Record Reviews

Various Artists

Album: “Strange Angels: In Flight With Elmore James”

Grade: B

Elmore James has been dead 54 years, and the blues aren’t doing too well either. This lively tribute album gives both a boost.

The fan base for the kind of music James performed may be shrinking, but the parade of talent on “Strange Angels” shows there’s still a lot of love for the blues among contemporary musicians.

Singers who contribute rousing renditions of James’ material include Rodney Crowell, Shelby Lynne, Allison Moorer and Tom Jones, whose Welsh version of urban blues on “Done Somebody Wrong” is an improbable highlight.

But the stars are the guitarists channeling James’ influential slide work. They’re led by Doug Lancio, who leaves no need for words on the instrumental “Bobby’s Rock” and the near-instrumental “Hawaiian Boogie.”

Warren Haynes, Billy Gibbons and Duke Levine also wield a mean bottleneck, and the wise decision to record the album in mono somehow makes their guitars sound even more monstrous.

The set is being released to coincide with James’ 100th birthday, and the inclusion of studio chatter reinforces the party mood.

James can rest in peace, because his music lives.

—Steven Wine, Associated Press

Laila Biali

Album: “Laila Biali”

Grade: A

Smooth jazz might be an even worse idea than soft rock or light beer, which makes Laila Biali’s self-titled album a miracle of sorts. The Toronto pianist masterfully mixes jazz and pop, bringing virtuosity and unpredictability to songs that are concise and catchy.

Biali has toured with Sting and Chris Botti and operates in territory those artists have explored. Her intricate arrangements are filled with lovely ornamentation but don’t become busy.

George Koller’s bass provides plenty of backbone as part of a supporting cast so extensive the list in promotional material doesn’t even include standout trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, who plays on two cuts.

Biali’s appealing alto shines most of all, and while she’s no showboat, there’s a wow factor when she climbs the scale. Some of the best vocals are wordless as they float, dance, weave and pingpong.

And almost everything swings.

Biali wrote nine songs and includes three covers, all excellent.

Laila does no Derek and the Dominos, alas, but she transforms Coldplay’s “Yellow” into a swirl of dynamics and rhythms, brings out the beauty of Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” and slowly builds to a closing jam on David Bowie’s “Let Dance.”

It’s intoxicating, and way better than light beer.

—Steven Wine, Associated Press

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