Riffs: Reissue lets Mayall step out from his own shadow

Wednesday, June 18, 2008 at 1:15am
John Mayall

John Mayall’s been a vital figure for more than five decades, and over that time has helped introduce so many magnificent musicians his own playing and writing contributions often get overshadowed.

But then when you’ve helped the likes of Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Peter Green, Mick Fleetwood, Mick Taylor, Harvey Mandel and Sugarcane Harris (to name just a few pivotal figures who’ve been featured in Mayall bands) then it’s easy for folks to forget that Mayall’s also an outstanding harmonica player, good guitarist and keyboardist, solid vocalist and fine songwriter.

However those who’ve forgotten or were unaware of Mayall’s pioneering exploits during the 1960s will be reminded by a pair of excellent new releases that feature music from a peak (in terms of recognition) period.

Filmmakers Peter Gibson and Alex Hooper decided to make a visual chronicle of Mayall’s band in 1969. They titled the documentary The Turning Point, which also happened to be the name of a landmark Mayall album released that same year.

A two-CD set The Masters (Eagle) combines explosive, superb musical numbers on the first disc with candid interview segments with Mayall on the second recorded during his final tour with guitarist Mick Taylor, bassist Steve Thompson and drummer Colin Allen.

The nine songs on disc number one include marvelous versions of “California,” Don’t Waste My Time,” “Room To Move” and “Sam Mill Gulch Road.” This band included Johnny Almond (the best horn player Mayall ever recruited) plus finger-style guitarist Jon Mark, whose playing style wasn’t anywhere as flashy or fast as Clapton, nor as animated as Taylor’s or Green’s. But it was still quite effective, and contrasted well with Mayall’s slide and six-string lines, as well as his harmonica work.

Mayall’s singing has never been the greatest technically, but his energy and enthusiasm balance out occasional shortcomings in range and power. More importantly, the set’s segments on his philosophy, influences and philosophy, plus the discussions explaining the process for developing songs from fragments and melodies, provide fascinating and valuable information regarding the creative process.

The Mayall/Mark/Almond/Thompson band get the sole spotlight on the single disc Live At The Marquee 1965, which covers seven songs from the film including two renditions of “California,” plus fiery versions of “The Laws Must Change,” “So Hard To Share,” and “Can’t Sleep This Night.”

Some Mayall fans actually prefer this band to prior editions of the Bluesbreakers, mainly because the four-member unit were such a cohesive ensemble, and also because Mayall’s playing was significantly improved since the early Bluesbreakers days.

These three CDs cover a key transitional period in John Mayall’s career, and also highlight one of his more underrated bands. They also prove that John Mayall has always been much more than just a savvy talent scout and bandleader. He’s among the most versatile and vital personalities on the British and international blues scene.

New blues releases

After getting multiple Handy nominations for his previous release, Watermelon Slim’s latest No Paid Holidays (Northern Blues) continues in the same vein with a nice mix of topical pieces and humorous numbers.

Slim’s vocals are consistently stirring and intense, and when he shifts to a lighter lyrical mode (“I’ve Got A Toothache,” “Max The Baseball Clown”) his natural storytelling flair emerges. He turns the Blood, Sweat & Tears piece “And When I Die” into an animated Delta blues showcase, while “Gearzy’s Boogie,” “The Bloody Burmese Blues” and “Into The Sunset” are among top tracks on a first-rate release that also includes standout assistance from his band The Workers, that includes bassist Cliff Belcher, electric/acoustic guitarist Ronnie “Mack” McMullen and drummer Michael Newberry.

Lee Roy Parnell adds some crisp electric slide guitar on “Bubba’s Blues” and pianist David Maxwell is featured on “Blues For Howard” and “Bubba’s Blues,” as Watermelon Slim and the Workers present another tremendous session with No Paid Holidays.

Sonny Landreth joins forces with several impressive friends on From The Reach (Landfall), a disc he also produced along with Tony Daigle.

The guest list includes Eric Clapton (fabulous on “When I Still Had You,”) Mark Knopfler (“Blue Tap Blues”), Robben Ford (nice jazz licks on “Way Past Long”), Eric Johnson (fiery guitar exchanges on “The Milky Way Home”) and Vince Gill (a solid country/blues approach on “The Goin’ On” and harmony vocals on “Universe”).

Landreth ably meshes with these and other contributors like Dr. John and Jimmy Buffett, sometimes soaring ahead with mighty slide solos, and other times complimenting or co-coordinating the arrangements with further musical help from keyboardist Steve Conn, bassist David Ranson and acoustic guitarist Sam Broussard among others.

