[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.
Believe the hype: Wes Montgomery’s Echoes of Indiana Avenue, due out on March 6 from Resonance, is major. For one, this recently unearthed collection comprises the guitar legend’s earliest known studio and stage recordings, dating as far back as 1957 (and whose master tapes were originally discovered on ebay). To this date, Montgomery’s fingerprints are all over virtually every subsequent guitar jazz recording, a legacy that this album quietly but powerfully affirms. It’s amazing how fully formed his voice was by this time, playing with tight and surprisingly eclectic bands from his hometown of Indianapolis featuring his brothers Buddy on piano and Monk on electric bass, plus Melvin Rhyne on piano and organ, Mingo Jones on bass and either Sonny Johnson or Paul Parker on drums. The performances here transcend the slightly muddy, mono sonics (which have obviously been subjected to a thorough scrubbing). As you would expect from what’s essentially a collection of demos, most of the songs are standards that conceivably would have appealed to that era’s jazz label executives; as might also be expected, the single most eye-popping track is a blues jam that Montgomery punches into with a stunningly invigorating T-Bone Walker-inflected attack. Not what you might expect from someone typically associated with genteel urbanity.
The tiptoeing intro to Diablo’s Dance gives no indication of the confidently spiraling solo that Montgomery builds to, capping it off by interjecting some casually biting chords within Rhyne’s elegant, flutelike piano lines. Round Midnight gets a surprisingly dark, expansive, slowly swaying interpretation with Rhyne on organ – the artful way the guitar shifts octaves on the outro transcends any “octave thing” shtick that Dan Morgenstern’s liner notes mention. The staccato swing of Straight No Chaser features a memorably heated exchange of ideas with Montgomery’s bass-playing brother, while Nica’s Dream, with its pulsing bolero tinges, has Montgomery veering from juicy, biting chords to wary horn voicings.
The organ ballad version of Darn That Dream has a warmly bluesy, cognac-infused wee-hours ambience; the sound quality diminishes appreciably on an otherwise entertainingly animated postbop live concert version of Take the A Train, Montgomery pushing pianist Earl Van Riper, who pushes back just as vigorously. Misty reverts to late-night gin joint mode; Body and Soul gets reinvented as syncopated, practically atonal postbop; and then there’s that slowly sizzling blues jam. Were some of Montgomery’s albums, especially toward the end, poorly conceived and carelessly produced? No question. This, thankfully, isn’t one of them. If you’re a fan, get this; if you’re not a fan, this is a tremendously revealing and soulful mix of important historical work from an iconic artist.
If you like 80s music, jazz, and/or watery guitar with the occasional touch of twang and reverb, this is for you. The Mattson 2’s latest album Feeling Hands blends elements of 80s Britpop, classic jazz guitar and surf music into a coolly energetic instrumental rock style that’s uniquely their own. Guitarist/bassist Jared Mattson sometimes evokes the frenetic, jazzy virtuosity of Paul Cavanagh, of 80s cult heros The Room; drummer Jonathan Mattson shifts effortlessly from surf rumble to 80s bounce to more intricate, cerebral patterns.
The album opens with Pleasure Point, a twangy sci-fi instrumental that adds an 80s edge to classic Shadows-style surf. With its simple, catchy chorus-box guitar hooks, Black Rain wouldn’t be out of place on a New Order album circa 1985. Ode to Lou (Lou Donaldson, maybe?) matches blithe Wes Montgomery-ish guitar to David Boyce’s fluttery but balmy tenor sax. They take a spacious, almost rubato Bill Frisell style noir Americana theme and follow it with a clangy variation that goes in a jazzy mid-80s Britpop direction… with a 70s soul string chart!
Mexican Synth is not particularly Mexican: it’s more like George Benson goes to Manchester. Guest Ray Barbee delivers a long, absolutely sensational, casually savage guitar solo on Chi Nine, Jared Mattson’s furious righthand attack shadowing him. When the strings come in, it’s something of a relief from all the wild intensity. Give Inski’s (what’s up with these titles, huh?) vamps on the opening chords of the Police’s Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic: essentially, it’s a funk tune done in straight-up 4/4. There’s also the surf jazz number Obvious Crutch, judicious verse alternating with intense chorus, and Man from Anamnensis, opening with a minimalist, early 80s style new wave hook and builds from there, like the Mighty Lemon Drops gone to the Newport Festival. Fans of all the aforementioned artists ought to check this out. It’s out now from Galaxia.
