JEFFREY ST. CLAIR
James Blood Ulmer: Memphis Blood: the Sun Sessions (Sin-Drome)
Guitarist James Blood Ulmer melded the deep grooves of funk with Ornette Coleman’s free-form harmolodic approach to jazz to create what might be called “funkolodics”. Ulmer’s collaborations with Ornette, as well as Coleman’s son Denardo, along with avant-garde stalwarts Pharoah Sanders, David Murray and Rashid Ali, account for some of the most daring and challenging music ever recorded. But in the past few years, Ulmer has returned to his roots with a vengeance, attacking old blues songs with a ferociousness that makes even the most worn-out standards, such Willie Dixon’s “Back Door Man,” sound fresh and threatening. These songs, recorded in the Sun Studios, are mostly Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters numbers, with John Lee Hooker’s “Dimples” and Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Fattening Frogs for Snakes” thrown in to make an already hot session even spicier. The band includes Charles Burnam on violin and Living Color’s Vernon Reid on an anarchic rhythm guitar. Reid also produced the sessions.
Dave Douglas Quintet: Strange Liberation (RCA)
Trumpeter Dave Douglas is a restless musician. Over the last decade, he has flirted with Third Stream fusions of jazz and classical music, hip-hop, klezmer and, most recently (and bizarrely), a musical tribute to the films of Fatty Arbuckle. But Douglas is at his best when he teams with keyboardist Uri Caine to explore the landscape charted by the Miles Davis groups of the mid-1960s. Strange Liberation is as close as you are likely get to reliving to the haunting minimalism of Davis’s In a Silent Way.
Jody Williams: You Left Me in the Dark (Evidence)
Jody Williams went to grade school with Bo Diddley and later played lead guitar on some of his most famous songs, including “Who Do You Love” (later desecrated by The Doors). Many of Williams’s signature guitar riffs on records for Billy Boy Arnold and Howlin’ Wolf were ripped off by white rockers, from Buddy Holly to Led Zeppelin. Williams’ 1957 song “Lucky Lou” is one of the great instrumental tracks in the history of rock; it’s also one of the most freely pillaged. Listen to the guitar riff on “Day Tripper” sometime and what you’re hearing is a riff Williams created for “Billie’s Blues”, a 1950s song by Billy Stewart. Williams, embittered by the larcenous nature of the music business, dropped out of the music scene in the early 1960s. Then in 2002, 38 years after he unplugged his guitar to work as an electrician, he came roaring back with his brilliant record “Return of a Legend”. This is the follow up and it’s even better.
Detroit Junior: Turn Up the Heat (Blue Suit)
One night in 1960 Emery Williams, Jr. was in a bar in Chicago, when he heard “Money Tree,” a single he that had just cut for Beat Baby Records, blasting out from the jukebox. But when Williams examined the record he was shocked to find the artist listed as someone called “Detroit Junior.” The next day he stormed into company’s office, screaming, “You put someone’s else name on my damn record!” It turned out that Beat Baby had unilaterally decided to release the record under the name, Detroit Junior, perhaps as a way to rip off the royalties. “Well, Emery, you’re from Detroit and you are a junior,” the exec explained. So Detroit Junior it was. He was the gifted piano player in the final incarnation of Howlin’ Wolf’s band. When Wolf died, Detroit Junior kept the band on the road, playing Wolf’s unmistakable brand of menacing Chicago blues. Detroit Junior’s piano style is a kind of exuberant funkhouse boogie-woogie that owes more to Pete Johnson than Otis Spann.
Susana Baca: Susana Baca (Luaka Bop)
The Aretha Franklin of Peru.
Freddie Hubbard: Bolivia (Music Masters)
Clifford Brown died young, but Brown’s free-blowing legacy was carried on by Freddie Hubbard, my favorite living trumpet player. (And I’m not just saying that because Freddie was born and raised in Naptown.) Over the past 40 years, Hubbard’s music has spanned a wide-spectrum of styles, from hard bop to some of the best fusion recordings of the 70s. Steeped in Latin rhythms, Bolivia is Hubbard’s most intensely lyrical record. This one’s for you Evo. Try to live up to its aspirations.
Blue Oyster Cult: Secret Treaties (Sony)
Yes, it’s the ultimate oxymoron, but Blue Oyster Cult was the smartest of the heavy metal bands that stormed the continent from one arena to the next back in the 1970s. Secret Treaties was released before BOC broke onto the pop charts with “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and remains their strongest effort from start to finish. The Cult was a proto-punk band and occasionally collaborated with punk poetess Patti Smith, who co-wrote “Career of Evil,” which opens this CD. The guiding spirit of the band was Buck Dharma, the most underrated rock guitarist of that unlamented decade. Most of BOC’s songs are gothic camp, but in the right setting, under the influence of the right kind of hallucinogens, “Harvester of Eyes” can still make your spine tingle.
