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Chris Butler and Ralph Carney

Chris Butler and Ralph Carney

Songs for Unsung Holidays

Smog Veil

How come there are no more silly bands?

That is the question Ralph Carney asked Chris Butler that spawned this collection of bizarre tributes to holidays that almost no one celebrates. Carney and Butler have been friends and collaborators since the mid ’70s. They played together in Tin Huey and the Waitresses. Over the years, Carney has played reeds with everyone from Tom Waits to Medeski, Martin and Woods to Les Claypool to his nephews Patrick Carney’s band The Black Keys. Butler was the songwriter for the Waitresses and an in-demand producer and session musician. Both men have been prolific solo artists. This batch of silly songs is the last project Carney worked on before his death in 2017.

The tunes on Songs for Unsung Holidays are as weird as the days they commemorate. “Introduce A Girl to Engineering Day” (February 23rd) has narration about career opportunity in engineering punctuated by a Devo does the Chipmunks chorus. It’s unrepentantly goofy and probably my favorite song on the album.

“Bubble Wrap Day” (March 18th) has it’s charms too. I can’t resist a song that liberally uses kazoos and proclaims the superiority of bubble wrap to peanuts and newspaper for packing fragile things. Foods are well represented with “Tapioca Day” (July 15th), “Lobster Day” (June 15th). “Salami Appreciation Day” (September 7th) and “Cheese Ball Day” (April 17th). I guess “Buffet Day” (January 2nd) celebrates all of the above.

A couple of tunes seem to take their holiday to task. “Bath Safety Day” (June 3rd) turns out to be a ode to taking showers. “Bald and Free Day” (October 14th) is more about berating those who insist on wearing rugs on their heads.

In the days of free-form FM radio when DJ’s could pick their own playlist, I could see these tunes popping up through the year. I know I would be pulling out this disc pretty regularly if I were still doing a radio show. I like serious music, but as some Irish philosopher once said, there still time for dumb entertainment. Put on your “Gorilla Suit” (January 31st) and have a walk around.

www.smogveil.com

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Music Reviews

The Road To Jajouka

The Road To Jajouka

Various Artists

Howe

Perched upon the Rif mountain range of Morocco, the Master Musicians of Jajouka — dubbed “the 4,000 year old rock ‘n’ roll band” by William S. Burroughs — have fascinated listeners with their ceremonial trance music for years. Rolling Stone Brian Jones was an early devotee in the West, featuring their music on his 1971 album Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Jajouka. Ornette Coleman found their hypnotic blend of wind instruments and native percussion so entrancing that he cut “Midnight Sunrise” with the group on his 1976 release Dancing in Your Head. Led by Bachir Attar, the Master Musicians of Jajouka are being helped out by this benefit record, The Road To Jajouka. Produced by Billy Martin, drummer for Medeski Martin & Wood, the record features a wide assortment of artists from around the world, and for the most part it’s a compelling trip.

“Hand of Fatima” begins the journey, featuring Medeski Martin & Wood along with guitarist Marc Ribot and Attar, and the mixture of the ancient sounds of Jajouka and Ribot’s snaky guitar is mesmerizing. East Indian singer Falu joins up with saxophonist John Zorn, bassist Flea, and Billy Martin on “Djebala Hills,” and Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo sounds right at home on “Boujeloudia Magick.”

There are a few missteps, such as the collaboration between Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and DJ Logic on “Baraka,” which attempts to wed urban beats to the Master Musicians sound, to no great effect. But all is forgotten on the magnificent “Jnuin,” with Ornette Coleman sounding as spry and imaginative as ever, his harmolodic style of playing meshing perfectly with the group’s shifting rhythms and repetitive melodies. Howard Shore and the London Philharmonic Orchestra conclude the disc with “Al’Aita.” Shore and Coleman wrote the score to the film version of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, inspired by Ornette’s work with the Jajouka musicians on “Midnight Sunrise,” and his cut here is from the soundtrack to The Cell, featuring Bachir Attar and the Master Musicians of Jajouka.

This is literally a timeless music, haunting, intriguing and somewhat foreign to our ears, but one that can elevate the listener as few other experiences can. Try The Road to Jajouka with open mind and ears, and you’ll find yourself transported to a place and a culture of which you’ve never dreamed. Some of you might not come fully back — and isn’t that why you travel to begin with?

