Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Best Jazz of 2005: #9

Doug Wamble

Doug Wamble has the most original voice I've heard since Bill Frisell (and it's purely coincidence that both are guitarists). The only reason you haven't heard more about him is that critics don't have a clue how to categorize his music, which falls somewhere between jazz, blues, gospel, and country. Bluestate is the kind of album that reminds you how stupid we can be about insisting that music fall into neat categories.

Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis is notorious for advocating classical definitions of jazz — for instance, instrumentation consisting of a horn line accompanied by piano, bass, and drums. He's the last bandleader you'd expect to hire a guitarist. But Wamble decided he wanted to work with Wynton; so he worked his ass off, he studied and practiced the right music...and damned if he didn't bag the elephant.

That alone earned him a glance in my book; and when I heard his music, I was absolutely sold. As a generalization, I don't like vocal jazz; and I'm skeptical when small bands use odd meters or asymmetrical forms because they tend to emerge as gimmicks. Wamble shatters those stereotypes. If you've never understood what critics mean when they describe music as "honest," this CD is your answer.

I read a review that compared Wamble to Ray Charles. My first reaction was to roll my eyes; every musician and critic has spent the past 18 months reaching for references to Ray Charles. But then I gave it some thought; and actually, I've decided it's an insightful comparison. Both assimilated various influences into a unique, almost folksy voice that was immediately resonant early in their careers; and both their work shares a common thread of "soul" — which, in retrospect, might be the best characterization for Wamble's music.

On some albums, one track seems to stand out with everyone who hears it; and in this case, it's the traditional "Rockin' Jerusalem," featuring an infectious chorus and a blistering solo by Branford Marsalis. This is one of those songs where, if you're not tapping your foot and singing along, there's something wrong with you. Wamble moves from straight gospel into a bebop groove for his and Branford's solos, then bleeds back into a rousing finale that makes you think you're stomping your feet in a Tennessee church. You'd label him crazy if he described the plot before playing the tune; but when you listen, it just works.

Wamble is as far from the cookie cutter as you can measure. I suspect that, if it weren't for a record label owned by Branford Marsalis, he never would have been signed to record this music. At best, he might have been given a chance to record a program of standards and swing; and while that would have sounded fine, what we got instead is an original voice.

Bluestate: If I Live to See the Day; The Washing of the Water; The Homewrecker Hump; Antoine's Pillow Rock; Rockin' Jerusalem; One-Ninin'; No More Shrubs in Casablanca; Have a Talk with God; Gone Away; The Bear and the Toad.
Personnel: Doug Wamble, guitar and vocals; Roy Dunlap, piano; Jeff Hanley, bass; Peter Miles, drums; Branford Marsalis, tenor saxophone on 5.


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