Branford Marsalis Quartet
Romare Bearden Revealed
It is amazing how consistently excellent the recordings of saxophonist Branford Marsalis are, and Romare Bearden Revealed lives up to Marsalis' reputation. His new CD featuring his quartet and guests (such as his famous relatives and Harry Connick Jr.) focuses compositions based on the art of Harlem painter and collagist Romare Bearden.
The CD has a gorgeous beginning with Branford's shimmering soprano sax on Duke Ellington's "I'm Slappin Seventh Avenue." The piece combines the tonal colors of Duke with lines reminiscent of Jelly Roll Morton. This is a great lead-in to Morton's "Jungle Blues" recorded live with pianist/father Ellis and brothers Wynton (trumpeter), Jason (drums) and Delfeayo (trombone). The band interplay on the animal sounds that the piece contains is quite humorous.
The rest of the CD is balanced between several more traditional pieces and a couple modern ones that feature Wynton's trumpet. The traditional pieces range from the jaunty Hot Club-esque instrumentation of "B's Paris Blues" to the dancing rhythms of "Steppin'." In contrast, tunes such as "J Mood" and "Laughin' and Talkin' (With Higg)" are less ornamental and more stark, especially the latter track with its lack of piano, and drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts' skillful work on the toms. Wynton and Branford bring out the best in each other's playing, and that is evident here.
Romare Bearden Revealed also is successful in bringing out the kinetic yet sensuous, down-home feel of Bearden's art. Rare is the art-inspired music that doesn't subtract from either media, and here Marsalis' playing adds to both. -- David Kunian
(Bayou Mamas Records)
Jezebel, the new CD from local fave Beatin Path, jumps out of the speakers with a good-natured sound. The band consists of seasoned pros such as guitarist-singer Skeeter Hanks, drummer Mike Barras and bassist Craig Legendre as well as two members who are better known for their production and engineering skill: Mike Mayeux and Brent Moreland. Together, they make this set of music sound like radio-friendly late-70s/early-80s rock 'n' roll with a slight country twang.
Most of the songs concern the enigma known as woman. Songwriters Mayeux and Hanks focus on the varying aspects of the female gender including yearning for them, the troubles they suffer, and why they are the way they are. The songs vary from the confident swagger of "Darker Days" and "See it in Your Eyes" to the back-porch vibe of "You Don't Know Me" and the bare-bones sound of the title track. The voices of singers Hanks and Mayeux mesh well in their harmonies throughout the entire CD. Moreland's solos are excellent especially his lead and pedal steel work on "Movin to the Country."
Jezebel occasionally veers into strange territory with the spacey vibe and flat vocals of "I Believe" sounding like mid-70s David Bowie or even Steely Dan. However, that doesn't take away from the wailing crunch of "Out of Hand" or the many songs here that are catchy enough to sing along to. It is the harmonies and songwriting that make this CD stand out for all the right reasons. -- Kunian
In Time -- The Best of R.E.M. (1988-2003)
Ever since R.E.M. left the major-label but indie-sensible I.R.S. Records for Greener pastures with Warner Bros. in 1988, the band that helped define the undefinable term "alternative rock" seemed hell-bent on not looking or sounding like a sell-out. As I.R.S.'s subsequent Eponymous compilation proved, the band was comfortably nestled in its Southern gothic, folk-rock-with-a-punk-edge approach that checked enough references to feel utterly fresh.
As In Time proves, R.E.M. was self-consciously obsessed with wanting to stay ahead of the grim reaper that is the fickleness of music taste, and the results are as mixed as one might expect. There's lead singer Michael Stipe becoming more out front, more articulate, more poetic and (unfortunately) more annoying. There is Mike Mills' growing affinity for keyboards ("Nightswimming"), and guitarist Peter Buck (the band's true genius) announcing songs with wider ranges of instruments (the mandolin of "Losing My Religion," the sonic fuzz of "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?").
The double disc is divided between a straight-up compilation of hits -- which, if nothing else, confirms the haunting greatness of Automatic for the People -- and a "rarities and B-sides" compilation that shows the band might not have learned any lessons from Dead Letter. (Still, I'll gladly suffer through an acoustic version of "Pop Song '89," which exposes Stipe's whine, for a live version of "Turn You Inside Out.")
The two new songs featured in the first disc -- "Bad Day" and "Animal" -- are so refreshingly familiar you almost wish they'd saved it for their next album, or wonder if that next album (their 13th) will mark a more consistent return to greatness. -- David Lee Simmons