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OTRA
Todo Pa' La Gente
(Independent)

One of the nicest surprises on the New Orleans music scene the last two years has been the emergence of the Afro-Cuban jazz band OTRA. Founded by the eclectic bassist Sam Price (a force behind the bluegrass band Uptown Okra as well), OTRA serves the primal function of a Latin band: playing music for dancing your butt off. Two rhythm section veterans, the Cuban conguero Pupi Menes and the Columbian timbalero Cristobal Cruzado, guarantee that.

Unlike many bands that might be lumped together in the "salsa" category, however, OTRA's appeal extends beyond its rhythmic allure. A good deal of credit for this must go to the band's keyboard player, Rob Block. An East Coast native who lived in St. Louis for 10 years before moving to New Orleans two years ago, he is a modern jazz wizard as well as master of Afro-Cuban styles (and if that isn't enough he's a killer guitarist, too). Block composed five of the CD's nine tracks, and in addition to his wonderful playing and writing, he has a knack for keeping the horn charts interesting and for providing fine backing for hornmen Eric Lucero and Brent Rose. Much of this has to do with avoiding that most dreaded of Latin music devices (for the non-dancing listener anyway), the endless one-or two chord montunio.

In addition to the Block originals, Todo Pa' La Gente contains two traditional melodies, paeans to the Cuban "orishas" or spirits arranged by Price, and a jazz standard, "Nature Boy." It's a well-rounded program fit for musicologists and booty-shakers alike.

--Tom McDermott

Spencer Bohren
Southern Cross
(Valve)

The front and back covers of Spencer Bohren's seventh album, Southern Cross, feature close-ups of Joseph Cornell-type boxes made by Bohren. Like small shrines, these handsome boxes treat the objects in them as pieces of something sacred, which is how Bohren treats American folk and blues.

Bohren uses lap steel in evocative ways on the album. For "People Get Ready," it's the whistle of the train in the lyric, while it's the sound of the singer's sadness in "I'm So Lonesome I Could Die." Perhaps its most subtle use comes in "Long Black Veil," when by sketching out the melodic structure of the song, it recalls a rudimentary stringed instrument for folks sitting around singing to entertain themselves.

The songs don't, however, sound like average folk singing. Bohren slows them down so that every word can be heard and felt. His guitar is the only instrument on each song, letting the poetry stand clear and unobstructed. Admittedly, he's not the first to admire many of these songs or these songwriters, but until Hank Williams is the fifth face on Mount Rushmore, his genius hasn't been recognized enough.

Bohren has three original songs on Southern Cross, and they fit so perfectly into the album's rural folk mode that without looking at the liner notes, listeners wouldn't notice. They might wonder rightly if his understanding of a miner's plight comes more from reading than experience, but "East Kentucky Coaldust" shows such an understanding and love of the genre that focusing on its authenticity is beside the point.

-- Alex Rawls

John "Papa" Gros
Day's End
(Funky Krewe)

John Gros left Mulebone in 2001 to dedicate his time and energy to Papa Grows Funk, but the funk/jam band only provides one outlet for some of Gros' creativity. Day's End collects his recent song-oriented compositions including "Roll Away," which he has performed frequently at his solo piano shows at the Tropical Isle, and they're the sort of songs Mulebone once would have done. He sounds relaxed on the album in a way he didn't with Mulebone, though, perhaps because the success of PGF has made him a more confident performer.

The band doesn't hurt. Tommy Malone, Reggie Scanlon and Kenneth Blevins compose the principal band, with contributions from Dwight Breland, David Doucet and Robert and Candace Maché among others. They don't overshadow Gros, though; "What's the Matter Part 2, #35" is driven by Malone's John Fogerty-esque guitar, but the personality in Gros' voice defines the song. His vocal on "The Ground" may be his most relaxed yet, melodic but closer to his spoken voice than he has sounded before. Conceptually, Day's End holds together as well. The album touches a number of bases with a solo version of James Booker's "Keep On Gwine" and covers of Van Morrison and Earl King, thus paying tribute to three very different R&B giants. Rather than sound eclectic, the album pulls the different strains of New Orleans music -- rock included -- together similar to the way the Radiators and the subdudes do. -- Rawls

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