One Foot in the Swamp
Multi-instrumentalist John Ellis has put together his best recording here, a group of alternately sweet and challenging compositions played superbly by a creative lineup of mostly New Orleans musicians. Though Ellis is best known for his work with jazz-rock guitarist Charlie Hunter, this record places him in another category, alongside such progressive jazz lights as Charles Lloyd and Yusef Lateef.
Ellis showcases his blithe tenor saxophone style right off the bat with 'Happy,' propelled by a jump-step beat from New Orleans rhythm masters Jason Marsalis on drums and percussion and Roland Guerin on bass. John Scofield sits in for the featured guitar solo on this track and the funk strut 'One for the Kelpers.' Nicholas Payton is a force throughout on trumpet, flugelhorn and electronic effects. His trumpet contrasts neatly with Ellis' soprano saxophone in unison and counterpoint passages on 'Work in Progress.'
Aaron Goldberg provides inventive keyboard accompaniment, from Fender Rhodes electric piano comping to all-out synth fusion on 'Bonus Round.' Ellis adds extraordinary colors with such elements and Gregoire Maret's chromatic harmonica on 'Seeing Mice,' his own bass clarinet work on 'Ostinato,' and even some ocarina playing. Throughout the CD, he shows an artistic restlessness, unwilling to be filed in any modern jazz pigeonholes. -- John Swenson
John Ellis performs at 12:30 p.m. Thursday, April 28, in the BellSouth/WWOZ Jazz Tent.
Come Escape With Me
The title of this record is intriguing when you consider that Figarova is a rare jazz product of the former Soviet Union, born in Azerbaijan and, like many musicians from the region, classically trained. She became a world-renowned classical pianist, and didn't begin studying jazz until the 1990s when she moved to the Netherlands. Though jazz has historically been a boys' club, there have been a number of tremendously gifted women pianists in the music's history, and Figarova is definitely one of them.
She's made several albums, including 2002's On Canal Street with New Orleans musicians, and appeared at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Figarova's compositions are melodically vivid and harmonically opulent, and her septet is adept at executing her gorgeously phrased inventions. Bart Platteau, Figerova's husband, gets a multiplicity of shadings out of his arsenal of flutes, Marcel Reys produces warm, dreamy tones on trumpet and flugelhorn and the saxophone section of Kurt van Herck on tenor and Tom Beek on alto and soprano animates Figerova's arrangements at every turn. Platteau and Beek each play several memorable solos, but Figerova's darting, chromatically dense piano lines occupy center stage throughout. -- Swenson
Amina Figarova performs with Kim Prevost at 1:35 p.m. Thursday, April 28, in the BellSouth/WWOZ Jazz Tent.
Roland Guerin Groove,
Swing & Harmony II
The nine original compositions on the talented jazz bassist Roland Guerin's latest recording, Groove, Swing & Harmony II, bring his fans up to date on what he's been doing in the three years since his last album. 'I'll Stand Alone,' a funky number with a grinding groove and smooth pop harmonies, kicks off the record. Guerin plays electric bass on this track, as he does on the majority of the album, and he lets loose pyrotechnics that would make a live audience cheer. The horns on 'Mama's Place' punch out an R&B motif, and each musician takes a turn at showing off his chops. Pianist Mike Esneault's blazing runs are particularly strong.
These numbers sometimes feel too much like extended jams, though at the other end of the spectrum, the gentle 'Snuglely' veers dangerously close to the saccharine sounds of smooth jazz. However, when Guerin picks up his double bass, he almost sounds like another musician. The compositions are tight, the playing unexpected. On 'Alone Together,' a single, tapping bass note creates a sense of tension like a ticking bomb. Instead of an explosion, the band swings into a graceful melody lead by Wess Anderson on alto sax. 'Fall' features accomplished, understated playing by Guerin, Esneault and James Alsanders on drums. Guerin's music for his electric group is fun and rollicking, but on the tracks with the acoustic combo both the playing and the compositions have a thrilling depth. -- Todd A. Price
Roland Guerin performs at 4:15 p.m. Thursday, April 28, in the BellSouth/WWOZ Jazz Tent.
