When a jazz musician comes wailing out of the gate, spinning riffs and complex runs, fellow musicians will appreciatively murmur, “Cat’s been shedding!”, writes Paul Klemperer, sax player and ethnomusicologist living in Austin, Texas, in an article called “Woodshedding & The Jazz Tradition” on the Big Apple Jazz website.
“Alternately, when a player’s ego outmatches his technique, his peers may suggest he spend more time in the woodshed. Woodshedding is the nutsand- bolts part of jazz, the place where you work out the techniques that form the foundation of your improvisational ability.”
Blues harmonica player Adam Gussow will push participants toward the woodshed in two days of workshops July 9 and 10 at Crash Music, a music and visual arts venue located in the renovated Historic Aztec Theater, in Aztec, N.M., a few miles east of Farmington. The weekend approach to music reinvention includes a classic blues-harmonica jam session and a Saturday night performance with the Blues Doctors.
Participants will work through licks, riffs and grooves on the wind instrument in classic blues tunes such as “Got My Mojo Working,” “Crossroads Blues” and “Hoochie Coochie.” Gussow, an experienced blues-harmonica musician since the 1980s, says “going into the woodshed is part of the process that moves a musician to transform music.”
In 1986 Gussow was the newbie on the streets of Harlem, where he sat in with Sterling Magee (Mr. Satan), an R&B legend who played with King Curtis, Etta James, and many other big names. “He was just beginning his own one-man-band odyssey when I met him. Within five years he and I had big-time management, a hit CD, ‘Harlem Blues,’ on Rounder Records; we had played the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, we’d opened for Buddy Guy in Central Park and toured the UK with Bo Diddley, and I had the right to call myself a touring pro. I lived that life from 1991 through 1998.”
Yet somehow in the long stretch of his professional music life Gussow directed his interest in the roots of Southern culture and Southern musical traditions into academic studies, earning his Ph.D. from Princeton. In addition to his career appointment as an English professor at the University of Mississippi, he also tours internationally, playing all of the major blues, jazz, and folk festivals. His primary teaching interest is the blues literary tradition.
In a telephone interview, Gussow described the player’s role in pushing the evolution of the instrument as a tension between the old blues and the new.
“People are still mining the old harmonica blues styles, not taking a step forward. As a result, blues harmonica playing is weighted toward white players today who want to play the real blues, the old blues,” making icons of the great players, like Little Walter.
Instead, Gussow’s approach pushes musicians out of the box and advises they spend time alone in the woodshed. He explains that the art is the result of listening and then reinventing the music. “The pinnacle, for me, is Little Walter, who listened to the jazz and blues players of his time as well as the traditional players, yet he was a modernist in the same way that Picasso shook things up in the visual arts.”
Gussow’s musicianship is heavily influenced by his father, Alan Gussow, an artist and environmentalist and the author of several books, including A Sense of Place: The Artist and the American Land, and Reinventing Regionalism: The Artist as Native. He created the program that put artists into the national park system. His father’s mentoring introduced Gussow to the parallels between contemporary visual arts and jazz. He says his father taught him there are two kinds of artists, those who do what they can and those who do what they can’t. “Those who do what they can’t are the ones who evolve the music and the art, like Picasso did in the 1950s.”
Well-known in the international blues community for teaching a transformative approach to harmonica, and playing it, he hopes the long-term result changes the music genre.
“Like Picasso, Miles Davis, and Jackson Pollack, who continued to reinvent the art and themselves, I teach people to be restless, move into other media, transform, experience what it means to go out into the woodshed.” In fact, two of the best examples of harmonica evolution, he says, are Sugar Blue and Jason Ricci.
“Their fast and furious harmonica playing is a complex reinvention of what it means to play harmonica.”
Gussow is the author of three books: Mister Satan’s Apprentice: A Blues Memoir, Seems Like Murder Here: Southern Violence and the Blues Tradition, and Journeyman’s Road: Modern Blues Lives from Faulkner’s Mississippi to Post-9/11 New York. Information and registration for the Adam Gussow harmonica workshop/ performance weekend is available at 505-427-6748.
The Animas Blues & Brews Fest
A week later, the Animas River community will flow with more blues and brews during the 11th annual Animas Blues & Brews Fest located in the Riverside Park in Aztec, N.M. Bluesman Zac Harmon called Katee Mclure, director of the Animas Blues and Brews Festival, to ask about being in the line-up. “I had heard his name, his music,” Mclure says, “but I wondered how we could afford him. I called him right back. It turns out that he sends the queries himself, so he knew us. He asked me to call his booking agent and we worked out an agreement. It was a great coup.”
Harmon is headlining the five bands playing from 1 until 11 p.m. at the Animas Park near the river. He’s an award-winning guitarist, organist, singer, and songwriter whose distinctive style combines the best of old-school soul-blues artists with modern lyrics and themes that bring the blues into a new century. In “Long Live the Blues,” a tune he wrote for the album “Right Man Right Now” (Blind Pig Records), Harmon sings the blues for the blues, “They took my songs, they got ’em all wrong, then they called it rock and roll…In my blood…Mississippi mud…How I feel.” It’s contemporary music that proves just how alive and relevant the blues is today.
According to Rick Bell, Groove Music Magazine, Jay White & the Blues Commanders feature the “rare trifecta talent” of White, “a combination of great guitar work, gravelly blues vocal style with dead on pitch and a song writing ability that garnered him his first hit record before he was out of high school.”
McClure says the music festival, established in 2006, now garners submissions from many bands. “I listen to every CD and then I like to spend time on YouTube watching the more raw videos a band has posted there. Anybody can sound good in a studio production, but it takes real talent to sound good live on stage.” She says the boards of directors look for a mix of genres for the line-up, including varieties as diverse as Chicago blues and the Mississippi Delta style.
Described as playing Texas Music with soul, The Wesley Pruitt Blues Band will deliver classics and originals in the afternoon. Fan favorites include “Taking Your Memories,” “Poor Man Blues,” and “Cocaine & Whiskey.”
Missy Anderson follows with timeless blues “going straight to the spirit and body,” writes Bill Wilson. According to Wilson, she sings in the moment, taking the listener through a wide range of emotions. “The band is as tight as any I have heard, leaving Missy all the room she needs to deliver her stories with authority and an emotional power that grabs the listener and holds them to the very end.”
The festival wraps up with the local Blues Guild of Albuquerque. Originally formed by vocal guitarist Joe ‘Daddy’ Warner in 2013, the Blues Guild of Albuquerque includes Kent Pittsenbarger on drums, Jeff Sipe, bass and Dinnie Ferguson on harmonica. They’re playing to keep the tradition of American Blues alive and pass it on to future generations.
Doors open at noon Saturday, July 16. Tickets, information and performance clips from can be found at http://www.animasriverblues.com/