There’s so much good new music out there. The best music of 2012:
1. Radio Music Society, Esperanza Spalding: Invigorating blend of R&B, funk and jazz infused with top-shelf musicianship and an enticing lyrical quality. This is perhaps her best yet. Spalding sports a fluid, proficient and pleasing voice that delivers her poignant lyricism over the engaging compositions. Get the Deluxe Edition with a Making of DVD.
2. Locked Down, Dr. John: Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach gets an inspiration to record with the N’Awlins legend and they whip up a spooky, funky, voodoo dose of swamp funk mixed with hard rock sensibilities. Some of the best from recent vintage of the good Doctor.
3. Tramp, Sharon Van Etten: One of the truly remarkable and original sounding records from a singer/songwriter whose dense, penetrating lyrics are revealed through inventive arrangements that complement her songwriting.
4. Sunken Condos, Donald Fagen: At his wry, funky, satirical and stinging best. Glossed with a Steely Dan sheen but it still swings like mad.
5. Everybody’s Talkin’, Tedeschi-Trucks Band: Live outing from one of the best ensembles around today. A beautiful combination of blues, rock and pop whipped together with Derek Trucks’ slide lacing through it and the marvelous Susan Tedeschi’s soulful, blazing voice on top. Not to be missed live.
6. Sun, Cat Power: Return of the elusive, mercurial and magnetic singer/songwriter. Her best since The Greatest.
7. Election Special, Ry Cooder: Venerable American music stylist gives his biting political take on the present state of affairs with his usual entertaining, insightful views served with a helping of exquisite string playing.
8. Driving Towards The Daylight, Joe Bonamassa: Another edition in the evolving style and development of one of our best modern-day blues guitarists, who happens to have a soulful voice as well.
9. The Lion, The Beast, The Beat, Grace Potter & The Nocturnals: From the opening strains of the remarkable title track through another set of inspired rock and pop, a step forward and upward from this New England-based group. Their roots are firmly planted in the fertile ground of the 1960s and early ’70s. All framing Potter’s gloriously wild and unrestrained voice.
10. Blues Funeral, Mark Lanegan: Love him for his various collaborations over the years, not the least with Isobel Campbell, but there is something dark and compelling about this bluesy and funereal outing that is addicting. (continue reading…)
Robben Ford played at the Infinity Music Hall in Norfolk Friday night. It was the second time we had seen him in three years at the venue and he was on fire, playing a variety of blues and jazz inflected solos over traditional blues material and some of his own tunes.
From Robert Johnson (Travelin’ Riverside Blues) to Paul Butterfield (Lovin’ Cup) to Elmore James and Jimmy Reed (Please Set A Date/You Don’t Have To Go) as well as some of his own compositions, including two instrumentals, Indianola, a tribute to B.B. King, and a nod to the Texas Cannonball, Freddie King (Cannonball Express), Ford displayed his creative and eclectic approach on each of the songs in his setlist.
Finally a list of favorite albums from 2011. I’ve included the best albums of early 2012 as well. Here are the top albums from 2011:
1. El Camino, The Black Keys: No they haven’t lost their way. No, this isn’t a step back or a step to the side. This is infectious, rocking and raw, though not as raw as their early releases, tuneful and driving. They keep moving forward.
2. The Harrow & The Harvest, Gillian Welch and Let England Shake, P.J. Harvey: It’s a tie. Second choices each. Can’t separate them. Welch and her partner David Rowlings have produced an extraordinary duet album underpinned with roots guitar and banjo and enchanting vocals. The songs are spare country-folk pieces beautifully executed. As for Harvey, I’ve already mentioned this one in an early 2011 best-of list. It continues to grow on me if that’s possible. Highly thoughtful, enveloping musical statement featuring Harvey’s and her friends’ expert muscianship and musicality. There, I’ve used a form of music three times in that sentence.
4. I’m With You, The Red Hot Chili Peppers: Talk about an overlooked album. Oh, I’m sure it sold well. The only problem with this album is that it had to follow Stadium Arcadium, which was a career effort in creativity and popularity. Still, it’s more of the Peppers and the Peppers are quite something.
