Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Allen Toussaint – American Tunes

On the day of Muhammad Ali’s passing I find myself rolling song to song through a respectful tribute (American Tunes) from New Orleans composer/producer and pianist Allen Toussaint who died November 2015 while on tour in Spain and reflecting on what it was like to live and breathe music and sport during the early sixties.
Ali’s rise to the top of boxing’s heavyweight ranks was a fountainhead of news – every word - poetic proclamation; prediction and knock-out were a source of black pride and white angst. It was push back time – a decade of social upheaval, civil rights activism and much like 2016 summer main event; Clinton/ Sanders vs. Trump – sanity vs. evil.

Underlining the sixties march for civil rights - the voting rights act - desegregation was the accompanying soundtrack – that Philly sound, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and further south, New Orleans.

New Orleans holds particular significance being the land where contemporary music was birthed. Where jazz, blues, funk & soul found common ground and flourished in a city accustomed to turning a blind eye to graft and pleasures of the flesh.

Composer Louis Moreau’s Gottschalk’s destination of Havana and Brazil in mid 1800’s laid the groundwork for the syncopated marriage between African rhythms, European traditions and Latin American influence. It’s heard in everyday music – from the street to the ballroom.

American Tunes is a penetrating view inside the artist and not to be misunderstood as a tour de force of piano brilliance. It’s about the music and musicians that shaped Toussaint’s long productive life as a writer and producer and sideman.

Toussaint was the Ellington of New Orleans. Quiet mannerisms, a statesman like communicator, sharp dressed man and big shiny limousine - a bow and a nod all rewards for decades of commitment to the Crescent City and those finely crafted hit songs.

“Fortune Teller, Get Out Of My Life Woman, Southern Nights, I Like It Like That, Yes We Can Can, Holy Crow, Mother In Law, Working In A Coal Mine, What A Success, Play Something For Me, On My Way Down” – recorded by Lee Dorsey, Devo, Bonnie Raitt, Three Dog Night, Robert Palmer, Little Feat – even a Grammy for Robert Plant and Alison Krauss in 2007 for Raising Sand’s “Fortune Teller,” just a short list of songs that made it into the mainstream of radio play life.

The bar for piano players in New Orleans stands so high you’d need a crane to reach the summit. From the downbeat there was Jelly Roll Morton whose shadow is still wide and long – Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, Dr. John, Henry Butler, Toussaint himself, Harry Connick Jr., Ellis Marsalis, David Torkanowsky and the king – James Booker.

Where Toussaint places among the fleet of hands is that of assimilating all the traditions and bringing them to song. What’s been heard on piano is there in melody and harmony - the words an extension of the times and a pastoral portrait of the streets, neighborhoods, night life and surrounding Louisiana landscape. Toussaint plays it straight on American Tunes with few moments of exposition – mostly flowery embellishment over invention.

American Tunes is also a collection of originals and songs of interest – music that shaped Toussaint’s life. Fats Waller’s “Viper’s Rag”, Doc Daugherty’s “ Confession (That I Love You), Professor Longhair’s “Mardi Gras in New Orleans”, Billy Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom”, Bill Evan’s “Waltz for Debby”, Earl King’s “Big Chief”, Duke Ellington’s “Rocks in My Bed”, Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s “ Danza op.33” and many others.

American Tunes is slated for release June 10, 2016 – produced by Joe Henry and found on the Nonesuch label distributed by Warner Music Canada.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

A Conversation With ... Jadea Kelly

Songwriting more and more is about revealing something of the author. Gone are the times when writers pointed a finger at another and masked the source. Taylor Swift goes for the throat. Beyonce gives the cruelty of infidelity both a visual going over and aural take down. Singer/songwriter Jadea Kelly pulls no punches in her latest, Love & Lust. Love hurts; break-ups happen. How to express that in poetic terms is the challenge.
I caught up with Jadea early week and posed a few questions:

Bill King: I first learned about you from the time you served with publicist Richard Flohil. Hardly a day went by he wasn’t singing your praises. What did you gain from the experience?
Jadea Kelly: I remember meeting Flohil when I was a business meeting. He didn't know that I sang or played til very late into working together ha ha. When we met he asked 'do you type?'  I laughed 'of course I type'....and I started working as his assistant the next week. Working for Flohil introduced me to sooooo many musicians and artists.

B.K: He’s serious about getting things right.
J.K: Flohil definitely has an amazing ear. For him, music needs to move two of the three following things. Feet, heart and your groin.

B.K: I noticed a video of yours online and your body is covered in words. What was that statement?
J.K: Our lyric video for 'Make It Easy' was directed by Gaelle Legrand. Because the song is about desire - and being ashamed of your desire - I wanted to physically lie in a bed and have the lyrics present on my skin. It conveys what the song means on an entirely more personal level.

B.K: There are so many ways to approach songwriting. Do you have a practiced method?
 J.K: For me I co-write a lot. I also record vocal hooks and lyrics into my phone. Many of my songs remain as complete nonsensical mumbling until the final recording day

B.K: On Love & Lust you narrow the song list down to 65 from demos. How did you arrive at these?
J.K: My producers Tom Juhas & Stew Crookes really helped me centre in on the song choices. We wanted the album to have a cohesive story...and we obviously chose the most memorable and heart-felt tunes.

B.K: Stream of conscious writing can at times be more effective than pen to paper – sometimes you have to let the brain empty without interference.
J.K: It's true. I think it's important to not forcibly write in order to confront certain emotions.

B.K: Break-up records can be most revealing and upsetting. Was this about a real relationship?
J.K: Yes it was. 

B.K: Iris DeMent is among the names Emmylou Harris and Patsy Cline you list as heartbreak singer/songwriters. Iris DeMent is little known yet she has the big teardrop in the voice – a standalone artist who cuts deep. Have you seen her play live and do you own any of her music?
J.K:  Yes. I have seen Iris DeMent and Emmylou perform live. Absolutely breathtaking each time. Their voices are so delicate and vulnerable.

B.K: When you are internalizing and trying to express issues of sorrow/loss and pain do you try to give equal weight to both melody and words?
J.K: For sure. The melody and lyrics are one in the same region. I try to challenge myself with both. Inventing unique and odd melody lines are my game. I also want lyrics that surprise people and are surprisingly honest.

B.K: That Nashville writing experience. What have you gained from this and who are you writing with?
J.K: Nashville songwriting feels like the big leagues. It's professional and in constant motion. I have learnt a lot from my time there...especially with song structure and song clarity. 

B.K: Have you been able to place songs with other recording artists?
J.K: Not yet!

B.K: Album release date?
J.K: June 3, 2016

B.K: It’s a wild-west show with recordings these days. How do you see this release playing out? Are you a slow burn advocate or a strike quickly?
J.K: I'd like to burn slowly....and create a career with longevity. That’s my hope.

B.K: What’s the tour schedule looking like?
J.K: Summer touring then we're headed out on tour with Sweet Alibi in the fall....across Canada to a number of theatres....and into the United States for Americana Fest.