Bessie Smith [1894-1937]
Princeton guitarist/vocalist Rory Block, 68, is a blues-woman for the ages, keeping the rural blues alive for new generations. She’s already recorded wonderful tributes to the likes of Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, Rev. Gary Davis, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Son House and Robert Johnson. She now kicks off her “Power Women of the Blues” series by nailing 10 songs associated with the legendary ball-busting mama Bessie “Empress of the Blues” Smith. A Woman’s Soul (Stony Plain Records) is a pure delight. Not only does she sing up a storm, but she plays all the guitar, bass and percussion. The double-entendres on “Kitchen Man” are a hoot (“his frankfurters are oh so sweet/How I like his sausage meat”) and Bessie’s voracious appetites are well-documented on “Gimme A Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer” and “Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl.” I could listen to Rory Block all night long.
The Ghost of Bobby Charles
There ain’t no lovin’ like Louisiana Lovin’ (Soko Music). Yvette Landry & The Jukes featuring Roddie Romero is proof positive. Put a Cajun/Zydeco spin on classic country, zip a ring-ding dance-hall doozy in there for kicks too and you have one big-time party: 11 gems that go down smooth yet rockin’ on this delectable slice of Deep South soul.
Landry is the real deal. A super-duper talent, she’s neck deep in the bayou, having come out of Breaux Bridge, home of the Atchafalaya Basin, North America’s largest swampland. She’s a fab singer/songwriter/co-producer who plays bass, guitar and accordion (as well as being an educator and an author of children’s books).
Roddie Romero is a singing dancing guitarist/accordionist whose voice slides underneath and atop of Landry’s so sweet, you’d think they were siblings.
Louisiana Swamp Pop at its finest, her …Lovin’ comes complete with a band that’s so “in the tradition,” you’d think you were an extra on HBO’s Treme, dancing and romancing. Several of the songs are by Bobby Charles [1938-2010] and were recorded in the same studio where he roamed and wrote “Walkin’ To New Orleans” for Fats Domino. The weird thing was that although this band was put together specially for the occasion, every song is a first-take, and the musicians swear they felt his presence. Landry calls it “vintage old-school Louisiana belly-rubbin’ slow drag country.” Who am I to argue? Nashville should listen up and take notes.
High-Wire Act With No Net
To be the lead voice of a band with no chords is to walk a high wire with no net underneath you. Life is easier with a piano or guitar providing a bed of sanctuary and comforting chords upon which to extrapolate a meaningful essence and, thus, madly solo. Tenor saxophonist/Composer/Producer Rich Halley, from Portland, Oregon, after 20 albums worth of original material, takes The Rich Halley 3 into uncharted territory on The Literature (Pine Eagle Records). No chords. Just Rich blowing his brains out like Sonny Rollins while bassist Clyde Reed and drummer Carson Halley try to keep up with him. The dude’s a monster.
The usual suspects — Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Mongo Santamaria, Ornette Coleman, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Sun Ra — are wonderfully interpreted. Halley has a rich, clear, throaty, thick, soulful, playful and experimental kind of stance. Still, though, he goes three steps further out into the stratosphere when he takes simple earthy country songs (Hank Williams, The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers) and transforms them into complex jazz flights. Bravo!
In Your Face
Manhattan Alley (Stone Tone records out of Weehawken) by Big Apple Blues is a big, brassy, in-your-face party. Put it on and let it rock away your blues with its barrage of horns, Hammond B-3, harmonica, congas, shakers, drums (by the man they call “The Baron of the Blues”), tambourine, electric bass (by Dr. Blues) and acoustic bass. These five guys are ferocious. They provide just the right amount of sass to highlight your night. No vocals. Just unadulterated bluesrockjazz. Ten originals. Ten highlights. It’s all good. And it’s all New York City-inspired from “Hudson Breeze” to “Subway Rumble.” It’s the type of action-packed CD that absolutely demands repeated listenings…and that’s high praise.
The 25th Anniversary Project (ArtistShare) of New York City’s Diva Jazz Orchestra has drummer/music director Sherrie Maricle at the helm for 10 rampaging tracks with bass, piano, bass trombone, trombone (2), trumpet (4), flugelhorn (4), baritone sax, bass clarinet, tenor sax (2), clarinet (2), alto sax (2), flute and soprano sax. No note is wasted. Lean, muscled, physical, all-original and totally in-your-face like a good big-band should be, these women could hold their own with any big-band in history.
Thirty years of working in a shoe factory and singing on the weekends at dusty roadside dives for chump change has given Nashville singer/songwriter Ned Hill an edge somewhere between Steve Earle and Tom Petty. On his self-released Six Feet Above Ground, his auto-biographical songs — especially “Detroit City (You’re One Tough Town)”, “Streets Of My Hometown”, “Marry A Waitress” and “Where Ya Gone Virginia” — are slices of gritty life sung in a voice of experience that’s obviously had too many late nights, drinks and cigarettes. His rough-hewn Waylon-styled approach, though, is music to the ears of those who like it real.
Imagine Ray Charles fronting the Wynton Marsalis Septet. Imagine, if you will, Bob Dylan singing his classic “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry” in front of that same septet. Or Eric Clapton (“I’m Not Rough”). Or Willie Nelson (“Milk Cow Blues”). Amazingly enough, over the last 15 years, those four plus John Mayer, Lyle Lovett, John Legend, James Taylor, Lenny Kravitz, Jimmy Buffett, Tedeschi/Trucks and Natalie Merchant have had the honor to perform with arguably America’s greatest jazz septet and it’s all here on United We Swing: Best of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Galas (Blue Engine Recordings).
One can sway and swoon to the songs of singer/songwriter/guitarist Jesse Terry on Natural (Jackson Beach Records) as he croons his tunes with such talented friends as Sarah Darling — on the delicious opener “Kaleidoscope” that features dueling ukuleles — and Dar Williams on “Noise” that recalls the embryonic era of Simon & Garfunkel. Kim Richey shows up for two and they’re the two highlights. Terry crafts absolutely gorgeous melodies enhanced by his studio band of drums, acoustic and electric bass, guitar, ukulele, dobro, piano, organ, flugelhorn, bass, cello and fretless zither. It all amounts to pretty much perfection. He even covers Jeff Lynne’s “Mr. Blue Sky,” an ELO favorite.
All Killer, No Filler
Talking On The Telephone (RWA) is one of the most satisfying collections of the year. These 28 wildly entertaining tracks from the likes of Lloyd Price, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Slim Harpo, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Muddy Waters, Mary Wells, John Lee Hooker, Big Maybelle, The Selah Jubilee Singers, Pig Meat Markham, T-Bone Walker, Aaron Neville, Elmore James add up to a ton of fun with a phone theme. Filled to the brim with blues, R&B and gospel, it’s all killer, no filler, as they say.