From The Desk Of Over The Rhine: Jack The Bear Espresso

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 20 years since Over The Rhine issued its debut album. The Ohio-based husband-and-wife duo of multi-instrumentalists/vocalists Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist have marked the anniversary with new album The Long Surrender, which was produced by Joe Henry at his Garfield House home studio and features an assortment of musicians handpicked for the project by Henry, including Lucinda Williams. Though Detweiler and Bergquist had never worked with Henry or his assembled backing band before, The Long Surrender was finished in less than a week. The fan-funded, 13-track album was just released via OTR’s Great Speckled Dog Records, which the duo named after Elroy, their much-loved Great Dane who passed away last year. Detweiler and Bergquist will also be guest editing all week. Read our brand new Q&A with Detweiler.

Linford: Let’s start with something to drink. For some years now, it has been fascinating to Karin and me to watch various musicians develop intimate relationships with coffee, as Karin and I have by no means escaped this sometimes inevitable romance ourselves. For instance, a talented singer/songwriter friend with a dusky voice, Kim Taylor, surprised us some years back by announcing that she and her husband had bought a coffee house, which she proceeded to operate, while continuing to write songs, record, occasionally tour and raise a beautiful son. (After eight years, Kim and Dan recently sold the Pleasant Perk, which is still operating in the Cincinnati neighborhood of Pleasant Ridge.)

When my wife and I encountered Chuck Pfahler in Cincinnati, a German/Italian/American who started his own coffee-roasting company, La Terza, we were hooked. For one thing, when we poured steaming water over his grounds in our French press, they bloomed like a dark flower. Chuck had started out years earlier experimenting with roasting coffee beans with an air popcorn popper and now personally roasts 800-1,000 pounds a week of some of the best, fresh-roasted, most aromatic goodness you’ll ever encounter. Well, eventually, Karin and I couldn’t resist getting our heads together with Chuck on an “Over The Rhine” blend (bold, dark, sensual, earthy, playful, complex … ?), which we began selling at and on the road. It is a peculiar enterprise to roll into Seattle or Portland, for instance, with your own blend of coffee from Ohio, but then again, perhaps no more peculiar than showing up with a blend of songs from Ohio. The dilemma is the same: you have to believe it’s good.

But I must say, we recently encountered a fellow, who has taken his love of both music and coffee to heights previously unknown to us. When we had the opportunity to work with Joe Henry in South Pasadena, the reputation of Joe and his espresso machine preceded him and (almost) rivaled the well-deserved praise he has received as a songwriter, recording artist, performer and producer. The Garfield House, where Joe and his wife Melanie and two children Levon and Lulu live, is a beautiful, old, mission-style home, which the widow of President Garfield had built by architects Greene & Greene (another Ohio connection) after her husband’s assassination. Joe converted the basement of the Garfield House into his recording studio. From there, it feels like he gets the songs out to sea or puts them on a midnight train that rolls endlessly into still-to-be-discovered musical territory. (May it never arrive.)

But at the top of the basement stairs, you are greeted by an altar of sorts, a well-appointed nook where Joe presides and offers all who enter his world some of the best espresso I have personally ever had the pleasure of sipping. And after years of experimentation, Joe Henry, along with help from Equator Coffees & Teas in San Rafael, Calif., has come up with his own espresso roast, which is now available to all. The fact that a Duke Ellington tune called “Jack The Bear” and the particular sound of an upright bass helped all involved to intuitively approach the indescribable tells you pretty much everything you need to know about Joe Henry.

But, in fact, Joe can illuminate it all beautifully in his own words, which you really must read. I leave you with this short excerpt: “This roast reminds me of Jimmy Blanton’s bass playing: deep and round, steeped in tradition, but not trapped by it; buoyant yet structurally sound; full of life, love and light, and dedicated to carrying our shared humanity—to quote Strayhorn—’ever onward and upward.’”

Order a pound, and pray that that sort of dedication and conviction is contagious.

Video after the jump.