The Whole Shebang (Bigger Better More Records), by Charlie Faye & The Fayettes, feels good. An update on the girl groups of the ’60s, singer-songwriter Faye wrote or co-wrote 12 frilly retro-pop tunes, sings ‘em with a casual vibe, and harmonizes with her two back-up singers. Chockful of great moments like “Tonight’s The Night,” where Austin legend Bill Kirchen of Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen plays a searing electric lead guitar solo, and “I Don’t Need No Baby” (her answer song to Phil Spector’s 1963 “Be My Baby”), the tracks on The Whole Shebang are sweet and easy. Longtime Elvis Costello drummer Pete Thomas kick-starts these brazen odes, wherein Faye is always about the here and now, especially on gems like “Baby We’ll Be OK,” “That’s What New Love Is For,” and “You Gotta Give It Up (Party Song),” which ends on a particularly cheeky note.

Back At The Crossroads

Robert Johnson’s 1937 “Cross Road Blues” was popularized by Cream in 1968. According to legend, the bluesman sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for his awesome talents right there on a high dusty Delta plain overlooking the confluence of the Yazoo River and the mighty Mississippi. Johnson went on to become the preeminent blues star of his generation, but had to pay the Devil his due, when—allegedly— a jealous husband poisoned him at the height of his fame. He was 27. Filmmaker/musician John Fusco has always been fascinated by that story. In fact, his first screenplay was feature film Crossroads in 1986. Now, he’s taken his obsession a step further with the release of the self-titled debut (Checkerboard Lounge Recordings) of his band John Fusco and the X-Road Riders. He sings, plays the Hammond B-3, piano, organ-bass, and acoustic guitar. His partner on this project is Cody Dickinson who has been in the North Mississippi All Stars with his brother Luther for the last 23 years. Cody’s all over this album playing guitar, dobro, bass, piano, “electric woogie board,” and drums. Luther was also in the Black Crowes and in the solo band of the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh. He chips in some guitar on the album ender “Cross Road Blues” which also features a rap by Al Kapone. (Their father is the rather legendary Jim Dickinson, a producer/musician who worked with the Stones, Aretha, Al Green, Mudhoney, and dozens of superstars who all sought him out). One definite highlight—amongst many—is the sax solo by Baby J Jewett on “I Got Soul.” Other highlights include ”Boogie On The Bayou” and “Once I Pay This Truck Off.” Let’s just hope this great new band isn’t a one-and-done project. I’d love to hear a follow-up.

20-Minute Monster Jams

Path of Totality (Whirlwind Recordings), the second album by Quinsin Nachoff’s Flux, is a double album doozy where the composer/tenor and soprano sax man/producer—who calls both New York City and Toronto home—leads his Flux through a myriad of changes, like on “Bounce,” which does so for almost 20 minutes. Fellow sax man David Birney burns on alto while Matt Mitchell provides color, depth, and his own personal elan on piano, harpsichord, pump harmonium, and an array of synthesizers. That leaves the two drummers who show off like a four-armed Elvin Jones on steroids. It’s a heady concoction that skirts genre limitations to the point where the electronics vie for supremacy. “Toy Piano Meditation,” another 20-minute monster jam, takes its inspiration from the avant-garde composer John Cage but then adds the kind of folkloric Indonesian worldbeat that’s so damn exotic and gorgeous, one can only ooh and ahh. On the 14 minutes of “March Macabre,” the sound of dancing clogs permeates the mix to delightfully percussive fruition, culminating in tap dancer Orlando Hernandez dancing his way to the close. What a sound! What a project!

Celebrating Carla Bley

Composer Carla Bley, 82, has written jazz operas, and pioneered “free jazz” in the ’60s with her bands that oftentimes completely dispensed with chords and melody to remain an avant-garde icon. Around Again (TUM Records) by Iro Haarla, Ulf Krokfors, and Barry Altschul takes 12 Bley compositions for 65:57 of pure instrumental bliss. Drummer Altschul, 76, knows this stuff well. He was on many of the original recordings of this material by her husband Paul Bley over 50 years ago. Pianist Haarla, 63, from Helsinki Finland, is a human kaleidoscope, her fingers pinwheeling across the keys in an ever-changing, ever-escalating crescendo of dramatic proportions. Double-bassist Krokfors, 52, a fellow Finn, has been playing with Haarla for decades. Their chemistry is bound by a profound understanding of where the other one will go in any circumstance, thus an exactitude is achieved, stunning in its alacrity and scope. Wholeheartedly recommended.

Experiential Gumbo

Jane Kramer’s third album Valley of the Bones can be described as modern folk, Americana, or alt-country. Truth is that she writes with the kind of attention-to-detail usually reserved for novelists. Chris Rosser is a mighty weapon to have in your band arsenal as he supplies most of the delectable touches, be it on acoustic guitar, electric guitar, keyboards, harmonium, or mandolin. Now add acoustic bass, drums, dobro, fiddle, cello, and harmony vocals. Mix well, bring to a boil, and you’ve got a nourishing gumbo of emotion that you can chew on for days after the music stops. Thought-provoking, honest, emotionally sung in an enticing world-weary stance of experience, Kramer has scored a bullseye here.

Big Band Bombast

Randy Brecker Rocks (Piloo Records) by Randy Brecker & the NDR Big Band features the world-class trumpeter with the Hamburg Radio Jazz Orchestra featuring David Sanborn (an original ‘70s member of the groundbreaking Brecker Brothers), Brecker’s saxophonist wife Ada Rovatti, and drummer Wolfgang Haffner. They jam out on nine Brecker originals from the various eras of his storied career, using a three-sax frontline colored by an extended woodwind section of double-reeds like oboe, bassoon, bass clarinet, and flute. Man, it swings.

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