John Beasley Presents MONK’estra Vol 1  (Mack Ave.) 

A trip-hop “’Round Midnight”? Why the hell not? At this late date, Monk’s most famous tune has been so strongly standardized, it takes a true overhaul to have it heard with fresh ears. John Beasley’s chart kicks it off with seven badass snare triplets that serve as an alarm midway through this all-Thelonious big band album. By the time the spectral theme settles in, its introspection is being goosed by a drum ‘n’ bass groove that’s not usually associated with jazz. Like the rest of Beasley’s valentines, it’s found a way to bounce new life into a stone classic.

When I say “alarm” I’m not suggesting that one is actually needed. From the start – an escalator-up, escalator-down prance through “Epistrophy” that gives Gary Burton a chance to bolster the tune’s inherently percussive nature – there’s vigor in the air. Beasley, an L.A.-based pianist/arranger who has spent time writing for television and film as well as fulfilling Musical Director roles for Queen Latifah and Steely Dan tours, throws some entertaining elaborations our way. The oft-overlooked “Oska T” vamps its way from a hush to an exclamation – a very swinging exclamation.

The music becomes a tad glossy now and then; Beasley’s also spent time penning jingles. But in several pieces the overt hooks help articulate the inspired designs he brings to everything from “Skippy” to “Gallop’s Gallop.” Cross themes are filled with cagey specifics, and grace, not intricacy, helps sell a few tracks. The ease that marks “Coming on the Hudson” kind of says it all. An inventive Monk fiend devised a side-ways glance at one of his heroes, and while the solos are swell, it’s the craftsmanship that will have fans anticipating Vol. 2.

Music Is Important

Rhythm & Roots Fest Countdown: David Grisman Sextet

Ever since his iconic debut dropped in 1977, David Grisman has dedicated at least part of his life to expanding the newgrass vocabulary. That blend of jazz, classical, and bluegrass resonated with anyone who had a broad scope and yen for some jamming. The revered mandolin player has made a career out of bringing a sense of swing to all the above styles, and latest edition of his esteemed unit features a flute – but don’t freak. It actually fits the music’s temperament, especially on the bent tango that is “La Grande Guignole,” from Dawg’s Groove, and tracks from the new David Grisman Sextet (Acoustic Disc). I like the way the new album’s cover art apes that of his game-changing kickoff disc, made four decades ago – tradition, y’all. As a picker, he still keeps his extrapolations tight, and the dynamics the band generates retain an edge-of-your-seat temperament. They play on Sunday.

The Rhythm & Roots Fest takes place at Ninigret Park in Charlestown, RI, Sept 2-4.

Performers include Donna the Buffalo, Lucinda Williams, Nathan & the Zydeco Cha-Chas, Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin with the Guilty Ones, Bruce Hornsby & the Noisemakers, and lots more.

Rhythm & Roots Fest Countdown: Lucinda Williams

Lucinda Williams has sung to us about the dude who took away her joy, and she’s sung to us about the dude who brought it back. “I found the love I was looking for/it’s a real love,” she growls on the start Little Honey, her underappreciated 2008 classic. With Lu, rock ‘n’ roll can get uncomfortable, thank god. She puts her heart on the line every time she takes the stage, jabbing that wounded voice into ass-kickers such as “Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings,” heart-breakers like “East Side of Town,” and tear-jerkers such as “Are You Alright.” Even in her occasional melodramatic moments she delivers an emotional essence that creates those goose pimples we’re all looking when listening to music.

Then of course there’s her writing chops. I recently heard Andy Friedman roll through her “Lonely Girls” and couldn’t stop visualizing Lu sitting at the kitchen table shaving away every unnecessary syllable until she shaped the tune to deliver the most forlorn impact possible. Repetition is her ally. The more she mulls over a phrase the more weight it gathers. And when a particular flow of words comes crashing down on a chorus or refrain (give it up for “Those Three Days”), you know you’re in the hands of a key American songwriter. She hits on Saturday.

The Rhythm & Roots Fest takes place at Ninigret Park in Charlestown, RI, Sept 2-4.

Performers include Donna the Buffalo, Tajj Mahal, Nathan & the Zydeco Cha-Chas, Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin with the Guilty Ones, the David Grisman Sextet, and lots more.

Rhythm & Roots Fest Countdown: Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal? He might put a reggae bottom on Woody Guthre, sing a jazz tune, make a banjo ditty hark to its African sources, or mess around with kids’ songs. Don’t forget the Hawaiian influence. With every step forward, the beloved blues master – now 74 – illustrates the kind of rewards that arise from having a catholic world view. And I love his variety of voices. That throaty growl, nasty whisper, and pliable coo help widen his artistic persona. Last time he played the Rhythm & Roots Fest, it was one of those seductive situations, intensity building a step at a time. People swaying, people shaking, and finally, people stomping. He can roll through a shuffle like “Good Morning Miss Brown” plunk his way through the forever radiant “Tom and Sally Drake,” or set a groove that instantly pulls you in. His trio of Kester Smith and Billy Rich is a jewel of a band – pliable, aggressive, wise. Don’t miss on Saturday.

The Rhythm & Roots Fest takes place at Ninigret Park in Charlestown, RI, Sept 2-4.

