3 CD SETS: JOHN DENVER COMES ALIVE, WILLIE NELSON LOOKS BACK AND A GUITAR SUMMIT

John DenverIt is time to reconsider John Denver [1943-1997]. With the release of a 4-CD box late last year, “All Of My Memories: The John Denver Collection,” misconceptions and negative mythologizing can finally be laid to rest. Hey, I’m as guilty as the next hipster in dismissing him and his 33 million records sold. That cheery smile and that boyish charm just oozing out of him made me gag. I never liked “Take Me Home Country Roads” (now West Virginia’s State Song) and even after I got into country music, I couldn’t stand “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.” Not only would I turn off the radio but I’d do it violently with a sound of total disgust.

RCA/Legacy did a beautiful job with the packaging and excavation of every Denver era encompassing all the various labels (no small feat). His early work starting in 1964 singing in two different trios is here as are his earliest demos upon going solo. The 90 songs include six never-before-released tracks, promotional rarities, in-concert moments and even private pressings.

Coming to his altar late, though, I found his deep cuts strong, his politics righteous and his wordplay endearing. A master melodist, he cut 300+ songs in his life, 200+ of them originals. His was a beautiful perfect-pitched voice akin to early Harry Nilsson in its pristine tenor glory. If there’s one song that stands out, it has to be the exquisitely sculptured “Poems Prayers & Promises” where he and his “old lady sit and pass the pipe around.” He covers John Prine (“Blow Up Your TV”) and Buddy Holly (“Everyday”). His “Leaving On A Jet Plane” (taken to #1 by Peter, Paul & Mary) is a stone beauty as is his protest song (“Let Us Begin [What Are We Making Weapons For]”). Who knew he even goofed on Richard Nixon (“The ’68 Nixon [This Year’s Model]”)? There are so many discoveries here that I swore to my wife (who would always argue with me on his behalf), “you were right, dear.” It’s a line I seem to be saying a lot.

Although Mike Stern comes from jazz and Eric Johnson rock, their “Eclectic” collaboration (Heads Up International/Concord Music Group) is exactly that. It took a week-long Blue Note gig in New York City to make them realize they were simpatico (this after Johnson played on Stern’s 2009 “Big Neighborhood”). The result is a jazz-rock-funk-pop event that brings new life to the much-maligned sub-genre

of fusion. Eric Johnson and Mike SternFrom the Wes Montgomery “Tidal” tribute and the John Coltrane-esque “Remember” to the Charlie Christian nod on “Benny Man’s Blues” and the Hendrix “Red House” cover (complete with sax/trombone/trumpet), these two go wild together. Recorded in Austin with drummer Anton Fig and bassist Chris Maresh, “Eclectic” also hosts some tasty guests like soul man vocalist Malford Milligan on the opening “Roll With It,” Mike’s wife Leni Stern on the African stringed instrument n’goni, back-up singer Christopher Cross and Guy Forsyth on harmonica. Stern played in the band of no less than the mighty Miles Davis himself in the ’80s, as well as having 13 of his own albums to his credit. (This is Johnson’s eighth CD since 1978.)

Willie Nelson    Man, that Willie is on a role! Hot on the heels of his brilliant “Band Of Brothers,” released just five months prior to this one, and for the 81 year old’s fifth album since May of 2012 (all since signing with Legacy), he’s given props to his piano-playing sister Bobbie Nelson, 84, a longtime mainstay of his band. “Willie’s Stash Volume #1:  “December Day” by Willie Nelson and Sister Bobbie is a treasure trove of 18 songs that go down easy, offering up wisdom, his signature Django-style guitar and her free-flowing pianistics. Yet it’s still dominated by his aged voice, jazz phrasing and an intimate production. It6’s like hanging out with these two and some of their friends for a most delightful hour of newly recorded gems. They take from Willie’s extensive catalog as well as pick some wonnderfully piquant covers of Al Jolson (“The Anniversary Song”), three from Irving Berlin including “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” two from Django Reinhardt and the Nat King Cole hit “Mona Lisa.” The whole idea, as harmonica player Mickey Raphael says in the liner notes, is to “record our favorite songs like we play them on the bus for ourselves.” Bobbie travels with her brother on that legendary bus filled with pot smoke. Mickey should know too. He was hired in Willie’s Family Band at 20. Now he’s 60 and still there.

About Mike Greenblatt

A longtime music journalist, Mike Greenblatt is a contributing editor with Goldmine magazine.

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