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Old, New,
Borrowed and Blue

by Andrew Elias

AS THE WEDDINGS OF SUMMER wane I think about “Something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue” and realize I have heard some excellent new albums that fit those four categories.


Something Old

DR. JOHN
Ske-Dat-De-Dat...
The Spirit of Satch
(Concord)

It only takes a few moments to appreciate that this album is going to be special.

It opens with the Blind Boys of Alabama singing the opening line of Louis Armstrong’s iconic ‘Wonderful World’ before Dr. John enters and shifts the song into a rowdy celebration of simple heartfelt soul. Then he caps it off with a blazing trumpet solo by the great Nicholas Payton. The band is seriously hot and Dr. John has never sounded better - husky but healthy - and his piano playing is at the top of his game.

Ske-Dat-De-Dat...The Spirit of Satch is acelebration of Armstrong’s music, a nod to the greatest New Orleans musician by another of its greats — with some of the best trumpeters of our times: Nicholas Payton, Terence Blanchard, Arturo Sandoval, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.

It’s a wide-ranging collection of hits and classics (‘Mack the Knife,’ ‘When You’re Smiling,’ ‘World on a String’) and more obscure and much bluesier songs (‘Sweet Hunk O’ Trash,’ ‘Dippermouth Blues,’ ‘Tight Like That,’ ‘Gutbucket Blues’). But rather than revisit the songs and mimic Satchmo’s style, he reinvents them. ‘Mack the Knife’ even features some excellent and smart rapping by Mike Ladd.

Some songs ride the same funky grooves that marked his outstanding collaboration with The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, Locked Down. Others are smoother and jazzier. But whether he’s rockin’ out with Shemekia Copeland on ‘Sweet Hunk O’ Trash’ or crooning at the piano with Bonnie Raitt on the joyous ‘World on a String,’ Dr. John is still the master — a national treasure.

At a time when performers decades younger are nostalgically replaying old hits — and 40 years after his own hit ‘Right Place, Wrong Time’ — 74 year old Dr. John is making some of the best music of his life, with a freshness and vitality surpassing artists a quarter his age.


Something New

THE ORWELLS
Disgraceland
(Canvasback)

What do you think would happen if a bunch of high school guys living in the Mid-West, who grew up after 9/11 and during the Great Recession, and listened to The Strokes and Nirvana as they were reaching puberty, would sound like if they formed a band? The answer is The Orwells. And ‘Southern Comfort’ is the song they’d sing. If I didn’t know better I’d swear it was Johnny Thunders or the New York Dolls. Not that its a copy or rip-off. It’s just that good a song.

‘Righteous One,’ the song they blew Letterman away with when they performed the first time on his show, is an instant classic. Sung as half plea and half dare, the song nails the particular angst of teenagers today, as same as it ever was. With a Stooges-like guitar assault, Mario Cuomo’s writhing vocals (reminiscent of Jim Morrison) and the exciting feeling that it all could go off the rails at any moment, it should be the kind of grungy hit that ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was in the early 1990s.

That’s just the first two songs. ‘Dirty Sheets’ follows, a classic teen anthem that girls from good homes should probably not listen to, but hey, The Orwells are probably the boys they shouldn’t hang out with either. ‘Who Needs You,’ Let It Burn’ and ‘Gotta Get Down’ are all Iggy Pop attitude and Ramones-like drive — rebellious, relentless rock ‘n’ Roll. ‘Bathroom Tiles’ and ‘Always n Forever’ hint at a side of the band that’s more power-pop than punk, but ‘Norman’ and ‘Blood Bubbles’ are pretty dark stuff.

Simply a great punk rock album. The kind of rock ‘n’ roll you should play louder than you should. Rock ‘n’ roll for teenagers, and that teenager is us all. Disgraceland will be a landmark album, one that future musicians cite as inspiration to form a band in their garage or basement. It’s that much fun.


Something Borrowed

KELLY WILLIS & BRUCE ROBISON
Our Year
(Thirty Tigers)

Not quite the royalty of country music’s Johnny Cash & June Carter or George Jones & Tammy Wynette, the husband and wife team of Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis are nonetheless one of the most acclaimed and popular couples in Americana roots music. Each has been recording for years, playing music that incorporates disparate influences from Texas to New Orleans to Nashville, and writing simple, honest and romantic songs.

Just the second album to be officially released as a duo, Our Year features two well-crafted songs by Robison (‘Carousel’ and ‘Anywhere But Here’) and Kelly (‘Lonely for You’) as well as little-known gems by T Bone Burnett and Walter Hyatt, and old favorites “I’ll Go to My Grave Loving You’ (a hit for the Statler Brothers) and the Tom T. Hall classic and Jeannie C. Riley hit, ‘Harper Valley PTA,’ which was made for Kelly’s voice, with equal parts fragility and confidence.

Our Year is an album full of strong songs, beautiful harmonies, and lots of fiddling and pedal steel guitar. Country music the way it’s supposed to be.


