Tedeschi Trucks Band
November 8, 2013
Jazz has always taken from the pop music of its day and culturalized it, intellectualized it, added some soul or swing and for those who are capable, added the personalized artistic X factor that is unique to that artist's DNA. Not that simple by any means, of course.
Today, the younger rock generation often wishes they were around when the The Rolling Stones
, The Who
, Led Zeppelin
, Jimi Hendrix
, Pink Floyd
, the Grateful Dead, the Doors
and the Allman Brothers were performing with that certain attitude that added a timeless element to the music. Not dissimilar from one's desire to have been there when Louis, Bird, Hawk, Pres, Duke and Billie were knocking out crowds with their timeless personalized approaches.
But today, for most performing in contemporary music it's more about money, fame, stage presence, beauty and sexuality than it is about attitude and artistic creativity.
However, there is always an exception and that exception today is a group of creative musicians that takes all of those intellectual and artistic aspects of music and delivers the goods in their own unique way, while maintaining the accessibility of their personalized sound. Led by Derek Trucks
and Susan Tedeschi
, they are the Tedeschi Trucks Band, and they are able to blend together all of the elements found in music and art while looking to the future in their quest for artistic freedom. But they are also unique in that they draw from more musical elements and then create their own sound by looking through a different lens, a lens that looks and starts its journey from the opposite end of that creative door.
In many ways, it is a band that reminds me of the group that Miles Davis
pulled together for his Bitches Brew
(Columbia, 1970) period. Not in their sound necessarily, but in their approach to discovering new artistic territories. Davis often received accolades for finding young, talented musicians who also added chemistry, such as Dave Holland
, Keith Jarrett
, John McLaughlin
, Chick Corea
and Jack DeJohnette
But one of the most critical and overlooked elements that was part of Davis' genius was his ability to select musicians that were not paralyzed by the music of previous jazz traditions, nor limited by any music or artistic paradigms. And it's those paradigms that still prevent that particularly great music to be fully realized today (one of the exceptions being Holland's recent Prism
(Dare2, 2013), with Craig Taborn
, Kevin Eubanks
and Eric Harland
a fresh, masterful work looking inside a previous approach, but one that has yet to be fully explored).
Tedeschi and Trucks have selected musicians (Kofi Burbridge on keyboards, Tyler Greenwell on drums and percussion, J.J. Johnson
on drums and percussion, Mike Mattison on harmony vocals, Mark Rivers on harmony vocals, Kebbi Williams on saxophone, Maurice Brown
on trumpet, Saunders Sermons
on trombone and Tim Lefebvre
on bass) that are not bound by genre or creative direction, something which is critical if the intention is to enter new realms of sound and music. And importantly, this is a band that also listens on a deeper vertical level. As the late, great Pablo Casals once said: "The heart of a melody can never be put down on paper." Nor can it be fully realized from only the surface of the music.
On any given night, this is a band that ventures into blues, rock, country, funk, jazz, gospel, Cajun, many musical approaches of the avant-garde, free improvisation, soul, rhythm and blues, the sounds of New Orleans, and several styles of music from India.
Trucks has studied the artistic sensibilities of Ravi Shankar
and Ali Akbar Khan just as strongly as he has John Coltrane
and Cecil Taylor
or Son House
and Elmore James
. As he once stated (it may not have been these exact words), "Practicing has to also include the critical time spent listening." And, of course, art cannot be expanded if you don't know where it's already been.
Tedeschi grew up spending countless days and hours listening to the gospel choirs of the black Baptist church along with studying all the blues masters of voice and guitar. With a voice often compared to Bonnie Raitt
, there is also an uncanny resemblance to the soulful cry of Otis Redding
and the depth and sensitivity of Etta James
. Additionally, she is one bad-ass on guitar, with an ear and ability to capture various tones and styles used throughout the history of music. And incredibly, what still resonates throughout is not only her warm humility and sensitivity, but also the same confidence and soulfulness that comes through in her vocals.
