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What I'm Listening to This Week

Slipped Discs: Jarrett, Francke and Smoky Babe

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR

Keith Jarrett & Charlie Haden / Jasmine  (ECM, 2010)

Restrained, intimate, nuanced: these are not descriptors often applied to the work of piano virtuoso Keith Jarrett. But the playing on this 2011 release pairing Jarrett with his old band-mate, the versatile bassist Charlie Haden, is precise and emotionally engaged. The improvisational flights launched from well-trod standards, such as “For All We Know” and “Body and Soul,” are surprisingly sinuous, the chord changes almost liquid, the lines never flowing too far beyond the banks of the familiar melodies. Perhaps it is Haden’s Midwestern sensibility that helps to keep Jarrett rooted, reining-in his tendency toward fanciful of self-indulgence. These beautifully sketched love songs quietly swing, propelled by Haden’s deft blues-based rhythms.  The tempestuous Jarrett has a tendency to dominate, if not intimidate, other players. But Jarrett can’t trample over Charlie Haden, who is every bit the piano player’s equal in the history of post-bebop jazz. After all the bassist from Shenandoah, Iowa (son of bluegrass musicians) helped to bust open the boundaries of improvised music by anchoring Ornette Coleman’s free jazz band of the 1960s. On Jasmine, however, experimentation and abstraction are replaced with a more tangible style of music, a kind of free-form impressionism, as if the two jazz innovators are engaged in a fluid dialogue on the nature of love.

 

Stewart Francke / Heartless World (Blues Boundary, 2011) 

Call Stewart Francke a regional treasure, if you like. But what a region! The Detroit-based singer/songwriter/guitar-slinger grew up awash in the deep grooves of the Chicago blues and Motown R&B during what may well be the most creative era of American popular music.  Francke has a richly textured voice, a rocker’s Sam Cooke. He spent his early years as a bassist in blues bands and it was evidently a bountiful apprenticeship. Franke’s music seamlessly weaves blues and funk strands into infectious pop songs. I mean pop in the best sense, as in his 1995 hit “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.”  In 1998, Francke was diagnosed with leukemia.  He waged a successful battle against the disease and became a vital voice in the movement for cancer awareness and a sane health care policy. The music deepened, too, as revealed in his CDs Swimming With Mercury and What We Talk Of … When We Talk.  Francke’s latest release is his most accomplished yet. Sure, the voice has some road miles on it, but that only enriches the music, which shifts from blue-eyed soul to hard-driving rock. These are brave songs about love in a time of war, about loss and survival amid the ruins of a once mighty city. Bruce Springsteen lends a gritty gravitas to “Summer Soldiers,” Francke’s song about alienated young soldiers caught in an inexplicable, faraway war. This is humane music, music with a soul.
Smoky Babe / Hottest Band Goin’  (Bluesville, 1961) 

The ghostly bluesman Smoky Babe isn’t merely under-rated, he’s been almost undetected, even by many blues aficianados. And that’s too bad, because his distinctive voice, powerful strumming and quirky songs deserve a much wider audience.  Somehow the blues revival of the 1960s passed by this master of the Piedmont sound, the rhythmic country blues of rural Louisiana.  Born Robert Brown on a plantation outside Itta Bena, Mississippi, Smoky Babe spent his early years sharecropping in the blistering red clay fields. As a teen, he learned to play an acoustic guitar from local bluesman and, seeing his ticket out of back-breaking drudgery, began playing in roadhouses near Baton Rogue. He hoboed up and down the Delta before settling in New Orleans in the 1950s, where he worked as a garage mechanic and played nightly in various bars and blues clubs.  In 1960, Harry Oster, a musicologist at Louisiana Statue University,  made two so-called “field recordings” of Smoky Babe, “Hot Blues,” released on the Folk Lyric label, and Hottest Band Goin’ from Bluesville. Smoky Babe’s guitar work is highly rhythmic, using throbbing bass-lines that are a precursor of the pounding electric blues of Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside. But the real treasure is Smoky’s smooth and assured voice, which like the greatest of blues singers is both lusty and freighted with a kind of profound sorrow. Unlike Mississippi Fred McDowell and other Delta blues artists who were “discovered” by ethnographers and musicologists, Smoky Babe’s career didn’t enjoy a revival on the college and coffee house blues circuit. Instead he continued to play house parties and barbecues until sometime in the mid-1970s when, according to friends, he simply disappeared. Some say he died in 1975. But, like a true legend of the country blues, no one knows for sure.

Jeffrey St. Clair is the author of Born Under a Bad Sky. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.