Graded on a Curve:
Black Friday Recommendations

The Record Store Day 2022 Black Friday event is November 25th. The following round-up is led by a Record Store Day jazz reissue, and also includes a bespoke audiophile jazz vinyl companion to a PBS television special on a celebrated jazz bassist; a three-CD tribute to one of the key American artists of the ’60s folk and ’70s singer-songwriter scenes; a two-CD collection of 1950s singles from a legendary Chicago blues harmonica-player, and concludes with what may be the album of the year from Father John Misty.

Tony Williams, Play or Die (MIG Music) Gone 25 years, Tony Williams was one of the key drummers during the salad days of jazz fusion in the ’70s and left an indelible mark on jazz history with his work with Miles Davis. It’s rare that any previously released or out-of-print music surfaces from Williams of late, but Record Store Day fans will be able to pick up a recording from 1980 that for some reason was only released in a limited edition of 500 copies. Now, 2,000 copies will be released of a trio outing that also included two alumni of the drummer’s group Lifetime: Tom Grant and Patrick O’Hearn.

O’Hearn has also worked extensively in the new age genre, with his first breakthrough as a member of Frank Zappa’s band and as a founding member of Missing Persons. The album begins with a very synthy, electronic feel but sounds surprisingly organic on side one, with touches of Keith Emerson of all people. There is almost a sense that this album could be a lost link between fusion and techno. There is a spiky, almost new wave feel on “Jam Tune” that almost hints at the sound of Devo and The Police. There are mellower moments, some jazz-rock, and even some sweet vocals on “There Comes a Time.” The album was pressed in Germany and has a natural analog groove. It’s great to see this rarity back in print. B

Ron Carter, Finding the Right Notes (IN + OUT Records) This is a companion album to the PBS documentary Finding the Right Notes on jazz bassist Ron Carter. Carter is the most recorded bassist in jazz history and this album works as a nice television soundtrack, but it is also a bespoke audiophile release. The highlights here include concert recordings from the Newport Jazz Festival, at The National Jazz Museum in Harlem, and at the Blue Note club in New York. Some of the collaborators include Stanley Clarke, Bill Frisell, Christian McBride, and Jon Batiste. This double-album, audiophile deluxe edition was mastered and pressed in Germany on 180-gram virgin vinyl and comes in a gatefold jacket, with poly-lined inner sleeves and a resealable outer sleeve. The album and television special mark a valedictory lap that celebrates one of the true legends in jazz history. B+

Various Artists, Tribute to a Songpoet: Songs of Eric Andersen (Y&T Music) This three-CD set, which pays tribute to the songs of Eric Andersen, is long overdue. Andersen was a key figure in the evolution of American music from the early days of the ’60s folk revival right through the waning days of the singer-songwriter movement of the ’70s. That alone would be reason enough to celebrate his music. However, from the ’80s onward, he has sought out new collaborators, primarily Rick Danko and Jonas Fjeld, and widened his musical canvas to write and record sprawling songs of panoramic grandeur that encompass sweeping musical backing and poetic prose lyrics.

Andersen has made later albums that approach the richness of great literature and his recent weathered vocal style suits the material and makes it even more thrilling. This extraordinary career is reflected in some of the people who chose from his deep reservoir of songs to come up with fresh new interpretations. That list includes, but is not limited to, Steve Addabbo (the producer of this project), Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt, Lenny Kaye, Willie Nile, Richard Barone, Elliott Murphy, Rick Danko, Amy Helm, Larry Campbell & Teresa Williams, Allison Moorer, Happy Traum, The Kennedys, Richard Shindell, Lucy Kaplansky, John Gorka, Cliff Eberhardt, Scarlet Rivera, Janis Ian, Mary Chapin Carpenter, John Wesley Harding, Syd Straw and Buskin & Batteau.

The opening track by Bob Dylan was previously unreleased, and seven other tracks were previously released but fit right in with all of the newly recorded covers. It’s hard to pick out any favorites, but suffice it to say this 42-song set is a journey through the song catalog of one America’s most underrated and still relevant songwriters. A

Junior Wells, Blues Legend (Cleopatra Blues) Along with Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson, Junior Wells is regarded as one of the masters of blues harmonica. Born in Memphis, Welles was a key member of the celebrated and highly influential Chicago blues scene of the ’50s and ’60s. Joining Muddy Waters and replacing Little Walter in 1952 was his big break. It was also at the same time that he began a long run of releasing classic singles, that was almost immediately put on hold when Welles was drafted.

These singles, from 1952 through 1963, from the Chief, Shad, and Profile labels, make up these two CDs, except for one bonus live cut, from 1966, that includes, among others, Otis Rush. Welles is backed by Waters, Elmore James, Otis Span, Earl Hooker, and Willie Dixon among others on some of these blues workhorses. Welles would sign with Vanguard in 1966 and make his first album. He would have a long career, lasting until his death in 1998, often touring with Buddy Guy as a duo. Many of these singles were first reissued in 1972 and it’s nice to have them back in print again, in a more comprehensive collection. B

Father John Misty, Chloë and the Next 20th Century (Sub Pop/Bella Union) It’s been four years since the release of an album from Father John Misty. Our father is actually one Joshua Tillman. He recorded eight albums between 2003 and 2010 before joining Fleet Foxes for one album in 2011. He also made two albums with Saxon Shore before his J. Tillman albums. Like his previous FJM albums, this one is a remarkable collection of richly drawn compositions, with ambitious, sweeping, organically conceived music. This is music of intense introspection, heartfelt beauty, and gorgeous vocals.

Listening to this album on the double-vinyl edition makes for a lush and timeless listen. The good father shrewdly uses old-time jazz, baroque country folk, blues, classical, noir, and spy film music and draws from a disparate well of influences such as singer-songwriters Van Dyke Parks, Kris Kristofferson, Randy Newman, and Steve Goodman. Once again Jonathan Wilson co-produced the album with FJM and was the first recorded at Wilson’s new Fivestar Studios, perched high above the hills of Topanga, California.

This is truly a dazzling album reflecting the immense talents of a singular artist. The sophistication of the material, arrangements and production, the willingness to experiment, the unflinching un-conventionalism, the beauty of his voice and the breadth of his songwriting prowess raise this album far above the pablum that passes for most of the popular music on the charts these past many years. This album should dominate the top spot on end-of-year lists for best albums and the Grammy Awards. A+

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