What I’ve Been Listening to: Jessy Wilson/Phase

Does it sometimes happen to you as well that suddenly you remember an artist you really liked when you first discovered them but then they somehow completely disappeared from your radar screen? That’s exactly the experience I had earlier today with Muddy Magnolias and their fantastic debut album Broken People from October 2016. I had first come across this urban-R&B-meets-country-and-delta-blues duo of Jessy Wilson and Kallie North in August 2017 and blogged about the record’s title track here.

So when I checked whether they had released any new music in the meantime, it turned out North had left at the end of 2017. That’s too bad since I really dug their sound! But there was some good news. I couldn’t find any trace of North but learned Wilson went on to release her solo debut Phase in May 2019. And while at least initially I don’t like it as much as Broken People, there are some pretty intriguing tunes on this album.

MuddyMagnolias
Jessy Wilson (left) and Kallie North

Before getting to the record, I’d like to say a few words about Wilson. She grew up in Brooklyn, New York, listening to artists like Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Curtis Mayfield, Lauryn Hill, Jay-Z and Biggie. After high school, Wilson became a backup singer, working and touring with artists like Alicia Keys, Usher, Kanye West, Faith Hill and Macy Gray. She also met John Legend who became her mentor. In 2013, she decided to strike out on her own as a full-time songwriter and moved to Nashville, Tenn.

There she met North, who originally hailed from Beaumont, Texas, and had worked as a photographer before deciding to pursue a career in music. Eventually, Muddy Magnolias got to Third Generation Records, which released their above-mentioned debut in October 2016. North left at the end of 2017. While her departure was a surprise to those following the band and no official reason was given at the time, Wilson during a November 2019 interview with NPR said she had seen it coming. Unlike Wilson who had been well accustomed to the ebbs and flows of the music business and the demands of touring, the lifestyle became too overwhelming for a married woman like North whose husband as a farmer could not accompany her on the road.

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Wilson decided to soldier on by herself. Not only that but she already had decided she wanted to work with Patrick Carney, drummer for the Black Keys. “Growing up in New York listening to hip hop…but still loving rock & roll music, I really became infatuated with the Black Keys,” Wilson told NPR. “And it was not just because it was rock music, it was music that was informed by all of the other stuff I really love. You know, when I would listen to Dan’s (Auerbach) vocals, I could hear Smokey Robinson in there. When I would listen to Patrick’s drumming, I could hear like that Wu-Tang girth, just like swag…for my ears and my taste, they were the only rock band that struck me that had like that swag, that street swag.”

Apparently, it took Wilson some time to convince Carney who initially did not appear to be impressed with her songs. But eventually, he agreed to work with her. This resulted in 11 tracks that with one exception are all co-written by Wilson, Carney and Jim McFarlin. In addition to being the producer, Carney also provides drums, bass, guitar and keyboards. McFarlin handles keyboards and backing vocals, while Wilson sings lead and backing vocals and plays keyboards. Other musicians on the album include Casey Kaufman (cello) and Steve Marion (guitar). Let’s get to some music.

Here’s the great opener Oh, Baby!

Clap Your Hands is an intriguing mix of hip hop, rock and R&B. Here’s the official video.

Waiting On… is a beautiful soulful ballad and a standout on the album. The tune is credited to an army of people who in addition to Wilson, Carney, McFarlin and Wilson’s former partner Kallie North include Luke Enyeart, Weldon Irvine, Calvin Knowles and interestingly Nina Simone. Not sure what the deal with Simone is – perhaps they sampled a part of one of her songs.

Another cool tune is aptly called Stay Cool.

Let’s do one more: Cold In the South.

Phase definitely is outside my core wheelhouse. But lately, the boundaries of that core wheelhouse have started to become a bit fuzzy. Plus, at the end of the day what really matters is whether I dig music or not.

Sources: Wikipedia; NPR; AllMusic; YouTube

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What I’ve Been Listening To: Booker T. Jones/Sound The Alarm

I dig the distinct sound of the Hammond B3 – just can’t get of enough it! Whether it’s used in blues, jazz, rock or even hard rock a la Deep Purple, to me it’s one of the greatest sounding music instruments I know. If you’re a more frequent visitor of the blog, this won’t be exactly a new revelation. If you happen to be here for the first time and would like to read more about the B3, I invite you to check out this previous post from June 2017.

