Keep on Truckin’ (and playing good music)
The Aspen Times
I was 15 minutes into my conversation with Derek Trucks, and the talk focused largely on how Trucks was pushing himself, challenging himself, seeking new opportunities. “You have to be able to look around corners a bit to stay sane,” is one of the ways he put it.
Then it hit me: Trucks had yet to mention anything about his guitar playing. Here was one of the finest guitarists ever — heir in the Allman Brothers Band to the slide guitar legend Duane Allman; an occasional sideman for Eric Clapton; a collaborator with Herbie Hancock and Béla Fleck; number 16 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the greatest guitarists — talking about the ways in which he’s trying to raise his personal bar, and the guitar seems to be an afterthought.
In a sense, Trucks has mastered guitar. Not that he’s likely to ever stop seeking more ways of expressing himself; this is a musician who has already absorbed the influences of bebop, Delta blues, Pakistani qawwali, Southern rock and more. But just being the designated guitarist has its limits.
“The Clapton gig, the Allman Brothers Band — it was a good 15-year run of just touring, hitting the spot, and all you focus on is the individual playing,” the 34-year-old said from Jacksonville, Fla., where he was born and still lives. “There’s just so much of that you can do without hitting — not a dead end, because music never ends. But having a band feel much more rewarding than just backing someone.”
In fact, Trucks had a band of his own, the Derek Trucks Band, which he formed when he was in his mid-teens. It was an accomplished group, building a strong following and earning a Grammy in the best contemporary blues category for the 2009 album, “Already Free.” But it was a small combo, with five members, and Trucks wanted something bigger, more potent and more versatile. “I always had this vision to have a big band — horns, background singers,” he said.
Then there was the separate but related matter of family. In 1999, at an Allman Brothers gig in New Orleans, Trucks met the opening act, the blues singer and guitarist Susan Tedeschi. The two started a relationship built on their shared musical tastes, talking of John Coltrane and John Lee Hooker. Trucks tested just how adventurous Tedeschi’s tastes ranged by playing her DVDs of trumpeter Sun Ra and pianist Liberace, two of music’s more out-there characters.
The two moved beyond music into romance. They married late in 2001 and had two children: Charlie (named for jazz players Charlie Christian and Charles Mingus) and Sofia Naima (whose middle name comes from a Coltrane tune). In 2007, Tedeschi and Trucks teamed to form the Soul Stew Revival, which played at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Festival. In 2011, they stepped up the collaborative effort, disbanding their other groups and forming the Tedeschi Trucks Band. The group, a 11-piece unit with a three-piece horn section and backing vocalists, debuted with the album “Revelator,” which earned a Grammy for best blues album, and a Blues Music Award for album of the year. A 2012 live recording, “Everybody’s Talkin’,” earned a Blues Music Award for best rock blues album.
Trucks likens his new group to the early Allman Brothers Band, led by singer Gregg Allman and his late brother Duane on slide guitar. “I was thinking of the Allman Brothers. A band with a great soul singer and a great guitarist can do anything it wants,” Derek, the nephew of Allman Brothers drummer Butch Trucks, said. “That doesn’t happen with music. With a lot of bands, the music is great and the vocalist is passable, or vice versa. With this, you get it all.”
And Trucks gets multiple challenges. On the musical side, a 10-piece band offers all sorts of options. “It’s pretty endless, the possibilities in this band like this, where everyone is versatile,” he said. “You can be a trio, a quartet, a quintet. There’s not a style or song you can’t tackle. You have a small army with you.”
Trucks was looking for other ways to grow, as well. His 14 years as an Allman Brother has taught Trucks the dangers of letting a band, or any organization, become complacent.
“Being in a band like the Alllman Brothers, there are things that just don’t get dealt with for 30, 40 years,” he said. “But you see it blow up. With this band, we’ve made it a goal — you just deal with shit. Being on the road with a band like this, a lot of moving parts, the communication has to stay wide open.”
“Eleven people in a band — that’s a lot of mouths to feed, a lot of people to keep on the same page. I was ready for that challenge. When we started the band, we were still on the edge of being young enough to handle it.”
Trucks was able to assess the state of the Tedeschi Trucks Band when the group went into Trucks’ home studio, Swamp Raga Studios, to record. The album “Made Up Mind,” due out in August, was noticeably smooth in the making. (The album was co-produced by Trucks and Jim Scott, who has worked with Wilco, the Rolling Stones and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The band also brought in co-writers, including Gary Louris of the Jayhawks, Oliver Wood of the Wood Brothers, and John Leventhal.)
“There was no start-up period. We hit the ground running,” Trucks said. “It’s a pretty definitive statement of what the band is.”
Finally, we get around to the essence of Trucks’ musicianship, his guitar playing. The added experience and years have made him what might be called a more mature player — though, as he proves on “The Storm,” from “Made Up Mind,” he can still burn the strings with a long solo when he wants.
“You learn patience a little more. You learn to serve the music,” Trucks said. “I’ve always done that but now even more so. You can lean back, take a deep breath, take your time more. And having other great soloists in the band — Susan, [keyboardist] Kofi Burbridge, [saxophonist] Kebbi Williams — everyone can turn it loose. There’s a liberation when you hear someone play that way.”
Not least among the other soloists is Tedeschi, who studied at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and was nominated for a Grammy for best new artist in 2000. “A lot of the reason I wanted to put this group together was that I appreciated her so much,” Trucks, who is nine years younger than Tedeschi. “I think her musicianship was underutilized. I wanted her singing and guitar playing to be in the discussion with the best of her generation.”
The Tedeschi Trucks Band has allowed Trucks to elevate his skills as a community organizer, husband and bandleader. It hasn’t always been easy, but it allows him to be more than just one of the greatest guitarists ever.
“I don’t do well when I don’t have a major task in front of me,” Trucks said. “I’m happiest when I have a lot of heavy lifting in front of me.”
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