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Brand New Year

As we bitterly curse the fact that the apocalypse skipped over us, at least there's some new music to commiserate with. Make a statement against pointless existence and spend your rent money on these new releases. There's lots of jazz to choose from, plus a few bluegrass and folk offerings.

Guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel has been praised by John Scofield and Pat Metheny -- players who, along with Black Sabbath's Randy Rhoads and AC/DC's Angus Young, were influences. Not that he sounds like any of them. His first major-label release, The Enemies of Energy (Verve), is noteworthy more for its dense, introverted composing than for extending the style of a mentor. Rosenwinkel's writing takes unexpected twists that must have given migraines to the rest of the band. Nothing here you'll be humming around the house, that's for sure.

Charlie Hunter's modified guitar has eight strings, sounding for all the world like two tight players. Most of the cuts on Duo (Blue Note) featuring he and Leon Parker are Hunter compositions delving into surf guitar, calypso and funk, backed by Parker's drums. Check out their version of the Beach Boys' "Don't Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)."

Arto Lindsay is an interesting mix of downtown New York skronk jazz and bossa nova, his parents having been Brazilian missionaries. Pride (Righteous Babe) is a Rio-flavored offering that admirably stays clear of aping the Jobim shtick. Lindsay's nostalgia-free bossa nova shows that Brazilian music needn't automatically make you think of "The Girl From Ipanema."

Joe Gallant and Illuminati have recorded Terrapin (Which? Records), a large ensemble jazz interpretation of the Grateful Dead's entire Terrapin Station album from 1977, as well as "China Doll" from From the Mars Hotel. Lots of hot players from the jazz world and elsewhere show up, including Hot Tuna's Jorma Kaukonen, bluegrass banjo master Tony Trischka, Maggie Roche from the Roche Sisters, avant accordionist Andrea Parkins and ex-Zappa vocalist Ike Willis. If you go for this, check out bassist Gallant's The Blues for Allah Project recorded in 1975.

John Abercrombie has recorded for 25 years on ECM, a label that, in the opinion of many, has become a bit stuffy. Still, Abercrombie's Open Land (ECM) would sound good if it came out on K-Tel. Like most artists who've stuck with ECM, the guitarist has never been much of a flasher, though if he chose a funkier drummer and turned up the volume, his nasty chops would sell records at least as well as the genre's better-known axhandlers. It's typical of the intentionally understated Abercrombie to construct quirky bands like this one, which features violin, organ, trumpet (Kenny Wheeler), tenor sax (Joe Lovano) and drums.

Celebrating the Music of Weather Report (Telarc) is a tribute album featuring Take 6, Joe Sample, John Scofield, the Brecker brothers and David Sanborn, as well as exReporters Victor Bailey, Omar Hakim and Steve Gadd. It's a hard band to cover creatively since no one can come close to matching Joe Zawinul's ominous and colorful keyboard arrangements. This band strips away Weather Report's signature moodiness with too many shiny synth tones when the music was meant to sound partly cloudy. Behind the project is producer Jason Miles, who's worked with the likes of Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and KISS when not composing for Claudia Schiffer and Jane Fonda exercise videos. Enough said.

Vocalist Kurt Elling may occasionally lack the range of dynamics needed to pull off some of the cuts on Live in Chicago (Blue Note), but he's got a tone all his own and a playlist of unique material. Elling drops a poem by St. John of the Cross into the middle of "My Foolish Heart," scats a Yellowjackets tune ("Downtown"), adds lyrics to Wayne Shorter's "Night Dreamer" ("Night Dream"), revives "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" and covers Sting's "Oh My God." Other jazz singers should be so adventurous.

Yeah, it's probably whoring when jazz labels glut the market with swing music in response to a 20-minute fad for that style of dancing. But, hey, smoke 'em if you've got 'em. Long after the saddle oxfords and pleated skirts end up in thrift stores, at least some of the fleet-footed will hold on to recent compilations like Jazz That Swings (32 Jazz). While cuts like David "Fathead" Newman's "Little Sister" and Hank Crawford's "Boo's Tune" are gimme-shimmy material, it's hard to say why or how a bossa nova like the Modern Jazz Quartet's "One Note Samba" came to be included. Better off looking at this disc as a sampler for one of the best reissue labels around.

For the past several years, Downbeat magazine has touted trumpeter Dave Douglas as an artist deserving of wider recognition. Soul on Soul: Celebrating Mary Lou Williams (RCA) follows his previous tribute albums to Wayne Shorter and Booker Little. There's lots of hard-bop influence in his work, from his dark tone to the complex harmonies he implements, though he throws in a handful of stride piano and outside jazz as well.

