Preservation Hall Jazz Band – New Orleans’ Sweet Emma and Her Preservation Hall Jazz Band

New Orleans' Sweet Emma and Her Preservation Hall Jazz Band

Preservation Hall Jazz BandNew Orleans’ Sweet Emma and Her Preservation Hall Jazz Band Preservation Hall Records VPH/VPS-2 (1964)

They call Dixieland jazz made after its time “moldy fig” music.  The Preservation Hall Jazz Band played their first touring gigs in Minneapolis, and Sweet Emma is a recording of one of them.  The band was started to provide jobs for aging musicians who played a style of jazz that had long since fallen out of commercial favor.  A venue named Preservation Hall was opened as a kind of museum and tourist attraction to showcase Dixieland jazz.  The band has featured a rotating cast of local New Orleans musicians through the years.  If you’ve listened to old, first-generation Dixieland records, this will probably not impress you much.  But it’s all still good fun.  This is unpretentious music that is exactly what it claims to be, no more, no less.

Paul Robeson – Paul Robeson [Pearl]

Paul Robeson

Paul RobesonPaul Robeson Pearl GEMM CD 9356 (1993)

An excellent collection of early Robeson recordings for His Master’s Voice.  There are a large and confusing number of Robeson compilations available.  This one focuses exclusively on recordings from the 1920s and 1930s (and then mostly from the 30s).  The bulk of this consists of showtunes/pop, but there are some spirituals as well.  Though these recordings are so old as to have nowhere near the fidelity of Robeson’s 1940s recordings for Columbia Records, they, along with associated stage and screen appearances, are what helped first make him famous.  The songs included here are well selected.  It’s important to note that at this early stage Robeson was forced to record racist, condescending material in order to make a living in Jim Crow America.  So the version of “Ol’ Man River” from the musical “Show Boat” that is so closely associated with Robeson opens with the lyrics “Niggers all work on the Mississippi / Niggers all work while the white folks play.”  It is crucial that these bigoted lyrics not be excised from history and forgotten, as if it all never happened, but remembered for what burdens an artist like Robeson had to deal with.  Yet, this compilation does a huge service by sequencing “Ol’ Man River” (possibly the reason some might pick up this album) as the last song.  It’s worth noting that in later years when Robeson’s stature was assured, he changed the words of “Ol’ Man River” to be more dignified when he performed and recorded it.

Bobby Womack – The Soul of Bobby Womack: Stop on By

The Soul of Bobby Womack: Stop on By

Bobby WomackThe Soul of Bobby Womack: Stop on By (The Heart of Soul Series) EMI 7243 8 53965 2 6 (1996)

Bobby Womack had something no other soul musician of his time had. His songs were often complex and layered, with strings, horns, backing singers, and studio effects mixed in with guitars and bass. In spite of all that, his recordings sound intimate, as if Bobby was sitting across the room from you singing and playing. Unlike so many other performers, Bobby Womack never lost the basic simplicity of his messages in all the layers of sound piled on top. The ways he accomplished that aren’t readily apparent, though interestingly drums were usually simple and unobtrusive in his music. He took all the assets of a singer-songwriter into the realm of soul and R&B while still retaining the essential richness of the latter. Lots of this material sounds like a product of its time yet still holds interest. His “Across 110th Street” movie theme song has been reused in subsequent films (like American Gangster) to create a 1970s street life ambiance. This particular compilation is notable for being the first release of a demo version of “Across 110th Street”, which strangely enough might be Womack’s single finest recording. It’s just him on guitar and vocals. Without the density of the final studio version, his guitar sounds direct, and his vocals are actually more searching and powerful. Another of Bobby Womack’s qualities was his use of grown-up themes and lyrics. Like Isaac Hayes perhaps, and aside from their best-known movie theme songs, they both dealt mainly with small, nuanced subjects about relationships, lifestyle, getting by. I’m not sure Bobby Womack is the place to start if you’ve never listened to soul music before. But if you’ve spent time with the music of earlier soul legends, consider giving Womack a try. He was genuinely an heir to the great ones, and he took soul/R&B in a new direction. It probably takes a bit more effort to appreciate his stuff, but it’s definitely worth it.

