Category Archives: Music

Take 5: The Pointer Sisters

(Top left to right) June, Ruth, Bonnie (bottom) Anita. Courtesy of samotako1.wordpress.com

(Top left to right) June, Ruth, Bonnie (bottom) Anita. Courtesy of samotako1.wordpress.com

For those who know The Pointer Sisters solely from their 80s dance hit, “I’m So Excited,” there might be the perception that they were a one-note band, a faddish novelty act. Actually the Pointer Sisters who have been performing in several incarnations for over forty years, were highly adventurous and versatile performers who tapped into and thrived at many musical styles.

Their eventful and colorful lives and careers would make an interesting biopic, one far more riveting than that of the bland Supremes. Born to an ultra-religious family where both parents were ministers for the Church of God, the four Pointer sisters and their two brothers were barred from all forms of entertainment except religious music. The sisters, who always loved jazz, blues, and rock and roll (referred to as “the devil’s music” by their parents) would sing together in secret, where they formed their dynamic sound.

Courtesy of killercell.blogspot.com

Courtesy of killercell.blogspot.com

June and Bonnie, the two youngest sisters, were the first to rebel when they dropped out of high school and performed as “Pointers a Pair” in various California clubs. The excitement and fast-pace of performing attracted Anita, the second oldest, who quit her job and joined her younger sisters. Ruth, the oldest, was initially a replacement for June, who sporadically missed performances due to suffering nervous breakdowns and alcoholism (which was an ongoing problem) before she joined full-time in 1972. At first, Ruth performed simply as a means to provide for her children after her husband abandoned the family, though she quickly came to love the work and acted as a driving force for the group.

As a quartet, the Pointer sisters were finally able to achieve a record deal for a full-length album, which combined a selection of old timey bebop tunes and contemporary R&B songs, including their first smash hit “Yes We Can Can.” In early performances before they could afford a costume designer, their style consisted of 1940s garb that they collected from various thrift stores.

They won their first Grammy, surprisingly, in the Country & Western category for their ballad (co-written by Bonnie and Anita), “Fairytale.” Topping the Country charts, The Pointer Sisters were invited to Nashville where they were the first black performers to sing at the Grand Ol’ Opry (although the bookers weren’t aware of their phenotype before they came on stage).

Courtesy of thissongissick.com

Courtesy of thissongissick.com

At the peak of their success, Bonnie decided to leave the group to start a solo career. In hindsight, this probably helped the group in the long run as her brassy sugar-pop voice was the weakest in the bunch. The ever resilient Pointers soldiered on as a trio and rose to even greater heights. In 1983, with the album “Break Out,” they fashioned a new persona of the party princesses and sang many of their longest lasting hits including “I’m So Excited,” “Jump,” and “Automatic” which solidified their major celebrity status for the next few years.

In spite of the Pointer Sisters’ willingness to adapt to the garage pop sound popular in the late 80s and 90s, their popularly quickly dwindled with audiences. They were cast aside for younger singers like Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and Sinead O’Connor and their two albums in the early 90s were flops, essentially ending their recording career.

They made another comeback of sorts with a nationwide tour of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” where they sang a collection of Swing-era songs. Their success was short-lived due to the increasing unreliability of June, who became addicted to crack in addition to her alcoholism. Ruth and Anita officially ousted her in 2001. June spent the remainder of her life in jail and in poverty before her death in 2006 of a stroke in conjunction with breast and lung cancer.

Courtesy of www.visitstatesboroga.com

Courtesy of www.visitstatesboroga.com

Ruth and Anita still tour under the billing “The Pointer Sisters.” While they still look and sound fantastic, much of the magnetism is gone because their band is of a lower quality and June’s replacements, Issa and Sadako (Ruth’s daughter and granddaughter), don’t match her vocal intensity or her charisma.

Friend’s Advice (Don’t Take It)

In spite of the negative critical and audience reception to this period, I dig their spirited take of this catchy and sassy tune about judgmental and hypocritical friends who disapprove of their friend’s “bad boy.”

Yes We Can Can

At one time in history, it was mainstream to sing about women standing up for themselves. This song, headed by a soulful Anita, is one of the catchier and resonant rallies for gender equality. There’s a great drum solo by Gaylord Birch.

Neutron Dance

One of their most consistently dependable raise-the-roof tunes, this rendition stands out because of its gospel infused sound and spirited background riffs by June.

Cloudburst

They fully immerse themselves in this classic bebop vocalese standard. The scat solos are fantastic, but even more impressive is their perfect synchronicity of the chorus.

