The Complete Capitol/Black & White Recordings (Capitol)
The Complete Imperial Recordings (Capitol)
MUDDY WATERS & MEMPHIS SLIM
Chicago Blues Masters, Vol. 1 (Capitol)
Texas guitarist Aaron "T-Bone" Walker, New Orleans blues belter Roy Brown, Chicago blues singer Muddy Waters, and expatriate pianist Memphis Slim all had style to burn. Consequently, they went on to be recognized as trendsetting modern, urban blues giants who would profoundly effect American popular music. They are all represented on the first set of releases from the 20-title Capitol Blues Collection series.
Any and all superlatives you can say about Dallasite T-Bone Walker have already been said a hundred times over. The Capitol/Black & White Recordings clearly demonstrate the nimble, urbane, electric, jazz-inflected runs that would influence virtually every guitar player who followed Walker, and would forever change the guitar's role into a lead instrument. His smooth, crooning vocals were a big part of his popularity as well. This is the first body of important sides Walker would cut over his long career. Extending over the entire decade of the Forties, this is music that defined the transition from big-band, Southwest-swing blues to modern, West Coast jump blues. From there, it was a short and inevitable step to rock & roll. This 3-CD, 75-tune set, which includes the original (and an alternate) version of "Call It Stormy Monday, But Tuesday Is Just as Bad," is, not surprisingly, a bit jazzier than the sides he would cut for Imperial Records in the mid-Fifties. Either set is required blues listening, and taken together they constitute an indispensable part of any blues collection.
The tremendously popular Roy Brown was the Crescent City's first post-War recording star, and he was probably the first to bring the passionate fervor of gospel music into the secular arena. His immediately recognizable falsetto cast the dye for generations of vocalists, including "the world's greatest blues singer," B.B. King. The 20 sides contained in The Complete Imperial Recordings unfortunately represent Brown's last hurrah after a far more prolific career a decade earlier. Whereas his late Forties jump blues sides for Deluxe and King Records (which included the all-time rave-up, "Good Rockin' Tonight"), were uniformly excellent, these mid/late-Fifties, rock & roll sides are a tad inconsistent. Brown's voice is still amazing, but the material is weak. Still, it's always a thrill to hear Cosimo's studio clique, with saxmen Lee Allen and Herb Hardesty, laying down that Crescent City groove. While certainly not the best of Roy Brown, these hard-to-find sessions contain enough good material to warrant a listen, especially for fans of Brown and/or the N.O. sound.
The Muddy Waters/Memphis Slim set is a real disappointment. Originally released on United Artists for the folkie crowd, this is partly a live recording from Carnegie Hall in 1959, but mostly a 1961 studio date. Waters sings on only a few tracks and these lackluster performances with his band, including James Cotton and Otis Spann, show that the cultured shrine of Carnegie Hall is a long, long way from rowdy exuberance of Chicago's southside dives. Memphis Slim was among the most recorded of post-War bluesmen. Unfortunately, these sides, which include Waters on guitar, are rather mediocre compared to the rest of his oeuvre. There is so much outstanding music available by both Muddy Waters (on Chess) and Memphis Slim (on Chess, United, VeeJay, etc.) that this single-CD reissue can only be recommended to hard-core collectors of either artist.
(T-Bone Walker) 5.0 stars
(Roy Brown) 3.5 stars
(Muddy & Memphis) 2.0 stars - Jay Trachtenberg
HILLBILLY FEVER! VOLS 1-5
Another impeccably tasteful (well, 90 percent of it) collection from Rhino, broken up into five separately-sold discs: Western swing, honky tonk, Nashville, West Coast, and country rock. All but the last are solid volumes, with Rich Kienzle writing very informative liner notes. Like the Western swing volume of Rhino's Texas Music series, this swing disc wisely doesn't dally too long on Bob Wills, since he's been done to death while other important figures have gone ignored. Here, we get some too-rare Milton Brown recordings, Cliff Bruner, Curly Williams (also too rare), Spade Cooley, and Hank Penny, among other figures still remembered by elderly Texas dance hall patrons but not, apparently, by many record executives. Noticeably absent (again like the Texas Music disc) is San Antonio's Adolph Hofner, who certainly deserves more than just a mention in the liner notes. The honky-tonk, Nashville, and West Coast discs are pretty much flawless, offering the best hits of the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties, ranging from still-celebrated figures like Ernest Tubb and George Jones to more faded memories like Pee Wee King and Hawkshaw Hawkins. And, while scarcity of women here merely reflects the market's bias, they didn't forget Patsy Cline, Kitty Wells, or Rose Maddox (Loretta Lynn would have been nice, though). The West Coast disc is especially appreciated since it reminds us that the scene developed long before Merle Haggard and Buck Owens arrived. The semi-dud here is the country rock disc. Gram Parsons properly gets his due, but much of the volume gets wasted on people merely dabbling in country, like Bob Dylan or Linda Ronstadt, or wussy folk-rock like Hearts & Flowers. Why not Jason & the Scorchers, or Joe Ely? Or even Waylon & Willie, certainly both more "country" and "rock" than Poco or Pure Prairie League?
