While his ex-wife Maria may be better known, primarily on account of her 1973 hit ‘Midnight At The Oasis’, and more prolific in terms of albums, Geoff Muldaur has arguably had the more successful if low profile career, as songwriter and composer, ranging through folk, blues and jazz (he recorded an interpretation of the music of Bix Beiderbecke).
Recorded in Amsterdam, this, his eighth solo studio release, is his most ambitious, a 2CD, 18 song collection of American jazz, folk blues, with setting of Tennessee Williams’ poems, tributes to jazz giants like Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton as well as his own originals. Working with some of the best classical and jazz musicians in America and the Netherlands, among them mezzo-soprano Claron McFadden, clarinettist David Lukacs, and producer and bassist Gert-Jan Blom, it comes in a lavish hardback, illustrated book box set with a foreword by composer David Amram and extensive notes by Muldaur on each of the tracks.
Disc 1 opens with Blind Lemon Jefferson’s ‘Black Horse Blues’ given a jaunty strings and woodwind arrangement that blends Mississippi with New Orleans, switching to jazz for a parping bassoon swing through Beiderbecke and Joe Venuti’s ‘Bethcha I Getcha’ returning to the dreamy blues with Morton’s love song to the state’s aquatic attributes ‘Michigan Water Blues’ (tastes like sherry wine). It’s followed by another jazz instrumental, Duke Ellington’s equally dreamy 1947 written ‘Lady Of The Lavender Mist’ and then on to Chicago bluesman J.B.Lenoir and his 1965 number ‘The Whale Has Swallowed Me’ with its African-influenced rhythms and reference to the story of Jonah.
The Delta blues throw up a lazing banjo-based take on Vera Hall’s ‘Boll Weevil Holler’, a prairie singsong number about infestation with its roots in plantation songs, that features Muldaur’s long-time collaborator Jim Kweskin on harmony. There’s one further instrumental in the first set, a woodwind dominant reading of Fats Waller’s ‘The Jitterbug Waltz’ that also features accordion and guitarron, the disc concluding with the ballroom orchestra sound of ‘Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good to You’ from 1929, recorded byMcKinney’s Cotton Pickers led by co-writer Don Redman, a lively New Orleans-influenced setting of Williams’s poem ‘Gold Tooth Blues’ with Muldaur on penny whistle and, finally, it heads out West for ‘Prairie Lullaby’, credited here to Jimmie Rodgers but actually written by Billy Hill and released by the former as the flip side of his 1933 single ‘Peach Pickin’ Time down in Georgia’, the song also covered over the years by Mike Nesmith, Diana Krall, Leon Redbone, Laura Veirs, Eliza Carthy and Norma Waterson and, yes, Geoff and Maria Muldaur, both as a duo and individually.
Moving to Disc 2, Moran Lee ‘Dock’ Boggs, a 20s old time clawhammer banjo player who married Appalachian and African, is celebrated with ‘Mistreated Mama’, which was written by a trio from Louisville and which he learned from a Sara Martin recording, taking the pace up in his version, and which Muldaur follows here with some lively, almost mountain music fiddle. He stays around Appalachia for the collection’s best known song, turning to a folk music for a lazing string and woodwind arrangement of ‘Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies’, before turning playful for his self-penned ‘The Frog’, a 27-seconcd instrumental for violin, cello, clarinet, bassoon and French horn written for his daughter. Appropriately perhaps, it’s followed by ‘My Little One’, the second Tennessee Williams poem, sung by McFadden and here in memory of his mother, followed by a third with Muldaur on vocals and guitar accompanied by Hans Colbers’ clarinet for’ Heavenly Grass’.
The disc ends with the self-penned ‘Octet In Three Movements’, ‘Overture’, ‘His Last Letter’ and ‘Homage’, again featuring vocals from McFadden but to which he himself doesn’t contribute, the suite inspired by the sinking of the USS Oneida in Yokohama harbour, accidentally rammed by a British steamer, in 1870, the ship’s Lieutenant Commander being his great-grandfather. The ‘Overture’ scampers along mapping the musical motifs while ‘Homage’ is a more reflective meditative piece dominated by mournful strings, the words to the nine-minute title track itself taking on the air of a folk ballad and drawn from a love letter home from his great-father written the day before leaving Tokyo as well as letters from survivors, newspaper articles and the U.S. Senate report on the incident.
His Last Letter: The Amsterdam Project is a tour de force of musicianship and a superb eclectic snapshot of American culture, the book is worth the money alone, but the music it houses is priceless.
Artist’s website: www.geoffmuldaur.com
‘His Last Letter’:
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