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Various: Primitive Piano

Derek Taylor By

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The title of this disc is something of a misnomer, but one with the best intentions. Recorded in 1957 by pianist Erwin Helfer and jazz historian William Russell, it presents a modest sampling of blues and boogie-woogie practitioners. Listening reveals music that is ‘primitive’ in a manner more akin to John Fahey’s breed of Primitive Guitar. That is, music that draws heavily on set traditions, but also relies on the wild card variable of improvisation to create something new.

Perhaps Russell and Helfer intended their title as a reflection of the verve and honesty inherent in performers’ styles. These are players who lack flashy pomp and ostentatious virtuosity and instead rely on the natural vitality of their homespun techniques and voices. Making the package even more noteworthy and valuable, nearly half an hour of additional material extends the original album’s running time.

A trio of tracks by Speckled Red starts things off. Each one shows the albino ivory tickler’s talents as a blues singer and songster of strong merits. “Dad’s Piece” takes shape on a jaunty beat staked out by Red’s left hand as his right reels out a syncopated rope-ladder of notes. On “Early In the Morning” he croaks forth lyrics lamenting lost love as his fingers deftly punctuate the choruses with galloping runs across the keyboard. Doug Suggs shears his style from a less coarse cloth, and the polished stride rolls of his eponymous “Jump” suggest an almost methodical poise. “Sweet Patootie,” swims similar thematic water, but at a slower tempo—and his other tracks, which reside among the bonus material, show him to be a solid, if somewhat unremarkable stylist.

Robinson relies more heavily on improvisation and as such is a bit rickety on his pair of numbers. “Bat’s Blues” lurches along at a loping gait that ideally mirrors the sorrow of the tune’s lyrics. Robinson’s resigned recital of the lyrics further completes the picture of a man downtrodden by mistreatment from the so-called fairer sex. “Four O’Clock,” a seven-minute ode to amorous unhappiness, takes its sweet time developing, but the sincerity of Robinson’s off-the-cuff delivery makes the tune tough to slight.

Four newly discovered songs by Billie Pierce complete the musical package, along with a brief interview of Suggs conducted by Helfer. According to the set’s notes Pierce was something of a celebrity in New Orleans and judging from her assured work at the bench it’s easy to discern why. Her strong, husky voice belts out the lyrics to “Keep A Knockin’,” while her hands bracket the double entendre phrases with a sassy string of stabbing piano chords. A soulful reading of “See See Rider” further cements the credibility of her reputation, while two takes “Bye and Bye” with husband Dede show off a brighter, more sacred side. The couple’s roughshod harmonizing of the gospel verses compliments the rhapsodic piano accompaniment, but both tracks trail off just as they’re getting started.

All told there’s just less than 45 minutes of enjoyable, if slightly uneven, music on hand. This, coupled with the assortment of musicians, makes for a consistently absorbing listen. Fans of stride, blues and early jazz piano will likely see this set as a must have, but casual followers and neophytes of the idioms will probably discover much to enjoy here as well.

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