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A Giant Steps Christmas: Monica Ramey and Beegie Adair, the Scissormen and Michael Chabon's latest

Cool Yule

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Some of us do our Christmas shopping weeks, even months, in advance. But there's always a good chunk of the populace that waits until the absolute last minute before embarking on a frantic search for something a friend might enjoy.

In that spirit, here are a few items that would be ideal if you're out and about over the weekend and have someone in mind whose musical interests range outside the conventional pop/rock sphere.

Item #1 - Local jazz delight Monica Ramey and the Beegie Adair Trio (Adair Music)

Understatement and subtlety are dying arts in contemporary musical circles, but they are a big part of what makes Monica Ramey such a great jazz vocalist. She can be dramatic and flamboyant when the situation demands, but she's far more a song stylist and exquisite storyteller than someone dependent on bombast and production.

The same is true for the Beegie Adair Trio, with bassist Roger Spencer and drummer Chris Brown ideal collaborators for pianist Adair's alternately elegant and intense phrases, solos and accompaniment. All these players have great technique, but their disciplined interpretations never lack joy or passion. Special guests trumpet and flugelhorn ace George Tidwell and stellar saxophonist/flutist Denis Solee prove equally capable contributors to this tremendous session.

Another plus is the disc's blend of vintage and contemporary tunes. One moment Ramey's doing a selection from the Great American Songbook, the next a composition from the duo of Adair and Nashville Jazz Workshop co-founder and pianist Lori Mechem ("Fly Away") or a number penned by legendary critic Leonard Feather and esteemed saxophonist/composer Benny Golson ("Whisper Not"). The set has been expertly engineered and mastered, with co-producers Spencer and Adair giving listeners a broad and varied portrait of Ramey's sound over 14 selections and 72 minutes.

While nothing tops hearing a singer and band in live performance, the Monica Ramey And The Beegie Adair Trio CD is certainly the next best way to enjoy these wonderful musicians.

Item #2 - Local blues gem on CD/DVD Walking and Talking the Blues (Vizztone)

Besides being one of America's top music journalists, Ted Drozdowski's an excellent slide and acoustic guitarist. He's teamed with drummer/percussionist R.L. Hulsman for several years in The Scissormen, a duo who's reconfigured Delta blues' frenetic edges into a compelling, highly personal 21st century framework. Their fans include celebrated director Robert Mugge, who's crafted the new CD/DVD release Walking And Talking The Blues.

Mugge combines advocacy, entertainment and education in this project. With the help of some students from Ball State University (where he was serving as endowed Chair for Telecommunications) Mugge filmed the Scissormen during a 2009 Midwestern tour. His connections also helped get Drozdowski access to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's blues-related programs and exhibits, plus entry to Gennett Records, a label that specializes in historic early jazz and blues.

Between the rigorous live concerts available on both the CD and DVD, plus the exhaustive narrative presentations, Drozdowski and Mugge present both a stunning series of concerts and vital set of lecture/demonstrations on blues history. Yet this is no dry or dreary academic exercise. The Scissormen concerts are energetic, while Drozdowski's zeal in chronicling his heroes' exploits retains the attention of anyone remotely interested in American cultural history.

Item # 3 - Best-selling novel Michael Chabon, Telegraph Avenue (HarperCollins)

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon's covered numerous subjects during his lengthy career, but his latest novel Telegraph Avenue (Harper) enters a new arena: the world of vinyl junkies. The novel's set in the summer of 2004, a time when technological, social and political changes threaten the future of Brokeland Records, a heralded used record shop perched directly between Berkeley and Oakland.

Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe are vinyl heads in an era when the CD is becoming king. Brokeland has been their hangout as well as their business for many years, but its' future is cloudy. Gentrification is in full swing, and its main advocate is business maven Gibson Goode, America's fifth richest black man. He's bringing his Dogpile megastore to the nearby stretch of Telegraph Avenue. Stallings and Jaffe see nothing good about this. But that's hardly their only problem. Each must also deal with an ambitious wife whose behind-the-scenes involvement in the area's changing dynamics may mean even more long-range trouble.

Chabon's fondness for complex sentences, characters flipping in and out of scenarios, and time/sequence shifting, make Telegraph Avenue a work that should be avoided by anyone not willing to invest the required time in the subject matter. But those who fully engage in the work will find Telegraph Avenue a revelation. Chabon beautifully juggles multiple tales of socio-economic woe, racial/ethnic conflict, gender politics and drug trafficking. It's a portrait of urban society jointly in evolution and chaos, with citizens of various ages, backgrounds and viewpoints trying to find ways to cope and survive.

Though not solely or mostly about music, Chabon intersperses within Telegraph Avenue's winding chapters enough nuggets about classic out-of-print and rare soul/jazz and funk sessions to excite collectors. Everyone else will be content to read the exploits and adventures of those who live on Telegraph Avenue, and wonder if anything they read reflects life in their own towns and cities.

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