Archive for Uncategorized

hanging with swing king

ray benson.

ray benson.

The prospect of Asleep at the Wheel devoting an entire recording project to the music of Bob Wills seems more than inevitable. It is essentially business as usual.

For the better part of 45 years, founder, bandleader, guitarist and vocalist Ray Benson and a rotating arsenal of expert instrumentalists have been torch bearers for a brand of Western swing inspired by, along with numerous country and jazz influences, the sounds Wills and his famed Texas Playboys band created in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ’40s. Benson has cut two previous Wills tribute albums with the multi-Grammy winning Asleep at the Wheel. But for the new Still the King record, Benson wanted a fiddle driven Wills swing party that would defy the ages.

“The whole idea was you would have Asleep at the Wheel as the band along with every fiddle player under the sun,” said Benson, who brings the current Wheel gang to the Lyric Theatre on Monday for the 800th taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. “We’re just trying to let people continue to experience the really great Bob Wills Western swing music.

As fiddlers go, Still the King has a bounty of them, including Lone Star sensation Carrie

Rodriguez. But that’s just the tip of guest list. The roster also enlists such country/Americana pros as Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, George Strait and Lyle Lovett (all veterans of Asleep at the Wheel’s previous Wills tribute records) as well as a healthy lineup of stylistically varied new generation acts that includes Brad Paisley, Old Crow Medicine Show, The Avett Brothers, The Devil Makes Three, Amos Lee and Kat Edmonson.

“That’s always been the purpose of these records – to get multi-generational support,” Benson said. “But we also wanted to get folks who haven’t had an opportunity to play real Western swing on a record to do that.

“We have people of five generations playing this music on this record, from one of the Quebe Sisters (the Fort Worth-based fiddle trio), who is 20 or 21 years old, right on up to Billy Briggs, one of the old Texas Playboys. He plays sax and is 92 years old.”

Just the King also chronicles one of the final recorded performances of Dawn Sears, vocalist for the all-star Nashville roots and swing troupe The Time Jumpers, who died from lung cancer in December. She and the entire Time Jumpers line-up join Asleep at the Wheel on Faded Love.

“Yeah, Dawn sang the bridge on Faded Love,” Benson said. “She just killed it. That was very sad. Of course, her husband Kenny was one of the fiddlers on the session along with Larry Franklin, my old fiddle player. There was me, Ranger Doug (from Riders in the Sky), (Louisiana fiddler) Joe Spivey, (former Asleep at the Wheel vocalist) Elizabeth McQueen. Jason (Roberts), our old fiddler, plays and sings, too. There were so many people. Ah, what a session. It’s as beautiful a version of Faded Love as you’ll hear and it’s done in the style of, I think, the most modern Western swing music.

“Then you hear the Old Crow Medicine Show (which performs the classic Tiger Rag) and you have the most basic raw version of Western swing. We’ve got this incredible array of styles and music.”

But what about Benson himself? As practiced as he is in the ways of such continually influential swing, are there elements of Wills’ music that continue to surprise and inspire?

“Absolutely. Every night. I think one of the things the audiences don’t realize – well, hopefully they do – is that this is improvisational music. So every night, I sing it a little different. I play my solos a lot different. Within the framework of the song, you get to jam quite a bit. So improvisation is not only fun for a musician, it also keeps you from being bored.

“Every night, you have to impress the people you’re playing with, impress yourself and, hopefully, entertain the audience.”

Asleep at the Wheel performs for the 800th broadcast of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at 7 p.m. March 23 at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 East Third. Tickets are $20, $30. Call (859) 280-2218 or go to

Come back tomorrow to The Musical Box for more of our interview with Ray Benson.

redefining the organ

cameron carpenter.

cameron carpenter.

Flamboyant. It is almost impossible to read a review of a Cameron Carpenter performance where the word is not utilized as a critical summation to a concert sound that is wholly revolutionary.

It’s also a tag Carpenter can’t get his head around. A pioneer of the classical organ, he has literally uprooted the instrument from its cathedral roots, modernized it into a creation of his own portable design and built a repertoire around it that runs from Bach to Bernstein to Bacharach. Depending on your viewpoint, that makes Carpenter a renaissance man or a renegade.

But flamboyant? That’s a tag he neither understands nor appreciates.

