Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Gorgeously Spare, Intimate New Trio Album From This Era’s Foremost Jazz Guitarist

The last time this blog was in the house at a Bill Frisell show, it was at the end of August, 2018. The iconic guitarist played that gig solo, seated in the front window of the Russ and Daughters cafe on Orchard Street. The only way to get in right before the show started was by sneaking  around the back. As you would expect, the place was so crowded that it was pretty much impossible for everybody but those in the very front to actually watch.

Frisell sized up the space and built a sonic cocoon, full of lingering poignancy and bittersweet rusticity, using his loop pedal sparingly as he built multitracks and then played over them during the set’s most hypnotic and intricate interludes. He delivers that same kind of intimate ambience on his latest album, Valentine, streaming at Spotify. Considering how prolific Frisell has been lately, it’s something of a surprise that this is his first album with his current all-star trio, bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Rudy Royston.

As usual, the material is a mix of Frisell originals and covers. He opens by reinventing Malian guitar legend Boubacar Traore’s Baba Drame as a spare, slinky blues, Morgan artfully works his way outward from starkness and then back as Royston hypnotically rides the traps, the bandleader switching up textures to loopy twinkle and then a fade down into the first of his own tunes, the atmospheric Hour Glass.

The title track is a playfully cuisinarted, strolling blues as Big Lazy (or Tal Farlow) might have done in a lighthearted moment: it gets funnier the more spare the playing becomes. The rhythm section supply the atmospherics in Levees as the bandleader evokes a hazy but restless Mississippi delta of the mind.

He sticks with a slow tremolo for the spacious, distantly haunting, chilly Winter Always Turns to Spring, Morgan a steady reminder, Royston a more ghostly presence. Keep Your Eyes Open, a somewhat wry front porch folk-tinged song without words, has some of the rhythm section’s most subtly colorful work here.

The trio strip Billy Strayhorn’s A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing to simplest, most strikingly direct terms, Morgan as spare as the bandleader, Royston contributing a skeleton of a shuffle on his snare. They go back toward the delta in Electricity: Morgan’s intricately interwoven harmonies are a clinic in imagination and good taste.

Likewise, the bassist can’t resist cowboy voicings as Frisell adds southern soul and resonant reverb riffage to Wagon Wheels, an early 30s western swing tune. He goes back to enigmatic blues tuning, shadowed by the bass and drums, in Aunt Mary, sparkling with judicious overdubs.

The trio wind up the record with a socially conscious triptych, first slowly coalescing into a reflective take of the Burt Bacharach hit What the World Needs Now Is Love. Frisell switches to acoustic for his own warmly matter-of-fact, pastoral Where Do We Go. The trio close with a 6/8 soul version of a Frisell favorite, We Shall Overcome. He’s made much darker and more intense albums than this, but none more entrancing. This isn’t big news, but you’ll see this on the best records of the year list in December, Lots of big changes coming in the months between – let’s hope we get there without everybody taking the needle of death. 

August 16, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Boubacar Traore Returns with More Hypnotic Desert Blues Magic

This is the kind of album you find at Awesome Tapes from Africa. Along with Ali Farka Toure, Boubacar Traore is one of the fathers of desert blues: now close to 70, the superstar Malian guitarist’s voice has taken on a flintier edge as the years have passed, but otherwise his playing is as hypnotically gripping as it was forty years ago when his cassettes began circulating in his native land. His latest album Mali Denhou is characteristic: sometimes brooding, sometimes warmly circling, it’s a display of minimalist intricacy that European composers struggle trying to achieve. Traore does this effortlessly, backed by spare, simple percussion and mournful chromatic harmonica, occasionally with dual acoustic guitar tracks.

