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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1436

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The Derek Trucks Band: Songlines
by George Graham

(Columbia 92844 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/8/2006)

Improvisation is the principle behind both jazz and rock jam bands, but the style does vary. Jazz players tend to work with standard compositions and the level of improvisation and musicianship is generally expected to be quite high. Jam bands, on the other hand, tend to work with original compositions, sometimes made up on the spot and based on simpler riffs, and the musical intensity tends not to be as high. It has been observed that a good jazz musician can make more interesting music in a one-minute solo than some jam bands can in a four-hour concert. Nevertheless, there is some overlap. The best jam bands can approach the level of jazz musicianship, and jazz musicians have been known to plug in and do lengthy solos.

This week, we have the new CD from a guitarist who has long shown a jazz influence, especially from the composers on whom he draws, and who also happens to play in one of the longest-running jam bands in existence, the Allman Brothers Band. He is Derek Trucks, and his new CD, with his Derek Trucks Band is called Songlines.

Derek Trucks was something of a guitar prodigy. He first picked up the guitar at age 9, after paying $5 for an old acoustic instrument at a yard sale. He began to learn from his father, and by age 11 had his first playing gig, and started his own band at age 12. He formed an association with bassist Todd Smallie in 1994 when Trucks was 15, that is still going. Trucks soon began to attract a good deal of attention, and in 1997 released a very impressive debut album at age 18, in which he freely mixed blues, Southern-rock, Eastern influence, and jazz-rock fusion, including compositions by John Coltrane on that recording.

Derek Trucks soon came to the attention of his uncle, drummer Butch Trucks of the Allman Brothers Band, who had become a partner in a jam-band oriented record label called Flying Frog Records, which released a great one-off recording by an ad-hoc group called Frogwings, which included both of the Truckses, as well as John Popper of Blues Traveler, and others. When Dickie Betts was dismissed from the Allman Brothers Band, Derek Trucks was invited to join, and he has been dividing his time between touring with his own group and with the Allman Brothers, keeping a hectic performing schedule.

The first recordings by the Derek Trucks Band were mostly instrumental, but in 2002, vocalist Mike Mattison was recruited on the recommendation of two people who served as producers for the band's albums, John Snyder and Craig Street. Minnesota-native Mattison turns out to be a good match for the band, a soulful, but rather understated singer, who can move easily between funk and soul style, and the wail of the Southern Rockers.

Rounding out the group are Yonrico Scott, a drummer who is 20 years Trucks' senior and who has been with him for more than 10 years; and flute and keyboard player Kofi Burbridge who was part of the Aquarium Rescue Unit, a great jam band from Trucks' hometown of Atlanta. Also appearing on a number of tracks is the gentleman known as Count M'Butu, who is also an Aquarium Rescue Unit veteran. This CD was produced by Jay Joyce, who also played some keyboards and co-wrote some of the original pieces with Trucks.

Once again Trucks looks to the worlds of both jazz and Southern rock for influence, as well as to soul and funk. Opening is a 1960s-era composition by the late jazz great Rashaan Roland Kirk called Volunteered Slavery, which is done with a multiplicity of voices. The track highlights Trucks' mixture of bluesy Southern-rock style guitar with the jazz influence. <<>>

That leads into Find My Way, co-written by Trucks and producer Joyce. The band's soulful take on Southern rock is a winner. <<>>

Trucks has always had strong blues influence. And this CD features some down-in-the-swamp blues-rock. Crow Jane effectively and infectiously captures the mood. <<>>

Going back to his first album, Derek Trucks has shown some of his influence by music from the Indian subcontinent. That aspect is highlighted in the extended instrumental track Sahib Teri Bandi and Maki Madni, part of which was based on a piece by the late Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Again, Trucks and company succeed and put their own stamp on it. <<>>

The bluesy aspect is also highlighted on a couple of tracks on which Trucks plays some acoustic resonator guitars. The traditional song Chevrolet is done semi-acoustically, in an arrangement reminiscent of cranked up version of Taj Mahal's recording of the song back in the late 1960s. <<>>

One of the more interesting instrumental tracks is Majoun an original by Trucks that brings in some African rhythmic influence. <<>>

The best of the covers is a piece that was also written by a jazz musician, Billy Taylor, I Wish I Knew (How It Would Be to Be Free), a great old song from the Civil Rights era. The band gives it an energetic spin that borrows the some of the original Gospel influence and adds with Truck's bluesy guitar. <<>>

The CD ends with perhaps its most ethereal track, This Sky, another original by Trucks, vocalist Mattison and producer Joyce. The atmospheric quality is underscored by Kofi Burbridge's flute. <<>>

Derek Trucks has gone from the jazzy rock guitar prodigy to co-lead guitarist of the Allman Brothers Band while still in his early 20s. But he still maintains his regular band, some of whose members he has been playing with for over a decade. Songlines, the latest recording by the Derek Trucks Band continues his blend of Southern rock jam-band music, with some jazz and bits of world music influence. As usual, the playing is first-rate, and vocalist Mike Mattison is a good addition to the band, though some of their best music is still instrumental.

Our grade for sound quality is about a B-plus. It's definitely mixed like a rock album with limited dynamic range and not a lot of subtlety, but it also delivers the goods and has power and decent clarity.

Some jam bands can go on for hours without much interesting music happening. Derek Trucks, while spending most of his career playing music that attracts jam band fans, has never been one to fall victim to jam-band noodling. His palette is wide, his playing is imaginative and his band still rocks.

(c) Copyright 2006 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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