The Great Bard knew that sometimes, even more important than the final story, traveling the journey is just as essential to the tale. It’s often not just the song, but it’s the playing, that’s the thing.
The Crusaders: Rural Renewal (PRA / Verve)
It’s been more than twenty years since founding members Joe Sample (keyboards), Stix Hooper (drums), and Wilton Felder (saxophones) recorded together as the Crusaders. Though much proverbial water has since flowed under their bridge, with Rural Renewal the Crusaders get back to where they once belonged, straight to the heart of their joyous juke joint roots.
The first two cuts feature Eric Clapton, first on acoustic and then on electric guitar. The acoustic track is mostly a non-event, but his electric blues guitar seems to rejoice in the freedom of Sample’s loose-limbed “Creepin’.” Easily his most ambitious new composition, “Heartland” may also be a new Sample classic, throbbing with turbulent rhythmic undertow while Felder swims out of the blue groove into Wayne Shorter’s more sharp harmonic and rhythmic waters.
Most of the rest, such as Sample’s “Shotgun House Groove” and Hooper’s “Greasy Spoon,” are more groovy workouts than tight constructions, with Sample’s barrelhouse boogie-woogie in “Greasy Spoon” the instrumental rule rather than the exception; Felder brandishes a rough and ready approach here like a true “Texas tenor.” They glide through their grooves, bumped along by the horns’ melodic counterpoint. Unaccredited vibraphone makes this stroll through “Lazy Sundays” sound even jauntier.
Smooth, supple Stix Hooper may be the best drummer you’ll never notice, as he and fatback bassist Freddie Washington set the table for every one of these greasy spoon grooves. Sometimes their portions seem a little smaller and a little less spicy than they used to, but this Crusaders’ menu remains tasty and satisfying.
Roomful of Blues: That’s Right! (Alligator)
40 band alumnae, 35 years, 16 albums, four Grammy Award nominations, and two W.C. Handy Awards since the group was founded by keyboardist Al Copley and guitarist Duke Robillard, Roomful of Blues’s resume includes Joe Turner, Jimmy Witherspoon, and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and was once called “the hottest blues band I’ve ever heard” after a gig supporting no less an authority than Count Basie. That’s Right! debuts a new Roomful band on a new label, modern blues bastion Alligator Records. Now an octet led by guitarist Chris Vachon with a new lead singer, bassist, drummer, keyboard player, and saxophonist joining holdovers Vachon, trumpeter Bob Enos and saxophonist Rich Lataille, That’s Right! revisits Roomful’s legacy as an institution of American roots music, specifically the joint-rockin’ sound of jump blues.
Just like the group personnel, this new album blends new and old material together into a mixed bag of straight blues, jump blues, hard swing, and rock & roll. ROB bounces through lots of up-tempo material: T-Bone Walker (“I Know Your Wig Is Gone”), Little Milton (“I’m Tryin’”), and Elmore James (“Stranger Blues”), plus songs popularized by Turner (“Lipstick, Powder and Paint”) and Big Maybelle (“Ocean of Tears”).
Close your eyes and crank it up, and you’ll swear you’re crammed in a hot and steamy club. “Wig” shakes, rattles and rolls true to the earthy yet gentlemanly spirit of Walker, one of the true founding blues forefathers. They downshift into slow-rolling blues just twice and each time Vachon’s guitar ignites blazes, almost overpowering the entire ensemble, burning like Albert King in “How Long Will It Last?” and like Albert Collins in “I Just Got To Know.”
Garaj Mahal: Live Volume 1 (San Francisco, CA) ; Live Volume 2 (Chicago, IL) ; Live Volume 3 (Boulder, CO) (Harmonized)
Individually and in combinations, the members of Garaj Mahal – Eric Levy (keyboards), Alan Hertz (drums), Kai Eckhardt (bass) and Fareed Haque (guitar) – have accompanied Dizzy Gillespie, Stanley Clarke, Al DiMeola, Steve Smith’s Vital Information, and the John McLaughlin Trio. These three simultaneous (individually packaged) live sets fish with hip young bait in the hopes of making a big splash in the same free-flowing, neo-hippie college radio jam band waters in which such bands as Phish and Widespread Panic spawned. Consisting almost entirely of fusion-y instrumental jams, these Live sets will appeal to fans of Brand X and Return to Forever, too.
