Friday, May 31, 2019

Ernesto Cervini's Turboprop Abundance

Ernesto Cervini's Turboprop
Anzic Records

About his band Turboprop, Ernesto Cervini observes " “although I am the band-leader, Turboprop truly feels like a collective due to the passion, commitment, and love everybody brings to each performance.” This sextet is a formidable one with some exceptional talents from Toronto and New York City: Tara Davidson on Alto and Soprano Saxophones and Flute (Toronto), Joel Frahm on Tenor Saxophone (New York), William Carn on Trombone (Toronto), Adrean Farrugia on Piano (Toronto), Dan Loomis on Bass (New York) and Ernesto Cervini on Drums (Toronto). Ms. Davidson is an addition to the personnel that was on their last recording "Rev," that I found full of "strong solo voices and first-rate ensemble work.

The present recording has a mix of 5 originals by band members (including two by Cervini) and three standards. It opens with Davidson's original "The Queen," with a slightly exotic flavor and strong solos from her and Farrugia. The pianist is also sterling on a terrific rendition of Tadd Dameron's "Tadd's Delight" which has riveting tenor sax from Frahm while Loomis and Cervini push this sterling performance along with the two trading fours. A fresh arrangement of "My Shining Hour" was derived from Geoffrey Keezer's recording with sterling ensemble playing and a shift into a Latin groove. Carn's melodic ballad playing graces the interpretation of Charlie Chaplin's classic "Smile."

Loomis' "Abundance Overture" opens with Cervini playing with his sticks before Davidson on flute and Frahm on tenor sax play a playful figure and then Cervini plays his entire kit before Loomis, Farrugia, and Carn join in for an exuberant performance. Farrugia contributed "The Ten Thousand Things" which opens with Loomis bass in addition to the composer's far-ranging piano solo followed by Frahm's fiery tenor sax.

Cervini contributed the final two compositions. "Gramps" is a lovely ballad dedicated to his late grandfather and has Davidson's charming, graceful alto saxophone set against an exquisite ensemble arrangement. The closing "For Cito," dedicated to the former Toronto Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston, is a robust performance with imaginative solos from Carn and Farrugia and fresh, creative arrangements.

As on "Rev," Turboprop impresses with their tight ensemble playing; inventive, fresh arrangements, and impressive soloing. The result is this striking recording.

I received my review copy from a publicist. This review appeared in the March-April 2019 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 383), although I have made corrections and minor changes. Here is a video of Turboprop playing.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Coniece Washington Shades of Shirley Horn

Coniece Washington
Shades of Shirley Horn

Poet Seth Washington provides a narration that provides an overview of Shirley Horn, a Washington DC musical icon. It opens vocalist Coniece Washington's rendition of "Here's To Life," one of Shirley Horn's most famous songs that opens her tribute to Horn. Horn touched her "the first time I heard Shirley Horn sing, I fell in love with her groove and elegance. Due to my military service I never had the opportunity to attend one of her shows but I always carry her sound in my heart."

While born in New Jersey, Coniece Washington has formed a deep connection to the Washington DC area. After 35 years of military service she has focused on her musical career as a singer, songwriter, and producer. Washington produced this CD. She is former member of the renowned Washington Performing Arts Society Men & Women of the Gospel Choir and can be seen performing at various venues in the Washington, DC Metropolitan area, including Blues Alley, Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club, Twins Jazz, Mr. Henry's, and Westminster Presbyterian Church Friday Night Jazz.

For this recording, she has put together a marvelous studio band of some excellent Washington DC musicians that include Vince Evans: piano; Wes Biles: bass; and Jc Jefferson: drums. Also appearing on selected tracks are Kevin Kojo Prince: percussion; Thad Wilson: trumpet; Carl Carrington: flute and David B. Cole: guitar. There is an elegance to Evans' accompaniment to Seth Washington's introduction to "Here's To Life," before Washington enters with a marvelous vocal the hints at Horn's recording. The rhythm section plays a light accompaniment (drummer Jefferson's soft touch is noteworthy).

While Shirley Horn is a dominant influence on Washington, Coniece has through years of performing (while in the military and after) developed a delightful, personal approach displayed in the 12 songs here. Some songs were penned by Horn, while others are others from the American songbook. There is the light swing of "Get Out of Town" with clean, precise phrasing and melodious voice; the breezy samba feel of "How Am I To Know"; and the wistfulness expressed in her cover of Louis Jordan's "Don't Let The Sun Catch You Crying." Thad Wilson's crying muted trumpet complements the softly delivered vocal on a marvelous blues performance. Wilson also plays a melodic solo on the swinging "I Just Found Out About Love," that closes this recording.

Washington's understated, restrained approach provides certain appeal to the standard, "Our Love Is Here To Stay." She delivers a sultry rendition of Little Willie John's hit "Fever." On Jobim's "Dindi," percussionist Kevin Kojo Prince adds spice to the accompaniment, while flutist Carrington and guitarist Cole add support to another Brazilian flavored performance, "Once I Loved." It is a delight to hear guitarist Cole, best known as a blues artist, playing a thoughtful, precise solo that is followed by a lovely flute solo to enhance Washington's delightful vocal.

With "Shades of Shirley," Coniece Washington has produced not only a wonderful tribute, but a recording that shows her to be a very charming singer with strong backing by Vince Evans and the musicians heard here. She will be celebrating the release of this recording at the Phillips Collection on Saturday, June 1, part of the DC Jazz Festival's Friends & Family Day at the Museum that is located a few blocks from the Dupont Circle Metro.

I received my review copy from a publicist. Here is a video of her singing "Here's To Life," at the 2015 Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Catherine Russell Alone Together

Catherine Russell
Alone Together
Dot Time

The daughter of Luis Russell (Louis Armstrong's big band leader) and pioneering guitarist-bassist Carline Ray, Catherine Russell has established herself as a superb jazz singer. "Alone Together" is her seventh studio album and is the vein of her prior recordings. It brings together a range of vintage material from the twenties until the seventies.

On this recording, she interprets songs associated with the likes of Rosa Henderson, Louis Jordan, Cecil Gant, Nat King Cole, Fats Waller along with standards from the American Song Book. She is backed by a band rooted in the swing style of the thirties and forties that include Matt Munisteri on guitars, Mark Shane on piano, Tal Ronen on bass, Mark McLean on drums, Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet, John Allred on trombone, and Evan Arntzen on tenor sax, with a string trio employed on one selection.

Opening with a rendition of the Schwartz-Dietz title track, Russell delights with the warmth and delivery of her vocals. The backing band is superb with Allred and Arntzen soloing on this. This is an album full of songs touching on love and its pitfalls. Munsiteri's acoustic chording launches "You Turned the Tables On Me," as she wistfully sings about her ex who let her fall with a drop." Mark Shane is also outstanding on this hornless selection.

A lovely rendition of "When Did You Leave Heaven?", uses strings to cushion her vocal. Munisteri takes a tight electric guitar solo. Solid, personal interpretations of a couple of Louis Jordan songs, "Early in the Morning," and "Is You or Is You Ain't My Baby?" follow with outstanding backing. Kellso provided the riff-based horn arrangement on "Early in the Morning," with a terrific tenor sax solo by Arntzen and Munisteri contributes some strong jazz-blues guitar. Russell ably handles the lyrics of "Is You or Is You Ain't My Baby?" displaying just how good a blues singer she is. Kellso is exquisite with on his muted trumpet solo. Her revival of Cecil Gant's classic blues-ballad "I Wonder" captures the song's wistfulness.

Then there is her infectious, delightful revival of a 30's pop swinger, "You Can't Pull The Wool Over My Eyes," and her swaggering rendition of Rosa Henderson's 1923 recording, "He May Be Your Dog But He's Wearing My Collar." Munisteri plays dobro on the latter song. Then there is an effervescent take on Nat King Cole's jumping jive, "Errand Girl For Rhythm," and the warmth in her rendition of "I Only Have Eyes for You."

