40 Remembering Gil Scott-Heron

Gil Scott-Heron

Gil Scott-Heron, musician and poet much loved in the jazz community, passed away 10 years ago on May 27, 2011. His recordings of the 70s and early 80s are critical touchpoints of that era, documenting African-American indignity and pride with a raw street passion. His final release, I’m New Here in 2010, his first in 16 years, was uncharacteristically preoccupied by family and loss. In the last decade, singers Giacomo Gates and Charenee Wade and beat artist Makaya McCraven have paid tribute in three excellent discs. Remembering Gil Scott-Heron in this hour of Jazz at 100 Today!

There was a sense of finality to Gil Scott Heron’s final recording, an emotional urgency tackling his life, legacy and mortality. While he hinted at some essential truths of his life when he covered Bill Withers’ Grandma’s Hands in the 80s, it wasn’t until this release that he shared stories of his upbringing and the importance of the women in his life, particularly his grandmother Lilly Scott who he describes as “not your mail-order, room-service, type-cast black grandmother.” The album, co-created with Richard Russell of XL Recordings, is punctuated with spoken word pieces about the circumstances of his childhood, beginning with On Coming From a Broken Home (Pt 1).

In 2015, exciting young singer Charenee Wade released a collection of songs from Gil Scott-Heron and his long-time musical collaborator Brian Jackson. According to James Nadal on AllAbout Jazz, “Utilizing the lyrics and music of the gifted duo as a launching pad, she takes her innovative arrangements into another dimension, conveying the intended message with her singular and assertive vocal textures, evolving, while honoring the spirit of the original source …[Gil Scott-Heron] liked to call himself a messenger of his people, a modern throwback to the African griots. To fully capture his poetic essence, Malcolm-Jamal Warner on Essex/Martin, Grant, Byrd & Till, and Christian McBride on Peace Go With You Brother, take on the lead roles representing the spoken word. These are critical participants in these songs, for the poetry, with its bare knuckle frankness, lies at the root of this music. Wade picks up on the peace missive, softening the tone, bringing it down to almost a plea, for there has to be a way out of the madness.”

In 2020, drummer Makaya McCraven was asked to remix Scott-Heron’s last work and stripped the work back to the vocals, adding a new musical setting with a cast of young players, creating the release We’re New Again. Giovanni Russonello wrote in the New York Times, “…Mr. McCraven has done some restoration work. On the original I’m New Here, the flickering gloom of Mr. Russell’s production often made Scott-Heron sound cloistered and defeated, even as his poetry pulsed with its typical humor, self-effacement and vision. On We’re New Again, Mr. McCraven’s arrangements exhume a feeling of potential, a promise of communion — the things that were always at Scott-Heron’s creative core.”

On Coming From A Broken Home (Pt. 1). Gil Scott-Heron solo
(Gil Scott-Heron-voc). From I’m New Here. XL Recordings. 2010.
Peace Go with You Brother (Intro). Charenee Wade Quintet with Christian McBride
(Brandon McCune-p, Dave Stryker-g, Lonnie Plaxico-b, Alvester Garnett-d, Charenee Wade-voc, Christian McBride-voc). From Offering – The Music of Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson. Motema. 2015.
Offering. Charenee Wade Quintet with Stefon Harris
(Brandon McCune-p, Stefon Harris-vib, Dave Stryker-g, Lonnie Plaxico-b, Alvester Garnett-d, Charenee Wade-voc). From Offering – The Music of Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson. Motema. 2015.
I’m New Here. Gil Scott-Heron & Makaya McCraven
(Greg Spero-p, Brandee Younger-harp, Jeff Parker-g, Makaya McCraven-d/per/key/b/voc). From We’re New Again: A Reimagining By Makaya McCraven. XL Recordings. 2020.

Gil Scott-Heron’s final recording included two covers, perhaps indicative of the creative difficulties of his final years. In addition to covering Robert Johnson’s Me and the Devil Blues, which has a haunted appropriateness, Scott-Heron recorded a powerful version of Brook Benton’s 1959 composition I’ll Take Care of You, originally recorded by Bobby “Blue” Bland. The song reflects the theme of reliance on family and relationships that is bittersweet given his honesty about his family circumstances.

Of Charenee Wade’s version of Song Of The Wind, James Nadal writes that it, “shows the dynamic emotional range that Wade can cover, accompanied by vibraphonist Stefon Harris, the song becomes the transporter of the skies.”

In 2011, singer Giacomo Gates recorded a disc of Scott-Heron’s work from a decidedly jazz perspective entitled The Revolution Will Be Jazz. James Nadal wrote, “It took a lot of courage to decide to perform an entire record of songs by Scott-Heron, a genuine visionary and revolutionary figure in music. Gates was approached by producer Mark Ruffin for this project, based on his ability to convey the songs with authenticity, originality, and due respect to this legend of a songwriter. The Revolution Will Be Jazz displays all of these requirements and is a verification of just how important this music is.” Interestingly, producer Mark Ruffin also produced Charenee Wade’s project several years later.

