Harvey Mandel

Snake Pit
(Tompkins Square)

Casual fans of the blues may not know Harvey “The Snake” Mandel by name, but they know his sound. For nearly five decades, the Chicago bluesman’s signature timbre—his nickname is the “King of Sustain”—has left its mark on recordings by numerous blues legends, including Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Otis Rush and Albert King. In addition to his long solo career, which launched in 1968 with the release of his debut, Cristo Redentor, he spent years touring and recording with powerhouse blues–rock groups, such as Canned Heat, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and The Rolling Stones. Mandel’s trademark sound is as supple and searing as molten steel, and his improvisational vocabulary is vast, drawing from various dialects of Chicago blues, prog–rock, jazz and even world music. Snake Pit—his 15th disc and first widely distributed album in 20 years—gathers these divergent threads into a single, radiant strand, and the resulting sound positively vibrates with all that collective energy. The groove is nowhere more trenchant than on the album–opening title track, on which Mandel’s heart–piercing tone, tweaked to a distorted crunch, gnaws at a circular blues lick. Curtains of synth provide the background for the gauzy “NightinGail,” which finds Mandel casting spidery chords and sinewy single–note lines into an echo chamber of reverb, and there’s a tinge of Santana–esque Latin rock on “Baby Batter,” which rumbles atop a layer of bongos and güiro. Not to disappoint the six–string die–hards, Mandel engages in considerable pyrotechnics on rock–heavy tracks like “Space Monkeys” and “JackHammer,” and his ode to B.B. King features a healthy dose of skronking and shredding. But it can be immensely satisfying to hear him unwind on a slow blues like “Buckaroo,” on which he proves that a low flame burns just as hot.

Ron Helman

It Never Entered My Mind
(Self Release)

While listening to flugelhornist Ron Helman’s new album, you might detect a strong insinuation of line and form, of motion, elegance and grace—and for good reason. Before becoming a jazz musician at the ripe age of 44, the New Jersey–born, New Mexico–based Helman spent years as a dancer and gymnast. In his former life, he served as a dance coach with the Juilliard School Drama Department and even provided chorographical expertise to the likes of Sting, Al Pacino and Julianne Moore. A certified life coach and business coach, Helman also trained as a classical trumpeter and performed in off–Broadway productions. He calls It Never Entered My Mind an autobiographical album, and for the most part, the music on this disc is as compelling and diverse as Helman’s life story. Produced by Mike Mainieri, the program of 11 jazz standards unfolds with a sense of thematic balance, alternating between hard, biting swing and misty balladry. Helman’s solo on a gutsy “Just Friends” provides flash and pop, and later, a guest turn by vocalist Ann Hampton Calloway on “Born To Be Blue” luxuriates in slow, deliberate gestures. Helman’s tone is of the airy, wind–blown sort, and positions him squarely on the Miles Davis/Chet Baker end of the timbre spectrum. But it’s a tone he adapts to varied contexts. On “All Or Nothing At All,” he engages in flinty dialogue with saxophonist Steve Wilson, generating sparks in the heated exchange, while on the album–closing title track, he converses with pianist Rachel Z Hakim and guitarist David Spinozza in whispers. Bassist James Genus and drummer Joel Rosenblatt add crisp accompaniment no matter the setting or style, and Mainieri’s clean, attentive production ensures a crystalline glow.

