Let's be smug. Smug and proud of it, even.
Yes, those of us who favor underdog music inevitably experience existential loneliness as we thumb desperately for substance through a collection of Marilyn Manson and Celine Dion albums at a party. Yet somehow we feel superior to the sorry suckers who'll be rebuying the same junk 15 years from now when K-Tel feeds it back to them at twice the price. Screw 'em and their parties -- they probably only invited us out of pity. Show them up. Snag the solid stuff now while they recycle their trash later. Here's this month's real bizness:
John Sebastian returns to his pre-Lovin' Spoonful jug-band roots on Chasin' Gus' Ghost (Hollywood Records). Sebastian not only revamps Spoonful cuts like "Wild About My Lovin'," he also gives space to the vocalist of a peer '60s-era jug band, Geoff Muldaur (Maria's ex), who revisits "Minglewood Blues," which he sang as a member of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. If you haven't heard a moonshine jug used as a bass, here's your chance.
Speaking of the '60s, libraries used to stock scratched LPs of famous prose and poetry read by the authors. It's a tradition revived by Rykodisc on a pair of spoken-word albums by two major Beat generation legends: A Coney Island of the Mind by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Jack Kerouac's Reads on the Road, the latter featuring a twisted finale by Tom Waits and Primus. Also Waits-related: Helium (Angel Records) features a bizarre amalgam of banjo, pump organ, violin and accordion by Tin Hat Trio, which sounds like a mix of Nino Rota's Fellini soundtracks, the tangos of Astor Piazzolla and the psycho it'll-get-you-laid-or-killed romanticism of Tom Waits, who appears on the title cut.
Let's all get folked up: Singer Jody Stecher sounds as backwoods traditional as Bill Monroe or Roy Acuff on Going Up on the Mountain (Acoustic Disc), a reissue of his two '70s albums. While hard-core mountain music like "Snake Baked a Hoecake" brings to mind the soundtrack to Deliverance, Stecher's songs have been recorded by Jerry Garcia, Hot Rize and David Grisman, who co-produced the disc with the singer.
Some exceptional folk music can be found on the self-titled Catie Curtis (Rykodisc) and Truth From Lies (Rykodisc), reissues from 1996 and 1997 by the singer who's become popular with her recent A Crash Course in Roses. Curtis has toured with Mary Chapin Carpenter, appeared as part of the last Lilith Fair tour, and had her song "Soulfully" featured in episodes of Dawson's Creek and Chicago Hope. Wonderfully thick writing to be found throughout these two albums, with each song as good as the next. She'll be around for a long time. A bit bluer and more grassy is the newest by flashy ax picker Bryan Sutton, who exposes extraordinarily clean bluegrass chops on Ready to Go (Sugar Hill), which will seduce fans of Dan Crary and Tony Rice. Dolly Parton and Ricky Skaggs sit in.
De blues: Prodigal Son: The Collection (Music Club), a reissue of the '70s recordings of slide guitarist/singer Sonny Landreth, is a funky collection of Louisiana-heavy shufflin' -- contagious from beginning to end. And protecting us from the creeping menace of lame blues fakers is the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings collection, which this month hits us up with two classic collections by bluesters of Biblical proportions: Trouble in Mind by guitarist Big Bill Broonzy and The Folkway Years 1959-1973 by pianist Memphis Slim. Broonzy, who recorded from the late '20s through the '50s, was a forerunner of Chicago blues and the composer of "Key to the Highway." Memphis Slim was another Southerner who moved to the Windy City during the same era, writing "Nobody Loves Me," which B.B. King and others later tweaked into the standard "Everyday I Have the Blues."
The Vanguard label reissues collections by two bluesmen it helped establish -- guitarist John Hammond and harpist Charlie Musselwhite -- on albums titled Best of the Vanguard Years. Garth Hudson, Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson from The Band, as well as guitarist Michael Bloomfield, are session men on both discs. Essential stuff. Also released this month on Vanguard are two jazz collections: Duets Volume 2, featuring pianist Ellis Larkins and cornetist Ruby Braff; and Key One Up, a collection of cuts by pianists Ray Bryant, Bobby Henderson and Sir Charles Thompson. It's all '50s-era stuff and may be a bit dry for the novice, but the players are worth checking out.
Other jazz releases this month: Mark Elf flashes his ultra-clean bop picking on Over the Airwaves (Jen Bay Jazz), which moves him a bit closer to the status he deserves as a hotshot guitarist. The regal piano work of Geoff Keezer (Keith Jarrett's an obvious influence) on Zero One (Dreyfus) turns his version of David Bowie's "Life on Mars" and Wayne Shorter's "Footprints" into unique, top-drawer interpretations. New Directions (Blue Note) by Greg Osby, Stefon Harris, Jason Moran and Mark Shim is a contemporary interpretation of old Blue Note standards by Herbie Hancock, Lee Morgan, Duke Pearson and Horace Silver that gives the listener reason to think that maybe those tunes shouldn't be filed away just yet.
