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Big Break Serves Up Soul, Jazz and Funk from Carmen McRae, Billy Paul, Azteca and More

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Carmen McRae - I Am MusicTimeless soul music knows no regional boundaries, at least based on the latest quintet of releases from Cherry Red’s Big Break Records imprint.  With this group of reissues, you’ll travel to Philadelphia by way of Hawaii, Oakland, Harlem and Chicago.  All of the titles previewed below are available now in the U.K. and next Tuesday, February 5, in the U.S.!

Two new titles hail from the Philadelphia International Records catalogue.  Perhaps most exciting is the first CD release outside of Japan for 1973’s Dick Jensen, the self-titled album by the renowned entertainer from Hawaii.  Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff enlisted the MFSB orchestra plus producers and arrangers like Bobby Martin, Bunny Sigler and Thom Bell to craft a major musical statement from the high-energy performer, but Dick Jensen quickly sank without a trace.  It was no reflection on the album’s quality, however, as the LP is filled with stunning mini-pop/soul masterpieces.  BBR’s edition features new liner notes by Stephen “Spaz” Schnee that shed light on the late, enigmatic singer and this lost classic.  Click here for our full review of Dick Jensen!

Big Break is also delivering another title in its series of releases from Philadelphia’s own Billy PaulGoing East (1971) was not only Paul’s first PIR platter, but the label’s very first album altogether.  As such, the smooth PIR soul sound was still in its formative stages, and Going East bears many of the jazz hallmarks that informed 1970’s Ebony Woman (previously reissued on BBR).  Musically, Going East is rough-hewn, with the full MFSB Orchestra not in the picture.  Of the familiar players, Norman Harris and Roland Chambers appeared on guitars, Vince Montana chimed in with vibes, and Don Renaldo as usual supplied the (subtle) strings.  The prominent flute of Tony Williams adds a distinct character to the album.  Eddie Green wrote the rhythm charts for the album, and Lenny Pakula arranged horns and strings for the epic title track, a slow-burning, mystical meditation on slavery which does look forward to similarly widescreen productions like “War of the Gods” from the album of the same name (also a recent BBR reissue).

Billy Paul - Going EastThe rest of the album’s horn and string charts were divided between Thom Bell and Bobby Martin, who each arranged four songs.  Bell’s symphonic stylings are most apparent on a striking rendition of Jimmy Webb’s “This is Your Life,” while his arrangement of Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” is simply atypical for both Bell and Paul.  “(If You Let Me Make Love to You Then) Why Can’t I Touch You?” came from Peter Link and C.C. Courtney’s off-Broadway musical Salvation, and was previously recorded by Ronnie Dyson.  Dyson, of course, recorded an album with Bell that didn’t include the Salvation song; here’s your chance to hear what a Bell arrangement of the song sounded like, with Paul’s incomparably mature vocals.  (It’s worth noting that Going East was issued in September 1971; two months later, the Thom Bell-produced debut of The Stylistics followed.  How remarkably different his work is here, minus most of the stylistic and instrumental hallmarks for which he would become renowned.  Yet all three issued singles from Going East were Bell’s handiwork.)  Of the Bobby Martin tracks, there’s a slick, languid version of Rodgers and Hart’s On Your Toes standard “There’s a Small Hotel,” and Martin’s own song “I Wish It Were Yesterday,” which has the same late-night cabaret vibe.  A pleasant if unexceptional Gamble and Huff tune, “Love Buddies,” and a fiery take on Eugene McDaniels’ “Compared to What” continue the album’s diverse approach.  Going East is one of the most unusual PIR albums, but Paul’s vocal mastery was in its prime even if Gamble and Huff hadn’t yet found the formula to best marry those jazz-honed pipes with silky soul.  BBR’s edition includes all three single A-sides released from the album along with new liner notes from Andy Kellman drawing on an interview with Billy Paul himself.

After the jump: Azteca, Tyrone Davis and Carmen McRae take the spotlight, plus track listings with discography and order links for all titles!

