REVIEW: Nicolay’s “City Lights Vol. 3: Soweto”

Nicolay photo Nicolay2015_cover_zpscujpelif.jpg Go to any part of City Lights Vol. 3: Soweto and you may mistake this as something by Jazzanova or Mondo Grosso/Shinichi Osawa. The reason for that is because of the musicianship, the arrangements, and complexities but with any musician, it’s all in the composition and presentation that may make it seem complex and it may very well be as easy as a coloring book. For Matthijs Rook, it may very well be effortless but the easy in how he does it is because it’s true to him, his creations and playing come from the heart. As Nicolay, he continues on his worldly travels, in a real sense or metaphorical/musical. In the words of Elvis Costello, “if you’re out of luck or out of work, we can send you to Johannesburg.” For Nicolay, the inspiration is to take himself to Johannesburg and find an essence to some of his creations.

City Lights Vol. 3: Soweto is a nice blend of vocalized song and powerful instrumentals, with easy song being a diary of sorts on the journey of his existence and experiences. As the voice says in “Sun Rings/Uprising”, direct language is all about being literal, to be honest in front of you without fear, of what you see and hear. You can then say that Nicolay’s music on this album is very much performed without fear and doesn’t hide anything, for what he feels is what you hear and thus visualize upon listening. You may bring to mind your own tales or for the songs with lyrics, escape into their worlds for a few minutes. What you’re hearing is the sensibilities of multiple heart beats and despite each one being individualistic, they are somehow connected, his musical painting of what he felt over the years while visiting Soweto. One may hear the name of the city and think of the Malcolm McLaren song of the same name but Nicolay creates a much stronger picture, vivid and utterly passionate in its execution.

Vocalists Carmen Rodgers and Tamisha Waden make their presence known but for me, I don’t mind saying that when it comes to Nicolay, I want to know what Phonte Coleman is doing and where he plays on taking me with his performances. The duality of the Foreign Exchange union continues to thrive and while both of them are more than capable of carrying something unique on their own terms, there is a sense of magic that may be unknown but it is felt. It’s something to listen to, sit back and just say “this is what it’s all about.”

As with much of Nicolay’s work over the years, as the album goes on, there’s a sense that the travels will go further for many ears to come. As with any true musician and composer, he plays with a sense in making his music open-ended in a Duke Ellington manner, as if to say “to be continued”. You hear a song like “There Is A Place For Us” and know he’s about to pull you towards the finish line. However, you know the end as nothing more than the beginning of another path towards a new race to take yourself to, another challenge forthcoming. It may not be an actual battle against anyone but ones self, but it can be all about the survival of the fittest. When you are balanced with ones sense of self, it becomes automatic. Effortless. Easy. Another page in Nicolay’s diary has been turned. To be continued…

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REVIEW: Foreign Exchange’s “Love In Flying Colors”

 photo FElifc_cover_zps0fa6e439.jpg The moment word surfaced about Foreign Exchange putting together a new album, people were abuzz about. The fourth full length project has been released, and it’s called Love In Flying Colours (Foreign Exchange Music). A healthy amount of their music has been about love, romance, and relationships, but as with life, there is so much more than that and some of these things are explored here.

The production and arrangements on this album flow back and forth within the jazz, soul, funk, and disco realms, to the point where the interaction becomes blurred and you just start feeling the music for the sake of the music. The music nerds in some of us will pinpoint certain aspects and influences, stating that parts may sound like late 70’s/early 80’s chart toppers, along with the deep guys from these artists and albums that made those older recordings special. “Right After Midnight” has a nice 80’s feel, complete with the spoken/partial rap flows of Phonte and vocalist Sy Smith, while Gwen Bunn’s harmonies in “Can’t Turn Around” nicely accents Phonte’s own lines to where one might find it difficult to say who is doing the actual lead vocal. The time signature of “If I Knew Then” will make you wonder how the song is structured at first and once it’s figured out, then it changes again. Phonte’s performancs are always striking, showing what he has been capable of over the years, and it’s great when the song has him backing himself during a chorus. I enjoy the collabrations he does here with Smith, Bunn, Carmen Rodgers, Shana Tucker, Jeanne Jolly, Carlitta Durand, and Eric Robertson, but having a bigger and bolder sense of Phonte works quite well within this context.

The context? Nicolay’s musicianship and production is sharp, accomplishing to create a broad picture of each song during the verses and choruses, but then broadening the scope like a painter who is confident that his portrait (or shared portraits) is complete, but he will always go out of his way to add something extra. Some tracks directly capture specific feels and personas, but involves a bit more than just someone trying to duplicate what Marvin Gaye or Luther Vandross had done. Nicolay understands the configurations of what he’s putting together, and what he does is not unlike what Jazzanova hav done and become in the last ten years. To know how to create it is one thing, but to understand it is another. You don’t have to know or care about the understanding, but to feel something is there within these tracks, stand back and say “what did I just experience just now?” is one part of that exchange, foreign or otherwise.

