Jack DeJohnette/Ravi Coltrane/Matthew Garrison, In Movement. When nothing but jazz will work, it doesn’t get better than this. Jack DeJohnette is a drummer who proves to be one of the best every time he picks up sticks; Ravi Coltrane takes his prestigious bloodline to new heights at every turn; Matthew Garrison is the master of electric bass like few others. Their improvisational abilities are at a razor-sharp peak right now, and of course producer Manfred Eicher and ECM Records makes sure the sound quality is other-worldly. There is a brooding quality to much of this music, but it’s one that doesn’t impart despair. Instead it’s so filled with light that the results shimmer and soothe. Coltrane’s horn zeroes in on a near-celestial tone in ways that are haunting and hopeful, coloring the songs with a mesmerizing mystery. The trio also has the future on their mind, as Garrison adds subtle electronic tones so it always feels very much inside the music. What they accomplish on John Coltrane’s “Alabama,” Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Serpentine Fire” and their own originals is among the best jazz being played today. The last song, DeJohnette’s “Soulful Ballad” is an enthralling end to an album that will live forever. In movement indeed.
The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Strong Like That. Forty years ago, when the Fabulous Thunderbirds had just started heating up dance floors around small Austin nightclubs, it would have been a longshot to predict the incredible success and impact the group would have. But in so many ways they helped usher in a newfound respect for American roots music around the world, and did it with such conviction and class that they turned into a genre unto themselves. It was T-Birds music all the way. On their latest long-player, they reconfigure Rare Earth’s monstro-hit “(I Know I’m) Losing You” into their very own calling card. And that’s just for starters. This whole album feels like a burning return to form, and while Kim Wilson is the sole original member, that’s more than enough because he fills the bill and then some. Wilson’s voice has always been his best weapon. Yes, he just might be the best harp player alive, but he’s always been a singer of devastating effect, and keeps getting better and better. He can go from Sonny Boy Williamson to O.V. Wright and back again while barely breaking a sweat, filling the lyrics with that down home feeling of reality set ablaze. It is a wonder to hear, and never gets old. As with every Thunderbirds album, there are cool covers mixed in with right-on originals, always adding up to a powerful playlist that gets the job done right morning, noon and night. This is music meant to put a glide in your stride and turn the blues into reds. Time is marching on for the ‘Birds, as they used to be called by their inside fans down on Austin’s Sixth Street when it was pleasurably sleazy with bars like the Triple J, Green Spot, and Scottie’s Barbecue, known for serving downtown’s transvestite lunch crowd. All night long.
Duke Levine, The Fade Out. At this point in guitarist Duke Levine’s life, it might be easier to list those he hasn’t played with than those he has. The Worcester, Massachusetts man has covered the waterfront with the kind of guitar that defies description but always hits the sweet spot. His new solo set is all instrumentals, which fits Levine just fine because he has no trouble at all making his guitar do the singing. In fact, it’s such a joyous sound that anything else would be hard to imagine. He performs songs by Charles Mingus, Arthur Alexander, Joni Mitchell, and Arthur Adams, which is quite a spread when you lay them out, and then writes everything else himself with such an easeful eye and ear that it all adds up to a musical celebration. So much of guitar is about tone and this man is a master of it. Every single note sounds exactly like what it should be, and then Levine adds enough spin to make them all irresistible. It’s not unlike magic: how does he do it? There are times when songs played like this seem like the only thing to listen to, and there are so few artists who can do it with such style and savvy it becomes a matter of tracking down their albums and snagging one. This is it.
Lori McKenna, The Bird & The Rifle. How a Massachusetts housewife and mother became one of country music’s most successful songwriters is an American story for the history books. Lori McKenna started out singing in local clubs and as her local reputation grew it wasn’t long before Music City started noticing her songs. Faith Hill recorded several after McKenna began making her own albums, and before you could say Grand Ole Opry the world opened up for the Northern woman with five children. Her latest release is her best yet, a combination of gritty love songs and life-turned-hard anthems. It’s amazing how Lori McKenna can drill directly into the deepest parts of our national hurt, like on “Giving Up on Your Hometown” and “Halfway Home,” and turn it into the kind of songs that in the end offer strength and hope. Maybe that’s because she’s never sung a false note in her life, and clearly isn’t about to start doing so now. This is someone who is in it for the long haul, and most likely makes an album like she is writing letters home to all her loved ones. She’s that personal, and hits a peak not many modern country singers get to. Hear her shine.
New Orleans Suspects, Kaleidoscoped. It is surely no secret that the Crescent City has an endless supply of musicians. It’s like a city regulation that every resident learn how to play at least once instrument well. The fine players in the New Orleans Suspects are certified specialists in the area’s soundscape when it comes to funky grooves and backroom moves. They come from previous outfits like Professor Longhair’s combo, the Neville Brothers, the Radiators, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and more. Right there is a cause for celebration. It only takes one song to get this party started, and the fun continues to roll right through to the end of the blistering set. Best of all, this isn’t rehashed takes on what’s come before. The Suspects rush into new swamp water and create their own mix of rhythm & blues, zydeco, funk and whatever else suits their fancy. They even call in longtime pal Paul Barrere from Little Feat to pen “Dixie Highway” and add vocals and guitar to the track along with fellow Feater Fred Tackett. It feels like the old days when the Warehouse was wailing in New Orleans and Little Feat, the Meters and all the other usual (yes) suspects were wearing their heads out all night long chasing the eternal spirits in the City that Care Forgot. Yeah you right.
