Thursday, June 30, 2011

Dues Been Paid in Full: Charles Bradley

Charles Bradley

Continuing in the vein of 1970s funk and jazz, tonight’s stop heralds that famous southern soul sound made famous by Messers O. Redding and W. Pickett. Listen to the jams, the ragged vocals and righteous lyrics of No Time for Dreaming by Charles Bradley, and you’ll swear this guy’s been around for years. Perhaps he was one of Melvin’s Bluenotes. Didn’t he play with James Brown in the early 70s?  In fact, like me, you’ll be thinking this album is the re-issue of the year. Why is it so Hard? which wonders why it’s ‘so hard to make it in America today’ was recorded at Muscle Shoals in 1970, right?


This amazing album and singer arrived on the scene in 2011! Yep, just a few short months ago!  

Charles Bradley lived many of his younger years on the streets of cities on the East Coast of the America and lost his brother to a gun shot by his nephew.  Trained as a cook by a Federal government jobs scheme he spent his adult years flipping burgers, frying up eggs and buttering toast in restaurants and even a mental institution.  He worked everywhere from Maine in the far North East to sunny California, always trying to find a club to perform in.  In 1962 he had seen James Brown at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem and had never lost sight of his dream to follow the same path.

But hard reality intervened. Poverty struck and always stuck in a greasy kitchen, there didn’t seem much hope for Charles until one day he was spotted in a Manhattan club doing an act under his stage name, Black Velvet. Lightning finally struck for the man who can tell you about paying your dues. His album has taken the world by storm and you can’t just help but want to share his joy.

Here’s AMG’s review of No Time for Dreaming.

On first spin, most listeners won't be able to tell that gutsy soul singer Charles Bradley's Daptone debut wasn't recorded in the late '60s and dusted off for release in early 2011. Subsequent plays reveal subtleties in production and instrumentation that might tip off some, but for the rest, this is a remarkable reproduction of the sound of classic Southern soul. Its combination of Stax and Muscle Shoals grease and grit are captured in what can only be called "the Daptone sound." Horns, percussion, background vocals, vibraphone, and rhythm guitar form a cozy, often sizzling blanket that Bradley wraps himself in. His grainy, lived-in vocals are straight out of the James Brown/Wilson Pickett school; comfortable with both the gospel yearning of slower ballads but ready to make the leap to shouting, searing intensity without warning. The yin-yang between Bradley and his players would be impressive even if the material wasn't as top-shelf as these dozen songs are. All three working in tandem yield a perfect storm of an R&B album, one with clear antecedents to the genre's roots with new songs that are as powerful and moving as tunes from the music's classic era. The band even gets its own showcase on the instrumental, Latin-tinged "Since Our Last Goodbye," perhaps an unusual inclusion on a vocalist's album, but one that strengthens the connection between the backing group and its singer. Bradley has had a tough life, knocking around for years as a lounge act doing covers until the Daptone folks came calling with fresh material and their patented production. That history is evident in every note he sings; pleading, begging, and testifying with a style that few contemporary vocalists can muster without lapsing into parody. Lyrically the material is a mix of the socio-political ("The World Is Going Up in Flames," "Golden Rule"), heartbroken romance ("I Believe in Your Love," "Heartaches and Pain"), and the joys of true love ("Lovin' You Baby"). Some tunes are more personal, especially "No Time for Dreaming" where he's telling himself to get serious about his career, and in "Why Is It So Hard," as he delivers a capsule history of his life-long difficulties. Even if the concepts appear shopworn, the music and performances are vibrant and alive with arrangements that are innovative yet informed by their roots. Retro-soul aficionados who claim they don't make ‘em like they used to will obviously be thrilled with this, but even contemporary R&B fans can't help but be moved by the emotion and passion evident in every note of this riveting set. (amg)

         Track Listing:
        01 The World (Is Going Up In Flames)
02 The Telephone Song
03 Golden Rule
04 I Believe In Your Love
05 Trouble In The Land
06 Lovin’ You, Baby
07 No Time For Dreaming
08 How Long
09 In You (I Found A Love)
10 Why Is It So Hard?
10 Why Is It So Hard
11 Since Our Last Goodbye
12 Heartaches And Pain

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Lounge Lizard Number 1: George Benson

George Benson
Skipping right along.

From the funkiest album of 1973, we fast forward a few years up the line and stop to pick up a guy who refers to himself as the ‘baddest guitar in the world’.  It is 1976.  “Howdy,” the man says as honeyed sounds trip effortlessly out of the radio. “My name is George Benson.”

