[republished from Lucid Culture’s sister blog New York Music Daily]
You don’t ordinarily expect octogenarians to make great albums. If they do, they usually revisit their earlier work, a victory lap. Count Ernest Ranglin among the rare exceptions. The greatest guitarist ever to come out of Jamaica has a new album, Bless Up (streaming online), which is one of his best, and he’s made a whole bunch of them. It’s has a lot more straight-up reggae than the elegant reggae jazz he’s known for (and basically invented all by himself). It also has a more lush, full sound than his previous album, Avila. That one was recorded on the fly during a break from a reggae festival; this one has more tunesmithing than vamping jams, drawing on the seven decades of Jamaican music that in many ways Ranglin has defined.
Organ – played by either Jonathan Korty or Eric Levy – holds the center on many of the tracks here, Ranglin adding judicious solos, alternating between his signature, just-short-of-unhinged tremolo-picked chords, sinewy harmonies with the keys, nimbly fluttering leaps to the high frets and references to the better part of a century’s worth of jazz guitar. The songs transcend simple, rootsy two-chord vamps. Darkly majestic, emphatic minor-key horn arrangements evocative of mid-70s Burning Spear carry the melody on several of the numbers: Bond Street Express, the opening tune; Jones Pen, which recreates the classic 60s Skatalites sound but with digital production values; and Rock Me Steady, the most dub-flavored track, driven by some neat trap drumming.
Mystic Blue evokes both the Burning Spear classic Man in the Hills and the Cure’s Boys Don’t Cry. The bubbly Sivan also sounds like Jah Spear, but from a decade or so later. The title track is a swing tune, more or less, Ranglin’s upstroke guitar over a close-to-the-ground snare-and-kick groove giving away its Caribbean origins. Likewise, the band mutates the bolero El Mescalero with a distinctly Jamaican beat that adds a surreal dimension of fun tempered by an unexpectedly desolate Charlie Wilson trombone solo.
Ranglin plays with a deeper, more resonant tone – and a shout-out to Wes Montgomery – on Follow On. Blues for a Hip King works a stately gospel groove up to a long, organ-fueled crescendo that contrasts with Ranglin’s spare, incisive lines. Ska Renzo, the most straight-up ska tune here, works all kinds of neat up/down shifts with reverb-toned melodica, carbonated Rhodes piano and a sharpshooter horn riff. You Too starts out like a balmy Marley ballad but quickly goes in a darker direction, Michael Peloquin’s restless tenor sax giving way to tersely moody solos from trombone and piano, Yossi Fine’s bass holding it down with a fat pulse. There’s also a pretty trad version of the jazz standard Good Friends and the simple gospel vamp Bra Joe from Kilimanjaro, reprised at the end as a long Grateful Dead-like jam. Clearly Jimmy Cliff’s longtime musical director in the years after The Harder They Come hasn’t lost a step since then.
Mexican singer Magos Herrera reaffirmed her presence as one of the most eclectically compelling singers in any idiom in an intimate duo performance with guitarist Javier Limon for media and a select group of friends at a Chelsea gallery Thursday night. Her previous album Mexico Azul celebrated the African roots of much of Mexican music and culture. Dawn, her new collaboration with Limon, she said, made the connection between Mexico and Spain seem “perfectly natural,” a rather brave assertion for someone whose career has advocated so strongly for the people of her native land. But it’s a quietly stunning move for her: throughout an all-too-brief, set, she and Limon enjoyed a casual chemistry but also an intense focus and commitment to finding the most subtle shades in the music.
Herrera sang in her signature, minutely jeweled contralto until finally going way up, further than you would expect someone with such command of her low register would be able to. Limon played sparingly and judiciously, letting his phrases breathe, matching the singer’s penchant for not wasting notes, which made his occasional flamencoesque flurry all the more intense. They opened the set with a syncopated tango of sorts, Herrera’s delivery managing to be both misty and disarmingly direct at once. Then they reinvented Skylark as a richly suspenseful, spaciously contemplative mood piece with hints of both flamenco and Andalucian music.
