One advantage to having a three-hour radio show is the exposure to artists of many persuasions under the influence of a vast range of cross-cultural experiences.
Although the mainstream focuses on a narrow field of obvious candidates, the view from the outside is rich in substance, creativity and diversity. Diversity is the infrastructure underpinning each of the 25 artists below. There’s Cuban rap, contemporary gospel, British hip hop, retro soul and funk, Christian gospel and roots, metallic funk, neo-soul, new R&B, jazz rap and more. It’s a light sample of the listening experiences of the present and future, and of our playlist on Soul Nation airing Tuesday evenings from 9 p.m. to midnight.
Over the last 16 months, it seems the slowdown/shutdown has frustrated artists but in some cases reinvigorated them and clarified a range of collaborative and creative possibilities. The broad view is much more promising. New sounds evolve organically. When there are no conditions or boundaries applied, there comes a movement. Measure the temperature of a situation, and you get an idea of what to expect. Virtual play died as quickly as it arrived. What endured was that back-to-the-basement woodshedding. That grind took into consideration the loss, hardships and politics of this life cycle and cooked up a dish in need of impeccable plating.
The results are promising and in step with the moment. The shelves are now replenished. Whatever your source for listening, consider these artists. Each comes with a listening recommendation to get you started.
A one-time representative of Jane Bunnett’s Latin jazz band, Telmary Diaz is now a force worldwide collaborating with a legion of producers and players. The queen of Cuban rap and spoken word received a Grammy nomination in 2002, NOW Magazine‘s best Latin artist award in 2007, a Juno Award for best contemporary album with Jane Bunnett in 2008 and a Cubadisco Award for best hip-hop album in 2014. The street poet is back with a new album, Maradentro, partnering with a host of revered Cuban compatriots including Omara Portuondo, Pedrito Martinez, Munir Hossn and HabanaSana.
The Bamboos were formed 21 years ago in Melbourne, Australia, by New Zealand-born producer, guitarist and songwriter Lance Ferguson. At the core of the band’s sound is an attachment to the roots of street funk and jam bands. The groove beats to the pulse of bassist Stuart Speed and drummer Scott Lambie laying the rhythm precisely where The Meters, James Brown, Boogaloo Joe’ Jones and Rueben Wilson held it steady.
Ten musicians light up the stage with a synthesis of Afro-jazz, dub, hip hop, reggae, soul and electronic music, led by vocalist Nubiya Brandon and producer/guitarist Tom Excell. Outside the band’s repertoire are partnerships with the finest African artists of any age, Mulatu Astatke and Tony Allen.
Isaiah J. Thompson
On first review, one can’t help but consider pianist McCoy Tyner of the John Coltrane era and the many Impulse recordings that confirmed his status as the fresh voice behind the acoustic piano. The modal stylings set Tyner apart from his contemporaries Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea. Isaiah J. Thompson carries that history in his hands and communicates with the same urgency and precision while twisting his imagination around the pulsing rhythm.
I’ve marvelled at the compositional and specialized skills of drummer Robert “Sput” Searight, founding drummer of crossover jazz band Snarky Puppy. Ghost-Note is another side project between Searight and Snarky Puppy’s percussionist Nate Werth. The collection also features highly sought-after bassist MonoNeon. The music is percussion-based funk and hip hop, and it’s way above most fusion bands in terms of intricacy and transmission.
We the Kingdom
On first hearing We the Kingdom, I thought my ears had witnessed the resurrection of Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm and The Band. The sound is pure Americana, right down to the mountain music bend of notes. The band comprises multiple generations of relatives from around Nashville. Ed Cash, Scott Cash, Franni Rae Cash, Martin Cash and Andrew Bergthold make up the core of the Christian rock band. Gospel music comes in many shades, and We the Kingdom brings authentic spirituality to their music, missing the highly polished televangelists. This is masterful roots music.
The New Mastersounds
The New Mastersounds are a punchy four-piece jazz fusion and blues-funk band from Leeds, England. With 10 studio albums, two remix collections and many live dates, this powerhouse unit merges old-school recording and presentation techniques with today’s shared love for jam bands. Modelled somewhat after their stateside counterparts Medeski, Martin and Wood, the New Mastersounds stay with the program, releasing one scrappy track after another.
Another member of Snarky Puppy, guitarist Mark Lettieri is a two-time Grammy Award-winning artist with a presence on tracks with Eminem, 50 Cent, Kirk Franklin, Snoop Dogg, Erykah Badu and David Crosby. The sound is aggressive in the pocket with a bit of John Scofield in the rearview mirror. Always inventive, Lettieri is another player who’s in step with the times; he continually collaborates with the top players on the scene and keeps new music constantly flowing.
Two singers got me through the bleakest hours of the pandemic: Tasha Cobbs Leonard and Tamela Mann. I call gospel music that vaccine of goodness. Put aside the proselytizing and get to the heart of the music. The roots of contemporary music flourish in those voices harmonizing and testifying in churches. Mann’s career began as part of gospel giant Kirk Franklin’s clan. Mann also began acting in 1999 after being spotted by Tyler Perry. There are Grammy Awards and a long list of on-screen captures. It’s a big “hear me” voice!
