Sunday, March 24, 2013

Beausoleil avec Michael Doucet. From Bamako to Carenco. Compass Records CD CPS4591 (2013).

It’s easy to take venerable roots bands like Beausoleil for granted because they make whatever they choose to play swing effortlessly – but do so at your peril. Beneath the surface of this quintet joyous, dance-friendly groove are some serious musicians willing to take significant artistic risks, as exemplified by their latest release, From Bamako to Carencro.  I can’t imagine any other Cajun band attempting to do a French interpolation of James Brown’s torrid “I Go Crazy” but Beausoleil’s playful adaptation makes it sound like it was written that way.  In recognition of the ancestral links between the blues of West Africa and the Mississippi delta, Beausoleil chose to cover “Bamako,” jazz composer Roswell Rudd’s soulful tribute to the eerie desert music of Mali. Elsewhere, they channel John Coltrane at his most accessible with a funky, uptempo romp through his “Bessie’s Blues.”  Le Jig Creole, penned by bassist Mitchell Reed and Michael Doucet, makes a slow, bluesy riff both hypnotic and danceable. In appreciation to their own roots, Beausoleil closes out this wonderful disc with a tribute to legendary Cajun fiddler Dennis McGee, covering his “Guilbeau Pelican & Napoleon’s Reel.”

Sean Wilentz. 360 Sound - The Columbia Records Story. Chronicle Books 336 p. Hardback ISBN 978-1-4521-0756-1 (2012).

In 360 Sound, Princeton history professor Sean Wilentz chronicles the history of Columbia Records since its inception in 1887 as the Columbia Phonograph Company.  Tracing the company through its 125 year history, Wilentz also provides narratives on the evolution of recording technology, the arrival of innovations like double sided records, long playing vinyl, album covers, stereo, and compact discs. He also provides glimpses into the musical styles that came and went through the artists signed to Columbia and its affiliate labels (notably blues and jazz oriented Okeh Records). It is a daunting task to trace the lineages of jazz, blues, classical, popular, rock, R&B, and hip-hop over the years, but Wilentz does this through profiles of Columbia stars such as Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, Billy Holiday, Flatt and Scruggs, Miles Davis, Eugene Ormandy, Frank Sinatra, Mitch Miller, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Simon and Garfunkel, Janis Joplin, Barbara Striesand, Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, Tony Bennett, John Legend, and Adele. The book’s main narrative is sprinkled with boxes on artists and musical trends, penned by Dave Marsh and Colin Escott. 360 Sound is a massive coffee table book, full of bold images of artists, record covers, and a recurring theme of showing how the labels of the discs evolved artistically, and through the artists whose recordings they identify. 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Peter Ostroushko. The Mando Chronicles. Red House 3 CD Set RHR 253 (2013)

Few instruments are as capable of evoking melancholy or joy as the mandolin family of stringed instuments. In this remarkable compendium, stringed instrument virtuoso Peter Ostroushko takes listeners on a global and historical musical journey that shows the myriad genres of instrumental music in which the mandolin and its relatives have played a key role. The first disc of the set focuses on American music, ranging from traditional fiddle tunes through old time and bluegrass music into ragtime, big band jazz and even march music. The second disc provides a tour through Europe with dance and fiddle tunes from the Ukraine, Sweden, France, Italy, and Ireland. On the third disc, Ostroushko tackles pieces written with mandolin parts by Vivaldi, Beethoven, and Bach as well as some Brazilian choros and a Puerto Rican waltz. To execute this varied tapestry of music, Ostroushko enlisted an impressive cast of collaborators, including old time scholars Norman and Nancy Blake, guitarist (and long time Ostroushko collaborator) Dean McGraw, pianist Butch Thompson, western swing veterans Johnny and Dick Gimble, a string quartet on the classical pieces, and Irish guitarist Daithi Sproule as well as many others. On several tracks, including Scott Joplin’s “Heliotrope Bouquet, Ostrouschko’s mandolin is augmented by his own overdubbed mandocello and mandola. It is a testament to Ostrouschko’s versatility as a musician and skills as an arranger that this polyglot of musical performances and styles, including several original compositions, holds together seamlessly as a sometimes lively, sometimes plaintive, but always engaging instrumental tapestry. 

