With Special Guest Jonathan Edwards
Educated at Berklee and the New England Conservatory of Music, a lecturer in Music at Bates College, pianist Thomas Snow has established himself as an artist in his own right with two fine jazz-oriented albums featuring repertoire drawn largely from the Great American Songbook (with some Latin touches along the way) and a wonderful Yuletide album, Christmas at Mast Cove. His resume includes credits accompanying the likes of Larry Coryell and Dave Holland as well as blues artist Troy Turner, and of late he’s been on the road with Jonathan Edwards, he of 1971’s #4 pop single and certified gold record “Sunshine.”
Snow’s Friends is named, presumably, and on the one hand, for the impressive group of musicians accompanying him on this, his fourth album. Of these friends the two who, apart from Snow himself, make it a most memorable occasion are the aforementioned Mr. Edwards and the bluegrass mandolin master Joe Walsh, who until April of this year had spent the last four and a half years working the bluegrass circuit with the estimable Gibson Brothers. At only eight songs clocking in at 34 and a half minutes, the album goes by fast; it leaves you wanting more not because there’s not enough there to chew on but rather because what’s there is so nourishing. Snow’s elegant touch on the keyboard is evocative, empathetic, even spiritually resonant—the album does at times reveal a solid gospel underpinning. And even though it’s his album, and as impressive as is his own playing, in knowing when to get out of the way Snow is even more impressive. For instance, on Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times,” he trills a soft, understated ostinato phrase that establishes the somber parlor atmosphere of long, long ago (Foster published the tune in 1854) while Edwards delivers those compelling, beautiful lyrics, beckoning us to “all sup sorrow with the poor” as we “pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears,” with heart tugging conviction you cannot turn away from. Especially in recent years “Hard Times” has found new life in the New Depression, but Edwards and Snow make of it a fresh, and compelling, statement all their own.
AUDIO CLIP: From Thomas Snow’s Friends, ‘The Water is Wide.’ Jonathan Edwards, vocal; Joe Walsh on mandolin; Thomas Snow on piano.
“Hard Times” is not an anomaly here. Friends has another meaning in that the songs assayed herein might well be considered “friends” as well: in addition to “Hard Times,” the set includes Joseph Brackett’s beloved Shaker song from 1848, “Simple Gifts”; “Froggy Went a-Courtin’,” which has been traced back to Scottish origins in 1548 and has been covered who knows how many times over the years, by notables including Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan; “Li’l Liza Jane” dates to the early 1900s (it was first published in 1910), betrays the influence of Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races” in its language, tempo and melody, and has over the years found homes in jazz, pop, country, bluegrass and Dixieland; “The Water is Wide” goes back at least to the 1600s but more or less took its current form when published by Cecil Sharp in 1906; the sporting ballad “Stewball” (or “Skewball,” as it was better known in England, where its origins have been located in 18th century broadsides. And there is not one but two versions—a duet and a solo—of “Shenandoah,” an approach entirely fitting given the late-19th century song’s many guises over the years, as a sea chanty; as a song of escaped slaves giving praise to the Shenandoah River for having washed the scent off their bodies as they fled to freedom; as a pioneer’s nostalgic lament for the Shenandoah Valley; as a story-song of a trader determined to wed the daughter of an Indian chief and take her back with him “across the wide Missouri” (in and of itself an alternate title for “Shenandoah”).
AUDIO CLIP: From Thomas Snow’s Friends, ‘Hard Times,’ with vocal by Jonathan Edwards, Thomas Snow on piano, Joe Walsh on mandolin.
AUDIO CLIP: ‘Shenandoah,’ duo version with Thomas Snow on piano, Joe Walsh on mandolin
That said, Snow signals at the outset his intent to make you sit up and take notice, when he breaks fast out of the gate on “Simple Gifts,” with Walsh chopping away on mandolin and Marty Joyce keeping a steady beat going on brush drums. What? you might ask? Is this the “Simple Gifts” of yore, the plaintive tune we’ve heard, oh, Yo-Yo Ma and Alison Krauss render so hauntingly? Yes, because the song was in its original mid-1800s incarnation a folk dance tune. Snow’s version is first and foremost a showcase for his sprightly variations on the melody with some lovely softer passages punctuated by Walsh’s tasty mandolin runs. “Froggy Went a-Courtin’” is realized as a driving piano-led bluegrass workout, but Edwards’s lively vocal has a distinct bluesy feel about it that suggests Froggy might be thinking impure thoughts. “Li’l Liza Jane,” which Vince Gill has done to a T, is toned down from most folk and/or country versions you’ll hear; instead, it’s rendered with a jazzy flourish in theme-and-variation conversations between Snow’s bright, angular Guaraldi-like phrases and electric guitarist Tim Hill’s retorts, some sparkling and eager, others more tempered (there’s some Wes Montgomery octave chording going on here) and easygoing.
With Tom Snow in piano, Jonathan Edwards performs the moving title track from his 2011 album, My Love Will Keep
It’s Edwards, however, who carries the day by elevating the album to the level of a transcendent work via the depth and soul of his vocalizing. Once derided by snarky critics as “a poor man’s Stephen Stills,” the mature Edwards is not only his own man as a singer and writer, he’s making wonderful, memorable music on his own—his 2011 album My Love Will Keep was not only one of that year’s top releases but also the work of a mature singer-songwriter fully in command of his art and conversant with his heart. Anyone who’s been keeping up with Edwards knows he’s doing his best work ever right now, and he continues it in supporting his friend on Friends. “Hard Times” is but the first of several occasions when he burrows into your marrow and makes you feel more than you might have expected from listening to the vintage tunes. The beauty and spiritual resonance the piano and mandolin (an affecting, searching solo by Walsh just ahead of the halfway mark) bring to “The Water is Wide” is ably complemented by Edwards’s deeply nuanced vocal, moving as it does through feelings of tenderness for his beloved to a sense of something dreadfully unsettling at work (“I know not if I sink or swim”) to the final despair of “loves grow old and waxes cold/fades away like the morning dew.” It’s a masterful reading full of complex, shifting emotions Edwards’s vocal suggests he cannot fully fathom—it’s always amazing how a gifted singer can allow you to hear a familiar song with new ears, after you thought you understood all it had to say. And “Stewball,” that old story of the racehorse that “never drank water, always drank wine,” is reimagined in a robust gospel arrangement featuring Snow’s rich organ humming down low before stepping out with a keening, crying solo howl, as Walsh fashions a spikey, restless mandolin solo and the Bates College Crosstones add their 11 voices strong in support as the song builds not to a big finish but rather to a more muted, reflective adieu, which works precisely because Edwards has told the tale with utter conviction, especially when he dips into his bluesy mode again to lament not betting on Stewball in the big race, admitting if he had “I’d be a free man today.” Given the arrangement—nothing like I’ve ever heard for “Stewball”—and the emotion in Edwards’s voice, I got to wondering if we might be listening to the song sung as an allegory of Jesus’s life. That there is this spiritual thing going on in Friends is a notion heightened by the reflective piano-and-mandolin duet on “Shenandoah” (another instance of Snow gracefully ceding the spotlight to Walsh, whose variations on the well-worn but reliably evocative melody and Snow’s response to them are touching in the extreme); as if underscoring this Americana standard as the album’s musical and emotional touchstone, Snow returns to it at the end–this time alone. Given the spotlight alone, he hews pretty close to the standard melody in some four minutes of rumination and quick asides wending their way to a final whispered coda culminating in the quick kiss of a right-hand glissando. Exquisite, in all its spare, quiet beauty. Away, we’re bound away…