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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Muddy Waters: Forty Days and Forty Nights

From the mid-1950s into the '60s, Muddy Waters's Chess singles and "hits" kept a-comin' – not big-money chart numbers, but releases gaining national and international acclaim – and he settled comfortably into the role of master blues entertainer, purveying up-tempo arrangements, lyrics of innuendo (sly and not so), gruffer vocals, and less and less of his own slide guitar. (In fact the Chess Blues Box makes a point of his "vocals only" for half of the 72 chosen tracks.) So his Noah-count single "Forty Days and Forty Nights" will have to stand in for dozens of other candidate numbers. It's still Little Walter and Jimmy Rogers behind him, but could as well be James Cotton or Walter Horton, Pat Hare or Luther Tucker, or the scores of tunes blessed with Otis Spann rocking the piano. Muddy's shouted vocals seem the exalted epitome of his style of blues declaiming, and the band just keeps thrusting straight on: no muss, no fuss, don't go no further; the real thing is right here.

December 24, 2008 · 0 comments

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Muddy Waters: Hoochie Coochie Man

You might say that for Muddy Waters 1954 came in with a wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am, as bassist Willie Dixon and great blues pianist Otis Spann joined the team. Spann, sometimes identified as Muddy's "cousin" and certainly his musical doppelganger, brought new sophistication to the arrangements or at least the piano parts, and Dixon slathered a potent, inventive sexuality onto music and lyrics – "I'm Ready," "I Just Want to Make Love to You" and this Coochie classic all recorded in the first few months alone. (Muddy too was juiced, cribbing and fiddling "Mannish Boy" away from Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man" original.) Plus two solid years more of the best of Little Walter's jazz-influenced chromatic harp, up in the mix and heard to powerful effect on every recording. No wonder everybody knew Muddy was here!

December 24, 2008 · 0 comments

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Muddy Waters: Long Distance Call

At the session that produced "Honey Bee," Muddy Waters also cut this gently rocking ballad, its slightly stately pace perhaps suggesting the central role he was already occupying in the new electrified genre – mentoring his sidemen, hosting new arrivals to town, becoming the genial godfather of Chicago Blues. Over the next couple of years, Big Crawford would be ousted by bassist/songwriter Willie Dixon, simplistic drummer Elgin Evans would yield to Francis Clay, Jimmy Rogers and Little Walter would become solidly present on all tracks. But for this quiet gem, and "Still a Fool" (Muddy's version of the traditional "Two Trains Running"), plus a few other tracks still ahead, the session crew was kept small and tight, and the Delta was still only two trains or a long distance call away.

December 24, 2008 · 0 comments

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Muddy Waters: Louisiana Blues

Little Walter's distinctive and soon-to-be prominent harp work was introduced on this October 1950 session, providing mellow backup for Muddy Waters's lazy, loping beat during the initial verses of "Louisiana Blues," the first of Muddy's major mojo-magical songs, with the familiar lyric "I'm goin' down in New Orleans, get me a mojo hand." (Those ju-ju devices figure most prominently in the near-theme song hit "Got My Mojo Working," and there's some voodoo happening in "Hoochie Coochie Man" too.) But what starts out melodically and a bit sleepily soon takes on a slightly greater urgency as both harp and guitar seem to speed up a fraction and gain some in volume. (This eventually became a favorite track – and arrangement trick – for some British blues bands.)

December 24, 2008 · 1 comment

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Billy Boy Arnold: Decoration Day

Billy Boy Arnold has called it "the most important day in my entire life." Over 60 years ago, after leaving a movie matinee, he treks from his home on the South Side of Chicago to 3226 Giles Street, and knocks on the door of blues harmonica legend Sonny Boy Williamson. Williamson would soon be dead, a victim of a mugging at age 34 in 1948, and had his posthumous reputation confused by a usurper who took his name; but on that day he generously spent time with the visiting youngster, demonstrating his harmonica effects and how he made his humble mouth organ say wah, wah, wah.

Decades have passed and now Billy Boy Arnold returns the favor on a CD devoted to songs by Sonny Boy Williamson. Here he takes the melancholy "Decoration Day," and turns it from doleful to soulful with lots of wah, wah, wah along the way. Sonny Boy's nice and kind woman "died and left him," and he needs to fulfill his promise to bring her some flowers on every Decoration Day. Hey kitties, you know it's a heavy dues song when it opens at the side of a deathbed and goes downhill from there. But Billy Boy translates his mourning into some serious wailing on the harmonica, and the whole band is magical throughout this track. There are so many tribute albums floating around these days, and most of them come across as contrived and shallow. But Billy Boy Sings Sonny Boy is the real deal, one master celebrating the artistry of another with unfeigned passion. A real treat for blues fans.

