Bill Frisell

Guitar in the Space Age!

OKeh

frisellIn a modernization of the electric-guitar/steel-guitar format pioneered by Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant in the ’50s, Bill Frisell — aided by Greg Leisz on pedal steel, lap steel and slide guitar — puts a laidback spin on an instrumental collection of early ’60s guitar music that inspired him as a kid.

It’s always been hard to tell whether guitar hero Frisell’s pigeonhole is Americana with a hint of avant-garde or vice versa. But since this set is space-age music, the debate is rendered pointless. Leisz’s as-always ethereal slide is invaluable in setting the scene, exemplified best on the Kinks’ “Tired of Waiting for You,” in which the two break away at midpoint to simulate Jerry Garcia accompanying himself on pedal steel, then morph briefly into Neil Young hanging ten with Crazy Horse before floating away on a stream of subconsciousness.

Speaking of surf, there are two types represented here: instrumental surf rock (the Chantays’ “Pipeline”) and vocal surf pop (the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl”), in surreal and dreamy versions, respectively. Also present is “Baja,” a reverb-soaked, whammy bar workout on the minor hit for the Astronauts. As well, there are a handful of not-quite-surf tracks, specifically Link Wray’s “Rumble,” Duane Eddy’s “Rebel Rouser” and the Tornados’ “Telstar,” the last of which is set up by one of two original Frisell compositions, “Lift Off.”

For country and folk aficionados, there’s a Charlie Christian-style take on Merle Travis’ “Cannonball Rag” and a Telecaster-Jazzmaster takeover of Pete Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn.”

Of course, no electric-guitar/steel-guitar instrumental album would be worth its salt without tributes to the afore-mentioned West and Bryant. Hence, the spaciness of “Reflections From the Moon” (from West’s 1962 LP “Guitar Spectacular”) and loopiness of “Bryant’s Boogie” (his first feature side, from a 1950 78 with Cliffie Stone’s Band) become even more so here in the hands of the Nostalgia Bros.gnm_end_bug

Tracks
1. Pipeline
2. Turn, Turn, Turn
3. Messin’ with the Kid
4. Surfer Girl
5. Rumble
6. Shortest Day
7. Rebel Rouser
8. Baja
9. Cannonball Rag
10. Tired of Waiting for You
11. Reflections From the Moon
12. Bryant’s Boogie
13. Lift Off
14. Telstar

Total time: 55:08

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Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin

Common Ground: Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy

Yep Roc

alvinsThree decades after their last full album together (the Blasters’ 1985 “Hard Line”), the Alvin brothers are making beautiful “American Music” together again, thanks to a near-death experience and the “entrance drug into prewar blues.”

A couple of years ago, Phil Alvin’s throat became so swollen after a Blasters show in Spain that he needed an emergency tracheotomy. At the hospital, according to his account in the Blasters Newsletter, an intern “clubbed my heart back from a flatline TWICE.” Ultimately an abscessed tooth was found to be the culprit, and the singer recovered with vocal cords intact.

Prior to this, the brothers had recorded their first song together since guitarist/songwriter Dave Alvin left the Blasters for a solo career: a duet called “What’s Up With Your Brother?” on Dave’s 2011 album “Eleven Eleven.” After Phil’s 2012 health scare, they reunited again in 2013 for the soundtrack of a Stephen King/John Mellencamp musical, “The Ghost Brothers of Darkland County.” Then, in November, they started work on an EP of songs by “shared musical square one” Big Bill Broonzy.

“Big Bill … was the entrance drug into prewar blues,” Dave told the Los Angeles Times. “That’s the record Phil came home with that was all late-’30s recordings, and that was an eye-opening thing.” Work on the EP went so well that the project was expanded to an album.

For about half the songs on “Common Ground,” the Alvins are backed by LA session players Bob Glaub on bass and Don Heffington on drums. The other half is Dave’s touring band, the Guilty Ones — bassist Brad Fordham and drummer Lisa Pankratz (sans guitarist Chris Miller) — plus former Blaster Gene Taylor on piano. Phil and Dave share vocal and guitar duties, with Phil also playing harmonica.

Far from a note-by-note exercise drawing upon the Broonzy songbook, the album displays all the styles employed during the artist’s 30-year recording career (country blues, ragtime, early Chicago blues, swing, jump blues and folk) but often features one style being used to interpret a song originally done in another. In one instance, two songs are combined: The guitar melody of 1932’s “Long Tall Mama” is grafted onto the lyrics of 1941’s “All by Myself.”

“Truckin’ Little Woman,” a 1938 boogie-woogie number, is given a West Coast blues treatment to great effect. So are “I Feel So Good” and “Southern Flood Blues,” the latter benefiting from Phil’s authoritative harp playing (he took lessons from Sonny Terry, after all) .

In the acoustic realm, highlights include “How You Want It Done?”; “Big Bill Blues”; the instrumental “Saturday Night Rub”; and Broonzy’s best-known composition, “Key to the Highway.”