One can also sense her passion and her commitment to the music, as well as a sincere appreciation of those who came before her. If there is a wish for this band, it would be for her and Trucks to select a piece from the Allman Brothers Band
history and use it as a platform the way Trucks and Warren Haynes
do with that band now, or that Duane Allman
and Dickey Betts did in its early days. Speaking of Duane Allman, isn't it time that he gets held in the same regard as Jeff Beck
, Eric Clapton
and Jimmy Page
Trucks and Tedeschi are two obviously aware artists who have studied America's great cultural historydating back to the era of African-American slavery, as well as R&B, blues, jazz...even the earliest days of rock 'n' roll from Big Joe Turner
and the Kansas City scene, in addition to the history of the Grand Ole Opry that borrowed from the bluesbut one would have to travel to Europe to acquire a grade school education on America's greatest contribution to the arts, born from African- American history.
Sadly, we don't teach our children about their own culture and historyand, not surprisingly, race continues to play a part in the decisions we make and what we choose to recognize and celebrate. Is it any wonder that some of our own great jazz and blues artists had to travel or even move to Europe to make a living and continue to play their own music?
Tedeschi Trucks Band is a group made up of eleven members, seven of which happen to be African-American. The leaders of the band are also a married couple with a son named after Charlie Parker
and a daughter whose middle name is the same as that of Coltrane's mother, and which became the title of his classic ballad: "Naima."
While driving from Seattle, WA to the performance in Vancouver, Canada, there was an unplanned hour-and-forty-minute stay in the offices of the Canadian border. This is now the third time in a row experiencing such unplanned border visits, thus I feel as if I should warn any musicians who plan to travel and perform in Canada. I would also like to emphasize, very clearly, that the people of Canada are not a reflection of the practices of their 12-note border police.
Even with the border holdover, I was still able to make it to my seat just 10 minutes before the show was to begin. And within seconds of Tedeschi walking to the front of the stage, the audience began singing "Happy Birthday" to her, as she looked at Trucks and the rest of the band and blushed. From this point, the energy of the room increased threefold and all of a sudden, you knew that this was going to be a special evening of music, and you could see it in the band members as well.
Starting their set with a lush horn intro to kick off "All That I Need," the horn arrangements were led by one of the great but perhaps lesser known trumpet players today, Maurice Brown
. He has a warm center to his tone that is very difficult to capture on his instrument. It takes a lot of strength but an almost perfect sense of pitch, and you have to have something musical and expressive to say or you end up sounding sterile; hardly the case for Brown. He started his career with Ramsey Lewis
and has played with such greats as Johnny Griffin
, Clark Terry
, Ellis Marsalis
, Fred Anderson
, Curtis Fuller
and Roy Hargrove
But in many ways, it was Tedeschi who was the heart and soul of this band. There are very few who can carry such a creative presence that they are able to change the feel of an entire band so strongly and so quickly. I found it amazing to watch. In this case, she brought a sensual feel to each word, adding a certain richness and humility that captivated both the audience and the band.
If there was ever any question of the band coming to play, it was answered during the next seven to eight minutes. Trucks started with the chords for "Made Up Mind," and it became readily apparent that there was something different about the overall musical approach on this night. The chord style reminded me of the guitarist's hero, Elmore James
, but Trucks attacked the notes with a ferocity and attitude that we just don't hear much anymoreand, most importantly, with a voice that was all uniquely his.
When the band finally kicked in, they attacked the front end of each note with a passion and urgency that gave the sound an even fresher and more intense, in- the-moment statement. I'm not sure why more bands don't utilize this approach, as it is a sure way to make the music come alive and bring the band and audience together as one. As bands mature, the tendency is for them to begin to slide more and more towards the back end of each note, which can make the song drag or in some cases, even suck the life out of a tune. But add a younger drummer who understands how to manipulate the emphasis during the life cycle of each note, and you can change the entire dynamic of a composition and give it new life.
