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New Again

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Music reissued, recycled, and reinvented

By Greg Cahill

Lester Bowie Brass Fantasy The Odyssey of Funk & Popular Music Atlantic

For more than 30 years, as a member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, trumpeter Lester Bowie has helped define avant-jazz in the late 20th century. By fusing elements as diverse as free jazz and New Orleans second-line struts, Bowie and his posse have liberated the genre from the confines of groundless abstraction. As a solo artist, Bowie has fearlessly reinterpreted some of America's best-known pop songs--his rendition of the Flamingos' "I Only Have Eyes for You" is a breathtaking deconstruction of that doo-wop chestnut. Unfortunately, Bowie also sometimes masks a lack of musicality under theatrical arrangements that court self-parody. This time out, his 11-piece Brass Fantasy gets mixed results reshaping an odd batch of old and new standards. The more conventional fare--"Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" and Cole Porter's "In the Still of the Night"--fall short of Bowie's previous outings, though they boast some fine trumpet and trombone solos. And his take on the Philly soul hit "If You Don't Know Me by Now" is somewhat tepid. But Bowie transforms the Spice Girls' "Two Become One" into a lush after-hours ballad. And shock rocker Marilyn Manson's "Beautiful People" gets a complete makeover as a rollicking brass-heavy romp that alone is worth the price of admission. Not Bowie's best, but there are plenty of interesting side trips to recommend this disc.

Dave Van Ronk Sunday Street Philo

Forget all those tea-sipping neo-folkies. Dave Van Ronk--whose bawdy, gruff vocals, tender sentiments, and heavenly finger-picking made him one of the finest song interpreters to emerge from the '60s folk-blues revival--created this newly reissued masterpiece in 1974. Part devil. Part Angel. He's the perfect antidote to all that cute, cuddly Joni Mitchell-wannabe shlock beamed ceaselessly over NPR. Catch him April 21 at the Blue Heron in Duncans Mills.

Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown Blackjack Sugar Hill

This Texas bluesman--who released a great swing album two years ago--is one of those round-peg-in-a-square-hole types: a black cowboy equally adept at guitar and fiddle, and equally comfortable playing blues, jazz, and country. This 1977 reissue, first released on the obscure Real Records label, is the quintessential Gatemouth Brown CD--a little bit country, a little bit jazzy, a whole lot bluesy, and filled with drop-dead virtuoso guitar, fiddle, and harmonica. Don't fence him in.

The Mahavishnu Orchestra with John McLaughlin The Inner Mounting Flame Columbia/Mobile Fidelity

This seminal '70s jazz fusion recording blazed a path for Carlos Santana, Return to Forever, and a host of other astral travelers. McLaughlin, who seldom (if ever) performs this material these days (splitting his time between classical guitar and traditional jazz), scratched out some damned coarse, and funky, licks as he traded riffs with electric violinist Jerry Goodman, drummer Billy Cobham, and synthesist Jan Hammer. It's remarkable how fresh this sounds today, though that should come as no surprise given the bland nature of so-called contemporary jazz on the airwaves. The drum and bass tracks seem to suffer from the distortion inherent in the technology of the times, but otherwise Sebastopol-based Mobile Fidelity should be commended for bringing this one back.

Sandy Bull Re-inventions Vanguard

Here's the '60s folk guitar master replete with spontaneous instrumental guitar improvisations, oud doodles, bossa nova blues, and classical five-string banjo impressions--including his patented "Carmina Burana Fantasy"--all gloriously restored, remastered, and reissued on this new anthology. Did someone say eclectic?

Pick of the Week

John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman MCA/Impulse!/Mobile Fidelity

This self-titled audiophile disc spotlights the classic 1963 pairing of tenor saxman John Coltrane and jazz vocalist Johnny Hartman--backed by pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones--in a gorgeous session that showcases two of the greatest interpreters of ballads, including the anthem of the Cocktail Nation, Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life." It's 4 a.m. forever. Essential stuff for any jazz buff.

From the April 1-7, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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