New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: blues

Karmic Payback Via Video

Catherine Russell‘s new video You Reap Just What You Sow reinvents the Alberta Hunter gospel/blues classic as oldtimey string band music, with Larry Campbell on acoustic guitar and Howard Johnson on tuba. But as impassioned as Russell’s vocals are – karma is a real bitch –  this is even more noteworthy since it’s her first-ever recording on mandolin. Little-known fact: the famous jazz chanteuse is also a first-class bluegrass musician.

Elizabeth Cook’s Perfect Girls of Pop is a ballsy satire of corporate radio cheesiness. The big joke is when the chorus kicks in – and she’s got the autotune dialed up all the way to hideous. Yeah, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel – but it’s still fun to hear the carnage.

Maverick, Poignant Cross-Generational Reinventions of Swing Jazz Classics

What a refreshing change to hear an album of Billie Holiday classics sung by a frontwoman with her own distinctive style, who isn’t trying to rip off Lady Day! Samoa Wilson was a pioneer of the New York oldtime Americana scene back in the zeros, but she also has a thing for jazz. Jim Kweskin is the best-known of the 60s jugband blues revivalists, but he’s just as much of a jazz guy. The two have a long history of collaborations and a new album, I Just Want To Be Horizontal streaming at Spotify. It’s a joyously dynamic mix of both well-known and obscure swing tunes reinvented from a string band perspective, more or less.

The lineup Kweskin pulled together is fearsome. After all these years, his guitar fingerpicking is still nimble, and Wilson, with a larger voice and wider-angle vibrato than Holiday, varies her delivery stunningly from song to song. Western swing maven Dennis Lichtman plays clarinet, violin and mandolin, alongside pianist/accordionist Sonny Barbato, lead guitarist Titus Vollmer, alto sax player Paloma Ohm and trumpeter Mike Davis, with Matthew Berlin on bass and Jeff Brown on drums.

The group take the majority of the tunes on this lavish seventeen-track record from Holiday’s early days with the Teddy Wilson Orchestra – in many cases, Wilson has restored the complete original lyrics. They open with the very familiar: in After You’ve Gone, Kweskin signals the point where he takes over the mic and they take it doublespeed, Lichtman puts down his clarinet for his violin and Barbato throws in a tantalizingly brief accordion solo. That sets the stage for the rest of the record: short solos, emphasis on going to the source of what these songs are all about

The album’s title track is a slow, hazy take of an obscure Bunty Pendleton tune with an aptly pillowy vocal from Wilson, downplaying hokum blues connotations for dreamy ambience. She pulls out the big vibrato for an achingly hopeful take of the midtempo number Trust In Me, then sticks with the gravitas while the band pick up the pace for the western swing-tinged  I Cried For You.

Rosetta Howard’s druggy anthem The Candy Man has a luscious interweave of strings and reeds, with a balmy sax solo at the center. The group remake Inch Worm, a children’s song from the Danny Kaye film Hans Christian Andersen, as trippy, velvety, vamping pastoral swing.

Wilson’s cynical delivery contrasts with the jaunty shuffle of That’s Life I Guess. The album’s most epic number is Until the Real Thing Comes Along, with expressive, wee-hours solos from sax, piano and Lichtman’s clarinet.

The bluegrass-flavored take of Me, Myself & I is less schizophrenic than just plain fun, echoed by the group’s update on Bessie Smith’s innuendo-fueled hokum blues classic Kitchen Man and At Ebb Tide, an old Hawaiian swing tune.

A low-key, pretty straight-up swing version of Our Love Is Here to Stay is a showcase for Wilson’s low register. She gets a little brittle and misty in Lover Come Back to Me, then lends her sultriest delivery on the record to a ahuffle version of Easy to Love.

Kweskin turns an Irving Berlin chestnut inside out with He Ain’t Got Rhythm. The last of the Lady Day numbers, I Wished on the Moon gets simmering intensity from Wilson and shimmery dixieland flavor from the band. They close the record with a plaintive interpretation of a rare Tony Bennett b-side, Someone Turned the Moon Upside Down.

