Highlights from my last five days’ listening, ranked on a 10-point scale approved by former Soviet gymnastics judges:
Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith/A COSMIC RHYTHM WITH EACH STROKE – 8.9 – Like my fellow enthusiastic and actual serious jazz critic Christopher Monsen, I do like drums with my jazz, generally; like my fellow skeptics, I sometimes wonder how cosmic each stroke really is. But considering the intentions of these two gentleman genuises in composing this–to support an exhibit at the Met of the work of the abstract Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi–it is a beautiful thing. With just Smith’s trumpet and Iyer’s piano, Fender Rhodes, and electronics for colors, their own strokes match Mohamedi’s in elegance, simplicity, and coherence. If you don’t truck with art talk, and could care less about intentions, it’s extraordinarily calming without anesthetizing you, primarily owing to Smith’s patented (?) balancing art between Milesian moans of desolation and AACM blats and sputters.
Barbara Lynn/The COMPLETE ATLANTIC RECORDINGS – 8.5 – The notes give up no personnel data, but one can guess that from the label, producers, and mid-to-late ’60s vintage–problem is, I don’t hear her neat lefty guitar in the mix. BUT the soulful husk and smoke of her delivery are in pretty high definition and the material shoots over 80% from the line: some bitter copyrights from Ms. Ozen herself (“This is The Thanks I Get,” “Until Then I’ll Suffer”), some offerings from the house (Penn-Oldham’s “He Ain’t Gonna Do Right” and Donnie Fritts’ too-obscure “People Like Me”), a weirdly addictive one apparently penned by a trio of Cajuns from near Barbara’s Beaumont stompin’ grounds (“Ring Telephone Ring”–it’s Swamp Pop Central calling!), and likely the first version of the late Wayne Thompson’s classic “Soul Deep.” If this hooks you? Move backward to her Jamie recordings with Huey Meaux, and the original “You’ll Lose A Good Thing” and “Oh Baby! We Got a Good Thing Goin’,” which the young Stones saw fit to take a run at.
Various Artists/LOUISIANA SATURDAY NIGHT – 9.0 – A terrific compilation of swamp pop classics, which is saying something since licensing tangles have kept all the great ones from ever winding up in one place (to my knowledge, and I’ve been looking). Swamp pop? Shane Bernard, an expert for a reason, says it’s a balance between white Cajun music moving toward rock and roll and black Creole music moving toward r&b, and that sounds exciting, except that (I’d argue) its virtues are addictively mild, like a perfect cafe au lait. Not to say there’s not in-your-face action here: Rusty and Doug Kershaw are eternally uplifting (remember “Diggy Liggy Lo,” anyone?), the fat slide guitar on Cleveland Crochet’s “Sugar Bee” reaches out and gooses you hard, and Rod Bernard and Clifton Chenier’s symbolic summit meeting on “Jolie Blonde” proves Rod’s boy right. But the ones I keep coming back to are cuts like Van Broussard’s “Feed the Flame”: Van’s not the greatest singer in the world, neither the band or the arrangement will knock your hat in the creek, but his sincerity and belief in the lyrics are…fetching. Like you yourself could sing that one–but you can’t. Quite. Like that. Modest mastery.
Various Artists/SOUL SOK SEGA–SEGA SOUNDS FROM MAURITIUS – 8.7 – Mauritius is an island just east of Madagascar, and its proud musical offering is sega, which initially featured a ravanne (a goatskin stretched across a frame–and later over a drum), a maravann (a box of seeds–like maracas), a triangle (reminiscent of jure, an ancestor of zydeco), and singing, in Kreol (or Creole, if you will). This collection is largely the story of how sega because impure–and more interesting. At its best, it evokes the delirious experiments of Brazilian Tropicalia (something I’m always down for), and, um–the guitar is great! Big props to Strut Records, whose releases have gotten me to the rare point of partaking sight-unseen, sound-unheard, and review-unread.