Throughout his forty years of recordings Gil Scott-Heron’s lyrics could be counted on for brutal honesty. Characteristically, his rumination on his own mortality is not only direct but prescient in his song New York is Killing Me.

I’ll Take Care Of You. Gil Scott-Heron with Kim Jordan
(Gil Scott-Heron-p/voc, Kim Jordan-p). From I’m New Here. XL Recordings. 2010.
Song of the Wind. Charenee Wade Quintet with Stefon Harris
(Brandon McCune-p, Stefon Harris-vib, Dave Stryker-g, Lonnie Plaxico-b, Alvester Garnett-d, Charenee Wade-voc). From Offering – The Music of Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson. Motema. 2015.
Is That Jazz. Giacomo Gates Quintet
(John Di Martino-p, Tony Lombardozzi-g, Lonnie Plaxico-b, Vincent Ector-d, Giacomo Gates-voc). From The Revolution Will Be Jazz: The Music Of Gil Scott-Heron. Savant. 2010.
New York Is Killing Me. Gil Scott-Heron
(Gil Scott-Heron-p/voc, Chris Cunningham-syn, Tiona Hall, Tyria Stokes, Michelle Hutcherson, Kim Jordan-voc). From I’m New Here. XL Recordings. 2010.

We’ll start the final set with Makaya McCraven’s reimagining of Scott-Heron’s poem Where Did the Night Go, with a stirring flute accompaniment .

Charenee Wade’s gripping rendition of Essex/Martin, Grant, Byrd and Till opens with a powerful recitation by Malcom Jamal-Warner, followed by Wade’s softer presentation of the lyrics beautifully supported by up-and-coming alto player Lakecia Benjamin and the bass clarinet of veteran multi-instrumentalist Marcus Miller.

Gil Scott-Heron recorded Lady Day and John Coltrane on his first release in 1971, Pieces of a Man. One of the most overtly jazz-inspired lyrics in his discography, the tune finds a perfect setting with Giacomo Gates and his quartet of John Di Martino on piano, Tony Lombardozzi on guitar, Lonnie Plaxico on bass, and Vincent Ector on drums.

And we will finish with Makaya McCraven’s setting for Guided (Broken Home, Pt 4) featuring Brandee Younger on harp and Joel Ross on vibes.

Where Did The Night Go. Gil Scott-Heron & Makaya McCraven
(Greg Spero-syn, Makaya McCraven-d). From We’re New Again: A Reimagining By Makaya McCraven. XL Recordings. 2020.
Essex/Martin, Grant, Byrd & Till. Charenee Wade Septet with Malcom Jamal-Warner
(Lakecia Benjamin-as, Marcus Miller-bcl, Brandon McCune-p, Dave Stryker-g, Lonnie Plaxico-b, Alvester Garnett-d, Charenee Wade-voc, Malcolm Jamal-Warner-voc). From Offering – The Music of Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson. Motema. 2015.
Lady Day And John Coltrane. Giacomo Gates Quintet
(John Di Martino-p, Tony Lombardozzi-g, Lonnie Plaxico-b, Vincent Ector-d, Giacomo Gates-voc). From The Revolution Will Be Jazz: The Music Of Gil Scott-Heron. Savant. 2010.
Guided (Broken Home, Pt.4). Gil Scott-Heron & Makaya McCraven
(Joel Ross-vib, Brandee Younger-harp, Jeff Parker-g, Junius Paul-strings). From We’re New Again: A Reimagining By Makaya McCraven. XL Recordings. 2020.

Giovanni Russonello wrote in the Times, “As well as rap’s godfather, it would be wise to recall that Scott-Heron — whose work was anchored in Southern blues and the black literary canon — was the bard of the Black Power Movement. And as that movement’s push for equal access to political power remains unfinished, the insights of his poetry still bear heavily on today.” While his last work featured a decidedly personal reflection on his life, the recorded tributes from Charenee Wade and Giacomo Gates represent themes that are common throughout his many fine records.

Resources
Russonello, Giovanni. (2020, February 5). New York Times. Gil Scott-Heron’s Legacy Is a Work in Progress. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/05/arts/music/gil-scott-heron-makaya-mccraven.html

Nadal, James. (2015, June 14). AllAboutJazz. Charenee Wade: Offering – The Music Of Gil Scott-Heron And Brian Jackson. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/offering-the-music-of-gil-scott-heron-and-brian-jackson-charenee-wade-motema-music-review-by-james-nadal.php

Nadal, James. (2011, September 29). AllAboutJazz. Giacomo Gates: The Revolution Will Be Jazz. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/the-revolution-will-be-jazz-giacomo-gates-savant-records-review-by-james-nadal.php

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