Friday, November 26, 2010

Roosevelt Sykes Sounds Good Blowing His Horn

A blues pianist acquaintance of mine suggested to me that Roosevelt Sykes arguably was the greatest pianist in the history of blues. It is not a commonly accepted notion, but upon reflection has more than much to commend itself. Sykes in his career put together a body of recordings that is among the greatest blues recordings by a single performer. A tremendous pianist, songwriter and a great singer with a robust, extroverted delivery, from his early classics like “44 Blues” to post-war sessions like the New Orleans one that produced “Sweet Old Chicago,” Sykes remained a blues giant across the decades.

I will not make claims that the Delmark Sykes’ recording, Feel Like Blowing My Horn, is one of the classic essential blues piano recordings. This is simply a solid recording by Sykes in a solid jump band setting with sympathetic backing. For me, it is the musical equivalent of comfort food. I purchased this when it came out in 1970 and delighted that Delmark reissued it in 1997 (It should still be readily available). The session included long-time friend of Sykes, the late Robert Jr. Lockwood on guitar, along with Dave Myers on bass and Fred Below on drums. I believe this was recorded close to when Lockwood recorded his “Steady Rolling Man” album for Delmark, but the Sykes album appeared to showcase Lockwood’s guitar more, and Myers and Below backed Lockwood on that CD.

Horns were added by trumpeter King Kolax and Oett ‘Sax’ Mallard on tenor sax and clarinet. Mallard had a brief stint with Duke Ellington, and played in numerous blues and jump band sessions including the 1946 Victor session by Sykes that produced Sykes’ hit “Sunny Road,” as well as sessions with Big Bill Broonzy, Washboard Sam, Sunnyland Slim, Eddie Boyd and Jump Jackson. Being reunited with Sykes, this was the last session he appeared on. Kolax himself led a big band in the Windy City which traveled a bit without recording. He joined Billy Eckstine’s last edition of his fabled big band which included fellow Wendell Phillips High School alumni, Gene Ammons, as well as Leo Parker and Frank Wess as well as fabled trumpeter Hobart Dotson and made his first recordings as part of Eckstine’s band with a soundtrack, Rhythm in a Riff. Kolax recorded a 78 for Opera Records, was part of saxophonist JT Brown’s band for a United label session and Kolax’s band backed Joe Williams on his Checker recording of “Everyday I Have the Blues.” John Coltrane spent a stint in Kolax’s band for a period and Kolax’s lengthy session work included playing on Otis Rush’s Duke Session that produced “Homework.” Coincidentally, like Mallard this is the last session Kolax is documented as being on.

The music kicks off with the ebullient title track and the brassy horn riffs, Sykes’ driving piano and Lockwood’s chording and single note runs set the tone with Mallard taking the first solo break as Sykes rocks things with some boogie-laced runs with Lockwood taking a solo during the second break as Below kicks the groove along. The tempo slows down for My Hamstring’s Poppin’, has Sykes noting his woman has a fine body but is a gold digger from her heart, “but I could not resist you, and I’d know it from the start,” as Sykes calls out for Lockwood to take his solo with Sykes encouraging him with cries of “Mercy.” “I’m a Nut,” is a shuffle with a silly lyric, an energetic solo from Mallard, and a playful vocal from Sykes. Sykes’ piano opens, Blues Will Prank Your Soul, with a wistful vocal as Mallard riffs behind the vocal, and Lockwood takes a solo.

Jubilee Time is a relaxed rocking as Sykes sings about it being jubilee time in New Orleans and dancing around the old campgrounds. Mallard is on clarinet here as Sykes encourages him along with Kolax adding a hot solo. An unissued alternate is added here to the originally issued take. All Days Are Good Days is a fine blues in a more reflective vein for which an alternate take is added to the originally issued one and one should pay attention to Sykes’ piano reacting to Lockwood’s solo here. Sykes’ Gumboogie is a lively piano feature as the horns playing simple riffs and the rhythm section push things along while Rock-A-Bye Birdie is a New Orleans R&B flavored song with Mallard playing with gusto of classic Lee Allen. Moving Blues sounds like an adaptation of Move to the Outskirts of Town, with Lockwood taking a solo and Mallard adding his responsive voice. Don’t Bat Your Eye is a previously unissued track with a rhumba groove with punchy horns and a lively Mallard solo. There is a loose jam-like feeling to this performance which has a short solo from Kolax as well. Eagle Rock Me, Baby is a medium rocker where Below keeps the grove in the pocket.

With two previously unissued alternate takes and two previously unissued tracks, Delmark’s reissue on CD of Feel Like Blowing My Horn, added to the value of this fun session. The music sure sounds like all were having a blast.

Delmark Records provided me with a review copy of this recording.

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