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The broad umbrella of modern Latin music has grown into a global mainstream genre, but much of its lineage and heritage can be traced to “son,” a musical style popularized in Cuba during the early 20th century that unites African and Spanish rhythm and structure. Without son (literally meaning sound in Spanish), there would be no salsa, no mambo, and no “Macarena.” What began as a marginalized musical expression for the island nation’s poor and dispossessed has grown into a top contender in the hierarchy of modern popular music and has proven a formidable forebearer for modern Latin sounds. The marriage of Spanish and African cultures as a whole continues to influence the rest of the world for its contributions to music, dance, language, and art. An impassioned sensuality and infectious spirit unify the four albums I’ll share here in this segment.

201011_septetonacionalAs son evolved and gained popularity, musical groups of six and seven members formed across Cuba to perform and expand upon the newly emerging style. Cuban musician and composer Ignacio Piñeiro is credited with writing over 300 sons, and in the late 1920s he formed a group that would become Septeto Nacional, a veritable crown jewel of Cuba’s musical landscape and one that, generations later, is still performing. The group was nominated in 2004 for a Grammy, and they now return with their latest release, ¡Sin Rumba No Hay Son! (CD, World Village 468105), an acoustic offering of inventive new material alongside reinterpretations of Piñeiro’s now-classic century-old compositions. The disc branches out beyond son alone. While the romantic bolero, “En Tus Ojos Yo Veo” and the lively guaracha, “La Fiesta de los Animales,” don’t subscribe to the standard parameters of son, as with tracks such as “Donde Andabas Anoche,” they serve to further evince the development of Afro-Cuban musical culture. Septeto Nacional has long played an important role in Cuba’s history, and ¡Sin Rumba No Hay Son! may just be the catalyst to help them leave their latest indelible mark.

201010_marcos_amorimAdventure Music AM1052 2
Format: CD

Musical Performance ****
Sound Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****

 

Brazilian guitarist Marcos Amorim grew up in a musical household in Rio de Janeiro, where his father would invite musicians over for jam sessions that often ran into the early hours of the morning. Amorim began formal studies when he was 14 and was playing with some of his country’s leading musicians while he was still in his teens. Portraits is his second outing with bassist Jorge Albuquerque and drummer Rafael Barata and his fourth disc released here in the US through Adventure Records. All three musicians have extensive experience with other Brazilian jazz musicians of note, including Mario Adnet, Ivan Lins, and Nestor Torres.

The three players received equal billing on their previous disc, Revolving Landscapes. Even though they work this time as the Marcos Amorim Trio, Portraits is a collaborative work. Albuquerque wrote three of the ten tunes (Amorim wrote the rest), and Amorim shares solo time generously. Portraits is composed of ten tracks that show a wide command of the group’s Brazilian musical heritage, but American jazz fans will find it exciting and approachable. Amorim plays beautifully melodic, well-developed lines, and his tone is clean and full. He often multi-tracks his guitars, with an acoustic taking the rhythm-guitar parts, which give the tunes their harmonic foundation.

Eagle Vision EV302939
Format: DVD

Musical Performance ***1/2
Sound Quality ***1/2
Picture Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ***1/2

201010_tompetty“It’s just the normal noises in here,” an unidentified female voice says just before Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers tear into “Only the Losers” on their third record, Damn the Torpedoes (1979). The normal noises meant guitars, drums, bass, and traditional keyboards -- no synthesizers. Producer Jimmy Iovine, with a lot of help from ace engineer Shelly Yakus, took those elements and gave Petty his first top-ten album. This entry in the Classic Albums series shows how much hard work goes into making a hit record. Benmont Tensch, the band’s keyboard player, points out that Yakus and drummer Stan Lynch took three or four days just to get a drum sound. Yakus went so far as to take Lynch shopping for new drums. Iovine, Yakus, Petty, and guitarist Mike Campbell sit at a mixing board and adjust the levels throughout the video to show how very tiny details, such as the shaker in “Refugee,” ultimately sell a song. The bonus material is almost as good as the main program. Iovine and Petty talk about the mix for “Refugee,” Shelly Yakus explains how he panned guitars and added delay on “What Are You Doing in My Life” to create a wall of sound, and Tensch describes how he achieved some of his keyboard effects. Archival footage of the band in performance and in music videos helps give the story background and context.

Zoho ZM 201009
Format: CD

Musical Performance ****
Sound Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

201010_auctionprojectDavid Bixler teaches jazz studies at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and has made several excellent albums that have already been released. This one, however, is different. Working with piano player Arturo O’Farrill and his wife, violinist Heather Martin Bixler, he’s combined Latin American roots with Celtic folk music to create a sound that’s fresh and original. Variety abounds on this disc, even within a style. “Spanish Misfortune” starts off as an Irish romp, only to veer off into more conventional jazz territory before Heather Martin Bixler brings it back into Celtic line. “She Moves Through the Fair” starts with the solitary fiddle keening the melancholic tune, but as other instruments enter and dissonances pile up, the piece takes on an even more tragic nature. “Green Target,” “Worth Dying For,” and “Heptagonesque” are the tunes without Celtic overtones, and they feature Bixler’s poignant alto sax. The overall recorded sound is clean and clear, but the drums of Vince Cherico could have better definition. In sum, the album is a fresh, creative effort that’s well worth hearing.