Azteca - AztecaBig Break is also offering two albums from the Columbia Records vaults.  Azteca was the name of the large Latin orchestra founded by brothers Pete and Coke Escovedo.  On both Azteca (1972) and Pyramid of the Moon (1972), the group is gleefully genre-jumping and barrier-breaking to whip up a heady soul stew.  Azteca gave “fusion” a new meaning with its imaginative blend of salsa, jazz, rock, soul and funk.  The popular explosion of Santana may have been a starting point, but a cursory listen to these albums proves that the Brothers Escovedo had set their sights on the sky.  Formed in Oakland, CA, Azteca’s line-up sometimes numbered up to 25 musicians (including future Journey man Neal Schon, Herbie Hancock collaborator Paul Jackson, and jazz drummer Lenny White), armed with horns, woodwinds, guitars, drums and an array of keyboards and percussion instruments.  Coke Escovedo led the charge on timbales, but he also produced both albums with the group members, and contributed vocals and arrangements, too.

Indeed, the group’s propulsive percussion and stabs of brass on both LPs are comfortable and familiar in a rock-soul idiom, yet most of the songs on these two ambitious albums veer somewhere unexpected by their conclusion.  There’s plenty to chew on.  Azteca thrived on expansive arrangements that, while very much rooted in the sonics of the early seventies, left room for instrumental exploration.  With positive, sometimes spacey, lyrics alternating in Spanish and English, Azteca’s soul was not just multicultural, but transcendental.  The stylistic shifts may have been too much for audiences to swallow, though, as Santana-esque rock collides with female vocals that recall the 5th Dimension (“Love Not Then” on the first LP) or Brasil ’66 (“Someday We’ll Get By” on the second).  There are even hints of early Chicago Transit Authority in the free, jazzy big band sound.

On Azteca, two single versions accent the pop flourishes of the group’s ouevre, though it’s unbelievable that the groovy “Love Not Then” wasn’t extracted for single release.  Pyramid includes the 45 version of its one A-side, “Whatcha Gonna Do.”  Following Pyramid, Coke Escovedo departed the group he had founded, and by 1976, Azteca was no more.  But the group’s bold, celebratory spirit awaits rediscovery via these two reissues.

Tyrone Davis - In the MoodBBR turns back the hands of time to 1979 for Tyrone Davis’ fourth Columbia LP, In the Mood with Tyrone Davis.   The three-time R&B chart-topping singer joined Columbia in 1976 following a seven-year stint at Chicago’s Dakar Records, where he had a No. 3 Pop/No. 1 R&B smash with “Turn Back the Hands of Time.”  Propelled by the R&B No. 6 success of its title song, the album itself went Top 10 on the R&B chart.  Leo Graham, who had previously provided Davis with the R&B chart-topper “Turning Point” in 1975, helmed the album and had a hand in writing six of its eight tracks, though ironically not “In the Mood” itself.  (Trivia time: “Turning Point,” alas, was the first No. 1 R&B single since 1955 to completely miss the Hot 100.)

In the Mood has been expanded by the single versions of its two A-sides, “In the Mood” and “Ain’t Nothing I Can Do.”  These two tracks epitomize Davis’ straightforward, soulful style of ballad singing, while other tracks are up-tempo floor fillers with a hint of disco and light funk.  In the latter category comes “All I Love I Need,” which co-writer Paul Richmond (who went on to write The Manhattans’ “Shining Star” with Graham) says was influenced by the sound of Philadelphia soul.  Indeed, a few of the tracks on In the Mood betray that city’s romantic influence, but the sound of the brass and string writing is quite different.  Christian John Wikane has written brand-new liner notes drawing on an interview with Paul Richmond.

Last but certainly not least, BBR has another offering from the catalogue of legendary jazz vocalist Carmen McRae.  Last year the label reissued Can’t Hide Love, McRae’s 1976 Blue Note triumph which continued the seven-time Grammy-nominated singer’s embrace of the contemporary jazz-soul scene.  I Am Music arrived on Blue Note prior to the funky Can’t Hide Love, in 1975, and was her first release for the label.  Like Can’t Hide Love, I Am Music drew on an eclectic roster of songwriters including Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Bernard Ighner and Academy Award winners Alan and Marilyn Bergman.  The Bergmans’ lyrics adorn five of the album’s ten tracks, set to melodies by Dave Grusin, Quincy Jones, Roger Kellaway, Billy Goldenberg and Dori Caymmi.  BBR’s new remastered edition returns the album to print after a long absence, and includes extensive new liner notes.  Watch this space for a complete review of I Am Music in the days to come!

