Nick DeRiso’s Mid-Year Best of 2015 (Jazz, Blues + R&B): Gavin Harrison, Dave Douglas + others

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Encompassing, as it does, sounds from jazz to blues to R&B, this particular Mid-Year Best of 2015 tends to be a rangy thing.

But then artists like Gavin Harrison, Papa Mali, Boz Scaggs and an amazing all-star amalgam dubbed the Word take things a bold step further, earning recognition for albums that simply defy easy categorization.

Is Gavin Harrison, for instance, doing big-band versions of Porcupine Tree songs? Well, not exactly.

Is the Word a jazz band, an R&B band, a blues band or a gospel band? Well, with members of the North Mississippi All-Stars and Medeski Martin and Wood joining Robert Randolph, the answer actually would be a resounding yes — to all of those questions.

Boz Scaggs, meanwhile, recalls his earliest, rootsiest moments even while holding onto the smooth, contemporary feel that hurtled him to fame in the Silk Degrees era. Then there’s Papa Mali, who lives up to his adopted New Orleans hometown’s aesthetic by throwing everything into the pot and stirring briskly.

Beth Hart similarly confounded expectations (she’s a lot more than the early associations with Joplin once conveyed), as did Steve Earle (who got down very deep into the blues). Robben Ford, meanwhile, gave a friendly goose to the often-airless duet concept.

Wes Montgomery, in his final years, was also accused of being a little too slick. We got to hear him in all of his rough glory with an album of previously unreleased early recordings. Mavis Staples reminded us of her father’s layered genius by completing the last recordings of Pops Staples with Jeff Tweedy.

Finally, there was Dave Douglas, who rounds out this Mid-Year Best of 2015 list by extending a deeply intriguing career arch that turns the idea of trumpet jazz inside out …

No. 10: BETH HART – BETTER THAN HOME (BLUES/R&B): Presented from the beginning as a kind of next-gen Janis Joplin, Beth Hart — both as a solo artist and through a series of fiery collaborations with Joe Bonamassa — has claimed a well-earned reputation as a whiskey barrel-busting belter. This isn’t that. Instead, songs like “Mechanical Heart” show Hart plumbing the deepest of emotional depths, and finding a still strength around the lowest, trembling parts of her impressive vocal range. Elsewhere, something like “Might As Well Smile” speaks to new joy. She’s always had a way with expressing darkness, of shattered hurt, of things that go bump in our chests, but this Mid-Year Best of 2015 entry is instead populated with a series of soul-lifting moments.

No. 9: STEVE EARLE – TERRAPLANE (BLUES): This echoes 1999’s The Mountain in that it pulls apart and then acutely examines one of the bedrock elements of Earle’s sound. Back then, we found him exploring the lonesome whine of bluegrass with the Del McCoury Band. With Terraplane, it’s a rib-sticking electric blues. Principally composed on a backpack tour through Europe but very much linked to his Texas roots, the album brings in musical influences as disparate as Freddie King and Lightnin’ Hopkins, all with Earle’s soul-rending narrative voice as its centerpoint. Steve Earle sounds like he was born to the blues, even if he’s just now turning his focus there.

No. 8: THE WORD – SOUL FOOD (BLUES/GOSPEL): The Word is still throwing everything in a pot, and still coming up with tastes that surprise and delight. This particular musical gumbo starts, of course, with Robert Randolph’s bluesy steel guitar — two things that had seldom collided before in modern music. Then there’s John Medeski, the free-spirited jazz keyboardist. And that trio of next-gen blues rockers North Mississippi All-Stars, Luther and Cody Duckinson as well as Chris Chew. And, finally, the deeply soulful guests like vocalist Ruthie Foster. It sounds, at least on paper, like a recipe for disaster. But as with those everything-in soups that gird many a Deep South diet, it all ends up working after a long slow boil.

No. 7: ROBBEN FORD – INTO THE SUN (BLUES): Ford invites a few famous friends over, and the results are loose, truly collaborative — the opposite of those emailed digital confections so often dubbed “duets” these days. Highlights include “High Heels and Throwing Things,” with Warren Haynes, a song that unfolds with a spacious attention to groove and feel — rather than as an eruptive outburst. It’s more like old friends sharing smartly interwoven anecdotes, each building on the other, with one thought flowing seamlessly into another. “Justified” features not one but two special guests in Robert Randolph and Keb Mo; the bubbling roux is completed by a honky-tonk turn from pianist Jim Cox. ZZ Ward and Sonny Landreth appear elsewhere.

