Sunday, January 22, 2012

DR2D 2

My choices for the best CDs of 2011... the first half was posted last week; see that post below.

REGGAE—If there was any real excitement in the Reggae scene last year, I missed it. New albums by Etana, Gyptian, various new young voices… ho hum. Tribute anthologies honoring vocal greats Beres Hammond and recently dead Gregory Isaacs, and Country Music (huh?). The “JamRock” single by one of Marley’s many sons… was that in 2011? Well, I did enjoy We Remember Gregory (VP Records VPCD 1927) with one CD devoted to remakes of Isaacs’ familiar hits--by Tarrus Riley, Duane Stephenson, Chris Boomer, Natel, Etana, Busy Signal, Jah Cure, and many others—and a second CD of old-style instrumental versions (not dubs) of the same tracks, driven by the reeds of old warhorse sax soloist-turned-producer Dean Fraser. (That second CD is pretty much superfluous, however, polite but lacking in pizzazz.)

Then reaching back into the past, back to 1980, I also picked up the grandly expanded 2010 reissue of UB40’s amazing debut, that dole-card package called
Signing Off—now a great set (2-CDs plus DVD) offering the original LP-plus-12” combination that introduced England’s racially mixed, politically rebellious, young Reggae adepts, with the second CD housing all their other 12” singles from that first powerhouse breakout year… But wait! there’s more: BBC radio sessions to round out CD #2, and then a lengthy DVD with five promo videos as well as primo performances from TV and live concert sources. In all, a terrific package from a great Reggaefied band that hit the ground running and rocking, reveling and rebelling, and that’s still going strong in 2012.

ROCK—I suppose the gradual re-emergence of Brian Wilson made this set inevitable… and hooray for that. Not Smiley Smile (truncated bastard stepchild LP), not Brian Wilson’s Smile (or whatever the remake from 2009 was called), but the real thing, the original Smile Sessions recorded by the Beach Boys as they were, a
two-CD box set (Capitol 509990 27664) with fancy extras--OMG, dig that crazy pinback!--offering all the master takes plus a great many alternates and rejects that survived Brian’s late-sessions mental breakdown and four decades of physical incapacitation. “Good Vibrations,” “Surf’s Up,” “Heroes and Villains,” “Cabin Essence,” “Wind Chimes,” “Vega-Tables,” even pieces of “You Are My Sunshine” and “Cool, Cool Water”—presented here in pristine shape, along with tapes of the works in progress. I hear the Grammys calling.

SOUL/R&B—For a couple of decades the Kent/Ace group of labels over in England has been compiling or reissuing great Southern Black Music of the Fifties to Eighties—James Carr, Percy Sledge, George Jackson, artists issued on small local labels and on Modern and Dootone out in L.A., all the best sessions of the Memphis to Muscle Shoals recording studio circuit. The set I’d name their crowning achievement came
out at the end of 2011, The Fame Studios Story: 1961-1973 (Kent/Ace KENTBOX12), the outer wrap with subtitle echoing Fame’s slogan, “Home of the Muscle Shoals Sound.”

Musician-turned-producer Rick Hall had “big ears” and some hard-earned luck, white Southern Soul and an indomitable will, and he turned a small studio in a small corner of Northern Alabama into an influential musical empire. Aspiring session musicians and songwriters flocked to cap-F Fame, where they gained sufficient small-f fame to move on to other studios and/or major careers in Memphis and Nashville. (Most prominent among those cool cats were the longtime main rhythm section of Barry Beckett, Jimmy Johnson, David Hood, and Roger Hawkins, songwriting session men Dan Penn and Spencer Oldham, and regular guitarists Joe South, Duane Allman, and Travis Wammack.)

In the meantime artists and producers eagerly made the trek to Muscle Shoals, anticipating that on-the-spot head arrangements, Hall’s canny luck, and the funky
Shoals sound would generate hits… And they did. This splendid set offers the solid proof, 75 hits and near misses on three CDs housed in 78s-styled mounted pockets, within a terrific 90-page mini-album book rich in color photos and equally colorful back-story text. So the hits kept on a-comin’—for Jimmy Hughes, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Clarence Carter, Candi Staton, Joe Tex, Irma Thomas, Spencer Wiggins, Arthur Conley, Lou Rawls, plus Pop stars Tommy Roe, the Osmonds, Little Richard (!), and Bobby Gentry. Big names and forgotten ones, they’re all here; and bookending the set are Arthur Alexander’s early country-boy hit, “You Better Move On” (from 1961), and Travis Wammack’s polished, Marvin Gaye-styled remake cut a dozen years later, with 73 more configurations from Rick’s “Hall of Fame,” a veritable Soul Music heaven, in between.

