This month's finds include some pioneering new prog-rock, balls-to-the-wall jazz insanity, a crazy combo of French hurdy gurdy music and Mississippi Delta blues and the dramatic entrances of two new divas.
Vigir (MoonJune Records), by Vantomme, features King Crimson/Peter Gabriel/Stick Men bassist Tony Levin for a free-wheeling, free-form non-constrictive free-for-all. The key word is, of course, “free.” There were no boundaries, genre limitations or songs when he joined Dominique Vantomme in the studio with electric guitarist Michel Delville and drummer Maxime Lenssens. No words. Just jams. “Playing Chess With Barney Rubble” (9:04) and “The Self-Licking Ice Cream Cone” (13:08) are the highlights but all eight tracks rumble, bubble, slide, squirt, surprise, enlighten with seemingly effortless ease and, ultimately, greatly reward.
Vantomme himself is a pianist/organist/synthesist/composer/educator/producer who has been moonlighting as hotshot sideman for a multitude of European pop stars when not at his professorial day job teaching at the Belgium Music Conservatory. He ran into Levin in Holland where MoonJune’s Leonardo Pavkovic, always on the ear for new sound, suggested they record together for his progressive label, MoonJune. I’m glad he did because this one’s a keeper, totally unique, different from anything else you may hear this year. Bravo!
Lex Grey would make a great dominatrix. Lex Grey and the Urban Pioneers are on their seventh CD with the Usual Suspects (Pioneer Productions). Legend has it this rockin’ ballsy mama oftentimes takes to the stage brandishing a whip that she cracks barely over the heads of willing supplicants. Their live shows are dazzling displays of smoke, lights, rock’n’roll, and the kind of blues originally pioneered by Ma Rainey [1882-1939]. They say Ma was a bi-sexual ball-buster who loved orgies and getting high. Lex sings about “My Jellyrole” as if it’s for sale. She’s a “Warrior Squaw” who loves to “Chow Down” (and she ain’t talkin’ ‘bout pizza) for some “Cheap Thrills” and she has a “Dirty Secret.” It is on my Bucket List to see this band live! In the meantime, Usual Suspects has yet to leave my box.
MoonJune Records is also responsible for Liver by Slivovitz. Recorded live in Italy, these Italian maestros—on tenor and alto saxophones, electric and acoustic guitars, electric violin, trumpet, harmonica, electric bass and drums—kick out the jams prog-style and the result just may be the Progressive Rock CD of the year so far. All original (except for a blast-off cover of Nirvana’s “Negative Creep”), Liver is a total freak-out as if Frank Zappa joined Snarky Puppy on a Mahavishnu Orchestra tribute album. Jazz-rock fusion at its finest! Hard, unyielding, in-your-face and more rock than jazz, Liver doesn’t exactly go down easy but you should eat it, kids, because it’s good for you. Get the CD instead of the vinyl if only because the closing CD-only “Caldo Bagno” is so damn good.
Ohio’s best kept secret is now out of the bag. The self-released debut, JFI, of Johnny Fink and the Intruders, is a barnstorming bonanza of hot licks, funky beats and bluesy vocals on nine rockin’ originals where Fink’s guitar/bass/drums trio is augmented by keyboards to create a swirling party of feel-good proportions. Their “Pain” is the highlight. Wholeheartedly Recommended.
Saxophonist/Clarinetist/Bandleader/Composer/Musicologist/Blogger Kevin Sun—who splits his time between Brooklyn and Beijing—lands his impressive self-released Trio debut with a dramatic crash. Bassist Walter Stinson and drummer Matt Honor get to keep up with the brainy young man and do so with flying colors. Sun isn’t content with just excavating the history of his instruments and adding to their oeuvre, he has to practically rewrite the past. (The solos of John Coltrane, Joe Henderson and Clifford Brown are amongst the 120 such solos he has transcribed on his music and literature blog, “A Horizontal Search.”) Besides tenor, he plays the rare c-melody sax. When Adolphe Sax invented the saxophone in 1846 Belgium, c-melody sax was a popular variant. Benny Carter and Coleman Hawkins started their careers on it. Lester Young loved its sound so much, he emulated it on tenor. Here, Sun goes wild with it on the 1931 chestnut “All Of Me” as well as an extemporaneous improvisation (“One Never Knows Now”) inspired by the late novelist David Foster Wallace. Trio highlights are an elegant waltz, “Ballroom Dancing,” and the heavy metal thunder of “Misanthrope.”
Israeli tenor saxophonist/composer Arnan Raz has followed up his impressive 2016 Second To The Left debut with Chains of Stories (Rabbit Rabbit Rabbit Records). He shares the front line with the amazing alto saxophonist Eyal Hai. Between them both, a high-flying peekaboo twin-sax aesthetic emerges: palpably exciting and swoon-worthy as they alternately twirl and dance together, be it in harmony or a kind of vocal unison. Mostly, though, one lays back while the other forges ahead. Sometimes they fight. Raz wrote eight of nine, the sole cover is a jazz version of “Ella” by Shalom Chanoch, 71, known as “The Father of Israeli Rock.”
They’re called Muddy Gurdy. It’s an esoteric combo of French hurdy-gurdy music and North Mississippi hill country blues. Their self-titled VizzTone CD is one of the most refreshing and feel-good debuts of the year. Three French musicians—guitarist/vocalist Tia Gouttebel, Gilles Chabenat (who plays the ancient French stringed instrument known as a hurdy-gurdy) and percussionist Marco Glomeau—have enlisted the aid of valid blues men from the Deep South to intertwine their respective sounds in an effort to produce something totally new, organic and wholly satisfying. It’s a new genre! World-Americana! Recorded in Mississippi with Sharde Thomas on fife (another ancient instrument somewhere between a piccolo and a flute) and three died-in-the-wool guitar-slinging vocalists--Cedric Burnside (the 39-year old grandson of legendary bluesman RL Burnside), third-generation bluesman Cameron Kimbrough and second-generation bluesman Pat Thomas. The 15 tracks bespeak an elegance born out of the Mississippi mud but adorned with the finesse of the French. Highlights include Jesse Mae Hemphill’s dusty and scary “She Wolf,” Fred McDowell’s classic “Shake ‘Em On Down” and some of the songs that the fathers and grandfathers of these cats wrote back in the day. It’s a 2018 Top 10 blues entry for sure.
Joanne Wallfisch is something special. You can tell it by just looking at the cover of her fourth CD Blood & Bone. She released it herself, produced, arranged and wrote all 14 songs, sings ‘em all in a wounded voice of experience, and plays ukulele, flute, piano and Wurlitzer organ. Her arrangements are, in a word, spectacular, what with a sound collage of bass, drums, guitar, banjo, trumpet, flugelhorn and The Solar String Quartet. Still, it’s her compositional prowess that should have you oohing and ahhing. This is a woman who bicycled from Oregon to California with her trusty ukulele and loop pedals on a tour of her own making, stunning crowds with her oh-so-personal Joni Mitchell-inspired confessionals that truly get down to Blood & Bone, be it “I’m A Traveler,” “The Truth,” “The Shadow Of Your Ghost” or her masterpiece, “Choices.” You owe it to yourself to hear an artist of her caliber.