[20 April 2006]
Some 50 years back, as Charles Lloyd remembers, Memphis, Tennessee, was the musical home of a many highly talented individuals. Let me name the guitarists Calvin Newborn and Willie Johnson, the latter a notable performer on early Howlin’ Wolf recordings from that city, the former a jazzman not so spectacularly gifted as his pianist brother Phineas, but who was!
Like Lloyd and others, including Harold Mabern, both these Memphis men jammed and even made recording sessions with bluesmen. In one uninformed hack’s notes on CDs of other music from the period you can read that there used to be such a thing (under various names) as African-American music, but then peddlers of abstractions came in and fabricated spurious notions of different genres. Funny how the genres existed before the sort of ‘popular music’ they’re supposed to have been artificially contrived from. Sellers of commercial product haven’t always been keen to observe differences, even distinctions,
The real problem of not having a sense of the music itself is loss of depth. The worst pseudo-versatility is the property of the guy who can almost do everything and actually do all too little. Virtuosity’s another problem, and the reputation of Calvin Newborn’s brother Phineas suffered from his being able to play so much piano. Whatever is to be said about Duke Robillard’s other achievements, he has put his virtuosity and immense technique to considerable purpose, not least here. I am sure there is something missing in a lot of latter-day efforts at blues guitar, but there are times here when the same fires are lit which blaze briefly when one of the best old single recordings on Sun, Kent, Trumpet et cetera are played. He quotes Albert Collins saying that there were only a few of us left, and if you don’t get that one or think it’s a symptom of grumpyoldmenia, have you heard anything yet?
On the 16 minutes of “Blues-a-Rama”, Robillard celebrates ten guitarists he got a lot from. It’s not imitation, but demonstration of distinctive features of their respective playing, from Muddy Waters through the three Kings (B.B. in his earlier, not smoothed down, mode), Lowell Fulson, Gatemouth Brown, and Buddy Guy. Like the already veteran pianist on some of Guy’s early masterpieces, Little Brother Montgomery, and like Jelly Rill Morton before perhaps all of them, or us, Robillard makes something like a separate blues composition of representations of each of the others’ styles, without naming things anything like the Albert Collins Blues (like Morton’s “King Porter Stomp”, Montgomery’s “Bob Morton Blues”). So there is a decently interesting sixteen minutes plus blues guitar solo. Duly credited.
He sings so well on Lil’ Son Jackson’s “Gambler Blues”, I’d be tempted to kid a veteran blues fan that the performance had suddenly turned up, as some still so, in the hitherto obscure archives of some small Memphis company. Even if he didn’t believe me, there would be a raising of eyebrows and spirits. The supposed Rockabilly/Johnny Cash treatment of Bob Dylan’s “Down Along the Cove” actually isn’t so far from some aspects of what Willie Johnson did in ole Memphis. Country dance survived in early 1950s electric blues. Very few white men played consistently like bluesmen, or vice versa. There was a sort of genre overlap.
Jazz wasn’t remote either, and Ray Charles’s early “I’ll Do Anything But Work”, on the bluesy kick Charles took out of Nat King Cole, gets a decent performance with jazz guitar from Roibillard that Cole’s guitarist Oscar Moore might have been proud of. Robillard has of course recorded with Jay McShann and knows Kansas City and West Coast blues-jazz from the inside. Moore wouldn’t have been likely to produce the Buddy Guy sort of playing Robillard demonstrates on his instrumental “No Way Out”. It sounds like Buddy to me, who played on the Sonny Boy Williamson #2 “One Way Out” that Robillard cites as his tune’s inspiration. Robillard supposes he sounds more like Albert Collins on “No Way Out”, which I’d say is just more overlap (but he knows more Collins than I do: and many older bluesmen were also scholars).
Al Basile plays neat cornet on his own “This Dream”, while Robillard sings and sets out on a guitar solo in his Guy-Collins line, modulating into a fluent solo with more colour than most jazz guitarists go after. This CD is more interesting than the later volumes of the recent 100 Years of Jazz Guitar set on Sony!. The guitar-cornet blend is nice, and Jesse Williams as elsewhere relaxes into some lovely bass-playing in duet, before the guitarist develops some heavy blues resonance. He doesn’t go for more noise, though: he takes things into the late John Mayer’s Indo-Jazz territory, really pushing a kind of blues guitar which sounds close to sitar, into an overlap with Debash Bhattacharya. It’s not only the ilk of John Abercrombie who can look east, into a musical intensity deeper than mere emotion-stirring.
“Just Before Dawn” was, I think, the title of an early Errol Garner composition strongly influenced by Ravel, not at all like the later and famous Garner. The track under that title is a minute or so of quiet and unusual sounds, a brief avant-garde prelude to a short and tremolo-haunted rock balladic “Dawn”. Which isn’t as interesting as “Cookin’”, blues swing of a sort T-Bone Walker essayed in instrumentals, but different from Walker, and still substance to jive to, danceable. Doug James’s baritone sax (heard earlier on a wonderful jazz ballad “Danny Boy”—he also plays harmonica on the Dylan number) comes back along with Basile’s cornet in the affectionately ironic “Dark Eyes”, James’s solo suggesting even bass sax. The short, muted cornet solo and the light-hearted ending suggest something almost Cuban. Compay Segundo would have made the difference, but this is really more mainland American music. And one enterprising pianist has of late been trying to demonstrate affinties between ragtime and the music of Latin America.
It’s a very rare thing to find such classy musicianship on a CD presenting so much variety, but Duke Robillard’s a scholar, deeply sensitive to idiom, who has devoted extraordinary gifts to matters of style and substance, not display. He’s a true musical treasure.