MARK MURPHY / “On The Red Clay”
The city is repairing water lines on my block. For a few days now, we haven’t been able to park on the street because guys wearing orange vests and hard hats are out there measuring and pointing and planning things. Big things, I’m sure. Then yesterday morning I looked out of the window and saw a backhoe operator digging a hole right in the middle of the street. Later that morning, I headed out for a run. As I passed the spot where the backhoe had been digging, I glanced over at the big mound of dirt, then did a double-take and almost stopped. The dirt was red. As in, really red. As in, ‘red clay’ red. Before seeing the evidence for myself, I wouldn’t have believed there was red clay in San Diego or anywhere else in California. I’d thought that particular type of soil was just a Southern thing. I don’t remember much of it in New Orleans, but whenever I’d head East – Mississippi, Alabama, and especially, Georgia – I’d see it everywhere. If you’ve ever been in or around red clay, you’d remember it too. It’s a thick, gunky, shoe-staining muck when wet (and in the humid Southern states of the U.S., it’s wet all the time). But when red clay dries, it’s even worse. It turns into a formidable, almost-impervious substance which might remind you of blood-stained concrete, except it’s harder. “Red Clay” is also a jazz classic. We’ve talked about the tune before. The first time, it was in the context of jazz records sampled by A Tribe Called Quest. This time, we’re going to focus on the song itself. First up is a version by a guitarist named Jack Wilkins. Of all five versions I’m posting today, this one has the best bass (Michael Moore) and drums (Bill Goodwin). I love how crisp and tight the electric bass is and I love the punch of the kickdrum. Honestly, you could just loop the opening two bars and let that roll for three or four minutes. Give it a name and I’d be happy! No insult to Mr. Wilkins – his playing on the electric guitar is good – I just like that groove though. Click here for an interesting first-hand account of the recording of this version of “Red Clay” and the 1973 album, entitled Windows, it originally comes from. As far as I know, Wilkins’ version is out of print. Next up is our feature version by jazz vocalist Mark Murphy. Murphy calls his version – for which he composed original lyrics – “On The Red Clay.” It’s never easy to put lyrics to jazz and make it sound natural, but here, Murphy does it and does it well. He gets both the mood and the pacing exactly right. Listening to his version, I feel like I’m home in the South, looking out of the back window while the summer sun slowly sinks into the horizon. I have to admit, before coming across this version of “Red Clay” I’d never heard of Murphy. That became embarrassing when I went to Murphy's web site and discovered that Mark Murphy has recorded over 40 albums as a leader. Mark Murphy Sings, the 1975 LP this tune originally comes from, was his 17th. “On The Red Clay” is currently available on Giants Of Jazz: Mark Murphy. Let’s pick up the pace. Kalamu recently posted a cover of “Leaving This Planet,” a tune originally written and performed by organist Charles Earland. Coincidentally, Earland’s 1973 LP Leaving This Planet features a high-speed version of the song we happen to be discussing this week. Despite featuring both Joe Henderson and Freddie Hubbard (who both play on the original), Earland’s cover of “Red Clay” sounds nothing like Hubbard’s version. For me, the most distinctive elements of the original are the bassline and the main theme. Earland’s version changes the theme slightly (but significantly) and eschews the bassline altogether. I like it, but more as a jazz-funk workout than as a version of “Red Clay.” (If that makes any sense and I’m not sure it does.) We’re going to slow it down again – waaaay down. All of the jazz versions of “Red Clay” (all the ones I’m posting anyway) are at least 30 years old. But just a few years ago, 2005 to be exact, neo-soul vocalist Dwele cut a version of “Red Clay” that he recorded live at the BBC along with trumpeter Roy Hargrove. As was the case with Hargrove’s RH Factor project, this isn’t jazz. It’s more like languid, mostly-instrumental, funk/blues. I first heard this version about a year ago when a BoL reader sent it to me. (What up, Josh.) I thought it was just OK back then but it’s grown on me a lot. I’ve come to like the informal, free-flowing feel of the song. It sounds like Roy and Dwele were just kicking it in the studio and decided to riff around a little bit on a tune they like. If you dig this one it’s available on an interesting-looking compilation called Gilles Peterson Presents the BBC Sessions Vol. 1. The collection is various (mostly) young musicians of a wide range of genres playing live at the BBC. I haven’t heard the whole thing yet, but I intend to. After hearing all of these interpretations of Freddie Hubbard’s composition, it’s wonderful to hear the classic strains of the original from the Red Clay album. Listening to Freddie, Joe, Herbie and Ron do their thing is like drinking a cool glass of water after having tasted all sorts of sweet and spicy things. I dig the various methodologies other musicians bring to the bass, the drums, the main theme and the solos, but there’s something about the original that can’t be duplicated. —Mtume ya Salaam I’m stuck I can’t get this red muck off me. Here are three more versions. People, I sincerely apologize for this week’s three hour marathon. I not only got stuck on the red clay, I was way out to sea on the Cape Verde music (and I didn’t even cover everything I had in mind). Anyway, check out versions by: 1. The Japanese club-jazz band Soil and Pimp Sessions from their album Pimpoint. 2. The nu-jazz band The Soulsonics from their album Jazz In The Present Tense. 3. (And finally) a live version by the CTI All-Stars (Stanley Turrentine, tenor saxophone; Freddie Hubbard, trumpet; George Benson, guitar; Ron Carter, bass; and Billy Cobham, drums) from the double album California Concert: The Hollywood Palladium. No mas. I’m out. —Kalamu ya Salaam
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