Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers, Just Coolin’. Leave it to drummer Art Blakey to know how to tear up a bandstand full of hot-blooded players. Blakey was one of the seminal musicians who took over the jazz world in the early 1950s with a sound that could not be stopped. His drums were a study in explosions, set to go off whenever he felt the music could use a good pounding. Blakey’s beats were primal, like they blew out of the center of the earth and took over everything. This 1959 recording date somehow got lost in the shuffle since it was recorded over 60 years ago, but praise be Blue Note Records found it and has now unleashed it on the planet. The Jazz Messengers’ front line is stellar, featuring Hank Mobley on tenor saxophone and Lee Morgan on trumpet. Add Bobby Timmons’ wondrous piano and Jymie Merritt’s bass and the circle is complete. This is simply a treacherous half-dozen songs that jack up the very fabric of life itself. The music not only gives the sometimes unheralded tenor kingpin Hank Mobley a time to burst into the spotlight (he wrote half the songs), but also once again offers the Jazz Messengers a turn in the glory of jazz. Art Blakely is as seminal a musical force as existed for over a half century, and sitting high atop his drum stool and pushing whichever edition of the Jazz Messengers happened to exist at the moment shows why he always took the music to the limit. Ain’t no foolin’.
Cidny Bullens, Walkin’ Through This World. Yes, Cidny Bullens is a transgender man, but even more important is that Bullens has made one of the great rock records this year. It captures the essence of what is within reach when a person gathers all their strengths, takes a big swing and doesn’t look back. These are songs that are equal part questions and answers, and ones that never fail to see the world as a place of possibility. Surely it wasn’t easy to reach for the courage it no likely took to make this change, but Cidny Bullens has always been someone who has been able to look life in the eye and stand up for their beliefs, no matter which gender is involved. Songs like “Purgatory Road” and “Walkin’ Through This World” sound like they’re driven home by 100-pound hammers, never flinching from the strength and honesty it takes to speak the truth. His voice is infused with the power of purpose, and in a world where it often feels like everything is up for grabs, it is thrilling to hear someone so committed to being real. In the end, once again, Cidny Bullens shows that rock & roll is capable of anything as long as reality is a guiding light. Wife, mother, husband, father: in the end it’s honesty that really matters, and this is an album that is shot through with it. It’s all here.
Greg Copeland, The Tango Bar. Greg Copeland’s musical life feels a bit like a Raymond Chandler mystery: an auspicious major label debut in 1982, an indie solo album in 2008 that came and went quickly, and now finally a third album, one that raises its hand high and demands to be heard. It is one for the ages, and proves that everything works within its own time frame. Copeland started his career as a singer-songwriter alongside Orange County friend Jackson Browne, and even though there was a hint of initial success he decided to veer off into the more stable life a law degree offered. Now that he’s back, it’s like Copeland has never been gone. His songs have plenty of Southern California atmosphere, with guest singers Inara George and Caitlin Canty adding a striking beauty to several songs. There is such an elemental level of power in “Scan the Beast,” “Coldwater Canyon” and “Lou Reed,” this music comes across as a primer for a future Los Angeles, one built on the essence of Jackson Browne crossed with Charles Bukowski, and laden with an undeniable ennui. Still, it just takes George on “I’ll Be Your Sunny Day” and Canty on three songs, including the irresistible “Better Now” and the stunning “Beaumont Taco Bell” with Greg Leisz’s mesmerizing steel guitar–to bring in the brightness. Greg Copeland is an artist who waits until he’s ready to make the next move, and thank goodness he decided to make this one and create an album which cannot be overlooked. 2020’s best surprise.
Brian Cullman, Winter Clothes. It only takes a few songs at the start of Brian Cullman’s new album to hear that he has zeroed in on exactly what makes him an artist to respect. It’s in the way he can swing from scruffy rock & roll like album opener “Killing the Dead” to the haunting ballad “Someday Miss You.” It probably adds an element of the eternal that his right-hand man and co-producer Jimi Zhivago was dying when this new album was being recorded, but these songs go way beyond just a deep personal loss. They are written to include the emotional battering of everyone, especially in a time when it feels like the future is more than just a question mark. It’s a threat. Brian Cullman comes from the school of no-breaks rock & roll, where there is nothing from the past that can’t be pulled into the future in a way that says anything goes. As through all his previous albums, Cullman is courageous in how he scavenges his favorite sounds and melds them into something brand new. This is someone who learned early and inside-out the history of rock & roll, and realized quickly it was open season on everything he loved about it. It’s also obvious that the music is what he bases his life on. There are no escape routes or safety belts with this arresting new album. It’s also just happenes to be the best of Cullman’s career, and with a hand-picked crowd of players who share the same excitement about pushing rock into new corners, these are songs that promise everything and manage to deliver on most. Jimi Zhivago lives.
