Peter Bernstein, Signs LIVE! At the end of a long and discombobulating year, what could be better than a sheer blowing session by what is surely one of the most knocked-out jazz aggregations on earth. Guitarist Peter Bernstein, pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Gregory Hutchinson need no introduction whatsoever. They just happen to be among the very best players on their respective instruments on the planet, and the way they fuse together on these 11 songs feels like a momentous meeting of the mind and bodies, recorded live at Lincoln Center in New York. What works so well is this isn't four musicians each showing just how great they are individually, but rather it's a fine-tuned quartet playing together, pushing each other to new heights as the music explodes in front of us. Bernstein wrote all the songs except for three Thelonious Monk compositions, and in the process he shows what a major composer he is. Mehldau has become the modern equal of anyone who ever sat down at a piano, while the rhythm section of McBride and Hutchinson is almost criminal in how strong they burn. When too many words seem to be ricocheting around the universe in an endless deluge of dismay, here's a chance to let them go and tune in strictly to music alone as a healing force. Listening is believing.
Bob Dylan, Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series Volume 13 - 1979-1981. There's a lotta God on these nine discs, but no one has ever accused Bob Dylan of holding back. As any tried-and-true music aficionado will testify, gospel music can be boiled down to its essence by the way the word "girl" gets changed to "God," and then letting the brakes off for a careening down the hillside straight into the hands of the Lord. Dylan has always been a musical shaman no matter what he's writing about, and when it's appeared he was getting ready to hit the wall he always had a way of changing gears and breaking through to the other side. From folk to rock to country to Judaism to Christianity to whatever, Bob Dylan didn't so much use disguises as much as he went way deep into new territory. That's why his changes have remained so intriguing all these years. Beginning with his 1979 album Slow Train Coming, the Minnesota maestro turned to the Lord, in his own inimitable way, and came out swinging. His next two releases, Saved (1980), and Shot of Love (1981) kept an eye on the sparrow, proving this spiritual fascination was no passing fancy. The deluxe edition box set includes a hardcover book (no, not the Bible According to Bob Dylan) along with the DVD "Trouble No More: A Musical Film" featuring unreleased live footage from the 1980s with new material by Luc Sante performed by Michael Shannon. There are enough unreleased tracks and live recordings on the set to keep the most committed sinner busy through the holiday season, no doubt inducing hollers of "hallelujah" from the true believers and possibly even saving a few souls in the process. Feeling and healing.
Jake Xerxes Fussell, What in the Natural World. When magic falls out of the sky, with no advance warning and not even an explanation of where it came from, that can be the most fantastical feeling of all. With social media humming at warp speed, it seems like the time of real surprises has been left behind. Not if Jake Xerxes Fussell has anything to say about it. He has a lot of mountain in him, but is not restricted to any one area or genre in what he reconstructs from historic blues/folk gems. His creations float over the world like some kind of omniscient cloud, touching down long enough to share wonder and then floating off into the ozone on their own. There hasn't been this kind of timeless delivery in a very long time. The beauty of Fussell's recordings is they remain of this earth but also seem beamed in from another zone, all at the same time. For a song that starts, "Have you ever seen peaches growing on a sweet potato vine / Well wake up woman and take your big leg off of me" to then ooze off into the cosmos is nothing short of revelation. Enough with the inept explanations, it's time to discover a new master among us. No assembly required.
Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Soul of a Woman. Life without miracles might not be life at all, and surely there is the miraculous in the way Sharon Jones appeared onstage at middle-age ready and willing to show that soul music must live forever. With the bumping and jumping Dap-Kings to back her up Ms. Jones not only showed everyone what her Mama gave her, she took real rhythm & blues to the mountaintop—where it will always belong—once again. At first, she sounded almost like a visitor from another period, but it soon became irrefutable that she was singing soul to truth, and would not be denied. Unfortunately, illness took her away too soon, but not before she was able to record this love letter to all she cared about. "Matter of Time," "Sail On," and especially "Call on God" will sear her heart in listeners forever. Sharon Jones shook stardust down from heaven as surely as she walked onstage in her high-heeled shoes, never backing down from playing a long hand to walk to the top of the world. She not only got there, Jones always took her audience along. Bless her heart.
Imelda May, Life Love Flesh Blood. Start with a pinch of David Lynch, throw in a dash of Roy Orbison, and then just a slight touch of Enya crossed with Patsy Cline, and the sound of Imelda May's addictive recent album (released earlier in the year) starts to come into focus. Vibe-wise this sonic amalgam should be no surprise: producer T Bone Burnett knows how to get the exact sound needed in cases like this. What is surprising, though, is how the album disappeared so quickly. This is an irresistible collection of songs that deserve to be heard. "Black Tears," with guest guitarist Jeff Beck, tips its hat to Santo & Johnny, while "The Girl I Used to Be" sounds like a new theme song for this century. Ms. May has been around, and anyone who comes from the area of Dublin named the Liberties is someone who will be sticking around for the duration, and doesn't know the definition of defeat. It would be a mistake to miss music this alluring, because no matter what the masses might say today this is one woman who will make a difference. Come what May.
