Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Charenee Wade Brings Her Souful Depth and Powerful Vocals Back to a Favorite Uptown Spot

Charenee Wade is a rarity, a consummate jazz musician and improviser whose instrument just happens to be vocals. She’s also a major interpreter of Gil Scott-Heron: on her 2015 album Offering: The Music of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson, she reinvented an intriguing mix of mostly relatively obscure songs by the iconic hip-hop godfather and political firebrand. Onstage. she isn’t just a lead singer in front of a backing unit: her voice is an integral part of a central focal point where she and the members of her excellent quartet converge – and sometimes diverge. She’s playing Ginny’s Supper Club on June 22 with sets at 7 and 9 PM. You can get a seat at the bar for $20.

Her late set there back in mid-February had everything you could want from a concert: smart interplay, fiery solos, strong tunes and dynamic vocals. Wade will hover just a hair above or below a note a la Dinah Washington, but with a much more powerful low register. And yet, Wade also showed off similar power, way up the scale, using her vibrato sparingly when she wanted to add some purr to a phrase.

Pianist Oscar Perez fired off several sabretoothed solos, adding unexpected flash during a handful of fleeting crescendos that made up a much bigger picture as a song, and ultimately the set itself, followed an upward tangent. Bassist Paul Beaudry stuck to walking the changes, holding the center with a purist pulse as drummer Darrell Green colored the music with some unexpected charges of his own, including a rapturously intense take on African talking drums.

After a swinging instrumental intro, Wade began the set with a long, uneasily atmospheric, Alice Coltrane-esque tableau. The highlight of the night was an expansive, harrowing take of the Gil Scott-Heron classic Home Is Where the Hatred Is. But Wade didn’t just do the obvious and scat on the “kick it, quiit it” vamp at the end: she brought a knowing desperation to the verses, a searing portrait of someone driven to addiction rather than simply falling into the trap.

It was Singles Appreciation Night, she told the crowd, so her standards and ballads had a sardonic undercurrent that was sometimes subtle, as in her delicate take of You Taught My Heart to Sing, and then much more overtly cynical as the set picked up steam. They brought a misty, mystical ambience back with a late-70s Scott-Heron tune referencing African spirits blowing on the breeze, Green supplying a dusky, mysterious, shamanistic intro. They finally closed the set with a brief, emphatic segment from John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. It’s a good bet Wade and her band will mix up the classic and the cutting edge this time around too.

June 8, 2019 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Charenee Wade Tackles the Impossible Challenge of Covering Gil Scott-Heron

Conventional wisdom is that if you want to cover a song, you should either completely reinvent it, or improve on the original. Trying to improve on anything from the immense catalog of the late, great jazz poet/hip-hop/psychedelic funk icon Gil Scott-Heron‘s catalog may be an impossible task, but as far as reinventions are concerned, the field’s wide open. Singer Charenee Wade tackles that challenge on her ambitious new album, Offering: The Music of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson. She’s playing the release show at the Jazz Standard on July 8, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM: cover is $25.

For those unfamiliar with his catalog, Scott-Heron, who died in 2011, ranks with Bob Marley, the Clash and Johnny Cash. Scott-Heron may not be quite as well-known, but his searing, fearlessly political music is every bit as powerful as anything those artists ever put out. Many consider him to be the first major hip-hop artist. Over the course of a forty-plus year career, Scott-Heron ripped racists and rightwingers to shreds, called bullshit on his own community and was one of the few American artists to call attention to the apocalyptic danger of nuclear power: his unforgettably ominous cautionary anthem We Almost Lost Detroit predated the Chernobyl disaster by a dozen years, and was the standout track on the otherwise forgettable No Nukes concert compilation album.

Maybe wisely, Wade and her band steer clear of most of Scott-Heron’s major works, instead focusing on more obscure tracks.There are two songs from Scott-Heron’s auspicious 1971 Pieces of a Man album, another two from 1975’s far more mellow The First Minute of a New Day. She and the band kick off the opening number, Offering, from the latter album with a strikingly straightforward delivery that actually manages to one-up the original. The genius of the arrangement is Brandon McCune’s steady piano augmented by Sefon Harris’ vibraphone, plus guitarist Dave Stryker’s brittle but triumphant cadenzas.

Another track from that album, Western Sunrise is a real revelation, bassist Lonnie Plaxico kicking it off with a catchy hook, Wade establishing a tricky tempo that ironically puts her unaffectedly strong vocals front and center, reinforcing Scott-Heron’s sardonic commentary on American exceptionalism. She ends it with a misty scat solo that the composer would no doubt appreciate.

