A Consumer Guide to the Trailing Edge: November, 2006

Recycled Goods (#37)

by Tom Hull

The big chunk this time is Verve's The Sonet Blues Story, under "in series." These actually came out in two waves. By the time I got around to the first one, the second appeared. Deciding to combine them led to further delays. And now that I finally have them all together, they chew up a third of the column. Series do that. Another one you'll notice is Universal's The Definitive Collection series -- single-disc best-ofs, not to be confused with WEA's identically named two-disc sets. You'll find five below, and probably that many more next time, as well as some of their 2-CD Gold titles. I'll say more about them as a series then, but one hint is that the Tom T. Hall below repackages their 2001 comp, when the title du jour was The Ultimate Collection. I used to think "ultimate" meant final, but when the demand for new recycled product is endless, nothing is final.

Chuck Berry: The Definitive Collection (1955-72, Geffen/Chronicles): Finally, a single disc that improves on the out-of-print The Great Twenty-Eight, swapping "Bye Bye" for "You Never Can Tell," "Promised Land," and a sing-along "My Ding-a-Ling" -- an even greater thirty. While Elvis was trying to sing black, Berry crossed the other way, finding all the optimism teens in the '50s could muster, with an unmatched knack for turning a phrase, and a backbeat that rolled right over that Beethoven dude. A+

Merle Haggard: Live From Austin TX (1985 [2006], New West): Austin became the alt-scene for country music when Willie Nelson packed up and left Nashville, but there's nothing like the blessing of television to bring a factoid to national consciousness. That happened around 1976 with PBS airing Austin City Limits, or 1978 when Merle Haggard appeared. New West has started tapping into the archives for a series of DVDs, which needn't concern us here, except that some have been released audio only. At 45:57, this is shorter than I'd like. It also tilts a bit toward the Bob Wills songbook -- visiting Texas has that effect on Hag. But he's in fine voice, and the band swings plenty. A-

Tom T. Hall: The Definitive Collection (1968-84 [2006], Hip-O): A preacher's kid from Kentucky, Hall parlayed his army tour into a radio career, then headed to Nashville to write his own songs. After Jeannie C. Riley hit with his "Harper Valley P.T.A." he started recording them himself. He wrote two kinds: sharply observed stories of ordinary people -- try to find "It Sure Can Get Cold in Des Moines" and "Who's Gonna Feed Them Hogs" -- and soft, sappy homilies -- titles like "I Love," "I Care," "I Like Beer," and "Country Is" are dead giveaways. While the two can converge -- "Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine" and "Faster Horses" are platitudes from geezers -- the claptrap spoils the literature. Since both yielded hits, his compilations are often dreadful -- the exception is the rigorous The Essential Tom T. Hall: The Story Songs (1968-84 [1998], Mercury), still in print and cheaper than this career-spanning compromise. On the other hand, he wasn't schizo -- both sides mesh in one real mensch. A-

Etta James: The Definitive Collection (1954-2004, Geffen/Chronicles): One of the great blues to soul to jazz singers of the era, she is usually represented by her decade at Chess, which was consistent enough to fill equally superb one, two, and three disc sets. But this career survey doesn't rest on her peak period. It starts back when she was fifteen, flirting with a Johnny Otis-produced "Dance With Me Henry," and follows her through fifty years, finding her working the Elmore James songbook, a pro who can still get down and dirty. A

The Best of Los Jardineros (1929-32 [2006], Shanachie): "Classic Recordings by Puerto Rico's Legendary String Band Ensemble 1929-1932": that's the cover claim, but the group wasn't legendary enough to show up in any of my reference books, and what's obviously classic about the recordings is their age. Ruth Glasser's booklet helps with the details, but doesn't do much for the context. Puerto Rico has long been a poor cousin to Cuba -- less developed, less exploited, less African, but generally reflective of developments elsewhere in the Caribbean. That started to change as Puerto Ricans moved to New York, eventually leading to salsa. Cut in New York by recent immigrants, these records range from the quaintly folkloric to contemporary jazz -- one piece reminds me of Don Redman. B+

