THE DOZENS: MUSICAL AMERICANA by Ed Leimbacher



         Jazz Americana, artwork by Suzanne Cerny


Shortly after World War II ended, Frank Sinatra asked in a song, “What is America to me?” He gave one answer (“All races and religions”), and several more will be found in the short reviews that follow below.

The year 1946 was a mighty time. The U.S. had survived Depression, Hitler, the death of Roosevelt, and national indecision. The Axis had yielded, and the A-bombs been dropped. Women were working and Black men were pilots; Jewish survivors in Europe—and Japanese detainees in America—were freed from the camps, and immigrants made welcome once more. The Cold War was a-borning rather than settled in. Big bands were struggling, and BeBop was becoming the rage.

In fact, America’s roots music was sweeping the world, especially the prominent branch called Jazz, cited abroad as one of our nation’s few gifts to international culture. That syncopated music, which had come from slavery’s descendents (as they adapted African song and rhythm to Western instruments), had grown so as to begin challenging Classical music for space in the concert halls. (Dance halls, where Swing’s version of Jazz had thrived, were fading with the bands.)

At such a moment, who was more patriotic, then—Duke Ellington or Irving Berlin? Henry Wallace or George Lincoln Rockwell? Norman Rockwell or Joe McCarthy? Was patriotism, soon to be demanded of all citizens by HUAC and the Red Scare, “the last refuge of a scoundrel,” as Samuel Johnson had remarked? Or is it actually the dilemma faced by every generation: “My country, right or wrong” vs. “What’s wrong with my country?” Nearly a hundred years ago, the composer of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” chose Kate Smith to emote his heartfelt ditty “God Bless America”—but all these years later, after wiretapping and waterboarding, Katrina’s sorrows and an unwarranted war, guitarist Pat Metheny quietly asks, “Is This America?”

Jazz musicians have been weighing in on such issues for decades; and in honor of the first day of the nation’s 234th year, here are 12 sample responses, demonstrating the varied patriotism of soloists and vocalists and rhythm sections playing All-American Jazz.

Happy Birthday, dear old U.S. of A. It’s half-note past the blue hour—the dawn’s early light yet again.


Liberation Music Orchestra: America the Beautiful (Medley: America the Beautiful/Lift Every Voice and Sing/Skies of America)

Track

America the Beautiful (Medley: America the Beautiful/Lift Every Voice and Sing/Skies of America)

Group

Liberation Music Orchestra

CD

Not in Our Name (Verve B0004949-02)

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Musicians:

Charlie Haden (bass), Carla Bley (piano), Miguel Zenon (alto sax), Curtis Fowlkes (trombone), Chris Cheek (tenor sax), Tony Malaby (tenor sax), Steve Cardenas (guitar), Matt Wilson (drums),

Michael Rodriguez (trumpet) Seneca Black (trumpet), Ahnee Sharon Freeman (French horn), Joe Daley (tuba)

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Composed by Samuel A. Ward & Katherine Lee Bates/James Weldon Johnson & J. Rosamond Johnson/Ornette Coleman

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Recorded: Rome, July 19-22, 2004

Lmo_not_in_our_name_1

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

"Oh beautiful for spacious skies," but post-9/11 the skies of America seemed less safe; and the honorably intended "Not on my watch" led to a misbegotten war and the international anti-war slogan "Not in Our Name." This became the title of Liberation Music Orchestra's 2005 CD—a truly patriotic and American album, though not in a form Conservatives and hardliners are likely to appreciate.

LMO has retained its staunch political stance even though the usual "free" blowing has become more mellow, and any "edge" now resides in the players' potent solos rather than within the, well, beautiful ensemble passages. All is solidly evident in the 17-minute "America the Beautiful" that serves as the album's centerpiece. Carla Bley's piano plays the familiar melody straight, then moves into discordant Kurt Weill territory that the orchestra gleefully joins. Altoist Miguel Zenón and trumpeter Michael Rodriguez are two splendid voices subsequently raised in song, while tuba guy Joe Daley wheezes like a drunken trombone up in the stratosphere. Some serious free noise fuses with Bley's pointilliste flickering and drummer Matt Wilson's shifting-but-steady accents as the band lurches and marches on. This "America" is fraught with periphrasis from sea to shining C.

