The musician/poet/troubadour Gil Scott-Heron, who in the early 70's was influential to scores of people who heard his cool brand of hip music and absorbed the pithy observational wit of his lyrics, was being rediscovered recently when he released a new album I'm New Here in February of 2010. His rediscovery was crushingly cut short when Mr. Scott-Heron unexpectedly died in May of this year at the age of 62.
I was strongly influenced by the messages that Mr. Scott-Heron offered in his raspy, baritone voice that spoke with an inner wisdom that was somehow lost to many around him. His music shared a jazz and blues sensibility that I was prone to like to be sure, but it was his lyrics that were poignant and unforgettable. He spoke of things that others would only think and he did so in a beguiling manner that transcended time. I was not alone in my admiration. Producer Mark Ruffin, who is the program director of the Sirius/Xm Satellite channel Real Jazz, as well as a jazz journalist himself, was similarly struck by the music and lyrics of Mr. Scott-Heron. Ruffin envisioned an album of the poet's music, The Revolution WIll Be Jazz , as an homage to the man whose later years were filled with drug related hardships and conflicts. Mr. Ruffin controversially chose the jazz baritone Giacomo Gates for the project and was anxiously waiting to present the finalized version to Scott -Heron when the singer suddenly died. If anyone had trepidations about Ruffin's choice for this project, Mr.Gates grasp of the music and his performance here has certainly put all doubts to rest.
Giacomo Gates is an authentic jazz vocalist and student of the jazz tradition. He has studied the works of vocalists like Jon Hendricks and Eddie Jefferson and has absorbed and broadened some of their techniques including scatting, vocalese and mimicking instruments with his voice. Gates has a smoky, slightly gravelly baritone voice with an unerring sense of swing. He is a master storyteller, often choosing music that offers some comic relief. It is precisely Mr. Gates' storytelling ability that makes him so well suited to the music of Mr. Scott-Heron. Gates wisely chose from Mr. Scott-Heron's repertoire those songs that tell a story, songs that spoke to him.
The opening number is a swinging case in point. "Show Business" certainly speaks to Mr. Gates. He has been plying his trade for some time and knows the sentiments of the song that Scott-Heron sardonically wrote about... "show business... got you hanging out in places you got no business." The song cooks, with pianist John Di Martino tinkling his keys in deft accompaniment and guitarist Tony Lombardozzi offering a tasty solo.
Gil Scott- Heron's hopeful "This is a Prayer for Everybody to be Free" is sung by Gates in a sauntering, heartfelt and earnest way. Claire Daly's baritone sax solo is deep and raspy and compliments Mr. Gates scatting brilliantly.
Mr. Gates vocal interpretation of "Lady Day and John Coltrane" steals the show. Lonnie Plaxico's plangent bass lines carry the tune beautifully, as drummer Vincent Ector holds the rhythm down. Mr. Gates is in top form here, as he seems to be in his element with the inherent flow of this song. Pianist Di Martino intersperses Latin influenced rhythms in his fluid solo.The coda finds Mr. Gates quietly whispering the last of the lyrics.
Another inspired performance is "Legend In His Own Mind." Gates is superlative when he has a story to tell and what better lyrics to work than lines like "...he has more romances than Beverly has Hills." Gates loves to embellish on the story line as he does on this one, and the group simply gets off on grooving behind him. This group of veteran players offers top notch accompaniment throughout as Mr. Gates ends the song in a beautifully expressive rising coda.
Seemingly plucked from the scripts of the series Mad Men, "Madison Avenue" is one of those stealthy Scott-Heron songs that laments about the way American business manipulates people to consume through clever advertisements. With lines like they can "...they can sell tuna to the Chicken of the Sea." its not hard to see why Gates chose this one. His soulful baritone takes this bluesy rendition to the limit with his hip insider take on the sentiment as the band pushes the song nicely.
Gates relishes the lyrics of Scott-Heron's "Gun," with Tony Lombardozzi starting the song with a funky guitar line that could have been a lead in for James Brown. He paces the song beautifully letting the funk seep into the pours of the song while still maintaining his cool delivery of the potent lyrics. You can feel the band having fun with the infectious funky groove.
One of my favorite Gil Scott-Heron song's is his great "Winter in America." Perhaps because the original is so close to my heart I can't bear to hear it played anyway but the way its seared into my consciousness. Gates chooses to slow the song to a crawl which I find a little unsettling. Claire Daly adds some nice flute to the mix.
Lonnie Plaxico's walking bass line leads us into "Is That Jazz," a song that is tailor made for Mr. Gates sensibilities as he swings with ease and does his most adventurous foray into vocalese on the album. Gates loves to speak of his jazz heroes. He has been influenced, by his own admission, by horn players like Dexter Gordon, Lou Donaldson and Lester Young, When he uses his voice as an instrument it is clear he has a horn player's mindset. Lombardozzi's guitar accompaniment is especially tasteful as is his solo work.
"New York City" was Scott-Heron's slightly sarcastic homage to the city from someone who loved it warts and all. Gates sings it like he too loves the Big Apple. He makes it into a slow love ballad that breaks occasionally into a more frenetic section that is symbolic of the city's own schizophrenic nature. "New York City, I don't know why I love you, but its real."
On the finale, the uplifting "It's Your World," Mr. Gates sings with his own sense of promise and sincerity...
The Revolution Will Be Jazz is certainly a noble homage to Gil Scott-Heron and his work. Mr. Ruffin should be proud of the results. With this album Mr. Gates has successfully ventured into new ground. Taking a step back from the classic American songbook that has been his staple and expanding his repertoire-in essence creating a statement of what is to be included in the new American songbook. I for one agree with his choices.
Musicians: Giacomo Gates, vocals; John Di Martino, piano; Tony Lombardozzi, guitar; Lonnie Plaxico, bass; Vincent Ector, drums; Claire Daly, baritone saxophone and flute.
Recorded at Jazz at Lincoln Center, New York, NY Nov 2010-January 2011