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Derek Trucks: Chops, Romance & Dance


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Nowadays chops are as important to jazz as ever, but we seem to be losing two other legs of the three-legged stool upon which the popularity of jazz rested–romance and dance.
It's a good bet that most of us have heard people say they don't like jazz, or even worse, drop the H-bomb, "I hate jazz." If you choose to engage, the key is to tread lightly and tailor an approach that considers the tastes and sensibilities of the other person. The "So You Don't Like Jazz" column explores ways to do just that. In this month's column we zero in on three particularly important factors which impact the popularity and reach of jazz: chops, romance, and dance.


As mentioned in previous columns, if you dig into the background of musicians, you're apt to find a jazz connection. Case in point, guitarist Derek Trucks. Praised by guitar icons such as Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, and B.B. King, there's no doubt that he has some serious chops. Combining technical proficiency with lyrical soulful playing, he's a consummate blues player with a unique musical voice. A master slide guitarist who transcends labels, he is at home in Delta blues, Chicago blues, blues-rock, funk, rhythm & blues, gospel, soul, the music of the Indian subcontinent, and jazz. He recorded his first album in 1996 when he was seventeen, covering four songs by some of his jazz heros: "Mr. P.C." and "Naima" by John Coltrane, "Footprints" by Wayne Shorter, and "So What" by Miles Davis.

That album was produced by none other than the legendary jazz producer John Synder. [There's an excellent interview with him here on AAJ.] A trumpeter and pianist who went to college on multiple musical scholarships, he also managed to get a law degree. After college he became the right-hand man to Creed Taylor, the president of CTI Records. Synder managed CTI's legal and business affairs, publishing, manufacturing, distribution, and the artist and repertoire operations. He moved on as director of the Horizon Jazz Series for Herb Alpert's A&M Records, and in 1977 he launched his own business, Artists House, releasing recordings from heavyweights such as Ornette Coleman, Gil Evans, and Chet Baker, all three of whom he also managed. He later became director of jazz production for Atlantic Records with the same responsibilities he had with CTI Records plus promotion, publicity and marketing.

There's a lot more to his impressive story, but I mention him because of the influential role he played in Derek Trucks' career. When I interviewed Derek Trucks for All About Jazz, I asked him about his guest appearance on a CD and DVD with McCoy Tyner, which was produced by John Synder—I was curious if he had gotten Trucks the gig:

Derek Trucks: Actually it happened through McCoy's manager [Steve Bensusan], who also runs the Blue Note clubs. We had played The Blue Note and stayed in touch with him, and actually Susan and I were doing a photo shoot for The New York Times at the Blue Note and Steve approached us, he said they were thinking about doing a guitar record with McCoy and asked if we would interested, and I said, "Of course, how much is it going to cost me? I'll be there! Whatever it takes." [laughing] That was great, and then I was really pumped to see that John Synder was doing it, and most of the times I've been on recordings with John it was because of him. I got to record with The Band before [bassist/vocalist Rick] Danko died because of John, I got to record with R.L. Burnside and Joe Louis Walker and a bunch of great acts through John Snyder.

He's the one who did our first record, when no label or anyone was interested in recording us, John put up his own cash and stuck his neck out. And he was the first major supporter of the band, and really kept the band together and alive for a long time, so I'm hugely indebted to him, and he's been somewhat of a mentor to me, I was really young when I met him, I was maybe 15 or 16, I met him on the Junior Wells sessions, and he immediately opened up to me and we became good friends. I would always pick his brain about all sorts of things, and he would either recommend great books or I would get a package in the mail every once and a while with four or five books, pretty heavy reading, and whether it was Bertrand Russell or whoever, we've had an ongoing dialog for about fifteen years now.

AAJ: He's amazing, I got a CD the other day which was virtually the last recording that Paul Desmond ever made, with Chet Baker, and I noticed John Synder was there for that.

DT: Yeah, John's all over that stuff. After I met him I went through a lot of my CDs and I was shocked by how many of the reissues had been produced by John. He was right there in the middle of it for a long, long time. I mean, CTI and his own label Artists House, he was and still is ahead of the curve. Like with artists owning their masters, stuff that's still unheard of today, he was experimenting with that in late '70s and early '80s. [Laughs] He got fired off of a lot of gigs for being too generous.

AAJ: That pays off later.

DT: I think it does! And he's still working and a lot of them aren't.

Synder produced two more albums by the Derek Trucks Band: Out of the Madness 1998, House of Blues Records, and Soul Serenade recorded 1999-2000, released 2003, Columbia Records, which contained covers of Wes Montgomery's "Bock to Bock" by Buddy Montgomery, John Coltrane's "Afro Blue" by Mongo Santamaria, and "Oriental Folk Song" by Wayne Shorter.

From Trucks' own words it's clear that he would not be where he is today without his jazz connections and jazz influences. There's no way of knowing how many of his serious fans he's steered into jazz, but I'm sure it is a considerable number. If you happened to have friends who are casual Derek Trucks fans, but aren't into jazz, that's an easy opening to pursue. Here's a clip of young Derek Trucks (perhaps 2006) turning his audience on to jazz via the Dexter Gordon classic "Cheesecake"—also interesting because he's not playing slide, although, as is his custom, he is playing in open E tuning.

To highlight the diversity of jazz, contrast the clip of Trucks with this one of some young guns from the Lima Interscholastic Big Band honing their chops with a killer arrangement of "Cheesecake" by Rick Stitzel. The band is comprised of young Peruvian musicians (12—17) from various schools in Lima, and is part of the Projazz educational program.

Romance & Dance

It seems hard to believe, but long ago there was an era when masses of people slow danced to jazz, and fell in love with jazz playing in the background. Imagine, there was even a time when it was natural for a couple to have a jazz standard as "their song." Nowadays chops are as important to jazz as ever, but we seem to be losing two other legs of the three-legged stool upon which the popularity of jazz rested—romance and dance.

Admittedly, it seems unlikely jazz will ever regain its former level of popularity, but once again the Sant Andreu Jazz Band under the direction of Joan Chamorro provides a glimmer of hope. You can find some excellent clips of them taking their music to the streets and playing in public squares, connecting with ordinary people and drawing them in with their enthusiasm and energy. Chamorro has made romantic standards and swings tunes an integral part of the band's repertoire— clearly, his approach is built upon the foundation of chops, romance, and dance. Thankfully his efforts are having an impact, let's hope others follow his lead.

An earlier column featured clips of the Sant Andreu Jazz Band with the vocalist Alba Armengou. In the clip below, her younger sister Elsa Armengou displays her skillls with a beautiful rendering of the 1945 romantic hit "Laura" by David Raksin.

Finally we turn to the last leg of the three-legged stool, dance. There was indeed a time when jazz was as dominant in popular culture as hip hop is today. Not only has the popularity of jazz declined, but think about the sorry state of popular dancing vs swing dancing— check out YouTube, it's full of Street Dancers vs. Lindy Hoppers battles. Hollywood has long recognized the magic of swing dancing— remember this scene from The Mask?

The special effects were amazing, but this clip from the 1943 film Swing Fever gives us a better impression of the dancing of the swing era.

Fortunately, Hollywood also documented the fabulous Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, surely the most memorable troop of swing dancers. Unfortunately, their careers were ended by WWII. Here is a colorized clip from the 1941 hit movie Hellzapoppin'.

In one way or another, for musicians and aficionados jazz will surely remain the staple that it is. But if jazz is ever to become a driving force in popular culture as it once was, I suspect it needs to rest on the foundation of chops, romance, and dance. The tricky part is doing that without living in the past—more about that in futures columns.

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