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Nowhere are Otis Spann’s piano skills better showcased than on this CD’s first five tracks, lifted from the classic 1969 album Chicago/The Blues/Today! Volume 1. These cuts feature Spann in a spare format with drummer S.P. Leary as his only backing, and they contain some of the most accomplished blues piano ever recorded. The rest of the CD ain’t too shabby, either.
Best of the Vanguard Years assembles material from the aforementioned Chicago blues compilation, the entire 1969 album Cryin’ Time (with Barry Melton and Luther Johnson on guitars, Lonnie Taylor on drums, and Jos Davidson on bass), plus three previously unreleased tracks, including a couple of gospel hymns with Spann playing organ and his wife Lucille handling the vocals. Spann recorded all of this music during the last four years of his life (he died in 1970 at age 40).
Longtime cohort to Muddy Waters, Spann was the premier blues pianist in Chicago during the ‘50s, the golden period for Chicago blues, as well as the ‘60s. A music teacher in his native Mississippi once told Otis that his fingers were too stubby for the piano. Man, did Mr. Spann ever prove that teacher wrong!
Besides showcasing Spann’s versatile piano skills from lightning-fast boogie to slow and soulful improvisations, this collection also demonstrates that Spann was an underrated vocalist. If you like piano-based blues, you should dig this one.