Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Nina Simone And Her Friends: “Nina Simone And Her Friends” (1960/2021) CD Review

This year Nina Simone fans have been treated to some special releases, including a two-disc live album titled The Montreux Years and a remastered edition of Little Girl Blue. Now we’re getting a special remastered edition of Nina Simone And Her Friends. The album title is somewhat misleading, for it makes it sound like Nina Simone gathered the other singers and they all recorded these songs together as a group, whereas actually it’s a compilation of recordings from three singers – Nina Simone, Chris Connor and Carmen McRae – who each contribute four songs, each backed by her own set of musicians. The album was originally released in 1959, but with different selections from Chris Connor (“A Cottage For Sale,” “Try A Little Tenderness,” “What Is There To Say” and “Goodbye”). It was then re-issued in 1960 with the songs as they are presented on this new re-issue. As was the case with the recent re-issue of Little Girl Blue, this album was mastered by Michael Graves at Osiris Studio in Los Angeles, and contains new liner notes by Daphne A Brooks.

The album opens with Nina Simone singing “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands,” backing herself on piano. It’s a slow, gorgeous rendition with a passionate vocal performance and a rather serious sound to her piano work. Oh yes, Nina Simone can sell even this song (one I never really thought all that much of). This track was recorded in the same sessions that yielded Little Girl Blue. Then we get the first of the Chris Connor tracks, “Someone To Watch Over Me.” I’ve said it often, but you can never go wrong with Gershwin. The intro to this version is interesting, but for me this track gets good as soon as Chris Connor’s voice comes in. What a beautiful and captivating performance. This track also features some wonderful stuff on piano, and is one of my favorites. The first track by Carmen McRae is a cool and fun version of “Old Devil Moon.” We need more songs that use the word “razzle-dazzle.” Here Carmen McRae is backed by the Mat Mathews Quartet.

Nina Simone then turns to the music of Gershwin with an excellent rendition of “I Loves You, Porgy,” a song that was also included on Little Girl Blue, her debut album. It is a fantastic and mesmerizing vocal performance, intimate and tender. This song was a hit for Nina Simone, and this recording is deservedly revered by music fans. Chris Connor gives us two Cole Porter songs on this release, the first being “I Concentrate On You.” Interestingly, this track has an instrumental intro that is more than a minute and a half long, nearly half the length of the track. This rendition gently swings, and features a smooth and pretty vocal performance. I also dig that bass line. That’s followed by “You Made Me Care” by Carmen McRae, backed by Tony Scott Quartet. I love that work on clarinet. This song and “Old Devil Moon” were included on her 1955 self-titled LP.

The third Nina Simone track is “For All We Know,” another song that was recorded during the sessions for Little Girl Blue but not included on that release. It was written by J. Fred Coots and Sam M. Lewis. The opening line of the song is “For all we know, we may never meet again,” and Nina’s delivery is arresting. She immediately has hold of the listener. “For all we know, this may only be a dream/We come and we go/Like the ripples, like the ripples in a stream.” It’s a song about living in the moment. Life is short, tomorrow is not promised. I think that message has been heard and learned by many folks over the course of the last couple of years. This is an incredibly moving track featuring some passionate work on piano as well. That’s followed by the second of the Cole Porter songs by Chris Connor, “From This Moment On” which moves at a good clip and contains a bright and strong vocal performance. Then we get “Too Much In Love To Care” from Carmen McRae. This might be the coolest track of the album. “Once our romance was a gay thing/Now I am only your plaything/I know it’s all unfair/But I’m too much in love to care/With every kiss you deceive me.”

“African Mailman” is another tune recorded for Little Girl Blue, but not included on that album. Written by Nina Simone, it begins with some work on piano. Soon the band joins her, creating a rhythm that might get you dancing. This is a fun and kind of wild instrumental track, the last of the Nina Simone tracks on this release. The album changes gears with the sweet, romantic, mellow number, “All This And Heaven Too” from Chris Connor, who delivers a gorgeous vocal performance. The album concludes with Carmen McRae’s “Last Time For Love,” which she also wrote. “The things we planned are all so meaningless now/But I’ll get along somehow.” This is an excellent song about being wrong in love and left with nothing. It is filled with deliciously sad lines, such as these: “Now that we’re through, I have nothing left to spare/You’ve taken everything and left me just this song.”

CD Track List

  1. He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands
  2. Someone To Watch Over Me
  3. Old Devil Moon
  4. I Loves You, Porgy
  5. I Concentrate On You
  6. You Made Me Care
  7. For All We Know
  8. From This Moment On
  9. Too Much In Love To Care
  10. African Mailman
  11. All This And Heaven Too
  12. Last Time For Love

This special re-issue of Nina Simone And Her Friends is scheduled to be released on December 3, 2021 through BMG.

Monday, November 29, 2021

Grateful Dead: “Dave’s Picks Volume 40” (2021) CD Review

In early July of 1990, six of us loaded into my ’86 Chevy G-10 van and headed out to Pittsburgh to begin a portion of the Grateful Dead’s summer tour. In addition to Pittsburgh, I caught shows in Raleigh, D.C., Foxboro and Buffalo. I didn’t have tickets for the last couple of stops of the tour, but after that great show in Buffalo, the urge was strong to just keep going. I wish I had, for two reasons. One, that tour turned out to be the last for keyboardist Brent Mydland, who died just three days after it ended. And two, word about that next show at Deer Creek reached us in Massachusetts almost immediately afterward (this was word of mouth, you understand). Supposedly, it was the best show of the tour. Well, for the fortieth volume of the Dave’s Picks concert series, David Lemieux has chosen both that show and the one from the following night, so we can all hear what the excitement was about. This four-disc set contains the complete show from July 18th, and nearly the complete show from July 19th (only the encore – “U.S. Blues” – is missing), both performed at Deer Creek in Noblesville, Indiana.

