I’ll be on Southern Avenue for a while
because I Keep On (Concord Records)
playing this Memphis band’s second album. Their 2017 self-titled debut had me
up nights dancing by myself. Keep On is
even better, maybe because they’ve since performed over 300 shows in 13
countries. Israeli guitarist Ori Naftaly is a rock ‘em sock ‘em robot. The lead-singing
church-bred Tierinii Jackson is a load! Her sister Tikyra Jackson is a
powerhouse drummer, funky as all get-out. I dig “Whiskey Love” the best, but
that rampaging horn section carries this barnburner home throughout. In fact,
they’re a natural outgrowth of that Stax sound and even have old school soul-shouter
William Bell as a guest. Just ask Buddy Guy or Los Lobos about this band, as
both had Southern Avenue open for them. I might even have to take the trip to
Scranton, PA to see them play July 26, 27, or 28 at The Peach Music Festival.
Of Agency and Abstraction (Biophilia Records), by percussionist, composer, and vocalist Rajna Swaminathan, is world beat of the finest order. Her Rajas ensemble skillfully weaves classical and folkloric music from India with jazz, dance, pop, soul, and the avant-garde into a frothy stew of delicious proportions. The percussion/voice/violin/tenor sax/guitar/bass/trumpet lineup effectively charges forth yet lays back… flies high, yet grounds itself with drum ‘n’ bass modernity. This dubstep mentality permeates the proceedings while producer Vijay Iyer (Rajna’s mentor and also an artist of eclectic albums as a leader) adds a fine gloss and sheen making it palatable for less adventurous ears. Catchy, intriguing, it sandpapers off the rough edges of the almighty raga and replaces those hard-to-digest chunks with sweetness, dexterity, muscle and even a jam band aesthetic that won’t be lost on today’s collective ear.
Legendary rockers like Tommy James always look
back. Although aware of their pioneering past, if they’re true artists, they
will always change. Always. Thus it
is with James, who, with his Shondells in the rearview mirror of the sixties,
had the type of career most men can only dream of. At 72, he’s still reaching,
experimenting, and achieving a pop plateau that pulses with righteous smarts.
He knows his audience doesn’t really like rap music, for instance, but on a
terrific remake of his 1970 “Draggin’ The Line” and a transcendent cover of the
1965 Stones hit “The Last Time,” rapper T.O.N.E.-z flows so gracefully, they
give it a chance. Other tracks have his vocals multi-tracked like a one-man
Beach Boys. Dude can still sing. Hasn’t lost an inch. He even goes all-out
party mode on a couple of doo-wop mash-ups where a half-dozen classics are
squished into the mix. From grand gospel choruses to mean electric guitar from
Steve Van Zandt of the E Street Band and Gene Cornish of The Rascals, James
covers all the bases in a freewheeling pinwheel that veers from folk-rock,
funk-soul, and disco to Broadway, comedy, and country. Yeah, he’s reaching here,
and it works. Beautifully. Masterly. And, most of all, credibly honest. May he
The City Is Seattle
City Noir, the self-released third album by
singer/songwriter/guitarist Billy Brandt, is a love poem of sorts to Seattle.
That town’s grey weather, its rain, its lonely people drinking away their
heartache with a Scotch in one hand and a cigarette in the other, provides the
backdrop. The doomed romanticism, the cynicism, and—most of all—the rotting
decay at the heart of the city, all come to the fore. One song even ends with
the slamming of an actual courthouse door as a metaphor for broken dreams. “Beyond
a doorway someone laughed out loud/Beyond a doorway someone sighed/No one knows
the truth, but they all believe the lie.” That’s the way it is with Brandt.
He got obsessed with Hollywood detective movies of the nineteen-forties as well
as tawdry novels where the anti-hero’s faults almost do him in. It’s noir, man.
Pure noir, always featuring an overriding sense of guilt, darkness on the edge
of town, crime-not-caught, and illicit lust. Brandt captures this tableau like
the beat poets of the fifties, oftentimes eschewing his vocals into spoken-word
passages that he spits out with venom. I dare say nobody—nobody—is
working in this particular idiom today. Tom Waits, maybe.
The Great Lost Jazz Man
Trumpeter Buddy Bolden was the
first great jazz man, and there are those who say he single-handedly invented
the genre. His New Orleans sextet, though, was never recorded. His life is
shrouded in mystery. The Blue Engine Records soundtrack to Bolden, a movie that imagines what his tragic life must have been
like, is by another great New Orleans trumpeter, Wynton Marsalis, who takes
from Bolden’s playbook, and the playbook of Bolden’s greatest musical progeny, Louis
Armstrong (as well as his own originals in that ragtime style), to create a
time capsule of turn-of-the-century music where jazz started that is as
exciting as any music on the planet (especially when gussied up with the kind
of recording techniques that hadn’t yet been invented back then).
Bolden chafed at the horrible
treatment he endured down South as a brilliant black revolutionary musician, so
much so it drove him crazy and led him to drink. His name is still whispered today
in hushed reverent tones by those in the know. He was barely out of his
twenties when he suffered acute alcoholic psychosis in 1907 and institutionalized
in the Louisiana State Insane Asylum, where he spent the last two decades of
his life, never to return.