While rap, hip-hop and pop might dominate the nation’s airwaves, the roots of American popular music cannot be denied. And when digging for roots, you need go no further than the blues, soul and jazz, which are some of America’s greatest original artforms. If you thought the blues ended with Robert Johnson and Eric Clapton, think again!
Fever for the Bayou
At a relatively young 37, Tab Benoit makes a strong case that white guys can jump, or at least bend a blue note with conviction. Hailing from the Louisiana delta, Benoit shakes, rattles and rolls through a tasty blend of material by Ellmore James, James H. Moore and Buddy Guy while also offering some of his own craftsmanship, which proves the most compelling. The title cut, “Fever for the Bayou” serves as the high-water mark, while “Lost In Your Lovin’ ” shines like a fistful of new Mardi Gras beads. Guest spots by Monk Boudreaux (“Golden Crown”), Cyril Neville, Norman Ceasar and Taj Mahal (“The Blues Is Here To Stay”) and Jimmy Carpenter (“I Can’t Hold Out”) lend even more bayou cred to this thoughtfully seasoned gumbo. In additon to gritty Tele-driven fretwork and agile vocal mojo, Benoit demonstrates additional dexterity with a soulful acoustic take on Clarence Williams’s “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It” to wrap up a well-rounded trip to the Big Easy and beyond.
All Star Blues Jam
Having toured with the Muddy Waters Blues Band for seven years (1973 – 1980), guitarist Bob Margolin forged relationships with many of the luminaries of the Chicago blues sound. All Star Blues Jam finds Margolin serving up plenty of seasoned grit with several of his talented longtime friends from the lauded Windy City scene. Harp banshee Carey Bell; singer/harpist/bassist Tom “Mookie” Brill; pianist and still living legend Pinetop Perkins (now in his 90s); drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and guitarist Hubert Sumlin (who played behind Howlin Wolf for 25 years) are all represented on the collection of 13 cuts from the old blue school.
Johnny Shines’ “Brutal Hearted Woman,” which features Bell’s dirty and soulful chromatic harp and Smith’s rock steady no-frills time-keeping kicks off the disc. Other standout cuts include the groove-inducing “Easy to Love You,” “My New Baby Owns a Whiskey Store,”a tune that aptly describes a bluesman’s fantasy if ever there was one, “Always On My Mind,” featuring Margolin laying down some of the compelling lead guitar work that no doubt originally caught Waters’ ears, and of course “Mean Old Chicago,” featuring slide guitar work by Jimmy Lane. Over the course of his storied career, Margolin has played with a lengthy list of blues and rock titans, including Gregg Allman, James Cotton, Buddy Guy, Levon Helm, Koko Taylor, Sonny Landreth and the late Junior Wells. Margolin, a white bluesman who just this fall played a gig at the Soiled Dove in Denver along with Perkins, also appeared in the 1976 Martin Scorsese film of the Band’s Last Waltz concert. “All the music I’ve listened to and played, all the experiences, and all of the fine musicians I’ve worked with have all left their mark on me, and are part of the music when I play now,” Margolin says. “I like to be a professional in terms of responsibility and competence, but past that, I am a musician playing for my friends.”
James Cotton Blues Band
35th Anniversary Jam
Good ol’ Mr. Cotton has been blowin’ his harp like no one’s business since he fell under the spell of the legendary Sonny Boy Williamson as a young boy in Tunica, Mississippi some 50 plus years ago. Cotton lived, worked and traveled with Williamson as a lad, honing his own chops and learning the master’s licks, before going on to play with other blues legends such as Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Nix and Muddy Waters. Wailing on his harp like a midnight banshee, Cotton checks in on 35th Anniversary Jam with a little help from vocalists Koko Taylor, Bobby Rush, Syl Johnson, Ronnie Hawkins, Lucky Peterson, Maria Muldaur, Kim Wilson, Shemekia Copeland and Kenny Neal. Add to the mix guitarists Tab Benoit, G.E. Smith and Jimmie Vaughn and you’ve got a blues lineup that could melt cold steel. Standout tracks include “Don’t Start me Talking,” “The Creeper,” “I’ve Got a Feeling,” and “How Long Can a Fool go Wrong?”
