Derek Trucks certainly has an impressive blues and Southern rock pedigree. He's the nephew of Allman Brother drummer Butch Trucks, and he's also toured with the Allman Brothers Band for several years. If that wasn't enough, he's married to musician Susan Tedeschi (who should no longer be referred to as "Mrs. Derek Trucks", even if he is her babydaddy). The Derek Trucks Band, however, plays more than just blues or Southern rock, impressively combining these influences with jazz and world music traditions.
Soul Serenade -- which was actually recorded in 1999 and 2000, before Joyful Noise -- begins with a bluesy cover of the King Curtis tune for which this album is named. Just about the time the groove settles in, the song shifts into Bob Marley's "Rasta Man Chant". On this first track, the band reveals both its strengths and weaknesses. Each musician in the band is supremely talented and a large part of the band's success is due to the members' willingness to share time at the front of the sound. Trucks has been a prodigy ever since disinterestedly purchasing his first guitar for $5 at a yard sale when he was nine (and simultaneously creating a key moment in the Derek Trucks mythology). Despite having impressive skills and an eponymous band, Trucks uses his guitar to fit in with the ensemble, rather than using the quintet to showcase his skills. The approach pays off by allowing for strong performances by flautist Kofi Burbridge and bassist Todd Smallie.
The band's weak point, apparent on the first track, is its inability to end a song. There is certainly nothing wrong with lengthy instrumental tracks, but solos and improvisations should be used to make some sort of statement. The Derek Trucks Band too often seems to be jamming-to-jam and the songs, despite wonderful flourishes, feel a bit prolonged.
"Bock to Bock", the second track, shows Trucks putting his skills on display in a Buddy and Wes Montgomery number. This piece sounds the most like classic jazz of any on the album, but the band's style (and especially Trucks's guitar tone) keep a blues edge to what would otherwise be a straight-ahead jazz song. After this song, Gregg Allman joins the band for vocals on "Drown in My Own Tears", which is the weakest track on Soul Serenade. The problems stem not so much from a poor performance on anyone's part, but from the band's restraint in performing what sounds essentially like an Allman Brothers tune. The Henry Glover song was originally recorded by Ray Charles, and it should have perhaps been left alone.
The fourth track is a version of Mongo Santamaria's "Afro Blue", previously covered by both John Coltrane and Gov't Mule, a fact that says much about the synthesis occurring in the band's music. The Derek Trucks Band's version starts off slowly and softly, with a Burbridge flute solo. Burbridge is joined by light percussion about a minute into the song. When Trucks enters at the 1:40 mark, it feels a bit out of place and the two instruments don't gel at all. After a brief hesitation, the flute and guitar combine to play the melody and the full drums kick in. The band makes impressive use of dynamics on this piece, and during one of the soft moments, we get to hear Smallie playing a bassline loaded with cool. Although the song pulls in several directions, the band sounds very tight through the not-quite-enough crescendo at the end.
Soul Serenade rounds out the jazz covers with "Oriental Folk Song", a Wayne Shorter arrangement based on traditional music, and titled appropriately. In "Elvin" and "Sierra Leone", the DTB members prove their songwriting ability on an album otherwise composed of covers. "Elvin"(titled in honor of Elvin Jones) stretches out just a bit too much, but reveals the spectacular playing of musicians who have found a good fit. "Sierra Leone" is a mellow, acoustic number, and a perfectly executed outtro for Soul Serenade.
On this fourth album from the Derek Trucks Band, the group showcases individual talent as well as a tight interplay. Though not perfect, the album contains no filler among its seven strong tracks. Although the individual artists may not have sought attention on Soul Serenade, the Derek Trucks Band deserves to be noticed.