Gil Scott-Heron – Pieces of a Man (1971)

For a long time I had heard of Gil Scott-Heron, and was aware of the influence he had on the development of hip-hop with politicised spoken word songs such as “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”. So with this in mind I went in to the listening of his seminal 1971 release Pieces of a Man thinking of hearing a spoken word literary masterpiece, but was pleasantly surprised at what greeted me in the form of a chill out jazz-soul album. It is fair to say I was not expecting this considering his reputation as a spoken word poet, but apart from the opening track, the influential “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” this is an album largely free of spoken word tracks and instead is a musical fusion of jazz, blues and soul, and boy is it good.

Scott-Heron’s fusion of these styles is something he referred to as “bluesology”, or the science of how things feel, and on Pieces of a Man he combines politically and socially charged lyrics with free spirited jazz arrangements and soulful vocals. The sound on the album is characterised by a largely mellow instrumentation with jazzy-funk guitar, floating electric piano, a tight rhythm section, and sexy sax. There is even a wonderful addition in the form of the flute, which gives the songs a lighter touch to their sometimes dark subject matter, while also acting as a counter to Scott-Heron’s deep soulful vocals. The songs themselves are quite loose both in terms of the vocals and the playing, with free jazz arrangements combining nicely with Scott-Heron’s vocals in allowing the subject matter of the lyrics to come to the surface. The loose nature of the instrumental backing also ensures that often Scott-Heron sounds as if he is singing a capella, with his vocals floating seamlessly on top of the backing track. This loose feel is at play across the album but is most evident on songs such as “Save the Children”, “Lady Day and John Coltrane” and “When You Are Who You Are”, some of the highlights of the album for me song wise.

Although the album was not a commercial success, it has since gone on to garner a very strong legacy and gain a reputation as being a masterful and influential work. The albums influence has especially been seen on the dance, hip-hop, and neo-soul genres, in particular how Scott-Heron blended together different styles of music something that at the time was quite original but would become more and more common throughout the 1970s. Mixing, sampling, spoken word, and loose free jazz instrumentation are just some of the things that were later influenced by Scott-Heron and that would form the basis of the music of many artists from other genres following this albums release.

Pieces of a Man is a very good album and is great for chill out listening all year round. It is an enjoyable listen especially the loose jazz-soul playing on display, and from my perspective is a comforting album that has the effect of warming the soul. Well worth a listen.
– Sam


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