Survey with the Strings On Top
Beg your pardon for the atrocious pun, but it sort of introduces this survey of jazz and blues releases instrumented by bass and guitar players.
Song and Dance
Chicago native Bobby Broom has been playing guitar since he was about eleven. He decided to become a professional musician after hearing guitarist George Benson kick ass throughout Bad Benson, and was invited on tour by colossal saxophonist Sonny Rollins when Broom was only sixteen.
You don't hear or read the phrase "song and dance man" much any more. All the mutations and manipulations of jazz make it easy to overlook or even forget the fact that in many of its best respects jazz is "song and dance" music: Numerous great jazz pieces first germinated as alternative workouts on the harmonic and melodic structures underlying popular songs; in addition, much great jazz was conceived and executed as music to be clapped, stomped and danced to.
In many of these best respects guitarist Bobby Broom's Song and Dance is a classic jazz album. "Jazz musicians have been doing this since the beginning, taking popular music and interpreting it," says Broom. "Each generation claims its own standards, and these are some of mine." His sixth release as a leader presents the intuitive sound of his trio with drummer Kobie Watkins and bassist Dennis Carol, with whom Broom has played since 1990. "These performances are as much about the sound of my trio and our overall presentation as they are about me," Broom notes.
What's most striking about this sound is how each musician contributes to its cohesiveness, which allows the leader freedom to dash about the arrangements and play multiple parts on his single instrument. Watkins and Carol inflate "You and the Night and the Music" with a new and genuine rhythmic bounce that catapults the leader between the original melody and improvisations thereupon.
Similarly, these arrangements of "Wichita Lineman" and "Where is the Love" set Broom free to "sing with himself": Broom plays the "Wichita Lineman" melody with little embellishment, accompanying his plucking with strummed supporting chords, and in a very personal, almost conversational tonewhen he plays the lines "And I'll love you for forever/And forever's a long time," you can almost hear the actual words come through.
The roomy "Where is the Love" gives Broom space to play each line sung in point and counterpoint by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway on their famous duet, ringing out their lines clearly with warm, almost vocal-sounding, intonation. In each case, in almost every case on Song and Dance, Broom's resounding lack of pretence creates personal interpretations that allow the beauty of the original melodies to shine through instead of overpowering or obliterating them.
I've got to admit, I was skeptical. What kind of message to the late, great Miles Davis could this be without a trumpet or other horn player in the ensemble? Even considering Ron Carter, the bassist who rode through many mercurial musical styles, albums, and personas with Davis through the 1960s and '70s, as its conceptual and organizing force.
It features all the glorious power and articulation of Carter's legendary upright bass as he leads drummer Payton Crossley, percussionist Roger Squitero and pianist Stephen Scott through a program of standards that Davis' singular interpretations made uniquely his own. This includes Gil Evans' "Gone" and Milt Jackson's "Bag's Groove," and also "My Funny Valentine," "Someday My Prince Will Come," "Stella by Starlight" and "Bye Bye Blackbird." In fact, Davis' only songwriting credit here is "Seven Steps to Heaven," which he co-composed with Victor Feldman, while Carter contributes two tunes, "Cut and Paste" and the concluding "595."
Obviously a major relegation of musical labor takes place, as Carter and Squitero pick up the supporting harmonic and melodic roles generally played by Scott, and the pianist picks up most of the work on the melodic and improvisational front lines. Only a musician and bandleader as inventive, sensitive, and courageous as Ron Carter could make such a tribute work, while Scott proves worthy of Carter's confidence that he could carry so much melodic weight.
"My Funny Valentine" offers a true test of this ensemble and project, as it was an enduring Davis favorite perfect for his moody brooding. Scott does what Davis would do (and did): Caressing the melody in different places, exploring various pressure points, pulling in new connections (like Scott's quotes from "When I Fall in Love"), all to coax and create new beauty from within "standard" music. "Stella by Starlight," sketches the melody on as a framework around Carter's bass solo; where Scott catwalks through a similarly pensive mood.
Carter just takes the hell off and runs with "Bag's Groove," as his walking solo quickly breaks from a walk, into a trot, into a gallop, and then a sprint. He then downshifts into the accompanying background and allows Scott's piano to swing through "Someday My Prince Will Come," which swings fat and funky as a classic Wynton Kelly performance. In "Bye Bye Blackbird," Scott first plays the chords and melody one tone darker, just like Miles would mute to temper his trumpet notes; but as his unfettered lead lines dart and flutter, Scott seems to shine as brightly as Red Garland.
