Quick Cuts: Comfortably Alluring

Caleb Caudle – Carolina Ghost

I first heard about Caleb Caudle when he made Rolling Stone’s list of “10 New Country Artists You Need To Know.” Frankly the more I read about him, and with whom he was being compared, the less interested I became. I’m not sure why; maybe just feeling cranky that day. But he’s from my home state of North Carolina, and I was intrigued by the album’s title, Carolina Ghost, so a few months later I gave him a listen. What I heard were songs, guitars and keys, and a voice that all together rested as comfortably as a front porch rocker on an early fall afternoon. In the interst of full disclosure, about a third of the tracks don’t do anything for me. Ah, but the others? They just keep speaking to me and calling me back. They’re not all happy songs, but they make me feel happy whenever I answer the call to hear them again. There’s not too much more you can ask of a musician, is there?

Stop reading and start listening to lyrics like “This afternoon was nothing less than lonely, and yesterday was one long kiss goodby.”

 

And you have to love vivid imagery like, “I see my breath, and I hear winter’s lonely croon.”

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Quick Cuts: Faulkner, Haggard and Murder – Lots of News in the “Crier”

Erin Enderlin – Whiskeytown Crier

The concept behind Enderline’s second album is that each song could be a story in this fictional small town newspaper, the “Whiskeytown Crier.” Her web site bio connects her songwriting inspiration to her love of William Faulkner, and her songs are similarly rich in character, story and details of place. Most of her tales are sad, even heartbreaking, but her skill makes hearing them a pleasure.

She had her first song recorded by Alan Jackson (“Monday Morning Church”) before she graduated from college. Soon she had placed tunes with the likes of Lee Ann Womack (“Last Call”)  and Luke Bryan (“You Don’t Know Jack.”)   She toured with Willie Nelson and made friends with Merle Haggard. She confessed to Merle she was inspired by his approach, especially to phrasing, when she wrote “The Blues Are Alive & Well.”

On Whiskeytown Crier Enderline proves she can sing as well as write. Anybody who can write lines like these deserves to be heard:

“She could’ve had any man,
I thought he was just another one,
’Til that No Tell Motel shotgun epiphany…

My baby sister, sweet baby sister,
I knew you were a pistol,
But I never knew you owned a gun.”

Or…

“I smoked one to the filter, and I watched the ashes fall,
Blew smoke rings at your memory as it danced across the wall,
’Til it was gone.”

Or…

“If I start thinking about your sweet kiss,
I start thinking ‘bout your goodby,
Baby that’s the kind of heartache that can take all night,
When it comes to you,
That’s more than a glass or two,
That’s a whole ‘nother bottle of wine.”

 

Quick Cuts – “Let’s Go Honky Tonkin’ Round This Town”

Midland – On The Rocks

Imagine that somehow your travels have taken you to a small town in west Texas, maybe Abilene, San Angelo or Big Spring. You’re by yourself with nothing to do, so after washing down a chicken fried steak with a couple of beers, you mosey down to the nearest honky tonk. There on stage are three guys who look a bit like the Flying Burrito Brothers and sound like George Strait meets seventies LA country rock. Before you know it the music drags you out onto the dance floor in the arms of a friendly cowgirl wearing tight jeans and cowboy boots and off you go two-steppin’ in the great counterclockwise circular sea of folks from eight to eighty having a damn good time.

It takes awhile, but soon you realize these guys are a cut above. They can play; they can sing in harmony. You haven’t even noticed until now that this is not the typical small town cover band. They’re playing their own songs – catchy melodies, traditional country lyric themes – and nobody’s throwing bottles through the chicken wire fronting the stage. And like I’ve said once before already, everybody’s having fun. Sometimes that’s all you want from a batch of tunes.

Quick Cuts – Grace = Simple Elegance or Refinement of Movement

Lizz Wright – Grace

My first impression of Lizz Wright’s newest release Grace was that this is one of the most beautiful albums I’ve ever heard in any genre. I know I shouldn’t say something like that because the album, no matter how beautiful, may never be able to live up to that hype. Yet repeated listens continue to affirm my first impression. Grace seemed such an apt moniker that I looked up the formal definition of the word. While it has several, the first became the title for this blog post because it so well described the feeling I derived as the songs flowed through the album.

