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.

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.” 

Gospel singer Vickie Winans launches 40-city comedy DVD release tour

Gospel singer Vickie Winans has added another element to her career. “The Comedianna” (her trademarked definition of a hilarious story-telling Queen), is hitting the road to promote two newly recorded comedy DVDs, entitled, “Hilarious and Unplugged” Vol. 1 and 2. The stand-up comedy projects will be available in stores, on her website and at every stop along the projected 40-city tour that will take the charismatic singer into churches, theaters, and other venues. The tour has kicked off on April 8 at the  House of Hope/Salem Baptist Church Worship Center in Chicago, where the Rev. James Meeks is the pastor, and will continue throughout the summer.
 
Both DVDs were recorded on Dec. 7, 2011, to multiple standing-room-only audiences at Detroit’s Upper Room Complex. During nearly four hours of stage time, Winans told one sidesplitting story after another, from her life’s experiences to growing up with 11 siblings. During the evening, Winans performed a live version of her smash hits, “Shake Yourself Loose” and “How I Got Over” with her nephew Tim Bowman Jr., and she also shot a live music video of her son Mario Winans’ “Overcomer” remix. These songs are included on the DVDs.

A unique element to the tour is that Winans has purchased a luxury Sprinter van to transport the homeless in each city to be her special guests at each comedy show. The singer is in pre-production for the starring role as “Grace Avery” in an uplifting feature film surrounding the issue of homelessness entitled, “Amazing Grace,” which has heightened her sensitivity to the topic so much so that Winans has a newly formed foundation to help decrease homelessness in America.

“My ultimate goal is to build homes and more shelters for the homeless,” says Winans in a news release, “but until then, as many as the bus will hold will be my special guest VIPs for a night of laughter, food and a gift bag!”

Winans entered the gospel music scene in 1985 with her signature smash “We Shall Behold Him.” She’s remained one of gospel music’s Top 10 artists. She has appeared on the cover of Jet magazine, served as celebrity spokesperson for Daimler-Chrysler, McDonald’s and Quaker Oats. Other hits include “As Long as I Got King Jesus,” “Shake Yourself Loose” and “The Rainbow.” For more information, visit www.vickiewinans.com.

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. 

Detroit Jazz Festival’s 32nd season on Labor Day weekend

Voted one of the top three jazz festivals in North America in national jazz publications this year, the 32nd annual Detroit Jazz Festival continues to demonstrate how much jazz shines as a symbol of freedom and democracy during Labor Day weekend.

Subtitled “We Bring You the World,” artists from Benin, Brazil, Cuba, Israel, Japan and the Netherlands will convene in Detroit. Performers include: Toots Thielemans, Dave Holland, Luciana Souza, Gary Burton, Ivan Lins, Paquito D’Rivera, Angélique Kidjo, Kevin Eubanks, Vijay Iyer, Vinicius Cantuária, Joe Lovano, Mandrill, Chuck Jackson, Deacon Jones Blues Revue, Steve Wilson, U.S. Airforce Airmen of Note with Joe Locke, Anthony Wilson, Sun Ra Arkestra, Sammy Figueroa, Tony Monaco, Richie Goods, Rahsaan Patterson, Sean Jones, and Christian McBride with Ernie Andrews and the Detroit Jazz Festival Orchestra, this year presented by MotorCity Casino Hotel.

While artists are visiting from across the globe, some of native Detroit jazz artists will be coming home. The Detroit-born Dianne Reeves, Geri Allen, Regina Carter, Curtis Fuller, Robert Hurst and Karriem Riggins will prove once again that, based on the talent that comes from southeast Michigan, there must be something in the water. The festival will also recognize Detroit’s big band tradition with a J.C. Heard tribute band led by Walt Szymanski, and the music of Detroit’s Jean Goldkette played by Josh Duffee & his Orchestra.

With the drum being the most universal instrument, 2011 artist-in-residence Jeff “Tain” Watts will beat the drum on the JPMorgan Chase Main Stage opening night. He will be joined by his newly created project “The Drum Club,” featuring percussionists Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez, Tony Allen, Pedro Martinez and, Susie Ibarra, along with vibraphonist Joe Locke and bassist Robert Hurst. The freedom theme will be further celebrated opening night with “Sing The Truth!” featuring Dianne Reeves, Angélique Kidjo and Lizz Wright performing the songs of the legendary Miriam Makeba, Abbey Lincoln and Odetta. The festival’s closing concert on the same stage aptly features another important drummer, Karriem Riggins, collaborating on a special jazz-based performance with hip hop artist Common. His ensemble will feature Robert Hurst, Perry Hughes, Mike Jellick, Roger Jones, Mic Holden and DJ dez.

For more information on the Detroit Jazz Festival, go to http://detroitjazzfest.com/.