Jeff Healey: An unusual, passionate, committed musician
Okay, two simple facts first:
Jeff Healey is arguably one of the most distinctive guitar players of our time.
The man who sold millions of hard blues/rock recordings is equally at ease — and always enthusiastic — playing the infectious, joyful pop music of the ’20s and ’30s that’s usually described as "traditional" or classic jazz.
Which means the 40-year-old Toronto-based musician has two bands, two musical lives — but not a trace of schizophrenia! Now he has released a new CD, It‘s Tight Like That, on Canada’s internationally distributed label, Stony Plain.
A life in music: A quick summary
Healey’s story has been told before — but here’s the quick version:
Blind since early childhood, he picked up his first guitar when he was three, and began to play it flat across his lap, "accidentally" devising the revolutionary technique that became his signature style.
His parents — he was adopted at an early age — encouraged him in every way possible, and helped him discover the joy and the depth of early American music. He played his first gigs when he was six, and by his teens had played a variety of music in a number of different bands.
He had also begun to amass a formidable record collection — he now has well over 30,000 78-rpm records, in addition to thousands of CDs and tapes, and later created a CBC Radio show, which he named "My Kinda Jazz." (The programme still continues today on Toronto’s 91.1 JazzFM station).
By 1985, he was playing — and singing — electric blues at Grossman’s, a happily seedy bar near Toronto’s Chinatown; within two years, he was joining B.B. King on stage at a festival in Vancouver, had become friends with Stevie Ray Vaughan, made a series of demo recordings, and cut a deal with the Arista label, headed by the legendary Clive Davis.
The first record, See the Light, was released in 1988, and a starring-role in the movie Road House (opposite Patrick Swayze) gave his career an international lift. And the first record also had one other element: A smash hit single — the John Hiatt/Fred Koller song "Angel Eyes," (also covered by such hardcore country groups as New Grass Revival), and marked by excellent and expressive vocals.
Two years later, a second album — Hell to Pay — was released, and this one featured guest appearances by two other great guitarists, George Harrison and Mark Knopfler. Alas, a third album, seen as a "new beginning" by Healey’s American record company was the beginning of the end of the Jeff Healey Band’s run, at least as far as recording was concerned.
Developing a new musical direction
It was not, however, anywhere near the end of this determined artist’s recording career.
Working hard, he had learned a new instrument and became an accomplished trumpet player, modeling himself on his all-time musical hero, Louis Armstrong. Two superb traditional jazz albums followed: Among Friends was released in 2002 and Adventures in Jazzland came two years after. Both featured Jeff on guitar, trumpet, and valve trombone — and many of the musicians who came together to be renamed Jeff Healey and the Jazz Wizards. Both CDs were released independently and achieved modest distribution.
While forging a new musical direction, Healey took on other challenges, including the creation of a downtown Toronto club, Healeys that has since presented hundreds of international and local artists and which continues as one of the best live music venues in the city. And along the way he was presented with an honorary Doctorate of Letters degree by McMaster University.
The Jazz Wizards play at Healey's every Saturday afternoon (unless they’re on the road) and each Thursday Healey himself holds an informal jam with a variety of special guests. Usually (but by no means always) the musical menu is the sort of blues-based rock that initially gave Healey an international reputation.
And while Jeff Healey’s musical focus with the Jazz Wizards is to bring the music of the past into the present he is still asked to assemble bands to recreate the powerhouse blues to which he remains sentimentally attached. He undertakes tours in Europe two or three times a year but he limits his road work for personal reasons.
A family man with a year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter he prefers to stay close to home. "I’ve traveled widely before — been there and done that" he says determined to avoid the lengthy exhausting tours that marked his life in his twenties and early thirties.
Musically his two lives seem to work well — if only because he has never been happier or more enthusiastic about the music he loves.
On stage at ease and always ready with a laugh and his musical skills have matured in a way that he could not have imagined when he started his musical career.
A fascinating artist to watch — whether playing guitar or trumpet — he’s at ease with his life his audiences and his music. Twenty years into his career he does see a future — and it’s bright and positive and full of memorable music.
Stony Plain: Canada’s international roots music record company
Stony Plain signed a worldwide recording agreement with Jeff Healey in the summer of 2005 — and the first result is a special album It’s Tight Like That on which Jeff Healey and the Jazz Wizards perform with special guest Chris Barber.
It’s Tight Like That released in Canada March 28 and in the US and other territories on April 25 is a happy bright collection of classic jazz tunes played with energy and fire. Healey plays both trumpet and guitar throughout; the repertoire consists of classic tunes that have been part of the jazz canon for more than 60 years. The tunes — repainted renovated and refreshed — sparkle with good spirits and a good-time atmosphere.
Chris Barber the legendary British jazz trombonist is now 75 and still leads his own 11-piece band which tours continually in the United Kingdom and Europe.
The chance to play with Jeff Healey came when he took a week of his annual vacation to come to Canada for a series of concerts recorded for Stony Plain. Two tracks from an appearance by the Jazz Wizards at the Montreal International Jazz Festival have also been included.
Later in the year Stony Plain will reissue Jeff’s first two jazz albums Among Friends and Adventures in Jazzland. Both CDs will benefit from national distribution in Canada via Warner Music and releases in the United States and Europe by Navarre Distribution and Rounder Europe respectively. In both cases Stony Plain has redesigned and repackaged the albums.
"We’re delighted to be working with Jeff" says Stony Plain’s president Holger Petersen. "He is one of the great Canadian musical figures — a musicologist a superb player an excellent and expressive singer and one who has expanded his musical palette in a way that’s unusual for an artist with his background and experience."
Stony Plain an independent "roots music" label marks its 30th anniversary this year. Healey joins a distinguished roster that includes guitarists Duke Robillard Ronnie Earl and Jay Geils country artists Ian Tyson and Corb Lund Kansas City pianist Jay McShann and singer Maria Muldaur (two of her albums for the label were nominated for Grammy Awards).