Kevin Eubanks

The Messenger

[Mack Avenue]

Three stars

Kevin Eubanks was the second jazz musician of major reputation to play sidekick and spritz-catcher for Jay Leno (the first was Branford Marsalis) for a few years of filthy lucre and then decide to listen to integrity’s siren song and move back to what fate had already engineered him to be – a working and hugely admired jazz musician.

Eubanks’ family is of a bit less renown in jazz circles than the Marsalises (the sublime Philadelphia jazz/blues pianist Ray Bryant was their uncle), but that doesn’t mean they’re not front and center here – trombonist brother Robin impressive on two tunes, trumpet playing brother Duane on three.

You have no idea how much I wish Eubanks’ major public vote for jazz integrity over mildly ignominious show business (Leno’s use of Eubanks as a patsy often bordered on condescension) meant that “The Messenger” was a truly great and blistering jazz disc. It’s not. It’s a typical disc in “jazz star” mode, i.e. an extremely eclectic, self-consciously produced musical array in which the leader “stars” quite significantly in every solo. In the case of a musician who spent so long as a very public functionary (and occasional flunky), there’s a lot to be said for much of this – not to mention the contributions of brothers Robin and Duane and saxophonist Bill Pierce (his old “Tonight Show” mate Marvin Smitty Smith is the drummer).

It’s creative, certainly, to hear Coltrane’s “Resolution” from “A Love Supreme” turned into funk, but Eubanks is a truly great jazz guitar player as you will often be reminded here. Just once it might have been nice to hear him, at this stage, in straight-ahead “blowing date” in the very highest company.

– Jeff Simon


The Blue Nile

Hats: Deluxe Edition


Four stars

It’s difficult to pinpoint the ephemeral quality that defines “timelessness” in pop music. Since pop devours its young, and is always eager to appear hip, cool, forward-looking and in-the-moment, it tends to embrace every new technological imprint that stumbles into the room, from the heavily gated reverb that defined 1980s drum sounds to the miles-beyond-annoying auto-tuned vocal trick that leaves its scum-coated footprint all over modern radio pop and hip-hop. How can something constructed with a sell-by date in mind ever transcend its immediate milieu? Particularly when the industry that stands behind its creation doesn’t really care if it survives for posterity or not, as long as it sells a few gazillion copies in the here and now?

When Scottish trio the Blue Nile first dropped its immaculate “Hats” on the world, the year was 1989. The landscape in pop music was much like it has always been – there was fantastic, inventive music being made, and there was an awful lot of garbage, too. “Hats” didn’t sell millions, but it left an indelible mark on music by creating its own microcosmic universe. It was a sparse, subtle, hushed and dimly lit cosmos, one where singer Paul Buchanan’s yearning croon lorded over damp backstreets where jilted lovers and world-weary souls gathered to stoically mingle and perhaps drink their blues away. This was not the flash of the overly aerobicized me generation, not by a long shot. It was quietly contemplative music, ruminative and cinematic.

The opening trio of tunes heralding “Hats” – the three-whiskeys-in gorgeous bummer “Over the Hillside,” the longing-infused “The Downtown Lights,” and the achingly elegaic “Let’s Go Out Tonight” – confirmed the album as a masterpiece before it even reached midpoint. Buchanan’s vocals – raw emotion sitting front and center, sometimes disconcerting in their honesty – are buoyed by supple guitars, sympathetic synths, the most minimal of rhythm section pulses. There are no wasted notes, nor is there unwarranted and unwanted flab in the arrangements. All bow before the narrative flow, which proceeds elegantly toward a dark night of the soul. There is a relentless sense of the narrator’s loneliness amid crowds. There is also the suggestion that the narrator will search in vain for a fulfillment that will never be his. His fate is to wander through the nightlife embracing ghosts, repeating the action with Sisyphus-like determination, pushed onward by the curse of hope and the cursed indomitability of dreams.

Here in its pristinely remastered and expanded form – a second disc adds alternate vocal takes, live-in-the-studio run-throughs and unreleased songs from the original sessions – “Hats” stands as a transcendently eloquent collection of sophisticated pop songs. It’s an ode to understatement, and to the foggy beauty of loss. This music was built to last.

– Jeff Miers


Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite

Get Up!


3½ stars

Ben Harper met his match in seasoned bluesman Charlie Musselwhite. Always adept at treading the line between R&B, reggae, rock, folk and alternative music, Harper the songwriter flourishes here, perhaps contradictorily due to the constraints of the mostly straight blues chord sequences he and Musselwhite tear through. Raw, stripped down, dry and in your face, the pair’s “Get Up!” digs into acoustic delta forms, celebrates Muddy Waters’ Chicago strut – “I’m Out and I’m Gone” might be heard as a paean to Waters’ seminal “Electric Mud” album – and offers a tip of the hat to Clapton-era John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, all with an equally ferocious conviction.

Musselwhite’s beautifully distorted harmonica slithers slyly throughout the mix, complementing Harper’s blend of acoustic, electric and lap-slide guitars. All isn’t specifically retro in its intention, happily – “I Don’t Believe A Word You Say” should appeal to fans of the Black Keys and Jack White, with its Zeppelin-esque strut, and “I Ride At Dawn” is the blues as post-modernism, a ghostly lament that might have been recorded in 1950, or next week.

It’s inspired, all of it. And it just might be what Harper has repeatedly claimed it is – the finest collection of songs ever to be released beneath his name.

– J.M.


Chris Potter

The Sirens


3½ stars

Anyone claiming Chris Potter is the finest living tenor saxophonist of his jazz generation (he celebrated his 42nd birthday Jan. 1) would get almost immediate assent. He began by appearing with some of jazz’s smartest senior citizens (Marian McPartland, Red Rodney), spent quality time with the likes of Dave Holland, Steve Swallow, Paul Motian and almost every one of that generation with taste and discernment and here, burns in fiercely inventive company – alternating pianists Craig Taborn and David Virelles, bassist Larry Grenadier and Charles Lloyd’s phenomenal current drummer Eric Harland.

Potter can play with a thick tenor tone that almost out-Breckers the late Michael Brecker, but he can also play with great delicacy and end the whole disc in a John Cage or Morton Feldman mode with music that is beautifully reduced to sounds that occur (Art, said Cage, is “the imitation of nature in her manner of operation.” Hear “The Shades” here.) For Potter and Manfred Eicher’s ECM label to have found each other was a triumph of serendipity.

– J.S.