A little more than three months after releasing one of the best albums of their 17-year career, The Roots are back, this time with John Legend.
The pairing is inspired. The Roots have long have a reputation as the best band in hip hop. For the past couple years they’ve proved their mettle to the mainstream as the house band on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.” Legend is clearly a great talent, but often gets overwhelmed by slick production and light-weight songwriting. These 10 reinterpretations of classic soul protest songs offer the perfect platform for him to shine.
Legend lives up to the opportunity, singing with grit and emotion only hinted at on his solo albums, and feeding off the Roots’ vibe. Opening cut “Hard Times,” a lost Curtis Mayfield classic written for Baby Huey, feeds off a horn line ricocheting off of Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson’s drums and Captain Kirk Douglas’ bright guitar. Black Thought’s rap in the middle reinforces the track’s message and feel. This is music to spark both revolution and revelry.
“Wake Up Everybody” features a guest rhyme from Common that feels like a verse from a lost hymn. Legend’s duet with Melanie Fiona here captures the same mood as a classic Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell number. “Little Ghetto Boy” – bolstered by another Black Thought cameo – and the buoyant gospel reading of Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free” are other high points.
Unfortunately, the album can’t sustain these moments. Legend’s vocal shortcomings come to the foreground on “Wholy Holy.”Gaye’s voice soars effortlessly on the original, while Legend strains just to lift off. His over-singing on Bill Wither’s “I Can’t Write Left-Handed” is accidentally exposed by Douglas’ understated, tasteful soloing.
Not all of the blame lies at Legend’s feet. Normally an impeccable arranger, there are some surprising issues with Thompson’s choices. Les McCann’s “Compared to What” swings and skips like a rock skimming the top of a lake. Thompson’s slower arrangement is leaden in comparison. His treatment of Lincoln Thompson’s (no relation) reggae song “Humanity (Love the Way it Should Be)” hews closely to the original, but without the Jamaican patois it seems stiff and forced. The performance should have been reworked to emphasize what Legend could bring to the number.
“Wake Up” was inspired by Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential victory and Arcade Fire’s song “Wake Up.” The original plan was record an EP, and truthfully Legend and the Roots should have stayed with that concept. The handful of strong cuts present would have made for an outstanding mid-player. As is, this is a solid album with plenty of outstanding moments, but ample opportunity to skip to the next cut. Or, better yet, seek out the originals.
Continuing The Daily Record’s look at the state of jazz today, here is the final of three installments shedding light on 15 jazz greats to emerge in the last 20 years. Note that these musicians are not necessarily the 15 greatest jazz artists to arrive since 1990. A brief listen to any of them, though, should more than persuade the most ardent purist that jazz is alive and well.
Eldar Djangirov is the continuation of the great line of pianists to emerge from Kansas City, Mo. that stretches back to Count Basie and Jay McShann. The three have more than an adopted hometown in common, though. Although none were born in Kansas City, all experienced significant musical growth while living there. Unlike Basie and McShann, though, Eldar’s formation started before puberty. He performed at a Russian jazz festival at age 5 and at age 12 became the youngest guest ever on Marian McPartlan’s Piano Jazz radio show. Though his latest album is straight-up smooth jazz, Eldar’s earlier work has a breadth that recalls everyone from Ahmad Jamal to Art Tatum. Albums to start with: Eldar, Live at the Blue Note
Bass player Christian McBride was mentored and hailed by no less an authority than Ray Brown before starting off on his own. McBride works comfortably in the traditional vein on his early albums like “Fingerpainting,” the excellent tribute to Herbie Hancock performed in a bass/guitar/trumpet setting. He gets more funky and touches on fusion with his three-disc live set recorded at Tonic and studio albums “Sci-Fi” and “Vertical Vision.” In 2003, McBride collaborated with hip hop drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson of the Roots and keyboardist Uri Caine for a spectacular collaboration known as the Philadelphia Experiment. McBride has also worked extensively with Sting and Pat Metheny. Albums to start with: Fingerpainting, The Philadelphia Experiment.
Expectations have been high for Joshua Redman since winning the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition in 1991. While Redman hasn’t fulfilled those unrealistic expectations by taking his instrument to the heights achieved by Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, he has built a strong career on his own terms. Redman’s early quintets helped launch the careers of Christian McBride and Brad Mehldau and his work as musical director of the San Francisco Jazz Collective paired him with legends like Bobby Hutcherson and new artists like Miguel Zenon. Redman’s catalog is adventurous enough to include covers of Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” with guitarist Pat Metheny and funky experiments that recall Eddie Harris. Albums to start with: Spirit of the Moment, Back East.
Jazz tap may have died with the golden age of big-budget Hollywood musicals, but Savion Glover is trying his best to bring it back. He has appeared in televised concerts with Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz at the Lincoln Center Orchestra, collaborated with poet Reg E. Gaines and saxophone player Matana Roberts for the John Coltrane-inspired improve “If Trane Was Here,” appeared in Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled” and was a cast member of “Sesame Street.” Glover hasn’t recorded any albums, but his live performances are a potent reminder that jazz isn’t the exclusive province of those with a horn or a voice.
Combining rock and jazz is nothing new, but the piano/drums/bass trio Bad Plus have done it in an acoustic setting that resembles Medeski, Martin and Wood more than Weather Report. Their early albums were filled with original material that split the difference between Oscar Peterson and Ben Folds, tempered by occasional arrangements of Pixies and Black Sabbath classics. Unfortunately, recent releases have steered sharply away from new compositions and saturated the increasing covers with more irony. While the concept of their newest album – all covers with a female vocalist – makes one wary, their early material should not be overlooked. Albums to start with: Give, Suspicious Activity.
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