We all know that friend with the enormous record collection. The one who can pull out something by any artist we ask about, and usually lend us a related release we’ve never heard of. Gilles Peterson surely resides in the ruling class of these people. I’ve sectioned off parts of two closets for my music archives; Peterson has an entire house dedicated to his. He dives into that collection for his BBC radio show Brownswood Basement to play rare vinyl tracks. For this collection he pulls out 16 soul and jazz tracks, each of them a potential classic. I’ve heard of exactly one artist and one song in the set.
The artist I’ve heard of is Bobby Cole, a songwriter and pianist who was at his peak in the early ‘60s before his early death. This track, “A Perfect Day”, splits attention between his strong vocals (a Sinatra voice from a Sinatra place) and his rhythmic piano playing. Cole’s performance provokes the kind of reaction that Peterson draws throughout the mix: “Why isn’t this person famous?”
The song that you might be familiar with is Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground”, performed here by Ellen McIlwaine. She uses her round voice to full effect, but the funky guitar arrangement steals the show. This rendition maintains the heart of the original, but McIlwaine does her own thing, and winds up with a cover version that holds its own whether you know the original or not.
The rest of the disc moves from one obscure track to another, but Peterson doesn’t just dig up unknown music you should hear. He puts his DJing skills to use in finding a smooth sequence, moving gracefully through soul, funk, and jazz while shifting tempos and moods enough to stay interesting without ever jarring the listener. Ira Sullivan’s “The Kingdom Within You” could be a high-art James Bond theme. Somewhere silhouettes of naked women with guns swim behind a professor explaining the unusual harmonics and almost pretty melodies of this track. Odd as that sounds, Peterson knows just how to follow it: with JR Bailey’s “Just Me ‘n’ You”. Bailey originally released this song in 1974, and it sounds like a belated outtake from Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On.
A few tracks later, the funk gets dialed up again, with the best band and album name on the disc. Performed by 47 x Its Own Weight, “March of the Goober Woobers” is chock full of enough sample-ready moments to fill out the best hip-hop album of 2006. Over the breaks, we get some jazz horns, and then the song shifts. And then it shifts again. Not bad for a band comprised of people fascinated by the idea that Rolaids eats 47 times its weight in acid.
Peterson has the sense to pick an opening track that defines everything that follows. Dorando’s “Didn’t I” is surely a classic in some other world. It isn’t here because it just missing conforming to its genre’s conventions. Dorando could be a smooth soul singer, but he’s got a little bit of a rasp and occasional intonation problems. Those idiosyncracies result in a very unique and effecting voice, the kind you listen to repeatedly as if it comes from someone to you, but also the kind that no one would promote. Music geeks should freak, but ‘70s teenagers probably wouldn’t swoon, so off Dorando went.
That kind of music fills up the 16 tracks and 75 minutes of Gilles Peterson Digs America: Brownswood U.S.A. Peterson’s done the digging for you, but the door’s open. Most of the artists here warrant further uncovering (Dorando, for one, will be getting a CD release at some point), but you’ll have to the searching yourself. So decide now: are you thanking Peterson from pointing you to this music, or blaming him for the too-many hours of searching ahead of you?