Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Great Earl Scruggs

Banjo innovator, bluegrass star and beloved performer Earl Scruggs died March 28, 2012 and already news sources are filled with obituaries and tributes that track the career of this great American musician. Hired as a young man to play banjo with Bill Monroe, the greatest bluegrass bandleader of the time, Scruggs went on to great success as half of the duo Flatt & Scruggs and continued to grow and evolve as a musician for decades, ultimately playing with everyone from Johnny Cash, Sting, Elton John, and John Fogerty to Vince Gill and Billy Bob Thornton.

Anyone wanting to to hear some of Scruggs' music from the peak of his career should listen to the 5 disc collection, Flatt & Scruggs 1959 - 1963. This detailed record of an important time in Scruggs' recording career illustrates the technical virtuosity and the general musical appeal of this legendary performer. As long as bluegrass music is played, there will be a banjo player somewhere working out the Scruggs' part in "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." He'll be missed.

Also of interest:

The Three Pickers: Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Ricky Scaggs (CD)

The Crow by Steve Martin (CD) Scruggs guests on this recording

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

After Midnight

Nat 'King' Cole is one of those musicians whose work seems to connect with generation after generation. Some music is cool for a while, and some is just permanently cool. "After Midnight," one of Cole's most celebrated recordings, is in the latter group, and has that smokey, after-hours feel that's as emotionally resonant today as it ever was. Like Diana Krall, Cole thought he was a jazz musician and was surprised to find himself a pop sensation. The sessions that comprise "After Midnight" feature the sensitive and warm vocal style that was in evidence throughout the singer's career, but the musical setting here is certainly more jazz than pop. Cole's trio, John Collins on guitar, Charlie Harris on bass, Lee Young on drums, is supplemented at times by Jack Costanza, Harry "Sweets" Edison, Willie Smith, Juan Tizol and Stuff Smith, on percission, trumpet, alto saxophone, valve trombone and violin, respectively. Most of the disc though, is Cole's fine piano, supplemented and supported by his sensitive trio. For those who enjoy jazz ballads and swing, particularly, this recording will be a delight: great material, fine vocals and a sophisticated 1950s groove. Some of his finest recordings.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Gangster Of Love

The early recordings of Johnny "Guitar" Watson have been reissued yet again under the title "The Original Gangster of Love: 1953-1959." This material is essential to many blues and early rock fans and should interest anyone curious about the evolving role of the electric guitar in popular music. These are great tracks with hot guitar, horns, piano and great singing. This isn't the rural sound of Southern blues or even the stripped down Chicago style. This is blues as it's evolving into rock and R&B - an urban sound played not by older players with delta roots, but a hot-shot eighteen-year-old (in 1953)in Los Angeles. "Space Guitar" is an instrumental that points in a new direction for the time while "Hot Little Mama" is the kind of hard-edged blues swing that evokes the later recordings of Kim Wilson, Roomful of Blues, and Kid Ramos. The playful boasting of "Gangster of Love" fits somewhere between Ray Charles and Snoop Dog. Essential American music.