Wednesday, Jun 20, 2018
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Tribute to Waylon Jennings falls short

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A wide assortment of veterans and newcomers pay homage over more than 41 minutes to the late Waylon Jennings and his blend of rock and blues into his version of country music.

While much of Jennings' country music was uniformly mediocre due to his narrow range and less-than-stellar vocals, the stuff here mostly fails to rise to even those meager heights.

The 11 songs and Jennings video on this enhanced CD comprise the first of a planned three-disc tribute set. There's talent aplenty with vocals by such country stalwarts as Jamey Johnson, the reunited Alabama, Randy Houser, Patty Griffin, Trace Adkins, and Kris Kristofferson. But, with just a couple of exceptions, such as Adkins on "You Asked Me To," most of the songs weren't worth remaking.

A highlight is Sunny Sweeney's version of "Good Hearted Woman," on which she gets a vocal assist from Jennings' widow, Jessi Colter. "Goin' Down Rockin'" began as a guitar-only demo by Jennings for an album in 2000. Here, after layers of vocal background and instrumentals have been added, its good melody suffers from heavy-handed studio wizardry.





TITO PUENTE MASTERWORKS LIVE !!! Manhattan School of Music Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, conducted by Bobby Sanabria (Jazzheads)

As much as I hate to admit this, the passing reference that slacker John Winger's (Bill Murray) soon-to-be ex-girlfriend made to Tito Puente in the opening scene of the classic 1981 comedy Stripes was what first whetted my appetite for the famous composer and band leader.

I picked enough up over the years to become mildly acquainted with Puente's legacy, but this joyful, heartfelt tribute to him put me over the top.

The warm jubilance of Puente's music hits the listener from the opening number, followed by a series of sultry, high-energy songs that fuse woodwinds, percussion, brass, and vibes. Even if you can resist the temptation of trying to tango, you can't help but be moved by Puente's mambo and how it is so well executed by this orchestra.

The late Ernest Anthony "Tito" Puente, Jr., who died in 2000, was one of the world's great Afro-Cuban ambassadors, according Mario Bauza, the composer credited for being the founder of the genre itself. The more you listen to Puente, the more you realize the tropical beauty you think you're hearing is really just a melting pot of unique American sounds, drawn largely from Puente's upbringing in New York City's east side enclave, East Harlem.

Perhaps it's no coincidence, as conductor Bobby Sanabria points out, that Puente is Spanish for "bridge." The Manhattan School of Music, appropriately, is the original home of the Julliard School of Music where Puente studied.





STRONGER Sara Evans (RCA Nashville)

Sometime around 2005 Sara Evans took a turn toward the dark. The first significant sign was her single "Cheatin,' " a minor hit, and one of the most wicked country songs in recent memory: "You made your bed, and you're out of mine/You lie awake, and I sleep just fine."

It's made even more pungent by Evans' singing, which is as sweet as it comes. Her voice is even keeled, not rough at the edges or squeezed tight in order to hit big notes. Every syllable sounds calm and considered. In her earlier, happier years that made for sometimes bland affirmations of love, but as her mood became blacker, it came off as a special sort of sinister. Yes, she was mad, and no, she wasn't going to give you the pleasure of watching her sweat.

"Stronger," her sixth studio album, is her first since 2005. In the intervening time she had a brief flash of mainstream celebrity on Dancing With the Stars, a public divorce and a new marriage.

There's some joy, but not a lot, on this modest but sharp album, which continues the argument for Evans as an unjustly underappreciated country singer who's becoming more assured as she gets older. Mostly, she's concerned with melancholy here. "What That Drink Cost Me" is morbid and resentful: "I lost a good man to a bad habit/He didn't love the whiskey, he just had to have it." The beautiful single "A Little Bit Stronger" is about the slow crawl out of a taxing relationship. "It doesn't happen overnight/But you turn around and a month's gone by/And you realize you haven't cried."

Again, she doesn't sound exhausted or woebegone, giving her words a force of purpose and skipping melodrama altogether. Same goes for her gentle, regretful cover of Rod Stewart's antic "My Heart Can't Tell You No," and "Alone," on which she initially appears to be welcoming a lover's affections, but is really just letting him down gently.

Less successful are the chipper "Anywhere" and "Ticket to Ride." These songs (along with "What That Drink Cost Me") are produced by Nathan Chapman, who has been critical to the success of Taylor Swift, but who may be out of step with Evans' more mature realities. As she gets older, optimism is a cloud worth dodging.

-- JON CARAMANICA, New York Times

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