Friday, March 27, 2015

Ten Questions With........Jeff Jensen

A couple of years ago, I received a review copy of Road Worn & Ragged, a disc by a Memphis-based singer/songwriter/guitarist named Jeff Jensen.  Jensen had moved to Memphis a couple of years earlier from Portland, Oregon and was working with Memphis harmonica standout Brandon Santini, even co-producing Santini's most recent disc at the time.  Road Worn & Ragged was quite an impressive album, with Jensen mixed blues, soul, gospel, and R&B pretty seamlessly.  One of the tracks, "Brunette Woman," was a Pick of the Week at USA Today at the time.

Earlier this year, Jensen released his follow-up, Morose Elephant, to rave reviews.  So far, it's one of my favorite discs of 2015.  Jensen mixes seven original songs, ranging from the deep southern soul-blues of "Make It Through" and "Fall Apart" to the gritty rock of "Get Along" to the decidedly offbeat "Paper Walls," to the lovely acoustic ballad "Ash and Bone" to a really cool jazzy instrumental ("Elephant Blue"), with four well-chosen covers that he more or less makes his own, including a marvelous cover of the traditional gospel tune "Going Home."  Jensen is joined on several of these tracks by a few other Memphis area musicians, such as singer Reba Russell, keyboard master Victor Wainwright, harmonica wizards Santini and Eric Hughes, and his longtime musical partner, bassist Bill Ruffino.

As you listen to this wonderful album, you can't help but hear the influence of the sounds of Memphis in Jensen's music.  Friday Blues Fix thanks Jeff Jensen for sitting down to answer Ten Questions (plus a few extras) and we hope you enjoy reading them, and strongly encourage you to find out more about him by visiting his website.  You can also listen to some of the new tracks, along with a few from his previous releases here.

Ten Questions With……..Jeff Jensen

Friday Blues Fix:  Do you come from a musical family?  How did you end up playing music?

Jeff Jensen:  My mother played piano, it always inspired me, I loved listening to her play.  When I was very young I started piano lessons, but I never could stick with it.  At 8 years old I started guitar, but once again I wasn't really ready.  Then at the age of 10 I was once again obsessed with the notion of being a guitarist, I picked it up shortly after that and have never looked back.

FBF:  What kinds of music did you grow up listening to?  Who were some of your favorites?

JJ:  I grew up listening to the great Rock 'n' Roll of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, I love the British invasion rock the best, Eric Clapton, Rolling Stones, the rock’n’roll  drenched in Blues.  That’s what drew me to investigate blues and roots music.

FBF:  Did you start out liking the blues, or did you gravitate to the blues from another direction?  Who were some of your favorites when you started listening?

JJ:  I started out with Rock ’n’ Roll, I found Buddy Guy through Clapton, I found Muddy through Guy, and that was it, then came BB King, Freddie and T-Bone Walker, I was blues obsessed!

FBF:  Your music blends the blues with rock & roll, funk, soul, and jazz…..which musicians in each genre influenced, or continue to influence you, as a songwriter, guitarist, and singer?

JJ:  I love Wes Montgomery to Ray Charles, Paul Simon to Led Zeppelin, The Band, to Sean Costello.  Soulful, inspired, organic music is what grabs me, any style, if it’s got soul and real lyrics, I’m in.  As for guitar: so many come to mind to name a few; I love Larry Carlton, Chris Cain, T-Bone Walker, and BB King. With songwriters I’m equally diverse, I admire Willie Dixon to Tom Waits, I search for interesting lyrics with powerful imagery.  I want a songwriter or poet to challenge my thought process.  There are many that do, I love finding new ones.

FBF:  What inspired you to make the move to Memphis in 2011? 

JJ:  I was living in Portland Oregon at the time, beautiful city with beautiful people, my entire life fell apart and I lost absolutely everything I had.  I had the option to move back to California and live with family while I picked myself back up, but that just wasn't me.  On a whim I turned my car around and started heading south east.  5 days later I made it Memphis, something just told me that was what I should do. It was a calling, if you will.  As I stand here today, it was the single riskiest and best decision I've ever made.  I am so thankful for what Memphis and the wonderful folks the live here have done for me.

