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OPINION: New releases on Sony/Legacy

May 23, 2013
By MARK J. MILLER - Staff writer , The Herald-Star

This week I go through three upcoming releases by Sony/Legacy.

Preservation Hall Jazz Band - "That's It!"

What does a band tracing its history 50 years back to original New Orleans-style jazz do to uphold its legacy? Release another fine album of the same, of course!

And that's exactly what we have in the band's upcoming release "That's It!," set to drop July 9 as a single CD and possibly vinyl as well.

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band is beyond a natural treasure, with each incarnation consisting of elders helping the newbies learn a particular style of jazz that spawned directly from New Orleans' French quarter. Together since 1961, the band has seen legends come and go, but the line of continuity creates exciting, completely American music that is without peer.

While the band always has dabbled with collaboration with other artists, on the new disc's 11 tunes we hear a different kind of influence, as the band meets with Jim James from the modern alt-band My Morning Jacket. It seems an unlikely coupling to say the least, but it works better than it reads on paper.

There's nothing much more to say about this disc except it's another excellent chapter in a band determined to remain to its roots while not being afraid to branch out at the same time. Let's swing!

Tony Bennett and Dave Brubeck - "The White House Sessions 1962"

Wow. In the 1950s and 1960s giants walked the Earth in just about every aspect of America you could think of. It's no different with musicians, and when newly elected President John F. Kennedy invited jazz pianist Dave Brubeck and crooner Tony Bennett to the White House for a command performance in 1962 - well, the very thought of it gives me goosebumps.

The fact the tapes from the performance were forgotten for 50 years is even more remarkable, because to me this is as historical a document as it gets.

This single CD, set to be released next Tuesday, features sets by Brubeck and Bennett at the White House Seminar American Jazz Concert, held on Aug. 28, 1962, outdoors within view of the Washington Monument.

The disc begins with five selections by Brubeck without saxophonist Paul Desmond, which is kind of a mystery to me, as he was an integral part of the band until 1967. Brubeck begins with the Desmond-penned "Take Five," a huge hit for the band. Brubeck also takes time to explain to the audience how he believed jazz could be integrated with music from different cultures, and the trio does so to great effect on "Nomad," "Thank You" and Castilian Blues." I believe Brubeck purposely chose songs in the band's catalog to show the audience jazz was compatible with music forms from throughout the world. In this way, he was one of the first "world-beat" artists borrowing music from different genres.

Bennett, also, is in fine form, singing six standards, including the one that put him on the national charts, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." He sounds positively exuberant playing before the president, who he recently admitted was his idol. Bennett also performs with a piano trio, keeping things intimate on "Just in Time," "Make Someone Happy" and "One for my Baby." Bennett, long a jazz lover, swings hard, but more so on the last four tunes, where Brubeck and Bennett team up for "Lullaby of Broadway," "Chicago," "That Old Black Magic" and "There Will Never Be Another You." This was the age of talent, and it just didn't get any better than the meeting of these two artists.

"Woody Guthrie at 100! -Live at the Kennedy Center"

This year would have marked the 100th birthday of an American musical icon who's influence only seems to grow every year.

It may surprise some people, but this isn't by any means the first time in American history class warfare and deep divisions ruled the country. In fact, a gallop through Woody Guthrie's songs would make an excellent history lesson for anyone interested in the Dust Bowl years, the Great Depression, the "Red Scare" and the great labor struggles of the late 1800s through the late 1940s. These were years of serious violence, of people losing their homes, livelihood and even their life standing up and fighting for beliefs.

Woody Guthrie was on the front lines, an avowed leftist who also was a patriot, socialist, writer, populist and composer of some of the finest American songs ever. A hero for the common man, Woody railed against social injustice, whether it be a brutal capitalist system, "Jim Crow" racism, classism and even the Nazis - his guitar often was adorned with the slogan, "This Machine Kills Fascists." How could you not love that?

The government even hired Woody to write songs commemorating the building of the great Columbia River Dam, a Roosevelt WPA project in the 1930s.

This birthday present to Woody's memory recorded at the Kennedy Center, boasts modern artists re-interpreting some of Guthrie's finest work, including John Mellencamp, Jackson Browne, Tom Morello, Donovan, Ani DiFranco, Rosanne Cash, Old Crow Medicine Show on the CD, while the DVD includes the entire show including some artists not heard on the disc, including Judy Collins, Lucinda Williams, Jimmy LaFave, Rosanne Cash, Old Crow Medicine Show and Ramblin' Jack Elliott.

The performers run the gamut from Guthire's anthems - "Union Maid," "This Land is Your Land" - to his songs of the common man - "I Ain't Got No Home," "Deportee" - to the straight-up revolutionary - "Ease My Revolutionary Mind," "1913 Massacre" - to even his delightful children's songs, including "Riding in My car," sung by Donovan.

Woody Guthrie was a fascinating American character who instinctively possessed pathos for the common man, and they returned the favor in kind. The more I listen to Guthrie's songs written 50 or more years ago, the more I realize the struggles are still the same. If Woody were alive today, he would be in the thick of it.

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