Booker T. Jones returns to a revitalized Stax Records for accessible, guest-filled album.
Forty-three years after leaving Memphis for Los Angeles, Booker T. Jones has been reunited with the label whose sound he helped define, Stax Records. He left at a time of turmoil and change in ownership at Stax in 1970, but he rejoins, coincidentally, during an ownership change at parent Concord Music Group, but during a much smoother transition.
"I'm so comfortable with what's going on now—it's a return home," Jones says of his signing with the label. "It has worked well for me going from that company to this company. If it hadn't fallen apart in the '70s, Stax would have had to make all of those changes for R&B to survive through disco and hip-hop. Somehow, the universe has made it possible for me and Stax Records to be in the same place after all these years."
"Sound the Alarm," due June 25, is Jones' first album for Stax since 1971's "Melting Pot." Unlike those MG's records, the new disc is filled with guest vocalists and instrumentalists ranging from Gary Clark Jr. to Poncho Sanchez to Anthony Hamilton.
"It's a record that captured the essence of Booker T. while being modern but not too slick," Concord A&R chief John Burk says. "The guests were really great. They had the right spirit, and they all appreciate him as an artist. The album has the feel of a collision of generations."
Jones, 68, credits Burk and his daughter Olivia, who became his manager two-and-a-half-years ago, for making the album a success, coordinating songwriting and recording sessions, and seeing it through to completion.
The album follows a path similarly taken on his last two albums: "Road to Memphis," which featured members of the Roots plus guest vocalists, and "Potato Hole," a guitar-driven work with the Drive-By Truckers and Neil Young. Both albums, released by Anti- Records, won Grammy Awards and rejuvenated Jones' recording career.
"Our record with the Roots is a great record, which I love, but it's more alternative, jazz hip-hop—we had Lou Reed on that record," Jones says. "It worked for me because I'm always trying to reinvent myself, which keeps my spirit alive." He adds that "Sound the Alarm" is "more of an R&B record, and it should be on Stax. This is a more accessible work, more accessible music."
Jones marveled at the way the collaborations came together. The Avila brothers, Bobby Ross and IZ, anchored his band with guitarist Raphael Saadiq and co-wrote many of the songs. They met when Jones guested with El DeBarge and they were in his band. Hamilton and Jones bumped into each other at the Grammys three years in a row, vowing to work together. Daryl Hall, who had Jones on his "Live From Daryl's House" show, recommended Mayer Hawthorne. Jones stumbled upon Clark when the guitarist was performing at an Apple event.
Burk suggested that Jones meet the members of Vintage Trouble. "They really hit it off," Burk recalls. "Booker T. has been such a force behind the scenes helping other people achieve great creative milestones"—a reference to his work with Otis Redding, Eddie Floyd and William Bell—"but he's not the kind of guy to look back [at his success]. Every conversation is about what he can do going forward."
The first promotion of the record will come June 25 with an hour-long special on AXS TV featuring a concert of the new material from the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles. Jones is busy writing charts for an expanded version of his band while various guests are being booked for the show that will include a classic or two like "Green Onions" or "Time Is Tight."
"We feel he tapped into something special and new," Burk says of the album. "It's the mark of a great artist that he's still so passionate about what he's doing."