The Fourth of July is also celebrated as Louis Armstrong's birthday, even though in reality it probably isn't. While the trumpeter was frequently accused of Uncle Tomming, the choice of America's B-day as his own (his birth certificate was lost) means we remember him more for Uncle Samming throughout a spectacular career that survived him:
(1) constantly wiping spit from his mouth with a rag;
(2) frequently touting the benefits of his favorite laxative, Swiss Kringle;
(3) admitting he smoked marijuana daily; and
(4) recording "Hello Dolly!".
Speaking of Armstrong, West End Blues: The Very Best of the Hot Fives and Sevens (Music Club) reissues cuts recorded in the '20s and considered representative of what made him the first jazz giant.
Other spiffy jazz: Imagine John Coltrane's yer dad. The good news: You'll get a major-label deal even if the extent of your musicality is snot whistling during a head cold. The bad news: You're doomed to prove to the world that you'll never be able to fill your old man's shoes. Ravi Coltrane has sidestepped the curse with his second release, From the Round Box (BMG/RCA), a mature mix of papa John's influential wailing and his son's preference for a looser form of swinging.
Two super-lunged tenormen have new stuff to strut. The David Murray Octet thrashes through Coltrane's ballads and bombastic classics on Octet Plays Trane (Justin Time), supported by trombone/trumpet/sax arrangements so bent they probably scared off the major labels. Several years back, the eclectic Murray also recorded a disc of Grateful Dead covers. James Carter proves he's just as schizo on two CDs simultaneously released by Atlantic Records. Layin' in the Cut is chain-saw jazz funk built on a foundation laid by Ornette Coleman-schooled bassist Jamaladeen Tacuma and drummer G. Calvin Weston. On Chasin' the Gypsy, Carter throws Django Reinhardt classics through a mix of traditional New Orleans jazz drumming, zydeco accordion and Stephane Grappelli-esque violin. Carter shows how French romanticism was the mama of both Reinhardt and the jazz of New Orleans. Best stuff this month, these two albums.
Hearing the accordion, we're genetically hardwired to either rent a Fellini film or throw nickels at organ grinders' monkeys. Tridruga's self-titled album on the Love Slave label, however, is the ZZ Top of that oh-so-popular accordion/guitar/bass format, triple-dipping into the regional romanticism of Italy's pasta circuit, the musette influence of France and Argentina's bandoneon-fueled tango. Great for other kinds of organ grinding, too, if you know what I mean.
Guitar god George Benson's Absolute Benson (GRP) is being touted as the long-diluted deity's return to the sophisticated soul jazz of early '70s fusion albums like White Rabbit and Beyond the Blue Horizon. No question, the hard-core composing and production values of those 30-year-old CTI label recordings whup this stuff hands down. At least Benson's temporarily dropped the soulless zombie jazz he's favored since Breezin' paid for that home in Hawaii. For a guy blessed with the pipes of Donny Hathaway and the chops of Wes Montgomery, he's gonna have a lot to answer for if death proves that Jesus is hard on underachievers.
Speaking of the afterlife, maybe 32-year-old tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander sold his soul to de debil for the chops that allow him to hold his own with nosebleed guitar patriarch Pat Martino on The First Milestone (Milestone). Young Alexander's intimidating tone and riff-free wailing are also everywhere on Jimmy McGriff's McGriff's House Party (Milestone).
It would be easy to dismiss Here's to You, Charlie Brown: 50 Great Years! based on diet jazzer David Benoit's inability to add much to pianist Vince Guaraldi's original versions of Peanuts themes. But Benoit's interpretations are more extroverted than the originals, replacing sentimentalism with Day-Glo cartoon colors. The thick harmonies and Stevie Wonder-like soul supplied by Take 6 on "Christmas Time Is Here" are a perfect match.
Xenoblast (Blue Note) by The Jazz Mandolin Project not only yanks the instrument far from the realms of bluegrass, it takes a more contemporary approach than does the swing-influenced jazz of David Grisman. Leader Jamie Masefield prefers to stretch out with clusters of unlikely chords rather than wicked bebop lines.
Dominic Duval, longtime bassist of choice for outsider Cecil Taylor, coupled with Jason Kao Hwang of the Far East Side Band to construct The Experiment (Blue Jackel), an album of ominous bass and violin noise that'll make you lock your doors.
On the double-disc set Serenity (ECM), the Bobo Stenson Trio smokes up some moody piano meditations that float between the bodyguard-tough punctuation of the bass and drums. Stenson's often as pensive as Keith Jarrett, but generally meaner. On the same label's Epigraphs, pianist Ketil Bjornstad and cellist David Darling are as pastoral as the jazz style created by Oregon and the Paul Winter Consort -- not surprising since Darling was a member of the latter.
