Eddie Palmieri

Spike Lee's new film Get on the Bus is the story of a bus full of men on their way to the Million Man March. But it has another very important character: an African drum that plays a key role as a link between generations living and dead. The drum plays a central role in pianist Eddie Palmieri's music too. As he explained in a recent talk at UCLA: "Our music, Latin jazz, is centered around the drum, around African rhythms that are 40,000 years old."

Palmieri went on to predict that Latin jazz would become the world's most popular music in the 21st Century "because it is the true embodiment of a world music." Before you dismiss that statement as science fiction, consider that the veteran bandleader has accomplished a feat that eluded everyone before him for nearly half a century: Palmieri has made jazz a dance music again, forcefully reminding us that jazz was at the top of the pops in the Thirties and Forties because it was a vehicle for dancing.

Palmieri, once a king of salsa, has dispensed with singers to focus on a unique blend of virtuoso jazz soloists and a full-scale riot of percussion. Like the riders of Get on the Bus, Palmieri's group is a mix of many generations. Eddie is a short, skinny, bald grandpa (a movie of his life would probably star Hector Elizondo), seemingly too small to generate the powerhouse musical ideas that fill his compositions. His horn players are on the cusp of middle age and his percussionists are young bloods not long out of their teens. Together, on Vortex, they work around the rhythms of the drum, whether in Beethoven's Minuet in G made into a danzon, the full-scale bandstand blast of "The Prez," or just the Afro-Cuban musical math in Eddie's solo sections.

This is wonderfully complex music that compels your body to move, music not only for the 21st Century but for the next 40,000 years.

-- Lee Ballinger

Martin Zellar and the Hardways
Martin Zellar and the Hardways

Ex-Gear Daddies lead singer/songwriter Martin Zellar has managed an impressive third incarnation fronting a solid band consolidated from the variety of ensembles that produced his solo debut. This is a jewel of an album, as arresting musically and lyrically as it is visually, seen in the jolt of the red dice against turquoise felt that adorn its cover, but is seriously marred by a one-song flaw.

Displaying a supple range reminiscent of Buck Owen's Buckeroos at one pole and Elvis Costello's Attractions at the other, the Hardways may be the finest band Zellar could ever have at his disposal. And with his new songs, Zellar builds on the strength that gained the Austin, Minnesota, Gear Daddies a cult following -- sure-footed portrayals of small-town alienation that tend to look uncomfortably deep within the soul to find the real problems. "Haunt My Dreams," a song about a crush on a younger woman, finds glory in the painful assurance that it's best she remain out of reach. "Ten Year Coin" captures Zellar's damning confessional power with lines such as "Even though they bought this good-guy bit/I'm a piece of shit and the whole thing's been a sham."

But Zellar is obviously a good guy, though achingly honest, and when he steps too far outside autobiography he can fall flat. Case in point is the problem song here: "Guilty Just the Same" offers up a smart but thoroughly unconvincing portrait of a killer that derails the momentum gained by everything that's gone before. "We Were Young," the final song, is a gorgeous save, but the damage has been done; the album feels ultimately less convincing, less important, than it might. Fortunately, a band and a songwriter this talented and well-matched reward repeat listenings and leave open the promise that their next move may be their greatest.

-- Danny Alexander

Various Artists
1975-1995 Independencia!

The sounds of freedom, longing, and release are captured on this astounding compilation of songs commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the independence of Portugal's African colonies. The disc rounds up tracks recorded as far back as 1968 and as recently as last year, and includes some of the same artists featured on the 1995 Luaka Bop disc Afropea 3: Telling Stories to the Sea, including Cape Verde's reigning chanteuse Cesaria ƒvora and the leather-lunged Bonga, the fiery political voice of Angola. Like Telling Stories, Independencia! defines masterfully the musics of Cape Verde, Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, and Sao Tome and Principe -- the moaning, percussive wallop of Netos Do N'Gumbe; the weary, plaintive call-and-response drama of Ruy Mingas; and the guitar-wobble atmospheria of Africa Negra. Although the liner notes are devoid of lyric translations, the passion and spirit of these Portuguese-sung tracks transcends that limitation. From the aching voice of Evora on the bittersweet "Fruto Proibido" to Bonga's gorgeous "Malembe Malembe," you can feel their relief and savor the sweetness of their liberation.

