Sappho Versions: Bright Lyre Finds a Voice (self-released)
After a recent Old Songs performance, Mark Jickling, the local trio's banjo/mandolin/bouzouki player, was smiling, shaking his head, and repeating, "That voice." He was referring to vocalist Liz Downing, who sings with her head in the clouds and her feet planted in southern soil. A veteran of local faves Lambs Eat Ivy and Radiant Pig, Downing seems attuned to peculiar frequencies that she filters through elements of country, folk, and bluegrass with startlingly brilliant and vaguely psychedelic results. These 23 tunes wed fragments of writing by Sappho, the ancient Greek poet, to sparse, down home accompaniment by Jickling and Chris Mason. As Jickling plucks a banjo and Mason strums acoustic guitar and sings baritone, Downing swoops and dips through these songs leaking glee and gravitas along the way. Not many groups could pull off an ancient Greek/dusty Americana hybrid, but Old Songs does it convincingly.
Bell & Cooper
Postcards Out of the Blue (Dog Jaw)
Bell & Cooper's "Going Down With Larry Brown" was a highlight of last year's Larry Brown tribute CD, Just One More: A Musical Tribute to Larry Brown. It was the sort of tune that left you wanting more, and here's the pay-off-14 additional songs by poet Wyn Cooper and novelist Madison Smartt Bell. Bell, who plays guitar and sings, wrote most of these blues-soaked tunes, while Cooper penned many of the lyrics. They're joined by a stellar cast, which includes producer Don Dixon (best known for producing REM's first couple records), vocalist Marti Jones, drummer/percussionist Jim Brock, and the massively talented guitarist Kenny Vaughan. The additional players bolster Bell's world-weary vocals, which flatten a bit on "Postcard From the Beginning" and "Off the Road" but hauntingly inhabit tunes such as "Cut and Run" and a slightly different version of "Going Down With Larry Brown." His singing also brings to mind Warren Zevon on rockers such as "Alcohol Popsicle." And it's all tucked inside a CD cover beautifully designed by Hatch Show Print, Nashville's legendary poster company.
Crispell, who grew up in Baltimore and studied piano at Peabody, has steadily built a reputation as one of the finest jazz musicians of her generation. Often called avant-garde, she crafts lyrical, meditative music that seems to defy the label. Crispell will state a melody, hush it, draw tenderness from it note by note, and steer it towards towering silence. Like Bill Evans channeling John Cage, she's at the height of her formidable powers on these 17 solo selections.