The Music of Derek Trucks

It's mid afternoon Saturday, July 27, 2007.  The scene is Toyota Park, suburban Chicago, Illinois, home of some minor league soccer team.  We're between acts during the Crossroads Guitar Festival, and Bill Murray walks out to introduce the next act.  A few folks in the audience have heard this guy play, and are on the edge just itching to hear his band.

"This is a guy who works two jobs," Murray begins.  "He works days with this fellow, Eric Clapton.  Night time, he masquerades and plays for these fellows called the Allman Brothers.  He's got a beautiful wife who can sing like a bird, he's come all the way to you from Florida, he's gonna rip this place apart and do a lot of damage to you.  Let's [unintelligble] The Darryl Trucks Band!"

What?!  Did he just say, "Darryl?!"  Aw crap!  Derek Trucks is about to perform with his own band in a venue that's likely to result in his widest exposure yet, and Bill Murray screws up his name.  The irony is bitter.  If there's anyone in music today who's music deserves far more notice than it's getting, Derek Trucks is it.

There's a lot that can be said about Derek Trucks himself.  Most of it's already been said.  The nephew of Allman Brothers charter member Butch Trucks, he was a child prodigy.  Currently 28 years old, he's already had a professional career that's well into its second decade.  Derek, along with Warren Haynes and Oteil Burbridge, has been an integral force in the resurgence of the Allman Brothers band earlier this decade.  He's toured with Eric Clapton, and, while many went to see the original guitar God himself, many came way talking about the tall, baby-faced kid with the long blonde pony-tail.

But, it's the music that matters.  And Derek is doing something insanely new and unique, and worthy of in-depth study and review.

To illustrate this point, I'm going to deconstruct the various elements of the first song that Derek Trucks and his band played at the Crossroads Festival.  I've embedded the You Tube video below.  RSS folks can click here.

The raw material he's working with is a couple of songs, Sahib Teri Bandi and Maki Madni, written by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.  This is Punjabi folk music, known as Qawwali, in the Islamic, Sufi tradition, and is generally performed by large groups in pursuit of Sufi mystical experience.

A Qawwali song follows a general pattern.  A lead singer begins with a subtle, improvised introduction that leads into a "raga," which conveys the melodic theme of the song.  In this case, the raga is six bars.  The raga is repeated as others join in, and this builds in a crescendo as singers emphatically increase the intensity of their effort, until the performance comes to an abrupt end.

There are several things worth noting about this performance.  The first is that Derek's own performance of the song is done with a Gibson SG '61 Reissue plugged straight into a 60's vintage Fender Reverb amp.  There are no pedals, and no effects.  Just Derek's slide technique with which he mimics the sound of a Qawwali singer's voice right down to the micro-tonal variations.  At times, you can almost hear the plaintive wail of the Sufi supplicant in the midst of a mystical experience--as if Trucks, himself, is having his own mystical experience.

The second notable aspect of the performance is that, while the band loosely follows the Qawwali pattern, the execution more closely follows a tradition in Jazz music wherein a familiar melody is purloined as a vehicle for improvisation.  On a fundamental level, this is a jazz performance, even though the music isn't what we'd generally consider to be jazz.

This point is made even more clear following the flute solo when the band transitions into the Maki-Madni portion of the song.  This digression incorporates an additional element of a raga, in that the band builds to a crescendo before returning to the Sahib Teri Bandi theme.  This melding of two similar, yet complimentary, melodies into one song is, again, a traditional element of jazz music.

A third notable aspect of this performance is that, at 6 minutes and 35 seconds, it is shortened considerably from the usual performance which is often more than twice that long.  Even the studio version released on the Songlines album is nearly 10 minutes long.  The usual performance is even more free and less structured than this performance, and incorporates a wider array of improvisation.

The last, and perhaps most remarkable, aspect of the performance I want to point out is how taught the improvisations are.  This isn't a free-rambling, almost aimlessly wandering, form of improvisation that's commonplace for jam bands like, say, The Grateful Dead or Widespread Panic.  The band exercises a strict discipline that also involves a subtle interplay amongst all the musicians producing a cohesive whole.  While the song is used as a vehicle for improvisation, the improvisation itself is kept within, and contributes to, the overall aim and effect of the song itself.

This last element is really more something out of the blues tradition than the jazz tradition, which is largely why the end result isn't really jazz per se, though the performance also lacks many of the complex harmonic interactions that would also move it more fully into the jazz realm.

This performance, in overall effect, is typical of what Derek Trucks is trying to achieve musically, but that effect is also why Trucks' music remains relatively obscure.  It's not jazz, so you won't hear it on jazz radio stations.  It's certainly not pop, but it also doesn't fall into any other convenient categories like blues, funk, gospel, rock or r&b.  His music incorporates and interweaves, to varying degrees at different times, elements of all of these forms of music in such a way as to create an entirely new category all its own.

By any objective standard, this is musical art of the highest order.  But I fear for its obscurity.  A good part of the greatness of other musical pioneers is that they blazed a path that others were able to follow.  That Trucks is blazing a new musical path is indisputable.  In blazing his particular path, however, Trucks and his compatriots bring such an amazing level of virtuosity to the table as to lead me to wonder whether or not anyone will be able to follow.

Perhaps it's too soon to tell, and perhaps I'm underestimating the virtuosity that other musicians are able to bring to the table.  Or, perhaps I'm overestimating the ability of Trucks' music to inspire other musicians to follow.  But there is one thing I find disturbing.  I've assiduously searched the web looking for a similar analysis of his music to the one I've given here, and I've not found any.  I'd expect someone other than a relatively obscure software developer to have already written something like this.

So, the question is, when Bill Murray messed up Derek's name, was it an omen?  Or was it merely a bump along the way?  I hope it's the latter, but I guess it's really up to us to decide.  Isn't it?



Currently playing in iTunes: Desdemona by the Allman Brothers Band

Comments (5)
  1. James says:

    Great post!  Thanks.

  2. CurtL says:

    Great post, Rick!

    My exposure to Derek Trucks up to this point has been solely through the Allman Bros band. While I think he is a superstar in this band, he really shines in his own band.

    Your post inspired me to go find out more about him and his band. After watching the video you supplied and several others I found, there’s no question that he is a musician in the true sense, as you put it "…it’s the music that matters." In my eyes, this is the what makes great music and where Derek and all other true musicians place their priorities. The adherence to fads, search for gold, and desire for fame usually lead to short lived bands that eventually self destruct or fall by the wayside after a short time. Good music stands the test of time, as do good musicians.

    What an eclectic group! As you say, they defy genre classification, but I can definitely place them in the "totally awesome" category. In fact, I just bought Songlines on iTunes. I think I’ll stop on the way home and buy the DVD tonight.

    I don’t think that the new musical path plowed by Derek and his band will be impossible to follow or build from. Duplicate? Definitely not. I certainly see the passion in your statement, though. Some musicians just naturally mesh and this is where the magic happens. It seems as though some groups can read each others minds as they are playing. It’s weird, unexplainable, but most definitely real and totally cool.

    I’m rambling.

    Thanks for the overview on Punjabi folk music. You learn something new everyday. 🙂


  3. Audio says:

    It’s mid afternoon Saturday, July 27, 2007. The scene is Toyota Park, suburban Chicago, Illinois, home of some minor league soccer team. We’re between acts during the Crossroads Guitar Festival, and Bill Murray walks out to introduce the next act. A fe

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