Social Distancing Spins – Day 14

By Joel Francis

Here we go. Back into the stacks of wax.

L7 – Scatter the Rats (2019) If you were worried that L7 might have mellowed over the two decades since their last release, you can rest easy. The four females are just as fierce and uncompromising as you remembered from ‘90s alternative/punk classics Smell the Magic and Hungry for Stink. Honestly, Scatter the Rats is better than anything they’ve done since those two albums. Put this on and watch the paint peel from the wall.

Pink Floyd – Atom Heart Mother (1970) The pre-Dark Side Pink Floyd catalog is a lot more interesting to me than their commercial and artistic peaks in the mid-to-late 1970s. I love hearing them find their voice as a quartet, adding and subtracting elements. Atom Heart Mother is their dalliance with an orchestra. The strings on the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” are a loose starting point here, but no one seems to know where they fit on the Floyd songs. That’s the first side, at least. The second side is more democratic, with each of the group’s three songwriters taking turns at the mic on original songs. The last track is a 13-minute instrumental called “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast,” whose title sums up the album perfectly.

Randy Newman – Land of Dreams (1988) I once played this album for a friend. After the first song, she politely demurred that this wasn’t what she normally enjoyed. Translation: It’s milquetoast old-people music. While Newman’s production is certainly lush and radio-friendly, his lyrics, storytelling and sly, subversive humor are more compelling than they may come off at first blush. Land of Dreams was supposed to be Newman’s musical autobiography. He gave up at some point, but we still get the captivating opener “Dixie Flyer” and most of the songs on side one. The ballad “Falling in Love” displays the cinematic touch that established Newman as an in-demand film composer. (Is it just me or is there a bit of “You’ve Got a Friend” in this tune?) The second side isn’t as successful, but it concludes on a couple of high notes: the hit “It’s the Money that Matters” and the wrenching ballad “I Want You to Hurt Like I Do.” It’s more than enough to make up for the embarrassing faux-rap of “Red Bandana.”

Tony Bennett – Jazz (compilation) This two-album collection pulls Tony Bennett’s collaborations with jazz musicians who are as proficient with their instruments as Bennett is with his incredible voice. It’s easy to take Bennett’s singing for granted. It seems he’s never encountered a song he can’t make his own. The treat, then, is hearing that voice spar and hang with the likes of Herbie Hancock, Stan Getz, Herbie Mann and Count Basie. I’m partial to the performance of “Just One of Those Things” with Art Blakey and the West Coast swing of “Clear Out of this World” but everything here is top-notch.

Leonard Cohen – Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 (2009) According to legend, this is the set that followed Jimi Hendrix at the legendary British music festival. Leonard Cohen only had two albums under his belt at the time of this recording, but it’s amazing to see how many songs included in this set would remain concert favorites until the end of his life. The performance also has a folky atmosphere, filled with acoustic guitars, fiddle, banjo and piano. The Isle of Wight performance shows little of the polished sophisticated sheen that Cohen’s later concerts would adopt. Put this on for a down-home experience with the poet extraordinaire.

Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Johnny Hodges – Hawkins! Eldridge! Hodges! Alive! at the Village Gate (1962) Here is the sound of three pre-war titans muscling their way back into a musical conversation that has seemingly moved away from them. They do it not by adapting to a bop or modal vocabulary, but by stretching out and showing how those elements were always present in the swing music they helped popularize and pioneer. There are only three songs here – each of them well over 10 minutes – but they are more than enough to make the point.

Stevie Wonder – “For Once in my Life”

for once
Stevie Wonder – “For Once in my Life,” Pop # 2, R&B # 2

By Joel Francis

“For Once in my Life” was less than two years old, but already practically a staple by the time Stevie Wonder’s cover was finally released in October, 1968.

Jean DuShon recorded the original version for the Chess Records subsidiary Cadet in 1966. Although the label failed to promote the single, it still managed to reach the ears of Berry Gordy. He was not pleased to learn that Motown composer Ron Miller had written the number for a performer outside of the Hitsville stable. Gordy demanded Miller let a Motown artist record the number and he promptly gave it to Barbara McNair for her 1966 album “Here I Am.” Best known as an actress who appeared on “Mission: Impossible,” “Hogan’s Heroes” and “Dr. Kildare,” McNair’s version sank without a trace.

Gordy wasn’t done with the song, though. In 1967 he gave it to the Temptations as a showcase for baritone Paul Williams. Their downbeat interpretation was one of the highlights of a 1968 television special with the Supremes.

Tony Bennett released his version of “For Once in My Life” the same time the Temptations were staking claim to the tune. Bennett’s reading was a crossover hit, lodging in the Top 10 of the Easy Listening chart and peaking at 91 on the pop chart. The title song of his 1967 album, it became one of the crooner’s signature numbers.

So the public was more than familiar with “For Once in My Life” by the time Wonder’s version hit the streets. Arriving a year after Bennett’s version peaked, Wonder’s interpretation became the most successful and definitive reading of the song. Like many great songs, however, this one almost didn’t get released.