Analogue Productions CAP8456 SA
Format: Hybrid Multichannel SACD

Musical Performance ****
Sound Quality ****1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****

201010_milesdavisTaped over three days in 1961, Someday My Prince Will Come is one of Miles Davis’ most mellow sets. It still features the solid-as-a-rock rhythm section of Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums. The sax players fluctuate. John Coltrane was no longer playing regularly but came back to the studio to guest on the title track and “I Thought About You.” The rest of the tenor tracks are handled by Hank Mobley, who had only been with the group for a short time. It shows a little in his playing, which is more reserved than that of Coltrane but has a lighter, neat, and simple beauty of its own. There are some miraculous moments throughout this set, and not always in the big sections. Listen to that great rhythm section in “Prancing” when Chambers has a bass solo, yet Kelly and Cobb continue to accompany him with awesome subtlety. There’s never a throwaway note with those three guys. Davis is at 100 percent and plays with great beauty and depth on every track.

The recording deserves mention. Most people think of surround when they think of SACD and multichannel, but many analog masters were produced with only three tracks: left, right, and center. Someday My Prince Will Come is one of these, and the SACD format allows us to hear it exactly as it was mastered. The piano is in the left channel, drums in the right, and Miles and the bass in the middle. Though it’s still a bit exaggerated in the separation of channels, the impression of three-track mono is lessened by bleeding a tiny bit of the drums and piano into the left and right channels without bleeding any of Miles’s center-channel solos back. The overall results define the old “clean as a whistle” saying, and the disc’s sound clearly reveals every nuance from each player.

Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL 2-332
Format: LP

Musical Performance ****
Sound Quality ****1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

201010_sinatraSinatra at the Sands was the singer’s third recording with the Count Basie Orchestra, and as on the previous two, Quincy Jones arranged and conducted that great band. Mobile Fidelity’s reissue of the two-LP live set from 1966 captures the ambiance of the Copa Room at the Sands and the timbral qualities of the instruments. The drums on my Reprise pressing, probably from the early ‘70s, are more forward and snappy, but here they’re integrated into the sound of the band and back a bit further on the stage. The mastering, by Rob LoVerde, keeps Sinatra’s voice razor sharp and center stage, but removes the small bit of graininess that exists on the Reprise pressing. Freddie Green’s guitar is clearer on “I've Got a Crush on You,” the sections of the band are more distinct on “The Shadow of Your Smile,” and the audience applause and other reactions have a depth that puts you in the room with them. You can hear more clearly that the laughter at one point in “I’ve Got a Crush on You” was spliced in, but it was already audible in the original. I have an early-generation CD that actually sounds less compressed than the LP, but the prize for detail, sense of space, and dimensionality goes to this pressing. It’s essential for any Sinatra fan with a turntable. 

201009_mellencampRounder Records 116613284-2
Format: CD

Musical Performance ****1/2
Sound Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

 

John Mellencamp’s new disc takes such an honest stand against the mechanization and digitizing of modern music that it makes recent discs by most other pop musicians sound contrived. The funk and fire of American music history flows through it, but I’ve long felt that was true of Mellencamp’s records. No Better Than This sounds like an old Gibson acoustic or National steel guitar that has gotten richer and more complex with age.

If your father is an acclaimed and skilled musician like, say, Bob Dylan or even Steve Earle, it’s a given that your life will be a bit extraordinary, and you might discover some innate musical talents of your own. That’s true, at least, for Jakob Dylan and Justin Townes Earle.

Alternately, let’s imagine that you have a more average upbringing, but at a ripe young age you discover that you’re a whiz at the mandolin. You form a band with some other kids who can really play, and in short order you find yourselves with a platinum and gold album, a Grammy, and the respect of the most honored musicians in the biz. Might your Midas touch not extend to adulthood as you put the past on pause in pursuit of solo ventures? Well, this much is true for former Nickel Creek band member, Chris Thile, who has just released another knock-out album with his group, Punch Brothers.

Whether attributed to prodigy or progeny, fueled by inborn desire or eternal fire, these sons and "brothers" are each, in their own way, at the top of their game and releasing new material that’s making its own indelible mark.

201009_jakobdylanFirst off, let it be said that neither Dylan nor Earle were silver-spoon fed, and neither has received unearned praise for his efforts. The music clearly speaks for itself. Most will remember Jakob Dylan more for his fronting the ’90s rock band the Wallflowers than for his association with his father. In recent years, however, he’s carved an independent path, and in April he released his second solo album, Women and Country (256kbps MP3, Columbia/Amazon.com), which is stylistically and lyrically his best work to date. Produced by T Bone Burnett, the album features guitarist Marc Ribot, fiddler/mandolin player David Mansfield, and Neko Case and Kelly Hogan, who sing backup vocals on most tracks. For the album opener, "Nothing But the Whole Wide World," Dylan delivers his vocals without flair, near-spoken like a cowboy poet (even Case and Hogan, who can both wail, hold back and harmonize delicately), and despite the sparse vocals and accompaniment, the tune stands out as one of the best on the album. In fact, throughout the disc this minimalist style is righteously suited for the album’s recession/depression-era themes of hard work, hard times, and perseverance in spite of it all. Other standout tracks include "Lend a Hand" (very Tom Waits-ish) and the ghostly, echoing "We Don’t Live Here Anymore."

