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NOVEMBER 22, 1999: 

Willie Mitchell Soul Serenade: The Best of Willie Mitchell (The Right Stuff/EMI)

Willie Mitchell, one of the kingpins of Memphis music, is probably most famous for his role as producer extraordinaire, particularly for his work with Al Green. His distinctive production work with other Hi label luminaries -- including Syl Johnson, Otis Clay, and Ann Peebles (as well as many other major artists) -- has often overshadowed his own musical contributions. Soul Serenade: The Best of Willie Mitchell remedies this by offering, in one well-chosen compilation, the cream of the crop of Mitchell's releases for the Hi label in the '60s and '70s.

Before he ever sat down at the production boards, Mitchell was a thriving artist on the R&B circuit, with a revolving roster of bandmates that included fledgling jazzsters George Coleman and Charles Lloyd, future members of the MGs and Memphis Horns, and many other legendary Memphis musicians. From its inception in 1954, Willie Mitchell and his band were in hot demand, often even recruited by Elvis himself to play at the King's infamous house parties. After recording a few sides for small imprints, Mitchell was signed to Hi in 1959, and for the next decade he created many prestigious R&B instrumental hits for the label.

A trumpeter by trade, Mitchell was exposed to jazz and the skills of arranging while still in his teens, and a stint in the army found him playing swing in Big Band style. These elements converged with Mitchell's gospel background to forge his famous Hi Records sound, with filigreed organ background, insistent horn arrangements, aggressive solos, and driving percussion, all in full force on this CD.

The astounding thing about this collection of 20 tracks is how fresh and hot it still sounds. It must have been heady stuff when it was first released in the '60s, and it still provokes an unparalleled adrenaline rush. Perusing the liner notes, it's amazing to observe that Mitchell's magnificent cut, "The Crawl," was recorded almost 40 years ago.

The sizzling "20-75," with its odd syncopated beat (which Mitchell notes was inspired by playing between reggae beats that the band heard in Miami), easily stands up to any instrumental that rival Stax records had to offer at the time. And the crème de menthe smoothness of the closing cut gives just a taste of the sensual soul music that Mitchell would be serving up shortly with Al Green.

Compiler Bill Dahl has wisely omitted the cover tracks -- hits of the day that were featured prominently on Mitchell's albums -- in favor of his original compositions, as well as those by the Hodges brothers and other members of the Hi stable, plus some wonderfully funked up covers of Little Richard's "Slippin' and Slidin'," and the King Curtis title cut.

Soul Serenade: The Best of Willie Mitchell should successfully cement Mitchell's reputation as part of the Memphis musical pantheon, as well as enlighten the public about his role as music maker. -- Lisa Lumb


Alex De Grassi Bolivian Blues Bar (Narada Jazz)

The craft and art of arranging (particularly re-arranging, as it were) has always been -- and is, to this day -- a woefully under-appreciated musical undertaking. It's hard enough for established jazz arrangers to get the recognition, bucks, and artistic closure necessary to feed body and soul. So where does an acoustic guitarist primarily known as a new age player get off translating jazz/pop classics?

When an arranger is able to pawn his/her cover off to the hip listener in a convincing fashion, that musician takes at least temporary possession of the pieceand that's where Alex De Grassi gets off.

Not that all of his ideas as executed on Bolivian Blues Bar are stellar. The album opener ("It Ain't Necessarily So") is very nearly spoiled by almost 30 seconds of gratuitous, half-assed upper-register trilling whilst Alex proves that he can do that and walk a bit of bass at the same time. (Note to Alex: My Ouija board indicates that the late, great Joe Pass is not impressed.) And "(Bo) Didley Variations" might elicit the obligatory, practiced response ("Heh, heh, heh we get it!") from the safely adventurous, elbow-patched music department faculty at the University of Wherever, but in the real world it simply sucks.

Otherwise, Bolivian Blues Bar is simply wonderful. Alex De Grassi's caressing treatments of tunes like "Georgia," "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," "Come Sunday," and "Round Midnight" bring a subtle surprise -- a confirmation of the inherent flex, thus the immortal nature of these songs. -- Stephen Grimstead


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