Just like getting pummeled in the face by a barrage of instruments, a cacophony of cymbals, distorted harmonica, and sound, a weathered and guttural old voice coming from the deepest, darkest pit of defeated and downtrodden old bluesmen, the opening title track from legendary performer Tomás Doncker’s new album, Big Apple Blues, comes out kicking and scratching before settling into a familiar and comfortable flow. Pairing up with Pulitzer Prize winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa, the record moves, dealing in blues, jazz, rock and roll, and world flavors, a kind of “global soul” music for the masses. It’s classic. It’s immediate. It’s timeless. It’s an ode to the big city.
But let’s get a little history first.
Tomás Doncker came up in the New York No Wave scene in the early 80’s, playing guitar for an array of experimental and uncategorizable artists like The Contortions, James White and the Blacks, Defunkt, and J. Walter Negro and the Loose Jointz. As that scene began to fade and disperse, Doncker found himself the world traveler, writing, recording, producing, and playing with a wide variety of artists, from jazz pianist Masabumi Kikuchi to P-Funk’s Bootsy Collins, from Yoko Ono to The Itals, Bonnie Raitt to Ivan Neville, and everything in between. The man has made his mark on pop music over the last three decades.
Yusef Komunyakaa grew up in small town Louisiana in the 50’s and 60’s, the son of a carpenter and a burgeoning poet and writer. After a tour of duty in the Vietnam War, he returned to the states to pursue a life in poetry and academia. He is currently a professor at NYU, and has won several awards and achieved numerous accolades over his poetic career.
Somewhere along the way, these two personalities collided, and some music was made.
Big Apple Blues feels like an enormous record. There is a weight and grandness to it, much like that if its physical namesake, that carries a kind of grace or gravitas, even when the musicians are just noodling around and having fun. It is the blues after all. The horn section looms large and loud, the harmonica sings and squeals, the guitar wails, the organ flows like water, and the beat is a toe-tapping, foot-stomping, butt-shaking affair. “Can’t Say No” is a roadhouse blues screamer, all straining guitar work and soulful organ. You can feel it in your whole body. “The New Day” then eases off the gas a little, a soul ballad that feels like it should be accompanying a slow walk through a smoky dive bar, whiskey and heart in hand. “Little Blue Room” is another stomper that feels part rockin’ blues, part Tom Waits gravel and snarl. Doncker and crew then touch on the soft and sweet with the gorgeous “Coney Island,” before hitting their bluesy crunch of a finale on “Ground Zero,” and then riding off into the proverbial sunset with the Latin-soul flavored “Fun City.” And then some New York City ambience plays us out. It’s a fantastic way to end a record, and as a love letter opus to a metropolis knowingly penned by a resident poet and a talented bluesman, it nails it with flare and some soul-piercing guitar licks.
I wish I could play the harmonica.
The album comes out next week on True Groove Records, but in the meantime, take a listen to a few tracks off of it, “Big Apple Blues,” “The New Day,” and “Ground Zero.”
From a bunker somewhere in Central Texas, Thomas H. Williams spends most of his time with his wife, his two sons, and his increasingly neurotic dog. He listens to a lot of music, drinks a lot of excellent beers, and gets out from time to time. For even more shenanigans, visit heavenisanincubator.blogspot.com.