A Georgia native and now part time North Carolinian, Wright grew up musically in the church as did so many wonderful singers from Aretha Franklin to Parker Millsap. Although they cross many genres, their music has an innate soulfulness in common.

Wright’s music simmers at the nexus of folk, gospel and jazz. Although she’s written many songs for her previous albums, this one includes only one co-write. The others are drawn from an eclectic mix of songwriters like Allen Toussaint, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, k.d. lang, Cortez Franklin and this number by Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey.

When I describe the album as beautiful, I don’t mean that every song is a lovely ballad. In fact the songs vary in tempo and rhythm. I mean we are treated to compelling lyrics, seductive melodies and Wright’s beautiful voice – especially moving in her lower registers. Moreover, those elements are masterfully combined with brilliant musicians and instrumentation by producer Joe Henry. He provides room for every note and every nuance in the performances. The album is an homage to Lizz Wright’s native south and a gift to all who will hear her music.

 

Quick Cuts – Old School Soul

Syleena Johnson – Rebirth Of Soul

The title might be hyperbole, but the delivery is silky old school soul singing punctuated by bright horn riffs and shimmering strings. Syleena is the daughter of Syl Johnson, a somewhat overlooked singer, songwriter, guitar player and producer from the classic soul period in Chicago in the sixties. He hooked up with Willie Mitchell’s Hi Records in Memphis in the seventies, where unfortunately he was overshadowed by the great Al Green. Syleena’s earlier recordings were in the contemporary vein of R&B and Hip Hop, but when she decided to record Rebirth Of Soul as a tribute to her dad, her old man eagerly signed on as producer. The result is superb, one of the better revisits to the soul standards catalog of recent vintage.

The song selection is key to the album’s success, in my opinion, because even though they’re all covers, for the most part they’re not rehashes of the typical lineup of big hits. A couple are included like “Lonely Teardrops” and “Chain Of Fools.” Most, however, were lesser hits like Bettye Swann’s “Make Me Yours,” Otis Redding’s  “These Arms Of Mine,” and Curtis Mayfield’s “The Makings Of You.” She also covers a couple of her dad’s records. My point here is that the selections paired with the arrangements – retro yet fresh – add to a package of music you’re not tired of hearing before it even starts. Plus Syleena’s voice is well up to the task. She’s neither gritty nor a belter, but she has the chops to glide or soar as the songs demand all the while giving them a mature shading of her own, as on this classic “hold your baby close and slow dance” number originally recorded by Betty Everett.

One of the better tunes on Rebirth of Soul is Syleena’s cover of her dad’s minor hit “We Did It.” But what the heck, let’s give papa Syl a little respect and close with his own version from the seventies.

Short Cuts – One Slice At A Time

Here’s the thought I put on hold when I wrote my tribute to Fats Domino: I’ve listened to a tremendous amount of new music over the last few months. To borrow an old cliche, I’ve thrown quite a bit of stuff against the wall, and quite a bit of it has stuck. It’s too much to even think about much less write about all at once. So I’ve decided to take ‘em one at a time.

This means that for the next few weeks, I’m changing my approach to my blog posts. I’ll write one short recommendation every three or so days and include just one or two videos. I can get a bunch of very good music to your ears more quickly. Plus you’ll know when you open these “Short Cuts” that you can enjoy the post and tunes in small bites – less than ten minutes in most cases. Let’s get started!

Christian Lopez – Red Arrow

Lopez is a 22 year old from West Virginia blessed with a stress free tenor voice that hits all the notes and slides easily in and out of falsettos as the song requires. He’s also a fine guitar player, and he’s smart about his choices of collaborators and songs. Red Arrow is his second album, and it’s stronger than his debut. He presents a set of tunes with lyrics befitting his age, but thanks to marvelous melodies and arrangements that touch on multiple genres under the Americana umbrella – a bit of country, a bit of folk, a bit of r&b flavored pop, they should also appeal to even old cats like me. After all, we were 22 once. Us older guys even get a bit of a nostalgia trip of our own as Lopez sings about “1972.”

