Rant ‘N’ Roll: Five Gems

When the creative director of the South By Southwest festival, Brent Grulke, died unexpectedly at 52 in 2012, five Austin bands and a thousand friends filled The Moody Theater, where the Austin City Limits TV show is filmed, to pay tribute. Texas rock ‘n’ roll troubadour Alejandro Escovedo called his brother Javier to get their original band, True Believers, back together for the night. (Grulke was their soundman in the ‘80s.) The result felt so good, Alejandro put his solo career on hold and now we have Dedication (Jungle), a five-song EP, raw and unpolished, with a staunch three-guitar attack. I’m already salivating for a full-length.

Heading east from Texas to Louisiana, Craig Handy & 2nd Line Smith (Okeh) is a life-affirming, joyous high of an album in the Brass Band tradition of New Orleans. Handy, who’s played in the Mingus Big Band since the mid-‘90s, has taken his Mungus alum Clark Gayton (sousaphone) with him on this trippy tribute to organist Jimmy Smith…but with a Crescent City twist. With Kyle Koehler on Hammond B-3 and Matt Chertkoff on guitar (both from New Jersey), two vocalists and three drummers (including Jason Marsalis who brought his older brother Wynton along), these 10 tracks snap, crackle and pop like Rice Krispies. Between the funk, the quasi-zydeco shuffle of “Got My Mojo Workin’” and the old-school Dixie, is there any reason to even listen to anything else?

Danilo Perez is one reason to spice up your diet. In fact, every album by this Panamanian piano man is cause for celebration. He had five albums under his belt when he did his Motherland masterpiece in 2000. Four albums later, Panama 500 (Mack Avenue) rivals that achievement. (He’s also been a mainstay in the bands of legends Wayne Shorter and Dizzy Gillespie.) Five centuries ago, in 1513, Spanish explorer Balboa discovered Panama. Panama 500 celebrates that feat by seamlessly blending jazz, Pan-American folk traditions and European classical music. That’s all you have to know. This stuff is good for you…like health food.

Speaking of masterpieces, it only took acoustic/electric pianist Helen Sung (a Chinese American from Houston) six albums to create hers. Anthem For A New Day (Concord) has her leading a progressive sextet of sax, trumpet, bass, drums and extra percolatin’ Latin percussion on her originals and covers of Duke Ellington, Chick Corea and Thelonious Monk. The Chick, “Armando’s Rhumba,” is just her and guest clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera, complete with hand claps and foot stomps. Guest violinist Regina Carter soars on Sung’s “Hidden” in tandem with Ingrid Jensen’s trumpet. Sung is solo on “Equipoise.” The Monk might be the hardest composition in the world to cover: “Epistrophy.” Fittingly, she opens this Anthem For A New Day with her own “Brother Thelonious” for obvious reasons.

Blues Shock (Blind Pig) by Billy Branch And The Sons Of Blues is an 11-song ball-buster from this Chicago vocalist who blows a mean blues harp and did it in the band of the legendary Willie Dixon for years. It’s been 15 years since his last album and he sounds like he’s trying to make up for lost time. There’s an edge of manic desperation to many of the tracks that achieve the highest level of excitement…and it’s maintained throughout. Between the rampaging horn section, the Hammond B-3 and the colored girls singin’, this is an hour of blues heaven. The highlight has to be “Going To See Miss Gerri One More Time,” his tribute to Gerri’s Palm Tavern, a Chicago bar that hosted legends since the 1950s closed down by the city in 2001.