The best news to hit the blues world in some time was the release this year of two impressive albums by young, Southern, African-American singer-guitarists on Alligator Records, the genre’s biggest label. Mississippi’s Jarekus Singleton (pictured) and Florida’s Selwyn Birchwood were hip-hop and gospel fans before they became blues fans as adolescents, but they stepped onto the national scene for the first time with a sure grasp of the tradition and a good idea about where it might go next. They both perform at the Baltimore Blues Society’s 18th Annual Alonzo’s Memorial Picnic on Aug. 31.
Singleton’s “Refuse To Lose” is the more ambitious of the two albums, thanks to lyrics that are both autobiographical and wittily metaphoric. On two songs he discusses his highly touted college basketball career and the crushing disappointment of getting knocked out of the NBA draft by an ankle injury, only to bounce back into a musical career. On other songs, he uses clever analogies to compare romance gone bad to a ‘Crime Scene’ or ‘Hell.’ But Singleton falls prey to the blues-rock sin of overplaying, and it’s only when he dials back on the sonic assault that his strongest asset, his verbal inventiveness, comes through.
Birchwood’s “Don’t Call No Ambulance” is the more pleasurable listen of the two. Making inspired use of his own archtop and lap-steel guitars and of Regi Oliver’s baritone sax and bass clarinet, Birchwood creates a sound that stands well apart from the usual blues bar band. His original songs boast both catchy hooks and an old-school swing that owe more to Big Bill Broonzy than Stevie Ray Vaughan. The album’s title track is a jump-blues boogie that proclaims with well-earned swagger that his friends don’t need to call the hospital if he falls down from drunken happiness. ‘Walking in the Lion’s Den’ captures the feeling of a young black man in danger even when “I ain’t done nothing wrong.”
When Baltimore jazz guitarist Tom Lagana and Boston saxophonist George Garzone teamed up for a concert at UMBC last year, they started talking about famous collaborations between the two instruments in jazz. Out of that concert came a conversation about teams who came up with imaginative reworkings of Brazilian bossa nova: guitarist Laurindo Almeida with saxophonist Bud Shank in 1953 and guitarist Joao Gilberto with saxophonist Stan Getz in 1962.
Garzone, a big Getz fan, quickly worked up a set of Brazilian tunes with Laganaband that went so well that the two men (backed by bassist Tom Baldwin and drummer Dominic Smith) went into the studio to record Lagana’s third solo album (and first exclusively on nylon-string guitar): “Tom Lagana Group Vol. 1” (Harvesttime). Although only three Brazilian tunes are included—two Jobim numbers and Ary Barroso’s lovely ‘Para Machucar Meu Coracao’—the seductively relaxed samba rhythms are heard throughout, even on two originals: Baldwin’s ‘Bossa Moderna’ and Garzone’s ‘Alone.’
Garzone’s tenor sax sounds as robust as ever and Lagana proves a worthy partner, articulating each guitar note with the precision and flair of a knife thrower. His original tune, ‘Holland Tunnel,’ turns up the tempo for a darting dance number that the quartet executes expertly. Lagana, a Towson University graduate, still lives in the area and has two weekly gigs here: playing solo guitar every Friday night at Jalapenos Restaurant in Annapolis and playing in a trio with Baldwin and Smith every Sunday morning at the Rams Head in Savage Mill.
Here are some recent jazz releases that have especially impressed me: The Jeff Ballard Trio’s “Time’s Tales” (OKeh), the Michael Carvin Experience’s “Flash Forward” (Motema), Fred Hersch Trio’s “Floating” (Palmetto), Danilo Perez’s “Panama 500” (Mack Avenue) and the David Ullmann 8’s “Corduroy” (Little Sky).