(Vols 1-4) 5.0 stars
(Vol. 5) 2.0 stars - Lee Nichols
After years of telling my record-store customers "Sorry, Homegrown Tomatoes is out of print," and sending them away in near tears, I can only say "Thank God" for this reissue. Yes, one of the greater musical crimes of our time - allowing Clark's in-print catalogue to have holes in it - has been corrected with this two-disc set combining GUY CLARK (1978), The South Coast of Texas (1981), and Better Days (1983). For folks that never heard those discs (like me) it confirms that, no, Clark never topped his 1975 debut, Old No. 1 (don't worry Guy, neither has anyone else), but there's still loads of gems on here. We can once again get "Better Days," "Blowin' Like a Bandit" (with Johnny Gimble's fiddle), and a great cover of "One Paper Kid" that easily matches the Emmylou Harris/Willie Nelson version. There are flaws: One can't imagine why he did an overproduced reprise of "Rita Ballou," as it doesn't compare to his original version, and one can easily imagine why he recently redid "Randall Knife," as this original was much too hurried. Overall, however, a great justice has now been done for Texas songwriting fans.
3.0 stars - Lee Nichols
The Hole Truth...And Nothing Butt
The Butthole Surfers scare people. Part of that echelon of Texan culture that gave the world Henry Lee Lucas, Charles Whitman, and Beavis and Butt-head, the Buttholes (or "something-something Surfers," as Rush Limbaugh prefers to call them) have always made it very clear what they stand for: drugs, sex, beer, more drugs, feedback, more beer, even more drugs, and A-N-A-R-C-H-Y. It's amazing how influential they can make being totally fucked up. The Hole Truth...And Nothing Butt stands as a testament to what's made them matter so much over the years. It also shows how shrewd they are, releasing a live album of bootlegs on their drummer's label, which happens to be one of the better indies going right now. Naturally, The Hole Truth... will be a big hit for those who like slurred speech and pounding rhythm sections (your basic Butthole fan), but by capturing the band's career from the P.O.V of its faithful, it shows off something else about them: These guys do exactly what they want to do. If you like it, fine; if you don't, well, fuck you too, pal. That's a lesson in integrity Rush Limbaugh would do well to learn.
3.0 stars - Chris Gray
MOVIN' ON UP VOLS. 1 AND 2
(The Right Stuff/Capitol)
A potent reminder that music was (and can be) a defining force in political change, the Movin' On Up series highlights songs that were unofficial anthems of the civil rights movement. More than just "message" songs (powerful as messages like James Brown's "Say It Loud [I'm Black and I'm Proud]" and Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues" may be), Movin' On Up pays homage to the era's leaders and fighters with tracks from Nina Simone to Sly & the Family Stone. These two volumes work as a sort of flipside to the almost exclusively white folkie "protest" singers of the Sixties, and include Labelle's "Something in the Air/The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," the Isley Brothers' "Fight the Power," and War's "The World Is a Ghetto." There are enough pop hits like Aretha Franklin's "Think" and Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City" to keep it from being too heavy-handed and preachy, but there's also Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddamn" to make you remember that fight isn't over, either.
