John McVicker (photo provided)
John McVicker (photo provided)

John McVicker: My Top Albums of 2014

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This is the third in a series of year-end blog posts by WOUB staff, volunteers and contributors. Check out all of this year’s lists at this link.

I’m an retired guy on a fixed income, so most of my record buying is from the used bin at the mighty Haffa’s Records. But each year I buy a few new releases that I just have to have.

Many of my faves are reissues (like I said, I’m an old guy), but I think some of them might appeal to younger folks, too.

Les Ambassadeurs, Les Ambassadeurs du Motel de Bamako [Sterns 2014 compilation]

Mali is an African country whose music, as played by artists like Ali Farka Touré, is often thought to be evocative of country blues. The music on this collection, some of the most popular West African tunes of the mid-1970s, draws from the same Mandé (the culture that comprised most of West Africa in the centuries before the colonial era) musical traditions and has a bit of the same rootsy feel, but is at the same time quite different.

Les Ambassadeurs were a band that featured very hot electric guitar playing, a sharp horn section, and a sort of latin-rock feel. And their vocalists, especially Afro-pop superstar Salif Keita, were riviting. For some reason, the Ambassadeurs have not been easily available in the USA. This double-CD overview is a good step toward correcting that problem. The first CD features Keita and the other, equally good, has less known but still great vocalists.

Frazey Ford, Indian Ocean [Nettwork 2014 new release]

Q: What do you get when you cross a principal voice from Canadian folkie trio Be Good Tanyas with soul immortal Al Green? A: Frazey Ford’s second solo album, released this year.

Well, sorta. Tanyas mainstay Ford recorded her second album in Royal Studios, the Memphis home of Hi Records, where a lovely acoustic and an amazing house band, Hi Rhythm, helped create a whole bunch of the best soul music ever (“Take Me To the River,” “I Can’t Stand the Rain” and “Love and Happiness” are good examples).

And she worked with the Hodges brothers–the guitar, bass and keyboard players from Hi Rhythm. Sadly, this is the last recording of guitarist Mabon “Teenie” Hodges, who passed away during the completion of Indian Ocean and to whom the album is dedicated. The identity of the horn players is not revealed on the credits, but the horn charts match the soulfulness of the rhythm section. This music is pure and glorious country-soul.

Jerry Garcia & David Grisman, Garcia/Grisman [Mobile Fidelity Koch 2014 re-release]

This 1991 acoustic jam has been reissued by Mobile Fidelity in hybrid (CD/SACD) form and it sounds great. But hey, the music is the most important thing in any album, and the two musicians, backed by Grisman’s band, seem to be having a ton of fun, playing a couple of new tunes and covering Irving Berlin, Hoagy Charmichael, traditional music, and, in the clip above, The Grateful Dead. Their instrumental partnership is delightfully engaging and Jerry’s voice has its own expressive appeal.

Eyvind Kang, Alastor: Book of Angels 21 [Tzadik 2014 new release]

Here’s a recent collection of some of the tunes from John Zorn’s songbooks. These orchestral settings of Zorn tunes create a sort of Middle-Eastern flavored exotica.

Instruments include geomungo, bongo, conga, clave, guiro, tabla, triangle, setar, sitar, viola, Moog and Korg synthesizers, French horn, janggu, kacapi, kemancheh, oud, bassoon, kkwaenggwari, cello, and of course tenor sax, and that might give you an idea of the textures involved.

Toots & the Maytals, Reggae Got Soul [Mango 2014 re-release]

This classic 1976 record is once again available. If you like Toots, or if you’ve ever liked a reggae tune, you ought to get it!

The album has got a great band with an absolutely dirty horn section, fine singing, an interesting Van Morrison cover, a nice update of a 1963 hit on Jamaica’s pioneering Studio One label (“Six And Seven Books Of Moses”) and not a bad song in the bunch.

Various Artists, The Rough Guide to the Best African Music You’ve Never Heard [Rough Guide 2014 compilation]

The folks at Rough Guide recently sponsored a continent-wide “battle of the bands” and this is what they came up with. Disc one of this budget two-fer features a bunch of bands you’ve never heard of (I sure hadn’t) in all sorts of traditional and modern styles from all over Africa and beyond.

Here’s “Cora,” a beautiful piece by Gambian kora player Sura Susso teamed with Italian guitarist Giuliano Modarelli.

Disk two of The Best… is Junk Funk, a strange/fun album by Lesotho roots band called Sotho Sounds–a bunch of shepherds (!) who use homemade instrumentation to create raucus, complex rhythmic music with a can’t-sit-still vibe, group vocals, and a sound that’s just a little bit remeniscent of Congolese street rockers Konono No. 1.

Back in the dawn of time, John McVicker was the guy who turned jazz great John Zorn onto jazz. Later, he taught English as a Second Language in Switzerland, France, Kansas and at Ohio University. Later still, he retired and turned his heart, soul and ample free time to painting pictures. Through all of this, John has nursed a serious music jones.