2017: A Vintage Year So Far – Part 1

So far in 2017, I’ve seen a boatload of new music that fits easily under the big tent of Classic CowjazzR&B, to mix at least two metaphors. In the first couple of weeks of February, I was almost overwhelmed by the number and variety of promising looking albums. About half of them proved to be inconsequential, but many turned out upon repeated listening to be great joys. Subsequently, despite a few quiet weeks, the flow of top shelf music has continued.

For this week and the next couple of weeks, therefore, I will pass along to you my recommendations for what I consider the best new releases of the first third of the year. No doubt you may have heard about some of these already, but I hope I’ve found some you love but missed. These will be “quickie” reviews rather than more lengthy descriptions and back stories. Bottom line: I want you to know about these albums. We’ll start with four:

  • Louisianna swamp R&B,
  • classic country,
  • contemporary “commercial” country with classic vocal chops,
  • and a folk album that is contemporary in presentation yet 60’s era classic in commitment  to justice.

Shiny Ribs – I Got Your Medicine

Shiny Ribs leader Kevin Russell was formerly frontman for Austin based band The Gourds. This amazing group was grounded somewhere near the nexus of progressive country and R&B. Russell’s vision, given shape with Shiny Ribs, took him further toward R&B. His new band came to my attention via my youngest brother and his friends who attend Merlefest every year. Their first few albums had some great and some not so great tunes, in my opinion. With this album, he hits his stride as one of the most fun, entertaining and yet never slick acts I’ve heard in a long time. When a song with as much crowd appeal as “I Don’t Give A S- – t” is not even the best song on the album, well it’s a damn fine, fun album. You’ll have to get up off your butt and let it all loose.

 

Allison Krauss – Windy City

Buddy Cannon, who has brilliantly produced Willie Nelson’s last couple of albums, helped Krauss select and develop a marvelous collection of mid-twentieth century album cuts and B-sides by some of country’s best songwriters. As you listen to her voice float over the melodies, you’ll wonder why they weren’t all top ten tunes like “Gentle On My Mind,” which was one of the few here that were. She’s terrific and the arrangements and musicians are first rate. There are several highlights, but my favorite is Roger Miller’s beautiful “River In The Rain” from his score for the Broadway re-imagining of Huckleberry Finn, Big River.

Tony Jackson – Tony Jackson

Quick – name an African American country music singer other than Charlie Pride. Darius Rucker doesn’t count. And when I listened to the first cut of Tony Jackson’s first album, I thought, heck, I could be listening to Darius or any number of young faux country artists. But then I got into the meat of the album, and I found one of the best country voices I’ve ever heard. Unlike Pride, Jackson didn’t grow up on country music. It didn’t cross his radar until he found himself as a US Marine in the middle east, far from home. Much later after quite a few years as a bank executive, he started singing. Fortunately for us he hasn’t stopped. Although he’s quite facile on contemporary pop country, his real strength is classic country. He tackles toughies like George Jones’ “The Grand Tour” and Conway Twitty’s breakout hit, “It’s Only Make Believe” with aplomb. Another particular favorite is the John Sebastian tune, “Last Call.” Tony proves sometimes commercial is cool.

 

Rhiannon Giddens – Freedom Highway

Rhiannon Giddens proved on her debut solo album Tomorrow Is My Turn that she’s an extraordinary talent capable of singing in just about any genre she chooses. Her voice is rich and able to be both powerful and subtle, sometimes within the same song. She can be blue, she can be gay.

Giddens can also be angry, and she can be mournful. She is at heart a folk singer. Not the sappy variety. Freedom Highway in fact has a sharper point of view than her debut. Some of her songs make you a bit uncomfortable. Some lift your spirit. All of them have strong stories to tell. And her voice compels you to listen, to cry, to laugh, to rejoice in her talent.

Giddens was born a decade after the folk boom.  Regardless, she can certainly carry the torch for the likes of Odetta, Judy Collins, Mary Travers (of Peter Paul & Mary) and fellow banjoist Pete Seeger. For evidence, check out her album’s title song written by Pops Staples for the Staples Singers in 1965.

