sister gertrude morgan (ropeadope)
Wednesday, December 14, 2005
king britt presents sister gertrude morgan (ropeadope)
Best known for her vibrant folk-art paintings, Sister Gertrude Morgan (1900-1980) cut a stark gospel album in New Orleans in the late ’60s. Philadelphia house-music and hip-hop producer King Britt recently devised new backing tracks for Morgan’s insistent, wild-eyed vocals and rattling tambourine. Although such revisionism can smack of cheesy gimmickry, his unlikely hybrid is a glorious success. Britt resists the urge to depict this passionate eccentric as a weirdo, respectfully crafting diverse, satisfying settings for her fiery minisermons. Brooding and bluesy, “Let’s Make a Record” turns the exhortation “Praise him!” into an apocalyptic warning, while the wailing harmonica of “Living Bread” conveys deep yearning. If the funky percussion of “I Was Healed by the Wounds” reimagines Morgan as a rapper, “Precious Lord Lead Me On” marries her message to a lovely melody. (jon young for motherjones)
nine horses - snow borne sorrow
Sunday, December 04, 2005
After the stark blemish, Sylvian has returned with a modern masterpiece that utilizes elements of avant guarde jazz and electronica melding effortlessly with Sylvian's pop sensibility to create his best release in years. Half of the disc contains material written with Steve Jansen and the other half contains material written with keyboardist/vibraphonist/remixer Burnt Friedman.
"Wonderful World" is an eerie jazz waltz featuring a vocal duet between Sylvian and Stina Nordenstam (who sounds somewhat like a cross between Shelly Duval as Olive Oyl and Rickie Lee Jones). Their 'she / he' back and forth lyrical scheme gives the song the overall feel of what could be considered as a Broadway musical show tune in the day and age of post 9/11. "Darkest Birds" is the 'poppiest' track on the disc, with slight elements of electronica and a punchier kick to the catchy chorus that gives the song a big lift. "The Banality Of Evil" is built upon a prevalent 5/4 rhythm throughout and Sylvian's polyrhythmic vocal lines may take some time to entirely sink in, but they will do just that with repeated listening. This track has a tone somewhat akin to the work of Peter Gabriel, not only in the rhythm and snaky guitar lines, but in the sinister backing vocals and grunts that appear later in this extended track. "Atom And Cell" is a slow dirge in 6/8. The sinister backing vocals and polyrhythmic vocal lines from the last track continue here, and in even greater abundance. The horn arrangement, or disarrangement to be more exact, is a nice touch that adds even more confusion to the disfunction of this plodding track dealing with the plight of the homeless. Ryuichi Sakamoto contributes some tasty piano melodies to the piece. "A History Of Holes" is another track in the odd time signature of five, with more free improvisational soloing from the horns, but the odd feel of this one is straightened out by Sylvian's smooth vocal delivery. Though the music was primarily written by Friedman, Sylvian's lyrics seem to be a little more biographical than he is usually willing to offer up, dealing with childhood memories...mostly those he has chosen to block out during most of his adult life. It may take some listening to get the gist of this track, but this one is a gem. "Snow Borne Sorrow" is a track that Jansen originally intended for a possible solo work. The harsh electronic sound of Sylvian's last release, blemish, makes a brief appearance during the introduction of this track but the song smooths out into a gentle ballad in 6/8. The lyrics detail Sylvian's recent divorce and the effect on the children. Ryuichi Sakamoto contributes another notable cameo on piano and there is some fine string quartet orchestration. "The Day The Earth Stole Heaven" is a hybrid of folk and jazz that reveals itself to be the highlight of this release. Sylvian's voice is in such fine form here. Guitarist Tim Motzer composed the music and Sylvian's melody lines are the most focused of all the selections...a perfect collaboration. "The Librarian" is the last track and is a fleshed out version of the Friedman / Jaki Liebezeit track released earlier this year. The song now has more of a pronounced groove due to the addition of drums and syncopated guitar riffs. Greater use of Morten Grønvad's vibraphone is similar to that of vibemaster Gary Burton's contributions on Bruce Cockburn's 'The Charity Of Night', and adds an excellent texture to the song. Yet there may be a little too much going on when compared to the original and the clutter of the additional instruments may have now taken away from the subtlety of Sylvian's delicate vocal delivery. But the song is still one of the stronger tunes on the disc. And the disc is Sylvian's strongest since the early nineties.
sister gertrude morgan (ropeadope)
Sunday, December 04, 2005
R Rated Reviews: King Britt
By Jason Moon Wilkins
King Britt Presents: Sister Gertrude Morgan
Primitive folk art painter, singer, poet, street preacher and "servant of the Lord" in several capacities (including running orphanages and missions in the poorest parts of New Orleans) Sister Gertrude Morgan was born in 1900 and died in 1980. That was long before she received international recognition for her artwork and former Digable Planets DJ and world-renowned remixer and producer King Britt remixed her music into a soulful psychedelic epic.