Throughout the rest of the set, Limon would sometimes shadow the vocals, following Herrera’s crescendoing, upward ascents with his own. On occasion, he’d light up a slowly swaying theme with a sputtering crescendo much in the way that Herrera would add gracefully scatting accents to bring a chorus to a gentle peak, singing in both Spanish and English. This approach maintained the flamenco influence without the cliches that so many acts who didn’t grow up with the music employ for over-the-top affect. They ended with a number that began with a rainy-day theme that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Sade catalog and then took it out almost as a march, with a series of hypnotically shifting vamps.
And speaking of Sade, there’s been a void where that singer once reigned as the queen of artsy, sophisticated romantic chanteuses. Which would give Herrera room to take over that role, if she wanted. Obviously, she might find that limiting: she’s a more subtle and diverse singer than Sade, and her interests run far beyond romantic balladry. But she’s got the torchy delivery, plaintiveness and sense of longing. What if Herrera – or someone like her – decided to take the Mexican bolero and reinvent it as American torch song? Wouldn’t it be cool if the default boudoir music of the west was a style refined and brought to its pinnacle by Mexicans? Forget about Obama’s lip service about immigration reform: there are an awful lot of places in this country where Mexican-Americans are under fire. What a pleasant and subtle way to fight back against all that repulsiveness – and to jumpstart the reconquista. Just a thought…
[Editor’s note – when New York Music Daily spun off from this blog, they took the rock and reggae and most of the global sounds with them….and also just about everything that falls under the rubric of noir music. So they took this one too. Once in awhile we’ll throw them something jazzy – today they’re throwing this repost back to us.]
Does it make sense to try to listen to a jazz homage out of context, or – in the case of this particular album – is it inseparable from the its legendary predecessor? Would it be fair to call this homage the best album of the year? Lebanese/French trumpeter/composer Ibrahim Maalouf’s brilliant new new score to the 1927 Rene Clair silent film La Proie Du Vent (Prey to the Wind) takes it its inspiration from Miles Davis’ immortal noir soundtrack to the 1958 Louis Malle film Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud (Elevator to the Gallows). Maalouf follows the architecture of the Miles record, but not sequentially. As Davis did, when Maalouf gets the chance, he focuses in hard on lighter moments, both to offset and accentuate the relentless darkness of the rest of the soundtrack.
Davis recorded his album haphazardly in a couple of days in a Paris studio with a pickup band, employing the same modal system used for the improvisations on Kind of Blue, with equally powerful results. Maalouf recorded this one in a couple of days in a New York studio, but carefully chose the players – pianist Frank Woeste, tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Clarence Penn – since he felt they’d be comfortable with his use of Middle Eastern scales. The Miles record is drenched in reverb, added post-production; Maalouf’s production is as airy and sometimes arid as the film would seem to suggest. Overall, the effect of both albums is the same, an unrelenting unease foreshadowing imminent doom despite all distractions to the contrary. Together and separately, both are classics of the noir pantheon.
Woeste’s icy, Ran Blake-esque flourish introducing Maalouf’s resonant lines over Grenadier’s tersely staggeried syncopation immediately establishes the claustrophobic atmosphere that will resound crushingly throughout most of the score. Clear as this recording is, it feels as if the band is playing from behind a wall, Maalouf tentatively reaching upwards just as Davis did with his title theme. Davis offered temporary reprieves with bass solos, chase scenes and convivial, conspiratorial interludes; Maalouf employs the latter but none of the former, choosing to liven his own score with reggae and clave. But while the latin groove motors along comfortably and expansively, the reggae all too soon gives way to a crypto-waltz, ushering in the somber main theme.
To call the rest of this album Lynchian would be ironic, considering that David Lynch and his frequent soundtrack collaborator Angelo Badalamenti – and others – have drawn so heavily on Miles Davis. Maalouf matches Davis’ restraint, even though he often digresses into Middle Eastern modalites, which the supporting cast let resonate from a distance, leaving plenty of room for the trumpet’s eerie microtones. Yet Maalouf’s attack doesn’t mimic Davis, as the themes build with an expansive, sometimes breathy, sometimes ironic balminess. Turner often plays good cop to Maalouf’s brooding bad one, working the dichotomy for all it’s worth on the aptly titled Excitement, soaring over the band’s uneven pulse before Maalouf takes it down into shadowy noir cabaret. The final three tableaux – chillingly tense variations on a Gallic ballad, a morose wee-hours nocturne and the suspenseful closing theme, propelled by Penn’s judicious hitman tom-tom work – drive this masterpiece home through the mist with a quietly determined wallop. It’s out now from Harmonia Mundi; and here’s an enticing clip of Suspicions, one of the score’s most chilling interludes.
