Thursday, December 31, 2020

Goodbye, 2020

I didn’t think we’d see a year worse than 2016, a year that took Leonard Cohen and David Bowie from us, and had the absolute worst, most despicable person winning the presidential election (thanks to the fucking Electoral College). But then along came 2020. In addition to having to continue to put up with the mendacious Donald Trump and his goddamn cult of racist imbeciles, 2020 also presented us with wildfires, police murdering citizens, the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and of course the pandemic, which has resulted in more than 340,000 deaths in this country (so far), unemployment, economic crisis and the cancellation of everything that we enjoy. In addition to all that, we lost a lot of important people in the music world. This year brought the deaths of Bill Withers, Little Richard, Spencer Davis, Neil Peart, Eddie Van Halen, Kenny Rogers, Eric Weissberg, Bob Shane, Peter Green, Leslie West, Ellis Marsalis, Toots Hibbert, Andy Gill, Jerry Jeff Walker, Charlie Daniels, Lucky Peterson, Bonnie Pointer, Annie Ross, Justin Townes Earl, Charley Pride, Mac Davis, Helen Reddy, Billy Joe Shaver, Tony Rice and John Prine. A fucking terrible year, no question about it.

However, this year did give us the promise of a return to humanity with the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, bringing us some relief. And, even though concerts have been nearly non-existent since March, many artists reached out to us through social media, presenting performances from their homes and uniting us in an unexpected way. A ray of sunlight in an otherwise dark landscape. And musicians continued to release excellent albums, helping to raise our spirits when we needed it most. In addition to wonderful new releases, 2020 gave us some fantastic 50th anniversary boxed sets, including the Grateful Dead’s Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, and The Kinks’ Lola Vs. Powerman And The Moneygoround. As the vaccines become more widely available, and Donald Trump and his corrupt administration go to prison (which must happen in order to keep something like this from occurring again), things are going to improve. And at some point in 2021 I expect bands will be hitting the road again. It will be kind of scary at first to enter a club or bar or auditorium, but I am looking forward to enjoying live music. Here’s to the promise of a better New Year.

Duke Robillard & Friends: “Blues Bash” (2020) CD Review

On the inside of the CD case of Duke Robillard’s new album, Blues Bash, are the silhouettes of two people cutting the rug. They are clearly having a time, and you’ll likely want to join them the moment this album’s first track begins. This is a fun album, with music to raise our spirits, just exactly the thing to help us bring in the New Year. There is no going out to celebrate this time around, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t enjoy ourselves at home. All we need is some good music, a well-stocked liquor cabinet and that one special someone to share the night. Well, this disc will provide the good music. The band is made up of Duke Robillard on guitar and vocals, Bruce Bears on piano and organ, Mark Teixeira on drums, Jesse Williams on bass, and Marty Ballou on bass, along with special guests Greg Piccolo on tenor saxophone, Rich Lataille on alto saxophone and tenor saxophone, Doug James on baritone saxophone, Chris Cote on vocals, Michelle Willson on vocals, Mark Hummel on harmonica, and Robert Welch on piano.

The group kicks off this delicious blues party with “Do You Mean It,” one of three tracks to feature Chris Cote on vocals. This one ought to get you tapping your toes, at the very least. It features some completely wonderful work on piano, as well as an excellent lead on guitar that has a classic sound. “I’ve been hurt once, baby/Can’t stand to be hurt again.” Ah yes, it is time to dance that hurt away. Then we get deeper into the blues with “No Time,” an original number written by Duke Robillard that features a great blues groove and some exceptional work on harmonica by Mark Hummel. “No time, no time/For all the things I’d like to do/Well, I ain’t got no time for me/And I ain’t got no time for you.” With the pandemic, many of us found ourselves suddenly with some time on our hands, though sadly still unable to do the things we’d really like to do. This track becomes a good little jam. Check out that work on keys. This is a song that Duke Robillard is revisiting here, having included it on his 1997 album Dangerous Place.

The party kicks into higher gear with “What Can I Do,” a ridiculously fun tune featuring a lively, spirited vocal performance from Chris Cote and some totally delicious stuff from the horn section. It is like some glorious big band blues. Pour yourself another drink, turn the volume up and let the rest of the world fade away for a few minutes. That’s followed by “Everybody Ain’t Your Friend,” a song that provides a good warning about people. I used to want to believe the best about people, even if it meant occasionally getting screwed. But the last four years have taught me that there are a lot of just plain bad people out there, people you shouldn’t trust or befriend, or even listen to. What you should listen to is the guitar work on this track. Oh man, that instrumental section is phenomenal, and not just the guitar work. I love the whole mean vibe of this song. Then we get “Rock Alley,” a delightful instrumental track featuring yet more excellent work on guitar, and some great stuff from the horn section. This music is so much fun.

Michelle Willson joins Duke Robillard on vocals for “You Played On My Piano,” another completely enjoyable track. And no, there is nothing at all suggestive in lines like “You played on my piano/And now you want to beat my drum/You think I’m gonna let you/But, baby, I ain’t so dumb” and “If you don’t stop fiddling then I’m gonna blow my top.” This guy wants to play her entire collection of instruments. “I hope you’re better at making music than you are at making love,” Michelle sings. Ouch! She is clearly having a good time with this song. You can hear the joy in her voice. Even more fun is this rendition of “Ain’t Gonna Do It.” Fats Domino never fails to raise my spirits, and these guys certainly get into the swing of this one, with some great stuff on piano. On this track, the band is different, and that’s Mark Braun on piano. Marty Richards is on drums, Marty Ballou is on bass, Al Basile is on cornet, and Sax Gordon is on saxophone. Then Chris Cote returns on vocals for “You Don’t Know What You’re Doin’.”

The album concludes with a couple of original tunes composed by Duke Robillard. The first, “Give Me All The Love You Got,” is a song that he is revisiting here. It was included on the 1985 LP from Duke Robillard And The Pleasure Kings, Too Hot To Handle. I prefer this new version, with the horn section. In this song, he declares his love for some loving, singing “Well now, we won’t ever have to fuss and fight/If you love me every morning, every noon and night/We’ll be so busy keeping to ourselves/When we get through, there won’t be time for nothing else.” The final track, “Just Chillin’,” is cool instrumental number, giving the musicians a chance to get loose. That bass line at the beginning has a sexy, sly vibe, and then that sax slides in just right. There is also some wonderful work on organ. This is one for near the end of the night, the end of the celebration, when you’re drinking out of a wine glass that you’re only somewhat confident is yours. 

CD Track List

  1. Do You Mean It
  2. No Time
  3. What Can I Do
  4. Everybody Ain’t Your Friend
  5. Rock Alley
  6. You Played On My Piano
  7. Ain’t Gonna Do It
  8. You Don’t Know What You’re Doin’
  9. Give Me All The Love You Got
  10. Just Chillin’

Blues Bash was released on November 20, 2020 on Stony Plain Records.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Blaine Sharp: “Wanderlust” (2019) CD Review

Blaine Sharp is a vocalist and songwriter born in Canada and now based in Los Angeles. His debut release, last year’s Wanderlust, features mostly standards, along with a couple of original compositions. His vocals have warmth, a romantic element, as well as a bright quality, and it all sounds perfectly natural, as if singing were his normal method of communicating. Joining the singer on this album are Mike Bolger on accordion, Alex Frank on bass, Mitchell Long on guitar, Allen Mezquida on saxophone, Robert Perkins on drums, Nolan Shaheed on trumpet, Peter Smith on piano, and James Yoshizawa on percussion.

