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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

and singer.

"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,"

he says.

"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

folk music."

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

Kelly Joe Phelps, Outta Sights & Sounds, Grace Norton

Rogers School, Stockton Street, Hightstown, 609-259-5764. Spook

Handy opens. $12. Saturday, May 13, 8 p.m.

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