Bernard Fowler, Oz Noy, Grupo Fantasma + Others: Preston Frazier’s Best of 2019 (So Far)

Preston Frazier takes a mid-year new music survey, plucking out favorites from Bernard Fowler, Bob Sheppard, Grupo Fantasma, Alan Evans, Chris Rodriguez and Oz Noy, among others. Here’s his Best of 2019 (So Far) …

BERNARD FOWLER – INSIDE OUT (ROCK): Already a name for his session work and his day gig with the Rolling Stones, Bernard Fowler has also produced a series of under-the-radar but strong solo albums. Inside Out, however, is weird, rhythmic and occasionally brilliant. The album pairs familiar lyrics from a series of Rolling Stones classics with a whole new musical bent from Fowler. The rhythms are changed and some songs are chanted, while others are propelled by the percussion section which includes Fowler, Lenny Castro (Toto), Walfredo Reyes Jr. (Chicago) and Steve Jordon (Eric Clapton/John Mayer). Ray Parker Jr. and Rolling Stones bandmate Darryl Jones also make an appearance, but the star of the show is Bernard Fowler’s arranging, music and voice. Listen to “Sister Morphine” and “Sympathy for the Devil.” You won’t turn away.

ALEXIS EVANS – I’VE COME A LONG WAY (SOUL/R&B): The term “prodigy” is over used. Yet, after listening to Alexis Evans’ Best of 2019 (So Far) entry, I have to admit it’s appropriate. The single “She Took Me Back” is one of many highlights. The France-based singer-songwriter has a mature lyrical sensibility and a wonderfully sophisticated melodic sense. “I Made a Deal with Myself” shows off his funky and infectious style and his guitar chops. This album has it all, and is a 2019 must listen.

JOSHUA CATANIA – OPEN TO NOW (JAZZ): There’s something almost unsettling about the quality of Joshua Catania’s new album. Out now on Shifting Paradigm RecordsOpen to Now delivers dynamic and moving pieces of work. Catania’s jazz is modern, evocative and challenging. The Milwaukee-based pianist is supported by Chicago guitarist Dave Miller and Wisconsin drummer Devan Drobka with Madison-based John Christensen on bass. The quartet plays as if they have been together for decades. “Helix” seems like it is an expression of that empathetic relationship, with Catania and Miller reading each other’s minds as they navigate the endearing melody. On “Refrain,” Drobka and Christensen share a passionate expression of the main theme before the soloist even enters the picture. This is challenging yet inviting listening. Catania, at 18 years of age, has teased us with hints of many more great things to come.

ALAN EVANS – NOTHING TO SAY (JAZZ): This Best of 2019 (So Far) honoree shows Soulive’s drummer in an entirely different light. His jazz chops are well represented, but Nothing to Say also displays his funk and rock acumen. The album gives fine doses of psychedelic rock, funk and jazz. Even more impressive is Alan Evans’ skill as a songwriter and vocalist, in addition to his guitar and bass chops. While Evans enlists a little help from Neal Evans, Darby Wolf Danny Mayers and Ryan Hommel, among others, Nothing to Say is unmistakably his baby. It reflects the obvious craftsmanship which is the hallmark of his band, Soulive. This album is a labor of love by Alan Evans which took more than four years to complete. Let’s hope it won’t take as long for a follow-up. Check out Alan Evans on the title track, as well the standout song “Sparky the Flying Dog.”

FREDERICO7 – EXOTICO AMERICANO (ROCK / WORLD MUSIC): Austin, Texas serves up another great group. Exotico Americano is the debut of Frederic7, who blend rock en Espanol rhythm and English and Spanish lyrics. With the steady production hand of Adrian Quesada (of Brownout fame), Frederico7 combines compelling Cumbia meets Brazilian sounds (“Vibran los Ancestros”) with equally compelling lyrical acumen (the title track). It’s hard to believe this is Frederico’s first full album. It’s too compelling and insightful to miss.

OZ NOY – BOOGA LOOGA LOO (JAZZ): New York-based Oz Noy continues to impress with his unique brand of jazz. The next Best of 2019 (So Far) entry is a weird and wonderful collection of standards and classic-rock tracks, all done up in Noy’s unique and distinctive style. Bassist Will Lee contributes vocals on the Beatles’ “Eight Days a Week” but Noy’s voice on guitar is just a clear on the other covers and the five originals found here. Noy continues to trust his music forward, whether it be his originals or choice covers like “Bemsha Swing.” Booga Looga Loo is just another great addition to Oz Noy’s catalog.

CHRIS RODRIGUEZ – HEAD HANDS AND HEART (JAZZ / R&B): I didn’t know what to expect from this self-produced, self-recorded album from Chris Rodriguez, a guitarist-sideman to many Nashville country heavy weights as well as former Chicago singer Peter Cetera. What Rodriguez delivers is the expected stellar guitar work, but mostly in the jazz vein. An accomplished lead vocalist, Rodriguez lets his Gibson ES175 do most of the talking. “Easy as Uno Dos Tres” will have you listening, mouth agape in amazement at Chris Rodriguez’s arranging skills and guitar technique. “Powerflow” is perhaps my favorite track, with its funky backing and deep guitar tone. But all 14 songs on Head Hands and Heart offer treats, and most are amazing.

GRUPO FANTASMA – AMERICAN MUSIC VOL. VII (LATIN ROCK): If you’re already a fan of Grupo Fantasma, American Music Vol. VII is for you. If you a fan of any of their offshoot groups (including Brownout, Money Chicha, Black Pumas …), then this is a must buy, too. More than that, however: If you a fan of great contemporary music, then you must give Grupo Fantasma’s new album a listen. Check out “Let Me Be” gives nasty guitar and cowbell riffs a soulful foundation. Guest vocalist Tomar Williams from Tomar and the FC’s provides a soulful lead and Hammond-style organ sounds. The wall of backing vocals from the Soul Supporters almost seems out of place on a Grupo Fantasma album, yet recalls the 2018 release, Look at My Soul: The Latin Shade of Texas Soul by Adrian Quesada.

BOB SHEPPARD – THE FINE LINE (JAZZ): Tenor saxophone giant Bob Sheppard may be better known for his sideman gigs with Steely Dan and Joni Mitchell, but this Best of 2019 (So Far) honoree reminds us that he’s a stand-alone force to be reckoned with, as well. Released on Challenge RecordsThe Fine Line is dotted with great Sheppard originals like “Run Amok,” which features electric bass by Benjamin Sheppard and a tasty interaction with trumpeter Mike Cottone. Always one who knows what note to play and how to leave space to great effect, Bob Sheppard gives “Run Amok” a smoky and progressing vibe. John Beasley, another Steely Dan alum, makes his presence known, too. Elsewhere, a cover of “Above & Beyond” finds Sheppard dancing around the melody with an intoxicating groove that makes the song irresistible. In fact, the entire album is.

PATRICE JEGOU – IF IT AIN’T LOVE (JAZZ): Prairie Star Records just released vocalist Patrice Jegou’s If It Ain’t Love, which covers all the jazz bases – from the title track’s big-band feel, to funk (“Yes We Can,” the Allen Toussaint classicarranged by David Paich of Toto fame) to an acapella reading of “Lover Come Back to Me,” which features Mark Kibble and Alvin Chea. Jegou covers a lot of musical ground, and every mile of the trip is joyous thanks to superb arranging and lovely orchestral arrangements by John Clayton, Jorge Calandrelli and Nan Schwartz – and Jegou’s wide-ranging vocal talents.