The album opens with its title track, “Wanderlust,” an original song written by Blaine Sharp and Peter Smith, who also produced the album together. This song has a sweet and gentle vibe. Those of us who have wanderlust haven’t been able to follow our muse or spirit much this year, what with the pandemic and all, but we can take a break from the world’s troubles, at least in our minds, as we enjoy this song. “Dreaming of us no longer apart/An ocean of time/Until with you I’m/Chasing the wave of this vagabond heart.” And I love those touches on saxophone. That’s followed by a cover of “Lullaby Of Birdland,” a song written by George Shearing and George Davis Weiss, and recorded by folks like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Mel Tormé.  Blaine Sharp gives the song a cool Latin rhythm, and delivers a smooth vocal performance. This track features some pretty work on piano and a wonderful lead on trumpet.

“Summer Wind” is a song that was originally written in German by Hans Bradtke and Heinz Meier (or Mayer, as it was sometimes spelled), then had English lyrics written by Johnny Mercer. Now Blaine Sharp writes French lyrics for it, and the song sounds even more romantic. Ah, French has that effect, does it not? Listening to this track, I want to stroll along the Champs-Élysées with my girlfriend. There is some nice work on accordion and piano, helping to transport us away from our cares. This song provides the sort of escape we all want. And speaking of escape, Blaine Sharp delivers a beautiful rendition of “You Belong To Me,” a song that mentions several far-away places. “See the market place in old Algiers/Send me photographs and souvenirs/But remember when a dream appears/You belong to me.” As this rendition goes on, it begins to develop something of an island vibe. Then Alex Frank provides some excellent work on bass to accompany Blaine’s vocals at the beginning of “On A Slow Boat To China.” This is a fantastic rendition, featuring some excellent playing from all the musicians. I particularly love what Peter Smith does on piano, and how the piano and drums work together. Then that lead on guitar is delicious. I wish it went on a little longer. This is my personal favorite track.

There is something both sweet and magical about Blaine Sharp’s approach to “A Journey To A Star,” a song written by Harry Warren and Leo Robin, and recorded by Judy Garland in the 1940s. I just want to drift away on this one. Then halfway through, it takes a different tone, starting to swing, bringing us back to earth, to a jazz club where we are all flawless dancers, sweeping our partners off their feet. This track also features another delightful lead on guitar. This album began with one of its two original compositions, and it concludes with the other, “Road To Nowhere,” also written by Blaine Sharp and Peter Smith. This is a sweet, romantic number, sounding almost like a lullaby. “With you there/With you here/Take me far/Take me near/With miles to spare/And dreams to share/On a road to nowhere.”

CD Track List

  1. Wanderlust
  2. Lullaby Of Birdland
  3. Le Vent d’été (Summer Wind)
  4. You Belong To Me
  5. On A Slow Boat To China
  6. A Journey To A Star
  7. Road To Nowhere

Wanderlust was released on October 18, 2019.

Jordan Tice: “Motivational Speakeasy” (2020) CD Review

I have to say first of all that I love the title Motivational Speakeasy. Some album titles just kind of jump at you, and such is the case with this one. It also somehow seems a perfect title for these strange times we find ourselves in. Jordan Tice is a singer and songwriter who works in the bluegrass and folk realms, and is a member of Hawktail. Motivational Speakeasy is a solo album, truly, the singer and guitarist unaccompanied on these eleven original tracks. Yet this was not a decision made for him by the restrictions of a pandemic. These songs were written before the coronavirus took over the world, and their presentation is by design, not by necessity. The music seems influenced by some of the classic folk artists, with a special attention paid to lyrics. Many of Jordan Tice’s lyrical phrases show a certain sense of humor, one of the most important human qualities, putting him in the same sphere as artists like John Hartford, David Bromberg and John Prine.

The album opens with “Tell Me Mama,” which has a wonderful acoustic blues sound, and features some really nice work on guitar. But for me it is the song’s lyrics that stand out. These lines in particular tickle me: “Yeah, you give a mouse for a cookie/He asks you for a drink/You give me some of your loving/Now it’s all that I can think about all day.” That’s followed by “Matter Of Time,” one that has a positive vibe, even before we get a taste of the lyrics. Check out these lines: “People gonna try and build you up/Others gonna knock you down/But most just kind of smile and nod when you’re comin’ ‘round/So just do what you can/Move a little more down the line/You’re going to make it where you’re going in a matter of time.” This song is making me feel so much better about the world, and about my place in it. That is due to those lyrics, but also to that friendly vocal approach, helping us feel a little less alone. Plus, this track features some good guitar work. What more can we ask for from a song? I think this track is going to appeal to a lot of folks.

“Walkin’” is a cheerful, fast-paced folk number that features some impressive guitar-playing. The song itself, the way the lyrics are delivered, feels like someone moving about out there in the world. There is a sense of direction about it, a sense of purpose, while reminding us of the brevity of life, that we ought not waste time. Jordan Tice sings, “And I realized then/That everything we know/Is going to come to an end.” The song’s final line “‘Cause it seems the whole world was created by a rambling mind” stands out for me. Interestingly, Jordan continues that thought in a song titled “Creation’s Done,” a slower, somewhat bluesy number that begins with these lines: “Creation’s done/God is gone.”  Seems a serious number, so then the line “But he left some food in the fridge” surprised me and made me laugh aloud the first time I listened to this track. This song asks us gently to not screw up the world, with God saying he might come back to check on us. That’s followed by “Ghost Story.” And maybe it is surprising to find that a track with the word “Story” in its title is an instrumental, but the guitar does seem to have a tale to relate here.

In “Where I’m At,” Jordan sings, “You can read between the lines/You can look for the signs/But no matter what you find/It ain’t gonna make sense this time.” Now those are some lines that really speak to me. This might be a personal song, but it certainly works on a larger scale as well. This one has a pleasant folk sound, which gives lines like “It’s been beautiful, and I hope you’ve enjoyed this time together too/But I think it’s through” a certain humor. “Bad Little Idea” is another that made me laugh, a certain line catching me by surprise, especially as it follows lines about building a home together. The line is “Because we don’t know love from a hole in the ground.” Yes, this is not quite a love song, but it is certainly an honest song, about desire and need and getting it wrong. “And sooner or later we’ll be right back alone where we belong.” And I love the phrase “compatibly confused.”

The name Stratford automatically gets me to thinking about Shakespeare, and as I listened to “Stratford Waltz,” a pretty instrumental track, images from some of the comedies came to me, particularly the lighter, more romantic moments, though apparently this track has absolutely nothing to do with the bard, and is named after a street in Nashville. So, all right. Then “Ready To Go” comes on with a sense of urgency, like time is running out. “But I’ll do what I can/With what it is I know/Before the angels come and take me/From this world here below/And if you tell me you’re all right/And we can make it through this night/Maybe then I’ll be ready to go.” That’s followed by “Bachelorette Party,” a spirited, sprightly instrumental track. The album concludes with “Goin’ On Down,” a rather sweet number that addresses rambling and traveling. I love these lines: “Old restlessness is telling me to leave it all behind/Old restlessness is telling me to leave it all behind/But when I hear him out, what I find/Is old restlessness don’t have a plan in mind/It just says leave it all behind.”