FBF:  What is it about the city that attracts so many musicians?

JJ:  Memphis has soul.  It’s in the air.  It’s in the soil.  It’s in the mighty Mississippi River.  There is a powerful history here of struggle, inspiration, loss, victory, and music.  “The Home of the Blues, the Birth Place of Rock’n’Roll”, I’d say so.  Come to Memphis with an open mind and you’ll leave with a better understanding of America and where we all came from.

FBF:  You've competed in several IBC’s……what’s it like to be in that sort of musical setting, surrounded by other blues bands and fans?

JJ:  IBC’s are great.  It’s the largest gathering of Blues artists and fans in the world.  It’s also kind of like a "blues convention" because EVERYONE is here.  I personally find the IBC’s to be very inspiring, so many great musicians really putting it all out there, some are good, some are OK, and some that are future legends.  It’s awesome to see and feel the excitement and energy.

FBF:  Morose Elephant is one of my favorite releases so far in 2015.  You cover a lot of ground with your original songs.  Can you tell us about how you came to create some of them?

JJ:  Thank you so much for saying that.  Morose Elephant does cover a lot of ground, blues, soul, gospel and so much more.  I really just wanted to put it all out there: this album is “me”.  All the original songs on this release have genuine meaning, there are no filler lyrics, or conjured up stories, it is all real and organic.  I am deeply moved by the feedback we’ve been getting from our fans already about his one, people finding themselves in the songs like “Ash and Bone” or “Fall Apart”, my favorite is how many messages I’ve gotten where fans are trying to ‘de-code’ “Paper Walls”, guessing who it’s about or what may have happened.  That is amazing to me, we have lyrical attention of our audience and at this point that means more to me that anything.

FBF:  I really liked your choices in cover tunes….. Your take on “Going Home” is really inspired.  Is this something that you've developed over the years…..this re-interpretive knack…..or is it something that had to develop over time?

JJ:  I just try to play cover songs that I can honestly relate to on an emotional level; “Going Home” is the extreme example of that.  There have been many live shows where I am in tears at the end of it, and our audiences have been as well.  That is real, and real emotional music is the only kind of music I am interested in making.  So when I pick songs to perform that I didn't write you can bet you’ll find me somewhere in the lyrics or the emotional intent.

FBF:  What are your future plans?  Do you have any new projects in mind or in the works?

JJ:  We are touring a lot all through the US.  We are touring Europe all of April, and we’ll be going back in September/October.  I have also been blessed with the opportunity to produce some albums for a few other artists as well, right now I’m working Mick Kolassa’s new record and a few others.  As far as Jeff Jensen Band, we are flirting with the idea of a live album to be release sometime in 2016, but it’s still in the very early phases of that plan.

FBF:  What do you listen to in your spare time?

JJ:  Everything I possibly can! From Louis Jordan, Cab Calloway and Jimmy Rodgers  to Zig Ziglar’s motivational speeches, I am learning more every day.  How to play better, connect better with our fans, and how to be a better person in life.

FBF:  If you weren’t a musician, what do you think you would be doing?

JJ:  This is tough one because music is such a deep calling, but I would probably be an inspirational speaker, personal financial adviser, litigation attorney, or the President of the United States of America, I may still apply for that last position, we’ll see.

Selected Discography

Morose Elephant (2015, Swing Suit Records)

Road Worn and Ragged (2013, Swing Suit Records)

I'm Coming Home (2009, Swing Suit Records)

The Jeff Jensen Band (2007)

Friday, March 20, 2015

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue #15

Time to revisit one of Friday Blues Fix's most popular topics, but with a twist this time around.  For readers that are new to the blog, Something Old represents a blues artist from the Old School of blues.....could be from the 1920's through the 1980's.  Something New represents either a relative newcomer to the blues or a new album that you might enjoy.  Something Borrowed can be either a blues artists covering a song from a different genre (rock, country, jazz, etc....) or an artist from another genre covering a blues song (depending on which way I remember to do it).  Something Blue is an artist who we consider to be the epitome of the blues.  Got it?  Good!  Let's get started.......

