Saturday, March 30, 2013

Boz Scaggs Memphis 2013

Boz Scaggs has a new record, which is cause for excitement, albeit in recent years that has been very laid back, jazz excitement. For the first time since 1997's stellar Come On Home, Boz is making a non-jazz, R&B record. It's themed around some great Memphis soul and blues covers from the sixties and seventies, and of course it was recorded in the title town as well.

What's not to love? Well, it is very mellow, and just barely rocks a few times. This isn't a big surprise from Scaggs, a consummately smooth soul singer who hasn't really rocked hard in a very long time, but as a tribute to all things Memphis, you might expect more kick. And that would be the only nit to pick.

Scagg's sixty-eight year old voice has lost nothing. He's a smooth soul crooner of the highest order. His understatement, his nuance, his beautiful, controlled high register, it is all still intact. The guitars of Scaggs and Ray Parker, Jr. are relaxed highlights throughout, and so are the keyboards of Spooner Oldham, Charlie Hodges, Jim Cox and Lester Snell. There's occasional strings and horns, and lovely background vocals. Steve Jordan produces and plays drums, and the recording is clean, the mix nicely balanced to highlight Scaggs' vocals.

Scaggs contributes the first and last songs, and both the originals are highlights. Scaggs' Gone Baby Gone opens the record in Al Green style, and Sunny Gone closes the record with one of Boz's classic sweet, melancholic ballads. In between there's So Good To Be Here, an actual Al Green song that Boz sings to perfection, Mixed Up Shook Up Girl, a funky Ry Cooder sound-alike, and Boz's take on Rainy Night In Georgia. If there needs to be another cover of Brook Benton's classic, this is it. Scaggs sings it to the ground with yearning and restraint.

Moon Martin's Cadillac Walk finally gets the band rocking a little, and the Philly soul-meets Memphis of Can I Change My Mind shows off Scaggs' effortlessly soulful delivery. Things get more bluesy on Dry Spell (featuring Keb Mo on slide dobro) and You Got Me Cryin'. Love On A Two Way Street is a little too slick-smooth, and the cover of Steely Dan's Pearl Of The Quarter is OK, but isn't a perfect choice for this record.

The song selection holds a few nice surprises, and the performances are flawless. Delightful.

Available in all formats, including vinyl.

I have a short overview of Boz Scagg's career right here with a review of his 1997 anthology.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Soul Fusion Milt Jackson and the Monty Alexander Trio 1978

I had the great fortune to stroll into a little record kiosk in a swell multiple-vendor-local-artisans market called the Rust Belt Market in Detroit a few weeks ago. There is a veritable bounty of record stores in southern Michigan between Detroit and Ann Arbor, and I have found many treasures in my trips to the Motor City. And that applies double in jazz. Detroit was a hotbed for jazz in the Golden Era of the fifties and sixties, and the jazz fan base remained for a long time after the heyday. i.e. You Can Find Great Jazz Vinyl In Detroit.

So this Milt Jackson - Monty Alexander gig is just the bomb. I love vibes, and Jackson is as good as any vibes player, imaginative and technically brilliant. Alexander is an able accompanist, and also shines as a soloist himself, making this a true joint effort. The rhythm section deserves special mention. It is Jeff Hamilton on drums and John Clayton on bass. This was recorded in 1977, when this pair was 24-25 years old, and already they were hotter than summer tar. They went on to found the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and play behind Count Basie and Diana Krall and countless others. Needless to say, their contributions here are Very Important.

Not too intense, but wild and free, and mellow, too. Classic jazz from the mellow era.

Available today in mp3, budget CD, and vinyl formats. I lucked into a pristine vinyl copy. The Pablo label was making some fine records back then, and Norman Granz himself produced this one. Easy to enjoy.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

"How Come My Dog Don't Bark When You Come Around" Dr. John 1992

In 1992 Dr. John made Back To New Orleans. If you'd like to hear some authentic New Orleans style musical gumbo you can't do much better. There's a few classic Neville Brothers records that come to mind, but nothing really tops this. Fine piano, great song selection, huge and stellar supporting cast, including the Nevilles and many Big Easy greats.

But the song that gets me every time is How Come My Dog Don't Bark When You Come Around. You know what it's about before you hear it, but it's funnier than you can imagine. And a little dark, too. For a cheating song, it is the perfect twist. If you've never had a dog, well, too bad for you. They're wonderful.

Oh yeah, back to the song. My dog's the meanest dog in town, he'll bite anybody, he takes one look at you, he wants to play. When I come home, he don't sleep that sound, now somebody's been confusing my poor hound, and I want to know what's been going down - How come my dog don't bark when you come around?

It just gets better from there.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison Cheater's Game 2013

Very well recorded modern-trad country. Straight ahead standard issue country: guitars, mandolin, violin, steel guitar, banjo, and drums, all acoustic instruments presented in a fine acoustic space. Even if you don't like the music, you might still want to hear how good this recording is.

And the music, well, it's something else. Kelly Willis is The Consummate Country Singer of Her Era. The only other singer I can think of that comes close is the Dixie Chick's Natalie Maines. She can also harmonize with Robison's heartfelt tenor to lovely effect.

Willis takes her share of leads, but hubby Robison gets his share, too, and there's quite a few legitimate duet vocals that are splendid. Their voices are natural together.

The recording is clean and pure, rivaling the fine records Guy Clark makes. There are delicious solos on guitar, pedal steel, violin and harmonica. The singing is excellent. Robison is no slouch, and of course Willis is as good as singing gets. 

There are well-chosen covers mixed with Robison's original material, and everything is first rate. I made copious and detailed notes, but really all you need to know is you should hear this. If you're familiar with Kelly Willis, and want a new Kelly Willis record, this is darn close, and dare I say, almost equally satisfying. If you are unfamiliar with Kelly Willis, you might start here.  Or here.

Quality modern country music. We could sure use more like this.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Houston Person So Nice 2011

I like jazz. I really do. I tend to go for piano and guitar combos, and I love the small group interplay. But I'm not hard core. I like to be able to hear a melody, and I don't like loud, skronky horn players. Trumpets and saxes, especially, are often just too forward, too in-your-face for my tastes. Hard bop and edgy fusion just wear me out.  So there's a lot of jazz that turns me off because it's just a little too, well, jazzy. Too much crazy improvisation that sounds like a blur of notes just to make a blur of notes.

I get that there is more going on than I can appreciate in this music. I can certainly understand that there are people who do get it, and love the wild abandon and constant surprises, the unexpected twists and musical puzzles unraveled that the most progressive and transcendent jazz serves up to the devoted.

Nor do I like, on the other end of the jazz spectrum, the smooth jazz that has become the staple of the adult mellow music radio formats. That stuff plays like the benign dentist office, elevator piped-in Muzak of a justly forgotten past.

In the middle there are some special players who are still jazz, but they take an easy to hear approach that is relaxed and laid back without being anything like pop music. The players are hot, but they only get some much time to show it, and nuance of expression is valued over technical excess.

Houston Person is a perfect example. His sax tone is fat and smooth, his solos are invested with the knowledge of a guy who recorded his first record in 1966, and he's accompanied by a fine supporting cast, including guest soloists on trumpet, trombone and guitar. He plays mostly standards, but he brings something new every time. It's laid back, but nobody is laying back.

The perfect middle ground. Goldilocks would approve.