Boyd Lee Dunlop
[Boyd Lee Dunlop]
3 stars (out of 4)
It is one of the most touching stories to come out of Buffalo -- the rediscovery, in a Buffalo nursing home, of 85-year-old jazz pianist Boyd Lee Dunlop. Recently, following moving coverage in the New York Times and NPR, as well as in The Buffalo News and other local news outlets, Dunlop had a CD release party at Hallwalls.
As you would expect, "Boyd's Blues," which teams Dunlop with premier Buffalo bassist Sabu Adeyola and drummer Virgil Day, is a poignant endeavor. Dunlop's playing is sketchy and scattered but evocative in its way. It is like seeing shards of a man. He builds on standards: You hear bits of "Round Midnight," "Salt Peanuts" and "Perdido," for instance, and "Boyd's Place" is really Duke Ellington's "C Jam Blues." Dunlop has a solid command of blues and can do a lot with just a few notes. His harmonies are a pleasure. "St. James Infirmary Blues," in particular, emerges entrancingly in bluesy fragments, like a ghost.
So soft is Dunlop's playing throughout the CD that you find yourself wishing for more muscle, and worrying that his long, spidery fingers will slip off the keys. A couple of tracks, disorientingly, just fade out. But if time has taken away some things, it has added others. These performances hold more than a few lessons for hothouse jazz pianists who are all technique and no soul.
-- Mary Kunz Goldman
Note of Hope
You know a labor of love from a cynical chess move when you hear it. And "Note of Hope" was clearly a labor of love for renowned upright bassist Rob Wasserman.
Approached by Nora Guthrie, daughter of folk legend Woody Guthrie, with the idea of marrying some of her father's unpublished writings to tunes of his own composition, Wasserman set to work contacting a slew of friends with the aim of collaboration. It certainly didn't hurt that Wasserman's Rolodex is all killer and no filler, his considerable resume as sideman, session man, bandleader and composer having endeared him to musicians in idioms as far-flung as jam band, pop, blues and jazz.
Wasserman's instantly identifiable electric upright bass tone -- thick, swampy, frankly badass -- anchors the proceedings and affords them continuity, despite the diversity of the material. The result is an album that manages to celebrate Guthrie's enduring resonance as writer, rebel and thinker, in a throughly present tense.
Opener "The Note of Hope" finds Wasserman teaming with Van Dyke Parks for a glorious slice of Americana, with Parks providing sublime orchestrations and Wasserman manning the engine room, as strings, harmonicas, banjos and mandolins work their textural magic. The Madeline Peyroux-Guthrie collaboration "Wild Card in the Hole" is sly, sexy and blue-lit; Tom Morello takes it all to the streets with the Bill Bragg-esque "Ease My Revolutionary Mind"; Lou Reed warbles through "The Debt I Owe" until he owns it; Michael Franti and Wasserman turn "Union Love Juice" into a reggae-dub romp. All of it works.
While there are clearly no duds here, a handful of the tunes venture toward the truly sublime. Ani DiFranco and Wasserman blend avant-garde, spoken word and funk like they were born to the work during "Voice"; Studs Terkel narrating atop Wasserman's slinky bass ostinato and Don Heffington's supple drumming recalls Tom Waits' "Nighthawks at the Diner" in its boho-jazz strut.
All of this peaks in the nearly 15-minute album-closer, "You Know the Night," which finds Wasserman joining Jackson Browne and band for several pages of text culled from Guthrie's journals -- all of it given a surprisingly cogent melody and sense of movement. Calling this an epic is not going too far.
-- Jeff Miers
Dead Son Rising
Best known as the David Bowie-esque avatar of new wave synth-pop nuggets like "Cars" and the album which housed that hit, "The Pleasure Principle," Gary Numan has perhaps been denied his true due. He's never been Bowie on the talent level, it's true, and it's quite likely that David Sylvian did more for the marriage of new wave and art-rock than did Numan. But there has always been something creepy, menacingly angular and terrifyingly textural about the man's music. Numan managed to make synthesizers sound like thick, distorted guitars at one turn and like Brian Eno on side two of Bowie's "Lodger" the next. He used these particular colors extremely well.
He continues to do so with "Dead Son Rising," an album that should hold appeal not just for Numan fans, but for lovers of Peter Murphy, "Mechanical Animals"-era Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails.
Working once again with co-writer, musician and co-producer Ade Fenton, Numan cashes the credibility check afforded him by his recent collaboration with Numan-esque offspring Battles, for the brilliant "My Machines" single. Blending skewed beats, that trademark "dirty synth," fat, walloping bass tones and Fenton's industrial-metal guitar onslaught, "Dead Son Rising" is a scorcher, a smartly recorded collection that creates a clearly defined sonic space for itself.
It's the songs that keep the album from being merely a "cool-sounding" effort, though. Instrumental opener "Resurrection" sets the scene, with its willful manipulation of fuzzy light and oppressive gloom. "Big Noise Transmission" takes this ball and runs with it, revealing Numan's voice to be all but unchanged despite the decades that have passed since "The Pleasure Principle" and "Tubeway Army."
"When the Sky Bleeds, He Will Come" is frankly disturbing in its goth-noir imagery, but still, the song construction is smart enough to pull back the heavy velvet curtains at opportune moments. What creeps into the room during such moments is strong, balanced work from a seasoned art-rock auteur.
Sing Freedom!: African American Spirituals
3 1/2 stars
In the musical world of the 21st century, this extremely beautiful and unpredictable disc of largely a cappella performances of African-American spirituals seems like a relic leftover from the aspirant and naive 1950s. It was an era where listeners en masse were beginning to take to heart what Czech composer Antonin Dvorak wrote: "I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called Negro melodies These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are American In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music."
"Great and noble" choral renditions, then, "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," "Wayfaring Stranger," "Lily of the Valley," "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," would seem corny to anyone in our century who had never heard what Craig Hella Johnson and Conspirare can do with them in the sophisticated arrangements Johnson has done here.
"They still speak powerfully today," says Johnson and "invite us all into the universal heart."
And indeed they do, which makes Dvorak, on his trip to America, something like the musical version of Alexis De Tocqueville -- the European who understood us better than we were able to understand ourselves at the time.
-- Jeff Simon