Rant ‘n’ Roll: Elvis Presley, Seth Walker, Larry Grenadier, and more!

By 1968, Elvis Presley had abdicated his throne to those British long-hairs whom he hated. The King just wasn’t relevant anymore and he knew it. Along came TV producer Steve Binder with an idea to restore Elvis back to prominence via a nationally televised special that would be packaged as a comeback. Manager Colonel Tom Parker wanted a family-oriented Christmas show, but Binder was having none of that. The result was magic. Elvis never looked better, never sounded better and, for one brief moment, recaptured the attention he had squandered with his silly movies.

The Best Of The ’68 Comeback Special (RCA/Legacy Recordings) collects 19 songs on one disc. The highlight is his cover of Jimmy Reed’s 1959 “Baby What You Want Me To Do.” It concludes with “If I Can Dream,” the dramatic closing number written specially for the occasion but spruced up here anew with Post Malone, Darius Rucker, Carrie Underwood, Shawn Mendes, and Blake Shelton.

Americana Ace

The 10th album in 20 years—Are You Open? (Royal Potato Family)—of singer-songwriter-guitarist Seth Walker (he also plays cello and violin) falls into that sweet spot where roots rock, alt-country, and folk coalesce into an Americana blender. His guitar work is outstanding. His vocals are like a warmly received old friend coming back to visit after a long lay-off (or at least since 2016’s Gotta Get Back). His lyrics are thought-provoking. His stance is one of total and complete exposed vulnerability (very alluring attributes for today’s man). Having grown up in North Carolina, he’s soaked up the vibes by also living in New Orleans, Havana, and now Nashville. His sound of percussion, keyboards, back-up vocals, bass, horns, pedal steel, and accordion features all the right flavorings. Wholeheartedly recommended.

A Bassist’s Bassist

Quick! Name the greatest jazz bassists of all-time. Certainly Charles Mingus, Ron Carter, Paul Chambers, Ray Brown, Stanley Clarke, and Jaco Pastorius come to mind. Larry Grenadier may have to be added to that list. The Gleaners (ECM) is 42:09 of solo double-bass where the San Francisco prodigy interprets Gershwin (“My Man’s Gone Now”) and Coltrane (“Compassion”) while adding to the solo-bass lexicon by writing seven of the 12 selections. His tone is pure, whether he’s plucking the thick strings pizzicato-style or using a bow. There’s plenty of shading, coloring, and room-to-move in an upright acoustic bass, if played by a master. “Pettiford” is a stone groove in honor of one of his many influences, Oscar Pettiford. Drummer Paul Motian’s “The Owl Of Cranston” brings him back to the band he toiled in for a decade. Throughout, the inventive spirals never cease. It’s enough to rethink the jazz paradigm only this time with the almighty bass as the lead instrument. Bravo!

A Guy Named Moppa

What a project! Bassist/composer/arranger/educator Moppa Elliott has upset the apple cart and all the apples are crazily cascading down the street in three directions. Jazz Band/Rock Band/Dance Band (Hot Cup Records), indeed, has three distinct lineups performing three distinct genres. Advancing on a wild pitch is the jazz band comprised of five baseball fanatics from Astoria, Queens (they must be Mets fans) whose post-bop smarts has the music constantly moving. The rock band, Unspeakable Garbage, is all-original and all-instrumental. When they gig, as lovers of ‘80s rock, they break out versions of Van Halen, Def Leppard, Aerosmith, and Pat Benatar. The dance band, Acceleration Due To Gravity, relies heavily on loops to accentuate its hip-hop-based syncopation. It takes two discs for this wildly divergent action.

Four Years Sober & Making His Best Music Ever

Michael McDermott’s Orphans (Pauper Sky Records) continues his upward trajectory that started with Willow Springs and Out From Under. You can call it a recovery-in-progress as the Chicago singer-songwriter has battled enough demons during a 10-year period of drug addiction that almost landed him in prison. These 12 songs are insightful nuggets of modern folk, finely etched with the kind of attention to detail you will long remember after the music stops. His voice makes his stories believable. His production makes these 10 musicians snap, crackle, and pop (especially the great multi-instrumentalist Will Kimbrough) in perfect sync with stories like “Tell Tale Heart,” an instant roots-rock classic that summons up images of Edgar Allen Poe, Dorian Grey, and IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands, plus “Sometimes It Rains In Memphis,” a lonesome travelogue. Along the way, he winds up, as he is prone to do, on “The Wrong Side Of Town,” “Richmond” and, most daringly, “Los Angeles, A Lifetime Ago.” It all ends with the poignant “What If Today Were My Last.”

Beer Drinker

Beer-drinking Ohio singer-songwriter-guitarist Eric Jerardi has teamed up with Prince/Etta James producer David Z. down in Alabama to get with the legendary Muscle Shoals rhythm section and horns for Occupied (Niche Records). Between his seven rock ‘n’ soul originals and a cover of the Jeff Healey Band’s “Don’t Take It Personally,” a funky party breaks out, well worth repeated listening. Jerardi has also inked a deal to represent one of the oldest beers available in America, Stella Artois, established over three centuries ago in Belgium.

Somewhere In The Swamps Of Jersey

Six years in the making, Jersey boy Wing Walker takes his 11-man orchestra into the final frontier: space. He has composed, arranged, and played bass clarinet on this, his Hazel debut (ears&eyes Records). The “Hazel Suite” highlight, encompassing seven of 10 tracks, is loosely based on the graphic novel Saga with each movement representing a different character. He cites Radiohead as an influence and, as produced by Californian trombonist Alan Ferber, this mix contains electronics, alto sax, clarinet, tenor sax, two trumpets, two trombones, guitar, piano, acoustic bass, and drums. There’s even a cover of “Look Around” by the oddball esoteric New England collective known as tUnE-yArDs. Highly creative and highly recommended.

The “Chi” of Taoism

There is no room left to properly explain what Chi means, except it is the title of an incredible piece of work on the well-named RareNoise Records by saxophonist (and certified NEA Jazz Master) Dave Liebman alongside two drummers, Adam Rudolph and Hamid Drake, who play a plethora of percolating percussion, complete with bells, ringers, hand-drums, electronic processing, African shakers, and all kinds of toys that make noise. Part electronica, part fusion, and part all-world, the circuitous, meandering routes to nowhere taken by these three intuitive players involve spontaneous composition, extended adventures in improvisation, and unexpected twists and turns on the 13:11 “Flux,” the 14:56 “Emergence” and the closing 9:49 “Whirl.” Add three short pieces all recorded live at The New School in Manhattan before a bedazzled audience of hungry ears, and you’ve got the musical approximation of what is known within Taoism as “chi,” the yin-yang force of the universe one must embrace to achieve a true state of zen. Or, something like that.