Howe RecordsJajouka Foundation

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Music Reviews

Billy Martin’s Wicked Knee

Billy Martin’s Wicked Knee

Heels Over Head

Amulet Records

Billy Martin originally met trumpeter Steven Bernstein and trombonist Curtis Fowlkes when they were just starting out playing in John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards, stretching the limits of jazz down avant-garde side streets. Twenty years later, Wicked Knee is the result of their union. Of course, considering the various projects each member brings to the table, it’s a wonder the record happened at all. Martin, of course, is the drummer for Medeski, Martin and Wood, as well as recording with a wide range of artists from John Scofield to DJ Logic and even Iggy. Bernstein leads Sex Mob as well as performing with John Zorn. Tubist Marcus Rojas joins him in Sex Mob, but in Wicked Knee the foursome creates, in Martin’s words, “a small, pocket brass group.”

The sound is New Orleans via Brooklyn, and my, is it funky. A bit second-line, a bit World Saxophone Quartet, this is infectious stuff that one imagines occurring in a late-night jam session. From “Ghumba Zumba” to “Muffaletta,” this is horn music on steroids, with Fowlkes’ trombone meshing with the amped-up trumpet of Bernstein. King Oliver’s “Sugarfoot Stomp” dates back to the 1920s but sounds cutting-edge here, and the group’s low-down take on the White Stripes’ “Button to Button” sounds akin to a marching band run amok. Vocalist Shelly Hirsch ad-libs a woozy “99%,” and by the time “Noctiluca” ends the record, your knees might be wicked from dancing. Heels Over Head is fun stuff!

Amulet Records: amuletrecords.com

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Music Reviews

The Bad Plus

The Bad Plus

Give

Columbia

Straddling the line between exuberant hipness and studious methodology, The Bad Plus bring a fresh scent to the world of fusion, that strange hybrid of rock and jazz that seems to stagnate with surprising frequency. By sticking to the drums/keyboards/bass trio format, the band is begging comparison to Medeski, Martin and Wood, but if they can be dimensioned by that yardstick, it’s only by the fact that they share the knack of somehow keeping all the instruments in the foreground, whirling around in some crazy syncopated synchronized dance.

Selections on Give are divided between original compositions and some interesting choices of other people’s music. The Bad Plus are consistently spectacular, weaving their intricate musical plots and storylines together into an almost overwhelming cascade of ideas. The opening “1979 Semi-Finalist” is cool and composed, a meandering melodic line punctuated by significant pauses and grand aspirations. This is quickly followed by “Cheney Pinata,” a playful song that could have come out of a Havana conservatory, blending insistent afrocuban rhythms with a melancholy chorus. They do a take on Ornette Coleman’s “Street Woman,” which is excellent but hardly surprising, and a version of The Pixies’ “Velouria” that is chilling in its transition from wispy outline to thundering symphony. The other cover on here, Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” is the only clunker on this whole disc — not that it’s bad, mind you, just that by the time it arrives at the end of the album, it comes across as a stab at irony that doesn’t measure up to the rest of the material.

Of special note is “Layin’ A Strip For The Higher-Self State Line,” a raucous boogie where drummer David King spins and wobbles around the beat like a top, while bassist Reid Anderson squeezes out bluesy honks from the upright bass and Ethan Iverson pounds the piano into a quivering mass of iridescent pulsating lightning. This is one of those tracks I can hear over and over, noticing new cues and details each time.

Production by Tchad Blake is minimal — Give was recorded mostly on first takes, with no overdubs. The band apologetically lists their edits in the liner notes — a wrong note here, a better drum solo there — but the feel on Give is that of being present at a string of magical moments.

The Bad Plus: www.thebadplus.com

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Music Reviews

Erik Truffaz

Erik Truffaz

The Walk of the Giant Turtle

Blue Note

French trumpeter Erik Truffaz is a man on a (quixotic) mission: to make fusion jazz respectable again. It’s been a long time since “Mr. Magic” and its success has firmly cemented schlock into the jazz fusion mix. And, while corny mothers like Kenny G., Najee, Boney James, and Joe Sample have flourished like no other jazz artists before, most jazz fans (and probably the genre itself) have suffered greatly for it. It takes an artist of Truffaz’ talent and vision for us to realize that fusion can actually be a good thing.

