Archive for the ‘soul’ Category

Back to School with Les McCann (Part 3)

Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

Continued from Part Two

I make the (not at all original) observation that many American musical forms seem to get more respect in Europe than at home. “That’s all right,” says Les McCann. “Ninety percent of the stations are playing the same thing every day. It’s about playing that number-one. And it’s songs, not really music. People talk about ‘rap music.’ I say, ‘Where’s the music?’ People have been talkin‘ on records ever since they were first recorded. You ever heard The Ink Spots? Early Eddie Harris? Ever heard of Les McCann? I’m talkin’ on my records. I’ve even got a record called Talk to the People. But every rapper I meet tells me they’re the greatest, they started all this. ‘I got the beat. These are my beats.’”

When I point out that his work has been sampled by quite a few hip-hop artists, McCann bristles. “Those guys who sample, they don’t know what they do. They’re not musicians; they’re technicians. It takes it to another place. I’m not calling it right or wrong, because it goes where it’s got to go.”

I mention to McCann that a yard sale purchase of Cannonball Adderley‘s Somethin’ Else LP changed my life. “That’s how it works,” he observes. “Some people say, ‘I just like what I heard when I was in high school.’ They hear something new that they enjoy, and it’s like, ‘What’s that?’ ‘It’s jazz.’ ‘Oh, I don’t like jazz.’ I say, don’t call it jazz. Just like it, and take it home with you.”

Something unclassifiable that many listeners liked and took home with them was the 1966 LP Freak Out, the debut record from Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. Inside the gatefold of the 2LP set, there’s a photo of – of all people – Les McCann with blues singer and harmonica player Paul Butterfield. The caption says the pair are “freaking out,” but there’s no further explanation. McCann laughs heartily at the mention of this. “Nobody ever believes me when I tell them about that!”

“It was a moment that happened,” McCann recalls. “I didn’t really know [Zappa] but I knew there was something he was looking for. As we talk about Invitation to Openness, it’s exactly the kind of thing that Frank Zappa did. He handed an instrument to everyone that walked into the room that day. There were more than three hundred people there, and he recorded it.” I note that the instruments assigned had nothing to do with a person’s ability to actually play them. “Half of ‘em weren’t even musicians!” McCann laughs. “And that was the beauty of it all; it was great. And I am sure that stuck in my mind as a great way to approach my music from a different angle, too. We’re all connected to each other. When something beautiful comes, expand on it. Take it to another place.”

Returning to his favored concept of life-as-school, McCann makes this observation: “The curriculum in this school is complete. There’s nothing that needs to be taught; nothing new that’s going to come around. We are all in school. And everything you think of is what you can have. Everything you think of – good or bad; I don’t care what you judge it as – it is happening. Period.”

Les McCann is a vocalist, a keyboard player, a painter, a photographer. He tends to view these various sides of himself as dimensions of the same creative and artistic impulse. “There’s one thing that’s same [in all of them], and that’s me. What mode we come out of and how we do it is a choice we make, maybe. Music is part of what I asked God to give me when I chose to be human and to have a great earthly experience: ‘Let me know what I need to do; take me to where I need to go.’”

“Sometimes,” McCann concludes, “we come in with different colors, different height, different sizes. We eat different food, we’re born in different places. That all accommodates the goal we’re looking for, and leads us to that. So you can’t go wrong. You can fight it, but it’s already in your DNA. My only message to the world is this: at all times, choose love above fear.” After I thank him for his insight, he laughs and says, “Now I’m gonna go smoke a joint and see if I can take it up a notch.”

Omnivore Recordings’ deluxe reissue of Les McCann’s classic album Invitation to Openness is available now. And McCann’s book documenting his lifetime of photography, Invitation to Openness: The Jazz & Soul Photography of Les McCann 1960-1980, will be released officially on April 19. McCann made an in-store appearance last weekend (March 28, 2015) in Los Angeles, showing slides from his book and telling stories about the old days.

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Back to School with Les McCann (Part 2)

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

Continued from Part One

Among the most celebrated releases in Les McCann‘s extensive catalog, Swiss Movement is his 1969 live collaboration with saxophonist Eddie Harris. The album was controversial on its release thanks to its inclusion of “Compared to What,” a tune with lyrics that remain as provocative today as they were thirty-five years ago. In fact, a special “radio edit” LP of Swiss Movement clumsily bleeped out the offending lyrics.

The song’s lyrics might have hurt its chances for chart success, but McCann never worried himself about such matters. “It’s art. It sells, or it doesn’t sell. The word ‘abortion’ was not permitted to be played on the radio. And the station [that did initially play it] was fined $25,000 for playing the song.” Controversy or no, the single “Compared to What” ended up a million seller, as did Swiss Movement.

“I’ll tell you a shocking story,” McCann offers. “Six years before that record was made, when I first heard the song from Gene McDaniels (who wrote it) – he was a dear friend of mine, and he was in my band – I recorded it. But I knew that [recording] wasn’t it, but I wanted to keep that song. Whether I recorded it right or wrong, I know that at some point it’s going to come to me. So six or seven years later, it came to me. Onstage, at that very moment.”

