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Jorma Kaukonen: Blue Country Heart (Columbia) Guitarist/singer Jorma Kaukonen is certainly no stranger to country blues, having played extensively in
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Jorma Kaukonen: Blue Country Heart (Columbia)

Guitarist/singer Jorma Kaukonen is certainly no stranger to country blues, having played extensively in the idiom with Hot Tuna and as a solo act for going on four decades now. He is rightfully acknowledged as one of the master pickers of the genre. Jorma's latest album offers a slight twist, however, as it draws from early white country blues and old-time styles — Jimmie Rodgers, the Delmore Brothers, Cliff Carlisle, Jimmy “The Singing Governor” Davis and others. Not surprisingly, this is a perfect fit, too. Always a warm and engaging vocalist, Jorma completely makes these mostly Depression-era songs come alive, finding the drama, compassion or humor in each. His fingerpicking is deft and subtle, and what a group he's assembled to accompany him for these sessions: Sam Bush on mandolin and fiddle, the incomparable Jerry Douglas on dobro, Byron House on standup bass and, on two tracks, Bela Fleck on banjo. The CD has the loose, spontaneous feel of a front porch jam session, but the playing is so strong and assured, you'd think these guys had been playing this music together their whole lives. The songs are a great cross-section of different styles and subject matter — from lonesome blues to social commentary — and, though drawn from America's musical roots, sound completely relevant today. If you dug the multi-Platinum O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, chances are you'll like this one, too. A real find!

Producers: Roger Moutenot and Yves Beauvais. Engineer: Roger Moutenot. Studios: Masterlink (Nashville), Seventeen Grand (Nashville). Mastering: Ted Jensen/Sterling Sound (NYC). Available in stereo and multichannel SACD.
Blair Jackson

John Williams: The Magic Box (Sony Classical)

Here's an intriguing match: A modern master of classical and Spanish guitar tackling African music. Williams brings his warm sound and flawless technique to a real mixed bag of tunes from Cameroon, Madagascar, Mali, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Cape Verde. As you might expect, there's interesting and varied percussion on most songs, and his cast of helpers includes the superb bassist Chris Laurence and steel-string guitarist John Etheridge on many tracks — his style and Williams' mesh beautifully. It's a pleasant and unfailing melodic outing, and even though it brings Williams into a different world than we're accustomed to, he never strays too far from his familiar sound — there's still a lot of Bach and Rodrigo in him. And, while there is definitely both fluidity and passion in his playing, on some fundamental level, some of these tunes just don't have the loose-limbed swing of the real thing. Still, a beautiful album.

Producer: John Williams. Engineer: Geoff Foster. Additional engineering: Stephane Briand. Studios: AIR (London), Guillaume Tell (Paris, one track). Mastering: Bob Whitney/Whitfield Street Studios (London).
Blair Jackson

René Lacaille and Bob Brozman: DigDig (Riverboat/World Music Network)

There's been a mini-explosion of world music reaching our shores of late, and World Music Network, a small but highly prolific English world music label, has quietly been putting out stellar world music discs since 1995. The label is perhaps best known for their “Rough Guide” compilation CDs, which share the same name as those indispensable, economical travel books. But they also have a separate label, Riverboat, for new, single-artist releases. For pure, infectious, summertime playfulness, you can't beat DigDig, a collaboration between Ile de La Reunion accordionist René Lacaille and renowned ethnomusicologist Bob Brozman (Hawaiian guitar, bottleneck).

La Reunion Island, east of Madagascar in the southern Indian Ocean, has been a cultural melting pot of sorts, beginning with French colonization, followed by African, Middle Eastern and Asian influences. Lacaille, who also plays charango and tschoulas and provides vocal tracks in Creole, embodies the true soul and spirit of this vibrant disc, backed by syncopatic Sega and Maloya rhythmic beds. Well-recorded and top-notch production, without losing the playful interaction of players in a studio — these folks went on for hours after the tape stopped rolling.

Executive producer: Alain Courbis. Engineer: Daniel Thomas. Studio: Studio Digital (St. Denis, Ile de La Réunion).
Tom Kenny

Dave Alvin and The Guilty Men: Out In California (HighTone)

Singer/songwriter/guitar god Dave Alvin makes great studio albums; his most recent, Public Domain, won him a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album. But what he does in front of a live audience can take your breath away: Just when you think nothing could wipe away the silly grin you get when you hear him wail on “American Music,” he'll stop the clock with a soulful, shimmering ballad like “Fourth of July,” a song you used to think of as rock ‘n’ roll. Out In California captures all the magic and all the aspects of Alvin's live performances, including killer electric songs sprinkled with tastes of Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and surf guitar, and acoustic heartbreakers such as “Andersonville.” Alvin is backed by an expanded Guilty Men lineup that includes singer/songwriter Chris Gaffney on accordion/vocals and Dwight Yoakam fiddle alum Brantley Kearns.

Producers: Dave Alvin and Mark Linett. Recording/mixing engineer: Mark Linett. Recorded at The Blue Café (Long Beach, CA), The Lobero Theatre (Santa Barbara, CA) and The Neighborhood Church (Pasadena, CA). Mixing studio: Your Place or Mine (Glendale, CA). Mastering: Mark Linett/Your Place or Mine.
Barbara Schultz