Neil Haverstick: T Bone Ford

On this CD, Neil Haverstick's original compositions allow him to acknowledge the stylistic conceptions of a variety of his influences, ranging from T-Bone Walker to Jimi Hendrix, and even jazz guitarist Joe Pass, while also adding his own personal approach and vision to each absorbing and meticulously executed selection. On "T Bone Ford," for example, Haverstick captures the mellow richness of Walker's sound and the clarity and fluidity of his jazz-flavored single-note lines, which paved the way for everyone from B.B. King to Chuck Berry to Mike Bloomfield. Drummer Ernie Crews sets up a distinctly Walker-like shuffle rhythm as Haverstick plays the catchy riff-based theme. The guitarist's subtly embellished riffs that comprise the gist of his flowing solo are performed with an intoxicating rhythmic drive. Haverstick's playing is every bit as self-assured, self-contained and moving as that of T-Bone himself.

The 57-year old Haverstick has been a key session player in the Denver area for many years, as well as an educator who teaches the theory of microtonal tuning systems. He may have slipped under the radar of many guitarheads, but here's a chance to experience a masterful blues-rock oriented guitarist at his very best.

January 29, 2009 · 0 comments

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Neil Haverstick: Birdwalk

Colorado-based guitarist/instructor Haverstick is a longtime proponent of a microtonal tuning system that takes the usual 12 equal tones per octave of Western music up to as many as 19, 31, 34 and 36 equal tones through the use of additional frets and/or his highly developed technique. On this CD, Haverstick pays tribute to such guitarists as Hubert Sumlin, Howlin' Wolf, Albert King, T-Bone Walker, Hank Williams, Jimi Hendrix and even Joe Pass, with his conventionally tuned 12-tone playing bringing out the best of their stylistic identities as well as his own. However, he also plays two blues in "19-tone equal temperament," and one of them, "Birdwalk," is quite simply a tour de force by this immensely talented guitarist.

Haverstick's unaccompanied intro to "Birdwalk" starts out like something by the Ventures, although with a slightly fractured meter due to the alternate tuning. Soon a Sonny Sharrock-like dissonance and intensity enters the mix. Stribling's rock-hard bass and Crews' kick-ass drums now introduce the foundation for Haverstick's riveting solo, which summons the phrase "sheets of sound," sometimes used to describe John Coltrane's playing. This is certainly not some kind of dry, theoretical exercise, but rather a serving of highly entertaining and definitely rousing blues-rock guitar. In 2007, Guitar Player magazine named Haverstick among "101 Forgotten Greats and Unsung Heroes." Based on this track and CD, he deserves wider exposure and recognition.

January 29, 2009 · 1 comment

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Louis Armstrong (featuring Lonnie Johnson): Savoy Blues

This is the third of the classic Louis Armstrong Hot Five recordings with the special addition of jazz and blues guitar great Lonnie Johnson.

In this recording, unlike the other two, Armstrong does no singing; it's a pure instrumental. Armstrong and Johnson once again stimulate each other with cornet-guitar exchanges and create a song that builds and flows and produces a coherent work of musical art. Armstrong on cornet and Ory on trombone give us some good old New Orleans blues smears and lines, along with Johnson's typical fine, bluesy finger work on the guitar. And the three of them build to a rousing, climbing crescendo towards the end, finalized with a subtle effect at the very end, with Johnson's guitar having the last word.

Two downsides are Lil Hardin Armstrong's rather plodding piano, from the beginning; and the bulk of the track doesn't quite reach the heights of intense, dynamic, innovative ensemble work that "I'm Not Rough" and "Hotter Than That" achieve. An interesting side note: Original New Orleans-style banjoist St. Cyr plays guitar here, rather than banjo. But one could not call it a guitar duet with Johnson. St. Cyr's rhythm guitar work serves its foundational purpose, but when Johnson comes in he shows how he is light years beyond the traditional rhythm guitarists, even in this more modest workout.

January 14, 2009 · 1 comment

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Lonnie Johnson & Eddie Lang: Midnight Call Blues

At least three of the nine other extraordinary guitar duets recorded by Lonnie Johnson & Eddie Lang in 1928-29 are better known than this track (one being "Have to Change Keys to Play These Blues"). But this track is my favorite.