5. Hard Bargain, Emmylou Harris: This was my top choice for the early list. It’s dropped a few places, not because it isn’t worthy, because the later releases were just that good.
6. Tedeschi Trucks Band, Revelator: Another early choice that stood up. Blues, soul, R&B mix with Tedeschi’s heartfelt, soulful vocals on top and Trucks’ dynamic, penetrating slide running through it all. (continue reading…)
Here’s my Top 10 for the past year along with a few bonus selections and various related categories:
1. The Union, Elton John & Leon Russell: A collaboration made in heaven and one wonders why it took so long for these two to get together. The record brings out their similarities, differences and a wonderful melding of their talents with some of their best songwriting in years. A truly inspirational collection.
2. Band Of Joy, Robert Plant: Another entry on the road of Americana from the transplanted Led Zeppelin lead man. Almost every bit as good as The Union with interesting and well-executed covers as only Plant has been able to deliver in recent years.
3. I’m New Here, Gil Scott-Heron: 28 minutes of bliss from the commander of narrative R&B. Scott-Heron is still here and as relevant as ever.
4. San Patricio, The Chieftains with Ry Cooder: A mythical adventure, cloaked in reality, that brings together Mexican, Celtic and American blues and country into one steaming pot of influences.
5. Tears, Lies & Alibis, Shelby Lynne: Stripped-down Shelby Lynne and she greatly benefits from the sparse arrangements putting the emphasis on her singing and songwriting.
6. Have One On Me, Joanna Newsom: It took a while to warm to this unusual songwriter with the reedy, young girl voice but this triple album is captivating and expressive.
7. The Stanley Clarke Band, Stanley Clarke: A bass hero for the ages re-engages with his jazz-rock roots on new and revisited material with a sympathetic and proficient group of musicians.
8. Chamber Music Society, Esperanza Spalding: One of the most unusual and ultimately satisfying collection of songs from a performer/composer who continually surprises and delivers.
9. Grace Potter & The Nocturnals (self-titled): Fourth outing from a group with all the signs of breaking out big-time and it appears they’re finally starting to catch on in a bigger way.
10 Naked Honest, Kala Farnham: Honest, heartfelt, poignant lyricism backed with prodigious keyboard chops and crystal clear vocal styling from this rising solo artist. (continue reading…)
I was taken aback by the title of Esperanza Spalding’s latest offering, Chamber Music Society. So when I sat down to listen, I was expecting a left turn from Spalding’s self-titled jazz solo debut of 2008, which was one of my Top 5 albums of that year.
Three string players are indeed included here, added to Spalding’s doublebasse, and they underpin all of the tunes on the album. But she retains her Latin leanings in a jazz setting, an enchanting fusion of glorious melody, infectious rhythms and inspired musicisianship. All of the string arrangements, meticulously written and executed, are collaborations between Spalding and Gil Goldstein.
The album is also more of a showcase for Spalding’s fluid voice, with its extended range in the upper registers, and her accomplished bass playing for someone so young, 26. Many of her compositions are written sans lyrics, which at once frees the singer to explore more complicated melodies and imbues the songs with her natural scatting ability.
One with lyrics opens the album and is a 3-minute marvel consisting of voice, bass and strings. A delicate, lilting melody embraces lyrics written by the 19th century poet-artist William Blake on Little Fly. From Blake’s Songs Of Experience, it captures just the right touch of simplicity and vulnerability. (continue reading…)
Tenor saxophonist Steve Marcus introduced guitarist Larry Coryell to Gary Burton, master of the vibraphone, sometime in 1966. I always thought it was the other way around, i.e. Burton saw Coryell in The Free Spirits in New York, which he actually did, and then the Coryell-Marcus association came later.
According to notes from the reissue of Marcus’ album Tomorrow Never Knows, he already knew Coryell through mutual friend and pianist Mike Nock, who lived with Coryell in Greenwich Village. After Burton saw Coryell play in 1966, he asked him to join his quartet with drummer Roy Haynes and bassist Steve Swallow. What resulted was a truly inspiring combination of players, who played jazz with a difference. They were all well-schooled in the bop and contemporary jazz traditions but they also skirted rock and pop territory with rhythms and feels you just didn’t find in jazz.
