Pop culture’s love-hate relationship with its artists presents an interesting conundrum. Music created for mass-consumption must be easily digestible, yet the public is quick to retaliate against content that lacks substance. Gifted musicians are often pigeonholed into a certain style or sound that may not reflect their true range. This myopic point of view focuses on one marketable facet of an artist’s talent without taking into account the fact that most recording musicians tend to compose in a variety of styles and genres.
Born in Cardiff, Wales, Donna Lewis grew up in a family of musicians. Exposed to the jazz greats at an early age, she left the UK for Canada to record with producer Pierre Marchand. After years of unsuccessful pitches to record labels, she caught the attention of Atlantic Records in ‘94 and released her debut album “Now In A Minute”. The album and accompanying single “I Love You Always Forever” went on to become major hits in both the US and global charts, reaching #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and the album certifying platinum.
In the 20 years since her smash hit, Donna Lewis has maintained a steady career as a recording artist and composer. Now, accompanied by longtime producer David Torn and members of the progressive jazz trio “The Bad Plus”, Donna is set to release her first album in nearly decade. Light years away from her commercial radio hits of the 90’s, Donna Lewis’ latest release “Brand New Day” re-imagines work by artists as diverse as David Bowie, Neil Young, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Gnarls Barkley. We sat down with Donna to talk about her artistic influences, her history as a recording musician, and the demands placed on young artists by the popular music industry.
Fronted by an already well-established Chicago area saxophonist, the “Shawn Maxwell Alliance” expands the concept of what a mixed ensemble can accomplish in the jazz realm. This debut album features a sprawling list of modern jazz composers and leaders including another Chicago saxophonist, Chris Greene, vocalist Keri Johnsrud, vibraphonist Stephen Lynerd, and bassist Stacy McMichael. The group is augmented with a collection of featured players including guitarist Mitch Corso, double bassist Marc Piane, drummer Paul Townsend and Rachel Maxwell and Meghan Fulton on french horn.
A long list of tunes accompanies this large ensemble as the album features a full 18 tracks of original compositions. A cryptic list of titles including “Radio Hit Number Four” (actual album track # 11) and “EGOT” seems to reference inside jokes and industry terminology. Dave Holland’s Big Band and Michael Brecker’s Quindectet are obvious influences here, though elements of Sun Ra can be heard in the tracks “Quartan” and “Perpetual Day One”.
With the exception of the aptly titled “Here’s Your Swing Tune”, all of the grooves are either straight or free and most of the song structure is motivic. Instead of relying on a repeating form of chord changes to support solos, Shawn’s compositional style tends to layer repeating riffs and phrases into themes. Soloists are then free to take liberties with the material, bending and shaping it before returning to the original idea. A concept album in the jazz genre if there ever was one.
For her sophomore effort “This Side Of Morning”, vocalist Keri Johnsrud presents a collection of original material co-written with pianist Kevin Bales. Featuring a powerhouse band of Chicago musicians including guitarist Neal Alger, bassist Larry Kohut, drummer Jon Deitemyer, and vibraphonist Stephen Lynerd, Johnsrud explores a range of emotions in what amounts to a wonderful album of poetry set to music.
Much of the album conveys a sense of hope in times of loss. Keri describes difficult situations with a depth that evokes tenderness without coming across as trite or campy. Many of the questions asked in the lyrics read rhetorical, as if the overall melancholy tone of the music provides enough of an answer.
The inherent risk in combining elegies in narrative form with improvised music is that the two competing ideologies can sometimes create a final product that sounds forced and unnatural. Keri manages to keep things organic by employing a diverse range of musical styles to accompany her through-composed lyrics. The grooves on “From Here” and “The Chameleon” provide welcome contrast to the free-form solo sections featured in “A Thousand Tears” and “Fly Away”. Keri Johnsrud's crystal clear voice and impeccable intonation allow her to project true sentiment through dense lyrical material on this gem of an album.
Every musical generation tends to put forth a handful of “star players” within any given genre. Whether it be LA's Wrecking Crew or Motown’s Funk Brothers, certain cliques of industry professionals are able to develop a coveted sound in the recording studio that resonates with producers. These “lightning in a bottle” artists tend to produce a staggering body of work in a relatively short time. Unfortunately, this haste also tends to result in a few bruised egos when credit is inevitably denied to the parties responsible for the actual recorded performances. Such is the case with Clyde Stubblefield, a drummer virtually unknown outside the industry, yet responsible for a bevy of grooves that have almost single-handedly shaped the current sonic landscape of funk, hip-hop, and rap.
Originally from Chattanooga, TN, Stubblefield is most famous for his work with James Brown. Alongside fellow drummer John “Jabo” Starks, Clyde Stubblefield was responsible for the legendary beats that shaped classic James Brown tunes including “Cold Sweat”, “Say It Loud”, “I Feel Good”, and “Funky Drummer”. These “sampled” beats have been re-purposed into hits for a variety of artists such as Prince, The Beastie Boys, N.W.A., LL Cool J, Sinead O’Connor, and even Kenny G. However, due to lax enforcement of recording ownership laws, virtually no royalties from these mega-hits have found their way into the hands of the musicians who actually created the music. We sat down with Clyde after a masterclass and performance at The Tonic Room in Chicago to discuss his work with James Brown, jazz influences, gear-setups, and recovery from a hand injury that left him unable to perform for years.
Recognized as one of the first instructional video producers, drummer Pat Petrillo set a standard for educational media with his landmark 1987 recording “Snare Drum Rudiments”. Since then he has developed a remarkable career as a performer and educator. Pat and I sat down last week at the APAP convention in New York City to discuss his history, influences, and upcoming performances.