A Woman Alone with the Blues
. . . remembering Peggy Lee
Sexy, sultry, elegant. Just a few words that best describe Maria Muldaur’s seasoned voice as she works her way through top-shelf material by the late jazz/blues crooner Peggy Lee. Delving into the disc with “Fever,” Muldaur, who may be best known for her ’70s smash hit “Midnight at the Oasis,” struts her vocal stuff all along this release with a very capable backing band, including Danny Caron (guitar), David Torkanowsky (piano), Jim Rothermel (saxophone, clarinet and flute), Jeff Lewis (trumpet), Kevin Porter (trombone), Neal Caine (bass), Arthur Latin, II (drums) and Gerry Grosz (vibes).
“As a longtime fan, I was rather dismayed that not much had been given to her passing,” Muldaur laments in the disc’s liner notes. “[Peggy] was such a wonderful and talented songstress whose career had spanned so many decades and musical styles and trends. The more I delved into her extensive repertoire, the more I read about her, and the more songs I heard, the more my respect for her grew. I came to fully appreciate the enormous contribution she made to American Popular Music.” The collection includes impassioned renditions of “Some Cats Know,” “For Every Man There’s a Woman,” “Black Coffee,” and “I’m Gonna Go Fishin’. “
Muldaur, who also plays fiddle in addition to singing, has distinguished herself over the years by playing with Amercan roots artists as diverse as Hot Tuna, David Grisman, Paul Butterfield, Bonnie Raitt and the Jerry Garcia Band.
What’s Wrong With This Picture?
Blue Note Records
Those who’ve followed Van Morrison faithfully through his myriad solo releases and collaborations know that he’s put out a handful of towering monuments as well as some relative dogs. His latest release features many of the classic elements he’s doled out over the years: jazz- and blues-inflected power vocals, thoughtful, poetic songwriting, compositional variety, feel-good melodies and plenty of funky Irish soul. What’s Wrong With This Picture? sets these well-acclaimed moves against the usual landscape of insecurities and troubles; themes include solitude, lost love, drinking, perseverance and a healthy peppering of philosophical quandaries. Alternately pensive and ebullient, Morrison gets reflective on the slower material, then rocks on up-tempo numbers such as “Stop Drinking,” a blues cut originally penned by Sam “Lightnin'” Hopkins, as well as on his own blue gem, “Whinin Boy Moan.” Poet that he is, he minces no words in making his point: “Let the whinin’ boy moan if you don’t know how to do it yourself/’Cause he can do it better, better than anyone else.” He even belts out some respectable alto sax, while his skilled backing band punches up the groove. And his take on the traditional “St. James Infirmary” demonstrates not only his love of the blues, but his ability to bring the genre to life. Elsewhere, “Little Village” recalls the string-sweetened strains of Astral Weeks. Sitting among his higher recorded achievements, What’s Wrong provides strong evidence that this well-seasoned Van is still working.
Joe Louis Walker
In the Morning
Featuring guitar work by former Saturday Night Live axman G.E. Smith, Joe Louis Walker and company bring the blues back home. Born to migrant workers on Christmas in 1949, Walker has led a storied existence that includes a time living with legendary blues guitarist Mike Bloomfield as part of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury scene. Walker blends electric and acoustic, soul, gospel and funk to create an album that should appeal to blues purists and progressives alike. —
Thirty-five-year-old bassist Ben Allison is proof that jazz is alive and well. Stretching out on material by Malian kora player Mamadou Diabate and even Neil Young, Allison and his messengers slide effortlessly between moods and grooves on Peace Pipe. He plays his composition “Third Rail,” which is inspired by the music of Duke Ellington and the subways of New York City, by using a folded MetroCard for a pick. How’s that for verisimilitude?
Under the Influence
Minor Music Records
If you thought Harrry Connick Jr. was the only youngish Turk who could croon old-school blues and jazz, think again. Tuey Connell, who also plays guitar and banjo on this outing, can dip, swoon and moon in the venerable style forged by gents like Tony Bennet or Old Blue Eyes himself. Whether hanging his vocal hat on classic-sounding material such as “I Thought About You,” and “Malady,” or strutting the blues on “Why You Been Gone So Long,” (on which his vocal is reminiscent of Eric Clapton) Connell proves himself a talented performer who can channel the elusive spirit of the past.
