Michael Kiwanuka’s musical blend has a Chicago flavor
BY Dave Hoekstra Staff Reporterfirstname.lastname@example.org September 23, 2012 11:02PM
Musician Michael Kiwanuka. 2012 handout photo.
WITH BAHAMAS, YUNA
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Park West,
322 W. Armitage
Info: (800) 514-ETIX; etix.com
Updated: October 24, 2012 6:14AM
Michael Kiwanuka sings from a unique pastel of folk, soul and jazz.
His ethereal sound has endeared him to everyone from Adele, who handpicked the British artist to tour with her last year, to Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, who produced Kiwanuka’s song “Lasan.”
But the sound is not so unusual to old-school Chicagoans.
During the mid-1960s and ’70s, Chicagoan Terry Callier and East St. Louis native Willie Wright were blending an enchanting blend of folk, jazz and soul that got lost in the shuffle of the British Invasion, electric blues (and folk) and later psychedelia. Last year the Chicago based Numero Group re-released Wright’s splendid 1977 “Telling The Truth” album originally made for Hotel Records.
Kiwanuka, 24, headlines the Park West on Wednesday with a guitar-driven five piece band.
“I’m aware of Terry and Willie, and I love them,” Kiwanuka said last week in a phone call from France. “I bought Willie’s album at Amoeba in Los Angeles four or five months ago. I completely hear what I’m doing in their music, from folk to real songcraft to soul singing to jazz. Those nuances, colors, times and chords inspire me so much, I want to make a mish-mash of all that. And that’s what those guys did. My album [‘Home Again’] was done by the time I discovered Willie, but I knew Terry’s first album very well.”
That would be “The New Folk Sound of Terry Callier,” recorded in 1964 at Webb Recording in Chicago and re-released in 2003 on Fantasy.
Real songcrafting is a key to Callier’s work.
From 1970-77 Callier was a key member of the Chicago Songwriters Workshop, created by Jerry Butler.
Callier wrote material for Chess and its subsidiary Cadet label. Born in 1945 in the Cabrini-Green housing neighborhood, he was a childhood friend of area resident Curtis Mayfield, who had joined Butler in the early versions of the Impressions. Callier and Mayfield were cut from the same musical cloth, although Callier used traditional folk idioms in place of Mayfield’s gospel.
Callier’s story is compelling.
The guitarist-vocalist retired from music between 1982 and 1996 to raise his daughter and study computer programming. Callier got a job at the University of Chicago and took evening classes to obtain a sociology degree. In the late 1980s his music emerged in the acid jazz movement in Kiwanuka’s U.K., and as recently as 2009 Callier released “Hidden Conversations” on the English label Mr. Bongo Records. Despite several calls to Chicago jazz-soul sources, Callier could not be located for comment. The trail dried up around 2002 after Callier completed a Monday night residency subbing for Patricia Barber at the Green Mill. Club owner Dave Jemillo thinks Callier moved to Europe.
But Callier’s esoteric nature blossoms in Kiwanuka’s young soul.
“I think about paint and color a lot in music,” he said. “In the way an orchestra can sound, you can make a guitar sound like that with chords and a rhythm. It creates a mood. The instruments you pick on a song create an atmosphere. If you want to have something in a high register, that is quite pretty-sounding, and my voice is in a low register, so something like a flute enhances that. That’s why I like jazz. Instrumental music relies on color and textures to create interest.”
Kiwanuka began playing guitar at age 11. His brother was a fan of rhythm and blues, but Kiwanuka drifted into rock ’n’ roll. “My first favorites were guitar bands like Nirvana and Hendrix to even pop punk like Green Day and Pearl Jam,” he said, “as well as English groups like the Verve and Radiohead.” Kiwaunka began listening to jazz at the age of 14 and embraced the flourishes that flavor “Home Again.”
“I got into Miles Davis in a big way and electric jazz,” he said. “That’s how I got the idea of using flutes and that kind of orchestration. I never had enough money to have a record player, but my friend did and he used to collect old blues records. Collecting American soul and blues was also a big thing for me and the people around me.”
Wright was a staple of the East Coast folk scene but in the early 1960s also spent time at the Blind Pig and Fickle Pickle folk clubs on the North Side of Chicago. Earl Pionke became a fan and hired Wright to play at the Earl of Old Town across from Second City. Wright’s folk pedigree was set against a progressive soul sound generated by guitarist Harry Jensen of the Jimmy Castor Bunch, a funk dance group. “Telling the Truth” includes a bonus track of Wright’s cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Right On for the Darkness” released in 1971.
And Wright sang, played rhythm acoustic guitar and flute, setting up a landscape that is familiar to Kiwanuka fans.
Connect the dots.
Wright is 74, retired and battling Parkinson’s disease at his home in Providence, R.I.
Numero co-founder Ken Shipley said, “The sad connection that gets made from that world is that all black folk singers are cut from the same cloth. I think Terry Callier and Willie Wright both have extremely strong voices from that world and, yes, there’s not a ton that sounds like that. Terry is coming from a Chicago blues scene and such a turned-on experience. Willie Wright’s experience is turned-on too, but by the time he makes ‘Telling the Truth’ he’s settled down and living in Nantucket.”
“Telling the Truth” was a success for Numero. “It’s one of our top five selling records,” Shipley said.
Kiwanuka mostly gets compared to the jazz-soul of Bill Withers, but he doesn’t subscribe to those roots as much as the high energy of Callier and Wright. “I listened to Bill’s music, but he wasn’t an influence as much as other people were,” he said. “He did influence me in the way he writes songs, the intimacy of them.”
Kiwanuka’s parents escaped the Idi Amin regime (1971-79) in Uganda. His father, Michael, is an electrical engineer, and his mother, Deborah, was a domestic and worked in assisted-living homes at night. Kiwanuka had never been to Chicago until he appeared at this summer’s Lollapalooza. “I checked out some cool guitar shops in Chicago,” he said. “It seems like a cool place like a chilled-out New York, not as hectic.”
While traveling across America, Kiwanuka is writing music and recording on Garage Band. He’s rolling out some new songs in concert.
“The festivals [Lollapalooza, Outside Lands in San Francisco] have shaped me more than hearing regional music,” he said. “I look for other bands that catch my ear and eye. I started on electric [guitar], I’ve been stuck on acoustic for a while, but I’m hearing people like Jack White and Gary Clark Jr. at these festivals. Now I want to play electric guitar again.”