Wednesday

THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME (REISSUES AND ANTHOLOGIES) By Michael McDowell


NEW ORLEANS COOKIN': Long time Meters drummer and younger brother of R&B pioneers Art and Aaron Neville, Cyril Neville gets his due with a five CD retrospect, Endangered Species: The Complete Recordings on World Order Entertainment. Editor/Publisher Michael McDowell takes a closer look at the highlight single disc collection, The Essential Recordings below (Click on above image to enlarge).

 CD REISSUES / ANTHOLOGIES
(REVIEWS ARE POSTED IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER BY ARTIST)

ENDANGERED SPECIES:
THE ESSENTIAL RECORDIJNGS - 
Cyril Neville 
World Order Entertainment)

Cyril Neville has long been somewhat of an enigma within very prominent musical circles.

As the younger sibling of veteran solo artists Art Neville and Aaron Neville, Cyril Garrett Neville played alongside of his brothers as drummer with the Meters, as well as the Neville Brothers.

But along the way, his brothers also established formidable individual legacies via singles that ultimately defined them.

In Art Neville's case, that early notoriety came in 1958 with the release of his signature single, Cha Dooky-Doo for Art Rupe's Specialty label. Art Neville sustained his momentum well into the 1960s via acclaimed 45s for Specialty, Instant and Cinderella, before forming the Meters in 1965. 

In turn, Aaron Neville became an instant front runner in R&B in late 1966 with the release on George Davis, Alvin Tyler and Warren Parker's Par Lo label of his monster classic Tell It Like It Is single. That track has long been regarded as a hallmark of the genre, prompting numerous covers along the way by such artists as Heart and Billy Joe Royal. Aaron Neville followed that single with several others for Par Lo, as well as an acclaimed album for the label. He subsequently got considerably more mileage for his efforts when the first single's flip side, Why Worry began to draw increasing acclaim among musicologists and connoisseurs. 

As for Cyril Neville, he has persevered alongside of his brothers, recording some unique material in the process. Along the way, he cut some remarkable sides for the Endangered Species label, eleven of which are revisited in this single disc collection.

Interestingly enough, Endangered Species: The Essential Recordings does much to reiterate the enigmatic perception. For while there are points along the way that command attention (such as the drop ins from Doctor Martin Luther King's speeches in the Ray Charles-inspired Lift Every Voice And Sing, as well as a strong Meters-like groove in Love Has Got To Win and a flat out celebratory atmosphere in the Ernie K-Doe/Professor Longhair vein in New Orleans Cookin'), in each case, the observer is encouraged to take note and submerge accordingly, only to draw the inevitable conclusion that there is more to the story to be found elsewhere.

There is indeed more elsewhere, which can be found in the five CD box set, Endangered Species: The Complete Recordings. In the process, this sampler serves to whet the appetite for more. And in the long run, that may well be the road less traveled but no less successful, as the youngest of the Neville Brothers joins his brothers in establishing a cornerstone for his own legacy.

WJBK HITS, VOLUMES ONE THROIUGH EIGHT-
Various Artists (WJBK)


"Lack of critical thinking is hurting my brain".

So said one highly respected entertainment industry veteran recently in a spirited social media discussion about the current socio-political climate. Indeed, while invective has become increasingly commonplace in such settings, it can also be inferred that a seeming lack of critical discernment has likewise clouded the vision of many within the musicologist and record collector demographic.



To wit, there remain many who were instrumental in the critical backlash against the protracted aesthetic slump in which mainstream music at large found itself in the late 1960s and early 1970s. To their considerable credit, the faithful stood their ground and took above and beyond the call of duty action by either forming bands (resulting in the so-called punk/new wave revolution of the mid to late 1970s) or by becoming journalists, who picked up the slack in the mainstream and once again made certain that credit was given where credit was due. Indeed, Blitz Magazine was a part of that movement, and remains the lone still active survivor within the genre.



Most curiously, many of those same individuals who took such a groundbreaking stance more than four decades ago are now a regular presence in the aforementioned social media circles. Yet they now espouse a much more conciliatory and much less imaginative perspective on the very subject which had previously so moved them. For example, many within their ranks will post online various musical selections which are to their liking. Often these are tracks that are celebrated and well respected within their circles, and the artists behind them are routinely afforded the admiration, respect and attention that their work deserves.



But instead of singing the praises of that particular piece's merits, the posting is often accompanied by complaints from the one who posted it along the lines of, "I can't believe this never went any higher than number 92 on the national charts", "Why isn't this artist in the Hall?", or "I'm amazed. I didn't think this record would be any good. It was never a hit".



And therein lies the paradox. If the aesthetic merit of a given musical work is subject to its performance on a so called national chart, or whether or not some hall with no public mandate and no more authority to act in that respect aside from that which they have bestowed upon themselves has deemed them worthy of an autographed picture on their wall, then those making such observations have contradicted themselves. For it is often those same individuals who will champion the works of such beloved musical visionaries as the Pretty Things, Ronnie Self, the Chocolate Watchband, Charlie Feathers, the International Submarine Band and Johnny Powers, each of whom enjoyed only modest (at best) mainstream success.