Johnny Nicholas, Fresh Air. Straight out of Rhode Island and someone who has spent much of his life in Texas, Johnny Nicholas is the kind of musician who would be the same no matter where he was: dedicated to making music that comes from way deep inside who doesn’t worry too much about appearances or even acceptance. He’s someone who cares about being real, and the hell with everything else. Those roads usually take him to the blues, but it’s in his own self-reliant way how he gets there which makes for all the fun. These new recordings feel like someone finding their way to the top of the mountain where everything they touch turns true. Nicholas has recorded with all the great bluesmen of the past 50 years, in the process becoming one of them. There have been a lot of left-turns and probably detours, but Nicholas gets there every time. Even when he and his wife opened the Hill Top Café (originally a 1920s-era gas station “inconveniently located in the middle of nowhere”) outside Austin, the sounds never stopped. They just got a little more chicken-fried. And the way Nicholas is able to write new songs that fit so well with the entire blues canon is uncanny. The only two covers here are by Sleepy John Estes and Willie Dixon, and not even a roots scholar could pick them out. Like Johnny Nicolas sings, “it’s blues time.” Prepare to boogie.
Various Artists, Nigeria Freedom Sounds: Popular Music and the Birth of Independent Nigeria 1960-63. Take a look at some of the artist names on this knocked-out compilation of what they’re calling Calypso Highlife Apala Mambo Juju (truer words were never spoken): I K Dairo & His Blues Spots, Heavy Haruna Ishola and His Group, Ishie Brothers, Tex Dandies Dance Band, Julius O. Araba and His Rhythm Blues, and a cavalcade of other Nigerian stars. They all ruled that African country in the early ‘60s, setting audiences free to pursue the higher art of having fun. There is undeniable and absolute sound of freedom in this music, hence the truth-in-advertising album title, one that is always uplifting and capable of imparting eternal wisdom between the grooves of twenty-three 45s. While Nigeria itself was being ravaged by the winds of regime change and political chicanery, the musicians kept their eyes on the prize and supplied a soundtrack to help the country’s population get through the hardship and horrors that ravaged the nation. Luckily ebullience prevailed in the music that was being made, no doubt supplying a not-small measure of relief to all who listened. Much of it was born in sounds from around the world, filtered through the lives of those whose forebears were there at the birth of civilization. Africa or else.
John Paul White, Beulah. Of course John Paul White is most known as half of The Civil Wars, which made a big splash a few years ago and then found a way to talk themselves right out of a job. White was the multi-instrumentalist of the band which also featured vocalist Joy Williams, and it didn’t take long for him to find an intriguing solo path. His new album is a stunning reflection for how folk music and modernity can peacefully exist side by side in perfect harmony. White’s voice is a mix of the angelic and the agonized, and that’s a good thing because he blends all the great American musical strains into a rolling amalgam of inner beauty. He really is that good. There aren’t that many players these days who can soar, but that is what John Paul White does on almost every song. “I’ve Been Over This Before,” recorded with the Secret Sisters, is a show-stopping classic of epic gorgeousness, one that tears at the heart while it tugs at the soul. Hopefully someday it will become a modern classic, whether it’s this rendition or one done by someone else, and will take White to the next level of deserved fandom. No matter what, though, these ten songs are the kind of musical gift which will surely lead to new vistas for a southern man of real soulfulness. Of course it was recorded at the Single Lock Studios in beautiful downtown Muscle Shoals-adjacent Florence, Alabama. Always for real.
Wilco, Schmilco. Quite possibly the best American band today, Wilco are always good for a surprise even when it’s not surprising. This time around, the band turns down the amplifiers and lets singer-songwriter Jeff Tweedy turn up the vocals with such a seductive stance that it takes a moment to adjust. But it’s worth the effort because this new one is up there with the group’s very best. For their tenth studio album, Wilco has dug down deep and gone for semi-buried journeys way down in Tweedy’s soul, which is where he probably likes to live. They frame the songs with an impressionistic sound and attitude all their own. It works like aces, too. What’s really the thing that keeps Wilco at the top of the list is their sense of adventure. They never go so far as to leave the universe, but there is most assuredly a sense of intergalactic travel in many of the band’s destinations this time ‘round. Not to mention the subtle touches that are the essence of all timeless bands: they know just when to lay in and when to lay off. At a time when the world seems cranked up to 12 and there is no way to predict what tomorrow may bring, Wilco is there for us, showing a way through the fog and holding our hand while the twists and turns threaten to throw us off the road. Ride with them.
Bill Bentley © 2016
Bill Bentley is the head of A & R at Concord records, he was the music writer and typesetter for the original Austin Sun.