Black History Month: UNSUNG – The Musicians

Black History Month: UNSUNG – The Musicians

Welcome to week one of UNSUNG, a four-part series of articles celebrating Black History Month at TIDAL Read. In this first installment, we highlight some of our favorite current musicians of color — all of them successful and brilliant players, though still sometimes overlooked by the broader music-appreciating public. In the weeks to come we’ll explore vocalists, producers and songwriters/composers. – Ed.

Cindy Blackman Santana

Jazz-rock drummers aren’t generally known for their great taste, but Cindy Blackman Santana’s technical wizardry is almost always in the service of the ensemble at hand. That quality stems from her hero, Tony Williams — to whom she has paid tribute in several outlets, including the supergroup Spectrum Road — and has helped her gain pop success. (You may remember her as the impassively hip drummer in Lenny Kravitz’s “Are You Gonna Go My Way” video, or seen her playing with Santana, whose iconic leader is also her husband.) But her sheer musicality is the thing. On 1998’s In the Now, her drums give even more melodic shape to “In the Now” and Kravitz’s “Let Love Rule” than keyboardist Jacky Terrasson and saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, and when Coltrane plays the reprise on “A Banana for Ron,” her solo becomes a countermelody. Yet she never abandons the beat, locking with bassist Ron Carter into swing that can only be called fiendish.

George Cables

Perhaps because he began making his name in the early ’70s — an unfortunate time to be an acoustic, straight-ahead jazz musician — pianist George Cables is often overlooked as one of jazz’s absolute masters. That mastery includes not only his playing, which uses a touch somehow both light and percussive, lyrical and effortlessly harmonic, but, as he and his longtime trio remind us on 2016’s The George Cables Songbook, his compositions. Many are literally lyrical: Vocalist Sarah Elizabeth Charles has written new words for them. But it’s the sturdy, memorable melodies of “AKA Reggie,” “Face the Consequences” and “Colors of Light” that shine through.

Dom Flemons

As co-founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops in 2005, Flemons reminded the world of the mostly forgotten tradition of African-American string bands. Playing banjo, bones, acoustic guitar and ceramic jug, Flemons demonstrated how those instruments fit into not only a black musical lineage but also a modern hunger for rural music. When his co-founder Rhiannon Giddens left for a solo career as a singer-songwriter, Flemons doubled down on traditional black acoustic music, recording albums of hokum numbers, blues, trad-jazz, fife-and-drum music, fiddle tunes and cowboy songs. He focused on the lattermost for his 2018 album, Black Cowboys, a reminder of African-Americans’ enormous contributions to the history and culture of the frontier.

Melvin Gibbs

The edition of Rollins Band that released 1994’s Weight was a thinking-man’s hard-rock unit for the ages. Behind the brawny frontman, guitarist Chris Haskett, drummer Sim Cain and bassist Melvin Gibbs approached prog and fusion levels of interplay and rhythmic mastery, while ensuring that the enterprise remained heavy as hell. That duality — technical might dovetailing impeccably with intellect — has defined the entirety of Gibbs’ life in music. His credits — from Arto Lindsay to Dead Prez, Defunkt to Caetano Veloso — underscore an enviable versatility earned on New York’s legendary Downtown scene. But his most stunning venue has been Harriet Tubman, an institution of a trio (guitarist Brandon Ross, drummer J.T. Lewis) that combines next-level improvisation with the textural possibilities of art rock. Click on the link, then go check them out live. It can get spiritual.

Dave McMurray

Dave McMurray isn’t one of the most famous musicians from Detroit, a city whose musical legacy, from Betty Carter to J Dilla, is impossible to understate. Yet it’s hard to find a stronger advocate for the Motor City’s sonic mix. On his 2018 Blue Note album Music Is Life, he plies his wide, often gruff tenor sound to covers of hometown champs George Clinton and Jack White as well as self-penned tributes like “Bop City D” and “Detroit Theme/Detroit 3.” In every case, he bears down with hard-edged grooves based in swing and funk but with flavors of rock, soul and hip-hop that testify to Detroit’s multicolored tapestry.

Malina Moye

Growing up in Minnesota, guitarist and singer Malina Moye gained early mentorship from her iconic role model Prince. Left-handed like another of her heroes, Jimi Hendrix, she eventually found herself playing marathon solos on the Experience Hendrix Tour that split the difference between Prince’s funk-rock and Carlos Santana’s rhythm-savvy blues-rock. Between her solos, her vocals (and stage presence) can evoke those of female Prince collaborators like Sheila E. The lead single from her 2014 EP, Rock & Roll Baby, is “K-yotic,” a duet between Moye’s wailing soprano and Bootsy Collins’ half-spoken, seductive baritone.

Chuck Rainey

When you watch Amazing Grace, the astonishing Aretha Franklin documentary shot in 1972 but released only last year, you may notice a wiry young man in a silver blazer, modest Afro and shades sitting down and anchoring the free-flying music around him with his strong and steady basslines. That’s Chuck Rainey, one of the great bassists of his generation, overlooked because he mostly lent his tasteful playing to other performers’ bands, not his own — and because he only played the necessary notes, not the showy ones. He has released several instrumental albums under his own name, but he is best appreciated on albums such as Steely Dan’s Aja, Roberta Flack’s Quiet Fire and, of course, Aretha’s Amazing Grace.

Robert “Sput” Searight

Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, Erykah Badu, Timbaland, Justin Timberlake: All have called upon the Dallas-rooted drummer Robert “Sput” Searight, a virtuoso with otherworldly dynamic control and a sense of groove that can safely be termed miraculous. Searight’s c.v. started early: He was still a teenager when he helped to architect the game-changing gospel choir God’s Property and engaged in landmark collaborations with Kirk Franklin. But it was during a marathon tenure with modern fusion heroes Snarky Puppy that his cult really began to form, and chants of “SPUUUTTT” became un-missable. His funk collective Ghost-Note, featuring the enigmatic bass monster MonoNeon, adds a welcome element of Zappa-esque artiness to his wide-ranging albeit groove-focused mission.

Image: Dave McMurray. Credit: Paul Moore.

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