THROUGH THE LENS: Sierra Ferrell and Other Outstanding August Roots Music Releases
Sierra Ferrell - Live on the Levee, Charleston, WV 2021 - Photo by Rafael Barker
I always get excited when I get the opportunity to share with ND readers new albums that I find enticing. This theme for this week’s column could be third time’s the charm, as three artists — Sierra Ferrell, Maggie Rose, and Southern Avenue — are releasing third albums this month that are sure to get them on the charts, and, if they haven’t already, get a firm grip on your heart.
Also coming in August is a one-of-a-kind tribute to jazz pianist Frank Kimbrough, who passed away in December, that features 61 of his compositions played by former bandmates, contemporary musicians, and former students. In 2019 he said this about jazz: “This music is not taught in books, it’s taught person to person, and I try to give all that away.” I felt that way every time I saw him.
Sierra Ferrell – Long Time Coming (Aug. 20)
Bob Dylan used to say that his songs existed before him, that he just plucked them from the air as they floated along with a breeze. Be it the Kitty Wells-like “Bells of Every Chapel” to lightly swinging “At the End of the Rainbow” with a sinuous slide trombone, on first blush you could swear you’ve heard some of Ferrell’s songs before. They have a naturalness to them that makes them seem familiar.
Yet, upon a second listening it’s clear that no one, and I mean no one, is doing what Ferrell is doing, be it in her songwriting, arrangements, or delivery. As I noted in a 2019 column, “Singular is too inadequate a word to describe Ferrell. Her mixture of tempo, melody, and imagery — each often changed multiple times within a single song” is more than enchanting, it’s as though she’s creating a new genre right in front of your eyes and ears. While I’ve noted a bit of the gypsy in her music before, it’s not a stretch to compare her to the timeless Django Reinhardt, if he had been a songwriter and vocalist.
Ferrell’s first physical release is aptly titled, as it comes exactly two years since it was announced she’d signed with indie powerhouse Rounder Records. It’s worth the wait. Even though I’d heard the two tracks she released as a single late last year and several more via recent videos, and I’ve seen her live numerous times during the past dozen years, I was not prepared for what I heard on this album that also features Billy Strings, Jerry Douglas, Sarah Jarosz, and Tim O’Brien. It’s an all-encompassing experience that surpassed my already high expectations. I distinctly remember when I first heard Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch, and Rhiannon Giddens I had a similar out-of-body experience, that same sense of wow-ness I felt with this record. It’s quiet, dreamy even, but when it hits you, you’ll fall as hard as I have for this marvelous album.
Maggie Rose – Have a Seat (Aug. 20)
The term “blue-eyed soul” could have been coined for Rose, who on her third album takes what I heard at her set at AmericanaFest 2019 and delivers it with a wallop. Based in Nashville, and having appeared on The Grand Ole Opry over 80 times, she recorded this album at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, where so many great albums were born. Rose’s free-flowing musical exploration was accentuated by being within those hallowed walls, bringing out the best in her.
She’s also confident enough not to let her songs get otherwise lost in a delicious collision of rock and roll, soul, folk, funk, and R&B. She has a distinct voice that doesn’t just front the FAME musicians but glides over their musical backdrop with authority. In short, Rose has arrived.
Southern Avenue – Be The Love You Want (Aug. 27)
Like the street in their hometown Memphis they’re named after, Southern Avenue’s latest album feels as if they’ve not just taken in but also lived with all the R&B, blues, and soul that town has ever experienced. Vocalist Tierinii Jackson is the smoothest operator this side of Sade (albeit an octave higher), and on “Let’s Get It Together” she adds a bit of funk and horns to flesh out the sounds of the city.
Thematically, with some assistance from Jason Mraz and Cody Dickinson, the band embraces the rich textures of self-love, self-empowerment, and accountability and the desire to push toward something greater in life. The fact that it appears to be seamless can only come from the lives of the five band members of diverse backgrounds who have come together to create a more substantial whole. It’s one of the most listenable, and danceable, records of the year.
Various Artists – KIMBROUGH (out now)
I first head Frank Kimbrough some 25 years ago when he accompanied jazz vocalist Kendra Shank. He was a charter member of the Jazz Composers Collective and a member of Maria Schneider’s big band, appearing on eight of her albums. He also recorded 16 albums under his own name. Notably, in 2018 he did the unthinkable: He recorded all 70 of Thelonious Monk’s known tunes. It was released as Monk’s Dreams to great acclaim.
Kimbrough passed away last December of an apparent heart attack. Over a four day period in May, his friend, fellow pianist, and head of Newvelle Records Elan Mehler brought together a who’s who of jazz — including Joe Lovano, Fred Hersch, Ted Nash, and Dave Douglas — to record 61 of Kimbrough’s compositions. All proceeds from this $20 Bandcamp collection go to the Frank Kimbrough Jazz Scholarship at The Juilliard School, where he began teaching in 2008.
Currently, we are in the midst of a jazz renaissance. If you want not just a primer on what’s been happening in jazz during the past couple of decades, but one you can get lost in and listen to over and over, there is no better place to start than here. If you’re already steeped in the genre, this album will take you places you never thought could exist. It’s easily the best jazz record of the year. Credits and full personnel on the 61 tracks can be found here.
NOTE: During Sierra Ferrell’s recent visit to her home state of West Virginia, Rafael Barker caught both her shows and got her into his photography studio. Some of those photos are included in the gallery below. You can see more of his work on Instagram in color and black and white.
Now, the photos. Click on any photo below to view the gallery as a full-size slide show.