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Sweet Home - The Music of Robert Johnson

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Album Review

Singer and arranger Pyeng Threadgill is the daughter of composer, bandleader, and multi-instrumentalist Henry Threadgill and choreographer/dancer Christina Jones, a founding member of the celebrated Urban Bushwomen. Sweet Home offers 11 Robert Johnson tunes in 11 different settings. While more cynical punters and blues purists (ugh) may sigh or wring their hands at such a notion, everyone else can take delight in Threadgill's considerable accomplishment. Unlike mere revivalists like Eric Clapton or Peter Green, Threadgill hears and interprets Johnson's blues as music not of, but for the ages.

Certainly she has models here, most notably Cassandra Wilson and Olu Dara, but Threadgill's take on these tunes doesn't attempt to remake them in her image, so much their own. Sweet Home's selections are radical. They take Johnson's songs and strips them of the interpetive, anachronistic baggage that has all but killed the spooky and hedonistic majesty of the originals at the hands of well-meaning but woefully rigid performers.

First there's the edgy, swinging jazz read of "Love in Vain," followed by the lean, ragged funk of "Phonograph Blues." The swampy acoustic guitar-and-brass blues of "Milk Cow Calf's Blues" is a nod to earlier times, but feels more like it's being performed in busker style on the lawn of Thompkins Square Park. The lone cello accompaniment (played elegantly by Dana Leong) on "If You've Got a Good Friend" evokes the dignified spirit, if not the timbre, of Nina Simone's ghost, and the jazzed-out, near scatted take on "Dust My Broom," where Threadgill is accompanied only by a double bass and a trap kit, offers the startling—and sometimes hair-raisin— originality of her approach. Likewise the tension between second-line New Orleans rhythms at the heart of "Sweet Home Chicago," where jagged jazz-rock guitar fills are held expertly in the tense grain of Threadgill's voice is jarring, perhaps, but far from unwelcome. She croons, swoons, shouts, growls, whoops, and moans to get these blues across proving in the process that in the current era, these tunes that are enduring to be sure, but they continue to hold a cryptic mystique; they are still alluring because they can be articulated in so many different contexts and retain their seductive power and jagged grace. Threadgill's recorded debut is an auspicious one. She paints her blues shiny black and pushes them headlong into a future where tradition and history are processes of evolution, not quaint curiosities.

Sweet Home - The Music of Robert Johnson, Pyeng Threadgill
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