It is hard to believe that there is only one Phil Upchurch. His name appears with such frequency on so many records that you would be forgiven for thinking it served as industry shorthand for “Session Guitarist”. To some extent that is the case, for if anyone epitomises that under-appreciated but essential figure it is Upchurch. There have been great studio axemen over the years—Mickey Baker, Cornell Dupree, Eric Gale, Wah Wah Watson and so forth—but none has had either the versatility or the sheer productivity of the Chicago-born master. Yet despite appearances on around 200 albums, including classic sets with the likes of Curtis Mayfield and Donny Hathaway, not to mention countless singles and over 20 albums under his own name, this ultimate backroom boy is probably still best remembered for his 1961 juke-box hit and Mod anthem, “You Can’t Sit Down”.
If anything is going to shift that perception of one-hit wonder (an absurd description of one of the longest and most successful musical careers) it could be Tell the Truth. Not so much in that this is the best work he has ever done—God knows how you could fathom that out given the amount of sessions he has been involved with—but because it probably gives the fullest portrait of Upchurch’s technical and emotional range to date. It is a project free of the dictates of others and it is therefore fascinating to hear his choice of material and the approaches adopted by an artist so used to working to someone else’s plans.
The earliest number dates from 1914 (Handy’s “St.Louis Blues”) and the most recent is a cover of Steely Dan’s “Jack of Speed”. In between there are renditions of compositions by Nat Adderley, Dave Brubeck, Natalie Cole, Neal Hefti, Eric Johnson and Errol Garner. You can readily identify a penchant for the smooth and more polished end of jazz and popular music. Upchurch throws in a couple of his own tunes and one by his pianist, David Arnay. Standards and originals are both given thoughtful and occasionally surprising arrangements but the overall aim is a steady and consistent groove. It is easy listening—Upchurch is incapable of producing a jarring chord—but of a distinctly superior variety. An ability to draw on a wealth of generic knowledge is combined with a rare melodic sensibility to breathe new life into even the most familiar workhorses.
The favoured guitar sounds are very much the product of the various phases and locations of Upchurch’s working life. Jazzman though he is—and this is a jazz album—it is worth remembering those Chicago origins. His first real gig was as a bassist, behind no less a figure than Otis Rush. Though his tone is many miles removed from the sound we associate with Chicago amplified blues, a blues aesthetic and a general bluesiness can be detected throughout his work. It is the emotional core of the music and adds weight to even the most candle-lit of numbers. Staying in Chicago, it should be noted that Upchurch was Chess records star in-house guitar during that label’s transition from blues to soul. Jazzy licks were added to rhythm and blues arrangements and Upchurch became a pioneer of a Soul-Jazz style that still serves him well. The Chess house band hasn’t received the attention of its counterparts at Motown, Stax or Philly—but it was as formidable and innovative as any. The third element involved a move to the West Coast and the sophisticated jazz-funk sound that typified the era. Blues, Soul and Funk—all wrapped up in a club-friendly, relaxed jazz ambiance—that is the result of all his years as a sideman and here we can hear how it all comes together.
It is a long set and does flag somewhat in the middle sections, where the Smooth Jazz ethos looms a little too large. Mostly, though, it is a thoroughly captivating journey down the highways and by-ways of black musical styles. Adderley’s “Jive Samba” opens the show—sprightly and definitely blue-toned. Then the Dan cover. Fagin-Becker idolaters (and there are many) may object to the mellow tastefulness of this rendition but it seems to me to simply explore implications firmly there in much of their work, especially of late. The cleanliness of tone and the crispness of the solo work should silence most critics. Upchurch is less concerned with tortured, self-expression than he is with exploring the structural possibilities and the mood of a piece. There is an analytical side to his character, which could have led these tracks to be merely exercises in proficiency. A late night, supper-club warmth counterbalances that—but don’t expect soaring highs and lows—restraint is more of a virtue than excess in this neck of the woods.
Flamboyance has its place though. Natalie Cole’s’ “La Costa” allows Upchurch to show how that he can play Spanish guitar as well as any specialist. It always was a great tune but never sounded as fluent and evocatively delivered as here. Other firing tracks include a cover of LTD’s ‘70s classic “Every Time I Turn Around”, which is as funky as you could ask for without sacrificing an iota of poise. The revelation though is Paul Desmond’s “Take Five”. Now, I must admit that I groaned when I saw this on the track listing. However, this version manages to do something new with the Brubeck anthem. If you can conjure up the notion of “Take Five” as a blues showcase, you are almost there and will marvel at the way Upchurch works against the grain to rejuvenate one of the creakier items in the catalogue. Something similar happens to Hefti’s “Girl Talk” which benefits from being cleansed of kitsch to reveal a charming slice of ‘60s Americana.
Elsewhere, efficiency rather than adventurousness dominates the set. This has its drawbacks. “St.Louis Blues” is a pretty but rather pointless solo excursion while Arnay’s “Home Again” is more than a little bland. Much better is the “definitive” version of the modern quiet stormer, “Manhattan”. No disrespect to composer Eric Johnson, but I can’t imagine this gentle song receiving a more sympathetic treatment.
The title track and the complex “Long Gone Bird” are both robust, rhythmic affairs, which—along with Upchurch’s “She’s Alright”—give plenty of scope for relaxed , bluesy jamming. These three unpretentious but engaging efforts reveal the essence of the album. If you can have a down-home, back porch, sophistication then that is what this session exudes. It is suave, highly articulate playing but its basic ingredients are simple and deeply rooted in black music’s most enduring forms.
The smooth and the orthodox jazz market will probably lap this record up more readily than the soul and funk fans who (unknowingly maybe) own the bulk of Upchurch’s earlier work. If the latter group were to ignore this then they would miss out, not only on some fine if unthreatening music, but on one of the reasons why soul records sounded so good in the first place—great musicians. Upchurch may not be the best known of guitar kings but he is among the most accomplished. That fact has kept him constantly in demand for 40 years. Thanks to Tell the Truth we get more of Upchurch on one CD than we usually get on a score of albums. And that suits me just fine.
// Notes from the Road
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