3.0 stars - Margaret Moser
HI TIMES: THE HI RECORDS R&B YEARS
(The Right Stuff/Capitol)
Many reviews of this choice collection begin something like this: "This is the other Memphis Sound," immediately referring to the Stax/Volt sound that dominated Memphis blues during the Sixties and Seventies. Those reviews are often the ones to argue Hi Record's trademark sound as the try-harder, punchy horns, and solid drumming with its high-hat slap, but I'll make a case for Charles Hodges' keyboards that made the music so identifiable. His sound was pervasive - laid over the music like thick, creamy chocolate, and gave the music the dark, rich sound of its halcyon years in the mid-Seventies. Hi was founded in the Fifties as an instrumental and rockabilly label to compete with Sun Records - early stars included on disc here are Ace Cannon, Jumpin' Gene Simmons, and the Bill Black Combo - but by the Sixties, producer/bandleader Willie Mitchell was quietly making soul stars of Al Green, Ann Peebles, Otis Clay, Houstonian O.V.Wright, and Syl Johnson, who - despite Green's sterling hit - recorded what many consider to be the definitive version of "Take Me to the River," as well as lesser lights like Bowlegs Miller and Lucky Carter. (There's a story that when told of Talking Heads' near-hit with "River," Green responded that he would listen to their music to find something to cover. If it seems unlikely for Green to do "Psycho Killer," the odd soul versions of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "The Letter" included are interesting.) Mitchell performed with his own musical outfit (heard doing instrumentals here), but his stroke of genius was assembling the crack Hi rhythm section of bassist Leroy Hodges, guitarist Teenie Hodges, organist Charles Hodges, and drummer Howard Grimes, who backed up most of Hi's Seventies recordings. It's a full-out compliment for me to say this is party music at its very best, nearly three and a half hours of seldom-heard grooves and riffs that seem familiar, if only because the Hi rhythm section defined its sound behind Green's and Peebles' commercial successes. Criminally underrated and often overlooked, the music on Hi Times shaped the sound of popular American music as surely as Motown or Chess. From its rootsy instrumentals to the apex of silky Seventies rhythm & blues, Hi Times is soulful, sensual, and sexy.
3.0 stars - Margaret Moser
LIVE AT RAUL'S
"So what's the big deal? The original album sucked!" Such comments have been coming from a number of people, notably those who still have the original, long-unavailable vinyl edition of Live at Raul's from 1979. Well, the big deal is that this version hasn't been worn completely out, like those belonging, ironically, to many of those who disparage it. It's been remastered and restored, and as a document of a time of great musical energy in Austin, it doesn't sound too bad. The newly added Roky Erickson tracks that had been left off the original release are head and shoulders above other live Roky tracks of the time, and if there's a particular problem with the album, it's that given the dearth of recordings of local bands' tunes from this period, a good number of those included here (like the Skunks' "Cheap Girl" and Terminal Mind's "Radioactive") were also recorded in sonically superior studio situations. Of course, those versions are even more difficult to get ahold of than the original pressings of this album, so you'll have to take that into consideration for the time being. More for history than brilliance, I give this...
3.0 stars - Ken Lieck
Live at the Palladium 1979 (Existential Vacuum)
Has a day really passed since this album was recorded? Surely these were pressed as the Seventies skidded to a greasy halt, then lay hidden and forgotten in the basement of a decrepit Fourth Street warehouse until now. A vinyl album, made to play at 45rpm, featuring a raw and well mixed but now technologically outdated live set of 10 songs from a truly American (you can tell by the cheesy keyboards that somehow don't detract from the frenzy) punk band at their wasted best. Includes their "hits" "Glad He's Dead" and "Busy Kids" (best remembered as they were the only songs officially released while the band actually existed), and eight others that spin by at breakneck speed like the remnants of a lost era that they are. Everything that you have any right to expect from this album is present, including a nasty attitude intact after 16 years stuffed under the rug.
3.5 stars - Ken Lieck
THE PRESTIGE/FOLKLORE YEARS VOL 1-4
Originally known as a jazz label, Prestige began recording artists such as Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Rev. Gary Davis, the Charles River Valley Boys, Eric Von Schmidt, and Tom Rush in the early Sixties, making it one of America's premier regional folk labels. Most of the artists have their roots in New England, but their music stretches much wider, incorporating the early blues of Leadbelly, the traditional bluegrass of the Appalachians, Woody Guthrie's Steinbeckian populism, and much of the artists' own material. A 4-CD set, The Prestige/Folklore Years is a snapshot of folk music before Dylan, Baez, and Vietnam made it big. Each disc of the collection can stand on its own, or collectively. Volume One is an overview of Prestige's catalog; Volume Two focuses on the label's blues repertoire, including two performances from a young Tracy Nelson; Volume Three delves deep into where the music came from, with stops in bluegrass, gospel, and ragtime country (and a brief one in Crowley, Lousiana, for some Cajun color); and Volume Four takes many artists from the first three discs, tosses in the grand high sultan of folk music Pete Seeger, and puts them onstage at the Philadelphia Folk Festival in July 1962. What we call folk music today is almost directly derivative from much of the music on these discs, and it's easy to tell these discs' historic and cultural value outweighs and will outlive their entertainment value. But sometimes it's not enough just to be entertained. The music on these four discs has so much to say about American music that, while the artists themselves may get hung up in folk-music stereotypes once in a while, it never stops being educational, and it never stops being American.
