Musical genres were invented as descriptions, not conscriptions. When we say a certain performer is a blues musician, normally that means he or she is playing or singing within the traditions which have been established over the last century. 12-bar forms, flatted thirds and sevenths, a lyrical approach of describing a problem and putting forth a solution which is frequently not the one desired, these are the familiar patterns we see again and again in the world of the blues.
Deanna Bogart's Pianoland
Deanna Bogart knows how to deal with all of these. For 21 years, she has been recording and touring on the blues circuit, winning awards as a blues saxophonist, pianist, and singer. She established herself as a blues musician, and almost immediately began branching out into other styles. Somewhere along the line, Bogart coined the term “blusion” to describe her forays into boogie-woogie, contemporary blues, country, and jazz. The blues are always in her blood, even when she’s playing music that’s not recognizably part of the blues tradition.
Pianoland is her eighth album (not counting a Christmas record she made with Rick Dempsey a couple years back), and for the first time, she left her tenor sax at home when she went to the recording studio. The songs cover a lot of ground, including some boogie-woogie and blues, but venturing widely into the kind of pop/jazz material that puts her into the same nameless category Bonnie Raitt has inhabited these past couple decades. It’s thoughtful music, seriously crafted, and completely enjoyable.
Couldn't Love You More
The album opens with “In the Rain,” a bluesy shuffle rhythm and pumping piano chords which introduce an irresistible melody as Bogart sings of her enthusiastic return home. Her piano solos are clearly jazz-derived with hints of the blues in the specific way she rolls the chords and inserts swift melodic runs in the upper register. “On And On And” follows with ethereal piano notes building into a richly intoxicating R&B groove. It comes from that swampy place inhabited frequently by Tony Joe White or even Creedence Clearwater Revival, but her chorus, with that title phrase that doesn’t quite resolve, adds a sense of surprise. Her piano playing here is especially joyous, full of inventive phrases whether commenting on her vocals or leading to new melodic territory on solos. By the way, her vocal here is especially richly developed, displaying a keen sense of dynamics and ability to sell the song.
Bogart reaches into the catalogue of jazz pianist Errol Garner for “Boogie Woogie Boggie,” an absolutely riveting instrumental which is just a half-step away from Thelonious Monk territory. She’s always been in love with boogie-woogie, but she keeps finding material that challenges her chops and sounds fresh. “Couldn’t Love You More” is a gentle and absolutely gorgeous song that Raitt could have turned into a hit if she’d known it back when Nick Of Time was selling millions of records. You can hear the love oozing out of Bogart’s voice throughout this recording. The groove gets tougher with a country soul feel for “Where The Well Never Runs Dry,” another Bogart original of great musical depth and creativity. There are many people out there who dip their toes in as many stylistic waters as Bogart tries, but few who can carry their own voice with them no matter what. This cut also features great interaction between Bogart’s piano, the bass of Scott Ambush, and the drums of Mike Aubin.
I Love The Life I Live
I confess I always thought “I Love The Life I Live” was actually written by Mose Allison, as it’s so closely associated with him and so much in his wheelhouse but it, like so many blues classics, was written by Willie Dixon. Bogart has a blast delivering it here, and her solo is as rich as Allison’s piano but in her own style. Pete Johnson, one of the most important boogie pianists, contributes “Death Ray Boogie” for Bogart to shoot and us to dance. Her version of “Over The Rainbow” follows, and it immediately contends for top ten status in recordings of this song. She imbues it with a sense of wonder and a tone of sorrow that comes straight from the blues, something Judy Garland never had at her musical disposal. Stunning.
“Pianoland,” the album’s title track, sits on the musical map just a little to the south of Weather Report’s “Birdland” and to the west of Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland.” At 7:08 of shifting development, it is Bogart’s most ambitious composition on the record, and one of the most enjoyable. “When it all gets turned around and I need to leave the ground/I’m safe and sound in Pianoland.” If your escapes can be this secure and solid, you’re doing pretty well in life. “Blues At 11” is a Bogart instrumental that allows her to imagine herself as the most talented late-night cocktail pianist in any hotel lounge. Her densely-packed melodic runs would go well with clinking glasses, but sound just as good at 11 in the morning in your living room. The record ends with a beautiful James Taylor song, “Close Your Eyes.” Actually, when Taylor sang it on his Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon album, it was called “You Can Close Your Eyes,” but because Bogart so completely inhabits its melancholy hopes for better days, she can call it anything she wants.
Steve's Bottom Line
Those who want blues musicians to stick closely to what has defined the genre may not be happy with Pianoland. The rest of us, however, will applaud her for connecting the dots between the blues and whatever form she visits. R&B, pop standards, jazz, boogie-woogie, country – it’s all grist for the mill of Bogart’s personal approach to music. Pianoland is a triumph of individual expression. (Blind Pig Records, released August 28, 2012)
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