Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Al Miller's In Between Time

Harmonica player and singer, Al Miller, is a contemporary of Paul Butterfield, Charlie Musselwhite and Mike Bloomfield who was among the first wave of white Chicago bluesmen. He worked with Chicago Slim and Johnny Young, was in a band The Wurds which was the first white blues band signed by Chess, spent a couple years in San Francisco working with Bloomfield, and returned to the Windy City. In the early 1990s he recorded a debut CD, “Wild Cards” for Delmark which featured Willie Kent, Dave Spector, Tad Robinson and Steve Freund. In 1999 and 2000 he assembled some of Chicago’s finest talent including John Primer, Dave Spector, Willie Smith, Ken Saydak, Billy Flynn, Harlan Terson and Kenny Smith, which Delmark has just released as … In Between Time.

This album is one of straight-ahead Chicago blues. As Scott Dirks says in the liner booklet, “Al Miller isn’t out to reinvent the wheel, or shoehorn disparate genres into an ill-fitting blues hybrid and call it “original … .” He mixes in a few idiomatic originals with covers of songs by Johnny Young, Jimmy McCracklin, Percy Mayfield, Elmore James, and Eddie Taylor. The varying line-ups share one thing in common, and that is playing old school blues, whether a slow blues and rocking shuffle. 

Whether listening to Miller reprise Johnny Young’s My Baby Walked Out with Barrelhouse Chuck contributing two-fisted piano; or John Primer channeling Magic Sam (on vocal as well as guitar) for a strong rendition of B.B. King’s I Need You So Bad, this recording shines. Miller is an able vocalist, but his harp really shines such as his original Old Friends, with a nice latin groove. The title track is a Muddy Waters flavored original with Billy Flynn on slide followed by a rollicking take of Johnny Young’s instrumental I Got It, with more tough harmonica from Miller. 

On A Better Day, Flynn channels Earl Hooker’s wah-wah slide guitar on a recording that evokes Hooker’s recording, You Gotta Lose. Another Johnny Young cover, Tighten Up On It, has more explosive harmonica. It is followed by John Primer taking the vocal on Elmore James’ 1839 Blues, on an accompaniment (Ken Saydak on piano) suggesting Otis Spann’s Hungry Country Woman. Billy’s Boogie is a lively feature for Flynn’s fretwork followed by Flynn channeling Bo Diddley on Miller’s cover of Little Walter’s Make It Alright. Rob Waters adds organ as Miller imaginatively reworks Percy Mayfield’s uptown Bachelor Blues into a Chicago blues, while Primer is featured in a tribute to one of his mentors, Sammy Lawhorn, on Primer’s Lawhorn Special.

Al Miller is a capable singer and an excellent harmonica player. He is complemented by some excellent players on a mix of originals and covers of songs that have not been over-recorded. With a generous helping of over an hour of music, … In Between Time is an exceptional, straight-ahead, Chicago blues recording.

Delmark sent me a review copy of this.  

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