Saturday, June 25, 2016

Allen Toussaint American Tunes 2016

Allen Toussaint passed away in November 2015, and left behind this gem of a record. There may be questions about whether this would have been the record we would have received had Toussaint lived, but they are mostly academic, and hardly worth the time. What we have here is a worthy successor to The Bright Mississippi, Toussaint's recent career high-water mark from 2009.

There are several solo piano recordings that Toussaint made in 2013, and a four-day session with a stellar cast of modern day jazz greats in October 2015. Produced by Joe Henry, who also did The Bright Mississippi, the record has a different feel and intention from its predecessor.

Delores' Boyfriend starts the set, and it is a solo piano Toussaint composition that owes much to the sound of the great Professor Longhair. Delightful in its New Orleans perfection, it is the first of many magical moments from Toussaint at the keys. Fats Waller's Viper's Drag follows, and we get another fun tune with great piano and sympathetic band support. Confessin' (That I Love You) finds the band swinging, and then Longhair's Mardi Gras In New Orleans gets a surprise quiet, laid back arrangement that Toussaint delivers on solo piano, transforming the usually raucous tune. Side one ends with Billy Strayhorn's Lotus Blossom, which includes sweet guitar/piano interplay and a lovely Charles Lloyd sax break.

Toussaint reimagines another classic, this time taking on Bill Evan's Waltz For Debby, with an almost Latin-style, non-waltz time, perky approach that takes the song in a new and interestingly unique direction that works in spades. Another novel interpretation follows, as Toussaint's solo piano reading of the New Orleans classic Big Chief alternates tempo changes, and jazzed-out searching before finally returning to the classic chorus. Ellington's Rocks In My Head follows, with a big brassy vocal by Rhiannon Giddens supported by a swaggering band and hot piano and guitar solos. Dual pianos by Toussaint and Van Dyke Parks, and a sweet, understated orchestral arrangement by Parks turns the sweet dance of Louis Gottschalk's Danza Op. 33 into pure bliss. Solo piano returns again for Longhair's Hey Little Girl, and it's another winner.

Earl "Fatha" Hines' Rosetta gets a piano trio workout, with more fine Toussaint piano and a tasty bass solo by David Piltch. Then Ellington's Come Sunday gets the vocal treatment from Giddens again, and this time her pained Gospel vocal, while emulating Mahalia Jackson's original, is just a little too brash for me. Another fine Charles Lloyd solo almost saves it. Van Dyke Parks returns for another piano duet on Toussaint's biggest hit Southern Nights, and the two of them present a beautifully jazzy take on the classic. Finally, Toussaint sings a sweet, heartfelt version of Paul Simon's American Tune with guitar by Adam Levy, and a delicate band arrangement that seeps into the song as it progresses. Toussaint sings the song with reverence, and it is lovely.

If you buy the CD, that's it. But side four of the LP includes two more Professor Longhair songs on solo piano (Her Mind Is Gone and Bald Head both receive slow, finely articulated readings) and Mancini's Moon River, which is a tasty guitar/piano duet featuring Bill Frissell's understated perfection.

The cast is impeccable, with Bill Frissell and Greg Leisz on guitars, Jay Bellerose on drums, David Piltch's bass, and Charles Lloyd on saxophone. Guest Van Dyke Parks makes a significant impression on the three on which he contributes. But it is mostly about Allen Toussaint's pure New Orleans genius on piano, and his incomparable arranging skill. Clearly the focus is on tributes to Longhair, Ellington, and a few other masters of American song. The cohesiveness of the sound on The Bright Mississippi is missing somewhat, and this one feels, not really scattershot, but less focused. But other than the over-the-top vocal on Come Sunday (and your impression may not match mine), every moment is treasure.

A master of the American form has left behind another beautiful way for us to remember him.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Eva Cassidy Nightbird 2015

Nightbird is the long overdue release of the entire night recorded at Blues Alley on January 3, 1996 that, edited, became the 1996 classic Live At Blues Alley, reviewed here.

Live At Blues Alley is indispensable for anyone interested in the jazz-pop light genre, and Cassidy's voice was a thing of nearly unparalleled beauty. Pitch-perfect, and with an astounding range and power, we can only speculate on her potential. But given the success of Diana Krall and Norah Jones, it is hard to believe that Eva Cassidy wouldn't have found fame in her time.

Her choice of material was all-encompassing, with songs from the great American jazz songbook, sixties soul, folk, pop, rock and gospel. She could sing it all with her lovely phrasing and immaculate voice. And she was emotionally invested in every song.

But the question now is whether you need to own this new, two-CD, 33-track expanded version of the performance that gave us Live At Blues Alley. Most of the 33 songs here have been released previously. There are only eight that have never been heard, although some of the others were released in re-recorded form over Eva's original vocal tracks. Quite a few of the songs have been released on one of the many posthumous releases since Cassidy's tragic death at age 33. Of the ones that have never seen the light of day, a few are a bit rough, and Cassidy drops a lyric on a couple of them. But overall, the quality is very fine. There could have been a Live At Blues Alley Part Two that would have been every bit the original's equal. And that is pretty much your answer.

