Chris Stamey’s collaboration with the Fellow Travelers, A Brand-New Shade of Blue, was inspired by the intimate small-combo sound of the late ’50s and early ’60s — a time when the “cool jazz” compositions of such luminaries as John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk lived alongside the expanding pop vocabulary of Burt Bacharach and Jimmy Webb.
“These are songs for late nights and rainy days,” Chris explains. “I wrote most of it in the dark of winter, in whispers, in the ‘wee small hours of the morning,’ that magic time ‘when the whole wide world is fast asleep.’ And these great singers and musicians kept that mood alive throughout the sessions that followed.”
The album is due for digital release from Omnivore Recordings on July 17, 2020.
The music started as song sheets, in the old style: just words and melodies on paper. Members of an N.C. ad hoc collective of singers and players, known informally as the Fellow Travelers, next gathered in Stamey’s Modern Recording studio in early 2020 to read through the songbook and bring the tunes to life. “I’d put down a rudimentary piano pass, then hand out the sheets,” Stamey explains, “and let the players take it from there."
First up was vocalist Brett Harris, who became the primary singer on the set. Brett, a solo artist with three excellent albums under his belt, had worked with Chris before, not only as a featured performer with the acclaimed Big Star’s Third concert series but also as a touring member of the dB’s. He was joined by the accomplished trio of Charles Cleaver (piano, also from the Third concerts), Dan Davis (drums), and Jason Foureman (acoustic bass), with Chris on guitar.
Next came thrillingly expressive solos by 19-year-old tenor-sax prodigy Elijah Freeman and N.C. jazz-scene linchpins Foureman, Will Campbell (alto and soprano sax), Evan Ringel (trombone), and Ben Robinson (trumpet), which connected and underlined the detailed, evocative lyrics. Vocalist Django Haskins (the Old Ceremony) chimed in on “Dangling Cheek to Cheek.” And wunderkind Lithuanian chanteuse Ramunė Martin joined for a song (“I Don't Think of You”) and charmed them all.
The project was well underway when the pandemic stopped in-person sessions cold. But the undaunted Fellow Travelers were able to assemble home studios, some for the first time, and complete the arrangements. As the songs took shape, additional sonic details came from Dale Baker (bongos), Matt Douglas (Mountain Goats) (bass clarinet, bari sax), Karen Galvin and Libby Rodenbough (Mipso) (violins), Peter Holsapple (The dB’s) (banjo), Rachel Kiel (flute and harmonies), Mark Simonsen (vibraphone), and Josh Starmer (celli).
Stamey recalls: “The title track is somewhat of an homage to Coltrane, through my own blue-colored glasses of course. Some of the new ones . . . are more clearly Tin Pan Alley-ish in their musical vocabularies, including the jolly, stride-piano-style exposition of ‘Come Home to Me’ and the bittersweet sixth chords of ‘It Must Be Raining Somewhere.’ In ‘I Don’t Think of You,’ I was exploring some of Burt Bacharach’s and Jimmy Webb’s harmonic vocabulary, thinking perhaps of the woman in ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix.’ ‘In a Minor Key’ reflects my vast admiration for Monk’s classic sharp-nine and flat-five noir masterpiece ‘’Round Midnight,’ and that harmonic language plays a part in ‘Un Autre Temps’ as well. ‘Je Ne Sais Quoi’ came after a similar summerlong obsession, with the gentleness of Jobim. I imagined Harold Arlen looking over my shoulder for ‘There's a Dream Around the Corner.’ ‘Speechless’ tries to pry open a cliché to see what might be hidden inside it, and ‘Dangling Cheek to Cheek’ springboards off of Peter Holsapple’s banjo into a Great Depression-style hoedown, with images of the end of the Roaring ’20s amidst anachronisms such as Muhammad Ali and the three-pointer shot.”
The set follows Stamey’s 2019 release New Songs for the 20th Century, Vols. 1 & 2. Of that album, Downbeat noted: “Musicians from Rod Stewart to Bob Dylan have turned to the Great American Songbook to revive their creative juices. But Chris Stamey has taken a different approach. Instead of singing other people’s compositions, he’s . . . written a raft of new ones that are akin to material for a 1958 recording session by Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald.” Americana Highways opined: “This is a prodigious project that asks for real attention. Fortunately, the gift of this music pays off in timeless beauty and unlimited inspiration. It’s like the past has been reinvigorated by the present, with nothing lost and everything gained.”
Chris Stamey is a co-founder (with Peter Holsapple) of influential American indie-rock band The dB’s. He operated Car Records, releasing both his own recordings and those of Big Star cofounder Chris Bell, and played with Alex Chilton, who shared his love of Charles Mingus and introduced him to the music of Chet Baker. Stamey and Holsapple together have three duo albums, including Mavericks and the recent Our Back Pages. Stamey also has several albums of his own including, most recently, Lovesick Blues and Euphoria (Yep Roc). His 2019 release New Songs for the 20th Century, Vols. 1 & 2 was a collection of Great American Songbook-influenced original songs featuring many notable guest appearances. He is the author of the book A Spy in the House of Loud, in which he recalls songwriting during the early days of punk and new wave in and around New York City. He owns Modern Recording, a studio in North Carolina, site of his numerous productions for artists including Whiskeytown, Le Tigre, Skylar Gudasz, and Millie McGuire, to name just a few.
1. A Brand-New Shade of Blue
2. Je Ne Sais Quoi
3. Late for the Party
4. I Don’t Think of You
5. In a Minor Key
6. It Must Be Raining Somewhere
7. Un Autre Temps
8. Come Home to Me
9. Late for the Party (Slight Return)
10. There’s a Dream Around the Corner
11. Cerulean Is Lovely
13. Dangling Cheek to Cheek