A charming rendition of Fats Waller's "You're Not The Only Oyster In The Stew," closes another terrific Catherine Russell recording.

I received from my review copy from the record company. This review appeared in the March-April 2019 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 383), although I have made some minor changes. Here is a video of Catherine Russell singing "He May Be Your Dog But He's Wearing My Collar."

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Hail to The Cash Box Kings

The Cash Box Kings
Hail to the Kings

The new recording by the Chicago based Cash Box Kings is a terrific CD of traditionally rooted Chicago blues. Take the excellent rhythm section of bassist John Lauter and drummer Kenny 'Beedy Eyes' Smith with Queen Lee Kanehira guesting on keyboards and Little Frank Krakowski on rhythm guitar; have a real, real, real good singer in Oscar Wilson; and add superb guitar and harmonica from Billy Flynn and Joe Nosek respectfully, and one has one fabulous band. Shemekia Copeland guests on one song, Xavier Lynn adds lead guitar to two, Derek Hendrickson takes over the drum chair on two, and Alex Hill adds percussion to two. Nosek and Wilson collaborated on nine of the 13 tracks (with John Hahn on one), Nosek wrote two by himself, and there are two novel covers.

One has to be impressed by how tight, and in the pocket, Lauter and Smith are throughout the shifting tempos and material. Flynn is superb whether channeling B.B. King on the opening shuffle "Ain't No Fun (When the Rabbit Has the Gun)," the Freddy King of King's Federal recordings on "'Take Anything I Can" with its boogaloo groove (think King's instrumental "Texas Oil"); and Jimmy Rogers crossed with Blue Smitty on "Smoked Jowl Blues." With Nosek full-bodied harp backing and solos, they provide first-rate support for Wilson's robust and nuanced singing. Wilson sounds comfortable handling a hot shuffle like the opening "Ain't No Fun," a Jimmy Rogers' styled performance on "Smoked Jowl," and the Muddy Waters' styled "Poison in My Whiskey." With Flynn's slide guitar evoking Earl Hooker, the Cash Box Kings recast Mercy Dee's "Sugar Daddy" into a terrific Chicago blues. The closing "The Wrong Number" is ebullient Bluebeat Beat styled performance in the manner of Washboard Sam and Jazz Gillum.

The songs are marvelous, idiomatic blues laced with irony and humor, including the highly amusing duet between Wilson and Shemekia Copeland, "The Wine Talkin'." Nosek handles a couple vocals including "Back Off," and is an adequate vocal but lacks Wilson's authority. Nosek and Wilson team up for the humorous duet "Joe, You Ain't From Chicago," where Joe starts off naming a place to get Italian Beef but it is in Elmwood Park, and Wilson states that isn't in Chicago. Against a Bo Diddley groove, Nosek sings about going to Maxwell Street, riding the redline after dark and seeing Smokey Smothers, while Wilson sings Joe doesn't know the Loop from Cabrini Green.

The highpoint may be "Bluesman Next Door," about people who say they like the blues, but don't want Wilson living next door. He sings about folks saying he is the top singing up on stage, but if they see him in the neighborhood, they would probably call a cop. Besides Wilson's terrific singing, Xavier Lynn plays the first-rate solo. This song stands out among the consistently excellent music heard on this superb CD.

I received my review copy from Alligator. Here is Alligator's promotional video for "Ain't No Fun (When the Rabbit Has the Gun)."

Monday, May 27, 2019

Ernie Watts Quartet Home Light

Ernie Watts Quartet
Home Light
Flying Dolphin Records

What a career Ernie Watts has had, including a stint in the Tonight Show Orchestra, 25 years doing studio work for films and recordings (including those by Marvin Gaye and others on Motown), three decades in Charlie Haden’s Quartet West. And with all this, he has produced many excellent recordings as a leader. The saxophonist’s excellent Quartet has been together for 18 years, and consists of includes Heinrich Koebberling on drums, Rudy Engel on bass and Christof Saenger on piano. Of their previous recording, "Wheel of Time," I observed that The Quartet was a terrific band.

Watts contributed three compositions of the nine tunes heard here opening with a hard-driving composition that is a contrafact of “I Remember April,” “I Forgot August.” As on the prior record, Watts asserts himself with his robust, driving and imaginative soloing while Saenger's dynamic piano, as well as the propulsive rhythm section, contribute to this fine performance. Drummer Koebberling contributed "Cafe Central 2 AM," a bluesy number with a nice walking tempo with Watts providing a lesson in blues saxophone and conveying the late-night ambiance suggested by the title with thoughtful solos from Saenger and Engel. On Oscar Ruiz's "Distant Friends," Watts is heard on soprano as well as alto sax. Saenger is especially impressive with the fluid eloquence of his playing, while with Koebberling quite dynamic in propelling this along.

Watts' energetic "Frequie Flyiers," has an Ornette-like feel to it with Koebberling spectacular here in support of Watts husky playing. In contrast is the Watts-Saenger collaboration, "Horizon," a gorgeous ballad with lyrical playing and marvelous backing by the rhythm. Then there is the bouncy interpretation of Sam Jones' tribute to Oscar Pettiford, "O.P.," that showcases Engel's fine pizzicato playing and tone before Watts, and Saenger solo. After the charming "Spinning Wheel," there is Brad Goode's tribute to Joe Henderson, "Joe," a percolating performance with an Afro-Cuban groove. Watts has a burly alto sax solo but is also heard on soprano (overdubbed?) at the beginning and end with intriguing inter-weaving horn lines.

The title track, Watts' "Home Light" is a heartfelt performance with a gospel tinge and dedicated to watts friend, the late drummer, and percussionist, Ndugu Chancler. This sincere tribute provides a close to another excellent album of straight-ahead jazz by Watts.

I received my review copy from a publicist. This review appeared in the March-April 2019 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 383), although I may have made some minor changes. Here is an extended video of the Ernie Watts Quartet in performance.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

15th DC Jazz Festival Has Perhaps Strongest Lineup Yet

 Jon Batiste

This is a preview of this year's DC Jazz Festival that I wrote up for the May-June 2019 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 383). The Festival has its prelude next week with free programs at the Phillips Collection Museum on Saturday and Sunday June 1 and 2. Since I wrote this there has been additional information on acts performing and the cheduloe for clubs and more. As I state at the bottom of this preview, I recommend you check their wonderful website (

Celebrating its 15th year in the District of Columbia, the Dc Jazz Festival will present hundreds of Jazz artists at venues throughout the District of Columbia including The Wharf in Southwest DC, the Kennedy Center, Hamilton Live, City Winery, the Phillips Collection, clubs, and theaters. The Festival runs from June 9 to June 16.

Jose James

Among the signature events of the Festival will be "DC JazzFest at The Wharf" presented by Events DC (June 14-16) featuring four main stages. Artists appearing will include: Snarky Puppy, Lean on Me: Jose James Celebrates Bill Withers, Jon Batiste & Stay Human, Brass-A-Holics, Michael Franks, Joshua Redman Quartet with Aaron Goldberg, Reuben Rogers & Gregory Hutchinson, Joey Alexander Trio, Ralph Peterson & GenNext Big Band (honoring the Art Blakey Centennial), 2018 DCJazzPrix winning band Cornerstore, Tarus Mateen, and an International Jazz Stage featuring saxophonist Evan Harris (Australia), El Violin Latino (Luxembourg), Witness Matlou Trio (South Africa), with much more. The performances by Snarky Puppy and Jose James are a ticketed event at the Anthem on Friday, June 14 and the performances by Jon Batiste & Stay Human, and The Brassaholics is another ticketed event at The Anthem on Saturday, June 15. The other performances on stages at The Wharf are free.

