JEFFREY ST. CLAIR
Chick Corea and Touchstone: The Ultimate Adventure (Stretch)
Forget for a moment that Corea calls this set a “tone poem” inspired by L. Ron Hubbard’s 1958 novel The Ultimate Adventure, a SF retelling of the Arabian Nights. Set aside for later consideration the fact that Corea is Scientology’s musical ambassador and just let yourself be seduced by the music, which will, in fact, transport you to distant realms-though not of planets or personality tests, but Spain and the beats of rhumba, tango and flamenco. The band is something special too, a mix of Corea veterans (Hubert Laws, Steve Gadd and Airto) and Paco de Lucia’s flamenco band, featuring the mesmerizing percussionist Rubem Dantas, flutist Jorge Prado and Carlos Benavent, who plays a 5-string electric bass as if it were lead guitar.
Chick Corea with Return to Forever: Hymn to the Seventh Galaxy (Polydor)
The first two Return to Forever records were bold and scorching affairs with thick bass lines from Stanley Clarke and surrealistic synth work from Corea, but this slightly milder offering, featuring the Brazilian vocalist Flora Purim and her husband Airto Moriera, is the apogee of fusion and surely ranks as one of the highest musical achievements of the 70s.
Chick Corea: Piano Improvisation, Vol. 1 (ECM)
After a decade of wild experimentation with synthesizers and the Fender Rhodes, Chick Corea went back to basic. Just Chick and a piano. First take; no dubs. A few may prefer Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert, but if you like melody and are distracted by Jarrett’s yips and howls, this session (and its follow up) probably stand as the greatest recorded piano improvisations since Corea’s idol Art Tatum.
Chick Corea and Gary Burton: Crystal Silence (ECM)
In 1979, Corea broke new ground again by recording this duet with vibraphonist Gary Burton. The result is mesmering. The players are so sympathetic that Burton’s vibraphone often sounds as if it is an extension of Corea’s piano. In fact, Burton’s vibraphone often has the light and liquid sound that Corea coaxed out of the Fender Rhodes for Miles and RTF.
Chick Corea: Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (Blue Note)
In 1968, one month before joining Miles Davis’s band where he would take the electric piano into uncharted territory, Chick Corea, who had cut his teeth playing for Herbie Mann, Stan Getz and Mongo Santamaria, recorded his electrifying debut album as a leader. Backed by Roy Haynes on drums and Miroslav Vituous on bass, the set features driving Latin rhythms riding beneath Corea’s exquisite work on the keys. His playing is fast, melodic and light as a feather. Corea’s cover of Thelonious Monk’s “Pannonica” rivals the master’s.
Pee-Wee Crayton: The Complete Aladdin Recordings (EMI Intl.)
Long before the deification of Eric Clapton, real guitar gods walked the face of the Earth. Two of them grew up near each other in Texas: T-Bone Walker and Connie Curtis Crayton. Together they largely invented the modern sound of the electric blues. His feverish instrumentals, such as “Texas Hop” and the classic “Blues After Hours,” became huge hits on the black charts and influenced everyone from BB King and Lowell Fulson to rockers Ike Turner and Chuck Berry. These Aladdin sessions were recorded in the mid-1950s with exquisite production by the legendary New Orleans bandleader Dave Bartholomew. “Runnin’ Wild” is as funky a New Orleans R&B song as anyone ever recorded. Snooks Eaglin, Sonny Landreth and a barge full of other Crescent City guitarists have been making a living off those licks for decades.
Cowboy Junkies: The Trinity Session
Anyone who covers Hank Williams and the Velvet Underground on the same album is OK in my book.
Alejandro Escovedo: Bourbonitis Blues
Anyone who covers Jimmie Rodgers and the Velvet Underground on the same album is OK in my book, too.
June Tabor/The Oysterband: Freedom and Rain
Si Kahn and the Velvet Underground? What the hell; that’s cool too.
Jerry Lee Lewis: Another Place, Another Time/She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye
It’s his rockabilly records of the ’50s that most people remember, but to my taste the best period of Jerry Lee Lewis’ career came when he went country in the late ’60s and early ’70s. You can still hear traces of the younger Jerry Lee on these two albums (conveniently combined by Raven Records onto one CD), when he adds a little flourish on the piano or turns a trad standard like “Walking the Floor Over You” into a full-fledged rock’n’roll stomp. But for the most part, this is hard-core, Haggard-grade honky-tonk.
Jerry Lee Lewis: Southern Roots
Lewis emerged from his straight country period with two rock albums, The Session and Southern Roots . He sold more copies of The Session , which he recorded in London with various famous and semi-famous Brit rockers; I’ve never heard it, but I’d be amazed if it was half as good as this follow-up. Like Elvis five years earlier, Jerry Lee returned to Memphis, the town where he recorded his earliest hits, and embraced the city’s gritty soul sound. Producer Huey P. Meaux — a Texas legend who shared Lewis’ disreputable taste for underage women — assembled an astonishing assortment of southern musicians, from Carl Perkins to Augie Meyers to Tony Joe White to the MGs. There’s still a bit of country here (“Born to Be a Loser,” “Big Blue Diamonds”), but the predominant flavor is R&B; the high point comes when Jerry Lee growls his way through a slowed-down “Hold On I’m Coming,” probably the only white cover of a Sam & Dave song that can hold a candle to the original.
Floyd Tillman: Country Music Hall of Fame Series
Tillman helped invent honky-tonk in the ’40s with a vocal and guitar style that owed a considerable debt to jazz and jazz-flavored pop. These deeply enjoyable sides, recorded from 1939 to 1944, draw on the swing side of his personality.
Dave Peel and the Lower East Side: The American Revolution
Peel was a street musician who wrote novelty songs and fell in briefly with John Lennon, who produced one of his early albums. This record (Beatle-free!) hits the notes you’d expect from a man of Peel’s yippie sympathies: a bit about sex, some more about the war, and a ton about marijuana. “Oink Oink” is catchy, and it opens with a great anti-hippie rant by Marshall Efron, so every now and then I take it out and play it. Peel’s moment in the spotlight faded in the early ’70s, but he kept writing and recording music; the last time I noticed him, he was part of Howard Stern’s short-lived gubernatorial campaign, singing a campaign song that went “Howard Stern for governor/Howard Stern for governor/Howard Stern for governor/Of New York.” “Happy Days Are Here Again” it ain’t.
Willie Hightower: Willie Hightower
The poor man’s Sam Cooke. He isn’t on the A list of ’60s soul singers, but he recorded several fine songs, especially the two that kick off this collection: “Back Road Into Town” and the definitive version of Joe South’s “Walk a Mile in My Shoes.”
The Staple Singers: Be Altitude: Respect Yourself
When other gospel groups — say, the Mighty Clouds of Joy — shifted from a spare, stripped-down approach to a bigger 1970s-style R&B production, it felt like one band had been replaced with another. With the Staples, though, the new sound sounded like it had been inside them all along, just waiting for the right moment to bloom.
Patty Waters: The Complete ESP-Disk Recordings
The lost bridge between Nina Simone and Diamanda Galas.
Jesse Walker is managing editor of Reason and author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America. His blog is The Perpetual Three-Dot Column.