Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene All-Star Cast

By Ron Wynn

NOVEMBER 10, 1997:  When Clint Eastwood exclaims, "Ladies & Gentlemen, I love jazz" near the end of the superb new two-disc anthology Eastwood After Hours, it's absolutely clear he's not indulging in some kind of celebrity posturing. For over 25 years, Eastwood has repeatedly and imaginatively merged jazz and cinema, from his 1971 directorial debut Play Misty for Me to the piano solos he offered throughout In the Line of Fire. Fortunately, the disc's 23 tracks aren't a showcase for Eastwood's energetic but limited instrumental skills; rather, the director has assembled an all-star lineup to perform new interpretations of vintage songs that have been featured in Eastwood's films. Among the players are veteran greats like pianist Kenny Barron, violinist Claude Hopkins, swing-era bandleader Jay McShann, and alto saxophonist Charles McPherson, along with such youthful masters as saxophonists James Carter and Joshua Redman, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, vocalist Kevin Mahogany, and drummer Thelonious Monk Jr.

Although there's a festive air to the proceedings, fire emanates from the bandstand. Rather than politely nod through the performances in polite tribute to Eastwood and to jazz's heritage, the soloists soar, duel, and engage each other in spirited dialogues. Backed by an exemplary Barron and the taut rhythm section of Christian McBride and Kenny Washington, Jimmy Scott's still awesome falsetto careens through "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." New jacks Carter and Redman explode through "Straight No Chaser/Now's the Time," sounding alternate lines and bending and shifting notes just the way Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker did during the '40s and '50s.

There are also some lush, romantic numbers with strings; intriguing reworkings of the anthems "Take Five," "Satin Doll," and "Cherokee"; and even a foray into Western swing with Hopkins and McShann, who display their talents on Bob Wills' "San Antonio Rose." Eastwood caps the night by taking the piano chair and leading a 10-piece group through the nine-minute-plus medley "After Hours/C.E. Blues." His melodic interpretations aren't exactly reminiscent of Erroll Garner, but his harmonic embellishments aren't embarrassing, nor do his phrasing and pacing hinder his more talented mates. I'd still rather see Clint Eastwood act than hear him play, but Eastwood After Hours nevertheless ranks as the finest testament to his love affair with jazz.

Jazzed up Clint Eastwood--play "Misty" for him.

Minnie Riperton--Her Chess Years (MCA/Chess) Minnie Riperton was an immensely gifted, classically trained singer better known for her remarkable three-octave voice than for her versatility and overall ability. She had an enchanting, highly distinctive sound, which she effectively utilized on gospel, soul, pop, rock, and occasionally opera. But during much of her career, she struggled with substandard material and unambitious producers. Riperton joined Chess Records as a teen in 1963, initially serving an apprenticeship with the Gems, a women's ensemble that provided studio background vocals for everyone from Bo Diddley to Jackie Ross. She was subsequently the featured vocalist in Rotary Connection, an African American band that was conceptually ahead of its time. In an era dominated by gospel-tinged soul artists, Rotary Connection was performing tunes by Cream, Eric Clapton, and Jimi Hendrix.

Riperton eventually enjoyed a small measure of stardom in the mid-'70s, scoring a hit with "Lovin' You" in 1975. But anyone who remembers Rotary Connection will treasure the new 16-track collection Minnie Riperton--Her Chess Years. The disc includes three mostly forgettable Gems cuts, plus 16 prime Rotary Connection numbers, many of which spotlight Riperton's ear-rattling, upper-level soprano.

Rotary Connection's ultimate failure wasn't simply due to African-American radio's conservatism; in spite of such unorthodox, challenging songs as "Magical World" and "A-Muse," the group failed to deliver consistently memorable original material, as evidenced by this set's several remakes. Oddly enough, the best cover tune here is a version of "Silent Night," in which Riperton's upper-register acrobatics twirl around dissonant guitar chords and a sweeping string section. "Respect" and "Stormy Monday," meanwhile, come off as obvious attempts to court the soul/blues market, but this type of creative timidity ironically proved to be Rotary Connection's undoing. Though she never became a hitmaker or commercial superstar, Minnie Riperton was nevertheless a first-rate performer, and this anthology displays a critical period in her development.

A life in conflict

Tupac Shakur's brief life and times exemplified hip-hop's compelling and contradictory nature in vivid and graphic fashion. His best songs, particularly "Keep Ya Head Up" and "Brenda's Got a Baby," communicated a passion, a desire for justice, and a vulnerability that the rapper often undermined with his inflammatory public comments (e.g., "There are black women, and there are bitches"). He was a majestic, hypnotic presence in such films as Juice, Above the Rim, and Poetic Justice, but he could also be drab and lifeless in such forgettable B-movies as Bullet and Gang-Related. Shakur genuinely cared about youth, especially African American youth, yet he willingly embraced dead-end stereotypes and openly endorsed the "Thug Life" for much of his career.

Shakur's advocates and detractors agree only on one thing: His slaying Sept. of last year at age 25 was a tragedy. Tupac Shakur (Crown), a new book from the editors of Vibe magazine, unapologetically covers Shakur's rapid rise to fame and his equally quick demise; throughout, the bio neither heroizes nor demonizes the rapper/actor. Despite its brevity, the book adeptly covers Shakur's career with the inclusion of interviews, album and video reviews, critical essays, remembrances, and anecdotes. Among the most compelling sections is an eerily prophetic interview done two weeks before Shakur's death that simultaneously suggests a brighter future and impending doom.

In the process of detailing one rapper's life and death, Tupac Shakur documents the evolution of the East Coast vs. West Coast rivalry, Death Row Records' emergence as a powerhouse in hip-hop recording circles, and Shakur's ultimately futile attempts to escape the rap wars. The book benefits greatly from this broader context, making it a worthwhile read for anyone with even a passing interest in hip-hop. The reader can't help but come away with an appreciation for the sometimes devastating complexities of African American urban culture.

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