What's New, Pussycat?

by Mike Corrigan and Clint Burgess

While he may be known universally (and especially in his native Wales) as "The Voice," Tom Jones is also, in certain fan enclaves, known as "The Bod," "The Giant Belt Buckle," and "The Cheese." And while there may be plenty of theoretical jousting over the reasons for his continued popularity, there are few armchair culture scholars out there who would deny that Jones doth bestride the pop world like a colossus - just as much today as he has throughout his 40-year career. The Voice, The Legend, Mr. Tom Jones himself touches down in Spokane next Wednesday for a show at the Opera House that shouldn't be anything less than fabulously Jones-erific.

On his latest album, The Voice is known simply as "Mr. Jones." In teaming up with Wyclef Jean of the Fugees, Jones has once again defied critics and surprised fans by producing an album (a rowdy, beat-heavy mix of R & amp;B, reggae, funk and bossa nova) that is at once entirely contemporary and unmistakably, irresistibly Tom Jones. Amid the critical accolades for the album reproduced in Jones' press release, one finds the singer's own thoughts on the project.

"Every time I record, I want to get as much of myself as I can on that record," he says. "It's about being larger than life, but I was like that when I started. I've looked for records that explode. So this has always been what I want to do. New stuff. Hard-sounding stuff. The ability I have leans more towards rhythm and blues, and I have never really made a full album of what I would call the soul side of me. Clef is so musical and so much in tune with what I feel. This is the most natural thing I've ever done."

Keeping it explosive and exciting has been part of the Jones method since before he went professional. Growing up in South Wales in the 1940s, Jones (born Tommy Jones Woodward) displayed his vocal talents in the church choir and transformed his parents' sitting room into a stage where he sang for family and friends. He left school early and became a laborer by day and pub singer by night. By 1963, his band, Tommy Scott and the Senators, was gaining regional notoriety by playing working-class joints and dance halls. He was officially "discovered" a year later by Viscounts vocalist-turned-artist manager Gordon Mills and taken to London, where he had his name simplified to Tom Jones. Then he entered the studio for the first time. Those early sessions produced the 1965 Top 10 smash "It's Not Unusual," a wildly orchestrated pop tune that meshed perfectly with Jones' bombastic performance style and musky machismo. By the end of the year, he had opened for the Rolling Stones and had toured with the Spencer Davis Group.

The big, brassy, testosterone-spiked hits kept coming: "Never Fall In Love Again," "Delilah" and "What's New Pussycat?" further defining his now familiar bold and swinging style.

"I don't like middle-of-the-road songs," Jones explains. "I look for something different that's going to hit people between the eyes."

Meanwhile, Jones became an in-demand live performer and frequent target for women's airborne undergarments. His immense popularity with both genders eventually landed him (in 1969) his very own television variety show, This is Tom Jones. He would spend much of the latter '70s on the Las Vegas casino circuit before returning to the recording studio in the '80s with some half-hearted stabs at country music.

Yet to his credit, Jones has always found ways to adapt to changes within the industry. By continually embracing new trends -- which usually amounts to nothing more than The Voice doing exactly what it has always done over new instrumental arrangements -- he has managed the kind of evergreen success rarely seen among performers of his breed. A 1988 collaboration with The Art of Noise on a kitschy, electronica cover of Prince's "Kiss" put Jones back in the pop charts and -- through the MTV video -- introduced him to a whole new audience of young people. In 1991, he collaborated with Van Morrison on Carrying A Torch, and in 1997, he recorded Randy Newman's "You Can Leave Your Hat On" for the film soundtrack of The Full Monty.

Never one for subtlety, Jones always plays it for maximum effect -- whether it's the way he projects his rich, booming baritone or the way he has always made the most of his considerable personal charisma and sex appeal. Even at 64, Jones elicits more female adoration with a wink and a smile than most men a third of his age can muster through months of groveling.

"I'm not trying to capitalize on anything," he says fighting for his right to party in the modern age. "I feel like I can compete. I'm very versatile, and I feel as good as I ever did. I want to do it."