The first four tracks on Volume 1 feature tabla legend Zakir Hussain, collaborator in the Diga Rhythm Band, Planet Drum, and Shakti, in whose company Haque’s 12-string fretless guitar dances like a jubilant sitar. “Semos” more fully spotlights Hussain, while “Gulam Sabri” showcases Levy, who explodes through a Chick Corea-style electric fusion workout as if shot from a cannon, followed in kind by Haque on electric guitar. Hertz' “Celtic Indian,” where the sitar and tabla tones twine a jig, delivers a nice pan-global fusion touch.
Volume 2 lets its Frank Zappa freak flag fly with mercurial, constantly shifting song structures and naughty if not wicked content: Sexual innuendos (“Ride the shaft,” for example, in “Cosmic Elevator”), odes to dog meat (“Poodle Vamp”), and a scrambled cover of Pee Wee Ellis’ “The Chicken,” all crowned by a contemplative solo guitar rendition of the US “National Anthem.”
Newly victorious 2002 - ’03 US National Hammered Dulcimer Champion Jamie Janover guests on “Stoked on Razaki” on Volume 3, which also prances through Levy’s Prince-like “Thursday,” the jazz-rocking “Never Give Up,” and closes with an eighteen-minute instrumental spacewalk through “Material Girl.” Yes, THAT “Material Girl”!
bwb: groovin’ (Warner Bros.)
I’ve got to admit: I honestly believed that if you were to begin to tell me about a new smooth jazz supergroup, or about their new album consisting of cover versions of familiar tunes, few people if any could run away faster than me.
bwb consists of contemporary jazz cats Rick Braun (trumpet), Norman Brown (guitar), and Kirk Whalum (saxophones), who collectively honor the lush jazz-pop-R&B sound of Creed Taylor’s 1970’s projects with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, guitarist George Benson, and saxophonist Stanley Turrentine for Taylor’s CTI label. Nearly all of those projects included jazz translations of contemporary pop hits by Taylor, Don Sebesky, or other arrangers (Benson’s album White Rabbit, for example). “It was all about having fun and being funky,” says Whalum, who first met Braun at rehearsals for the 1999 Montreux jazz festival. “The throwback to the CTI era was an obvious thread throughout, and we really rose to the challenge.”
“Those CTI days were all about capturing a certain energy and a unique ensembling of players,” Braun adds, “Doing some new material while making well known songs come to life once again.”
Each principal gets plenty of spotlight: Brown whips out his baddest Benson burner to light up “Ruby Baby” (The Drifters) with a mid-song solo, then he flat-out testifies to drive “A Woman's Worth” (Alicia Keys) to climax. Braun updates Freddie Hubbard’s “Povo” and pencils blue shades into “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” (Cannonball Adderley). Whalum seems to take all the vocal melody lines, which he renders throughout like a silky soul singer.
Just as importantly, serious props to their rhythm section, especially bassist Christian McBride, who nails down the floor with drummer Gregory Hutchinson so that b, w & b can languidly dance and shimmy upon it. McBride does so much more than just help keep time: He’s a one-man taffy pull with his elastic licks in “Groovin’” (The Rascals), “It’s Your Thing” (Isley Brothers) and “Brown Sugar” (D’Angelo), and his “Povo” solo honors Ron Carter, the bassist who appeared on the original, from Hubbard’s CTI project Sky Dive.
These guys pick some great tunes, swing hard through nifty arrangements, all presented in a package that’s produced to sound great. There is little if any room to find fault with either this idea or its execution.