David Maxwell

David Maxwell
Ten Fingers - Infinite Hooks

By A.J. Wachtel
November 2010

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Even if David Maxwell wasn’t globally known as the heir apparent to the musical legacy of Otis Spann his enormous contributions to the history of the development of the Blues genre would still insure his place in any Blues Artists Hall of Fame. And even if he never played another note again his knowledge and verbal renditions of his involvement in the evolution of the entertainment scene is both spellbinding and priceless: from growing up and learning the Blues with Alan Wilson from Canned Heat to touring with Freddie King and having gigs with Muddy, Eric Clapton and Keith Richards to his current involvement with the release of “Conversations In Blue” (Vizztone), David's biography is fascinating; sort of like a storybook character coming to life. Read on and catch a glimpse:

BBS: You grew up with Alan Wilson from Canned Heat in Arlington, Ma. How close were you two, and were you friends with him in the mid 60’s when he played his open-tuned guitar on Son House's recordings?

MAX: Alan and I grew up in adjacent towns: me, in Lexington MA and him in Arlington. I forgot how we met exactly; possibly through one of his friends who was at Lexington High School with me (Class of '61). Alan was into real New Orleans music at the time: George Lewis, Kid Ory and the like. Alan played trombone: we had regular jams at an older drummer's parent’s house in Lexington, joined by another musician or two. Alan and I were close: he was philosophical and sensitive and explored many musical worlds: early New Orleans music, jazz, ethnomusicology, and blues. All this brought us together, whether it was in a listening booth in one of the Cambridge record shops or going on excursions into Harvard Square to Albioni's all night cafeteria.

“Baddest dude since Otis Spann- and that's MAJOR! Different than Spann-he's Moagy and in his own right-He got it right and moved it forward. A man and a player to be hailed” - T-Blade (Steve) Berkowitz

BBS: Alan was known for his blues harp with the fat tone and great vibrato. Did you know him as a harpist or a guitar player?

MAX: My family moved to Arlington just a few blocks away from Alan's family house in the mid-sixties. We were still friends, of course and I was aware of his work with Son House. Alan had moved into Harvard Square, and at some point migrated to CA where the Canned Heat project was spawned. I knew him when he began to play guitar and harp. (He had abandoned trombone because he couldn't surmount some “lipping problems”- so he just dropped it and moved on to mouth harp). He eventually started messing around with Indian string instruments; sitar, tanpura and vina. He had great ears and tuned his instruments precisely.

“David Maxwell is literally a genius of Blues piano,” is what I thought the first time I saw him more than 40 years ago. He proves it in thousands of gigs and recordings since then. His soulful talent is a gift to us.” – Bob Margolin

BBS: Any good stories about you and Alan you'd care to share?

MAX: Alan was a sensitive guy, concerned about the state of the world and the suffering of so many people, as well as the ecology of the planet, etc. etc. Alan Watts and his lectures on Buddhism were up there on his list. He wasn't too concerned about his personal appearance when we were hanging out; it was all about the music, art and philosophical concerns (and baseball). When he met Skip James and wanted to learn something about playing harp, I seem to remember Alan's feelings were hurt when Skip told him that he was “fat”-that really bummed him out. Overall, Alan was so into the sounds-transcribing music (Skip James' piano style and Robert Pete Williams' guitar licks, among others) that were published in Broadsides Magazine. But it wasn't just pre-war and post-war blues for Alan. He was curious and listened a lot: Cecil Taylor, Sam Rivers, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, Thelonius Monk, Ali Akbar Khan, Ravi Shankar, John Cage and contemporary classical music, etc. In short, his tastes were eclectic, and I credit him with turning me on to stuff I didn't know about. He was kind of a purist; for instance he used to complain about Northern Indian music that the time sped up as the raga unfolded whereas in Southern Indian music the rhythm held steady and that agreed with his nature.

BBS: What was the local music scene like when you two were getting into the blues in suburban MA? Who did you listen to on the radio and where did you go to see shows? What great artists did you see growing up?

MAX: The local music scene: for a kid in Lexington, MA in the late 50's and early 60's............nothing. I remember seeing posters on street lamps and telephone poles in Boston advertising.....BB King, Bobby Blue Bland, etc at Louis Lounge and soul acts at Estelle's and jazz guys at Connolly's (I saw Sunny Stitt there) but in high school where were we to go? I played gigs but it was the teenage band kind of thing: a little R and B, some pop covers and some jazz. In junior high school I played Dixieland, and for a bit in high school before I got a little more “hip” with the jazz sounds Soon, Alan and I and the guys we were jamming with in high school played Bobby Timmons, Cannonball, Fathead- no “folk blues”. Alan played trombone-no harp at all. On the radio, WILD played soul and blues and gospel (Skippy White's programs), but coming out of high school, I was more focused on the jazz scene. I went to NYC and remember one show at the Jazz Gallery downtown on New Year's Eve, 1960. Drinking age was 18 back then. I sat overlooking the stage from around 9 PM to 3 AM watching back to back performances of the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet featuring James Moody on sax and Lalo Schifrin on piano, and the Thelonius Monk Quartet with Charlie Rouse on sax! that afternoon (Sunday) I remember getting off the bus at the Port Authority Building and walking into the Metropole Club and hearing Lionel Hampton's Band blasting away. I thought that stuff too square-I was disappointed-it was the hipper shit I wanted to hear (which I did) later that night. Later on it was Cecil Taylor and Alber Ayler and Slugs, down on the Lower East Side.

