Ella Fitzgerald, Ella at Zardi's. As part of the centennial celebrating Ella Fitzgerald's birth, the lady's record label went all out with reissues of every stripe and selection. Quite possibly they saved the best for last, when this live album (recorded in a Hollywood nightclub in 1956) was released in December. Oddly enough, it has never been out before, likely hidden away for some special occasion such as a 100th birthday. The music is a joyous affair all around, with a perfect backing trio soaring through 21 songs of hope, happiness, and heartache. Nobody could caress a song like Fitzgerald, making it her own no matter how many times other singers had tried to do just that. From "It All Depends on You" to "I've Got a Crush on You" it’s a master class on what makes jazz vocalists truly in a sphere of their own. It must have been pure bliss to walk out of that nightclub in Hollywood after spending an evening in the presence of the Queen, knowing there wasn't anywhere else on the entire planet where better music had been. Ella Fitzgerald had become a class of one by 1956, and thankfully Verve Records label chief Norman Granz made sure to bring in the recording gear and preserve exactly why. What a world.
Nona Hendryx & Gary Lucas, The World of Captain Beefheart. Nothing seems more next to impossible than putting a new spin on the impossibly awesome music of Captain Beefheart. The California man came out of the desert and immediately established an iconoclastic imprint on rock music in the mid-'60s. There was nothing like him, then or now. Still if anyone could take a run at songs like "Sun Zoom Spark," "When It Blows Its Stacks," "Tropical Hot Dog Night," and other Beefheart staples, it is probably Nona Hendryx and Gary Lucas. She is a singer who first earned fame in Patti and the Bluebelles and then lit out for her own cosmos, while Lucas is a guitarist who actually played in Captain Beefheart's Magic Band, as well as working with Jeff Buckley, creating solo albums of stunning depth and generally shaking up modern guitar's parameters. Together they forge such a forceful union it feels like they could do anything. Luckily, they've chosen the one thing no one can touch, and then took it to the limit. Captain Beefheart once said he invented his last name because he "had a beef in his heart for what modern life was doing to the earth." If he were still alive, he'd likely smile at what Hendryx and Lucas are doing to his music. Train the cabooses.
The Lone Bellow, Walk into a Storm. American rock bands are still multiplying like Starbucks, but to try and find one that really goes all the way and hits the lunar landscape is rare. The Lone Bellow has done exactly that with their new album. Zachary Williams started playing guitar and writing songs after his wife was in a serious accident, and from such an auspicious early impetus greatness ensued. For this new set, The Lone Bellow went to Nashville, snagged uber-producer Dave Cobb and got down to the glory. Song after song shows what a band sounds like when they're in the zone, and Williams and his bandmates perform like they know it. There is a confidence of soul that extends from the center of The Lone Bellow's music which points to real greatness. Near the middle of the album the song "Time's Always Leaving" offers a glimpse into rock & roll future, offering a vivid illustration why this music remains the salvation to all who enter. The nine other songs show good reason why there is nothing else coming anytime soon that will replace it. Rock's new royalty.
George Martin, The Film Scores and Original Orchestral Compositions. How's this for serious diversity? Supreme producer-composer George Martin's music from "Yellow Submarine," "Live and Let Die," and other compositions for various movies and other projects is performed by the Berlin Music Ensemble with conductor Craig Leon in such a vibrant way that musical classifications fall away and listeners are left with pure sound and emotion. While the entire planet knows Martin from his defining work producing The Beatles, he also has been a composer and arranger his entire life starting at the age of eight. These original works, with the passionate playing of the Berlin musicians, will bring a new reevaluation of George Martin's talents, which extend far beyond the control room of the recording studio. To celebrate the man's January birthday, there will be a deluxe 2-LP set pressed on heavy-weight vinyl and housed in a varnish-finish gatefold sleeve. No wonder they call him Sir George Martin in Great Britain. Hail the chief.
Penguin Cafe, The Imperfect Sea. Penguins capture the imagination with their victory over crazy climate adversity, not to mention lifetime devotion to their mates. Simon Jeffe's Penguin Cafe Orchestra was a natural wonder as well, creating music that formed its own niche, not quite New Age but surely a sound to behold. After his death, son Arthur Jeffes transformed the aggregation into simply Penguin Cafe and took up the flag for his father's accomplishments, specializing in a folk-based outfit fueled by acoustic instruments and inquisitive imagination. When "salt bowl percussion" gets an album credit it's obvious the band's brainpans are firing on all cylinders. The Imperfect Sea is music that can be listened to anytime day or night, counted on to move the inner landscape to a better place and even provide a shimmer of eternity to present-day worldly worries. This is serious music for our seriously-tilted times, and through warmth and wisdom it can lead the way to a new day. Antarctica comes home.
