Timeless music for Black History Month

Music Notes

February 17, 2005|By RASHOD OLLISON

WE'RE IN the middle of Black History Month, and I couldn't let the brief 28 days slip by without commemorating them in some way. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: You don't need a special time designated to explore the richness of black popular music (or black history for that matter). But since this is the official month in which we recognize the achievements of African-Americans, I'd like to share my personal picks, some well-known and underrated gems I consider to be among the best in black American music. Also listed is a recent compilation of woefully overlooked music by singer-songwriter Valerie Simpson.

John Coltrane, A Love Supreme: One of the monumental albums in American music, period. It was released in 1964, three years before the jazz giant died. The intensity of the music, the depth of emotion expressed is almost overwhelming upon first listen. At least it was for me. I was in my freshman year of college when I bought Love Supreme, completely unaware of its revered status among jazz, rock and pop fans. I dug the title; the CD was on sale. So I bought it. And I'm glad I did. This record expanded my spirit in such a way, I haven't been the same since. It's like a glorious, enlightening sermon without words.

Miles Davis, Kind of Blue: What else can be said about this superlative album that hasn't already been said since it appeared in 1959? If you call yourself a real jazz lover, then you should already own this CD and know it backward and forward. I bought this album the year I bought A Love Supreme. (Again, I was ignorant of its legacy. I dug the title. It was on sale.) That year (1996) was one of many personal ups and downs: I graduated from high school and entered college. A cousin, my father and an aunt all died that year. Music was my balm during many dark hours. And Miles' Kind of Blue was a sure soul comforter. It's also great company during my more reflective moments. Go get it already.

Minnie Riperton, Adventures in Paradise: There was much more to the singer's short musical legacy than the syrupy 1974 smash "Lovin' You." On this 1975 LP, whose biggest hit was the erotic "Inside My Love," the Chicago native, backed by members of the Crusaders, offered a mature, jazz-inflected suite of songs that luminously explored her different sides. There was the sexual Minnie (the aforementioned hit and "Baby, This Love I Have"), the playful ("Simple Things" and "Love and Its Glory") and the philosophical ("Feelin' That Your Feelin's Right" and "Don't Let Anyone Bring You Down"). Four years after the album reached the Top 5 on the soul charts, the singer-songwriter died of breast cancer. She was 31. Widely available as an import, Adventures in Paradise sported a memorable cover with a regal-looking Minnie seated next to a lion.

Curtis Mayfield, Curtis: The soul man left the Impressions and launched his celebrated solo career with this gold-selling, socially conscious masterpiece. Released in 1970, months before Marvin Gaye dropped What's Going On, the singer-songwriter-producer tackled in finely detailed songs many issues troubling the country at the time: religious fanaticism, stifling poverty, political corruption, warped media images. (Well, well. Sounds like America today.) Over lushly soulful orchestrations, Curtis delivers the bleak evening news in a sweet falsetto while managing to radiate a little hope.

Aretha Franklin, Spirit in the Dark: This 1970 album from the Queen is seldom listed as one of the most essential in her Atlantic catalog. But I can't imagine a complete Aretha collection without it. At the time she recorded the set, the legend was 28 years old, and a new age was dawning in her life. She had divorced her overbearing (and allegedly abusive) first husband and manager, Ted White. She had fallen in love with photographer Ken Cunningham and had given birth to their son Kecalf. Musically, Aretha wrote more experimental, esoteric tunes, like the hit title track. Her self-penned numbers here -- the bluesy "One Way Ticket" and the odd, gospel-touched "Pullin'" -- are among some of the best recordings Aretha ever waxed.

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