Label: Sunnyside Records, 2018
Personnel – Ohad Talmor: tenor saxophone; Steve Cardenas: guitar; Nate Radley: guitar; Adam Nussbaum: drums.
Adam Nussbaum’s profile as a drummer gained significant recognition when he stinted/recorded with Steve Swallow, John Abercrombie, Michael Brecker, Dave Liebman, and John Scofield.
On The Leadbelly Project, his first work as a sole leader, he draws from the American roots, focusing on treasured repertoire by the influential blues and folk singer/songwriter Lead Belly, but still adding a couple of kindred compositions of his own. Besides being a powerful singer, Lead Belly was a dedicated 12-string guitar strummer. Hence, the choice of two guitars to revive the rawness of his bluesy tones through an entirely up-to-date perspective doesn’t feel particularly surprising. Playing in tandem yet resorting to sweet-tempered counterpoint, guitarists Steve Cardenas and Nate Radley join the drummer in a bass-less quartet rounded out by saxophonist Ohad Talmor.
The latter excels on the first track, “Old Riley”, opening it alone and improvising concisely with a strong inside/outside concept. The tune, feeling like an indulgently polished minstrel song damped in folk charisma, has Nussbaum showing his habitual drumming sophistication, first with brushes and then with drumsticks.
Conceived as a subtle quadrangular conversation, “Green Corn” embarks on a harvesting folk dance propelled by the glistening brushwork of the bandleader. It feels more untreated than the recognizable “Black Girl (Where Did You Sleep Last Night)”, a traditional American folk song that was extensively recorded by Lead Belly between 1944 and 1948 and gained high popularity in the 90s with a terrific unplugged version by the grunge band Nirvana. Nussbaum’s version is played Frisell-style at a 5/4 tempo.
There’s something reggae-ish on “Bottle Up and Go”, but the rhythm is lost somewhere by the end to favor a more rock-based texture that is further emphasized on “Black Betty”, a standard of the blues, here buoyed up by a double-guitar solo.
Cutting off the bustle, “Bring Me a Little Water, Sylvie” and the strikingly beautiful original “Insight, Enlight” make room for contemplation, flowing with consecutive docile movements. If the latter piece, in all its harmonic sophistication and pervading sense of melody, dragged me into a levitating state, the blues-drenched “Sure Would Baby“ pulled me back to the earth. With an up-front drum solo, the classic “Goodnight Irene” closes the album in a suave waltzing cadence.
Nussbaum’s drumming has that kind of shining quality that rewards the collective and enhances the tunefulness of the music. Throbbing with marvelous interplay and filled with compelling tonal colors, this project provides us with an optimum revitalization of the folk and blues genres, here seamlessly merged with the exciting language of jazz.
04 - Bottle Up and Go ► 09 - Insight, Enlight ► 10 - Sure Would Baby