Editor's Note: "The Blues of Poetry" will be an occasional theme pursued in "Blues and More" columns, which will explore poetry set to music, and poetry inspired by music. Future topics will include the ragtime and blues poetry of award-winning Indiana poet Jared Carter; the poetic musings inspired by music of another Indiana poet Richard Pflum; a look at the highly lyrical and poetic songwriting of Canadian Paul Reddick; and the CD of Indiana Poet Laureate Norbert Krapf reading his poetry to musical accompaniment featuring Bloomington jazz pianist Monika Herzig.
Joseph Kerschbaum, spoken original poems
Josh Johnson, musical composition, guitars, keyboards, bass, with J.B. Murray, drums
Our Voices Sound Like Silence
Kerschbaum and Johnson
The CD Our Voices Sound Like Silence is best looked at as an interlocking poetic oratorio in 11 movements, each part contributing to an interlocking, complete composition in words and music. Thus is Our Voices Sound Like Silence embraced both in its totality as a composition and through each one of its 11 separate, complementary parts. These parts are: the eight original poems of Joseph Kerschbaum, which he reads over a musical backdrop composed by Josh Johnson, with Johnson playing multiple instruments accompanied by drummer J.B. Murray; and the three strictly musical interludes that begin, end, and form a bridge between the two thematic groups of Kerschbaum's readings that comprise four poems each. Structured, yet flowing freely, as a river within the boundaries of its banks, is this composition in word and music that forms the totality of this CD.
"Kerschbaum's eight poems are divided into two thematic groups, both groups sandwiched between the musical interludes."
Kerschbaum's eight poems are divided into two thematic groups, both groups sandwiched between the musical interludes. The first group, sandwiched between the opening musical interlude that begins the CD, "Our Evaporating Shadows" and the median interlude, "Once We Are Not Ourselves," comprises four poems dealing with personal relationships: "Wake" and "Revisionist History," on lovers; "Ash Angels," a dialogue to his son; and "Sound of Poisons," his lament over not being able to find the grave of his dead, estranged mother. Sandwiched between "Once We Are Not Ourselves" and the musical interlude that ends the CD, "Our Expanding Echoes," are four poems that talk of social relationships, and of individuals who are now but the beings estranged from themselves because of society: "The Extracting," on how life itself engenders death; "The Culling," Kerschbaum's bombast on how his poem will cause people to die, because of its unflinching, un-sanguine directness; "Flammable," on how his nephew just born is contaminated already with the chemical toxins of our man-made environment -- yet because of this, the poet-narrator, his nephew's mother, and we ourselves can use our newly-found rueful wisdom to teach the newly born of their ability to outgrow us, to "burn brighter than [we] could ever imagine;" and "Replacing Our Bodies," a thematic reprise of "The Extracting," in which he and his lover re-create themselves in order to find love amidst the melancholic despair all around them.
Johnson's music provides not only appropriate musical reinforcement to Kerschbaum's words, but a musical counterpoint to them as well, a parallel thematic development in itself that complements what Kerschbaum is saying but does not echo it. His music, especially with the addition of J.B. Murray's drums after the first musical interlude, gives Johnson's compositions an insistent soft-rock feel to the melodic subtleties of his compositions and playing, as Johnson moves from the opening melancholic lyricism with which he begins the CD, then moves into a harder-edged rock dynamism, then to the denouement that brings back the lyricism, only in a darker, more ominous voice, as that, perhaps, of the adolescent voice expressing optimism and hope now finding that optimism and hope still there as an adult, but tempered and made more gloomy by the experiences of that voice as it confronts the world in which it has had to speak.
While Kerschbaum certainly expresses nuance and emotional appropriateness in his readings, moving from the soft to the hard as the moods his words express require, on the whole, his voice is the theatrical, the dramatic one, and his poems declarations, even when they dwell on the personal. He is the poet as Old Testament prophet, and his poems are screeds, but not screeds of damnation. Rather, they are screeds of final hope, of finding ourselves drawn back from the abyss by our courage and willingness to love in a world of despair, of accepting ourselves as we are, and our world as it is, melancholic as that may seem at times, and as despairing as we may be of hope that it will ever change for the better. In love, then, Kerschbaum and Johnson remain optimistic, even though their realism demands they confront the melancholy and despair that, willy-nilly, surrounds them. No, love does not conquer all, yet it makes that melancholic despair which is all around us bearable. And in that we come to find the humanity within.
Our Voices Sound Like Silence may be ordered from CD Baby.
Solid Guitars, Solid Ensembles
All three of these contemporary electric blues CDs reviewed here share among them not only solid and evocative guitar work, but solid ensemble work as well, the cutting lead guitars and vocals of Dennis Jones, AZ Kenny Tsak and Chaz DePaolo complemented by equally-cutting ensemble work that brings out the fullness of their respective sounds.
Pleasure & Pain
Blue Rock Records
Dennis Jones is somewhat of an anomaly in contemporary blues -- a younger black guitarist who has chosen to make his musical home in the roots blues. Growing up with the usual seminal influences from pop such as the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Santana and the R&B of Al Green, James Brown and Motown (but also the blues of the Three Kings -- B.B., Albert and Freddie), he fronted a rock/funk band in the mid-1980s before finally committing himself to blues in the 1990s.
"Dennis Jones is somewhat of an anomaly in contemporary blues -- a younger black guitarist who has chosen to make his musical home in the roots blues."