While definitely an all-star session, Landreth and comrades still deliver a session that’s as much about joint effort as individual wizardry.

While listening to Byther Smith’s CD is instructive, watching the DVD version of Blues On The Moon – Live at Natural Rhythm Social Club (Delmark) proves even more enjoyable.

Smith and his band play stark, animated blues and such songs as “Blues On The Moon,” “Hard Times,” “Give Up My Life For You,” If I Misused Someone” and “Monticello” are raw and gritty, delivered without any hint of slickness or extravagance. Smith doesn’t rip off torrents of notes, or does anything fancy, but his accompaniment and solos are just as rich and expressive as his vocals.

If you’re looking for blues without fanfare or sonic overkill, Blues On The Moon is the perfect solution.

Jazz reissues

Though it’s been more than 50 years since Sonny Rollins made the legendary Freedom Suite, the music’s still vibrant and magical.

Freedom Suite heads the latest batch of reissues in the Keepnews Collection, an ongoing series featuring seminal sessions produced by the great Orrin Keepnews. Four of the CDs were originally made for Keepnews’ Riverside label (now owned by Concord). Superb bass playing from Oscar Pettiford and amazing drumming from Max Roach framed Rollins’ amazing solos, melodic creations and variations.

The new reissue contains three bonus tracks, alternate tacks of “Till There Was You (two versions)” and “There Will Never Be Another You.” While Rollins deconstructs and reconfigures the melodies on “Someday I’ll Find You” or “Will You Still Be Mine,” Pettiford and Roach easily alternated between rhythmic support and forging their own directions, particularly Roach, who was remarkable in both timekeeping and solo capacities.

The opening title track, from its nearly 20-minute length to its suite-like structure, remains one of jazz’s premier compositions, and The Freedom Suite certainly ranks among Sonny Rollins’ finest selections.

Swing titan Coleman Hawkins was a major influence on Sonny Rollins, though by the time The Hawk Flies High (Riverside/Concord) was made (1957), he had made the transition to bop.

On such cuts as “Juicy Fruit,” “Blue Lights” and “Sancticity” Hawkins displayed the huge tone, fluid form and blues sensibility that were his trademark, heading a marvelous ensemble that includes the often remarkable trombone solos of J.J. Johnson (still bop’s fastest slide man), trumpeter Idrees Sulieman, pianist Hank Jones (consistently awesome as a soloist or within the group setting), guitarist Barry Galbraith, Pettiford on bass once more and “Papa” Jo Jones anchoring things on drums.

Wes Montgomery made far more money doing light pop-flavored daters for A&M, but such releases as The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery (Riverside/Concord) established his reputation. Darting through the songs, executing great licks and stunning solos with impressive precision, and even dipping into the blues now and then, Montgomery revealed the guitar sound and chops that made him a jazz giant.

The quartet session had the Heath brothers on bass and drums (Percy and Tootie respectively) with pianist Tommy Flanagan in dynamic form on several numbers (“Airegin,” “Four On Six,” “West Coast Blues”) and Montgomery offering much hotter and stronger playing here than what eventually helped him attain crossover fame.

Montgomery was part of a wonderful soul-jazz unit headed by cornetist Nat Adderley on Work Song (Riverside/Concord). This was a rare excursion for Nat outside the usual quintet or sextet co-led by his brother alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, and he also operated in several different instrumental configurations from quartet (“Mean To Me”), quintet (“My Heart Stood Still”) and sextet (“Pretty Memory,” “Fallout”).

It’s also an opportunity to hear Adderley’s pungent, alternately surging and sentimental solos in a different, but quite exciting, context as he demonstrated a flexibility and versatility that sometimes was taken for granted during his long tenure with his brother’s various groups.

Fly With The Wind (Milestone/Concord) didn’t present modal pianist extraordinaire McCoy Tyner in his usual quartet or quintet mode. Instead, Tyner was part of a large concert orchestra mixing improvisational and symphonic concepts. Tyner’s furious solos were still integrated into such songs as “Salvadore de Samba,” and “Fly with The Wind,” but now there were violins, violas, cellos, flute and harp embellishing the backgrounds rather than animated saxophone or trumpet accompaniment.

The group also included drummer Billy Cobham, bassist Ron Carter and Hubert Laws and flute and alto flute, but Fly With The Wind was perhaps the most unusual release among the 17 that he did for Milestone. It depended as much on understatement as energy, and while Tyner still supplied some masterful solos, this session affirms his supportive and interpretative side as much, if not more, than his technical brilliance on the piano.

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