In its most accustomed context, Johnny Hodges' alto saxophone was the lush layer of cream floating elegantly atop the strong coffee of the rest of Duke Ellington's reed section. Outside the Ducal purview, Hodges was often a bluesier and more easeful presence. On ballads, his famous tone had such luxuriance, and his grace notes so large a sweep of grace, it amazes me that he was able to lift the music into so purple a great beyond without even one gossamer thread of sentimentality attaching itself to him. Music doesn't get much truer or more beautiful than this.
The Complete Johnny Hodges Sessions 1951--1955 (Mosaic) documents the five-year stretch during which the altoist decided to try his luck as a bandleader and cut a handful of records for Norman Granz. His working bands were composed mostly of Ellingtonians, and they all made rich music and swung. There are some particularly magical contributions from Ben Webster, Jimmy Hamilton and, on one session, an incalculable Billy Strayhorn. Others, such as Shorty Baker and Lawrence Brown, are merely excellent.
Mosaic has, in its usual exemplary fashion, re-collected every tune these bands recorded (including alternate takes), remastered the recordings as finely as possible, documented the entire shebang thoroughly but with a refreshing lack of pedantry and put the resultant six records and booklet into a box available by mail order only (from Mosaic Records, 35 Melrose Place, Stamford, Connecticut 06902; telephone 203-327-7111). Along with Charlie Parker, Johnny Hodges is the greatest player of the alto saxophone in the history of the instrument. These records are wonderful even beyond informed expectation.
Charles M. Young
After the Superman movies mocked themselves into wimpdom, it was a relief that the makers of Batman had the courage to take their hero seriously. Once you suspended disbelief, you were not shaken out of the strange new world by continual winking. The only distractions I found in the movie were Prince's songs. The man's talent is huge, but his little boy/little girl tenor--for all its mischief--just doesn't sound like either the Joker or Batman to me. There is nothing homicidal about Prince's voice, and there is plenty of homicide in both characters. Maybe that's why the movie sticks with minor-key orchestral stuff most of the time and minimizes Prince's contribution. The album Batman (Warner Bros.) is more a Prince mini-opera based on the movie than it is the sound track. As a work of art unto itself, it is entertaining and danceable. It is flawed by Prince's inability to summon the decadent horror of Gotham City, which is only a slightly exaggerated version of the decadent horror of present-day New York. Worst of all, Prince borrows the refrain of Batdance from the wretched, self-mocking TV series of the late Sixties. For Batman II, I suggest Metallica or Motorhead.
In other hands, the title track that kicks off Don Henley's third solo album, The End of the Innocence (Geffen), might be just another Yuppie blues. But Henley makes this dolorous collaboration with rockin' New Ager Bruce Hornsby into something poignant and closer to the spirit of the Texas blues in which all his solo work (unlike his Eagles material) is steeped.
"We've been poisoned by these fairy tales," Henley swears, accounting for his long-running hate affair with the media (continued here with Little Tin God and If Dirt Were Dollars) and maybe even a softening of his even longer-running hostility to women (expressed in The Heart of the Matter and The Last Worthless Evening). Perhaps the most impressive stuff, though, is the rock and roll. I Will Not Go Quietly, he declares over crashing drums and exploding guitars. If you're initially conscious that the best rocker credentials here belong to coproducer Danny Kortchmar, by the end, you'll remember Henley's one-night stand with Guns n' Roses more than his decade with the Eagles. In these parts, that's significant progress.
Marshall Crenshaw is one of the endless line of pop geniuses who aren't very popular. Each of the three albums that followed his 1982 debut sold a little worse than the one before it, and although Crenshaw never lost his touch, each seemed more confused and depressed. Not Good Evening (Warner Bros.). Having given up on servicing the pop market outside, he's free to express the pop sensibility inside--still sweet and ecstatic--and he mourns the romantic certainties of a bespectacled adolescence more knowingly with every year. Writing less, Crenshaw takes over songs by Richard Thompson, John Hiatt and Bobby Fuller, with the sincere soul that always underpinned his harmonies now dominating. Chances are, this one won't sell either--Warner quickly picked its worst cut as the single, and it stiffed. But that's secondary--he'll be pop till he dies.
Ego is crucial to rap. A listen to even one rap 12-inch will tell you that. But what hasn't been as natural to the music is ambition, particularly in the creation of albums. There have been many great rap singles but less than a handful of artistically satisfying albums. Run-DMC's Raising Hell, the Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill and Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back are among the exceptions.
On LL Cool J's Walking with a Panther (Def Jam/Columbia), this rap star mates his ego and artistic ambition to create a song collection (20 on cassette, 16 on vinyl, 18 on CD) that wants to be great. Well, it's not great, but its hits and misses make it a fascinating listen. As you might imagine, out of 20 songs, there's a bunch of duds: The up-tempo Nitro and the ballad One Shot at Love, for example, must be avoided.
But cut through the deadwood and you'll find several dope jams. The best cut is Fast Peg, a character study of a drug dealer's girlfriend that is beautifully rapped and sharply observed. Big Ole Butt is about LL's extreme booty lust. Def Jam in the Motherland, inspired by a visit to Africa, makes tasteful use of MFSB's Love Is the Message for a backing track.
Unlike more limited rappers, LL has a variety of approaches--hoarse shouts, sexy whispers, rapid scatting--that, backed with tough, funky beats, keeps Walking with a Panther an erratic, though successful, experiment in versatility.
Stevie Ray Vaughan is the Eighties equivalent of Johnny Winter--a great white blues hope from Texas with a funny hat, fast fingers and plenty of raw talent. His 12-bar purist approach is spiced with a near Hendrixian fire, though he has been guilty of irritating lapses of taste.
In Step (Epic), Vaughan's first studio release since his recovery from substance-abuse problems, is a re-energized and focused return to form. His songwriting is tight and his playing economical on The House Is Rockin' and the MTV fave Crossfire. If he keeps this up, he may follow his brother Jimmie's band, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, up the charts. But his most tasteful and impassioned playing is reserved for the eloquent yet plain-spoken Wall of Denial, a moving account of his recent struggle with his inner demons. In Step may not be the chart-topping masterpiece Stevie Ray's fans have been waiting for--but it's a step in the right direction.
A jazz must, plus new takes by Prince, Henley and LL Cool J.