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Legendary Jamaican Guitarist Ernest Ranglin Returns with Another Great Album

You don’t ordinarily expect octogenarians to make great albums. If they do, they usually revisit their earlier work, a victory lap. Count Ernest Ranglin among the rare exceptions. The greatest guitarist ever to come out of Jamaica has a new album, Bless Up (streaming online), which is one of his best, and he’s made a whole bunch of them. It’s has a lot more straight-up reggae than the elegant reggae jazz he’s known for (and basically invented all by himself). It also has a more lush, full sound than his previous album, Avila. That one was recorded on the fly during a break from a reggae festival; this one has more tunesmithing than vamping jams, drawing on the seven decades of Jamaican music that in many ways Ranglin has defined.

Organ – played by either Jonathan Korty or Eric Levy – holds the center on many of the tracks here, Ranglin adding judicious solos, alternating between his signature, just-short-of-unhinged tremolo-picked chords, sinewy harmonies with the keys, nimbly fluttering leaps to the high frets and references to the better part of a century’s worth of jazz guitar. The songs transcend simple, rootsy two-chord vamps. Darkly majestic, emphatic minor-key horn arrangements evocative of mid-70s Burning Spear carry the melody on several of the numbers: Bond Street Express, the opening tune; Jones Pen, which recreates the classic 60s Skatalites sound but with digital production values; and Rock Me Steady, the most dub-flavored track, driven by some neat trap drumming.

Mystic Blue evokes both the Burning Spear classic Man in the Hills and the Cure’s Boys Don’t Cry. The bubbly Sivan also sounds like Jah Spear, but from a decade or so later. The title track is a swing tune, more or less, Ranglin’s upstroke guitar over a close-to-the-ground snare-and-kick groove giving away its Caribbean origins. Likewise, the band mutates the bolero El Mescalero with a distinctly Jamaican beat that adds a surreal dimension of fun tempered by an unexpectedly desolate Charlie Wilson trombone solo.

Ranglin plays with a deeper, more resonant tone – and a shout-out to Wes Montgomery – on Follow On. Blues for a Hip King works a stately gospel groove up to a long, organ-fueled crescendo that contrasts with Ranglin’s spare, incisive lines. Ska Renzo, the most straight-up ska tune here, works all kinds of neat up/down shifts with reverb-toned melodica, carbonated Rhodes piano and a sharpshooter horn riff. You Too starts out like a balmy Marley ballad but quickly goes in a darker direction, Michael Peloquin’s restless tenor sax giving way to tersely moody solos from trombone and piano, Yossi Fine’s bass holding it down with a fat pulse. There’s also a pretty trad version of the jazz standard Good Friends and the simple gospel vamp Bra Joe from Kilimanjaro, reprised at the end as a long Grateful Dead-like jam. Clearly Jimmy Cliff’s longtime musical director in the years after The Harder They Come hasn’t lost a step since then.

Hassan Hakmoun Amps Up His Mesmerizing Gnawa Trance Music

Hassan Hakmoun’s new album Unity takes the ultimate trance music and spices it with jagged, sometimes searing rock guitar and solid rock-oriented drumming along with the usual thicket of hand-drum percussion that typically underpins the Moroccan sintir virtuoso’s work. As fans of gnawa and North African music know, the low-register three-string sintir lute is the funk bass of the Berber world: in Hakmoun’s hands, it’s as slinky as it is mesmerizing. Hakmoun and band are playing the album release show on April 12 at 7 PM at Joe’s Pub; tix are $20.

Hakmoun’s agile hammer-ons fuel the opening track, Zidokan (Just Go), John Lee’s guitar pedaling a chord nebulously in the background over a clattering but hypnotically swaying beat. Then it turns into what could be a mashup of Public Image Ltd., George Thorogood and Moroccan folk music – and in the process sets the stage for the rest of the album. Balili (My Father) sets tightly spiraling sintir and guitar lines – and some unexpectedly boisterous wood flute – to a tight four-on-the-floor snare drum beat. Hamady (Prophet Mohammed) sounds like Hakmoun is playing his trance-inducing, circular riffs through a flange or a wah – or a fuzzbox. Shivery tremoloing guitar lingers way back in the mix before taking centerstage with an unhinged bluesmetal edge, Hakmoun singing in a gruffly passionate baritone in his native vernacular.

