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Out of the monotony

Derek Trucks' wildly diverse Joyful Noise is no happy accident

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Derek Trucks, impressively and precociously, defies convention. At age 23, when many musicians are still trying to play faster, louder and for more money, Trucks is a seasoned pro, having logged more than a decade as a working musician. The native Floridian has graduated from slide-guitar-wielding child prodigy to emerge as an explorer of musical and cultural traditions in his role with the Derek Trucks Band.

But what's most impressive is that Trucks and his band appear unconcerned with fitting into music business niches of style and identity (i.e. "file under ...") in order to gain airplay and sell records. That makes the group harder to label, or even describe -- and far more intriguing to hear.

Trucks' aim is to offer alternatives to the single-mindedness and limited choices that characterize much of today's music industry.

"With the tunes that the band writes, and what the band is about, hopefully it will educate people in a small way," Trucks says. "There are a lot of really young fans who are starting to come out and be turned on to the band. Once you have that, you have a responsibility and a role to play, whether it's literature or music or whatever. You need to turn people on to the right things."

Those "right things" can be hard to find in today's commercial music, Trucks adds. "It's frightening. I turn on the television and it's sickening to watch what they're putting in people's heads," says Trucks, who has an 8-month-old son, Charlie (named after jazz guitar great Charlie Christian). "There's no other option for people. If you're not lucky enough to have somebody who's turning you on to some underground things, then you're stuck in a sea of monotony."

On the new Joyful Noise, the follow-up to 1998's Out of the Madness, the band proves emphatically that there are more styles and choices than those offered by mainstream TV and radio. The album is an ecumenical celebration that references gospel, fusion jazz, rock, blues, R&B, salsa and Middle Eastern influences.

Trucks calls on a variety of guest vocalists to lend Joyful Noise its commanding authenticity. Among them: R&B veteran Solomon Burke ("Home in Your Heart," "Like Anyone Else"), blues singer/guitarist Susan Tedeschi (Trucks' Grammy- nominated wife, who performs on "Baby, You're Right"), Panamanian salsa singer Ruben Blades ("Kam-ma-lay") and Pakistani vocalist Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (singing a Qawwali piece titled "Maki Madni"). The album also includes the gospel-inspired title track; "Lookout 31," a ripping slice of pure fusion a la early-'70s Miles Davis; "Every Good Boy," which is at once spooky and comic; and two spacious guitar pieces, "So Close, So Far Away" and "Frisell." No two tunes sound the same, and at no point does the band repeat itself.

Such diversity is no accident.

"That's one of the beauties of being able to head into the studio and make records," Trucks says. "You can take chances, try things that you wouldn't do live. It's a great lab [in which] to experiment as a band. That's what we use that medium for -- obviously to express what the band is about, but also to have the studio records be the next step for what the band is trying to accomplish."

It's also no accident that Joyful Noise doesn't present itself as a blues album.

"With me starting so young and starting in blues bands, you just kind of get a label stuck on you that I don't think necessarily fits this band 100 percent," Trucks says. "Obviously it's going to be blues-based in some sense. But we definitely wanted to get across that this is not a blues band."

In addition to his work with his own band, Trucks has enjoyed three years as a guitarist with his other group, the Allman Brothers Band, which he joined in 1999. In that time, Dickey Betts, Jimmy Herring and Warren Haynes have taken turns as the other guitarist in the band. "When you're the one guitar player who's been there three years, you're constantly reinventing the wheel, re-adapting your role in the band," Trucks says. "I think now that the lineup is set [with Haynes], we can really try to move that thing forward, too."

The Allman connection runs deep: Allmans drummer Butch Trucks is Derek's uncle, and the Allmans' music -- particularly Duane Allman's slide work -- was a tremendous early influence on Derek. Kofi Burbridge, keyboardist in Trucks' band, is the brother of Allmans bassist Oteil Burbridge.

Being a member of the Allman Brothers also enables Derek to spread the word about his own band. "It helps with the classic-rock stations," Trucks acknowledges. "But in one sense, maybe it limits the perception of what we're doing [in the Derek Trucks Band], which is definitely headed in its own direction."

In 2003, that direction will probably include the release of a seven-song EP, featuring material tied up in the collapse of the band's former record label, House of Blues. The band also plans to record again, and may collaborate with 75-year-old jazz drummer Elvin Jones, who is perhaps best known for his work with John Coltrane. Whatever the new year brings, it won't be monotonous or ordinary.

"With a band like this, everyone [in the group] realizes that we're in it for the long run," Trucks says. "We're trying to make music -- even carry the art form forward. We're trying to be a band that 30 years from now people look back on and say, 'They were in the middle of a movement. They were trying to change things.'"

bryan.powell@creativeloafing.com

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