Friday, December 31, 2004

Best blues CDs 2004

A nice variety of blues this year from several different labels. Here are my 10 best of 2004, from legends to relative newcomers to reliable favorites.

10. THE LEGEND LIVE by Robert Lockwood Jr. (M.C.). Sure, blues fans have heard the 89-year-old Lockwood perform many of these songs before, but it's remarkable how much passion and commitment he manages to invest in these gems, polished to perfection over many years rubbing together in his pocket. A formidable force on his blue-hued 12-string and still singing with great soul and emotion, Lockwood revisits staples such as Roosevelt Sykes' "She's Little and She's Low," Leroy Carr's "In the Evening" and of course, tracks by his most indelible influence, Robert Johnson. He also shows off his jazzy side with a light romp through the Jimmy McHugh/Dorothy Fields fingerpopper "Exactly Like You." A real treat.

9. BLOWIN' MY HORN by Mark Hummel (Electro-Fi). Harpoon master Hummel is a wonder to behold on-stage, and that's just how he's captured here, fronting a smart, good-rockin' band in a swing through Canada last year. Although there's certainly some blowin' goin' on — dig his raunchy tone and slow build-up to all-out frenzy on an instrumental romp through "Willie and Hand Jive" — Hummel is about more than mere flash. Here, the West Coast harper selects great material and puts it over with gusto, his distinctive nasal vocals filled with sly good humor.

8. BURY HIM AT THE CROSSROADS by Janiva Magness (NorthernBlues). Wow, can this lady sing. Magness brings a tough, sultry confidence to some excellent material on her debut for the NorthernBlues label. Producer and guitarist Colin Linden put together a top-notch roots ensemble to back her. Drummer Stephen Hodges (Tom Waits, John Hammond) lends his special colors and textures, as does the versatile Linden. Magness' powerful rendition of J.B. Lenoir's "The Whale Swallowed Jonah," on which she's solely backed by Linden, is worth the price of the disc alone, but you also get superb versions of Magic Sam's "Everything Gonna Be Alright," the Rev. Robert Wilkins' "That's No Way To Get Along" and some very strong tracks written by Linden and bassist Jeff Turmes. A talent to watch; don't pass up a chance to catch her live.

7. WATCH YOUR BACK by Guitar Shorty (Alligator). Shorty's first joint for Alligator finds the veteran guitar-slinger sounding like a new man, strong, vital and very, very contemporary. With spanking and cranking production by Jesse Harms, who penned a good portion of the songs and plays keyboards, Shorty soars and scores on some of the hardest crunching blues rock he's ever laid down. Everything here is tight and feisty, but cue up the blustery "I'm Gonna Leave You" or the hammering "Get Busy" to hear Shorty at his fiery-fingered, barrel-chested best.

6. DOUBLE V by Otis Taylor (Telarc). The one-of-a-kind Taylor continues to make some of the most-interesting and unusual blues albums, which put the emphasis squarely on atmospherics and narrative. On Double V, Taylor mines the dark areas of history and humanity, his droning acoustic and electric picking backed by a trio of cellists, and providing a voice for the voiceless on powerful, on tunes such as "Took Their Land" and the autobiographical "Mama's Selling Heroin." Some lighter moments, such as the savagely joyful "Mandan Woman" and "He Never Raced on Sunday," about Lewis and Clark's slave York and a religious bicycle champion respectively, leaven the proceedings somewhat, but it just might be the beyond wistful album capper "Buy Myself Some Freedom," sung by Taylor's daughter Cassie, that haunts you most when the disc stops spinning.

5. REMEMBER ME by Charles Caldwell (Fat Possum). Coffeeville, Miss., resident Caldwell passed away in 2003, but left behind this rough-hewn and quite powerful final statement. Fans of the rhythmically insistent Hill Country stomp of Junior Kimbrough or R.L. Burnside will find much to their liking here. Both solo and with drum accompaniment, Caldwell kicks up a mighty groove behind his strong vibrato vocals that conjure up the romantic disappointments and existential joys of the juke joint life. His raunchy, electric tone and superb picking display an effortless mastery. Many thanks, once again, to Fat Possum chief Matt Johnson for sharing an obscure artist whose music and passing might have gone unremarked outside Yalobusha County.

4. GOIN' HOME by Paul Rishell and Annie Raines (Tone-Cool). Beautiful and expertly crafted acoustic blues by master picker Rishell and harmonica blower Rishell, who revisit 1920s-30s classics by the likes of Charlie Jordan, Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Ma Rainey. Rishell's read of "I Had a Good Mother and Father" is among his finest, most soulful vocal performances, his ghostly falsetto raising goosebumps while his old acoustic Koa gets crystalline accompaniment from Raines' picking on a Hawaiian mandolin harp. Equally affecting is a marvelously picked and sung version of Patton's "I'm Goin' Home," complete with subtle and lovely gospel background vocals. Raines shows off the toneful goods with a melancholy, sigh-inducing instrumental read of Big Maybelle's "Candy," backed by Rishell's late-night, sweetly strummed jazz rhythm.

