In 1941, a 12-year-old Rufus Jones electrified his homemade guitar with a piece of fence wire and a truck battery, "to impress them local Mississippi girlies," he recalls.
While showing off by playing the guitar with his teeth -- decades before Jimi Hendrix would do the same -- his pet goat peed on the makeshift cord, the electric shock deep-frying Rufus' eyes and ears and blowing a hole in his skull the size of squashed lemon. With a handful of tree sap, sister Clamydia Jean glued a scrap of tin shingle over the window in his head, thus saving his life, though the tragic incident left Rufus both blind and deaf. Unwilling to give up the guitar, the boy -- soon known as Mississippi "Weatherproof" Rufus -- became a blues legend until the '60s forgot him in favor of the younger, flashier Hendrix.
Rufus, briefly in town to play for an aluminum siding convention, reluctantly agreed to critique a handful of new releases before retiring to his fleabag motel room to engage in an unfortunate fetish that resulted from his near electrocution. "Keep your wine and them malt liquor shakes, Gumby, just let me stick my hand in the underside of a toaster and dream of them young Mississippi girls while the toaster lightning runs up my arm. Toaster love, that was my idea, too -- bastard Jimi boy stole that as well, even named an album after it, Electric Ladyland.
"But just don't ever play no guitar with your teefers, Gumby, it'll blow your face parts off like you was Mr. Potato Head," Rufus said as he seated himself knee's-distance from Gumbo's stereo speakers and produced a dowsing rod, wedging the forked end between the speaker cabinets and the other in the crotch of his bib overalls. "I feel the music down in the basement of my soul this way, yessir. If I get 'em all right, how about you gimme 10 precious minutes with the building's fuse box?"
The only thing guys think about is their organ: Bassist/metal mag foldout Billy Sheehan (David Lee Roth, Mr. Big) brings his flashy playing to, of all things, the organ trio format in Niacin, whose Time Crunch (Magna Carta) finds drummer Dennis Chambers and organist John Novello propelled by '70s jazz fusion. A decade before Grover Washington Jr. became Jacuzzi jazzer supreme with "Just the Two of Us," he was a sideman behind some seriously soulful funksters (organists Charles Earland and Johnny "Hammond" Smith, and guitarists Boogaloo Jo Jones and Melvin Sparks). Discovery: The First Recordings (Prestige) shows him in the company of the aforementioned, blowing nastier than most probably think he could. And patriarchal tenor saxophonists Plas Johnson and Red Holloway share their bop and blues roots on Keep That Groove Going! (Milestone) in the company of organ and guitar.
It's recondite, it's abstruse, it'll sell 12 copies: Craig Taborn plays some seriously maniacal piano on Light Made Lighter (Thirsty Ear), his airy improvisational adventures produced by labelmate/fellow piano monster Matthew Shipp. Shipp's own newest, Nu Bop (Thirsty Ear), drops himself and compadre bassist William Parker in the midst of electronic beats and jarring programming that work a lot better than you'd think, though, ironically, loads of avant jazzers will object to the experimentation. Jeff Song & Lowbrow present a fine Diasporama (Stellar): Two cellos on Quaaludes create a free jazz Electric Light Orchestra in the fourth dimension, with flute and trumpet.
And if that's not outside enough for you, there's Borah Bergman with Connie Bauer and Mat Maneri, unleashing a triple assault with the unlikely combination of piano, trombone and electric violin on the cacophonous The River of Sound (Boxholder). Snarling, rough-skinned alligator jazz. (Mississippi "Weatherproof" Rufus critiques: "Goddamn! You playing that thing right-side up? It's an abomination to the blues. I knowed jazz guys who got tuberculosis from years of yanking notes in such unnatural directions.")
Three guitar trios: New Guitar Summit unites some diverse pickers -- Gerry Beaudoin (jazz), Jay Geils (rock) and Duke Robillard (blues) -- whose passionate tribute to '30s and '40s jazz, Retrospective (Francesca), avoids the snooze element of most swing guitar albums, as well as the cutesy pop feel of those that have milked the swing revival over the past few years. The New York Trio Project Fifth House (Imaginary Jazz) is a guitar/bass/drum unit where Adam Rafferty interprets the gods (Horace Silver, Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane) on electric guitar with far more direction and passion than most of his peers on the instrument.