Maybe because today is a grade A grey day (to steal a line out of the Wade Schuman songbook), albums like jazz guitarist Tomas Janzon’s new one, Experiences, sound expecially good. Case in point: Jimmy Van Heusen’s Here’s That Rainy Day, which opens it. His raindrop approach is just understated enough to avoid being obvious. Janzon is well-known in Sweden; this seems to be an attempt to broaden his horizons outside his native land, and it ought to work. He takes a smart, laid-back, purist approach: Wes Montgomery is the obvious influence, but only one of many. His band is choice. Legendary Coltrane drummer Tootie Heath, in uncannily subtle mode, absolutely owns this album, coloring the songs with a quiet deviousness that sometimes spills over into unrestrained glee, alongside fellow veteran Art Hillery on piano and organ and Herbie Hancock sideman Jeff Littleton on bass.
Dave Brubeck’s Mr. Broadway gets a devious, somewhat furtive organ-and-guitar treatment, playing up its tongue-in-cheek humor even more than the original. Heath carries The Float, an original, alternating between an artful jazz waltz shuffle and cymbal-driven atmospherics, later enjoying a sly conversation with Littleton when the bass solos. A pretty Swedish folk song gets a treatment that’s part Wes and part McCartney, with a brief, solo live reprise at the end of the album. Moanin’ gives a quick nod to Jerry Garcia, Janzon’s warmly soul-tinged lines over Hillery’s staccato chords and Heath’s winking, on-and-off shuffle.
Yet another jazz waltz, Montgomery’s Full House, as Janzon wryly alludes in the liner notes, “adds nothing” to the original, but it’s inspired and true to form nonetheless. There’s also the pensively shuffling original Blue Bee; spiky, impressively spacious versions of Billie’s Bounce and Polka Dots and Moonbeams, and a terse, purist, bluesy cover of Jimmy Smith’s Messin’ Around. American guitar jazz fans should check out this guy stateside when he’s not in his dear old Stockholm.
The vibraphone has a hard time escaping its associations: you hear it, and you think real neon, and tail fins, and scotch on the rocks – or you think noir. Or you might confuse it with a Fender Rhodes. On his new album Steppe Forward, jazz vibraphonist Ted Piltzecker evokes all three, but he also adds his own ingenuity. The band here includes Sam Dillon on saxophones, Nick Llerandi on guitar, Mike Kujawski on bass, Rogerio Boccato on percussion and Jerad Lippi on drums.
The title track works a breezy circular theme that hints at Middle Eastern-tinged apprehension, with neatly interlocking acoustic guitar and vibes. Flight Following is a carefree dance with swaying, energetic alto and gritty acoustic guitar, evoking early Spyro Gyra in the days before they were played in elevators. A slow 6/8 soul/blues ballad with a vintage 50s feel, He Sent an Angel has Piltzecker’s tersely chordal piano pulling the song back from a clever 4/4 interlude. Their version of Wes Montgomery’s Nica’s Dream has an understated swing, with solo spots for incisive soprano sax and expansively spiky guitar. The real gem here is Kalunga, an ominously modal bossa number, matter-of-fact yet otherworldly. The bluesy ballad Why So Long has Dillon alternating fluid 8th-note runs with balmy ambience, followed by a dreamy Piltzecker solo. The album winds up with the lickety-split Reunion Blues, bass taking it unexpectedly halfspeed and then back, the band revving it up and out from there with gusto. Yet further proof that some of the most original and interesting jazz out there lies somewhere beyond the confines of the big city club circuit.
Fabrizio Sotti may be best known as a producer, someone who’s worked with hip-hop luminaries like Dead Prez, Ghostface Killah and reggae toaster Half Pint (and also some who are less than luminary). He’s also a thoughtful, stylistically diverse jazz guitarist. What he seems to be going for on his latest album Inner Dance is an update on the expansively playful vibe of those Wes Montgomery/Jimmy Smith albums from the 60s. This is a feel-good story in more ways than one: halfway through recording, Sotti’s hard drive died and he lost everything (yet another argument for the benefits of two-inch tape). And he also lost the services of bassist James Genus, who’d played on the original tracks but whose schedule had become too busy to accommodate further recording. So Sotti brought in B3 organist Sam Barsh, and suddenly they had a new vibe to work with. What they ended up with is actually a very 80s sounding album – but 80s in a good way. Sotti frequently utilizes a watery chorus-box tone, Barsh alternating between tasteful atmospherics and good-natured exuberance. Victor Jones handles the drum work with a crafty understatement, with Mino Cinelu taking over the throne on the title track.
