[2 October 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Jazz interpretations of the Motown songbook present a challenge: How to innovate the familiar? The original hit versions of Motown standards are often considered the definitive versions, indelibly etched in the memories of listeners. What is “The Tracks of My Tears” without Smokey Robinson’s angelic tenor or “Dancing in the Streets” without the huskiness of Martha Reeve’s voice? Unlike the Lee Ritenour-spearheaded Twist of Motown (2003), a well-intentioned but terminally placid endeavor on GRP Records, Do the Boomerang celebrates the catalog of one artist from the legendary label—tenor saxophonist Junior Walker. Working with some of the label’s most prolific writers during Motown’s halcyon age in the mid-‘60s, Walker racked up an impressive run of pop and R&B hits, including “Shotgun”, “(I’m a) Roadrunner”, and “How Sweet It Is”. Born Autry DeWalt II, Walker brought what was essentially jazz improvisation to Motown’s carefully crafted hit machine. Of all the artists’ catalogs that capture Hitsville, U.S.A. in the ‘60s, Walker’s is the most obvious for jazz musicians to revisit. Forty years later, jazz saxophonist Don Byron honors the late tenor sax player on Do the Boomerang: The Music of Junior Walker.
Byron and producer Hands Wendi bring aboard a stellar quintet of musicians for the album, all of whom have worked with Byron on previous projects. David Gilmore (guitar), George Colligan (organ), Brad Jones (bass), Rodney Holmes (drums), and Curtis Fowlkes (trombone) exhibit a fulgurant enthusiasm for Walker’s tunes. The sparkling synergy between the musicians helps simulate the “sound” of ‘60s soul on instrumentals like “Hewbie Steps Out” and “Tally-Ho”. Colligan’s work on the Hammond B-3 organ is especially true to the era on the latter track and offers a sonic texture counter to Byron’s wailing tenor sax. A couple of tracks also benefit from Byron’s unconventional approach to song interpretation. The cacophonic tag that closes “Ain’t That the Truth”, for example, cunningly suggests that “the truth,” symbolized by the straightforward musical arrangement preceding the tag, isn’t so clear cut.
Save for a couple of tracks, mimetic performances by vocalists Dean Bowman and Chris Thomas King undermine Byron’s showcase of Walker’s material. “Shotgun” best illustrates the problem with each vocalist’s approach to these songs. Walker’s memorable vocal performance on this 1965 R&B chart-topper was actually a guide vocal meant to be re-recorded later. There’s an organic quality to the tune, as if Walker extemporaneously created the words and melody in front of the microphone as the track was recorded. In copying Walker note by note, Bowman saps the spontaneity out of the song, one of the rubies in Motown’s crown. Perhaps a more creative approach to “Shotgun” for this project would have been to strip the vocals and let the organ or guitar improvise the melody instead of an inferior carbon-copy vocal. “Do the Boomerang” and “(I’m a) Roadrunner” similarly suffer from Bowman and King’s forced soul.
The one tune to actually improve on a Walker original is “What Does It Take (to Win Your Love)”, a top five pop hit in 1969 for Walker penned by Johnny Bristol, Vernon Bullock, and Harvey Fuqua. Here, Byron trades his tenor sax for bass clarinet while King abandons the histrionics and gives a sexy, nuanced reading of the lyrics. It is the most truthful and satisfying vocal performance on the entire album.
“There It Is” is not a Junior Walker tune nor is it from the Motown catalog. It is a James Brown cut from 1971. What is it doing here? Byron cites the tune as being of a piece with Walker’s “Do the Boomerang”. He explains, “There’s a difference in the rhythms, but in structure, all of those guys were taking parts that had heavy blues elements and pocketing them in different ways.” Fair enough, since Byron is known for a particular licentiousness in his projects, but “There It Is” disrupts the aural flow of this tribute to Junior Walker. Though the rhythm section captures the heat and sweat of Brown’s players, it’s difficult to conceive of King and Bowman’s rebarbative rendering of the words as anything more than a James Brown parody.
The album remains a worthwhile listen, though, because of Byron’s generosity towards his musicians. Gilmore and Colligan, for example, shine on numerous solo spots throughout the album. “Satan’s Blues”, a track from Walker’s Soul Session, is memorable because of Gilmore’s deft fretwork, and Holmes practically sets his skins on fire at the close of Walker’s 1967 hit “Pucker Up Butter Cup”.
Ultimately, Do the Boomerang incites listeners to hear the original recordings by Walker. Fans of Junior Walker or Don Byron will naturally be intrigued enough to buy Do the Boomerang but those unfamiliar with either artist should sample first or catch Byron in concert to hear (hopefully!) alternate and expanded arrangements of this material. In the meantime, go to the source and pick up a Junior Walker compilation.