Adventures in Jazzland
Jeff Healey broke out on the pop charts back in 1988, barely out of his teens, with the Top 5 “Angel Eyes” (John Hiatt’s, not Matt Dennis’) to become Canada’s leading blues-rocker. But the blind guitarist-singer had grown up listening to, and collecting, early jazz records from the 1920s and 1930; even DJ-hosting a show of traditional jazz on a Toronto radio station. After touring with the Jeff Healey Band for over a decade, he left the road and opened his own club in Toronto, dividing his time between his blues band and his Jazz Wizards, a trad-jazz band. Members of that band and other specialists in early jazz from America and Britain joined him on his first two albums of trad-jazz, 2002’s Among Friends and 2004’s Adventures in Jazzland, both now given wider circulation in reissues from Stony Plain.
Healey is a triple threat on these albums, playing guitar (acoustic and electric) and brass (trumpet and valve trombone) and singing, and clearly having a good time doing it all. Never underestimate enthusiasm and love, especially when it’s for old-time music. Healey’s love for the music here is palpable, and he instills his affection in the musicians who join him so that nothing here sounds stale, rote or trite. You won’t find trad-jazz clichés or tired old routines here either. Instrumentation varies wildly from track to track, with only a few of the two CDs’ 31 tracks featuring the “standard” trad front line of trumpet, clarinet and trombone. And a couple of those feature rhythm guitar and no drums. A number of tracks feature multiple acoustic guitars, sometimes with a horn or two.
As a vocalist, Healey’s somewhere between a Harry Connick Jr. and a Hoagy Carmichael, with some Satchmo gravel. He’s unassuming, but can put across a lyric with nonchalant aplomb. And he’s unearthed some obscure gems, like “Midnight Blue” on Among Friends, sung and scatted with two guitars and bass, plus “My Blackbirds Are Bluebirds Now” and the rare verse to “Indiana” on Jazzland. He’s as comfortable crooning “Three Little Words” as he is jiving “You’re Driving Me Crazy.”
Anchoring both albums are the barrelhouse piano of Reide Kaiser and slaphappy bass of Colin Bray, who both match Healey’s enthusiasm for trad jazz. Among the stellar guests who contribute to the success of the music are trumpeter Dick Sudhalter, trombonist Jim Shepherd and alto saxophonist John R.T. Davies (the latter two from Britain) on Among Friends, and cornetist Tom Peltcher, reedman Dan Levinson, bass saxophonist Vince Giordano and guitarist Marty Grosz on Jazzland. Levinson is especially impressive with his finesse on ballads on clarinet, while Peltcher, judging from his work on both open and muted cornet, is worth seeking out for further listening.