Tomas Doncker + Yusef Komunyakaa – Big Apple Blues (2014)

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Big Apple Blues, the second collaboration between the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa and Tomas Doncker, begins with such a huge statement that you might be forgiven for thinking it was the finale. But it sets the tone for this larger than life recording.

The opening title track is big, dark and suggestive throughout, with Doncker’s vocals keeping you just this side of the deep darkness. “Can’t Say No” follows and is an upbeat, distinctly sassy number with the vocal lines shown off against tight musical support from the band and a quirky harmonica solo in the middle section. “The New Day” is emotive and tells of the fight against oppression, while “Hell Fighters of Harlem” is a really strong track with open guitar chords and strong vocals, telling the story of fighters overseas. The relentless, slow beat and strong lyrics, along with Doncker’s sheer power in his vocals make remaining unmoved by this track a near impossibility.

“At This Midnight Hour” is very listenable, and leads into the wonderful “Little Blue Room,” where Doncker sounds like a cross between Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. His vocals are exceptional here and this is a really strongly structured track, full of strong rhythms, rhythm that makes your feet move and guitar work to die for. “Coney Island” is a gentle, upbeat number and “That Horse,” which follows, is fun and sets the stage for the reflective and emotive “Ground Zero,” which conjures up images and memories of terrible events. “Ground Zero” is, perhaps, the most powerful song on the album, delivered with high octane guitars backing and vocals nearly off the scale in their strength. “Fun City” seems almost light in comparism, and contrasts well with what went before to finish the album on a lighter note.

Big Apple Blues (True Grove Records) follows The Mercy Suite, an earlier collaboration between Doncker Komunyakaa that also featured Meshell Ndegeocello, Chocolate Genius, and Living Colour lead singer Corey Glover. Yusef Komunyakaa is the son of a carpenter and has traveled extensively, becoming a scholar, professor, and prize-winning poet. In 1994, he claimed the Pulitzer Prize and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award for his Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems. His poems often deal important events in his life like his service in Vietnam, his childhood, and they do so with raw emotions.

Tomas Doncker has served guitarist with groups including James Chance and the Contortions, Defunkt, J. Walter Negro and the Loose Jointz and has recorded and toured with Japanese jazz pianist Masabumi Kikuchi. He has also produced studio and songwriting sessions with Bootsy Collins, Yoko Ono, the Grammy-nominated reggae vocal group The Itals, and Grammy-winning producer Prince Charles Alexander. He has worked with Ivan Neville, Bonnie Raitt and Shamekia Copeland. Earlier this year, he released his album Moanin’ at Midnight: The Howlin’ Wolf Project (also True Groove) and has been featured on CNN, in Guitar World, The Source, Something Else! and Huffington Post.

That speaks to Tomas Doncker’s distinctive voice, one which perfectly suits the blues music he plays. He has the strength of Waters, that slight loss of the final consonants of Lee Hooker and the interpretation of Howlin’ Wolf and yet adds his own quirks. All this, together with superb musicians behind him and his guitar make Big Apple Blues an album which is easy to listen to, yet will not remain as background music because the feeling and emotion put into the songs invades your conscience. One thing it is impossible to do as you play this CD is stay still. Those feet start moving, closely followed by your heart and maybe your soul.

Sammy Stein

Sammy Stein

The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, Jazz.com and UltimateClassicRock.com, among others. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Sammy Stein
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