In one way or another, each of these recordings confounded and delighted me. Pushed me to new vistas, either in the way I approached the artist, their own original work, or the tunes they covered. Made me think, and feel differently.
Take Curtis Salgado, who fought off cancer, even as he produced the year’s best soul-blues offerings, or the star-studded Spectrum Road conjured Tony Williams’ Lifetime — and then took it to whole new places.
Robert Cray and Bonnie Raitt returned with releases that illuminated new corners in their work, too, while Lonnie Smith and Otis Taylor continued to overturn all manner of conventions.
Diana Krall challenged us to see age-old music in a new way, and the late Wes Montgomery found a way to delight us all over again with some newly unearthed recordings.
Below are my Top 10 selections for blues and jazz recordings for 2012. Looking for complete reviews? Click through the album titles for more …
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.
DION – TANK FULL OF BLUES (BLUES): Dion has since the early 1970s set about on a thematically appropriate wanderer’s search — exploring with varying degrees of success, in his post-heroin period, everything from folk to Christian music. It’s been a brave, if sometimes frustrating trek. Yet all of that somehow completely paid off, as Dion eventually arrived at something so meaningfully connective, so deeply redemptive, on Tank Full of Blues, the capstone of a recent trio of Delta-focused recordings. Along the way, Dion’s found the underlying notion of the best blues, the search for redemption, and made it real all over again. As deep as it is unlikely, this is roots music — American music — of the first order.
DIANA KRALL – GLAD RAG DOLL (JAZZ): Cue up this T Bone Burnett production, and you’ll find a drum-tight band featuring guitarist Marc Ribot that combines to produce some sassy solos and sensitive interplay, all in front of vocals that scald and coo. The inventive track listing moves from forgotten gems from the 1920s and ’30s (including “There Ain’t No Sweet Man,” a Tin Pan Alley romp by Fred Fisher, and Gene Austin’s “Let It Rain”) through to more contemporary sounds like Doc Pomus’ “Lonely Avenue,” and Buddy and Julie Miller’s “Wide River To Cross.” But you’ll also hear something else: Somebody saying screw convention. Good for Diana Krall.
DR. LONNIE SMITH – THE HEALER (JAZZ): This terrific live album begins not with a fiery assertion of his soul-jazz supremacy, but with a smoky rumination called “Back Track” — and Dr. Lonnie Smith and Co. remain right there, stubbornly outside of expectations. Shadowing, and then leading, guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg, the legendary jazz organist deftly avoids all of the typical patois associated with his instrument. There’s not a hint of blues, and no hard bop either — at least not yet. Instead, the pair explore wide-open spaces closer in nature to 1970s fusion jazz, even as drummer Jamire Williams offers an insistent, almost menacing cadence. The humorously titled “Mellow Mood” likewise showcases an unsentimental artist who’s giving no ground — and The Healer is stronger for it.
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.
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.]
BETH HART – BANG BANG BOOM BOOM (BLUES): The follow up to Hart’s terrific 2011 collaborative effort with guitarist Joe Bonamassa, this new solo project includes 11 tracks across a swift-moving landscape of influences — from blues to jazz to gospel to soul. Produced by Kevin Shirley, the longtime Bonamassa helmsman, album highlights include Hart’s first ever piano solo (on “Swing My Thing Back Around”), the boisterous gospel elation of “Spirit of God,” and a devastatingly effective, Billie Holiday-influenced vocal on “Baddest Blues.” In the end, it’s a showcase for the volcanic singing style that had Hart appearing in the off-Broadway show “Love, Janis” — but also digs into the darker emotions surrounding her journey as a former “Star Search” standout who spiraled out of control into a haze of drugs, depression and an unmedicated bipolar disorder before finally finding her footing again through sheer force of will, talent and gumption.
ROBERT CRAY – NOTHIN BUT LOVE (BLUES): I don’t remember the last time, outside of a live performance, when Robert Cray’s guitar sounded so present. Nothin But Love puts Cray’s instrument front and center — then builds some of his most interesting collaborative moments around that signature sound. There’s a reason Cray has won five Grammys, sold more records than any other guy playing the blues in the last 25 years, become the youngest ever living inductee into the Blues Hall of Fame. His records are fun to listen to, and perhaps none more — certainly for guitar fans — than this one.
SPECTRUM ROAD – SPECTRUM ROAD (JAZZ/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. And he’s just getting started, right? Later in the year, it was revealed that Salgado had rejoined a pitched battle against cancer, but you’d never know it listening this incredibly varied, strikingly robust effort.
NICK’S 2012 BLUES AND JAZZ HONORABLE MENTIONS: BRANFORD MARSALIS, Four MFs Playin’ Tunes; GARY CLARK JR., Blak and Blu; Brad Mehldau, Ode; LITTLE FEAT, Rooster Rag; GONZALO RUBALCABA, XXI Century; THE WEE TRIO, Ashes to Ashes; PETER GREEN SPLINTER GROUP, Blues Don’t Change; and THE FUSION SYNDICATE, The Fusion Syndicate.