“A TRUE piano man of boogie-woogie; God bless David Maxwell” – Preacher Jack

BBS: Alan's body was found in Bear Hite's backyard in '70 under strange circumstances and Hite died in '81 of a supposed heart attack. Do you know the real stories behind their deaths?

MAX: All I know of Alan's death was that he misjudged the dose of sleeping pills.....unintentionally. He liked sleeping outside and under the redwoods particularly. I have no information about Bob Hite's death.

BBS: Do you currently keep in touch with his family still in Arlington?

MAX: I keep in touch with Alan's mother in Arlington, although it has been awhile. His father passed away years ago and Alan's siblings and their families are in the area.

BBS: You appeared with John Lee Hooker on the Dick Cavett Show in '69. How did this happen and what was Hooker like? Any funny stories about the gig or the man himself you'd like to talk about?

MAX: I began playing with Hooker when he came to Boston-when he needed a band behind him. Peter Malick was involved in that as well and Billy Colwell earlier. So when Hooker was invited to appear on a pilot show of Dick Cavett's in the summer of '69 in NYC, I tagged along with the rest of the band That same weekend Woodstock was happening and Canned Heat played. I wanted to get there but traveling was impossible. Hooker was great any time he came to town; he stayed at the Lenox Hotel in Copley Square (he played at the Jazz Workshop on Boylston St.) and used to hold court in his hotel room. the talk and action between us was mostly about women; one old dog to one aspiring young dog. He loved Otis Spann and he really liked my playing; we remained always great friends throughout the decades.

BBS: In the early '70's you toured with Freddie King. I recently saw a great video from '73 of “Have You Ever Loved a Woman?” from the 1973 Montreaux Music Festival. You told me you had an interesting story about that show. Care to share? Also, what was touring with Freddie like for you being young and white? What do you miss most about Freddie?

MAX: When I was with Freddie it was a very intense time for me. (I was) out on the road for the first time, getting a taste of that blues culture: both the down-home African American Southern stuff and the crossover to middle class white America. The story on Montreux on “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” is this: in that tune Freddie always gave me a solo. If you watch the camera pan to Freddie near the end of my solo you can see him wind up and get ready to stroke it at the top of the next chorus. However, I thought I would stretch it and take another chorus (probably the first and only time I did this). So you see the grimace on Freddie's face when he realizes what is happening: it’s an agonized look, as though someone had kicked him in the stomach-or worse. Priceless! At one point, we had an old beat up Greyhound bus. Freddie knocked out a seat near the back and put a piece of plywood on the frame and turned around the next seat so- there was our card table. Freddie loved to gamble and drink and it was kind of mandatory to play poker if you knew how, so there goes my money.......he would fine me as well for stuff: leaving peanut shells in the bus or one time he detected some sardine oil that had spilled on a seat and fingered me; another time I was a few minutes late making it to the club, another time I was too high. He liked to play the boss-and also wanted his band to sound good. I was the only white guy in the band and I think he kind of relished messing with me a little. I would laugh in his face when he fined me-he liked my playing and never fired me. I left on my own accord because I wanted to do some other stuff. A few weeks later I joined Bonnie Raitt.

BBS: On that video, Freddie plays with no pick; just using his fingertips to pluck the strings. Was this his usual M.O. when playing the guitar?

MAX: He played both ways-fingers and picks-I didn't pay too much attention to that.

BBS: You've played with Muddy too. How did this happen and what was Muddy like? What was your favorite song to play in his band and why?

MAX: One night in Boston in 1969 at the Jazz Workshop Muddy asked me to fill in for Otis Spann who was sick. It was a great thrill. I asked Muddy how I did and he said “OK-stay in one place more.” I knew what he meant; be more supportive. Don't show off so much. I loved playing the slow stuff with Muddy, particularly “Five Long Years”.

“What's exciting about David's playing isn't just his blues mastery-although he is the most direct link to music's greatest piano man, Otis Spann- but his incredible range, which can shift from classicism to pure gut improvisation to Eastern music all within the passage of a few measures. He is truly an under-appreciated giant of the instrument, as well as being a colorful, interesting person.” - Ted Drozdowski (The Scissormen)

BBS: You backed up Keith Richards and Eric Clapton on Hubert Sumlin's 2005 CD “About Them Shoes”. Were you all in the same room playing together at the same time? What are Keith and Eric like? Did you talk blues with them? Did you jam together? If so, what songs did you play together?

