CD Reviews

Various Artists
Shout, Sister Shout: A Tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe
(MC Records)

The artistically pure concept of the tribute album has been diluted by the sheer volume of half-baked, even strange efforts (ever hear the Weird Al Yankovic tribute?) that have flooded the market. But try and forget past transgressions and consider Shout, Sister Shout: A Tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe as a model example for a tribute album.

First, the late Sharpe's pioneering guitar style and powerful gospel, swing and blues voice deserve an homage. Since Sharpe died three decades ago, her body of work and artistic legacy have been sadly underrecognized. Second, there are generations of female performers who have been inspired and/or directly influenced by Tharpe. Third, Tharpe's stylistic diversity is the perfect template for said artists.

With that foundation, Shout, Sister Shout recruits a bevy of fellow female vocalists -- including younger firebrands Joan Osborne and Michelle Shocked, seasoned vets such as Bonnie Raitt, Phoebe Snow, Tracy Nelson and Maria Muldaur, and legends Odetta and Sweet Honey in the Rock. The result is one stirring performance after another, from Shocked's spacey guitar-led arrangement of "Strange Things Happening Every Day" and Toshi Reagon's chanting, mantra-like take on "Rock Me" to Odetta's serene performance of "Two Little Fishes and Five Loaves of Bread."

What's most striking about the album is how every singer honors Tharpe's persona with passionate, confident performances that never succumb to excess. You can hear it in everything from the brassy horns powering Maria Muldaur, Marcia Ball, Angela Strehli and Tracy Nelson on the title track to blues-rocker Joanna Connor toning down for the heartfelt ballad "Don't Take Everybody to Be Your Friend." Like Tharpe, all these women are navigating the perils of fame and a lifetime committed to art with equal parts sass and class. -- Scott Jordan

The Jazz Orchestra of the Delta
Big Band Reflections of Cole Porter
(Summit Records)

Many folks consider Memphis the barbecue capital of America, not to mention the home of Elvis and arguably the birthplace of the blues. Yet with this release, musical director Jack Cooper leads this Memphis-based big band through a series of jazz-drenched Cole Porter tunes featuring legendary trumpeter Marvin Stamm and vocalist Sandra Dudley. Many of the instrumentalists featured here are students, faculty members and alumni of the Scheidt School of Music at the University of Memphis and are carrying on an art form in an area that isn't known for mainstream jazz initiatives.

Dudley renders whispery vocals atop pulsating samba beats, soft flutes and accenting horn charts on Porter's "Love for Sale." However, it's not all about flashy arrangements and sequential soloing spots, as Cooper and his associates interrogate and sometimes reformulate these Porter classics into personalized musical statements. On "Everything I Love," Stamm's golden-toned lines serve as the primary vehicle for the horn section's ability to underscore the primary melody amid accenting choruses. Elsewhere, "Two in Love" sparks notions of a cool ocean breeze, largely due to the brass section's silky-smooth counter harmonies and subtle injection of an Afro-Cuban-style interlude. At times, the orchestra exudes a classic, '60s-type West Coast jazz groove. But, the crux of this outing is firmly rooted within a modernist approach, without any exorbitant doses of technical gymnastics or extended blowing escapades. -- Glenn Astarita

Chris Smither
Train Home
(Hightone Records)

It's been more than three decades since native New Orleanian Chris Smither bolted for the Northeast folk scene, and while there's no overt traces of his birthplace in his music, he still has plenty of grease under his fingernails. Smither's a deft fingerpicker, terrific songwriter and haunting vocalist, and his signature blend of blues and folk keeps getting better with age.

His new CD, Train Home, is vintage Smither -- equal parts thoughtful rumination and subtle wit, but he's mixed up the instrumentation this time around. Where his most recent Hightone albums favored a spare acoustic setting, Train Home frequently features a backing band and offers a few curve balls. "Call Time" is a nasty rocker built on an even nastier slide guitar riff, while the addition of acoustic piano on "Outside In" is a perfect foil for Smither's clean melody lines. "Never Needed it More" features Anita Suhanin's enchanting backup vocals on the chorus, and longtime Smither champion Bonnie Raitt contributes a slide solo and understated harmonies on a somber cover of Bob Dylan's "Desolation Row."

For sheer vocal talent, Smither's cover of Dave Carter's "Crocodile Man" is a perfect showcase, with Smither effortlessly rolling out the song's packed wordplay with craftsman-like phrasing. And no Smither album would be complete without a nod to one of his primary influences, Mississippi John Hurt, and here Smither nails a delicately sinister reading of Hurt's "Candyman." Sweet stuff, indeed. -- Jordan


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