By TIMES STAFF WRITERS
Published June 1, 2003 VARIOUS ARTISTS, GOTTA SERVE SOMEBODY: THE GOSPEL SONGS OF BOB DYLAN (SONY/COLUMBIA)
Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs Of Bob Dylan sheds a balmy light on the most underrated and controversial period of Dylan's career. All the tracks on the tribute disc are culled from Dylan's overtly evangelical Slow Train Coming (1979) and Saved (1980) releases. Both albums bear the classic rhythm and blues stamp of producer Jerry Wexler (Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles), were recorded at the famed Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and feature the former folkie Dylan at his funkiest and most soulful. Despite the merits of both albums, only Slow Train Coming was commercially successful and, in retrospect, it is rarely mentioned in its rightful place alongside other classic Dylan LPs such as Freewheelin', Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks.
Dylan's "born again phase" cost him legions of fans. However, Gotta Serve Somebody is a salient reminder that Dylan's best gospel tunes are just as timeless and evocative as many of his most famous Guthrie-esque protest anthems and surrealistic folk-rock excursions. Assembled for the Gotta Serve Somebody collection is a cast of gospel luminaries that includes Shirley Caesar, the Fairfield Four and Aaron Neville. All 11 contributors capture the spiritual ecstasy with which Dylan imbued each original.
Particular standouts include Dottie Peoples' fortified reading of I Believe in You, Neville's tastefully restrained take on Saving Grace and Sounds of Blackness' roof-raising rendition of Solid Rock.
Although the cast is stellar, a special appearance by Dylan on the final track accounts for the album's highlight. Backed by his crack road band, Dylan launches into a scorching version of Gonna Change My Way of Thinking. Always the enigma, Dylan stops the recording 30 seconds into it to welcome gospel legend Mavis Staples to his Malibu home. The usually taciturn icon then confides in Staples that he has the blues:
"I been up all night laying in bed, having insomnia, reading Snoozeweek," Dylan complains.
Staples tells "Bobby" they need to sing together to remedy his blues. The band reignites and Staples' and Dylan's polarized pipes intermingle beautifully across the steaming soul rock. By this point, thanks to inspired contributions by all the artists, nonbelievers will surely be convinced of Dylan's gospel prowess. A
- WADE TATANGELO, Times correspondent
FLAMING LIPS, FIGHT TEST (WARNER BROTHERS)
Everybody loves the Lips, and why not? The band's trippy music is all electronic burbles and sunny atmospherics. Lead singer Wayne Coyne is a rock 'n' roll shaman; he conducts dancing fans, clad in bunny suits, at the band's surreal live shows. The Lips' latest album, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, was among 2002's best.
Unfortunately, Fight Test, a seven-song EP, is more an afterthought than worthy collection of Lips material. The band cobbles together songs from Yoshimi - the title track and a nine-minute remix of the liberating Do You Realize?? - with live covers. Certainly it's fun to hear the band transform pop tart Kylie Minogue's sexy Can't Get You Out of My Head into an tormented, ironic torch song. An expansive reading of Radiohead's Knives Out works. Same with tourmate Beck's drawling The Golden Age.
But why should fans shell out 10 bucks for a few fun covers? Fight Test, while still charming, is just not worth the novelty. C+
- BRIAN ORLOFF, Times correspondent
STEFON HARRIS, THE GRAND UNIFICATION THEORY (BLUE NOTE)
The Grand Jazz's young mallet man du jour, a formidable leader of small groups, takes on his most ambitious project yet with The Grand Unification Theory, a large-ensemble composition commissioned by the Troy (N.Y.) Music Hall. It's a decidedly mixed bag.
The vibraphonist, introduced to many listeners through his electric, eclectic playing with New Directions, deserves props: Harris' playing, on his main instrument and marimba, is fluent and seemingly effortless, a constant revelation, and the same might be said about the work of tenor saxophonist Tim Warfield and trumpeter Derrick Gardner. The arrangements, as played by this 11-piece band, are elegant and finely crafted, although the themes aren't quite memorable.
Harris, as suggested by the title, sketches his musical ideas on a large canvas, traveling from The Birth of Time, a bass drum-rolling sonic depiction of the big-bang theory, to the final transcendence of the 10-minute title track. The latter moves from a hypnotic, repeating unison line to a choirlike brass-and-winds section to a modified Latin groove, with plenty of room for soloists.
The song cycle is book-ended by the lilting, bouncy Prologue and Epilogue, a beautiful, somber ballad. The disc's biggest pleasures, though, may be its least impressionistic tracks, including The Velvet Couch, a briskly swinging soul-jazz tune offering bracing improvisations by Harris, Warfield and Gardner, and references to Horace Silver and Cannonball Adderley; and the Afro-Cuban rhythms of Escape to Quiet Desperation, a showcase for trombonist Steve Turre. Harris, only 27, hints at something even grander. B
- PHILIP BOOTH, Times correspondent
MATT WILSON QUARTET, HUMIDITY (PALMETTO)
The spirit expressed by Matt Wilson's rambunctious version of Tad Dameron's Our Delight, and the title of that tune, might be thematic for the entire third album from the drummer's pianoless quartet: There's ample evidence of genuine joie de vivre and a real generosity by the musicians toward the material at hand and toward each other.
For the Dameron standard, deep, driving but pliable grooves, provided by the resourceful Wilson and standout bassist Yosuke Inoue, and a bright reading of the melody are offset by the free-minded solo work, urgent counterlines and occasional dissonant notes of alto saxophonist Andrew D'Angelo and tenor saxophonist Jeff Lederer.
A similar synchronicity is at work on the opening track, Wilson's rising-and-falling Thank You Billy Higgins! (for the late, revered drummer), his aptly titled, meditative Cooperation and everywhere else.
Wilson, a Midwesterner by birth and a New Yorker since 1992, easily zigzags between the mainstream and avant-leaning terrain, sometimes, as on D'Angelo's Free Willy, in the same tune. The quartet travels elsewhere, too, to the Far Eastern textures and rhythms of Raga and the acoustic funk of the title track, which also features violinist Felicia Wilson (Matt's wife), trumpeter John Carlson and trumpeter Curtis Hasselbring.
The three guests also bring an extra dimension to the offbeat, rambling Swimming in the Trees, and the violinist - bowing and playing pizzicato - also joins for the final, somber ballad, Beginning of a Memory, dedicated to the drummer's late mother. It makes for an evocative journey. B+