Of the two tracks from Pieces of a Man – Scott-Heron’s first recording with a full band – Wade goes for fullscale reinvention with a scamperingly salsafied take of Home Is Where The Hatred Is, in her hands an even more chilling portrait of ghetto abandonment and alienation spiced with rippling solos from Harris and McCune. When she toys with the song’s haunting. concluding line, the effect is viscerally spine-tingling. Likewise, Wade reimagines the other track from that album, I Think I’ll Call It Morning, as a spirited if rainswept late 60s soul-jazz waltz as Roberta Flack might have done it.

Interestingly, the most epic number here is a shapeshifting take of Song of the Wind, an optimistic Afrocentric peacenik anthem from the 1977 Bridges album: the sparkly piano/vibes arrangement raises the energy of the undulating Fender Rhodes-driven original. A Toast To The People, one of the lesser-known tracks from the iconic 1975 From South Africa to South Carolina album, also gets an expansive treatment, Wade maintaining an enigmatic, misty distance from Scott-Heron’s snide, insistent delivery, Stryker channeling a period-perfect feel with his octaves.

Arguably the most apt choice of songs here is Ain’t No Such Thing As Superman, from the 1974 album The First Minute of a New Day – simply being sung by a woman, let alone with as much conviction as Wade brings this, elevates Scott-Heron’s message of community solidarity. Actor Malcolm-Jamal Warner narrates the historically biting proto hip-hop intro to Essex/Martin, Grant, Byrd & Till, an improvisational tableau with a lively solo from saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin. Likewise, Christian McBride provides a spoken-word intro to a lushly assertive take of the understatedly snide Peace Go With You Brother, from the 1974 album Winter in America. The most obscure track here is The Vulture (Your Soul And Mine), a clave-soul mashup based on a cut from Scott-Heron’s final and forgettable album I’m New Here.

Is That Jazz is the one song that would have been really awesome to hear Wade do here. Can’t you imagine Plaxico playing that bitingly bluesy intro…and then Wade scampering down the scale, or up the scale as that groove kicks in? And wouldn’t that be hilarious when she got to the chorus? Is that jazz? OMG, is that jazz! The album’s not out yet, therefore no streaming link: put out a Google alert for when it hits Spotify, Soundcloud or Bandcamp.

July 7, 2015 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Incendiary, Articulate Jazz and Poetry on Bobby Watson’s Latest Project

Saxophonist Bobby Watson‘s “I Have a Dream” Project commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s iconic address to the crowd of protesters gathered at the Washington Mall. The band’s album Check Cashing Time pairs many of Watson’s most politically-fueled compositions with incendiary, spot-on, Gil Scott-Heron influenced spoken-word lyrics by Glenn North. The rest of the band includes Hermon Mehari on trumpet, Richard Johnson on piano, Curtis Lundy on bass, Eric Kennedy on drums, Pamela Baskin-Watson on vocals and Horace Washington on flute. Its theme is that it’s payback time for 200-plus years of slavery.

Sweet Dreams, a wickedly catchy, bitingly bluesy, Frank Foster-ish swing tune with concise solos from trumpet, alto and gently ringing piano opens the album. The title track is a variation on that theme and a launching pad for North’s searing commentary, which elegantly connects the dots between the murders of MLK and Trayvon Martin, and doesn’t neglect to address the prison-industrial comples. As North puts it, “The new Jim Crow has enormous wings.”

The lively At the Crossroads follows a more optimistic tangent, steadily pulsing with a purposeful, determined Mohari solo. North juxtaposes a series of alternately celebratory and grisly images over a more-or-less rubato piano-and-cymbal backdrop on Black Is Back. The band follows that with the bristling, modally-charged A Blues of Hope, with its lush horns, dancing piano and a similarly dynamic, rising and falling solo from Watson.

They go back to jazz poetry with 40 Acres & a Mule, a rather petulant new take on a bitter old African-American mantra: the nonchalant defiance of Mohari’s shivery solo is one of the album’s high points. The slow, brooding Dark Days makes a good segue, guest Karita Carter’s ominously looming trombone paired off against bluesy, pensive upper-register piano, North quoting both Dr. King and Bob Marley. Baskin-Watson sings her Seekers of the Sun, a syncopated, blues and gospel-tinted shout-out to keep hope alive, the band maintaining that mood on the briskly swinging Progress, with its stilletto-precise solo by Johnson.

