Hey! Piano Man

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Hey! Piano Man

Postby blueswriter » Tue May 31, 2005 4:37 pm

[updated:LAST EDITED ON May-31-05 AT 01:05 PM (EST)]Howdy gang...

With box sets coming in fast and furious of late, here's a new one from JSP. Following close behind will be complete reviews of the two recent 4-disc packages from Boulevard Vintage; Down Home Blues Classics - Chicago 1946-1954 plus Down Home Blues Classics - Texas 1946-1954. Please stay tuned, and, as always, thank you for reading and participating. ;)

Various Artists
Hey! Piano Man
JSP (2005) 7747

http://cover6.cduniverse.com/MuzeAudioA ... 587172.jpg

4 CDs, 88 tracks. 305 minutes. Highly recommended. JSP Records continues documenting the golden years of blues covering a good cross-section of years and a good many styles from a wide variety of artists. In the not-too-distant past, the label has issued CD box sets which include the complete recordings of Pre-war giants Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton, and Blind Blake, plus well-done compilations of other key figures from the Pre-war era including Big Joe Williams and gatherings of Memphis and Texas artists, as well as Post-war offerings from numerous artists who recorded in Chicago, Detroit, and on the West Coast.

Hey! Piano Man centers its attentions on barrelhouse stylists Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis, and Jimmy Yancey over four discs logging in an impressive five-plus hours of music. The Chicago barrelhouse, or rent party school, of boogie woogie piano hails back to the years when the instrument was considered a tool of the trade in St. Louis, Chicago, and other locales. Apartment dwellers would offer food, drink, and a full night of entertainment for a small fee, and when daylight broke the following day, those hiring the piano grinders would hopefully have made enough money to cover their monthly rent bill.

Disc one delivers 25 sides of solo piano prowess by Jimmy Yancey which covers three sessions waxed in Chicago; seventeen from April of 1939, six from October of the same year, and two titles dating to February of 1940. A Chicago native, born in 1898, Yancey found fame and increasing popularity on the rent party circuit in the Windy City from the 1920s on although music wasn't his main source of income. A twenty-five year career as a groundskeeper for the Chicago White Sox at Comiskey Park remained his regular job, and though highly skilled, his recording career didn't begin until 1939 with his death coming in 1951. Yancey shows an endless flow of creativity while varying his tempos and themes from the rumbling Rollin' The Stone and La Salle Street Breakdown, with incredible left hand bass figures and delicate upper register work, to the slow and seemingly effortless Bear Trap Blues, Jimmy's Stuff, or Lean Bacon. There's plenty more in the form of Yancey Stomp, The Fives, Tell 'Em About Me, Big Bear Train, and State Street Special plus another fifteen titles.

Disc two goes to Meade Lux Lewis spanning a half-dozen dates recorded between November of 1935 and February of 1939. Chicago-born in 1905, Lewis was heavily influenced by Pinetop Smith and Jimmy Yancey and began recording in 1927 with his Honky Tonk Train Blues becoming his signature piece following its issue two years later (in 1929) by Paramount. He made his living for a time as a cab driver but was another highly creative player who hammered out driving grooves with his left hand while his right offered stunning high points. Lewis' Honky Tonk Train Blues (a close relative of Pinetop's Boogie Woogie from Smith) is here in two forms, one from late 1935 with the other coming a year-and-a-half later in March of 1937. Both are wonderful barrelhouse examples but Meade wasn't afraid to step into rarely charted territory as Celeste Blues, I'm In The Mood For Love and Mr. Freddie Blues amply display his command on a smaller cousin of the piano. His stone-solid chops are shown in great detail through the five separate and remarkable parts of The Blues, recorded in January of 1939, and Lewis pulls out all the stops on Twos And Fews plus a thrilling Nagasaki played at breakneck speed.

Disc three's focus is on Pete Johnson who was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1904, and became widely recognized through his association with vocalist Big Joe Turner. Their appearance at Carnegie Hall for John Hammond's Spirituals To Swing concert helped respark interest in boogie woogie piano. Of the 22 tracks featuring Johnson, all were recorded between December of 1938 and December of the next year. While Boo Hoo and Home James were issued as by Harry James And The Boogie Woogie Trio and feature the stellar trumpet of James, the underpinning from Johnson's piano (with bass and drum accompaniment) delivers a bigger kick. Sadly, Johnson's signature Roll 'Em Pete is missing but there's plenty to delve into on 19 solo tracks plus a small handful where Johnson is ably backed with Abe Bolar's string bass and guitar from Ulysses Livingston. Pete's Blues, Shuffle Boogie, Let 'Em Jump and Climbin' And Screamin' all show his skillfully figured right hand playing over driving basses, and Roll 'Em, from 1938, is a very close relative of the piece he was most noted for.

Highlighted on disc four is Albert Ammons, another Chicago native (born in 1907) who was a close friend and counterpart of the other stylists here. Like his friend Meade Lux Lewis, he drove a cab, and the pair even shared a Chicago apartment with Pinetop Smith for a time. These 20 tracks, recorded over a handful of studio dates between February of 1936 and April of 1939 are equally split, one half showing his work in larger bands, including those of trumpeter Harry James and trombonist J.C. Higginbotham, with the balance devoted to his highly entertaining solo efforts. Chicago In Mind, another close relative of Pinetop's Boogie Woogie, shows Ammons as one more player with a left hand that drove his grooves while the right put forth delicate flourishes of brilliance, and his Boogie Woogie Stomp along with Suitcase Blues show his proficiency for excellence. Bass Goin' Crazy and Changes In Boogie Woogie cement his placement as another integral piano figure of more than a half-century ago.

Complete session details are included along with liner notes from Keith Briggs that lightly cover the four artists featured. While most of the 88 sides have solid sound quality, there are a few that seem to be well beyond cleaning of the hiss and pops from badly damaged source material. The five hours of listening time is completely enjoyable for the most part, and with JSP's budget pricing, there may not be a better or more affordable way to introduce yourself to these greats from the past, or to fill the gaps in your boogie woogie collection. Hey! Piano Man proves to be another winner in the ongoing series of box sets devoted to Pre-war blues from John Stedman.


© 2005 by Craig Ruskey
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