MAX: On the Hubert album I was in the studio three separate times. Eric came in and was all business; played his tunes, a few photos and that was it. On a separate session with Keith it was one long jam with his buddies. Eric played Long Distance Call” and “I'm Ready”. Keith just played and played. On the album a duet with just him and Hubert was used-none of the other stuff.

BBS: Your music was used in the movie “Fried Green Tomatoes” and on the TV series “Touched by An Angel”. Tell me about this.

MAX: I did some music for a sound library. One of the sequences was used on an episode of “Touched by An Angel”. On the “Fried Green Tomatoes” sound track I was recording with Ronnie Earl and Peter Wolf singing. Ironically, what ended up in the actual movie, behind a car jockeying battle in a parking lot, was the high end piano solo of one of the tunes we recorded. Go figure.

BBS: You were on Late Night with Conan O'Brien in 1999. Did you talk blues or Boston with him? Is he a blues fan?

MAX: I played with the band on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. We never talked on stage. My friend, guitarist Jimmy Vavino, was responsible for getting me on the show.

BBS: You've had 7 W.C. Handy Award nominations correct? And you've won Grammy Awards too, right?

MAX: I've been nominated seven times for the “Pinetop Perkins Piano Player of the Year” for the national W.C Handy/Blues Music Awards. I won the 2010 Blues Music Award: Acoustic Album of the Year” for a CD I produced and played on with Louisiana Red called “You Got to Move”. I contributed to the 1998 Grammy Award winning album James Cotton's “Deep in the Blues”. I've contributed to a handful or more of albums nominated for Grammys and Blues Music Awards. There's been other stuff too, like the Boston Music Awards “Best Blues Act” for 2009 and 2008.

BBS: You write most of your own material. What covers have you done onstage and on your releases?

MAX: My blues based material is a synthesis of classic styles (like Spann and Pinetop) mixed in with some boogie- woogie feels derived from the greats (Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson and Meade Lux Lewis) with some gospel/jazz stylings (Ray Charles, Richard Tee and such) combined with my own jazz predilections and phrasing. One cover I particularly enjoy playing is “After Hours”, he Avery Parrish classic. Some of my instrumentals are modeled on some Spann influenced licks. I play a lot of jazz-tunes and such, but I particularly enjoy open improvisation. I do regular gigs around town with some great musicians. One series I call “OutTakes Unlimited”. I just came back from NYC to hear an Iranian trance/dance group. Some of my favorite music is Iranian Classical and Japanese Gagaku. Also (I enjoy), Balinese Gamelan, North African, Egyptian, Turkish, Afro-Cuban and on and on. There is so much great stuff out there; indigenous and folk music from ethnic groups all over the globe. And don’t get me started on contemporary Classical composers: Ligeti, Messaien. Xenakis, Morton Feldman, Stockhausen, and many lesser known artists.

“David Maxwell has been THE Blues piano player in Boston for good forty years now-hands down, no contest. He's worked around the globe with so many of the Blues heavyweights; he's really become a bit of an icon himself and the rightful heir to Spann's throne. But beyond that, he's a brilliant, wide-ranging player who applies his soulful style to anything he touches.” - Rosy Rosenblatt (Vizztone Records)

BBS: What are you up to now?

MAX: I have a new CD “Conversations In Blue” to be officially released next spring although there will be a pre-release party at Club Passim (the location of the seminal Club 47) in Cambridge, where I used to hear Muddy with Cotton and (Otis) Spann. Son House, Skip James and so many more in the mid to late sixties (would also play the Club 47). The Club 47 used to be on 47 Mt. Auburn St where Joan Baez and so many more folkies played. In high school, just to tie all this in, Alan and I went to the original Club 47 to hear Sam Rivers, the great sax player. Sitting in one night was this 12 year old drummer, Tony Williams. Years later, when I heard that the Club 47 was doing blues, and not just the folk stuff I wasn't into , I decided to hear one of these guys that had been “rediscovered”-possibly Son House-and I showed up at the old location on Mt. Auburn St. not realizing the club had relocated to its present spot in Harvard Square. So, on Nov.3rd, I will be playing at Passim and I will have copies of the new CD. The CD features four “duets” with Spann and me (where I've overdubbed instrumentals from the 1960 Candid Records sessions, one with Robert Junior Lockwood that Alan and I used to listen to), seven new solo pieces of mine where I bring out the Spann influences and a Spann solo piece. Plus (there is) a 12 page booklet describing aspects of my blues journey. Wednesday, No. 3rd at Club Passim is the pre-release party at 8 p.m. Troy Gonyea (The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Booker T) will be playing guitar and Per Hanson will be on drums.

BBS: Any advice for young aspiring blues artists on how to survive and get your music heard today in this tough economy?

MAX: Advice to young aspiring blues artists. Play what's in your heart and say what's important to you; be true to the blues sound but be open to fresh concepts. Keep blues out of the museum by making your message vital, reflecting what's happening today. Master networking skills.....and find another way to make money if you need to. You can live simply, but there's no virtue in scuffling.

For more information on David Maxwell’s shows or back catalog, please check out www.davidmaxwell.com


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