|Jeff Healey & The Jazz Wizards - It's Tight Like That|
|Music Disc Reviews Audio CD|
|Written by Stephen K. Peeples|
|Tuesday, 01 August 2006|
release year: 2006
label: Stony Plain
reviewed by: Stephen K. Peeples
oronto-born Jeff Healey earned kudos from his peers and a fair amount of cash from the record-buying public in the ‘80s and ’90s as a blues-rockin’ guitar slinger with a singular style he developed by playing a Fender Strat stretched flat across his lap.
If that’s your point of reference for Healey, you might find this third album and first live set released by Healey’s Dixieland band, the Jazz Wizards, a big surprise. It’s a wild but ultimately rewarding flashback to the birth of New Orleans jazz, which is no mean feat for a bunch of guys who grew up and live more than 1,100 miles north of the Big Easy, and in a completely different culture.
Healey, blind due to eye cancer in 1967 at age one, started playing guitar at three and fronted his own blues-rock band, Blues Direction, at 17. A couple years later he put together a new trio, with Joe Rockman on bass and Tom Stephen on drums. An indie single caught Arista’s ear and the Jeff Healey Trio’s debut album, See the Light, scored U.S. platinum, with a little help from the single “Angel Eyes.” Healey never let sightlessness stand in his way, nor did he work that angle as a marketing gimmick. Once he started playing, no one cared if he had three heads.
After the turn of the century, Healey exposed his other musical roots, the music he’s loved as much as the blues and rock since childhood – ragtime and New Orleans Dixieland jazz. Pioneered by giants like Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong, it’s the music that bridged the field songs of the latter 1800s with the swing of Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman and the Dorseys, between the late ’20s and mid-’40s. All of it laid the foundation for Parker, Dizzy, Miles, Coltrane and the other pioneers of modern jazz.
Healey picked up the trumpet a few years back and developed a style loosely based on Louis Armstrong’s early stuff from the ‘20s, when Pops was fronting the Hot Five and Hot Seven (a touchstone for generations of post-Armstrong cornet and trumpet players). Healey also started hosting a trad-formatted radio program, “My Kind of Jazz,” initially heard on CBC (the Canadian Broadcasting Company), then online at jazzfm.com.
In 2002, Healey assembled the Jazz Wizards from like-minded local and regional players, and set out to simultaneously celebrate and pay homage to the joyful noise and mournful dirges of Dixieland and hot jazz. They cut a couple of albums, Among Friends (2002) and Adventures in Jazzland (2004), released on Healey’s independent HealeyOphonic label.
By Healey’s count, he and the Wizards had played a couple dozen gigs by mid-‘05, when he decided to record them in front of a live audience for their third outing. Released on the Stony Brook label, It’s Tight Like That captures the band conjuring up the Crescent City spirit at Hugh’s Room, an intimate folk club in Toronto, in front of appreciative audiences over two nights in late August 2005.
Healey blew lots of trumpet, played a little guitar and sang most of the leads. He’s not in Pops’ league, but knew what to play, his chops were okay, and his enthusiasm and attack compensated for whatever seasoning he lacked. His vocals were a little rough-hewn, perhaps from his years on the road touring with his trio, and lent to the character of the songs.
Joining Healey on the front line as Special Guest Wizard was Chris Barber, British trombone legend and skiffle architect in the mid-1950s (and therefore a direct influence on the desperately impressionable Quarry Men in Liverpool). By the early ’60s, Barber was a trad-jazz legend, and at a time when blues was on the skids in America, he was instrumental in getting black American bluesmen, including Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Louis Jordan, and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, over to England.
In their audiences of mostly white British kids were acolytes like John Mayall, Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, Long John Baldry, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and various Rolling Stones, who threw all that stuff back at young and still-clueless American white kids and sparked the great blues revival of the late ’60s. Instead of fading into obscurity, guys like Muddy Waters are legends.
Barber made the initial contact, asking Healey to fly to the U.K. to join his band for some dates there and in Europe. Healey was done with long tours, especially so far away from home, and talked Barber into traveling to Toronto instead. Richard Flohill, a local friend of Healey’s and a Barber fan as well, booked and promoted the Hugh’s Room gigs to facilitate the event.
Healey, then a 39-year-old whippersnapper, and Barber, a scrappy pappy at 75, collaborated with the Wizards on the repertoire, much of which was called during the performance.
Under Healey’s buoyant guidance, they opened with a full-tilt “Bugle Call Rag” that got the band and the audience wide-awake inside of six and a half minutes.
Wizards Christopher Plock ripped on reeds (clarinet, soprano and alto sax), Drew Jurecka shredded on hot jazz violin (and sometimes Texas-style cowboy swing fiddle) and Jesse Barksdale played driving acoustic rhythm guitar. Filling out the rhythm section, Brian Graville pounded a lively whorehouse piano, Colin Bray thumb-ped a solid upright bass, and Gary Scriven held the whole thing together on drums, while punctuating with lots of period percussive accents.
