For the past two weeks, my overloaded schedule has kept me from reviewing CD and DVD discoveries in my Weekend Wax Bits roundup—which goes up early on Saturdays. So I figured why not present the reviews today—on a Tuesday:
When vocalist Tessa Souter mentioned to Tetsuo Hara, owner of Venus Records, that she dug Steve Kuhn's recording of Prelude in E Minor by Chopin, Hara had a suggestion: How about an album of classical melodies set to words? Tessa agreed, and she set about creating a list for Beyond the Blue (Motema). Some of the songs were already jazz-pop standards while others required Tessa to write lyrics. Backed by Kuhn (piano), David Finck (bass) and Billy Drummond (drums) along with guests Joe Locke (vibes) Gary Versace (accordion) and Joel Frahm (sax), Tessa provides quite a seductive long-hair education. While I knew that Lamp Is Low, Beyond the Blue and My Reverie were originally classical pieces, I had no idea that Stranger in Paradise (called Dance With Me here) and Baubles, Bangles and Beads were from the pen of Borodin. I might add that Tessa's Baubles, Bangles and Beads is one of the finest versions of this song ever recorded. Go sample it for yourself.
When you see the name Jean-Luc Ponty on an album, you expect tracks of string mayhem given the violinist's role with John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra starting in 1974 and other period bands. But the Mads Tolling Quartet's Celebrating Jean-Luc Ponty: Live at Yoshi's (MadsMan) takes a different approach. What you have here is a rich, warm recording that swings in and out of jazz, rock and bluegrass. Tolling is a violinist with enormous sensitivity and technique who manages here to avoid aping the fusion fiddler. Instead, he covers songs closely associated with Ponty but brings his own special grace and eclectic taste to solid material.
The Pratt Brothers Big Band is old school with a post-modern feel. On 16 Men & A Chick Singer Swingin' (CAP), a good number of the tracks are uptempo numbers with classy arrangements and all feature assertive solos. Dean Pratt plays trumpet and brother Michael is on drums, and they've filled the rest of the chairs with heavy hitters, including trumpeter Don Sickler. Best of all, the arrangements are aces-up. There are charts here by Ernie Wilkins (Big Bad Basie, Falling in Love and Sixteen Men Swinging) and Michael Abene (Cup of Life and Fair Weather). Vocalist Roberta Gambarini snuggles up next to each song, doing a particularly lovely job with Meredith D'Ambrosio's Cup of Life lyrics. A big band album with subtle textures and plenty of bang.
I don't know how Willie Nelson does it. The country singer-songwriter records up to three albums a year, and they're always captivating and touching. What's more, Nelson's voice is still like Jimmy Forrest's tenor sax—crisp, bluesy and take-charge. And oh those low notes. On Heroes (Legacy), Nelson isn't alone. His pals include Merle Haggard, Snoop Dogg, Kris Kristofferson, Sheryl Crow and even Ray Price. This is the real deal—porch-at-sunset stuff with an ice-chest of long necks, boot heels on the railing and a cowboy hat tilted just so. Gems include the title track, Cold War With You, Just Breathe, Home in San Antone and—awww heck, they're all great. Honest. Plus, there are guitars galore.
The roots of soul reach all the way back to urban R&B wailers like Little Willie John. From 1955 to 1961, the shouter had a slew of R&B hits for Cincinnati's King label—all of them captured on an impressive new two-CD set: Little Willie John: Complete Hit Singles A's & B's (Real Gone Music). Back at the dawn of crossover rock in 1956, R&B still meant just that—a knockout rhythm behind heart-felt blues. But the invisible initial that was essential to an R&B hit was the V—gospel-trained vocals that sold a song with force. The beauty of Little Willie John is that he could set R&B songs spinning but also croon the clefs off standards like Fever, Flamingo and Cottage for Sale. If you dig Sam Cooke and Clyde McPhatter, then this set will knock you out. A mother lode of R&B sapphires, carefully remastered and as fresh musically today as they were back when our parents were kids.
Bill Evans' Moon Beams (Concord) has just been gloriously remastered, finally allowing us to hear all three musicians distinctly. This is an important album for many reasons. Recorded in June 1962, the date came during a tough time in Evans' life following the car-crash death of his bassist, Scott LaFaro. It was the first trio album release following LaFaro's death. Evans made several other albums between the Vanguard date in '61 and this one, which also produced How My Heart Sings, but not trio discs. What's still remarkable about Moon Beams is Evans' taut, hard-finger execution and flawless improvisational concepts. Here, the tender, tentative ivory explorations of the Vanguard recording are no more. They were replaced by deliberate agony and rolling fluidity. The material is largely nocturnal and dreamy. Equal to Evans' grace and pacing are the new liner notes by Doug Ramsey.
A Talking Heads fan? That's what I thought. The minimalist New Wave band got its start in 1975, and its gig history is well documented on a new DVD—Talking Heads: Chronology (Eagle Rock). This ain't no documentary—which means there are no talking heads blabbing about the band. Instead, there are merely 18 important performances that illustrate the band's stage evolution, from New York's Kitchen club in 1975 to the band's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2002. Seeing David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth and Jerry Harrison develop over time into performance artists reminds you how easy this group made complexity sound.