The story is very familiar: Young man hears blues legend (Howlin’ Wolf) on record and picks up an instrument (harmonica) for the next few years to master it. Many British and European youthfuls in the 60’s enacted this scene out ad nauseum
. Except in this case the young man is from Japan - physically and culturally far removed from the blues of his dream. Not to say you can’t have the blues away from the United States; it is a “state” of mind after all. But hell, you need some like-minded folks to put a band together. So, the inevitable pilgrimage and residency in Chicago. This is the story in a nutshell of Seiji Yuguchi (aka Wabi, literally “a simple and austere type of beauty”). Give him some credit; he’s followed his dream.
As part of the small but interesting Asian Improv Records label (normally home to avant-garde jazz like John Tchicai and Yuko Fujiyama) comes the debut release of the Wabi Down Home Blues Project Band entitled The Best Things in Life Are Still Made By Hand. Presumably he’s talking old-“fashioned” blues production and the sound of his harmonica. At first I thought the disc was roughly recorded or under-recorded until I realized Wabi was recreating a 50’s mono sound blues session, not unlike early Delmark or Chess records.
And how is the disciple living up to his calling? The first cut, “Oh Baby” opens well, but Wabi’s solo is choppy, loaded with uneven and derivative pentatonic runs, much like the first set at an open jam session. However things do get better, and by the end of the cut he has found himself. The other tracks resemble this format. Nevertheless, you can tell he’s having a good time with the band, and they’ve seriously studied the sound they are seeking. On his own tunes, such as “Pretty Baby”, “King of Golden Cue” and “Don’t I Know” his solos are entertaining and agreeable. I think he lays out much better on the originals once he sheds the weight of covering his idols; but as for the covers, Jimmy Rogers’ “Act Like You Love Me” is a highlight.
On the flip side, Wabi’s singing is unfortunately not worth taking seriously. I know it is probably bad form to say that his vocal English sounds funny, but I cannot get around it. Wabi just can’t transcend this limitation to get the heart of the matter in the tunes, and it makes you remember Muddy Waters saying that there’s a lot of better guitarists than he, but no better singers. Wabi just doesn’t have the blues inflection and I had trouble hearing “That’s All Right” or “I Can’t Hold on Too Long” without a huge grin. (The word “crazy” is prevalent throughout the disc, but think Elmer Fudd). Less vocal tracks would have made the disc further palatable. Sorry Wabi.
Overall, the tunes on The Best Things in Life Are Still Made By Hand are quite extended, many over the 5-minute mark, and this lets his band stretch out. The rhythm section holds itself well, and the two alternating guitarists Yoshiyuki Mizuno and Tadao Hosonuma nicely add some classic-style riffs and solos to support a variety of tunes (again, like a Chess program). Wisely the band has veteran Chicago drummer Steve Cushing who lays on the steady-rolling and the slow swing when needed.
The prognosis? Either stick to instrumental numbers only, or hire a real singer and keep perfecting the harp. This debut is strong on emulation and respect for the past, but if you are looking for innovative and vigorous harmonica playing with a modern twist like Rod Piazza, then look elsewhere. But for some “down home blues” that does the task of expressing and communicating life’s doldrums, Wabi’s your man.
Asian Improv on the Web: http://www.asianimprov.com
Personnel: Seiji "WABI" Yuguchi (Vocal and Harmonica), Minoru Maruyama (Guitar), Yoshiyuki Mizuno (Guitar), Tadao Hosonuma (Guitar), Hiroshi Eguchi (Bass), Steve Cushing (Drums)