Homesick James: Blues on the Southside (OBC)
A neglected hero of the blues, Homesick James Williamson was born in Somersville, Tennessee in 1910 and his music reflects the country blues of the Smokies, not the Delta. A master of the bottleneck slide guitar, Homesick James taught his more famous cousin, Elmore James, some of the funkiest licks on record, licks that eventually became staples of Clapton, Page and other practioniers of blues-based rock. Homesick James played bass and slide guitar on many of Elmore James’ signature recordings, including “The Sky is Crying” and “Dust My Broom”. But this record, made in Memphis, is as innovative as anything Elmore recorded and two of the songs, “She May Be Your Woman” and “Homesick’s Blues,” stand as classics of the genre. Homesick’s spirited-haunted voice is eerie and wrenching, a kind of uptempo Skip James.
Jackie McLean: Let Freedom Ring (Blue Note)
The gifted altoist Jackie McLean grew up on the same Harlem block that gave us Bud Powell, Sonny Rollins and, the great jazz drummer, Art Taylor. If New York were Vienna, the street would be preserved as a national landmark. McLean got his start playing with Rollins and later Miles Davis. But it was his close friendship with Charlie Parker that proved the dominant influence on his music and his life. In the final months of Parker’s brief life, McLean and Bird shared a saxophone. Unfortunately, they also shared a needle. After Parker died, McLean fell into the grip of a serious heroin addiction, which eventually led him to lose his license to play in Manhattan clubs. McLean spent a few years freeing himself from the spike and emerged with a post-bop sound that he called, “the new thing.” Let Freedom Ring captures the birth of that new aesthetic of free jazz. Forty-five years later it still sounds new. Blow on, Jackie!
Bruce Langhorne: Hired Hand (Blast First)
You may never have heard of Bruce Langhorne, but you’ve heard his guitar on some of the best songs by Bob Dylan, as well as Richard and Mimi Farina. In a way, Langhorne is the sound of the New York folk scene of the early 1960s, which he helped to create. Here Langhorne lends his considerable artistry to the soundtrack of Peter Fonda’s neglected anti-western, Hired Hand. If William Carlos Williams played guitar, it might have sounded like this: spare, sharp, imagistic. Langhorne is now seriously ill and like most musicians he lacks health insurance. Please read this message from the film director Jonathan Demme and help Bruce if you are able.
Ahmad Jamal: At the Pershing (MCA)
In the 1960s, when jazz was bifurcating toward either fusion or the harmonic abstractions of free jazz, Ahmad Jamal was tagged as a player of lounge jazz. This was a slur. Jamal’s approach to the piano is as modern as Cecil Taylor’s and a lot more coherent. If Taylor and his devotees tended toward jamming as many notes into a song as possible, Jamal went the other direction. He is a minimalist, exploring the negative spaces of a song. Jamal elided notes from chords, inserted extended caesuras of silence into his songs–an innovation that was seized upon by Miles Davis to devastating effect. Jamal’s rendition of “Poinciana” may be as close as jazz ever came to being a soundtrack of Zen.
Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison: Happy Holidays (Rykodisc)
I don’t have any excuses to justify my long-running obsession with Kelly Willis, except to say that she has the sexiest voice in country music since Tanya Tucker came down out of the hills in the 1970s. If this rendition of “Santa Baby” doesn’t warm your holidays, then face the facts: your batteries are dead beyond recharging.
John Lennon: Live Peace in Toronto, 1969 (Toshiba EMI)
At the height of the war (in Vietnam, as well as inside The Beatles), John Lennon assembled a few of his pals, namely Eric Clapton, Alan White and Klaus Voorman (as well as Yoko, natch), to perform as his back-up band for a hastily arranged concert in Toronto. The band plugged in without rehearsing and scorched their way through Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins songs before erupting into a fiery version of “Cold Turkey” that might well qualify as the birth-pangs of punk rock. The playing is ragged, electrifying and as urgent as any music ever recorded. Unfortunately, it’s hard as hell to find. Good luck tracking it down.