Six years ago, a friend of mine was working as the advertising director at Jazz Times magazine. He put me in contact with the editorial staff at the SoundStage! Network and encouraged me to consider writing music reviews for them. His prompting led me to where I am now, writing about music I love and finding endless satisfaction in exploring. We’ve stayed in touch over the years, and although he’s no longer working for a solely jazz-centric publication, he’s still an excellent musician and a die-hard music aficionado, so I turned to him this month for his thoughts on the best work to be released in the past year in the jazz genre. Ever knowledgeable and convivial, he easily plied me with a stack of recordings from composers that met my requirements and exceeded my expectations. Consider this my short list, if you will, of highlights of the year’s best jazz recordings.
Seventy-two-year-old legendary saxophonist Charles Lloyd returned this year with the soulful, heady Mirror (CD, EMC 2176), his second release with his current quartet, consisting of Jason Moran (piano), Reuben Rogers (double bass), and Eric Harland (drums). This album floats along like a lucid dream, with Lloyd’s plaintive horn crying out with love, sorrow, faith, and finesse. Lloyd has been around long enough to experience much of the lifespan of jazz first-hand, having been an integral part of the early scene for decades, playing with the likes of Cannonball Adderley and leading his own star-studded groups of stellar acclaim and then quietly shifting gears in the ’60s to record with pop phenomenons like the Doors and the Beach Boys. He regrouped in the ’90s for a few short-lived sessions before taking another respite, and he’s now reclaimed his role as an innovator and messenger for the next era. Mirror is a confident recording that speaks of experience and contentment, but also a driving desire to continue exploring the boundaries of this uniquely American art form, as though Lloyd is rediscovering a long-lost first love. Comprising new takes on old gospel favorites, love songs, fresh originals, and covers of Thelonious Monk ("Monk’s Mood," "Ruby My Dear") and the Beach Boys ("Caroline, No"), Mirror makes for quite the reflective retrospective.
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.
As 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.
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.
First 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."
Young 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.
Finally, 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!
Each of the discs highlighted in this month's "Select Sounds" weaves melodious chords of intrigue, mystery, and magic. Spanning the globe from African deserts to smoky cabarets and including French Acadian and gypsy caravan cultures, these albums are united by a nomadic spirit and rhythms that find roots in the universal language of music.
Documentary filmmaker and producer Kathi von Koerber's Footsteps in Africa project began as a feature-length film exploring the life, worldview and creativity of the nomadic Tuareg people of the Sahara desert. The film is set to debut at select festivals around the world later this year, but its trance- and dance-inducing soundtrack was released on June 1. Originating from ancient migratory tribes crossing desert lands from India to Africa and the Middle East, the Tuareg use music as a unifying force, often singing, dancing, and playing music for hours on end during communal gatherings. Taking authentic field recordings from several ceremonial and festival gatherings, Joshua Jacobs collaborated with DJs worldwide to turn these excerpts of Tuareg life into full-on dance floor-ready remixes. Persian-American composer, Jamshied Sharifi adds instrumental overdubs to eight of the disc's 14 tracks, offering an array of soundscapes for expansion by DJs like Nicodemus, DimmSummer, and Cheb i Sabbah. On "Open," the Bombay Dub Orchestra drops a percussive onslaught of djembe and hand drums over Morocco's Hassan Hakmoun's deep singing drone to create a heady, sonic vibe. Listening transports you to sand-strewn landscapes where hot desert winds whip ancient melodies into reborn remixes that sound at once old and new. Footsteps in Africa Soundtrack: Nomadic Remix (Kiahkeya 001) also serves a good cause, as 15 percent of profits go to the Nomadic Villagers Clean Water Awareness Fund, a collaborative charity established by the film's producers, the Indigenous Cultural Educational Center, and Tuareg leaders to improve wells and access to clean water for the people and musicians featured in the film and soundtrack.