So does the lack of commercial acclaim for those artists infer that the quality of their work is substandard? If that were the case, the ongoing demand that has kept their catalogs in print for more than a half century would not exist. But what is most disconcerting is that those who should know better remain so jaded by their early indoctrination into a system that drilled into them a "charts and radio" method of shaping their musical perspective (and again, this is supposedly a more discerning audience, not the rank and file peripheral "fan" for whom music was little more than background fodder for their personal revisionist history) continue to make such laments, as if they need the permission of the mainstream to proceed with their opinion of a given artist or recording. In other words, an inability to think for themselves. Or, as the astute entertainment industry veteran noted above, "a lack of critical thinking".



All of which makes the project at hand as much of a seeming incongruity as the limited perspective of those who once espoused the height of critical discernment.



From the onset, Blitz Magazine has acknowledged the impact of the legendary Dearborn, Michigan radio station, WKNR Keener 13 and its vaunted air staff (known as the Keener Key Men Of Music) as the single most impacting and enduring influence on our own work. Our ongoing series of salutes to the station's vaunted alumni (which to date has included lengthy dialogues with Jim Sanders and Frank "Swingin' " Sweeney) will resume soon, featuring long time station mastermind and resident visionary, Bob Green.



So, as a radio station with a 32 singles and four album weekly playlist, how could the likes of WKNR be cited as a catalyst for critical thinking? For the simple reason that each member of its air staff brought to the broadcast booth a thinking outside the box mission statement that Green subsequently (and somewhat infamously) referred to as "intelligent flexibility".



In other words, while a weekly WKNR Music Guide provided a template, it soon after their late October 1963 inception became a template without walls. On the spot creativity could prompt everything from the airing of such off the charts moments as Kenny Young and the English Muffins' Mrs. Green and Norma Tracey's The Skateboard Song to customized renditions of crucial classics (with Edwin Starr re-cutting his landmark 1966 Ric-Tic label Stop Her On Sight single as Scott's On Swingers, as well as first generation garage rock greats the Shy Guys reinventing their signature Palmer/Panik label single, We Gotta Go as The Burger Song as tributes to Keener Key Man Scott Regen, not to mention Keener's J. Michael Wilson himself overdubbing the New Vaudeville Band/Dana Rollin smash, Winchester Cathedral and the Underdogs' Love's Gone Bad with unique vocals by his on air "assistant", Rodney the Wonder Rodent).

Or as Sweeney and Green have both noted, the WKNR experience was a consummate one, not merely filler in between records. That is, the news segments (from their award-winning Contact News team), commercials and inventive (and often adlibbed) banter of the Keener Key Men Of Music was as much a part of the entertainment as the music itself. And instead of the time, temp and call letters soundbite common to much of their counterparts elsewhere (exacerbated exponentially by the rise of the Drake Format prior to decade's end), the Keener Key Men Of Music by example (if not design) articulated their case sublimely, leaving the listener to form their own perspective and draw their own conclusions.

WKNR did this so well, that theirs was the fastest ascent to the top spot in their respective market (Windsor/Detroit) in the history of the medium. By early 1964 (a mere three months after their change of call letters from WKMH, and in the wake of such potentially momentum derailing events as the tragic assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the on air meltdown of morning drive Keener Key Man Mort Crowley as a commentary of sorts against perceived injustices against the station by a local utility company), WKNR was a solid number one, both in its own market and within the industry at large. Throughout those most crucial years in the development of rock and roll (1964-1968), WKNR was one of two stations that routinely broke records nationally, with the rest of the nation's broadcasters following suit weeks (or in some cases, months) later.

While such developments bode well for the WKNR mission statement, it nonetheless came at the expense of others who were long established in the market. Among them was the suburban Southfield-based WXYZ 1270 AM, which at its pinnacle employed such giants of the industry as Dave Prince, Joey Reynolds, Joel Sebastian and Lee Alan (who went on to author an acclaimed book on the subject, Turn Your Radio On). WXYZ soldiered on bravely throughout 1966, finally switching formats to Easy Listening in January 1967.

In turn, the success of WKNR meant the imminent demise of the station that for all practical purposes was its forerunner in terms of that so-called "intelligent flexibility". That station, WJBK made its debut on 07 October 1925 on 1290 AM in nearby Ypsilanti, Michigan. WJBK relocated to Detroit in 1940, at which time it switched its broadcast frequency to 1490.

The station once again took a slight move to the right on the AM dial in 1954, when it ended up at 1500 AM. Two years later, WJBK increased its power to 50,000 watts and concurrently embraced a wide variety of music, with rock and roll in the forefront.

With such formidable and relatively free thinking on air talent as Kemal Amin "Casey" Kasem, Marc Avery, Clark Reid, Robert E. Lee, Bob Edgington and future first generation garage rock giant Richard Terrance "Terry Knight" Knapp (as Jack The Bellboy), WJBK espoused its own version of consummate entertainment, only to be inevitably overshadowed by WKNR's undeniable mastery of the concept. WJBK conceded the race in 1964, persevering throughout the 1960s with a series of variations on the Easy Listening format before changing call letters to WDEE on 26 December 1969 and quickly taking over the reins of the country music demographic from the Royal Oak-based WEXL 1340 AM. Now known as WLQV, 1500 AM features a Christian talk format that includes regular broadcasts by such beloved and influential evangelists as John MacArthur and the late Adrian Rogers, as well as the magnificent John Vernon McGee's renowned five-year Thru The Bible series.