CD Track List

  1. Tell Me Mama
  2. Matter Of Time
  3. Walkin’
  4. Creation’s Done
  5. Ghost Story
  6. Where I’m At
  7. Bad Little Idea
  8. Stratford Waltz
  9. Ready To Go
  10. Bachelorette Party
  11. Goin’ On Down

Motivational Speakeasy was released on September 25, 2020 on Padiddle Records.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Celebrate New Year’s Eve With Ellis Paul (And A Tribute To Ellis Paul)

Ellis Paul performing at Club Passim, 12-31-16

For quite a while now, Ellis Paul has helped usher in each New Year with a series of concerts at Club Passim in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Typically, he would do two shows on December 30th and two on the 31st, with special guests and some surprising and fun choices of covers. I remember in 2016, for example, he did several songs in tribute to some of the great artists who had died that year, covering songs by Leonard Cohen, Prince and George Michael. This year has, shockingly, been even worse than 2016, and because of the pandemic there will of course be no shows at Club Passim. However, that doesn’t mean there won’t be some excellent music at the end of the month. Ellis Paul is still planning on performing a New Year’s Eve show, though from the comfort of his own home. And we will all be watching it from the comfort of our own homes. That show is scheduled to start at 9 p.m. east coast time, which makes me think it will be a nice long show.

In addition, the folks at Club Passim have organized a special concert for December 30th, a tribute to Ellis Paul, titled “The Songs Of Ellis Paul.” This show is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. eastern time, and boasts a seriously impressive line-up of talent. Artists that are scheduled to perform include David Wilcox, Dan Navarro, Vance Gilbert, Dan Bern, Anne Heaton, Adam Ezra, Radoslav Lorkovic and Jon Svetkey & Heather Quay, among others. That is going to be a wonderful show. Ellis Paul has indicated he will be watching it from his home.

Both concerts are free, but donations are encouraged. Help keep the music venue and music itself going by donating. For the tribute, the suggested donation is $25, and for the New Year’s Eve show, the suggested donation is $50. Let’s not only help bring in the New Year, but kick the hell out of the old. I am seriously excited about both of these concerts, which will be streamed on the Club Passim website. See you then (and by that, I mean, I’ll see your comments on the side of the screen). Let’s have a Happy New Year, everyone.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

The Simeon Davis Group: “Bah Humbug: An Absolutely Unnecessary Christmas Album” (2020) CD Review

Several million Christmas albums are released each year, so you’ve got to love one that acknowledges that it not be entirely necessary. Enter the new release from The Simeon Davis Group, Bah Humbug: An Absolutely Unnecessary Christmas Album. This ridiculously enjoyable jazz album offers us some unnecessary but desirable renditions of holiday classics, taking many of these songs in surprising and fresh directions. Yes, songs you’ve already heard too many times can actually sound new and even exciting. The Simeon Davis Group is made up of Simeon Nathanael Davis on alto saxophone, Jack Chaffee on bass, August Knobbe on piano, and Joshua Parker on drums, with a couple of guests joining them on certain tracks (and an entirely different band on one track).

The album opens with “Let It Snow,” and things get hot pretty quickly, that bass leading the others into a really good rendition of the holiday classic. It is that work on piano like two minutes in that grabs me and makes me want to deck some halls and rock around the Christmas tree. Things calm down a bit after that, but I’m already fully involved at that point, and soon things take off in another direction, with that great saxophone work. It is interesting, the way this track takes off, then comes back down, then takes off again, and before the end there is a cool lead on bass. That’s followed by a fast-paced, breezy rendition of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” Sure, Santa is coming to town, but he won’t be here long. Like a lot of us, he is going to rush through his workday so that he can get down at some after-hours joint with a glass of whisky and groove to music like this. This track features more excellent work on piano, but it is the beginning of the sax lead that is probably my favorite moment, the way it announces itself, like saying “Okay, fellows, gather up close and pay attention.” And then the sax takes things in a fun direction, rocking your Christmas party long after Santa has buggered off. Then, as if this track hadn’t already given us enough, we get a drum solo. Yup, this is a damn fine version of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.”

The Simeon Davis Group offers an unusual take on “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” with a samba rhythm. Juan Galdamez joins the group on percussion on this track. And the pace is faster than normal. They’ve turned the song into something you can dance to. So even if you can’t be home for Christmas (and with the pandemic, no one really should be traveling), you can dance right through the holidays while thinking of those you love. And, hey, we get another drum solo, but this one with two different sections, feeling like a conversation between the two, or one reacting to the other. Then Rachel Azbell joins the group on vocals for what is a rather sexy rendition of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” And yes, I realize that sounds weird, but her voice has an undeniably sexy quality, and she also delivers some cool scat on this track as the band swings. That saxophone also has something sexy happening. So go ahead, make out with your significant other while listening to “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” “Comfort and joy,” indeed! This is a wonderful rendition, and is one of my favorite tracks. It is one of only two tracks on this release to feature vocals. Things become a little more serious with “O Come O Come Immanuel” (usually written as “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”), which has a somber mood from the start. After a few minutes, Simeon Davis’ saxophone lifts this piece off the ground, and things get interesting. I also really like the way this one concludes, that piano part.

Of all the new holiday albums I’ve listened to this year, this is the only one (as far as I recall) to include a version of “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” (though I did see Ellis Paul cover it during one of his online performances). I’m guessing you haven’t heard the song delivered quite the way this group does it. And this is the track to feature a different group of musicians, by the way. Backing Simeon Davis on saxophone are Kendrick Ballard on vocals and keys, Callandra Youngleson on vocals, Kyle Dugger on drums, Jessica Goodrich on flute, Alex Hodge on bass, and Destin Wernicke on vibraphone. They give us a strangely soulful rendition, one that is totally cool, featuring some fun vocal work. I also really dig that jam in the middle. This track has a false ending. It is followed by “Christmastime Is Here,” one of the best pieces of music written for the holiday. The Simeon Davis Group does an excellent job with it, delivering a beautiful and moving rendition, the bass playing an important role. And of course it is the saxophone that becomes the soul of the piece in this version.

“Sing We Now Of Christmas” is an exciting and kind of wild track, and one that is not as familiar to me as the other song choices on this album. This feels like a Christmas where anything might happen, where things are a little out of control, which is wonderful. Then suddenly nearly halfway through, things calm down somewhat, leading to an oddly pretty section on piano. Then “Deck The Halls” begins with a good rhythm, and has kind of a loose, cheerful vibe. That’s followed by a rather peppy rendition of “O Christmas Tree.” This one wastes no time and almost immediately digresses from that main theme and launches into a cool, bopping, swinging realm, and features an excellent lead on piano. And with that great rhythm, you will likely find yourself dancing to this track. It feels like over the course of this entire album the musicians have been wishing us a merry Christmas, and they choose to end it with “We Wish You A Merry Christmas,” at first sticking rather faithfully to the song as we know it, but soon adding some interesting touches, playing with time, which might catch you off guard but which you’ll likely find delightful.

CD Track List

  1. Let It Snow
  2. Santa Claus Is Coming To Town
  3. I’ll Be Home For Christmas
  4. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
  5. O Come O Come Immanuel
  6. You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch
  7. Christmastime Is Here
  8. Sing We Now Of Christmas
  9. Deck The Halls
  10. O Christmas Tree
  11. We Wish You A Merry Christmas

Bah Humbug: An Absolutely Unnecessary Christmas Album was released on December 14, 2020 and is available digitally.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Brief Notes On New Jazz Releases

This terrible year is almost over, and democracy is once again on the horizon, so we are allowing ourselves to be hopeful. Yet, the pandemic is worse than ever, and some imbeciles are still not taking it seriously, making the end of the year dangerous. Fortunately, as many people are preparing for a lonely New Year’s Eve, musicians continue to deliver music to help us through this time. Here are some notes on a few new jazz releases you might want to check out.

