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Soul Manifesto

It's a frightening state of affairs when Clear Channel Communications, the entertainment corporation that controls much of the rock, R&B, and hip-hop heard on commercial radio, now also oversees the bulk of concert bookings in the Bay Area and beyond, having taken over the former Bill Graham Presents earlier in the year. Recent lawsuits allege that performers and record companies are forced to dance to Clear Channel's tune if they want gigs and airplay. Even the major labels have lost the upper hand and now must pay the piper, via independent record promoters hired by stations as exclusive consultants. These business practices have all but wiped out musical diversity. Fortunately, record stores remain for the most part independent. Should such a monopoly ever come to dominate the retail end, serious music lovers might as well move to Tehran.

Kenny Barron & Regina Carter: Freefall (Verve). From the opening salsa strains of "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise," fast-rising violin virtuoso Carter and piano vet Barron demonstrate that they don't need no band to get a groove goin'. The empathy is uncanny as they move between original compositions and tunes by Sting, Wayne Shorter, and Thelonious Monk, among others. Carter's classically shaped lyricism approaches that of the late, great Eddie South, while Barron displays a rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic command of the keyboard unequaled by most of his contemporaries. This is a truly breathtaking duo.

Etta James: Matriarch of the Blues (Private Music). Thirty-three years after journeying to Muscle Shoals, Alabama to cut her now-classic Tell Mama album with producer Rick Hall (recently reissued by MCA with ten bonus tracks), the original queen of soul reinvestigates similar Southern roots on Matriarch of the Blues. This time she traveled no further than the studio of her Southern California home, where sons Donto and Sammetto James served as producers, as well as played drums and bass, respectively, in a tight band that also included guitarist Bobby Murray and keyboardist-vocalist Mike Finnigan. James, whose vocal powers grow increasingly awesome, achieves a consummate balance between grit and grace on a well-chosen set of songs, from Bob Dylan's "You Got to Serve Somebody" to Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog."

Rodney Jones: Soul Manifesto (Blue Note). In demand for over two decades as a sideman with Dizzy Gillespie and others, more for his propulsive rhythm playing than for his solo work, Jones wisely places the emphasis on the groove for his first CD as a leader. And what fat, funky grooves he finds in the company of organ grinder Lonnie Smith, bassist Lonnie Plaxico, and second-line drum master Idris Muhammad, with alto saxophonists Maceo Parker and Arthur Blythe alternating on top. Jones, whose own brittle-toned solos have a Grant Green tinge, has created perhaps the most satisfyingly syncopated soul-jazz album since Lou Donaldson's Alligator Boogaloo, to which Smith and Muhammad also contributed.

Russell Malone: Heartstrings (Verve). Mood music may not get much respect, but it has long held a niche in the jazz world (Jackie Gleason's easy-listening sets that wrapped Bobby Hackett's trumpet in strings and Paul Desmond's Desmond Blue being of special note). Georgia-born guitarist Malone's latest ranks among the great ones. Unlike most straight-ahead pickers, he utilizes sustained feedback, achieving a B.B. King-like tone that's sweet as a peach as it glides with sublime lyricism over a rhythm section fronted by pianist Kenny Barron and strings arranged by Alan Broadbent, Dori Caymmi, and Johnny Mandel on the Milt Jackson-penned title track and others, including "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" and the Anne Murray chestnut "You Needed Me."

Pat Martino: Live at Yoshi's (Blue Note). If the Magnificent Montague had been in the house last December, he no doubt would have shouted out, "Burn, baby, burn!" as guitarist Martino, organist Joey DeFrancesco, and drummer Billy Hart scorched their way through a set of bop and blues, including Sonny Rollins' "Oleo" and Miles Davis' "All Blues." That Martino is among the most inventive pickers on the modern-jazz scene has seldom been disputed, but having a thick Hammond B-3 carpet on which to ride seems to lift him another notch, making this long-overdue return to his soul-jazz roots most welcome.

Liz McComb: Liz McComb (GVE/ LMC). Because it's being marketed to blues and jazz audiences, you're unlikely to hear the Cleveland-born singer-pianist's first US CD on gospel radio, but the disc contains some of the most galvanizing sounds to come down the Pentecostal pike in years. Being based in Paris for the past two decades has freed McComb from the keeping-up-with-Kirk-Franklin quest on the home front, allowing her to go directly to the emotional core of her material -- beginning with Dorothy Love-Coates and moving on to originals spiked with jazz and reggae influences -- with organ, bass, drums, and her own pumping piano as the only support for her explosive vocals.

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