Big Bill Broonzy

For the twist, we're going to focus on one particular song......."Key to the Highway."  This song was written by Charles Segar and Big Bill Broonzy and released by Segar on Vocalion Records in 1940.  Broonzy explained the song's development by stating that both were singing different variations of the song around the same time while performing in the Deep South.  Broonzy said that "practically all blues is just a little change from the way they were sung when I was a kid......You take one song and make fifty out of it.....just change it a little bit."  I'm not sure how far that reasoning would get these days in the wake of the "Blurred Lines" lawsuit, but that does sum up a lot of blues songs past and present.  Broonzy recorded his version in 1941 for Okeh, backed by Jazz Gillum (who also recorded the song in 1940) on harmonica, Horace Malcolm on piano, an unknown bass player, and Washboard Sam on, you guessed it, washboard.  Most later versions followed more closely to the Broonzy version, as you will see.  For Something Old, FBF presents both versions for your listening pleasure.

The Derek Trucks Band

For Something New, here's the Derek Trucks Band's version of "Key to the Highway," taken from the band's 2009 swan song, the live Roadsongs.  The song has been a regular part of Trucks' live shows, with both the Derek Trucks Band and Tedeschi Trucks Band, therefore keeping the song on the radar for new blues fans to hear.  While TTB is one of the most popular bands in the blues world today, it was really cool to watch and hear Trucks develop his sound over the years with his earlier band, eventually adding the excellent vocals of Mike Mattison to the mix.  Mattison still contributes vocals to the TTB and recently released his own solo album.

Derek & the Dominos

Over the years, "Key to the Highway" has been recorded by scores of blues artists, ranging from country blues artists like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee to jazz musicians Count Basie (with Joe Williams) to urban bluesmen like Jimmy Witherspoon and B.B. King, to rockers like Led Zeppelin, Jeff Beck, Steve Miller and Eric Clapton, who recorded the song as part of Derek and the Dominos for his classic 1970's release, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.  Interestingly, their version of the song developed spontaneously after Clapton and Duane Allman had heard Sam Samudio ("Sam the Sham" of Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs) singing it in a nearby studio while Layla was being recorded.  They started playing it while messing around in the studio and producer Tom Dowd overheard and told the engineers to start recording (which is why the song fades in at the beginning).  That impromptu performance ended up being one of the best songs on an album full of great songs.  We'll file Clapton's interpretation under Something Borrowed.

Little Walter

For Something Blue, let's go to my favorite version of the song......the one recorded by Little Walter Jacobs in August, 1958 for Checker Records.  Big Bill Broonzy died in 1958, and apparently, Jacobs recorded the song as a tribute to him, and what a band he had backing him.....Muddy Waters, Luther Tucker, Otis Spann, and Willie Dixon.  This version was the most popular, spending over three months on the Billboard R&B chart, peaking at #6.  It was one of his last charting hits, and it's really great to hear the combination of Spann's piano, Waters' slide guitar, with Walter's world-weary vocal and harmonica.

Friday, March 13, 2015

New Blues For You - Winter, 2015 Edition (Part 3)

As Winter is slowly giving way to Spring, Friday Blues Fix continues our look at some of the great new and upcoming blues releases that should definitely be on your listening list.  This has been a great couple of months of new recordings......from some artists that you may be familiar with and some that you may be hearing about for the first time.  Trust me when I tell you that there are many more wonderful new discs on the way in the coming months, and we will be discussing a lot of those in the coming weeks.  In the meantime, check out these six excellent new releases.  As always, expanded reviews of these discs can be found in current and/or future issues of Blues Bytes, THE online magazine for reviews of new blues CD.

Igor Prado Band & Delta Groove All Stars - Way Down South (Delta Groove Music):  That's way down south as in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where singer/guitarist Prado hangs his hat, along with his talented band.  They were most recently heard backing the late, great Lynwood Slim on his fine 2010 release, Brazilian Kicks.  For this outstanding release, Prado and his band are joined by an impressive roster of current blues stars......Mud Morganfield, Sugaray Rayford, Rod Piazza, Kim Wilson, Randy Chortkoff, Omar Coleman, Wallace Coleman, J.J. Jackson, Mitch Kashmar, Junior Watson, Monster Mike Welch, Honey Piazza, and many more.  There are even two tracks with Lynwood Slim, who passed away last year, but is still much missed on the West Coast blues scene.  Despite the number of guest stars present, they don't take Prado out of the spotlight.  He sings on two tracks and his guitar work is a highlight on every track.  It's good to see that the blues are being kept alive internationally by such great bands as this one.

