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Published: 2003/08/28
by Chris Bertolet

Soul Serenade – The Derek Trucks Band

Columbia Records 89013

Soul Serenade was recorded nearly four years ago. It hasn't been
until very recently because of what Columbia calls "contractual problems
with the masters."

If you didn't know this, you might conclude that Soul Serenade
marked the end of Derek Trucks' passage from technical wunderkind
(_Guitar World_ has ordained 2002’s Joyful Noise one of its
"100 Essential Guitar Albums") to genuine artist. But knowing that it's
nearly an artifact relative to Derek's tenure on the planet makes it all
the more dazzling. In 1999, the year he said goodbye to his teens,
Derek Trucks was already composing and playing like a musician who
realized that in terms of his craft, he had nothing to prove — which,
fortunately for us, left him free to simply create.

Trucks owes his precociousness in large part to a childhood immersed in
the craft and artistry of the extended Allman family, but he also owes
it to his own guileful decision to surround himself in his own outfit
with musicians who were at least his equal and in some ways better. If
you listen closely to Derek's playing, you can hear how it's been
colored by his collaboration with players of substance like Yonrico
Scott and Kofi Burbridge, who know when to comp and when to lead and
when to play nothing at all. He has accumulated the wisdom, well beyond
his years, to understand that the quality of his compositions and the
heart he pours into them are what really matters, and his palate of
musical colors has grown into something versatile and dazzling. Ditto
his band.

The result in evidence here is DTB's most eclectic effort, a daisy chain
of mellow but distinct hues, delicately threaded together with the
artful cry of Derek's Gibson. In its first three songs alone, the album
zags from world music to jazz to gutbucket blues, but never skips a beat
on the way. It opens with a staggering, ten-minute, gospel-tinged
invocation, "Soul Serenade/Rasta Man Chant." This organic hybrid of
obscure gems from King Curtis and Bob Marley unfolds like the day in the
life of a carefree child; Curtis's head riff marks off the giddy
moments, and the music builds slowly to a blazing sunset of a climax
before sweetly fading into silence. If you're making a mix tape for a
blissfully lazy day at the beach, there may well be no finer song.

"Bock to Bock" follows, a faux lounge blues a la Henry Mancini.
lets Kofi's vibes and flute carry the melody in the early going here,
then steps up to demonstrate what his devotees already know: he's
absorbed enough Wes and Django to grow into a preposterously good jazz
player (better watch your back, Sco). Gregg Allman lends powerful
vocals to the standard blues rocker "Drown In My Own Tears," but somehow
the John Coltrane instrumental "Afro Blue" winds up sounding more like
an original Allmans composition than anything the Allmans have composed
in years (the 6/8 jam evokes "Whipping Post" and the meltdown middle of
"Elizabeth Reed," and I mean that in the most flattering way).

"Elvin" finds Derek dancing gingerly on a satiny bed of B-3 organ, but
given that the tune is supposed to be a tribute to legendary jazz
drummer Elvin Jones, the rhythm section doesn't exactly cut loose as one
might imagine. This is the one tune on the record that may have
benefited from a little more woodshedding. "Oriental Folk Song" is
another curiously titled piece that doesn't sound at all like its name,
but it features Kofi's best flute work and shines brightly otherwise.
"Sierra Leone," the concluding track, is a breathtaking lullaby graced
with Derek's fretless sarod playing. It lends the album the feel
of a true song cycle, and once again proves that less is often more.
For each of these wonderful tunes and for the way they hang together as
a sonic experience, legendary jazz producer John Snyder (Ornette
Coleman, Junior Wells, etc.) deserves no small measure of credit.

Through its music, DTB communicates brotherhood, understanding,
possibility and free-spirited play — the very ideals that have
incubated the blessed rebirth of live music in our scene and elsewhere.
Treat yourself right and watch this band work when they make their next
stop near you.

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