On the other hand, you can always tell it's trumpeter Calvin Owens from the very first notes. Nobody else today is making music quite like Owens -- the sort of big-band blues/jazz that ruled African-American Houston from roughly VJ Day to the advent of the space race, the stuff that Conrad Johnson calls the "big blue sound." Owens never plays in public under his own banner without a small army on stage with him, and neither does he go into the studio without the same. No fewer than 14 musicians solo on The House Is Burnin', while another 15 or 20 play behind them.
You get the impression from his lengthy list of cohorts on Jump Start that if Gaines had his druthers he'd employ just as many sidemen. In the Horns of Plenty section of the Texas Upsetters, Gaines is joined (for the first time) by his son Grady Jr. on soprano sax, trombonist/singer Paul Roberts and trumpeter Nelson Mills III, who also wrote all the horn charts. Four other musicians complete the Upsetter lineup, along with a three-singer rotation of Big Robert Smith, Patrick Harris and the sultry Yolanda Evette Busby. Then there are the guests, most notable among them the elder Gaines's brother Roy, the excellent L.A.-based guitarist.
If this lineup is ever assembled on one stage, you'd be an absolute fool to miss it. What a shame that it's simply not economically viable -- at least we have this document of the potential. Like a great live show, Jump Start picks up strength as it goes. Gaines is a master of the cover tune; he knows how to contemporize a song without ripping out its soul. Here, material made famous by Charles Brown ("Fool's Paradise"), Clyde McPhatter/Brook Benton ("A Lover's Question") and Howling Wolf ("300 Pounds of Heavenly Joy," sung, natch, by the aptly nicknamed Big Robert Smith) is gracefully eased across a gulf of decades into a new century.
Hell, sometimes Gaines even injects a 100-cc syringe full of soul into songs that had a definite shortage of it. In originator Louis Jordan's hands, "Beans and Corn Bread" (the background music to the nattering hosts of WTBS's Dinner & a Movie) was just another pleasant, silly, noveltylike jump-blues ditty about a battle between belligerent corn bread and the peace-loving beans. After a couple of minutes of a fairly straight reading, Gaines and vocalist Patrick Harris recast it as a hellafied sermon. Over a scratchy guitar and a rollicking church organ and call-and-response from the "choir," Harris delivers the following sermon. "We should stick together / hand in hand / (choir:) Yeah! / And hang out together / like wieners and sauerkraut / Yeah! / Yes, we should stick together, uh-huh / like hot dogs and mustard / Yeah! / we should get up eeeeevery mornin', m-hmm / and hang out like sisters and brothers," and so on through a hunger-inducing soul food menu, until beans finally delivers the nut of his preaching: "It makes no difference what you think about me, but it makes a whole lot of difference what I think about you."
Gaines guests on the excellent title track of Owens's record, The House Is Burnin'. Since returning from Belgium in the mid-'90s, Owens has revealed himself as one of the most visionary musicians on the Gulf Coast (note his collaborations with such unlikely cohorts as salsa queen Norma Zenteno and South Park Mexican). Owens, who is half-Creole, wants to fuse all the sounds in town into something new, and on "The House Is Burnin' Down," he puts zydeco, New Orleans brass band music and Houston blues into his trademark Juice Man juicer and hits "puree." Creole blues/soul/jazz singer (and Nelson Mills's wife) Gloria Edwards turns in a spicy performance delivered in a peppery South Louisiana accent ("The house is burnin' don!" she sings). And voilà: "zydebrues," a concoction worth spawning not just another song but a band devoted to its further development.
And "further development" accurately describes this record as well. Owens's past albums were wildly uneven affairs; stone classics like "True Blue" would come next to some conceptual train wreck or other. (Unlike so many other artists, even Owens's disasters were always interesting.) The best that could be said of Owens's singing on older songs, like the bellowing "That's Your Booty," was that it was an acquired taste, and while that's still true, it has suddenly become a flavor much easier to digest. Owens knows now how to stay within his limits, and on the autobiographical "Coffee Man" and Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song," his singing is downright enjoyable.
As is anything that Trudy Lynn wraps her mighty alto around. Here the Houston blues goddess begs her man "Don't Walk Away" -- a perfect, deep soul "don't leave me" anthem -- and on the very next song orders him to "Stop Lyin' in My Face."
Later, Leonard "Low Down" Brown steps front and center and delivers another two-song standout stretch. As is well known, Owens was B.B. King's bandleader for many years, and Brown does a great job of filling King's shoes on the B.B. standard "Please Love Me." The next song finds Brown singing the timely "Message to Man," a Percy Mayfield-like ballad -- complete with Owens's tasteful "Thrill Is Gone"-style string arrangement -- that addresses the tangled issues confronting our torn-up world. Brown's jagged and stinging guitar-playing shines, as does his world-weary singing.
"Opus in Sawdust Alley" is a titanic instrumental showstopper that rivals "True Blue," and the Aubrey Dunham-penned "Woman Hollering Creek" is a great mellow jazz tune. In the past, Owens has relied on European musicians to back him, and on this, his first all-Houston disc and his finest effort to date, the locals show just what they can do.
Which is quite a lot, when they all come together. Both of these albums are less Grady Gaines or Calvin Owens records than they are Houston blues revues -- package shows with many stars. Gaines's effort has a little more mud between its toes -- it's the one you want to play outside in the sunshine. Owens's is more nocturnal, metropolitan, sophisticated. Both are excellent, and neither could have come from anywhere but here. -- John Nova Lomax