Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Living Blues

By Ron Wynn

DECEMBER 22, 1997:  Controversies over image and content have both invigorated and plagued jazz, blues, and urban music throughout the '90s. This year proved no exception. It often seemed as though events that should be cause for celebration were instead bemoaned, while no one wanted to take responsibility for some of 1997's disasters. For instance, Wynton Marsalis became the first full-time jazz musician and composer ever to win a Pulitzer this past April, yet critics grumbled over the fact that he won it for penning an ambitious operatic work ("Blood on the Fields"). Few even bothered to acknowledge that the trumpeter finally shattered an ugly embargo that had allowed giants such as Duke Ellington to be snubbed ignobly during their lifetimes.

Another instance was the hue and cry that arose from old-time jazz and swing-era critics when a few pop writers were silly enough to compare '97's urban sensation Erykah Badu to Billie Holiday--a misplaced link to be sure. Rather than appreciate the fact that Badu's truly distinctive delivery is as magical a departure today as Holiday's was in the '30s, the music police instead ripped into her as though she were the ultimate hype artist; of course, these people forget that not all of Holiday's first releases were instant classics.

Meanwhile, the violence that continues to infect the hip-hop scene was either downplayed or rationalized ad infinitum. This year was marred by the drive-by shooting that took the life of Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. Biggie Smalls, and by the re-imprisonment of Death Row head Suge Knight for his alleged involvement in the shooting of Tupac Shakur. Far too many times, pundits and essayists in such respected publications as The Source (which recently celebrated its 100th issue) and Vibe lambasted "the system," "the white man's justice," and everything and everybody else, yet they failed to acknowledge that easy access to weapons, coupled with raps glorifying violence, is responsible for many horrors in urban society.

While calls for lyric censorship do nothing except make more First Amendment martyrs, hip-hop or African American music is in no way served by the continued posturing, sexism, and vulgar rhetoric invoked by a handful of high-powered rappers. It's neither racism nor conservatism to urge more restraint, caution, and thought during live interviews, nor to express hopes for less hooliganism in the hip-hop nation for '98 and beyond.

While jazz continued to celebrate its founding fathers through huge tributes to everyone from Louis Armstrong to Ornette Coleman to Benny Carter, some musicians looked for fresh directions and alternatives. The duet, once a recording staple, was revived with pinpoint teamings of such veterans as Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter or Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden. Filmmaker Ken Burns was awarded a million-dollar grant from the Corporation of Public Broadcasting to do for jazz what he has already done for baseball and the Lewis/Clark expedition; the results won't be known until 2000, when Burns' multi-part documentary airs on PBS. Vibe veteran Lionel Hampton won the Medal of Arts, and longtime academician Eileen Southern updated her landmark Music of Black Americans; the book's first edition in 1971 was one of the first volumes ever to examine the links between African American idioms. This year's third edition included new sections on hip-hop and urban fare, along with the usual eclectic examination of other forms of music, including classical.

In the blues world, John Lee Hooker was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Blues Foundation, while the popularity of youthful guitar gunslingers Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, along with country blues artists Keb Mo' and Corey Harris, suggested that perhaps the 12-bar form will thrive in the 21st century after all. Indeed, despite the irreplaceable greats who passed on this year in both jazz and blues, the music created by the new legions indicates that there are still intriguing possibilities for the next generations.


Gains and losses
Before he passed away, Luther Allison made one of the year's best LPs
Photo by Les Gruseck

This year, a pair of producer/performer types, Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds and Sean "Puffy" Combs, dominated the urban arena. Edmonds continued to pen the romantic ballads and tributes that have always fortified R&B, while Combs proved himself a media maven with his savvy sampling, song selection, and artist promotion. Those who carp about Combs' lack of originality may have a point, but they're also missing the point--recycling has been a prominent part of the African American music experience since day one. Granted, Combs is no creative genius, but he has built an impressive arsenal of artists, and with Death Row on the way out, he is now reigning impresario. It was good to see at year's end the return of such heralded figures as Rakim and EPMD; their releases showed they haven't lost their rhyming skills.


Top 15

Following are the year's finest jazz, blues, & R&B releases, with some gospel thrown in. That said, there were easily another 20 or so records that were just as worthy of recognition.