 

Several years back, Prestige began reissuing '60s- and '70s-era funk jazz in its Legends of Acid Jazz series. Now, 30-some discs into the series, we're given five more, nearly all of them focusing on the organ, churning out funk with the assistance of either a sax or guitar. Organist Don Patterson and tenor saxophonists Booker Ervin and Houston Person make up the cast on Just Friends (Prestige). Patterson's frantic bebop lines -- not the typical approach to jazz organ -- match Ervin's equally tension-creating style, while Person sticks to his R&B roots.

Saxophonist Sonny Stitt escaped a long period of being compared to Charlie Parker by moving into soulful material like what's found on Low Flame (Prestige). Lots of substance here, but nothing greasy or funky enough to merit inclusion in the acid jazz category.

On Glide On (Prestige) by Bill Jennings and Jack McDuff, guitarist Jennings approaches soul funk with a much lighter and more restrained approach than was usually the case, which resulted in him never becoming as popular as his accompanist, organist McDuff. While the album isn't really gritty, it presents the music in an almost sophisticated manner.

Even more sophisticated is the tuxedoed funk of guitarist Kenny Burrell and organist Shirley Scott on the latter's Soul Sister (Prestige). Scott, who was married to Stanley Turrentine, whips off some intense and eloquent blues lines in a tone that cuts like Norman Bates. The lady deserves more credit, as her soulful, witty solo on "On Green Dolphin Street" proves.

While the arrangements and song choices ("Ode to Billie Joe," "Theme From NYPD Blue") are terribly corny on Johnny Hammond Smith's Soul Flowers (Prestige), it's interesting to hear the underrated organist burn through material that sounds like Quentin Tarantino soundtrack fodder. Check out the funky versions of "Days of Wine and Roses" and "Tara's Theme (My Own True Love)" from Gone With the Wind.

An observation regarding pop jazz. Notice how no one ever orders a hamburger because a steak might be too overwhelming an experience, or chooses Nogales over Madrid, fearing that the latter might clog one's sensorial arteries. So why should hordes gravitate toward the fake flamenco of Universal Language (GRP) by Marc Antoine when no shortage of the real thing can be found? Within every 15 square miles of the Valley is a guitarist who plays at least this competently. The same can be said for Fattburger's dreadful Fattburger.com (Shanachie) and its repetitive, simplistic synth washes. Would an accessible Miles Davis album put the listener into a coma?

Rhonda Vincent has cut 17 albums of bluegrass mandolin prior to Back Home Again (Rounder). Though it's hard-core bluegrass à la Jimmy Martin and the Osborne Brothers, there's the same contemporary feel found in Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris. Vincent's voice is downright seductive -- especially on her interpretation of Dolly Parton's "Jolene" -- which may be a first for bluegrass music.

No one's done a better job of connecting bluegrass with other styles than David Grisman. On Dawg Duos (Acoustic Disc), the mandolinist faces off with some of the best players in the acoustic music scene, including Mark O'Connor, Bryan Bowers, Vassar Clements, Bob Brozman and Béla Fleck, who, with Grisman, pulls off a witty revision of the Michel Legrand song "Windmills of Your Mind," here called "Clinch Mountain Windmills."

Speaking of Béla Fleck, the banjoist temporarily stepped away from the Flecktones to record The Bluegrass Sessions: Tales From the Acoustic Planet, Volume 2 (Warner Bros.). Picking at frightening speed are Tony Rice, Sam Bush, John Hartford and the seldom-heard Earl Scruggs. Credit the great sound to age: Most of the instruments dragged to the session were made in the '30s -- though Vassar Clements tops them all by playing his 300-year-old Duifooprugear fiddle.

Folksters Robin and Linda Williams are best known for their appearances on A Prairie Home Companion. In the Company of Strangers (Sugar Hill), which features Mary Chapin Carpenter, marks their 25th year of recording a unique style of top-drawer East Coast acoustic music that might as well be filed under imports to anyone living west of Kentucky.

Texas songwriter Guy Clark became a name back in the '70s when the outlaw movement ruled country and Jerry Jeff Walker made a hit out of Clark's "Desperadoes Waiting for a Train." Cold Dog Soup (Sugar Hill) is as dry and lean as anything he's recorded, sounding like it was taped in his living room. Since the death of Townes Van Zandt, Clark's inherited the mantle as poet laureate of Texas, as his latest proves.

 

Closing off with Criminally Underrated Artists of the Month: Nothing new from The Persuasions in a while, but they're one of the greatest post-doo-wop-era a cappella bands. The New York street-corner band has probably sold fewer albums than the number of times you've washed the dishes this past year, but the hard-core warblers who cover both Bob Dylan and Frank Zappa tunes are still around. Buy them or risk not going to heaven.

Contact Dave McElfresh at his online address: davemcelfresh@aol.com


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