Snarky Puppy

The Kennedy Center will be hosting several events at this year's Festival. The free Millennium Stage performances during the Festival June 9-16 will celebrate the centennial of Nat King Cole and feature singing piano players in the Cole tradition. On June 9 the Festival will present "Celebrating Randy Weston" at the Kennedy Center. It will feature pianists Marc Cary, and Rodney Kendrick joined by three members of Weston’s acclaimed African Rhythms band: bassist Alex Blake, saxophonist TK Blue, and African percussionist Neil Clarke. Festival Musical Director Willard Jenkins stated "“I had the distinct honor of co-writing Randy Weston’s autobiography, African Rhythms, and can guarantee the evening will be a joyous celebration of his rich, peerless artistry." On June 16, the Festival presents "Great Masters of Jazz, the final party of the 15th Anniversary DC JazzFest presented by Events DC. It will be a musical celebration of the life and work of the iconic legend Quincy Jones; the highly influential song stylist Nancy Wilson; the trailblazing trumpeter-bandleader Roy Hargrove, and DC’s own peerless pianist-vocalist Shirley Horn, in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Featured performers and presenters include the Roy Hargrove Big Band, Patti Austin, Justin Kauflin, Adam Clayton Powell III, Congressman John Lewis, Angela Stribling, Sharón Clark, and a raft of very special guests to be announced.

Sharón Clark

Among clubs presenting performances during the Festival, The Hamilton Live kicks off the first weekend with the Anat Cohen Quartet (Friday, June 7); and the celebrated Ethiopian pianist-accordionist-bandleader Hailu Mergia (Sunday, June 9), serving up African Jazz meets Afro-Pop. City Winery kicks off their DC JazzFest dates with the compelling crossover sounds of SPAGA (Wednesday, June 12), the latest project from the fertile mind of pianist Aron Magner. Trinidadian trumpeter, Etienne Charles Creole Soul brings his striking, island-proud, big fun-inspiring sounds on Thursday, June 13.

Anat Cohen

These venues are part of the annual "Jazz in the ‘Hoods Presented by Events DC" (June 6-16) where jazz takes over the district in 20+ neighborhoods with presentations curated by Jazz in The Hoods partners. Artists and schedule will be on the Festival website. DC JazzFest presents renowned artists in settings throughout the capital city. The artsy H Street NE community hosts performances in the Atlas Performing Arts Center and Gallery O/H with Mr. Henry's nearby on Capitol Hill offering jazz and good neighborhood conversation. In Southeast's historic and artsy Anacostia, performances are offered through the East River JAZZFest including Anacostia's Busboys and Poets and Anacostia Playhouse; and Ivy City, a tiny Northeast enclave experiencing a renaissance, includes City Winery and Ivy City Smokehouse on the schedule. Lively, diverse and laid-back, Northwest DC is home to the Takoma, Dupont Circle, Downtown, Foggy Bottom, Georgetown, Logan Circle, Van Ness, and U Street neighborhoods with a plethora of diverse venues including The Hamilton Live, Ben's Next Door, Ashbury United Methodist Church, Kreeger Museum, Brixton, Eaton Workshop, Sotto, Twins Jazz, UDC, Acadia Foods and Wine, Franklin Park, and Rhizome.

Ralph Peterson & GenNext Big Band

A prelude to the Festival, "Jazz ‘n Families Fun Days" (Prelude Weekend, June 1-2) is held in partnership with The Phillips Collection, this celebrates jazz and the visual arts with performances by more than a dozen regional artists and rising star ensembles.

The DC Jazz Festival presents world-renowned and emerging artists in celebration of jazz; unify diverse communities and enable connections between artists and audiences; advance jazz and music education with exciting, adventurous and diverse musical experiences for all ages and backgrounds; shine the spotlight on DC-based jazz musicians; and highlight DC as a premier cultural destination. Its signature programs are the annual DC JazzFest, now in its 15th year with 150 performances in 40 venues including Jazz in the Hoods and DC JazzFest at The Wharf; the year-round DCJF Music Education Program in partnership with DC public and charter schools; the Charlies Fishman Artist Embassy Series; and DCJazzPrix, and an international band competition. The DC Jazz Festival won the 2018 DC Mayor’s Arts Award for Excellence on Creative Industries. In 2015, The New York Times named DC JazzFest one of “50 Essential Summer Festivals.”

For more information including more on performers and schedules, and visitors information visit One can follow the Festival on social media. Keep up with the DCJF: Twitter: @dcjazzfest; Facebook:; Instagram: @dcjazzfest.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Bad Influence Got What You Need

Bad Influence
Got What You Need
BadBlues Records

Bad Influence has been around the DMV (DC, Maryland and Virginia) area for 30 years. This writer first saw them (the first of many times over the years) at a DC Blues Society show at an Arlington, Virginia American Legion Hall some time back. When I first saw them, it was a five piece band including a saxophone. Today, they consist of Michael "Jr" Tash on guitar; Roger Edsall on harmonica, slide guitar and vocals; Bob Mallardi on bass and vocals; and David Thaler on drums. As Tash, notes the four have been together 25 years and "It's finally starting to gel." As former B.B. King Bluesville host Bill Wax observes in his liner notes "This is one tight unit."

I recently reviewed a recording by another DMV band with similar personnel, The Smokin' Polecats, that Roger Edsall also was a significant part of. Admittedly I prefer the Polecats. It is a matter of taste as the performances here are recorded with a heavier presence. Jr Tash is a bit more rock-edged in his playing compared to Dave Sherman, but plays with a imaginative, focused approach. This edge is evident on Roger Edsall's title track that opens this recording. Tash opens with a Stevie Ray Vaughan styled Texas blues-rock riff. This edge is also present on Tash's terrific solo on the cover of William Clarke's "Party, Party," where rolling single note runs are punctuated with crisp chords and nice use of tone. Edsall displays cosndierable slide guitar skill on a  cover of James Harman's "My Little Girl" with its memorable opening line "She served me crow, on a silver plate."

Both Edsall and Mallardi are very good, expressive singers who deliver the songs with an energetic fervor. Tash's down-in-the-alley guitar, and an effective, restrained vocal, make the atmospheric rendition of the blues standard "Wee Wee Hours' memorable. An exuberant rendition of Rockin' Sydney's zydeco hit, "Don't Mess With My Toot Toot," with Edsall's harp taking the place of an accordion, is followed by a ebullient reworking of Little Walter's "My Babe," with Mallardi's strong singing supported by Edsall's terrific harmonica. Then there is an unusual transformation of James Brown's "I Feel Good," into a blues shuffle.

The variety of material include Edsall's rock and roll original "Lid Flippin' Short," a superb cover of Sonny Boy Williamson II's "Eyesight to the Blind," with a great Mallardi vocal, superb harp and some sharply played guitar from Tash. With superlative chromatic harmonica playing, Edsall pays additional homage to Little Walter on the cover of "Blue Midnight." It closes a terrific record of Chicago-styled blues whose appeal to these ears grows with repeated listening.

I received my review copy from the band. Here is Bad Influence performing at a Maryland bar, Hershey's. They are performing at JV's in Falls Church VA on Saturday May 25.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Henry Townsend and Roosevelt Sykes Blues Piano and Guitar: Washington University, Graham Chapel, 1973

Henry Townsend and Roosevelt Sykes
Blues Piano and Guitar: Washington University, Graham Chapel, 1973
Omnivore Recordings

Having recently been delighted by Omnivore's expanded reissue of Henry Townsend's wonderful Nighthawk album, "Mule," Omnivore has brought out this album of previously unissued performances recorded at a concert at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Roosevelt Sykes was one of the greatest blues pianists of all time and recorded prolifically on his own and backing other musicians, while Townsend had a recording career that spanned nine decades. The two first met in St. Louis in the 1920s with Sykes gave Townsend pointers on playing the piano. In 1930, Sykes took Townsend and Walter Davis to a Paramount recording session. In 1931, Sykes and Townsend traveled to Louisville, Kentucky. The two remained lifelong friends and this concert performance was the first of several reunions before Sykes passed away in 1983.

