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Arts & Entertainment Preview - May 2000

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

Back to Basics

   The eclectic Russell Malone

For years, too many of those claiming to be jazz guitarists have succumbed to either the saccharine facility of smooth background music or a mock-heroic overkill more suited to arena rock. Russell Malone poses not so much a third way as a return to the basics of infectious tempos, lyrical exposition, and bluesy sonority. Malone spent several years accompanying Harry Connick Jr. and, more recently, Diana Krall; and Look Who's Here (Verve), the first recording by his newly formed quartet, blends expansive soloing and melodic fealty in a manner that fans of each vocalist will find familiar. Malone can come out burning, as he does on the opening "The Angle," and his pianist, Anthony Wonsey, can respond in crackling kind. The pair also know how to caress both revered standards like "Alfie" and "Get Out of Town" and such an eccentric yet no less worthy choice as "The Odd Couple." The forthright blues sensitivity that fits so naturally on "Soulful Kisses" also informs even Malone's delicate solo reading of "Heather on the Hill." Although such a mixture might sound merely eclectic, Look Who's Here conveys a coherent view that embraces the jazz-guitar tradition from Charlie Christian forward, while incorporating the iconoclastic phrasing and attack of Malone's unique personality. Malone strengthens the notion that he is something of a latter-day Kenny Burrell, a guitarist who sounds not just right but inspired whatever the context. --B.B.

Organized Anarchy

As the most famous anarchist collective in the world (it's hard to think of anyone to nominate for second place), Chumbawamba offers living proof that nonhierarchical social relations do not necessarily mean disorganization. The band's latest album, WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) (Republic/Universal), is just about as organized as rock-and-roll can be. Clocking in at a reasonable 47:50, it contains 22 cuts that blend into one another like the songs on side two of the Beatles' Abbey Road, creating an almost symphonic mixture of wildly imaginative melodies, styles, and arrangements in fragments that last just long enough to establish themselves before drifting off into something else. What distinguishes Chumbawamba from most political bands is that they focus their contempt on the rich and don't allow it to infect their love of pop convention. They want to be accessible, they want to hook you, they want to overthrow everything -- and you want to join them. To the extent that the band has a center, it is probably Alice Nutter's voice, which is at once sweet and cutting, and is displayed to full effect on "She's Got All the Friends," a catchy diatribe against trust-fund twits who buy their buddies. A modified version of this song will be their first single. The band also doesn't like Charleton Heston ("Moses With a Gun"), and does a stunning rendition of the Bee Gees in "New York Mining Disaster 1941." Chumbawamba's live show, a fascinating (and well-organized!) cross between an English music-hall revue and the storming of the Bastille, is not to be missed. --C.M.Y.

A Fertile Fellowship

   The drummer Brian Blade

The vision of Brian Blade may be too singular for his emergence as the next jazz fountainhead, but his originality and strong melodic feeling are no less precious and essential to the music's growth. Blade is a 29-year-old drummer who first gained notice for his cogent, invigorating support of hard-blowing saxophonists Kenny Garrett and Joshua Redman. More recently, he has been the sideman of choice for such stars as Bob Dylan and Seal. His own music, which he writes on the guitar and arranges for the uncommon septet he calls the Brian Blade Fellowship, manages to draw from all these influences, and from his childhood memories of Shreveport, Louisiana. Perceptual (Blue Note), the second Fellowship disc, is even more cinematic than the band's eponymous debut; the music swells and shifts like changing weather on a vast landscape. Instead of using the band to frame his own playing, Blade does the framing with broad, orchestral drumming that highlights the resonance and mystery-evoking potential of his ensemble. The colors of this unusual blend of saxes and guitars are fully exploited by Blade the composer, and passionately delivered by a talented young band consisting of the saxophonists Myron Walden and Melvin Butler, the guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, the pedal steel guitarist Dave Easley, the pianist Jon Cowherd, and the bassist Chris Thomas. Joni Mitchell, another of Blade's recent employers, makes a potent appearance near the close that demonstrates her newfound jazz depths and provides a fitting punctuation to Blade's warm, spellbinding program. --B.B.

Bob Blumenthal received the 1999 GRAMMY® for album notes.

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

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Photo Credits -- Russell Malone: Kwaku Alston. Chumbawamba: Republic/Universal. Brian Blade: Deborah Feingold.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.

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