I suppose if you own all of her posthumous recordings, you've already purchased this one. If not, you'll have to buy it to get at those eight unreleased tracks. Maybe you love Blues Alley, and got tired of buying the mixed quality of the posthumous releases- they definitely progressed to weaker and weaker material and production with each "new" release. For you, I can also recommend this CD without reservation. It's not perfect, but the quality of the original release is certainly not tainted in any way by getting to hear the whole performance. Having all the songs in one place is nice, and most of the deserved accolades that the original received can be applied here with only rare exceptions.

It really is a shame that she died so young and full of potential. That we cannot ever hear what she might have produced is sad indeed. This should be the last of her offerings, and it should have been done sooner, but all that aside, it is one fine record for anyone that loved the original.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Albert King Born Under A Bad Sign 1967

Technically not an produced as an album, but rather a collection of singles and B sides. Stax knew their game, and backed-up King with Booker T. and the MGs and the Memphis horns (the Stax house band). The combination of a expressive blues singer and hot guitarist with the soulful MGs was a brilliant move. Suddenly, the blues became as accessible as soul music. The record sold well, and remains a classic that has found a home in any serious record collector's stacks. The record is sometimes credited as the point when the blues became contemporary. Its influence on rock guitarists is easy to hear and appreciate. 

Of course the title cut is a classic, and was made more famous with Cream's cover version. The funky Crosscut Saw, with great horn charts and King's sweet guitar solo is another fine moment. Blues classics Down Don't Bother Me, As The Years Go Passing By, and I Almost Lost My Mind mine deep blues with King's sensitive vocal and searing guitar. The R&B side is represented by Kansas City,  The Hunter, and The Very Thought Of You. There isn't much weak material at all, and everything benefits from the previously mentioned combination of artist and band.

Sometimes a classic sounds a bit dated, a bit of its time. But this one holds up today just as it did when new. Sundazed released an expanded vinyl version with two additional B sides, King compositions Funk-Shun and Overall Junction. Whatever the format, the music is timeless.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

CD vs Vinyl

A friend sent me this article recently called Why CDs May Actually Sound Better Than Vinyl. It mostly explains why CD sound is better than vinyl. Because it must be, since there are so many things wrong with vinyl: surface noise, scratches, roll-off of higher frequencies, lack of dynamic range. CD sound is better because it has none of those disadvantages, and it is far more accurate because of its inherent lack of noise and wide dynamic range. By the way, the dynamic range issue is true, but very few CDs take advantage of this, and most of them are classical recordings. Most modern rock and pop music is compressed to a fault when it is mastered, so it sounds louder on the radio or streaming though small speakers. The people who apply this compression, especially the more egregious offenders, should be taken to task, possibly even sent away to a small jail without electricity.

I have no real problem with CD quality sound, and I think that newer DACs and ADCs sound way better than they did 30 years ago. Some jazz and rock CDs are recorded well, and not over-compressed, and sound pretty darn good, especially through better digital players that can do away with most of the jitter and other technical glitches of CD playback. Clearly ripping CDs to a dedicated digital storage medium and transferring that data to a quality DAC without the real-time playback problems associated with CD can help a great deal.

But vinyl still sounds better. Yes, the high frequency roll-off is responsible for some of the warmth of the sound, but the real problem is digitizing music.

Here's my take: With digital, the music is chopped up into discrete pieces and then put back together again to return to analog. Discrete pieces are the problem. Music is a continuous sine wave, an analog, physical event. Dividing it up into discrete, single value moments SCREWS IT UP, period. It destroys the sine wave, and frankly, it can never be put back together again. So, new vinyl records that are recorded digitally sound only marginally different/better than CDs, mostly because of the pleasant warmth distortion of the medium. But vinyl records recorded originally on tape, and then transferred to vinyl, can and do sound better than CD because the sine wave has never been disassembled in the recording process.

You can't measure it. Analog music is what music really is. But the ability of a true analog presentation to connect with the listener on an emotional level cannot be achieved in the digital domain. You can't measure it only because we don't know how to measure it. The idea that humans know how to measure everything is bunk. We are naked apes who have only scratched the surface of scientific understanding.

Signal to noise is BS too. Does 1000:1 sound better than 500:1? Noise inherent in analog tape is too low to bother you unless you are frantically listening for it. Vinyl surface noise and scratches are problematic, but the the original sine wave is preserved. And that trumps digital no matter how thin you slice it.

