Guy King: Solo and Organ Trio Recordings

By Myself I Am Who I Am And It Is What It Is

GUY KING

By Myself

I Am Who I Am And It Is What It Is

IBF Records, 2012

guyking.net

Guy King established his credentials in the six years he spent as bandleader for Chicago legend Willie Kent, during which his tough but nuanced lead guitar playing was a major part of The Gents’ hard-edged blues sound. Following Kent’s death in 2006, King embarked upon a solo career. His debut album Livin’ It, on which a new, tightly arranged style, inflected with smooth, jazz-shaded R&B, began to emerge, was nominated for a Blues Music Award; and the guitarist, a native of Israel, seemed to be everywhere at once, appearing nationally and internationally with his blues band, playing solo shows, and fronting an organ trio around Chicago. Then he seemingly fell off the map. As it turns out, King has been spending most of his time abroad, mainly performing in Israel and Brazil. Given that he is preparing to return to the United States for a series of dates scheduled around the 2014 Chicago Blues Festival, now seems a good time to take stock of the two excellent albums King quietly released at the end of summer 2012.

Willie Kent’s gritty electric blues were one thing; the uptown Livin’ It was quite another. What King does on By Myself is completely unexpected. Powerful interpretations of songs by pre-war blues icon Robert Johnson make up nearly half of the 15-song set. King shows a surprising affinity for the form, with a mastery of Johnson’s technique and chords, a snappy, percussive attack that brings a full and expressive sound to the solo guitar, and vocals that shift from full to falsetto, always sounding natural and often impassioned, as when his voice breaks in “Hellhound On My Trail,” where King evokes hopeless resignation in the face of haunting mystery. At the other end of the emotional register is the relatively plainspoken “Steady Rollin’ Man,” also among the strongest performances here. King’s singing takes on a notable resonance and vibrato, appropriately enough, on “Can’t Be Satisfied,” one of two Muddy Waters numbers, and thumps fleet runs on the bass strings of his guitar behind Lightnin’ Hopkins’s “Katie Mae,” which closes this portion of the program.

Don’t despair if Mississippi and Texas blues are not your thing. Five songs at the end of the CD come from an entirely different direction. Still solo, still built on King’s acoustic guitar and evocative singing, they touch on more contemporary and more cosmopolitan musical styles. “I Am Who I Am And It Is What It Is” is a swinging, soulful, upbeat number with a jazzy flair. Next King reprises the sophisticated ballad “Alone In The City,” from Livin’ It. Stripped of its electric instruments and horns, it sounds more like Percy Mayfield or even Charles Brown at his gloomiest–with Ray Charles somewhere at the root of both versions. King overdubs subtle percussion on the last few songs, all in the bossa nova style, beginning with his reading of the jazz standard “Nature Boy,” continuing through his lively cover of Joao Gilberto’s “Acapulco,” and ending with a smoky “Besame Mucho.” This is music for lovers, indeed.

Recorded with Mike Schlick (drums) and Ben Paterson (organ), the two-CD set I Am Who I Am And It Is What It Is offers a cool cruise through jazz and standards, blues and ballads, soul and R&B, and pop. The program begins with a band version of the title track before moving to Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite.” King then shifts from bop to the birth of soul, with an emotional “Drown In My Own Tears.” Next up is a light “Sweet Lorraine,” a rousing “Mojo,” then back to jazz with Stanley Turrentine’s bluesy “Sugar,” and on to Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone To Love” and a “Going To Chicago” much toned down from any of the often-heard Joe Williams versions. King’s interest in Brazil comes out in Jobim’s uptempo “Agua De Beber.” Bobby Hebb’s pop smash “Sunny” yields to another Ray Charles ballad before King delivers a wondrous “Tear It Down,” capturing not only Wes Montgomery’s signature octaves but his excitement and effortless swing. Paterson is on fire here, too, and Schlick ably covers the drum breaks.

The second disc unfolds along the same lines, covering standards romantic (“You’ve Changed,” “Moonlight In Vermont”) and frivolous (“The Frim Fram Sauce”); jazz (“Green Dolphin Street” and workouts on McGriff’s “Vicky” and Burrell’s “Kenny’s Sound”); lush ballads from Billie Holiday (“God Bless The Child”) and Stevie Wonder (“Lately”); the breezy Brazilian “Brigas Nunca Mais”; blues (a pitiful “All Over Again,” from B.B. King’s catalog) and R&B (from Ray Charles once more, in a splendid “Roll With My Baby”). As is often the case with organ trios, some of the best material comes from unlikely places. King nods to the soul jazz tradition with sweet pop and elegant soul selections (“Isn’t She Lovely” and “Me And Mrs. Jones”), and surprises with the country weeper “Crying Time,” perhaps learned from Buck Owens, or remembered from bluesman Phillip Walker’s Playboy Records LP. In either case, it is devastating. Overall, the division between instrumentals and vocal numbers is about even, the latter showing King’s pleasant, expressive range, and on virtually every track, King and Paterson trade solos that, even when speaking the language of jazz, retain bluesy phrasing and tonalities. The group has a real feeling for the entire range of styles on What It Is, an absolutely lovely album on many levels.

