jill scott, margo price, spirituality in jazz album covers

Random record reviews: Margo Price, Jill Scott, Spirituality in jazz

By Joel Francis

Margo Price – That’s How Rumors Get Started

Margo Price is a long-time Nashville resident, but her third album is loaded with the sun-soaked hallmarks of Los Angeles. The title song, which opens the album, operates on the same wavelength as Jenny Lewis’ recent masterpiece On the Line. The next track, “Letting Me Down” has a strong Jackson Browne vibe. Later, “Heartless Mind” has a very ‘80s feel that seems peeled from a John Hughes montage.

Her sound may be different, but Price is as defiant as ever, taking on motherhood, heartbreak and a raft of political issues such as housing and health care, in a sharp stanza or two that allows an idea to linger while the song moves along.

Special notice must be given to Tom Petty’s keyboard wizard Benmont Tench, who frequently gives the performances a Heartbreakers air, and producer Sturgill Simpson who keeps the album cohesive and gives “Twinkle Twinkle” the same fuzzy feel as his album “Sound and Fury.”

Jill Scott – Who is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds, Vol. 1

The debut album from Philadelphia singer Jill Scott is a near-perfect blend of soul, jazz and poetry. Her gig as a spoken-word poet shines brightly through her lyrics a delivery throughout the album. (Sample stanza: I felt Dizzy, Sonya, heaven and Miles between my thighs/Better than love,we made delicious.) Sympathetic production from DJ Jazzy Jeff (Townes) and the Roots (as the Grand Wizzards) create a neo-soul backdrop of acoustic instruments and horns that her words ride like waves.

Who is Jill Scott? brought some of the singer’s best-loved and well-known songs, including “Love Rain,” “One is the Magic #” and “A Long Walk.” No less than Beyonce has been known to drop a bit of “He Loves Me” into her set. Who is Jill Scott? Either a longtime favorite or your next favorite singer. If you love soul music, you need this album.

Various artists – If You’re Not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Problem (Soul, Politics and Spirituality in Jazz, 1967-1975)

From “Strange Fruit” in the 1930s, to Duke Ellington’s “Black, Brown and Beige” suite in the ‘40s, to Sonny Rollins’ Freedom Now album in the 1950s, protest music has long been at the heart and core of jazz. This collection rounds up 10 performances from a time when America’s civil rights leaders were being killed and more militant factions, such as the Black Panthers, were gaining a voice. As a genre, jazz was also under siege from R&B groups like Sly and the Family Stone and James Brown.

The music in this double LP is just as strident and uncompromising as one would expect from the title, but it’s far from a purely academic exercise. More often than not, the basslines in these performances are funky enough on their own to get your feet involved, while your head ponders the parallels between that time and the present day, and the horn players ricochet melodies and grooves off each other. Dig it.

Keep reading:

Review: Jill Scott at Starlight

Social Distancing Spins – Day 21, featuring Margo Price, Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen, Prince and delta blues

Powerful songs help move protest music back in mainstream

Review: Maxwell and Jill Scott

(Above: Maxwell performs “Fistful of Tears” in Dallas on the fall 2009 arena leg of the tour.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

If the local birth notices are unusually high late next February, we’ll know why. Sunday night at Starlight, neo-soul stars Maxwell and Jill Scott set a romantic mood with three hours of slow jams designed to linger long after the last note expired.

Shortly after sunset, a silhouette appeared on the screen behind the band. As the 10-piece band vamped, Maxwell suavely strolled out in a three-piece suit and sunglasses. Women erupted in spontaneous shrieks of delight as he set the mood early with “Sumthin’ Sumthin’.”

It was hardly the only time Maxwell would play to the fairer sex. Over the course of his 90- minute set he praised (“Fortunate,” “Ascension”), chastised (“Cold”), apologized (“Pretty Wings”) and seduced (pretty much every other song) the women in the audience. The set comprised two-thirds of Maxwell’s 2009 comeback album “BLACKsummer’snight,” and another half dozen hits and favorites for good measure.

The band rolled through the first three numbers without stopping. The come-hither strut of “Sumthin’ Sumthin’” easily rolled into “Get To Know Ya” and an arrangement based on James Brown’s “The Big Payback.” After a New Orleans jazz breakdown and trumpet solo, the ensemble took a deft turn into the Kool and the Gang-inspired “Cold,” one of the most upbeat kiss-off songs of all time.

Nearly every musician backing Maxwell has a foot in the worlds of jazz and hip hop. Many members have collaborated with rappers Mos Def, Jay-Z or Diddy. Pianist Robert Glasper was received a Grammy nomination for his 2009 album “Double Booked.” This jazz pedigree was on display all night, in the way Glasper or organist Travis Sayles would respond to a vocal phrase, or feed off the rhythm section.