It took several passes through, before beginning to understand, that Carter and company are not doing Miles Davis' versions of these songs; they're doing their own versions "in honor of" Miles Davis' versions of these songs. So it's okay that there's no horn player on Dear Miles. Miles broke a rule or two in his day, too.
JJ Grey & MOFRO
It's rather promising for a band's debut to remind you of the Faces on the fast numbers and of Otis Redding on the slow ones, but these legends provide solid points of reference for JJ Grey & Mofro's Country Ghetto.
Country Ghetto is swampy, funky, bluesy, and above all genuine, straight from JJ Grey's backwoods home in the swamps outside Jacksonville, Florida. Grey composed and arranged every tune, sings lead, and plays keyboards as well as acoustic, electric and twelve-string guitars. Daryl Hance on guitar and slide guitar, Adam Scone on organ and keyboard bass, and George Sluppick on drums help Grey cook, stir, and boil up this scalding pot of country boogie as MOFRO, named in honor of a lumber company for whom Grey once worked.
Here's where Grey comes from: "I was brought up to earn it and not waste it, to respect and protect womanhood and promote manhood, and to be thankful for what you got. By today's standard, we ourselves and most of the folks we knew, lived below the so-called 'poverty line.' We were land and culture rich and dollar poor but I wouldn't trade my upbringing for any other," Grey reflects in the liner notes. "My culture, my life, my love is here in this country ghetto."
Country Ghetto's title track thumps up from under that poverty line to chase the ghost of Tony Joe White's classic "Polk Salad Annie," slide guitar and harmonica howling in the background like an approaching twister. Grey's vocal in the deliberate two-step stomp "Tragic" is gnarled and strong and deep, like the roots of a hundreds-year-old cypress tree. "Mississippi" pulls in the sound of southern Stax Records soul, with its organ groove and horn blasts shining like Booker T. & The MGs and the Memphis Horns, and the dual guitars channeling the legendary Steve Cropper. "Good things are going on, here in Mississippi," indeed.
"Circles" is a slow-burning blues about how what comes around goes around, though not always in the way that you might think. Grey delivers lines like, "Please forgive me for what some other man did to you before I came along," with resignation and power that sounds authentically full of hurt.
Finally, "Footsteps" busting into "Turpentine" is not only the best thing on this record, which is really saying something, it's probably the best combined five minutes of southern rock boogie that I've heard since...well, probably ever. Drums slam out its fat 4/4 beat straight and true as organ and harmonica howl and moan and slide guitar screams out the electric agony and ecstasy, the rough-hewn and sweating-booze sound, of the blues.
Put it all together, and it's how Creedence Clearwater Revival might have sounded had they come along after grunge instead of before: Hand-stitched, unpretentious, honest blues. It's as simpleand simply awesomeas the beauty in Grey's opening lines to "Mississippi": "Well, I dearly love my home/But it's never looked so good to me/Blue skies and dragon flies/Muddy creek, Lord, set me free..."
Kenny Wayne Shepherd
Ten Days Out: Blues from the Backroads
Warner Bros. / Reprise
When blues guitarist Shepherd does a blues tour of the American musical south, he sure does it right: Ten days with friends Tommy Shannon and Chris Layton (Stevie Ray Vaughan's longtime rhythm section Double Trouble), plus a mobile studio and documentary film crew; starting from the mouth of the Mississippi River in New Orleans, to Shreveport, up to Alabama, up into the Carolinas, then west to Kansas; visiting and performing with guitarists B.B. King, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and Hubert Sumlin, pianist Pinetop Perkins, harmonica player Jerry "Boogie" McCain and others, in their homes, backyards and favorite local dives; all culminating in Shepherd's performance with surviving members of the Muddy Waters Blues Band and Howlin' Wolf's band at the magically named Church at Blue Heaven Studio in Salina, Kansas.
Ten Days Out documents this tour on CD and DVD, and the results comprise an amazing blues document that constantly transcends geography and generations. Guitarists Honeyboy Edwards and Henry Townsend, who moan the "Tears Came Rolling Down" blues hard and heavy, both personally knew the legendary Robert Johnson. Sadly, no fewer than six of its featured artists have passed away since filming Ten Days Out completed: Townsend, Etta Baker, Wild Child Butler, Neal Pattman, Cootie Stark and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown.
Jerry "Boogie" McCain's "Potato Patch" turns one of those classic blues double-entendres where you can tell it ain't McCain's potatoes that somebody's been diggin'. Shepherd and company pound out the slow backbeat deep and mighty while McCain's harmonica wails over their churning chords to serve blues straight-up and hard as electric forged steel.
