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big noise from wynonna

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 www.nortoncenter.com.

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.

mountain climbing

town mountain

bobby britt, phil barker, robert greer and jesse langlais of town mountain at natasha’s in june. herald-leader staff photo by rich copley.

Sometimes you can’t help but notice the growth of an enterprise.

Take for instance, the rapidly expanding visibility and acceptance of Town Mountain, the tirelessly rustic bluegrass troupe out of Asheville, North Carolina that has come to think of Lexington as something of a performance home away from home. Sporting a sound rooted in string band tradition but with a fearsome instrumental drive that makes its music anything but a museum piece, the band has watched its audiences grow younger, larger and more feverishly enthusiastic.

Vocalist, guitarist and frontman Robert Greer got an inkling of Town Mountain’s mounting appeal two years ago when the quintet conquered the mighty bluegrass task of selling out a Seattle club on a Tuesday night.

“That was the first time I really noticed where things were going,” Greer said. “That’s really becoming more and more the way for us and I think that’s just due to us sticking around. I have great confidence in our band, in our songwriting and in our presentation. But a big part of it is hanging around, being persistent and not worrying about what’s going on around us.

“So, yeah, growth is a trend that is happening for us. And we’re welcoming it.”

Such growth has been on vivid display in Lexington over the past 18 months. Town

Mountain introduced itself through several intimate shows at Willie’s Locally Known, a pair of well-received sets at the 2013 Festival of the Bluegrass and a trio of sold out performances at Natasha’s culminating with a Best of Bluegrass kickoff in June with Lonesome River Band. Town Mountain’s Thursday return brings it to Cosmic Charlie’s for the first time.

The change in performance venues is quite purposeful. Despite being a club known primarily for showcasing indie rock acts, Cosmic Charlie’s wasn’t simply a larger hall for Town Mountain to play, it was a move away from the sit-down atmosphere of previous performances into a setting that encouraged dancing, audience involvement and a bit more volume.

“We all feel like the band is more in its element whenever we’re able to let it all hang out and create more of a dancing quality environment,” Greer said. “I think a lot of our music lends itself to that. That’s why we’re stoked to play Cosmic Charlie’s because we’re going to plug in and be able to get above the crowd noise a lot better than a place where we’re playing strictly into the microphones.”

Also marking this latest growth spurt for Town Mountain was the Tuesday release of the band’s first concert recording, Live at the Isis. Admittedly, much of the unvarnished excitement generated on the 10-song set comes from the band playing on home turf in Asheville. But the music also speaks to the performance direction Greer referred to. Mandolinist Phil Barker’s Lawdog sounds like White Lightning-era George Jones with an Appalachian makeover, Greer’s Up the Ladder could pass for Jerry Lee Lewis on a bluegrass bender and the ferocious instrumental Tarheel Boys taps directly into the speed, agility and drive that fuels Town Mountain’s overall sound.

“All of this music just evolves,” Greer said. “We bring a brand new take when we start playing it out live, so it evolves naturally. The more times we play a song, the more we figure out something that works dynamically. Then we’re going to work that into the music, too. It’s cool. Tarheel Boys in particular, sounds really good on the live record. It’s a high energy number.”

It also reflects a sound increasingly rare in a bluegrass world that often favors the spit-and-polish of modern country songwriting over the raw fervor of roots driven string music.

“Well, that’s good for us, I guess, because we’re going to continue doing what we do.”

Town Mountain performs at 10 tonight at Cosmic Charlie’s, 388 Woodland Ave. Admission is $12. Call (859) 309-9499 or go to www.cosmic-charlies.com.

critic’s pick 333: crosby, stills, nash & young: ‘csny 1974′

CSNY74When Crosby, Stills and Nash began their second set at the Louisville Palace last spring, Graham Nash remarked that there once was a time the group would devote intermissions to tanking up on whatever chemical stimulant was at their disposal. Today, he said, the singers spend concert breaks texting their grandchildren.

Well, on a lavish new archival set called CSNY 1974, we are ushered back to “once was a time” – specifically, to when a summer tour by the trio augmented by sometimes co-hort Neil Young was the year’s biggest concert attraction. But being a rock success story in the ‘70s meant a lifestyle beset with indulgence. Add in the acrimony that seemed to flow in and out of the foursome at the time, and you had a party that was often on the verge of burning to the ground. A proposed studio album, rumored to be so complete that a cover shot had even be taken, was scrapped and the copious amount of concert tapes many had hoped would surface s as a live album were indefinitely shelved.

Four decades to the month later we have CSNY 1974, a fascinating and flawed chronicle of the lost summer when Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young let the biggest folk-rock franchise of its day go down in flames.

Nash oversaw the restoration, so from a sonic standpoint the whole set – available as a single disc sampler and a comprehensive multi-disc CD/DVD/Blu Ray package – sounds like a dream, especially during the acoustic performances that make up the second disc of the larger edition. And, frankly, from a performance standpoint, things sound remarkably more vital than history has let us believe. Stephen Stills sounds pretty uncontained vocally throughout, however. He largely slurs, wails and moans his way through many tunes, especially the lovely Change Partners. Similarly, the group’s usually stately harmonies often possess a ragged, barroom quality.

But there is a lot to relish here. David Crosby, for all of his fabled excesses, sings like a bird with clear, effortless expression on chestnuts like Guinnevere and The Lee Shore and while conjuring the electric fire of Déjà Vu.

