blackgypsy - blackgypsy Vol. 1 (2011)

blackgypsy

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Some of the greatest loves are those where the lovers found each other at a young age and literally grew up together. And, there are others, just as strong, where the two people fell in love after they’d already grown separately.  And it’s often the same way with musical acts. Many of the greatest groups, from the Four Tops to Boyz II Men, joined together as teens and stayed together into adulthood, essentially reaching maturity while part of the act. Then there are bands like Toto or blackgypsy, a virtual “supergroup” of backing and session musicians that came together after each member was already established as a top-notch player.

Some of the greatest loves are those where the lovers found each other at a young age and literally grew up together. And, there are others, just as strong, where the two people fell in love after they’d already grown separately.  And it’s often the same way with musical acts. Many of the greatest groups, from the Four Tops to Boyz II Men, joined together as teens and stayed together into adulthood, essentially reaching maturity while part of the act. Then there are bands like Toto or blackgypsy, a virtual “supergroup” of backing and session musicians that came together after each member was already established as a top-notch player.

First introduced in 2003 but with each member continuing since then to work individually with a virtual “who’s who” of popular R&B artists ranging from Prince to Anthony Hamilton, blackgypsy is special because the members have repeatedly come together, time permitting, simply to have fun and make great music.  And that sense of fun and musicianship shows up on their debut EP, appropriately titled blackgypsy, vol. 1. Featuring bassist Derek Layes, keyboardist Jon Solo, percussionist David DiGiantomasso and multi-instrumentalist Carter McLean, the group delivers its seamless grooves behind strong-voiced lead singer Shelby Johnson (a.k.a. Shelby J), who first came to national attention nearly a decade ago as a guest on Roy Hargrove’s RH Factor Hard Groove album.

At less than 25 minutes long, blackgypsy, vol. 1 is only a taste of what this quintet can do, but it is a fine taste. Opening with a short a cappella piece, the disc then runs through a handful of jazz-tinged soul music filled with great beats and innovative vocal arrangements. Shelby J’s vocals are reminiscent of a young Mavis Staples, and she shows her song stylist chops in a variety of settings, from the sexy, Rufus-like midtempo “Change the Whole World” to the muscular uptempo number, “Trying 2 Shut Us Down.”  Maybe best of all is her organ-drenched, wah wah fueled duet with Anthony Hamilton, “Y Come,” a sweaty slice of Southern Soul that could have been a radio hit in 1974 and that brings blackgypsy, vol. 1 to its natural peak.  It leads to the album’s too-early coda, the moody inspirational number, “Jesus In Us All,” a gentle evening song with an island beat and, like the rest of the disc, beautifully innovative vocals.

How blackgypsy, vol. 1 has slipped by unnoticed by so many says more about the fragmented nature of popular music today than it does about the quality of the disc. It is a front-to-back joy and a perfect storm of talented artists and great presentation.  I can’t wait to hear much, much more from blackgypsy…soon.  Highly recommended.

By Chris Rizik

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