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Jeff Turmes isn’t exactly a household name in most music circles, but he probably should be. While the corporate blues industry promotes legions of guitarists too-often limited to saturating over-worked blues standards with every stale rock cliché they can muster, Turmes keeps busy creating music the old-school way – listening to and watching the world around him. A multi-instrumentalist, he’s frequently called on for recordings and live gigs by multiple artists including his wife Janiva Magness, Tom Waits and the legendary Mavis Staples in whose touring band he’s held the bass chair since 2007. A prolific songwriter, he won the International Songwriting Competition’s 2006 Best Blues Song award for ”Eat the Lunch You Brought,” a savvy warning about the pitfalls of envy.
In his latest effort, Turmes excels at the difficult task of folding divergent stories, sounds and influences into a single CD through the sheer strength of his well-honed style. More remarkably, this well-crafted body of original songs, while eclectic, is in no way esoteric or inaccessible to casual listeners. Its stories and textures can be felt in the heart and soul even if the musical and literary tools with which they were forged are unfamiliar. His roots, including old-time music, blues and modern jazz, run deep into the very bedrock of American Music. The songs, all written with a very hip literary flair, range from the wry humor of “Something Must of Happened,” to the melancholy imagery of “Loser’s History,” to the title track’s dark, foreboding narrative. Turmes and his sidemen give top-shelf performances covering a wide dynamic range through highly creative arrangements and instrumentation. “Turn Your Heart in My Direction” suggests Atlantic producers may have sent Miles Davis off to Muscle Shoals to produce a classic soul session; an unlikely scenario that in this case yielded a first-rate soul ballad that also ranks as a great jazz ballad.
Turmes himself acknowledges this is more a songwriting than a blues CD but there are some great blues throughout. “Honey Man’s” sultry Tommy Johnson groove is so strong that listeners might imagine Howlin’ Wolf himself about to deliver a low feral moan. The relaxed shuffle of “Hew to the Roadside” contrasts sharply with the dissonant syncopated percolation of “When My Baby Wakes Up”. The rhythmic, melodic and dynamic complexities of early blues from Texas, Mississippi and the Piedmont are preserved while avoiding the trappings of mimicry and plagiarism.
This project’s luster shines clear. It’s the sort of CD you’d want on a cross-country road trip. Turmes seems to have discovered the secret of how best to combine influences like Ellington and Strayhorn, Ralph Stanley and Skip James to tell his own stories in his own extraordinary way.
- Joel Foy -