Saturday, February 20, 2016

Blues Saxophone Royalty

A couple years ago, three saxophonists were inducted to the Blues Hall of Fame. Few could question the selection of the late Eddie 'Cleanhead' Vinson, who was notable as a fluid saxophonist and a notable blues shouter. Also inducted was Big Jay McNeely, who was noted as one of the great honkers of rhythm and blues and is still alive, and Eddie Shaw, a Chicago saxophone player and vocalist first noticed for being Howlin' Wolf's last band leader and his playing on recordings of Magic Sam, Jimmy dawkings and others who has led his own bands over the past four decades.

Here are three individuals whose contributions similarly merit such recognition

Grady Gaines (heard playing "There is Something on Your Mind") was leading one of the top local bands in Houston (where he was on recording sessions for Peacock and Duke Records) when he received the call from Little Richard to join Richard's band in the early 1960s. Gaines remained with Richard, leading the Upsetters, and after Richard's leaving music for the ministry took over the Upsetters and they would become the backing band for Little Willie John, Sam Cooke and then some of the legendary rhythm and blues tours of the late sixties and early seventies. In more recent years, Gaines has led the Texas Upsetters performing a wide range of music for many occasions but always rooted in blues and rock and roll. He had two outstanding albums on Black Top in the 1990s and I recently reviewed his biography, I've Been Out There. He probably has backed more acts in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame then anybody else and more than a few of these are also in the Blues Hall of Fame.

If one was going to name perhaps the greatest saxophonist of the post-war Chicago blues, chances J.T. Brown would be the person most familiar with the history would select. Brown's nanny-goat vibrato and swinging attack is best known from his numerous recordings with Elmore James and the Broomdusters, but he also recorded behind countless other blues legends including Roosevelt Sykes, Jimmy Oden, Eddie Boyd, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Rogers, Little Johnnie Jones and the blues-rock band Fleetwood Mac. He also recorded a number of vocals including his own "Blackjack Blues," that is a different number than the Ray Charles blues. Brown as Sax Man Brown is heard on "Sax-Ony Boogie," backed by Elmore James, Little Johnnie Jones on piano, Ransom Knowling on bass and Odie Payne on drums.

J.T. Brown mentored A.C. Reed, the big-toned player who was not simply a member of several of the greatest blues bands of the seventies and early eighties, but also was a significant leader and ocalist on his own right. In addition to his prized 45s ("My Buddy Buddy Friends"), he was a member of Earl Hooker's Roadmasters before being a significant part of the great Buddy Guy-Junior Wells Band of the 1970s, followed by a stint with what likely was Son Seals' greatest bands, and then was with Albert Collins and the Icebreakers, when Collins toured in support of Collins (and he appeared on Collins' first five Alligator CDs). His own recordings and performances featured in addition to his big saxophone sound(Gene Ammons was an admitted influence), his tongue and cheek lyrics as represented on his Alligator album title, Take These Blues and Shove 'Em!  or on the rocking "These Blues Is Killing Me."

Certainly J.T. Brown and A.C. Reed's credentials are certainly equal to those of  Eddie Shaw and Grady Gaines' career certainly is as meritorious as Little Richard, who after all was a rocker.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Toronzo Cannon - The Chicago Way

After his two superior albums on Delmark, many were pleased to learn about Alligator Records signing Toronzo Cannon and now we have his label debut "The Chicago Way." Those who enjoyed his prior releases will not be disappointed with this and it is likely to raise his profile, not simply in the blues world. Cannon wrote all eleven songs on "The Chicago Way" and is backed by his band The Cannonball Express. The band consists of Brother John Kattke, Hammond B-3 Organ, Piano, Keyboards; Pete Galanis, Electric and Acoustic Rhythm Guitar, Larry Williams, Bass and Melvin "Pookie Stix" Carlisle, Drums. Kattke also arranged the three piece horn section on a few selections.

This is hard-hitting music that might superficially be compared to Son Seals. Certainly Cannon's searing buzz-kill guitar bears a similar intensity to what the late Seals brought to his music. And like Seals, Cannon is all business. His music though is a bit more urban and soul-rooted than Son. Like Son Seals' music, Cannon's music reflects his own life and experiences from growing up in the shadows of the Chicago projects, to working as a bus driver and listening and observing the city life around him.

The tightly performed and hard-hitting playing on "The Chicago Way" provides a frame for his telling social commentary like the opening "The Pain Around Me." Starting off in a funky manner, it has a lyric about six kids on the corner, six broken homes, and Toronzo not wanting his kids to go outside because of the thugs hanging around. Furthermore, he doesn't want to sing this but this is what he, in fact, sees. There is plenty of fire in his playing and vocal with his band tightly backing him.

