This is the second time Tomás Doncker has collaborated on a project with Yusef Komunyakaa, the first being “The Mercy Suite” album. New Yorker, Tomás Doncker is a much respected musician, producer, and songwriter, steeped in blues and soul music. Previous projects have involved him working with a variety of artists, including Bootsy Collins, Yoko Ono and Bonnie Raitt. Yusef Komunyakaa is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet.
On this 10-track release (from 21st October, 2014), Doncker leads his band on guitar and lead vocals, with bandmates that include James Dellatacoma on guitar. Others contribute harmonica, keyboards, bass, drums, horns and strings. “Big Apple Blues” is a heady mix with dense layers of sound. Komunyakaa is an influential poet and professor, with a very direct and hip writing style. His poetry collection includes poems about growing up in Louisiana and his experiences whilst serving as a soldier in the Vietnam War. Thus, this record is an intriguing prospect.
With no lyric sheet in front of me, I try to pick out the words. But Doncker uses his voice so expressively, wearing his ‘kicked around heart’ on his sleeve. His is a voice that sounds like it’s been round the block a few times and is all the better for it.
The production on “Big Apple Blues” doesn’t attempt to smooth out the rough edges of the vocals and instruments, allowing them to breathe naturally. Authentic blues, soul and funk, with nods to the past, creeps under the skin with each play. Sometimes funky – sometimes soulful and dreamy – guitars, keyboards and fat horns nail their intent, but the highlight for me is the harmonica playing. Deliver a dirty, swampy harmonica phrase and I dissolve like jelly. All this combined enhances the actual song writing, but there is enough quality and ideas to make me want to return to it.
My stand-out tracks include the opening title song, “Big Apple Blues”, a slow bluesy – ‘born to look the devil in the eye’ – introduction. “The New Day” is slow and soulful. Musically, “Hellfighters Of Harlem” consciously echoes the funky 1970s, with Komunyakaa’s hard-hitting lyrics referencing a gospel classic and protest song – ‘study war no more’- expressing his time in Vietnam and an oft-quoted sentiment, ‘fighting Jim Crow over here to fight a war over there’. Doncker sings ‘thinking ‘bout the brothers fighting overseas’. It also references the Harlem Hellfighters, which was the nickname given to the 369th Infantry Regiment made up of African-Americans and African Puerto Ricans that served in World War I and II.
“Coney Island” is rather charming, as the song describes the amusement park’s attractions with child-like glee and ‘the sand in my flip-flops’. We are ‘lost among the dream merchants…bumper cars and ferris wheels’. “Ground Zero”, of course, refers to the events of 9/11. There is pain and urgency – ‘last night in my dreams, the Towers rose up from smoking ash ‘.
“Big Apple Blues” has got important things to say and, hopefully, a fresh band of listeners will discover Doncker and Komunyakaa, whose songs they can turn to when they get their own hearts kicked around.