After a half-month vacation and a little reorientation, I’ve been digging into records with a passion.
Mulatu Astatke and The Ethiopian Quintet: Afro-Latin Soul, Vols. 1-2–Early Mulatu, minus misterioso sax and his mature stamp, but plus sharp Cuban-flavored attack (mid-Sixties vintage)
Balkan Beat Box: Nu-Med–I miss this band (are they disbanded, I wonder?) and their propulsive, eccentric, surprising rhythms (here, augmented in one case by Delta guitar).
Beats Antique: Shadowbox–This well-named band’s best album end to end, they are well-supported by guests like Preservation Hall, but don’t quite deliver a true banger quite as powerful as “Dope Crunk” (also, consistency be damned, it mighta been even better with about 20 minutes worth of editing).
David Bowie: Santa Monica ’72–After sampling a ’70s Bonnie Raitt radio show (the faucet’s all the way open on these), I jumped at this, and it’s raw and sloppy enough, and the playlist choice enough, to justify a recommendation, especially if you do find Dave’s early ’70s productions too skinny.
Eddie Daniels: Heart of Brazil–I tend to like my Brazilian music nuttier (see below), but this tribute to composer Egberto Gismonti’s music, described by jazz scribe Dan Bilawsky as “a sui generis form of fantasia that proves evocative in its blending of Brazilian forms,” is bright and effervescent enough to steamroller that prejudice (also, GO RESONANCE RECORDS!).
Booker Ervin: “Tex”book Tenor–Ervin’s a brawny and smart ’60s hornman you may have overlooked, and he’s on his game here, assisted ably by Billy Higgins, Woody Shaw, and Kenny Barron, the latter two of whom chip in great tunes. The Blue Note catalog is so dang deep that it’s full of minor classics like this that get a bit of shade.
Etoile de Dakar (featuring Youssou N’Dour): Once Upon a Time in Senegal–The Birth of Mbalax 1979-1981–Look at those dates. The greatest band on the planet? The Clash? The Talking Heads? Maybe–maybe not. This band jumped hella sturdy and cut like a straight razor, with a teenager who already was one of the most distinctive vocalists on the planet. All the great stuff from their early prime is here.
Monsieur Jeffrey Evans & Ross Johnson: “Caldonia” / “Cottonfields”–Evans, formerly of ’68 Comeback and The Gibson Brothers, and Johnson, formerly of Earth about, oh, 40 years ago, continue waging their war to keep Memphis weird. They go 1-for-2 here, with “Cottonfields” an embarrassment except for Johnson’s intro–he has a way of snatching entertainment from the jaws of a flop. Look for their previous full-length, which does work, and features this truly weird semi-classic.
Freddie Gibbs: Freddie–Dude’s done nothing to convince me until now–a decently skilled boor–and the rip-off/tribute to the album cover of one of my teen essentials didn’t do him any favors. Still–somehow he got me on this one. Nine of 10 tracks are under three minutes long–what is this, rap Ramones?–so maybe he’s figured out when to hit the door. And, honestly, seldom have such complete MCs skills been laid (!) upon that trap skitter.
The Elmo Hope Ensemble: Sounds from Rikers Island–Hope, with Sonny Clark, is one of those great hard bop (maybe?) pianists every jazz explorer needs to know but might not, due to their more illustrious peers (and due to their premature deaths at the hands of drugs). This one is special, not only because Hope had Arkestra stalwarts Ronnie Boykins and John Gilmore plus favorite drummer Philly Joe Jones (who really shines) on hand, but also? Any chance to hear Gilmore outside the Arkestra is worth a leaning forward.
Dick Hyman Plays Fats Waller–And plays him into a Bosendorfer reproducing piano! That’s right! Supposedly this process results in recordings closer to the sound at the moment of playing than any other machine can manufacture. Whether that claim still holds true, Hyman is a wizard, Walleriana is one of his great loves, and both facts are luminously proven here.
Abdullah Ibrahim: Yarona and Abdullah Ibrahim and Johnny Dyani: Echoes from Africa–You can listen to these albums in the middle of the night, and they (especially the latter) will sound as if the sun is coming up on a long-awaited morning.
The Internet: Hive Mind–My favorite groove album of the year, a groove so seductive you might miss some very wise words. I love these kids–seems like so much young talent is flowing from the ground that they might indeed save us…
Rodrigo Amado (with Joe McPhee): This is Our Language and The Lisbon Improvisational Players: Spiritualized–Amado is perhaps the best known Portuguese free jazz player in the world, he’s got a great new record out, and when he’s paired with the Merlinesque McPhee or like-minded Lisbonites, the attentive listener is going to be taken somewhere worthy. My current obsession–if only I could hear this music live in mid-Misery!
