The year 2015 is a bit over half through, and so far it’s been pretty darn strong for album releases within the Classic Cowjazz R&B spectrum. This week I’m presenting the first of a two part roundup of brief reviews of new releases that you may want to check out. No doubt, many of you may already have some of these, but I hope there will be at least a couple you may have missed. This is by no means all of the albums I know about and have sampled during the first half of the year; it’s not even all I have actually purchased. Of the albums I’ve heard, however, these are at the top of my “recommended” list so far in 2015.
Part One features a spectacular debut which I best describe as a soul/folks/roots fusion, a modern take on traditional New Orleans jazz, a couple by veteran singers comfortable in multiple variations of R&B, and the latest from a pop maestro.
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Rhiannon Giddens – Tomorrow Is My Turn
Rhiannon Giddens usually performs with the Carolina Chocolate Drops who specialize in music from the old time African American folk and blues tradition from the Piedmont region of North Carolina. Her solo turn in the recorded concert Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating The Music of ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ so impressed producer T Bone Burnett that he persuaded her to do a solo project. The result is a stunning showcase for her incredible voice, and although the production and instrumentation may be more commercial than her work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the song selections and treatments are true to her love for classic roots music. In this case most of the tracks are by or associated with female singers. To say the highlight for me is her R&B flavored version of Patsy Cline’s “She’s Got You” is easy, but it also shortchanges wonderful performances of “Waterboy,” “Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mine,”Up Above My Head,” and so many others. I believe it should be Grammy’s Album of the Year.
Here’s Rhiannon at the Grand Ole Opry:
Dee Dee Bridgewater With Irvin Mayfield & The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra – Dee Dee’s Feathers
I don’t usually write about jazz in part because I don’t feel qualified, but I’m making an exception here for three reasons. First Dee Dee Bridgewater is an entertainer who learned how to connect with her audiences through Tony and Olivier Award winning performances on New York and London stages that paralleled her career in jazz. Second, this album is a celebration of New Orleans, the city and its jazz heritage, on the 10th anniversary of hurricane Katrina. Third, I believe without New Orleans jazz there would be no cowjazz nor R&B.
Dee Dee’s Feathers is a marvelous mix of old tunes like “St James Infirmary,” more recent songs like Harry Connick’s “One Fine Thing,” and new music written for this project. Bridgewater collaborated with the great albeit recently controversial New Orleans bred trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and his New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. The music is modern yet closely connected to the New Orleans tradition. There’s variety in tempo and rhythms. It’s both great and accessible. You don’t have to be a jazz aficionado to enjoy hearing this music. Laissez le bon temps rouler!
Boz Scaggs – A Fool To Love You
Boz has recorded everything from hard core blues to slick pop to jazz standards and even near-folk. With 2013’s Memphis, he seemed to want to move back toward his sweet soul roots. Although highly regarded by many, somehow it just didn’t work for me, so even with repeated samplings, I could never get myself to click on “buy.” On 2015’s A Fool To Love You, however, I’m happy to report he got it right. It’s a great mix of primarily older material, yet I would never describe it as Boz covering oldies. They’re just good songs. One is reminiscent of Fats Domino; another is sixties soul; there’s early R&B and a lovers’ slow dance; Boz echoes his Silk Degrees era hits in a couple plus adds a nod to disco; he wrote a traditional sounding blues shuffle to round it all out. Heck, there’s even a tango number. Whatever the style, he sounds like he’s in control and having fun. Plus there are duets with Bonnie Raitt and Lucinda Williams, and an excellent cast of musicians. All in all, the album showcases a veteran master at his best.
Here is Boz in a Jools Holland big band concert treatment of the title track.
Brian Wilson – No Pier Pressure
This album is a bit of an outlier from the music I usually follow. If you don’t like the Beach Boys, chances are you won’t like No Pier Pressure. And if you like the sixties era Beach Boys, you still may not like it. There’s no “Surfin’ USA” or “Fun Fun Fun” here. Still…Brian Wilson is one of those geniuses who is so often tormented by the pursuit of a magnum opus. In my opinion it’s been too much weight for his more recent solo albums to bear. In contrast, I read somewhere that this album is just a collection of tunes he had worked on from time to time – no grand plan, as he hints in the album’s title. The result: it works as really engaging pop rock and a nice change of pace. He has a couple of interesting guest artists. Plus he’s joined on several tunes by his old Beach Boy mate Al Jardine on what – not surprisingly – are some of the best cuts. Although there might be a cut or two I’ll eventually delete, the more I listen to it, the more I like it. Maybe it’s just that we’re in the middle of summer, and no doubt about it, for all of his experimentation over the years, Wilson’s soul is still basking in Southern California summer sun. Give it a listen. You might agree that’s a pretty good place to be.
Steve Tyrell – That Loving Feeling
Steve Tyrell has created a very nice second career for himself as a jazz-like interpreter of the Great American Songbook, starting in the late 1990’s following up on his surprisingly successful turn as vocalist on standards used in the Steve Martin movie, “Father of the Bride.” Tyrell is blessed with artful phrasing, an ability to connect with audiences, the smarts to surround himself with great musicians, and a contagious respect for the songwriters responsible for such enduring songs. Thus he was able to overcome an only average voice to create entertaining night club shows and above average albums that go down really well with cocktails. If you’re a baby boomer who also likes Tyrell, you will probably like his newest effort, which connects his second career to his first.
In his first career Tyrell was kind of a boy wonder in the control booth or producer’s chair for some of the biggest singles and albums in the sixties and early seventies. For That Loving Feeling, he’s given fifteen of the era’s hits low key, somewhat jazzy arrangements. In other words, like his other albums, this is music better suited for cocktail hour than a big party. Tyrell uses guests quite well. Highlights include “On Broadway” with the great songwriter Barry Mann, “Rock and Roll Lullaby” with original artist B. J. Thomas, “Good Good Lovin’” with the wondrous Judith Hill, and of course “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Felling” with the great Bill Medley. I’ve included a clip below of Steve and Bill talking about how the monster hit’s co-writer Mann created an arrangement that enabled Steve to take parts of the song that originally belonged to Bill, yet provide room for Medley to (in my opinion) still own his biggest hit. I never really liked the song “Jazzman” that opens the album, and the closer “Hound Dog” seems out of place even reincarnated here as a blues. But the rest of That Loving Feeling is like a good single malt; it gets better with repeated servings.
Check back for Part Two of the Album Review Roundup which will focus on country music from traditional to western swing.