‘Tis the Season!

December is here, so it’s time to celebrate the holidays – with music, of course.  For most of the world the sounds of the season are primarily spiritual in nature, but America being America, we’ve added a number of secular tunes to the mix. Some are festive. Some are romantic. Some are bittersweet. I love Christmas music, both the carols and the secular, so I thought I’d pass along a few of my favorite albums from my library, plus a couple of new discoveries.  Finally, I’ll toss in a few singles that always catch my ear.

Tunesmiths always offer up a few new songs every year.  Most of them disappear after one season.  So, in the secular Christmas canon, there really are only a couple dozen that have staying power. For me there are two ways to avoid being bored by hearing the same few songs over and over.  One is to listen to jazz interpretations.  Jazz is all about improvisation, so no two artists record a song the same way. Also jazz musicians bring a high level of artistry, so a careful listener will probably hear something new in a performance every time. When they’re really good, I can enjoy listening to them regardless of the time of year, except I know my friends would think I’d lost it if I put on a jazz Christmas album in July.

The other way to achieve variety in Christmas listening is to hear the songs adapted in  different genres, so I’ve included a little soul, a little traditional pop, a bit of bluegrass and even some genuine cowjazz.  Anyway you like it, you can hum along while you trim your tree.

Diana Krall – Christmas Songs

Diana Krall’s voice and piano are in top form surrounded by the Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra on this album, which is like a greatest hits of the Great American Christmas Songbook. Most of the most enduring secular songs are here, performed with verve and marvelous pacing. Originally released in 2005.

 

 

Wynton Marsalis – Christmas Jazz Jam

This is truly a jazz album with some very interesting arrangements plenty of improvisational features by all ten members of Marsalis’s band, which includes many players from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. The set from 2014 mixes secular and religious favorites and is all instrumental for the most part. The operative word is jam, the implication being that even numbers which begin in slow tempos are likely to end up swinging, and all the players will have chances to strut their stuff. This is fun, accessible jazz and with all the improvisation, you’ll never feel like you’re hearing the “same old, same old.” Louis Armstrong would have loved this album.

Aaron Neville’s Soulful Christmas

Although Aaron Neville is truly soulful, this is not a soul album per se. Released in 1993, it’s a more mellow, almost pop treatment of a blend of secular and spiritual classics. Even the uptempo numbers like “ Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow” are somewhat understated. Build a fire, sit back and let the feeling and beauty of this voice envelop you.

Michale Buble – Christmas

Mr. Buble ably updated the classic Bing Crosby style pop vocal approach with the full swing orchestra with strings on this 2011 outing.  He’s got the rich romantic tone and the ability to swing that conjures memories of Christmas past. Some might deride it as derivative, but why quibble. After all, it’s a tradition filled holiday and nobody else does this style now as well as he does. His “Jingle Bells” is special fun with accompaniment by the Puppini Sisters harmonies. It’s a bit like Dorsey-era Sinatra with the Pied Pipers, except snappier. Hey relax, grab another egg nog, and just go with it. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

Shelby Lynne – Merry Christmas

If you want a bit of country flavor in your Christmas music, give Shelby Lynne’s 2010 album a spin. Of course, she’s not a typical country singer, so for that you’ll need Strait of Reba. I would have to say that this album is the one in my holiday collection that has the mash up of country, rock’n’ roll, folk, and blues (and with Shelby, a dark corner or two)  that adds up to Cowjazz. Maybe she should have called it Merry Cowjazz Christmas. It has some twangy guitars – acoustic and electric, sad clarinets, cool toe tapping brush work on the drums, infectious background singers, and, well it all adds up to a nifty change of pace.

The Isaacs – Christmas

If you need a little bluegrass flavor in your Christmas bowl, sprinkle The Isaacs into your mix. I first heard them – two sisters, their brother and mother – a few years ago at the Grand Ole Opry, at the Ryman Auditorium no less, and I was blown away by the lustrous beauty and intricacy of their harmonies. They normally work in the narrow niche of bluegrass gospel, so of course you expect their treatment of spiritual carols to glimmer with reverence as they do on another release from 2010. I got chills listening to their a cappella “Away In A Manger.” Surprisingly they also handle secular numbers like “Silver Bells” with aplomb. Mandolins and banjo, fiddles and guitar and those gorgeous harmonies make quite a Christmas present for your ears and heart.

