Tony Bennett & Bill Charlap, The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern. The American songbook has a lot of heroes, but none more heroic than composer Jerome Kern. He's been a co-writer on songs that literally define modern music, and who better to sing these songs today than Tony Bennett? Once that got decided, there is no finer pianist to accompany Bennett than Bill Charlap and his ESP-laden bandmates, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington. When they are playing together, nothing else is needed—except on some songs guest pianist Renee Rosnes, who just happens to be Charlap's life partner. How's that for a family affair? The sheer beauty of such a pure sound behind a singer of Tony Bennett's capability feels like an historic affair, one that swings and surges with uncanny ease. Whether it's "The Last Time I Saw Paris" or "Yesterdays" or any of the other dozen songs here, this is music that probably won't come again, but for now, bask and exalt.
Robert Francis, Valentine. It takes a good dose of artistic bravery to even consider covering a Chet Baker vocal album, but then again, Robert Francis always seems to forge ahead without fear. The young singer-songwriter started with guitar lessons from Ry Cooder before he was even a teenager, made his onstage debut at Harry Dean Stanton's birthday party, and then went on from there. On these eight songs, Francis goes deep into a world of emotional resonance. Backed by Jeff Goldblum's band, the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra (say what?), it's most assuredly a musical match made in heaven. "Time After Time" in particular stops time, floating above a world of water fountains that flow with bright blue water and flowers that bloom in rainbow colors forever. Saxophonist Zane Musa solos to the cosmos, but sadly passed away shortly after this session. During this holiday month there is often a call for a recording that comes in with another ethos, one that can't be explained but exists without equal. This is that album.
Nigel Hall, Ladies & Gentlemen.... Soul redux is sweeping the nation, and that's a mighty fine thing to happen. Groups like Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Lee Fields & the Expressions, Charles Bradley & the Menahan Street Band, St. Paul & the Broken Bones, Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears and more are all putting their personal stamp on a highly evolving musical style. The common denominator in all of them is a mountain of feeling and the muscle to pull it off. Nigel Hall is a native of Washington, D.C. but has called New Orleans home since 2013, and it shows. He's got the all-time strut learned on streets like Tchoupitoulas and Frenchmen, and a studio full of downright funky players. Plus he knows how to write a song, which is really where it all starts and stops. With half the album originals and some knocked-out covers of classics by Latimore, the O'Jays, Ann Peebles and others, a better song list cannot be imagined. Something like Hall's "Gimme a Sign" bumped up next to Latimore's "Let's Straighten It Out" is soul heaven, and a good indication that the world is still struggling to change in a downright righteous way, if it can just happen soon enough to save the planet. Here's betting it can, and music like this will surely lead the way.
Little Freddie King, Messin' Round Tha Living Room. In the world of new blues, it's getting tougher and tougher to locate one of those monkey nerve-hitting albums, one where there is no question this is the real deal and subject to no substitutions. But if someone with a name like Little Freddie King can't be trusted to deliver the puredee goods, then who can? Highly unlikely to be related to the first Freddie King, that's almost beside the point when the down home delivery of the King at hand comes through. How's this for a self-description: "The world renowned hard to kill, pistol packin' chicken pickin', string pullin' show stoppin' freight train hoppin' game cock walkin' master of electricity, king of the blues, connoisseur of womens, his royal highness Little Freddie King." That pretty much covers all possibilities, and any questions left-answered are addressed and taken care of on these lucky 11 songs. Blues is all about grabbing the brass ring and not letting go, and Mr. King is a longtime master of that maneuver. Let the man come in and show everyone how it's done.
