Billy Jenkins: Jazz Gives Me The Blues

Chris May By

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Billy Jenkins

Jazz Gives Me The Blues

VOTP Records


If the title Jazz Gives Me The Blues suggests that London guitarist/vocalist Billy Jenkins is hacked off with jazz, you would be right. Kind of. What Jenkins objects to is the gentrification and institutionalization of jazz, once—a quantum leap from its stereotype today—a rebel music, which ignored or actively fought against conventions of all stripes, and was the home of autodidacts for whom "going to college" meant getting on a bandstand and learning their craft on the job. Who feels it, knows it.

For Jenkins and his constituency, the smothering embrace of the establishment began at the end of the 1960s. When the bottom fell out of the jazz scene under the onslaught of rock and psychedelia, many established jazz musicians were obliged to move into academia in order to make a living, while the club dates which would have enabled tyros to learn on the job disappeared almost overnight.

Decades on, in North America and Europe, it is unusual to find a middle or upper-ranking musician who does not supplement his earnings with campus or outreach work, and equally unusual to find an emergent musician who is not the product of an exam-based college system. If you have an aversion to over-cerebralization or technique for technique's sake, the results can make you weep or—as in Jenkins' case—get angry.

Billy Jenkins

Jazz faculties have, of course, had their upside: technically accomplished and theoretically well-versed college graduates have played a role in expanding jazz's purlieu. The question is: has the process resulted in a net gain for jazz, or a net loss? For Jenkins, there is no doubt about the answer. Instead of technical facility and conservatoire-conservatism, he says, "we need passion. The educators have removed that from jazz—supposedly the one true art form for creativity and expression. We need creators—not curators."

Jenkins is determined to keep his own music rooted in passion, and is a welcome piece of grit in the machine; give him a square peg and he'll find a round hole to shove it in. His recordings have straddled blues and jazz, and he imbues both with a punk rock energy and attitude. Jazz Gives Me The Blues was recorded, as he prefers, "in one take instant time and space." You cannot get more in-the-moment than Jenkins. And do not talk to him about "risk": he once took a group of jazz musicians along to a motorcycle race so that they might better understand what the word really meant.

Mostly, Jenkins the vocalist sounds like the 55 year-old blues singer from South London that he is (or will become on July 5, 2011). Occasionally, listening history and osmosis elicit cadences that make him sound like a 55 year-old blues singer from Southside Chicago, one crazed by a lifetime of weed and fast women (what's not to like?). Instrumentally, he is trope-free. His guitar—the center of the action—raw, raucous and lightning fast, combines the attack of in-your-face adepts such as James Blood Ulmer and Sonny Sharrock with the downhome funk of Lightning Hopkins and Muddy Waters, and throws in the spirit of Dave Davies of The Kinks, circa "You Really Got Me." The recipe is Jenkins' own.

Jazz Gives Me The Blues is more explicitly jazz-based than its immediate predecessors. There are striking and surprisingly respectful covers of seven standards—including "God Bless The Child," co-written by Billie Holiday, and three others co-written by Duke Ellington—and it features Finn Peters, one of a long line of singular saxophonists who have passed through Jenkins' groups (among them Iain Ballamy, Mark Lockheart, Jason Yarde and Nathaniel Facey). Among Peters' own-name albums are several must-hears, including the achingly lyrical Su-Ling (Babel, 2006) and Butterflies (Accidental, 2008). Here, he mostly sounds like Julian "Cannonball" Adderley's cousin fronting a delinquent guitar/organ combo.

The other two members of the quartet are organist Jimmy Watson and drummer Mike Pickering, a groovalicious chicken shack duo who—other than on the balladic "God Bless The Child" and "For All We Know" (on both of which Peters switches to flute)—cook over a fierce fire. Watson's solos are solid soul.

An intensely, joyously visceral, up-against-the-wall album, and one of Jenkins' recent best.

Tracks: Jazz Gives Me The Blues; I'm Just A Lucky So And So; Black Coffee; Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me; God Bless The Child; Travellin' All Alone; For All We Know; I Ain't Got Nothing But The Blues.

Personnel: Billy Jenkins: electric guitar, voice, harmonica; Finn Peters: alto saxophone, flute; Jim Watson: NORD organ; Mike Pickering: drums.

Photo Credit
Helmut Riedl

Year Released: 2011

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