Jump

Some fans have complained about the lightning-fast speed of this 1988 rendition. I think that the pace gives June the best opportunity to show off her great dancing, and the lower key showcases her gravelly rock-and-roll voice.

Take 5: Carla Cook

Take 5: Carla Cook

Courtesy of jmw.cz

Courtesy of jmw.cz

By Adam Tawfik

Jazz, like many art forms, experienced a renaissance in the 1990s. In the 1980s, much of jazz’s output, with prehistoric abrasive synthesizers, sounded like elevator music. In the following decade, we saw many musicians turning to a more traditional sound (and real instruments) and updating the standards with their own personality. At the tail end of the 90s, MaxJazz, an independent record label, formed and introduced the consumer to a crop of brilliant and original musicians, quickly establishing an esteemed reputation for honoring artists’ creativity.

One of its brightest discoveries was Detroit vocalist Carla Cook, whose auspicious debut album It’s All About Love, helped put MaxJazz on the map with its critical and commercial success, and even scoring a Grammy nomination (though she lost to the higher profile, but bland Diana Krall). In just three years, Cook continued her string of excellence with a duo of albums- Dem Bones (2001) and Simply Natural (2002). (In my opinion, Dem Bones is the strongest because it has more bopping and avant-garde funk, and many of the tracks feature a real groovy horn section). All three albums are available on MaxJazz’s website.

Sadly, she hasn’t recorded another album since. Although she still tours all over the world, appearances seem to be few and far between and they’re not very well-publicized. Until she returns to the recording studio, here are five tracks for your pleasure while you crave for Cook to hurry on back.

5. Solitude

Cook’s powerful pipes ably hold up with the brasstastic Brooklyn Jazz Orchestra on this Duke Ellington classic. Although she sings one bridge, her beautiful chest voice makes every moment magical.

4. The Way You Look Tonight

This romantic ballad, made famous by crooners Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, tends towards soppiness. With the help of this up-tempo arrangement, Cook’s straight-forward yet soulful phrasing keeps things fun and swinging. With solid accompaniment from drummer George Gray and pianist Cyrus Chestnut, it’s largely a duet between Cook and Daryl Hall grooving the bass. Cook’s scatting is top-notch.

3. Estaté

Cook brings her earthiness to this mid-tempo rendition of the romantic bossa nova. The other highlight is Cyrus Chesnut, collaborator on all three of her albums, playing a sensuous piano and a Fender Rhodes, (an electric piano that creates the vibraphone-esque sound).

2. Inner City Blues

Aided primarily by a funky electric piano and a vibrant set of percussions, Cook’s soulful cover of Marvin Gaye’s immortal classic stresses the desperation and anguish of black oppression in America (the lyrics are sadly just as relevant today). She provides some nice scatting throughout the track before it finishes with a fantastic drum and percussion solo.

1. The More I See You

Jazz with strings is often dicey, as they tend to either overtake the syncopated jazzy vibe or remain too much in the background. The Brazilian-based Orchestra Jazz Sinfônica, with the perfect balance of brass, woodwind, and strings, effortlessly grooves with Cook. After a soft and gentle introduction, things get popping with Cook swinging and scatting away.

Take 5 Retrospective: Liane Carroll

Courtesy of thekeyboard.co.uk

Courtesy of thekeyboard.co.uk

By Adam Tawfik

While I have nothing productive to show 95% of the time I binge on TV, every now and again this medium helps me discover something new and wonderful. One evening I stumbled across a concert on BBC (which has recently surfaced on YouTube thanks to the independent music label Splash Point Music) by an artist with whom I had absolutely no familiarity. This time my curiosity served we well.

From the moment Liane Carroll opened her set with her energetic piano playing skills and smoky soulful vocals on the swinging “That Old Black Magic,” I was a fan. In this performance (like in all her other concerts and CDs) Carroll enlivens her arrangements of an eclectic mix of old standards and more modern covers (of songs by The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, and Tom Waitts, among others) with a highly original footprint that feels fresh and modern without disregarding the integrity of the original material (and in many cases improving on it).

Courtesy of lianecarroll.co.uk

Courtesy of lianecarroll.co.uk

Several vocalists are also talented instrumentalists but don’t accompany themselves due to the difficulty of doing both at the same time. Carroll makes singing and playing piano simultaneously look effortless while doing both with gusto.

After being the first woman to win the BBC Jazz Awards twice, Carroll has built up a considerable fan base in Britain but still remains virtually unknown in the States, only having made her American debut in 2009 and touring here very seldom. At least she records albums regularly, most of which are available on Amazon and iTunes.