3.5 stars - Chris Gray
The Lonesome Fugitive: The Merle Haggard Anthology (1963-1977) (Razor & Tie)/Same Train, A Different Time: Merle Haggard Sings The Great Songs of Jimmy Rodgers (Koch International)/ A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (or, My Salute to Bob Wills) (Koch International)
Observe popular music/culture and the music business long enough, and it becomes shockingly clear how much contempt in which the latter holds the former. Legendary, visionary performers suffer ridiculous amounts of neglect if their cash-cow status either erodes or is non-existent, and their back catalogs can fall into shocking disrepair even as they generate both oral and printed praise. It's not hard to imagine record company executives using Elvis Presley's master tapes for drink coasters, T. Rex's to prop up busted table legs, and the Yardbirds' to light cigars. And doing so gleefully.
Even next to the above-named and notable examples, the shambles into which Merle Haggard's back catalog has fallen looks criminal. His Sixties work has especially suffered, and considering it was that period on which Hag's name was built, you've gotta wonder which orifice his then-label's head is tucked into. Yup, until a few months back, if you wanted to hear legend-building tracks like "Sing Me Back Home" or "The Lonesome Fugitive," you had to scour used shops and the like for the original LPs and singles, paying anywhere from $14-$25 a pop. Otherwise, you just couldn't get it. These three CDs just begin the healing process, and barely so.
The Lonesome Fugitive's two CDs are the best introduction anyone could have to Haggard's greatness, collecting 40 tracks from the vaults of Capitol Records, half of which are the very name-making songs that comprise the heart of his most creative period: '65 to '72, roughly, when he and fellow Bakersfieldian Buck Owens were asserting their hometown's claim as a country music watershed. And what built the Bakersfield name was staunchly traditional, hard-core honky tonk music played with all the aggression and authority rock & roll-age musicians could muster. Haggard started from a distinctly Lefty Frizzellian base, and for one who boasted loudly of no interest in rock & roll (and of ignorance of the impact he was having on rock luminaries from the Byrds to Keith Richards to Gram Parsons), many of his greatest sides boasted flavors eerily similar to ones running through folk rock (check the arpeggios and tone of both "The Lonesome Fugitive" and "Sing Me Back Home"). Like much honky tonk, Haggard's music told of common, proletarian heartbreak, frustration, misery, and regret, as well as occasional joys, salvation, and alcoholic dissipation. No one ever handled it more articulately, with such craft and eloquence. Not everyone is capable of lines as ineffably cool as "I raised a lotta Cain back in my younger days/While Momma always prayed my crops would fail." Then to find every bit of nuance, shade, and emotion - of sheer ache - within is pure artistry. Haggard's probably one of the scarce instances in popular music of something which rings true getting its just rewards.
More than any other country artist before or since, Haggard was obsessed with the music's roots and their preservation. After asserting his prominence, this concern grew stronger, leading him to a period of scholarship as well as to recording a pair of homages to country pioneers Jimmy Rodgers and Bob Wills that would have been commercial suicide for any other artist, and would have been actively discouraged. Interestingly enough, the Rodgers tribute probably comes closest to resembling a standard Haggard release. Merle hardly plays fast and loose, remaining faithful to the originals and their spirit, but he and his crack backing unit, the Strangers, can't help but play 'em like Bakersfield honky tonkers with a slightly more archaic, turn-of-the-century feel. Best Damn Fiddle Player differs. Hag learned to play fiddle for the record, and set about cutting strict, detailed remakes of the 12 Bob Wills classics herein, even going so far as augmenting the Strangers with a number of ex-Texas Playboys to ensure it. The results are as close to a higher-fidelity, latter-day Bob Wills record as can be expected. To find a modern parallel, think of Keith Richards' work with Chuck Berry on the Hail, Hail Rock 'n' Roll film and soundtrack.