The Jeff Benedict Big Big Band: “The Weather Is Here, Wish You Were Beautiful”
– The album’s title shows the playful nature of this band, and the disc contains some fun original material as well as covers of some popular and beloved songs. The disc opens with an original number titled “Moonscape,” a piece with a groovy bass line at its center, and with some exciting work from the horn section, building to a powerful conclusion. The band then digs into a good rendition of Miles Davis’ “Nardis,” which features a great lead by Jeff Hellmer on piano, followed by some excellent work by Jeff Benedict on alto saxophone. “The Fotomat Song (Someday My Prints Will Come)” is a play on “Someday My Prince Will Come,” written by Frank Churchill for Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. This new big band arrangement is by Jeff Benedict, and it features a good lead by Paul McKee on trombone. Of course, people in their twenties have absolutely no idea what it’s like to drop off a roll of film and wait to see how the photos come out, and the joke may be lost on them. But no matter, as the pleasure of the music shouldn’t be lost on anyone. The album’s title track, “The Weather Is Here, Wish You Were Beautiful,” is an original piece by Jeff Benedict, and is a vibrant and dramatic number that moves at a good clip and features an excellent lead on saxophone. One of my personal favorites is “Armadillo Research,” another original number with a playful title, this one with a cool and catchy groove. Another highlight for me is the totally wonderful rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Cheek To Cheek,” which features a delightful introduction and a whole lot of joyful playing. Then the rhythm of “The Mighty Dollar” might get you dancing and shaking, and the album concludes with a funky and seriously fun number certain to get you moving. This album is scheduled to be released on January 15, 2021.

Alexander McCabe: “I’d Prefer”
– Saxophone player and composer Alexander McCabe’s excellent new album contains mostly original material, but with a timeless vibe. It opens with “You Really Don’t Care,” an original composition that has the vibe of a classic song, in large part because of Anne McCabe’s wonderful vocal performance. “I’ll move on, I’ll live without you/Because I really don’t care.” The work on saxophone here has a sweet and easygoing feel, and this track also features a cheerful lead by on piano. That is followed by “A Christmas Song,” a pleasant and pretty song with lyrics by Grace Casale. “As chestnuts roast, just hold me close/I wish you a merry Christmas.” “I’d Prefer,” the disc’s title track, is a rather playful number about longtime friends who might be on the edge of dating. Or, rather, one is worried that the other wants things to go in that direction. “I’d prefer if you didn’t ask me,” Anne McCabe sings, and her performance has a friendly quality. Most of the tracks feature Anne McCabe’s voice, but there are also two instrumental tracks – the lively “Miss Maritza” and the groovy and loose “Out Front Blues,” the latter featuring a cool bass solo. The album’s sole cover is Janet Jackson’s “Together Again.” The musicians on this album include Alexander McCabe on alto saxophone, George Coleman on tenor saxophone, Anne McCabe on vocals, Paul Odeh on piano, Chris Haney on bass, and Jeff Brown on drums. This album was released on November 20, 2020.

Larry Newcomb Quartet: “Love, Dad”
– The new disc from guitarist and composer Larry Newcomb, Love, Dad, features mostly original material. The quartet is made up of Larry’s son Jake Newcomb on bass (giving the album’s title more significance), Thomas Royal on piano and Dave Marsh on drums. Though this disc showcases Newcomb’s compositions, it opens with one of its four covers, “You Stepped Out Of A Dream,” written by Nacio Herb Brown in the early 1940s. This track gently swings, and features some expressive and merry guitar work, as well as some great touches on drums and a cool lead on bass. It’s a wonderful start to a seriously good album, and is followed by “Essential Messengers,” an original composition with a bossa nova vibe. “Cliffhanger Blues,” another original piece, is catchy right from the start. This one swings, while including a good dose of the blues on guitar, and features some fantastic work on piano. Plus, there is some groovy stuff on both bass and drums, helping to make this track one of my personal favorites. The title track, “Love, Dad,” has a sweet and affectionate vibe, fitting for its subject. And I love the late-night feel of “Hearts In Suspension.” As for the album’s other covers, Oscar Pettiford’s “Tricotism,” as you might guess, features some excellent work on bass. This track has a deliciously cool vibe, and includes a wonderful lead on piano. “Secret Agent Man” might be the most surprising choice of covers, and this quartet delivers a seriously enjoyable rendition, with Larry Newcomb clearly having a good time with it. The final cover, Jerome Kern’s “The Song Is For You,” which was featured in the film The Saddest Music In The World, concludes the disc. Larry Newcomb Quartet delivers an excellent, cheerful rendition. This album is scheduled to be released on February 5, 2021.

Henry Robinett Quartet: “Jazz Standards Volume 2: Then Again”
– Though this is a new release, the music on it was recorded twenty years ago, as was the first volume in this series. The album opens with a fantastic rendition of “Yours Is My Heart Alone,” featuring some totally delicious and fluid guitar-playing. Then that lead on piano takes off from where the guitar lead ended, keeping everything moving at a good pace. The music on this disc is full of life, and it’s kind of crazy that it took two decades for it to be released. Check out the way the musicians converse and work together on “I Thought About You,” a track that seems to just get better and better as it goes, that section in the second half a joy to listen to. And after the piano lead in “Milestones,” I am surprised when I don’t hear applause. This recording has all the passion and excitement of a live album. I also dig the unusual drum solo toward the end of that track. There is so much impressive work here from all four musicians, and yet it all seems to flow so easily and naturally. Check out “How Am I To Know,” its movement seeming to proceed of its own volition. And check out that lead on bass in “I Love You.” The quartet is made up of Henry Robinett on guitar, Joe Gilman on piano, Chris Symer on bass, and Michael Stephans on drums. This album is scheduled to be released on January 8, 2021.

Chris Rottmayer: “Sunday At Pilars”
– Pianist and composer Chris Rottmayer’s new album, Sunday At Pilars, is a studio recording, but was inspired by his band’s monthly gigs at Pilars Martini in Winter Garden, Florida. The album features mostly covers, but also a few originals. It opens with a rendition of Tal Farlow’s “Meteor,” and it is saxophone player Jack Wilkins who immediately shines on this track, delivering an excellent lead. Chris Rottmayer takes over approximately halfway through, and his playing has a light and exciting flair.  The rhythm section of Walt Hubbard on drums and Charlie Silva on bass keep things moving forward. That’s followed by “Weaver Of Dreams,” which has a more romantic style, putting me in a good and relaxed mood, something I desire more and more in these troubling times. Things do get livelier as the track goes on, but the mood remains good. Chris Rottmayer’s playing on “Skylark” is beautiful, just the perfect thing to listen to as we settle into a dark winter. Pour some Kahlua into your hot cocoa and enjoy this one. He also offers a pretty rendition of Victor Young’s “My Foolish Heart.” And his version of “Nostalgia In Times Square” is a lot of fun, and I love that work on drums. As for the original material, all three tracks are near the end of the album. The first is titled “Trocadero,” which has an easygoing and familiar vibe, and includes a nice lead on bass. That’s followed by “Waltz For Julia,” a wonderful, romantic piece, which also features some excellent work on bass. The disc concludes with the final original composition, a short piece titled “Break Blues For Pilar,” a fun and groovy little jam that will likely raise your spirits. This album was released on CD on November 13, 2020, though it was available digitally last year.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Hawkestrel: “SpaceXmas” (2020) CD Review

This year has seen a lot of holiday CD and vinyl releases, even more than usual, it seems. Hawkestrel, the project created by Alan Davey last year as a sort of spinoff from Hawkwind, offers us “SpaceXmas.” And yes, with a goofy title like “SpaceXmas,” I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. But I trusted the musicians enough to dig into this one, and was pleasantly surprised. The album features musicians from the Hawkwind family, such as Nik Turner and Huw Lloyd Langton, the latter of whom died in 2012 and appears on this album through recordings of sessions he did for Cleopatra Records. This album also features the work of Robby Krieger and Rick Wakeman on certain tracks. We are treated to some traditional Christmas songs, some original material, and even a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” And yes, there is an otherworldly sound to these songs, many of which are presented as instrumentals. These tracks mostly move from one right into the next, creating a continuous piece of holiday music.

