New Orleans piano marvel James Booker combined artistry, soul and technique in a flamboyant, remarkable fashion that established his rank in the upper echelon of pianists in any genre. Originally issued in 1982, “Classified” remains perhaps the only Booker album that those not plugged into the underground scene (where bootleg cassettes of his concerts are a staple) have ever heard. But this updated, expanded version almost qualifies as a new release. There are nine previously unissued numbers, many (“Angel Eyes,” “Madame X,” “All Around the World”) that are astonishing in terms of what he executes from a rhythm and harmonic basis. Booker never just delivers a melody. He zips through it, reworks or embellishes it. The subsequent ideas that are developed sometimes seem impossible, particularly in terms of the ease and speed with which he produces them. With a new documentary and “Classified: Remixed and Expanded” just issued, perhaps James Booker will finally get the acclaim and exposure he justly deserves.
The James Bolden Blues Band “No News “Jus’ The Blues” (Real)
Trumpeter, bandleader and occasional vocalist James “Boogaloo” Bolden leads a robust band through a solid session that mixes energetic covers (“Big Boss Man”) with original and topical blues material. These numbers offer contemporary lyrical takes on vintage themes like rejection, disappointment, pain and distrust. While Bolden’s tune “Hey There Pretty Woman” contains his earnest lead and Eric Demmer’s fiery sax solo, the hottest pieces are those featuring Evelyn Rubio, particularly “Any Day Getaway” and “I Don’t You,” which is also Rubio’s composition. The band includes other stellar instrumentalists, among them bassist Anthony Sapp, drummer Mark Simmons, guitarist Teri Greene, pianist Darrell Lavigne, and Rubio, who doubles as a saxophonist on “Border Town.” Elements of soul, funk ad blues are incorporated within the band’s repertoire, but the blues is their major focus, and they play it with zest and style on every selection.
Zanza “Djansa” (Zanza)
Vocalist, percussionist and multi-instrumentalist Adama Dembele is a 33rd generation performer from the ivory Coast who leads the band Zanza through a rigorous blend of modern and vintage African music. Dembele and company sing in Banbara and Bacule, with their tunes alternating between meditative philosophy (“Tinge,” “Tolon,”) socio-political issues (“Walk Away,” “Sira Lon Balla”), folklore (“Jahili,”), and romanticism (“Mi Wa.”) While unafraid to embrace rock influences or electric instrumentation, Zanza’s songs often include ample traditional rhythmic input from Dembele, plus surprising twists provided by acoustic/electric violinist Matt Williams and guitarist Patrick Fitzimons, who excels on electric, nylon string and acoustic. Zanza embodies the versatility and flexibility of 21st century African musicians. They are able and willing to tap both the present and past, while suggesting plenty of very interesting directions for the future.
Leni Stern “Jelell!” (Leni Stern)
Guitarist/vocalist Leni Stern’s latest “Jelell!” continues her string of rich, fascinating releases that merge her improvisational flair with the varied, intense beats of African music. She’s joined in this trio by electric bassist Mamadou Ba and Alioune Faye, as well as a percussion ensemble containing Faye’s brothers. The session was cut in Senegal, and their percolating layers and textures buttress and propel Stern’s vocals and guitar licks on such tunes as “Safal,” “Jelell!,” (“Take It),” “Sumol Dafon (If I Were Crazy),” and “Dimbali Ma (Save Me).” Stern can be dynamic or sensual, animated or sentimental. Her playing is equally distinctive and ideal for the setting, which sometimes features teeming backdrops, and other times quieter, restrained support. The trio and company bring a collective edge that adds extra punch to a most impressive project.
Edward Simon & Ensemble Venezuela “Venezulean Suite” (Sunnyside)
Pianist and bandleader Edward Simon explores a Latin American musical style (Venezuelan) that hasn’t been as well publicized on these shores as the sounds of Brazil or Argentina. His 10-piece Ensemble Venezuela includes a brilliant saxophonist (Mark Turner) better known for conventional jazz material. But Turner proves quite capable of handling the different tempos and rhythmic structures on such pieces as “Barinas,” “Caracas,” “Merida” and “Maraciabo,” the four numbers that comprise the disc’s primary fare and title selection. Simon, Turner and other cohorts take listeners on a journey through Venezuela’s many styles, with merengue and a gaita (waltz) explored on some pieces. The finale, “El Diablo Suelto,” Heraclio Fernandez’s seminal work from the 19th century (1888), is a fitting conclusion for a sterling session that for most listeners will serve as a grand introduction to the virtues of Venezuelan fare.
Artist and writer William Stout and writer Ed Leimbacher have won many awards for their work in many areas of the arts, from film and music to poetry. Leimbacher pens the introduction to Stout’s new volume “Legends of the Blues” (Abrams), which is a continuation of the research and illustrations contained in the famed collections/books “R. Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jazz and Country” and “Heroes of the Negro Leagues,” as well as the card collections of blues, jazz and country immortals that featured Crumb’s artwork.
Stout doubles as writer and illustrator on this new set, which takes a slightly different direction from its predecessor’s landmark outing. It expands the definition of blues, including among its 100 portraits and bios boogie-woogie pianists, R&B vocalists, even one of two singers more associated with jazz (Helen Humes, Dinah Washington) than blues. But he certainly covers plenty of blues territory, and adds some names you seldom see in anthologies or histories like Blind Joe Reynolds, Arthur “Montana” Taylor, Clarence “Pine Top” Smith and Sara Martin to cite only a few.
“Legends of the Blues” also has a nice 14-track CD (courtesy of Shout! Factory!) that mixes both blues and gospel, and is another reason to get this newest and worthy addition to blues history and scholarship.