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Veteran English blues performer John Mayall's "reminiscences" here aren't "of great blues figures" but of encounters, often via recordings, of the very best barrelhouse, blues and boogie woogie piano music.
Barrelhouse piano combined various different proportions of blues, ragtime and dance rhythms in the hands of technically unorthodox players. Jelly Roll Morton spoke of "specialists each with a tiny repertoire nobody else could play. Bang on!
Cow Cow Davenport also recorded ragtime, but "Cow Cow Blues" is a classic of shifting pace and boogie rhythm. "Jump Steady Blues" is Pinetop Smith's recorded masterpiece. His "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie" fixed the genre's name but inspired better performances from others, and Cleo Brown's amusing pseudo-urbane pussy-cat reading,
Speckled Red's drivingly swung number was re-recorded when he kicked off the blues revival fifty years back. Montana Taylor's "Indiana Avenue Stomp" is one of two 1929 masterpieces he re-recorded for 1940s collectors. Charlie Spand's "Moanin' the Blues" is gentler, Romeo Nelson's "Head Rag Hop" a wild miracle of dance rhythms. Speckled Red's "Early in the Morning" is a medium-tempo rolling vocal blues. St. Louis stylist Wesley Wallace's "Fanny Lee Blues" is a crazy dance with a simple bass par and torrents of drastically transfigured right hand ex-ragtime licks. Indianapolis' Turner Parrish delivers a potent, fast "Fives." On the storming "Pratt City Blues" "Jabo Williams inverts conventional bass patterns, while his fellow Alabamian Walter Roland's "Jookit Jookit" is a jerky dance.
Versatile Little Brother Montgomery's "No Special Rider" is a slower medium-tempo vocal blues with a walking bass. Was Jesse James' one recording date granted as his last wish as a death cell prisoner? So said legend, factually dubious but actually apt to the vocal desperation on "Lonesome Day Blues," with dissonant hammering right hand over rolling bass.
Albert Ammons' "Bass Goin' Crazy" is Chicago boogie woogie unsurpassed for risk-taking assurance and intensity. "Six Wheel Chaser" represents Meade "Lux Lewis' penchant for complex, sometimes train-like rhythmsswinging, not mechanical. Chicagoans Jimmy Yancey excelled in slow blues like "35th and Dearborn," while Cripple Clarence Lofton's strength was savage boogie, though his "In The Mornin' " here is a deep and doomy blues.
Trained pianists and jazzmen seldom matched such specialists, but Kansas City fostered exceptions: Pete Johnson's "Holler Stomp" is cleanly fingered with relentless drive (the normally messy Memphis Slim sings over sheer imitation Pete Johnson). Even the recently departed Jay McShann's huge jazz credentials get forgotten after post-1940s market pressures kept him playing blues/R&B, with "Vine Street Boogie" swinging distinctively.
"Otis In The Dark" returns to Chicago, 1960. Otis Spann, son of a legendary Mississippi pianist and pupil of Brother Montgomery, was possibly the last direct representative of pre-war tradition. Yet the dragging bass is new, on a magnificent fast blues by the longtime engine of the Muddy Waters band.
Maybe it's no coincidence that there's no duplication with the Document-licensed and soon-to-be-reissued Piano Blues: The Essential (Classic Blues CBL 200004). Perhaps this fact helped Mayall to focus?
Track Listing: Cow Cow (Charles) Davenport: Cow Cow Blues; Pine Top Smith: Jump Steady Blues; Charlie Spand: Moanin' The Blues; Romeo Nelson: Head Rag Hop; Wesley Wallace: Fanny Lee Blues; Little Brother Montgomery: No Special Rider; 'Jabo' Williams: Pratt City Blues; Turner Parrish: Fives;Walter Roland: Jookit Jookit; Cleo Brown: Boogie Woogie; Jesse James: Lonesome Day Blues; Albert Ammons: Bass Goin' Crazy; Pete Johnson:Holler Stomp; Jimmy Yancey: 35th and Dearborn; Meade 'Lux' Lewis: Six Wheel Chaser; Jay McShann: Vine Street Boogie; Cripple Clarence Lofton: In The Mornin'; Big Maceo (Merriweather): Chicago Breakdown; Montana Taylor: Indiana Avenue Stomp; Memphis Slim: Slim's Boogie; Speckled Red: Early In The Morning; Otis Spann: Otis In The Dark.
Personnel: Cow Cow (Charles) Davenport; Pine Top Smith; Charlie Spand; Romeo Nelson; Wesley Wallace; Little Brother Montgomery; 'Jabo' Williams; Turner Parrish; Walter Roland; Cleo Brown; Jesse James; Albert Ammons; Pete Johnson; Jimmy Yancey; Meade 'Lux' Lewis; Jay McShann; Cripple Clarence Lofton; Big Maceo (Merriweather); Montana Taylor; Memphis Slim; Speckled Red; Otis Spann.