Now for my new finds this season.

The Count Basie Orchestra – A Very Swinging Basie Christmas

Of course Count Basie has been dead since 1984, but this legacy band is now under the direction of Scotty Barnhart, who also happens to be a terrific trumpet player. This is a brand new release with an album cover that harkens back to the old days. It also features a very nice array of guest vocalists: Johnny Mathis (still sounding great,) Ledisi and Carmen Bradford. Ellis Marsalis more than capably subs for the Count on piano, and gives a nod to Basie’s deceptively simple style, while the formidable session man Plas Johnson guests on tenor sax. Most of the songs are once more from the secular standards catalog, but Barnhart and the band breathe fresh life into them. I’m a big Basie fan, and his exuberant swinging approach to jazz endures.

The Four Tops – Christmas Here With You

I’m closing out my albums list with one that’s quickly becoming one of my favorites. It was released in 1995, but somehow slipped by me until yesterday! With apologies to Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and David Ruffin, the greatest vocalist in Motown’s hey day was Levi Stubbs of The Four Tops. And even this late in his career, he’s still in superb form here.

For once, Motown mixes his mates more prominently, and their terrific harmonies and occasional leads add to the fun found here. The Four Tops are joined by Aretha Franklin on two numbers,  “White Christmas” and an unusually joyous arrangement of “Silent Night.”  A few new tunes are mixed among the standards. While they may not be especially memorable, their interesting arrangements and terrific vocals make them a pleasure to hear.

Having said all of that  there’s no denying Levi makes the album special. His voice soars in one moment and caresses the lyric in another.  It pleads, it rejoices, it soothes – sometimes all in the same song.  For example, contrast his down ‘n dirty blues with the big boss band treatment of “Merry Christmas Baby” to his sophisticated styling on “The Christmas Song.” This album is a marvelous gift, even if I had to wait twenty years to find it.

(Truth in advertising note: Delete the final track, an overly hammy reading of ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas.” I don’t know what the producer could’ve been thinking.)
Stocking stuffers

Sometimes, we just need a single song stir a special feeling. Here are four that do it for me every time.  I’ll start with Frank Sinatra in honor of his 100th birthday this month. He was known by several names such as Ole Blue Eyes, The Chairman of The Board, and perhaps most appropriately as you’ll hear, The Voice.

 

“I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” A lovely melody, warm and happy memories, and a melancholy ending – nobody sings songs like that better than Frank.

And to kick it up a notch…

“Merry Christmas Baby” by Sheryl Crow and Eric Clapton. Heat on heat.

“All I Want For Christmas Is You” by Vince Vance and The Valiants with lead vocal by Lisa Layne.  Reportedly the #1 Christmas song on radio for over twenty-five years.

“Silent Night” by The Temptations in an arrangement with new lyrics in a counter melody alongside the classic.

I hope you’ll be home for the holidays. For me, home at this time of year is not a place, it’s a state of heart. These two guys take me right there.

Merry Christmas everybody. And Happy New Year!

Album Review Roundup 2015 – So Good So Far: Volume III

Thanksgiving is a great holiday because by its very name it pushes you to pause and think about who and what you have in your life for which you’re grateful. At the top of my list right after family and close friends is great music. Despite the turmoil on the business side of the music industry, there are still artists, old and new, that are making new music for us to enjoy.  So for this week, here is my third installment of personal favorites released in 2015.

For new readers, I only write about albums I like, and I skew to those you may have missed. Rarely do I write about mainstream artists unless they put out something transcendent. Some of these are old favorites, some are new and some were recommended to me by readers.  And I really appreciate those suggestions – keep ‘em coming. After all the point of this blog is to find Classic Cowjazz.