It's fitting that Morgan once made her home in the Ninth Ward, the destitute area most affected by Hurricane Katrina, because her voice now calls like a righteous, insistent spirit from that spoiled Southern soil. It's also fitting that the woman who ran an orphanage that was blown away by Hurricane Betsy in 1965 finally is being rediscovered, years after her death, in the wake of another, even more devastating, storm.
Long before this album (which ironically was released a short time before Katrina hit) and long before her renaissance hit full swing in 2003, when a limited-edition release of her lone album, Let's Make a Record (originally recorded in 1970), was issued to a small but vocal group of critics and collectors, Morgan was roaming the streets of New Orleans, preaching, singing and shouting from the city's street corners. Dressed in a pristine white nurse's uniform meant to signify both her self-appointed role as a "bride of Christ" and her role as a spiritual healer to the sick souls she saw wandering the streets of the French Quarter, Morgan would preach and sing, accompanied usually by nothing more than a tambourine. This a cappella style eventually was captured on tape in 1970 on the aforementioned Let's Make a Record, which King Britt and his crew recently reinterpreted.
The album that King Britt has made is fervently and unflinchingly religious due to the nature of the lyrics, but the power and passion of Morgan's voice truly transcend any denomination or belief. Less songs than chants, Morgan's improvised sermon songs slowly revolve around a central theme, such as "I Am the Living Bread," until her chanting, circular singing becomes a spiral, spinning her message up through infinity, a process helped along by Britt's alternately ecstatic and euphoric beats. This album is more mantra than Moby, who also famously employed unearthed a cappella soul singers on his enormously successful Play album. These tunes are aimed more at moving your spirit, not your booty.
Morgan literally created many of these memorable tunes on the spot, famously shouting to the original album's engineer, "Let's make a record for our Lord!" before shaking her tambourine and immediately extemporizing on that theme while the fellas with the tape machine rushed to push record.
It's this song, more than any of the others on the album, that really shows the inspired and spiritually uplifting strength of this collaboration. King Britt and his musical partner, Tim Motzer, labored for 12 months to make this epic reinterpretation of Morgan's work into a hymn to her genius, and on Let's Make a Record you can hear that effort. Britt and Motzer rarely let their sonic experimentation detract from Morgan's original intent. In most cases, and especially on Let's Make a Record, it sounds like she was as present at the making of this album as any of the other guest musicians. When a fuzzy '60s skwonking guitar counters her voice or a humming buzz echoes her droning vocals, it lends credibility to King Britt's assertion that Morgan was at the studio in spirit.
Everyone is looking for a way to contribute to the relief effort in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast this holiday season, and this record is one way to make a small but measurable difference in keeping alive a music institution such as Preservation Hall, which always supported Sister Gertrude Morgan and even in its displaced state continues to do so.
sister gertrude morgan (ropeadope)
Sunday, December 04, 2005
Preaching the Gospel
King Britt's new album began in New Orleans in 1970, with one woman and a tambourine.
by Doree Shafrir (Philadelphia Weekly Story)
King Britt has worked with De La Soul and the Roots, Digable Planets, Alma Horton and Grover Washington Jr. He's remixed Yoko Ono and Femi Kuti. He's spun records all over the world. But until now he's never worked with a dead woman.
That woman is Sister Gertrude Morgan-folk artist, poet, preacher, nurse and musician-who recorded a single album of gospel music at New Orleans' Preservation Hall in 1970. Spare and deeply spiritual, the album was done entirely a cappella, with just a tambourine as accompaniment. In 2004 Preservation Hall director Ben Jaffe released it under his Preservation Hall Recordings label to coincide with a traveling exhibit of Morgan's art organized by the American Folk Art Museum in New York City.
On Tuesday Ropeadope releases King Britt's remixes of Sister Gertrude's album. King Britt Presents Sister Gertrude Morgan was two years in the making, the product of a series of fortuitous meetings and fruitful collaborations.
