Social Distancing Spins – Day 46

By Joel Francis

The weather is nice and cabin fever is real. Stay safe and keep the faith.

Brian Wilson – Reimagines Gershwin (2010) The opening minute of this album is an absolute dream. Layers of harmony vocals music fans have enjoyed for more than half a century cascade into the melody of the iconic “Rhapsody in Blue.” The rest of the album isn’t quite as exquisite, but maintains the same premise: Two intimately familiar musical styles melting into something new. Wilson’s versions of “Summertime,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” or “I Got Rhythm” won’t make anyone forget about the legion of stellar interpretations that have come from Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald or Willie Nelson, to name but a few. But they do show how Gershwin’s pen was subconsciously at work in Pet Sounds, “Cabinessence” and “Surf’s Up.”

Rhett Miller – The Interpreter: Live at Largo (2011) In April, 2008, a few days after the University of Kansas Jayhawks won the men’s national basketball championship, my wife and I were in Los Angeles for vacation. I had heard about the club Largo over the years and was hoping to see their unofficial artist in residence, Jon Brion. The multi-instrumentalist wasn’t performing the when we were going to be there, so we happily grabbed tickets for Rhett Miller’s show instead. The Old 97s frontman was in a great mood, telling stories and playing some of his favorite songs by other people (and previewing material from the upcoming 97s album, Blame It On Gravity). About halfway through the set, Jon Brion took a seat behind the piano and the two banged out tunes like a pair of long-lost brothers. That night – and the following one, where Brion wasn’t present but Pixies guitarist Joey Santiago was – comprise the selections here on The Interpreter. Because I was there, it is impossible for me to grade this album objectively. It always takes me back to that night and makes me wish the full performance would be released on Nuggs or something similar. Your mileage may vary, but if you enjoy Miller’s voice and the songwriting of David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Ray Davies, Jeff Tweedy, Tom Petty and Bob Dylan, you are definitely in the right place.

King Curtis – Live at Fillmore West (1971)
Aretha Franklin – Live at Fillmore West (1971)
Both of these landmark live albums are taken from the same run of shows at the historic San Francisco venue, where King Curtis and his Kingpins were backing the Queen of Soul. Franklin’s album has more contemporary rock covers than her better-known soul material. After marching through Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With,” Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” Franklin manages to make Bread’s “Make It With You” engaging. Franklin starts cooking on the second side. After the slow blues “Dr. Feelgood,” Franklin and her incredible band – including Billy Preston on organ and the Memphis Horns – tear through “Spirit in the Dark.” As the song winds down after about five minutes, Ray Charles comes out and they do it all over again for another nine minutes.

Although less well-known, Curtis’ Fillmore album is just as incredible. Setting the table with “Memphis Soul Stew,” Curtis blasts through the Moody Blues’ “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and destroys Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.” The second side is just as good, with readings of “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” and “Ode to Billie Joe.” Unfortunately, this album also served as Curtis’ swan song. He was fatally stabbed outside his New York City apartment a week after it’s release.

In 2005, Rhino released a limited-edition collection of all three Fillmore shows in their entirety. Finally, fans could hear the music as it was presented each night, with Curtis opening the show, then Franklin coming out. This four-disc box set is definitely worth seeking out.

Jay-Z – American Gangster (2007) Sean Carter rolled into his alleged retirement – Did anyone really believe he was done? – on a hot streak. I confess to wondering if he could rise to the occasion on his inevitable comeback. And he didn’t – until American Gangster. Inspired by the Denzel Washington movie, Jay-Z played to his strengths and crafted 15 songs that revisit his oft-celebrated days as a drug dealer and Washington’s portrayal of black drug lord Frank Lucas. Though the album feels a couple songs too long to my ears, there isn’t a bad cut on the record. The long-awaited track with Nas lives up to the anticipation. American Gangster isn’t as good as The Blueprint or The Black Album, but it’s not far behind them either.

Two quick anecdotes before we move on. For a long time the downtown location of The Peanut hosted Hip Hop and Hot Wings on Sunday nights. (The Peanut has some of the best wings in Kansas City.) The fun usually started late and lasted later, which made for a rough Monday so I never got to attend as often as I wanted. About a month after American Gangster came out, around Christmas time, one of the DJs dropped the needle on “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is)” and the entire room exploded like a grenade had gone off. Strangers were high-fiving and everyone was signing along and dancing. “Roc Boys” got bonus local points for featuring Kansas City Chiefs running back Larry Johnson in the video.

Alright, the second story. On the same vacation in Los Angeles that I discussed in the Rhett Miller entry, my wife and I had tickets to see Jay-Z and Mary J. Blige at the Hollywood Bowl. Despite leaving hours early, we got there just in time to hear the opening song (all the traffic was between the exit and the parking lot). Jay-Z was touring in support of American Gangster and it was incredible to hear those songs in person, with a huge band backing him up. MJB was a solid bonus for the evening.