One final note before we get to the music. I need your help with two things. Please help me keep expanding our readership by forwarding your email notification to your music loving friends. If they click on the title of the post, it will take them to the full blog site where they can in turn sign up to follow the blog. Second, some folks are still having technical issues opening the blog on some tablets and phones when they enter http://www.classiccowjazzrandb.com in their browser. They usually do not have the problem when they access the full blog site by clicking on the headline of the article in the email notification. I’m still working on correcting whatever technical issue is affecting access from browsers. Meanwhile, if you are having any issue with access, please let me know by emailing me at wblea3@gmail.com.

Thanks for your help and support. Now let’s get to the music.

 

Darlene Love – Introducing Darlene Love

Complete disclosure: I’ve been a huge Darlene Love fan since I saw her along with her Crystals in a Dick Clark Caravan of Stars rock ’n’ roll show at Raleigh’s Dorton Arena in 1964. In a lineup that included the Supremes, Major Lance, the Shirelles, Gene Pitney and a host of other stars, Darlene and the Crystals brought the house down with a hip shakin’ performance of “He’s A Rebel.” If any singer from those days was screwed, Darlene is at the top of the list, a saga that was most recently chronicled in in the Academy Award winning documentary “Twenty Feet From Stardom.” So yes, I’m inclined to greet any record she releases with “hurrah!”

Still when I heard about her new album, Introducing Darlene Love, I was prepared to be disappointed. I mean the woman’s in her 70’s now; how much voice can be left? Then I saw her perform Elvis Costello’s “Forbidden Night” on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert backed by Elvis, Steven Van Zandt and a big cast of musicians and back up singers. It was a big sound behind a big voice, and it was a joyous triumph. I’m happy to say the full album is is also a blast. Van Zandt as you no doubt know is a mainstay of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. He’s updated the “wall of sound” espoused by Phil Spector, Love’s Svengali back in the 1960’s. Spector always depended on having a voice big enough to stand up to his wall. Darlene was the best he had then, and she’s still up to the task after all these years.

While one might quibble that Van Sandt went overboard with the production a time or two, Love conquers all, whether it’s on “Just Another Lonely Night,” “Love Kept Us Fooling Around,” or on the change of pace “Still Too Soon To Know” on which she’s joined by another of Spector’s big voices Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers. One of the highlights for me is , well, first the back story: Back in the 1960’s, Spector had promised Darlene that he would release her killer version of “River Deep, Mountain HIgh.” Then behind her back, he recorded and released the song with Ike and Tina Turner instead. The record secured Tina’s place in the pantheon of female pop-rock singers. And on such whims, careers were made and dashed. Tina Turner is thrilling on the song, but no more so than Darlene. Over the years she made the song her own, performing it regularly in her live shows. She gives it the full treatment here – a highlight for sure. I only wish Van Sandt had felt the calling to produce this album for Love in, say 1980.  Who knows what it might have done for her career.

 

Joe Ely – Panhandle Rambler

There was a time when Country Music was always referred to as Country & Western Music. Joe Ely’s recent release Panhandle Rambler is a great reminder why. You can think of it as the West Texas bookend to the East Texas Cass County from Don Henley. Ely vocally rambles from the west Texas plains down to the Mexican border along the Rio Grande with this rich cast of characters and tales. The gut string guitar and Tejano feel bring a sense of mystery to “Wounded Creek,” the haunting tale that opens the album. It’s followed by the beautiful Guy Clark plea to his beloved “Magdalene.” This time there’s accordion abetted mystery – will she follow him?

The border atmosphere continues through the gorgeous love pledge “When Nights Are Cold” and the charming “Early In The Morning” which conjures images of beautiful dark haired girls dancing around the evening fire. Then all of a sudden the tempo jacks up to Texas dance hall swirl. And so it goes, from folk flavor to honky tonk to desperate love. Ely is a story teller, and he’s also an entertainer who knows variety of subject matter and tempo are necessary ingredients. Yet he ties it all together through lyrics and melodies that give the music a strong sense of the wide open spaces of the western plains and the rich integration of cultures along the border. The more I listen to Panhandle Rambler the more I feel this may his best album ever; it’s certainly one of them. Either way, he’s in rare air with this release. I give it my highest recommendation.