They open with a gently purposeful swing blues, and then the acoustic guitar ballad Kindness in Your Eyes, Sotti negotiating his way through it nimbly, with some nifty tremolo-picking over atmospheric waves of organ. They segue into the title track: finally Sotti kicks into gear with a very Wes solo after an interminable one by guest harmonica player Gregoire Maret, then segue out and pick up the pace with I Thought So, a showcase for fluidly dancing, staccato fretwork and bubbly, classically-tinged arpeggiation by Barsh. Amanecer, a cowrite with brilliant Chilean soul/jazz chanteuse Claudia Acuña (who also sings on the track) has an aptly hushed beauty, Sotti’s flights up and down the scale midway through the song wisely and poignantly restrained. A Michael Brecker homage, Brief Talk actually more closely resembles the blue-sky ambience that Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays were mining circa As Falls Wichita. Then they pick up the pace with the best of the upbeat numbers here, Last Chance, offer a tribute to Monk with the swinging, artfully voiced Mr. T.M. and close with a brief, ruminative nylon-string solo vignette. When he’s not behind the board, Sotti is sought after as a sideman: one listen to this album and the reason for his popularity becomes clear.
Just for the record, this is not the same band formerly known as the Jon Spencer Musette Explosion. Instead, it’s accordionist Will Holshouser and guitarist Matt Munisteri (half of Munisteri’s superb vocal jazz outfit Brock Mumford), along with some kind of rhythm, usually tuba player Marcus Rojas, but tonight they had a killer upright bassist instead, playing all kinds of gorgeous broken chords, slides and even mimicking a Munisteri solo at one point.
Musette Explosion and the Barbes house band, Chicha Libre, each play a style of indigenous accordion music which was revolutionized when blended with the American pop music of its era. In the case of Chicha Libre, the essential liquor was Peruvian cumbia (pronounced KOOM-bee-a, not kumbaya) dance music, mixed with 60s American surf and psychedelia and played on electronic instruments. Musette Explosion play blue-collar French and Belgian barroom music from the 30s and 40s; its catalyzing element was swing jazz. It’s richly melodic, intensely emotional music, requiring not only great chops but also an intense emotional sensibility to play it as it was meant to be done. The trio onstage tonight alternated between two types of musette: bouncy, upbeat dance numbers and wrenchingly beautiful laments in waltz time. Not to flog a dead horse, but it never ceases to amaze how good the shows are in the tiny back room at this club – and though there’s always a good turnout, it’s not hard to fill the space. There should have been a line around the block for this one, it was that spectacular, especially considering how popular gypsy music has become.
Holshouser got the enviable job of playing the lead instrument on a mix of vintage tunes by accordionists Gus Viseur, Jo Privat and Tony Murena, in addition to at least one original, with the tongue-in-cheek title Chanson Pop. “We have no idea why it has that title,” he deadpanned, echoing a joke which had been bouncing around between the band all night long – this band makes no secret of how much fun they have playing this stuff. It began like a gentle janglerock song from the early 90s – echoes of Lloyd Cole, perhaps? – with a warm series of major-key hooks, before branching out into an unexpected series of permutations, and then time shifts, toward the end.
Munisteri is the rare guitarist with an instantly recognizable, signature sound. He’s something of a contradiction, a traditionalist whose playing is far more imaginative than any tradition could possibly contain. Blending styles ranging from pretty trad Wes Montgomery octaves, Django Reinhardt percussiveness, soulful, swaying country lines and macabre gypsy runs, he parked his usual understated wit off to the side and went straight for the jugular. The best solo of the night was played on neither accordion, bass, nor guitar: it was Munisteri wailing on his banjo on the Jo Privat composition La Sorciere (The Witch). This particular witch is a seductress, a fair beckoning one who spins around the room, mesmerizing every unlucky suitor with her deadly gaze. Munisteri brought out every ounce of macabre in the song, his fret hand a blur, tremolo-picking wildly as if playing a balalaika, then slamming out the rapid series of chords that wind up the turnaround at the end of the verse.
In another gorgeously lyrical number toward the end of the set, he surprised everyone with a fetching, bent-note, somewhat Chet Atkins country melody. Holshouser whirled and fired off notes at lightning speed, frequently using a rapidfire, machine-gun staccato on a single key. While playing, he’ll often fix an ominous, almost John Lydon-style thousand-yard stare on the back wall of the room, but tonight there was no glare, only the trace of a smile. He let the music tell the rest of the story, and the band did the same.
Holshouser is off to Europe for the next couple of weeks; meanwhile, when not playing big, fancy jazz joints, Munisteri rejoins his Brock Mumford cohort, trumpeter Jon Kellso for their weekly 7:30 PM Sunday session at the Ear Inn. He’s also doing the next couple of Mondays solo at Banjo Jim’s at around 7 PM.