King’s achievement is all the more impressive when one considers that both albums were recorded virtually off-the-cuff. Inspired after an evening’s gig, King cut the solo album in a single session, using an acoustic guitar belonging to the studio. In much the same way, the 30 songs on the organ trio record were laid down, in much less than 24 hours, during the course of an all-nighter, with a brief follow-up later in the afternoon. One might reasonably wonder if there is anything he can’t do, and where he will take us next. King has in fact been writing and recording new material, with an ear sensibly tilted toward producing great music, without much concern for genre restrictions. The touchstone artists whose work inspired the two works considered here–Muddy Waters, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Stevie Wonder, Nat “King” Cole, and Ray Charles in particular–seem likely to play a continuing role in King’s musical development. That is an evolution I don’t want to miss. In taking the varied music he loves and recasting it in new combinations, Guy King is going about his art the right way. Musicians with genuinely big ears are rare, and talent like King’s is rarer still.

TOM HYSLOP

I bought these CDs from the artist’s Web site.

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Chris James & Patrick Rynn • Barrelhouse Stomp

Barrelhouse Stomp

CHRIS JAMES & PATRICK RYNN

Barrelhouse Stomp

Earwig Music Company, 2013

http://www.thebluefour.com

www.earwigmusic.com

Real blues music continues to persevere alongside supposedly “evolved” forms with which it has little in common beyond (sometimes) a common 12 bar structure. Two of its staunchest champions are Chris James and Patrick Rynn. The duo’s new album, Barrelhouse Stomp, drawn from 2009 and 2011 sessions in the company of such all-star contributors as Willie Smith and Willie Hayes (drums), Eddie Shaw (tenor saxophone), Jody Williams (guitar), and David Maxwell, Henry Gray, and Aaron Moore (piano), is a marvel of fresh traditionalism.

James & Rynn, with Rob Stone, write much of their material. “Goodbye, Later For You” shares a tempo and melody line, and an assertive vocal delivery, with such Muddy Waters recordings as “I Live The Life I Love,” and swaggers even more aggressively. “Just Another Kick In The Teeth,” a funky grind punctuated by blasts from a sax trio (Norbert W. Johnson, Johnny Viau, and Shaw), steps into the ‘60s. The solo spots put Shaw, Williams, and bassist Rynn front and center. The instrumental “Messin’ With White Lightnin’,” with its wild, scratchy rhythm guitar and busy bass line, is a perfect Bo Diddley pastiche. David Maxwell takes a terrific piano solo, his heavy attack giving the notes a weighty emphasis, but the star is Williams, whose bloodcurdling lead guitar was the MVP, of course, of Diddley’s “Who Do You Love.” His lines here are a canny mixture of biting single notes and stormy flurries, tangled bends and slippery double-stops. James’s own guitar solo takes the song out, extending Williams’s themes with furious abandon.

Where “Before It’s Too Late” unfolds easily, paced by Moore’s piano, “A Fact Is A Fact” blasts off like a newly-uncovered Broomdusters tune, rocking with fevered, Elmore James-inspired slide work and replete with hard-riffing horns. “It Can Always Be Worse” is a driving shuffle built on a version of Magic Sam’s West Side groove and melody line, with James’s first recorded harmonica work–really solid unamplified playing–leading the charge. Despite the loose, bleary feel of the rumba-style “Last Call Woogie,” the band executes stops as crisp as a gin and tonic. James and the great Louisiana piano man Henry Gray, best known for his work with Howlin’ Wolf, are the featured soloists.

Peppered throughout the album is a handful of fine covers. Big Bill’s “I Feel So Good” arrives early in the set, with the balance clustered near the album’s end.  James and Rynn turn Robert Nighthawk’s rollicking “Take It Easy” into a tribute to Pinetop Perkins, with David Maxwell hammering home chorus upon chorus of flying 88s. The group strikes a beautiful lope as James improvises lengthy variations on Elmore’s instrumental “Bobby’s Rock.” Always a confident vocalist refreshingly free of mannerisms, James convincingly hollers Little Brother Montgomery’s “Vicksburg Blues” (a song that lets Williams reprise the guitar part he played on its close relative, Wolf’s “Forty Four”), and outdoes himself in the infectious take on Junior Parker’s “I’m Gonna Stop Foolin’ Myself,” where Williams’s playing is even tougher than on “Lightnin’.” Viau’s honking tenor solo and a powerful groove maintain the tune’s uptown feel.