After a brief, Marc Cary-esque solo piano reprise of the fourth track, the band cuts loose on Triad (Martin, Malcom, Ghandi), Watson’s sailing sax holding it together as individual voices diverge: it’s the most ambitious number here. The band works a brisk Taxi Driver-style clave on My Song, a clever update on the dozens: “I was born in the briar patch behind the old woodshed, held a klansmen by the throat until he was dead,” North intones. Lundy’s brief MLK on Jazz – quoting the King speech that opened the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival – and then his pensive ballad Revival (Ovedia) follow. Baskin-Watson ends the album with Ellington’s  Come Sunday, vividly underscoring its gospel roots. This album succeeds  as food for thought, eloquent expression of righteous anger and just plain good jazz. If Sonny Stitt desesrves to be in a certain jazz hall of fame, so does Bobby Watson.

December 14, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, rap music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In Memoriam – Gil Scott-Heron

Songwriter, poet and novelist Gil Scott-Heron, one of the greatest musical artists of the past half-century, died yesterday at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York after returning from Europe, where he had fallen ill. He was 62. Scott-Heron’s signature style combined jazz, soul and funk with wryly literate, often savagely critical, socially conscious lyrics. Tall and charismatic, with a machete wit, he was a consummate live performer who used catchy, anthemic songs to deliver a potent message. Enormously influential on several generations of hip-hop artists, Scott-Heron was considered one of the pioneers of rap. While his relationship with the genre was ambivalent at best, his 1969 debut album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox is often credited with being one of the earliest hip-hop albums since it features spoken-word pieces (including the iconic The Revolution Will Not Be Televised) set to simple percussion.

Scott-Heron’s biggest hit, The Bottle, chronicled the toll that alcoholism takes on inner city life, though told with characteristic humor from a drunk’s point of view. His most enduring song, We Almost Lost Detroit hauntingly recalls a narrowly averted nuclear disaster caused by a near-meltdown at a Michigan nuclear power plant. Scott-Heron was also one of the first major American artists to address the horrors of apartheid, with the scathing Johannesburg. Throughout his career, he championed progressive causes and lampooned the right wing (most memorably with the scorchingly hilarious 1981 anti-Reagan broadside B Movie). As a recording artist, his peak period was from the mid-70s to the early 80s, notably his collaborations with pianist Brian Jackson and their group the Midnight Band. Many of those albums, including From South Africa to South Carolina as well as the 1988 Live Somewhere in Europe are bonafide classics.

Scott-Heron was also a legendary bon vivant who took that lifestyle to extremes. A heavy cocaine user in the 80s, by the following decade he’d developed a serious crack habit. Throughout that time, he remained an intense, charismatic performer, but he recorded sporadically and erratically, and as his crack use escalated, his performances and career suffered. Persecuted and jailed for cocaine possession multiple times during the zeros, he had recently been on the comeback trail, releasing a new album last year titled I’m New Here, which sets poetry to samples much in the same vein as his earliest work. His recent live shows had been remarkably strong as well, all the more impressive considering that he’d once again become a regular crack user (we reviewed his surprisingly high-spirited, energetic concert at Marcus Garvey Park on August 5 of last year). Our deepest condolences to his wife and daughter. Funeral arrangements are pending.

May 28, 2011 Posted by | funk music, jazz, Music, music, concert, obituary, soul music | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 5/8/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Sunday’s album is #632:

Gil Scott-Heron – From South Africa to South Carolina

OK, for those of you who’ve been paying real close attention, this held down the #1000 spot on this list for a few months. But it’s time for us to give the great revolutionary jazz poet and his Fender Rhodes colleague Brian Jackson their due. Choosing one of their politically-fueled psychedelic funk/jazz albums over another is a judgment call; for better or worse, we’re going with this 1975 release, the second with their legendary Midnight Band. It’s got Johannesburg, the first rock song to call attention to the horrors of apartheid, and the chilling cautionary tale South Carolina, about nuclear waste being dumped on unsuspecting rural communities. A Toast to the People is an optimistic shout-out to freedom fighters around the world; it’s also got the warm, captivating Summer of ’42, Essex and Fell Together, the hypnotic Beginnings and the unexpectedly summery Lovely Day. It doesn’t have the casually terrifying We Almost Lost Detroit, which at this point in history may be the most important song ever recorded, a cautionary tale which cruelly came true when Fukushima blew. Here’s a random torrent courtesy of Flabbergasted Vibes.

