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Published: 2007/12/21
by Brian Ferdman

The Harlem Experiment – The Harlem Experiment

The Harlem Experiment – The Harlem Experiment (Ropeadope Records)

The Great Debaters OST – various (Atlantic Records)

In this modern era of digital downloads and pick-and-choose mixes, the album is slowly falling by the wayside. With today’s listeners suffering from short attention spans, the album is becoming unnecessary as single songs can be acquired without “suffering” through the filler and fattier cuts that often comprise a full-length disc. As the standard album faces extinction, its only hope is its often forgotten cousin: the concept album. Tying together multiple tracks through a constant theme or storyline makes the album not only palatable to the ears but also necessary to be consumed in one listening session. Thankfully, some record labels still believe in the concept album, as evidenced by these fine releases from Atlantic Records and Ropeadope.

As its ridiculously wordy title explains, The Great Debaters Music Recorded For The Motion Picture With Vintage Tracks is the soundtrack to the aforementioned film by director and star, Denzel Washington. Set in 1935, the film tells the story of a volatile debate team coach who whips his underdog students from a small African American college in the deep South into a fearsome unit to be reckoned with. Washington surely knows his music, as he has hand-picked a slate of fine pre-1935 songs from the worlds of blues, jazz, folk, and gospel. Moreover, Washington certainly knows his modern musicians, selecting prime talent in the form of delta bluesman Alvin “Youngblood” Hart, soul singer Sharon Jones, and the young African American string band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Together these musicians revel in these old-time numbers, each playing off one another with excellent and authentic results. Jones pulls out all the sassy stops in teaming with Hart to create a sultry spins on “That’s What My Baby Likes” and the naughty “It’s Tight Like That.” Hart and the Carolina Chocolate Drops appear to be the perfect team, as they bring a grinding moan to “Busy Bootin’” and driving, guttural wails through “City of Refuge” and “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” The album is rounded out by a few slick big band numbers from David Berger & The Sultans of Swing, the excellent and uplifting gospel pairing of Jones with Billy Rivers & The Angelic Voices of Faith, and a couple of vintage tracks by Art Tatum and Marian Anderson.

Following in the footsteps of its previous successful ventures, The Philadelphia Experiment and The Detroit Experiment, the folks at Ropeadope have once again centered an entire album around a city (in this case a notorious neighborhood) with a colorful musical history. As with the aforementioned music from The Great Debaters, the talent for this project is top notch, with downtown trumpeter Steven Bernstein leading “The Harlem Houseband” through a funky set of hard-edged numbers as gritty as Frederick Douglass Blvd. on a Saturday night. Their efforts are punctuated by the steady rhythms of “Think,” which features Larry Legend’s swirling turntables, Don Byron’s bubbling clarinet, and Queen Esther’s intense vocals. Of course, Harlem has a rich musical history that goes far beyond the worlds of funk and R&B. Both its Latin and Jewish/klezmer influences are on display in Taj Mahal’s lively and playful cha-cha through Cab Calloway’s “Reefer Man.” Also of note is James Hunter’s splendid acoustic rendition of “A Rose in Spanish Harlem” that just drips with emotion. While many disparate genres are on display in this work, everything is tied together through spoken word interludes from Mums and Malcolm X that delineate the ever-changing face of this caustic but creative neighborhood.

Concept albums can take many forms, and since The Great Debaters Music Recorded For The Motion Picture With Vintage Tracks is essentially a soundtrack, its form is obvious. However, while The Great Debaters scores a movie, The Harlem Experiment actually is a movie, as each track tells a rich, fascinating, and engaging story. One can only hope the record labels of this world will continue to produce such inspired and creative works.

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