Sometimes a format change can make a big difference. James Byfield aka Blind Lemon Pledge has made several straight-ahead blues albums that this writer deemed ordinary. After Hours, as the name implies, is a set of late night jazzy fare, with all tunes written by Byfield but mostly sung by emotive vocalist Marisa Malvino fronting a piano trio. The trio hails from the San Francisco Bay area – pianist Ben Flint, bassist Peter Grenell and drummer Joe Kelner. Even though these are original tunes, they are throwbacks that would fit right at home in late night Harlem clubs of the ‘30s and ‘40s. Blind Lemon Pledge describes them as “new pages in the American Songbook.”
Malvino’s warm, emotive vocals and Flint’s concise and swinging work on the 88s provide an intimacy. The sound is so familiar you’d swear you’ve heard these tunes before. They must be standards, right? Not really, not yet anyway. The title track swings while “If Beale Street Was a Woman” is a blues in the tradition of “Black Coffee.” In this same pattern of swing and blues we get “Rich People in Love” followed by the illicit love in the bluesy jazz waltz “How Can I Still Love You” with its memorable line – How can I go on dreaming when you throw Mr. Sandman out.”
“Bobby’s Blues” is a ballad in true noir form while “Livin’ My Life With the Blues” is a kind of urbanized updating of Mose Allison’s “One Room Country Shack.” “You Can’t Get There from Here” is a defiant answer to the lover who spurned her, complete with gospel elements and simple, hitting-all-the-right-notes piano work from Flint. “ Moon Over Memphis,” on the other hand, brings more heartbreak while “Ketchup Spaghetti” brings unburdened joy from a pauper no less.
“You Had Me at Goodbye” is a sad overture to a departed lover but the last few songs stray from these usual themes. “Buddy Bolden’s Song” is a tribute to the founder of jazz and “Light’s Out” salutes the SF Bay area and love in general. Making a cameo appearance, Blind Lemon Pledge steps in and plays guitar and sings alone on “Blue Heartbreak.” His is a sweet closing touch – “Blue, blue heartbreak, Heartbreak’s just another name for the blues.”
Before he turned to music James Byfield has a major career as an award-winning media designer and producer. He was one of the pioneer designers in computer graphics and worked successfully in film, television, radio and print. Since 2008 he’s devoted his career to music under the moniker Blind Lemon Pledge. His solo albums include Pledge Drive, Backwoods Glance, and Evangeline to name some of them. He’s tackled classic blues, Americana, folk, Cajun, rock, and now this vintage late night jazz style. Maybe it’s time for this writer and others to give his catalog more listens.
- Jim Hynes