Photo by Lisa Rinzler

¡Muy Divertido! (Atlantic)

If Arsenio Rodriguez, lounging in son montuno heaven, can hear what Marc Ribot has done to his music, he’s either cringing or clapping his hands. One thing’s for sure: The late “father of the Afro-Cuban sound” won’t be indifferent.

Ribot’s always been kind of a wack job. Whether getting the worm to turn just a wee bit more as sideman to Tom Waits’ neo-boho musings or questing with John Zorn in search of the eternal shetl, the New York–based guitarist doesn’t know from complacency. On the Los Cubanos Postizos tip for the second time on ¡Muy Divertido!, he makes no claims to authenticity — this is clave reeling with Ribotian attitude. He’s eased up on his Rodriguez tributes, compared to the Postizos’ debut CD, downsizing his coverage of the master’s songbook to three tracks. On “El Divorcio,” Ribot grabs a 3/2 time signature and drives it straight into the inner circle of trance-groove dissonance, his catchy riffage plucking like a tres one sec and rumbling crazy and loud a few stanzas down the pike. Ribot transforms Rodriguez’s languorous “Jaguey” into mood music for lonely cosmonauts.

Though most of their explorations don’t sound that similar to Mr. Santana’s Afro-Latin-rock adventures, the Postizos’ organ-and-percussion workout in “Se Formo el Bochinche” recalls those legendary jams of Gregg Rolie, Armando Peraza and the other hammerin’ hands that gathered momentum like a brakeless Chevy careening down Lombard Street. Ribot doesn’t shy from the sentimental — “No Puedo Frenar” has a lovely finish, with just a hint of cheesiness, and the semiautobiographical “Las Lomas de New Jersey” (“The Hills of New Jersey”) works well because of its surprising lack of pretension. The loose-limbed deconstructions of Ribot and his “fake Cubans” make a nicely raucous counterpoint to the recent glut of releases — and public spectacles — by “real Cubans.”

Deathray (Capricorn)

Neither Deathray’s name nor the pedigree of its members (Greg Brown and Victor Damiani were two-fifths of alterna-stars Cake) will inform prospective listeners of the finely tuned, good-natured pop that fills out the band’s debut. Deathray, which also counts Dana Gumbiner (ex–Little Guilt Shrine) as its principal songwriter, has digested decades of pop and fashioned a sound that’s big, fresh and more than familiar, yet pleasantly void of mimicry.

“My Lunatic Friends” sets the tone with the rhythm section neatly punching out a groove and setting the foundation for Gumbiner’s catchy melody line, which is bolstered by syrupy-sweet, Squeeze-like harmonies. “Only Lies” mixes the chugging guitar line of the Cars’ “Just What I Needed” with the more aggressive new-wave power-pop of ’80s New York rockers Dirty Looks. From there, the reference points range from Cheap Trick (“Check It Over”) and Fountains of Wayne (“Now That I Am Blind”) to the Kinks (“Someone After You”) and like-minded L.A. popsters Sumack (“Baby Polygon”). The downside: Unfortunately, the lyrics rarely match the clarity of the songs and arrangements. For instance, in “What Would You Do?” Gumbiner offers, “What would you do without the gas piped up into your head?/The pilot light’s gone dead/and now your head is hazardous.” Say what? Also, while producer/auxiliary member Eric Valentine (Smashmouth, Third Eye Blind) has made the record sizzle, he also insists on booby-trapping the songs with annoying production change-ups that only serve to distract.

Despite the considerable window-dressing, in the end, the songs win out and the band rarely loses its focus. Best of all, the disc clocks in at a sensible 34 minutes, and unlike far too many current releases, the 13 tunes will definitely leave you wanting more. (Michael Lipton)


52nd Street Themes (Blue Note)

This disc featuring Joe Lovano’s new jazz nonet is some seriously swank swing, but it’s doubtful the poseur swing-revival creeps have the intelligence or attention span to apply to music this elaborate. Nor will the lame-o pseudo “cocktail set” or whatever they call themselves probably latch on to it. But we can.

