Quickies: Stephen Stills, Keith Jarrett, Ethan Keller

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This installment of “Quickies” actually boasts some more diversity than the last one. As in some (gasp) singer-songwriter records! Sandwiched in between is a jazz icon, who like the first entry, recorded some folk-rock back in 1968. Thankfully, he eventually chose the right genre. The last guy is in a similar position today as the first guy was in that long-ago year, and likewise poised to make a splash. Confused? Relax, it’s all explained below.

Stephen Stills Just Roll Tape: April 26th, 1968

It’s not everyday that tapes like these just turn up, but this one did after being forgotten for almost four decades. Back then, Stephen Stills was at a crossroads in his career. “For What It’s Worth” had put him on the map, but his band Buffalo Springfield was on the verge of breakup, and even though he contributed a number of other good songs for Springfield, no one was sure if he would move beyond one-hit wonder status. Of course we all know how the story ended up, as he hooked up with David Crosby and Graham Nash and cemented his status as one of the premier singer-songwriters of the Woodstock generation. But on this April 26, he was in the already in the studio finishing up for some session work for Judy Collins and armed with an acoustic guitar. He bribes the engineer to “roll tape” so he can lay down some demo recordings for a new batch of songs he had just written.

Many of these songs in fuller form went on to become part of Stills’ legendary canon: “Wooden Ships,” “Black Queen” and yes, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” The recording quality is uneven there’s several guitar missteps, and Stills didn’t always hit the high notes right; these are old demos, after all. But Stills’ voice is relaxed and in generally good shape (which makes one sad to hear it in such rough shape today), and all things considered, the tape’s in decent shape. Most importantly, the songs themselves are all uniformly good-to-excellent and don’t need much help to make them so. Even the handful which never appeared anywhere else sound full of promise, like “Judy” (another reference to Collins, perhaps?) and “The Doctor Will See You Now.” The biggest treat is waiting there at the end, when Stills switches to a real swampy dobro for a seven-minute long version of “Treetop Flyer.”

Bottom line: as long as Stephen Stills’ best material matters, none of the imperfections on Roll Tape will.

Keith Jarrett/Gary Peacock/Jack DeJohnette My Foolish Heart: Live At Montreaux

The best piano trio ever in jazz had left behind scant output when Scott LaFaro’s fatal automobile accident put an early end to Bill Evans’ legendary combo. Not a problem with arguably the #2 trio of all time, Keith Jarrett with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette. For the last quarter century, they’ve rarely gone a calendar year without a new release (which are almost always live) and occasionally, there’s even two in a year. Even more amazingly, they’re typically in 2-CD formats. That ECM Records is only too happy to oblige is yet another reason why I love that label.

Call me crazy, but even though these guys play almost nothing but overly-familiar standards, I can listen to them all day. Why? Because these guys are good, duh. It might be hard to take their newest release My Foolish Heart (actually recorded in 2001) and put it within the proper context of their huge body of steadfastly consistent work, but just because I’m backing away from that tedious task doesn’t mean I can’t immediately see this as a damned fine recording. Like the other J/P/D concerts, Jarrett finds ways to put interesting new twists to tired, old songs and Peacock and DeJohnette are able to pick up the ever-so-slightest cues from Jarrett and run with it. They can do, and often do, anything within the jazz context but no matter what it is, they always swing mightily. Hell, even the rather “out” rendering of Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser” swings. And to hear Keith play his piano stride-style for “Honeysuckle Rose” with Jack playing some crisp, finger-snapping old school skin-beating on his solo turn makes these kind of records worth picking up over other piano trio records. And yet, it’s just one of those surprises that they regularly spring on unsuspecting listeners of a Jarrett/Peacock/DeJohnette live set.

Even the CD cover is recycled: it sports a red instead of a white background to big, generic letters. But recycling is environmentally friendly, and My Foolish Heart is certainly that to my ears.

Ethan Keller Face Light
Milwaukee, WI-based Ethan Keller has been around the block a lot in his 27 or so years. Fronting the local funk-rock outfit Greenscene, Keller and crew won the National Jim Beam Talent contest for unsigned bands and earned a national tour. A few years ago he formed his own Ethan Keller Group and started incorporating many other musical forms. And that’s the attractive thing about his music: you can’t peg him so easily. Enigmas are always more fun and interesting, aren’t they?

His first, self-released solo effort Face Light came out last year after more than two years of pulling together some of the better Milwaukee-area musicians and laying down tracks of mostly original material. It may be all over the place musically, but that’s precisely the point: this is his calling card. It ranges from r&b (“Stranger”) to indie rock (“Christopher’s Sister”) to folk-rock (“Midwest Folk”) to hip-hop (“Divine Intervention”). There’s even a couple of brief, smokin’ jam-band interludes. The one cover is an inspired choice: soul songstress Anita Baker’s 1986 hit “Same Ole Love” played with little accompaniment aside from an acoustic guitar, a metronome and Ethan’s multitracked vocals. And almost everywhere else, you can pick up echoes of tastefully-played classic jazz guitar emanating from his hollow-bodied Gibson.

Could Ethan Keller be the next Stephen Stills? Or fellow Milwaukee native Daryl Stuermer? Or even a combination of both? Stay tuned. Better yet, take in a video from his album as he goes around the block some more and decide for yourself:

Purchase: Stephen Stills – Just Roll Tape: April 26th, 1968

Purchase: Keith Jarrett/Gary Peacock/Jack DeJohnette – My Foolish Heart: Live At Montreaux

Purchase: Ethan Keller – Face Light

“Quickies” are mini-record reviews of new or upcoming releases. Some albums are just that much more fun to listen to than to write about.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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