Although the size of venues, staging and setlists have changed, Maxwell and the band have been touring together for nearly two years now. They’ve had plenty of time to sand out the rough spots, and Sunday’s night was an effortlessly paced ride. The roughest element was likely the most surprising: Maxwell’s voice.

The rasp in Maxwell’s throat was obvious from the first number; by the fifth he ‘fessed up to overdoing it the previous night in St. Louis and asking for the audience to help him on the high notes he couldn’t hit. He then bravely launched into the falsetto-sung “This Woman’s Work,” holding the mic stand over the crowd on the chorus. It was a generous gesture, but Maxwell would have been better off letting back-up singer Latina Webb play a greater role. Their duet on “Reunion” was one of the better moments of the night.

This was a small hurdle to overcome. Maxwell’s voice grew stronger with each number, to the point that he was able to handle the high parts in a cover of the Isley Brothers’ “Don’t Say Goodnight” with ease. The set ended with two guaranteed crowd-pleasers, “Fortunate” and “Ascension.” On the latter, the very full (but not sold out) house delivered the entire first verse a capella, much to Maxwell’s delight.

Jill Scott had the misfortune of taking the stage with the sun blazing through most of her 80-minute set, rendering most of her lighting and effects moot. It wasn’t a big loss, though, because like Maxwell the focus was on her voice and her band.

The 10-piece group sizzled through the keyboard propelled “It’s Love” that got most of the crowd up and dancing. If that number bounced with the energy of a passionate night on the town, then the next song, “Not Like Crazy,” gently embraced the delicate pleasure of waking up next to that person the following morning.

The two new numbers were studies in contrast. “I Love You” rode a bubbly ‘80s synth line, but wasn’t a radical departure in sound or subject. “Hear My Call” was a desperate, dead-of-night cry for help in the aftermath of a relationship. Scott performed the song backed only by piano. When it was over, she walked to the opposite end of the stage where her other keyboard player started one of her most affirming songs, “He Loves Me.”

Soon the band and the crowd were both fired up, but Scott stopped the show with her near-operatic vocal display that brought a richly deserved standing ovation. Scott made sure everyone stayed on their feet with the girl-power anthem “Hate On Me,” early hit “A Long Walk” and carpe diem hymn “Golden.”

It would have been a delight to have Scott and Maxwell share the stage for a number, but even apart the pair was a perfect complement. Both realized their roles as facilitators as much as entertainers.

“I’m here to support, engage and enthuse,” Maxwell said suggestively.

Scott was more direct: “This is an effort to get y’all some tonight.”

Jill Scott setlist: Gimme, The Real Thing, Insomnia, It’s Love, Not Like Crazy > The Way, Come See Me, Crown Royal, I Love You (new song), Cross My Mind, Hear My Call (new song), He Loves Me, Hate on Me, A Long Walk, Golden.

Maxwell setlist: Sumthin’ Sumthin’ > Get to Know Ya > Cold, Lifetime, Bad Habits, This Woman’s Work, Help Somebody, Fistful of Tears, Stop the World, Reunion, Till the Cops Come Knockin’, Don’t Say Goodnight (Isley Brothers cover) > Fortunate, Ascension. Encore: Pretty Wings.

Keep reading:

Fans delay Maxwell’s next album

Review: Jill Scott at Starlight

Raphael Saadiq sends a love letter to soul makers and Motown

Jamie Foxx brings it to Sprint Center on Saturday

Fans delay Maxwell’s next album

(Above: The video for “Pretty Wings,” one of the biggest songs to come off Maxwell’s latest album.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

When Maxwell released his first album in eight years last summer, he planned on making up for lost time by hitting his audience with three albums over a short period of time. The fans, however, had another plan. “BLACKsummer’snight” debuted at No. 1, spawned two singles that stayed on the charts for 46 and 47 weeks, respectively.

The assuring everyone “I’m back for good,” the follow up album is ready. Now Maxwell’s waiting for the excitement to die down.

“This (new album) will be the second in a trilogy,” Maxwell said. “They were going to come out in succession, but then the first one created this response. We’re waiting for the people to tell us when they’re ready.”

The soul man mapped his return cautiously, playing the Uptown on the first leg of his tour in the fall of 2008. By the time his show reached St. Louis a year later he was playing arenas and had two sold-out nights at Madison Square Garden under his belt.

“Honestly, I like the intimate settings better,” said Maxwell, who celebrated his 37th birthday on May 23. “People can hear us better and see us better. But because of the success of the record, I’d be in every town for two weeks if I did that.”

When Maxwell plays Starlight on Sunday, he will bring Jill Scott, one of the singers who blossomed during his time away.

“She is absolutely amazing,” Maxwell said of Scott. “Apart from the music, she not only has the most beautiful smile but the biggest spirit. She typifies soul right now.”

