Do, however, catch him at Hart Plaza Monday. And expect Crawford and his traveling companion of a decade, Hammond B-3 organist Jimmy McGriff, to make much music. Not a bunch of bluff or bluster. No wah-wah's and wolf tickets. Just emotionally involving, bedrock jazz-blues music with roots back beyond the Middle Passage. Music that is joyous even at its bluest.
Music that says, "Listen up, I'm talking to you." Straightforward, face-to-face. Whether man-to-man, lover-to-lover or any of a number of intriguing interpersonal conversational possibilities. Sometimes guttural, sometimes explosive, sometimes soothing, sometimes shouting, sometimes in a near yodel up in that Marvin Gaye-Aaron Neville zone. But always speaking like a man.
Memphis-born Crawford made his bones in the first alto chair of Ray Charles' band. He played with Ike Turner before that. But it was primarily on the whetstone of Charles' exacting standards that Crawford honed his tone and got his attitude adjusted. He was musical director for the band during the '50s. Marcus Belgrave and Fathead Newman also bumped along those rutted roads of border-to-border and coast-to-coast one-nighters. They made an unfiltered music with holistic intentions: to raise the end-of-the-day spirits of folks who'd suffered the slings and arrows of postmodern reality.
Crawford and McGriff continue in that tradition, with a repertoire of straight, old-school blues, ballads and Basie backbeat groove tunes with bop references.
The pattern is simple. State the melody, then always keeping it within whispering distance, improvise a series of logical variations; return to the melody; take it home. The basics. But with such feeling and with the muscular articulation of men speaking on what they know, from a reservoir of experience in matters of the heart, body and soul. That's what causes women to holler, "Talk to me, daddy" and men to nod, "Yeah, brother. Take your time and speak the truth. Like a man."
And when Crawford is good, he is very, very good. He is able to redefine something we think we already know, as with Ray Charles singing "America the Beautiful." In Ray's rendition we hear most about what America can be, not just what the propaganda tells us it is. The same is true with a Hank Crawford blues ballad. There is a sitting in the window, looking out at the rain kind of feeling as he speaks not only of good things lost, but also revealing the possibilities of recovery and redemption.
Crawford's technique was shaped, in part, by his years playing behind vocal blues masters such as B.B. King, Junior Parker, Ruth Brown and the aforementioned Mr. Charles.
Crawford can be as contemplative as a monk (cloistered and/or Thelonious.) He states the theme in a way as to make the composer proud, with that explicit knowledge of the lyrics that master ballad player, old school tenor man Ben Webster advocated. It is evident in the playing of other tenor men such as Ike Quebec and Dexter Gordon, and altoists such as Charlie Parker and Johnny Hodges. The melody, like newly decanted wine, is given plenty of room to breathe. "What's the rush?" Crawford asks, like the old bull on the hill.
An incredible thing about a Crawford blues ballad is his ability to actually swing at tempos so languid as to lull one into a state of meditative bliss. And then, in the middle of it, he'll hold a Little Willie John-like note that will seemingly end only when your knees turn to water or your heart screams for mercy.
Then there are the medium-tempo pieces. Like a self-confident lope back up the court after a spectacular Joe Dumars-like three-pointer that keeps you in the game as the clock is running out. These shuffling-tempo romps have a dare-you-not-to-move groove. Save yourself the trouble, because they'll get to you every time.
McGriff and Crawford remind one of a veteran backcourt duo. Or a couple of gunfighters. Or construction workers. Or club fighters. They show up, game face in place. They get their man, or fight their fight, or lay their foundation, or score their points, then pack up and move on, satisfied, vindicated, validated. Having made their untrendy, full-frontal, solid-as-a-rock, deep-as-the-ocean, nourishing blues and jazz. They're coming. Seize the moment. Go get yourself some. Bill Harris is a Detroit poet and playwright latest book of poems, "The Ringmaster's Array," is forthcoming from Past Tents Press. E-mail him at [email protected]