Steve Lehman Trio, Dialect Flourescent (Pi Recordings)
Though his apprenticeship studies included stints under John Lewis and Anthony Braxton, it must have been his four years with Jackie McLean that led this alto saxophonist’s Wesleyan peers to pejoratively dub him “Mr. Bebop,” which says more about them than it does about him. Besides, Lehman the supposed throwback is an outside thinker capable of stripping John Coltrane’s multi-tonic changes showpiece “Moment’s Notice” into 3 minutes and 49 seconds of melodic and rhythmic exposition, only teasing out the familiar head in the final seconds. Ties to both Coltrane (Matt Brewer’s bassline on “Allocentric” sure echoes the drone of “Dahomey Dance”) and McLean continue throughout the album, the latter represented most explicitly by “Mr. E,” more implicitly through Lehman’s open-ended commitment to an evolving avant-garde and the traditions from which that avant-grade sprang. Plus, he has a feel for funk - “Foster Brothers” and “Fumba Rebel” in particular display wicked if fractured syncopation. Credit must be extended to an eight-year-running rhythm section comprised of Brewer and Billy Higgins acolyte Damion Reed, who respond to Lehman’s structured freedom with loose virtuosity. But the leader holds everything together, his improvisatory flow often microtonal and always riding the beat. A throwback, huh? Personally, I’ve always found bebop pretty forward-looking. Modern, even.
The Ben Riley Quartet & Wayne Escoffery, Grown Folks Music (Sunnyside)
Riley held down rhythm duties for Thelonious Monk in the 1960s, and at the age of 78 downplays flash in favor of a laid-back swing no doubt too tasteful and trad for some. But the double billing is justified, with saxophonist Wayne Escoffery a mid-thirties Young Lion type with a spotty discography and lovely Wayne Shorter-esque tone perfect for these familiar yet hardly worn out numbers (standard among standards “Laura” excepted). Of the two Monk tunes, the smart, halting “Teo” is most obviously the work of Riley’s old boss, with Escoffrey venturing just a bit afield. Add a slinky “Friday The 13th” and a bright take on Sonny Rollins’ “Without A Song,” both of which took enough gentle liberties to help me hear such well-trod numbers with fresh ears, and the album title begins to suggest not moldy fig defensiveness, but a suavity and reach just this side of effortless that does indeed sometimes come with age.
Oh No, Ohnomite (Stone’s Throw)
Madlib’s little brother turns from the psychedelic excesses of Gangrene to the master tapes of raunch pioneer Rudy Ray Moore’s Dolemite soundtrack, and seems to take the pimp underground seriously enough as an outsider stance to see beyond the mere sleazy party noise that Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg built careers on. Whatever historical precedent Moore set for the hip-hop game, his ragged delivery rarely flowed - like Redd Foxx or the dozens-spewing Bo Diddley, it was his attitude, alter egos, and pussy talk that would inspire young MCs. So Oh No’s decision to beef up these tracks with added organ, drums, and a solid roll call of indie name rappers was wise, even necessary. Still, Moore’s music always played distant backup to the shit he talked. MF Doom and Sticky Fingaz and Alchemist and the many others here trade verses amiably, ferociously, even getting appropriately explicit at times (Frank Nitt’s “Touch It”). But Moore himself is in rare supply. And who listens to, much less raids, a Rudy Ray Moore album for the beats?
Japandroids, Celebration Rock (Polyvinyl)
Since both detractors and admirers of this earnest “noise” duo focus first on the undeniable pleasures of pummeling drums and distortion-crackling guitars, it seems fair to point out the rather traditional framework hiding behind all that - well, not noise, actually, but volume. Calculatedly frenzied and uninterested in hedging their bets, Brian King and David Prowse easily bat away all those unfounded No Age comparisons, as if every guitar-drums unit was created equal. More like fellow northerner Craig Finn minus the subtlety or the doubt, with a tendency towards over-romanticizing things like fireworks and sleeping when you’re dead. So while I’ll certainly give it up for their forward momentum, it’s telling that the best lyrics here come courtesy of Jeffrey Lee Pierce and Kid Congo Powers, hardly my versifiers of choice. Elsewhere, it’s strictly heart-on-sleeve stuff, with labored imagery and alliteration a-plenty: downing drinks in a “funnel of friends,” yelling “like hell to the heavens,” riding “fire’s highway tonight,” “southern hands” kissing away “gyspy fears,” and (buckle up) proclaiming “wildness is our treasure / so boldly surrender / to me and to the night”. Plus, lots of whooooaaah-ohhhs. Or is that whoooaa-ohhh-oh-ooh-ooh-oh-oh-ohh?
Garbage, Not Your Kind Of People (Stunvolume)
This far from hookless gadget-strewn stroll down memory lane - stadium rock minus the stadiums, an acquaintance cruelly observed - now and again flirts with the kind of in-your-face blockbuster pop this crew made their reputations with in a mid-90s alternative universe that now seems very distant indeed. “Felt” is welcomely noisy, “Big Bright World” rather cute. But this band always relied on Shirley Manson’s silly man-eater persona to put their anthems over, and that persona is a bit harder to pull off in a world where Lady Gaga wields wit and absurdity as handily as she does earnestness and paranoia. An overly familiar trope like “I won’t be your dirty little secret” is one thing, but the utter vagaries of the title track is another. When a band boasting a collective average age of 53 rages “you seem kind of phony” as “[you] run around trying to fit in,” one wonders if they’re simply hanging with the wrong crowd.
Sonny Landreth, Elemental Journey (Proper Records)
A “musician’s musician,” and you know what that means - jaw-dropping chops in service to backup vocalists and tossaway chord progressions. While such previous collaborators as Jennifer Warnes or Jimmy Buffett aren’t missed, all those slide glissandos and stomping drums do run together during the course of an eleven track all-instrumental album. Half-exception: the speedy mountain gospel guitar charge of “Wonderide”. But we’re probably lucky songs with titles like “Gaia Tribe” and “Brave New Girl” lack words. As for backup, guitarist’s guitarists Joe Satriani and Eric Johnson add occasional flourishes, while the Acadiana Symphony Orchestra offer non-amplified strings. The whole endeavor will excite certain guitar players and enthusiasts. The rest of us can wait until Landreth’s solos once again get respectfully sandwiched between the verses of an artist worth paying attention to. Old boss John Hiatt, perhaps.