Disc 1

The first disc contains the entire first set from July 18th, along with the first part of the second set. The band kicks off the show with “Help On The Way,” and the moment they start it, the crowd erupts. Often in the 1980s, “Franklin’s Tower” was separated from “Help” and “Slipknot,” played on its own, but here the three songs are together. And the band is on, with “Slipknot!” being particularly good. Everything is tight and just exactly right. And then the energy in “Franklin’s Tower” is fantastic. It’s wonderful when the band is flying high right out of the gate, as the guys are here. Just listen to Jerry Garcia’s guitar dancing! There is a tremendous amount of joy here. This is the band at its best. This is what I was hoping for every time I bought a ticket, every time I walked through the gates, every time the band took the stage. This is what it was all about. And from the response at the end of “Franklin’s,” it is clear the crowd knew it. After a brief pause, Bob Weir leads the group into “New Minglewood Blues,” and they deliver here as well, moving with that groove, and Bob enjoying the reverb on his vocals. “A couple shots of whisky, women around here start looking good/A couple shots of whisky, these Hoosier fillies start looking good.” This is a fun, hopping rendition. Brent Mydland then delivers a pretty sweet rendition of “Easy To Love You.” It might feel a bit choppy at moments, but his vocal performance is really good, and that lead on keys is wonderful, and this version has a strong ending.

The band then eases into an excellent “Peggy-O,” a song that feels so good, particularly when Jerry’s voice has that kind of passion in it as it does here. Bob makes the perfect choice to follow it, Bob Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” “Someday life will be sweet like a rhapsody.” Ah, it sure felt that way when we were at shows like this one, didn’t it? Bob really digs into this one, delivering an absolutely wonderful version. It seems the band can do no wrong at this show. Jerry follows that with the always-appreciated “Brown-Eyed Women,” another inspired choice, keeping with the mood. I love that gentle ending. The crowd then does one of those “We want Phil” chants that I remember being popular around that time. But Phil does not oblige. Instead, the band plays one of my personal favorites, “Cassidy.” And it’s a really good rendition, both powerful and beautiful, the jam building perfectly. It is everything I love about this song. The band then wraps up the first set with “Deal.” I don’t often get too excited about this one, but this version rocks. The boys obviously want to leave the crowd in a great place going into the set break.

The second set then opens with “China Cat Sunflower,” another song that never fails to make the audience happy. Pretty much everyone in the audience knows just exactly what Jerry is singing about here, and the jam develops a delicious groove before they segue smoothly into “I Know You Rider,” and it’s clear the band lost none of its energy during the break. This is a fun, cooking version of “Rider.” And that’s where the first disc ends.

Disc 2

The second disc contains the rest of the second set from July 18th and the encore, beginning with “Looks Like Rain.” It’s not the best version I’ve ever heard, but still it contains moments of beauty, particularly in Bob’s passionate vocal delivery. They then ease into “Terrapin Station.” “Let my inspiration flow.” Indeed. The band certainly seems inspired at this show, so why not tackle one of those great songs for exploration, see where it takes everyone? The jam immediately goes in some interesting directions, spiraling around the earth, until we return to the story. “Since the end is never told…” Ah, but here is the sense we might reach the conclusion of the tale, create it ourselves in the moment. And the music feels like pushing open a series of doors, getting closer and closer. Things get a little weird there at moments, like cautious or hesitant, but we hang on, and the band pulls us through. The opening leads to a cool jam, which is here presented as a separate track, with a groove that seems to send the message to whatever lifeforms might be out there that we are not there to harm, but just to enjoy the ride and to learn, and it carries with it an invitation to join the party.

“Drums” emerges naturally from that, and it isn’t long before they move on from that good beat and explore more interesting territory, a place of shadows within which lives a gentle beast, his large heart beating, drawing us to him. But things suddenly turn on us, leaving us in a place of mad clowns trapped in a metal box hurtling into “Space,” the ride turning sinister and harsh, and we wonder just who is in control here, for there seems to be some alarm, something that needs to be addressed. But, whether addressed or not, it passes, and now we are just tiny particles in a much larger realm, bits of light, and nothing can hurt or soothe, but just communicate, illuminate. And then there are hints of what is to come. Before we get there, things become gentle, pretty, a return to the warmth and wonder of infancy. And then we ease into “The Other One.” This is one reason I love this song so much. Each time they played it, the band approached it differently, making it one of the most exciting songs in the band’s repertoire. After a while, Phil Lesh’s bass leads to that explosion, signaling the band was completely going for it. And, boy, there are some haunting, disturbing dark patches here which are fantastic. Some different sounds, some interesting places. This is absolutely one of the highlights of the show, keeping in mind that basically this entire show is excellent. And where can we go from there? To the end of the world, of course. “Morning Dew” is often moving by its conclusion, and Jerry Garcia is already there at the start of this rendition. Holy moly! This is a stellar, powerful version, one of the best I’ve heard (and that is saying something). Jerry completely inhabits the song here, breathing it, giving it full expression and life. What a performance. And that’s how the second set ends. The encore is “The Weight,” a wonderful and gentle way of wishing everyone a good night.

Disc 3

The third disc contains the complete first set from the July 19th show, along with the first two songs of the second set. The band opens this show with “Jack Straw,” always a good choice to start things off. It sets a certain pace, and seems to make certain promises about the show ahead, about the journey the band and audience will take together. And this is a sweet rendition that shows its true strength during the jam and then in the vocal work following that. Jerry then begins “They Love Each Other,” and the flavor of the set is becoming clear. It’s always interesting how different two shows can be, while both still being excellent. Here we are getting into a cheerful, easygoing groove, and we can almost see the pleasant smiles of the crowd, particularly as the guys begin to jam. There is just a bit of tuning before Bob leads the group into Dylan’s “Desolation Row.” And right from the matter-of-fact delivery of “The circus is in town,” you get the sense this is going to be a special rendition. And indeed, the boys don’t let us down. I love Bob’s vocal performance. He knows when to hit a line, and when to let it go, taking on the role of storyteller here. I could do without that weird effect on his vocals during those couple of lines, but other than that this is a superb version. Jerry allows a short pause then before going into “Row Jimmy.” Yeah, it’s a fairly mellow first set, but really good, and Jerry’s guitar work here flows wonderfully. Brent’s work on keys has a similar feel, and everything is coming together so well. “Rock your baby to and fro/Not too fast, and not too slow.”

