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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