Saturday, November 14, 2009

Mary Flower Beautifully Bridges Folk and Blues

Here is a review that I wrote earlier this calendar year by a wonderful singer and guitarist, Mary Flower, one of the most accomplished fingerstyle guitarists alive today. It was originally written for Jazz & Blues Report and appeared in the April 2009 issue which can be downloaded at, and go to download issues. Dr. John is on the issue's cover

Mary Flower is one of the unsung heroines of traditionally oriented blues and roots music. She is one of the finest fingerstyle guitarists alive and Yellow Dog records has followed up her acclaimed CD “Bywater Dance” with a new release, “Bridges,” sure to please her fans and introduce her to many others. She has recently relocated to Portland, Oregon after spending decades around Denver, and on this new disc collaborates with a variety of Portland artists including transplanted New Orleans saxophonist Reggie Houston,guitarist and banjoist, Tony Furtado, keyboard players Janice Scroggins and Matt Potts, her sons Jesse Withers on bass and bluegrass legend Tim O’Brien on mandolin and fiddle. The program for this CD includes obscure gems from the songbooks of 1920s and ’30s America to complement her own rootsy compositions, enabling Flower to explore and illuminate the complex relationships between Piedmont blues, ragtime, jazz, and old-time gospel music. With varying instrumentation, the tenor of the songs range from traditional Piedmont style blues to more contemporary folk-blues oriented roots.

The opening “Rhythm of the Road,” has a folky air as she delivers a world weary vocal about her travels down the road as Furtado complementing her fingerstyle lead with his banjo and slide guitar fills. It is followed by ”There Ain’t No Sweet Man Worth the Salt of My Tears,” a delightful number new to these ears with a jaunty backing and nice piano solo from Janice Scroggins. A reflective treatment of Bessie Smith’s “Backwater Blues,” follows with Scroggins spare piano supporting Flower’s melancholy vocal. “When I Get Home I’m Gonna Be Satisfied,” is a gospel number handled at an easy tempo and featuring some adept lap slide guitar from Ms. Flower. The original instrumental, “Columbia River Rag,” is one example of her marvelous fingerstyle work in the Piedmont tradition. A highpoint during her rendition of Emmett Miller’s “The Ghost of the St. Louis Blues” is the interplay of the laughing clarinet from Doug Bundy and Reggie Houston’s soprano sax. “A medley of “On Revival Day” with “There’s Gonna To be the Devil to Pay,” is a delightful performance with Scroggins buoyant piano complementing Flower’s spirited playing and vocal. “Portland Town” evokes some classic Piedmont blues, but this fresh original Flower co-wrote has a nice lilting rhythm with an interesting accordion accompaniment. Another stunning fingerstyle instrumental, “Daughter of Contortion,” is followed by a strong rendition of“Big Bill Blues,” a Big Bill Broonzy recording. Next is a fine small group rendition of Thomas Henry Lodge’s 1909 composition,“Temptation Rag,” that has lovely interplay by Flower with Robin Kessinger on flatpicked guitar before Spud Siegel kicks in on mandolin and takes the tempo up a notch. Tim O’Brien adds his fiddle to “Up a Lazy River,” which comes off as a nod to Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti before Flower adds a nice vocal. With O’Brien on mandolin and Courtney Von Drehle on accordion, she concludes this delightful recording with a lovely original “Blue Waltz.” “bridges” is yet another enchanting recording by a marvelous acoustic blues artist. This should be available at, itunes or better stores. You can also order this from Mary’s website,

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Ghosts of Harlem Will Be Great Gift For Jazz Lover

The following review has been written for Jazz & Blues Report and hopefully will appear in the December issue. I certaainly think this book (with an included CD) would make for a terrific present for the jazz lover in your family or a gift for yourself. This lists for $75 but amazon has it for a bit over $50 as I post this.

The Ghosts of Harlem
Hank O’Neal
Vanderbilt University Press

At one time Harlem was the center of the Jazz World with such bands and performers as Duke Ellington, the Savoy Sultans, Chick Webb and others playing as part of shows at such legendary places as The Cotton Club, Connie’s Inn, the Savoy Ballroom, the Lafayette Theatre and the Apollo Theatre along with other places such as Monroe’s and Minton's. In “The Ghosts of Harlem,” Hank O’Neal provides a brief history of Harlem’s jazz scene from its heyday to its decline after World War 11, as well as provides interviews of 42 artists who were part of Harlem’s vibrant scene and get their memories as well as views on what led to the decline.

Its not a dry oral history either as author O’Neal is a gifted and noted photographer. While some may know him as the principal person behind the Chiaroscuro Records label, he was at one time on duty for the Central Intelligence Agency, before his more known musical activities which also included producing the Floating Jazz Festivals, the source of the various jazz, blues and other themed music cruises of today. Also he is well respected as a photographer and author having compiled “The Eddie Condon Scrapbook of Jazz,” “Gay Day: The Golden Age of the Christopher Day Parade,” and “Berenice Abbott”, about his friend, the noted photographer. His talents as a writer, interviewer, photographer and record producer are all given effect in this handsome coffee table volume that is richly illustrated with both his own portraits, mostly taken with a view camera, as well as archival photos from various sources. This updates the original version which was published in France in 1997).