“There is a continuing suspicion that the music and the personality are different, and I’ve never understood why this should seem so,” said Carpenter, via email this week from his home in Berlin. “ ‘Flamboyance’ is, at this point, a word that has more meaning as a euphemism for queer – a state which can still ill afford to allow any euphemisms.”

The current thrust of the Julliard trained, Grammy nominated Carpenter’s career is an instrument of his own design called the International Touring Organ. A digital creation utilizing samples of traditional pipe organs (as well as such offspring as the Wurlitzer), it is a modernization of instruments housed in cathedrals around the world. In Cameron’s hands, though, the most epic of organ sounds have become portable.

“The instrument behaves exactly as we – meaning, not only me, but its visionary builders, (the Massachusetts team of) Marshall & Ogletree – envisioned, and is almost anticlimatically consistent and well-behaved in this wonderful way. With a few correctible exceptions, I seem to have not totally embarrassed myself in its design, which proposes a hybridization of the mid-century prim and poetic American classical organ with its less respectable, ruder, decadent, not-too-well preserved, off-color half-sister, the much more eccentric theater organ. Their reunion has been difficult to negotiate but I think we’ve broken ground there.

“Understanding this, I am constantly revising it, usually to add more wildness, violence, vulgarity, and randomness, which any great organ must have in spades. Glorious, holy, and majestic are illusions and, as such, squarely easy to manufacture musically and acoustically. Any old electronic organ with light-up thingummies, any old racks of pipes in whatever church balcony can imply that in a ‘good enough for anyone’ sort of way. The richness and personality of real imperfection, though, is a more challenging task.”

Last year, Carpenter put the new International Touring Organ to work in the recording studio. The result was If You Could Read My Mind, a record with a repertoire as distinctive as its sound. Alongside an adaptation of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 Prelude, Rachmaninov’s Vocalise and his own Music for an Imaginary Film are organ revisions of Leonard Bernstein’ Overture to Candide, Burt Bacharach’s Alfie, the Patsy Cline hit Back in My Baby’s Arms and the Gordon Lightfoot classic that serves as the record’s title composition.

“The International Touring Organ is, actually, totally remarkable in several regards, but it’s still just an organ. It’s a conduit to a live emotional experience. It’s not actually the organ at all that I’m interested in promoting, but, of course, the music I’m making. Here you find one of the organ’s perilous paradoxes. It’s the most impressive instrument technically and physically, but miles of pipe and wire are meaningless on their own. The scale of the machine, in league with its weighty history, is observably a stumbling block to any organist who pays the usual unskeptical obeisance to it in demeanor, repertoire, and style.”

How then, does the viewpoint of many classical enthusiasts that see modifications of performance, repertoire and instrumentation deemed traditional as a form of musical heresy enter into Carpenter’s new world order of the International Touring Organ?

“I don’t care for anyone’s opinions, good or ill, other than my own,” he said. “A funny thing: there’s a lot of lip service in the collective consciousness about how great it is not to care about other’s opinions, but in practice it’s usually received as arrogance, or antisociality. Therein comes the real test of whether you care or not, of course.”

Cameron Carpenter performs at 8 p.m. Feb. 27 at Newlin Hall, Norton Center for the Arts, 600 W. Walnut St. in Danville. Tickets: $25-$46. Call (877) 448-7469, (859) 236-4692 or got to

Carpenter will also participate in a pre-concert Gallery Talk with Centre College art professor Sheldon Tapley entitled “Reinterpreting Traditional Art Forms in Contemporary Society.” The 7 p.m. discussion will be held at the Grand Foyer of the Norton Center in conjunction with Beyond the Window, an exhibition of paintings by Zeuxis artists.

critic’s pick 260: bob dylan, ‘shadows in the night’

Bob-Dylan-ShadowsOn paper, Shadows in the Night suggests a train wreck at bay. Imagine it. Bob Dylan, the pop poet laureate of several generations – whose singing, at least from a technical standpoint, is perhaps his least admired artistic trait – interpreting an album’s worth of standards recorded by Frank Sinatra, a stylist for whom vocal finesse was everything. But that’s what we have in Shadows in the Night. Now, get a load of this. The results are pretty righteous.