Van Morrison, Versatile. Hard to believe Van Morrison has a new album released so close to the last one, but in a way it's an embarrassment of riches. There are so few singers like Morrison currently in the world that anything he does is a gift. The newest album is a collection of jazzish standards like "A Foggy Day" and "They Can't Take That Away from Me" joined with originals like "I Forgot that Love Existed" and "Only a Dream." And while it must be noted that these aren't in the rarefied air of the artist's best songs, when he seemed to walk on water for his first half-dozen Warner Bros. albums released in the early '70s, still it's inspiring to hear the Belfast Cowboy out there swinging. As always, he's got a groovy combo beside him, and doesn't seem too worried about outdoing himself. More likely, Van the Man is just happy to remain in the game and do things exactly the way he wants to. He has earned that freedom, Lord knows, and here's hoping he continues to reach down deep and find a way to share his soul with all of us for a very long time to come. Astral years forever.
Richard Lloyd, Everything is Combustible. Television might just be one of the greatest American bands of the past 40 years, and even if so much of their irrefutable reputation resides in their debut album "Marquee Moon," it just goes to show perfection can be a bitch to live up to. But that's what happened when guitarist Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd united in the C.B.G.B.'s-era band to set the world on fire. Lloyd's book of not only that time but of his whole life is an incredibly insightful look at what rock & roll is really like, from the staggering highs to the stupefying lows. The musician is a born storyteller, and his memory is as sharp as his fretwork. For anyone who had their heads rearranged in the second half of the '70s by groups like Television, the Ramones, Talking Heads and so many other pioneers, this book will answer what it was really like then, and why it happened. That it couldn't last forever is obvious from reading these pages, and also why it shouldn't have. Comets race across the sky, and they don't come back for second acts. Find out why.
The Paladins, New World. There aren't many of the roots-rock brigade that reared their heads famously in the '80s that are still standing, much less blasting it out better than they ever have. Put the Paladins at the top of that list, because as this new album proves, this is one band whose horizons keep expanding. Singer-guitarist Dave Gonzalez is almost without equal: his guitar gets in the gutter like it should, but he always has one eye looking ahead at the vast horizon in front of him. How he gets to that horizon is a musical wonderment. Bassist Thomas Yearsley and drummer Brian Fahey lay in the kind of bottom that is freedom-inducing for Gonzalez, not to mention a pure joy to key in and groove to. Whether it's the alley-sniffing originals "Things Keep Changin'" and "Wicked" or cosmos-cracking instrumentals "Mar Solitar" and "Should Have Been Dreamin'," this trio is fearless in where they go, and of course they put all their cards on the table getting there. It really does feel like the album title is prophetic: this is a new world for the Paladins, and like all the ones before it, promises to help them as they travel into a primal outer space. Go with them.
Gregory Porter, Nat "King" Cole & Me. The older the earth gets, the more important the music of Nat "King" Cole becomes. For someone who started as an almost unequaled jazz pianist only to become a major popular star, Cole's persona now shines like a beacon on the hill. Leave it to who is quite possibly the greatest jazz vocalist alive, Gregory Porter, to take on the Nat "King" Cole" songbook and make it something else altogether. Porter has such a natural relationship with virtuosity that it can be deceiving just how amazing he really is. His voice can go from overwhelming to a near whisper in only a few measures, always delivering an unmistakable thrill to everything he sings. Working here with the large London Studio Orchestra, at first the marriage is a little overwhelming, edging into all the corners of the songs. But when things settle down and the utter soulfulness of the sessions takes over this album feels like a long lost masterpiece. Nat "King" Cole's best known songs are all here, but there are also a handful of surprises that deliver the chills. The one Gregory Porter original, "When Love Was King," fits in so seamlessly that it leaves no doubt this young man is an old soul. One that we will be hearing from for many years to come. By the end of the album, there is no doubt that even Mona Lisa has shed a tear of joy to hear that such beauty is still possible in such a tumultuous world. Pick yourself up.
Tuomo & Markus, Dead Circles. What's with the Finnish, and how do they know American music often better than Americans themselves? Tuomo Prattala and Markus Nordenstreng are no strangers to our shores, having visited and toured in America for many years. Now, though, on songs like "Over the Rooftops, "Don't Shut Down Your Radio," and "Voice from Arkansas," they meld with the U.S. like true natives. Of course, it doesn't hurt to have members of Calexico, Wilco, the Jonathan Wilson Band, and the Jayhawks playing in studios in Tucson, Culver City, Chicago, Humboldt Park, and okay, Helsinki to bring things to a fine and emotional point. This is a cultural sharing of the highest order, and both Prattala and Nordenstreng are clearly studious lovers of American music, at the same time knowing enough that they must also bring their own backgrounds into the sound. Mission accomplished there, that's for sure, and the effortless ease with which the cultures flow together comes across as a musical and cosmic exchange of natural forces. Dead circles live.
Bill Bentley © 2017
Bill Bentley was the music writer and typesetter for the original Austin Sun. His book SMITHSONIAN ROCK & ROLL: THE PEOPLE'S PICTURES was published by Smithsonian Books, October 2017.
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