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Geoff Muldaur combines blues, jazz and folk with chamber music for a rich reimagining of American song.
As a youngster growing up in the 1950s, Geoff Muldaur plundered his older brother’s record collection, discovering treasures by jazz innovators Louis Armstrong, Bix Biederbecke and Jelly Roll Morton. The distinction between what was then called “trad jazz” and blues was not as prescribed as it later became, and indeed, an 11-LP set on Folkways simply titled Jazz contained performances by country blues giants Leadbelly, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Willie Johnson, sparking the imagination of Charlie Muldaur’s kid brother from an early age.
“That was a whole other sack of potatoes,” says Muldaur conversing by Zoom in late May from his home in Somerville, just outside of Boston. “I went, ‘Holy … what is this?!’” A lifelong obsession was born. Muldaur became a vital figure on the vibrant Cambridge, Massachusetts, folk scene of the early 1960s, and was able to study up-close the wizardry of rediscovered blues masters Son House, Fred McDowell and Skip James.
Fans of roots music may recognize Muldaur as the encyclopedic guitarist and singer who played and recorded with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, Paul Butterfield’s Better Days, and Bonnie Raitt, as well as with his former wife, Maria Muldaur. His discography as a solo artist dates back nearly 60 years, and its latest entry, His Last Letter (Moon River Music), is a double-LP set that lovingly enfolds Muldaur’s jazz and blues performances — primarily his hickory-smoked vocals, although he picks some guitar and banjo — within a chamber music setting. Tunes by Blind Lemon Jefferson, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller and Bix Biederbecke are reimagined through a palette of French horn, clarinet, bassoon, violin and cello, lending some unexpected color and shading to traditional Americana. And no wonder, as Muldaur recorded the sessions in Amsterdam with Dutch musicians, some of whom play with the Metropole Jazz Orchestra.
In Amsterdam, he explains, “I became emboldened to just write from scratch and go right to my own marrow of my bones. So I got Europeanized by the incredible playing of these principals of the orchestras of Amsterdam and Holland.”
This chamber-Americana hybrid is beautifully illustrated by the ensemble’s take on Duke Ellington’s 1947 dazzler “Lady of the Lavender Mist.” The song takes on a European tinge with the addition of accordion and Weissenborn guitar, the latter played with a Hawaiian flavor so popular in jazz and blues of the 1920s and ’30s.
“Some people are very good at reproducing music, you know, like [bandleader] Vince Giordano, or guitar pickers who knew exactly what Blind Blake or Blind Lemon Jefferson did,” Muldaur offers. “I don’t do that. I get an impression. I guess I render American vernacular and get my impression. In the case of ‘Lady of the Lavender Mist,’ I think one of the things I realized was, What am I gonna do, out-sensualize Duke Ellington? So I made it more like the Hot Club of Paris in the ’30s, where [Fred] Astaire walks through the door and starts dancing.”
Much of the template for His Last Letter was set by Muldaur’s 2003 release, Private Astronomy, a salute to the music of his early hero, Biederbecke. That project instilled in him the confidence to write more serious music, and he began explorations into the scores of Beethoven and Brahms, as well.
Adding another dimension to His Last Letter is its title inspiration. About a decade ago, Muldaur discovered in a box of family papers a love letter from his great-grandfather to his wife that was penned the day before he died. A Lieutenant Commander on the USS Oneida, he went down with the ship, which collided with a British steamer lost in the fog of Tokyo Bay. Muldaur wrote the lovely “His Last Letter,” ensconced in a three-part suite for octet, from the point of view of the widow; it’s poignantly voiced by the American soprano Lady Claron McFadden.
“The octet parts came in fits and starts,” Muldaur says. “It came about from getting these boxes of things and finding that last letter, which was really moving, to see the letter a guy writes the day before he dies. It was beautiful and loving. So you hold onto these ideas and these little pieces of music in your head, write down sketches.”
A handsome 35-plus-page book accompanies the records and contains Muldaur’s reminiscences about the songs and artists he interprets. In a style as entertaining as his vocal delivery, he relates stories of meeting Ellington, booking Lonnie Johnson for a house concert, working with Benny Carter, sweeping the grave of Blind Lemon Jefferson, witnessing jazz greats who played with Buddy Bolden at Preservation Hall, and hanging out on 52nd Street in his teen years.
But it was the Boston/Cambridge scene, he says now, that holds the greatest memories. He recalls seeing John Coltrane’s quartet at The Jazz Workshop. “Coltrane was tough for me, then he wasn’t,” he says, admitting it took him a while to catch up with Trane’s more outré expressions. “That’s why Cannonball [Adderley] was so easy for me, because you hear the organ trio/funky bar in his playing. And to build upon the beauty of what went before you is important to me. If you step outside it, you better be Coltrane or something like it.” - Bob WeinbergOriginally published on July 2, 2022.