I was also surprised to hear Trucks jumping in headfirst with his first solo. He usually has his own way of settling in, but tonight he came out firing on all cylinders. Before "Made Up Mind" was over, he gave a solo that completely justified Eric Clapton
's statement that Trucks has a bottomless pit of creativity as a guitarist. Unlike many shredders, whose notes are simply bridges from note to note, Trucks gave each note a life, and importantly, a purpose. And that inherently demonstrated one of the differences between the entertainment and artistic aspects of music.
Entertainers look for hooks that will grab a listener's ear and return a hit or massive amounts of money and girls. They think about looking cool, and, at least in the case of men, having machismo or sexuality on stage, yet every individual who seeks those goals tends to think of himself as an artist, and that clearly is an insult to those who are.
In contrast, Trucks has said that he prefers not to have hits so that they can approach each performance without an expectation of having to play specific songs. Still, Tedeschi Trucks Band ended their set with their wonderful composition, "Midnight In Harlem." It is a tune that is their most popular but also their paradox. This is where Trucks displays what makes him so unique as a guitarist inside the history of the instrument.
There is also a history of spirituality in music that goes back to at least the 11th century (thank you Pat Martino
). But, perhaps, the strongest and most creative history comes from India. This isn't necessarily in a religious sense but in an artistic sense, where music is an expression created from the deepest depths of the spiritual soul. In most Western societies, it's an unbelievably difficult place to reach because we have our own culture and life experiences. Almost all of those who do reach it have found a way to eliminate their ego, which can place too much significance on one's own existence in the present, to be able to return to a place that is purer and more free to create from that reality. But it is important to note that each individual who has this ability has a different reality, depending upon their level of spiritual depth.
Think about it. John Coltrane
did; so did George Harrison
and so, too, does Derek Trucks. I'm not trying to compare anyone; I'm simply trying to describe a place in music that has a rich history that is relatively unknown in our society. Perhaps the most well-known musician from India in the west is Ravi Shankar
. He was also George Harrison's teacher and mentor until the day he died. Coltrane would name his son after him; perhaps you know him, Ravi Coltrane
But it was during Trucks' solo on "Midnight In Harlem" when he most often tried to travel to this realm of existence. Like with many ragas, Trucks started his solo slowly and softly, and you could hear the Indian influences. There was a certain sweetness, similar to a slow awakening of each of the nine human emotions, until his solo erupted into a kind of musical ecstasy. For me, this is one of Trucks' greatest gifts, one he has in common with the late John Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix
. Jimi Hendrix
sometimes reached spiritual realms with his music, especially when playing with his Band of Gypsys. This was a band that gave him a platform, such as the canvas used by a painter, and it allowed him to open up all of his creative senses on a deeper level and not have to think about everyone's role and interaction. The Jimi Hendrix Experience may have been the more talented band, but it was important to think about each person's role collectively and their part within it. Like Trane, who was able to enter into a spiritual consciousness when the band would lay back, Hendrix could enter into that same realm with Band of Gypsys.
This may not describe exactly from where Trucks sometimes creates, but when the setting is right for him, I think it is close. To better understand this aspect of music, read the great book by Hazrat Inyat Khan, The Mysticism of Sound and Music
One of the significant musical statements made this night occurred when Trucks and saxophonist, Kebbi Williams
traded off one another, reminding me of the chemistry of the great jazz drummer Ed Blackwell
and saxophonist Dewey Redman
. They were killin' it and, truthfully, I haven't seen a mainstream band in jazz take that much risk since I last saw Ornette Coleman
; but then again, there is an argument that can be made with regard to whether Coleman has any mainstream-ness at all and I say that with the deepest respect.
Tedeschi Trucks Band is a group that could play until morning and still not reach the full diversity of creative ideas and knowledge they bring together. Yet, when they are on their game, the music, sound and chemistry from these 11 musicians begins to feel like a spiritual medicine for the soul. The sound and feel becomes warmer and thicker and you begin to feel a sense of joyful beauty reaching out to you; it's then that you begin to get a sense of the creative possibilities and relevance of this bandand just perhaps, a sense of the vast musical power and beauty that came before.