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[Cellars]

Three shades of blue
Jay Geils, Duke Robillard, and Gerry Beaudoin, plus James Montgomery

BY TED DROZDOWSKI

The three guitarists — Jay Geils, Duke Robillard, and Gerry Beaudoin — are seated on stools across the front of the stage, swinging like crazy through Count Basie’s "Broadway." The music is practically throwing sparks, though this is just the soundcheck and, for now, chaos is boss. Technicians in ninja black are crawling all over the Stoneham Theatre, testing boom microphones, laying cables, and trying to get the hornets out of the PA.

Robillard takes a solo, but his guitar is competing with the angry buzz of the stage-left speakers. Next, a crackle fires through the air like static electricity. Then the microphone for Robillard’s acoustic guitar starts to feed back, and the low string on Beaudoin’s custom seven-string Benedetto joins in, humming its way to a low howl. The TV crew’s stage manager hovers nervously, waiting to give the three six-stringers instructions as bassist John Turner’s cord starts popping. Both soundmen move in and begin pulling things apart, less than a half-hour from the taping’s scheduled start.

Nonetheless, when the audience has filled the restored theater’s comfortable seats and the cameras begin to roll, all that’s past. The trio, who have swapped their blue jeans for earth-toned suits and are augmented by bass and drums, start with a sprint through "Glide On." Robillard takes the first solo, which is full of precisely sculpted notes. Then Geils steps in, upping the ante with slurs and unpredictable accents, and he’s followed by Beaudoin, who caps his solo with a long, smart statement chiseled from gorgeous chords that brings a flood of applause.

So goes the rest of the November 8 taping of the PBS show CD Highway, this episode being a live-wire celebration of the warm, distortion-free vocabulary of jazz and blues guitar from the ’30s through the ’60s. All three players deliver beautiful solo after beautiful solo, precise harmony and unison playing, and witty turns — like working quotes from Miles Davis’s "All Blues" and a snatch of the Jeopardy theme into exploratory improvisations. Plus there’s husky, soulful singing from Robillard in his "Lonely Blues" and a nice vocal turn through "Ain’t Nobody’s Business" by Beaudoin.

The performance, which marks CD Highway’s jump from a half-hour to an hour-long show, is an overdub-free delight, just like the trio’s new Retrospective (Q&W Music). The disc convenes Beaudoin, Geils, and Robillard for three new recordings, rounding out its 11 tunes with jazz-blues cuts from solo albums by Robillard and Beaudoin and a cut from Geils’s Bluestime group with his old J. Geils Band partner Magic Dick on harmonica. Beaudoin, a distinguished blues and jazz player and educator, is the nucleus of the group. In 1993 Geils came to one of Beaudoin’s gigs and introduced himself. A short time later they paired up for their first performance together, at the Rendezvous in Waltham. Beaudoin soon began inviting Robillard, the founder of Roomful of Blues and a stalwart of the contemporary international blues circuit, to join them at gigs. And the group they’ve dubbed New Guitar Summit formed.

"I do a performance with seven guitarists in New York every year, and it’s fun, but not as much fun as this," Beaudoin says after the show as the trio briefly unwind in the substage dressing room. "The three of us are buddies."

They’re also longstanding friends of this music — vintage jazz from the days when it was enriched directly by the waters of the blues. "I started out as a trumpet player, but I had no horn chops," says Geils, sipping a gin and tonic made from a swanky little portable bar that’s built into a chubby brown attaché case he carries ("It’s from the ’50s"). "For our own reasons, we all ended up being guitar players, but we’re playing the same kind of music that first grabbed us."

"I’ve been listening to swing-era jazz since 1970, when I started Roomful of Blues," Robillard explains. "My parents probably listened to some of that, and I remember seeing Lionel Hampton and Basie on TV when I was a little kid. Once I realized how connected to it I was, well, it just became the ultimate form of music for me, because it’s got jazz improvisation, a blues sound and feeling, and a dance beat. Which to me makes it the most entertaining music."

