It’s a statement on rock ’n’ roll music in 2018 when the best damn rock CD of the year is by a guy who’s supposed to be dead. Both Sides Of The Sky (Legacy) is replete with astounding performances by an all-star cast. Recorded between ’68 and ’70, 10 of 13 have been sealed away in vaults not yet heard. Drummers Mitch Mitchell and Buddy Miles, bassists Noel Redding and Bobby Cox, guitarist Johnny Winter and organist/vocalist/composer Stephen Stills — on two mind-bending tracks originally recorded for the aborted super-group they were going to start together — are bursting with youthful excess energy. One, Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” recorded prior to the famous Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young version, is sung by Stills with passion and fire amplified by Jimi’s guitar and Buddy’s bad-ass bass-drum bombast. Winter spews out some Texas-sized chunks of electricity — almost like a gutter cat fight with Jimi — on the 1953 Guitar Slim blues’ “The Things I Used To Do.” Jimi Hendrix considered himself a bluesman and you gotta hear him tear up the Muddy Waters 1955 hit, “Mannish Boy.” Jimi was also a studio rat and used to record in New York City day and night for weeks on end. Expect more.
Where Lightnin’ Hopkins Meets Townes Van Zandt
Practically sitting at the knee of blues man John Egan when he played the MusikFest Café in Bethlehem, Pa., I was transported to Houston, a town with a very special affinity for the blues. Armed with his trusty resonator guitar, and using his boot heel as percussion, Egan, a virtual one-man band, is the son of longtime Houston Rocket point guard John Egan. With Lightnin’ Hopkins [1912-1982] as his main muse, Egan also goes into the territory of Texas troubadour Townes Van Zandt in his originals. With a voice fit to be felt rather than heard, Egan’s the real deal: gruff, passionate, dangerous. His artistry emanates out of him in waves, cascading against the shore of your psyche with crashing intensity. In short, he is now — in flesh and blood — that which he first started out emulating. Here’s hoping he makes his way up north again. In the meantime, he can be found at thejohnegan.com/home.
Grateful Dead Jazz
When Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia wrote the Grateful Dead’s most beloved song, “Ripple,” as the B-side to their 1970 “Truckin’” single, they had no way of knowing that 48 years later, it would be the highlight — and only cover — on a terrific 2018 jazz album by pianist David Ake. Humanities (Posi-Tone Records) is solid throughout, especially considering his amazing quintet is populated by A-List players — guitarist Ben Monder, trumpeter Ralph Alessi, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Mark Ferber. Recorded in one long afternoon session last year in Brooklyn, the solos, the arrangements, the swoon-worthy melodic constructions, the meandering adventures that wind up satisfying even the most hard-boiled heard-it-all listeners like me, add up to the kind of project that just keeps on getting better with each succeeding listen. I just wish I could figure out how to make David Ake’s “Ripple” my phone’s ring tone.
Jazzanova (Vega) by Akira Tana is an absolutely gorgeous trip through Brazilian samba as brought to you by Cuban trumpet legend Arturo Sandoval, American superstar sax man Branford Marsalis, Argentinian tango master Maria Volonte, Mexican-American jazz diva Jackie Ryan and a well-heeled supporting cast — not the least of which is the leader himself, Tana, who has been an elite drum maestro for more decades than I bet he’d care to admit. He totally reconstructs Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Aguas de Marco” (the first of five Jobims) before flowering into a passionate amalgam of world music with six singers, acoustic and electric guitars, piano, Fender Rhodes, bass, trumpet, sax, percussion and drums, all self-produced with an ear towards the groove.
He wrote it, co-produced it and plays the most mellifluous keyboards this side of Havana. Miguel De Armas came out of Cuba to settle in Canada. What’s To Come (MDA Productions), by the Miguel De Armas Quartet, might be the most soulfully sophisticated instrumental album of the year. His keys/drums/bass/congas quartet is augmented throughout with trumpet, flugelhorn, two electric guitars, sax and accordion. In utilizing Cuba’s folkloric danzon dance music (“La Dama y el Perro”) as a counterpoint to some South American bossa-nova (“What’s To Come”), he sets the scene for — guess what? — ‘80s symphonic prog-rock (“A Song For My Little Son”). There’s tango, rumba and even a fun little 2:56 called “Pam Pim Pam Pum”.
No Hall but Oates is Fine
Who needs Daryl Hall anyway? John Oates has made his masterpiece. Arkansas started out as a tribute to Mississippi John Hurt [1892-1966] but as the Tennessee sessions rolled on like a big wheel on a Georgia cotton field, he realized his purview was too singular so he widened the focus to include songs from the late 1920s and early 1930s. Thus, with such Nashville studio legends as mandolinist Sam Bush, pedal steel innovator Russ Pahl, electric guitarist Guthrie Trapp, cello virtuoso Nat Smith and percussionist extraordinaire Josh Day, “I’ve made the record I have always wanted to make,” according to the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. He calls it “Dixieland dipped in Bluegrass and salted with Delta Blues.”
Crystal Gayle took “Miss The Mississippi And You” to No. 3 in 1979 but John eschews its pop trappings to hunker down with The Singing Brakeman himself, Jimmie Rodgers, he of the blue yodel, who laid this one down in 1932, less than a year before he died under his tuberculosis sheets at the age of 35. Oates, to his everlasting credit, sounds perfectly tortured.
Lee Sheldon was a Missouri pimp who shot a man dead in 1897. “Stack O Lee” came out of that event and Oates imbues the old blues with a Memphis Sun Records rockabilly backbeat.
Blind Blake [1896-1933] played ragtime guitar until he died at 38 from tuberculosis. Oates invokes his “That’ll Never Happen No More” with a tender soulful vocal.
I’ve reserved a spot on my 2018 Top 10 for Arkansas.