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What We’re Listening to This Week

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR And DAVID VEST

1. Herbie Hancock / Michael
Brecker / Roy Hargrove — New
Directions in Music Live at Massey Hall
(Universal)

A 75-minute decimation of Ken
Burns & Company’s warped slur that jazz has been in terminal
decline since the death of Coltrane. These songs, including “So
What” and “Naima”, begin as excursions from the
templates set by Miles and Trane in the mid-60s, then blast off
into complex improvisations that flow from modal expressionism
to funk, from free jazz to a kind of soul-inflected post-fusion.
This is the breathtaking sound of a new music being born from
a group of musicians with a deep regard for the past. (Memo to
Herbie: I don’t know why Hancock, Brecker and Hargrove are the
only ones to get billing on this cd because the rhythm section
of bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade may be the
best pairing since Tony Williams kept the beat with Ron Carter.)

 

2. Maceo Parker — School’s
In
(BHM Productions)

The propulsive force behind
James Brown’s music for more than 20 years, Maceo Parker is the
most influential R&B sax player since Earl Bostic. He also
helped define the new sound of funk as the sax supremo in George
Clinton and Bootsy Collins’s great 70s bands, Funkadelic and
Parliament. For the past decade or so, Maceo has been blazing
his own path across the planet, leading one of the tightest bands
around, dabbling in jazz, hip-hop and raw funk. If Maceo had
Clarence Clemons’ spot in the E-Street Band, Bruce Springsteen
might actually learn something about how to play rhythm and blues.
Barring that, he could slap this cd in the box and start taking
notes with his feet.

 

3. Caitlin Cary and Thad
Cockrell — Begonias
(Yep Roc)

Neo-country and bluegrass from
the Smokey Mountains by a talented pair of North Carolinians.
This is what Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons might have sounded
like had Harris ever learned how to convey emotional depth and
nuance with her voice.

 

4. The Flatlanders — More
a Legend Than a Band
(Rounder)

One of the most famous lost
albums, recorded in 1972, locked in a vault for 15 years, and
unearthed by Rounder after all three members, Joe Ely, Jimmy
Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock, had gone on to stellar solo careers.
Thanks in part to prodding from Don Imus this trio is making
music again, but the new material doesn’t sound nearly as good,
largely because Gilmore has lost his voice and Hancock and Ely
seem to have lost interest. But none of that diminishes this
landmark recording from the outback of Lubbock.

 

5. Linda Thompson — Fashionably
Late
(Rounder)

In 1982, Linda Thompson and
her husband, guitar legend Richard Thompson released Shoot Out
the Lights. This sequence of confessional songs describing their
turbulent marriage would prove to be one of the finest of that
decade. A few months after the album’s release, Richard abandoned
Linda for Sufism and a young new bride. Predictably, Richard
went on to achieve even loftier critical, if not commercial,
acclaim, while Linda fell into a deep funk, followed by a debilitating
illness. Twenty years later, though, Linda resurfaced with a
vengeance. Fashionably Late is far better than any cd released
over the same period by her ex. I hope there’s more to come.

 

6. Little Willie John —
The
Early King Sessions
(Ace)

The sweet soul of Little Willie
John belongs in an exalted class of singers whose membership
includes Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Jackie Wilson
and Smokey Robinson. Willie John, though, is nearly forgotten
today. John had three strikes against him: he was black, his
first big song, “Fever”, was hijacked from him on the
eve of its release by Peggy Lee, and his life ended in a prison
brawl in Washington state. America doesn’t show much tolerance
for black cons. It’s one think to revere the faux-felon Johnny
Cash or Haggard as redeemed outlaws and another thing entirely
to set aside John’s sad case and just embrace his songs. These
King sessions from the 1950s display John at the pinnacle of
his hypnotic power.

 

7. Jessi Colter — An
Outlaw and a Lady
(Capitol)

In the 1970s, Jessi Colter
was a leading country singer with a huge crossover audience–the
Shania Twain of her time. Unlike the keening Twain, Jessi Colter
can really sing. She is also a gifted songwriter who didn’t resort
to trite gimmicks to sell records. Colter rejected the sappy
production effects that had done so much to enervate the 70s
Nashville sound for a more direct and unadorned approach typified
by songs such as “I’m Not Lisa”. This is modern music
in a country context. Of course, she also happened to be married
to Waylon Jennings and appeared on the Outlaws record that revolutionized
not only the sound but also the economics of country music. For
the last decade or so, Colter largely sacrificed her career to
tend to the ailing Jennings, until diabetes finally took him
down in 2002. Still, it’s a major outrage that nearly all of
Colter’s records from the 70s and 80s are now deleted. This collection
provides only a tantalizing appetizer for one of the most courageous
voices in American music. The disc suffers from slighting her
stunning gospel-like record “Mirriam”, done in tribute
to her mother, though the cd does include the highlight from
that set, “I Belong to Him,” a haunting duet with Roy
Orbison. Come back, Jessi.