Based on this recording, this was a magical evening with both artists performing a diverse group of numbers from their repertoire. Both were also at the top of their game. Townsend sounds and plays with considerable vigor on these recordings. He strongly reworks Clifford Gibson's "Tired of Being Mistreated," his own "Henry's Worry Blues," and with his wife, Vernell joining on a vocal, "Why We Love Each Other So." Then there is also a fine rendering of "Sloppy Drunk," and a superb rendition of "Tears Come Rollin' Down" with Vernell taking the lead vocal. He switches to piano for "All My Money Gone."

Sykes' performances open with his "Night Time Is the Right Time," and among his strong performances are "Driving Wheel," "The War Is Over" (also known as "Sunny Road") which is one of two performances on which Townsend adds his guitar behind Sykes piano and vocal, "Ice Cream Freezer," "Sweet Home Chicago" and an R-rated "Dirty Mother For You (You Don't Know)." Among his other performances is a barrelhouse boogie-woogie of "Boot That Thing," and an exuberant, robust rendition of Fats Waller's "Honeysuckle Rose."

This two-disc release, with 30 performances, captures the two at the top of their form. LeRoy Jodie Pierson, who produced this release with Cheryl Pawelski, contributed the liner notes along with several rare photographs to this outstanding release.

I received my review copy from a publicist. This review appeared in the March-April 2018 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 383). Here is a video of Roosevelt Sykes playing.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Ted Piltzecker Brindica

Ted Piltzecker
Zoho Music

Originally a trumpet major at the Eastman School of Music and a member of the Jazz Ensemble under Chuck Mangione's direction, Ted Piltzecker started practicing vibes at the time and even wrote some vibes numbers while with the band. He became a full-time vibes player after a tour with The George Shearing Quartet. "Brindica" is his fifth album and first for Zoho Music, and the title reflects cultural influences from Brazil, India, and Africa but he also had stops in Bali, Cuba, Puerto Rico, New Orleans, and Harlem and have woven these diverse musical landscapes into the tapestry of this album.

Recorded in Argentina with a core group of drummer and co-producer Fernando Martinez, pianist Miguel Marengo, bassist Mauricio Dawid and alto saxophonist Carlos Michelini, "Brindica" also features guest appearances by trumpeter Jon Faddis, baritone sax player Gary Smulyan, tenor saxophonist Ralph Lalama, trombonist Matt Hall and steel pan/snare drummer John Wooton. Other guests include classical clarinetist Ayako Oshima and classical flutist Tara Helen O'Connor, and Cuban percussionist Jansel Torres on bata and conga.

Some of the musical influences are heard on the opening Afro-Cuban flavored, "Great Idea! Who Pays?" with Wooten's steel pans adding to the jubilant feel while Michelini adds some taut sax trading fours with the leader's shimmering playing on this joyful performance. Wooten switches to snare drum to help provide the Crescent City grooves of the infectious "Uncle Peck," with Faddis, Smulyan and Lalama weaving in and out of the leader's solo with Faddis blasting off with his solo. Pianist Marengo provides a compelling riff as well as an intricate solo on the Latin-flavored "Feliz Paseo" with another notable solo from Michelini and more infectious player by the leader and this splendid rhythm section.

The title track is a thoroughly-composed composition where Piltzecker blends rhythmic elements of Brazilian and African music. It showcases clarinetist Ayako Oshima and flutist Tara Halen O’Conner. The breezy "Look At It Like This" that was inspired by a trek through the Himalayas and the melody reflects the beautiful little pentatonic tunes sung by his guide Hari. Another selection of note is Taylor Burgess' hauntingly beautiful vocal interpreting Langston Hughes’ iconic poem "What Happens to a Dream Deferred?" with Piltzecker providing an elegant vibes solo.

With fresh, varied compositions, and wonderful performances, Ted Piltzecker has provided listeners with this marvelous recording.

I received my review copy from a publicist. This review appeared in the March-April 2019 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 383), although I have may have made minor changes. Here is Ted Piltzecker playing Duke Ellington's In a Sentimental Mood.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Ashley Pezzotti We've Only Just Begun

Ashley Pezzotti
We've Only Just Begun

This debut recording by the 23-year-old singer Ashley Pezzotti is one that displays a very intriguing talent. She is backed by Emmet Cohen on piano, Bob Bruya on bass, and Kyle Poole on drums, with Alex Weitz adding tenor saxophone to 7 of the 13 songs on this release. Her intonation, the clarity of her phrasing, her vocal dynamics, and her timing are impeccable, and she is also a wonderful songwriter inspired by the American Songbook.

The opening "It Only Takes a Moment," is taken at a breakneck tempo which she navigates with ease singing the lyrics as well as scatting. The title track is a wonderful original with her handling tempo changes and Weitz adds a wonderful solo while the rhythm section is terrific. There is the Latin spice of another original, "Solo Tú," where she sings in Spanish with another marvelous tenor sax solo and Cohen's exquisite piano solo. Poole also pushes this swinging performance with a deft, light touch.

"That Way" is a sprightly performance with some horn-like scatting, and followed by her lovely ballad, "I Hope You Find Her," another striking lyric as well as vocal. There is plenty of warmth in Weitz's tenor sax that caresses her captivating voice on "September in the Rain," with some sublime scatting, Cohen's fine solo and Weitz's feathery tenor sax solo. Bassist Bruya solos and trades fours with Poole.

There is also her wistful vocal on "Darn That Dream," accompanied only by Cohen, followed by the performance of "Jackie," that is taken at a brisker tempo than Annie Ross' original. Again she delivers the lyrics and scats with clean, swinging precision with the same sympathetic backing as present throughout this recording. It is an exhilarating close to a superb debut of a vocalist we will be hearing more of.

I received a download to review from a publicist. This review appeared in the January-February 2018 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 382), although I have made minor changes. Here is Ashley performing at New York City's Birdland Theater.


Monday, May 20, 2019

Henry Townsend Mule

Henry Townsend

Henry Townsend was the only blues artist to record in every decade from the 1920s to the first decade of the 21st Century. It was a career that had him record for Paramount and other labels before the depression, later participate in sessions with legends like John Lee 'Sonny Boy' Williamson, and Walter Davis, and then record for Folkways and Prestige before Adelphi issued an album in 1975. "Mule" was issued originally by Nighthawk Records in 1980 and warmly received by blues aficionados. Leroy Pierson, one of the co-producers of the original recordings and this reissue stated that the intention was to create an album worthy of his unique genius and secure him the recognition someone of his talent and historical purpose deserves. Omnivore has reissued this on CD augmenting the 13 recordings on the original recording. It also represented the transition of Townsend from being a blues guitarist and singer to becoming primarily a blues pianist.

I have the original vinyl LP, but it has been some time since I listened to it. Listening to this music again is a joy. Townsend's sober, thoughtful blues evokes his old partner, Walter Davis, more than anyone else even when his piano displays some of Roosevelt Sykes' influence. The opening "Bad Luck Dice" echoes some train blues as well as St. Louis Jimmy's "Goin' Down Slow," with his bittersweet singing and piano accompaniment. "Nothing But Trouble" is a slow minor-key blues where he lightly moans about his woman being somewhere else in another man's arm. Henry wrote "Tears Come Rollin’ Down" for Walter Davis. He remakes it here with a wonderful vocal from his wife, Vernell. Then there is the melancholic "Hard Road to Travel," also performed in his restrained style.

Yank Rachell, who adds mandolin to several tracks, plays supporting, rhythmic guitar behind Henry's pinched note playing on the peppy "Talkin’ Guitar Blues." Henry proclaims he is "I’m Just An Ordinary Man" waking up every morning with the same thing on his mine with the moody tone accentuated by his rumbling bass and single note arpeggios. After the piano solo "Alley Strut," Henry and Vernell share the vocal on "Can't You See," an appealing update of Jesse Thomas' "Another Friend Like Me," with Henry on guitar. Yank Rachell adds his mandolin behind Henry's guitar on the Walter Davis-styled "Dark Clouds Rising."

