Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Lady Sings The Truth

Gil Scott-Heron (1949-2011) first came to public notice in 1970 with "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" and, for many people, he expressed the plight, hope, fears and dreams of the African American population in the United States. Over his career, his songs served as anthems, reminders and warnings. He disappeared from public view in the late 1980s and did not return until 2007.  Mr. Scott-Heron had been imprisoned for parole violations, having initially arrested for cocaine possession.  His final recordings have an electronic backdrop, his voice weakened by time and addiction but the messages he delivered still carried the sting of truth.

Producer, journalist, and radio personality Mark Ruffin had a long-standing relationship with the music of and the artist that was Gil Scott-Heron, citing the poet-singer as a major influence on his choices in life.  In 2011, Ruffin produced a tribute to Scott-Heron's music that featured vocalist Giacomo Gates, hoping to spur interest in the jazz vocal side of the composer/performer.  But, the recording was issued just weeks after Scott-Heron passed and was seen as a post-humous tribute. Ironically, some of the criticism aimed at the recording had more to do with the choice of singer (Mr. Gates is Caucasian) than with the material.  My suggestion is to listen and you'll hear the respect that the artist, the producer and the participants have for the music and the issue of color becomes moot.

Ruffin decided to make another recording, this time with a woman and, especially, a black woman. The result of his endeavors (over half of the cost was funded through Kickstarter) is "Offering". It is the second album from vocalist, arranger, and educator Charenée Wade and also the second album of Gil Scott-Heron's music and cultural influence to released on Motema Music (check out "Evolutionary Minded" here).

Ms. Wade, a native of Brooklyn, NY, was a first runner-up in the 2010 Thelonious Monk Competition.  She's been singing most of her life, inspired at the age of 12 by hearing Sarah Vaughan sing  and going on to be a participant in Betty Carter's Jazz Ahead program.  She has since performed off-Broadway in the show "Cafe Society" and has worked with many artists, including the Eyal Viner Big Band.  All that won't necessarily prepare you for her powerful performance on "Offering" save to understand that she is as fearless an artist as Ms. Carter. With an ensemble that includes Brandon McCune (piano), Dave Stryker (guitar), Lonnie Plaxico (bass) and Alvester Garnett (drums) plus a major contribution from vibraphonist Stefan Harris, MS. Wade makes this music her own. The way she attacks the lyrics and melody on "Home Is Where The Hatred" is brilliant, her arrangement giving the musicians their wings while she relates the tale of abuse and addiction. Garnett and Plaxico lay down some serious funk on "Ain't No Such Thing As a Superman", echoed in the "wah-wah" guitar and forceful chords from the pianist. The vocalist is right up in the mix, admonishing her audience to stand up on its own and not wait for a super-hero to change the world.  The gentle sway of the musicians lead the way into "Song of the Wind" while Harris wraps his handsome lines around both the words and McCune's excellent accompaniment.
Ms. Wade does not shy away from the controversial material that Mr. Scott-Heron created.  "Essex/Martin, Byrd & Till" builds off of the powerful contributions of guests Malcom-Jamal Warner (spoken word), Marcus Miller (bass clarinet) and especially Ms. Lakecia Benjamin (alto saxophone).  If you do not know the story behind the song, Mark Essex was a disgraced Navy dental technician who was given his general discharge for unsuitability, joined the Black Panthers and moved to New Orleans, where over the opening week of 1973, he shot 19 people, killing 10 including a number of policemen and dying in a hail of bullets.  The song does not make a hero out of Essex but talks of the myriad frustrations that read people to act out in murderous ways.  On "The Vulture (Your Soul and Mine)", Ms. Wade sings about the "meanest creature ever known" and one is led to believe that the character in the title is either heroin or crack-cocaine.  The piano and guitar line skitter over the powerful bass and drum attack while the vibes rises and falls around the mute-tracked vocals.

The joy that rises from the words and music of "I Think I'll Call It Morning" also reflects who Gil Scott-Heron was as an artist and poet.  It's the final track on the CD and echoes the positive "vibes" of the title and opening track where the artist sings "We have something to offer you/We have new love to offer you/And music to offer you/And spirits to offer you/And new love and music to offer you." 

CharenĂ©e Wade states in the liner notes of "Offering" "The songs I chose to include on this recording I feel speak to truths that still need to be heard."  She, along with the great ensemble alongside her, prove once again that music not only has the power to tell stories but also to lead the way to positive change in society.  Gil Scott-Heron influenced and continues to influence artists with his songs with messages harsh and damning as well as uplifting and encouraging.   Ms. Wade's album   is powerful and real, full of truth, music that should be heard throughout the land and the world.

To find out more, go to

Here's the title track courtesy of Motema Music:

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