Bob then takes things in a somewhat different direction with “Picasso Moon,” the first song of the set with a harder edge, but also the first with a more playful sense about it at times. After that, Jerry takes things back to a more easygoing mood with “Althea,” the song that is essentially responsible for Dead & Company’s existence. And listening to this version, you’ll have no trouble seeing why this song moved John Mayer so much. It’s a great song, and this is an excellent rendition, particularly Jerry’s vocal performance. And there is some power to the jam near the end. After that, Bob leads the band into Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land,” the one real rock and roll song of the set, trying to leave things on an upbeat, energetic note as they take their break between sets.

The second set opens with “Victim Or The Crime,” a song I always had a bit of trouble getting into. There is something kind of ugly, kind of harsh about its sound, and in its lyrics, lines like “And even the purest of romantics compromise.” It’s a fairly dark song, and one I never wanted to hear when on acid. This version seems to fall apart deliberately toward the end, then builds again into something ready to explode and take us all with it. It’s a wild moment. Jerry leads us out of the darkness with “Foolish Heart,” an interesting pairing. “A foolish heart will call on you to toss your dreams away/Then turn around and blame you for the way you went astray.” And that’s where the third disc ends.

Disc 4

The fourth disc contains the rest of the second set from July 19th (but not the encore). It begins with an energetic “Playing In The Band,” one to get you bouncing around. As it settles into the jam, it mellows somewhat, but keeps a groove and doesn’t get too far out there. This isn’t one of those epic versions of “Playing,” it’s only ten minutes or so, but what we get is good, especially the work on guitar. They leave the song unfinished, never returning to the main theme, but rather going straight into “China Doll.” This is a gorgeous, haunting version of “China Doll,” one that will transport you to some other place. There is an ache in Jerry’s voice, and yet the song ends gently. They follow that with “Uncle John’s Band,” which is wonderful because it’s like we’ve emerged from a strange, troubled area into friendly, familiar territory. This song seems to welcome us, to tell us things are going to be okay, and even if they aren’t, we’ll be okay.

“Drums” follows, and it begins slowly, kind of easing in rather than immediately exploding into a frenzied pounding. But it soon gets going, finding a cool rhythm that feels like it comes in part from deep within a jungle, and part from a city street. After a few minutes, Billy and Mickey begin exploring less familiar territory, a landscape of dust and splashes of light, with strong winds and rumbles from beneath. Comets streak by overhead, sometimes a tad too close. But a rhythm is found to appease the celestial forces and those eager to erupt from below, and communication is established, though it quickly seems to become an entreaty to those forces. Then as we move into “Space,” it seems that something from those outer places has landed here, turning our ground into a strange land, and our footing is uncertain. Fumes and clouds push up in bursts from holes that weren’t there yesterday, and reality is in the hands of tricksters and extraterrestrial carnival barkers. Step right this way, two tokens, and enjoy the show, we’re not responsible for lost limbs or minds. See you on the other side. At some point the ride we are on begins to separate into its components and we are set adrift in a tunnel of sorts before new beings arrive to make repairs, not minding our presence or offering clues as to our part in all this. But they sure do become busy with their work, and they are fascinating to watch, their tools emerging from their skin, their bones. And then there is only one of them left, still hard at work. From there, the band goes into “All Along The Watchtower.” “There must be some way out of here,” indeed! I think the band has found it. That leads to “Black Peter.” Hey, I’m not convinced the guy really is dying, but I understand his desire to have a couple of close friends with him. Particularly these days. This is a good rendition of “Black Peter,” with some great vocal work, particularly when their voices blend in that section in the middle. They then wrap up the set with a rousing rendition of “Not Fade Away,” featuring a good amount of jamming, with the audience singing at the end.

CD Track List

Disc 1

  1. Help On The Way >
  2. Slipknot! >
  3. Franklin’s Tower
  4. New Minglewood Blues
  5. Easy To Love You
  6. Peggy-O
  7. When I Paint My Masterpiece
  8. Brown-Eyed Women
  9. Cassidy
  10. Deal
  11. China Cat Sunflower >
  12. I Know You Rider

Disc 2

  1. Looks Like Rain >
  2. Terrapin Station >
  3. Jam >
  4. Drums >
  5. Space >
  6. The Other One >
  7. Morning Dew
  8. The Weight

Disc 3

  1. Jack Straw
  2. They Love Each Other
  3. Desolation Row
  4. Row Jimmy
  5. Picasso Moon
  6. Althea
  7. Promised Land
  8. Victim Or The Crime >
  9. Foolish Heart

Disc 4

  1. Playing In The Band >
  2. China Doll >
  3. Uncle John’s Band >
  4. Drums >
  5. Space >
  6. All Along The Watchtower >
  7. Black Peter >
  8. Not Fade Away

Dave’s Picks Volume 40 was released in early November, 2021. My copy arrived on November 4th. This release is limited to 25,000 copies. Mine is number 24,601.

Sterre Weldring: “Lost Lights” (2021) CD Review

Sterre Weldring is a singer and songwriter based in Amsterdam. She has just put out her debut disc, an EP titled Lost Lights, which features all original material, some of which had been released earlier as singles. Her music mixes folk with a dreamy sort of pop vibe, and features some excellent lyrics. These are songs of relationships, of pain, and of feeling lost. Her delivery is heartfelt, making each song feel personal and poignant. Joining her on these tracks are Daan Van Zelm on electric guitar, Niels De Jonge on drums, Hugo Zuiker on bass, Machiel De Vries on keyboards, and Camille Beurret on cello.

