From the Bluff
Swirldisc SD 78453 630
Memphis six-man band FreeWorld’s fifth CD, From the Bluff, is a delightful admixture of influences: horn-driven soul/funk rhythms, modern jazz, Frank Zappa cacophonic sound mixtures and 1960s to early 1970s rock, with powerful sound lyrics that are both streetwise and philosophical, in the best of the San Francisco hippie tradition.
FreeWorld was founded in 1987, when its bassist/lead and backing singer, Richard Cushing, approached legendary Memphis jazz saxman Dr. Herman Green about forming a band. Now 78, Green had played and recorded with the likes of B.B. King, Miles Davis, Lionel Hampton, John Coltrane, Clark Terry, Bob Weir and many others in a 63-year career.
Now consisting, in addition to bandleader Green and Cushing, of David Skypeck, drums; Brian Overstreet, guitars; E.J. Dyce, trumpet, lead and backing vocals; and Captain Phil McGee, alto and tenor saxes, FreeWorld is a creatively eclectic band that readily combines Memphis soul/funk with bebop and avant-garde jazz, with a powerful dose of 1960s-early 1970s rock and a delightful dollop of Frank Zappa.
But it does more than just combine influences -- it melds them into a distinctive sound where all the elements flow together in one dynamic stream of engaging sound, with the solid songs and instrumentals on this CD all written (except for one) or co-written by band members Cushing, Overstreet, Skypeck and Dyce.
My last “Blues and More” talked of the various strains within contemporary blues, particularly blues-rock as exemplified in Cincinnati’s Kelly Richey. But of course R&B and soul also influenced and developed the blues, and jazz styles and jazz-rock fusion also had their say.
"FreeWorld and friends have a demonstrated magnificence throughout From the Bluff, a magnificence that flows easily throughout, and one that readily combines elements from an extensive array of genres to produce a sound that, while unashamed to echo the past masters, still possesses its own unique approach."
FreeWorld is an excellent example of how those latter influences came into play and produced in FreeWorld a potent brew that combines the soul/funk underpinnings of Memphis R&B with the soaring flights of musical experiment that characterize modern jazz. The result, in From the Bluff, is a listener’s delight.
Joining FreeWorld on this CD are many special guests, who will be discussed in terms of their musical appearances. They combine with FreeWorld’s core to produce a truly extensive, full-throated sound that really opens up the musical possibilities.
FreeWorld commands the opening three tracks pretty much by itself, with the addition of East Memphis Slim on keys and the dynamic gospel shouts of backing singer Jackie Johnson.
These first three tracks, “Keep Smilin’,” “Give It Back” and “Time On The Mountain,” are very much in the horn-driven Memphis soul/funk groove, but already in Dr. Herman Green’s sax solo on the second track, “Give It Back,” branching into a bebop sound that nicely blends traditional soul playing with jazz elements. “Keep Smilin’” and “Time On The Mountain” are philosophical songs about finding peace with oneself, with “Time On The Mountain” more pensive than “ Keep Smilin’,” while “Give It Back” devotes itself to assertively holding on in a rough, rough world.
The fourth track, “Down On The Bluff,” is another pensive song on finding peace, placed squarely in its Memphis setting, with lead vocals by Harold “Sundance” Thomas and moody slide guitar from Luther Dickinson, guitarist with the Black Crowes and the North Mississippi Allstars.
The musical shape takes a noticeably different direction, directly into modern jazz, in the next two cuts, the instrumental “Samurai” and the autobiographical song on the band’s origins and history, “Spinning Around.” But both are still built around the Memphis soul/funk rhythmic core, even as they lay on this foundation an edifice of flat-sounding atonality structured from modern jazz. Art Edmaiston, whose baritone sax has already been felt, lays down a jazzy tenor sax solo, as does FreeWorld trumpeter E.J. Dyce. Herman Green articulates a gritty bass vocal line, “I’m the man!” to “Spinning Around.”
“Monkey Suit,” a philosophical funk treatment on survival and compromise in the business world, is an exploration into jazzy funk and funky rock, with a cacophonic Frank Zappa-like instrumental break with Stax Records maestro William “Nokie” Taylor’s talking trumpet joining merrily in with the babble.
The eighth cut, “Simmer Down,” is another philosophical song about not blowing one’s cool that is notably built around a pure funk groove. “Not Alone” continues with the streetwise philosophy in a more lyrical way, with Richard Thomas’s cello at the beginning, and later, with Richard Cushing on sitar. “Spartacus” is another Memphis soul-funk/jazz instrumental that starts out with horns and percussion from the electric washboard of North Mississippi Allstars’ drummer Cody Dickinson and others, and ends with stunningly distorted guitar work from Brian Overstreet.
The bonus 11th track, “Save Our Soul”, is straight-ahead Memphis classic gospel soul number in tribute to the genre, with James Govan handling the gritty vocal chores with an aplomb that combines Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding echoes, along with the sax of Hope Clayburn, the trumpet of Steve Doan and the Hammond B-3 organ of Richard Steff.
There’s truly stinging guitar throughout from FreeWorld’s Brian Overstreet, who elegantly burns with wah-wah and other special effects, jazz, acoustic and electric rock and soul playing. He’s unafraid to approach the unconventional, to extend to the limit the potentialities of his axe, on which he demonstrates thoroughly dedicated mastery.
The backing vocals of Jackie Johnson, Robert “Tex” Wrightsill and the band members Cushing and Dyce provide some positive harmonic underpinnings as well. Another area of mastery here is in the song endings -- sometimes just sudden drop-dead, sometimes extended mini-symphonies of codas, but never quite what one expects.
FreeWorld and friends have a demonstrated magnificence throughout From the Bluff, a magnificence that flows easily throughout, and one that readily combines elements from an extensive array of genres to produce a sound that, while unashamed to echo the past masters, still possesses its own unique approach.
From the Bluff was produced by iconic Memphis producer Jim Dickinson, who’s previously recorded Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Sam and Dave, Arlo Guthrie and others, and is also graced on the front and back covers and on the CD itself with original artwork from Memphis artists David Lynch and Lamar Sorrento, thus making it a visual as well as an aural treat -- one that’s already become one of this writer’s favorite CDs for 2008.
George Fish can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.