3. LOVE, MURDER AND MOSQUITOS by Paul Geremia (Red House). Woefully unsung acoustic blues virtuouso Geremia simply makes great records, and this one is no exception. His wry vocals are perfectly suited to the material he expertly picks on six and 12-string axes, as he rags all over tunes by the likes of Pink Anderson, Blind Blake and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Accompanying himself on rack harmonica, and getting some help on fiddle, banjo and mandolin, Geremia revives some obscure tunes from the classic blues era. Just can't get enough of his lovely and impassioned take on "Rising River Blues."

2. SECOND NATURE by Carey and Lurrie Bell (Alligator). Recorded in 1991 in a studio in Finland, harmonica great Carey and guitarist son Lurrie display an expected ease and comfort as they trade off on vocals and provide superb support for one another on this intimate, acoustic set. Lurrie churns up the rhythm, insistently plucking bass strings behind his dad and letting loose with bursts of exuberant picking. For his part, Carey was singing beautifully (cue up the original "The Road Is So Long") and playing with the great brio and soulfulness that mark him as one of the greatest living harp players. Second Nature is also a sad reminder of Lurrie's tremendous promise, hampered over the years by mental illness. Dig his excellent vocals on tunes such as "Trouble in My Way" ("I got so much trouble, I got to moan sometimes"), the autobiographical "Got To Leave Chi-Town" and the deeply felt, atypical jazzy soul ballad "Here I Go Again" that caps off the session; this cat could have been — might still be — a huge star in the blues world.

1. SIMPLE TRUTHS by The Holmes Brothers (Alligator). Sherman, Wendell and Popsy are in top form on Simple Truths, their sophomore effort for Alligator. After their critically acclaimed but disappointing debut for the label, the bros. return to stripped-down blues and soul, eschewing the electronica and the overtly churchy messages. Here, you get strong, gritty romps such as Wendell's opening "Run Myself Out of Town" and a bright and exuberant take on Bruce Channel's "Hey Baby," as well as an infectious and upbeat read of Collective Soul's "Shine." Best of all, Popsy Dixon gets a marvelous showcase for his heavenly tenor and falsetto on the gorgeous Gillian Welch/David Rawlings tune "Everything Is Free" and Bob Marley's song of hope "Concrete Jungle." Wendell's gravel-throated rendition of "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" is one of the best versions of the Hank Williams tune since Cassandra Wilson's.

QUESTIONS OR COMMENTS on this list or any of content on bobweinberg.com? Feel free to shoot an e-mail my way at bobweinberg@mac.com. Hope your New Year is filled with great music.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

10 Best Jazz Recordings of 2004

A highly subjective list, yes, and also limited by what crossed my desk or caught my eye at the store. Nonetheless, here is my annual attempt at summing up the 10 best jazz releases of the past 365 days.

10. WE IS by Kahil El'Zabar and David Murray (Delmark). Percussionist El'Zabar and saxophonist Murray team up for a live set of thorny yet hard-groovin' duets that veer from ear-testing avant-garde to deeply realized blues. Murray switches between tenor sax and bass clarinet, and El'Zabar trades sticks for skins and plucks some very lovely African thumb piano, as well.

9. FLY by Turner, Ballard and Grenadier (Savoy). The sidemen take center stage as saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard combine talents on this intriguing acoustic groovefest featuring original compositions from each member. Turner displays a sooty, textured tone while Grenadier and Turner creatively churn up the funk.

8. WHICH WAY IS EAST by Charles Lloyd and Billy Higgins (ECM). A poignant farewell from master drummer Billy Higgins, who passed away a couple of years ago, captured here in a final session with reed man Charles Lloyd. Over the course of two discs, the pair invest a deep spirituality into the tunes, which make use of African, Middle Eastern and Asian textures, as well as instrumentation ranging from Tibetan oboe to Senegalese hand drums to Syrian "one string." Higgins rages against the dying of the light, his vocals on a few tunes simply heartbreaking, while Lloyd plays some of his spikiest and most emotional solos in years on tenor and alto saxes, flute and even piano.

7. STORYTELLER by the Marilyn Crispell Trio (ECM). Simply gorgeous, mysterious and introspective music from veteran pianist Crispell, whose avant-garde roots peep through even her most melodic work. Her trio of double-bassist Mark Helias and drummer Paul Motian could hardly be more sensitively attuned.

