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Spinning Into Spring

Surveying the newest CDs from New Orleans artists on tap at the Fair Grounds and around town during weekend two of Jazz Fest.

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Dirty Dozen Brass Band
Medicated Magic
(Ropeadope Records)
Widely known for its progressive spirit, the Dirty Dozen led the charge in updating brass band music with contemporary urban sounds. With Medicated Magic, they're revisiting their own roots. The album is a star-studded collection of New Orleans funk and R&B standards with contributions from a diverse set of musicians of the moment.

Here the 1968 Dr. John classic "Walk on Gilded Splinters" is a celebration of the Dozen's friendship with Widespread Panic, featuring singer John Bell's darkly dramatic vocals (still no substitute for the Dr.'s growl). Dr. John himself sings on a stunning version of "Everything I Do Gon' Be Funky," where the pace is fittingly lazy, and the horns are tastefully understated. Other tracks have the horns at full force, like the opener "Ain't Nothin' but a Party," and a fiercely jammed-out version of "Cissy Strut" with steel guitar prodigy Robert Randolph soloing over huge brass riffs.

The Dozen go country on Irma Thomas' hit "Ruler of My Heart." Newcomer Norah Jones sings this version with a spine-chilling mix of sultry and sweet tones, and Randolph seals in the warm, country feel. Siren samples enhance the urban landscape on "We Got Robbed," and DJ Logic scratches to fill the spaces between the horn melodies. Olu Dara sings "Junco Partner" with considerably less style than it deserves, but drummer Terence Higgins rescues the classic, and shines on every single track.

Medicated Magic is a big, fat album. At certain points it's difficult to wade through so much sound. But where its various elements come together, it's a powerful slice of New Orleans bliss. -- Diettinger

Dr. Michael White
The Soul of New Orleans Jazz
(Basin Street Records)
Almost everything you hear during the two-plus weeks of Jazz Fest owes at least a small debt to the style of music played in New Orleans at the turn of the 19th century -- yet even to be called jazz -- a style that ultimately laid the foundation for a worldwide popular-music revolution in the 20th century. And there is no stronger proponent of that tradition currently than Dr. Michael White, a New Orleans native who grew up playing clarinet with local brass bands, later became a professor at Xavier University and lately has returned full time as a proponent of New Orleans' greatest musical gift to the world. The Soul of New Orleans Jazz -- White's second release on Basin Street -- just may be the best-ever single overview of the traditional New Orleans jazz style ever recorded.

With sympathetic shepherding from Grammy-winning producer Jerry Brock and crystalline sound from engineer Mark Bingham, The Soul of New Orleans Jazz generously covers the entire spectrum of the traditional New Orleans repertoire -- from ballads and blues to the slyly bawdy and the backstreet sacred -- with special attention to the Afro-Caribbean element. Performances throughout are masterfully accomplished while remaining scrupulously laid back, but White's solo on "Summertime," a 1940s hit for clarinetist Sidney Bechet, transcends the whole -- gorgeously evocative and breathtakingly human, it makes an undeniable case for traditional New Orleans jazz as truly world-class music. As an added attraction, White's liner notes present a concise history of the music, explaining why both "swing" and "soul" can rightfully trace their origins to the sounds emerging from the Crescent City at the beginning of the 20th century. -- Hahn

Dr. Michael White & the Original Liberty Jazz Band play Jazz Fest at 5:45 p.m. Friday, May 3, at the XM Satellite Radio Economy Hall Tent.

Joe Krown Organ Combo
Funk Yard
(STR Digital)
With his first two albums, Down and Dirty and Buckle Up, Joe Krown established himself as a Hammond B-3 force to be reckoned with, cooking up programs of original compositions and inspired covers that spotlighted his rock-solid left-hand bass leads and heat-lightning right-handed flights. Those CDs also featured Krown surrounded with guest performers; his new CD, Funk Yard, documents his working band, the Combo that throws down weekly at clubs across New Orleans.

That decision comes through in Funk Yard's assured and tight grooves, for Krown's most cohesive and rewarding CD yet. Saxophonist and Quintology member Brent Rose is Krown's primary foil here, frequently playing tandem leads with Krown's B-3, and imparting a decidedly back-alley blues feel to the program. Guitarist John Fohl's swinging leads and solo have a nastier tone than he's previously shown, adding a menacing aura to slow burns like "Mud Flap," and he makes "Funky JK" into a Meters homage with some chicken-strut bite reminiscent of Leo Nocentelli. Fohl also shines with some greasy wah-wah work on the slinky "Chicken Legs."

Krown's the glue that holds it all together, and he does it with superb taste and admirable restraint. Too often, instrumental albums delivered by a collection of superb soloists descend into over-the-top soloing, leaving the melodies and construction behind. Not here; from Latin-tinged funk to the circus skitter of "Tire Swing," Krown's Funk Yard is ground zero for some mature, swinging playing from a confident bandleader and his formidable ensemble. -- Scott Jordan

The Joe Krown Organ Combo plays Jazz Fest at 5:50 p.m. Friday, May 3, on the Lagniappe Stage.

