Rant ‘N’ Roll: Five Satisfying Listens

Pianist-vocalist Les McCann passed away on December 29, 2023 in Los Angeles at age 88. Just prior to that, on December 1, a new collection of his was released: Never A Dull Moment:  Live From Coast To Coast 1966-1967 (Resonance Records). McCann, a Kentucky native, must have smiled upon seeing the limited-edition 3-LP set for it is a beautiful package with essays by Quincy Jones, Roberta Flack (whom McCann discovered), Bonnie Raitt, and McCann himself who writes, “When my manager…told me…there were some recently uncovered recordings…I was curious…I held my breath…then I heard them and I said, `damn!.’ …I never planned for the future but when you deal from the heart, you have no fear…[this set] shows that beautifully.” From his originals to Diz to Cole Porter and more, this excavation of solid gold from the dustbin of time is a righteous satisfying listen.   

There’s a saxophonist-composer-producer in Oregon who, according to jazz bible DownBeat, “has been turning out smart, brawny music for a couple of decades.” Rich Halley recorded his 25th album with pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist Michael Bisio, and drummer Newman Taylor Baker, Fire Within (Pine Eagle Records) last July in Brooklyn. This unerring quartet, so finely attuned to each other’s every tic, improvise madly, wildly, spiraling up into the stratosphere, each on his own, while still being mindful of exactly what the other is doing. Three of the five tracks are over 12 minutes with the magnum opus closer, “Following The Stream,” clocking in at a hefty 15:48. Not one second is wasted. 

Recorded in Switzerland with Siberian pianist Julia Perminova, Venezuelan bassist Roberto Koch, Estonian drummer Janis Jaunalksnis, a woodwind trio and a string quartet, Expectations, by Russian tenor saxophonist-composer-producer-arranger Azat Bavazitov, is an absolute delight. It meanders through corridors of expressive sound, to the point where new side streets are discovered upon repeated listening. The nine tracks constitute a third album in a career that has seen Azat debut in 2014 with If You Still Trust and follow that up with some A-List New York City cats in 2019 (The Doors Are Open). From 2014-2017 Azat played with the Moscow Jazz Orchestra, but upon relocating to Manhattan, the pandemic forced him to drive an Uber to make ends meet. From the Coltrane vibe of “Stretching Out” to the bossa-bolero of “Arina,” this is a magnificent effort. 

Composer-producer Shawn Maxwell plays alto and soprano sax plus flute on his stirring and unforgettable J Town Suite (Cora Street Records). It’s a love letter to the Illinois town, Joliet – 35 miles southwest of Chicago – where he was born and raised. Add electric bassist Michael Barton, Collin Clausen on Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer, plus drummer Greg Essig and his panoply of percussion, and you’ve got one big-time adventurous listen. Dude has 12 albums, one more searching and evocative than the next. This one, though, comes from the heart. Its off-kilter ambiance seems inspired by Frank Zappa, especially the 8:16 “Fries or Rings in the Back,” but all nine originals here reek of minor-key wisdom.  

Singer-Songwriter-Guitarist Sue Foley is Live In Austin (Guitar Woman Records/Stony Plain). It’s the follow-up to her 2022 Blues Music Award-winning Pinky’s Blues for Best Traditional Blues Album. Foley’s no stranger to awards; she hit Austin running in ’91 and learned at the alter of Albert Collins and the Vaughan brothers.  Here, her band kicks, and she pulls out all the stops while rampaging on for 11 tracks of pure concert bluster. Her hot-shot electric guitar splits the night in half while screeching those original blues-rock anthems like it’s her personal playground. She also makes sure to pay tribute to Howlin’ Wolf (“Howlin’ For My Darlin’”), Memphis Minnie (“Me And My Chauffeur Blues”), and that old bluesman Bob Dylan (“Positively Fourth Street”).