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Common ground: the art of collaboration

Stewart OksenhornAspen, CO Colorado
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So guitarist Pat Metheny and pianist Brad Mehldau walk into a recording studio, barely even acquainted with one another. They emerge a few days later with not one, but two albums’ worth of material deemed fit for release. (See related story.) This is the nature of musical collaboration – finding a common ground between two visions.Following are more recent CDs that have collaboration at their core.Peter Rowan and Tony Rice, “Quartet”produced by Rowan and Rice (Rounder)Peter Rowan, “Crucial Country”(There Records)When Peter Rowan and Tony Rice teamed for 2004’s “You Were There For Me,” it seemed a sentimental as much as a musical gesture, as the title hints. The two pickers, longtime friends, had never made a full CD together; Rice, as fine a guitarist as there has been in the acoustic world, doesn’t sing anymore due to a throat condition. But the recording, of all Rowan-penned songs, was marvelous, the camaraderie transferring into artistic synergy.Clearly it was more than capturing lightning in a jar; that X factor is even more present on “Quartet,” which has Rowan and Rice backed by the rhythm section of bassist Bryn Davies and mandolinist Sharon Gilchrist, both of whom sing as well. Again, the two revive favorites from Rowan’s past catalog (“Dust Bowl Children” and “Moonlight Midnight” are both well worth revisiting), and throw in magical interpretations of Townes Van Zandt’s “To Live Is to Fly” and Patti Smith’s “Trespasses.”

“Crucial Country” is a live set from the 1994 Telluride Bluegrass Festival that had Rowan backed by some more friends, including dobroist Jerry Douglas, mandolinist/fiddler Sam Bush and drummer Larry Atamanuik. It was worth the excavation; Rowan has a fresh take on country-rock that is adventurous enough to feature elements of reggae, on “No Woman, No Cry.” The rest of the CD has Rowan and company reworking, and often extending, his best songs: “Panama Red,” “The Walls of Time,” “Land of the Navajo.”Keller Williams, “Dream”(SCI Fidelity)No, Keller Williams, who performs usually as a one-man band, is not misanthropic. His “Dream” project, now realized, features collaborations with a long roster of his favorite musicians, from the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir to jazz guitarist John Scofield to the techno-groove group Modereko to the Indian duo of tabla player Samir Chatterjee and guitarist Sanjay Mishra. (One might ask if Williams has anything against women; of the 20-plus guests here, the only female invited was Ella Williams, Keller’s year-and-a-half-old daughter.)”Dream” shows how open to collaboration Williams is. Each song – many taken from Williams’ past – takes on a different feel, depending on the featured guest. “Rainy Day,” with singer-songwriter Martin Sexton, gets an acoustic, folky feel; “Ninja of Love” benefits from Michael Franti’s soul-reggae groove. This is far more than merely having the guests lay down solos in between Williams’ verses, but truly finding a meeting of the minds for each track. That said, a highlight here is the long, lovely guitar solo by Steve Kimock that dominates the seven-plus instrumental “Twinkle.””Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul Motian”produced by Lee Townsend (Nonesuch)Guitarist Bill Frisell has made a habit of playing with the widest range of artists; to list pop music icons Elvis Costello, Suzanne Vega, Ginger Baker and Rickie Lee Jones would only omit the legions of jazz players he has collaborated with. So team Frisell with drummer (and frequent partner) Paul Motian, and bassist Ron Carter, famed for membership in Miles Davis’ stellar mid-’60s quintet and a few hundred other projects, and it’s no surprise that the three fall into an amiable, distinctive groove. There is the essence of Frisell’s heartland country-jazz; the CD features versions of “You Are My Sunshine,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” and Frisell’s “Monroe,” presumably a tribute to bluegrass granddaddy Bill Monroe. But it is farther away from the country feel of some of Frisell’s recent work; instead, the trio hits on a unique, melody-heavy sound that is both relaxed and haunting.

Rickie Lee Jones”Sermon on Exposition Boulevard”produced by Lee Cantelon, Peter Atanasoff and Rob Schnapf (New West)Generally I think of Rickie Lee Jones as locked into her own vision. In a recent interview with The Aspen Times, Jones herself admitted as much; regarding her 1984 album “The Magazine,” she said “that was just about me, my production, my music, going inward. Me, me, me.”But with “Sermon on Exposition Boulevard,” Jones actually latched onto a project that did not even originate with her. Most of the music had been recorded by other musicians, and Jones added her lyrics and vocals later. That explains why the sound – atmospheric, avant-garde, sometimes throbbing with rhythm – is so far removed from Jones’ typical jazz-leaning style.The fact that Jones gave herself over to something outside her being is only part of what marks the compelling “Sermon on Exposition Boulevard.” Even more than collaborating, it is hard to envision Jones making an album inspired by Jesus Christ – but that is just what she has done here. Not surprisingly, the message here is not “Hallelujah, I’m saved,” but an effort to get closer to the actual teachings of J.C., and to strip two millennia of church, organized religion and war in the name of God away from the experience of the sacred. The references and songs come in all varieties: the chugging “Elvis Cadillac” finds holiness in music, and name-checks Janis Joplin; the spare “Donkey Ride” documents Christ’s means of travel to, and from, his killing. Jones’ message is heard most directly in “Where I Like It Best,” an eerie, powerful argument that making a public spectacle out of prayer – think mega-churches, or televised evangelism – actually makes a mockery of prayer.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd”10 Days Out: Blues From the Backroads”produced by Jerry Harrison (Reprise)Young blues guitar-slinger Kenny Wayne Shepherd spent 10 days in June 2004 in the South, searching for his roots. Shepherd hooked up with blues legends (B.B. King, Gatemouth Brown, Pinetop Perkins) and local heroes (Neal “Big Daddy” Pattman, Cootie Stark), all with considerably more than Shepherd’s 29 years behind them. The resulting jam sessions – acoustic and electric, in studios and on front porches – were captured both on CD and DVD, and packaged here in an excellent survey of ancient and contemporary blues.Tony Trischka”Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular”produced by Trischka (Rounder)Banjoist Tony Trischka, who has been focusing on fusion-esque music with his Tony Trischka Band, returns to rootsier terrain her – but with a twist. “Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular” features Trischka in tandem with fellow banjoists, generally in full-band arrangements. Trischka picks from the cream of the crop: Earl Scruggs, Alison Brown, Noam Pikelny, and Trischka’s former student, Béla Fleck, on banjo, with the likes of Jerry Douglas, Tony Rice, Chris Thile and Stuart Duncan manning the lesser instruments. Apart from the constant of dueling banjos, it is a mixed bag of bluegrass and Appalachian tunes and complex contemporary compositions, vocal songs and instrumentals, Trischka originals and old standards. All is, as promised, fairly spectacular.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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