No, it’s not a new CD (already?!) from Mr Laurie. My earlier review of ‘Let Them Talk’ brought a lot of traffic so I asked for a musician’s eye view from The Folk Club Bonn’s resident MC, Blues player and Blues Fan John Harrison:
Some Englishmen have a rare predilection with Jazz and with the Blues. They are often white but certainly not always middle-class, as Hugh Laurie professes to be. They are drawn to the simple majestic poetry of both the lyrics and the initially seemingly primitive music which could not possibly be further removed from England’s green and pleasant land and the Establishment firmly established upon it.
The first Blues song, that wasn’t really, was probably not William Christopher Handy’s „St. Louis Blues“ from the time of WW I but a hymn written much earlier by a slave ship captain, who had followed in his father’s footsteps, a certain Englishman by the name of John Newton whose hymn entitled „Amazing Grace“, was not only a good title for a song, but a short succinct phrase which caught well the new American musical form, with its strong roots in African tradition, that broke new ground when confronted with prevelent European music traditions in the southern states of the U.S.A. „Amazing Grace“ tells a story of despair as Newton totally abandons his ship to God and the storm, and literally battens down the hatches to emerge from the hold many hours later as a man transformed by sharing his fears and hopes with his involuntary African passengers below decks. He later denounces the slave trade and embraces religion. This particular song is not on Hugh Laurie’s „Let Them Talk“ CD, but it would not have been at all out of place there.
This CD is a pleasant surprise and much better than it perhaps deserves to be. Certainly it’s so much better than the negative hype preceeding its release suggested. Hugh’s piano playing owes a lot to the legacy of Professor Longhair, and also Dr. John who actually features on „After you’ve gone“. The two legendary giants of New Orleans piano playing in the latter half of the last century. I was aware of some of Hugh’s many other talents, including his singer songwriter piano playing ones on his song „Mystery“, but I was unaware that he played the guitar too.
There is a wonderful choice of songs on this CD, from Gospels through the work song ‘John Henry’ to iconic songs by J.B Lenoir, Blind Blake, Leadbelly, Leroy Carr and Robert Johnson. That‘s a tall order, but all the musicians on the CD are well up to the challenge. David Piltch on double bass is the clothes peg around which all the cloaks hang and Kevin Breit’s superb inventive guitar work and Jay Bellerose’s remarkable percussion, rather than mere drumming, provide the smoke and mirrors necessary to complete the magic of the New Orleans Blues. I long thought that violin really had no place in the Blues, until I revisited some old Mississippi Sheiks recordings and Craig Eastman certainly presses this point home on Hugh’s CD.
The two „death“ songs, Leroy Carr’s „Six Cold Feet (underground)“ and „St. James Infirmary „ which Louis Armstrong first recorded back in 1928, are what strike to the heart of this music genre’s simple honesty and integrity though. Most human beings spend almost their entire lives in a state of denial about one of its most inevitable certainties. For most forms of modern popular music the subject is cetainly quite taboo, but „St. James Infirmary“ grasps death complete with dark shroud and scythe and places it firmly before the eyes of all the people sat around that table. Sad yes, but going eyeball to eyeball with the reality of death, gives us all a new hope in the celebration of life. The soul leaves the body and goes on to „search this wide world over“ before your very eyes and ears.
Once you’ve done and seen that, laughing becomes so much more natural, one can begin to „look on the bright side of life“ and „stop worrying and be happy“ even if it is „laughing just to keep from crying“. This is what I believe Hugh Laurie means when he describes the deep powerful emotion embodied in the Blues. There’s always someone who’s got it worse than you, and if you’ve really been way, way down, then the only way is up.
So who were those other Englishmen who recognised this unique magic in the music forged in the crucible of the Crescent City? Well one was the English born journalist and radio broadcaster Alistair Cooke, who after graduating from Cambridge, Yale and Harvard universities could be considered upper class. It was he, who after first considering very many and varied alternatives, decreed that 12 Bar Blues, „the supreme invention“ was indeed the greatest gift that America ever gave to the rest of the world. A piano player himself, like Hugh Laurie, Alistair Cooke met Jelly Roll Morton in the 1930‘s who gave him the advice about playing the Blues, to „just stick to the chords and forget that fancy picture show right hand“. When the first opportunity came with a break from his studies at Yale, Alistair Cooke headed on down to New Orleans to research and pay homage to what he considered to be the American aristocracy, King Oliver, Earl Hines, Duke Ellington and Count Basie.