Listeners familiar with James and Rynn’s history will know not only the tandem’s two previous, highly acclaimed albums of ‘50s-inspired blues, but their recordings with harp man Stone’s C-Notes, their appearances on a number of releases produced by Phoenix harmonica ace and blues impresario Bob Corritore, and projects with Sam Lay, Dennis Binder, and Jody Williams, all demonstrating a deep respect for blues as the music ought to be played. Barrelhouse Stomp, a superb addition to their body of work, proves that traditional blues remains vital, appealing, and exciting.

TOM HYSLOP

I received the review copy of this CD from a publicist, Blind Raccoon.

Magic Sam • Live at the Avant Garde 1968

Magic Sam

MAGIC SAM

Live at the Avant Garde

Delmark Records, 2013

The new Magic Sam album is outrageously great. I would say the same about virtually any other Sam Maghett recording–he never made a bad one, and that includes not only his studio work but the four live albums already available (five if one counts the solo house party set Give Me Time), which seem to have been taped almost by chance. Live at the Avant Garde is different in that it was recorded, at a Milwaukee appearance in 1968, to the highest standard of an amateur engineer. Though I had heard at least one of the earlier live shows in private circulation before it received its official (or semi-official) release, the existence of the Avant Garde tape came as a total surprise. Mindful of the adage about gift horses, I don’t question why it has become available after remaining a secret for so long. I am merely grateful, and deeply.

Unlike the other known live recordings of Sam, Avant Garde’s sound is clear and present, and the mix is fine (the set’s engineer and producer Jim Charne details the recording’s technical aspects in his liner notes). Sam’s voice and guitar are out front and crystal-clear, and Bob Richey’s drums are crisp as one could wish. Another reviewer has stated that Mojo Elem’s electric bass is inaudible. Not so. On my copy, it’s plenty loud enough for any blues band, provided that your taste has not been formed by rock soundmen, club DJs, or certain latter-day “blues” CD mixes. I’d also observe that Elem’s no-frills approach makes a better foundation for Sam than Bruce Barlow’s busy playing on Live 1969 • Raw Blues and the Ann Arbor sides.

Sam himself is in top form. His was one of the most intense and identifiable voices in the blues, with a resonant, declamatory style marked by an unusual reliance on tremolo (volume variation) rather than vibrato (pitch variation). In this show he sounds totally at ease, but with no diminution of his power. He is masterful. His guitar work? Hold on, baby! A red Epiphone Riviera into a Fender Twin Reverb (as shown in the cover photo, taken at the gig) yields beautiful tone, and the singular drive and depth that mark every note Sam ever committed to tape are all vividly present. A couple of hesitations and a slip of the fingers here and there are, I think, the only (barely noticeable) imperfections in an otherwise confident, peak form demonstration of Sam’s patented rhythm-to-lead playing. His creativity and energy are boundless; even the songs that appear in multiple versions across the live albums are packed with excitement and fresh ideas.

The playlist, pretty typical of Sam’s live recordings, contains a variety of material intended to entertain. Sam’s ‘50s classics, those sinuous, minor-flavored, tremolo-laden sides that defined the West Side style for all time, are represented by “Bad Luck Blues” (originally “Out Of Bad Luck”), with Lowell Fulson’s “It’s All Your Fault Baby” and Jimmy McCracklin’s “Every Night, Every Day” performed in the same framework as a bonus. The innovative output of his two albums for Delmark is present in “That’s All I Need,” which retains its lilting, Sam Cooke flavor even at an accelerated tempo, and by the driving boogaloo “You Belong To Me.” Over the remainder of the 16 tracks, Sam interprets the work of heroes Bobby Bland (a live-wire “Don’t Want No Woman”), Muddy Waters (“Still A Fool”–harrowing–and “Hoochie Coochie Man”), Jimmy Rogers (“That’s All Right”), and B.B. King (a brilliant “Hully Gully Twist” and a loose “I Need You So Bad”), and contemporaries Freddy King (“San-Ho-Zay”), Junior Wells (a liquid “Come On In This House”), and Otis Rush, whose “All Your Love (I Miss Loving)” is a rare and special treat. Junior Parker’s Memphis stomp “Feelin’ Good” is here, as is the instrumental it inspired, Sam’s incredible, show-stopping boogie “Lookin’ Good.”

Although Sam offers some good-natured patter and gives shout-outs to the taper and the club owners, the well-lubricated camaraderie, self-promotion, and enthusiastic banter heard in the home turf Alex Club shows are subdued by comparison in the coffee house environment. But the musical aspects of the performance are unaffected. I have eagerly, and repeatedly, listened to everything that has come out on Magic Sam, regardless of its audio fidelity, and Sam has never let me down: He always brought it. Sam died too young and not often enough recorded. Improbably, given its late release, Live at the Avant Garde is all cream; nothing about it asks the listener to settle for anything less than the best. And Magic Sam was the best. His unsurpassed charisma and talent continue to thrill, 45 years later. Live at the Avant Garde is a dream come true for fans of electric blues in general and Magic Sam in particular.