Mike Flanigin, West Texas Blues. Sometimes the blues is just in you, and it’s got to come out. B-3 Hammond organ whiz Mike Flanigin plays with a wide range of people, including a regular seat in the Jimmie Vaughan Trio, and veering out to work with Billy F Gibbons, Steve Miller and others. But for this afternoon recording session, all of four hours long, the trio of Flanigin, blues guitar guru Sue Foley and drum king Chris “Whipper” Layton decided to zero in on the real thing. That means alley-friendly guitar leads from Foley, a skinned-back but always lethal beat from Layton and deep keyboard soakings from Flanigin’s Hammond. There are probably plenty of blues bands still alive in the world, but there are none like this. There is something about listening to players who have this music in their blood that just cannot be equaled. And Flanigin’s vocals continually amaze, maybe because he’s not really known as a singer. But sing he sure does on these ten blues zingers, ranging from “I’ve Got My Eye on You” to “Thunderbird,” and all spots in between. Nobody on this small bandstand is showboating, either. They’re just laying into the music that still reigns as America’s righteous birthright, recorded overdub-free in the studio like it should be. When clubs begin cooking again, and pray they will soon, let’s hope there’s a tour scheduled by the little trio that could. Wear it out.
RB Morris, Going Back to the Sky. Maybe once a year a perfect album appears out of nowhere. Not perfect like everything is just so, but perfect like there’s not a false note or forced lyric anywhere to be found in the songs that offer eternal life. There is no way to tell the album’s coming, and that would take the fun out of it anyway. But, eventually, there it is: a combination of age-old longings and newfound sounds. RB Morris has done it this year, and not a moment too soon. The collection takes on the entire breadth of America, almost like a travelogue of songs, and brings to life so many things that feel like they were threatening to disappear in a country being torn apart. Morris’ voice has a sureness beyond his years, without ever having to even stretch. Not only that, a few years ago RB Morris was named the first Poet Laureate of Knoxville, Tennessee. Really. Of course, the album is co-produced by Bo Ramsey, who is the kind of person who often appears in unlikely places. With his magical guitar, he brings such an exciting musical imagination that he seems like an apparition we make up just so life can feel widescreen for awhile. Ramsey’s vocal cameo on “Montana Moon” offers a glimpse into a mysterious realm we can only hope to someday find. Until then, RB Morris’ music of glory will take us to new places and deep feelings, full of guitars that sound like they’re born in a shimmering sky of stars and words that sound as true as an ethereal visit. Accept no substitute.
New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers, Volume 1. Throw some mojo mayonnaise and hoodoo jicama into this band’s sonic salad and it is most definitely time for lift-off. The gaggle of gassed-up roots musicians can swing like there’s no tomorrow and prove that music can help listeners’ spirits live forever. The New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers (how’s NMJRFR for short?) are a concoction conceived down in the thick kudzu of northern Mississippi that is destined to spread around the world. Check out these passionate participants: Charlie Musselwhite, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Jimbo Mathus, Jim Dickinson, Luther Dickinson, Cody Dickinson, Chris Chew and Paul Taylor. Each and every one of them has enough soul in their small toe to guarantee anything they play is going to be a sure-fire celebration. Recorded over a decade ago, the band has such an inner groove it feels like it could light up the whole world. Naturally, the album was recorded in Independence, Mississippi. It’s been too long since music like this was offered that was strictly entertainment: not meant to change the planet, but instead intended to change the heart. Every person on these sessions is a walking inspiration to the natural born beauty born in the blues, and each has spent their lives showing no matter what style they’re grooving to it’s going to be real. Of course, they have to include a frisky cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Stone Free” to ensure the circle remains unbroken. Charlie Musselwhite sums it up best with his Magnolia State life-defining simplicity: “I-IV-V.”
