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Shemekia Copeland -- Talking to Strangers (Alligator) Copeland's one of the most talked-about young vocalists in blues, and for good reason. Her first two albums were solid showcases for her powerhouse voice, but carried that unfortunate rock-blues sheen so prevalent in contemporary blues. The big news here is that her new album, Talking to Strangers, is produced by Dr. John, and features his inimitable piano playing throughout the album, as well as longtime Dr. John cohort Herman Ernest on drums. As expected, that makes this one of the funkiest blues albums in recent memory, especially on the sass of "When a Woman's Had Enough" and "When the Battle Is Over," and the sly push-and-pull and vocal duet on "Too Close," which features a subtle riff on the classic "Mother-in-Law" piano lead.

Rebennack has writing credits on five of the album's 15 songs, with "Too Close" reminiscent of the cool West Coast swing of Charles Brown. Copeland's in commanding form throughout the album, and it's no surprise considering she learned her trade from her late father, blues great Johnny Copeland. She pays tribute to her dad by closing the album with an inspirational roadhouse romp through his anthem "Pie in the Sky."

Billie Holiday & Lester Young -- A Musical Romance (Sony/Legacy) They were a beautiful and doomed pair, two of jazz's most distinct voices, and the relationship between vocalist Billie Holiday and saxophonist Lester Young was so strong that gave each other their timeless nicknames: Lady Day, and "The President" (affectionately shortened to "Pres"). Beginning in 1937, they made a number of timeless recordings together, and the best of the lot is included on this superb collection. One of Young's hallmarks was his uncanny ability to deftly play behind the beat -- undoubtedly influenced by the Mississippi native's childhood years around New Orleans -- and his languid, expressive soloing was a perfect foil for Holiday's devastating and direct vocals.

What's so remarkable about their pairing is how these two utterly singular and dominant personalities performed together without ever stepping on each other; there's a Zen-like attention to space on songs like "Mean to Me," where Young plays the melody straight before some spry improvising, letting Holiday step to the mic to massage the melody like a piece of taffy. Their musical dancing is also highlighted on tracks like "A Sailboat in the Moonlight" and "He's Funny That Way," where Young's phrasing ebbs through the passages left open by Holiday. This is a superb reissue on every count, with beautiful packaging, photos and insightful liner notes from New Orleans writer Tom Piazza.

Derek Douget -- Perpetual Motion (Lockout Records) Saxophonist Douget is best known for his work with Ellis Marsalis, but his debut solo album shows his potential as a bandleader. Perpetual Motion is a thoughtful program of modern jazz, featuring seven original compositions and covers of Marsalis' "Friendships" and the bop standard "Hot House." Douget's supporting cast is stellar, featuring an all-star New Orleans band including trumpeter Nicholas Payton, bassist Roland Guerin, drummers Adonis Rose and Jason Marsalis, and pianist Jonathan Lefcoski.

The angular head charts of "G.O.A." and "Scrambler" set up the typically fiery soloing from Douget and Payton, and wouldn't sound out of place on Wynton Marsalis' hungry '80s recordings at Washington's Blues Alley club. "Sir Remy" finds Douget's soprano sax uncoiling some Middle Eastern-fused snake-charmer lines, spurred on by Jason Marsalis' insistent brushwork. "Session Blues" is a funky strut, while the album's most ambitious and impressive track is "Madness." This 10-minute-plus suite of sorts is a slow-burn cauldron of musical tension, building from Lefcoski's introductory counterpart jabs, dissolving into a winding middle section, and rising from Douget's fluttering low melodies into a splashy solo from Marsalis. "Coda" winds it up with some full-throttle squalling from Douget, perhaps a sign that Douget's truly ready to make some noise as a solo artist.

Phillip Walker Big Band -- Live at Biscuits and Blues (MC Records) Welsh, La., native and former Clifton Chenier guitarist Phillip Walker's been spinning out supple T-Bone Walker-inspired guitar lines for more than half a century now, and has never lost the supple sting he showed in his earliest 1952 recordings with Chenier for Specialty Records. This live set was culled from two San Francisco shows that featured Walker backed by a horn section, and shows the 65-year-old still in fine form, running through a program of classics and inspired covers.

He gives a nod to the younger generation of bluesmen with a spirited vocal on Robert Cray's "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark," and there's a spirited duet with Texas firebrand Angela Strehli on "Think," with the additional bonus of a full-roar chromatic harmonica solo from special guest Charlie Musselwhite. Walker's guitar playing still packs its elastic swing, but its his vocals that are the big surprise; his round grandfatherly voice gets more resonant with time, lending a sweet touch on romps like his take on Ray Charles' "Mary Ann."

click to enlarge Dr. John produced young blues vocalist Shemekia Copeland's new CD, Talking to Strangers, as well as handling piano and songwriting duties.
  • Dr. John produced young blues vocalist Shemekia Copeland's new CD, Talking to Strangers, as well as handling piano and songwriting duties.


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