The quartet produced the landmark Duster, then Bob Moses replaced Haynes and the group recorded two more albums, Lofty Fake Anagram, which pushed further into rock territory, and the exquisite Live at Carnegie Hall. Coryell was incorporating rock tendencies more than anyone in the group with a fierce, biting tone at times and the use of feedback and rock phrasing juxtaposed with his masterful jazz leanings.
Shortly after Coryell left the quartet, he joined Marcus for two of three albums that were among the first to fuse rock and jazz. The records featured jazz-schooled players, who loved rock and pop as much as the jazz tradition they came up in, and showed them displaying more of a rock attitude than ever before for jazz players. These albums are certainly among the first genuine examples of the fusion of the two genres.
The first, Tomorrow Never Knows in 1968, featured the Beatles psychedelic title track, along with another Fab Four offering Rain, the Byrds’ Eight Miles High, Mellow Yellow by Donovan and two other tracks, including a Coryell composition, Half A Heart. A fine album with outstanding interpretations.
Then came Count’s Rock Band, the peak of this triptych and our Hidden Treasure No. 8 in ’69, followed by the mostly forgettable The Lord’s Prayer, sans Coryell, also in ’69. According to Marcus’ notes, Gary Burton, who was a neighbor of Marcus’, actually produced the first album, but when it landed on Herbie Mann’s new imprint Vortex, distributed by ATCO, Mann got credit for production on all three outings. Joining Marcus and Coryell on Count’s Rock Band and Tomorrow are Moses on drums, Nock on piano and Chris Hills on bass.
Count’s Rock Band follows the pattern of Tomorrow and includes covers of Simon & Garfunkel’s Scarborough Fair with Marcus on soprano sax and The Stones’ Back Street Girl. But the two Hills compositions, Theresa’s Blues and Ooh Baby are easily the album’s highlights and make this record a gem. (continue reading…)
In the first half of the year, I’ve been listening to three CDs quite a bit, all beautifully executed but quite different from one another. They are easily three of the best records from the first six months of 2010 and three you should give a listen.
The Chieftains’ San Patricio gives a featured billing to Ry Cooder, an occasional collaborator with the Irish group who writes, plays, sings, produces and arranges on this unusual yet intriguing mix of Celtic and Mexican music based on a fictionalized version of the story of Irish soldiers fighting with the Mexican army.
San Patricio is somewhat reminiscent of Santiago, another Chieftains’ effort from 1996 on which they blended Celtic sensibilities with Galician music from northwest Spain.
The group showed the direct link between the two musical heritages while including collaborators Cooder, Linda Ronstadt and Los Lobos, among many others.
The music on San Patricio is joyous, celebratory, heartfelt, forboding and ultimately upbeat and forward moving. The highlights are many, including the opener La Iguana with sensuous vocalist Lila Downs, who also appears on El Relampago; Ronstadt’s tender La Orilla de Un Palmar; the Cooder compositions The Sands Of Mexico and Cancion Mixteca (Intro) along with the song proper by Jose Lopez Alavez; March To Battle (Across The Rio Grande), which features a narration by Liam Neeson; and traditional numbers that feature Los Folkloristas and Los Camperos deValles.
It’s all a rich tapestry of the blending of these two musical styles that share so much in common.
The Irish soldiers, led by Captain John Riley during the war with Mexico (1846-48) were discriminated against and treated brutally by the American troops. So much so they defected to join a people with whom they had much more in common.
Although the thread of story on this record is entirely fictitious, there is no doubt music must have been a big part of the Irish soldiers’ experience as it is imbued so deeply in both cultures. A wonderfully realized example of what we now call World Music but is simply an inspiring work under any title. (continue reading…)
In the early 1970s, a good friend and outstanding drummer, Peter Nowlin, was working with me in a band with the Aiardo brothers in New Haven.
Peter is from Virginia and traveled with an extensive record collection and quality stereo system. At some point, he turned me on to Passport, a German fusion group led by reed man and occasional keyboard player Klaus Doldinger. I was immediately taken with the group. This particular version of Passport from about 1971 to 1977, and by the way the group is still around and legendary in Germany, is now referred to as Classic Passport.