Another curious Englishman who played a very significant role was a man who was certainly more working class. Ken Colyer worked as a train cleaner and then, showed both „get up“ in becoming an able seaman in the merchant navy, and „go“ when he jumped ship in Mobile Alabama in 1952 to take a Greyhound bus down to New Orleans. This confirmed his faith in the traditional New Orleans Jazz of his hero Bunk Johnson and he played trumpet, somewhat eyebrow raisingly for the time, with the all black George Lewis Band, before overstaying his visa and being jailed and deported back to Blighty. Important as his faith renewal with trad Jazz was, perhaps more important, were the seeds of the old negro blues singers like Leadbelly, that he not only brought back to England but allowed to sprout and flourish during the breaks of his band‘s Jazz sets, when he put down his trumpet and picked up a guitar, his trombonist played upright bass and Lonnie Donnegan joined them to begin playing a very earthy penetrating unusual form of acoustic music, which unbeknown to them at the time, would unleash the remarkable musical skiffle boom in England, which turned a quarter of the country into enthusiastic participating rural blues musicians. The rest is indeed now „history“.
The Englishman doing the interview with Ken Colyer here : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PYxok6qb6M4 is George Melly, an eccentric, camp middle class surrealist, who had almost as much influence as Ken himself did in his own way. George Melly, each day, placed a Bessie Smith record on the turntable before breakfast. George was one of those rare Jazzers who could sing both convincingly and in tune, and fronted the Feetwarmers on vocals for many years.
On the foundation of skiffle the Rhythm and Blues formations of the Rolling Stones and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers developed electric Chicago Blues Rock and then onto the Led Zeppelins and co. Meanwhile the newly emerged British electric folk bands like Pentangle with Bert Jansch and John Renbourn kept the acoustic Delta and the Piedemont Blues guitar traditions of the likes of Mississippi John Hurt and Furry Lewis alive, well and kicking, inside the warm cocoon of the „Folk“ world.
So bearing all this background in mind, it really isn’t so unusal that someone of Hugh’s age and remarkable talent and musical curiosity shouldn’t stumble deeply into the cavernous pit of the New Orleans Blues. He certainly picked up on that funky, never faulting, stride bass piano left hand and combined it with the wandering flash (but not too flash) right hand which counterpoints more the rhythmic melody, or is it the melodic rhythm? Either way, that’s the musical essence of New Orleans piano style, almost as difficult to describe as the culinary essence of hot tamales.
On this CD Hugh is the equivalent of the boy in his favourite sweet shop or the proverbial dog in the butcher’s doorway. It’s almost like a Ripping Yarns tale, too good to be true. Yet it is true, and truly well done at that. He deliberately rocks up and boogies ‘Swannee River’ to cock a snoot to his sanctimonious old piano teacher, Mrs Hare, who wouldn’t let him even play it as a simple gospel in his music tuition book as a boy. There are so many good features on this CD such as the growling sax from Levon Henry on Six Feet of Ground many of which one only picks up on subsequent hearings. David Pitch’s outstanding bass on Blind Blake‘s Police Dog Blues, although on that particular song I did rather miss the quintessential guitar harmonics which are normally to the fore. Otherwise, it is a job very well done indeed Mr Laurie and Irma Thomas’s vocals stream well in the vocal tradition of Bessie Smith, who thinking about it, is perhaps the ultimate litmus test. If Bessie could have comfortably sung at least half of your set list, the chances are that it’s authentic Blues. Pay homage to the tradition, but leave room for the creativity, that the Blues affords, more so than many other kinds of music. Thanks to Hugh and Joe Henry and the copper bottomed band and to all the shoulders of the countless endearing musical souls on which they are standing. There is an old native American Indian saying, which says that „if the eyes have known no tears, then the soul can see no rainbows“ and that pretty much sums up the intensely deep emotional swings embodied so intrinsically in this music, which transcends so many boundaries before reaching the distilled clarification between death and life, sadness and happiness.
At the end of Hugh’s sleeve notes for ‘Let Them Talk’ he speaks of his love of the Blues and concludes,
„ If you get a thousandth of the pleasure from it that I’ve had, we’re ahead of the game“
a statement with which I can very much empathise. However, he shouldn’t just admonish his piano teacher, Mrs Hare, he should also have a go at his maths teacher, for failing by a long shot, to convey the idea of exactly where life‘s decimal point should be.
– Review by John Harrison