Friday, May 04, 2007

Terrific music from a favorite label

Robert Bilbo Walker was performing New Year’s Eve at Sarah’s Kitchen, a small eatery in Clarksdale, Miss., playing many of his songs from his old Rooster Blues CDs, “Promised Land” and “Rock the Night: Live in Chicago.”

Wearing a wig and white tuxedo, the 70-year-old Walker is a showman who sounds a lot like Chuck Berry (Walker even does a duck walk). Walker is a fine guitar player and singer and mixes several musical styles into his repertoire: Fifties rock-and-roll he listened to on the radio, country blues he heard growing up in the Delta (he was born on a plantation outside Clarksdale), as well as urban blues he picked up in Chicago and country music he’s heard in Bakersfield, Calif., where he’s lived and worked most of his life.

“Promised Land” and “Rock the Night” were produced by Living Blues founder and impresario Jim O’Neal, and they capture the gritty music and spontaneity of juke-joint blues: It’s not slick or flashy blues, but it’s genuine and honest and never boring.

You could listen to Robert Walker all day and not get tired of him. (You might also want to check out another one of his CDs, “Rompin’ and Stompin’” from Fedora.)

Rooster Blues is still my son’s favorite record label (and mine too, come to think of it), which issued some 30 records that are all excellent and a joy to listen to.

Quite an achievement for a small label that is no more, although O’Neal has a new label, Stackhouse Records, which we reviewed last week.

When you listen to a Rooster CD, you get the real blues with a terrific sound that O’Neal creates in the studio or sometimes in a club. Rooster Blues recorded many of the greatest blues musicians of the last 25 years, from the late Larry Davis of Lonoke County to Lonnie Shields, formerly of Helena and now living in Philadelphia; from harmonica wizard Willie Cobbs (who wrote “You Don’t Love Me”) and who still lives in Monroe County) to Willie King, an Alabama bluesman who may be O’Neal’s greatest find.

England native Larry Davis’ “Funny Stuff” was produced by St. Louis musician Oliver Sain, who plays saxophone and organ on the CD, which is on at least one list of all-time great blues records — it’s that good.

Johnnie Johnson, Chuck Berry’s pianist, also appears on “Funny Stuff,” with Davis’ guitar playing and gritty singing dominating the proceedings.

O’Neal usually writes his own liner notes, which are the best in the business. He’s the Whitney Balliett of blues criticism. (Jazz critic Balliett, who treated musicians with the same respect O’Neal does, passed away recently.)

Rooster Blues covers are striking and the liner notes attractively laid out: The cover of Willie King’s “Living in a New World” (pictured here) is one of our favorites: It captures the music, which is best when played in a small juke joint, the dancers gathering around musicians who wear street clothes just like King does in his old knit shirt and baseball cap and jeans and sneakers.

When we asked O’Neal about his favorite Rooster Blues CD (which is like asking a parent about his favorite child), he said Willie King’s “Freedom Creek,” his debut CD that won a Handy Award for record of the year, would be on top of his list.
“I felt that the first Willie King album was the most important one, the one I was glad to have recorded if I had done nothing else,” O’Neal told us.

“But I usually felt that there was something important about each album,” he continued. “It was easier to maintain that sense by continually recording new artists rather than do the proper businesslike thing and record several albums apiece by a few artists, develop the name recognition . . . but I just wasn’t into that. I would just let them go on to another label if they felt I wasn’t keeping up with what they needed to do.”

O’Neal would make one or two records with his musicians, and they’d move on, but each record was carefully planned and executed, so obscure musicians like Roosevelt (Booba) Barnes, who made one CD called “The Heartbroken Man,” is a modern masterpiece.

Besides Larry Davis, Rooster recorded other Arkansas musicians, including Willie Cobbs’ “Down to Earth” and Lonnie Shields’ “Midnight Delight and “Portrait.” Terrific music.