It was definitely the heydey of the band, a quartet that featured Wolfgang Schmid on bass and sometimes guitar, Curt Cress on drums and Kristian Schulze on Fender piano and organ along with Doldinger, who plays his reeds as well as moog and keyboards, all extraordinary musicians. And although they are a German institution, they were never really that fully appreciated in this country.
The music definitely fell into the jazz-rock vein. As one of the best fusion bands of the era, Passport fused jazz-inflected melodies, usually blown by Doldinger with his distinctive tenor and soprano sax sound, employing a liberal amount of echo and/or delay for a fat, sustained quality, over a solid rock and funk foundation. With almost never a guitar in use, the band had a sound apart from most other fusion groups, quite different than anything else happening at the time.
Being a big fan of lead guitarists, it was unusual for me to like a group without one, but the European-based melodic sense and furious and incendiary rhythm section were irresistible. The songwriting and constructions also differed from anything else on the fusion scene and the playing was so good, it was at times overwhelming.
Doldinger has also gained notoriety for his soundtracks, including his best known Das Boot, but he is first a consummate reed man, certainly owing much to the be-bop era, but with a very individualist approach that settles perfectly between jazz and rock, just like his considerable compositional skills. (continue reading…)
At various times in his career, Steve Winwood had gone extended periods during which he rarely played live, the most recent from the late 1990s to the early 2000s. But since his exceptional return album, About Time in 2004, he has toured relentlessly in the States and Europe, including stints with Eric Clapton.
I’ve seen Winwood about a dozen times in his career since 1968, seven times since 2004. Winwood played the MGM Grand Friday night, his third trip to Foxwoods since the release of About Time, with his usual five-piece band that includes a percussionist and sax player but no bass player. Winwood handles that with his left foot at the Hammond B-3, while providing adept, funky and soulful keyboard playing and still delivering with one of the best voices in the music world.
After the second song in his set, Hungry Man, from his Top 10 album from 2008, Nine Lives, he noted all the returning customers he spotted in the front of the 5,000-seat house, which was about 90 percent filled. He added that he and his band would be returning customers for a while also, a pronouncement that was received very enthusiastically.
The musicianship complementing one of the bonafide great talents in rock history is impressive: Jose Neto, who has been with Winwood since About Time, is on classical-electric guitar, as well as a Fender Strat for some tunes; Paul Booth plays tenor and soprano sax, flute, whistle, organ and sings background vocals; Richard Bailey handles drums with a fierce, worldly rhythmic fire; and Karl Vanden Bossche is the percussionist center stage on an array of congas and other embellishing tools of the trade.
Winwood’s band, with the exception of Neto, has changed personnel several times in the last six years, but this unit, which I saw open for Tom Petty at The Meadows in Hartford in 2008, has been together at least that long. And it sounds it. It’s a tight-knit, rocking, funky lineup that burns through a set of old and new songs with equal polish. (continue reading…)
If you’ve see the film Jazz On A Summer’s Day, shot at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, you are probably familiar with Anita O’Day.
Considered among the five greatest jazz singers of the Golden Age — Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sara Vaughan, Carmen McRae and O’Day — she is the only white singer in the group and perhaps the least well known.
Her artistry, singular style, virtuosity and attitude put her in this select company, which she richly deserves.
The subject of Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden’s documentary from 2007, Anita O’Day The Life Of A Jazz Singer, released on DVD in ’09, she was a fascinating personality who started with big bands in the 1940s, adapted flawlessly to bebop in the late ’40s and ’50s and was the first jazz singer on the historic Verve Records in the mid-’50s, recording a string of memorable records that sold unexpectedly well.
She also lived the life of a jazz singer to the fullest and with it came the often seen pitfalls. A heroin addict for 15 years from the mid-’50s until 1968 and an alcohol and pill abuser after that, she lived hard and cool and made no apologies as is shown in many cuts from the film with interviewers Dick Cavett, David Frost, Bryant Gumbel and segments on 60 Minutes.
But she survived, working well into the ’80s and ’90s and coming back in the early 2000s with an album, Indestructible, and performances in New York until her death in 2006 at 87.
She is also interviewed by the filmmakers for this documentary at age 84 and her insights, remembrances and anecdotes are invaluable in helping explain her extraordinary career. (continue reading…)