“See, I’ve always had this identity crisis, whether or not I was a jazz or blues musician.”
For decades Boston blues fans could sleep easy knowing that David Maxwell was on the scene. From the 1970s until February 15, 2015 – when Maxwell died at age 71 from prostate cancer – his presence supplied comfort, both musical and psychic. He was as good a blues pianist as anyone could hope to find anywhere and Boston had him. He was a constant presence, at least when he wasn’t on the road backing up the likes of Freddie King, Bonnie Raitt, Otis Rush, James Cotton and many others over the years.
Maxwell was so adept as a sideman that he did not get around to putting out “Maximum Blues Piano,” his first album as a leader, until 1997. It was the perfect occasion for me to write a long overdue story on him. We met at David’s, a now-shuttered restaurant on Stuart Street in Boston’s theater district. I had gotten to know Maxwell about five years earlier while working on a story about the life and legacy of the late Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson of Canned Heat, an Arlington, Mass. native who helped set Maxwell on his musical path when they were both in high school. When we sat down for lunch, Maxwell, who grew up a town over from Arlington in Lexington, recalled how he first met Wilson through a drummer they both knew. Soon after they started jamming together, while also listening to and seeking out their blues heroes.
When the conversation turned to Maxwell’s solo recording debut, he surprised me. The “Maximum Blues” pianist was highly ambivalent about wearing the “blues” label. He loved the blues, no question, but he did not want the blues to define him. He had a deep interest jazz, as well as Indian, Arabic and African music; even as he was releasing his first blues album, he already was thinking ahead to what he wanted to explore on future recordings, which he notably did on his world fusion album “Blues in Other Colors.” But the blues kept calling and Maxwell’s discography grew to include duet albums with Otis Spann and Louisiana Red and a collection of collaborations with Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin, Duke Robillard, Kim Wilson and more. A bluesman and seeker until the end.
June 27, 1997
Over lunch in Boston
Why after so many years did you decide to do a solo album now?
That’s a great question. I’ve been asked that before. Sometimes I say, “Well, I’ve been too busy backing up other people and that’s fine enough.” Or I just never felt I was ready. I just didn’t want to put out something that was similar to other blues, not that I would have. Why try to do a copycat Otis Spann thing, which I might have been able to attempt? All these answers are partially true. But one answer that really fits, when you put out something like that – see, I’ve always had this identity crisis, whether or not I was a jazz or blues musician. I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a blues piano player. If I put out something it would be decided, even though I do it and do it well, I’ve played a lot of jazz too. I guess the whole blues trip has been accessible in a way. It’s been part of me in an emotional sense, where I can connect with a lot of people. Not that jazz is not emotional. It certainly is. I enjoy playing different styles of jazz, going outside, as well as a more straight ahead thing. But I guess the blues has stuck. I like communicating with an audience. But why haven’t I done this? I don’t know. This is a good opportunity. I’ve had these tunes that have been around for a while. I’ve been able to develop them a certain way and create a certain imprint, an identity. People say, “Well, he’s got that Otis Spann thing, that Chicago thing.” But I feel I have my own identity. It’s not just Otis or any of the other great piano players. Some of these tunes go way back. “After Hours,” I heard Pinetop Perkins play that. But the originals, some of them go back 10 years. That New Orleans thing, “Breakdown on the Bayou,” it’s something I’ve fooled around with that’s gotten refined in a certain way. A tune like “Deep Into It,” there’s a version on a tape I did called ”Maxwell Gets Down” and the version on that, I hate to say it, I think it’s even more soulful. Then I did a tune like that with Ronnie [Earl] on a session in 1990 and that was pretty deep. So there are different variations. I don’t want to suggest that the version on the CD is not soulful [laughs]. It’s different interpretations. I didn’t just decide to manufacture some tunes because I had a CD coming out. They’re not things I threw together quickly. I’ve had them with me for a while.
So there are tapes you’ve never put out?
“Maxwell Gets Down,” that was just solo piano. I did that three years ago in a studio in New York to have something to give people to show them what it is I do. I sold a bunch at gigs, but there was no commercial distribution. And there was a tape before that from sessions I did with Ronnie and his band called “Deep Into It.” That was from around 1990.
Did [Richard] Rosey Rosenblatt [owner of Tone-Cool Records] come to you and suggest doing the CD? Was it his idea?
We’ve been talking over the last five years. I was still biding my time, seeing what was out there. At that time, Tone-Cool didn’t have the distribution it has now with Rounder. I was looking at other labels. But I continued to talk to Rosey. He got his Rounder ties and all of a sudden things were popping at the label. Finally he said, “Let’s do it or not do it.” So I did it.
Did you find it hard to make the move from sideman to leader?
Not really. I’ve always enjoyed playing as the lead instrument, probably to the chagrin of the guitar players I’ve worked with [laughs]. So I had no trouble doing that. The focus was making the right arrangements, the right production for each tune, so it wasn’t just a jam but there was melodic continuation and improvisation with an arrangement that’s tight where everyone is locked in. But that didn’t really take long. The guys I was playing with – particularly the two Marty’s, Duke Robillard’s rhythm section. I’d already done some jazz gigs with [bassist] Marty Ballou. Marty Richards I knew was a great drummer, very flexible.
So are now looking to tour behind the album?
Yes. Right now I’m waiting to see what happens when the record is released. I’ve recently signed on with an agent-manager-publicist, David Shepherd.