What works on Love In Flying Colors is that it is split in two, like a classic album from the 1970’s. Ten tracks in total, with the last track on each side (in this case, tracks 5 and 10) being mellow, one having acoustic flavor and the other serving as the album’s afterglow, referring to the album’s conclusion, “When I Feel Love”. The entire album has peaks and valleys, understanding when to give the listener their all and when to remain reserved until the next song or two, until one last climb to the top, leading to the listener saying “I have to hear that all over again”. It may be a mere collection of ten songs, so one is able to pick personal favorites. There’s a flow here that is a part of the album’s continuity, created as an experience to be listened to as one. Whatever way you listen to this, you are sure to discover new things about it with each play, layer by layer, color by color, and one will be able to appreciate the controlled sensations Foreign Exchange have provided.

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REVIEW: Zo!’s “ManMade”

 photo Zo_cover_zps1e3c12b8.jpg He may not have been hanging out in Benzo’s during the making of his brand new album, but maybe Lorenzo Ferguson did give his tracks the car test throughout the recording, mixing, and mastering processes, for it has a vibe that would make these songs appropriate automobile listening. As Zo!, this musician/producer has released a number of projects on his own Chapter 3hree, Verse 5ive Music label, before joining the Foreign Exchange family to get a chance to better share his love of music and Detroit upbringing.

ManMade (Verse 5ive/Foreign Exchange Music) is an album by someone who has a full understanding on the music, because he creates it from the ground up, not only as a musician and the producer, but he also plays the architect, designer, and conductor roles. The music here is heavily influenced by the sounds of the 1970’s and early to mid-1980’s, where the groove never ended and you knew that as one emotion faded, another was on the way in four seconds. To assist in vocalizing these compositions, Zo! brought in Phonte, Choklate, Anthony David, Sy Smith, Eric Robertson, 1-O.A.K., Carlitta Durand, Jeanne Jolly, and Carmen Rodgers and together they sing with the kind of voices that, as kids, we used to think was very motherly, fatherly, and auntly. I know that word doesn’t exist, but stay with me here. My point is that one can here a sense of community within the talent that has been assembled here, especially in tracks like “New In Town (Happy)” and the soothing “Show Me The Way”. Forget certain well known restaurants, because when you’re hearing Manmade, it’s family. Some of the songs are about the human condition and what they feel when it comes to love and romance, but in a track like “Out In The World”, it’s about keeping ones sanity and surviving in the world, whether it’s interaction with those around us or our own minds. This song also includes a nice rap verse from Phonte as he reads a letter from his brother while telling him in song how he’ll be around for support after he serves time in prison. “Count To Five” is one of those songs that you might expect to hear on a non-American album due to its song structure, but when you understand what’s going on, it leads to smiles. Plus, the nice interpolation by Phonte of a well known pinball-related song was perfect.

The album closes with an excellent slow jam, the 8-minute “Body Rock” featuring Sy Smith on vocals, where she shows how she is able to cuddle and cradle in a Chante Moore sense while creating a sense of seduction that helps to wrap up the experience of listening to ManMade, almost as if to say that the movement that this song will cause will lead to the creation of something man- and woman-made. For me, one of the song’s best tracks is “We Are On The Move”, an awesome disco funk track that may remind some of the vibe of The S.O.S. Band, Rick James, or Earth, Wind & Fire. Lyrically, “the move” could be anything from a couple making moves in their relationships, moves with one another (sexual or otherwise), or as a call for unity amongst those who are listening, wishing to dance the days and nights away as a means of strength, power, and simply living for the sake of living.

ManMade is meant to be listened to as a means to motivate people to simply live for the sake of living, which is what we’re guaranteed in this existence before the final guarantee of death comes our way. There was a quote on a Frankie Goes To Hollywood record made by Paul Rutherford which said “get off your ass and dance, we’re all going to the same grave.” Zo! has made the kind of album to enjoy from start to finish. Devour everything in small doses, stuff some of the niceness in your purse or pocket, but it’s an album that should be consumed in one sitting so one is able to get a full vision of what he sees through the sounds he has presented. A nice touch to this album is when the songs are in not only a 3/4 time signature, but even 5/4 and 7/4. He’s trying to challenge his fans, but once you’re locked under his control, you’ve essentially accepted what he is offering. In other words, put faith in Zo! and you will be rewarded when that appreciation is reciprocated ten-fold. You want soul music with actual musicality, and soul for that matter? It’s right here.

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