Chris Daniels & the Kings (Featuring Freddi Gowdy):  Funky To The Bone (Moon Voyage Records):  Stop looking for your next party disc.......this is it!  Singer/songwriter/guitarist Daniels, who's fronted the Kings for over 30 years, and singer Gowdy, half of the 60's soul duo Freddi Henchi & the Soulsetters, have collaborated for the best set of old school funk I've heard in years.  Wow, this is a fun disc!  From the opening cut, a redo of an old Freddi Henchi hit from years ago, to a pair of Rance Allen tracks, to a smoldering take on Chris Kenner's "Something You Got," to a fantastic set of original tunes, this one burns from start to finish, blending blues, funk, and soul as well as it's been done in a long time.   Don't miss this one, folks!

The Mike Henderson Band - If You Think It's Hot Here...(EllerSoul Records):  You may not have heard of Nashville songwriter/singer/guitarist Henderson, but chances are good that you've heard something he's played on or written.  Blues and rock fans probably remember "Powerful Stuff," by the Fabulous Thunderbirds....well, he wrote that.  He's also played on albums by Albert King, Emmylou Harris, John Hiatt, Sting, Bob Seger, and, one of my favorites, Beautiful Stars by Isaac Freeman.  He's taken a bit of a sabbatical from recording to help raise his kids, but he's returned like a house afire on this wonderful release.  The focus is on blues and rock, with not one, but two Hound Dog Taylor covers, a dandy take on Robert Johnson's "If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day."  His original songs are excellent, too.  The title track by Henderson and R.S. Field is excellent and the other originals move from the Gulf Coast to the Windy City.  Whether you dig blues or blues-rock, you'll be spinning this one over and over.

Tas Cru - You Keep The Money (Crustee Tees Records): This disc has been resting comfortably at or near the top of some of the blues and roots charts for the past few weeks, and when you listen to it, it will make perfect sense.  Tas Cru rates as one of the finest blues artists, songwriters, and guitarists currently practicing.  He covers a lot of different styles of the blues on his releases, usually moving from traditional to blues rock to country blues and roots and he's a master guitarist (on this disc, he plays electric, acoustic, resonator, and cigar box guitars).  His songwriting is first-rate, with clever lyrics and wordplay.  The title for this album comes from an encounter he had with the late Delta blues legend T-Model Ford, when the Canadian was part of a benefit in Clarksdale for the ailing blues man.  When Ford found out that Cru and his band were foregoing payment for the gig to help him pay his medical bills, he told Cru, "Tonight, just show me the keep the money."  

Eric Sardinas & Big Motor - Boomerang (Jazzhaus Records):  Sardinas combines the best of two worlds.....a love for the blues that began when he was a child (and not just the usual suspects either.....we're talking the early pre-war blues artists, too) with a vision of updating the old classic style in a blues rock vein.  Certainly, he's not the first to attempt this, but he's definitely one of the best I've heard in a long while.  He is a slide guitar master, moving from resonator to dobro to steel guitar and boasts vocal skills nearly as strong as his fretwork.  Boomerang is dedicated to  Johnny Winter, and the late guitarist's fingerprints are all over this disc, especially his energy and intensity.  Saidinas offers up some pretty impressive original tunes that rock pretty hard, plus a couple of really cool covers, notably the Leiber/Stroller tune, "Trouble," made famous by Elvis Presley, but in Sardinas' able hands, it's transformed into a totally different tune.  Blues rockers definitely need to get their hands on this one for sure, but it will appeal to a wide range of blues fans.