About Them Shoes
In 1956, Hubert Sumlin left his longstanding gig with Howlin' Wolf to play with Muddy Waters for about a year before rejoining Wolf. Muddy had stopped playing guitar onstage, so Sumlin had to learn to play all of Muddy's guitar parts along with his own leads. About Them Shoes is Sumlin's tribute to that year, a collection of songs associated with Muddy Waters, some written by Muddy and others by Willie Dixon, who also wrote for Wolf. Sumlin plays lead on all tracks and sings on his only composition, 'This Is the End, Little Girl,' supported by a stellar cast of musical admirers including Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, David Johansen, Levon Helm, Bob Margolin and Paul Oscher.
These super sessions often don't hang together, but Sumlin's powerful musical personality focuses this disparate group of celebrity acolytes into a coherent unit. He gets almost shockingly great vocal performances out of Clapton, who has never sounded better than on 'I'm Ready.' Richards' reading of 'Still a Fool' is chillingly convincing, and Johansen manages to fuse his own impish persona with Muddy's macho delivery on the sexually charged 'The Same Thing' and the soulful 'Walking Through the Park.'
Throughout the album, Sumlin's guitar remains prominent, defined by his touch and timing. Befitting someone who backed two legendary blues singers like Wolf and Waters, his solos are arresting, but they never steal the songs from their singers. -- Swenson
Hubert Sumlin performs as part of the Tribute to Howlin' Wolf with Eddie Shaw & the Wolf Gang and Henry Gray at 5:40 p.m. Thursday, April 28, in Popeyes Blues Tent.
Los Hombres Calientes
Volume 5: Carnival
Volume 5: Carnival, the new release from Los Hombres Calientes, is the band's latest effort to meld the Latin tinge of New Orleans music to some of the other music of the African Diaspora. This CD, 'recorded all over the world,' shows Los Hombres playing with a variety of guest artists showcasing the theme of Carnival.
On the whole, the music of this CD is excellent. The band is tight, and the rhythm section of Ricky Sebastian on drums, co-leader Bill Summers on percussion, Victor Atkins on piano, and Edwin Livingston on bass lock in the complex rhythms of 'Estan Tocando Part 1' and 'Rojo's Revenge.' Trumpeter and co-leader Irvin Mayfield's solos have become less predictable and more creative as he has matured as a player. As is the modus operandi of Los Hombres, they sample the music of many countries, including the Congo and Cuba. However, they are best on tunes that integrate New Orleans music to Afro-Cuban songs such as 'Carnival de Phunk' and 'Mardi Gras Bayou,' where the band combines Caribbean rhythms, Latin horns and Mardi Gras Indian chants.
The only problem with this record is that sometimes the large number of guest artists threatens to obscure or overwhelm the core players. The concept of incorporating so much is laudable and in keeping with the spirit of Carnival, but for the next record, it might be good for the band to strip down to the basics.
On the whole, Volume 5: Carnival is a good effort to show the musical connections between Planet New Orleans and Planet Earth and make sure everyone dances to the combination. -- Price
Los Hombres Calientes will perform at 5:50 p.m. Thursday, April 28, on the Congo Square Stage.
Better Than Ezra
A greatest-hits collection often presents a caricature of a band, presenting its most popular songs and overlooking the more personal and experimental songs in the process. In other cases, a hits collection suggests there's more to a band than there actually is, putting together all the songs worth hearing. Better Than Ezra's Greatest Hits is one of the rare hits packages that represents the band well and accurately.
By no means does this album comprise all BTE's good songs -- 'Sincerely, Me' and 'Allison Foley' come to mind immediately among the missing -- but if this were the only album by the band you heard, you'd have a good sense of its art. Despite emerging from the post-grunge moment, ultimately the band's a pop band. Kevin Griffin's gift as a songwriter and singer is his ability to evoke what it feels like to be in your late teens and early 20s, and in song after song, he captures the too-real drama and melancholy of that age, along with its vague hope and optimism. Bassist Tom Drummond and drummer Travis McNabb play exactly what's needed and not a note or stroke more, so little distracts from songs that ring true enough, which in the end is what matters most.
The band's new studio album, After the Robots, is due out at the end of May. It's harder, but not so much that it sounds like a self-conscious direction change; actually, it just sounds like what fans have come to expect, but harder. -- Alex Rawls
Better Than Ezra performs at 2:50 p.m. Friday, April 29, on the Acura Stage.