The sub-Saharan spell is broken when Fuefollet's new disc begins. A raucous Cajun spirit is ushered in and, like stepping from a time machine, I imagine I've arrived in a rowdy jukejoint in the Bayou lands of Lafayette, Louisiana. En Couleurs (MUD 6503) is the new release from the youthful, highly skilled musicians in Feufollet, and it continues their tradition of respecting their Acadian forebearers while paving uncharted territory in the zydeco/Cajun genres. "Cajun pop" is how fiddler and accordion player Chris Stafford characterizes the sound, and while the album includes some traditional numbers, the originals take a divergent path that tingles with an exploratory freedom and freshness. Unusual instruments such as a digital autoharp, glockenspiels, and toy pianos mingle with the standard accordion, mandolin, fiddle, and guitar to create a unique sound that's clearly Cajun, but also vaguely indie pop. Opener "Au Fond Du Lac," written and beautifully sung by Anna Laura Edmiston, waltzes out of the gate with a pretty, lanky shuffle, telling a creole tale of love gone wrong. Short instrumental interludes, ranging from 29 seconds to just under two minutes, pepper the disc, segueing into longer lyrical ballads. There's an easy lilt to the songs and though much of the material deals with tales of woe, the foreign tongue and melodious accompaniment mask any tragic feel. En Couleurs arrives just a year after the band's last release, Cow Island Hop, and it brings a wealth of good new material. This prolific band continues to deliver their authentic and evolving sound to the masses; my only complaint with this one is that at 42 minutes, it's over too soon.
Finally, Fishtank Ensemble ups the ante with Woman in Sin (FE 1003), one of the most eclectic and pleasant new surprises I've uncovered in some time. The four-piece band comprises a melting pot of creative talent with two Americans (vocalist Ursula Knudson and flamenco guitarist Doug Smolens), a Parisian violinist (Fabrice Martinez), and a Serbian-born upright bassist (Djordje Stijepovic). Knudson's coy vocals are one part Betty Boop, one part torch singer, and one part classically trained operatic, climbing octaves effortlessly. The music is inspired by Roma roots and includes Kurdish, Dutch, Transylvanian, and Serbian traditional songs, as well as originals rooted in those and similar cultures. First-rate musicianship harnesses the energetic thrust of the tunes, which the group renders rich with a Hot Club and theatrical flair. After just one listen, you'll find it hard to resist the urge to clap and shout "Opa! Opa!" in chorus. "Djordje's Rachenitza" showcases the awesome slap-bass talent of Stijepovic, and the seductive cover of Edie Cooley and Otis Blackwell's "Fever" is a sexy showstopper that lets Knudson's incredible vocals sizzle. The band apparently lives in Hollywood, CA, and travels to local gigs by means of a kitschy (but functional) mule-drawn gypsy wagon. After hearing their music, that isn't hard to believe. I'm continually inspired by people who can have this much fun making a living.
These disparate albums are unified by the quality and creativity of the music they contain. Hollywood gypsies, desert nomads, and young Cajun blood have all celebrated their unique cultural roots and generously inducted the rest of us into their folds. Opa!
Several new releases piqued my interest this month, so I decided to seek out a few that I knew would be good. Before I discuss the music, however, my experience buying it is worth mentioning. Traditional methods of purchasing music are dying quickly. Have you noticed how drastically stores like Borders have whittled their music sections? What used to take up half of the store is now relegated to a tiny corner that offers only a handful of popular titles. Both independent and corporate-owned record stores are closing in droves, and buying music at a physical store is becoming a thing of the past. I’ve certainly been aware of the dire straits the music industry has been in for some time, but I’m still surprised by the state of retail stores.
But the good news is that prices are low. I purchased four new albums (well, technically five, as you’ll see in the first review below) for under $50. Ten years ago, CDs were nearly $20 each. And while I think the transformation of the purchasing experience puts more power in the hands of the artists and more money in the pocket of the consumer, I also miss the satisfaction of buying a physical product instead of a digital download. I like to hold the case in my hand, turn the pages of the liner notes, appreciate the weight of the package, and smile to myself in the mirrored disc, wondering how long it will be before all those elements are as outdated as 8-track tapes and gramophones.