Thursday, January 17, 2008

William Parker – The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield (Rai Trade, 2007)

For the first of his albums to ever be dedicated solely to another musician, bassist William Parker chose R&B legend and personal inspiration Curtis Mayfield. This album was recorded live in Rome with an illustrious cast including Dave Burrell on piano, Lewis Barnes on trumpet, Darryl Foster on tenor saxophone, Sabir Mateen on tenor saxophone, Hamid Drake on drums, Leena Conquest on vocals and Amiri Baraka reciting spoken word and poetry. Conquest and Baraka make for an interesting pairing, her soaring, gospelish vocals are contrasted by his rapid fire staccato recitations. Baraka has also written original poetry that responds and extends the sentiment of the original lyrics. Where the two work the finest is in the Mayfield classic “People Get Ready” where Conquest sings the original lyrics in a beautifully clear voice and Baraka interjects comments in a very effective call and response manner. The contrast between the two is a little more jarring in "We the People Who are Darker than Blue" a racially charged song that brings out the radical in Baraka whose poetic interjections become increasingly caustic. He gets a feature all to himself with the fascinating “Freddie's Dead” whose stark lyrics examine drugs, race and crime. With the focus on the lyrics, poetry and vocals, it's a shame that this crack band couldn't have been given a few more features. But there are some moments when they shine, Drake in particular, who revels in the challenge of combining R&B, gospel and jazz. This is one of William Parker's most ambitious projects and it is pretty successful. Baraka's stinging wordplay is a matter of taste but the remainder of the band is excellent and provides a fitting tribute to one America's finest songwriters.

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