52nd Street Themes is Lovano’s tribute of sorts not only to the artistry of New York’s 52nd Street bebop period and the fire, originality and especially spirit of its original musicians, but also to two mentors from his formative days in Cleveland, Ohio: his father, tenor saxophonist Tony “Big T” Lovano, and alto saxophonist/arranger Willie “Face” Smith. And it’s a sumptuous revelation, a bracing mixture of styles and time periods, all recorded live to two-track analog and as clean as Monk’s wardrobe. But not that bracing if you’re familiar with the work of yet another Clevelander, Tadd Dameron, a mentor and bandmate to Face and Big T, and the man whom this recording really honors. One of bop’s greatest arranger/composers and jazz’s great unsung hero — in 1945 he was teaching chords to Miles Davis — Dameron melded big-band party/dance music with bebop and the passionate, original approaches practiced by the likes of Monk, Parker, Roach and Powell, with beauty always first and foremost on his agenda.

Lovano’s tone is fairly time-honored, yet his bold and surprising improvisations are what set him apart. And while the consummate arrangements of songs by Billy Strayhorn, Miles, Monk, Gershwin and five by Dameron are superb, this is also a first-rate blow sesh, all nine players certified masters performing consistently adventurous and ecstatic improvs under Lovano’s inspired guidance. This is a swinging, intelligent sound, and swell late-nite stuff, too, so relax and listen and imagine that, possibly sometime in the future, music like this will catch on with the great unwashed. Who knows? Maybe we will see Lovano’s version of Monk’s “52nd Street Theme” released on K-Tel CDs, retitled and listed on the cover as “Gap Commercial Theme #22.” Ahh, dreams . . . (Scott Morrow)


BRIGHT MOMENTS: The Life and Legacy of
Rahsaan Roland Kirk
(Welcome Rain Publishers)

Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who died in 1977, was a most criminally overlooked post-Coltrane jazzman. A multi-instrumentalist who played a variety of woodwinds, he was often dismissed as a novelty act, mostly because he often played two or three horns at once and actually brought entertainment onto the bandstand, at a time when Miles Davis’ dour cerebralism was de rigueur in jazz. But Kirk was a brilliant musician who mastered what the downtown New York set now aspires to — a complete stylistic command of jazz history, freewheeling eclecticism and, importantly, a sense of humor.

Writer John Kruth, himself a credible musician, recognizes Kirk’s eminence and appreciates his character. Kirk’s exploits were often larger than life, as were his convictions about music and African-American pride; his blindness manifested in willful independence, which led to many stories about his exploits. Kruth’s narrative is often loose, letting Kirk’s friends and associates recall things at their own pace. Because Kirk was such an Old Testament character, this nonlinear approach works — unlike most jazz biographies, Moments is fun. But it also makes a serious study of Kirk’s art, and points not only to the spotless musicianship but to the varied production style Kirk and producer Joel Dorn brought to jazz. One need only check out a Hal Willner multiartist tribute (the Disney collection Stay Awake or the Mingus testimonial Weird Nightmare) to hear fruition of the seeds sown by Kirk’s 1970s work, which blended spoken word, early jazz styles, soul, post-bop and humor into jazz records like none before.

Were this a bio of somebody less quixotic and determined, it’d be dry as toast. But Kruth has captured Kirk’s spirit, and Moments is an unmitigated pleasure for both fans and jazz enthusiasts unfamiliar with the work of this underappreciated giant. (Skip Heller)


Halflife (Invisible)

With his new project Phylr, ex–Cop Shoot Cop dude J.F. Coleman demonstrates that his psyche has come fully unhinged, and the result is near-divine. Never has melancholia been as entertaining as the cracked samples, unsettling beats and claustrophobic atmosphere of Halflife.

This gentle and understated music is also oddly unsettling. For once we have a range of beats that run the gamut from trip-hop sluggishness to Krautrock-influenced electro, and Phylr sifts them through filters that impart a sense of hearing this wispy collage from a rather strained distance. The up-tempo clatter of “King,” “Biscuit” and “Greener Pastures” are squarely down with the drum ’n’ bass vibe, but most of the beats and F/X here are too jacked for such an easy categorization. Whether it’s the documentarylike monotone of “Blowhole, etc.,” the fever-dream of “Everything Is Fine” (not!), the funeral-on-acid of “Gravy Detective” or the low-battery wind- down of “Far and Away (Circuit Redux Remix),” Phylr blurs the line between pretty and creepy.

Halflife should appeal to Soundtracks for the Blind–era Swans fans and those who like their moodscapes yoked to a wide palette of machine-generated percussion. Fortunately, Coleman’s drum-sample restlessness never mars the slippery nuances of his migraine nocturnes. He’s created the ultimate soundtrack to entropy; Phylr may initially seem like your ticket to a chill-out, but with Halflife you never quite get there. (Andrew Lentz)

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