The reasons are two-fold. First, there is Dylan’s vocal work, which is a real jaw-dropper. Instead of the death rattle rasp displayed on his last few albums, Dylan sings here with astonishing and wholly unexpected focus. Ol’ Blue Eyes, he ain’t. But that’s not even remotely the intention. Still, there is a clarity in Dylan’s voice during tunes like Why Try to Change Me Now and especially Autumn Leaves that has been absent since the early ’70s. To hear such purpose stretched over an entire album, you would have to go back to John Wesley Harding in 1968.

Frankly, it’s hard to fathom Dylan even had this sort of subtlety and control as a vocalist left in him. Year after year, he concerts have descended into performance sketches where singing amounted to scribbling – highly emotive and immediate scribbling, mind you, but scribbling nonetheless. Let’s be clear, though, we’re not talking Michael Buble here. Place Dylan’s noir-like take on Full Moon and Empty Arms under a microscope and you hear all kinds of technical hiccups – a flat note here, an over annunciation there and a slight overall wheeze that reminds you of who is at work. But place Shadows in the Night next to latter day Dylan classics like Time Out of Mind and it sounds like the work of an entirely different artist.

What completes the vision of Shadows in the Night is its overall mood. All 10 tunes pair the primarily orchestral arrangements of the versions cut by Sinatra (and others, like Frankie Laine, who had hits with this material in another lifetime) down to fit Dylan’s combo-sized band. Even then, the group, augmented by occasional muted brass, plays at the level of a whisper. The sole dominating instrumental voice is the pedal steel guitar of one-time BR549 member Donny Herron. But this isn’t country music either. This is late night, off-in-the-distance blues speaking in a vintage pop dialect. It is half tradition and half Twilight Zone. Then, again, who else but Dylan could make Some Enchanted Evening sound so distinctively surreal?

Maybe half the thrill of the recording is its sheer sense of surprise. For a folk monument like Dylan, who you would think have played every stylistic card dealt to him by now, Shadows in the Night is the sound of something old made remarkably new.

ozzy, mavis, pryor and the blues

keb' mo'.

keb’ mo’.

At the onset his recent BLUESAmericana album, Keb’ Mo’ offers his latest assessment of the blues.

Admittedly, the song stylist born Kevin Moore has spent much of his career refining a musical voice where the blues goes hand-in-hand with pop, soul and, yes, Americana. It’s a sound that has established Mo’ as one of the most popular and visible faces of contemporary blues music. Such a voice has won three Grammys and, come Feb. 8, could earn three more for BLUESAmericana alone.

But on the album-opening The Worst is Yet to Come, the blues turn traditional – at least, in terms of narrative. The storyline details a hapless man who loses his job, car, wife and dog in quick succession.

“Even the bedbugs up and run,” he sings over a churchy, country groove.

“Pretty much I talked to these songs,” said Mo’, who returns to Lexington for an Opera House performance on Wednesday. “I sort of had conversations with them. It was like,                                                                                                                                                                                                     ‘Alright, songs. What you want to do? Where do you want to go? Who are you? What do you want to say and how do you want to say it?’ And what is interesting is I worked backwards on this record.

“Normally you go in and make a track for the record, then you sing on top of it. But on this one, I sang first and got the tempo. The vocal was always the first piece. That way the song was the thing that was always key. I didn’t want anything to get in the way of it. I monitored everything on it so as not to compromise the story in any kind of way.”

But there is also curious inspiration at work on the song, one that borrows the blues from an unobvious source. The verse about losing the wife and dog? That was triggered by a recording from the landmark comedian Richard Pryor.

“One of his albums has a skit where his woman is leaving him and Richard is begging, ‘Baby, please don’t go.’ Then after she’s gone, the dog starts talking to him. He says, ‘Richard, I love you but I’m going with her. She feeds me three square meals a day but you’re a little tardy with the food. But I’m going to leave you a little something on the floor to remember me by.’ So that’s a song where I worked backwards so I could start a story of my own. I just love that skit so much.”

Already a bluesman with considerable crossover appeal, Mo’ found himself part of numerous tribute projects in 2014. Some were grounded in the blues, others sent him to an entirely different stylistic world.

Among the latter was MusiCares benefit honoring Ozzy Osbourne and longtime pal Jeff Greenberg in May. The event placed him onstage not with one of his blues/soul contemporaries, but with Metallica.

