UNFORGETTABLE JAZZ VOICES, PAST & PRESENT

By Dee Dee McNeil/Jazz Journalist

I am a huge LITTLE JIMMY SCOTT fan for over half a century. I was super pleased to see that music producer, RALF KEMPER, invested time and talent to produce Scott’s final album and a film documentary at the same time. It was humbling to review this biographical look at Scott’s final days in the studio. and to hear his swan-song recording before the last, life curtain fell. MICHOLE BRIANA WHITE is a new jazz voice on the horizon worthy of attention and ROBERT McCARTHER returns with his second solo album produced by KAMAU KENYATTA. Finally, VIRGINIA SCHNECK offers a very emotional tribute to ABBEY LINCOLN, singing Lincoln’s original compositions, with a ‘kickin’ band supporting her spoken word and vocals. Read all about it below.

February 13, 2017

I GO BACK HOME – A film documentary REVIEW featuring iconic vocalist, LITTLE JIMMY SCOTT

The film opens in 2007. An orchestra is pictured and a man with tussled gray hair is seated in an open field of grass. Fade to a white couch where this same man speaks to the camera in German. I wish there had been English sub-titles. Ralf Kemper is the music producer of this film and the man on the couch. His goal was to tribute the magnificent vocalist, Little Jimmy Scott.

A youthful Scott, with a baby face and slight of frame, appears on the screen in a childhood photo. Fade to Las Vegas, Nevada. This is where Jimmy Scott was living in the final days of his life. We see he and Ralf Kemper reviewing music at Scott’s home. Sheet music clutters the area and then cameras flash to Jimmy donning a black and white tie decorated with a multitude of musical notes. Kemper helps him adjust his tie and then the camera rolls back and we see Little Jimmy Scott being rolled out to a van in a wheel chair. My heart drops at the sight of him in that wheel chair.

I think back to Leimert Park, the Brooklyn-like community of Los Angeles, and the last time I saw Little Jimmy Scott. He was sitting across from me at Fifth Street Dick’s, a popular after-hours spot located on the second floor of a strip-mall building in the black community. There was always a well-attended jam session at this popular jazz room and many celebrities came to the Crenshaw area to participate musically or vocally. Still, I was floored to look over and see the great, Little Jimmy Scott sitting an arms -reach from my chair. He was friendly and kind when I ogled over him, embarrassing myself by telling him in all sincerity, “Little Jimmy Scott, I love you.”

Jimmy Scott is loved by many. You see that in this documentary. One of his admirers is producer, Ralf Kemper. His film captures the additional admiration of several notable super-stars, all who recognize the exceptional talent and impact of Little Jimmy Scott’s talent on our world of music. Among them are David Sanborn, actor Joe Pesci, who is pictured playing guitar and singing a duet with Jimmy Scott in the studio. By the way, Pesci sounds amazing. I didn’t know he could sing jazz like that and I’m impressed as he vocalizes, “I like New York in June, how about you?”

The sound track of this movie features Little Jimmy Scott, the vocalist I have admired and listened to for half a century. Scott’s beautiful vocal style is the one Nancy Wilson patterned herself after, as well as Etta Jones. This man changed the face of jazz with his behind-the-beat approach to music and phrasing. Pesci tells the camera, “Jimmy’s music is a serious spiritual experience.” He’s right!
Ralf Kemper has spent mountains of money on this project. You will view and listen to a full, 60-piece orchestra and a line-up of musical stars that all testify to the amazing capabilities of Little Jimmy Scott and his indelible mark on the music industry. Sadly, he never received the fame or made the kind of sensational money that today’s popular music stars wave, twitter and Instagram in our faces. Unless you are a die-hard jazz fan, you may not even have heard of Little Jimmy Scott. I suggest you Google him.

