I Changed My Tune #1: Bryan Lee’s Play One For Me

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Like all of us, I have certain ideas about what I might, or might not, enjoy. I’m going to write about several recently released albums that were in my “not” category until I gave them a fair shake. Here, then, is the first of these second looks.

Bryan Lee

Play One For Me

Severn Records, 2013

http://www.braillebluesdaddy.com/

http://www.severnrecords.com/

I’ll be candid. I’ve never been a fan of Bryan Lee’s music. His performance at a festival I attended this summer did nothing to change my opinion: I felt that the sound of his Blues Power Band was much too rock oriented, and that Lee’s guitar playing was pushy, garden-variety blues rock, with nothing special to recommend it even to fans of that genre. It all sounded jive to me. Consequently, when I was asked to listen to Play One For Me, I resisted. The fact that Lee recorded his new CD with the great Severn house band–Robb Stupka (drums), Steve Gomes (bass), Johnny Moeller (guitar), and Kevin Anker (keys)–and guest Kim Wilson (harmonica), not to mention the fact that Chicago soul mastermind Willie Henderson sweetened the tracks with his string and horn arrangements, overcame my reluctance.

I am glad I auditioned the album. Play One For Me makes a clean break with what Lee has shown me previously, and is all the better for it. The effective soul-blues punch that opens the album sets the tone for what follows. The one-two combination starts with a close cover of George Jackson’s lilting hit, “Aretha (Sing One For Me),” and segues easily into a fine reading of Freddie King’s “It’s Too Bad (Things Are Going So Tough),” with lovely piano from Anker and crisp fills and solos by Lee, whose guitar work throughout the set is restrained and tasteful. It can be heard to excellent advantage on a slow, minor key tune from Bobby Womack’s deep catalog “When Love Begins (Friendship Ends),” where it plays starkly against the strings in a quiet storm setting. This and “You Was My Baby (But You Ain’t My Baby No More)” (a Lee original, somewhat like “Cadillac Assembly Line”) work up a real Albert King flavor.

The minor, mid-tempo swinger “Why” features a crafty vocal performance and a jazzily-phrased guitar break. “Let Me Love You Tonight” is a superb, bouncing soul mover in the Chicago style of Tyrone Davis, with intricate guitar figures, an indelible melody, and fine horns and strings straight from the Brunswick school that Henderson developed. Lee’s singing is generally quite good in this soulful setting, although sounds a bit shaky on Dennis Geyer’s slick, contemporary composition, “Straight To Your Heart.” Either “Poison” or “Evil Is Going On” might have been omitted, as the vocal melody lines of the two blues sound much alike; and despite its appealing qualities, like the envelope-filtered lead guitar, the feel of Lee’s funky “68 Years Young” is somehow off. But such minor missteps are rare. While Play One For Me may not present a strictly accurate picture of Bryan Lee’s sound, it is absolutely an enjoyable album of soul blues, and one to which I will surely return.

TOM HYSLOP

Review copy was kindly provided by Mark Pucci Media.

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Blues In My Soul

Blues In My Soul

LURRIE BELL

Blues In My Soul

Delmark, 2013

http://lurrie.com/

http://www.delmark.com/

Lurrie Bell is the blues. Blues by birth, as son of Carey Bell and part of the Harrington family that includes Eddy Clearwater and Atomic-H label owner Houston Harrington; blues by circumstance, through his extensively chronicled personal struggles and tragedies; and blues by avocation, as perhaps the greatest bluesman in the generation after artists like Clearwater, James Cotton, Buddy Guy, Eddie C. Campbell, and Byther Smith (and possibly even the last true bluesman, defined, strictly and correctly, as a cultural identifier, rather than used, loosely and incorrectly, to label any musician who plays blues-based music). After a pair of independently released albums, Bell returns to the Delmark Records fold for Blues In My Soul. The first-rate band includes Melvin Smith (Koko Taylor, Magic Slim) on bass; the excellent, widely recorded Roosevelt Purifoy (keyboards); the great Willie “The Touch” Hayes (drums); and Matthew Skoller (harmonica). Producer Dick Shurman has fulfilled his role adroitly, drawing inspired performances from all, and guiding Bell to a set list that suits the artist to a T.

Many of the songs are naturally enough drawn from the Chicago repertoire. Blues In My Soul offers indisputable testimony to the variety inherent in that tradition. There’s a terrific selection of uptempo numbers. Purifoy, Skoller, and Bell solo over the driving boogie of “I Just Keep Loving Her,” an early Little Walter side, and one not often covered. The J.L. Smith rarity “If It’s Too Late” is an even better find. The band maintains the essential, locomotive feel behind Jimmy Rogers’s “Going Away Baby,” and Big Bill’s “I Feel So Good” receives a sprightly workout with key contributions from Skoller and Hayes.

Easing up a bit on the accelerator, Bell digs deep into a “She’s A Good ’Un” that is every bit as powerful, and more deliberate, than the familiar version by Otis Rush, and gives up a mid-tempo shuffle in honor of Magic Slim, who died the day the band laid down “24 Hour Blues.” Careful listening to the guitar break reveals the jaw-dropping mastery of Bell’s playing–an excellence even more incredible for its subtlety, for there are no flashy, rock star moves here, only perfection in rhythm, touch, note choice, phrasing, and feel.

As always, Lurrie excels on the slow side of the blues, where few living players are as pensive or able to dig as deep beneath the skin of a song, and where his singing nearly always comes from a higher plane of inspiration. Bell turns his attention with laser focus to a gritty reading of Junior Wells’s “’Bout The Break Of Day,” a.k.a. “Early In The Morning”; “My Little Machine,” taken slower than the Jimmy Rogers original; and Otis Spann’s “Blues Never Die.” His most expressive performances come in Eddie Boyd’s “Just The Blues,” taken at a dirge-like pace, which features a lovely piano solo and a time-stopping guitar break; and the title track, a Bell original, with a chilling sound from the band, an intense vocal, and powerful dynamics. With these two numbers, Bell could single-handedly keep alive the endangered sub-genre of minor key slow blues.

The program contains a few outliers. Bell steps out on his “South Side To Riverside,” a chunky funk instrumental with a stuttering rhythm à la “Killing Floor,” a tough organ solo, and JB-esque horn stabs by Chris Neal and Mark Hiebert (saxophones) and Marques Carroll (trumpet, arranger), who also perform on the swinging opener “Hey, Hey Baby,” one of two T-Bone Walker numbers (the blasting “T-Bone Blues Special” is the other) that, Chicago-ized, prove to be right in Bell’s wheelhouse.

Although Bell grew up in the presence of some of the greatest musicians in Chicago, surprisingly little of their influence can be heard in his playing, with the exception of his most important mentor, the iconic Eddie Taylor. Lurrie’s lead guitar style, like that of so many players, is most deeply indebted to two other sources: B.B. and Albert King. Anyone who believes that to be a handicap probably has not listened closely enough to the music of those titans, and certainly has not paid enough attention to the unmatched intensity, imagination, and creativity of his playing. The most serious blues guitarist of our time, Bell is indeed the blues. Blues In My Soul is highly recommended.

TOM HYSLOP

CD for review was provided by Delmark Records.