PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
December 13, 2005

Old, New, Folkie & Blue

by Jim Newsom

Since acquiring an iPod in February, my listening habits have undergone a transformation. Rather than play CD after CD at home or at the office, I just plug in my iPod, choose a playlist, and enjoy the ultimate commercial-free radio station as programmed by me! Still, I listen to a lot of new releases and reissues, both for personal pleasure and to share with the readers of PFW. Here are ten I’ve especially enjoyed this year:

Count Basie – The Complete Clef/Verve Fifties Studio Recordings (Mosaic)
An eight-disc set that is almost too much of a good thing. Mosaic is known for its all-inclusive box sets, and you can’t get much more inclusive than this collection of recordings laid down between 1952 and 1957. Traces the evolution of what was arguably the greatest big band ever, as Basie searched for a home in the post-big band era. Ending on the cusp of the Atomic Basie epoch, it includes the sessions that produced the classic Count Basie Swings and Joe Williams Sings and April in Paris, plus a ton of other incomparable musical moments.

Cheryl Bentyne – Let Me Off Uptown (Telarc)
A tribute to the underappreciated Anita O’Day, this album speaks for itself with its saucy exuberance and swingin’ arrangements. From the achingly beautiful “Skylark” to romping runs through “Pick Yourself Up,” “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” “Tea for Two” and a ‘40s big band memento, “Boogie Blues,” Bentyne, one-fourth of the jazz vocal supergroup Manhattan Transfer, imbues the proceedings with all the joy she obviously feels reconfiguring these classic tunes. (reviewed 5/10)

Miles Davis – ‘Round About Midnight (Columbia/Legacy)
From the mournful opening title track through the multi-layered hues of the succeeding cuts, this is a high point in Miles’ discography, by the mid-‘50s group now referred to as his “first great quintet.” Featuring a little known saxophonist by the name of John Coltrane, this band covers a rich, wide-ranging set of songs both familiar (“Bye Bye Blackbird”) and not so, mixing Davis’ muted coolness and Trane’s fiery heat. This two-disc set includes bonus studio tracks and a previously unheard 1956 live concert.

Bob Dylan – No Direction Home (Columbia/Legacy)
Kinda the soundtrack to the two-night PBS special of the same name, this double disc set offers new and unheard insights into the poet laureate of the ‘60s. Most of the songs are familiar, but the versions presented here are not---live performances, bedroom tapes, outtakes and alternate takes. “It’s a fascinating look at the creative process in the days when musicians actually played together at the same time in a recording studio rather than mailing in their parts as overdubs.” (reviewed 9/20)

Arlo Guthrie – Live in Sydney (Rising Son Records)
Recorded in Australia last year a month before he played a two-night stand at the American Theatre here, Live in Sydney captures the good humored in-person folkiness that Arlo has perfected over the years. Filled with hilarious stories, tunes both original and borrowed, and crack acoustic artistry, this outing proves that he’s still got it nearly forty years after Alice’s Restaurant secured his spot in the pop history annals of the ‘60s. (reviewed 11/8)

Abbey Lincoln – Abbey is Blue (Riverside)
Recorded in 1959, this reissue presents the legendary vocalist in the prime of her powers, as she began to establish herself as heir apparent to the just departed Billie Holiday. This is not easy listening music by any means---her voice is so full of soulful emotion that you believe she has lived every word she sings. Contains the definitive version of “Afro-Blue,” the bluesy original “Let Up,” an overwhelming “Brother, Where Are You?” churchified “Come Sunday,” swinging “Laugh Clown Laugh” and incredible musicianship from an A-list of sidemen.

The Rascals – Peaceful World (Sundazed)
Few people knew this album when it was released in 1971 and even fewer remember it today, but it remains for me one of the finest artifacts of the peace & love era and the ultimate artistic triumph for bandleader/singer/keyboardist Felix Cavaliere. Laying lyrics laced with positivity and religious overtones atop a musical goulash of soul, jazz, funk and rock, Cavaliere and company had traveled light years beyond “Good Lovin.” This music still lifts me up every time I listen to it.

Dianne Reeves – Good Night and Good Luck (Concord Jazz)
One of those rare soundtrack recordings that works separate from the movie and has no orchestral filler. Conjuring up the aura of a smoke-filled 1950s nightclub, this CD draws its setlist primarily from the Great American Songbook, with a couple of lesser known surprises---“TV is the Thing This Year,” originally done by Dinah Washington, and “Who’s Minding the Store?” The movie is a good one, the album is even better with songs selected by George Clooney recorded live during filming. Should bring this superb singer long overdue but well deserved kudos.

Tierney Sutton – I’m with the Band (Telarc)
Her concert at the Granby Theater during the Virginia Arts Festival was one of those magic moments that comes along once in a blue moon, and this album, recorded a month earlier, serves as a timeless keepsake for those fortunate enough to see her in person. “These guys reinvent and reinvigorate familiar songs with a genuine jazz sensibility rare in the work of today’s jazz divas. Rather than being a bluesy belter, Sutton is a finely nuanced singer who uses her versatile voice like the best jazzmen use their instruments.” (reviewed 8/23)

Yellowjackets – Altered State (Heads Up)
The only problem with these guys is that they’re just too damn consistent. Consequently, this disc didn’t immediately grab me when it came out in the spring. I was almost blasé, saying here’s another great Jacket album, but what’s new about that? Now that I’ve lived with it for several months, actually letting the music wash over me and digging the cuts as they pop up on my iPod jazz shuffle, I realize this is first-tier stuff, ranking with their best work, full of those quirky YJ rhythms, imaginative harmonies, and catchy melodic lines.

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