Booker T. Jones’ music was a lifeline for a generation of war babies coming up in the 1960s, his burbling B-3 embodying the Memphis soul sound of Stax records. While still in his teens, Jones composed one of rock’s slinkiest classics, 1962’s “Green Onions,” also co-writing (with William Bell) Albert King’s big hit, “Born Under A Bad Sign” in 1967. With bandmates Duck Dunn on bass, Steve Cropper on guitar, and Al Jackson Jr. on drums, Jones and his band the MGs backed the stellar Stax roster that included Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, and Sam and Dave.
Redding’s death in 1967 and Stax’s losing the rights to most of their catalog to Atlantic Records slowed the MGs’ career, and Stax’s refusal to give Jones a voice in the company prompted him to move to California in 1970. There, he launched a career as a solo artist and producer with credits including Bill Withers’ 1971 debut Just As I Am (guitarist, keyboardist and producer) and Willie Nelson’s Stardust in 1978.
Jones has four Grammys, his first for Best Pop Instrumental Performance for the MGs tune “Cruisin’” in 1995. He was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 2007. His others are Best Instrumental awards for 2009’s Potato Hole with Drive-By Truckers and Neil Young and for 2011’s The Road From Memphis.
Jones’ latest album, Note by Note — his first since 2013 — revisits some of those key musical moments, as does Jones’ memoir, Time is Tight, also released this week.
For Note by Note, Jones utilizes his current touring band, led by son Teddy on guitar, Tom Petty and Average White Band drummer Steve Ferrone, and Melvin Brannon on bass, with Jones on B-3, piano and baritone sax. The record captures the powerful dynamic of the live shows, with many of the cuts showcases for the guest vocalists. The Four winner Evvie McKinney brings down the house with her gospel/soul performance replicating Carla Thomas’ bombast on her dad’s composition “Cause I Love You,” with Joshua Ledet sitting in as Rufus Thomas.
But Ayanna Irish’s sexy, soulful rendering of Carla Thomas’ performance on “B-A-B-Y” is the record’s highlight. Her work is so good it steals the focus at first, but when you do a second playback, you realize just what a masterful touch Jones has, laying down a backdrop that bounces and swirls with a funk thick as fog but that doesn’t get in the way of the lead.
Jones takes on vocals as well as B-3 duties for “Born Under a Bad Sign,” demonstrating that his blues chops are just as his impressive as his soul renderings, also giving Teddy plenty of space to crank out a King-ly guitar tribute to Albert.
Jones revisits his performance at the age of 12 accompanying Mahalia Jackson as she sang “Precious Lord,” reworked here with Sharlotte Gibson doing a rendition that’s in a lower key than Jackson’s but is just as celestially soulful.
Chuck Berry’s “Havana Moon” gets a Latin makeover in Jones’ tribute to Carlos Santana’s take on it, featuring Jones on backing vocals as well as keys. Jones takes the lead this time for this slinky, syncopated treatment. Son Teddy steps in with a raucous, roiling riff right out of the Santana playbook.
Jones debuts two new singles co-written with son Teddy: an Albert King-ly blues burner with a psychedelic twist, “Maybe I Need Saving,” and a more experimental tune, “Paralyzed,” that sounds like Latin EDM.
Jones may have another Grammy-winner here, an eclectic collection of timepieces that travel backward and forward with a master engineer on the throttle.