Alice Lee’s Isolation Blues: Brilliant Music for Troubled Times

Alice Lee has forged a career writing smart, catchy soul music with an often witheringly insightful lyricism. Her album The Wheel made the top ten albums of the year list here in 2017; a year later, her single Me, Too landed on the ten best songs of the year list. Now, she’s released Isolation Blues, the best song of 2020 so far. It’s part darkly rustic, fingerpicked 1920s style blues, part sophisticated soul anthem.

The New York multi-instrumentalist/singer – one of this city’s “essential workers” – dedicates it to John Prine and Bill Withers. She wears a mask in the video – and it’s subtitled, a characteristically subtle touch that speaks volumes:

The people outside got fear in their eyes
Above the cover of a mandated disguise
When we need each other most
And it doesn’t make sense
We stay away from each other
In self-defense
As we scatter and hide, just trying to stay alive
They didn’t get out, they couldn’t survive
…We’re expendable when we don’t have the cash unbled
‘Cause when you’re black, brown or poor
You might as well be dead
We once were free to roam now we cannot choose
To live or die with these isolation blues

Hilarious, Witheringly Insightful Heartland Americana From Chicago Farmer

Cody Diekhoff a.k.a. Chicago Farmer writes knowingly wry, often witheringly spot-on, ferociously populist blue-collar narratives set to a dynamically rousing Americana backdrop. His debut album Backenforth, IL made the shortlist of the best albums of the year here back in 2013. He titled his new one Flyover Country, just as Amanda Gardier (featured here yesterday) did with hers. First time there have ever been two albums with the same name on this page on consecutive days! Who knows, maybe that’s a meme.

This particular Flyover Country – streaming at youtube – begins with Indiana Line, a fiery, bluesy, open-tuned outlaw ballad. “I’ll be the king of roadkill, two birds at a time,” insists this rural Avon Barksdale: there’s a reason he’s so reckless moving all that weight, but it’s too good a story to spoil.

The funniest song here is 13 Beers: it’s sweet redemption for any concertgoer who’s been scammed and subjected to one indignity after another at a Ticketbastard arena. It makes you want to sing along with the ending, even if Dieckhoff planned that all along.

The title track is unusually earnest for him: yeah, us East Coast snobs look down our snooty noses on Heartland America, which does all the heavy lifting and doesn’t get much in return. Trouble is, that’s a coast-to-coast problem.

The lyrically torrential eco-disaster parable Mother Nature’s Daughter is an update on Blonde on Blonde Dylan: “Mother nature’s daughter, they’ve done sold and bought her, there ain’t no more water in the well,” Dieckhoff warns.

“White collar crime pays, and blue collar crime takes away,’” is the chorus in Collars, a sad waltz that brings to mind John Prine’s Hello in There thematically if not musically. Dieckhoff sends a shout-out to hardworking, underpaid musicians and their equally hardworking, underpaid fans in the hillbilly boogie All in One Place and follows with Deer in the Sky, which has a little Creedence feel to it and a funny assessment of the perils of flying versus driving.

The cover of Hank Williams’ Ramblin Man has a welcome Nashville gothic sparseness. Baseball season may be in jeopardy, but the metaphors of Dirtiest Uniform are timeless. Dickhoff wraps up the album with The Village Revisited, a grim hurricane parable that’s part Creedence, part Stones. We need more guys like this who can be stone-cold serious, but just as gut-bustingly amusing.

The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Compilation: Five Albums of Crescent City Madness

What can you do when you’re unemployed (temporarily, let’s hope) and your city’s nightlife has gone completely dark? You could fire up Bandcamp and listen to all five of the albums of Jazz Fest: the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival compilation. In a sick way, most New Yorkers will never have as much time on our hands as we do now – and let’s all swear that we will never again use this same excuse for sitting around listening to long albums!

