Blues And Other News
As you start listening to the music on this disc a few things become immediately apparent. As the title suggests, many of the tunes and almost all of the originals are either blues or blues-derived melodies and each one is unique in form and approach. The playing, ideas and feel are elegant and funky, intense and loose, literate and down-home. The standards here are reexamined and reimagined with feeling, humor and a bebop perspective that evinces a particular interest in the use of space.
Besides swing, tunefulness and sophisticated harmonic knowledge, Greg Skaff’s compositions are distinguished by their rhythmic originality; the other musicians cannot help but get caught up in it and gracious virtuosity enables them to play solos in the spirit of these originals. Blues And Other News is the work of a self-taught, blues-based and highly literate jazz guitarist who, like the music he plays and writes is truly individual.
With each year that passes there seem to be fewer younger musicians catching the public’s eye and ear who have actually spent years in musical apprenticeship before striking out on their own. Born in Wichita, Kansas, Skaff picked up the guitar at age 16 and was soon playing blues, rock and soul music in a local band. After being stunned by an early George Benson LP, It’s Uptown (Columbia) he began to concentrate more on jazz, listening a lot, teaching himself theory and working on his technique. He had a year and a half of college at Wichita State which included basic music studies, but his professional education began when he moved to NYC a few years later.
His employers and mentors taught him much by example. In 1981, an audition yielded a five-year stint with Stanley Turrentine. Turrentine taught him how to play a melody with conviction and how to swing with an earthy, but relaxed, feel. Stanley imprints almost everything he plays with a soulful church flavor. Playing with Gloria Lynne, the guitarist came in contact with a singer with exquisite taste in lesser-known standards. With Ruth Brown, he encountered nightly the history of rhythm and blues, great ballads and permutations of the blues, and someone who really knows how to connect with an audience. Currently Greg is a member of saxophonist Bobby Watson’s group. As part of the frontline, and also part of the rhythm section, he assumes a dual role. It’s a situation that requires discipline and freedom at the same time.
While he has recorded as a sideman, this is Skaff’s first release as a leader. He assembled a group of talented, versatile fellow New York freelancers with whom he’s worked (Scherr and Hutchinson) along with Bruce Barth, who if you don’t know from his own CDs on Enja or his work with Terence Blanchard, is surely one of his generation’s most exceptional pianists.
“Walk the Walk” is a serious and lighthearted 3/4 melody that Wes Montgomery might have enjoyed playing on. Interesting changes in the second half! I love the Bill Evans phrasing Barth uses at times.
Greg knew Strayhorn’s “Johnny Come Lately” from recordings by Jimmy Smith and Duke Ellington’s band. This attractive melody isn’t played often enough even though it’s also a great tune to solo on. Catch the quintessential bebop quote of “All God’s Chillun.”
“Red Dirt” refers to the Mississippi Delta near New Orleans. If you hear the “second line” rhythmic feel merging into Latin, it’s only natural since Caribbean rhythms have long been prevalent in the music of Crescent City.
Skaff describes “Ya Dig!” as a rhythmic melody composed of different blues fragments. The songs opening phrase makes use of a chord voicing T-Bone Walker often favored. Skaff has a ”speaking” solo and Hutchinson anticipates his thoughts beautifully. Barth begins building his rhythmically adamant solo by paraphrasing a phrase of the melody. What he plays captures the specific character of this blues.
“My Man’s Gone Now” is from the opera Porgy and Bess. Inspired by the William Warfield/Leontyne Price recording, this version holds up well even when compared to the Miles Davis and Bill Evans renditions. Skaff knows the words and he experiences the song for us as it moves from sadness to stoic acceptance.
“In Walked Bud” is handled with humor, intensity and bebop fluidity of ideas. Altering the rhythm of the second half of the A sections rephrases the melody and slows it down so we can listen to it with fresh ears. Monk would have enjoyed this playful use of space. Those Wes-sounding chords in the third improvised chorus mark the climax of the guitar solo and are used sparingly, for underlining purposes only.
“Knaptown Vibe” is a tribute to Wes Montgomery. The melody owes a great deal to Wes’ “Bumpin’”, and there’s even a direct quote at the end.
“Comin’ at ‘Cha” is a 12 bar blues that uses substitute chords, particularly in the turnaround where the changes are seventh chords descending in minor thirds. As the trading begins, Greg quotes from “Montgomeryland Funk”, and Bruce follows up on that thought.
“Highway 70” is named after the Interstate Skaff has travelled many times from Kansas to NYC. The road traverses much of the Midwest and passes through different time zones. The song is a 22 bar blues which alternates between a 12/8 feel and 4/4 time. The loping quality of the melody reflects the laid-back character of the Midwest. But travelling between New York and Kansas there have been both dusty and urban dues to pay as well as those of the road. The expanded sections here allow us more time to experience the grit, joys and frustrations this blues expresses.
As he endeavors to make sense of his own experience, Skaff verbalizes and elaborates on his emotions. The pianist’s sparer, highly accented approach is a bit more emphatic and direct. Barth’s solo begins with an echo of Coltrane’s “Village Blues” and ends with a lead-in to the reprise of the melody. The changing time feel and unusual form capture our attention and compel us to listen carefully, making us more aware of the journey(s) along life’s highway.
A “Jigsaw” can cut sharp, irregular lines so the last tune is aptly named. Both soloists play through the changes like a knife cutting through butter. During the trading Barth mirrors Skaff’s phrases and sometimes completes them. A great tune and outstanding playing by all.
There’s a lot to enjoy here as well as food for thought. I guess you could say that’s what these blues are all about.
Lora Rosner -