In contrast to the serious  opening track, one hears plenty of humor in his lyric about a marriage gone bad on a funky shuffle "Bad Contract." This bad contract is the one where you sign on the line and only gets half back when its over. The driving shuffle "Fine Seasoned Women," has Toronzo fending off a flirting lady who is trying so hard to catch his eye. Cannon, however,  prefers a lady with a touch of gray or wrinkles, who wants a man, not a fool. There is nice use of horns on this along along with his crisply played guitar. The humorous "Midlife Crisis" is another number that speaks to those of us who have put more than a few years (and it has a great line about hair on the chest turning grey). Perhaps this writer's favorite track is a wonderful slow blues, "When Will You Tell Him About Me?," with Toronzo complaining  about being tired of the secrecy with which he and his woman must keep their affair.

As a songwriter, as well as a singer-guitarist, Toronzo Cannon brings grit and passion. His playing is varied ranging from blues-rock to jazzy flavored while his singing is robust resulting in the mostly compelling performances here. "The Chicago Way" is one of most striking recent new blues releases.

I received my review copy from Alligator. To give you a sample, here is a recent performance by Toronzo of "The Pain Around Me."

Thursday, February 18, 2016

A few Blues thoughts for the day

Thoughts for the day.

Not one member of the Boogie Woogie Trio (Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis or Pete Johnson) is in the Blues Hall of Fame. The greatest boogie woogie pianists of all time. Here is Boogie Woogie Prayer.

I also add their mentor Jimmy Yancey is also not in nor is the great Cow Cow Davenport. Look at who has been recently inducted but these folk are not in.  Here is Davenport, not doing the eponymously named boogie, but Texas Shout.

And here is Jimmy Yancey's almost poetical rendition of How Long Blues.

 More on acts that should be in the Blues Hall of Fame in future posts. Look up these folks on google and give their music a listen on the net.

Willie Dixon's cliche "The Blues is the roots and everything else is the fruits" may have had some truth when he made it, but today so much of what is marketed as blues is the fruits as much as anything. When Dixon made the comment so many musical acts were redoing blues songs (country acts covered Jimmy Reed) and even the genius that was Gil Evans would rework a Dixon song like he does with Spoonful.

Or Jimmy Smith cover Muddy Waters' hit Got My Mojo Workin'.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Otis Rush
Double Trouble Live Cambridge 1973
Rock Beat

Joe’s Place in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the seventies must have been quite a place as Joe mentions Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry along with Lowell Fulson as upcoming acts before he introduced Otis Rush for a night of blues. Rush that night was backed by Little Bo on tenor sax, Ernest Gatewood on bass and Bob Richey (not Richards as mistakenly spelled on the back cover) on drums.

Rush, until a severe stroke in 2004 curtailed his career, was one of the most revered blues artists bringing some of the strongest modern blues guitar playing which was matched by his angushed singing. This recording has some uneven sound quality (Little Bo is somehwat muffled on the opening "Watermelon Man"), but the brilliance of Rush's playing doesn't suffer in the mix. The program here includes several renditions of Rush's Cobra recordings including "It Takes Time," "I Can't Quit You Baby," Keep On Loving Me," and "Double Trouble," along with several numbers associated with B.B. King, including "Gambler's Blues" (which became identified with Otis), and "Why I Sing the Blues." In addition to the instrumental warm-up of "Watermelon Man," there are a couple James Brown numbers, an instrumental workout on "Popcorn" (as much a feature for Little Bo who is more audible here), and the closing "Please, Please, Please," and inspired playing on Rush's instrumental treatment of Ike and Tina Turner's "I Think It's Gonna Work Out Fine." This latter number has more saxophone from Little Bo, demonstrating why Rush described him as the little man with the big sound..

Frank Scott provides an overview of Rush's career and a brief description of the performance in the accompanying booklet.

I purchased this. Here is Otis' rendition of "Gambler's Blues" from this performance.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Grady Gaines - I’ve Been Out There: On the Road with Legends of Rock’n’Roll

I’ve Been Out There: On the Road with Legends of Rock’n’Roll
Grady Gaines with Rod Evans
2015: Texas A&M Press (188 pages)

When the Blues Foundation announced only three selections for the Blues Hall of Fame for 2015, to accompany the opening of the actual Hall, this writer was upset (pun intended) that Little Richard was selected in part because his contributions were primarily as a rhythm and blues-rock’n’roll performer, and not as a blues man. It also struck me that they missed the opportunity to include the leader of Richard’s band the Upsetters, Grady Gaines, at the same time (Grady’s brother guitarist Roy also clearly deserves induction). Hopefully this will be rectified soon. In any event, with the assistance of Rod Evans, we have a chance to let Grady tell us his own story in this 2015 volume that is part of Texas A&M Press’ John and Robin Dickson Series In Texas Music.