 
Sarah Gayle Meech – Tennessee Love Song

Any album that begins with a song that begins with the lines:

“Sunday morning cup of coffee,
Country music on the AM
Radio,
Feed the dog and do the dishes,
Steal a few good mornin’ kisses, and
Take it slow,
Weather calls for rain,
But I won’t complain,
Cause there ain’t nothin’ better
Than stormy weather,
And being with you on a Sunday.”

has a damn good chance of getting a preferred spot on my iPod. That really strong first cut, “Stormy Weather,” is followed by a whole batch of strong songs.  Even more impressive, she wrote them all and co-produced the album.  Aside from Chris Stapleton’s Traveler, this may be the best country record I’ve heard so far in the class of 2015. The songs are well crafted and with enough variety to belie the fact that the whole album is the work of one songwriter. The guitar, pedal steel, and fiddle players are on the money.  And the woman can flat sing like a real woman. The overall sound would have to be described as classic country, but it doesn’t sound like a record from “back in the day.”  For me, it’s where classic country should have evolved.  Meech has had TV exposure on “Justified” and “Nashville,” and she gets played on Sirius XM’s “Outlaw Country.” She even won something called an Ameripolitan Award as Best Female Outlaw. Turns out the Ameripolitan Awards were the brainchild of Dale Watson, so if she can win one of those, she’s cool in my book.

I saw from the tour schedule on her website that she was at Robert’s Western Wear in Nashville Thanksgiving Day and Saturday. A couple of years ago all of the Lea brothers went to Nashville. Two of the boys arrived ahead of schedule and took in an early show at Robert’s. All weekend they raved about the unknown female singer. Maybe it was Sarah Gayle. Who knows? I know this: Tennessee Love Song may not be as potent as “Tennessee Whiskey,” but it’s still might fine, might fine.

 

The Cox Family – Gone Like The Cotton

Darlene Love wasn’t the only artist screwed by the record companies. The saga of The Cox Family is a similarly heartbreaking tale. They achieve modest success with their first major label album in 1996, and go back into the studio to record a follow up in 1998.  Before it’s completed, they are dropped by their record label, probably because the suits can’t figure out where they fit.  Are they bluegrass or country or gospel or blues or pop?  Too bad because in 2000 they are one of the featured acts in the hit movie “Oh Brother Where Art Thou” starring George Clooney.  It could have been a big bump for their career, if they had an album on the market.  Even worse, family patriarch and lead male voice Willard Cox suffers an auto accident that year that paralyzes him from the waste down, and soon his wife takes on cancer ultimately passing in 2009.

But some stories have happy endings.  The family subsequently finds the 1998 master recordings, and with Alison Krauss as producer begins work to finish the project.  Some of Willard’s leads are saved in tact.  Siblings Evelyn, Sidney and Suzanne finish the record.  The results are superb.  Seventeen years after the album was started, it’s not only completed, it sounds as fresh as if it were recorded last month.

In an earlier edition of this blog I wrote about the two branches of country music flowing one from the Carter Family and one from Jimmie Rodgers. While some of the songs like “Imitation of The Blues” and “Honky Tonk Blues” trace back to Rodgers, The Cox Family ethos clearly flows from the Carter Family. Some songs are all acoustic, others have electric guitars and pedal steel. Some are bluegrass, while some are blues. Some are mournful ballads; some are honky tonk. Some have male lead singers, some female. They all have superb musicianship and beautiful four-part harmony.  You might not put this record on during a party, but I think you’ll reach for it while sipping a cool drink on the porch.  If you liked Orthophonic Joy: The Bristol Sessions Revisited, or Carlene Carter’s Carter Girl, or for that matter most anything by Alison Krauss, you’ll really like Gone Like Cotton. In other words, if you like good folk, country and bluegrass songs, fine playing and beautiful harmony among male and female voices, you should give this record a spin.

 
Bruce Burton – On The Avenue

People east of the Rockies don’t typically think of Los Angeles as a hotbed of country music, but after all this is the locale that brought country into rock with the likes of Linda Ronstadt and the Byrds.  Now up and coming singer/songwriter Bruce Burton arises from  the LA country scene.  He actually wrote most of his songs on the record while holed up for ten days in a hotel in New York City recovering from girl trouble. Then for the recording back in LA, he set aside his own multi-instrumentalist’s ego and brought on board some outstanding studio musicians, including a terrific guitar player named of all things Easy Pickens. He commented in a piece on CDBaby.com that he kept picturing being in the studio with Floyd Cramer, Jerry Reed and the Jordinairs sometime in the sixties. “I was listening to a lot of Buck Owens, Flatt and Scruggs and Merle Haggard at the time.”