Astral Project
Big Shot
(Astral Project Records)

Johnny Vidacovich & Friends
Vidacovich
(PawMaw Music)
Once in a bar on Newbury Street in Boston, I noticed a chalkboard aphorism I've never forgotten, a kind of saloon koan: "Never give up on a man," it said, "until he's failed at something he loves." Why am I so fond of this barroom instruction? Because it insists that real maturity frequently requires dealing with significant loss. And Astral Project's new CD, Big Shot -- the fourth from the Crescent City's home-team modern-jazz band -- is a work of unexpected maturity. Wholly realized and vibrantly executed, Big Shot is a big-deal kind of jazz statement -- with things to say, the means to say them, and sufficiently practiced chops to be able to pull it all off with an undeniably eloquent consistency. As bassist James Singleton aptly observes in the liner notes, Big Shot feels like "a summation."

Chalk it up to the loss of keyboardist extraordinaire David Torkanowsky? Or, more likely -- as the CD's liner notes suggest -- to the events of Sept. 11. Or, maybe, just to the fact that these four extremely talented fellows have individually achieved a level of maturity and have aged sufficiently as a cooperative ensemble (the band celebrates its 25th anniversary next year). In any case, what Astral Project has laid down here is modern jazz at its very best, intuitively played, lyrically composed, emotionally moving, the kind of work only a group of genuinely like-minded souls with considerable experience playing together can even hope to pull off.

The first half of Big Shot is marked by guitarist Steve Masakowski's pair of boiling compositions, "Vigil (for Sept. 11)" and "Vengeance," written on a Midwestern tour while the band waited for word of Masakowski's sister, brother-in-law and their child, all of whom were visiting the World Trade Center on that fateful day. The second half proceeds suspended on a series of beautifully evocative compositions by saxophonist and Astral Project founder Tony Dagradi, with two pieces in particular -- "Heart of the Matter" and "Hymn" -- achieving remarkably sustained climaxes of finely rendered tenderness and emotional clarity. Cantilevered on these bearing walls are several other brilliant pieces of jazz writing that also offer exemplary solo and ensemble playing throughout that is unmistakably intimate and maturely reflective.

On Vidacovich, Astral Project's mercurial drummer -- the inimitable Mr. V -- gets to stretch out a bit, wail some, snooker down if he wants, recite snatches of poetry ("I Love Coffee!"), strut ferocious second line, and hot-wire scalding stretches of impenetrably propelled electronic funk.

With guest shots from keyboardist Michael Pellera, sousaphonist Matt Perrine (who animates jazz tuba the way the Meters' George Porter Jr. enlivens electric bass), and Neville Brothers' guitarist Shane Theriot (a cat who really knows how to burn), Vidacovich is a signature collection, seductively down-home, exuberant, and poetically eclectic, a perfect reflection of its singular, irrepressible namesake. -- Roger Hahn

Astral Project plays a CD-release party at 10 p.m. and midnight Friday, May 3; at Funky Butt; Johnny Vidacovich plays a CD-release party at Old Point Bar at 10 p.m. Wednesday, May 1.

Ingrid Lucia
Fortune
(Independent)
Ingrid Lucia is known nationally as the swing singer with the Betty Boop voice, but Fortune is our first encounter with her inner songwriter. Unlike the selections on her first two albums, most of the songs here are originals. As she relies less on her band, the Flying Neutrinos, and more on her own creativity, it turns out Lucia's a competent composer of Americana pop. Her playful songs about puppy love and carefree days sound like forgotten hits from the mid-20th century.

While most of her older repertoire errs on the side of swing, with Fortune, Lucia wears her penchant for Patsy Cline country pop right on her sleeve. "All My Life" has a slow country sway to it, complete with lazy banjo embellishment, and "Cowboy" is a fast, horn-heavy adventure with a Mexican feel. The Western theme continues with a cutesy cover of "Rhinestone Cowboy" (she sings "cowgirl" on the chorus), though her voice's upper register falls short of the song's demand for building intensity; Lucia's baby-doll vibrato just doesn't work as well on these rockabilly-style numbers as it does on the jazzier stuff. On many of the tracks, her technical ability falls short of the mark, and her pitch flattens before it slides upward to adjust.

Nonetheless, as a first shot at her own original material and a new direction, Fortune puts forth some great songs with vibrancy and fervor. With a stronger production force and an experienced vocal coach, Lucia might have made a stellar album. -- Diettinger

Ingrid Lucia & the Flying Neutrinos play Jazz Fest at 2:55 p.m. Friday, May 3, in the XM Satellite Radio Economy Hall Tent.

