Monday, December 27, 2010

Cassandra Wilson Silver Pony 2010

A new Cassandra Wilson release is always exciting news. Wilson has been recording since 1985 and has made some of the finest modern jazz records you can find. She got her start with the M-Base collective in New York, an avant-garde jazz-funk group that featured saxophonist Steve Coleman, among others. She has a deep, throaty voice that is both sultry and expressive. Her phrasing and control are stellar. She writes some great tunes, and her covers are always unique and thoughtful, often surprising reinterpretations.

In 1988, Wilson veered off the avant-garde road to make Blue Skies, a collection of jazz standards with Wilson backed by an exceptional piano trio of Mulgrew Miller on piano, Lonnie Plaxico on bass and Terri Lyne Carrington on drums. It is quite possibly the best modern female jazz singer standards record you can find anywhere.

From there, Wilson made a few more records with M-Base and other influences and plenty of jazz credibility. She found her groove with Blue Light 'Till Dawn in 1993, the record that would define her future approach to music. A mixture of Wilson originals, eclectic pop, blues, and jazz covers with sparse, percussion-heavy, interesting arrangements that made everything she touched sound new and unique.

She's repeated that formula successfully several times with New Moon Daughter 1995, Belly Of The Sun 2002, and Glamoured 2003. Her Traveling Miles from 1999 applies much the same methodology to a Miles Davis tribute, covering songs that Miles recorded as well as originals inspired by Miles. 2008's Loverly returned to the jazz standard songbook, but with the guitar and percussion based instrumentation that is her forte. The only bump in the road was the T-Bone Burnett-produced Thunderbird 2006, which just doesn't have the spark of her other records, possibly because the all-star band is not the talented group of improvisers and like-minded jazz musicians that Wilson herself assembles for her own productions and tours.

Which brings us to Silver Pony. A mixture of mostly live and a few studio recordings, it is one of her finest efforts yet. The record features several long live takes that dig deep into the southern heat that inspired the record. Highlights include the guitar-driven blues of Saddle Up My Pony, Beneath A Silver Moon, with its Ravi Coltrane sax lead, the sultry take on Stevie Wonder's If It's Magic, the funky Forty Days And Forty Nights, and a glorious reading of McCartney's Blackbird. But I could just as easily same something wonderful about every track.

The band of Marvin Sewell (guitar), Reginald Veal (bass), Herlin Riley (drums), Jonathan Batiste (piano), and Lekan Babalola (percussion) get the chance to jam, and are never short of amazing. This is a mature singer with a crack ace band, stretching out beyond the pop styling that has both made her famous and been fodder for her detractors.

It is a fine record indeed. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

James Brown In The Jungle Groove 1986

These tracks were originally recorded between 1969 and 1971, and the versions here were not all previously available on LP, although most were available on 45s. So the extended jams are here, ready for your ass-shakin' delight on whatever dance floor you can assemble.

It's all funk. Bootsy Collins on bass and Clyde Stubblefield on drums and everybody else is on the good foot, my man. Give It Up Or Turnit Loose, Talkin' Loud And Sayin' Nothing, The Funky Drummer, Get Up, Get Into It And Get Involved, and Soul Power. If these titles mean nothing to you, I'm sorry.

The extended version every time, so the groove is very deep. If you can't stand the funk, stay out of the kitchen. It's cookin' in here.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Marti Jones 1984-2008

Marti Jones has an exceptional alto voice that rivals Linda Ronstadt's, but with a more organic feel. Her songwriting with husband Don Dixon is quality stuff, and the song selection of covers is first-rate. Dixon's production is perfect every time. Her interpretations of other songwriters material are spot-on every time.

Marti's first recording was a six-song EP by the pop-rock band Color Me Gone in 1984. The heartfelt pop vocals that would become her trademark are already on display, but the band never took off.

Marti's first solo record was produced by Don Dixon, as were all of her subsequent records. They married not long after the record was made. Unsophisticated Time 1985 is a fine start. Walk Away, Follow You All Over The World, Hiding The Boy, The Element Within Her are all standouts. The record has a slightly more folk feel than later releases, but it's all here, even on the debut. The voice, the songs, the arrangements.

A&M and Dixon pulled out all the stops for Match Game in 1986. A big-budget recording with great players and guest stars, songs from Dwight Twilly, Elvis Costello, David Bowie and Paul Rogers along with Dixon's finest, but nothing detracts from Marti. Her voice is clear and beautiful, and Inside These Arms, We're Doing Alright, Just A Memory, Soul Love and Be Myself Again are all top notch. I love the big rock sound of the record- it's the only time they did one like this, and it's a fine setting for her voice.

Next it was 1988's Used Guitars. Dixon and Jones' Tourist Town starts things off swinging. John Hiatt's The Real One rocks like Rondstadt never could, while Graham Parker's You Can't Take Love For Granted gets a highly percussive arrangement from Dixon that's fun and just right. Jackie DeShannon's Each Time and Hiatt's If I Can Love Somebody are both terrific readings of fine songs. That this record didn't turn her into a star is almost impossible to believe. A similar blend of folk, rock and pop tunesmith worked great for Shawn Colvin and Mary Chapin Carpenter.

