Little more than soul, some ineffable sense of bone-deep feeling, holds these disparate projects together but — as fans of R&B, jazz and blues over the years will not doubt testify — that’s often more than enough.
So far in 2014, we’ve seen stunning rebirths by the likes of Paul Rodgers (who, in traveling to Memphis to dig into songs from the Stax Records library, found material that brought out every bit of his vocal gifts); of Roger Daltrey (who, in combining with Wilko Johnson, sounds completely reinvigorated in returning to his earliest influences); and of Brad Mehldau (who, by combining with a hip-hop inspired percussionist, is taking his own craft into striking new places).
And, and a house-rattling new album from Rebirth Brass Band, too.
Walter Trout who, like the ailing Wilko, was looking into the face of death, chose to push back — hard. Billy Branch, meanwhile, took his sweet time until a new sound came, with sterling results.
Omar Hakim offered a spiritual project injected with his unique talents with the sticks, even as Eric Reed continued his fascinating exploration of the Monk catalog — absent the tics usually associated with such pursuits. We also give a tip of the hat to Joe Louis Walker, who’s consolidated his new-found fame.
Then there was St. Paul and the Broken Bones, one of the more surprising things to have emerged from the drive-up line at an Alabama bank in a very long time …
No. 10 — JOE LOUIS WALKER – HORNET’S NEST (BLUES): If none of it breaks new ground, if all Hornet’s Nest really does is confirm a newfound legend, well, that’s not such a bad thing. This marks a time of consolidation for Walker — someone who forever, it seemed, was the best modern player to never get his due. That changed in a big way with 2012’s aptly named Alligator debut, Hellfire. By then, of course, the attacking blues guitarist had put a lot of miles behind him. It’s only right that he should drop his bags and sit a spell.
No. 9 — OMAR HAKIM – WE ARE ONE (JAZZ): It’s not just that the do-anything Omar Hakim rarely puts out his own albums. That’s perhaps understandable, considering his over-stuffed career as a sideman alongside the likes of Sting, Weather Report, Dire Straits, David Bowie, Miles Davis and Daft Punk. What was strange was how little, well, drumming there seemed to be on his solo efforts. Not here, as Hakim unleashes a torrent of involving cadences. What makes the album great is the way a deeper spirituality — as its title suggests — runs just beneath the surface, too.
No. 8 — ST. PAUL AND THE BROKEN BONES – HALF THE CITY (R&B): Close your eyes, and there’s no way you picture this guy singing these songs. The guy with the glasses, the suit, the flushed cheeks. So, don’t look. Don’t judge. Put away the racial stereotypes, the age-ism, the hipster circumspection. Sure, it’s just an ex-bank teller, surrounded not by some grizzled gaggle of Stax or Hi Records vets, but by a group of similarly committed kids. But together as St. Paul and the Broken Bones, to put it as simply as possible, they blow their ever-loving asses off here.
No. 7 — ERIC REED – THE ADVENTUROUS MONK (JAZZ): Eric Reed, who rose to fame in the early 1990s with Wynton Marsalis, has discovered a well spring of inspiration in the music of Thelonious Monk. His willingness to hear the music, without simply mimicking Monk the man, consistently imbued these extended meditations with a lasting intrigue. Many is the pianist, alas, who crashes on Monk’s rocky shoals, producing a gimmick-driven carbon copy but nothing of lasting substance. Reed, however, has more consistently succeeded by delving into the essence of his songs — rather than the syncopated tics that defined Monk’s playing legend.
No. 6 — BILLY BRANCH – BLUES SHOCK [with the Sons of the Blues] (BLUES): Billy Branch, a fire-kissed harp-playing protegé of blues great Willie Dixon, took some 15 years between studio recordings — waiting for a new sound to come together. With Blues Shock, it did: Branch and his regular working group the Sons of Blues have constructed a daring new release, one that blends a series of tough-minded, cliche-free originals with inventively reimagined takes on classic tracks — never giving an inch to age, convention or expectations.
No. 5 — WALTER TROUT – THE BLUES CAME CALLIN’ (BLUES): This isn’t an album surrounded by the light-filled redemptive power that it might have had today. After all, when Walter Trout was recording last year, the bluesman’s health was failing as he desperately awaited a liver transplant that seemed like it would never come. Then, less than month before the scheduled release of this scorching new project, that miracle happened. Trout is now in the midst of a miraculous recovery, even as Blues Came Callin’ outlines the roiling emotions of someone facing dark prospects, a certain doom. In keeping it’s sometimes scary, but always scary good.
No. 4 — REBIRTH BRASS BAND – MOVE YOUR BODY (JAZZ): An aptly titled album, this thing is a party inside a download — the kind of music that travels down your spine until it lands like a cluster bomb in your nether regions. Move Your Body includes featured guests like Trombone Shorty and Glen David Andrews, but Rebirth Brass Band is a side-street parade all its own. Undulating island rhythms are punctuated by bright stabs of trumpet and trombone, while delirious calls and chest-rattling tuba work in counterpoint. As “Rebirth Groove” trumpets — quite literally — there ain’t nothing like a Rebirth groove. We defy you not to start shaking everything you’ve got.
No. 3 — WILKO JOHNSON + ROGER DALTREY – GOING BACK HOME (BLUES): Daltrey is reborn alongside the resilient Johnson, who transports the longtime Who frontman to an era that predates bombastic rock operas — or even the period when his old band put the “maximum” in R&B. No, this is primordial, way before that. This is deep blues, reworked by a pub rock band for the ages. This aptly titled album couldn’t more perfectly fit Daltrey’s voice. Then there’s Johnson, the punky former Dr. Feelgood guitarist who’s been battling pancreatic cancer, smartly tangling with the harmonica, likewise energized by Daltrey.
No. 2 — BRAD MEHLDAU AND MARK GUILIANA – TAMING THE DRAGON (JAZZ): Forget everything you know about Mehldau, who rose to fame via contemplative classical-leaning reimagingings of pop songs at an acoustic piano. This isn’t that. It isn’t even jazz, but rather a deep-space exploration into mostly forgotten synth sounds — combined with a very modern low-end courtesy of the hip-hop-ish percussionist Guiliana. You might catch a whisper of what came before but, really, that’s grasping at straws. The intent on Mehliana: Taming the Dragon clearly isn’t to swing, but to experiment — to push at the boundaries until they give.
No. 1 — PAUL RODGERS – THE ROYAL SESSIONS (R&B): His songs always betokened a foundational love for gritty R&B. But that embedded passion often found itself awash in other, more contemporary sounds — the heavy riffs of Bad Company, the sleek corporate feel of the Firm, the outsized stadium rock of Queen. The Royal Sessions stripped all of that away, leaving Rodgers to front a grease-popping house band of long-time Memphis sidemen, guys who played on the original sides featuring Al Green and the like. His gift, taken perhaps for granted after so many permutations away from these core influences, is revealed anew.