Friday, February 20, 2004

Held in beautiful, historic downtown Charleston, the Lowcountry Blues Bash just wrapped up its 14th edition last week. For 11 days, the charming, cobblestoned city hosted a variety of local and out-of-town blues acts in venues ranging from the Charleston County Library and Gage Hall, a century-old building now used by a Unitarian congregation, to a gorgeous old hotel and a few smoky blues joints.

I arrived for the second week of the festival, headquartering myself at the picturesque and historic King's Courtyard Inn and wandering to the various venues in one of the South's most-walkable cities. My first stop, blueswise, was Cumberland's, a convivial blues club (soon to relocate to King Street, unfortunately, due to an escalating rent situation and kind of making irrelevant the fact that it's now actually on Cumberland Street) where acoustic blues wizard Michael Pickett was holding court. Trading among six- and 12-string acoustic guitars and a National Steel, and accompanying himself on harmonica, the Toronto-based Pickett played a repertoire of Delta and Chicago style blues, including some intense versions of Robert Johnson tunes such as "Hellhound on My Trail" and "Walking Blues," which more resembled Johnson's mentor, Son House. Pickett's vocals are as intense as his playing, but never over-the-top, and his original tunes are often hilarious. If you're in South Florida, don't miss his performances at Last Call and Alligator Alley in Fort Lauderdale and the Bamboo Room in Lake Worth next weekend.

Following Pickett, who I caught the next day in an even better afternoon performance at the library, was the extremely entertaining Charleston-based trio of Robert Paige and the Holy City Sinners. A tall, gangly fellow with slicked-back hair, guitarist-vocalist Paige is a dynamo, whether he's ripping burning West Side Chicago-style blues licks or mugging shamelessly. On occasion, the charismatic frontman would kick a long leg out to the side, perfectly timed to superb drummer Josh's kickdrum bombs. Bassist Bones, who joined in on harmony vocals, was also right-on-time, and lent plenty of personality to the proceedings, which included some rockabilly raves, as well.

On tap at Cumberland's the following night was the Roman Griswold Band, led by keyboardist Griswold, who evinced a churchy Hammond B-3 sound from his keyboards and sang in a voice shot through with character. An object lesson: I had planned to attend last year's Lowcountry Blues Bash, at which Griswold played with his brother, Art, but never got off my ass in time. Sadly, Art passed away in November. Nonetheless, Roman was great, a real funky blues treasure.

Over at the Mills House, an elegant hotel on the city's famed Meeting Street where guests are often seen in tuxedos and gowns, the scruffy blues crowd milled about, looking somewhat out of place, until they hit the back bar where South Carolina's own Wes Mackey was putting on his one-man blues show. Singing in a soulful, dusty falsetto, the stocking-footed Mackey picked electric guitar and worked a bank of foot pedals that provided both bass and drum accompaniment.

I had fully intended to catch up with the Griswold band, reprising its show at a bar-restaurant called Sticky Fingers, but was captivated by the acoustic picking emanating from the lobby bar at the Mills House. Taking a seat at the nearly empty bar, I was treated to a beautiful set of classic country tunes by a local performer named Dale Kelly. Like a dream jukebox in some Texas roadhouse, Kelly picked and sang selections by Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, and even came up with "Della and the Dealer" when I requested some Hoyt Axton (whose baritone voice his somewhat resembled) and "Homegrown Tomatoes" when I asked for a Guy Clark number. Needless to say, after hearing classics such as "Poncho and Lefty" and "Silver Wings," and downing several more 7&7's, I wasn't going anywhere.

Trying to take a brief respite from the blues and the liquor, the next day I put on my headphones and headed for a shady park I had passed the night before, planning to sit and read away the chilly but sunny afternoon. However, I began hearing the familiar rhythm of Chicago blues pumping from the nearby Mills House and abandoned my plan. Outside in the hotel's courtyard, the Shrimp City Slim Band was in the midst of an afternoon set, boogeying mightily for the delighted crowd that had gathered. Keyboardist Gary Erwin, also the festival's founder and organizer, displayed a deft barrelhouse touch, and received solid support from his six-piece band, which included a guest honking tenor sax. Guitarist Silent Eddie was particularly good, his soulful vocals giving lie to his moniker (although apparently, the laconic plectrist only just started singing recently).

Another South Carolina legend, Columbia's Drink Small was probably the highlight of the week for me, holding in his thrall the audience who showed up for his solo show at the intimate Gage Hall. Drink's set was filled with ribald humor and great humanity, as he picked a shiny resonator guitar and sang in a strong baritone that he sometimes dropped to bass for humorous effect. Sex, of course, was a favorite subject, as he boasted about his prowess with the ladies and warned "don't let nobody know what your lover can do." During intermission, a fan remarked how he had loved Drink's piano playing, so a piano was found and brought to the stage. The grizzled performer, now 71 years old he reminded us again and again, proceeded to tear it up on the keys, playing some rollicking boogie and even a lullabye called "Coon Shine Baby." Drink did the next day at the library, as well, and hardly repeated himself, doing some delightful rock'n'roll tunes, such as "Mother in Law," to which his basso profundo was particularly well-suited on the chorus.

