-- Frank-John Hadley

Cocktail Blues
Jumpin' Like Mad (both from the Capitol Blues Collection)
Various Artists
(Capitol Records)

The most recent book by British musicologist/journalist Barney Hoskyns, Waiting for the Sun: The Sound of Los Angeles, offers up the theory that in the Forties, Central Avenue in Los Angeles was home to the most vibrant black music scene in America. These two multi-disc reissues, part of an ongoing series exploring the vast blues music archive of the L.A.-based Capitol Records label, make that claim difficult to dispute.

The triple-disc Cocktail Blues collection begins with some of the seminal work of the Nat "King" Cole Trio, whose piano, guitar, and bass lineup and musical mix of jazz, jive, and standards influenced an entire generation of West Coast piano player/vocalists, including Ray Charles, Roy Hawkins, Charles Brown, and Floyd Dixon (the last two of whom are also featured in this collection). As at any good cocktail party, each of the guests here brings something unique to the table. Cole's effortless delivery and distinctive piano style, along with the artistry of guitarist Oscar Moore, the Trio's secret weapon, provide many intoxicating moments, particularly on classics such as "Straighten Up and Fly Right" and "Route 66."

Dixon displays more obvious blues influences in his music and lyrics, as well as a great narrative songwriting style that not only explores traditional blues themes such as loving a "Married Woman" or being "Tired, Broke, and Busted," but that also touches on unexpected topics such as the jealousy and doubt that can accompany a long-distance relationship ("Telephone Blues" and "Call Operator 210"). Brown appears both as a solo artist and with Johnny (brother of Oscar) Moore's Three Blazers. Originally from Texas (as is Dixon), Brown adds his home state's bluesier sound to a lugubrious, slightly drunken-sounding vocal style with lyrics of lonely desolation, evoking dark nights spent at darker bars where dark liquors fuel darker thoughts. The titles of some of his selections tell all: "Tormented," "Trouble Blues," and "Without the One You Love."

Cocktail Nation poseurs beware! This is not a collection of lounge music, that stylish but ultimately disposable subgenre of easy-listening pop. Instead, the music contained on this collection is the music of real people feeling real emotions, not vapid background sounds for cigar-chomping, martini-swilling yuppies. The Jumpin' Like Mad collection offers up two discs of jump blues, which is what rock and roll was called before it was called rock and roll. This rock and roll, however, was (and is) for adults: Eating, drinking, dancing, and more drinking are the major themes here, and all are explored with lusty enthusiasm and wild abandon. Highlights include Jimmy Liggins's "I Ain't Drunk, I'm Just Drinkin'," finally making its CD debut; Nellie Lutcher's sexy "Fine Brown Frame"; and Big Joe Turner's blazing "Jumpin' Tonight."

Nearly every artist featured on these compilations was based in Los Angeles at the time of these recordings. Most of them were transplants, lured to the city by its booming postwar economy, and their collective talents coalesced around the Central Avenue nightclub district into one of the greatest music scenes ever.

-- Eddie Hankins

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