 

And keeping the youthful take on old school rolling…

 

 

He looks like he’s having fun, and certainly fun is the feeling I get most listening to Red Arrow, but as he shows here, he can write, sing and play beautiful melodies as well.

Hold That Thought; Let’s Pay Tribute To Fats Domino!

I was just about ready to publish a new post featuring several strong new albums when I got word that Fats Domino had passed away, left us to go take his place in Rock ‘n’ Roll heaven as the Righteous Brothers put it. I had just had to put that post on hold and take some time to remember Fats. In my mind there were five foundational forces at the birth of rock n roll in the 1950’s: Chuck Berry, Elvis, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino. Yes there were others we could mention like Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Buddy Holly and maybe even Dion Dimucci. But really even those guys were drawn into the special energy generated by those five giants as they transformed R&B, blues, country and gospel – and galvanizing stage presence – into Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Of those five, Fats was surely the most unassuming and thus today is the least remembered despite his impact at the time. In fact, he was the first with a million selling record, “The Fat Man,” in the later forties. Eventually the man had 37 singles hit the top 40 in the fifties and early sixties. He sold some 65 million singles with 23 gold records which placed him second only to Elvis in dollars generated. He did it with an infectious, upbeat manner that belied the blue feeling in many of his songs. When you heard Fats sing and play that piano, you just wanted to grab a partner and dance. Although his sound was so consistent that sometimes one record sounded like the one before, a closer listen unveils sly inferences and nuances in the lyrics and melodies that reveal his true genius.

If you’re not as old as me and thus are not familiar with Fats’ hits, then I suggest you check out any of several of his greatest hits collections such as The Fats Domino Jukebox: 20 Greatest Hits or maybe Greatest Hits: Walking To New Orleans. There are also two good, hit loaded live recordings from the early 2000’s: Fats Domino Live! From The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival 2001 and Live From Austin TX: Fats Domino, which has excellent quality audio from an appearance on “Austin City Limits” in I believe 2006. “Here he is on Austin City Limits.”

“Blueberry Hill” was his biggest seller, but my favorites were always “Walking To New Orleans,” “My Girl Josephine,” “Ain’t That A Shame,” ” Blue Monday,” “I’m In Love Again,” and “I Want To Walk You Home.” Here is a medley of several hits from a kinescope of a Dick Clark show in 1958 followed by a clip from 1957.

 

If you already have a collection of his hits, I have two other recommendations for you:

Goin’ Home: A Tribute To Fats Domino

I’ll kick off my review of this album with a double tribute to include the late, great Tom Petty, a man who knew the difference between rock and Rock ‘n’ Roll, as he demonstrates here.

 

Fats was almost swept away by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but a helicopter plucked him from the rooftop of his home in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. A couple of years later, some New Orleans friends spearheaded this all star tribute with some of the proceeds going to the Tipitina Foundation. Unlike many tribute albums, which are simply a collection of pre-existing cover recordings by various stars, every cut on this double CD set except one was recorded explicitly for this project. The producers were able to round up a gaggle of great artists – Paul McCartney, Elton John, Tom Petty, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Plant, Taj Mahal, Irma Thomas, Neil Young, Willie Nelson and the list goes on. Some recorded as solos, but the producers were able to pair many of them with New Orleans bred artists in very entertaining combinations. By the way, the one exception to new recordings is John Lennon’s version of “Ain’t That A Shame,” an exception well worth making. In total there are thirty tunes – and a barrel of fun.

One of the cool pairings on the album is this collaboration between Paul McCartney and Allan Toussaint.

 

Fats Domino – Sweet Patootie: The Complete Reprise Recordings

Like so many of the early stars of rock n roll, the hit train stopped rolling for Fats by the mid sixties, overwhelmed first by the British invasion and then psychedelia. Somehow in the late sixties, Fats wound up at Frank Sinatra’s Reprise Records. His first effort there, known, as Fats Is Back captured the essence of what made Fats’ hits so great. The album died as far as chart sales go, but boy does it succeed on the merits. Most of the songs were new except for two covers. One is a rollicking version of the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna,” which I’ve read was itself a bit of a tribute to Domino. The other is Barbara George’s “I Know.”

