Sunday, November 29, 2009

Holiday Music

Rough terrain, this one. Holiday Music is often mundane at best, with big stars walking through the standard repertoire, backed by unenthusiastic orchestras. I am rarely excited about single artists collections of holiday music, and generally prefer collections with a variety of artists.
Here's my top five:

The Roches We Three Kings 1990 My personal favorite in the category, a record that delights year after year. There are choral pieces, light baroque, jazzy renditions, modern folk, Celtic, Andrews sisters swing, and folk-rock all cobbled together for a perfect modern/traditional seasonal CD. Breath-taking harmonies on every song, reverence for the hymns, and big fun with the carols, this CD is just about perfect.

Vince Guaraldi Trio A Charlie Brown Christmas The season isn't complete without Christmas Time Is Here and Linus And Lucy. Period.

Phil Spector's Christmas Album 1963 Here is the source of Ronnie Spector's I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus. That is reason enough, but there's Darlene Love's White Christmas, the Crystals doing Frosty The Snowman and Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, and Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans' Here Comes Santa Claus. A rock and roll classic, this one, and well worth seeking out.

Merry Christmas, Baby- Romance And Reindeer From Capitol Records 1991 Dean Martin, Peggy Lee, Lou Rawls, Lena Horne, Johnny Mercer, Glen Campbell, Nancy Wilson, Bing Crosby, and more. All secular, all heart-felt, all fun.
Croon and Swoon A Classic Christmas Volume Two 1999 Another secular gem, with greats from Mel Torme, Johnny Mathis, Bing Crosby, Doris Day, Julie Andrews and Eartha Kitt. The Volume One song list just doesn't excite like this one, although I'm sure it's good, too.

For more fun, the Christmas Cocktails (Part One and Two, 1995 and 1997) CDs are also very good, and go a little farther-out than Merry Christmas, Baby or Croon And Swoon.

A fairly non-traditional list now that I look at it. Load the Holiday music onto the iPod, it's that special time of year!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Frank Zappa Buffalo 2007

The Zappa Family Trust has been releasing some interesting items from the vault lately, and this show recorded live in Buffalo NY in 1980 is from an under-represented live touring band from Frank's past. A worthy addition to the Zappa catalog, this 2 CD live set includes many amazing guitar solos and a great track selection. Wonderful versions of Chunga's Revenge, Cosmik Debris, City Of Tiny Lights, Joe's Garage, and Dancing Fool delight. A 23 minute The Torture Never Stops is excellent, with solos from Zappa, Vinnie Colaluta on drums, and some fine keyboard work by Tommy Mars.

The band, like all of Frank's touring outfits, is capable of remarkable technical displays of musical prowess, but they also sound like they are having fun. Steve Vai (guitar), Ray White and Ike Willis (vocals and guitar), Tommy Mars (keyboards), Bob Harris (keyboards and trumpet), Arthur Barrow (bass), and the amazing Vinnie Colaluta (drums) play tight and mighty. Many of the arrangements are unique to this tour, and the set list is a blast. Hearing these songs in this relatively stripped-down group setting is big fun.

Not the place to start if you're new to Zappa, but essential listening for fans. Plenty of offensive moments mean you might not want to drive the kids to school while listening to this one.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Allen Toussaint The Bright Mississippi 2009

Unless something very unusual happens with the new holiday releases this year, I've got my record of the year for 2009. Allen Toussaint has given us what we might least expect from him, a straight-ahead New Orleans jazz album of instrumentals. But this is no standard New Orleans jazz record where all the songs sound alike performed by veteran New Orleans musicians. Quite the contrary, here is a beautiful, immaculately recorded set of songs that takes the New Orleans jazz tradition into the present with an amazing cast of musicians.

Toussaint's piano is excellent throughout, and his style encompasses all of the great New Orleans players from Professor Longhair through Fats Domino and Dr. John.
And the "back-up" band is stellar. The rhythm section is Jay Bellerose on drums, David Piltch on bass, and Marc Ribot on acoustic guitar. Nicolas Payton plays trumpet and Don Byron is on clarinet. Brad Mehldau and Josh Redman each guest on one track. The backing is sympathetic to everything Toussaint does, and the solos are all spectacular. Toussaint is perhaps best known as an arranger, and these songs are impeccably designed as group efforts.

Twelve songs, not a single one makes you want to fast-forward. The record starts with Egyptian Fantasy, a New Orleans march with outstanding clarinet from Byron. Dear Old Southland features piano and trumpet interplay that is nothing short of telepathic, and Toussaint playfully quotes Summertime near the song's end. St. James Infirmary is done as a walking blues. Singin' The Blues is swinging New Orleans style, again featuring wonderful piano and trumpet interplay. Winin' Boy Blues, Jelly Roll Morton's classic, features Brad Mehldau in a piano duet with Toussaint that makes you want a whole record of these two casually playing off each others styles. It's a highlight of the disc. West End Blues is a New Orleans funeral dirge with Professor Longhair flourishes from Toussaint and classic trumpet-clarinet interplay. On Blue Drag, Marc Ribot finally steps out from his rhythm role for a killer, albeit laid back guitar lead. Just A Closer Walk With Thee features smoking clarinet from Byron and Toussaint meandering all around the melody during his piano solo. Monk's The Bright Mississippi is a strutting stomp/march with more trumpet-clarinet interplay and the obligatory bass solo from Piltch. Day Dream features Redman on saxophone giving a tender and beautifully smoking hot reading on this ballad. Toussaint lays down rhythmic changes in a call-and response with Redman that is just too much fun. Long Journey Home features Toussaint's only vocal on the record, a heart-felt look at age and love that also stars Ribot on guitar. Finally, Solitude ends the disc on a delicate note, with Ribot and Toussaint playing off each other as wonderfully as Byron and Payton do on the rest of the record.