The opening track, “Not With Me,” gives the disc its title in its first line, “Lost lights in the dark, I try to catch them.” Sterre Weldring gives us a beautiful, passionate and vulnerable vocal performance. Check out these lines: “Well, at some point, I started to not know the answer/My heart shifted from hopeful to bitter as hell/So give me one good reason why I should stay/One good reason not to go away.” Though her even asking for a reason leads me to believe there is still some hope within her heart. And the line “You were never with me, not really” is itself heartrending. This is one of the songs released as singles, and Sterre Weldring put out a video for it. That is followed by “Remedy,” which was also released as a single and is the song that initially got me excited about this release and this artist. Her voice is the focus of this track from the start, the first few words delivered a cappella. And, as with the first track, this song uses the word “lost” in its lyrics: “Then maybe all it was/Was just a remedy/For all the times that I/Got lost in irony.” But the lines that especially stand for me are these: “Where did it go wrong this time/I thought we were fine/I reached out, no reply/And if only I believed/That you were not meant for me/I’d save me the misery.” There is heartache in her voice, and yet also hope, though as with the first track it might be a misplaced hope: “But I thought maybe this time/Leave the past behind.” And toward the end the music swells to reach the emotional heights where her voice already dwells, a moving moment. The track then ends gently.

The beauty of “I’m Gone” is apparent from its opening moments. As it begins, it has a sort of melancholy folk vibe. “At least I acted on what I believed in/Now I will be healing.” Her vocal performance is intimate and passionate. It is a striking performance, leading this to be one of my personal favorites. “My cards were all on the table,” she sings here, and her music feels like that, particularly this song. She opens herself up to us. She then grabs us with the opening lines to “In A Strange Way”: “You say I should get out of my head/But I wonder how you got in instead/‘Cause every time someone gets close/It fills me with fear instead of hope.” Wow, those are excellent lyrics. She can craft a lyric that gets right to the heart of the matter, that feels both personal and universal. And I love the work on cello. “So if you ever need somebody, darling/I promise I will always try to get you through/So in a strange way I can be there for you.”

The word “lost” also plays an important part “Turn Around,” with lines like “These cold dark days are where I got stuck/Trying to find something I lost” and “I turn around and see what I lost.” This is a gorgeous and moving song, in large part because of Sterre Weldring’s vocal performance, but also because of the presence of cello. “These scars will fade away/But I hope you know/And always know/That I will love you more.” The EP then concludes with a second version of “In A Strange Way,” this one driven by the vocals and acoustic guitar. Both versions are excellent. This EP is a stunning debut. I am looking forward to hearing whatever this talented singer and songwriter does next.

CD Track List

  1. Not With Me
  2. Remedy
  3. I’m Gone
  4. In A Strange Way
  5. Turn Around
  6. In A Strange Way (Acoustic)

Lost Lights was released on November 5, 2021.

Saturday, November 27, 2021

June Bisantz: “7 Shades Of Snow” (2021) CD Review

Vocalist June Bisantz began her holiday EP 7 Shades Of Snow back in the winter of 2020, when everything was shut down because of the pandemic. Like many albums at that time, the music on this disc was recorded remotely. Interestingly, the musicians on this album are people June Bisantz never met. They include Jon Burr on bass, Mike Eckroth on piano, James Chirillo on guitar, Marc Pfaneuf on saxophone, Brandon Lee on trumpet, and Alvester Garnett on drums. Unlike most holiday releases, 7 Shades Of Snow features material written by just one songwriting team, Arnold Miller and Connie Pearce. All of these songs were originally recorded by June Christy, appearing on her 1961 holiday album This Time Of Year.

The EP opens with “The Merriest,” a song that sounds like its title. There is certainly a good dose of cheer here, particularly in June’s vocal performance. And I love that lead on trumpet. That’s followed by “Ring A Merry Bell,” which begins as a slower, warmer song. Its opening lines are: “Things I have lost, things I am learning/Make the world seem strange/Wanderers must have something to trust/Never let Christmas change.” Ah yes, it is important to have something we can count on. And why not let that be Christmas? When this song kicks in, it develops a cool vibe. “I am far from home/Sing a merry song at Christmas time/Please be jolly, tell familiar fables/For the folks who roam.” This one strikes a chord with me in part because of these lyrics about being far from home. It always feels strange to not be with family on the holiday. This track features a wonderful lead on bass, and at the end, June Bisantz sings that the highest, brightest star might guide her home.

“Hang Them On The Tree” is an interesting and unusual Christmas song. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “I'll take the sorrows of last November/Make them a part of Christmas Day/Color them shiny bright and gay/And hang them on the tree.” Taking all the troubles and turning them to something positive. I really like this song, and I don’t recall hearing it before. I particularly love June Bisantz’s vocal performance on this track, but there is also some really nice work on both piano and guitar. This is one that should definitely be on everyone’s holiday play list. That’s followed by “Seven Shades Of Snow,” the disc’s title track. I like that a line that is typical of the season, “Everyone I meet wears a smile,” is followed by the surprisingly honest line “Just for a little while.” Sometimes that’s all we can manage. And then this song is about the attempt to hold onto that glow, at least personally. It seems we always mean to do that, hope to do that, and always fail. This is a moving song.

“Sorry To See You Go” is a song that takes place on New Year’s Eve, and is addressed to the year that is coming to a close. I love the moment it kicks in and the lines she sings at that point: “Though your back is bent/And your beard is gray/You're a year well spent/And I'd like to say/You put on a first class show/And I'm sorry to see you go.” I am not sure anyone will be sad to see 2021 go (though it was a better year than 2020). Here is hoping that 2022 will be much better. Interestingly, in this song, June sings “There’s nothing left up your sleeve/But I’m sorry to see you leave,” and then the EP concludes with a song titled “Winter’s Got Spring Up Its Sleeve.” This is a beautiful and honest song about winter, opening with the line “So the season makes you sad and sentimental.” That line works regarding the holiday season and winter in general. Those long nights can wear on the sturdiest of us. This song tells us to hold on, because spring is coming. “A time to plan, a time to rest/Get ready to be at your best.” We can all use a hopeful song like this one.

CD Track List

  1. The Merriest
  2. Ring A Merry Bell
  3. Hang Them On The Tree
  4. Seven Shades Of Snow
  5. Sorry To See You Go
  6. Winter’s Got Spring Up Its Sleeve

7 Shades Of Snow was released on CD on October 1, 2021, at least according to the sheet I received. The labels website lists the release date as July 30th (though that could be the digital release date), and Amazon lists it as November 16th.

