F5: Andrew Ashong’s 5 1/2 Favourite version Excursions

Initially coming to our attention through his timeless collaboration with Theo Parrish Flowers, which won Gilles Peterson’s Track of the Year at the Worldwide Awards in 2013, Andrew Ashong has since gone on to release an excellent self-titled EP on Which Way Records, furthering his position as one of today’s most soulful artists this side of Bobby Womack (RIP).

Ahead of his show at Gottwood Festival next week, we asked Andrew to contribute to our 5 Favourite feature and suffice to say, he didn’t skimp on the job. Going for his five favourite covers, such was the exquisite detail with which he described each selection, we let him bend the rules slightly and choose six (ish) different songs. This is easily one of our best F5’s yet – dig in below.


Nina Simone – Baltimore (Randy Newman)
This great Randy Newman song speaks of personal and social depression in such an evocative way that it’s inspired quite a few wide-ranging covers. Almost immediately after the original reading appeared on the brilliant Little Criminals album in 1977, the legendary singer/songwriter/pianist/activist Nina Simone created this unforgettably moody cover. It seems that the skanking rhythm (courtesy of CTI’s finest session players) surrounding Nina’s own vision of Baltimore, consequently inspired the reggae production powerhouse Sly & Robbie to produce a version for the Tamlins shortly after. Even Neil Young’s old mate Nils Lofgren did a nice version the same year as the Tamlins (1979), but a little closer in styling to the original. “And the people hide their faces, and they hide their eyes. ‘Cause the city’s dyin’, and they don’t know why” – several decades before the hit TV show The Wire, Randy’s inner-city blues was so masterfully cinematic that his career as a composer of film scores and soundtracks seemed inevitable.


Count Ossie and The Mystic Revelation of Rastafari – Way Back Home (Wilton Felder)
The story of Count Ossie’s musical movements ranges from Ska legend Prince Buster to recording for the father of Studio One, Sir Coxsone, on to performing for the Emperor Haile Selassie, all while pioneering an entire movement; both musically and mystically. Ossie and his brotherhood recorded this masterpiece of Nyabinghi musings, poetry and celebration of Rasta culture in 1974. The album stands as one of the finest (and first ever) examples of the deeply spiritual, ceremonial music of Grounation actually committed to vinyl. So organic and freeform that it ended up being packaged as a 3LP bundle of Rasta consciousness and vibration, with lengthy tracks (many of which occupy an entire side of vinyl). They still made time to pay homage to their Soul-Jazz brothers over-seas when they did this sneaky cover of a (Jazz) Crusaders tune as a B-side to Oh Carolina (which itself was covered by none other than Shaggy in 1993!) This isn’t a million miles from Sun Ra’s cosmic rays… and despite having no actual lyrics, the title alone echoes the great Marcus Mosiah Garvey’s message of repatriation and spiritual homecoming. The Crusaders really go to town on their original… but the Count definitely takes it home, up to the village, and Rasta camp in the hills of Wareika.


The Ramblers International – Grazing In The Grass (Philemon Hou)
This is one of Ghana’s finest, most prolific and well-known Highlife groups (or dance bands as they were often called). They recorded a number of albums as The Ramblers Dance Band (and then Ramblers International) for the Decca record company, who enjoyed a very productive relationship with West African music throughout the 50s and 60s. They were frequently employed as the house-band at some of the swankiest hotels in Ghana, and since their musical styling’s involved catering to the tastes of ex-pats and other foreigners, they must have always had a few cover songs up their sleeve. Their previous album contained Eddie Floyd’s Knock On Wood, and this time around they turned out this amazing version of the song, made famous by the great US sunshine-pop-soul group, Friends Of Distinction. Stevie Wonder and Willie Mitchell have also performed this joyous beauty of a song, but it was actually another African musical giant, Hugh Masekela, who made the first ever recording of it. It began in Africa, went around the world, and came home again.


Joe Cruz and The Cruzettes – Love Song (Lesley Duncan)
I love the calm groove of this cover of a humble folk tune by British songstress Lesley Duncan. As a collaborator with Elton John, she offered up this piece of blissed-out love, which they recorded together on his 1970 LP, Tumbleweed Connection. Only a year later, Lesley went on to record her own version for her debut LP Sing Children Sing. Somehow, the shape-shifting style king himself, David Bowie, may have actually gotten in there first, having recorded the song (among his demos) as early as 1968. Joe Cruz & Co were the house band at the Manila Hyatt-Regency Hotel in the 70’s and they made this version in 1973. Judging by their track record (all puns intended), I suspect they were actually inspired by one of the later versions of this effortlessly beautiful song… since it was covered by numerous American soul singers such as Spanky Wilson and Dionne Warwicke. All versions deliver slightly different types of loveliness, but I keep coming back to this dreamy one by the Filipino gang. This annoyingly (but unsurprisingly) rare album was actually my original introduction to the song… imagine my surprise and delight when I found such a great version on a bargain-bin Elton John LP. Two words… two chords, but well over a hundred different versions.


Richie Havens – Sugarplums (John Court) (… and Bill Evans… and Richie Havens?)
The tenderness and soft sentiments of Sugar Plum… so irresistibly sweet, this is just something else… and from an LP entitled Something Else Again. Such a beautiful moment in the amazingly vast discography of the great Richie Havens, who managed to incorporate sitar, tamboura, double bass, flute and violin, which creates such a great extension to his sound! The inclusion of the A-list jazz personnel certainly didn’t hurt either, especially since they were all buddies of the jazz pianist, Bill Evans. Supposedly Richie’s manager John Court (who also produced the record) was compelled to write some words to accompany the instrumental piece by Evans, as he apparently thought it would be a good song for Richie to sing. However, Evans’ music was actually only taken from a few bars of a solo on his reading of Angel Face by Weather Report’s Joe Zawinul, which Bill then went on to use as a little warm-up tune at gigs. So this gorgeous tune, based on what was essentially a sample from a solo, on a cover version (of a completely different tune), ended up married to some lyrics (supposedly) written by the producer, which was then disputed by the performer (who may have actually written the lyrics himself)… got it?


Bill Evans – Sugar Plum (Bill Evans & John Court)
… so the hugely prolific Mr Evans went on to perform the instrumental under the title of Sugar Plum, as well as recording it on various albums over the years. Confusingly, somehow John Court still ended up with writing credits, despite the absence of any lyrics at all on the Evans recordings. What a great journey and evolution, which will surely continue on through covers, interpretation, remixes, interpolations and samples. Oh, the joy of music…

Andrew Ashong is playing at Gottwood Festival. More info available here.

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