Johnny Rawls harkens back to an earlier era of soul men. He’s currently Waiting For A Train (Catfood Records), produced by Jim Gaines (Stevie Ray Vaughan, Santana, Steve Miller Band), and covering Wilson Pickett (“I’m In Love”), Bob Dylan (“I Shall Be Released”), Tyrone Davis (“Turning Point”) and Syl Johnson (“We Did It”). His originals reek of deep fried cooking, complete with all the bacon fat used for such an occasion. His crack band, The Rays, provide the bumps in the road with guitar, bass, drums, keybs, a three-headed sax man, trumpet, trombone, percussion and backing vocals (2). The follow-up to his terrific, Tiger In A Cage, this Mississippi product was the Musical Director for deeeeep soul singer O.V. Wright (1939-1980) before joining the band of Little Johnny Taylor (1943-2002) as guitarist, arranger, composer and producer. In this age of hip-hop dystopia and plastic pop-soul, it’s good to know there are some real bona-fide soul men left still roaming the planet like dinosaurs.
One cannot pigeonhole vocalist Jackie Allen. This unique Milwaukee renaissance woman, on Rose Fingered Dawn: The Songs of Hans Sturm (Avant Bass), sings up a storm on 10 songs written specifically for her by her producer/bassist/husband Hans Sturm. She’s been doing so for over 30 years on 11 CDs but never like this! “NOLA Love Song” is pure New Orleans joyousness. The opening title track starts with a Ghanaian Islamic chant. “Dark Butterflies” is a sensuous bossa nova. “Bel Air BBQ” heralds the great culinary and culture of Kansas City, one of the great cities of jazz back in the day, and includes a blistering trumpet solo by Chicagoan Victor Garcia that’s worth the price of admission on its own. She swings with an unapologetic retro feel on, “The Laugh That Is You.” “Holy Man” takes down phony TV evangelists. Allen gets all whispery and coquettish on “Sweet Dreams.” Highlight closer, “Steal The Night,” was inspired by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (1914-1953). “Do not go gentle into that good night,” wrote Thomas in 1947, to which Sturm wrote “Steal The Night” about death. Rose Fingered Dawn is Jackie Allen’s masterpiece.
Nighthawks at the Diner
Sitting in the Nazareth Diner in Pennsylvania with my earbuds in listening to the new Nighthawks CD, All You Gotta Do (EllerSoul Records), I realized how tall this Washington D.C. band still stands after 45 years and vowed to myself to see their cinematic documentary, On the Blue Highway. It’s not only in how they play and perform, it’s in the discreet songs they pick to make their very own like Jerry Reed’s rockabilly title track that Brenda Lee took to No. 6 in 1960. Hell, when I was nine, I remember my mom dancing to it when it came on the radio. Then there’s Larry Campbell’s poignant 1992, “When I Go Away,” that Levon Helm nailed in 1992; Willie Dixon’s 1955, “I Want To Be Loved,” for Muddy Waters; Randy Newman’s 1987, “Let’s Burn Down The Cornfield”; Jesse Winchester’s 1971, “Isn’t That So”; RL Burnside’s 1996, “Snake Drive,” and, best of all, The Standells’ 1965, “Dirty Water,” which is still played at Fenway Park during Red Sox games. I couldn’t have picked better songs myself for what I would want to hear this legendary band cover. They even wrote a Dylanesque protest song, “Another Day.” They’re an American treasure.
Aussie John McNamara came from Down Under to record in Tennessee with the cream of the Memphis crop, guys who backed Booker T & The MGs, Bobby Bland, Bar-Kays, Albert King and Isaac Hayes. Rollin’ With It (Bahool Records) has him soulfully singing and stinging his lead guitar on 10 work-out gems including Otis Redding’s, “Security.” His originals rock, his ballads roll and when he closes with “Suffering With The Blues,” you can actually feel it.
The Offerings (Big O Records) of composer/bassist/band leader Joseph Veloz are sweet meat indeed, what with his multi-genre covers of Prince’s “Kiss,” Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” Eddie Kirkland’s “Good Good Day” and a host of rambunctious originals. Highlight, “Mules For Biles (Blues For Miles),” is just the tip of an eight-song iceberg spotlighting his poppin’ bass and penchant for picking punctilious studio sidemen—depending upon the track—on keyboards (2), guitar (5), piano, trumpet, sax, drums (2), back-up vocals (4) and lead vocals (5 different singers).
It’s been eight years since, If I Were President: My Haitian Experience. For Wyclef Jean fans, that’s an eternity. Ever since he covered Pink Floyd’s, “Wish You Were Here,” in 1990, this multi-cultural renaissance man has been worth watching. “Hendrix,” off last year’s, J-Ouvert, was cool but that record was as short and unsatisfying as his political career. “Fela Kuti” is the go-to track now, funneling Afro-Beat’s eccentricities into a digestible brew. It’s off Carnival III: The Fall and Rise of a Refugee (Legacy Recordings), a 12-track gem that just keeps on getting better until it’s over and then you wanna play it again.
A Dude Named Oded
Translator’s Note (Yellowbird Records) by Oded Tzur is a worldview unparalleled. The Brooklyn sax man has taken from folk and classical strains of India—including that country’s complex micro-tonality—to incorporate into his post-bop jazz. Achieving this synthesis of style took him almost a decade. After all, his weapon-of-choice, the saxophone, is a western instrument utilizing an entire different scale system. Still, he perfected a system he calls “Middle Path,” which basically broadens somehow the capacity of a sax. Don’t ask how. Just groove. It’s a heady cocktail with three mixers. Bassist Petros Klampanis—from the Greek island of Zakynthos—brings Mediterranean and Balkan folk sensibilities. Pianist Shai Maestro and producer/drummer Ziv Ravitz are from Israel. Both band leaders in their own right, they met Tzur in Tel Aviv. The four originals are augmented by John Coltrane’s 1964, “Lonnie’s Lament.” Highly recommended.