Reviewer: Ed Leimbacher


Ornette Coleman: Skies of America

Track

Skies of America

Artist

Ornette Coleman (alto sax), London Symphony Orchestra (orchestra), and David Measham (conductor)

CD

Skies of America (Columbia/Legacy CK 63568)

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Musicians:

Ornette Coleman (alto sax), London Symphony Orchestra (orchestra), David Measham (conductor).

Composed by Ornette Coleman

.

Recorded: London, April 17-20, 1972

Skies_of_america

Rating: 88/100 (learn more)

Ornette Coleman's approach to playing the "vierd" blues that resulted from "harmolodic movement of forms" was an amazing mix of folk tales and angel voices, ramblin' changes and tears inside. But aside from Free Jazz, could he create extended compositions? A major opportunity came when Columbia agreed to record Skies of America, which was subsequently partitioned into 21 shorter sections by the producer (with Ornette's apparent approval and his sub-titles), and with the theme and title section placed right at the beginning.

The skies were definitely dark and turbulent. In fact the first half of the entire album coughs and shrieks, all hard-driving percussion and harsh straining strings. Only in the second half, when Ornette's own keening alto joins in soloing over the orchestra, is there a sense of relief, as the strange beauty of his unique conception comes to the fore. But back at the beginning, the opening 2-plus minutes, the orchestra cried out unanswered. And the entire botched event (which saw some sections omitted due to time constraints and his quartet barred from participation by England's visiting musician rules) rendered Coleman's angst-ridden, non-ethereal lament for alto and orchestra incomplete. Sadly, these skies are just not blues enough.     

Reviewer: Ed Leimbacher


Gene Harris (featuring Stanley Turrentine): The Battle Hymn of the Republic

Track

The Battle Hymn of the Republic

Artist

Gene Harris (piano)

CD

The Gene Harris Trio Plus One (Concord Jazz CCD-4303)

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Musicians:

Gene Harris (piano), Stanley Turrentine (tenor sax), Ray Brown (bass), Mickey Roker (drums).

Composed by Julia Ward Howe

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Recorded: live at the Blue Note, New York, November-December 1985

Albumcovergeneharristrioplusone

Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

Julia Ward Howe wrote the most spirited and rousing of our "national" anthems. Her Civil War foot-lifter, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," quickly morphed from campfire song and derisive march (once "John Brown's Body") to warrior hymn, but the right hands or voice (Ray Charles or Aretha Franklin, for example) later could make it sound like a spiritual or gospel number ("Be swift my soul to answer him, be jubilant my feet"), most certainly when pummeled into believing submission, as in this live version. (The original LP left the titular "Plus One" unidentified for contractual reasons, but listeners quickly understood that the wailing sax belonged to Stanley Turrentine.)

Positioned at the end of a soulful, happily up-tempo album (check Gene's smiling face in the cover photo), this 8-minute romp syncopates and revitalizes the abolitionist lady's song. Harris starts the performance mysteriously, tune and direction hidden in a slow, bluesy feint, but then swiftly advances (willing volunteers Brown and Roker joining up) into a series of hard-charging, drive-the-keys choruses – Battle Hymn swing and gospel shout – that trample the grapes of wrath and set the stage for some tenor fire. "Mr. T" leaps in to blow several more rounds in staccato, prayer-meeting mode, till the united four move on out and then down in a braking, slowing, quieting fade that finally … halts, as the witnesses whoop and holler.

Maybe the best irony is that Howe's song is still often played at the close of Republican Party Conventions (which occasioned the Paul Desmond number called "Battle Hymn of the Republican"), and that Gene beats the naysayers simply by wielding his democratic piano.

Reviewer: Ed Leimbacher


Frank Sinatra: The House I Live In

Track

The House I Live In (That's America To Me)

Artist

Frank Sinatra (vocals)

CD

Frank Sinatra, Volume 2 - "The House I Live In" - Early Encores: 1943-'46 (aka Unheard Frank Sinatra, Vol. 2) (Vintage Jazz Classics VJC-1007-2)

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Musicians:

Frank Sinatra (vocals),

unidentified studio orchestra conducted by Axel Stordahl

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Lyrics by Abel Meeropol (as “Lewis Allan”) & music by Earl Robinson

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Recorded: probably New York, 1946

Albumcoverfranksinatra-volume2-thehouseilivein-earlyencores1943-46

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

There's more to this than meets the ear …

Frank Sinatra: The House I Live In (1945) "A certain word, democracy." That's one answer to the big question "What is America to me?" posed by Frank Sinatra in the 1945 10-minute film The House I Live In. The scrappy kid from New Jersey had been looking to move past the bobbysoxers who adored him, plus he was pretty liberal back then, too. So he was, well, jazzed to appear in a film extolling religious tolerance and ethnic equality, and to protect a scrawny Jewish boy beset by a gang of bullies. Frank dissuaded the little hoodlums by declaiming the title song: "The faces that I see / All races and religions / That's America to me."

