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Black Magic

Amy Black comes to Memphis and soaks in the Hi groove.

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The Hi Rhythm Section conjures up 50 years of Memphis history with every groove they lay down. Perhaps it's the drive — elemental, relentless — at times honing in on a single note, bearing down like box cars slow-rolling through the city. Or it could come down to a telepathic connection between players like Howard Grimes, Charles Hodges, and Leroy Hodges, as nuances of dynamics and polyrhythms gel into a fluid, soulful whole. Whatever makes the magic, these players have gained international fame, and in recent years, artists like Chan Marshall (Cat Power) and Frazey Ford have come to Memphis just to work with them. Now we can add Amy Black to that list, who's penned a new album of songs, Memphis, scheduled for a June 2nd release.

Recorded at Scott Bomar's Electra-phonic Recording, the album earns its title with compositions perfectly suited to the Hi Rhythm Section sound. Black, who spent her childhood years in Alabama, and recently relocated to Nashville, started out mining the Americana vein when she began singing professionally 10 years ago in Boston. In 2015, she made a marked turn to soul with The Muscle Shoals Sessions, which featured legendary keyboardist Spooner Oldham. The sessions introduced her to embellishing songs with horns, to which, as she confesses, "I'm addicted."

The horns on Memphis are pitch-perfect. Arranged by trumpeter Marc Franklin, they evoke the classic blasts you know from old records, even while remaining focused on the needs of the song at hand. Franklin is joined by Kirk Smothers and Art Edmaiston on reeds; the trio is well-versed in the horn fills that define the Stax and Hi sounds. Locally, they can be heard with the new Love Light Orchestra, or in Bomar's group The Bo-Keys. Franklin also arranged the strings for Black's album, adding a dark resonance to "Nineteen" and lyrical swells to Black's cover of Otis Clay's "If I Could Reach Out (and Help Somebody)."

Of course, taking center stage are the Hodges brothers — Charles on organ and piano, Leroy on bass — and drummer Howard Grimes. Beyond the deep pocket, flashes of virtuosity are tempered with the restraint of seasoned players who know how to let a song breathe. Brother Mabon Lewis "Teenie" Hodges passed away three years ago — hard shoes to fill for a guitarist. But local journeyman Joe Restivo has come to master such soul stylings. On a few tracks, he is joined by fellow City Champs members Al Gamble (organ) and George Sluppick (drums). The Champs have a long history of emulating the Hi sound in their instrumental forays, and it shows here. Finally, where Restivo is absent, we hear former Stax guitarist Bobby Manuel on the axe. The result is a classic Memphis soul stew.

Surprisingly, these legends were a new discovery for Black. "The Hi Rhythm Section and the folks who recorded with Willie Mitchell are now favorites of mine, but a year ago, I didn't know about them." Working with them brought out new qualities in her music. "It's definitely a little bit dirtier, more from your gut. I am so drawn to that feel and sound. I didn't know that I could sing this music, and now it's what I do."

Having written or co-written most of the album's material, Black has clearly internalized the soul sounds she's only recently discovered. "What Makes a Man?," arguably the heaviest groove of the set, would stand alongside many a classic single of the 1970s, equal parts desire and dark, brooding reflection. Other numbers confidently break out a gritty blues shuffle or the upbeat soul of Wendy Rene. And there is a healthy dose of soul's most direct influence, gospel music. Both the cover of Otis Clay's song and Black's original "Let the Light In" stand as spiritual exhortations to aspire to our better angels.

As Black notes of the latter tune, "I had no idea how much we, as a country, would need this song. I wrote it for myself, to make sure that I'm letting light into my own darkness. But with events being what they are, it's a good time to sing it. I always dedicate it to Mavis [Staples]. Her spirit and music inspire and educate me. They represent the fight against darker forces and the need to persevere."

Amy Black will play at Lafayette's Music Room on July 6th.

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