George Benson is simply one of the greatest guitarists in jazz history, but he is also an amazingly versatile musician, and that frustrates to no end critics who would paint him into a narrow bop box. He can play in just about any style -- from swing to bop to R&B to pop -- with supreme taste, a beautiful rounded tone, terrific speed, a marvelous sense of logic in building solos, and, always, an unquenchable urge to swing. His inspirations may have been Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery -- and he can do dead-on impressions of both -- but his style is completely his own. Not only can he play lead brilliantly, he is also one of the best rhythm guitarists around, supportive to soloists and a dangerous swinger, particularly in a soul-jazz format. Yet Benson can also sing in a lush soulful tenor with mannerisms similar to those of Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway, and it is his voice that has proved to be more marketable to the public than his guitar. Benson is the guitar-playing equivalent of Nat King Cole -- a fantastic pianist whose smooth way with a pop vocal eventually eclipsed his instrumental prowess in the marketplace -- but unlike Cole, Benson has been granted enough time after his fling with the pop charts to reaffirm his jazz guitar credentials, which he still does at his concerts. (all music guide)

Benson’s jazz pedigree touches Wes Montgomery, ‘Brother’ Jack McDuff, the funky jazz organist, and Miles Davis. In the mid 1960s there indeed was no more exciting jazz guitarist than George Benson. His work for the CTI and A&M labels remain examples of some of best jazz of that time.  George actually started out as a singer in and around Pittsburg, PA but had such a way with the guitar his fingers won out over his throat.  But from time to time even in some of his earliest records he can’t help but sing (mostly at a fast gallop) a cut or two.

So when Breezin’ was released in 1976 he caught a few people by surprise. Mostly the great unwashed public who wondered, ‘Where the hell has this guy been all my life?” If you were around in those days, you’ll recall that jazz was a deadman’s game in the 1970s. A thing of professors and nightclub nosepickers. No one under 40 really followed it. 

Suddenly, here’s this guy, George Benson, decked out in a suit and a frilly shirt, unleashing utterly golden, silky and funky riffs upon the soon-to-be discofied world.  And the one vocal cut on the album is a languid and sexy cover of a Leon Russell rock ballad, This Masquerade.

Of course, you know what happened next. The album went multi- platinum, George ditched his golden stringed Ibanez guitar and realized his pop star dream. Good for him. Sad for us because most of his music for the next decade was pulp.

Thankfully he’s grown up and gotten back to being just ‘a badass guitar player’.

Breezin’ is simply timeless.  Relive the 70’s in style!

         Track Listing:
01 Breezin'
02 This Masquerade
03 Six To Four
04 Affirmation
05 So This is Love
06 Lady

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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Peace and: WAR

I think I can spot a trend as well as anyone. And the one that even Blind Eddie can see is the Washerman’s Dog’s love of Pakistani and Indian music. Over the past many months I’ve made new friends, had some interesting conversations and been led through new doors of discovery by many readers and ghat wale who share that passion. And I can’t wait to make more and share more.

But when I began this bloggy adventure I was driven by a love of many types of music not just the South Asian variety.  So for the next few posts I’m going to be leaving the Ganga, Indus and Himalaya behind and shifting gears back to the good old US of A and posting some tasty slices of musical pie.  For those who have no interest in this sort of thing, never fear: the Washerman’s Dog has plenty more of exciting music to share from the archives of Radio Pakistan and the dark woods of Bollyland. Take a rest on the side of road and we’ll catch up again soon.

In the meantime, the Dog is barking frantically and nipping at the heels of a band called War.  Remember them?  One of the most popular funk groups of the '70s, War were also one of the most eclectic, freely melding soul, Latin, jazz, blues, reggae, and rock influences into an effortlessly funky whole. Although War's lyrics were sometimes political in nature (in keeping with their racially integrated lineup), their music almost always had a sunny, laid-back vibe emblematic of their Southern California roots. War kept the groove loose, and they were given over to extended jamming -- in fact, many of their studio songs were edited together out of longer improvisations. Even if the jams sometimes got indulgent, they demonstrated War's truly group-minded approach: no one soloist or vocalist really stood above the others (even though all were clearly talented), and their grooving interplay placed War in the top echelon of funk ensembles.

