Sweet Home: The Music of Robert Johnson
Random Chance RCD-16
Pyeng Threadgill is a young African-American woman and jazz vocalist, and she has brought together a multiethnic, multiracial ensemble of talented jazz musicians to join her in rendering eleven of Robert Johnson's classic blues songs into modern jazz. A daunting task indeed, but one in which her CD here, Sweet Home: The Music of Robert Johnson not only achieves successfully, but with soul as well.
In her notes to the CD, Pyeng Threadgill talks of "bringing the music of Robert Johnson into the 21st Century" as a "channel for the expression of humanity." She finds in Johnson's songs "haunting lyrics with coded messages [that] depict the struggle, despair, longing and hope of a people of color and the power to endure and ultimately bring change." Rendering Robert Johnson in modern jazz is thus creating "a global blues, the deep desire of our time...embodied in the arrangement of these songs." We can readily see this as akin to what Robert Johnson did back in Mississippi in the 1930s, when he created a transcendental art out of the tradition he integrally lived in and was part of.
Because the songs he crafted are so transcendental, Robert Johnson's music has often lent itself to being created anew. Electric blues and rock artists as diverse as Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Paul Butterfield, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones have successfully redone Robert Johnson, because there is something so elemental, so lasting, so basic yet so transcendental, both in his original music and in his song lyrics that lends itself readily to this. Pyeng Threadgill had a firm and solid foundation on which to create her equally firm and solid edifice in jazz that is this CD, so strongly embedded in the earth as it is, yet also so able to soar powerfully toward the heavens.
There are only 30 different songs in the whole of Johnson's recorded repertoire. Some have become blues standards, recorded and played numerous times by other artists, and modified over time by them. "Sweet Home Chicago" and "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom," which are on this CD, are prime examples. Other songs of Robert Johnson have become pop classics in the versions done by contemporary artists. The Rolling Stones' version of "Love In Vain Blues" (performed on this CD also) is established classic rock, as is Eric Clapton's version of "Standing At the Crossroads." But many other Robert Johnson songs still remain little known and little recorded by other artists. A number of those are found also on Sweet Home. Pyeng Threadgill has represented the whole of Robert Johnson's legacy well, in 11 paradigm songs that run from the familiar to the obscure.
More than a dozen musicians and singers create the music on Sweet Home, accompanying Pyeng Threadgill's lead vocals with acoustic and electric guitars and basses, horns, piano, cello, drums and percussion, and backing vocals, with further shaping and designing of the music done on some tracks through use of the sampling and mixing techniques of the modern recording studio. The arrangements are appropriately understated, and lend both continuity to the 11 tracks, and creative distance between them. Key roles are played by slightly dissonant horns, both in ensemble and solo playing, and by electric guitar leads that partake of contemporary blues. The music is heavily percussive and, on some numbers, also polyrhythmic, with tantalizing echoes of Latin rhythms, jazz styles from the 1920s and 1930s up through the 1940s and 1950s, jazz-rock fusion, and even 1950s pop vocal group sounds incorporated as well.
Musical diversity abounds. "Last Fair Deal Gone Down" begins with Threadgill accompanied only by hand clapping, then moves to denouement through gospel-style choral affirmation. On "When You Got A Good Friend," Threadgill is accompanied only by a solo cello, while the ending track, "Ramblin' On My Mind," is organized around a traditional blues structure. Pyeng Threadgill's vocals are both jazzy and bluesy throughout, and simultaneously. Eight of the tracks are fairly short, only running from just over three minutes to just over four-and-a-half, while "Dead Shrimp" is just over six minutes long, "Ramblin' On My Mind" just over five-and-a-half, and the longest cut, "Come On In My Kitchen," is a nine-minute-ten-second suite of interconnected but separable parts.
Sweet Home's music is both sophisticated and hauntingly surrealistic, a quality also much evident, on a more primitive level, in Robert Johnson's original vocal-and-guitar recordings. Johnson's lyrics lend themselves well to portrayal in jazz, and Sweet Home: The Music of Robert Johnson stands as creative affirmation of his genius in a contemporary jazz form.
George Fish can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.