Willie Nelson – Angel Eyes

Angel Eyes

Willie NelsonAngel Eyes Columbia FC-39363 (1984)

In the 1980s, Willie Nelson released a lot of albums.  So many that most are forgotten.  Angel Eyes from 1984 was recorded at his own Pedernales studio and pairs him with a jazz combo led by guitarist Jackie King (who receives special billing on the album jacket).  Ray Charles does a guest vocal.  King and his band play a rather straightforward post-bop music.  King had connections to a lot of country artists.  His style is akin to Barney Kessel, Kenny Burrell, or even Jim Hall, with a very clean tone and little inclination to play chords. Willie sticks almost exclusively to vocals.  He is a competent jazz vocalist (and guitarist, as collaborations with Wynton Marsalis attest, though you wouldn’t know from this recording).  He would go on to record many jazz albums.  Here, his performances are nice but not particularly compelling.  This is less of a snooze-fest than Willie’s easy listening and light pop albums of the era (Stardust, City of New Orleans) but it is also not ambitious enough to garner much attention.  Yet Nelson fans should perhaps give this a bit more credit than it has tended to receive, because it has a much more authentic and intimate improvisational feel than certain others of Nelson’s forays into jazz.  This belongs in the top half of the large batch of curious but insignificant genre exercises that Nelson has recorded in his long career.

Scott Walker – Scott 2

Scott 2

Scott WalkerScott 2 Philips BL 7840 (1968)

Scott Walker’s records were never exactly subtle.  They always had an unmistakably direct quality to them, but they could also have a stunning depth and complexity that wasn’t as immediately apparent.  His second solo effort Scott 2 is the most direct and straightforward of his 1960s output.  It does, however, come up a bit short on depth at times.  That isn’t to say it isn’t commendable.  His grandiose rendition of Tim Hardin‘s “Black Sheep Boy” is a triumph.  He was writing more originals, which, although often too blunt in execution here, primed those talents for the smashing artistic success of his next two efforts.  I know that many consider this their favorite Scott Walker album.  For me, it’s just a bit too brash and overconfident.  The novelty of his left-field crooner shtick had worn a bit.  He started to coast a little merely on what passes for edgy subject matter, without always offering a unique vision of it.  Scott 2 was a popular album no doubt, his highest charting solo album (#1 in the UK).  But F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Beautiful and Damned wrote how “the type of man who attains commercial success seldom knows how or why, and,…when he ascribes reasons, the reasons are generally inaccurate and absurd.”  Fortunately, perhaps, Walker didn’t seem to understand his commercial success, for he betrayed those elements many times in his career to produce something more than commercial.  Did anyone really think it was his hauntingly personal musical vision moving albums off the shelves anyway?

The Temptations – In a Mellow Mood

In a Mellow Mood

The TemptationsIn a Mellow Mood Gordy GLPS-924 (1967)

Instead of soul music, as expected, The Temptations in a Mellow Mood finds the group delivering an orchestrated pop/showtunes album.  Although it is clearly a crass attempt to find new audiences, and occasionally it achieves little more than marketing bluster, this does succeed in its aims.  Basically, this is a Sammy Davis, Jr. album, or a Robert Goulet one.  If that’s not the kind of album you’ll accept from The Temptations, then this one is best skipped over.  There are an assortment of arrangers on board (Oliver Nelson among them), which leads to an uneven feel.  More lead vocals from David Ruffin, as he delivers on “What Now My Love?,” would have helped the album further.