"Two or three years ago I was at Jazz Fest in New Orleans," Ropeadope founder Andy Hurwitz says on the phone from Brooklyn. "I was introduced to Ben and listened to the album. He asked me if I thought it'd be cool to have Ropeadope artists remix the record. I told him that instead of having lots of artists remix it, I'd rather see one person do the whole project."
Hurwitz asked Britt if he'd be interested in remixing Sister Gertrude's music. "I said I wasn't familiar with Sister Gertrude Morgan," Britt says. "Then I Googled her, and I was blown away. I felt like she was someone I should know-and more people should know her. I never accept a project unless I really like it, but I knew this would be incredible."
On her album Morgan sings of the Lord and redemption, but also of struggles for equality and the nature of power. Her spirituality is filtered through a strong political viewpoint, reflective of the turbulent late '60s and the struggles of the civil rights movement.
Britt's remixes, which he did with his longtime collaborator Tim Motzer, bring a contemporary element to the music without overwhelming it. There's the dark vibe of the "Power" remix, which channels the gothic New Orleans of Anne Rice, but there's also the exuberant opening track "Let's Make a Record," whose upbeat, electronic-influenced stylings make it almost danceable.
"Let's Make a Record" is the only track Motzer did without Britt's input. "I had just seen PJ Harvey," Motzer says. "Her guitar player made a big impression on me that night. He was overdriving his amplifiers. There's a tip of the hat to Led Zeppelin as well."
The rest of the tracks were done collaboratively, Britt says. "I sent the original tracks to my friend Jeff [Chestik]," he explains. "He put each song into Pro Tools, put it in time and figured out the beat, so I could take each track and put it into my computer and start working. It saved me about a month of work."
For a song like "Power," the first one they worked on, Britt says he was influenced by '80s band Talk Talk's 1988 album Spirit of Eden. "Talk Talk was starting to go left field at that point," he says. "They were using organ, slide guitar. The vocals were haunting. I thought these were the elements for Sister Gertrude."
Influenced by Talk Talk's use of harmonica, Britt called G. Love, who agreed to perform on the album as well. "He came in with a margarita and a harmonica, and an old mike from the '50s. When he laid the harmonica down, Tim started the track. He gave me the files and I took them home and worked on them," Britt says.
The rest of the album, Britt says, was done similarly. "Each track always starts with a beat, because I'm a DJ. I put the vocal in with a metronome. I put different rhythms in, then chords and the organ. Then I'd give it to Tim to put in the guitar, then the bass."
The experience of doing the Sister Gertrude album has inspired Britt to look beyond his typical sources for music to remix. "My friend Steph went to Brazil and found an a cappella group from the '60s-I'm trying to get the rights to it," he says. "Technology allows us to do whatever. It brings awareness to cultures in a different way."
Percussion on the album was done with a drum machine, and most of the bass lines were programmed-only the guitar and harmonica are live. But Britt has put together a band to perform the album live. The Sister Gertrude Morgan Experience, as he's calling it, performed in a rehearsal at the Painted Bride in August, then debuted a few days later at the Flow Festival in Helsinki. The official Stateside debut will be at the Bride Oct. 8. The live show is accompanied by a video projection put together by VJ Illuminati. Rapid-fire imagery of Sister Gertrude and her art flash across the screen, followed by shots of people protesting the war in Iraq as the song "Power" is played.
The Oct. 8 show will also include a screening of the 15-minute documentary Searching for Sister Gertrude Morgan, which Britt did with MBN Studios' Ben Barnett. "King suggested I come to New Orleans as he went down there to let these people hear [the album] for the first time. I started hanging out and started filming. That was it," Barnett says. The pair visited Sister Gertrude's grave and her old neighborhood, recreating the mysterious life Sister Gertrude lived.
All of the project's elements-the album, the live show and the documentary-pay tribute to a woman whose message, Motzer says, is ever more applicable.
