New Reviews: March 15, 2004

Reviews by Tom Orr

Chava Alberstein
End of the Holiday
Rounder Records (11661-3231-2, 2003)

Despite having recorded a staggering 54 albums, Israel's Chava Alberstein is hardly a household name in the rest of the world. Too bad. Her music, sung almost entirely in Hebrew, is a warm and inviting mixture of folksy intimacy, Judaic wisdom and slice-of-life straightforwardness. Though the songs comprising End of the Holiday focus on life in contemporary Tel Aviv, they are reflective of issues impacting not only the whole of Israel but the world at large.
  Alberstein sings of such things as spiritual uncertainty, the drawbacks of modernization, the decaying of the environment and inner secrets in a way that might be viewed as pessimistic but is more rooted in a deep sense of realism that strives to move beyond mere personal concerns. Thus the songs are heartfelt and penetrating, their simple acoustic nature beautified by melancholy shadings of woodwinds, accordion and synthesizer. Alberstein's filmmaker husband Nadav Levitan wrote all the lyrics here, and they fit her music and arrangements with graceful ease.
  This album won't have you jumping for joy like the more familiar klezmer style that seems to be the mainstay of Jewish world music nowadays, but its introspective, almost bluesy air will certainly get to you.

Tommy McCook
Blazing Horns/Tenor in Roots
Blood and Fire (BAFCD 044, 2003)

Cuban-born, Jamaican-raised saxophonist Tommy McCook was a founding member of the legendary Skatalites before moving on to lead the Supersonics and become one of reggae's most respected and in-demand session players. Blazing Horns/Tenor in Roots collects on one CD two album's worth of material that McCook laid down for producers Yabby You and Glen Brown back in the '70s, and like everyting else put out by U.K. reggae reissue label Blood and Fire, it's crucial stuff. Many of Jamaica's great horn men were rooted in jazz, and McCook was no exception. Reggae is the predominant beat throughout these instrumental tracks, while the looseness of the melodies and solos bespeak a jazz sensibility that mixes with slightly dubwise production and an almost easy-listening feel to create a sort of hybrid reggae that a master musician like McCook pulls off expertly. Of course it doesn't hurt that some old familiar pop standards like "When I Fall in Love" are worked in or that other top notch players on the disc include trumpeter Bobby Ellis, drum and bass team Sly and Robbie, and members of the Gladiators.
  The body of work McCook left behind following his 1998 death was extensive. This disc represents only a small facet of it, but it's essential listening anyway.

Various Artists
Putumayo World Music 10th Anniversary Collection
Putumayo (P217-A, 2003)

In their decade of existence, the Putumayo label has been criticized for everything from their colorful packaging and marketing methods to the running time of their CDs. They've overcome such piddling by releasing loads of great music, and this double CD contains a solid sampling of it. Their compilations covering reggae, African music, Latin music, modern electronica, children's music, regionally specific sounds and more are represented via key tracks, with their single-artist discs by the likes of Habib Koite, Ricardo Lemvo and Oliver Mtukudzi getting a good showing as well. It's one highlight after another, and standouts include Capercaille's hypnotic "Inexile," a quietly powerful rendition of "People Get Ready" by Phoebe Snow and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the rollicking zydeco of Keith Frank and Ali Slimani's contemporary Arabic pop. If you haven't many (or any) Putumayo CDs on your shelf, this substantial sampler will clue you in on what you may have missed, encourage further exploration in various realms and provide considerable enjoyment all on its own.

Francisco Aguabella
Cubop (CBCD042, 2004)

One of the true trailblazers in Latin jazz, master conga player Francisco Aguabella has been tearing it up for half a century. He's accompanied many a major name in music, led his own band and shows no sign of slowing down. Aguabella's latest straddles Afro-Cuban and jazz sounds with the same deft authority we've come to expect, easily taking its place alongside his best work. His playing is more prominent than on his previous release Cubican (just check out the way he stokes an already blazing "Love For Sale"), bolstering not only the rhythm section but the solos as well. The title track is a deeply rooted mood setter of percussion and horns, followed by the aptly titled "Funky Cha." The pensive piano/sax opening of "O.B.A." provides a brief cooling down before things take off for a second half stretch that includes a bolero-styled "Makin' Whoopee" and the salsafied closer "Te Olvide." So how long can Aguabella keep churning out albums as good as this one? Forever would be fine with me.

Tom Orr is a Southern California-based freelance writer, actor, percussionist, 9 to 5-er, husband, daddy, and aspiring deep thinker. He acquires more music than he has time to listen to, and feels the only solution is to acquire even more.