Smith's blend of classical, jazz creates enjoyable ride
‘Jazz Suite for the Bassoon'
Daniel Smith (Summit)
Obviously inspired by composers Claude Bolling and the late Gunther Schuller, Daniel Smith takes his bassoon through a genre-shifting journey “Jazz Suite for the Bassoon.”
The title piece is a three-movement original written for him by Steve Gray. The pianist and a quartet join Smith in performing the work. It blends jazz and classical forms, and it also shows off Smith's ability. He is a woodwind player with conservatory-like skills, but he has a jazz player's sense of timing and rhythm.
The album also includes “Baroque Adaptations for Bassoon and Jazz Trio” and three Scott Joplin rags. The former is played with Smith and a trio and consists of five looks at works by J.S. Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, William Byrd and Henry Purcell. The Joplin rags are done by Smith, a pianist and six string players. The album is not jazz in the sense of great improvisation, but it is an enjoyable blend of styles.
‘Nothing But Soul'
Tiffany Austin (Con Alma)
Tiffany Austin knows “soul” is more “heart” than it is a type of music. The title “Nothing But Soul” would seem to bring some hints of Motown. But she goes a step better. She offers energetically and passionately done versions of classics in original and distinctive ways. That approach makes for an enjoyable album.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that six of the nine songs are gems by Hoagy Carmichael done so well they lose any chance of sounding old. Her versions of “Stardust,” “Skylark” and “I Get Along Without You Very Well” show the depth and richness that has made those songs survive, despite frequent uninspired performances of them. Her “Georgia” doesn't rival Ray Charles' but offers another version to listen to.
Two of the non-Hoagy numbers stand up to scrutiny: “I May be Wrong (But I Think You're Wonderful)” and Johnny Cash's “I Walk the Line.” Besides her clean, unerring, rich voice, the album also features good sax backup from Howard Wiley, who never gets in the way.
‘Something More Than Free'
Jason Isbell (Southeastern)
Jason Isbell's fifth album is not quite as soul-searing as 2013's clear-eyed and newly sober “Southeastern,” but the former Drive-By Trucker continues to sharpen his songwriting skills and expand his musical range on the surprisingly folkie and highly accomplished “Something More Than Free.”
The lead single, “24 Frames,” grabs the attention with Dylan-worthy poetic mystery (“You thought God was an architect, now you know / He's something like a pipe bomb getting ready to blow”) and an instantly memorable guitar hook, and there's plenty more meat on “Something More Than Free's” bones, from the soaring “Children of Children,” to the solitary-working-man's-saga title cut, to the grocery-store heartbreaker “Speed Trap Town.”
Throughout, Isbell gives articulate voice in his understated Alabama twang to everyman characters with the acumen of an ace short-story writer — and a songwriter who's smart enough always to put the music first.
‘Angels and Alcohol'
Alan Jackson (ACR/EMI Nashville)
Ask Alan Jackson about his career and he'll likely say, “I'm just a singer of simple songs.”
The modesty is genuine, seeing how Jackson stays away from the spotlight as much as a country superstar can. But his mantra also works as a goal.
And on his new album, “Angels and Alcohol,” Jackson achieves it, with a selection of deceptively simple songs that put all the way-too-clever jokes and all the bro-country littering the country airwaves to shame.
Jackson sings like a man who knows what he's doing. That's not to say he doesn't tackle many of the same topics as his country brethren — drinking, breakups and three-day holidays in his world, too. But he does it better than almost anyone else.
The delightful first single, “Jim and Jack and Hank,” proves it, with Jackson balancing a clever run of images — “Take your string bikinis, your apple martinis ... take your flat iron and your curlers, your sparkling waters and that damn perfume I never liked” — with the classic country trinity of Jim (Beam), Jack (Daniels) and Hank (Williams).
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the lovely “When God Paints,” a sweet ballad filled with aching fiddles and plinking pedal steel guitars that Jackson keeps from getting too sappy with his down-to-earth delivery.
On “Angels and Alcohol,” Jackson makes a difficult tightrope walk seem effortless and as naturally enjoyable as “Mexico, Tequila and Me.”