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From Jazz to Noted Blues

James Carter
Channeling the Old Ones: Young jazz lion James Carter paid homage to some of his musical masters on "Conversin' With the Elders."

Photo by Scott Schaffer

A belated nod to the year's best soul,
R&B, jazz and blues efforts

By Nicky Baxter

BEFORE 1996 gets too far in the rear-view mirror, there is just enough time to cram in one more list of the signal musical achievements of the year past.

Jon Jang
Two Flowers on a Stem
Soul Note
As a pianist, composer, band leader and educator, Jon Jang has served as a lightning rod for Asian American jazz in the Bay Area. His primary working units--the Pan Asian Arkestra, Jon Jang Quartet and the African-Chinese Sextet--have expanded the lexicon of improvisational art. This latest venture boasts a lineup that includes saxophonist David Murray and flutist James Newton. Two Flowers is, by turns, delicate (particularly when Newton's flute takes to the sky) and heartrending. Jang's own playing wanders from the cagily taciturn to the grandiose.

James Carter
Conversin' With the Elders
The album is more than another tribute to the jazz masters; it is a wonderful showcase for young Carter's brilliant saxophone work. Whether it's the hip bumptiousness of "FreeReggaeHiBop," the zesty swing of "Lester Leaps In" or the ineffably somber beauty of Coltrane's "Naima," Carter makes manifest his profound understanding, emotionally and intellectually, of the creative music tradition. Indeed, here Carter establishes himself as part of that tradition.

Sun Ra
The Singles
Mention the late master Sun Ra, and the last thing that comes to mind is "singles artist." Cut between 1954 and 1982 for the astral-minded band leader's own Saturn label, these tunes have never been released on album or CD. The news here is that Sun Ra could groove within the parameters of pop while still etching out his own idiosyncratic path. On the surface, a ditty like "Dreaming" could pass for another street-corner blowing session, but closer inspection reveals lyrics that are, well, out of this world.

Nnnenna Freelon
Shaking Tree
Shaking Tree confirms Freelon's stature as a formidable triple threat. As a vocalist, she is swiftly developing into one of music's most compelling figures. She is also equally adept as a composer and arranger (as her interpretation of standards like "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair," "My Shining Hour" and "Out of This World" plainly indicate). Freelon is a convincing lyricist with the fertile imagination of a poet.

Sister Carol
Lyrically Potent
Sister Carol shows why she's queen of conscious reggae music. Unbendingly faithful to reggae's roots and culture tradition, Carol has never really received the props she so richly deserves. She is a stirring singer and powerful lyricist firmly planted in the red, black and green African center. "Dread Natty Congo," "Sell Out" (on which she shares vocal duties with Sugar Minott) and "Traitor Dub" refute the notion that sistuhs are anti­social awareness.

On Skamania, the Skatalites prove that though they're definitely gray, they're far from being old and in the way. Augmented by stellar jazz players Steve Turre (trombone), Bobby Watson (alto saxophone) and Larry McDonald (percussion), ska's first and possibly last supergroup sounds like it's 1963 all over again. While Skamania doesn't break any new ground, it reaffirms the instrumental ensemble's lasting legacy. The tunes sport sturdy herky-jerky backbeats over which the Skatalites perform woozy but finely wrought jazzland solos.

Mystic Revealers
Space and Dub
One of a small handful of bands still true to roots Rasta music, the Mystic Revealers specialize in X-ray reggae--music shorn of everything but the basic pulse. That pulse is epigrammatic and expansive: a splash of shimmering keys, terse reverbed guitar and, most prominently, bass and drums. Space and Dub is as fine a blueprint for the subgenre as can be found outside of the Mad Professor's laboratory.

Robert Ward
Black Bottom
Black Top
Robert Ward's music reminds us that there need be no dividing line between blues, citified soul and Southern-fried R&B. While Ward's vocals are obviously influenced by that old rugged cross, his guitar playing positively illuminates tracks like "Silver and Gold," with its shimmering, almost fragile tone. He's a wonderful rhythm player as well, tossing off a trenchant fill at will.

Taj Mahal
Phantom Blues
Private Blues
On past recordings, Taj Mahal has ventured down some strange and uncharted paths for a bluesman: continental African, calypso, American pop and more. This album is no less exploratory, encompassing the musician's trademark folk blues as well as jump-styled R&B. Taj has always been an intriguing interpretative artist, and Phantom Blues includes a number of small treasures written by the likes of Chuck Willis and Fats Domino.

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From the January 2-8, 1997 issue of Metro

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