Nashville and Memphis are among the cities New Zealand journalist Garth Cartwright spent plenty of time while compiling material for his music/travel opus More Miles Than Money: Journeys Through American Music (Serpent's Tail), which was initially published overseas in a huge and expensive edition last year.
Modeling his book on Jack Kerouac's epic On The Road, Cartwright went in search of music and experiences he openly admitted were largely either in decline or extinct. He sought audiences who treasured and loved vintage roots music, and instead discovered those sounds were seldom preferred in an era of manufactured spectacle and celebrity worship. Yet he also encountered exotic figures and heard some magical numbers and performances while continually mourning the passing of what he considers America's greatest idioms.
More Miles Than Money has now been issued in a domestic paperback version and is mandatory reading even if you don't share Cartwright's disdain for smooth jazz, modern R&B or contemporary country (to cite just three of the things he routinely dismisses). His journeys take him to Native American reservations and festivals, summit meetings with aging Chicago blues/soul giants, old-school Mississippi blues performers and emerging Music City singer/songwriters.
Cartwright's writing style alternates between acerbic descriptions and sentimental accounts. He frequently wonders why so many Americans have so little interest in their musical heritage. His utter contempt for commercial songs often results in the radio being shut off as he and various companions make their way down the nation's highways. Cartwright also tries to understand why audience tastes have changed so dramatically, with blues and jazz relegated to art-music status, and traditional soul and R&B consigned to specialty shows and satellite/internet stations.
Still, Cartwright provides insight, analysis and delight as he profiles subjects (narco-corridos, modern Navajo songs) and personalities (Jimmy Castor, poet Kell Robertson, Charles Wright, Tejano queen Lydia Mendoza) that seldom appear in current music reviews or periodicals. There's no doubt many of the people, places, events and genres he covers are disappearing. Fortunately, More Miles Than Money provides vital information about them for readers still interested and curious about the nation's cultural heritage.
Jazzy blues roundup
Jimmy Dawkins, The Leric Story (Delmark) A selection of exuberant, raw and gritty blues numbers from South Side performers cut for Jimmy Dawkins' Leric label in the '80s. The menu ranges from bawdy tunes to resilient sagas, novelty pieces, heartache ballads, confessionals, and a pair of gospel pieces from Sister Margo and the Healing Center Choir. The 16-tune sampler features material far too earthy and unpolished to find either a radio home or a willing distributor.
Stanley Clarke, The Stanley Clarke Band (Heads Up) Clarke's majestic strumming, rhythmic thrusts and forceful solos and accompaniment set the agenda for a session that ventures into fusion, funk, rock-flavored pop, and even an occasional mainstream jazz tune ("Sonny Rollins"). Each piece is not only designed designed to spotlight his bass wizardry, but the teamwork and comfort level he enjoys with bandmates like pianist Hiromi and synth/keyboardist Ruslan.
Steve Coleman, Harvesting Semblances and Affinities (PI) Coleman and his Five Elements band return the M-base sound to the forefront, with seven numbers that juggle hard bop elements, R&B seasoning, and Jen Shyu's vocals. They also spotlight the edgy exchanges and duels that Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers have made mandatory for three-horn frontlines since the '50s.
Marcus Finnie, Boundless (Marcus Finnie Music) Ace Nashville drummer Finnie shows smooth jazz sessions can be polished without lacking verve and fire. Kirk Whalum adds fury and inventiveness on "Fish and Spaghetti," while Finnie's fiery bottom-end dynamics power impressive large and small group outings that also spotlight diversified writing and producing and arranging prowess, plus the contributions of many excellent area players.
John Nemeth, Name The Day (Blind Pig) Nemeth's a sturdy balladeer, rangy vocalist and flamboyant harmonica soloist. His newest release incorporates jump pieces, flashy uptempo works, moving, emphatic story songs, and some sentimental/sensual efforts. Assisted by an excellent band and nicely varying his moods and material, Nemeth's disc includes enough vintage flavor to show his influences while thankfully avoiding cliches and repetition.
Archie Shepp, The New York Contemporary Five (Delmark) This 1965 avant-garde classic sounds just as explosive and experimental in its new enhanced sonic version. Archie Shepp's fondness for big-toned, swinging blues was contrasted by John Tchcai's biting, off-center alto licks. Don Cherry's crisp, spiraling trumpet lines provided another melodic component, while bassist Don Moore and drummer J.C. Moses brought far more swinging assistance than usually the case in less structured settings. The New York Contemporary Five were not together long enough to become the factor many felt they would, but this reissue presents them at their best.
While Michele Vreeland and John Enghauser have outstanding releases that can accurately be placed under the singer/songwriter designation, there's very little of the alt.country, folk or progressive bluegrass flavor that many listeners automatically assume will be the case with anything carrying this tag. Vreeland's Never Not Myself has a pronounced rock/pop feel, while Enghauser's Lost In the Pages intersperses Latin, jazz and blues sensibility within its rock framework.
Vreeland's voice is smooth and prominent, but doesn't lack intensity or authority. Her subjects include female empowerment and the nature of friendship ("Nico") as well as optimism and identity ("LA Dream"). Some numbers feature acoustic backgrounds with minimal production, while others employ echo effects with multiple textures and layers. Still, the arrangements and focus outline Vreeland's driving, confident leads and solid singing and writing skills.
Enghauser's been involved in many musical styles dating back to his days playing rock in the '90s. The title track of Lost In The Pages lyrically riffs on the erratic nature of stardom and the music business, while "Still Waters" and "Breathe Again" present a softer, sentimental side. But Enghauser, who plays bass, all the guitar and keyboard parts plus adds lead vocals, proves a masterful performer in every capacity.
Though neither Michele Vreeland's nor John Enghauser's discs fit into another area commonly seen as home to singer/songwriters — Americana — fans who enjoy intelligent lyrics, catchy yet not overly simplistic melodies and energetic playing and singing will enjoy Never Not Myself and Lost In The Pages.
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