Here at Kind of Jazz, we normally review albums, gigs, and occasionally books – so note that this is not a new album, but a music documentary by Cambridge-based jazz musician, Robin Phillips. As a lover of both jazz and old-school R’n’B, I’ve always wanted to travel the ‘blues route’, from New Orleans, via Memphis and St. Louis, to Chicago, and Robin does just that, only in reverse, seeking the source of the music that he plays and loves.
He is joined on the trip by fellow musicians Stacey Dawson, Marcus Stade and Damian Glasfurd-Brown as they travel by Harley Davidson (Robin) and car to visit some of the great clubs, musical hubs, recording studios and even train stations along the way.
The clubs include Buddy Guy’s and Andy’s Jazz Club in Chicago, the gritty BB’s Jazz, Blues and Soups in St. Louis, Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero in Clarksville, F. Jones Corner in Jackson and the Spotted Cat and Snug Harbour in New Orleans, to name but a few. The musicians got the chance to sit in at the clubs on a couple of occasions, but the real joy is in watching Robin talk with the local musicians, and learning how they keep things authentic and real – whether that’s by incorporating old school jazz and blues into more modern sounds, or learning how to gel as a unit, and never playing the same way twice. In all cases, it's clear that they’re playing music that’s true to themselves.
Robin also gets the chance to visit the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama and Sun Studios in Memphis. One of the many highlights of the movie is Robin’s interview with David Hood, the original bass player in the house band at Muscle Shoals, who talks about how the band had to learn to play several new songs per day, some of them quite complex, and how they devised a numbered chart system which allowed them to change key easily, and adapt to the needs of the musicians they were working with. For the record, Steve Winwood and Bobby Womack were two of the musicians that impressed him the most, and he has worked with almost everyone.
The lessons learned from the studio visits is that the best recording studios create a space and an environment where magic can happen naturally; real magic is not created by fixing things with computer software at a later date.
Six months later, having reflected on what he learned from the trip, Robin returns to both New Orleans and Muscle Shoals, and records some music for his new album, working with some of the musicians he had met in Jackson, Mississippi, getting the chance to put the lessons learned into action.
Back To The Source is a perfect mix of documentary and road trip, and will appeal to anyone who loves jazz, blues or R’n’B. If there’s a fault – and this was an issue with the time constraints on the trip – I’d like to have seen more of the R’n’B side of Memphis, rather than purely focus on Sun Studios and Elvis – but then again, I love the Stax sound, and I’m slightly biased in that respect. On a positive note, the documentary is stylishly shot in black and white, Robin makes for an engaging and thought-provoking host and narrator, and at just one hour, the documentary never outstays its welcome. The movie also won Best Documentary Feature at the King’s Cross Film Awards in the summer of 2022. Highly recommended.
You can watch the movie on YouTube here. Don't forget to click Like.