Year-End Column

A. Year in Review

As a fan and advocate for jazz, blues and other idioms that seldom find their way onto commercial airwaves or into discussions of what’s supposedly culturally relevant, every year has mixed blessings. The sad reality in the jazz and blues world is each year we will lose legendary and irreplaceable greats, simply because we’re talking about a sound and a style that’s been around for decades, and been fortunate enough to have giants who kept working right up till the end. Indeed, just as we began preparing this column the news came that the magnificent songstress Nancy Wilson had just died at the age of 81.

Wilson epitomized the stylistic versatility necessary to be both a wonderful jazz vocalist, yet remain part of the popular music landscape. She made her share of historic recordings with such giants as Cannonball Adderley and George Shearing, yet also had soul and pop hits later in her career. She turned any and everything she sang into a triumph, not concerning herself with whether or not it was material that met the definition of jazz, but instead finding ways of making it memorable and distinctive.

She was just one among a host of major jazz and blues losses. They included Henry Butler, Cecil Taylor, Randy Weston, Jerry Gonzalez, Roy Hargrove, Hamiett Bluiett, Sonny Fortune, Big Jay McNeely, Hugh Masekela, Tomasz Stanko, Buell Neidlinger, Didier Lockwood, Leon “Ndugu” Chanceler, Eddie “The Chief” Clearwater, Eddie C. Campbell, the owner of the Village Vanguard Lorraine Gordon, and locally James “Nick” Nixon and regionally Denise LaSalle. That’s an enormous amount of talent, but thankfully they all leave behind wonderful and unforgettable albums.

2018 was also a year when a “lost” Coltrane album from the mid-’60s not only proved essential listening, but became part of the national musical conversation for several weeks. On the one hand you can complain it would be nice if new music got that kind of attention, but when any jazz album is discussed in the pages of “The New Yorker,” “Vanity Fair,” “Time” and “Newsweek” within the same month, it’s hard to carp about it. The “Both Directions At Once” album also revisited the question of exactly when Coltrane began looking towards the radical developments that characterized his later period LPs,  because there are definite indicators throughout this album that he started that quest long before some previously claimed.

Nashville’s jazz, blues and roots scene remains far more vibrant than you’d know if you were gauging it by the coverage it gets outside the boundaries of the Tennessee Jazz and Blues Society, plus the space provided by the Nashville Scene. That’s to be expected. No reasonable person refuses to acknowledge the importance of the country music industry to this city or this nation’s overall cultural heritage, no do they begrudge the fact country’s going to get the lion’s share of attention and coverage, and pop will also get a lot of what’s leftover. What IS wrong is the attitude everything else not only is secondary, but often not even worth noticing. That’s the fight that’s been ongoing in this city for decades, and no doubt will continue because those in control at certain institutions simply either are unaware or unwilling to recognize just how much great music happens regularly here in jazz, blues, R&B, soul, gospel and other non-country circles, nor just how much those who make it are respected nationwide. In fact, many of them also participate in making the country music that DOES get such wide coverage.

At any rate, there were lots of vital things deserving of notice. They range from jazz albums by Kandace Springs, Charlie Peacock, Jeff Coffin, Diane Marino and Lynn Lewis to blues releases from the Markey Blue Ric Latina Project, James House and the Blues Cowboys, Mike Farris, Tom Hambridge (also longtime Buddy Guy producer) and Jeff Woods. There was the return of the Beegie Adair trio to Carnegie Hall, and superb concerts at the Schermerhorn, Marathon Music Works, the Nashville Jazz Workshop’s Jazz Cave, Jazz at the Frist and the City Winery (to cite just a few places).

For those who still gripe about the loss of WMOT-FM as a conduit for mainstream jazz (and it WAS a huge blow), let’s not forget the daily contributions of WFSK-FM 88.1, the wonderful specialty shows of jazz, blues and a host of other things on WXNA and WRFN, and certainly Greg Pogue’s “Nashville Jazz” weekly fest streaming live on Acme Radio. WMOT does deserve credit for being the only place you can hear such wonderful artists as Rhiannon Giddens, William Bell, Keb Mo/Taj Mahal, Bettye Lavette, Mavis Staples and others deemed too old, too esoteric, too country or too non-commercial to fit into the ultra-restrictive urban contemporary landscape. Plus our thanks to the Belcourt for including in its valuable Music Mondays film series a great Milford Graves documentary and NPT for occasionally including some jazz and blues programming in its lineup.