December 24, 2008 · 0 comments

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Toots Thielemans (with Milton Nascimento): Travessia

I have several versions of Nascimento singing this composition that first brought him widespread attention among the Brazilian public—when it placed second at the 1967 International Music Festival—including his debut recording of the song and his awkward 1968 version in English. But this collaboration with Toots Thielemans is my favorite. Nascimento is in top form, especially when he delivers a wordless vocal in the high register, and Thielemans contributes a lyrical melody statement. My only complaint is that the track lasts only three minutes, and the ending arrives somewhat abruptly. Three minutes might be the perfect length for boiling an egg or generating crossover airplay, but this diehard Nascimento fan would have liked to hear several more choruses.

September 02, 2008 · 1 comment

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Toots Thielemans: Blue N' Green/All Blues

In some ways the great Toots Thielemans has been overlooked by the jazz world. That can happen when your main ax is a harmonica. Harmonicas and accordions are forever to be outsiders – never let into the club in which overwhelming virtuosity on an instrument is highly admired by legions of aficionados. It doesn't help that Toots is also a guitarist, a superlative whistler or that he had a hit tune with "Bluesette." These seem not to have added enough to his bona fides. There is a big difference between being called "the greatest jazz harmonica player" instead of "one of the greatest jazz musicians." Thielemans is both and jazz people in the know, know it.

For all intents and purposes, "Blue in Green" (listed here as "Blue N' Green") serves as a prelude for Thielemans's take on another Miles Davis classic, "All Blues." The medley begins first with pianist Fred Hersch and Thielemans taking wonderful solos extolling the thoughtful melodic virtues of "Blue in Green." Their measured but expressive endeavors serve as a melancholy introduction to "All Blues." The band goes up-tempo as Johnson and Baron propel the piece. Hersch and Thielemans once again take turns playing over the rapid changes. After several minutes of high energy, the two slow the number down with some touching counterpoint and a loving restatement of the theme. Thielemans's harmonica is as expressive as any mainstream instrument could ever hope to be.

Being a jazz harmonica virtuoso and a jazz whistler has some advantages. You don't have too much competition. You get some nice movie soundtrack jobs (Midnight Cowboy among others). A TV commercial can come your way here and there (Old Spice). And you can become known as perhaps the greatest jazz harmonica player/whistler ever. That will have to do for now.

June 21, 2008 · 0 comments

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Toots Thielemans: Waltz for Debby

The harmonica may not be the first instrument that comes to mind when someone thinks of jazz. But "Toots" Thielemans's career proves that in the right hands, the harmonica can be just as evocative as any other instrument. Over his long musical run, he's been acknowledged as the finest of all jazz harmonica players. His composition "Bluesette" is one of the all-time great jazz performances. When it came out in 1962, it was a worldwide hit. Who could not fall for its catchy melody and Toots's playful harmonica and whistling skills? His harp has also been famously heard on the soundtrack of Midnight Cowboy and in many Sesame Street episodes. Yet despite his high-profile credits, Thielemans is an icon more among jazz players than jazz fans. So it was not a big surprise to see all of the great contemporary jazz stars that joined him for East Coast West Coast. Among them, in addition to the above-listed, were Herbie Hancock, Terence Blanchard, John Scofield, Lyle Mays, Joshua Redman and others.

This is a tender, heartfelt and ultimately hopeful rendition of Bill Evans's classic. Broadbent's piano intro hints at a sad story to come. But Haden's bouncing bassline and Thielemans's resonant and upbeat harmonica quickly tell another. Erskine skillfully works the brushes to count off this waltz. Violinist Goodman joins in and plays the part of Stéphane Grappelli. (For more of this type of playing from Goodman, please check out the movie soundtrack to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.) Thielemans's turn comes around again. He and Goodman trade tasty licks. Broadbent's piano returns to play the coda. Get me another glass of Chardonnay, please.