Over the next year Frank got lots of favorable press and the film even won a couple of awards. Neverthe- less, the political Right attacked Sinatra relentlessly, hating his liberal beliefs and his gangster pals, while the Left distrusted his pop-centrist success and libertine ways. Plus lyricist Abel Meeropol, who also wrote Billie Holiday's scarifying "Strange Fruit," was angry because the film, and Frank on a 78 and in perfor- mance, omitted the outspoken racial-tolerance lines "My neighbors white and black" and "A home for all God's children."

But the real problem was the Red Scare, about to paralyze Hollywood. Within a few years the film's writer, Albert Maltz, composer Earl Robinson, and to some extent Meeropol—Lefties all—would be experiencing the unspoken blacklist, which rendered many of the lyrics ironic: "The howdy and the handshake / The air of feeling free / And the right to speak your mind out …." Frank too began feeling the HUAC heat, losing label, agent, voice, and much of his popularity until the famous early Fifties comeback.

Still, the song was taken up by Paul Robeson and Josh White, and even Sonny Rollins a decade later, and also kept alive by Sinatra, who revisited it several times over the years, eventually singing it at the White House for a President or two. This early version was recorded live about 1946 during an unidentified radio broadcast and then sent out on an Armed Forces Radio transcription disc. There are some nice touches, quietly patriotic moments in Axel Stordahl's arrangement: a snippet of "America the Beautiful," a brief trumpet fanfare, swirls and waves of strings, then a drum roll at the climax and a final peaceful tag, without words, brotherhood found "from sea to shining sea." Frank sings almost peacefully, with low-key ballad dynamics, offering more nuance and less schmaltz than are found in his lip-synched, slightly hammy film performance and the string-drenched 78. Calm, yet committed, he sounds like a believer.

Looking back, we know that Sinatra, to be perfectly Frank, had to reinvent himself again and again—become a convincing actor, swing through hundreds of recording sessions, cavort with the Rat Pack, slip in and out of bedrooms and, politically, from Left to Right. But the image of the underdog kid stayed with him. And the spirit of jazz, if not the sound and rhythms, fills this all-American "House," which was in the mid-Forties and remains to this day the nation's metaphoric residence. Now that the White House has opened its doors to an African-American President, perhaps the song's 21st-century version could resurrect some other lyrics Frank discarded: "The words of old Abe Lincoln / Of Jefferson and Paine / Of Washington and Jackson / And the tasks that still remain."

Democracy, like Jazz, is a complex gig … whether improvised or arranged.

Reviewer: Ed Leimbacher


Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington: The Beautiful American

Track

The Beautiful American

Artist

Louis Armstrong (trumpet) and Duke Ellington (piano)

CD

The Great Summit: The Master Takes (Roulette/Blue Note 7243 5 24547 2 3)

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Musicians:

Louis Armstrong (trumpet), Duke Ellington (piano), Trummy Young (trombone), Barney Bigard (clarinet),

Mort Herbert (bass), Danny Barcelona (drums)

.

Composed by Duke Ellington

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Recorded: New York, April 4, 1961

Albumcoverdukeellington-louisarmstrong-thegreatsummit-themastertakes

Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

What does it mean to be an American? When Louis Armstrong was coming up in New Orleans, it meant being an orphan and second- or third-class citizen, but with a first-class spirit and a talent for trumpet way beyond the barriers of race. Duke Ellington might have called that "beyond category." While his own Washington, D.C., upbringing was somewhat easier (as a middleclass kid cushioned by family support), even the Duke met the usual racial slings and arrows in the early decades; but his elegant style and creative juices and canny business sense made him a composer and bandleader without peer. And Satchmo? That mouth and set of chops and irrepressible joie de vivre soon produced an ambassador to the world.