Doyle Bramhall II

Rich Man

Guitarist and vocalist Doyle Bramhall II is well known within blues–rock circles, even though is discography as a leader is rather scant. Rich Man is his first solo album since the 2001 disc Welcome. Over the course of his fruitful career, Bramhall has worked with Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Dr. John and the Tedeschi Trucks Band, with whom he has some aesthetic similarities. Now a veteran producer, Bramhall has reached the point where he has the skill set to do exactly what he wants in the studio. He wrote or co–wrote 12 of the disc’s 13 tracks, produced the album, provides lead vocals as well as some harmony vocals, and plays acoustic and electric guitar, bass, drums and percussion. But this is no one–man–band effort. To achieve his ambitious vision, Bramhall enlists numerous musicians, including his working band (Adam Minkoff, Anthony Cole and Ted Vecchio). There’s also a long parade of guests and collaborators, including Norah Jones, who adds lovely vocals to “New Faith,” guitarists Binky Griptite and Joe Crispiano (both members of Sharon Jones & The Dap–Kings), James Gadson (drums), Jon Cowherd (pump organ), Tim Lefebvre (bass), Kofi Burbridge (Hammond B–3) and Michael Eaton (tenor saxophone, flute), along with a string section (violin, viola and cello). Bramhall offers plenty of impressive blues–rock and stinging electric guitar work in this diverse 73–minute program, but it is his exploration of world music—including African, Arabic and Indian elements—that makes this album so memorable. The spiritual lyrics to “My People” are augmented by a powerful sonic wave with droning elements that come courtesy of Devdutt Joshi on harmonium and Ustad Surjeet Singh on sarangi, a bowed string instrument. Bramhall’s travels in Mali and Morocco partially inspired the instrumental “Saharan Crossing,” which features Yuval Ron playing the oud. The album concludes with a potent rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s “Hear My Train A–Comin’,” a nod to Bramhall’s deep roots in the blues. Bramhall dedicated this album to his late father (after whom he is named, thus the II following his surname). His father, who died in 2011, was an esteemed drummer who worked with guitarist/vocalists Jimmie Vaughan and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Jason Hainsworth

Third Ward Stories

With Third Ward Stories Houston native Jason Hainsworth continues the longstanding tradition of the Texas Tenors, an esteemed group of raw, hard–blowing saxophonists from the Lone Star State who pioneered a robust fusion of swing, bebop, r&b and blues. Among its figureheads are Illinois Jacquet, David “Fathead” Newman, King Curtis, Arnett Cobb and Buddy Tate, and on his latest album, Hainsworth makes himself at home in the sound and spirit of their playing. There’s teeth in his tone as he takes to “Groiditude,” which opens the album with squalls of hard–bop energy, and on “I Plead The Fif,” the saxophonist creates strong harmonic headwinds while drummer Johnathan Blake rages and rattles at the margins. Hainsworth’s style tends toward broad, sweeping statements, and his grammar is highly informed by the hard–boppers and classic swing saxophonists of the mid century, but he can just as easily adopt the elegant vernacular of the best tenor balladeers. On ballads like “Jana” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness Of You,” his tone wraps around the shapely melody like smoke, vaporous and potent. And while the album remains centered, geographically, in the heart of Texas, its many allusions point elsewhere. “Barack’s Blues” is a nod to America’s first black president, and this rendition of Wayne Shorter’s “Prince Of Darkness” pays respect to the pioneering saxophonist who composed the song, and to Miles Davis, who adopted the ominous moniker as his own. Hainsworth may have changed his mailing address over the course of his career, stopping for a while in New York and New Orleans, but as is evident from this fine recording, his heart belongs to Houston.

Raphael Wressnig

The Soul Connection (Deluxe Edition)
(ZYX Music)

Sometimes the soul just needs the blues, and along comes Hammond B–3 bomber Raphael Wressnig with a kick–ass set of smooth, soulful music that sinks in and stays in your gut. Wressnig is a 37–year–old Austrian keyboardist with a global approach to the blues who sounds like he’s been playing on the South Side of Chicago for the past 30 years—and this two–disc set proves it. First, we have a studio album, The Soul Connection, recorded in São Paulo, Brazil, where he teams with Brazilian blues ambassador Igor Prado on guitar. Prado and Wressnig have both been bathed and blessed by the blues. They have great chemistry together. If that weren’t enough, add in the sweet soul vocals of Willie Walker and a killer horn and rhythm section. The group runs through a set that includes “Trying To Live My Life Without You,” “Suffering With The Blues,” “Turnip Greens” and more. On the second disc, Captured Live, we get a much better sense of Wressnig’s depth and groove on the B–3. It’s a dance–marathon of a record packed with tight arrangements, including a killer guest appearance by Chicago’s Deitra Farr on “All That I’ve Got.” But my favorite track of this concert set is an instrumental version of “Wichita Lineman.” It showcases Wressnig as a master of his instrument who stretches and entertains in a way that translates anywhere on the planet.