Donald Harrison Jr.
The New Sounds of Mardi Gras
(First Orleans Music Productions)
Ever since the mid-1980s, when saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr. -- along with New Orleans trumpeter Terence Blanchard -- followed Wynton and Branford Marsalis into Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, the New Orleans alto practitioner has been pursuing the muse of street-bound rhythms, returning again and again over the ensuing years to create unique marriages of straight-ahead jazz rhythms combined with Brazilian sambas, Jamaican reggae, Trinidadian soca, hip-hop inflections, second-line beats and Mardi Gras Indian chants. The Indian heritage is one he comes by naturally -- his father was a revered community figure and founding Big Chief of the Guardians of the Flame, an Indian congregation consciously dedicated to preserving its cultural inheritance.

The New Sounds of New Orleans is Harrison's Mardi Gras Indian notebook, a collection of multi-layered tracks -- some recorded several years ago and some recently -- that elevate the black street traditions of New Orleans to high popular art by presenting street beats in related musical settings that range from bubbling bebop to smooth-as-silk R&B, from cooled-down hip-hop (on "Second Line") to heated-up, jazzy rap (on a reworked "Shallow Waters").

Joined by other New Orleans musicians who also mask Indian -- sousaphone legend Tuba Fats, conga brujo "Smiley" Ricks, drum master Gerald French, and even the late Donald Harrison Sr., on a track recorded in the early '90s -- Harrison presents the New Orleans tradition of Indian rhythms and chanting as contemporary material that demands the highest respect and full creative attention of both musician and listener. -- Hahn

Donald Harrison Jr. plays Jazz Fest at 3:50 p.m. Thursday, May 3, in the BellSouth FastAccess DSL/WWOZ Jazz Tent.

Theresa Andersson
No Regrets
(Independent)
Theresa Andersson has a distinctive, funky roots-rock sound that her local fans instantly recognize, but she's smoothed things out significantly for this album, leaving many of these new songs sounding like 80s-era B-sides. Most of them rely too heavily on watered-down balladry and not enough on real emotion. With trite lyrics and typical chord changes, the album features too many love songs with nothing new to say on the subject. "Would you like to go with me on a magic carpet ride?" she asks, as if it's never been asked before. And her execution lacks the dynamic energy that's present in her live performance.

Despite the mediocre content, Andersson's voice is as strong as ever. She nails the more technically difficult melodies, and her soulful side comes through the slick production from time to time for intense musical moments. A few tracks approach her potential, such as "New Solution," a Radiators-esque burner with lyrics of political empowerment and a slightly distorted vocal filter. "City of Roses" is an epic number that recounts Andersson's first journey to New Orleans as a teenager. With its mournful tempo and violin-spiked bridge, the song paints an aural picture of solitude. "Something's Gotta Give" is easily the catchiest track. Its sneaky parallel bass and guitar lines pay homage to the Meters, with stripped-down instrumentation that lets Andersson's voice shine the way it should. -- Cristina Diettinger

Theresa Andersson plays Jazz Fest at 12:25 p.m. Saturday, May 4, on the Sprint PCS/LG Mobile Phone Stage.

Myshkin's Ruby Warblers
Rosebud Bullets
(Double Salt Records)
"I dream of the northern coast," Myshkin chirps on "Northern Coast," the closing track of her Ruby Warblers project, Rosebud Bullets. "I dream of the cliffy coast/ I see jumping women floating down/ Gowns that match the spray and foam/ All the strings swell as the credits roll ... ."

And with the clank of a gate, and the lament of a fiddle, Myshkin closes the chapter of what may be her best album yet, and her stay in New Orleans. After about a decade of finely crafted, genre-bending folk songs and collaborations with Mike West, Myshkin will pack her bags this summer and shove off to Portland. Why? Pick up a copy of Rosebud Bullets and find out for yourself. This travelogue of discovery, desire and disconnection provides all the clues for an artist who, despite her wondrous imagery and songbird of a voice (and countless Big Easy Award nominations), was never fully appreciated in the cradle of jazz.

But Rosebud Bullets isn't about the limits of New Orleans; it's about the possibilities that await outside. "I let my halo go/ Here in San Diego," she sings on "Cities," adding, "And goddess knows it feels right/ Here in the city of you/ What was heavy is light/ Say goodbye to the night." The album is marked by these moments of transition, urged along by Myshkin's backing band of drummer Scott Magee, bassist John Lutz, fiddler Neti Vaan, clarinetist Ben Schenck and pianist Christopher Trapani, with old friend Laura Freeman on harmonica.

Rosebud Bullets is everything 2000's free-for-all Why Do All the Cowgirls Leave? wasn't, a focused gem that Myshkin can take with her to the Pacific Northwest, and leave behind with her fans -- both old and very new. -- David Lee Simmons

Myshkin's Ruby Warblers celebrate the release of Rosebud Bullets with "many very special guests" at 9 p.m. Wednesday, May 1, at the Blue Nile (523 Frenchmen St., 948-2583). Feel free to wear a bird costume.

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