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Friday, June 21, 2013

James Booker, "New Orleans Piano Wizard: Live!"

James Booker
"New Orleans Piano Wizard: Live!"
Gold (1977)

1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die

I know that I've only done 200-and-something posts so far, but it feels like I've complimented millions of bands for the variety of styles they incorporate into their music. Hip-hop groups get credit for sampling out of different genres, and alternative artists like Beck make a name for themselves almost exclusively because of blending. How about jazz? Jazz fusion is easy enough; just combine horns with whatever other instruments you want. But what if it's just one musician? Enter James Booker.

Booker was a pianist, and only the guitar can compete among instruments for genre crossover. This dude came from New Orleans, and I think we all have an idea what New Orleans jazz sounds like by now. Booker surely loved the music of his hometown but he was classically trained, and more importantly, the left-side of his brain was hyperactive. He just couldn't hold himself to one style.

Listening to "New Orleans Piano Wizard: Live!", one can pick up on the struggle Booker had balancing the energy in his hands with that of his voice. He's got quirky, nasally vocals, but he keeps himself under control. Consider how his voice maintains a subtle tone throughout the ballad "Please Send Me Somebody to Love," and compare it with his piano playing. His hands can tap out the smoothest of arpeggios or ram home a fervent glissando.

Many of his tracks open with jaunty New Orleans stride piano, but Booker can't keep himself satisfied by just repeating the same line over and over again, similar to how Stevie Ray Vaughn added flourish to nearly every vocal break with his guitar. Booker frequently adds similar flair, whether it be the previously mentioned arpeggios (on a guitar, these are called "meedly-meedlies"), or by dragging his hand down the keys for a glissando.

He demonstrates his virtuosity to the extreme during the bridges of these tracks. "Come In My Home" has him tapping the high keys at his quickest pace, but "Keep On Gwine" is more interesting because it demonstrates Booker incorporating music unrelated to jazz, and doing it smoothly. If you slow the bridge of "Gwine" down, his solo will sound more like Bach than Art Tatum. Booker was renowned for weaving elements of classical and Latin music into his own, and so slickly that it almost seems unconscious.

Moon points out that "New Orleans Piano Wizard" is a good choice when listening to Booker because it features him playing a grand piano, versus an upright. The quality of the instrument is evident based on the quality of his bridges, but much of this music sounds like it belongs on an upright piano in a shady saloon. Booker was by all accounts a character, noted for his starred eyepatch, but he didn't let the high profile gig featured on this album to change his approach to the genre.

INTERESTING FACT: One of Booker's biggest hits during his career was "Gonzo," and some believe the song inspired the title for the style of journalism practiced by Hunter S. Thompson.

Keep on Gwine by James Booker on Grooveshark

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