Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Eric Clapton - Me and Mr. Johnson (2004)

When it first came out I quickly picked up a copy of Eric Clapton's Me and Mr. Johnson before ever hearing a note. I played it a couple of times and then sold it. Looking back on it later I wasn't sure why we parted ways and I regretted my decision.

I haven't heard Clapton's fourteen song tribute to bluesman Robert Johnson (perhaps the founding member of the 27 Club) in many years so when I found a used copy recently for only $1.99 I picked it up again and listened to it intently in my car. Given a second chance this still isn't the album it could have been but it is a keeper.

The former Bluesbreaker and Domino who also was in Cream and Blind Faith assembled an outstanding band of all-stars. Steve Gadd played drums, Nathan East was on bass, while Andy Fairweather Low and Doyle Bramhall II accompanied the star on guitars. Jerry Portnoy contributed very fine harmonica. Pino Palladino (bass) and Jim Keltner (drums) also assisted on one track, "Traveling Riverside Blues."

Then there was the undisputed star of the sessions, Billy Preston on piano and organ. Just like he did with The Beatles on Let It Be many years earlier his virtuosity on all fourteen Johnson composed songs elevated the sessions to heights they may not have reached without him. Based on these two records alone one could make a case that Preston is one of the most impressive sidemen in rock history.

Preston's organ work and solo on "Little Queen of Spades" steals the show. His barrelhouse piano on "They're Red Hot" and "32-20 Blues" is also superb.

As for Clapton, other than singing lead, he seemed to lose himself inside the band and that's what is missing. This critically acclaimed set needs more of him as he was on another Johnson song he starred on way back in the day, Cream's "Crossroads." While we all know that Clapton's work on Mr. Johnson was truly a labor of love it wasn't always apparent. This is why there is a lot of room for Preston to shine.

Johnson, of course, influenced many and he sometimes wasn't even credited (His final lines from "Traveling Riverside Blues" were completely appropriated by Led Zeppelin on their 1968 album track "The Lemon Song") but he has never meant more to anyone than he does to Clapton. Inside the CD's gatefold he wrote that Johnson's work was "the finest music I ever heard. I have always trusted its purity and I always will..."

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Paul Desmond - The Best Of The Complete Paul Desmond RCA Victor Recordings Featuring Jim Hall (2000)

The late saxophonist Paul Desmond rose to fame as part of The Dave Brubeck Quartet. He still has the honor of being the man responsible for the biggest selling jazz single of all time, "Take Five." His hit also appeared as the first track on Brubeck's classic Time Out LP way back in 1959.

Desmond rode shotgun in Brubeck's car (some even say he was the driver) so it's not surprising that he also wanted to make his own records.

According to Doug Ramsey, a highly regarded jazz journalist who wrote the liner notes for both the original five CD box set and the awkwardly titled, ten track sampler culled from it, The Best Of The Complete Paul Desmond RCA Victor Recordings Featuring Jim Hall, Desmond made an agreement with Brubeck that if he recorded on his own it would be without a piano player. Your first thought could be, here is another example of commerce getting in the way of art but the pact turned out to be a blessing in disguise because the agreement allowed Desmond's records to develop their own personality.

Desmond's second soloist on all of his RCA albums during during the first half of the 1960s except for one was Jim Hall, an axeman whose talent was thought to be equal to his leader's. For many of the sessions the alto player also used Brubeck's bassist Eugene Wright as well as Percy Heath and Connie Kay, bassist and drummer for the Modern Jazz Quartet.

Unfortunately, Ramsey also noted that although Hall and Desmond were perfect together in the studio they never played together live, an odd occurence in the jazz world.

A handful of highlights include "My Funny Valentine," one of Chet Baker's signature songs. It employs strings and woodwinds on a baroque-jazz procduction that supports the quartet quite nicely. Despite the orchestral presence there is no sappiness here and the expanded unit enhanced what became an intelligent and melodic mood piece.

"Body and Soul" also features strings but it's more traditional arrangement also manages to avoid all of the pitfalls that could turn the The Great American Songbook standard into elevator music.

"Take Ten" was written as a much requested followup to "Take Five." They're similar in tone and it too has a 5/4 beat. Hall's guitar replaces Brubeck's piano and that's a good thing because otherwise Desmond may have been accused of simply treading water.

The title of "Bossa Antigua," the only other Desmond original on the abridged release, reveals its obvious Brazilian roots and masterful drum work by Kay.

