“Only he who gives up is defeated/ The defeated are those who never fail / You don’t take the opportunity to lose / You don’t get the opportunity to win.”
Accomplished rapper JSWISS passionately proclaims those words over the horn and string-driven climax of “Defeat”, the single from he and Grammy-winning, producer, composer and trumpeter Michael Leonhart. This follow-up to their first two acclaimed singles, “BLACKOUT”and “On The Money” , “Defeat” is a hard-hitting, spirited and inspiring reminder that the true champions in life don’t run from failure, but overcome it. JSWISS and Leonhart with this track and the others have consistently crafted a trademark sound that is hip hop with a cinematic sheen that brandishes top shelf lyricism, performance and musicianship. “Defeat” is also one of three songs inspired by themes from award-winning author Paulo Coelho’s book “Manuscript Found In Accra”, all of which appear on the duos’ upcoming 5-song release, “The Alchemy EP”, which drops in January 2021.
Check out the compelling video compliment for the anthemic track below:
The year 2020. No one could have envisioned what it had in store when it arrived, but oh boy, most of us the world over are looking forward to seeing it leave. However, it won’t matter if we earnestly move into 2021 and change hasn’t begun to happen – If we’re not wiser, more knowledgeable and involved. If we’re not more caring and respectful of one another. If ultimately we don’t come out of this better or stronger. That is what adversity is capable of doing. Some might argue or testify that is the reason for it.
Like most of us, revered and accomplished trombonist, producer, artist Jeff Bradshaw didn’t know of course what the year would bring either. But he’s for sure had experience with being blindsided by a tumultuous, life altering event. In 2016, as he’s shared in the time since, the proud North Philly native was diagnosed with the very painful and serious condition, diverticulitis. It was without warning and in the midst of some exciting, successful and crucial times for this in demand musician whose impressive and long list of credits include work with Michael Jackson, Earth, Wind & Fire, Patti Labelle, Jay Z, Mary J Blige, Erykah Badu, The Roots, Kirk Franklin, Common, and many more. Referencing the challenging times we’re currently in the midst of he notes, “I can say that because of what I’ve been through that I was spiritually and mentally prepared for this ‘season’ in our world.” But he admits, “I don’t think anybody can say, ‘oh yeah I was ready for this.’ In my lifetime, I’ve never seen anything like this. So I can’t say I was ready for it, but I can say I was spiritually and emotionally prepared to be able to handle something like this.”
His personal experience, in great part, encouraged the title of his new project being aptly called, Stronger, a super impressive collection of tracks and assembly of premier guests that include Chrsitian McBride, Conya Doss, Amber Jeanne [Moonchild], Frank McComb, Robert Glasper, Glenn Lewis, Jazzy Jeff, Micki Miller, Lin Rountree, Marqueal Gordon and more. As Bradshaw shares, the title does speak to how he genuinely feels about himself as an artist at this point in his career. “ As an artist, writer, producer, I am stronger. This is the strongest music I’ve put out, my best playing, my best producing, my best writing. I feel like this is stronger than any work that I’ve ever put out.”
That is a pretty strong statement from someone who from the drop of his acclaimed debut, Bone Deep in 2003, has consistently offered up gems. However, his assessment does have great merit with just about every track on Stronger worthy of singular distinction let alone put together for one seamless, enjoyable, collection which includes singles released earlier from the album like the soulful “Prototype” featuring Raheem Devaughn and “I Do ( Sincerely)” featuring the sultry vocals of Marsha Ambrosius. Having premier guests has definitely been a hallmark of Bradshaw’s projects and help make Stronger exactly that. And how does he come to tap all this talent? “It’s crazy,” he laughs. “First of all they’re all my friends, which makes it awesome for me because my friends respect what I do. Because this is what we do for a living, for my friends to respect, and be fans of mine the way that I am fans of theirs, and for them to join my journey and help me show the world that a trombone player can be the artist, the lead instrument on jazz and soul music, it’s so humbling man. I’m so blessed. I’m blessed to have the people that I’ve been able to work with.”
