15 tracks / 62:45
It is not hard to find a great blues or rock guitarist, and tracking down a good singer and front man is a little harder, but they are out there. Songwriting clinics crank out more than enough new writers every week, and some of them can actually pen really nice tunes. But, finding a talented guitarist that is also an effective leader, singer, and songwriter is not an easy task, which makes Chris Bergson a true find!
Bergson is a New York City native who has lived in the tri-state area for his whole life, and who has been recording his music for the past 20 years. Chris’ playing has deep roots, and he is more than proficient in all genres of music, and he is even a faculty member of NYC’s 92Y (serving the community for 140 years), teaching jazz, rock and blues guitar. He has worked and played with the big names in the business, including B.B. King, Etta James, Norah Jones, The Band’s Levon Helm, and Howlin’ Wolf’s guitarist, Hubert Sumlin. He has recorded six studio albums, including the award-winning Fall Changes and Imitate the Sun.
This time around the Chris Bergson Band gives up a dose of their stage show with Live at Jazz Standard. This New York City club has been his home base for the past 10 years, and he drew these 15 tracks from two shows last summer. His usual four-piece group was up front, including Chris on vocals and guitars, Craig Dreyer on keys, Matt Clohesy on bass and Tony Leone behind the drum kit. They were joined on these gigs by the fine horn section of Ian Hendrickson-Smith and David Luther on sax, and Grammy winner Freddie Hendrix on trumpet. Roman Klun recorded and mixed this CD, and acted as co-producer with Bergson.
The first track on the disc is “Greyhound Station” and the band opens strong. Even though the club is called Jazz Standard and Chris was appointed the U.S. Jazz Ambassador by the Kennedy Center, this show is nothing but killer funky blues. After the guitar-heavy intro Bergson launches into the vocals and he belts them out convincingly with harmonies courtesy of Tony Leone. Chris also tears out a hard-hitting solo and lead licks throughout. This is one of the seven songs he co-wrote with his wife, Kate Ross – in fact this album was mostly written by Bergson, with eight all-new songs, and five older tunes that have been extensively remodeled.
After the horn-heavy “Mr. Jackson” (with horn arrangements by Jay Collins) the band is joined by special guest vocalist Ellis Hooks for “The Only One.” Hooks’ glorious voice pairs well with Bergson’s, and there is a Sam and Dave good times vibe at work here. The backline of Clohesy and Leone is spot-on but never goes over the top as this show is all about the songs, and the musicians are there to help tell the story, not to show off.
There is a touching moment as Chris puts Tennessee Williams’ poem “Heavenly Grass” to music. He plays a mean delta-style acoustic guitar against a sparse backdrop of bass, drums and just enough Wurlitzer of Craig Dreyer. This slow roller features extended solos from Bergson and Dreyer and is a nice partner to the next track, the soulful and inspirational “High Above the Morning.”
The two non-originals on Live at Jazz Standard are the harmony-heavy traditional “Corinna” and Ronnie Shannon’s “Baby, I Love You.” The latter is an instrumental that allows Bergson to spit out sharp lead licks on his guitar over the punctuation provided by the ultra tight horn section. The vocals leading up to this point were so compelling that the musicians were appropriately playing a supporting role, and it is nice to hear the band cut loose a little!
The heavy funk of “Christmas in Bethlehem, PA” makes sure that this is nothing like any holiday song you have heard before. Dreyer’s 1970s organ sound, Bergson’s processed guitar and Leone’s massive snare set the stage for Hendrix, who channels his inner Maynard Ferguson. The lyrics are full of hard luck and longing, and Chris sings them with all of his heart.
The final two cuts on the album are “The Bungler” and “Gowanus Heights,” both Bergson/Ross songs from his acclaimed breakthrough album from 2008, Fall Changes. Listening to these cuts is a reminder of what a well recorded, mixed and mastered album this is. The sound is clear, no instrument or voice seems too loud or soft, and there is a logical progression to the songs with natural sounding breaks in between. Kudos go out to Klun for his recording and mixing, and to Chris Gehringer for his mastering work – professionals like these guys make all the difference in the world.
Live at Jazz Standard is a fine piece of work from Chris Bergson, providing a realistic overview of his career to date, and it is much more relevant than any “Best Of” or “Greatest Hits” album could be. Most artists would be content to rehash old stuff, but the Chris Bergson Band stepped up and provided more than enough new material for their old fans to enjoy. For those who were not fans before, this disc will convert them into believers and it may convince them to seek out his catalogue and maybe even inspire them to catch a live show the next time they are in New York City!