 

8. Harry Nilsson — Nilsson
Sings Newman Remastered
(Buddha)

It’s hard to believe that it’s
been 12 years since a heart attack claimed the life of Harry
Nilsson at the age of 53. These days Nilsson is known more for
being John Lennon’s enabler during those three lost years of
boozing in LA in the mid-1970s than for his music. And that’s
a shame, because Nilsson was a true original with a distinctive
voice that burst onto the scene singing Fred Neil’s song “Everybody’s
Talkin’ At Me” on the soundtrack to Midnight Cowboy. Two
years later, Nilsson and his pal Randy Newman, then a talented
but still relatively unrecognized songwriter, holed up in a Hollywood
studio and recorded 10 Newman songs, including “Vine Street”,
“Yellow Man” and the wonderful “Dayton, Ohio,
1903”. Newman is surely one of our greatest songwriters,
but his voice has never come close to doing his songs justice.
Nilsson had the perfect voice for Newman’s quirky songs. This
stripped down album, featuring only Nilsson’s voice and Newman’s
piano, is one of the treasures of the 1970s. Long out of print,
it has recently been remastered and reissued with additional
takes and jesting between the two musicians.

 

9. Lester Young — The
President Plays with the Oscar Peterson Trio
(Polygram)

Whether he’s playing in a big
band setting with Count Basie, backing Billie Holiday or fronting
a quartet with Oscar Peterson, the sound of Lester Young’s sax
is as unmistakable as Louis Armstrong’s voice or Miles’s muted
trumpet. In the 1940s, Young was one of the nation’s most recognizable
black musicians. He’d even starred in a movie. Then in 1943 Young
was drafted. In the Army, Young, one of the greatest musicians
of his time, didn’t get the pampered treated accorded to Elvis
and other white celebrities. Instead, he endured three years
of physical and psychological abuse and racism of such virulence
that he emerged from the Army in many ways a shattered man. His
final months as a GI were spent in a military prison in Georgia
where he was routinely humiliated and tortured. In 1978, I interviewed
his close friend Teddy Wilson, Billie Holiday’s piano player.
In a cramped backroom at Blues Alley in Georgetown, Wilson told
me that Young was never the same person or musician. You can
hear the change in the music. The birth of the cool occurred
the day Lester Young walked out of that hellhole of a brig. Despite
this harrowing experience, Lester Young remained one of the funniest
of all jazz musicians. His sense of humor probably came from
his father, who led the carnival band in which the Prez learned
his chops. A taste of Young’s humor can be heard on “It
Takes Two to Tango,” the only extant recording of Lester
Young singing. No one swings harder than Lester, but here we
get to hear the Prez blow out some blues and lay down some of
the most gorgeous ballads ever memorialized on vinyl. One of
the giants of American music.

 

10. Hackberry Ramblers —
Early
Recordings, 1935 – 1950
(Arhoolie)

In March of 2004, Alexander
Cockburn and I saw the Hackberry Ramblers at Jazzfest in New
Orleans. They played on the smaller Cajun music stage, but the
crowd was boisterous and overflowing. That spring only Smokey
Robinson and Alan Toussaint played to more captivated audiences.
A few months later Johnny Faulk, the Ramblers’ bass player died
shortly after a gig at Tipitinas. He was 79 years old and the
youngster in the group. He’d only been playing with the
Ramblers since 1979. The Hackberry Ramblers are the grandfathers
of Cajun swing, Louisiana’s equivalent of Bob Wills and the Texas
Playboys. Indeed, the Ramblers and Wills started recording in
the same year: 1933. But the Ramblers, formed by fiddler Luderin
Darbone and accordionist Edwin Duhon, have continued playing
30 years after Wills died. And playing frequently and at a high
level. Their 1998 album, Deep Water, won a Grammy. The week before
Faulk died the Ramblers, with Ardoin and Duhon in their early
90s, had played 5 out of 7 nights. This vital retrospective of
the band’s “early years”, put out by Arhoolie, traces
the Ramblers from old-time Cajun stomps to fiddle-driven swings
to blues and bayou party music. These fellows really are living
legends.