There isn't a bum track in the bunch. Record of the year for 2009, and good enough to appeal to jazz lovers as well as anyone with an ear for great music. Not "challenging" jazz, but melodic and skillful. As near perfect as music gets these days, and timeless.

Available on an excellent two LP set- and you get a CD copy when you buy the vinyl. You can't go wrong. A veteran makes the surprise record of his career. Vital and uplifting, relaxed and fun. This will make a fine gift this holiday season for the music lover on your list.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Kelly Willis Translated From Love 2007

This excellent record is just one of many from Ms. Willis that answer the question "What ever happened to great country music?" While the rest of the Country scene is filling the airwaves with a mix of country-rock a la the Eagles and big-hair eighties guitar rock ballads, there still exist artists like Willis. She has a perfect country singer voice with a little twang and lilt, and that catch in her phrasing that lets you understand heartbreak even if you've never been in love.

The record kicks off with Nobody Wants To Go To The Moon Anymore, a rolling rocker with a great hook in the chorus. Too Much To Lose is Willis at her best, crying her way through the pain. Losing You is a classic country tune with wonderful pedal steel guitar and a great lyric. Don't Know Why, The More I'm Around You, and Stone's Throw Away are highlights. There are a few that try just a little too hard, and there's even some concession to the big rock new country sound. But not too much, and when Willis hits her stride, she's unbeatable.

This time out she's produced by Chuck Prophet, with Prophet and Willis co-writing many of the songs, and there is a more rock-oriented sound than earlier recordings. You should probably own What I Deserve 1999 or Easy 2002 if you're new to Kelly Willis. This one almost rivals those former career twin peaks, and is easy to recommend.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Box Sets - Soul and R&B Part 2

After the initial post on this topic there remain a few sets that were left off. So here we go...

The Funk Box 2000- Here's another fine piece of work from Hip-O Records. Covering 1970-1982, this four-disc set hits most of the high points from funk's golden era. James Brown, The Meters, Ohio Players, Funkadelic, Brothers Johnson, Rick James, Bootsy Collins, they're all here. The selections are mostly dance floor hits, and there's always room for debate over what isn't included on a set like this, but this one's pretty solid, and nicely varied. It includes a number of artists not immediately associated with funk (O'Jays, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin), as well as the most obvious suspects (Brown, Kool & The Gang, Ohio Players, Rufus, George Clinton) and quite a few bands you may be hard pressed to remember (The New Birth, Jimmy Castor Bunch, Brass Construction, Bohannon). The selections are consistently good, and the definition of funk is broad enough that the set is varied and eclectic. It's too much funk for many, but it is an excellent overview of the best of the genre. Do it 'till you're satisfied.

What It Is! Funky Soul And Rare Grooves 2006 Here's a set from Rhino Records that is a lot of fun but does not maintain their usual high quality. The tracks are from 1967-1977, and most of the big hits are missing on purpose. Focusing intentionally on lesser-known artists in an attempt to show that there was a lot more funk happening than just the artists on the Funk Box, this is "dirty, gritty, gutbucket funk" according to the excellent book that accompanies the set. Mixed in with a few name artists are many groups distributed by tiny labels and the occasional one almost-hit wonder. As an historical study in funky soul, it is a worthy complement to the big stars, but you've got to want it bad. Compared to most Rhino box sets, the lesser-known artists often sound like they were lesser-known for good reason. There's plenty of good stuff, but those tracks would have fit onto two discs.

Atlantic Soul 1959-1975 2007 Atlantic was a hotbed of great soul stars in the sixties, and this set is packed with great performances. Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, and Patti LaBelle are mixed in with many lesser-knowns, and the quality is quite good. Hits from the smaller artists, and less well-known songs from the big stars help to make the set something other than just another soul compilation with the same old songs. With only Atlantic artists represented, it can't be the set that Rhino's Beg, Scream and Shout is, but it's a good look at a label that did a good job with a variety of soul sounds. You have to be open to hearing some songs you missed the first time around, so don't come here for a comprehensive soul hits package.

Well, I think that mostly covers my collection of R&B box sets. There are of course lots of single and double disc compilations for the more casual fan, and I've got some of those, too. Let me know if I can help you find the set for you.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Marshall Crenshaw Jaggedland 2009

It's been a while since a new Marshall Crenshaw record- since 2003's What's In The Bag, in fact, and it's been even longer since one this good. There are 12 cuts on here and 10 of them are everything you could still want from Crenshaw.

The opener Right On Time is classic guitar pop-rock from the master, and would be a huge single in a perfect world. Passing Through, Never Coming Down, and Eventually are great mid-tempo rocker/ballads that live up to Crenshaw's best. He's always had a good hand for the melancholy side of the rock ballad, all minor chords and the like. Someone Told Me is a rolicking rocker, Stormy River is a blues stomper, and Just Snap Your Fingers has a poppy feel that's just short of his eighties greatness. All in all, it rivals his post-eighties best, right there with Miracle of Science 1996 and #447 1999, and almost approaching 1991's Life's Too Short.

The band is fabulous, with Greg Liesz and Jim Keltner standing out as always. Long Hard Road and the closer Live And Learn keep this one from perfection, but hey, it's mighty close. If you've been looking for Crenshaw's next good one, here it is. Recommended.