It’s not easy putting clunky words like ‘constitution’ and ‘social transformation’ to song, but such concepts go down smoothly on Winter In America, Bill Ortiz’s mini-opus of a tribute to Gil Scott-Heron. Conceived two years prior to Scott-Heron’s death in May 2011, Ortiz’s Winter In America matches the timeless words from the critically acclaimed 1974 album of the same title with fitting contemporary music. As a collaborator with Souls of Mischief, Pete Escovedo and Tony! Toni! Tone!, Ortiz’s R&B and jazz influences carry the five-track EP, yet gives a worthy nod to Scott-Heron’s matter-of-fact style amid more lush arrangements.
Ortiz is joined by fellow Carlos Santana bandmate, Tony Lindsey, on the titular cover track. Guest rhymer, The Grouch, delivers a perfectly hyper-enunciated verse with a modulated rhythm contrasting the song’s dizzying beat. Ortiz’s piercing trumpeteering only plays second fiddle for a minute before he takes center stage and shows why he’s the lynchpin of this project. The radio edit captures the essential bits of the song, but the full five and a half minute version is much more satisfying, as it gives more breathing room for Ortiz and his trumpet. You would think it hard to have any missteps on an album with only five tracks, but “Word Play” sounds like a 112 toss-away track from Bad Boy’s heyday. Its paper-chase talk stands out as oddly off-message on an album that contains a track like “I Still Believe”–a five minute performance of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Nobel Peace Prize speech by poet Linda Tillery. It’s a small hiccup sandwiched between strong remixes and instrumental versions of “Winter In America” and “I Still Believe,” so it’s forgivable, yet unfortunate, on an album this short. Aside from that, Winter In America offers a taste of what, in Ortiz’s capable hands, could someday be a great full-length tribute album.