Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Music Library: Jimmie Rodgers, Jimmy Bryant, Jimmy Reed, Jimmy Rushing, Jimmy Smith, Jimmy Strong, JJ Cale, Joanna Newsom

Jimmie Rodgers - The Essential Jimmie Rodgers (recorded 1927 - 1931). As Allmusic points out, his plaque in the Country Music Hall Of Fame identifies the Singing Brakeman as the one who started it all. That's right. Rodgers, born in Meridian, Mississippi but son of the railroad, played a music that blended all of the folk music sounds he heard while riding the rails and the result is basically the Rosetta Stone of 20th century popular music. That's a little simplistic, but mostly true. Rodgers's yodelling blues can be heard in country, nascent rock & roll, blues (Howlin' Wolf was, legendarily, attempting a version of Rodgers's yodel when he came up with his trademark growl), and folk music. And music so old and primal (relatively speaking) has no cause to be as enjoyable as it is, but it's absolutely brilliant.

Jimmy Bryant - Frettin' Fingers: The Lightning Guitar of Jimmy Bryant (recorded 1950-1967). Man, what a pleasure these discs were! Jimmy Bryant, perhaps best known as a country session guitarist from the 50s and 60s, was a guitarist of unsurpassed skill, speed, and inventiveness. Seriously. He's faster than Yngwie Malmsteen when he wants to be, but lo and behold, he never let his speed impede the flow of the song. About half of the 75-odd tracks from this utterly amazing 3-disc set are from his collaboration with pedal steel virtuoso Speedy West in the 50s (and we'll hit those again when we get to the letter S), while the other half are from his solo albums in the late 60s. Every track is mindblowing from a technical standpoint (when I listen as a guitarist, that is), but as in the music of Bryant's muse Django Reinhardt, they freakin' swing like hell and you could play them for anyone without worries. When playing with West, Bryant and West tend to trade off of each other in the style of Bob Wills's Texas Playboys Eldon Shamblin and Leon McAuliffe, who pioneered the pedal-steel-and-electric-guitar attack a decade before. Both were significantly more flashy players than Shamblin and McAuliffe, though, and the music feels less like Western Swing than something harder to define. On his own in the late 60s, Bryant tried on a number of styles, including exotica, surf, and Link Wray-style rock & roll, and the man just killed at all of them. I don't think I can rate this stuff highly enough. Fan-freakin'-tastic. Recommended for people with ears. Oh, side point for guitar geeks: Leon Fender built his first guitar for Jimmy Bryant. Or so I have read.

Heck, here's West and Bryant playing off each other on live tv:

OK, here's another. Not live, just the studio version of "Stratosphere Boogie" with images of the two. That awesome guitar effect is achieved with a 12-string tuned in 3rds.

Jimmy Reed - Jimmy Reed Plays 12 String Guitar Blues (1963). Jimmy Reed is best-known for his simple and direct blues songs and vocal style, but this album is unlike the typical Jimmy Reed style. Here, the man plays lead before a cooking rhythm section on an acoustic 12-string guitar and accompanies himself on overdubbed harmonica. It's actually wonderful, although so out of character that I really should have an album of Reed doing his thing the usual way. Because the typical Jimmy Reed song sounds exactly like what most people think of when they think of the blues. This isn't because Reed was a generic blues artist, but a definitive one.

Jimmy Rushing - 1930-1938. Known as Mr. Five-By-Five, Jimmy Rushing was a jump blues shouter who had a great career with Kansas City swing jazz pioneer Bennie Moten in the 1930s. When Moten died suddenly, Rushing hooked up with Count Basie and sang lead for Basie's Orchestra for the next decade or so. This is great stuff, perhaps not as much up my alley as what immediately precedes it in my library, but still fun as heck.

Jimmy Smith - Walk On The Wild Side: The Best Of The Verve Years (recorded 1962-1973). The greatness keeps humming! The king of the Hammond organ, Jimmy Smith made the instrument a viable lead in jazz. This 2-disc compilation captures his forays into big band music and tight little funk-jazz combos. Excellent!

Jimmy Strong - This Is How The Bee Bops (unknown). My awesome in-laws heard Strong do his skat-violin bee-bop thing whilst on vacation and they brought me a CD. I don't know anything about Mr. Strong, but this is pretty entertaining.

JJ Cale - "Call The Doctor." The music to this sounds like the music to "Summertime." That's about all I know to say about JJ Cale. OK, one story: not long after moving to Austin, I auditioned a drummer who answered my ad in the Austin Chronicle that mentioned the Velvet Underground. He didn't know any Velvet Underground songs or any other songs by artists I mentioned (except the Kinks, but he wanted to do "You Really Got Me" instead of my choice, "Shangri-La"). But he kept trying to convince me to play some JJ Cale. I told him I didn't know any JJ Cale. He asked me how I could be a Velvet Underground fan and not know JJ Cale. I was baffled. Finally, I asked him what in the world JJ Cale had to do with the Velvet Underground. You have probably figured this out by now. Drummer dude: "He was their bassist, man! Don't you know anything?" He seemed so smug about it that I didn't have the heart to defend poor ol' John Cale's honor.

Joanna Newsom - Walnut Whales EP (2002), Yarn And Glue EP (2003), The Milk-Eyed Mender (2004), "What We Have Known," Ys. (2006), and Joanna Newsom And The Ys Street Band EP (2007). I sure like Ms. Newsom's music. I think her idiosyncratic voice is a national treasure, and her songs are drop-dead amazing, structurally, lyrically, and in performance. She's definitely mining a vein of folk music that seems completely American and yet weirdly ancient, too, as if the current American civilization had the long, storied history of, say, Great Britain. I mean, to some extent, yes, it has the exact same long, storied history as Great Britain, but the folk music of America is a different beast. And somehow she does it on a harp, which makes it sound like sometimes she's playing piano and sometimes like a fingerpicked guitar. And seeing as how she's all of 27 as of this writing, I honestly can't wait to hear what she comes up with next. So, the two EPs were limited release, but some kind soul posted them to a blog. The songs are mostly complete versions of the tracks from Milk-Eyed Mender, but she re-recorded those tracks for her first full-length album. That album is stunningly great. The single was the b-side of the "Sprout and the Bean" single, another re-recording from an EP. It's ok, but best as a b-side. Ys. is an amazing work, a collaboration of sorts with Van Dyke Parks named after a mythical French city. I want to unravel the lyrics at some point, but I've never taken the time. The Ys Street Band EP is a 3-song live album with a new song, a reworking of "Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie" from Milk-Eyed Mender and a fantastic reworking of "Cosmia" from Ys. that is my favorite thing she's done.


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