The gunslinger guitarist is the first archetype that comes to mind. This is the Guitar Slim/Johnny Guitar Watson/Jimi Hendrix/Jimmy Page raucous rocker. His pyrotechnical explosions leave us breathless; his every riff is high drama. We can’t keep our eyes off him. He commands the stage. He’s the centerpiece of every record he cuts. His swagger is irresistible, his virtuosity always on full display.
But there is a second category of guitar hero who is all too easily overlooked. He stands off to one side or drifts towards the back. He brings no attention to himself. The power of his playing is something you feel rather than see. His forte is understatement. His strength is his subtlety. He exhibits the rarest of artistic traits: humility.
“Of all the cats in my band,” Count Basie once said, “the one you notice least is the one who means the most. You don’t even think he’s doing anything. But take away my guitar man Freddie Greene and suddenly we stop swinging. He’s our pulse. There are loud geniuses and quiet ones. Freddie’s one of the quiet ones.” So is Jim Casey.
I first heard Jim nearly forty years ago at Popsicle Toes, a nightspot on Greenville Avenue in Dallas. His soul-searing R&B band was the real deal. I was initially drawn to the group’s brilliant lead singer Kelly McNulty. Beyond Kelly’s blue velvet voice, the group was overflowing with extravagant talent—singer/saxist Little John Sanders, drummers Ken Johnson and Eric Stuer, multi-instrumentalist/singer Eric Tagg. Over time, the more I listened to Buster Brown, the more I came to appreciate the nuanced skills of Jim Casey.
His rhythm guitar work was a wonder to behold. I loved how he crafted a battery of slick funky grooves. I marveled at his sturdy yet remarkably gentle touch. As a soloist, he was a minimalist, a man who served the song and the singer rather than himself. His blues chops, like his fusion-jazz chops, were razor sharp. He displayed a balanced sense of dynamics—knowing when to kick back, when to hit it hard—that revealed a musical maturity far beyond his age. At the time he was in his mid-twenties.
Now in his early sixties and sounding better than ever, Jim has finally decided to take that much-awaited step into the spotlight. I applaud and celebrate that decision. Miles Goes Wes is an exemplary recording of Jim’s prodigious gifts even as it honors his essential character. Although he’s the visionary behind this suite of songs—at long last the leader of a release bearing his own name--he retains that endearing sense of humility that makes him who he is: the most unassuming of guitar heroes.
Jim conceived the project, in fact, as a tribute to his own heroes, Miles Davis and Wes Montgomery.
“Because they’ve never failed to inspire me as creative artists,” says Jim, “I wanted to honor them by interpreting their material. For Wes, the compositions I chose—`Road Songs,’ ‘4 on 6,’ ‘Angel’ and `Day in the Life’—come from sixties. For Miles, I dipped into his classic stuff from the fifties—like `So What’ and ‘Four’—as well as three songs from Tutu, the record he made with Marcus Miller in the eighties that had a huge impact on me. With every tune, though, my goal was to reimagine the songs in a contemporary context. To do that I needed help. That’s why I turned to Frank Hames who essentially serves as my co-producer and main arranger, not to mention engineer and mixer. Frank’s genius informs every second of this record. I met him back in the early seventies when I left my home of Pampa, Texas for college at North Texas in Denton. North Texas—with its incredible One O’Clock Lab Band—was the first time I found myself in a sophisticated musical environment. So many of the great players on Miles Goes Wes—drummers John Bryant, Greg Bissonette and saxist Randy Lee, bassist/drummer Mike Medina, drummer Kirk Covington, bassist James Driscoll--are connected to North Texas.”
North Texas—both the university in Denton and the geographic area encompassing Dallas/Fort Worth—is the fertile territory that gave birth to bands like Phyrework, the legendary jazz-rock-soul group founded by Frank Hames and John Bryant around the same time Jim formed Buster Brown. In that sense, Miles Goes Wes has the feeling of a warm homecoming, a reunion of musicians whose connections have stayed strong over a lifetime.
“I also must mention Bernard Wright,” Jim is quick to add. “He’s all over this record, playing with impeccable taste, style and imagination. Of course he became a funk star in the early eighties as Nard, a contemporary of Marcus Miller and Lenny White from Jamaica, Queens, New York. Marcus recruited him to play on Tutu. I met Bernard when he moved to Dallas some thirty years ago and worked with Buster Brown. We lost touch for a while, but hooked up again for this project. I treasure his solos here, especially the haunting introduction he wrote for ‘Nardis.’ Randy Lee, another forty-year-friend and the original tenor saxist in Phyrework, also knocked me out. I love how he tears up `Day in the Life.’’ True to form, Jim resists talking about himself. He’s too busy praising others.
“Can’t say enough about Steve Howard,” Jim enthuses. “Steve played with both Buster Brown and Phyrework before going off with Paul McCartney and Wings and the Blues Brothers. His role in this record is essential since, in some ways, he’s standing in for Miles. Without imitating Miles, Steve’s able to express that super-intense Miles feeling. A lot of this record can be heard as a conversation between Steve and myself. And in that conversation I wanted to be sure and give Steve all the space his creative ideas deserve.”
One of the most intriguing aspects of Miles Goes Wes is the limited space Jim gives himself. When he does solo—his intricately sinuous work, for example, on “Splatch” or his graceful turn on “Stella by Starlight”—it is typically at the end of the song, into the fade. Why not give himself more solo space?
“When I heard what the other soloists had to say—Frank, Bernard, Steve, Randy, Bobby Sparks on B3—I couldn’t imagine cutting them off. I couldn’t see myself taking over and sucking up all the air. These are incredible artists too good not to be featured. At the same time, I have my say on this record. You hear me express myself on every song. I don’t believe in over-talking or over-playing. This music reflects who I am and what I love. And to be truthful, what I love and cherish most is the camaraderie of playing with musicians I admire. I’m truly honored to have them join me on my record.”
The result is a lyrical and deeply satisfying document of Jim Casey as more than a stellar guitarist. He is an artist with a highly cultivated jazz aesthetic and, most strikingly, a man with a sweet and beautiful soul.
Ritz has written books with, among others, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, BB King, Buddy Guy, Aretha Franklin and Willie Nelson. His lyrics include “Sexual Healing.“
4 on 6
Stella by Starlight
A Day in the Life
Jim Casey: leader, guitar
Steve Howard: trumpet
Jeff Robbins: sax, flute
Randy Lee: tenor sax
Bobby Sparks: B-3 organ
Bernard Wright: keyboard, synthesizer
Frank Hames: keyboard, synthesizer, arranger
Braylon Lacy: bass
Rick Rigsby: bass
James Driscoll: bass
Kirk Covington: drums
Jason Thomas: drums
Greg Bissonette: drums
John Bryant: percussion
Michael Medina: bass, drums, percussion
Emily Medina: percussion