Yup, these three reissues definitely improve the status of Merle Haggard's back catalog. Still, this is only a Band-aid and a salve on a wound that needs surgery. An extensive boxset is necessary, and right now! Are you listening, Capitol?
(All Three) 5.0 stars- Tim Stegall
Black Snake Diamond Rock/Gravy Deco: The Complete Groovy Decay-Decoy Sessions/I Often Dream Of Trains/Eye/Invisible Hitchcock/You & Oblivion/Fegmania!/Gotta Let This Hen Out!/Element Of Light (Rhino)
Any longtime Hitchcock watcher probably knew it was a matter of time before Robyn and A&M Records parted. Simply put, Hitch's ways and the label's do not jibe. Where A&M's in the business of making music to feed an audience which will in turn feed them, Hitchcock makes music more to feed some sort of nagging, unnamed itch within. It was never his intention to have a career at this: That came by accident. Not that Hitchcock's music isn't commercial, either. The man does, after all, craft some of the most gorgeous melodies in the pop pantheon. The problem is (if, indeed, it is a "problem"), the same mind which was heavily impacted by the Byrds (a debt repaid on Fegmania! with a delirious, faithful "Bells Of Rhymney") was equally damaged by wayward Pink Floyd mastermind Syd Barrett. Which means Hitchcock wraps those melodies in a whimsically obtuse lyricism pitched somewhere 'twixt Barrett and James Thurber, which could lead even the most faithful Hitchcockophile to ask, "What the fuck is he singing about?!!"Then it all gets compounded by his insistence on recording in the primitive, musty environs of Alaska Studios, resulting in a sound too raw for radio-trained, CD-friendly ears (but which is hardly lo-fi, at the same time). 'Course, as stated earlier, are these really "problems"? Or do the problems lie with the public? Because these nine CDs, comprising Hitchcock's complete works between his leadership of UK neo-psych legends the Soft Boys and his A&M period, also comprise some of the most delightfully off-center pop music made. Perhaps, if mass ears weren't trained for a certain stifling normalcy, it wouldn't be just a rabid and thick cult and certain rock critics who realized this. Beautifully compiled, remastered, and annotated with Hitchcock's cooperation, and loaded down with tons of bonus goodies, these nine volumes sound more like solutions than problems: solutions to the undoing of a lifetime of dullness and no imagination. And as was asked in a more innocent time, are you gonna be part of the problem, or part of the solution?
(Average of all) 3.5 stars - Tim Stegall
BEST OF NASHBORO GOSPEL
It's Jesus Y'all: The Soulful Sound of Nashboro/The Best of the Angelic Gospel Singers/The Best of Sister Lucille Pope & the Pearly Gates/Keep Faith; The Reverend Doctor Morgan Babb Collection/Wrapped Up, Tied Up, Tangled Up: The Rev. Cleophus Robinson Collection (Nashboro)
My family was arriving home from church one Sunday in uptown New Orleans, the sounds of a black gospel choir from the church two blocks over in the background. I was about 10 and despised our suburban church with its stuffy hymns. Maybe, I told Daddy petulantly, if our church sang songs like the other church I'd like it better. I got a smack in the face and sent to my room for being impertinent; however, my room faced the street and I could open the balcony doors to let the wind carry the rich gospel tones into my room. Thirty years later, I still don't make church often, but still make room for gospel and don't think it gets much better than the Staple Singers doing "Wade in the Water." Right now, though, I'm sitting with a lap full of gospel reissues from Nashboro Records, any one of which reaffirms the spirituality of this remarkable American musical form. Like their sister label Excello did for blues, the Nashville-based Nashboro label recorded and documented nearly 1,000 albums and singles of gospel groups, choirs, and singers from the mid-Fifties on, and this series of reissues (there are nearly two dozen titles in the series) bears out its potent effect. One of the most remarkable aspects of this effort is the sheer volume of original compositions by both male and female performers; indeed, the women seem to be among the most prolific songwriters - Margaret Allison wrote for the Angelic Gospel Singers, while Lucille Pope also wrote her own material. As expected, Best of Nashboro and It's Jesus Y'all are good compilations, perfect starter sets for the neophyte gospel fans but Keep Faith: The Reverend Dr. Morgan Babb Collection and The Best of Lucille Pope & the Pearly Gates are gospel the way you want it: pure, soulful, and sensual. It's also clear that these groups were rather formulaic in their recordings, a strum of the chord opening to a lone vocal call with group response followed by musical accompaniment. Many of these collections get a little churchly, unsurprisingly, such as The Best of the Angelic Gospel Singers, but some of the pleasures of listening to this deeply moving music is the obvious influence it's had on contemporary black music and that Barry White has nothin' on the righteous Rev. Cleophus Robinson. Amen and turn up the volume.