An added attraction for audiophiles: stellar engineering by Craig Parker Adams at his Winslow Ct. Studio in Los Angeles (Carlos Guitarlos, the Knitters, Stan Ridgeway, Peter Case, Steve Earl) and Joe Gastwirt’s impeccable mastering.gnm_end_bug

Tracks
1. All By Myself
2. I Feel So Good
3. How You Want It Done?
4. Southern Flood Blues
5. Big Bill Blues
6. Key To The Highway
7. Tomorrow
8. Just A Dream
9. You’ve Changed
10. Stuff They Call Money
11. Truckin’ Little Woman
12. Saturday Night Rub

Total time: 42:39

External links:
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Aaron Comess

Blues for Use

Hey Boy/Innsbruck

comessThree things for instrumental music lovers to keep in mind about Spin Doctors drummer Aaron Comess’ third solo effort:

1) It’s guitar-bass-drums.
2) Despite jazz, folk and blues elements, it’s still rock ‘n’ roll.
3) Guitarist Teddy Kumpel  pole-vaults over Comess’ sky-high musical bar with finesse.

“My natural instincts tend to go to the weird side of things,” says Comess in the album’s press release, “but I’m also just as interested in a simple pop song — I tend to try to make my instrumental songs get to the point like a song with someone singing words would.”

“Blues for Use” is indeed a weird album, but in an awe-inspiring way. Take “Hard Ball” for instance: Set up by the spacey cinematic intro of “Surprise – Part 1” (think “Ra”-era Utopia minus the synthesizers), it startles with “Black Dog”-like bombast but soon switches to the gentle cry of electric slide, alternating between the two motifs and topping it off with a well-conceived bridge in the middle of its ABACABA construction.

Also in the press release, Kumpel says he enjoys “letting Aaron guide my guitar in a direction I never would go on my own. He jokes that he tries to write things that make me uncomfortable to play because sometimes it takes me a lot of work trying to make the songs my own and interpret them in a way that makes him happy. It’s always a satisfying challenge.”

Comess explained the method behind his dazzling compositions in an email to Good New Music: “Most of the songs I wrote on an acoustic guitar, then I would demo the song myself playing the guitar, bass and drums, and then send them to Teddy and Rich. Then we would go over them and record. Some of the songs on this record we got to play out live before we went in the studio.”

Especially noteworthy are the variable-speed “Gorilla,” which approximates a great ape lumbering through the forest; the Friends of Dean Martinez/Sonny Landreth/Eric Johnson-like “Bajelirious,” which at times is sort of a reverse-electronica composition where the bass (Richard Hammond really shines) and rhythm guitars mimic Moog effects; “Casa Colonial,” an ode to the American Primitive genre; and the title cut, another alternating tune — this time between harmonics-laden friendly folk (à la Hot Tuna’s “Water Song”) and foreboding fusion (à la Mahavishnu Orchestra’s “Birds of Fire”).gnm_end_bug

Tracks
1. Surprise – Part 1
2. Hard Ball
3. Guilty Until Proven Innocent
4. Sunrise
5. Gorilla
6. Bajelirious
7. Clear
8. Casa Colonial
9. Blues For Use
10. Moonrise
11. Finally
12. Surprise – Part 2

Total time: 37:12

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Leon Russell

Life Journey

UMe

russellAfter Leon Russell’s successful 2010 duet album with Elton John (“The Union”), big labels were suddenly knocking again on the Oklahoma-born singer/songwriter/pianist’s door. But they wanted him to do something he’d never done: use a producer.

So Russell recruited Tommy LiPuma, one-time principal at Blue Thumb Records, the late 1960s/early ’70s album-oriented independent rock ‘n’ roll label whose roster included Captain Beefheart, Albert Collins, Earl Hooker, Dave Mason, Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks and the Crusaders. The two had never worked together, but LiPuma had produced George Benson’s 1976 cover of Russell’s “This Masquerade” (No. 3, Billboard R&B singles; No. 6, adult contemporary;  No. 10, Hot 100).

LiPuma granted Russell carte blanche to play whatever he liked. As the album progressed, Russell realized it was shaping up as standards he’d either done in session or solo work, or had always wanted to do — “a record of my musical journey through this life,” as he relates in the liner notes.

Rod Stewart’s “Great American Songbook” it ain’t. From the down-to-earth reading of Robert Johnson’s “Come on in My Kitchen” (featuring former band member Chris Simmons’ rollicking slide-guitar work) to the simmered-in-strings slow blues/jazz of “The Masquerade Is Over,” Russell is clearly having a ball jumping from genre to genre.

A pair of unexpected tunes turn out to be worthy: Paul Anka’s “I Really Miss You,” first heard as an Anka-Russell collaboration on Anka’s 2013 “Duets,” here featuring pedal-steel player extraordinaire Greg Leisz; and Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind,” one of three tunes with L.A.’s Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra.

Only two songs are Russell compositions: “Big Lips” and “Down in Dixieland,” earlier versions of which are found on his 2008 “In Your Dreams.”

Especially noteworthy:

• “Georgia on My Mind,” a reciprocation of Ray Charles’ cover of Russell’s “A Song for You.”

• “Fever,” tweaked into a jump-gospel version and again featuring Simmons’ exquisite slide.

