Sonic Stew

Listening to the radio, you'd think that there's only enough progressive jazz, blues, R&B, folk and world music being released to merit an occasional two-hour show. Not so, bubba. There's loads of great stuff coming out in all of these genres -- always has been, always will be. What follows is just a sampling of what's come out in the past month or so, most of it well worth checking out.

For starters, if you've not heard jazz percussionist/composer Kip Hanrahan, the recent A Thousand Nights and a Night (Shadow Nights - 2) (Justin Time/American Clave) is another installment in his updated retelling of the Arabian Nights story. Hanrahan's the most erotic figure in jazz, his lusty lyrics/poems fueled by hard-core Cuban percussion and some of the most famous figures in the New York club scene. His A Few Short Notes From the End Run (Justin Time/American Clave), also just released, features the late pianist Don Pullen and ex-Cream bassist Jack Bruce, both frequent collaborators with Hanrahan on previous albums.

Concerto (Sony Classical) by Chick Corea is the best release the pianist has come up with in nearly a decade. The first half of the disc is a superb orchestrated revision of his signature jazz fusion piece, "Spain," while the second half proves how romantic and expressive he can be when motivated -- in this case by the London Symphony Orchestra.

From the earliest days of jazz/rock comes Improvisations: Best of the Vanguard Years (Vanguard) by Larry Coryell and the Eleventh House, one of the first and most aggressive of the fusion bands. Yeah, the music on this reissue is sometimes painfully dated, but Coryell was damn near the George Washington of fusion guitar. Contemporary electrified jazzers should spit out stuff as in-yer-face as this.

Joey DeFrancesco, who lives in Scottsdale, is among the best of the new jazz organists, as he continues to prove on Goodfellas (Concord Jazz), a collection of Italian songs filtered through swing and funk. Even "Volare" and the "Theme From The Godfather" sound gritty in the hands of DeFrancesco and Django-inspired guitarist Frank Vignola.

The Melody at Night, With You (ECM) from Keith Jarrett stands out because of the intimacy in his solo piano interpretations of classic ballads like "Someone to Watch Over Me." No offense to longtime partners drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Gary Peacock, but Jarrett's almost always better when left to himself.

A few Pat Metheny projects have been released recently, none of them much like the next. Though the guitarist is now a jazz patriarch in his own right, he remains respectful of his influences. Jim Hall and Pat Metheny (TelArc) is built on the subtleties of Hall's playing rather than Metheny's flash, meaning that some fans of the Metheny Group may find it a bit too introspective for their tastes. Their loss. A Map of the World (Warner Bros.) is Metheny's most recent soundtrack offering. Many of the compositions are reminiscent of the orchestrated guitar ballads that occasionally appear on his albums. Unfortunately, most of these 28 cuts are only one or two minutes long -- themes missing development and improvisation. Michael Brecker once again features Metheny in his band on Time Is of the Essence (Verve), the title referring to the album's collection of cuts built on powerful, challenging or odd time signatures. Metheny also shows up on two cuts of saxophonist Kenny Garrett's Simply Said (Warner Bros.), a colorful collection of funk, African- and bossa nova-influenced jazz. Those who may have found Garrett's earlier stuff a bit dry may prefer this attempt at stretching his style. (Speaking of stretching, check out jazz pianist Brad Mehldau's reverent cover of Radiohead's "Exit Music [For a Film]" on Art of the Trio 4: Back at the Vanguard on Warner Bros.)

No shortage of other great jazz guitar stuff is available. The 32 Jazz label has released two double reissues of the amazing Pat Martino. Comin' & Goin': Exit & The Return covers recordings made both before and after a bout of amnesia stemming from a brain aneurysm, resulting in Martino having to relearn how to play the guitar. The stylistic differences evident in the pre- and post-amnesia playing are more than a bit creepy. Mission Accomplished: Interchange/Nightwings fortunately shows him having regained his superb chops. Guitarist Mike Stern, who has yet to record an album that conveys what he can whip off in concert, at least sets himself up in the company of serious fretwhackers Bill Frisell and John Scofield on Play (Atlantic), making it one of Stern's best. On The Undiscovered Few (Blue Note), guitarist Rodney Jones drops the funk he played working behind ex-James Brown sideman Maceo Parker for a harder jazz edge more like what he played in Dizzy Gillespie's band. Also worth hearing is the underrated guitarist Eddie Duran and his sax-playing wife, Mad, playing "My Favorite Things" in 5/4 on From Here to the Moon (Milestone). As for straightahead swing, there's Gravy Waltz: The Best of Herb Ellis (Euphoria), culled from the guitarist's earlier years.