Among the previously unissued tracks are "The Other Night," with an energetic boogie-inflected piano, and the somber "Going Back To My Baby," with Norman Merritt adding guitar in a Townsend-influenced manner behind Townsend's piano and vocal. Henry is on guitar on "Goin’ Back Down South," which sounds lyrically to be an adaptation of  a John Lee 'Sonny Boy' Williamson recording. Yank Rachell is heard on second guitar. Townsend's music may not have the immediate appeal of a Big Joe Williams, Roosevelt Sykes or Lonnie Johnson, but his direct, sober performances and craftsmanship as a songwriter make for some superb blues listening, with the bonus of the additional songs.

I received my review copy from a publicist. This review appeared in the November-December 2018 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 381), although I have made minor changes. Here is Henry Townsend recorded in 2011.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Doug MacDonald Quartet Organism

Doug MacDonald Quartet

"Organism" is the thirteenth album (and 3rd organ project) by guitarist MacDonald who leads an organ quartet including organist Carey Frank, tenor saxophonist Bob Sheppard, and drummer Ben Scholz. MacDonald is a Philadelphia native who was inspired by Inspired by such guitarists as Joe Pass, Johnny Smith, Howard Roberts, and Wes Montgomery while forging a personal style. He first played jazz in Hawaii working at a hotel followed by a period in Las Vegas where he played in lounges and showrooms with such greats as Joe Williams, trombonist Carl Fontana, and tenor-saxophonist Jack Montrose. MacDonald has become a fixture in Los Angeles playing with the big bands of Bill Holman, Ray Anthony, and John Clayton as well as such performers as Ray Charles, Sarah Vaughan, Stan Getz, pianist Hank Jones, and bassist Ray Brown. He also leads his own combos and his 13-piece ensemble The Jazz Coalition.

He impresses with his clean, fleet and imaginative attack and thoughtfully constructed solos. While much of this recording is straight-ahead organ quartet performance such as the opening rendition of "It's You or No One" where he opens unaccompanied and then dazzles with his driving solo solidly backed by Frank and Scholz before Sheppard impresses with the warmth and controlled heat of his tenor sax here and Frank takes off on the Hammond B-3. MacDonald's original "Jazz for All Occasions" opens with some fine tenor sax from Sheppard with MacDonald chording under him, followed by "L&T" starting in an atmospheric vein before becoming a heated swinger with more strong guitar.

Also, especially worthy of note is the imaginative interpretation of Sweets Edison's, "Centerpiece" with some sinewy, bluesy tenor sax with Frank supplying some cooking grease, while the lovely ballad performance, "Too Late Now," opens with some exquisite unaccompanied guitar before Sheppard plays with considerable warmth in his lyrical solo. A medley of "Nina Never Knew" with "Indian Summer" is the first of three solo guitar performances where MacDonald fully exhibits his clean, fleet attack and marvelous tone on a precious performance. "Poor Butterfly" is a solid, swinging solo performance, while MacDonald's original "Hortense," has a sparkly tone to it.

"Organism" is a recording with considerable charm. The Doug MacDonald Quartet has a clean ensemble sound as well as with controlled heat, providing a firm foundation for the imaginative, well-shaped solos heard on this very engaging recording.

I received my review copy from a publicist. This review appeared in the May-June 2019 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 384) although there may some minor changes from the review that appeared thre. Here is a video of Doug talking about this recording with drummer and producer Ben Scholz.

Friday, May 17, 2019

John Akapo Paradise Blues

John Akapo
Paradise Blues
Mensch House Records

Of Samoan background, John Akapo grew up in Alaska, spent his youth in America Samoa and currently based in Hawaii. He is a singer-guitarist-songwriter who debuts on CD with a Robert Johnson cover, closes with a Tommy Johnson and contributes seven originals, mostly based in the blues that are delivered naturally without contrivance as can be heard on his relaxed vocal of "Ramblin' on My Mind" that opens this recording, backed by guitar and sounds like dobro. Rather than try to sing with a false urgency, he cleanly delivers the lyrics while playing a brief slide solo.

There is no identification of personnel in the press release for this release or on the CD package. There is nice acoustic harmonica backing his vocal on the original "Little Lani," about this girl who gives John the blues by her behavior. "Maui Drive" has some more poetic imagery with easy driving slide guitar, harp backing, and a slightly brisker tempo and cleanly delivered vocally. His Muddy Waters cover, "I Can't Be Satisfied," benefits from Akapo's easy going rendition. There is a country-folk quality to the delightful "Caracas," with the slide/dobro lending a Hawaiian music tinge, and the lament, "Fighting For Love."

"Hindsight" is a delightful, low-key original blues, and by the time closes with Tommy Johnson's "Big Road," one has been thoroughly entertained by the performances here. He may not be able to invest this performance with the emotional force of the original, but like the opening Robert Johnson number, it benefits from his unforced, engaging performance that also characterizes this entire recording.

I received my review copy from a publicist. This review originally appeared in the November-December 2108 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 381). Here he performs "Little Lani."

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Willie Buck Willie Buck Way

Willie Buck
Willie Buck Way
Delmark Records

Reviewing Delmark's 2010 expanded release of Willie Buck's 1982 album, "The Life I Love," I observed that the music was "strong traditionally rooted Chicago blues that one hears played so well less frequently nearly three decades later." Buck, whose career extends back decades, remains a strong blues singer who is displayed on the 17 new selections on this new release. Backing Buck, who is solely a songwriter and singer, are Billy Flynn on guitar; Thaddeus Krolicki on guitar; Scott Dirks on harmonica; Johnny 'Fingers' Iguana on piano; Bob Stroger on bass and Jimmy Mayes on drums. Big Spider Beck plays harmonica on three selections and piano on two while Harmonica Hinds plays harp on two.

Muddy Waters is a strong influence on Buck's music as one can hear on Billy Flynn's original, "Can't Say Something Good About Me." But while he delivers a vocal robustly, he does not try to sound like Muddy. Buck also sings with a relaxed, swinging quality as on the opening "You Want Me To Trust You." The backing is solid, idiomatic Chicago blues with the Krolicki taking most of the leads while Iguana impresses with his Otis Spann influenced playing. Dirks is a more than capable harmonica player while Beck evokes Mojo Buford on "Can't Say Something …," which also has a stinging Flynn solo under a spoken part. Buck's capabilities as a singer are also displayed on his "There's a Woman," a song with a backing evoking Howlin' Wolf .

There is plenty of variety on this album including the unplugged "My Mind Might Freeze Up" and "Twenty-Four Seveni" with Krolicki on acoustic guitar and Hinds on harmonica. There is also strong, relaxed shuffle rendition of "Crawlin' King Snake" which is usually taken at a slow tempo. Beck rips off a strong harmonica solo on this. Another standout track is Buck's sermon to his fellow men, "The Men Ought To Learn (To Treat The Women Right)," with superb backing and a focused solo from Krolicki.

While the title track musically hints at "Blow Wind Blow," Buck lets us know that he is a blues legend and an all-around man with Iguana playing  fine blues piano. Billy Flynn plays some Muddy Waters' styled slide guitar on an excellent rendition of Leroy Carr's "Blues Before Sunrise," that owes much to Muddy Waters' recording of this song. With echoes of the melody for "Sloppy Drunk," "I'd Rather Leave You," closes this album on an easy rocking vein. It has another solid Flynn solo. Other selections are generally of similar quality with strong vocals and wonderfully backing. Like Willie Buck's prior recordings, "Willie Buck Way" is an excellent album of traditionally styled Chicago blues.

