If you love music, but don't have the time to keep up with what's new, you should listen to Tuesday Reviewsday. Every week our critics join our hosts in the studio to talk about what you should be listening to, in one short segment. This week, music journalist Steve Hochman joins A Martinez.
Artist: Adia Victoria
Album: "Beyond the Bloodhounds"
Songs:"Dead Eyes," "Stuck in the South"
There weren’t many people in the concert room of the Troubadour one evening last year, most milling outside or arriving later for the headliner Hurray for the Riff Raff. But those in the room for the opening set all certainly had a question in mind: Who was that lanky, statuesque woman on stage at the Troubadour last year with the big voice, unbridled spirit and commanding presence, not to mention distinctive name?
Well, that was Adia Victoria, and when I talked with her at the merch table between sets, I found out she was from Nashville, and had but one EP of her music to sell there. So that brought another question: When would there be a full album? Working on it, she said.
Now, a bit more than a year later, here it is. And "Beyond the Bloodhounds" goes well beyond the high expectations that performance spurred. One lingering impression of her on stage was one of pure force, an artist who throws herself, particularly her voice, fully into the song — whether emoting fragilely or raging full-on. Getting that on a recording is tricky at best, but she and co-producer Roger Moutenot (who’s worked with Sleater-Kinney and Yo La Tengo, among others) made it work, whether on the momentum-building yearning "Out of Love" or the sultry-blues "Howlin’ Shame" or near-punk "Dead Eyes." "Horrible Weather" even evokes the electro-torch of Portishead.
This is dark, probing stuff, as the song titles indicate ("And Then You Die" is another). But it’s vibrant and vivid, threaded with a sense of her fighting personal and cultural bonds — she was raised in a strict Seventh Day Adventist family and the album title comes from Harriet Jacobs’ autobiographical 1861 novel "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl." Comparisons are tough here. She cites early blues-jazz star Victoria Spivey, and there are hints of a southern Patti Smith here (the spoken climax of "Invisible Hand"), a folky Nina Simone. But those are fleeting images, giving way to an artist taking her own path. If one song even comes close to capturing the whole, it’s the dense, banjo-accented, swamp-Gothic climax of "Stuck in the South." Victoria Spivey by way of Flannery O’Connor? Or just Adia Victoria.
Artists: Jack DeJohnette/Ravi Coltrane/Matthew Garrison
Album: "In Movement"
Songs: "Two Jimmys," "In Movement"
In a performance at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival a couple of weeks ago, drummer Jack DeJohnette showed such vitality and vision in his set with saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and bassist-electronicist Matthew Garrison that it was hard to believe that not only had he first teamed with them back in 1992, but he had played with the other two’s iconic dads — John Coltrane and Jimmy Garrison — more than half a century ago.
It also showed that at 73, DeJohnette, a core member of Miles Davis’ still-startling "Bitches Brew" band, is no mere link to the past, but a continuing creative presence who is always looking forward. That is captured in full on "In Movement," the trio’s new album, surprisingly the first they’ve done together. Though there was a 20 year gap between their ’92 teaming and their next, more formal collaboration, with a series of concerts leading up to this recording.
Connection to the past are not put aside — two of the highlights are interpretive versions of Coltrane senior’s "Alabama," which opens the album, and Davis’ "Blue in Green," one of the pieces that sees DeJohnette moving to piano. The history, and genetics, are central. But both of the younger musicians has developed styles distinct from their fathers, while DeJohnette’s aesthetics are the result of evolution through his own many projects and with Keith Jarrett’s"standards" trio through the years.
Here, senses of space and atmospherics are key, Garrison’s subtle use of electronics and effects providing as much a signature to the trio sound as DeJohnette’s tuneful touch and Coltrane’s bright runs, at once wild and controlled. The interplay through a variety of tones and tempos, from the floating title piece to the stutter-funk pulse of "Two Jimmys," is seamless, the three clearly mutually inspired. So here, more than 20 years after they first played together and more than 50 years since DeJohnette played with their dads, this trio feels like something new beginning, with wonderful possibilities in front of them.
Artist: Leyla McCalla
Album: "A Day For the Hunter, A Day For the Prey"
Songs: "Les Plats Sont Tous Mis Sur La Table," "A Day For the Hunter, A Day For the Prey"
Thought on seeing Leyla McCalla’s performance at the New Orleans JazzFest a couple of weeks ago: Well, that’s the biggest Cajun fiddle you’ll ever see.
Okay, it’s a cello, if you want to get technical about it. But on a couple songs she performed from her new album, the singer-musician sounded right at home on the curvy contours of tunes rooted in the Southern Louisiana prairies, including a spirited arrangement of the flirty "Les Plats Sont Tous Mis Sur La Table" ("The Dishes Are All Set On the Table") by the late Creole fiddle great — that’s real fiddle — Canray Fontenot.
But then, playing rural folk music on her instrument (as well as on banjo and guitar) is nothing new for McCalla. For a few years she played alongside Rhiannon Giddens in the second version of Carolina Chocolate Drops, a group that reclaimed and renewed the African-American string band traditions as the core of its purpose and repertoire.
This, following up her solo debut "Vari-Colored Songs," in which she set Langston Hughes poems to music to great effect, is not the bold statement of Giddens’ solo debut from last year. But it’s a big, ambitious step nonetheless. Having moved to New Orleans a few years ago, McCalla draws on the vividly knotted cultural streams of the region, in particular spotlighting folk strains from Haiti, Creole Louisiana and the Mississippi Delta, with her singing in English and the respective French dialects. The links are strong through the history of the slave trade — Haiti and New Orleans being primary way stations in the tragic trade, and rural Louisiana a haven for escaped and freed slaves, including waves fleeing the Haitian Revolution around the turn of the 19th century. The Cajun-Creole songs (Bebe Carrier’s instrumental "Bluerunner") and the Haitian tunes (the traditional "Peze Cafe" is a highlight) are presented not as contrasts or even complements, but as made from the same cloth, in spare, earthy arrangements.
With guests including Giddens, Lost Bayou Ramblers fiddler Louis Michot, New York guitarist Marc Ribot and New Orleans clarinetist Aurora Nealand, the musical styles, though, cover a wide spectrum of the region, not just the Louisiana-Haiti Creole corridor. "Far From Your Web," one of three McCalla originals, evokes 1920s-style New Orleans jazz. "Vietnam" is an off-to-war period folk song from the catalog of late Georgie one-man-band Abner Jay. And "Little Sparrow," written by Ella Jenkins (still with us at 91), is ostensibly a children’s song, but one that reaches back through generations of the fight for civil rights.
The title song, another McCalla original (the name, a Haitian proverb she learned from the title of a Gage Averill book), serves to preface all this, it’s somber, lilting account a meditation on leaving a bad situation for an uncertain one. It was written, she’s said, with the Haitian boat people in mind, but also with thoughts to the plight of refugees around the world. It’s in that sense of flux, the place where desperation meets hope, where McCalla finds her artistic home.