Two Black Americans better than most of their nation could have imagined, or likely wanted, back then. When the two nonpareil jazz titans finally met in a recording studio in 1961 (other encounters had been too fleeting or too controlled by circumstances) for the sessions of Ellington standards combined on one CD as The Great Summit, Duke also roughed out a new instrumental for the occasion. Untitled at first, then called (courtesy of Stanley Dance) "The Unquiet American," the arrangement came together quickly – Duke singing the tune, working out horn parts, finding a makeshift mute for Trummy Young's trombone, and then signaling the control booth to proceed.

The resulting performance is a quiet world-beater – almost literally, as Satch's solos manage to quote from classical music, New Orleans warhorses, and pop melodies, not to mention demonstrate his own unequaled ability to get around on a trumpet; Duke and Louis had worked together briefly in France for the film Paris Blues a year or two earlier, and some of that Old World savoir faire must have carried over. At any rate, after Ellington and the rhythm guys set the pace (shout-outs for that inimitable bouncing-in-place piano and Mort Herbert's perfect bass solo near the end), and then Barney Bigard's and Trummy's mellow exuberance set the stage, Armstrong proceeds to smile, sinuate and sing out with his trumpet so convincingly, so effortlessly, so quintessentially Louis in fact, that Duke's tune immediately acquired its final title: "The Beautiful American."

Reviewer: Ed Leimbacher


Bill Frisell: Billy the Kid

Track

Billy the Kid

Artist

Bill Frisell (guitar)

CD

Have a Little Faith (Elektra Nonesuch 79301-2)

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Musicians:

Bill Frisell (guitar), Don Byron (clarinet), Guy Klucevsek (accordion), Kermit Driscoll (bass), Joey Baron (drums).

Composed by Aaron Copland

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Recorded: New York, March 1992

Frisell-faith

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

William Bonney, known as "Billy the Kid," was a young punk who wreaked havoc in Lincoln County, NM. His bad reputation, though, was jarringly altered when quintessential Americana composer Aaron Copland wrote his high-stepping music for the ballet Billy the Kid. Then another Billy wreaked his own happy havoc on Copland's multi-part composition--William Frisell, always cheerfully eager to string-shape or guitar-warp standards, folk songs, pop tunes, and originals alike.

The work opens and closes peacefully, with guitar, clarinet, accordion, and rhythm all sticking close to the chart. In between, sixshooters (well, five) blaze from hell to breakfast as Don Byron burbles and slips, Guy Klucevsek squirts and wheezes, and the rhythm section manages to hold it all together while simultaneously knocking everything sideways. And Bill? The grinnin' guitar kid sounds like he never had more fun, whether sliding or chiding, yearning, or burning a hole through the score.

Billy the Kid launches the CD; the trad tune Billy Boy ends it. The album is Frisell's impish self-portrait.

Reviewer: Ed Leimbacher


Cal Tjader: America

Track

America

Artist

Cal Tjader (vibes)

CD

Cal Tjader Plays Harold Arlen & West Side Story (Fantasy FCD-24775-2)

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Musicians:

Cal Tjader (vibes), Clare Fischer (piano), Red Callender (tuba), Paul Horn (flute), Red Mitchell (bass), Shelly Manne (drums), Mongo Santamaria (percussion), Willie Bobo (percussion),

Lonnie Hewitt (piano), George Roberts (trombone), Vincent D’ Rosa, James Decker, and Richard Perissi (french horn), Victor Venegas (bass), Milt Holland (drums)

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Composed by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim

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Recorded: Los Angeles, October 18, 1960

Albumcovercaltjader-playsharoldarlen-westsidestory

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

Immigrants have been coming to America's shores for a millennium, and some witty reflections on that fact can be found in the Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim musical West Side Story. Those nice Jewish boys fashioned jazzy, semi-Latin music featuring lyrics detailing the experiences of street punks and...Nuyoricans. (Huh?) But their composer chutzpah resulted in a work of sarcastic genius-especially in the sassy number "America."

Vibesman Cal Tjader laid down his lilting cover version in 1960. Minus the lyrics, claves and sticks start the dance, Tjader shimmers briefly, a French horn trio issues the call-out, and from then on, the solo moments pretty much belong to Tjader's fleetfoot vibes and to the airy, Afro-Cuban flute of Paul Horn. The saucy back-and-forth, snap-and-strut of the original staging echoes through pianist Clare Fischer's arrangement, which contains various horn "voices." The verbal jabs and teasing comments are tamed and prettified, though, leaving light Latin music as fresh as the island's tropical breezes-any NYC immigrant dis-ease subdued if not entirely passed over.