6. THE LIFE OF A SONG by Geri Allen with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette (Telarc). There's nothing tentative about the vibrant, percussive attack of pianist Allen, who receives stellar support on this dynamic set of mostly original music from rhythm vets Holland on bass and DeJohnette on drums. Allen's compositions are full of fire and color, and she tips a hand to an obvious influence with a ripping read of Bud Powell's "Dance of the Infidels." Horns (including husband Marcus Belgrave's rich flugel) are added to the concluding track, a lovely take on Mal Waldron's "Soul Eyes," but the interaction of the trio remains the focus.

5. LIVE AT YOSHI'S VOLUME ONE by the Mulgrew Miller Trio (MaxJazz). Superb hardbop pianist Miller seems to be best appreciated in front of an audience, and that's just how he's heard at the Bay Area jazz institution, Yoshi's. With his trio of bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Karriem Riggins, Miller muscularly rips into a thoughtful and exciting set that includes Donald Brown's "Waltz for Monk" and Woody Shaw's "Organ Grinder," as well as a devastatingly beautiful read of Horace Silver's "Peace." Miller's one original tune, the concluding barnstormer "Pressing the Issue," is simply a tease, making us wish that more of his own material will be featured on what we hope is an inevitable Volume Two.

4. BUZZ by Ben Allison and Medicine Wheel (Palmetto). Bass virtuouso and composer Allison creates yet another wonderfully textured album of exciting, original new music alongside colleagues from his New York-based Jazz Composers Collective. Saxophonists Michael Blake and Ted Nash and pianist Frank Kimbrough again lend their talents to the session, featuring evocative tunes and sensitive ensemble dynamics. Allison and drummer Michael Sarin keep the mix simmering.

3. TRICYCLES by Larry Coryell with Paul Wertico and Mark Egan (Favored Nations). Jazz guitar innovator Coryell takes listeners on a tour of his vast career, from his still-fresh-sounding fusion compositions of the 60s and 70s through his more bop-inspired work. Caught live in Germany, the trio with bassist Mark Egan and drummer Paul Wertico has to rank among Coryell's best, and the threesome simply dazzles with its simpatico interaction. Highlights include "Good Citizen Swallow," Coryell's affectionate, tuneful tribute to a former bandmate; Egan's jewel-like title track, which has a mysterious, Bill Evans-ish, "Blue in Green" feel; and a delicious, late-night rendition of "Round Midnight." Coryell concludes with an unaccompanied, classical acoustic take on The Beatles tune "She's Leaving Home," a perfect capper to this excellent sampler of an often overlooked jazz great.

2. ENROUTE by the John Scofield Trio (Verve). Guitarist Scofield has worked for years with bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Bill Stewart, which is more than evident on this exceptional live recording. Veering from the jam-oriented discs he's been releasing over the past few years, Scofield gets back to the dynamic interaction that is the cornerstone of jazz, as his vivid, angular leads receive stellar support from this fully engaged rhythm section. Stewart whips the excitement into a frenzy with snaky snare and effervescent cymbal work, as Swallow lays down slippery, resonant and tuneful bottom. For the most part, the trio keeps the pedal to the metal, ripping and running on bop-inspired tracks such as the opening "Wee" and Swallow's "Name That Tune," and Scofield's own complex yet accessible compositions, such as "Hammock Soliloquy" and "It Is Written," never fail to swing. An almost surgical deconstruction of the Bacharach gem "Alfie" is breathtaking.

1. THE OUT-OF-TOWNERS by Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette (ECM). The Standards Trio creates magic once again, this time in front of an appreciative audience in Munich. The longtime bandmates stretch out on jaunty reads of "I Can't Believe That You're in Love With Me" and "I Love You," Jarrett's rippling fingers dancing with muscular grace. The musical telepathy shared among the trio is especially evident in the bluesy title track, a 20-minute improvisation around a central vamp that never loses its sense of playfulness. Jarrett's concluding solo version of "It's All in the Game" seems like a love letter to his fans.

Runners up: Pictures of Soul by Omar Sosa and Adam Rudolph (Otá); Anything Goes by the Brad Mehldau Trio (Warner Bros.); Lift by the Chris Potter Quartet (Sunnyside); Unspeakable by Bill Frisell (Nonesuch); Coral by David Sánchez (Columbia); Eternal by the Branford Marsalis Quartet (Rounder); Mean Ameen by Ernest Dawkins' New Horizons Ensemble (Delmark); The Lost Chord by Bley, Sheppard, Swallow and Drummond (ECM); With All My Heart by Harvey Mason (Bluebird); Terminal 1 by Benny Golson (Concord).

GOT A QUESTION OR COMMENT about this list or any other content at bobweinberg.com? Feel free to drop me a line at bobweinberg@mac.com. Have a happy holiday!

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