Charles Mingus: At UCLA 1965 (1965 [2006], Sunnyside, 2CD): Mingus took his invite to the 1965 Monterrey Festival as reason to write new music, but got stiffed by the promoters. A week later he unveiled the music at UCLA. Actually, I'm tempted to say "rehearsed": with the great bassist-composer shuffling his musicians in and out, lecturing, and hectoring, this feels more like one of his infamous jazz workshops. "Played in its entirety" gives us false starts and retakes as well as patter; "new music" includes rearrangements of "Muskrat Ramble" and "Don't Be Afraid, the Clown's Afraid Too." The band is brassy, with three trumpets, French horn and tuba versus just Charles McPherson on alto sax. Parts were previously released as a very rare double LP. Good to have it all, but it's not one of those long-lost masterpieces. B+

Les Primitifs du Futur: World Musette (1999 [2006], Sunnyside): Knowing that R. Crumb is involved in this project -- the cover art, of course, but he also plays mandolin and banjo -- makes it all the easier to imagine this as what happens when the Cheap Suit Serenaders go to seed in Paris. Guitarist Dominique Cravic is the leader and principal songwriter. Daniel Huck sings scat, and a cast of dozens play instruments my French isn't good enough to translate. Starts out sounding old-timey, but before long the accordions overwhelm the ukuleles and the musette takes over -- still old-timey, but European, even when they fake a Chinese waltz. A-

Saborit: Que Linda Es Mi Cuba (2006, Tumi Music): I suppose it's pure coincidence that the guitars in this East Cuban group remind me of nothing so much as Guitar Paradise of East Africa. Cuba's Oriente is typically less Afro and more Spanish than the urban jungle of Havana, but for country music this builds on pretty complex riddims. Modestly named for guaracha legend Eduardo Saborit, they've played together for twenty-plus years before piling onto a tractor and heading cross-country for their first studio date. That may make them hicks, but they were right to take the chance. A-

Soft Machine: Grides (1970-71 [2006], Cuneiform, +DVD): The best known group from Canterbury's prog-rock scene, they recorded seven underwhelming albums from 1968 to 1974 and spun off three notable solo careers: whimsical singer-songwriter Kevin Ayers, drummer/jazz whisperer Robert Wyatt, and avant-garde saxophonist Elton Dean. Ayers' departure after the first album pointed them toward long instrumentals, which with Dean's arrival started to sound like jazz. That was never so clear in their studio albums, but this live concert from Amsterdam suggests that they were on the jazz side of jazz-rock fusion, and a lot more adventurous than the post-Miles groups that gave fusion such a bad name. Mike Ratledge's keybs make up in muscle what they lack in finesse, but the real star here is Dean: everything regular in the beat just catapults him further into freedom. Don't know about the DVD -- a concert with the same line-up a year later -- but beware that it's factored into the price. A-

In Series

One of the oddities of modern capitalism is that even though megacorporations relentlessly narrow their new product offerings to fit well-honed marketing propositions, in their mad quest to own everything, they often find themselves with properties that aren't all that marketable. Sometimes even do right by them. Verve is one of the most illustrious brandnames in jazz history. It was originally the consolidation of Norman Granz's labels, including Norgran and Clef, from the mid-'40s until he sold out to MGM in 1961. Today it's owned by Universal Music Group -- the largest of the so-called major labels -- which in turn is owned by the multimedia conglomerate Universal Vivendi. Verve's new jazz releases have dwindled down to less than ten per year -- not counting the pop jazz which mostly appears on their GRP label or the stylistically scattered Verve Forecast releases. Mostly, they work their back catalog, which expanded to include Impulse!, EmArcy, Commodore, Blue Thumb, and others -- now Sonet.

