By Devon Wendell
Now I must push through those big barriers that keep a thinking/nerdy musician like myself stagnant and trapped in one or two musical eras or genres, far from today and far from this exact moment in history. I must dissolve the bitterness and the frustration, and the notion that it’s all nothing more than blurry, recycled fragments of musical shades and rudiments created so long ago. The nothing new today but newly done old music is so easy to live in, to cocoon myself in the warmth of familiarity and sentimentality. 2012 was a concrete year like all others behind us with its own unique fingerprint in time, so I look back at some of my favorite moments in the music of 2012.
Let’s start where it all begins: the blues. This past year Shemekia Copeland released one of the most powerful and poignant blues albums I’ve ever heard. Copeland’s 33 1/3 (Telarc) not only displayed Copeland’s confident tenor blues vocals, and stellar arrangements — which combine not only blues, but also country, funk, gospel, and rock — it also showed she is a true blues poet. The lyrics on 33 1/3 deal with such topics as poverty on the loud and angry “Lemon Pie” and domestic violence on the chilling “Ain’t Gonna Be Your Tattoo” (Which features slashing blues guitar leads by Buddy Guy.)
The blues began as a poetic art form as heard in the early country blues of Bukka White, Skip James, and Blind Willie McTell, but those elements got lost for the most part in modern blues, so it’s a refreshing sign to hear an artist as popular as Copeland help bring it all back. 33 1/3 has received a Grammy nomination for best blues album of 2012.
In the jazz category, innovative pianist and composer Ahmad Jamal returned to the studio with a bright new quartet (Reginald Veal: bass, Herlin Riley: drums, and 22 year old percussionist Jamal “Conguero” Manolo Badrena) on Blue Moon (Jazz Village). The quartet on Blue Moon has that tightness, focus and groove demonstrated by Jamal’s trio (Jamal: piano, Israel Crosby: bass, and Vernell Fournier on drums) on his classic album Ahmad Jamal: But Not For Me: Live At The Pershing Lounge, 1958 (Originally issued on Argo). Jamal’s sense of dynamics, discipline, harmony and space (which transformed jazz forever in the late to mid 50s, influencing everyone from Miles Davis and Red Garland to Bill Evans, and Herbie Hancock) is more prevalent now than ever before.
He and his quartet enhance the one-of-a-kind Jamal sound with new twists to such classics as Johnny Mercer’s “Laura,” Dizzy Gillespie’s “Woody’ N You” (which Jamal had recorded on the But Not For Me album 54 years ago), as well as some originals: “This Is The Life” and “Invitation.” Jamal’s wonderfully transformative adaptation of Rodgers and Hart’s “Blue Moon,” like a Thelonious Monk cover, shows how this jazz master can take a standard and make it his own with the use of syncopation, strong pedal points, and altered harmonies, which alone makes the album worth purchasing. The track earned Jamal a Grammy nomination for best jazz instrumental.
Rock ‘n’ Roll
In Rock ‘n’ Roll, Bob Dylan’s Tempest (Columbia) deals with violence, rage, mortality, and lost love. Although these universal themes have been used time and time again by Dylan since the beginning of his career, he always makes his misery and anger feel fresh to the masses. This is certainly the case on Tempest. It is also important to note that his band swings hard. From the jump blues of “Duquesne Whistle,” the Delta blues of The Mississippi Sheik’s “Narrow Way,” and the Celtic rhythms of “Tempest,” Dylan’s band (Tony Garnier: bass, Donnie Herron: steel guitar, banjo, violin, mandolin, David Hidalgo: guitar, accordion, violin, Stu Kimball: guitar, George G. Receli: drums, and Charlie Sexton: guitar) proves that they can follow the man anywhere he wanders while adding strong melodic texturing to every phrase and song. This may not be a musical romp through the park but it’s pure Dylan, attitude and all.
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The release of Carole King’s Legendary Demos (Hear Music/Concord Music Group) was the most shocking hidden treasure to surface this past year. This collection consists of demos recorded in New York City’s Brill building both with her ex-writing partner and ex- husband Gerry Goffin in the early to mid 60s, all the way through her infamous Tapestry sessions in 1970. King was writing hits for such artists as the Monkees, The Turtles, Aretha Franklin, Bobby Vee, the Righteous Brothers, Gene Pitney, and dozens of others.
There’s a mournful intimacy to the sound of King, both alone with her piano and with studio session players. This is especially true on the demos for Tapestry. King has every phrase and nuance figured out for the multitude of artists who will be recording her songs. But the power of King’s warm vocals and her gospel-fueled piano playing makes classics like “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” “So Goes Love,” “Take Good Care Of My Baby” and “Yours Until Tomorrow” feel as if they should only have been recorded by King, which most of us would not have expected. Before hearing the demos, it was hard for me to even imagine her singing these songs at all. There’s none of the schmaltz on King’s demos that many of the 60s pop bands would later add to her songs. This compilation gives an insight to King’s genius as a writer, arranger, and most of all, as a brilliant musician in her own right.
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Another highlight in the category of rock is Donald Fagen’s Sunken Condos (Reprise) and I say this not because I once worked for the man, but because Fagen’s fusing of hip/sly lyrics with slick funk and jazz harmonies has an irresistible groove throughout the entire album. There’s a more dissonant sonic quality to this album than Fagen’s work with Steely Dan and this sounds nothing like Fagen’s three previous solo recordings.
Steely Dan trumpeter Michael Leonhart co-produced the album with Fagen as well as playing drums (under the alias of Earl Cook Jr.) plus adding keys and even contributing to the crisp engineering. And Kurt Rosenwinkel’s guitar solo on “Planet D’Rhonda” sounds like Kenny Burrell on acid, which every guitar player must check out.
I’ve include one exhilarating live performance on my list of highlights: Eddie Palmieri and his Salsa Orchestra At The Hollywood Bowl on August 17th. Although Palmieri’s set was painfully short (under 45 minutes), in order to give way for the more pop oriented Ruben Blades, this master of Latin jazz got cooking from the second he took the Bowl stage. Palmieri and his Orchestra performed such classics as “La Liberta Logica,” “Pa La Ocha Tamba,” and his biggest hit, “Azucar Pa Ti.” Palmieri was joined by the stellar jazz trumpeter Brian Lynch, whose frenetic style was the perfect counterpoint to Palmieri’s sparse, percussive, and syncopated piano playing – a style that has earned him the title; “The Latin Thelonious Monk.”
Palmieri lit a fire under the band on this hot August night. On his first solo during “La Liberta Logica,” he played very few notes but they were more brilliantly executed than a thousand notes could ever be played by anyone else. The energy from this solo spread to the percussionists (Joes Clauselle: timbales, Little Johnny Rivero: congas, Joseph Gonzalez: maracas, and Orlando Vega on bongos) who generated a tidal wave of polyrhythms and Afro-Cuban hooks that felt as if they had always been a part of my entire being. This was a performance not only to remember in 2012, but for a lifetime.
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These are my musical highlights of 2012. I know what many of you are asking after reading this or anything else I’ve written for The International Review Of Music: “No Justin Bieber, No Chris Brown or Katie Perry?” “What’s Up Doc?!” Well, don’t hold your breath, and there’s always 2013, so stay tuned folks.
To read more posts, reviews and columns by Devon Wendell click HERE.