As can be expected with a collection that spans the years 1966 to 1971, a time when the stylistic curve changed by the month, Grapes of Wrath is wildly inconsistent. The music is certainly derivative, but the songs are fairly accomplished derivations, so much so that listening to the collection becomes an exercise in "pick the influence." "If Anyone Should Ask" pounds like a Dave Clark Five garage outtake (and, thus, not on a level with actual DC5); "Not a Man" is subpar "Mr. Tambourine Man folk-rock (and as the "in sound" of 1967, received considerable local airplay); "Irene" is an answer to the New Vaudeville Band's "Winchester Cathedral" with a bit of Beatles and the Lovin' Spoonful thrown in; "Life's Not for Me (Only for You)" is a post-Revolver, sitar-singed raga dirge, completely of its time, but still enjoyable; and "If She Leaves Me" betrays debts, as does much of the recorded output here, to John Lennon. The Grapes of Wrath really began coming into their own as writers and musicians in 1968, reaching its undeniable early peak with "Have a Good Time on Me." Despite the wall of guitars that opens the song, "Have a Good Time on Me" is a fine piece of soulful pop/rock, like the Buckinghams without horns, but it is even more complex, adding a nice section in the middle as well as a coda coated in Beatles/Beach Boys harmonies. There was more decent music to follow, namely "Makin' It Through 71," a personal narrative on main songwriter Steve Whitehurst's difficult year (but also a walk through a Paul McCartney-styled, late-Beatles rocker) and "Shades of Lillian White," which marries the pretty acoustic work of George Harrison and McCartney circa White Album and Let It Be. But even those were disjointed in parts, as the band began fracturing. Grapes of Wrath won't change anyone's world, but it is a visible window into the changing face of pop music during the Vietnam era.
When it came time for this talented, eclectic tenor man -- a native of Guadeloupe whose parents, both award-winning authors, are a black Guadeloupean mother and a Holocaust-surviving French Jewish father -- to record his solo projects, he had a wide variety of stylistic directions to choose from. He's been in many bands with jazz superstar Roy Hargrove, including Crisol, and his extensive touring with neo-soul god D'Angelo led him to work with David Gilmore and Me'Shell NdegéOcello. But rather than draw on these professional influences, Jacques Schwarz-Bart digs straight to his roots, blending the traditional gwoka rhythms of Guadeloupe with the jazz, gospel, and soul he absorbed during a lifetime spent everywhere from the Caribbean to Western Europe and the U.S. His tenor playing is inventive and colorful, his improvisations stellar throughout, and he blends beautifully with the dense African percussion, rolling rhythms, and light female and huskier male native choirs. The musician's intention, however, is to tell a rhythmic and melodic story of the history of many styles, fusing into a contemporary narrative in a wide array of moods and modes. The result is an exhilarating, hard to classify Afro-jazz delight that defies all genre specifics but fits cozily into both jazz and world music bins. His story begins with the infectious clapping rhythms of "Papale," built on the insistent war rhythm known as mende, with Schwarz-Bart's sizzling sax played with an otherworldly wah-wah pedal. It's an odd but enticing beginning because it's like no other sax sound you've ever heard. On the title track, he plays brightly textured horn lines over more clapping, subtle tribal vocals, and densely rhythmic acoustic guitar lines. The wistful "Love" shows off the more gentle side of Schwarz-Bart's artistry, as he combines woule rhythms with a wordless Brazilian vocal by Stephanie McKay and a graceful jazz piano solo by Milan Milanovic.
This sort of jazz-meets-African vibe, colored with unexpected exotic elements, runs all the way through the mix -- with a warm, tropical stop on the "Descent" -- to the unusually toned closer "Lewoz," an odd-metered track based on the rhythm of the dead that blends woodwind and trumpet in a dance simulating the interaction between heaven and earth.
As Schwarz-Bart follows his own multicultural muse, fans of progressive jazz and various world grooves will enjoy the journey the most.