Percy Mayfield: Memory Pain (Specialty)
A few years ago I asked the great blues shouter Jimmy T99 Nelson to name his favorite songwriter. He stared at me as if I was brain dead and snapped, “Percy, Percy Mayfield, of course. He was our poet.” Mayfield deserves a comprehensive collection of his songs. Until then, this slender volume will have to suffice. Chew on these lyrics, from “Please Send Me Someone to Love:”
I lay awake night and ponder world troubles.
My answer is always the same.
That unless men put an end to all of this,
Hate will put the world in a flame, (oh) what a shame.
Just because I’m in misery.
I’m not begging for no sympathy.
But if it’s not asking too much,
Just send me someone to love.
Victoria Spivey with Lonnie Johnson: Idle Hours (OBC)
Victory Spivey’s records all shared a single obsession: sex. As a vocalist, Spivey was a spitfire Bessie Smith. These recordings from 1961, pairing her with the legendary Texas blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson, capture Spivey at her tawdriest, which means her best.
Milton Nascimento: Milton (Polygram)
The Brazilian songwriter and singer Milton Nascimento, a superstar in his own country, came to the attention of most Americans with his eerie, ethereal vocals and wordless singing on Wayne Shorter’s 1974 masterpiece Native Dancer. Two years later, Shorter, teaming with Herbie Hancock on piano and Airto on percussion, returned the favor by playing on Nascimento’s stunning debut album in the states, “Milton”. Mysterious and beautiful, “Milton” is one of the 20th century’s essential recordings.
While I tend to agree with the old Columbia marketing slogan, “Nobody sings Dylan like Dylan,” I do have a few favorite cover versions. These are my top ten — of the moment.
Kitty Wells, “Forever Young,” Dylan Country
Could this be the greatest single cover of a Dylan song? Maybe so, until I get a chance to hear Mary Black sing “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” on her forthcoming “Full Tide” CD. When Miss Kitty goes up high on the chorus, her legendary vibrato is spine-tingling. And — extremely unusual for a Nashville track — they actually let the musicians play on this one.
Norman Blake & Peter Ostroushko, “Restless Farewell.” on both Dylan Country and A Nod to Bob (An Artists’ Tribute to Bob Dylan On His 60th Birthday)
A second tune from the same CD makes my list.
Youssou N’Dour, “Chimes of Freedom” Guide (Wommat)
N’Dour has released three versions of the song, including a
Wolof/English duet with Bruce Cockburn. Can’t go wrong with any of them, and if you can find the EP with all three, buy it!
Flatt and Scruggs, Like A Rolling Stone, Nashville Airplane
With Buck Graves playing the organ part on dobro. Supposedly the track that broke up one of the greatest acts in country music. I have it on a 45 RPM, with “I’d Like To Say A Word For Texas” on the flip side. Henry Strzelecki, who plays some bass on the album, also played on “Blonde on Blonde.” I used to throw rocks at Henry, down across the streetcar tracks in Birmingham. Good thing I missed.
The Soul Stirrers, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” When the Saints Go Marchin’ In
Beats out Sam Cooke’s “Live At The Copa” version by a hair. But have you ever heard Leontyne Price sing it?
Ken Saydak, “Watching the River Flow,” Love Without Trust (Delmark)
Saydak’s “Clo Clo Boogie” is a solid swinger, and “Don’t Blame The Messenger” could have been written by Dylan himself. Maybe Saydak’s a better piano player than singer, but his take on “River” is rock solid
Doc and Merle Watson: “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” Lonesome Road/Look Away (SMD)
Doc, who has talked about how much he admired the finger-picking guitar tone Dylan got on his original recording, pays tasty tribute here. And sings the hell out of it, too. Lacking a version by the marvelous Alix Dobkin, the singer to whom Dylan originally pitched the song, this will do just fine.
Jimmy LaFave: You’re A Big Girl Now, Austin Skyline (Bohemia Beat)
The premier Texas Dylan interpreter, and one of the best anywhere. Actually this CD has four Dylan covers, plus LaFave’s classic remake of “Just Walk Away Renee.”
What? Nothing by The Byrds? Hendrix? Baez? Doug Sahm? And what about the Blind Boys of Alabama singing “I Believe In You”? That’s the trouble with lists. No sooner do you get through making one, than you sit there wondering what would you give to hear Sun Ra play “Ring Them Bells”? Or Susan Alcorn doing “In The Garden”?
David Vest’s newest CD is Serves Me Right to Shuffle.