In a cluttered media landscape Riffs, Beats, & Codas does the hard work for our readers by selecting some of the outstanding popular culture offerings of 2017. You are welcome ;-) Covering music, literature, television, and film (briefly), I hope some of my selections inspire you to explore. As always, I conclude with a list some of the notable musicians who have died this year.
Philadelphia based musician Son Little continues defying genre and expectation on his second full length album New Magic. Though Little exists nominally on the contemporary soul and electric blues spectrum, he is an incredibly resourceful musician who employs everything from surf guitar to choral chants to tell a fascinating range of stories. Humorous, literate, and sensuous, New Magic is rife with lyrical and sonic intrigue. Check out the video for the song "Blue Magic" below:
Somi, a Nigerian born jazz-oriented vocalist and songwriter based in New York, soars on Petite Afrique an endearingly personal and poignant collection of original songs. At the outset, on "Alien" she writes from the leans of an “African in New York” who feels eternally alienated from her surroundings. Among her most memorable moments are her impressionistic portrait of intracultural policing on “Black Enough,” and a subtle, incisive depiction of gentrification of "The Gentry." Rich in textures and tones, her lovely voice anchors this ambitious meditation. Learn more about the album's creation below:
Jazzmeia Horn received a thorough music education at the Manhattan School of Music and achieved consistent acclaim at various jazz competitions before releasing her stirring debut A Social Call. She draws her technique and repertoire from various strands of jazz, soul, and gospel, and nods to current social issues. The result is a truly relevant, aptly named portrait of a talented and conscientious young artist with chops, brains, and imagination. Meet the artist in this "trailer" for her album:
Memphis is Dee Dee Bridgewater’s loving homage to her hometown, which is better known as a hub for R&B and gospel than her métier jazz. Bridgewater is a highly versatile and expressive singer who is quite comfortable with R&B whether it be from Stax, Hi Records, or the electric blues tradition. Her reedy voice and supple phrasing are a great fit for her Hi Records style version of “I Can’t Get Next to You” and her version of “Thrill is Gone.” The best cut may be her stirring rendition of the gospel song “Take My Hand Precious Lord” where she is ably backed by a superb choir. Learn more about Bridgewater's journey making the album below:
Lizz Wright’s smoldering vocal sound is so lovely and measured; she can sometimes lapse into making mood music rather than compelling recordings. Her newest, Grace, represents an advance in her sound. Though she favors moody, minor key ballads she has selected a strong set. Though her vocal approach rarely varies, k.d. lang’s “Wash Me Clean,” Allen Toussaint’s “Southern Nights,” and Bob Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand” draw out her strongest performances and make one of her more memorable albums in years.
Cecile McLorin Salvant is the freshest and most acclaimed new voice in jazz since Gregory Porter’s debut. She has a lovely with a rainbow of colors, of which she has complete control. She is very comfortable and confident stretching her voice in multiple directions and always stays on pitch. She also possesses a strong rhythmic sense, a respect for melody, and genuine comedic flair. Many of these skills are on full display on her double album Dreams and Daggers. It is unusual in its blend of studio cuts, live recordings from a series of Village Vanguard concerts, and several pieces with strings. A bit jarring, but she sounds very solid throughout. Thematically, it traces the glories and tortures of female romanticism. Alongside dreamy standards like “I Didn’t Know What Time it Was” and “You’re My Thrill” are raunchy classic blues, and tongue-in-cheek songs, mostly composed by Salvant. Though a few of the songs are uneven, overall Salvant is carving out an identity as a jazz singer willing to take risks. She has a winning sense of humor and the chops to write, modernize the blues, and deliver in concert. McLorin Salvant discusses the album below on the TV program The Open Mind:
Paula Cole’s mid-1990s stardom was memorable, especially her intriguing satire “Where Have all the Cowboys Gone,” but her musical roots were actually in jazz. She studied jazz composition at the Berklee College of Music. Professionally, Cole has concentrated on singer-songwriter music for most of her career, which may distort the scope of her talents. However, her occasional interpretations of standards on other artists’ albums and some of the writing on her albums of the 2000s and 2010s indicated the jazz aspect her talents. On Ballads Cole is a very convincing interpreter of an impressive range of material including Bob Dylan, Bobbie Gentry, and songs drawn from the pre-rock songbook. Doing double duty as a vocalist and pianist, she is a steady and assured anchor who gives songs as disparate as “Naima,” “Body and Soul,” and “Ode to Billie Joe” her own flavor.
Books about music
Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan by Elaine M. Hayes
Elaine Hayes’s biography of Sarah Vaughan is a detailed, crisp and clearly organized portrait of the life and artistry of the great Vaughan. Hayes approaches her unique melding of jazz and classical elements into a distinctive style, and places her career in the context of the postwar pop and jazz industry. She also provides valuable social insights into Vaughan’s navigation of the era’s racial and gender politics. Easily one of the finest biographical portraits of a black female musician as a complex artist and a person.
Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In and Out of Jazz by Fred Hersch
Acclaimed jazz pianist Fred Hersch is adept on a variety of keyboards, as his accomplished memoir illustrates. Hersch details how his childhood love of music, fed by a strong sense of personal drive and discipline, resulted in a full time career as a jazz musician, composer, and teacher. As his career developed, he gained confidence in his identity as an openly gay man, in a homophobic society, and as a person living with HIV/AIDS. Hersch shares a wealth of insightful stories about life as a contemporary jazz musician, and details multiple health challenges that disturbed his momentum at times, but failed to deter his progress as a creative artist and as a person.