Bill Dahl

The Art of the Blues
(University of Chicago Press)

Acclaimed author and music journalist Bill Dahl, who has written liner notes for dozens of albums, teamed up with art consultant/musician/historian Chris James to assemble the 224–page book The Art of the Blues: A Visual Treasury of Black Music’s Golden Age. The book is illustrated with 350 images that chronicle the history of the blues via photographs, sheet music, album covers, 78 r.p.m. labels, advertisements, ticket stubs, concert posters and movie posters. A few of these images are famous—such as the iconic portrait of Bessie Smith with both arms extended (taken by the New York–based photographer known as Elcha) or the LP cover for 1960’s Muddy Waters At Newport—but many others document ephemera. The book provides a fascinating visual documentation of the music industry as well as insight into American culture. For example, the cover of the 1936 sheet music for “Saddle Your Blues To A Wild Mustang” (lyrics by George Whiting and Buddy Bernier; music by Billy Haid) features an illustration of a cowboy wearing spurs, sitting on a fence and playing guitar while looking at a nearby bucking mustang. The cover design also has a rectangular slot for a photo of a musician who had recorded “Saddle Your Blues.” The version of this sheet music in Dahl’s book depicts African American bandleader and pianist Claude Hopkins—who enjoyed residencies at the Savoy and Roseland Ballrooms—but other versions included a photo of a white musician. (I did a quick Google search and found versions that have photos of Henry Hall or Phil Levant on the cover.) Visual treasures abound here: What a delight it is to see sheet music for “Spinnin’ The Web,” composed by drummer Chick Webb and vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, both of whom are depicted in blue–tinted photos. Elsewhere, there’s a 1929 newspaper advertisement for Louis Armstrong’s record “Tight Like This,” illustrated with a photo of a tuxedo–clad Satchmo, with text hailing him as “the country’s greatest trumpet player.” It’s difficult to quickly flip through this beautiful book because there are so many compelling images that deserve a closer look, whether it’s a publicity portrait of a young Etta James (taken by Hollywood photographer John E. Reed) or the 78 r.p.m. label of “Adam Bit The Apple,” recorded by Big Joe Turner for Houston’s Freedom Recording Co., which used the Statue of Liberty as part of its graphics.

Mary Halvorson Octet

Away With You
(Firehouse 12 Records)

love Mary Halvorson in this setting. This is art music on a large scale. Halvorson’s compositions and arrangements take twists and turns that you don’t expect, leaving you to wonder how on earth she’ll make them work. She always does. After all, Halvorson is masterful in turning the ordinary into something amazing and new. On Away With You, the 36–year–old guitarist assembles an all–star cast of the avant–garde scene, including Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, Jon Irabagon on alto saxophone, Ingrid Laubrock on tenor, Jacob Garchik on trombone, Susan Alcorn on pedal steel guitar, John Hébert on bass and Ches Smith on drums. It’s a cast of leaders who all chip in to do incredible ensemble work. “Spirit Splitter (No. 54)” is a mind–bender. The title track, “Away With You (No. 55),” is a surf–pop tune from an alternate universe. “The Absolute Almost (No. 52)” takes a slow–flame approach to the inner soul. “Old King Misfit (No. 57)” displays Hébert’s mastery on bass. “Safety Orange (No. 59)” is anything but safe, a majestic piece of magic with some wonderful arranging. And “Inky Ribbons (No. 53)” closes this eight–track set with a slow pulse and laid–back groove that brings the album to a perfect close. Halvorson has become a critic’s favorite in creative music for very good reason. She’s a fine guitarist, a thoughtful musician and a far–reaching artist.