"I think Sister Gertrude speaks something that people need to hear in these times we're living in," says Motzer. "Iraq, tsunamis, all the stuff that's been happening. It gives people solace, gives people strength and hope that the whole planet isn't going down the dumps. There's a real joy and power in her voice."
sister gertrude morgan (ropeadope)
Sunday, December 04, 2005
King Britt finds God in the meticulous resurrection of a lost soul sister.
by Andrew Parks (City Paper Cover Story)
Moby would have wet himself had he heard it; maybe even sold his stake in Teany for a simple sample. For this self-proclaimed "bride of Christ" sounded as if she were from another time and plane, clanging her convulsive tambourine and singing verses from the book of Revelations like Mavis Staples possessed by the Holy Spirit. But the bald one didn't discover the lone lost recording of Sister Gertrude Morgan. Ropeadope Records founder Andy Hurwitz did, as he was flipping through discs in New Orleans during Jazz & Heritage Fest 2002. It only took one listen of Morgan's mysteriously labeled Let's Make a Record live LP (recorded in 1970, and pressed in small, discrete batches by the legendary Preservation Hall) before Hurwitz was on the phone negotiating a proper reissue of the record with Ben Jaffe, overseer of the jazz mecca. (Meanwhile, Jaffe re-released Morgan's raw voice-and-tambourine tracks in 2004, to coincide with a traveling exhibit of her art organized by the American Folk Art Museum in New York City.)
"[She] has to be the best-kept secret in blues and gospel music," explains Hurwitz. "I could not believe that her voice wasn't world-famous."
Hurwitz says it only took "about 12 minutes" to spark plans for both a Ropeadope re-release with extensive liner notes (including some of Morgan's haunting simplistic paintings) and a remix record. There was one hang-up, however: Hurwitz wasn't comfortable with the suggestion of selecting a dozen producers for the job, similar to the successful but spotty looting of Verve's vaults on countless compilations, most notably by Madlib. Such an approach could distort the deeply spiritual, raw power of Morgan's two-track recordings. A carefully constructed "reinterpretation," on the other hand, could take her to the higher, clouded realm she celebrated in song.
"Sister Gertrude's music was too sacred for something as shallow [as a simple remix]," says Hurwitz. Turns out he had Philadelphia's own Madlib in mind from the start — the chameleonic soul man King Britt. "I felt no single person was better-suited for the project because I knew he'd treat it with respect and integrity. Britt wasn't going to take the easy way out, raping the sister's work for the sake of making a hit. Just look at Moby's Play."
Inspired: "We were going off Sister Gertrude -- she was in the room with us because her spirit, her vibe is so huge, the essence of everything," says Tim Motzer (left).
Convincing Britt to commit was about as easy as Hurwitz's original call to Jaffe, although Britt admits he had to Google Morgan's name a bit before he realized who the hell she was: a revered New Orleans legend, saintlike in some circles, yet rarely spoken about in graveyard tours. Once he heard those original two-track cuts and saw some of her paintings (collected in the hardcover book Sister Gertrude Morgan: The Tools of Her Ministry), the producer was wholly engrossed in the project. It helped that he'd fallen into a creative funk since releasing his first hip-hop album, 2003's space odyssey Adventures in Lo-fi (on BBE, featuring rhymes from Quasimoto, De La Soul and Britt's former Digable Planets collaborator, Cherrywine).
"I was just looking for a new sound, a new inspiration," admits Britt. "And my mom's like, 'You need to find God, you need to go to church,'" Britt says, with a groan and a laugh. "After hearing Sister G, I realized we all need a sense of spirituality right now. The whole world is in cahoots and it's Armageddon time. People are losing their sense of hope, so I think records like this are exactly what people need."
Britt was so taken aback by Morgan's fiery sermon-songs that he immediately insisted on including frequent collaborator (as part of the Sylk 130 collective) Tim Motzer in the songwriting and production process. Motzer owns 1K Recordings and has played with everyone from Les Nubians to Patti LaBelle and Philadelphia poet Ursula Rucker. He even has an ambient project in the works called Soft Lunch, under the guise of Tilomo ("King uses it for sex," jokes Motzer), as well as a solo record that Britt describes as "very Ziggy Stardust … we [Britt's FiveSix imprint] are actually trying to license it to a major label."
Sitting on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, amid the stifling midafternoon sun and several wannabe Rockys, it's clear the two are more than session mates with a similar lust for crate digging (they actually headed out to Lancaster at 6 this Sunday morning for the town's monthly record fair, where some prime David Axelrod and Don Cherry platters were consumed). That's partly because they've known each other since the heyday of Britt's residencies at Silk City in the mid-'90s, including the Saturday house and electronic party Back to Basics, and a Monday mix of hip-hop, soul and live music that often featured Motzer's virtuoso fret work.