-- John Floyd

The Beatles
Anthology 3

It's a cliche already, but yes, this album could have been called Beatles Unplugged. Nothing wrong with that, if you like stripped-down demos and early takes of familiar songs. But Anthology 3's tameness wears a little thin. George Harrison's acoustic "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," for example, could use a jolt of electricity from, say, Eric Clapton.

The 50 songs on this double CD were recorded between 1968 and 1970, during the Beatles' slow disintegration, but there's no evidence of discord on the carefully chosen tracks offered here. When McCartney and Lennon are in the studio together, you hear only good-natured banter and cooperation. But you do get a sense of the increasing isolation of individual band members from each other. Often it's every man for himself: Paul and his guitar on "Blackbird," George and his guitar on a folkie version of "Something."

McCartney clearly emerges as the band's dominating force during this period. On his demo for "Come and Get It" (which he later produced as a hit for Badfinger), McCartney plays all the instruments. And tracks like the powerful "Helter Skelter" remind you that -- at one time, at least -- he had as much soul as you could expect from a British white guy. Lennon, meanwhile, was making goo-goo eyes at Yoko and churning out self-indulgent crap like "What's the New Mary Jane" (unreleased until now -- for good reason).

Even with the Beatles, you've got to sift through a lot of fool's gold to get to the real gems, but there are a number of them here: an incredible a cappella rendition of "Because," with each singer's voice overdubbed twice to create a tight, nine-voice choir; the original master of "The Long and Winding Road" as it was meant to be heard, minus Phil Spector's smarmy orchestral flourishes; and the historic rooftop performance of "Get Back," where you can hear the cops literally pulling the plug on the show.

Taken as a whole, the three volumes of Anthology represent an astounding body of work that's unlikely ever to be surpassed, so I'm grateful somebody had the sense to preserve and document the Beatles' decadelong musical evolution. Marketing gimmickry aside, the effort that went into the Anthology project was well spent.

-- Debbie Gilbert

Brendan Benson
One Mississippi

Pity poor Brendan Benson. He just does not understand that no one who wants to make it big in the current rock arena can be smart and happy at the same time. Sure, they can be smart and angry (Pearl Jam) or dumb and happy (Hootie). They can even be smart and weird (Beck). But just plain smart and happy? No way.

That's why Benson's debut, One Mississippi, is doomed to crash and burn. You take a song like "Sittin' Pretty," the first single. What's it got going for it other than a catchy melody, a tight beat, and some sly lyrics? No righteous indignation. No lobotomized chorus. Not even random profanity. Same with "Just Me Purely." Sure, it's got a hook you'll be whistling for months, and a backbeat that will have you drumming the walls with your toothbrush. But there's just no bratty edge.

And Benson's lyrics. They're so cryptic. "Dress your sons and daughters in neutral colors and pray." What's that supposed to mean? Then there's the cut "Got No Secrets," which is like a combination of freaked-out reggae and psychedelic swirly guitars. It's so bizarre I can't even really describe it -- always a bad sign. And what about "Emma J"? It's got this weepy-sounding Spanish guitar thing and a complicated beat, like salsa or something. I listened to this one over and over, trying to decide what it sounded like. Then it came to me: The Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."

I guess it's admirable that there's a young guy out there making this kind of stuff. But really, what self-respecting alternative radio programmer is going to play such likable stuff? I mean, where's the fun in that?

-- Steven Almond

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Danny Alexander
Steven Almond
Lee Ballinger
John Floyd
Debbie Gilbert