-- Craig D. Lindsey

Link Wray

Who would have thought that some of the year's freshest and most honest rockabilly, blues and rock and roll would be heard from old guitar warriors Scotty Moore, Paul Burlison and Link Wray? Forget retirement, these guys can still play. Moore and Burlison, both of whom served Elvis Presley, project emphatic feeling on their respective releases (now out on the Sweetfish label), while a third living treasure, Wray, packs one hell of a punch on his latest effort.

Wray's rambunctious single "Rumble" sold over a million copies in the Eisenhower years and made a big impression on acolytes such as Pete Townshend and Jeff Beck. What's more, hordes of garage rockers and heavy-metal guys, whether they know it or not, salute Wray every time they cut loose on their cranked-to-the-max Stratocasters.

Shadowman, which documents a concert date in England, shows that the original Rumble Man, now pushing 70, can still loosen your cavities and make your head pound. Backed by a young, muscle-bound rhythm section, Wray launches a blitzkrieg of screaming riffs on "Geronimo," pours on the distortion in "Night Prowler" and speeds through "Timewarp/Brain Damage" like a cocky kid. The title cut is Wray's manifesto of guitar-generated suspense, every phrase lingering in the air like the smoke of a cigarette in a neon-lit back alley.

Wray, meanwhile, sings every so often in a tortured voice that owes something to early Elvis, which can be heard most obviously in his take on "Heartbreak Hotel." The one true slow number, a version of Hank Williams's "I Can't Help It," finds Wray strumming his guitar with shopworn vigor while reciting verse after verse as if gripped by the same spiritual malaise that befell Robert Johnson at the crossroads. Devil, have mercy. (*** 1/2)

-- Frank-John Hadley

Julia Fordham
East West

Julia Fordham has made a career out of matching her church-choir soprano to airy folk music about life, love and all the stuff in between. East West, her fifth release, follows suit with typical serenity. Two songs, the title track and "Stay," stand out for their simple approach. Both were recorded as duets with producer Michael Brook, and his feathery guitar lines lend themselves perfectly to Fordham's soaring delicacies. East West's other eight tracks were cut with a live band, which gives the rest of the disc a bit more musical meat on which to chew.

And yet, all of Fordham's work seems to reflect a markedly similar tone, one that appeals repeatedly to the wounded romantic in all of us. For all its niceties, East West is, when taken in its entirety, a bit difficult to swallow. With its tempo locked at a moderate swing and lots of innocuous strumming throughout, it quickly becomes stale. As Fordham's voice soars upward, it's hard to keep your head from dropping downward. And given lyrics such as "She's lying in my place with the right to kiss my favorite face," it quickly becomes apparent that Fordham is losing her grip on the Sap-O-Meter. (** 1/2)

-- Carrie Bell

Wynton Marsalis
Jump Start and Jazz
Sony Classical

For most of us, ballet is like the restaurant where we have to wear a tie, order in a language we haven't spoken since high school and enjoy the food without knowing exactly what we ate. But for Wynton Marsalis, it's just a cool place to hang out between his other high-profile gigs.

Perhaps he was remembering Cocteau, Picasso and Satie's famous collaboration with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes to stage the first "ballet of realism," one that featured typewriters, sirens and pistol shots as part of the score. Maybe not. But Jump Start and Jazz: Two Ballets by Wynton Marsalis is nearly as daring and experimental in its fusion of American and European musical idioms.

It's not surprising that Marsalis's favorite food is gumbo. Both "Jazz: 6 1/2 Syncopated Movements" and "Jump Start -- The Mastery of Melancholy" veer from moments of melancholic beauty to Ives-like strangeness, from marching-band tempos to blues to something recalling the scores of Ennio Morricone. "Jazz" begins with a light-hearted movement titled "Jubilo," but by the second movement, "Tick-Tock" (subtitled with a nod to Tchaikovsky as "Nightfalls on Toyland"), we're in the middle of a New Orleans funeral on LSD, and the last full movement, "Ragtime," is pure celebratory romp.

"Jump Start" is actually the jazzier of the two pieces, and the more fun. Composed for choreographer Twyla Tharp, "Jump Start" is less a suite than a series of pieces built around different dance rhythms. Recalling the dance music of the 1930s and 1940s, the first track, "Boogie Woogie Stomp," is exactly what its title says. And even when Marsalis looks for inspiration in an ancient Japanese musical genre, as he does in "Gagaku," it's not his musicologist's knowledge of non-Western music that impresses, but his willingness to loosen his tie, kick off his shoes and make whatever music sounds good. That's a language he's fluent in. (****)

-- Seth Hurwitz

CDs rated on a one to five star scale.

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