In addition to Fats Is Back, this package also includes:

  • Three singles that would’ve been hits in another time, especially the Randy Newman penned “Have You Seen My Baby?”
  • A second album which had been titled Fats, produced by his old New Orleans hit machine collaborator Dave Bartholomew.

 

All in all, the Reprise recordings freshen the Fats Domino repertoire while remaining true to his legend. It may have been out of step with its times, but from the perspective of 2017, the music is great fun and reinforces his standing at the dawn of rock n roll.

So in 2017 we’ve lost Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, leaving Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis as the sole survivors from my Mount Rushmore. But thanks to great recordings likes these, the beat goes on and “Rock ‘n’ Roll is here to stay, it will never die.”

Alabama Bound

What is it about Alabama? On the one hand it’s a state too well known for hatred and violence between the races. On the other hand, its black and white musicians have found a bond that has resulted in incredible records from the turbulent fifties and sixties all the way to the vexing twenty teens. I know, the same two statements could be said of most southern states. But only Alabama has Muscle Shoals, where a core group of rural, dirt poor white musicians, songwriters and producers wrote for and played behind soul greats from Aretha Franklin to Percy Sledge to Wilson Pickett and many more. Such was their success and resulting fame that artists as big as the Rolling Stones came there to pick up on the vibe for their own recordings.

Fifty years later singers are still going to the studios there searching for the magic – the feeling and the groove that transcended differences and powered those great records. Lucky for us, some of them are good enough to find it, as you will hear in two albums in particular that have been released in the last few weeks. One is a fine farewell from a hall of famer, while the other is a bright “hello” from a newcomer so new he still has a part time day job.

Gregg Allman – Southern Blood

Normally I don’t write about stars as big as Allman because I figure even casual music fans are familiar with their work. This album caught my attention, however, despite the fact I’m not what one would call a “fan” of either Gregg solo nor the Allman Brothers Band. I respect him and believe he as a solo artist or bandleader deserves all the accolades that he and his mates received over the years. I enjoy hearing the occasional Allman song. For some reason, however, I just never liked them enough to own any of their records, although I did buy the Duane Allman Anthology album years ago. My attitude changed dramatically with Southern Blood.

Maybe it was something about an old veteran coming to grips with his own mortality and expressing that process through a collection of songs carefully chosen for the purpose. I found the same appeal in Glen Campbell’s farewell release Adios, which I wrote about a few months ago.

From various articles, I understand that Allman originally planned to write all new songs for the album, but his declining health and dwindling time led him to settle for just one original to kick it off. With help from his producer Don Was, he chose covers to fill out the album that fit the flow and mood perfectly.  With a couple of exceptions that provide a bit of punch, this album doesn’t rock. Yet the controlled passion of the performances belies the notion that it’s mellow. A bit melancholy in some places, reflective in others – no doubt. It’s a man looking back on a life lived on his own terms while savoring songs that have meant something to him along the way.

 

There’s a story behind each selection that I won’t go into here. If you’re interested, go to his interview in Garden and Gun  magazine here: http://gardenandgun.com/feature/gregg-allman-says-goodbye/.

There’s also an excellent article from NPR which you can find if you “google” Gregg Allman Southern Blood. The NPR article makes the point that returning to Muscle Shoals to record Southern Blood brought Allman full circle because it was there that he and Duane started their career, as sidemen and as an unknown new band, Hourglass. It’s fitting, therefore, that he did include a tune from one of Muscle Shoals’ top songwriting teams, Spooner Oldham and Dan Penn’s “Out Of Left Field,” originally a hit for Percy Sledge.

 

The opening song, “My Only True Friend,” is quite good but clearly personal. Perhaps too much of that wouldn’t have been such a good thing. I think the covers he chose to follow his opening statement make the appeal more universal – it’s not just about himself. You and I might have chosen the same songs for our own farewell. Enjoy it with a smooth whiskey.