Wonder recorded his vision of “For Once in My Life” the same summer the Temptations cut the song. Wonder’s upbeat arrangement stood in sharp contrast to the Temptations’ soulful balladry, and Gordy preferred the Tempts’ reading. After a year of pleading and cajoling, the head of Motown’s Quality Control department finally talked Gordy into allowing Wonder’s version to be released as a single. The result, of course, was a No. 2 single (held out of the top spot by Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”) that became the title track of Wonder’s tenth album.

Sonically, it’s hard to believe this song hails from 1968. The production and arrangement sounds like a throwback from the Holland-Dozier-Holland heydays of 1966. The big strings and Wonder’s vocals are front and center in the mix with the drums pushing the entire arrangement. The strings and horn tiptoe just shy of being bombastic, and a great piano line snakes along the bottom of the mix. Wonder’s harmonica makes the most of its verse-long solo, nimbly improvising on the melody like a jazz horn. The backing vocals are a little corny, but they are redeemed by Wonder’s best vocal performance to date. Wonder wasn’t yet 18 when he recorded this song, but there is a confidence in his delivery and phrasing that shows how much he’d grow since “Uptight” was released the summer before.

Wonder had far from the final word on the song. Gordy’s old boss Jackie Wilson released a cover that tried to split the difference between the Bennett and Wonder arrangements as a single to compete with Wonder. His version stalled at No. 70 on the cart. Ella Fitzgerald performed the song in concert throughout the summer of 1968 with an arrangement based on Bennett’s version. The following year, Frank Sinatra included his reading on the “My Way” album. In the twilight of his career, Sinatra revisited the song with Gladys Knight and Wonder for the 1994 “Duets II” album. Wonder returned to the song a dozen years later, sharing vocal duties with Bennett for Bennett’s “Duets: An American Classic” recording.

An enduring classic, “For Once in My Life” was covered by rocksteady singer Slim Smith in1969, recorded by James Brown in 1970 and translated into German by Stefan Gwildis in 2005. The song has also popped up on “Oprah,” “American Idol” and countless other television shows and films.

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

(Above: The Kora Jazz Trio in concert.)

By Joel Francis

Continuing The Daily Record’s look at the state of jazz today, here is the second 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.

Ravi Coltrane

Not only has Ravi Coltrane followed in his famous father’s footsteps as a musician, but he’s established himself with his dad’s instrument. The child of John and Alice Coltrane (Ravi was two when his dad died), Ravi cut his teeth with McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones before finally stepping out on his own. In little over 10 years, he’s build a strong catalog that would sound just as sweet under a different surname. Coltrane is currently on the road in a new septet celebrating 70 years of Blue Note Records. Albums to start with: Mad 6, In Flux.

Kora Jazz Trio

Comprised of pianist Abdoulaye Diabaté (who is not related to kora master Toumani Diabate), griot percussionist Moussa Sissokho and kora player Djeli Moussa Diawara, this trio deftly blends their African heritage with American jazz. Throughout their three albums, they have tackled songs by Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and the Buena Vista Social Club and delivered over a dozen dazzling originals. Imagine McCoy Tyner getting lost in an African marketplace and you’re getting close. Albums to start with: Part II, Part III

Diana Krall

Pianist and singer Diana Krall grew up surrounded by her dad’s extensive collection of Fats Waller albums, but ended up with a style and sound closer to that of Ralph Sharon, Tony Bennett’s longtime arranger and accompanist. Although Krall’s music is certainly not aggressive or pushing any boundaries, dismissing her music as smooth jazz for dinner parties would be a mistake. Her performances of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Jimmy McHugh have a freshness, energy and vitality lacking in other “supper club” performers. Krall’s most recent album, “The Girl in the Other Room,” leans heavily on original material written with her husband, Elvis Costello. Albums to start with: Love Scenes, The Girl in the Other Room

Medeski, Martin and Wood

Decades of touring have made the bass/keyboard/drums trio of Medeski, Martin and Wood one of today’s tightest ensembles. Their experimental, groove-based sound is broad enough to be equally at home at both Newport and Bonnaroo without changing a thing. Early pieces like “Hermeto’s Daydream” sound like Dave Brubeck run through “A Clockwork Orange,” while newer material features hip hop artists like DJ Logic, and guitarists Marc Ribot and John Scofield. Albums to start with: Notes from the Underground, Combustication.

Jason Moran

Pianist Jason Moran only has 10 years of recording under his belt, but he’s covered a lot of territory in that time. His albums contain interpretations of Prokofiev and Afrika Bambaataa interspersed with original compositions and spoken-word pieces. In addition to releasing seven albums under his own name, Moran has worked and recorded with Andrew Hill, Cassandra Wilson, Christian McBride, Don Byron, Ravi Coltrane and dozens more. Only 34 years old, Moran is just getting started. Albums to start with: Modernistic, Same Mother

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

Part One

Part Three

Five Legends Still Adding to Their Legacies