SOUNDTRACKS—Supposedly there are between three and five thousand crazed/dedicated/collector-serious film score fans scattered around the States and the globe (Golden or not), and a half-dozen or so specialty labels dedicated to issuing/
reissuing/expanding/recreating favorite or out-of-print or forgotten, even completely unknown, film scores--one- and two-CD sets that present every single bit of music recorded for the film (including alternate and unused cues), not just the composer’s selection of 30 to 40 minutes that become the so-called “Soundtrack album.” For 2011 my money’s on the elegant and truly symphonic, “Expanded Edition” 2-CD set reissuing then-young composer James Horner’s stirring music for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (Retrograde/FilmScore 80128-2), released in 1984. Dynamic, exciting, dramatic, occasionally acerbic, this really is a Symphony for Some-Other-Where in Time and Space—hinting at Sibelius and Prokofiev, Bruckner and Mahler, Jerry Goldsmith and Alexander Courage (film composers who’d already left their marks on earlier iterations of Star Trek), and not forgetting James Horner and those daring to go into the Great Unknown. Bravo!

BEYOND CATEGORY—Which section gets the music of Kurt Weill? Classical or Show Tunes? Pop Music or Jazz? The album I’m recommending belongs in all four.
September Songs (Sony Classical SK 63046) was actually issued back in 1997, but it took till 2011 for me at long last to pay attention while blogging at length about Weill and Jazz. And what I finally heard were brilliant interpretations by Nick Cave and P.J. Harvey, Charlie Haden and Betty Carter, William S. Burroughs and--wait for it--Lou Reed. Lou’s slow-mo, guitars-go-ballistic version of “September Song” is topped only by Weill interpreter nonpareil Teresa Stratas defining for always the little-known, accordion-driven, tango-habanera called “Youkali.” Find this great album wherever you can. (But find it.)

WORLD—Many record stores and on-line sellers lump (white) Cajun and (Black Creole) Zydeco in with World Music. True, it was started by French Acadiens chased from the Canadian Maritimes, who settled eventually in South Central Louisiana; but it quickly absorbed elements of Country and Caribbean Music, New Orleans
Rhythm 'n' Blues and even English Folk. I immersed myself in Cajun/Zydeco for weeks on end in late Winter-early Spring 2011, getting acquainted with over a hundred CDs. Which means I have the ludicrous task of narrowing that full shelf down to one or two examples…

Well, forget it. Look for the Swallow and Maison du Soul, Valcour and La Louisianne labels for the sounds of Southwest prairies and swamps—plus Rounder Records for its amazing roster and classic albums. Dig into three generations of Ardoins (from Amade to Chris); the Balfa and Delafose families; anything with mad fiddler Michael Doucet or cranky accordion-maker Mark Savoy; friends and rivals (little) Boozoo Chavis and (huge) Beau Jocque; white guys Steve Riley and Bruce Daigrepont and black guys Nathan Williams and Buckwheat Zydeco; old-time Cajun accordionist Nathan Abshire and modern Zydeco accordionist Clifton Chenier (who pretty much created it). And after you’ve absorbed
all of those, there's a historical hundred more to discover, from Jo-El Sonnier and Iry LeJeune to Joe Falcone, the Hackberry Ramblers, and Canray Fontenot.

But in the spirit of year’s best lists everywhere, I want to recommend the one excellent anthology I found that was actually issued in 2011--The Rough Guide to Cajun & Zydeco (World Music Network RGNET1265CD), a 15-track, hour-plus sampler of the hottest current or recent performers—which also comes with a no-number bonus CD: Bayou Road by Chubby Carrier and the Bayou Swamp Band, presumably an earlier set from last year's Grammy-winning Carrier group. But the Rough Guide compilation takes the prize for its currency, quality, and variety. Exciting young bands Feufollet, Pine Leaf Boys, Lil Nathan and the Zydeco Big Timers, and Kyle Huval and the Dixie Club Ramblers vie for attention with solidly established acts like Cedric Watson and Bijou Creole, Geno Delafose and French Rockin' Boogie (that's
Geno on the booklet cover), Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, and Jeffery Broussard, once powering Zydeco Force, now ramrodding the Creole Cowboys. Included too are a supergroup and a women’s group, bar bands and hip-hop influenced bands, even a Cajun New Ager!

