2003: Wrap It Up and Bag It

It's been a gory year in politics, and a dismal year in economics. But music keeps on coming, and the more you search, the more you find. Some records find me; some I have to traack down. The records below are good ones that I never got around to writing about -- not equally, of course, but the grade B's give me more pleasure than not, and they just keep getting better above that. I didn't bother with anything sub-B here. Genre-wise this seems long on alt-country and avant-jazz, but there's a little bit of everything here.

Gilad Atzmon & the Orient House Ensemble: Exile (Enja/Justin Time). I read recently that over 700,000 Israelis now live abroad -- the number roughly echoes how many Palestinians fled or were driven into exile during their "Nakba" ("disaster") of 1948. Most of those Israelis wouldn't consider themselves exiles, but Atzmon does. He built this record by taking melodies from his homeland and turning them upside down: "Al Quds," for instance, is an Israeli paean to Jerusalem, redone with Mahmoud Darwish lyrics sung by Reem Kelani. "Jenin" is a lovely Jewish ballad, recast to tell "the story of a city that was completely burried in a pogrom" -- i.e., Ariel Sharon's 2002 invasion. But this music isn't propaganda. It's jazz: heartfelt, searching, inventive, powerful. And it's not about exile either -- it's about a homeland where the Jews suffered their own Nakba in 1948, and the Palestinians have faced their own slow-mo Holocaust ever since. A-

The Bad Plus: These Are the Vistas (Columbia). Pianist Ethan Iverson presented himself as a talent to be reckoned with on two 1998 albums: Deconstruction Zone (Standards) and Construction Zone (Originals) (both Fresh Sound). Almost all piano-bass-drums trios are fronted by the pianist, so you'd expect this one to be Iverson's showcase. But the heavy lifting here is done by bass man Reid Anderson, who can pluck out lines on his big acoustic bass that Jack Bruce can only wish he'd thought of. Drummer Dave King can show some muscle, too, making them jazz's first acoustic power trio. But what got Columbia thinking crossover breakout was how they could take a rock song like Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and build a modern jazz improv on it. That may sound like a gimmick -- indeed, their take on "Blue Moon" (on their eponymous first album, 2000, Fresh Sound) is more radical -- but only if you forget that some of Charlie Parker's most fantastic solo flights came off of heads lifted from the r&b hits of his era. What this group does is actually more complex, in large part because they work so well as a group. A-

Tim Berne: The Subliminal And: Science Friction Live (Thirsty Ear, 2CD). The secret weapon here is keyboardist Craig Taborn, who is also credited with "Rhodes, laptop, virtual organ and virtually [everything else]." Very little here actually sounds like it came from a keyboard, but there is a lot of sound that is hard to explain. In particular, much of the time Berne's alto saxophone has an odd resonance -- that "virtual organ" thing? The not-so-secret weapon is guitarist Marc Ducret, especially when he takes charge, as he does in a towering solo in "The Shell Game" and toward the end of the closer, "Stuckon U." Berne's compositions have always been difficult -- he was, after all, a protege of Julius Hemphill, and the lineage has has rarely been clearer than here, both in the fractured melodies and the ripe harmonizing. B+

The Blue Series Continuum: The Sorcerer Sessions, Featuring the Music of Matthew Shipp (Thirsty Ear). Last time (The Good and Evil Sessions) the label's house brand was awash in synth beats and brass. This time they trade in both for violin, clarinet, and sound effects. The Shipp music featured here is in his most abstractly avant-classical vein -- so much education, just to kick out arcane little fragments. FLAM's sound effects look back to the early professors-with-toys era of electronic music. The gestures of the other musicians are subtle, except for the two cuts where Gerald Cleaver gets to provide a beat. Given that beats drive this remarkable series, I have to count this one as an anomaly. And note that it works better in the background than you'd expect. B+