This playlist spans several decades of revelry. Pretty much every style of music and every culture to ever play the festival are represented here – historically, New Orleans has been a melting pot every bit as diverse as New York. There are a lot of big names from across the years, a bunch of standards and many rare treats as well. In general, these are LONG songs: if you can multitask, the compilation has you covered for two days of a work week.

It’s a mixed bag. Some of the segues are jarring, and you can quit halfway through album five without missing anything. Giving Kenny Neal and his generic blues band fifteen minutes, more than just about anybody else, to phone in a medley was a waste. Surely the compilers could have found something more compelling from Professor Longhair than the song where he plays a trebly Wurlitzer…and whistles. Notwithstanding how much great material Preservation Hall Jazz Band have put out lately, we get…My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It? And who really wants to hear all the band intros at the end of a rote version of a familiar Clarence Frogman Henry novelty song?

That’s the bad news. The good news is that there’s a ton of great material you can use for your own playlists. You can tell from the first few close harmonies of Hey, Now Baby that it’s Henry Butler at the piano. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band are represented by a pouncing guitar-and-sax-fueled 2004 take of Blackbird Special. Dr. John’s emphatic, darkly stirring Litanie des Saints and a smoldering, vengeful, psychedelic take of I Walk on Gilded Splinters could be the high point of the whole album. The soulful John Boutte contributes a simmering post-Katrina parable, Louisiana 1927, a tale of “Twelve feet of water in the Lower Nine….They’re trying to wash us away, don’t let ’em!”

The Al Belletto Big Band bring the storm with their mambo-tinged Jazzmocracy. Bluesman Champion Jack Dupree and pianist Allen Toussaint deliver Bring Me Flowers While I’m Living with plenty of gallows humor, then cut loose in Rub a Little Boogie. Toussaint turns in a brass-fueled Yes We Can Can, as well as What Is Success, with Bonnie Raitt on sunbaked slide guitar, a little later on.

The expansive, oldtimey version of Summertime, by the Original Liberty Jazz Band featuring Dr. Michael White is strikingly fresh. The bursts from the choir in Ain’t Nobody Can Do Me Like Jesus, by Raymond Myles with the Gospel Soul Children are viscerally breathtaking. The Zion Harmonizers‘ I Want to Be At the Meeting and Golden Gate Gospel Train are just as stirring instrumentally as they are vocally.

The accordion/fiddle harmonies of the Savoy Family Cajun Band‘s Midland Two Step are especially juicy. When Beausoleil‘s sad twelve-string guitar waltz Recherche d’Acadie finally appears, four albums in, it’s actually a welcome break from all the relentless good cheer. Shortly afterward, the Neville Brothers’ slow-burning Yellow Moon rises to an eerily surreal halfspeed dixieland raveup. And bluesman John Mooney’s It Don’t Mean a Doggone Thing, Deacon John‘s Happy Home and Sonny Landreth‘s Blue Tarp Blues each have some sizzling slide guitar. Those are just some of the highlights: at this point, it’s time to stop and turn it over to you. Enjoy.

Vienna Carroll’s New Album Reveals the Defiant, Transgressive Roots of Gospel and Blues Classics

Vienna Carroll could be called a New York counterpart to Rhiannon Giddens. Both artists share a deep, historically-informed, often witheringly insightful knowledge of the roots of African-American music, and can be riveting performers. Carroll’s new album, Harlem Field Recordings – streaming at youtube – includes both politically-charged reinventions of classic blues and gospel themes as well as more traditional numbers and originals which sound like 19th century standards. It’s classic music as you’ve probably never heard it before. Carroll also has a show tomorrow night, March 6 at 5:30 PM at a familiar haunt, the American Folk Art Museum; admission is free.

She opens the record’s first track, Strawberries and Glory with the shout of an oldtime urban fruit vendor. This is a one-chord gospel jam sung rousingly over a backdrop of Michael O’Brien’s fat bass chords, Keith Johnston’s stingingly resonant dobro and Newman Taylor Baker’s subtly swinging washboard percussion. Midway through the song, Carroll switches to a hilarious subway vendor scenario, bringing this story into the present day: over the years, good entrepreneurs may change their pitches, but ultimately, business savvy hasn’t changed much. Happily, Carroll’s story doesn’t include what could have happened to this enterprising businesswoman, when she moved to another car on the train…and got busted by an undercover cop, simply for trying to make an honest living.

