The music of The Farewell Drifters is lodged in my brain. There must be some special part of the brain designated to take insanely catchy music and store it away in a section with a giant repeat button that can be activated from that point until eternity. That section has been on overdrive for me since I heard this band several weeks ago for the first time. And while this might drive me right to the straightjacket had it been many other bands, with The Farewell Drifters I don’t even care.
The quintet played at Iota Club and Café outside of Washington D.C. while on tour promoting the release of the group’s latest album, Echo Boom. They opened with exactly the type of insanely catchy song mentioned above, We Go Together. Acoustic instruments have never exhibited such energy. Clad in their now trademark Members Only jackets, the group introduced D.C. to the sound that caused their album to debut at #6 on Billboard’s bluegrass charts. Despite the name of the chart, The Farewell Drifters created a sound on Echo Boom that brilliantly melds the genres of indie pop and their traditional bluegrass roots. We Go Together opens with the kind of tight harmony and hand-clapping that calls to mind pop of the 1960’s, yet the album certainly does not stay there. The last tune on the album, Common Ties, is straight from bluegrass/folk, but if you start at the first track, you might be hard pressed to identify a bluegrass influence in the indie pop until halfway through the song.
The audience in D.C. did not particularly care what genre The Farewell Drifters were playing, but simply enjoyed great music. The members of the band were clearly doing the same. In instrumental breaks, lead vocalist Zach Bevill would turn with his guitar to violinist Christian Sedelmyer or Joshua Britt on mandolin and was guaranteed to be met with energy equal to or even greater than his own. And the enthusiasm did not let up. The Farewell Drifters ended this particular show with two broken guitar strings and one shredded violin bow. I have a feeling that this may not even be a record for them. During the brief rest and retuning between songs, Britt offered hilariously dry observations and comments, one being that after a previous show, a ten year old boy had described the Drifters as “a cross between Napoleon Dynamite and The Wizard of Oz.” I hope they gave him a free CD or something because that kid was pretty insightful.
All of this on-stage enthusiasm was more than validated by the talent of the band members. Memorable hooks were woven tastefully into song structures and instrumental solos made the technical talent of the musicians clear. Also refreshing were the thoughtful, intelligent lyrics written mainly by Joshua Britt and Bevill. The album jacket explains its title, Echo Boom, as the name of the generation following the baby boomers. Echo Boomers were born in the 1980s and into the 1990s. It is as members of this generation themselves that The Farewell Drifters ponder their place in the world, where they have come from, and where they are going.
Despite the broken strings and injured bow, the audience in D.C. demanded an encore and The Farewell Drifters delivered. There are plenty more festivals and venues to catch them at this summer. So go dig out your old Members Only jacket and prepare to enjoy some great music. And you might also prepare for the fact that these songs will be playing in your head for the rest of your life. But don’t worry, you won’t regret it.
I noticed while perusing the local music listings that Chuck Brown, “The Godfather of Go-Go,” is performing this weekend at Blues Alley in Washington D.C. While the musical style he created was the forerunner to other great contemporary styles, there was a different reason why the concert listing caught my attention. I couldn’t help but remember a young artist whose stunning talent caught Brown’s attention many years ago: Eva Cassidy. She had graced the same Blues Alley stage at the height of her short career to create a live album that would display to the world the pristine voice that Brown had recognized. It was really only years after her death at age 33 that the world listened and understood.
It was 1991 when Chuck Brown met Eva Cassidy, a virtually unknown vocalist from Bowie, Maryland. Inspired by classic vocal jazz duet albums of the likes of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, Brown decided to create a jazz duet album of his own and asked Cassidy to join him. Following the release of “The Other Side,” the pair played in all the well-known venues in the D.C. metro area and received some radio airplay. In 1993 Cassidy received a Wammie award given by the Washington Area Music Association in the category of traditional jazz. The following year she was honored with two awards, one for jazz and the other for Roots Rock/Traditional R&B. It was January of 1996 when Cassidy decided to release her own solo album recorded live at Blues Alley in D.C.
“Live At Blues Alley” introduced listeners to Cassidy’s voice in all of its glory; from the swinging “Cheek to Cheek” and “Blue Skies” to her haunting interpretation of “Autumn Leaves,” in which Cassidy accompanies herself on acoustic guitar. This album is full of feeling and passionate musical interpretation. Cassidy puts as much of herself into Billie Holiday’s “Fine and Mellow” as she puts into Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.” Her voice conveys the blues, soul, jazz, gospel; whatever element is needed to convey the song fully. Just as incredible as the range of styles she covers is the literal range of notes that sound of equal ease to her clear voice. Soft and intimate to a searing belt, she does the lyric justice.
Following the locally acclaimed release of “Live at Blues Alley,” Cassidy began work on a studio record. Tragically, this was also the same time that she discovered that cancer had spread in her body and it was predicted that she only had a few months to live. Despite aggressive treatment, Eva Cassidy passed away on November 2, 1996. She was posthumously inducted into the Washington Area Music Association’s Hall of Fame. Her studio album, “Eva by Heart,” was released the following year.
It wasn’t until several years after her death that her music received much worldwide publicity. Word spread with the release of a collection of her music by Blix Street Records. After a 2000 National Public Radio feature on Cassidy, her music received another influx of media attention and her album sales grew rapidly. ABC’s Nightline covered her life in “The Eva Cassidy Story,” which was so popular it was re-aired three times. Today she has sold more than six million records and has achieved three consecutive posthumous No. 1 sales in England. Mojo magazine rightly recognized her as “one of the greatest interpreters of popular song of the last 30 years.”