The Walk of the Giant Turtle, the trumpeter’s fourth U.S. release, is a wonder to behold. Truffaz uses d&b, hip-hop, funk and rock to great effect. Only Medeski, Martin and Wood are comparable in their understanding of these genres and how they can be fully utilized in jazz. “Scody Part II” is an amazing funk cut, and “Bell de Nuit” is an incredible glide-groove ride.

Comparisons are often made between Truffaz and Miles, and this release will only make the clamoring louder. Truffaz uses the mute and space exactly like the former trailblazer. Sometimes you can’t help thinking you’re listening to a sample. And, when Truffaz & Co. go into rock fusion, like on great songs like “King B,” you find yourself checking the CD player to see if you’ve accidentally thrown in On the Corner.

There are moments when Truffaz is being imitative; but this album is such a treat, those moments are easily forgivable. Truffaz is tilting at a mighty large windmill here. Even jazz fans who can be receptive to fusion are usually hostile to the idea, and the purists would stone the man just for trying. It’s not safe territory, and this quartet doesn’t play it as such. They are bold and imaginative and fill your ear drums with fantastic music. Adventurous jazz fans and electronica aficionados alike will be grateful for this endeavor.

Blue Note Records: http://www.bluenote.com/ • Erik Truffaz: http://www.eriktruffaz.com/

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Music Reviews

Track & Field

Track & Field

Track & Field

Codek

Funk don’t die. It only multiply. And, if you don’t believe (which means you’ve been living under a rock-deluded rock for the past five decades), just listen to this latest project from musician/producer/recording engineer, Mike Kohler. As Track & Field, Kohler puts the soul into lounge, giving dedicated head nodders something funky to which to listen. Spanning the soulful jazz timescape between Richard “Groove” Holmes and John Medeski, tripping along the line between jazz and dance music, Track and Field is an experience worth having. Kohler uses a real, live bass (wonder of wonders!) and juicy Hammond grooves to insert the organic into his samples, loops, bleeps and bloops. Yet, every song has a boogie-in-your-bones, good-time feel, as though Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery left the junk joint, changed their names to Kruder and Dorfmeister, and grooved the hipster, Manhattan clubs. Kohler has a funky-good-time vision and spirit that is well-deserving of the tradition he emulates. The funk most definitely lives on.

Codek: http://www.codek.com/

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Music Reviews

Les Hommes

Les Hommes

Les Hommes

ESL

Remember back when Tortoise made it “big” and suddenly everyone was incorporating vibraphones into their head-rock, to varying degrees of success?

Well, though Les Hommes make good use of the instrument, they clearly fall outside that category. Their eponymous debut is a smoky and slippery blend of classy and jazzy instrumentation with a heavy emphasis on the beat — it’s nowhere near an electronic album, yet all the tracks here move forward with an undeniable momentum that’s hard to ignore. Similarly, I’d hesitate to call it Brazilian, but the feel, the groove is there, in ways that run deeper than its occasional bossa nova beat. It’s dim-the-lights music, especially on tracks like “Pousada De Amor,” where a musique concrete background of rain and thunder melds seamlessly with the Vladimiro Carboni’s sizzling cymbal work and Tarek Abou-Chanab’s congas; in the foreground organist Rory Moore tells a musical tale of other dark and wet nights like this.

With an instrumental prowess worthy of Medeski, Martin and Wood, Les Hommes easily prove themselves here. This is a rare all purpose album, one to wind down at the end of the day with, and one that will chugalug the miles like lemonade after yardwork. One to play to your date, and one to impress your boss with.

Eighteenth Street Lounge Music: http://www.eslmusic.com/ • Les Hommes: http://www.leshommes.co.uk/

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Music Reviews

Robert Jacobson

Robert Jacobson

Coldwater

Banana Bread

For those of you who miss the good-time grooves of Richard Holmes, Lou Donaldson, and Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery, well, Coldwater may or may not be for you. Not going to the truly atavistic route of the Not So Young Lions, jazz guitarist Robert Jacobson pays obvious tribute to the jazz tradition of the aforementioned while stretching out with his own vision — which lies well beyond the cheese of Soulive or Metalwood while just lying shy of the free flight of Medeski, Martin, & Wood.