Karen Dalton – In My Own Time

In My Own Time

Karen DaltonIn My Own Time Just Sunshine PAS 6008 (1971)

Harvey Brooks brought Dalton to the studio with a very professional studio band and recorded her singing a selection of contemporary songs.  Brooks’ band plays in the warm style of a lot of folk-rock and East Coast singer-songwriter stuff of the day.  But the thing is, the whole band sounds thrilled to be performing with the unknown Dalton.  Rather than just her usual, limited repertoire of acoustic rural folk — though a version of her signature “Katie Cruel” is here, along with the traditional folk tune “Same Old Man,” the performances reminiscent of her posthumously-released demo and live recordings — she’s mostly performing something akin to a “top of the pops” panoply of soul, rock and blues.

At the risk of sounding like a new-age cliché, Karen Dalton’s voice and her music more generally are life-affirming.  Her voice is inimitable, with its constant cracking and slightly swallowed warble her phrasing is staccato and unusually shifting even as she sings as smoothly as she can.  In a way, she is someone with a voice that in every manner seems antithetical to everything that commercial music is about.  And yet, it is as endearing and irrevocable as any in music.  People compare her to Billie Holiday, with good reason!  There is something irrepressible in her style.  The opener, “Something on Your Mind,” is one of the highlights, on an album without any obvious weak points.  She sings, against a relentless, almost severe bass guitar strum, tangly, vexatious electric guitar, some cautious steel guitar and the timidly melancholy histrionics of a bowed violin, “You can’t make it without ever even try___in’ / something’s on your mind isn’t it?,” and her voice cracks irretrievably amid the word “trying”.   This is as perfect a moment in music as the fragile human condition can offer.  Full of failure, epic simplicity, confused and earnest hope, and, still, a yearning for connection and understanding.  The song takes in the simple pleasures that come while looking to grasp what is on this someone else’s mind, an unstated, enigmatic something outside oneself.  If the album ended there, it would already be something.

Up second is a soul song, “When a Man Loves a Woman.”  There is steel guitar mixed with conventional R&B horns, and a vocal accent developed well outside city limits.  Karen’s voice is clipped and cracking again.  She’s singing a song completely outside her range, or so it seems, because she winds up making a rather daring argument for forgetting the idea of “range” entirely, and accepting every attempt to communicate on one’s own terms.  The next song, “In My Own Dream,” has a walking groove on bass with a thundering piano, and a more sleepy, hushed vocal from Dalton, punctuated by quickened vibrato embellishments.  Another punchy soul number, “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” with a disorganized “gang” vocal chorus from the band, interrupts what otherwise was almost becoming a gloomier patch in the album, before the second side take on a more country-inflected repose, once again broken up by an R&B number (“One Night of Love”).  If the second side of the record is more sedate than the first, “Are You Leaving for the Country?” is an excellent closer.  Dalton was part of New York City’s Greenwich Village folk scene for a while in the early 1960s, but left for a more subsistence existence, living outside Boulder, Colorado in a mountain shack for a time.  So this idea of a connection to something outside urban life, with its brisk pace and endless fads, held a strong influence on her life, which did not depend on the city.  And yet, the format of In My Own Time pairs Dalton with the trappings of contemporary pop music, from bustling music centers.  She is engaged with something different, a musical backdrop that is commonplace yet originating from someplace outside her own cultural background.

This is an album that is like an old friend visiting, someone who has no reason to put on appearances.  Karen Dalton sings with no ambitions of any kind of fame.  This is a bit like politics.

“The major problem — one of the major problems, for there are several — one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them.

“To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.

“To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.”  ― Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

The solution in Adams’ novel is to make somebody rule the universe without them consciously choosing to do so.  Dalton may not be unaware of what she was doing in the recording studio, but she was coaxed there to a degree.  As a result her attitude is shorn of the hangups that hold back many singers concerned with being famous, or simply within to forcefully impose themselves on listeners.

Without a doubt, In My Own Time is an album listeners will likely either love or hate.  For those who bother to love it, chances are it will remain a special experience bringing out warm, familiar feelings with each repeated listen.