Andy Narell has made so many cool albums of jazzy steel pan (aka steel drum) music through the years he is practically a genre unto himself at this point. A musician of tremendous skill and consummate good taste, Narell takes the pans places they’ve never been before, so far beyond the limited palette of calypso it barely seems like the same instrument. Though he is adept at many different styles, his great love is obviously still jazz, and his latest release offers six breezy explorations, mostly Latin-tinged jaunts that allow his pans to sing over the solid rhythmic underpinnings of percussionist Luis Conte and drummers Mark Walker and Jean Philippe Fanfant. Guitarist Mike Stern helps out on a couple of tracks to nice effect, and tenor sax ace David Sanchez adds a sonorous touch and just a bit of pepper to the lovely “Tabanca.” With most cuts running 10 to 13 minutes, there’s plenty of room for Narell and company to stretch out and play with different moods and tonalities. The final cut on the CD, “Appreciation” is perhaps the richest, and features Narell playing with associates from the Calysociation steel band school in Paris in what Narell dubs a “steel orchestra.”
Must Play: “Appreciation”
Producer: Andy Narell. Engineers: Philippe Avril, Matt Tahaney, Jack Barry, Thomas Ralston, Steve Addabbo, Narell. Studios: Studio Tex Avril, Calypsociation, Idea Plus Paris, Q Division, Shelter Island Sound, C&M Studio.
Risin’ With the Blues
It’s funny about the Grammys: Loads of music I love is always nominated, but hardly anybody I’m into ever wins. That said, I’ll certainly be pleasantly surprised if Ike Turner’s nominated Risin’ With the Blues receives a well-deserved award for Best Traditional Blues this year. Like his early rock ‘n’ roll creations, this album is flooded with the soul of electric and jump blues, and it’s enlivened by Turner’s undiminished skill at the piano. Though singing isn’t his strongest suit, Turner’s passion for the music always comes across, and occasionally he shines with heartbreaking brilliance, such as on his raunchy version of the Fats Domino song “Goin’ Home Tomorrow.” At the end of the original Chicago blues-style song “Jesus Loves Me,” Turner shouts “I can’t live forever; how long do you think I’m gonna wait for forgiveness?” What I like about Ike: he doesn’t mince words, and he never holds back.
Must Play: “Goin’ Home Tomorrow”—worth the price of the CD.
Producer: Ike Turner Jr. Assistant producer: Roger Nemour. Studios: Studio West, Proxy Recording, Signature Sound, Track Entertainment Studios (all in L.A.). Mastering: Phil Magnotti.
The Soul of John Black
The Good Girl Blues
All hail one of the new faces of soul: John “JB” Bigham. The roots of deep Southern, African-American music slither their way across Bigham’s sophomore release, The Good Girl Blues, which is filled with impressive songwriting, intricate guitar lines and soothing bass bumps. Bigham’s past credits include writing songs and playing percussion for Miles Davis, as well as handling guitar and keyboards for the eclectic rock/funk/ska band Fishbone, so he brings a lot of interesting experience and influences to his music. The first SOJB album was a full collaboration with Chris Thomas—he makes an appearance here as a bassist on two tracks—but this time Bigham has taken the production reigns himself; this is clearly his show now. He even recorded the album at home. Among the standout tracks are “The Hole,” the funky/sexy “I Got Work,” the B.B. King–inspired “Good Girl” and Memphis groove of “Feelin’s.” The Good Girl Blues is evidence that Bigham has grown dramatically as an artist and songwriter—his fusion of soul and blues sounds new, even as it hearkens back to the classic feel of past styles.
Must Play: “Fire Blues”
Producer: Bigham. Studio: Whitley Manor. Mixer: Richard “Segal” Huredia. Mastering: Robert Hadley/Mastering Lab (Hollywood).
This debut CD by L.A.-based (but New Orleans-bred) singer/songwriter AM (Anthony Miller) was actually recorded a few years ago, but it was picked up for wider distribution by Defend Music after he shined at SXSW, and it’s easy to see why: It’s an impressive outing from top to bottom. Co-produced by Jamie Myerson and AM, this nicely crafted album of moody folk-rock is loaded with bright, accessible hooks, strong melodies, shimmering harmonies, but also interesting atmospheric guitar and keyboard touches. I was not surprised to learn that songs from this album have already appeared in several indie films and various TV programs—once they get in your head, they stay there; they’re that infectious. It will be interesting to hear what musical shape his more up-to-date thoughts will take.
Must Play: “Gone Away,” “Running Away.”
Producers: Jamie Myerson, AM. Engineered by , Myerson, AM, James O’Connell. Studios: JLM Recordings, Studio de Edgeliffe, Monkeyden.
Sittin’ on Top of the World
Jack Cooke’s first “solo” album is bluegrass of the highest order. Rhythm guitarist/stand-up bassist Cooke has been a member of the Clinch Mountain Boys for 37 years, as well as leader of his own Virginia Mountain Boys and a member of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, and his feel for this music is unsurpassed. He’s got a sweet, mournful voice, perfect timing, and some of the best connections in the genre. The album was produced by indie country singer/songwriter Jim Lauderdale, whose own Bluegrass album is nominated for a Grammy this year, and whose devotion to old-time music is pure. Lauderdale and Cooke assembled a star-studded lineup of roots musicians and guests, including Del McCoury, David Grisman, James Shelton, Ralph Stanley and more. They’ve made an album with so much spirit that their versions of oft-recorded songs like Johnny Horton’s “North to Alaska” or the Louvin Brothers’ “There’s a Higher Power” are practically revelations.
Must Play: “Sittin’ on the Top of the World,” with Ralph Stanley singing harmony.
Producer: Jim Lauderdale. Recording Engineers: Alan Maggard, Tim Coats, Jeff Sterling. Mixed by Maggard. Studios: Maggard Sound (Big Stone Gap, Va.), Moondog (Nashville), Jeff Sterling Studios (Penngrove, Calif.). Mastering: Yes Master (Nashville).