We also salute the Tennessee Jazz and Blues’ Great Albums Concert series,the NJW’s various concert specials, and the Nashville Industry Music Awards. These are all part of the support system that’s vital to keeping attention and interest on the music during those times when it’s otherwise being ignored (sadly far too often). Next year’s arrival of the Nashville Blues and Roots Alliance, a new organization dedicated to being a champion for that music in the wake of both the Nashville Blues Society and the Music City Blues Society no longer operating, is another blessing.

It will also be quite interesting to see how much attention jazz, blues and roots music gets when the National Museum of African American Music opens its doors in 2019. All eyes will be on that site, not just locally and regionally but nationally, because there are quite a few skeptics asking why is this in Nashville? Those of us who know this city’s lengthy and distinguished history in various idioms within the Black Experience respond with why not, but there are definitely naysayers out there.

Lastly, we salute the 20th anniversary of the Nashville Jazz Workshop,and its hiring earlier this year of Eric Dilts as its full time Executive Director. Bassist Roger Spencer and pianist Lori Mechem have done an incredible job in building the NJW from a skeletal concept within limited space into a working reality, one that combines performance, instruction, presentation and advocacy in a manner that’s rightly won  praise and attention in the national jazz media, and which deserves a lot more praise locally. They certainly don’t have the fiscal backing given the CMA, but they’ve done wonders, and they continue to expand the curriculum, as well as the roster of acts and events that appear there.

Also we honor the Nashville Jazz Orchestra, one of the few citywide big band aggregations that continues working in the time-honored traditions of swing, while also incorporating new and unusual ingredients into its mix. The same for multi-instrumentalist Karl Wingruber and the folks behind Music City Swing, who champion the vintage big band sound, but never in a fashion that makes it seem a musical relic or fossil. Also great praises to Ryan Middagh at Vanderbilt’s Blair University, Don Aliquo, Dr. John Dougan and the good folks at MTSU in their jazz studies and popular music departments, and also the folks at Belmont’s music business school.

We’d also be amiss not to notice the yeoman efforts of folks like Jeff Coffin, Rahsaan Barber and others who either run record labels or issue their own self-produced albums. It’s always tough pushing your own music, even in today’s Internet-driven world, where it’s not always necessary or even beneficial to have a major label pulling the strings and calling the shots. But the flip side of that is those labels also had the money and connections to get things played on radio and get stories and articles issued in publications. That task is always tough when not only the musical but the promotional push has to come from the artist.

Things will never be perfect, but they are certainly better today than they were when I arrived here in the mid-’90s. As always, we urge you to support the Tennessee Jazz and Blues Society, the Nashville Jazz Workshop, and all other entities promoting, presenting and spotlighting this great music.

(Some of this material was previously published in different form in the Nashville Scene’s year-end issue).

 II. Jazz Plus: Author Conversation

Randy Fox

I first encountered Randy Fox back in the days when Vanderbilt’s radio station WRVU had one of the greatest operations going anywhere in the country. They let people who loved music program shows without concern for anything other than demonstrating why they felt what they were playing was great. He was part of the show “Hipbilly Jamboree,” easily among the finest programs you’ll ever hear featuring real country, rockabilly and western swing. Sadly, someone at Vandy decided to fix something that wasn’t broken, and the rest is history.

But later I discovered Randy, like so many of us with the music bug, was also a writer. He’s now gotten a promotion, and is the new managing editor at the East Nashvillian, as well as being a contributing writer at Vintage Rock. We were formerly colleagues at the Nashville Scene,  and I had the honor last month of hosting a program devoted to his new book, “Shake Your Hips: The Excello Records Story.”

Randy certainly hasn’t abandoned radio. He’s the co-founder of WXNA, 101.5FM, which it wouldn’t be unfair or inaccurate to say is (along with WRFN) the successor to WRVU. Randy recently took the time to answer some questions in the wake of doing his two weekly radio shows, “Randy’s Record Shop” from 7-9 a.m. Mondays, and of course “Hipbilly Jamboree” Fridays from 5-7 p.m. Though he describes himself as a “fast-talkin’ hillbilly boy,” if you know him, you know he’s a lot sharper than he wants folks to know.