So “Compared to What” wasn’t even on the set list for McCann’s Montreux Jazz Festival performance? “The band never made it to rehearsal!” McCann laughs. “Everything was spontaneous! Even the melodies for a couple of the songs: I’m telling a couple of the guys – trumpet players – and they’re scared to death! ‘Cause they didn’t know any of the songs. ‘Just do who you are,’ I told ‘em. And I trusted ‘em.”

He continues. “A great lesson for me was when guys came in and were writing everything down, and saying, ‘This is the way I want everything played.’ And we’d get to a big moment, times in my career when people wouldn’t show up for rehearsal, couldn’t make it to rehearsal. I’d get mad, and I’d say, ‘Let’s just play.’” Being in front of an appreciative audience no doubt helped. “In France and Switzerland, they loved me. I don’t know what it is, but from the very first moment I ever played there, they said, ‘you belong to us.’ Maybe,” he chuckles,” it’s because my name is Les.”

And his name is closely linked with what is known as soul-jazz. “I’m told that I was one of the first people the record companies put that title to,” McCann says. “The first album I did, on Pacific Jazz [in 1960], was called Plays the Truth. ‘Soul’ is just another word for feeling, and love. It’s all good. Soul is becoming aware of what’s inside of us. When you get passionate about something, you discover yourself.”

Cannonball Adderley is another figure closely associated with the soul jazz genre. One of Adderley’s basic beliefs was that jazz is the people’s music, that it can be boundary-pushing and innovative, but that it should be accessible, too. And that kind of philosophy is felt in much of McCann’s music. In fact, in Leonard Feather‘s liner notes for his 1961 LP In San Francisco, McCann is quoted as saying, “I want my music to hit the emotion of human beings.” He goes on to say, “If jazz is played so it can be accepted, it will be accepted.” Since that quote comes from near the beginning of his recording career, I ask him if he’d like to expand on his comment. His terse reply: “No.”

“That was then. I don’t go back, no,” he adds. “That’s what I said then; I’m not going to try and go back and figure out what I meant.” I press the subject a bit and ask if he agrees that music should be accessible. Again: “No. Don’t make no rules! Everything is already accessible. People say, ‘This is hard to play. This is hard to listen to.’ They have all these fuckin’ excuses. Shit. Give me a break! Just go do it. Find your heart, your passion. That’s the word. That’s soul, that’s love: everything that is the opposite of fear. We’ve all heard it a thousand, a million times. But we take a long time to heed the message.”

Not surprisingly, McCann has strong opinions regarding the current state of jazz. “Everything must change. And they’re trying to keep it the same. It won’t go nowhere; it died.” He observes, “Once you make a recording, it’s recorded that way: that’s how it is. And that’s the way that people who buy the records want to hear it.” That runs counter to the jazz aesthetic of never-the-same-way-twice. “Musicians understand that, but record companies are sayin’, ‘Fuck that. Make me some money!’”

“Jazz is dead,” McCann repeats. “We have to make it because we like it. I tell all the young people now, ‘If you’re really into it, it’s got to be a matter of life and death. If not, go find your passion.’”

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Back to School with Les McCann (Part 1)

Monday, March 30th, 2015

Invitation to Openness is not only the title of one of jazz great Les McCann‘s most celebrated albums (newly reissued; more on that later); it’s also the title of his new book of photography and essays. Throughout his storied career as a touring and recording jazz musician, McCann came face to face – in personal, intimate settings – with legends in music, film and public life. An accomplished amateur (though he’d effectively “go pro,” as well see), McCann shot countless photos in crisp black-and-white, capturing his subjects in a knowing manner that (for example) publicity photos often fail to convey.

And one of the book’s most striking qualities is its variety. McCann’s lens captures onstage photos, backstage photos. He includes posed shots, candids. His subjects are famous musicians and unidentified people. Comics like Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx are featured, as are photos taken at pro basketball games. Yet somehow, with all this diverse imagery, there’s a unifying aesthetic within the pages of Invitation to Openness. “Every artist, every creative project has a sequence,” McCann says. That gives the finished work flow and rhythm, he says. A project like his book, then, is “based on something you haven’t seen before. So you’re looking at [the raw material], assessing it: now what do I do with it? And maybe you can’t do it, so you get somebody whose eye you can trust.” And in this case, McCann had a pair of collaborators that he describes as his “corps of angels”: his longtime manager and confidante Alan Abrahams, and Pat Thomas, author of the book Listen Whitey: The Sounds of Black Power. “I took all of the pictures,” McCann says, “but then I put it in their hands.”

There was some healthy back-and-forth involved in the book’s creation. “I gave them all my pictures,” McCann recalls. “And they came up with about 700, I think. And then we narrowed it down to about 300 or so: ‘What do you think of these?’ ‘Yeah, I like that.’ ‘No, I don’t want that.’” McCann notes that initially, the project was to focus only on his photos of jazz musicians. “But my photographs are not just one thing, like my music is not just one thing. So they got the message.”