Monica Mancini is a huge fan. She shares that he inspired her as well as Madonna. Phil Ramone testifies to Jimmy’s ability to ‘swing’ hard, but be subtle at the same time. Quincy Jones remembers when he and Little Jimmy Scott were touring with Lionel Hampton’s big band. He says it was 1951, ‘52 and ’53 when Jimmy had that hit record, “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool.” Black folks couldn’t sleep in white hotels back then, so Quincy said they used to sleep in a funeral parlor with the dead bodies. He shutters at the memory, and so do I
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Fade to James Moody laying down a solo at the Westlake recording studios in Los Angeles. Moody says he used to call him “Cryin’ Jimmy Scott” because of the elongated way he could extend a note. Not to mention the way his emotional delivery could touch souls.

Joey DeFrancesco appears on organ, pumping out the blues the fantastic way that he and he alone can do. Jimmy sits in his wheelchair, headphones on his ears, head tilted back and all this power and expression spewing out of his mouth; sweet as honey; mystical as fairy dust. The man is magic!

David Ritz, autobiographer and co-writer of Jimmy’s autobiography, “Faith In Time” is interviewed during the filming. He explains, Jimmy Scott led a troubled life. His father was an alcoholic. Jimmy was devoted to his loving mother, but she died in a horrific car accident when he was just twelve years old. At which point, Jimmy and his siblings were put into an orphanage. At age fifteen, doctors diagnosed Jimmy Scott with a hormone disease that stopped his growth. His voice would never mature, nor would his body. Thus, he grew no mannish body hair and his high tenor vocals remained strong his entire adult career. Add to this, his singing style and demeanor that were like nothing anyone had heard before or since. None of this made for an easy life. Scott was bullied and taken advantage of, in one form or another, his entire career.

Ray Charles said Little Jimmy Scott was the only singer who could make him cry. When no one would give Scott a record deal, Ray stepped up to the plate and the resulting production was released briefly in 1963. Everyone thought that album would be a big hit for Little Jimmy Scott. That’s when a small time record company owner, (a man named Labinsky) popped up to claim that Scott was still under contract to his company. The record album was pulled from the market and sat on a shelf gathering dust until 2004 when it was finally re-released.

Scott worked as a nurse’s orderly and even an elevator operator to make ends meet. Doc Pomus, a historic songwriter, who also has a wonderful documentary on the market that I reviewed, was so angry about the way Little Jimmy Scott was being treated by the music industry that he wrote an open letter to Billboard Magazine challenging Music Executives and demanding they give Jimmy Scott a record deal. Unfortunately, Doc Pomus died before he saw any movement by the music industry to offer Scott a recording contract. Strange how some things work. Little Jimmy Scott was invited to sing at the Doc Pomus funeral services. His stunning version of “Someone to Watch Over Me” captivated the crowd and several music moguls were present. As if Pomus was working magic from heaven, Little Jimmy Scott was rediscovered at his friend’s celebration of life. This resulted in Scott teaming up with Tommy Li Puma to make the beautiful album entitled, “All the Way.”

If you know of this man’s incredible work, or if you don’t, this documentary film will introduce you to a jazz vocalist deserving of accolades. The plethora of jazz giants who play on this production and testify to the greatness of Little Jimmy Scott is also worth your time and attention.

On the accompanying CD release and the final Little Jimmy Scott album, you will enjoy the star-studded contributions of Kenny Barron, Joey DeFrancesco, Martin Gjakonovski, Hans Dekker, Joe Pesci, Michael Valerio, Peter Erskine, Oscar Castro-Neves, Gregoire Maret, John Pisano, Renee Olstead, Till Bronner, Bob Mintzer, Monica Mancini, Arturo Sandoval, James Moody and the HBR Symphony Orchestra.
Opening with “Motherless Child” featuring Joey DeFrancesco on organ, Scott speaks the words to the song before breaking into a heart-wrenching interpretation of this old and beautiful standard. On film, you see him struggle to hold notes that used to be strong, but the emotion and style of his voice are no less magnificent, even at this weak point in his life. Despite failing health and fatigue, he manages to sell each song and capture our attentiveness in a web of sincerity. His duet with Joe Pesci, an old comrade from back-in-the-day, is impressive. You can hear Little Jimmy Scott’s influence on Pesci’s style and delivery. “For Once in my Life” is a memorable duet with Dee Bridgewater.