Every time I get ready to list my favorite cuts, I hear another that I feel I just can’t leave out.  But OK, if pushed I really like the opener “Won’t Ever Love Me Again,” “When You Fell Out Of Love With Me,” and “Turn Back The Time.”  Still, I could just as easily pick three others.  Plus I’m only talking about favorites from among the songs he wrote. That skips mentions of his covers of Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” by the great Texan Townes Van Sandt and “Midnight Train To Georgia,” which is probably closer to the way former Ole Miss QB Jim Weatherly wrote it than the incomparable version by Gladys Knight & The Pips.

Burton has the elusive quality of authenticity in his writing and singing.  His voice is in that male country sweet spot right between tenor and baritone, and he never sounds like he’s trying too hard.  In fact, regardless of a song’s tempo, On The Avenue just has such a nice, relaxed, dare I say Southern California vibe about it. Nothing is rushed or strained.  It all adds up to some awfully good listening whether you’re cruising down the highway, sippin’ a cool one on the porch, or looking for a tonic to perk up a cold, dreary late fall afternoon.

 
Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats

Change of pace alert!

I’m not sure where to begin talking about this self titled album, but here goes:  A guy named Nathaniel Rateliff grows up in Missouri, teaches himself to play drums then guitar, and at 18 moves to Colorado where he becomes a highly regarded folk singer. His album In Memory of Loss is hailed by Amazon as the number one album you may have missed in 2010.  He tours with the neo-folk darlings The Lumineers.  He releases another similar folk album in 2013, but it’s ignored by his label. Then boom, out of nowhere comes Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Night Sweats, on Stax records no less.  He goes from folk singer to leader of a band that sounds like the early Rolling Stones backed by a blazing horn section and fronted by Sam & Dave.

The first song, “I Need Never Get Old,” charges out of the gate with guitars riffing, horns wailing and vocals soaring.  I’m not sure, but it may have singed my eyebrows.  So what happened?  As Rateliff told Rolling Stone in an interview for an article published in September, after his initial success with neo-folk, his career kind or went nowhere, and he found himself working in his garden figuring his brush with musical success was over.  But he couldn’t let go of a primal thought –  “At an early age, I loved Otis Redding, Sam Cooke and doo-wop,” he says. “I wanted to make that music for such a long time, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it without being cheesy.”   Soon he dropped  his hoe, rounded up several of his friends in Denver, and in a couple of weeks they had an album’s worth of new songs.  Apparently none of these guys is from Wisconsin ‘cause there’s no cheese on this disc.

From the opener, the record steams through several scorchers until it reaches “SOB,” the first single. When the tune begins, it sounds like a cross between Thurston Harris’s opening of “Little Biddy Pretty One” and an African-American call and response spiritual. Then the chorus lifts off like Roy Hamilton’s chorus of “You Can Have Her.”  The song is “all about drinking your way through a breakup” as Rateliff told Rolling Stone. It’ll be three of four listens before you even care about that, there’s so much energy unleashed.  From there, the album shifts gear ever so slightly and begins to vary the rhythms and tempos just a bit.  This is not to say it tones down.  Rather, you have time to say to yourself, hey this is not rock, and it’s not really neo-soul.  Man, this is Rock “N’ Roll – and I like it.

I have to thank my niece Susan for bringing these guys to my attention. They may not be for everyone, but… If you like the early Stones, and if you like Otis Redding’s live recordings where he’s constantly in danger of going over the edge – and in fact slips across a time or two, then grab this album, put the top down on your Chevy, and turn it up all the way.  And then pray you get a chance to see them live.

(Note to our readers in Virginia, DC and North Carolina, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats will be in Norfolk on December 12 and Richmond on December 14. Go to nathanielrateliff.com for details on venues and times.)