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Guitarist Ronnie Earl has evolved from late-blooming blues axeman (he didn’t take up the guitar until his early 20s) into that rare blues artist who’s widely esteemed by jazz critics. The Boston-based guitarist is an unlikely jazz hero he doesn’t read music and he isn’t a master technician. Still, the 48-year-old Earl is an inspired improviser and the composer of melodic blues-based instrumentals. Perhaps most importantly, he seems to feel every note he plays.
Earl must have been feeling awfully mellow during these sessions. Healing Time is almost as serene as Grateful Heart, the 1996 release that was Down Beat’s "Blues Album of the Year." Like Grateful Heart, the new one contains a number of pretty melodies and an abundance of soulful improvisations.
Past members of Earl’s band The Broadcasters have departed for other ventures, but two of Earl’s previous collaborators reunite with the guitarist on Healing Time : keyboardist Anthony Geraci and bassist Michael "Mudcat" Ward. Both played with Earl in the Boston blues group Sugar Ray and the Bluetones, and both have signed on as new Broadcasters. Rounding out the lineup are legendary B3 master Jimmy McGriff, drummers Hank Greenberg (the third new Broadcaster) and Don Williams (McGriff’s skinsman).
Earl’s brand of all-instrumental blues continues to be defined by that humble spirituality he's embraced since kicking cocaine and alcohol addiction in 1987. As with its recent predecessors, Healing Time celebrates peace, love and beauty, although three of its first four tracks are covers. The opener "Churchin’" was written by McGriff, who plays on this swinging cut and also on Blues on a Sunday, a tune the organist co-wrote with Earl.
"Churchin’" features a grooving swing beat and bluesy solos by McGriff and Earl. "Blues on a Sunday" is a lengthy slow-blues number with passionate instrumental exchanges and a very soulful vibe. Aside from the fiery blues shuffle "Lunch at R&M’s" and Muddy Waters’ "Catfish Blues," the remaining tracks on Healing Time are extremely mellow. Earl originals "Glimpses of Serenity" and "Bella Donna" are graceful but exceedingly slow, while "Blues for Shawn" and "Song for a Brother" mix Allman Brothers-style blues with a mystical vibe remindful of Van Morrison. The CD closes with a brief but heartfelt rendition of "Amazing Grace."
Healing Time doesn’t possess the dynamism of Earl’s last release Colour of Love (there aren’t as many tempo changes and unexpected guitar explosions), but it makes for a peaceful, summery listen.