Jones's third CD, Pleasure & Pain, for the most part musically mines that rich lode of sophisticated contemporary blues of such artists as Bobby Bland, Junior Parker, Little Milton and Robert Cray. But the anguished cry over substance abuse, "Kill The Pain," is gutbucket Chicago blues, as is the CD-ending paean to food and sexual love, "Hot Sauce." The ironic "Try Not To Lie" is a rockin' Texas shuffle, and "Sunday Morning Rain" is a bluesified country ballad that would be equally home in either Memphis or Nashville.
Irony also abounds in the lyrics of "I'm Good," and "I Want It Yesterday" echoes its theme of impatient desperation with an antiwar cry to stop wars and achieve peace. And while most of the tracks feature only Jones on guitar and vocals backed by drummer Michael Turner and bassist Tony Ruiz, the opening track, "Brand New Day," also features the snappy horns of Jimmy Z. on saxes and Lee Thornburg on trumpet and trombone. Jimmy Z. returns on track 7, "Home Tonight," with an unusual high-register amplified blues harp solo.
Dennis Jones has a forceful yet emotionally resonant vocal delivery, and his guitar playing is elegant virtuosity, in that masterful mode of Eric Claption, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. And like these masters, Jones also knows not to overplay, but just state what needs to be stated, and make every note count. Pleasure & Pain shows us well the guitar blues has a great future ahead of it in a new, dynamic player who not only understands, but also feels, the blues.
Pleasure & Pain can be ordered from CD Baby.
AZ Kenny Tsak and 56 Deluxe
Like I Do
AZ Kenny Tsak
The front and back cover photo art of Like I Do, featuring AZ Kenny Tsak with comely, scantily clad young women with guitars in hand, might make one feel s/he's stumbled onto a rock CD by mistake. But that would be the mistake, for this critically-acclaimed CD by Tsak and his band, 56 Deluxe, is straightforward roadhouse blues that, while certainly rocking, is solidly blues, not rock.
"Tsak fronts the band with gravelly bravura vocals and excellent guitar solos in the tradition of Lonnie Brooks, Luther Allison and Hubert Sumlin."
Tsak fronts the band with gravelly bravura vocals and excellent guitar solos in the tradition of Lonnie Brooks, Luther Allison and Hubert Sumlin, the tradition that captured young white players on both sides of the Atlantic and gave birth to rock 'n' roll and rock. But Tsak has two other fine soloists on hand in 56 Deluxe -- piano and organ man James Holt, and saxophonist Frank Perez, both of whom get appropriate space on Like I Do to strut their stuff. Bassist Avery T. Horton is an able songwriter as well, co-writing one of the songs of the CD with Tsak, "My Tastee Cake," and writing solo two of the others, "All It Takes" and that "sober" warning about the killjoy perils of sobriety, "12 Step Boogie," that admonishes, "Now that we got sober/All the fun is over." Seven other songs are written by Kenny Tsak himself, and there are two covers of classics -- Willie Dixon's "I Just Wanna Make Love To You," and Chick Willis's risque "Stoop Down Baby," sung here by Florida bluesman Joey Gilmore, who also engages Tsak in a guitar solo duel on the track.
Like I Do, AZ Kenny Tsak and 56 Deluxe re-create the classic blues sound of the late 1950s and early 1960s in a most convincing way, with real fealty not just to the music itself, but also to its raucous spirit.
New Jersey blues guitarist Chaz DePaolo has an impressive and extensive vita -- top shows and festivals in the U.S., Canada and Europe, and opening for artists such as Buddy Guy, Hubert Sumlin and Commander Cody.
"One would expect impressive guitar picking on Bluestopia, and one gets it amply, along with much more on this short, nine-track CD of only 38 minutes and 36 seconds."
So one would expect impressive guitar picking on Bluestopia, and one gets it amply, along with much more on this short, nine-track CD of only 38 minutes and 36 seconds. (A demonstration that good things come in little packages?) Chaz DePaolo is also an able vocalist who uses his crying lower-range tenor voice to strong effect, and a solid songwriter who wrote five of the nine songs on the CD, four vocals and a longish instrumental final track, "Slideadelica." His lyrics use effectively the elemental wording and repetition with permutation that is at the heart of the traditional blues.
Musically, Bluestopia leavens the blues with East Coast rock and jazz influences, with jazz mixed with the blues amply demonstrated by saxophonist Robert Chaseman, who infuses blues/R&B sax with the atonalities of modern jazz. Muddy Waters Blues Band piano alumnus David Maxwell is another regular presence here as well, along with guest musicians Dave Lewis and Bob Platt, Hammond B3 organ, Kirk Reese, piano, Tom Reese, flute, Eddie Jackson, bongos, and harp ace Jason Ricci.
Two DePaolo originals, "Pearly Gates" and the instrumental showcase "Slideadelica" are based on traditional Delta blues sounds, where DePaolo plays acoustic slide on "Pearly Gates," and electric slide unadorned and adorned with wah-wah effect on "Slideadelica." His original "It's Not You It's Me" is a rocking rhumba, while the other instrumental on the CD, "Look At That Girl," is a jump number that incorporates into an early 1950s rock sound the jazz of both the late 1940s and later. The DePaolo original, "Woman in a Black Dress," is an ominous slow blues that pays tribute to lust. Two songs come from classic bluesmen -- Albert King's "Down So Long" that opens the CD, and Roscoe Gordon's "No More Doggin'," which is given a vigorous rock treatment. All this making Bluestopia a utopia of contemporary blues.
Both Like I Do and Bluestopia will have more extensive reviews by me in forthcoming issues of Blues Blast online magazine. For a free subscription to Blues Blast (published by the Illinois Blues Society), e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
George Fish can be reached at email@example.com.