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Blues and Jazz Share Icons

John Lee Hooker took part in one of the had-to-happen musical summits of modern times.
John Lee Hooker took part in one of the had-to-happen musical summits of modern times.

It took a renegade of modern film, Dennis Hopper, to engineer one of the great had-to-happen musical summits of modern times. To provide the music for The Hot Spot, the noirish tale of a loner (Don Johnson!) in a small town, director Hopper hired two vibe-masters from different musical worlds: bluesman John Lee Hooker and jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. He put them together with a band anchored by the most dynamic drummer in New Orleans, Earl Palmer. The filmmaker apparently gave few specific instructions. The concept, if it can be called that, was to use two musicians with deeply iconic sounds — one grumble and you know it's Hooker; ditto for Davis' crackly muted trumpet cry — to pull the blues a step or two away from its predictable patterns and make it signify in different ways.

A lofty goal, perhaps, but after just a few minutes it's clear that Hopper could have a second career as a mixmaster. When the band starts to cook, as on "Bank Robbery" (audio), it's like we're witnessing the birth of a new genre: blues that swings hard but is more delicately shaded than anything in Hooker's sizeable discography. Davis spears perfectly locked little phrases that make the rhythm dance, and then, on the slower "Harry and Dolly," he and slide guitarist Roy Rogers glance off Hooker's wordless humming — some would call it "mumbling" — at strange, unlikely angles, as though determined to avoid anything too juke-joint.

The credits say "Original music composed by Jack Nitzsche," but in most cases the music doesn't seem predetermined or in any way written out. In fact, it feels like a late-night jam session; the unhurried vamps drift along, luring the musicians into wonderfully open, exploratory tangents that sometimes go nowhere and sometimes wind up in unexpectedly poignant places, as on "Coming To Town" (audio). Davis is in particularly sharp form. At the time, he was playing the glossy and often overblown instrumental funk that defined his last recordings, but the earthy textures of this project inspire more urgent and heartfelt improvisation from him.

Very little of the music on this disc was used in the film, and Hopper probably had his reasons for that. Still, it's a puzzler, because Hooker, Davis and the others conjure images rich enough to provide the plotline for at least one drifter-on-the-road movie. Maybe more.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Moon has been writing about pop, rock, jazz, blues, hip-hop and the music of the world since 1983.