“I was the quietest guy there,” Mo’ said with a laugh. “The event was all about recovery from substance abuse and those kinds of things. I resonate so much with all of the spiritual concepts that come through the 12 step program. I just tend to gravitate toward those people from the spiritual side, not necessarily from the substance side. I come from the side where sometimes there is nothing you can do but to lean on the spirits to get through the things you can’t control in your life.”

More recently – and, perhaps, more expectedly – was an all-star November tribute celebrating the 75th birthday of gospel/blues empress Mavis Staples that placed Mo’ in the company of Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal and Gregg Allman, among many others.

“Oh, that was a blast. That was a super blast. When Mavis calls on you… man, that’s like going to the White House. It was during one of those times of the year that I would have rather been at home. But they said, ‘This is for Mavis.’ So I said, ‘Yes. I’m coming.’

“I mean, there is no other answer. I don’t care who you are. There is no other answer but ‘yes’ when people ask you to come out for Mavis Staples.”

Keb’ Mo’ performs at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 28 at the Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short. Tickets are $45.50. Call (859) 233-3535, (800) 745-3000 or go to

big noise from wynonna


wynonna judd.

With a career spanning three decades as one of country music’s most volcanic voices, Kentucky’s own Wynonna Judd has grown accustomed to having her way in the recording studio.

In short, she is an artist who, in the preparation of her music, is unaccustomed to be told no.

“Making a record is kind of like a blind date,” said Judd, who returns to home state turf this weekend for a performance at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville. “You’re so excited and there is such great anticipation.

“So I had been into the studio to make this music and I let the label hear it. They went, ‘Wynonna, we’ve never heard you sound better. But we’re bored.’”

Excuse me? The artist that sold millions of records in the ‘80s as part of the mother-daughter duo The Judds while becoming one of the leaders of a new traditionalist movement that commandeered country airwaves was now boring? The roaring vocalist that took on elements of soul, gospel and rock as her solo career commenced in the ‘90s was being given a thumbs down for her new music by her own record label?

“After 30 years of this love affair with the labels, it’s been up, down and all around, right? Still, they always said the same thing. But this time, it was, ‘We love your voice and the body of work. But this is too safe. It’s just too predictable.’

“I’ve never heard this before. But I hate to admit it. At our age, we can really get in a rut, whether it’s our marriage, our job or just life in general. We get on autopilot. And I’m no different. I think what I did was I went with how I was feeling, which was pretty casual. Maybe I was looking for that comfortable sweater to put on at the end of the day. But then it was like, ‘We don’t want a comfortable sweater.’ So there’s all that money and time down the drain, and I was just really frustrated. But I think artists have to get to a place where they become frustrated because after that came the good stuff.

The “good stuff” translates into loose and live sessions with Judd’s husband Cactus Moser (formerly of the ‘80s/’90s country band Highway 101) and a revised stylistic scope that won’t be viewed by anyone – from record label reps to her faithful fanbase – as routine, predictable or boring. A single from the as-yet-untitled recording, Something You Can’t Live Without, has been released through digital outlets.

“I’m not sleeping I’m so jazzed,” Judd said. “It’s like creative insomnia all over the place. The reason is we’re making the record live. We’re doing the vocals live at the same time as the music. We’re going, as they say, old school – when you get a band together and perform instead of trying to make everything perfect. We’re making the music perfectly imperfect. It’s live and it’s raw.

“Some people get so bogged down in the slick production part of recording that the music almost never becomes human. It’s a machine. I wanted this record to feel like a personal, hand-written note. So here we go. Cactus is making me get really uncomfortable in my process, and that’s really pushing me. It’s really uncomfortable at times but it was time to do things differently.”

Little of that is likely to matter, though, when Judd returns to Kentucky on Saturday. That’s when the Ashland native’s focus on record labels and stylistic expectations will shift to a considerably more homespun level of excitement.

“I’m not just saying this, but I really do feel like Miss America when I come back. I feel like I’m related to everybody. And if I’m not related to them, I’ve either lent them money or been to their house for a meal.

“It’s a very strange and wonderful thing. I get very overwhelmed. I get very emotional. But I also wouldn’t trade it for anything. I am so grateful that I have those roots. I’m grateful for the fans, too, because without them I would have to get a real job.”

