Out of Horror, Blues

The liner notes in bluesman's JAMES ARMSTRONG's latest CD, Got It Goin' On, say, "The Dark Night has passed." That night has been longer, darker and more filled with nightmares than most would ever imagine.

Four years ago, Armstrong and his two young sons were the victims of a home invasion. The assailant stabbed Armstrong several times, and as he lay bleeding, Armstrong watched in horror as the perp threw his two-year-old boy off a second-floor balcony, fracturing his skull.

Armstrong's son recovered fully and has no memory of the incident. But the singer/songwriter/guitarist can't forget. Armstrong suffered extensive nerve damage to his hand; suddenly, the nimble, fleet-fingered guitar licks that came so easily were a thing of the past. He was filled with rage and despair; he became depressed.

It's a testament to Armstrong's talent and tenacity that he adjusted his guitar style so that the problems are almost imperceptible: if his fingers no longer have the speed, Armstrong's playing is tastier, more soulful. He compensated for lack of mobility with thoughtful, lyrical phrasing that recalls the classic vibe of such guitarists as the Alberts Collins and King. Armstrong also took up slide guitar—the style requires less dexterity of the fingers than conventional playing and was a natural direction to move in. Listening to his bottleneck work on Goin' On, it's almost unbelievable that Armstrong is a novice at the style.

Some Catholic saint once said pain is the touchstone of all spiritual growth. And, indeed, the payoff for years of physical and psychological pain and intensive re-learning is that Goin' On is a superbly crafted blues album by any barometer, not just the sympathy card. Armstrong has emerged a more mature and thoughtful musician for his trouble.

Armstrong's attacker was apprehended the same day he nearly ended two lives, and will spend the next 20-plus years rotting in prison—and, by the grace of God, tossing the salad of a large, smelly, psychotic cellmate with infected piles. If it takes Armstrong just as long to fully recover, his story remains inspirational; a tale of the triumph of spirit and will over the most horrific obstacles.

"I used to have goals set for myself, but not anymore," Armstrong reflects. "It's just so nice to be able to feel like I have a future; now that's all I need." Armstrong also needs you to show up Friday at the Blue Cafe and cheer him on.

With his cerebral, studiously highbrow music, DAVE BRUBECK has been one of the most controversial figures in jazz history. A classically trained formalist in a genre personified by the spirit of bold improvisation, Brubeck was equally embraced and dismissed by critics during his heyday in the 1950s and '60s. Perhaps this had as much to do with his "whoodda thunkit" commercial success as anything else—the Brubeck Quartet's 1960 recording of "Take Five" is one of only a handful of jazz singles that ever became an across-the-board hit record. But there's no denying that the pianist's horn-rimmed intellectualism went against the grain of what had been perceived as music born of daring, adventure and passion.

Brubeck took the concept of "cool jazz" deep into Arctic territory. Utilizing unusual time signatures and polytonality that sometimes seemed more mathematical than emotional, his music was and is the stuff of collegiate wet dreams. By his own admission, Brubeck always considered himself a composer rather than a chops monkey, but when a middle-class white guy in a starched shirt and skinny tie became more renowned than such contemporary, innovative geniuses as Miles and Coltrane, contention was the inevitable result.

Four decades have passed since Brubeck was a cause celebre, but he has remained active ever since, writing and performing classical music, ballets, musicals, and Masses, as well as jazz works and complex compositions that combined elements of all genres. A recent album of solo piano work proved that Brubeck still plays nearly as well as ever at the age of 80. Historical hindsight has taken him off the pedestal he once occupied; Miles and Coltrane have now assumed their rightful place as the true icons of the era. So now it's time to give Brubeck his props: the man carved out a unique niche for himself, and if in the grand scheme of things he was overrated by his fans, he was also unfairly dismissed by his detractors. Jazz encompasses an awesome umbrella of sounds and styles; Brubeck's splash of rain will doubtless come to be appreciated more after he's passed from the scene. Meanwhile, he's still here on the planet and will appear Thursday, Sept. 13 through Sept. 15 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. It's a rare opportunity to experience a most unusual piece of past jazz history in the flesh.

James Armstrong performs at the Blue Cafe, 210 Promenade, Long Beach, (562) 983-7111. Fri., 10 p.m. $8. 21+; Dave Brubeck plays at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 556 ARTS. Thurs., Sept. 13-Sept. 15, 7:30 p.m. $80. All ages.


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