Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

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

Tuneful Purist Stuff from the Clayton Brothers

The Clayton Brothers always deliver, pure and simple: they’re kind of like the Adderleys for this decade. You always know they’re going to swing the changes like crazy, the soloing is always focused and emotionally impactful and at the end of the show or the album, you’ll feel something. The first impression that a listener is left with after hearing their new album The Gathering is that it’s a concert recording. Which it’s actually not, but it has that kind of energy. This time out their usual lineup – Jeff Clayton on alto sax and alto flute, brother John Clayton on bass, Terrell Stafford on trumpet and flugelhorn, Jeff’s son Gerald on piano and Obed Calvaire on drums – gets a little bolstering from guests Wycliffe Gordon on trombone and Stefon Harris on vibraphone.

The eagle flies on Friday, and that’s the vibe they leap into with John Clayton’s high-energy, unstoppably swinging opening track, Friday Struttin’ ,with hard-hitting solos all around until Gordon adds a tinge of levity, Stafford putting it back on the fast track with his trademark spirals and trills. Tsunami, a tune by Jeff, reaches toward a towering, majestic feel driven by sax and trumpet, the rhythm digging in deeper as it crescendos.

The tensely nebulous Touch the Fog, another tune by John, is a movie theme waiting to happen with a tersely catchy, central bass hook, lush horns and some nice interplay between the piano and vibraphone. By contrast, Jefff’s This Ain’t Nothing but a Party works a good-time New Orleans theme with grittily bluesy piano and a trick ending.

John’s Stefon Fetchit [ouch] swings hard, Harris choosing his spots judiciously. They do Don’t Explain casually and expansively, solo piano building artfully to a starlit glimmer, then pulling it back into the shadows where the bass bows rather ominously. Then they flip the script with the buffoonish Coupe de Cone, a springboard for Gordon to do his shtick.

Gerald’s ballad Somealways is the most modern thing here, bracing and modally-charged, edgy piano versus balmy horn chart, Calvaire driving a nimbly scrambling return to the starting line. Jeff felt that his alto work on the first take of Benny Carter’s Souvenir was too effusive, but the band insisted they keep it, and it’s a good thing because he pours his soul out, but not melodramatically: this stuff is real.

John’s Blues Gathering is classic postbop, bass pulling the piano back into terse moodiness on the heels of yet another comical Gordon solo. Jeff’s Simple Pleasures is vastly less simple than the title implies, its heavy, humid mid-August ambience slowly lifting as Harris gets underway and then lets it linger suspensefully again. The album closes with another first-rate Jeff tune, The Happiest of Times, its Monk allusions and nonchalant swing lit up by casually expert, pulse-elevating solos by Stafford, Gerald and then the composer. This might be the band’s best studio effort to date, pretty impressive considering the all-star cast involved.

November 19, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment