Jazzline N 77053 (CD) / N78053 (LP)
A longtime rhythmic right hand man for bass great Marcus Miller, as well as a reliable sideman to the likes of Stanley Clarke, David Sanborn, Chaka Khan, Erykah Badu, Angelique Kidjo and Al Jarreau, drummer Poogie Bell showcases another side of his musicality on Exhibition Continues. An eclectic outing that features the Pittsburgh native stretching into some ambitious territory that goes well beyond strict pocket playing. Bell’s sixth outing as a leader has him dealing on a large canvas, incorporating strings, soulful vocals, thoughtful lyrics and undercurrents of gospel, jazz, Afro-Cuban and fusion along the way. “I just wanted to have one record where I wasn’t playing a funk beat all the time,” says Bell. “I wanted to show that I could do this too.”
With Bell anchoring a core trio that includes fellow Pittsburgh residents Tony DePaolis on bass and Brett Williams on keyboards, Exhibition Continues features guest appearances by Philadelphia-born saxophonist-singer Mike Stephenson, Pittsburgh vocalist BeLove Sanaa, Chicago-based guitarist Bobby Broom, Harlem-born multi-instrumentalist Vincent Henry and Poogie’s son Winston Bell on saxophones. Along with seven potent originals, Bell and his crew also deliver faithful covers of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote” and D’Angelo’s “Lady.”
The collection kicks off with the romantic “When I Think Of You,” which Bell wrote for his wife Mijoa. Bassist DePaolis arranges the lush strings while Stephenson delivers Bell’s lyrics about his undying love for the mother of his child. “I wrote that song about a day in my life living with my wife,” says Bell. “It started out as a jam. We were just in the studio and Brett, who is heavily influenced by Robert Glasper, started playing this riff. So me and Tony jump in and started jamming. We developed an A section but we needed a bridge so I told Brett to play some clusters like Bill Evans and told Tony to just follow him. And that turned into the bridge. Then Tony wrote some great Clare Fisher kind of strings for the intro, which we decided to carry through the whole tune. Mike came in and helped me shape up the lyrics and he just sang it like a bird!” Williams, who is definitely a talent deserving of wider recognition, contributes a brilliant piano solo to this uplifting ode.
“Graduation Day,” featuring Williams on piano and adding some hip Fender Rhodes comping reminiscent of Joe Sample’s classic work with The Crusaders, was recorded the day after the young keyboardist had graduated from Duquesne University. Bell, who describes the tune as “a kind of a poppish, Weather Reportish, Latinish song that shifts back and forth from 7 to 4,” plays emphatically throughout this energized piece, sounding like another fellow Pittsburgher, drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts. “He grew up right down the street from me and we would play together on one drum set,” he recalls. “We used to play together at my grandmother’s house in the basement until she would finally say, ‘OK, y’all need to go to the park and play baseball. That’s enough drums!’ Jeff is a dear friend and holds a special place in my heart.”
Sanaa, who hails from Denver but is currently on the scene in Pittsburgh, shines on “Unforgettable Tale.” “She is a very warm and kind soul who I believe is truly talented and needs to be heard,” says Bell. “I remember hearing her the first time and thinking, ‘Oh, I gotta work with her.’ I have a lot of love for what she does and I’m hoping that I’m going to be able to produce a whole record on her at some point in time. She’s a special individual.”
“Untold Story” is a DePaolis instrumental based off a pedal point that features bass and piano doubling the melody and also incorporates rich voicing for the strings. Williams and DePaolis both contribute outstanding solos here.
A rendition of the anthemic “A Change Is Gonna Come” has the multi-faceted Henry playing guitar, harmonica, woodwinds and playing a baritone sax solo. Kenny Peagler adds some churchy organ that lends more resonance to this R&B staple. And Stephenson delivers some soul-stirring vocals on this Sam Cooke classic written in 1964 at the height of the civil rights movement. “I had been playing that song on the gig as an instrumental,” Bell explains. “We played it here in Pittsburgh at an outdoor jazz concert and the reaction from the crowd was huge. When you play the first three notes of that song, it is over! And we got the same reaction when we played this song in Europe. We’ve gotten standing ovations after the first eight bars of that song. So we’re paying homage to Sam Cooke with this version. And the message of the song is still relevant today, much like Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Goin’ On?’”