Wynonna and The Big Noise perform at 8 p.m. Dec. 6 at the Norton Center for the Arts at Centre College, 600 W. Walnut St. in Danville. Tickets: $38-$75. Call (877) 448-7469, (859) 236-4692 or go to

critic’s pick 247: daniel lanois, ‘flesh and machine’

lanoisFlesh and Machine is the record long time enthusiasts of Daniel Lanois always hoped he would make. After three decades of applying his stylistic ambience to other artists – namely, albums that heightened or reignited the careers of U2, Peter Gabriel, Emmylou Harris, The Neville Brothers, Willie Nelson, Neil Young and a host of others – the producer/guitarist/song stylist now turns his sonic invention to his own music on a gorgeously textured instrumental recording.

Lanois is no stranger to solo sessions. He has been cutting them since the late ‘80s, but they have mostly yielded song oriented works rich with a mix of rootsy sparseness, rockish immediacy and atmospheric invitation. The focus of Flesh and Machine seems to be exclusively on sound – specifically, a wash of guitar, voice and contributions from a few longtime pals processed into an often orchestral whole.

In some instances, recognizing the actual source music is impossible. In others, we hear fragments of melody, beat and groove, but they are seldom sustained. It seems Lanois was intent on creating an instrumental moodpiece for the modern age that discouraged any close consideration of the sum of its parts.

The most dominate and most recognizable inspirations are the early ‘80s recordings Lanois helped design with his foremost mentor, Brian Eno.

On Two Bushas , in particularly, the music flows in as if from the cosmos – chilled and spacious at one moment, lush but cautious the next. The comparisons to the Eno years become more intentional during the album closing Forest City, a luscious, sustained celestial hum peppered by what seems like synthesized fairy dust that recalls the music of Japanese keyboardist Isao Tomita. It is a tune beautifully designed to get lost in.

But Flesh and Machine is far more than an Eno-esque tribute. After the ethereal, vocally processed album intro of Rocco (named for Rocco DeLuca, who provided the source singing), the album explodes into the The End (an ironic title for Flesh and Machine’s second track) with a squall line of ruptured guitar speak from Lanois and free form bashing from longstanding drummer/compadre Brian Blade. The album quickly cools after that, but the attack of The End provides a balance that makes the grace and calm that pervades the rest of the album all the more striking.

There are loads of other delights, as well, including the brief cosmic pop reverie of My First Love, the techno chatter of percussion and keyboards or vocals (or possibly both) on Opera and the waves of what sound like heavily processed pedal or lap steel guitar that dance about on Aquatic.

All of this makes Flesh and Machine a sort of 36 minute sonic vacation. For full effect, put your life on hold as you listen, turn off the lights and let Lanois’ fabric of earthy unrest and otherworldly calm envelop you.

critic’s pick 245: bill frisell, ‘guitar in the space age’

frisell space ageAmong Bill Frisell’s many gifts as a guitarist is the ability to provide a vibrant new voice to the roots music of his youth. In the past, that has largely been defined through jazz standards and Americana classics. Last year’s electro-chamber adventure Big Sur opened the repertoire up to a wider stylistic array of West Coast inspirations. But on the fine new Guitar in the Space Age!, perhaps his most accessible record in 15 years, Frisell expands his source material to include the pop, surf, twang and rock sounds that caught his ear as a teenager.

But anyone thinking Guitar in the Space Age! is some retro-fitting exercise needs to strap in give and this recording a full length test flight. While he doesn’t take the melodic liberties here that he has with some of his Americana explorations (2009’s Disfarmer comes to mind), the guitarist does toy with the temperament, tone and tempo of the music to make the album’s 14 songs sound like a sonic mural that is best enjoyed as a single suite as opposed to a composite of single-tune snapshots.

The warmth and color of Turn! Turn! Turn!, for instance, sounds both familiar and inviting. Fashioned far more after the jangly Rickenbacker 12 string electric colors Roger McGuinn pioneered on The Byrds’ hit 1965 version than the Pete Seeger-penned original, the song’s lyricism is elongated to build suspense for the inevitable groove that carries the tune.

Half the fun, though, is the tune’s placement on Guitar in the Space Age! between the album-opening cover of the surf classic Pipeline (which churns along at a similarly relaxed pace until the hearty beat of bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen erupts) and the wah-wah enhanced funk of the Junior Wells-popularized Messin’ With the Kid.