Every new generation of music lovers must, at some time or another, come to terms with The Voice. And considering the wide age demographic of Jones' current audiences, it would appear that many continue to find his spell irresistible.

Basie's Got Your Back -- The Count is dead. Long live the Count. William "Count" Basie was quite simply one of the most important bandleaders of that golden age of jazz known as swing. Basie's band was in fact considered to be the epitome of swing, characterized by a lively, piano-led rhythm section, tight ensemble playing and impressive solos. His band was also one of the most enduring. With the exception of a couple of years in the early '50s, when waning popular interest forced him to break up the big band temporarily, Basie personally led his famous namesake orchestra for nearly 50 years until his death in 1984.

Thankfully his legacy survives him. That's right, the Count Basie Orchestra is not only currently alive and well, but will be kicking it in high style -- as it continues to do all over the world -- this Tuesday evening at the SFCC Music Auditorium, ably led by current director Bill Hughes and featuring drummer Butch Miles.

The band, now celebrating its 70th year (and the Count's 100th birthday), has won 17 Grammy awards, 20 Downbeat awards and is credited with launching careers of such artists as Frank Sinatra, Joe Williams, Lester Young, Diane Schuur, George Benson, Nancy Williams, Clark Terry, Sonny Payne and Frank Foster, among many others.

Local jazz luminaries such as the Spokane Jazz Orchestra's Gary Edighoffer are duly excited for the performance and have nothing but praise for the band that bears the name Basie.

"This is not one of the many 'ghost bands' coming to the area," he says, "but the official New York touring unit. Many of these musicians played with Basie himself for years and years."

Edighoffer claims many of the touring big bands sporting names of past bandleader greats are actually made up of local musicians who are hired for each performance to just play the music they are given to read.

"But the Count Basie Orchestra is the real meal deal," says Edighoffer. "All of them -- all the way from New York -- are official touring members of the legendary band, one of the most famous bands in history."

Mars Attacks -- Most musicians would kill for the independent credibility garnered by At the Drive-In during its short run. But not Cedric Bixler Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. The Afro faction of that highly successful and critically lauded band spun recklessly out of control after ATDI's untimely demise, finally coming into focus with the stunningly original Mars Volta.

Gone was the notion that a gauntlet of seething guitars and shrieking vocals -- compliments of Bixler Zavala -- were the only ways to come across as legitimate proprietors of the genre they continually found themselves defining. In place of this altered existence was left an exoskeleton of the strengths that defined previous work, complimented by a freeform approach to mind-shattering rock 'n' roll. Like a slowly aged fine wine, the Mars Volta has perfected its attack and is now liberated from any musical or intellectual constraints.

The band first blipped on the radar with the Tremulant EP. This inkling of what this new entity was capable of created a massive yet hushed buzz in the independent music scene. In the case of the Mars Volta, however, this new identity brought imposing responsibilities, as well as tremendous opportunity.

When the group's highly anticipated debut album, De-loused in the Comatorium, hit the streets, it caught hold and again elicited major interest in the band and its reckless vision. De-loused features the signature sound of Rodriguez-Lopez on guitars. It also found Bixler Zavala exploring a more subtle vocal delivery that careened in and out of his unmistakable piercing screams. The album strings together ten fractured snapshots of the years the two founding members spent finding themselves and their sound. Staccato guitar riffs shaped in off-kilter rhythms jolt the listener as Rodriguez-Lopez spins the art of guitar playing inside out. The compositions found on the record explore the mechanics of pushing musical boundaries and coming out on the other side, intact and ready to do it all over again. Then there are the otherworldly effects produced by Rodriguez-Lopez -- the inventive knob-turning and pedal-stomping alone make Deloused worth a listen.

During a recent tour break, the band incurred the loss of longtime band-mate and collaborator Jeremy Ward. The blow left the band again searching for the transcendence found in their music. The Mars Volta is again on the road, spreading its aggressive, progressive sound within the context of a menacing live performance that leaves audiences unsettled and exhausted. This band -- this show -- are not to be missed.

Publication date: 04/01/04

Spokane String Quartet @ Bing Crosby Theater

Sat., Feb. 11, 3 p.m.
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