Thursday, April 28, 2016

"In A Slient Way / It's About That Time"

Dickey Betts & Duane Allman
The Allman Brothers' music is as varied as their influences, picking apart all of the pieces is like peeling an onion - just when you think you've peeled all of the pieces away, there is another layer to appreciate. The Blues is definitely front and center, the first song they rehearsed was Muddy Waters' "Trouble No More", and At Fillmore East contained another 3 covers of old blues tunes (Blind Willie McTell's "Statesboro Blues", Elmore James' "Done Somebody Wrong", Willie Cobb's "You Don't Love Me"). Country music influences can be heard through out their catalog ("Midnight Rider", "Blue Sky", "Ramblin' Man"). Gregg Allman was heavily influenced by soul crooners like Little Milton, Ray Charles, and Percy Sledge, which can be heard on cuts like "Please Call Home". Gregg Allman's folk influences from singers & song writers like Bob Dylan and his good friend Jackson Browne are less obvious until you look at his solo work which were stripped of twin lead guitars.

John Coltrane & Miles Davis
But as much as the Allman Brothers are hailed as a guitar jam band, one of the biggest influences on Duane Allman and Dickey Betts' interplay was jazz, specifically Miles Davis and John Coltrane on Kind of Blue. The structural influence can be heard early on in the 3/4 pulse of Gregg Allman's "Dreams" which has a patience and space that you don't hear in a lot of rock 'n roll. While Dickey didn't play on the studio version of "Dreams", you can hear the interplay on just about everything after that, but never more than on Dickey's "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed". You could easily replace Duane and Dickey's Les Pauls for horns (something the Allman Brothers have done with Brandford Marsalis, Randy Brecker, Bill Evans and others). Many have tried to guess the band's direction had Duane not passed - There are tapes of the band working up a Contrane--influenced take on "My Favorite Things" months before Duane Allman died.

The Miles Davis influence on the Allman Brothers is even clearer when you listen to Miles' electric period. Miles was always pushing the boundaries of jazz, and never had they been pushed as far as he did on 1969's In A Silent Way. Adding John McLaughlin's electric guitar alongside Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Joe Zawinul, the experimental keyboardist who wrote the title track, stirred debate of what jazz could be. "In A Silent Way" opens with McLaughlin picking on Zawinul's melody, which doesn't sound too far removed from Duane Allman's "Little Martha" since both are in open E. The similarities end quickly, since where "In A Silent Way" is full of ethereal air and space, "Little Martha" plucks on sweetly.

The Allman Brothers brought this influence full circle when Derek Trucks, ever the jazznik, began teasing "In A Silent Way" during Allman Brothers' sets around 2006/2007. Eventually the Allman Brothers worked up full versions of not only "In A Silent Way", but "Spanish Key" from Miles' 1970 Bitches Brew as well. Miles' electric material didn't feel out of place in Allman Brothers sets alongside their own jazzy instrumentals like "Kind of Bird" and "Les Brers in A Minor". The word "eclectic" gets thrown around a lot, but The Allman Brothers tastes were as varied as any band out there.

I got ambitious and decided to take a stab at an acoustic version of "In A Silent Way / It's About That Time" after plucking on it on my dobro. It didn't sound wrong, and the slide even echoed the soprano sax and trumpet swells. I didn't want to straight up copy the song, especially the 12 minutes of "It's About That Time" which I condensed into 3 minutes, taking my favorite parts. One of my favorite parts about this project of playing all of the parts is getting to deconstruct a song, really learning how everything fits together. Even if the end product isn't a total success, I learn a lot along the way. The time-keeping is deceptively simple on "It's About That Time", and there is about 12 minutes of what seems like formless, random jamming. But it's not formless at all. It's several skilled players playing off of each, which was not easy to adapt.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

"Memphis Soul Stew"

I first became aware of King Curtis in middle school when I picked up the Duane Allman Anthology. His cover of "Games People Play" caught my ear, and it was an early selection for this project last summer. It was the first I had heard or read about the legendary giant of saxophone and music in general - he could sing, play guitar, write songs, and it was his horn that swings the most famous sax solo of them all in "Yakety Yak". Duane and Curtis met while doing session work for Atlantic Records and quickly formed a mutual musical bond.

King Curtis, Delaney Bramlett, & Duane Allman | 1971
Shortly after King Curtis was murdered on the steps of a building he owned on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Duane paid tribute to his fallen musical brother on an A&R Radio Broadcast, just weeks after both King Curtis and Duane Allman had played the same stage with Delaney & Bonnie & Friends. On a 60 minute radio show where time talking takes significant time away from time playing, you know it meant something when Duane takes the mic to talk about King and his music, and sadly, his funeral. But the music takes over and The Allman Brothers launch back into one of their epic jams, "You Don't Love Me", until they slow down just long enough to play King Curtis's sweetest song, "Soul Serenade". I had a bootleg copy of the show, which has only recently been officially released ("You Don't Love Me/Soul Serenade" was available on the Dreams anthology in 1989). It was the first time I had ever heard the song.

But not only does Duane Allman pay tribute to King Curtis' "Soul Serenade", he eagerly plugs King Curtis' latest album, Live at the Fillmore West, a fantastic set opening for what would be Aretha Franklin's Fillmore West live album. The album was long out of print on CD, I didn't hear it for years. It was a lot more difficult finding older albums in the mid-1990s. Not everything had been digitally mastered yet, vaults were still full of albums only available on vinyl that hadn't ever even made it to cassette. I would search music stores and catalogues, but could only find general King Curtis compilations featuring early 1960s honky tonk covers and dance originals - all well and good, but not the same as those raw live performances.

Finally King Curtis at the Fillmore West was re-released on CD in 1999, and the opening bass line of "Memphis Soul Stew" hit me like a ton of bricks. No wonder Aretha had King Curtis and the Kingpins as her back-up band - you couldn't find a better one. Cornell Dupree's guitar is one of the most unique and funky styles I've heard. Jerry Jemmott's bass is smooth as silk, and even Billy Preston sits in on keyboards. A few years later, the whole gig, both Aretha's and King Curtis's sets, was released as one boxed set and it is epic.

"Memphis Soul Stew" hasn't really seen much life outside of King Curtis. There are a handful of covers out there by sax players or soul horn bands (the oddest being "Springfield Soul Stew", which appeared on a Simpsons album during the massive merchandising blitz when the show took off). It takes a special instrumentation to put all of the pieces together. None of them approach the intensity and swing of King Curtis's live versions, though my favorite is The Allman Brothers' tribute to King Curtis & Duane Allman with members of The Kingpins sitting in (well, taking over).

I thought it would be a perfect addition to this project, but I had to make sure all of the different stringed instruments were as separate as The Kingpins' horns. I substituted the horns for a mandolin, Cornell's telecaster for the Daddy Mojo biscuit, and the sax for my dobro. It took a while, but I was able to marry all of the parts together fairly well.