Gardenias for Lady Day

For his Columbia debut, his first album since 2000, sax titan James Carter looks to legendary singer Billie Holiday for inspiration — with largely terrific results. Four songs come from the Lady Day canon, while the other four are tributes, pieces associated with her contemporaries Don Byas, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Coleman Hawkins. Buoyed by the ace rhythm section of drummer Victor Lewis, bassist Peter Washington and pianist John Hicks, the album also features a series of inventive string arrangements, played with aggressive alacrity by a 10-piece ensemble. These are not sonic pillows, luxuriant backdrops for the central players; the string section actually makes up a fifth instrumental voice. The arrangers have imbued their work with bite and a certain measured dissonance.

Carter breaks another rule on Gardenias by overdubbing horn parts on a handful of songs, most notably on "I'm in a Lowdown Groove," where his tenor and F Mezzo saxophones offer bluesy counterpoint to his featured baritone work; and "Sunset," in which a combination of tenor and F mezzo saxes and contrabass and bass clarinets builds a lovely swirl of horns that dances gracefully with the strings.

Even with these inventive trappings, Carter is the driving force. His playing deftly blends Hawkins-esque brawn with forward-thinking harmony and occasional touches of skronk. His tonal rasp, especially on tenor, gives his playing a noir-esque quality. Occasionally, Gardenias gets a bit clogged, with the horns and strings suffocating each other. An ambitious take on "Strange Fruit," with guest vocalist Miche Braden, builds to a noisy, overwrought climax, overplaying the song's intrinsic drama. In all, the disc could've used a tad more restraint, but in the end that's a minor complaint about a bold effort. —ERIC SNIDER

Blue Note

Cassandra Wilson's stylistic turn a decade ago into swampy, Delta-blues-infused jazz reached its pinnacle with last year's Belly of the Sun, which found the dusky-voiced chanteuse returning to her hometown of Jackson, Miss., for a set of soulful, sensual tunes. She stuck around her old stomping grounds for Glamoured, and there's this nagging sense that she stayed too long at the fair. The new disc retains the spare, acoustic-guitar-driven sound, with crisp percussion and resonant bass, but Glamoured falls short of capturing a similar magic. She seems more and more enamored with recasting the melodies of songs like Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay" (the disc's low point), Sting's "Fragile" and Willie Nelson's "Crazy," while at the same time nearly obsessing on her voice's lowest register. As a result, the music sounds more sluggish than seductive. Her originals don't connect as well, either. Wilson is a terrific artist, so there are several worthy moments here, most notably a take on Muddy Waters' "Honey Bee" and the '70s soul classic "If Loving You is Wrong." That said, it might be time for her to set aside a winning formula for something fresh. 1/2 —ERIC SNIDER

Here I Am: Isley Meets Bacharach

The lovely and delicate singing of Ron Isley wrapping around the melodically sophisticated, unabashedly romantic songbook of Burt Bacharach ("Alfie," "A House is Not a Home," "Anyone Who Had A Heart," "Close to You," et al.). Nice. On Here I Am, Isley uses the same sort of melismatic embellishments that are all over any number of Isley Brothers ballads. Sometimes he goes a bit too far, sounding like he's singing from a shaken jar. More often, he finesses the line between giving these songs invigorated readings and staying true to their elegant essence. Bacharach's production and arrangements give virtually no quarter to modernity; they're soaked with string arrangements and the kind of mellow horns that outfitted the original versions. This is between-the-sheets music for adults. 1/2 —ERIC SNIDER

Emperor Norton

What the hell do two Finnish producers know about hip-hop? The nontraditional answer comes in the form of BEATitude, the second full-length from James Spectrum and JA-Jazz, collectively Pepe Deluxe. With BEATitude, it appears Pepe know quite a lot about hip-hop — first and foremost that hip-hop is what you make of it, no matter what you make it with. Pepe approach production not like the Neptunes — making signature beds for interchangeable MCs — but instead as hip-hop DJs, pulling seemingly disparate elements together with mellifluous finesse. Forget "electronica." That was some late '90s fad. BEATitude recalls a scratch DJ record. The beats juggle and samples jumble, but the emphasis is on mixing. Each little routine follows a theme full of snippets that seem familiar as they flare and fade. Working with 34 internationally culled musicians, Pepe Deluxe have refined and redefined favorite moods and grooves. "Salami Fever" cuts up wah-wah guitar like it's Eddie Van Halen wanking through "Eruption." "Little Miss Cypher" swells in strings, bringing to mind the Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony." There are Bollywood, bossa, even dusky DJ Shadow-style breaks. With BEATitude, Pepe use their production prowess to splice samples into a series of new beat-borne helices comfortable and familiar as denim but full of new nips, tucks and cuts. —Tony Ware


It begins with drums. They not only kick off the first new studio album in three years from this funky New Orleans outfit, but also energize every cut on it. Powerhouse percussionist Stanton Moore sets the groove and the rest of the band jumps aboard. MIA are the jams that attracted Galactic's primary audience, replaced by compact songs that never crack four minutes. Producer Dan The Automator helps fuel Galactic's blast into orbit. The trackmaster behind Dr. Octagon, Gorillaz and Handsome Boy Modeling School twists enough knobs to reprocess the band's sound, while maintaining the Meters' rhythms at their core. Although still on an organic road, the album is driven by loops and synths, which augment, but don't replace, organ, electric piano and sax. There's more experimentation here than on Galactic's first three releases combined, as newly added harmonica and acoustic guitar join with the unstoppable rhythm section and Theryl de'Clouet's Bourbon Street vocals. The Automator leaves breathing room even as he emphasizes grinding, industrial strength beats that materialize and disappear with disarming glee. Songs like "Kid Kenner" and the instrumental "Doomed" morph through so many changes in three minutes that they seem like mini-albums. Not surprisingly, with all the sonic shenanigans, the tunes on rare occasions flounder as production forces the melodies to sublimate. Jam fans will likely be perplexed by the offbeat song structures. But Galactic's ruckus is a welcome change and a banging, clanging success. 1/2—Hal Horowitz

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