The Blind Boys of Alabama, “I’ll Find a Way” (CD review)

(originally published in Relix)

The Blind Boys of Alabama, “I’ll Find a Way” (Sony Masterworks)

After the Crescent City soul of Down in New Orleans and country gospel roots of Take the High Road, The Blind Boys of Alabama enlisted Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon to produce their latest album.

The durable group, led by Jimmy Carter, and including founding bass singer Clarence Fountain, still offer joyful expressions of Christian faith. That’s demonstrated by the rousing, churning opener “God Put a Rainbow in the Cloud,” which is spiked with bluesy guitar, trombone and piano declarations, the faith-forward “I Shall Not Be Moved,” and the molasses-slow “Take Me to the Water” and “My God Is Real.”

Fountain and Carter lead a moody, drums-tumbling take on Bob Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand,” while Merrill Garbus (tUneyArDs) joins the bouncy “I’ve Been Searching,” Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) gets emotive on “I’ll Find a Way (To Carry It All)” and Sam Amidon fronts the brass-spiked “I Am Not Waiting Anymore.” Sweet salvation music.

 

 

Aaron Neville, “My True Story” (CD review)


my true storyAaron Neville, “My True Story” (Blue Note)

Fans of the Neville Brothers, whose combination of sweet soul singing, deep R&B grooves, jazzy touches and Caribbean influences practically define the sound of New Orleans, doubtless have been feeling a bit blue lately.

Why? Angelic-voiced front man Aaron Neville has opted to officially exit the group and focus on his solo career. He, rather than the Neville Brothers, will play the closing set at this year’s Jazz and Heritage Festival, while siblings Art, Charles and Cyril, rechristened “The Nevilles,” will cap the first weekend and, one guesses, resume touring — no doubt they’ll be lighter on the sweet harmonies if heavier on the funk.

It would hardly be fair to blame Aaron for making his move. The time is right. After all, the family band, with “Papa Funk” Art Neville now 75 and in less than robust health, largely has been inactive in recent years. What’s more, at 72 and having survived the loss of his wife Joel to lung cancer and relocation from New Orleans to the Nashville area and then New York City in recent years, he’s more than earned the right to go his own way.

“I put the Neville Brothers on hold for a while so I could do my solo thing,” Neville told Relix magazine. “We’ve been together 35 years and I’m thinking, ‘I don’t know how long I’ve got to do what I want to do.’ I need to take that time now and dedicate it to me, and just try to do my stuff I’ve been wanting to do all my life.”

“My True Story” suggests that Neville’s instincts were, well, true. Initially conceived as a doo-wop project reflecting his formative experiences in the art of street-corner singing, the album expanded into something larger. It’s a broader tribute to the pre-rock era, with a dozen retro pop radio favorites originally recorded during a roughly 12-year period ending in 1964.

Don Was, once part of soul-fired pop act Was (Not Was) and now head of the revived Blue Note label, put together a dream team to back Neville. Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards leads a band that includes Benmont Tench, of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, on keyboards; guitarist Greg Leisz (Sheryl Crow, Beck); bassist Tony Scherr (Norah Jones, Steven Bernstein); New Orleans drummer George G. Receli (James Brown, Bob Dylan); and journeyman saxophonist Lenny Pickett (“Saturday Night Live” band, Tower of Power).

The band, with Was and Richards co-producing live-in-the-studio sessions at New York’s Electric Lady Studios, reportedly cut nearly two dozen tracks, all of which benefit from an appealing immediacy — the stuff sounds fresh.

For the first volume of what may become a series, Neville applies his rich, shivery, tenor vocals to material that still comes with a kick after all these years. He opens with the rollicking, starting-stopping “Money Honey,” a 1953 chart topper by Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters, this time featuring Richards’ slinky six-string stabs, and closes with a suitably light and altogether effervescent version of the much-recorded “Goodnight My Love” (Pleasant Dreams).”