As best we can tell, there was a basic agreement as to the essential structure of what they were going to play on these recordings, but there was ample room left for improvisation; and improvise these two early masters did, in such exquisite, innovative and moving ways that the duets became landmarks in guitar history.

In these duets, Johnson used a uniquely tuned 12-string guitar (to the best of our understanding). The artistry this afforded the virtuoso Johnson is most strikingly heard on this track. At the beginning, he creates a fascinating zither-like sound, giving a wonderful, exotic feel, ringing above Lang's rhythmic and harmonic foundation, rising to musical heights and elegantly descending. Then, in the third chorus, the musical feel changes, as Lang takes a one-chorus lead, playing a simple but deep-toned bluesy line while Johnson strums chord backings that, on that 12-string, are so rich it strikes the ear like a combination harp-zither-guitar. They finish out the song with the usual brighter-sounding, sophisticated, inventive lead lines by Johnson, all combining in a beautiful thematic coherence. I can't think of anything else that sounds quite like this.

The sophisticated interplay and combined artistry on these duets by an African-American from New Orleans and an Italian-American from Philadelphia, in the first full-partner interracial recordings, is something special—in music and in American society.

January 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lonnie Johnson: Tomorrow Night

This song was the biggest hit of Lonnie Johnson's career, selling in large numbers in 1948-49. For many, it was one of those songs that captured the feeling of the time and came to be a key soundtrack of people's lives that year. The great blues guitarist Buddy Guy told me that the song meant a lot to him in his teen years.

But in pure musical terms, this track is not innovative, nor does it display striking virtuosity or power in the performance. It is basically a very nice ballad, with an engaging and memorable melody and lyrics, that appealed to many people and was sung well (though Johnson's singing on another 1948 song, "Backwater Blues," is better—in fact, masterful).

Still, the song had considerable impact. In fact, a guy named Elvis covered it at the start of his own career, and actually just copied Johnson's vocal approach and technique.

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lonnie Johnson: Falling Rain Blues

This was Lonnie Johnson's first hit (backed with "Mr. Johnson's Blues"). Instead of his noted guitar, he plays violin, the instrument his father started him on, to accompany his singing. Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, there is no digitally remastered copy of this song; the old, scratchy 78 record—and acoustically recorded at that—is all that's available, which tends to be tough for some to listen to. (A well-performed and well-recorded version was, in coming-full-circle manner, the last song on his final major recordings in 1967, Lonnie Johnson - The Complete Folkways Recordings; he plays guitar on that track.)

The general historical importance of this recording, beyond beginning a great career, is that Johnson took the expressive capacity of the violin and applied it to the guitar, which contributed to how he changed guitar-playing and popular music in general. Now, to many the idea of blues violin playing might seem like an oxymoron. But Johnson adds to his singing interesting and inventive lines on the violin, with a blues feel, and an extended bridge in the middle; the violin work complements well the vocal lines. Johnson's singing in these 1920s recordings was merely pretty good to good; from the late 1940s on his singing had become outstanding to great (such as on "Don't Ever Love" and "Mr. Blues Walks"). His guitar playing during that period was masterful.

Editor's Note: At the time of this posting, the Amazon.com Download Links provided with this review had the wrong album cover, but connected respectively to the right track.

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lonnie Johnson: Don't Ever Love

This is the first track on the first album made after Lonnie Johnson was "rediscovered" by Chris Albertson in Philadelphia in 1959 (making it Johnson's second "comeback"). Most striking is Johnson's vocal artistry; the man who was one of the ultimate guitar virtuosos sings with such power, nuance, dynamics, expressiveness, timing and phrasing to show that he could be not just a very good singer, but a great one. Johnson's guitar work was so exceptional that it tends to distract attention from his later vocal mastery. One good listen to this extraordinary performance will set that straight.