TOM HYSLOP

I bought this album from bluebeatmusic.com and received this review copy from the label.

Tom Holland & The Shuffle Kings • No Fluff, Just The Stuff

Holland_Stuff

Tom Holland & The Shuffle Kings

No Fluff, Just The Stuff

E Natchel Records, 2013

http://www.tomhollandshufflekings.com/

From the beginning of his 15+-year career, Tom Holland was among the most sought-after sidemen in Chicago, first joining John Primer’s band, then Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater’s. His experiences backing everyone from Robert Lockwood Jr. and Jody Williams to Son Seals and Jimmy Johnson rounded out an enviable apprenticeship program. Holland led his own band practically from the start, and while more than a decade has elapsed since the first Tom Holland & The Shuffle Kings CD was released, the southpaw guitarist has hardly been taking it easy. He played extensively behind Carey Bell and Hubert Sumlin, and has toured with James Cotton for almost 10 years now. Five years ago, he recorded an album of guitar-piano duets with Marty Sammon, and he has appeared on records by artists including Cotton, Mud Morganfield, and Alabama Mike.

Now he is back with a new long player of his own. Convening at Felix Reyes’s friendly House of Tone, a studio noted for producing warmly authentic sounds, the Shuffle Kings–Holland, Mike Scharf (bass), Tino Cortes (drums), and Big D (harmonica)–really delivered on these 10 original songs. The rhythm section has a solid feeling for the blues, and, in true Chicago fashion, the harp takes a central place in the mix, but Big D never overplays. Holland sings unaffectedly, and his guitar work is in the camp of understated perfection still practiced by contemporary players like Lurrie Bell and (more directly) Primer, whose slide and single-string styles Holland has absorbed thoroughly.

The opening track, “Waiting On The Other Shoe To Drop,” incorporates some unusual changes that lend it the flavor of the Darrell Nulisch-era Broadcasters, when Ronnie Earl led the toughest blues band on the planet. But in general, the material offers a survey of real deal Chicago blues. Some titles are direct from the vintage stylebook: “Shuffle King Boogie,” a brisk jump number in the tradition of Jimmy Rogers’s “Rock This House,” features guests Sammon and Primer. In the Muddy Waters-style slow blues, “Hurry Up & Wait,” Holland again echoes Rogers (with touches of Lockwood) and evokes Muddy’s slide, filtered through Primer; Big D lays down deep swoops and squalls. Perhaps evidence of the Cotton connection, the record’s title track is a raw, harmonica-heavy boogie along the lines of “Evans Shuffle” or “Juke,” with hints of Elmore James’s “Bobby’s Rock” in Holland’s low-register riffing.

Other songs edge stylistically closer to the present day. “Look Here Baby” is a rumba blues with more than average bounce to the ounce, due largely to Cortes’s enthusiastic drumming. Sammon turns in another terrific solo, and Holland constructs a remarkable rhythm figure of hip lines, cool chords, and perfect single-note bass parts. (His solo is dynamite, too.) The loose-jointed shuffle “More Things Change” comes straight out of the John Primer mold and, in fact, spotlights the master himself, executing many of his signature guitar moves. “Hey Pardner!” is an up-tempo instrumental, based on “Shake For Me,” that shows Holland learned more than a few tricks while backing up Hubert Sumlin. As he plays off of Big D, Holland steers his soloing in the latter half of the song into something more original.

“Long Road To Tomorrow”–churning, minor funk with a more contemporary Chicago feel–wouldn’t sound out of place on any record by Vance Kelly, Primer, or Willie Kent. In “Easiest Thing I’ll Ever Do,” a mid-tempo soul original, Holland plays an easygoing, melodic vocal line against a galloping rhythm. D’s harmonica capably fills the spaces that horns or keyboards might ordinarily take up. Exploring the opposite side of that lyric, Holland gives us “Hardest Part Of Loving You,” a devastating, slow minor blues. Marty Sammon’s piano is brilliantly Spann-like, and D lays it down heavy. Holland sings with real urgency, and, on guitar, alternates tremolo-picked passages with deliberate slow phrases of frightening intensity. With Otis Rush out of commission, it seems that far too few people play (or know how to play) this kind of thing right. Thank goodness Holland paid attention when he was hanging out with the late, great Magic Slim.

In tipping his ever-present cowboy hat to his influences, Tom Holland has cut an excellent album. No Fluff, Just The Stuff makes a strong case that Chicago blues (and I don’t mean the modern rock-and-funk hybrid that too often passes) remain vital and valid.

TOM HYSLOP

I bought this CD from the artist.