The group follow with a bouncy, country blues-tinged version of the old spiritual You Better Mind. Carroll’s slowly simmering 6/8 take of Come Into My Kitchen draws a straight line back to the Howlin’ Wolf classic Sitting on Top of the World, with a sparkly guitar solo at the center. She half-sings, half-speaks her way through the grim narrative of No Mo Freedom, the vengeful promise of a wrongfully convicted prisoner at Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm. She uses the same technique a little later on in her spare bass-and-vocal arrangement of Grinnin’ in Your Face.

Prison Blues, with the full band adding a funky sway behind her, is just as harrowing – and just as vindictive, in keeping with a familiar theme in Carroll’s work, four hundred years of defiance and subversion against racism and repression. Her interpretation of Let’s Go Down to the River is several levels more fervent than the wispy version you may have heard on the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack.

With the band blending in a thicket of psychedelically-influenced guitar (and a wry Coltrane quote), Carroll’s approach to I Just Wanna Make Love to You reinforces its origins as a transgressive slave anthem. Likewise, Carroll’s stark remake of All the Pretty Little Horses, spiced with Melanie Dyer’s viola reveals a level of crushing sarcasm in what’s usually interpreted as an innocuous lullaby. The black nursemaid sees a bright future for the slaveowner’s kid in her arms; meanwhile, her own baby is crying from hunger in the slave quarters.

Carroll’s rousing Make the Devil Leave Me Alone leaves no doubt that this is no mere hymn; it’s an escaped slave’s anthem. She winds up the album triumphantly with Singing Wid a Sword in My Hand, a thinly veiled tale that takes that escape to its logical conclusion. It’s a party for our right to fight, something we really need to take seriously at a point where the DNC is shooting itself in the foot, handing over the 2020 election to the Trumpies just as they did in 2016.

Imani Uzuri Brings Her Gospel-Inspired Gravitas and Historical Insight to Lincoln Center

Thursday night at Lincoln Center, singer Imani Uzuri put on a mesmerizing show that was part joyous gospel revival and part hushed, rapt classical concert, with a little Showtime at the Apollo during the early part. Uzuri stands with Fanon in asserting that the damned of the earth keep things running, and someday will inherit it. She wasted no time in dedicating the performance to the marginalized, the oppressed and those trapped in the prison-industrial complex.

That set the tone for what she had in store: the way she expressed those ideas was much more poetic and succinct. Her most recent show here was a stark, otherworldly duo set of improvisations on old African-American spiritual themes. This show was much more lavish, Uzuri flanked by a trio of singers – Joshuah B. Campbell, Ann McCormack and Carami Hilaire in addition to Yayoi Ikawa on piano, Nick Dunston on bass, Marvin Sewell on guitar, Kaoru Watanabe on flute, and Dana Lyn and Trina Basu on strings. And yet, Uzuri’s themes were just as hypnotic, emphatically grounded in dark, wounded, ancient-sounding minor-key blues riffs.

She took special care to send a shout-out to Vera Hall, one of the songwriters she covered, since her song, Troubles So Hard, had been sampled from a rare Smithsonian recording by a corporate radio meme – and apparently had been left uncredited. That long, allusively tormented number finally took an unexpected turn into a final verse with a message of hope against hope even in the most troubled times. As she did in several other numbers, Uzuri gave the other singers onstage plenty of room to add soaring, achingly melismatic solos. She also tried engaging the audience, with mixed results. Much as there were some very inspired, gospelly-informed voices in the house, the general afterwork lethargy absolutely bedeviled her. But that’s to be expected; Uzuri is used to energizing late-night crowds.

