Thursday, April 17, 2008

Stars in My Crown - Jorma Kaukonen

Top-notch artistry with gentle wisdom that is quietly compelling

Stars in My Crown
Artist: Jorma Kaukonen
Label: Red House Records (http://www.redhouserecords.com/)
Length: 14 tracks/52:41 minutes

Jorma Kaukonen has come full circle on Stars in My Crown. At a young age he drew deep from the well that Rev. Gary Davis provided, a man known for his elaborate fingerstyle fretwork. Kaukonen adopted and mastered this style.

Along the way, there was more that he would take to heart. "I was fond of gospel and spirituals," Kaukonen writes in the liner notes of this CD. "My mom had turned me onto Mahalia Jackson when I was a kid in D.C., and gospel music always seemed to be a comfortable place to go."

As a founder of Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, his music took him down different roads, "but spirituals always seem to help light the way," he recalls. This explains Jefferson Airplane’s recording of the obscure spiritual "Good Shepherd," when they were at the pinnacle of their career. It was one of their best songs. Kaukonen’s connection with gospel and roots music has always been an influence, but its out in the open on this CD.

"Overture: Heart Temporary," written by Kaukonen, starts it off with a stunningly beautiful combination of music and spiritual reflection. The chorus reminds us of our need for grace: "When the best you have to offer falls short of the mark, self-inflicted holes are piercing deep within your heart." As he reflects on the best moments in life, he sings, "At such a time you think you’d find, a way to show your heart. And though you’re reaching for her hand, still you walk apart." This is one of a number of songs reflecting simple but profound insights on life.

The music is acoustic, sparse and in a mellower vein, reflecting a man at peace with his maker, himself and the world around him. His sixty-six years have brought him to the place where he finds joy in expressing himself in earthy songs that have a subtle but spiritual influence.

I can’t help smiling thinking about the Lightning Hopkins’ blues classic, "Come Back, Baby." There’s something about great picking that elevates my mood, and the song contains one-line spiritual references that come out of nowhere. Kaukonen’s voice is strong, and the blues licks are amazing. He is in the groove, but this is just a sample of the finger picking that you find throughout this recording.

Hot Tuna collaborator, Barry Mitterhoff, plays on almost every song. Sorry, if you are a Jack Casady (Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna) fan, he’s nowhere to be found, but Kaukonen has assembled a group of musicians that would make Ricky Skaggs proud. This is right up there with the best playing found on gospel and spiritual songs. Along with those styles you get a variety of folk, bluegrass, country, blues, and even reggae.

Kaukonen pays tribute to his mentor the Rev. Gary Davis by including one of his songs, "There’s a Table Sitting in Heaven." He has also does a dramatic version of "The Man Comes Around," by Johnny Cash. The man in black would no doubt approve of this combination of spine-tingling music and spoken word.

The title song is southern gospel at its best. The CD also includes several beautiful instrumentals written by Kaukonen.

I wonder if many people of faith will hear this recording. My guess is that not many will, which is a shame, because this is a real find. It combines top-notch artistry with gentle wisdom that is quietly compelling.
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