From their name, you’d think that Ted Hefko and the Thousandaires’ ambitions would be modest, and in a sense you’d be right: they’re there to serenade you casually rather than indulge in anything decadent. Frontman/tenor saxophonist Hefko sings with a deadpan, laconic, sometimes hangdog drawl over a generally laid-back, soulful backdrop provided by trumpeter Satoru Ohashi, guitarist Luca Benedetti, bassist Scott Ritchie and drummer Moses Patrou. Stylistically, they walk the line between blues, vintage 60s soul, country and jazz, often all at once, Hefko working the same kind of wryly clever, subtext-fueled lyrical vibe as Dan Hicks, or the Squirrel Nut Zippers in a mellow moment. Their album If I Walked on Water makes a welcome break from the legions of hot jazz combos blasting their way through one upbeat number after another: it draws you in rather than hitting you over the head.
They open as jaunty as they get, but with a wary minor-key cha-cha groove lit up by a stinging Benedetti guitar solo and a similarly apprehensive clarinet solo from Hefko. The second track, It’s Cold In Here is a jump blues, but a midtempo one, slinking along on Patron’s warmly tuneful piano. “The idea of lonely is getting lost in the crowd,” Hefko intones on the oldschool soul/funk number You’ve Gotta Take Steps. An electrified country blues done early 50s style with a clanging, period-perfect Benedetti solo, Color Me Blue has Hefko punning his way through; “Purple heart for bravery, red badge of courage makes you green with envy.”
The standout track here is Greyhound Coach, a gorgeously bittersweet countrypolitan swing tune, Hefko adding an absolutely morose solo over guest Neil Thomas’ accordion. But it ends well: “Picking up the pieces when this winter ceases,” Hefko insists, going out with a flourish from the sax. Likewise, Trust My Gut – a long life-on-the-road narrative – blends vintage soul with a sophisticated Willie Nelson-ish country vibe. This Song Won’t Sound the Same shuffles along with a downcast matter-of-factness, picking up with a soulful muted solo from Ohashi and then Hefko taking it out with a crescendo. The last song here, Get on the Train and Ride is typical of the songs here in that Hefko chooses his spots and makes them count: there’s the LIRR, and the Harlem line, and the Path…and the dreaded 3 AM trash train crawling through the subway. “You wanna get on and ride,” Hefko adds: no snarl, no sneer, just the basic facts, and he lets them speak for themselves. The album winds up with a pensive instrumental, You Took Away the Best Part, featuring some clever allusions to a couple of standards and a memorably misty Hefko tenor solo. Ted Hefko and the Thousandaires play a lot of gigs around town: this Sunday the 19th they play the jazz brunch at half past noon at the Antique Garage at 41 Mercer St.; on the 29th they’re at LIC Bar at 10.
Bassist Yossi Fine asserts that Ernest Ranglin is the world’s greatest living guitarist. And why not? Ranglin might not have singlehandedly invented reggae, but he was there in the studio the day that Skatalites drummer Lloyd Knibb came up with the one-drop. And he most certainly invented reggae jazz. Since then, Jamaica’s preeminent guitarist has made a career out of many other first-ever moments (including Bob Marley’s first studio session). One function of always seeming to pop up at the right place is that Ranglin is always on the road, the consummate live musician. As a result, much of his solo catalog has been recorded on the fly (and sounds that way, for better or for worse), as is the case with his new album Avila, recorded to dovetail with a one-off California reggae festival gig. It’s a throwback to Ranglin’s late 70s instrumental sessions as bandleader: backing the guitarist, and pretty much staying chill and out of the way, are Fine, plus the Mickey Hart Band’s Ian Inx Herman on drums, Jonathan Korty on piano and keyboards plus trumpeter Ryan Scott and saxophonist Alex Baky of the Monophonics.