In 1990 it was off to RCA for Any Kind Of Lie, another fine outing, this time featuring the songs Dixon and Jones were writing together. The core band of Jamie Hoover (guitar), Dixon (bass and lots of stuff), Jones (guitar), Jim Brock (percussion extraordinaire), and Denny Fongheiser (drums) show off great Dixon-Jones songs Living Inside The Wind, Any Kind Of Lie, My Tears Are Poison, Read My Heart and Is This The Game? Again, there just seemed to be no market for the kind of intelligent pop-rock craft on display, but I'll be darned if I could tell you why. The bizarre hair and make-up of the cover (aimed squarely at the burgeoning Adult Contemporary market) may have frightened off any fan that had seen the wonderfully unassuming Marti live.

After that one also did not bring stardom, Marti decided to take a few years off and have a baby. She returned in 1996 with My Long-Haired Life, a reference to her shorter, motherly locks of the previous few years. It's another fabulous record. Focusing on a generous selection of covers, her brilliant interpretations of Nick Lowe's I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass, Squeeze's Black Coffee In Bed, Aimee Mann's Put Me On Top, and Elvis Costello's Sleep Of The Just are all super. Her own It's Not What I Want and several other by Marti and Don are just as good.

Also in 1996, Live At Spirit Square was released. This might be my favorite live record ever. Recorded in 1990 in Charlotte to a Dixon home-town crowd, the song selection is an impeccable greatest hits plus best songs from her catalog, even while it features Any Kind Of Lie, the new release of the time. The sound is excellent. The band of Jones on acoustic guitar, Dixon on bass and vocals, Jamie Hoover on lead guitar and vocals (one of the best, and most fun to watch, guitarists on the planet), Jim Brock on percussion, and Tom Wilhelm on drums is the tightest band ever. Really. Ever. The different texture of each song is voiced in the arrangements and playing in a way that is remarkable. You really should hear it if you have any interest in a fine female voice and great songwriting in combination.

In 2002 came My Tidy Doily Dream. Another fine record, this one features new songs by Dixon and Jones with several guest writing partners. Compared to the her previous work, this one is pretty mellow, but not the worse for it. You just need to adjust to a more delicate sound, sort of like recent Kim Richey or Aimee Mann records. Always, Innocent Kiss, Slave, and So Lonesome I Could Fly are standouts. There are a few too many slow ballads among the rest of the songs for it to be my favorite, but when I'm in the mood for introspection...

In 2008 Don and Marti released Lucky Stars: Lullabies For Old Souls as a download only under both of their names. A mixture of some nice new songs and quite a few instrumental themes, it works as the piece of art-folk it is. Gentile folk songs inspired by love and family, it's a bit twee occasionally, but it also includes some fine moments in Lucky Stars, When I Saw You, and Watching Closely.

I've seen Marti and Don many times live in Cleveland (they live in Marti's NE Ohio hometown), usually with Hoover and Brock rounding out the band, and they are always excellent live. Marti has apparently retired to paint, but if they ever come around, you'll have a good time and see a fine show. You can't go wrong with Used Guitars, Any Kind Of Lie, My Long-Haired Life or Live At Spirit Square. Pick one up- you're in for a treat.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Zappadan 2010 again

Well, I made it happen, and I'm pleased with the results. In my last post, I discussed the difficulties I was having preparing a new Zappa mix as a companion piece to this one I discussed last year. After angsting over the song list and running order, I think I have produced a worthy second collection.

Inspired by Conceptual Continuity, and featuring songs from several records which did not appear on the first compilation, I winnowed the list down to a reasonable mix of instrumental and vocal performances for my very own listening pleasure.

Here's the CD I just finished making. It goes like this:

1. Be In My Video Them Or Us 1984
2. Hungry Freaks, Daddy Freak Out! 1966
3. Little House I Used To Live In Fillmore East, June 1971 1971
4. One-Shot Deal Waka/Jawaka1972
5. Stink Foot Apostrophe(‘) 1974
6. Zoot Allures Zoot Allures 1976
7. Joe’s Garage Joe’s Garage1979
8. Tinseltown Rebellion Does Humor Belong In Music? 1986
9. What’s New In Baltimore? Does Humor Belong In Music? 1986
10. Holiday In Berlin, Full Blown Burnt Weenie Sandwich 1970
11. Lemme Take You To The Beach Studio Tan 1978
12. What’s The Ugliest Part Of Your Body? We’re Only In It For The Money 1968
13. Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance We’re Only In It For The Money 1968
14. The Grand Wazoo The Grand Wazoo 1972
15. G-Spot Tornado The Yellow Shark 1993
16. Montana Overnite Sensation 1973

We've got some early social satire (some of Frank's best lyric writing), some moments of strangeness (Holiday In Berlin, Little House), some serious music (Grand Wazoo, G-Spot Tornado), and plenty of good dirty fun. What's New In Baltimore? contains one of Zappa's most melodically conventional (and super hot) guitar leads , and One Shot Deal features a section that can almost be called country music.

Put your own playlist together of your favorites. Load them onto the digital media player of your choice, or just slap the records onto a turntable and spin, baby spin. Turn your friends on to Frank's music.

Have a happy Zappadan any way you wanna.