Reviewer: Ed Leimbacher


Harry Connick, Jr.: Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans

Track

Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans

Artist

Harry Connick, Jr. (piano, vocals)

CD

20 (Sony/BMG 723256)

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Musicians:

Harry Connick, Jr. (piano, vocals), Dr. John (piano, vocals).

Composed by Eddie DeLange and Louis Alter

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Recorded: New York City, May 4-5 and June 28-29, 1988

Connick

Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

When New Orleans' native son Harry Connick, Jr. recorded his second album 20 two decades ago, the world and Southern Louisiana's portion of it were in a different place and time. No 9/11 and no Homeland Security, no Hurricane Katrina, and no feeble FEMA response. This classic song was just a lonely, lovely lament for a languid city recalled from afar. But post-Katrina, the song has become not an indictment but a reminder of how America was blown off-course for nearly a decade, with government neglecting the social infrastructure and then failing to save a great city from drowning.

Connick, who, at the time of this album, fancied himself as the next Sinatra, was quite a charmer on this particular track, and it didn't hurt a bit that guest vocalist Dr. John appeared on it. However, their alternating leads make for funky contrasts that don't really strike enough sparks. If they were to recut their duet today, they would likely find ways to sound more threatening, and their casual, final surprise ("I miss the one I care for more than I miss New Orleans") would then become a statement confirming the Bush administration's laissez-faire and, ultimately, racist political attitude.

Reviewer: Ed Leimbacher


Gil Scott-Heron: Winter in America

Track

Winter in America

Artist

Gil Scott-Heron (keyboards, vocals)

CD

Midnight Band: The First Minute of a New Day (Rumal Gia-TVT 4350-2)

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Musicians:

Gil Scott-Heron (keyboards, vocals).

Composed by Gil Scott-Heron

.

Recorded: Maryland, June-July 1974

The_first_minute_by_gil_scott_heron

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

Today, proto-rapper Gil Scott-Heron is acknowledged as a major influence on several developments in Black Music and soul jazz, and it is easy to imagine that such artists as Cassandra Wilson considered the poet-vocalist's music before finding her own path. One of Scott-Heron's finest statements is "Winter in America," an image-driven portrait of the icy stasis gripping the nation in the early seventies-after the assassinations, riots, Watergate, and Vietnam.

First, there was an album of that name but no song, as Scott-Heron considered the three words simply an evocative image and not a subject for music. Then, he composed an actual "Winter in America" for his Arista debut, The First Minute of a New Day. Live performances and recordings subsequently crystallized the recording's powerful message.

Featured as a bonus track on the New Day CD reissue, this version of the song is distinctive because Scott-Heron performs alone on it. His keyboard work is more staccato and basic and the melody is slightly flattened out. Despite the changes, the cold, hard facts remain: "...Democracy is rag-time on the corner, hopin' for some rain...all of our healers have been killed or betrayed...ain't nobody fighting because nobody knows what to save."

The scenario is bleak but Scott-Heron's compelling music and verbal tropes continue to resound thirty years farther (or maybe no farther) on.

Reviewer: Ed Leimbacher


Jimi Hendrix: The Star Spangled Banner

Track

The Star Spangled Banner

Artist

Jimi Hendrix (guitar)

CD

Experience Hendrix: The Best of Jimi Hendrix (MCA/Universal MCAD-11671)

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Musicians:

Jimi Hendrix (guitar), Mitch Mitchell (drums).

Composed by Francis Scott Key and John Stafford Smith

.

Recorded: New York, August 19, 1969

Experience_hendrix

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

When Jimi Hendrix took the stage on the final morning of Woodstock--"by the dawn's early light," as it were--the audience had dwindled from hundreds of thousands down to an exhausted, mud-covered remnant. But the stubborn 25,000 saw Hendrix unexpectedly pause mid-way in his set to rip apart "The Star-Spangled Banner." In that chaotic year of 1969, the Vietnam War and the protests against it were two of the storms raging, and Jimi channeled some of that national anger into his electric and electrifying deconstruction of the national anthem--"rockets red glare," indeed.

