Thursday, January 12, 2012

Dreamy: Joe Henry's Reverie

Joe Henry and I have something in common. The esteemed producer, songwriter and musician is also crazy about a unique jazz record called Money Jungle, which was recorded in one day in 1962 and it featured three of the most compelling people in music: Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Max Roach. It was the only time they all ever came together in the studio. The result was an intimate record of Ellington compositions, some played for the first time. To me, it was remarkable how these three artists were able to get along, let alone the skill in which they played. To my knowledge, it wasn’t necessarily a super group either. Yet it was far from being a regular session.

Reverie (ANTI-, 2011) is Joe Henry’s attempt to capture the immediacy, excitement and love he heard on Money Jungle, but it’s not a jazz record by any stretch. It’s a pop album with a difference. And it’s that difference, in feel, phrasing and songwriting that makes Reverie one of best new records I’ve heard. But I didn’t come to this album as a fan of Henry’s music; it was his excellent work as a producer that made me look up and take notice.

To Joe Henry, who rediscovered Money Jungle during the 2010 American Thanksgiving, he described the album as “a game of catch with love, fire and brimstone, becoming a single runaway train on its way to crashing a prom dance…all their conflicted and glorious humanity is on display.” Quite the assessment, I must say, but it’s one of which I whole-heartily agree. Ellington plays the piano like he’s steering a train while Mingus fuels the engine with energetic bass lines all driven by Roach’s solid drumming. It all works and the recording stands out for being a stripped down, early Sixties tribute to the power of swing.

For the past ten years, Joe Henry has produced some of the finest records in music, regardless of genre. I would include him on a list of great producers in pop and jazz, such as George Martin or Teo Macero. His credits include Solomon Burke’s Don’t Give Up On Me (Fat Possum, 2002), Allen Toussaint’s The Bright Mississippi (Nonesuch, 2009), Mose Allison’s The Way of the World (ANTI-,2010) and two great albums in 2011, Weather (Na├»ve) by Me’Shell Ndegeocello, and Passenger (ATO) by Lisa Hannigan. These albums have the Henry “stamp” as it were: intimate, off-the-floor records with a quiet, confident center. He’s a producer who seems focused on bringing out the emotional depth of a singer.

Joe Henry
Reverie, Joe Henry’s 12th solo album, was quietly released last October. Like the albums he’s produced, this record features the same, off-the-floor sound from his studio in Southern California. It also resembles Money Jungle in using a small group featuring Jay Bellerose on drums, David Piltch on double bass and Keefus Ciancia on piano. The windows are literally wide open and you can occasionally hear dogs barking and people shouting in the background. It was Henry’s intention to create space and consequently extend that to the music, returning it to its natural, acoustic state just as if you’re in the room with him.

Reverie is an album of short stories set to music. Each song has its own motifs and characters as Henry flips from first-person singular to third-party observer. We hear songs about Billy the Kid ("Deathbed Version"), Henry Fonda ("Heaven’s Escape") and a dedication to Vic Chestnutt ("Room at Arles"). Henry has a rather elusive point-of-view on his subjects, that adds mystery to the album. You have to re-read the lyrics to get a sense of what he’s singing about. But not all the songs are that aloof. My favourite tracks are "Piano Furnace," an inspired song about the power of humanity and "Odetta", which is a cry for spiritual healing. "Dark Tears" which opens with the lines “My camera doesn’t lie to me; I see dark tears behind its eye” is a very personal song about the passage of time and its fleeting nature.

The word reverie is defined as a state of dreamy meditation. The tempo of these songs reflects Henry’s desire to slow down and breathe. Reverie offers us the opportunity to enter his hopeful meditative state.

Joe Henry is playing a selected series of concerts, including a visit to Toronto’s Hugh’s Room on January 30th. For more tour dates click here.

John Corcelli is a musician and broadcaster. He’s currently working on a radio documentary, with Kevin Courrier, for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

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