This track shows two other things beyond some fine work on the electric guitar. Johnson is joined here by two first-rate jazz musicians, saxophonist Hal Singer and pianist Claude Hopkins, along with good men on bass and drums. The track shows how well Johnson worked with a fine jazz group; these guys click musically as if they'd played together as a unit for years. Johnson also shows how he felt no need to hog the spotlight, giving space for a full soulful, soaring sax solo by Singer. The track is also one of those ultimate demonstrations of how the blues is a prime foundation of jazz and adds such emotive and textural depth to that music. For anyone who loves jazz and blues, this is must-have music.

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lonnie Johnson: Broken Levee Blues

The great Mississippi River flood of 1927 inspired a series of songs. Probably the most famous is Bessie Smith's "Backwater Blues." This track is Lonnie Johnson's musical response to the big flood. It opens and continues with that inimitable Johnson touch, tone and rhythm on guitar, and his usual exquisite sense of harmonics that not only augment the pure music and add texture to the song, but often impressionistically complement and enhance the meaning of the lyrics. The words, in classic blues form, do a marvelous job of conveying the natural disaster and its human impact. The blues melody is memorable and expressive. Johnson's singing here is better than on his 1926-1927 recordings, and starts to demonstrate the vocal mastery he fully developed by the later 1940s. This Great Mississippi River Flood song is not as widely known and lauded as Bessie's, but it deserves to be.

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lonnie Johnson: Mr. Blues Walks

In 1965, 71-year-old Lonnie Johnson was invited to Toronto to play with a good traditional jazz band in a popular club called The Penny Farthing. They wondered whether the old man could keep up. But it was the young upstarts who had to summon all they had to play at Lonnie's level.

This album was recorded after the band, with Johnson, had become a big Toronto-area hit at the club. This track, like Johnson's "Don't' Ever Love," beautifully demonstrates the blues foundation of jazz, and shows Johnson's capacity for masterful singing later in his career.

The track opens with an excellent, bluesy overture, with characteristic Lonnie Johnson figures and riffs on electric guitar. His lyrics, in classic blues form, artfully tell a real blues story in a powerful and engaging way. "When the town is fast asleep, Mr. Blues be gettin' 'round; (repeat;) every time he knocks on somebody's door, he leaves them with a mournful sound." The lyrics are perfectly punctuated by some fine cornet work. These are blues lyrics, but the music is jazz. As author Stanley Crouch put it, "In jazz, sorrow rhythmically transforms itself into joy, which is perhaps the point of the music: joy earned or arrived at through performance, through creation." The sheer feeling one is left with after listening to this track is exactly that.

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Louis Armstrong (featuring Lonnie Johnson): Hotter Than That

Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Hot Sevens recordings are fundamental documents in the history of American music. By emphasizing a featured soloist, rather than the ensemble band music of New Orleans, they served as a foundation for the entire superstructure of jazz to come. For this particular edition, the Hot Fives became in effect the Hot Six, thanks to the inspired addition of virtuoso jazz and blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson.

In "Hotter Than That," Armstrong continues to develop his historic instrumental power and expressiveness. He also revives the scat singing (nonsense syllables delivered in a rhythmic vocal style) that he first put on record in the previous year's "Heebie Jeebies." Here he scats in a marvelous call-&-response dialogue with Johnson's guitar, which sometimes echoes—or saucily mimics—the scat line and sometimes complements or comments on it. As the distinguished music scholar and composer Gunther Schuller says in Early Jazz, "Lonnie Johnson's swinging, rhythmic backing and his remarkable two-bar exchanges with Armstrong are certainly one of the highlights of classic jazz." Special punch and poignancy come when the exchanges culminate in four dramatic stop-time effects, with an Armstrong wail followed by Johnson's perfectly attuned, punctuated guitar response. These two masters brought out the best in each other.

Johnny Dodds also contributes a scintillating clarinet solo, with a fine blues feel, evoking the original New Orleans jazz milieu, as does Kid Ory's classic tailgate trombone.

January 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lonnie Johnson: Away Down in the Alley Blues

Lonnie Johnson's first hit was released in January 1926. By early 1928, Johnson was a premier virtuoso guitarist in both jazz and blues. "Away Down in the Alley Blues" is an early solo instrumental masterpiece in his long career. (He recorded the equally dazzling instrumental "Playing with the Strings" during the same session.)