Some of the photos in Invitation to Openness are left to speak for themselves; others include McCann’s annotation. McCann writes that the book’s early 1970s photos of jazz great Julian “Cannonball” Adderley are some of his favorites. “There’s a little story that goes with that in the book,” he says. “It was the first time somebody picked one of my photographs, saying, ‘We’d like to use this.’ And they paid me for it.” But the Japanese magazine made an amusing error. “They put my name in there as ‘Les McCann Keyboard!’ I liked that, y’know? I’ve been all over the world, and people have called me everything.” Reflecting on fellow soul-jazz giant Adderley, McCann says, “I have nothing but fond memories of his joyful life, his joyful music, and his zest to be great. And [seeing him] was the first time that I went to a club and was totally blown away with everything I heard the band play.”

Asked if there’s a subject he missed the opportunity to photograph, McCann answers quickly: “God.” Pausing a beat, he wryly adds, “The day I met Jesus, he was in a hurry to get someplace.” After the laughter subsides, he continues. “I can’t think of anyone, no. ‘Cause I met everybody. I’m not talking about me being onstage and all that; I was put in a position to just be everywhere. Everything I ever wanted to do, I ended up doing ten times as much…stuff I didn’t even plan on. I came into this life with the beautiful understanding that I was ‘in school.’ I’m here to learn what this Earthly adventure is about. I might mumble and stumble, but the goal is to love myself. And then by loving myself, I’ll know how I want to love and treat everyone else. Because I truly love people, and everything that’s on this Earth.” He adds, “I’m not confused about it; not anymore.”

McCann’s 1971 album Invitation to Openness is a landmark release, as evidenced by the fact that it’s been kept in print and/or reissued so many times since its original release. The latest CD reissue, on Omnivore Recordings, is produced by Pat Thomas, and features a bonus track, a live reading of McCann’s signature tune, “Compared to What.” When I suggest that it’s one of his best releases, McCann is quick to correct me. “You can never say that; I don’t think you say that about any music. Because for me, it’s kind of personal. When I came to do [Invitation to Openness], I went into New York City and within one day I had told the producer what I wanted to do. And then organizing the people who’d be on the record – over fifteen people – and having them all in New York at once, it was a magic moment. The whole project was. So my special feelings and memories about it are about the session and the people.” He also notes that the album “was extremely well recorded. They captured the essence and ambience of what people were doing.”

McCann recalls his reaction at the Invitation to Openness session: “Oh my God: it really worked!” He says, “What you have to do is experiment. I’m creating 24 hours a day, and that’s the message I try to share with people. We came from creation; therefore, we are creation. It drives me crazy when people say [about themselves], ‘Oh, I wish I had a talent; I can’t do nuthin’.’ I say, ‘Shut the hell up. Get quiet, and look deeper into yourself. Not outside; look inside, and you’ll find everything you’re looking for.’”

“A song may live awhile, but as far as style, you can’t keep doing the same thing. That’s another reason I’m so happy about the idea I had for Invitation to Openness. I gave very few – if any – instructions. No rules; just play. Swiss Movement broke the door open for me: don’t lock everything into a set pattern. And that was very enlightening for me.

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Hundred Word Reviews for March 2015, Part 5

Friday, March 6th, 2015

For the final entry in this run of hundred-word reviews, I take quick looks at some rare and/or reissued music. I think it’s all worth your time.

TV Eyes – TV Eyes
TV Eyes was a 90s alternapop supergroup. Jason Falkner has a stunningly high quality catalog of his own. Roger Manning was a prime mover in Jellyfish, one of the 1990s’ best, least-appreciated bands. And Brian Reitzell is renowned for his work with Air and Moog Cookbook. The bad news is that the group’s sole (2006) album was Japan-only. Until now, that is. Its dance-friendly sound weds guitar pop to an electroclash underpinning; it will appeal to Gary Numan fans. TV Eyes also helps explain what Beck saw in Falkner and Manning (both toured as part of his band in 2014).

Ron Nagle – Bad Rice
I find it endlessly fascinating just how many truly creative artists are lurking right around the fringes of rock’s universe. Nagle was a member of The Mystery Trend, a band who were historically important (if largely unknown) in the 60s San Francisco scene. And as co-leader of Dūrocs, he created some skewed (and again underheard) pop music. And there’s his solo album, done in the interregnum between those projects. It’s even less known, originally released on the cult-friendly Warner Brothers label (see also: Van Dyke Parks, Randy Newman, etc.). It’s more mainstream than its pedigree suggests, and it’s funny, too.

Linda Jones – The Complete Atco, Loma, & Warner Brothers Recordings
Jones’ 1967 single (R&B #4) “Hypnotized” may well be where the malpropism “hyp-mo-tized” originated. Regardless, that and many of her other singles of the era are fine examples of gospel-flavored soulful R&B. When she passed away prematurely in 1972 (as the result of a diabetic coma) at age 27, she left behind an impressive if under-appreciated body of work. Her expressive voice and breathtaking range are showcased in her music. Real Gone Music once again does yeoman’s work in rescuing these 21 sides from obscurity, and working through the knotty licensing to bring them all together on a single disc.

The 5 Stairsteps – Our Family Portrait / Stairsteps
A family band in the Jackson 5ive style (though the Burke family recorded before the Jacksons), The Five Stairsteps are sometimes characterized as bubblegum (or “bubblesoul”). True, there’s an undeniable family-friendly vibe to their music, but that shouldn’t diminish their work in the ears of music lovers. From the doo-wop-meets-TV-variety-show music of “A Million to One” to their smash “O-o-h Child,” there are pleasures to be found throughout their catalog. But their first two albums (now compiled on CD with bonus tracks) are their best. Their covers (“The Look of Love” and studio-era Beatles album cuts) are often quite impressive.