Lori McKenna: The Tree–There’s so much music out there that this fine songwriter’s been around for over a decade and I’ve just recently heard of her–and I’m supposed to know something about this stuff. Thing is, I checked her new one out based on her writing rep (and she’s sharp), but I came away in love with her singing. The above song and “You Won’t Even Know I’m Gone” you can play for your folks and put a hook in their lip.
Jay McShann (with Claude “Fiddler” Williams): The Man from Muskogee and Claude “Fiddler” Williams: Swingin’ the Blues–Reading around in some old reference books (it’s what I do for fun), I came to the realization that Nicole and I had in fact seen a member of the original Basie band play live! Fiddler Williams (he also guitar-slung) was only with Basie for a blink–he also was with Andy Kirk’s famous orchestra–but had a very quite career until a mid-’70s resurgence that lasted (as Williams did) another twenty years. His high, keening swing–he almost drawls across the strings–is irresistible, and if you just wanna sit back and be transported like they used to was, these records will do the trick. His accomplices, especially McShann and the late, great Henry Butler (on the latter record), are exquisitely skilled as well.
Leon Parker: Belief–The percussion textures on this album are mood-enhancing; it always clears and cleans my mind, somehow. Some great horn and sneaky blues on hand, too.
Hermeto Pascoal: Slaves Mass–Multi-instrumentalist Pascoal recorded this swirling, dizzying, often intimidating salvo of Brazilian sound in 1977–I don’t really know that it fits any genre, though imbibers of jazz, international, progressive, and outsider music are fairly sure to be held in thrall. Didn’t arrive on CD until 2005; I just heard of it three days courtesy of a New Orleans friend who Dropboxed it to me. Mad, magical music.
Esther Phillips: Jazz Moods–Hot–Dinah Washington’s greatest acolyte seldom (some would say never) made a great album, and this has its wince-inducing moments. I don’t think “What A Diff’rence a Day Makes” was meant to be discofied, at least not like it’s done here. But she always had a way of startlingly covering the unexpected, from the likes of The Beatles, Van Morrison, and Charlie Rich. On this comp, the above Gil Scott-Heron interpretation at least matches the original, she risks disaster in trying to convince us that someone other than Bill Withers needed to record “Use Me” and survives, and she blows Joe Cocker out of the water on “Black-Eyed Blues.” Someone needs to get motivated and give us the ultimate Phillips box…oh wait, you can just make your own.
Sam Rivers: Contrasts–Rivers, joined by bassist Dave Holland, trombonist George Lewis, and the very underrated percussionist Thurman Barker (the latter two AACM masters), plays seven original compositions that miraculously and vividly illustrate their single-word titles: “Circles,” “Zip,” “Solace,” “Verve,” “Dazzle,” “Images,” “Lines.” Aside from those variances, the band plays arrangements, near-total improvisations, hard-bop, tone-poetry–it’s really a stunning record that benefits from, as one reviewer noted, not being a stereotypically gauzy ECM release.
Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band: 1984/08/20–East Rutherford, New Jersey–I am not nearly enraptured by Springsteen as I was at 15, and at 22–he just tries too damn hard, and anymore his singing and material grinds me. But for some reason (I forget the trigger) I started scouting for a live ’84 show that might possibly improve on, or at least provide an interesting contrast to, Born in the USA, which I just can’t listen to sometimes because of the production. Went to the ol’ codger’s website and checked this out, which was, in fact, just what I was looking for: a good mix of new and old, some neat surprises (like the above Dobie Gray cover), and…I always listen for a stellar version of “Badlands,” which this has.
Clark Terry (with Thelonious Monk): In Orbit–Ordinarily, if on a record you heard that Monk mostly stayed out of the way, you might not want to listen to it. But in this case you’d be wrong. Monk comps respectfully around the winsome and witty flugeling of a musician I’m sure he already considered a master. And the winsomeness and the wit are probably the reason. Lest any Monkophile be disappointed, he breaks out, with Terry returning the favor of respect, on his own “Let’s Cool One.” A very warm (there’s another “w”) and swinging session.
Tom Waits: Round Midnight–The Minneapolis Broadcast 1975–Still sampling from this burgeoning stream of “bootleg” radio shows, I was bound to reel in a dog. While I am an admirer of Nighthawks at the Diner, this performance, especially the grating opener, a a big, fat, unfunny, bombing “Emotional Weather Report,” reminded me once again how much sheer bullshit has been part of Tom’s schtick. I’m sure my repulsion’s just a temporary thing, though.