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Blues guitarist and vocalist Johnnie Bassett dies at age 76

Johnnie Bassett
Photo credit: Cybelle Codish

According to a news release, Johnnie Bassett, the celebrated Detroit blues guitarist and vocalist, died from complications of liver cancer on Saturday, Aug. 4 at Saint John Hospital in Grosse Pointe, Mich. He was 76 years old.
Gretchen Valade, owner of Mack Avenue Records, reflects, “Johnnie Bassett was a wonderful musician and a good friend. Whenever I walked into a room where he was playing, he would start singing ‘Georgia,’ my all time favorite. He was sympathetic and loyal to his friends, and had a good sense of humor. He was a heck of a blues singer who wasn’t appreciated as much as he should have been, and didn’t have as many gigs as he should have had, but he never complained about anything. Johnnie was one in a million, and I will miss him terribly.”
Mack Avenue Records president Denny Stilwell laments the passing of one of the last few truly impactful blues musicians. “This is of course a sad day for us. Johnnie was the second artist signed to our Sly Dog imprint and we will miss his gritty vocals, raw guitar sound and mostly his gentlemanly ways.”
In 1944, Bassett relocated with his family from his hometown in Marianna, Fla., to Detroit, where his legacy flourished as he held his own in the fast company of luminaries such as Ruth Brown, Big Joe Turner, Smokey Robinson, Dinah Washington, former neighbor John Lee Hooker, and a young guitar fledgling named Jimi Hendrix. Even as a young boy in Florida, Bassett was surrounded by music. His mother, sisters, and aunts took him to church and surrounded him with gospel spirituals, and he spent the summers at his grandmother’s fish fries where the likes of Tampa Red, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, Lonnie Johnson and others would play while people ate and danced. It was years before Bassett realized these people he was meeting as a young teenager were big names. 

While attending Northwestern High School, Bassett’s brother gave him his first guitar. After much practice, the young teenager went on to perform in talent shows, theaters, and nightclubs with pianist Joe Weaver, a close friend, as Joe Weaver & The Blue Notes. The group, which was performing in some of Detroit’s greatest nightclubs before they were old enough to drink, became the house band for Frolic Showbar in the mid-50s after just three weeks performing there. It was unlikely that Bassett knew at the time that this was what would lead him to performing with legendary vocalist Dinah Washington when she made it to the gig and her band didn’t. The band was eventually playing gigs with John Lee Hooker, Big Joe Turner, Ruth Brown, and Eddie Burns and a tenure as the house band for Detroit’s Fortune Records label. He also spent a bit of time with Chicago’s Chess Records and appeared on the first sessions for Smokey Robinson and the Miracles before Motown’s existence. 
In the mid-60s, after a six year run in the United States Army, Bassett decided to remain in Seattle, Washington. During his stay, he hosted a Sunday night jam session which was frequented by a prodigious young guitarist, Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix usually hung around to pick up licks and tricks, and also to develop an understanding of the tuning of Bassett’s guitar. He achieved his signature sound by using a style of tuning he referred to as Vestapol (open E flat), which he recently joked in an interview that no one under 70-years-old knows about. During this time, he was also backing John Lee Hooker, Little Willie John, and even backed Tina Turner on one occasion. It was the late 60’s when Bassett made his return to Detroit. 
It wasn’t until the early-90s that Bassett emerged as a leader and formed his own band, The Blues Insurgents, with encouragement from drummer RJ Spangler who rallied the guitarist after catching his set on a side-stage at the Montreux-Detroit Jazz Festival. During this time, Bassett recorded a series of albums starting withThe Heid/Bassett Blues Insurgents (with keyboardist Bill Heid and the late saxophonist Scott Petersen), I Gave My Life To The Blues (recorded in The Netherlands), Bassett Hound (also with Bill Heid), Cadillac Blues (nominated for five W.C. Handy Awards and included in DownBeat magazine’s best albums of the 90s) and Party My Blues Away, but his last label, Cannonball Records, went out of business. He kept working and eventually became a hometown legend and treasure, receiving a well deserved Lifetime Achievement Award from the Detroit Blues Society in 1994. He has also earned five Detroit Music Awards, as well as many other nominations. Jim Gallert, Detroit music historian, says, “Johnnie Bassett took the sounds of the Delta, the Basie band, and Funk, and made them into a personal dynamic style. He was a unique and special person.”
Years later, during a four-night residency at Dirty Dog Jazz Café in Grosse Pointe, Bassett found himself speaking with Valade during a break. When Valade asked if Bassett had a label and he said no, she replied with, “Well, you do now.” Bassett soon after signed a deal with Sly Dog Records, a Mack Avenue imprint, where he released 2009’s The Gentleman is Back. His most recent album, I Can Make That Happen, also released on Sly Dog, was released on June 19, 2012. Both albums were produced by his longtime sidemen, organist/pianist Chris Codish and saxophonist Keith Kaminski, and feature their Detroit bands The Brothers Groove and The Motor City Horns, respectively. Codish and Kaminski toured, recorded, and performed regularly with Bassett and helped to guide his career for almost 20 years.  
Bassett is survived by his wife Deborah, daughter Benita Litt, and his wife’s children, Lynn Tolbert, Courtney Campbell and Kenneth Pringle. Funeral arrangements and a memorial service are pending.

