The Cape Verdean Blues
Blue Note Records
If there was one pianist in the eye of the Hard Bop hurricane of the mid-50s to mid-60s, it would have had to be Horace Silver. Silver's quintets never quite matched the star power of Miles Davis' or Art Blakey's, but they swung every bit as hard -- no small feat considering the competition.
As a Blue Note fixture, Silver released gem after gem on the label during that era, including this, the follow-up to Silver's most popular record, Songs for My Father. (If the melody from that title cut sounds familiar, it's because Steely Dan ripped it off for "Rikki Don't Lose That Number").
In fact, it was Silver's heritage -- his father came from Cape Verde -- which supplied the impetus for some of these songs' exotic flavor (a mix of Eastern and Caribbean sounds). But it's saxophonist Joe Henderson and first-time Silver trumpeter Woody Shaw who give this record real bite. This was the tenor great's second Silver date, and the big man was settling in enough to step outside the bounds quite a bit, pushing the rest of the unit out with him, including even trombone legend JJ Johnson on three tracks.
While the disc didn't include any future standards or re-draw the jazz map (this was "66; the map had already been tossed), it did what every Silver record did -- it swung, hard.
Track to burn: "The African Queen"
Grade: A---John Schacht
The Bootleg Series Vol. 6 Live 1964
This great live recording (it's been floating around as a mediocre-sounding bootleg for years) illustrates the ferocity of the 23-year-old Dylan, tearing it up with just an acoustic guitar and harp rack. This show came on the heels of Another Side of Dylan, his 4th release and, arguably, a turning point into more poetic compositions. The masterpiece, "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding"), is played slowly here, where in later years it was sped up and amplified when played during the peak of Vietnam. The song should be requisite listening for free-stylists and hip hoppers. It's unnerving how true this song still rings 40 years later. Dylan's sardonic wit is in fine form in "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues" and "Talkin' World War III Blues." Joan Baez makes a cameo, singing backup on three tracks while taking the lead on "Silver Dagger." Dylan is at the peak of his acoustic years on this remastered triumph, chatty and spontaneous, encapsulating it with a searing blues twist on "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall."
Track to burn: "Gates of Eden"
Grade: A--Samir Shukla
The Essential Kris Kristofferson
Kris Kristofferson has always been something of a Renaissance man in the country music world. A Rhodes Scholar, he married Rita Coolidge, dated Barbra Streisand, spent many years supporting various activist causes, had songs covered by Johnny Cash ("Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down") and Janis Joplin ("Me and Bobby McGee"), and was directed by the legendary Sam Peckinpah. The problem? He was such a Renaissance man that he couldn't focus his energies on any one art form (or woman).
Some years after turning to acting to satisfy his creative jones, Kristofferson experienced a popular recent renaissance, with his best songs co-opted by a new generation of songwriters like Richard Buckner (who notably covered his gorgeous "Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I'll Ever Do Again"). It's fitting, really. For all his albums, Kristofferson was always something of a singles artist.
The two-CD set, The Essential, is probably the only Kristofferson album most people will ever need, including all the songs listed above along with a selection of novelty tracks including "The Highwayman" -- from the album of the same name with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Cash -- and "If You Don't Like Hank Williams."
A popular Kristofferson theme is the plight of the artist in a world that couldn't really care less. But who needs enemies when you have friends like those above?
Track to burn: "Sunday Mornin" Comin' Down"
Grade: A---Timothy C. Davis
The Essential Earl Scruggs
Columbia / Legacy
This two-disc collection spans almost four decades (1946-1984) of Scruggs' work, including that with the Foggy Mountain Boys, Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys, and the Timberliners. It also features solos and duets featuring Tom T. Hall, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and others. Scruggs turned 80 earlier this year and is nothing less than an American cultural icon. The North Carolina native knows traditional bluegrass like the back of his hand, but has detoured ever so gently into country and rock territory throughout his career. This collection gives a taste of his live prowess, as well as some "outside the box" recognizable tunes like "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" and "Cumberland Gap." Scruggs holds true to his gospel roots covering Dylan's "I Shall Be Released" and Hank Sr.'s "I Saw the Light." This collection of 40 songs is a great primer on the father of bluegrass banjo.
Track to burn: "I Shall be Released"
Grade: A--Samir Shukla