During its formidable run, WJBK also published a weekly Radio 15 Record Review survey, which embraced a much larger and diverse template of seventy-five singles. It is from those most ambitious weekly chronicles that the magnificent CD reissue series at hand takes its cue.

Compiled by sympathetic industry veterans with considerable research and painstaking attention to detail in terms of sonic and visual quality, the WJBK Hits series offers an average of twenty-nine to thirty-two tracks per disc, each taken from the weekly Radio 15 Record Review charts between 1956 and 1964. Every volume features a reproduction of a classic WJBK survey on the front cover, while the back cover chronicles title and artist, year of release, peak chart position on WJBK and whether each track is presented in stereo or monaural (with a most welcome generous helping of stereo whenever possible).

And therein is the key to the thinking outside the box mission statement championed by WJBK, WXYZ and WKNR, and reinforced with this remarkable reissue series. For example, consider the year 1963. While current revisionist history within sympathetic circles continues to summarize the year through a handful of familiar singles (including among others the Kingsmen's Louie, Louie, Steve Lawrence's Go Away Little Girl, Jan and Dean's Surf City, Lesley Gore's It's My Party, the Trashmen's Surfin' Bird, Marvin Gaye's Can I Get A Witness and Dion DiMucci's Donna, The Prima Donna), WJBK (and before year's end, WKNR) took a much broader perspective on the musical landscape, both then and as commemorated within this CD series.

For while those aforementioned singles were a key part of the WJBK canon, so were a wealth of releases that were as integral to their focus, yet which remain largely overlooked by the supposedly sympathetic demographic that curiously continues to defer to mainstream outlets to dictate their taste for them. WJBK Hits sets the record straight accordingly, including among the eight volumes such landmark 1963 releases as the late, great James Louis "Jimmy Soul" McCleese's tongue in cheek romp, Go 'Way Christina, the Temptations' pre-David Ruffin Farewell My Love, the Chordettes' vocal harmony rich True Love Goes On And On, Nina Simone's extraordinarily thinking outside of the box live rendition of Little Liza Jane (which was inspired in part by composer Stephen Foster's 1850 standard, Camptown Races and which was honed to perfection via its impassioned live duet performances by banjo virtuosos Louis "Grandpa" Jones and David "Stringbean" Akeman), Nancy Sinatra's commendable take on Peter, Paul And Mary's The Cruel War, beloved country rock pioneer Big Al Downing's Mister Hurt Walked In, veteran rocker Jimmy Clanton's ambitious Red Don't Go With Blue, Baby Jane and the Rockabyes' Bert Berns-produced exercise in vocal euphoria Hickory Dickory Dock, Preston Carnes' high drama ballad Someone, Herb Alpert's masterful vocal ballad (as Dore Alpert) Dina, the Pennsylvania-based Classmen's Limelight label upbeat rendition of Bobby Helms' My Special Angel, actress and vocalist Noreen Corcoran's essential Vee Jay label Love Kitten single, the great Vic Dana's unique take on Vernon Dalhart's The Prisoner's Song, visionary blues rocker T-Bone Walker's Cold, Cold Feeling, the Darlings' Mercury label mid-tempo tale of woe Two Time Loser, the Jaynettes' magnificent Keep An Eye On Her, the legendary Waylon Jennings' utterly stupendous A&M label ballad Love Denied, Boot Hog Pefferly's cover of Clyde McPhatter's I'm Not Going To Work Today, Danny Wayne's stupendously hard rocking Card label single You're Wrong, the O'Jays' magnificent Stand Tall, the Appalachians' variations on a theme by the Coasters (Over Yonder), and the late, great vocal virtuoso Dean Martin's sublime take on the Ray Peterson interpretation of Corrina, Corrina.

As if that poignant cross section of groundbreaking music from 1963 alone was not enough, WJBK Hits at large combs the station's playlists in depth to emphasize just how richly diverse was the musical landscape throughout their run at the top throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s. Among the many, many highlights are Ruth Brown's repertoire-expanding What Happened To You, the Four Aces' inventive rearrangement of Ace Brigode's 1925 standard Yes Sir That's My Baby, James Hugh "Sonny James" Loden's engaging cover of Hank Williams' Lovesick Blues, Rusty Draper's arguably definitive rendition of the Hollywood Flames' larger than life rocker Buzz Buzz Buzz, the Rev-Lons' wonderfully screwy After Last Night, the Tarriers' Kingston Trio-inspiring Pretty Boy, Hank Snow's uncharacteristic My Arms Are A House, the Delroys' brilliant Bermuda Shorts, the Adorables' euphoric Deep Freeze, Boyd Bennett's risk taking cover of Dickey Doo And The Don'ts' Swan label monster classic Click Clack (risk taking in that covering such a landmark record basically amounts to tackling absolute, utter perfection, which Bennett nonetheless did most admirably here), the Four Tunes' somewhat bizarre take on the Sons Of The Pioneers' Cool Water, the late vocal powerhouse David Whitfield's majestic rendition of I'll Find You from the motion picture Sea Wife (which the legendary Ron Goodwin also recorded as an instrumental for Capitol), the Rockaways' Red Bird label prototypical garage rock and surf rock hybrid Top Down Time, the Couplings' Josie label rendition of the rocking Young Doves Calling (which shared the spotlight with a determined take by the Mudlarks),the late Debbie Reynolds' dramatic I Saw A Country Boy, and the Surfaris' straight ahead hot rod rocker, Boss Barracuda. Others among the too numerous to mention essentials include worthwhile and less than obvious contributions by the Clovers, Del Vikings, Miles Stone, the Secrets, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, Tony Williams, Bill Haley and the Comets, the Tymes, Bill Doggett, the Fiestas, JoAnn Campbell, Barbara and Brenda, the Dave Clark Five, the Darnells, Jackie DeShannon, Clairette Clementino, Diane Ray, the Cascades, Otis Williams and the Charms, Dee Edwards, Johnny Faire, the Society Girls, Billy Eckstine, Dotty and Kathy, Steve Lawrence, the Percells, La Brenda Ben, the Victorians, Count Basie with Joe Williams, O.C. and the Holidays, the Playmates, Henrietta, Jerri Adams, Kay Starr, the Darnells and the Prodigals.