Abe Partridge, Cotton Fields and Blood For Days. It takes a rare specimen who can sing like he gargles with ancient gravel soaked in Kamchatka vodka and still make it sound appealing, but that's only one of Alabama's Abe Partridge's many gifts. It probably didn't hurt he was a former Baptist minister who became an avionics technician in the Air Force, spent 100 days in Qatar and still works on Hurricane planes. What is most striking about this musician is just how much his own man he is. He obviously tuned into a different drummer early in life and has been chasing that sound ever since. There is plenty of blues intensity in "I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker" and "The Ghost of Mobile," rock velocity in "Turn the Volume Down" and "Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down," and sheer belief in the best-titled song in awhile: "Ride Willie Ride (Or Thoughts I Had While Contemplating Both the Metaphysical Nature of Willie Nelson and His Harassment by the Internal Revenue Service)." At heart, though, Abe Partridge sounds like he waits for inner inspiration to take over his soul and then lets it rip. He's no doubt seen life from all sides of the carnival and knows there are no givens: everything is up for grabs and everyone needs to hold on to what they've got. Partridge has the gift of music tattooed in his guts and isn't afraid of showing it however he can. Listen very close.
Linda Perhacs, I'm a Harmony. Life can often be a fairy tale waiting to happen, and no one proves this better than Linda Perhacs. The 75-year-old singer debuted with her 1970 album Parallelograms, and then waited 44 years to follow it up with The Soul of All Natural Things. Why hurry? And now, only a short three years later, comes I'm a Harmony. What all this proves is that music has its own timeline, and that those who believe in themselves know when the stars are aligned right to try again. There is an endless beauty to all that Perhacs does, and aided by artists like Wilco members Pat Sansone, John Stirratt, Nels Cline and Glenn Kotche, along with Devendra Banhart and others, proves that it's never too late to walk into the light and share their gifts. Linda Perhacs has made an album that feels like an instant-masterpiece, unique unto itself and unlikely to be equaled anytime soon. The woman is extending a hand to the other side of life, where suffering and hardship can be healed by songs and faith. I’m a Harmony came out last September and seems now like one of the best albums of that or any other year. Harmony is bliss.
The Pollyseeds, Sounds of Crenshaw Vol. I. Producer Terrace Martin has worked with such a lustrous array of artists it's impossible to list them all, but just to include Stevie Wonder and Kendrick Lamar is a good start. He comes from a family of musicians and singers, and started his quest for the music of the spheres early. This mesmerizing collection of sounds includes guests like Chachi, Robert Glasper, Rose Gold and others, and while it drifts into the eclectic zone, in this case that's an extreme compliment. There is no way to tag the album with one genre; Martin is too talented for that. No matter what is played or sung, there is a breathtaking backdrop for it, and it's one of the producer's gifts that he can cast such a wide net in assembling the 13 songs and never lose focus or force. The beats, whether they're submerged or right out front, guide the players in a way that feels like an unstoppable river. The Crenshaw area of Los Angeles is a constant fount of artists coming to the fore, and in many cases Terrace Martin is the man opening the door. Like he does here, there is room for all and no finer ear or eye could do the choosing. Naturally, all tracks are recorded at Organic Grease Studio. Burn it up.
Curtis Salgado and Alan Hager, Rough Cut. There is the utmost simplicity in the stark power of the blues, and no one knows this better than these two. Curtis Salgado has been ripping and running on the blues highway a long time: on his own, fronting the early Robert Cray Band, and singing with Roomful of Blues. Besides always alluring vocals, he also contributes mightily with harp and piano like someone who was born with both instruments close at hand. Guitarist-singer Alan Hager isn't far behind Salgado, studying at Boston's Berklee School of Music with Pat Metheny before jumping into the deep-end of a love affair with Delta blues. The best news of all is how Salgado and Hager blend so perfectly into one on originals and classics alike. It's the passionate proof of "one-head music," where all involved need to meld into a solitary being. Album opener "I Will Not Surrender" is such a statement of purpose that it hits the shiver-zone on the first note and stays there. Other originals by the pair blend seamlessly into the immortal songs of Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Son House, Rev. Robert Wilkins, and Big Bill Bronzy with such fluidity that it would be hard to tell who wrote what. That's class. True blues, which is a music meant to move listeners beyond sadness into a better place, is worth its weight in gold today, and makes this album seem like Curtis Salgado—a man who has tested the limits of mortality and come out a winner—and Alan Hager are troopers fighting on the front lines. Heed their call.
Jackie Shane, Any Other Way. In the immortal words of legendary soul singer Arlester "Dyke" Christian's hit, "Let a Woman Be a Woman (Let a Man Be a Man)," there are different strokes for different folks and we're all equal. Singer Jackie Shane was born a male, but always felt that was only the body she inhabited and knew down deep she was a female. And that's how she lived and performed onstage starting in the '60s. That wasn't an everyday occurrence then, but Shane never backed down and made a series of singles and live recordings that now break through all barriers in this priceless collection of music. While Shane didn't have a train-stopping voice, she surely had star presence to spare, and enough strength to battle racism and all kinds of other "isms" that stained the culture of America for far too many years. Which is probably one reason the artist spent much of her life in Canada, and got out of show business altogether in the early '70s instead of being on the losing end of personal and professional battles. This incredible collection of many of Jackie Shane's singles, also including a whole disc of live recordings, is like opening a long-shut window that looks out on a breathtaking vista of personal salvation. She is a hero of those who fought the war of bigotry and small-mindedness early, before most Americans even knew there was a war going on, and never backed down from being the person she wanted to be. Finally we can hear who Shane really was, and still is. Never too late.
Bill Bentley © 2018
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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