(All) 3.0 stars - Margaret Moser
The Classic & Unreleased Collection (Rhino)
Many would say that Hank Williams is the single greatest figure in country music. Others would have Patsy Cline ascending the throne. Still others, Bob Wills. Fact is, Willie Nelson gets that honor. He's delivered on the promise of his potential - for damn near 40 years now, ever since cutting his first single in a Portland, Oregon, garage in 1957. Yet, from the time of that first single (included here), until Nelson's commercial breakthrough on Shotgun Willie some 16 years later, few outside of Texas or Nashville's songwriting community were really paying attention to the increasingly hippyish Texan with the warbled croon. That, however, doesn't mean he wasn't in the studio. So, like discovering vintage, unreleased Dylan on something like the Bootleg Series box set, this 3-CD box set uncovers lots and lots of "promise" that's just been sitting around collecting dust. Divided into seven distinct sections, The Classic & Unreleased Collection - previously available only through QVC - hits, besides the first single: 12 demos Nelson recorded in Nashville in 1961; Atlantic outtakes from Shotgun Willie; a live set from Austin's Opry House during that same period; classic covers recorded "circa mid-80's;" a brief acoustic set, again from the mid-80's; and a 10-song set of Hank Williams' songs. The descriptions pretty much tell the story. The demos, though clearly just that, demos, are what you'd expect: the real thing. The Atlantic outtakes and the live show, both supervised by Jerry Wexler, are what you hope for from peak-period, cutting room floor stuff. The mid-Eighties material is regular old Willie - mostly unremarkable - and the Hank Williams material is reason alone to buy this set. Nelson doesn't re-invent classic Williams' tunes like "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It" or "Move it on Over." He doesn't have to. All he has to do is sing the songs and be backed by folks like Jimmy Day and Johnny Gimble. The rest just falls into place. That's what makes him the best.
3.5 stars - Raoul Hernandez
Collectors repent. First, all your Mould gold was cheapened by Virgin's The Posion Years, which collected many post-Hüsker Dü/pre-Sugar B-sides from the Minneapolis (now Austin) feedback king. Now, Rkyodisc's Besides amasses a good portion of the Sugar extract that's been showing up on CD singles and promotional releases over the course of the group's three releases. And like the Smashing Pumpkins' Pisces Iscariot,this collection of leftovers, remixes, and live cuts is every bit as vital as an actual release. There's a ripping live take on Beaster's "JC Auto," a zig-zagging instrumental called "Clownmaster," and a Copper Blue-era live cover of the Who's "Armenia City in the Sky." Somehow, though, the strum und drang all falls together. But wait, collectors, there is redemption here. A second disc - limited to the first 25,000 copies sold (hurry, there's lots o' Hüsku Düdes left) - is 68 minutes of the band's FUEL tour in Minneapolis. Lots of feedback and distortion here that butts up against hooky sing-a-longs like Dave Barbe's "Where Diamonds Are Halos" or Mould's "If I Can't Change Your Mind" with cheerful abrasion. This live show proves beyond any doubt that although Mould's melodies have gotten sweeter, he hasn't become a shrinking violet on guitar (lots of stellar ax-work here), and that Sugar holds its own against a certain legendary punk band of yore.