Brad Hatfield - For A Change:  Hatfield is a Cincinnati native who has been around the blues since he was a kid (his father, Bernie Hatfield, has played keyboards for various blues bands for years), and picked up the guitar when he was 10 years old.  Unfortunately, he was injured in a construction accident which left him paralyzed and put his musical career in jeopardy.  Fortunately, he was able to pick up the harmonica after the injury and his powerful and versatile singing voice was still intact.  His 2013 debut release (Uphill From Here) won rave reviews and resulted in Hatfield earning a BMA nomination for Best New Artist.  His second release finds Hatfield working with the award-winning producer Tom Hambridge and a couple of members of Delbert McClinton's band (guitarist Bob Britt, keyboardist Kevin McKendree).  Hambridge wrote most of the songs here and they really show Hatfield's range as a vocalist, moving from blues-rock to Chicago blues to swampy Gulf Coast-styled blues to country blues and deep soul.  This is a really nice release from an artist who has overcome quite a bit of adversity and deserves to be heard.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Classic Live Blues - Magic Slim's Live at the Zoo Bar Series

(photo by James Fraher)

February 21st marked two years since the death of Magic Slim.  Magic Slim was not what people would call a virtuosic musician, but what he did play he played better than anybody, maybe ever.  His style is easily recognizable.....his energetic and exuberant string bending that runs up and down the length of your spine, the churning boogie rhythms of his powerful rhythm section, his growling vocals, and his seemingly endless repertoire......his fans called him "The Human Jukebox".....that made every song he covered basically his own.

Though it took Slim a while to record, once he did get started, he was very prolific.  Most of his U.S. fans had plenty of domestic product from Magic Slim and the Teardrops, because Alligator and Rooster Blues released studio albums and B.L.U.E.S R&B released a classic (but sadly out of print) live performance of the band during the 80's, and Slim enjoyed a lengthy tenure with Blind Pig Records that lasted over twenty years, releasing nine studio albums, one live CD/DVD, and a "Greatest Hits" set.

Beyond the U.S., Slim released a truckload of CDs for European labels.  The Alligator release, Raw Magic, was originally released in France, as was a later recording (Highway Is My Home) that was reissued in the 90's on Evidence Records.  However, Slim's most fruitful European relationship was with the Austrian label, Wolf Records.  

Wolf released over a dozen Magic Slim recordings, plus a few others that featured Slim and his band mates in solo performances.  These were a mixture of studio and live performances.  I think that most fans would agree that live performances were the best way to capture the entire essence of Magic Slim and his band.  A big part of his persona was the relationship that he built with his audiences, the spontaneity that was such a mark of each performance.

The Wolf recordings are a bit easier to find these days, thanks to the internet.  I can remember reading about these releases in Living Blues back in the 80's and early 90's and the only way that you could get them was via mail order and they sometimes costs a pretty penny to get your hands on them.  Over the years, thanks to Amazon, I was able to pick up a few of the Wolf releases here and there.  

Over a four or five year period in the 90's, Wolf released five volumes of Magic Slim and the Teardrops performing at Lincoln, Nebraska's Zoo Bar, called The Zoo Bar Collection, which has been a blues hotbed since the early 70's.  The Zoo Bar owners had a connection with Chicago musician/promoter Bob Riedy and were able to bring a lot of the Windy City's finest blues musicians to Lincoln.  

Magic Slim began performing at the Zoo Bar in the mid 70' was reportedly the first white club that he'd ever played and his first venture outside of Chicago.  Slim soon became a regular performer at the bar, playing for a week at a time, and even moved his family from Chicago to Lincoln in the 90's.

Junior Pettis and Magic Slim at the Zoo Bar (photo by Ted Kirk)

There have been many live albums recorded at the Zoo Bar over the years.  Magic Slim's series best guess would be from the early 80's to the late 80's.  The early volumes (Volume 1, Don't Tell Me About Your Troubles, and Volume 2, See What You're Doin' To Me) feature Slim and his brother Nick Holt (bass) with drummer Nate Applewhite and rhythm guitarists Coleman Pettis and Pete Allen (Volume 2).

Pettis answered to several different nicknames.....Daddy Rabbit, Alabama Junior, Junior Pettis, etc......he backed Slim for ten years (1973 - 1983) and was a great, funky rhythm guitarist and an ideal complement to Slim's robust attack.  He also played bass and even released a few albums of his own, including a Wolf release called Nora Lee, which was recorded with the Teardrops providing support.  Pettis died in 1988 at age 53 after a battle with cancer.