1. What was the first type of music that interested you?
“As a child country music and then current Top 40 radio, but as I grew older I rejected country music because it wasn’t “cool.” My background in music is rather odd in that I really didn’t become a music fanatic until my first year of college. Growing up in rural Kentucky I didn’t have access to a good record store. Radio at that time was pretty much Top 40 or standard AOR, and I didn’t have a music “mentor” — someone to turn me on to great stuff you wouldn’t hear on the radio.”

“That all changed my freshman year of college. Suddenly, I was exposed to punk, alternative rock, classic rock, roots music and more, all at the same time.  I became obsessed with not only current non-mainstream music and learning as much as I could about the development of rock.  My interest in classic blues, soul, country, R&B and rock’n’roll  really exploded in the late 1980s/early 90s when the alternative rock scene petered out for a few years (right before the “Nirvana explosion”) and the rise of CD reissues began.”

2. How important was radio in the formation of your tastes?
“The radio I had access to and was aware of in high school was pretty blah. The one exciting note was staying up late to listen to the Dr. Demento Show on an FM station out of Owensboro. Kentucky. I think that planted the seed that cool, weird and engaging music came from all time periods. In college, when I would come to Nashville, I always listened to WRVU (I attended WKU in Bowling Green, Kentucky). I figured out pretty quickly the point where WRVU’s came into range as I drove south from B.G. to Nashville. When I moved to Nashville in the late 80s I kept my radio locked on WRVU all the time. I still remember driving down West End one day and hearing the Sex Pistols followed by Patsy Cline and thinking, “All radio should be like this!”

3. What got you so interested in Excello?
As I got deeper into reading about music history I became particularly fascinated with lesser-known stories and ones that defied conventional, popular narratives. When I moved to Nashville, I added interest in local music history. In 1992, Ace Records in the UK began an extensive reissue program of the Excello catalog and the actual owners of the catalog, AVI Inc., joined them two years later with domestic releases. The Excello story was right up my alley — it was a uniquely Nashville story and it completely exploded the idea that most people had of Nashville being a strictly country music town. It also helped that I was working part time at Phonoluxe Records at the time, and the owner, Mike Smyth, had been a fan of Excello Records since he began collecting American blues and R&B records during the British R&B boom of the 1960s.”

4. How would you characterize the Excello sound, or did such a thing exist?
“There’s a definite sound to the Excello releases recorded by Jay D. Miller in Crowley, Louisiana. The “swamp blues” sound — a minimalist take on the blues, dripping with swampy atmosphere that crossed the sound of older, country blues with the electrified punch of Chicago blues while working in elements from country music, rockabilly, and even Cajun music.”

“For the Nashville releases, Excello owner Ernie Young displayed a preference for simple high-energy recordings that emphasized feel over polish. The style was the result of Young’s cheapness and his unique business model.  Since he was selling Excello releases in package deals advertised over the radio, he was willing to give almost anyone a try if he thought their music was catchy and it could be recorded quickly.  If it became a hit, great. If not, he’d clear out the surplus stock at a reduced profit through package deals. Either way he made money. The result was many astounding, unusual records that no other label would have released.”

“After 1966, when Young sold the company to the Nashville-based Crescent Company, the emphasis shifted to soul. While the latter-day Excello never developed a consistent soul sound like Stax or Hi, there are still many good examples of what I think of as the “Music City Soul Sound” — a cross between the commercial polish of Motown and the down-home funkiness of Muscle Shoals.”

5. Who would you consider the greatest and/or most important Excello artists?
“Without a doubt the swamp blues artists — Lightnin’ Slim, Lazy Lester, Lonesome Sundown and the biggest of them all, Slim Harpo. Harpo in particular never stopped innovating. During the late 1950s and early 1960s he was a sensation across the South as he played both African-American juke joints and white fraternity houses. He was constantly adding elements from soul, rock, country, and pop to his music while maintaining his own unique musical personality.”

“When his records hit the UK, he became one the major influencers on the British R&B boom — on the same scale as Chuck Berry or Muddy Waters. The best proof of his influence is that during 1964 the Rolling Stones. the Kinks, the Yardbirds, Them, and the Who all covered Slim Harpo songs.”

“Harpo was preparing for his first UK tour in 1970 when he died from a heart attack at the age of 45. If he’d have lived longer, I feel certain he would have become a superstar in the blues field.”