May 7, 2011 Posted by | funk music, jazz, lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gil Scott-Heron: A Walk in the Park

He was on time, too – well, almost. The question wasn’t how much Gil Scott-Heron had left, it was whether he had anything left at all. His shows during the early part of the zeros were a trainwreck: he needed rehab, but he got jail, more than once. Happily, tonight uptown at Marcus Garvey Park, Scott-Heron reaffirmed that he’s still got it. Like Johnny Cash, Scott-Heron is an American icon with a pantheonic body of classic songs and a history of addiction. And like Cash, he imbues his gravitas with an impish sense of humor. A little heavier on the drawl now than he was ten years ago but no less lucid or entertaining, the 61-year-old pianist/songwriter and what amounted to a pickup band drew a joyous response from an impressively large and diverse crowd on his home turf up at 124th and Madison.

He’s got a new album out, I’m New Here, a new take on the proto-rap style he mined on his classic 1970 debut Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, although he only played one song from it, a stripped-down, skeletal cover of the Bobby Bland soul/blues hit I’ll Take Care of You. Scott-Heron opened solo on his battered Fender Rhodes, taking his time: “For those of you who did not know that I played piano, you might be right,” he chuckled, slowly launching into a spare, withering version of Blue Collar, a chronicle of the down-and-out across the country that resonates even more today than during the Gerald Ford-era recession when he wrote it. All the Places We’ve Been, dedicated to Mississippi voting rights crusader Fannie Lou Hamer, got a gentle, stripped-down mid-70s Stevie Wonder-ish treatment. He then ran through a couple of verses of his classic anti-nuclear power anthem We Almost Lost Detroit before bringing up the band – Kim Jordan on keyboards, Tony Duncanson on bongos, Carl Cornwell on tenor sax and flute and Glenn Turner on harmonica and percussion.

The rest of the show was a party. Scott-Heron is rightfully best known for his scathingly witty social criticism and intricate wordplay (he’s been called the godfather of rap, or the equivalent, for decades, and although he didn’t actually invent the style, his work remains a powerful influence on every new generation of hip-hop artists). But this show focused on the more upbeat material. Jordan played the catchy bass hook to Is That Jazz on the low keys – if she sustained any lasting damage from the nasty U-Haul accident that nearly cost her a career in music, the good news is that she’s fully recovered, crashing and burning with a staccato ferocity uncommon even for her. Cornwell added several bop-flavored solos, Turner more subtle color and Duncanson – celebrating his birthday – took a very long solo at the end that might have seemed pointless at another venue, but was spot-on here, considering how vehemently (and bigotedly) the yuppies in an adjacent new “luxury” condo building have fought to kick out the African drummers who congregate in the park at night. They wrapped up the show with dynamically charged if somewhat loose versions of the harrowing Pieces of a Man, a brief version of the iconic 1978 latin soul shuffle The Bottle and encored with a slow, soulful and raptly crescendoing version of Better Days Ahead, an old song from the mid-70s. Nice to see an old favorite shake off the demons and do what he does best. Scott-Heron is at B.B. King’s on October 7 at 8 PM.

August 5, 2010 Posted by | concert, funk music, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Lila Downs y la Misteriosa En Paris – Live a FIP

If you get one Lila Downs album, this is it. This isn’t safe, emasculated faux-exotica for curious yuppies: it’s a fiesta, and not always a happy one. Downs’ commitment to and passionate advocacy for a whole slew of Mexican folk styles – and the immigrants whose ancestors created them – has made her impossible to pigeonhole, with a defiantly individualistic streak. Recorded live on French radio last year, Downs sings with raw brass, grit and soul, backed by a terrific band with edge, bite and some stunningly imaginative arrangements – the most prominent instrument here is Celso Duarte’s concert harp. The sprawling group also includes Downs’ husband and longtime musical director Paul Cohen on tenor sax and clarinet, fiery forro specialist Rob Curto on accordion, the incisive Juancho Herrera (also of Claudia Acuña’s band) on guitars, Carlos Henderson on bass, Dana Leong on trombone, Yayo Serka on drums and Samuel Torres on percussion. And while there are plenty of folklorico numbers – the swaying accordion-driven song that opens the concert; a plaintive, mournful update of a Zapotec song, and a stunningly poignant, beautifully sung version of the traditional ballad La Llorona, the strongest songs here are the originals.

