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Shakti, Slow Blues and Soul 

Our critics' picks in gift CDs and box sets

Shopping for the finicky music geek in your family? Instead of our usual Soundbite reviews of recent national releases, our roster of Indy critics have come up with a great selection of musical gift ideas.

Charlie Parker
The Complete Savoy and Dial Recordings 1944-1948
Savoy Box Set

Jimi Hendrix
The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Experience Hendrix Box Set

Nothing massages the ear of a cantankerous musical Grinch quite like a multi-disc CD box set. Therefore, it's the perfect gift, unrivaled in girth and pricey as pure gold.

These two diamonds have much in common. Both feature exhaustive looks into the genius of stoned-cold virtuosos. Charlie Parker (1920-55), alto saxophonist, and Jimi Hendrix (1942-70), electric guitarist, died oh-so-young, packing unlimited artistry into abbreviated careers. They fast-forwarded through life, creating music of a very high order at a furious pace. Nonconformists to the hilt, they embodied the spirit of the American anti-hero.

An eight-disc pack which combines for the first time all of "Yardbird" Parker's early East and West Coast waxings, The Complete Savoy and Dial Recordings documents the birth of modern jazz. The GIs who fought in Europe and Asia during World War II left home with the big-band era in full swing. Upon their return, the world had turned--and so had the music, courtesy of Parker and company. Alongside trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and other restless flyers, Bird had invented bebop, a coded language of Mercury-swift improvisation which revolutionized jazz.

Not for the casual listener, The Complete S & D's is chock-full of sonic hiccups like false starts and alternate takes, all framing shards of Parker's penetrating reed. Rising phoenix-like from the unfinished tracks, however, is a proverbial bible of bebop. Nearly all of Parker's familiar tunes, twisting melodies superimposed upon standard cycles of harmony, are here, sounding better than ever as remastered by engineer Paul Reid.

Ornithologists will ride shotgun with "Shaw Nuff," that breathtaking bop-stacle course, and soak up "Koko," a scorching acid-bath of molten alto. Myriad workouts like "Now's the Time" combine ripsaw improv with sweeter, soul-inspired grooves that forecast the birth of R&B. Above all, one discovers, Parker was a superior interpreter of the blues.

And so was Hendrix, who, in some respects, was the Age of Aquarius' answer to Bird. Both men were innovators who never allowed their own technical mastery to obscure deeper emotions. A weighty treasure chest of curiosities captured live and in the studio, The Jimi Hendrix Experience chronicles the guitarist's maturation as a bona fide blues master--from "Killing Floor" to the box's sultry finale, "Slow Blues."

The blues was just one of this peacock's colors. Hendrix's aural approach changed as often as his hairdo. As if to proclaim, "Roll over, Chuck Berry," Hendrix unfailingly rocked hard, plucking out the speediest "Johnny B. Goode" on record. Meanwhile, onstage, he was capable of spinning long, intricate improvisations at the drop of a hat. Experience contains 16 such titillating jams.

The box also reconfirms Hendrix's rep as a savvy production maestro, whether pounding on the harpsichord ("Burning of the Midnight Lamp") or tooting a recorder ("If 6 Was 9"). As a pioneering owner-operator of his own studio, Electric Ladyland, the guitarist tinkered and tweaked incessantly. That spirit of unbridled experimentation surfaces in a number of previously unreleased demos sprinkled throughout all four discs.

Hendrix's original albums--three studio dates plus the live Band of Gypsies--were recorded a generation ago. If you admire those essential texts, Experience is sign that it's time for a little post-graduate study.

--JOE VANDERFORD

Al Green
Greatest Gospel Hits
Capitol Records CD

Attention all ye erstwhile sinners and casual believers looking to get religion in time for the holidays: Heed the reverend's warning, "Straighten Out Your Life," and give yourself and your loved ones Al Green's Greatest Gospel Hits for Christmas. It's the most soulful path to salvation.

In 1974, shocked after an ex-girlfriend burned him with boiling grits and then killed herself, Green relinquished his status as soul superstar and devoted his life and entire musical repertoire to serving the Lord. He opened the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis, where worshippers and fans alike pack in to witness a legend preach.

Despite this shift in Green's musical path, the same sliding guitar rifts, the whispering organ and that unfaltering voice still carry over to his gospel numbers. The mortal love that he pledged in "Still In Love With You" endures as well, coexisting with and even offered in exaltation to his love for the divine. "God Blessed Our Love," the strongest and most proverbial Al Green song on Gospel Hits, opens with the Reverend cooing, "Every mornin' when I rise/I can just see Heaven all in your eyes."

