Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson: It’s Your World

Gil Scott-heron and Brian Jackson
It's Your World

This is a most welcome re-issue of an album, that had become quite hard to find, by an artist who everybody rated but nobody bought and who is now a “legend” but still absent from too many record collections. This must change and although I am no fan of live albums this is a good one and a great introduction to a key figure. It also provides ample evidence that Gil was and is about more than a few well chosen slogans. This is a release that should get a wider and more imaginative hearing than I suspect will be the case. Scott-Heron is remembered mainly for the much anthologised (in print and on disc) “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” — a quintessential and still effective piece of Black Power poetry. On the basis of this he is mistakenly pigeon-holed as a precursor of politically conscious rap. Politically conscious he certainly was (and remains so) but his status as a significant figure uniting jazz, funk and poetry is more substantial than some “Grandfather of Rap” title can hope to convey. A smaller audience values him as the writer of two anthems of the club and rare groove scene: “Home Is Where the Hatred Is” — the best song ever about addiction, given its definitive reading by Esther Phillips — and “The Bottle” — a jazzfunk favourite to this day. Even this does not do justice to the distinctiveness and range of material produced in the seventies by Scott-Heron, his partner Brian Jackson and an excellent group of musicians, The Midnight Band. This album shows the whole ensemble at their collective peak and functions both as a document of a particular historical moment and as a fresh musical experience today.

It’s Your World was Scott-Heron and Jackson’s eighth album in six years and consists of four studio songs and six live cuts. It was a double album, so don’t worry about value for money — there is quantity and quality here. Of the live cuts, one is the long poem “Bicentennial Blues” — the concerts took place 2-4 July 1976. Some are tracks that were already anthems, including the abovementioned “The Bottle” and “Home”, and some was new material. Ballads, poetry, jazz solos, Latin breaks and a hip funkiness throughout — I cannot imagine a better sampler of the full Scott-Heron experience.

From the studio sessions I would single out “New York City” as the pick. It is a multi-layered and poignant evocation of love for the city. The lyrical and musical juxtapositions, the shifts in tempo and style make this as good a portrait in miniature as you could wish for. A great urban song that deserves to be better known. The other studio cuts include the simply stated title track and the gentle “Sharing” which is a fitting downtempo closer to the set.

The live stuff is uniformly excellent. We know how good a lyricist Scott-Heron was and he was in prime form in this period. Despite the topical references, “Bicentennial Blues” remains witty, angry and relevant 25 years on. Yet it is the music that really grabs — tough, warm and jazzy — this a band in full flight. Check out the sax and keyboard solos on “Trane” ( Bilal Sunni-Ali and Brian Jackson respectively). They are perfect examples of jazz with a funk edge and bear comparison with any work by better known figures of the era. Again on “Home” it is the standard of musicianship that stays in the mind, stretching out beyond the structures of the song without pulling it to pieces. The Latin flavours of “117th Street” or the War-like (the band) “Must Be Something” match the best of street meets jazz energy that characterises the work of Doug Carn or Gary Bartz who pioneered true “fusion” in the early seventies before it got a bit too smooth. Smooth this is not. It is raw, passionate and powerful, and at all times the rhythmic pulse and the solo explorations compliment the lyrical wizardry. Scott-Heron’s warm, if limited, baritone sits easily on top of all of this. This is music that knows its own worth — confident but never smug.

Despite a certain reputation for unreliability, Gil Scott-Heron is still great live and still surrounds himself with classy musicians. But he was at the top of his game in the mid-seventies and it is a joy ( and a relief) to find that this album has not dated at all. I can even forgive the awful cover because the groove is as righteous as the message and makes this a classic album. Don’t miss out this time round.