Thank goodness. There were some really far out, crazy decisions made in 2016, and that was the sanest of the lot. The vinyl version has been a little scarce, but I finally got my hands on a copy at a semi-reasonable price. Not really, but that’s how the Rolling Stones do it. They gauge. I’ve been gauged and I’ve been gored. So it goes.
And I can say right away that the quality of this release far surpasses anything I’ve seen from the band in the last few years. The center hole is centered. The pressing is mostly fine, although I have what sounds like a bit of a no-fill issue at the start of Side Two (“All Of Your Love”). The cover is sturdy and doesn’t feel like it’ll come apart in my hands in a couple of weeks. The artwork looks like they just ran out of time and needed to get the project out the door, but whatever. The material itself is muscular and strong. Mick Jagger’s harmonica work, in particular, is a highlight. I have an interview with Keith Richards somewhere, maybe in the 25×5 documentary from around 1989, wherein he says something about Jagger’s harp playing being the purest expression of Jagger’s talent. I’ll buy that for a dollar. Or $40, as the case may be. His playing is right out front on Blue and Lonesome. Overdriven and hot, just like Little Walter used to do it. Keith Richards and Ron Wood present their intricate guitar weavings in blues and reds with a little help from Eric Clapton on a couple of tunes. And Charlie Watts, of course, keeps the heartbeat steady as she goes with quiet precision and minimal fanfare. These are not the sped up Blues takes that the Stones called Rock ’n Roll in 1965. These are Blues tunes, plain and simple. Played with a bit more experience and aplomb than you’ll typically find from a bunch of white guys in Nikes. The band got all this down with the help of producer Don Was over the course of three short days. Man, I bet those were the happiest three days of Keith Richards’ life. Between this one and his Cross eyed Heart, he’s put a little winning streak together over the last couple of years. (We’ll overlook the travesty that was the last New Barbarians release. Forever.)
If you’re a Stones fan, this is an easy decision. It’s the Cycle of Life in glorious blue relief. Comes with no extras because the Stones need everything they can get, at this point. We’d have been taking money out of their babies’ mouths if we’d been given a download code. We’ve all gotta eat, and there’s plenty to chew on here. Highly recommended.
Of course, when the Stones were popularizing the Blues tunes performed by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Little Walter, they were often actually performing songs penned by Willie Dixon who served as house bassist and lead writer (my terms, not his) at Chess Records in Chicago. “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” “Little Red Rooster,” and a million others were all by Dixon’s hand. We looked at a Lightnin’ Hopkins record here from the folks at Analogue Productions a couple of months back, and I was so blown away by it that I vowed to follow up with Willie’s Blues by Dixon and Memphis Slim. That’s what’s happening, now. For better, or for worse.
And I hate to say this, but I might as well get it on out there before we waste too much time: it seems I am not a fan of Willie Dixon’s singing. I might have guessed as much because he doesn’t actually perform his own songs on his Chess Box. The versions included there are all the more well-known takes by the label’s top acts. Those Chess Boxes were ten tons of fun, and the Muddy and Chuck Berry boxes sit proudly on my shelf awaiting Howlin’ Wolf’s arrival. I never intended to get Dixon’s box. And, to my ears, Memphis Slim’s contributions to Willie’s Blues are where the action’s at on this release. Dude plays piano like he’s got eight arms. Nowhere is that more obvious than on “Slim’s Thing.” He starts out hot on “Don’t You Tell Nobody,” but Dixon’s pedestrian vocal delivery throws a wet blanket on top of the whole thing soon enough. “Youth To You” is a note for note remake of “I Just Want To Make Love To You,” it even cannibalizes some of the same lyrics. But the performance just isn’t there. It’s weak, especially if you’re familiar with Muddy’s version. And who isn’t? If you’re into the Blues, I mean. Another thing that kinda throws me on this release is the usage of Jazz accompanists rather than Blues players. I suspect the fact that Wally Richardson is on guitar instead of Buddy Guy has something to do with the fact that this record was made for Prestige instead of Chess. Willie’s Blues is Dixon’s debut as a featured performer. Maybe