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The Essence of Music: R&B divas and our own standard bearers

2nd July 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Geraldine Wyckoff
Contributing Writer

In an ‘it’s not over until it’s over move,’ the Essence Music Festival (July 5 – July 8) has extended Sunday night’s schedule (July 8). The legendary Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin’s performance, her third in the event’s 18-year history, will now be followed by a 60-minute set anchored by the mighty Chaka Khan performing with the R&B Divas. The ensemble will pay tribute to rhythm and blues artists who have passed this year.

The R&B Divas, vocalists of note including Faith Evans, Nicci Gilbert, Monifah Carter, Syleenah Johnson and Keke Wyatt, will soon be seen together in a new reality television show of the same name that begins airing on August 20 on TV One. They are also working on an album with the proceeds from sales going to the Whitney E. Houston Academy of Creative & Performing Arts.

Khan, who has won a remarkable 10 Grammy Awards starting in 1975 with her performance with Rufus on 1975’s “Tell Me Something Good” to 2008’s scorcher Funk This, has been a regular at Essence Festival. She once estimated that she’s appeared at the event 10 times. A social activist, Khan is an inductee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

With Khan the Queen of Funk at the helm and all the Divas onboard, Essence Festival should end with a mighty splash.

Speaking of large groups of women sharing a stage, New Orleans’ own Original Pinettes Brass Band, which was established in 1991 at St. Mary’s Academy, makes its Essence Festival debut at the Coca-Cola Superlounge on Saturday, July 7.

Standard Bearers

Standards, classic songs that have withstood the test of time, are the backbone of jazz music. They are the tunes that young musicians first learn to establish a vocabulary so they are able to communicate with their fellow artists. This material remains in a musicians songbook and is often revisited especially here in New Orleans where tradition continues to be important. They link the generations insuring jazz’s continuum.

Two New Orleans natives, trumpeter/vocalist Mervin “Kid Merv” Campbell and bassist/vocalist Mark Brooks have turned to jazz’s chestnuts on their latest CDs, Body and Soul and My Little Margie, respectively. For their projects, they’ve both called on some of this city’s finest musicians. That’s definitely an aspect that, in both cases, makes the music on the albums more than simply another go-around of the classics.

Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” opens Campbell’s CD in good style. Despite the pace of the song, the leader, who became a child sensation as the youngest member ever to perform with the Olympia Brass Band, sings the familiar lyrics with a suitably relaxed attitude while displaying his vocal dexterity. The ace group behind him, pianist David Torkanowsky, bassist Roland Guerin and drummer Herlin Riley expertly remember the melody in their playing while they avoid stating it directly. Merv blows some sweet trumpet here too.

Ellis Marsalis takes over the piano with guest, the legendary Toots Thielemans on harmonic for a rendition of “Body and Soul.” As can be imagined with the inclusion of these masterful veterans, the tune is filled with soft beauty with Campbell echoing the lushness.

Poet Chuck Perkins powerfully joins the group on “Jazz Funeral,” the melody of which is “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” He transforms the dirge with lyrics that speak of the violent deaths and thus too-early jazz funerals of young, Black men in New Orleans while Campbell blows his trumpet in a traditional lament.

The title of Brooks’ CD, My Little Margie, indicates that the material within is primarily classic New Orleans jazz that presently the bassist and vocalist is most associated with. Brooks, who comes from the noted music family that includes his late sister Juanita and banjoist/guitarist Detroit, turns to stalwarts of the traditional style, clarinetist Tom Fisher, banjoist and guitarist Don Vappie and trumpeter Leon Brown with the versatile pianist Mike Esnault and trombonist Rick Trolsen rounding out the group. It’s a step back in time to hear the ensemble kick off with “Ballin the Jack” played for the most part in an old-timey style. Another chestnut, “Yes Sir That’s My Baby,” receives a more modern take with Brooks accompanied by just the tap of the drum at the tune’s onset. His improvised vocals and instrumental arrangements bring the song up to date. Ditto for the solos including a fine one by Esnault.

Mixing the traditional material with modern voicings is used throughout the disc though a few of the selections, like “Beale Street Blues,” stick pretty close to home.

Brooks, whose rich bass brings great warmth to the music, takes to the microphone primarily on ballads like the soulfully rendered “She’s Funny That Way” and “When It’s Sleep Time Down South.” His vocals are so impressive it’s a wonder that audiences don’t get to hear him sing more often. He’s primarily considered a talented, versatile bassist who is often called on to play in any number of musical settings.

Brooks’ My Little Margie and Campbell’s Body & Soul prove that a glance through the song titles on an album doesn’t always tell the whole story. When the musicians this good, they can take a standard anywhere.

This article was originally published in the July 2, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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