A Consumer Guide to the Trailing Edge: July, 2010

Recycled Goods (#76)

by Tom Hull

Working haphazardly. I doubt that I conveyed how turned off I was by the fetishism surrounding the Exile on Main St. reissue, especially in its original $180 packaging. But hectored by repeated requests to buy the newly released music, I finally checked it out on Rhapsody, wrote the review below, then finally gave in and bought a copy of the 2-CD version. And of course, the best thing out of my changer this year is the reissue of the original album. I've never had any doubts about that, but still the hype grinds. Greatest album by the greatest rock group of all time? Better than Layla or Loaded or Moondance or Call Me or Otis Blue or Pet Sounds or Sgt. Pepper or In the Jungle Groove or a dozen others? Maybe, but I wouldn't make a big deal out of it.

Other threads were arbitrary. Fred Anderson died and I've found a record I've been wanting to hear. (Unfortunately, I didn't find his late 1960s work.) Horne and Jarreau were jazz reissues, business as usual -- several more of them crop up downstairs. I tracked down Sounds of Liberation out of interest in the label, and that led me to Byard Lancaster -- a name I knew but hadn't put a sound to. Billy Eckstine was a spinoff from a new Freddy Cole album I like, and that led to a Helen Humes set I had missed -- her other Black & Blue album, 1973's Let the Good Times Roll, is slightly better, an old favorite. The African Pearls set is actually one of ten or so compilations of old Syllart material, but is only the second I've heard -- African Pearls 1: Congo: Rumba on the River is even better. Would love to hear them all, but it's expensive for beggars to become choosers. Maybe someday.

Fred Anderson: On the Run: Live at the Velvet Lounge (2000 [2001], Delmark): Born 1929 in Monroe, Louisiana. Made the trek to Chicago, picking up the tenor sax in the early days of the AACM. Cut a few obscure records 1978-80 then went inactive, but as the proprietor of the Velvet Lounge in Chicago he kept connected. Finally resumed recording around 1995, perhaps figuring that with social security checks coming he could once again afford to be a fringe musician. I still haven't managed to hear his early sides, but I suspected that getting old and slowing down helped focus his play. Certainly also helped that a teen from Louisiana he mentored turned out to be his long-time drummer, Hamid Drake. He hit a sweet spot with Back at the Velvet Lounge in 2002, and his next four albums were equally sublime: Back Together Again (with Drake, 2004, Thrill Jockey), Blue Winter (with Drake and William Parker, 2004, Eremite), Timeless (2005, Delmark), and From the River to the Ocean (with Drake, 2007, Thrill Jockey). He died, age 81, on June 24, so I thought it would be a good time to see what more I could find. His latest albums slip a bit, and I didn't find any early ones, but I did find this trio, with Drake and bassist Tatsu Aoki, the first of four Velvet Lounge live shots Delmark released. Takes a while to get in gear, with Anderson reticent and Drake showy, but the fourth (of five) pieces, the 18:53 "Tatsu's Groove," does the trick, with Anderson unleashing a relentless torrent of ideas. Final cut, appropriately named "Hamid's on Fire," is equally powerful. B+(***) [R]

Lena Horne: Sings: The M-G-M Singles (1946-48 [2010], Verve/Hip-O Select): The first black actress granted a Hollywood contract, she was gorgeous in ways that transcended race -- her ancestors reportedly included slaveholders like John C. Calhoun as well as slaves, with a little American Indian mixed in along the way -- and a pretty good standards singer. Her "Stormy Weather" was a hit in 1943, the title of an MGM musical, and not included here although it seems like it should fit. This picks up a bit later. The house orchestra is completely ordinary, and more than half of the songs you no doubt know from Billie Holiday and/or Ella Fitzgerald. Horne wasn't in their class, but the best songs here -- "A Foggy Day (in London Town)" and "The Lady Is a Tramp" are two -- are completely satisfying. B+(***)

Al Jarreau: An Excellent Adventure: The Very Best of Al Jarreau (1975-2009 [2009], Rhino): Originally slotted as a jazz singer because he scatted a little and tackled a couple of Dave Brubeck-Paul Desmond odd-time experiments, Jarreau cut a dozen 1975-94 albums for Warners, grabbing popular and critical acclaim, including Grammys in pop and R&B as well as jazz while never really fitting anywhere. I find his "Blue Rondo a la Turk" one of the more hideous pieces of vocalese ever recorded, and "Boogie Down" one of the lamer exercises in rote disco. That leaves a couple of decent R&B songs like "We're in This Love Together" in a compilation that proves Gödels Theorem: like math, he's a system that cannot both be complete and consistent. B-

Rolling Stones: Exile on Main St. (1972 [2010], Universal Republic, 2CD): While their archrivals, the Beatles, fissioned into shards with short half-lives, the Stones beefed up their sound, adding keybs and horns, flexing their muscles as their conceits inflated to acclaim themselves as the "world's greatest rock and roll band" -- plausibly, even, given their string of albums from Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed to Sticky Fingers and finally their consensus masterpiece. Exile's singles, unlike those on recent albums, didn't stand out much from the murky filler, but each side of two slabs of vinyl had memorable moments, and the very even-handedness of the whole marked this as their crowning album -- as did the fact that their streak ended a year later with Goat's Head Soup, a slip so severe they spent most of the following album -- the uncharacteristically modest It's Only Rock 'n' Roll -- moaning over their sudden senescence. Of course, it's just product now. In releasing their $179.98 list "Super Deluxe Edition" they're assuming their fans invested their earnings as successfully as biz school grad Mick Jagger did. For that you get the same two CDs of the $29.98 "Deluxe Edition" plus some vinyl, a book, and a box. The latter has a remastered edition of the original on the first disc, plus a second disc -- available separately as a "Rarities Edition" but exclusively at Target for $9.99 -- with ten songs (41:05): two sloppy outtakes and eight losers that came nowhere near making the album. Slim pickings, except of your pocket, although "Pass the Wine (Sophia Loren)" is one of their better throwaways, and "So Divine (Aladdin Story)" is an interesting aside they never really followed up on. For newbies, the obvious choice is the remastered single-disc (list $13.95) -- or you could scrounge for a used old copy which must be flooding the market by now. I have no opinion on the remastered sound vs. the old CD reissue let alone vinyl old or new, but the music is still fabulous, and having to listen to all four sides in a row is pure pleasure. Reissue: A+; Rarities Edition: B+(**); Super Deluxe Edition: D; Deluxe Edition: A-