In between are 10 other gems that ought to be familiar to anyone with even a passing familiarity with pop music history.

Neville’s voice slides into the falsetto stratosphere on the title track, a 1961 single by the Jive Five that soared up the R&B and pop charts.; the tune, like many on the disc, is bolstered by a blue-chip backup crew of old-school singers, including the Jive Five’s Eugene Pitt, Bobby Jay of the Teenagers, and Dickie Harmon of the Del-Vikings.

There are plenty of other finger-snapping delights here, including “Ruby Ruby,” with its infectious call and response, and Pickett’s crunching bari sax; “Ting A Ling,” all romantic frustration and pounding piano and sax; a pleasantly streamlined “Be My Baby”; heartbreak ode “Tears On My Pillow”; a laidback, gently grooving “Under the Boardwalk”; a chug-a-lugging “Work With Me Annie,” with “Papa Funk” Art Neville on B3; and a medley stitching “This Magic Moment” to “True Love.”

Yes, these tunes inherently come with a strong whiff of nostalgia. Give Neville and Co. credit for reinvigorating these classics in a manner that’s often irresistible. Great concept, beautifully executed. Now, about that sequel.

Derek Trucks at Tampa Theatre (concert review)

(Below is a review initially intended for publication elsewhere; photo is mine, taken at Bear Creek Music Festival)

Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi – Soul Stew Revival

derek1Dec. 29, 2008

Tampa Theatre

Listening to Derek Trucks unleash his bottleneck-slide lines on “700 Houses,” a slow, bluesy tune penned by guitarist-singer Susan Tedeschi, his wife and bandmate in Soul Stew Revival, it was difficult warding off chills.

Trucks’ playing, on the stage of an historic art-deco movie theater in front of a home-state crowd that has practically watched the former child prodigy grow up, again was sublime — simultaneously salty and sweet, stinging and gentle, an exquisitely conversant instrumental voice that has to be witnessed to be truly appreciated.

Trucks unleashed his fertile guitar improvisations throughout the long, satisfying set, presented by an oversized ensemble allying his band with Tedeschi, a three-piece horn section, younger brother Duane Trucks on second drum kit and sometime DTB member Count M’Butu on percussion.

The 11-piece group opened with “Talking About,” a blast of scorching blues-rock that leads off Tedeschi’s recent Back to the River CD. It offered a showcase of her newly mature, road-sharpened vocals and her own impressive six-string work.

So did the evening’s other tunes from that album — “People,” with organist Kofi Burbridge’s quick flute solo, and the R&B-grooving “Can’t Sleep at Night.”

The show, with Tedeschi mixing and matching with DTB singer Mike Mattison, also offered a preview of Trucks’ forthcoming sixth studio album, Already Free, including the rootsy acoustic-electric blues of the title track; the gospel-tinged “Days Is Almost Gone”; the slinky “Don’t Miss Me”; and “Down in the Flood.”

Trucks, who has day jobs with the Allman Brothers Band and his own group, frequently sits in on other artists’ performances — Lettuce, Soul Live, and Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk at the Bear Creek Music and Arts Festival late last year in north Florida — and recordings.

So it was pleasant, but no surprise, when pedal-steel wizard Roosevelt Collier of Miami’s Lee Boys joined in on Buddy Guy’s “Done Got Over You.”

Collier returned for the encore, a triumphant version of The Band’s “The Weight,” which made a perfect match with Soul Stew Revival’s appealing mix of blues, rock, and old-school R&B.

Soul Stew Revival set list

Talking About
700 Houses
Down In The Flood
People
Can’t Sleep At Night
Days Is Almost Gone
Get Out Of My Life
Already Free
Meet Me At The Bottom
Chicken Robber
Don’t Miss Me
Gonna Write Him A Letter
Hercules
Sugar
Pack Up Our Things And Go
Done Got Over You
I’ve Got A Feeling
Space Captain

Encore:

The Weight

Derek Trucks Band: Already Free (CD review)

Derek Trucks possesses one of the most expressive, intriguing and pliable instrumental voices of any genre.

