Happy Black History Month! Oftentimes, February feels like the first “official” month of the year as new music releases ramp up and I start working on the big projects that I have planned. Whereas January felt slow and manageable, February has brought a wave of new albums to review, play and chat about on the radio. In addition to all of these new releases, I’ve still found time to dig for and listen to old records.
Although I am very much oriented toward the music of the past (digging up old records, sampling them, writing about the historical context around them), there’s a constant push and pull dividing my attention between the music of yesterday and today. This month has brought more of this as I’ve worked on radio segments like The Culture Corner for World Cafe, while writing about new releases by artists like Christian Mcbride and RJD2. Here are a few February highlights that speak to our shared past and present.
Christian McBride’s New Jawn – Prime
Prime is the latest album from bassist, bandleader and Philly native, Christian McBride. More than capable of playing in a variety of contexts, McBride and ensemble explore a variety of styles on this album ranging from free-jazz to more overtly melodic, “straight” playing. “Head Bedlam” opens with a furious, free improvisation, before settling into a slow-bopping, hip-hop groove.“Moonchild” is another standout with Marcus Strickland’s beautiful playing on bass clarinet. To his credit, McBride’s tone and his playing act as the center of gravity for an endlessly creative and exploratory album.
Jéan-Claude T. – The Bicentennial Poet
Released on Philadelphia International in 1976, Jéan-Claude T’s The Bicentennial Poet is one of the strangest and most singular releases on Gamble & Huff’s storied label. A poetry album through and through, Jéan-Claude T’s delivers insightful and dramatic meditations on politics, morality, family, spirituality and more. In contrast to Philadelphia International’s more elaborately produced and arranged records from this time, The Bicentennial Poet’s sound is minimal with most tracks only featuring a conga drum, sax, keys and synths by Dexter Wansel and Jéan-Claude T’s rich, resonant voice.
RJD2 – Escape From Sweet Auburn Instrumentals
Escape From Sweet Auburn is the fantastic 2022 collaboration between STS and RJD2. By releasing the album’s instrumentals on his Bandcamp, RJD2 gives us a clear reminder that his funky, layered beats are enjoyable, even without the aid of a vocalist. “I Excel” is a standout that pairs a heavy filtered bassline and neck-snapping drums while “Back To Work” is a dark and funky prog-rock odyssey. Escape From Sweet Auburn is great and RJD2 and STS have a magical chemistry, but the instrumental version knocks too and by taking away the vocal, the instrumentals get their proper shine.
M//R- Slo Cerebral
Divided into two nearly 30-minute sets of music, Slo Cerebral is the latest release by Philly DJ and electronic music experimentalist, M//R (Billy Werner). Recorded throughout 2020 and 2021, the music here captures the existential pressure and angst felt by many of us during the first year of COVID. With its mangled vocal samples, booming 808s and icy electronic textures, parts of Slo Cerebral conjure up a feeling similar to the dark, suffocating atmosphere of 90s beat music like Spectre and Crooklyn Dub Consortium.
1920s South Street: Philadelphia’s Jazz Age (Philadelphia: The Great Experiment)
Philadelphia: The Great Experiment is a 2011 documentary series that posits our great city as a “laboratory for the ideas and ideals that have shaped America.” One episode that caught my attention in particular was 1920 South Street: Philadelphia’s Jazz Age. Informative and easily digestible, 1920s South Street explores the Lombard and South corridor’s history as an incubator for Black art, theater and music, hosting jazz legends like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. The episode sheds light on a vital piece of Philly’s sociopolitical and cultural history.