A Black & Tan Ball
The Seattle-based duo of Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons were winners of the 2016 solo/duo competition of the Blues Foundation's International Blues Challenge. Although blues may be their music's anchor, the duo move as easily into string band music, old-time jazz and ragtime. While some might liken them to songsters, a better term might be Black Americana in how they pull together so many threads of Black American roots music. They, in fact think of themselves as songsters, rather than thinking of their music as blues. The violin, mandolin and guitar of Harper; and the guitar and banjo of Seamons; are joined by harmonica master Phil Wiggins. Wiggins himself has explored similar musical threads, reflecting the influence of mentors and friends like Howard Armstrong and Nat Reese. Phil has indeed made a similar recording of varied music with The Chesapeake Sheiks, his Washington DC area group .
The album opens with Phil singing "Do You Call That a Buddy," that Louis Jordan recorded originally. Louis Armstrong with his big band also recorded this with his big band. Phil may have learned this from Howard Armstrong. If Phil's vocal phrasing is a tad stiff, he brings out the lyrics' considerable humor. The versatility of the trio is heard in "Shanghai Rooster," an old time string band number with some wonderful banjo from Seamons, fiddle from Hunter and harp from Wiggins. Then there is a peppy, delightful reworking of The Mill Brothers "How'm I Doin'," with the three trading lead and harmony vocals. Leadbelly was first to record "Po Howard," a song inspired by a black fiddler with an intricate mandolin-banjo-harmonica accompaniment.
There is solid interplay between Hunter's violin and Wiggins' harmonica on a surprising take on the jazz classic "Struttin' With Some Barbeque," with some sublime solos from both. It is followed by an Ellington classic "Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me," with Wiggins taking the vocal along with adding some wistful harmonica. The rendition of "John Henry" is derived from that of Sid Hemphill and Lucius Smith. Seamons on banjo sets the tempo along with Hunter 's fiddle and Wiggins' harmonica adding accents. A rendition of Leroy Carr's "Longing For My Sugar" has superb harmonica and marvelous mandolin.
Although attributed to Sylvester Weaver's twenties' recording, the rendition of "Guitar Rag" is more akin to the instrumental workouts Wiggins and the late John Cephas would include in their performances. In addition to Wiggins terrific harp, Hunter is sublime with his fiddle, while Seamons' guitar provides steady backing. After the trio's reimagining of Lane Hardin's "Hard Time Blues," there is a stutter-step rhythms of their adaptation of William Harris' "Bullfrog Blues," with some fine harmonica and it is nice to have another cover of this to join Canned Heat's 50 year rendition.
"Bad Man Ballad" is a song that was collected from an unnamed Parchman Farm inmate by John and Alan Lomax, but recorded by a number of old timey artists like Clarence Ashley and Doc Watson. The string band rendition here employs the lyrics collected by the Lomaxes. A cover of the Mississippi Sheiks, "Stop and Listen Blues," an adaptation of a Tommy Johnson theme, has Wiggins singing set against a solid fiddle and guitar backing closing a terrifically engaging, genre-transcending recording. For more information on the recordings here, including the sources of the songs, visit http://www.benjoemusic.com/black-tan-ball.
I received a review copy from a publicist. This review originally appeared in the September-October 2017 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 374), but I have made a number of stylistic changes. Here is a video of the three performing.