The pace eased back a bit for the bluesy “Sing You Sinners,” with an unrepentant Healey on lead vocal, then got downright mournful on “Basin Street Blues,” Barber’s first vocal/’bone feature of the set. He may be past his prime in tone and technique, but like Healey on the rise, the senior member of the band knew just what to play, and compensated for his fading chops with youthful energy.
More highlights included Plock stylin’ on lead vocal as the band trucked on down to Shelton Brooks’ post-World War I classic “Darktown Strutters Ball.” Guest singer Terra Hazelton belted Bessie Smith/Clarence Williams’ “Keep It to Yourself” like a woman no man would want to mess with. Healey nearly cracked up while singing Harry Beasley Smith/Ted Snyder/Francis Wheeler’s “Sheik of Araby,” oft recorded by Barber, because the band responded to every line he sang by singing “… with no pants on.”
The latter tune, and Francis Henry/Matt Hyde’s “Little Girl,” were actually Wizardly Barber-less performances from the band’s set at the Montreal Jazz Festival last year, where Reid Kaiser replaced Graville on piano and Ross Wooldridge played clarinet. Both tracks fit right in with the Hugh’s Room sets.
Flohill made another valuable contribution to this project by suggesting the band wrap up their set with the salacious “Wipe ’Em Off,” made famous in the Roaring ’20s by co-author Clarence Williams and his Seven Gallon Jug Band. Healey and Barber decided to medley that one up with “It’s Tight Like That,” the likewise saucy Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey rave-up made famous by Tampa Red in 1928. Both tunes were a perfect fit for the Wizards, 80-odd years later.
Not coincidentally, my first listen to It’s Tight Like That was on the 45-minute drive home from the Hollywood Bowl, where we’d seen several musical nods to New Orleans during two days at the 28th annual Playboy Jazz Festival. Most relevant to my review of Healey’s project was the performance by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, which has stuck to the roots of New Orleans jazz through thick and thin, even after Hurricane Katrina rendered half the band homeless in August-September 2005.
The Playboy Festival had also presented legendary Crescent City songwriter, producer, keyboardist and performer Allen Touissant and his #1 fan Elvis Costello, with their combined bands, paying tribute to Toussaint’s rock ’n’ gumbo heritage.
Then Branford Marsalis and his trio threw down a terrific set of bleeding-edge contemporary jazz that had nothing to do with New Orleans, except, as the outspoken musician and activist told this writer backstage before they played, that the bandleader had grown up there.
Well, who am I, a Boomer WASP who grew up middle-class in small-town Wisconsin, suburban Miami and finally the L.A. ’burbs, who’s lived it through records, tapes, books, CDs and interviews, to argue with someone who’s lived it first-hand? Especially before the set?
After seeing Marsalis perform his hard, fast, intense, explosive 40 minutes, most of it material that would not be released on CD for a few months, it occurred to me that there may indeed be a connection, if indirect, between what Branford’s doing this minute and the Dixieland and ragtime the Dixieland Preservation Hall is dedicated to preserving.
When first introduced, ragtime was revolutionary, cutting-edge, controversial. Same with Dixieland and swing. New Orleans musicians have traditionally made their own rules. Kinda what Branford has always done.
Healey’s Jazz Wizards are doing an admirable job trying to replicate, with vigor and panache, music from a bygone era. They are motivated not by the prospect of huge financial returns, but by the sheer joi d’musique, and desire to keep it alive.
On It’s Tight Like That, the Wizards and their ringer trombonist from Britain get admirably close to the real deal. That the project was funded in part by the government-sponsored Canada Music Fund, and a Canadian label released and promoted it, underscores the main-line influence New Orleans jazz had on all points north, east and west in the early 1900s, and to its enduring musical, entertainment and historic value now, a century later.
Anne Keillor produced the live sound, with Tom Jardone and Alec Fraser the engineers, and they caught just about everything with clarity. It’s about the miking. It helped that all the instruments were acoustic and the venue was geared to natural instrumentation. Even without headphones (but especially with), you can hear the guys’ feet tapping out time. All the wild counterpoint-jamming going on slightly off-mike, behind the soloists up front, is discernible. Scriven’s propulsive beats and masterful percussion touches are mixed across the full L-C-R spectrum. You also hear the love in the room – the exuberant expressions of encouragement between Healey and his musicians, and the cheers of encouragement and applause from the audience praising the soloists and each song. Andy Krehm’s mastering job brings home the presence. The listener is virtually sitting in with the band. For a non-surround mix, that’s quite worthy of note.