John “Tbone” Paxton Takes the Spotlight in “Back in Your Own Backyard”
One of John “Tbone” Paxton’s prize possessions hangs just above his piano. It’s a caricature drawing of his late father, musician Fred Paxton, drawn in 1949 at the London Chop House. The elder Paxton was a highly regarded pianist, clarinetist and music teacher. Many of Detroit’s great bebop artists had been students in the school where he taught music, and he was a regular on Detroit’s jazz scene. Among his frequent gigs was the London Chop House, where he played piano for five decades.
“He was quite a guy, my dad,” says Tbone, who now plays the London Chop House just as his father had a generation ago. “Definitely my greatest musical influence in life.”
Following in his father’s musical steps, Tbone is a true son of the jazz age. He has played with many of Detroit’s great band leaders. Fans of Detroit Music Factory recording group Planet D Nonet know Tbone as the band’s featured singer and trombone soloist, but he has also shared stages with such prominent jazz, blues and R&B luminaries as Earl King, Sir Mac Rice, Pinetop Perkins and Eddie Palmieri.
Tbone’s discography spans dozens and dozens of recording projects, but his 2019 release on Detroit Music Factory, “Back in Your Own Backyard,” marks the first time he’s the featured artist on a full-length CD. He’s joined on the record by his longtime musical partner and fellow Detroit Music Factory recording artist, drummer RJ Spangler, as well as the RJ Spangler Quartet, and a number of guest artists.
The tracks on “Back in Your Own Backyard” are a selection of pre-WWII jazz and transitional rhythm and blues tunes. They’re not the most famous tunes, but they’re some of the most moving. This isn’t Gershwin or Cole Porter; these are tunes from the dark corners of “The Great American Songbook,” or as Tbone likes to call them, “the non-standard standards.”
Many of the tunes on “Back in Your Own Backyard” were curated for their powerful lyrics, and “Room With a View of the Blues” is no exception. It’s a song that Tbone performed regularly with one of the world’s great soul and bluesmen, the late Johnny Adams. It’s a song that speaks to the loneliness of finding yourself in a place where you’re not with another person, and the longing for that missing connectedness. The lyrics are heavy with a sense of loss, and Tbone’s interpretation is fraught with honesty and emotion.
The paired down arrangement on the track is decidedly bluesy. The horns are simple and the solos, as any good blues tune should, feature guitar and piano.
Perhaps one of the reasons “Back in Your Own Backyard” hits you in all the right places is that Tbone draws on the strengths of the musicians on the record.
“It’s not just about ‘what can you play for me,’” he says of the sessions and the session players, “but ‘what ideas can you contribute to the success of the track?’ Everybody had great suggestions. It was very collaborative.”
On the tune “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying,” Tbone and alto saxophone player Keith Kaminski do a great job working together to come up with a three-part expansion on Louis Jordan’s original intro. With the alto saxophone playing that familiar melody, Kaminski’s arrangement voices it down through the section with the trumpet playing the second voice and the tenor sax playing the third.
The album’s lone instrumental is “Petite Fleur” by legendary New Orleans clarinetist Sidney Bechet. Chris Tabaczyski’s metal clarinet does a beautiful job of mimicking the brightness of the soprano saxophone Bechet was known to play. The arrangement features a fluid musical conversation between Tabaczyski and Tbone, each in turn playing the melody, while the other plays harmony around him, always in the open space, never on top. Then each time they came to a big turnaround, they played in two-part harmony. The effect is an exotic and plaintiff mood; dual like the light at twilight.
Tbone’s performance throughout the record is much like his live performances. Behind the trombone, he connects with his audience through his soulful phrasing and sense of swing. When he steps out as a singer, he breaks down the distance between the music and the listener with a vocal delivery that imbues the lyrics with personal meaning. When he sings, he feels it, and so do you.
“My perspective is from live performance,” he says. “It’s what I’ve done my whole life. My main concern as an artist is to be emotionally honest and authentic. When you do that, people get it. They understand the music.”
While the music of “Back in Your Own Backyard” was written nearly a hundred years ago, Tbone finds energy in a growing number of younger listeners. He points out that the live music scene in New Orleans is filled with music lovers in their 20s and 30s that are really engaged with pre-war jazz from a deep cultural understanding.
“Young people are really digging reaching back in time,” says Tbone. “Because it’s jazz, there’s still freshness and spontaneity in the experience. It’s still being performed live so they’re able to appreciate it for the artistry that it is.”