Memphis history boasts a pretty long list of musical success stories, but that of Booker T. Jones has to be among the greatest. A precocious musician and graduate of his namesake high school, Booker T. Washington, Jones found his way to then-fledgling Satellite (soon to be Stax) Records as a teenager, where he played saxophone on the label's first hit single, Rufus and Carla Thomas' "Cause I Love You."
Soon after, manning the organ, Jones became the leader of Booker T. & the MGs, arguably rock and soul's greatest instrumental band and perhaps the foremost cultural emblem of interracial cooperation during the civil rights era. Jones penned the eternal hit "Green Onions" while still in high school and had an illustrious career with the band, both on their own and backing up many of Stax's vocal acts, much of it while splitting time between Memphis and the University of Indiana.
Following his time at Stax, Jones became a highly sought-after producer and session player, most famously producing Willie Nelson's 1978 Stardust album. Though he's re-emerged over the past decade or so at the forefront of a reformed Booker T. & the MGs, in 2009 Jones released his first solo album in more than decade with Potato Hole, where he was accompanied by the Drive-By Truckers, known more for their songs than their sound, and Neil Young, who downplayed his own guitar-hero bona fides to play judicious sideman.
Young and the Truckers have made a bundle of brilliant records between them, but needless to say they aren't exactly the funkiest white guys with whom Jones has ever worked. These collaborations made for better press hooks than musical ones (the cover of Outkast's "Hey Ya" similarly felt like publicity bait), with Jones' trademark organ matching the Truckers' crunchy good-time guitars well on swamp-rock-inflected cuts such as "She Breaks."
After breaking the seal on his long-dormant solo career with Potato Hole, it's only taken Jones a couple of years to follow it up, and on The Road From Memphis — released a few weeks ago — he finds more companionable support in the form of sideman/co-producer Amir "?uestlove" Thompson, the drummer whose primary gig is as bandleader of hip-hop stalwarts the Roots.
Thompson had already done great recent work with another Memphis soul legend on Al Green's 2008 Lay It Down, and the jazz/funk/R&B sound he helps builds around Jones' organ is more durable and lively than the bluesy rock that dominated Potato Hole.
You hear this all over The Road From Memphis' instrumentals. The opening "Walking Papers" is airier and spikier than prime MGs but in the same vein — only post-funk (you can hear funk shading into hip-hop) where Jones' signature band was pre-funk.
On "The Hive," inventive, active percussion from Thompson and Stewart Killen gives a head-bobbing bed to Jones' organ forays. And "Rent Party" is the kind of instant groove Potato Hole lacked. Even the covers have more spark: Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" is a much surer sure-shot than "Hey Ya" because the original's appeal is more about composition than performance/personality and the song's indelible melody gives Jones a great template to riff from. Even better is a dramatic take on Lauryn Hill's less-well-known "Everything is Everything." Essentially, Jones hasn't been gifted with a rhythmic partnership this fruitful since the late Al Jackson Jr. was supplying his beat.
But if The Road From Memphis' musical superiority to Potato Hole is pronounced, the switch back from a rock orientation to soul/jazz one isn't the only difference. Where Potato Hole was all-instrumental, The Road to Memphis has four vocal selections. But the guest vocalists are an odd lot. Lou Reed ("The Bronx") and Jones is an awkward musical match, while My Morning Jacket's Yim Yames, who co-wrote the modest "Progress," is an even more modest vocal presence.
And then there are the two "Memphis" songs here, which present a puzzling vocal contrast. "Representing Memphis" is a duet between rehabbed soul star Sharon Jones and Matt Berninger of the Brooklyn alt-rock band the National. While it might be nice to hear a local singer, Jones at least makes sense musically. Berninger, not so much. From a media/marketing perspective, his presence (and, to a lesser extent, Yames') helps connect the album to the public radio/Pitchfork nexus of fans it probably needs to be any kind of hit. But with his refined, nasal delivery, you don't believe Berninger for a second singing lines like, "Love it on the south side/They know how to deep fry/Take it up to Orange Mound." This is a song written from a local perspective ("I grew up there so don't talk about my city"), and he doesn't sell it. Given how nicely Jones handles the vocal on the autobiographical "Down in Memphis," you wonder why he didn't duet with Jones himself.
"Down in Memphis" is like a "Walking in Memphis" from the perspective of someone who has done more than his share, and not just along the tourist routes. "Doing it in the heat/Learning how to walk the beat," Jones announces to start, before going on to drop personal references to lived-in locations — hanging out at night in Mallory Heights, searching for love at Dixie Homes — and pay tribute to musical forbears such as Rufus Thomas and Nat D. Williams. This is Jones' story and even if he's never been known as a vocalist, he's the one to tell it.