Capsule Reviews for February 2024: New Releases in Jazz, Soul and Blues

Jazz, soul and blues this time around. All well worth a spin, they are.

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram – Live in London
Having only just celebrated his 24th birthday days ago, Clarksdale, Mississippi-born Christone “Kingfish” Ingram has already established himself at the forefront of the new generation’s blues artists. On the heels of a pair of superb releases – his 2019 debut and the Grammy-winning 662, Kingfish returns with Live in London, an album that presents his gifts in the best context possible. Because while his studio work is excellent, it’s in the live performance format where he truly shines brightest. With sixteen songs across two discs, this set serves as an audio document of an artist in his prime. Drawing from both studio sets, Live in London showcases the breadth of Kingfish’s stylistic palette. The funky and fiery “Not Gonna Lie” (from 662) is both a highlight and representative of what’s on offer here: strong tunes and searing lead guitar work, backed expertly by a rock-solid bass/drums/keys ensemble. And owing to the flawless quality of both the audio and the performances, Live in London can serve as an intro for the uninitiated.

Chris O’Leary – The Hard Line
There’s something truly special about a wailing harp that takes the blues into the stratosphere. And Chris O’Leary is an exemplar of that quality. On The Hard Line, he services up a soulful slab of down-home blues, with scorching lead guitar, honking horns and beefy backing from a rollicking rhythm section. This isn’t groundbreaking music: you’ve heard the chord progressions countless times. And the arrangements don’t break beyond the traditional Chicago-styled blues idiom. But then, when the music and delivery is as tasty as it is on The Hard Line, none of that is needed. Highlights include “Lost My Mind,” a tune that will transport the listener back to the jump blues and swing of postwar America. “Ain’t That a Crime” is reminiscent of Stax-flavored soul-blues, with some entrancing Leslie-fied lead guitar. And the slinky “Lay These Burdens Down” demonstrates that O’Leary can simmer and sizzle. Drawn from an interview with O’Leary, Bob Margolin’s liner note piece is a nice touch, too. Recommended.

Sam Ross – Live at the Mira Room, Vol. II
This intimate set may have been recorded live onstage, but the audience is so obviously enraptured by the performance that they keep silent until each solo run is completed. A trio of Ross (on piano and sometimes Rhodes) with bassist Simba Distis (upright and electric bass) and drummer Dr. Mimi Mured runs through five Ross originals. Likely drawn from multiple performances (that would explain the instrument switch-ups) this EP nonetheless feels like a single set. And a very good one at that: with a you-are-there vibe, Live at the Mira Room, Vol. II is thrilling jazz that will appeal to fans of Vince Guaraldi and (as the blazing, right on the edge of dissonant Rhodes runs of “Dear Chick” suggest) Chick Corea. And don’t miss that track’s bass solo.

Marcel Smith – From My Soul
Something about the cover art had me thinking that From My Soul would be a gospel record. Alas – and to my delight – no. While gospel certainly informs the style of Smith’s music, here it’s that genre’s fervor and passion, applied instead to secular songs. As soulful as you can get, this is a supremely classic-sounding sweet soul session. With sympathetic production from the esteemed Kid Andersen at his famed Greaseland USA studio, Smith’s second album for Little Village Foundation is a winner. Listeners will be forgiven for thinking that “If You Miss Me” is a recording from a half-century ago; only its crystalline fidelity gives it away as a new recording. But on tunes like the reading of Joe Liggins’ “Drunk,” Smith displays a funky, modern-day (well, 1970s) sensibility. His reading of the soul classic “Turn Back the Hands of Time” is a delight as well. Half originals and half well-chosen covers, From My Soul will touch your soul.

Dave Stryker – Groove Street
Swinging jazz with tasteful yet energetic electric guitar at its core, Groove Street is the latest in an unbroken of excellent releases from Dave Stryker. His lean ‘n’ clean fretwork is melodic and tasty, and supported ably by his band mates Jared Gold (organ) and drummer McClenty Hunter. Tenor sax man Bob Mintzer augments the trio on this sprightly set, an appealing mix of Styrker originals, Mintzer tunes and classics from Wayne Shorter (“Infant Eyes”) and Eddie Harris (the incredibly funky “Cold Duck Time”). Per jazz custom, everybody gets his turn in the spotlight, and nothing is wasted. The ensemble deftly balances subtlety and strength.