William Onyeabor – Who Is William Onyeabor? (compilation) Even though this collection spans three LPs and 13 tracks, by the end we are nowhere closer to knowing the answer about William Onyeabor than when we started. According to internet reports, the Nigerian producer self-released eight albums between 1977 and 1985, which were quickly bootlegged. It is not hard to see why so many people would want this music. It’s primitive electronics – clunky drum machines and Casio keyboards – married to Afro-beat rhythms, with a little P-Funk stirred into the sauce for good measure. Who is William Onyeabor? Well for the 75 minutes of this album he’s a fillpin’ musical savant. That’s who.

Various Artists – Red Hot + Riot (2002) The Red Hot charity albums have generally been pretty good, but this one, honoring Afro beat legend Fela Kuti, stands above the rest. For one, it features some of the top socially conscious/backpack rappers of the time: Blackalicious, Talib Kweli, Common and Dead Prez. Plus a mix of great soul singers, including D’Angelo, Macy Gray, Me’Shell Ndegeocello, Kelis and Sade. Finally, a sprinkling of jazz legends (Archie Shepp, Roy Hargrove), African musicians, Kuti’s son Femi Kuti and bluesman Taj Mahal. If this roll call doesn’t pique your interest, trust me, the result is even more impressive. Rap, jazz, blues, soul and gospel all flow into a river leading back to Mother Africa. Can you dig it?

15 jazz greats to emerge in the last 20 years (part one)

(Above: Brad Mehldau performs an arrangement based on Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For A Film).”

By Joel Francis

Continuing The Daily Record’s look at the state of jazz today, here is the first of three installments shedding light on 15 jazz greats to emerge in the last 20 years. Note that these musicians are not necessarily the 15 greatest jazz artists to arrive since 1990. A brief listen to any of them, though, should more than persuade the most ardent purist that jazz is alive and well.

Roy Hargrove

Over the past 20 years, Roy Hargrove’s trumpet has proven to be one of the most versatile instruments ever. He’s equally at home conjuring Cuba on his own or summoning the spirit of African rebellion with rapper Common. Although Hargrove has yet found a way to reconcile his split personalities, he has built a strong catalog. In the Roy Hargrove Quintet, Hargrove works the more traditional mold forged by Freddie Hubbard and Clifford Brown. The RH Factor is the less-focused urban playground where Hargrove’s funky side comes out. Albums to start with: Habana, Earfood.

Brad Mehldau

Pianist Brad Mehldau cut his teeth working with saxophonists Joshua Redman and Wayne Shorter before striking out on his own. His lengthy concert arrangements often leave no stone unturned. Although his classical approach to playing is influenced by Bill Evans, Mehldau has no problem converting songs by Radiohead, the Beatles and Nick Drake into extended jazz workouts and placing them on footing equal to George Gershwin and Cole Porter standards. Mehldau made albums with opera singer Renee Fleming, guitarist Pat Metheny and pop producer Jon Brion without pandering on any project. Albums to start with: Back at the Vanguard, Day is Done.

Madeleine Peyroux

Singer Madeleine Peyroux’s voice sounds more than a little like Billie Holiday, but her style is closer to Joni Mitchell’s. Born in the South, raised in New York and California and seasoned in Paris, Peyroux splits the distance between jazz, folk and pop. Her interpretations of Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Hank Williams numbers made her a star on Lilith Fair stages a decade ago and earned her acclaim as the “Best International Jazz Artist” by the BBC in 2007. Albums to start with: Dreamland, Half the Perfect World.

Miguel Zenón

Puerto Rican saxophonist Miguel Zenon recalls the tasteful, silky tone of Paul Desmond. In little more than five years, he’s released four albums, worked as a founding member of the SF Jazz Collective, won the Best New Artist award from JazzTimes in 2006 and named Rising Star-Alto Saxophone for three consecutive years in the Down Beat Critic’s Poll. While Zenon’s horn rests easily on the ears, his arrangements capture the spirit of his native island through insistent originals and unlikely hymns like “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” Albums to start with: Jibaro, Awake.

Maria Schneider

Maria Schneider’s compositions for her jazz orchestra have been some of the most ambitious works in the jazz canon since the heyday of the Duke Ellington Orchestra or Dave Brubeck’s late-’60s expositions. At once sweeping and evocative, Schnieder’s near-classical pieces reveal the deep influence of Gil Evans. The cinematic expanse of her work takes the listener on a journey where everyone from George Gershwin to Gustav Mahler is likely to appear. Albums to start with: Evanescence, Sky Blue.

Keep Reading: 15 Jazz Greats to Emerge in the Last 20 Years

Part Two

Part Three

Five Legends Still Adding to Their Legacies