Sonet was a Swedish label, founded in 1956, sold to Polygram in 1991. Blues and jazz became increasingly popular in Europe after WWII. American musicians frequently visited, with some moving in, given better business prospects and less racial discrimination. Around 1960, there was a concerted movement in the US to search out old blues musicians -- Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James were two who hadn't recorded in thirty years but worked steady in the '60s. That movement had largely played out by the end of the '60s -- Hurt died in '66 and James in '69. But in 1971 Sonet hired Sam Charters to produce blues albums -- specifically, a "legacy of the blues" series that included a wide range of local styles, often by relatively little known performers. In some cases, like Earl King, they recapitulate a poorly documented career. In a couple of cases, like J.D. Short, Charters released earlier tapes. Otis Rush was a rare case of a guy caught on his way up. The result is an archive which is neither classic nor modern. Rather, it fills in important gaps in the record. And Verve has done a nice job of releasing them, with new artwork and improved documentation.

Juke Boy Bonner: The Sonet Blues Story (1971 [2006], Verve): From Texas, plays harmonica as well as guitar; he starts out rhythmically from Lightnin' Hopkins' jukebox bounce, but unlike Hopkins makes you think he's actually having a good ole time. B+

Eddie Boyd: The Sonet Blues Story (1974 [2006], Verve): A blues pianist with a lot of hop to his boogie, Boyd was born in Mississippi, matriculated in Chicago, and escaped to Scandinavia, where he cut this boisterous quintet. B+

Champion Jack Dupree: The Sonet Blues Story (1971 [2006], Verve): A comp of his early '40s work is straightforwardly titled New Orleans Barrelhouse Boogie -- lots of Big Easy pianists played fancier, and plenty sang better, but Dupree just rolls right over you, like the boxer he tried to be; and none talked a better game, whether he be bemoaning Vietnam, or enjoying getting drunk again. A-

Snooks Eaglin: The Sonet Blues Story (1971 [2006], Verve): From New Orleans, and young enough that he grew up close to the Big Easy's post-WWII r&b renaissance, giving his solo blues act a funky, urbane edge; most often noted for his guitar, which goes places you don't expect, not unlike his contemporary James Booker's piano. B+

Snooks Eaglin & Friends: The Sonet Blues Story (1977 [2006], Verve): The friends include Clarence Ford on sax and patriarch Ellis Marsallis on piano; the album was originally called Down Yonder -- the new packaging fouled them up, but the offhand playfulness adds another dimension to the sly New Orleans guitarist. B+

Lightnin' Hopkins: The Sonet Blues Story (1974 [2006], Verve): Don't know whether this is the last chapter in the Texas blues legend's story -- he died in 1982, but I haven't found anything recorded later than this; still, he doesn't sound like he's expecting any sort of end -- just relaxed, doing what he's always done. B+

Earl King: The Sonet Blues Story (1977 [2006], Verve): Born Earl Johnson, Art Rupe meant to name him King Earl, but the typesetter thought better; so little of his early work remains in print that you can excuse him recutting it here -- Charters calls this "the real New Orleans rock and roll," and he's right -- sweet, sly, good-natured, those good times just roll on and on. A-

Memphis Slim: The Sonet Blues Story (1967 [2006], Verve): From Memphis, born John "Peter" Chatman, another piano player who made his way to Chicago; he could boogie with the best of them, but rarely stood out as a singer, even though he could bring the full weight of the blues home. B

Otis Rush: The Sonet Blues Story (1977 [2006], Verve): Live in Stockholm, previously released as Troubles, Troubles (Sonet) and Lost in the Blues (Alligator); he's neither troubled nor lost, just a complete pro with an easy voice and a classy guitar -- you don't feel his pain, but it's hard not to admire his craft. B+

J.D. Short: The Sonet Blues Story (1961-62 [2006], Verve): A St. Louis bluesman, played guitar and harmonica, has little in the catalog aside from these solo sessions cut just before his death at age 60; he's got a strong voice and the way he carries himself suggests resilience; intercut with some stories, a plus. B+

Sunnyland Slim: The Sonet Blues Story (1974 [2006], Verve): Born Albert Luandrew in Mississippi, moved to Chicago in 1939, taking his moniker from the "Sunnyland Train" that took him north; a longtime fixture in the Windy City, this is basic piano blues, a gritty solo recital. B