One of Frisell’s most trusted bandmates, pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz, maintains a consistently complimentary presence throughout the album, from the lazily luscious string harmonies provided on the Beach Boys classic Surfer Girl to the light, chiming interplay that propels The Shortest Day (one of only two Frisell originals on Guitar in the Space Age!). And hearing the two casually cut loose on Merle Travis’ grand Cannonball Rag is big fun.

Pinning down favorites here is mighty tough. On initial listens, the top picks are a tie between a loose, psychedelic take on The Kinks’ Tired of Waiting for You and an anthemic Telstar proudly rooted in groove. Both tunes signal that while Guitar in the Space Age! may work off of melodic designs from Frisell’s past, the very assured instrumental music that results is engineered for the future.

critic’s pick 241: john coltrane, ‘offering’

coltrane offeringOne enters into the wondrous new archival recording Offering with John Coltrane already at work. That’s the way the jazz titan’s music could often make you feel – like you were arriving late.

The saxophonist starts in an instant – before, in fact, the recording engineers begin to roll tape. There is no intro, no warm-up, no easing in of intent. The music begins full blown with 16 minutes of Naima rushing in like an ocean at low tide. Coltrane’s tenor solo hardly takes a breath for five-and-a-half glorious minutes then disappears under an extended exchange between pianist (and wife) Alice Coltrane and drummer Rashied Ali. He returns in the final minutes for the only reading of the piece’s hymn-like theme, which is played as a brief coda.

Though a vital protégé throughout the performance that follows, Coltrane’s tenor sax partner in crime Pharoah Sanders sits Naima out. Can you blame him?

Offering has been available in bite-sized, bootlegged forms for years. But this new release presents us with the entire 90 minute set. Recorded on a Friday evening in a half-empty Mitten Hall at Temple University in November 1966 (eight months before Coltrane’s death at age 40), Offering is presented as less of a jazz concert and more of a spiritual affirmation.

A 26 minute reading of the 1964 ballad Crescent emphasizes, in somewhat fractured fashion, the full strengths of this unique ensemble. The warm glow of Coltrane’s tenor sax lead briefly states the tune’s luscious melody before surrendering to a scorched earth solo by Sanders. Then a subsequent piano excursion by Alice Coltrane, presented with a lighter variation of the modal mischief summoned years earlier in Coltrane’s quartet by McCoy Tyner, invites four guest percussionists to the spiritual rumble.

But the stuff of legend here is Leo. Opening with a seemingly traditional, boppish run, the music becomes so combustible Coltrane actually sings in a wordless, relenting wail that seems to strive for the notes his horn can’t reach or articulate.

There are sonic limitations to Offering’s source material. As the performance was set up with enough microphones to suit a primitive radio broadcast and not a fully produced recording that would surface nearly half a century later, the sound mix heavily favors whatever soloist was at hand. You can readily hear instruments being quickly amped up and faded out manually. That means guest bassist Sonny Johnson is all but lost outside of his contemplative solo at the onset of My Favorite Things.

But when the mighty Coltrane gains the spotlight with that spectacular tenor tone, you can practically sense the steam rising from the music. That makes Offering an exquisite remembrance of a jazz colossus conversing with the spirits. His language is his own, but all are invited to share in the rapture that ensues.

critic’s pick 339: billy childs: ‘map to the treasure: reimagining laura nyro’

map to the treasureWith the possible exception of Carole King, there was no more poetic or impassioned piano-based songstress during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s than Laura Nyro. A child of The Bronx, her songs were vivid reflections of her inner self, her New York surroundings and less definable plains of social and spiritual awakening. While pop acts of decades past (The Fifth Dimension, Three Dog Night) had hits with her tunes, Nyro herself enjoyed little by way of commercial visibility. Today, 17 years after her death, her extraordinary recordings – especially career defining works like 1968’s Eli and the Thirteenth Confession and 1969’s New York Tendaberry – are ripe for rediscovery.

Enter Los Angeles pianist and arranger Billy Childs, along with an A-list of female vocal stylists to resurrect one of the most underappreciated songbooks in pop history.