War's third album, The World is a Ghetto, as an act separate from Eric Burdon was also far and away their most popular, the group's only long-player to top the pop charts. The culmination of everything they'd been shooting for creatively on their two prior albums, it featured work in both succinct pop-accessible idioms ("The Cisco Kid”) as well as challenging extended pieces such as the 13-minute "City, Country, City" -- which offered featured spots to all seven members without ever seeming disjointed -- and the title track, and encompass not only soul and funk but elements of blues and psychedelia on works such as the exquisite "Four Cornered Room." "The Cisco Kid" and "The World Is a Ghetto" understandably dominated the album's exposure, but there's much more to enjoy here, even decades on. Beyond the quality of the musicianship, the classy, forward-looking production has held up remarkably well, and not just on the most famous cuts here; indeed, The World Is a Ghetto is of a piece with Marvin Gaye's What's Going On and Curtis Mayfield's Curtis, utilizing the most sophisticated studio techniques of the era. Not only does it sound great, but there are important touches such as the phasing in "Four Cornered Room," not only on the percussion but also on the vocals, guitars, and other instruments, and the overall effect is a seemingly contradictory (yet eminently workable) shimmering blues, even working in a mournful and unadorned harmonica amid the more complex sounds.

One of my favorite albums that never seems to fray at the edges or bulge in an unsightly way, like most other things more than a few years old.

Ladies and gentleman, puppies and full grown hounds, may I (re) commend to you, The World is a Ghetto, the best selling record in the USA of 1973.

         Track Listing:
         01 The Cisco Kid
02 Where Was You At
03 City, Country, City
04 Four Cornered Room
05 The World Is A Ghetto
06 Beetles In The Bog

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Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Scion and the Sychophant: Asad Amanat Ali Khan

Asad Amanat Ali Khan

Before going to bed I’ll share with you one of my favourite collections of ghazals. I picked this tape up in Aabpara, Islamabad at one of those cassette shops that sat between the open air butcher and the hardware store. I asked the dukandar for ‘best ghazals’ and without hesitation he pulled this out from a grimy glass case. “Yeh pakaro, janab,” he said. Get a hold of this.

A dear friend of mine had, a year or so earlier snapped me out of my Pankaj Udhas craze by introducing me to Ustad Amanat Ali Khan. A little while later another friend let me borrow his tape of Asad Amanant Ali Khan recorded live in a Karachi mehfil. Together, father and son, blew my mind and I immediately stopped buying Pankaj Udhas tapes.

So when the shopkeeper slipped me this collection sung by Asad Amanat Ali Khan I handed over my 30 rupees (or whatever the price was in 1990) and hurried from the store as if I had just made an illicit purchase.  I immediately fell in love with the tape and it has been with me now for more than 20 years. About 6 months after I bought it I found myself in Iraq driving around the mountains as part of a UN mission. My daily companion was a Danish poet. We spent most of each day bumping through the mountains along the Iranian border in a Nissan Patrol looking for humanitarian problems to solve. One day I popped this tape into the cassette deck and Anders (aforementioned Danish poet) freaked out. “What is that? What is he singing? This is amazing. I love this,” and so on. Over and over again.

That night he made me translate the words of Ghar Jab Wapas Aaoge  and made sure the tape was always in the glovebox.  So, let that be this tapes commendation: If a Scandinavian writer who has never been to Pakistan can fall in love with this music then anybody can.

As I said, Asad Amanat Ali Khan  was the son of the great doyen of the Patiala Gharana of khayal Ustad Amanat Ali Khan. With this noble man as his master and mentor, you can get an idea of the sort of singer we are talking about.  Asad was instructed in the art of classical and semi-classical singing and some of his earliest recordings were thumris. But his greatest renown and popularity came from his ghazals, many of which, such as Ghar jab wapas aaoge are considered among the finest contemporary examples of the art. He was a lively performer with a clear tenor voice that is impossible not to be love.

Like his father he was awarded the Pride of Performance Award for his contributions to music, in 2007. Sadly, like his father, he died prematurely, just two weeks after being honoured with the Award.
Altaf Gauhar

The ghazals of this collection were written by the controversial figure, Altaf Gauhar. A civil servant and some would say sycophant and loyal timeserver of a couple governments, he was also a journalist, editor, publisher of magazines that promoted developing world issues and a poet. He was jailed by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and also edited Pakistan’s most prestigious broadsheet, Dawn. He later apologised publically for some of his more sycophantic acts and made some well received translations of the Koran. 

All up, this combination of writer and singer makes an intriguing collection. I hope you enjoy it.

Please note this a digitized tape and so several of the songs are on one track but I trust that is not a big issue for you. After all its about the music.

Track Listing
01 Ghar Wapas Jab Aaoge
02 Abhi Kaliyon Mein Çhatak
03 Jo Bhi Dil Kee Hai
04 Abhi Waha Cha Diya
05 Doob Gayan Sab
06 Gham Tera Ham Ne Pala
07 Ham Yeh Samajhkar
08 Dayar-e-Yaar-Gaya

Listen here.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Stellar Soundtracks (3): Umrao Jaan

Umrao Jaan (Rekha)
Umrao Jaan is one of my favourite Indian movies. It stars the drop dead gorgeous Rekha and the absolutely wonderful Naseeruddin Shah. It is set in a part of Uttar Pradesh that I grew up in. The story is a poignant human drama set against the larger historical drama of the Indian Mutiny (or First War of Independence) of 1857, one of the most interesting periods in modern Indian history. And finally, but most definitely not leastly, it has an absolute killer soundtrack, which I am very pleased to post tonight.