201009_justintownesYoung in years but aged in experience, Justin Townes Earle is quickly becoming an old pro, with his third album, Harlem River Blues (CD, BS 178) set to release September 14 on the Bloodshot Records label. The album is a much-anticipated follow-up to his critically acclaimed 2009 release, Midnight at the Movies. Earle’s nuanced lyrics can be delivered with a drifter’s southern drawl or flecked with breathless emotion; his gift for songwriting is clearly a skill inherited from his father, though it more closely emulates the likes of Hank Williams or his namesake, Townes Van Zandt. The hand-clapping, foot-tapping title track and opener kicks things off with a gospel choir chorus (which makes quite an entrance), and though the feeling rings of rebirth, the fine print reads of resignation. This is the Harlem River Blues, not baptism, after all. "Workin’ for the MTA" reworks the classic train song for modern times ("Daddy was a railroad man, but this ain’t my daddy’s train -- it’s cold in them tunnels today, mamma, workin’ for the MTA"). Co-produced by Earle and Skylar Wilson, the album features a supporting cast that includes Brian Owings on drums, Paul Niehaus (Calexico) on pedal steel guitar, Bryn Davies on upright bass, and Ketch Secor (Old Crow Medicine Show) on harmonica. This one’s got the current top spot on my Best of 2010 list.

201009_punchbrothersFinally, Punch Brothers’ latest, Antifogmatic (256kbps MP3, Nonesuch/Amazon.com), is a conundrum of genre gene-splicing. These guys aren’t gonna be pinned down any more than you can catch lightening in a bottle. Their quirky, catchy music will have you scratching your head at first, but you’ll soon be nodding along in absolute awe. Chris Thile, on mandolin and vocals, is joined by Gabe Witcher on fiddle, Chris Eldridge on guitar, Noam Pikelny on banjo, and Paul Kowert on upright bass. Based on instrumentation alone, you’d expect bluegrass, but what you hear is that and much more: theatrical, classical, orchestral, barbershop, roots, and detours everywhere from there. Imagination is an instrument in and of itself for this band, whose epic lyrics and weaving, wandering suites take the willing listener to fantasy realms beyond any place you can get to with your feet firmly planted on the ground. So start dancing! Begin with "Rye Whiskey," "Missy," and "This Is the Song (Good Luck)" to get a feel for the kind of tricks Punch Brothers bring to the their performance ring. Don’t try too hard to figure out their secret or catch their sleight of hand. Just enjoy the Antifog-magic. By the way, the "Deluxe" MP3 download of this album contains an additional five-song instrumental EP called All of This Is True.

I’m a lover of these sons and brothers!

201008_otistaylorTelarc International TEL-31849
Format: CD

Musical Performance ****
Sound Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

 

Otis Taylor’s blues incorporates many influences from different styles of music. He’s a formidable player of the guitar, mandolin, banjo, and harmonica, and his mission to introduce people to the African-American heritage of the banjo led him to record Recapturing the Banjo with Alvin Youngblood Hart, Corey Harris, Don Vappie, and Guy Davis. Clovis People, Vol 3 is his 11th release, and it’s an example of how a singer can remain true to the roots of the blues while revitalizing his music with a unique personal vision.

Stax Records STX-325025-02
Format: CD

Musical Performance ***
Sound Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ***

201008_midnightflyerBetween them, Steve Cropper and Felix Cavaliere have many years’ experience playing soul music, but Nudge It Up a Notch, their 2008 contribution to the resurrected Stax Records, was their first collaboration. Though the songs were strong, they were marred by too much compression in the mastering. Tom Hambridge helped produce Midnight Flyer, and the sound is a vast improvement, if perhaps a touch bland.

The songs aren’t quite as consistent as those on the duo’s debut, but there’s still plenty to like. Cavaliere is in great voice, and his performances on "I Can’t Stand It" (a duet with his daughter Aria) and "I Can’t Stand the Rain" are seminars in how to sing a soul tune. Steve Cropper’s solos are models of elegant understatement and feeling, and his rhythm guitar playing is the pulse that keeps things moving. The old-style backing vocals help ground the music in tradition, but on many tunes I found myself wishing Cavaliere had used traditional keyboards. "Early Morning Riser" and "I Can’t Stand It" derive a lot of their energy from his Hammond organ playing. The songs on Midnight Flyer take a few listens to grab you, but they’re well constructed by two old-time craftsmen, with assistance from Hambridge. How about a horn section next time?