Doug Wamble’s second album as a leader, Bluestate, captures an artist breaking completely into his own voice. Wamble’s playing is joyous, humorous, sharp, intelligent, and deeply felt. With Bluestate Wamble joins a select group of adventurous guitarists who work from the jazz mode and pull elements from other styles of music as they like: Bill Frisell and Kurt Rosenwinkel are two that come quickly to mind.
Besides for his impeccably tasteful guitar work, Wamble also sings on a variety of tunes throughout the CD. The opener, Wamble’s own “If I Live to See the Day” makes commentary on the current American political situation, with Wamble’s delivery at times bringing to mind the acerbic Mose Allison. “Washing of the Water,” a Peter Gabriel song from his Us album, starts as an out of time gospel testimony, an approach that Wamble credits to the inspiration of Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio. Wamble follows with a typically striking guitar solo, then resumes his vocal work, with drummer Peter Miles roaring and crashing like waves on the shore. Finally, pianist Roy Dunlap unleashes a pianistic maelstrom that brings the song to an emotional high.
Wamble doesn’t insist on singing all the time, though, and that is one of this CD’s greatest charms—it manages to feature Wamble as vocalist, guitarist, and composer/arranger while making a convincing case that all three roles are subservient to Wamble’s overall delivery as a musician. That’s another way of saying that Wamble is a servant of the songs he sings rather than a musician who is determined to make a group of songs show off his talents in their best light. The next two Wamble instrumental pieces, “The Homewrecker Hump” and “Antoine’s Pillow Rock” are fantastic takes on instrumental subgenres. “Homewrecker” has the feel of old cartoon music or a soundtrack from a television spy program—the kind of things featured on Bachelor Pad Music A-Go-Go compilations. In the middle solo sections it morphs into a fairly traditional blues, with Wamble working some genuine country and blugrass inflections into the mix. That track morphs seamlessly into the slinky bass line (courtesy of Jeff Hanley) and second-line drumming that begins “Anotoine’s Pillow Rock.”
Wamble says the first version of the traditional “Rockin’ Jerusalem” he ever heard was sung by Mahalia Jackson. Wamble stays true to the gospel roots, with a blues slide solo that truly rocks the house. Then the group bursts exuberantly into a flat out swing shuffle before bringing it home in the end like Ramsey Lewis on steroids. Oh, yeah, there’s also a tenor solo from producer Branford Marsalis that really smokes. On most CDs that would be the highlight of this track, but despite the fact that it’s great, it is still merely the icing on an already tasty cake.
Roy Dunlap’s “One-Ninin’” is the next track, a swing club meets modern jazz kind of thing wherein Wamble and company approach the mannered swing of Django Reinhardt (sort of) by way of the angular modernism of Monk and Ornette Coleman. Then there’s “No More Shrubs in Casablanca,” a genre-hopping experiment in open improvisation that demonstrates how well this longtime group (who have been playing together since college) can read each other. A version of Stevie Wonder’s “Have a Talk With God” that features Wamble’s slide work and two more Wamble originals, “Gone Away” and “Bear and the Toad” round out this excellent collection.
Bluestate is an essential listen for those who love blues, American roots music, jazz guitar, and just plain good songwriting and musicianship. That’s a widely cast net, but Wamble sounds like he wouldn’t have it any other way.