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Gene Harris and Brother Jack McDuff: Down Home Blues

Robert Spencer By

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When Niki Harris sings about how much she loves it "when Daddy plays those down home blues," she knows what she's talking about. The Daddy in her case is none other than Gene Harris, the 64-year-old blues pianist. Gene features his little girl (a long-tenured backup singer for Madonna as well as Anita Baker and Quincy Jones) on two numbers on his new collaboration with Brother Jack McDuff, Down Home Blues. Another singer, Curtis Stigers, is on hand on two more tracks, along with Harris' working group: Ron Escheté on guitar, Luther Hughes, bass, and Paul Humphrey, drums.

This disc features the blues, joy division: celebratory, gutsy music free of angst and pretension. Niki Harris is no Yoko Ono — she is by no means present on the strength of her relations instead of her talent. Her turns on the title track and T-Bone Walker's "Stormy Monday" are capable and drenched in blues feeling. She knows how to invest a humdrum lyric with fire enough to make it not only immediately pleasant, but memorable.

The real fireworks here, however, come from the instrumentalists, especially the two frontmen. "J&G Blues" is a showpiece of what they can do, and they can do quite a bit. Brother Jack is loose and rambling. Brother Gene cascades and exhorts. Over the space of the mere nine and a half minutes of this track, both present the world with a solid blues lesson. This is the sort of track that answers the question, "Why have these guys lasted so long, and played with everybody under the sun?" If it's a mystery to anybody out there, it won't be after this or "Blues for Big Foot," which mines the same rock-solid ground.

Fletcher Henderson's "Soft Winds" starts out in a lighter vein, with Brother Jack's chords tossing out another offhand lesson: here's where Steely Dan and other jazz / blues / rockers got their sound. Stigers on the ballad "Time After Time" (Sammy Cahn's, not Cyndi Lauper's) sounds like the guy who sang "What a Day for a Daydream" in the Sixties. Here Gene Harris turns in a loose-limbed, jaunty solo. On "Smack Dab in the Middle" Stigers could be Chuck Berry's younger brother. The next track is "You Don't Know What Love Is," reminding me that Elvis made it big in 1956, the same year Sonny Rollins recorded "You Don't Know What Love Is" on his all-time classic Saxophone Colossus. Harris and McDuff illustrate that the gulf between hard bop and rhythm and blues was perhaps not as wide as it seemed then — or now. On "You Don't Know," both keyboardists get as close to the joyless blues as they do on this release, building up tremendous emotional intensity. McDuff's light touch here is overpowering.

Down Home Blues. That's what these guys say it is, and that's what they deliver. Like the new Heath Brothers disc, this is a contribution from masters with decades of experience and chops that show no sign of wear and tear.


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