Recordings

Reggie Workman
Cerebral Caverns
(Postcards Inc.)

With even Young Lions like Joshua Redman begrudgingly accepting the influence of John Coltrane's more difficult music (and Branford Marsalis rendering an eerily disimpassioned account of "A Love Supreme" on a recent benefit CD), one finds an increasing interest in modal music, sheets of sound, Elvin Jones-like polyrhythms, and other approaches that might have struck one as daring circa 1961. And why not? Innovation is bred in bone, and Doc Cheatam and Benny Carter still sound better than good at a combined age approaching 200 years.

Still, it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that fuck-you, and one finds oneself wishing for an interiorization of Coltrane's quest, a repetitive nonimitative, pants-kick. Which turns us to former Coltrane bassist Reggie Workman, whose searching solo works sound less like Trane than any of his other former sidemen, and who has been collaborating with a group of "young" players so long that they've entered middle age. And in the case of multireedsman Sam Rivers, then some (he semiretired in Florida a couple of years ago). Particularly in Rivers' flute work, one marvels how the notes can sound so thick and come so quick. Pardon my excitement. Though the CD circulates the sidemen from track to track, and in different arrangements, the sound is remarkably coherent thanks to Workman's catholic philosophy and no overarching pressure to sound "jazz-y." Meanwhile, Geri Allen finally loosens up and plays the freeist (i.e., most interestingly) that she has in years, and drummers Gerry Hemmingway and Al Foster span the history of the music's traditions (one piece features Tapan Modak's tablas, as well). Workman should set up his own school.

-- D. Strauss

Dick Curless
Traveling Through
(Rounder)

Maine is better known for horror writers than country singers, but Dick Curless, "The Baron of Country Music," is a Maine boy who shot to the top of the country charts in 1965 with "Tombstone Every Mile." The song about an icy stretch of road in the Hainsville Woods eventually became an international hit and a truck-drivin' standard. Curless was also a featured member of the Buck Owens All American Music Show for years, but frequent struggles with alcohol marred his search for stardom. After nearly every hit-supporting tour, it was back to another VA hospital for rest and rehab.

On Traveling Through, a bout with cancer has reduced his voice to an almost ghostly shadow of the deep, window-rattling baritone that could slide up the scale to a brokenhearted yodel when necessary. But it can still capture a sense of naked pain and regret that lifts Curless' performance on this, his final album, recorded a few months before his death last May, to transcendental levels.

Backed by a group of young pickers who embroider each tune with crisp, subtle licks, Curless takes us for a last, lonesome walk down life's blue highways. The tunes are divided between country blues and spirituals, which Curless delivers in a brittle, understated whisper that only magnifies their fatalism. The set closes with "I Don't Have a Memory Without Her" and "Since I Met You Jesus," two swan songs that give us a bittersweet glimpse of the old Curless. As his voice dips down to the bottom of his register only to soar up into a tear-choked wail, the ache in his soul is contagious.

-- j. poet

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