March 14, 2008 · 0 comments

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Toots Thielemans: Take Five

In this West Coast-based lineup, a swinging duet intro by onetime Mahavishnu violinist Jerry Goodman and Joni Mitchell session guitarist Robben Ford lead into the swinging 5/4 Desmond/Brubeck classic. After Toots takes the signature lead line on his chromatic harmonica, a playful Goodman puts a new twist with his interpretation where he thinks the song could go. At times bluesy and at times sweet, it is unpredictably enchanting. The unique grouping of violin and harmonica makes this an unusual outing. The two instruments are rarely used in jazz, and almost never together; yet they seem perfectly paired to produce a fresh and compatible sound. A laid-back but thoughtful call and response between Toots and Ford follows. Throughout, the veteran rhythm team of bassist Haden and drummer Erskine keep the beat swinging forward unobtrusively. An original and enjoyable take on this musical stalwart.

March 14, 2008 · 0 comments

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Toots Thielemans: Naima

Chromatic harmonica master Jean "Toots" Thielemans assembled a remarkable group of fellow musicians from both U.S. coasts to make this appealing album. In this East Coast-based lineup, onetime Pat Metheny keyboardist Lyle Mays starts John Coltrane's beautiful ode to his first wife, "Naima." Mays's feather-light touch is especially effective on his sensitive acoustic piano intro, accompanied by Christian McBride's tasteful arco bass. Toots's remarkable instrumental facility again demonstrates his ability to raise the chromatic harmonica to equality among other, more accepted jazz instruments. The sense of poignancy that he can summon is unsurpassed. Some tasteful electric guitar licks from John Scofield propel this classic tune into a more contemporary sound without any lack of respect. A nice duet between Redman's tenor and Toots's harmonica completes this marvelous interpretation of the Coltrane classic.

March 14, 2008 · 0 comments

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Hendrik Meurkens: Hot and Stuffy

In a unique combination of bebop sensibilities and virtuosity all rooted within the confines of Brazilian rhythms, harmonica wizard Hendrik Meurkens showcases brilliant technique in a refreshingly different approach to this sparsely used instrument in jazz. With a clear nod to the tonal influence and facility of the great harmonica virtuoso Jean “Toots” Thielemans, Meurkens soars his way through this self-penned tune with Parker-like riffs. He and saxophonist Rodrigo Ursaia track each other flawlessly on this burner’s intro in a fashion reminiscent of Dizzy and Bird on some of their early bebop classics, but with a decidedly Brazilian tinged rhythm section. Meurkens establishes his credentials as both a composer and a wildly inventive player. While he also plays a respectable vibes on several tracks it is his stunning chromatic harmonica work that sets this artist apart.

February 14, 2008 · 0 comments

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Toots Thielemans: Don't Blame Me

Sometimes Toots Thielemans plays so soulfully that you forget his "instrument" came from Woolworth's toy department. His agility, of course, was not so readily acquired. This 2½-minute track amply illustrates both aspects of Toots's craft. As he movingly interprets an old standard, the tooter's technical mastery serves rather than subsumes his lyrical objectives. Indeed, Toots's imagination is even more impressive than his deftness. From conceiving that full-blown jazz might be played on a gadget that fits in the palm of your hand, to exercising such expressive control over said gizmo, Toots Thielemans reigns as the Wilbur Wright of palm pilots.

December 07, 2007 · 0 comments

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Toots Thielemans: Georgia on My Mind

When a self-described Brussels street kid joins Japanese jazzmen in Tokyo on July 4, 1979, for a soulful "Georgia on My Mind," it seems to fulfill Marshall McLuhan's 1967 prophecy of a global village spawned by new forms of communication. Of course, Longfellow had declared a century before that "Music is the universal language." But pre-electronic media, this meant in practice that people could appreciate foreign music as consumers, not perform it with authenticity. Thanks to recordings and radio, however, by the year Georgia's legislature enacted as state anthem this song written by two Hoosiers, Monsieur Toots could toot an old sweet song in the Land of the Rising Sun as sweet and clear as moonlight through the pines.

November 19, 2007 · 0 comments

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Toots Thielemans: East of the Sun

Toots Thielemans single-handedly made it feasible to use "hip" and "harmonica" in the same sentence. Toots spent the 1950s as George Shearing's guitarist, where he played "East of the Sun" nightly. Here, however, Toots wields his alternate ax, although considering its diminutive size, it probably ought to be called a hatchet. In any case, pairing Toots with baritonist Adams was inspired. One's instrument is tiny and shrill, the other's bulky and gruff. Their contrast is a delight. Toots and Pepper play off one another like a hummingbird frolicking with a grizzly bear. Toots was a wizard with a toy wand.

October 26, 2007 · 0 comments

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