Despite its title, performing his trademark "The Thrill is Gone" with B.B. King has to be a thrill that Shepherd wants to hold onto forever. King's vocal rides the beat hard, roaring and agonizing in its blues grip, then his guitar swaps wallops with Shepherd's, wringing hot drops of blood and sweat from their respective necks. Close your eyes while listening and wonder if you're hearing the sound of some torch being passed.
The last four cuts feature Shepherd playing with a literal "Who's Who" of post-WWII blues: The Howlin' Wolf Band with Sumlin, Wolf's pianist Henry Gray and bassist Calvin "Fuzz" Jones; then the Muddy Waters Band with Muddy's longtime drummer Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, Chicago guitar ace Bob Margolin, Lazy Lester on harmonica and Pinetop Perkins on piano. Grey horsewhips everyone through the Willie Dixon classic "Red Rooster," with Butler rampaging through the barnyard. Later, Butler steps out front on Dixon's tugging, insistent "Spoonful"; Sumlin steps out to front Wolf's "Sitting on Top of the World" in between.
Perkins closes the celebration by leading through the low-down, hard-driving "Grindin' Man," which is what Shepherd, Perkins and the Waters band do with this blues - they grind it down into fine powder then blow it away.
Liner notes include Shepherd's hand-sketched journal entries each day of the journey. These entries are as entertaining and musically worthwhile as the performances they detail: Their second recording location with Buddy Flett was Ledbelly's gravesite; Shepherd's June 11 performance with B.B. King began after midnight, so it was really June 12, which is Shepherd's birthday ("This was one of the coolest moments of my professional career").
A portion of proceeds from Ten Days Out: Blues from the Backroads is being donated to the Music Maker Relief Foundation.
Trio7: Joe Beck, Santi Dibriano, Thierry Arpino
Whaling City Sound
Tri07 is a different type of release for Joe Beck. Which is a powerful statement, since this guitarists' guitarist has won the Most Valuable Player Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS) five different times, and his career, which spans five decades, includes working with Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Gil Evans, Antonio Carlos Jobim and other geniuses.
Tri07 delivers two distinct Beck flavors: Adventurous improvisational explorations that deconstruct and reassemble pieces such as "You and the Night and the Music" and John Coltrane's "Impressions," and reverential yet energetic reviews of numerous hallowed standards ("But Beautiful," "Laura," "My Romance," "Cry Me A River" and "(I Don't Stand) a Ghost of a Chance with You").
Beck can move so freely between these styles thanks to the energy and dexterity of his rhythm section: bassist Santi Dibriano, who has played with Larry Coryell, Pharoah Sanders, Sam Rivers, Sonny Fortune and Archie Shepp; and drummer Thierry Arpino, who most often plays with Jean-Luc Ponty. "We traveled together musically for two solid days of experimental sessions," wrote Dibriano in his notes; "This rhythm section is almost too good to be true," wrote Beck in reply.
This trio's opening "Impressions" of the Coltrane classic provides a clear path for the extrapolations and interpretations which follow. Arpino's firm beat grounds the ensemble, but Beck's guitar doesn't stay shackled to any uniform cadence for very long. Their ten-minute exploration takes "Alone Together" even farther out, and they wrestle new riffs and colors from the concluding "You and the Night and the Music," an abstract spacewalk through which Dibriano's fingers fly so quickly that his bass notes blur together into a continuous harmonic rumble, and Arpino's unaccompanied breaks fracture the brittle sound of Elvin Jones into brilliant marble pieces.
Beck proves to be a ballad interpreter who allows the original melody to whisper through his own vision. "But Beautiful" retains that gorgeous, almost timeless melody over which Tony Bennett, for example, loves to linger, but within these eight minutes Beck finds time and space to beautifully improvise on its underlying chords, with perfect, literally perfect, rhythmic support. The trio unravels the chords of "(I Don't Stand) A Ghost of a Chance with You" into ribbons, and then neatly ties these ribbons back up into colorful knots and bows, while "Cry Me a River" suggests the soft strong touch of Barney Kessel.
Beck also contributes two of his own tunes. "A Little Blue" is precisely that, a loping blues shuffle where he sharpens his chords and attack, and shows off his Chet Atkins and George Benson chops. "Dancing to San Xavier" is evocative in both title and impact; Beck's guitar sort of hovers between clouds of airy melodic lines, while DiBriano and Arpino samba with only the loosest of gossamer connections between them, until everyone descends upon a spontaneous improvisational eruption of flowing, hot chords to close.