Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson - 1974 - Winter in America

Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson 
Winter in America


01. Peace Go With You, Brother (As-Salaam-Alaikum)   
02. Rivers Of My Fathers   
03. A Very Precious Time   
04. Back Home   
05. The Bottle   
06. Song For Bobby Smith   
07. Your Daddy Loves You   
08. H2Ogate Blues   
09. Peace Go With You Brother (Wa-Alaikum-Salaam)   

Gil Scott-Heron: Piano, Vocals
Brian Jackson: Piano, Vocals
Danny Bowens: Bass
Bob Adams: Percussion

Recorded on September 4, 5 and October 15, 1973 at D&B Sound, Silver Springs, Maryland

Is this the most underrated soul album of all time?  In my opinion, yes it is.  I suppose I get how most people don't like this album nearly as much as I do.  It's just not what they're looking for.  They go into a Gil Scott-Heron album expecting a strong political agenda, an upbeat pace, and a lot of lyrics in each song.  I'm sure a lot of soul fans didn't like this album as much me because they go into a soul album not expecting such jazzy music.  You would think that the tag of "soul jazz" would steer them clear, but since Gil is such a praised soul artist, they undoubtedly listened to this album anyway.  This album does not fit that typical description of a Gil Scott-Heron album or a soul album, which is probably why this album isn't rated as highly as I think it should be. 

The reason that I think it should be rated so highly is because everything that I mentioned before and countless other aspects of this album click with me.  I love jazz and the Rhodes is one of my favorite instruments ever, easily the best keyboard ever invented.  The smooth, heart-melting sound of this album creeps its way up into my soul and comfortably rests there throughout the duration of the album.  The tranquil, happy feeling I get while listening to this album can't even be put into words. 

Gil himself is even better than the instrumental music.  He's known for his poetic lyrics, above all, because he's amazing at them.  He usually forms them into spoken word songs or sings them at an upbeat pace.  In doing so, he crams a lot of meaningful lyrics into each song, similarly to a political or conscious hip hop song, which is why he is known as the "Godfather of hip hop."  While I love that side of him, this album highlights a different side of him.  On this album, his voice, which is amazing and doesn't receive nearly enough credit, is highlighted.  The lyrics are still deep, meaningful, and poetic, but there aren't as many in each song, allowing him to draw out notes and put a lot of focus into the power and finesse of his voice.  The excellent, attention-gripping song writing is still there, but it's just slightly less prominent than on most of his other albums.  I could see how this could be a problem for someone, but it most definitely isn't a problem for me.  Gil has one of my favorite voices of all time, so the fact that it's highlighted on this album is a blessing for me.  Another thing that differs from his more popular albums is that there isn't so much focus on politics on this album.  "H20 Gate Blues" is highly political, but most of the album is focused around peace and love.  The theme of peace and love is a theme that can never be outdated and when it's conveyed by a non-corny song writer, such as Gil, it can never not be a great theme to make music about.  Between Gil's incredible, emotion-packed voice, excellent lyrics, and eternally relevant messages, this is easily one of my favorite vocal performances of any artist ever.

This album will always be underrated and slept on, but that doesn't change the fact that I consider it to be one of the best albums of all time.  The music is perfect, the vocals are perfect, the length is perfect, and I could (and will) listen to it a million times and love it every time.  Maybe this album doesn't deserve to be considered one of the all time greats because it doesn't appeal to enough people, but it's a perfect case of an album appealing to me and my personal preferences in every way possible.  I'm having a really hard time trying to wrap this review up, as I always do when it comes to my favorite albums.  How about this, if I had to summarize this album in one sentence, I would say that it's a perfect album...I can't think of anything's perfect.

