Summer vacation usually means discovering new locations or revisiting favorite horizons for a fresh perspective. Here we explore music most likely found outside the "Jazz" section of your favorite online or retail music shop. Sometimes it's nice to travel...and sometimes it's nice to return home, too.
Steely Dan: Everything Must Go (Reprise)
Donald Fagen (lead vocals, synthesizers, Rhodes, organ and other keyboards) and Walter Becker (bass, guitar and vocals) seem to more solidly hit stride on this second album in their comeback. This follow-up to Two Against Nature (2000), the Dan’s first new studio recording in twenty years, seems more naturally and tightly woven than their previous effort and makes Nature sound more like the necessary knocking off of rust (Yeah, some rust: Since the release of Nature, Steely Dan was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and received the prestigious American Society of Composers, Authors & Publishers (ASCAP) Founders Award).
Becker and Fagen work with the same crackerjack jazz and rock session guitarists, keyboard players, horn players, and drummers as on Nature. But it almost doesn’t matter who the musicians are – they’re cards that Becker and Fagen have constantly shuffled anyway. The stars on this Steely Dan album, as always, are the Steely Dan songs . FM radio be damned: Don’t believe that “The Last Mall” and “Blues Beach” are the two best ones. The strength of this album lies elsewhere among these retro-futuristic tales of apocalypse, pornography, economic failure, dissolution, terrorism and other modern gargoyles, cast in intricately casual jazz lounge rock.
“Lunch with Gina” is the requisite femme fatale groove, a tight body rocker from Dan’s supple yet sharp funk bag about a psychotically obsessive beauty. Other lyrics obscure just as many questions as they answer. “Godwhacker” sounds like it’s either about God hunting down Satan or a murderous religious zealot (It IS rather cool for a single song to suggest imagery from both The Sopranos and the “Whacking Day” episode of The Simpsons ). “Green Book” sounds cut from Aja jazz-funk cloth, with a most propulsive bass line drilling straight into the cynical glint in Fagen’s lyrical eye: “I’m so in love with this dirty city/ This crazy grid of desire/ The festive icons along the way/ The boardwalk, the lovers, the house on fire...”
Roy Hargrove Presents the RH Factor: Hard Groove (Verve)
Having previously immersed his trumpet in two “new soul” collaborations, D’Angelo’s Grammy Award winning Voodoo album and subsequent tour and songstress Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun album (both in 2000), Hargrove here dives headfirst into the soul pool. RH Factor blends a core band of two saxophonists, three keyboard players, two bassists and drummers, and two guitarists (including legendary soul session ace Cornell Dupree) with the best and brightest from the soul and R&B “new schools” including D’Angelo, Badu, Meshell Ndegeocello, Steve Coleman, Karl Denson, Marc Cary, and two hip-hop MCs, Common and Q-Tip. “I just wanted to open a door that would allow the musicians involved in jazz and the musicians involved in the R&B / hip-hop mainstream to form some music that would have no limit,” Hargrove explains. “It’s like a merging of those two worlds.”
Hargrove meets his objective, perhaps even surpasses it, with an album that sounds like one Lester Bowie and Maxwell would make together. He steers Hard Groove toward the trumpet school opened by Donald Byrd, especially with the wah-wah sound trumpet production and hand-clapping street funk of “Common Free Style.” There are other miles-tones: Hargrove’s approach and brittle processed sound to his trumpet – quicksilver darting atop roiling funk rhythms – urge “Juicy” and “Out of Town” closer to such fractious pre-retirement musings of Miles as Black Beauty.
“Hardgroove,” clever wordplay on the leaders name as well as the introductory track, paints a new face on hard bop jazz, rocking up top with trumpet and saxophone in unison and in counterpoint, and rocking down below with inventive and challenging bass and drum rhythms. Denson and Hargrove riff on Freddie Hubbard’s “Little Sunflower” to form the instrumental poetry behind Q-Tip’s spoken riffing and Badu’s singing on “Poetry,” creating a very different type of vocal jazz. (Don’t sweat Hargrove’s jazz chops: This past February, Hargrove, Herbie Hancock and Michael Brecker won the Best Instrumental Jazz Performance Grammy Award for Directions in Music: Live at Massey Hall.)