Modesty's Odyssey (Yobo) by Boston-area percussionist Brooke Sofferman is a hard-core, shut-up-'n'-listen jazz outing featuring damn near slobbery liner notes by John Abercrombie as well as the playing of saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi, whom Michael Brecker considers to be the greatest tenor player alive. Happy Apple from Minneapolis has released Body Popping, Moon Walking, Top Rocking (No Alternative Records), which mixes Ornette Coleman and Medeski Martin & Wood with some attention-catching bass lines to create both a colorful and intense jazz outing -- the balance so often lost when jazz players try to get too cerebral.
Violins and cellos are typically the kiss of death when mixed with jazz, making Brandon Fields & Strings (PRC) that rare exception. Corn-free arrangements reminiscent of Claus Ogerman and Don Costa perfectly support Fields' emotive blowing. It's gorgeous stuff meant to be played at three in the morning, and should be purchased by anyone looking for a bit of grab 'n' giggle soundtrack fare. Nearly the same can be said for Ballad Session (Warner Bros.) by tenorman Mark Turner. The bare-faced seriousness of Turner's touching lines, coupled with stark production values somewhat reminiscent of Rudy Van Gelder's Blue Note classics, make this a pretty weird approach to jazz for the pop-favoring Warner Bros. Everybody wins.
On Kisses in the Rain (Telarc), vocalist John Pizzarelli bares the hard-core guitar chops he learned from his dad, Bucky Pizzarelli. Nothing earth-shaking with the warbling, but the guy is a nasty picker.
The 32 Jazz label launches its best-of series, each disc subtitled Givin' Away the Store, with overviews of what Pat Martino, Sonny Stitt and Woody Shaw played during the '70s on the exceptional Muse label. Each one is a great intro to the artist's catalogue. Another solid sampler is Rhino Records' The Very Best of John Coltrane -- a fine overview of Atlantic-era recordings like "Giant Steps" and "My Favorite Things." If you've yet to check out Coltrane, this would be the disc to grab. Best jazz album of the month, hands down, comes from the Night Tripper himself, Dr. John. The good doctor has long vacillated between undiluted, spooky swamp funk like Gris Gris and the VH1-sounding fare found on some of his Warner Bros. outings. Now he's on Blue Note with Duke Elegant, grinding up Duke Ellington standards with his New Orleans chops. The 1932 dance number "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" becomes a voodoo chant, and "Things Ain't What They Used to Be" lays down a bass-driven groove that brings to mind The Meters.
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Native American music is world music to nearly anyone outside the Southwest, and Phoenix is blessed to have one of the genre's major record labels right down on 16th Street. Canyon Records distributes its releases all over the world -- France was the main source of international orders during my last visit a decade back. The label's Medicine Dream by Mawio'mi weaves flute and vocals over beats and guitar breaks that bring to mind the lighter side of heavy metal. Ancient Future, the third release by the R. Carlos Nakai Quartet is a strange but successful mix of tech and tradition, with Native American instrumentation blending with hip-hop-ish beats and textures reminiscent of Philip Glass. Neither recording is the clichéd, new age-ish nonsense meant to serve as soundtracks to firing jars in the backyard kiln.
The small Music Club label cranks out some unique CDs that put the large, risk-abhorring labels to shame. Magic Touch by the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan couples the Indian vocalist with DJ and remixer Bally Sagoo to create a unique form of international dance music. Also released by the label is The Kings and Queens of Rocksteady, which compiles mid-'60s, pre-reggae Jamaican hits, including the Paragon's "The Tide Is High," later covered by Blondie. Moving northeast a couple zillion miles, Faire Celts (Narada World) gathers offerings by 13 mostly unfamiliar Celtic female singers and instrumentalists -- gorgeous stuff for those needing to move beyond Enya and Loreena McKennitt.
This month's Criminally Underrated/Overlooked Artist: Next to John Prine, Michael Smith may be the finest Chicago folk singer ever. Check out Michael Smith Love Stories (Flying Fish Records), a reissue of his first two albums, filled with songs about vampires, panthers in Michigan, Graham Greene-like spies, dead Egyptians, and the last days of Pompeii, and including the original version of "Spoon River," made popular by the late Steve Goodman. Stay pompous.
Contact Dave McElfresh at his online address: email@example.com