Performers include Donna the Buffalo, Lucinda Williams, Nathan & the Zydeco Cha-Chas, Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin with the Guilty Ones, the David Grisman Sextet, and lots more.

Nels Cline “Lovers” (Blue Note)

The oddity of the situation attracts immediately. For the last four decades Nels Cline has well-earned his rep as an experimentalist, partial to dissonance and expert at abstraction. One of our most respected guitarists, he often finds ways to use both, be it overtly, in rambunctious situations with the most intrepid improvisers of his generation, or, during the last 12 years with Wilco, in more nuanced ways. There he’s helped shape some very clever pop, spackling the cracks and crevices of Jeff Tweedy’s tunes with eloquent, occasionally askew, filigree. So when he began work on a flotilla of romantic songs from across the 20th century with the goal of sculpting an album that would hark to the “bachelor pad” records of the ‘50s, intrigued by melody and italicizing mood, ears perked up.

They can stay perked. Lovers is a pivot disc, a move by a cagey outlier that will certainly tickle Cline’s fans while likely wooing those unfamiliar with his work. An extended opus built on a large ensemble’s swoop and lilt, it moves through 18 vivid instrumentals that link comfortably into a suite of sorts. Some stress sentiment, others wax spectral, several are sage in their ability to ease a vintage cocktail-music mentality into a modernist setting that manages to drift from a Sonic Youth valentine to a ditty from “The King and I” to a “Why Was I Born” that swings with such antique grace it seems lifted from a Woody Allen film. Along the way, routine aspects of the originals pick up an edge. Even when he’s waxing genteel, his spin on torch songs and soundtrack interludes trades mush for mystery – advanced cosmopolitanism, 2016 style.

As the music seeps forward, it becomes clear that Lovers is more of an orchestrator’s album than it is a guitarist’s disc. Cline sits up front and glides through several tender solos, but he’s wise enough to share his vision with arranger-conductor Michael Leonhart, whose charts seem built on a series of questions: Is it possible to conflate Esquivel and Eddie Sauter? Are there flickers of light in Elmer Bernstein’s eeriest moments? What would happen if Martin Denny’s “quiet village” had an ominous side?

A wealth of improv-savvy musicians articulate these settings. Clarinetist Ben Goldberg, percussionist Kenny Wollesen, brass man Steven Bernstein, and harpist Zeena Parkins are among the ensemble members, filling Leonhart’s umbral designs with all kinds memorable particulars. A heartbreaking oboe motif pops up and fades away; a marimba sets a pulse and fosters a fleeting exotica. A tenor sax acts willowy for a sec as the group hovers behind it. In Leonhart’s hands Ambitious Lovers “It Only Has to Happen Once” cops a vibe from “The Edge of Night” theme and Annette Peacock’s “Touching” incorporates a spooky drone. Marshalling his charges in unsettling directions, the conductor has a way of keeping the music sparse but sumptuous, and producer David Breskin definitely assists his reed, brass and string squads when it comes to waxing luminous.

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Lovers does its business in the shadows, an album that takes on more resonance at dusk. The handful of originals that he brings to the program sustains this vibe. “The Bed We Made” is jazzy but bittersweet. “You Noticed” gauzy and forlorn. “Hairpin & Hatbox” is heart-on-sleeve, but private enough to do it’s sobbing alone. Whether he’s plucking the strings in a fluid escapade or volume-pedaling his way down a bleak alleyway, Cline is always interacting with Leonhart’s delicate designs, a la Stan Getz and orchestra on Focus. At a few points the music conjures thoughts of the Beach Boys’ “Let’s Go Away For Awhile” – if Brian Wilson’s had held Nino Rota in higher esteem than Phil Spector.

Don’t let that “orchestrator’s disc” comment above fool you into thinking that the guitarist goes without any shimmer time here. His start to Jimmy Giuffre’s “Cry, Want” is a fervent hush of phrases, and the wonderfully balanced stroll he takes on “Secret Love” is the kind of subdued outing that his hero Jim Hall would appreciate. The liquid notes he delivers on “Max, Mon Amour” are some of the album’s most seductive. Cline is supple and supportive throughout, feeding on the Leonhart’s textural gambits and the group’s sensitive rendering of same. Lovers works a less-is-more tack; from lap steel to Fender Jazzmaster, Cline is part of the broader action, stepping out only to enhance the atmosphere. Like Miles on Sketches of Spain, he uses poignancy and lyricism to make the orchestra’s work glow.

If Lovers is meant to have a cinematic effect, “The Bond” is the kind of closing credits theme that offers a lit path out of some very dark woods. There are echoes of Pat Metheny in the way it lays tenderness on the table, but only a dullard would dismiss the power of its candor, or mistake the beat of its heart. (Cline dedicates it to his wife, Yuka Honda, also part of the ensemble.) In LP form, each of Lovers’ four sides has its own emotional arc, and this final-quarter denouement is ravishing, incorporating an obscure Mancini passage fraught with anxiety, and finalizing with an overt tone of optimism. Who knew that revealing the underbelly of romance could be such a radiant experience?

Nels on Fresh Air

Some of Lovers‘ Sources

Fortune’s Blind, As Blind As You