I received my review copy from Delmark Records. This review appeared in the March-April 2019 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 383), although I may have made some minor changes. Here is Willie singing "Blow Wind Blow." Please excuse the slightly distorted audio.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Jontavious Willis Spectacular Class

Jontavious Willis
Spectacular Class
Kind of Blue Music

I became familiar with Jontavious Willis on a blues forum on Facebook. Initially, I watched videos of him performing songs from Frankie Lee Sims and Willie Baker that was astonishing to see someone so young perform and sing with such skill and expressiveness. He is also as much a scholar of the blues as he is a person who is creating his own vision of traditionally rooted blues. His self-produced recording "Blue Metamorphosis" was found to be the Outstanding Self-Produced Blues Album by the Blues Foundation. In the interim period, he has become more prominent and came under the wing of Taj Mahal and Keb Mo with whom he has opened shows. In fact, Taj Mahal is the Executive Producer and Keb Mo the producer of this recording.

As a preface to this review, I did not share the enthusiasm that many had towards Blue Metamorphosis. While enjoying his performances, I was not enthused about the songs and lyrics on most of that. That is not the case with this release. Perhaps it is result of the mentoring and production by Taj Mahal and Keb Mo. Whatever the reason, his song lyrics here strike me as more developed and stronger. This release also has a variety of musical settings for Willis, with some backing him with an ensemble and a couple find him solo. A variety of individuals are heard backing him. The most significant of these are Andrew Alli on harmonica, 'Keb 'Mo on electric guitar, Eric Ramey on bass, Phil Madeira on keyboards and banjo, Martin Lynds or Thaddeus Witherspoon on drums, Roland Barber on trombone and Doug Mosher on clarinet.

The opening "Low Down Ways" is a solid small ensemble blues making use of the "44 Blues" riff with nice organ behind him. "The Blues Is Dead" opens with Madeira's piano before Willis enters on slide guitar as he talks about scratching his head about people saying blues is dead singing that blues ain't going nowhere so long as people have situations and problems on their mind. In addition to a nice piano solo, and Willis' rhythmically charged slide Alli adds some nice harmonica in the tight small group performance. "Resting On My Mind" is another song where he wraps his lyric around a traditional blues musical groove. It is a heartfelt blues lament that is warmly sung with a lovely, clean guitar solo.

Willis takes us to the Delta for "Daddy's Dough," singing about a woman who took his dough and now soured on poor Jontavious. His playing here evokes Willie Brown and there is fine harmonica backing. "Country" is a superb acoustic blues in the manner of Blind Boy Fuller and Buddy Moss in which he celebrates the pleasures of country living. "Long Winded Woman," is a gently swinging performance change of pace with its relaxed pace in the manner of some 40s Bluebird recordings. Mosher's clarinet and Barber's tailgate trombone in the accompaniment contribute to this feel.

"Friend Zone Blues," a lament about a woman who won't take Willis' advances, is spoiled by a heavy-handed drummer who plays with the nuance of a drum machine. This is the only blemish on what is otherwise a terrific recording by a bluesman who may be traditionally rooted but taking the music into the present.

I received as a download from a publicist.  Here is a video of Jontavious and Andrew Alli.

An d here Jontavious performs Frankie Lee Sims' Lucy Mae Blues.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

NYSQ Heaven Steps To Seven

Heaven Steps To Seven
Whirlwind Recordings

About "Sleight of Hand," the last album from NYSQ, I concluded "The strong ensemble playing, in addition to the many fine solos, and the imaginative reworking of the material make for a superb straight-ahead recording." Now comes an equally engaging recording by saxophonist Tim Armacost, pianist David Berkman, drummer Gene Jackson, and double bassist Ugonna Okegwo.

The freshness they bring to the classic jazz and standards repertoire is evident on the opening reworking of Leonard Bernstein's "Tonight," that opens with a warm introduction before the ballad is transformed to a medium tempo vehicle for their exploration. It is followed by the transformation of Charlie Parker's blues, "Cheryl," which sounds like a 1960's Blue Note recording with Berkman and Okegwo outstanding. A rendition of Horace Silver's ballad, "Peace," is a showcase for Armacost's sensitive and thoughtful tenor sax. It is followed by a lively "If I Should Lose You," that puts the spotlight on Armacost's splendid soprano sax along with the imaginative accompaniment. They then provide a couple of wonderful interpretations of Cole Porter: an imaginative one of "Every Time We Say Goodbye," and a splendid "I Love You," opening with Okegwo's bass intro. Then there is an exquisite performance of Bud Powell's "I'll Keep Loving You," featuring Armacost's warm, melodic ballad playing and Berkman's deft piano.

A vigorous performance of Herbie Hancock's "Eye of the Hurricane" places the spotlight on Berkman's dynamic piano while Jackson is explosive in driving this concluding performance of another terrific straight-ahead modern jazz recording.

I received my review copy from a publicist. This review appeared in the November-December 2018 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 382), although I have made minor changes. Here is a promotional video for this recording.

Monday, May 13, 2019

The Smokin' Polecats My Little Baby

The Smokin' Polecats
My Little Baby
Quiet Knight Records

I have been fans of The Smokin' Polecats for over twenty years when they were known as Dave Sherman and the Nightcrawlers. Some time ago the band changed its name to avoid confusion with other bands becoming the Polecats. I can't confirm that the personnel is the same when the Nightcrawlers released "Bad Boy" in 2000. Guitarist and singer Sherman, and harmonica player and singer Roger Edsall are supported here by bassist Leigh Oben and drummer Robbie Leebrick, both of whom have been with the band for a number of years. Handling most of the vocals is Marianna Previti.

On their website the Polecats describe their music: " Their sound comes from the Post-World War 2 ensemble sound of the Chicago Masters like Jimmy Rogers, Little Walter, and Hubert Sumlin; the West Coast Jump/Swing sound of Tiny Grimes, Pee Wee Crayton, and T-Bone Walker; the Rock'a'Billy sound of Carl Perkins and Johnny Burnette; and the Louisiana swamp blues of Slim Harpo." Included here are songs from James Harman and the Fabulous Thunderbirds to give a more concrete sense of what one will hear here.

As might be expected, this a finely tuned, swinging musical band with a tight rhythm section. Edsall has a fat tone while Sherman plays his well crafted, imaginative solos with fluidity and clarity. Vocalist Previti has an appealing style, with a jazzy tinge in her phrasing and vocal shadings, evocative of vintage singers such as Ella Johnson, and Helen Humes. This becomes evident with the rendition of James Harman's "Darlin'" that opens this set, as well as her lively scatting in interpreting Annie Laurie's late forties New Orleans jump blues "My Rough and Ready Man." On this track, Edsall's saxophone like harmonica and Sherman's T-Bone Walker inspired solo add to one's enjoyment.

The title track by Sherman is a brisk number with a rockabilly flavor. The rendition of Hank Snow's "I Don't Hurt Anymore" is based on Dinah Washington's interpretation with Previti singing quite fervently and Edsall adding a very strong harmonica solo. The Polecats provide a swamp blues accompaniment to the reworking of J.B. Lenoir's "Mojo Boogie," while the interpretation of Kim Wilson's "I Believe I'm in Love With You" is a spirited duet by Previti and Edsall. With Edsall's chromatic harmonica adding horn-like backing, Sherman and Previti do a delightful rendition of the Brooks Benton-Dinah Washington classic, "Baby You Got What It Takes."

A vibrant instrumental "Jumpin' Bad," closes a most entertaining, well played and sung CD of blues and roots. It is available at CDBaby and other outlets.

I received my review copy from Dave Sherman. Here is a video of the title track with Sarah Gardner joining Marianna Previti.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Flavio Lira Coffee Gold Sugar Cane

Flavio Lira
Coffee Gold Sugar Cane
Interrobang Records

A bass guitarist as well as a composer, the Brazilian born Lira describes this recording as "my love letter to all of Latin America: a rhythmic fusion of samba, baião, regional folklore, tumbao, clave, partido alto, jazz influence from the north, classical fugue, and more. The strength of Latin America is in its incomparable diversity. In this project, I have brought together 38 artists from 15 different countries."