All six releases are available in the U.K. as of January 28 and in the U.S. one week later.  Click on each title to order below!

Azteca, Azteca (Columbia LP KC-31776, 1972 – reissued Big Break CDBBR 0201, 2013) (U.K.)

  1. La Piedra Del Sol
  2. Mamita Linda
  3. Ain’t Got No Special Woman
  4. Empty Prophet
  5. Can’t Take the Funk Out of Me
  6. Peace Everybody
  7. Non Pacem
  8. Ah! Ah!
  9. Love Not Then
  10. Azteca
  11. Theme: La Piedra Del Sol
  12. Ain’t Got No Special Woman (Single Version) (Columbia single 4-45808, 1973)
  13. Mamita Linda (Single Version) (Columbia single 4-45762, 1972)

Azteca, Pyramid of the Moon (Columbia LP KC-32451, 1973 – reissued Big Break CDBBR 0206, 2013) (U.K.)

  1. Someday We’ll Get By
  2. Mazatlan
  3. Find Love Today
  4. Whatcha Gonna Do
  5. New Day is On the Rise
  6. Mexicana, Mexicana
  7. Red Onions
  8. Love is a Stranger
  9. A Night in Nazca
  10. Whatcha Gonna Do (Single Version) (Columbia single 4-45962, 1973)

Tyrone Davis, In the Mood with Tyrone Davis (Columbia LP JC-35723, 1979 – reissued Big Break CDBBR 0204, 2013) (U.K.)

  1. In the Mood
  2. You Know What to Do
  3. I Can’t Wait
  4. Keep On Dancin’
  5. I Don’t Think You Heard Me
  6. Ain’t Nothing I Can Do
  7. All the Love I Need
  8. We Were in Love Then
  9. In the Mood (Single Version) (Columbia single 10904-A, 1979)
  10. Ain’t Nothing I Can Do (Single Version) (Columbia single 11035-A, 1979)

Dick Jensen, Dick Jensen (Philadelphia International LP KZ-31794, 1973 – reissued Big Break CDBBR 0202, 2013) (U.K.)

  1. A Penny for Your Thoughts
  2. I Don’t Want to Cry
  3. Three Cheers to Love
  4. Fat Mama
  5. New York City’s a Lonely Town
  6. 32nd Street
  7. Going Up on the Mountain
  8. Peace of Mind
  9. Shall We Gather by the Water
  10. Tamika (Come Back Later)

Carmen McRae, I Am Music (Blue Note LP BN-LA462-G, 1975 – reissued Big Break CDBBR 0205, 2013) (U.K.)

  1. A Letter for Anna-Lee
  2. The Trouble with Hello is Goodbye
  3. Faraway Forever
  4. I Ain’t There
  5. You Know Who You Are
  6. I Have the Feeling I’ve Been Here Before
  7. Who Gave You Permission
  8. Like a Lover
  9. I Never Lied to You
  10. I Am Music

Billy Paul, Going East (Philadelphia International LP Z-30580, 1971 – reissued Big Break CDBBR 0203, 2013) (U.K.)

  1. Going East
  2. (If You Let Me Make Love to You Then) Why Can’t I Touch You?
  3. This is Your Life
  4. Jesus Boy (You Only Look Like a Man)
  5. Magic Carpet Ride
  6. I Wish It Were Yesterday
  7. Compared to What
  8. Love Buddies
  9. There’s a Small Hotel
  10. Jesus Boy (You Only Look Like a Man) (Single Version) (PIR single 3120, 1971)
  11. Magic Carpet Ride (Single Version) (PIR single 3509, 1971)
  12. This is Your Life (Single Version) (PIR single 3515, 1972)

Written by Joe Marchese

January 29, 2013 at 10:01

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