Of course, in Al Green's canon--secular, divine, platonic--any way he slices it, all love (and lovin') is sacred and all powerful. God is pervasive in every scene. While in "God Blessed Our Love," the bedroom is transformed into an altar, tracks such as "Truth N' Time" and "Chariots of Fire" stray from standard gospel phrasing and sound like the disco from the night before has just rolled into the early Sunday morning service. But the more sensational arrangements make Green's sermons palatable to the wider flock, and he gets away with such unorthodoxy by grounding it in his own versions of familiar verse--Curtis Mayfield's anthem "People Get Ready," Bill Withers' "Lean On Me," and "Amazing Grace."

These gospel recordings are a testament to the fact that Al Green's musical style and subject didn't change at all with either his ordination into the church or the advent of the 1980s, when most of these recordings were produced. All that altered was Green's awareness of the source of his soul. Gospel Hits builds up like a sermon at the Full Gospel Tabernacle and closes with a powerful call-and-response interlude that transmutes the stereo speakers into the pulpit of the Reverend himself.

--JOHN MARTIN

Various artists
Brain in a Box
Rhino Records Box Set

Sci-fi buffs and lovers of musical ephemera will be overjoyed if Santa tosses this nifty box set down the chimney. The set consists of the box itself--aglow with 3-D "brain" art, five CDs and an info-jammed book filled with testimonials and anecdotes from such heavies as Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clark to Matt Groening and "Will Robinson" himself, Billy Mumy. This five-years-in the-making package zips you along the intergalactic musical continuum, assembling film, television, incidental/lounge, novelty and pop treatments of out-of-this-worldly themes into five separate jewel cases illustrated in the height of sci-fi camp.

Where else could you find music from such disparate artists as Moog-hipster Dick Hyman ("Moon Gas") and The Five Blobs ("The Blob" is actually an early Burt Bacharach effort) to the orchestral film scores of John Williams? The hardcover booklet provides some nifty historical factoids for trivia buffs as well as traces the marriage of electric technology and music.

Although Russian scientist Leo Theremin envisioned his invention as a serious instrument fit for classical recitals, the futuristic box--played by mysteriously waving one's hands around the antennae, seeming to conjure eerie sounds out of the cosmos--was almost immediately snagged by composers trying to convey otherworldly themes. The theremin burst into mass consciousness with the 1951 film, The Day the Earth Stood Still. The collection of classic '50s and '60s sci-fi film themes magnificently captures the isolation and paranoia of Cold War America, with the spy next door morphing into the alien next door.

The TV-music CD ranges from themes from early-'60s morality-tales-masquerading-as-entertainment like One Step Beyond and Outer Limits, as well as kid-oriented programs Lost in Space and Land of the Giants. The packaging's disembodied brain theme reflects the post-war public's fascination and unease with all things futuristic and hi-tech: a future where--like the Jetsons--we'd have robot maids, but where the possibility of being kept alive as "pure intellect" after a horrific accident threatened to separate us from our very humanness. There's some filler: Do we really need the Star Trek theme? And the novelty songs veer toward early '80s new wave bands (i.e., The Rezillos and B-52's).

There are some obvious omissions, probably because of licensing or permission issues: Williams' Star Wars theme, or the Byrds' "Mr. Spaceman," for example. Otherwise, Brain in a Box has everything but the music of the spheres. (According to Pythagoras, we can't hear it anyway.) But the collection provides an excellent nostalgic peek at an innocent America, where kids played with ray-guns, pestered their moms to buy Tang and Space Food Sticks (that's what the astronauts ate!), and "Danger Will Robinson!" hadn't become part of the national vocabulary.

--ANGIE CARLSON

John McLaughlin
Remember Shakti: The Believer
Verve CD

In the '70s, guitarist John McLaughlin amazed the jazz fusion world first with the dense and spiritual sounds of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and then the Eastern-influenced band Shakti. From there he went acoustic but has often returned to playing with Indian artists, usually updating the classical music with jazz appeal. For the live CD Remember Shakti: The Believer, McLaughlin reunites with Shakti tabla master Zakir Hussain. The two are joined by V. Selvaganesh, who plays ghatam (a clay pot drum) and the drone-sounding Kanijira, and electric mandolinist U. Srinivas for an outing of lengthy improvisations. There are only six cuts on the entire recording.

The opening "5 in the Morning 6 in the Afternoon" stretches through 18 minutes of conversation with each of the players sounding spirited and astute but ego-less. McLaughlin's guitar is raga-like one minute then bluesy the next, with Hussain fueling the jet-speed transitions. "Anna" is a funky outing with a New Orleans flavor while "Maya" storms through a Northern Indian melody. "Ma No Pa" sparks a feisty debate between guitar and tabla with neither caring who wins. Settling the set down is the sublime coupling of guitar and mandolin on "Lotus Feet," which was on Shakti's 1975 debut recording.

Compared to McLaughlin's early forays into Indian music, Remember Shakti: The Believer is more captivating. It's not that the playing is so different or more advanced but that the musicians are more attuned. No longer are they trekking through new territory but setting up camp in a spot they have often returned to, appreciating the seasonal changes in the landscape but comfortable with its familiarity. In the world-music realm, this recording is tops: It's electric but not overbearing, roots-driven but not trite, and the improvisational element makes every line exhilarating.