Starting with the lively original "5to9," with Edmar Colon's sax spotlighted, that opens this, this recording is full of rhythmic and musical vitality. Then there is the Spanish language rendition of "All the Things You Are," captivatingly sung by Nella Rojas with sterling piano from Anibal Cruz and some intricate bass from the leader. Lira contributes a funky bottom to the irresistible rhythms of "Solo No Frio," while Howard Levy's harmonica dances on "Cumbamba," over the percolating percussion. Valentine Komissarouk wordlessly sings on the breezy "Pra Frente," with Lira soloing on his bass guitar and Ryan Fedak taking one on vibraphone.

There is a playful rendition of Luis Otavio Almeida's "Laurinha no Frevo," with its sunny rhythms as well as featuring the flute of Anggie Obin on flute and soprano sax of Livio Almeida, followed by the driving groove of "A Rã," by João Donato and Caetano Veloso with sparkling vibes from Fedak and synthesizer from Thiago Vitório. A dreamy rendition of Jobim and de Moraes' "Favela (O Morro Não Tem Vez)" follows with more pulsating vibes, as well as another strong electric bass solo by the leader, and piano from Alexei Tsiganv and drums from Graciliano Zambonin on drums. The wordless singing of Komissarouk along with the melodious clarinet of Juan Ruiz and the cello of Catherine Bent add to the charms of Lira's reflective "Still in Movement," while the bass flute of Fernando Brandão adds to the breezy tropical flavor of "Flopida at Night," which also has a deft piano solo by Tsiganov. Vocalists Ronaldo Andrade and Keisel Jimenez and the electric piano of Anibal Cruz are present on the animated samba Vai Lá, Vai Lá,"

The closing "Bass Fugue" displays Lira's guitarist approach to the bass guitar along with Fernando Brandão's flute, and Kevin Scollins's guitar. One can not overemphasize the percussionists present here (Kan Yanabe - pandeiro, tamborim, shaker, and Julio Santos - tantan, repique de mão) and elsewhere in adding rhythmic and other accents to this splendid, and memorable, celebration of Latin and Brazilian jazz.

I received a download from a publicist to review. This review appeared in the November-December 2018 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 381). Here is a clip of Flavio Lira.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Joe Louis Walker * Bruce Katz * Giles Robson Journeys to the Heart of the Blues

Joe Louis Walker * Bruce Katz * Giles Robson
Journeys to the Heart of the Blues
Alligator Records

English harmonica player Robson states in the liner notes that this album represents a shift from what many consider it the blues today "which is a loud and proud classic rock-infused sound" that "is something quite distant from the music’s roots… ." The present collaboration between Robson, the Blues Hall of Famer Walker and keyboard wizard Katz, best known perhaps for playing with Ronnie Earl, is meant "to be a celebration of the dynamics, grooves, lyrics and, above all, the feeling of pure traditional blues. Blues played intimately and at a low volume and with the wonderful space that is created when drums and bass are taken out of the equation."

Robson also notes this recording has antecedents going back to Muddy Waters' "Folk Singer," the Blue Thumb recording "Buddy and the Juniors" with Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, and Junior Mance, and the European acoustic recordings by Sonny Boy Williamson. Despite the stripped-down setting and acoustic instrumentation, the playing her,e is not far removed from the blues these artists usually play, absent amplification. I point to the Washboard Sam recording "Run Me Down," where what Walker plays is not far removed from what he would play in an acoustic setting. I should be mentioned Katz is outstanding here and Walker sings pretty much as one might expect.

There is an interesting choice of material, mostly rarely covered songs, starting with Papa Lightfoot's "Mean Old Train" that opens this, along with a forceful vocal by Walker on Sunnyland Slim's "It's You, Baby." "Murderer's Home" derives from Blind Willie McTell, but the performance here has more of a stop and go feel as opposed to the fluidity that characterized McTell's music. Roosevelt Sykes' "Feel Like Blowin' My Horn," is dedicated to Robert Lockwood Junior who played on a Sykes recording of this song and Walker models his guitar here on Lockwood. More examples of Katz's superb playing can be heard on his accompaniment to Walker's singing on Big Maceo's "Poor Kelly Blues" and his rollicking boogie-woogie piano on Maceo's "Chicago Breakdown," a spectacular solo piano performance. Robson impresses throughout with his harmonica and is showcased on the instrumental "C & J Boogie" where Walker providing a simple boogie guitar backing to the energetic wailing harmonica. A highlight might be Walker's terrific vocal on Son Bonds "Hard Pill to Swallow," with Robson and Katz providing dynamic support.

It might be best described as blues unplugged as opposed to traditional blues, but this trio has put together solid and entertaining blues performances even if they may not take us to the Heart of the Blues.

I received my review copy from Alligator Records. This review appeared in the November-December 2018 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 382). As I write this, this recording just won a Blues Music Award for Best Acoustic Album. Here is a video of the three playing in Europe.

Thursday, May 09, 2019

Up Jumped the Devil:The Real Life of Robert Johnson
by Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow
2019: Chicago Review Press
336 Pages, 6X9 pages.

This long-awaited biography of the legendary Mississippi bluesman is the product of decades of research. Gayle Dean Wardlow has been interviewing people who knew Robert Johnson since the early 1960s. He was the person who discovered Johnson's death certificate in 1967. Bruce Conforth began his study of Johnson's life and music in 1970 and made it his personal mission to try to fill in the gaps in what was still unknown about him. While reading a pdf review proof of this book I perused the sources at the end and there are countless interviews with those who knew Johnson by the authors and other sources as well as the interviews Worth Long and other folklorists conducted of Robert Lockwood, Jr., Johnny Shines, David 'Honeyboy' Edwards, and Henry Townsend at the 1991 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. To my knowledge, they are among the first to make use of this material. It indicates that the research for this book is quite substantial.

Robert Johnson is one of the seminal persons in the pre-World War II blues. "Robert Johnson was using his guitar abilities to forge the transition from the older blues of Charley Patton, Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas, Lead Belly, or even Son House, to the more modern approach and sounds of Muddy Waters and the postwar blues players. He played blues, pop tunes, jazz, and ragtime; started to popularize the use of guitar riffs as signature elements of a song; and was one of the first to use a boogie beat for his rhythm accompaniment, copying the driving, rhythmic bass that barrelhouse pianists played with their left hand. His playing helped move blues guitar fretting out of the first position and into the use of the entirety of the fretboard, opening musical possibilities that had previously been reserved for jazz guitarists."

To paraphrase the Chicago Review website, for this definitive biography the two authors relied on every possible interview, resource and document, most of it material that no one has ever seen before. As they state: "No book before this one has included all of the reminiscences of Johnson by the people who knew him personally. After more than fifty years of researching Robert’s life and performing his music, we decided to correct that omission and bring together those resources in our comprehensive biography. We meticulously researched every article, book, video, or film by any author or producer, from academic scholar to lay blues fan; we transcribed every quote by anyone who ever knew Robert; and we grounded this all with quotations from our own research and every other resource we could find. Every census record, city directory, marriage license, funeral notice, and newspaper article was studied and referenced."

The book opens with a chapter on how the legend surrounding Johnson, one of the Delta blues seminal artists developed, including a very cursory overview of the literature and early research on him. When Gayle Dean Wardlow located the Robert Johnson death certificate, it provided leads that allowed the tracing of his ancestors and those who knew him and the reconstruction of his life was made possible. But also parallel research from Mack McCormick and Steven LaVere also located Johnson family members and significant individuals such as Ike Zimmerman who played a significant role in Johnson's musical development. The role of reissues of Johnson's recordings in telling Johnson's story also is noted along with the liner notes and booklets accompanying the reissues, and books, articles and documentary videos.

Then they introduce us to Robert and his music. "The summer of 1936 Robert Johnson stood in front of Walker’s General Store and Gas Station adjoining the Martinsville train depot. He put down his bag made of blue-and-white bed ticking packed full of clothes, at least one notebook, and other belongings, and began playing his guitar. He was there to advertise his nighttime performance at O’Malley’s—a bootleg house not far from the old Damascus Church just north of neighboring Hazlehurst’s City limits, up the railroad tracks on the east side of old Highway 51. Hazlehurst was a town of about three thousand souls sitting thirty-five miles south of Jackson, Mississippi. Robert had been born in Hazlehurst twenty-five years earlier, and now he was there to play his blues at one of the many juke joints he frequented throughout the area. A slight five foot eight, 140 pounds, Robert was well known for more than just his music."

