Aaron King and the Imperials know how to light up the Torch
“American music” is what roots-rock songwriter Dave Alvin calls it. Not rock ’n’ roll, not country, not R&B, not jazz, not blues—although the latter style is at the core of most of America’s best music; without blues, we all might be listening to barbershop quartets.
And while blues may not be evident in every domestic musical form, if you look hard enough, you’ll find at least a trace. Ergo, to play American music in all its melting-pot glory, it helps to have a firm grasp of the blues.
Aaron King knows this.
It’s early evening at the Torch Club on 15th Street. At the back of the darkened barroom, where a few patrons at the bar watch the Spurs take the bark off the Mavericks on a high-mounted TV, is a semi-circular stage. Behind that is the club’s greenroom; inside, King kicks back in a funky old armchair, nursing a cocktail and smoking the occasional Marlboro Red. Since he isn’t working on this particular Wednesday night, the 27-year-old guitarist is dressed casually: chinos, Docs, an old-school—but not a “wife-beater”—white T-shirt.
King has a steady gig at the Torch every Monday with his trio. That combo’s guitar-bass-drums format gives him the freedom to stretch out and play—anything from incendiary Freddie King-style blues grooves to more sophisticated, jazzy fare, such as the occasional Cole Porter tune, is fair game.
But King’s principal creative outlet is his other band, a quartet called the Imperials. The band just recorded and released its second album, TCB (Royal-T Records). King’s quite fond of it, and justifiably so: It’s the kind of beer’s-in-the-cooler house-rockin’ jukenoise that you can depend upon to ignite a party that’s fixing to head south.
And, sure, TCB is all blues, but there’s a wide spectrum here—from robin’s egg to indigo and teal to violet.
“We’re a blues band,” King says unapologetically. “But we wanted to show that we’re more than just that.”
On some tracks, King and the Imperials sound like the bluesier side of Chuck Berry—Frankie Maranzino is a dead ringer for longtime Berry piano man Johnnie Johnson; on others, King opts for more rounded tones.
“It’s a natural progression to go from blues to jazz,” he says. “When I was younger, I always had this border between blues and jazz, like never the twain shall meet. And I sat down with [local blues and jazz piano giant] Omar Shariff one time and he said, ‘They’re the same thing.’ He played a simple 12-bar stride piano progression and said, ‘Here’s blues.’ Then he played some Art Tatum and Lonnie Smith—same 12-bar progression, but he did all these inversions and extensions and chords and voices.”
It was a lot for King to absorb in one sitting; the results didn’t manifest immediately. “It wasn’t until a couple of years later, getting exposed to players like Little Charlie [Baty], that it started to sink in,” he explains.
King readily gives props to other local players who have helped him develop. He studied with Johnny “Guitar” Knox, whose forte is acoustic blues. When Knox saw King slouching toward jazz, he passed him off to Baty, whose deft guitar work in Little Charlie & the Nightcats has always owed as much to Charlie Christian as it has to Buddy Guy.
For King, that led to jump blues, specifically his mid-’90s group the Chrome Addicts. And when the “swing” revival turned from a cool music scene to a Gap commercial, King bailed and came back with the blues.
King is a local product; he grew up as Aaron Moreno in South Sacramento’s Valley Hi area, went through Christian Brothers High and now is working toward a college degree in government. To run for governor?
“No,” he says, smiling. “I want to be a lobbyist.”
Fair enough. Just don’t put that guitar down, OK?