The album opens with the Christmas classic, “O Holy Night,” here listed as “Oh Holy Night,” featuring Glenn Hughes on vocals. You probably recall Hughes from his vocal and bass work with Deep People in the mid-1970s. This is a striking and rather pretty rendition. “Oh Holy Night” leads directly into a rendition of “We Three Kings” that has a heavy, full sound, yet manages to retain some of the song’s beauty. This is an instrumental rendition. Alan Davey plays bass, guitar and synths, and Adam Hamilton plays drums on this track. It leads straight into the album’s first original composition, “It’s A Wonderful (Funny Old) Life,” the title obviously a reference to the Frank Capra film that is shown every year at this time. This piece was composed by Huw Lloyd Langton and Alan Davey, and it features Huw’s work on acoustic guitar. There is a wonderfully timeless vibe to this tune, and it leads directly into an instrumental rendition of “Silent Night” that features Steve Leigh on strings and synths. “Silent Night” is probably the most beautiful of the traditional holiday songs, and this rendition does tap into that, but what I find most appealing about this rendition is that section in the middle when it kicks in to become more of a rock number. Alan Davey plays bass, guitar, synths and drums on this one.

Huw Lloyd Langton composed “Seasons,” and he provides the vocals for this track. It begins in a mellow place, with the sounds of nature, and becomes more exciting once it kicks in, like a minute into it. “Sitting close to the fire now, all the trees are bare/Winter’s taken her toll now, how I wish that summer was here.” Jurgen Engler plays mellotron on this track. That’s followed by “Little Drummer Boy.” I’ve always loved Joan Jett’s rock version of “Little Drummer Boy,” and this rendition has something of the same vibe, though it is an instrumental track. Also, Robbie Krieger joins on sitar, helping to make this one of my personal favorites. Adam Hamilton is on drums.

“Für Kirsty” is a beautiful instrumental piece composed by Huw Lloyd Langton, who plays acoustic guitar, synth and triangle on it. Alan Davey is on upright bass and mellotron. This track combines a classical feel and that space-like element, and is another of my favorite tracks. That’s followed by “Ein Weihnachliches Lustobjekt,” an odd track composed by Jurgen Engler, who also provides the vocals. The lyrics are presented in German, so I have no idea what he’s saying. The vocals have an electronic sound, like a robotic voice, and this track has an even more electronic sound than the others, but with a nod to “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” in the middle. Rick Wakeman joins Alan Davey on piano and synths for “O Come All Ye Faithful,” and certainly adds his personal touch to this spirited instrumental rendition. That leads straight into “Jingle Bells,” one of my least favorite Christmas songs. But this version sounds like no other that I’ve heard. It’s kind of scary. You might not even recognize it at first, and that is a good thing.

Leonard Cohen is my all-time favorite songwriter, and his most popular and covered song is now “Hallelujah” (it used to be “Suzanne”). Hawkestrel delivers a somewhat unusual and yet beautiful rendition, with Nigel Potter on vocals and guitar, and Nik Turner on flute. I’m always interested to see which verses an artist will pick when covering this song, and Hawkestrel delivers five verses, the same five that Jeff Buckley chose for his version. This song doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the album, but no matter. I love it, especially that section with flute before the final verse. The album then concludes with “Twelve Daze Of Drinxmas.” There are many variations on the “The Twelve Days Of Christmas” theme, my favorite still being “The Twelve Pains Of Christmas.” This one is a rock song, with Danny Faulkner on vocals. The first day of Christmas, in which he gets a cold beer, reminds me of the Bob & Doug MacKenzie version of “Twelve Days Of Christmas” from the Great White North album. But this one is all about drinking, making it the perfect version for Christmas in 2020. This is not the year to be sober. Good luck to us all.

CD Track List

  1. Oh Holy Night
  2. We Three Kings
  3. It’s A Wonderful (Funny Old) Life
  4. Silent Night
  5. Seasons
  6. Little Drummer Boy
  7. Für Kirsty
  8. Ein Weihnachliches Lustobjekt
  9. O Come All Ye Faithful
  10. Jingle Bells
  11. Hallelujah
  12. Twelve Daze Of Drinxmas

SpaceXmas was released on December 4, 2020 on Purple Pyramid Records, a division of Cleopatra Records.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Trees Speak: “Shadow Forms” (2020) CD Review

In early spring this year, when the pandemic was beginning to be taken seriously by many people (though not, of course, by the current administration), Trees Speak released an excellent experimental psychedelic album titled Ohms. Now, as we near the end of this disastrous year, and the pandemic is more dangerous than ever, Trees Speak has delivered another intriguing album, in which the group seems to create its own reality and then invites us to explore it. While the world outside is unsafe and half the country has gone completely mad, the world presented in these tracks can be frightening as well at times. This is no oasis in a perilous desert, but rather an exciting and sometimes dark place with its own intelligence, its own protocols, its own hazards, its own promises, and, yes, its own beauty.

The album’s opening track, “Large Array,” begins by establishing a strange, windswept landscape, a dawn over some foreign world. And as this weird day then begins, an electronic pulse takes over, holding steady, as a message is being sent out, one that is repeated. There is something hopeful here, in the act itself, and perhaps in the message, nothing threatening. And after a while this track has a strangely soothing effect, which took me by surprise. This track fades out at the end. Unlike the previous album, in which the tracks largely ran from one straight into the next, the tracks here can stand on their own. “Large Array” is followed by “Tear Kisser,” a seriously cool number that in some ways feels like an electronic version of a score to a groovy spy film from the 1960s. There is an element of intrigue, something of the unknown, but also something rather suave about its presentation. And if the tracks of this album were to be attached to films, “Those Who Know” at its opening sounds like it belongs in one of those straight-to-video late 1980s horror or science fiction films. And I do not mean that in any sort of disparaging way. I like those films. There is an intense vibe here, something strong and unrelenting at its core, something inescapable.

“Transforming” eases us into its world, which is soon then surrounding us, enveloping us. And though there is a hint of melancholy about it, there is also beauty here. Listening to it, we find ourselves feeling a mysterious and ethereal sort of optimism, as we look off to the distance and wonder just what will emerge from the horizon. That’s followed by “Automat,” one that features an ominous presence, a slow pounding that seems like it will take over whatever space it wishes, a sentient though inhuman force, something primal, yet artificial, and so frightening. Then “False Ego” introduces an electronic voice communicating to us through rhythm and machinery. Yet there is an almost dreamlike quality about this, like it has put us into a sleep-like state in order to make the communication easier, and is hoping we’ll remember as we wake, as we emerge into whatever the real world might be. But as the track goes on, the waking and dreaming states seem to have merged, and the electronic voice holds power in both. There seems to be a sort of faux spiritual element to its message.

“Communication” begins with what sounds like radio transmissions, and then, in contrast to that, there is some rather pretty work on guitar. It feels like two worlds acting simultaneously on us, on our thoughts, perhaps an interior world, a calming, soothing force, and the external sounds of those transmissions. Interestingly, the guitar fades into the background for a moment, and then when it returns, it creates a different theme, this time something gentle, like a memory. As the transmissions take focus, there is static, but sounding more like a record player than from communication devices. And is that “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” in the background as this track fades out? Then at the beginning of “Crystal System,” an eerie landscape is created. But when the drums come in, interestingly there is a stronger human element, a more grounded, solid experience. And soon there is the sense of a community, though one that is sedate, slowed by exterior means, and we feel like we are moving through a heavy haze.