On Dom Minasi Trio's Takin' the Duke Out (CDM Records), the guitarist unleashes his freaky flailing on "Satin Doll," "Solitude" and other familiar Dukisms, resulting in the most outlandish Ellington tribute ever. (Mississippi "Weatherproof" Rufus critiques:"Jesus Hisself rates this four abominations. I know, 'cause when the weather gets humid and I'm facing Yazoo City just right, my head plate gets good reception and I pick up Jesus like a Mexican radio station. Jesus likes Mr. Duke, but not played like some nuthouse romp.")
Cartoon jazz: The best current jazz focuses on wild, sprawling, unpredictable texturing rather than linear soloing, making even some pretty outside stuff accessible to the snarling SPIN magazine crowd that's about as likely to buy a jazz album as volunteer to sponge-bathe great-grandma. El Oh El Ay (Love Slave) by J.A. Granelli and Mr. Lucky is baboon-ass colorful, with the bass/organ/drum and slide guitar combo sliding from one outlandish mood to another more often than your spouse. Music for a circus, funeral, strip club, the apocalypse -- one-stop shopping, ladies and gentlemen. Bassist/composer Joe Gallant & Illuminati put out several CDs worth of jazzed up Grateful Dead covers before recently releasing Shadowhead (Accurate), a spook show that sounds like a drunk Ornette Coleman big band with funk roots -- wonderfully weird, hallucinatory stuff throughout. The Ray Anderson Quartet appropriately has a freaked cartoon dog as cover art on Bonemeal (Raybone), where the trombonist unfurls his over-the-top, New Orleans-heavy strutting. Trumpeter Russell Gunn's Ethnomusicology, Vol. 2 (Justin Time) mixes hip-hop and Miles Davis chops on the Partridge Family's "I Think I Love You" before time-warping Duke Ellington from '20s stride piano to contemporary dance fare in "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Go-Go Swing)" -- covering as many angles of African-American music as he can in 66 minutes.
Even older than Elton John: Pianist Brun Campbell studied with Scott Joplin in the late 1890s, later giving up the piano to become a barber, then returning to it in the '40s, when this infectious collection of ragtime solos, Joplin's Disciple (Delmark), was recorded. The Original Salty Dogs is a septet of talented geezers who've been immersed in '20s-era traditional jazz for over half a century. Their New Orleans Shuffle (Delmark) is from an era when you bounced rather than rocked, but you can understand why it got your grandma hot, if you're sick enough to want to go there. Hot House Rag (Delmark) by Terry Waldo's Gutbucket Syncopators is more of the same, this slightly rougher sextet of players holding lengthy résumés of trad jazz positions that read like the music credits in a Woody Allen movie.
From Woody Allen to Allen Woody: Gov't Mule has responded to the death of band member Woody by bringing a dozen other bassists on board for The Deep End Volume 1 (BMG), a two-disc set of their post-Allman Brothers Southern rock assisted on the bottom end by Jack Bruce, Bootsy Collins, Flea, John Entwhistle and Mike Watt, as well as guitarist John Scofield, blues man Little Milton and Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell. This spring's second volume will feature Phil Lesh, Me'shell N'degeocello and Les Claypool.
Blind Pig Records: 25th Anniversary Collection celebrates -- you guessed it, Sparky -- a quarter century of serious blues releases by Tommy Castro, James Cotton, Johnny Shines, Coco Montoya and 30 others represented on this triple-disc set. The third disc is a CD-ROM with video performances and interviews -- all for the price of a single CD, which is nearly as cheap as stealing it.
From Fat Possum, the label that proudly erased the last 50 years of blues slickness, comes R.L. Burnside's Burnside on Burnside, where the hill-country protege of Muddy Waters and Mississippi Fred McDowell plays a live set of his nasty juke joint music. The guitarist, who must gargle with barbecue sauce to howl such vivid Southern fare, spits out what the liner notes perfectly define as "the original American trance music." Other McDowell disciples -- Charlie Musselwhite, Brian Stoltz, Tab Benoit and Kenny Neal for starters -- take solo stabs at the blues man's catalogue on the stark Preachin' the Blues: The Music of Mississippi McDowell (Telarc).
