It's time for Tuesday Reviewsday, our weekly new music segment. This week music journalist Steve Hochman joins A martinez in the studio to chat.
Artist: Bob Dylan
Album: "Shadows in the Night"
Songs: "Some Enchanted Evening," "Stay With Me"
Notes: Admit it. You have always wondered what it would sound like if Bob Dylan sang "Some Enchanted Evening" from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "South Pacific." Right? Well, now you can know. On "Shadows In the Night," Dylan turns crooner, honoring the pre-rock tradition of pop stars that gave us such essential 20th century songwriters as Irving Berlin ("What’ll I Do"), Jimmy McHugh ("Where Are You") and Johnny Mercer ("Autumn Leaves"), and such era-defining voices as those of Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire and, as has often been mentioned in word of this album, Frank Sinatra.
But really, whoever started calling this "Bob Dylan’s Frank Sinatra tribute album" — whether from the Dylan camp or a critic or a confused fan — did a great disservice to Dylan, to his fans and, uh, frankly, Sinatra too. Sure, every song on "Shadows in the Night" was recorded by Ol’ Blue Eyes at one time or another. But it would be hard to pluck anything from the mid-20th century American pop repertoire that was not recorded by Sinatra.
The inside photo offers a key to unlocking what’s behind this. There’s swellegant Dylan in white tux and black bow tie, sitting in a swanky nightclub booth next to a masked female reveler, and in Dylan’s hand a 45 rpm record from Sun Records, which he’s examining with great curiosity. The Sun roster in the mid-’50s — Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and, most importantly, Elvis Presley — was the point at which the crooner tradition and rock ’n’ roll came together, and then exploded apart. But Dylan knows it really wasn’t that way. These guys were just as influenced by the crooners as by anything else. Elvis was a crooner, through and through. It’s every bit as much of rock history as rhythm & blues.
And if there is anyone this honors, it may be Russ Columbo, whose meteoric rise and tragic death at age 26 in 1934 (accidentally shot by a friend while examining the friend’s gun collection) have taken on stature now viewed as emblematic of the crooner era mystique — a rock star life and death if there ever was one.
Dylan, then, is reclaiming that connection, that continuity. Not that he hasn’t done it before — he took on the crooner voice various times over the years, notably around his Nashville Skyline sessions in the late ‘60s. That sounded forced, though, while this sounds natural, at least natural to Dylan in his 70s. The singing is relaxed. He doesn’t over-sing, doesn’t reach to the straining point, but he does have fun with the songs. No, he’s not the suave vocal stylist here — more gravel throat than golden throat. Let’s call him the Velvet Frog. But it’s still velvet, which counts for a lot.
The album starts with a weeping steel guitar by Donny Heron, which proves the main musical motif throughout the album — perhaps a skeletal ghost of the Sinatra arrangements, but not anything you’d call Sinatra-like. Rather, this calls to mind Willie Nelson’s brilliant standards albums, and not coincidentally so: Dylan has stated that Nelson’s 1978 landmark Stardust was a big influence here. "Stay With Me" (written by Carolyn Leigh and Jerome Moss for, yes, Frank Sinatra to sing in the 1963 movie "The Cardinal" is spare and gentle, so direct and emotional, is heartbreakingly romantic. Dylan’s voice cracks, but it seems not a flaw but pure feeling. Three songs are ornamented with small, subtle horn sections, but more for atmosphere than any swing-a-ding-ding.
Not that there’s no fun here. Dylan’s clearly having fun with this. And so ought we. So stop with the snarky dismissals, as if this was some sort of delusional vanity project or winking in-joke or an eccentric side-trip a la his much-derided Christmas album of a couple years ago. These songs, this singing, are as true to Dylan today, at 73, as his own songs of the last decade. And a case could be made that they are simply true to Dylan. Period.
Artist: Rhiannon Giddens
Album: "Tomorrow is My Turn"
Songs: "Waterboy," "She’s Got You"
Notes: Just about a year ago, Rhiannon Giddens walked on stage at the Troubadour in front of a chatty crowd there for the American Music Association’s annual pre-Grammy benefit concert and let out a powerful cry to start a version of the old field holler "Waterboy," inspired by Odetta’s monumental version. The crowd instantly went silent — save for the sound of jaws dropping, knees buckling and some enthralled gasps and hoots — and stayed that way while she sang. She was among the lesser-known figures on the bill, but she very much stole the show.
She does that. I’ve seen it several times in her appearances as part of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the group that in recent years has lead the way to reclaim and expand the legacy of African-American string bands. And I saw it again in December when she supplied several show-stealing moments in the thus-far lone concert by the New Basemant Tapes, the project in which several performers were asked to write music to old unused Bob Dylan lyrics. That’s no mean feat given that she was alongside Elvis Costello, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and Mumford & Sons’ Marcus Mumford — no slouches they.
