Friday, March 18, 2005

TERRELL'S TUNEUP: AN AMERICAN IS A VERY LUCKY MAN

As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
March 18, 2005


Listening to a batch of recent -- and fairly recent -- CDs in my never-ending pile of promos, I can’t help but be drawn back to a strange little song from my elementary school music class.

I’ve written about it before in this very column, but it continues to haunt me. It was a patriotic little ditty called "An American Is a Very Lucky Man."

For years, I didn’t know where the song came from. As far as I knew, it was written by some music teacher in Oklahoma City.

Through the magic of Google, I just learned that it was written by George Mysels and J. Maloy Roach, a songwriting team best known for the inspirational Perry Como hit "One Little Candle," and that at one point it was performed by Fred Waring -- I’m not sure with or without His Pennsylvanians.

Yes, like the Candle song, "Lucky Man" was dangerously corny, but it had a nice populist twist that made an impression: "The man who builds a house of wood and a man who welds a tank/ is just as proud and just as good as the man who owns the bank."

But it was the last verse, a celebration of cultural diversity, that I believe helped shape my wide tastes in music (as well as food.)

"An American is a very lucky guy/ He can eat chow mien or borscht or pizza pie ..."

By extension, that means you can enjoy polka, New Orleans jazz and strange strains of jazz fusion and ‘70s Blaxploitation soul -- as performed by Frenchmen.

I sure do. An American is a very lucky man.

*Let’s Kiss by Brave Combo. The Combo call this CD their “25th Anniversary Album.” It’s hard to believe the boys from Denton have been playing their high-energy mix of polka, rock and anything that crosses their collective mind for that long. But they sound as if they still love doing it.

This is a collection of newly recorded material. The liner notes say they’ll wait until their 50th anniversary to do a retrospective.

The Combo doesn’t break much new ground here. They still do a basic pumped-up polka beat driven home by the horn section of Jeffrey Barnes (clarinet and saxes) and Danny O’Brien (trumpet). Guitarist Carl Finch still has that goofy warble when he signs and bassist Bubba Hernandez specializes in those irresistible Mexican polkas.

And they still have a knack for crazy cover tunes. They do the old tune "Bumble Bee" (best known by The Searchers, but done best by Laverne Baker), complete with an instrumental section of "Flight of the Bumble Bee."

They make "Red River Valley" sound as if it were written for a polka band. Plus there’s two versions of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and a minute-long version of The Simpsons theme.

*Putomayo Presents New Orleans. The pantheon of New Orleans musical vast is so great it would be ridiculous to even try to represent it on one disc. Therefore, I have to quibble with the title of this CD.

And I’m irritated because the 35 or so pages of liner notes give precious little recording date information on the songs here.

But listening to the good-time music included on New Orleans, it’s hard to stay grumpy very long.

The emphasis of this compilation is on Crescent City jazz. You won’t find any Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, Clarence “Frogman” Henry or Neville Brothers. The only famous contributor from the New Orleans rock world here is Dr. John, who does a soulful “Basin Street Blues.”

Some of my favorites here are Louie and Louie -- Armstrong and Prima.

Satch’s “Tin Roof Blues” is a slow blues recorded in 1966, late in his career. It’s not nearly as powerful as his early recordings, but he could still blow.

Prima does a snazzy version of “Basin Street Blues,” complete with his trademark scat singing. Even though at two minutes it’s less than half as long as Dr. John’s version, Prima's is more satisfying.

One of the strangest cuts here is Dr. Michael White’s “Give it Up (Gypsy Second Line).” With White’s wailing clarinet, this tune suggests a connection between New Orleans jazz and klezmer.

*Memento by Soel. Close your eyes when you’re listening to this album and try not to visualize Richard Roundtree or Melvin Van Peebles or Pam Greer duking it out with The Man. This music could be straight out of some long lost Blaxploitation flick.

True, you can hear little modern touches of hip-hop and electronica here and there. It’s pretty obvious on the trippy cut called “Earth Mother” with its percussive loops of tablas and dub-like bass and on “To This World” with its relentless hip-hop funky drum loop.

But the spirit of movies like Shaft and music like “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” prevails through all the tracks of Memento. There’s even some vocal samples of the militant proto-rap group The Last Poets on a couple of songs.

Surprisingly this album primarily is the work of French hipsters. Trumpet player Pascal Ohse is the mastermind here, while his longtime collaborator Ludovic Navarre, aka St. Germain, is producer and musical director.

While there are samplers and synthesizers at work here, real live musicians carry the major load. Edouard Labor’s flute on “We Have Died Already” is downright hypnotic.

Ohse and Navarre have done a magnificent job absorbing the music of the Superfly era and synthesizing it into something timeless.

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