Of What Amazes and What Might Have Been
By Brian Arsenault
Cheryl Bentyne & Mark Winkler
West Coast Cool (Summit Records)
The only thing that disappoints me about West Coast Cool is that I’ll never hear it for the first time again. Jump in any place. One of them will be singing great. Or both of them. In counterpoint and in harmony. No blemishes.
Drop in on “Something Cool” for example where Cheryl Bentyne may bring chills. No Broadway climax dramatic song packs the emotional punch felt here.
Or start at the beginning– “Take5/Drinks on the Patio”– where she teams with Mark Winkler on alternating verses to create one song of two, one image of two, one aesthetic for a pair. This happens elsewhere.
A personal favorite, “Talk of the Town/Girl Talk,” is where I realized how truly great they are together. Cheryl’s hurt purity and crystallized phrasing on “Talk of the Town”; Winkler the smoothest sound this side of “the Velvet Fog” with a tone all his own on “Girl Talk.“ Then they get together. Just so very cool.
This tribute to West Coast Cool Jazz raises the genre while celebrating it. It is also really something more; an extension and a rounding of the American songbook. These songs should be sung on every coast and from sea to shining sea.
The album is also proof that the notion that jazz is so cerebral and sophisticated that it’s not for everybody is foolish and trite. Jazz came from the same place as blues and r&b and at its core it is people’s music.
Out for the night music. This is music to be savored. With a drink. Over dinner. On the dance floor. Just listening.
The “cool” of the West Coast sound is apparent but much more important is the depth of feeling, the constant touch of humanity, and the simple deep pleasure of music done at the highest level.
There are many fine female jazz singers on the scene right now but, hey, there has to be a Queen — Queen Cheryl. There are not so many top notch male jazz singers right now but there is an even rarer bird called Winkler. He’s just so good.
At the end of the album there’s a bonus track to give you a taste of the live show. But everything before that is also filled with snap, immediacy, spontaneity. Just a great album.
Ry Cooder and Corridos Famosos
Live At The Great American Music Hall in San Francisco (Nonesuch Records)
The only thing that disappoints me about Ry Cooder Live At The Great American Music Hall is that it doesn’t turn out to be as great an album as its beginning suggests it will be.
I mean I’m just dying through the first couple songs — “Crazy ‘Bout an Automobile” and “Why Don’t You Try Me” — thinking great brass band, great backing chorus. Like nothing else since Cocker and Leon hated each other enough to create the great Mad Dogs and Englishmen.
Cooder showing what a fine guitarist he is, especially if you like it melodic/musical. And who doesn’t?
Then comes “Boomer’s Story” and a little “Band” sneaks in and I go “That’s ok, nice change of pace.” From there, though, there’s this long slow exhale like the air seeping from a balloon.
The soul and soulfulness of Terry Andrews and Arnold McCuller on “The Dark Side of the Street” bring down the house. It’s Ry–time on guitar solo and in harmony with the accordion.
By now, though, I’m not sure the concert and hence the album have a focus. We’re jumping all over the place from the streets of Mexico to the boxcars of Woody Guthrie without a unifying voice. It isn’t a merging of disparate forms into something new; it’s an amalgamation or, more to the point, a scattering.
Is this the new Americana? I mean ”Wooly Bully”? It never was much except a dirty little ditty at the sex humor level of 12 year old boys. Why bother? And how did the murderous Jesse James ever get to heaven. He rode with Quantrill for heaven’s sake.
“Goodnight Irene” where we all know the chorus but not a lot of the lyrics — morphine is in there, apparently — is a sweet sendoff at the end of the album. Again that Ry guitar — he and Willie have a similar touch — is as fine as it gets.
Yet the goodnight is bittersweet for me because the album never gets back to the drive, the energy, the collective delight of so many musicians playing so well together, of those first two songs. But we’ll always have those two tracks.
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