By Daniel Garrett
Davell Crawford, My Gift to You
Arranged and Produced by Davell Crawford
Basin Street Records, 2013
Davell Crawford has toured the United States and Europe, Asia, North Africa, and South America. Informed by classical music and the blues, and an admirer of Alicia Keys and John (Stephens) Legend, the New Orleans prodigy Davell Crawford and his album My Gift to You have an epic range, but it is possible the recording would be more effective without two or three of its Louisiana tributes. On My Gift to You, with a softly carnivalesque sound for a song of personal and cultural history, “Creole Man” indicates diverse ancestry—African, Native American, etcetera. The sensitive voice of the singer Davell Crawford is greatly appealing. “River” is uptempo, textured funk; with a marvelous chorus, and the interpolations of Doctor John and Big Freedia and Donald Harrison Jr. It is true that Davell Crawford, a musician in sacred and secular music, and the grandson of singer-songwriter and trumpeter Sugar Boy Crawford, has performed with Ruth Brown and Anders Osborne; and Davell Crawford is also musical heir to men such as Professor Longhair and James Booker and Allen Toussaint, so celebration and tribute may be a natural inclination. Yet, the work here is more about emotion than thought. One of the collection’s strongest songs is “Junco Partner Cud’in Joe,” known as performed by James Booker; and, by Crawford, it is a sensual, sultry interpretation, with Crawford’s voice androgynous (Crawford’s control of tone is perfect; and he can sound earthy and tough too for certain lines—experienced). There is great piano and supporting rhythm. The lyrics mention a taste for whiskey, heroin, and Jesus.
Crawford’s album has earned applause. Steve Jones in the June 11, 2013 USA Today declared, “The New Orleans pianist’s first album in 14 years is a richly textured, genre-spanning batch of songs that deal with loss and yearning for home. His smooth vocals and help from some famous hometown friends make for an exhilarating return.” In the online magazine Pop Matters (June 11, 2013), Brent Faulkner wrote, “Over the course of his 2013 album, My Gift to You, Crawford enlightens his audience and hometown through his prodigious, breathtaking musical talents. Consistent and alluring from top to finish, My Gift to You is a fine effort straddling numerous musical styles including R&B, funk, jazz and blues.” Yet, in a May 1, 2013 review Brett Milano in the New Orleans roots magazine Offbeat had observed, “This 75-minute disc is at various times a New Orleans R&B album, a Creole roots disc, a bunch of collaborations, a set of sophisticated pop, and a collection of unlikely singer/songwriter covers; and it doesn’t even cover everything Crawford can do (there’s none of the B3-driven jazz-funk to which he devoted a ’90s album).”
On My Gift to You, “The River of Dreams,” the Billy Joel composition, is a wanderer’s tale of traveling during sleep—in dreams; and it is tender, pretty. The narrator mentions looking for something “somebody stole.” Brent Faulkner in Pop Matters noted: “Billy Joel cover ‘The River of Dreams’ delivers a roots appeal, given the use of acoustic guitar and bluesy chordal piano passages. Supporting vocals towards the end firmly add the gospel idiom to the mix.” Delicate and fresh is “Fire and Rain,’ written by James Taylor, and here featuring Nicholas Payton with Davell Crawford. Crawford performs Allen Toussaint’s “Southern Nights.” The lengthy instrumental “Southern Nights/Many Rivers to Cross” begins softly but becomes serious exuberant; whereas “Don’t Ever Be Blue,” a song of reverie and encouragement, has a slow, country pace, and features Steve Riley on fiddle. An interplay of rhythms that defy category, with an erotic theme in the text, can be heard in “Louisiana Sunday Afternoon,” for which Crawford is joined by flutist Bobbi Humphrey. The tribute song “Southern Girl” is busy, bustling; and neither melody or rhythm seems firm (it is more of a riff or a jam than a song, in instrumental terms). There is a frantic rhythm to another tribute song, “Southern Woman.” A speculative ballad of exile, memory, and doubt, “Stranger in My Own Home” has piano and bass, an affective accompaniment; also strings and horn, with instruments and voice creating a dramatic intimacy. “Until I See You In A While” is song as connector between distances. “Going Back to Louisiana,” acknowledging intertwined cultures, features Dr. John and chorus. “Can’t Find My Way Home,” a Steve Winwood song, is a bluesy personal hymn of exhaustion, search, and determination. “Ode to Louisiana,” the closing sentimental ballad declares, “I promise to someday come home.”
Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.