Bukka White: The Sonet Blues Story (1963 [2006], Verve): Old school, a Mississippi Delta guitarist who started with Charley Patton, followed Bill Broonzy to Chicago, fought the law, dropped from sight, and finally was rediscovered in the folk blues boom, recording these grizzled blues and reminiscences. B+

Big Joe Williams: The Sonet Blues Story (1972 [2006], Verve): Another Delta denizen, working solo, playing his distinctive 9-string guitar -- three of six strings doubled like a 12-string, which gives the guitar a Leadbelly vibe; vocally he's on the Son House side of Muddy Waters, a guy who can bray and growl, the sound of a cantankerous cuss who's been around, doesn't like what he's seen, but doesn't stop for it either. A-

Robert Pete Williams: The Sonet Blues Story (1973 [2006], Verve): A Louisiana bluesman who had a lot to say about Angola Penitentiary -- he was discovered there, doing life for murder, but sang and strummed his way to a pardon; this is further down the line, a solo retrospective thin but tough. B+

Mighty Joe Young: The Sonet Blues Story (1972 [2006], Verve): A Louisiana native, moved to Milwaukee then graduated to the Chicago blues circuit, where he split the difference between Muddy Waters and Magic Sam while never rivaling either; he works with a hard swinging band here, his vocals adequate, his guitar exceptional. B+

Briefly Noted

Sathima Bea Benjamin: Song Spirit (1963-2002 [2006], Ekapa): A South African expat singer whose good fortune in pianists netted her Duke Ellington for her first record, husband Abdullah Ibrahim, and others over the four decades sampled here: Kenny Barron, Larry Willis, Onaje Alan Gumbs, Stephen Scott; her Africa gives us the pennywhistle "Children of Soweto," but her real forte is for standards like "Careless Love" and "Lush Life." B+

Thomas Chapin Trio: Ride (1995 [2006], Playscape): A brilliant alto saxist, he lived fast and died young, so revered that his live scraps have become a cottage industry; this one often shows why, although the flute break takes the edge off from what otherwise is a tough, muscular set; title comes from a Beatles song, and he's definitely got the ticket there. B+

Fatboy Slim: The Greatest Hits: Why Try Harder (1996-2006 [2006], Astralwerks): Two new cuts with Lateef vocals; two remixes from Cornershop and Groove Armada; the rest cut up jobs that proved that on the dancefloor you can't be too upbeat or too obvious; not sure that concentration does these singles any favors, as what makes them great makes them inconsistent. A-

Herbie Hancock: Jazz to Funk (1966-69, Aim, 2CD): One disc of outtakes from Hancock's score to the film Blow Up, a bit scattered but with some sweet spots, like Joe Henderson's tenor sax; the other was originally released under drummer Albert "Tootie" Heath's name, but conceptually follows Don Cherry and pushes Hancock toward Mwandishi if not quite toward the advertised funk; rare, not what you expect from Hancock -- too bad the doc isn't more helpful. B+

John Holt: I Can't Get You Off My Mind: 18 Greatest Hits (1968-72 [2006], Heartbeat): Not the sweetest or most consistent singer in Jamaica, but he knocked out numerous rocksteady hits, including a few classics like "Happy Go Lucky Girl"; another highlight is the job the Studio One alchemists do on George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord." B+

Albert Kuvezin and Yat-Kha: Re-Covers (2006, World Village): Exactly as advertised, but a one trick pony: Tuvan throat singer covers Hank Williams, Bob Marley, Captain Beefheart, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Motorhead, Santana, "In a Gadda Da Vida," "Love Will Tear Us Apart"; amaze your friends! clear the room! C+

Jerry Lee Lewis: The Definitive Collection (1957-81 [2006], Hip-O/Chronicles): The usual compromise, balancing six breathless Sun hits against three times as many chestnuts from a second career crooning and tinkling in Nashville; cf. Original Sun Greatest Hits and Rare Tracks (both Rhino) for more of the former; this does nicely for the latter. A-

