Mike Greenblatt’s Rant ‘n’ Roll

The Guitar Is the Star

Canadian guitarist Kevin Breit named his second Stony Plain Records solo album Stella Bella Strada, which loosely translates to “beautiful star of the road,” after his new guitar, specially built for him. It’s a handmade instrument built by a master luthier because Breit wanted an axe that was “lightweight and didn’t require a chiropractor after every show.” Breit plays slide guitar, bass clarinet, and mandolin. He wrote all 10 songs, produced, engineered, mixed, mastered, and likely swept out the studio after each session. When he’s not touring as lead guitarist for Norah Jones, k.d. lang, or Rosanne Cash, he’s crafting exquisite albums like this, utilizing—you ready?—electric bass, acoustic bass, accordion, pump organ, drums, drum loops, all kinds of percussive toys, Wurlitzer, vibraphone, trumpet, tenor sax, baritone sax, flute, trombone, tuba, violin, vocalists, baritone guitar, viola, cello, harmonica, mandolins, mandola, mandocello, an eight-voiced choir, and even Mexican Mariachi horns. Yet it is not cluttered. It is, in a word, spectacular, encompassing modern folk, blues, jazz, pop, rock, and swamp in a kaleidoscopic phantasmagoric soundtrack for a movie that doesn’t exist.  

Is World Peace a Pipe Dream?

The various artists on World Peace (Putumayo) hail from Brazil, India, Nigeria, Nepal, the U.S.A., Swaziland, Cameroon, South Africa, Israel, and Haiti. Keb Mo, Jackson Browne, India.Arie, and Wyclef Jean may be the stars, but the “leave your ego at the door” ethos as first manifested at the 1985 “We Are The World” session is paramount. To that end, the material is powerfully evocative and timely. Starting with “Wake Up Everybody,” the 1975 Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes soul hit (“there is so much hatred, war and poverty…the world won’t get no better, we gotta change it, just you and me”) and ending with John Lennon’s 1971 “Imagine,” these 11 tracks run the gamut of genre and message. Bob Marley’s 1980 “Redemption Song” and Nina Simone’s 1967 “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free,” when juxtaposed with “Love Train” (originally recorded by The O’Jays in 1972) and “Freedom For Everyone” (heard here by its author, Bongeziwe Mabandla) makes a powerful peace case (“Oh, what is freedom if there’s no freedom for everyone?”). Then there’s Mira Awad’s “Think Of Others” where she sings the words of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (“do not forget those who seek peace…those who have nowhere to sleep”). World peace may still be but some hippie dream, but just imagine.  

Best Jazz Album of the Year So Far?

Alexa Tarantino’s debut, Winds Of Change (Posi-Tone Records), as produced by Marc Free, is a veritable whirlwind of absolutely gorgeous swinging post-bop with enough twists and turns to keep things edgy. Her soprano and alto saxophones plus flute skip mightily across the mix like a flat stone when thrown just right across a languid body of water. Pianist Christian Sands, bassist Joe Martin, and drummer Rudy Royston are all “A”-list players who add immeasurably to the daring arrangements. She’s a woodwind whiz, knows when to let her band take over, and certainly knows how to shine. As part of the Wynton Marsalis Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra, plus the Arturo O’Farrill Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, she’s learned her lessons well. Still pursuing her Masters at Julliard, she takes Antonio Carlos Jobim’s 1965 bossanova “Zingaro” to new heights. On “Ready Or Not,” the whole band sizzles like bacon in a frying pan. Highly recommended!     

He’s Only Human

Every great once in a while, an artist comes along who has an air of mystery and danger about him; who sings as if his life depends upon it; whose lyrics suggest that oftentimes his relations with other humans can be crushingly pessimistic. Englishman Peter Perrett is such an artist. Listen closely to his quasi-brilliant Humanworld (Domino) and you’ll be caught up in a miasma of self-doubt and incessant soul-searching. Clearly, this is a survivor of too-intense good times. He used to sing in The Only Ones, an uncategorizable band with three solid albums from ’78 to ’80 that straddled punk, power pop, hard rock, and psychedelia. Now, older and wiser, he fronts a band with his guitarist son Jaime and his bassist son Peter, Jr. Plus, he’s smart enough to add the colors of synthesizer, organ, and even viola to the mix. But it’s his slithery back-alley vocals and words of wisdom—recriminations, actually—that carry Humanworld. Jaime knows his dad all too well. Besides producing, his “Master Of Destruction” is an obvious highlight. Where can Perrett go from here? There’s really no telling, but I know I will be along for the ride.     

Soundtrack For a Non-Existent Horror Movie

Get ready for what Manfred Eicher’s ECM Records is calling “post-ambient.” Methinks it’s much more. Ambient music has always held about as much appeal to these hairy old ears as floral wallpaper or the piped-in muzak of elevators and dentist offices. Not this. Lost River is richly textured. It’s charming. It’s spooky music for a horror movie that doesn’t exist. Michele Rabbia is a drummer from Italy whose penchant for electronics sets him apart. Gianluca Petrella is a trombone player from Italy who is also credited with “sounds.” Eivind Aarset is a guitarist from Norway whose chording is festooned with more electronics. Together, they float down this Lost River on 10 meandering tracks that are almost totally improvised on the spot. Spontaneous composition! Open your ears and open your mind.  

The Patron Saint of Country

Just say “Hank,” and longtime country music fans will smile. They’ll know you’re talking about the brilliant, tragic Hank Williams, who died in the back seat of his car from a lethal combo of pain pills and alcohol while being driven to a gig in Canton, Ohio on New Year’s Day 1953 at the age of 29. Yet he wrote the most enduring songs of almost any American songwriter, songs that have been recorded thousands of times by artists of all genres. His forte was pain: unadulterated physical and mental anguish, of which he suffered mightily. Bear Family Productions out of Germany has now released an album of 26 Hank songs by artists from Sun Records in Memphis. No Elvis, but you get Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, regional rockabilly ace Warren Smith, whose “Dear John” carries more than a hint of desperation, Sonny Burgess (“My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It”), and more on such classic fare as “Hey Good Looking,” “Cold Cold Heart,” “Your Cheating Heart,” “Jambalaya,” “You Win Again,” “I Heard That Lonesome Whistle Blow,” “There’ll Be No Teardrops Tonight,” and “I Saw The Light.” As Kris Kristofferson wrote and sang, “if you don’t like Hank Williams, you can kiss my ass.”