Five minutes ahead of schedule, Shaun Escoffery slips quietly into a Fitzrovia café ready for our interview – no minders, no entourage, not even a PR to smooth the way… and definitely no fuss. A few steps behind, I hand him the latest copy of Echoes – the June issue – and immediately he reacts to Michael Kiwanuka’s face on its cover.
“What’s his album like? I’ve got to hear it, man. He’s great.”
When the time comes to write up Shaun’s feature, not only will Kiwanuka have topped the UK pop albums chart with Love & Hate, but April’s cover star [and Shaun’s friend] Beverley Knight will also have returned to her West End lead role in The Bodyguard, hard on the heels of her own new album, Soulsville, making the UK top 10. Good times for them, and also great times for Shaun himself, still starring as Mufasa in the stage production of The Lion King while managing successfully to re-launch his solo recording career during the past 18 months…
As the racial divide in America widens on a seemingly daily basis, the image of the black male as either helpless victim, valiant protestor, or in a post-Dallas world, raging villain, is alarmingly prevalent. The shadow of the stereotype is lurking. An internationally established African-American artist with over three decades of touring experience saxophonist Kenny Garrett knows about the clichés and low expectations that attend people of colour. Black minds matter.
“The typical thing to think is, ‘Oh, he’s an African-American so I don’t know any other things outside of my culture – like black people just know black culture,” Garrett stated on the phone from his London hotel during a recent UK tour.
“But I’m always trying to be better. I think you have to be open because when you’re open you can learn – so go out and take some time and see things.
On the album cover for his debut LP, Eldorado [named after his first ever car], Ro James is seen perched on the bonnet of an old school Cadillac.
“I just have a love for old school cars. In fact, I like cars in general,” he explains. “I like the classic models, but I like muscle cars too – I gotta have myself a vintage muscle car.”
And much like his taste for motors, James’ music is a fusion of retro cool – minus the scattergun profanity of modern R&B – married up with some powerful vocals. In fact, when it comes to sangin’, James is probably more than a match vocally for your favourite singer, with rich textured soulful tones that force you to pay attention and draw you into his carefully woven lyrical scriptures of romance.
True, a great voice by itself maybe doesn’t count for much nowadays; there are more than a few technically capable singers doing their thing right now. And just like James, who came to prominence through his Coke, Jack & Cadillacs series of EPs, many of them have spent a decent amount of time on the grind, trying to capture attention through the mixtape circuit. But the difference with this American is that he’s managed to release his debut album on his own terms…
We all know the story of Stephen Marley by now: he’s Bob and Rita Marley’s younger son, and he served a lengthy apprenticeship in The Melody Makers before going solo and establishing himself at the forefront of today’s reggae music as a performer, bandleader and studio wizard. He’s a good singer too because when “Ragga” – the nickname speaks volumes – opens his mouth for a chorus it’s as if time has stood still, and the ghost of his father is among us.
In his role as record producer, he has bestselling albums by himself and brothers Julian and Damian to his credit, including Welcome To Jamrock and Distant Relatives. It was during sessions for the latter that he began work on Revelation Part I: The Root Of Life, a set Christopher Ellis says is, “the greatest album from anyone of this current generation. It’s so unique in terms of the music, the songwriting and the production… that album is amazing. It’s absolutely brilliant.”