Fats Waller: The Centennial Collection (Bluebird/BMG)
Every household should have a Fats Waller anthology, and this one is definitely a cut above. It offers 21 songs on a single disc, spanning 1927 to 1942 (the year before he died, at just 39), plus a bonus DVD containing a number of fine short film clips from the late '30s that feature Waller lip-synching (very well, too) and hamming it up for the cameras, invariably surrounded by a bevy of lovely ladies. (The final DVD cut is a humorous 1983 animated rendering of Waller's immortal “Your Feets Too Big,” starring an elephant!) Waller was a unique and gifted artist — a great singer, pianist, songwriter and entertainer. He was, in effect, an early crossover artist who melded Tin Pan Alley sensibilities with blues and jazz; a true titan of the first half of the 20th century. Most of the milestones are here: “I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” “Ain't Misbehavin',” “The Joint Is Jumpin',” “I Ain't Got Nobody,” “If You're a Viper,” “Up Jumped You With Love,” “'Taint Nobody's Bizness If I Do,” et al.
Reissue producer: Barry Feldman. Transfers, audio restoration and mastering: Doug Pomeroy. — Blair Jackson
Michael Tolcher: I Am (Octone)
This is a powerful debut for Tolcher, a Georgia native who has been drifting around for a number of years soaking up influences and honing his songwriting, ending up in New York working with the adventurous production team known as Pop Rox (Sam Hollander and Dave Schommer). Tolcher's writing is direct and incisive, personal without being solipsistic, simultaneously intimate and inclusive. Musically, he's all over the map, with dashes of rock, folk, funk and soul, but his pleasing lead vocals and strong melodies tie the disparate styles together nicely. And while one senses that most of these songs would also work well performed with a single acoustic guitar, the dense — but never cluttered — production, showcasing multiple guitars, interestingly layered vocals and enough “modern” sonic touches to place it squarely in 2004, makes each song both interesting and distinctive. Jam band hero Warren Haynes and Roots drummer ?uestlove are among the fine supporting cast.
Producers: Pop Rox. Co-produced by Gary Philips. Recording engineer: Chris Shaw. Mixed by Tim Palmer, Mark Endert (one song), Duke Mushroom (two songs). Studios: Avatar, Quad, Pop Rox, Mission Sound, Mojo. Mix studios: Westlake, Larrabee West, Pop Rox, Scream. Mastering: Leon Zervos at Sterling Sound and Masterdisk. — Blair Jackson
Goapele: Even Closer (Skyblaze)
Like neo-soul artists Jill Scott, D'Angelo and Erykah Badu before her, San Francisco Bay Area-based Goapele has a voice that's all charisma and warmth — it's the dominant feature of Even Closer, a re-worked version of her 2002 debut album, Closer. Picking from classic inspirations in R&B, soul and jazz, she molds her influences to her distinctive vocal style, focusing on romantic ballads, but also taking time out for political issues, as befits the daughter of one-time South African political exile Douglas Mohlabene. “It Takes More” is a sample/break-beat-driven number about a young man lost to violence, while “Red, White and Blues,” her creative commentary on the events of September 11, 2001, is dominated by electric guitar and various effects. Though some of Goapele's lyrics lack originality, they are sung with such exuberance that, somehow, the cliché moments don't nag. Favorite tracks include the summery “Ease Your Mind,” the popular and sultry “Romantic” and “The Daze,” which features rappers Casual and Zion I. Clearly, Goapele has the inspiration, the talent and the tools to develop well beyond her eclectic debut.
Producers: Sun & The Moon, Soulive, Eric Krasno, Mike Tiger. Engineers: Steve Counter, John Shrive, Seth Waldmann (mixing). Studios: Hyde Street, Sparks, The Hole, Amps House, FM, Sun Moon, Chung King. Mastering: Ken Lee/Kenneth Lee Mastering, Bernie Grundman Mastering. — Breean Lingle
Youssou N'Dour: Egypt (Nonesuch)
Since appearing on Peter Gabriel's So album in 1985 and touring with Gabriel and with his own group subsequently, the amazing Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour has amassed a following all over the world. He's sung in a variety of languages and dabbled in all sorts of pop-related styles to broaden his audience, but it's safe to say that what really sells his music is the sheer beauty and purity of his singing, no matter what the tongue. On the surface, N'Dour's latest might seem inaccessible to a Western audience: It's an entire album of Muslim/Sufi devotional songs, with N'Dour's voice singing in his native language, soaring above an orchestra of strings and a wide variety of Egyptian/Arab instruments. But it's a very rich and rewarding listening experience. The music — so full of dramatic swoops and hypnotic rhythms — is positively intoxicating — like a Sufi dance. The blend of strings, flutes and hand percussion is exquisite and, as always, N'Dour's singing sounds like it's being delivered from the heavens. In this case, maybe it is.
Producers: Youssou N'Dour and Fathy Salama. Recording engineers: Khalid Ra'ouf, Alaa El-Kashif, Segui Niang, Ndiaga N'Dour. Studios: Hany Mihanna (Cairo), Mix Studio (Cairo), Studio Xippi (Dakar, Senegal). Mixing: Philippe Brun at Mrs. Jones Productions (Paris). Mastering: Bob Ludwig/Gateway Mastering.
— Blair Jackson