he had to go to Prestige because Leonard and Marshall Chess were too keen from a business perspective to put out a Dixon title on its own. Everything is kinda dialed back and damp on Willie’s Blues. It was recorded by Rudy Van Gelder in his inimitable, intimate ways, and it was mastered by Kevin Gray, and it was pressed at QRP, but you can’t put icing on a pile of dung and call it a cake, gang. Sorry. This one doesn’t get the job done and I will be taking it to my fave independent record retailer in hopes of obtaining store credit in its stead. Sounds great, but there’s not much to hear. That’s the gist of this whole thing. Pick up the Hopkins record or the new Stones set if you’ve got a Blues jones. Either of those should work just fine…
Speaking of Jazz accompaniment, I’d been looking for a Charlie Parker reissue to add to my collection for some time. I’d pretty much given up hope, using the reasoning that no reputable reissue company is going to attach their name to a group of recordings with such suspect sonic attributes. Many of them were likely on 78s, the original tapes are probably shot or non-existent, and there’s just not much you can do about any of that, as far as I know. Unless you’re prepared to get weird. Like Clint Eastwood, of all the left-wing zealots to attach their name to a Jazz project honoring the life of an avowed druggy was. Clint directed Parker’s motion picture biopic, and called it “Bird.” Never saw the movie, but the soundtrack is pretty magical. And magic was required to bring it to life. Let’s see if I can get this right…
The overall thrust of the concern is that the folks behind the Bird soundtrack were able to isolate Parker’s playing from recordings that involved full bands. Then, they took Bird’s tracks and matched them with current recordings designed to make it sound as if some of the day’s preeminent Jazz cats were accompanying him. They pulled old Bird solos and plunked them down atop modern Jazz recordings, basically. Absolutely not the kind of thing that I would normally go for. Not at freaking all. But it works! No one is more surprised or happier to report those findings than am I. Initially, I’d gotten really excited to learn that the Bird soundtrack was being released by Friday Music. I trust those folks for something approaching audiophile fare. They may not quite achieve the heights of some of my more trusted labels, but they’re solid and consistent. Then, I started reading about how the project came to be, and I backed off. I was ready to dismiss the whole thing out of hand, but I did a little digging and found that the set comes highly recommended by a bunch of heavy Jazzers, so I jumped. At first, I thought the producers had masked their tinkerings with crowd noise, and they may have, but that’s just on a couple of tunes (including album opener “Lester Jumps In” and “Cool Blues”). By the time “Ko Ko” kicks off Side Two, you’ve forgotten that you’re listening to a space-aged mash-up made by robots on Mars. You’re just listening to a really clean recording of Charlie “Bird” Parker playing at full speed, top flight, and raging.
I can’t say enough about how happy I am to have found this crazy disc. It was pressed at RTI which was a major selling point for me. There’s no surface noise and the backgrounds are deep black and silent. The disc itself is blue. I could do without the string section on “April In Paris,” but there’d never be a string section if it were left up to me. Ever. If you’re an audiophile and simultaneously a fan of Charlie Parker, this is your only hope as far as I can tell. Don’t be cowed by the novel manner in which this project was conceived. It’s a winner. Strange as it seems…
Man, Macy Gray’s first album knocked me out. I still love it. Played it just the other day, actually, and worked up my own Country-ish version of “I Try” on the guitar. So, maybe I already had her in mind when I ran across Stripped whilst shopping for records online. As the title suggests, this is a pared down recording which involves a small handful of, you guessed it, Jazz musicians backing Ol’ Macy up. To mostly great effect. Gray’s voice is, as the saying goes, “polarizing.” I like it. More specifically, I like the way she uses it. Works great for her style of material. Perhaps especially this material, which doesn’t sound as far off from her “standard” material to my ears as I might have imagined it, would. If you’re a true fan, you probably already have this. If you’re more casual about your fandom, you’ll probably want to grab a copy ASAP. If you don’t like Macy Gray’s voice, this album will probably be especially painful for you.