Especially live, where these men and their vintage guitars and sound bring an over-spilling reservoir of fresh energy to both the standards and their own contributions to the catalogue. With just three full-trio cuts, Retrospective barely taps the thrills they’re capable of live. But Geils mentions that a full trio CD is on the agenda. Their label, the Saugus-based and nationally distributed Q&W, has the same owner and artistic director as CD Highway, Tony Weston. That made the trio a natural for the first hour-long episode of the show, which jumps to 100 affiliate stations in April.

JAMES MONTGOMERY is another veteran player with a delightfully backwards-looking new album, his James Montgomery Blues Band’s Bring It On Home (Conqueroot). The harmonica ace started his first version of the group in 1970, while attending Boston University. Three years later their Capricorn Records debut, First Time Out, propelled them to international renown as a funky blues-rock boogie outfit, a spirited party band who made three more major-label albums before splitting.

Montgomery stayed in the trenches, playing solo gigs and shows with various versions of his group. His career was reignited by 1991’s The Oven Is On (Tone-Cool), which was his first release in more than a decade. Another 10 years and he’s finally made a follow-up. As Bring It On Home’s Sonny Boy Williamson–inspired title implies, Montgomery uses the 11 cuts to pay tribute to his mentors, including James Cotton and the late Junior Wells, who taught him the tricks of blowing harp. Cotton duets with Montgomery on the acoustic numbers "Sinkin’ Blues" and "Junior’s Jump," the latter a tune Montgomery wrote using some of his favorite Wells licks.

For Montgomery, the disc is a joyous recollection of his earliest days as a musician, when Wells, Cotton, John Lee Hooker, and other artists playing the Hastings Street dives and after-hours clubs of his native Detroit would let him sit in — giving the white teenager an on-the-job education in how to play Delta-derived electric blues. Bring It On Home is also a manifesto of sorts. Montgomery, who lives in Providence, explains, "I found that people in the industry were confused. ‘James Montgomery? Kind of blues, kind of rock, and kind of funk?’ Because in my previous albums I had tried to show the paths that blues had taken. But I’ve always considered them blues records.

"So this time I went back to my roots. The producer Marc Copley, who also played guitar, is kind of a cutting-edge guy. So we decided to put together an album that proves I’m a blues musician, but we also wanted it to be textural — to put spooky and dark things in the background. Once we had that concept, we picked songs that referenced artists who meant a lot to me."

The blend of gutty blues — buoyed by Montgomery’s direct, gritty singing and his command of a wide spray of electric- and acoustic-harmonica tones — and moody sonics works well. Low, tremolo’d guitar awash with reverb sends chills through "Back on My Knees Again"; subtle shifts in the guitar’s presence and attack (from slide to tremolo to rumbling rhythm) on the Willie Dixon–penned and Williamson-associated title number has the effect of raising the spirits of the music’s past. For the present, Montgomery has a killer version of his band together, featuring drummer Marty Richards, bassist David Hull, and guitarist Matt Woodburn.

IT’S RARE that a new Boston-area band aim for a sound that’s ambitious and inventive rather than fitting into a comfortable club genre, so hats off — if you wear ’em — to the Alienist Outfit, a sextet who embrace jazz, rock, Philly soul, trip-hop, and textural music with total comfort. Their first album, The Alienist Outfit (Retroversal), which they released officially with a gig at Somerville’s Sky Bar last month, often echoes Jack Bruce’s long-lost gem of a solo debut, 1969’s Songs for a Tailor. Guitarist Tom Korkidis’s voice follows a similar melodic path as the former Cream bassist’s, and the lyrics sometimes share Bruce’s sense of world-weary romance and magic realism.

Melodies abound in the synths and guitars, too, but in "MCM" they’re balanced with snarky punk-rock attitude and angularity. And when sampled sounds burble, they set a tone or work to take songs to a different place. Eight guest musicians round out the core sextet’s strong performance, which begs attentive listening.

Issue Date: December 20 - 27, 2001

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