“Agonize Signal” is unsettling from the start, as we are dropped into an unfamiliar and perhaps dangerous place, and we hear the call of some large denizen of the land, causing us to pause. This is a place where we have no allies and must fend for ourselves. But maybe the biggest danger is inside our own minds, though the sounds here are haunting and odd and almost aggressive. That’s followed by “Magick Knives,” which takes us down a dark path as well, a dangerous alley, where we are sized up by all its inhabitants and allowed to pass, not because we pose a threat but just the opposite. And what is waiting for us at the end? There is something exciting, even seductive in the darkness that draws us forward. The album concludes with its title track, “Shadow Forms.” In this one too, something is attempting to communicate with us through electronic sounds, beckoning us. Though eerie, it seems these are incorporeal creatures, and so perhaps pose no real danger. But soon it feels that we, in fact, are the shadow forms, and they have more substance, at least in the realm they’ve pulled us into. And there is something we must do here, some task to be completed, if we are ever to return.

CD Track List

  1. Large Array
  2. Tear Kisser
  3. Those Who Know
  4. Transforming
  5. Automat
  6. False Ego
  7. Communication
  8. Crystal System
  9. Agonize Signal
  10. Magick Knives
  11. Shadow Forms

Shadow Forms was released on October 30, 2020 on Soul Jazz Records (though it seems the U.S. release date was November 27th), and is available on both CD and vinyl.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Carla Marciano Quartet: “Psychosis: Homage To Bernard Herrmann” (2019/2020) CD Review

Bernard Herrmann composed some memorable and fantastic film scores, and is known especially for his work with Alfred Hitchcock. He wrote music for Psycho, Vertigo, North By Northwest, The Trouble With Harry, Marnie and The Man Who Knew Too Much (that is, Hitchcock’s second film with the title The Man Who Knew Too Much). He of course wasn’t limited to working with just that director, and also composed music for such films as Taxi Driver, The Day The Earth Stood Still, Twisted Nerve and Citizen Kane. Carla Marciano Quartet pays tribute to Bernard Herrmann’s talent as a composer on the new release, Psychosis: Homage To Bernard Herrmann. The quartet is made up of Carla Marciano on alto saxophone and soprano saxophone, Alessandro La Corte on piano and keyboards, Aldo Vigorito on double bass, and Gaetano Fasano on drums.

The disc opens with a piece from Taxi Driver, “Betsy’s Theme,” the saxophone acting as a lonely voice in the night, crying out in a dark city, and though it is likely that other people hear, it is not likely they will respond. This is a beautiful and sad track, and it takes an interesting turn approximately six minutes in, with the addition of that strong, dark pulse on drums. We then get into the Hitchcock territory with the “Prelude” from Marnie, Hitchcock’s 1964 film starring Sean Connery and Tippi Hedren. This is an exciting and dramatic piece. I am drawn particularly to that work on piano approximately five minutes in, and love that wild, sort of unhinged percussion beneath it. This music feels like it can create suspense in our own lives, whatever it is we might be doing while listening. And then that intense work on saxophone seems ready to drive us right to the edge, and with a sense of urgency, commanding our attention. That leads directly into “From ‘Marnie’ To ‘Twisted Nerve,’” a connecting piece composed by Carla Marciano, and featuring more unrestrained and exciting work from her on saxophone. In the second half, the music begins to mellow and develop into a more haunting theme, with allusions to Twisted Nerve, before relaxing into nothingness. Then the Carla Marciano Quartet ventures into the theme from Twisted Nerve. Twisted Nerve is a movie I have long wanted to see and somehow still not managed to catch. Its plot sounds great. The theme here begins with an intense energy on saxophone. And, hey, even if, like me, you haven’t seen the movie, this music will be familiar to you, because Tarantino used a variation of this in Kill Bill: Volume 1, that piece that everyone was whistling at work for like three years afterward. Things relax a bit after a minute or so, leading into a cool lead on bass. But it’s not long before this track is again growing in intensity, that saxophone tearing holes in whatever fabric holds reality together before the end. This is a phenomenal track. You might need a breather when it’s over.

Usually when someone plays music from Psycho, that person begins straight off with that one familiar theme. It has been included on Halloween and horror music compilations. Carla Marciano Quartet does something a little different here, beginning with an introduction on piano. Then a couple of minutes in, we do get that theme, one of Bernard Herrmann’s most recognizable pieces. This is a seriously cool take on it, a different approach than what I’d heard before. I love what these guys do with this piece, especially Carla Marciano’s work on saxophone, her instrument as unhinged as Norman Bates ever was. And there is a surprising drum solo in the second half, which I love. That is followed by a wonderfully eerie take on the prelude from Vertigo, the first of two pieces of music from that film. This track includes an excellent bass solo, which actually concludes the piece. We then get the second piece of music from Vertigo, “Scene D’Amour,” which, as you might expect, is a prettier piece, but still features some great wailing on saxophone. At one point, does that instrument sound like Chewbacca to you? Maybe it’s just me. Anyway, this track also includes some fantastic work on keys. And that is it for the Bernard Herrmann music.

Interestingly, the album then concludes with a piece composed by John Williams for the first Harry Potter film, “Hedwig’s Theme.” I’m not sure why there is a switch to a different composer for the disc’s final track, especially when there is a lot of other great work from Bernard Herrmann to cover, but it’s a really good approach to the piece. It begins with some nice work on piano, and it isn’t long before Carla Marciano is thrilling us on sax, even mesmerizing us. This track is way more exciting and compelling than any of the Harry Potter movies ever were.

CD Track List

  1. Theme From “Taxi Driver” (Betsy’s Theme)
  2. Theme From “Marnie” (Prelude)
  3. From “Marnie” to “Twisted Nerve”
  4. Theme From “Twisted Nerve” (Theme & Variations)
  5. Theme From “Psycho” (Prelude)
  6. Theme From “Vertigo” (Prelude)
  7. Theme From “Vertigo” (Scene D’Amour)
  8. Homage To John Williams: Theme From “Harry Potter” (Hedwig’s Theme)

Psychosis: Homage To Bernard Herrmann was originally released on September 6, 2019, and then in the U.S. on November 1, 2020.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Little Richard: “Southern Child” (2020) CD Review

On The Rill Thing, which was released in 1970, Little Richard covered “Lovesick Blues,” a song made famous by Hank Williams. And then on his next album, 1971’s King Of Rock And Roll, he covered Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” as well as another song that Hank Williams recorded, “Settin’ The Woods On Fire.” Yup, Little Richard, the self-proclaimed king of rock and roll, was doing country, and he was doing it really well. So what was his next album? Well, it was going to be Southern Child, an album of country rock, which he recorded and for which the cover photo was shot. But that record was shelved, and instead The Second Coming was released. The songs from Southern Child were eventually released in 2005 as part of the three-disc set, King Of Rock And Roll: The Complete Reprise Recordings. But it wasn’t until just a few weeks ago that the album was finally released on its own as Little Richard had intended, with the proper photo on its cover and everything (yes, that insane shot of him milking a cow). It was released on yellow vinyl as part of Black Friday’s Record Store Day, and then on CD the following week, the CD containing a few bonus tracks.