Traore’s solos are typically limited to an expansive bar or two, often to signal a change or the return of a chorus: the harmonica is the lead instrument here, and it is excellent, woundedly spiraling or letting the end of a phrase trill out over the steady rotation of the guitar riff underneath. Traore sings in his native dialect, usually with the patient stoicism that characterizes Malian desert music, occasionally rising to meet the crescendo of the guitars. The album’s opening tracks feature marimba interwoven among the guitars, so seamlessly that it’s impossible to figure out who’s playing what unless you’re paying close attention. A couple of the later ones feature a lute that sounds like a higher-pitched oud, snaking through the thicket of casually intricate textures. An early track has a lullaby feel; the final one runs a warm circular motif over and over. Another hints at an upbeat 1-4-5 change, evocative of some of reggae legend Burning Spear’s simpler, more direct, African-influenced songs. There’s also a mini-epic that begins with a distinctly flamenco-tinged riff. But as with the rest of Traore’s voluminous back catalog, it’s the dusky otherworldly minor modes that deliver the most chills, and there are plenty of them, from the stately title track, an anthem in 6/8 time, to a couple of rhythmically trickier, slowly unwinding numbers, building from skeletal yet incisive hooks that essentially serve as basslines. Imagine the expanse of the desert from beyond the tent, as the sun goes down at last and a breeze breaks the spell of the heat for the first time. This is magical music from a magical player who’s been around a long time. Fans of the current crop of desert blues bands like Tinariwen or Etran Finatawa have a lot to enjoy here. It’s out now on the adventurous French Lusafrica label.

May 3, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Rough Guide to Blues Revival

Every now and then we all go to a concert where the opening act blows the headliner off the stage. This is the cd equivalent of that experience. Forget for a moment that this is titled the Rough Guide to Blues Revival (a dubious concept from the get-go): what’s most exciting here is the free bonus cd by 40-year-old Malian bluesman Samba Toure, a protege of Ali Farka Toure. In a particularly smart marketing move, the compilers decided to sweeten the deal by including it in the package at no extra charge, and for fans of the desert blues pantheon (think Tinariwen, Boubacar Traore, Vieux Farka Toure et al.) it’s a treat, ten sun-baked, trance-inducing tracks of eerily snaking guitar enhanced by fiddle, bass and percussion. By comparison to his mentor (no relation), Samba Toure delivers his vocals in a low, growling style in his native dialect.

 

Stylistically, Malian desert blues most closely resembles the Mississippi hill country style with few if any chord changes, instead building dynamically with a typically hypnotic feel. To call this stuff blues is sometimes a stretch, although Ali Farka Toure was influenced by American electric guitarists, an effect that translates to a certain extent here. Here, the instruments swirl and whirl around each other, stark sheets of fiddle mingling with the staccato ring of the guitars, the occasional flight of a flute line and the ever-present, persistent eight-note beat of the percussion. One of the tracks is happy, upbeat, tersely produced Afrobeat pop; otherwise, the songs aptly evoke the “cameraderie of the cigarette,” as Tinariwen’s Ibrahim Ag Alhabib has characterized the casual but impoverished nomadic milieu, passing a single smoke around a circle of conversation. The best cut here is the last, Foda Diakaina (called an instrumental but it’s not), dizzying flute spinning around the guitar, bass eventually climbing to the heights with the rest of the band.

 

As far as the rest of the anthology goes, the selections here seem absolutely random, like the kind of cd that you find at the counter at the druggist or off-license for a fiver or less. For apparently no rhyme or reason (other than the label telling the compilers that if they want the rights to the hit, they’ll have to also take a couple of duds along with it to seal the deal), this mixes choice cuts by the Blind Boys of Alabama (You Gotta Move rearranged gospel-style), a quiet, Hendrix-inspired number by Deborah Coleman and tracks by Irma Thomas and Shemekia Copeland along with possibly well-intentioned but ultimately cold, cliched, stale stuff by baby boomer faves like Robben Ford, Eric Bibb, and Kim Simmonds & Savoy Brown. There’s also some more recent material including an utterly bizarre Pipeline ripoff by CC Adcock. The cd is out now worldwide except for the UK where it will be available May 5.

April 22, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment