Already, we’ve seen the blues and jazz genres enlivened by a series of out-of-nowhere surprises that included Little Feat, Wes Montgomery (yes, Wes Montgomery!) and Bonnie Raitt — even as a new supergroup of fusion-heroes formed.
Spectrum Road muscled its way onto this list thanks to virtuoso performances by the likes of Cream’s Jack Bruce, Living Colour’s Vernon Reid, Medeski Martin and Wood’s John Medeski and the Lenny Kravitz band’s Cindy Blackman. While they were paying muscular tribute to Tony Williams, the Wee Trio found its own inspiration in the music of David Bowie.
Meanwhile, Little Feat and Ruthie Foster took a bedrock of blues and added New Orleans spices, coming up with something completely different each time. Raitt took that same bedrock and added pop, soul, even reggae. Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Brad Mehldau breathed new life into the piano-jazz genre. Otis Taylor returned with another scorching set, while Curtis Salgado’s dance party of a record was all soulful sway. There was even newly discovered music from the jazz guitar legend Montgomery.
Here are my highlights, so far, in blues and jazz for 2012. Click through the titles for complete reviews …
BRAD MEHLDAU – ODE (JAZZ): Mehldau began his career very much in the Bill Evans mode of contemplative piano examinations, but he’s become a much more propulsive player — with some credit, to these ears, going to his trio mates in Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard. Tracks like “Ode” and “Dream Sketch” find Mehldau furiously improvising with his right hand while the rest of the rhythm section adds their own perfectly placed asides. Inspired, Mehldau digs further back (past Evans to Lennie Tristano) on “Bee Blues,” and then unleashes a pounding, very Oscar Peterson-informed intro on “Stan the Man.” There are dark abstractions in “Kurt’s Vibe,” and rhythmic abstractions in “Wyatt’s Eulogy for George Hanson.” In some ways, Mehldau has never sounded so present, so unhurriedly creative, in the music.
OTIS TAYLOR – OTIS TAYLOR’S CONTRABAND (BLUES): A musical alchemist and stirring modern-day storyteller, Taylor is just as apt to experiment well beyond the Delta tradition as he is to explore the raw passions of this nation’s fight for racial justice. This isn’t your grandfather’s blues. Witness the forthcoming Contraband, this haunting mixture of ominous guitar and banjo work (yes, banjo), wildly inventive syncopated rhythms, and a series of raw themes dealing with searing personal demons, the scourge of war, and the scalding verities of love. Collaborators include cornetist Ron Miles, pedal steel guitarist Chuck Campbell and djembe player Fara Tolno of West Africa — in itself, a road map to the musical complexities of Taylor’s work.
[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Otis Taylor discusses the state of the blues today, career intersections with Tommy Bolin and Gary Moore -- and the forgotten African-American legacy surrounding the banjo.]
WES MONTGOMERY – ECHOES OF INDIANA AVENUE (JAZZ): The first previously unheard music from Montgomery in 25 years, this album includes some of the earliest known recordings of the late guitarist as a leader — predating his memorable debut on Riverside in 1959. Montgomery is showcased in performance from 1957-59 at nightclubs in his hometown of Indianapolis, as well as in seminal studio recordings. Forget his later turn toward pop stylings, though. This is incendiary bebop, playing straight and fast and with a remarkable amount of intellect and emotion — reaffirming, once and for all, why Montgomery had such a profound impact on jazz guitarists from George Benson and Joe Pass to John Scofield and Pat Metheny to Kevin Eubanks and Kurt Rosenwinkel.
LITTLE FEAT – ROOSTER RAG (BLUES/ROCK): There’s a welcome new focus on songwriting here, versus the rangy but sometimes ultimately unsatisfying jam-based structures of their more recent outings. Credit Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, a new collaborator with Little Feat’s Bill Payne, who co-founded the group in 1969 with the late Lowell George. Multi-instrumentalist Fred Tackett has also taken a more prominent writing role, after a long period in which guitarist/vocalist Paul Barrere served as the band’s main voice. Couple that with Little Feat’s still-simmering sense of groove, and the outfit’s 16th long-player emerges as one of their most consistently satisfying projects in memory.
GONZALO RUBALCABA – XXI CENTURY (JAZZ): Rubalcaba reaffirms his place as one of the most important Afro-Cuban jazz figures to have emerged in the 1990s. He still possesses both the expected ebullience and the stirring power so long associated with Latin players — but also (and this is what makes him so special) the crystalline patience, and a thoughtful finesse, so few have managed.
RUTHIE FOSTER – LET IT BURN (BLUES): Last year, producer John Chelew suggested Foster record a new project in New Orleans — and Let It Burn was born. A combustible blend of soul, blues, rock, folk and gospel, the album features perhaps the city’s best rhythm section in the form of Funky Meters bassist George Porter Jr. and drummer Russell Batiste, along with do-anything B3 master Ike Stubblefield, the Blind Boys of Alabama and soul icon William Bell. The material is first rate, too, as Foster adds her own stamp to songs by Adele, the Black Keys, Los Lobos, Johnny Cash, the Band, Pete Seeger and Crosby, Stills and Nash.
THE WEE TRIO – ASHES TO ASHES (JAZZ): A finely judged treatment of David Bowie’s music, done without hewing too closely to the old sides — and without fear of going too deep into his catalog for material. Along the way, the Wee Trio gives us a new understanding of Bowie’s sometimes overlooked way with a pop tune. But, more importantly, Ashes to Ashes is such a complete recording that it holds up even if you don’t consider yourself a Bowie completist. I loved the ease in which they were able to turn a passion for Bowie into new ideas (rather than simply to echo him), to respect the footprint of the originals even as they expand upon them.
BONNIE RAITT – SLIPSTREAM (BLUES/ROCK): In her first project since 2005, Raitt returns with a layered release that began with early sessions recorded alongside country blues/Americana producer Joe Henry (Allen Toussaint, Solomon Burke). Those four tracks — including two songs from Bob Dylan — were then joined with additional music that Raitt self produced to form a deeper complexity. These earthier musings serve to balance the earlier, darkly mysterious asides, giving Slipstream this textured, human scale — even as it underscores what makes Raitt so very special.
SPECTRUM ROAD – SPECTRUM ROAD (FUSION): Founding Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid is playing a different tune these days – a hard-driving jazz-rock tune alongside an all-star cast of Jack Bruce, John Medeski and Cindy Blackman-Santana. Together now as Spectrum Road, the quartet has taken the idea of paying tribute to Tony Williams Lifetime to its zenith. Rather than following the grounding-breaking fusion template set forth by Williams, who passed away in 1997, Spectrum Road is instead using his music as an inspirational framework. The results are inventive, triumphal, thunderous – a combination of the sounds associated with Jack Bruce’s Cream, Living Colour, Medeski Martin and Wood and Blackman-Santana’s memorable stint with Lenny Kravitz, but at the same time nothing like them at all.
[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Curtis Salgado talks about career intersections with Robert Cray and John Belushi, and the enduring power of grease-popping, shotgun-shack rattling, ass-wagging soul music.]
CURTIS SALGADO – SOUL SHOT (SOUL/BLUES): Bluesman Curtis Salgado, over a career that’s included stops with Robert Cray, Roomful of Blues and Santana, has always had an abiding love for R&B, hard soul and nasty funk. Soul Shot brings all of that together, in what turns out to be his best solo effort yet. Look no further than the opener, an ass-shaking Bobby Womack composition called “What You Gonna Do?” You’ll find Salgado howling with all of the emotional abandon and sexual tension of great shouters like Otis Redding, O.V. Wright and Wilson Pickett.