Reader, let us make a pact. Right here and now. Let us together go to Gilles Peterson’s house and steal his other house. That’s right: we will steal his famed Brownswood Basement and all of the vinyl records that are contained within. When we do so, we will then have weeks and weeks of rare, hard-to-find, and plain spectacular recordings that have fallen by the wayside; woeful casualties that were so unnecessary in constructing the large train of Modern Pop Music, ever-chugging and ever-neglectful at the same time.
Peterson, for those who don’t know, is the unofficial heir to the Tastemaker’s Throne that John Peel so tragically departed from. Peterson hosts a world-renowned radio show that’s filled with new, groundbreaking artists performing new, groundbreaking music, all while releasing excellent DJ albums in his spare time. In 2005, he dropped Gilles Peterson Digs America: Brownswood U.S.A., a spectacular kaleidoscopic view of hard-to-find jazz and soul rarities that were only previously available on out-of-print vinyl. It was a fantastic listening experience, as well as an important reminder that an artist need not be popular to land his rightful place in music history. Peterson’s label—overwhelmed by the response—brought Peterson in for a second installment, here christened Searching at the End of an Era; a blunt reference to the rapidly declining presence of vinyl shops in the American marketplace. Digs America Vol. 2 is an excellent demonstration of Peterson’s diverse and eclectic tastes, but on the whole, it just doesn’t reach the same level of enchantment that its predecessor achieved.
For jazz connoisseurs, Vol. 2 manages to round up some rare recordings from some well known names, most notably Al Jarreau and James Tatum. Jarreau’s cut—a cover of “My Favorite Things” from his 1965 debut LP—is a remarkable number. Aided by a tight ensemble led by pianist Cal Bezemer, Jarreau injects the classic showtune with a humble swagger, letting his extraordinary voice reverberate on each and every word. Even back then, Jarreau’s vocal mastery was a thing to behold. When he deliberately leaves out words (“Raindrops on roses / Whiskers, kittens”), his chops exhibit a musicality that remains rarely topped even today. Tatum’s number—“Introduction / Lord Have Mercy”—comes from his first self-released album, Contemporary Jazz Mass, and it’s a dark, meditative number that remains largely instrumental up until the final minute. It’s not a straight-up knockout, but its effect is somewhat dampened by Peterson’s haphazard track sequencing. Tatum’s piece follows immediately after another long, dark, meditative number called “East” by the DB Shrier Quartet, lead by saxophonist Shrier, with the help of Tyrone Brown. Shrier rides his group’s groove with much more ease than Tatum’s piece, but placing both works together drains the momentum out of Vol. 2‘s second half.
Even with a few mishaps in mind (like closing the disc with the bland psych-jazz of the Summer Program of Youthful Musicians), there are still some true gems contained within. Carrie Cleveland’s “Make Love to Me” is an excellent slice of girl-group pop, and Ray Camacho’s cover of the Brass Construction’s “Movin’ On” is a hard-driving funk-soul number that’s over far too soon. Yet, it’s Irene Kral (who you may recognize from the Bridges of Madison County soundtrack) who steals the show with “Driving to California”, an attempt to score in the mainstream vocal-jazz market that never overplays its horn-driven groove, all while Kral sings her tale of star-struck fame seeking that is as believable as it is effortless and flat-out beautiful.
Digs America Vol. 2 is certainly not without its oddities, either. Reverie, a lost-to-the-ages jazz fusion group from Philadelphia, score with the remarkably light-hearted and keyboard-heavy instrumental “In Every Way”, which just so happens to have one of the disc’s most spectacular chord progressions. It more than overshadows the like-minded, and far more pop-leaning, “The Old One, Two” by 1970s soul casualties Ramp, who are victims of painfully dated electronics and a groove that loses its momentum only 30 seconds in. There are also surprises to be found in Dee Williams “Why Can’t There Be Love” (which is girl-group pop that just happens to be aided by crushing rock guitars [!]), and the utterly bizarre Mary Lou Williams ditty, “The Pussy’s in the Well”, whose purpose and very existence is wide open for scrutiny (though Williams’ fans can at least savor the playful Leon Thomas-assisted pop of “You Know Baby”, also appearing on this disc).
Ultimately, Gilles Peterson’s excellent tastes will rarely be called into question, but it’s unfortunate that Digs America Vol. 2 feels like a step below its older cousin, even with its vast array of extraordinary highlights. Is it a worthy purchase? Absolutely. Is it as essential as the first volume? Sadly no. But do not fret, dear reader; if you recall, we’re going to be breaking into his house soon, and then you’ll have all the classic vinyl you’ll ever need!
Or you can just wait for Volume 3.
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