Guitarist Randy Napoleon wanted his latest album, "Rust Belt Roots," to conjure up a world before the Internet and satellite radio, when each region of the country had its own jazz sound. Close your eyes and you feel the pulse of Midwest dynamism — breezing along on the freeway, taking in the glimmering lights of a steel plant or an oil refinery, people watching on a bustling riverfront.
The music's subtle moods don't announce themselves or knock you over the head. They blossom organically from the grit, light and shade of the rust belt terroir, lake a regional wine. "My favorite jazz works on a lot of levels," Napoleon said. "You can reflect on it, think about it for years and hear different levels of subtlety, but you tap your foot, bob your head and hum along." It's a truism that you don't notice your accent until you move away from home. The jazz greats Napoleon celebrates in "Rust Belt Roots" fused musical sophistication with danceable, bone-warming grooves. Napoleon moved to New York in 1999, after years of training with masters like Ann Arbor trumpeter Louis Smith and Detroit saxophonist Donald Walden and a long journeyman period playing gigs in Ann Arbor and Detroit. "I didn't realize until I moved to New York how much my musical values and identity were forged by the scene that raised me," he said.
The album showcases the work of three guitar icons: Indianapolis-born Wes Montgomery, who worked as a welder in his lean years and forged a muscular, ductile guitar sound that influenced generations of jazz artists; Grant Green, born in St. Louis, hard bop and soul jazz and early forays into what was later called "acid jazz"; and Detroit's Kenny Burrell, a master guitarist and arranger who performed with jazz greats from Billie Holiday and Tony Bennett to John Coltrane and Jimmy Smith. Napoleon has absorbed the music of all three guitarists nearly all his life.
"Their influence as guitar stylists is talked about the most, but all three of them are beautiful writers as well, and I wanted to celebrate them as composers," he said. Although Napoleon feels more kinship to jazz of the 1940s and 1950s, the past several years in political and cultural life have reminded Napoleon of the 1960s, and he feels that it was reflected in his playing on the CD. "I played a little wilder on this record than any of my other records," he said. "These last few years, everything feels so intense, so wild."
There are impressive bursts of speed and intensity in "Rust Belt Roots," but they are camouflaged by Napoleon's innate sense of balance and refinement. "It's important to hit extreme different moods and tempos," he said "I've never felt I was really great at playing fast tempos, but I work on it a lot because it keeps it interesting. It's part of the whole emotional landscape."
Napoleon performs with two ensembles on the CD. One group includes his colleagues from the stellar MSU Jazz Studies faculty, including bassist Rodney Whitaker and pianist Xavier Davis. The other combo features veteran Ann Arbor bassist Paul Keller, pianist Rick Roe and drummer Sean Dobbins. All the sidemen are longtime friends and musical soul mates, especially the two bassists. "Those two guys raised me," Napoleon said. "It's like being raised by wolves. I was raised by bass players." Napoleon has played with Dobbins for over 30 years, and with everyone else on "Rust Belt Roots' for nearly as long. "We've been playing together for a quarter century, we all share the same geographical background and I wanted to document the home team," he said.
The musicians are profoundly simpatico with the material. They wring every conceivable shade of sound and silence out of Kenny Burrell's limpid "Listen to the Dawn," a deceptively simple composition that Napoleon holds in awe. "It's really direct and minimalist, but it has harmonic depth and a really amazing emotional arc," he said. "It takes a great mind to boil it down to the essence of a song like that."
Whitaker contributed a meditative bass solo that captures every lingering dust mote of a pink and gray Rust Belt dawn. It doesn't hurt that Whitaker has played with Kenny Burrell many times. "Rodney has that similar kind of poetry in his playing that Kenny has," Napoleon said. "I don't take it for granted that he's one of my best friends, but he's also a one-of-a-kind musician."
Napoleon's own tune, "The Man Who Sells Flowers," sprang from his New York years, when he lived across the street from a man who spent all night selling flowers in front of a corner bodega. "I would always see him and smile and wave," Napoleon recalled. "He would never talk but he always waved back. I thought it must be a lonely and quiet job, with people in desperation buying flowers at 2 o'clock in the morning." He reprises the tune at the end of the disc, as a tender and moving solo track.
"I had plenty of time to practice solo during the pandemic," he said. "I wanted to put a little of that in the record."