If you haven’t seen it already, do search youtube for that 1964 video of Max Roach’s quintet performing All Africa for Belgian TV. Featuring the utterly gorgeous Abbey Lincoln in imperious vocal form alongside The Coolest Man On The Planet, a.k.a. Clifford Jordan, on tenor sax, it’s a superb live take on the song from We Insist: Freedom Now Suite, one that I’ve been enjoying again myself recently, ever since Zara McFarlane’s surprise new version of the song landed on the Echoes reviews pile.
McFarlane’s approach, put together with producer and long-time band member Moses Boyd, comes in two versions: a more faithful take not far away from the Roach original, and a groovy, percussion-driven slant featuring Nathaniel Cross on trombone. We’ve already welcomed it enthusiastically in this magazine and naturally fully expected it to turn up on Zara’s new album, Arise, her third for Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood label. But it’s not on there.
An obvious first question for this interview, then: why not?
In the best case scenario a jazz musician can transform a known song into something unknown. Of no less interest is the choice of composition. The deep well of Broadway show tunes does not look likely to run dry anytime soon, but that is only one tradition available to improvisers. Material may come from just about anywhere. Yet as Cecile McLorin Salvant points out, there are essential criteria to fulfill.
“A song has to resonate with me in a way that I cannot ignore and I feel that I have to sing it,” she says pointedly. “I live it, I suppose. It’s not an exercise. It’s finding a way to inhabit the songs and make them live. It’s not about me, it’s about the song.” Dreams And Daggers, the 27-year-old vocalist’s graceful new album is a case in point.
“They shout out every town, never shout the Island,” raps Jaeo Draftpick on 51631, his thunderous, block-rocking single featuring Flipmode Squad member Reek da Villian. The Long Island rapper might claim the area as his own, but as it turns out he’s a transplant. Stetsasonic’s Daddy-O once drew a line between Brooklynites and Long Islanders, deriding the latter for allegedly having it easier than those inside the five boroughs, but Jaeo isn’t interested in suggestions that Long Island’s leafiness might create a different kind of rapper.
“I think that whole picture people paint is bullshit,” he says adamantly. “Fuck where you from – it’s where you at. Not my fault my parents moved here. I was actually born in Brooklyn, but moved to Long Island as a kid.”
He’s not against the area’s rap history though. Far from it: one of the songs on his Soundcloud page is a cover of Eric B & Rakim’s eternal rap mantra Paid In Full, though his interest in the record was also its influence on the Mekhi Phifer-starring film of the same name.
“With the whole Long Island wave, I felt it was only right to use that track” he says. “Paid In Full is also one of my favourite movies.”
“One day I saw thees video of thees guy, on Youtube, no?” recalls Luca Sapio, speaking perfect English, but in a thick Italian accent – so thick you can almost smell the linguini with baby squid.
“Thees giant of a man who was singing in front of an audience of, I don’t know, must be 20,000 people and he’s singing [at the front of the stage] without a mic! So I said to myself, ‘Who is thees guy? It was crazy!’”
The video Luca watched, from his internet connection in Rome, was of six-feet-five Texan Caron ‘Sugaray’ Rayford, an award winning, much in demand vocalist, who clocks up his air miles singin’ the blues. With a gospel trained voice that, whilst it had been mostly deployed thus far in the blues realm, also has the sheer power of the classic soul singers of the sixties and seventies, he has exactly the kind of authentic male vocal chops that soul maverick Luca Sapio – who, somewhat impressively, had already produced and released an entire album on female JB legend Martha High via his fledgling label Blind Faith Records – had been searching for to adorn his next soul project. It was then through a mutual connection, the promoter of the annual Poretta Soul Festival in Italy, that Luca was able to track down Sugaray’s wife and manager Pam.
“I’d just got home from tour… ”