It’s hard to believe that Ranglin will turn eighty this year, considering how fast and precise his fingers are on the fretboard after all these years. This is a particularly joyous session, a mix of originals plus inspired takes of compositions brought in by individual band members. Bookending those songs are a pulsing versions of Abdullah Ibrahim’s Manenberg and Return to Manenberg, full of good-natured call-and-response between Korty’s piano and Ranglin’s playful, bouncy pointillisms. Ranglin’s rhythmically tricky Memories of Senegal works a circular West African riff on the bass, the guitar’s modal waves strikingly evocative of Jerry Garcia at the top of his game during the 80s. Ernossi, a reggae jazz homage by Fine, gradually grows from an easygoing, funky organ-fueled sway as Ranglin adds an insistent staccato bite alternating with gently ascending runs. Ranglin’s own Ska Rango also follows a carefree arc up, down and back again, from ringing, sustained chords to a casually swing lit up with the occasional slithery filigree, quicksilver descending run, or the fluttering, rapidfire flourishes that have come to define Ranglin’s work as a jazz musician.
The unexpectedly wary Uncle Funky, by Korty contrasts pensive Wes Montgomeryisms, voodoo staccato and watery Leslie speaker tonalities over an echoey Rhodes piano groove. The other Ranglin composition here, Swaziland, kicks off with an insistent minor-key horn chorus that the guitarist follows with a characteristically expansive, thoughful solo, big bright chords mingling with biting single-note phrases. The album’s title track, by producer Tony Mindel brings back the mellowness, Ranglin once again reaching into his bottomless bag of island jazz riffs, warmly and judiciously. This isn’t heavy, intense music by a long shot: it’s a good-time collection of smart grooves and terse playing, a perfect soundtrack for the end of summer. It’s a worthwhile addition alongside the literally hundreds of good albums that Ranglin has played on.
If anybody at the Rockwood Tuesday night had any hope of seeing a sedate, relaxing show, that hope was dashed by the time Gypsophilia launched into third number. Because of the French connection, gypsy jazz is big in Canada and not just in Quebec. Gypsophilia hail from the impressively eclectic musical hotbed of Halifax and played an exhilarating set that transcended the limitations of the genre: it wasn’t anything closely resembling by-the-book Django covers. Their first jauntily shuffling couple of tunes only hinted at the wildness to come, trumpeter Matt Myer, violinist Gina Burgess – who is this band’s not-so-secret weapon – and fast, fluid electric guitarist Alec Frith trading tastefully edgy solos. Then they switched it up with a song introduced by guitarist Ross Burns as “Jewish party music,” and that it was, stately and suspenseful like a hora until it took flight on the wings of Burgess’ soaring chromatics, Burns leaping from the stage and breakdancing in front of the audience as the band turned it into ska. They followed that with a plaintive, wistful minor-key ballad by Burns set at the corner of Agricola and Sarah Streets in Halifax (north and just down the hill from the Halifax Common – there’s a pizza place there that’s reputedly excellent) on a snowy evening, two lovers deciding whether to part or go off together. Frith took the opportunity to reach back for some extra poignancy as Burns and second rhythm guitarist Nick Wilkinson held the sadness in check, then handing it over elegantly to the trumpet.
They got the crowd clapping along for the rest of the night with suspenseful, rubato interludes fueled by Adam Fine’s bass bowing, hi-de-ho gypsy taqsims, endless handoffs between soloists as the energy went higher and higher. “The violin just kicked the trumpet’s ass,” laughed the doorman: maybe he didn’t realize that was intentional, simply one step closer to pure ecstasy. An unexpectedly funky tune by Fine inspired by hearing a Kool & the Gang song blasting from a passing van featured a sweet trumpet solo and Burns playing along, tongue-in-cheek, on triangle. He switched to a hand drum that he rubbed for an amazingly melodic solo on a Super Bowl song that went on and on, biting minor keys alternated with unabashed buffoonery. They closed with a rugby song based on a hymn, reinvented as gypsy jazz. They’ve got chops to rival their imagination and are currently on US tour: if gypsy jazz is your thing and they’re coming to your town, don’t miss them.
