Saturday, March 25, 2006

Jimi Hendrix - Nine To The Universe (1980)

Released in 1980, Nine To The Universe is a virtually all-instrumental album that has never officially been issued on CD and was another in a long line of posthumous releases of Jimi Hendrix's music. Reportedly recorded in the first half of 1969 during the Electricladyland sessions, Nine To The Universe is nothing more than a bunch of spontaneous jam sessions Hendrix undertook with anybody who would play with him at that moment.

The original album had only five tracks yet clocks in at over thirty-eight minutes, a good length for the days of the old 33 1/3 RPM record, but it would be considered quite short today. In order to make it all fit on one LP over 40 minutes of music was edited from the original sessions. One example is the title cut. It was faded at 8:46 on the album but the full performance stretched out to 18:49. Apparently there are bootlegs available with all five sessions in their entirety plus two more very lengthy ones no one ever heard.

Hendrix is sensational on this album. Most of his playing is high energy, sometimes bordering on frantic. The best jams are the title cut in which a mean bass riff never relents under Hendrix's manic improvisation and a track simply titled "Young/Hendrix Jam," which runs for 10:22. The latter features some great interplay with Larry Young, a jazz organist who played with Miles Davis on Bitches Brew. Hendrix is a little more subdued here allowing Young to share much of the spotlight with him.

I'm guessing that these pieces were not meant for release. Two of them don't even have legitimate titles such as the session with Young and another simply titled "Jimi/Jimmy Jam" for his duet with guitarist Jim McCartey.

Other guests include drummer Buddy Miles and Mitch Mitchell, Hendrix's former drummer with the Experience.

Nine To The Universe is easily my favorite Hendrix album.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

James Hunter - People Gonna Talk (2006)

Do you like Sam Cooke spiced with a mild dose of Otis Reading and a pinch of James Brown? If that recipe is tasty to you, have a spoonful of James Hunter. Britain’s Hunter is a modern afficionado of 1950’s and 1960’s American R&B who just released his first stateside CD, People Gonna Talk. (He has two previous releases in the U. K.) Hunter wrote and arranged all fourteen tracks. He plays guitar and sings in a style reminiscent of Cooke but with just a bit more grit. He is obviously a fan.

Hunter has a vibrant band that features two saxophone players, a tenor, and one of my favorite woodwinds, the baritone sax. In addition to Hunter the band’s other distinguishing feature is the sax duo who can play tightly as a unit or free and easy on one of their many solos.

Hunter’s writing is an asset too. His songs are all about relationships but despite the subject matter there is little sentimentality in his writing. Lines like “No one’s calling you a liar but there’s no smoke without fire” from “No Smoke Without Fire” and “Strike me dead if I don’t love you and I’ll be damned if I do” from “You Can’t Win” show there is no cheese factor in his lyrics.

The songs are compact, to the point, danceable, and radio ready. Even the great title track’s ska beat is accessible and it is receiving radio airplay on appropriate outlets.

Look for this CD to be on many music fans "Best Of 2006" lists at year's end.

Hunter is just as satisfying in concert. He appeared at World Café Live in Philadelphia on March 9, 2006 and completely won the audience over with his stage presence as well as his music.

You can sample People Gonna Talk on Hunter's website.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Chicago - XXX (2006)

Chicago has taken some large critical hits over the years as their artistic goals became secondary to making music that would sell a lot of records. In the 80s they lived and died with power ballads, the horns almost became intruders to the band’s record company, and their best composer, Robert Lamm, was told he would never sing lead again on a Chicago single. (However he does sing lead on "Feel," the band’s first single from this new album.) The band eventually rebelled, which resulted in their still unreleased "let’s break the mold" album, Stone Of Sisyphus, recorded in 1993. Warner Brothers hated SOS so Chicago and the record company parted ways. Sadly, with Chicago XXX, the band seems to have returned to the music they were rebelling against with Jason Scheff, their bass playing tenor, leading the way.

I never thought I would miss Peter Cetera. While he possesses a very elastic tenor voice, and he played some very cool bass for Chicago in his early years, I never thought much of the wimpy ballads he wrote later on with the band. To me Cetera became the poster boy of Chicago’s artistic demise. Unfortunately, Scheff, the man who replaced Cetera in the mid-80s, has proven himself to be Cetera "Lite."

XXX, the band’s first album of all original material since 1991, is front-loaded with mostly Scheff power ballads, all of them sung in his trademark high pitched wail that becomes almost excruciating in large doses. Of course, Rascal Flatts producer, Jay DeMarcus, who did the honors here, can’t get enough of Scheff so he double and triple tracks his voice so the bassist's screaming vocals are intensified. The wimpiness of Scheff’s compositions doesn’t help matters either. Yes, the horns are much more upfront than they have been since the 70s but the interminable screeching and the wall of sound arrangements render them superfluous.

By the time my car CD player beamed its laser on the good stuff beginning with track 7 I was ready to take the disc out so I could finish my drive home without incident. Then suddenly, two upbeat Robert Lamm songs and Bill Champlin’s funkiness save the day as trombonist Jim Pankow’s horn arrangements return to the forefront where they belong. The second half of this CD is enjoyable mainstream rock. Give a listen to Lamm’s "90 Degrees and Freezing" and "Come To Me Do" and Champlin’s "Already Gone" and "Better."

Champlin is also responsible for the wretched ballad "Why Can’t We," a duet with country singer Shelly Fairchild, that is part of the awful first half of this disc. He is forgiven because everyone writes a stinker once in awhile.

Unfortunately, Chicago’s stated goal on this album was to get their music back on the radio, rather than make music they loved, so if XXX is a hit don’t expect the now very underutilized Lamm to return from the wasteland anytime soon.