Various Artists: Rockin' the Spirit: Piano Blues, Boogie and Spirituals

Robert R. Calder

Despite some inaccuracies in the marketing of this live date, the music contained within is sure to please any fan of jazz piano.

Various Artists

Rockin' the Spirit: Piano Blues, Boogie and Spirituals

Label: Chesky
US Release Date: 2005-04-26
UK Release Date: Available as import
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This terrific record's being marketed with a little handful of hooey. The music's none the worse for not being quite that combination of gospel piano and boogie woogie mentioned on the pack, but listeners who don't suspect the difference probably won't be disappointed.

One example of the slight inaccuracies can be found in the liner notes. The CD's paperwork alleges that boogie boogie dates from the 1930s. Just like the landmass on which it came into being existed only after 1492!

The 1930s was when lots of people started to hear the idiom, and in which it was subjected to simplification, vulgarization, and increasingly unmusical exploitation. The idiom is named after the "Pine Top's Boogie Woogie" of a long lean Mr. Smith, who recorded the subsequently eponymous tune less than two years before his traditional death from a stray bullet in a bar. Elements of the idiom started showing up on records earlier, such as the walking bass on Fletcher Henderson's "Chimes Blues" of 1923. As an idiom of faster-paced playing of blues, almost always 12-bar, very rarely 8 (eight-to-the bar was a slang 1930s term based on tempo indication within the bar), it had been perfected by (among others) Meade Lux Lewis on his one issued recording of 1927. With Pine Top's work (his "Jump Steady Blues" is his real masterpiece), the circulation of copies of this disc generated learned interest, and John Hammond's retrieval of Lewis from washing taxis precipitated the craze.

The idiom flourished notably in Chicago -- also Detroit, St, Louis, Memphis, Birmingham, Alabama, Austin, Texas, and environs -- within the repertoire of some blues pianists. Records helped Pete Johnson, Jay McShann, and others work their own approaches within the bluesier music of Kansas City. The straight Europeanised styles of New York players were alien to it. The fingering's wrong for it, although, for instance, Jimmy Blythe seemed to be developing from barrelhouse into an all round jazz pianist when he died not long after Pine Top.

Johnson, Lewis, and his buddy Albert Ammons played the 1938 Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall and a craze began. Besides hollow rubbish, it inspired some narrower later players like Willie Littlefield and Joe Duskin, came naturally to the 'til then unrecorded Tennesseean Cecil Gant, and allowed such formerly mainly ragtime players as Arnold Wiley odd recording dates.

The brilliant home-made piano style of Bob Zurke fitted it well, but the Bob Crosby band with which he recorded was a little jolly for the music. Avery Parrish took some traditional Alabama piano blues picked up on the wrong side of the tracks and created "After Hours" with the Alabama big band of Erskine Hawkins, in perfect idiom. The adopted Chicagoan Earl Hines combined experience of pre-jazz piano playing with his unique talents to create a "Boogie Woogie on St. Louis Blues" whose piano part is reprised in the course of the opening title here.

Bob Seeley's adaptation of W.C. Handy's neo-tango starts on the model of a jazzy-raggy Lewis or Ammons intro, then dives into the Hines, proceeding into a Chicagoan stride piano (Teddy Weatherford, Sonny Thompson) then an alternation of boogie choruses with stride ones. Ammons and Lewis could do that, and Seeley when very young became a friend of Lewis. For his interesting memoir of the older player, Google. Written up in Peter Silvester's A Left Hand Like God, Seeley hadn't, it seems, recorded when that study of the idiom was written. There are now four CDs, one of them demonstrating his extended talent as a stride player, and the discrepancy between his gifts and his reputation demands a link: (The reference to his longstanding gig is out of date, as several press notices observe. Superstitious notions of the need for something new removed the pianist on a whim. He played on 'til the proprietor had another whim, but what's cultural continuity?) Seeley also takes "Amazing Grace" at a decent holy-rolling lick, something the saw-voiced Blind Willie Johnson did to his own guitar accompaniment in the 1920s.

Rock, Church, Rock! is plainly an idea in this set, and besides "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie", the younger boogie revivalist Mark Braun (follow above link too) performs "My Sunday Best", beginning in a sort of gospel style (like Ray Bryant's essays in neo-boogie, which like much of that wonderful veteran's work, is steeped in gospel). Braun goes into boogie basses later in this "Let It Shine" adaptation. Braun and Seeley also duet on "Fourplay Boogie Woogie", which actually has more to do with climaxes.

The early swing style of Eric Reed's "You Took Advantage of Me" was possible in the 1930s and remains good for the soul, especially at Reed's level of execution, and even rarer full and mellow piano sound. His "Three Hymns" is just that, concluding with a stomp quite distinct from secular jazz and blues. Reed has ears, and the swingless drive he achieves is fascinating.

"You Took Advantage of Me" admittedly appealed to the mainstream jazz pianist with the oldest style on record, the late Cliff Jackson, but it has nothing to do with blues or boogie or gospel, and prodigious young Eric Reed looks for none in a performance in an earthy swing-cum-stride style. Benny Golson's "Whisper Not" doesn't fit the sales pitch either, in any performance, though the mainstream-modern duo performance by Reed and the far too little known Johnny O'Neal is upbeat and does swinging justice (I don't mean a hanging!) to Golson's rhythmic conception.

O'Neal's appearance as Art Tatum in the recent Ray Charles biopic angered a few of his peers and seniors, one of whom reported (I missed the film) that O'Neal was heard playing only 'country boogie-woogie', and surmised that O'Neal was such a gifted performer in a Tatum style that he might have stolen the scene if allowed to do his stuff. At least the reader can hear brief samples of O'Neal's playing on (for instance) He has made a fair few recordings, and I hope this set gives him a little more prominence. The nearest he comes to boogie woogie is a devil-may-care flinging in of joke left hand business here and there in "Jitterbug Waltz", which even his prestidigitations can't combine into the musicality of the performance. O'Neal's "Glory, Glory Hallelujah", footstomping with funk flourishes, suggests plainly that he was definitely having fun. More ears should hear the nonetheless real glory of this man's playing!

Monty Alexander needs no plugging, though his "Boogie Woogie Keys" does go into crowd-pleasing with a conclusion including cliché choruses ne'er so well expressed. "Nobody Knows the Trouble I Seen" transitions into "No Woman, No Cry", interesting in its demonstration of rhythms common to Kingston, Jamaica and the House of God. Alexander seems to have been the patron of this recording, a necessary selling -- and who knows, even saving -- presence.

It was all an amazing concert, and if programming a jazz duet between Reed and O'Neal as the closer was intended to help open some ears appealed to by the sales pitch, that's very fine indeed! Reed's debut as a Wynton Marsalis protégé might suggest to some of the prejudiced a Marsalafia connection. In truth, it's an occasion for gratitude, as is the demonstration that being less famous than Monty Alexander doesn't mean anything. At moments he sounds slightly facile in comparison with the rest, but nobody here stands out and nobody lets anybody down.


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