Gil Scott-Heron - 1972 - Free Will

Gil Scott-Heron 
Free Will

01. Free Will 3:30
02. The Middle of Your Day 4:30
03. The Get Out of the Ghetto Blues 5:04
04. Speed Kills 3:15
05. Did You Hear What They Said? 3:28
06. The King Alfred Plan 2:45
07. No Knock 2:12
08. Wiggy 1:38
09. Ain't No New Thing 4:29
10. Billy Green Is Dead 1:30
11. Sex Education: Ghetto Style 0:50
12. ...And Then He Wrote Meditations

Gil Scott-Heron: vocals
Bob Thiele: producer
Brian Jackson: electric piano, piano, vocals, flute, bells
David Spinozza: guitar
Jerry Jemmott: bass guitar
Hubert Laws: flute, piccolo
Bernard Purdie: drums
Eddie Knowles: percussion
Charlie Saunders: percussion

It's kind of amazing to look back at this,the now late Gil Scott Heron's fourth studio album and realize that in the short three years since he'd made his debut that he'd come to embody the funk era/black power political and social consciousness of his day. Although inspired on this fron to a degree from the likes of Miles Davis,John Coltrane and James Brown alike it was Miles' more aggressive and sometimes angry approach that seemed to drive Heron's musical approch at this particular point. Much as with many early releases during what was known as the "united funk era" the music of this album seemed to know no label,a concept that would lend it to becomming a proto hip-hop classic with it's mixture of political commentary,half sung lyrics and of course the occasional profanity;for pure emphasis that is. And that emphasis was really important because frankly Gil Scott Heron had a whole lot of topics to emphasize on this album.

Including the likes of Bernard Purdie,Hubert Laws and David Spinozza in the rhythm section this album is divided into two parts-a musical one and a poetic "rap" one. The the feeling of the ENTIRE album is like attending an African American political summit of the early 70's years of Richard Nixon's second term and the tail end of the vietnam war. Heron also makes it clear his thoughts that his own community could use some emotional retooling on the lowdown style blues of "The Get Out Of The Ghetto Blues",discussing the perrils of those who allow poverty to bring them into a state of self pity and apathy to their own true needs. "Did You Hear What They Said" tells the tale of an only child dying in Vietnam whereas the title track explores the black consciousness in a more obviously intellectual sense-all of these songs being set to breezy,melodic midtempo jazz-funk backrounds generally of course.

Backed up only by afro latin percussion of course the "Poet Tree" half of the album has a far more direct approach. Known by many for being sometimes a bit aggresively angry there's a lot of out and out humor of the Richard Pryor sort to be found here as well especially "Ain't No New Thing",an excellent and pointed recitation about how black music in America is constantly being co-opted,from jazz to rock n roll-even suggesting that perhaps one day even Lawrence Welk would be considered jazz the way things were going. "Wiggy" also takes the old straight vs nappy hair clishe and puts it in a more socio economic context where "The King Alfred Plan" and "No Knock" take a break from humor and get VERY VERY serious regarding the governments plan to put certain black activists in concentration camp like fascilities. No it doesn't shine a very good light on things but considering what's happened to Hurricane Katrina victims in recent years it says a lot for todays world as well.

The album also includes the sly "Sex Education:Ghetto Style" which is...exactly what it says and more direct commentary in "Billy Green Is Dead". Very much in the spirit of people such George Clinton wih Funkadelic Gil Scott Heron seemed to have the ability to make the pointed political issues his poetry/lyrics spoke about wiggle and wobble somewhere between qualities of seriousness and humor. And considering his possition as both a well educated,intellectual poet and an entertainer he really succeeded (especially with his Flying Dutchman albums such as this one) in combining those two qualities to the best of his ability. And it's this very expect that makes this one of his finest and most defining overall recordings.

Gil Scott-Heron - 1971 - Pieces Of A Man

Gil Scott-Heron 
Pieces Of A Man

01. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
02. Save the Children
03. Lady Day & John Coltrane
04. Home Is Where the Hatred Is
05. When You Are Who You Are
06. I Think I'll Call It Morning
07. Pieces of a Man
08. A Sign of the Ages
09. Or Down You Fall
10. The Needle's Eye
11. The Prisoner

Gil Scott-Heron: vocals, writer
Brian Jackson: piano, electric piano, writer
Burt Jones: guitar
Ron Carter: double bass, bass guitar
Bernard Purdie: drums
Hubert Laws: flute, saxophone

The song "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" is the earliest incidence of rap that I've heard so far.  What's more, it features the flute playing of Hubert Laws.  That's right, flute in a rap song.  

