Aptly enough, this tribute to folk-music legend Lead Belly comes with 12 strings attached, albeit in a thoroughly modern jazz context. Eager to salute one of his earliest and most enduring influences, drummer Adam Nussbaum recently joined tenor saxophonist Ohad Talmor and two electric guitarists—Steve Cardenas and Nate Radley—for a one-day recording session that quickly achieved its aim.
Needless to say, given the sleek instrumentation here, Nussbaum isn’t preoccupied with the sound of Lead Belly’s 12-string boombox. Nor is the band hemmed in by fundamental chord progressions and folksy triads. Instead, the mood is often free-spirited, the performances delightfully interactive. Uptempo tracks inspired by Huddie Ledbetter’s hefty songbook take advantage of Nussbaum’s swift propulsion and the well-matched guitarists, allowing for shimmering weaves, quick-witted exchanges and not a little twang. Signature cadences and several bulletproof melodies (“Goodnight Irene,” the inevitable coda) add to the album’s charms, and certainly the same can be said for Talmor. His lyrical, soulful and rhythmically nimble assurance is evident throughout, starting with the brush-stroked, mood-setting opener, “Old Riley.” Two Nussbaum pieces, including “Insight, Enlight,” a spiritual interlude, nicely round out the tribute. Even those unfamiliar with the drummer’s close association with guitarist John Scofield will likely sense a stylistic connection right off, and no doubt fans of Bill Frisell’s roots excursions will find much to enjoy here too. Ultimately, though, comparisons are beside the point. Nussbaum’s distinctive take on Lead Belly’s remarkably durable legacy proves as personal as it is heartfelt and engaging.