My playlist this week is typically eclectic, as I check out CDs old and new. From spirited jazz to progressive disco, these albums have been among my favorites in the past two weeks.
BRIAN BLADE & THE FELLOWSHIP BAND Season of Change
A few readers lately have e-mailed me wanting to know what's happening on the jazz scene. "Do you even like jazz?" one guy wanted to know. Yeah, I do. I have about three or four shelves at home heavy with jazz CDs -- classic Miles, Monk, Coltrane, Betty Carter and many others. Whenever I feel the need for mental and spiritual stimulation, I peruse those rows. And the collection is growing.
I recently added Season of Change, the stunning new set by drummer Brian Blade. On the album, he plays with a smart quintet that includes Jon Cowherd on piano, Kurt Rosenwinkel on guitar, Myron Walden on alto sax and bass clarinet, Melvin Butler on tenor sax and Chris Thomas on bass.
The CD's nine tunes were written by the musicians, and all are informed by an array of styles: rock, folk, gospel and soul. Yet the music coalesces into a sophisticated, beautifully nuanced approach that is the very essence of jazz. There's an uplifting feel to the songs, particularly on the title cut, which swings through dynamic time shifts for 12 glorious minutes. Each musician shines here.
Though the scope of the music is majestic and certainly ambitious, the album is accessible and cohesive. There's not one dud here. These guys, mightily led by Blade, sound as if they were born to play together. Though jazz may only account for 2 percent of all record sales worldwide, the genre is still pulsing with creative energy. Season of Change is proof of that.
ASHFORD & SIMPSON The Warner Years: Hits, Remixes & Rarities
I've been blasting this two-disc set mostly in the car. And I need to stop before I get a speeding ticket. Mostly known for their sugar-dusted, gospel-steeped love ballads, the legendary husband-and-wife duo of Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson could also fill a dance floor with jams that surged and thumped.
Disc 1 collects the original up-tempo cuts the two recorded for Warner Bros. in the mid- and late '70s; Disc 2 features often brilliant remixes of the songs, which were already magnificently arranged. Several of them on the first disc -- "Over and Over," "One More Try," "Tried, Tested and Found True" -- are making their CD debut in the original 12-inch mixes.
Overlaid with the inspired vocals of Ashford & Simpson, the pumping, swirling songs still sound fresh. I live for the drama of "It Seems to Hang On."
DONNA SUMMER Once Upon a Time
And speaking of dance legends: the Queen of Disco released Crayons this week, her first album of new material in 17 years. Though she sounds amazing, the record is uneven. Still, it's great that Summer -- who plays Pier Six Concert Pavilion on July 16 -- is staging a comeback. So I've been revisiting the early albums.
Once Upon a Time, released in late 1977 as a double LP, is one of Summer's most overlooked sets. The artist and her producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte retell the Cinderella story over a course of 16 tunes that turn disco inside out. In fact, the album transcends the genre using inventive synth-based arrangements that presage electronica. The music is way ahead of its time, and much of it holds up very well today.
An incredibly versatile vocalist with laser-like pitch, Summer reaches back to her gospel roots on the sweeping pop-soul ballad "A Man Like You" and essays a girlish, feathery falsetto on the bouncy "Fairy Tale High." She gets sassy on the club hit "Rumour Has It." Although Once Upon a Time didn't produce any major pop smashes, it still sold gold. Summer had club music locked down in 1977. She could do no wrong, and this album is certainly among her best efforts.