The same way that Billie Holiday could affect an audience, Little Jimmy Scott’s vocals move me in a way that stretches my heart strings and makes my eyes tear-up. Joined by Brazilian star, Oscar Castro Neves, “Love Letters” becomes a lilting Latin tune. Every vocalist should take a listen and a lesson from this great, talented man. May he never be forgotten.
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MICHOLE BRIANA WHITE – “THE OTHER SIDE OF ME”
Independent label

Michole Briana White, vocals; Eric Reed, piano; James Leary, bass; Billy Higgins, drums; Charles Owens, saxophone.

“You Don’t Know What Love Is” is performed uniquely and memorably; from soft, fuzzy, warm ballad to a double time that separates this vocalist from a million others who have sung this song. Ms. White is a force to be reckoned with and she performs with a freedom and expressiveness that is both fresh and uniquely interesting. On “You’ve Changed” she delivers the aches and pain that love can bring, selling us the lyric, but somehow using her vocals to show resilience and power instead of whining or giving up. Eric Reed, as always, is more than competent as an accompanist and exceptional as a soloist. James Leary, on bass, shows what magnificent stuff he’s made of in the realm of talent, proficiency and his exceptional ability to feel the artists around him and pull the rhythm section tight as a sling shot. When he lets go, with power and technique, it is his solid basement that supports this jazz house. Speaking of iconic support, posthumously, Billy Higgins appears on drums. This project was recorded when he was alive, some years ago, and has been sitting in the ‘can’ until this apropos moment. His drums propel the third cut on this EP, “Yesterdays,” with clean, crisp rhythm and unbreakable time that pushes Michole Briana White to her maximum potential. What a trio. Bravo! This talented vocalist brings something fresh and unexpected to each song. She delivers on her promise to entertain us, but never forgets the importance of telling a story to her audience. Ms. White has a wonderful range, good execution and more importantly, she doesn’t sound like anyone else on today’s jazz scene. She’s also pitch perfect. The bonus track, after a heart-felt rendition of “Don’t Explain” is one of her original compositions titled “Game Over” and was co-written by Kurt Farquhar and Jared Keith Griffin. All the vocal overdubs are her own harmonics and she has a natural, hip-hop, new age sound on this bonus track. Here is a vocalist that can sing it all and probably will.
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ROBERT McCARTHER – “STRANGER IN TOWN”
Independent Label

Robert McCarther, vocal; Kamau Kenyatta, piano/ soprano saxophone; Marion Hayden, bass; Thadieus Dixon, drums; Curtis Taylor & Dwight Adams, trumpet; Alex Rogowski, lead guitar; Vincent Bowens, tenor saxophone.

Robert McCarther brings a fresh perspective to the jazz scene with velvet, smooth, baritone vocals and his astute ability to ‘Swing’. After reviewing his premiere recording (“That’s Me”), I was waiting impatiently for this release. Accompanied by some of the best Motown jazz musicians, his second solo CD tackles compositions by Thelonius Monk to Bill Withers and Paul Williams. When I listen to the musical interpretations of Robert McCarther, I feel great joy. Here is a vocalist who consistently makes you pay attention to the lyrics. For example, on “Hi Fly,“ tastefully recorded in three-quarter waltz time, I was very familiar with this song’s melody, yet somehow I felt I was hearing the words for the very first time. The title tune, “Stranger In Town” sets the tone for McCarther’s entire recording. It features the sensational trumpet work of Curtis Taylor with complimentary horn arrangements by Kamau Kenyatta. This song exudes energy, while setting the tone for an album of straight-ahead jazz. Kamau Kenyatta also produced these sessions and is probably best known for his work with Gregory Porter’s Grammy Award winning albums. He’s also pianist on these sessions.

McCarther is no newcomer to jazz. His dad, Louie Barnett, played saxophone with the Maurice King big band. As a young man, Robert often went on ‘the road’ and sang with that historic band. McCarther was also a strong contributor to the “Broadnax Voices”, a Detroit jazz choral group that was put together by composer/arranger and Motown writer, Morris Broadnax. The jazz vocal group was born upon McCarther’s insistence. Robert explained, “I was over Aretha’s (Franklin) house one day and Nax (Morris Broadnax nickname) came by and (as usual) I started singing his tunes. I suggested he start a vocal group that just sang his many, jazzy compositions. Eventually, he did it. We were very popular, working in and around Detroit for several years.”

