Title: Off White Album
Review by Ken Bays (music writer for ReviewYou and CyberPR, NYC)
Sidemen are the unsung heroes of the musical world. Recognition is easy if you’re a full-time band member; you’re out there in front of audiences every night, you’re doing interviews, and maybe you’re even behind the vocal microphone (or writing the lyrics for the guy or gal who is).
It’s different for session musicians. If you’re the person band after band hires to lay down the perfect rhythm when they hit the “record” button, it’s a lot harder to find fame. Even some of the all-time greats — the West Coast studio pros profiled in the recent documentary “The Wrecking Crew,” or the Detroit legends who finally got their due in the 2002 film “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” — seem to get overlooked in the annals of music history. For the professional sideman, it might take a lifetime before your name is known beyond the small-print confines of liner notes.
Of course, for many sidemen, fame isn’t the point, and the coolest thing about Off White Album, by JAMBa, a project centered on drummer John Anter and bassist Marty Ballou, is that there’s not the slightest thing about it that says, “Look at me.” Anter and Ballou are stalwarts of the Northeastern U.S. blues, jazz and rock scene, and they’ve made an album on which “egolessness” seems to have been the guiding principle. In the sense that these nine tracks are all about the interplay between musicians, about finding space for improvisation within pre-set forms, Off White Album is a jazz set; but its heavy emphasis on rhythm (particularly on the cuts featuring guest drummer Bernard Purdie, who absolutely kills) places it within the realm of funk, and its content (instrumental reworkings of some of the less-celebrated songs by the Beatles or from individual Beatles’ solo careers) gives it a rock edge. At all times, though, the focus is on the performances, not on the people behind them. And that makes Off White Album a heck of a lot of fun to listen to.
It’s especially fun when it gets adventurous. “I Will” envelops the listener in a swirl of cymbal rolls as Joe Barbato’s accordion and Ballou’s bass sketch a skeletal melody, and the effect is the same sort of placid melancholy evoked by Tom Waits’ “Time,” which uses a similar arrangement. Barbato switches to soulful Hammond organ on “Beware of Darkness,” originally from George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass; with its smart use of dynamics and a lengthy, ferocious guitar solo by Bruce Bartlett, it’s one of the liveliest selections here, despite its slow tempo. And “Blackbird” soars thanks to Dave Zinno’s soloing and Ballou’s melodic bass, which turns out to be a fine substitute for Paul McCartney’s vocals. The track interpolates what sounds like a bit of “Within You Without You” at its beginning, a good example of the joyous creativity that flows through the whole project.
And then there are the tracks showcasing Purdie. A heaven-sent drummer whose signature shuffle is nearly impossible to duplicate, Purdie is a veteran of James Brown’s and Aretha Franklin’s bands (along with too many rock outfits to name), and the three tracks that have him doing double drum duty with Anter are undeniable highlights. You can get so caught up in the pocket he and Ballou create on “Yer Blues” that when the song ends and an unnamed player spontaneously shouts “Oh, man,” you won’t believe four and a half minutes have passed. “Hey Bulldog,” where Joe Klimek’s sax and Bruce Bartlett’s guitar strike an especially potent balance, is just as good.
The album’s high point, though, is also its unlikeliest selection: Who even remembers “Flying,” one of the instrumental numbers from Magical Mystery Tour? JAMBa does, and they’ve made Purdie’s New Orleans-tinted rhythm the track’s centerpiece. The gently rising melody, so low-key on the Beatles’ recording, becomes a thing of breathtaking beauty as it’s passed back and forth between sax, organ and guitar, with Purdie’s and Anter’s perpetual-motion timekeeping serving as the mesmerizing foundation.
This is the second album Anter, Ballou and Purdie have released together; the first, titled If You Need Me, was issued under Purdie’s name in 2011. Let’s hope they continue to get together and record, because with music this good, these tirelessly professional rhythm aces deserve to be heard. Maybe they’ll even inspire more sidemen to step into the spotlight. JAMBa sure know how to jam!