What If (Rounder) by the Jerry Douglas Band is yet another milestone for this 14-time Grammy winner and three-time Country Music Association Musician of the Year. Guitarist/Composer/Producer Douglas joined bluegrass pioneers The Country Gentlemen right out of high school in 1974. There was a time he played in eight bands simultaneously, his biggest, of course, Alison Krauss & Union Station with whom he’s closing in on his second decade. His work on the 2000 Album of the Year (Oh Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack) helped make traditional music popular again and basically kickstarted the whole Americana radio format. Yeah, this guy is a big-time dude. So what has he done for us lately?
Enter the debut of his new band, a sextet with such dizzying chops on 11 tracks that record store owners will have a hard time deciding whether to put it in sections for bluegrass, country, blues, swing, rock or soul. They revitalize the Hendrix hit “Hey Joe,” and “2:19” by Tom Waits never felt so accessible. He even replaces his own 2002 “Cave Bop” with a new version. What If radio were free to play whatever the hell the DJ wanted? Aah, I long for those old forgotten free-form days. What If, indeed. It’s a giant step in the right direction from a free-form master.
The beats of the Brian Landrus Orchestra are like nothing you’ve ever heard before in a jazz big-band. It’s called Generations (BlueLand Records) for a reason. Composer/Baritone Saxophonist/Producer Landrus has been hearing these sounds in his head for years. His previous quartet CDs only hinted at the greatness to come. Plus, his day job—as multi-instrumentalist in the internationally touring band of singer/bassist Esperanza Spaulding—left him no room for such a grandiose project. Here, though, the Generations collide. The legendary Billy Hart, 76, for instance, shares the drum stool with the in-demand Justin Brown, 28.
The debut of this eclectic orchestra—flute (2), alto flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, baritone sax, bassoon, contra-bassoon, trumpet (2), trombone, tuba, harp, vibraphone, drums (2), violin (4), viola (2), cello (2), acoustic bass (2), electric bass—has so many sub-plots floating in, around, over, above, through and under the various harmonies, melodies and big-time big-band beats, it’s a veritable cornucopia of overflowing action. The 12 original tracks bespeak an elegance heretofore unimagined.
Landrus spent years transcribing dozens of hip-hop tracks, concentrating on the work of producer J Dilla. He then took ‘em and rewrote ‘em for strings! “I just had to try to put them together as well as I could and try to imagine how it could all work,” he tells us. “It’s a puzzle to get it to fit together properly but it gives the music a different color that I’ve never heard before: familiar but new.”
To that end, his four-track suite “Jeru Concerto,” dedicated to his son who was named after prime baritone influence Gerry “Jeru” Mulligan [1927-1996], is all over the genre map. “Arise” utilizes electronic dance music (EDM) crossed with salsa. Get the picture? Hey, when you achieve not one but two Masters Degrees (jazz composition and jazz sax) while pursuing your PhD at Rutgers in classical composition, you ain’t exactly a dunce.
The Opener by Darren Barrett and dB-ish fuses plenty of elements. Barrett is a trumpeter, keyboardist, percussionist, composer, arranger, band leader, head of his own dB Studios label and Berklee professor who has always been adventurous in his musical outings. Here, though, he’s set a new bar way high what with his use of synthesis, samples, soundscapes and trippy electronica. He wrote and arranged it all for his own three instruments plus piano, synth, bass, drums, alto sax (2), more percussion, guitar (2) and more keyboards. The result is a party of eccentric eclectic proportions. “Sometimes we play open,” he tells us, “sometimes we play structured and then sometimes we play over vamps. What I really love is there’s room for melodies and improvisation.” To that end, he’s invited guest guitarists Kurt Rosenwinkel for the title track and Nir Felder on the irresistible “To Conversate” (radio should pick up on this track). Wholeheartedly recommended.
Longtime Jersey rocker J. Howard Duff now plies his craft down in Hilton Head, South Carolina and has been doing so for years. It brought a smile to my face to receive his new self-produced high-fidelity mono recording The Blues & Back (Nice Jacket Records). He still can spit out those guitar leads like a rock star and his voice has that soulful wiggle. I don’t remember the wiggle because back in the day we had a party band together called GRATE and I was the lead singer, except for his masterful vocal on Aretha’s “Chain Of Fools” which he arranged into some ball-busting hard rock (I’ll never forget it). The new CD has 18 glorious excursions where he interprets The Animals, Howling Wolf, Big Bill Broonzy, Bo Diddley, The Temptations, Chuck Berry, Blind Willie Johnson, Muddy Waters, Ray Charles and nine more (including originals) plus one song sung by Dawn Gaye (“Confessing The Blues”) with lilting sexiness. Duff played all the instruments and still has that bee-sting in his guitar like BB King. Welcome back, old friend. (www.jhowardduff.com)
If you can get past the opening eight-minute comedy routine (“The Great Debate”) and the hilarious “Putin,” Randy Newman (one of America’s greatest living songwriters) comes through with some of the most acerbic, sarcastic, sardonic and brilliantly satisfying songs since Harps and Angels (his last album nine years ago) on Dark Matter (Nonesuch). He’s in fine voice, still sounds black, still plays that piano like he was born in New Orleans instead of Los Angeles, and, upon repeated listening, the last six songs stand up to anything he’s ever done, not counting his 1974 Good Old Boys masterpiece. It’s a definite 2017 Top 10 entry.