The Unforgiven – The Unforgiven (Expanded Edition)
Imagine if The Alarm were from Los Angeles instead of Wales, and you’ll have an idea of what this six-piece sounded like. Very dated 80s production flourishes (gunshot drum sounds, roaring arena-styled guitar) wedded to the odd c&w flourish (an occasional dab of pedal steel) and a perhaps ill-advised preoccupation with their look (cowboy dusters before every lame country band started wearing ‘em) are the three legs of The Unforgiven‘s musical stool. Every song swings for the fences, wanting to be an anthem, and it’s all a bit too earnest. Worth a listen but in no way a lost classic.

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Hundred Word Reviews for March 2015, Part 4

Thursday, March 5th, 2015

Prog, jazz, blues: there’s something for most musical tastes in today’s roundup of hundred-word reviews.

Mark Wingfield – Proof of Light
If there’s a common raison d’être among the varied acts signed to Leonardo Pavkovic‘s MoonJune label, it’s to explore the sweet spot at which jazz and rock convene. Wingfield’s disc features a trio format – electric guitar, upright bass and drums – but what you’ll hear suggests the presence of other instruments. Imagine a low-key Joe Satriani with less flash and more of a jazz sensibility — albeit with plenty of skronky electric guitar texture – and you’ll be on the path to what this all-instrumental sounds like. The arrangements are subtle, but listen closely and there’s a lot going on.

Winter in Eden – Court of Conscience
Just when I finish a piece in which I assert that there are pretty much no women in prog, along comes this disc, by a UK symphonic progressive act. Soaring Mellotron-sounding keyboards (on the “choir” setting) are met by thundering bass lines, and the requisite tricky time signature work from the drummer. Lots of sonic light and shade means that graceful piano lines are met by crushing, edge-of-metal arrangements. The one-sheet tells us that the band is popular at “various Femme Metal Festivals.” That such a thing exists is news to me. A worthy purchase for fans of the genre.

Mississippi Heat – Warning Shot
I’m always a little guarded when I stumble across an album that sports of a picture of a really large band. It makes me think of those terrible horror-metal bands like Slipknot: does it take nine people to make that sound? To be fair, while the Warning Shot credits list thirteen players, the photo only shows seven. What we have here is traditional, Chicago-styled electric blues with harmonica and vocals out front. Nothing new, really, but then “new” isn’t what most people want from a blues outfit. It swings, and for fans of the harp-through-the-Green-Bullet vibe, it’s just the ticket.

Tony Joe White – The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings
The early 70s music scene seems to have been filled with white singers who could traffic in a credible southern soul style. Louisiana-born Tony Joe White was one of the best, often outshining guys like Elvis Presley (no slouch himself). With a style that sometimes sounds very much like Creedence Clearwater Revival fronted by Mark Lindsay, White turned out three fine albums for Warner Brothers. His guitar playing is pretty impressive, too, in an understated rhythm-guitarist kinda way. Nearly every track here is a White original. No “Polk Salad Annie” (that was earlier in his career), but many other gems.

The Soft Machine – Tanglewood Tails
Canterbury legends The Soft Machine are one of the genre’s best-loved groups. With their jazz meets rock aesthetic, they were an early bridge between the then-disparate styles. Their first several albums are legendary, and deserve to be part of every serious music lover’s core collection. The 2CD set Tanglewood Tails, however, is really a for-the-faithful set of rarities, outtakes and other lo-fi oddities from the group’s earliest days. Studio tracks (such as the delightful “Clarence in Wonderland”) are cracked pop that will appeal to fans of Syd Barrett, as long as one can overlook the consistently distracting dodgy sound quality.

This series of hundred-word reviews wraps up tomorrow.

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Hundred Word Reviews for March 2015, Part 2

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

Powerpop and jazz rarely go together. But in this edition of hundred-word reviews, they do.



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The Jeanies – The Jeanies
I look back fondly upon the early-to-mid 1980s, an era in which the cost of studio time began to fall within the range of local, unsigned acts. And others just scored a Tascam Portastudio and went the DIY route at the tail-end of the analog era. It’s that latter approach that is suggested on a new(!) recording from The Jeanies. The album sounds like it was mastered direct from cassette. The lo-to-mid-fi production doesn’t mask the energy of the group, who aim for (and hit) a winning Romantics vibe. Absolutely no keyboards were used in the making of The Jeanies.


Jason Adasiewicz’s Sun Rooms – From the Region
If you like upbeat, thrilling jazz in a bop style – and if you like the buttery sound of the vibraphone – then From the Region belongs on your must-hear list. The trio – Adasiewicz on vibes, Ingebrit Haker-Flaten on bass, and Mike Reed on the drums – turn out eleven original pieces on this disc, and the instrumentals are heavy on melody. As is somewhat standard in jazz, all three players are doing their thing at all times – not merely backing up the other players – but the whole thing holds together in an edge-of-mayhem way. Highly recommended.


