Hell Booglarize You

John Lee Hookers spooky tone poetry

If JOHN LEE HOOKER were an actor instead of a musician, he'd be Lee Marvin. Hooker has those same beady eyes that harbor untold malice, the same tightlipped smirk that declares he knows something awful you don't and finds it eminently amusing, that same type of guttural, baritone voice box that bespeaks primordial urges barely contained. He wants to booglarize ya, baby!

Luckily for us, Hooker, like Marvin, found an outlet for his dark impulses as an artist rather than a sociopath—a vocation you get the impression either might have excelled at. To that end, Hooker has been playing and singing the blues for close to 60 years. More to the point, he really conjured up his own genre—John Lee Hooker music, sometimes called the Boogie—as his brand of mysterious, droning, one-chord, freeform expression frequently owes little to the rules generally associated with blues, save for his deep indebtedness to African tribal rhythms.

Hooker's music is spooky tone poetry rather than cathartic riff slinging: impressionistic, minimalist, understated, always tense and brooding and ticking like a time bomb ready to explode at any second. The fact that it never really detonates but rather maintains a malevolent presence is the key to his black magic. It's like having Mike Tyson's fist lingering in your face but never connecting with your skull—you experience a taut, vicarious anxiety, a compelling intimidation.

Hooker has been an imposing influence on rock & roll—Captain Beefheart, Tom Waits, ZZ Top, George Thorogood and Canned Heat are among the legions who have attempted to cop his form over the decades, with varying degrees of success. Since his remarkable, recent commercial acceptance as a divine elder statesman, Hooker has frequently found himself saddled in the studio with rock musicians, most of them ofays, who want to touch his robe and have some of that essential ghetto greaze wipe off on them. In many cases, it has been an appalling mistake (Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt), as Hooker cut them to ribbons simply by uttering a few well-placed grunts and groans or playing a slicing note or two on the guitar. In rare cases (Van Morrison, Ben Harper), there was a connection and symbiosis that served to illuminate how vastly important his work has been in the development of rock music right up through the present.

Hooker is a very old man now (he'll turn 80 in August), and he appears onstage as an indigo mummy adorned in Superfly finery, from the Stetson on his head to the ribbed, purple-nylon pimp socks on his feet. He sits in a chair, guitar in hand, those hooded eye slits often covered with shades—and seems almost motionless. Yet those same intoxicatingly primitive sounds emerge from his fingers and throat, adding to the mystique of a man who somehow seems cosmically plugged into all the dreads and riddles of hell.

John Lee Hooker plays the Sun Theater on Thursday, April 6. Catch him now, not the next time he comes through town—because at his age, there may not be a next time, and you, too, must touch his robe in your lifetime.

More than any other genre, jazz offers the ever-present potential for highly flammable jam sessions. That's part of jazz's legacy and heritage—the best always somehow manage to find their way to one another to see what happens when they share a stage. That tradition comes to OC Saturday night when THE NEWPORT JAZZ MILLENNIUM CELEBRATION—featuring trumpeters NICHOLAS PAYTON and RANDY BRECKER, pianist CEDAR WALTON, saxophonist RED HOLLOWAY, guitarist HOWARD ALDEN, trombonist JOEL HELLENY, bassist SEAN CONLEY and drummer ADONIS ROSE—besieges the Irvine Barclay Theatre. The potential for aural fireworks is vast indeed, as this lineup represents three or four generations of players, a wide range of styles and approaches, and the tired-but-true axiom that great musicians will bring out the best in one another.

At the tender age of 27, Payton is perhaps the most famed of this estimable crew, at least partly because he has attained the most mainstream exposure. A protégé of the Marsalis family, he was a veteran of the road before he was even a teenager. By the time his first solo album was released in 1995, Payton had already toured with such heavy company as Elvin Jones, Clark Terry and Marcus Roberts. Noted for his emotive phrasing, fat-assed tones and roots in traditional New Orleans jazz, Payton is considered by many the best brass player of all the so-called "Young Lions."

Contrasting the devout Payton is Brecker, who is something of a musical chameleon. He's an alumnus of Al Kooper's original, sublime Blood Sweat & Tears, not to mention the bands of Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Charles Mingus and Joe Henderson, but he has also dabbled in fusion with Frank Zappa, Larry Coryell and Jaco Pastorius—not to mention his work with sibling saxophonist Mike in the Brecker Brothers. He has also kept company with such rock and funk acts as James Brown, George Clinton, Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney and Diana Ross. Brecker's playing is technically dazzling post-bop, more seasoned and fluid than Payton's but lacking the down-home soul of his younger confederate.

Representing the old guard here are Holloway and Walton. Equally at home on alto and tenor, whether playing blues or bop, swing or soul, the 73-year-old Holloway has a résumé that reads like a Who's Who in American Music, including dates with so many legendary names it would be absurd to try to list them all here. For all the eclectic nature of his career, though, Holloway is a bopper at heart, as evidenced by his always harmonically clever soloing. He's also an effective and amusing blues shouter.

Walton is a marvelously expressive and melodic bop pianist who loses nothing in the groove department, as his experiments with funk on electric piano in the '70s clearly demonstrated. At age 66, Walton has played with almost as many greats as Holloway and continues to keep unexpected company such as his recent work with Etta James, which helped transform the gritty soul diva into a surprisingly convincing jazz songstress.

Long Beach's BOURBON JONES have gone Hollywood on us! The raunchy gospel/country blues band, longtime regulars at the Blue Cafe, will have tracks from their debut CD, Glory Train, prominently featured in the upcoming film Poor White Trash—including the opening and closing credits. The flick is directed by Michael Addis (a veteran of San Diego new-wave group the Playground Slap) and stars William Devane, Sean Young and Jamie Pressly. You can catch the Jones boys Saturday night at the Abilene Rose.

John Lee Hooker performs at the Sun Theatre, 2200 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim, (714) 712-2700. Thurs., April 6, 8:30 p.m. $38.50-$45; the Newport Jazz Millennium Celebration takes over the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Dr., Irvine, (949) 854-4646. Sat., 8 p.m. $33-$38; Bourbon Jones plays the Abilene Rose, 10830 Warner Ave., Fountain Valley, (714) 963-1700. Sat., 9 p.m. $7.
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