 

Cale Tyson – Careless Soul

Young Mr. Tyson is a Texan who in his twenties moved to Nashville. From what I’ve learned from the articles I’ve found, he’s not a record industry guy. Rather he began performing in the somewhat “alternative” club scene in East Nashville. He seems to have started as a neo-traditionalist honky tonker. A few years ago, he did an EP that sounded like Hank Williams and early Ray Price, but was that really Cale Tyson? While he respected the artists he mimicked, he hadn’t really grown up on their music. Then he hooked up with a producer who, after listening to Tyson describe the music floating around in his head, suggested they go to FAME studios in Muscle Shoals. They took a bunch of musicians from Nashville; the only original FAME swamper in the studio was bassist David Hood. But then again, who’s more responsible for a record’s groove than the bass player? And maybe there is something to the legends about the studio there. As Tyson told NPR, “The room was incredible.”

The result is, dare I say it -cowjazz, an otherwise indescribable mix of folk, country, R&B and whatever. There are horns and strings along with guitars and pedal steel. There are tunes you can dance to, tunes that make you yell “yahoo” and tunes to cry to. There are tunes with a soul groove and tunes that sound like they could have been written by denizens of the Brill Building like Carole King and Gerry Goffin. Regardless, they all possess catchy melodies and intelligent, sometimes clever lyrics.

One of my favorite lines is from “Somebody Save Me,” in which the singer, whose lover is out of town, is begging that “somebody save me from doing her wrong.” As he confronts the temptation to stray, he intones “somebody please help me, I’m losing my mind, I’m crossing my fingers that I won’t cross the line, if somebody sees her, tell her come home, I want to be faithful, but I won’t be for long.” Well, you can guess how it ends.

What we can’t guess is where Tyson will go next. Careless Soul was released in the UK a couple of years ago, but was unheard here in the states until it was released this past summer. He didn’t grow up on country music, although he appreciates it, and he didn’t grow up on R&B either. He can sound authentic with either genre but he worries they’re not authentically him. He told Rolling Stone that while waiting for Careless Love to be released in the US, he’s been writing songs in more of an indie-folk vein inspired by Conor Oberst and Emmylou Harris on Oberst’s album Bright Eyes. To tell you the truth, I have no idea what that might sound like. I do know he’s a fine singer and a very good songwriter. I also know that he found something good inside the walls of that old studio in Muscle Shoals, perhaps the spirit of Rick Hall and Clarence Carter. Stated simply, Careless Soul is one of the most enjoyable albums I’ve heard this year.

 

And in the category of “what the heck…”

Marc Broussard – SOS-2: Save Our Soul: Soul On A Mission

Marc Broussard is not from Alabama, and this 2016 album was not recorded at Muscle Shoals. Nevertheless several of the tunes were originally written and recorded in integrated studios in Muscle Shoals and at Stax in Memphis. All are from the canon of greatest soul hits by Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, the Isley Brothers, Stevie Wonder, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave and Solomon Burke. In fact Burke’s song “Cry To Me” inspired Broussard to depart from his usual repertoire and record this set.   He openly says that he tried to emulate the arrangements of the original recordings. He wanted to expose their pleasures to a new generation of audiences, albeit with a higher recording fidelity given technology today. Having said that, this is not a case of a white guy ripping off black artists’ music. Born into the melting pot of Louisianna music – his dad is in the Louisianna Music Hall of Fame, Broussard has built his chops from the ground up.

Clearly he internalized classic soul music while growing up. Even more clear is the joy he brings to the project. I don’t think he’s quite wicked enough to pull off Wilson Picket’s “In The Midnight Hour,” but otherwise there’s more than a record full of great fun here. As I listened I couldn’t help remembering all the white bands I heard in the sixties – the Embers, Catalinas, Fabulous Five, Sardams and so many more – playing R&B and Soul music in college frat houses and beach dance clubs throughout the south. White bands covering  records of black singers written and produced by both black and white artists. What’s in those grooves bound them all.  You know, I think we can bridge some divides, if we just turn off the news and turn up the stereo.

 

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.”