Although Gil Scott-Heron recorded a solid body of albums between 1970-2007, filmed performances of the poet/singer/composer and activist are far more rare, and that might be due to Scott-Heron perhaps feeling visuals might subjugate the verbal messages of his orations and songs, or maybe labels simply found his overt political and socially conscious material had a narrow audience, and was too provocative, as evidenced in Robert Mugge's excellent concert/documentary Black Wax (1982).
In the 19 years since that film's release, Scott-Heron recorded several more albums, and in 2001 he appeared with his band Amnesia Express at the New Morning club in Paris – the second and thus far only other available filmed performance of the artist at work and play with an appreciative audience.
It's worth catching Mugge's film first simply because it provides a backstory to Scott-Heron's work, and also has him providing some personal anecdotes about his past, early music, influences, and the power of poetry. You also get to see the man and his large stage band performing their big hits, and the meaty solos often given to lead musicians throughout most of the songs.
Seeing the group in their youthful prime offers some context, and makes the 2001 Paris concert more delectable because 19 years haven't softened the man's energy, nor the power of his accompanying musicians, which include percussionists Larry MacDonald and Tony Duncanson, and bassist Robert Gordon – three mature artists whose support and improvs are crucial to the success of songs written by Scott-Heron, and the classics co-written with Brian Jackson.
The New Morning club is a very intimate venue, and the band feeds off the audience's energy with a balance of material that features Scott-Heron's coarse, wisened voice wafting between blues, poetry, and light rap, twisting his double-edged lyrics in songs like “Work for Peace” and “There's a War Going On.” Even if one doesn't espouse Scott-Heron's politics, the musicians are first-rate, and most of the songs follow a simple structure of slow build, a contrast between hard and soft vocals, and thickening rhythmic textures by the group's two stellar percussionists.
Feeding off Scott-Heron's vocals is saxophonist Jean-Claude (his last name isn't in the video's credits nor clearly articulated by Scott-Heron during the intro), who deftly plays tenor and soprano sax, while bassist Robert Gordon (referred to as “the Secretary of Entertainment”) often contributes fast, exciting solos for extended periods.
Besides more funky political odes, there's the tragic “Did You Hear What They Said?” which deals with a mother's torment over the shooting of her son. Aside from tapping on drums and rippling congas, the song's emotion comes primarily from Scott-Heron's plaintive voice, and Jean-Claude's imrov statement on tenor sax – a beautiful evocation of raw pain as it surges in waves, clusters, or soft, breathy screams.
Contrasting songs of sadness is the wistful “Your Daddy Loves You,” with its amiable harmonics which Scott-Heron repeats on keyboards while singing poetic refrains of parents trying to reassure a child of their devotion in spite of marital discord. Performed solo, it's the third solo piece, after the gorgeous “Blue Collar” and cheerful “A Lovely Day” which start the concert.
“Everybody Loves the Sunshine” is a groovy piece inspired by an African tale of the four seasons, which is partly sung, partly spoken with reflections on the cultural importance and symbolism of summer in seasonal North America . The song forms a natural lead-in to “Winter in America ,” which deals with a chill that's set in and altered the virtues of the country, and transformed and/or threatened democracy, justice, and social growth. Jean-Claude's soprano sax solo is elegant, and Robert Gordon's thoughts on bass are presented through a wonderful series of fast moving notes and chordal shifts.
The concert's finale is a 21 minute show-stopper, “The Bottle,” with Scott-Heron's refrain of the intro phrase “Celebrate, celebrate, celebrate, celebrate your life” counter-pointed by chunky solos and Latin-African percussion textures. It's probably the concert's most upbeat tune with its jazz fusion style, and Scott-Heron encourages the audience to sing along and dance before the group takes a bow and exits the stage.
Inakustik's DVD offers three audio mixes – the original thin stereo track, the broader Dolby 5.1 track, and a DTS track – and the transfer is very clean, showing off the great lighting design of blues, oranges, and reds which bathe the musicians during the concert.
Only qualms are a lack of extras and specs on the musicians, but alongside the Black Wax film, this is the other concert video Scott-Heron's fans must have. Portions from the concert were previously excerpted in the 2-disc tribute set, New Morning 25th Anniversary (1981-2006) , and it's nice to see some of the complete performances slowly making their way onto their own DVD releases.
For more info on Scott-Heron (including the pair of drug problems and jail sentences that put his recording and touring career on pause soon after the Paris gig), check out the links below.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan