Various Artists, “God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson” (Alligator).
The first monster blues record of 2016. An amazing collection of musicians got together to pay tribute to the songs of Blind Willie Johnson, the Texas gospel bluesman and one of the great slide guitarists to appear before Mississippi Fred McDowell. Are you ready for Tom Waits doing “The Soul of a Man” and “John the Revelator?” Lucinda Williams performing “It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and the title song? How about Maria McKee’s “Let Your Light Shine on Me” and Rickie Lee Jones’ tortuous final version of “Dark Was The Night – Cold Was the Ground?” The Blind Boys of Alabama perform “Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time,” the Cowboy Junkies “Jesus is Coming Soon,” Luther Dickinson “Bye and Bye I’m Going to See the King’ And yes, that’s the wondrously troublesome Sinead O’Connor performing “Trouble Will Soon Be Over.”
Johnson’s work can pretty much be heard on the 30 cuts he recorded for Columbia between 1927 and 1930. After that his recording career was over; he was an itinerant. Said Luther Dickinson, “Blind Willie Johnson touches everybody. His music is so of the earth that it still sounds completely modern. It’s timeless and like nothing else ever recorded.” Derek Trucks is happy to tell the world that he “never heard a slide guitar player, even to this day, play with that much emotion. I have only heard a few things that hit me quite that strongly.” Producer Jeffrey Gaskill said that even though Johnson died in 1948 his music “travels through time with the same bold call to repentance that was once delivered to listeners on Texas street corners.” So raw in his own style is Tom Waits on “John the Revelator” that he drops a whole line. But his version is the soul of sophistication compared to Rickie Lee Jones. Gaskell got the idea for a Johnson tribute back in 2008. A kickstarter campaign in 2013 made it a reality. The result is absolutely extraordinary. You may have a lot of trouble getting it out of your speakers. Four stars. (Jeff Simon)
Avishai Cohen, “Into the Silence” (ECM)
The influence of Miles Davis on other musicians – especially trumpet players – has always been one of the most fascinating subjects in jazz. His inimitable sound, both Harmon-muted and unmuted, is seldom essayed by any trumpet player because it’s so personal. The rarity was Wallace Roney who was so close to it that Davis didn’t mind it when he and Roney took turns performing when Quincy Jones got an aging Davis to record some of his classic earlier music with Gil Evans.
But, other than Johnny Coles – and to some extrent Chet Baker, who had his own distinctive personality – Davis’ sound has been treated in jazz as relatively sacrosanct. Not so much the general approach of his late-50s and ‘60s quintets, which became the most influential of their era by far. What you’ve got here is a rarity that could only show up on ECM – an Israeli trumpet player who is clearly most influenced by Davis’ sound but who eschews the approaches of his classic quintets and sextet in favor of the kind of formal abstraction common on ECM. Nasheet Waits is a great jazz drummer who plays free jazz drums throughout most of this (rather than drums in the style of either Billy Cobham, Jack DeJohnette or Tony Williams).
As pleasant as it can be to listen to what Cohen is doing here, it is lacking the one thing that Davis gave jazz that few other musicians before or after ever could – a singular sense of urgency, the idea that you were hearing musical statements that could only come in that way in that form. Davis was a living breathing musical illustration of existentialism. Cohen, on the other hand, has his moments but generally illustrates nothing so much as studiousness and decorativeness. Rating: Two and ½ stars (Jeff Simon)