 

11. Lazy Lester — I’m
a Lover Not a Fighter
(Ace)

Lazy Lester shouldered half
of the legacy left by the untimely death of Slim Harpo, the person
Mick Jagger really wanted to be (that is, when he didn’t want
to be Martha Reeves). That half of the inheritance is the swamp
blues harmonica sound that Slim perfected and taught to Lester,
who later married Slim’s sister. The swamp blues is a slow, meandering
style with a deep and inexorable groove. Slim also had one of
the signature voices in the blues and that’s certainly not Lester’s
forte. Even so, these cuts offer some of the best harp playing
since the mid-1960s when Little Walter, Slim Harpo and Junior
Wells ruled the earth as the undisputed titans of their art.
Lester’s “Patrol Blues” and “Bloodstains on the
Wall” can be heard as a unique kind of reportage from the
underbelly of the Empire.

By the time Jeffrey St. Clair
was 18, he’d been 86’d from more bands than Dickey Betts. Complaints
can be registered to: sitka@comcast.net.

 

DAVID VEST

1. Eugene Chadbourne —
Worms
With Strings
(Leo)

“He who does not know,
should not know,” wrote Antonio Porchia. Which may or may
not apply to the guitar genius whose extended fantasia on Roger
Miller’s “Dang Me” sounded like the Sun Ra of rockabilly.
Come to think of it, many would probably prefer Dr. Chadbourne’s
C/W opera, “Jesse Helms Busted With Pornography” (Fireant),
which can be sampeld on iTunes.

 

2. Nana Mouskouri — Vielles
Chansons de France
(Philips)

One of my favorite CDs, since
I first heard it years ago. Try “Plaisir D’Amour” and
“Va Mon Ami Va.” Have these songs ever been done better?

 

3. Curtis Salgado — Strong
Suspicion
(Shanachie)

One of the country’s most under-rated
soul singers, well-schooled in his craft, and blessed with golden
pipes. When I visited his home once, he showed me a video by
the Highway QCs and loaned me his copy of You
Send Me
, Daniel Wolff’s bio of Sam Cooke. Salgado’s version
of “I’ll Be Back” is the standard by which all Beatles
covers should be judged. “Money Must Think I’m Dead”
— is that a good blues song title, or what?

 

4. Paul Brady — The
Paul Brady Songbook
(Compass)

Live career retrospective by
an Irish singer-songwriter whose records have been foraged and
plundered by American singers looking for hits. Songs like “Helpless
Heart” and “Follow On” deserve to be much more
widely heard, in their composer’s own voice.

 

5. Donovan — Beat
Café
(Appleseed)

Ever buy a CD you didn’t really
need because you liked the way the drums and bass were recorded?
You could almost call this a Jim Keltner album, thanks to his
brushwork. It’s mostly just acoustic bass, drums, and Donovan’s
acoustic guitar, with a bit of B-3 thrown in. “Whirlwind”
is the best of the songs, though there aren’t enough of them
and Donovan can be so very … Donovan, at times. But he still
has that low vibrato, and whatever he’s doing, he ain’t backin’
down.

6. Lou Ann Barton — Read
My Lips
(Antone’s)

When I think of Texas roadhouse
music, this is the album I think of first.

7. Tracy Nelson — I
Feel So Good
(Rounder)

Thank goodness for those independent
public radio stations that play a couple of hours of good womens’
music at odd hours, usually when I’m driving home from a gig.
Otherwise I would never have heard Tracy Nelson and Maura O’Connell
sing their duet on “Love Won’t Come.” Thank you, KBOO.
Thank you, KAOS and KPFT. And all the others. You know who you
are.

 

8. North
Country Soundtrack
(Sony)

I went for this because of
“Tell Ol’ Bill,” a new song by Bob Dylan, apparently
written for the movie and not available elsewhere. While not
as great as “Things Have Changed,” it’s almost as intriguing
and the recording sounds fabulous. Here’s hoping his next CD
project sounds something like this.

 

9. Joan Baez — Honest
Lullaby
(Sony)

More of a curiosity than an
honest anything. Once upon a time everybody went down to Nashville.
Then, after a while, they all went to Alabama. After Dylan and
the Stones made the trek to Muscle Shoals, it was Baez’s turn.
Barry Beckett and his co-conspirators did their best to give
her a ’70s pop album, and it wound up sounding more countrypolitan
hippy than folky.

 

10. Leonard Cohen — Dear
Heather
(Sony)

You get the best and the worst
of Cohen here. Preciosity side by side with genius. Songs as
bad (e.g., “Because of,” or “Dear Heather”)
, or as great (e.g., “The Letters,” or “The Faith”)
as anything he’s ever written. You even get a duet between his
“old” voice and his current one, proof that it’s willfulness,
not age or necessity, that makes him sing about nine octaves
below Middle-C most of the time these days. People who locked
themselves in their room for days, playing “Ten New Songs”
over and over, will want to approach this one gingerly. Do your
best to sneak up on it. This ain’t no disco.

David Vest’s newest CD is Serves
Me Right to Shuffle
.

CounterPunch Magazine

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