"Some of the best music ever made", said CKLW veteran and renowned musicologist and music historian, Ric Allen. Allen was not a contributor to the WJBK Hits series, but nonetheless regularly chronicles the subject masterfully via such online sites as Michigan Music, as well as his own Facebook page.

"And some of the rarest, rather than the same 600 to 800 songs we currently get crammed down our throats".


While by its very nature the series is both a very limited pressing and available only in select outlets, WJBK Hits is nonetheless an inspiring and essential enough project to hopefully prompt some of the faithful to reassess their own self-imposed limitations and engage in a bit of that critical thinking necessary to both procure it and raise their own bar back to the high standards they have long professed to champion. Or, in the words of one of this series' most endearing tracks by first generation garage rockers, the Mojos, Everything's Alright.


ABERGAVENNY: THE PHILIPS
POP YEARS 1966 - 1971 - 
Marty Wilde (Teensville) 

"Sunshine forever, lovely weather".

Such has been the predominant inspiration for veteran vocalist, composer and Blackheath, South London native Reginald Leonard Smith throughout his six decade career. Having adapted the professional name of Marty Wilde in 1957 while performing as Reg Patterson (in keeping with the practice espoused by manager Larry Parnes with his artist roster), Wilde maintained a regular presence in the spotlight well into the next decade, with that phase of his musical mission statement under development as time progressed.

Best known in the United States for his often covered 1959 original, Bad Boy (which was released here on Epic), Wilde recorded a series of acclaimed singles in the ensuing years, including Little Girl, Tomorrow's Clown and Ever Since You Said Goodbye.

Before the end of the 1960s, Wilde had joined forces with the prolific Philips label. In the process, he embarked upon a slight change of musical direction, which is chronicled magnificently in the twenty-nine tracks on this latest collection from Ash Wells' New South Wales-based Teensville label. 

A remarkably gifted songwriter, Wilde excelled in that capacity throughout his 1969 Diversions album, which comprises the first fourteen tracks in this collection. Rich in the relentless optimism that characterized like minded, concurrent releases by Johnny Farnham, Tommy Roe and Little Pattie, Diversions features Wilde's renditions of Jesamine and Ice In The Sun, which had been recorded with great success the previous year by the Casuals and Status Quo, respectively.

But the highlight of Diversions (and this collection) is of course the single that became his signature track. Released in mid-1969 in the United States on the late Jerry Ross' Heritage label (recording home at the time of the Show Stoppers, Bill Deal And The Rondels, the Cherry People and the Duprees) under the pseudonym Shannon, Abergavenny is a euphoric, pull out all the stops celebration of life itself that flew beautifully in the face of the increasing overall pessimism in the musical mainstream.

The remainder of this collection focuses primarily on Wilde's various singles from that period. The majority are originals, save for his memorable interpretations of Johnny Rivers' By The Time I Get To Phoenix and Jerry Wallace's Shutters And Boards (the latter which arguably outpaces the earlier rendition). Most memorable among them are the New Vaudeville Band-inspired No Trams To Lime Street, the country rocker Jump On The Train and the dramatic ballad, All The Love I Have.

As of this writing, Wilde is booked for live performances well into the next year. And while the earlier phase of his career has been well documented via various reissues, this is the first attempt at comprehensively chronicling this crucial phase of his work. A most welcome addition to the merchandise tables at his concert appearances, as well as to the archives of those who appreciate a cerebral and optimistic approach to their music. "Passing the time with paradise people, fine by me", indeed.

Thursday

THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME (NEW RELEASES) By Michael McDowell


DON'T STOP: Composer, vocalist, keyboardsman and bandleader Jon Batiste embraces a wide variety of material (both original and from outside sources) in his Verve Records debut, Hollywood AfricansEditor/Publisher Michael McDowell has the story below (Click on above image to enlarge).

