Recording studios aren't meant for spontaneity. The ability to cut a song or a solo over and over again, looking for that elusive perfect take, is the ultimate safety net. But when Anders Osborne prepared to record his new CD, Ash Wednesday Blues, he accidentally discovered the perfect antidote for the numbing comfort of the studio.
"On Ash Wednesday last year, the band came over to my house to demo some songs," remembers Osborne. "[Saxophonist] Tim Green brought over his small digital recorder, and we huddled together in one room. We set up with all the band facing each other in a circle. When I listened back, the vibe bowled me over. It was just magic, and that's the feel I knew I wanted for this album."
Osborne brought that tight-knit brothers-in-arms camaraderie to Dockside Studio in Maurice and took extra steps to ensure the purity of the end result. "We didn't use the isolation booths, and no one was using headphones," says Osborne. "You take those off, and it's like we're really on stage together. The microphone bleeds everywhere, and it's like that sound on old jazz records, where you can hear people moving in the room. Those records are so warm. There's a lot of space in them, and the sound is so big."
Aiming for that expansive sound would have been futile without the right backing musicians, but Osborne couldn't have picked a better supporting cast. Sousaphonist Kirk Joseph has been Osborne's right-hand man for five years now, and his brass bass lines have lived up to Osborne's goal of giving the rhythm section more of a living, breathing feel than an electric bass. Drummer Kevin O'Day has a hunger for free-jazz, and saxophonist Tim Green supplies a sweet counterpart to some of the rougher edges on Osborne's slide-guitar-fueled, rock 'n' roll instincts. This current lineup and new album has moments where it could be billed as the Anders Osborne Quartet.
"It's becoming a musical social group," says Osborne. "Our personalities are coming through, which is the whole idea. I was looking at some of the old Miles [Davis] stuff, where he would pick phenomenal players that could and should have their own records, but with the right combination and guidance, everybody helps each other sound wonderful, and it creates a new entity. That's why bands are usually so cool, rather than a solo artist with a backup band."
Besides spinning old Blue Note records, Osborne also found joyous inspiration in songs from New Orleans' past. "I was going more for the Danny Barker-type songs, '50s-era jazz, but also '30s and '40s New Orleans piano stuff," he says. To that end, he recruited keyboard wizard Davell Crawford, who imparts a gospel feel to new songs such as "Soul Livin'" and "Kingdom Come," and Cyril Neville brought an added percussion layer to the sessions. "Davell and the horn players, they're very natural playing this stuff," he says. "Then you add Kevin's drumming, and the real modern frantic edge on it, and there's an interesting push and pull. It feels like jazz to me." (For more on O'Day and his rhythm-section collaborator, Andy Wolf, see the feature on p. 35.)
The music also crackles thanks to Osborne's new batch of songs, which show his continued gift for memorable hooks and lyrics. The fruits of his publishing deal with Universal Music -- which regularly requires him to submit song demos for possible use by other artists -- are evident in the scope of Ash Wednesday Blues. There's the freewheeling manic ecstasy of "Stoned, Drunk & Naked," the tender soul ballad "Every Bit of Love," the pop kiss of "Stuck on My Baby," and an electric jolt on "Snake Bit."
"I've developed another part of me as a musician, which isn't just the player," says Osborne. "It's now just the writer -- the composer of a piece. I've learned so much from the guys I write with, because those guys know their craft so well. In the beginning, I was more resistant, thinking certain things were cheesy. But then you learn and say, 'You're right.' With co-writing, you're pushed to refine everything, until you're down to the bare essence of what you really need to say."
And Osborne is singing a happy song. Where his last CD, Living Room had a dark, confessional quality, Osborne lets the sun shine in on Ash Wednesday Blues.
"I realized the strength of not being lethargic and confessional, and I wanted to talk about something different," he says. "The record became up and positive, which naturally fit my environment. There's an uplifting spiritual outpour here." Email music news to Scott Jordan at firstname.lastname@example.org.