No two musicians defined the first half of the Jazz Century more than Duke Ellington & Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong. Duke was the dashingly elegant mad-genius of composition, a black Mozart who imbued jazz with an emotional sophistication and wit that will never be surpassed. Louis almost single-handedly popularized the art of the solo, liberating jazz from the rigid rules of ensemble playing and giving individual musicians a chance to express themselves. Unmistakable in sound, Satchmo’s presence strongly defined every session he recorded on.
If Grace (and Jeff Buckley‘s premature death, for that matter) teaches us one lesson, it’s that music has the boundless potential to impassion performers and listeners alike! Buckley’s career as a solo artist started back in the early ’90s in New York’s smaller clubs and coffee houses. Word of his diverse and captivating performances—in which he deftly peppered sets of his own songs with those from artists as distinct as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and MC5—buzzed about town, garnering him an avid enough following to support the release of his solo EP Live at Sin E in 1993.
Heavily accented, hesitantly breathy and child-like, Astrud Gilberto‘s vocals never fail to seduce me. As I play her records (particularly this one), I obsessively pore over the album photos, falling for the sweet faced girl with the adorable voice. An accidental star with no professional training, Astrud was catapulted to fame after singing on the bossa nova crossover hit, “The Girl From Ipanema.” The story is that her then husband, Brazilian singer-songwriter Joao Gilberto, was in the studio with saxophonist Stan Getz, when producer Creed Taylor suggested they record “Ipanema” in English in order to give the song a better chance at cracking the charts. By sheer luck, Astrud was the only Brazilian in the room with a sufficient grasp of the language to give it a shot.
“For Francoise Hardy, at the Seine’s edge…”
–Bob Dylan, Another Side Of Bob Dylan
Unlike escargots, beautiful French women are not an acquired taste, especially when they can sing. A melancholy and sensual chanteuse, Francoise Hardy made a name for herself crafting lush love songs of great sophistication. Often characterized as aloof, the quietly self-possessed Hardy never allowed herself to be marketed on her abundant sex appeal. Disregarding her looks, she built a following strictly on the strength of her singing and songwriting talents. Although released in 1971, La Question endures as her most spare and seductive album. “Viens” opens the record with a dramatic flair designed to grab the listener’s attention. The title track follows, establishing the album’s elegant dreamlike mood. On such songs as “Chanson D’O,” “Mer,” and “Doigts,” Francoise’s breathy voice lulls you deeper into a deliciously languid state.
If Al Green was the king of ’70s Southern Soul, then Ann Peebles was his queen. A righteous feminist singer in the tradition of Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, Peebles made a name for herself singing and writing about women’s all too familiar knowledge of the darker side of love. Her ferocious hit “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down” served notice on all cheating men that some sisters weren’t going to always turn the other cheek. Sung in a voice menacing in its restraint, this vengeful opus delivers in overtly angrier tones the feminine message of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”: treat us good or watch out! But Peebles wasn’t only concerned with giving men the big payback. Written in partnership with her husband Don Bryant and Memphis deejay Bernard Miller, “Until You Came Into My Life” features Peebles softly singing of a happier kind of love to be shared with the right man. Fortunately for us, her contentment with love is brief. Peebles is at her gritty best when singing bittersweet songs on love’s blues–a fact made amply clear in her riveting masterpiece of heartbreak, “I Can’t Stand The Rain.” Called the “greatest record ever” by John Lennon, I Can’t Stand The Rain deliciously blends blues, gospel and pop into an incomparable Memphis soul stew. Understandably her biggest hit, the song peaked at #6 on the R&B charts in 1974.
A young man growing up in the 1980s on Long Island in a middle-class Jewish family that ignored the wide world of jazz did not often run into Frank Sinatra. If he did encounter him, it was usually in the form of Joe Piscopo (who?) doing an impression on Saturday Night Live of an old, scotch-swilling, mobbed-up tough-guy. Or this particular Long Island boy would hear the song “New York, New York” overplayed, especially at the end of winning Yankee games, which was not a good association, since this Long Island boy hates the Yankees. For the remainder of the ‘80s and into the early ‘90s, Sinatra’s image didn’t improve. He just got older. The media mercilessly showed us sad images of a man past his prime, entrenched in a tired Vegas act, doobie-doobie-dooing his way through lyrics he had sung thousands of times and yet somehow couldn’t remember.
Leon Thomas possessed a voice that went far beyond what was once thought possible in singing. His trademark yodeling (for lack of a better term) turns jazz “scatting” on its head, transforming the art of song into a deeply cosmic exploration of the soul. On Anthology’s two most rewarding tracks, “Prince of Peace” and “The Creator Has A Master Plan (Peace),” Thomas’ instrument-like voice soars to a plane of higher spiritual consciousness, becoming one with the transcendent saxophone sounds of Pharoah Sanders. According to Thomas, it was during his partnership with Sanders that he spontaneously invented his unique style of singing:
“I didn’t know where it came from. I realized that the ancestors had arrived and had given me what we call throat articulation…This voice is not me, my voice is ancient.”
Anthology compiles the finest recordings Thomas made for the legendary Flying Dutchman label from 1969 through 1973. Sadly, this is the only available work of his still in print. Soul Brother Records cherry picked 12 of Thomas’ best songs from his most creative period, making this collection a must hear introduction to his music.
A timeless live-in-studio performance by one of the most original artists of the past 30 years. This album has the distinctly bohemian feel of a smoky Greenwich village café transplanted onto the blooming desert wasteland of the Los Angeles metropolitan region. His lyrics are random and poetic, sketching out shifty characters and strange misadventures straight out of Waits‘ “narcotic American night.” Jazz backed and swaggering, Waits lures you into his lurid underworld of all-night diners and forgotten truck stops. Nighthawks resounds with the intimacy of a small night club caught in the midst of an inspired after-hours session. Waits swings and rhymes over walking bass lines, lightly brushed cymbals, and breathy saxophones, creating an atmosphere heavy with smoke and the clang of empty bottles. Opening the album with a comically bleak “Emotional Weather Report,” Waits sets the tone of what is to follow, singing with self-effacing candor about his alcohol drenched loneliness and desperation. “Eggs & Sausage” aches beautifully with a hunger that can’t be satisfied by the greasy fare and heartburn of late-night dives.
Introducing the Whatnauts is the kind of hard-to-find album that makes you pee in your pants when you uncover a copy withering away at some Goodwill, yard sale, or flea market. Scavenging for their recordings is what you had to do until the late ‘90s when no fewer than three CDs of the Whatnauts’ music finally hit the streets. Obscure beyond reason, the Whatnauts were comprised of Garnett Jones, Billy Herndo, Gerald “Chunky” Pinckney, and a guy identified only as Ray, who disappeared after this album. They were masterful purveyors of heartache-soul. They were also producer George Kerr’s pet project. A short list of Kerr’s previous credits includes: the O’Jays’ (“Look Over Your Shoulder” and “I’m So Glad I Found You”), the Moments (“All I Have” and “Lucky Me”) and Linda Jones’s “Hypnotized.” He later produced the Skull Snaps’ acclaimed album on GSF Records.