Brian Charette’s an interesting guy. He practices an unorthodox style of kung fu; he writes authoritatively on topics like chord voicings in Messiaen; and he plays the Hammond B3 organ like no other jazz musician. That might be because he was on the fast track to a career in classical music before being sidelined by a severe finger injury. So he went into jazz, and the world is richer for it. Charette employs every inch of his B3 for an unexpectedly diverse, rich sonic spectrum. His compositions are counterintuitive, catchy and clever, but not too clever by half. His latest album, Music for Organ Sextette is cerebral and witty, packed with good tunes and good ideas: it shifts the paradigm as far as carving out a place for the organ in jazz is concerned. The band here is superb and rises to the occasion, with John Ellis taking a turn on bass clarinet, Jay Collins on flute, Joel Frahm on tenor, Mike DiRubbo on alto and Jochen Rueckert on drums.
Bright and ambitious, the opening track, Computer God sets the tone, the organ against punchy punctuation from ensemble horns over a bossa beat that morphs into a vivid dichotomy between wicked chromatic chorus and a tricky, circular, riff-driven verse. Charette’s use of the organ’s highest, most keening tones, along with DiRubbo’s occasional diversion into microtones, adds edge and bite. They follow that with a miniature straight out of Scarlatti, Fugue for Katheleen Anne, and then into the Ex Girlfriend Variations, who if the music is to be believed is a nice girl but she just won’t shut up. It’s a soul song, essentially, building to a nimbly orchestrated thicket of individual voices and New Orleans allusions that threaten to completely fall apart but never do. A study in incessant tempo shifts, Risk disguises a soul/blues tune within all kinds of hijinks: a coy fake fanfare from Frahm, an unselfconscious yelp from Charette and an irresistibly amusing trick ending. The funniest track here is The Elvira Pacifier, a spot-on parody of a device that every Jamaican roots reggae band always overdoes in concert. It gives Rueckert the chance to prove he’s a mighty one-drop player; Frahm acquits himself well at ska, but DiRubbo and Ellis don’t take it seriously at all. As they probably shouldn’t.
Equal Opportunity offers a launching pad for all kinds of dynamic contrasts: shifting use of space, lead-ins stepping all over outros, whispery lows versus blithe highs, Charette and DiRubbo using every inch of their registers. Prayer for an Agnostic proves the band just as adept at a slow, sweet 6/8 gospel groove, lit up by a spiraling Collins solo; Late Night TV explores a wry, sometimes tongue-in-cheek go-go vibe and then hits unexpectedly joyous heights. French Birds, a slyly polyrhythmic swing tune, features all kinds of nimble accents from Rueckert and reaches for noir ambience, followed by the creepiest track here, Mode for Sean Wayland, jagged funk juxtaposed against eerie, otherworldly interludes that make psychedelia out of big Messiaenesque block chords. The album ends with Tambourine, the album’s one funky “Chicken Shack” moment that takes a jaunty turn in a Booker T direction. It’s a fun ride, and will make new believers of jazz fans who might mistakenly think that all B3 grooves are created equal.
Fans of roots reggae might have wondered what happened to I-Wayne, who burst on the scene back in 2005 with the hit Can’t Satisfy Her, from his album Lava Ground. He hasn’t been idle. At a revealing private performance for media late last month, he revealed that one way he gets inspiration for songs is to take a walk on Port Henderson Hill in his native Portmore, Jamaica, an area packed with history: the eras of Sir Francis Drake, the holocaust of the slave trade, the struggle for Jamaican independence and then of the Rastas have been interwoven over the centuries there. It’s fertile territory for deep thinking, which is what I-Wayne offers on his long-awaited new album Life Teachings. This guy is a serious artist – relevant without being preachy, romantic without being saccharine, he combines the confrontational, politically-charged fire of, say, an Anthony B with the easygoing spirituality and charm of Luciano. If those artists go back a few years, so does the vibe on the album: it’s real roots reggae, with a band, and real bass and drums, recorded in the same clean, efficient style as a Dr. Dread production from around the turn of the century. It’s out now on VP, the folks behind the Strictly the Best compilations for what seems about a century.
At the concert, a popular New York reggae dj marveled at how she thought that the first track, Burn Down Soddom (an original) meant that the album was going to be “all Rasta”- but then she was completely taken in by the ballads, “something nice and romantic, that a guy can sing to his girl,” she explained. No doubt she also liked I-Wayne’s soaring falsetto – he goes way, way up, further than Dennis Brown sometimes, into Al Green or Philip Bailey territory. As much as those songs, like Real and Clean – a plea to keep things down-to-earth – or Empress Divine, or Pure As the Nile work a catchy boudoir angle, the real gems here are the more in-your-face tracks.
