CD Reviews

Nicholas Payton
Sonic Trance
(Warner Bros.)

You can add New Orleans trumpeter Nicholas Payton's name to the proverbial registry of jazz musicians who have crossed over to the world of digital patches, loops, and trance-like rhythmic foundations. At times, it seems as though Payton is retrofitting early '70s Miles Davis spacy jazz/fusion initiatives into a modernist's outlook. Here, the estimable trumpeter and his bandmates morph state-of-the-art EFX into otherworldly passages amid various metrical structures and world beat percussion treatments. Besides all of the digital delays and oscillating passages, Payton generally soars skyward during many of these works.
Payton, keyboardist Kevin Hays and others align their wares for movements consisting of turntable scratches, funk-drenched horn parts and spacey synth swashes. The musicians cover quite a bit of ground in concert with a relatively good-natured approach. Sonic pandemonium dominates, though, in lieu of catchy melodies or anything that resembles mainstream jazz. On a piece titled "Tantric," you'll hear samples of breaking glass coalescing with pulsating backbeats, whereas the ensemble jazzes it up in spots. When viewed as a whole, Sonic Trance tends to reflect Payton's buccaneer demeanor in contrast to simply exploiting electronics for the sake of it. Some of it works rather nicely.
Conversely, Payton's overall approach represents little more than an array of fragmented musical ideas stitched together in a time-elapsed sort of way. Though some of Payton's ardent fans might become a tad skittish about his recent shift in strategy, the thirst for innovation frequently spawns positive results. -- Glenn Astarita

Various Artists
Exile on Blues Street

Exile on Blues Street features blues artists covering the bluesiest rock 'n' roll album produced by a rock band so influenced by the blues that they named themselves after a Muddy Waters song. The artists take to the songs with enthusiasm and bite. Hearing Lucky Peterson moan at the end of "Ventilator Blues" or Deborah Coleman's cheerful vocals on "Happy" (much less sleazy than the Keith Richards' original) buffs a new shine on an old pair of shoes.
Most of the reinterpretations don't do anything too radical, but Otis Taylor does turn "Sweet Black Angel" into a more lowdown, less precious version than the original. However, this record has none of the mystique of the album that inspired it. Exile on Blues Street has a murky sound where instruments, lyrics and flat-out emotion surface at strange times. You can feel Keith Richards sweating and wanting to hurry up a take so that he can get another fix. I've listened to the album a million times, and I'm still not sure of the words on some of the songs, and that makes me (and a lot of other people) listen harder.
Exile on Blues Street is much cleaner and obvious, but much less mysterious. It's a trade-off, but one that a listener can live with. This record is the third in a series in which blues musicians cover famous rock albums, the other ones being The Blues White Album and Blues Blonde on Blonde. Let's hope they can do David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust or the Ramones' first record next. -- David Kunian

North Mississippi All-Stars
(Tone Cool)

How's this for an opening line to the new North Mississippi All-Stars record: "I ain't never been to heaven/ But I've been told/ Angels in heaven/ Got sweet jelly roll." The verse comes after a quick intro that sounds like the hill country blues rumble that slides into an Allman Brothers-like lead guitar. On this record, the All-Stars succeed in mixing these types of Southern rock and north Mississippi blues into an organic sound, despite the fact that this set of songs is definitely more polished. There are ringing background vocals, samples, and other studio embellishments that make it less raw than their previous efforts. This is a good thing.
As pop as they make it, Polaris still sounds like real people making real music with real instruments (unlike most pop music today.) They still let it rip on "Never in All My Days" and "Bad Bad Pain" (which even sounds a little like Steely Dan with a blues vocalist). The All-Stars have added Duwayne Burnside (R.L.'s son) on vocals and guitar; his teaming with the band's other guitarist, Luther Dickinson, keeps the NMAS full sound but with a different accent. Cody, Luther's brother, also steps up here, taking lead vocals on several songs and adding tasteful piano and organ, too. Bassist Chris Chew never falters in giving a solid foundation to all the tracks.
One highlight for New Orleans fans is their cover of Earl King's "Time for the Sun to Rise," which they slow down and make even dreamier to fit the lyrics. Currently, the All-Stars' tour doesn't take them to New Orleans, but they'll be here soon because they just can't stay away for long. -- Kunian

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