The John Butler
Sunrise Over Sea
The surface comparisons of Perth, Australia-based John Butler to Dave Matthews are obvious. Like Matthews, Butler rose to stardom on his own terms, touring constantly Down Under to ever-expanding crowds until his radio-friendly lyrics helped propel him from the underground in 2001, when his independently released album Three went platinum. Like Matthews, Butler extols jam-band virtues of good vibes, skilled musicianship, a humble and unassuming persona -- but tops Matthews with a natty set of white-boy dreadlocks.
The John Butler Trio's 2004 release, Sunrise Over Sea, is excellent, setting Butler's poetic lyrics and idiosyncratic arrangements to his deft work on acoustic, amplified lap-steel and 11-string guitars and banjo. Though clearly the front-and-center star, Butler is augmented nicely by bassist Shannon Birchall and drummer Nicky Bomba. One album highlight, 'Zebra,' cracked the Top 10 on Australia's pop charts. Yet, this album seems crafted with little notion of a hit single in mind, as the entire package -- up-tempo and down-tempo, frenetic and mellow -- mesh perfectly to portray an artist submerged in deep devotion to his craft.
Despite the strength of Sunrise Over Sea, the John Butler Trio thrives in concert; Festgoers who dig Butler's Fair Grounds set should pick up 2002's Living, which compiled the best of his 2001-2002 performances. -- Frank Etheridge
The John Butler Trio performs at 3:05 p.m. Friday, April 29, in Popeyes Blues Tent.
Marlon Jordan featuring Stephanie Jordan
You Don't Know What Love Is
(Louisiana Red Hot)
This lush recording would be better titled, 'We Know What Love Is' by the Fabulous Jordan family. That is to take nothing away from the roaming trumpet lines of the CD's standard-bearer, the stellar Marlon Jordan. He reassembles John Coltrane's version of 'My Favorite Things' in the first cut, injecting a long, wailing space-trip in the upper register, echoing sound sheets of the old man, composer and SUNO jazz educator Edward 'Kidd' Jordan. Kidd is not on this CD, although the patriarch's spirit hovers over it like a smiling cloud.
Nor would a title change imply any disrespect to the real star of these grooves. Marlon's sister, Stephanie Jordan, is a lady with a great set of pipes. Anyone who has ever romanced their honey to Johnny Adams's moody, lounge-lizard smoky vocals on 'You Don't Know What Love Is' will thrill to Stephanie's silk-between-the-fingers treatment of that song, the title cut.
There's not enough love in the world, which is why we need Marlon, Stephanie and the sibling whose fingerprints are all over this recording, Rachel Jordan -- Rachel the violinist, Rachel the executive producer, Rachel in charge of management -- and also that irrepressible reed man, Kent Jordan. Kent's sweet journey on the piccolo with stand-in trumpeter Mark Chatters on the final cut, 'Now Baby, or Never,' caps a grand march of the siblings. You Don't Know What Love Is is a keeper. -- Jason Berry
Marlon Jordan performs with Maurice Brown as part of the Trumpet Woodshed at 4:15 p.m. Friday, April 29, in the BellSouth/WWOZ Jazz Tent.
Live! Down the Road
Marcia Ball somehow managed to build a live following through the 1980s and '90s without ever releasing a live album. This long-overdue set doesn't disappoint, as longtime barnstormers 'Big Shot,' 'La Ti Da' and 'That's Enough of That Stuff' come across with no traces of fatigue. Changing her band a few years ago seems to have rejuvenated the singer-pianist, here fronting a rare double-keyboard lineup with Red Young on B3. Her natural soul comes out on a new cover of William Bell's 'Everyday Will Be Like a Holiday,' and fellow Texas blueswoman Angela Strehli shows up for added sultriness.
Fans might complain that Ball's piano is relatively low in the mix, but that may be the point. Her ivory pounding has received so much attention that the quality of her songwriting often gets overlooked. This disc sets the record straight, with the title track and 'No Ordinary Woman' putting fresh spins on classic R&B themes, and 'Louella' sporting the kind of Deep South storyline that once made Bobbie Gentry a cult hero. Besides, any Marcia Ball album with two blatant double entendres ('Right Tool for the Job' and 'Let Me Play With Your Poodle') has got to be good. -- Brett Milano
Marcia Ball performs at 6 p.m. Friday, April 29, on the Sprint/Sanyo Stage. She also plays at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, May 1, in the Popeyes Blues Tent as part of the Tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, with Maria Muldaur, Tracy Nelson, Angela Strehli, Del Ray and special guest Irma Thomas.
