Thought I forgot about these over the weekend, didn't you? Last evening I finally had time to sit back and write about the ones I've been setting aside for you. It's a daunting task: Each day I receive about 10 CDs, and by week's end there are several stacks on my desk. Not to worry, though. Here are 10 that stood out:
In February 1972—two days before his famed Paris concert (Live in Paris)—Bill Evans, with bassist Eddie Gomez and Marty Morell performed in Groningen, a college town in the Netherlands. The gig was taped in the open by a Dutch pianist, Jan Warntjes, after winning the approval of Helen Keane, Evans' manager. The result is Momentum (Limetree), a two-CD set. It's another night in the life of the mid-period Bill Evans Trio, and many of the usual song suspects are here—with a bunch of surprises. These include Elsa, Sugar Plum, Quiet Now and Gloria's Step. The drawbacks are that the bass is overmiked, Evans is a tad robotic (cranky about the piano again?) and the sound is a little distant. But if you turn up the volume, you'll wind up with a fascinating listen—a preview of the famed Paris concert albums.
Who knows why some artists succeeded in the '70s and others didn't. Bad album promotion, a dumb release date, an artist's acidic personality, lack of confidence by producers or just fate. One lost thoroughbred was Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, a Mexican-American from Detroit with Bob Dylan's voice and songwriting skills. Rodriguez released Cold Fact (1970) and Coming From Reality (1971), and then that was it. But what was lost on the U.S. market became an underground sensation in South Africa, where the albums were banned but passed around illegally. Over there, Rodriguez's urgent vocals became a force for hope and change. A documentary about him and his impact was just released—Searching for Sugar Man—and two albums have been released remastered on the soundtrack album by Sony/Legacy. Two albums with the global impact of Dylan's Like a Rolling Stone.
For those who like their jazz-rock fusion live, hot and nostalgic, Return to Forever's The Mothership Returns (Eagle) is quite a package. It comes with two CDs that are sonically terrific as well as a DVD featuring full live performances of After the Cosmic Rain and The Romantic Warrior, a trailer for a soon-to-be-released Return to Forever documentary and an hour-long film, Return to Forever: Inside the Music, with live footage and interviews. The 2011 revival band: Chick Corea (keyboards), Stanley Clarke (bass), Lennie White (drums), Jean-Luc Ponty (violin) and Frank Gambale (guitar). RTF remains the bedrock of fusion band inventiveness.
On Lifetimes (Blue Forest), the Brubeck Brothers Quartet updates five songs associated with Dave Brubeck—The Duke, Jazzanians, Kathy's Waltz, My One Bad Habit and Take Five. They also record three originals by bandmates Chuck Lamb and Mike DeMicco. The quartet features Chris Brubeck (bass and bass trombone), Dan Brubeck (drums), Chuck Lamb (piano) and Mike DeMicco (guitar). And while you might sense that this is a Dave Brubeck tribute band, nothing could be further from the truth. The quartet has its own sound and delivers solid and smart interpretations of Dave's works, sending-up reconstructions that enhance the originals. Sample The Duke and Take Five. Both sound as fresh as they did when first recorded.
Pianist Larry Willis began his recording career in 1965 with Jackie McLean on Right Now! On his new solo piano album This Time the Dream's On Me (HighNote), Willis proves he's as lyrical as he is percussive. There are three originals and seven standards, including My Ship, It Could Happen to You and Cole Porter's rarely heard True Love, which Willis plays beautifully. What makes Willis special is his ability to draw you in and hold you fast—not with hysterical speed or splashy inside-out reworkings but with quiet drama and deep meaning. An album that lets you catch your breath while taking your breath away.
Etta James: Live at Montreux—1975-1993 (Eagle) features the R&B singer's appearances in 1975, 1977, 1989 and 1993. What you notice in these snapshots over an 18-year period is how remarkably powerful her voice remained and how deftly she leveraged blues-shouting for party-time purposes. Sample Respect Yourself (1975) and Beware (1993).
Speaking of the blues, Linsey Alexander's Been There Done That (Delmark) features the bump-and-grind guitarist and vocalist delivering the Delta sound, city-style. Alexander has been a competitive force in the Windy City for years, and the tracks on this album—all recorded live—serve up hot-skillet grooves. Backed by up to nine instruments—including organ, trumpet and tenor sax—Alexander works a different feel on each track, and all mix soul, funk and blues effortlessly. Sample the title track and Going Back to My Old Time Used to Be. This is blues of the highest order and you'll surely find it a fabulous discovery. And catch Billy Branch on blues harp (tracks 1, 6 and 8). Music that makes you want to fire up the grill.
August marks the 50th anniversary of the recording of Green Onions, the hit Stax album by Booker T. & the M.G.s that put funky soul on the map. The album has just been re-issued remastered by Concord. As an organ-guitar-bass-drums album, Green Onions set the stage for a wave of similar bands that would follow. It also became a model for every late-night talk-show TV band today, including the Saturday Night Live band. Built on riffs, chink-chink guitar chords and punchy beats, the album provided Stax with a winning model. It also firmly established Booker T. & the MGs as the label's core studio band, and they backed dozens of artists on hundreds of hits. Still funky as it ever was.
In 1959, Hank Ballard wrote and first recorded The Twist with the Midnighters for King Records. The single topped out at #28 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart in early 1960. Unfortunately for Ballard (or fortunately, since he was the sole writer), the song didn't have the same electricity as Chubby Checker's cover, which soared to #1 in September 1960. Checker's The Twist also ignited one of the most popular dance crazes between 1960 and 1967, instantly giving rise to freestyle dancing—couples facing each other but doing their own thing. Checker, of course, was quickly put to work trying to top his own hit with dance number after dance number. The spray of step-theme 45-rpms included The Jet, The Continental Walk and The Stroll. Many are captured on a remastered Chubby Checker two-fer—It's Pony Time/Let's Twist Again (Real Gone/ABKCO). Where it all began.
Not many rock groups can claim to be from California's San Fernando Valley. Chalk one up for the Electric Prunes. Back in the mid- and late1960s, parents were fond of using the band's name as a punch line to show how dumb popular music had become. In truth, the band was better than its name implied. Ain't It Hard and Little Olive were early psychedelic-rock garage-band numbers, and both remain worthy. Now all of the band's major 45-rpms have been gathered on Electric Prunes: The Complete Reprise Singles (Real Gone). Surprisingly, much of the band's material holds up well—a quaint bridge between the Byrds and the Mamas & the Papas and the heavyweight acidy action put down by bands like Cream, the Yardbirds and Jefferson Airplane. Take that, parents.