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Music Reviews

Jorma Kaukonen
Blue Country Heart

Columbia CK 86394

Back before time began, in the early 1960s, the hottest flat picker in the thriving Palo Alto and South Bay folk scene was Finnish-American guitarist Jorma Kaukonen. Jorma was Janis Joplin's partner and accompanist, and later was recruited into Jefferson Airplane in 1965. His soaring, complex guitar drove the Airplane in its heyday, and Jorma formed Hot Tuna with Airplane bassist Jack Casady in 1970 to explore his folk and blues leanings that weren't being satisfied with the Airplane.

Since 1978, Jorma has performed solo, in various small groups, and in reincarnations of the Airplane and Hot Tuna. He now lives on his Fur Peace ranch near Athens, Ohio, and hosts guitar camps there. In January 2002, Jorma went to record in Nashville with acoustic music heavyweights Jerry Douglas on dobro (resonator guitar), Sam Bush on mandolin and fiddle, and Byron House on bass. They recorded Blue Country Heart, what Jorma calls "songs from back when country borrowed extensively from its across-the-railroad-tracks accomplice, the blues." Depression-era pop and gospel are also included.

You know you're in for a treat when you open the CD and the label replicates the classic blue and gold Columbia label. No 21st Century CBS/Sony trademark here! The first song is Blue Railroad Train by the Delmore Brothers, and before you know it Jerry Douglas has ripped off a wonderful slide solo, and they're off and running. An uptempo Just Because, which was made famous by the Shelton Brothers and a young Elvis, features some banjo by guest Bela Fleck.

The pacing alternates swinging numbers with more languid blues and ballads. Each artist has lots of room to solo, and the bass playing is well recorded and has great presence along with the other instruments. Jorma sings most of the lead vocals in a pleasant tenor voice, and Bush and House provide harmony on background vocals. This is the perfect recording for the Spring days to come and tapping your toe in time on the front porch.

Also of note is the promo CD, Jorma Kaukonen Unreleased (Columbia CSK 59878), which features three more recordings from the same session. This allegedly isn't available for commercial release, but I didn't have to look too hard to find one on eBay, for those who can't get enough of this music.

Review by Ira Carter

Roswell Rudd's MALIcool (Sunnyside Soundscape Series SSC 3008)


Trombonist Roswell Rudd has been a fixture of the avant garde jazz scene since 1960. He frequently recorded in the 60s and 70s, less so in the 80s and 90s as commercial audience taste mandated stints teaching music at the University of Maine and playing in pit bands at resorts. Rudd traveled to Mali in February 2000 with ethnomusicologist Verna Gillis, who introduced him to Malian kora (a Malian harp/lute) player Toumani Diabate. The eventual outcome of that meeting is this recording, in which Rudd collaborates with Diabate and other Malian traditional musicians and singers. Compositions are by Rudd and Diabate, and also feature Thelonious Monk's Jackie-ing, and adaptations of a traditional Welsh song, Gershwin's Summertime, and Ode to Joy from Beethoven's 9th Symphony. The Ode to Joy has to be heard to be believed, it's as if Devo and Bill Monroe collaborated on the version! Even though the tone of the trombone initially seems incongruous with the Malian instruments, its warm tone blends well, and the outcome is a unique musical form that is neither jazz nor traditional African music, but a gentle and thoughtful recording that generates a sense of relaxed (but never torpid) well-being in the listener.

Review by Ira Carter

Various Artists: Ghana Soundz: Afro-Beat, Funk and Fusion
in 70's Ghana

(Soundway SNDWCD001):

Ghanaian highlife is a danceable pop music drawn from multiple sources, including traditional folk music, Liberian sea shanties, and British colonial brass bands. In the 1970s, Ghanaian highlife was strongly influenced by American jazz and soul, and acts such as Santana and Nigeria's Fela Kuti, and highlife artists created new genres, including a highlife-influenced funk style. This compilation features fourteen songs from that era, most created by dance band style highlife artists who branched out to explore new musical turf. Strong bass and percussion playing thump up against riffing horns, with an occasional mix of chattering wah-wah guitar, pulsing organ, and wobbly early synthesizers. It's a labor of love by producer/label owner Miles Cleret, who made multiple trips to Ghana researching the music and artists. The result is all-killer, no filler - a joyous, danceable collection of winners that leave you shaking your groove thing and hitting the replay button of your CD player for another round of funky retro delight.

Review by Ira Carter

The Fatback Band: Fatbackin' (The Perception Sessions)
(Castle CMDDD082)

The Fatback Band (later just Fatback) busted out of Funk's Golden Age in 1972 with three releases on the Perception label. All three are compiled on this two CD set, along with the single B-side Dance Girl. The music mixes hip-shaking, booty-quaking, backbone-breaking dance floor monsters like Street Dance and Nija Walk with gentle and occasionally insipid covers of Wichita Lineman, Baby I Want You, and Green Green Grass of Home, which are apparently intended for late night love action. These early funky sides convey a wonderful party atmosphere and stand up against the best of the era produced by Kool & the Gang, Ohio Players, and other heavyweights. Rating reflects disparity between molten hot dance tracks and weaker ballads and covers.

Review by Ira Carter

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