Do higher resolution digital files sound better than CD? Yes, of course they do, because they lessen the chopped up problem by chopping the sine wave up into smaller pieces (higher sampling rate), and expand the bit depth to a more appropriate level. But do they sound better than a never-digitized analog format? No they don't. And they can't. Are they more accurate? Maybe in at least some sense, but accuracy is overrated. The emotional response to a sine wave that has never been dissected is a response that digital cannot produce.

I don't care that it can't be proven with measurements. I have ears. Ears are clearly analog devices designed to detect continuous sine waves. My ears hear something different when they listen to music that has been digitized. If you don't hear it, I'm fine with that. But don't even try to tell me that I'm wrong because you can measure something.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Bonnie Raitt Dig In Deep 2016

Bonnie's on a roll. She wrote or co-wrote four of the selections here. Her singing is as expressive and casually powerful as ever. And she's playing more guitar, confident in her simmering strength on slide guitar.

Unintended Consequence Of Love kicks things off in slinky, funk-blues style with a hot slide solo. Need You Tonight has a strong back beat, twin guitars, and organ and guitar solos- it's a serious band effort all around. The first ballad, I Know, is more great guitar interplay, capped with Bonnie's subtly restrained vocal. All Alone With Something To Say mines the heartache ballad territory that Bonnie has done so well her entire career. Another arrangement that lets the band shine comes in the form of the rocking What You're Doing To Me, with more fine organ and guitars.

The cover of Los Lobos' Shakin' Shakin' Shakes is fun, and there's more smoking twin guitars between Bonnie and George Martinelli. Undone is the sad break-up ballad, and Bonnie brings another great, heartfelt vocal. There's Bonnie's anti-corporate rant The Comin' Round Is Going Through, the seemingly autobiographical Gypsy In Me, and more solid band rocking in If You Need Somebody.

The record closes with two deep ballads. The first, Joe Henry's You've Changed My Mind, was recorded during sessions for Bonnie's last, Slipstream in 2012, and it must have been hard to leave this one off that record. The last song, The Ones We Couldn't Be, with Bonnie writing and playing piano, is a beautiful sad ballad of imperfect love.

The band is Bonnie's touring unit, and they are hardly a back-up band. George Martinelli is as tasteful and talented a guitarist as any, always perfect, and he and Bonnie can jam. Mike Finnigan's Hammond B3 is equally ideal at every turn. And Ricky Fatar on drums and Hutch Hutchinson's bass lay down a solid rhythm. Solid like twenty inches of concrete solid. There's a few other guests, but these guys don't need any help.

Bonnie's voice has lost little, and her hot licks on slide guitar are generously applied. The recording is clean as a whistle, and the vinyl is pressed at 45 rpm for maximum groovitude. Bonnie's always had a great ear for songs, and now she's also writing more that match that same quality control level. Put all that together with a super hot band, and it should be no surprise how good it comes out.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Marc Benno Lost In Austin 1979

Here's a lost gem for you. Something to look for in a used record shop.

Benno is a guitarist, singer and songwriter with plenty of skill in all three areas. While his voice is fine, it is not what makes his work memorable. It is his writing that really shines, with a deft touch for both melody and lyric.

And on this particular record, all the pieces are in place, and everyone involved is stellar. Produced and engineered by the genius of Glyn Johns, the recording is warm, clear and spirited. But what makes this a record to hear thirty-five years after its release is the band. Carl Radle on bass, Jim Keltner on drums, Dick Sims on keyboards, and Albert Lee on guitar, with Eric Clapton guesting on at least two songs, and Dickie Morresey on saxophone. Benno adds his own guitar and piano. These guys could blow you away in their sleep. And they stay awake through the entire project.

Nice singer-songwriter rock and roll with highly skilled accompaniment. If any guitarist deserves comparison to Clapton, Albert Lee is the guy (he toured with Clapton several times). Jim Keltner is never less than terrific.

If you like Clapton's work around this same time, this is a fine addition to that oeuvre.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Robert Palmer Woke Up Laughing 1998 and At The BBC 2010


I covered pretty much the entire Robert Palmer catalog back here in 2010. But these two items escaped that treatment, mainly because I hadn't heard them at the time. At The BBC is an excellent live recording from 1983 that is well recorded with a hot band touring in support of Palmer's Pride album. It is the only posthumous release from Palmer since his untimely death in 2003, other than a few redundant "Best Of"s and a nearly complete/only somewhat flawed 2-CD Anthology. This is either a remarkable level of restraint from Palmer's estate, or there's just too many lawyers involved. Anyway, it is a worthwhile recording that fans deserved to have released.

Woke Up Laughing is a collection of previously released material put together by Palmer in his lifetime, and as such is not wholly original. But half of the songs are either (significantly) remixed or rerecorded, and the theme of collecting Palmer's African and Caribbean rhythm explorations in one place makes for an unusually coherent, and really good, Robert Palmer record. The remixed material is generally at least the original's equal. I always liked what these songs contributed to their respective releases, but putting them all in one place would not have occurred to me as a great idea. I'd have been wrong.