I love being surprised and delighted by new music, but the debut recording of Brooklyn-based trumpeter Kenny Warren's new Laila and Smitty project still caught me off guard: an album of roots/Americana-based music from a fellow known for Balkan brass and legit jazz? There are folks like Bill Frisell and Ron Miles working with similar genres, but their approach tends toward the dreamlike, awash in reverbs and otherworldly zones. There are the more raw vibes of 80s Tom Waits albums, great jams but very theatrical, more characters on a stage than relatable friends. But this record is different: it feels sincere, present, emotionally vulnerable yet musically confident: a "new thing" with respect for many, many old things.
Warren started exploring country blues influences a few years ago while gigging with Jeremiah Lockwood's Sway Machinery, and the Laila and Smitty project coalesced around jamming on traditional tunes, which make up a touch over a third of this debut recording. But Warren has started writing his own songs with these idioms as points of reference, and the majority of this album is made of his originals, along with one burner penned by lap steel player MYK Freedman. In addition to Freedman, Warren's trumpet and vocal work, and Lockwood's guitar and dobro, the L & S lineup is rounded out with a rhythm section of Josh Myers on bass and Carlo Costa on drums.
Song by song, these tunes cross a wide range of traditional American musical forms, focusing mostly on country, blues, and folk vibes, but with occasional forays into New Orleans brass sounds or early rockabilly. While Lockwood, Myers, and Costa largely anchor these performances with very "legit" playing that would satisfy old-school acoustic music fans, Warren and Freedman take things in unexpected directions. The basic idea of trumpet melodies on string-band-style numbers is probably the most obvious adjustment one has to make for this music, and Warren makes it sound effortless. On the ballads, he generally stays in middle registers with a gentle tone, adding growl tones and half-valves to spice things up as needed. On uptempo numbers, his tone is bright and assertive and quickly feels like the inevitable lead instrument for these tunes. So much trumpet work on an album like this could head toward novelty in less capable hands, but after hearing Warren's thoughtful, emotional playing, you'll wonder why there aren't more trumpet-led country quintets instead.
It's Freedman's lap steel work that feels like an unexpected prize within these arrangements, though. He's a killer player who includes just enough of the idiomatic cliches you'd expect to hear in these styles, contrasted with lots of really smart and unpredictable improvising. But it's his range of overdriven and downright distorted tones that especially impressed me. He uses guitar effects better than most guitar players, like the perfect shimmering tremolo in the intro to "Colorado," or the almost Snakefinger-ish weirdo rhythmic stabs and raging countermelodies under the trumpet solos of "Country Line Waltz." And the guy practically retells the history of early rock and roll guitar in his great solos throughout an aggressive arrangement of "Rock Island Line." What a perfect fit for this lineup.
Edit: it turns out that a few of these passages are actually Jeremiah Lockwood overdubbing guitars--it's hard to tell as both do employ some unusual tones, and Freedman's intonation is so good! Kudos to both fellows for great playing. --Scott
While the album definitely centers around roots/Americana genres, it would probably be impossible for a group of musicians this diverse to keep themselves from reaching into a few other traditions to see how they shine with this kind of orchestration. There's a really wild version of "Ise-No-Umi," for example, an old tune of vaguely Asian origin that appeared a while ago on a "Secret Museum of Mankind" compilation. The L & S crew season it with slow, sticky glissando shifts between droning melody fragments. It feels glacial against lovely staccato touches of guitar in the foreground. Then there are several arrangements that allow for extended technique, "lowercase" playing: "To Know" is a beautiful instrumental country ballad on the surface, but there are a bunch of salival/breathy/loose embrochure trumpet effects straight out of the Nate Wooley solo playbook buried throughout the mix in the right channel, along with a subtle fanfare or two submerged within the left. You can enjoy this gentle tune without giving much thought to that stuff, but it adds a brilliant, unexpected dimension to the whole piece if you want to really dig in with headphones. Carlo Costa gets a similar chance to stretch out with subtle scraped/dragged percussion soundscapes beneath the otherwise familiar textures of the band's instrumental take on "Two Sisters," a dark old folk tune (proto-murder ballad) of Irish provenance.
But it's not all instrumental shenanigans--Warren takes lead vocals on a handful of these tunes. He's a decent singer on the bigger/busier numbers, but he especially shines vocally when the arrangements are sparse and the lyrics cut to the bone. A lot of these songs were written at the end of a long-term relationship, and you can especially feel that heartbreak in a pair of brief but potent tunes, "Warm My Soul" and "Questions." They're not as instrumentally dynamic as other pieces on the album, but along with the beautiful album closer, "Lost and Found," they carry an almost painful share of the emotional energy that fuels the rest of the music. And they're damned easy to identify with, still worth a tear or two every time they come on even if you've already heard them fifty times.
I have to mention how incredible this album sounds, too: I don't remember hearing any work from Don Godwin or the Can Factory before, but the intimacy of these tunes comes through perfectly in these recordings and mixes. On a nice set of speakers, you can easily imagine that Laila and Smitty are playing a few feet away. I like "studio magic" sometimes, but for tunes like these, the magic is already in the songs and the performances.
And it really does feel like magic. To be honest, I'm not overly enthusiastic about roots/Americana-based music in general, but I'm so glad I gave this album a chance. My hesitations were gone a few tunes in, and after a few months of living with this album, I'm totally re-thinking my own relationship with roots music. Thanks, Laila and Smitty.
Check it out yourself: LP and digital formats available via the Laila and Smitty Bandcamp page.