Nick DeRiso’s Mid-Year Best Of 2013 (Jazz and Blues): Boz Scaggs, Wicked Knee, Terence Blanchard

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We explore triumphs over time from legends like James Cotton and Wayne Shorter. Triumphs of conception like Billy Martin’s Wicked Knee, and Michael Wolff’s combining with Mike Clark. And triumphs of sheer artistry from Boz Scaggs.

Terence Blanchard, in blending straight ahead and more fusion-focused sounds, put out one of the most intriguing albums of early 2013, while Otis Taylor and JJ Grey continued their steady cadence of terrific albums.

The Fabulous Thunderbirds returned with a stirring effort, as Kim Wilson explored well off the beaten Texas blues path.

Meanwhile, Martin and Robben Ford dove head-long into the New Orleans music tradition, with hip-shakingly boisterous results.

Cotton’s all-star effort, after so many health problems, was simply too tough to be considered a valedictory. He sounds, luckily for us, like he’s in it for the long haul.

Finally, there’s Scaggs, who has been slowly building to what can only be called a new mastery of his vocal instrument. After all this time, and all of those hits, he might never have sounded better …

No. 10: WAYNE SHORTER – WITHOUT A NET (JAZZ): Despite the frankly incredible reality that he turns 80 years old in 2013, Shorter remains in utter command of both a song’s structure and, of course, of his horn. Working with an ever-tightening quartet that’s been together for more than a decade, Shorter and Co. offer furtive insights on “Myrrh,” tough-minded roundhouses throughout “UFO,” and very cool new angles inside “S.S. Golden Mean.” Collectively brilliant and ever-incisive, the backing group of Blade, Patitucci and Perez make their own case as new century masters — even as they bolster the dizzying credentials of a living legend from the most recent one.

No. 9: OTIS TAYLOR – MY WORLD IS GONE (BLUES): Otis Taylor’s blues aren’t conventional blues. They’re aren’t good-time blues. Banjo in hand, he imbues them musically with an out-of-time, off-kilter sound — and then runs right at life’s bitter truths. The results, though never destined to be a big hit on the shuck-and-jive festival circuit, can be counted among the most bracing, brutally honest recordings — blues or otherwise — put out over the last two decades. This time, after joining forces with guitarist Mato Nanji, Taylor immersed himself in the Native American people’s devastating narrative. Amid the familiar wreckage of broken promises, brutal atrocities and humiliating exile from their own land, however, Taylor finds specifics that resonate. In so doing, he makes their stories viscerally real.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Otis Taylor discusses his efforts to reanimate the banjo legacy in African-American music, and remembers working with both Tommy Bolin and Gary Moore.]

No. 8: MICHAEL WOLFF AND MIKE CLARK – WOLFF AND CLARK EXPEDITION (JAZZ): Past associations with Cannonball Adderley and the Headhunters seemed to point toward a new melding of R&B and jazz here. Instead, Michael Wolff and Mike Clark have created a nimble, adventurous trio recording that takes intriguing liberties with songs across a broad swath of styles. Oddly enough, their approach here is perhaps best understood during their take on the songbook warhorse “What Is This Thing Called Love” — a moment as ecstatic as it is revelatory. Attacking at a frenetic pace, they simply pull this thread-bare old Cole Porter song apart, only to find glittering new treasures inside.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Drumming legend Mike Clark stopped by to chat about his fiery new collaboration with Michael Wolff, and classic moments with Herbie Hancock, Brand X and the Headhunters.]

No. 7: JAMES COTTON – COTTON MOUTH MAN (BLUES): Cotton, the Chicago harp legend, is joined here by a bevy of big names — among them Gregg Allman, Ruthie Foster, Joe Bonamassa and Delbert McClinton. Still, don’t get the idea that Cotton is relegated to a sideman role on his own album. Cotton Mouth Man remains firmly within Cotton’s grasp, as he unleashes run after blast-furnace run on the harmonica, even while weaving his own story through the album’s raft of original material.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Robben Ford stopped in for an entertaining discussion on his collaborations with George Harrison, Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell … and Kiss? Yes, friends, Kiss.]