6. You also talk about the role that both WLAC and Ernie’s/Randy’s/Buckley’s shops played in the Excello story. Would it be fair to consider them the forerunner of Amazon?
“In a sense, they certainly offered music at a discounted price and were able to supply just about any record in print that their customers asked for. When all three shops began advertising on WLAC in the late 1940s finding R&B and country records was still relatively difficult for most Americans unless you lived in a major city, and even then, not all shops carried an extensive stock of those genres. As time went on finding records locally became more common, but Ernie’s and Randy’s sales remained strong all the way through the mid-1970s, when WLAC changed its nighttime format, so they were definitely fulling a demand. I like to say WLAC put the music in people’s ears, and Ernie’s put the music in their hands.”

7. Who currently owns the Excello/Nashboro masters and are their plans for any new reissue series?
“Universal Music bought the entire Excello/Nashboro catalog in 1997. They initially released several solid CD compilations but have ignored the catalog since then. The best prospect for future reissues are through licensing deals by independent labels. The German-based Bear Family Records released a 5-CD box set of the complete recordings of Slim Harpo in 2015, and Third Man Records recently released a fantastic LP collection of Nashboro gospel. Hopefully, the book may spur more interest in reissues of Excello and Nashboro material.”

8. What is the most unusual thing you discovered about Excello during your research for the book?
“Probably the fact that Ernie Young was the rarest of the rare in the record business — an honest man. While he was a well-known cheapskate that firmly believed in never spending a nickel more than he had to, he was also incredibly honest with his artists. Ernie offered lower advances and royalties than other labels, but he paid every penny of what he promised.”

9. What is a common misconception or myth regarding Excello or any Excello artist did you discover?
“The most common misconception is that Excello was Louisiana-based label, or that the Nashville recordings were somehow second-rate to the Louisiana-based recordings. Almost all of Excello releases are fascinating or unusual in some way.  I can honestly say I have never heard a bad Excello record — a couple of so-so ones — but anything on the Excello label is worth checking out.”

10. Aside from certainly wanting everyone to read it, what do you hope that readers take away from your book in regards to Excello and its role in the R&B/soul/rock & roll universe?
“The first thing I hope for is that the book makes people search out and listen to the records. Second, I hope it opens more people’s eyes to the myth that Nashville was just a country music town until recently. And third, I would like to see the story of Excello, WLAC, and the Nashville trio of record stores elevated to their rightful place in the history of American music.”


III – Spotlight Review 1

“The Miles Davis Reader – Interviews and Features from Downbeat Magazine (Updated edition) By Frank Alkyer (editor)

Trumpeter, composer and bandleader Miles Davis was far more than a visionary musician, although that was certainly part of his appeal and importance. He was a singular personality who attracted as much attention for things off the bandstand as on it, and someone who delighted in shattering expectations and constantly reshaping his image. He was covered throughout his career more extensively than almost any other jazz artist, and was clearly a prime favorite of Downbeat, despite the many times he feuded with its writers, downgraded its importance, and ridiculed its assessments of his music.

American jazz musician and composer Miles Davis (1926 – 1991) playing the trumpet. (Photo by Express Newspapers/Getty Images)

The new version of “The Miles Davis Reader” contains fresh material since its 2007 initial printing, much of it devoted to the many reissues that have appeared since then. It’s a comprehensive and complete look at one publication’s continual overview of a legendary figure (some might call it an obsession). However, anyone who isn’t a Davis fanatic might not be so thrilled to read umpteen reviews of the same recordings or see previously covered events get a second look years later.

Part of why that was done is the difference in critical perspectives of Davis’ music. Those views varied as much due to age, background and race as it did knowledge and experience. Critics who came of age in the eras when jazz was a major part of the pop music world treasured his pre-70s recordings and (a majority though not all by any means) loathed everything that came after “Bitches Brew.” The others who grew up enjoying soul, R&B, funk, rock and disco as much as jazz were far more attuned to what Davis was doing and were largely fans of the post-“Bitches Brew” music.

The results of these differing approaches can be seen in reviews of the same album with one person dismissing it and another giving it four or even five stars. There are also occasions where back and forth sniping occurred between black writers who considered their white colleagues out of touch and disdainful of contemporary black music, thus unfairly dismissing Davis LPs like “On The Corner.”

The Davis interview segments are no less fascinating. He was prone to say anything, and often provided scathing comments about his colleagues. Sometimes it is disturbing to read Davis ripping Eric Dolphy, Cecil Taylor or Ornette Coleman because the attacks become personal rather than musical. Yet, it’s compelling because here’s someone who felt no compunction to be diplomatic in his views about anything or anyone. At one point, Charles Mingus penned a response to Miles that is fascinating, if no less controversial than Davis’ original comments..

Even if you read the earlier version of “The Miles Davis Reader” 11 years ago, you’ll find revisiting this new one rewarding. Like, love or loathe him, Miles Davis was one of a kind, and this book reaffirms it from the opening page to the final line.


Spotlight Reviews II

Jazz Plus

Jimmy Charles “Hard Way To Go”
(EP, available on Itunes/Amazon)

As someone who has studiously avoided “American Idol,” “The Voice” and all other such competition/reality shows since their inception, this seven-song EP is my introduction to vocalist/songwriter Jimmy Charles. He’s certainly a gifted performer, and deserves any plaudits he may have received on or from that program. While the disc’s foundation and sensibility are rooted in contemporary country, he demonstrates ample stylistic versatility. Though the opening number “Blue Spaces” has a light-hearted, summer feel, and “Rollin’ On” displays Southern rock touches, Charles’ aim is more inspirational than playful on much of “Hard Way To Go.”

The poignant “I Am Not Alone” addresses the dilemmas of cancer sufferers from multiple perspectives that range from youth to being a senior citizen. He sings here with power and authority, and likewise on “Superman,” another tune that examines the disease’s impact. While the song’s lyrics discuss prostrate cancer awareness, they also reflect the deep role played in Charles’ life by Paul Shukla, who is both his mentor and a cancer survivor.

Another memorable number is the finale “Hard Way To Go,” which offers an upbeat message to those battling addiction. There’s outstanding instrumental touches on several songs, especially the blend of acoustic guitar and mandolin on the spiritual leaning “God And A Woman.”  The EP was locally produced and mixed by Paul David, Ocean Way and Warner Bros. Studios with one exception. That is “I Am Not Alone,” which was produced in Memphis at Royal Studios by Boo Mitchell, son of legendary Memphis music maestro and producer Willie Mitchell.

The video for “Superman” has already attracted considerable attention and acclaim, and it’s far from the only topflight tune on “Hard Way To Go.” Jimmy Charles’ debut is clearly a noteworthy one, and should put him well on the road to consistent success.

Balsam Range “Aeonic”
(Mountain Range)

Balsalm Range’s “Aeonic” won’t be released for a couple more weeks, but it’s an early candidate for one of 2019’s showcase bluegrass LPs.  They’ve already made significant pre-release headway with the single “The Girl Who Invented The Wheel.” It’s been a chart-topping hit for weeks on bluegrass radio, and features a vibrant vocal from Buddy Melton. It also lays the groundwork for an album that contains plenty of other significant, exciting selections.

One is ” “Tumbleweed Town,” which is spiced by a tremendous lead vocal from guitarist Caleb Smith. Another is “Get Me Gone,” the album’s second single. It spins a sad saga, but one delivered in robust fashion. “Hobo Blues” offers urgency and dramatic clout in Smith’s glorious lead vocal, and is one of the best versions of the Ray LaMontagne number. The group turns to gospel with “Let My Life Be A Light,” and pivots back to a stinging murder ballad with “My Cross To Bear.” “The Rambler”  chronicles a tale of life on the road, with a sparkling vocal from Darren Nicholson, and equally impressive accompaniment on mandolin.

Bluegrass purists rival their jazz brethren in a disdain for material that ventures what they deem too far outside the canon. It will be  interesting to see the reaction to Balsam Range’s cover of the Beatles “If I Needed Someone,” which features bassist Tim Surrett doing lead vocal honors. It’s definitely not a traditional bluegrass approach, either in terms of arrangement or interpretation, but it is a challenging and intriguing version.

Having just won a second International Bluegrass Music Association Entertainer of the Year Award, Balsam Range could easily have played it safe and cranked out another faithfully done, beautifully played, routine affair. Instead they keep pushing ahead and expanding without distorting or abandoning the elements that make bluegrass special and beloved.