During his high school years in northern Michigan, Luke Winslow-King, a practitioner of vintage blues and jazz, majored in serious mid-20th century jazz at the Interlochen Center for the Arts. He moved to New Orleans in 2001 to study classical music at the University of New Orleans.
But there’s no symphonic, string quartet, choral music or bebop on Winslow-King’s seriously fun third album, The Coming Tide. He’d rather make people dance.
“Being a classical composer entails a lot of time alone, at home, in front of a computer,” Winslow-King explained. “But I want to relate to people and travel and see the world.”
Living in New Orleans helped steer Winslow-King in the musical direction heard on The Coming Tide.
“Music fans here are hungry for music,” he said. “They want to go out and hear it every night. That keeps me playing every night and pushed me to create people’s music that’s inclusive and exciting.”
Winslow-King eventually dropped out of UNO, preferring to get about the business of being a professional musician.
“I was more excited about playing gigs and writing and recording,” he said.
A singer, guitarist, songwriter and, thanks to all that formal music education he got, arranger, Winslow-King found an example of being a pro in the first friend he made in New Orleans, John Boutte, that soulful Frenchmen Street regular and singer of the opening theme for HBO’s Treme.
“He’s my biggest mentor,” Winslow-King said. “He showed me how to live the life of a musician, how to stay in love with music, how to stay inspired, how to connect with an audience. All these things you can’t learn in school.”
As classic as Winslow-King’s original songs sound, he doesn’t intentionally write in a traditional jazz or blues style.
“There’s a thriving music scene here of traditional music,” he said. “That old music, it’s become a part of my musical language.”
Esther Rose, who’s also from Michigan, is Winslow-King’s washboard-playing companion in song.
“We were inspired by Blind Willie Johnson and his wife, and the Rev. Gary Davis, who sang with his wife,” he said. “And old gospel, folk-blues call-and-response, chain-gang style of singing.
“When you have two voices, you have such a broader palette and you make more impact. And people love to see a man and woman singing together, whether it’s a love song or a gospel song. Sometimes we hold note so well that we almost share a single voice.”
Winslow-King originally released his The Coming Tide album independently. After a writer with American Songwriter magazine introduced the recording to Bloodshot Records, the Chicago-based indie label picked it up and re-released it in April.
“We’re really glad to have a label with such a great reputation and history supporting us. It really helps us work on our national following.”
When Winslow-King and his group aren’t traveling, they play a regular Thursday night gig at The Three Muses on Frenchmen Street. They also made their New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival debut May 4. The band will spend most of May touring the East Coast, including shows at the Bowery Ballroom in New York and The Birchmere in Alexandria, Va.
“We’ve been doing a lot of shows on the road where people have been dancing, filling the front of the audience. I’ve done a lot of listening rooms and concerts, but these days people are excited to move and be energetic at our shows. That pushes us to play like that, too. It’s exciting. We always try to play to our audience.”