Williams, a pastor’s son who grew up playing in a Wilkinsburg church, contributes the entrancing “Fall, a vehicle for more rhapsodic keyboard work by the gifted 24-year-old. Bell’s coloristic approach to the kit and deft polyrhythms underscore this gem while his 13-year-old son Winston contributes some melodic alto sax work throughout.
Bell’s longtime friend, guitarist Bobby Broom, appears as special guest on the humorously-titled “Black Metheny.” The drummer played on Broom’s first recording as a leader, 1981’s Clean Sweep, but their relationship goes back even further. As Poogie explains, “I was born in Pittsburgh but raised in New York City and grew up on the upper West Side of Manhattan, literally around the corner from Bobby Broom. I was on 93rd, he was on 94th. And I met him in fourth grade at P.S. 84. Bobby and I ended up playing together in Weldon Irvine’s play ‘Young, Gifted and Broke’ when we were about 14.”
Bell further explains that “Black Metheny” is based on a melodic motif from the infectious theme song from “The Office.” “I explained the piece to Brett as a Bruce Hornsby kind of thing, and he just followed it where it went. But he also came up with some gospel changes for the bridge, which were very much in a Keith Jarrett vein. I’m a big fan of that Jarrett-Metheny ECM sound and I’m also a fan of ‘The Office.’ In fact, I was actually calling this song ‘The Office’ before I changed it to ‘Black Metheny.’ I think Pat will get a kick out of that.”
Stephenson returns for a soulful rendering of D’Angelo’s “Lady,” which has him mingling smoky tenor sax lines with his smoldering vocals. Williams’ piano solo at the crescendo is another highlight of this rewarding rendition. Sanaa is next featured on an interpretation of Joni Mitchell’s classic “Coyote,” from her 1976 album Hejira, which had the singer-songwriter collaborating with jazz heavyweights Wayne Shorter and Jaco Pastorius. “Nobody wanted me to let her sing that song,” says Bell. “There were a lot of doubters. Now, I understand how special Joni Mitchell is but who says that BeLove has to sing it exactly how Joni did? Why can’t she enter her own personality and who she is in there? And she really came with it!” DePaolis adds an outstanding upright bass solo and arranges the strings on this affecting reimagining of the iconic Mitchell tune.
Exhibition Continues closes on a dynamic note with the highly charged instrumental “Electric Glasses,” which recalls Stevie Wonder’s energized fusion number “Contusion” from his 1976 classic, Songs in the Key of Life. Following a spacious overture, DePaolis’ distortion-laced electric bass lines fuel this potent romp, which also has Bell’s son Winston weaving tenor sax lines around the melody. Papa Bell provides the polyrhythmic pulse on this exhilarating jam then joins percussionist Miguel Sague on the breakdown section while Williams takes off on a Fender Rhodes solo to further spark this surging throwdown; one of a myriad of colors on this diverse offering from the acclaimed drummer-bandleader.
“I spent the majority of my career trying to play whatever the music needed,” says the 57-year-old Bell. “I’ve always been more interested in playing music and making the people in the band feel good and the music sound good. That’s important to me too. But I’m also trying to leave my mark or be a part of that group of drummers like Harvey Mason, Alphonse Mouzon, Billy Cobham, Tony Williams — all of whom made music that wasn’t just about drum solos, which can get very boring very quick.”
Bell succeeds in grand fashion on Exhibition Continues, expressing his wide-ranging tastes while dealing on the kit in typically intrepid style. — Bill Milkowski
Bill Milkowski is a regular contributor to Down Beat and Jazzthing magazines. He is also the author of “JACO: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius (Backbeat Books).