'blues+jazz=BLAZZ': POWDER BLUES (2004)
The first that I heard of Canada's POWDER BLUES was in or about 1980 when I heard one of their tunes, What Have I Been Drinking being played by local Sydney outfit, the LAYABOUTS. It was being sung by the lead guitarist, Gary DALE who later became a mainstay in the first line-up of my own band, BEACHHEAD.
Though I was still a few years away from actually hearing the band themselves.
In 1987 I was asked to join a band from Dubbo (about 230 miles west of Sydney) calling themselves 'the Downtown Blues Band'. Among their repertoire at the time were Oh Well, Oh Well, Stoop Down Baby, Tore Down and Good Riffin' Tonight (an instrumental they'd concocted from Good Rockin' Tonight). All tracks that appeared on Red Hot/True Blue - Powder Blues double vinyl set from 1983. An album that I later managed to find in a record shop more by accident than good management. Though only in the single vinyl release with about half the tunes missing.
Then in November 1989 I drove down to Melbourne to sing at the Melbourne Homegrown Blues Festival and discovered that the saxophonist in the band was an avid fan of Powder Blues and also had a video of them performing at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland in 1983. He was kind enough to lend me the tape, which by that time was no longer available in Australia. This is now available through their merchandise pages in VHS-NTSC format and on DVD.
In 1990 I managed to contact bandleader, Tom Lavin by post after finding the address on the back of their album cover and he sent me a cassette of their Montreux performance which was later, unfortunately, to disappear into the collection of someone with very light fingers indeed.
We've kept in touch, after a fashion, since then and when I eventually managed to go 'on-line' in early 2001 one of the first 'links' that put on my site was that of POWDER BLUES. A few months back, in about February 2004, I was browsing their site and had occasion to contact Tom who informed me that he was coming to OZ & New Zealand for a short holiday because they'd just finished recording their second 'big band-style jazz/blues' album and that it would be released in the very near future.
They'd released the first of this style album in January 2002 (Swingin' the Blues) and now, two years on, comes a second helping with the release of BLAZZ.
My copy arrived in the mail yesterday morning (June 17, 2004) and I have had nothing else on the deck since. It's a delight!
The disc opens with a Lavin 'original' Cooking With the Blues, a swinging 'jump' blues reminiscent of the genre's greatest exponents, Louis Jordan and Louis Prima and with lyrics that bring back memories of Jordan's Saturday Night Fish Fry. A nice tenor saxophone solo from Jerry Cook.
Next up is the Boz Scaggs penned Runnin' Blue. This a beautiful loping 'big band' blues with a lovely guitar solo from Tom and his voice bringing back images, for this reviewer at least, of the late and very great Joe Williams and Al Hibbler. Both of whom sang with the Count Basie Band in the past. If you've never heard either of these gentlemen, then you've missed a very great deal.
Well Do It, another self-penned gem, is up next and features a short sharp tenor solo again from Jerry Cook and some fine vocals from Tom Lavin.
Things Are Getting Better written by Julian 'Cannonball' Adderley and the great Eddie Jefferson is next in the queue and is an absolute delight. Tom once again sounds very much like Joe Williams as he attempts the 'vocalese' of Jefferson and succeeds mightily. There is a lightness in his delivery that is rare these days. His vocal turnaround at the back end is damn near perfection. The alto saxophone solo from longtime PB member, Bill Runge is very reminiscent of the great Phil Woods (bop player extraordinaire) and Tom's guitar solo reminds me a little of jazz great Kenny Burrell who penned such tunes as Chitlins Con Carne (a blues band staple).
Send Out For A Bucket Of Beer written by the same Buddy Johnson who penned the classic Since I Fell For You, is a departure in feel from the 'blues' (per se) and has the inherent feel of the great bigs bands from the 'swing era'. Tom's delivery is fairly reminiscent here of some of the best big band vocalsits. Jerry Cook's tenor solo has the rich, resonant full tone of a Coleman Hawkins. Superbly done!
Take the 'A' Train, the Ellington Orchestra classic from the pen of Billy Strayhorn, is next up and is treated to a refreshingly different than the standard approach. While the band delivers the lines almost verbatim (a la Ellington), we are treated to a display of Lavin's vocal dexterity and skill. Lavin is not your average 'blues' singer and would be quite at home in a purely 'jazz' environment. The lyrics are a direct grab from an old Eddie Jefferson album that Tom has, or had in his own collection and he treats the memory of the father of 'vocalese' with all the respect that he is due. While all this is going on, the band's ensemble playing in the background is impeccable.
Ain't That Loving You (D. Malone) has echoes of the Basie Band and even the Kansas City Blue Devils with its hard swinging and good rockin' rhythm section and biting horn lines. Add to this the easy swinging approach of Tom Lavin's vocals and you've got another classic in the making. There is one hell of a nice and very sweet sounding guitar solo from Tom too!
Let's Get Loose (Tom Lavin) is a good rockin' blues punctuated with short sharp bursts of ensemble horns and a guitar solo that wouldn't have been out of place in a distantly remembered track from one of my more favoured seventies band 'Pablo Cruise'.
Disappearing Baby Blues (Tom Lavin) jumps - hard! Shades of Louis Prima with great ensemble work, a solid rhythm section, short but sweet guitar solo and playful lyrics.
Blame It On The Blues (Tom Lavin) swings from start to finish and is typical of what we've come to expect of the band since its inception. The only solo is one of Tom's economical and tasty trademarks. The piano, bass and drums are both tight and spacious with nobody getting in the way!
The purely instrumental Swami Swing (Tom Lavin) ends the set and allows the band to take it home in fine style. It is guitar driven and has Tom playing some fine licks, ably supported by the horn section, some beautiful piano comping in the back ground from Miles Black, the bass and drums of Bill Runge and Bill Hicks respectively pushing the tempo in the back and spirited solos from Mike Kalanj on Hammond organ (shades of Jimmy Smith) and Ross Taggart on tenor saxophone. I suspect that this tune may be an old and dear friend after noticing the photograph of a chalkboard drawing on the back cover of Red Hot/True Blue.
Even if you've never heard of POWDER BLUES in your past, this album is definitely one for the collection.
BLAZZ is their twelfth album to date and definitely set to be one of, if not their best of the past 25 years.
Rod 'BEACHHEAD' Jeffery
June 18th, 2004
Copies can be had by logging onto the band's
merchandise page at http://www.powderblues.net/merchandise.html.
It will cost you USD20.00 (about AUD30.00) inclusive of P&H.
Payment methods are via VISA, MasterCard or International Money Order if you live outside the U.S. or Canada.
If you live within the U.S. or Canada you may also use Personal Checks/Cheques.