June Carter Cash: Wildwood Flower (Dualtone). She grew up as Nashville royalty of the plainest sort: her mother Maybelle, uncle A.P., and aunt Sara were the Carter Family. When she was young she sang professionally with her sisters, and later on she occasionally sang with her second husband, Johnny Cash. (Her first was Carl Smith, one of Nashville's biggest stars during the '50s.) She passed away on May 15, a few months before Cash, and this collection -- mostly recent sessions, connected with older snippets, such as a bit of the fresh-voiced Carter Girls to contrast with her weathered old age voice -- is a fitting memorial. It includes a couple of her own songs, plus more by Uncle A.P. Stories about Lee Marvin and singing at home are priceless. She gets help from family and friends -- Johnny Cash's narration on her own "Road to Kaintuck" stands out, as does Norman Blake's guitar. Not just a fitting memorial -- a remarkable meditation on the roots and routes of American music. A-

Cooper-Moore / Tom Abbs / Chad Taylor: Triptych Myth (Hopscotch). Cooper-Moore strikes me as NYC's answer to Horace Tapscott, the legendary LA pianist who would be little more than myth except for two trio albums he cut on Arabesque shortly before his death, and some earlier work with John Carter that is still utterly astonishing. Until recently, Cooper-Moore has rarely been heard outside of William Parker's In Order to Survive quartet, where he plays with the same sort of flair Tapscott possessed. (Or looking further back, I could mention Earl Hines.) This is his first (and only) piano-bass-drums trio album, which makes it the best opportunity to date to hear what he can do. Which is a lot, ranging from avant-boogie to the Cecil Taylor-class "Ricochet." Abbs and Taylor provide enthusiastic support, and get a solo each -- Taylor's "Harare" sounds like something out of Harry Partch. But the pianist is the one to follow. A-

Cooper-Moore / Assif Tsahar: America (Hopscotch). This one has very little piano: Cooper-Moore plays banjo, diddley-bo, mouth bow, drums, and sings the title song, which nails America for its legacy of slavery and racism, and vows "we're gonna put you on the homebound train" -- a remarkable piece. Tsahar plays reeds and a little guitar, mostly for atmosphere. The banjo and bass clarinet "Back Porch Chill" is perfectly named. The drum skins and tenor sax "No Cracklin No Bread" is a lovely setup for Tsahar. The rest is a mixed bag, which happens when such talents experiment. B+

Guy Davis: Chocolate to the Bone (Red House). Davis is the most consistent of the "Baby Tajs" -- young bluesmen whose roots dedication follows Taj Mahal's footsteps -- perhaps because he's the least adventurous. His sixth album is much like its predecessors, but his voice is getting thicker and more authoritative, and his use of history keeps expanding: he reaches back past Howlin' Wolf to Ishmon Bracey for "Saturday Blues," and past Zora Neal Hurston to the crucible of slavery for "Shortnin' Bread," while rewriting Sleepy John Estes' "Limetown" and penning a new tribute to his Armitron watch. B+

Kimya Dawson: My Cute Fiend Sweet Princess (Important). Her music isn't folk or antifolk, just the evanescent halo left when matter and antimatter anihilate. It's tempting to say that the music is just scaffolding for the lyrics -- it is, after all, the wordplay that amazes you -- but reading them is no substitute for hearing her sing them. Or is that antising? Whatever -- she's got rhythm, which carries the words even when her voice doesn't. She gets in the last word about 9/11 in a song that goes: "the air is filled with computers and carpets/skin and bones and telphones and file cabinets/coke machines, firemen, landing gear, and cement/they say that it's okay but I say don't breathe that shit in." But more prophetic is the couplet that says it all about Iraq: "nothing ever goes as planned so don't take anything for granted/if you do the world will kick your ass." A-

Kimya Dawson: Knock-Knock Who? (Important). More difficult/less rewarding: in effect, this is her B-side arcana compilation, but her career hasn't generated enough product yet to hide these easter eggs. The problems are mostly sonic -- some stuff too quiet, some too loud, with extra voices distracting and extra writers muddling the messages. You even have dig to find something like "Jesus he came and turned water to wine/I turned it back and now everything's fine." B