There were a whole slew of other Rooster artists, most of them transplanted southerners living up North: Big Daddy Kinsey and Kinsey Report’s “Bad Situation,” D.C. Bellamy’s “Water to Wine,” Lady Bianca’s “Rollin’,” Eddie C. Campbell’s “Hopes and Dreams,” Otis Clay’s “Soul Man: Live in Japan” on a double LP.

Also Eddie Clearwater and Otis Rush’s “Filmdoozie,” Magic Slim’s “Grand Slam,” Lonnie Pitchford’s “All Around Man” (where he plays the didley bow, a single-string guitar), Philadelphia Jerry Ricks’ “Many Miles of Blues,” Eddie Shaw’s “In the Land of the Crossroads,” Valerie Wellington’s “Million Dollar Secret” and Arthur Williams’ “Midnight Blue.”

Although they’ve left the South (Big Daddy Kinsey is no longer alive), Super Chicken, who recorded “Blues Come Home to Roost,” which is his best CD, still lives in Clarksdale, while Johnny Rawls, who made “Can’t Sleep at Night” with L.C. Luckett, lives in Memphis. An all-star lineup.

Rooster also issued “And This Is Maxwell Street,” a three-CD box set of live recordings of blues musicians playing for tips in a Chicago neighborhood in 1964, including Helena’s Robert Nighthawk, whose son, the drummer Sam Carr, following in his father’s footsteps, appears on Robert Bilbo Walker’s live CD that was also made in Chicago.

What they all have in common is a talent for the blues, played brilliantly, brought together under one label by Jim O’Neal.
Here’s hoping he’ll record the next Otis Rush (one of O’Neal’s favorites) and share his discovery with us. Rooster Blues and Stackhouse CDs are available from

Monday, April 30, 2007

Great pianist leaves a huge recorded legacy

Andrew Hill, perhaps the most important jazz pianist of the last 40 years, passed away a week ago last Friday at the age of 75, but he leaves behind an enormous body of recordings that are as wonderful and innovative as anything in modern jazz.
As a musician, he ranks with the giants of the post-war era: Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, Bill Evans, Ornette Coleman (who won a Pulitzer Prize for music just days before Hill passed away) and a handful of others.

Fortunately for jazz fans, Hill recorded during three different phases of his career for Blue Note, the premier jazz label that continues to put out a prodigious amount of outstanding jazz despite a downturn in record sales as young people download music from the Internet.

Serious jazz seldom sells very well, and it wasn’t till Blue Note was relaunched in the 1980s with strong financial backing that nearly all of Hill’s recordings were issued over the next 20 years. Blue Note is owned by the giant EMI group, which seems to be subsidizing the label’s serious music, although Norah Jones’ success on Blue Note has also helped with cash flow.
Alfred Lion, Blue Note’s co-founder, called Hill his last great discovery, and he certainly was the most durable: I can’t think of any other Blue Note artist from the 1960s whose recorded output has spanned over more than four decades, although some ’60s survivors still occasionally record for the label, including trumpeter Charles Tolliver, who often backed Hill, as recently as last year on Hill’s triumphant “Time Lines” with Greg Tardy on tenor and clarinet, John Herbert on bass and Eric McPherson on drums. Tolliver also appears on the recently reissued “Dance with Death” with Joe Farrell on tenor and alto saxophone. (See review of Tolliver’s new CD below.)

Hill explored new sounds well into his 70s, and he seldom repeated himself, playing his new compositions till the end, usually with younger musicians who appreciated his genius. There was a mystique about when he hinted he was born in Haiti (he was born in Chicago) and shaved five years off his age, so he seemed very young when he made his early Blue Notes. He was in his late 20s, instead of his early 20s, but still he made an impressive debut.

His Chicago background had steeped him in R&B and bebop, but his music evolved over the years and was never boring. Listening to “Time Lines” is to hear a great musician who kept stretching his abilities to the limit.

