Booker T. Jones: “The Road from Memphis”

Note the title: This isn’t the road too Booker T.’s hometown, but the road from it– not a way back home but a travelogue of the journey that’s brought him to where he is, a way of consolidating the past and taking a clear-eyed survey of the present. In other words, it’s not what you think it is. An album from an artist now well into his 60’s– a living legend in latter-career renaissance– that bears the name of his city of birth might smack of nostalgia, but The Road from Memphis is never so easy. This is an album about the passage of time, one in which the artist tips his natty fedora to his roots but doesn’t romanticize them, one in which soul music is a term wide enough to encompass the Stax sound Jones helped create as well as the hip-hop and urban pop sounds of today.

He deserves an album like this. Jones really is a living legend, but he’s too seldom acknowledged as such, probably because he’s been content to spend most of his career as a sideman, a behind-the-scenes genius. In that way he’s like Memphis’ own equivalent of Allen Toussaint, and like Toussaint, he’s a guy who’s always shouldered the dignity and tradition inherent to black music idioms while never shying away from pushing forward. And as it happens, he’s doing some of the most vibrant work of his career right now, seemingly enjoying the chance to finally be in the spotlight: The Road from Memphis is simply the hippest, most streetwise album he’s ever made.

Jones works with only the best backup bands these days– one of the many perks of being a revered elder statesman and one of the principle architects of a movement– and won a Grammy for the fine work he did with Drive-by Truckers on Potato Hole. On this new record he’s got an even more sympathetic band– Philly’s own The Roots, or at least a small combo of Roots regulars, including guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas on guitar, Owen Biddle on bass, and ?uestlove on drums. Their work here is almost as important– and as exemplary– as Jones’ own; they bring the requisite humility for making this project work, content to lay down rock-solid grooves and never force their way into the spotlight. Simply put, they really cook; ?uesto, in particular, lays down some of the tightest beats of his life.

Jones himself, meanwhile, sounds like he’s increasingly inspired by the spirit of jazz; his playing here has a looseness and a fluidity that’s unlike anything we’ve ever heard from him. That said, he also remains ever open to new ideas, and the best moments on the album are those in which he and The Roots truly push each other into territories that are new for both parties. The cover songs are, perhaps, most indicative of this. Lauryn Hill’s “Everything is Everything” has as its foundation a poppin’ hip-hop beat; Jones’ organ vamping builds and builds into a towering work of sweaty Memphis R&B. It’s lively and urgent work from a man better known for his perpetual, unflappable cool and his more laid-back tempos. For something even more out-there and wonderful, check his reading of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” with plying so lyrical he might as well have just sung all the words; in this instance, he simply has his organ sing for him.

The brilliance of this record lies in the way it plays out like a journey– the journey of soul music, the journey of Booker T. Jones, and the journey from Memphis to New York. It’s an album about the passage of time, about things that change and things that stay the same, and Jones regards both with joy and acceptance. The album opener is an old-timey soul strut called “Walking Papers,” a song that perfectly captures the hope of new beginnings and the optimism of a new journey, a new chapter in life; honestly, it could have been recorded at basically any point in Jones’ career, but his joy for digging into these funky grooves hasn’t diminished one iota since the days of “Green Onions.” Mirroring that song’s joy is the album’s first vocal number, “Progress,” an R&B gem that glows with the hope of social change, acknowledging that there’s still a long way to go but celebrating how far we’ve come. Jim James gives a golden performance as the guest singer, and between this and his cameo on last year’s Roots album it’s not hard to understand why he’s become ?uestlove’s go-to guy when he needs a warm, soulful hook.

But the album is as much about place as it is time, and it offers a rich, subtle deployment of ideas about the nature of pride in one’s roots. Jones takes a rare vocal turn on the soulful, almost bluesy title song, perhaps the most special thing here; it’s an insider’s tour of Memphis, a secret map of the city that could only have been written by someone who spent his boyhood running a paper route through some of the city’s back alleys. The song is affectionate but not romantic, an easygoing celebration of one’s personal history and geography. The song’s complement is “Representing Memphis,” an intoxicating soul duet with spots for Sharon Jones and The National’s singer Matt Berninger. Here the singers celebrate hometown pride for its own sake; they love Memphis not because it’s a perfect city but because it is their city, a somewhat out-of-fashion idea that is offered with warmth and generosity here.

Fine as these songs are, I’m inclined to say that the heart of this record is in the instrumental numbers; teeming with the energy of the street and the comfort and ease of a great musician who still takes joy in his work, these tracks serve not only as effective pathways between the vocal touchstones but also as worthy destinations in their own right. And for all of ?uestlove’s talk about wanting this album to sound retro, it’s not really a throwback in its sound so much as it simply sounds very good and clean; the drummer’s beats have a crisp snap to them, while Jones’ organ has never been a warmer instrument. He and The Roots really cook here, and in this music you hear the younger musicians connect with tradition even as the veteran looks forward to new avenues and unforeseen possibilities. That’s what makes this record exciting, and one hopes very much that it’s not the culmination of a journey, but simply a continuation of it.

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