Freda Payne—Come Back to Me Love (Mack Avenue). Before Payne had a hit in 1970 with the soul-pop Band of Gold, she was an up-and-coming jazz singer. Here, Payne returns to the music that brought her to the dance, and the results are spectacular. Payne's voices is in strong, in tune, vibrant and bold, while the orchestra is splendidly arranged by Bill Cunlife. And the song choices are impeccable, which is a rarity today. Payne shows how it's done. Dig Midnight Sun and Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most for starters.
Johnny Winter—Step Back (Megaforce). When Johnny died on July 16, he was weeks from releasing a new CD produced by band mate and guitarist Paul Nelson. As this album proves, Johnny was a hell-raising bluesman until the end. Legends who teamed up with Johnny include Eric Clapton, Joe Perry, Dr. John among others. Dig Fats Domino's Blue Monday with Dr. John or Mojo Hand with Joe Perry. Like resting a hand on a red hot Dodge hood. RIP Johnny.
Mike LeDonne—I Love Music (Savant). LeDonne's Groover Quartet features LeDonne on organ, Eric Alexander on tenor sax, Peter Bernstein on guitar and Joe Farnsworth on drums. There's a Charles Earland-y feel here, as LeDonne cooks along on organ and Alexander lights up song after song. The funky Blues for Ball is a must-sample, as is War's The World Is a Ghetto and Stevie Wonder's Do I Do. This quartet truly gets how to take on soul hits, so much so that one almost expects to see the green Prestige label when removing the CD.
Darryl Harper—The Need's Got to Be So Deep (Hipnotic). Harper has been studying clarinet since age 6 and only began to play jazz at age 16. His tone is pure and he actually knows how to play the impossible instrument, holding reedy notes so they linger. This two-CD set is sensual and languid in every way, with tasteful song choices, including Jimmy Giuffre's The Side Pipers, Postures by Carla Bley and Yusef Lateef's Water Pistol. Harper is joined by 20 different players on tracks, and all have a jazz-classical sensibility.
Chris Smither—Still on the Levee (Signature Sounds). Smither has been in the folk business for 50 years, which gives his songs and voice enormous passion and authenticity. On this two-CD set, Smither takes stock of his career with Bonnie Raitt, Loudon Wainwright III, Patty Larkin and others. A leathery voice that sounds like an autumn morning.
Alan Chan Jazz Orchestra—Shrimp Tale. Gil Evans-like arranging is alive and well in the orchestra led by Chan. The Los Angeles-based composer and arranger assembled a superb group of studio and jazz players in 2011, and every track here is a beautiful, soaring expression. Sample A Spirit's Dream and René's Barcarolle. I would have scrapped the poetry narration on several tracks, since it mars what otherwise would have been a perfect album. But this is a quibble.
Don Flemons—Prospect Hill (Music Maker). Flemons, the founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, is a rousing master of high-stepping bluegrass, stringband, folk, jug and blues. Songs on this album are traditional works and originals, and Felmons has a beckoning rural sound. His warm vocals and guitar and four-string banjo playing drip with American music history.
Puss N Boots—No Fools, No Fun (Blue Note). Each member of this singing-and-playing country trio has a big name. Sasha Dobson is a jazz singer, Norah Jones is a jazz-pop star and Catherine Popper has played with Ryan Adams. Here, Dobson plays guitar, bass and drums; Jones plays electric guitar and fiddle; and Popper plays bass and acoustic guitar. This album has the sound of the open road and lonely sunsets. It's love at first listen.
Nils Lofgren—Face the Music (Concord). This 10 disc retrospective box features 9 CDs and 1 DVD, providing a detailed look at a keyboard player, guitarist and singer who has been there and done that. Lofgren formed Grin in 1968 and then went on to play and record with with Neil Young's Crazy Horse, Lou Reed and Bruce Springsteen, where he has been since 1984. There's a gentle, troubadour quality about Lofgren that has been largely overlooked in the rock legacy category. This is smooth, smart rock.
The Verse Music Group, the proud owners of the 1950s Bethlehem label, has released five more remastered titles: The Jazz City Workshop (with Marty Paich, Herbie Harper, Larry Bunker and others), Conte Candoli's Sincerely Conte (in a quartet setting with Claude Williamson, Max Bennett and Stan Levey), Frank Rosolino's I Play Trombone (with Sonny Clark, Wilfred Middlebrooks and Stan Levey), vocalist Peggy Connelly's That Old Black Magic (with a crack Russ Garcia-led and arranged nonet) and Russ Garcia's Four Horns and a Lush Life (with trombonists Rosolino, Harper, Tommy Pederson and Maynard Ferguson backed by a trio and Dick Houlgate on baritone sax).
Benjamin Lapidus—Ochosi Blues (Tresero). Lapidus is a Cuban tres and guitar virtuoso, and his new group, Kari-B3, features a range of all-star Latin artists, including Bobby Sanabria, Candido Camero and Charlie Sepulveda. But this isn't a traditional Latin-jazz album as much as it is a screwed-down-tight ensemble at work. There are Latin touches, but some of the instruments—such as the soprano sax and a soap-opera organ—aren't often heard in Latin-jazz recordings. As a result, this material is eclectic and interesting. A dazzling array of song choices includes the standards Have You Met Miss Jones and But Beautiful. Dig the compelling Here's That Rainy Day, a tour de force as weightless as a smoke ring. The album has my vote for Latin album of the year.
The Psycho Sisters—Up on the Chair, Beatrice (Rock Beat). The acoustic guitars and tight vocal harmony of Vicki Peterson and Susan Cowsill are reminiscent of female folk artists of the '60s. But the music is too smart to linger in the past. Numb is hard rock, Gone Fishin' is country and What Do You Want From Me has a rockabilly twist. An album that provokes and teases with artful style. And yes, Cowsill was a child member of The Cowsills, the family pop group, while Peterson was the Bangles' guitarist.
Elvis Presley—That's the Way It Is: Deluxe Edition (Sony). My conversion took place in Memphis in 2010, when I was down there to cover Elvis Week for The Wall Street Journal. On Saturday that ended the week, the festival screened a remastered Elvis on Tour on a massive screen at the Orpheum Theatre. The guy's candle power and voice blew me away. Now, Sony has released That's the Way It Is, a 1970 documentary directed by Denis Sanders. The 8 CD/2 DVD set has been remastered, providing the entire trove of Elvis's 1970 Las Vegas concert performance. Songs include the usual suspects and lesser-knowns such as Bridge Over Troubled Water, You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' and Sweet Caroline. The DVDs feature the original theatrical version (1970) and subsequent re-edited extended version (2000). Still a marvel.