Jason Roebke Octet – High Red Center
As presented here, the octet operates on the small end of big band. Influenced greatly (and unapologetically) by the mighty Duke Ellington, this vibes-centric outfit combines free jazz with more melodic variants of jazz. It’s thrilling, challenging and alluring all at once, and the interplay between alto sax, tenor sax, bass clarinet, oboe, cornet and trombone alternates between out-there and harmonious. A solid bass (band leader Jason Roebke) and drums rhythm section wisely keeps things from flying away into the realm of outer space (because that’s Sun Ra‘s territory), and across eleven tracks, it’s an exciting ride. Check it out.

Sax Gordon – In the Wee Small Hours

Here in Asheville, there’s an older African American gentleman who goes by the name of Bobby Sax. He’s inevitably found at the exit gate after a ballgame at McCormick Field, or outside after a Civic Center concert. He seems to know every standard ever written, and he plays for tips. That aesthetic (except for the remuneration, one hopes) is not unlike the approach of one Sax Gordon on this album. Backed only by organ and drums, Gordon winds his way through a familiar songbook, with a swinging soul jazz style that will please fans of Jimmy McGriff and the like.



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The Mangoes – The Mangoes
On one hand, The Mangoes is a concept album, a rock opera, or something like that. But at the same time, it’s a winning pop album in the tradition of 10cc‘s best work. The album’s opener “I Told You So” sets out the storyline, but you can ignore the story/concept and focus on the singalong melodies. Loads of 70s-styled keyboards, soaring power-chording guitars and tight harmonies (sometimes recalling Sweet) make The Mangoes an unexpected pleasure. Underground hero Tim Morse is half of The Mangoes, a group that even has its own theme song (chorus: “Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s the Mangoes!”).

More of these brief reviews to come.

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Album Review: Jessica Hernandez & the Deltas – Secret Evil

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

It’s easy – too easy, in fact – to note that on Secret Evil, Jessica Hernandez & The Deltas sound a good bit like Amy Winehouse. Yes, there are similarities in both vocal style and instrumentation. But the comparison underestimates the strength and originality of Hernandez and her music.

The Detroit-based vocalist paid some serious dues to bring Secret Evil to the musical marketplace; originally signed to Blue Note, she recorded an album that ended up in the musical equivalent of what the film industry calls “turnaround.” Put simply, it never came out on Blue Note. Eventually she freed herself from the contract, released a EP, and now we have the first full-length from Hernandez and her band.

“No Place Left to Hide” has hints of KT Tunstall‘s early style, albeit with soulful backing from a full band. It’s a strong opening track for an album, but it’s eclipsed by the classic-to-be, “Sorry I Stole Your Man.” Equal parts trash-talking swagger and coyly knowing giggle, the song has everything a hit ought to have: great vocals with memorable “Ah-ooo” lines, solid musical backing with plenty of hooks, some subtle acrobatics from the players (check the descending organ line in the chorus) and a punchy mix.

Hernandez is equally effective turning out torchy, romantic numbers like the contemplative “Cry Cry Cry,” in which the singer shows off her precise vocal control. And she does it without the all-over-the-scale showoffy melismas so common to female pop singers. When Hernandez reaches for the upper register, she makes it sound like the most effortless thing in the world. She sings like most of us talk.

“Dead Brains” weds an effects-laden electric guitar figure to a pop-centric arrangement. The upbeat melody is almost bubblegum, but The Deltas’ arrangement gives it a harder edge, providing an effective backdrop for the lyrics-heavy track.

The band is strong and assured throughout the disc’s eleven cuts, and The Deltas manage to sound like a cohesive band rather than a group of musicians backing a singer. Hernandez’s vocals augment the instruments, and vice versa. The bridge of “Tired Oak” evokes a carnival carousel, but does so in an understated way. The track’s dynamics are emblematic of a group that sounds like they’ve been together for ages.

In “organic” styles of music, synthesizers must be used judiciously; otherwise the tunes can end up with a sterile, assembly-line feel. The synths (or treated guitars; it’s tough to tell which) on “Over” enhance the melody without overwhelming it.

On “Caught Up,” The Deltas open with a familiar drum pattern that gives way to a rocker. For those who fell in love with “Sorry I Stole Your Man,” this track may well be your second-favorite track on Secret Evil. It’s cut from similar musical cloth but isn’t a “Sorry” rewrite. The shifts in dynamics – and the great guitar solo – are thrilling, and a bit reminiscent of fellow Detroiters Dirtbombs.

“Neck Tattoo” – a rumination on romance and regret – affects a musical arrangement that feels film-noir-ish, and it curiously evokes some of John Lennon‘s better mid 1970s work. “Run Run Run” has an odd ambience that seems to combine a gypsy jazz feel with elements of techno, though it really doesn’t sound like either of those things.

Some clever horn charts enliven “Downtown Man,” a track in which Hernandez continues to demonstrate her skill at jumping vocally around the scale without distracting from her lyrics.

Jessica Hernandez & The Deltas choose a melancholy, low-key number to close out Secret Evil. “Lovers First” has a late-night, low-lights vibe. Restrained musical accompaniment from The Deltas showcases a vocal that’s both subtle and dazzling.

