Its been forty odd years since Little Walter passed away. Let after all the years, his musical legacy still burns bright. Shortly after his death, George 'Harmonica' Smith did a marvelous tribute CD with the Muddy Waters Band of the time that had Smith providing his own take on some of Walter's better known recordings. It was a fine effort that alas today is a collector's item. Now, East Coast harmonica wizard, Dennis Gruenling, has turned his attention to a marvelous tribute to Little Walter, I Just Keep Lovin' Him - A Tribute to Little Walter (Backbender Records).
I saw Gruenling with his excellent band, Jumptime, several years ago and was impressed by his progressive harmonica playing, incorporating a number of jazz influences, but like the late Paul DeLay, rooted so strongly in the blues tradition. On his latest CD, he has put together a stellar studio band that includes guitarists Dave Gross and Rusty Zinn; Mark Bram or Marty Dodson on drums; Gina Fox and the vocal group 'Choice' guesting on vocals; and Steve Guyger, Kim Wilson and Rick Estrin on harmonica and vocals.
Included are renditions of several of Walter's recordings, generally not overdone, as well as recordings Walter played on as a sideman, so we get Gina Fox singing a jumping Up the Line, and Choice reworking The Coronets' Corbella. Steve Guyger handles Muddy Waters' Lovin' Man and reworkings of Jimmy Rogers' My Little Machine and You're Sweet, singing ably and taking strong solos with Gruenling adding some real nice accompaniment to the vocals. Kim Wilson is marvelous on Walter's classic shuffle, I Got to Go, and the moody As Long As I Have You. Gruenling takes the second solo on I Got to Go. Rick Estrin takes charge on Too Young to Know and Temperature, and while his vocals come across less effectively as those of Guyger or Wilson, no complaints can be laid at his fine harp. Estrin, Wilson and Gruenling also each take a bow on one of Walter's lesser known instrumentals, Teenage Beat.
Gruenling himself cites George Smith as more of a direct influence on his harp style, but states "here I've tried to reach into my Walter bag a bit," as do Estrin, Guyger and Wilson. They all bring a fat tone and a swinging drive to their playing, and the backing is solid. They know Walter's music so well, but each brings their own spin to this disc. Little Walter's music lives and sounds contemporary as evidenced by this excellent disc with its focus on less expose material and superior musicianship and harp playing. Incidentally as I write this, it is being sold by bluebeatmusic.com with a CD single by Gruenling and Steve Guyger. Ot go to http://www.dennisgruenling.com.