Testosterone-free jazz: If you follow Diana Reeves, whose In the Moment: Live in Concert (Blue Note) has just been released, expand your horizons by checking out the punchy style of Denise Jannah on The Madness of Our Love (Blue Note), where her unique takes of "Harlem Nocturne" and "My Favorite Things" mix with her own sultry composing. On Ritmo + Soul (Blue Note), Canadian soprano saxophonist/flutist Jane Bunnett and the Spirits of Havana burn their way through a playlist of engaging paeans to Cuban music written by bandleader and trumpeter Larry Cramer. Moving the source of inspiration south about a thousand miles: Longtime Brazilian diva Ithamara Koorax's Serenade in Blue (Milestone) is mostly post-bossa nova, relying on '70s-ish electric keyboards rather than acoustic guitars, and including a funky version of the 1966 French soundtrack theme from A Man and a Woman.
For those who mainline Brazilian jazz, empty your wallets on the cashier's counter -- the Verve label has reissued a handful of early bossa nova albums first released when the craze hit the States back in the early '60s. We and the Sea by Tamba 4 still holds up as solid piano-driven Brazilian jazz, while vibist Cal Tjader's impressive improvising on the three-minute cuts filling Plays the Contemporary Music of Mexico and Brazil occasionally drown in the kitsch of Yma Sumac-like vocal padding. The style of guitarist Luiz Bonfa, one of the top four or five major bossa nova composers, is well-represented on Plays and Sings Bossa Nova. Bola Sete was a far more intense guitarist and improviser than his bossa nova peers, making At the Monterey Jazz Festival the most lively of these reissues. Sergio Mendes Presents: Edu Lobo introduced Americans to a significant post-bossa nova composer whose lyrics sound far too pretty to have been considered the threat they were to Brazil's mid-'60s dictatorial government. As for the two reissues by Antonio Carlos Jobim: Tide makes gorgeous elevator music out of the composer's early writings, while the orchestrated Jobim, first released in 1973, is by far one of the composer's best albums.
Blues you can use: Gumbo would definitely let bald and tattooed guitarist John Mooney cut in line for the urinal. On Gone to Hell (Blind Pig), this protégé of both Son House and Professor Longhair sounds as mean as he looks, his Crescent City grit backed by Dr. John. The far more subtle and seductive Chris Thomas King is an aural blues centerfold on Me, My Guitar and the Blues (Blind Pig), where, Prince-like, he plays all the instruments. His greasy mix of acoustic and electric guitar sex music reminds us how seldom blues players offer anywhere near this much personality.
Mojo (Music Club) compiles live material recorded by Muddy Waters in 1971 and 1976. The aging hootchie-coochie man holds his own with longtime Mudsters Luther Johnson, Pinetop Perkins and Bob Margolin in this set of teeth-baring blues, though cuts like "Mannish Boy" had become predictably stale by this point in his career. Finally, mucho credit to whoever suggested that bellowing blues diva E.C. Scott cover Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" on Masterpiece (Blind Pig), which works far better than you'd think.
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Other stuff you'll never hear on the radio: Bill Miller sounds like a Native American version of Bruce Cockburn on sections of Ghostdance (Vanguard). Bono and Eddie Vedder are fans (Pearl Jam performed with him at a Mesa benefit), and Tori Amos has had him open for her some 200 times. Miller rails for good causes with an equal mix of pontification and seduction.
Mandolinist Ronnie McCoury, from supremo bluegrass group the Del McCoury Band, releases his first album, Heartbreak Town (Rounder). The career of Vietnam-era protest singer Malvina Reynolds is revisited on Ear to the Ground (Smithsonian Folkways Recording), which includes the song "Little Boxes," made popular by Pete Seeger. Patriarchal bluegrassers the Monroe Brothers smack guitar and mandolin for Jesus on the hard-core What Would You Give in Exchange for Your Soul? (Rounder) -- who could pass on a CD with a title like that?
Anyone who's ever gotten drunk and acted stupid listening to the Pogues or Van Morrison will want to check out what, apart from Guinness beer, has been their primary source of inspiration. The Chieftains 1 and The Chieftains 2 (Claddagh/Atlantic Records) were recorded more than three decades ago by a group of now-liver-spotted grandfathers who were once Ireland's equivalent of America's Beach Boys. Speaking of Ireland, if you're inclined to yak yer beer up out on the dance floor, you might as well be international about it and switch continents with Reggae Floorfillers: A Collection of the Best Reggae Dance Hits (Music Club), booty bizness culled from the vaults of the Trojan label. And when you feel guilty tomorrow over your disgusting behavior, slip in Devotion: Spiritual Music of the Indian Subcontinent (Music Club), a contemplative collection of meditations from Hindus, Sikhs and Sufis.
Overlooked and underrated: Jazz wackos Oranj Symphonette released only two albums, Plays Mancini (Gramavision) in 1996 and The Oranj Album (Rykodisc) in 1998, both outlandish revampings of '60s soundtrack fare. Basically, it's music from thrift store albums honked, whacked and beat out with a Looney Tunes perspective.