CDs AND VINYL - NEW RELEASES
(REVIEWS ARE POSTED IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER BY ARTIST)


HOLLYWOOD AFRICANS -
Jon Batiste  (Verve)


The role of Musical Director in a late night television talk show setting has from the onset been one that demands both a penchant for rich musical diversity and a strong curriculum vitae.

That precedent was set somewhat inadvertently by the late Stephen Valentine Patrick William "Steve" Allen during his tenure as host of NBC's The Tonight Show between 1954-1957. A supremely gifted pianist, composer, arranger and humorist, Allen continued to record and perform live on a regular basis until his untimely passing in October 2000.

While not as prolific in terms of musicianship as was Allen, The Tonight Show's most beloved and enduring host, John William "Johnny" Carson was an accomplished jazz drummer, who regularly featured a diverse cross section of musicians on his guest list during his three decades (1962-1992) with the program.

Conversely, there were those whose responsibilities as Musical Director only beckoned them to center stage upon rare occasion. They included Lyle Russell Cedric "Skitch" Henderson, Carl Hilding "Doc" Severinsen and Kevin Tyrone Eubanks, each of whom fulfilled their respective roles with extraordinary flair and ability.

Most recently, the Tonight Show's musical direction has been collectively overseen by the Roots. The band's most prominent spokesperson, drummer Ahmir Khamed "?uestlove" Thompson has been blessed by being part of a lineage of musical royalty, as the son of Lee Andrews And The Hearts' front man Arthur Lee Andrews and the grandson of Dixie Hummingbirds alumnus Beachy Thompson. 

In each of those cases, mastery of a wide variety of musical genres was an indispensable component of the job description. Not only were the various Musical Directors called upon occasionally to provide accompaniment for various guest soloists, but on many an occasion, the comedic continuity demanded musical ad libs that simply would not have been as effective for one who had been genre myopic. 

To be certain, the Tonight Show's counterparts followed suit. During his lengthy season providing the musical foundation for David Letterman's various projects for NBC and CBS, Fort William, Ontario native Paul Allen Wood Shaffer developed a reputation as a jack of all trades who was often sought out by fellow musicians for guest appearances on their own studio recordings and live appearances.

When Stephen Colbert succeeded the retiring David Letterman as the host of Late Night, Shaffer's role was assumed by bandleader, pianist and Kenner, Louisiana native Jon Batiste. A Julliard School Of Music graduate who also holds a master's degree, Batiste was an ideal fit for that most demanding role. 

For Hollywood Africans, his first solo studio venture, Batiste enlisted the services of the highly prolific Joseph Henry "T Bone" Burnett as producer. Burnett's work in that capacity includes acclaimed releases by Los Lobos, Elvis Costello, Elton John and Roy Orbison, among others. For this collaboration, Batiste and Burnett journeyed to New Orleans, conducting these sessions in a church building that had been converted into a recording studio. 

Herein, Batiste presents a healthy mixture of cover material and like minded originals, with equally inspiring results. To wit, the Ray Noble-penned The Very Thought Of You (which has previously been recorded by Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Rick Nelson and many others) is rendered herein in a slightly more contemplative manner, more in keeping with Cole's May 1958 rendition.

In turn, Charlie Chaplin's 1936 composition, Smile has been previously interpreted by Judy Garland, Michael Jackson and the aforementioned Nat King Cole, with Batiste following suit by bringing to light the piece's inherent lyrical dichotomy. Batiste follows through on that approach full circle with his take on Saint James Infirmary, leaving in place the persistent impasse in terms of interpretation that first came to light with Louis Armstrong's 1928 rendition in the wake of the piece's purported eighteenth-century origin as The Unfortunate Rake.

However, Batiste seems somewhat more focused in terms of mission statement with respect to his original material. The opener, Kenner Boogie concurrently pays tribute to his hometown and to the ambitious keyboard stylings of such visionaries as Meade Lux Lewis, Cecil Gant and Leroy Carr. Likewise, Batiste's forays into the classical realm (Chopinesque and Nocturne No. 1 In D Minor) take a cue from the works of Don Shirley, Ahmad Jamal and Charles Rosen in compensating for sparse instrumentation with a full bodied arrangement. The album's closer, Don't Stop brings the concept full circle by incorporating elements of the works of Frederic Chopin and Billie Holiday into a proclamation of collective optimism borne of adversity.

To be certain, the pairing of Batiste with the vaunted Verve label is a most fortuitous one. With a catalog that includes the works of some of the most revered artists in all of music (including Anita O'Day, Ella Fitzgerald, Spike Jones, Fred Astaire, Rick Nelson, Bing Crosby, Audrey Hepburn, Oscar Peterson, the Ink Spots, Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto, Kai Winding, Wes Montgomery, the Righteous Brothers, the Mothers Of Invention, Jimmy Smith, the Velvet Underground, Little Eva, Garnet Mimms, Rare Earth, Ellis Greenwich and Hank Williams Junior), Verve has long provided the crucial elements of support and creative autonomy to its artists.

"It is a great privilege to be working with Jon Batiste", said Verve Label Group CEO and President, Danny Bennett. 

"His determination and dedication to stay true to his musical roots while pushing the envelope to create music that is uniquely his own, places him well within the pantheon of Verve's most treasured artists".

