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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 10, 2000. All rights reserved.
Folk, Blues, Improv, and the Soul of Jazz
E-mail: Richard J. Skelly
Critics may call guitarist, singer, and songwriter
Kelly Joe Phelps a bluesman, but his playing is so fluid, dexterous,
and improvised that he has the soul of a jazz musician. Despite his
heavy jazz influences, Phelps finds himself performing at folk and
blues festivals around the U.S., Canada, and Europe. The 40-year-old
musician makes a stop at Outta Sights & Sounds, Hightstown’s coffeehouse-in-the-school,
on Saturday, May 13, at 8 p.m.
Critics of blues and contemporary folk music alike raved about Phelps’
two releases for Rykodisc, "Shine Eyed Mister Zen" (1999),
and "Roll Away The Stone" (1997). Before that, Phelps began
his recording career with an album called "Lead Me On," from
Burnside Records, a small label based in Portland, Oregon. That first
album got Phelps noticed, at least on the West Coast, but the debut
for Rykodisc is what put Phelps across to national and international
audiences of folk and blues music aficionados.
When the i-word — "improvisation" — is mentioned,
Phelps concurs that it’s central to his existence and continued career
as a musician. "Most of the improvisational nature of my music
comes from the years I spent concentrating on jazz," explains
the soft-spoken and thoughtful Phelps, speaking of his skill as a
guitar improviser. "I started learning a little bit about it when
I was 18 or 19 and took music theory classes at a junior college and
started piecing the technical aspects of it together."
"But also, I moved from Seattle down to Portland, Oregon, in 1980,
and there were a lot of good jazz players in town there. I started
going out to clubs and listening to the music four and five nights
a week," he explains. As a result, Phelps spent the better part
of the next 10 years playing bass in jazz combos. Meanwhile, at home
and in private, he would continue to play guitar, occasionally experimenting
with a slide [a metallic instrument that fits neatly over a finger]
to coax blues-ier sounds from the instrument.
"I learned through these guys that improvising was a complete
thrill for the musician. Before then, I had learned to play things
on guitar that I had figured out and could only play them note for
note," he adds. Later he realized, "the only thing I liked
about that process was actually learning the song, I didn’t enjoy
playing it, because there were no surprises. It was just a matter
getting it down pat so you didn’t make any mistakes."
After kicking around Portland’s jazz scene, such as
it was, in the 1980s, Phelps heard an album by classic acoustic bluesman
Mississippi Fred MacDowell that turned his head — and his career
— around. Others of that ilk, such as Robert Pete Williams and
Leadbelly, would provide more inspiration for the young guitarist
"Once I heard the country blues players, I wanted to figure out
a way to improvise like a jazz musician would, but at the same time
play a style of music that was more closely linked to folk music forms."
While improvising within a song is as important for Phelps as a shot
of bourbon is for a lot of classic blues and jazz musicians, Phelps
freely admits there are a lot of musicians he admires who don’t improvise.
"Still, when I sit down to play, that instantaneous creativity
is what drives me," he explains. "For other musicians, the
creative spark is in the composition and putting songs together, and
then they share those songs with an audience. But in my case, I don’t
want to know what’s going to happen. I like that element more than
any other element of performing."
Phelps was raised in a music-loving household in Sumner, Washington,
near Tacoma. The son of Seventh Day Adventist parents, Phelps’ father
was an air conditioning and refrigeration specialist, while his mother
worked selling Tupperware, working in the school kitchen, and as a
"They didn’t have a large record collection, but the influence
from them musically was the fact that they played music, at home,
almost daily," he relates. Phelps said his parents didn’t play
music for religious reasons, they just played it for an emotional
release. Phelps’ dad played guitar, fiddle, piano, and harmonica,
while his mother played guitar and some banjo.
"My dad liked early Country Western music, but somewhere during
his young years he also took a liking to boogie-woogie piano players,
including Meade Lux Lewis and Pete Johnson. He bought these boogie-woogie
records and figured out a whole bunch of music," says Phelps,
who now makes his home in Vancouver, Washington. "I can remember
being five and six years old and hearing him beat out these boogie-woogie
tunes on piano."
Phelps got interested in jazz music in his early teens, but he says
he wasn’t any more enamored with the stylings of Miles Davis or John
Coltrane than he was with Led Zeppelin at the time.
Asked about his switch from playing jazz to blues while he was still
living in Portland, Phelps, who attended college for a year as a music
major before dropping out, says he saw the blues as a way to continue
expanding his parameters.
"The reason I ended up changing directions was because it had
to do with moving forward as a musician," he says.
"You can go from Charlie Parker to John Coltrane to Ornette Coleman,
you find what you like in their styles and try to apply it to your
music. I found those players and tried to incorporate what they did
into my music. Another way of looking at what happened to me was I
found John Coltrane and liked what he did, I found Ornette Coleman
and liked what he did, and then I got to Fred MacDowell and really
liked what he did," he says, adding, "the problem is, going
from John Coltrane to Ornette Coleman isn’t as big a shift as going
from Ornette Coleman to Fred MacDowell."
Phelps’ debut for Burnside Records led him to American Records, but
after that company folded, he got picked up by Rykodisc. That company
in turn was acquired in part by Palm Pictures, an interactive music/film
company run by Island Records founder Chris Blackwell. Blackwell is
one record executive who believes in giving his artists enough rope
to hang themselves, if that’s what they want to do. In other words,
Blackwell is one of a few artist-oriented record executives left to
be found anywhere in today’s record business.
Like any good bluesman, Phelps averages more than 200 nights a year
on the road. Although he always carries a notebook with him, jotting
down ideas as they pop up, Phelps says that, "for whatever reasons,
the writing process only works for me when I’m sitting at home."
"I wish that being out on the road was something that made me
write songs. It’s more like I watch little things that go on out there.
Being on the road is the top end of the funnel and when I get home,
whatever was of value in writing songs comes out of the bottom end
of the funnel," he relates.
Phelps says his parents have come out to see him fill
theaters in Tacoma and Seattle. "They’re thrilled and tickled,
both because they’re proud of their child, but for both of them loving
music the way they do, it’s nice for them to live through that,"
"I mean, I’m sure they always harbored ideas about what it would
be like to be a full-time musician."
As one would expect of any musician who tours as a solo artist and
loves the spontaneity of performing the blues as a jazzman would,
Phelps works his live shows without the aid of a set list, or song
"I’ve never worked with a set list, and that’s part of the improvisation
thing," he explains. "I don’t want to know what’s going to
happen during the song so I don’t want to know what songs I’m gonna
play," he says, admitting he does know the first couple of tunes
he wants to play, songs that he knows will make good starting points
for the first and second shows. But the rest depends "on how the
room feels and the way the guitar sounds, and the way the audience
reacts," he says. "I feed off my audiences."
What would Phelps like an audience to know about his performance in
Hightstown? If you like acoustic blues and folk music, you will like
what Phelps does, he suggests, humbly, "because I think of my
music the way Leadbelly might have seen it, as just another form of
For those who know blues, he offers another comparison between electric
blues and acoustic blues musicians. "When you think of someone
like Mance Lipscomb [acoustic blues] in relation to Muddy Waters [electric
blues] there’s a pretty big difference between them," he says.
"You can see they’re holding on to the same straw, yet they’re
worlds apart. My approach is more like the Mance Lipscomb and Leadbelly
— Richard J. Skelly
Rogers School, Stockton Street, Hightstown, 609-259-5764. Spook
Handy opens. $12. Saturday, May 13, 8 p.m.
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