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Feature Thu Feb 22 2007

New Delmark CD/DVD releases: Art without Pretension

Two new additions to Delmark's CD/DVD series by Chicago veteran performers demonstrate how the dual-release strategy can combine entertainment and education, and exploit the ability of jazz and blues to speak to both the heart and to the mind. In both instances, the DVD offers added value to the recording, and is more than just a mere visual record of live performance.

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The first, Jimmy Burns: Live at B.L.U.E.S. (Delmark Records DE 789 / 1789) features veteran guitarist Jimmy Burns — one of a handful of local bluesmen (Byther Smith is another that comes to mind) who fuse elements of delta blues, Chicago west-side soul, and old-school country music, effortlessly shifting gears without pretension. He's a versatile talent, playing tasteful guitar with a resonant tone, and this set from August 2006 will please anyone with a fondness for twang. Unlike many blues performers on the local circuit, Burns is just as capable when performing slow blues as crowd-pleasing boogie rave-ups. He started his musical career not as a guitarist, but as a singer doing doo-wop and gospel, and the timbre of his voice recalls southern gospel and soul as much as blues. The songs featured here serve as a good overview of his Delmark recordings, with a variety of rhythms and tuning that keeps the set interesting and lively. The DVD has a loose, country picnic feel, as this set was played during last August's annual B.L.U.E.S. barbecue at the north side club.

Listening to the set on CD provides an appreciation for the solid band he's assembled, but it's interesting to hear the DVD commentary track, which includes some insight into Burns' guitar technique and tuning that provide clues to the components of his unusual hybrid sound. There's also some interesting anecdotes about growing up in Mississippi and his musical influences, as well as two bonus tracks on the DVD, one of which, "Don't Be Late", is a soulful gem.

Both the CD and the DVD feature a guest appearance by singer Jesse Fortune doing a version of BB King's classic "Three O'Clock Blues", which seems a bit overwrought to my ears, and could have been left off the collection. The two slow blues performed by Burns outshine Fortune. As a testament to his versatility, Burns even pulls a harmonica out of his pocket and plays an elastic solo in the middle of a rendition of Little Walter's Chicago classic, "Can't Hold Out Much Longer", and the other DVD bonus track, "Mean Mistreating Mama" is practically a master class on how to squeeze the most feeling out of a song without histrionics. Burns, as the saying goes, knows what notes not to play, and his simple, direct vocal style is an analog for his guitar playing, which never wastes a note.

If you frequent the blues circuit, it's fun to play "spot the blues celebrity" in the video, and just in case you can't put the name to the face, a good portion of the commentary track features Delmark's Steve Wagner and Burns doing just that. You probably will be able to take that game live if you attend the official release party this Friday at B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted (2519 N Halsted, 773- 528-1012).

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Percussionist Kahil El'Zabar is such a prolific artist that he often seems to be everywhere at once. He's a fascinating hipster intellectual who nonetheless shares Jimmy Burns' unpretentious approach to making music. The set preserved here on Ethnic Heritage Ensemble: Hot N' Heavy: Live at the Acension Loft (Delmark Records DE 574 / 1574) is an all-star session of 5 tracks recorded before a live audience at El'Zabar's loft near the Loop, featuring Ernest Dawkins on sax, Fareed Haque on guitar, and young hotshot Corey Wilkes on trumpet. The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble project is a vehicle for rhythmic ideas based in African percussion, but it's not simply a dry demonstration of thumb piano and ur-drum. The music on this CD exists at a confluence of bop, cool jazz, early rhythmic blues, and African melodic structures, a dangerous mix that can become more conceptual than entertaining in the wrong hands. Handing this framework to talented improvisers like these, however, is galvanizing.

The DVD commentary track is a dazzling mix of El'Zabar dropping names of the impressive array of artists he's collaborated with, as well as the conceptual and philosophical ideas behind his music. There's also some reminiscence about the Association for the Advancement of Creatve Musicians, and mentors like Phil Cohran. The videography here mirrors the musical forms of the performance, with trippy cross-fades and double-exposures that include artwork on display in the loft space, attempting to visually reproduce the swirling soundscapes of the performance.

The versatility of the musicians is showcased in these pieces, with different movements that borrow from the entire spectrum of jazz, and rhythmic motifs that shift slowly like sand dunes. The overall effect is calm fury, a nexus where musical ideas float in and out of the rhythmic pocket that El'Zabar has set. Wilkes and Haque have always included more elements of pop music in their solo material, while Dawkins is more of a "pure" jazz player, but in this combination they seem to all gravitate toward a center that combines pop with the avant garde.

The most stunning song is the set closer, "Black As Vera Cruz", which spins various melodic phrases around a mutating Latin rhythm, with a result that is at times hypnotic and at times downright hummable. This is a fascinating collaboration by some of the most exciting and creative musicians in town.

They will kick off the Traffic Jam music festival at the Steppenwolf Theater Thursday night at 7:30 p.m., joined by a who's who of the local jazz scene. (1650 N. Halsted Street, 312-335-1650, www.steppenwolf.org)

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

Read this feature »

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