Okay folks, these are my first but by no means final four picks from 2017’s bumper crop. Stay tuned next week for four or five more.

A Big Week For Two All Time Greats

Last week was truly special for music lovers. For starters, Ella Fitzgerald’s birthday was April 25; she would have been 100 years old. Ella was the quintessential female jazz/pop singer, and a case could be made that she would edge out Frank Sinatra as the greatest interpreter of the Great American Songbook. Her influence on vocalists over the decades regardless of genre cannot be over estimated.

In addition, last week saw the release of Willie Nelson’s umpty umpth album, God’s Problem Child, a remarkable collection of songs that may well be his best in quite awhile. Willie’s output of albums is unprecedented, and there have been times, perhaps every couple of dozen albums or so when he almost seemed on auto pilot. Yet at 83, Willie has produced a collection of songs as vital and fresh as his classic tunes were back in the 1960’s.

Willie Nelson – God’s Problem Child

Willie writes and sings about growing old with sentiment but never sentimentality. He can convey nostalgia, regret, or sweet memories in one song and stab you with humor the next. A classic example of the latter is “Still Not Dead,” co-written with producer Buddy Cannon, in which he muses about rumors that spread on the internet not too long ago that the old red headed stranger was on his last legs.

 

“It Gets Easier” epitomizes the former, blending quiet humor with the regret in lines like, “I don’t have to do one damn thing that I don’t want to do, except for missing you.”

 

One of my favorite tunes is “Old Timer” by the great and underrated Donnie Fritts. “You think you are a young bull rider, then you look in the mirror and seen an old timer.”

There’s also a fine tribute to Willie’s great friend Merle Haggard, “He Won’t Ever Be Gone,” written by Gary Nicholson whom I wrote about a few months ago. These two songs, notwithstanding, the strength of the album lies in the seven tunes Willie co-wrote with Cannon.

I also have to say that in addition to Willie’s great writing and singing, any description of the strength of this album has to include his guitar playing, which has not diminished at all with age, and the incomparable harmonica of his long time sideman Mickey Raphael.

 

Ella Fitzgerald And The Count Basie Orchestra – A Perfect Match (Live)

There are literally dozens of Ella Fitzgerald albums I could recommend. For starters over several years in the fifties she recorded a series of albums focused on the songbooks of the stalwarts of the Great American Songbook from Duke Ellington to Cole Porter to the Gershwin’s to Irving Berlin to Rodgers and Hart and others. The collection is excerpted in Best Of The Songbooks. There are many others including great live recordings and her marvelous duets with Louis Armstrong. I happen to like A Perfect Match, which was recorded live at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1979. It catches Ella still young enough at 62 to ignite an audience united with one of jazz’s hardest swinging big bands and recorded with reasonably modern technology.

I’ve had the album since it was released on vinyl, and I always get a kick when I put it on. In researching for this post, I found a number of reviews with a variety of quibbles. All I can say in rebuttal is it won the Grammy in 1980 for best female jazz vocal performance. No singer could swing, improvise of scat like Ella as evidenced by the closing number “Basella,” the opener “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone,” or the romping conclusion to “After You’ve Gone” as you no doubt saw.  And few could match her on love songs tinged in blue like “You’ve Changed” or Billie Holiday’s “Fine and Mellow.” Her rich voice saturates these songs like honey poured over a warm biscuit.

 

Yes, Ella in 1979 may have been past her prime as a vocalist. As a singer who could convey the essence of her songs and both connect with and entertain her audience, however, she was still at the top of her game. She and the Basie orchestra deliver the passion and punch that make for a concert performance to cherish.

And what the heck… Duke Ellington’s birthday was also last week, so I’ll close this week with one of the most beautiful versions of one of the most beautiful songs ever written. From the 1957 album Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Duke Ellington Songbook recorded with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Here is “Mood Indigo.”