Some recent blues and R&B stuff: While most tribute albums tend to dilute the roots of the artists they pay homage, Whole Lotta Blues: Songs of Led Zeppelin (House of Blues) offers even grittier versions of the band's best-known blues renditions, played by major bluesmen like Robert Junior Lockwood and Otis Rush. The label will soon feature this release in a boxed set along with the duo's four previous albums paying tribute to the blues of Janis Joplin, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. Those who buy Chicago blues by following the output of the Alligator and Delmark labels can increase their familiarity with the area's output by snagging Earwig Music: 25th Anniversary Collection (Earwig), a sampler featuring Sunnyland Slim, Frank Frost, Louis Myers, Carey Bell and more than a dozen other local legends.

We thought he was dead. Our mistake. Wilson Pickett gives us It's Harder Now (Bullseye), a superb hard-core R&B album that assaults the listener from the opening "Outskirts of Town," built on the same funky riff as the Pretenders' "Brass in Pocket." Mariah Carey's soulless wanking makes her rich, while Pickett will probably sell a couple thousand copies of this gem. Maybe there is no God.

From South America: On Quintet for New Tango (BMG/RCA Victor), pianist Pablo Ziegler carries on the legacy of bandoneonist Astor Piazzolla, a musical rebel whose alteration of the ultraconservative tango dance form resulted in death threats. Milton Nascimento has become the reigning Brazilian vocalist/composer since the death of Antonio Carlos Jobim, a position well-substantiated by Crooner (Warner Bros.), where he revisits the compositions of other classic Brazilian writers he sang earlier in his career.

Folk/bluegrass pickings: How the quirky Béla Fleck and the Flecktones gathered a sizable audience remains a mystery. Is it because of the pirate guy playing the sci-fi bass? Greatest Hits (Warner Bros.) regurgitates what has made them popular, though hard-core, experimental banjo fans will do far better checking out what Fleck played in the '80s on labels like Rounder -- Chick Corea's "Spain," for example -- in the company of mandolinists Sam Bush and David Grisman. Speaking of Grisman, he and Djangophile supreme, guitarist Martin Taylor, tear through a collection of standards on I'm Beginning to See the Light (Acoustic Disc). Neither artist has ever put out a poor album, but they're so goddamned flawless here they'd do better taking on bigger challenges than "Makin' Whoopee." The two acoustic jazzers could whip off equally killer interpretations of Charlie Parker or the Prince catalogue. Sure wish they would.

From the '60s folk era comes Mimi and Richard Farina's Pack Up Your Sorrows: Best of the Vanguard Years (Vanguard). Some of the cuts are supported by the treble-heavy twang of an autoharp, and some try too hard to be hip with arrangements hoping to attract the hippie audience. Ian & Sylvia: Best of the Vanguard Years is the better folk duo collection, featuring more classic songs ("Someday Soon," "Four Strong Winds" and "Early Morning Rain"). Nanci Griffith plays some old and new tunes with the London Symphony Orchestra on The Dust Bowl Symphony (Elektra). Some of the cuts have appeared on Griffith albums three times already (original album, live album, best-of album), possibly making this a bit much for those who have all of her 16 releases. Also slightly disappointing is the newest from John Prine. Apart from the title cut, Prine's In Spite of Ourselves (Oh Boy Records) is a collection of '60s-era country songs by the likes of Freddy Hart and Melba Montgomery -- nice stuff, but Prine's smart-ass muse is sorely missed.

Mickey Newbury is a class act who wrote both the First Edition's psychedelica-by-way-of-Nashville cut "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)" and the regal "American Trilogy" -- the song Elvis used to close his concerts. It Might As Well Be the Moon (Mountain Retreat) is a double-disc set of Newbury applying his exceptional vocal chops to gorgeous ballads that once led a reviewer to rightfully refer to him as "the Robert Frost of country music." Though Chris Hillman and Herb Pederson are primarily known as members of the Desert Rose Band, what makes Rice, Rice, Hillman and Pedersen (Rounder) such hot stuff is the guitar work of virtuoso Tony Rice, who may be the best acoustic guitarist alive. There's plenty more of his music on Rounder, should you find yourself hooked.

The Holy Modal Rounders was an oddball duo back in the '60s Greenwich Village folk-music boom that mixed Appalachian songs with beatnik-era ranting, both supported by fiddle, banjo and guitar. The reissue Holy Modal Rounders: 1 & 2 (Fantasy) predates the duo's goofiest period, but it's still strange enough to repel anyone who thinks of folk music in terms of the Kingston Trio. A relatively new folkster worth attention is Johnny Dowd, who's as weird as you're likely to run across. His exceptional Pictures From Life's Other Side (Koch) is a collection of spooky country/folk songs that guarantee he'll never have a groupie meeting him backstage in the dark. Dowd sings about the ever-faithful husband of a wife whose coma was the result of his drunken driving, and a stalker in love with a schoolgirl. Nothing like a romantic ballad.

Contact Dave McElfresh at his online address:


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