What do Sonny Rollins and Michael Jackson have in common? They're both in my column this week, along with a Lou Reed tribute and a rare trio recording by Francy Boland in 1967. Sonny Rollins—Road Shows Vol. 3 (Doxy/OKeh). There's a majestic quality to Sonny on tour. You can hear it in the audience—whether it's Japan, France or St. Louis. The six tracks here on his latest live in concert" series were captured between 2001 and 2012 and remind you why Sonny remains singular. Don't think of this album as something to match up against his '50s or '60s output or more of the same." What you'll find by listening carefully is a tenor giant pushing fatigue, pain and exhaustion out of the way and giving audiences his very best. There is a Bridge-like quality when Sonny and guitarist Bobby Broom intertwine, especially on the standard Someday I'll Find You. And dig the up-tempo Why Was I Born, with Clifton Anderson on trombone nudging Sonny along. Listen as Sonny gets a rock-star welcome when he launches into Don't Stop the Carnival in Marseilles, France, two years ago. But perhaps the most interesting track for me is Solo Sonny, where he invents alone for eight minutes. It's like riding on the back of a friendly shark.
Francy Boland—Playing With the Trio (Schema). Belgian pianist Boland recorded all of his albums in Europe. Early on, there were dates with Henri Renaud, Bobby Jaspar and a bunch with Chet Baker while the trumpeter was abroad in 1956. But Boland is perhaps best known today as co-leader of the innovative big band he formed with drummer Kenny Clarke that lasted from 1962 to 1972. In the middle of their big band years, Boland and Clarke joined with bassist Jimmy Woode and recorded as a trio in February 1967, giving us a chance to hear Boland out in the open. What we learn is that Boland—witout the brass—was a pianist with a nifty sense of time and a delicate, jagged touch. Listen to Lonely Girl and I'm All Smiles. But he could sizzle as well, as on The Girl and the Turk. This CD is a companion to Out of the Background, recorded with the same group.
Michael Jackson—Xscape (Epic). You might think this posthumous album is a crass attempt by heirs and Epic to keep the Jackson cash machine humming. But viewed without the skepticism, this album of newly discovered material from the estate's vault and re-imagined by cutting-edge producers is, for the most part, superb work. Sure, it's possible that the reason the material sounds so engaging is because so much of today's pop is dreadful—with its violent and pornographic stagecraft, synth obsession and songs devoid of melody. But I look at it differently: Jackson was exceptional and this album is just more delicious evidence. Executive producer L.A. Reid went through the Jackson audio inventory and found eight songs with complete vocals. On Xscape, we get to hear two versions of each song—the original and the updates. The originals are superb, and it's interesting to hear how they've been updated—in some cases successfully and in other cases not so much. Loving You and Slave to the Rhythm are examples of original perfection. Brilliant updates include Love Never Felt So Good, A Place With No Name (different lyrics to America's Horse With No Name) and the title track. Pop hasn't sounded this good in years. Hopefully there's more.
Joseph Arthur—Lou (Vanguard). Speaking of updates, singer-songwriter Arthur offers 12 stripped-down versions of Lou Reed songs. Such a tribute album is tricky—too slick and you miss the point; too close to the original and you sound like an East Village cruise-ship act. Arthur manages to hit it just right by leaning heavily on acoustic instrumentation and treating the material as half song, half poem. The big question is whether such an album was needed. After all, if you want to hear Lou Reed, there's plenty to choose from. Arthur does provide compelling interpretations—combining a Reedian delivery with a shabby-chic, folk vibe and touching arrangements. Sample Stephanie Says, NYC Man and Coney Island Baby. Proof that the price of performing Reed successfully is a healthy dose of pathos and a keen understanding of the rain.