Trio Fascination, Edition Two
Joe Lovano (Blue Note)

Fresh from a Grammy win for the imaginative but straight-ahead jazz CD 52nd Street Themes, saxophonist and composer Joe Lovano returns to his more typical experimental sound on his 20th disc as a leader. On several songs he uses two different trio combinations—one track, "On Giant Steps," features a tenor saxophone, drums and bass combined with a bass clarinet, piano and harmonica—to build delightfully complex, layered interplay. His musicianship is also breathtakingly wide-ranging: Lovano here plays tenor, soprano and alto saxophones, bass clarinet, drums and even a gong. This is a departure from 1998's Trio Fascination, Edition One. Then, Lovano's lone sax was backed solely by bassist Dave Holland and drummer Elvin Jones.

An in-demand sideman for nearly two decades, Lovano, 49, has been recording his own albums for 16 years and has seldom been more adventurous than on this disc's elastic, soaring saxophone solos. Full of freedom but never indulgent, the CD proves Lovano won't be typecast.

Bottom Line: A memorable trip

India. Arie (Motown)

Neosoul newcomer India. Arie certainly reveres her musical ancestors. In the intro to her aptly titled debut she acknowledges Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway by name, as if summoning their spirits. Later, in a litany-like musical interlude, she lists an eclectic mix of progenitors ranging from Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix to Bessie Smith and Karen Carpenter. And the bonus cut "Wonderful" is a loving dedication to one of her biggest influences, Stevie Wonder.

Although at 25 the Denver-born (née India Arie Simpson) singer has grown up in the hip-hop generation, she has clearly studied diligently under the old-school masters. Mixing classic rock, folk and jazz elements, Arie forgoes the oversaturated, studio-enhanced production of much of today's R&B. This stripped-down approach allows the focus to remain on her keen melodic sense, knack for storytelling and rich, smoky alto.

The rootsy single "Video," on which Arie freely admits that she does not have the supermodel looks of many MTV and BET babes, skips and glides along on its neatly picked guitar. And on genre-expanding tracks such as "Promises," "Brown Skin" and "Back to the Middle," she even remembers the blues half of rhythm and blues, when too many artists these days are all about the beat.

Bottom Line: A breath of fresh air

Rodney Crowell (Sugar Hill)

Album of the week
[STARS 1]

This often autobiographical album is written in a three-part harmony of poverty, misspent youth and spousal abuse. Singer-songwriter Crowell's soul-baring emotions about his troubled Texas boyhood are so intimate in these 11 songs that listening is like peeking into a diary. Two of the most affecting cuts—cuts that bleed—are "The Rock of My Soul," the somber portrait of a drunken, wife-beating dad as seen through the eyes of his son, and "Wandering Boy," which paints a heartbreaking picture of twin brothers, one straight and one gay, who must come to terms with how their relationship is shaken when AIDS enters their lives.

Squarely supported on most tracks by his longtime backup players Steuart Smith on guitars and Michael Rhodes on bass (as well as ex-father-in-law Johnny Cash's duetting on a pumping paean to the Man in Black's 1956 country-chart topper "I Walk the Line"), the artist hasn't sounded this vital or glaringly honest for quite a spell. In a 23-year recording career that has produced 10 albums, numerous No. 1 singles and a Grammy award for songwriting, Rodney Crowell may well have achieved his masterpiece with The Houston Kid.

Bottom Line: Houston, we have liftoff

Shawn Colvin (Columbia)

Still sounds like the same old her to us. Colvin's singing remains wispy and dyspeptic, her songwriting enigmatic and abstract. In short, Colvin is a denatured version of her role model, Joni Mitchell. The delicacy and understatement that go along with Colvin's style have their rewards, but on such a tune as her own "Another Plane "Went Down"—which alludes to the explosion of TWA Flight 800—her imprecise diction at times makes it hard to understand what she's singing about. Complicating matters is the vague, almost subconscious sense of unrest that permeates her songs: "Roger Wilco" is merely a recitation of military jargon without context. It's clear that we're supposed to disapprove, but it's not clear why. Even the backgrounds are bland, lest a strong backup singer or musician overpower her.

Colvin would have been wiser to follow more closely the example of Mitchell, whose bold experiments with jazz backup singers have given her new expressiveness and energy.

Bottom Line: Sometimes less is less

Blind Boys of Alabama (Real World)

The Blind Boys of Alabama have been bedrocks of gospel music since 1939. Originally known as the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, the group is now a seven-piece band that includes three surviving founding members. In their first CD in four years the Blind Boys hook up with ex-John Hiatt producer John Chelew to craft a soul-stirring collection that revisits such church classics as "Amazing Grace" (here inventively set to the melody of "House of the Rising Sun"), plus gospelized versions of secular songs by Ben Harper and Tom Waits. Backed by a lean, muscular band (including John Hammond, David Lindley and Charlie Musselwhite), the Boys sing with a passion and spirit that will make even nonbelievers say hallelujah.

Bottom Line: Devout and divine

NOTHING PERSONAL Delbert McClinton (New West) The Texas rhythm and bluesman's impressive resume includes giving John Lennon dressing-room harmonica lessons in the early '60s. Here the singer and multi-instrumentalist delivers a tears-and-tequila-stained CD drenched in pure Tex-Mex soul.

ANGEL IN THE DARK Laura Nyro (Rounder) A minor when she wrote her first major hit ("And When I Die"), Nyro, Bronx-born and street-corner-bred, honed her chops belting songs on New York City subway platforms. Seven of these unreleased tracks were recorded shortly before her 1997 death from cancer at age 49.

MORE TEACHINGS Morgan Heritage (71/VP) In the tradition of Bob Marley and the Wailers, this familial quintet (the daughter and four sons of Jamaican singer Denroy Morgan) shy away from dance hall's exploitation of sex and violence to deliver "conscious" (read spiritual) reggae the traditional way: silky and soulful.

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  • Contributors:
  • Chuck Arnold,
  • Randy Vest,
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Amy Linden.