The next thing that really struck me was the bass.  None other than Ron Carter makes the switch to electric bass, reminding me of Jaco Pastorius a little bit.  Those three musicians form a deadly  trio.  Hubert Laws only plays on three songs, I think.  That's not much of an issue though because he wouldn't have really fit in many of the other songs.    The style of the music varies from fusion on the first half to soul and jazz on the rest of the record.  What takes the album from being good to being great is the fact that everyone can identify with the lyrics about the plight of African Americans and subjects like depression.  

"Lady Day and John Coltrane" feels more like a statement about the power of music in general to enhance you life, with John Coltrane and Billie Holiday used as examples.  Scott-Heron has made it known on his records that he's a huge fan of Coltrane.  Kind of makes a person wonder what kind of crazy supergroup would have been inevitable had a few people not died prematurely.  Let's say Coltrane lived on.  Heron might have used Ron Carter to recruit Coltrane into this band.  Pretty much wherever Coltrane went, Elvin Jones followed, so they wouldn't have had to look far for a drummer.  So far we've got flute, vocal, drums, sax and bass.  What about guitar?  The only right person for the job would have Jimi Hendrix, yet another victim of too much celebrity.  Maybe throw John's talented wife Alice in on piano and harp.  Voila!  Potentially one of the best supergroups that will never be.  It's sad, really.

What I like better about this album versus Free Will is the presence of Ron Carter and that the lyrics are still political but don't go so far as to border on being anti-white.  It's one thing to stick up for your people but it's other to sound like you're verbally attacking another group in the process.  Let's not fight hate with hate. Pieces of a Man was released the same year as What's Going On by Marvin Gaye, has just as much political and social commentary, might be better, and yet gets a meager amount of recognition in comparison.  Yup, that's about how much sense I've come to expect from the music world.

Gil Scott-Heron - 1970 - Small Talk at 125th and Lenox

Gil Scott-Heron 
Small Talk at 125th and Lenox

01. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised 2:46
02. Omen 1:45
03. Brother 2:35
04. Comment #1 4:26
05. Small Talk at 125th & Lenox 1:23
06. The Subject Was Faggots 3:10
07. Evolution (and Flashback) 3:20
08. Plastic Pattern People 2:50
09. Whitey on the Moon 1:57
10. The Vulture
11. Enough 8:37
12. Paint It Black 0:30
13. Who'll Pay Reparations on My Soul? 4:20
14. Everyday 4:20

Gil Scott-Heron: poetry, lyrics, music
Eddie Knowles: conga
Charlie Saunders: conga
David Barnes: percussion, vocal

Where the legend that is Gil Scott-Heron started.  An excellent political and powerful live spoken word album.  Not quite as disturbing and menacing as The Last Poets or The Watts Prophets. There is only one of him, so you don't get that cross shouting and vocal layers that you got with the Poets and the Prophets.  Though the feel of the album is quite mellow the lyrics are very strong and still very relevant, except maybe for "The Subject Was Fagots" which seems out of place on an album about black politics and inner city struggle.

I have very strange feelings. While I love GSH's earnest delivery, I cannot forgive him for The Subject Was Faggots. There's nothing quite as pathetic as a straight man wondering what would happen were he to enter a gay bar (or in this case ball). I can tell you what will happen you ignorant little bitch - nothing. Gay men have no interest in your uptight, straight and narrow minded ass.

I suppose what gets me the most is that GSH is expressing such truths about oppression of a group of people simply because of who they are. The hypocrisy is a little ridiculous.

This being said, at this time GSH was a very angry 21 year old who was probably quite blind to the plights of others. It's a classic example of youth not knowing how to aim anger in the appropriate direction.

As an overall album, I find this to be good but not great. Yes, it's marred by an insensitive three minutes and eleven seconds, but this is still a great example of spoken word expression.