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Hot Club of Detroit expands its horizons with “Junction,” available Aug. 14

Hot Club of Detroit. Photo credit: Anna Webber

Following up It’s About That Time, Night Town and the eponymous 2006 debut Hot Club of Detroit – Hot Club of Detroit expands its sonic and compositional horizons with Junction. Retaining its original lineup of reeds, two guitars, accordion, upright bass and no drums, this is the band’s fourth release for Mack Avenue Records. There are personnel changes, however, and for the first time, the Hot Club of Detroit is joined (on three tracks) by a vocalist: French musician Cyrille Aimée, a native of Django Reinhardt’s hometown and third-place winner of the 2010 Thelonious Monk International Vocal Competition.
Junction’s sound is at once vintage and boldly new, rooted in the legacy of Django Reinhardt but also the sensibilities of Ornette Coleman, Pat Metheny, John Zorn and even the rock band Phish. Far from a traditional gypsy jazz ensemble, Hot Club of Detroit (HCOD) proves itself a versatile modern jazz group, with a unique acoustic-electric sound that surges past expectations and genre boundaries.
“A lot of bands that model themselves after the Hot Club of France are now working with drummers, or percussion of some sort,” says HCOD rhythm guitarist Paul Brady in a news release. “We never have. And by doing that it forces us to think creatively about what we can do without it. How can we approach odd meter, how can we approach certain grooves? Regardless of what a drummer can add, that absence to me is interesting and different.”
Unfortunately, Junction comes at a difficult time. HCOD bassist Andrew Kratzat and his fiancée were both seriously injured in an auto accident in July 2011, and are currently on a long road to recovery.
“This album is a dedication to both of them,” declares Brady. “It’s been tough for us, musically but also emotionally,” adds HCOD accordionist Julien Labro. “Andrew is like a brother, a family member. But we’re still hopeful, and one day I’m sure he’ll be back to playing.”
Honoring Kratzat’s example, bassist Shawn Conley brings stellar musicianship to Junction. Another new face is saxophonist Jon Irabagon, winner of the 2008 Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition and member of the acclaimed punk-jazz quartet Mostly Other People Do the Killing. Andrew Bishop, also on reeds, makes appearances on three tracks, increasing the band’s power and timbral variation. (Family obligations required Carl Cafagna, the group’s original saxophonist, to step aside.)
Different sounds coming together, band members collaborating from different cities: all of this makes Junction the perfect album title. “It’s a nice mix of pop-oriented material and also rather avant-garde stuff,” Brady concludes. “I remember an interview with Marc Ribot, my favorite guitarist in the world, talking about how avant-garde and pop have a lot of crossover, and even some of the musicians are the same people, like Marc himself. It made total sense to me, and it came into my mind while preparing this record.”
 Perri concurs: “We’ve always believed that if Django Reinhardt were alive today, he wouldn’t play the same way he always did. In his short lifespan, you can see how much evolution and vision he had. To pay tribute to him is to continue pursuing our own ideas.” 
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Jazz vocalist Kathy Kosins debuts “To the Ladies of Cool” on Resonance Records in March

Jazz vocalist Kathy Kosins doesn’t take anything for granted.  Since 2010, Kosins has adapted to the changing needs of the music industry, and specifically her fans, by releasing a regular series of digital singles.

The new album, her fifth, is titled To the Ladies of Cool, and the songs all derive from the repertoires of four canonical female singers of the 1950s: Anita O’Day, June Christy, Chris Connor, and Julie London. This is her first album for Resonance Records (which will release CD on March 13), owned and operated by George Klabin, whom she describes as, “this generation’s Bob Thiele, Norman Granz, and Creed Taylor.”    

From this vast pool of hundreds of titles, she says in a recent news release, “I selected 20 songs that were of interest to me.  On some occasions, I was intrigued by the title of a song I had never heard of.  A few of my choices were rather obscure – others were quite famous at one time, although I might not have known them.”  

In one instance, Kosins took Johnny Mandel’s famous instrumental “Hershey Bar,” a melody that had been scatted wordlessly by O’Day, and, with the composer’s express permission, added her own lyric to it and created “Hershey’s Kisses.”  Thus, she made “Hershey Bar” into something else entirely.  

