Various Artists: Spiritual Jazz Vol. 6: Vocals

Rediscovering the spirit and power of the human voice.

Various Artists

Spiritual Jazz Volume 6: Vocals

Label: Jazzman
US Release Date: 2015-03-17
UK Release Date: 2015-03-09

Jazzman Records got its start as a mail-order business founded by London, UK-based "Jazzman Gerald" Short, who as a young jazz aficionado scoured the UK and the US on a shoestring budget collecting old, forgotten jazz records which at the time were widely available for low prices. With the late ‘90s came the Internet and a heightened interest in these rare and forgotten classics. As copies of the originals became scarce, Gerald transitioned his business into a label so he could obtain rights to reissue many of these dwindling and increasingly valuable originals. More importantly, his work has helped an entire musical genre flourish and stay in touch with its heritage.

One of the many compilations Jazzman has released in recent years is the Spiritual Jazz series. Spiritual jazz is a style of avant-garde jazz that developed in the ‘60s, incorporating elements of free jazz and other "ethnic" musical styles (broadly speaking African, Asian, Indian) and deeply inspired by the ongoing and experimental spiritual and political developments taking place in African-American culture at the time. Jazzman’s Spiritual Jazz series provides an excellent curated sampling of the genre from a wide range of artists, both those at the heart of the movement as well as lesser-known, more obscure artists who dabbled to enigmatic yet beautiful effect. The compilations in this series focus on specific themes: spiritual jazz in Europe, for instance, or spiritual jazz by transplanted Americans.

The newest release takes a sharp turn in the direction of vocal jazz. Demonstrating that jazz music is more than just the sum of its instruments, Spiritual Jazz Volume 6: Modal, Esoteric & Progressive Jazz Vocals from around the World 1960 - 1986 showcases 14 previously released tracks from a diverse range of artists demonstrating how jazz can also convey its message through the power and range of the human voice.

The tracks aren’t exclusively vocal -- they contain plenty of beautiful musical stylings as well -- but it’s the human voice that takes center stage here. Jazz critic Nat Hentoff, in describing the music of John Coltrane (one of the genre’s pioneers), once described this musical genre as “cleaning the mirror into the self… Making music as naked as the self can be brought to be.” It’s an appropriate description: here the tracks rely for their strength on the naked human voice.

The album kicks off with one of the most powerful vocal recordings in musical history: Abbey Lincoln’s opening to "Tears for Johannesburg", which is part of Max Roach’s We Insist! Freedom Now suite (the excerpt alone ought to convince you to experience the suite in its entirety). Inspired by the struggle of black South Africans under apartheid, Lincoln once said of her vocals that “I had never screamed before in my life.” You wouldn’t guess it; her powerful performance on that album opened new doors to her artistic career and the piece still resounds with her soul-chilling cries of rage, despair and hope.

The album features other well-known artists too: Charles Mingus, and Pharaoh Sanders’ exceptional track "Prince of Peace" featuring Leon Thomas (a remarkable vocal artist who was famous for drawing on a range of techniques from yodeling to scat). Sadaka’s Umlah Sadau-Holt’s gorgeous piece "African Violet" was inspired by a photo of the vividly tenacious flower a friend shared with him following a trip to West Africa. Much like the imaginative fictions that complement operas, the extensive liner notes and background stories included in the album allow a fuller appreciation of the inspirations given shape by these vibrant voices.

There’s spoken word, of course: poet, scholar and Black Arts Movement pioneer Haki Madhubati’s "Rain Forest" features his calm, measured yet evocative spoken poetry with swelling female vocalizations merging in tune with the flutes and piano in the background, while lesser known poet and spoken word artist Norman Riley’s piece "Colours" features powerfully harmonized poetry sung by two female vocalists put to a gentle, swirling musical backdrop. Like many of the tracks on this album, they offer visions of hope -- the upbeat spirit of the human voice reflects the underlying message of their lyrics. Several of the tracks, as is to be expected of the genre, are highly political, embracing the themes of the era: civil rights, African culture and nationalism, resistance and struggle and rebirth. But as Will Friedwald observes in the liner notes (which offer useful and extensive background context for each of the tracks, and for the spiritual jazz movement as a whole), “the inner spirituality of the music is still a defining factor -- particularly in the way that these composers employ the human voice as a way of putting forward a message, one that's fundamentally different in meaning from the more traditionally romantic preoccupation of the vast majority of popular songs up to that time, songs that concern themselves with the universal condition of this world, as well as the next.”

There’s an undeniable beauty and power to these pieces. In addition to demonstrating the remarkable complexity and range of the human voice -- and the emotional and creative heights to which it can be raised -- the tracks also demonstrate the powerful ways in which the human voice and musical instruments can be combined, twining together in pursuit of the uniquely spiritual and intellectual expressions of the spiritual jazz genre. From Abbey Lincoln’s powerful South African inspired protest to the preaching of Professor Madhubati, the human voice operates on two powerful levels here. There is, first, the lyrical expression, in all its poetic and narrative grandeur. But the voice operates on an expressive and emotional register too, demonstrating its power to signify not only through words but as an instrument -- at times blunt, at times sensuously nuanced -- tapping into the musical range with a visceral immediacy. As with genres like opera, the language doesn’t matter -- the spiritual expression is conveyed through the power of vocalizations that chill the flesh and swell the heart all at once.

If you haven’t experienced the Spiritual Jazz series yet, this is as good a place as any to start. After exposure to the vocalized power and beauty given form and expression on this album, you won’t want to stop.

Let’s hope Jazzman won’t, either.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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