Bill Mays Trio
Playin’ it pretty right from the start, Bill Mays (piano and vocals), Matt Wilson (drums) and Martin Wind (bass) render some shimmering musical portraits on going home, be it evoking pastoral trips to a scenic lake or be-bopping down a leafy backroad. Mays caresses the keys to suggest such comforting tableaus, while Wilson and Wind accompany him with taste and restraint. With titles such as “You’d be so Nice to Come Home to,” “Shohola Song,” “Home,” “Comin’ Home Baby,” “Shoho Love Song,” “In Her Arms” and “Going Home,” the theme is clear: a familiar place with someone to care for.
“I’m a homebody/for me to stay at home’s the only way to go/get a homebody you’ll be glad you did . . . I’m a stay-at-home . . . cuz I can play at home and scratch my head and think/ and let those dirty dishes pile up in the sink/Whenver I am forced to travel far from home I seem to lose my sense of be-bop/ I’m a nest-builder I’d rather feather one than fly around the world . . . I’m just as happy to go where I can walk . . . I’m a homebody, at least I’ll get some rest/instead of playing I will try and smell my best,” sings Mays before laying into a fun final jam.
Jessica Williams/Bruce Barth
All Alone (MAXJAZZ)
Live at the Village Vanguard (MAXJAZZ)
Elegant though not pretentious, inviting but not desperate, this beguiling pair of discs from Jessica Williams and Bruce Barth make for fine listening. While offering multiple-track releases of mostly piano-driven fare might constitute a potentially disastrous goal from a financial point of view, both Barth and Williams carry their respective recordings in high style.
Williams finesses the ivories in a way that makes you forget that the piano is but a single instrument. On All Alone, she moves fluidly through an hour’s worth of varied compositions. Beginning with a thoughtful version of Herman Hupfield’s “As Time Goes By,” she moves on to work by Edward Kennedy Ellington, Irving Berlin and Charles Mingus, as well as a few of her own compositions.
Her “Toshiko” possesses a sedate and elemental energy reminiscent of gently falling snow, while “The Sheikh” recalls the melody of the Miles Davis classic “So What.” Williams also offers up “Bill’s Beauty” and “The Quilt,” with these four original tracks folded together to more or less fill out the middle section of the disc. The collection closes with a graceful reading of Mingus’s “Orange Was the Color of Her Dress Then Blue Silk” followed by “Too Young to Go Steady,” originally by Harold Adamson and Jimmy McHugh. A few lines of Williams’s verse, printed on the CD jacket, might best explain her style: “Letting the music play itself is the goal/I’m only as much of a pianist as I need to be/To let it play unimpeded.”
Leading a trio composed of himself, drummer Al Foster and bassist Ugonna Okegwo, Bruce Barth brings us in for an evening of nicely polished jazz at the Village Vanguard. He gives a rock-solid performance throughout, which is no surprise considering his role as an accompanist for singers Carla Cook, Laverne Butler, Dominique Eade and Rene Martin. A seasoned player, Barth has been compared to Tommy Flanagan, Ella Fitzgerald’s longtime accompanist.
Live From the Village Vanguard is a mixture of original material and covers, including several Thelonious Monk tunes and a salting of classics. The trio boogies through Cole Porter’s “In the Still of the Night” and smartly kicks Monk’s “San Francisco Holiday.” On his own “Days of June,” Barth and company demonstrate what makes them worthy of a live Vanguard release, flowing organically through the composition with workmanlike proficiency and an absence of frills. The disc closes with a mellow solo rendition of Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s “When the Sun Goes Down,” followed by the hearty and well-deserved applause of the crowd.
Listeners might be moved to join in.
Visit: www.telarc.com., www.palmetto-records.com. and www.bluenoterecords.com.to learn more about the above recordings and artists as well as other award-winning practitioners of soul, blues music, including Rory Block, Al Green and Pine Top Perkins, the oldest living lengend of the blues.