No. 6: ROBBEN FORD – BRINGING IT BACK HOME (BLUES): Do-anything guitarist Robben Ford hailed Bringing It Back Home as “my favorite thing that I’ve done in a long time,” and that’s certainly saying something. Over his amazingly varied, and quite fascinating career, Ford has performed and recorded with blues legend Jimmy Witherspoon, George Harrison of the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, the Yellowjackets, Miles Davis, even Kiss — all while issuing some 18 previous similarly varied solo albums. Here, he’s again performing alongside keyboardist Larry Goldings, but there’s little else typical about this soul-lifting set of R&B-laced, jazz-informed groovers. One of his very best, and that’s saying something.

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No. 5: JJ GREY AND MOFRO – THIS RIVER (BLUES): Combining the heartfelt dynamism of Otis Redding and the scuzzy grooves the Allman Brothers, JJ Grey and Mofro are reanimating a memorably greasy turn-of-the-1970s Deep South vibe for a new generation. If anything, this sixth studio effort drills even deeper into their backwoods influences. The tracks were played live, with everyone in a a single room, and put to tape in nearby St. Augustine. What producer Dan Prothero captures is a band at the peak of its powers, fully in command of its towering influences, and ready to put its unique stamp on them. (More here.) — Nick DeRiso

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Mofro’s chicken-fried rhythms and finger-licking riffs lure you to the ‘Brighter Days’ live project, but it’s JJ Grey’s rib-sticking, story-building lyrics that keep you there.]

No. 4: TERENCE BLANCHARD – MAGNETIC (JAZZ): In making Magnetic such a collaborative, free-flowing effort, Terence Blanchard has fashioned one of his most layered studio efforts ever. This is the trumpeter’s first Blue Note release since 2007’s A Tale of God’s Will,, a shattering reflection on Katrina’s destruction of his hometown. If this new album is far less personal, it’s also far more intriguing.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Terence Blanchard takes us inside 1991’s ‘Simply Stated,’ a loving tribute to Miles Davis which ultimately sent him onto a far more challenging career path.]

No. 3: FABULOUS THUNDERBIRDS – ON THE VERGE (BLUES): Kim Wilson, in detouring through the slow-simmering joys of R&B on this new Fabulous Thunderbirds recording, has allowed himself a remarkable depth of feeling. It is, to my ear, the best he’s ever sung. Throughout, On the Verge hews closer to the Stax Records aesthetic than it does the Texas roadhouse. Not that you can’t peg this as the Fabulous Thunderbirds, whatever the album’s atmospherics. There’s just suddenly a lot more going on around what was once a straight-forward sound.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Billy Martin joined us to discuss Wicked Knee, and whether jazz’s many new amalgams signal the final death knell for bebop.]

No. 2: BILLY MARTIN’S WICKED KNEE – HEELS OVER HEAD (JAZZ): For those looking for more of Billy Martin’s well-established sound as part of the next-gen jazz trio Medeski Martin and Wood, this new title is likely perfectly named. Turns out Martin has long had a passion for New Orleans street music. And he’s not the only one. Though Martin’s name is prominently featured, Wicked Knee is very much a band effort. Everyone contributes musically, and each in his own way helped shape the final project. Just as importantly, while each of the players here clearly has an affection for this brass tradition, they’re not afraid to push against its conventional edges — and hard.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Boz Scaggs goes in-depth on his layered 2013 release ‘Memphis,’ the Dukes of September, and singing versus guitar playing.]

No. 1: BOZ SCAGGS – MEMPHIS (BLUES): Boz Scaggs references some of the most distinctive, timeless R&B recordings of the 1970s, even as he continues exploring outward from that tradition on Memphis. Like Scaggs himself, it’s not easily pegged. Still, while the results are something hard to pin down, in terms of theme, Memphis is easy to appreciate from the chin down. This is music for the heart, and for places somewhere lower. In that way, Scaggs has made a triumphal return, after a five-year span between projects. Listen without trying to figure things out, and he maps out a stunning argument for his place as one of our greatest living white soul singers.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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