Bobby Rush, Chicken Heads: A 50-Year History. When it comes to round-the-clock bluesmen, no one gets to walk taller down those backstreets than Bobby Rush. In his early 80s, he's been recording over a half-century. Rush has seen the good times go and then come back again, and is able to put into words and music what real life is all about. This mind-boggling four-disc collection will serve all blues lovers well for decades to come. It starts with singles on Checker, Galaxy, and Jewel Records at a time when urban blues was starting to bust down barriers in the early '60s and spread that sound around the world. Rush was born in Louisiana and spent time in Arkansas before moving to Chicago, where he learned the blues ropes fast and furious. A compilation like this leaves no turntable unturned, finding plenty of surprises along the way. As the man's career continued to grow, he finally hit the sales and radio charts in a big way with 1971's "Chicken Head" single. Bobby Rush never looked back and is still out there raising dust with some highly stimulating shows complete with onstage dancers. For an often off-road excursion and unbeatable history of modern blues this compilation is it, culled from over 20 labels and put together with loving care. Blues that can't lose.
Shovels & Rope, Busted Jukebox Volume 1. What a grand idea for an album that includes collaborations that had to happen. Shovels & Rope are Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearts, straight out of Charleston, South Carolina. When it came time for a fourth album, they opened the door to asking others to sing with them on songs written by everyone from Lou Reed to Nick Lowe to Guns 'N Roses. Throw in classics by Toussaint McCall and Dave Davies, and the plot thickens pretty quickly. Album opener Shakey Graves on Neil Young's "Unknown Legends" sets the bar so high it's hard to think what could follow, but follow the next nine songs do. JD McPherson's thrilling take of "Nothing Takes the Place of You" and Preservation Hall Jazz Band overhauling "Perfect Day" are two for the history books. Here's to more busted jukeboxes and tilted dance floors, because this is an idea whose time has most assuredly come, and it's time to drop them quarters and get the party started.
Billy Talbot Band, Dakota. There is no more cred to be had in the world of rock and roll than 45 years playing in Crazy Horse, sometimes with and sometimes without Neil Young. Billy Talbot has earned his spot on the ultimate rock and roll call, and continues making new music now at the very top of his game. This collaboration with Ryan Holzer & the Jerdes with Liza Blue comes somewhat out of the blue, but it absolutely hits the magic zone from the first note. Talbot plays piano and sings, often with a voice that comes from the other side of the mountain, one burning with endless character and aged experience. Many of the songs sound born somewhere far out in the American west, touching home and offering insight along the way from a musician who continues to rise and surprise.
Lynn Taylor and the BarFlies, Hollow Man. Drinking can be a rocky road when the tables get turned and what once was so much fun turns into a dead-end run. Lynn Taylor has a way of writing about that two-edged razor and the walk to the other side. The opening song, "Supposed to Be," captures the aching heartache of a couple caught in the headlights of scuffling sobriety and how it works and doesn't work. His lyrics have a way of jangling the soul: "I hadn't seen her in a real long while/I called her up just to hear her smile..." Right. Taylor's voice goes to what that life is all about, never blinking or asking for favors. But he also never pulls the parachute to escape the living and the loving that fuels us all. Recorded over two days, there won't be any more direct music released this year. Sometimes things might veer a little close to the edge, but that's the price that must be paid for honesty. "Don't take my devils away/They keep my angels company," Taylor sings. True that.
Liz Vice, There's a Light. Surely many ways exist to approach the light. The real question is whether it can be found. Portland, Oregon-based singer Liz Vice might not have ever intended to be a gospel singer, but there is no doubt she is someone with an inner strength that needs to be shared. On this riveting album of inspiration and belief, she brings such a power to songs of the spirit that it is impossible to turn away. That said, this is such a universal emotion that believers and non-believers alike can bask in Vice's glow. She has a voice for the ages, one that comes along very rarely, but when it does it needs to be embraced. There is true transcendence in what this woman is doing, and goes to the very center of what it means to be a human being. No matter what part of the road to glory a listener is traveling, there is eternal shelter to be found in songs like "Entrance" and "Enclosed by You." When it comes time to step into the next world, here's hoping this album is the music that will be heard. Say amen somebody.