Equal parts guitarist, composer and singer-songwriter, Doug Wamble continues his one-of-a-kind musical journey with Blues in the Present Tense, a set of original songs featuring what amounts to a band to end all bands: the elusive Prometheus Jenkins on tenor and soprano saxophones, along with Mr. Jenkins’ musical soulmates and longtime associates Eric Revison bass and Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums.
“It’s a cliche to say ‘dream come true,’” Wamble remarks, “but this really was for me. It was one of the best musical experiences of my life. I was also honored to have my friend and drummer extraordinaire Charley Drayton there to produce and provide advice and guidance. Charley is a legend. Charley knows sound. He knows texture and feeling.”
All the elements are in place on Blues: not only the unmatched instrumental virtuosity, but the grit and soul of Wamble’s extraordinarily expressive voice. The one non-vocal track, “Blues to the Unfound,” is almost like chamber music, laying bare Wamble’s creative and aesthetic range. In Wamble’s words it is “an instrumental meditation on heartbreak and loss that began as a solo guitar piece inspired by Duke Ellington and Kenny Kirkland.”
After the end of the title track, tape still rolling, an enthused Jenkins declares, “That was stank!” One could easily apply that eloquent analysis to the album overall. Wamble, raised in Memphis, Tennessee, brings a greasy, deeply authentic blues feeling to every sung phrase. He plays his heart out, with a clean, resolutely unprocessed tone, on a close-miked and subtly amplified Mule resophonic guitar built by Michigan-based luthier Matt Eich. The New Yorker hailed Wamble as “a one-man compendium of avant-Americana.”
Behind the joy and revelry in the quartet’s playing lurks a darker reality, with pandemic disruptions and diseased politics turning life in America more upside down than ever. “These songs were written during the turmoil of the last few years,” Wamble says. “‘Along The Way’ was previously on my first record, Country Libations (Marsalis Music, 2003). I wrote that on 9/11, which at the time seemed like it’d be the worst period we’d have to endure. Little did I know…As for the rest, it’s a reflection on how I feel about things.”
With song titles like “MAGA Brain,” “If I’m Evil” and “Blues for the Praying Man,” it’s not difficult to grasp that all these songs speak to our disordered and highly divided present, with firm and clear-eyed conviction. The opener, a midtempo burner called “Homesick,” comes from a different place in Wamble’s psyche: “a reflection on the place one grows up; the environment that shapes and plants seeds that get solidified and altered throughout one’s life. Looking at the present through the lens of childhood often can be the gateway to maturity and healing as we age.”
“One thing I tried to do on this record was write from the perspective of those with whom I deeply disagree. For “If I’m Evil” and “No Worries,” the lyrics are not how I feel, but instead how I see the messaging from the extreme right wing in America. “If I’m Evil” is particularly timely, as it references the recent disasters perpetrated by our Supreme Court to limit the freedom of women.
“MAGA Brain” is me addressing the people I’ve heard tell me that being a liberal is the same as being amoral. I was told 30 years ago that God didn’t want Bill Clinton to be president. It was then I began to see the hypocrisy of those people, and it culminated in watching millions of so-called followers of Christ support the most amoral candidate for president we’ve ever seen.“
Listening to Wamble’s and Jenkins’ solos on “Homesick” is revelatory: Wamble’s single-line solo is completely in-the-zone rhythmically, overflowing with ideas, yet very nearly acoustic in approach with no effects. It is no less gripping than the absolute volcanic eruption that flows from Jenkins’ tenor. The two are different, equally explosive in their own way, each contributing to the whole as they work out with one of the great rhythm sections in jazz. Wamble’s deft chording on the song, very guitaristic in attack yet McCoy Tyner-esque in content, reveals other facets of his incredible feel and hard-won depth of knowledge.
The album takes a timbral turn on the last three tracks — “Blues for the Praying Man,” the instrumental “Blues for the Unfound” and the closing “Blues in the Present Tense” — when Jenkins enters and stays on the smaller horn, making it pop brilliantly in the mix.
With Blues in the Present Tense, Wamble states his view plainly and doesn’t hold back, yet it’s important to see that he’s coming from a place of positivity: “I don’t want to have this deep animosity toward anyone. I was raised in the Southern Baptist church, and there’s a long history of deep racism there. In fact, it was in 1992 that I left that church. I had moved to Florida, and the pastor there said it was God’s will that George Bush defeat Bill Clinton. I just hate seeing the divisions deepen so much that going to Florida now feels like I’m crossing into enemy territory. I don’t like that. But as the parent of an LGBTQ kid, I can’t ‘agree to disagree’ on that issue or any other polarizing issue and certainly can’t stand by and watch harmful legislation get passed that endangers kids’ lives. Nor can I agree to disagree that Black Lives Matter.”
ABOUT DOUG WAMBLE
Doug Wamble is an artist at home in different expressive worlds: a master of blues and slide guitar as well as bebop and modern jazz, a singer as steeped in American roots as he is in contemporary pop production and sound. His 2019 batch of releases, 9 for ’19, offers a sweeping and satisfying view of the range of his accomplishment over some 20 years. His integration of slide guitar and other vernacular elements in modern jazz settings creates a beguiling old-yet-new juxtaposition, true to the spirit of the music itself. In addition to his impact as a recording artist, Wamble is a Jazz Guitar and Ensemble instructor at the Juilliard School of Music; musical director for singer- songwriter Morgan James; and composer for the Ken Burns documentaries Prohibition, The War and Vietnam. He also composed music for Burns’ The Central Park Five, a collaboration with daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon; and a forthcoming piece about racism and public housing in Atlanta during the late 20th century. Wamble has also worked with Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Cassandra Wilson, Madeleine Peyroux, Natalie Merchant, Erik Friedlander, Steven Bernstein, Courtney Love, Jon Batiste, Norah Jones and a host of other influential artists across genres.