This track exemplifies Johnson's special talent for sophisticated guitar work, with exceptionally quick fingers and a bluesy feel, and yet the music was very accessible to a broader public. The song illustrates Johnson's statement that "I don't play country blues, I play city blues" (and jazz). As with other Johnson gems, this song has a fine thematic coherence. It is also a good illustration of Johnson's influence on B.B. King, with the unparalleled vibrato, the unique touch and tone. Lonnie made his guitar sing. And he keeps an underlying propulsive beat going. This exemplifies how Johnson enlarged the language of the guitar for jazz and blues, and it's why B.B. King said of Johnson, "The man was way ahead of his time."

January 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lonnie Johnson: Uncle Ned, Don't Use Your Head

Of Lonnie Johnson's playing on "Uncle Ned," outstanding jazz guitarist Jack Wilkins marveled to me: "This can't be just one guitar! That track just blew my mind. To this day, I play it for my students and they can't believe it—especially when I tell them it was done in 1931!"

Johnson takes this old Negro folk song and turns it into a vehicle for the most dazzling, blazing-fingered, virtuoso guitar work. The bebop or rock guitarists who thought they were the fastest thing on a fretboard should have gone back and listened to this recording. But beyond the speed, Johnson's playing here has his usual exquisite touch and tone, nuance and fine thematic coherence. This version of the lyrics ranges from funky to silly; but they should be heard as simply an impressionistic story background to the guitar work.

January 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lonnie Johnson & Eddie Lang: Have to Change Keys to Play These Blues

By 1928, Eddie Lang, ethnic Italian from Philadelphia, and Lonnie Johnson, African-American from New Orleans, were recognized as top guitar masters. This track, one of 10 extraordinary duets they recorded in 1928-29, proceeds at a rather stately tempo, unlike some of the other duets. As Johnson said, on this track, as in the other duets, "Eddie could lay down rhythm and bass parts just like a piano." This song shows how the two guitarists took the basic music and bent notes and slurs of the blues, and added sophisticated and intricate interweavings of Lang's solid rhythm and harmonics with Johnson's lead work. Lang occasionally takes the lead, as in the fourth chorus here (sounding more heavy-handed than Johnson), but usually it is Johnson in the lead, managing to combine an often light, jazzy skipping quality with a rich tone and bluesy feel, as his inventive melodic lines soar above Lang's foundation. They are so attuned to each other that they are like a pair of superb longtime dancers whose two bodies move as one. The magic of these duets has been seminal in guitar history.

January 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Muddy Waters: Feel Like Going Home

And so we come full circle back to that great standard identified as "Walkin' Blues." Muddy Waters had essayed a classic version early in his career, released on the flipside of "I Can't Be Satisfied" (the early Aristocrat 78), but 15 years later during the sessions for Folk Singer, his quiet album with backing mostly by Buddy Guy, the slide master hauled out his old red Telecaster and went to town, or at least back to Mississippi, for a Waters-only solo performance of slow and stately beauty, the guitarist carefully exploring every note, the ghosts gathering at Stovall's Plantation, the twangy amplified strings rollin' and tollin' in the Delta night, his echoey voice sighing resignedly, "All I had was gone."

December 24, 2008 · 0 comments

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Muddy Waters: The Blues Had a Baby and They Named it Rock and Roll

Good times don't last. The hits and the innovation faded away even as Muddy Waters's status as the honored senior of Chicago Blues rumbled on. Leonard Chess died, and later producers tried useless gimmicks; yet even though there were honorable moments, even whole albums, finally Muddy left Chess behind, signing with Johnny Winters's Blue Sky, a sub-label of Columbia. The guitar-mad albino produced a total of four LPs revitalizing Muddy's career; but the first, Hard Again, was the one that mattered. And this less-known track is still the most fun, if not the "hardest" blues: James Cotton blew the cobwebs out, Winter muscled the slide, and Muddy had a good time telling all, "Otis Spann said it, 'You know the Blues got soul' / Queen Victoria said it, 'You know the Blues got soul' / The Blues had a baby, And they named it Rock and Roll." Proof positive, only slightly tongue-in-cheek, of McKinley Morganfield's benign and lasting influence on rock!

December 24, 2008 · 0 comments

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