So how does she do alongside Patsy Cline, Nina Simone, Dolly Parton and some others of the most formidable and iconic women of 20th century popular music? That’s the task set out for her on her debut solo album by producer T-Bone Burnett, after witnessing her close-up at another all-star concert he’d put together tied to the Coen brothers’ folkie film "Inside Llewyn Davis." Well, she does just fine.
Starting with the haunting "Last Kind Words" (one of just a couple songs recorded in the 1920s by the mysterious Geeshie Wylie, who has caught the fancy of vintage blues aficionados in recent years), "Tomorrow is My Turn" takes Giddens way beyond the folk roots of the music for which she’s been known. That part’s not gone, of course, and she brings both nimble vocal chops and depth to affectionate versions of Elizabeth Cotton’s "Shake Sugaree" and, of course, "Waterboy." But even those who know that she has classical vocal training, and those who saw her knock audiences over with a version of Blu Cantrell’s hip-hoppy "Hit ‘Em Up Style" in the Chocolate Drops shows, will still be stunned with her command she has on the Patsy Cline sophisticated country hit "She’s Got You," her voice building from rueful coo to burning, angry grandeur.
These aren’t tributes, though, or mere covers — and certainly not imitations. These are inspired interpretations that fully establish Giddens as a true talent and formidable artist herself. The varied arrangements, under Burnett’s fine guidance, are often suggested by but never restricted by the originals. The evocatively fuzzy electric guitar of "Last Kind Words" bridges the long-ago to today, the quasi-orchestral grandeur of "She’s Got You" echoes the Owen Bradley-produced classic without any slavish nostalgia. "Black is the Color," a folk song turned into forceful statement by Simone, is here sort of hip-hop-folk-jazz with beat-boxing and a string bass leading into a harmonica shuffle. Dolly Parton’s "Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind" brushes up against the kind of countrypolitan sound Glen Campbell and Bobbie Gentry gave us in the late ‘60s. And the folk-rooted "Black Is the Color" and "Tomorrow Is My Turn" (co-written by Charles Aznavour) stand as statements worthy of the woman who stamped them on the public consciousness: Nina Simone.
This is not mere singing. There are a lot of people with great voices. These songs — a thread of deep emotions, of loss, of regret, of various levels of despair and equal amounts of fortitude running through them — demand much more. As do the memories of the singers who did them in the first and famous place. Giddens doesn’t let that, or them, down.
Never mind tomorrow, her turn is now.
Artist: Rudresh Mahanthappa
Album: "Bird Calls"
Songs: "On the DL," "Gopuram"
Notes: With his last project, Gamak (my choice for the best album of 2013), saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa put some delightfully creative twists on jazz fusion, staking out new territory. On this new one, he’s playing… bebop. Well, bebop with creative twists. But still, that’s what it is.
Of course, the album is called "Bird Calls" — "Bird" being the familiar nickname for Charlie Parker, basically the god of bebop, whose incendiary style shaped and set the standards for the revolutionary music in the late-‘40s and ‘50s. And he’s still a standard inspiring young players, as was the case with Mahanthappa when he was first transfixed by Parker recordings as a teen. No matter how adventurous and personalized his music has gotten over the years, and it’s gotten very adventurous and personalized, Parker’s spirit is there.
This time, though, it’s explicit and overt. Most of the pieces here, with Mahanthappa leading a sharp and nimble quintet, are based on Parker numbers, new constructions of melodies and improvisations on top of the original chord structures. It’s kind of meta-bebop, as the form itself started with players writing new music on chord changes from popular songs, thereby not having to pay royalties.
"On the DL" builds on "Donna Lee," arguably the archetype of the Bird canon. "Chillin'" takes off from another iconic Parker piece, "Relaxin’ at Camarillo" (the reference being to the California sanitarium at which he convalesced from drug and mental health challenges and, ultimately, died). Throughout a series of six impressionistic "Bird Call" miniatures link the longer excursions with very personal touches.
Not that this lacks Mahanthappa’s persona otherwise. Just as Parker is always a presence in his music, so is his Indian heritage in terms of modes and structures in the composition and improvisation. On Gamak the secret weapon was the fiery microtonal electric guitar of David Fiuczynski, bringing an intense east-meets-west focus. This time it’s the trumpet of Adam O’Farrill (20-year-old son and grandson of Arturo and Chico, respectively, both dynamic forces on the Afro-Latin jazz scene), with pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Francois Moutin and drummer Rudy Royston, each player bringing a combination of lyrical finesse and rhythmic force as they round out the classic bebop lineup.
The Indian elements are more subtle than on Gamak, but in a few places they come to the fore, most prominently in the song "Gopuram," full-on raga jazz — two classic styles merged with thrilling results.