We Know How It Feels: The expanded liner notes!
I first came to know Nate Pruitt and Rick Vandivier as musicians and then as friends about 15 years ago, when they were part of the late, lamented sextet A Little Night Music. While still in the band, they started playing together fairly regularly as a duo. By 1994 they had started gigging around as Primary Colors.
In thinking about the name, I think of how three colors create an infinite spectrum . . . I think of Nateís voice and Rickís guitar, and the musical spectrum they create. In my mind, the name Primary Colors has come to symbolize the seemingly endless musical possibilities that have kept me listening all these years.
It takes something special to make a partnership as long-lasting and successful as Nateís and Rickís. Itís not that they have similar histories. Theyíre both alumni of the prestigious Berklee School of Music, but thatís about all the history they share until A Little Night Music. Nateís background includes doo-wop success as a teenager, a stint fronting an army band, vocals for various movie soundtracks, a period under contract to Quincy Jones, and work with Dizzy Gillespie, Ernie Watts, and the Mitchell/Ruff Duo. Over the last couple of decades, Rick has built a considerable reputation as a performer and composer in a variety of areas, including theatre, soundtracks, opera, and of course jazz.
So whatís the secret? As Rick puts it, "Playing with Nate is equal parts joy, therapy, schooling, church, nourishment, comedy, camaraderie, and most of all, fun! After years of working together, Nate surprises me still with his endless inspiration and energy." As Nate puts it, "Iím still amazed by Rickís playing. There are always wonderful surprises. His solos are always creative. The man has Ďbig earsí, superior technique, and excellent taste. He just seems to get underneath me and lift me to a higher plane."
In the songs on this CD you get a great sample of the spectrum these Primary Colors can create. You get Nateís voice in its many tones and hues, from mean and lonely blues to melancholy ballads, from growl to purr to scat to that trademark Alabama yodel. "Big as a barn," Rick calls that voice, "but focused and supple." And from Rick you get just about everything you can get from a guitar, from chunky blues rhythms to lush currents on which the vocals float and flow, to solos that take a melody on surprising journeys without ever leaving the listener behind.
The first song on the CD shows just what originality weíre dealing with here. It would be hard to think of a more familiar tune than You Are My Sunshine. One might have thought that Ray Charles pretty much owned the jazz intepretation. Well, this version comes via Master Ray, but itís pure Primary Colors -- swinging, witty, and passionate. By the end of the song, Nate has worked himself into a state of excited confusion that makes it clear this is no greeting-card love heís singing about.
Each song on the CD offers more evidence of the originality of these Primary Colors. Slim is something quite different -- a song by Nateís brother, Willie Ruff, that you probably havenít heard unless from Nate. Hush-your-mouth funky blues of the corn-liquor-from-a-Mason-jar variety, propelled with amazing force by Rickís guitar.
Bye Bye Blackbird puts Nate and Rick in the middle of a jazz quartet with John Wiitalla on bass and George Marsh on drums. This is simply first-rate swinging from all four, from Johnís opening bass phrases to Nateís concluding "Later". As Rick says of Nate, "His great sense of timing can fuel the rhythm section, or drop a note just where it will slay you." Try keeping your feet still on this one.
So Many Stars is a little-known Sergio Mendes tune that might have been just a side-trip to Brazil if Nate and Rick werenít the musicians they are. Along with Benny Rietveld on bass, they make samba seem like their native language. This tune says all there is to say about that beautiful sadness we call melancholy.
Somethiní About Her is one of Nateís originals. I always think of his wife Joanne when I hear this one. "My words come straight from the heart," he sings. But that funky rhythm tells me itís not just his heart thatís talkiní. And in case there were any doubt, Ross Waltersí harmonica adds another layer of sexiness.
On Willow Weep for Me, Rickís guitar intro sends this standard deep into the blues. And he keeps it there throughout, constantly inventive without ever straying from the bluesy tale Nate has to tell. Along with Benny on bass, Nate and Rick take this one to a wonderfully satisfying blues catharsis.
Miss Maddie is Nateís tribute to a woman who had a great impact on him when he was a child. It tells you a lot about who Nate is -- and why. The danger with a song like this is that it could so easily turn maudlin. But Nate and Rick are straight-ahead, sincere, absolutely nice folks -- and thatís nowhere more apparent than in the way they put this simple song across.
For me, one of the high points of this CD is the wickedly ironic pairing of the blissful Secret Love, where the quartet swings along in pure joy, followed by the devastating Guess Who I Saw Today, where Nate and Rick narrate a jazz short story with an ending so understated it makes me shiver a bit every time I hear it. Rick talks about how Nate "gets to the essence of the song, where the feel and truth of the music live." What he says of Nate is just as true of himself, as you can plainly hear in these two tunes.
Autumn Leaves is a showcase for the swinging jazz chops Nate and Rick have in abundance, while Phone Booth shows off their blues chops. Listening to these performances sends me back in my mind to so many nights in small jazz clubs, shaking my head in disbelief and muttering "Wow" as Nate and Rick amaze me one more time.
I find it intriguing that Nate and Rick chose to end this CD with the anthem-like I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free. Billy Taylorís heart-felt personalization of racial inequity is something more here -- it speaks of a primal desire to be free from chains and limitations, to fly, to experience purely, and to praise. As the song ends, Nate avows repeatedly with growing force, "I know how it feels." What started as a lament ends as a celebration. Amen, my friends. Say it loud. Say it clear.
-- Mark Howell
Primary Colors acknowledges and thanks: John Wiitala, George Marsh, Benny Rietveld, Michael Spiro, Bill Resch, Ross Walters, Ed Johnson, Michelle LeCompte, Wendy McCain, Seward McCain, Willie Ruff, Devon Rietveld, George Horn, Scott Sorkin, Mark Howell, Nader Schakernia, David Luke, Fantasy Studios, Yeah Man Productions.