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The Graham Album Review #2180

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The Krasno-Moore Project: Book of Queens

(Concord Records, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/3/2024)

A few generations ago, it was a rather common thing to release albums of instrumental versions of current hits. Back in the day when FM radio was primarily easy-listening, those instrumental covers were a staple of the format. And background music services like Muzak, created hours of such instrumental covers, with all the edges shaved off, and thus it became the proverbial, and literal, elevator music. There’s not a lot of that happening these days, but jazz musicians have always played popular music, not exactly covering the song, but bringing something new with hopefully interesting improvisation based on the tunes.

This week, we have an interesting album of instrumental covers. It’s not exactly a jazz album in the classic sense, but it does put a different kind of spin on a number of familiar songs, sans vocals. It’s by the Krasno Moore Project, and it’s called Book of Queens.

The Krasno and Moore and guitarist Eric Krasno, who was a key member of the jam bands Soulive and Lettuce. He as also worked in the studio with Norah Jones, Robert Randolph, Aaron Neville and 50 Cent. Stanton Moore is a veteran New Orleans drummer who has been a part of the band Galactic, and has released eight albums under his own name, some of which we have featured in this album review series, and has worked in the studio with performers from Macy Gray to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

The two met in the mid 1990s when Krasno was still in college in Massachusetts, and Moore and his groups frequently came through town. Krasno got Moore to listen to his demo recordings, and they soon became friends, playing together occasionally when their paths crossed. In 2022, after 25 years of that intermittent collaboration, they decided to concentrate on a joint album project, and do a tour together. They opted for doing a collection of songs made famous by women artists from Nina Simone to Billie Eilish. They said they wanted to reflect on the role their families have played in their lives, and in their words, “create something that would make their wives proud.” The third member of this trio is keyboardist Eric Finland, a Berklee College of Music graduate, who on the album plays mainly organ. For this album, they went to the late Levon Helm’s recording studio in Woodstock, NY. Most of Book of Queens is just the trio, performing in real time, but there are three guests, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, guitartist Cory Henry, and pedal steel player Robert Randolph. The result is an album of engaging covers with the emphasis on the groove, played in a way that makes the tune recognizable without a lot of jazzy improvisation. The playing is strong, but not fancy. There’s a definite emphasis on the funk side, and Krasno’s guitar often has has what has been called a swamp rock sound.

Opening is the Amy Winehouse song You Know I’m No Good which is given that swamp-rock sound with Moore doing a kind of New Orleans funk groove on the drums. This result is quite appealing. <<>>

A song called Nobody’s Baby, recorded by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. recalls some of the old Memphis Stax Records sessions with Booker T. Jones and Steve Cropper. Though the groove is strong, it’s not the best on the album for its rather monochromatic sound. <<>>

With a more melodic texture is Slow Burn by country singer Kacey Musgraves. The trio give the tune a nice easy texture with Eric Finland occasionally bringing in some piano. <<>>

The Billie Eilish tune they cover is Lost Cause. It’s one of those songs that really revolves around the vocals, so the instrumental backing and song structure do not have a lot going for it without the words. Still, Krasno, Moore and Finland do a respectable job. <<>>

Guitarist Corey Henry makes a guest appearance on song called Stay High by Brittany Howard. It has a classic soul sound, but with the addition of guitarist Henry, it takes on a kind of Allman Brothers Band quality, which is nothing to complain about. <<>>

One of the most familiar songs on the album is Fever first made famous by Peggie Lee. This is a song that many have covered over the years. The Krasno-Moore Proj0ect gives a bluesy shuffle beat, with frequent key changes to make it more interesting. This is the track that features Branford Marsalis on sax. <<>>

Probably the other most familiar song on the album is Carole King’s (Sometimes I Feel) Like a Natural Woman, made famous by Aretha Franklin. The band takes it pretty straight, with not a lot of instrumental soloing, and largely sticking with the original melody. <<>>

One of the more interesting tracks is Carried Away by the artist known as H.E.R. Krasno’s guitar sound seems especially swampy with Moore’s strong groove elevating the song. <<>>

The album ends with a song associated with Nina Simone, written by jazz pianist Billy Taylor, I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free which by now has become a spiritual classic. Robert Randolph, who plays pedal steel guitar in his own Gospel-influenced group makes an appearance and gives it an almost angelic treatment. <<>>

Book of Queens the debut album by the Krasno Moore Project, comprising two veteran players who have known each other for a quarter century, is an interesting, soulful and funky take on the old concept of an album of instrumental versions of pop songs. It’s nothing like the those records from the 1960s, which gave rise to elevator music. But it’s a tribute to notable women vocalists of several generations. There’s not much jazzy improvisation on the album, with the band sticking to the tune for the most part, while they apply their great rhythmic groove. The guest instrumentalists add a little additional color, but for the most part, the album’s sound is fairly uniform, and could have used somewhat more variety.

Our grade for audio quality is no better than a C-plus. The guitar sound is murky, and not very clean. And the whole mix is compressed to the point that there is little dynamic range. Swamp rock was never an audiophile genre, but this album would have profited from a cleaner sound.

It’s a great to hear these two veteran rock and funk players combine forces on this project. It might serve as an inspiration for more albums of creative instrumental covers.

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