Another musical pioneer Uzuri covered was Elizabeth Cotten, who in her sixties worked as a maid for Pete Seeger until he found out that she was a songwriter, and the rest is history. Since then, her signature three-finger guitar technique has become a popular device throughout the worlds of folk music and acoustic blues. Uzuri and the group delivered that particular number with somewhat more of an upbeat vibe than they did with Hall’s resolute, relentless epic.

Throughout the show, Uzuri’s powerful voice ranged from looming, defiantly resonant lows to a stratospheric falsetto that sent microtones bleeding from the atrium’s bare walls. Ikawa rose from minimalist atmospherics, to nonchalantly loungey phrasing, to a sudden, white-knuckle intensity with a series of achingly gorgeous gospel-infused, chromatic solos. Sewell’s stamina in running the same leaping acoustic blues phrase over and over during one of the later numbers was impressive, not to mention the erudite, intricate Chicago blues, and little later the plaintive, elegaic slide work he he played on Telecaster.

Watanabe gave the opening and closing numbers a charanga-like brightness, balanced by a broodingly slashing blues solo from Lyn along with Basu, whose glimmering, nocturnal solo early on literally sent shivers through the PA system. And with  Dunston holding close to the ground with his terse, propulsive, woody lines, who said a band has to have a drummer?

Uzuri closed with a world premiere commissioned by Chamber Music America, who spent their money well. In this pensively immersive suite, questioning where the human spirit has disappeared to, the group opened with a suspensefully circling string interlude and then went deeper in a gospel direction, winding down to a whisper. The ensemble brought the show full circle with a summery, vamping, latin-tinged psychedelic soul tableau.

The Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway north of 62nd St. has arguably the best and most eclectic mostly-weekly series of free concerts anywhere in New York. You can get your classical on this coming week when the Argus Quartet play there on March 5 at 7:30 PM. Then on March 12 there’s a shamanistic Korean dance-and-percussion performance.

Purist Guitar Blues and a Ferociously Funny Anti-Trump Broadside From Dave Specter

As the historic events of the Trump impeachment continue to unfold, it’s past time to give props to the many American artists who’ve channeled this nation’s righteous rage at the fratboy-in-chief and his kleptocrat cronies. A standout among those musicians is Chicago blues guitarist Dave Specter, who was driven to singing on a record for the first time. The centerpiece of his album Blues From the Inside Out – streaming at Spotify– is How Low Can One Man Go? The lyrics are so spot-on, and the interplay between Specter and guest Jorma Kaukonen so purposeful, that you don’t realize the song’s just a one-chord jam:

Rich daddy dollars on a silver spoon
Telling lie after lie like a hot air buffoon
…Got millions of true believers like a cult on too much blow
Tell me how low can one man go?

March Through the Darkness, a Mavis Staples-inspired retro 60s soul anthem with some gorgeous Muscle Shoals guitar from Specter, is a shout out to everybody who’s heard a “loud wakeup call” to battle bigotry and oppression. And Sarah Marie Young takes the mic on the simmering, Memphis-tinged Wave’s Gonna Come.

The rest of the record isn’t particulary political, but it is a welcome throwback to the days when guys like B.B. King were still with us, playing tight solos and entertaining us with sharp, funny lyrics. And with his gritty voice, Specter acquits himself well on the mic. The album’s first track is the optimistic title cut: as he puts it, just because your Pontiac breaks down doesn’t mean you have to go off on a bender. The rest of the band – Brother John Kattke on piano, Harlan Lee Terson on bass and Marty Binder on drums – keeps a hard-swinging ba-bump groove behind Specter’s biting riffage and wry, aphoristic lyrics.

That’s the template for the rest of the tracks. The band work an understated, slinky New Orleans rhythm in Ponchatoula Way, bolstered by Mars Williams on tenor sax, John Janowiak on trombone and Ron Haynes on trumpet. Kattke switches to organ for the Meters-inspired Sanctifunkious.

