Thursday, April 14, 2011

Zora Young's Moving Tribute To Sunnyland Slim

Zora Young, one of Chicago’s leading blues ladies, first emerged in the blues scene in the early 1980s, and was mentored by the legendary blues pianist Sunnyland Slim. She was not the only one befriended by the late Albert Luandrew, who helped bring Muddy Waters to the attention of Leonard Chess. In any event, Zora has a new album, with special gust Hubert Sumlin, Sunnyland on Airway, the label started by Sunnyland decades ago.

The album was produced by Sam Burckhardt, the saxophonist who played in Sunnyland’s band for many years as did guitarist Steve Freund while pianist Barrelhouse Chuck Goring was mentored by Sunnyland and Little Brother Montgomery. Hubert Sumlin, one of the Chicago blues’ most compelling guitarist spent time with Sunnyland during Sunnyland’s stints in Howlin’ Wolf’s band. Add to this mix the terrific bass player Bob Stroger and drummer Kenny Smith and one has quite a band with several tracks having added brass. Quite a band for a session recorded at Delmark’s Riverside Studio in July 2007 with some horns added last year.

And it opens with a bang as Zora tears into her original Bad Track Record, belting out the vocal with an authority that grabs the listener as the horns blast in support. Both Freund and Barrelhouse Chuck shine on a rocking rendition of Sunnyland’s Goin’ Back to Memphis, a variation on Rolling & Tumbling, with more forceful singing by Young. The mood gets a bit low-key on Young’s Travelin’ Light, singing about traveling light and not carrying any load being a bluebird that loves to sing, with Sumlin taking an somewhat straightforward solo as Burckhardt riffs on tenor.

Hubert’s Groove is an instrumental that evokes Tramp, with its funky groove as Barrelhouse Chuck gets greasy on organ, with Sumlin, Freund and Burckhardt also taking solos. Young’s Football Widow, is an amusing number with a melody evoking Just a Little Bit, as she wants to get her couch potato man off the coach and out on the town, with Burckhardt ripping off a terrific tenor sax solo followed by a guitar break from Sumlin. You Said You Were Leaving, is one of two Sumlin vocals here and is one of his better one with him singing quite passionately as well as playing his quirky twisting guitar.

The title track, written by Burckhardt is a feature for Barrelhouse Chuck as he suggests Sunnyland’s unique style while Freund takes a particularly choice solo that evokes Sumlin’s playing as well before Burckhardt gets nasty on the tenor, resulting in a terrific instrumental. Sunnyland recorded Johnson Machine Gun, for Aristocrat, and Young belts a vocal that certainly does honor Slim’s memory. While the song is credited to Sunnyland here, it was a reworking of Willie ‘61’ Blackwell’s 1941 Bluebird recording, Machine Gun Blues. Stumbling Blocks and Stepping Stones is another shuffle built upon some traditional blues imagery of a big city country girl far from home dealing with her false friends. Till the Fat Lady Sings, is a topical blues with telling lyrics about the mess in her community and around the world set to a groove evocative of Bobby Rush’s Chicken Heads.

Blues For Hubert is a jazzy sounding instrumental in honor of Sumlin who sits this out. Burckhardt sets the tone with his tenor with both Chuck and Freund getting nice solo space. Zora certainly sounds like no one to mess with on Daughter of a Son-of-a-Gun, a hard rocking number with rollicking piano and a sharp solo from Freund. Sumlin joins Young for a closing down home blues, Looka Here Baby, with Sumlin and Freund providing the accompaniment. It is a change of pace for a welcome surprise release.

Young really shines as a strong singer and the entire recording is first-rate. I would assume better stores will have this, but you could contact for information on how to order.

This review originally appeared in the May 2009 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 316) although i have made minor changes in paragraphing and some stylistic changes as well. I likely received my review copy from Jazz & Blues Report.

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