During McCarther’s six year tenure with “The Broadnax Voices,” McCarther sang harmonics in the background, as well as front-lining for the group as a solo artist. In fact, he and Broadnax have collaborated on one of these album songs as co-writers titled, “Ya’ll”, a swinging little tune about self-realization. Broadnax also contributed two more tunes to this recording project, including the title tune, co-written with myself and his self-penned, “Lately.” You will find Robert McCarther’s choice of repertoire both unique and introspective. He seems to be drawn to songs that not only have a strong melodic line, but also offer the listener prose that tickle our minds and stories of life that mirror our own. Here is a jazz vocalist who puts love and sincerity into every word he sings, while keeping the time like a master percussionist and inspiring us with his straight-ahead, musical truth.
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VIRGINIA SCHENCK – “AMINATA MOSEKA: AN ABBEY LINCOLN TRIBUTE
Independent Label

Virgina Schneck, vocals; Kevin Bales, piano; Rodney Jordan, bass; Marlon Patton, drums; Special Guest: Kebbi Williams, alto saxophone.

Abbey Lincoln, who is also recognized as Aminata Moseka, an African name gifted to her during a trip to the motherland. She was a friend of mine who I deeply admired. Abbey Lincoln was a force of nature with her musical abilities and thespian artistry. She wasn’t always easy on the establishment or the ‘powers that be’ and she and I met during our revolutionary activism days back in the 1970’s. I was part of the Watts Writers Workshop and she was often down the street at the Mafundi Institute. We often appeared on the same stages during these Black-and-Proud days. She was using music as her catalyst and I, as part of the Watts Prophets, was using a combination of poetry and music. We had two other things in common. We were both songwriters and we both studied vocals with the iconic vocal coach and pianist, Eddie Beal. In fact, when I established (along with Dwan Smith and Shirley Washington), The Eddie Beal Foundation, Abbey Lincoln bought a full-page ad in our Eddie Beal brochure. So, it was with extreme interest that I listened to this tribute to my friend and her compositions.

Lincoln’s songs are lyrically beautiful and rich with stories. I’m appreciative that Ms. Schenck has chosen to celebrate Lincoln’s songwriting talents. Some of her melodies are challenging with melodic movement that confronts the vocal range, while others are sing-song simple. You can clearly hear the melodic intervals challenge the vocalist in the very first song, “Talking to the Sun.” The trio is staunch and amply provides Schenck with tenacious support. There are some pitch problems in this opening tune, but Virginia Schenck’s emotional connection to these songs is to be applauded. On the 2nd cut, “Another World” the arrangement is extremely interesting with voice & bass playing tag with each other. This unique arrangement grabs the attention like the jaws of life. Kevin Bales shows his prowess on piano during their interpretation of “Bird Alone”. “The River” celebrates the Abbey Lincoln I remember with her husband, iconic jazz drummer, Max Roach, when they were recording very Avant Garde jazz music in her early career. It also recalls Lincoln’s penchant for acting, as Schenck recites the words like poetry. The musicians are awe-inspiring throughout. On this piece, they feature special guest, Kebbi Williams, soaring freely on alto saxophone. I thoroughly enjoyed their take on “Blue Monk” with an outstanding bass solo by Rodney Jordan. I do wish Schenck had not taken so many liberties with Lincoln’s amazing melodies. For the composition’s sake, as singers we usually sing a song down once the way the composer wrote it. Then, in the jazz vein, we improvise with the freedom jazz inspires. Being a published poet myself, I do applaud Schenck for including this art form in her recording and for celebrating the mastery of Maya Angelou with Abbey Lincoln’s music on,” Caged Bird”.

This is important work, not just for introducing us to the vocalist, but for reintroducing the world to the unforgettable compositions and the exceptional composing talents of Abbey Lincoln. Thank you for that, Virginia Schenck. I look forward to enjoying other vocalists, who will be inspired to tackle Lincoln’s smart, lyrical material.
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