There is more where these tunes came from and, while a large box of Desmond could be a bit much, this CD is a nice set from someone who helped put the "smooth" in jazz before there really was such a thing.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Forgotten Music and Great Cover Versions: Billy Joel - Hey Girl (1997)

Billy Joel recorded an excellent cover version of Freddie Scott's "Hey Girl" in 1992. His take of the Goffin - King song possessed just as much soul as Scott's original and was released as part of Joel's 1997 compilation, Greatest Hits, Volume III. It features a great sax performance by Everette Harp. The remake reached # 13 on the U. S. Billboard Adult Contemporary music chart but it was beaten by Scott's 1963 hit that went to #10 on the Hot 100.

The opinion here is that Joel's newer version is the superior of the two.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Gil Scott Heron - The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (1970)

Not long ago Bloggerhythms went on a tirade about Dr. Dre's soundtrack to the film Straight Out Of Compton. You can read my harsh words here if you so desire.

My opinion of the album's lyrics and of rap music in general remain unchanged. However, I do believe there are excellent spoken word recordings made by musicians of substance. Perhaps the most noteworthy example, one that's almost too easy to embrace, is the work of the late R&B and jazz musician Gil Scott-Heron.

Scott-Heron's most famous song/poem is "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." It's a spoken word treatise that could be considered a political diatribe by some. He first recorded it for his 1970 debut album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, a whole record of such fare on which he performs in a live setting with only bongos and congas as accompaniment.

The following year the musician re-recorded "Revolution" again with a full band for his more musical album, Pieces Of A Man. This superior, later version also became the B-side of his first single, "Home Is Where the Hatred Is."

The words to "Revolution" are very cynical thoughts about how the media obsesses over things that are not important just to earn ratings and, because they do, it was Scott-Heron's belief that the impending revolution will not enter the consciousness of the average American. (Things haven't really changed since 1970, have they?) Most of the song's cultural references are very dated so young people may not fully comprehend everything the man is discussing but baby boomers should completely understand. It would be interesting to hear how an updated version would be received today.

This cult classic pre-dates rap and hip-hop by a few years but Scott-Heron became highly influential to the creators of the genre.

You can hear both versions of "Revolution" below. Warning: the lyrics are a bit rough and provactive but they're not disgusting, elevated of course by the subject matter and Scott-Heron's obvious intelligence behind them.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Forgotten Music: Black 47 - New York Town (2005)

The article below is a revised version of a CD review that was originally posted on this blog over ten years ago, on May 8, 2005.

In 2005 Black 47 released their first studio album after the September 11, 2001 attacks. The Irish rockers from New York City  released New York Town, another very interesting CD, this one dedicated to bandleader Larry Kirwan's adopted hometown. The twelve songs Kirwan composed form a loosely connected concept album:  every one  is set in the Big Apple. Kirwan has called New York Town his "love letter" to America's largest city.

Whether the song concerns romantic relationships, the immigrant experience, people on the dark side of urban life, or the awful events of September 11th that appear to have inspired him, Kirwan composed some wonderfully literate music. As always, he wrote with both humor and sadness and each song makes you feel the emotion he wanted to convey.

In a lot of a ways this CD is typical Black 47 but the concept and an unusual abundance of star-studded musical guests help set this one apart. Rosanne Cash is great here as she shares lead vocals with Kirwan on "Fiona's Song," a story about a lonely, young Irish woman who seeks solace in the bars of Queens. (You can listen to Cash & Kirwan together here.)

David Johansen duets with Kirwan on the upbeat "Staten Island Baby" and Suzzy Roche appears on two tracks. Fiddler Eileen Ivers and blues lady Christine Ohlman also add color.

Interesting songs are everywhere. "Livin' in America - 11 Years On" has the identical melody and an almost identical arrangement of the same song from the band's first major label CD, Fire of Freedom, but with a whole new set of lyrics that update the lives of the feuding couple we were originally introduced to in 1993.

"Fatima," is a story about immigrants adjusting to life in The United States but this time we hear the tale of a Muslim father not coming to terms with his daughter's Christian boyfriend.

The highlight is "Orphans Of The Storm," a song written as a sequel to Kirwan's "American Wake," a completely different song that appeared on the sextet's 1994 CD Home Of The Brave. In "Wake," Sean, a young Irishman, leaves his native land for America. The sequel finds him living in New York and working at the World Trade Center on September 11th.