Recommended: Kenny Warren – “Laila and Smitty”


Kenny Warren - "Laila and Smitty"The footprints of the varied projects to which trumpeter Kenny Warren has contributed lead to and from Jazz, though rarely stays long enough to set down permanent roots.  At times, Jazz informs his music, even providing a casual influence.  He’s a member of the Balkan music brass band, Slavic Soul Party.  He’s a member of the maqam-focused Arabic and Jazz fusion group, Nashaz (whose self-titled release received a mention on the Bird is the Worm Best of 2013 list).  His work with pianist/keyboardist JP Schlegelmilch is an intriguing mix of acoustic and electronic music.  There’s the wild experimentalism of the quartet Zhirtz n Zkinz and the mix of traditional and neo-traditional sounds of Noah Garabedian’s recent release, Big Butter and the Eggmen.  He was also a member of Robert Stillman’s Archaic Future Players for their tribute to the music of John Fahey.

And it’s that last project that is most relevant to Warren’s newest release, Laila and Smitty.  A kind of Americana that has its roots in the music of Appalachia, but possesses a heart big enough to accept the lifeblood of modern musics, Laila and Smitty sounds like something old given new life in the present day.  Part sonic journal, part music photo album, Warren recalls his great-aunt and -uncle Laila and Smitty from family reunions in the foothills of the Rockies’ Front Range and not far from Warren’s childhood home on the outskirts of Denver.  He observes how he viewed their marriage with a childhood innocence… an idealized vision of married life and of what it means to be in love.  And he broaches this subject at a time when his own long-term relationship has ended, writing in the liner notes, “When you listen to this record, you’ll soon realize that these songs are really more about her than they are about Laila and Smitty.”

And Warren also writes about the passing of Laila and how that affected him deeply and for a long while after.  Through his music and at a time of personal turmoil, Warren immerses himself in memories of innocence, of idealized love and an introduction to loss as viewed through the eyes of a child.  It’s a natural reaction, a way of processing the present challenges in a way that is both detached and immutably personal.  It is why the music of Laila and Smitty is so massively genuine and unabashedly heart-on-the-sleeve open and honest.  It is emotionally raw and soothingly cathartic.

It’s also one of the best things I’ve heard in 2014.

Opening track “Your Well” sees Warren experimenting with lyrics for the first time, handling the vocals himself and working with an experimental folk sound.  It really isn’t jazz and it really doesn’t matter.  The song’s burgeoning heat contrasts perfectly with its fiercely contemplative nature.  Warren sings about a girl.  He sings about how people can grow so close and yet remain a mystery.  Later, he returns to the theme of that mystery on “Questions.”

Appalachian folk is all through this album.  A song like “He Talks to Machines (and Sometimes They to Him)” is Warren’s trumpet leading out cheerful and sunny.  MYK Freedman’s lap steel turns up the temp, challenges the song’s form, but the drums of Carlo Costa keep a brisk, jaunty pace and it’s the glue that binds it all up.  A rendition of Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line” keeps the cheerfulness going.  On the other hand, a rendition of Leadbelly’s “In the Pines” takes the album on a haunting turn.

The song “Colorado,” a precursor to this recording, aptly captures the spirit of the music of Denver natives Bill Frisell and Ron Miles.  Warren’s trumpet soars overhead, just barely out of reach, languorous expressions that possess too much feeling to ever inspire sleep, while guitar cuts and slashes, giving some earth to trumpet’s air, and adding a roughly hewn ingredient to the song’s innate tunefulness.  Growing increasingly volatile, the melody continues to shine through, the binding agent of sounds that move freer and with greater force.

“Travelers and Wanderers” is upbeat, up-tempo, and sees Warren switching between snappy lyrics and trumpet sections that sing like Warren’s second voice.  At the opposite pole, “Warm My Soul” is a short bit of poetry, with Warren’s voice set to simple, reflective accompaniment.

More folk-jazz is found in “Country Line Waltz,” with its appealingly rustic voice and rhythmic wrinkles that are positively engaging.  “Sweet Fern” is just a fun little country ditty, no more, no less.

A few tracks add something a little different while providing greater depth to the album’s rich personality.  “To Know” is the lullaby of trumpet, the comforting strum of steel strings, and the ethereal mist of overdubbed, distorted trumpet.  “Ise’-No-Umi” is based on Japanese court music, and its dramatic harmonics and ominous tone provide the surreal moment that Warren was shooting for… a bit of an emotional jolt to bring some unease to an otherwise cheery album.  So, too, does “Two Sisters.”  Tom Waits provided a straight-forward cover of the murder ballad on 2006’s Orphans.  Warren, intriguingly, gives the song a disconcerting lyricism reminiscent of something that would sit plumb on Waits’ experimentally inclined albums Raindogs and Bone Machine.

The album ends much in the same way which it began.  A hopping rendition of Mississippi John Hurt’s country blues tune “Nobody’s Dirty Business” is upbeat, warm and signals the album’s reach for an innocence passed.  “Lost and Found” closes the album with that heart-on-the-sleeve emotional honesty that inspired the album in the first place.

Just outstanding.

Your album personnel:  Kenny Warren (trumpet, voice), Jeremiah Lockwood (electric guitar, dobro), MYK Freedman (lap steel), Josh Myers (acoustic bass), and Carlo Costa (drums).

The album is Self-Produced.

Music from the Brooklyn scene.

Available at:  eMusic | Bandcamp CD/Digital/Vinyl | Amazon CD/MP3