In Booker T. Jones, the seed was planted early. Not yet a teenager, he was already hauling his stack of newspapers to Phineas Newborn's front yard where, while folding them for his after-school delivery route, he could listen to the jazz great practice piano. With those notes ringing in his head, he'd set out into the neighborhood, picking up the sound of the streets, the sound of the city, the sound of the citizens--and form new rhythms in his musical mind.
That seed found fertile ground. Wandering to nearby Beale Street, the Harlem of the South, Booker stood outside of Club Handy and listened, tuned to what he was too young to go inside and see: Blind Oscar working the Hammond organ, coaxing new sounds from it like a Delta farmer urging his mule to furrow one more cotton row, to till one more field--getting more from the instrument than can those who don't know it intimately.
Booker's journeys continued, hastening on his bike after school to the nearby Satellite Record Shop that opened in his neighborhood in 1960--there, you could listen to records with no obligation to purchase. More seeds planted in rich, receptive soil. Satellite became Stax and two years later, when the success of "Green Onions" would have assured a flourishing studio life for this studious high-schooler, Booker chose a different path, leaving Memphis and the MGs for the University of Indiana. "Who would walk away from a life of stardom, the road, gigs, making money--to go to college?" he asks, and answers himself: "An idiot, or a maverick. Whatever, I was less than popular among my contemporaries for this decision." It made him a better player, a deeper listener--fecund territory in which the seeds could grow.
"Indiana had 24-hour access to their music library and I was always in there listening," Booker says. "I listened to a lot of French music, Claude Debussy. I listened to a lot of Russian music, a lot of Wagner and also British music, Italian music--and explored the politics of Europe. The actual music can mean an emotion, they can be one and the same. A piece like 'Finlandia' by Sibelius, how does a man write that? His country has been taken and belongs to another country. When an artist can put an emotion in a piece of music and a listener feels the same emotion, then it's been transferred. That's just a real true thing that you can't touch."
Booker has made real true things all his life. For more than 15 years at Stax, he explored the potential of soul and R&B with the MG's, both on their own albums and behind vocalists. They were pushing a new direction on their final Stax wax, Melting Pot, grabbing a groove and riding it longer than any pop song, to see where it would go.
In a sense, where it went is this disc, forty years later: The Road From Memphis. The innovations of Melting Pot became a favorite of the young hip hop DJs, crate-diggers in the 1970s and '80s mining the past for a groove to extend, a break beat to break down. Old soul records are the vocabulary of hip hop, and the funkiest breaks are its DNA. Enter The Roots, a hip hop band that carried the excitement from the turntables back to the instruments, ably proving it behind Booker. Keeping the sound authentic and true is Brooklyn engineer Gabe Roth, one of the soul revival's masterminds--he summoned classic sounds for Amy Winehouses's Back to Black and is the man behind Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. Roth studied the studio techniques of the records that Booker used to make, that The Roots find so exciting, and he gives these sessions the immediacy of their progenitors. This union of generations, then, is a godhead communion. The Roots rejuvenate the beats, Booker's organ raps atop them, and they dig the past to create tomorrow's music today.
Adventurous like Booker, drummer ?uestlove, guitarist Captain Kirk, and bassist Owen Biddle graft onto Booker's Memphis the legacy of the famed Philly sound--not just the monster soul hits of the 70s, but also the city's jazz history--as well as their solidly built hip hop/ modern pop gravitas. Surprisingly, this uniting of Philly, Bronx, and Memphis moves downriver instead of up, evoking the Meters, the New Orleans studio band equivalent of the MGs (and influenced by the MGs); they were the group behind so many of Allen Toussaint's great productions. The MGs said that their drummer, the late Al Jackson, Jr., used to drive the band; here, ?uest's beats sketch the terrain, fewer lines, a wider swath, leaving plenty of room for Booker to add more colors and captain them to the destination. The soul summit is rounded out by Detroit guitarist Dennis Coffey. Don't expect any Motown sheen; Coffey contributed to the popular Detroit label, but his signature is the driving, gritty rhythm.
Also contributing is Booker's daughter Liv Jones, a singer/songwriter who wrote lyrics for "Representing Memphis" and "The Bronx." As she begins to soar with her youthful achievements, he's drawn back to his own. "Harlem House" percolates with the energy of kids hopped up on hormones and carbohydrates. Named for a diner chain that served the city's African-American neighborhoods (Memphis--ever divided), the song evokes the late-night breakfasts where guys ogle the girls at other tables, the girls--some coy, some eyeing back; only the eggs flip over easy, but bacon is not all that's sizzling. "Harlem House" soars after the late breakdown, holding that high note, descending slowly, cinematically, ending with the organ voicing the restaurant's name, the final stroke that brings the picture to completion--"at the Harlem House."
The beautiful array of vocalists is testament to Booker's influence and renown--today's soul queen Sharon Jones, Yim Yames from My Morning Jacket and Matt Berninger from the National, the godfather of punk Lou Reed--and there's Booker himself taking a rare vocal, digging up a Hi Records groove (Stax's neighboring soul studio) and singing deep Memphis autobiography (check the references; you won't find them in history books).
Booker is undiminished in his creative powers, and Road From Memphis presents an eclectic mix of melodies, rhythms, and moods. The journey begins with the deliberate, funky march of "Walking Papers," "Anytime someone felt the need to move on to a different era in life," says Booker, "they would say they had gotten their 'walking papers.' This is a happy, undeniable groove about the excitement of a new life." Highlights abound. "The Hive" lays down a propulsive, hypnotic bed atop which Booker neatly fits a soaring southern soul melody. The groove is tightened considerably for "Rent Party," Booker flexing his jazz chops; he builds like a street-corner storyteller, a meandering narrative that hooks us all the way to the punch line. "Progress" is optimistic like mid-1960s pop, countered by the underlying menace of "The Vamp" and its carnival-esque chicanery. Booker's always made the space between the notes a key part of his playing. Like Monk, he creates dimension that way, groove heavy with deep feel. He shaves the beats, making them breathe like human beings, making them dance.
There's a timelessness to these new tunes, but also a startlingly contemporary feel. The Roots are pulling something from Booker, but Booker's also sending The Roots somewhere they've not gone--it's a union of musicians, nourishing each other. The culmination of the exchange may be in "Everything Is Everything," when Booker brings on the distortion, the madness, the pulsating aggression that is a new sound for him, that takes him to a new place and then winds down like great sex, a new seed planted.
Some seeds fall near the tree, some are carried by the winds to distant lands. Booker's first fruits were drawn from the root of American music--the Mississippi Delta's blues became soul and rock and roll. Memphis and New Orleans passed those rhythms forth and back, then shipped them out across the globe. Booker found his destiny manifested in California, leaving the murky provincialism of the Mississippi River for the vast embrace of the Pacific Ocean. Like any good pioneer, on his road from Memphis he brought only what he could carry, cherished what he could use, and he built a new life, sun-filled with possibilities, rich with distant echoes.