The music enriching my private time these days isn't exactly setting the charts ablaze. My wannabe-fabulous friends are always talking about how they can't find anything great on the radio - an old lament I'm tired of hearing. "What should I get, Rashod?" "Do they still make good music?" Although you have to dig a little more for it (and the Internet definitely helps), there's a wealth of good music out there.
Here are a few great albums flying under the radar. These CDs, all released in the past month or so, have been spinning practically nonstop at home and in my car.
Herbie Hancock, "River: The Joni Letters" --In his storied, 40-plus years of shaping jazz, Hancock has made several masterstrokes. Before he was 30, the Chicago-born pianist released the mystical classic Maiden Voyage (1965), then eight years later dropped the revolutionary jazz-funk bomb, Head Hunters.
On his new CD, the ever-restless musician pays tribute to Joni Mitchell, another tireless musical spirit. River - the follow-up to 2005's Possibilities, an uneven pop effort featuring a number of collaborations - is a smart and at times enchanting jazz album. Although Hancock recruited the likes of Norah Jones, Corinne Bailey Rae and Tina Turner to sing on the CD, the stylish, shifting music is firmly rooted in jazz. And given that Mitchell's work is the focus here, that makes perfect sense. At her core, the legendary singer-songwriter has always been a jazz artist. Her approach to harmony, rhythm and melody has long pulsed with adventurous improvisations.
Hancock and his stellar band - including his longtime friend, sax great Wayne Shorter - find inventive ways to turn the songs inside out without compromising the integrity of Mitchell's work. The singer even joins the band on "The Tea Leaf Prophecy," her vocals warm and wise. But Jones' sensual reading of "Court and Spark" and Turner's fluid, surprisingly restrained take on "Edith and the Kingpin" are perhaps the best vocal performances on the album. "Both Sides Now" and "Sweet Bird" are done as graceful instrumentals. The only oddity here is Leonard Cohen's coffeehouse-style recitation of "The Jungle Line." It's not bad - just a bit jarring in the shimmering context of the album.
Amp Fiddler, "Afro Strut" --This Detroiter boasts a sensitive, laid-back croon that doesn't immediately bring anybody else to mind. Marvin Gaye is clearly an influence, but Fiddler's vocal range isn't as expansive or as powerful. His voice works just fine, though, gliding through his taut, keyboard-driven arrangements. The velvety songs stay mostly in a midtempo groove - perfect music for a lazy evening, incense burning, chilled glass of wine in hand. But there's enough personality and deep-pocket funk to keep the music from melting into the background. He duets with Corinne Bailey Rae (she seems to be Miss It right now) on the jaunty, 1930s jazz-influenced "If I Don't." That cut isn't one of my favorites, but the clever arrangement keeps it from slipping into corny territory. "Faith" is a sassy, strutting number that Jay Kay of Jamiroquai probably wishes he had done. The Brazilian-kissed "Right Where You Are" is a standout. Fiddler's songs aren't hook-driven enough to find a place on most urban stations. But it's flavorful, chill-out music that seems to deepen with repeated listens.
Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, "100 Days, 100 Nights" --If I didn't know better, I would have thought this album was recorded in the mid-'60s. Even the CD packaging looks like a replica of an album from the era. The brassy arrangements - driven by Jones' gutsy, salty vocals - are an unabashed throwback to the early sounds of Stax and Motown. But don't get it twisted: This isn't self-conscious retro pop-soul a la Joss Stone and Amy Winehouse. At 51, Jones brings a vital ingredient to the genre: an emotional believability, something those skinny British chicks don't have yet. Whether she's crooning or shouting, the full-figured former guard at Rikers Island doesn't waste a note. The Dap-Kings, who have recently garnered acclaim working with producer-DJ Mark Ronson and backing Winehouse, deliver a sound that nearly replicates the grittiness of Booker T. and the MGs. Although every cut is a winner, the lilting "Something's Changed" is my favorite.
RAMP, "Come Into Knowledge" --This isn't exactly a new record. But when ABC Records first released this Roy Ayers-produced album in 1977, it went nowhere. Shortly afterward, the Cincinnati funk-jazz quintet disbanded and got nine-to-fives. But over the years, original copies of the album became highly sought-after by hardcore crate-diggers. Thirty years after the LP went out of print, the good folks at Verve have finally brought it into the digital age. (It was released as a $30 Japanese CD import last year, but the mastering job was horrible. The sound of the U.S. version is much better.) Hip-hop heads will recognize the summertime groove of "Daylight" as the basis for "Bonita Applebum" by A Tribe Called Quest. Come Into Knowledge isn't a lost masterpiece. Some cuts haven't aged well, but several gems of jazz fusion - "Daylight," a dreamlike rendition of "Everybody Loves the Sunshine" and the spiritual title cut - make this an essential CD for fans of the genre.