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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Boogie Stomp! American Piano Masters

Ten days ago, I caught a show downtown that reminded me with fresh vigor why I'm a musician. So this particular column is less a performance review than it is a celebration of that show and all that’s good and true in musical expression. It was a night of American music as played by two American Masters, with its own point of view, its own deep intentions and traditions, and total freedom from the traps of age, fashion, era, whatever. I’m not into the whole “old is better” thing either; there’s plenty of valuable and great music being made today. This show just had all the goods.

The show in question was on Friday night, October 2, at the ornate Gem Theater. Titled Boogie Stomp!, it’s a simple premise—two pianists, Bob Seeley and Bob Baldori, playing stride, boogie-woogie, blues and backbeat rock & roll on twin concert grand pianos. Between songs they talk about their lives, careers and influences with an anecdotal ease that creates that rarest of things—the artists and audience in a shared revelry that then creates this third presence in the room. A higher love. As performing musicians, it’s what we all strive for with every show.

The relationship between Seeley and Baldori began when they met at a tribute to Chuck Berry's original piano player, Johnny Johnson. They started working together soon after Baldori went out and sat in at Seeley's regular gig at Charley's Crab in Troy. A mutual interest in the "two piano" boogie style of legendary greats Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons led them to work out some of the original four hand classics. They also discovered a common repertoire of mutually familiar blues, boogie and jazz tunes that Baldori could also double on harmonica. From there it was a short step to creating original pieces for their live show.

A brief look back at this mongrel of a genre: By the late 1930s and throughout the '40s, the world of jazz and popular music was dominated by what was known as “The Big Three" of Boogie Woogie piano---Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons, and Meade Lux Lewis. Their style was called Boogie, but their playing covered a country mile, and included jazz, blues, swing, stride, ragtime, barrelhouse, and the roots of rock and roll.

In this age of adult attention deficiency, rapid resolution and the endless catering to juvenilia, Boogie Stomp! and both Bobs are a welcome antidote. Both men are over 60; both perform with the vitality of 25 year olds. More importantly, both men illuminate, in slightly varied ways, this long river of American music right before our eyes and ears.

Seeley is the last living connection to the founders of blues and boogie—Sippie Wallace, Meade Lux Lewis, Big Maceo Merriwether, even the legendary executive and talent scout John Hammond. He’s honored the world over as the finest living stride and boogie piano player, winning competitions and performing in European music meccas like Paris and Moscow annually. He's a musical God in Europe. An indomitable 82 that would pass for 55 at any point, Seeley sits with the terse, rounded shoulders of a boxer and plays with a rumbling, clarion intensity. Pure magic.

Baldori had a Top 10 hit in 1966 with his band The Woolies, covering Bo Diddley’s seminal “Who Do You Love” with producer Lou Adler. He then became one of Chuck Berry’s indispensable sidemen and friends, playing with rock’s founder everywhere from the White House to the Silverdome over the last 30 years. His playing has deep roots in early electric blues--Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson and Memphis Slim are dominant, but this is extravagantly alive music in the here and now, not some vintage period piece relic.

Between these two men, a musical continuum of 100 years is writ large, stomped out and hand delivered with the dynamic thrust of a freight train. Baldori is more in the Johnny Johnson--Professor Longhair style while Seeley actually learned his chops from Lewis. He has a lighter touch than Lewis however--more poetic, like Jimmy Yancey playing Beethoven on a bender. In another day, both players might've been called Cat House piano players. Both have booming left hands that are like granite in their time keeping.

Baldori, coming from rock & roll and Chicago Blues, is more the overt showman. His harp playing is as exciting as anyone since Paul Butterfield or a young James Cotton, with a bullrush of distorted notes quickly giving away to bright, melodic runs and at times comic physical expression. Between songs he lays out the genesis of all this music, where it went and what it became, while Seeley tells stories about his vast career with self effacing wit.

Is Boogie Stomp! blues? R&B? Rock & Roll? Boogie-Woogie? Jazz? It’s all that, plus the historical oral tradition of the shaman, the elder or high priest. Is it academic? Nah. Is it history? Yea, but it’s way more fun than school ever was. All this ran through my mind as these guys were replicating the famous 1938 night at Carnegie Hall when Hammond joined Ammons, Lewis and Pete Johnson together for a performance that launched what was called the “boogie craze.” All these complimentary styles—from Boogie to Rock to Blues to Soul—are creations and extensions of the black experience in America. Both Bobs are white, but they set all that straight in their historical overview.

Now, I have to make known this small disclaimer, although my exuberance for this show was not increased by our friendship. When I was 19, I had two once-in-a-lifetime mentors. First was Boogie Bob Baldori himself, who put me in his band when I was greener than green. I could barely play a lick, and my hip quotient was zero. But he saw something he liked, and he taught me everything--how to work an audience, how to wrap a cord after a gig, how to listen to each other on stage, how to conduct business. He taught me about keeping tempo, using dynamics, how something quiet can kill an audience (in a good way), and how a band should work with and around the singer. He taught me where the back of the beat is. He turned me on to Howlin Wolf, Robert Johnson, Henry Adams and Luis Bunuel. He took me to Chicago repeatedly to see the best blues acts, where I'd meet these eccentric characters deep inside the music business. It's one of those debts you can never repay--you just try to live up to it.

Through Bob and his band, I was soon playing bass on some dates with Chuck Berry, who taught me about guitar playing, syncopation, feel, lyric writing and vocal clarity. Here I was working with the guy who literally wrote the book. Listen to Chuck singhe enunciates every syllable, like the Kings English.

Baldori and Seeley have now shot enough footage all over the world that a documentary also called Boogie Stomp! will soon be finished. It will document how the basic elements of boogie woogie---rhythm and improvisation over a blues form--became the backbone of American music. Boogie Stomp!will also tell the story of the two Bobs and their unlikely pairing--two heads, four hands and two pianos that almost blew the roof off that lovely old Gem. The joint was packed, and at curtain's close we were all still standing and cheering. Do yourself a favor...see Boogie Stomp! when it comes 'round again, hopefully during the holidays.

Don't just wait for the flick.

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