Umrao Jaan was released in 1981 to great critical acclaim but lukewarm public response. No doubt its literate script, nafees Urdu and historical setting was beyond the appreciation levels of the average punter. But in the 30 intervening years, Asha Bhosle’s singing and Rekha’s dancing have only grown in stature. Buy any collection of Asha’s amazing career of hits and you’ll find every song she sang in Umrao Jaan. They are still considered the absolute peak of her grace and creativity. Rekha, known more for her racy roles before Umrao danced and acted her way to the 1981 Best Actress Award and then went on to seal her status as a serious artiste.

The soundtrack is the most complete expression of music, lyric, emotion and drama Bollywood has ever produced. The director, Muzzafar Ali, was at pains to recreate mid 19th century society of the tawwaif  (courtesan) with as close to perfect verisimilitude as possible. And so elaborate costumes were sewn, the most evocative havelis (manors) used as sets, elegant refined Urdu was spoken and of course authentic period music played throughout. And to bring all of this to life he employed the best artists and craftsmen. The lyrics were written by the accomplished Urdu poet (and professor at Aligarh Muslim University) Shahyar and the music composed by the equally brilliant Khayyam. Together they created a musical and lyrical atmosphere that leaves the listener weak at the knees with the beauty of it all.  Not just the stunning gems of Dil Cheez Kya Hai  and In Aakhon ki Masti and Justuju Jis ki Thi and Yeh Kya Jagah Hai, Dosto. These masterpieces are supported by classical ragas, folk music and ghazals that paint a comprehensive picture of the musical landscape that was kingdom of Avadh (Lucknow). Alert readers of the Washerman’s Dog will remember that the instrument, the sarangi, rose to its preeminent place in Hindustani music as an accompanist to the courtesans of the 18th and 19th century such as Umrao Jaan. You will hear lots of sarangi on this soundtrack.

I have bought numerous cassettes and CDs of Umrao Jaan over the years but have not until recently had the pleasure of hearing the entire original soundtrack.  The largely unknown tracks by Talat Aziz, Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan, Shahida Khan and Jagjit Kaur when heard in the order they were originally performed make the soundtrack standout even more.  This is just an absolute golden moment in cinema music. Enjoy forever!

The Story

In the year 1840, a girl named Amiran (Seema Sathyu) is kidnapped from her family in Faizabad, Awadh by their neighbour, Dilawar Khan (Satish Shah), and sold to Madam Khanum Jaan (Shaukat Kaifi) who owns a brothel in Lucknow where she trains courtesans (tawaif). Amiran, renamed Umrao Jaan, learns to read, write, dance, sing, and charm wealthy men. She is a cultured woman trained to captivate men of wealth and taste.
A grown-up Umrao Jaan (Rekha) catches the eye of Nawab Sultan (Farooq Shaikh), and the two fall in love. But Nawab must marry to please his family, and Umrao's heart is broken.
She meets a dashing bandit chieftain, Faiz Ali (Raj Babbar), who woos and wins her. She flees with her dacoit, hoping to marry him and leave the world of the courtesan far behind. But her lover is killed by local police and she is left alone, with no choice but to return to her old life.
Soon, the British attack the city of Lucknow and the residents are forced to flee. Umrao's party of refugees stop in a small village near Lucknow. The residents ask the courtesan to sing and dance. Umrao, looking about her, realizes that this is her town, Faizabad, her family, the place from which she was kidnapped. She had been so young when kidnapped that she had forgotten, but now it all returns to her.
She sings the song, "Yeh kya jagah hai doston?" (What kind of place is this, friends?) a veiled reference to her feelings of dismay at being treated like a pariah entertainer by her very own people. After, she meets her mother and younger brother, who had thought that she was dead. Her mother would be happy to welcome her back into the family, but her brother forbids it — she is tainted by her profession and must not return to embarrass them.
At the end of the film, Umrao returns to the now-deserted and looted brothel in Lucknow and finds she is left alone, with nothing but her profession and her poetry.

         Track Listing:
        01 Dil Cheez Kya Hai
02 Justuju Jis Ki Thi
03 Kahe ko Byahi Bides
04 Pratham Dhar Dhyan (Raga Mala)
05 In Aankhon ki Masti
06 Zindagi Jab Bhi
07 Yeh Kya Jagah Hai Dosto
08 Jab Bhi Milti Hai
09 Jhoola Kinne Dala

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