Jacobson is a guitarist with a nice, melodic touch who has teamed up with Wayne Peet’s meaty Hammond B3 to create a refreshingly delightful album. The rhythm section of Byron Vannoy (drums) and Clark Sommers (bass) lay down vibrant foundations that allow Jacobson and Peet to glide, fly, and stride boldly to intriguing heights.

Coldwater starts with a soulful cacophony, “Grounded,” an Ornette-ish New Orleans stomp that is utterly bewitching. There is an abstract intrigue that really pulls you in and almost swings you. But where Jacobson and Gang really excel is the ballad. Here he and Peet solo with a delicate touch that implores without ever delving into the sap. Subtlety abounds with songs like “Placerita Canyon,” where both players prove passion can be understated and, yet, utterly captivating. Peet shines celestial on “Dusk,” where his Hammond rings delightfully melancholic.

Coldwater is a delightful disc for jazz fans who are not stuck in the ’50s or ’60s. Jacobson and Peet are exceptional musicians who shine and entertain. This is definitely an album worth investigating.

Banana Bread Records: http://www.bananabreadrecords.com

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Music Reviews

Metalwood

Metalwood

The Recline

Telarc

Brad Turner, Mike Murley, Chris Tarry, and Ian Froman (or Metalwood) definitely have a love of the past. Just like the Soulive crew, these gentlemen want to put the boogaloo back in your bones. Emulating the likes of Lou Donaldson, Jimmy Smith, and Richard “Groove” Holmes, Metalwood’s jazz is of the jook joint variety. And, much like Soulive, they perform this dance hall time warp to mixed results.

One can see, listening to this disc, how this high-octane quartet (like Karl Denson or Maceo Parker) could really set a club on fire. However, The Recline feels watered-down by too much reverence for a groovy past. These guys are definitely musicians (check out Murley’s sax on “Mr. Mike” and Turner’s keys all throughout). It’s just that they’re wallowing in a funk that stopped reeking some 20 years ago. Unlike Erik Truffaz or Medeski, Martin, and Wood, this wood has not added a modern-day varnish to their sound (and the token scratchings of DJ Logic don’t really help the cause). While one can easily acknowledge their skills and even enjoy the album, their sound does ring a little hollow and even the contributions of Mino Cinelu and John Scofield cannot drown out the echoes of past, greater musicians who succeeded decades ago in doing what these four guys are trying to do today.

Telarc: http://www.telarc.com

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Music Reviews

Medeski Martin and Wood

Medeski Martin and Wood

Last Chance to Dance Trance (perhaps) – Best Of (1991-1996)

Gramavision

Medeski Martin and Wood can jazz with the best of them. They can rock with the best of them. They can funk, groove, vamp, comp, squeeze the little trigger on the toy raygun, do whatever it takes — with the best of them. Pick a track at random, and you’re sure to find a rockism that fails to offend the jazz purist, and a subtle melodic nuance that can shake the paint off the walls, no Marshall required. And in an era of machine-generated dance music, they’ve produced a groove more powerful than any amount of jiggled quantizing and late nights in front of a computer monitor could ever produce.

For example, “Bubblehouse” begins with an accelerating choogling organ riff, courtesy of John Medeski, which builds with Billy Martin’s precision drum strikes and Chris Wood’s on-the-money bass into an all-out limb-flailing frenzy. As it started, it ends, winding down back to the pumping organ riff that begat it all.

The title track is perhaps best representative of what MM+W can accomplish. Like a lounge jazz band that’s been palmed a holy twenty to play God’s fave, “Last Chance to Dance Trance” alternates between solo turns and triumphant returns to the overwhelming melodic center of the song, a churning fountain of organ wobble.

For completists already familiar with the band, there’s remixed versions of “The Lover” and “Where’s Sly?” along with a previously unreleased live “Nigh Marchers.” A fitting aggregation of tracks from one of the most innovative bands to come out of the decade; something for the novice, something for the fan.