Riffs: Getting swept away with Jon Dee Graham

Monday, May 19, 2008 at 10:43pm

Until watching Mark Finkelpearl’s excellent new DVD Jon Dee Graham: Swept Away (Treadmill) I hadn’t really heard that much of Graham’s music, nor knew much about him. But Finkelpearl’s production not only conveys the beauty of Graham’s writing and special appeal of his sound, it makes you anxious to hear more about his life and times.

He’s been called “The white Howlin’ Wolf” by songsmith Alejandro Escovedo, and while that might be just bit excessive, there’s no doubt that Graham’s songs have a punch and impact that doesn’t diminish over repeated listening. He’s also quite a character, as this set repeatedly shows.

Whether he’s admonishing someone on a cell phone and informing them that he can’t continue the conversation because he’s on camera to expressing in an interview that he’s uncomfortable talking about specifics in his music, Graham emerges as not only completely uninterested in fame, but a compelling vocalist and guitarist.

There are valuable contributions from other outstanding artists like James McMurtry and Escovedo, as well as veteran journalist and critic Geoffrey Himes, who describes Graham as one of the few extremely talented performers who haven’t been discovered.

That opinion is backed by another knowledgeable observer and Texas music historian Katherine Cole. But the real proof comes in hearing Graham in multiple contexts, from backing himself on solo acoustic guitar and doing a soothing piece to a rocking live date with an electric combo. Graham’s style and compositions blend and sometimes slam together blues, country, soul, rock, even surf, but above all it’s fresh and original.

Jon Dee Graham: Swept Away not only shows why Graham was named Musician of the Year at the 2006 South by Southwest music conference, it makes you want to rush out and get everything by Graham that’s available immediately.

New blues

Paul Metsa and Sonny Earl’s White Boys Lost In The Blues (Maximum Folk) tackles the age-old subject of cultural authenticity forcefully, with masterful guitarist Metsa and slashing harmonica soloist Earl functioning as a contemporary version of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee minus the personal animus that soured that great duo’s final years (the title track is a Terry composition).

They deliver some rousing covers, among them “One Way Out” and “Lollipop Mama” as well as Dylan’s “She Belongs To Me,” but the most musically interesting pieces are their originals like “Cold Outside,” “Southside Silhouette” and “Must Be The Way You Look.” On these, they move away from faithful replication into spirited discourse, with Metsa’s pungent accompaniment and tasty solos balanced by Earl’s whirling, attacking harmonica lines.

These guys are wonderful players, and there’s no question or doubt regarding either their sincerity or their blues credentials.

Ron Hacker’s Mr. Bad Boy (Maximum Folk) navigates some of the same thematic territory, though not quite as overtly. He addresses the issue directly on “Let Me Sing Like Elmore James,” one of two originals, but otherwise Hacker just blazes away in a fiery solo guitar concert that covers both country and city blues.

Hacker moves from the Delta (Robert Johnson) to Chicago (Jimmy Rogers) while also interpreting material from those somewhere in between (Yank Rachell, Sleepy John Estes). By the time he’s completed “Come On In My Kitchen” and wrapped the show, he’s justified his nickname and also taken those in attendance at this live date recorded at the Famous Dave BBQ & Blues in Minneapolis on a rewarding journey through various eras of blues history.

Recent and classic jazz

Before hearing a “Re-Performance” of a Glenn Gould classical piano date from the ‘60s issued by Zenph, my natural inclination was to distrust any notion that you could somehow re-record already great music and not either alter it someway or distort it. But the Gould recordings I heard were not only superb, they were noticeably better sonically, while otherwise unchanged.

That same thing holds true with Piano Starts Here, a magnificent Art Tatum release that’s gotten the same treatment. The initial tracks were recorded in 1933 and 1949 respectively. These were re-recorded last year with state-of-the-art technology and anyone who has the originals will be stunned by the improvement.

Of course, no one’s ever played solo piano like Tatum, and what he does with melodies on “Tea for Two,” Tiger Rag,” How High The moon” and “Willow Weep For Me” remains awesome all these decades later. The speed, cleanness of the lines, ability to create on the fly and the smooth incorporation of alternate tunes and fragments into the main solo without ever losing control was intimidating during his lifetime and remains so today.

Every jazz pianist who’s come behind him owes something to Art Tatum, and Piano Starts Here: Live at The Shrine is even more stunning with its new audio foundation.

Tenor saxophonist John Ellis includes plenty of blues and some funk as well as traditional New Orleans jazz elements on Dance Like There’s No Tomorrow (Hyena), a new session that also spotlights his band Double Wide. The groove on such numbers as “All Up In The Aisles” and “Three-Legged Tango in Jackson Square” reflects the percussive might of Jason Marsalis on drums, while organist Gary Versace provides both sturdy bottom lines via the bass pedals and plenty of rumbling, complimentary support.

Ellis is just as entertaining and exciting on soprano saxophone and bass clarinet, while Matt Perrine adds a very different fabric to the mix on sousaphone. His flamboyant contrasts and statements are ideal embellishments for Ellis’ and Versace’s solo flights.

There are other pieces like “Dream and Mosh: or the title track where the songs shift into sections that give the musicians more individual space, but the goal of this group remains as much to propel the beat and stimulate dance as stretch out and demonstrate their instrumental acumen. The nice thing here is that Ellis and Double Wide have crafted material that works equally well for dancers and listeners.

New satellite show

Lou Reed became the latest musician to join the satellite radio world this past Saturday, as Lou Reed’s New York Shuffle debuted on Sirius Disorder (70) at 5 p.m. (CST). As anticipated, Reed and on-air partner Hal Willner deliver a show that anticipates audiences will listen to multiple idioms during one program. Experimental jazz, punk, rock, pop, poetry and anything else that these two have delved into over the years will no doubt find its way onto the airwaves at some point.

One only hopes whenever all the merger business between Sirius and XM has been resolved that listeners get the both of each service, rather than someone’s arbitrary idea of what they think is the best. Each service has some extremely valuable shows, and it would be a major blow for fans to lose opportunities to hear them due to corporate politics.

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