EJZ plays with Jubilation
Call it coincidence but there's a plate of boiled crawfish in the refrigerator as the sounds of Jubilee, Ernest James Zydeco's 2009 release, reverberates off my office walls. Thanks for the spicy mudbugs goes to Chef John McClure, owner of Starkers, who held a crawfish and shrimp boil in his backyard last weekend. I did my best to plow through several plates of crawfish, shrimp, potato, and andouille sausage. McClure's a generous man. He sent me home with a to-go plate so the crawdad fiesta could continue. Properly fortified, I can't think of more authentic food to get me in the spirit while feasting on eleven zydeco tracks by Ernest James and crew.The roster of musicians appearing on the CD includes Mike Meyers and veteran Jaisson Taylor - who has drummed for the likes of Koko Taylor and Bill Withers - splitting duty on drums over two nights of recording, Barry Barnes on washboard and percussion, Michael Stover aka DJ Clem on bass, Tony LaCroix on guitar, and Mister Ernest James on accordion, guitar, resonator slide, and vocals.James also brings his southern roots and 15 years of experience as a blues and zydeco musician to the table. His father was also a major influence that impacted James musically. James says, "My daddy's family comes from Pineville, Louisiana, where the dogwoods grow out in the woods. He left there as a young man and moved to the West Coast Bay Area. So many Creoles and Cajuns left Louisiana in the '50s and '60s and moved to California looking for work and a better life. I grew up in a zydeco oasis in Oakland, California, not realizing it until going back and seeing so many bands playing in the San Francisco area. Throughout life I have revisited my family's ties with Pineville, Alexandria, and Louisiana, trying to understand why my daddy left it long ago. In the process, I have found my music fits into the zydeco tradition, bringing a strong past of blues to the accordion-based band. Now blues and zydeco are just a part of who I am and how I express what I see in life."Led by James, this band has been rocking the zydeco groove for years during First Friday in the Crossroads, Mardi Gras, and select dates in clubs around the metro. Yet, zydeco still isn't common around Kansas City. Local audiences aren't always hip about dancing to unfamiliar traditional songs that call for two-stepping and waltzes. As a result, James and the band adapted their sound by working in reggae beats and a bluesy vibe along with traditional numbers. The tinkering paid off as people got their good foot workin' on the dance floor. This musical amalgamation actually holds true to the origins of zydeco, a form of roots music born out of Louisiana Creole music epitomized by the fast tempo sounds of the accordion and washboard. Over the years, zydeco has integrated dance forms including waltzes, shuffles, and two-steps as well as incorporating blues, rock, brass, reggae, and other popular forms of music.
With Jubilee, Ernest James fills up a bucket of good-time songs recorded over two nights with the band playing live in the studio. As a result, the music sounds warm, immediate, and rich in texture. James sings with the calm reserve of a midwestern soul, coolly delivering lyrics with charm and confidence. Like a dance partner that knows how to lead well, James sings and performs with confidence backed by an able band. Listeners and those inspired to dance can settle into the groove and go. Put your "Family First," James insists on the first track. With a peppy drumbeat and the harmonic fire of his accordion, there's no reason to argue. The band cooks with gas on"Refrigerator." James sings with sly humor as he searches for something to eat at three o'clock in the morning. Shoulda gone to Town Topic, he shouts. No doubt. The guitar work darts in and out like a pesky mosquito, finally relenting to some Chuck Berry-style riffs.
"Eh Hosephine" sashays forth with a swamp blues sassiness. The resonator adapted as a slide guitar works its dark magic. The next track "My Little Josephine" is a kissing cousin overcome with lust; Latin hips and attitude slither around a snaky guitar, snazzy percussion, and James' sexy intonations.
"Get Right Church" dips into a dub vibe as James testifies and confesses. The accordion adds dramatic tension as Tony LaCroix plucks guitar notes that underscore the soul-searching mood.
The band swings with "Thoughts of Venus," taking a lighter, more melodic direction with this tale as the accordion and backbeat bounce along. "Courvoisier" is an all-out dance number as any song about fine booze should be. The band busts out a Bo Didley "hambone" groove on bass and guitar as James adds a melodic touch on accordion. Time to get down and dirty. James calls out the lyrics and wails like a happy-go-lucky auctioneer who's had just enough from a snifter of Courvoisier in hand.
"Get Dub" reflects the influence of reggae with its hypnotic beat and chill vocals. The accordion percolates and bubbles over at just the right moments. Jaisson Taylor's drumming pops like June bugs bouncing off the back door window screen.
On the dance floor, it's time to get the skirts in a whirl with "Get Down to Big Mamou," a more traditional number that prompts an aerobic workout with its quicker pace. No worry, there's a bottle or two of Abita Jockamo I.P.A. (or Boulevard Single Wide I.P.A. for Kansas City loyalists) nearby to quench thirst, right?
The final number "Cry All Night" is a bluesy hymnal. Gentle as Roy Orbison, James croons with quite reverence. The guitar is sparse and stirring; the drumming is genteel. The song is a poignant weeper, a mournful goodbye.
There's no question that Ernest James and his band play music with jubilation. They have forged a tight sound that wrings ample flavor - sweet, salty, smoky, spicy - out of a song for listeners to lap up. James is a consummate front man, singing with confidence and flare and leading his band as they craft rhythmic songs with feeling. Jubilee is a fine display of zydeco's tradition of roots that remain open to adapting other forms of music and dance.