That day, Drink was filling in for Chicago blues legend Jimmy Burns, who took ill and wasn't able to attend the festival. Burns was also scheduled to play Cumberland's, along with fellow Chicagoan Maurice John Vaughn, but Vaughn and his excellent band assured no one went away disappointed, expertly playing their funky, contemporary-style brand of Windy City blues.

The next-to-last night of the festival, but the last for me, presented an excellent Valentine's Day double-bill at Cumberland's, with Charleston blues diva Wanda Johnson sharing the bill with Atlanta's "Empress of the Blues" Sandra Hall. Backed by Shrimp City Slim and company, Johnson was a real treat, her voice somewhat reminiscent of Irma Thomas', and her original songs telling of life in the lowcountry; one particularly moving tune talked of how she used to go fishing with her daddy. The dynamic Hall is an absolute powerhouse, and when she ascended the stage, it was star time. With a tight ensemble working the groove behind her, Hall shook what her mama gave her and alternately seduced and scolded the men in the audience. A staple of her live show, she once again dragged a hapless schmo onstage, much to the delight of the audience, and smothered him with her ample bosom after much teasing and buildup.

Completely sated after five days of great food (Charleston is renowned for its many restaurants specializing in lowcountry cuisine, and I highly recommend the shrimp and grits at Poogan's Porch, and jest about anything at Jestine's), drink and music, I reluctantly said goodbye to the scenic town, hopped in my car and started the eight-and-a-half hour drive home. And, despite the speeding ticket in Georgia ($135!), it was completely worth it. For more about the event, check out www.bluesbash.com.

Sunday, February 01, 2004

Reissues, part II: Cecil Taylor, Groove Holmes and the soul of jazz in 1966

It's hard to believe music as abstract as that contained on Student Studies, a recent rerelease (on the Fuel label) by Cecil Taylor, was being made in 1966. An avant-garde pioneer, the pianist and composer had released two classic albums, Unit Structures and Conquistador, earlier that year for Blue Note, and this live recording from Paris continues to explore the wide-open vistas of free jazz with a small ensemble. Joining Taylor on these outré excursions are longtime collaborator Jimmy Lyons on alto, Alan Silva on bass and Andrew Cyrille on drums, all of whom were on the same page as their adventurous leader (as opposed to Coltrane's quartet, which would eventually abandon him when he ventured too far out on the fringes).

The interaction among the musicians, who seem to be listening intently to one another, is simply amazing and the session never dissolves into chaos or incoherence. Lyons offers a saw-toothed, sooty tone, and Silva's bowed bass, particularly on "Student Studies Part 2," sings and sobs as Taylor's dense, percussive note clusters build to cresendo. Cyrille's masterful drumming is sensitive and coloristic, as he beautifully and exhilaratingly shadows his bandmates. With an Oriental minimalism, the space-filled "Amplitude" truly gives the drummer a chance to shine, punctuating the proceedings with all manner of bells and whistles (quite literally), while Lyons' short, upper-register blasts and Taylor's alternately chiming and crashing piano engage in sparse and eloquent conversation. By no means easy listening, Student Studies is not quite as dense or atonal as some of Taylor's later work, and might provide a good starting place for listeners who wish to test the avant waters.

In contrast to Taylor's scrupulously anti-commercial art music, the recording industry struggled to find ways to make jazz palatable for the masses. One particular avenue that seemed to grab the ears of the mainstream was the mix of soul, funk and R&B that was epitomized by the Hammond B-3 organ trios and quartets that came to prominence in the late '50s, and continued to keep urban jazz clubs vital long after swing and bop had all but faded into obscurity. Among the dynamic masters of the instrument, no list would be complete without the late Richard "Groove" Holmes, who played with jaw-dropping speed and fluidity. Recorded in 1966, On Basie's Bandstand, also rereleased last year, is a remarkable document of Holmes' flying-digit dexterity and sense of dynamics. As the title implies, the recording was made live at Count Basie's Lounge in Harlem, where Holmes is joined by a stellar trio of the equally fleet-fingered guiarist Gene Edwards and an energetic George Randall on drums. (Apparently, this was the drummer's recording debut). The sound on this Prestige reissue, originally recorded by Rudy Van Gelder, is exceptional.

The set begins with a breathless romp through the standard "Indiana," an exercise in stamina at 9 minutes plus that doesn't let up for a second. Edwards, a Chicagoan, displays slinky, bluesy chops on Bobby Timmons' "Moanin'," issuing one beautifully toned solo after another as Randall offers unshakable support on the ride cymbal. Holmes is likewise at home in the blues, his solos redolent with the thick tang of barbecue smoke, especially on the concluding and all but de rigueur "Night Train." The group also delves into then-current popular soul-jazz favorites with Timmons' muscular "This Here" and Horace Silver's exotic "Nica's Dream," as well as dipping into the standard songbook for a laid-back but simmering read of "When I Grow Too Old To Dream." Still, this recording is mostly taken at a sprint; cue up the threesome's quick-stepping take on Coleman Hawkins' "Rifftide" and prepare to be awed as Holmes sets his Leslie cabinets a whirl with nearly manic energy.

Up next: Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, this year's Handy Award nominees, and a review of the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players' Friday concert at the Carefree.

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