Then they provide the details of his life, first tracing his ancestors and the aspects of their lives. They also located the house Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, his birth and family hardships that led his mother to move with Charles Dodd, known as Spencer in Memphis. Charles Dodd fled to Memphis to avoid being lynched and provided Robert with as stable a home life as any he had in his young years. Later, Julia Majors with her existing children move in with Noah Johnson, Robert's actual father. They provide details of Robert's life in Memphis, including attending school and some of the experiences he could have expected growing up not far from Beale Street. He would likely have seen such Beale Street performers such as Frank Stokes, Will Shade, Furry Lewis, and others, perhaps attending and becoming part of the 'Spencer' family.

In the interval, his mother remarried to a sharecropper and came to Memphis to take Robert back to the Delta and uprooted him and moved him in with and moved him in with Will “Dusty” Willis, a sharecropper his mother had married in 1916. As the authors state "An intelligent, citified nine-year-old had been uprooted and placed in an alien environment: the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta." Furthermore, while exposed to the haunting blues of the Delta region, Robert hated farming, and his reluctance to go into the fields led to caning by his step-father and other punishments. There is much more here about his life and how he would leave for periods to visit the Spencers who he considered his only real family. He was finally told that his real father was a Noah Johnson and after finding out started calling himself Robert Johnson. Also by the time he was 15 Robert had started playing music. He was pretty good on the harmonica and jew's harp. He could also play some guitar and piano which he learned from his stepbrother in Memphis.

The authors detail experiments with a home-made guitar and the conflicts with his step-father and then how he met Willie Brown who further helped him with his guitar skills so he started playing parties and busking, at times traveling with Willie Moore. Moore was a musician turned “juke house gambler” that had toured with Handy’s Orchestra from Memphis. He teamed with Robert in the late 1920s playing a “complimenting guitar.” Moore recalled some of the songs Johnson played including “Captain George,” “Make Me a Pallet,” and “President McKinley"(using on slide on this), “You Can Mistreat Me Here but You Can’t When I Go Home” (perhaps an early version that later became “Dust My Broom”), “East St. Louis Blues,” and a bottleneck version of “Casey Jones.”

The authors detail teenage Robert's marriage to a 14-year old Virginia Travis, and her death during a difficult childbirth while he was away juking and playing music. The combined circumstances of her death and her family blaming him for her death because he played the devil's music. The authors state "Robert’s friends said he began to believe that he was to blame for her death, and he turned his back on the church and God. He began to blaspheme so badly when he was drinking… ."

He also was becoming skilled enough as a professional musician in the Delta region. But he still was playing in an older folk style whereas the rough, in-your-face, original bottleneck dance tunes that folks like Charlie Patton and Son House played was what folks increasingly wanted and when House and Willie Brown was in Robinsonville, Robert went to see them. House, years later would recall claiming Robert was a little boy who couldn't play guitar except making noise. And while House did give some tips, he was a 19-year old player who had been in jukes for two years.

After this incident, Johnson took up with Ike Zimmerman, who worked on a road crew as well as played the jukes. Zimmerman was quite an accomplished player and a showman. "Zimmerman alternated between fingerpicking and playing bottleneck slide—his slide was home-made from a bone. He was also a skilled harp player like the young Robert Johnson. And Ike understood how to work an audience." Robert even lived with Zimmerman for a period in addition to being mentored by him. At a certain point Robert had progressed enough that Ike began taking him on his regular playing route, locations where people had money to spend: lumber camps with sawmills (probably the Piney Woods section of Copiah County), fish frys(sic), and jukes." (My review pdf may not have all final edits, so I have indicated that by the sic).

Other dalliances with women are noted as was his increased notoriety as a musician. They recount that when Johnson came upon Son House and Willie Brown playing at a juke, he started playing. House was there with his mouth wide open seeing how good Robert was. House's comments have led some blues writers to attribute Robert's musical skills as due to supernatural forces, but the authors note House never made such an assertion. The authors provide an overview of the folkloric origins of the selling of one's soul at the crossroads myth and dealing with statements made decades after Robert's death about this myth.

They trace Robert's subsequent career as he worked around the Delta busking at stores and playing jukes and house parties. They detail the dalliance with Robert Lockwood, Jr.'s mother, and Johnson taking Robert Jr. under his wing and mentoring the young man. Johnson's fame would grow including his two recording sessions which include details including auditioning for H.C. Spier. In this time frame, the first of the two known photos of Robert was memorialized at the Hooks studio in Memphis. San Antonio was particularly active the week of his first session celebrating the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday and the end of the Texas Centennial Year celebration. While playing in the streets, he was arrested and his guitar broken beyond repair. He called Don Law (who was supervising the recordings) from jail, who got him out of jail and obtained a borrowed guitar for recording. The authors, citing Law, refute the notion that Johnson recorded facing the wall. Law stated that Johnson only turned his back several days later when asked to play for some Mexican musicians.

In addition to detailing the recording sessions, there is considerable discussion of the music of actual recordings Johnson produced in San Antonio, and then a year later in Dallas, and his musical innovations as a delta blues artist. In contrast to most country blues artists whose performances of a song could vary greatly, and whose recorded takes varied similarly, Johnson's second or alternate takes are almost identical to the first one. They quote Henry Townsend, "They (older musicians) would play it this way this time, and the next time it was altogether different—the same tune but it was altogether different. But Robert, he was not like that. Each time, whatever he played, was uniform, and this could make you notice." The authors observe that Robert would adapt parts of older songs, "But Robert’s genius was beyond just knowing good songs to copy: he rewrote them, changed the tempo, synced his guitar more closely with his vocal than those who preceeded (sic) him, added a guitar riff, and literally remade the piece. … The song’s lyrics are thematically cohesive and the overall effect is of a musical whole, and not the type of whole that one would normally hear in a juke joint."

Johnson's recordings made him a prominent juke artist in the Delta area.Through the accounts of Honeyboy Edwards and Johnny Shines (as well as Townsend and Lockwood), we get a sense of his amazing abilities, including the extent of his repertoire. Another aspect was his ability to hear a song on the radio or a record once and be able to play it. Johnny Shines recalled, “Robert was a man who could sit and talk to you like I’m talking to you now, and be listening to the radio at the same time, and whenever he got ready he’d play whatever he heard on that radio. Note for note, chord for chord, … ."

We are taken along not only on his travels in the Delta, but also to St. Louis where Townsend met him, and later the circumstances that Johnson, Shines and Shines' cousin Calvin Frazier traveled North after Frazier had killed a man. They eventually made it to Chicago, then to Detroit, where the trio would go to Windsor, across the river from Detroit and perform gospel songs for a gospel radio show. Frazier would remain in Detroit (where he recorded for the Library of Congress and later was part of the Detroit post-war blues scene). Johnson and Shines made their way to Buffalo and then New Jersey and New York City and even played an Italian wedding in Newark.

Eventually Johnson returns to the Delta for his final juke joint performances and the circumstances that led to his death by poisoning, including naming the person who gave him the corn liquor laced with mothballs that ordinarily would have simply made Johnson sick, but underlying health issues (including an ulcer) exacerbated the liquor's effects.

Detailing his burial and other post-death events, the authors state, "Robert Leroy Johnson, the man, was gone. His legend was just about to begin." It is a legend where myth would obscure reality, but thanks to Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow, we have his real story, which I find more fascinating than the tales spun about him. This will be a must for those interested in vernacular music history and one of the blues greatest artists.

This will be available on June 4 as a hardcover and ebook. I received a pdf to review from a publicist.

Ron Weinstock