Pete Allen played for several Chicago acts, including Zora Young (for over 30 years), Buddy Guy, Carey and Lurrie Bell, and Artie "Blues Boy" White.  He played guitar on Slim's Grand Slam, considered to be one of his best albums.  Allen also plays a few tracks on Volume 3 (Teardrop).  The highly underrated Allen died in 2008 from a heart attack.

John Primer (photo by Ted Kirk)

On Volumes 3, 4 (Spider In My Stew), and 5 (Highway Is My Home), Slim and Holt are joined by longtime Teardrop John Primer (2nd guitar) and drummers Applewhite (Volume 3) and Michael Scott (3, 4, and 5).  Primer was a regular guitarist at Theresa's during the 70's and also played in Willie Dixon's Chicago Blues All-Stars in the late 70's.  Prior to joining Slim in 1983, he served in Muddy Waters' band until the legend's death that same year.  Like Slim and Pettis, Primer and Slim went together like peas and carrots.  When Slim began recording with Blind Pig Records in the early 90's, he graciously gave Primer several tracks on his debut recording, Gravel Road.  Primer's style was perfectly suited for Slim, but he was also capable of branching out into his own version of the classic Chicago blues sound on multiple solo albums, and is still very active today, most recently on an excellent collaboration with harp master Bob Corritore for Delta Groove, Knockin' Around These Blues.

About three or four times a year, I pull out all five of these discs and plug them in over several days.  It's always interesting to see how the band changed over time.  Actually, there's not much change in the delivery at all.  You've got funky shuffles, driving boogies, and the occasional slow blues....all powerfully delivered.  There are some subtle differences in the rhythm guitarists with each variation of the band, but you really have to listen to catch it.

Nick Holt, John Primer, Magic Slim, Michael Scott (photo by Ted Kirk)

I like three things about this set of discs:

(1) They show the remarkable consistency of Magic Slim and the Teardrops over an extended period.  If you play these discs consecutively, it's pretty hard to tell where one disc starts and the next one begins.  For some bands, this might be a problem, but for this band, it's impressive.  These guys were a well-oiled machine in Volume 1 (and prior) and they maintained that with no let-up for many years to follow....the only common factor on each release being Magic Slim and Nick Holt.

(2)  They provide a glimpse of the astounding repertoire of Magic Slim.  On these five volumes, the band plays 63 songs, and there are only about six tracks that appear more than once.  Slim covers tunes from blues icons like B.B. King ("Paying The Cost To Be The Boss," "How Blue Can You Get"), Lonnie Brooks ("You Know What My Body Needs"), Little Milton Campbell ("The Blues Is Alright," "Possum In My Tree," "So Mean To Me,"), Albert King ("Cold Women With Warm Hearts," She Don't Love Poor Me"), and Jimmy Reed ("You Don't Have To Go"), but he also branches out impressively, tearing into an amazing funky reading of Booker T's "Green Onions," a romping take on Chuck Berry's "Reelin' and Rockin,'" Ivory Joe Hunter's "Since I Met You Baby," and his old reliable version of Wilson Pickett's "Mustang Sally."  Also, the instrumental version of Bobbie Gentry's (yes, you read that right) "Ode To Billy Joe," is a really pleasant surprise.

(3) They prove once and for all (if there was any doubt) that Magic Slim is at his absolute best when performing live.  He did some excellent studio recordings, no doubt, but he raised things up a notch or two when performing in front of an audience.  Some of his studio recordings effective captured that live vibe, for sure (Grand Slam, Black Tornado, Gravel Road, Snakebite, etc....), but to be honest, when I have a hankering to hear some Magic Slim, I will usually opt for one of his live discs.  Many of Slim's recordings for Wolf were done in a live setting.  In fact, the label has released a few discs collecting his finest moments from various performances.  I don't have all of them, but the ones i do have are uniformly fine.  I have always preferred The Zoo Bar Collection because of their rawness and spontaneity.  It's obvious that Slim had a blast performing and the audience had a blast listening.  If you haven't listened to these recordings (there's also a Volume 6 featuring Primer with the Teardrops, but I haven't heard it yet), give them a shot.  You too will have a blast.