Both admired and unknown in the same circles, Hank Crawford had careers within careers within careers. Most notably was the sound he created for the legendary Ray Charles, perhaps one of the most overlooked aspects of his life, playing both baritone and alto sax, and all while being the musical director who was responsible for those soulful gospel infused meanderings that made Ray Charles a hit with R&B and jazz audiences alike.
Recorded in 1965 and 1966, at the height of super coolness, at a time that stood in sharp juxtaposition to the counterculture revolution of the love generation, Hank Crawford seemed to be a disappointment to many critics who felt his most noted work was somewhere behind him, and feeling that his best efforts where when he was not soloing, but rather working within the constructs of another person’s band ... able to improve their sound with nuances only his ears could here, and his mind conceive. Now for me, that notion is a bit perplexing, as I never expected that Mr. Crawford would be doing a straight up blues album, always knowing that it was going to be a jazz album with blues influences, or his personal take on blues standards. Consider that it’s been said that Crawford doesn’t add anything special to “Lonely Avenue,” a song made famous by Ray Charles. But he does bring something new to “Lonely Avenue,” and I’m punching my finger into the table as I say that, because what he brings to the song is his vision, his rendition, his atmosphere. He doesn’t go and do the expected, with the expected being that what jazzmen are supposed to do with blues is to add an extended bar patter, or a turnaround that encompasses a rhythmic figure or tag ending. Yet Crawford ignores all of that, setting a future table for the likes of Van Morrison to shine with a voiceover that is totally Hank Crawford, and not Ray Charles. Much the same has been said for his vision of “Mr. Blues,” where he’s be criticized for the song’s less than stellar guitar work. Yet again, with 21st Century ears, I’m not wishing for soaring guitar work, I’m looking for just what Hand Crawford delivered, and that’s a bit of understated bliss that both hits the mark, sets the tempo, and delivers with refined punctuation.
What I’m trying to say, and hoping you that you will listen with new awareness, is that Mr. Crawford is incorporating a blues ‘feeling’ ... not a blues atmosphere or attitude. He relays his take on the blues almost matter of factly, as if it’s hovering in the air, just out of reach, yet certainly within earshot. I find this body of work to be irresistible. Just consider the arrangement expertise required to bring “Route 66” to life, or the emotional ballad “Teardrops.” And then without hesitation he moves into his originals to round off and enhance the album in an uplifting edgy manner that’s a sheer delight.
So, to all of you jazz listeners who pigeonhole yourselves by implying that this isn’t one of Crawford’s “quintessential” albums, which is just a hip way of saying that Mr. Blues is not one of his most commercial or accessible bodies of work. I say, “Drop the pretenses, this is jazz, rules are made to be broke and rearranged. Listen to this special production for what it is, and not what it isn’t, and I promise you you’ll have a grand time.”
Review by Jenell Kesler/2016
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