Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Essential Liberty of the Smooth Blues


They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.
--Benjamin Franklin

The last few weeks I've been listening to the "smooth" blues and jazz dudes: Nat Cole, Louis Jordan, and T-Bone Walker. I've long thought of myself as a fan of the gospel shout and probably still am. Yet lately, I've been trying to listen another way, partly because I've decided the former is more likely to work with my own voice, partly just because I'm curious.

Those of you familiar with Ray Charles will recall that he spent his youth imitating Nat Cole's piano and vocals, even recording in that style before finding his own voice. While still a solid fan of R.C., this month I like to think of myself as following the road from Nat to Ray in the opposite direction. I was curious what I would find there.

The first thing I found was humor. The Nat "King" Cole trio throws down some funny shit. They are still mining the jazz pun tradition from Armstrong and Waller on Scotchin' with the Soda. They often tell stories, corny stories with a moral as well as a melancholy punchline. This Will Make You Laugh.

It's Only a Paper Moon:
It's a Barnum and Bailey world
Just as phony as it can be
But it wouldn't be make believe
If you believed in me

Sometimes the sound alone is just cool:
Sweet Lorraine:

Just found joy
I'm as happy as a baby boy, whooo
With a brand new choo-choo choy
When I meet my Sweet Lorraine, Lorraine, Lorraine

A pair of eyes
That are brighter than the summer sky
When you see them you'll realize
Why I love my sweet Lorraine

Even the corny somehow sounds a little cool when this goofy preacher's son lays back and brings it:

Now when it's rainin'
I don't miss the sun
'cuz it's in my baby's smile, whoa ho

Cole's voice is so smooth, when he gets a little grain in his voice I can only compare it to a swingin' jazz trumpet solo with just a little edge on it. I'm also a fan of Cole's model on piano, Earl Hines, but Cole adds worlds of knowledge and depth outside of Hines bag--more blues, more gospel, and an understanding of classical musical composition--all while playing with that exquisitely light touch he brought to everything. When the Cole Trio plays classic changes, they translate them into the jazz idiom even as it turns into no jazz you've ever heard before. Cole's playing never suggests the kind of classics envy that many later jazz pianists seem to fall into. He is close to Waller in this respect.

Another big part of the trio's sound is Oscar Moore the guitar player. This guy comps support like nobody, but even when the solo comes, he's still always playing the song even as he takes it in another direction. He is credited with conceiving a lot of the guitar chord forms that became the foundation of jazz style guitar as we know it now. Moore's guitar is a big hollow body with one pick-up by the neck and no cutaway. You will not find a more musical guitarist than Moore. Above all, along with the lightness of touch he shares with Cole that keeps the tune from taking itself too seriously no matter how ferociously they jam, this guy listens. This is one of the tightest, most mind-reading combos in world music history.

Listening to Moore and T-Bone, (and playing one of these hollowbody Gibson jazz acoustics at Willie's American Guitars) I realized that the contemporary common sense about guitars, that electric is easier to play than acoustic, is all wrong. Most of the main aspects of what makes a Gibson Les Paul easy to play were already a part of these jazz era acoustic arch-top guitars: especially the low action, and the smooth, bound fretboards. It was the feel of these jazz acoustics that the Les Paul type electric guitar designs were building on.

Louis Jordan is most famous for his showman-like, bug-eyed comic delivery that sometimes made jazz classics sound like novelty songs, but he was a righteous sax player, and he wrote some great tunes. Coltrane didn't say Jordan was his favorite for nothing. Is You or Is You Ain't my Baby. Knock Me a Kiss. Caldonia: Caldonia! Caldonia! What makes your big head so hard?
And of course the story songs, Saturday Night Fish Fry, Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens. Jordan's band throws in the same unison backing vocals on the chorus the Cole Trio used on the fun songs.

T-Bone Walker's first recordings were way back in 1929 when he still played acoustic, but it wasn't until he recorded on electric guitar in the mid-40s that he became the figure that he is now. Stormy Monday and Mean Old World Blues both work the same set of jazzy blues licks--half of which turned into the B.B. King type solo, half of which morphed into Chuck Berry's zoomy "du-dut, du-dut" lick. But it's still uptempo or moderate tempo jump band music with Walker. The lyrical tone is light, closer to Jordan or Cole than to gospel, King, or Charles. Both King and Charles have said that they self-consciously started singing church style music with secular lyrics. Walker was bluesy, but it didn't come from the church.

Walker, like Big Bill Broonzy, doesn't fit into the 60s era reconstruction of blues as primitivist folk art. They were part of the jazz world, and part of the urban mass media culture of their time. Later in their careers, both of them had to reshape themselves to fit more easily into the bluesman myths and legends. This is what you hear in Walker's work on Atlantic where his earlier material is rerecorded in a more Chicago style.

I have long thought gospel music was where I could find my essential personal liberty. Over the last two weeks, the swinging grooves of Cole, Jordan, and Walker have taught me that there is also an essential liberty in the smooth jazz/blues. That leaves me with temporary safety as well. Even though I don't deserve it.

Nat King Cole Trio Links:
University of Missouri, Kansas City
NPR Jazz Profiles

Oscar Moore Link:
Classic Jazz Guitar--Oscar Moore

Louis Jordan Links:
R n' B Music Primer
Who is Louis Jordan?

T-Bone Walker Links:
T-Bone Walker
Roots of the Electric Guitar