Brigitte DeMeyer: Nothing Comes Free (BDM). This album has been sneaking up on me for nearly a year. She's too subtle to grab anyone who isn't paying close attention, but every time I play it I notice details that seem just right -- a bit of slide guitar, a little boogie woogie piano, a bit of organ, a deep drum beat, a vocal nuance. Like Iris DeMent, she learned to sing in church. And she can tap into that vein of conviction when the occasion calls for it, as on the blues "Big Boss Man" and her even bluesier take on the uncredited closer, the Beatles' "Oh Darling." Both are done with spare acoustic guitar for accompaniment, so they depend on her vocal prowess to make it. Her own songs are less memorable, or maybe I just mean too subtle? A-

DJ Wally: Nothing Stays the Same (Thirsty Ear). After four or six Matthew Shipp vs. the DJs albums, it's pretty clear what the formula is: take a handful of world class avant-jazz musicians and embed them in a matrix of beats. That these albums are consistently more interesting than anything that's come out of the acid jazz camp can be chalked up to the brains of all parties: this isn't dumbed down to make it accessible, it's accessible so we can cut quicker to what really matters, which is the detail of the sound. This is one of the best, and much of that is in the details -- Khan Jamal's vibes, Peter Gordon's flutes, Daniel Carter's reeds, and the exceptional focus on William Parker's bass. No raps. I doubt that you can dance to it. But for sonic wallpaper it's more fun than drugs. A-

Dave Douglas: Freak In (Bluebird). This one confounded me when it came out, and confounds me still. If this be his jazztronica move -- that's how it starts, before he hedges -- he's short on rhythm, and not just from the machines. It's like he came into the studio with half a dozen ideas and never settled on any. Not that they were bad ideas, but they don't flow, they don't even fit: synth beats here, vocal sample there, a little Marc Ribot guitar, a blast of Chris Speed sax, some electronic warbles, a lot of trumpet. He's still plays great trumpet, always has. B

Dominic Duval/Mark Whitecage: Rules of Engagement, Vol. 1 (Drimala). Whitecage got his first taste of the future when he ran into Eric Dolphy back in the '50s. In subsequent decades he hooked up with reed players like Gunter Hampel and Perry Robinson, but didn't record much until he was closing in on his 60th birthday. He plays clarinet, soprano and alto saxophone. Duval is a bassist who has been showing up on record a lot lately. They've played together at least eight years, and the intimacy here is palpable. Whitecage's improvs are worked out with great care, usually at a deliberate pace, and make for fascinating listening. Duval is admirably supportive, then gets to close the album with a delightful bass solo. A-

FAB: Fonda-Altschul-Bang: Transforming the Space (CIMP). It's getting hard to overpraise violinist Billy Bang. He showed himself to be a worthy heir to Leroy Jenkins with his early avant-garde work, and he showed he could swing with his A Tribute to Stuff Smith (1992, Soul Note). His Vietnam: The Aftermath (2001, Justin Time) brought back both the melodies and nightmares of his tour of duty, in what felt like, especially post-9/11, the album of the year. And his astonishing work on the William Parker Violin Trio's Scrapbook (2003, Thirsty Ear) makes that the jazz album of this year. Still, his fans have been known to tout this trio record as the real, unadulterated Billy Bang. They have a point, up to a point: this trio is a much more typical jazz showcase for Bang's work, especially his phenomenal art of improvisation. This is also a strong outing for Barry Altschul and Joe Fonda, although it's tricky to get the volume right to bring out the details in Fonda's bass. A-

Fiel Garvie: Leave Me Out of This (Words on Music). Anne Rekke sings in a hoarse whisper, while the band strums away at their lightweight Jesus and Mary Chain buzz. It's a perfectly listenable formula, and I've found myself enjoying every minute of this record, but it's been done so many times before that it's hard to single out why this one is special. B