No. 6: WES MONTGOMERY – IN THE BEGINNING (JAZZ): As its name implies, this Mid-Year Best of 2015 entry traces back to Montgomery’s pre-fame work as a sideman on a Gene Morris-led date for Spire Records, to recordings with his brothers Buddy and Monk Montgomery at Columbia Studios in 1955, to remarkable live performances at Chicago’s C&C Music Lounge from 1957 and a Indianapolis’ Missile Lounge in 1958. Naturally, some of In the Beginning is of variable sound quality. That’s the nature of long-lost recordings, after all. The magic, and the mystery, is in hearing Wes Montgomery begin his journey. There’s a sharper edge, a more countrified twang, a frisky looseness that had been bred out of his sound by the time Montgomery rose to fame in the more refined atmosphere of Pacific Jazz.

No. 5: PAPA MALI – MUSIC IS LOVE (R&B/BLUES): Papa Mali has been, more recently, combining his deep-fried Bayou State musical sensibilities with a distinctly psychedelic West Coast vibe — writing with Robert Hunter and performing with Bill Kreutzmann, both legendary figures in the Grateful Dead. Forget all of that. As we hear on Music is Love, Papa Mali still knows how to slow cook a tangy groove. He recorded in New Orleans, with a crack local crew, but it’s Papa Mali — obviously, thankfully and completely recovered now from a health scare — who sits in the middle of this cauldron of funky coolness. Music is Love is an intriguing voodoo of passion and desire, fun and frolic, sex and danger, something that seems to always surround the best Louisiana music.

No. 4: DAVE DOUGLAS – HIGH RISK (JAZZ): Though Detroit’s Shigeto is best known today as an electronic musician and producer, he’s actually a product of the New School in New York. Those foundational chops no doubt came in handy when he found himself at a session with the rangy, always exciting Dave Douglas and his new electro-acoustic quartet High Risk. High Risk’s thrilling blend of melody and deep groove is completed by Mark Guiliana and bassist Jonathan Maron. In this space, beats blend with sharp improvisation, samples and manipulated sounds with hard-crafted groove, mystery and funk and things unexpected. It’s an exciting race to the edge of jazz’s modern frontier, and no place for the foolhardy or unprepared.

No. 3: POPS STAPLES – DON’T LOSE THIS (R&B/BLUES/GOSPEL): Fifteen years after his death, Pops Staples returns — as sweetly vibrant, as light-filled and meaningful, as deeply soulful as ever. Daughter Mavis Staples, who co-produced the original 1999 sessions, completed the next Mid-Year Best of 2015 item with Jeff Tweedy, the Wilco band leader who has collaborated on a pair of her more recent albums. She says, back then, they had gathered to make another Staple Singers album, but instead decided to let Pops Staples take the lead. The tapes, however, sat dormant after his passing. Dormant, but never far from Mavis Staples’ mind. She says her father, upon hearing the unfinished music, encouraged her to look after this music, to make sure — when the time was right — that it was released. Lucky for us, she did.

No. 2: BOZ SCAGGS – FOOL TO CARE (R&B/SOUL): Boz Scaggs made his name in the 1970s with sophisticated and urbane grooves, making the perfect chill music after a night of sweaty disco grinding. But it wasn’t always that way. Scaggs initially emerged, as the gritty “Hell to Pay” reminds, with a murkier, bluesier sound — something far more elemental, and far more dangerous. At the same time, Fool to Care still features plenty of suitably silky asides, and more than its share of heartfelt moments — including the citified and sleek “Last Tango on 16th Street”) and a touching take on the Band’s “Whispering Pines.” Throughout, Boz Scaggs’ wistfully urbane vocals fill in the corners of every enveloping narrative. Every element of his genius, for a change, is found right here.

No. 1: GAVIN HARRISON – CHEATING THE POLYGRAPH (JAZZ): Working in a manner that recalls Philip Glass’ sweeping redesign of David Bowie’s Low, Gavin Harrison’s Mid-Year Best of 2015 entry renders familiar themes from his band Porcupine Tree in an entirely different light. You could call it jazz at times, but with touches approaching neo-prog. You could describe it as a classical update at others, or fusion on a big-band scale. Whereas Glass (in keeping, really, with the source material) tended to work with light orchestral brush strokes, Gavin Harrison’s reconstruction charges forward with knifing brass and drumming that startles in its inventiveness without ever becoming a tumultuous distraction. Harrison radically expands on the big-band model too, adding bass clarinets, tuba and harmonium to what is typically a steady diet of trumpets and saxes. The effect on Cheating the Polygraph is as cinematic as it is surprising.

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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