Virginia Rodrigues
Sol Negro

As the global village shrinks, strife seems to grow, and terrorism, trade tiffs and border skirmishes tempt us to forget about the accompanying merits of intellectual and artistic continental drift. Sure, airport lines are longer, and the economics of NAFTA are debatable. But at least pristine recordings of musicians such as Rodrigues, an enchanting Brazilian vocalist, are now nearly as accessible as Top 40 fare. Like others who've taken the world music stage by storm in recent years--Madagascan guitarist D'Gary and Cape Verde singer Cesaria Evoria come to mind--Rodrigues labored long in obscurity. Thankfully, she's now spending fewer hours working as a manicurist and more time displaying her earth-shattering talents in front of adoring crowds.

Although Rodrigues grew up singing for church choirs in the favellas of Salvador, Bahia, she was only recently discovered by Brazilian pop star Caetano Veloso, who became the artistic director for Sol Negro, a gorgeous mingling of regional tradition and wild Bahia styles. Rodrigues's alto radiates brightly on hymnlike chants and simple meditations ("Israfel," "Lua, Lua, Lua, Lua" and "Veronica"). But she's equally convincing while belting out a Carnival samba like "Adeus Batacada" over a full brass section, violin and percussion. "Negrume da Noite," for its part, is an upbeat anthem on which the berimbau conjures a deep, dark rainforest mood even as hand claps connote kids' jump-rope games, while "Querubim," an acoustic joy fashioned with guitars, bass, percussion, trumpet and harp, finds Rodrigues employing a seductive Portuguese scat worthy of an American jazz diva. Rain-stick sounds overburden a few of the tunes, but not "Terra Seca," arguably the jewel of the bunch. Essentially a slave's field holler, the track benefits from sophisticated brass arrangements and Rodriques's concert-hall strength.

At present, Rodriques is at work on a follow-up disc featuring what she calls "universal black music." If Sol is any indication, it, too, will improve the quality of life in more than a few far-flung neighborhoods.

--Thomas Peake

Miles Davis
The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions

In the summer of 1969, Miles Davis, one of jazz's most critically acclaimed artists, was asked by his record label to reach out to a younger audience and diversify his sound. Davis responded not by selling out, but by delving into his burgeoning cauldron of funk/rock-laced blues to create Bitches Brew, arguably the all-time knockout record of his career. Thirty years later, vault-raiding corporate types at Columbia ordered producers to come up with a boxed set from this period, raising fears of a crass cash-in. But like its inspiration, The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions beats the odds. Not only does the four-CD package justify its hefty price tag; it also complements the legacy of an incredibly gifted performer.

The original Bitches Brew is considered a breakthrough work as much for its musical innovations as for its groundbreaking mastery of then-new studio techniques such as postproduction overdubbing, splicing and looping. Remastered versions of these recordings (supplemented by "Yaphet" and "Corrado," two tracks heavy with Davis solos) fill the first two discs, and time has done nothing to lessen their impact. Monumental pieces, ranging from the title cut and the soaring "Spanish Key" to the East Indian-influenced "Great Expectations" and the otherworldly magnum opus "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down," drip with the raw emotional power that Davis was able to draw from his beloved trumpet, and ultimately from jazz itself.

The mere existence of the material that makes up the second half of Sessions is something of a surprise; until the late Sixties, Davis destroyed most of his studio outtakes, archiving only those recordings that made it out to the public. But even more unexpected is its consistently high quality. The third CD features, among other offerings, two lovely versions of "The Little Blue Frog," but they're only precursors to the stunning "Lonely Fire." Built around a melancholy intro and a latent vibe, during which the musicians seem to be searching for a crescendo, the song exudes artistic somberness that finds beauty in minimalism. As for the final disc, it's bereft of tunes written by Davis and is padded with some tracks that were released on the album Live/Evil. Nevertheless, the majority of the music is more than capable of moving the listener. The mournful "Recollections" suggests a slow walk through a hazy forest inhabited by electronic animals eagerly announcing their presence, while the bluesy "Double Image" is highlighted by John McLaughlin's acid-drenched electric guitar work.

Just as exquisite as the music is the elegantly constructed, well-thought-out booklet that's part of the package. Included in its 148 pages are an insightful introduction penned by Carlos Santana, the original Bitches Brew notes, a comprehensive track listing, jazz author Bob Belden's day-by-day essay and a terrific overview of the entire work by Quincy Troupe. A must-have for any Miles completionist or a perfect starting place for a neophyte, Sessions is also a great way to visit jazz's greatest innovator at the height of his powers.

--Sean McDonald

Hey! Album

As one of the first 10,000 reviewers to note how this Atlanta trio's power-pop hit, "Freak of the Week," cops the Byrds' "So You Want to Be a Rock 'N' Roll Star," I'd like to note that unlike dreck-masters such as the Goo Goo Dolls and Semisonic's Dan Wilson, the M3 didn't wait to spring onto the radio from behind a crappy movie soundtrack. Instead, frontman Butch Walker went ahead and composed a good one of his own. The songs on the group's major-label debut have an excerpted-from-a-larger-work feel to them, and the lyric sheet reads like a script for a Nineties indie flick--the adventures of a decent-looking, tastefully mascaraed guy who, for some crazy reasons, now ranks below the geeks in his local art world. Still, Walker isn't creating another Can't Hardly Wait; he's empathetic to feel (almost) as bad for his indie queens as he does for himself.

Speaking of mouths, I wish Walker was a little more soft-sung, because his falsetto is pure Freddie Mercury, and he takes his enunciation from Peter Garrett of Midnight Oil. (Maybe a bit of Dan Wilson's voice would have helped.) But since the Atlanta music press and the band's homegrown audience wish him well, I'll assume that this disc, which features re-recordings of selections from earlier releases, represents his best effort to date. Thank goodness.

--John Young

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Sean McDonald
Thomas Peake
John Young

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