As a whole, Secret Evil is as impressive a debut long-player as I’ve heard from a vocalist (and her band) in some time. Recommended.

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The Bobby Lance Story, Part Three

Wednesday, February 11th, 2015

Continued from Part Two

Listening now, “More Than Enough Rain” isn’t even the best track on First Peace. Lance’s soulful vocal work, supported by The Sweet Inspirations, is a highlight of the album. There’s not a trace of Lance’s Brooklyn roots in his singing; he sounds like an authentic son of the South, and he insists that it came naturally when he sang. Because most of the songs were Lance/Robins compositions originally intended for various other acts on Atlantic, the record is a showcase of varying styles. The gospel strains of Lance’s Southern-flavored blue-eyed soul come to the fore on “Brother’s Keeper,” and it’s easy to imagine Aretha Franklin covering “One Turn You’re In One Turn You’re Out.”

Overall, the First Peace sessions cost a good bit of money. But because Motown was poised to share in any profits First Peace made, the decision was made at the highest levels within Atlantic not to promote the record. So despite the strong songs and performances, First Peace didn’t make a ripple on the album charts; the LP would quickly go out of print. The label gave the record only a perfunctory push, releasing a pair of singles to radio stations: “Brother’s Keeper” and “Shake Down Blues” were both promo-only 45rpm discs, featuring monaural mixes (for AM radio play) on the A-side, and stereo (for FM stations) on the B side.

In late summer 1971, Lance got a pair of rare, if brief, mentions in Billboard Magazine’s “Signings” column, noting that he had recently signed a new management contract with SAS, Inc., the artist management firm run by Sidney Seidenberg, B.B. King‘s longtime manager. While his musical career was bearing creative fruit, behind the scenes, his career was a mess, with SAS, Motown and Atlantic all involved to varying (and confusing) degrees.

Still, by 1972, Lance was once again in the studio, there to cut his follow-up LP. And in line with his goals as an artist, he sought to make an album that reflected his individual creative persona. Now billing himself only as B. Lance, he was recording for release on the higher-profile Atlantic label. Rollin’ Man would bear the credit, “Arranged and Produced by Bob Lance,” though engineer Geoff Haslam – in demand thanks to his production work on a successful string of albums by Atlantic label mates Cactus – played a significant role. Recording in the company’s New York City studios, Lance had chosen not to use the Muscle Shoals session players for the album. Instead he auditioned and assembled a proper band, and the members – coming from Alabama, Chicago and New York City – had convened in New York for several weeks of pre-recording rehearsals.

Gone, too, were King Curtis and his horns, The Sweet Inspirations, and Edwards’ string arrangements. Nor was Lance’s sister Fran Robins involved: all nine tunes of Rollin’ Man are Lance solo compositions.

Alabama-born guitarist Kenny Mims handled all lead guitar duties on the album; it was his first professional gig ever, but his lean and assured lines – like the double-tracked leads on “Bar Room Sally” – sound like the work of a seasoned pro. And though his background was in jazz, keyboardist Mitch Kerper played in a rollicking, R&B style; the instrumental dialogue between Kerper and Mims throughout the album – most notably on the eight-minute-plus “Hot Wood and Coal” – is one Rollin’ Man‘s most enduring features. “She Made Me a Man” is a soulful ballad in a style similar to Lance’s fellow New Yorker, Laura Nyro. The call-and-response vocals of “John the Rollin’ Man” – all overdubbed by Lance – capture the rhythm and blues vibe. The rhythm section of Dick Bunn (bass) and drummer Jimmy Evans cooks on “You’ve Got to Rock Your Own.” And with its mix of Mississippi delta acoustic blues guitar and gospel-inflected piano, “He Played the Reals” features a lyric that explores Lance’s deep feeling for the music he loves. And the brief “Tribute to a Woman” closes the album with a message to the woman Lance loved.

The Rollin’ Man LP came housed in a gatefold sleeve that featured Lance’s lyrics alongside a photo collage. Like its predecessor, and again without marketing support from Atlantic, Rollin’ Man did not chart; most copies of the semi-rare LP found today are cut-outs (remaindered, non-returnable stock). No one seems to know how many copies Atlantic pressed. The label did release a legitimate (as in, not simply a promotional disc) single, “Rock Your Own” b/w an edit of “Hot Wood and Coal” from Rollin’ Man, but it, too, failed to chart.

In the meantime, as part of his contract, Lance continued with other duties for the label. He handled vocal arrangement duties for King Curtis’ “Ridin’ Thumb” on Curtis’ 1971 Atco LP Everybody’s Talkin’, and penned “If a Dream Goes By,” a non-charting 1972 Garland Green soul side on Cotillion.

Lance’s sister Fran continued her songwriting career on her own, penning a number of songs for a wide variety of acts including Tony Orlando. She also began doing public readings of her poetry, mostly in the town of New Bern NC, were she and husband Norm lived. In her later years she was reportedly working on a musical. Fran Robins passed away in May 2014.

By the end of 1972, with the terms of his Atlantic contract fulfilled, Lance found himself without a record deal. Since neither First Peace nor Rollin’ Man had scored any chart activity, there was little demand for a follow-up record. The Rollin’ Man lineup landed a few live dates in and around New York City, but nothing high profile came of their efforts.

