A downtown mainstay for twenty years, composer/multi-woodwind performer Ned Rothenberg makes his Tzadik debut with a stunning CD of chamber music. Acclaimed for work in a wide variety of contexts from the multi-metric funk of his Double Band to the large chamber jazz of Power Lines, Rothenberg here shows both range and focus in works for unprecedented instrumentations that have epic scope. Asian and western instruments combine in scores mixing improvised solo features with through-composed ensembles. Ghost Stories is one of Rothenberg's most accomplished works.
Bessie Smith cut 160 sides for the Columbia and OKeh labels between 1923 and 1933, and the four previous two-CD/cassette box sets of her complete recordings released in the 1990s covered 154 of them, which introduces the question, what can a fifth two-CD/cassette box set contain in addition to the remaining six cuts? First, there are five previously unreleased alternate takes; second, there is the 15-minute low-fi soundtrack to the two-reel short St. Louis Blues, which constitutes the only film of Smith; and third, taking up all of the second CD/cassette, there are 72 minutes of interview tapes of Ruby Smith, Bessie Smith's niece, who traveled as part of her show. The box contains a "Parental Advisory – Explicit Lyrics" warning because of the nature of Ruby Smith's reminiscences. You won't learn much about Bessie Smith's music from her niece's remarks, but you will learn a lot about her sexual preferences.
What one feels about this 27-song CD will depend entirely upon one's tolerance for soft rock and bubblegum pop. Pickettywitch were huge in England for about two years, and remain one of the more fondly remembered pop/rock groups of their period, mostly by virtue of singer Polly Browne, who has maintained a fandom for 30 years. The sound is soft rock in a modified group context, similar to the kind of music generated by the Partridge Family, the Cowsills, and, on a two-dimensional level, the Archies in America, slick and smooth, catchy and unthreatening; their version of Paul Simon's "Sound of Silence" is something akin to what the New Seekers' rendition might've been like, while "Days I Remember," which came close to charting in America, is akin to the Carpenters trying their hand at blue-eyed soul. It's all rather pretty, for all of its relative wimpiness, and difficult to dislike on that basis – "Solomon Grundy," the B-side that launched their public success, is one of those tunes that was meant for radio airplay two or three times daily, and the title track, a top-five U.K. hit, is a breezy piece of romantic soft rock.
The fourth of five volumes (the first four are two-CD sets) that reissue all of Bessie Smith's recordings traces her career from a period when her popularity was at its height down to just six songs away from the halt of her recording career. But although her commercial fortunes might have slipped, Bessie Smith never declined and these later recordings are consistently powerful. The two-part "Empty Bed Blues" and "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" (hers is the original version) are true classics and none of the other 40 songs (including the double-entendre "Kitchen Man") are throwaways. With strong accompaniment during some performances by trombonist Charlie Green, guitarist Eddie Lang, Clarence Williams's band and on ten songs (eight of which are duets) the masterful pianist James P. Johnson, this volume (as with the others) is quite essential.
On the third of five volumes (the first four are double-CD box sets) that reissue all of her recordings, the great Bessie Smith is greatly assisted on some of the 38 selections by a few of her favorite sidemen: cornetist Joe Smith, trombonist Charlie Green, and clarinetist Buster Bailey. But the most important of her occasional musicians was pianist James P. Johnson, who makes his first appearance in 1927 and can be heard on four duets with Bessie, including the monumental "Backwater Blues." Other highlights of this highly recommended set (all five volumes are essential) include "After You've Gone," "Muddy Water," "There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight," "Trombone Cholly," "Send Me to the 'Lectric Chair," and "Mean Old Bed Bug Blues." The power and intensity of Bessie Smith's recordings should be considered required listening; even 80 years later they still communicate.
One of country music s most eclectic heroes, Marty Robbins celebrated an extraordinary career as one of the genre s leading crossover artists. Spending more than 30 years in the music business, Robbins routinely refused to conform to contemporary trends, branching out into pop, rockabilly, Hawaiian, calypso and gospel music, all underlined by his trademark Southern twang. In addition to being a skilled player and performer, Robbins was also a magnificent songwriter, penning many of his best-known hits. He also undertook numerous ventures outside of music during his lifetime, appearing in films and even occasionally participating in NASCAR races. However, it is his music for which he is most fondly remembered, and Robbins retains his reputation as one of the finest ever country musicians and performers. This collection, presented across four discs and running in excess of five hours, collates the entirety of Marty Robbins output between 1952 and 1960, and in so doing, provides not only the perfect introduction to this country giant, but acts too as a welcome reminder for those already well-versed in Marty Robbins incredible work.
Bessie Smith, even on the evidence of her earliest recordings, well deserved the title "Empress of the Blues" for in the 1920s there was no one in her league for emotional intensity, honest blues feeling, and power. The second of five volumes (the first four are two-CD sets) finds her accompaniment improving rapidly with such sympathetic sidemen as trombonist Charlie Green, cornetist Joe Smith, and clarinetist Buster Bailey often helping her out. However, they are overshadowed by Louis Armstrong, whose two sessions with Smith (nine songs in all) fall into the time period of this second set; particularly classic are their versions of "St. Louis Blues," "Careless Love Blues," and "I Ain't Goin' to Play Second Fiddle." Other gems on this essential set include "Cake Walkin' Babies From Home," "The Yellow Dog Blues," and "At the Christmas Ball."