Friday, May 26, 2006

Benny Green - These Are Soulful Days (1999)

Jazz pianist Benny Green assembled a trio for this release with an instrumental lineup identical to Nat King Cole's great trio of the 1940's. In both groups the leader plays piano while accompanied only by electric guitar and bass, no drums are to be found. The similarities end there. Green's group is strictly instrumental and plays hard bop from the late 50's and 60's while Cole's played light swing, had a more pop feel, and relied heavily on his magnificent vocals. (I always preferred Nat King Cole's singing to Frank Sinatra's, but that is getting off the subject).

The lack of a drummer does not stop the versatile Green and his sidemen from generating a great beat. The listener does not even notice these recordings lack drums, and it is the belief here that their presence would not add anything to the proceedings. The eight tunes are melodic and varied enough throughout to keep the disc from sounding redundant. Not strictly a piano recording, guitarist Russell Malone and bassist Christian McBride get plenty of room to shine.

This disc was recorded as part of Blue Note's 60th anniversary celebration. Other Blue Note artists previously recorded all of the music heard here. Fans of piano jazz should enjoy the trio's excursion through the renowned jazz label's archives.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Black 47 - Bittersweet Sixteen (2006)

Bittersweet Sixteen is not a greatest hits CD even though it is a compilation that celebrates Black 47's sixteen years of existence. The disc contains different versions of some of the band's best and most famous songs ("Funky Ceili", "Bobby Sands MP", and "Road To Ruin" are among them) as well as two new tracks, "Southside Chicago Waltz" and "Joe Hill's Last Will." There are rare tracks, including six long lost songs, recorded live in the studio for radio, that originally appeared on two of the band’s out of print studio CDs, Home Of The Brave and Green Suede Shoes.

As ususal, Black 47 offers everything here from white rap, to punk, to Irish folk music, to reggae, and rock. Larry Kirwan's often emotional stories of life in New York City, tales of problems with the opposite sex, Irish political history, and anti-war themes, are prevalent as always. The highlight is an excellent Kirwan/Roz Morehead duet of Buffalo Springfield’s "For What It’s Worth" that was originally commissioned for a movie.

Bittersweet Sixteen is mostly for fans. While it can also serve as an introduction to Black 47 because it spans the band’s entire career newcomers would be better served to check out any CD prior to 2005’s Elvis Murphy’s Green Suede Shoes to get a clearer picture of what this great band is all about.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Chet Baker - Career: 1952 - 1988 (2005)

Career: 1952 - 1988 does an excellent job of showcasing all facets and time periods of Chet Baker’s career. This retrospective evenly divides the the two talents Baker was known for: one disc is entirely instrumental and is called Trumpeter and the other is simply titled Singer. Each disc is in chronological order and includes both rarities and some gems. There are both vocal and instrumental versions of his famous "My Funny Valentine."

Trumpeter shows off Baker's versatility as a prominent member of the cool jazz movement of the 50s and 60s and beyond. While he was less known and respected for his singing the second disc also provides a true overview of Baker’s controversial but still appealing voice. The vocal disc is also a bit sad because, using his voice as a barometer, the listener can tell how far Baker's health deteriorated over the four decades of his career.

There is an exhaustive forty-six page booklet included with Career that offers almost everything a fan would need or want to know about the singer and trumpeter. Baker’s often sad life, mostly fueled by his addictions, is openly discussed. It is sad to know, as is true with many talented artists, that Baker could still be with us today if he hadn’t succumbed to those hideous excesses before he was sixty years old.

Career: 1952 -1988 will appeal to Baker’s fans and will also serve as an excellent detailed introduction to the life and music of this very talented jazzman.

Monday, May 08, 2006

John Martyn - One World (2005)

John Martyn's One World, released in 2005, is a double disc, British import compilation that should not be confused with his 1977 release of the same name.

While Martyn is well regarded in small circles the general population and mainstream music fans haven't a clue about him. Those who are aware of who he is may only know him for composing "May You Never" a cool little tune that Eric Clapton covered a long time ago on his Slowhand album. Martyn was a contemporary of the same folk scene that helped launch the careers of Ralph "Streets Of London" McTell and Al "Year Of The Cat" Stewart but he soon forged a different direction for himself.

Most of the music here is very appealing blue-eyed soul, light funk, or smooth jazz, depending on your outlook. Instrumentally it is all top drawer with great arrangements. Listening to Martyn on the surface can be a very pleasurable experience because you have to dig deeper to find the music's flaws. Unfortunately, upon closer listening you may find Martyn to be a terrible vocalist with a voice that often strains, and fails, to achieve musicality. Yet I still found enough good music on these two CDs to set his vocal limitations aside because he is frequently able to camoulflage those shortcomings.

Another problem with this compilation is the liner notes. There is a brief biography and that is all. Compilations should have more detail than what is offered here. There are no listings of session dates, musicians, or the album each song originally appeared on. There aren't even composing credits. There is nothing more than a track listing.

I give One World a thumbs up, but be forewarned. John Martyn is not for everybody.

Monday, May 01, 2006

The Corrs - Home (2006)

Commercially The Corrs are a blockbuster success but to me they were never totally satisfying because they always lacked a clear identity. Did they want to be a mainstream pop band who frequently recorded some wimpy material or did they want to explore their Irish folk roots? The quartet tried to have it both ways, and unfortunately the two genres didn't always mesh well together. That uncertainty often lead to some schizophrenic and uneven albums.

With Home, their aptly named current CD, The Corrs finally appear to have found a home. The band still sounds very much like they always do but the three sisters and their brother have completely embraced their colorful musical heritage and in the process produced their most intelligent, and therefore their best, CD ever. There are no original compositions yet Home doesn't feel like a covers album because it honors their late mother, Jean Corr, and is filled with music they truly love. All of these songs are part of the songbook played by their mother's own band. The album is not a rote work of standards that artists on the decline often record out of desperation because they have lost their muse or throw together due to a contractual obligation.

Most of these folk songs are in the public domain. Add in Richard Thompson's "Dimming Of the Day" and Anna McGarrigle's "Heart Like A Wheel." There are two very danceable instrumental Irish jigs with great titles: "Old Hag" and "Haste To The Wedding." Both feature many standard Irish folk instruments including tin whistles, uillean pipes, and bodhrans. Andrea Corr sings two songs in Gaelic. It all blends into a very fine modern pop album of Irish folk songs that I can't get out of my CD player no matter how hard I try.