“I think that no matter where we are in life, it’s really important to always tell people that you love them. Let your friends know you love them and you appreciate them. Let family know that you love and appreciate them.” – Jeff Bradshaw
But Stronger with songs boasting titles like “Gratitude”, “Euphoria,” “Butterfly”, and “Celebrate,” indeed speaks just as much to the person he is now because of what he’s gone through and the lessons learned. Needless to say, that event presented very scary times, and grand uncertainty for the future. “At the time, I didn’t have health insurance,” admits Bradshaw. “So I spent every dime I had on health care. Was paying out of pocket. I couldn’t work and it was a really tough time for me.” Several things emerged as key elements Bradshaw would have to give into and accept that along with his faith would enable him to rise out of his quandary and ultimately, yes, make him a stronger person for it. “People, like one of my good brothers, Charles Whitfield [music industry sage], got the word out and let Jill [vocalist, collaborator and friend, Jill Scott] know what was going on and Jill had launched a GoFundMe page for me, which I was completely against, because I was embarrassed. I didn’t want the world to know.” Bradshaw goes on to explain, “Being sick is one thing. But then to lose everything I had and to need to ask for help was a humbling moment for me.” He then shares an equally moving moment. “Jill said, when I told her how I felt about the GoFundMe page, she said ‘Let people love on you. You have given so much of yourself, now twenty -seven years, so much of yourself to the music industry and the road and shared your love of music with people all over the world. Touring, live on stage. Now allow people to love on you.” Those words made the help something he could then accept.
The genuine outpouring of love through GoFundMe, a benefit concert given by many of his musical friends and more work than he’s ever had in the four years since have not only enabled him to get back on his feet, it now has him standing stronger than ever. “ I’m a baptized believer in christ and I believe that the ultimate power in this world is love. The ultimate power in this world I believe is God,” Bradshaw passionately asserts. “You don’t really know what you’re made of until you go down. When go down spiritually, emotionally, financially – You’ve lost some form of dignity. There’s something about being all the way down and the world watch you struggle. When the world watches you go all the way down and then you experience the love. He then acknowledges, “I know that people say that we live in an evil world, and we do. But there’s some love in this world that I’ve truly experienced and I believe that when God touches the heart of people and people embrace you and come to your aid when you’re at you lowest point and you take that spirit and go in the studio and record an album, it has to be stronger. I am definitely stronger. That’s why I’m stronger because I was embraced and lifted by the love of many and the love of God. That’s why I’m stronger.”
So certainly, Jeff Bradshaw has legitimate reason to feel or be stronger, but let’s be clear, he long ago established himself a substantial talent on the music scene. On the trombone, an instrument relative to several others not often associated with being out front or toiling in the mainstream music realm, Bradshaw has had great success doing both. There are influences that showed him he could, “I was born and raised in a church where gospel brass bands are the feature and the music ministry so I’ve been surrounded by trombone players and brass music my entire life,” says Bradshaw. “My father was a multi -brass instrumentalist. His main ax was trombone. I watched him play and he was so great at it. Those are the two reasons I play trombone.” Another who helped shatter perceived limitations? “Fred Wesley, who is my distant mentor and a great man. As an arranger for James Brown, for so many songs and as an individual player and soloist. He is just an amazing, amazing human being” He recalls fondly often being told early on, “Man, man you sound like Fred. Anybody tell you, ‘you sound like Fred Wesley?’” Certainly those examples instilled great confidence to forge ahead on his instrument unbridled by perception. As a result, he aptly counts himself as leading the trombone charge in mainstream music along with players like acclaimed contemporary, trombonist Trombone Shorty, who’s featured on another standout track from the project, “War and Thunder.” “We’re in parallel universes,” Bradshaw says of the two of them. “There are many of us out here recording great music.” as he mentions Big Sam Williams and Saunders Sermon as other very talented “bone” players reppin’ as leaders on the scene.
“If we want things to change, one you have to change people’s hearts. If you can touch people’s hearts you can reach their minds. But you’ve got to touch their hearts first. So I believe that through music we can touch people’s hearts. And then through their hearts we can have an open-minded discussion about ending racism, about white privilege, about racism in the police force, in corporate America and in the music industry.” – Jeff Bradshaw
Jeff Bradshaw has also recently used his trombone with that same spirit of no limitations and passion contributing his voice to an atrocity not inherent to the year 2020 or an effect of the pandemic itself. Seeing as many of us did repeatedly on screens of every size, an image that will forever be etched in our minds, he was moved both literally and needless to say, emotionally. “8:46, that number is what really got me off the couch. I was like, okay I have to do something,” recalls Bradshaw. “Watching George Floyd, watching his life leave his body, the way it did, as callas as and as evil as it left his body. I said, I have to get off the couch. I said, I want to do something. I need to get in the streets and do something.”