To perhaps no one’s surprise, though, the show stealer is Young. CSNY 1974 is loaded with seldom performed gems, especially from his landmark On the Beach album that would be released just after the tour’s conclusion. From the social rant of Revolution Blues (“I won’t attack you but I won’t back you”) to the coarse childhood remembrance Don’t De Denied (from 1973’s criminally out-of-print Times Fades Away) to the comparatively gentle sway of the unreleased Hawaiian Sunrise (the rumored title tune to the aborted CSNY studio record), Young sounds frightful and exact as he kicks a hearty dose of sand into the face of the boozy summer joyride that is CSNY 1974.

critic’s pick 332: keith jarrett/charlie haden, ‘last dance’

last danceLast Dance is many intended things -.an album of understated but extraordinary beauty, a subtle and soulful conversation by two jazz titans – Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden – whose friendship extends back nearly a half century and a loving representation of a jazz standard’s seemingly limitless interpretative possibilities.

It is also something fully unexpected. Released on June 17, the album stands as the final recording prominently featuring the great bassist Haden to be released in his lifetime. He died on July 11 at age 76 of complications from post-polio syndrome.

How noble it would be to view this delicate, spirited music without factoring in Haden’s passing. Maybe you can do that. I couldn’t.

The hushed finesse of Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin’s My Ship, for instance, takes on an unavoidably bittersweet quality. That doesn’t detract from the beauty of one of Jarrett’s most delicately graceful recorded performances or the way Haden follows him like a shadow until his own playing on the double bass – a sound that absolutely sings – is allowed to solo.

The same feeling emerges when Jarrett glides serenely into Rodgers and Hammerstein’s It Might As Well Be Spring, where Haden’s feathery bass punctuation serves as a dance partner as much as a duet voice.

Last Dance was recorded during the same round of 2007 sessions that gave us another Jarrett/Haden duets album, Jasmine, in 2011. So finality wasn’t on either player’s mind when this music was recorded. What surfaces instead is a reflection of the musical camaraderie that began in the ‘60s and hit its first pinnacle with several ‘70s collaborations for the European ECM label (which also issued Last Dance). The communication between the two players on the new album is so heightened and exact you can almost picture them playing this music in your living room.

Jarrett, of course, is an old hand with this stuff. Aside from his famed solo piano concerts centered exclusively on improvisation, he has led a resourceful trio with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette for over 25 years devoted largely to new explorations of jazz standards. But listen to the solo bass blues-speak Haden creates here on Everything Happens to Me and you discover his ability to unlock the lyrical bounty of a standard is equally authoritative.

Then, of course, we have the coincidental application of the titles. Could anyone have imagined Haden’s final album would bear the name Last Dance? Or that its closing tune, would be a pastoral interpretation of Gordon Jenkins’ Goodbye? Or, for that matter, that the next-to-last song would be an equally lovely version of Cole Porter’s Every Time We Say Goodbye?

It all makes for the most touching of parting shots – the kind that was never intended to be one.

critic’s pick 330: jack bruce, ‘silver rails’ and ginger baker, ‘why?’

jack bruceFor a surprisingly brief period in the late ‘60s, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker were the rhythm section for the juggernaut trio Cream. Since then, their respective musical careers have sped past the half-century mark to appropriate numerous shades of jazz and worldbeat music. Still, that sliver of time when the two shook the world with the volcanic blues psychedelia of Cream – a sound that cemented the stardom of the trio’s other member, Eric Clapton – will forever tower over the solo music of Bruce and Baker.

While two recent recordings – Bruce’s first in 10 years, Baker’s newest in 14 – make such comparisons fruitless, ghosts from the past, albeit unexpected ones, are at work.

Bruce, 70, possesses a still-hearty vocal tenor that references his Cream legacy. You hear it within the thick, pervasive melody of Hidden Cities and the rumbling bass groove that undercuts Rusty Lady with longtime pal Robin Trower handling guitar duties. Similarly, Bruce’s longtime lyricist Pete Brown (their alliance stems back to the Cream years) contributes to seven of Silver Rails’ 10 tunes.

But Bruce is no nostalgist. If Cream fans some of the flames on Silver Rails, Spectrum Road, the all-star fusion combo the bassist recorded with in 2o12, sets the house on fire. That group’s keyboardist, John Medeski (of Medeski Martin & Wood) is all over Silver Rails. He enhances the light dub-style framework of Candlelight while Spectrum Road drummer Cindy Blackman Santana drives the ragged, rockish No Surrender.

Best of all, the new album’s blend of retro vocabulary, fresh instrumental fire and vocal color sounds surprisingly vigorous. It makes this rock elder sound vital and, at times, even youthful.

Ginger-Baker-WhyBaker, 74, has zero interest in Cream or in rock ‘n’ roll on Why? The scare-the-children portrait that serves as album cover art practically serves as a No Trespassing sign for any would- be rock archivist. Instead, Baker follows the jazz and African roots sounds that have stood as his prime post-Cream preferences.

The repertoire takes few chances. Ain Temouchant was first featured on one of Baker’s finest jazz records, 1994’s Going Back Home (with Bill Frisell and Charlie Haden) while the traditional Nigerian tune Aiko Biaye is revisited from 1970s’s Ginger Baker’s Air Force. But on Why? they are retooled into lean, spacious, unhurried rhythmic exercises with one time James Brown saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis.

Throughout the album, Ellis plays off of Baker’s largely steadfast fills in a way that recalls the more meditative late ‘60s records of sax giant Pharaoh Sanders. But percussionist Abass Dodoo often lights a greater fire under Baker, as shown during their extended drum duet on Aiko Biaye.

Mostly, though, Why? serves as a set of loose, unvarnished jazz jaunts with the Cream decidedly skimmed off.

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