Beyond MUSIC media favorites
Lonesome Lies Before Us by Don Lee
Don Lee uses the life of a nearly famous alt country singer songwriter struggling to say afloat financially and medically, to illustrate important questions about art, life, and spirituality. Returning to the fictional Rosarita Bay setting he employs in his books occasionally, he depicts a small community, beset by financial issues, struggling to survive on the literal level and striving to find meaning in lives littered by disappointment. As per usual, Lee’s crisp prose and deft storytelling lure you into a compellingly familiar fictional world.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Celeste Ng’s second novel is a genuine page-turner about class conflict in Shaker Heights circa the mid-1990s. An artist and her daughter rent an apartment from a well-heeled seemingly progressive white family. The daughter grows increasingly closer to the family’s idyllic life; her mother, who eventually works for the family, becomes increasingly concerned about these bonds. Both are accustomed to a nomadic existence dictated by her mother’s profession. Just as they appear to fall into a stable life routine, a wealth of secrets about the mother spills forth, resulting in fractures, misperceptions, and suburban dramas that seismically displace the semblance of stability.
Beyond Respectability: The intellectual Thought of Race Women by Brittany Cooper
Black feminist scholar Brittany Cooper foregoes the flatly historical encyclopedic accounts of black female writers Anna Julia Cooper, Mary Church Terrell, Fannie Barrier Williams, Pauli Murray, and Toni Cade Bambara by focusing on their intellectual work as philosophies. Cooper masterfully synthesizes their ideas about social progress into functioning social and political ideas that influenced their respective eras. Informing her analysis is explicit attention to the intersectional work they were performing before this concept was more widely known in academic circles, and offering a nuanced critique of how respectability politics has operated historically and contemporarily. Her writing opens a door for continued exploration of the intellectual output of overlooked figures.
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxanne Gay
Nothing I read this year inspired me to discuss its contents with as many people as Roxane Gay’s Hunger, a memoir of her body detailing her struggles with weight, trauma, and familial and societal pressures. Gay is known for her honesty and bluntness, and her voice is relentless here. In a series of short, mostly captivating vignettes she eloquently reveals the tense hypervisibility and invisibility of being a large, tall black woman navigating a history of sexual trauma in a cruel culture. Gay’s perspective demands your attention and constantly illuminates experiences that implicates us all.
Music on TV
She’s Gotta Have It (The Series)
Spike Lee’s reboot of his 1987 film She’s Gotta Have It into a Netflix series is a superb character study of a black female artist navigating love and sex, friendships, an ever gentrifying Brooklyn, and the eternal struggle of making a living as an artist. Music is a prominent character in each episode. In addition to serving as counterpoint in specific scenes, the source albums get their own screenshot. The series deftly employs a range of artists from Frank Sinatra to Sade to Floetry. The season ending group dance to Prince’s “Raspberry Beret” is one of the inspired moments of the 2017 season. Check out Popsugar's link to songs featured throughout the series: https://www.popsugar.com/entertainment/She-Gotta-Have-Season-1-Soundtrack-44296194
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (Seasons 2 & 3)
CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, starring actress and co-creator Rachel Bloom, is not only the finest musical sitcom on television, but the only one technically. This uniqueness spares other series from having to compete; its continually inspired depiction of love, obsession, insecurity, and neurosis, under the veneer of musical comedy, is incomparable. As the seasons delve more deeply into main character Rebecca Bunch’s complicated psyche, the series continues to present smart, funny, and formally brilliant songs that amplify key moments. From Season Two’s jazzy opening theme “I’m Just a Girl in Love,” which borders on the cute and creepy , to the gleefully goofy duet “We Tapped That Ass” (complemented by a dance routine), the songs flesh out an inspired and evolving concept. Season Three’s ongoing journey through Rebecca’s complicated past continue to unpeel the layers in convincing dramatic, comedic and musical fashion.
Music on Film
In Disney-Pixar’s Coco, a young man struggles to adhere to his loyalty to family and his passion for music. Plotwise, a celebration of Dia de los Muertos opens up a (literal) portal to understanding the authentic roots of his family through convening with the dead but not forgotten. Though it is primarily a narrative animated film, music is central to the story’s narrative arc most notably the gorgeous “Remember Me” sung by multiple characters. Coco is a funny, touching, smart film, and is notable for engaging genuinely with Mexican culture and featuring a Latinx cast.
Notable 2017 Musician Deaths (A Selective List):
Greg Allman (Southern rock singer-songwriter)
Chester Bennington (lead singer of Linkin Park)
Chuck Berry (rock 'n' roll singer-songwriter)
David Cassidy (teen pop singer and actor)
Chris Cornell (rock singer-songwriter and lead singer of Soundgarden)
Fats Domino (rock 'n' roll/R&B vocalist, pianist and bandleader)
Al Jarreau (jazz, R&B, and pop vocalist)
Tom Petty (rock singer-songwriter and bandleader)
Prodigy (rapper in Mobb Deep)
Della Reese (vocalist, actress, and pastor)
Grady Tate (jazz drummer and vocalist)
Mel Tillis (country singer-songwriter)
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