Conventional wisdom is that if you want to cover a song, you should either completely reinvent it, or improve on the original. Trying to improve on anything from the immense catalog of the late, great jazz poet/hip-hop/psychedelic funk icon Gil Scott-Heron‘s catalog may be an impossible task, but as far as reinventions are concerned, the field’s wide open. Singer Charenee Wade tackles that challenge on her ambitious new album, Offering: The Music of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson. She’s playing the release show at the Jazz Standard on July 8, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM: cover is $25.
For those unfamiliar with his catalog, Scott-Heron, who died in 2011, ranks with Bob Marley, the Clash and Johnny Cash. Scott-Heron may not be quite as well-known, but his searing, fearlessly political music is every bit as powerful as anything those artists ever put out. Many consider him to be the first major hip-hop artist. Over the course of a forty-plus year career, Scott-Heron ripped racists and rightwingers to shreds, called bullshit on his own community and was one of the few American artists to call attention to the apocalyptic danger of nuclear power: his unforgettably ominous cautionary anthem We Almost Lost Detroit predated the Chernobyl disaster by a dozen years, and was the standout track on the otherwise forgettable No Nukes concert compilation album.
Maybe wisely, Wade and her band steer clear of most of Scott-Heron’s major works, instead focusing on more obscure tracks.There are two songs from Scott-Heron’s auspicious 1971 Pieces of a Man album, another two from 1975’s far more mellow The First Minute of a New Day. She and the band kick off the opening number, Offering, from the latter album with a strikingly straightforward delivery that actually manages to one-up the original. The genius of the arrangement is Brandon McCune’s steady piano augmented by Sefon Harris’ vibraphone, plus guitarist Dave Stryker’s brittle but triumphant cadenzas.
Another track from that album, Western Sunrise is a real revelation, bassist Lonnie Plaxico kicking it off with a catchy hook, Wade establishing a tricky tempo that ironically puts her unaffectedly strong vocals front and center, reinforcing Scott-Heron’s sardonic commentary on American exceptionalism. She ends it with a misty scat solo that the composer would no doubt appreciate.
Of the two tracks from Pieces of a Man – Scott-Heron’s first recording with a full band – Wade goes for fullscale reinvention with a scamperingly salsafied take of Home Is Where The Hatred Is, in her hands an even more chilling portrait of ghetto abandonment and alienation spiced with rippling solos from Harris and McCune. When she toys with the song’s haunting, concluding line, the effect is viscerally spine-tingling. Likewise, Wade reimagines the other track from that album, I Think I’ll Call It Morning, as a spirited if rainswept late 60s soul-jazz waltz as Roberta Flack might have done it.
Interestingly, the most epic number here is a shapeshifting take of Song of the Wind, an optimistic Afrocentric peacenik anthem from the 1977 Bridges album: the sparkly piano/vibes arrangement raises the energy of the undulating Fender Rhodes-driven original. A Toast to the People, one of the deep cut from the iconic 1975 From South Africa to South Carolina album, also gets an expansive treatment, Wade maintaining an enigmatic, misty distance from Scott-Heron’s snide, insistent delivery, Stryker channeling a period-perfect feel with his octaves.
Arguably the most apt choice of songs here is Ain’t No Such Thing As Superman, from the 1974 album The First Minute of a New Day – simply being sung by a woman, let alone with as much conviction as Wade brings this, elevates Scott-Heron’s message of community solidarity. Actor Malcolm-Jamal Warner narrates the historically biting proto hip-hop intro to Essex/Martin, Grant, Byrd & Till, an improvisational tableau with a lively solo from saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin. Likewise, Christian McBride provides a spoken-word intro to a lushly assertive take of the understatedly snide Peace Go With You Brother, from the 1974 album Winter in America. The most obscure track here is The Vulture (Your Soul And Mine), a clave-soul mashup based on a cut from Scott-Heron’s debut and also his final and forgettable album I’m New Here.
Is That Jazz is the one song that would have been really awesome to hear Wade do here. Can’t you imagine Plaxico playing that bitingly bluesy intro…and then Wade scampering down the scale, or up the scale as that groove kicks in? And wouldn’t that be hilarious when she got to the chorus? Is that jazz? OMG, is that jazz! The album’s not out yet, therefore no streaming link: put out a Google alert for when it hits Spotify, Soundcloud or Bandcamp.