Briefly Noted

African Pearls: Senegal 70: Musical Effervescence (1971-82 [2009], Syllart/Discograph, 2CD): Early material from Youssou N'Dour (Etoile de Dakar), Orchestra Baobab, and others less famous -- Super Diamono and Xalam are names I've run across before, but not Ouza or Ifang Bondi or N'Guewel; the salsa hasn't separated from the native drums and voices, the guitar is slinky and grooveful, the occasional horns a lift. A-

Avishai Cohen: Aurora (2008 [2010], Blue Note/EMI Music): Israeli bassist, reaches back to his mother's Ladino folk songs juxtaposed with clever Bachian counterpoint, fleshed out with oud and piano, sung with the touching faith of an amateur. B+(**)

Hamilton de Holanda Quintet: Brasilianos 2 (2007 [2010], Adventure Music): New fangled Brazilian bluegrass music, the leader's 10-string mandolin tempered with guitar and bass, with Gabriel Grossi's roughhousing harmonica a voice beyond language. B+(**)

Billy Eckstine: Jukebox Hits 1943-1953 (1943-53 [2005], Acrobat): One of the legendary crooners of the postwar era; sauve, debonair, with a deep, rich baritone that seems stuffy now but was exceptional at the time; this cross-section starts his crack big band that folded in 1947 and ends with a small combo backing a surprising spat of scat, but in between there is little but strings gradually encasing his marvelous voice in concrete. B [R]

Billy Eckstine: Basie and Eckstine, Inc. (1959 [1994], Roulette): Basie is less than atomic here, maintaining a comfortable simmer for the classic crooner, a bluesman in a pinch but not a shouter like Jimmy Rushing or even Joe Williams; not much swing, but the brass remains short and sharp, as finely burnished as the baritone. B+(*) [R]

Helen Humes: Sneakin' Around [The Definitive Black & Blue Sessions] (1974 [2002], Black & Blue): Count Basie's girl singer -- picked up the job when Billie Holiday left -- basically a blues shouter with a smooth, even-tempered delivery, singing songs she likes, cut cheap in France with Gerard Badini unstable on tenor sax, filled out with extra takes. B+(**) [R]

Byard Lancaster: It's Not Up to Us (1968 [2003], Water): Released on Atlantic spinoff Vortex when this Philadelphia avant-gardist was stepping out of Coltrane's footsteps; plays a lot of flute here, substantial enough to lead especially with Sonny Sharrock's guitar covering his back, but his alto sax has more muscle. B+(**) [R]

Byard Lancaster: Personal Testimony (1979 [2008], Porter): Starts with a 1979 solo album with piano and/or percussion overdubbed on his flute, alto sax, and other reeds -- not enough to overcome the minimal framework of solo efforts, but a rough precis of his toolkit; reissue adds six new pieces, also solo with overdubs, if anything sparer and starker. B+(*) [R]

Jerry Leake: Cubist (2009 [2010], Rhombus Publishing): A schematic worldbeat collector with more books than records on his CV attempts to flesh out his interests -- India, Turkey, all over Africa -- with a potential octet, hard to nail down as a whole but interesting things going on all the time. B+(**)

Luisa Maita: Lero-Lero (2010, Cumbancha): Seductive young Brazilian singer with all the usual curves, and nothing that really sticks out to distinguish her from the pack. B+(*)

Archie Shepp: The New York Contemporary Five (1963 [2010], Delmark): A primeval avant-garde group with Shepp's tenor sax, John Tchicai's alto sax, and Don Cherry's cornet wrestling for the spotlight, roughing up Ornette Coleman and pushing one original each; actually just half of a live set from Copenhagen previously available on Sonet and Storyville. B+(***)

Sierra Maestra: Sonido Ya (2009 [2010], World Village): Cuban institution, dates back to 1976, started out playing classic son and pretty much stuck that way, the rhythms complex, the horns simplistic, the vocals deeply sincere, the songs scarcely varied in pitch, volume, or temperament -- not that they don't put out. They always put out. B

Sounds of Liberation (1972 [2010], Porter): Philadelphia group, very much of the black power moment when shards of avant-sax clashed with funky conga rhythms, merging into something far out but not inaccessible; Byard Lancaster is the saxophonist in a septet with guitar, bass, and four percussionists counting vibraphonist Khan Jamal, the founder and best known member of the one-album group. A- [R]

Phil Wilson & Makoto Ozone: Live!! At the Berklee Performance Center (1982 [2010], Capri): Japanese piano prodigy, prodded, poked, teased and torn by grizzled trombone professor, crude and so much the better for it. B+(*)

Legend: B+ records are divided into three levels, where more * is better. [R] indicates record was reviewed using a stream from Rhapsody. The biggest caveat there is that the packaging and documentation hasn't been inspected or considered.

For this column and the previous 75, see the archive.

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Copyright © 2010 Tom Hull.