Carolyn Lee Jones: “Christmas Time Is Here” (2021) CD Review

Vocalist Carolyn Lee Jones delivers a good mix of holiday songs on Christmas Time Is Here, giving us some of the traditional Christmas fare, such as “The Christmas Song” and “White Christmas,” but also some lesser known gems such as “Warm In December” and “Red Christmas.” The arrangements on approximately half the tracks are by Brad Williams, who also plays piano and organ on this album. The other tracks were arranged by David Pierce. Also joining Carolyn Lee Jones on this release are Jonathan Fisher on upright bass and cello, Steven Heffner on upright bass, Lynn Seaton on upright bass and electric bass, Andrew Griffith on drums, Dennis Durick on drums, Tom Burchill on guitar, Todd Parsnow on guitar, Tony Baker on trombone, Dave Monsch on baritone saxophone and alto flute, Mario Cruz on tenor saxophone, Shelley Carrol on tenor saxophone, Keith Jourdan on fluegelhorn and trumpet, Veronica Gans on violin, Imelda Tecson on viola, and Buffi Jacobs on cello.

The album opens with a good rendition of “The Christmas Song.” The vocals are smooth and warm, which is just exactly right for this song, which here is given a bossa nova rhythm. Also helping make this rendition special is Brad Williams’ work on piano, even before his wonderful lead in the second half. Check out Tom Burchill’s guitar lead as well. One holiday song I am always happy to hear is “Christmas Time Is Here,” from A Charlie Brown Christmas (which, as you probably already know, is the absolute best Christmas television special). Carolyn Lee Jones’ rendition has a romantic and magical vibe, and features some really nice work on piano. Adding to the track’s appeal is Jonathan Fisher’s work on cello. Carolyn Lee Jones goes further into a romantic realm with “Warm In December,” one of the album’s highlights. Everything about this track is wonderful – her vocal performance, that bass line, and of course that work by Tony Baker on trombone. This song feels like everything that is good about the holiday,  and I’d be surprised if it didn’t make you smile. “This heart that glows like an ember/Longs to be loved just by you/If it could be so/Then you’d keep me so/Warm in December too.”

“Jingles The Christmas Cat” is kind of a goofy song about Santa’s pet cat. I don’t really care much for the lyrics, but I do love the guitar work by Todd Parsnow during the instrumental section. That’s followed by a song that isn’t really a Christmas song, Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To.” Carolyn Lee Jones delivers a cool rendition, and though it is not a Christmas song, it fits in quite well with the warm, romantic style and feel of much of this album’s holiday material. And the band gets a chance to groove on it. And speaking of romance, she then gives us a sweet rendition of “I’d Like You For Christmas,” a song written by Bobby Troup and released as a single by Julie London in the late 1950s. “I won’t be blue on Christmas/If old Saint Nick comes through/And he remembers that I’d like you for Christmas/New Year’s, Easter too.” And check out Shelley Carrol’s work on sax.

Carolyn Lee Jones delivers a lively rendition of “Merry Christmas Baby,” set at a somewhat faster pace than many versions I’ve heard, the horn section adding more than a dose of fun to the proceedings. Though I’ve always been partial to Chuck Berry’s version, I like the way she approaches the song, and this track ends up being another of the disc’s highlights. That’s followed by another playful tune, “Red Christmas,” this one about the large amount that folks spend on the holiday and having to deal with the bills later. “My Christmas is one that is long overdue.” I particularly like the “carol of the bills” line, obviously a play on “Carol Of The Bells.” And the line “For the telephone’s ringing, and some guy is singing, ‘Just pay the minimum, dear’” made me laugh aloud the first time I heard it. This one was written by Jeanie Perkins.

“Santa Baby” is certainly one of the sexiest Christmas songs around, and at the beginning of Carolyn Lee Jones’ version, the horns have a slow, seductive strut about them, and the bass is tremendously cool and confident. Yeah, even before her vocals come in, this is a really good version. “Santa baby, just slip a sable under the tree for me/Been an awful good girl.” Anything sexier than that? This is my personal favorite track. That’s followed by a kind of odd rendition of “White Christmas.” That rhythm at first seems out of place and gives the song a somewhat cheesy vibe. But I do really like that work on saxophone. Then we get an interesting version of “Toyland.” As with “The Christmas Song,” this one is given something of a bossa nova style, but it still retains that dreamy aspect. The album concludes with “Count Your Blessings (Instead Of Sheep),” which is not really a Christmas song, though it was used in the film White Christmas. This version features a good lead on bass, and has a pleasant vibe. “So if you’re worried and you can’t sleep/Just count your blessings instead of sheep.”

CD Track List

  1. The Christmas Song
  2. Christmas Time Is Here
  3. Warm In December
  4. Jingles The Christmas Cat
  5. You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To
  6. I’d Like You For Christmas
  7. Merry Christmas Baby
  8. Red Christmas
  9. Santa Baby
  10. White Christmas
  11. Toyland
  12. Count Your Blessings (Instead Of Sheep)

Christmas Time Is Here was released on November 1, 2021.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Sam Cooke With The Soul Stirrers: “The First Mile Of The Way” (2021) Vinyl Review

Record Store Day’s Black Friday list just became significantly shorter, due, as I am told, to a vinyl shortage. Some of those albums planned for release on Friday will be released in December, others not until next year. But one fantastic release that is still scheduled for this Friday is The First Mile Of The Way, a three-record set from Sam Cooke With The Soul Stirrers, featuring his early gospel work and some pop demos. The title is a play on the song “The Last Mile Of The Way,” which The Soul Stirrers recorded, and which was used as a title track to a compilation. In addition to the excellent music, this release features a great package, with several inserts, including a promotional photo, a list of records available from Specialty, newspaper clippings, and even correspondence between Sam Cooke and Art Rupe of Specialty Records about Cooke recording pop songs. The music is presented on three ten-inch records.