Something Blue

HAROLD MABERN
Right On Time

LOUIS HAYES
Return of the Jazz Communicators

CYRUS CHESTNUT
Midnight Melodies

ORRIN EVANS
Liberation Blues

ERIC REED
Groovewise

JIMMY COBB
The Original Mob

VINCENT HERRING
The Uptown Shuffle

JAVON JACKSON
Expression
(Smoke Sessions)

The jazz pantheon includes historic labels such as Prestige, Blue Note, Riverside, Impulse, Verve, and Savoy - labels that not only had a roster of superb musicians, but also often had a unique studio sound or creative attitude. Smoke Sessions Records is the creation of the owners of the famous Smoke Jazz & Supper Club in New York City. With a slew of new releases, it will be hard-pressed to achieve the creative heights and winning track records of the great labels of the past, but it is on the way to establishing itself as one of the top new jazz labels. With the release of nine albums recorded live at the jazz club, with vintage techniques and modern technology, and at times featuring some of the same musicians, the recordings have both a unity of spirit and variety of styles.

The labels’ first release is Right on Time by piano great Harold Mabern. Recorded last year over the weekend of his 77th birthday, the album reflects Mabern’s mastery of traditional bebop as well as his eagerness to explore taking his music in new directions. In a a trio with John Webber on bass and Joe Farnsworth on drums, Mabern tackles the disco hit ‘Dance With Me’ and the theme from the TV show Laverne & Shirley, ‘Making Our Dreams Come True’ with the same excitement he brings to Duke Ellington’s ‘Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,’ Rodgers & Hammerstein’s ‘My Favorite Things’ and Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘The Nearness of You.’ The standout of this bluesy set is the jazz classic ‘Cherokee.’

Louis Hayes is another master of jazz drumming, driving historic sessions by the likes of Horace Silver, Cannonball Adderley, Oscar Peterson, Dexter Gordon and McCoy Tyner. His Smoke Sessions recording, Return of the Jazz Communicators refers back to Hayes’ band in the 1960s with Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson and Kenny Barron. Although this album features the saxophone of Abraham Burton (‘Portrait of Jennie’) and the vibraphone of Steve Nelson (Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Lush Life’ and Mulgrew Miller’s ‘Soul-Leo’), it’s Hayes himself, 77 years old, that really shines on the more upbeat tracks.

The three most recent releases from Smoke Sessions come from a trio of outstanding pianists: Cyrus Chestnut (age 51), Eric Reed (44) and Orrin Evans (38). Joining Chestnut is bassist Curtis Lundy and drummer Victor Lewis, veterans of the John Hicks trio, so it’s no surprise that on a session that includes two songs by Billy Strayhorn, one by Miles Davis, and the jazz classics, Milt Jackson’ ‘Bag’s Groove’ and John Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps,’ it’s the three tracks by Hicks that stand out.

Eric Reed is usually heard in a trio so it’s especially exciting to hear him in a quartet. The set starts with a swinging take on Clifford Jordon’s ‘Powerful Paul Robeson,’ performed impromptu for Jordon’s wife, who was in the club at the time. The session also includes original compositions dedicated to Mulgrew Miller, Cedar Walton and Marian McPartland. Reed is committed to carry on the jazz traditions that inspire him while maintaining the drive to always push the music forward.

It’s hard to keep up with pianist, bandleader and music provocateur Orrin Evans. He releases albums with big bands, small combos of varying sizes, and as a solo artist, with incredible regularity, continually exploring all kinds of new sounds with a wide array of musical cohorts. What makes this session special, other than the incredible 32-minutes of ‘The Liberation Blues Suite,’ is the pairing of trumpeter Sean Jones with tenor saxophonist JD Allen. The session was recorded immediately following the passing of Evan’s close friend and bassist, Dwayne Burno, and is dedicated to his memory. It is an emotional set with inspired playing by Evans and all, with the added treat of guest vocalist Joanna Pascale, who happened to be in the club, singing ‘The Night Has a Thousand Eyes.’

Orrin Evans drives the session by the young tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson on his release, Expressions while Cyrus Chestnut joins alto saxophonist Vincent herring on his excellent release, The Uptown Shuffle.

Few jazz drummers have had as remarkable a career as Jimmy Cobb. Best known as Miles Davis’ drummer for years, most notably on the groundbreaking album Kind of Blue, his new release The Original Mob finds Cobb working with three former students: pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist John Webber and guitarist Peter Bernstein. The first time they have played together in years, the sessions prove that the chemistry of the group and the artistry of each member has not lessened. Standards like ‘Old Devil Moon,’ ‘Nobody Else But Me,’ ‘Sunday in New York’ and ‘Stranger in Paradise’ are wonderful, warm and playful.

The folks at Smoke jazz club have come out of the gate with more than a few first rate live recordings for their new Smoke Sessions label and we can only wish them success and hope to hear many more in the coming months and years. The incredible magic of live jazz is alive and well. •

September-October 2014



At 74 years of age, Dr. John
is making some of the
best music of his career




The Orwells are the kind
of band that will spawn
hundreds of future bands in
garages all over the country