Wayne Hancock: Swing Time (Bloodshot). With a voice straight out of Hank Williams, he sounds country all the way down to the marrow in his bones. He doesn't need to start with Hank's "Lose Your Mind" to make the point, but since when have live albums been subtle? He heads down "Route 66" and out on "Highway 54," and trots out gems from his own songbook like "Thunderstorms & Neon Signs" -- the first inkling I had that I might one day move back to Kansas was the night I got nostalgic over a rare east coast thunderstorm, so I relate. And, it's just a live album after all, he rocks out. Uncredited bonus of sorts: an over-the-top take on "Summertime" -- love the trombone. As good an intro (or diversion) as any. B+

Susie Ibarra & Mark Dresser: Tone Time (Wobbly Rail). She's a drummer, who got noticed when she joined David S. Ware's Quartet and kicked what was already a high energy group up a notch. Since she left Ware's group she's been doing interesting work -- one of the best is Radiance (1999, Hopscotch), with Charles Burnham on violin. He's one of the premier avant bass players in the world today, perhaps best known for his work with Anthony Braxton. So, two outstanding musicians, the intimacy of a duo setting, but still there's only so much you can do with just bass and drums, and the all but inevitable problem is flow -- unless you have your ears pinned to the quietest nuances of the bass, this seems to just die every now and then. B

Etta James: Let's Roll (Private Music). "The Blues Is My Business" sounds as rote as any quickie business plan. But blues favors oldtimers -- isn't the problem with Shemekia Copeland just that she's too damn young? -- and James has been doing this long enough for these straightforward rockers to sound good on her. And she does come up with one great song here: "On the 7th Day" is another theory of where the blues came from. She describes it as "inspirational," but it reminds me of her previous discursion on "God's Song" -- the cynicism less biting, more poignant, but still there. B

EG Kight: Southern Comfort (Blue South). Blues innovation faded into history (or rock) no later than the early '70s, by which time the real old-timers rediscovered in the '60s were dying off. Since then blues has become the most conservative -- I'm tempted to say formulaic -- music genre in America. That makes it easy to get into, and hard to make a mark in. Young white blueswomen were a novelty in the early '90s, but nowadays they're a dime a dozen too. So this Georgia belle is facing a long uphill struggle to get some recognition, but she's got a terrific voice -- reminds me of K.T. Oslin, especially when she sings "if you were a real man/you wouldn't have to pretend." She plays a little, but hires out the fancy guitar. And she knows a saxophonist. She writes smart songs, and taps John Prine's "Angel From Montgomery" for a cover. I'm rooting for her, but this feels like a peak -- not necessarily the best she'll ever do, but the freshest it'll ever sound. A-

Chris Knight: The Jealous Kind (Dualtone). Nashville is a city these days, the skyline etched by a big office building with two spires that remind me of the pointy-haired boss in Dilbert. And Nashville music sells just fine in the interchangeable gated suburbs that dot America. But this is country, so rural it feels long passed. Knight tells stories with a sharp eye for the details of human frailty: his out-of-work coal miner is haunted by "the sound of a train not running"; his farmhand says he's "just a young man living to make me old"; his California-bound sharecropper is "too proud to beg for charity/too poor to make a stand." He plays spare tunes, and sings with a deep, rich twang. You suspect he's too smart for his subjects, but he probably wonders whether he's smart enough. A-

Lee Konitz/Alan Broadbent: Live-Lee (Milestone). There's very little in the way of dynamics here. Broadbent plays proper piano, his solos constructed with great care and finesse, but they feel like they've already been framed. And his comping behind Konitz feels tentative -- a hint of fear that he might trip the great man up, or maybe he's just uncertain where Konitz is going. Konitz, too, plays carefully, but fifty years after he first cut "Subconscious-Lee" -- the finale here -- his improvs still feel like he's discovering new territory, and I find myself hanging on every note. B+

McEnroe: Disenfranchised (Peanuts and Corn). He's an entrepreneur from Vancouver: he runs a label and produces records for his friends, distributes another dozen Canadian hip-hop labels to the world, and stocks Canadian stores with comparable American labels. He raps a little too, and this is his first full album after twelve years "messing around." His ambitions are modest -- "I've accepted that we'll never be part of the mainstream" -- and he has the resolve to go his own way: "they said you can't get there from here/I said tell someone who cares." His beats are inscrutable, his raps understated, but he hooks you before you realize it. A-

