DICK AND CHRISTA HUGHES
Twenty First Century
Blues (ABC Music/Universal)
Buy the album from ABC Music
Christa Hughes and her father Dick Hughes have recorded their first album together. “21st Century Blues” was released nationally in 2010 through ABC Music / Universal. It is a collection of jazz and blues songs from the 1920s and 30s including compositions by Bessie Smith, Memphis Slim and Jelly Roll Morton.
Dick and Christa Hughes - What the critics say
This father-daughter partnership album from Australlian journalist, author and jazz pianist Dick Hughes and daughter Christa sends us to the world of early Jazz of the 1920s and 1930s with pieces by the likes of Bessie Smith, W.C. Handy and Jelly Roll Morton. It includes work written by Hughes snr, including a wonderful piece inspired by boogie woogie pioneer Jimmy Yancey. His daughter Christa, better known for her work with Machine Gun Fellatio, takes pieces and imbues them with new and radical life through phrasing and transporting the melody line in unexpected directions. For example, the glorious trumpet of Bob Barnard and her creative transformation of the melody line gives a bittersweet edge to Summertime. She has a knack for the delightfully outrageous. For example. on Beer Drinking Woman by Memphis Slim, she gargles a chrous. Actually, it's not that far-fetched. Bessie Smith used to pour gin down her throat while singing. There are some great cameos from Jim Conway on harmonica. It's 21st-Century blues all right but it summons up that original spirit many have forgotten about, the force that made this music so edgy and radical when it first came out.
Leon Gettler - The Age (4.5/5 stars)
Is there anything that Christa Hughes hasn't attempted, and succeeded, brilliantly, at? While you ponder what is, to me, an undeniably rhetorical question, let's deal, first, with the elder of this utterly unconventional father-daughter duo.
Dick Hughes (not to be confused with the grumpy jazz broadcaster) is the archetypal man of his time: a humble stoic and jazz muso. Now in his late 70s, Dick has been pounding piano since who-knows-when. His daughter's career seems less surprising and controversial, when one considers the glimpse of incorrigible rebel in him, a man who, forbidden, as a youngster, to listen to the coarse music he still reveres, took revenge on this censorship by becoming a musician in the prohibited genre. Even then, his stitched-up, stubborn nanna never approved. One can only but laugh at the prospect of said granny encountering her granddaughter's performances, which have been known to be nude and not exactly word-mincing.
We all mellow and mature (well, some of us) and, on this occasion, the Hugheses came together for the blueses. The clock was turned as far back as, I suppose, the 20s. The lights went down and Christa gave her best Letterman-style intro to her dear, ol' dad. The dapper whitehaired gent shuffled to the white grand (which looks like a refugee from an Edelsten clinic) and, after some characteristic patter, launched headlong into a boogie-woogie; a tribute, I gather, to the dean of that college, Jimmy Yancey, entitled Blowing Yancey's Bugle (an allusion to Yancey's Bugle Call). Hughes the elder is more than an enthusiast, he's a fanatical historian and amateur musicologist, able to cite days and dates for recording sessions. (As he's ever-happy to recite, he broadcasts Speak Easy & Swing Hard, on the first and third Sundays of each month, on 2MBS.) This intensity is also evident in his playing which, though marginally dimmed, perhaps, by the rigours of age, proves instructive in both the extraordinary, underestimated technique of the style (best encapsulated in the title of a seminal text on the subject, 'A Left Hand Like God') and, better yet, in bringing feeling to the music, which can't be faked.
Dicko is right to laud Yancey, more or less contemporary to those others generally deemed to be pioneers of this Texan, or Louisianan, art (Professor Longhair; Pinetop Smith; Peter Johnson). Without Yancey, there might never have been Meade Lux Lewis, let alone Axel Zwingenberger; 'though Hughesy would surely know better than I. As an interesting aside, Yancey and his wife Estelle (known in their double-act as Mama) recorded the first-ever album on Atlantic.
DH is both a tasty and tasteful player, with a genuine empathy for the instrument, discipline and audience. He never overplays, yet always surprises and thrills, with nuance, rather than flashy trills.
It might just be, in essence, 12-bar blues, in 4/4, but striking the chords in even time, while embellishing the rhythm with the right hand, is nothing to be sneezed or sniffed at: the right hand has to know what the left is doing, and disregard it at the very same time.
In skin-tight, slit-to-the-waist, black satin dress, trimmed by an outrageous black-and yellow boa, Christa, the middle Hughes daughter we were told, stepped up, looking like an improbably sexy mascot for the Tigers. Her demeanour tends to the catlike, falling, on her feet, somewhere intangibly between the feigned, irresistible innocence of Lady Day and the howling, prowling, earthy felinity of Eartha the 'Kitty-Kat'. (Who could forget her, as Catwoman, in the high-camp 60s TV Batman?) And there ain't noth'n' wrong with that.
