Soul Searching, Diggin’ a Little Bit Deeper

This is about as mainstream a post as I’ve ever done, or will ever do; there are some major heavyweights gettin’ a spin from me this time around. It’s all part of a sudden abundance of interesting new music coming out – like the pandemic musical moratorium is finally over, or something like that…

In this post, I’m taking a spin on some new R&B and Jazz releases : the latest from Gregory Porter, the fifth album from Kem, a new project from Ledisi, brand new stuff from Toni Braxton, and the debut full length from Jazz saxophonist Nubya Garcia.

What you have in Jazz vocalist Gregory Porter is a once in a generation talent; his husky baritone is rich, smooth, and easy on the ears. He holds a special place in my life, for his song “Real Good Hands” from his second album Be Good – it was used as a theme song for my wedding. In 2013, I had the pleasure of catching him in concert twice – at Spoleto Festival in Charleston, SC and the Chicago Jazz Festival, both in 2013; in fact, my bride and I got to meet him after each show (he remembered us from the first show the second time), took pictures with him, and he autographed my festival book. But enough of me going down memory lane… his latest album All Rise is his sixth studio album, first since his tribute albums (studio and live) to his idol, Nat King Cole and Me and One Night Only (Live at the Royal Albert Hall) from a couple of years ago. This album was originally scheduled for release during the week after Easter, but pandemic business pushed it back to almost Labor Day.

I’ve been worried about the trajectory of Porter’s career; let me explain… At first, he was a well-kept secret, and often, we like to keep our diamonds in the rough to ourselves, and not share them with the world at large. He certainly deserved a larger audience, I thought, but as he released more albums, I saw him starting to wade a little further into the mainstream than I was comfortable with; I was hoping he didn’t dilute his style as an exchange for mainstream success.

He comes firing right out the box with the wonderful “Concorde“, a great jazzy Pop track; he follows it with “Dad Gone Thing“, which is a chastisement of his father, for being missing in his life, and then “Revival Song“, essentially an alternate version of the album closer and first single “Revival“. He returns to what I consider to be his strength, the Jazz ballad “If Love Is Overrated“, about the fool who believes in love, while “Faith in Love” is a midtempo track combining a love for his higher power, and hope in a prospective lover. “Merchants of Paradise” is another one of those tracks that hearken back to earlier material, and another favorite of mine, and “Long List of Troubles” gets a little bluesy. He attacks the subject of racism with “Mr. Holland“, about a man who didn’t treat him differently because he’s Black, while growing up in 1980’s Bakersfield, CA, and he reprises the feel of his Cole-themed albums with “Modern Day Apprentice“, with its’ lush orchestration. For me, the centerpiece of the album comes in the soulful ballad “Everything You Touch Is Gold“, a song that so touches my soul that it nearly brings me to tears. “Phoenix” is another jazzy Pop track, and “Merry Go Round” is a wonderful 3/4 tempo jazzy number. The Deluxe edition of the album sequences the two extra tracks “Real Truth” and “You Can Join My Band” before the final two tracks, which are the Gospel-influenced stormer “Thank You” and the original version of “Revival“.

After listening to this album a couple of times, I have to say that I’m no longer worried about Gregory, for I feel he has finally perfected the formula that best gives him the flexibility to step outside of the Jazz milieu, and into other areas. While he still uses Jazz as his base, his effortless integration of Soul, Pop, Blues, and Gospel into the mix works perfectly. I’ve been saying for years that this man is the truth, and nothing more exemplifies that than this album; this may be his masterpiece… Here is a live performance of “Concorde“, followed by “If Love Is Overrated“…

The man known by the singular name Kem also holds a bit of a special place in the pantheon of my life, having penned the song “Share My Life“, which was used for the first dance with my bride at our wedding reception. I’ve been a fan of his since since “When Love Calls” hit radio back in ’02, him sounding like a new school Al Jarreau; I had the pleasure of catching him live, as the headliner of a triple bill also featuring Ledisi and Musiq Soulchild back in March of 2011, when a marriage proposal of an audience member also took place during his set. His new album Love Always Wins is his fifth studio album (not including a Christmas album), and first since 2014’s Promise to Love.

This album begins as basically a romantic chronology of, and love letter to his new bride, as Kem married his longtime girlfriend last fall; I can completely understand his euphoria, as like Kem, I also married later in life. All of the songs in this collection are his signature smooth, urban Adult Contemporary swag, including the single and stepper’s tune “Lie to Me“. The opener, an acoustic number “Not Before You“, is followed by the beautiful “Lonely“, featuring smooth Jazz man Brian Culbertson, and then there’s the late night groover “With You In My Life“. The album’s most upbeat moments are the mildly funky “Love“, and the Disco-ish “Can’t Stop Giving Love“. There is the mildly devotional “Praise“, and then after the aforementioned single, what follows are the first of two versions of “Live Out Your Love” and the title track, the former getting the duet treatment with Toni Braxton, and on the latter, he’s joined by Erica Campbell. Another acoustic number, “Friend Today” closes out the set prior to those two redundant, guest feature tracks.

With this album, Kem expresses his joy of reaching the personal mountaintop that his music has always been about – finding and having love in his life. I hope that, rather than settling into a love stupor, that his love and life experiences continue to drive musical creativity, and he continues to make good quality music. As with the other four albums, I’ll be adding this one to my collection… Surprisingly, there is no “official” video for any of the tracks; here is a lyric video for “Lie to Me“…

For her sixth studio album, 48 year old virtuoso Neo-Soul singer Ledisi had a chance to take more control over the musical process; she was finally out of her five-album deal with Verve Records, where she’d spent her career to date. I’ve been a fan of hers since “Alright” and her first album Lost and Found from around ’07, and I was able to see her live on the aforementioned tour with Kem nine years ago; her new album The Wild Card is her first since 2017’s Let Love Rule.