Kosins stresses that To the Ladies of Cool shouldn’t be mistaken for a tribute album, in which a contemporary artist will simply “cover” the works of a canonical performer; it is even less a set of imitations. 
She also made a point to record the sessions in Los Angeles – then, as always, ground zero for the “Cool School” associated with these ladies.  Even more importantly, this gave Kosins the chance to work with such outstanding members of the L.A. local scene as the superlative pianist and musical director Tamir Hendelman (who was responsible for all of the album’s arrangements), guitarist Graham Dechter, multiple reed player Steve Wilkerson, and percussionist Bob Leatherbarrow.

Kosins is a singer, composer, songwriter (words and music), arranger, educator, and painter.  Born in Highland Park, Mich. (a city surrounded by the larger city of Detroit), she grew up in Detroit’s internationally known jazz and R&B scene.  Kosins was initially known as a singer of soul, rock, and funk, having worked extensively with the celebrated band Was (Not Was) as well as Michael Henderson. For the last 15 years or so, however, she has become famous as one of the most successful jazz singers of the contemporary era. As an instructor in this field, she has conducted master classes at over 100 colleges and universities. She also continues to work as part of a project called Detroit Memphis Experience.

Kosins has also maintained a second career as a visual artist, primarily as a painter of abstract original canvases – and has enjoyed gallery showings of her works throughout North and South America. 
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31st Annual Detroit International Jazz Festival adds more artists to its lineup

 Photo: Take 6.

Festival organizers for the 31st Detroit International Jazz Festival recently announced artist additions to the 2010 lineup on Friday, Sept. 3, 2010, through Monday, Sept.6, 2010, in downtown Detroit. The newly added artists further underscore an already existing diversity of musical genres, including funk, gospel and R&B.
Yellowjackets, Salim Washington and the Harlem Arts Ensemble, Jason D. Williams, and gospel sensation James Fortune and FIYA will join the previously announced roster featuring Mulgrew Miller, Take 6, Branford Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Manhattan Transfer, Roy Haynes and Allen Toussaint.
“Soul” is the theme of the opening night, Friday Sept. 3.  Performances by Take 6 and the Mulgrew Miller Trio will be followed by the urban soul music of Tower of Power.  For over 40 years, this group has thrilled audiences all over the world with their unique brand of music.
The Yellowjackets have been cutting-edge purveyors of innovative, eclectic jazz for nearly 30 years. With every recording since their 1981 debut album, the Yellowjackets have pushed the boundaries of improvisational jazz and have been leaders in the music’s inescapable evolution. Hailed as the “most adventurous quartet in contemporary jazz music” by All Music Guide, this multi-Grammy Award-winning group features Russell Ferrante, Will Kennedy, Jimmy Haslip and Bob Mintzer. 
Jason D. Williams has the same musical innovation and on-the-edge attitude as Jerry Lee Lewis.  The fiery Memphis-born pianist covers boogie-woogie rock & roll, classical, country and jazz, in what has been described as an “enthusiastic, reckless and stormy” way. 
ASCAP Award winner and Stellar Award nominee James Fortune and FIYA will headline the festival’s “Come MONday” gospel celebration on Sept. 6. The Houston artist made music history with “I Trust You” – the longest running #1 single in gospel music. The group’s rapid success in the gospel music industry has garnered international acclaim and opened the door to their sharing the stage opening for distinguished artists Stevie Wonder, Kirk Franklin, Kim Burrell, Fred Hammond, Smokie Norful and Donald Lawrence. Fortune was a featured guest judge for the 2009 Verizon Wireless How Sweet the Sound Competition
The “Come MONday” gospel celebration will also feature Detroit’s own Second Ebenezer and Triumph Church choirs.
For the full 2010 artist roster, visit The lineup of Detroit-based jazz musicians playing at the festival will be announced in mid-June.

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Detroit guitarist Johnnie Bassett to release CD June 30

Legendary Detroit blues guitarist and singer Johnnie Bassett is set to release “The Gentleman Is Back” June 30 on Sly Dog Records.
Bassett returns to the spotlight after a nine-year hiatus. “The Gentleman Is Back,” is an 11-song set that finds Johnnie, at 72, in prime form as a player and singer. Recorded in Detroit and co-produced by longtime Bassett collaborators Chris Codish and Keith Kaminski, the CD includes a richly rendered cover of the Hoagy Carmichael and Gorrell Stuart standard “Georgia” and a batch of originals penned mostly by Codish and his father, Bob, another regular in the Bassett camp.
According to his bio, Bassett was born in Florida, where his father was a bootlegger during prohibition. Bassett was surrounded by music. His mother, sisters and aunts took him to church and surrounded him with gospel spirituals. But in the summer he’d head out to his grandmother’s famous fish fries, where the likes of Tampa Red, Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup, Lonnie Johnson and others would set up and play while folks ate and danced. He has been on the music scene for more than five decades, amassing a career that’s crossed paths with some of the greatest artists in the field, including John Lee Hooker, Smokey Robinson and Jimi Hendrix.
Johnnie didn’t have to think twice about what “The Gentleman Is Back” would sound like. “I like doing fun music – fun jump music and fun blues music and stuff like that.”