It started first with him making a call to ask if he could play the Black national anthem, Lift Every Voice And Sing, before a planned march in Philadelphia. “It was beautiful hearing all of those thousands of people sing. It was amazing! And after that march, I came home and sat on my couch and I was just like, ‘That’s not enough. I need to do more.’” The answer to what that would be came divinely delivered in a dream. “God showed me a vision of myself on the steps of the museum [in Philadelphia] which everyone affectionately knows as the [movie] Rocky steps,” remembers Bradshaw. “In the dream, I was on the steps of the art museum and I was surrounded by horns as far as the eye can see. And when I woke up that morning, I was like,’ That’s it! I got it! I got it! I’m going to bring specifically, horn players together and we’re going to protest through music.” He called up a good friend, Randy Robinson, explained his vision and told him he needed a name for it. A Clarion Call For Justice was the response. “And I was like, wow, right out of the bible. Awesome!,” Bradshaw fondly remembers. With the help of another good friend, tuba and trombone player, Sam Gellerstein, they put the call out to horn players they knew and didn’t know through social media and phones call to meet at those “Rocky” steps. And as Bradshaw declared, “Let’s play music to the high heavens and try to touch people.” The idea was a success that lead to four more times at those steps, each time bringing more and more players, eventually bringing it to New York City’s Washington Square Park and the recently decreed Black Lives Matter Plaza in the nations’s capitol. “There were about seventy-five horns out there and we played to the high heavens and we celebrated the lives, but we also protested the unnecessary deaths.” Bradshaw proudly asserts, “Now I’m an artist and activist.” This is all yet another example of him coming out of a challenging time being more than he was and with the help of others turning adversity into strength.
Simply put, “I practice. I play hard. I am playing the best trombone I have ever played in my life, says Bradshaw. “The gift I have to play this instrument is at it’s best thus far because as musicians we’re always learning, we’re always in school, we’re always getting better. You never stop learning and you never stop growing.” And thus, the result for us all, if we follow suit, should be that we get, Stronger as well. BC
The most obvious job of a drummer is to provide the beat and keep the band swingin’ or bumpin’ in time. Just doing that is harder than it may seem, but the elite and legendary do it so well we might not realize really how much more they’re doing. Often nestled behind the vocalists or instrumentalists, they’re in a continuing cycle of providing a rhythmic canvas and making split second decisions on their instrument as well as for the others in the band that often set the tone for the whole vibe. And of course, when it’s time to in the immortal words of the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, “give the drummer some,” they get to assemble a collage of sonic colors of their own that still artfully fits in the grand scheme.
It seems the acumen developed over time for many great drummers doing this night in and night out on the bandstand or inside a recording studio booth fosters a talent for leading a band and composing as well. Who knew? Well, turns out many do including the extremely accomplished drummer, composer and bandleader, E.J. Strickland.
The in demand beatsmith has and continues to work with a list of burgeoning and veteran, acclaimed artists including names like Vincent Herring, Ravi Coltrane, Russell Malone, David Sanchez, Reggie Washington, David Gilmore, Jaleel Shaw, Brandee Younger, Brianna Thomas Cassandra Wilson, Lizz Wright, Marcus Strickland (his twin brother saxophonist ) and many others. But he has also garnered acclaim with his own excellent projects as a leader such as The E.J. Strickland Quintet,Transient Beings, and very cool concept, Pads N Loops. In midst of doing so, he has successfully revealed that impressive talent for composing releasing three fantastic projects with the most recent being, Warriors Of Peace.
His ability obviously didn’t go unnoticed by the Jazz Coalition who in August awarded him, one of fifty given, a commission grant for the creation of music relevant to the times we now live. As you’ll discover in the video interview Strickland was already at a boiling point of expression whipped up by the uncertainty and adversity we are all facing at this pivotal time in our history when this opportunity arrived. The result is his highly anticipated suite called, A Unified Stance, We Must Take.
Check out the video to hear E.J. Strickland’s passionate reason for the title of this new work and the suite as a whole along with where his love of music and the drums came from; his relationship with his brother, saxophonist Marcus Strickland; a funny story about legendary drummer Roy Haynes and more.
The Soul Seen retrospective revisits the 2003 interview with Soul/R&B artist Kem from the segment WATCH CLOSELY that featured emerging artists to keep an eye on. This catches the popular artist as he moved from successful independent artist to making the decision to sign with legendary major Motown records and offers an insightful look at his reasons and the development of his sound.