Barry Manilow: Barry Manilow I (1973 [2006], Arista/Legacy): This early in his ontogeny, his stem cells might have differentiated toward the New York Dolls or Kiss -- he showed signs of the former's corny nostalgia and the latter's shameless pandering -- but he was already too much the studio hack to let those impulses develop; besides, his Chopin cop "Could It Be Magic" was the hit, selecting him for fatuousness, but only after II cinched the deal. C

Barry Manilow: Barry Manilow II (1974 [2006], Arista/Legacy): "I Want to Be Somebody's Baby" is a decent piano-based rocker, suggesting that Manilow might follow in Elton John's footsteps, if not fill his shoes; but that's just one end of an eclectic gamut that leans more toward cabaret and show tunes -- like climbing ivy, he covers surfaces but never puts down roots anywhere. C+

Barry Manilow: Tryin' to Get the Feeling (1975 [2006], Arista/Legacy): Following his worst instincts, he panders to Broadway musicals, ending with Stephen Sondheim; along the way he stands up for music -- titles include "I Write the Songs," "I'll Make You Music," and "Beautiful Music" -- and hopes you'll be confused enough to buy something. C-

Barry Manilow: This One's for You (1976 [2006], Arista/Legacy): The upbeat "Jump Shout Boogie" mines Bette Midler kitsch, but beyond that he stays in character -- a melodramatic, hyperromantic crooner, with stars in his eyes even when they're not readily exchangeable for dollar signs; inspirational verse: "sometimes I really do write the songs." B-

Barry Manilow: Live (Legacy Edition) (1976 [2006], Arista/Legacy, 2CD): He worked with Bette Midler and borrows some of her shtick, but not the humor nor the intelligence, and he probably left those out on purpose; he wrote commercial jingles and parlays them into his "Very Strange Medley" as though his career as a pimp redeems his career as a hack; but none of that annoys me like the rapturous applause -- I can usually see why others are attracted to an artist I dislike, but not him. D

Barry Manilow: Even Now (1978 [2006], Arista/Legacy): For once he actually does write most of the songs, which is probably one of the problems here; he no longer has any trace of rock, and he can afford to gild everything in strings; what he has left is harder to identify -- perhaps this is what new operetta might sound like if anyone could conceive of such a thing? D+

Barry Manilow: One Voice (1979 [2006], Arista/Legacy): Camp is bad taste with a wink of irony, but what can do you call bad taste pumped out in a blind stupor? Pathetic, pompous, pointless shit? Can't you say something stronger? Even at his worst, he always seemed to be copping received ideals, but here he finally breaks new wind. D-

Charles Mingus: Thrice Upon a Theme (1954-57 [2006], Aim, 2CD): Combines two minor but interesting and now out-of-print early albums: Mingus Three (Roulette), a piano trio with Hampton Hawes, and The Jazz Experiments of Charlie Mingus (Bethlehem), a sextet that lays out his harmonic fundamentals, but doesn't begin to raise the rafters; docked for muddling the discography. B

Ben Monder Trio: Dust (1996 [2006], Sunnyside): Having appeared on ninety-some albums, Monder is a flexible postbop guitarist who can be depended on to fit in and add something every time out; this early trio album shows him in the lead, laying out his , a fair approximation of the state of the art in jazz guitar. B+

Ben Monder: Excavation (1999 [2006], Sunnyside): Pretty much the sum of its parts: shifty microwaves of rhythm from Jim Black and Skuli Sverrisson (aka AlasNoAxis), scat hymns from Theo Bleckmann, guitar-drenched window dressing from Monder. B

Willie Nelson: Live From Austin TX (1990 [2006], New West): Typical show with his family, a band that itches to slip in a little country jazz; includes a scrunched up medley where he tries to kill off "Funny," "Crazy," and "Night Life," plus too many Kris Kristofferson songs, and Shelby Lynne singing backup. B+