Maxwell said his set is “very different” from previous tour legs. The stage has been redesigned by Roy Bennett, who came to Maxwell’s attention through his work with Nine Inch Nails and Rammstein.

“His ability to design is stellar. We’ve got great video and lights,” Maxwell said. “More importantly is my band. These musicians could stand out in front of a cloth.”

The ten-piece outfit includes several artists who have made names for themselves in the jazz world, like pianist Robert Glasper and bass player Derrick Hodge. The pieces of the ensemble started falling into place when a friend introduced Maxwell to Chris Dave. Dave’s impressive resume includes collaborations with Mint Condition, Meshell Ndgeocello, Pat Metheny, Kenny Garrett.

“Chris is just an incredible drummer. He knew the person who introduced me to the horn section, and the band kind of evolved from there,” Maxwell said. “I won’t say it was happenstance, because I do believe in destiny, but it came together very organically.”

The musical landscape Maxwell re-entered is markedly different. Labels are failing and artists are selling fewer albums and, as a result, generating less money for both themselves and their label.

“It hasn’t been a problem for me, which is incredible,” Maxwell said. “We just added the fourth leg of the tour and I’m getting better album sales than I’ve ever had. I’ve been pretty – and I hate using this word, but – lucky. Blessed.”

For Maxwell the comeback is over. He’s returned and conquered, and now he’s ready to move on. Worn down by being asked why he voluntarily dropped out of sight so many times, Maxwell has a simple, smirking answer: “I like Seinfeld.”

Keep reading:

Review: Maxwell and Jill Scott

Review: Jill Scott at Starlight

Stevie Wonder celebrates Michael Jackson at Starlight

Review: Raphael Saadiq

Review: Jill Scott at Starlight

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

As her 11-piece band vamped, Jill Scott casually walked onstage Thursday night at Starlight, a notebook tucked under her arm, like she was a guest on a talk show. The crowd greeted her like she was Oprah.

It was an appropriate introduction for a show that was equal parts Apollo Theater and confessional conversation. The two-hour setlist leaned heavily on Scott’s most recent album, “The Real Thing,” which documents the end of Scott’s 12-year relationship with ex-husband Lyzel Williams.

For someone delivering the 21st century edition of “Here My Dear,” Scott was surprisingly exuberant. The album’s title song is built on an arena rock guitar riff and ‘80s drum sound, and was so important to Scott that she repeated the second verse a capella after the song was over and brought the full band back in for a reprise.

For songs from her first album, most of which were written about her love for Williams, Scott relied on the audience to carry her.  She introduced “A Long Walk” as a tribute to Roy Ayers before a sing-along erupted so forcefully that Scott relinquished the mic and let the crowd take over. It was a pattern repeated on much of her earlier material.

Scott is less a soul diva than a poet with pipes. Her spoken-word background shone when she would break a song down to discuss its themes. Scott is so comfortable talking with the audience that the moments chatting about relationships, sandals and women in music videos felt like friends dropping by for a living room chat.

She paused during “All I” to lament radio’s definition of old school – anything recorded between 1998 and 2004 – and showcase her backup singers with a medley of true old school classics: the Isley Brothers’ “Between the Sheets,” Teena Marie’s “Portuguese Love” and Prince’s “Do Me Baby.” Scott later started the encore set with “Gimme,” her version of old school, complete with a Kool and the Gang bassline and “sock it to ya” backing vocals.

Starlight was far from full – screens were placed across the back section of seats – and while the heavily female crowd was attentive, there were plenty of side conversations happening. Scott may have been Queen Bee for the night, but she still had to share time with other friends.

Scott’s singing is more Ella than Aretha. “He Loves Me (Lyzel in E Flat)” – a surprising selection given the subject matter – opened with a piano solo and a near-operatic delivery. The show should have ended there. Scott introduced her band, left the stage and the house lights came on. But as people were filing toward the exits, she returned to deliver “And I Heard,” a new number she had to get off her chest. Less a song than a poem set to melody, Scott had the audience singing like a gospel choir as her band quietly shuffled offstage again. It was an ending that affirmed the endurance of love, despite the pain it might bring.

Opening act Bilal took the stage at 7:30 sharp for a solid half-hour set that saw a lot of people still finding their seats. The high point was the keyboard/conga interplay topped with Bilal’s scat vocals that blurred the lines between jazz and soul and led into “Sometimes.” Bilal dedicated his song “Soul Sister” to the late record producer J. Dilla. 

Setlist:

The Rightness, Let It Be, The Real Thing, A Long Walk, Epiphany, Insomnia, Only You, Whenever You’re Around, Slowly Surely, Is It The Way, Do You Remember Me, How It Make You Feel, All I/Old School Medley, Come See Me, Imagination, Crown Royal (Encore:) Gimme, It’s Love, Golden, Hate On Me, He Loves Me (Encore 2:) And I Heard (new song)