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Hot New Disks: Jazz, Blues, Rock and the Great American Songbook

Alice Cooper might be fitting fodder for a film, but that's not the only pleasure I've encountered this week. Markus James finds the missing link between Africa and Mississippi. Annie Lennox can croon a tune for real as she interprets some American delectables. And wonderfully eccentric Jeff Coffin (pictured) continues to amaze with his eclecticism.
Jeff Coffin

"Side Up" (Ear Up) by Jeff Coffin & The Mu’tet goes through some of the same complex changes that Coffin engineered as the saxman of The Dave Matthews Band (since 2008) and Bela Fleck & The Flecktones (1997-2010). Here, on his sixth release as bandleader, he has the balls to take the changes of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” write a new melody to it, call it “”Steppin’ Up,” and do it in the style of a brass band. He’ll take you to India (“Mogador”), Africa (“The Scrambler”) and Japan (“Yukemi”). Be it Raga, Samba, Funk, Folk or Gypsy Jazz, his fusion is a swing of post-bop dimensions. Take “Scratch That Itch,” for instance, a sure-fire instrumental hit single to my ears. He wrote it with a New Orleans drummer and a Nashville bassist. That’s the thing about Coffin. You never know what to expect.

OK, so it’s Annie Lennox’s turn to do a “Great American Songbook.” I mean, jeez, every other artist under the moon has already done one with the trend’s nadir being Rod Stewart’s five volumes and its apex, in my humble opinion, being Harry Nilsson’s 1973 “A Little Touch Of Schmilsson In The Night,” probably the first such endeavor of a pop star crooning his parents’ music. Lennox, being Lennox, brings an alt sensibility to “Nostalgia” (Blue Note). Hers falls somewhere in the middle of the glut but give her points for avoiding the obvious and choosing some discreet picks. I doubt anyone, for instance, ever picked “I Put A Spell On You,” the voodoo screed that Screaming Jay Hawkins wrote and recorded in 1956 as a novelty. And how cool is doing three Billie Holiday songs in a row? Then there’s “You Belong To Me,” an early doo-wop classic recorded by everyone from Eddie Vedder and Ringo Starr to Ella Fitzgerald and Dean Martin. Lennox could care less. Her version, a perfect match for her voice, is a simplistic reminder of love’s intentions that hits home because it’s unadorned with the albatross of an eager producer. In other words, it’s perfect. Sure, I could do without yet another “Summertime,” but this singular talent, with all her eclecticism, strikes the perfect balance between artistry and, yes, nostalgia, when she has the audacity to tackle Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia On My Mind”—a song that Ray Charles and Willie Nelson have owned for years—yet make it her own.

MarkusJames-color with guitar by David Minard

"Head For The Hills" (Firenze), by Markus James, continues his ever-evolving search to the secrets between deep rural Mississippi blues and the West African folk strains of Mali, where he lived and performed for over a year in the sand dunes outside Timbuktu. After experiencing such profound and exotic environments, he realized that the two musics were startlingly similar. The movie "Deep Blues" documented this in no uncertain terms and it changed his life. James made his own movie ("Timbuktoubab") and was about to rewrite musical history with the legendary Jessie Mae Hemphill [1923-2006] when she died. On these 16 tracks, James sings and plays electric slide guitar, three-string cigar box, gourd banjo, dulcimer, acoustic guitar, harmonica, beatbox and a snakeskin-covered one-string diddley bow. He wrote the songs (except “Goin’ Down South by RL Burnside) and plays ‘em with a cast of stellar Mississippi cats who have played with a who’s who of legends including Burnside, Hemphill, Junior Kimbrough and John Lee Hooker.

Alice Cooper

"Super Duper Alice Cooper" (Eagle Rock Entertainment) lives up its name as the action flies fast and furious. Equal parts cautionary tale, "Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde" and rock’n’roll history, the early clips are priceless. The story itself is profound. No, really. Think about it! Here’s this oddball anti-hippie almost-metal band with over-the-top punk attitude from Phoenix trying to make it in the Los Angeles peace’n’love environment and, uh, not exactly going over. They move to Detroit where the rock is harder, ballsier, funkier and, well, Iggy Pop and Mitch Ryder? The MC5? Now they fit in. The band, with their rather awesome three-guitar attack, held together by this total freak front man, starts to click. Then comes the chicken. Funny, when you think of it, that a damn chicken made stars of this band. Apparently, there was, indeed, a chicken backstage that one of the road crew let walk out on to the stage during a show. Alice picks it up and lets it fly into the audience (yes, Virginia, chickens can fly if they have to). The rabid crowd, though, tears it up and Alice becomes known as the man who killed a chicken onstage. Stars now, the band goes for the jugular shock value every time out. Alice struggles with booze and has to be institutionalized. He beats it and the band gets even bigger. Then a funny thing happens. Alice Cooper transcends the concept of a band and becomes an American icon of the dark side, a transformation that their brilliant guitarists believe left them in the dust. While sober, Alice then discovers cocaine. It’s a hell of a story. Highly recommended.