LP 1

The first record is made up of studio recordings by The Soul Stirrers. The album opens with “Any Day Now.” You can hear the take being announced at the beginning. This is a gorgeous, slow spiritual number about impending death, and acceptance of it. “There’ll be no sorrow, no sadness/Just all complete gladness/But any day I know, I know that I am going home.” This track features an absolutely arresting vocal performance that is passionate and beautiful. That is followed by “Pilgrim Of Sorrow,” a fantastic track. “I have no hope for tomorrow/And I have no place that I can roam/Sometimes, sometimes I am so lonely/Sometimes I don’t know what to do/I look around to friends for consolation/And I find that they have troubles too.” In these uncertain times, this one really hits home. It is Sam Cooke at his best.

Then we get into a more traditional-sounding spiritual, “Jesus Gave Me Water,” a vocal track that is uplifting and kind of fun. It recounts the story of a miracle that touched a woman, who testifies about her experience. That’s followed by another wonderful vocal number, “Peace In The Valley.” When they sing, “No more trouble, there will be/There will be peace in the valley,” they sound so optimistic, it feels like a promise. Listening to this recording, it feels like heaven is just around the corner, that paradise is achievable. Humanity is at its best when it is singing, don’t you think? Then his vocal performance on “Jesus, Wash Away My Troubles” sounds close to those hits we know Sam Cooke for. Perhaps that is because this is a song he wrote. I like the work on piano too. “Sometimes I feel like I’m almost gone/Still I’m a long way from home.” Yes, it’s another song about death, about not being afraid, even looking forward to the day. Imagine that. The first side concludes with “Were You There,” an interesting song in which people ask each other if they were there the day they crucified Jesus. It sounds along the same lines as people asking others if they attended Woodstock. I love the way the energy builds up on this track.

The second side opens with “I’d Give Up All My Sins And Serve The Lord,” a cheerful, passionate number. “Then I found God in a song/And I gave up every wrong.” Ah, they make it sound so easy. Hey, this could be that very song for someone. “Then I found God in a dream/I can tell you what I mean.” And somehow he makes that sound right and sane. It must be nice to have that sort of experience, I suppose. That’s followed by “Touch The Hem Of His Garment,” an original number, this one about a sick woman who is desperate just to touch Jesus’ clothes. “She spent her money here and there/Until she had no more to spare/The doctors, they’d done all they could/But their medicine would do no good.” Again, with “One More River,” death is in the near future. “One more river to cross/Before I reach my journey’s end.” But it is like folks are striving and striding toward that end, which is intriguing to me. I wonder if this record were played for folks on their deathbeds if it would bring them complete peace, help them pass with smiles on their faces. I think it might.

“Mean Old World” is one that everyone can appreciate. “This is a mean old world to live in all by yourself.” He offers this advice: “What you should do is try to make at least one friend each and every day.” Indeed. It’s a tough world, and we do need each other. That’s followed by “He’s So Wonderful,” a song in praise of God. “Whatever I need, the lord will provide.” This song encourages others to try him out as well. Some good guitar work opens “That’s Heaven To Me,” and for a moment it could be a rock and roll tune. This one is different in its message, not singing about heaven as an actual place, but as an idea, with flowers, sunsets and people helping strangers seeming like heaven to him. It is another of the record’s highlights.

LP 2

The second record contains a live performance of The Soul Stirrers at The Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles on July 22, 1955. The three songs are all originals, and the sound is really good. We hear the crowd cheering at the beginning of “I Have A Friend Above All Others,” and at other times can hear people responding, almost like it is a church service. It’s a pretty cool recording. And what a vocal performance. The crowd responds to that as much as to the message, it seems. “Somebody cares when things go wrong/Somebody’s love is there to guide you and make you so strong.” And there is a spoken word section, in which not only is God praised, but a new member of the group is introduced. The energy picks up on “Be With Me Jesus,” with some hand claps, and we realize it really is a spiritual service we are listening to. Perhaps a non-traditional setting, sure, but one of the newspaper clippings included in this set tells us the concert featured several gospel groups and was sponsored by a religious radio personality. This track goes on for a while, and does get a bit repetitive, but no matter. It is good.

The entire second side of the record is one song, a number titled “Nearer To Thee,” about a crowd singing “Nearer, My God, To Thee.” It begins as a beautiful, even soothing song. “Some of them were crying/But they kept on singing ‘Nearer, My God, To Thee.’” It is a powerful and passionate vocal performance, reminding us that trouble comes to everyone sometimes. The crowd responds. It must have been something to be present for this. This track is approximately eight and a half minutes.

LP 3

The last of the three records is a collection of early Sam Cooke demos. We are now in the secular world, these songs dealing with romantic relationships rather than spiritual ones. The first side opens with “Lovable,” a wonderful love song with a classic rhythm. And, yes, maybe these aren’t the deepest, most meaningful set of lyrics ever written, but Sam Cooke cane make even standard lines sound great. “I love my girl/She’s so lovable.” That’s followed by “I Need You Now,” a song about being lonely and missing a woman. And seeing other couples together only makes him miss her all the more. “Darling, I need you now/Cut your vacation short,” he tells her.

The take is announced at the beginning of “I’ll Come Running Back To You” (take one, for those who are curious). This is a sweet, gentle song. In this one he misses a woman he is no longer dating. He expresses some guilt, admitting he didn’t treat her right, but hopes she’ll call his name. That’s followed by “I Don’t Want To Cry.” We hear the take being announced at the beginning of this one too (take three). It’s another sweet number, this one also about missing a woman who has left him. You can hear the love in his voice. “My days and nights are all spent thinking of you/Of places we went and things that we used to do/My tears I’ve tried to hide/But oh darling, how I am hurting inside/I don’t want to cry, but I can’t keep tears from my eyes.” You get the feeling that if the woman in question only heard this track, she’d go straight back to him.

The second side begins with “Forever,” and again we hear the take being announced. In this romantic number, he sings that he wants this love to last forever. It features a really good vocal performance. “Why, why, why won’t you tell me, tell me the way you feel/Why, why, why, why, why, why, why, why won’t you hold me and tell me if this love is real.” That’s followed by “Happy In Love,” which has a different vibe, perhaps in large part because of that guitar work. It feels like it should be played on ukulele. “You won’t care if the sun don’t shine/All your worries will  be left behind/You’ll be happy, happy, happy, happy all the time/When you’re happy, happy, happy in love, tra la la.” “Take one” is announced at the beginning of this excellent set’s final track, “That’s All I Need To Know,” another sweet love song. “You don’t have to tell me where you came from/About things you’ve done before/If you’ll only say you love me/That’s all I need to know.”