Evans has put together Gaines’ recollections and life story intermixed with comments from those associated with Grady, including members of his family (brothers L.C. and Roy and son Grady Jr., among them), musicians and others who played significant roles in his band or life (like the Upsetters’ drummer Charles ‘Chuck’ Connor, guitarist Milton Hopkins, guitarist John Andrews, trombonist-vocalist Paul David Roberts, Hammond Scott of Black Top Records and Susan Criner his current booking agent). There are also inserts giving background on other persons and events such as Sam Cooke’s passing and Little Willie John’s murder conviction and death in prison. While Little Richard had been contacted and willing to talk about Grady’s contributions to his early career, his declining health prevented it. Also not able to contribute for health reasons was Grady’s lifelong friend, and bandmate, Clifford Burks.

Grady’s story starts while he was in his first band, The Blues Ramblers. Little Richard, who just had a smash hit with “Tutti Frutti,” called Grady to recruit him and fellow saxophonist Clifford Burks to join him. Grady recalled they had played with Richard in Houston and described how the Upsetters (which Richard started calling his band) added other musicians and toured heavily. Then the story backtracks to his beginning. Grady recollects how he and Roy, inspired by a grandfather, got into music. Grady grew up in a small Texas town, although experienced little of the Jim Crow issues of other communities, The family moved to Houston after his father got a job in a lumberyard. In Houston, Grady, inspired by an uncle, started working doing a paper route and playing music, describing the process in which he learned to play saxophone. A significant influence was Calvin Owens, a student teacher at his school who taught him a variety of things including the importance of professionalism.

While in High School, Grady started his first band, eventually creating the Blues Ramblers, which became one of Houston’s biggest bands. At the same time he was able to see so many legends like T-Bone Walker and B.B. King. The band got to be one of Don Robey’s studio bands and recorded behind Earl Forrest, Gatemouth Brown, Big Walter Price and even the Mighty Clouds of Joy. Mixing his recollections of playing, recording and developing his saxophone style, he recalls the vibrant nightlife in the Bayou City, and discusses when he was first playing with Little Richard before he became the sensation he was.

He spent three years with Little Richard, observing the incessant touring, with a few days off here and there. There would be mishaps like a driver dozing off and running off into a cotton field. Besides describing life on the road, he offers an overview of what a typical show was. Then there were the films including “The Girl Can’t Help It” with the famous scene of Grady jumping and soloing on the piano while Richard was pumping away. There were side benefits too, including, as described by Connors, women throwing their panties on stage, and Grady, being handsome and prominent as saxophonist and the band’s leader, had his share of after show encounters.

It was in 1957 in Australia that Little Richard told the band he was quitting the business to become a preacher. He had hinted at doing this previously, but Down Under he actually made the decision during a tour. Richard allowed Grady to continue using the name the Upsetters, and when back in the US they toured California with Dee Clark. The band next hooked up with Little Willie John who had a smash hit with “Fever.” Grady recalls that Little Willie John was a wonderful little guy, but kind of wild. They continued to tour with him until a California tour that included Sam Cooke. Cooke wanted the band as his own, so it became Sam Cooke’s band and it toured with him until his early death. Included among the many pictures illustrating Grady’s story is a poster from their early 60s tour of Jamaica.

After Cooke’s death in 1964, Grady Gaines and the Upsetters became the main backing band for Universal Attractions, playing behind the likes of Etta James, Ruth Brown, Bo Diddley, Solomon Burke, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Crystals, the Supremes and “anybody that was somebody.” And the Upsetters worked hard at being entertaining. Grady himself would put a mic down the barrel of his horn, honk and walk the floor with a 150 foot cable including sometimes going outside and playing on the sidewalk. While Grady noted that he drank moderately, he stayed away from drugs and the Upsetters had few problems with alcohol or drugs.

