Duke Ellington's songs are everywhere in this, his centennial year, but nowhere will you hear a version of "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" like the one on Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown's new album, "American Music, Texas Style." The melody is announced not by a piano, horn or voice but by a solid-body electric guitar with the barbed-wire tone of the Texas blues. That's Brown and he transforms the elegant Cotton Club melody into the sound of a Houston juke joint. When the big horn section comes bounding in behind him, they do so with the New Orleans swagger of arranger Wardell Quezergue and lead trumpeter Nicholas Payton.
This is not the Hollywood swing revival of the Brian Setzer Band nor the swing classicism of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra; this is swing with a funky Gulf Coast feel and an ornery, 75-year-old, pipe-smoking, blues-hillbilly-Cajun-jazz singer-guitarist-fiddler at the helm. Backing Brown up are his regular road quartet plus a dozen extra horns, a return to the successful formula of 1997's "Gate Swings." Brown's voice isn't what it used to be, so eight of the 13 tracks are instrumental. Brown's guitar, though, has lost none of its eloquence, whether it's "singing" on the jazz standards by Ellington and Charlie Parker or on the blues chestnuts by Percy Mayfield, Eddie "Tex" Curtis or Brown himself.
This year has also seen the CD reissue of Brown's 1977 album, "Blackjack." Country music has always been an ingredient in Brown's musical gumbo, but never has the flavor been as emphatic as on this project, which featured Don Buzard on pedal steel and dobro. Here you can hear Brown play honky-tonk fiddle solo on Elvis Presley's "When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold," bluegrass fiddle on "Up Jumped the Devil" and swing mandolin on Bob Wills's "Take Me Back to Tulsa." Brown's own compositions provide showcases for his bluesy harmonica ("Street Corner"), his scat singing (the title track) and chicken-scratch guitar ("Chickenshift"). He shines in all these novel roles, and he was still singing splendidly in those days.
Appearing Sunday at the Baltimore ArtScape Festival and Wednesday at the Ram's Head Tavern. To hear a free Sound Bite from "American Music, Texas Style," call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8101. For a Sound Bite from "Blackjack," press 8102. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)
CAPTION: Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown offers swing with a funky Gulf Coast feel.