She’s said in interviews about the new project that she wanted it to have a bit of a juke joint feel; she obliged that feeling with a couple of bluesy numbers, starting with the lead single “Anything for You“. There are several tracks here about spurned love, which led me to believe she was lashing out at a former lover – songs with titles like “Now Or Never“, “Stay Gone“, and “What Kind of Love Is That“, but she actually got married a little over two years ago. After the bluesy numbers, she gets back to the familiar Ledisi sound, funky, a touch of Jazz, soulful, and somewhat retro-sounding; she invites rapper Sa-Roc on the newest single “Wake Up“, and the closing ballad “Without You” sounds like a 70’s pop ballad a la Olivia Newton John, of all people.

Overall, this album satisfies long-time fans, and doesn’t overwhelm with too many new textures. Her exquisite voice is always the centerpiece of the music, and she is in usual fine form; this is another solid effort … Here is the video for “Anything for You“…

Here is a case of an artist of whom I’ve always been a fan, but not necessarily for her music; I’ve always found her to be… as I like to say… purdy – I still own the issue of VIBE Magazine back in the 90’s where she did that revealing photoshoot. Musically, I always found Toni Braxton to be a bit depressing – I was always more of a musical fan of Sade, who’s also said to be depressing. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate her music more, as I’ve developed more of a disdain for much of today’s R&B; just a couple of years ago, I bought her debut album because of (ironically) “Another Sad Love Song“…. again, I digress… Spell My Name is the 10th album from Toni, her first in two years, since Sex & Cigarettes was released.

The album starts out in upbeat fashion, with the single “Dance” – I like it when Toni is upbeat; she follows it up with one of two versions of “Do It” – a track my wife and daughter have been singing (partly in jest) for several weeks, because of its’ dramatic delivery – the remix version features Missy Elliot, and is the better of the two. Then she collaborates with H.E.R. for “Gotta Move On“, which is a nice track (especially that guitar solo!), but by now, Toni has begun to fall into familiar lyrical territory for her, with “Fallin‘”, “O.V.E.Rr.” (no, I didn’t misspell it), and “Happy Without Me“. In between these tracks are the title track, which features an uncredited male and their P ‘n D thoughts, and “Saturday Night“, a piano-driven ballad about her wanting to get her groove on with someone who’s bad for her… see, that’s why she’s always sad… doin’ the wrong thang with the wrong person (and I still don’t get her fascination with Birdman)!… Anyway, it’s actually a decent track, despite the bird calls in the lyrics… you know… “I know you’re wrong for me / But I don’t care, ’cause I just wanna do / Bad things to you tonight (Ooh, ooh) / Tonight (Ooh, ooh, ooh)“…. After the original “Do It“, the closing track “Nothin‘” is a nice lil bluesy track that is musically uncharacteristic for her, and a nice departure, although the lyrics are still typical Toni… “Without your love / don’t you know / I ain’t nothin’“…”

As Toni approaches her mid-50’s, she has aged well, and is still fine; her music, I believe, has influenced a lot of the in-your-feelings music you hear in R&B today. She has updated her sound to keep up with the times, and she still sounds like she belongs, and for that, she is to be commended; I still just have to take her in small doses, though, not a whole album of the drama Soul she does… Here is the video for “Dance“…

The demise of Jazz has been greatly over-exaggerated, as there are a number of up and coming artists keeping the style alive, hopefully for generations to come. The debut album of 28 year old London-based tenor saxophonist Nubya Garcia is called Source, and it follows a couple of earlier EP’s, Nubya’s 5ive and Where We Are, both released in 2018. I came to notice her on a pair of jam sessions released as albums by drummer Makaya McCraven, Universal Beings, and Where We Come From (Chicago x London Mixtape), and more recently on Moses Sumney’s Grae album this year.

Garcia takes the listener on a journey through the African diaspora, with stops in the Caribbean, Latin America, the continent, and back to her homeland, where she is part of the burgeoning UK Jazz scene; on the sprawling 12 minute title track, she basically hits every place. She is of Guyanese and Trinidadian ancestry, and she said the album is all about that heritage, and the places and the stories told to her about them by her parents and grandparents. You hear reggae dub on the the title track, Nyabinghi -style drumming dominates on “Stand With Each Other“, while “La Cumbia Me Esta Llamando” is another percussion-led tune which features chanting; these are probably my two favorite tracks, for their relative sparseness. I hear a hint of Fela on “Before Us: In Demerara & Caura“, and “The Message Continues” is smooth and funky. The single “Pace” opens the album, and is presented here in longer form than the video I included here.

If you don’t know the name, get to know it, because she’s poised to be around a long time. A student of the sax masters like Coltrane, Rollins, and Parker, among others, she’s already carving out her own niche and style. And she purdy, too! This is quite a satisfying trip around the globe… There is no official video for any of the album’s tracks, but here’s a video of her performing the track “Pace” outside among cattle on a farm in Glastonbury, England…

By maestrotjd

I'm a music head. A classically trained violinist/violist literate from chant to Chopin to Copland, Soul man, aging Punk, Classic rocker, Alt rocker, Church choir man, House head, Techno, Industrial guy, almost Rasta, Ska & Rock Steady baby, Junglist, Dubstep to Two-step to Chicago old school steppin', Lounge & Exotica, World Fusion, Latin & Bossa Nova dude, Jazz man from Swing to Bebop to Acid, Trip hop and Hip hop, ya don't stop, a lil bit Country, Gospel, and everything in between. These are my musings (or ramblings).

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