Houston’s Mighty Orq

    He needs no band. The Mighty Orq, from Houston, has been entertaining solo since 2002. He’s recorded seven CDs but seeing him live is an experience you won’t soon forget. Blues to the bone, he plays a Resonator guitar and stomps his big boot heel for percussion like Lightnin’ Hopkins. In fact, Lightnin’ is his muse so when he paused prior to his encore at the 2018 Blast Furnace Blues Festival in Bethlehem Pennsylvania recently, I shouted out, “Do some Lightnin’!” He readily complied. His voice is gruff and expressive. His fingers walk all over the fretboard like a big spider. Thanks must go out to ArtsQuest and its liberal booking policy for bringing such an under-the-radar gem of an artist here to the Lehigh Valley. For more information on this real deal, go to mightyorq.com. For more information on the incredible array of artists — both free and non-free — coming to the various venues in and around those Stacks of Steel that used to be Bethlehem Metal, go to artsquest.org/visit/steelstacks.

 

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A Son of New Orleans

    Terence Blanchard’s E-Collective is Live on its new Blue Note record. In witnessing their 2015 debut at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (Blanchard’s home town), I marveled at how he took widely disparate elements and made it all coalesce into a righteous whole. This is a protest album. With sound bites from Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (“Soldiers”) amidst hard-rock blues (“Dear Jimi”), the musical protests are for the killings of 12-year-old Tamir Rice (shot by Cleveland cops), for Philando Castile (shot by Minneapolis cops) and for the five recently assassinated while on duty Dallas cops.

    Blanchard wrote the music for Spike Lee’s HBO documentary When The Levees Broke. In 2015, his Breathless CD sounded angry over Eric Garner and how he pleaded in vain that he couldn’t breathe as cops had their knees in the small of his back until he died. Live uses spoken word, prog-jazz and Crescent City joyousness (because through the pain is always the joy of just being alive and doing something with your life) to create his brilliant pastiche of guitar, piano, synthesizers, drums and bass as they all get to shine in, around, under and over his trumpet. Blanchard is a true pioneering renaissance man.

 

From Russia With Love

    He came out of Russia to light jazz fires in England and now, after three albums, comes his live set, recorded at two shows in Austria and the Netherlands. Saxophonist/Composer/Arranger/Producer Zhenya Strigalev might be the most outrageous alto saxophonist since Ornette Coleman. Blues For Maggie (Whirlwind Recordings) has him using his alto box which makes the kind of noise you never heard. He also plays soprano sax and loves his electronics. With swirling guitar/bass/keybs/drums, Zhenya doesn’t so much as play the blues but turn the blues inside-out and upside-down on seven originals. The 20-plus-minute “Take Off Socks” has him barefoot with natural organic energy as each band member gets to stretch out jam-band style. Reggae (“Not Upset”) may lull you into a false sense of security but “Wondering About Swing” has the band using a totally retro 1940s dance riff as a jumping off point for more esoteric ramblings. Latin-Jazz (“Happy Professors”) gives way to the fractured funk of “Little Struggle” before the party ends with album highlight “Code of Not Upset,” which cannot be put into words. Go discover it yourself.

 

Rock’n’Swing 1950s Trumpet Man

    In the late ‘40s, Ray Anthony had an existential dilemma. He was the blistering trumpet guy in the Glenn Miller Orchestra but he wanted to rock. Problem was, rock ’n’ roll had yet to be invented. So he left his comfortable position in one of the biggest and most successful bands in the land and put out some singles which became popular with the youngsters.

    Were you ever at a wedding and wondered who did the original “Hokey Pokey” as family members make fools of themselves putting their right arm in and their left foot out on the dance floor? Yup, it was him. Rock Around The Rock Pile (Bear Family Productions), by Ray Anthony & His Orchestra, has 28 such pieces of candy including his oh-so-cool themes to the TV shows “Dragnet” and “Peter Gunn.” This must be where Stray Cat Brian Setzer got the idea for a rock’n’roll orchestra! Spanning 1950-1961, with a 60-page booklet, with the entire 1957 EP Rock and Roll With Ray Anthony, with soundtrack recordings from the seminal rock movie The Girl Can’t Help It and numerous rarities on CD for the first time, this is a blast-off super-sonic rocket-ship of time travel back to when a swing standard like “Chattanooga Choo Choo” fits right in with a ballsy brassy big-band version of Elvis’s “Jailhouse Rock” and even an old folk song like “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.” Talk about a keeper! Other rampaging highlights include “Marilyn” for Monroe, “Trumpet Boogie,” “Harlem Nocturne,” “Night Train” and “Big Band Boogie.” (Ray Anthony is 96 and lives in Pennsylvania.)

 

An American Treasure

    Bettye Lavette’s Things Have Changed (Verve) is the best CD of 2018 so far. Period. In her hands, every song is a one-act play, fraught with meaning, profundity and a whole lotta soul. Yet she fits right in a rock mode, spewing out lyrics with venom or a world-weary resignation. Oftentimes, she’ll get righteous like a gospel shouter. Like Billie Holiday, she changes up the melodies of the composer, in this case, Dylan, who wrote all the songs. Lady Day, at first, didn’t even realize what she was doing. Lavette, on the other hand, knows exactly what she’s doing. She stretches out motifs to her advantage so that those lyrics she deems exceptionally important get the kind of pure intensity no other singer on earth could possibly achieve. If she hadn’t chosen “It Ain’t Me Babe,” “Mama You Been On My Mind” or “The Times They Are a’Changin’,” the fact that they were all written by Dylan wouldn’t even have registered. (The title song sounds like it was written for her exclusively.)

    “The Times They Are A’Changin’” is hers…and hers alone. Sorry Bob, but Bettye owns it now. It’s so true. So meaningful. Her vocal contains irony, rage, soul, understanding and even a hint of optimism. Just like she done stole “Isn’t It A Pity” from George Harrison via Nina Simone and now it’s hers, she seems to inhabit everything she sings. (For the record, she also stole Lennon/McCartney’s “The Word.” It’s hers now too.)

    It’s not a “pretty” voice, unlike so many hack singers whose prettiness is apparent but are like empty boxes with nice gift-wrap, Lavette’s instrument is a raw scorched-earth communicator. Just like jazz music, it takes getting used to. Just like the blues, you have to feel it. “Soul” is an overused appellation. Of course she has soul. So does any great exemplar in any genre. I consider her rock to the teeth.

    It is to her everlasting credit that star musicians like Steve Jordan, Larry Campbell, Leon Pendarvis, Pino Palladino, Keith Richards, Trombone Shorty and Ivan Neville all lined up to be behind this great rock’n’roll diva. She deserves it. She is, truly, one of a kind.

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