KEM Putting the Right Elements Together
It’s a lucky thing that the prevalent mind set of the music industry to foster monotony and artlessness has not kept gifted souls from being heard. The recent rise of artists, “doing it for themselves” has brought forth a crop of talented folks furtively proving that a notable slice of the listening public pie still desires artistry and meaningful messages. Case in point, vocalist, songwriter, and musician, KEM.
A little more than a year ago the “Motor City” resident born Kem Owens in Nashville, Tennessee, released the splendid CD that is KEMISTRY on his own label. The aptly titled concoction of smoothed out hipness, sensual vibes, stirring words, and Kem’s superb vocal prowess that hints to the flavor of legend, Al Jarreau, was ushered to the masses with a seemingly lofty goal – Sell 10,000 copies. Well, not only was the goal met, it was exceeded – while at the same time sparking a watchful eye and eventual offer from Motown Records to promote and distribute not only Kemistry, but 4 other future releases as well. It’s indeed ironic that the legendary label that once set up shop in Detroit would zero in on his project. It’s also fitting when you consider its iconic history of discovering and grooming stars even as recent as that of the talented, young soulstress, India.Arie. But why, you maybe wondering, after confirming his ability to sell records on his own would Kem decide to hook up with Motown? “It’s a win, win situation for me,” says Kem. “Having the machine of a major label behind me would allow me to reach a lot more people and to get the music released on a national level. It also helps me build my fan base, my market base.” He then keenly continues, “If for some reason this should not do as well [as planned], I will have expanded my base and I can always go back to selling records on my own. I think the type of music that I’m doing is such that people will continue to buy the records for as long as I choose to make them. I will have established that kind of base.”
If Kem sounds confident, well that’s because he should be. Not only for his astute business acumen, but because he is in possession of the main element which has been key to his success thus far – Genuine, innate talent. In addition to being a completely self-taught musician, his vocal range goes 4 high on the octave scale and his emotive, creative style, which soars, bends, and soothes, employs them all. As to the comparisons made to renowned, multi-award winning vocalist, Al Jarreau, Kem considers himself in great company, but counts Jarreau and vocal wizard, Bobby McFerrin, as more like confirmations than necessarily influences. “I haven’t studied either one of those artists per se, but I am a big fan of Al Jarreau.” He explains, “A lot of things that I’ve been doing or have wanted to pursue musically, I’ve been doing all of my creative life, but those two artists helped validate it. You hear them and it’s like, okay, so that is cool and I’m not crazy for wanting to do this. But they’ve paved the way for it to be done.”
And doing it he most certainly is successfully folding his brand of vocal artistry into a soul-rich collection with love as the dominant theme, boasting gems like, “I’m Missing Your Love” or the first single, “Love Calls.” The lean to love on Kemistry is however, something he admits to happening quite by chance. “I think that somewhat by default, it’s an album that’s centered on love and a lot of people get that the most. I didn’t set out to do that. I really just selected songs that were closest to me, I liked the most and,” adds with a humble chuckle, “were ready to go.” However, he admits, “I’ve been known for writing love songs for the duration of my career and I take pleasure in that. I think that’s something people need, people want, and identify most with.”
But you’ll quickly discover that although the intriguing and inventive voice that serves up the love stories is well suited for the task, there are other topics clearly close to Kem’s heart as well. Topics like spirituality and faith. Cuts like, “Brotha Man” and “Matter of Time” will bring you those with consistent hipness and stunning vocal flow. When asking Kem about his hopes for Kemistry, he goes back to why he got with Motown and what potential it creates. “I don’t want to be limited to or equated with being a “jazz” artist. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I want to be able to move into other markets. And the fact that a label like Motown came and made an offer lets me know that it’s a possibility that we can move into other categories. I’m hopeful it can become mainstream.” However, he is quick to add emphatically, “But it ain’t necessary! I’m hopeful. [Basically] I’m not interested in the people who aren’t interested. I’m only interested in the ones who are digging me. Feeling me. Those are the ones I cater to.”
Seems like Kem might very well have the formula for success.
Needless to say, Kem did indeed find the right formula and has been whipping it up on the regular, over the years, for those countless fans that are definitely “feeling” him and his music. He’s had #1 hit singles, Platinum and Gold selling albums (including KEMISTRY), three Grammy nominations, and is a four-time NAACP Image Award winner – not to mention, he keeps a packed out schedule of tours and sold-out shows.
For more about Kem and when you can see him in your town go to musicbykem.com and to hear his latest music including the single “Lie To Me” and album Love Always Wins go to Spotify