J.D. Souther: His Roots Are Showing

Noted singer-songwriter collaborates with Nashville-based jazzers Jeff Coffin, Rod McGaha and Chris Walters on comeback albums and tour

For J.D. Souther, the call to action came from Nina Simone a little over two years ago—or at least from her music. The formerly prolific singer-songwriter had hit a creative cul de sac. He hadn’t recorded since 1985. He had moved from his longtime base in Los Angeles to Nashville and was spending time, lots of it, living his life and doing just about everything but writing and playing music.

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J.D. Souther
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J.D. Souther's If the World Was You

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“I was listening to ‘Little Girl Blue’ and it just took me over,” explained Souther. To top it off, he was listening to another voice from his past, Ray Charles. “I always believe him when he sings,” added Souther. “And something happened. I got hungry for the music I was hearing when I first fell in love with it.” It wasn’t lightning or an external force that hit him, but something more internal, something deep inside his very psyche. Voices from his past and the music he heard rekindled a creative energy that had been relatively dormant for about two decades. So Souther sought out jazz players in the Nashville area, and soon hooked up with saxophonist Jeff Coffin (of the Flecktones), trumpeter Rod McGaha and pianist Chris Walters. Souther was on his way, and, as he called it, “out of the woods.”

Backed by Coffin, McGaha, Walters and other Nashville jazz session players, Souther went into the studio and recorded all new material for the critically acclaimed If the World Was You in 2008, followed by a digital-only live EP, Rain, in late 2009, both on Slow Curve Records. In addition to gigging at clubs around Nashville like a jazz lifer, Souther hit the road, doing dates both solo and with a small group.

He’s clearly excited by music again. Souther is playing his hits and new material, with a band that thrills him and suits his dusky, countrified yet bluesy voice. He’s even playing a little tenor sax, his original instrument. This is not a middle-aged rocker like Rod Stewart plowing artificially through the Great American Songbook, but a singer-songwriter who’s found a groove that befits his music, old and new.

Although not necessarily a household name in the jazz community, for many baby-boomers, the name J.D. Souther should ring quite familiar. Souther was a close friend and compatriot of seminal Southern California country-rockers Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt, among others. At one point he even considered joining the Eagles as an original member. Seeing himself as a superfluous addition to his friends’ band, Souther declined the opportunity, but continued to write songs for and with that group’s co-leaders and principal songwriters, Glenn Frey and Don Henley. In addition to having a successful career of his own as a singer-songwriter, recording artist and co-leader of the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band, Souther went on to write or co-wrote many a hit record for others, including “Best of My Love,” “Faithless Love” and “New Kid in Town.” Recently, the reunited-for-the-umpteenth-time Eagles released a single of Souther’s song “How Long,” which had appeared on his first solo CD for Elektra back in 1972, about the time this writer first saw him perform, in a solo gig at the Main Point, a coffeehouse outside Philadelphia. It was a hit, albeit nearly 40 years later.

Songwriters, if they’re good enough and lucky enough, may reap the benefits of some hit singles—no news there. But in Souther’s case, that storied track record belies a deep passion and affinity for jazz, going back to his days growing up in the Amarillo, Texas, area. Souther’s father was a big-band singer who exposed his son to the classic jazz sounds of the ’40s and ’50s. “He loved those classic horn players, like Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins.” Souther started playing the clarinet when he was 10, moving over to tenor saxophone as soon as he could. His grandmother on his father's side was an opera singer and introduced him to vocal and show music. Souther said that even as a little kid he knew the words to so many songs. “Here I am at 12 and I know all the words to Yipp Harburg songs. Can you believe that?” he said, chuckling. “Yeah, I was a weird little kid.”

That weird little kid also picked up the drums and was soon doing union casual gigs as a drummer—playing rockabilly or jazz or just plain dance music. Eventually, he realized that he would have to leave Texas to find more regular work as a musician. Arriving in Southern California, he ended up befriending people like Browne, Frey and Ronstadt, and the die was cast. About that storied time, Souther said, “It was a very unique community of hard-headed individuals.”

Nonetheless, Souther’s roots in classic jazz and R&B had been deeply planted. Maybe that explains the rapidity of his later connection with Coffin and the other jazz guys. Souther was quick to remind me that his love of jazz was always there and that he had used Stanley Clarke on upright bass for an evocative version of “Silver Blue” on his Black Rose album of the mid-70s. It seems that jazz has always been in Souther’s bag of musical tricks, even if all of us hadn’t noticed.

Souther said that his legacy as a prototypical singer-songwriter poses no contradictions for him or his audience. “They seem to like the new stuff. Nobody’s yelling out or complaining,” he said, laughing. Interestingly, Souther manages to include some of his old material in his set. And you’d have to guess that fans are just plain glad to see and hear him after a 25-year hiatus. The transition, if there is one, from his old sound to this new one seems quite seamless. On the live EP, recorded at the Belcourt Theatre in Nashville, he revisits two of his earlier hit songs, “New Kid in Town” and “Heartache Tonight,” in updated versions befitting his jazz-friendly accompaniment.

