Steve Martin (Rounder)
As a banjo player, Steve Martin is not funny at all. He's darned good, as he shows in "The Crow," an album that features 14 songs he also wrote. It also has guests such as Dolly Parton, Earl Scruggs and Vince Gill, which is an obvious benefit. The album is filled with spirited picking such as "Pitkin County Turnaround," "Banana Banjo" and a short "Wally on the Run." It also has more laid-back efforts such as "Words Unspoken," which also features pretty fiddle work by Brittany Haas. Easily, the best song, though, is "Late for School," a song about a wild effort to get to school on time. Martin's presentation is perfect for this story of a sadly mistaken race to class. The title song, by the way, is a tune banjo great Bela Fleck helped to complete. Good to have that kind of help, eh?
-- Bob Karlovits
'Jazz in the Garden'
Stanley Clarke, Hiromi and Lenny White (Heads Up)
Ten years ago, an album of this nature would have been a high- powered foray into fusion. But bassist Stanley Clarke, pianist Hiromi and drummer Lenny White instead have made "Jazz in the Garden" a tribute to music wisdom. The material ranges from thoughtful originals such as "Paradigm Shift (Election Day 2008)" to creative versions of Miles Davis' "Solar" and Joe Henderson's "Isotope." The trio even does a slow and quiet version of "Someday My Prince Will Come" featuring tasteful work from Clarke and Hiromi. Meanwhile, the bassist and White do a crafty duet on Duke Ellington's "Take the Coltrane." The bassist is the standout on this album, not only because of his excellent play, but because he stays on acoustic bass the whole album. Hiromi, just coming out of her teens, shows skill and musical conception that belie her years on this surprisingly rich recording.
-- Bob Karlovits
Mos Def (Downtown)
His Geffen years were lame, and movies like "Be Kind Rewind" didn't make him much of an actor. What's so great about Mos Def? "The Ecstatic" is what. There have certainly been dynamic ripples of wonderment and experimentation to be had in the critically maligned likes of "The New Danger" (2004) and "True Magic" (2006). Yet there's been nothing to truly prove Def's 360 degrees of smugly socio-conscious thought and slice-n-dice verbal flow since 1999's "Black on Both Sides. …