John McLaughlin: Thieves and Poets (Verve). I was originally slated to write an entry on McLaughlin for Rolling Stone's new record guide, but project was scratched, leaving me with a pile of discs I've yet to digest. McLaughlin practically invented jazz fusion electric guitar, but his landmark albums like Extrapolation (1969) and The Inner Mounting Flame (1971) have faded into history even as his work with Miles Davis gets revived (cf. The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions). The problem for my editors is that McLaughlin's career didn't end there: he found Indian music and acoustic guitar, and he's knocked out two dozen more albums of jazz guitar only marginally more exotic and inventive than mainstreamers like Kenny Burrell and Herb Ellis. This is the latest installment, consisting of a 25-minute suite with symphony orchestra which can be downright gorgeous when it doesn't get bogged down, and four standards dedicated to pianists, which are merely pretty. B

David Murray Latin Big Band: Now Is Another Time (Justin Time). David Murray is the greatest saxophonist to emerge since Sonny Rollins, but the generation gap is huge. When Rollins started out, he could pick up all the history he needed first hand from Coleman Hawkins. And he didn't need much, because he's always sought his music within. Murray, on the other hand, had to study to learn his history, and consequently he's always found his musical inspiration from without. Lately, Murray's taken to travel -- Senegal, Guadeloupe, now Cuba. The latin big band idea in jazz goes back more than 50 years, but this isn't "Manteca" redux. It's huge, vibrant, immensely rich, and rather difficult. I've always liked Murray's small groups (quartet and down) more than his big ones (octet and above), but his solos here soar even above this din. A-

Abdoulaye N'Diaye: Taoué (Justin Time). David Murray is listed as producer, but he brought a world class quartet to Senegal for these sessions, and evidently they play alone on the last three cuts -- two bop-inflected pieces (one by N'Diaye and the other by Sam Sanders, N'Diaye's American jazz teacher) and one of Murray's all-time great ballad interpretations, "Darn That Dream." The only problem with that is that it cuts into N'Diaye's time -- what we came for is to hear what's new in afrojazz fusion. N'Diaye's own group relies heavily on traditional instruments, and the kora-driven "Xarrit Sama" is wonderful. More sax-heavy is "Casa Leule" -- lots of percussion with a Coltrane-ish sax solo, then something heavier and deeper, something that sounds like . . . Murray. The lead cut brings both bands together behind vocalist Tidiane Gaye for a major rave-up. A-

Sarah Pierce: Love's the Only Way (Little Bear). Here's a measure of obscurity for you: a Google search for "Lucinda Williams," a household name for anyone who's read rockcrit in the past decade, scores 162,000 hits; "Kathleen Edwards," whose first album was hyped as a Lucinda wannabe, scores 34,100. "Sarah Pierce," an Austin-based singer-songwriter with five albums and a name that scores more false positives, is way down at 4,200 hits. To some extent this is deserved: her songs are so straightforward, and her delivery so affectless, that she has no potential whatsoever for niche marketing. Yet she carries on -- five albums is three or four more than blind ambition can support, so you have to figure that she draws encouragement from a tiny coterie of fans who have somehow discovered her. Maybe it's because her songs do have their modest charms. Maybe it's because she can end her album with "Get Together" and make us feel like it's a manifesto. Maybe it's because she's a person who makes sure that her drummer's dogs get credit for "single bark," "high-pitched bark," and "spiritual advisor." B

The Red Stick Ramblers: Bring It On Down (Memphis International). They call it "authentic cajun gypsy swing" -- but that just sounds like a way of hedging their bets. Hailing from Baton Rouge, they do play the occasional French chanson, but they're just as likely to tap into the Bob Wills songbook, or take on a famous song that they can't even hope to claim -- a "16 Tons" or a "Dinah." As for "gypsy," my best theory is that refers to the economics of running a six-piece band based on roots marginalia. As for "authentic," I'd rather hear Harry Choates. But I find myself enjoying every moment of this unassuming disc, and I reckon that if you found yourself in a bar with them, you might want to pick this up as a souvenir. B

