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B.B. King
Blues on the Bayou
MCA

More than any other performer, B.B. King has personified modern blues. At home and abroad, people of all (or no) musical interests can readily identify the genre's defining superstar. Since first recording in 1949, he has won more Grammys, been given more honorary degrees and awards, and probably made appearances on television and radio more often than any other blues artist. His rich voice and stingingly sweet single-note guitar licks are instantly recognizable. He's become an icon, an institution -- and an industry.

Now 73, King has spent recent years in a commercially successful but artistically limited mode, issuing retrospective recordings and making or soliciting guest appearances on various projects while continuing to tour extensively. In 1997, he cashed in with his best-selling album ever, Deuces Wild, which paired him with a succession of younger pop stars, but lacked the soul-wrenching intensity of his best work. Blues on the Bayou, King's first studio recording in almost 15 years to fully use his own touring band, eloquently reasserts his special genius.

Recorded in four days at Dockside Studio in South Louisiana, Blues on the Bayou is King's debut as self-producer, and perhaps that explains its comfortable feel. He says he "wanted to simplify." The result is more than 64 minutes of classic blues, a total of 15 old and new compositions, recorded live without overdubs. The backing instrumentation is as tight as a finely tuned guitar string, featuring beautifully charted horns that precisely punctuate King's singing and playing. And the keyboard work by James Sells Toney is inspired, especially on the B3 organ, which adds a culturally appropriate gospel texture to this collection of back-to-basics blues.

With the exception of three excellent instrumentals (including the opener, "Blues Boy's Tune," and the closer, "If That Ain't It I Quit"), the songs articulate the two major lyrical themes of King's career. Most focus on the tempestuous nature of love relationships (such as "Broken Promise," "Darlin' What Happened" and "If I Lost You"). The others are autobiographical statements such as "Blues Man," which proclaims the value of personal integrity despite hardships. In all cases, King's vocal style, ranging from impassioned blues shouter to tender balladeer, is as impressive as his masterfully economical guitar technique.

Although King is credited with authorship or co-authorship on all 15 songs, "Mean Old World" (first recorded by T-Bone Walker in 1942) and "Shake It Up and Go" (recorded by Tommy McClennan ca. 1939) are clearly standards that King has adapted. Nevertheless, this CD is all B.B. King in spirit -- his finest solo release in many years.

-- Roger Wood

Marcus Roberts
The Joy of Joplin
Sony Classical

When Marcus Roberts replaced Kenny Kirkland in Wynton Marsalis's band 13 years ago, no one would have predicted he would become one of the most controversial jazz pianists of the '90s. Like Marsalis, Roberts is an outspoken jazz traditionalist. He is also one of the most important and challenging pianists of our era.

In the early '90s, Roberts shifted his direction away from bebop to the pre-bop styles of Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Scott Joplin, though he gave hints he was heading in that direction as early as 1987. Beginning with Alone with Three Giants and continuing through his latest, Roberts's solo piano recordings explore pre-bop jazz styles. It is to Roberts's credit that he is usually able to interpret compositions from bygone eras without sounding like a museum display.

Roberts's stated goals on The Joy of Joplin are "to demonstrate the influence of Joplin's music on modern jazz style" and to "bring the sound of ragtime together with the sounds of European classical music and the sounds of 20th century blues and swing." Dividing the program between Joplin compositions and ragtime-influenced originals, Roberts's amalgamation of jazz forms is satisfying and rarely seems contrived. The Joplin arrangements are improvised, which will bother purists, as Joplin wanted his music played note for note. Roberts's variation of "Bethena's Waltz" bears little resemblance to the original, omitting some of Joplin's melodies and inserting an improvised section. Roberts puts a new dress on "The Entertainer" by adding Count Basie and New Orleans influences and bebop lines, while "Maple Leaf Rag" benefits from concepts developed by Morton, James P. Johnson and Thelonious Monk. As for Roberts's originals, they often have a certain erudite quality to them. They don't sound academic, but they feel well studied. That said, Roberts's playing is passionate, particularly on the ballads.

On The Joy of Joplin, Roberts once again forces us to re-examine what jazz is and where jazz is now. That's good. It's one reason why he is a pivotal figure in today's jazz scene.

-- Paul J. MacArthur

Soak
Flywatt
Sire Records

When music critics hear a great record, we trip over our well-thumbed thesauruses in search of perfect words of praise, and when there's a wretched release, there's gleeful fun in ripping apart (constructively, of course) the faults of an artist and his piss-poor songs.

But what happens when, despite repeated listenings and brain-racking, a record fails to make, well, any kind of impression? Welcome to this release by Texas band Soak, a quartet whose melding of hard rock, funk beats and rapped/screamed/talked/sung vocals is neither something to write home about nor to warn even your worst enemy away from ... it's just sort of there. This ambivalence could be the result of the faceless material. "Drowning," "Pocket Salt" and "Braille" could be from the repertoire of Anyband, USA. Only on the head-bobbing chants of the lead-off single, "Do It," and on the guitar-drenched, strobe-lit-dance-floor beckoning "Me Compassionate" does Soak not sound permanently damp. The album's problems are due in no little part to the almost nonpresence of vocalist/guitarist Jason Demetri, who time and time again simply does not register anything with the listener. It doesn't help that most of the lyrics are meandering, freshman poetry class stream-of-consciousness lines that have little connection to each other or to the song as a whole. If you imagine your local record store as a grocery, it will be easy to find this record -- just look on the aisle marked "Generic." This is a product that delivers what you can surmise from the label, although you just know it's bereft of any flavor. Or, in this case, flava.

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