|Adam Nussbaum's The Leadbelly Project Sunnyside Records SSC 1500|
The drummer Adam Nussbaum is one of those journeyman percussionists whose grounded beat can be heard on over one hundred-seventy recordings. He has worked with the likes of John Abercrombie, Michael and Randy Brecker, Jerry Bergonzi, Steve Swallow and Carla Bley to name just a few. I have always found his work to be interesting, if slightly under the radar, and was particularly impressed with his work in his band BANN with saxophonist Seamus Blake, bassist Jay Anderson and guitarist Oz Noy from back in 2011.
As a youngster growing up in Norwalk. CT, Nussbaum became exposed to the music of the folk/blues artist Huddie William Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, from his parents record collection. The music inspired young Nussbaum but as he says “…he listened, loved and forgot those old recordings.” It was a long time coming, but the drummer decided to assemble a group of like-minded musicians and dedicate a record to this legendary folk/blues artist, one who left such a lasting impression on him during his formative years. The Leadbelly Project is a project that honors the music of Americana as represented by the music of Ledbetter. There is a deeply authentic feeling that this music elicits and it is only enhanced by the musicianship and fervor that these four artists bring to this endeavor.
The album features seven songs composed by Ledbetter, two traditional songs “Green Corn” and “Good Night Irene” and two Nussbaum Originals “Insight, Enlight” and “Sure Would Baby.”
Just sit back and listen to these guys interact. It is a communal love fest for this fiercely original, American roots music and if you listen intently you will be transported to a simpler time.
The dual voices of Radley and Cardenas seamlessly mesh through each other’s lines without ever clashing. Saxophonist Talmor plays with admirable restraint, favoring a dedication to tone and feeling over speed. Nussbaum is clearly the leader here, but not in an overtly, out-front sort of way. The veteran drummer chooses the tempos and sets the tone, building an armature upon which his proteges can further enhance. He leaves the group plenty of room to develop their own ideas and pushes and prods as the master rhythm maker he is.
From the opening saxophone refrain of Talmor on “Old Riley” you can hear this album is about imparting a “down home” feeling. The two guitarists dance around each other in complementary fashion as the drummer adds splashes of color before the group gets into a cadenced march following Nussbaum’s brushed traps.
On “Green Corn” the musicians carry on a delicate conversation where each respond to the other’s brief statement. They eventually create a circular whirlwind of notes, the two guitarists almost indistinguishable as they play off each other’s ideas, with Talmor and Nussbaum carry the melody to a tidy coda.
The slow sauntering “Black Girl (Where Did You Sleep Last Night) creates room for Cardenas and Radley to create a Frisellian atmosphere drenched in picked and strummed twang over a 5/4 beat.
There is head-bopping authenticity of the group’s “Bottle Up and Go” that makes it a real treat. Listen to Nussbaum’s dancing calliope of sounds as he works his kit to great effect. Talmor’s saxophone lazily lopes along in perfect harmony with the rest of the band. The guitar work is so integrated into the music that it’s hard for me to distinguish who is playing what here, but no matter it all sounds fluid and right.
The album continues with other Lead Belly classics like the rousing “Black Betty,” a funky sort of vamp with a nice solo by Cardenas; the short, angularly played “Grey Goose” which has a sweet drum intro by Nussbaum, and the gospel-like “Bring Me A Little Water, Sylvie” which features some country-inspired guitar work and some dreamy saxophone by Talmor. The shaking “You Can’t Lose Me Cholly” is a joyful tune with Nussbaum adding a lot of color to the rambling song.
“Insight, Enlight” is a gentle gem. It starts with a light, finger-picked guitar intro that hangs in the air like the sound of a wind chime in a gentle breeze. Nussbaum’s shimmering cymbal work and the hauntingly tenor of Talmor stating the repeating melody line further enhance the solemnity of this beautiful miniature.
The easy shuffling of Nussbaum’s “Sure Would Baby," is a song Adam wrote for his wife and is just plain fun to listen to. You can hear the group take this one and make it their own.
The set closes with the classic “Good Night Irene.” Nussbaum opens with a tom-based drum intro that leads into the melody stated simply by Talmor’s tenor as the two guitarists weave their lines into a filigreed pattern.