Although he made one record in the 1950s for a tiny label and kept on recording for others when he wasn’t with Blue Note, it was on this label that Hill made his reputation. Back in 1963, Hill was in the studio on a couple of recording sessions behind two first-rate tenor saxophone players, Joe Henderson on “Our Thing” and Hank Mobley on “Straight No Filter.” Lion liked what he heard and asked Hill to play his original compositions on his own recordings.

Lion recorded his new star almost constantly through the 1960s. Hill made eight recordings, but, for financial reasons, many of them were not released until much later. “Passing Ships,” recorded in 1969, was recently discovered in Blue Note’s vaults and released three years ago, featuring Joe Farrell on tenor, alto and flute, Woody Shaw and Dizzy Reece on trumpets, Julian Priester on trombone, Howard Johnson on tuba, Ron Carter on bass and others.

Hill began recording for Blue Note as a leader in November 1963 with “Black Fire,” also featuring Henderson and Davis, with the addition of Roy Haynes on drums. The next month, Hill recorded “Smoke Stack” with two bassists, Davis and Eddie Khan, and Haynes again on drums.

Hill followed a month later with “Judgment!” again with Davis, but this time including Bobby Hutcherson on vibes and Elvin Jones on drums.

“Point of Departure,” Hill’s masterpiece, came out two months later, which suggests how much time he spent with Lion in the recording studio. “Point of Departure” gets a crown — the highest rating — in the “Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD” and features an all-star lineup of Kenny Dorham on trumpet, Joe Henderson on tenor saxophone, Eric Dolphy on alto saxophone, flute and bass clarinet, Richard Davis on bass and Anthony Williams on drums.

Hill’s 1960s output also includes “Andrew!” and “Compulsion” with John Gilmore on tenor (who played in Sun Ra’s Arkestra and would influence John Coltrane).

Blue Note recently also reissued Hill’s “Grass Roots” with Lee Morgan and Woody Shaw on trumpet, Booker Ervin and Frank Mitchell on tenor saxophone, Jimmy Ponder on guitar, Ron Carter and Reggie Workman on bass and Freddie Waits and Idris Muhammad on drums.

“Lift Every Voice” has Shaw and Morgan on trumpets, Benny Maupin on alto saxophone and others. “Pax” features Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Joe Hen-derson on tenor, Richard Davis on bass and Joe Chambers on drums.

When not under contract with Blue Note, Hill made several excellent records with smaller labels, such as “Nefertiti” (Inner City Records), “A Beautiful Day” (Palmetto Records) and “Homage” (Test of Time Records).

The Blue Note CDs, in particular, constitute a pretty good history of modern jazz, and a boxed set of Hill’s complete Blue Note recordings would be a fitting tribute to his memory.

Till then, listen to any of his records and hear modern jazz at its best.

Other Blue Note releases we’ve enjoyed lately include the above-mentioned Charles Tolliver, whose big band CD, “With Love,” includes a young pianist named Robert Glasper, who must have made Andrew Hill proud. Sixties Blue Note artists on the record include Howard Johnson on baritone sax and bass clarinet, Stanley Cowell on piano, Cecil McBee on bass and a bunch of younger musicians who play their hearts out.

It must be expensive to record a hard-working big band these days, especially one that sounds this good — almost all the compositions are Tollivers’ — so give them a listen and turn up the volume.

Pianists have played an important part in Blue Note’s history (from Thelonious Monk to Bud Powell to Horace Silver to Andrew Hill), and the label continues its tradition with a new release from Steve Kuhn, who played briefly with John Coltrane. Kuhn’s swinging “Live at Birdland” includes two other Blue Note stalwarts, Ron Carter on bass and Al Foster on drums.
The fine CD is a short refresher course in the history of jazz, featuring standards (“If I Were a Bell,” “Stella by Starlight”), tunes by jazz greats (Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation,” Kenny Dorham’s “Lotus Blossom”), a little Debussy and Billy Strayhorn (“La Plus Que Lente” and “Passion Flower”) and also a couple of Kuhn’s compositions, “Two by Two” and “Clotilde,” as well as some Fat Waller and more.

This is a classic trio that should keep recording.