And what better opener than Sugar, Eddie Condon's (& Gene Krupa's) first-ever record, made famous by the black singer's white singer, Lee Wiley. As if any confirmation were needed, number after number, Christa proved herself a mindblowing, powerhouse vocalist, well-suited to blues, jazz, gospel and soul; and, by inference, r & b, rock, et al. Certainly, her reading of this classic is just as 'Wiley' and sultry. Dad couldn't resist a pun either, declaring 'you can like it, or lump it!'
Next up was Love Me Or Leave Me, an ode to the kind of all-or-nothing, desperately dependent love so frowned upon by psychologists these days, but so undyingly attractive to we true romantics. Of course, it just might be tongue-in-cheek. It's been done by the likes of Lena Horne, Nina Simone and Doris Day, who starred in a biopic about Ruth Etting, who first made it famous. For mine, Ms Hughes rendition transcends even Etting's, as sacrilegious as that stake well may be to some.
Bessie Smith is an understandable favourite with H1 & H2, and Christa fully inhabits Backwater Blues. In fact she veritably blew the door off the vault at the back of the former bank that is Slide. With all the theatre the song implores, she barely batted a heavy, blue eyelid in so doing. And underpinning Christa's knockout performance was some steady, sturdy stride from papa bear. Thanks to Katrina (the hurricane), it has unfortunate, newfound resonance & pathos, since it was penned in deference to the New Orleans flood of 1927.
Debonair 'boneman, Grant Arthur, proved a welcome guest, not least on Bessie's Young Woman's Blues, where his robust rasp came off as stridently sassy, a desirable bedmate for the independent, impudent attitude of the song. By reputation, it might have formerly sufficed as wild, predatory sexual bohemian Christa's theme song ('I'm a young woman and I ain't done rinnin' 'round'), but she's been tamed, with a hubby and, for all I know, a house in the 'burbs. There's no curbing an incorrigible spirit, however, no matter how much horse-whispering you do, and Christa, like Bessie, makes you think she really means it. And the defiant, devil-may-care feminism of the lyric suits her to a tee.
Christa used Good Times Flat Blues to bemoan the demise of Sydney venues, from the Hopetoun to Baron's, again singing up a lightning-cracking storm, of the kind you only get at the end of a long, hot, humid summer's day. That, followed by Weed Smoker's Dream, a misleading title which, far from being merely daydreamy, is a call to arms and 'positive psychology'.
Beer Drinkin' Woman, too, could've been written by, or for, Christa, but was, in fact, penned by Memphis Slim, about the date that drinks you under the table and empties the ATM.
The Hughes love Jelly Roll (Morton), self-proclaimed inventor of jazz, as much as Bessie, it seems: we heard the bright, brassy, raucous ragtime of Grandpa's Spells and, a little later, Sweet Melons (I think), during which Dick showed his vocal chops and from whose genes Christa's diaphragmatic delivery most likely came. All of a sudden, the only ever-so-slightly slowing 78-year-old was 28 again.
In between, another excerpt from Lee Wiley's career, with Steamboat Tennessee, in which Christa has us all aboard the SS Nostalgia, waterwheelin' down the Mississip', wiping beads of sweat from our fever'd brows, with a starched white handkerchief.
I have to admit I wasn't quite so enamoured with Summertime, for whatever reason, but the ante was soon upped again, with W C Handy's classic, St Louis Blues, in which Arthur came into his own again, also.
Then the piece de resistance: Bessie's full-blooded Empty Bed Blues, a sizzling, ribald homage to good lovin' ('he boiled my cabbage and he made it awful hot; when he put in the bacon, it overflowed the pot'). Phew!
The finale was Don't Break My Aching Heart, through a megaphone, to really take us back in the time-machine, while the inevitable and very welcome encore comprised I've Got What it Takes (But It Breaks My Heart To Give It Away), yet another gift bestowed by Bessie, with Dick piping-up again, in fine fettle, giving the song the dignity it deserves. And the crowning glory, the tender, tearful Willow Weep For Me, which, as luck would have it, has also been recently revived by Grace Knight, another chameleon, like Christa.
But who cares about Dick's box-banging, or Christa's supercharged vocals (I'm sure that's the right way 'round): the important thing is the former can gargle beer and sing at the same time.
In this soulless, self-centred era, pregnant with the non-extraordinary nature of procedures, it's good to see something real and true, as against pretentious, faux, fake, vacuous and inauthentic. Dick & Christa don't just play and sing the blues. They are the blues. They're bloody funny buggers, to boot!
NB Another big thumbs-up for Marc Kuzma and his team at Slide, truly one of Sydney's better, classier venues, with among the most professional and charming waitstaff you'll find anywhere, with just the right hint of perversity: the girls wear shorts; the boys, skirts.
Lloyd Bradford (Brad) Syke - Australian Stage