Lance soon left the business and settled in Tarrytown, New York, just up the Hudson River from New York City. He eventually enrolled in college, earning a pair of Bachelor’s Degrees: one in Biology and one in Music. He also earned a Master’s Degree in Education. Lance developed an interest in literacy through music, eventually combining his musical background with teaching. For nearly twenty years now he has been teaching students in a school environment. He still writes songs and plays music.

Thanks to Norm Robins, Kenny Mims, and Bob Lance for their help in researching this story.

You can purchase Bobby Lance’s First Peace/Rollin’ Man here.

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The Bobby Lance Story, Part Two

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

Continued from Part One

The Lance/Robins songwriting team had come to the attention of George Goldner, head of the Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller-founded Red Bird Records. In particular, Goldner recognized Bobby’s talent, and believed he could go far in the business. He asked the teen where he’d like to get a job, and Lance quickly named the label that was home to many of his rhythm and blues heroes: Atlantic Records.

Goldner lined up a meeting for Bobby Lance with Jerry Wexler, the head of Atlantic. Auditioning his songs in Wexler’s office in front of the record mogul and Atlantic stars Wilson Pickett and Solomon Burke, Lance impressed everyone enough to be invited back the next day. On his return, Lance was signed as an in-house songwriter and arranger; his contract included a provision allowing him to release two albums.

Now established at Atlantic (an organization that included “house” labels Atco and Cotillion), Lance and sister Fran had composed another R&B tune, written expressly for Aretha Franklin. But when the 1968 composition “The House That Jack Built” wasn’t cut for Aretha’s then-current album, a miffed Lance brought the song to Barry Records and Thelma Jones. In fact, both that tune and its flip, “Give it To Me Straight” were written by the Lance/Robins team. On its release, Jones’ recording, using Bobby’s arrangement, started making appearances on local and regional record charts.

However, the next time Lance was at Atlantic, he was called into the studio. They had a surprise for him. They played a new record that Aretha had just recorded: “The House That Jack Built.” Her version used much the same arrangement as the Jones single, and once released, it quickly pushed Thelma Jones’ version right off the charts and into musical footnote status.

In his 1999 book The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, renowned critic Dave Marsh ranks Aretha’s “The House That Jack Built” as #704. The tune reached #6 on Billboard‘s Hot 100 and #2 on the R&B charts. It dated from the period during which Atlantic Records made extensive use of the excellence of Muscle Shoals, Alabama session musicians, including Jimmy Johnson (guitar), David Hood (bass guitar), Barry Beckett (keyboards), and drummer Roger Hawkins.

Lance and Robins soon placed another of their tunes, the strutting soul number “One Night is All I Need,” on Arthur Conley‘s final Atco LP, 1969′s More Sweet Soul. That album featured backing by the Muscle Shoals studio cats, plus a young session guitarist named Duane Allman. Meanwhile and on her own, Fran Robins penned “Sweep Around Your Own Back Door,” a Lulu B-side on Atco, also recorded in Muscle Shoals. She also placed a tune on Lulu’s Melody Fair LP, yet another album featuring Duane Allman’s guitar work.

Meanwhile, Lance was beginning to chafe within the songwriting partnership he had with his older sister. Their lives were deeply entwined: Fran had acted as a surrogate mother to Bobby for many years; and the two had been writing songs together for a decade. As Lance began to grow toward manhood, he felt a growing need to express himself more independently. To that end, he began thinking about writing songs on his own and/or with other partners. His naïve pursuit of that goal took the form of signing another contract, this time with Motown. The plan was that he would be an in-house songwriter for the Detroit label, and he might also do some session arranging work. That there might be a serious conflict of interest didn’t occur to the young songwriter.

Once the executives at Atlantic realized what had happened, they began efforts to extricate Lance from his ill-advised deal with Motown. The legal wrangling would drag on for some time, and the agreement that was finally hammered out ceded to Motown a stake in any financial success that Lance’s Atlantic albums might enjoy.

In 1971, Lance’s debut album First Peace was released on Atlantic’s Cotillion imprint. Cut in late July 1970 in sessions at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios and at Atlantic’s NYC studios, the eleven-track LP featured all original tunes written by the Lance/Robins team.

Beckett, Hood and Hawkins provided most of the musical backing on First Peace, while Lance sang and played guitar. A King Curtis-led six-man horn section provided beefy charts for several of First Peace‘s numbers. A string section conducted by Leo Edwards graced several tracks. Famed session man Eddie Hinton handled the lead and slide guitar on all but one cut. And though he’s not credited anywhere on the original LP, for First Peace‘s “More Than Enough Rain,” Duane Allman provided some stinging electric slide guitar.

