Clifford Jordan – These Are My Roots – Clifford Jordan Plays Leadbelly – Atlantic Records SD 1444 (1965)/Pure Pleasure Records (2020) 180-gram stereo vinyl, 38:13 ****1/2:
(Clifford Jordan – tenor saxophone; Roy Burrowes – trumpet; Julian Priester – trombone; Cedar Walton – piano; Chuck Wayne – banjo; Richard Davis – bass; Albert Heath – drums; Sandra Douglas – vocals)
Huddie William Ledbetter (more famously known as Leadbelly or Lead Belly) may have been as quintessential to American music as Robert Johnson, Louis Armstrong or George Gershwin. His command and ultimate influence on a wide array of future musicians, including rock, blues, gospel and jazz is a vital part of the cultural landscape. His versions of songs like “Midnight Special”, “Cotton Fields” and the iconic “Goodnight Irene” are part of history. A lot of rock, country and especially jazz musicians have paid homage to “Lead Belly”. One of them is saxophonist Clifford Jordan. This Chicagoan performed with Max Roach and Sonny Stitt. After moving to New York, he established himself as a bandleader recording for different labels, while also collaborating with Horace Silver, Kenny Dorham and J.J. Johnson. Additionally, he toured in 1964 as part of the Charles Mingus sextet with Eric Dolpy.
In 1965, Jordan recorded a tribute to Leadbetter at Atlantic Records. These Are My Roots/Clifford Jordan Plays Leadbelly was a tribute to the blues icon. with a talented, eclectic jazz ensemble. Jordan embraced his musical roots with ten vibrant arrangements. Pure Pleasure Records has released a 180-gram vinyl upgrade of this album. Side A opens with the slow, down ’n’ dirty resonance of “Dick’s Holler”. The restrained arrangement refines blues essence with a dirge-like flow. Jordan shines with an evocative run featuring lower-register intonation. The trumpet (Roy Burrowes) and trombone (Julian Priester) push the tonality with muted shrillness. Pianist Cedar Walton adds soulful counterpoint with a lilting touch. The ensemble switches gears on “Silver City Bound”. Up tempo with a buoyant vibe, the steady tempo launches Jordan on a full-bodied solo that reverberates. A brief swell of horns/reed punctuates the finish. Sandra Douglas’ vocals take center stage on “Take This Hammer”. Initially uncovered as a field recording, Lead Belly humanized the soul crushing context of slave labor with his 1940 cover. Here Jordan rearranges the music in a gospel groove. Douglas distills the religious burden with restrained dignity. Jordan intermingles with a deft call and response. The banjo lends a rustic touch in this subtle, yet complicated blues presentation. Another work song, “Black Betty” had become a folk/blues standard for Lead Belly and later Odetta. Jordan displays instrumental daring with a no-holds-barred jam. With trumpet on top, the hot licks abound. Jordan’s fiery saxophone is rhythmic with a touch of Dixieland swing. In a nod to traditional jazz, “The Highest Mountain” is framed in a 3/4 time signature. It feels like an intermingling of bop and big band with gravitas and nuanced phrasing. Walton’s sophisticated piano licks expands the overall sound. The ending utilizes tempo breaks and drum fills with fluidity.
While These Are My Roots is a blues homage, the instrumentation is clearly jazz. Side B explodes with a nimble accelerated waltz on “Goodnight Irene”. Jordan eschews the melancholic whimsy for dynamic swing. Priester takes the first solo with Jordan adding lower harmony on the chorus. He follows with a muscular run that showcases impressive range. The duo alternate again, before a well-timed double bass solo. “De Gray Goose” displays a 1920’s style with a banjo lead augmented by saxophone/trumpet/trombone counterpoint. Trumpeter Burrowes soars over the jam. Vocalist Douglas returns on “In The Pines/Black Girl”. This is a traditional folk/blues number that has been covered by a variety of artists including Lead Belly, Bill Monroe, The Four Pennies and Nirvana. The emotional anguish is framed by Douglas’ flexible soprano. A muted trumpet adds a mournful shading. Shifting back to swing, “Jolly O’ The Ransom” utilizes three-part instrumental harmony in medium swing. Jordan’s effortless runs are catchy and mellifluous. In a surprising finale, “Yellow Gal” seems to approximate a Latin-infused arrangement. Jordan wails on sax as Davis and Heath provide a hard-driving “bottom”. When Burrowes joins in a frenetic moment, a near-bop frenzy is created.
These Are My Roots is noteworthy for many reasons. Clifford Jordan manages to reinvent blues essence with a highly creative jazzy approach.
Dick’s Holler; Silver City Bound; Take this Hammer; Black Betty; The Highest Mountain
Goodnight Irene; De Gray Goose; In The Pines/Black Girl; Jolly O’ The Ransom; Yellow GaL
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