--ROBERTA PENN

Johnnie Taylor
Lifetime
Fantasy Box Set

Sam Cooke
The Man Who Invented Soul
RCA Box Set

Etta James
The Chess Box
MCA Box Set

Did you ever notice that everything from before a certain year is placed in the "Soul" section at the record store and all the later stuff is marked "R&B"? I did. Well, while you're trying to figure out who stole the soul, let's turn back the clock to when songs about love only hinted at sex and the church was still in the equation ...

Johnnie Taylor must not have gotten much sun in his life because he always lived in the shadow of his friend, the legendary Sam Cooke. In the '50s, Taylor twice succeeded Cooke in high-profile gospel groups (The Highway Q.C.'s and The Soul Stirrers). In the early '60s, he went solo, mostly singing songs written and produced by Cooke for Cooke's own SAR Records. On those early sides, Johnnie's singing could even be mistaken for Sam.

But Cooke died in 1964 and SAR folded soon thereafter. When Taylor resurfaced two years later with the gritty Memphis-based Stax Records, his voice had swapped its sweetness for a rasp. Maybe the Stax execs put him on a cigarette-only diet or gave him gravel implants so he'd sound more like Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett.

Taylor finally had a bona fide hit in 1968 with "Who's Making Love," followed by 1975's "Disco Lady." "Shake it up, shake it down, move it in, move it 'round, disco lady." Yeah. Disco Shakespeare.

As chronicled in Lifetime's three CDs, Taylor had a long career, but he never approached the level of stardom Cooke had achieved. His first break had come when he impersonated another singer, Little Johnny Taylor, to capitalize on the success of the latter's hit "Part Time Love." Ethics aside, the story makes a case for Taylor as a chameleon who never truly found his own voice. That may be true, but it doesn't diminish the great music that he made along the way.

Taylor passed away earlier this year. Which means he's right back where he began, seated at the right hand of Sam Cooke.

DiamondDiamondDiamond

Cooke spent far less time with us here on Planet Soul--his 1964 shooting death came at the peak of his celebrity--but he certainly made the most of it. Following his move from gospel to pop, his rise to stardom was breathtakingly swift. The reason? A voice that could melt the polar icecaps.

Whoa-a-oh-a-whoa-o-a-oh. That's how you spell Sam's signature move. He was gifted in his treatment of lyrics, but the greatest moment in many of his songs came when he'd let one of those fly: Whoa-a-oh-a-whoa-o-a-oh. (The only possible criticism of Cooke is that he begat Journey's Steve Perry, who clearly spent his pimply-faced adolescence in front of the mirror with hairbrush microphone in hand and "You Send Me" on the turntable.)

The humbly named Cooke box is a godsend for fans frustrated by the limited availability of his material on CD. It delivers the hit singles (e.g., "Cupid" and "Chain Gang"), but it also contains ample portions of the obscure--most of the big-band My Kind of Blues and all of the elegant late-period Nightbeat, on which Cooke reveals his increasing political awareness ("Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen"). Appropriately, the box concludes with the complete 1963 Live at the Harlem Square Club, one of the great sweat-soaked live records you'll ever hear.

DiamondDiamondDiamond

If Stax wrote the book on gritty soul music, then Etta James published it. No woman--with the possible exception of Dinah Washington--ever sang from the gut like Etta. (Ironically, young Etta's mother forbade her from listening to "gutbucket blues.") When she moans "Unnnnnh yeah," her equivalent of Cooke's "Whoa-a-oh," you can practically hear pieces of her lung coming out.

Ever wondered where Janis Joplin got that "unique" singing style of hers? Look no further than Etta's incendiary live version of "Baby What You Want Me To Do." (The liner notes somewhat proudly name-check another of Etta's disciples, teen histrionics queen Christina Aguilera. What would Steve Perry say about that?)

The James box includes classic sides recorded between 1960 and 1976 for the Argo, Cadet and Chess labels. There are early hits like "At Last," which has been revived both in TV ads and on wedding dance-floors, and "Pushover," which may contain the best hook Etta ever wrapped her voice around. There are duets with Sugar Pie De Santo and the Moonglows' Harvey Fuqua. And there's a previously unreleased slow-jam version of "Light My Fire" from 1969. The shocker? It's really good.

Despite some questionable drug-soaked Los Angeles sides from the mid-'70s ("Feelin' Uneasy"), you'll find gems every step of the way, the last of which is a beautifully sparse rendering of W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues." In fact, for all the flat-out belting, the most pleasant surprise to some listeners may be learning just how well Etta knows her way around a ballad. Her mother would be so proud.

--GAVIN O'HARA

  • Our critics' picks in gift CDs and box sets

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