And in the process, to invoke the 1968 Louis Armstrong staple that also graces this collection, Jon Batiste has reminded all concerned What A Wonderful World lies before the listener when the artist heeds his own advice (Don't Stop) in the creative process.

ESCAPE FROM EARTH -
Les Fradkin  (Bongo Boy)


Attendees of the Vox Fest Music Festival in Riverside, California in the early years of the twenty-first century were blessed to see such long time major inspirations as the Electric Prunes and Peter And Gordon's Gordon Waller in action. Not surprisingly, both were still very much in command of the proceedings.


However, sharing the bill with them that evening was a familiar name, with a familiar sound. But to the discerning musicologist, it was still obvious that further clarification was in order.

The third act on the bill that evening was the veteran band, Edison Lighthouse. The original band's impressive list of credits for Larry Uttal's Bell Records in the early 1970s included such memorable singles as It's Up To You Petula, It's Gonna Be A Lonely Summer, What's Happening and the 1970 monster classic, Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)

The lead vocalist on the latter Edison Lighthouse single was the legendary Tony Burrows, who also served in that capacity at the time on noteworthy releases by the Pipkins, White Plains and (later) First Class. However, Burrows and other founding members of Edison Lighthouse were nowhere to be seen on the stage in Riverside that evening. 

Instead, the group performing as Edison Lighthouse at Vox Fest was a trio headed by guitarist and New York City native, Les Fradkin. Remarkably, despite the minimal instrumentation at hand, the trio was able to replicate rather convincingly not only the lavishly arranged Edison Lighthouse singles, but the others which originally featured Burrows' input. 

As it turned out, Fradkin had secured the rights to the use of the name Edison Lighthouse in the United States, and took full advantage of his considerable experience as a session musician to do the band's legacy justice. That experience includes work with the band California, as well as participation in various sessions by such renowned artists as the Left Banke and the Royal Guardsmen's Barry Winslow. Fradkin also worked in that capacity for MGM's affiliate Sunfower label in the early 1970s. He had two releases on the label in 1970, Song Of A Thousand Voices / You Can Cry If You Want To as Fearless Fradkin and Patty Cake / Hippie Lady as the Yummies.

In the process, Fradkin garnered a reputation as a MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) guitarist and sound technician of considerable acumen. All of which has led to the project at hand.

As is the case with the long time Mysterians lead guitarist Robert Lee "Bobby" Balderrama and the highly prolific and musically diverse Jeremy Morris, Fradkin herein celebrates a form of original instrumental music that embraces both jazz and progressive rock, with the results often taking on a somewhat otherworldly nature. As such, it stands to reason that Fradkin's latest project for the Bongo Boy label (whose sizeable artist roster also includes the like minded Doughboys guitarist, Gar Francis) is titled Escape From Earth.

The fourteen track album opens with the exuberant Presto Changeo, which invokes the spirit of adventure of both Apollo 100 and Emerson, Lake And Palmer before abruptly changing course (and tempo) with the across the ages serenade, Reflections Of Love. From there, Fradkin is all over the musical map in his endeavors to bring the mission statement of the title to fruition. He succeeds on all counts, particularly with the pomp-driven Baroque And Roll, the Walter/Wendy Carlos-themed Bach Rocks, the bombastic The Myth Of El Cid, the return to ELP tempo Vivaldi Rides Again and the closing title track, in which Fradkin summarizes the journey in matter of fact fashion that suggests a synthesis of symphony and public television news documentary. 


So while those who espouse the purist perspective may continue to find challenges in coming to terms with the Edison Lighthouse clause of Fradkin's curriculum vitae, suffice to say that the results justify the means, both in that case and in his overall body of work, including this ambitious project. To be certain, it is an escape not only from Earth in the musical sense, but from the thinking outside the box perspective. And that is indeed a song worthy of being sung by a thousand voices.

THE BIG BAD BLUES -
Billy F. Gibbons (Concord)



She's So Far Out She's In.

So sang Billy Fury, the Monkees, the North Stars, Dino, Desi & Billy and others in 1966. That often recorded Baker Knight composition is a hallmark of first generation garage rock, which lyrically tells the tale of an extreme that has come full circle.

That analogy could just as easily apply to the blues in recent years. The genre made its most encouraging rise to prominence in the early twentieth century, with great promise. But in recent years, the tendency of many of its current practitioners to draw from peripheral sources and reduce it to its lowest common denominator has caused the genre to occasionally border on self-parody.

The key factor in that dichotomy has been form over feeling. In their resolve to parrot some of the basic elements of the template, the key attributes of passion and personality have often been overlooked.

Such was never the problem for the blues' most beloved founders and visionaries, such as Charly Patton, Ishman Bracey and Robert Johnson. In turn, the interim keepers of the flame (Canned Heat, Cyril Davies, etc.) were well schooled in the various attributes of their mentors, and kept their focus sharp whenever they strayed from the template.

But in the current century, a glut of early 1970s mainstream rock-inspired bands has proceeded with the belief that name checking various key topics over a generic twelve-bar template will meet the basic requirements. In the process, the genre has faced increasing elitism and a touch of genre myopia among its faithful, producing disinterest among a wider audience that would have readily embraced the work of their predecessors. 

And that again is ample evidence of why almost invariably it takes a veteran to get the job done.

