Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Desert Resort Discs, Part 1

Herewith my choices for the best of the year just past, mostly CDs released in 2011, but adding some older things that I missed until last year. One or two might someday qualify as Desert Island Discs, but for now they are sound recommendations you can happily resort to whenever deserted and in need of music. Presented now for your listening pleasure, in no special order but with each representing a particular genre or category…

ALT.COUNTRY/AMERICANA—With a gilt-edged array of artists eager to participate in a special tribute, 30 songs by one of the best songwriters in the game, and many inspired and affectionate performances, you just can’t go wrong with This One’s for Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark (2CD set Music Road MRRCD012). Carefully
crafted arrangements, Texas-twangy vocals, and a roster of names you could conjure with: Crowell, Lovett, Colvin, Cash, Nelson, Van Zandt, Elliott, Ely, Harris, Prine, Earle, Griffin, Kristofferson, Gill, Walker, and 15 more old friends and young admirers. And the songs? Mere classics like “That Old Time Feeling,” “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train,” “Homeless,” “Let Him Roll,” “Magdalene,” “Home Grown Tomatoes,” “The Guitar,” “Dublin Blues,” “Magnolia Wind,” “The Last Gunfighter Ballad,” “The Dark,” “Stuff That Works,” “Randall Knife,” “L.A. Freeway.” “The Cape,” “She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” “Texas Cookin’,” “Baby Took a Limo to Memphis”… er, have I title-dropped enough?

Guy Clark is a wry, laconic, sometimes whimsical performer. It seems he’d rather repair guitars and write songs for other folks to sing--or like me, sing along with. (Take it, Ed!) “I wish I was in Austin, mm-hmm, In the Chili Parlor bar, Drinkin’ Mad-Dog Margaritas, And not carin’ where you are…”

BLUES—Lost in limbo for four decades, but finally issued a few months back, my vote for Blues release of the year goes to Son House in Seattle 1968 (Arcola A CD 1008), a nice 2-CD package with Son strong and live, sermonizing and sounding sober, his guitar and vocals powerful and exciting, his interview and between-song raps sweet and witty and wise. I witnessed all this; I was there. And I wrote at greater length about House and the concert some weeks back (find it a few posts down).

COUNTRY—I’ve chosen two discs/artists here, a standby fave and a new discovery (new to me, that is). Somehow I completely missed the excited buzz, the “out there, bad girl, say anything” antics, the amazing hits, the major awards, the big romance and wedding… in short, I missed everything that’s happened in the eight years since cute and nubbly blonde-bomb Miranda Lambert slammed into Country with sass
and serious attitude; drum-smashing, guitar-shredding arrangements; and her own wild-child songs rife with whiskey, cigarettes, fast cars, faster women, unfastened screen doors, firing guns and raging fires and raggedy runaways—sorta like a petite Natalie Maine on steroids! This li’l ol’ gal ‘ll break your heart and your staff and bury ‘em certain fathoms i’ the earth… Any of Lambert’s four albums will shake the dust off your boots and outta your ears, but let’s go with the original culprit, her debut release Kerosene (Epic/Sony EK 92026) from 2005. Nashville still hasn’t recovered.

Tough act to follow, but my man Vince Gill’s got the chops: master musician and brilliant songster, with one of the most pleasing voices around (tackling with aplomb Blues, Bluegrass, Cajun, Country, Cowboy songs, Folk, Gospel, and anything else you got), he succeeds too as husband, father, golfer, producer, practical joker, easygoing Christian volunteer, back-up vocalist happy to help as needed… His last album was an astonishing 4CD box set with Gill’s songs everywhere; it sold for the price of a
single disc, but was really just too much to absorb quickly. Now he has Guitar Slinger (MCA Nashville 50015510-02) richly demonstrating all his strengths and a handful of perfect songs: “Threaten Me with Heaven” (which might well be Country Music's Song of the Year), “Tell Me Fool,” “Bread and Water,” “If I Die,” and the long closing track, “Buttermilk John.” And this ol’ boy slings some serious git-tar on ‘most all the tracks too.

FOLK—At the Edinburgh Festival in 1983 or ’84 I listened in wonder—transfixed, mesmerized, reveling in each new old song—to a landmark, life-changing concert, vocal and guitar only… ah, but when the glorious voice box is June Tabor’s, and the
nimble plucks and picks stir the sounding board of Martin Simpson’s guitar… well, could there be a richer experience of “the doom and gloom” of Great Britain’s Folk Music? The duo’s careers both separate and, occasionally, together have proved long and distinguished, and both had excellent new Topic-label CDs in 2011. Martin’s Purpose + Grace (TSCD584) is an eclectic mix with guests Dick Gaughan, Richard Thompson and, singing on one track, Ms. Tabor; and though Martin often turns up for a track or two on June’s albums, not this time: her deep and mournful Ashore (TSCD577) is all songs of the sea, with the sessions built around piano and fiddle.
(For an examination of Tabor’s major albums and general career, go here.)

JAZZ—Well, it ain’t Sketches of Spain… but it ain’t chopped liver either. I’m talking about Miles Espanol: New Sketches of Spain (Entertainment One EOM-CD 2104). Who knew 2011 would become another year of Miles, what with those "New Sketches," a couple of official Sony “bootlegs” of Miles live in Europe, the Columbia Legacy CD called Bitches Brew Live (with performances taped at Newport 1969 and Isle of Wight ’70), a mid-Nineties Warner Bros. release called Live Around the World I’d never paid attention to till trumpeter/teacher/composer/conductor Bill Kirchner recommended a track from it. Heck, even Dave Holland’s album with flamenco guitarist Pepe Habichuela called up memories of the original Sketches.
Then, too, I spent a lot of time immersed in Gil Evans’ LPs with and without Davis (researching Gil’s interest in, and quiet championing of, Kurt Weill’s compositions).

But getting back to Miles Espanol, it’s two CDs offering new versions of the Sketches tunes, plus originals in homage to the classic set, and some Spanish-sounding or Latin Jazz numbers given a Milesian makeover, the whole shootin’ match of 16 tracks arranged and produced by Bob Beldin, directing a rotating group of major stars and lesser lights alike. (You'll need to listen well because booklet and labels confuse order and placement on the two CDs!) Great to hear oud and dumbek mixing it up with flute and harp and French horn, bongos and oboe reinforcing bass and bassoon; and that’s just the opener, “Concierto de Aranjuez,” with Rabih Abou Khalil, Brahim Fribgame, Lou Marini, Edmar Castaneda, John Clark, Alex Acuna, and others. At the opposite extreme is Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s piano solo “Fantasia for Miles y Gil,” along with various duets, trios, and quartets played bracingly and gracefully and with all the Latin sway you could ask for—yeah, and wait’ll you hear the juggernaut of “Saeta/Pan Piper,” as inexorable as
the Inquisition!—by Spanish-influenced masters Chick Corea, Jerry Gonzalez, both Eddie Gomez and Edsel Gomez, Sonny Fortune, Sammy Figueroa, Ron Carter, Chano Dominguez, Johns Benitez and Scofield, Jack deJohnette, and several more, but with a special spotlight shining on flamenco guitarist Nino Joseles.

The Sketches of Miles Espanol get better with every spin.

Part 2 coming soon.

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