Blue Notes by Robin Lynam

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 August, 2014, 11:28am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 August, 2014, 11:28am

Two new tribute albums, each dedicated to influential musicians, at first seem to have little in common. On closer inspection, however, they reveal some interesting similarities.

My Old Friend is a tribute to late composer George Duke, led by singer Al Jarreau, who first met and performed with the keyboardist in the early 1960s. Duke wrote or co-wrote nine of the 10 tracks.

The Breeze, meanwhile, is a tribute to the late J.J. Cale from Eric Clapton, the best-known populariser of the "Tulsa Sound" pioneer's songs, most notably Cocaine and After Midnight.

Cale's rootsy blend of blues, jazz and country, and his understated vocal and guitar style, are a long way removed from Duke's slick R&B works and funk or Brazilian grooves.

Each man had his own widely emulated style and these albums, while featuring a lengthy list of guests, strive to get as close as possible to the heart of their distinctive sound. For Jarreau and Clapton, these are personal projects, undertaken for fellow artists who were friends and also musical influences.

In both cases the all-star casts put their egos aside, and made what sound much like albums Duke and Cale might have made if they were still around.

This is particularly important with The Breeze. Clapton's intention is to draw the attention of a wider audience to Cale's songwriting, and with the exception of They Call Me the Breeze, which was recorded by Lynyrd Skynyrd, the compositions here would be known only to Cale aficionados.

"I would like people to tap into what J.J. Cale did," Clapton says. "I'm just the messenger. I've always felt that's my job. I try to interpret things so that the public at large, or at least the people who listen to what I do, will become intrigued about where I got it from."

There is no repetition of songs he has recorded on other albums, not even the 2006 album he and Cale made together, The Road to Escondido, but the material is uniformly strong.

Guest singers and players on The Breeze include Tom Petty, Mark Knopfler, Willie Nelson, John Mayer, Cale's old bandmate Don White, and his widow, Christine Lakeland.

White sounds as though he owns the material, and Clapton and Knopfler, who both owe a considerable debt to Cale as guitarists and singers, make it explicit here. Derek Trucks and Albert Lee contribute guitar cameos.

Duke's music appealed to a wider audience than Cale's, but My Old Friend is also a loving tribute, featuring many of the artists with whom he collaborated over the years, including bassist Stanley Clarke with whom he forged an enduring musical partnership. Other participants selected by Jarreau include saxophonist Gerald Albright, pianist Dr John and Duke's cousin and longtime collaborator, vocalist Dianne Reeves.

Stand-out tracks include Duke's Someday, on which Jarreau duets with Reeves, and Churchyheart (Backyard Ritual) featuring Marcus Miller, who played on the original instrumental version on Miles Davis' 1986 album Tutu. Jarreau sings his own lyrics. In places it's a little too "smooth jazz", but that's true of a lot of the original recordings. The most interestingly different contribution comes from Dr John, who closes the album with a version of You Touch My Brain which drags the song all the way to Congo Square.

This augurs well for Ske-Dat-De-Dat, another tribute album which Dr John dedicates to Louis Armstrong. It will be out on September 1, and a preview can be heard on YouTube.

Take Three

Three outstanding jazz and blues tribute albums.

  • For Django (1964, Pacific): guitarist Joe Pass had yet to make his mark as an unaccompanied solo guitarist when he recorded this tribute to Django Reinhardt, but his distinctive voice on the instrument is already fully formed. Of the 10 pieces here, eight were written by or strongly associated with Reinhardt.
  • This One's for Blanton! (1973, Pablo): a fine duet album featuring Duke Ellington at the piano and Ray Brown on the bass, paying tribute to bassist Jimmy Blanton, who died in 1942 at the age of 23, having redefined the role of the bass in jazz through his playing with the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
  • Let the Good Times Roll (1999, MCA): B.B. King pays tribute to jump blues bandleader, singer and saxophonist Louis Jordan. Jordan's Caldonia is one of King's signature songs, and he revisits it here, along with other exuberant classics.




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Blue Notes by Robin Lynam

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