Friday, September 23, 2011

Several Species Of Small Furry Thoughts - Piles of New Stuff

I can’t believe how much stuff is coming out this month. Here are reviews of a handful
Wynton Marsalis & Eric Clapton - Play The Blues
I have traditionally been very hard on both these guys. It is hard to not let your cynical inclinations overtake you when faced with two guys who have kind of done a lot to make the blues acceptable and wipe away the gritty regionalism that actually makes the form great. I, for one, don’t appreciate that. The blues idiom as it originally sounded has pretty much disappeared from the popular landscape and been replaced by white rock stars blasting out hackneyed, amped-up guitar solos that follow the chord progression of the blues, but actually bear no relation to the spirit and lifestyle it originally represented.
However I was pleasantly surprised to find that on this collaboration these two world-class musicians take the blues to a different place. Marsalis and Clapton, with the aid of the Lincoln Center Jazz Band and the great Taj Mahal take the blues to its jazz roots, back to the way it was played by Louis Armstrong, King Oliver and Jellyroll Morton. This is a totally legitimate and in this case successful concept. There is a sense of reverence in these performances that can’t be denied as the two principles offer up perfect solo after perfect solo. Clapton’s singing is restrained and appropriate, rarely straying into any phony blues growling. The material is perfectly chosen and actually encompasses many eras and regions of blues. Clapton betrays his encyclopedic knowledge in every solo he plays and in his rhythm playing as well. As expected, Marsalis also displays an uncanny understanding of jazz and blues history, playing with impeccable tone and brevity. In spite of the appearance of Clapton’s signature song “Layla” (done up as a New Orleans style funeral march) the band (all acoustic - horns, drums, bass, Clapton associate Chris Stainton on piano and the legendary Don Vappie on banjo) never defaults to any rock and roll clichés. This is a straight blues record done in a traditional way with no showboating.
I came to Wynton Marsalis & Eric Clapton Play The Blues with a pretty bad attitude, I left it with a huge smile on my face, which is what great music is supposed to do. The great understanding and facility both of these men have for the blues comes pouring out of every note on the album. 
Jonathan Wilson - Gentle Spirit
Another record store owner told me to check this guy out. He said, “This is something YOU will like.”  Usually when people say that in the way like they know something about me (wink wink) they are dead wrong and I don’t like it. Not this time. Jonathan Wilson is exactly what I have been looking for. He lives in Laurel Canyon surrounded by the ghosts of the great music created by Joni, Neil, Jackson, The Mothers and The Byrds when they lived there. Gentle Spirit is a totally modern sounding album, but it is deeply imbued with the lyrical themes of that earlier era, and the music surrounds like a familiar warm blanket. Folky for the most part, but loaded with snaky, evocative guitar solos, exotic percussion and smoky organ fills, there is a communal, loose feel to the music that makes it immediately familiar and comforting. But there is substance too. Jonathan Wilson has captured the ear of a lot of his heroes and contemporaries. He regularly hosts jam sessions that include the likes of Jackson Browne, members of Wilco, Dawes and The Jayhawks. There is something going on up there in Laurel Canyon again-and it feels like home to me. Check out the song “Desert Raven” and it will take you to a golden summer place that you won’t want to leave.
SuperHeavy - SuperHeavy
How can a supergroup not suck in 2011? Well, I guess the answer is have the ego-free Dave Stewart behind the scenes keeping the egos of the three superstars fronting the band in check. Oh, and have a secret weapon in the form of Indian music composer A.R. Rahman slyly inserting his worldly influence on every song. The real trick here is the skillful control and release job done with the three oversize vocalists. Damien Marley immediately brings any song he appears on to Jamaica, Joss Stone grounds a song to her somewhat over-polished R&B wail and Mick Jagger is just Mick Jagger and immediately brings his own set of talents and baggage to any appearance. You may be wondering how such a disparate group could possibly unify into one coherent sound. Well, they really don’t. SuperHeavy succeeds on its own terms, sounding pretty much unlike anything else. Each song is an experimental international mash-up. The vocalists trade off verses on every song with dizzying regularity, never letting the listener get complacent or bored. The music shifts and lurches from guitar based blues to swirling orchestral fugues to Marley’s house-style rapping and back again all within one song (“One Day One Night’). Even what seems to be a straightforward Jagger ballad “Never Gonna Change” features a sly keyboard figure by A.R. Rahman that takes it out of the ordinary. Not everything works. Sometimes the songs are lost in too many ideas, or Joss Stone’s oversouled performance but the overall impression of SuperHeavy is that of a group for the 21st century. They are not tied to any style or era, they have their ears open and are experimenting freely.
I’m not a betting man, but if were going to, I’d be willing to bet that this group will be moderately successful in America but that this album will have a huge impact on the world stage. I can see this album filling dance floors worldwide because the songs are infectious, optimistic and unpretentious and the predominant mood is fun.

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