Patti Parks calls her new album on VizzTone Whole Nother World. She’d recorded at home in Buffalo before, but this time she spent two and a half days in Baton Rouge working with veteran bluesman Kenny Neal. This new release was recorded in Kenny’s home studio with a group of young musicians being mentored by a man who began his career playing bass for Buddy Guy at 18 almost 40 years ago.
Kenny’s most recent album, Bloodline, was nominated for a Grammy as Best Contemporary Blues Album. He’s currently recording his own next album tentatively titled Straight from The Heart of Louisiana and will include “It’s Been So Long” and “I’m On The Sunny Side of Love,” both by his dad Raful Neal who was Buddy Guy’s friend and band leader before Buddy moved to Chicago in the 1950s.
Patti calls her Louisiana odyssey a spiritual music awakening. “And that’s what it was. I think for both of us (Patti and her husband, keyboardist Guy Nirelli) it was like a second coming. This isn’t even real.”
Baton Rouge was in fact a “whole nother world” for Patti who leads two lives, one as a nurse working with children and veterans with post-traumatic stress during the day and as a well-known regional blues singer at night. Kenny’s job was to make her feel comfortable in a new environment that quickly became her second home.
“Her coming down here in the south was a whole different environment,” says Kenny. I made her feel comfortable at first. It was history after that. Once she got the drift, she started running with it. It’s about just trusting the moment. That’s the best way to get it out of people that have a little bit of shyness or are not too sure.”
Patti delves deep on this album, finding a voice that begs comparisons with legendary blues singers like Billie Holiday on “Stickin’ to My Guns” and “Don’t Play Me Cheap,” and Bessie Smith on “I’m Trouble” and “No Means No.” She shares vocals with Kenny on “Baby Bee” originally written by Kenny and Bob Greenlee of King Snake Records for another artist Erica Guerin who died way too young. The song extends the story line of Slim Harpo’s “I’m A King Bee” with Patti playing a seductive Queen Bee to Kenny’s King Bee.
“I wanted to see her reaction when she heard the songs,” says Kenny. “See, we wrote the songs, me and Bob Greenlee. Erica Guerin, the girl we wrote ’em for, passed away. And these songs stayed in my head for years, man. I been wanting people to do ’em, and I’ve been trying to look for a faster type female artist who’s not afraid to strut their stuff, you know? Patti goes, ‘Whoa! I like it.’ And I’m, ‘Damn, she likes it.”’
Patti adds, “If you heard Erica’s vocals today, you would say wow. She would have been well on her way to stardom, but of course that wasn’t in the cards for her, and Kenny sent me some of her material. I was a little uptight. I wanted to do the right thing by hearing her songs. Kenny pulled out the acoustic guitar for “Baby Bee.” I have never done acoustic. He just did the whole song first time. I learned the lyrics very quickly, and we recorded it, and I’m very pleased with the results. I love that song. It’s totally different.”
One song Patti brought to the session was James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s World.” “Kenny says ‘Ok, let’s do it.’ It turned out really powerful. I just thought it was funny that it happened. It’s like we’re in this thing together. It’s not one gender that runs the world. It’s humanity that runs the world, and that’s why I love that song. I have been performing that song before, but it didn’t sound anything like it sounded with Kenny, that’s for damn sure.”
Patti and Kenny met when they both participated in a seminar, Blues As A Healer, that I hosted in Memphis in 2017. They both have experienced more tragic personal losses than most in a lifetime. And they share a mutual admiration for each other that comes with true grit on Whole Nother World.
“That’s what drew me into Patti,” explains Kenny. “She’s just such a sweet person that what she was doing was so good. She would always think about me if they had events going on or something like that. She was always interested in bringing me up (to Buffalo), so she was just a good person, man. And I wanted to do that. There’s a lot of other artists that approach me that are probably more bluesy and talented than Patti, but she’s just got something special that drew me to her. I wouldn’t accept their album, but I did hers. It just was important that she had the love she had for other people.”
For Patti, the recording session was dramatically transforming. Suddenly she was Judy Garland’s Dorothy leaving home, transported over the rainbow for the four-color world of Oz. “Over the couple of days we got involved, I left a lot of things behind. It opened everything up for me, and I experienced things I didn’t know were there. It wasn’t that things were planned or intended. It just happened. I think I really connected with how I was feeling during the time that it was recorded. I think that I took it all in, and it came out in the vocals. I’m surprised. I really am, but I think this is what happens when you’re in the moment, and you let your inhibitions really go away.”
Kenny learned how to tap into the moment when he starred in the Broadway folk musical Mule Bone singing songs by Taj Mahal. “I had these intensive coaching lessons. My coach Novella Nelson did many Broadway plays, and she’s a great actor. She brought something out in me that I didn’t know I had. That’s why I think I won the Theatre World Award for the outstanding new talent, but the thing I kept telling Patti which my couch told me when I was on Broadway in rehearsal is to trust the moment. And that’s what I worked with her throughout the whole project.
The musicians on the session were young proteges of Kenny’s. “Brandon Adams (on keyboards and organ) is the key guy. He the hot man. This kid was born with a defect. He only has one hand that he can use, and he can play the piano better than any guy with two hands. When you listen to that album, he’s playing all the horn lines. He’s playing everything, man, helping me arrange and he only has one arm. And he’s amazing. I like this kid. He majored in music theory, and he’s always willing to learn. I use him all the time. He’s my key man.”
Whole Nother World was recorded in Kenny’s home studio that he’s owned for 36 years. He has a cadre of young and eager local musicians he can call on for a variety of projects. “I put this thing together to come back home and help other musicians. They’re so wonderful, man, and they look up to me. They just come in and get the job done. And if they don’t know something, then I can show them or teach them how it really goes. Now, it’s just coming together where I have my own rhythm section here of all (young) musicians. When I use gospel, I go get my gospel kids. When I need blues, jazz, funk – even commercials I do for politicians – they all come to me. I get ’em here in my band. And I’m so happy I made the move and came back here and opened up this place ’cause it’s gonna turn out a lot of great music here. I just turned out 14 songs for Tito Jordan out of this place.”
For Patti and her husband Guy, both Covid 19 survivors, their Baron Rouge odyssey is like a creative awakening . “This isn’t even real. Guy couldn’t wait to get his hands on a set of keyboards there. He knows there were so many hands on that piano. What was really cool was he came in that studio by himself at night. So, he was messing around that day on the keyboard, and we were playing and singing songs. And it was just really living it, really living and breathing.” Guy plays on “I’m Trouble” and “No Means No.”
“We were both just blown away, and he felt the same way. He was honored when Kenny said, “Hey, man, why don’t you come and play, and he said, ‘Ok! You don’t have to ask me twice.’ It was great. He sounded really great.”
For Kenny, the whole process was as natural as breathing. It’s in his blood. “It’s because our music is something that helped us all the time through our hard times. Even when my grandmother would pray, she would pray with melody. It wasn’t just, ‘Oh, Lord, come down and look after me. Mmmmm!’
“She would be in the room on her knees, and it would be a melody in her prayers, and that’s something we have. Even people who are not professional musicians, they still got talent and love the music. The church on Sunday is where everybody goes to praise the Lord and sing, sing from the heart. It’s just a part of life. The music takes us out of the darkness and into the light. The music changes everything. We found that out hundreds of years ago here (in Louisiana), and always stuck with it. Music is a part of it. It just gets us through the hard times. Music is magic.”