The early chapters set the table as he explores some of the that made Harlem, contrasting his contemporary photos with historical photos as he discusses the venue, who played there and lets us see how its now a church, an apartment building or a few clubs still exist and feature live entertainment, including some jazz. The bulk of the book is devoted to the interviews of The Ghosts of Harlem. They are Ghosts only in a figurative sense, as O’Neal has common themes in the interviews including some basic biographical information, when and how they first came to Harlem, what memories they had of the places they played and what performers they remember as outstanding as well as thoughts or observations on the decline in jazz and any recent visits or experiences they had.

The persons interviewed range from such prominent jazz figures as Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Carter, Cab Calloway, Milt Hinton, Clark Terry, Benny Carter, Illinois Jacquet, and Joe Williams, along with such important persons, if not as widely known among the general public, as Andy Kirk, Eddie Durham, Sammy Price, Buddy Tate, Danny Barker and Sy Oliver. The recollections are fascinating as O’Neal is a gifted interviewer (some of his Chiaroscuro CDs included jazz speak tracks with the performers recollections included), and his contemporary portraits are mixed in with historical photo as well as label shots of 78s that the artist was featured or performed on.

Added to the interviews is a compact disc with eleven performances from the Chiarascuro catalog featuring 17 of the Ghosts of Harlem including Illinois Jacquet, Buddy Tate, Milt Hinton, Jonah Jones, Doc Cheatham, Eddie Barefield, Red Richards, Al Casey, Cab Calloway, Dizzy Gillespie, Danny Barker, Frank Wess, Harry Edison, Major Holley, Benny Carter, Clark Terry, and Joe Williams, and a bit of Jazz Speak with Eddie Barefield, Cab Calloway, Eddie Barefield and Milt Hinton recollecting about the times together in Cab’s great band as they joke about whether Cab had his Studebaker or Lincoln in the Pullman Car they traveled in while touring.

This is a large and heavy book. 432 pages with 475 b&w photographs and the CD with over an hour of music and talk. Its is fascinating and by its very nature invites one to delve back into it again and again. “The Ghosts of Harlem have come to life in this superb book. Something to keep in mind when looking for a gift for a jazz lover in your circle of friends or family.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Blind Blues Daddy's terrific new release

I was gonna write the underlying review in any event, but when I got home tonight I learned that Bryan Lee was hospitalized, apparently suffering from complications from a staph infection. Keep him in your thoughts and prayers. Folks who know him say what a wonderful person he is. I am just a fan of his strong blues singing and playing. No BS, and as I write this, hope he makes a full recovery.

Whether you call Bryan Lee The Blind Giant of the Blues or Braille Blues Daddy, it does not matter. Lee, a New Orleans institution since 1982 had a long-time residency at the Old Absinthe House on Bourbon Street with his Jump Street Five. This writer saw Lee there in the eighties and was impressed by his Albert King influenced style and husky straight-forward singing to get the vinyl album they had for sale. When the Old Absinthe House stopped being a bar with entertainment, he moved on to other Crescent City venues as well as toured throughout the US and Europe. Since 1991 he has recorded for the Canadian Justin Time label which previously issued 11 albums (one being a compilation) by Lee has just issued “My Lady Don’t Love My Lady,” the third Lee recording that Duke Robillard has produced and it is a typically strong recording. Robillard put together the studio band of some of his long-time associates including bassist Marty Ballou, pianist Dave Maxwell, and saxophonists Gordon Beadle and Doug James with guest appearances by Buddy Guy and Kenny Wayne Sheppard.

A Bryan Lee album and performance has one constant, his straight-forward blues vocals and guitars. Even when covering familiar material such as Willie Mabon’s “I Don’t Know,” he adds his own accent to the vocal and arrangement (although Dave Maxwell certainly contributes a fresh solo here and Beadle rips off a blistering tenor solo on this). There is some terrific material including a terrific Doc Pomus-Mac Rebennack composition “Imitation of Love,” that opens this disc and a lesser known Earl King blues about a cheating woman “Three Can Play This Game,” with more fine piano from Maxwell and tenor from Beadle. For some reason Junior Wells is given authorship for “Early in the Morning,” which was first recorded by the great pianist Charlie Spand in the twenties and which Junior likely picked up from John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson. Lee is in fine form here as is Maxwell while Buddy Guy adds his guitar to spice this track. Kenny Wayne Sheppard helped write the shuffle “Let Me Up I’ve Had Enough,” and adds the hard rocking guitar solo pyrotechnics. Ballou’s walking bass opens the nice cover of Ray Charles’ “Heartbreaker,” with Maxwell’s piano evoking The Genius and solid solos from Beadle on tenor sax and James on baritone sax. Lee contributes three originals including “Too Many Wolves,” a slow blues with a terrific lyric about too many wolves hanging around his door with some blistering fretwork from Lee, and the title track, with a nice funk groove as Lee laments his lady makes him feel so good but does not dig his guitar. Big Bill Broonzy’s “When I’ve Been Drinking,” benefits from the late night, jazzy setting Robillard provides for Lee’s low-key vocal with Duke taking a fine solo here. It takes a brave man to cover a song connected with the late Johnny Adams, and Bryan does a more than a credible job on the country-tinged R&B gem, “Reconsider Me,” if not up to the Tan Canary's original.