The album opens with “California (I’m Comin’),” a totally delicious country rock song that was written by Little Richard, Randy Ostin and Keith Winslow. Oh yeah, I should mention that not only did Little Richard record an entire country rock album, but that he wrote or co-wrote all the tracks. Yeah, this is all original material. Crazy, right? Well, it’s also really good. This lead track is totally delicious and catchy. It is country rock, yes, but with a certain amount of funkiness. “I hope you receive me well/I got a story that I got to tell/You’ve got to be good to me, California/I’ll be good to you.” That is followed by “If You Pick Her Too Hard (She Comes Out Of Tune),” a strangely gentle and sweet country number that works its way into your heart before very long. There is something delightful about this track, right from the start with that wonderfully odd vocal part, which is revisited near the end.

“Burning Up With Love” is a cool combination of country and funk, in which Little Richard’s vocal delivery is somewhat restrained, at least for the most part. In this song, he seems to be burning both metaphorically and literally. He sings, “I’m stuck in a burning building/Flames licking by my toes/It wouldn’t be as bad as being without you,” and then, “Because I’m burning up with love for you.” Little Richard gets more seriously and deeply into country territory with “Ain’t No Tellin’” and it works so damn well. Seriously, this is one of my favorite tracks from this album. Little Richard totally nails it, and seems to feel no need to sell it; he gives us a wonderful vocal performance without any shouts or wild whoops. And he maintains this vibe for what is one of the album’s longest songs, at nearly six minutes. That’s followed by “Last Year’s Race Horse (Can’t Run In This Year’s Race),” which has an intriguing beginning, Little Richard’s vocals supported by just some unusual work on guitar. “Run, run/Keep on a-running.” Then the music has a somewhat laid-back and loose vibe, somewhat in contrast to Little Richard’s powerful vocal delivery, creating an interesting sound overall. And I love that guitar work.

The album’s title track, “Southern Child,” is a fun number in which he sings about being born in Macon, Georgia, and lets a little of his enormous ego into the lyrics, assuming everyone knows details about his youth: “Now I’m a southern child, a southern child/From down in Macon, Georgia/Everybody knows where I was born/Now I’ve been seeking, searching, lordy, lordy/Trying to find my baby/I’m trying to bring my baby back on home.” There is something completely delightful about this track. It is sweet and fun and catchy, and moves just right. This is another of my favorite tracks. That’s followed by “In The Name,” a song he had also included on King Of Rock And Roll. The version here is quite a bit different from that rendition, that one a great soul number with gospel backing vocals. This version might be Southern Child’s sweetest track, a gentle, laid-back number that is several shades of wonderful. “I’ve been gone for such a mighty long time/And I just can’t get you out of my mind.” And some lines are delivered almost as spoken word. Yeah, this track is excellent.

Little Richard then gives us a song titled “Over Yonder,” a wonderful gospel country track that includes a spoken word section in which he delivers a message about people coming together. And listen to that harmonica. That’s followed by “I Git A Little Lonely,” a song that is country, but feels like some kind of funky rock is trying to burst out from below. The results are totally cool. This one is less than two minutes long and comes to a sudden ending, but it is followed by the album’s longest track, “Puppy Dog Song,” which features the sounds of dogs barking at the beginning. And Little Richard, in a spoken word section, talks about the dogs, and when he mentions the white dog pushing the other dogs out of the way, I can’t help but think of that bully Trump pushing other world leaders out of the way so he can be in the center. This song, which is funk, finds Little Richard riffing vocally over a good groove, and over the barking dogs. Then like four and a half minutes into it, he starts singing. Singing and shouting and belting out the lines. “Now the dog catcher is on the way-ay-ay-ay-ay.” This wild song is how the album concludes.

Bonus Tracks

The CD version of this album contains four bonus tracks, the first three being takes of “In The Name.” The first begins with some studio banter, and has a false start. The other two takes are complete takes, both being just vocals and acoustic guitar. It is so cool to hear Little Richard presented this way. These tracks have such a loose, honest vibe, and are playful at times. At the end of the second track, he says “I think I should go to a higher key,” and indeed in the third take he does just that. The final bonus track is “Sneak The Freak,” which is a fun rock and roll instrumental number, featuring some great stuff on piano.

CD Track List

  1. California (I’m Comin’)
  2. If You Pick Her Too Hard (She Comes Out Of Tune)
  3. Burning Up With Love
  4. Ain’t No Tellin’
  5. Last Year’s Race Horse (Can’t Run In This Year’s Race)
  6. Southern Child
  7. In The Name
  8. Over Yonder
  9. I Git A Little Lonely
  10. Puppy Dog Song
  11. In The Name (Version 4, Take 1)
  12. In The Name (Version 4, Take 2)
  13. In The Name (Version 4, Take 3)
  14. Sneak The Freak

Southern Child was released on CD on December 4, 2020 through Omnivore Recordings.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Vanessa Collier: “Heart On The Line” (2020) CD Review

I was introduced to Vanessa Collier’s music a couple of years ago when she released Honey Up, an album that ended up on the Billboard Blues Album Chart for several weeks. Like that album, her new release, Heart On The Line, features mostly original material, with Vanessa on both vocals and saxophone. She plays alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone and baritone saxophone on this release, and also resonator guitar on one track. Joining her on this release are Nick Stevens on drums and percussion, C.C. Ellis on bass, Scot Sutherland on bass, Cornell Williams on bass, Laura Chavez on electric guitar, William Gorman on keys, Quinn Carson on trombone, and Doug Woolverton on trumpet, most of whom also played on Honey Up.

Though this album contains mostly original material, she chooses to open it with a delicious and funky rendition of James Brown’s “Super Bad.” This track is whole lot of fun, and when Vanessa Collier sings, “I’ve got soul, and I’m super bad,” no one is likely to argue with her. As much as I love her vocal work here, which is cool and exciting, it is her saxophone that is really impressive and takes this track to a higher level. She follows that with an original song, “What Makes You Beautiful,” a smooth and soulful number in which she offers some advice to a young woman. “Twist your hair around your finger/Trying to get that curl that the cool kids do/Try to cover up your freckles with makeup/Oh, girl, you should just be you.” She then tells her, “You can’t hide what makes you beautiful,” a good message. And this track features another good lead on saxophone.

“Bloodhound” is a deliciously raw blues number, another original song, and the track on which Vanessa Collier plays resonator guitar. There is something compelling about this one, almost mesmerizing, with that percussion and those backing vocals (Vanessa provides her own backing vocals). And then the electric guitar takes over in the second half. The song ends with an a cappella howl that could have easily led into a chorus of “Werewolves Of London.” Then it is her vocal performance that really moves me in her beautiful cover of “I Don’t Want Anything To Change,” a song written by Elisabeth Rose, Maia Sharp and Stephanie Chapman, and included on Bonnie Raitt’s 2005 album Souls Alike. This rendition also features some nice work on keys, and a sweet lead on saxophone. That’s followed by a funky rendition of Randy Newman’s “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” here titled “Leave Your Hat On,” the third and final cover of the album, her version clearly inspired by the Etta James recording, rather than the original Randy Newman or Joe Cocker renditions. The lyrics are adjusted for a female singer and a male subject, which takes a bit of getting used to, but Etta James did that too, and this is a fun version, with a horn section. The horns seem to answer her when she sings “They say that my love is wrong.” And I like that jam at the end, particularly those horns. So good!

