Hundred-word Reviews for January 2020

Every so often – pretty often, in fact – I find a stack of CDs has accumulated on my desk. They’ve made the cut as albums deemed worthy of sharing with my readers. In the space of just one hundred words, I endeavor to convey what’s noteworthy or even special about these releases. Each of them deserves more words, more attention, and your ears.

The Jazz Defenders – Scheming
The band name is your first clue that you’re in for something special. It conjures thoughts of Art Blakey, the Crusaders and other classics of bebop and hard bop. But better yet, it delivers, and in a big way. This Bristol, England outfit understands what made hard bop a force in jazz back in the ’50s and ’60s, and it has unlocked the key to bringing that excitement and style to the 21st century with – wait for it – new, original material. If you dig Horace Silver and Cannonball Adderley, you’ll be thrilled to discover this group.

District 97 – Screens
When this Chicago progressive rock band landed a record deal and released its debut, 2010’s Hybrid Child, it was something of a novelty. Lead vocalist Leslie Hunt was well known, but not in the prog idiom; she had been a semi-finalist on American Idol, of all things. A decade and several albums later, the novelty has worn off. What’s left behind is a superb and inventive group that makes aggressive music with all the hairpin curves in which prog fans delight, fronted by Hunt’s commanding voice and presence. Balancing instrumental ambition and accessibility, Screens continues the band’s forward, er, progression.

The Eminent Stars – Bumpin’ On
Speaking of evocative names (See the Jazz Defenders above), this outfit from Amsterdam (signed to a German label) has chosen for its second album a title that brings to mind Wes Montgomery. But the group’s sound has more to do with the funky vibe of Booker T & the MGs, the Meters and other southern-fried r&b. More than six years passed between Sittin’ In and this new set, but it’s been worth the wait. The songs are exciting, and vocalist (and songwriter) Bruce James delivers the gritty soul feel that the arrangements demand. European sensibility and Southern soul combine beautifully.

Martin Barre – Live in NY
It’s a comparatively rare phenomenon when the non-singing lead guitarist of a well-known band with an iconic leader ventures off on his own and finds success. Longtime Jethro Tull guitarist Martin Barre has done so, and manages to have it both ways: he delivers his own arrangements of classic Tull material, but he also showcases songwriting skill and instrumental firepower he couldn’t display within the context of Jethro Tull. This set shines a bright light on Barre’s many assets; the DVD lets you watch it all, and the pair of impeccably-recorded CDs captures the live intensity of the four-piece band.

Jason Miles / Kind of New – Black Magic
Keyboardist and bandleader Jason Miles has impressive jazz credentials; he was a key figure in Miles Davis’ late-period works. The music he makes today doesn’t have Miles Davis’ iconoclasm; instead it focuses on melody and accessibility, two welcome characteristics. Black Magic certainly isn’t Weather Channel lite jazz, but it has in common with that a warm and inviting vibe. Top-notch, impeccable musicianship abounds, and there’s a simmering energy that lets the listener know these cats can do most anything they want musically. The liner note hype calling it a “masterpiece” is a bit much, but it’s a fine record indeed.

Albare – Albare Plays Jobim
Antonio Carlos Jobim was a pivotal figure in music; the Brazilian composer brought his country’s take on jazz to the wider world. His collaborations with Frank Sinatra, Stan Getz and others defined the jazz of an era. Many of his compositions would go on to become standards, and his influence is far-reaching. On this release, Morrocan-born guitarist Albare inventively tackles the Jobim songbook: his lean, melodic guitar lines are supported by a sweeping string section. The core trio – guitar, bass, drums – is superb, but it’s Joe Chindamo’s string arrangements that take Albare Plays Jobim to the next level.

Proper Ornaments – Mission Bells
When I reviewed Proper Ornaments’ Six Lenins a mere eight months ago, I described their music by name-checking Echo and the Bunnymen and Crowded House. Listening to Mission Bells, I honestly don’t know what I was thinking: the approach here does have some surface similarities to the Dream Syndicate and the Church (the latter another band I mentioned in that review) but there’s a spare-stripped-down and close-in feel to the songs that eschews production flourishes; it’s safe to assume they would sound exactly like this playing in your living room. Mission Bells delivers a moody yet welcome kind of melancholy.

The Claudettes – High Times in the Dark
Eclecticism for its own sake is an exercise in futility; it may win the artist gee-whiz points, but in and of itself, it’s not especially entertaining. But what the Claudettes do is truly special: their music can’t be described in a few words, and it’s so damn good that one doesn’t even want to try. Let the music speak for itself. You’ll hear echoes of blues, r&b, punk and postwar jazz (especially in Johnny Iguana’s superlative piano), and it all rocks with an undeniably sophisticated, sexy swagger. “24/5” has the kind of feel that the best James Bond themes deliver.

The Weeklings – 3
With the exception of the transcendentally wonderful Spongetones, I view Beatle-ish acts with a strong skepticism. Leave that stuff to The Rutles, I tend to think. But there are exceptions, and the Weeklings land in that category. Their songs have the breezy inventiveness of early-mid Fab Four, but the tunes are (for the most part) original compositions. Creamy vocal harmonies, delightfully busy bass lines and stick-in-the-memory guitar licks make 3 a fun listen. Oddly, the pair of covers here (Beatles’ “Baby You’re a Rich Man,” Easybeats’ “Friday on my Mind”) are the least memorable parts of the otherwise excellent album.

Rich Nelson Band – Twenty Twenty Hearing
I first dug into the music and songwriting of Rich Nelson this time last year, when he released Ever Since Now. With musical values that draw from the best of melodic rock of the ’70s, the Michigan native made music that exhibited the timeless quality of enduring rock. Twenty Twenty Hearing, his latest effort – essentially a one-man project but credited to the Rich Nelson Band – picks up where that collection left off, delivering memorable riffage in the context of solid songwriting. I hear echoes of early Foreigner, Bad Co. and other no-bullshit rockers of the classic rock era.