Many improvisers would agree that having the feeling of the blues is a crucial part of jazz expression; however, the jazz and blues worlds don't interact nearly as often as they should. There are jazz musicians who will play Miles Davis' "All Blues" or Charlie Parker's "Parker's Mood" on a regular basis but wouldn't know John Lee Hooker from Little Milton; there are blues artists who are much more likely to work with a rock musician than a jazz musician. So it is a rare treat to hear a blues-oriented guitarist and a jazz-oriented guitarist co-leading a session, which is exactly what happens on More Conversations in Swing Guitar. This 2003 release is a sequel to bluesman Duke Robillard and jazzman Herb Ellis' 1999 encounter Conversations in Swing Guitar, and the CD proves that good things can happen when jazz and blues players interact. More Conversations in Swing Guitar is an album of very blues-minded instrumental jazz – it's hardly a carbon copy of Robillard's work with the Fabulous Thunderbirds, but the bluesman has no problem appearing in a jazz-oriented setting.
This is a not very challenging, but thoroughly charming, summit meeting between a blues guitar master and a jazz guitar legend. Taking four classic swing tunes ("Just Squeeze Me," "Avalon," "Stuffy," and, inevitably, "Flyin' Home"), two Robillard originals, and a jointly composed slow blues, and helped out by bassist Marty Ballou and drummer Marty Richards, Duke Robillard and Herb Ellis deliver a 48-minute swing guitar master class, Conversations in Swing Guitar. Ellis comes from jazz and Robillard from the blues, so their approaches are just distinct enough to keep things interesting; although both play with a clean, fat jazz tone and no one ever really hauls off and shreds, Robillard tends towards bent notes and funky chordal things while Ellis thinks a bit more in terms of long lines and florid ornamentation. Every so often you might find yourself wishing that the edges were just a bit rougher, but both of these guys are clearly having a great old time, and you will too.
Duke Robillard has always had one foot in the blues world and one in the swing/jazz universe. He loves both styles of music and enjoys not only playing them separately but combining them together. The founder of Roomful of Blues back in 1967, Robillard has led dozens of projects throughout his career, including collaborations with guitarist Herb Ellis, Jimmy Witherspoon, and Jay McShann. On A Swingin Session, he plays with some of his favorite musicians, many of whom originated (like he did) in Rhode Island. While six horn players participate, there are no more than four on any one selection, and some numbers do not have any. The contrasting tenor solos are fun to hear, with Scott Hamilton sounding smooth and mellow on his numbers while Sax Gordon is greasier and much closer to Illinois Jacquet. Present throughout are Bruce Katz (mostly on organ), one of three bassists (usually Marty Ballou), and drummer Mark Teixeira. Robillard takes vocals on half of the selections in his personable way, but it is his guitar solos, which hint at both Charlie Christian and T-Bone Walker, that often take honors.
Duke Robillard’s won a reputation as one of finest guitarists in blues, but this disc also displays his command of rock ‘n’ roll, country, and jazz balladry. The latter drives his duet with country star Pam Tillis, "I’ll Never Be Free," which plays off their easy vocal interplay, Robillard’s classic picking, and his band’s swinging drive. It’s also a pleasure to hear him singing and slinging guitars with blueswoman Debbie Davies on the chugging shuffle "How Long Has It Been." But the best moments may be Robillard’s incendiary solos, like when he uncorks his Stratocaster in the middle of "Deep Inside," matching his lyrics’ cry of aching devotion with a hailstorm of quivering bent notes and brightly snapped strings in sharp, stinging phrases. Three songs later he’s playing in a twang and tremolo style like a Texas roadhouse veteran. In any context, what comes from Robillard’s nimble fingers and open mind is the sound of a master at work.
Best known as the founder of Roomful of Blues and for his short stint with the Fabulous Thunderbirds (replacing Jimmie Vaughan), Duke Robillard had only released two blues albums between 1996 and 2002. Although he was awarded the W.C. Handy Best Blues Guitarist award for 2000 and 2001 and his tireless road work always included plenty of stinging solos, Robillard left the jazz and worldbeat tangents behind for this welcome return to his first love. Those who have followed Robillard's career know that he's never been tied to one style, and Living With the Blues highlights his eclectic talents.