Andrew Cyrille Quartet

The Declaration Of Musical Independence

Andrew Cyrille and his bandmates make their intentions clear from the get–go of this wonderful new recording on ECM. This is an unabashed exploration into time, pulse, space and atmosphere. The 76–year–old drummer begins this “declaration” from the opening staccato beats of “Coltrane Time” with a torn military cadence that bubbles beneath the wails, swoops and groans of Bill Frisell’s guitar. Richard Teitelbaum dances over his mad–hatter synths while Ben Street offers just the right notes on bass. This quartet proves that less is more, leaving plenty of room for each other and the music to breathe. Frisell’s “Kaddish” is a beautiful prayer of quiet and solitude. He carefully paces each note, while Cyrille rumbles in the background, conveying a sense of distant power. On “Dazzling (Perchordially Yours),” Cyrille races, glides and dives through his kit. Stories are told swiftly as a group, and just as quickly stopped to leave time for them to sink in. Teitelbaum washes sound playfully back and forth on the speakers, and Street delivers an avant call–and–response sermon from his bass. The closing number, Frisell’s “Song For Andrew No. 1,” offers the best example of where this Cyrille and his quartet are heading. The drummer whips, rapid–fire, across the kit, and Frisell’s guitar sings slow and steady against the groove. Teitelbaum and Street each find just the right spots to create tension and release. The resulting music is ambitious yet simple, rich yet stripped–down, challenging yet infinitely satisfying.

Keely Smith

The Intimate Keely Smith
(Real Gone Music)

Pop–culture fans who know her name (but not her solo albums) think of Keely Smith as half of the dynamic duo she formed with vocalist/trumpeter/bandleader Louis Prima. Smith started working with Prima in 1949, and the couple wed in 1953. They became a huge draw in Las Vegas, won a Grammy for their rendition of “That Old Black Magic” and made numerous TV and film appearances. A movie poster for 1959’s Hey Boy! Hey Girl! hyped Prima & Smith as “The No. 1 Song–and–Fun Team.” The couple divorced in 1961 and, four years later, she released The Intimate Keely Smith. The Coronet label once repackaged some Prima & Smith tracks in an LP titled Sing Loud. That title conveys the exact opposite of what Smith does on this album, where she delivers a master class in singing softly, often with a breathy delivery, but never without power. The program here is centered on love and heartache, and includes the tunes “Somebody Loves Me,” “It Had To Be You,” “Sinner Or Saint” and “As Long As He Needs Me.” Smith demonstrates exemplary control of her vocal dynamics, modulating her volume for dramatic effect, and sometimes physically moving closer or farther from the microphone, just as she would in concert. The spare, tasteful accompaniment is provided by Dennis Budimer (guitar), Irv Cottler (drums), Red Mitchell (bass) and Jeff Lewis or Ernie Freeman on piano. Real Gone Music’s “Expanded Edition” marks the first time that this album has legitimately appeared on CD, and the two bonus tracks are quite different from the original 11–song program. The first bonus track is “Twin Soliloquies,” a duet with Frank Sinatra that features Nelson Riddle’s orchestration and first appeared on the LP Reprise Musical Repertory Theater Presents “South Pacific.” It’s fun to hear Keely mix it up with Sinatra, a big supporter who helped Smith release solo albums on her own label, Keely Records, in conjunction with Sinatra’s label, Reprise. The other bonus track is the pop tune “No One Ever Tells You,” which was penned by Gerry Goffin, Carole King and Phil Spector and released as the B–side of a single that Spector produced for The Crystals in 1962.

On Sale Now
May 2024
Stefon Harris
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