Having firmly established his legacy via a series of acclaimed first generation garage rock releases for Tantara and Scepter's affiliate Wand label as co-founder of the Moving Sidewalks, guitarist and Houston, Texas native William Frederick "Billy" Gibbons championed the blues as a key component of his musical mission statement from the onset. 

As his career progressed, Gibbons added to his vision an undercurrent of humor, which was evident from the onset in his original material with the still very much active ZZ Top. All of which has done much over the past half century to ensure that the basics of passion and personality remain front and center in his work.

Such attributes are evidenced in The Big Bad Blues from the onset. To that effect, the album's opener, Missin' Yo Kissin' (composed by his wife, Gilligan Gibbons) could just as easily have been titled, Variations On A Theme From La Grange

With the basics of that which fuels his ongoing primary musical focus very much in evidence here, the remainder of the proceedings command the listener to attention in ways that the genre in the hands of only its most capable can do. From the familiar through refreshing revision that is My Baby She Rocks to the subtly flippant Let The Left Hand Know and Mo' Slower Blues and the inevitable (yet welcome) reinterpretations of Muddy Waters' Rollin' And Tumblin' and the subtle variation of Ellas "Bo Diddley" McDaniel's masterful Bring It To Jerome, Gibbons handily dismisses any possible reservations about the limitations of the genre. 

To be certain, Gibbons' affiliation with the venerable Concord label is a most fortuitous pairing. With a world class catalog that includes masterworks by such richly diverse artists as McCoy Tyner, Barry Manilow, Joey DeFrancesco, Sergio Mendes, Ray Charles, Tony Bennett, Shelby Lynne, Loudon Wainwright III and Doris Day (as well as landmark reissues from the Stax/Volt and Fantasy archives), Concord provides both the creative autonomy and solidarity of vision necessary to get the job done.

And that (to invoke a touchstone track from Gibbons' work with the Moving Sidewalks) is why The Big Bad Blues is nothing short of Every Night A New Surprise.


THREE FOR THE ROAD -
John Mayall (Forty Below)


For a man whose name has for more than six decades been regarded as being synonymous with the blues, John Mayall seemingly has little on his plate with which to take exception.

Save for his recent bout with pneumonia, the Macclesfield, Cheshire native and keyboardsman continues to preside over a prolific legacy that has most recently found him working in tandem with bassist Greg Rzab and drummer Jay Davenport. Their approach defers as much to the classic jazz combos fronted by Charles Mingus, Dave Brubeck and Ramsey Lewis as it does the blues, as evidenced in this magnificent March 2017 live recording. 

To wit, the Curtis Salgado-penned The Sum Of Something is as much of a warm up to a workout as anything in the catalogues of the aforementioned visionaries. In turn, their smooth take on Lionel Hampton's Ridin' On The L&N can been seen as a reinterpretation / personalization of the original vision, as well a tip of the hat to its inspiration. 

Mayall likewise celebrates the seeming dichotomy herein via a spirited reading of the late Chuck Willis' Okeh-era single, I Feel So Bad. He drives the point home with his self-penned and introspective Lonely Feelings, which takes the Willis / Hampton inspirations a step further. 

But there is little in the John Mayall legacy that continues to inspire as much as does the tried and true instrumental workout, especially in view of the lengthy list of legends who have passed through the ranks of his band over the past half century. And while the eleven minute, set closing Congo Square does kick off with a commanding vocal performance, by midpoint, Mayall (on both harmonica and keyboards), Rzab and Davenport are in full blown workout mode, with Mayall taking the decisive lead.

Since the release of this album, Mayall has expanded the band into a quartet with the addition of guitarist Carolyn Wonderland. And while Mayall on doctor's orders continues to recuperate throughout August and September, all indicators suggest that his eventual return to live performance with this new incarnation of the band should take his most impressive legacy to even greater heights. Or in the words of a standout cut from his 1968 Bare Wires album, it is a development that is certain to Open Up A New Door.


RECKONING -

Billy Price (Vizztone)


In Major League Baseball, there have been so-called superstars, who are expected to perform above expectations and amass extraordinary career stats in the process. Their ranks would include the likes of George Herman "Babe" Ruth, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle and Mike Piazza.



Joining them would be a gifted group of colleagues, sometimes known as the everyday player. While not necessarily in a position to break Williams' 1941 season batting average of .406, they could nonetheless be counted on to get the job done consistently and decisively. Among them would be Chicago White Sox catcher John Sherman "Sherm" Lollar, Detroit Tigers first baseman Norman Dalton "Norm" Cash, Oakland Athletics pitcher Vida Blue and Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder Brett Butler. 

Musically speaking, veteran vocalist and Fair Lawn, New Jersey native William "Billy Price" Pollak is best described as an everyday player with superstar inclinations. With fifteen albums to his credit to date, Price has also collaborated with the likes of guitarist Roy Buchanan and R&B visionary Otis Clay.

Produced by Kid Andersen at Greaseland Studios, Reckoning finds Price taking more than just a pedestrian approach to a genre that has often suffered as such in the hands of many of its modern day exponents. Herein, he tackles the most challenging of outside material, from Denise LaSalle's Get Your Lie Straight to Otis Redding's seemingly impossible to top I Love You More Than Words Can Say.