The lyrics to Asking for a Friend are as sly as the modulation in the middle: if Albert Collins had been a Chicago guy, he probably would have sounded like this. The album’s big epic is Minor Shout, an expertly layered instrumental set to a tight clave beat, part Santana and part Ronnie Earl. Kaukonen and the horns return for The Blues Ain’t Nothin, a confident bounce with some fierce Airplane-style playing and one of Specter’s most subtly amusing narratives

Opposites Attract is LMAO funny, with tasty interplay between Kattke’s tumbling piano and Specter’s biting riffs. The group go back to a Meters strut with Soul Drop and close the album with String Chillin, Kattke’s gospel piano matched by the bandleader’s expansive, T-Bone Walker-style approach. Noteworthy background: Specter’s dad, Jerry Specter, was a Chicago community organizer who led a successful battle against a 1970s Richard Daley gentrification scheme. The land formerly occupied by an abandoned sanitarium is now a park and low-cost housing for seniors.

Specter’s next gig is Feb 9 at 9:30 PM on his home turf at Buddy Guy’s Legends, 700 S Wabash St. in Chicago; cover is $10.

A Characteristically Rich, Diverse Year of Shows at Manhattan’s Best Venue for Acoustic and Folk Music

The American Folk Art Museum won the annual award for Best Manhattan Venue here back in 2016. It would be just as easy to say that again in 2019. Impresario Lara Ewen‘s mostly-weekly Free Music Fridays series is still the most transit-accessible way to discover new songwriting and traditional music talent in this city, artists from all over the world covet playing in the museum’s rich natural reverb…and you can get a glass of wine here for a third of what it would cost you at Rockwood Music Hall.

As you would expect at a museum whose equally amazing exhibits document folk art and outsider art spanning the past few centuries, there’s plenty of folk music here. But even the oldtime sounds extend well beyond the world of fingerpicked front-porch acoustic guitar tunes. The best traditional show here this year was by singer Vienna Carroll, a historian whose insights into a set of rousing blues, gospel and string band songs reflected the triumphs of African-Americans over 19th century slaveowner terrorism and racism rather than the more common narrative of endless suffering. Queen Esther, a Folk Art Museum regular, reaffirmed that same fearlessly subversive esthetic at a couple of shows in February and July, featuring both Eastern Seaboard blues and soul-tinged originals.

Other entertaining oldtime folk shows included sets by the harmony-driven Triboro in May, as well as Irish tunesmith Brendan O’Shea (whose defiant, populist originals were even better) in July. Of all the original songwriters here, the most shattering was Karen Dahlstrom, whose November set featured a lot of material from her latest release No Man’s Land (a lock for best short album of 2019).  With her fearsome but meticulously nuanced alto, she aired out the fiery, gospel-infused title track, a Metoo-era broadside, as well as the metaphorically haunting After the Flood – a look at both personal and global apocalypses – and a new number, My Benevolent Destroyer, a chilling portrait of a broken marriage through the prism of imperialist domination.

Joshua Garcia, with his flinty voice and harrowing, Phil Ochs-inspired narratives, put the struggles of new immigrants and battered women in potently political perspective, along with the most chillingly allusive song about the Hiroshima bombing ever written. Miriam Elhajli sang in both English and Spanish, looking outward at the grim political climate as well as more inwardly, with intricate guitar fingerpicking and some intriguing jazz and Latin American riffs.

Niall Connolly held the crowd rapt with his brooding, tersely crystallized songs of struggle and emotional abandonment and rage against the Trumpies (a reaction that ran high at practically every show here this year). Soulstress Dina Regine, who played here in both April and June, was much the same, thematically, although her music draws more on classic 1960s American grooves.

How torchy singer Jeanne Marie Boes managed to get so much epic power and range out of her tiny keyboard is a mystery, although her towering, angst-fueled ballads and a couple of detours into darkly majestic blues had a relentlessly direct intensity. With her resonant chorister’s voice and deadpan surrealism, cellist/singer Meaner Pencil a.k.a. Lenna M. Pierce (she got her stage name the online anagram generator, she explained) was just as gripping, in a completely different vein.