Undoubtedly, one of the music artists most closely associated with the legendary tone wheel organ is Booker T. Jones. I feel magic is happening when the man works those keys and drawbars. As I’m writing this, I can literally hear Greens Onions.  Jones wrote the tune’s distinct organ line when he was just 17. His band mates from the M.G.s helped put it all together, and it became their signature tune. Booker T. & the M.G.s, of course, were primarily known as the house band of Memphis soul label Stax. While I know and dig the music Jones helped create in the ’60s, until recently, I had not explored any of his work post Stax and the M.G.’s.

Booker T. & the M.G.s
Booker T. & The M.G.’s (from left): Al Jackson Jr., Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn

Booker T.’s solo debut Evergreen appeared in 1974, four years after he had severed ties with Stax and moved to Los Angeles. Sound The Alarm from June 2013 is his most recent solo work. It also marked Jones’ return to Stax since Melting Pot, the M.G.’s final album with the label in January 1971.

Sound The Alarm was co-produced by Jones and brothers Bobby Ross Avila and Issiah “IZ” Avila, who have worked with the likes of Usher, Janet Jackson, Mary J. Blige and Missy Elliot. The album also features various collaborations with younger R&B artists. The result is an intriguing blend of Booker T.’s Hammond B3 and contemporary sounds.

Booker T. Jones

Here’s the groovy opener and title track. It’s one of eight tunes co-written by The Avila Brothers. The song features American multi-talented artist Andrew Mayer Cohen, known as Mayer Hawthorne, on vocals. To be clear, I had never heard of the 40-year-old from Los Angeles before, who in addition to being a singer is a producer, songwriter, arranger, audio engineer, DJ and multi-instrumentalist, according to Wikipedia.

Broken Heart features another contemporary artist, Jay James, who has a great soulful voice that blends beautifully with Jones’ warm Hammond sound. The tune was co-written by Jones, The Avila Brothers and Terry Lewis. Together with his song-writing and production partner James Samuel (Jimmy Jam), Lewis also co-produced the track

Next up: Austin City Blues. Of course I couldn’t skip a good ole blues! Penned by Jones, the instrumental features Gary Clark, Jr. on guitar. The Hammond and Clark’s electric guitar live in perfect harmony, to creatively borrow from a Paul McCartney ballad he recorded with Stevie Wonder in the early ’80s. “Gary and I have a real thing going on mentally, kind of like what I had with Steve Cropper in the MGs, really understanding each other,” Jones noted on his website.  “He really is in my corner.”

66 Impala is a cool, largely instrumental Latin jazz tune with an infectious Santana vibe, even though there’s no guitar. But you can easily imagine Carlos playing electric guitar lines in his signature style and tone on the track, which is another co-write by Jones and The Avila Brothers. Instead of Santana, it features two other big names: Poncho Sanchez and Sheila E on percussion and drums, respectively.

The last track I’d like to call out is the album’s closer Father Son Blues. The title of this Jones-written tune couldn’t be more appropriate. On guitar, the instrumental duo features Booker T.’s son Ted, who was 22 years old at the time of the recording. Apparently, Booker T. coincidentally had heard his son play at their house one day and at first mistakenly had assumed it was Joe Bonamassa. “I thought, ‘This is amazing,'” Jones noted. “‘you can have something right in front of your own nose and you don’t see it!’”

Commenting on the collaboration with The Avila Brothers, Jones said, “Bobby and I had previously done a little impromptu gig with El Debarge – that was the turning point when I decided to work with him. They have a different perspective about the musical palette. Their attitude is quite unique and quite innovative. That’s something I’ve looked for since I was maybe 13 or 14 years old and had figured out a little bit about music. It can be very predictable or it can be exploratory. I’m always looking for something new to do.”

Sources: Wikipedia, Booker T. Jones website, YouTube