As genres go, the blues is doing just fine. One of the main reasons is the existence of The Blues Foundation, based in Memphis. Every year, for the past 33 years, this organization has helped struggling blues artists with their careers and, as a direct result, insured the continued viability and visibility of this most uniquely American artform internationally. This year’s crop of artists range wide: the 14 acts on International Blues Challenge #33 span the gamut of emotion from gospel, shuffles and smokin’ slide guitar to story-songs, rustic acoustic, piano boogies, soul grooves and rock hard jumpers.
Kudos to Frank Roszak whose company tirelessly publicizes regional blues artists 12 months a year and who has teamed up with the Foundation to present the kind of CD you’ll be going back to again and again. From “Onions Ain’t The Only Thing” by Mississippi Sam Joyner and “I Hate You ‘Cause I Love You” by Spain’s Felix Slim to blues from Israel, Montreal, Ohio, Kansas City, Nashville and Toronto, there’s the proverbial something-for-everyone here. This CD just makes me want to go out and listen to some live blues…and that’s the point. Go!
State of Groove, the debut of Mama SpanX, is highly charged with volatile performances by seven seasoned cats on both coasts. Led by New York City hot potato Nikki Armstrong, from the opening “Rocket” to the closing title track, this thing struts its stuff with soul, verve and daring, encompassing funk, R’n’B, blues and soul-pop-rock. Armstrong wrote eight of nine, sings like there’s no tomorrow, and dedicates it all to guitarist Melvin Sparks [1946-2011], her former boss. The one cover is Lou Donaldson’s 1967 “Alligator Boogaloo” (about being in love with an alligator). I’m digging “Crawl” but every track is a highlight. The horns blow big, the guitars sting, and Nikki’s over-the-top character is a bad-girl diva out of a wet dream. I’m having a hard time extricating this disc from my CD player. I just wanna hear it again and again. So will you.
Adam Ahuja breathes new life into the one-man band concept on Ubiquity (Infinity Gravity/Ropeadope). This rather special young man left his pre-med studies to cart his keyboard around the streets of New York City for chump change. His telephone keeps ringing. Meat Loaf just had to have him on guitar in the studio. Robert Randolph & The Family Band just had to have him on organ during a national tour.
His soul is on display via live-looping where he composes extemporaneously in a single take for five of 11 tracks. The others? All music and lyrics were written, performed and produced by Ahuja as he conscientiously and meticulously layered his vocals, keyboards, guitar, bass, drums and various percussive toys into a cohesive whole. Prince-like in its totality, Adam Ahuja, no matter what he finally decides to do, will probably do it better than anyone else.
Robert Kennedy is alive and well on his self-released self-produced Closer To Home where his Hammond B-3 organ spills mightily all over 10 sterling tracks backed by guitar, tenor sax and drums. The follow-up to his all-original post-bop Big Shoes debut, this one veers bop too but with forays into gospel, soul-jazz and blues.
The covers are such discreet picks, it was a joy to unravel their melodies: from Bobby Timmons’s 1960 bop-fest “Dat Dere” and Harold Mabern’s 1968 “Rakin’ and Scrapin’” to Shirley Scott’s 1974 “Do You Know A Good Thing (When You See One).” Then there’s Clifford Brown’s 1956 12-bar blues “Sandu.” It all ends with the joyous “Alligator Strut,” which is like a walk down The French Quarter of New Orleans with your umbrella on a second line following a Cuban band. Wholeheartedly Recommended!
Hart Scone & Albin are Leading The British Invasion (Zoho). This time, though, instead of shaggy-haired boys from Great Britain leading the charge like in the ‘60s, it’s the songs of such females as Amy Winehouse (“Rehab” and “Back To Black”), Adele (“Turning Tables” and “Rolling In The Deep”), plus Joss Stone, Dusty Springfield and Sade. It all makes for some funky listenin’ as Adam Scone plays the Hammond-B3 organ atop guitarist John Hart and drummer Rudy Albin. The sound is very reminiscent of the bands of jazz organ pioneer Brother Jack McDuff [1926-2001] with whom Hart and Albin worked. Slick, cool, and totally bad-ass, the tracks slyly unveil well-worn melodies in different contexts, be they samba, soul, swing or post-bop. The result is totally delightful!
There’s a song on the terrific new self-released/self-produced Above and Below by the Jim Shaneberger Band called “Indifference” that Bob Dylan could’ve written just like he wrote “Hurricane” (1975) in protest of the inhumane treatment of boxer Rubin Carter at the hands of the New Jersey justice system. “Indifference” protests the treatment of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling who were both shot dead by police within 24 hours of each other in separate July 2016 incidents. It’s a searing protest song and serves as a call to citizen action. It should be heard.
I should have known anything with the word “Monk” in it, I was going to love. So here we have, five days into the new year, my first entry into 2018’s Jazz Top 10. Organ Monk Blue (self-released) by Gregory Lewis, has guitarist Marc Ribot and drummer Jeremy Bean Clemons fulfilling Lewis's vision of The Master, Thelonious Monk [1917-1982], with eight Monk compositions put through the sifter of a Hammond B-3 organ trio.
Ribot nearly steals the show but Lewis is no slouch when it comes to having a Monk I.Q. It’s his fourth such outing, starting with Organ Monk in 2010. That means he can go deeeeeeeep within the Monk canon to interpret a song like the rare 1959 “Blue Hawk.” The much more popular “Misterioso” from 1958 gets almost seven minutes and you can almost smell the cigarette smoke wafting to the ceiling of the long-gone Five Spot Café where Monk recorded it. Monk first did “Nutty” in 1954 on an album with Sonny Rollins. Here, with its psychedelic intro, it’s been totally modernized. (Native New Yorker Lewis swears he heard Monk in his mother’s womb as his dad was a Monk freak.) Organ Monk Blue is a worthy addition to the ever-growing library of Monk-related projects that continue to fascinate 36 years after the death of jazz’s most enigmatic pioneer.
Jazz will always be alive and well as long as there's New Faces being Straight Forward (PosiTone Records). Producer Marc Free has gathered together six new faces, all leaders with CDs of their own. With a unique front line of trumpet (Josh Lawrence, Philadelphia PA), sax (Roxy Cross, Seattle WA) and vibraphone (Behn Gillece, New Jersey), and a sterling rhythm section of piano (Theo Hill, Albany NY), bass (Peter Brendler, Baltimore MD) and drums (Vinnie Sperrazza, Utica NY), the 11 scintillating tracks of originals and covers (dig that ultra-cool twist on Herbie Hancock's "King Cobra"), segue beautifully into a satisfying and adventurous listen. Pianist Hill has Mingus in his blood. This results in wild free-flowing inventive ideas throughout. And when sax/trumpet start debating, the fur flies. Terrific!!