He’s a young but already deeply accomplished musician with great, reliable instincts, and an impressive ability to adapt to nearly any musical context – blues, rock, R&B, jazz, gospel, funk, Middle Eastern forms.

Expectations are that his just-released Already Free will connect, in a major way, with old fans as well as those who have become acquainted with the former child prodigy through his recent playing with the likes of Eric Clapton, Santana, and McCoy Tyner.

derek-trucks-already-free3

Here’s my review, as published in Las Vegas City Life.

Below is the full text:

Derek Trucks Band

Already Free (Sony Legacy)

Derek Trucks’ playing on bottleneck-slide guitar is a thing of beauty — sometimes, sweet, sometimes salty, an instrumental voice that’s remarkably expressive. That sound, a welcome guest on recent tours and recordings by everyone from Eric Clapton to jazz pianist McCoy Tyner, is front and center on Already Free.

Allman Brothers guitarist Trucks, nephew of Allmans drummer Butch Trucks, grew up on that band’s brand of hard-grooving Southern rock ‘n’ soul, and for his most accomplished studio recording yet, he successfully carries on the tradition. The sound is decidedly retro and warmly familiar, although Indian instruments spice the textures on the acoustic “Back Where I Started,” with Trucks’ wife Susan Tedeschi singing, and Big Maybelle’s “I Know.”

Doyle Bramhall II guests on the Southern-fried R&B of “Maybe This Time.” Raspy voiced singer DTB Mike Mattison effectively leads the attack on most other tunes, including a version of Bob Dylan’s “Down in the Flood” that’s all slow-simmering dirty boogie. “These Days is Almost Gone,” with Kofi Burbridge’s churchy organ underscoring soulful backing vocals and rising horns, sounds like a Saturday night in the Southland bumping into Sunday morning. Feels just right.


Letter to Obama: Let Great Jazz Into Your Inauguration Festivities

jazz-for-obamaDear President-Elect Obama:

The word on the street is that you like jazz, you really like jazz.

You became hip to the music, African-Americans’ great gift to the world’s arts culture, back in junior high school, when you still wanted to be called “Barry.”

In fact, once when you visited a record store with a friend from your Honolulu prep school, you stayed close to the jazz bins. “Barry was into things that other kids our age weren’t into. He went through the entire jazz section while we were there,” said your old pal Dean Ando, according to one newspaper feature.”That affects me to this day — he’s the one who introduced me to jazz.”

Did you dig real jazz, with genuine musical content, by creative players with an understanding of the tradition but with eyes on the future? Or were you keen on some variety of jazz lite? Who knows? But I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt.

Your iPod playlist, which may or may not have been assembled by your staff to appeal to the Baby Boomers whose support you needed during the general election (hence Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, etc.), even includes tracks by jazz geniuses Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Charlie Parker.

Miles and Coltrane, too, lead the artists named under the category of “favorite music” on your Facebook page.

Yes, those are pretty obvious jazz picks, and they’re all dead. Still, listing those artists is far more impressive than, you know, listing Kenny G. or the Rippingtons or some other such wallpaper-jazz nonsense.

I’ve not heard whether you ever visited the Green Mill, Chicago’s jazz mecca, while you were based in the Windy City.

Still, there are other signs that you may well support jazz during your White House residency.

On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” you had this to say: “Thinking about the diversity of our culture and inviting jazz musicians, and classical musicians, and poetry readings in the White House so that once again we appreciate this incredible tapestry that’s America, you know, that, I think, is going to be incredibly important, particularly because we’re going through hard times.”

While, as far as I can tell, you’ve not recently given props to any important living jazz artists — not even trumpeter Wynton Marsalis or pianist Herbie Hancock? — many major figures in the jazz community have gone out of their way to support you.

