic musical brothers from the City of Brotherly Love who made substantial contributions to the straightahead jazz canon. Stafford regarded Jimmy as a friend, colleague and mentor ever since touring with him in the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni All-Star Big Band some 30 years ago.
Without You, No Me is the second new album released in the wake of the COVID pandemic by the Temple University Jazz Band under Stafford’s direction. While the first, Covid Sessions: A Social Call, was recorded long-distance — in students’ homes across the country, via portable sound rigs devised by recording engineer John Harris and Temple Music Technology Professor Dr. David Pasbrig — Without You, No Me was captured at much closer range. The musicians were able to convene in person in the spacious Temple Performing Arts Center in April 2021, with filters and covers over the bells of their horns. Harris and Pasbrig’s rigs were used to record remote contributions by two favorite sons of Philadelphia jazz, bassist Christian McBride and organist Joey DeFrancesco, who appear as special guests.
The album’s title track, originally penned by Heath for his mentor Dizzy Gillespie, comes full circle here, acknowledging the influence that Heath has had on Stafford, his students and future generations of jazz musicians. Todd Bashore, a former student of Heath’s at Queens College, composed album opener “Passing Of The Torch” in honor of his mentor. Heath’s compositional gifts are further represented by “The Voice Of The Saxophone,” rendered in lush and vibrant hues by this stellar student ensemble. Saxophonist and bandleader Jack Saint Clair, a Temple alumnus, composed the rollicking “Bootsie” in honor of another linchpin of the Philadelphia scene, tenor saxophonist Bootsie Barnes, who died in April at age 82. Saint Clair also contributes a brassy rendition of the standard “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” and a sultry arrangement of “The Blues Ain’t Nothin’ (But Some Pain),” a tune by another Philladelphia jazz giant, organist Shirley Scott. McBride’s “The Wise Old Owl” is an homage to the late Temple University basketball coach John Chaney, a sage mentor in the world of college sports. McBride lends his instrumental voice to John Clayton’s arrangement of the classic “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” engaging in a spirited exchange between his bass and the ever-attentive ensemble. At the album’s close, McBride joins his longtime friend DeFrancesco for an improv-fueled romp through Juan Tizol’s “Perdido.” DeFrancesco’s organ chops are on full display on his own composition, “In That Order,” which pianist Bill Cunliffe arranged for the occasion. Throughout Without You, No Me, a shared enthusiasm and heartfelt gratitude among Philly’s finest rule the day. DB
By Frank Alkyer
That 20-year-old pianist Matthew Whitaker is alive is a bit of a miracle. He was born prematurely and blind, given little chance of surviving with doctors saying that, even if he did, he probably would not be able to crawl, walk or speak. His story has been well-documented by shows like 60 Minutes. Whitaker can speak, and he speaks well. He can walk, and walk well. But what this prodigy can do better than anything else, and arguably anyone else, is play piano, organ and keyboards. Hear for yourself on Connections (Reliance Music Alliance), his third album, this one produced by bassist Derrick Hodge. It is astounding. We’ve been listening to Whitaker take our breath away with all of the promise he showed on the first two albums. This one takes him a full leap forward. The fleetness of finger, the touch and taste, the grit and grime when he needs it, the lightness and airiness when it’s called upon — Whitaker has it all. Beyond his playing chops, his compositions have taken a leap forward, also. In part, he credits Hodge for pushing him to be more adventurous and it shows on tunes like the uplifting opener “Journey Uptown”; the organ trio jam “A New Day,” where he and guitarist Marcos Robinson fly through unison lines; the pensive title track; and the sweet, humbling “Stop Fighting.” Whitaker also delivers some terrific takes on jazz classics. He and Jon Batiste go at it like kids in a sandbox on Thelonious Monk’s “Bye-Ya.” It’s a treat trying to figure out which musician is playing which part. The chuckle at the end of the song says it all: two amazing musicians simply having a good time with one of the greatest piano tunes in jazz. The same can be said for Whitaker and violinist Regina Carter swinging through Duke Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” Whitaker also does a crazy take on Chick Corea’s “Spain,” playing Hammond B-3 on the opening strains, then switching over to keyboards when the band kicks in. Then there’s a serious dance-a-thon awaiting with his Latin jazz take on Duke Pearson’s “Jeanine.” There’s plenty more, with 16 tracks in all, including “His Eye Is On The Sparrow,” a beautifully rendered spiritual where Whitiker shows deep roots. With bits of spoken word between songs to tell his story, Matthew Whitaker is an inspiration as a person and as an amazing young artist. It will be fascinating to see what the future brings.