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Big Apple Blues - Brooklyn Blues

Stone Tone Records

12 tracks Total time: 49:31

Big Apple Blues is a project band of some of New York City’s finest blues musicians, who gathered together in Brooklyn’s Excello recording studio with its one big room and ample supply of vintage recording and audio equipment. The result, Brooklyn Blues, is a “live in the studio” recording that succeeds well in doing that which was originally intended, to re-create the classic Chicago sound and feel of those famed mid-Fifties to mid-Sixties blues masterpieces. The ample sleeve notes accompanying this CD describe the technical aspects of the recording in detail, and will be a delight to the audio aficionado. Another plus in addition to the several others that Brooklyn Blues gives the discerning blues-loving listener.

At the core of Big Apple Blues are four highly-accomplished musicians, with credits to show: Zach Zunis, guitarist on all tracks, who presently plays with Janiva Magness; all-tracks drummer Barry “The Baron of the Blues” Harrison, who’s backed Shemekia Copeland, and before that, her father, Texas bluesman Johnny Copeland; harpman/vocalist Anthony Kane, described by James Cotton as “one of the best,” vocals on eight tracks, and harp on nine tracks; and rounding out the lineup, Admir “Dr. Blues” Hadzic, bassist on all tracks. Four highly-accomplished guests were brought in as well: Hugh Pool as engineer and producer, who also does the vocal on track 2, Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor;” pianist Brian Mitchell, who’s played with artists ranging from Bob Dylan to Dolly Parton, B.B. King to Al Green; and noted vocalist Christine Santelli, who’s multiply-tracked on call-and-response vocal chorus on track 4, Joe Turner’s“Honey Hush,” where she joins with backing vocalist and hand-clapping percussionist Matt Mousseau.

The 12 tracks consist of ten covers of classic blues/R&B songs, with two original instrumentals: Zach Zunis’ guitar-driven track 3, “Brooklyn Swamp,” and Anthony Kane’s harp-driven track 8, “Who’s On Third (Duvel)?” Of the ten covers, seven are bona fide Chicago blues masterpieces from composers now all unfortunately dead—Paul Butterfield’s ‘Too Many Drivers,’ track 1; two Howlin’ Wolf classics, “Killing Floor” and “How Many More Years,” track 7; Jr. Wells’ “It’s My Life Baby;” track 9; two numbers by Little Walter, “Hate To See You Go,” track 10, and “Everything Is Gonna Be Alright,” track 11; and rounding out the playlist, Willie Dixon’s “Mellow Down Easy,” track 12 (misspelled “Willy” in the sleeve notes). While “Killing Floor” adheres closely to the rhumba-beat original, “How Many More Years” is slowed down considerably in tempo, an alternative arrangement that’s also an effective rendering and a fitting complement in power and grace to Wolf’s 1950 original. The last four tracks can be looked at as a harp showcase honoring two of the most seminal of modern Chicago blues harpmen, Jr. Wells and Little Walter. There’s Jr. Wells’ own song, of course, but the arrangements of Walter’s “Hate to See You Go” and “Everything Is Gonna Be Alright,” with their heavy bass lines and minimalist single-string guitar playing, are reminiscent of the Jack Myers/Buddy Guy approach taken by Wells’ band on Hoodoo Man Blues, that classic 1965 Delmark LP that introduced both Wells and Guy (as well as modern electric blues) more widely to white blues audiences. The Little Walter connection continues with Willie Dixon’s “Mellow Down Easy,” a number Walter recorded for Chess Records in 1954.

The three non-Chicago covers here are the above-mentioned “Honey Hush,” rendered as a bouncy, highly danceable Kansas City boogie with hand claps and call-and-response vocal and chorus. Barry Harrison has the vocal honors here. Also featured are two New Orleans numbers from the great Dave Bartholomew, the first in collaboration with Fats Domino, track 5’s “Whole Lotta Lovin,” where Brian Mitchell’s piano adds an apt Crescent City touch, and the solo-penned “I Hear You Knocking” (a different song than the Smiley Lewis/Dave Edmunds recordings). All these are loving re-creations that by no means merely ape the original recordings, but add new elements themselves. The same can be said of the two original instrumentals: while adhering to the classic Chicago approach, they are both creatively imaginative within this framework, not simply derivative.

Zach Zunis’ lead-and-rhythm guitar playing is excellent throughout, versatile across all 12 tracks in its fluent ability to move from a heavier Chicago-based sound to filamentous, jazz-like lyricism, and even to slide playing. Anthony Kane’s amplified harp, while solidly in the Little Walter/ James Cotton groove, incorporates signature Sonny Boy Williamson II licks into it as well. Both Zunis and Kane are extensively featured on solos that display their musical eloquence, a characteristic also shared by Kane’s vocal delivery. The rhythm section of Harrison’s drums and Hadzic’s bass underpins the whole effort with solid yet nimble strength, with opportunities provided for each to demonstrate virtuosity through drum flourishes and bass playing that’s akin more to a low-register rhythm guitar than to a bottom-note driving thump. All this together marks Brooklyn Blues as a contribution to the Chicago blues legacy in its own right, not just another copy of that legacy.

While New York City is better known as a jazz rather than blues haven, it was not only the home of Atlantic Records and its recording studio, the city where Ruth Brown got her start, and the later residence of Joe Turner, it was also home to a number of outstanding studio musicians, such as John Sebastian, Al Kooper, Felix Pappalardi and Mike Bloomfield (naming just a few), who were instrumental in creating the sounds of contemporary acoustic and electric blues and blues-rock, and in spreading blues influences into modern rock. With Big Apple Blues and Brooklyn Blues, this New York City blues legacy carries on and is extended.

Reviewer George "Blues Fin Tuna" Fish hails from Indianapolis, Indiana, home of blues legends Yank Rachell and Leroy Carr. He has written a regular music column for several years. He wrote the liner notes for Yank Rachell’s Delmark album, Chicago Style. He has been a blues and pop music contributor for the left-wing press as well, and has appeared in Against the Current and Socialism and Democracy.

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