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Cool Spins: The Mix Staff Pick Their Current Favorites

The Robert Cray Band: Take Your Shoes Off (Rykodisc) So many times you read a review of a new R&B release, and the press insists it's reminiscent of great

The Robert Cray Band: Take Your Shoes Off (Rykodisc)So many times you read a review of a new R&B release, and the press insists it’s reminiscent of great Motown or Stax soul. Then you listen, and you’ve been deceived; Brandy does not sound like Ann Peebles. Well, this time it’s for real. Robert Cray’s first album for Rykodisc sounds so much like the old school that you’d swear Hi Records was back in business. On his familiar blues recordings, Cray’s voice and, in fact, songs have usually taken a back seat to his original and virtuosic guitar work, but this release showcases his sweet, powerful singing, and his usual backing band has been seamlessly integrated into a big, stellar group of keyboard and horn players (including the famous Memphis Horns). There are also a few blues numbers on this album, including a great, deep version of Willie Dixon’s “Tollin’ Bells,” but it’s the real soul on this record that’s so refreshing and beautiful. Cray’s always been known for his considerable talent; now he’ll also be recognized for his versatility.

Producer: Steve Jordan. Recording engineers: Niko Bolas and Don Smith, except “It’s All Gone” recorded by Steve Jordan; assistant: Greg Parker. Mixing: Don Smith. Recording studio: Woodland Studios, Nashville, except “It’s All Gone,” recorded at Woodland and Knotek, NYC. Mastering: Greg Calbi/Sterling Sound, NYC.

-Barbara Schultz

Dennis Kamakahi: ‘Ohana (Dancing Cat)In Hawaiian, “‘Ohana” means family, and on his superb second Dancing Cat slack-key guitar release, honey-voiced Dennis Kamakahi celebrates two of his families: He pays tribute to the close-knit band that gave him his professional start, the Sons of Hawaii (he came onboard in the ’70s following the death of the great Gabby Pahinui); and a handful of tracks are duets with his son David, who plays ukulele in a style clearly influenced by the Sons’ Eddie Kamae. Sons fans will enjoy Kamakahi’s spare but sparkling takes on several of that group’s best tunes. Kamakahi also taps into the songbook of the late Sonny

Chillingworth and the prolific Queen Lili’uokalani-Hawaii’s last monarch-who wrote so many great songs in the 19th century. And for something a little different, father and son duet on a lovely version of Victor Young’s main theme from Around the World in 80 Days. Kamakahi is a romantic through and through, and both this CD and its underrated Dancing Cat predecessor, Pua ‘Ena, serve as marvelous introductions to the beauty of Hawaiian folk music. A polished gem!

Producers: George Winston, Dennis Kamakahi. Engineer: Howard Johnston. Additional engineering: Justin Lieberman, Mark Slagle, Dave Millington, Porter Miller. Studios: Audio Resources (Honolulu), Different Fur (S.F.). Mastering: Bernie Grundman/Bernie Grundman Mastering (L.A.)

-Blair Jackson

Broun Fellinis: Out Through the N Door (Brounsoun Records)Ever since acid jazz took a strong hold on the new music scene in the early ’90s, San Francisco’s Broun Fellinis have maintained a constant presence. Because so much of what they do is live improv, it is perfectly fitting that the band recorded their second release, Out Through the N Door, in front of an audience at Found Sound Studios in San Francisco. The album explores territory from mellow to fierce, moving from avant-garde jazz through funked-up dance floor grooves and into hypnotic chill-out. At the forefront of the Fellinis’ sound, David Boyce’s saxophone brings the spirit of ’60s improv jazz to the group, his full-bodied tone drawing inspiration from players such as John Coltrane and Archie Shepp. Boyce also expounds Afrocentric spoken word on top of the grooves on tracks such as “Point of View” and “T.A.B.N.I.T.S.” Propelled by the music, his eloquently worded, esoteric soliloquies hit hard. The album features the group’s new bassist, Kirk “The Redeemer” Peterson, creating a chemistry that improves on the feel of their first release, while exploring similar terrain.

Engineers: Thom Canova and David Kaplowitz. Mixers: Keith “Kount” Yansurak, Professor Boris Karnaz, Black Edgar Khenyatta and David Ogilvy. Studios: Found Sound, Hyde Street (S.F.). Mastering: Paul Stubblebine, Hyde Street.

-Alex Butkus

Vassar Clements & the Little Big Band: Back Porch Swing (Grand)Known primarily as a bluegrass/country fiddler, Clements is one of the great improvisors of our time. He’s an endlessly inventive solo and ensemble player who is comfortable in virtually any style. This aptly titled CD puts him in a new context: a horn-heavy, swinging “little” Big Band. As you might expect, there are echoes of Bob Wills’ Western Swing (“Hillbilly Jazz”), but there’s plenty of variety, from a version of Jelly Roll Morton’s venerable “King Porter Stomp” to the bluesy, Lyle Lovett-ish funk of producer Fred Bogert’s “If That’s Love.” “String of Pearls” and “Old Black Magic” are well-chosen and imaginatively arranged standards, and Bogert’s “Ezra’s Holler” is a satisfying taste of fusion. All in all, quite an eclectic mix of new and old, instrumentals and vocal pieces, united by Clements’ deep, deep talent.

Producer/mixer: Fred Bogert. Engineers: Chris Munson, Joe Hayden (mix). Studio: RCA Studio B (Nashville).

-Blair Jackson

Wes: Welenga (Epic)Singer/songwriter Wes Madiko hails from Cameroon, Africa, where he was an itinerant storyteller, or Griot; French pianist/composer/arranger/producer Michel Sanchez is well-known for his Deep Forest projects. This unlikely pair has teamed to produce an unusual record that floats Wes’ high-pitched and emotive vocals over Sanchez’s electronic keyboard washes and techno dance grooves. Though some of the songs suffer from synthesizer fatigue and an unwaveringly metronomic beat, Wes’ impassioned extemporizations and the African-style chanted countermelodies make for a cheerful and joyous noise. With the exception of “We Don’t Need No War” and the soccer anthem “Midiwa Bol (I Love Football),” all the songs are in Bafoun, one of the languages of the Bantou tribe. Cultural anthropology rocks!

Producer/engineer: Michel Sanchez. Studio: Ekongolo Studio. “Midiwa Bol (I Love Football)” produced by Tony Amaraggi and recorded and mixed at Townhouse, London. Mastering: Vlado Mellor/Sony Music Studios (New York).

-Chris Michie