Because that voice is right out front on Stripped. It’s quiet, but undeniably present, which is true of the whole album, really. Of the tunes that I was most familiar with going in, “Sweet Baby” works best. I think that tune was on her second record which I had at one time, but opted not to keep. So, it’s nice to have something other than her debut in the collection for when I wanna mix it up a little. And I anticipate reaching for Stripped with a fair amount of regularity. It’s the kind of music that you’ll always be in the mood for if you’re open to Jazzy vocalists at all. Ironically, I was disappointed by the version of “I Try” on Stripped. It’s not offensive; I just can’t detect much of the song’s structure in this version. Sounds like Macy Gray singing the lyrics to “I Try” over a wandering, aimless bed of noodling by some Jazz cats that I don’t know. But it’s alright. That is such a strong song that I don’t feel like it needed any tweaking or rearranging. I’m resistant to the newer version, basically. I like Gray’s takes on “Nothing Else Matters” and “Redemption Song,” but you might feel differently if you have strong attachments to the originals. As a general rule, I’m over hearing artists collaborate with and cover other seemingly incongruent artists, but the Metallica cover works here. I guess she showed me.
Chesky Records did a hell of a job with this one. It was recorded over the course of two days last April with a binaural microphone. It was mastered specifically for vinyl at Sterling Sound. Nothing in the way of extras, but the sonics are great. The soundstage is not vast, but the instruments aren’t boxed in either. There’s plenty of air, and the spontaneity of the recording sessions is evident throughout. This is a live recording, made in a studio with some really talented musicians. If that sounds like your bag, I can highly recommend Stripped to you without hesitation. Unless you don’t like the way Macy Gray sings. Then, you’re screwed because this is her world. Sounds like a cozy one. I’m looking forward to multiple visits.
I had other plans for this month’s reviews, but things took a turn towards the Jazzy, and I just decided to go with it. So this seems like as good a time as any to check out Norah Jones’ latest, Day Breaks. It has all of the makings of a Jazz-ish record, right down to the fact that Blue Note put it out. Plus, she went back to writing on the piano for this set, which takes her fans way back to her billion selling debut. I don’t have that one, but I have Little Broken Hearts, and Day Breaks is nothing like that. I like both, but Day Breaks is way more representative of what I think about when I think of Norah Jones’ music. I’m all in on this one.
I picked this one up for a few reasons. Here are some of them: Lonnie Smith plays on it. That didn’t pan out for me as his contributions seem minimal. Jones also covers tunes by Horace Silver and Duke Ellington on Day Breaks, and I wanted to get a feel for those. Both tunes are seductive as hell, and Wayne Shorter plays a sax solo on the Silver tune that’ll make you go weak in the knees. Beware. The cover of Neil Young’s “Don’t Be Denied” is the highlight though. And that was the primary driver behind my interest in this one. The tune is off of a Neil album that is legendary for his hatred of it. I never thought that hearing him play any of the songs on it live was a possibility, but he played “Don’t Be Denied” with Jones at last year’s Bridge School Benefit, and I wept. Damn near it, anyway. The version on the record involves a horn section and some especially tasty work on the Hammond B-3 (by someone not named “Lonnie Smith”). It is absolutely worth seeking out for fans of Neil and Norah both. It’s a blast. And this record’s production is every bit as impressive as the song selections. These tunes were recorded live in the studio with no overdubs, as I understand it. That’s Jazz, right? You can do that kind of thing with a roster this strong, and the “liveness” of the sessions really comes across on Day Breaks. The players exhibit sensitivity to each others’ work that adds up to a quietly masterful performance that deepens with repeated listens. Jones doesn’t wear her bad-assedness on her sleeve; it kinda sneaks up on you. That’s true on this record, and it has been the case any time I’ve had the good fortune of seeing her perform live. Homegirl has more talent in her toenails than most of us could muster with a lifetime to prepare. Check out her original “Carry On,” if you don’t believe me. The lyrics are as strong as the playing, and that just seems unfair. Gloriously so.
This record is pretty great, gang. The pressing is dead silent, and the material is super strong. Analogue Productions did a reboot of her entire catalog a while back, but they may have jumped too soon. If they do a version of this one, I’ll get it. Meanwhile, this is one of the finest standard releases I’ve seen in some time. Don’t let this one get away from you if you’re a fan. Don’t be denied. It’s too good.