Taking his cue accordingly, Price also contributes several originals that follow suit. Chief among them would be One And One, which does the Memphis Soul template justice, while name checking George Jones and Tammy Wynette in the process. He has even called upon Marcel Smith to open the title track with a bit of fire and brimstone preaching to drive the point home. 


Appropriately enough, Price currently plies his trade with the Vizztone label, which has been unrelenting in its dedication to the genre within the current decade. Despite the resultant potential for overkill, the astute artist will find a way to get the job done decisively. And with Reckoning, that is exactly what Price has done.

COMBO 66 -
John Scofield (Verve)

The vaunted Verve label has been blessed with one of the most extraordinary catalogs in all of music. 

Since making its debut in 1956, Verve has released key recordings by such musical visionaries as Anita O'Day, Spike Jones, Ella Fitzgerald, Rick Nelson, Bing Crosby, Woody Herman, Dorothy Dandridge, Mel Torme, Hank Williams Junior, the Mothers Of Invention, the Righteous Brothers, the Velvet Underground, Bobby Jameson and Tommy Collins, to name but a few.

With his latest Verve release, Combo 66, guitarist, composer and Dayton, Ohio native John Scofield has taken that affiliation to the next level. A veteran of key collaborations with such like minded pioneers as Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Herbie Hancock, Joey DeFrancesco, Mavis Staples, George Duke and Jaco Pastorius, Scofield herein (however unintentionally) celebrates and takes a step further (with keyboardsman Gerald Clayton) the musical mission statements of such esteemed Verve alumni as Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery. 

This is not to infer that Combo 66 (so named in honor of Scofield's December 1951 birthdate) is derivative. In fact, while his work and that of Montgomery (best represented by the latter's 1966 California Dreaming album for the label) are in one accord (as are that of Clayton and the highly prolific Smith), throughout the proceedings, the two invert the musical personae of those respective inspirations, with inspiring results. 

To that effect, the somewhat enigmatic Willa Jean (which bears a curious resemblance in spots to the Gospel standard, Holy Spirit Come) finds Scofield opening with a rustic Band/Mick Taylor-era Rolling Stones four bar motif. That setting provides a basic template for him to vacillate between structured yet ambitious runs that were frequently at home in Smith's work for the label. In turn, the hard bop inspiration of Dang Swing enables Scofield to soar without losing focus; an all too rare attribute of which Smith was a master. 

Conversely, the relatively heavy handed New Waltzo (a counterpart of sorts to the Dave Brubeck Quartet's Blue Rondo A La Turk, sans the abrupt changes of time signature) finds all concerned in their more natural elements, thereby enabling the group (which also includes bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Bill Stewart) to shine in their respective roles accordingly. The prodding yet exploratory Can't Dance and the Henry Mancini-inspired Combo Theme also highlight the set.

While such a setting may give rise to concerns about the self-indulgence that has detracted from many a like minded work, Scofield maintains enough of a sense of adventure herein to decisively allay such fears. To be certain, Combo 66 is a fitting addition to both the Verve legacy and his own, in the process perhaps giving a whole new meaning to one of the album's key tracks, Icons At The Fair.

LET'S DIE TOGETHER -
The Smoking Flowers (Bandaloop Music)

"Where were you the night when rock and roll was in the news?"

That key question from Woodland Avenue pretty much sets the stage for Let's Die Together (which in this case suggests more of a commitment to longevity than any sort of reference to fatalism), the latest vinyl LP release for the Nashville, Tennessee-based Smoking Flowers. Comprised of husband and wife duo Scott and Kim Collins, the Smoking Flowers answer that question with a healthy quest for musical enlightenment that avails itself in abundance throughout this collection.

With little or no historical baggage to obfuscate their quest, the Collins' search for inspiration has them all over the musical map. Referred to in some circles as "alt country", the Smoking Flowers are in reality only peripherally affiliated with that sub genre, a la Rank And File or Lone Justice. The evidence at hand draws moreover from everything from psych-era Dick And Dee Dee (the astutely titled Young And Brave) to T Rex (Sunset, MO) and a sympathetic meshing of Led Zeppelin and Heart (Rip It Off).

Amidst it all is a sense of longing for a better understanding of the very foundations of the genre, as established by such pioneers as Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran. In that respect, theirs is a journey in progress, with some encouraging stops along the way. 

To wit, Woodland Avenue name checks Milwaukee, Wisconsin's Esquires, the charismatic vocal quintet whose numerous 1967-1968 sides for the Bunky label rank in the upper echelons of the genre's overall output. Granted, such inspiration does not manifest itself overtly in the results. Nonetheless, it raises the bar in a manner that encourages the duo to persevere accordingly.

Along the way, such discoveries fuel the Smoking Flowers' inspiration in a manner that finds them sidestepping the penchant for the obtuse common to the work of others of similar intent in favor of a more direct approach. Such methodology ultimately challenges both artist and audience to greater heights. 

Since making their debut with their Sweet As Port album in 2009, the Smoking Flowers have grown exponentially in that respect. Walking as they do the fine line between candor and intellectual stimulation / confrontation, the fact that they ultimately follow their own advice and put Heart B4 The Head speaks well for both their overall mission statement and their future.