  1. Ornette Coleman/Joachim Kuhn, Colors (Verve) Jazz's reigning iconoclast returned to the acoustic mode with a vengeance, offering churning solos and a dashing counterpart to the more sedate, though equally arresting, pianist Kuhn. Close: Herbie Hancock/Wayne Shorter

  2. Luther Allison, Reckless (Alligator) Fiery, rocking, outlandish vocals, sensational accompaniment, and inspirational guitar work from a supremely talented, erratic genius who sadly passed away this year. Close: Robert Cray

  3. The Fairfield Four, I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray (Warner Bros.) While almost every other Golden Age group is now a part of history, this seminal Nashville ensemble continues to make vital music. Their cries and harmonies are enough to make you never want to enter the secular world again.

  4. Roy Hargrove's Crisol, Habana (Verve) A welcome alternative to the reams of hard bop, retro swing, and straight-ahead material currently dominating jazz radio and records. Trumpeter Hargrove showed he could handle the tricky Afro-Latin groove without losing any of his fire or edge. Close: Joe Henderson

  5. Erykah Badu, Baduizm (Universal) Not since Anita Baker first emerged has a woman rocked urban radio the way Badu's sizzling, sexy "On and On" did this year. Every other selection maintains the pace as well. Close: Janet Jackson

  6. Various artists, Soul Food soundtrack (LaFace) The year's most influential and acclaimed African-American movie also boasted the best soundtrack; rather than stringing together unrelated songs for radio fare, Babyface pulled the cream of contemporary R&B and hip-hop, then mixed in material that both fit the film and was actually included in the film. Close: Love Jones soundtrack, Eastwood After Hours

  7. Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott, Supa Dupa Fly (EastWest/EEG) At times delightful, at other times infuriating, Missy Elliott's caustic wit, clever loops, and superior style resulted in an album that didn't get dreary after repeated listenings. It's unclear how much of this is due to the meticulous production or to her own charms; even so, this was still the finest R&B/hip-hop joint venture issued in '97. Close: Mary J. Blige

  8. Kirk Franklin & the Family, "Stomp" (B-Rite) If all contemporary gospel could echo this song's infectious energy, perhaps more Golden Age fans might embrace it. This was the best pop/gospel hit since "Oh Happy Day," though even that tune didn't get near as much exposure and publicity.

  9. Puff Daddy, Faith Evans, 112, etc., "I'll Be Missing You" (Bad Boy) You couldn't escape this one. Although the Police song it samples isn't among my favorites, this single did convey a creditable message of regret and sadness while keeping the maudlin elements in control.

  10. Usher, "You Make Me Wanna" (LaFace) Vintage teen/heartthrob lyrics delivered over a catchy beat and sung in first-rate heartache fashion. He's not Little Stevie Wonder, but Usher did demonstrate (at least on the video) fine moves and a good sound.


Reissues

  1. John Coltrane, The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings (MCA) Everyone who professes amazement at the direction Coltrane's music took after A Love Supreme can now rest easy; this amazing three-disc set shows the tenor sax giant was heading outside long before he made the complete leap.

  2. Charles Mingus, The Complete Atlantic Recordings (Atlantic) A raging, brilliant bassist and composer, Charles Mingus fused jazz, blues, gospel, Latin, and plenty else during a tenuous period at Atlantic. This set collects all those recordings in chronological order, and it shows why no label or musician could ever rest easy around Mingus.

  3. Various Artists, The Big Ol' Box of '60s Soul (Rhino) Greats, one-hit wonders, wailers, weepers, and savants, all performing under the soul banner. There's not a lame moment on the entire six-disc collection; upon conclusion, you're hard pressed not to cue it right back up again.

  4. Various Artists, The Aristocrat Story (MCA) Before there was Chess, there was Aristocrat, a tiny Chicago-based label that issued memorable singles and signaled the coming of the city's blues explosion. You might not know most of the names, but you won't forget any of the tunes.

  5. Louis Armstrong, The Complete RCA Recordings (RCA) Forget the canard that Louis Armstrong did nothing innovative after the '20s; these sessions show that "Pops" was kicking things in high gear all through the '30s. He even made some musical statements that pointed the way toward bebop--ironically enough, a style he hated.


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