Record Track List

LP 1

Side 1

  1. Any Day Now
  2. Pilgrim Of Sorrow
  3. Jesus Gave Me Water
  4. Peace In The Valley
  5. Jesus, Wash Away My Troubles
  6. Were You There

Side 2

  1. I’d Give Up All My Sins And Serve The Lord
  2. Touch The Hem Of His Garment
  3. One More River
  4. Mean Old World
  5. He’s So Wonderful
  6. That’s Heaven To Me

LP 2

Side 1

  1. I Have A Friend Above All Others
  2. Be With Me Jesus

Side 2

  1. Nearer To Thee

LP 3

Side 1

  1. Lovable
  2. I Need You Now
  3. I’ll Come Running Back To You
  4. I Don’t Want To Cry

Side 2

  1. Forever
  2. Happy In Love
  3. That’s All I Need To Know

The First Mile Of The Way is scheduled to be released on November 26, 2021 through Craft Recordings. It is a limited edition of 3,400 copies.

Brief Notes On New Jazz Releases

Music has been helping many of us handle these strange and infuriating times when a certain twisted segment of the population is becoming more stupid and more violent, and justice seems always to remain several steps away. Every day I am thankful for the musicians who are continuing to release excellent songs and albums, reminding us that humanity and compassion still exist. Here are notes on a few new jazz releases you might want to check out.

Marcos Ariel: “Piano Blossoms” – This beautiful solo album from pianist Marcos Ariel takes its inspiration from the native flowers of Brazil, as well as the flowers of Los Angeles, where he has been a part-time resident for more than two decades. This album features all original material, composed and produced by Marcos Ariel. It begins with “Passionflower,” a pretty and gentle piece that is also contemplative and somber, as if part observation, part memory. It’s followed by “Narcissus,” named after the spring perennial also known as the daffodil. This one begins in a darker spot, but slowly unfolds, as if coming awake and reaching up. Then “Bougainvillea” also seems to come partly from memory, from a past viewed with fondness and perhaps reverence. “Lavender” is a hopeful piece, soothing our fears and worries, like a soft touch on our cheek or shoulder, and is one of my personal favorite tracks. That’s followed by “Chrysanthemum,” a warm and loving piece that seems to hold us in a safe embrace. “Orchid” has a more forceful sound as it starts, taking us to an interesting place. The album then concludes with “Calla Lily,” named after one of Marcos Ariel’s granddaughters as well as the flower. It is a gorgeous and affectionate piece. This album was released on September 17, 2021.

Cook-Coursil-Gale-Robinson-Tintweiss: “Ave B Free Jam” – If you are looking for a loose, wild jazz jam, this is the album for you. Recorded on May 12, 1967 in an apartment in New York City, this album is one long improvisational piece, nearly an hour and nineteen minutes long, with just a couple of brief pauses (such as at the end of track 18). It is divided into twenty-one tracks, just to make revisiting a certain section easier (among my favorites are tracks 6, 9, 10, 18, and 19), but really it is designed to be listened to straight through. Enjoy the ride. The musicians are Laurence Cook on drums, Jacques Coursil on trumpet, Warren Gale on trumpet, Perry Robinson on bass clarinet, and Steve Tintweiss on bass. All talented folks captured here near the beginning of their careers. The music is exciting and raw, the musicians exploring, going in interesting directions, while also listening to each other to keep things from dropping into utter chaos. We have Steve Tintweiss to thank for this album, as he is the one who recorded it in 1967, and he is the one releasing it on his Inky Dot Media label now. He’s been dipping into the archives lately, last year putting out Judy Stuart’s The Apostolic Session and earlier this year releasing MarksTown from The Purple Why. I’m excited to hear what other releases might be in the works. This album is scheduled to be released on November 30, 2021.

Nicole Henry: “Time To Love Again” – Talented vocalist Nicole Henry delivers standards and pop songs on her new album. She opens it with “Feeling Good,” which begins with the beat, and for a time features just drums supporting her voice. “It’s a new dawn, a new day, a new life for me/And I am feeling good.” Oh yes! And hearing her sing, the rest of us might believe in a new dawn for ourselves and the world at large, and that is enough to make any of us feel good. Besides, this track features some really good work by Pete Wallace on piano. And then the song has a powerful and strong ending that will completely own your attention. And that’s just the first track. It’s followed by a smooth and cool rendition of “Midnight At The Oasis” that features Gregoire Maret on harmonica, and then a good rendition of James Taylor’s “Your Smiling Face” that features John Michalak on tenor saxophone and takes on a delicious energy approximately halfway through. I’m not a big fan of Sade, but I love what Nicole Henry does with “Is It A Crime?” The track begins with her vocals supported by Eric England on acoustic bass, and there is something seductive about that section, something sensual, pulling me in. She also delivers an excellent rendition of “Wild Is The Wind,” one you can just lose yourself in, featuring Troy Roberts on tenor saxophone. The album concludes with a fun and bright number, Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed,” leaving us in a good place emotionally and mentally. And isn’t that just exactly what we need? This album was released on October 15, 2021.

David Larsen: “Deviate From Standards” – As saxophonist and composer David Larsen mentions in the album’s liner notes, Deviate From Standards began as a way for him to continue making music even as the pandemic shut down concert venues. Clearly it also helped him remain upbeat during a difficult time, for this music swings and grooves, at times feeling like the soundtrack to a movie you want to escape to. Such is the case with its opening number, “A New Thing Comin’,” with David Larsen joined by Greg Yasinitsky on saxophone, the track creating a cool, positive atmosphere, taking us to a place where there is action and charm, where we know the angles, know just what moves to make. Then check out that work by Danny McCollim on keys on “Smoke Screen.” The album contains all original material, composed by David Larsen. Ken Peplowski provides some wonderful work on clarinet on “Augmented Reality,” and I love that conversation between the instruments toward the end. The music does enter a mellower, more reflective place with “Family.” I think most everyone came to place a greater emphasis on family during the pandemic, as people reevaluated their priorities. “See You At 8” imagines a time and place when folks are able to get together and enjoy themselves. We are now re-entering this place, but for a long time it felt like we’d never get there. “Into The Light” creates a cheerful place, a friendly place, a place we long to dwell. The music on this disc feels like it is welcoming us back to the world. It feels good to be back, doesn’t it? This album was released on October 1, 2021.