It takes awhile for these to make an appearance here. Burn Down Soddom has to be the most laid-back incitation to arson ever recorded, with a woozy, lengthy dub passage. Herb Fi Legalize is the obligatory weed smoker’s anthem, a peaceful tribute to the healing herb that contrasts with The Fire Song, a no-nonsense, straightforward dancehall duet with Assasin to “get rid of dem thoroughly, burn burn dem no apology.” But Drugs and Rum Vibes is a surprisingly plaintive stoners-vs.-drunks narrative, cynically referencing the the CIA’s role in the illegal drug trade while alcohol-fueled violence kills thousands more.
Wise and Fearless is a message to the youth to understand how a cycle of violence can keep an evil, illegitimatepower structure in place. After all, di wicked aren’t about to Change Them Ways, as I-Wayne makes clear on the next track, an unselfconsciously gorgeous tune that contrasts with its grim lyrics. The title track is a casually amusing polemic in support of a vegan lifestyle (with plenty of ganja). The album ends on a surprisingly brooding but potent note with Do the Good, a seize-the-day meditation since there may be no tomorrow, and “plastic man dem fake like dem love ya…but dem blood ya.”
As we do pretty much every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album was #469:
Tommy McCook & the Supersonics – Pleasure Dub
After Skatalites trombonist Don Drummond murdered his girlfriend, tenor sax player McCook broke up the band and went to work playing his soulful, spacious style on innumerable late 60s rocksteady hits for Jamaican producer Duke Reid. This 2009 compilation collects mostly instrumental versions of a whole bunch of them, sans the sometimes cloying lyrics or vocals. As dub, it’s pretty primitive: as grooves, most of this is unsurpassed. The chirpy organ behind John Holt comes front and center on Tracking Dub; another John Holt cut, Love Dub is much the same. There’s the surprisingly lush Dub with Strings; Prince Francis’ Side Walk Doctor; the punchy Ride De Dub; the big hit Bond Street Rock; the cinematic 7-11; and the scurrying Twilight Rock and Many Questions among the 18 slinky one-drop vamps here. Here’s a random torrent via Sixties Fever.
Nation Beat’s new album Growing Stone is a potent reminder why New York has, despite all attempts to whitewash it, remained such a great cauldron for new music. This band is absolutely impossible to categorize – there is no other group who sound remotely like Nation Beat. Willie Nelson is a fan (he booked them at Farm Aid). With the improvisational flair of a jam band, the danceable vibe of a Brazilian maracatu drumline and the soul of a country band, what they play is first and foremost dance music. If you took Poi Dog Pondering – a good jam band from another generation – subtracted the bluegrass and replaced it with Brazilian flavor, you’d have a fair if not completely accurate approximation of what Nation Beat sound like. They’re sunny and upbeat but also pretty intense.
With its hip-hop beat and Mark Marshall’s wah guitar harmonizing with the violin, the opening track sets the stage for the rest of this incredibly eclectic record. The second track, Bicu de Lambu sets sunbaked slide guitar over Rob Curto’s accordion for a zydeco/country feel with blippy bass and bandleader Scott Kettner’s rolling surf drums. Meu Girassol is the Duke Ellington classic Caravan redone as eerily off-kilter, guitar-driven Afrobeat bubbling over guest Cyro Baptista’s percussion, followed by a briskly cheery horn-driven forro-ska number.
With its soaring fiddles and Memphis soul guitar, the bouncy, swaying title track is a showcase for frontwoman Liliana Araujo’s laid-back but raw, down-to-earth vocals – and is that a Dixie quote? Forro for Salu has a rustic Brazilian string band vibe with the twin fiddles of Skye Steele and Dennis Lichtman over Kettner’s rumbling, hypnotic percussion. They follow that with a summery soca-flavored tune and then a reggae song that goes sprinting into ska. The rest of the album blends bouncy forro, ecstatic New Orleans second-line sounds, retro 20s blues, rocksteady, vintage 60s funk and swaying oldschool C&W and and makes it all seem effortless. It’s out now on similarly eclectic Brooklyn label Barbes Records.