Considerably less subtle stuff comes from Guitar Shorty -- whose wild guitar lines and stage antics influenced Jimi Hendrix -- on I Go Wild! (Evidence), which features the ultimate romantic pitch: "Like heavy machinery and Vicodin, we're a deadly combination, but we're made for each other, like coffee and cigarettes." (Mississippi "Weatherproof" Rufus critiques: "Is that Jimi's boy? Tell him to send me a check right now or I'll put the mojo on his wah-wah pedal and I don't mean the one under his damn foot neither.")
Sounding more country than a lot of alt-country bands, NYC's Demolition String Band slides effortlessly from Sweetheart of the Rodeo honky-tonk into a bluegrass version of Madonna's "Like a Prayer" on Pulling Up Atlantis (Okra-Tone), led by Elena Skye's bar-bred vocals. Good writers, too, her and cohort Boo Reiners, who, if that's his real name, was pretty much destined to either play country music or become a serial killer.
Country and Estrogen: O Sister! The Women's Bluegrass Collection (Rounder) introduces a dozen and a half Southern musical mamas to the bluegrass-challenged masses as well as the dolts who think it's strictly the domain of bearded guys with oversized adenoids. A great way to check out solid artists like Rhonda Vincent, Hazel Dickens and Claire Lynch if you like Alison Krauss (who's also here) and want more of her kind. Maura O'Connell's Walls & Windows (Sugar Hill) is Celtic country, the powerful warbler interpreting the songs of Eric Clapton ("I Get Lost"), Van Morrison ("Crazy Love"), Patty Griffin ("I Wonder") and others with Byrds-like 12-string guitars and uillean pipes. (Mississippi "Weatherproof" Rufus critiques: "Finally, some ladies! Southern mamas, too. I ain't been nekkid with a real woman in so long I can't remember if you goes in-and-out or over-and-under, but I remembers one of them is for square-dancing.")
Rice, Rice, Hillman & Pedersen have previously been members of the Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, the Dillards and J.D. Crowe's New South, with the folk, bluegrass and Bakersfield country stylings of 'em all evident on Running Wild (Rounder). Added to the mix are versions of "4 + 20" by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and the Beatles' "Things We Said Today." Frustratingly short of Tony Rice's jaw-dropping guitar solos, though.
Pete Seeger, the Moses of folk music, is twice honored by the Appleseed label; the first featuring Holly Near, Arlo Guthrie, Ronnie Gilbert and Seeger on HARP: A Time to Sing, bringing to mind his half-century old group, The Weavers, with former Weavette Gilbert still in tow and Arlo taking dad Woody Guthrie's place for a load of songs ranging from "Wimoweh" to Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On." If I Had a Song: The Songs of Pete Seeger, Vol. 2 pays tribute to another batch of his better-known songs, sung by Jackson Brown, Joan Baez, Billy Bragg, Steve Earle and numerous familiar folkies.
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Traditional Music of Peru: The Ayacucho Region and The Lima Highlands (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings), both filled with harps, 10-string guitars and panpipes, are volumes six and seven in a series of haunting field recordings focusing on that area of the world lesser minds associate with last weekend's nose candy and the panpipes on Simon & Garfunkel's "El Condor Pasa." (Mississippi "Weatherproof" Rufus critiques: "Panpipes? Panpipes, drainpipes -- sounds like the devil with a snot whistle. Spending my Saturday night listening to this jive trash! Walkie-talkie my headplate later if you want to go strutting out for some fine kitchen appliances.")
Antonio Carlos Jobim's original "Girl From Ipanema" is probably some liver-spotted septuagenarian doing foldouts in Brazil's equivalent of Modern Maturity these days. Never fear, Samba Bossa Nova (Putumayo) Viagrifies the lust and romance back into Rio de Janeiro with this sampler of contemporary artists. Some of the players are kids of the ultra-sexual samba and bossa nova '60s craze, including Jobim's son and grandson in Quarteto Jobim-Moeienbaum. A rare glimpse of what's currently going on down there, so to speak.
R. Carlos Nakai's flute meets Cliff Sarde's keyboard and programming for some Native American electronica on Enter Tribal (Canyon Records), resulting in moody, pulsating stuff that keeps Nakai's hypnotic soaring grounded. Ought to be a big audience for this one, especially with the second generation of new-agettes who can't decide whether to spend their evening meditating or getting Ecstatic at a rave.