Bryan Lee’s lady may not love Bryan’s other lady, but Bryan continues to deliver some of the toughest blues to be heard. This may be one of Duke Robillard’s finest efforts as a producer with the studio band being terrific. Add a blend of material with even the best-known covers injected with Lee’s personal approach and one has another terrific album of blues by Bryan Lee. This is available at cdbaby, amazon, itunes, and other vendors.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Can I Get An Amen

Nashville singer and guitarist Johnnie Jones' passed away recently and it unfortunately was unheralded somewhat.

Those having The Beat!!! DVDs (or just the Freddie King DVD from that show), he was the other guitarist in the house band besides Gatemouth Brown
and was a member of The King Casuals (I probably screwed up the name of the band) who also included Billy Cox and a young Jimi Hendrix.

Thanks to Fred James and others we are fortunate to have several recent recordings by him (Live at Lucerne with Charles Walker is a special gem
and I remember seeing him at the Poconos with Charles Walker as well as at the Ponderosa Stomp.

Jonny Meister has a Blues File podcast on Johnny's career and this can also be accessed from the itunes store.

Bill Heid shines on jazzy blues piano set.

“You Know I Can’t Reuse: The Bill Heid Sessions,” (Eastlawn) is one of those discs that straddle the blues and jazz categories, so unfortunately sometimes get lost in the mix of new recordings. Drummer RJ Spangler is one of those musicians who has championed the swinging blues and rhythm pioneers of his native Detroit as well as providing solid, idiomatic support that helped revive the careers of such folks as Johnnie Bassett, Detroit’s Blues Queen Alberta Adams and the late Motor City legends as Joe Weaver, Stanley Mitchell and Kenny Martin. RJ tours with his Rhythm Rockers and plays in different combos such as RJ Spangler’s Blues Four which reunites him here with Bill Heid, one of the unsung blues and jazz keyboard players of the past thirty-five odd years. The Pittsburgh native has lived in Chicago for several years where he was on Alligator recordings by Koko Taylor, Fenton Robinson and Roy Buchanan. He later recorded for a variety of labels including several excellent organ recordings for Savant as a leader, in addition to recordings by Johnny Bassett and others for Cannonball. He lived in Detroit for about two decades developing a bunch of followers including RJ and played a major role in helping getting Johnny Bassett some international exposure. More recently, he has been part of the Baltimore and Washington jazz and blues scene. This new disc that RJ Spangler produced has Pat Prouty on string bass and Keith Kaminski on saxophone with Johnnie Bassett adding his guitar to several selections.

As the disc's subtitle suggests, Heid is the focus here. Heid plays piano and handles the vocals on a set of jazz-inflected blues or blues-inflected jazz. A good part of the 11 songs here derive from the repertoire of such jump blues legends as Floyd Dixon and Jimmy Witherspoon although it opens with a rollicking rendition of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Ninety Nine,” with Heid’s Amos Milburn-Floyd Dixon inspired boogie piano complementing his unforced off-the-cuff vocals embellished by Bassett’s nice solo. Dixon’s “Red Cherries,” is a sophisticated uptown number with the, “Cherry a day will keep the doctor away,” has him singing about the fun in getting cherry juice on his tongue. Next is another Dixon classic, though more in the Charles Brown-Little Willie Littlefield vein, “Baby Lets Go Down to the Woods,” as Bassett’s guitar conjures up Oscar Moore. The tempo picks up for Leiber-Stoller’s “Too Much Jelly Roll, a popular part of Jimmy Witherspoon’s fifties repertoire. While he can’t shout the blues like Witherspoon, Heid’s delivery appeals in its own fashion on Spoon’s “Failing By Degrees,” with the down-in-the-alley piano ably supported by Prouty’s bass and Spangler’s brush work. Heid's “Boogie For Mr. B.” is a fine original boogie woogie. Heid’s piano also adds a fresh feel to the Joe Turner and Pete Johnson classic “Piney Brown Blues,” with Kaminski telling his bluesy story on tenor sax, while Jimmy Witherspoon’s “Times Getting Tougher Than Tough,” gets rollicking piano along with Kaminski’s tenor sax punctuation. The title track, originally by Detroit’s Five Dollars backed by Joe Weaver & the Blue Notes, has a tasty rumba groove while Johnny Bassett, who played on the original, adds his guitar here.

RJ, in the album notes, mentions outside of Bill’s original boogie, these are songs that Bill would play with RJ and the cats iover the years but had never recorded. I add that none of these numbers have been done to death. In any event, Heid adds his own inflections to his performances making for a set that should appeal to fans of jazz and blues, and artists like Jay MacShann, Charles Brown, Floyd Dixon, Amos Milburn and Mose Allison who defy category borders. Kudos to Spangler for putting together such an strong session. It is available at and, to name two of the sources listed on