Now a decade after she first garnered worldwide attention, an acoustic album of her music has been released, featuring Eva accompanying herself on guitar. In the liner notes, Bill Straw of Blix Street Records, notes, “Eva Cassidy’s small, but magically productive body of work now serves as a beacon to a new generation of singers exploring the musical giants who have gone before, starting in many instances with Eva herself. For those who would study the music of Eva Cassidy, less is definitely more. For everyone else, whether less is more or not, ‘Simply Eva’ provides an opportunity to experience the unadorned music of Eva Cassidy and decide for yourself.”
There are two Nancy Wilsons in the world of music and probably quite a few more than two in the actual world. I became aware of this conundrum when my Facebook profile decided to link my liking of Nancy Wilson to the picture of the Nancy Wilson from the band Heart. It’s not the right Nancy. There is a Nancy Wilson of jazz who should be showing on my Facebook page and whose name you should know. And beyond just knowing her name, there is an album that needs to go in your collection: Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley.
Saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley met a young Nancy Wilson and according to the album’s original liner notes, was impressed by Wilson’s tone, style, and confidence and “felt she just had to go a long way.” He was right in that prediction: Wilson was soon to be signed by Capitol Records and embark on a 50+ year career as a jazz vocalist. In 1961 Wilson joined Cannonball’s quintet and recorded an album that was to become a classic.
The first line sung by Wilson on the album encapsulates her style. The bass and percussion, followed by horns and piano, provides a quiet, restrained introduction to the lyric: “Wish I knew,” she sings, lightly throwing out the first word and letting the last trail off in lovely, quiet vibrato. In the next part of the phrase the warmness has left and the line reaches a brassy, dynamic peak: “Why I’m so in love”, and fades back quietly, “with you.” Wilson is a master storyteller, which is evident in her phrasing and deliberate treatment of words. And I don’t think I’ve come across another singer who uses dynamics the way that she does. Light and warm of tone or heavy and bright, Nancy Wilson uses everything in her vast vocal capabilities to get the point of the lyric across. And she does that quite well.
Cannonball Adderley shares those musical qualities. “Never Will I Marry” is a hard swinging tune written by Frank Loesser and as Wilson finishes the lyric the first time through, Cannonball enters to solo with a bright, lyrical tone that perfectly complements Wilson’s. Listen to the first tune to hear the chemistry between two incredible musicians: the second verse features Wilson presenting the phrase vocally and Cannonball’s response on the horn. It’s a conversation and they are on the same page.
Cannonball’s band features his brother, Nat Adderley, on cornet, Joe Zawinul on piano, Sam Jones on bass, and Louis Hayes on drums. The group is tight and swinging and Wilson seems to function as a real member of the band, not just a vocalist. They are all stellar musicians, featured in turn, yet working cohesively together to create a great sound. The songs on this album aren’t the typical often-covered jazz standards. They are interestingly arranged and packaged to run at just over 40 minutes, which makes this album a treat to listen to in a single sitting. Five songs feature the quintet by themselves and six are vocal tunes.
This album is one project of a trove of music created by both of these artists. Cannonball Adderley’s band was active and popular in the 1960’s and he gained notoriety from his work with many other great musicians (heard of “Kind of Blue”?) And Nancy Wilson is still having a prolific career (among other accomplishments, she was the host of NPR’s “Jazz Profiles” for the show’s nearly 10 year run.) But this album remains in my mind as a highlight in both careers. It stands as a great example of musical collaboration and highlights the fun of jazz.
This month Esperanza Spalding became the first jazz musician ever to win the Best New Artist GRAMMY award. Her acceptance speech may have been the first time that many viewers had ever heard the 26-year-old’s voice, and apparently the fact that Justin Bieber wasn’t the person gracing the stage was the cause of a collective fit of rage by preteens everywhere. The world is lucky to have been introduced to Spalding, an accomplished bassist, vocalist, arranger and composer.
Growing up in a rough Portland neighborhood, Spalding first took interest in music at age four after seeing Yo-Yo Ma perform on Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. She taught herself to play the violin, but ended up picking the bass as her instrument of choice. At 20, she became the youngest member ever to become a faculty member at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Her solo work includes three albums, Junjo (2005), Esperanza (2008) and Chamber Music Society (2010). President Obama is a fan; she has performed at the White House and at the Nobel Prize ceremony in Oslo, Norway by his personal invitation.
At first listen the reason for her many accolades is apparent. Spalding’s voice is light, clear, and expressive. The fact that she is both an instrumentalist and vocalist lends a great deal of creativity to her musical expression. The resulting sound is a fresh blend of styles: jazz clearly, but also pop, soul, folk, world music, and more. One of my favorite tracks on her latest album is Inútil Paisagem. Originally written by Brazilian composer Antonio Jobim and usually sung slowly as a ballad, Spalding creates most of the rhythmic accompaniment vocally, scatting bass lines over her own bass and vocal lyric line. The result is an exceedingly innovative version of a song whose original beauty is preserved and at the same time enhanced by the creativity of the musician.
Her touring schedule is extensive for the next several months, but if you can’t catch a live show (many shows are currently sold out) then I would certainly recommend taking a listen to her albums. Esperanza Spalding is a true musician, full of talent and creativity, and a joy to listen to. Hopefully her 2011 GRAMMY win will be the first of many times that talent will be rightfully recognized and appreciated by listeners.