Grady talks about disco coming in as among the things that led to decline of the Upsetters touring. The remainder of the book details him returning to Houston, playing primarily locally as well as taking employment outside of music. Grady’s Texas Upsetters became a versatile band, doing a revue type of show and playing not simply nightclubs but also private parties and other functions with their considerable versatility. It was at this time that Hammond Scott, and his late brother Nauman, heard Grady and recorded him for Black Top, and this led to some European travel. He also recorded an album "Jump Start,’ that unlike the mostly original material of the Black Top releases, had mostly older material reshaped by Grady and the Upsetters, and they continue to still perform. One thing that comes across throughout this book is the professionalism he conducted throughout his career, still seen today by the fact that he picks up all the band members up for their gigs in the Houston area.

Over his career Grady has backed 71 artists who are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, likely more than anyone else. Evans is making a case for him being selected as a sideman. Certainly it would be worthy, as would be his induction into the Blues Foundation’ Blues Hall of Fame, as among those 71 artists are more than a handful of Blues Hall of Fame inductees. Additionally his own playing, and his recordings deserve recognition.

There are a couple of minor typos (Amos Milburn called Wilburn), and it might have suited Evans to have looked at the excellent biographies of Sam Cooke, Little Willie John and John Ace, as well as Preston Lauterbach’s book on “The Chitlin Circuit.” The authors do rely on Roger Wood’s marvelous “Down In Houston: Bayou City Blues,” and Charles White’s “The Life and Times of Little Richard” by Charles White. It is surprising that for a University Press book, a number of cites to (not completely reliable although I found no errors here), although most of the material is from Evans’ interviews. In any event, Grady certainly has been out there and this well illustrated volume tells his story in a highly readable and concise manner.

I purchased this. Here is one of Grady's recordings when leading the Upsetters.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Slam Allen - Feel these Blues

For years, Harrison 'Slam' Allen could be seen fronting the James Cotton Band with his guitar and vocals. For a few years he played on a cruise line (nice work if you can get it). He has returned to the blues scene and has a new recording "Feel These Blues" (American Showplace Music). In addition to his guitar and vocals, Slam is backed by a rock solid band of John Ginty on keyboards, Jeff Andersen on bass guitar and Dan Fadel on drums for a program of 11 originals and a rendition of Prince's "Purple Rain."

There is nothing fancy about Slam Allen with his rocking, B.B. King influenced guitar and his strong vocals. His  vocals strike me as his greatest strength although he is no slouch as a guitarist. The album opens with with the title track with its lament about being hard to find blues on the radio but he will keep laying down these blues playing  guitar while chanting you got to feel these blues. The B.B. King flavored shuffle "The Blues Is Back," another song dealing with the blues as a genre, and is a highlight of this recording with some searing guitar. "All Because Of You" is a solid original whose melody evokes the Gladys Knight hit "My Imagination," while "In September," is a nice slice of country soul with a terrific vocal. There is a funk groove for "35 Miles Outside of Memphis," as Slam sings about about stressful things on his mind but one of them sure ain't his woman, and followed by the intense slow, B.B. King styled blues "World Don't Stop Turning." Another strong straight blues in this vein is "You're Wrong." "Can't Break Away from That Girl" is another solid southern flavored soul performance, similar to some of Johnny Rawls recent recordings.

"Feel These Blues" closes with a lengthy interpretation of "Purple Rain," and one suspects this may have been popular on the cruises fortunate enough to have Slam Allen as an entertainer. Having seen Slam Allen several times, I can attest how entertaining he is performing and this is captured to some extent on this solid recording.

I bought this from Slam but also received a review copy from the record company. Here is Slam Allen in performance

Friday, February 12, 2016

Robert Francis Valentine for Chet Baker

Robert Francis
Aeronaut Records

Singer-songwriter Robert Francis, has a new album "Valentine" where he covers the classic "Chet Baker Sings," which was the late Baker's first vocal recording. The origin for this session came from one night he came by a Wednesday jazz gig that Aeronaut's owner John Mastro organized and sang "a standard "My Funny Valentine" with the house band. A few weeks later he recorded this album with backing from Guitarist John Storie, bassist Tim Emmons, drummer Kenny Elliot and sax man Zane Musa (who are all members of Jeff Goldblum's band The Mildred Snitzer Orchestra). Saxophonist Musa passed away a few weeks after this was recorded.

Francis evokes Baker's low-key, whisky laced vocals without simply imitating Baker. The backing helps contribute to this with Guitarist Storie providing a nice setting and Elliot's adroit use of brushes contributing to the feel of the performances. Francis almost whispers "My Funny Valentine" until he cries "stay little valentine," while his more demonstrative singing on "Time After Time" is complemented by Musa's saxophone, both feathery and robust. Musa adds obligatos on "I Fall In Love Too Easily" and solos with some delightfully old school tenor. His robust tenor sets the plate for Francis' swinging "There Will Never Be Another You."