Various Artists, Back to Paradise: A Tulsa Tribute to Okie Music. For all the famous recording cities around southern America–Memphis, New Orleans, Muscle Shoals, Nashville and more–Tulsa hasn’t really got the attention it deserves. This 17-song collection could go a long way in changing that, starting with the location of the room used for the sessions. Leon Russell’s famed Paradise Studio at Grand Lake near Tulsa was home for many of his most famous recordings, not to mention a whole gang of guests over the years. On BACK TO PARADISE, different Oklahoma artists venture to Paradise and show Russell’s original musical vibrations are still there. Almost every track on this new compilation is a classic, from Paul Bejamin’s cover of J.J. Cale’s “Ride Me High,” Jesse Aycock’s recording of Jesse Ed Davis’ “Tulsa County” to John Fulbright’s stunning re-do of Steve Ripley’s beauty “Crossing Over.” There is a feeling of funkified delight, like the soul in which it was written has translated over the decades into a modern marvel. And leave it to Dustin Pittsley’s remake of “Blind Man” and Braniae’s update of Lowell Fulson’s “Tramp” to prove that great music never fades. In so many ways it becomes deeper and touched by the eternal. It’s not hard to picture Leon Russell hovering above the action, with his massive mane of silver hair blowing in the wind, and smiling at all the new action. All Okie doke.
Various Artists, Willie Nile Uncovered. Tribute albums are a real gift, designed to bring attention to the songs of someone who really deserves it. When those songs are in a class of their own there’s a chance for musical liftoff. Make no mistake here: Willie Nile has written some of the best rock songs of the last 40 years, and a lot of them are on this double-album collection, recorded by artists who actually know what to do with them. Not only that, but they are also a wide range of artists, some well-known names and others not so much. Luckily that’s not important, because every single one of them comes through for Nile, from Emily Duff to Johnny Pisano. The songs have that urban wanderlust that is so much a part of New York-based songwriters, capturing the captivating promise of life in the big city, but also shot through with the throating-catching ache that can come from sometimes dreaming too big. Classics like “Life on Bleecker Street” and “The Day I Saw Bo Diddley in Washington Square” have come to stand for what it means to gamble with your soul and take a run at the brass ring in the Big Apple. The essence of Willie Nile is how he has never looked back or faltered in his resolve to be a singer-songwriter, fighting his way through legal swamplands and record label shenanigans. One listen to Quarter Horse’s “When Levon Sings” is to know why it’s all worth it. The spirit soars and there is no way not to fly. Willie Nile rules.
Samoa Wilson with the Jim Kweskin Band, I Just Want to Be Horizontal. If anyone helped crack the code during the 1960s on authentic music from America’s past, count Jim Kweskin at the front of the line. His Jug Band during that era introduced so many young music listeners to styles from the early 1920s, and steered inquisitive souls into exploring the past. The good news is that Kweskin has never veered far from that course, and with singer Samoa Wilson he has found the perfect vocal collaborator to keep going. The way Kweskin and bassist-co-producer Matthew Berlin cast a framework for Wilson’s moving way with what are basically jazz songs feels like a whole new reinvention of the music which started a century ago. This is a style meant to uplift all those within earshot, mixing humor and humanity in a way which is still rarely equaled. The eight-piece band is a perfect pairing with Samoa Wilson, always complimentary and never overpowering. In the end, Jim Kweskin continues to supply the gold standard for musicians who remain enamored of all that America has conttributed to the world’s musical landscape. His continuation of that quest with Samoa Wilson is exhilarating, and a path to permanent joy. Let freedom ring.
Song of the Month
Jim Keller, “Don’t Get Me Started.” What is a musician supposed to do for fun when much of their life was put on pause when the pandemic really took over and so many things were shut down? For Jim Keller, it was time to go deep and use whatever technology was available to record a song he felt had to be done. With Byron Issacs, Keller wrote “Don’t Get Me Started,” part lament and part anthem, to raise a fist to all that was changing right beneath his feet, and make a stand that they wouldn’t disappear too easily. Working with producer Mitchell Froom, the song is a hot-blooded look at what’s been lost, but also an examination on what is still possible. It’s tough as nails and just angry enough, and the kind of song that could live well beyond the present time as an ode to stick-to-it-ness. It has that menacing kick of the best rock and roll, with Keller’s midnight voice and slinky guitar. And just to keep the fires burning, he enlisted a strong set of musicians to add their own contribution to the song’s outro for a virtual collection of a walk on the wild side. Included are Nels Cline, Marc Ribot, David Hidalgo, Phillip Glass, Val McCullum and more. For Keller, the man who co-wrote the mega-hit “867-5309/Jenny” for his band Tommy Tutone and unleashed it on the world in the early ’80s, it all shows there is no end to the music.
Bill Bentley © 2020
Bill Bentley was the music writer and typesetter for the original Austin Sun. His book SMITHSONIAN ROCK & ROLL: LIVE AND UNSEEN was published by Smithsonian Books, October 2017.