Elena Maque: “Feel Again” – Elena Maque is a singer, saxophonist and composer who adds elements of pop and funk to jazz on her debut album, Feel Again. The album features mostly original material, along with Elena Maque’s own interpretations of three very well-known covers. Joining her on this release are Scott Kinsey on piano and organ, Hadrien Feraud on bass, Gary Novak on drums, Leonardo Amuedo on guitar, and Brad Dutz on percussion, along with guests on various tracks. The album opens with an original song, “Hey Friend,” which begins with some cool, kind of funky work on guitar, and a strong, prominent groove. There is a friendly, bright vibe to her voice that is appealing. Then partway through, we get some good stuff on saxophone. That’s followed by a wonderful rendition of “Lover Man,” featuring an excellent vocal performance that is sexy and yet contains that element of longing. And I dig that work on keys. The album also includes covers of Jobim’s “The Girl From Ipanema” and The Beatles’ “And I Love Her” (though she does change the gender of the loved one to male in the latter song’s lyrics). The album’s title track is a fun number with something of a pop style and energy, and some cool work on bass. “Because every time I hear your voice/I realize I have no choice/But let your love take over me.” But it is that great work on saxophone that really stands out. A highlight for me is “Weightless,” even though it doesn’t feature Elena Maque’s voice. This instrumental track is beautiful and contains some moving and expressive work on saxophone. I also love “Chance,” the way it begins as a lullaby, then suddenly springs to life, and with David Lange’s work on accordion, takes on a European flavor. This album was released on November 19, 2021.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

The Staple Singers: “The Twenty-Fifth Day Of December” (1962/2021) Vinyl Review

Each year for the Black Friday version of Record Store Day, a few Christmas albums are released. This year sees a special vinyl re-issue of The Staple Singers’ 1962 holiday album, The Twenty-Fifth Day Of December, with an all-analog mastering from the original tapes, pressed on 180-gram black vinyl. There is a lot of Christmas music released each year, yet often gospel music seems to get forgotten in the clamor. Well, here is an excellent addition for your holiday collection, music that is so good it can be played throughout the year.

Side 1

The album opens with “The Last Month Of The Year,” their vocals having a smooth quality. They’re not belting out the lyrics, but just delivering them with confidence and passion and ease, backed by some nice work on guitar by Roebuck Staples, along with Maceo Woods on organ and Al Duncan on drums. That’s followed by “The Virgin Mary Had One Son,” a slow, bluesy gospel number that might make believers of us all. It features a tremendous vocal performance by Mavis Staples. I also love Roebuck Staples’ work on guitar. This track is one of the album’s best. It’s followed by another cool track, a somewhat relaxed rendition of “Go Tell It On The Mountain.” Again, they aren’t trying to push religion on any of us, just telling it as they see it, and letting us choose for ourselves. I do sometimes wonder if music like this had been played in our church when I was growing up whether I would have stuck with religion a little longer. It is that good.

On “Joy To The World,” they rock a bit, with Maceo Woods’ organ grooving and taking a prominent spot, even leading an instrumental section. And it’s over all too soon. Then we get a song composed by Roebuck Staples, “Holy Unto The Lord,” a glorious, bluesy number of praise. “Peace on Earth/Well, good will toward men/Singing holy unto the lord.” Yeah, those still sound like good ideas, though they feel unlikely, don’t they? Except, that is, when music like this is playing. The first side concludes with “The Savior Is Born,” a song with more energy, and a certain joy to their delivery. It’s easy to imagine these guys singing on the side of the roads of old, guiding folks to the manger with their songs. They return to the idea of peace on Earth in this one: “The angels, they began to sing/Peace on Earth, good will to men.”

Side 2

The second side opens with a soothing, beautiful rendition of “Sweet Little Jesus Boy.” It’s a song about the birth of Jesus. “They didn’t know who you were/Didn’t know you’d come to save us/To take our sins away.” The voices, of course, are the focus, but there are some nice touches on organ beneath their vocal work. Then the guitar work at the beginning of “No Room At The Inn” seems to announce the song as a blues number, but within a moment, their gospel vocals come in. It’s a song about how there was no room available at the inn for Mary. Well, you’ve got to make hotel reservations early during the holiday season. Still, a manger is a step above a Motel 6. “There Was A Star” has a brighter, cheerful sound, and is another original number, the backing vocals echoing most of the lines. “There was a star (there was a star)/To show the way (to show the way)/Straight to the place (straight to the place)/Where Jesus lay (where Jesus lay).”

Then we get into traditional holiday fare with “Oh Little Town Of Bethlehem.” These guys deliver a good, slow version, the vocals again being the focus, with the organ mostly kept low in the mix, except at a couple of key moments. This is a perfect track for those late hours of Christmas Eve. It’s followed by “Wasn’t That A Mighty Day,” which has more of a folk vibe. This is one I wasn’t all that familiar with. I’m not sure why it doesn’t get more play, because it’s an enjoyable song. The album concludes with one of the holiday’s best traditional songs, “Silent Night.” And they deliver a beautiful, moving and bluesy rendition. It’s a fairly straightforward version, though with some good work on organ.

Record Track List

Side 1

  1. The Last Month Of The Year
  2. The Virgin Mary Had One Son
  3. Go Tell It On The Mountain
  4. Joy To The World
  5. Holy Unto The Lord
  6. The Savior Is Born

Side 2

  1. Sweet Little Jesus Boy
  2. No Room At The Inn
  3. There Was A Star
  4. Oh Little Town Of Bethlehem
  5. Wasn’t That A Mighty Day
  6. Silent Night

This special re-issue of The Twenty-Fifth Day Of December is scheduled to be released on November 26, 2021 through Craft Recordings. It is limited to 3,125 copies.