You may not have heard of young guitarist / singer / composer Alex Belhaj, unless you live near Ann Arbor, Michigan. And for some readers, “guitarist / singer / composer” may be slightly unsettling, suggesting a musician more like Leonard Cohen than Leonard “Ham” Davis. But these sounds should quell any anxieties:
and the same band, live in 2011:
Both of these performances were the work of Alex’s CRESCENT CITY QUARTET, which has released its debut CD, “SUGAR BLUES,” on the Raymond Street Records label.
The quartet is Alex Belhaj, guitar; Jordan Schug, string bass; Ray Heitger, clarinet; Dave Kosmyna, cornet — each of them adding “vocal refrain” or backgrounds as noted below. Yes, the tunes are familiar, but these performances are deeply felt and vivid: WEARY BLUES / MY BUCKET’S GOT A HOLE IN IT [RH] / SUGAR BLUES [AB] / CARELESS LOVE / VIPER MAD [RH and the Quartet] / HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW [RH] / FOUR OR FIVE TIMES [AB / DK] / MY MAN ROCKS ME (WITH ONE STEADY ROLL) / TIGER RAG / SITTING ON TOP OF THE WORLD [AB] / YOU DON’T LOVE ME [DK] / TAKE MY HAND, PRECIOUS LORD [RH].
I confess that when I first saw this CD, I felt a mild skepticism: I admire Ray Heitger, but he was the only player I knew. I had no idea that Alex had connections with a number of my heroes and friends, James Dapogny, Michael Karoub, Erin Morris, Laura Wyman among them.
But hearing the music was a wonderful conversion experience. It’s not as if there aren’t other New Orleans-imbued small improvising jazz groups, and there are other versions of the songs on this disc. But the CCQ understands and inhabits the music in the best way — not turning each song into a nearly violent joust in the fashion of the hallowed Spanier-Bechet sides, or choosing to offer only a series of solos . . . but making each selection its own entrancing emotional drama, with an emphasis on sweetly rocking ensemble interplay. Each of the four players is a convincing instrumentalist (and singer) so I floated from track to track, from spiritual to swinging multi-strain instrumental, in a satisfying music-dream.
The disc is one of those rare creations that seems too brief. I’ve heard new things every time I’ve played it. SUGAR BLUES feels genuine: these musicians know and feel what this music is supposed to sound like, simultaneously rooted in tradition and as fresh as the moment.
SUGAR BLUES is also beautifully recorded, with liner notes by “arwulf arwulf,” an Ann Arbor music scholar and broadcaster, that I would have been pleased to have written myself.
In his closing lines, he refers to VIPER MAD as a defiantly hedonistic number premiered by Noble Sissle and Sidney Bechet in 1938. The CCQ’s realization of this ode to Mezz Mezzrow’s favorite herbal analgesic features a spirited group vocal similar to what Ann Arborites have come to expect from Phil Ogilvie’s Rhythm Kings. Impressionable souls may feel the need to stand up and strut around with one index finger in the air.
I’m impressionable and proud of it. Here’s VIPER MAD:
Now, JAZZ LIVES does not officially espouse the use of such substances, but in the words of that song (slightly altered) I urge you to “wrap your chops / around this new CD.” Here is Alex’s site and his Facebook page.
May your happiness increase!