By Bliss Bowen

Pasadena Weekly Contributing Writer

LEDISI, Ledisi Sings Nina (BMG): 3½

Tackling Nina Simone’s oeuvre is a formidable prospect, and Ledisi brings a respectful balance of humility and passion to this seven-track tribute to the outspoken jazz icon. The Grammy-winning vocalist doesn’t radically reinterpret classics such as “Feeling Good,” “My Baby Just Cares for Me” and the swinging “Work Song,” but Jochen Neufer’s punchy arrangements for Metropole Orkest magnify the impact of her dynamic readings. Highlights include a live, guitar-centered version of “Wild Is the Wind” (from Ledisi’s Simone tribute for PBS last December) and a magnetic performance of “Four Women” with Lisa Fisher, Alice Smith and Lizz Wright. Ledisi’s in concert with LA Philharmonic at Hollywood Bowl July 24.

Ledisi.com

JON BYRD, Me & Paul (self-released):3½

Listening to how this veteran Nashville songwriter and guitarist unspools melodic tales such as the bruised beauty “I’ll Be Her Only One” (co-written with Kevin Gordon) and “Why Must You Think of Leaving?” (co-written with Shannon Wright) is akin to the savory pleasures offered by a novel or a favorite neighborhood bard when the hour’s late and whiskey’s flowing. A natural storyteller, Byrd has a homing instinct for emotional truth, even when inhabiting the lines of J.J. Cale (a haunting “Don’t Go to Strangers”) and the Louvin Brothers (an effectively understated “Cash on the Barrelhead”). Paul Niehaus supplies graceful accompaniment, his pedal steel complementing Byrd’s plainspoken delivery without glossing over its essential grit.

jonbyrd.com

JUNACO, Blue Room (Side Hustle): 2½

“Is paradise a place or a state of mind?” That’s the question posed by this promising L.A.-based duo’s balmy single “Paradise,” which seems tailor-made for some future soundtrack. The chill dreaminess conjured with electric guitars, keyboard and percussion by frontwoman Shahana Jaffer and guitarist/drummer Joey LaRosa throughout this eight-track album soothes more than stimulates. There’s tension between Jaffer’s angelic tones and the pensive concerns of “Blue Room,” “Living Out of Mind” and “Weight of the World,” but any drama, like their hooks, is subtle.

junacomusic.com

LES FILLES DE ILLIGHADAD, At Pioneer Works

(Sahel Sounds):4

Uniting the female-centric tende tradition of chants and call-and-response with the droning electric guitars that have defined Tuareg music in recent decades, the Niger quartet expands the form by restoring women to their central place. At the heart of this concert set, recorded in 2019 in New York, is the 11-minute “Telilit,” resurrected from a desert recording lead vocalist/guitarist Fatou Seidi Ghali and vocalist/percussionist Alamnou Akrouni made after forming the band in 2016. Since joined by Agadez guitarist Amaria Hamadalher and Ghali’s cousin Abdoulaye Madassane (the lone male, who also plays rhythm guitar with Mdou Moctar), their celebratory guitars, handclaps, tende drum and voices exalting community are hard to resist. Highlights: “Chakalan,” a spirited take on Etran Finatawa’s “Surbajo.”

lesfillesdeillighadad.bandcamp.com

WILBURT LEE RELIFORD, Seems Like a Dream

(Big Legal Mess): 4

Mississippi hill country blues is known for raw guitars and droning grooves, but in these 12 rarely heard tracks, there’s also joy, thanks to Reliford, a blind harmonica player who grew up near Junior Kimbrough’s Chulahoma juke joint and died in 1993. Reliford was recorded in 1989 by a Dutch folklorist during a field trip (which eventually yielded a “Rural Blues” documentary), but half of his rediscovered solo performances feature newly added support from guitarist Will Sexton and a crack band that manages to sound organic as Reliford’s expressive “wah” tones and hopeful, earthy vocals nod to Sonny Boy Williamson. Rewarding as it is to hear them frolic and strut through “Tappin’ That Thing” and “I Won’t Be Back No More” behind the wailing harp, it’s Reliford’s solo turns that haunt. Highlights: “Sugar Mama,” “I’m Gonna Leave.”

biglegalmessrecords.com

LAURA MVULA, Pink Noise (Flamingo/Atlantic UK):3

The British R&B artist unexpectedly swerves into the ’80s with her third album, a sleek vehicle driven by synthesizers, metallic drumbeats and pop hooks. In retrospect, “Phenomenal Woman” and the Nile Rodgers-supported “Overcome” from her Ivor Novello Award-winning 2016 album “The Dreaming Room” can be heard as precursors to the choral swells of “Magical,” the addictive jam “Got Me,” “Church Girl” and the funky “Remedy,” composed during the 2020 lockdown amid Black Lives Matter protests (“How many more must die before the remedy?/ Can you hear all my people cry for the remedy?”). It’s far removed from the jazzy sophistication of 2013’s “Sing to the Moon,” confirming Mvula’s eclectic taste and range.

planetmvula.com

MIKE ZITO, Resurrection (Gulf Coast): 3

The Texas guitarist won Blues Rock Artist and Blues Rock Album (for “Rock ‘n’ Roll: A Tribute to Chuck Berry”) honors at last month’s Blues Music Awards, but leans into rock with his newest release. Reteamed with producer David Z, he slams social media’s negative energy with “Don’t Bring Me Down”; transforms Willie Dixon’s “Evil” into an ominous groover bound to elicit cheers at shows; and lightheartedly skewers politicians with “Running Man.” But Zito, who exchanges J.J. Cale’s sly wit for sincerity and beefy solos during “I’ll Make Love to You,” is less concerned with topicality than betting everything on the title track’s inspiration: love and second chances.

mikezito.com

WELCOME CENTER, Talk Talk Talk (self-released): 2½

“Talk, talk, talk, and I listen/ Nation lost in your vision now/ … Southern curse I cannot handle/ Sunday service, light a candle, watch it burn out.” Inspired by 2020’s turmoil, the slow-building “Burn” gives this modest electronic-pop EP its title and focus. The melodic vista expands, War on Drugs-style, as Jesse Smith’s electric guitar fills evoke memories and roadtrips (perhaps explaining its 6:24 run time). “Parasite City” and “Losers,” meanwhile, thrum with Aaron Sternick’s incongruously upbeat synthesizers. The EP’s more nuanced than 2020’s “This House Will Be Filled With ____”; “Burn” represents a still more interesting step forward.

welcomecenterband.com