Childs’ approach to Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro is not subtle. The album sports a mix of orchestral and jazz inspired arrangements that recall the darker, less ornamental music of Steely Dan. Of the 10 guest vocalists spotlighted, six are paired with celebrated male instrumentalists. The honored soprano Renee Fleming, for example, is matched with genre-hoping cellist Yo-Yo Ma for a wistful, wintry New York Tendaberry. Here, strings and Childs’ piano leads weave in and around the singing like gusts of wind before surrendering to luscious orchestration.

More unexpected is the pairing of blues-soul belter Susan Tedeschi with jazz saxophonist Steve Wilson. Both mingle with broader orchestral strokes on Gibsom Tree, creating a nocturnal, noir-like feel, especially during a pensive jazz interlude Child places in the middle of the arrangement. Tedeschi, though, has seldom sounded more elegant and commanding.

A few of the divas do just fine without a guy backing them up. Veteran R&B songstress Lisa Fischer (of Rolling Stones and 20 Feet from Stardom fame) sounds enchanting against hushed orchestration during Map to the Treasure’s torchy title tune. Equally compelling is contemporary R&B star Ledesi who helps Childs rekindle the joy, groove and pure pop innocence of Stoned Soul Picnic.

But the show stealer is the album-closing And When I Die, which pairs Alison Krauss with her longtime Union Station mate (and former Lexingtonian) Jerry Douglas. Possibly the best known of Nyro’s songs (it was a major 1969 hit for Blood, Sweat & Tears), And When I Die lets Childs’ arrangement of piano and strings enhance the eerie chill of Krauss’ whispery vocals. Douglas’ wiry dobro solo then adds rustic, earthy candor.

What results is not just a stately requiem for the uneasy soul Krauss sings of who yearns to leave this world “naturally.” It is also a gorgeous revitalization of the lyrical and musical brilliance that surrounded Nyro’s sublime music.

critic’s pick 337: johnny winter, ‘step back’

Johnny-Winter-Step-BackAt the height of his performance powers, Johnny Winter was the baddest of the bad – a wicked Texas guitarslinger equally versed in the blues traditions of his home state and the electric boogie offshoots that ignited once that music found its way to Chicago. But what made Winter truly distinctive was his ability to awaken white, rock ‘n’ roll schooled audiences to the lessons of the blues.

Step Back is Winter’s final recording – an album completed and planned for release this week well before the guitarist’s death in July at age 70. Dominated by all-star jams and duets featuring pals like Eric Clapton, Brian Setzer and Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, the record presents the air of a primo blues and boogie party, a setting established in full by the brass and sass of the Blues Brothers Horns on the album-opening cover of the Ray Charles hit Unchain My Heart. Here, as is the case throughout Step Back, the thrill doesn’t come from the all-star support (if anything, the horns tend to overstate the mood). The excitement comes instead from Winter, his voice weathered by age but his guitarwork as forceful as ever. It’s as if his resolute blues attitude is shaking a fist at the heavens, the sign of a defiant spirit that remains far more youthful than the body and voice that contain it.

The celebrity jams are all great fun, even if a few of them seem tailored more for the guest contributor than the guest of honor, like the raunch ‘n’ roll of Long Tall Sally with Leslie West and the swing-style Okie Dokie Stomp with Setzer. But the solemn slow-blues dynamic of Sweet Sixteen with Joe Bonamassa is a genuine surprise.

On the other hand, a meeting with another elder Texas blues intellect, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, on Where Can You Be hits the bullseye with a patient, smoldering blues roll that seriously satisfies with its unhurried Lone Star groove.

Not surprisingly, the high point comes when Winter shuts down the guest list to take on Son House’s Death Letter by himself. Every vocal blemish and blur is worn like a badge of honor here against the lone, wiry accompaniment of steel guitar. The sparseness is so complimentary to the sage-like demeanor of the performance that you almost wish Winter would have cut an entire album of solo acoustic tunes.

Don’t for a second think Step Back is a definitive Johnny Winter record. For that, scroll back to any of the 12 albums he cut with the Columbia/Blue Sky labels between 1969 and 1980 (the most recommended being 1970’s Second Winter and 1977’s Nothin’ But the Blues) or the mammoth boxed set True to the Blues, released earlier this year, that covers those records.

Consider Step Back, instead, as the bruised but regal victory lap of a mammoth blues career.

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