Oscar Peterson/Ella Fitzgerald: JATP Lausanne 1953 (Swiss Radio Days, Vol. 15) (1953 [2006], TCB): A radio shot from Switzerland, with the young pianist backing Ella for eight cuts, then taking center stage for five more with his trio -- bassist Ray Brown and guitarist Barney Kessel; no surprises, except for the cut where Lester Young leaps in. B+

The Rough Guide to the Music of Israel (1995-2005, World Music Network): For better or worse, the usual catholic survey; the Ashkenazi may still rule the diaspora melting pot, but the Sephardim and Mizrachi make most of the folk/pop music, making it increasingly difficult for us outsiders to distinguish the Israelis from the Arabs they hate so much. B+

Sir Douglas Quintet: Live From Austin TX (1981 [2006], New West): They went fake English in 1965 when they broke "She's About a Mover" but their Texas roots and Mexican hobbies took over; this sums them up nearly a decade before leader Doug Sahm and organist Augie Meyers founded the Texas Tornados, so it still leans Tex, and still reflects the '60s when they finally opted for "96 Tears" over the Zombies. A-

Soft Machine Legacy: Live at the New Morning (2005 [2006], Inakustik, 2CD): Half of the '70s lineup, with Hugh Hopper on bass and Elton Dean on alto sax or saxello, but the reunion group sounds much tougher with guitarist John Etheridge replacing Mike Ratledge's keybs; too bad that Dean died shortly afterwards -- his avant-riffing over steady grooves is a fine solution to the fusion puzzle. B+

Texas Tornados: Live From Austin TX (1990 [2006], New West): The Tex-Mex supergroup, with Doug Sahm and Augie Myers from Sir Douglas Quintet, conjunto accordionist Flaco Jiminez, and the one and only Freddy Fender; appearing just after their first album, which they fill out to nineteen songs with their oldies; I could do with less of Sahm's cheerleading, but you can hear why he was so psyched. B+

Stanley Turrentine: Flipped Out on Love (1971-72 [2006], Aim): The great soul saxophonist nimbly assays the pop hits du jour, including two Stevie Wonders, in an effort that is never trite even if it has no chance of being profound; closes with three cuts with singer Gloria Lynne decked out in a big time production that buries the sax, if indeed it's there at all. B

Version Dread: 18 Dub Hits From Studio One (1966-82 [2006], Heartbeat): Note that all 18 were released as B sides to other artists' singles -- usually they were just a remix with a little more echo and skank to the song on the A side, starting here with Ken Boothe's classic "Train Is Coming"; that's a grain of salt to take the hit claims with, but you can also look at this as the dark side of the hit parade, what you literally get when you flip it over. B+

Muddy Waters: The Definitive Collection (1948-76 [2006], Geffen/Chronicles): Howlin' Wolf has his supporters, but for most folks McKinley Morganfield was the voice of Mississippi gone Chicago, hence the voice of postwar blues; with only one cut postdating 1964, this is a single disc intro to a man who never slipped into the ordinary on the 3-CD Chess Box; and the late cut only hints at his comeback, for which see Blues Sky or Hard Again. A

The Best of Delroy Wilson: Original Eighteen Deluxe Edition (1964-70 [2006], Heartbeat): Upgrading a 12-song LP from 1969, this misses such early ska gems as "Dancing Mood" and everything Wilson did after turning 21, so "best of" isn't true, but it captures his peak in the rocksteady period, when the beats were as forthright and unassuming as his sweet voice and modest soul. A-


In an infinite universe, all the music you'll ever need already exists somewhere. We find more each month: definitive collections (Chuck Berry, Tom T. Hall, Etta James, Jerry Lee Lewis, Muddy Waters), Swedish blues (Juke Boy Bonner, Snooks Eaglin, Mighty Joe Young), campesino songsters (Los Jardineros, Saborit), rude boys (John Holt, Delroy Wilson), and more great white hope than you can stand (Barry Manilow); many more (51 records).

Copyright 2006 Tom Hull.