Ho! Ho! Ho! Christmas is closer than right around the corner, so if you’re looking for a last minute stocking stuffer for yourself or your favorite music lover, I’ve got one recommendation for each of the genres I cover in “Finding Classic CowjazzR&B.”
Let’s start with Cowjazz…
Robert Earl Keen – Live Dinner Reunion
Robert Earl released No. 2 Live Dinner in 1996, and it’s one of his best albums for sure. Makes sense, therefore, that he would try to recapture the magic with a twentieth anniversary reunion back at the scene of the original, John T. Flores Country Store in Helotes, Texas. I’m not going to compare the two efforts, and I’m not going to quibble over the fact that every tune on the new one has been released before, some multiple times. What’s new and fresh about it is the enthusiastic performances themselves. Keen and his band are relaxed and rolling. And he’s brought along enough special guests like Lyle Lovett, Bruce Robison, Cody Braun and Cody Canada to juice up both his own band and the crowd. Here he is with Lyle on the song that started both of their careers.
Very generously, he even steps aside completely to let Joe Ely close the show with “The Road Goes On Forever And The Party Never Ends.” After all, Ely’s the singer who put Keen’s song on the map in the first place. The whole thing’s just damn good fun.
How about some good old rock n’ roll?
The Rolling Stones – Blue And Lonesome
The story goes that the Stones were messing around in the studio earlier this year warming up to record an album of new material. To get the juices flowing they went all the way back to their roots and started playing a bunch of Chicago blues from the late forties and early fifties. It sounded so good, and they were having so much fun, they postponed the original project, and in short order, with much of it recorded “live,” they produced this fiery, energetic homage to the music that inspired them in the first place. There’s a cut or two that don’t work for me, but by and large, they did Muddy, Little Milton, Willie Dixon – and themselves – proud.
For old folkies at heart like me…
John McKuen – Made In Brooklyn
John McKuen got his musical start during the folk boom of the late fifties and early sixties before becoming the multi-instrumentalist playing leads on banjo, mandolin and fiddle for the seminal folk/country/rock group The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Over the years he’s indulged his folkie heart with side projects, this being his most recent. He lured several terrific acoustic players and singers like David Bromberg, John Cowan, John Carter Cash, even Steve Martin, and others to a small, primarily jazz studio in Brooklyn. They recorded a serious collection of folk and traditional country tunes drawn from across many decades. McKuen and his friends prove that energetic playing need not not be loud or raucous to be a lively counterpoint to more languid numbers. The result here is a varied lineup of traditional tunes and reimagined newer songs that is both soothing and entertaining. Check out this folk version of Warren Zevon’s bizarre tale of the “Excitable Boy” featuring Steve Martin on banjo and multiple singers.
As good as the music is, however, it’s the recording method described on McKuen’s web site that makes this album unique. Without getting too technical, David and Chesky have been perfecting the art of recording musicians “live” in a resonant church with a single, specially designed multi-directional microphone, primarily on extremely hi fidelity jazz records dating from the mid-eighties. Everyone is grouped in a circle around the mic. There is no over dubbing or re-mixing later. The onus is on the players and singers to get it right. A note or pluck of a string might be slightly off, but with artists this talented, it usually means a richer reality. While the album is enjoyable on any decent stereo, the beauty of the recording technique can really be heard using headphones. I listened using just the ear buds that came with my old iPhone 5S and was astounded by the spatial clarity audible among the instruments and voices. It truly sounds as if you’re sitting in the middle of the circle of musicians. If you like folk music with a slight country tinge and enjoy immersing yourself as you listen, this album is for you.
And, of course, we need a little R&B
Robin McKelle – Mess Around
I first encountered Robin McKelle as a Berklee College of Music trained jazz singer fronting a big band with a lustrous voice in a manner akin to Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughn. Turns out, however, that she grew up listening to R&B divas like Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight. By the time of this 2010 release, she had made her way just across the border from jazz to R&B. She kept moving deeper into R&B/Soul on later records, but I really like her in the spot she occupies here.
She writes as well as sings, so the album is a mix of originals like the title song – a nod to Ray Charles’ first hit with a similar name – and R&B standards like Ray’s “Lonely Avenue.” McKelle’s approach is more R&B than jazz, but the musicians are primarily drawn from jazz circles. The result is a refreshing take on time tested material. And yes, you can dance to it, if you like.
I guess no list of mine can be complete without a Texas bred country singer.
Leon Russell – Hank Wilson’s Back
When I read a few weeks ago about the death of multi-talented singer, musician, band leader, producer, arranger Leon Russell, I dusted off an LP I hadn’t listened to in so long I’d all but forgotten about it. In 1973, Russell took a brief detour on his road to rock and pop stardom to assume the persona of country honky tonker Hank Wilson. Only someone like Russell, who combined giant talent with Oklahoma roots, could pull off something like this. In fact I remember thinking it was all a parody when I first saw the album cover. When I put it on the turntable, however, I found “Hank Wilson” to be as genuine as the songs he chose. Russell put as much love as talent into a collection of classics from Hank Williams, George Jones, Leadbelly, Johnny Horton, Bill Monroe and on and on. The best part is, these performances and these songs stand up as tall today as they did 43 years ago. It’s clear everybody involved has chops galore, and they’re having a blast.
This close to Christmas, I have to include one song of the season. I heard this young artist Friday night on Sirius/XM’s broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry. I think you’ll agree William Michael Morgan is a new talent to watch when you hear what he does with “White Christmas.” Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and Happy New Year to all.