Songstress/acoustic guitarist Kalyani Singh illuminated a dark inner world with a similar, often minimalistic focus, while southwestern singer Kate Vargas got the crowd going with singalongs and innumerable chances to have fun with beats. And Feral Foster – who runs the Jalopy’s longtime Roots & Ruckus series – didn’t let being under the weather get in the way of a characteristically haunted, expertly fingerpicked set of grim Nashville gothic laments and ballads.

The American Folk Art Museum’s Free Music Fridays series resumes January 10 at 5:30 PM with the soaring, brilliantly lyrical Linda Draper. There’s also an ongoing free series of guitar jazz concerts most every Wednesday at 2 PM with Bill Wurtzel and bassist Jay Leonhart.

Revisiting a Searing, Classic Blues Record by JD Allen

You don’t typically expect a blues album to be tenor sax, bass and drums. Nor, in 2016, would anyone have expected JD Allen, this era’s most individualistic titan of the jazz tenor, to make a blues record. Yet he did – and his Americana album (streaming at Spotify) remains one of his two or three best releases, right up there with 2008’s game-changing I Am I Am, which signaled that Allen would go on a roll that he remains on to this day. He’s playing Smalls tonight, Dec 9 at 10:30 PM, leading a quartet: it’s rainy, it’s professional night and an ideal circumstance to catch his relentless, restless modal power. Cover is $25. If you feel like making a night of it, drummer Dan Pugach‘s imaginatively arranged nonet open the evening at 7:30.

Allen opens the album with the slowly ambling Tell the Truth Shame the Devil, playing sparely, spaciously, with a restrained optimism, matched by drummer Rudy Royston’s judicious, minimalist counteraccents and bassist Gregg August’s similarly spare, walking lines and occasional devious harmony. In the album liner notes, Allen asserts with his usual acerbity that traditional African-American blues is hardly limited to the blues scale and the hallowed 1-4-5 progression, although in this cas that’s mostly what this tune is about, the bandleader waiting until the last verse before really pushing the edges.

The first of the album’s two covers, the classic Another Man Done Gone has August bowing stern, stygian responses to Allen’s brooding, characteristically modally-tinged lines as Royston prowls and tumbles: it perfectly capsulizes the interplay this band enjoyed over the course of a long run that lasted more than a decade. Likewise, August’s anguished, cello-like phrasing captures the horror of the song’s narrative, an innocent man kidnapped into the prison-industrial complex.

Allen solos judiciously and somberly over August’s terse, incisive vamp and Royston’s similarly restrained, tumbling drums throughout the third track, Cotton, up to a catchy, anthemic turnaround and finally a lusciously crescendoing coda fueled by Royston. August’s simmering chords drive an ominous Middle Eastern-flavored vamp in Sugar Free to a suspiciously blithe swing and a jaunty, New Orleans-spiced bass solo until Allen brings it all back home.

Bigger Thomas is one of those wickedly incisive, catchy “jukebox jazz” tunes that Allen started firing off one after another about a dozen years ago: as it shuffles along, he brings in the gritty modalities again. Opening with August’s slow, spacious six-chord theme, the album’s title track could be Jimi Hendrix without the distortion and the noisy effects, maybe a psychedelic interlude from Axis: Bold As Love.

Over a boomy, loose-limbed shuffle groove, Allen teases that he might leave the brooding passing tones of Lightnin’ behind, but he doesn’t. There’s a little Howlin’ Wolf in there along with some venomously funny interplay with the rhythm section. The album’s second cover, Bill McHenry’s If You’re Lonely, Then You’re Not Alone, gets a spacious, wistful treatment: beyond August’s brilliantly distilled bassline, most people would be hard-pressed to call this blues. The trio close with Lillie Mae Jones, an upbeat variation on a favorite, enigmatic modal riff that Allen uses a lot: imagine if Booker T. Jones’ axe was sax instead of organ.

Whether you consider this blues or jazz, this defiantly unsettled, frequently angry salute to a treasured but misunderstood American tradition remains one of the best albums of the decade. Although Allen has recently moved on to a new trio, and some surprisingly more trad gigs as a sideman with trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and other big names, this more than any other recent release captures him at his dark, majestic best.