“Rough Guide,” you say? Not really; it’s a lot sharper than that.

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.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Cover Story

Well, it wasn’t a dog that ate my homework. It was this same doggone computer that now ate my latest blog post. There I was, typing merrily along when—at 4:35 PM computer time—I brushed some unnoticed key and poof! 300 words gone in a literal flash… and not to be retrieved, evidently, though I tried for hours. And no back-up alternative waited because I was smack in the middle of writing when the bits didn’t hit the plan. I felt like a Volkswagen flattened by a rhino…

I’m still too p.o.’ed and despondent to try and recreate the text just now, and so my brilliant exegesis on a hundred years of Jazz in Seattle will just have to wait for inspiration to strike once more. (As I close-in on age 69, I’m not making book.)

That means another hurry-up fill-in:

A couple of months back I edged into a multipart examination of Kurt Weill in Jazz by talking about the recent sale of my 11,000-piece record collection. As mentioned then, I also held onto a hundred-fifty or so favorite LPs—not valued collectibles but musical performances I’ll want to hear often till all the listening’s done.

But once a collector, always a pushover. I still keep my eyes peeled for bargain discs and unknown wonders, and I decided to post photos of a selection of the more interesting finds, 20-some LPs paired up according to whatever visual or sub-genre relationships I could detect.

The first two, for example, are great African-American singers with deep, resonant voices. But Paul Robeson stayed serious in all circumstances ("Why these burdens, Lord?"), while Clarence Carter sang Southern Soul with a lascivious laugh added.

Paganini alone scorched the strings of his violin like a man dueling 24 devils, while Bartok’s composition needed that many string players and sounded like they were losing the duel!

From the mid-Eighties and each release avant garde after a fashion: saxophonist Garbarek and his friends play pieces in homage to Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer, but Czukay and Sylvian make their own dark poems from spiraling winter ghosts, empty iron vessels, and a host of keyboards and synths.

Folk guitarist Rush rambled down an alley in Cambridge, on his way to fame; 20 years later it was an alley in Nashville picked for the Scene of a different “Newgrassy” Crime.

Two examples of Jazz albums with illustrated covers, one by the famous David Stone Martin, the other by the possibly obscure Pat Heine—both sessions featuring Texas Tenor-style saxmen (Cobb and Stanley Turrentine); both albums scarce and collectable.

Classic Americana composed by Thomson for documentary films (the John Steuart Curry cover art chosen accordingly), and a classic, on-the-way-to-America ballet composed by Weill in Paris, documenting a sort of split personality (manic cover art by one Jim Endicott).

I don’t know if this is a pair to draw to, but it’s definitely a pair of aces, one a quirky songwriter with a rural bent, the other a classy hoofer as urbane as Broadway backstage, but both of them peerless non-singers who could sing the sun up and star dust down.

Two less-familiar albums from two of the greatest violinists of the 20th century… hell, the 21st too! (The cellist was no slouch either.) All intensity and precision, Heifitz and Milstein just didn’t fiddle around.

The man for mumbling and clowning but some serious trumpet too is Clark Terry; at 80-plus now, he’s still b-a-d, slowed but not stopped. Matthews, in contrast, lasted the L.A. equivalent of a New York minute; was this his sole record?

Winsome and willowy, soulful and smart, tender and tough and blue… are some of the words that describe the final four LPs. Mimi shared the best-of album with her late husband Richard (and sister Joan Baez too); and master musician Jimmy Giuffre of "Four Brothers" fame arranged and conducted for Ms. Hunter.

Ubiquitous in 1998 (a hit track here with Pretender-guest Chrissie Hynde), UB40 still rules the waves of U.K. Reggae--occasionally--but Horslips peaked in the Seventies. (Their Celtic folk-rock mattered; this earnest rockumentary LP didn’t, though the slight visual echoes of Lurlean’s much earlier cover are of passing interest.)

And thus a new collection begins.