Several musicians were on stage, but this is a straight duel between Hendrix and drummer Mitch Mitchell. The latter simply flails steadily for three minutes, while Jimi unleashes his full arsenal: echo, reverb, string-pulling, fingerpicking, atonal shrieks, wailing sirens and fire alarms, martial music and incoming missiles, bombs bursting in air, white noise. Shards of the hallowed, hard-to-sing melody can be heard at the relatively calm launch, and here and there throughout the cataclysmic performance, but the rest is Hendrix shredding his guitar, the national anthem, and the history of music.

Thanks to Coltrane and his acolytes, a New Thing was happening "o'er the Land of the Free," and ravenous Jimi tapped into that too--and in so doing he set the course, and the bar, for scores of jazz guitarists ever since, from John McLaughlin to Vernon Reid and Bill Frisell, from Sonny Sharrock to Blood Ulmer and John Zorn. These days, chord changes may still be observed, but otherwise anything goes, from the initial count-off till "the twilight's last gleaming" and final cymbal crash.

Reviewer: Ed Leimbacher


Cassandra Wilson/Regina Carter/Bela Fleck: This Land Is Your Land

Track

This Land Is Your Land

Artist

Cassandra Wilson (vocals), Regina Carter (violin), and BĂ©la Fleck (banjo)

CD

Jazz Hear and Now! (Jazz Alliance International D2-83507)

Musicians:

Cassandra Wilson (vocals), Regina Carter (violin), BĂ©la Fleck (banjo).

Composed by Woody Guthrie

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Recorded: New York, December 2001

Jazz_hear_and_now_

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

What a joy! The serendipity of this performance (recorded at a post-9/11 "Made in America" concert) and its inclusion on an obscure CD constitute a little-known blessing for fans of Jazz, Americana, Woody Guthrie, the brilliant artists involved, and musical good times in general. The spirited conga drummer goes uncredited, but otherwise it's a who-could-imagine-it trio: vocalist extraordinaire Cassandra Wilson, jazz-plus violinist Regina Carter, and cross-culture banjo-supremo Bela Fleck uniting for a one-off performance of America's other national anthem, "This Land Is Your Land."

Let not your mind be boggled; just sit back and enjoy, or get up and dance, because the arrangement moves from banjo-backed folk ballad to cross-the-country toetapper in no time at all, flowing smoothly via Carter's yearning, churning strings, braced and gently buffetted by Fleck's brusque five-string. The combination is startling, and Wilson's sultry, Delta-dusky voice rides it all with stops and starts, inventive line readings and melisma magic.

For eight minutes, Guthrie's social-justice song metamorphoses from dust-bowl lament to ribbon-of-highway instrumental dance, and then to shout-it-out song of pride for people of all races, culminating in the stirring, often ignored penultimate verse--the sign that reads "No Trespassing/Private Property," except that "On the back side it didn't say nothin'." Wilson finishes with the quieter "This land was made for you and me," rather than the rarely heard, more aggressive alternate: "That side was meant for you and me." But either way, on that night in 2001, progressive politics stepped into jazz's big tent.

Reviewer: Ed Leimbacher


Charlie Haden: American Dreams

Track

American Dreams

Artist

Charlie Haden (bass)

CD

American Dreams (Verve 440 064 096-2)

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Musicians:

Charlie Haden (bass), Brad Mehldau (piano), Brian Blade (drums).

Composed by Charlie Haden

.

Recorded: Los Angeles, May 14-17, 2002

Haden_american_dreams

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

After the sturm und drang of 80 chaotic years of Depressions, demonstrations, recessions, riots, wars, and more, it is of momentary grace to come upon Charlie Haden's "American Dreams."

On the Liberation Music Orchestra albums, his political activism remains a resolute force. Here, though, the statement is simply peaceful, as the piano trio performance by Haden, Brad Mehldau, and Brian Blade is embraced by a 34-piece string orchestra.

Low strings announce the heartbeat thuds of Haden's stately lift-and-settle-back melody. Then, the strings fall away and, in a light 4/4, Mehldau plays lovely variants of the theme-Charlie staying quiet and Blade flicking and switching around Brad's resonating notes until the bass and strings resume their calm, earth-coming-to-rest pulse. Both rise in a slow crescendo, followed by a swift, dying fall and Haden's deep time going silent.

Haden's song-without-words conjures up images of the shifting clouds and colors of a sunset under Western skies, and also of a nation at once more worthy of the dreams of its people.

Reviewer: Ed Leimbacher


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