Although the idea was first conceived over two years ago, San Francisco trumpeter Bill Ortiz finds himself in the unlikely (and perhaps unwanted) situation of releasing the first cover of a Gil Scott-Heron song since the death of the legendary musician. “Winter in America” is the title and lead track of the EP taken from the forthcoming album Highest Wish. Originally recorded for Scott-Heron’s 1975 album The First Minute of a New Day, Ortiz felt “Winter in America’s” themes of social, geographical, and environmental oppression were as relevant today as they were then. He did, however, “want to bring it up to date musically”.
While I’ve always been wary of the labeling of Scott-Heron as the Godfather of Rap, the inclusion of Living Legends, err, hip-hop legend, the Grouch’s new verse strikes home. With a Roots-like backbeat, the Grouch’s sardonic lyrics cut deep through his lazy, easy going delivery, forcefully asking questions of the state of America in the 21st century and its position as the superpower in the world. Supporting the vocal delivery is the supreme, and understated, trumpet of Bill Ortiz. Bringing a jazzy hip-hop element to the track, Ortiz is clearly a player of some control and dexterity.
“I Still Believe” combines more social commentary, this time through a mixture of the spoken word of Dr Martin Luther King’s Nobel Peace Prize speech delivered by Linda Tillery of the Cultural Heritage Choir, and hip-hop by Zumbi, and recalls early 4Hero. Things go a bit flat with “Word Play” before a remix and radio edit close things out. The overriding impression though is of Bill Ortiz as a consummate band leader, giving free license to the vocalists he picks to work with and trusting his instincts. Gil would approve. I think.