Dino Saluzzi: Responsorium (ECM). Saluzzi is an Argentine bandoneon player, which automatically marks him as a tangoista. But tango mostly lurks in the background here, surfacing as flashes of rhythm to move the pieces along, but nothing that might push you toward the dancefloor. Like much ECM jazz, this gravitates toward the seam between New Age and World, its unconventional rhythms and instruments aimed at setting a mood that functions nicely as background. But it works beautifully: Saluzzi's sound is fleshed out by son José Maria Saluzzi's classical guitar and Palle Danielsson's acoustic bass, adding a wealth of delicious detail. A-

Shout, Sister, Shout! A Tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe (MC Records). Tharpe sang gospel, but she played guitar, and her music fell somewhere between blues and rock & roll. In the '60s she attracted folkies, and nowadays she's the mother superior for a generation or two of blues-playing (mostly white) women. Maria Muldaur took the lead here; Marcia Ball, Tracy Nelson, Angeli Strehli are all over it. Janis Ian does a minimalist take on "This Train"; Joan Osborne belts out "Nobody's Fault but Mine"; Victoria Williams does a very sly "My Lord and I." Those are all high points; like most tributes, your mileage may vary. B+

Howard Tate: Rediscovered (Private Music). A minor soul star with an extraordinary voice, Tate went AWOL in the early '70s -- like Skip James, he spent part of his three decades in oblivion preaching. He was pretty much forgotten until his 1967 Get It While You Can was reissued in 1995 kicked off a search for him. Now he's back, reunited with his old producer, Jerry Ragavoy, and he sounds great. Along with Al Green's Willie Mitchell reunion, and Bettye Lavette's A Woman Like Me, the most unexpected trend this year has been classic soul. Too bad Ragavoy didn't write him better songs. Note that the funkiest recent one was penned by Prince, and that the touching closer is "Get It While You Can" -- his 35-year-old signature song, reprised with just piano, all he needs. B+

Chip Taylor & Carrie Rodriguez: The Trouble With Humans (Texas Music). He's been around for ages -- a songwriter who penned minor hits for the Hollies, Barbara Lewis, Janis Joplin, Juice Newton, and "Wild Thing" for the Troggs -- but he's probably better known as Jon Voigt's brother. He sings in an offhand way with a minor drawl, accompanies himself on guitar, and has managed to record a dozen or so countryish albums -- few in print, none with a critical reputation. She is half his age or less, and looks and sings like a more concerted, more serious Rosie Flores -- which turns out to be just what he needs. B+

Earl Thomas: Soul'd (Memphis International). Thanks to the magic of recorded music, nothing old ever dies. Now that the blues circuit has become the final resting place for pioneering '60s soul singers like Solomon Burke, it's also home for young 'uns who think that the music never progressed beyond Otis Redding. Thomas was born in 1960, so he's gotten his schtick from records and aging legends. He's way too late to ever become a legend himself, but if you wonder why they don't make soul records like they used to, you just haven't been looking hard enough. B+

The Lucky Tomblin Band (Texas Works). The debut album of a western swing band that isn't rutted in the Bob Wills songbook, with a little tex-mex accordion and a singer who sounds like he studied in Lubbock under Joe Ely. One song takes the view of an illegal worker. Another goes, "yes, I'm working hard again/on my sense of wonder." The opener is upbeat and drenched with steel guitar. The closer is a plaintive ballad called "Please Don't Tease Me." If the pictures in the booklet are the band, none are under 40, and most haven't been in quite a while. So chalk this one up for the unsung pros. B+

Triple R: Friends (Kompakt). All the booklet has to say about this microhouse mix disk is "für meine Freunde." Twelve cuts by twelve artists, none distinct in any obvious way, each ticking along in a similar little microgroove. There must be dozens, hundreds even, of comparable but marginally differentiated variants on the same schemata, but I glommed onto this one only because Michaelangelo Matos -- by far the best guide I know of when it comes to electronic dance music -- recommended it. Judging from his review, he hears much more detail here than I do. But I still find it to be every bit as seductive as he claims -- a soothing, cleansing monotony. A-