A particular highlight is "The Thrill Is Gone," with Francis' melancholy vocal echoed by Musa's  sax. I have not heard Francis outside of this recording, and even if stylistically indebted to Baker here, the performances have their own charm. This charm, in part, results from the sympathetic backing, as well as Francis' own vocals, leading to focused, concise performances. This is available as a 10 inch vinyl album and as a digital download from the usual sources.

A publicist provided me with a download of this. Here is Robert performing "Time After Time."

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Lew Tabackin Trio - Soundscapes

A new self-produced recording by the Lew Tabackin Trio, "Soundscapes," is one that certainly merits plenty of attention. Tabackin, whose career spans decades, continues to display remarkable fluency on tenor sax and flute and construct some remarkable improvisations. Tabackin is joined by bassist Boris Kozlov and drummer Mark Taylor on this recording that was engineered by Jimmy Katz and mostly recorded at Steve Maxwell's Drum Shop, with the exception of one selection done at Tabackin's basement.

The opening performance, John Lewis' "Afternoon in Paris," immediately sets the tone with the authority and imagination of Tabackin's playing. The robustness of his playing along with the exemplary support by Kozlov and Taylor, and the trio's interplay, makes this and the entire album stand out. Particularly impressive selections include Tabackin's blues "Bb Where It's At" opening as a percussion supported duet between Tabackin and Kozlov that features the leader's marvelous improvisation with Taylor's accents on snare and cymbals adding to the performance's flair. Three selections feature Tabackin on flute of which his fat, wet playing on the standard "Yesterday's," stands out. Tabackin was a regular poll winner in the eighties and his playing on this and the rest of this recording illustrate why. Then there is a spellbinding interpretation of Billy Strayhorn's "Daydream."

When listening to a trio recording by a tenor saxophonist, one is reminded of legendary Sonny Rollins' "Live at the Village Vanguard." While not exclusively devoted to Tabackin on tenor, "Soundscapes" can stand the comparison and stands out as a superb hard bop trio recording.

I received a review copy from a publicist. Here is an extended excerpt of the Lew Tabackin Trio performing in Japan.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Clare Fischer - Out of the Blue

Brent Fischer has been busy preserving and perpetuating his father's legacy since the legendary Clare Fischer passed away in 2012. "Out of the Blue" is the latest Clavo Records release of previously unissued old and new recordings by the pianist, composer and arranger with his original keyboards supported by his son and producer Brent who provided arrangements and played Percussion Instruments and Bass; Peter Erskine or Mike Shapiro on drums, and Denise Donatelli & John Prolux -providing vocals for "Out of the Blue."

This recording contains several of Fischer's original compositions along with seven jazz and Brazilian standards. Son Brent's notes in the attached booklet provide a context for this posthumous release as well as details each of the selections. Listening to this a number of times one notices a stately elegant quality to Clare Fischer's piano on the opening "Love's Walk,' with Peter Erskine and Brent accompanying him. What also one notices is the articulation and the fascinating development of the musical themes. He employed an electric keyboard for "Tema Do Boneco De Palha (Theme Of The Straw Doll)," one of several Brazilian performances here, and he makes use of the instruments tonality in constructing the performance here and at the same time retain the relaxed, uncluttered feel of his piano.

"When You Wish Upon A Star / Someday My Prince Will Come" is a marvelous solo piano feature where he finds common threads between the two songs. "Starbright" is another fascinating performance with his electric keyboard suggesting a vibraphone at times. "Cascade Of The Seven Waterfalls," is another Brazilian delight, while the title track features the vocals of Donatelli and Prolux adding both horn-like lines and scatting against the trio backing. "Millbrae Walk," inspired by the late Cal Tjader, again has the leader evoking vibes on his keyboards on this lively performance which is followed by a haunting solo rendition of the Jobim-Gilbert-De Moraes penned "Amor Em Paz." Johnny Hodges' "Squatty Roo," is a delightful, sprightly duet between father and son and then followed by an introspective, poetical reading of Django Reinhardt's lovely "Nuages." Again it sounds like vibes being (along with piano) played on a highly energized performance of Fischer's "Novelho," with a bass solo and trading fours with the drummer followed by some lively piano. The closing medley of Brazilian classics "Carnaval / A Felicidade / Samba De Orpheu," further displays his ability to bring out an emotive quality of each note.

In the notes, Brent Fischer hints at more musical delights from his father. Certainly "Out of the Blue" will whet the musical appetite for these.

I received my review copy from a publicist. Here is some vintage Clare Fischer.