Dima Dima (Always) juxtaposes elegantly rapidfire acoustic guitar with the fat, pulsing groove, again bolstered by a steady beat on the rock drumkit and more of that breathless wood flute. Baniy (My Son) veers in and out of hard-hitting, psychedelically tinged funkmetal. Ohio, which aopears to be a shout-out to audiences around the world, is less acidically funky, built around one of the many call-and-response vocal vamps in most of these songs. Boudarbalayi (Saint) begins more slowly, in a more trad vein than the other tracks, before watery Keith Levene-esque guitar and woozy electronic keys enter the picture.

Soutinbi (Makkah) shuffles along on a beat that’s the closest thing to trip-hop here, lightly accented with guitar, electric piano and organ. Hakmoun runs the verses of Amarmoussaoui (People of God) with just guitars and a vocal choir before bringing in the sintir on the choruses: he makes you really miss it! The last of the tracks, Moulay Ahmed (Saint Ahmed) turns out to be the catchiest and most anthemic. The album also includes a couple of remixes, one by esteemed Israeli bassist Yossi Fine, who also produced the album, Hakmoun’s first in twelve years. It’s a vivid approximation of his literally mesmerizing live show.

Dusky Grooves from the Toure-Raichel Collective

Desert blues albums are best enjoyed as a whole. Sure, you can break the individual tracks up and scatter them amongst different playlists, but a good desert blues album sets a mood. The Toure-Raichel Collective’s new album The Tel Aviv Session is a different kind of desert blues album, a collaboration between pyrotechnic Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Toure and Israeli keyboardist/bandleader Idan Raichel. Raichel is an insatiably omnivorous player who seemingly never met a style he didn’t want to master; Toure admits to thinking at first that Raichel was a “crazy hippie,” but on this generally low-key, daylong collaboration in an Israeli recording studio, the two make a good team. Although he plays acoustic guitar here, Toure still has the restless, uneasy edge that makes him such a compelling electric player. Raichel shows off a potent understanding of chromatically-fueled, Arabic-tinged motifs, often playing with a rippling staccato feel that, especially when he mutes the strings inside the piano, evokes the sound of a balafon or a qanun. In one passage, he brushes the strings for shimmery, harplike glissandos. Behind them, bassist Yossi Fine – who has toured with Toure, mentored Raichel in his early years and may ultimately have been responsible for jumpstarting this session – plays endlessly hypnotic loops in tandem with percussionist Souleymane Kane. French jazz harmonica player Frederic Yonnet guests on a rustic 1920s flavored blues jam that evokes Hazmat Modine in a particularly boisterous mood; Yankale Segal, from Raichel’s touring band, adds a third layer of richly glistening textures on Iranian tar lute on another. And the final cut, where the band finally cuts loose with an all-too-brief, soaring crescendo, features haunting, intense kamancheh (Iranian spiked fiddle) by Mark Eliyahu.

The rest of the album alternates between slinky two-chord desert blues vamps, and Middle Eastern piano music, sometimes in the same jam. Toure reveals a fondness for open chords and a biting facility for raga-like passages; Raichel often mimics Toure’s quicksilver hammer-on attack. Most of the songs here are long, slowly and casually coalescing out of themes typically introduced by the guitar. When Raichel supplies the central riff, Toure responds with fluttering, muted chromatics of his own, or simply steers the jam south toward Mali. The album liner notes mention “frequent breaks for coffee;” one suspects that there were other aromas wafting through the studio that day. The most hypnotic track, a lush, warmly major-key cut that brings to mind the Stones’ Moonlight Mile is followed by a brief, rather impatient, upbeat cut driven by Toure. Then they follow that with the single most hypnotic cut, featuring Raichel on Fender Rhodes, adding a vibraphone-like rhythmic bounce against Kane’s boomy calabash. It’s out now on Cumbancha; fans of desert blues, Middle Eastern music and intelligent jam bands ought to check it out. And it goes without saying: this collaboration between a Muslim African and an Israeli Jew underscores the argument that if we took the rabbis and mullahs (and American agitators) out of the picture and left everything to the musicians, there would be no war in the Middle East.

Cross-Pollination from the Toure-Raichel Collective

If you follow cross-cultural musical supergroups, you may have heard of the Toure-Raichel Collective: pyrotechnic Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Toure (son of Ali) in surprisingly laid-back acoustic mode alongside Israeli pianist Idan Raichel plus bassist Yossi Fine and percussionist Souleymane Kane. Grab a free download of their lush, watery, John Fahey-esque new instrumental, Bamba; they’re touring in support of their forthcoming album this spring, with two nights in New York at City Winery on April 13 and 14.