Did you hear about the “Jazz for Obama” concert in New York on Oct. 1? Did you attend?

A long list of front-rank jazz artists, black and white, opted to wear their politics on their shirtsleeves for a night in the name of helping you win the election. The performers: Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves, Joe Lovano, Roy Haynes, Brad Mehldau, Roy Hargrove, Christian McBride, Stanley Jordan, Kurt Elling, Hank Jones, Charlie Hunter/Doug Wamble, Bilal/Robert Glasper, Stefon Harris, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Roberta Gambarini.

Thanks to a column by Ottawa Citizen music writer Peter Hum, I was reminded of the following examples of major jazz musicians’ overt support of you:

  • Hancock lent his name and musical cred to the “Yes We Can” video supporting your candidacy
  • Pianist Vijay Iyer and trumpeter Dave Douglas, at last year’s Chicago Jazz Festival, dedicated new works to you.
  • Trumpeter Ingrid Jensen and many other prominent jazzers have displayed your face and message on t-shirts they’ve worn on stage.
  • Hundreds, if not thousands, of jazz musicians, have used their Facebook and MySpace pages to demonstrate support for you.

Yes, all these jazzers were for you, and presumably still are. But are you really for jazz?

I’m asking, because of some rather disappointing news.

So far, the only notable musical artists reportedly invited to play your 10 official inaugural balls are, you know, big-name folks.

Stevie Wonder, Barbra Streisand and Bruce “Super Bowl Half-Time Show” Springsteen are said to have been asked to appear at official inauguration events on Jan. 20, and the Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus are expected to headline an official kids-oriented show on Jan. 19.

Some of these are inspired choices; others, not so much.

Yes, your associates have coordinated a Jan. 20 event called ” ‘A Time For Hope’ 2009 Presidential Inaugural Jazz Gala.”

But the musicians selected for the event, despite being described as “global jazz artists,” are not well-known players. What’s up with that?

Since you self-identify as African-American, and since jazz is rooted in black culture, may I suggest that you use your great power to include MAJOR jazz musicians — black, white and Hispanic — in your inauguration festivities?

After you move into the White House, you ought to regularly invite jazzers over to your place, too.

Any of the above-mentioned artists, including Marsalis and Hancock, and pianist Hank Jones (part of that “Jazz for Obama” concert), a brilliant elder statesman of jazz, would make great choices.

So would veteran saxophonist Sonny Rollins, arguably the greatest living jazz performer, and now enjoying critical plaudits for his recent concerts and latest CDs, including last year’s Road Shows, Vol. 1. Or how about other great, still-thriving saxophonists, like Wayne Shorter, James Moody, or Phil Woods, to name just a few other older players of that instrument?

Why not Terence Blanchard? In addition to his superb work as a trumpeter and bandleader, he is a gifted composer of film scores, and he serves as artistic director of the college program at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, now based in his hometown, New Orleans. Hancock is the institute’s chairman.

This is a very short list of jazz artists who would make great assets to your forthcoming festivities. Choosing any of these musicians to play your inauguration concerts  would demonstrate that your support for jazz is more than just lip service.

For more good ideas, you can turn to the two polls — readers and critics — annually published in Down Beat magazine, or the awards annually bestowed by the Jazz Journalists Association (JJA).

So, President-Elect Obama, or, if I may, Barry: There’s still time to invite world-class jazz musicians to play your inauguration concerts.

Need help programming great jazz, or booking some of these artists? If you can’t rely on your own team, you know, give me a call.

Better yet, contact some of the great jazz musicians I’ve mentioned. Or make a connection with the editors of Down Beat or Jazz Times or Jazziz. Or consult the jazz writer Stanley Crouch, who made some similar points in a Dec. 21 column.

Yes, you can. Yes, you can make this happen – you’re the next leader of the free world.

What’s stopping you?