I knew one thing about Gil Scott-Heron, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” And I don’t know it well. So I came into this expecting a record of spoken word with few expectations about the music backing the poetry. All I basically knew is that this guy was regarded by some as the first MC.
But this record is mostly not spoken word, it’s mostly soul. So that was quite a (pleasant) shock. Moreover, it’s a particular kind of soul that borders on jazz. It’s not soul jazz in the sense of a jazz band vamping soul songs or incorporating gospel into their solos, but rather in the sense that it’s somewhere on the continuum between vocal jazz and soul, something I don’t think I’ve heard much of before. It’s not vocal jazz in my opinion – though Scott-Heron is an excellent singer, he is not at the level of a jazz singer, at least not on this record – but it strays in that direction because of Jackson’s (usually electric) piano – certainly jazz-inspired if not outright jazz itself – and the presence of his lute, which also makes it sound a lot more like jazz. To my ears this is a unique sound which I can’t compare to much else I’ve heard from the era (or ever).
Of course the main reason people come to Scott-Heron is his lyrics and they do not disappoint, though they are sometimes more straight-forward (and less political) than I was expecting. The highlight, lyrically, is “H2Ogate Blues,” the extended spoken word track that sort of stands out like as sore thumb among the soul jazz of the record of the record. It’s a pretty great alternative view of Watergate, one that someone like me, who has spent too much time learning about Watergate, desperately needs to hear.
Anyway, this is all very impressive. And it makes me think that I should listen to his other records, particularly those who co-credit Jackson. I think my fear of approaching Scott-Heron was that it would be all about the words but that couldn’t be further from the truth.