East Coast-based vocalist Edward James Decker has waited more than a decade to pull together another jazz project following 2001’s “While The City Sleeps…” (Candela Records EJ9265).
Friends simply know him affectionately as “E. J.” While in his presence, you get a feeling of his easy-going unpretentiousness; there is an instant recognition of the “common touch” Eddie Jefferson sang about, which gives him an immediate likability. I met E. J. perhaps five or six years ago at various jazz and radio conventions—where music industry professionals convene in the spirit of a common bond of love and appreciation for the industry to discuss and find solutions to its problems, business-wise as well as programmatic.
This came as the country's jazz stations were already struggling to remain afloat in the midst of great turmoil. The loss of what had become jazz radio “institutions” such as WBEZ-FM in Chicago; major cuts in programming hours as evidenced by Philadelphia’s WRTI-FM and Boston’s WGBH-FM; the entire disappearance of jazz in some markets as with the loss of WDUQFM in Pittsburgh, all pointed to hard times not just for the audiences who faithfully listened to these stations but for the stations themselves—who slashed hours of programming and purposely let go personnel in a mélange of different programming agendas.
The woes of the jazz industry, however, were symptomatic of an even more imposing malaise in the United States and abroad— the Great Recession. Art and music have always been critical barometers in assessing the pulse of our culture. They mirror the tenor of the times they are created in, illustrating and documenting how things are, what they could be and what may be to come.
“A Job Of Work” is a project born out of the realities of the Great Recession. It is an honest and graphically authentic body of tunes, characterized by baritone Decker as “low notes for low times.” It is a body of work that most families who have struggled in one way or another to survive in today’s economy will relate to, on one or many levels.
E. J. talked about the menu of tunes. While many of them are classic jazz standards, the title track, Tom Paxton’s A Job Of Work, is a ‘60s protest song, which Decker re-arranged. “Folks today are saying, ‘I’m proud; I’m not begging; I’ll do my part. Just give me a decent damned job!’”
The Victor Young and Sam M. Lewis-penned Street Of Dreams conveys that timely and timeless message that you are not alone. You did nothing wrong. There are countless others whose dreams have also been ripped away. We can all dream and we can all heal. Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen’s masterpiece, Come Rain Or Come Shine, continues to inform us that no matter what we’re forced to endure, we’re going to face it all together, you and me—and we’ll be stronger when it’s over.
The foreclosure phenomenon that has decimated families nationwide is heartfelt in its expression through Decker’s arrangement of Willard Robison and Larry Conley’s Cottage For Sale. An upbeat I’ve Got A Right To Sing The Blues (Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler) echoes the sentiment of millions. As Decker says, “Some folks just have better bounce-back skills. The guy in this version hurts, but he’ll survive.”
Perhaps my favorite in this bill of fare is Billy Strayhorn’s classic, Lush Life. The song also reflects a personal part of Decker’s path, from years spent in a nocturnal jazz life. In his own words, “Flying high in April; shot down in May. Some can’t adjust because they don’t see the party’s over and times have changed. My version of this song is semi-autobiographical.
The poor man’s song of love is illustrated in Decker’s treatment of Oscar Brown, Jr. and Luiz Henrique’s Much As I Love You. One man's moonlight serenade soon becomes a streetlight choir, with each singing to his own love.
Ted Daffan’s Born To Lose is a country classic, complete with Floyd Cramer-style licks, made popular with a wider audience by the legendary Ray Charles during his country & western era of the Sixties. In the words of Decker, “For those already on the margins, this period has been particularly cruel.” Nobody Knows You (When You’re Down And Out) was written by Jimmie Cox. “Many folks have lost their dreams, homes, lives and/or families,” says Decker. “And some are more bitter about it than others.”
Harold Adamson and Burton Lane’s song of affirmation, Everything I Have Is Yours, pays homage to Decker’s wife. Decker says, “This song applies no matter how high or low your station in life. My bride stuck with me even in the hardest of times.”
It is not mentioned enough that the blues is also affirmation of the positive in the face of struggle. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Decker’s treatment of David Mack and Duke Ellington’s I’m Just A Lucky So And So. Decker explained, “The rhythm is my own natural, long-legged gait. When you’ve spent the day pounding the pavement looking for work that never comes, you still win, just by knowing you’re heading home to those who love you.” Decker asks a rhetorical question through the closing statement of this recording, Where Is Love, written by Lionel Bart: What have we done to ourselves and to our country?
The band features a rhythm section of pianist Les Kurtz, bassist Saadi Zain and drummer Tom Melito. Featured out front are trombonist Elizabeth Frascoia and celebrated baritone saxophonist Claire Daly. This collection of talent complements Decker comfortably. This body of work is, at once, both heartfelt and unapologetic in its tone and delivery.
Upon listening you might hear the sound of a wide vibrato that may put you in the mind of a cross between, interestingly enough, Elvis Presley and Andy Bey. Decker is aware of the observations and the comparisons by others, but not of any influences from the aforementioned. Decker cites Sammy Davis, Jr. as his biggest mentor. Decker says, “These are my pipes—I can’t do anything about that. If there’s any conscious influence, that would be Davis. He was my biggest one. Everything he did was flat out. I’m from small town, suburban New Jersey. I come out of an environment where everything was hidden, lots of things covered up. The first thing I heard in Sammy was something that said, ‘I will be heard!’ When he did that, with a freight train of a band behind him, and he’s just soaring, well, it’s to the gods!! He threw all the doors open and said, ‘Let me give you what I’ve got!’ He could do that whether it was full power or the softest whisper. His album ‘Sammy Davis, Jr. Sings and Laurindo Almeida Plays’ got me through some of the toughest times of my life. It told me that tomorrow was going to be okay.”
Today, the story of that proverbial blade of grass finding its way between two slabs of stone is reborn. In Pittsburgh, after the demise of WDUQ-FM, the resilient staffers who manned those once proud call letters stayed together, and have returned the sound of jazz to the Pittsburgh community with new call letters. Interestingly enough, they have come back just as Decker’s own recording has surfaced after years of struggle to be heard in the marketplace.
These are but two of the many tales arising from the Great Recession, providing us with that inspiration that music and art can bring—the notion that speaks to how life CAN be. Perhaps these are high notes that potentially will ring in the dawn of high times.
A job of work indeed! Welcome back E. J.!!
“The Jazz Mind”
Bobby Jackson is a multi-award winning jazz programmer from New York City. He’s served as program / music director of WCLK-FM / Atlanta and music director of WCPN-FM / Cleveland. He currently hosts the internationally syndicated music program, “The Roots of Smooth” and serves as a jazz host for “The Pittsburgh Jazz Channel.” His website is www.TheJazzMind.com. His Facebook page is, The Jazz Mind.