The source material here speaks to the essential versatility of these two Georgia-based music industry vets. Blues Say Goodbye includes two blues tracks, a quartet of jazz standards, three smartly reworked rock songs and two originals.
Peek in on their respective resumes, and that varied setlist makes perfect sense: Pianist Mike Ewbank is perhaps best known for his work on Butch’s Brew, by Butch Trucks of the Allman Brothers Band. He also has worked with Joe English, drummer for Paul McCartney and Wings through four albums in the 1970s. Bassist Tommy Dean, meanwhile, has done sessions work with Joe South (1975’s Midnight Rainbows) and written songs recorded by Joe Walsh (“No Peace in the Jungle”), South (“Home and Homesick”), Tinsley Ellis and Billy Joe Royal In keeping, they are just as apt on Blues Say Goodbye to burst into a Great American Songbook favorite, as they are a country-fried blues. Sometimes, it happens all at once.
Jack White’s “Seven Nation Army” may be the project’s best example of that malleability: Dean begins with an approachable scat, bubbling with wordless joy over his own insistent bass figure. But when he gets to the lyric, Dean switches to a blues-soaked bark, giving the song a new edge. Later, as Ewbank takes over for an improvisational excursion, the tune switches gears again – moving into a finger-snapping cadence – and Ewbank answers in kind, swinging like mad. Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home,” brilliantly reconfigured on Blues Say Goodbye as a lightly grooved West Coast jazz item, is a similarly inspired choice. Ewbank plays with a sweet delicacy that recalls Vince Guaraldi. Even a well-worn jazz standard like Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia on My Mind” is given new life, if only because this duo approaches the material with a home-grown sense of pride.
They have mixed results, however, with songs more closely associated with Frank Sinatra: There’s a hound-dog charm to “You Make Me Feel So Long.” Whereas the urbane original was as smooth as silk, Dean’s take is more conversational, rougher around the edges, and joy-filled in its own shaggy way. “It Was a Very Good Year,” another Sinatra staple, doesn’t fare as well, though: Reworked into a lilting after-hours number, the song now plays like a randy sexual adventure. Devoid of the wine-dark middle-aged sense of loss that Sinatra gave it, this tune no longer has an emotional punch. Blues Say Goodbye also seems to make an argument for more of their original material. The terrific title track is a loping slice of soul, while their “Save the Sweet Dream for Me” circles back around to the cerulean cool of their take on “Can’t Find My Way Home.”
Even so, Dean and Ewbank continue to delight with their offbeat choices for cover material. Would anybody else – heck, could anybody else? – stack a Led Zeppelin song next to an Ellington favorite? Dean and Ewbank do, with “Going to California” (featuring a moving solo by saxophonist Karen Greene, who’s worked with Natalie Cole, Neena Freelon and Melva Houston) leading right into “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ but the Blues.” In their capable hands, though, it makes all makes perfect sense. The Atlanta-based Keith Runfola and Tommy Sauter sit in on drums and bass for that Ellington track, which then leads into a well-conceived closing sequence featuring Sammy Cahn’s “Teach Me Tonight” and the always-fun Louis Jordan barn-burner “Let the Good Times Roll.”
On the first, Dean and Ewbank indulge in a moment of crystalline reverie – something that would have strengthened “It Was a Very Good Year” immeasurably, by the way – while on the last, they simply let it all hang down. Is there any more appropriate way to end things on the endlessly entertaining, just as endlessly varied Blues Say Goodbye?