The Grant Green Retrospective (Blue Note)
One of the truly underrated figures in jazz history, pioneering electric guitarist Grant Green (1931-1979) was a great technician and full of soul and imagination; for my money, he's much more exciting than contemporaries such as Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell. Though jazz was his idiom, Green was steeped in blues, which seeped into just about everything he played, whether it was a proto-funk outing with an organ trio or his take on pop and jazz standards. His adventurous approach to melody and his occasionally edgy tone made him a hero to some late '60s rock guitarists, and it's easy to see why: Green was ahead of his time. This fine four-CD set collects 39 tracks from Green's first stint as a leader (and sideman) at Blue Note Records, 1961-1964. The collection finds Green improvising in many different styles and settings and with some of the greatest players of that era, including organists Jack McDuff, Jimmy Smith and Larry Young; reed players such as Sam Rivers, Hank Mobley, Joe Henderson and Wayne Shorter; drummers Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones, Art Blakey and Billy Higgins; pianists Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner and Wynton Kelly; bassists Paul Chambers and Reggie Workman; and many more. My favorite of the discs (so far) is number 3, which includes romps through the jazz classics “'Round Midnight,” “So What” and “My Favorite Things,” a smoky reading of Don Gibson's country tear-jerker “I Can't Stop Loving You,” a Latin take on Charlie Parker's “My Little Suede Shoes,” the traditional gospel tunes “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” and “Go Down Moses,” and, best of all, an incredible workout on The Gershwins' “It Ain't Necessarily So.” What an expansive range he had! Alas, Green was plagued by drug problems for much of his career and died in relative obscurity, having never quite captured the magic of these inspired (and commercially successful) early outings. A great set!
Compilation produced by Michael Cuscuna. Original producer: Alfred Lion. Engineer: Rudy Van Gelder. Studio: Van Gelder Studio (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.). Remastering engineer: Ron McMaster.
— Blair Jackson
Steve Forbert: Any Old Time (Songs of Jimmie Rodgers) (Koch Records)
The resurgence of Americana? The infatuation with bluegrass on the heels of O Brother? The reissue craze in old country? Any discussion of old-time music must include “The Singing Brakeman,” by Jimmie Rodgers, who so seamlessly blended early 20th-century country, blues and pop styles into a distinctive body of work that encompassed more than 100 songs. Nobody ever made us feel so good about feeling blue. There have been plenty of Rodgers tributes over the years; one about five years back featured Dylan, Bono and other high-profile stars. In Any Old Time, however, we have a love poem performed by a single voice, and the intimacy and affection permeates the disc, right down to the spare, single-mic feel of the recording. Steve Forbert, a native of Meridian, Miss., same as Rodgers, grew up with these songs, which shaped his development as a singer-songwriter. He combed the Rodgers archives and picked his 12 favorites; some selections are obvious, some are not. But you can't beat the opening foursome of “Waiting on a Train,” “My Blue-Eyed Jane,” “Why Should I Be Lonely?” and “Any Old Time.” Then hang on for “My Rough and Rowdy Ways.” Tremendous. Put the disc on Repeat.
Producers: Garry Tallent, Steve Forbert, Tim Coats. Engineers: Tim Coats. Studio: Moondog Music Studio (Nashville). Mastering: Robby Turner/Turner Up Recording (Hermitage, Tenn.).
— Tom Kenny
Jackson Browne: The Naked Ride Home (Elektra)
In his younger days, Jackson Browne was what you might call an “old soul”: wise beyond his years and loaded with the sorts of insights and perspectives that usually come with age. Remarkably, now that he is well into his middle age, his basic themes and world view have not really changed at all, only broadened. His “relationship” songs alternately glow with the promise and wonder of blooming love or the painful recognition of hearts irrevocably moving away from each other. The realities and responsibilities of adulthood trample our youthful innocence and exuberance. As a society, we've traded the optimistic glow of the '60s for selfishness and cynicism. The voice is undiminished by the years, and the musical settings for Browne's poetic musings will sound familiar: a couple of rockers, lots of mid-tempo ballads, some reggae and R&B flashes; at this point, his is a very particular and distinctive oeuvre, still warm and inviting, even as it speaks of uncertainty, disillusionment and moral indecision. Browne has assembled a highly versatile band for this outing — including guitarist Mark Goldenberg, keyboardist Jeff Young, drummer Mauricio Litwack and bassist Kevin McCormick — and they effortlessly navigate through the many styles that Browne tackles in his songs. My experience with his songs is that different ones speak to me at different times through the years; in the first few listenings here, the ones that grabbed me the most are the moody title track, the rockin' “The Night Inside Me,” the introspective “About My Imagination,” and the real stand-out, “Don't You Want to Be There,” which finds Browne still asking the Big Questions of himself and all of us. Wonderful sonics, great arrangements; this is definitely top-drawer Jackson Browne.
Producers: Jackson Browne, Kevin McCormick. Tracking engineer: Paul Dieter. Mix engineer: Bob Clearmountain. Studio: Groove Masters (Santa Monica, Calif.). Mastering: Bob Ludwig (Gateway Mastering, Portland, Maine).
— Blair Jackson
The Gypsy Hombres: Django Bells (Memphis International)
Well, there are Christmas records in every other musical genre, so why not the gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt and company? This doesn't exactly sound like the reincarnation of Django and Stephane Grappelli, but it's definitely a kick to hear guitarist Justin Thompson, violinist (and mandolinist and accordionist) Peter Hyrka and bassist David Spicher breeze through 10 holiday favorites in the style of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France. There's some wonderful, jazzy jamming on this disc, and the arrangements, by and large, are fresh and inventive — are you ready for “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” done as a gypsy tango? I'm not sure the world needed this version of “You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” but the rest of the tunes are handled with deftness and spirit. Besides, how often is every present you get at Christmas worth keeping? A charming addition to your holiday music library.
Producer: Peter Hyrka. Engineer: David Spicher. Studio: The Fiddle House (Nashville).
— Blair Jackson