December 2003

Jay McShann - Goin' to Kansas City
Stony Plain CD - SPCD 1286
Released: 2003

by John Crossett

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

We’ve all heard someone referred to as a living legend, whether in sports, movies or entertainment. The term has also been applied to certain musicians. (I recently caught a living jazz legend, Sonny Rollins, in concert, partly because of that status.) But while there are many artists still with us to whom that particular moniker could be applied, there are far, far fewer on whom the mantle "living history" can be bestowed. That’s exactly the title that can be applied to Jay McShann.

McShann, born in Muskogee Oklahoma, made his name as a blues and jazz musician in Kansas City. He’s been around long enough to have seen and done - - well, if not all, then at least to have been in on the creation of most of it. It’s a confirmed fact that he gave a teenaged Charlie Parker his first professional job.

All of this preamble leads up to the announcement that there is a new Jay McShann album out, Goin’ to Kansas City. This recording is a distillation of everything McShann has learned playing music over the course of his 87 years. After all that time, McShann has earned, at the very least, our respect. But listening to him play, and sing, on this disc will awaken in you, as it did in me, an appreciation and affection for the legacy of Jay McShann.

McShann plays all the piano parts (with two exceptions noted below) and sings on all the non-instrumental tracks here. He’s joined in this endeavor by the great blues guitarist Duke Robillard (his guitar work here is just the perfect accompaniment to McShann’s piano), bassist Milt Able and drummer Tommy Ruskin. He’s also joined, for a lovely vocal duet on the song "Confessin’ The Blues," by Maria Muldaur. But the real treat of Goin’ to Kansas City is on tracks 9 and11, where McShann is joined in piano duets by rock-n-roll legend Johnnie Johnson, and track 10, a brief discussion between the two, wherein Johnson expounds on just what an influence McShann has been on his career.

Other notable highlights of this album are the rollicking blues "Some Kind Of Crazy," a wonderful remake of "Kansas City" (listen to Robillard’s guitar work here!), and the slow ballad "Ain’t Nobody’s Business." Then, after you’re done digesting the musical portion of this amazing disc, don’t hit that stop button to quickly, or you’ll miss one of the more important options of this record -- a 20-minute exchange between Blues historian Holger Peterson and McShann. This interview took place at McShann’s home, with Jay at the piano demonstrating points he makes during the interview. Talk about a living history lesson!

Nobody’s going to mistake the sound of Goin’ To Kansas City for demo material. But I doubt it was meant to be. It is, however, certainly good enough for you to bask in the sheer enjoyment of listening to a piece of our musical history performing for you. There is enough width and depth to the soundstage for each instrument to have its own acoustic space to play in. The bass goes deep (if not with the all the definition I might have preferred) and the cymbals shimmer in an appropriate manner that will allow you to suspend disbelief and pretend they’re real enough. The sound certainly won’t prevent you from immersing yourself in the music.

There’s nothing new or innovative on Goin’ to Kansas City. That wasn’t really the point of this recording. Its purpose is to remind us (in case we’ve forgotten) just how important Jay McShann is to the music we know today as the blues and jazz. It also allows McShann to revisit some of his favorite songs, which he’s played for more years than he probably cares to remember, and re-record them in far better sound than he’s used to being given.