Various Artists. They All Played For Us. Arhoolie Records 50th Anniversary Celebration. Arhoolie 4 CD Set with 192 P. Hardback Book. (2012, recorded 2/4-6 2011).

American roots music as we know it would be much poorer without the lifelong efforts of ethnomusicologist-producer Chris Strachwitz, whose Arhoolie Records has introduced several generations to the joys of blues, old-time, Cajun, zydeco, gospel, jazz, and other styles of authentic American music. In order to celebrate the landmark 40th anniversary of Strachwitz’ label, Arhoolie Records, he turned to another venerable roots music organization, Berkeley, California’s Freight and Salvage, to mount a giant three day party featuring a vast roster of artists who were either recorded by Strachwitz or are strong supporters of his efforts.

I was lucky enough to attend all three days of the celebration, but those who missed the event can experience the sights and sounds of this remarkable event through a beautiful new package containing over five hours of recordings representing most of the music played during the three evening concerts, supplemented by a hard cover book containing text by Strachwitz and the musicians along with 200 gorgeous color photos by Mike Melnyk taken during the weekend.

The roster of musicians included some high profile names like Ry Cooder , Taj Mahal, and Country Joe McDonald,but the majority of the players were almost equally split between New Orleans musicians and venerable east bay roots artists, many of whom had not played together for years. Musical director for the shows was singer-songwriter-fiddler-bandleader Laurie Lewis, who pops up in a supporting role for numerous musicians as well as playing a set with her current band the Right Hands.  

Cooder, backed by bassist Robert Francis and son Quaquim on drums, is represented here by a cover of Woody Guthrie’s “Vigilante Man” and a rousing version of “Wooly Bully.” Taj’s longish solo set from Sunday included a soulful reading of “Blues With a Feeling on piano and a banjo rendition of “Roscoe’s Mule down in Roscoe’s Barn.” Country Joe’s set included the inevitable “Fixing to Die Rag,” royalties from which were instrumental in allowing Arhoolie to thrive during the seventies.

The Doucet and Savoy families were much in evidence. The first disc includes a spellbinding solo guitar performance by Beausoleil guitarist David Doucet. The second and third discs include most of the set from the Savoy-Doucet Cajun band, featuring fiddler Michael Doucet accordion player Marc Savoy, and guitarist Ann Savoy. The last disc includes a set from the Savoy Family Band, which also included Marvc and Ann’s and sons Wilson and Joel.  One of the run’s liveliest sets was by New Orleans’ Treme Brass Band, who led a second line parade through the streets of Berkeley before settling in for their set.

Some of the weekend’s most moving sets were reunions, including a regrouping of Berkeley’s Any Old Time String Band, a brief performance by one time Joy of Cooking co-leaders Terry Garthwaite and Toni Brown, and a hilarious performance by septuagenarian folk trio Goodtime Washboard Three, whose heyday was at the leading edge of the folk scare in the early 1960s.  Other bay area luminaries represented were Peter Rowan (joined by Laurie Lewis and accordion master Santiago Jiminez Jr., who played his own stellar set Friday night), versatile acoustic musicians Eric and Suzie Thompson, El Cerrito Mexican culture collective Los Cenzontles, and veteran jazz singer Barbara Dane, who fronted Bob Mielke’s all star big band for her rousing Saturday night set.

Between the lavishly illustrated book and the four discs worth of performances, this set does a good job of conveying the great party that Strachwitz and the Arhoolie staff held to celebrate the label’s 50th. Equally important are the testaments by most of the musicians on what a significant role Strachwitz and his label played in their own careers, and in evangelizing for the purest American roots music for the previous half-century.

Welcome to Cryptical Reviews

Since 1989, I have written about a wide variety of popular music in a variety of publications that focused on folk, Americana/roots, rock, bluegrass, world music, and jazz. One of my favorite parts of this endeavor was writing recording and concert reviews, most frequently for Folk/Roots publication Dirty Linen, but also for the Chicago Tribune, Sing Out! and other publications. Since I relocated to California, Dirty Linen ceased publication, and Sing Out! seriously curtailed their reviewing bandwidth, I decided to continue doing reviews of recordings and shows in the blogosphere. I will try to post something more-or-less weekly, with the caveat that my day job is pretty demanding and I may fall off the grid occasionally. Anyway, I hope you enjoy this, and tell your friends!