Assif Tsahar / Tatsuya Nakatani: Come Sunday (Hopscotch). Tsahar plays razor sharp tenor sax and atmospheric bass clarinet, working through ten originals and the Ellington title piece, taken so slow that it's unrecognizable. Nakatani hits things, getting a dense metalic sound on "Closed News" and a wood-on-wood sound on "Street Cleaning." The first half is more diverse, more interesting, with the bass clarinet and hollow toms on "J Walk" a highlight. The second half works through a subtler set of changes, more closely rooted in the avant-garde du jour -- Tsahar shifting speed and density and color, while Nakatani tacks on accents. It repays close listening with fascinating noise. But how much can it mean if it don't have that swing? B+

James Blood Ulmer: No Escape From the Blues: The Electric Lady Sessions (Hyena). Ulmer has been looking backwards for more than a decade now: during this time he's done a reunion of the trio that cut his 1983 masterpiece, Odyssey, a couple of albums returning to Ornette Coleman's harmolodics, and a whole mess of blues albums. The blues seem to be winning out: as he gets older his voice gets more grizzled, and that fits. And lately Vernon Reid (who you may know from his band Living Colour, but I remember best as a veteran rock critic) has taken Ulmer under his wing, and arranged a tour of famous blues studios. The first stop was Sun Studios for Memphis Blood. This is the second stop, New York. The two records are roughly comparable, but this one has an edge that comes from experience: the songs, including Ulmer's old "Are You Glad to Be in America," seem to fit better; Reid cranks the guitar up a notch; guests like Queen Esther and Olu Dara add something. Not least, my expectations are settling: he's made more interesting jazz records in the past, but he's never made a better sounding blues album than this one. A-

Miroslav Vitous: Universal Syncopations (ECM). Supergroup: if you don't know who Vitous and/or Jan Garbarek are, you haven't followed Manfred Eicher's ECM records at all over the last 30 years; and if you don't know who Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, and Jack DeJohnette are, you haven't even paid attention to Miles Davis. The latter three remain in the background here, providing admirable support. Garbarek's soprano and tenor saxophones are the more obvious focus. It's been a long time since he played anything this squarely in the jazz tradition -- long enough to remind me of his brilliant work in Keith Jarrett's quartet. But this is still the bassist's record: not only are they his tunes, he sets an irresistible pulse through most of the record, and his duets with Garbarek are exquisite. Since Weather Report folded, Vitous has mostly contented himself to make small albums of atmospherics and delicate virtuosity. Here in the company of giants he is one himself. A-

Loudon Wainwright III: So Damn Happy (Sanctuary). It's cynical to think that he's doing the new album live just because he hasn't come up with an album's worth of new songs, although accusing Wainwright of cynicism is like calling the pot black. The new songs are good ones, if not quite career highlights: "Heaven" is about smoking and drinking and sex (what else would you want to do up there?), and "Something for Nothing" is against "how cool it is to share." But most of the songs have been done before -- mostly since his last live one, 1993's Career Moves. The real reason is that live albums are his metier. But he doesn't want you to think that. Otherwise, why would he have permitted Van Dyke Parks' introduction to stand: "I feel like Loudon Wainwright is one of a kind, and he ought to be able to coast." B+

Zu: Igneo (Amanita). Looking at the geological maps on the elegantly crafted packaging reminds me that igneous rocks are forged under intense heat and pressure -- some, like granite, cooling beneath the surface; others erupting violently. Clearly, this Italian free jazz band knows the fire and fury of the rock they stand on. They also know kindred spirits half-way around the globe: they traveled to Chicago to make this album with punk avatar Steve Albini, with guest shots from saxophone colossus Ken Vandermark and his trombone sidekick, Jeb Bishop. Not that they are really necessary -- saxophonist Luca Tommaso Mai sent me back to the book several times to make sure that it wasn't Vandermark playing. This is noisy alright -- a volcanic eruption of freedom. A-