Monday, February 25, 2008

I Just Keep Lovin' Him reviewed by Mark Thompson

I Just Keep Lovin' Him
A Tribute to Little Walter
Dennis Gruenling
Backbender Records
14 tracks/58:27

Little Walter Jacobs cast a giant shadow over all of the other blues harmonica players of his day and any others who have come along since his tragic demise. Walter had it all - exquisite tone and phenomenal technique combined with a creative genius that allowed him to redefine what was possible for blues harp players. Whether you look at his classic work with Muddy Waters or his solo efforts, Walter blew like a force of nature. His recorded legacy remains so influential that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has seen fit to honor Little Walter by inducting him into the Hall next month in the "Sideman" category.

Dennis Gruenling is an outstanding harp player who lists George "Harmonica" Smith as his main influence. But Smith was a disciple of Walter's, to the point of billing himself as Little Walter Junior early in his career. Smith even dedicated his first recording to Walter's memory. Now Gruenling has decided to craft his own tribute to the greatest blues harp player of all time. If you aren't familiar with Dennis, a quick look at the lineup he has assembled for this project will dispel any questions about his abilities. Kim Wilson, Rick Estrin (Little Charlie & the Nightcats) and Steve Guyger (Jimmy Rogers) take turns on vocals and each adds his own distinctive harp style to the disc. Most of the guitar parts are handled by the great Rusty Zinn and the talented Dave Gross.

Right from the start, Gruenling shows that he is not about to simply recreate some facsimile of Walter's greatest hits. Instead, he has selected minor masterpieces from the Little Walter catalog as the foundation for the project. And he also quickly proves that he is willing to develop his own approach to these tunes. On a disc dedicated to a harp player, the first instrumental solo on the opening track goes to Doug Sasfai on tenor sax !! The vocal is handled by Gina Fox. Her deep, sultry voice is a fit for "Up the Line." Gruenling fills the spaces in the arrangement before taking a dazzling solo on the chromatic harp. On "One of These Mornings," Fox manages to keep her vocal under control despite the lively tempo. Gross follows her lead by slowly building the intensity of his guitar solo before Dennis jumps in with a monster tone and creative lines that dominate the rest of the track. Another surprise is the inclusion of "Corbella," a little-known slice of vocal harmony circa mid-1950. Jersey City native "Choice" turns in a booming lead vocal that Gruenling's solo matches in energy and power.

Steve Guyger may be another unfamiliar name, at least until the second track gives him a chance to establish his credentials. His vocal style is definitely old-school Chicago while his harp work is strong and confident. He really nails the steady-rollin' "My Little Machine." Gruenling fills in behind Steve's vocal until the solo breaks - first Gross getting down & dirty - then Guyger with another concise statement on the harp.

Kim Wilson is acknowledged as a modern day master on the harp and proves it once again with his performances. Listen to how his vocal expertly rides over Zinn's rapid-fire guitar figure on "I Got to Go," setting the stage for a fiery explosion from Wilson on 3rd position harp. Not to be outdone, Gruenling takes the next solo using a different tone but proves to be a match for Kim's skill. Both harp players go acoustic on "As Long As I Have You," which is highlighted by the guitar interplay between Zinn and Bob Welsh.

Dennis trades licks with Estrin on a spirited version of Walter's "Temperature" with Estrin employing his unique vocal tone to great effect. Even better is the slow blues "To Young to Know," done with the signature Muddy Water's slide guitar sound. Estrin and Zinn play complementary lines that weave around each other in expert fashion to form a superb performance that clearly shows Estrin is the equal of the other harp players on the disc.
The instrumental "Hot Shot" serves as Gruenling's master thesis on playing the blues chromatic harp. With Gross laying down thick guitar chords, Gruenling blows an eloquent homage to his mentor. Local harp players will be listening to the deceptively simple instrumental "Teenage Beat" for a long time. The tune is based on one chord and that's more than enough for Wilson, Estrin and Gruenling. They take turns showcasing their ability on the difficult chromatic harp. The solos switch from one to the next separated by a brief guitar riff. It is hard to keep the players straight - better to just sit back and revel in beauty of their contributions.
Gruenling's carefully selected tracklist will delight listeners no matter how knowledgeable they are with Little Walter's work. It is a refreshing change to listen to an entire recording that focuses on an ensemble sound. Veterans like Guyger, Wilson, Estrin and Zinn are long past the need to hog the spotlight and play loud & long. They were the perfect choices to assist Dennis on this project, which will undoubtedly shine more attention on the impact that Little Walter had on blues music. It should also bring some well-deserved attention to the talented Mr. Gruenling for this early contender for the best Blues recording of 2008.

Crossroads is sponsoring a CD Release party for I Just Keep Lovin' Him on Wednesday, March 26, at Big Cities Lounge starting at 8 pm. Appearing with Dennis Gruenling will be Steve Guyger and on guitar, Doug Deming, who you may remember backed Kim Wilson on his appearance at Big Cities. This is a show you won't want to miss !!!!

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