Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Whiteley Brothers - Taking Our Time (2001)

Two real Blues Brothers, Chris and Ken Whiteley, are long-time members of the Canadian blues community and have appeared on more than 150 recordings between them, dating back to the 1960s. The brothers only recorded together twice, on Bluesology and Sixteen Shades of Blue, and both albums were nominated for Juno Awards, the Canadian counterpart to the American Grammies. Taking Our Time, their third CD together, continues their streak of quality recordings and should garner another nomination.

Blues fans are in for a real treat. The brothers not only composed all thirteen songs, they sing every note and play every instrument -- more than twenty in all. While electric guitar is part of their repertoire, they employ banjos, harmonicas, washboards, coronets, mandolins, pianos and drums into their very rootsy country and delta blues sound. If you are looking for Stevie Ray Vaughn or Buddy Guy you should look elsewhere.

The songs are as varied as the instrumentation. The brothers may be firmly rooted in blues music but folk, swing and gospel are all influences here. On "Homeless Man" Chris Whiteley's vocals sound like Eric Clapton in his quieter blues mode. "On This Journey" is a gospel sing-along, guaranteed to get a live audience to join in. "I Don't Mind" is Dixieland-style blues that tells a funny story about someone who would like to share in the sudden financial windfall of a more fortunate friend. "Get These Things For Me" is another humorous tale in the same vein. A John Lee Hooker electric guitar riff is featured in "Shufflin' and Shaggin'," while "Full Moon In June" is an upbeat instrumental. Eclecticism is an attribute of all thirteen tracks. The album closes with their classic song "Take Your Time," which is on a CD for the first time. There is no filler anywhere on the disc.

This is a great work from two masters who prove the blues doesn't have to make you blue.

Freddy Cole - In The Name Of Love (2002)

I never heard of Freddy Cole, the younger brother of Nat King Cole, until recently when I was assigned to write the review of this CD. Because of my ignorance I was astounded to learn that the younger Cole has had a 50-year recording career. I truly didn't know what to expect, but since I always loved Nat's singing, I looked forward to hearing Freddy's most recent release.

At times there are traces of Nat in Freddy's voice but he has his own distinctive sound. His voice is much rougher than Nat's and his vocals on this disc may be what Nat might have sounded like if he had lived and his voice changed with age. This isn't a criticism of his singing, and it really isn't fair to compare most vocalists to Nat King Cole without coming out on the short end of the stick, but I'm sure Freddy knows that comparisons are inevitable.

There are some excellent choices in material. Cole covers Boz Scaggs' "Harbor Lights," Van Morrison's "Have I Told You Lately That I Love You" and Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me." These non-traditional jazz songs fit right into Cole's easygoing traditional jazz singing style. Cole's son Lionel wrote "Save a Little Time for Me," a nice selection that indicates this song was chosen for more than just nepotism. Other standout tracks are "Remember Me" and the closer, "I Loved You."

The instrumental arrangements combine modern smooth jazz sounds with more traditional jazz playing such as Will Lee's bass and some fine soprano sax by Jay Beckenstein of Spyro Gyra fame. Even better is David Mann on both soprano and alto saxes. The arrangements are all laid back and are appropriate backdrops for the the well-chosen songs.

How I wish I had known about Freddy Cole many years before I had the pleasure of listening to this CD.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Bett Butler - Short Stories (2001)

Bett Butler, from San Antonio, Texas, is meant to play those dark smoke-filled jazz clubs in Manhattan or New Orleans, or in R&B clubs somewhere in Memphis. This singing and piano-playing young lady is full of jazz and R & B influences. The fact Butler is from the Lone Star State is only apparent on tracks like "Bubba's Inconvenience Store," in which she relates a tale of what happens at a small corner store while waiting for her car to be towed after a hitting an armadillo on a back road, and "Do it Right," which has a nice small-town Texas feel to it without being "country." Both feature very non-Texas-sounding horn sections.

Eleven tracks, nine of which feature a brass section or horn-playing jazz soloist, are all originals that display both Butler's songwriting talent and her ample vocal skills. This album is one of the few jazz recordings that demands the listener pay attention to the lyrics in order to fully enjoy the music.

There are two hornless entries, "Angels" and "Butterfly." Both are "sensitive" singer-songwriter fare with a wholly feminine point of view, but they are not out of place because the musical arrangements accompanying them do not get bogged down with syrupy strings or sappy instrumentation, and because Butler has a chance to show off her vocal prowess and versatility. These tracks require a much higher vocal register and feminine voice than the tougher sounding alto she uses on the jazz cuts.

Most of the songs walk a fine line between R & B and jazz. Nice instrumental flourishes, such as a muted trumpet spiraling around and under Butler's vocal but above the horn section, place "Let's Talk It Over" firmly into the jazz realm. At the same time the track sports a huge sounding bass line that is pushed heavily into the forefront in the manner of classic R & B recordings. You decide which genre the song falls into. It really doesn't matter because quality is quality regardless of its name.

Other highlights include "I Saw You on the Street Today," in which a very blue sounding flugelhorn joins Butler's melancholy voice and lyrics about ending a relationship with a philandering mate, and "A Hundred Tears From Now," a much more upbeat number with a completely different point of view on the same subject.

Short Stories will appeal mostly to jazz fans but it can still please those with more mainstream tastes. It is a diverse work from a woman who can sing, compose, and write lyrics well. With a good publicity machine Butler could achieve wide commercial acceptance.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Stevie Wonder - A Time To Love (2005)

Those of you who saw the movie High Fidelity may recall the moment when Barry, played hysterically by Jack Black, humiliated both Stevie Wonder’s 1980s music and a customer who came in the used record store wanting a copy of Wonder’s huge 80s hit, "I Just Called To Say I Love You." It was a very funny scene based around a music snob's opinion that Stevie Wonder's 80s music doesn't compare favorably with his seventies output. Despite the laughs generated from Barry’s outburst, Wonder's career is not one that should be made light of because even his 80s music is still head and shoulders above most other artist’s work.

I don’t believe I am exaggerating at all by stating that Wonder's albums, beginning with 1970's Where I'm Coming From and continuing through 1980's Hotter Than July, earn him a place as one of the top five artists of the entire decade. His love songs always had beautiful melodies even if his lyrics leaned toward greeting card sentimentality at times. His funky side and his soulful political and social commentary have always been excellent. He began to slip after Hotter Than July because his extensive usage of synthesizers and drum machines turned him into a one man band that washed all arranging from his music. Sameness started to creep in.

Fortunately Motown’s greatest artist has finally returned after a ten year hiatus with A Time To Love, Wonder’s freshest and best work since Hotter Than July. The new CD is a great combination of every style Wonder has to offer. There are more love songs (“Moon Blue,” Sweetest Somebody I know,” and “From The Bottom Of My Heart”) than social commentary and funky stuff (“So What The Fuss” and the uplifting “Positivity”) but it is all very well done. Wonder is an instrumental virtuoso who gets more varied and original sounds out of his array of keyboards and electronics than most prog-rockers. He still plays most instruments himself but he is also using a band again on many tracks which may be the reason A Time To Love sounds more like his old 70s self. His vocals are still as strong as they were twenty-five years ago.

Guest vocalists include India.Arie and Wonder’s daughter, Aisha Morris, who was the subject of “Isn’t She Lovely.” Instrumental guest stars include Prince, Bonnie Raitt, Paul McCartney, and Hubert Laws.

It’s great to have Stevie Wonder recording again and in classic form. Jack Black needs to shut up now.