I see you have a few gigs coming up around here.
Yeah. The House of Blues gig I’ll play with the CD band, pretty much, but with Ronnie, not Duke Levine [on guitar]. I’ll have the two Martys and Gordon Beadle [saxophone], Darrell Nulisch [vocals], and more horns too. And then I’m play at the RegattaBar. That will be a quartet, with Kevin Barry on guitar, but a different rhythm section. If I get a road trip together I’ll need to get my own rhythm section and a guitarist. That’s in the developmental stage at this point.
So is this the point where you’re making a career change and going to emerge as bandleader?
I think so. It might take some time to make the transition. My main gig is with the James Cotton Trio and I have no plans to discontinue that. But if things work out and it’s feasible to do so, maybe in a year or two I could start doing my own career as a primary focus.
It’s almost where a band featuring blues piano and not guitar is somewhat unusual these days.
I think that’s an important point. It is a blues pianist coming forward, not another guitar player, another harp player. There is some interest being stirred up because I’ve played with some wonderful performers. There is a buzz. I can perform in any situation, whether it’s solo, duo, trio or a whole band, I’m comfortable. Eventually, I’d like to draw my jazz interests into the act, but I don’t want to alienate the blues purists.
Your pal Ronnie Earl seems recently to have pulled off doing a combination of jazz and blues.
It started when he decided to drop his vocalist. That was when I was with Ronnie. We were riding in a car from New York to Washington, I think, going to another gig, and he said, “Maybe we don’t need a vocalist.” I said, “I’m all for it. Let’s work out some cool shit.” He’s always had a love of jazz and he’s broadened his interests, his listening and his playing. You wouldn’t really call him a jazz guitarist in the usual sense, but the influence, the texture and color of jazz has really influenced his playing a lot. That’s led to a smooth transition to where he’s doing a blues-jazz thing.
So I take it that you do you would like to do another CD of your own?
Yeah, sure. I have another one to do for Tone-Cool anyway. I’ve been coming up with different ideas for the next one. It will probably be a mixture, like this is, with some jazzier tunes. I’m also very interested in world music and different cultures, how that bluesy quality in the music, whether its North African, Turkish, Islamic, flamenco. I’m not going to go crazy, but I want to do something where the whole CD is not standard shuffles and slow tunes. Not that this one is. There’s a variety of styles.
To me, your CD is accessible in the best way. It has tunes that anyone can groove to. But at the same time there’s plenty to appeal to the more sophisticated listener.
There are so many great jazz musicians out there who have so much depth and they are to a large extent unrecognized. It’s a very competitive market. The blues gives me a chance to leap over the top because I’m a piano player.
You’ve spent your career in Boston for the most part. Did you make a conscious decision to stay here rather than move to a place like L.A. or New York?
I guess so. One establishes ties and roots and connections, means of making a living. I made that decision. I love to go to New York and mix it up with the jazz scene there. But it’s tough. The market is not that broad. I guess I’ve gotten used to this whole blues thing and being associated with it, but on the other hand I have this other side.
Well, you do have a reputation around here. You’re the first call blues pianist. You’re Mister Blues Piano of Boston.
Oh yeah. Yes, I know. I understand the irony of that. You are what you are despite yourself. I understand this is who I am. Otherwise I’d be going completely crazy.
When people talk about your influences three names always come up. Otis Spann, Sunnyland Slim and Pinetop Perkins.
It’s accurate as far as the Chicago sound is concerned. Those three people I knew very well and hung out with at various times. Pinetop and myself are very close friends. Whenever we see each other there’s a heartfelt exchange. I have the utmost respect for him. And of course there’s different aspects of everybody’s style. Spann was all-encompassing. To me, he was like the Little Walter of blues piano. Sunnyland Slim had a wonderful approach. His sense of time, the jagged lines, and the very deep delta sensibility he brought with him to the city and was able to keep that folk kind of quality, a deep naturalness. Pinetop has a wonderful lyricism and phrasing in his playing. But there are very many more people as well, the boogie woogie people. I’ve got a lot of mileage out of Meade Lux Lewis and his “Honky Tonk Train.” That’s on the album. I’ve taken that and given it my own interpretation.
Did you learn by watching Spann? By observation?
Basically. We never really sat down together. I would say, “How do you do that?” and he’d say, “Okay, this is how I do it.” But it wasn’t like, “You have to do it this way.” But that was very seldom. It was a matter of watching him. He was very gracious. He let me sit in with Muddy when they were in Boston after I finally screwed up the courage to ask.
You played on a CD that came out last year, James Cotton’s “Deep in the Blues,” where James plays with Charlie Haden and Joe Louis Walker, among others.
We had recorded five tracks. Three were used. One was a group thing that wasn’t used and the other one was a solo piano thing I did. [Producer] John Snyder said, “Oh, that was great. On a good day Dr. John couldn’t play this.” They were all set to use it, but on the final day, Charlie Haden called and protested because he had recorded a solo piece that was axed. So they used that instead. Those things happen. But overall it turned out well. It won the Grammy, so what the hell.
And now you’ve got your own album.
Yeah. I’m trying to retain the language and feeling and character of the classic period in Chicago, but reconstruct it and come up with new ideas using that language and injecting some of my own jazz sensibility.
[“The Extended Play Sessions” with the David Maxwell Trio (Marty Ballou on bass, Per Hanson on drums).]