The funk can occur anywhere when there’s a significant party of like-minded groove masters. Richmond, Va.’s Butcher Brown are contenders for the best-kept secret amongst an advancing brigade of international reactionaries. There’s some James Brown in there, as well as Herbie Hancock. It’s that blend of jazz, hip hop, funk, rap, rock and soul that crosses all barriers.
Jones, summertime and Toronto’s Casa Loma have turned into a tradition. The weekly concerts under the stars drew thousands to the castle grounds to imbibe classic soul hits and smooth jazz fare. However, Jones, the consummate entertainer, keeps the focus on his recording career. The atmosphere is neo-soul with a hint of Seal in the mix.
Seven or eight years ago, a young J.P. Saxe was doing the rounds attending showcases across the region. He also began posting bedroom videos singing over loops and layering the vocals. These short, inventive and intuitive clips garnered considerable attention. Not long after, the determined young man fled to Los Angeles. Time, talent and a fierce game plan produced a platinum-selling single, If the World Was Ending.
The former Canadian Idol winner has been outlining a steady path onto the pop charts with a long-running sequence of classic holiday covers and neo-soul explorations. Gifted with a voice that could carry any material presented to him, the songwriter has been navigating personal issues, conflicts and shredding barriers. There are many colours and longings deep in the grooves. Tams wears his passion on his sleeve.
Drummer Nate Smith is a representative of the present-day class of musicians with no limitations. As a leader of Kinfolk, Smith fuses disparate styles linking Americana with jazz, folk and fusion. Smith is also a member of two wildly infectious and funky ensembles Vulfpeck and spin-off group The Fearless Flyers.
Acantha Lang has established a name for herself as a session vocalist and soul artist. The New Orleans singer moved to New York and began headlining a weekly blues show in Harlem. Robert Randolph and the Family Band recorded Lang’s Gonna Be All Right on his album Got Soul and earned a Grammy nomination in 2017 for best contemporary blues album.
Tasha Cobbs Leonard
When I think of Aretha Franklin’s album Amazing Grace, I think of Tasha Cobbs Leonard. Much like Tamela Mann, she dwells in the same outward regions of prominent voices with immense talent and dynamic range. Cobbs won a Grammy in 2014 for best gospel/contemporary Christian music performance to go with three Stellar Awards and three Dove Awards. Her powerful delivery and nerve-tapping vocalizing are in a class of their own.
Stephen Lee Bruner is an American bass guitarist and songwriter from Los Angeles by the name of Thundercat. Bruner is acclaimed for his activity on Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly. Thundercat earned a Grammy for best progressive R&B album for his fourth release, It Is What It Is.
Since 2012, P.J. Morton has been the keyboardist for the pop-rock band Maroon 5. On his own, Morton has a voice well within the range and quality of the late Marvin Gaye, capable of working the lanes separating soul and gospel music and integrating one with the other. A dynamic performer with many collaborations under his belt, Morton earned two Grammy nominations — best R&B album and best R&B song — in 2018.
A longtime member of Snarky Puppy, Cory Henry may be the most influential keyboardist on the music scene today. Henry comes from the church and plays a masterful Hammond B3, much like the great Billy Preston from a young age. His improvisations are delineated and analyzed by students of all stripes. Henry is a player of great originality and insight.
The local duo made up of Cuban violinist and percussionist Elizabeth Rodriguez and Magdelys Savigne recently captured a Juno Award in the world music category to go with previous Junos with Jane Bunnett and Maqueque. It’s music bound to tradition yet of the times.
Mesmerizing. Trinidadian poet Anthony Joseph inhabits a world of his holding, blending American jazz with Caribbean roots. The stories weave through the neighbourhoods of his birthplace, Port of Spain, across the Atlantic to England, where he has lectured at London Metropolitan University, University of Surrey Roehampton, South Thames College and, currently, Birkbeck College. Joseph is a true academic and decorated poet with a gift for storytelling.
Brampton, Ont.-based drummer Larnell Lewis has been playing locally since his early teens and upping his game at every interval. Once a participant in hip-hop singer Jully Black’s road band and Matt Dusk’s jazz unit, Lewis eventually caught fire with Snarky Puppy. He’s since become a bulwark on YouTube with his many videos and millions of views dissecting drumming technique. Lewis is a bandleader of considerable note himself.
Ledisi came to prominence as a serious presence on the neo-soul scene. Nominated recently for a Grammy for best R&B album, best R&B performance and best traditional performance, along with a Soul Train Award, Ledisi is a sought-after collaborator and a first choice for live or studio action. She’s a gifted performer with an infectious stage persona and dynamic vocal range.
The War and Treaty
This American husband-and-wife team comes naturally to the contemporary world of soul, blues, rock and roots music found in the current DJ-assisted recordings. The War and Treaty are versatile and not bound to any one genre. The combination of the two voices can work itself into any genre and dominate.
In the Heights
I often compare film soundtracks up against Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. A rare few even come close. Between the orchestrations and intricate dialogue reside melodies that linger an eternity. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s remembrance of his youth growing up in the Washington Heights neighbourhood of New York shares many qualities. The soundtrack is Latino to the bone, with fierce percussion and brass interspersed between spoken word moments of conflict and tenderness. Pure joy!