"I'm into the old-school mode of production — getting the right people to make the best product," says Britt, as the three of us sit down on a bench near the museum's monumental entrance. "That's what Quincy Jones would do: Get the right people to do everything, like on Off the Wall for Michael Jackson. Tim is a super musician, whereas I've never had training or anything. So coming from that point of view, I may play a chord the wrong way, but it really doesn't matter if it's wrong or right."
"It's just whether this is working or not," adds Motzer. "Ultimately, we complement one another. The holes are always covered, which is cool."
Britt continues, explaining that he prefers collaborating over the reclusive bedroom producer role largely because he was an only child — an only child so bored he played Dungeons and Dragons by himself. (Too bad he didn't know Philadelphia's drum 'n' bass dungeonmaster Dieselboy back then.)
Five months of constant writing and chance improv — with nary a second for a D&D match — went into the Sister Gertrude Morgan record. The attention to detail and refusal to simply remix with synth stabs or piano keys certainly shows. The opening cut, "Let's Make a Record" (tracked by Motzer and his Fractured Reverb Underground bandmate, bassist Barry Meehan), is as dark and disturbing as it is a joyous battle cry of treated riffs, snappy breaks, gumbo-thick basslines and hallelujahs from the heavens. Every séance that follows is as sonically surprising, from the way "I Was Healed by the Wounds" hits you right in the chest with a choice "oomph!" sample and tribal percussion patterns to the sheer soul-singeing intensity of "Power (Voodoo Version)" [see sidebar]. If she's listening, Sister G is probably smiling right now, momentarily content that her message of salvation will live on — especially in these troubled times of tsunamis, war and of course, the Mississippi Delta flood that washed away her beloved city.
"Man, it's just beautiful," says Hurwitz. "I should also add that this record is bigger than King and he knows it. The real story here is about Sister Gertrude Morgan — her lyrics, her passion and her art are borderline religious to me. If there was one artist past/present/future that I could sit down with for a roadside chat, it would be her."
"Some people erroneously call this a remix record, when it's really a full-blown production," adds Motzer. "We're writing songs around what she already wrote down, being inspired by her vibe. We were going off Sister Gertrude — she was in the room with us because her spirit, her vibe is so huge, the essence of everything. She had this great message in the '60s, one that's just as relevant in 2005."
Relevant, and better than another techno-lite blues album from Moby?
"Well, he did sell a lot of records," says Britt, laughing. "I'd rather hear Sister Gertrude in the Top 10 than the new Ludacris. I want us to release pop records, but in the sense of our pop — just good songs with longevity that people can sing. Whatever happens, we're embarking on a heavy journey the next few years."
King Britt Presents Sister Gertrude Morgan, Sat., Oct. 8, 8 p.m., $25, Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine St., 215-925-9914, www.paintedbride.org.
One Track Mind
"Power (Voodoo Version)" featuring G. Love
At first, they thought he was crazy. Or maybe it was just his margarita talking. Either way, King Britt and Tim Motzer weren't about to say no when G. Love asked the duo to kill the lights in Britt's studio for a "Voodoo Version" of Sister Gertrude Morgan's already evocative song, "Power."
"We couldn't even see him, but he ripped it on the harmonica and took it over the top," says Britt. "He brought the dirty swamp vibe out."
Motzer, in turn, went absolutely wild with his riffs — fingerpicking his strings, strangling his guitar's neck, and even getting a little Phish-y. (Motzer's Jazzheads quartet would have totally gotten booked at Bonnaroo, had their Avant Wot Not LP not come out in 1999.)
"I was trying to conjure the voodoo, so to speak, by playing slide guitars," explains Motzer. "It just evokes so much — that sound of tearing your heart out of your chest. It's very beautiful and brutal, the most gorgeous nasty sound you've heard. It's like modern-day blues in a sense."
To achieve an ultramodern excursion into Delta blues, Britt started with Morgan's time-stretched vocals (setting her singing to a certain pitch and amount of beats per minute) and the usual bedrock of a production: A beat. This track does more than dust off a drum break, though. It goes for the broken beat vibe of West London, a shadowy, soulful sound popularized by Jazzanova in the States. Consequently, the track is manic for its entire eight minutes, even a little claustrophobic, with "deep, dark and dubby" basslines alongside keyboard snippets that recall the best of reggae. Britt is so happy with the song that he's considering submitting it for Grammy consideration.
"'Power' is intense," says Britt. "It was total voodoo: A groove that continually builds and turns into a complete trance."