“Why We Need the Blues Now”
We traveled to Chile and toured three cities most affected by the devastating earthquake of 2010. We saw the people there, traumatized and strong. Sad and resilient. We went to Brazil and saw some of the poorest citizens with the brightest faces. They were totally immersed in music. We see our country, the United States, with some of the worst and some of the best schools. Some of the most accepting and some of the most rejecting attitudes about difference. We have tremendous leadership and limited cooperation. How do we get better at working together and understanding one another? How do we support each other during hard times? For me, I have found no better way than the blues. Created in the darkest hour of human suffering and now embraced all over the world. Why is the blues so universally loved? Because we need it. It is secular sacred music and it soothes our soul whether we believe in religion or not. It helps us treat each other like brothers and sisters. LaFrae Sci makes it clear that “the shuffle is the heartbeat of the blues,” Kate McGarry sings the “blues is a healing song,” and Bob Stewart preaches through his horn. Audiences of all ages, all over the world, sing with us and create an unstoppable life force, sustaining and eternal. The blues makes us realize our common humanity. May we heed its message and share it with every breath.
We dedicate this CD to the loving memory of Dr. Billy Taylor. He inspired us tremendously as ambassador, pianist, composer, scholar, advocate and huge hearted human being. May his legacy encircle the globe for generations to come.
New York City
There is no question that Eli Yamin has great piano chops, but the most exceptional thing about his performances is simply the pure joy he conveys. And he’s equally passionate about ensuring that the audience shares in the fun.
“My experience with the blues is that it’s about diving into the sadness or the frustration or the loss to get back to a place of a joy,” says Eli. “And so we hold onto the blues as a way to get back to that joy and to share that experience with as many people as we can.”
Although best known until now for his work with jazz, all of Eli’s music is suffused in the spirit of the blues, a music that he first took up as a young teenager. He broadened his technical knowledge of the music through formal jazz programs in college, and learned about blues as a philosophy of life via studies with poet Amiri Baraka, author of the seminal Blues People.
Eli’s real schooling in the blues, though, came from his mentorships with veteran jazz artists whose music bore a pronounced blues sensibility. The first of these was drummer Walter Perkins, a Chicagoan who moved to New York City in the early ‘60s, with whom Eli often performed improvised blues at a club in Queens called the Skylark.
“When Walter was a teenager he was playing with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and all those guys,” Eli recalls, “and then he played with a lot of great jazz musicians like Charles Mingus and Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly and Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
“He was always joyful. His whole approach to playing blues and jazz was that we’re here to make people happy.”
Eli later played piano in the big band of Illinois Jacquet, whose honking tenor solo on Lionel Hampton’s 1942 recording “Flying Home” marked the beginning of the R&B era.
“Everything Jacquet played was steeped in the blues, and I think that’s why he hired me, ‘cause I wasn’t a very good reader when I got in his band,” say Eli. “But he did hear in me that spirit of the blues, and I think based on that, he gave me the chair, which I held for two years.”
Today Eli’s diverse education is reflected in the breadth of his work. He is the artistic director of the Jazz Drama Program, for which he’s written musicals including Nora’s Ark, and serves as head of the Jazz At Lincoln Center Middle School Jazz Academy. His own live performances include work with the band found here.
The Eli Yamin Blues Band got its start performing a one-off gig at a local college and continued with a 50-concert tour of schools through Lincoln Center Institute for the Arts in Education. Via State Department sponsored “Rhythm Road” tours, he has since taken the blues to distant locations including Romania, Albania, Greece, Montenegro, Chile and Brazil. Although many of the audience members don’t have strong English skills, Eli explains that it’s no impediment to experiencing the power of the blues.
“When we break into a shuffle everybody just gets drawn in,” says Eli. “It’s so exciting, empowering and uplifting to them. And I really feel like it’s not just us. If we can get to that source of where this music comes from, that feeling, then we’re hitting something universal. And then it really touches people regardless of their background or their upbringing or their exposure to the music.”
The band may be hitting something universal, but there’s no denying that this is a unique ensemble. It’s refreshing to hear the piano restored to its historic place as a lead instrument in the blues, and a welcome surprise to hear the music anchored by the tuba of Bob Stewart, a veteran music teacher and faculty member of the Julliard School whose credits include work with Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, Carla Bley, Nicholas Payton, and McCoy Tyner.
Vocalist Kate McGarry, whose 2008 CD If Less Is More, Nothing Is Everything was nominated for a Grammy® in the Best Jazz Vocal Album category, is a native of Massachusetts who teaches at the Manhattan School of Music. Her teachers in the Afro American Music and Jazz program at U Mass Amherst included Dr. Horace Boyer, a leading gospel music scholar and member of Vee-Jay and Excello recording artists, the Boyer Brothers.
Percussionist LaFrae Sci, who works with Eli at Jazz at Lincoln Center, brings experience in the fields of pop, hip-hop, jazz, rock and blues to the group. She’s shared the stage with blues veterans including Pinetop Perkins and Robert Lockwood, Jr., is a member of the Black Rock Coalition, and recently toured internationally with the 17-piece female orchestra The Daughters of Nina Simone.
The fact that this is no ordinary blues band is evident on the first notes of the title track, as McGarry’s sultry vocals and Stewart’s pulsating tuba provide a strikingly fresh contrast to the boisterous versions by Elvis and Big Mama Thornton.
The band members’ background in jazz improvisation is most evident on “Trouble of the World”, while their great rhythmic sensibilities are suggested in their unique take of the proto-blues ballad “John Henry.” There’s a joyous spirit in the band’s cover of slide guitar great Hop Wilson’s “I Feel So Glad,” and a quiet exuberance in Eli’s relaxed vocals on the traditional “Fishin’ Blues” and Elizabeth Cotten’s “Shake Sugaree.”
The Nina Simone-associated “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” by Dr. Billy Taylor is an ideal vehicle for demonstrating the power of the blues in confronting and overcoming adversity, a message that’s even more evident in the band’s anthem, “A Healing Song.” Originally co-written by Eli and Clifford Carlson for their jazz musical Message From Saturn, the song embodies Eli’s philosophy of the blues, and in live performances the audience often joins in on the chorus:
It's not just a song for me.
Take a breath... and you will see
Why the blues has the power to be
A healing song. A healing song.
Scott Barretta is the former editor of Living Blues magazine, and a writer/researcher for the Mississippi Blues Trail.