Though it has been the subject of speculation for decades, Lance vigorously confirms Allman’s presence on “More Than Enough Rain.” The chronology of Allman’s involvement goes like this: Bobby had self-produced the sessions for First Peace, but remained dissatisfied with the completed mixes for a few of the album’s tracks. Ace producer Tom Dowd offered to remix those tracks, so Lance traveled to Dowd’s Miami, FL Criteria Recording Studio (also known as Atlantic Records South), bringing along the multi-track master tapes. Under Dowd’s supervision, Lance overdubbed some vocal tracks, and left the tapes with Dowd. Soon thereafter – October ’70 – Allman was at Criteria for the sessions that would produce Ronnie Hawkins‘ self-titled 1970 LP. In a spare moment during those sessions, Dowd asked the guitarist to lay down some licks to improve Lance’s track; the resulting mix of “More Than Enough Rain” features musical sparring between King Curtis’ horn lines and Duane Allman’s impromptu yet fluid slide guitar work (the track also appears on Rounder’s 2013 box set, Skydog: the Duane Allman Retrospective).

To be continued…

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The Bobby Lance Story

Monday, February 9th, 2015

Late in 2014, I was contacted by the music reissue label Real Gone Music. Label head Gordon Anderson asked me if I’d be interested in writing the liner notes for an upcoming release. I had already done a number of projects for RGM, including a Brotherhood CD reissue, a Cannonball Adderley title, and a Rick Wakeman project. But with regard to this potential assignment, I wasn’t at all familiar with the name Bobby Lance, the artist whose pair of early 1970s albums were released on Atlantic and Cotillion (an associated subsidiary label). Both LPs went out of print forty-plus years ago. But a quick visit to YouTube convinced me that his music – very much in the Muscle Shoals/Stax blue-eyed soul mold – was right up my alley.

The thing was, there was very little in the way of hard information on Lance or his albums. Gordon gave me a bit of decade-old info on Lance’s last-known-location, and pointed me to another blogger’s brief essay (from a few years ago) in which the writer asserts a possible Duane Allman connection.

Even though I had little to go on – and a deadline – I was hooked.

Fast-forward to a few weeks later; by that time I had found and spoken to a number of people connected to Lance, a highly-regarded musician who had played on the album, and Bob Lance himself. You really need to hear the music, but the back story is nearly as important. Here it is, in three parts. – bk


The musical story of Bobby Lance starts years before The Beatles scored their first hit in America, and reaches its peak in the early 1970s with the release of two solo albums for a major record label. Lance’s career arc includes close associations with some of music’s most legendary names, though Lance never achieved the high profile that they enjoyed.

Orphaned at a young age, Brooklyn-born Lance was for many years effectively raised by his sister Fran, seventeen years his elder. Fran married Norm Robins (née Rabinowitz) in the late 1950s, and Norm took a great interest in the musical pursuits of his wife and brother-in-law. In fact it was Norm Robins who picked up the tab for a very young Bobby Lance to cut a single for Square Records, a local label. The pre-teen Lance cut a song of his own composition, “Baby I’m Gone.” Very much in the Bobby Vee teen idol mode, the song reflected the popular style of that time, but very few copies were pressed. Robins, lacking connections in the music business, wasn’t able to get the song onto radio or into widespread distribution. But the experience did whet the appetites of everyone involved to keep trying.

Bobby and Fran had already begun writing songs together: though a classically trained pianist, Fran stuck to writing lyrics, while brother Bobby composed the music. Though both were white Jews from Brooklyn, their songs’ lyrics reflected common, universal themes, and their music displayed their deep interest in African-American rhythm and blues.

Back around 1957, teenager and fellow Brooklynite Richard Perry had formed a vocal group with two of his friends; they called themselves The Escorts. By 1962 and the time of their third single, they had replaced their lead vocalist with female singer Goldie Zelkowitz; that lineup released “I Can’t Be Free” on Coral. The song was written by the now very active team of Francine “Fran” Robins (often misspelled on credits as Robbins) and Bobby. When Zelkowitz (later known as Genya Ravan) left The Escorts in early 1963, Bobby came in as lead vocalist; he sang on their last two sides.

Elsewhere in 1963, a Brooklyn doo-wop group called The Monorays released the red vinyl 45rpm single, “Face in the Crowd” b/w “Step Right Up” on Pittsburgh’s tiny Astra label. Both sides came from the pen of the Lance/Robins team. The siblings remained busy, writing tunes for Maxine Brown, The Sidekicks, The Ravenettes, and Zelkowitz’s new group, Goldie and the Gingerbreads.

A 1965 Lance/Robins composition (with Richard Perry, now in the dual role of co-composer and session producer) performed by The Young Generation yielded a genre minor-classic in “The Hideaway.” The Young Generation was notable for its lineup: three twelve-year-old girls, one of whom, Janis Siegel, would go onto fame as a member of Manhattan Transfer. (“The Hideaway” is included on Real Gone Music’s 2011 compilation, The Red Bird Girls). Around that time – with both doo-wop and girl-group styles well past their sell-by date – Bobby Lance and Fran Robins began writing songs that displayed a more R&B-inflected style.

By 1967, Lance and Robins connected with gospel-turned-R&B singer Thelma Jones; she would cut a number of singles for Barry Records, the small label run by colorful and notorious music industry figure Hy Weiss (and named after Weiss’ son). The b-side of her 1967 single, “Oh, Oh, Here Comes the Heartbreak” b/w “Gotta Find a Way” was arranged by Lance. Though the single didn’t do much chartwise, it established a working relationship between Jones and the young arranger/composer.

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