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Something Old, Something New 

New Orleans drummer James Black was the James Booker of the drums. He had a restless and explosive musical personality, little patience for sub-par musicianship, and the ability to play everything from ferocious funk to beautiful ballads. He drummed as a sideman for diverse artists such as Fats Domino, Yusef Lateef and Lionel Hampton, but when he died from an overdose in 1988, he'd never recorded an album as a bandleader. Perhaps his greatest artistic achievement was his contribution to Ellis Marsalis' classic 1963 modern jazz album, Monkey Puzzle; Black wrote four of the album's seven songs and infused the whole album with challenging labyrinthine rhythms.

The relative scarcity of Black recordings makes the new James Black compilation CD, I Need Altitude (Night Train Records), a welcome and intriguing sampler of Black's talents. The songs are culled from three different sessions recorded in the '60s, '70s and '80s.

"Mist" is a hybrid of '60s soul jazz, with its swirling organ and some chicken-scratch guitar, mixed with a more straight-ahead feel thanks to the horn parts from saxophonist Fred Kemp. On the funk jam "Tune #6," Black does a series of snare-drum stutters that are the driving force of the song, despite being miked below a dual sax lineup and some Hammond B-3 lines. (It helps that Black gets a nice 30-second drum solo in the middle of the song, throwing quick accents in so many different spots it's the audio equivalent of a skittering waterbug.) Eddie Bo handles the vocals on the R&B tune "That Certain Someone," while "Mr. Gris Gris Man" finds Black taking a rare vocal turn with an exaggerated Dr. John stamp on the vocals, although there's a nice series of Black drum rolls at the end of the song.

There's some light material on the set, including the bizarre R&B and psychedelic vamp "Psychedelphia," and multiple versions of "There's a Storm in the Gulf" and "(I Need) Altitude." The sketchy sound quality also makes this a CD most appealing to collectors and Black aficionados, but it's still heartening to have a diverse collection of Black's drumming on one CD; any reminder of Black's genius deserves recognition.

Corey Harris is still so young that it's probably too early to call him a "genius," but Harris' new CD, Downhome Sophisticate, shows that he's one of the most creatively gifted musicians on the contemporary American music scene. The expatriate New Orleanian has already released four superb CDs (including Vu-Du Menz, his collaboration with Henry Butler), but Downhome Sophisticate is an ambitious high-wire walk across a sweeping landscape of diverse genres.

Yet Harris is still a bluesman at heart, and blues numbers form the core of Downhome Sophisticate. He summons up a Howlin' Wolf growl on "Don't Let the Devil Ride," does some streetwise slurs on a hip-hop flavored version of "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning," and a distorted vocal effect is used to eerie effect on "Money on My Mind," where Harris sounds like a disembodied whisper looming over the instrumentation.

What instrumentation it is, throughout the CD. There are a couple of traditional acoustic numbers -- Harris' early bread and butter -- that are top-notch, including "Capitaine," a delicate instrumental piece of acoustic finger-picking reminiscent of the Duane Allman showpiece "Little Martha," and "Where the Yellow Cross the Dog," a Delta blues homage to the early-1900s Mississippi rail line. But Harris is moving away from John Jackson and more toward Big Jack Johnson these days, uncorking some hellfire electric blues. The scabrous slide guitar tone on "Money on My Mind" sounds like it's being fed from a vintage tube amp dangerously close to exploding. Ditto for "B.B.," an inside-out shuffle with boogie-woogie piano fills from Henry Butler, where the swinging rhythm section excavates a wide pocket for an elastic jump-blues guitar solo. It's the kind of track you could probably hear on any contemporary blues album, but played without half Harris' conviction or soul, and either intentionally recorded to sound like a vintage record, or jacked up so high that it becomes a rock-blues parody.

Perhaps Harris' most impressive instrument remains his voice. "Santoro," a tale of police profiling, boasts an ethereal falsetto lead before slipping into some Caribbean patois on the choruses. On "Frankie Doris," Harris sounds like Bob Marley recorded in Muscle Shoals, surrounding himself with a gospel-inspired backing chorus and Hammond B-3 organ swells.

That's the kind of deft cross-pollination that's quickly becoming Harris' signature; "Fire" boasts the dual percussion tracking of a march with second-line twists, augmented by swirling percussion inspired by Harris' recent trips to Mali. Harris has always been a world traveler, and "Sista Rose" and "Money Traveler" are inspired slices of Afro-pop, featuring the quivering and shimmering guitar lines essential to the genre.

Downhome Sophisticate is an album that only Corey Harris could make -- and it doesn't travel the same musical paths as his previous CDs. Here's hoping he plays artistic tour guide for a long time to come.

click to enlarge Corey Harris' Downhome Sophisticate is an earthy and sophisticated album.
  • Corey Harris' Downhome Sophisticate is an earthy and sophisticated album.
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