Johnny Sketch & the Dirty Notes
Pain, Pleasure, Fear and Opera
Listening to Johnny Sketch & the Dirty Notes' output up until now -- one live and one studio album -- it's almost impossible not to draw a parallel with the Ninth Ward's favorite f--k-ups, the Morning 40 Federation. If the Bywater boys had kept their sleazy horns, graduated NOCCA and not swum through a puddle of well bourbon and rinsed off in High Life, they might well sound like this startlingly tight gang -- the Gallant to the Morning 40's Goofus.
On this, the band's second studio long-player, the Dirty Notes takes a slight departure from the rock and brass apparent on its earlier work, wandering into more experimental territory and letting the rock 'n' roll street cred be. The sultry, stalking pace of 'Everybody Got Trouble,' with bleating baritone sax, connects the album to earlier efforts, while the reggae-influenced 'Little Girl' and the flamenco-tinged 'Sherm' -- which wanders through klezmer territory to end with a martial snare beat -- show the band's range.
The many instrumental tracks on the album showcase the band's credentials. Vocalist-guitarist Sketch has a degree in classical cello, and sax player Harry Pothead a matching one in classical violin. With that background, the group can take long, free-jazz jams, mimic a '70s James Bond theme on the track 'So Dirty,' all of which suggests that even clean-cut crack musicians can keep a sense of humor. -- Alison Fensterstock
Johnny Sketch & the Dirty Notes perform at 1:55 p.m. Saturday, April 30, on the Acura Stage.
Dirty Dozen Brass Band
This Is the Dirty Dozen Brass Band Collection
This Shout! Factory greatest-hits compilation of one of New Orleans' most enduring bands feels so fresh the collection accurately shows how the group revived the brass-band tradition: It expanded that tradition by opening it up and helping it realize its possibilities. Hatched in 1977, the DDBB immediately incorporated so many of the modern musical sensibilities that New Orleans was finally ready for: the bebop of Charlie Parker (whose 'Bongo Beep' receives a swing configuration) just as much as the funk of the Meters (whose 'Cissy Strut' sounds like it never needed that classic guitar lick after all).
Few New Orleans bands have proven so versatile while coming out of a genre so rooted in tradition, as the DDBB collaborations with everyone from Elvis Costello and Norah Jones to Widespread Panic and Modest Mouse have illustrated. But then, when you have a sousaphonist like Kirk Joseph, who can create bass lines as elastic as those coming from the thumping strings, or ripping lines from trumpeters like Gregory Davis and saxophonist Roger Lewis, anything is possible. This collection shows those possibilities, from the Montreaux Jazz Festival recording of 'Mardi Gras in New Orleans' to Marvin Gaye's 'Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),' with its ominous snare work.
The collection even features the updating of 'Just a Closer Walk With Thee' from last year's Funeral for a Friend, just another example of how this group can move forward even while looking back. -- David Lee Simmons
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band performs at 2:20 p.m. Saturday, April 30, at the Congo Square Stage.
Down the Dirt Road Blues
Listening to multi-instrumentalist Spencer Bohren, you get the sense that American roots music isn't just art or an expression of culture; it's a religion. He treats folk, country and particularly the blues with loving reverence, as if he's handling sacred texts. On Down the Dirt Road Blues, he not only shares the music, but like a missionary who wants others to find what he's found, he shares his knowledge.
The CD is an unusual one in that it only has one song on it, though the album is never dull. That song -- 'Down the Dirt Road Blues' -- is performed 10 or so different ways as Bohren illustrates the evolution of the blues by performing the one song as it grew from one person's private expression to delta blues, to Memphis jug band music, to a country song, a Chicago blues, a rock 'n' roll song and a British electric blues. Bohren's scholarly appreciation of the styles means they're all accurate and intelligent. He goes so far as to perform the versions on era-appropriate instruments, including a 19th century banjo.
The album isn't, however, just a series of versions. Instead, Bohren strings them together by treating this CD as a performed lecture, talking about the developments and social phenomena that influenced the musical changes. Smartly, his narrative extends to new traditionalists, recognizing himself as part of the cycle. Whether listeners want a class in the blues is a valid question, but there's no doubting Bohren's knowledge or passion for his subject. -- Rawls
Spencer Bohren performs at 11:15 a.m. Sunday, May 1, in the Popeyes Blues Tent.