3.5 stars - Raoul Hernandez
The Far East Suite - Special Mix (Bluebird)
The 1952 Seattle Concert (Bluebird)
Passion Flower (1940-46) (Bluebird)
Duke Ellington is the greatest composer of popular music this century. A list of standards a mile long - all with Ellington's name on them - backs this up: "Sophisticated Lady," "Caravan," "Sentimental Mood," "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," "Mood Indigo, " and so on. But writing was only half his genius. Part of what made Ellington such an extraordinary musical force was his ability to match those songs to the right voice, whether that voice belonged to John Coltrane, Mahalia Jackson, Coleman Hawkins, or any number of the journeymen musicians of his orchestra - like Johnny Hodges. Hodges joined Ellington orchestra in 1928, and except for a four-year absence in the early Fifties, stayed with the great composer until his death in 1970 ("my band will never sound the same," lamented Ellington upon receiving news of Hodges death). In that time, Hodges may not have given the alto sax the shine that Charlie Parker would bring, but he did set a standard for buttery ballads that no one, no one (including Parker, but maybe not Lester Young) will ever match. For proof, one need go no farther into the 70 minutes of magic that make-up Passion Flower (1940-46), than the first cut, the elegant and exotic "Day Dream." Written for Hodges by Ellington's Siamese twin Billy Strayhorn, "Day Dream" drips with the honey of the saxman's sound, and sets the tone for a record filled with similar Hodges' song vehicles, all played by down-sized versions of an orchestra featuring such names as Jimmie Blanton, Rex Stewart, Juan Tizol, and Barney Bigard. By contrast, The 1952 Seattle Concert finds Ellington in the midst of what Tina Marsh once called "the downside of musician commitment," when he'd lost Hodges, Lawrence Brown, and Sonny Greer. Liner notes would have us believe in the bands' rebirth, but you can hear it's not. Still, Ellington uses the voices he did have to good effect, introducing a new soloist before every number, and like some lost radio show bleeding in from another era, this typical Ellington date nevertheless manages to shine - particularly during the magnificent 15-minute "Harlem Suite." Suites are most certainly the name of the game on the stunning Far East Suite - Special Mix, for which Ellington constructed something akin to Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" suite. Each piece is an outgrowth of the one before, creating the soundtrack to some lost James Bond movie that takes place in the mysterious orient. On this remix you can hear every bass thump, every horn, every sax clear as a bell, and though it was recorded late in the Ellington legacy (1966), the band is clearly at one of its many peaks - probably its last. Through the proceedings Ellington drives this locomotive orchestra with his typically understated, yet always-magically minimalist piano, nowhere more apparent than on the CD's crowning show-stopper "Ad Lib on Nippon," all 11 minutes of its swinging majesty. A must-have for all Ellington fans, new and old. Now if only I had room review Mosaic's 5-CD The Complete Capitol Duke Ellington set...
(The Far East Suite ) 5.0 stars
(Passion Flower) 4.0 stars
(1952 Seattle Concert) 3.0 stars - Raoul Hernandez
After 1993's 4-CD Message in a Box: The Complete Recordings, one would think the Police's vaults - minus a scrap or two - empty. Ho, ho, ho, silly child, of course not. There's always the live stuff. Here, there are two different and distinct live shots of the same band. The first show dates back to 1979, with a live radio broadcast in Boston finding the New Wave trio as sharp and raw as its first two albums. Sting's obnoxious bark tends to lessen the impact of some of his best songs, but the band is "on," and the show builds energy as it goes (71 minutes). Especially worthy is a long, raga version of "So Lonely," which footnotes the English punk scene's love of Jamaica. Ska grooves had given way to ballad dross by 1983, and the band's final tour proves this on disc two. Listening to Sting slur his way through "Wrapped Around Every Breath in the Sahara" (the back-up singers only make it worse) is like watching the home video on VH-1: What else is on? And while this set is by no means a complete waste of time, it does make a strong case for the Clash and the Buzzcocks being the only English "punkband" imports from this period that really matter. Lock the vault, we're done here.
2.0 stars - Raoul Hernandez
MODERN JAZZ QUARTET
Dedicated to Connie (Atlantic Jazz)
It's a shame that the Modern Jazz Quartet had to follow up last year's excellent 40th Anniversary Celebration with a record entitled Dedicated to Connie. Sadly, this two-disc set, which captures the MJQ live in Slovenia in 1960, serves as a coda to the musical legacy left behind by the group's drummer Connie Kay, who passed away last year after anchoring the rhythm section for approximately 40 years. Does that make this nearly two-hour show the definitive representation of the band? No less so than many other entries in the group's massive canon, really. Certainly all the elements that made the MJQ progenitors of chamber jazz are in place here: Pianist John Lewis inserts melodic harmony into the mystical, mid-summer-night spells of Milt Jackson's vibes, while Kay and bassist Percy Heath ripple softly in the background. From the opening, 23-minute "Little Comedy" suite, through the Ellington standard "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," and the group's own swan song "Django," the MJQ never breaks the calm spell it casts over this audience or the listener at home. This music is timeless, and through it Connie Kay will live forever.
4.0 stars - Raoul Hernandez