“Take A Chance On Me” comes on strong, with a force. This is an original song, not a cover of the ABBA tune. This one has more of a rock edge and power. There is no holding back. That’s followed by “If Only,” a soulful song, a character study of a “grumpy old man,” and one we can all relate to in some small way. For this is about fantasizing how our lives would be better if only we’d gotten more breaks, more advantages, and about the danger that in doing so, our lives are passing by, that we’re not enjoying what we do have. But who among us doesn’t spend at least some time doing this? “If only I could have everything I want, only then could I be happy.” This is, for me, one of the album’s highlights. And it is followed by my pick for the album’s best track, “Weep And Moan.” I love that sly, sexy sound at the beginning, a glorious and totally cool blues landscape. And what a vocal performance! It is alluring, powerful, and with an edge that could slice right into your flesh. “I’ve seen who you are when you’ve got it all/I’ve seen who you are when you lose/I’ve seen who you are when you think no one’s looking.” Plus, there is a good lead on electric guitar. And then those horns! This track just gets better and better. I highly recommend checking out this song.

“Who’s In Power?” begins with a good beat, and is soon asking questions we’ve all been pondering, especially in the last four years when all of us have taken a much closer look at politics and those in positions of power than we usually do. “Who’s at the top of the heap/And how’d they get there?/What makes them qualified?/Did they earn their seat/Or did they pay off somebody?” More excellent work from the horn section makes this track another of the disc’s highlights. And you’ve got to love that bass line. That’s followed by “Freshly Squozen.” Yes, it’s a goofy title, containing a non-word, but this is a sweet song. “She said I’m gonna squeeze you like a tube of toothpaste/Gonna hug you ‘til the stuffing come out/I’m gonna love you every second I can/Until you’re, until you’re freshly squozen.” The album concludes with its title track, “Heart On The Line,” in which Vanessa Collier sings “I’ve been waiting for somebody else to be strong/So I don’t have to hold their world up/I can just tend to my own/‘Cause my heart’s been bruised from overuse.” And when she sings, “I’m going home,” she belts the line out with a certain joy, a contagious joy. The line “I can’t stand to see people hurting without it hurting me too” is one that I’m sure a lot of folks can relate to in this time of pain and suffering. But this song is no downer. In fact, during the chorus, it feels like a celebration. “I’m going home/Kicking my shoes off, pouring a glass of red wine/I’m going home.” This is a wonderful ending to an excellent album.

CD Track List

  1. Super Bad
  2. What Makes You Beautiful
  3. Bloodhound
  4. I Don’t Want Anything To Change
  5. Leave Your Hat On
  6. Take A Chance On Me
  7. If Only
  8. Weep And Moan
  9. Who’s In Power?
  10. Freshly Squozen
  11. Heart On The Line

Heart On The Line was released on August 21, 2020.

Tom Mason: “Under A Mistletoe Sky” (2020) CD Review

It seems that most musical artists at some point in their careers release a holiday-themed album. Tom Mason has put out three. In 2003, he released A Slide Guitar Christmas, and then in 2012 he released A Pirate’s Christmas, that one with the Blue Buccaneers. Now he delivers Under A Mistletoe Sky, featuring all original music, written or co-written by Tom Mason. This is music designed to help you enjoy the holiday and not take things too seriously. Tom Mason, in addition to lead vocals, plays guitar, dobro, trombone, bass, harmonica and percussion on this album. But he does have some other musicians joining him on this release, including Michael Webb on piano and organ (Michael Webb also produced the album), Pete Pulkrabek on drums and backing vocals, Fawn Larson on vocals, and Jeff Thorneycroft on bass, along with guests on a couple of tracks.

This album opens with “Crazy For Christmas,” in which Tom Mason sings “My baby, she’s crazy for Christmas/It’s her favorite time of year.” This year I think more people are excited about the holiday than usual, for everyone is eager for something to celebrate. I usually don’t get caught up in the holiday trappings, but this year I find myself truly enjoying the lights and other decorations, in addition to the music. Hell, I’ve even been enjoying some of those ridiculous Hallmark movies. And I can safely credit this change in large part to my girlfriend, who is crazy for Christmas, though thankfully she doesn’t have “more plastic Santas than you have ever seen,” as described in this song. This is a fun tune, delivered with a sense of humor. Those backing vocals are what produce the most mirth, describing the woman as “loco with her cocoa.” This song was written by Tom Mason and Nate Dungan. That’s followed by the album’s title track, “Under A Mistletoe Sky,” a lively country rock number about a Christmas romance. It begins with a little nod to “O Holy Night,” and returns to that theme again later in the track. Sheila Lawrence joins Tom Mason on vocals on this one.

“All Covered In Snow” is a sweet song about romance in winter, featuring all those things you associate with the season, with Tom singing, for example, “In the meadow, we’ll make angels in the snow/And then warm ourselves inside with hot cocoa.” A cabin in the snow has a certain sense of magic, and cuddling with the person you love feels even better when it is cold out, doesn’t it? Then “Christmas Boogaloo” has a more Latin vibe, the guitar work seeming to be influenced by Santana. This song calls people to come together, regardless of skin color, religion, and so on. “Let’s love everybody with a Christmas boogaloo.” Sounds right to me, bring folks together with a dance. The backing vocalists repeat, “Love everybody,” a good message for the whole year round. (Though, let’s be honest, there are seventy-four million people in this country who are unlovable.)

“Come On Mr. Claus” is a fun rock and roll song addressed to Santa Claus, urging him to hurry and get to work, the backing vocalists repeating “Come on, come on,” adding to that early rock vibe. Of course, there really should be a comma in the song’s title; otherwise, it has a very different connotation. And speaking of early rock and roll, “Little Elvis King Of The Elves” takes that Elvis Presley sound and style, and applies it to a story of the holiday. This track features some good work on guitar and piano. But, hey, what is this aversion to commas in the song titles? “Santa’s Little Helper” also has something of a classic rock and roll vibe, along with a sweet vocal line. This is a totally enjoyable number, with a catchy rhythm and some nice touches on guitar. “Do you want to be Santa’s little helper, my dear/I could use a little extra help this year/On Christmas Eve, you could drive my sleigh/And be Santa’s little helper all the way to Christmas day.” This is one of my personal favorites. How cute are the lines “If you’ll agree to be Mrs. Claus, I promise you/I’ll be Santa’s little helper’s little helper my whole life through,” a delightful declaration of love and devotion if ever there was one.

“Santa Says Keep It Cool” is an unusual and groovy number with a jazzy vibe. I especially like the work on harmonica and that percussion. “Turn down the heat, snuggle up tight/If you want him there on Christmas night/Santa says keep it cool.” Ah, so he means that literally? Well, he is used to the North Pole temperatures, after all. This track features a delightful little jam in the middle, and again at the end. That’s followed by “Gift Wrapped Girl,” another rock and roll number, this one told from the perspective of a guy who is friends with Santa and asks him for a gift-wrapped girl. “I said, Santa, I want a gift that will last/Not a toy that will break after three weeks have passed.” Well, you’d better be gentle with her, and be sure to unwrap her immediately before she suffocates. And Santa himself cautions him to treat this present well. This track features some nice stuff on keys. The album then concludes with “Christmas In Love,” a sweet number with an easygoing rhythm. “Come and sit down next to me/Beneath the lights of the Christmas tree/I’ll give the logs on the fire another shove/It’s Christmas time and I’m in love.” Well, all right! This is another of my personal favorites.

CD Track List

  1. Crazy For Christmas
  2. Under A Mistletoe Sky
  3. All Covered In Snow
  4. Christmas Boogaloo
  5. Come On Mr. Claus
  6. Little Elvis King Of The Elves
  7. Santa’s Little Helper
  8. Santa Says Keep It Cool
  9. Gift Wrapped Girl
  10. Christmas In Love

Under A Mistletoe Sky was released on November 6, 2020.