From interviews and fan recordings and testimonials, the Hastings-born Carroll seems approachable and totally unpretentious about her musical virtuosity. When she’s not on tour, Carroll performs at a local pub in her native Hastings, where she resides with her husband and sometimes collaborator, bassist Roger Carey.

Here are five tracks that demonstrate the versatility and dynamism of Liane Carroll.

5. How Insensitive

Although the bulk of Carroll’s work is solo, she collaborates with other musicians, the results are no less stellar. The usually bombastic and groovy Carroll gives a beautifully understated rendition of this Jobim classic. Bobby Wellen’s sax beautifully compliments her sultry voice.

4. Unknown

Full confession: Carroll does mention the name of the tune, but I can’t understand what she’s saying. But that doesn’t detract from my love for this upbeat scattastic track. In addition to Carroll’s soulful scatting, there are excellent solos from Roger Carey and drummer Greg Leppard.

3. Pennies from Heaven

Carroll’s smoky voice gives this delightfully old fashioned 1936 standard a more contemporary vibe whilst retaining the nostalgic pep in her piano playing. There’s also some great a cappella scatting to look forward to.

2. Wee Small Hours/River

Out of all her solo performances, her powerhouse medley of two heartbreak songs is my favorite. Carroll begins by delivering David Mann’s 1950s ballad “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” as a mournful lullaby, before she crescendos to Joni Mitchell’s “River” with a more animated sense of urgency.

1. Eleanor Rigby

Carroll’s gospel-sounding vocals and jazzified mid tempo give this Beatles cover poignant empathy and gravitas for the titular character and “all the lonely people” missing in the lethargic original version.

 

Take 5: Dakota Staton

dak ft

By Adam Tawfik

Every profession has its obstacles, but few match the challenges of survival in the cutthroat and fickle music industry. Millions of so-called musicians (really glorified noisemakers) have had a one-night stand with fame, but every now and again, there is an artist who has been criminally overlooked and ripe for rediscovery. Dakota Staton definitely falls into that latter category.

While Staton has achieved more than 15-minutes of fame, she has never matched the success of her debut 1957 LP “The Late, Late Show.” While full of pep, “Late Show” only scratches at the surface of Staton’s amazing talents.

Courtesy of nytimes.com

Courtesy of nytimes.com

Many attribute Staton’s decline in popularity to her conversion to Islam and marriage to the controlling and divisive trumpeter Talib Ahmad Dawud. If this is the case, it is wholly the consumer’s loss as they’ve missed out on an impressive body of work that showcases a powerful, soulful voice that became even better with age. Although she passed away in 2007, her work will live on.

Here are five songs selected to turn you into a diehard Dakota Staton fan.

5. It Could Happen to You

While Staton hadn’t quite developed the huskiness in her voice at this early point in her career, she had vivid, dynamic energy that is fully realized in her rendition of this song (I know the video says it’s “Some Other Spring,” but trust me, it’s not). The album’s title “Dynamic” is fully earned.

4.  Jim

Staton effectively delivers a restrained performance on this track, poignantly narrating the tragic saga of a woman who “will go on carrying the torch for Jim,” a ne’er-do-well who doesn’t love her. This is the first time I’ve heard this tune, but it’s becoming one of my favorite heartbreak songs.

3. Young Generation

When Jazz fell out of favor with American audiences’ in the mid-1960s throughout the 1970s, many artists in the field dabbled in R & B, Disco, and/or Pop. Staton is one of the few to satisfyingly crossover, with this 1970 R & B/Funk song as the strongest. It’s intelligent, catchy lyrics and groovy beat (and of course the powerhouse Staton herself) make this song the perfect tribute to the brave young men and women who crusaded the Civil Rights and Anti-Vietnam protests and fought valiantly for a more equal, just world.

2. I Thought About You

This one is on the list as much for the fact that it’s one of the few pieces of footage of her available on the internet, even if the quality is shoddy. But for the few seconds that the videographer actually films Staton, we get a glimpse of a remarkable diva, with her larger-than-life poodle-esque mane of hair and heavily beaded white blouse and trousers which emphasizes her hefty bosom and voluptuous figure. As always, she goes against the grain in her interpretation of standards making this song, which is normally performed as a languid ballad, a groovy foot-tapper.

1. Mean to Me

I’ve heard this standard serviceably recorded by several other jazz singers, but Staton with her powerful smoky voice and bluesy phrasing imbues a sense of passion and gravitas lacking in other interpretations. This definitely is her best individual performance and possibly one of the best recorded ballads of jazz history.