• “That Lucky Old Sun,”  a prior rendition of which appeared on Russell’s 2002 “Moonlight & Love Songs,” but here showcasing the heavenly sound of pedal steel (Leisz) and Hammond B3 organ (sideman supreme Larry Goldings) in tandem.gnm_end_bug

Tracks
1. Come On In My Kitchen
2. Big Lips
3. Georgia On My Mind
4. That Lucky Old Sun
5. Fever
6. Think Of Me
7. I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good
8. The Masquerade Is Over
9. I Really Miss You
10. New York State Of Mind
11. Fool’s Paradise
12. Down In Dixieland

Total time: 47:34

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Ray Manzarek & Roy Rogers

Twisted Tales

Chops Not Chaps

manzarek-rogersDoors keyboardist Ray Manzarek finished his third collaboration with slide guitarist Roy Rogers shortly before he died. He and Rogers had just signed off on cover art when Manzarek left for Germany, where he succumbed to bile duct cancer May 20 at the RoMed Clinic in Rosenheim.

The two began their collaboration at the behest of their mutual booking agent. “It was the agent that suggested we play together at one of Ray’s solo shows,” Rogers told Good New Music by e-mail. “So, Ray invited me to sit in on his gig — I think it was in Healdsburg (near San Francisco). It was just one of those special situations that some real ‘magic’ happened between us playing together onstage for the first time. We were ‘sympatico’ from the beginning! That is when we became friends and started performing a lot as a duet after that.”

“Twisted Tales” follows 2008’s instrumental acoustic duet album “Ballads Before the Rain” and 2011’s full-band “Translucent Blues.”

“It was a natural transition from duet to band,” Rogers explained, “because both Ray and I wished to expand the sound and rock it up. The new material we were working on at the time (‘Translucent Blues’) called for a rhythm section. … ‘Twisted Tales’ is really a continuation of that, but musically — it is very different.”

“Twisted” is more jazzy and less swampy than its predecessor but still rooted in blues-rock. Like “Translucent,” it features lyrics by San Francisco beat poet Michael McClure and late poet/songwriter Jim Carroll, with Carroll contributing to four songs and McClure to three. Of those seven, “Just Like Sherlock Holmes,” “Eagle in a Whirlpool,” “Cops Talk” and “Street of Crocodiles” were performed live in 2003 by the Doors of the 21st Century (Manzarek, former Doors guitarist Robbie Krieger and vocalist Ian Astbury of the Cult). At least some of those appear to be newer versions here, with Rogers credited as writing or co-writing music for two of them.

Rogers brought two new compositions to the table (“The Will to Survive” and “State of the World”) as well as one he wrote with Donna Johnston (“Shoulder Ghosts”), a lyricist with whom he has worked in the past.

“I first met Roy back in the ’80s, when he was touring with John Lee Hooker,” Johnston, a retired school teacher in Connecticut, told GNM. “As I watched the band, I was completely blown away by this slide guitar player whose dexterity put him into the mutant zone as far as I was concerned. … In the ’90s, after another friend suggested I combine my love of music with the writing skills everyone always said I had, I tentatively began writing lyrics and shared them with Roy, looking for a thumbs up/thumbs down on whether or not he thought my efforts were worth pursuing. He gave me a thumbs up, and when I later gave him ‘My Lost Home in Your Arms’ (from 1998’s ‘Pleasure and Pain’), he read it and concluded on the spot that he would do something with it. And that was the official beginning of our collaboration.”

Excellent lyrics aside, “Twisted” is nothing but high adventure musically. “Holmes” is heavy on “L.A. Woman”-style barrelhouse piano and spiced up with organ. Manzarek takes the lead vocal,  but Rogers lets his slippery slide do the talking.

“Eagle,” included in spoken-word format on last year’s live Manzarek-McClure collaboration “The Piano Poems,” is done boogie-woogie style here, with Rogers handling lead vocals.

On “Cops Talk,” Manzarek and Rogers trade off singing Carroll’s verses (about conversations between dirty police officers) but join in unison for the chorus. The guitar mosty sits this one out, deferring to a jazzy solo by saxophonist George Brooks.

“Street of Crocodiles” boasts an appropriately Cuban beat, with Manzarek and Rogers again trading off on vocals. But hearing a slide guitar on a tropical arrangement makes the song even more of an unexpected pleasure.

As Johnston, who went on the road to sell merchandise for the two “Translucent” East Coast tours, said in her e-mail: “These two intelligent, well-read world travelers shared so much — a love of film, an appreciation of classical music, common roots in the blues, and, above all, a mutual sense of respect and trust. … I think a big part of their willingness and ability to be so courageous in pushing back boundaries was precisely because their extraordinary friendship created a safe and comfortable environment for that exploration.”gnm_end_bug

Tracks
1. Just Like Sherlock Holmes
2. Eagle In A Whirlpool
3. Cops Talk
4. Street Of Crocodiles
5. American Woman
6. Shoulder Ghosts
7. The Will To Survive
8. Black Wine/Spank Me with a Rose
9. State of the World
10. Numbers

Total time: 44:42

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