Souther is indeed stoked about working with Nashville jazzers and has formed particularly close bonds with Coffin and McGaha, singing their praises in a way that sidemen dream about. “There’s a purity in Rod’s trumpet sound,” he said, “so that when you hear the notes, you can see the art in it.” And Souther has found a musical soulmate in Coffin, who has a knack for playing the right thing in any context. Lately, Viktor Krauss has been playing bass and Souther has found a sweet spot of sorts with the stripped-down configuration of piano, guitar and bass. “Last night, we were doing ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ with just three of us. It actually suits me well [humming the chunky rhythms], because it frees me to sing what I want. It’s liberating, really. Something about that rhythm, like with the Nat King Cole trio.”

One of the keys to the sound of Souther’s recent two albums has been the live approach to recording. The first one was recorded in a studio with everyone playing together old-school style. And the second one, Rain, was recorded at a live show at the Belcourt Theatre in Nashville. “I love the way that it sounds. It’s such an organic way to make an album,” he said. “Cutting it live in the same room meant that there were a few clunkers in there, but we had to let them go. Now I sort of like them.”

Souther admits that he’s old school when it comes to sound. He’s even releasing both albums on vinyl, and turns nearly evangelistic when describing how much better the music sounds in that format. It almost made me dust off my turntable and put it back into action. Almost.

And there’s more at work here than a return to jazz roots and old-school recording techniques. Souther has also infused several of his new songs with gentle Latin rhythms. It seems that a trip to Cuba in 1998 had a transformative impact on the singer-songwriter. He went there with an amazing group of songwriters, including Bonnie Raitt, Burt Bacharach, Joan Osborne, Peter Buck (of R.E.M.) and other notables. They were there as part of a cultural exchange trip, the likes of which has been eliminated by Bush and not resumed by Obama. But no matter. Souther took in the sights and sounds of that country and was inspired by the people and the culture. “People there are so generous yet have so little. It’s incredible. I’ve never experienced anything like that,” he recalled.

Souther was struck by the joy in music-making that seemed so pervasive there. “Everywhere you go there’s music. And dancing. And the women … so beautiful. Yeah, I was inspired, no question. I found myself spending my days exploring the island with my guide or escort. It was a great experience.”

The music of Cuba resonated with Souther in a visceral way. “There’s something about that rhythm. It gets inside you. That too reminded me of the music of my past. My father was really into the great Latin-jazz players like Tito Puente and even the generation before that.”

If “Rain,” the title tune of his EP, sounds as if it was written in Cuba, that’s because it was. “Yeah, I did write that there,” he said. Same with “Love Is a Border,” though Souther said he stole the rhythm for that one from Roy Orbison. Souther has always been a great ballad writer and he confessed that slow tempos are a habit he can’t break. “I wonder if I got that from Ray Charles. He could play tunes so slow and still sound so great.”

Although he sounds exhilarated to be performing and recording again, there’s always been more than music in Souther’s life. He said even during his down period, he got up every day and wrote poetry. And when I asked him about his second life as an actor, he admitted that he’s considering flexing those chops as well. He said that his mother had encouraged him as a thespian in his youth, but the skill was buried until an associate from the L.A. community pushed him back into it. Ed Zwick, the famous television and film director, told him that he would be perfect for a role in a TV series that he and partner Marshall Herskovitz had created. The show was Thirtysomething, and Souther’s recurring role as a D.C.-based activist who empowers and nearly seduces one of the lead characters won him respect if no awards. (The series itself won its share of Emmies.) Souther said that acting too fell by the wayside during his creative lull, but that he’s planning on getting back to that, too. Nothing like playing with a band to make you think you can conquer the world, or at least a few of your demons.

I’m not one to subscribe to the notion of jazz as religion, but it did seem that the music had taken hold of the gifted singer-songwriter and brought him to new levels of expression and rapture. For his part, Souther said the main thing is that he’s having fun, playing and hanging out with Coffin, McGaha, Walters and Krauss. Throughout our interview, Souther really sounded like a jazz guy. Or maybe just the musician he’s always been.

When we ended our free-wheeling conversation, Souther reinforced his jazz bona fides by asking about JT contributor Nat Hentoff, whose political and music writing the erudite Souther has been reading for many years. And this was no shallow reference, as Souther proceeded to recount various commentaries from Nat’s recent Final Chorus columns. I promised to introduce him to Nat, and Souther responded as if I’d offered a meeting with the Dalai Lama. Only a guy with deep roots in jazz could feel like that.

Souther will be performing material from those two most recent albums as well as his long discography in upcoming shows on the East Coast:

1/29/10 Infinity Hall Norfolk, CT
1/30/10 Narrow Center for the Arts Fall River, MA
2/6/10 Fairfield Community Arts Center Fairfield, OH
2/18/10 The Barns at Wolf Trap Vienna, VA

In addition, Souther told JT that he’s planning on working with the band at gigs all over the country during the upcoming summer. To sample some of his music and keep up with his tour dates, visit his Web site.

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