Featured Artist: Doug Wamble
Author: Don Williamson
Now that Branford Marsalis has his own record label and distribution agreement, he has moved into the signing of promising new artists that Marsalis’ immersion in the entertainment business has enabled him to recognize. One of the fortunate results of Marsalis’ keen eye—and ear—for talent is Doug Wamble, who emerged without warning in 2003, when he released Country Libations. That CD allowed Wamble’s group to tour more extensively, to work on new material and to develop a unique sound—part gospel, part political, part blues, part swing, part country, part fusion, part pop, part avant-garde, part world music, part balladic—an amalgam that contains the combined personalities of the musicians.
As Bluestate commences, “If I Live To See The Day” contains a combination of pointed political commentary in song (thus, confirming that the punned CD title does arise from shorthand party description of various states during the last Presidential election through lyrics like “You do your work in my God’s name/And slaughter those that pray the same”) and a winding, pouncing melody dependent on the words that drive it. In addition, the timbre of Wamble’s voice, its initially deceptive softness stretched by the song’s intervallic jaggedness and unconventional resolutions, is suggestive of that of J.D. Walter, an equally deserving-of-wider-recognition singer. In fact, it’s easy to underestimate Wamble’s initially undemonstrative approach, particularly on a song like Peter Gabriel’s “Washing Of The Water,” which has more of a spiritual orientation and a freer rhythmic component. In one of the highlights of this CD of attention-grabbing highlights, “Rockin’ Jerusalem” starts as a wailing deep South work song, similar in its changes to “Wade In The Water.” But then Wamble takes it higher. After the rubato sorrow-and-trouble introduction on which Wamble is backed by pianist Roy Dunlap’s chiming, Wamble takes charge of the song’s beat, and its feeling, with the controlled dynamics of his voice. His at-first moaning in song contrasts with the cranking up of volume in Wamble’s voice in chorus upon chorus, accentuated by the shaking of a tambourine and Dunlap’s pouncing chords. Then, after yet another display of Wamble’s individualistic guitar playing, the quartet glides without notice into a minor 12-bar blues. And then, producer Branford Marsalis joins the group in an equally minimalistic solo, more notable for its emotional content than its technical feats as he foofs and smears the notes and builds an entire organic improvisational structure upon a relatively simple motive of repeated whole tones of varying pitches.
While Wamble’s southern roots show in his gospel-like intensity, building songs up to a spiritual high point, his jazz sensibilities invariably come through. The members of Wamble’s group owe some debt to Weather Report for the bounding propulsion of “The Homewrecker Hump,” even as it evolves into yet another blues after the excitement is created by the charging harmonically off-center first two choruses. Then there’s Dunlap’s “One-Ninin’,” a stripped-down, unpretentious, bounding straight-ahead song with intimations of Monk, even as it never really crosses the border into Monkdom as it remains an uncomplicated, piquant number that just allows the musicians to stretch and enjoy the pleasures of playing as a group.
Still, Wamble is even more complicated than that. His “No More Shrubs In Casablanca,” played in spurts, depends on Wamble’s leadership to conceive of an idea at the spur of the moment for the band to follow. Without real melody or continuous structure, the tune includes bits of country, even a quote of “Deep In The Heart Of Texas,” free playing more akin to avant-garde, allusions to “Blue Monk,” rapid accelerations only to dissolve into another thought, unison lines from out of nowhere, sudden stops and starts and quirky guitar and piano solos. In contrast, Wamble’s group follows up that track with Stevie Wonder’s “Have A Talk With God,” and we’re returned to tambourine-shaking gospel references arising from blues, only then to conclude with a twanging backwoods shuffle on “The Bear And The Toad” as Wamble and Dunlap play the winding lines in unison before bassist Jeff Hanley takes over.
Bluestate is one of those breakout albums that brings startlingly to attention a musician who has developed a distinctive sound of his own, one that flows naturally from his personality and who he is. A native of Tennessee, and yet exposed to a multitude of additional influences as he traveled, Doug Wamble has absorbed the elements that allow him to express musically who he is. And the result, Bluestate, is one of the unexpectedly enjoyable releases yet this year.
Musicians: Doug Wamble (vocals, guitar), Roy Dunlap (piano), Jeff Hanley (bass), Peter Miles (drums); Branford Marsalis (tenor saxophone)*
Tracks: If I Live To See The Day, Washing Of The Water, The Homewrecker Hump, Antoine’s Pillow Rock, Rockin’ Jerusalem*, One-Ninin’, No More Shrubs In Casablanca, Have A Talk With God, Gone Away, The Bear And The Toad