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Return to the December 1999 A&E Preview Cover
Arts & Entertainment Preview - December 1999

Popular Music and Jazz
B Y   B O B   B L U M E N T H A L   &   C H A R L E S   M.   Y O U N G

Red Hot and Blues

   Burning down the house

Some people burn and some people don't. That isn't fair, but that's the way it is, and a lot of music criticism is simply distinguishing artists who burn from artists who wish they burned. So let's make this simple: Luther Allison burned, and the evidence is there for all with ears to hear on the two-CD Live in Chicago (Alligator), a triumphant homecoming concert in 1995. Born in 1939, in Arkansas, Allison was a bluesman of the second generation, old enough to learn in person from Muddy Waters, but a little young to be truly a peer. Achieving national popularity in the late sixties, he saw his career fade as the seventies moved on to funk, punk, and disco. He emigrated to Paris in 1983, and became a major star in Europe while receding into near-anonymity in America -- a fate he had nearly reversed in the time between this concert and his death from lung cancer, in 1997. Allison could play devastating blues solos and rollicking slide guitar, and could carry on amazing call-and-response with the audience while his guitar offered stinging and sometimes hilarious punctuation. Also a first-rate songwriter, he sang about men-are-from-Mars-and-women-are-from-Venus issues in refreshingly concrete terms without sacrificing any wit or subtlety. Mostly, though, his appeal was the burn, a wildly infectious enthusiasm that Allison sustained through fast songs and slow, through concerts that lasted well over two hours, as documented here. This was music meant to be played live, with plenty of moths around the flame, and it's highly recommended for anyone in the throes of millennium blues. --C.M.Y.

Waste Product

Just when you think you've heard all the great punk names, along comes Little Jimmy Urine, the lead vocalist of Mindless Self Indulgence, whose debut album, Frankenstein Girls Will Seem Strangely Sexy (Elektra), will confirm the fears of all who worry about decadence in popular culture. In attitude and image Mindless Self Indulgence borrows a lot from great (David Bowie) and not-so-great (Sigue Sigue Sputnik) androgynous glam acts of past decades, endorsing "ultra sex" as the goal of life while expressing contempt for pretty much everything else. Not that Little Jimmy is bereft of introspection in his critique of the world. He appears to be genuinely baffled by the question "If I'm so wonderful, why am I so messed up?" in "Kill the Rock." In a year or two Little Jimmy will likely be psychologizing about his problems or dead in a motel room, so the time to get into these guys is now, while they are still gleefully tromping taboos. Musically there's more substance here than the band would probably admit. The arrangements are tight and fast and grating and disorienting, as Little Jimmy rants about "Cocaine and Toupees," never venturing far from the lower chakras in his subject matter. --C.M.Y.

Trumpeting the Turn of the Century

   Marsalis and his metal muse

It has been the season of Marsalis since May, when Wynton Marsalis began releasing his "Swinging Into the 21st" CD series (Columbia/Sony Classical). These eight volumes confirm that the trumpeter and composer is the most ambitious and industrious of contemporary musicians. Although his fealty to Jelly Roll Morton's complex scores is generally effective on Mr. Jelly Lord, calculated arranging touches often inhibit Marsalis Plays Monk. The string quartet "At the Octoroon Balls" is more facile than compelling, and Reel Time contains an unused film score that, standing alone, is a hodgepodge. Where Marsalis has put his energy and charisma to best use is in maintaining his talented septet of a decade ago and building the larger, equally simpatico Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra around it, ensuring a company to interpret his more jazz-centered compositions in the manner of his idol Duke Ellington's ensemble. Numerous Ducal echoes, and more-personal opportunities for the musicians to shine, enhance the orchestral suite Big Train, whereas the music for the ballet Sweet Release is less homage-bound and a more compact forum for Marsalis and his featured trombonist, Wycliffe Gordon. Perhaps the most heartfelt album is the eighth, The Marciac Suite, featuring longtime collaborators such as the saxophonists Wessell Anderson and Victor Goines. Thanks to a marketing grinch, though, anyone who wants Marciac for Christmas must send in the seven coupons found in the earlier volumes. (Marciac is scheduled for wider release in the spring.) --B.B.

Bob Blumenthal is a jazz critic for The Boston Globe.

Charles M. Young reviews popular music for Playboy, Musician, and other publications.

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Photo credits -- Luther Allison: Steve Cook. Mindless Self Indulgence: Elektra Records. Wynton Marsalis: Lee Crum.
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

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