It’s got to be hard to make a living as a blues pianist in Chicago nowadays. The legacy of those born or based in the Windy City is enough to intimidate the best-intentioned pianist: Jimmy Yancey, Maceo Merriweather, Roosevelt Sykes, Little Brother Montgomery, Willie Mabon, Johnny Jones, Sunnyland Slim, or Otis Spann. How do you add to this lineage, and still retain an individual sound? Ken Saydak is well aware of what he is up against and rises to the challenge. A veteran session player and sidemen with Lonnie Brooks, Mighty Joe Young, and Johnny Winter, he has been in the business since the early 70’s, just after the passing of Spann and the “worried life” of the blues scene at that time.
Saydak’s new Delmark recording, Love Without Trust, is the follow-up to his 1999 debut, Foolish Man, and this outing does not disappoint. The years spent behind various Chicago musicians are apparent in this CD well meaning vocals, powerful and controlled musicianship, mature song writing, and tasty supporting work from several musicians, including veteran harpist Ron Sorin and guitarist Mark Wydra.
The variety of styles showcased on Love Without Trust could easily limit a recording under similar circumstances, however, all of the goods are here: rock, soul, hard blues, boogie-woogie and that archetypal Chicago piano sound. Saydak can lay a deep groove on a tune like “Junco Partner,” or great rocking New Orleans gumbo; you can’t help but want to dance and have a good time, strong left hand laying down the beat, melodic right tumbling up and down the ivories. From Bob Dylan’s flavoursome “Watching the River Flow” to the closing “Illinois”, an eight-to-the bar homage to the rewards and trials of living in that state reminiscent of Memphis Slim, Saydak shows an immediate confidence in grabbing the torch of the legacy. Yet, a couple of tracks, “Breakdown” and “I got You so Bad,” feature lyrics which are more interesting than the complete tune itself, which says much for Saydek’s writing talents. I do wish the set list were just a bit tighter, that is, less showing of all his stylistic talents in one outing, as though it was the last gasp by the pianist. But Saydak can come back with the heartbreak refrain of “Can’t Trust Your Neighbour” with a sad piano to compliment the pain of losing a love to someone you relied upon. What could have been maudlin or sentimental is handled with mature execution.
As a stylist Saydak gives full respect to Otis Spann’s “Great Northern Stomp”, a rollicking variation on the barrelhouse staple “Cow Cow Blues,” as well as the infectious shuffle of “Clo Clo Boogie,” a Saydak original that recalls the best of the 1950’s Chess keyboard work. He has the history but knows how to transform his playing to suit a new generation of listeners. His “Expression of Tenderness” is a nicely rendered entreaty to love in an unsympathetic urban surrounding, complimented by the just the right character of John Brumbach on tenor sax.
In terms of the future, Delmark Records is fortunate to have him on their roster with this stellar five-piece band. Anyone looking to hear the state of Chicago blues piano in 2001 would be wise to consider Love Without Trust.
Personnel: Ken Saydak (vocals, piano, organ); Ron Sorin (harmonica); Mark Wydra (guitar); Roland