On one hand, it’s always fun to play the blues – especially if you’re out of material and the crowd of drunks is still screaming for more. On the other, is your version of Got My Mojo Working going to be better than Muddy Waters? Obviously not. Beyond impressing the bartenders with your work ethic, hopefully assuring a return engagement, will anybody remember you played that song? Probably not. That’s a question that drummer Adam Nussbaum’s Leadbelly Project raises.
The premise of the record – streaming at Sunnyside Records – is to reinvent Leadbelly songs as instrumentals. Beyond the obvious, does the group – which also includes tenor saxophonist Ohad Talmor, with guitarists Steve Cardenas and Nate Radley’s two axes standing in for Mr. Ledbetter’s twelve-string – actually add anything to the Leadbelly canon? Happily, yes. You can see for yourself when they play the Jazz Standard on Feb 27, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $25.
The album is smartly sequenced, like a live set. Playing with brushes, Nussbaum subtly varies a jaunty, New Orleans-tinged shuffle beat, Cardenas supplying burning, syncopated rhythm, Radley’s terse washes and incisions functioning as leads while Talmor’s sax dances in between the raindrops or provides lively, upbeat atmosphere.
A handful of these numbers are essentially one-chord jams; most of them are relatively brief, around the three-minute mark or even shorter. The first two, Old Riley and Green Grass, set the tone and establish the roles that the guitarists will shift back and forth from as the album goes on. Black Girl (Where Did You Sleep Last Night) sure outdoes that infamous grunge version – it’s sort of a Quincy Jones soundtrack piece, a roadhouse at still-sleepy opening time.
Bottle Up and Go is a lot more lighthearted, Nussbaum swinging on the rims before it picks up steam. each guitarist adding what in country music would be called a “strum solo,” staying pretty close to the ground.
It’s Talmor’s turn to get terse and bluesy in Black Betty, over Nussbaum’s second line groove – finally, the two guitars pair off for a a southern-fried jam. They follow that with the brief Grey Goose, built around a series of echo effects, then Bring Me a Little Water Sylvie, where the band finally diverge before slowly coalescing out of individual rhythms. Radley distinguishes himself with some unexpectedly rustic C&W licks.
You Can’t Lose Me Cholly gets recast as a joyous mashup of jump blues and calypso. Nussbaum’s lone original here, Insight, Enlight gives the band a chance to revisit the dynamics of the first couple of tunes, rubato. They make straight-up swing – with a little choogle – out of Sure Would Baby and close with a warmly waltzing, aptly starry Goodnight Irene.
So is this rock? Well, it rocks – a lot, in places. Is this jazz? Sort of. Is it blues? More or less. Whatever you want to cal lit, it’s like nothing else out there. In less competent hands this project could have turned into a trainwreck; Nussbaum and the rest of the band really distinguish themselves with their collective imagination here.