The stinging, Gil Scott-Heron inflected blues shuffle Minimum Wage – sung in English – makes a vivid tribute to the illegal immigrants that American businesses are only too happy to hire at a cut rate. The metaphorically loaded singalong anthem Justicia goes looking for justice everywhere, but there are places where it simply cannot be found:

[translated from the original Spanish]

I don’t see you in the High Command
I can’t find you in offices
Or in men in uniform
Or the fence at the border

And the understatedly scathing, ghostly, reggae-flavored anti-NAFTA broadside La Linea (The Line) imagines a medicine woman treating a child whose “skin has grown feathers” courtesy of untreated industrial waste from American border sweatshops. But once Downs has you in touch with reality, she gets the party started. There’s a festive, minor-key cumbia salute to the joy of getting stoned and eating good mole, a largely improvised party number from Veracruz with the harp and percussion rattling and plinking at full volume, and a long jam on Hava Nagila during the band intros before the encores. And the version of La Cucaracha here leaves no doubt as to what that song’s about, right down to a briefly woozy dub-flavored interlude. It’s out now on World Village Music.

May 30, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 2/5/10

The best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Friday’s song is #174:

Gil Scott-Heron – We Almost Lost Detroit

Based on the John G. Fuller expose, this is an understated, haunting look at a narrowly averted nuclear disaster that almost took out a major American city. Now there are actually global warming activists who support the use of nuclear power. How quickly we forget – can anybody say “Chernobyl?” From the South Africa to South Carolina album, 1975; there’s also an even tastier live version on the No Nukes concert anthology.

February 5, 2010 Posted by | Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Literature, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 1/12/10

Every day – wifi signal willing – we count down the best 666 songs of alltime. Tuesday’s is #198:

Gil Scott-Heron – B Movie

The great soul/jazz poet at the peak of his powers, a savage dismissal of lightweight Hollywood candidate Ronald Reagan released just after the disastrous 1980 election. From the Secrets album, 1981; the link above is the complete eight-minute diatribe on youtube. There’s also a killer version on the Live Somewhere in Europe album from the early 90s.

January 11, 2010 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Dina Dean at Rockwood Music Hall, NYC 11/8/07

A riveting performance by one of the best bands in town. Dina Dean’s backing unit was the story tonight. Their supple, subtle rhythm section features Botanica’s bassist (playing upright) and a drummer who didn’t waste a single brushstroke. Dean’s piano player was equally minimal and incisive, with a warm, gospel-inflected style, also doubling on lapsteel on the set’s last few numbers. Her lead guitarist embellished the material with style and substance, impressing with some particularly tasteful slide work on one of the songs. It’s always a treat to see a band having as good a time onstage as these guys did, quietly and efficiently: they’re the perfect vehicle for Dean’s richly melodic, slow-to-midtempo blend of 60s rock, old-school soul, gospel and country. And where was this terrific band playing tonight? Not at the horrid Living Room, at least: they were at the Rockwood. Nothing against the space: it’s a great place for listening. But it’s tiny. This band should have been headlining the Beacon or the Town Hall.

As a songwriter (although NOT as a singer), Dean most closely resembles the Blood on the Tracks-era Dylan, a rocker with an effortless fluency in pretty much every style of American roots music. Her lyrics are steeped in history, full of double entendres, clever puns and allusions. This is headphone music, and the sound in the room was thankfully up to its usual high standard so Dean’s casual, soulful alto could cut through over the band. They opened with The Same Grace, a song from her excellent recent ep, driven by gospel piano, and followed with another cut, the gorgeous, 60s throwback Radio Song with its catchy chorus: “She stays up, up, up all night.” The next song was a towering ballad, the Ma Rainey tribute Down in the Dust, chronicling the turbulent life of the legendary singer who found herself out in the cold “when jazz blew the fuse on the blues.” After that, they did a new one, a slow, pensive ballad that sounded like the great lost cut from Blood on the Tracks.

Introducing a rockabilly-tinged number about Billy Lee Riley, Dean explained how Sun Records had to choose between promoting Great Balls of Fire or Riley’s classic My Gal Is Red Hot. With a limited promotion budget, they chose the former and the rest is history. The song crescendoed nicely into a bluesy chorus. The next tune was the highlight of the night, a gorgeously vivid soul/jazz lament that wouldn’t be out of place in the Gil Scott-Heron catalog, pondering where New York’s own soul has gone. After that they did an impressively upbeat piano-driven jump blues song, and the slow, thoughtful ballad Walk Through the Rain, with the piano player switching to lapsteel.

This wasn’t a perfect show: intros and outros were tentative – the band still seems to be getting a handle on some of the songs – and there were guitar and lapsteel tuning issues toward the end of the set. Although that’s to be expected when a band brings their instruments in out of the cold on a night like this. Still, it’s a safe bet this was the best show you could have seen anywhere in New York tonight. Dean’s always been a decent songwriter, but in the months since she put this band together she’s become a must-see. Now’s your chance. Before she headlines the Beacon or the Town Hall.

November 9, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments