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Nashville Scene Sign of the Times

Callier's variety won't lend him to niche.

By Ron Wynn

FEBRUARY 16, 1998:  Despite considerable skills as a composer and vocalist, Chicago singer Terry Callier has enjoyed only sporadic success during his long career, which spans over three decades. While gifted with a strong, pliant, and commanding voice, Callier's interests are so diversified that he has thus far been unable to find a commercial niche for such invigorating releases as The New Folk Sound of Terry Callier or the sizzling, ahead-of-its-time What Color is Love. He has fared a little better as a songwriter, having penned the Dells' 1972 hit "The Love We Had Stays on My Mind." And in '79, his single "Sign of the Times" was adapted by influential New York disc jockey Frankie Crocker as the theme for the deejay's daily broadcast on WBLS-FM.

By 1982, however, Callier tired of the music wars and opted to take a steady job as a computer operator in the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center. For most of the '80s, he shunned performing and writing. Then he unexpectedly became a celebrity on the other side of the Atlantic when British club deejays began playing his songs as part of the booming "acid-jazz" movement. Lured back into performing in '89, Callier began doing occasional dates in England and Chicago, but it was only last year that he decided to revive his recording career. Now, Time/Peace, his first full-length recording in nearly 16 years, demonstrates both his versatility and his vision.

Back in action
Terry Callier
Photo by Sam Harris

Listening to Time/Peace, it's clear why this iconoclastic musician has seldom cracked the rigid formatting that governs contemporary radio. Some selections blend spoken-word passages with melodic vocals, while others mix and match samba, jazz-inflected pop, lush R&B, folk, and blues. Callier's arrangements are equally unpredictable; he'll often begin a song slowly, then incorporate sonic assaults from tenor saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders. Or he might blend acoustic and electric guitar lines with orchestrated strings and backing vocals. The results are delightful, if sometimes erratic; at the very least, it can be said that Callier is light-years ahead of modern R&B.

"Keep Your Heart Up" is a perfect example of Callier's compositional lan: The tune kicks off with a gentle Afro-Brazilian beat and evocative leads that recall the work of Gilberto Gil, but midway through, Callier escalates the pace, driving the song to an inspirational, exciting conclusion. Another gem is "No More Blues," in which Callier uplifts the heartsore with a message of imminent salvation. Here, he constructs the tune in progressions, alternately slowing and increasing the tempo until he wraps up the song with a soulful and triumphant declaration.

Not everything here is a masterpiece, and sometimes Callier's penchant for offbeat statements leads him into murky, awkward territory, particularly in "Little Al," which comes dangerously close to maudlin embarrassment. There's also a controversial number or two, particularly a song filled with buzzwords and blanket generalizations about urban violence and poverty; even if Callier's sentiments are understandable, his logic remains questionable.

Still, Callier is willing to try unorthodox production styles and to take his own, singular approach to making music--something that can't be said for many '90s acts. Time/Peace signals the welcome return of a truly distinctive, unusual performer.

Join the club

Ry Cooder has long been a master at exploring ethnic musical styles without sacrificing his own distinctive voice. From vintage jazz and blues to country and cowboy songs to African or Asian fare, Cooder has never settled for polite dabbling; instead, his work always balances originality and authenticity. His latest release, Buena Vista Social Club (World Circuit/Nonesuch), features majestic Afro-Cuban rhythms and sounds played by venerable Cuban musicians steeped in ancient melodies and harmonies.

Their efforts are adroitly assisted by Cooder, both as session producer and as an integral supporting player on everything from guitar to mbira. The results are electrifying. Though Buena Vista Social Club is a collaborative affair, some star players still emerge. These include 89-year-old singer Francisco Repilado, a.k.a. Compay Segundo, whose crisp articulation and soothing, yet shattering delivery deftly punctuate "Chan Chan," and "Y T Qu Has Hecho?" Equally magnificent vocals are also supplied by Ibrahim Ferrer, a relative youngster at 71, who offers a bombastic lead on "De Camino a La Vereda," and by Omara Portuondo, the date's sole woman vocalist, whose trills and moans on "Veinte Aos" are reminiscent of a classic blues stylist.

The musical menu blends lush ballads that contain jazz and blues progressions with more traditional Afro-Cuban elements such as the swaying "Chan Chan," the bolero "Dos Gardenias," and the disc highlight, "El Cuarto de Tula." This last extended descarga (jam) includes a moving solo on laoud (a 12-string instrument with guitar properties) by Barbarito Torres and sizzling support on timbales from 13-year-old Julienne Oviedo Sanchez, who despite his age demonstrates a seasoned and frenetic playing style. Throughout Buena Vista Social Club, the joyous vocals and incredible playing not only reaffirm the vitality of the songs, which in some cases are nearly 100 years old, they also prove that linguistic and cultural differences will never constitute barriers to those with open ears and open hearts.

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